The Finite Magic of Little Monsters

The Finite Magic of Little Monsters

Magic is not just a Gift, despite the commonly-used misnomer. To view it as such can lead to irresponsible delusions and wasteful practices. Rather, Magic as understood by the Guild is a limited resource that needs to be carefully controlled and allocated for peak societal impact. We take this duty seriously and strive to invite only the most visionary Witches and Warlocks into our ranks. In this way, we protect and cultivate the Coven of the Arts.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 1, article 2.1

#

Guildhall had been Hanna’s dream ever since she was old enough to understand what dreams meant. From the moment she registered the significance of that spiky black insignia, her life had been spent chasing it. She’d dragged her exasperated parents and disinterested brother into endless art stores and galleries, steering family vacations toward exhibitions of Magic or Coven signings. She’d spent long hours at the local mystic shop, eyes scraping over swirling orbs, singing statues, and tittering paintings of rosebud ladies, their smudged, impressionistic parasols spinning behind them. She’d read every book she could find on the Guild and watched countless interviews of new Witches and Warlocks, inhaling the minor details of their lives as if she could repeat their success by osmosis. Her childhood bedroom had a poster of Guildhall dominating one wall (which her mother called “nightmare fodder” and had promptly ripped down when Hanna moved into the city) and she’d worked herself to the bone developing her Gift, perfecting her Little Monsters, and applying every year for the chance to take the Exam. Her father wouldn’t talk about it and Cody didn’t understand. But, despite her mother’s nervous doubt and gentle suggestions to do something else, Hanna had blown on the coals of her dream with relentless ferocity.

Finally, finally, here she was.

Guildhall.

The mansion was huge and imposing, as mysterious as the power it represented. Innumerable windows glinted at her like so many eyes, eerie even in the bright midday sun. Ivy stretched long fingers up brick walls and curled around the top of a heavy wrought-iron fence. The flagstone path was hemmed in roses. On either side, bushes cut into sharp animal shapes prowled with silent grace, tethered by their roots but still roaring and swiping and howling at the clouds.

Magic.

It’s even more impressive in person, Hanna thought, tilting her head back to trace the spiral turrets that rose into the sky like smoke.

Even after a lifetime of envisioning herself in this exact place, Hanna still felt like an intruder. She was a mundane smear of gray on an otherwise beautiful painting, a pebble among gleaming gems. She shifted her weight, suddenly all too aware of how dull and unremarkable her jeans, Chucks, and ratty cotton pullover might seem.

It doesn’t matter, Hanna told herself sternly, trundling her enormous rollaboard down the path toward the great gilded doors. The Coven doesn’t care how you look. They sent the invitation. They wanted you to come.

Pulling her oversized suitcase up the age-warped stone stairs, Hanna paused. Took a deep breath. Lifted the knocker.

The door swung open, ripping the brass ring out of her fingers.

Hanna swallowed her surprised gasp, stuffing it back into her chest like a handkerchief as she faced the tall figure in in the now-open door. It was an elderly woman, forebodingly elegant, wiry gray hair pulled in a high bun. She wore a deep crimson turtleneck that hugged her bony frame like a bloodstain.

“Hanna Ramison, I presume?” said the woman in a voice that reminded Hanna of old church bells.

“Y-yes.” Hanna coughed, reining in her frayed nerves as she pulled the acceptance letter out of her back pocket. “Yes ma’am, I’m here for this month’s Exam.” She held out the crimped paper, worn soft by her endless, incredulous rereads.

When it had materialized on her tiny kitchen table, Hanna hadn’t believed it. At first she’d thought it was a hallucination. Or worse, a joke. But when she’d seen the invitation scrawling itself across the thick, cream-colored parchment as if by an invisible hand, she’d known. The spiky black cursive manifesting her dreams before her was the truest, strongest Magic Hanna had ever felt. It had to be real.

Now the acceptance letter looked small and mortal next to the majesty of Guildhall.

Like her.

The woman arched one brow, inscrutable eyes sweeping down. Hanna could almost read the thoughts on her forehead, written in the same barbed script. A video game T-shirt? Jeans? Sneakers? What kind of Witch do you think you are?

