When the elitist institution of Ozymandias Academy and its headmaster, Vamon Kinctuarin, can’t find a solution to the city’s worsening drought, two self-taught magicians, Noah and his partner Manny, take it upon themselves to find a solution to the crisis.
People ask how Noah could possibly turn down the Ozymandias Academy. All they know about him is the headlines, and they think he’s ungrateful. What you don’t get is that attending Ozymandias was Noah’s dream. Noah wanted it worse than anyone.
Do you know where he was on his fifth birthday? Sitting in the stained passenger seat of his mom’s clunker, bouncing with excitement because she was driving him to mail his application. He clutched the envelope in both hands so there was no chance of dropping it.
He asked his mom, “Did you know Vamon doesn’t need a wand?”
His mom teased him, “Vamon who?”
He sounded out the syllables. “Va-mon Kinc-tu-ar-in. He saved the whole world. He teaches at Oz-y-man-di-as.”
“That’s a big name. Did he listen to his mom?”
Noah sat up as though she had blasphemed. “Mom. He was an orphan.”
“And he became a magician but didn’t need a wand?”
Noah started wheezing, like he had crickets in his lungs. He said, “He could make daggers from nowhere, and one time he used bone magic so that all the skeletons in a graveyard fought for him. When he was too tired, he magicked his own bones to keep fighting against the Seraphs. All of it without a wand. Do you know what he used instead?”
“Honey, take a puff of your inhaler.”
For a moment Noah removed a few fingertips from the envelope, wiggling them like they were shooting lightning through the windshield. “He did magic with his hands.”
The next light turned yellow and his mom rolled the car to a stop. Under that yellow traffic light, Noah’s wheeze became a brittle cough. It wasn’t phlegm. His shoulders rocked against the seat and he hugged his application letter to his chest. Fighting through the coughing, he said, “Vamon’s going to solve the drought. I’m going to help.”
“Honey? Breathe. Where’s your inhaler?”
“I’m going to do magic with my—” His proclamation gave way to a peal of strangled coughs.
His mom held the inhaler up for him, but he couldn’t take the breath. The light turned red as she unbuckled herself to get at him. When she took him by the shoulders, he slumped into her side. That was the first time Noah blacked out.
When the paramedics got him, he was still holding his application.
If the Ozymandias Academy accepts you, the image of Vamon Kinctuarin visits you. He projects himself as a transparent green specter. It’s tradition or something. The two of you are supposed to have an intimate conversation about the future of your education.
When he was ten, Noah had the transparent green action figure of Vamon on his person at all times. He asked it things.
“Are you proud of me?”
“Am I as brave as you were?”
“Are you fucking kidding?” his mom asked the receptionist at the clinic.
The receptionist barely moved, like this old white lady was so tired she didn’t have energy left for nodding. She said, “They don’t cover these tests no more. You should try St. Mary’s.”
“St. Mary’s sent me here,” his mother yelled, too angry to convince anybody, and too angry to stop being angry. “They’re not accepting anyone on account of the drought. My son turned ten today and he has Cherub lung. Do you get that? Do you know what that means?”
Noah had heard it before, so he took his action figure and a pen from the nurse’s station to fill out another Ozymandias Academy application. He’d already sent two that year, but there was a rumor online that they had some dropouts during spring break.
The receptionist said, “I didn’t defund the plan. There’s no money for anything no more. It’s all going to the water crisis.”
“I don’t give a shit about water if my son isn’t going to be here to drink it.”
Their argument reminded Noah of something: The Ozymandias Academy had won a bunch of grants from the water crisis fund. He added a PS to his letter asking how their aquamancy program was going since he had some ideas for expanding it. His mind fuzzed out in the middle of writing.
The next thing he knew, he was on the prickly brown carpet, looking up at his mom. Cherub lung had made him black out again. That was getting more common.
He panicked until he found his application letter. It was underneath him. He asked, “Can we mail this wherever we’re going next?”
