Sunday, March 15, 2020

ZEL (Special Sneak Preview)


CHAPTER 1Girl in the Blue Hoody

The final bell rang at 3:15, as it always did. But, on this occasion, the students who attended Martin J. Hauck Middle School rose from their desks and fled their respective classes with greater than usual vigor.

The reason, of course, was that this was the last day of school before summer vacation. And, after seven hours of barely attempting to pretend they were still listening to their teachers, the students were finally free to board buses, climb into their parents’ cars or simply walk home, there to begin that most joyous of activities: not going to school.

One such student was a thirteen-year-old girl with large, blue eyes and very, very black hair, which was cut short and hidden under her blue hoody. Of course, this being California in the second week of June, it was much too hot for a hoody, and, technically, she wasn’t supposed to wear the hood in class, but she was a good enough student that her teachers were tolerant of her occasional insistence upon wearing her hood up all day.

“Have a great summer!”

“Bye!”

“I’ll miss you!”

Remarks like this greeted the Girl in the Blue Hoody from all sides as she walked across campus. She did her best to acknowledge them as she walked on, even though she sort of wished people would leave her alone. She understood they were just trying to be nice, but she really didn’t want to think about her forthcoming move She just wanted to get to—

“Hey, you’re coming tonight, right?”

Her progress was blocked by perhaps the scariest thing a thirteen-year-old girl can ever encounter: a boy her own age. This one was called Vincent and he was smiling at her. She did her best to smile back.

“Yeah, er,” she began, less eloquently than she would have liked, “about that. I don’t think…”

“What? C’mon, you’ve got to come! You’re moving in a few days, aren’t you? This is your last chance. Everybody wants to see you.”

Frankly, she doubted that everybody wanted to see her, and she was on the point of saying as much to Vincent when a new voice joined the conversation.

“Of course, she’s coming,” said Makaylah. “Even if I have to pick her up and carry her there. Which I could do. I’m weirdly strong. See?”

With no further preamble, Makaylah dropped her backpack then threw her arms around Vincent’s waist, lifted him a good seven or eight inches off the ground, and put him back down.

“Wow,” said Vincent. “That is weird. Cool, but weird. So, you’ll both be there? Awesome! See you tonight.” With that—and a surreptitious wink—he was gone.

“Oh my God!” said Makaylah. “Did he wink at you? Cuz I’m pretty sure he winked at you. I didn’t think people actually did that. It’s not just me, right? He winked? He didn’t just have something in his eye or something, he definitely—”

“Yes,” said the Girl in the Blue Hoody, who had long ago learned that interrupting Makaylah was necessary if she wanted to get a word in. “He winked at me. Why did you say I’d go?”

“Cuz you’re going. Shut up, you are. I wasn’t kidding about carrying you. Your house isn’t that far from Vincent’s. I could totally do that.”

“But—”

“No! No buts. Vincent’s right. This is your last chance to come to a party before you move away. People want to say goodbye, want you to sign their yearbooks, and, did I happen to mention, Vincent winked at you?”

Makaylah spent most of their walk home talking about the party and why her friend had to attend. In the end, it was easier to just say she’d go than to try and get Makaylah to listen to her long enough to explain why she didn’t want to go.

In the first place, she didn’t like parties. Too much noise, too many people, she always felt awkward and uncomfortable. In the second place, there was the wink Makaylah kept going on about. She already knew that Vincent had a thing for her, but his interests were not reciprocated. If she went to the party, she would have to tell him so and that would make her even more awkward and uncomfortable.

And, of course, there was the fact that she was moving away in a few days and that would, therefore, be the main topic of any conversation she might be involved in. It had been bad enough a couple of months earlier when the family restaurant had closed for good and everyone at school had kept asking her if she was okay. Because, when casual acquaintances ask if you’re okay, the only acceptable answer is “Yes, I’m okay.”

Even though she really wasn’t.

“So, it’s settled,” said Makaylah when they arrived at her house. “You’re coming?”

Her friend sighed. “Yes, okay.”

“Great! I’ll see you tonight.”

Makaylah went inside her house and Rapunzel Ramirez—Zel to her friends—walked home, thinking about all the things she wished she could have said.

♦♦♦

Now, while Zel is walking home from Makaylah’s house, let’s go back about fourteen years and tell the story of Martin and Delia.