But Hanna didn’t flinch away. Instead, she hitched her expression into the warm Southern Belle smile her mother had taught her, clutching the suitcase handle that was her tether to the world.

In that suitcase were her tools, her clay, her paints.

Everything she needed to make her Little Monsters.

Give me a chance, Hanna tried to say with her smile. I’ll show you what I’ve got. Let me prove you wrong.

After a long, breathless moment, the old woman stepped aside to let Hanna in, turning away in half dismissal as the door crashed shut behind them.

“I am Headmistress Oswall.” She clicked into the entrance, Hanna jogging to keep up. “I will be overseeing your efforts for the next month and conveying my…” she flicked a glance back, “thoughts to the rest of the Coven. Our final evaluation will take place on the last day of the lunar cycle, in the gardens.”

Hanna swallowed, eyes still adjusting to the sudden darkness. She already knew that. She knew everything there was to know about the Exam.

Including what happened to those who failed.

“You are not committed to anything until you step onto one of the Reservoir crystals,” the woman continued as Hanna blinked, taking in the akimbo arms of the master staircase, the cavernous entrance hall, the rows and rows of portraits around her, half of them familiar, all of them famous. “Until then, you have the option to leave at any time. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hanna said, hating the drawl that came out when she was nervous. She wondered if Headmistress Oswall could hear it.

“You’ve been assigned a room on the third floor. Do not leave the Guildhall grounds. Do not attempt to go through the GuildGate or access the Reservoir. Do not speak to any Coven member or associate. You will fraternize only with the other aspirants until you have either passed your exam or returned to the common population.”

Headmistress Oswall swung around, a key dangling from one finger and glinting like a knife.

“Any questions?” she snapped.

Hanna swallowed again and it felt nauseatingly like a rodent was trying to burrow into her chest.

Be brave, she thought. For Cody.

She accepted the key, clutching it tight enough to leave teeth marks on the flesh of her thumb.

“No ma’am.”

“Then good luck,” Headmistress Oswall said without emotion. “I’ll be watching.”

#

Should aspirants prove themselves worthy conduits of Magic, they will be allowed to keep their Gift and be granted full support and exposure. They will never want for supplies or mystical assistance. Their work will be featured in our galleries and distributed by our infrastructure, and they will be guaranteed a position of honor among the Magical elite.

Those who fail to prove themselves at Guildhall will offer their Magic to the Reservoir, to be redeployed as the Guild sees fit.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 2, article 5.6

#

Hanna was surprised to find someone already in her room, a wild-haired girl with perfectly round glasses and baggy harem pants who introduced herself as Deja Bisset.

“I’m from Quebec,” said the girl in a thick accent, rising from the nest of her paint-splattered sheets.

“Roanoke,” Hanna said, hefting her suitcase onto her thin, plastic-coated mattress. “Virginia,” she clarified when the girl’s eyebrows puckered.

“That’s a big suitcase for just a month, no?” Hanna could feel Deja’s breath on her neck as the other girl leaned in close. “I brought only one change of clothes. You seem to have many.”

“It’s my supplies.”

Hanna edged away just enough not to seem rude. But Deja didn’t seem to notice. She only frowned, strangely cat-like as she cocked her head. “But they are providing everything we need, are they not?”

A flush rose up Hanna’s neck. Her mother had said the same thing.

Honey, if they don’t have the right supplies that might mean they aren’t interested in this, er, kind of work.  

Hanna shoved the voice to the back of her mind, to the bleak grayness that existed at the edges of her ambition.

“Just wanted to be safe,” she said to Deja instead, stretching her back and peering around her new room. “Woah… are these yours?”

Hanna leaned in to examine a beautiful painting of the sea, one of several hanging on the wall over her new roommate’s bed. They were majestic, the paint actively crashing and blending with so much force that Hanna found herself wondering how they didn’t fall off the wall. Deja’s work was silent, of course. Like the hedges outside. And yet still gorgeously kinetic, alive, pulsing with Magic.

“Yes,” Deja answered in an unsure voice. “My Gift manifests as ocean landscapes.” The other girl scratched her blue-splattered arm, eyes bug-like and magnified by her thick glasses. “I hope that Headmistress woman likes them.”

