Very… preppy, Leah thought with disdain. She waited at the back of the group. Her proximity to it was the sole signal that she was even a part of it. She wore a cheap raincoat and camo pants, they wore collared shirts and dresses. Her hair was wild and loose, theirs were combed and braided. She came from one world, they came from another.

One handsome, bespectacled boy stood in the center, the rest forming a giggling and jostling wheel around him. Leah couldn't see more than a few glimpses of him through the small crowd, but the puffs of smoke and impressed oooooing and aaaahing issuing from around him led her to imagine him pulling off some sort of fancy magic trick. He had probably pulled a rabbit out of a hat or something stupid like that. She didn't really care, anyways.

She turned her attention once more to the main building of the university beyond the gate: a sprawling, gothic structure which had, after centuries of additions and renovations, developed a beautifully chaotic, unnatural form. Now that was the kind of thing she would expect from real magicians. It looked as if some nutty Bohemian king had decided to build a cathedral there… and then another cathedral on top of it, and then a few more on top of that. Finally, when he could no longer expect the foundation to hold any more weight, he'd built a few more cathedrals around it, before later deciding that he actually wanted to connect them all as one cathedral. Then he realized he actually wanted it to be a university.

Gargoyles perched beside stained glass windows and stared down menacingly from the building's many eaves. Nooks and gaps in the higher walls seemed to suggest a labyrinth of external galleries, a home for a million bats. The bell tower stared eerily towards the icy lake in the distance, as if vigilant against some great foe that lurked in its depths. Crystalline snow had formed a layer over everything, even clinging to the university's steepled roofs.

It was five in the evening, so there weren't many courses in session. Even so, occasional students came up the hill, flashed IDs to the robed guards outside the gate, and entered through a door in the wall after glancing sometimes arrogantly and sometimes curiously at the "potential students" waiting outside.

Leah hadn't heard the guards say anything since she'd arrived a few minutes before. They seemed much more serious and methodical than run-of-the-mill campus police. One leaned against the gatehouse and she could see a bulge under his plain, brown robe. Some kind of truncheon, most likely, although it might have been a gun if the university had a license from the city.

The magic show continued tirelessly within the mass of other youth. They were all about the same age as Leah, but to her they looked like no more than children, like they were waiting at a carnival's ticket booth, hardly able to contain their excitement for the grimy, inflatable slides within. The more she thought about it the angrier she became. Didn't they realize what they were? Lives spent with no idea of how lives were really spent? The human pillars upon which the world's ugly status-quo rested? No, of course not. In that, they were her enemies.

Leah's brooding was cut short by the sudden appearance of a tall, foppish looking woman beyond the gate. The guards snapped to and pulled the doors noisily outwards to let her through. Her high-heels clicked along the asphalt and through the thin, dusty layer of snow covering it, as naturally as would a leopard's paws.

"Well hello!" she gushed as everyone turned their attention towards her. "And welcome to the University of the Arcane! I will be your guide today, you may call me Ms. Piotrowski. I hope you all brought your hiking boots, because we have a whole two hours of walking ahead of us! Now, please form a line and come through the gate and tell me your names so I can mark you off."

The blob of children quickly squeezed themselves into single-file, chattering excitedly the entire time. Leah ended up being last, which was probably for the best, since she wanted to punch Ms. Piotrowski in the face really badly, like, even more badly than she wanted to knock the rest of the group around. The guards stood by silently and made sure no one entered the university grounds without first surrendering their name and having it checked off.

"Your name, dear?" Ms. Piotrowski asked as Leah's turn came, her blouse so violently bright and red at that distance that Leah wished she'd brought sunglasses. Her pen hovered over the only unmarked checkbox on the list.

"Ann Dunlap," she answered quietly, citing the name of the friend whose transcripts she'd sent in as her own.

"Excellent!" The annoying lady scampered off so abruptly it left Leah disoriented. She surged past the waiting group of students and beckoned them to follow her into the black shadow of the campus' huge central building.

