The Iron Trial Page 2

Call’s perpetual scowl, messy black hair, and suspicious gray eyes were well known to his neighbors. He liked to skateboard, although it had taken him a while to get the hang of it; several cars still bore dings from some of his earlier attempts. He was often seen lurking outside the windows of the comic book store, the arcade, and the video game store. Even the mayor knew him. It would have been hard to forget him after he’d snuck past the clerk at the local pet store during the May Day Parade and taken a naked mole rat destined to be fed to a boa constrictor. He’d felt sorry for the blind and wrinkly creature that seemed unable to help itself — and, in the name of fairness, he’d also released all the white mice who would have been next on the snake’s dinner menu.

He’d never expected the mice to run amok under the feet of the paraders, but mice aren’t very smart. He also hadn’t expected the onlookers to run from the mice, but people aren’t too smart either, as Call’s father had explained after it was all over. It wasn’t Call’s fault that the parade had been ruined, but everyone — especially the mayor — acted like it was. On top of that, his father had made Call give back the mole rat.

Call’s father didn’t approve of stealing.

As far as he was concerned, it was almost as bad as magic.

 

Callum fidgeted in the stiff chair in front of the principal’s office, wondering if he’d be back at school tomorrow and if anyone would miss him if he wasn’t. Again and again, he went over all the various ways he was supposed to mess up on the mage’s test — ideally, as spectacularly as possible. His dad had listed the options for failure again and again: Make your mind totally blank. Or concentrate on something that’s the opposite of what those monsters want. Or focus your mind on someone else’s test instead of your own. Call rubbed his calf, which had been stiff and painful in class that morning; it was that way sometimes. The taller he grew, the more it seemed to hurt. At least the physical part of the mage’s test — whatever it was — would be easy to fail.

Just down the hall, he could hear other kids in gym class, their sneakers squeaking on the shining wood of the floor, their voices raised as they shouted taunts to one another. He wished just once that he got to play. He might not have been as fast as other kids or as able to keep his balance, but he was full of restless energy. He was exempt from a gym requirement because of his leg; even in elementary school, when he’d tried to run or jump or climb at recess, one of the monitors would come over and remind him that he needed to slow down before he hurt himself. If he kept at it, they would make him come inside.

As though a couple of bruises were the most awful thing that could happen to someone. As though his leg was going to get worse.

Call sighed and stared out through the glass doors of the school to where his father would be pulling up soon. He owned the kind of car you couldn’t miss, a 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom, painted bright silver. Nobody else in town had anything like it. Call’s father ran an antique store on Main Street called Now and Again; there was nothing he liked more than taking old broken things and making them look shiny and new. To keep the car running, he had to tinker with it almost every weekend. And he was constantly asking Call to wash it and put some kind of weird old car wax on it, to keep it from rusting.

The Rolls-Royce worked perfectly … unlike Call. He looked down at his sneakers as he tapped his feet against the floor. When he was wearing jeans like this, you couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with his leg, but you could sure tell the minute he stood up and started walking. He’d had surgery after surgery since he was a baby, and all sorts of physical therapy, but nothing had really helped. He still walked with a sliding limp, like he was trying to get his footing on a boat that was rolling from side to side.

When he was younger, he’d sometimes played that he was a pirate, or even just a brave sailor with a peg leg, going down with a sinking ship after a long cannon fight. He’d played pirates and ninjas, cowboys and alien explorers.

But not ever any game that involved magic.

Never that.

He heard the rumble of an engine and began to rise to his feet — only to return to the bench in annoyance. It wasn’t his dad, just an ordinary red Toyota. A moment later, Kylie Myles, one of the other students in his grade, hurried past him, a teacher beside her.

“Good luck at your ballet tryouts,” Ms. Kemal told her, and started back to her classroom.

“Right, thanks,” Kylie said, then looked over at Call oddly, as though she were evaluating him. Kylie never looked at Call. That was one of her defining characteristics, along with her shining blond hair and unicorn backpack. When they were in the halls together, her gaze slid past him like he was invisible.

With an even weirder and more surprising half wave, she headed out to the Toyota. He could see both her parents in the front seats, looking anxious.

She couldn’t be going where he was, could she? She couldn’t be going to the Iron Trial. But if she was …

He pushed himself off the chair. If she was going, someone should warn her.

Lots of kids think it’s about being special, Call’s father had said, the disgust in his voice evident. Their parents do, too. Especially in families where magical ability dates back generations. And some families where the magic has mostly died out see a magical child as hope for a return to power. But it’s the children with no magical relatives you should pity most. They’re the ones who think it’s going to be like it is in the movies.

It’s nothing like the movies.

At that moment, Call’s dad pulled up to the school curb with a squeal of brakes, effectively cutting off Call’s view of Kylie. Call limped toward the doors and outside, but by the time he made it to the Rolls, the Myles’s Toyota was swerving around the corner and out of sight.

So much for warning her.

“Call.” His father had gotten out of the car and was leaning against the passenger-side door. His mop of black hair — the same tangly black hair Call had — was going gray at the sides, and he wore a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, despite the heat. Call often thought that his father looked like Sherlock Holmes in the old BBC show; sometimes people seemed surprised he didn’t speak with a British accent. “Are you ready?”

Call shrugged. How could you be ready for something that had the potential to mess up your whole life if you got it wrong? Or right, in this case. “I guess so.”

His father pulled the door open. “Good. Get in.”

The inside of the Rolls was as spotless as the outside. Call was surprised to find his old pair of crutches thrown into the backseat. He hadn’t needed them in years, not since he’d fallen off a jungle gym and twisted his ankle — the ankle on his good leg. As Call’s father slid into the car and started the engine, Call pointed to them and asked, “What’s with those?”

“The worse off you look, the likelier they are to reject you,” his father said grimly, glancing behind him as they pulled out of the parking lot.

“That seems like cheating,” Call objected.

“Call, people cheat to win. You can’t cheat to lose.”

Call rolled his eyes, letting his dad believe what he wanted. All Call knew for sure was that there was no way he was going to use those crutches if he didn’t have to. He didn’t want to argue about it, though, not today, when Call’s father had already uncharacteristically burned the toast at breakfast and snapped at Call when he complained about having to go to school just to be removed a couple hours later.

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