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Sunday, February 17, 2013

To the Mana Born: The Commodity

To the Mana Born:  The Commodity

By Christopher Leeson

Revised 12-16-14

Author's note: This story takes place in the same universe as my earlier tale, The Dark of the Moon. The mystic forces that were at work behind the scenes in that story were kept veiled from the reader. In this entry, much of what must happened to Darrell and Loren can be placed in context. But this is not a new Darrell and Loren story; it explores the universe from the perspective of other characters. Many TG stories before this have featured wicked stepmothers, but few of them have focused specifically upon the stepmother character, exploring her dilemma and explaining why she does what she does. But though Elisa Ardens is not necessarily typical of every wicked stepmother, we hope that her story is a good one, and that it shall both interest and entertain.

* * * *

Chapter 1

Mrs. George Ardens was speaking to the intercom: "Okay, good, Polly. Try to get the email out before you go home." She glanced back at her computer screen. The next appointment up was Jethra Courtindale's, from Wizards Law Office. "Send in my two o'clock now."

'What a strange name for a firm,' Elisa thought. 'Some ex-Dungeons and Dragons kids must have gone to law school." She shook her head. It took all kinds.

She hoped that the subject of the visit wouldn't be about her stepson Langdon. There had been threats that some angry parents would go after her for alleged parental neglect.

Elisa hadn't been willfully neglectful, but too late she had awaken one morning realizing that she had lost control. Damage to public property, damage to private property, petty theft, rumbles -- Elisa didn't even know if gang fights were still called "rumbles" -- assault and battery, misbehavior with girls, shaking down kids, and, worst of all, Langdon had been charged with trafficking hashish oil, enough of the illegal drug earn a sentence of up to twenty years and a fine of $250,000. Worse, it had happened over the river in Iowa, where Langdon was a legal adult.

The sound of the turning knob made Elisa turn. Jethra Courtindale was wearing a dress suit that looked expensive, but it came off as being somehow eccentric. The businesswoman also noted that the woman had a mouth and big, light blue-gray eyes that reminded her of Angelina Jolie.

Elisa, standing, offered her hand across the desk. The other took it.

"Please, sit down -- Ms Courtindale."

The attorney complied. "Call me 'miss,' she suggested. I'm old-fashioned."

Her diction had an undertone of foreignness. Not Latino, not British, not Scandinavian. East European, maybe. Elisa got down to business. "I read your email. It was very brief. May I assume that your visit concerns real estate?"

The lawyer smiled. "It involves a far more valuable commodity than real estate."

Elisa sat down. "I don't follow you, Miss Courtindale. We don't deal in commodities."

The woman nodded. "Not as you would define the term, I'm sure. But, according to our information, you have legal control over a valuable commodity that our clients seek to purchase."

"I still don't grasp what you mean. Are you hinting at something -- unethical?"

The stunning attorney smiled. "Neither unethical nor illegal. Our clients scrupulously respect the letter of the law."

Elisa regarded the stranger closely. "Do they also respect the spirit of the law?"

Jethra smiled again. "Whenever possible. Their business sometimes operates in realms where the laws of man simply do not extend."

Once again Elisa suspected that she was dealing with a Dungeons and Dragons player. "Please come to the point, Miss Courtindale. I have much else to attend to."

The lawyer nodded. "This is the point. Your stepson is failing in school and, after years of minor offenses, he appears to be on the fast track to adult prison. Much worse, we foresee that he will die of a knife wound while incarcerated."

"A knife wound? Who's threatening his life?"

"No one; not at the moment."

Elisa bridled. "Of what concern of yours is my stepson?"

"To our firm, none at all. But he is of concern to the people whom Wizards represent."

"Is this another lawsuit threat? And what do you mean by 'foresee'?"

"It is not a lawsuit; it is a prognostication. Our clients are mindful of the portents."

"Your clients consult -- astrology?"

Courtindale took the question with apparent amusement. "That is an inaccurate term used in popular culture for what is actually an intricate science."

"If you say so. Who are these clients of yours?"

"They are the local chapter of a concern called the Starry Order."

Elisa frowned at the unfamiliar name. "And this order is what? It sounds like a mystical lodge, or a New Age publishing house."

"Neither. They serve a specialty customer base."

"What is their business?" Mrs. Ardens asked pointedly.


Elisa looked askance. "This has to be a practical joke, Miss Courtindale. Is there a candid camera hidden in your attache case? Or is this interview leading to something even more absurd?"

"I will be frank, Madame. As I have stated, my clients deal in magic. Wizards Law works solely with clients who seek to attain their business objectives through supernatural practices. We manage necessary negotiations and see to it that they keep within the strict laws of magic. We also take care that local jurisdictions are not offended."

"The laws of magic?"

"My firm represents wizards belonging to -- let us call it an 'ethnic group' -- that refers to itself as the People. Magic has its own code of ethics, set down many centuries ago by our ancestors. Sorcery is complex and its practice generate a great deal of work for legal consultants."

Elisa rolled her eyes. "There is no such thing as sorcery, so please…"

"It is natural that you should think so," Courtindale interrupted. "Formerly, as everyone knows, sorcery was widely recognized as being real and its was strictly against the law. Since then, wizards have learned how to conceal what they do from people – muggles is what people without magic are called in the current parlance. Without objective proof of the operation of magic in the world, ordinary people stopped believing in it. The prohibitions that were preserved in their law books gradually became dead letters."

"You're claiming to be a -- a witch, too?"

She glanced down as a show of modesty. "I'm a very minor practitioner. The issues of magical law are rather more congenial to my talents."

Elisa shook her head. "Please. Whether you are playing a role for a reality TV show, or are not in your right mind, I would appreciate it if you would state your business plainly, so we can end this conversation."

Courtindale did not seem at all perturbed by such bluntness. "I would be glad to, Mrs. Ardens. Case in point. Did you see that film with James Stewart -- Bell, Book, and Candle?"

As a matter of fact, Elisa had seen it. She had been deeply affected by the ending, when Kim Novak in the arms of Jimmy Stewart tearfully says, "I don't think I can. I'm only human."

"I've seen it. You don't believe that all that stuff about witches is true, do you?"

The lawyer shrugged slightly. "The movie decently presents the general idea of the existence of the People, but the details are all wrong. Witches are not the ne'er-do-wells of the sort that are depicted in the movie. You would be surprised at how many societal leaders in this day and age are actually witches. It takes magic to get ahead in the world; it always has."

Elisa stood up. "Please, Miss, this has so far been a pointless interview. I only want to know why you seem so interested in my stepson."

Jethra Courtindale sighed. "You must first concede that magic is real, otherwise nothing I say can possibly lead to a productive discussion. A free demonstration of sorcery is usually the deal-maker. If you are willing, I shall provide you with ample proof that magic does indeed exist."

The hair on the back of Elisa's neck prickled with unease. "I'd rather…"

The lawyer raised her hand. A tingle ran through the realtor's body. "I must request that you sit quietly and do not speak until bidden."

Elisa wanted to exclaim, "How dare you!" but to her shock, she couldn't utter a word, nor keep herself from sitting down. Though the businesswoman struggled against the compulsion, she could barely even wriggle.

"Don't be concerned with your paralysis, Mrs. Ardens. This is only a demonstration."

Elisa's expression had already changed from one of bafflement to one of fear.

Courtindale spoke concernedly. "Please be calm -- if you wish to, of course. It will make you a better listener."

Elisa's feeling of being trapped at once disappeared and she could regard the lawyer objectively.

"Your boy is the major problem of your life," Jethra continued. "It's bad enough that he's facing juvenile justice in Nebraska, but we're aware that he's up for drug charges in Iowa, too. It will only go from bad to worse. A charge of date rape will soon be filed, also."

Elisa wanted to demand how she knew that, but couldn't make reply.

"People have different destinies," said Courtindale. "The trend of an individual's destiny can be read beforehand, but the soul walks along an aisle with many doors. Prognostication is the process of probabilities. A few doors lead to happiness, many to mediocrity, and a few to utter catastrophe. It takes wisdom and a moral compass to find the best way through, but Landon is not well endowed with either wisdom nor morality.

"Sometimes magical aid can save a person from his own folly. In this case, your best hope is, indeed. magic, unless you don't care that he will soon die violently, and probably do so in prison."

Elisa already knew that Langdon was a kid on the wrong road, but she couldn't believe that he was so far gone. He hadn't killed anyone, at least not yet.

Miss Courtindale continued. "Your own destiny, by the way, is to suffer ruinous civil lawsuits stemming from the fact that the law makes parents and guardians responsible for damage inflicted by a minor."

Elisa again tried to reply, but couldn't.

"Excuse me. You may now converse normally," declared Courtindale.

"W-What do you want?" Elisa stammered. The sudden return of her power of speech startled her. If there was such a thing as a witch, this woman was one.