"We're heading now towards the Dragon Door, the hall's main entrance. Are you wondering where it got it's name? It's big enough for a dragon to get through!"

Thanks, Captainess Obvious.

"Above ground level - where students lean against the wall and what have you - the building's facade on this side hasn't been touched by human hands in over three-hundred years, not even to be cleaned. Every statue and fixture you see up there looks just as it did when it was built in sixteen seventy-eight, long before British settlers arrived in the region."

Except dirtier - the idea actually appealed to a certain sense of allegory in Leah, but she couldn't pass up the chance to silently mock her guide. She looked up again to the baroque, stone charactertures extending their arms seemingly in appeal towards the city below. They had outlived their creators by so many decades and centuries that, standing above a young city, they seemed as natural, permanent, and non-human as the side of a cliff.

"This is the Stellar Hall," the lady babbled, walking through the titanic, iron doors and into what would have been the chapel if the building were in fact a cathedral. Long, wooden tables were arranged like pews down the length of the vaulted cavern. Some students studied quietly, while others ate or talked with friends. A couple of them sat hunched over calculators the size of bibles. Occasionally a laugh broke out somewhere in the room and echoed obnoxiously from all directions. The marble floor was painted with a flowing web of intricate runes and patterns, and looking down Leah was greeted by her mirror image. The ceiling was even more eye-catching. It was painted with a qabalistic landscape of planets and stars that seemed to have real depth, as if it were a window into another universe. Leah squinted to see it better and to her surprise, it looked like the planets were actually moving ever so slightly. Perhaps it really was a window into another world then… either that or the flashy type of magic that deceives and impresses but carries no real power, the kind that she held in contempt.

A nasal voice right at the front of the group piped up and asked the question Leah wanted answered: "Is the sky on the ceiling real?"

Ms. Piotrowski cocked her head and grinned evasively. "We like to let people guess."

Well, that answers it, Leah thought. Just another stupid trick.

The tour continued into a laboratory wing of the building. As the group ooooed and ahhhhed at the sights they passed, Leah followed in silence and felt her mood become blacker and blacker. She could no longer fool herself about that which she had for a long time suspected in her heart of hearts.

For her, magic was something raw and compulsive, a way of living that shaped the world around her, something that was more than half instinct, something that was above all else practical. During tough times, there were a number of places she imagined herself. One was at this university, honing her power among her own kind, a kind that felt connected to their magics as she did. Now that dream was dying before her eyes. She'd misled herself.

Here, every room prostituted itself with some sort of dazzling contraption or feat of magic on display, or a professor with a shirt and tie lecturing to a few dozen suave students sporting watches and purses. It was nothing more than an endless gallery of parlor tricks with no substance beneath the illusion. Magic wasn't a way of life here, it was just another academic topic. This was no place for real magicians.

Was there ever in this world a place for real magicians? She thought back to the statues in the front of the hall and the ancient wisdom in the steady hands of their creators. Yes, once there were real magicians here. But where have they gone?

With a sigh, Leah broke off from the group, not bothering to check if anyone noticed.

Ed and Coal left Rory's apartment around noon, leaving the summoner behind to worry alone about the covert manhunt thick on his trail. Unlike Leah, neither one of them had any particular goals for the day or sights he wanted to see. They wandered aimlessly through the city's snowy streets, between its perfectly square-faced, brick buildings, and through its dark underpasses. Neither one of them led the other; sometimes Coal started veering in one direction and Ed indifferently followed, sometimes the opposite happened. They walked for the sake of walking, with nothing better to do.

"Think Leah's having a good time at the university?" Coal asked, half curious and half just throwing it out for the sake of conversation. They stood in a wide, cobbled square - of the sort one could only find in the Midwest or in the ancient cities of Europe - beside a wooden housing protecting a fountain or statue from the rigors of winter.

"She's not," Ed stated flatly.

"How can you be so sure?"

Ed shrugged. "Magic, duh." He chuckled almost humorlessly at his friend's scowl. "But really. Have you ever seen her have a good time?"