Theirs was a classic love story. Two different worlds, star-crossed lovers, but their love conquered all and they married. Now, normally this is what you read at the end of a love story. But, in real life, love stories last long after the honeymoon.

In the interest of full disclosure, we should point out that neither Martin nor Delia really wanted to have kids. It’s not as if they didn’t like children or anything. But neither of them felt a terribly strong desire to become parents and, it occurred to them, that, in the absence of that desire, it was probably best not to have kids. They therefore took precautions to ensure that their marital union would not produce any offspring…

But, accidents happen, and less than a year after getting married, Delia was pregnant.

The couple debated, discussed and, sometimes, actually argued about what to do next and finally arrived at the extremely difficult conclusion that they would give up the child for adoption. After all, the baby would be better off with a couple that badly wanted to be parents than she would with two people who were ambivalent about the idea.

When the girl was born, she surprised practically everyone because she was born with a full head of hair. Indeed, a full head of long hair. The baby’s hair, at birth, was longer than she was. And, even after it was cut (which the doctors decided was much easier than washing it), it grew back at a remarkable rate.

Hence the name Rapunzel.

This name was given to the girl not by Martin and Delia Smith, the people who had conceived her, but by Ramon and Vanessa Ramirez, the people who raised her, the only mother and father Zel ever knew and the only ones she ever wanted.

Telling a child that they are adopted is never easy and can be quite unpleasant if handled in the wrong way. Fortunately, Ramon and Vanessa were spared this awkward encounter with their own daughter, who was able to work out that she was not biologically related to either of her parents at a very early age. Zel was very intelligent and observant had picked up on two things which led her to believe that she had been adopted:

For one, she had attached earlobes whereas her parents’ were detached.

Also, their skin was a different color.

Without getting too bogged down in the potentially delicate subject of race, we’ll just mention, briefly, that Zel’s biological father was of Korean descent while her biological mother was Caucasian. The Ramirezes, on the other hand, were both Mexican. So, it was pretty much apparent to anyone who saw them that the girl was adopted.

Zel very seldom thought about her birth parents. She had a loving family and a good home and that, she knew, was all that mattered. Sure, once in a great while she was given over to curiosity and would lie awake at night, her mind full of questions.

Who were they? Why had they given her up? Could they maybe explain the thing about her hair?

(They could have, by the way, but they’re not in this book so they won’t be able to.)

But the question that really stymied Zel wasn’t “who were my birth parents?” It was a far more difficult question; one that people older and wiser than she had struggled with for years:

“Who am I?”

This is not, alas, a question we can answer for her. She’s just going to have to work it out all by herself.

Well…not all by herself.


CHAPTER 2—Prophecy and Plans

Tullynoe and Clerihews were, without question, the two most pathetic, useless, incompetent, and just plain embarrassing students ever to just  barely graduate from the Bildor Academy of the Magical Arts (or BAMA, as it was known to its enthusiastic alumni).

Tullynoe (Tully to his friends…which was pretty much just Clerihews) had majored in Incantations, arguably the hardest form of magic as it requires tremendous concentration and clarity of intent. Basically, you wave your wand and recite a verse describing what you want to have happen. You know the sort of thing:

“Spiders’ webs and a serpent’s head,
Clean my room and make my bed!”

If done correctly, it can be tremendously useful. But, apart from the difficulty involved in making up these tiny poems, you need to have a very clear image in your mind of what you want the finished product to look like.

Try it. Right now. Yes, you, the person reading this book. Give it a try. Imagine your room, clean and tidy, and your bed made, and recite the verse. Try not to think of anything else in the world besides your room being clean.

Don’t, for example, think about an orangutan playing beach volleyball…

Could you do it? Could you see your nice, clean room? Or did you just see an orangutan in swim trunks spiking the ball over the net?

Tully, unfortunately, had neither the mental discipline nor the poetic talent for this kind of magic. But what he lacked in natural ability, he made up for in stubborn, pigheaded refusal to give up and try something more sensible. So, in his case, he might manage to straighten his room a little, maybe make the bed…but he would definitely have some form of large, arboreal ape on his hands.

