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In Which a Thesis is Not Written

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As it turned out, there was only so far one could get into a doctoral thesis on charms and spells before actually trying a spot of magic oneself. Especially if one was the sort of person who tended to get in over their head in this sort of thing. Which, considering his life up to this point, Howell rather thought he was.

He tossed out the idea almost out of desperation at his regular meeting with his advisor, who had suggested, as kindly and vaguely as ever, that perhaps Howell would be better served to rethink the last several sections or so that he’d written and choose a more coherent direction. Doctor Belsten was very knowledgeable about the various magics Howell was attempting to study in his own way, but had achieved the prime of his research some years ago and was content these days to explore the effects of various natural remedies for further expanding a person’s awareness of the secret world around them. The difficulty was, of course, that choosing charms and spells as a doctoral study left little options in the way of advisors. Doctor Belseten had a tendency to stare vaguely off as Howell attempted to piece together various scraps of old texts into a coherent set of knowledge that he could then write about, nodding occasionally at spectors Howell couldn’t see.

At Howell’s suggestion that he attempt one of the spells he’d come across in his research however, the wizened academic seemed to collect the scattered fragments of his consciousness together all at once and sat bolt upright behind his cluttered desk. He peered at Howell through smudged glasses, blinking owlishly.

“Goodness! Try a spell for yourself?” he said. Howell, put off by the sudden concentration of his advisor’s attention, began stumbling over his words as he attempted to explain himself, then stopped as the professor continued. “You mean to say you haven’t already?” He shook his head and creases appeared on his brow as he looked at Howell in confusion. “No wonder you’ve been running into such difficulties, my boy. I would never have pushed you further in your studies if I’d known you were lacking in the basics.”

Howell didn’t know quite what to say to that. He attempted several half-formed sentences, but they all landed in a jumble of words.

Belsten nodded, as if that decided things. “Quite right,” he agreed. “Practical experience, that’s what you need. Don’t know what they’re teaching the younger students these days.” He stood, though that didn’t raise his height more than a couple inches, but he clearly wished to indicate he considered the meeting over.

Howell stood too as a matter of habit, his mind a jumble as he reconsidered the last several months of research. He found himself half-herded out the door before he realized his feet were moving.

He turned back in the doorway and looked down at his advisor, who seemed quite pleased with the good work he’d accomplished today. “But where should I start?” he asked.

Doctor Belsten twinkled up at him. “Oh, I can’t give you all the answers.”

Howell felt like telling him that he hadn’t given him any at all, but the door snapped closed in front of him. He stared at it for several moments, as if the battered wood grain might provide some answers for the mess tumbling about in his head, but all that happened was a curl of smoke slipped out from under the crack at the bottom. Howell let out a sigh and resisted the urge to let his head fall into the door. He had a perfectly good desk at his flat where the wood had already developed a dent that fit his forehead just right. Given that compelling enticement, he turned and walked along the hallway out of the building.

Instead of ending up at his flat, however, his steps led him a few buildings away to the department’s library with it’s special collections. He gave the librarian on duty his most charming smile as he strode in as usual, which utterly failed to charm her, as usual. He hadn’t yet managed to convince her that he didn’t intend to burn her entire collection and make an offering of the ashes. He would admit that there had been a small incident early in his studies, but it was really so small as not to be worth mentioning, and he was sure he had almost convinced her to forget it until he’d mentioned his area of study. She disapproved of the field entirely but hadn’t yet found a reason to bar him from her most precious books. Howell bore up under her disapprobation stoically.

He knew where the most useful texts were without having to look by this time, and took one of the larger ones down to lay across a table. He’d already copied pages upon pages of notes from the tome, but he kept returning to it in hope that perhaps this time, the answer to his lack of direction would leap out at him from the pages and provide much necessary resuscitation to his thesis. He carefully turned the pages one at a time, trying to look at them in the new light of today’s revelation.