Coal looked away thoughtfully and took a few seconds to answer. "Yeah, but not in a place like this."

"Exactly."

Eventually their wanderings brought them to a small-scale shopping row. One-man businesses sold candles and trinkets from squat, one-room stores, and shoppers bought hot dogs and hamburgers from questionable-looking street side stands. A beat up Volvo creeped down the street, pausing every fifty feet for crossing pedestrians. It was the kind of place people of means were unjustifiably afraid of: a bit scattered and plebeian, but ultimately safe enough.

"Seems like we're going the right way," Ed said, looking around him, aware of the degrading status of his surroundings . The other people in the street glanced around furtively, many of them wearing hoods or keeping their heads low and hidden behind their collars. They moved with the caution of cats.

"I didn't realize we were going anywhere in particular."

"You know what I'm talking about."

"Yeah, I do. Well, onward, then."

Farther down the street the tell-tale hints Ed sought quickly began to materialize: stars and moons on business signs, a triquetra spray painted on an alley wall, and other occult symbols hidden among the mundane. Ed and Coal followed them and their own senses. The roads tapered, becoming almost alleys, and the cold wind carried the distant whiff of incense and spices.

And suddenly they were there.

A city's Mage Town is like its Chinatown. It has no clear borders and yet there comes an instant when your sense of location flies across the globe, leaving behind all of your old perceptions and cobbling new ones together from your memories.

The wind was no longer mere background noise, but a portentous siren song, full of hidden meaning. Alleys that Ed would have blindly overlooked a minute ago suddenly became black pools of unplumbed depths. What exactly had changed? He could never say, but it wasn't until they emerged from the alleys and onto another pedestrian-street that Ed felt the shift in atmosphere from the world of the mechanical and mundane to that of the subtle and mysterious.

Ahead, a footbridge crossed the wide street, suggesting that it once had been a much busier thoroughfare. Now there were no cars to be seen, just a minefield of litter that looked as if undisturbed since ancient times. A banner painted with a pentagram hung from the bridge, billowing and rippling in the wind. There was text on it, too, but Ed couldn't make out what it said, although he was sure Coal with his preternatural vision could.

There were only a few people around. Most lingered outside doors or walked cautiously along. One trio of teenagers stared together through the window of a closed potion shop. Their bright colored clothing and excited chattering marked them as outsiders and they seemed not to notice the many stares focused on them.

The place had the same kind of feeling as those tiny towns on the plains with a single gas station, where every few weeks a driver would stop to fill up or ask directions only to be regarded with suspicious glares and cold manners from all angles. An outsider quickly finishes their business and leaves on their way, watching the rear-view mirror carefully, darkly wondering what strange secrets the town hid beneath its surface.

Ed and Coal passed the teenagers, their postures drawing a few eyes as well. Magicians tended to go out of their ways to avoid attention, but the pair walked with heads held high and they hid nothing.

Ed turned into what looked like a dim cafe and Coal followed. Out from under the winter sun his eyes quickly adapted to the shadows. Upon ascertaining that it was, in fact, a cafe, Ed ordered a large coffee from the quiet redhead behind the counter and stepped aside to wait for Coal to do the same.

They went to sit at a wooden table in the corner. The table's surface was prickly, and Ed was almost afraid to touch it for fear of splinters. The cafe was about half full or so, with around ten other guests. As magicians tended to do, they either sat silently or whispered softly to one another. The legacy of a century of oppression wouldn't die easily.

Coal wrinkled his nose and sniffed the smoky air. "I don't get why you like places like this," he said, pulling out a chair to sit on.

"This is what I'm used to, Coal. Leah, too. We didn't have the same tolerant upbringing you did. Places like this were our homes, full of understanding, if hard to approach, people. And it's places like this where I'm at my most powerful," he finished, letting a cloth-wrapped rectangle fall onto the table. He carefully, reverently, even, untied the bow knot, flipped the thing over, and unwrapped the cloth, spreading it on the table like a placemat. In its center sat a face-down deck of Tarot cards. Painted on the top card's backside flowed an ornate, symmetric tangle of golden twine, framed with a blood-red loop hugging its edge.