"Your name has come up as a good potential negotiating partner," Courtindale said. "We almost never deal with happy families. We are looking for families in breakup, distressed parents, and especially stepparents and guardians who have feel driven to the wall."

"What do you want with me?" Elisa asked.

"My clients are offering to buy Langdon's mana."

Elisa looked confused. "What's that? It sounds like that food they mention in
the Bible?"

"The substance you're thinking of is spelled M-A-N-N-A. Mana, M-A-N-A, is a type of supernatural energy."
Mana is a term that comes from the Pacific islanders, but the concept goes back beyond the beginning of preserved history. It has commonly been interpreted as "the stuff from which magic is formed." The word is amusingly ironic in English. There are different types of mana, but the one we are interested in constitutes the essence that makes a male out of the generic human clay. The basic human is female, of course; a male is only a female who has been born with a prenatal connection to the free flow of mana."

"It sounds like some foreign religious idea. You say it's Hawaiian?"

"The word spans many cultures, but the concept encompasses the universe. In a world of muggles, the concept of mana actually bridges both science and religion." Courtindale folded her arms and rested back. "Scientists usually don't believe in deities, but their theories of quantum physics is actually the proof divine creation."

Elisa looked puzzled. Divine creation? She was very afraid this was more than she was up to dealing with.

Chapter Two

"My clients are among the leading brokers of mana," said Courtindale. "They seek the sexual-type mana, which is the easiest to acquire without the loss of life. You see, most of the other types of mana are more basic to preserving reality and harvesting them would lead to death or even non-existence.

"Just as a wool merchant buys wool from a farmer's sheep, my clients buy mana. Mana ebbs naturally with age and beyond the age of thirty, it has so dwindled that is not worth harvesting at all. We can and often do buy mana from younger males. Unfortunately, youths in the flush of their masculine virility are the least willing to sell it.

"Our law does not allow us to acquire mana from anyone under eighteen, not even if they were willing and had the consent of their parents. In most places, a boy of eighteen is a legal adult and so we can and do deal directly with him, but our success rates are low. Fortunately, in Nebraska a boy of eighteen is still a minor. That means that, as his legal guardian, you may ethically contract for the sale your ward's mana. If do you, we can arrange to take Langdon off his path of self-destruction, and also to protect the security of your finances."

The attorney looked deeply into Elisa's amazed eyes. "But I suppose that you are still refusing to believe anything that I'm saying."

The realtor blinked. Was this strange woman actually telling her that she could sell Langdon for profit?

"You said that taking mana kills. That's murder."

Courtindale shook her head. "The loss of sexual mana does not kill, nor does it even endanger the health. We harvest mana safely all the time. The logging company is not in business to kill trees; the lumberman replants his crop scrupulously. When we take mana, we commit ourselves to looking after the welfare of the young person who yields it. No doubt, that is where those stories about fairy godparents first began."

"You mean, like in Cinderella?"

"Yes, exactly. If she was a historical character, as many of the People suspect, Cinderella must have been a mana donor."

"Magic is real? Fairytales are real? Is that what you're saying?" Elisa muttered.

Courtindale smiled charmingly. "If you enter into agreement with the Starry Order, Mrs. Ardens, your guardianship endures. The after-sale department of the Order will be ever on call to help you assist you through the crises of parenting. If necessary, they will even protect him from you, if you fail to do you proper duty. Supernatural protection from a bad stepmother was really what the story of Cinderella was all about."

Elisa's doubt became incredulity. Were these people calling her a bad stepmother? Were they trying to usurp her guardianship of her stepson?

"Now, Mrs. Ardens, do you have any questions?"

"This all sounds insane," Elisa said.

"Do you still disbelieve? The fact is, the universe couldn't operate without what we call magic. Magic is simply the intelligent use of the ancient creation energy that makes life and physical reality possible."

"You can do things, I admit, but you may have me hypnotized or something."

"I can hypnotize you, and do it very well. But I haven't."

"How does it hurt a person to lose this…mana stuff?"

"What happens is remarkable. Without the energy that keeps a male in his reproductively-viable form, he will revert to the low-energy state of a human being."

"Is that dangerous?"

"Not at all. The default energy state for a human being is female."

"Female? In what sense?"

"In every sense. A gynecologist would find nothing amiss in a boy's physiology after the loss of his mana."

Elisa let that soak in, then she scowled. "You have to be crazy. Nobody can change a person that way!"

"We do not actually profit by such a radical alteration. Sex change is simply an unavoidable byproduct of the process. It happens because to take the linchpin out of the subject's reality, so we deal with it."

"I must be dreaming…." Elisa murmured.

"You will not be forced to contract with us, but we can make it well worth your while, should you choose to do so."

"I have to ask you to leave, Miss Courtindale."

"I have convinced many skeptics before this, Mrs. Ardens. Let me demonstrate a magical transformation. Suggest something. For example, would you like to have a functioning third eye in the middle of your forehead?"

"N-No!" Elisa declared.

The lawyer regarded an object upon the desk. "I might turn this paperweight into gold, but without expert opinion, could you tell true gold from an imitation?"

"I suppose not."

"Would you like to experience being an animal of some variety? I do a very nice golden retriever."

"No, thank you!" She felt like she had fallen down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

"Or would you like to be -- a woman who is younger and much more beautiful than you are?"

Elisa looked fixedly at Jethra. "Is -- Is that why you have movie-star good looks yourself?"

Courtindale nodded. "This is not the shape I was born with. I am over three hundred years old. I have benefited from a simple physical-change spell, and it takes but little mana to bring it about. In fact, I have worn several shapes over time. Tastes in beauty evolve with the epoch. Instead of merely changing our clothes, we change appearances. In Rubens day, a decidedly plump woman was considered to be the epitome of sex appeal. Now many women will go bulimic in order to achieve a shape like my present one."

Elisa regarded the lawyer warily. "All right, then, prove what you say by making me a... a beautiful and youthful woman. Something like that would convince any reasonable person."

Jethra raised a finger. "There are many kinds of beauty, Elisa. Always take care when seeking for advantage through magic."

"What is the risk?"

"Minor, if it is left to the experts. The old warning holds: 'Do not try this at home.' Magic is power and power corrupts. The will to abuse it ultimately depends on the sort of person one is. The children of the People are trained in the ethical use of it very early. The training process is very like what is shown in the Harry Potter movies."

"I tend to be very cautious about unfamiliar things," Elisa said.

"Caution has its value, but we take risks every time we step into a car or bus. If you prefer to risk nothing, I will walk out of this room and you will never need to hear of the Starry Order again."

Elisa thought about that. "You've gotten me very curious. How long would a demonstration take?"

"Less than a minute."

"Then I would want lustrous blonde hair, and to be only twenty years old. A face like a magazine model. Slim, with perfect skin."

The attorney nodded and said, "You can now move, Elisa. Go look into the mirror."

Suddenly the businesswoman found that she could push herself out of her chair. She held up her hands and saw that they had become smaller and smoother. Had the promised change already occurred? She had felt nothing.

There was a decorative mirror on the wall and she stepped unsteadily toward it. A shiver ran down her spine. Her reflected face looked like a college girl's. Her gray-green irises had turned azure. Her graying, unruly hair had become a flow of pale, golden silk.

"You must be using hypnotism," the realtor muttered.

Jethra was on her feet and arranging her attaché case. "You decide. I've placed a stock enchantment on you. Every stranger in the world will see you as you are now, because your present appearance is the physical reality.

"To avoid complications, though, your secretary and any other person who truly knows you, such as Langdon, will see the illusion of your natural shape. Go out on the town, have a good time. I shall come back to finish this negotiation. How long would you wish to carry on with this experiment?"

Elisa's mind was in a whirl. "I-I don't know."

The other woman smiled. "Then until Friday. I shall return at that time and, with your permission, we shall continue our discussion."

Elisa felt dazed. "What exactly are you offering me, if I let Langdon become a girl?"

"Whatever you desire, within reason. To be empress of the world? I don't think so. The point is to disrupt the lives of innocent people as little as possible. Money is no object. Might you enjoy claiming a prestigious linage that would put you at the head of any social set? Electronic documents that would confirm your new appearance and life history are easy to alter. You would need a new identity, of course."

"You're saying I could stay this way?"

"You could, if we come to terms."

"If I dealt with you, would -- would Langdon look like a real girl?"

"Yes, but because he is not an attractive boy, he would not make an attractive female. Fortunately, as you know, magic can make a plain person beautiful. We prefer to make a transformed boy beautiful merely for his own emotional health. What person could hate the shape he possesses if it invokes his vanity? Beauty leads to popularity. Most people see popularity as something positive."

Courtindale had placed a hand on the doorknob. "Think about what would make your life happy, Mrs. Ardens, as well as what you want for Langdon."

Elisa didn't know what to say.

Jethra Courtindale never opened the door. She simply faded away like a movie witch.