Carrying him out of the clinic, she said, “If you want to be a wizard so bad, why don’t you study that shit on your own?”
It was Noah’s fifteenth birthday when Vamon finally visited.
It was midafternoon. Noah was in his bedroom with the blinds drawn like an appropriately pissy teenager, hunched over his concentrator rig. A concentrator is one of those “baby’s first levitation” kits, a series of glass rods with minor magical charge that can float briefly in the air. Noah repurposed the kit to draw water from the air itself. After a week of tedious experiments, he had a cup one-quarter full of water. Or was that three-quarters empty?
The rest of the cup filled with green spectral presence, and there came the image of a wizened man wearing spectacles and a pointed hat. Vamon threw his arms out and bellowed, “Noah Byrne, I welcome you to this autumn’s class of the Ozymandias Academy of Magic and Mystery. It is time to create what endures.”
Noah held on to his desk as though to prevent himself from floating away, “Is this real?”
Noah tried to swallow. “I got the scholarship? Really?”
Vamon’s famous voice boomed, “There is very limited financial assistance for students who join the academy as late as you. The acceptance itself is a miracle.”
“My mom just came off three back-to-back shifts. Please keep your voice down.” Noah sure wasn’t floating now. His elbow bumped a stack of bills and denial letters from health-care providers. He asked, “What did I qualify for? We’re worse than broke.”
Vamon folded his arms down at the fifteen-year-old boy. “Greatness requires sacrifices.”
Noah felt a burn in his veins, like he was poisoned with a Seraph’s venom. He gestured to the glass concentrator on his desk, and the quarter-full cup. “I made water. I used the magical processes I talked about in my application. It needs work, but it’s real water. If you help me get in, I’ll do whatever I can to make this fill Ozymandias’s reservoirs.”
The specter of his hero looked cursorily over the concentrator. “Quaint. Second-year students do better in their first week.”
“Have you got water at Ozymandias?”
Vamon’s voice shook the walls. “We have infinity. Are you going to turn down the invitation of a lifetime?”
“If you have infinity, can’t you help me out? People helped you out when you were a kid.”
“Me?” Vamon scoffed. “I got where I am by working harder than anyone else.”
“Yeah, you worked hard,” Noah said, an asthmatic rasp climbing in his voice. He reached for his inhaler. “But you had your inheritance, and those legendary guardians, and all your friends. With help, you stopped the Seraph. All I’m asking for is a little of the help you got.”
“This is a disappointment, Noah,” said his hero. “This acceptance should’ve gone to someone who actually wanted it.”
Noah says he didn’t cry, but whenever he tries to tell this story he winds up coughing until he passes out before he can finish. I know he tossed his inhaler at the specter and screamed every expletive he knew. What made him stop was hearing his mother stir in the other room, and the wave of guilt that brought on. He couldn’t speak without yelling, and he couldn’t yell without robbing his mom of sleep. Of course he collapsed.
He lay on the floor for hours after the phantom of his hero walked out on him.
You could tell Noah was a smart guy because he watched my channel. MX_POTLUCK was (and still is, thank you) your one-stop shop for practical magic tips and horror movie opinions. At that time, my channel had already been banned twice for discussing forbidden arts. I always knew I was onto something when my channel got flagged.
Noah’s was one of the whopping twenty-seven views I got on my first video about Seraph bones and the composition of wands. I was really into speculation on what Ozymandias did with Seraph bones to build their magical devices, and how much angelic magic lingered after the death of an angel. Meanwhile, Noah was scraping the internet for info on how to build his own wand.
He kept getting into fights in my comment sections. You can’t tell everybody’s age, but the zeal he had for arguing with randos screamed “teenager with too much free time.”
And he was usually right. He wouldn’t let anyone shit-talk my pronouns. My favorite was, How’re you going to memorize spells in dead languages if you can’t even remember ze/zir?