"Ah…" Coal sat back and watched as Ed began shuffling Hindu-style. The seer's eyes slowly closed, but his hands continued mixing the cards with nothing short of perfect grace. The ritual of it drew Coal in, and he couldn't pull his eyes away from the cards flying apart and back together again like a flock of birds. Behind each of those golden loops was a story to be told, and under Ed's eyes they were stories of the past, present, and future, stories of distant places and hidden truths that no amount of math or science could ever tell. But one young man, in a smoky cafe in a run-down nook in Cleveland's underbelly, held the key to stories more important than any.

Ed stopped shuffling and opened his eyes. His hands quivered slightly, as they always did when they came in contact with the cards. With one hand he held the deck over the cloth and dropped three piles of cards beside each other.

"Choose one," he told Coal. "But please don't touch them."

"Me?" the younger man asked with surprise.

"You're a key part of the question. I just asked what we have to face ahead of us on our journey, broadly speaking."

"Well, okay then." Coal intently examined the three piles, his eyes darting between them. He sought for one that somehow looked more correct than the others, one that somehow beckoned to him, but they all looked the same. Wait, no, one of them did look slightly brighter than the others. Coal made up his mind and pointed, holding his breath as Ed picked up the pile and set it on top of the other two, combining them again in one deck. He removed three cards from the top and lay them side by side on the cloth, facing Coal.

A shiver ran up Coal's spine. Staring back at him, in the middle between the two other cards was a skeleton wielding a bloody scythe standing in a black field of disembodied heads and limbs. It's eyes were blank and expressionless, cold.

Death.

"No no no no no no no." Coal leaned back in his chair and breathed out heavily. "We're going to die?"

Ed was already shaking his head. "No," he replied flatly. "Death as a card is chronically misunderstood. It does represent death, but usually not of a person. Usually it's just… a part of a person."

"That doesn't sound that much better," Coal quickly decided. "Could it be a person?"

"Well, yes, sometimes, but it's not in this case, not with the context of the other two cards."

Coal broke his gaze for the first time from Death. He had forgotten that there were other cards in play. To the left of Death what looked like a medieval court jester stood on a hill staring in the direction of the sun. The road he traveled twisted through the terrain, its width tapering until it disappeared into the unseeable distance. With one hand he held a bindle sack on a stick balanced on his shoulder, like the legendary hoboes of the Pacific Railway, and with the other he supported himself with a walking stick. Coal could feel his sense of adventure and the longing for the new lands over the horizon, a horizon that moved further and further afield as the Fool began his long journey.

To the right of Death was the World, a naked, full-breasted woman dancing in the center of a feathered reef. A lion and a horse slept on the ground below her, and above her angels gathered in the clouds to look on in content. Behind her a lush forest soared into the sky, and birds of all sizes and shapes perched in the branches, watching her with animal serenity. There in the center, she was at peace with it all, and connected in ways that transcended the human senses. She was complete and whole.

"So what does it mean?" Coal asked, enraptured, his attention still glued to the image embodied by the World.

"It's very simple and direct, actually," Ed began. "But also extremely intense… It is clear here that, put simply, the Fool is the start of a long journey, the World is its end, and Death is the death and rebirth that happens in between, just a huge transformation, to put it simply. So what he have ahead of us is... a long and transformative journey. But, it's interesting, there are many other ways the Tarot could have told us roughly the same thing, and this is by far the most dramatic. Solely Major Arcana cards, Death, the combination of the Fool and the World. This won't be just a long and transformative journey, it will be the long and transformative journey, the most important thing we'll ever do."

Coal thought about that for a few moments and furrowed his brow. "But this kind of thing bothers me a bit," he admitted. "I mean, the process in general."

"What do you mean?"

"How can anything know right now what's ahead of us? Don't people have free will?"