* * * *

Though the sorceress was gone, truly, the mirror told Elisa that she still remained young and beautiful. But the thought flickered through her mind that she had become a stranger to herself. She was frightened at the thought of being seen by acquaintances and going unrecognized.

Elisa needed some sort of proof that she wasn't mesmerized or dreaming. 'People can fly in their dreams,' she thought. 'I'll try to fly.'

She could not fly.

'Well, that's something…' she whispered.

What would happen if Polly saw her?

She walked stiffly into the reception area. Polly was at her desk and there was her next appointment waiting in one of the

The receptionist glanced up, but did not change her expression.

No reaction? Elisa wondered if her appearance was only imaginary. Still, Courtindale had warned that those who already knew her wouldn't be able to see any change.

Then Elisa shifted toward the client, a man whom she had never met before. He was staring at her.

"M-Mr. Dunware?" she stammered.

"Ah, yes! Miss Ardens…" he began.

"Mrs. Ardens," she corrected him, her smile tense. "I'm a widow. You are here representing the Saunders firm in regard to that industrial lot in Hayrack?"

"Yes," he affirmed absently. "But call me Harold. No one told me that our realtor was so young and attractive."

Elisa heard Polly grunt, "Hmmm."

The transformed woman was taken aback. The idea of looking different to two different people in the same room was very disorienting. She wanted to be alone with her client.

"I think we should discuss our business over lunch. I'm famished," remarked Elisa.

Dunware smiled broadly. "There's a fine little Scandinavian restaurant not far from here."

"I know of it. I'd be delighted."

Elisa looked back at Polly. "I'll before my four o'clock appointment."

Dunware was holding the door open.

'Being treated like a beautiful girl isn't thumbscrews,' Elisa was thinking. 'Even Langdon could learn to like it.' 

Chapter Three

Elisa hadn't hadn't been in the company of an admiring and attentive man for a long while, and found herself wanting many more repeat experiences. Elisa realized that she had less than three days to enjoy the body that a strange destiny had granted her. After that she would turn back into a peasant -- unless she cut a deal with Miss Courtindale. But what she was asking for amounted to human sacrifice. 

She had once loved Langdon. When his father was still alive, the boy had been bringing home glowing teachers' reports. He also seemed to be missing a mother's attention and had welcomed her into their home in a friendly way. That had changed suddenly when his father died. He didn't seem to understand that when bad things happen one just had to be strong and go on. Instead, he had gotten touchy and seemed to hate almost everybody. Since the age of thirteen he had learned little in school, except about attention-getting misbehavior.

She wanted to put her stepson on a better course, but she had been able to do nothing with him. She could almost believe that changing him for the better would require magic. But Elisa's instincts told her that dealing with the shadowy People could end well for anyone involved.

After a friendly goodbye with her escort, Elisa had returned to the office. Her present situation was too good to waste, and so she took her four o'clock and then told Polly to reschedule all her appointments that were for Wednesday and Thursday. She would be busy until Friday afternoon, she said, but would be able to come in and catch up with work on Saturday. Elisa offered to give Polly either Wednesday or Thursday off if she'd come in Saturday and the young woman had agreed.

When her secretary left, the realtor did called around for a salon appointment. She wanted a beautician to see her new appearance, and so needed a place where she wasn't known. Elisa found an open slot in a place that stayed open to seven and catered to downtown businesswomen.

Before her appointment, she hurried to a boutique to buy something youthful and trendy. Once she had arrived at the salon, she told the cosmologist that she was going to a party hosted by wealthy investors and wanted an appropriate look.

She had barely gotten back to the office before Mr. Dunware arrived to escort her to a real party. Some of the men there were very attractive and the sprite blonde on Mr. Dunware's arm didn't have any trouble detaching herself and attracting other attention. After about a half hour she noticed that Mr. Dunware was nowhere to be seen. That made her feel sorry, but not for long.

Elisa was wined, dined, and able to dance with her choice of spontaneous admirers. If the realtor could only hold on to these incredible new looks, she anticipated the possibility of an excellent new marriage into the wealthy set of Omaha's elite.

'Comfort, prestige, and millions of dollars, too,' she was thinking. But the glowering cloud on the horizon was the certain knowledge keeping these things would have to come at Langdon's expense. Still, each time she looked into the mirror behind the bar, the wicked stepmother, like a serpent at her breast, whispered, 'It isn't so bad being an attractive girl. Anyone could learn to like it, even Langdon."

But doubt continued to accuse her. Can any course so overtly self-seeking lead to happiness? How well could she trust the People? Could holders of such superhuman powers be trusted to do what they promised, and do it in an honorable spirit? What could she do if they decided to discard her as a pawn no longer needed?

All through the next day Elisa's depression alternated with elation. Impulsively, calling her new identity "Daphne," the businesswoman went to a "glamour" photography studio of the sort that staged “special" pictures for women to give to their lovers and husbands. She paid $200 for a shoot that featuring her wearing her new club dress. Then, falling more into the spirit of the fantasy, she put on items of lingerie that the photographer had on his rack. Some of the shots were out-and-out cheesecake. 'I could have been a Playboy centerfold looking like this,' she realized.

During her hour in the studio, Elisa was able to play at being a sort of girl that she never had been, the type who always seemed to get all the attention and have all the fun. Her set of photos would be the proof of this experience that she would treasure afterwards, so that she would know whether or not these incredible three days had actually happened.

But she was living on an emotional roller coaster. Elation always gave way to trepidation. Elisa was being asked to sign a contract and the idea reminded her of the story of Faust. What if these people had not only inspired the stories of fairy godparents, but also people's memories of a tempting Satan? What if they were demonic beings pretending to be mere wizards? Were they not after this mana thing after all, but souls?

At home on Wednesday evening, Elisa checked her answering machine. There was a call from her lawyer. It shocked her to learn that the family of the girl that Langdon had got mixed up with were trying to get him arrested if she didn't pay them off. Courtindale had predicted that this would happen. How much more of what she said would turn out to be true, such as Langdon's imprisonment and murder?

Fortunately, when she called the attorney, Mr. Owlsley, the next morning, he told her that he could give her an excellent defense. The litigants had waited too long to throw this new stink bomb and he didn't think that an impartial court would let them get very far with it.

The more Elisa thought about this new problem, the more depressed and incensed she became. Why did this have to happen now? She could have been enjoying these last two days to the fullest, but the news had ruined her mood. Would the torture of being a failed parent ever stop?

Langdon was foolish and reckless, but in her heart she didn't think that he deserved prison -- not yet, not in this world where judges let drug cartels and serial killers walk. But he surely didn't deserve to get off scot-free, either. She suspected that his grief and anger, once real, had become a cold, hard, cynical excuse for getting away with being bad. In her sympathy, she had for too long allowed him to get away with it. But against the boy's stubborn defiance, his six-foot height and great strength, what could she do?

Elisa didn't think that she liked the answer.

* * * *

Friday afternoon, Miss Courtindale sat quietly while Elisa paced and talked, not always coherently. Every glance into the mirror told her how awful was her present reality, now that her days as Daphne were over.

"I understand,' said the lawyer. "But everything that you say tells me that a big change would be for the boy's own good."

"Don't patronize me!" Elisa snapped. "The fact is, I'm weak! You've offered me temptation that is just too great for me. I don't just want a new look. I want a new life. I want to throw my old problems out of my life like rubbish. I've been bought and Langdon's is sold. If I deal with you, I deserve your contempt. Say it!"

Courtindale shrugged.

The realtor clenched her hands into fists. How could the woman be so nonchalant while she was such a mass of emotion? "If all we have left to do is haggle over the terms," she suddenly said, "I want to know what the payment will be. Start with the money."

Courtindale regarded the skyline out the window thoughtfully. "We could afford billions, but could you afford it? One loses the value of money if he has too much of it.”

“What do you all too much?”

“I've never met anyone whose life was ruined by, say, ten million dollars."

Elisa didn't seem impressed. "That doesn't sound like so much, not in this day of the Warren Buffets. But…." She threw up her hands. "If that's the limit, I would insist that none it should be wasted on taxes. I want ten million, free and clear."

"No problem. We can even give you a paper trail to justify your immunity to taxation. It's done all the time. Would you like to be part of the Old Money class? A trust-fund baby? Once it was only the peasants who were taxed. Nothing has really changed since then. Only now it's the working class that keeps the party going."

"There won't be anything suspicious that governments could pick up on?"

"The electronic data systems of today have made even the most outrageous financial fictions very easy to prove. Again, it's done all the time."

Elisa's mouth felt dry. She went to the coffee pot and took what was left. Then, cup in hand, she said, "Now, let's talk about Langdon. He's going to go out of his mind when he sees how he's changed."

"True, almost all the new girls undergo shock," Courtindale said. "We have ways to help minimize the shock. Do you have any ideas, Mrs. Ardens?”

"I want the punishment to fit the crime."

