"GOD DAMN, CARDAMINE MARIANA WASHINGTON, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!" the magically amplified voice rang out, as another curse sizzled the paint in the graffiti-daubed high school hall.
Cardamine Washington raced down the hallway ahead of Vincent Clortho Public School for Wizards' head security officer, Lester Bigglesby, dodging curses. She clutched the precious packet of pixie dust tighter. She couldn't lose it now, after everything!
"YOU'RE A STRAIGHT-KAPH STUDENT, WHY THE FUCK YOU THROWIN' AWAY YOUR CHANCE AT A REAL EDUCATION!" The next curse rattled a row of lockers and took out a bank of ceiling lights.
A week and a half earlier…
A sleek grey rat skittered frantically out the half-open door of the Potions lab and ran between Cardamine's legs, nearly tripping her in her swift progress down the hall of the science wing towards the library. She barely had time to register that the rat was Animagus Tyrone Greene before a fawn point ragdoll cat barreled out in hot pursuit, the ties and tail of its do-rag flapping behind him.
The cat caught up to Tyrone and had a back paw all the way in its mouth and was starting to bite before Tyrone transformed back to human and ran full-on into the wall, cat still chomping on his sneaker.
"Dammit Jamar you asshole, are you trying to kill me? And see what you did to my brand new shoes!" Tyrone yelled, scraping the cat loose.
Cardamine stared at the cat, who was evidently her brother Jamar. "What's going on here?" she demanded.
The Potions lab door banged open all the way and Dr. Moody, the short, no-nonsense crone who taught Remedial, Beginner, and Intermediate Potions, plus the five brave souls in the Advanced Potions Seminar, marched out into the hallway. She seized both boys by the scruffs of their necks: easy where Tyrone was concerned, not so easy with Jamar, who now had five pointy ends and was annoyed that his snack had turned into his best friend.
"Everybody had best be back in their seats before I finish counting to ten or you'll be scrubbing cauldrons for a year!" Dr. Moody promised.
Cardamine followed everyone back inside the Potions lab. "No, seriously, what happened to my brother?"
"He got a faceful of Temporary Transformation Tincture," said one of Cardamine's yearmates, a sophomore named Destiny.
"Mr. Washington will be fine in an hour," Dr. Moody said. "It's those cut-rate owl pellets. Supposed to be pure mouse, but clearly it's been cut with something cheaper. Vole, maybe shrew." She waved the students over to take a closer look as she crumbled a pellet on the lab bench. "See the skull and the little bones? Look at the shape of that skull. That's rodent of some kind, but that's not mouse. Always examine your ingredients before paying, that's what y'all gotta take away from this." She set Jamar down on the empty place next to Tyrone's seat and ruffled his fur gently.
Satisfied that the situation was under control, except for Tyrone's brand-new Hippogriff leather sneaker with tooth marks in it, Cardamine backed out of the Potions lab and headed for the library. She had a date with the Restricted Section.
Cardamine made sure to open the library doors loudly. After the regular librarian had been laid off due to budget cuts a year ago, a temp staffed it on Thursday afternoons to check books back in and do basic maintenance. Originally the library had been locked at all other times, but after Cardamine's mom had organized a protest at the school district meeting and a few city council meetings, a compromise had been reached: there was still no budget for staffing at any other times, but the library was left unlocked during school hours. Consequently, it was a prime place to find trysting couples and other students up to no good. Thus Cardamine had learned to give plenty of notice walking in, lest she see something she couldn't un-see.
Cardamine picked her way around the condom wrappers, empty baggies of pixie dust or wizard pepper, and other trash. She contemplated the Restricted Section, a single shelf set behind a chain link fence with a locked gate, right up front where the librarian could keep an eye on it from the desk. Today was a Wednesday, so Cardamine was free and clear.
You didn't grow up in this city without learning a thing or two about locks, and you didn't grow up with a somewhat overbearing big brother without some experience in security spells. Cardamine made quick work of the padlock, and the locking charms were deftly opened in another fifteen minutes.
The books in the Restricted Section circulated less than the general collection, so they were less worn, less filled with little animated ink drawings, than some of the other texts. Slightly older, of course -- but this was one topic where age did not matter. There had been very few advances that Cardamine was aware of in the field of demonology.
College-bound students had been encouraged to take at least two years of a foreign language. Cardamine knew her chances of making a good college were slim even coming out of Clortho with a straight-kaph transcript, but she had her eye on Universidad de Salamanca and had even secretly purchased a pennant with their sports mascot, the Biting Pear. She had picked Ancient Sumerian, since the choices were that or Spanish. She had already picked up enough Spanish to haggle at the Goblin Market (Monday and Wednesday evenings, Saturday until 1) and understand the gist of what men sometimes hollered at her on the street. She had a skill for languages, and had already made it into the Ancient Sumerian lessons for Year Three.
