Why do I try? Imagine something you love to do, and you try the best that your talents allow. As soon as you are done, though, you see the flaws in what you've created. You realize that there is always someone else who can do what you did, only better. It's tough being mediocre.

Take becoming a woman, for example. Other guys can change their gender, and turn themselves into a beautiful woman--the kind with big boobs, a great ass and legs, and the face of a model. They can then take that body and apply makeup, put on clothes. Even more important, they can walk, talk, and act like a beautiful, sexy woman should.

Me? The best I can do is kind of a dumpy, suburban housewife--the kind that makes dinner, picks her kids up from school, wheels a cart around a grocery store. The clothes are straight from the catalogue or the sale bin (and don't quite fit right), the makeup is either too much or not enough, the hair is frazzled and the style out of date. The body is too heavy and flabby in the wrong places, the face decidedly average--chubby cheeks and small, squinty eyes.

So, what do you do? You cheat. You use the people with the real talent to make yourself look good. That's why I took Transgender 101. But instead of getting good, everything went wrong. And I still can't do it right.

In case you think this is just about me whining, let me back up a bit. I was a freshman at Wizard University, in my second semester. That's right, THE University--not Wizard Tech or Wizard Community College. We were supposed to be the cream of the crop, not the school for the party animals or the ones who couldn't get into a real college. My old man pulled some strings to get me in, but I was there.

The class was Transgender 101, and it was the second week. Our assignment was to turn ourselves into a woman. Simple. No further specifications, no need to go out in public, no straight or lesbian sex. We were just supposed to turn ourselves into a woman of our choice, and turn back. That's it.

So in class, the instructor turns to this geeky guy named Graham. If you had ever met Graham, you'd know the guy was a first class nerd, the kind that hid behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, never talked to anyone, and just generally gave you the creeps. Anyway, the instructor told him to do it, and Graham read the spell from the exact same textbook that I have. There was this big flash and a puff of smoke, and presto! Standing there was the most drop dead gorgeous blond you have ever seen in your life. She had the full slut uniform--tiny lace bra that barely contained two huge breasts, complete with erect nipples, and a thong bottom that barely covered the front and disappeared between the round, full ass cheeks. The legs were long, smooth and beautifully proportioned, and the delicate feet were wedged into black leather, four inch high heels. She pursed her red, full lips and tossed her head to emphasize the full mane of hair that cascaded down her neck and back. Then, this gorgeous girl read the reverse spell in the most sultry, feminine voice you ever heard. Poof! That jerk Graham was back, looking a little embarrassed.

The whole thing happened in a couple of minutes, but the rest of us had our jaws on the floor. There must have been more to that spell, too, because I ended up with the quickest woody I'd had since high school. All the instructor could manage was a quiet, "Wow! Nice job!"

Of course, I got to go next. I was ready with a mental picture of my target--Miss Starr Light, a stunning brunette with huge oversized tits from one of my favorite porno flicks. I concentrated as hard as I could, and read the spell. Flash! This time, though, there was no stunned silence from anyone else in the room, just a few amused chuckles. I was a woman all right, but any resemblance to a porn star was purely accidental. I was about 5 foot tall and weighed about 200 pounds. My breasts were big, but everything else was big, too--thighs, arms, waist, and, worst of all, my face was round and my cheeks were chubby. My hair was this tired mass of stray strands of brown hair. Instead of the kinky, sexy dress I imagined in my head, I was wearing a plus sized green business suit with a long skirt and shoes that were by necessity flats. I caught a glimpse of my faint reflection in the classroom window. I looked like some overworked, overweight office flunkie in her mid-forties. I was so repulsed at what I had done that I immediately chanted the reverse spell. Flash! I was back, looking none too happy.

The shocked expression on my face must have told the story, because everyone else thought it was funny. Even the instructor could not help a big grin. "Well done, Dexter. If that's what you intended to do." Of course, it wasn't. To this day, I don't know where in my subconscious that woman I conjured up came from. Was I trying to fail on purpose? I should have acted like that was what I was trying to do, like I was trying to be funny by turning myself into that woman. But I'm not that good of an actor, I guess. My classmates laughed, and I sank back down into my seat, humiliated.

The other students went through their transformations during the rest of the class. The only good news was that I wasn't the only one having trouble. Whatever feminine image they had in their minds, the other students turned themselves into everything from pre-teen school girls to lesbian bikers to country-club housewives to post-menopause grandmother types. I barely noticed. I was a basket case, sitting with my head bent forward and my eyes locked onto the top of my desk, stewing in my failure.

When the class mercifully was over, I went up to Graham in the hallway. Now, before you get too mad at me, all I was trying to do when I first approached Graham was to get a little friendly advice, some helpful hints I could use to get better. I even started out with a compliment to break the ice with the guy. "Hey, Graham. Nice job, dude. You were better than everyone else in there, including me."

He barely glanced at me as he kept walking. "Yeah, I guess." The guy was just way too uptight. He walked with his head toward the floor, holding onto his books in front of his chest as if they were his body armor, shielding him from the rest of the world.

It wasn't the friendliest greeting I ever got, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. "Look, Graham, you were great! Your chick was so hot, and mine was so dumpy. Tell me, do have any pointers for me? Something I can use to help me turn into what I'm imagining in my head?"

Graham shrugged. "I don't know. It just happens for me, that's all. Now, if you'll excuse me." And that was it. He just turned and went the other way, leaving me standing there with my mouth hanging open.

See, that's the thing with people who are really talented. Sometimes, they can't even explain it. It just comes naturally to them. The rest of us have to come up with something outside of our own abilities, whether you call it a method or a procedure or an approach, to help. Otherwise, you just can't do it. Give up and move to something else.