"Not us," Ed smiled indulgently, like he was explaining something simple to a child. Coal didn't look satisfied, so he continued. "Most people have free will, but some people have to be… appropriated, to keep the world turning. Do the planets have free will? Earth swirls around the sun once every 365 days, coming to the exact same spot as before. The sun swirls around the center of the galaxy. And the galaxy, well, who knows? But it's been like that for billions of years, everything running like clockwork. Even nature runs in great cycles, forests burning and regrowing and beasts migrating seasonally in cycles within cycles. Then humans came along, and somehow we are different, we don't obey the cycles, we have free will. But that threatens to throw the whole thing off balance, so sometimes, that higher power that keeps everything in order needs to bump us in a certain way." Ed shrugged and for a second looked almost arrogant. "And this time, we're the tools. Destiny has chosen us."

Coal took another few moments to consider that and Ed gathered the cards back together.

Finally Coal turned his gaze back to the deck and asked, "who gave you those cards?"

"Prophet Punk," Ed answered, once again starting to shuffle, but slowly this time, almost absentmindedly, without the energy vibrating through his hands that Coal had almost felt before.

Coal had already known the answer, he'd recognized the artwork. It was similar to the strange and disturbing paintings that still hung lopsided in the legendary seer's long abandoned nest at the top of a nuclear plant's cooling tower. "And where is he now?" Coal asked slyly, but not without trepidation.

Ed's eyes narrowed darkly. "He's dead Coal, what are you getting at?" He still hadn't gotten over the loss.

"Just that he was out fulfilling destiny too, as we are."

Ed nodded, seeing the sense behind the comparison. "Destiny doesn't make us invincible. Punk got cocky. He had great powers backing him, but that just made him neglect his own. We won't do that." Ed shook his head sadly. "Even in death, he taught us much. But hey," he suddenly smiled. "Nothing dangerous has happened yet, and perhaps nothing will. We won't necessarily need to risk our lives, Punk was a special case."

"Dude, that angel yesterday said it was going to drag us to hell if we got involved. You could say I've been having second thoughts ever since. We're risking our lives already by not giving up and going home."

"There is that," Ed acknowledged. "But no one ever has more asked of them than what they're capable of. What would be the point of that? We wouldn't be here in the first place if we were sure to just wind up dead, which leads me to believe the angel was just bluffing. Destiny, the Star Maker, whatever's up there is much wiser than us. It must have foreseen the complication with the angel and known that we would get through it."

Coal looked towards the ceiling and watched the hazy swirls of smoke dance around the light fixtures. "I guess we don't have much choice anyways. Damned if we do, damned if we don't."

"The world's damned if we don't," Ed reminded him. "We're here for a purpose."

Coal just nodded mockingly and Ed continued shuffling, but he seemed tired, and the cards in his hands seemed less magical. This time, Coal was able to pull his eyes away. A small CRT TV attached to the wall across the room caught his attention, and he watched detachedly as a young brunette silently mouthed words into a microphone with a stylized MN identifying the broadcaster. Coal's eyes wandered down the screen, to the news ticker at its bottom.

LATIN AMERICAN UNION SIGNS TREATY FOR SOVIET NUKES IN PANAMA, DEFIES US THREATS ... TIBETAN MAGI CLAIM CANCER CURE ... CLEVELAND SUMMONER ARRESTED IN CONNECTION WITH DISAPPEARANCE OF SENATOR'S DAUGHTER ...

The color drained from Coal's face. "Uh, Ed," he whispered to his friend, who was still immersed in his cards. "Ed," he repeated, more loudly.

Ed shook his head and looked up, dazed, as if Coal had slapped him awake. He sounded slightly annoyed when he came to. "What?"

"Things might be about to get more dangerous, check out the news ticker."

Ed turned immediately, throwing an arm over the back of his chair and quickly finding the TV. He had to squint to read the ticker, unlike Coal.

It took a minute for the ticker to roll around again.

"Fuck me." Ed jolted upright, hastily gathering his cards and wrapping them in their cloth without any of the care he'd shown them before. He threw his backpack over his shoulder and Coal rose to do the same, hardly able to keep up. "Let's go, now!"