Courtindale shook her head. "The Starry Order is not in the business of punishment. The consequences of mana loss bring a little inevitable suffering. But so much of the modern world's problems come from the fact that social reformers have forgotten that suffering builds character. A disproportionate number of history's most successful men suffered the loss of their father in youth. Removing one source of suffering only creates another kind, like putting a jungle animal into a nice safe zoo. Tell me what sort of life would be justified for Langdon and I will let you know whether our code prohibits it."

Elisa took a deep breath. "Langdon has been a bully. That has to stop. It has gotten him into a lot of trouble and it's made most of the kids hate him. As a girl, I wouldn't want to see him carrying on that way, pushing around smaller girls and little children."

Her mind was racing. "He should be only about five-foot five, light of build, and without much upper body strength. But he shouldn't be frail or sickly. I want him to enjoy robust health all his life, freedom from all genetic defects, and to be extremely resistant to disease. Think of a cheerleader type, vigorous, active, but attractive." Her own mother had been anemic from childhood, and her frequent illness had robbed much joy from her family.

Courtindale didn't change her expression.

"When I was Langdon's age, I wasn't pretty and I hated it. I want Langdon to be as attractive and well-fashioned as a girl can be."

The lawyer lifted her chin. "Any specifics?"

"I don't know. I think that he'd be happiest if he looked like the sorts of girls he admires most."

"What sorts are that?"

"He collects Playboy centerfolds. He used to hide them from my view; now he puts them upon the wall of his room for all to see. I think that if given a choice, he'd most want to look like that sort of girl."

Jethra Courtindale seemed to consider the prospect.

"But I don't want him to be classically perfect, not a goddess. I've read that the most beautiful women complain that they frighten the decent men away and only egotistical rats have the gall to hit on them.  Langdon should come off as the girl-next-door type, obviously pretty but not intimidating. In short, I want him to be the kind of girl that even the mild mannered boys can find enough nerve to ask out." 'Like I wasn't asked out,' she almost added.

"Attractive girls often have problems with sexually aggressive boys," Miss Courtindale warned.

Elisa shook her head. “I would have accepted the trade-off. The worst problem a girl can have being ignored by boys." 

Lawyer nodded congenially. "What do you want for Langdon in the long term?"

"I want him to gain in character, become wiser, and contribute positively to society."

"And what, in your opinion, would serve to make him wiser?

"It's the Golden Rule. I want him to learn to treat people the same way that he'd like to be treated."

"I see. And what would you like his sexual preference to be while he's learning this?"

She paused a moment before she answered, "I'd like him to be attracted to boys. Could you do that?"

Courtindale's pursed her lips. "We have rules against mind control. But sexual preference is usually an outcome of of brain structure. The magic can alter boy's brain to match that of a heterosexual girl. Also, girls are attracted by male pheromones, and vice versa. We can take care that Langdon will be given the physiological underpinning to be very stimulated just in being around boys."

"A pheromone is a kind of a scent, isn't it?"

"Yes. Between a altered brain structure and a pheromone susceptibility, some previously very hetero boys I've encountered have became mothers in less than a year after their mana siphoning."

Up to now, Elisa hadn't thought about Langdon getting pregnant. Would that sour him on being a girl? What, exactly, did she want for her stepson?

"I wouldn't care for Langdon to be starting a family before marriage," she said out loud.

The lawyer was leaning forward, gathering her gloves from the desktop. "It all comes down to free will. From the reports, Langdon is by nature oversexed. If this quality not adjusted, that could potentially make him sexually overactive as a girl. Too strong a sex drive can lead a young woman into unnecessary difficulty. There are remedies, though. We'll discuss the subject next time.  She stood up. “Well, I believe that we've carried this discussion far enough for one day. Our clients will be happy to know that we have begun serious negotiations."

"I've been wondering, where does the mana go when it is taken?"

Courtindale paused only for a moment. "It feeds into a mystic receiver for storage, a sort of 'mana battery" that we call a 'mana bank'. Almost every member of the People has a mana account. We are not paid in money. We are remunerated with mana."

"Fascinating, I suppose. We'll speak again, won't we?"

"Definitely. But you're emotions are running high just now. One can't always think clearly if angry or excited."

"Have I suggested anything that –- that goes too far?"

"Nothing that I've heard. By the way, I understand that Langdon is still only a junior, despite being eighteen."

The businesswoman nodded. "Yes. Most schools won't place a child in first grade unless he is at least six years old when school begins. Because Langdon was born in mid-September, he's almost a year older than the other juniors. Is that an issue?"

"No. I was just thinking that it would be easier for him to adjust to his classmates if he were physically of the same physical development."

Elisa nodded. "Langdon did get big and strong early. He's always hated looking older than the children in his classes. He's always thought that it makes people think he's stupid and that he's been set back a year. But being the biggest boy in his class has has helped him be a bully, though."

"Some girls look younger than they are; I suggest that for Langdon. He can physically bloom at the same time that the other girls in his grade do."

"It sounds like a plan," agreed Elisa.

The lawyer paused at the door. "Do you have anything else to add before I leave, Mrs. Ardens?"

"More than anything, I just want him to be a good learner and a smart student. I want him to be able to pick a job that he likes and make a success of it."

Courtindale rubbed her chin. "We can give him a efficient and high quality physical brain, but exactly how a young person does in school comes down to a matter of attitude and motivation."

"Langdon started out as a high-achieving child."

"Maybe this experience will bring back the person that he was meant to be," suggested the lawyer. "May we get together at two o'clock on Monday?"

"I'll keep that hour open," Elisa assured her.

Chapter Four

For the next week, Elisa Ardens and Jethra Courtindale met frequently, going over draft agreements, editing, deleting, and fleshing out the salient points in detail. What they were doing was a standard contract negotiation, lawyerly in the extreme. For the most part, they were establishing formal language to convey the general ideas that had been set own at the very beginning.

Today they were meeting in Elisa's condo. The realtor's expression showed her concern. "How can this be done without Langdon realizing the part I've played in it? If he ends up hating me, what kind of a parent can I be when he needs one the most?"

"We'll address that question soon, but remember that this change will be permanent. When Langdon realizes he has to be a girl for life, he will either go into a long funk, have an emotional breakdown, or…"

"Commit suicide?" Elisa put in anxiously.

"I was going to say, he might actually feel relieved."

"Relieved -- to be a girl? Langdon?"

She nodded, as if remembering the lessons of a long life. "Many boys are surprised when they find out that being a pretty girl can be very pleasant. And if they've started to like boys as well, why would they ever want to be male again? Unfortunately, male psychology is programmed to reject the feminine in themselves even while admiring it in their lady friends.  Many will not admit that they are experiencing changing feelings about their situation, not even to themselves. Honestly admitting that their hearts are singing “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” will be impossible for them. But if they realize that fate has stepped in and forced its own choice on them, boys are able to stop wrangling with their inner demons, bear down, and face life anew."

"What happens then?"

"Usually they go out and party. They'll be surprised at how much easier it is for a girl to pick a boy up if she's pretty. Boys are used to having a hard time getting the opposite sex to show any interest in them. That's because of the differences in temperament between the sexes, and in the way that they are brought up. 

"The danger is that a new girl can fall back on old habits approach sex the same way that a boy does. But sex can't be so casual for a girl. It can get her trapped into pregnancy and change all her plans and expectations. These days there's abortion, of course, but Planned Parenthood never talks about the emotional scarring that such a violation can bring to a young woman. If you would prefer, there is always the option to have Langdon become an infertile girl."

Elisa looked surprised and replied slowly. "I was told that I couldn't have children. I felt it as a hurt that wouldn't go away. I was lucky, though, because by the time that I discovered that...that I wasn't a complete woman...I already had a stepson. I don't want to rob Langdon of any of his possibilities for a full and beautiful life.”

"Has your experience with parenthood been beautiful?" 

"No," replied Elisa, "but I needed the chance to at least try to make something good of the experience."

The lawyer nooded. "Most of the decent parents we deal with feel the same way.”

Suddenly Elisa frowned. "I was wondering. You changed my shape, but then turned me back. Could the People turn a boy back if they wanted to?"

Courtindale shook her head. "The great wizards are well able to make a boy out of a girl, but in practice it's almost never done. A boy has all the generic information needed to make a girl. A girl does not.

"She lacks the basic building blocks that goes into making a boy. A boy who turns female is a plus for us; it fills our banks with mana because that extra mystical energy inherent in boyhood flows to us. A girl has no such essence to give. She can be changed into a boy only if stored mana is used to effect the transformation. The People have little motivation to spend so much mana just to gain one more boy for the world. If a boy is transformed, we try to the new girl learn to enjoy being a girl so much that she wouldn't want to change back even if she had the chance.”

"But is it even possible? Like, if you were paid enough?”

