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A Wizard of Wales

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The problem with writing his doctoral thesis on an obscure manuscript that was only important in so far as it was a minor support for the grand theory that his adviser was putting together, a magnum opus which would revolutionize the entire field when it was published (if it was published), was that if said adviser were to abruptly retire from the field of scholarship following the birth of his second grandchild, leaving his opus unpublished and probably unpublishable, then that left him, Howell Jenkins...

Sitting on a couch with broken springs, in a tiny flat at the top of a building that actually swayed on windy days, drinking whiskey and cursing fate.

Howell knew that he had only himself to blame. He hadn't thought much about how he was staking his whole future on the dedication of a man who talked wistfully about retirement, who had no friends within the department, and whose great book was already five years overdue, but even if he had it all to do again, he'd probably do exactly the same thing.

Except at some point in the past, when he had a little extra money, he'd have made sure he had some better whiskey as a consolation prize.

 

In retrospect, there was nothing else he could have done, after he'd fallen in love with a spell. Before he took the seminar on Historical Spells and Their Influence, the one that Dr. Rilcer used as his recruiting ground, he'd been a notorious dilettante, a bee flitting from flower to flower in the History Department.

After the seminar, he'd joined Dr. Rilcer's group. Dr. Rilcer was notorious himself, the sort of adviser most students tried like hell to avoid. He was dreary, spoke in a monotone, and he had only one extremely unfashionable interest, and he either bent everything he touched until it fit within that interest, or he ignored its existence entirely.

He was a bad scholar. Howell had been clear on that from the beginning, and the rest of his students were just as bad. The best of them were cranks whose interests happened to align at least a little with Dr. Rilcer's, and the worst of them were pushovers who did whatever they were told.

Howell didn't care, because he got to spend his time with his spell. (That put him in camp one, technically, at least in the eyes of everyone else in the department.)

Howell's spell was called the Aberwist Manuscript. It had been found in a cache of documents sealed into the side of a hill, but unlike the other documents, which were typical medieval Welsh documents, the Aberwist Manuscript was written in a set of symbols that only shared a few characteristics with ordinary letters.

Access to the Aberwist Manuscript was highly constrained, and only Dr. Rilcer's impeccable credentials could get Howell access to it. Howell didn't know exactly why a strange manuscript found in a hillside required a clearance, but it probably had something to do with the man who found it in the hillside, who'd later been arrested under murky circumstances, and then somehow managed to get away -- disappear into thin air -- before his sentence could be carried out.

All of which meant that by the time Howell got to it--

"You've got to see just one more," Dr. Rilcer had said, leading Howell through the archive. This was back when Howell was in the seminar, and Dr. Rilcer was recruiting. "This one is important. I truly believe that once it's translated..."

Howell had been bored. He'd spent the whole morning pretending that he believed that each of the documents Dr. Rilcer paraded in front of him had some significance, and he was tired of pretending.

And then he'd seen the manuscript, and the strange symbols hit him like a glorious revelation, and he hadn't had to pretend any more.

 

Three months after Dr. Rilcer retired, Howell's attempts to hide the fact that he had no funding hit the limits of his ability to borrow money. His sister Megan sent him a message. "I'm coming up this weekend to talk to you about the money you borrowed from me."

Howell made arrangements to be unfindable over the weekend, but Megan arrived early Friday morning and cornered him in his flat.

"Why haven't you found a new adviser?" Megan asked.

"Why haven't you been taking classes this semester?" Megan asked.

"Why haven't you been working on your thesis?" Megan asked.

And a number of other equally pointed questions as well. Howell could hardly tell her that he'd been spending all his time poring over a magical document, trying to discern its structure from a theoretical symbol analysis and surreptitiously attempting to use it to perform magic.

Dr. Rilcer had believed in Historical Spells and Their Influence. Howell just believed in spells and their influence. But he knew Megan wouldn't understand.

"I'll get right on it," he told her instead.

"Good," Megan said. "Let's plan who you're going to talk to and what you're going to say, and I'll come with you on Monday for moral support."

 

Dr. Rilcer's unpublished magnum opus had been titled State Capacity and Peaceful Growth: The Control of Transformation, and it had traced the evolution of the role of what he called transformation through various historical forms of government from the Roman Empire through the present day.

Most of his arguments rested on a careful analysis of manuscripts like the Aberwist Manuscript and a handful of artifacts that were kept even more tightly locked up. He'd had access to the Tower of London, and the ancient artifacts that were kept there.

"Spells and Enchantments," Dr. Rilcer said in private. "Transformational Artifacts," his papers carefully spelled out. But even so, sometimes Howell wondered how Dr. Rilcer had ever gotten tenure.

He thought it probably had something to do with the mysterious governmental visitors Dr. Rilcer occasionally entertained. Howell had presented some of his early work to one of them. "It was well received," Dr. Rilcer said, but the event had never been repeated, even though Howell's work on the Aberwist Manuscript had progressed into a far more detailed magical grammar since then.