As for Clerihews (Hewey, for short), he relied more on potions, powders and other magical concoctions. This kind of magic is, as you can probably imagine, very similar to cooking. Some people are able to do it creatively, adding spices and flavors of their own devising, whereas others are the sort who really need to just follow the recipe.

Hewey was the second sort…but he thought he was the first sort.

Had he resigned himself to following the instructions in his book to the letter, he would have been a passable potion-maker. But since he insisted upon making each spell his own, the results were usually, at best, ineffective, or at worst, genuinely dangerous.

We can think of no better illustration of this than his final exam. Besides the written portion, magical exams always have a practical aspect, and Hewey’s had involved mixing a sleeping draught. If made correctly, it would put someone to sleep for exactly five minutes and they would wake up as refreshed and rested as if they had slept eight solid hours. But he thought adding a pinch of pepper root would give his subject a few exciting dreams. He mixed it up and gave it to the school custodian, who had volunteered for this duty because he had been promised a slight bonus in his wages.

And, if and when this custodian ever wakes up, he’ll be able to tell us whether the pepper root did, in fact, give him exciting dreams.

Indeed, so hopelessly incompetent were these two sorcerers that it remains a mystery to everyone (themselves included) how they managed to leave BAMA with diplomas in hand. As a matter of fact, it was a simple clerical error. A decimal point got put in the wrong place and they were each put down as having just enough credits to graduate.

Nevertheless, graduate they did, and eventually settled in Laketon where they opened a magical supply shop which they called “Tullyhews.” Though hopelessly inept at spellcasting themselves, they were very good at running a little shop and providing potion ingredients, magical instruments and other such supplies for their far more competent neighbors.

We should point out that neither Tully nor Hewey had any delusions about their abilities. They both knew they were hopeless at magic, but they didn’t care. They had each other, they had their little shop, and they were, therefore, very happy.

That is to say, they were happy…until the Prophecy.

On the day when the whole mess began, Tully was stocking shelves with a new item they had only just decided to begin selling: crystal balls. The good kind, mind you. Real crystal, not that highly polished glass you get at magical discount shops. They were more expensive, of course, but the customers of Tullyhews deserved only the very finest merchandise, which is why Tully and Hewey didn’t mind taking out a loan to buy the crystal balls. Anyway, they were sure they’d make the money back in no time, as they were the only shop in Laketon to carry genuine crystal balls.

(Well, there was Walker’s on Brian Street, but you’d either have to be pretty desperate or completely stupid to shop there, because…never mind; we’ll come to that later)

To be fair, the cheaper glass ones still worked…sort of. But the images they produced were less clear, the prophecies vaguer, and often harder to interpret than what you get from real crystal.

In any case, Tully was, as we have said, stacking crystal balls on the shelves (very carefully) when something impossible happened. The balls were, of course, dormant and should have remained so until someone activated them. But, as Tully was just about to put the very last one on the very top shelf, he realized that the crystal ball in his hand had begun to activate all by itself.

The otherwise empty interior of the ball was beginning to fill with greenish smoke, so dark a green that it was almost black. The smoke began to billow and swirl inside the ball, which was also vibrating slightly and was just a tiny bit warm to the touch.

That’s when Tully realized that all of the crystal balls he had just put on the shelves were all doing exactly the same thing as the one in his hand. They had all activated all by themselves.

“Clerihews!” he yelled.

Hewey knew that his husband only used his full name in dire emergencies, so he ran from the back room into the main part of the shop as fast as his legs would carry him.

“What in the…?” he said when he saw what was happening. Tully turned to face his husband and, in doing so, lost his balance on the ladder on which he was standing. He tried to steady himself by grabbing onto the top shelf which came loose and collapsed onto the shelf beneath it, which also came loose and collapsed onto the shelf beneath it…smashing thirty-five brand new—and very expensive—crystal balls in the process.

Hewey was momentarily unsure about what he was more worried about: The inexplicable behavior of the crystal balls, the bankruptcy that was sure to result from their destruction, or the fact that his husband had just fallen onto a big pile of broken glass.

Ultimately, he chose the third one and ran to help Tully. Fortunately, Tully had managed to avoid any major lacerations (though he was pretty badly bruised). Even better, he had managed to prevent the thirty-sixth and final crystal ball breaking as he fell.

Tully and Hewey stared into it as the billowing smoke began to take form and deliver the ominous prophecy which its fellows had died in the act of conveying.