There were any number of simple charms he could enact. As he’d written in an early draft of his thesis that Belsten had rejected entirely, even certain superstitions could be considered charms if viewed in a particular light. Howell didn’t think carrying around a rabbit’s foot or a hazel pendant were what his advisor had in mind though, and much as he appreciated a good shortcut, taking that approach to the matter felt something like cheating. No, if he was going to do a spell, he was going to do a spell, a proper one, with ingredients and intention.

There were the simplest sorts of spells, of course, the type that survived to be played out in schoolchildren’s games. Howell didn’t particularly like the idea of attempting to divine his fate, even if it likely wouldn’t work. He didn’t consider himself superstitious as a rule, but there were superstitions, and then there was just asking for trouble. He also didn’t fancy trying to reveal the face of his true love. That seemed a path to certain disappointment, for the person on the other end of the spell especially. He’d rather face whatever blowback came from attempting a spell of some higher class than face whatever introspection lay along those paths.

He turned another couple pages in the book, his gaze skittering across familiar cramped writing wedged between spiked symbols and long swooping lines meant to represent the flow of magic. He traced over one of them, finger hovering just over the page. This book always made him feel peculiar, as if he was just on the edge of something, if only he could remember what it was. It was likely why he kept returning to it. He kept thinking he’d missed a page in his reading, or there was some hidden meaning slipped between the words.

He turned another page, and his gaze lit on a paragraph tucked inside a spiraling mark. The title above it read “Being A Spell For Transforming The Visage”.

He smiled. The answer had leapt out at him after all.

The advantage of a spell like this, Howell thought as he went about gathering ingredients, was instant results. No faffing about trying to decide if arriving on time to his lectures counted as good luck, or waiting another decade to see if a foretold fate came true. If a spell said it would transform, then transform it should. He didn’t expect it would, but he did feel a certain rightness as he swiped chalk from various lecture halls in the physics building. There was a small nervousness about what transforming could mean, but at this stage in his graduate career, he could barely afford the shampoo he preferred, let alone any decent hair dye. He’d been reduced to swiping eyeliner from the chemist’s off high street through slight of hand. He was quite willing to take his chances.

The spell looked to be as straightforward in execution as in results. He’d copied the full page out twice, noting the necessary components as he did. Chalk was easy enough, and he imagined he could find the other two ingredients on his way home.

He found the elder tree where he remembered it on campus, and only briefly looked around for anyone who might take offense before knocking a small branch off. It was perhaps a bit longer than the idea he had of a wand, but should work all the same. He was fairly certain the tree was an elder tree, since that’s what the rest of the campus called it. He tucked the branch into his bag with the chalk and took the long way back to his flat, the way that took him by the shop that billed itself as an antiques emporium but really was more of a repository of odds and ends. He stepped inside, the bell tinkling as he did.

The owner glanced up from his book behind the counter, and on seeing Howell, went back to reading. “Not got anything new since last week,” he said, turning a page.

“That’s alright,” Howell told him cheerfully. “I seem to remember an old hand mirror that came in a bit ago, and I’ve realized I have need of it.”

Howell tried very hard not to be offended at the look over the owner gave him at that announcement. He did try to take care of his appearance, but a student’s wages meant his clothes were mended more than not, and the time he’d spent running his hands through his hair in frustration, first with his advisor and then his books, hadn’t done the muddy strands any favors. The owner elected not to comment, and instead said with a shrug, “You’re welcome to it if you can find it.”

A challenge in itself given the crowded nature of the shop, but Howell visited often enough to have a good idea of the place. Sometimes other customers came in and displaced things, much to his annoyance, but he found the mirror just where he expected, on the middle shelf of a slightly scratched credenza tucked into the corner of the next room. He winced at the price tag tied around the handle, but brought it up to the counter nonetheless.

“As this has been here for some time,” he began as he set it down in front of the owner’s book. “I was wondering if you could see your way to a small discount for a regular customer.”

The owner didn’t quite roll his eyes, but it was a close thing. “You don’t need to butter me up every time,” he sighed. “How much have you got?”

Howell felt around the edges of his wallet and pulled out a few coins, feeling a slight pang of guilt as he remembered his parents’ last letter. He wasn’t wasting the money, he reminded himself. This was part of his studies, as much as the paper for his typewriter.