Whenever Howell asked, Dr. Rilcer shook his head. "We must seek more evidence," he said. "My critics are harsh, everything must be perfect." Which meant that Howell didn't have anything to show for his time with Dr. Rilcer except a carefully written chapter that tied into a line of reasoning that no one but Dr. Rilcer would even begin to understand.

But over the weekend, with Megan's prodding, Howell put together a summary of his work that highlighted his skills at analysis and backgrounded his obsession with one particular manuscript. It was strange to look at all of his work and try to see it for something that could stand on its own.

Howell felt like he was seeing his spell in a new light. He felt like he was seeing his entire life in a new light, unshadowed by Dr. Rilcer's theories.

"Perfect," Megan declared, and took him out to dinner to celebrate.

 

That night Megan slept the sleep of the just, but Howell couldn't sleep at all. He was thinking about his spell.

The first time he'd seen it, he'd run his eyes along the symbols and felt a sense of awe. He'd known that it was magical. He'd longed to delve into the mysteries that he felt sure it contained.

In all his work for Dr. Rilcer, Howell had discovered many things about his spell, but the sense of wonder had faded. All his analysis had dulled that longing. He'd lost sight of the mysteries.

If Megan had her way, Howell could see his future, and it didn't involve his spell at all. He would analyze something else that some other professor was interested in, write a very boring thesis, and proceed to a very boring career in historical analysis. Megan would be able to tell the neighbors that her brother was a professor at some institution of higher learning. It didn't matter where. It didn't matter what.

Maybe that was as it should be. But maybe--

Before dawn, under cover of Megan's light snores, Howell crept away.

 

He was just going to look at the spell. Take the delicate understanding that Megan had somehow pounded into him, the understanding that he could look in ways that didn't connect to Dr. Rilcer and his work, and try to see it the same way he'd seen it the first time.

But once he got there, and had the manuscript out on one of the tables...

It was a beautiful object, the symbols exquisitely rendered, the illuminations still bright, traces of gold here and there that glittered even in the unromantic electric light.

Howell touched one of his favorite illuminations with the tip of his finger. He was hoping to feel the tiny shock of magic that he'd occasionally felt before, but this time -- nothing.

The decision to go all out, to do everything possible to implement the spell seemed to come simultaneously from outside of himself and from somewhere deeper within himself than he usually knew.

The way to do so was far less obvious.

He'd already tried a few things, the things that he could do unobtrusively while in the archive. He couldn't do anything more here; he'd be interrupted. And when he read through the spell, translating it using both the grammar and lexicon he'd developed and his intuition, he realized that the actual spell had a lot of details that he'd glossed over in his head. He was going to need a lot of room to do this.

Then he had an idea.

Of course he wasn't supposed to remove the spell from the archive, but he had a feeling that the spell was cooperating as he hid it deep in his bag and then sneaked out the back door, the one whose alarm had been disabled by the archivist who liked to go that way to get outside for a smoke.

He took the bus, and stopped at a grocery store and a florist, though the florist wasn't yet open and he had to beg for what he needed at the back door where they were accepting deliveries under a sky that barely hinted of sunrise.

He took it all to Megan's house-to-be. It was still under construction, surrounded by a sea of mud, but the builders had hit a snag and stopped building temporarily, so it was sure to be empty.

It was perfect. The inside walls were nothing but lines of two by fours that he could step through, and the floorboards accepted the chalk for the diagrams. He got to work.

An hour later, after he ended up in a corner with no room for the series of very important symbols that needed to go beyond the symbols he'd already inscribed, he rubbed off all the chalk marks and began again in a different color of chalk. And this time, he did all the major markings first, and put the minor markings in between them after he'd got the major ones in the right place.

When everything was ready, Howell sat down in the center of the pattern he'd created, and spread the manuscript out in front of him. He checked that all of his chalked symbols were positioned correctly, and that all his ingredients were ready.

Megan would kill him if she ever found out what he'd done in her house-to-be, he thought inconsequentially.

He took a deep breath, and lightly touched his favorite illumination for luck.

The magical spark jumped from the manuscript to his hand, and then out to the carefully set out ingredients, coursing through the symbols like lightning, across the floor and up the walls.

Howell closed his eyes against the brilliance. He heard a sound like a rushing wind, and a sound like a door opening.

When he opened his eyes again, he was somewhere else.

The sun shone through the towering evergreen trees and down onto the peaked roofs of a cluster of small cottages. There were gray and white mountains beyond, and the air smelled of growing things. Howell felt exactly like he'd felt when he first saw his spell in the archive, only magnified a thousand times.

He'd known the spell was powerful -- powerful enough to attract a lot of attention, powerful enough to change lives. But he hadn't known for sure that it would do this. He'd wondered, without really acknowledging it, if a disappearance in one place meant an appearance somewhere else. He'd hoped for the existence of somewhere else, with very little evidence.

It felt like dozens of constraints he'd barely noticed all falling away at once, leaving him light and free to walk into this new world, and explore every possibility.