“No,” said Tully, staring into the crystal with the urgency and futility of a deer in headlights. “It can’t be true.”

“But it is,” said Hewey, squeezing his husband’s hand tight. It didn’t seem possible, but the crystal ball couldn’t be wrong.

“How?” asked Tully. “How could this happen?”

In answer to this question, the images inside the ball resolved back into smoke, like a curtain being brought down to obscure a change of scenery in a play. As quickly as it had come, the smoke again dissipated into a new image. A face. Tully and Hewey now saw exactly how this horrible future was to come about.

“I might have known,” said Hewey. “I always said, didn’t I? It was only a matter of time with that one.”

“So, that’s it? We’re all doomed and there’s nothing we can do to…”

Again, the crystal ball responded to Tully’s question as it now displayed another image. Another face. The two men stared into the crystal.

“Who is that?” asked Tully.

“No idea. I’ve never seen her before. Although, she looks a little bit like—”

“Wait…what’s that she’s holding?”

“It looks like…but that’s impossible.”

“I know. But there it is. Could she be…?”

“She must be.”

“Well, then it’s obvious what the crystal is trying to tell us. She’s the one who can save us. The one who can avert that horrible future.” Here, Tully turned back to the crystal in his hand. “That’s right, isn’t it?”

This time, he and Hewey saw the image of a hand giving a thumbs-up.

“Well, that’s very clear,” said Hewey. “We’d never have gotten such a clear message from imitation crystal.”

“I know, right? But now that we know all this what are we supposed to do?”

They turned back to the crystal ball, but, by now, the smoke had disappeared completely. There was nothing inside the crystal now. If they wanted more answers, they would have to come from somewhere else.

“We should tell someone,” said Hewey.

“Tell who?” answered Tully. “No one would take us seriously. They’d think we got it all wrong.”

“But we can’t do anything just by ourselves.”

For a while neither man spoke. They were both trying to figure out who to go to for help.

“Maybe Clyde can give us some advice,” said Hewey.

Tully shrugged. “Worth a try, I guess. Now, come on, let’s get this mess cleaned up and then we’ll go.”

And so, it came to pass that the fate of Lorien—perhaps the fate of the entire world—now rested in the hands of the two worst sorcerers alive, and a girl neither of them had ever seen before. A girl with a blue hooded cloak with an odd metal fastener, a weapon that was thought to be lost to time, and very, very long hair.

Oh, and one other guy, but that comes later.


CHAPTER 3—Rise and Fall of Melville

Hola, cariña! How was your last day at school?” Mrs. Ramirez asked her daughter as she came in the front door to what was, for the moment at least,  still her home.

“Fine, I guess,” replied Zel.

“Well, I have good news for you. Come on.”

It was hard for Mrs. Ramirez to get around the house these days. The piles of boxes in every room made maneuvering her wheelchair very difficult and she frequently bumped into things. She didn’t mind, though, as she knew it was only temporary. In a few days, these boxes would be on the moving truck and they’d all be on the road to their new life in Aaron City, Illinois.

The Ramirez Family Mexican Eatery had, at one time, been a staple of the community. But, in Southern California, Mexican restaurants were a dime a dozen and the Ramirezes couldn’t compete with the low prices of their competitors. Ramon’s commitment to quality ingredients was admirable, but unappreciated in a country that wanted everything cheaper and faster.

It was because the restaurant had closed that the family was being forced to relocate. An old college friend of Ramon’s had a successful restaurant of his own in Aaron City, and was looking for a new head chef. The timing couldn’t have been better, and it was decided that the family would leave California and start fresh in Illinois.

“I was going through some old boxes in the hall closet,” Zel’s mom said as she wheeled herself down the hall, “and guess who I found?”

So saying, Mrs. Ramirez reached into the topmost of a nearby stack of boxes and drew out…a teddy bear. A brown, chubby teddy bear with black beads for eyes. It would have been clear to anyone who saw this bear that he was not the sort of toy that had spent his life sitting on a shelf or decorating a bed. No, this was one of those lucky toys that was more than just a plaything. He was someone’s best friend.

“Melville?” said Zel, taking the bear from her mother. It had been almost seven years since Zel had last held the bear who had once been her constant companion and playmate. Now, after all the happy times they’d spent together, the two were meeting as strangers.