“Money doesn't interest to persons who can turn lead into gold. But sometimes a trade can be arranged. The trouble is, I seriously doubt that either you or Langdon would have anything to offer the People in that regard."

"What would the wizards want?"

"You wouldn't have a spare Spear of Longinus in your broom closet, would you?"

Elisa looked blank.

Jethra smiled. "I didn't suppose so."

Elisa's gloom would have been obvious to any observer.

"But your contract will have an opt-out clause," Courtindale told her.

The realtor looked up. "It will?"

"Yes. After the signing, you can cancel at any time -- at any time prior to the mana donation, I mean."

"Why don't your wizards take mana from boys who want to be girls? There's lots of transvestites on those trashy reality shows. According to the news, they're in our schools and sometimes they're actually allowed to use the girls' rest rooms. They can't be hard to locate."

Jethra sighed. "If only it were so easy. Transsexualism is almost always a symptom of mana deficiency. Most boys who want to be girls start out with as little mana in their auras as middle-aged men have. As inconvenient as it may be, it's the sort of boy who glories in male pursuits, who scores high in male outlook on psychological tests, and who obsesses about having sex with girls who possesses abundant mana. That is the sort of boy that mana harvesters are looking for."

Elisa nodded, resigned. "There's something else I'd like to know. How -- how does the -- the siphoning process work? Will he have to be taken to a…a wizard's workshop? Or is it called a laboratory?"

The other woman smiled. "It's something that actually can be done at home. If we have some hair, blood, or nails, the required mystic link can be established remotely, like with voodoo dolls in the movies."

"It's that simple?"

"More or less."

"Will there be any pain?"

"None at all. The boy falls into a deep slumber. When his mana has reached a critically low level, he will default into a basic female physiognomy. Before he wakes up, the managing wizards will send a bit of magic back up the pipeline, and this will refine his physical body and shape in the way that you have requested."

"I feel like I'm hiring an assassin."

Courtindale touched Elisa's arm, like a friend. The realtor didn't didn't jerk away in startlement. The witch-woman had, in fact, become her only confident in helping her to explore the feelings that were so raw within her. "There will be no pressure to coerce you. Just remember that your decision, pro or con, will be the most important one that you will ever make, both for Langdon and for yourself."

Elisa glanced away perplexedly.

"I respect you for having doubts," Courtindale went on. "Too many guardians that I've met have been so greedy or so indifferent to welfare of their young charge that my firm has recommended to our clients that any negotiations with them should be broken off. How the stepmother treated Cinderella was absolutely disgraceful."

Elisa looked up. "But Cinderella was always a girl. She didn't have any mana."

Jethra shook her head. "If there was a historical model for Cinderella, the memory spell involved would have made everyone except Cinderella and her stepmother forget her years of boyhood. How could folklorists know how she started out? Once she had her prince, Cinderella wouldn't have told anyone anything. And her stepmother wouldn't either, since she had been involved in something that would have gotten her burned at the stake."

Elisa raised her chin. "Is that the best that can be said about me? That I might not be as bad as Cinderella's stepmom?"

Jethra Courtindale smiled. "The People do not look at muggles as either saints or sinners; we do not call them names for the things we persuade them to do. The only one offenses that we cannot abide is a purposeful violation of our contracts or our ethics."

"And the victim has no role in establishing what ethics he should be subject to?"

"To us, this is essentially a legal issue, Mrs. Ardens, not a moral one. The law, wherever you go, is always cold-blooded. It is the muggles, not the People, who make the laws that all are expected to live by. The laws that the People make are only for the People. We wouldn't presume to tell those outside our own group how to live."

"I never wanted things to come to this," Elisa said suddenly. "I wanted a son who would love me as much as I tried hard to loved him. I wanted a real family life more than anything."

"A new start is still possible," Courtindale told her. "Remember that."

* * * *

Langdon's legal problems had made him even more sour and grumpy than usual. He rarely talked about his concerns and would simply walk away whenever his stepmother brought up such things. He seemed to be in denial. She had wanted to hear some hint of remorse from him, some reason to hope that these bitter experiences he was undergoing would help to turn him into a responsible young person.

Having no reason to think that such a wish would come true, Elisa continued meet with the lawyer. By now they were on a first-name basis.

"We always want a boy to think that that his girlhood will only be a temporary condition," Jethra told Elisa. "That will avoid any excessive reaction in the early weeks when he's still in shock. If he thinks he can soon change back, he'll want to avoid panic and hold things together. Very few want others to know what happened to him."

"What do most boys do when it happens?" Mrs. Ardens asked.

"Remember the story of Pandora? All the ills of mankind escaped from her box, but because the box also held Hope, mankind retained the moral courage to struggle on. A boy behaved better if we help to keep his hope in place.”

"But isn't that a lie? There isn't any hope, is there?”

"No, but by the time he admits that fact that he'll be female for as long as he lives, he will have been living as a girl for a long while. Total-immersion into girlhood has a way of getting under the skin of former boys. Don't feel sorry for them. Once they adjust, they have every possibility of becoming happy.”

“You said there was a way to keep Langdon from blaming me?"

Jethra nodded. "A boy behaves best if he thinks that what has happened has been caused by his own mistake. On the other hand, if he is able to blame someone else, he'll hate that person with a passion and things may get violent."

"But how can he be convinced that he's done anything magical to himself?"

"We've worked out excellent procedures over the years. First we have to put Langdon into a state of mind where he thinks that sex-change fantasies are extremely erotic and very enjoyable. We want him to start daydreaming regularly about what it would be like to suddenly restart life as a pretty girl."

Elisa grimaced dubiously. "He's hidden a lot of porn in his room, but I don't think that he'd ever find sex-change the least bit erotic."

"We can help him to think otherwise."


"No. Mind or attitude control by sorcery is not ethical."

Elisa's curiosity was piqued, but the lawyer was not about to tell her more that day. But Courtindale had told her the date and hour for the contract signing.

It was only a couple days away.

Chapter 5

Despite misgivings, Elisa agreed to the appointment and, two days later, the attorney was placing a sheaf of printed sheets on Elisa's office desk.

One Mr. Crowlers, as a representative of the Starry Order, sat in one of the visitors' chair. Unlike Jethra, he displayed no Olympian beauty and was remarkably nondescript. Elisa began to wonder where these people came from, and whether they were truly human. She wanted to ask questions about the People, but Courtindale had advised her that such inquery would be futile. The People were very secretive.

Cowlers had just read several important paragraphs of the contract out loud. "Do you fully understand all the terms and ancillaries?" the man asked.

"Miss Courtindale and I have gone over each line exhaustively," Elisa replied. "I still can't understand how magic works, but I believe that it does work."

"Good, very good," said Mr. Crowlers. He made a few more inquiries, making sure that she did indeed understand all that she had agreed to. He seemed satisfied with her answers.

Courtindale then read the escape clause and then fully explained it. "Refusing to give the final permission for the siphoning procedure will terminate the agreement," she said. "If that should occur, no indemnity shall be exacted from either party."

"Yes," said Elisa. "It seems very generous."

"Not at all. It is a standard clause," said Crowlers with the tiniest of smiles. "How can one possibly enjoy a new life if he has the slightest doubt regarding the ethics or the rightness of the contract he has agreed to?"

Elisa didn't venture any answer.

"Shall we begin the signing?" suggested Courtindale. Crowley agreed; Elisa added her nod. "Send for your witness," the lawyer advised. Elisa according summoned Polly in as asked that she act as a witness for routine real estate contract.

With the secretary looking on, one paper after another was placed in front of Mr Crowlers, who signed it and passed it on to Elisa Adrens. After Elisa, Courtindale witnessed for Crawlers, and Polly witnessed for Elisa, though the former didn't bother to read enough to know what the contract was all about. She could do her job, but had never been interested in real estate beyond her narrow duties.

When the last sheet was witnessed, Elisa sent her secretary back to the reception room.

A moment later, having gathered up his copies, the wizard expressed his courtesies and took his leave with his copy of the documents. Elisa put her contract pages into order and placed them into the office safe. It occurred to her, belatedly, that nothing would be safe from these people; they could do any sort of skullduggery that they wanted to. Robbing a safe would be child's play. 

She wondered whether their attitude toward her would change, now that they had the signature that they had wanted. When she glanced over her shoulder, Jethra Courtindale was still standing by the desk expectantly. Elisa regarded the woman thoughtfully. They had had no specific discussion about what was supposed to happen after the signing.

"No doubt you're feeling very tense right now," Courtindale observed. "What say we take some lunch?"

Elisa rose and looked at the clock. "Is this the last time that we'll be meeting?"

"By no means. You will need a liaisons with the Starry Order, even after the siphoning. It's very hard to be the parent of a daughter who's undergone what Langdon will undergo. Let's get something to eat. It will be a good time for you ask any questions that may not have occurred to you before."

"Yes…I suppose," said Elisa. What other person would she want to spend time with? How could she talk to anyone else about the secrets that were burning in her breast?