And if they made fun of my wheelchair? He’d spew flames before I even had the chance to ban them. I still banned them, after he murdered them with words. Eventually we started DMing, sometimes about magic, sometimes anime GIFs. We spent a lot of Friday nights sending each other “bone magic” jokes. We were so bad at flirting.
We were going to see one of those angel-themed horror movies that boomers say are tasteless because of the war, but I just can’t get enough of them. Have you ever watched one? These whirling CGI nightmares of limbs coming after people who can’t act? It’s hilarious.
I picked the park where we’d meet. Noah was going to wear a pirate shirt and I was still so nervous that I wouldn’t recognize him. I actually recognized him by his coughing.
He was the only guy on that sidewalk on his knees. This chonky white boy, this absolute unit with Starburst-strawberry-pink cheeks as he coughed like he was trying to expel his own lungs. Noah tried to prop himself against a mailbox and pose, as though he was merely casually dying.
Do you know how cute he looked? I wanted to put him in my pocket and keep him forever.
As his breathing calmed, he asked, “You’re Mx. Potluck?”
I wheeled myself up the dip on the curb and over to him. “We’re in public, dude. Call me Manny.”
We hung out in Danielson Memorial Park, where the first Seraph was brought down. All the wreckage has been paved over, lives replaced with sculpture gardens. On hot days like that one, the place smells inexplicably of fresh rubber. I looked at the ground, feeling nostalgic. When I was little, before my kidneys turned against me, I used to come here all the time.
I scratched the toe of my shoe against the dirt and said, “I always wanted to find Seraph bones buried somewhere around here.”
Noah turned a sour expression at the grass. “Yeah, I dug here too.”
I asked, “Really?”
“Then I learned that Ozymandias had stripped every bone fragment out of the city long before we were born. They don’t want anyone else doing magic.”
I stuck out my tongue. “Yeah, we’re so irresponsible.”
Noah and I sat at the picnic table under the shadow of the wing of a statue of a dead angel, in a spot where the perspective meant all we could see was the wing, and not the conquering wizard standing over it. We bullshitted there for an hour, showing off the petty magic tricks we knew. He showed me how he manipulated water movements through air using his glass rods. I levitated his used tissues into a trash can. It was that embarrassing. When he made a playing card “disappear” up his sleeve, I choked on my own spit laughing.
The showtime for the movie was drawing near. I was working up the nerve to ask if he’d ever been on a date before, which was my super sly way of figuring out if we were on a date. Galaxy-brain teenager shit, right?
Then a fire truck screeched past us. Two more followed it, and Noah asked if we could skip the movie. I was going to mock him for being paranoid when I noticed how rough he looked. His lungs were almost as bad as my kidneys, and the smoke got him before I could smell it. We couldn’t see the fire and it was killing him.
My place was the best option, since it was closer. We livestreamed the fire for hours. I’d felt how achingly dry it was without considering that old buildings might go up. It took the authorities another two hours to pipe in water to that district to begin fighting it. Somebody aimed a webcam at a nearby storm drain to film all the gallons of brown water that came streaming out of those ruined buildings. When we saw people try to drink that water, I turned it off. We watched a horror movie to try to take our minds off it.
The next day was what set Noah off.
Our city was in the top three worst hit by the drought in the entire country. The governor arranged a deal with magical institutions from around the globe to help. We begged for somebody to come stop apartment buildings from burning down.
The lowest bidder was the Ozymandias Academy. There were so many videos of their cavalcade of black cars rolling up to the capitol. Vamon Kinctuarin held a press conference from in front of an empty dam and said, “We are here to ensure no one suffers further indignity.”
The Ozymandias Academy took control of all water supplies and municipal resources. That meant everybody on my block could expect our faucets to work for one hour a day. The same on Noah’s block.
I didn’t hear from Noah all afternoon. His mom took his phone and shut off the Wi-Fi so he couldn’t say anything public and get in trouble. She’s smart as hell.
She called me over. Noah had had two attacks in one afternoon triggered by his manic anger. And how swollen was his hand? He didn’t have hand problems. He’d been punching his floor, leaving his fingers in several shades of baked ham.