“I always wondered what happened to him,” said Mrs. Ramirez.

Zel, however, remembered only too well what had happened to Melville.

♦♦♦

Not far from Zel’s house was a park where she liked to go and play when she was little. There were swings and slides and a bridge which crossed a manmade drainage canal but which she always called a river. In fact, she called it “The River Zel,” because she had “discovered” it and named it after herself at age six. And, of course, there were also trees and grass and big rocks for climbing up and falling off. Lots of grass for her to run through in her bare feet (she always hated wearing shoes) with her incredibly long hair flowing behind her. But Zel’s favorite place in the park was the Big Tire.

For reasons which may never be satisfactorily explained, someone had left a massive rubber tire—like the kind you might find on a monster truck—in a corner of the park, lying on its side. Kids loved to climb inside and pretend it was a house or a spaceship or just about anything they could imagine.

To Zel and Melville it was their castle. Where Queen Zel was teaching Prince Melville how to read. On days when she didn’t really feel like running and playing, she would climb inside the tire with Melville, a book and her father’s itty-bitty-booklight and read a story to Melville. Zel loved to read books out loud and Melville was an excellent listener.

“The little girl gave a cry of amazement and looked about her, her eyes growing bigger and bigger at the wonderful sights she saw,” read Zel from the second chapter of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz. She had just gotten to the part where Dorothy and Toto first arrived in Oz when she was interrupted by an unpleasant voice from above.

“Hey! What are you doing in here?” A boy, maybe a little older than Zel, was glaring down at her from the rim of the Big Tire.

“We’re reading,” said Zel.

“Reading? That’s lame! Get out of here!”

It seems that a group of boys wanted to play war and they intended to use the Big Tire as a fort.

“We were here first,” said Zel. “Find another fort.”

“We?” The boy looked around, trying to see who else was in the Tire.

“Me and Melville,” Zel held up her bear as she said this. The boy laughed derisively.

“Hey, guys! Look at this!” So saying, the boy snatched Melville out of Zel’s hands and held him up for his compatriots to see. “This little baby still plays with dollies!”

The boys took turns laughing and manhandling Melville. Zel climbed out of the Tire, yelling at the top of her voice for them to give Melville back, but the boys just kept tossing him around like a football. Once or twice they would pretend they were about to give him back to her, only to laugh in her face and throw it to one of the other boys.

This cruel game of “Keep-away” ended when one boy threw Melville too far and he landed in a mud puddle. Zel ran to the puddle and fell to her knees as she went to scoop him out of the mud. He was filthy and soaking wet.

Tired of their taunting, the boys resumed their game of war, choosing which would defend the fort and which would attack it. As for Zel, she ran home, half-blinded by her tears.

When she got home, the mud-soaked bear cradled in her arms, she found her mother and father in the living room having a cup of coffee with Tía Claudia. Claudia was Vanessa’s older sister and Zel’s least favorite aunt.

As most of you probably know, there are two basic kinds of aunts in the world: The nice, fun ones who give you treats even when Mom and Dad say no and who spoil you at Christmas and on your birthday…and the other kind.

Tía Claudia was the other kind. She was much, much older than Vanessa, so she seemed more like a grandma than an aunt. She had never gotten married or had children and she lived alone, but that didn’t stop her from having very definite ideas about how children should be raised. And she usually did not approve of the way Ramon and Vanessa were raising Zel.

“Zel,” said Mrs. Ramirez, seeing how upset the girl was. “Cariña, what’s the…?” But she saw the answer dripping in Zel’s arms. “Oh no! What happened to Melville?”

Zel did her best to tell the tragic story to her parents, but her sobs made it difficult for her to be understood. But they got the important parts.

“It’s going to be okay, Zel,” said Mr. Ramirez. “We can fix Melville up good as new…we can, can’t we?” he added to his wife, as he wasn’t totally sure how to wash a teddy bear.

“Um…I think so?” she replied. Then she turned back to Zel and said, “you go to your room, and we’ll bring Melville back when he’s all clean.” She leaned as far out of her wheelchair as possible and kissed her daughter’s forehead. Then Mr. Ramirez picked Zel up and carried her to her room.

“You’re spoiling that girl.”