The owner pursed his lips at the coins, considered the mirror and its handwritten price tag, then looked back at Howell, who tried to appear as upstanding and worthy a customer as possible. At last, the owner signed and swept the coins off the counter, dropping them into the till underneath.

“Go on then. It’s not doing any good here,” he mumbled and returned to his book.

Howell’s heart skipped a beat in relief. “Thank you,” he said effusively. The owner waved him off and Howell left, tucking the mirror in the inside pocket of his jacket for safekeeping.

His flat was only a few blocks further, and he arrived as the sun was beginning to touch the roofs of the buildings beyond. He opened the door and found it dark inside, as expected. He flicked on the light, gaze skirting over the junk and general debris that distinguished the flat as belonging to three young men. He didn’t expect to see Rhys for several days yet, as he’d left for his girlfriend’s again yesterday, and wasn’t likely to return until he ran out of clothes. John would probably be back hours later, once the library kicked him out.

Howell took his bag to his room and set about clearing off his desk to prepare the spell. Now that he had the necessary components, there seemed no reason to wait. He stacked the books and papers next to the other piles on the floor, then set the secondhand electric typewriter carefully on the bed, making sure to not obscure it with the tangle of blankets, lest he forget it later.

He laid out the copy of the spell, chalk, elder branch, and mirror on the now empty desk. His whole being thrummed with anticipation. He tried reminding himself that he was an academic, that this was simply going through the motions of a ritual without expectation of results, but his heart refused to listen. It told him that this was the start of something, flooding his veins with excitement with each pump.

He reread the copied spell, forcing himself not to skip over words and lines in his eagerness to begin. Once he was sure he had the details nearly memorized, he set the mirror in the center of the desk and started recopying the symbol from the book onto the wood with the chalk. Some portions called for the use of the elder branch as some sort of unwieldy paintbrush, but most only required exact markings with the chalk. His hand trembled slightly, but he found the symbols flowed from him as if he’d been meant to write them. He drew so easily he wouldn’t realize he’d gotten ahead of the instructions, only to look back and realize he’d done them perfectly.

He hardly dared breathe as he applied the last few lines, not wanting to disturb the chalk. He’d used up nearly an entire stick, and the symbols didn’t fit entirely on top of the desk, scrawling down the sides and underneath. He reread the spell a last time, eyes tracing over the fragile white lines. Everything seemed to be in place. He stood in front of the desk and set the paper aside. Somewhere as he’d been working on the spell, he’d let go of his forced skepticism. He felt like a child wandering out to try to catch sight of fairies in the woods at dusk, knowing with youth’s certainty that they were there to be caught.

He was glad his door was closed so no one could see what he was doing. Drawing a deep breath, he said the word meant to bind the spell together, placing his full intent behind it.

Embarrassingly, his voice cracked on the single word, but it took anyway. A great something rushed along his body and out, sinking into the symbols on the table, twisting and coalescing into the mirror at their center.

The energy in him passed, and he suddenly felt quite tired. The feeling wasn’t gone entirely however. He felt the mirror without touching it, like a lightbulb buzzing with electricity in the center of the desk. He watched as his shaking hand extended itself and took hold of the handle. His eyes clenched shut as he held it up, last minute panic making itself known. He could practically hear his sister’s voice in his ear, lecturing him on his vanity. He’d chosen this spell, and whatever was done was done. He simply had to face the results.

He opened his eyes, ready to discover he’d turned his skin green or dyed his hair neon pink, but the sight in the mirror wasn’t what he expected at all. Instead of his own pale face, he saw an entire scene in the age-spotted glass. He looked out over a seaside village, where locals hurried up and down the streets clutching parcels or riding horses, all wearing clothing that looked a century or two out of date. He frowned, utterly confused, but fascinated all the same. He seemed to be looking out at the scene from his own height, and the town went about its business around him.

He tried turning with the mirror in his hand and was rewarded when the scene turned with him, showing a view of shops and cobbled roads. He turned the other way and got a better view of the harbor, where small wooden fishing boats crowded the shore at the end of the day. Further in the distance, he saw taller sailing ships, also all wood, but all appearing to be in good shape. He walked further, only to be stopped by the wall of his room. He turned in the other direction and wove through the flat with the mirror held high, eyes drinking in every detail of the scene.