I’d been that mad before. That’s why I knew how to be constructively mean.
I asked, “How the fuck are you going to do magic in the hospital?”
Noah muttered, “Shut up.”
“Like I ever shut up,” I said. “Do you think Vamon felt that? Is he hidden under the floor?”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Because you beat your hand so bad you won’t jack off for a month. Vamon doesn’t give one tiny, miniscule damn. The city’s carrying his bags while you’re here picking your fingernails off the floor.”
He looked at me. “So?”
“So do you want to keep hurting yourself, or do you want to hurt them?”
I asked, “How do we kill a drought?”
Noah sat back, smug, on his bed. “The way I start all my research.”
Noah went to one of the big forums—I won’t name it, but one the neckbeards in your life probably frequent. He used my VPN and created a new account. He typed up a post with the subject line: “WHY CAN’T THEY JUST DRINK OCEAN WATER?”
His post was trash. He thought every existing pipe system could take the same volume of water. He wanted to disperse water using aquamancy that “literally everybody knows how to do.” His post called the government and the wizard industry lazy for not thinking of using oceans as water supplies.
I read it between my fingers. “It’s salt water, Noah. You’d die of dehydration drinking it.”
He posted it anyway. Thirty-two minutes later, a mod locked his thread.
In those thirty-two minutes, he got more than six hundred comments correcting every angle of his bad assumptions. More commenters than you’d think linked to external articles. We were barraged with starting points to our research.
Noah said, “There is no educational resource in the cosmos greater than a nerd who thinks you’re wrong.”
Every time we hit a wall in our plan, we made another account and trolled forums pretending to be someone who believed what we actually wanted to do was impossible. We never thought we were smarter than everyone else; we just had to trick people into making us smarter.
We didn’t invent the wand or Wi-Fi or the keyboard. We wanted to add something to the big pool of ideas so everybody could use it.
I don’t know which was harder: crunching the equations, or tutoring people and selling stuff to fund our experiments. We couldn’t test most of our theories since we didn’t have access to a wand. It was so exhausting, I didn’t realize some of my problems weren’t from exhaustion. I passed out a few times. Those were warning signs.
We were so excited. By researching cutting-edge water-treatment plants and new papers on the aquamancy of water disbursement and necromancies related to killing off bacteria and neutralizing pollutants, we got close to an idea.
I fiddled with the last horror toy I hadn’t sold, and I asked, “Are we close to an idea that the Ozymandias Academy already has?”
Noah said, “If they can’t do better than us with the entire world bankrolling them? Then screw them.”
In the months we worked, Ozymandias had scarcely provided water to anybody. A few upscale neighborhoods got some relief—the ones where Ozymandias’s big donors lived. You probably saw the video of the shirtless pharma bro watering his lawn and threatening to call the cops on kids for filming him.
The same day that video went viral was the day we built our wand. A real wand. It was a beautiful piece of shit.
For the rest of our lives we’d never be able to afford an official licensed one. It had to be homebuilt. We used a hollow shaft that I won in a contest, carved from a scrap of a thousand-year-old fossilized tree that saints used to meditate under. By the time we tested our spell with it, it contained equal parts Seraph bone dust and duct tape.
Noah running around his room with the wand was the purest thing ever. He wore a welding visor and firefighter gloves just in case. He didn’t even use it for magic at first. Climbing atop his bed and posing like he was shooting lightning made him so stupidly happy.
I remember all of it until I don’t remember any of it. That was one of the days I passed out.
Trolls blame me. They say I didn’t help much with the research. Sometimes I’ll get asked, “If you were so important, how come you weren’t in the reveal video?”
Who do you think was filming the video, genius? This movie nut. That’s who. I took the time to find a spot with good lighting and to get the framing right—in landscape mode, which is a great modern discovery some wizards should make.
I parked my chair far enough away to get a good shot of Noah and anybody who passed by. He had his little table and free water sign. A surprising number of people trusted him enough to stop. More wanted a sip than wanted to talk.