The funny thing about Zel’s house was the way sound traveled around it. Zel was unable to hear a word being spoken in her parents’ room, even though it was right next to her own, but, somehow, every sentence of the conversation taking place down the hall between her mother and Tía Claudia reached her ears as clear as a bell.

“Not now, Claudia,” said Vanessa. Ramon was in the kitchen, trying to get the mud out of Melville’s fur, which, unfortunately, left his wife alone with her sister. “Zel is very upset about Melville.”

“That’s what I mean. Letting her carry that filthy thing around everywhere. She’s much too old for that sort of thing.”

“She’s only seven years old.”

“I was never allowed any dolls when I was her age. And I certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to run around in my bare feet. Or to have such long hair.”

“Zel likes her hair long. It’s where her name comes from.”

“I’m just saying, she’s not going to be little forever. And, if you were to ask me—”

“I want to be real clear about the fact that I am not asking you.”

“—I would tell you that it’s high time for that child to grow up.”

(Incidentally, they actually had this conversation in Spanish—which Zel spoke fluently as well for obvious reasons—but we’re giving it to you in English just for simplicity.)

Zel had a lot of time to think about what she had heard Tía Claudia say about her. And what those boys had said. They had called her a baby. They had laughed at her for spending time with Melville. And now, her own aunt was agreeing with them.

Were they right? Zel couldn’t help but wonder. Is there something wrong with me?

“Look who’s here to see you,” said Mr. Ramirez, when he knocked on Zel’s door a little later. He had managed to clean and dry Melville so that he looked as good as new…well, maybe not as good as new. He still had the various stains and marks that a teddy bear inevitably accumulates when he spends his life as the constant playmate of an energetic girl. But he looked as good as he did before the mud puddle.

“Hello dere!” he added, doing his “Melville voice.” Mr. Ramirez had invented the Melville voice which he used whenever he was pretending that Melville was talking. It was gruff and growly, like a bear’s voice would be, but also a little like a child’s voice. “I’m all better now, Zel!”

“Thanks, Papi,” said Zel, taking Melville without much enthusiasm.

“Everything okay, honey?” Ramon had been expecting Zel to be more excited to have Melville back. But she still seemed upset.

“Yes, Papi.

But something had changed inside Zel. What the boys in the park had said, what they had done, what her aunt had said, all of it was swirling around her little head and she spent most of that night worrying.

The next morning, she came to breakfast…without Melville. She had put him away in her closet. At breakfast, she asked her mother if she could get her hair cut. From then on, she always wore it short. But, due to the speed at which it grew, she sometimes had to trim it herself between professional haircuts. That’s why she started wearing her hood everywhere. To cover up her unevenly cropped hair.

Six years later, on her last day of eighth grade, Zel just stood there, looking at Melville for a few moments.

“Well?” said Mrs. Ramirez. “Don’t you wanna gimme a bear hug?” she added, in her best approximation of the voice her husband used to do to make Melville speak.

“I’m okay,” said Zel, then dropped the bear back into the box and went into her room. She had a party she had to get ready for, and no time to play with old toys.


CHAPTER 4—Back to School

The Bildor Academy of Magical Arts was the most prestigious school of sorcery in all of Lorien. It had produced many very famous alumni who had gone on to do great things, not only for the magical community, but for mankind in general.

It had also, as we’ve already seen, produced Tully and Hewey, but let’s face it; you can’t hit the bullseye every single time.

This legacy of magical excellence was just one of the many reasons Clyde considered himself privileged to work at BAMA, even if it was only as a janitor. You might think that one janitorial job was more or less the same as any other, but Clyde didn’t think so. Not only was the pay good, with lots of perks and benefits, but Clyde was proud to be able to say that he knew a lot of great sorcerers, sorceresses, wizards, warlocks, witches and enchanters before they were famous. Granted, a lot of them looked down their nose at him since he was “just the janitor,” but just as many were very polite and friendly to him, and he counted some truly great men and women among his friends and acquaintances.

And, when the notice went up saying that the school was looking for volunteers to test the potions of the graduating class, Clyde was the first (indeed, the only) volunteer. After so many years at BAMA, Clyde had seen some of the finest magical practitioners in the world and he had the utmost confidence in the students whose potions he would be testing.

