I avoided the vendor hall, telling Ruby to go without me. Ice told me that they shouldn’t recognize me, but I still didn’t want to take any chances. Looking over the schedule of the convention’s events made me realize how disconnected I was from the rest of the world. It wasn’t that sci-fi and fantasy weren’t my thing. I couldn’t think of a single cast from a television show or movie I’d stand in line to meet. The last film I remembered going to see was The Pagemaster. My mom took me. I remember us sneaking food into the movie theater more than the actual story. Mom loved going to the movies. She wanted to be an actress. The closest she got was local plays. I remembered hanging out in the dressing rooms of the theater where she worked. If she didn’t get a role in whatever play they were producing, she would still devote her time to backstage roles. She probably would have loved conventions like this one. At its core, it was fans sharing their love of stories.
Ruby found me people-watching in one of the many crowded halls. Most people were rushing to get to different panels or standing in line waiting for their turn in the respective rooms. It took me a couple seconds to realize it was her. She was wearing a hot pink and light blue outfit that looked like someone’s sci-fi version of a spacesuit. Her normally long brown hair was gone and replaced by shoulder-length blonde hair. It was clear that she was cosplaying as someone, but I couldn’t tell what character she was. Someone walking past us said what sounded like “zetus lapetus.” Ruby smiled and turned to face the person complimenting her on her outfit. Every interaction I watched made me a little sadder. I missed all these references while I grew up with the Coven. Under Vincent’s care, the only outside media I was allowed was music. The only books in my life were magical tomes, potioscipts, bestiaries, and the like. Films were only used to show how magic interacted with technology, what we needed to keep under wraps in a world where cameras were ever-present.
“Have you gone to any panels?” Ruby asked.
“No, I’m out of my element here,” I said.
“There are a bunch of panels on real magic.”
“I don’t want to risk any of the speakers recognizing me,” I explained.
“I’ve got the perfect solution for that,” she pulled a mask out of her bag. It was a gorgeous black and gold masquerade mask. “I thought we could go to the masquerade ball tomorrow night, but it matches your outfit; There’s no reason you can’t wear it now.”
“You think it’s enough?” I asked as she handed the mask to me.
“There are so many people walking around here. I think that people are more likely looking to spot actors rather than fugitive witches,” she said, only slightly lowering her voice at the end of the sentence.
“I guess you have a point,” I said.
“Of course I do. Now put on that mask, and let’s watch the masses fangirl out over some real witches.”
We walked to the neighboring hotel and found the line for the “Magic Dispelled” panel was out the door and starting to make its way around the building. Thankfully there was a breeze. I was still hot, but I took that trade-off from the potential sunburn that I’d have in a different outfit. The group in front of us was reading spells from a book called Introduction to Magic. They weren’t actually achieving anything, but the spell was legit. When they caught me trying to get a closer look at the book, the woman holding it very proudly held it out. She told us she’d gotten it for free from the magic testing booth. According to her, the witches there were very kind and encouraging. I didn’t doubt that they were. The public relations they were trying to build here wouldn’t work if they were belittling the people there. The rest of the group had plans to go to the booth after this panel, assuming we got in. I took the time to feel out the book holder’s energy. There was definitely some talent there, but she’d need to become much more disciplined if she wanted to cast spells with consistency. I wondered how exactly the Coven was using the information they gathered from those booths. Witches aren’t locked in at a specific power level, hard work does pay off, but it takes belief too. Like most skills, magic can be learned. Some had more affinity than others, and some had advantageous connections. In the end, though, a determined enough person can get results.
The line’s sudden burst to life quelled most of the discussion. Once we walked into the convention hall, I realized that I wouldn’t even need the mask Ruby had given me to avoid detection. It wasn’t quite as large as the vendor hall, but it wasn’t too far from it. Most of the seats were already full. We were in the third to last row of chairs, and there were still so many people behind us in line. There was no way everyone was getting a seat. I hadn’t kept track of the line growing behind us while the group in front of us was inadvertently answering so many of my questions. The staff slowed the flow of people once the last rows filled up. Someone on the stage started asking people to hold up their hands if there was a free seat near them. It took calling out a few people who’d put bags on the seats next to them before they really filled every seat and closed the doors.
Three young witches came on stage. They were all wearing suits with the Coven’s emblem stitched onto the chest pockets. I could only see it on the giant television screens that gave a better view to those of us stuck in the back. The crowd cheered like they were the cast of the most popular show on the air. The witches gave into the pageantry of it. The first one clapped his hands together in a wide arc, sending a gust of wind powerful enough to be felt all the way in the back. The last witch made the illusion of a lightning storm appear over our heads. People jumped, gasped, and even screamed in surprise. The illusion dissipated as quickly as it appeared. The last witch disappeared in a puff of smoke from the stage. She reappeared in the center of the room at one of the microphone stands.
“These are just a few of the more flashy tricks you can do with magic. They take a lot of practice and determination to achieve. We’ll be answering as many of your questions as we can in the next two hours. But first, we want to tell you about some common misconceptions when it comes to magic.” She disappeared again, this time without the puff of smoke. She was back on stage without any fanfare before most people were looking there again. “Starting with the fact that magic isn’t nearly as showy as it is in the movies.”
“More often than not, magic doesn’t come with flourishes,” the first witch said. People were already getting up to form lines at the three microphones.
“At our booths, you can get a book we at the Coven have compiled for people new to their magic. Many of you likely already visited us. We want to stress that you should not skip right to the spells. You need to prepare,” the third witch said.
“We’re not here to rain on anyone’s parade, though. Magic is exciting. A whole new world is opening up for a lot of you. We want you to see how great that world can be without any of you summoning Eldritch Horrors to our plane of existence,” the first witch said. The crowd laughed right on cue. And just like that, she had them eating out of her hands.
The Coven had picked the right team for this. They were doing an excellent job making sure that the world saw them as the benevolent benefactors giving the world the gift of magic. Honestly, they were doing a great job. I was a little annoyed at how well they were doing. But, the truth was this was the best-case scenario. As much as I didn’t want them to find me, I didn’t want the Coven to fail. They’d planned this out as close to flawlessly as they could have. This was a sympathetic audience which made it a bit easier. That would help them more than I considered. Essentially, they’d just gained an auditorium full of supporters who would go out into the world singing their praises. Of course, they would still have opposition ahead of them, but I watched the Coven multiplying their political power in real-time. All I could do was hope that they wouldn’t want to turn this new power against those of us on their most wanted list.