The sun slowly set as he explored, both in the mirror and outside. He watched as lamps were lit individually in the streets, providing light enough for the villagers to go about their business, but barely enough for him to see. The couch bumped the back of his knees and he collapsed onto it, still holding the mirror in front of him. The inhabitants on the other side of the glass slowly trickled their way home, until the streets were empty aside from the occasional straggler.

Howell lowered the mirror and stared sightlessly across the apartment. He couldn’t even find it in him to be upset that the spell hadn’t been what he thought. Who cared for transformation when he could do this? Whatever this happened to be. The place on the other side of the glass wasn’t anywhere he was familiar with, but that could mean lots of things. Some strange city that refused to adopt technology? Wasn’t there someplace like that in Canada?

He couldn’t shake the feeling that this was someplace else entirely though. The town didn’t have the air of a place cut off from the rest of the world. The ships in the distance were sailing off to who knew where, as if it was natural for tall wooden ships from the pages of history to be doing that. Could he have opened a portal back in time? Was this what this town had looked like however many years ago?

He needed to see more. He looked around the apartment frantically, as if a larger mirror would reveal itself. There was the television, though that didn’t seem the best solution. The bathroom had a mirror, covered in soap and toothpaste as it was, but Howell wasn’t far gone enough not to realize that attempting to monopolize the only bathroom for magic experiments would go over poorly with his roommates, even more so than the television. His eyes lit on the window.

Mirror cradled in his hands, he hurried back to his room. He retrieved the chalk and elder branch and faced his window with the tools clutched in his sweaty hands. His body ached with an unexpected tiredness, but the adrenaline of his discovery burned the thoughts of rest away. He set to work.

He barely needed to look at the copied spell to recreate the necessary symbols around his window. They flowed from his hand even easier now, despite the awkward angles he found himself in. The white chalk barely showed on the mostly white walls, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Darkness had settled fully over the city by the time he finished. By the dim yellow light on the ceiling, he saw himself reflected in the window, eyes and hair wild, his whole being streaked with chalk. If anyone could see him, he felt certain he’d develop a new spell for disappearing, but he could put himself together anew once he had this power in hand. He grinned at the wild figure and said the word.

He watched, panting with anticipation and exhaustion, as the glass went black and the scene coalesced this time. It was the same view he’d seen in the mirror when he turned it towards the window earlier. Waves rolled into the harbor at the end of the road, fishing boats bobbing in their berths. The sea glinted in the moonlight and stars blurred across the water.

Howell reached out and laid his hand against the glass. It felt cold and firm under his touch, but at the same time, it seemed almost as if he could push through and reach out into the scene. He could nearly taste the salt air on his tongue.

As if in a trance, he reached for the catch on the window and flicked it open. He pulled, and the bottom of the window slid up. For a moment, he thought it had worked, and that he would be able to stick his head out and see the strange village outside. Then the spell broke with a wretched sound of tearing, and the scene disappeared entirely. The only thing reflected in the glass was his own astonished face.

He felt a brief pang at the setback, but it was so small in the scope of what he’d discovered that it barely registered. He could do this again, he was sure of it. He needed more books, more spells. He hadn’t known what he was looking for before, when he’d been reading through all his books. He hadn’t known to imagine that this was possible. Now that he’d seen the beginnings of the potential at his fingers, he had whole new worlds to explore. He grabbed the mirror, the spell, and several books from his stacks and took them back out to the main room of the flat.

His body was doing its very best to give up on him at this point, a tiredness he hadn’t known before dragging at his limbs. He made a concession to its needs by taking his book to the kitchen and gathering himself a plate of crackers and cheese one-handed. He attempted to make himself a large mug of coffee to go with it, but the coffee maker proved to be entirely disagreeable to the idea, so he gave it up as a bad job and settled for the rest of the milk out of the carton.

With his sustenance, he sprawled across the floor next to the coffee table. He spread one book out and set the mirror propped up on several others. It still showed a view of the sleeping town, and he kept glancing at it between pages.