They lingered, though, after he made the empty cups refill in front of their eyes.
“Where’s it hidden?” asked a middle-aged woman who checked under his table for a hose. There wasn’t any.
He waggled his wand. “It’s not a trick. It’s a brand-new spell.”
People drank. A couple of old chess players split a cup to cool their brows. One guy in a blue three-piece suit literally tossed an entire cup of water onto himself and ran away cheering. This city was thirsty.
Soon I wasn’t the only one filming him. I’m just a little bitter that he went viral on somebody else’s channel. And their video was in portrait mode and missed half of it. The internet has no taste.
For two weeks, Noah Byrne was the most famous wizard in America. He had more Google hits than any Ozymandias alumni. We were petty enough to check.Everybody wanted the secret. The federal government sent us scary-sounding letters. We got an equal number of offers from agents and lawyers. Every major wizard association called, including the Ozymandias Academy.
Ozymandias didn’t just want to know the secret. They wanted to own it. It’s why we rushed our patent claim—so they couldn’t snoop the discovery and try to steal it from under us. Neither of us could afford to go to the places they gatekept. We weren’t letting the secret of potable water become some company’s premium feature.
Noah asked me, “How do we get it to everybody? How do we distribute this everywhere?”
I snarked, “We could tell the internet it’s impossible and see if they fix the problem for us. Think you can be annoying enough to fool them into altruism?”
He gave me a hug and nuzzled into my shoulder for a bit. Most couples would’ve kissed there and ridden off into the sunset. We weren’t into allosexual stuff. I preferred a good hug.
I should’ve realized something was wrong when his hug hurt my side so badly.
It’s funny that the internet blames me for everything, since I don’t remember most of what happened next. I was conscious for less than half of it.
TL;DR: My kidneys shut down, and that caused a cascade of compromised organs to also fail. I woke up with tubes everywhere and machines blinking over me. I was too weak to move my head. All I could think about was that old story of wizards using bone magic to move themselves when their bodies were failing.
I lay there under Noah’s mournful gaze, like he was at my wake instead of my bedside. My aunts had definitely talked to him. We were behind on payments for my previous treatments. There was no way we could afford what was going to come next.
Looking up at him, I said, “Maybe we should’ve studied bone magic instead.”
“Come on, Manny. You’re going to be fine.”
“Think of the cool skeleton friends you’d have.”
“Can I do anything for you? I could put on a scary movie. It can be as trashy as you want.”
My eyes were so tired that I closed them. “If you really want to do something for me . . .” I trailed off, leading him.
“Yeah? What do you want?”
“Can you magic me a glass of water?”
I know he would’ve elbow dropped me to death if I wasn’t already dying. It felt so good to get on someone’s nerves. I laughed until I drooled, and I drooled so much it got in my left ear.
All the warmth that brought me drained away when a green specter materialized. It was Vamon Kinctuarin. His specter made him look taller than he really is and improved his complexion. He stood outside the door of my hospital room, like a vampire that needed to be invited in.
Noah stormed out of the room, meeting him in the hall. He didn’t want Vamon anywhere near me. He was a real sweetheart.
The first thing I remember hearing was Vamon saying, “I’m here to help.”
Between every breath, cricket sounds raged in Noah’s chest. “We didn’t invite you here. Get out.”
“You’re a driven young man. You applied to the academy again and again. You know Ozymandias can help your friend.”
“Manny is more than a friend. And ze doesn’t trust you, and neither do I.”
“The money the Ozymandias Academy is offering will let you hire whoever you do trust to help.”
There was a pause. I strained to listen.
Noah said, “What are you asking me?”
“To help us achieve the greater good.”
“You have people in the patent offices. You know the secret by now. Go use it.”
“The Ozymandias Academy does not spy.”
Noah made a crackly half-cough, half-laugh. He gestured with his inhaler. “Everybody knows you do. But I won’t sue if you use it. That’s what you want, yeah?”