It’s possible that, had he known more about Hewey’s track record, he might have reconsidered.

Another reason why working at BAMA was such a good gig for a janitor was the way they took care of their own. Even though Hewey’s potion had put poor Clyde into such a deep sleep that it was doubtful if he would ever awaken, he was allowed to keep his old room in the basement and they even kept him on the payroll.

Should the day ever come when he wakes up, he’ll be able to retire in style.

But Clyde’s enchanted sleep had an unexpected side effect. Whether it was the result of the pepper root Hewey had added to his potion, we’ll never know. What is known is that the potion had put him into what might be called a “mentally receptive state.”

In fact, that is what it’s called.

His sleeping quarters were filled with the various pipes that ran water of varying temperatures to the many rooms in the academy. Through these pipes, the conversations of students and faculty reverberated and were “heard,” if that is the word we want, by the sleeping Clyde. Now, though sound asleep, his mind was full of this raw information regarding the history and practice of magic. The human brain itself is about the most powerful and complex processor ever devised, meaning that Clyde had become a living computer, knowing just about everything there was to know about magic.

Which is why Tully and Hewey thought he would be the ideal person to advise them.

The big problem would be getting to the sleeping janitor. Despite the fact that they had managed to graduate, the couple knew they would not be exactly welcome on the BAMA campus. After all, Hewey had cost them a perfectly good janitor and Tully had…well, we needn’t get into exactly what Tully had done to become persona non grata at his alma mater. Sufficed to say, they still hadn’t found a replacement for the drama teacher.

It was, therefore, a disguised Tully and Hewey who returned to their former school to consult the snoring oracle in his basement. Tully, being of the short, round persuasion had no trouble blending in with the use of a false beard and his old school cloak (which very nearly still fit him). Hewey, on the other hand, was six-foot-nine and thin as a rail, meaning he stood out even with the beard and cloak.

“Stoop over!” breathed Tully.

“I am stooped,” Hewey replied. “Arrgh! My back is killing me”

“Well, the Dean will kill us if we’re recognized.”

“Then let’s find Clyde quickly and get out of here.”

The disguised twosome hadn’t set foot in BAMA for many years, and neither one could resist feeling a sense of nostalgia as they revisited such familiar surroundings.

“Look, Hewey,” said Tully as they passed a familiar classroom door. “There’s the room where we first met.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Hewey smiled. “I blew your ears off with one of my potions.”

“Yes. And I tried to reattach them myself, remember?”

“Do I? It took them weeks to clean the blood off the ceiling.”

Actually, the truth was that Clyde had been entirely unable to clear away all of the blood. In the end, the school decided it would be easier to simply replace the ceiling.

“This way,” said Tully. “The door to the basement is just down this corridor.”

“No, that’s the door to the gymnasium. The basement door is the other way.”

“No, this is the basement door. See? Right behind you is the hall leading to the dining hall, to the left is the library, so this is the basement.”

“Oh, yes. I think you’re right. Let’s go.”

Actually, they were both wrong. The door they went through was neither the door to the basement nor the gymnasium. It was, as a matter of absolute fact, the office of Professor Mountebank.

Tully and Hewey had both had classes with Professor Mountebank when they had studied at BAMA. She was a kind, sweet old lady. A very grandmotherly type who seemed to be perpetually smiling. Which was actually quite disconcerting when one considers that she was also the strictest teacher in the entire school.

“I’m sorry, dear, but I asked you for ten thousand words on the magical properties of wolfsbane, and this essay is only nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine words. We mustn’t count hyphenates as two words, must we? So, I’m afraid you get an F. Too bad, since that essay was worth a third of your overall grade.”

It just so happened that Professor Mountebank was on her way out and very nearly walked right into Tully and Hewey as they entered.

“Oh!” she said, startled. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

“Um…” said Tully.

“Er…” added Hewey.

“Well…” Tully elaborated.

“So…” Hewey expounded.

Professor Mountebank smiled. “You two are new students, aren’t you?”

“Yes!” said Hewey and Tully together, leaping at this idea the way a drowning man leaps for a lifeboat.

“I thought so. Though, you both look a little old to be freshmen. Held back a few grades, were we?”

“Yes,” said Tully. “We were. Er, my name is…Hully. And this is…Tewey.”