His eyelids grew heavier and heavier as he read, but he refused to give in. There was so much more for him to learn, and he’d only barely begun. He turned another page, where the blurry words said something about folding space into laundry. It seemed a fascinating concept, though it suddenly got much harder to read when the book swam up to meet him.

Howell smelled the coffee first. He attempted to open his eyes, but found them both stuck together and stuck to something on his face. His hands flailed around until he managed to peel the pages of the book off of himself, then rubbed his eyes open.

He blinked. Morning light spilled through the window and played over the books scattered in front of him. He looked further up and found his roommate staring back at him over a mug of steaming coffee, looking vaguely interested.

“Coffee?” Howell grunted in a passable imitation of human speech.

John nodded. “I fixed it. Though I’m not sure you need any, given all this.” He gestured vaguely at the books piled around Howell and his general state of being.

Howell attempted to get up, but it turned out that his legs protested greatly the way he’d slept on them the previous night and refused to comply. He started out by wiggling his toes, hoping to work some life back into them. “When’d you get back?” he asked John as he attempted to distract himself from the needles crawling up his calves.

John shrugged. “Usual time. I don’t think you’d been out by long then. You weren’t snoring yet.” He took another sip of coffee. “Thesis going poorly, I take it?”

“Actually, I may have made a breakthrough,” Howell said, moving up to rotating his ankles.

“Oh? Does sleeping on the texts actually help?” John asked.

“It was before that,” Howell said, waving him off. “Had a meeting with Belsten yesterday and he suggested I take a new approach.”

John snorted. “Did that involve smoking something?” He looked over Howell again. “You don’t seem high.”

Howell smirked. “And you would know. He has mentioned before that I would do better with a more open mind, but I haven’t found that useful for thesis writing yet.”

“It depends,” John said, considering. “Certain writers, I’ve found the only way to understand them is to put myself in the same mindset.”

“I’ll keep that under advisement.” Sensation had mostly returned to Howell’s legs, but that sensation was still more prickling static rather than anything that would help them support him.

“So not that then.” John sipped his coffee. “Is there some ritual going on in the woods this weekend? Maybe he thought you could try a bargain with the Fair Folk to enrich your research? Try a spell of your own?”

Howell tried very hard not to react, but for a book-bound academic, John was too observant for his own good, and knew Howell too well after years of living together.

“He didn’t!” John watched Howell with glee. Howell didn’t look at him, which likely only confirmed his roommate’s suspicions. “He did!” John waited for Howell to elaborate, then pressed further. “So? What’d you try?”

Howell gave up on denial as a tactic and decided to lean into it, propping his head on one hand in a way that he hoped made him look vague and mysterious and not as if he was still trying to remember out how his knees worked. “What would you say if I told you I’d used a spell to make some kind of portal?”

John took another long sip of coffee before replying. “Is this some sort of Doctor Who thing?”

Howell snorted. “No, really. It was from one of the old books I’ve been using, I just hadn’t realized what it could do before.”

John looked as if he didn’t know quite what to say to that. Finally, he landed on, “I think the insanity plea only gets you out of the military, not your thesis defense.”

“No, look.” Howell reached across the table for the mirror, but when he looked into it, the glass showed his own reflection, which was enough to give him a bit of a start. No wonder John was worried. In addition to the chalk and dark circles under his eyes, he’d also developed unflattering red lines across his face from sleeping on the book. His vanity twinged, even though it was only John seeing him, who had also witnessed him puking his guts out in at least one dingy alley. “It was here last night,” he muttered.

“Hmm.” John stood. “I think I will get you that coffee.”

Howell stared at the mirror some more, angling it this way and that. All it reflected were the normal sorts of things one expected from a mirror, those already in the room. The light of day was enough to make Howell develop vague doubts about his discoveries the night prior. By the time John returned with the coffee, he’d confused himself entirely. He excused himself to his room, on the pretext of getting more sleep, but then immediately set the mirror back down in its place on the desk. He went over the lines with the chalk, ensuring they were all still in place, and then, with even more apprehension than the night before, said the spell’s word.