“She’d be an idiot not to,” Hanna said, unable to tear her eyes away from the azure progression of sea, the snowcap crest of foam punching into raw sand. The closest painting seemed to gain force as she watched, waves pumping faster, wilder, in rhythm with her heartbeat. Somehow channeling Hanna’s tension into each violent surge.

Her fists clenched.

Doubt — that old, malevolent friend — slinked into her mind, tried to sink its fishhook claws into her certainty. Can my Gift really compete with this? Will they choose her instead of me? Maybe I should leave, keep what I have, return to my studio and the small life of a local magician?

But she forced herself to take a deep, calming breath, lifting that well-worn memory of her brother’s gleeful laugh as a shield.

If her work could delight a lonely boy with autism, surely the Guild would recognize how much good her Little Monsters could do.

Hanna took a deep breath, swinging to face Deja.

“So,” she said, offering her best lets-be-friends smile, “where do we eat in this place?”

#

While it is a common, pedestrian idea that there is ‘enough space for all kinds of Magic’, the reverse is actually true. Not only is Magic limited, but there is only so much space for it in the market. Imagine if any enchanted bauble or sketch were given the Guild’s stamp? It would be chaos. There would be no way for the Giftless to be guaranteed quality Magic. And worse, if the Coven couldn’t depend on support from the Reservoir, then standards would drop even lower. Therefore, it is for the consumer’s benefit that we curate what falls under the Guild’s stamp, so it can always be trusted.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 3, article 9.11

#

Over the next few days, Hanna met the other aspirants. Besides Deja and herself, there was Tommy Holt with his black-and-white Emotographs that could make any of them cry or laugh or tremble with fear. Giorgio Yang, with his mosaics that would shudder with lightning or waver like a summer haze, depending on the mood of the observer. Mildred Parks, whose films would saturate the room, the ghostly shapes of actors walking off the screen to wave and strut and dance in the real world with the conviction of more than mere projections. And Jemma Juarez, whose colorful skirts and frothy tops were as expressive as hackles, rising and ruffling with her erratic moods.

It was enough to make Hanna sleepless.

Not that any of them slept much. They had a month — a mere month — to bet against their futures. So Hanna was far from the only one spending every waking hour in the studio rooms. Mildred ate lunch in front of her computer as she edited; Jemma could be found bent over a sewing machine until well after dusk; Deja’s hands were always layered with paint. Even aloof Giorgio had a goggle-burn from spending so much time hovering over the furnace to bend and warp his glass.

But all that went away every time one of Hanna’s Little Monsters came to life.

With meticulous care, she carved and painted each one, setting them on the table to dry. When they were ready, she would breathe her Gift into them gently, maternally, seeding each one with its precious core of Magic. It felt like holding a hot cup of tea in her hands, or maybe a beating heart. Her palms would glow and her face would flush and suddenly the tiny figurine would come to life.

When she set them down, the Little Monster would salute her or dance or sing a ludicrous yodel. Each one was as different as a new alien species. Some had antennae or fur, others eccentric but harmless spines. There were bright feathers and dull horns and tombstone teeth and baggy coveralls. But no matter how strange they looked, all of them were cheerful and wild, radiating a larger-than-life silliness that warmed Hanna’s heart.

Even in the cutthroat miasma of the studio rooms, her Monsters managed to make her laugh.

Unless Headmistress Oswall was around, of course.

“That woman feels like the personification of a raincloud,” Tommy complained one night when they were sprawled around the garden, all of them trying not to look at the heavy stone arch that represented everything the aspirants wanted. They’d spent two weeks living under its shadow and the strain was beginning to show.

“I wonder if she ever smiles,” Jemma said, offering one of her own as she passed the flask to Deja.

“I think she does not,” Deja answered after a heavy gulp of the harsh gin Giorgio had smuggled into Guildhall and shared without explanation. “But perhaps she would with the right… incentive.”

At that point, they all knew what kinds of lurid incentives Deja meant.

“Too bad you don’t do portraits,” Tommy said with a wink.

“Alas, the Gift comes in its own way.” Deja toppled back on the grass with a dramatic flourish.