Three years of Ancient Sumerian was also one of the prerequisites for Advanced Summoning, also taught by Mrs. Walsh. Cardamine had seen the relationship between the topics since midway through Year One, and the lessons were building to a logical conclusion: in order to reach true conversational fluency, you needed hours of conversation with a native speaker. Multiple hours. Hours that Cardamine was not going to get in a school like Clortho, not without some extracurricular study. She plucked the book in its plastic library dust jacket off the shelf and locked the rattling gate of the Restricted Section behind her.
The scanners at the library door beeped in futile protest as she went through them with the book. No one had updated the book's anti-theft tags to the new ones with the tentacles, so the beeping and red glow coming off the scanners and book itself faded after she was a few yards away from the library.
"You little fuckers best not be stealing any books!" came a yell from down the hallway, but Cardamine was already around the corner and out of sight before Bigglesby got anywhere near.
Honestly Cardamine could have been reading a fashion magazine through Arithmancy and Mr. Cooper probably would have ignored it completely while he droned through the lecture. A number of the girls (and a few of the boys) sitting in the back row definitely were. Still, Cardamine restricted herself to only sneaking a few peeks at the Advanced Summoning book, and jumped guiltily when Mr. Cooper called her name.
"Miz Washington, go ahead and go to the office," he said wearily.
"I'm sorry Mr. Cooper I was off task Mr. Cooper I know I should do better Mr. Cooper," she said automatically, while thinking about the global unfairness that left her made an example of for five minutes of non-class-related reading, while the less motivated students slacked off and got away with it.
"This isn't about the book, Miz Washington," Mr. Cooper said in his slow, sagging tones. "Though if you have time to be doing other classes' homework in here I can give you more work. No, this is about your brother."
Terror struck Cardamine instantly. "Yes Mr. Cooper thank you Mr. Cooper!" she said, and threw the book in her bag and ran to the office, thinking about all the terrible things that could have gone wrong.
Jamar wasn't sitting in disgrace in one of the beat-up chairs in the tiny, harshly lit reception area outside the school office, and Cardamine's heart skipped another beat.
"Cardamine Washington?" one of the secretaries said.
"Go on in to Mr. Jackson's office, he'll be expecting you." The secretary looked sympathetic and sad. "I'm sorry about this trouble."
The fear was like a poisonous gas thickening the air, turning the fall of light from the fluorescent tubes to swirling cones of illuminated vapor, making every noise and rustle of clothing hurt Cardamine's ears and skin. The door loomed up before her. She grasped the handle and all the courage she had left, and pulled.
Jamar sprawled across Principal Jackson's desk, head up, ears pricked, purring and alive. Cardamine fell on him, hugging him, crying, petting him, and yelling. "You asshole, why'd you go and make me freak out like that, what did you do, if you're suspended I swear Mom's going to kill us both--"
"Language," Principal Jackson said, managing to convey a frown even though his mouth was smiling. "Please."
Cardamine composed herself and stood up straight, still cradling Jamar. "Yes sir."
"Sit down," Principal Jackson said, and Cardamine sat.
What had not happened was the easiest to understand. Jamar had not cursed anyone. No one had cursed Jamar. This would not be the Washington family's day to grieve. What had happened was: the Temporary Transformation Tincture wasn't as temporary as Dr. Moody had assured them. Several hours had passed, and Jamar was still a cat.
"I'm afraid," Principal Jackson said, still smiling that media-friendly gap-toothed smile, "that there isn't room in the budget to get Jamar transformed back this year."
Her reaction to that little fact earned Cardamine her first suspension in her entire school career.
It was, Cardamine reflected bitterly from the sun-warmed brick of her seventh story window ledge, a sad commentary on modern school values that a young woman of color who valued education and justice was excluded from school for three days while a boy who had learned more about music production from messing around than from the school system, a boy who was also a cat, had to go to that self-same school and meow when his name was called or be marked truant. She flipped through the Advanced Summoning book. Well, she'd been wanting some uninterrupted time to try this out…
She swung her legs down back into the tiny bedroom and got to work assembling a circle.
Cardamine uttered the last word of the incantation and waited for the swirling power to resolve itself into a portal that looked upon a redly lit round chamber. The chamber was hung with tapestries traced with sigils. A waft of smoke, partly sulfurous mineral and partly unfamiliar resinous incense, spiraled through on a warm breeze as the pressures tried to equalize through the portal.
A demon sat in the center of the room.
He was less naked than Cardamine would have expected from all the texts, clad from neck to ankles in a rich black fabric robe cut weirdly like a granny's mummu. His face and hands were human enough in shape, but with a deep saturated red skin exactly the color of the bagged blood at a blood drive. His feet were cloven, goatlike. He had no beard, but a halo of softly waving black hair on his head, and two twisted horns. If most of his people looked like him, Cardamine could see where some of the devil stuff had come from.