To his enormous relief, the seaside village reappeared in the mirror, bustling with activity at this time of the morning, especially since clouds threatened rain later. He took his time looking around, exploring the sights all over in the light of day. Another look was enough to convince him that this wasn’t some other town along a nearby coast he was looking at. He’d reached through some kind of barrier to see this place, though he couldn’t be sure yet what.

The answer had to lie in more spells. If one had worked, there was no reason why others shouldn’t. He sorted through the piles next to his desk, calling himself every kind of fool for not trying this earlier. He’d had this ability at his fingertips all along and hadn’t dared reach for it. He wouldn’t hold himself back anymore.

A likely looking book revealed itself from the stack on his left, an older tome closed with a metal clasp with the title Boke of Palimpsest. He frowned at it. He didn’t remember buying this one, but he had been distracted lately. It must have snuck in on one of his trips to the odds and ends shop. He opened it, intending to start at the beginning, but the pages had their own idea. They opened to a page titled “A Spell to Create a Door”.

He stared at it for a moment. It occurred to him that after his experiment with the window last night, a door was exactly what he needed.

Well. He wouldn’t argue with that.

The steps for this spell were slightly more complicated, but the basic principles remained the same. He copied down the spell just as he had the last one and set out about town to collect his supplies. His elder branch was still in good shape, but he would require a good deal more chalk, and some metal scrap that he hoped to find at the yard at the edge of town.

When he returned hours later, there was barely a classroom left in the campus with chalk still in it. He’d had some small trouble at the scrap yard, not having the tools he needed, and it had taken nearly the rest of his money to sort that problem out. Nevertheless, he arrived back victorious, tottering slightly with exhaustion, but pleased nonetheless.

He shoved all his furniture to one side of the room, away from the door to his closet. It wasn’t much of a closet, more of a glorified cupboard, but if the spell worked as he suspected it should, that wouldn’t matter. He rolled up the threadbare rug and went to work making his markings on the floor.

After the second time his hand slipped and smeared the line he was working on, Howell finally admitted defeat for the night. He’d read about the toll of spellwork before, but now he understood what it meant. He laughed to himself. Belsten couldn’t argue with his practical experience now. He managed to remember to rescue his typewriter from his bed before collapsing onto it, clothes and all.

It was still mostly dark when he woke again, but the pink-grey light of dawn had started to reach its fingers across his room. He rolled himself out of bed, retrieved a mug of coffee from the kitchen, and set back to work.

The sun rose higher in the sky until it shone brightly through the window, emphasizing the dull matte of the chalk across the floor and walls. Howl’s hand started to cramp, and he had to stop to shake it out several times before he could make the long sweeping lines he needed to finish the spell.

He stepped back to look at the whole of it. He’d followed the instructions he’d copied exactly, and the finished design had an undeniable feeling of rightness to it. As he looked at it, his gaze was drawn naturally from one part to the next, each piece flowing together as he was sure it should. The spell called to him, reaching for that part of him that the magic words pulled out. He didn’t want to deny it any longer.

He read out the words of the spell, and euphoria danced through him as his energy chased along the path of the spell to sink into the doorframe. This was it, this was how it was supposed to be. It felt somehow as if he’d been waiting for this moment for years. The doorway had always been there. All he had to do was open it.

His breath caught as his hand settled around the doorknob. The warm metal caressed his hand, fitting assuredly into his palm. He pulled it open.

The cobbled street of the town he’d seen in the mirror met the edge of the door, running away on either side, where Howell saw the same shops and lamps. Townsfolk chattered, and away to the side, he heard the shouts of fishermen and the crash of the sea. Salt air stung his nose. He breathed in deeply, unable to stop the grin that stretched his face. The place sang with something else too, that sense he was only just beginning to think of as magic.

Howell looked out the window of his room. Sunlight spilled over familiar roofs, warming the city at midday. He looked back through his closet door. Clouds crowded the sky, and as he watched, the first drops started to fall, sending townsfolk in their curious costumes running for cover.

Still grinning like a madman, Howell stopped through the door and out into the rain.