Hanna giggled, watching one of her Little Monsters do cartwheels on the flowerbed beside her. Mildred and Giorgio watched emotionlessly, as dour and serious as ever.

“What do you think it feels like?” Tommy asked after a silent moment as Giorgio took back his flask and finished it. “To stand on those?”

As if pulled by a gravity stronger than Earth’s, six faces turned to stare at the crystal circles embedded in the center of the garden, bright against the smooth lawn of grass. There were ten in all — the largest class Guildhall could accommodate. Perfectly round, smooth, and glowing with an inner energy that reminded Hanna of those deep-sea plankton that created their own bioluminescence, the stones pulsed with a deeper, more ancient power than any of them could possibly channel.

The Reservoir.

“I’ve read that they hold you there,” Hanna said, her voice cracking on the last word. She cleared her throat. “Frozen. Until you pass, of course.”

“And then you go through the gate,” Tommy said brightly.

Jemma scoffed. “If you’re lucky.”

That was enough to make them fall silent again. It was easy, under a blanket of stars and shared exhaustion, to believe they were friends. But a sinister groundwater ran beneath them, the looming scepter of rivalry.

Because the coven had never, in the entire history of Guildhall, passed an entire class.

“We can do it,” Hanna said, grinning as her Little Monster began to toss handfuls of mulch in the air and watch delightedly as it rained down like autumn leaves. “You guys are all such amazing artists, I’m sure we can make it.”

Mildred rolled her eyes. Giorgio remained silent. But Jemma, bless her, laughed.

“That’s the spirit, Hanna.”

Hanna helped a drunk Deja stumble to their room that night, tucking her roommate into bed and almost believing they could care about each other, that they could do more than just survive the Exam.

It would be the last time any of them would take a break.

#

The Guild recognizes the freedom of small-time magicians to practice outside the jurisdiction of the Coven. That cannot be helped. But the Witches and Warlocks we select are the true pillars of Magic, the mystical voices of our world. It is through their leadership that we glimpse the great power and majesty of the beyond. It is under their guidance that we see into the soul of existence. There is no greater calling than that.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 13, article 1

#

When the man walked in, Hanna wondered if her eyes had stopped working. It wouldn’t be the first time that her feverish exhaustion had blurred the lines of reality in the studio room. But no, the figure striding across the wide workshop was real, tangible, his cape flapping behind him.

Warlock Benedict Yosef.

Hanna blinked, looking up from the Little Monster she’d just finished. The figurine was tilting at her thumb with a floppy, harmless lance, but she ignored it. Warlock Yosef was the man responsible for the trimmed bushes in front of Guildhall, the leafy panthers and leggy green giraffes. His work was coveted by every wealthy family from here to Vermont. An original Yosef could elevate any common estate to one of taste and elegance. When she was thirteen, Hanna had spent a whole summer begging and cajoling her parents to take her to the Richmond Botanical Gardens to see a full exhibition of Yosef’s work. When they’d finally relented, the pure bliss of the experience had sustained her for half the schoolyear.

Now Hanna gaped as one of her childhood heroes marched through the flurry of Jemma’s fabric trimmings, the steady rumble of the sewing machine covering up the click of his boot heels.

Hanna rose, drifting over to Jemma. Tapped her on the shoulder.

The sewing machine fell silent.

“What do you —?”

Jemma’s irritable question died as her eyes found the newcomer.

Warlock Yosef ignored them, striding up to Headmistress Oswall as if the aspirants weren’t even there.

“I need to access the Reservoir,” he said without preamble. “I’ve been commissioned for a project in D.C. that requires a bit more… oomph.”

Headmistress Oswall’s lemon-pinched mouth didn’t slacken, but she bowed her head.

“Of course, if you’ll follow me to the garden…”

The Headmistress’s voice faded as she turned to leave. But as Hanna and Jemma stared, Warlock Yosef hesitated. Glanced back.

And caught their gaze.

It was a split-second acknowledgement of their existence, a dismissive heartbeat of a look. But did Hanna imagine the pity in his eyes? The jaded acceptance that some of them would have to sacrifice on the altar of his success?