Now that she had done it, what had she done, really? Was she dealing with evil people? Was this going to end badly?

How could it possibly end well?

* * * *

As they rode in the cab, the realtor began to think that she deserved to be punished. Nothing in her life had been so reprehensible before this. If an executioner suddenly appeared in front of her, she wasn't sure that she would even try to run away.

"Now that things are settled," the lawyer said, "we will want to move swiftly at getting Langdon ready. We don't want to do the siphoning until he is psychologically prepared, and that will take some weeks."

"I suppose," Elisa murmured absently. It was like she had become a stranger to herself.

The other woman smiled sympathetically.

"By now ten million tax-free dollars have been deposited electronically in your new account in Zurich. Agents will be drawing modest amounts from it in the name of Daphne Harrison, to acquire a European home for you and to make investments in your new name. They shall be establishing a complete new life history for you, one that will stand up to scrutiny.

"You will receive the needed documentation just as soon as the final consent form is filed regarding Langdon's siphoning. In the meantime, you will need to consider on an ongoing basis if the cancellation clause is something you should invoke.”

"You say that almost as if you would advise me to invoke it."

"I don't intend to. But I want you to understand that there will not be any reprisal for disappointing the Starry Order. It is against the law of sorcery to gain or preserve a contract through intimidation. Also, not doing so is the right thing to do."

"The lawyers I've known only talk about winning, not doing the right thing."

"Yes, I know what the world is like, and I find it sad, too,” replied the witch. Then she changed the subject. "When you wish to exit this identity of Elisa Ardens and become Miss Harrison, an impostor will fill the role of Elisa until your return, while trying scrupulously to avoid creating new problems in your life. Most clients want to return to their old haunts now and then. For example, you may wish to come back to see Langdon's high school graduation."

Elisa murmured agreement, while her mind raced ahead.

As Daphne, Elisa would possess the necessary family and educational records. She would, of course, have no need for any employment history because she would be the last heiress of a family of wealth that was dignified by its connections to several houses of Central European nobility. Now that the Iron Curtain had become a thing of the past, these families were in flux, over the last decade and a half many of them had drifted back to their ancestral land, out of Western exile. It would be possible to find herself a place amongst an aristocracy rebuilding itself from the ground up.  Jethra Courtindale had assured her that if the false Anastasia had had documents such as the People could provide, she would have lived and died a royal princess.

This idea suited Elisa because she was herself mainly Hungarian and had read a good deal about the ancestral country. Apparently, a Daphne imposter would be engaged by the Order in order to put the new heiress on a rock-solid social and economic footing. Before long, she would be well known to the European cocktail set, to the exacting mavens of fashion, as well as to bankers of Zurich and other useful people. Elisa would be able to step into a life that would already be an on-going thing. Then her mood sank.

Fine promises. But Elisa had no leverage to make the People keep their word. What could a contract mean to persons who played with reality as if it were a computer game? Scraps of paper. How they deigned to treat her in the future would depend entirely on the ethics to which they claimed to be so dedicated.

Elisa squirmed. "I can't relax. I feel like ants are running under my clothes. What come next?"

"Rest; try to regain your confidence. All is as it should be. Occupy your mind with the task of making this as easy as possible for Langdon. That reminds me. I want to visit your home when he's at school."


"The way into a boy's mind is through his music."

* * * *

Elisa didn't expect Langdon home for hours, so she brought Jethra into her condo right after lunch. Langdon's room was a mess, of course.

"What a depressing place," remarked the visitor, "but I've seen worse. By the way, we have a subliminal CD that will inspire a young person to enjoy living in orderly surroundings."

"Is it like sleep teaching?"

"Yes, very much like that. In the business of the People, where magic is unethical, science may serve. As we know, science has no ethics." She shifted topics. "What are his favorite CD discs?"

"I'm not sure. The bands all have strange names, and all their music is noisy and absolutely awful."

"You sound like a parent," the lawyer commented lightly. "Another of our CDs improves the listener's taste in music."

The lawyer spotted the CD player and turned it on. The tray had a five-disc capacity. Of the five discs inside, all but one was by "The Gruesome Zombies."

"He seems to like this band. I'll drop off duplicates of these same CDs at your office tomorrow. You'll have to switch them with these original ones," Jethra told her.

"They'll be subliminal?"

"Yes. Their purpose would be to get him interested in listening to a different band, the Graveyard Dead."


"When a boy is into this kind of rock, we use Graveyard Dead CDs that have been prepared in advance. We could have used any similar band, but the tech people for settled for the Graveyard Dead. Whenever Langdon brings home a new Graveyard Dead concert, you let us know which one it is and we'll switch it with a duplicate that carries the messages we want."

"Bring one that makes him like 'oldies but goodies.'"

"Or one that that makes him want to listen to the tunes that teenage girls like?"

Elisa sighed. "Considering the racket that both boys and girls like, I'm not so sure."

Jethra smiled. "Just one thing more. I need to place a listening device in this bedroom. It will help us choose the exact right moment to start the extraction process."

Mrs. Ardnes shrugged. What else could she do, now that she was into this thing with both feet? Every strange request that was now made of her has started to seem so dismayingly logical.

* * * *

The next day arrived, and so, again, did Miss Courtindale.

She had brought several Gruesome Zombies discs to the real estate office, repeating her previous instructions to switch them with Langdon's originals.

"If, by the end of a week, he's is showing any enthusiasm for the Graveyard Dead, it will be a sign that he has good receptivity to our variety of subliminal conditioning."

"What message will they carry?"

"A message about woman-envy. That is basic. The aim is to induce Langdon to develop a rich and luxurious fantasy life about changing into a sexy girl. What is erotic always holds a powerful allure for a teenaged boy."

Elisa thought it dubious. Langdon seemed totally the wrong type for enjoying that kind of fantasy.

"Will he start behaving differently?" she asked.

"Very unlikely. A male's sexual daydreams are a private pleasure, like smoking. In their everyday life, males are really quite detached from their fantasy life. It's a kind of compartmentalization."

"It sounds like this process will take a long time."

"Not as long as you think. Anyway, the longest journey begins with the first step. I'll try to explain the psychology behind it all before I leave."

* * * *

It was that very weekend when Langdon came home carrying a package from the music store. His stepmother pretended not to be at all interested in his musical tastes, but checked out the bag while he was in the shower.


Langdon had bought back three Graveyard Dead albums. As instructed, she called Jethra Courtindale to let her know which titles they were.

The next morning, Courtindale stopped in at the office, rested her attaché case on the desk, and drew out a trio of discs. Their labels said "Graveyard Dead."

"Does it begin, really begin tonight?"

"Yes, providing the young man listens to them. One message that they all will carry is to listen to them repeatedly, and to get even more titles by the same band."

"Well, he always plays something. The walls never stop shaking with the cacophony."

"Good. Just let me know what new titles he buys and we'll exchange them as quickly as possible."

"But how will we know whether the CDs are having any effect?"

"Some of them are intended to give him an interest in things available on the Internet. His computer has been hacked by our techs and infected with tracker ware that will allow us to monitor his Internet habits. One thing we'll be doing is sending him pop-ups with our ads to special tg websites."


"Transgender. One CD will inspire him to look for tg stories and videos. Once we know where he's browsing, we'll be feeding him a subliminal messages to keep him thinking about sex-change and woman-envy as much as possible, even when he doesn't have the doctored CDs blaring into his ears."

"And all this is supposed to make him want to be a girl?"

"Only on a fantasy level. That's all that's necessary. Male fantasies of this kind are very common, but very few men really want to be girls. It doesn't matter. An intense and pleasurable daydream is the same as a meditative visualization."

"Like in yoga?"

"Close to that. Our magic needs the subject's voluntary consent for it to work. Many computer viruses requires the operator to click a software button of consent before the virus can infect the system. Basically, it tells the computer to let its defenses go down. We do the same thing. If Langdon is frequently visualizing turning into a pretty girl, thinking about the stories and videos on the net that use, say, magical or science fiction means to attain it, it constitutes a sort of mystical consent which will let the magic produce those very changes on his body.”

“I thought that our contract gave you consent,” said Elisa.

"You gave us the right to take the mana. But Langdon has to give us at least implicit consent if we are to go beyond that, such as making him physically attractive and giving him a female-structured brain.”

"Between the internet and the CDs, it sounds like he's getting battered from all sides."

"The real subliminal battering will start once he's become a girl. Once that happens, we have to keep his mind off his moping. We'll do all we can to start him thinking about happy things, boys and clothes, for instance."

"Won't all these sexual fantasies turn him gay even before he's a girl?"

"He's not naturally gay and this sort of psychological conditioning won't make him gay. It will all be just an enjoyable fantasy for him. It will be different when he's a girl and has a brain that has been restructured for girlhood.  Then we'll try to remove all the barriers that are hold him back from yielding to his feminine instincts. The roots of sexual preference lies in the brain structure.”