“It’s so very nice to meet the both of you. But, now that I come to think of it, I haven’t seen either of you in any of my classes this term.”

“Oh, well,” said Hewey, silently yelling at his husband for coming up with such terrible aliases for them. “Yes, the thing about that is…we’ve been sick.”

“Yes! Exactly! In fact, that’s what we came to see you about.”

“Right. Because we’ve missed so much class…”

“…due to illness…”

“…due entirely to illness…”

“…and we’re so far behind, so we thought you could help us.”

“To catch up, I mean.”

“Oh, well,” said Professor Mountebank. “That clears things up, then. But I’ll expect to see you both bright and early tomorrow. Now, let me see. What have you missed?”

The Professor proceeded to give our friends a lengthy list of reading and essay assignments to make up for the time they had missed due to their illness. As the assignments began to pile up, both Tully and Hewey began to feel that they were in one of those school nightmares you sometimes get during summer or after graduation.

“But, first and foremost,” said Mountebank, last and leastmost, “you’ll need to get your books from the supply room. And, er…while you’re there, honey,” she added, confidentially, to Tully, “you might pick up a new school cloak. I think they may have given you a size too small.”

Tully, who was actually very sensitive about being slightly overweight, choked back his usual reply about genetics and glandular conditions and simply smiled and nodded.

“The supply room,” the Professor went on, “is straight down the hall, and it’s the last door on the left. No, sorry, I’m wrong. It’s the last door on the right. The door on the left is the door to the basement.”

Tully and Hewey looked at each other and smiled. Then they thanked Professor Mountebank for her time and left.

“For Glory’s sake!” said Tully, looking at the long list of assignments in his hand. “Who assigns this much homework so early in the term? How are we ever going to get through all this by tomorrow?”

“Tully? We’re not really students, remember?”

“Oh, right.” So saying, he crumpled the list, tossed it in a nearby waste basket, then he and Hewey headed for the basement.

♦♦♦

“Hi there, Clyde,” said Hewey. He was   sitting next to the janitor’s bed while Tully stood by, a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Remember me? Clerihews? I, er…well, it was my potion that…look, I’m really sorry about all this but…”

“Focus, honey.”

“Right, sorry. Look, Clyde, I know you probably don’t feel like helping me with anything after what happened, but this is an emergency. Something bad is coming. Something really bad is coming to Lorien. We’re all in grave danger.”

Hewey explained to the sleeping janitor what he and Tully had seen in the crystal ball.

“But, there’s something else,” he added. “We also saw a girl. With long hair and a blue cloak. Clyde…she had the Half-Sword.”

“We think she’s the one who’s going to be able to save us,” said Tully. “But we don’t know who she is or where she’s from. Or how to get in touch with her. And the crystal ball won’t tell us anything more.”

“We thought…well, you know so much about magic, that we thought you could give us some advice. Please, Clyde. How do we find this girl?”

Clyde had, of course, been breathing steadily throughout all this. Tully and Hewey saw his chest rise and fall as they explained their plight. Now, they watched him sleep, and they saw his chest rise higher than before, as if he were consciously taking a deep breath. As he expelled the breath, he spoke. Barely above a whisper, but Tully and Hewey both heard it.

“She will come from the Northern Forest,” said Clyde. He inhaled again and added, “Her companion is the key.”

Clyde went on to explain exactly what Tully and Hewey would have to do, each time taking a deep inhalation before breathing the next sentence. When his breathing returned to normal, they knew he was done talking.

“Thank you, Clyde,” said Tully. “I know you’d rather be awake right now, but if it’s any consolation, you may have just saved the entire world.”

“Come on, Tully,” said Hewey. “We’ve bothered Clyde enough. Besides, we’ve got work to do.”

“Yeah, I know. Thanks to Mountebank! I mean, doesn’t she know we have other classes? How are we supposed to—?”

“Tully!”

“What? Oh, right. Not really students. Got it. Let’s go home.”

♦♦♦

Would you like to know what happens next? How Zel does at the party? Whether Tully and Hewey succeed in their mission? Just what is the connection between these two incompetent wizards and this anxious teenager? And what does any of this have to do with a teddy bear that’s been in a box in a closet for six years?


Find out the answers to these and other questions when you order your copy of ZEL today!