Before Hanna could puzzle out his frown, Yosef turned away, disappearing down the corridor after Headmistress Oswall.

“Asshole,” Jemma said, bending back over the sewing machine.

“I mean, he’s not allowed to speak to us.” Hanna massaged her sore fingers, cramped from the long hours of carving and painting.

“No.” Jemma’s voice was rough with sleep deprivation and determined rage. “We’re not allowed to speak to him. There’s a difference.”

The ruffle that ran down the spine of Jemma’s blouse began to sharpen into a ridgeline of spikes. Hanna recognized the dismissal.

“I’m gonna go tell Deja,” she said.

Jemma didn’t respond, so Hanna made her way into the great hall and up the staircase, thinking about Warlock Yosef.

Would she be like that, as a registered Witch? Would she offer only vague, skeptical pity to the aspirants she met in the future? Maybe she would. Maybe after years of watching faceless youths try and hope and fail, she would harden to protect herself from the onslaught of pain and rejection, stride past as if it didn’t, couldn’t touch her.

No, Hanna vowed as she stepped into the third-floor corridor. I won’t be like that. I’ll support every aspirant’s dreams, no matter how unlikely. I’ll inspire the Coven to be better. Do better.

A small, unwelcome voice echoed up from the chasm of her doubt.

If you get the chance.

She shook away the thought, throwing open their door.

“Deja, you aren’t going to believe —”

But Hanna fell silent as the wild-haired girl swung around, her eyes even rounder and more manic than usual.

Deja was sobbing.

“W-what is it?” Hanna stammered, stepping inside and closing the door softly behind her. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t… do this,” Deja wailed, falling into Hanna’s arms. “I’m going… to fail.”

Hanna stroked Deja’s hard spine and held her close, closer than she was strictly comfortable with.

“Of course you won’t, you’re doing great,” Hanna whispered. “You’ve worked so hard. Look at your new paintings, they’re better than ever.”

“It’s not… enough,” Deja gasped, collapsing to the floor. “I know it’s not… enough.”

Squatting next to her roommate and the closest thing she had to a friend in Guildhall, Hanna stroked and whispered and did her best. But nothing she said could console Deja. The frenzied, desperate, exhausted push had worn the already-eccentric girl so thin that she was bending, a tree in the wind, an old bridge about to snap. Hanna felt it too. All the aspirants did. There were only a handful of days left until their Exam, a deadline of hours to prove their worth. Every one of them was giving their all to convince Headmistress Oswall they were worthy.

Statistically, only a few of them would.

“You’re okay,” Hanna said, fighting the urge to retreat into her own space, her own mind. “You’re going to be fine.”

Warlock Yosef’s face swam back to her as Deja continued to weep and shudder, his faint pity as sharp as ever.

Maybe this was why he didn’t speak to them. Because the memory of his own Exam was still raw enough to bleed.

#

Guild-certified Magic goes beyond mere entertainment. It’s deeper and richer, at once reactive and resonant. Its value cannot be classified by the difficulty of spells or its effects on the Giftless. Rather, it must channel that indescribable other, breathe fully-formed mystery into the world. Because of that, Witches and Warlocks themselves must be more than mere practitioners. The aspirants we choose to join the Guild must embody Magic in every element of their being and present themselves to the world as accurate representations of the Coven. Our time-honed craft of recognizing such outstanding individuals is what sets the Guild apart.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 15, article 3

#

Hanna had never been so frightened in her life.

As she followed her fellow aspirants into the garden, she wondered if her shaking legs were strong enough to keep her standing. All around her was evidence of the Reservoir’s power, throbbing with the tidal pull of moonlight. The night air itself seemed to glitter like fresh frost, moving around them with a strange, prodding intelligence that made the hair on Hanna’s arms stand on end.

“Jesus, fuck…” Jemma whispered, fists clenched.

Hanna’s mouth was too dry to respond. She imagined the others remained silent for the same reason. Even Giorgio looked like he was about to vomit all over the softly lit grass.

Headmistress Oswall stepped onto the dais where the GuildGate waited, the air inside it glistening like an oil slick. Lined up on either side were draped, hooded figures, their faces lost in shadow, their hands tucked into heavy sleeves.