"If you say so."

"Another thing. We'll want to make him curious about magic. He was a Harry Potter fan, wasn't he? He shouldn't have any strong prejudices against non-scientific ideas that he's presented with. Once we think that he's thinking along the right lines, it will be time to send him a small package in the mail."

"What'll be in it?"

"That would take a while to explain. We'll save the details for our next meeting. Right now, I need to get some hair and, if possible, blood and nail clippings. His brush should provide ample hair."

"Nail clippings are all over his carpet," Elisa said. "Also, Langdon was in a brawl this week and came back with a handkerchief all red from his nosebleed. It's not laundered yet. Will that work?”


Chapter 6

If Elisa had been expecting to see a change in Langdon over the next week, it didn't happen. There was nothing feminine about his swagger or his rough way of talking. Nonetheless, Jethra Courtindale phoned in with positive news. 

"Langdon's progress is excellent. Every day he's making more and more use of the tg resources on the net. He had a Western novel on his screen only last night."

"A Western novel? I don't understand."

"It's a Western parody, about a gang of outlaws that get changed into beautiful women by a magic potion and are put to work in a saloon."

"The court hearing is Monday. I just wish I could be sure that it will go our way. I'd like to believe that he's innocent, but I really don't."

"We all wish our loved ones well. But the more legal pressure that's put on Langdon, the more susceptible he'll be to using magic to get himself out of trouble."

"Can magic get him out of trouble?"

"It can, especially if it makes him over into a school girl. No one who sees him in that shape will remember that Langdon Ardens ever existed."

Elisa was impressed. "By the way, do the stars say that your plan will succeed?"

"The portents appear good, but free will is stronger than destiny. That is one reason that the People respect it so much."

"Oh, one more thing," said Elisa, "I wanted to let you know that Langdon bought three more Graveyard Dead CD's this week." She read the titles off her note pad.

"I'll bring the replacements around to your office tomorrow."

Shouldn't we be getting identity papers for the…girl…ready?"

"Don't worry.  We'll provide them. We've provided them for hundreds of boys."

"What about people who don't see the girl and still remember Langdon?"

"You should throw a party and invite as many of the important people who know Langdon as possible. Make sure they all see Langdon. And then take him around to see personally people any significant people whom you can't invite. Most persons in authority don't care about individuals; to them they only exist as text in a data bank, and those texts will be changed. Trust me, it works. By the by, do you have a name that you'd like to give your stepdaughter?"

"No. It's always seemed so unreal up to now."

"What's Langdon's middle name?"


"How do you feel about Fredrica?"

Elisa shook her head. "People would call her Fred."

"Langdon? Lana?"

"I'm not sure.'


"Donna?" The realtor considered the name. "That's better. When he was small, we used to call him Donny."

"Well, let me know once you decide."


Mrs. Ardens placed phone on the hook and pondered the name. Donna? Pretty. Very pretty. She wondered how Langdon would like it.

* * * *

Langdon case was heard by a grand jury in Iowa, he was indicted as an adult. His trial was set for December 27. The boy's best chance for avoiding lockup would be plea-bargaining for a suspended sentence, maybe with community service. Owlsley would press for that, along with making a big issue about his relative youth, and the fact that at home he was still a minor. It was unusual for a man on bail to be allowed out of the state, even to await trial at home, but Owlsley sounded confident that he'd be able to get a favorable ruling once bail was made.

Elisa had little money saved or invested, so she raised the bond through a bondsman. It was strange to think that before the trial date Langdon would likely be living his life as Donna. Jethra had told her that the whole case against Langdon would be wiped out by the Starry Order, and that the scheduled trial would vanish from the court calendar, probably even before a judge was assigned. They would also see to it that the bail payment would appear as tendered in the imprisonment of a non-extant defendant and be earmarked for return to the Ardens.

After making the bond, Mrs. Ardens returned home. Langdon would probably come back to Omaha with Owlsley the next day. Since this strange situation had begun, she hadn't been able to resist searching Langdon's room for girly things, and she did so again tonight. As usual, nothing was to be found, except a few videos such as It's a Boy-Girl Thing and Identity Theft, as well as some sf books, including Identity Matrix and I Will Fear No Evil. All of these works of popular culture featured male to female sex changes. But, personality-wise, her stepson had seemed so utterly unchanged that she decided that psychological science was beyond her understanding.

The three days Jethra Courtindale phoned and asked, "Elisa, how was Langdon after he got home?"

"He didn't say much. He was sullen when he off went to school in the morning, but he was grinning when he came back, and his step seemed lighter."


"What happened?"

"We gotten him hooked up with a new girlfriend at school. Her name is Glory."

"Why do that?"

"She's one of our people. She started coming on to him before his appearance at the grand jury. Now, after all that stress, he'll be eager to unwind with her. She called to tell us that they're be getting together tonight."

"So that's where he went."

"Very likely."

"Is she a girl if his own age?"

"She'll looks his own age and acts like it, but Glory is actually be older and more sophisticated than she appears. She's helped many boys like Langdon before. Her real work will begin after he's a girl."

"What is she going to do?"

"When Langdon returns to school as Donna, Glory will have already established a bond of trust with him -- her. He'll be looking for someone to support him, someone he feels comfortable with from his old life. Glory won't let on that she remembers his real past, but she'll act like Donna's BFF, the perfect a shoulder for her to lean on, and sometimes to cry on. When Donna needs to know something -- like how to dress, how to walk, how to speak, how to be popular -- Glory'll lend a hand. She'll also encourage Donna to start dating boys. She'll also be Donna's on-site fairy godmother -- or sister -- but she won't say anything about that, either."

"Aren't your People putting a lot of resources into this?"

"Not at all. It's service for value. And, anyway, it's not our policy to foul our nest and move West. We want to operate profitably in Nebraska for many years to come. The Starry Order puts its post-signing customer service very seriously. Compared to the value of mana, all this will cost the Starry Order what amounts to mere pennies."

"I see, you don't just make girls; you try to make happy girls, right?"

"Yes. That's what I've always said."

"This Glory, she's a good girl, isn't she?"

"As good as she needs to be," the lawyer replied. "She has to appeal to Langdon, and if you'll be honest with yourself, you'll know that his tastes run more to beach bunnies than to choir girls."

Elisa sighed. It was all too true.

After hanging up, the realtor wondered whether saving Langdon's mental health wouldn't depend more on the Starry Order than on her.

It shouldn't have to be that way.

* * * *

That evening Jethra Courtindale called to make a Friday morning appointment. Elisa met her at nine.

Jethra came in looking pleased and excited. "Lately Langdon has been downloading Lalola. Now that he's found out about the series, he'll have to watch our site, since we have the only version on the net with English subtitles. The video that we stream is heavily underlain with subliminal suggestions. There are over a hundred and fifty forty-three minute episodes, so that will amount to a lot of attitude-modification time."

"What is it? About a boy who changes into a girl?"

"It's about a young businessman who becomes a woman by the curse. He goes back to get his old job back, pretending to be his own smart-as-a-whip cousin. The story is told in almost day-by-day detail and, in the end, he – she – does everything she can to keep the spell from breaking so she can marry the man she's fallen in love with.”

"I guess Langdon is starting to obsess about this stuff," Elisa observed.

"Yes, and things are going swimmingly with Glory, too."

"You're sure she can help him?"

"Most of her former protégés are already married. Some are still single but successful. I just saw one of them looking incredible on the cover of a motorcycle magazine."

"Langdon's difficult and coarse, not at all the blooming bride type."

Courtindale smiled. "Did you see Three Faces of Eve? In each human being there exists not just three, but hundreds of different personalities. All we have to do is to guide Donna's experiences along so that the personality of a congenial young lady will emerge naturally."

Mrs. Ardens shook her head. "You'd know more about these things than I ever will."

"It's now time for the end game -- the end game of Phase One, I mean. This afternoon UPS will deliver to Langdon that small box I told you about."

"I haven't been clear about how it's supposed to work."

The lawyer didn't lose her enthusiasm. "Our subliminal messages have already put it into the boy's mind that magic is something worth trying. I'm sure it will work, because he was already a fan of Harry Potter and similar movies. He doesn't have to believe in sorcery honestly, but in his desperate state of mind we're sure that he'll be willing to give it a try."

"Give what a try, exactly?"

"The package will contain a flashy-looking medallion and a note. The text will say that the anonymous sender is a Wiccan master who believes that Langdon is being railroaded into prison by a corrupt legal system. He will be urged to wear the medallion charm while he meditates upon summoning the Protective Forces by reciting the chant that the note provides.

"The chant is supposed to channel the Force through him while he visualizes that insurmountable obstacles will magically arise that will prevent his trial from ever taking place. He'll be encouraged to think that the magic will work swiftly and that events should start to break his way after about a week. However, long before he has time enough to get discouraged, we'll have taken his mana."