“We need more than that.”
“I don’t get it. I already said you can use our spell. What is it you want?”
Vamon’s voice deepened. “No organization in the world does more good through owning patents than the Ozymandias Academy.”
“You want to own our fucking patent? No. I’ll fucking die first.”
“It’s not your death that you’re concerned about.”
That’s why those motherfuckers from the Ozymandias Academy show up as phantoms. When Noah threw his inhaler at him, it passed right through his emerald green image. Noah threw that, then my lunch tray, then the table it had sat on. Things clattered and rained down on the linoleum floor, and if I could’ve sat up, I would’ve handed him my IV stand to throw too.
The next thing on the floor was Noah, sinking to his knees in a coughing fit. The cricket-chirp sounds of his breathing swarmed. He couldn’t fight Vamon and the Ozymandias Academy. He could barely fight for breath.
We had to sign.
The morning I was discharged was the hottest on record. Just looking at the sliding glass doors felt like it’d burn my fingertips. Under my gown, I felt like a bunch of steaks somebody stapled together that the doctors had mistaken for a survivor. Maybe the heat out there would cook me.
Noah said, “Don’t look at the internet. It’ll make it worse.”
I looked. That same morning, Ozymandias had released a statement saying they’d cracked the water crisis while “working with ambitious amateurs.” Full water supplies were restored to a limited number of counties around our state. Videos showed sprinklers in rich neighborhoods, few of them actually in our city.
The Ozymandias Academy helped a water park reopen. That was the greater good our breakthrough went to. To “give everyone a place they can be refreshed”—at a public business that charged $99.99 per admission.
I went back to my aunts’ apartment, where the taps were all dry. Noah came with me. Legally, I’m going to say we dwelled in our defeat and did absolutely nothing.
Legally, I’m going to say it wasn’t us. I was half dead. We were just ambitious amateurs. How could what happened next have been us?
Whoever did it was fucking brilliant, though.
Somebody took our patented spell—now it was the Ozymandias Academy’s patented spell—and posted every detail about it on one of the biggest forums on the internet. They used a VPN and a new account so there was no tracing who did it.
By the time the Ozymandias Academy’s lawyers got the forum to delete it, the information had been downloaded 13,642 times.
After that, there was no squashing it. Those people downloading it weren’t just corporations that Ozymandias could sue into submission. Every wizarding enthusiast in the world could access this information. When Ozymandias complained about it, more people looked it up. It spread to thousands of other places, some in countries that don’t care about intellectual property rights. The internet became an army of cool necromancied skeletons, rising over and over to keep the fight going.
The Ozymandias Academy threatened to sue Noah and me.
Noah told them, “Our work was contributed to by countless of other aspiring wizards across the internet. Any of them could have done this. I didn’t send shit. Manny, did you?”
I was too busy snickering. A few hours earlier I’d wiped my hard drive, for totally unrelated reasons. Totally unrelated.
As I finished reformatting, Noah said, “Manny, come see this.”
He popped open my window and stuck his head outside to stare.
I wheeled my way over to him. Through the window, crisp air swirled in through my room, like the first breath you take after a nightmare. It was a damn sight less hot than anything in the forecast for today. It was downright humid. I didn’t understand until I saw the gray clouds.
There were people on every roof I could see from the window, and others running along the street. It was like spontaneous block party, with everybody looking up at the sky. Little pinpricks appeared along my windowsill, and the car roofs and awnings across the street. Folks carried empty pitchers and cups to catch what fell. Something cool spattered against the back of my right hand.
The people of this city took our secret and used it to make rain. It went on for hours and hours, one of which became a viral phenomenon. Viral rainfall. Thousands of people pooled whatever scraps of magic they had so that everybody, no matter how special they were supposed to be, would have enough to drink.
It was smarter than anything Noah or I ever thought to do. Something you could only do as a vast group. All of you really taught us.
“D.I.Y.” copyright © 2022 by John Wiswell
Art copyright © 2022 J Yang