The Tribunal of the Guild.

Hanna tried to imagine herself striding past them, disappearing through the arch and claiming her Gift once and for all. But the image in her mind warbled, rippling in the earthquake of her terror.

She swallowed.

“Aspirants,” Headmistress Oswall said in a carrying voice. “We have reached our verdict and now so must you. Should you choose to leave, there will be no punishment. You will be allowed to keep your Gift and do with it what you will.”

The Headmistress paused, her raptor eyes darting from face to blanched face. But no one moved. Hanna met the old woman’s gaze with her own determination. She was here for Cody, and for all the little girls and boys like him. She planned to finish what she’d started.

“However,” Headmistress Oswall continued, “If you wish to stand trial for the chance to join our ranks, take your place in sacred covenant to accept the decision we have made.”

Quivering like a plucked guitar string, Hanna offered Deja a small smile.

We’ve got this, she tried to say with her eyes, but Deja only clutched herself, stepping onto her own lustrous stone. Hanna followed, choosing a blue-tinted circle at the edge of the group. She planted her feet and clenched her fists, raising her chin to face what was coming.

The Reservoir’s glow deepened, darkened, pulsed. The air itself seemed to rumble as if lighting had just struck nearby.

And then Hanna felt every muscle in her body freeze.

Her fear mutated into panic, into feral regret.

I shouldn’t have done this. This was a mistake. Oh god, what have I done?

Struggling to control a violent cascade of warring instincts, she focused her unblinking eyes on Headmistress Oswall as the old woman pulled out a long sheaf of snowy parchment, tracked with names.

Hanna was too far away to read them.

My name is on it, she told herself, trying to believe it. I’m on that list.

“First of all,” Headmistress Oswall said to the frozen statues of the aspirants. “I want to thank you all for coming to Guildhall. We depend on young magicians like yourselves to keep the Coven supplied with fresh Magic, whatever form it takes. So well done, all of you, for supporting the important work we do.”

The old woman’s face remained pinched, emotionless, only half sincere. But Hanna didn’t care.

Just read the list, she thought desperately. Please, just tell us. Get it over with.

“You should also know that your class had an unusually high success rate. Previously, fewer than one in four aspirants are welcomed through the GuildGate, but this month a full half of you were deemed worthy of the passage.”

Three people. That’s three people. Hanna wished she could look around, but her head was locked in place, wide eyes drying as Headmistress Oswall consulted her list.

“The new initiates are,” she began, squinting at the parchment. “Jemma Juarez.”

Hanna watched as a weak-kneed Jemma stumbled up the stairs. The hooded figures on either side of the gate clapped politely as she all but tumbled through the purplish surface of the GuildGate and wavered into the grounds beyond.

Two more names, there are still two more names.

“Giorgio Yang.”

Hanna’s breath would have caught if it could have. A sob of desperation ricocheted around her belly like a loose projectile with nowhere to go. She watched Giorgio stride up the stairs as if he was born to it, showing none of the nervousness that had stained his features just moments ago.

One more. That’s going to be me. Hanna Ramison. Read the name. Hanna Ramison.

“And our last initiate to the Coven of the Arts,” Headmistress Oswall said as Giorgio disappeared through the gate, “is Deja Bisset.”

It was perhaps lucky that she couldn’t move, because Hanna had no idea how she would have reacted. A scream of agony ripped at her throat, clawed at the cage of her ribs, but she was locked, trapped, helpless as Deja stepped off her circle.

Deja glanced at Hanna. In the other girl’s enormous, magnified eyes was a mirror-image storm, Hanna’s pain reflected back as tentative excitement, guilt, horror.

Pity.

“I’m sorry,” Deja whispered.

“Quickly now, we don’t have all night,” Headmistress Oswall said, rolling the parchment back up.

Deja turned away, toward the dais and the GuildGate and her future.

Hanna’s legs were going numb, her hands tingling with all the pent-up horror she wasn’t able to express. Headmistress Oswall stepped forward, blocking their view of Deja disappearing through the Gate. The Tribunal’s polite, almost bored applause died away as the Headmistress addressed them.