The demon looked up from his book, a thick and richly bound volume that would have looked more impressive if Cardamine hadn't seen the inscription on the spine. Cardamine was still suitably impressed.
"I didn't know there was a translation of Understanding Comics," she said, instead of the carefully prepared speech that all the books said to give.
The demon's face lit up. "You wouldn't believe how hard it was to get ahold of!" he said. "Amazon doesn't actually take straight-up gold. Or silver." He scowled briefly. "Or PayPal."
A brief conversation established that they both loved Sailor Moon, hated Dragon Ball Z ("What is even the point of all those power levels?!") and were meaning to try Sandman but had not yet gotten around to it. The demon ("Oh, just call me Ibranum, everybody does") had a copy; Cardamine did not.
"I guess I could loan it to you if you wanted?" he said.
"Oh, that would be --" Cardamine cut herself off before committing to the loan. "Wait, what would I owe you for that? Not my soul or anything?" Ibranum talked so exactly like a slightly nerdy teenage boy from her own school who shared her interests, it was hard to keep track of the fact that he was in fact a demon from another dimension and there were warnings about them!
Ibranum shook his head violently. "No, no souls. I don't … do the soul thing." He paused. "But if you do, say, happen to get your hands on the new Captain Marvel, I'd looooooooove to borrow it."
This, weirdly, was the most reassuring thing Ibranum had said yet.
It was Ibranum's turn to pause and look doubtful. "So why did you open this portal, anyway? Most of the human girls are after one thing." He gestured vaguely.
Cardamine looked at Ibranum blankly. What one thing did all the human girls want? Money? Power? Elephants? … Bananas? She looked deep into her heart.
"Well, I'm trying to get practice talking in Ancient Sumerian for my classes, but what I really want is to transform my brother back from being a cat."
"Oh!" Ibranum said. "That doesn't sound so hard at all. Most of the girls, well, technically I am an incubus, but it's always a disappointment to them because I don't do that." He lowered his voice. "I was actually hoping you were a dude."
That made Cardamine laugh.
Research on the contaminated Temporary Transformation Tincture and how to reverse it took most of Cardamine's suspension. On the second and third day, she opened the portal near the family computer, and she and Ibranum compared prices across dimensions, in between chatter in Ancient Sumerian on the mutually intelligible topic of Sailor Moon and how the edits made in the first translation for a Western audience rendered a lot of the later seasons perfectly incoherent. Fresh pigeon eggs were expensive on Ibranum's side, but Cardamine could get some off the roof by raiding a few nests. She grabbed a few extra, just in case Ibranum wanted to make a little gold on the side.
"We have everything except pixie dust," Cardamine said finally.
"Oh wow, that's super expensive," Ibranum said.
"Give it to me in pigeon eggs."
"A hundred, two hundred…?"
"It's super illegal here," Cardamine mourned. "Kids get busted for it all the time. Bigglesby has a whole chest of contraband … that he keeps … in his … I have an idea."
The raid on Bigglesby's office worked like a dream -- at first. Cardamine had Tyrone keep a lookout while she worked the lock. She noiselessly opened the cupboard, working by a pinpoint of light on the tip of her wand.
It was only after she had secured the packet of pixie dust that she let the cupboard shut with a clatter.
There was an abrupt snort from the corner. "Who's there?" came Bigglesby's voice in the darkened room. He had been sleeping there the whole time.
Cardamine fled the room with her prize, and raced down the not particularly hallowed halls of Vincent Clortho Public School for Wizards, with Bigglesby in hot pursuit.
"YOU TRIPPIN', GIRL!" he yelled. The sizzle of another spell sounded. Cardamine rapidly chanted the portal spell that had become second nature over the course of the past few days. When the concussion from this one hit, it blasted her head over heels, through the portal into Ibranum's little study, pixie dust and all.
The portal winked out behind her before Bigglesby could leap through.
Soon it was all over but the brewing. Ibranum was better at it, but Cardamine wasn't bad, and they had enough pixie dust for a few tries. Cardamine went home in triumph with a vial of de-catting potion -- and Ibranum's copy of Sandman. "See you next week?" she asked before climbing through the portal into her apartment.
"See you then!" Ibranum agreed.
Feeding a potion to a cat who is really your older brother is not substantially easier than feeding a potion to a normal cat. Cardamine was wearing several scratches before it was all over, but finally Jamar was draped over the couch like a normal teenager, not shedding on it.
"It wasn't all that bad, honestly," Jamar said reflectively, playing with the cord on his headphones as he lounged. "I'm thinking of doing what Tyrone did and learning me some Animagus shit. Nobody knows how to chill better than a cat."
"You best not try and eat me again, or I'm gonna fuck you up," Tyrone said from the other end of the couch. "Hey Cardamine, who's the guy through the portal, with the, the -- " he gestured vague spiral shapes by the side of his head. "You know if he's single?"
Cardamine rolled her eyes at them both, then climbed out on the window ledge to get started on Sandman.