"Is there any real magic in the charm?"

"None at all."

"Then what does it accomplish?"

"He's likely to visualize something vengeful, like all the witnesses dying in great pain. But, instead, when he'll wake up as a girl, he'll guess that the magic went askew. If he's sensible, he'll blame his own recklessness for playing with magic, and you'll be off the hook."

Elisa frowned. "Langdon is seldom sensible. His first instinct is always to blame someone else."

"If he doesn't come up that reasonable explanation, the expert he talks to will suggest it to him. To her, I mean."

"What expert?"

Jethra opened her attaché case and took out a sheet of notepaper. "When Langdon finds out that he's a girl, he'll want to rush to the hospital. Take him instead to this clinic. The doctor who sees him there is one of ours."

"What will he do?"

"He'll say that he believes everything that Donna is telling him is true and that his diagnoses is that magic is at work. He'll explain that most doctors know about sorcery, but they've always had to deny it because government policy forces them to cover it up. Then he'll send you and Langdon -- Donna -- to an expert mystic, one who, he'll claim, has already helped patients get rid of curses.

"The spell-breaker will inform Donna that she has unintentionally cast a spell on herself. He'll explain that because she was inexperienced, her unconscious thoughts got into the way, that these thoughts perverted the magic. It stopped the trial, but in a way to make her powerful sexual fantasies come true."

"Then what?"

"The expert will assure Donna that he has seen many of these accidental spells. He'll say that it can be broken, but that doing so always takes a little time. Donna will be told that she has to meditate on removing the curse frequently. She'll be told that she has to focus on the idea that she wants, more than anything, to be a boy and only a boy.

"She'll be expected to keep it up for a year, until the night comes when stars are back in the same position as they were at the time of the actual change. This is usually a short enough length time to keep a boy from despairing or panicking. But she'll be warned that returning to boyhood depends entirely on her. If she has any lingering doubt about wanting to give up her girlhood, then the magic might not work."

"Well, it won't work. What happens when the year is up?"

"With most boys, just like in Lalola, a year is enough for them to realize that they like their new lives. All this time, Glory will have been trying to get her to enjoy being a girl, and if she's been successful, Donna won't be all that much surprised when the bogus spell fails. Donna might actually feel secretly happy, especially if she's taken up with a boy by then.

"But if, as in rare cases, her reaction is excessively negative -- angry, or violent-- we have a Plan Two. But there's no reason to get so far ahead of ourselves."

A few minutes later, Courtindale had gone and Elisa sat alone in her office, trying to collect her thoughts. "How on earth did I get into a world where things like this can happen?" she asked herself, and not for the first time.

And she still had no answers.

Chapter 7

The all-important package came the next day and Langdon had taken it away, not telling his stepmother anything about what he had found inside. She had been advised by Courtindale to stand back and let things happen as they happen. The listening device that the lawyer had hidden near Langdon's bed would inform the Starry Order's listeners whether or not Langdon had started chanting.

Elisa hadn't been at the office long before a call from Jethra Courtindale came in.

"I need to see you," said Jethra. "Do you have time this morning?"

"My calendar is open at eleven."

"Fine." She hung up.

Elisa sighed. Was this terrible process just going to keep going on and on?

At eleven sharp, Polly let her boss know that Miss Courtindale was back.

Elisa motioned to the chair as Jethra entered her office.

The latter began without preamble. "Last night Langdon meditated until he fell asleep. The odds are that he'll do so again, every night for at least a week." The lawyer selected a paper from her case and put it in front of Elisa.

"We won't have to wait a week. He's psychologically ready. When he changes, he'll think that it was the chant and the medallion that did it. This is the final consent form in front of you. It authorizes the transfer of mana from a minor, of whom you are the legal guardian, to the Starry Order, in return for consideration, as per our established agreement."

"This is the time that I'd have to either use the opt-out clause or forget about it, right?" the realtor asked.

"Yes," Courtindale affirmed.

"What should I do?"

"Physically, or morally?"

"Morally of course."

"You should always try to do what your heart tells you is right."

"What is right?"

"A person won't go far wrong if he is faithful to those whom he loves. You won't want to go on from here unless you can go forward with a clear conscience."

"I don't know if there is anyone left that I love. I'm pretty sure that there's no one who loves me."

The lawyer's expression was as patient and sympathetic as she could professionally allow herself to become.

Elisa Ardens looked away. Of course she was unhappy. Her unhappiness had dictated every step of what she had done so far. She had filled her contract with every unfulfilled wish of an aching and overburdened heart, and she had bestowed it not only upon herself, but also on Langdon. But ultimately she couldn't deceive herself to think that she was selling out Langdon for her own happiness, not for his. But did youth, beauty, heath, wealth, travel, and palatial homes add up to happiness?

No, not happiness. She couldn't expect that. The Blue Bird of Happiness was never to be found hidden in a mountain legalistic detail, or in a vault filled with cold treasure. Far from expecting happiness, she would be grateful if she found that she was stepping into something just a less awful than Hell.

Elisa looked down at the paper. Her son didn't love her. She also worried that she had stopped loving him.

Why was she so unlovable? What was it about Langdon that made him so loveable?

He wasn't the worst criminal in the world, she knew, but he could become worse. Still, many women had loved a bandit. Many had even loved hot-blooded murderers. But what no one could love was a person who had a piece of ice for a heart.

She didn't know where to turn. Was creative destruction the last best chance she had left?

Could a new daughter make a beginning and a new family?

Could Langdon do better, be better, if put on a new path, if not by his own decisions, then by hers?

She didn't know. She didn't know anything.

Elisa couldn't see behind the door.  So she just took a deep breath and decided that doing something was better than doingnothing, and would let the consequences take care of themselves.

After signing the paper, she dropped the pen as if it had been the dagger of an assassin.

* * * *

Langdon was so seldom home at dinnertime that Elisa had long since stopped cooking meals for two. Tonight he came in about eight, smelling of fast food and beer. As she watched the boy go to his room, she regarded him from behind. He had grown almost fully into a big, sturdy man, but would never be a handsome one. Was he ever sorry that he wasn't attractive, just as she was sorry about her own plainness, or was being someone who could frighten others enough for him?

Normally the boy didn't come out of his room during the evening except to use the bathroom. While she endured the long hours before bedtime, Elisa wondered if she could carry out the detailed plan that Wizard's Law Partners had recommended. Everything about her life, and Langdon's, would be different, starting tomorrow. Intellectually, she was accepting this future as true, but in her soul she couldn't accept it.

Maybe it really was just a hoax? If so, it was a hoax so elaborate that no simple Candid Camera type show could have inspired Courtindale and whoever else was working with her. But if not that, why would two strangers approach a nobody like her and make fantastic promises that didn't hold an ounce of truth?

What had Courtindale and Crowley gained so far from this farce? The chance to blackmail a barely-solvent person like her? For what? For being gullible? For letting herself be bribed into allowing them to go through the motions of using magic that they didn't really have? To be exposed publicly as having been so foolish would be embarrassing, she realized. Elisa would be so ashamed of herself that she would have to restart her business in some other part of the country, a place where no one knew her, but shame wasn't crime.

Anyway, she didn't have many friends or important contact to alienate if she were publically exposed as a fool. But how could this be a fraud? What about the miracles that she had experienced?

Had they been done with hypnotism, as she had conjectured before?

Elisa had not used her opt-out clause. Now, whatever happened, events were completely out of her hands.

That was assuming that anything could, or would, happen.

Elisa rose and walked to the medicine cabinet, and there took the strongest prescribed dose of Valium, hoping it would subdue her anguish. She wanted to sleep tonight, and not be tossing and turning, waiting for morning -- the terrible morning to come.

After she had tidied up the kitchen in an almost dreamlike state, Elisa retired to her own room. The first thing she did there was to check the pack of photographs of herself in the guise of Daphne, just to be sure that they were still there, they were still real.

Daphne was so young, so beautiful, and so glamorous. With all her heart she wanted to be Daphne.

"If this could happen to me…." she said to herself, "…maybe everything else they've talked about could happen, too."

That both gave her hope and additional dread.

Then Elisa Ardens dropped into bed, still mostly dressed.

Would she soon be young again and very rich? Would Langdon become a high-school girl? It was impossible to plan ahead, impossible to believe in it, as it was impossible that Santa Claus himself would bring presents. She couldn't wrap her mind around any of it. If those promised things did happen, on an emotional level she'd be very surprised. On the other hand, if tomorrow turned out to be just like yesterday, she wouldn't be surprised at all. She would simply despise herself even more than she ever had before.

Thanks to the Valium, Elisa managed to drop off before twelve. Her doze seemed to be dreamless.

The realtor was suddenly shocked awake, not knowing what time it was. The house was echoing with shrill screaming.

And they sounded like the screams of a teenaged girl.



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