“I’m afraid to say that the rest of your Magic has not manifested quite in the way we’re looking for. However, your Gifts will still be useful in augmenting the Coven’s work. Take heart in the knowledge that your Magic will make the world better, if not directly by you.”

Hanna realized with suffocating dread that it wasn’t horror making her legs go numb. It was a chill creeping up from the stone, inching up her legs and spine, leeching away something she hadn’t even known was there.

“You three will gather your things and leave Guildhall as soon as possible. Should you still wish to pursue careers associated with the Guild, there are plenty of supporting positions you may choose from. We welcome your assistance and hope you will do what you can to help the Giftless appreciate Magic the way you once did. Thank you again and goodnight.”

Headmistress Oswall was turning away and Hanna wanted to scream and thrash and claw the woman’s ice-cold eyes out of their sockets. She wanted to sprint for the Gate, break into the grounds beyond, force them to accept her or even just give back her Gift. But as the glowing Reservoir stone released her, Hanna found her strength gone, as if it was Magic and not muscle that had kept her aloft all these years. She collapsed to her knees, accompanied by twin thumps on either side.

“Come… back…” Hanna whispered as she struggled to lift her head.

But the dais was already empty, the Headmistress and the draped figures of the Tribunal disappearing through the Gate and leaving behind the three who could not follow.

#

While not everyone can be a practitioner of Magic, we must value and support those who have spent their lives cultivating an appreciation for it. Those who fail the Guildhall Exam will be welcomed as Official Distributors and granted the solemn duty of marketing and distributing the Coven’s work. We hope they will find fulfillment supplementing the mystic work of the Guild.

~ Edict of Redistribution, section 9, article 7.1

#

It had been two years since Hanna lost her Gift, but she still sometimes felt the undertow-pull of Magic or the vague, distorted craving to pick up her tools. Her boss at the gallery said it was like a phantom limb, that it would never really go away. And he should know, having failed out of Guildhall more than a decade ago.

Hanna tried not to think about it.

Selling and stacking and organizing all the Guild-stamped examples of real Magic, Hanna found herself wondering what happened to the others. What did Tommy do, without his gut-wrenching photographs? What about Mildred, who would never make the grinning actors walk off the screen and drift around the cinema again? Did they still dream of their work, like she did? Or had they moved on with their lives to do… something else.

She probably should too, but Magic still drew her like a moth to the flame. It might kill her eventually, but at least it would be warm.

Hanna sighed, straightening a colorful, abstract painting that tugged at the corner of her mind, inviting her to see the world in technicolor splatters. She glanced at the name. No one she knew.

“Hey there!”

Hanna spun around to find the large, burly shape of her boss hauling in a crate stamped with that spiky black insignia.

“Help me with this, would you?” Sander said, a bead of sweat dripping into his beard.

She grabbed a crowbar off the counter.

“Do you think they use these huge wood boxes just to torment us even more,” Hanna said with a halfhearted grin, jamming the crowbar’s teeth under the lid and hauling back.

Sander snorted.

“Honey, they don’t give that many shits.”

Together, they managed to pop the lid off in a few seconds. Wood shavings burst out with the rush of air, scattering like petals across the shop floor.

“Damnit,” Hanna muttered. “I just mopped.”

“What have we here?” Sander said to himself, grabbing the descriptor card. “Oh, it’s a new line of figurines. Apparently, they’re supposed to be funny.”

Hanna froze in the act of gathering corkscrew curls.

“They’re calling them Little Monst — hey!”

Hanna didn’t hear him. She was like a woman possessed, diving into the crate, ripping through the packaging like a child digging into a snowbank. But there was no joy here. Just the choking, claustrophobic feeling of sinking into quicksand.

“No, no, no.”

Her fingers found something. Clutched it too tight, too hard.

It wriggled in her hand.

Staggering backwards and almost toppling to the ground, Hanna gaped stupidly at the thing in her palm. It was short, colorful, feathered. Not one she’d made, but she could have. Months ago, she could have.

The Little Monster grinned at her with benign fangs, cocking its head like a puppy ready to play. Turning the figurine upside down, Hanna blinked away tears to read the sharp script beneath the black Guild emblem.

A hand-carved original by Deja Bisset.

 

The End

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