Emily woke up feeling wrong. She remained still in her cot and kept her eyes closed; but, she strained to listen. She heard a handful of the other apprentices snoring and almost dismissed the uneasy feeling as a nightmare. Then she heard a noise again. The noise that somehow woke her up. It sounded like a distant crowd laughing at something. Their laughter sounded flat, almost lifeless to her ears. Emily had entertained more than a few crowds and knew what genuine laughter sounded like. After a few more minutes of snoring, she heard the laughter a third time. Emily made up her mind to investigate the sound and opened her eyes.
She sat up in her cot and looked around the dark room until her eyes adjusted. The first thing she saw was her friend Kirk sitting on the edge of his cot staring at her.
“Ignore it and go back to sleep,” he said. They’d only met twice so far, but he seemed to know about her curious streak.
“Do you know what it is?” Emily asked in a whisper. The quiet, unnatural laughter sounded again to punctuate her question. Instead of going back to sleep she turned on the cot and sat on the edge facing Kirk. He shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s in the Magus’ room and we’re not allowed in there.”
“Aren’t you curious?” she asked. Kirk nodded.
“Of course, but not enough to get kicked out. I just became an apprentice.” Emily grinned and stood from her cot.
“Luckily I don’t care if I’m kicked out.” She took a step toward the Magus’ quarters but Kirk caught her by the arm.
“What are you doing?” He hissed in a whisper. They both heard the laughter again. Emily noted that it seemed to be at random intervals. Emily walked forward and made an effort to pull Kirk forward with her arm. He found she was surprisingly strong.
“I want to see what’s so funny,” she whispered as she kept walking. She navigated the array of occupied cots as quietly as she could with Kirk in tow. “Maybe I can put it in my act.” He refused to let go of her arm, but he wasn’t trying to hold her back anymore.
“What if he kicks me out with you?” Kirk asked when they reached the edge of the barracks. Emily shrugged.
“Then he’s a sad, petty man that you don’t want to apprentice under.” Kirk nodded.
“But I DO,” he said, almost apologetically. Emily sighed and wiggled her arm.
“Then hold on tight. If anyone asks you caught me sneaking around, okay?”
“Okay!” Kirk grinned. The laughter repeated again. It sounded louder now that they were closer. Emily led the way down the narrow stone hall to the Magus’ quarters. They walked closer and Emily caught sight of a bright bluish-white light flickering under the tall oak door.
“I think he’s practicing a spell,” she said. Emily heard the empty laughter again, but she also heard a muffled, hearty gut laugh at the same time.
“What if it’s dangerous? We don’t want to interrupt.” Kirk whispered. Emily faced him and smiled broadly.
“I definitely want to know if it’s dangerous and hilarious.” She stepped forward and peeked through the keyhole. “Whoaaaaa!” she whispered. Kirk was kneeling next to her in a flash.
“What?” he asked.
“He has guests…,” Emily pulled back from the keyhole and looked at Kirk. “But they’re wearing clothes I’ve never seen before.” Laughter sounded again; both the soulless crowd and the hearty gut laugh.
“Who laughed?!” Kirk asked. Emily shrugged and pressed her eye to the keyhole again.
“Wait…” Emily whispered. Kirk waited almost a minute, then he nudged Emily with his knee.
“I want a turn,” he whined. More laughter came through the door. Emily pulled her face back with wide eyes.
“No one! None of the strangers laughed,” she said. “Maybe he has more people in there?” She returned to the keyhole but the moment she positioned herself the door swung open. Magus Grimmley yelped and hopped two feet in the air; he did not expect anyone on the other side of his door. Laughter marked the Magus’ sudden panic.
“Who laughed?” Emily dashed into the room to look around, but she saw no one. The strangers she saw completely ignored her. They went about their business on the other side of some sort of window. One of the strangers fell down and Emily heard the same fake laughter. “What kind of spell is this?” Emily asked. For the first time, she found herself genuinely interested in magic.
“Aawww Damnit! Get in here!” The Magus said. Emily turned around to see him grab Kirk from the doorway and pull him into the room. He slammed the door shut then turned around and faced the two kids. He pointed a thick black wand at the window and the strangers disappeared. “You two forget anything you saw in here. Got it?”
“I didn’t see anything, Magus!” Kirk dropped to his knees.
“Pizza?” a man’s voice said. Emily turned to see a lean teenager stepping out of a black hole. He wore a red shirt with black pants and held a large flat box in his hands.
“DAMNIT!” the Magus yelled again.
“Guess not. Sorry, wrong universe.” The teen turned to step back into the hole but the Magus stopped him.
“It’s the right place.” The deliveryman stopped and turned around, but he still seemed hesitant. “Sorry,” the Magus apologized. “Lot of stuff going wrong at the same time,” he walked toward the pizza man while digging in his pockets. The teen chuckled.
“Yeah, I been there. We’re super short-handed at work,” he said. The Magus gave him a handful of tiny golden cubes and he handed the pizza box over. “I guess my boss didn’t think multi-verse pizza delivery would be as in demand as it is,” he shrugged and turned back toward the portal.
“Wait up,” the Magus called out. “Any chance you’re looking to hire a couple of kids?”
“What’s going on?” Emily asked. The delivery man looked at the kids and nodded.
“Actually yeah. We’re so short handed the boss’ll take anyone right now. If they want to apply.” The Magus looked at Emily and Kirk.
“You two have discovered a secret that I don’t want getting out,”
“I won’t say any-” Kirk began to speak, but the Magus spoke over him.
“I only see two ways to keep my secret. Either you go with this nice young man and find your own way around, or I kill both of you.”
“I’ll go,” Emily said, though she did not move. “But first I want to know about this,” she pointed at large the black window behind her.” The Magus chuckled.
“Looks like I’m doing you a favor. You’ll find out all about that. Now leave so I can finish my show.”