At that point, though, I was not ready to quit. The next assignment in Transgender 101 was to turn ourselves into a famous woman of our own choosing. It could be an actress, sports figure, someone in the news, whatever. The trick was that we had to say who we would turn into before we did it. Unlike the last time, when I at least turned into a woman and thus completed the assignment, I couldn't screw up and still get a 'B.'

This time, I even cracked open the textbook for help. I wanted to know why, when one person is in your mind when you chant the spell, you can turn into someone else--someone who was not in your conscious mind at all. Our textbook was something maybe you've got at your school: Introduction to Transgender Magic, by C.H. Hindenblower. These basic textbooks are pretty watered down, though, intended for beginners, so this was all it said about what it called "Identity Displacement":

"The novice wizard may experience identity displacement in the inducement of transgender transformation. This is particularly true when the spell caster is the one being transformed, as opposed to third persons. This is caused by resistance in the subconscious of the spell caster to the transformation. Persons with a particularly strong sense of personal identity, or those with narcissistic tendencies, have a subconscious need to remain themselves. Despite their conscious desire to transform into a woman of their choosing, particularly one they would find attractive, they will instead transform themselves into a woman they find less attractive or even repulsive. Thus, their subconscious id discourages the conscious superego from casting the spell, so as to remain the person they have always been."

What sort of psycho-babble doubletalk was that? I couldn't cast the spell properly because I like myself too much? And Graham could turn himself into a hottie because he liked himself too little? That sounded like a bunch of crap to me. The frustrating part was the one sentence the textbook devoted to telling us novice wizards how to cure the problem. It said, "Identity displacement can be eliminated by disciplining the mind, through diligence and application, until the experienced spell caster is able to effect the spell without error."

Diligence and application? That sounded like a lot of work to me. I mean, I love these classes that assume that the only thing you are doing at college is taking that one class. The truth was that I had four other classes that semester, and my social life was looking up. I was pledging the most happening frat on campus, and I was getting hooked up with some hot numbers at the neighboring Witches University. I didn't have time to mess around with this stupid course. The only reason I took it was that it was a core requirement, and I needed it for some of the higher level transformation classes.

But again, before you start giving me a hard time, you should know that I really did try on my own at that point. One Friday night, I begged off from going to a kegger, so I could stay in my dorm room and practice.

Now, one thing you have to understand is that I normally have enough endurance to cast, in any one day, about ten easy spells. If the spells are harder, I'm good for six or seven, before I have to rest and recover. That's my level. Other wizards can do more, some less.

So, I thought very carefully about who I wanted to be before I started. If part of the problem was that I was picking someone too attractive, I decided to lower my sights a little--no more trying to be a porn star, no models, no really attractive actresses. I was in my room, alone, so I could experiment.

I flipped through the TV listings looking for inspiration. My first choice was Jane Leeves of 'Frasier', who plays Daphne. It was kind of a wimpy first choice because she is still pretty good looking, though not in the class of the usual TV cover girls, like the 'Friends' women, or Jeri Ryan, or Sarah Michelle Geller. I picked her because I like the show, so I could hold a pretty strong mental picture of her and hear her voice in my head as I cast the spell. I stood in front of the mirror, and opened the textbook and read the spell. Flash!

When the mist cleared, I saw I had screwed it up again! I was Laura San Giacomo of the show 'Just Shoot Me.' Boy, was I mad! I should have looked on it as an improvement. She was certainly better than the hideous example I had come up with in class, but she wasn't what I was trying for. So I read the reverse spell. Poof! I was back, looking at the sour expression in my face reflected back by the mirror.

I decided to try again. This time, I decided to go away from actresses. Instead, I thought I would try to be tennis player Anna Kournikova. My logic was that I like sports, and tennis in particular, so a famous tennis player might be a good alternative. Plus, I had a poster up on the wall of my dorm room of her ad for a sports bra, so I had an external image to focus on while I cast the spell. So, I turned and faced the poster, and read the spell.

This time, there was a loud, audible crack like a firecracker had gone off in the room. The mist cleared, and I opened my eyes and faced the mirror. This time, I was Martina Navratilova, middle-aged ex-tennis star. I gasped out loud, and hurriedly cast the reverse spell. The spell again went off like a firecracker, and I was back.

By then, I was in a really bad mood, and starting to tire. I had already cast four spells in a short period of time, and knew I was only good for another two or three before I was done for the day. In retrospect, this was the exact moment that I crossed the line from an honest student to a cheater. Instead of focusing and trying again, I decided to take a shortcut. And I'm not proud of what I did, but I intend to tell you the whole truth, however it makes me look.

I decided to break the law to try to get better. As you may know, under the Treaty of Magic, a wizard cannot change a mortal without the mortal's permission. We learned about the Treaty in our first semester, in our Political Science class. Fifty some years ago, soon after magic was discovered to be real, the Treaty was signed between the magic and the mortal worlds. For those with innate magic, it was a question of survival. There's about one man or woman with magic for every one hundred thousand mortals (people without magical abilities). People with magic agreed to limits on their abilities to practice their skills. Otherwise, mortals, fearing their superior abilities, would eventually hunt down and kill every wizard or witch. In charge of enforcing the rules in the Treaty is the Supreme Council, a body of wizards and witches that ran both universities. What I was about to do was illegal. So, if I got caught, not only would I be expelled from Wizard University, but I would probably wind up in a mortal jail.

So, why did I do it? The general answer is that I was stupid, and a little desperate. And believe me, I've since asked myself a thousand times--why I didn't just try my best and take my lumps? None of what happened after would have happened. At the time, though, my thinking was that it was harmless, as long as I didn't get caught. I needed to experiment, and a mortal seemed like the most likely guinea pig. I was not going to try out my spell on another wizard, with or without his permission. That would just be an admission of failure!

It was about ten at night, and I got into my car and headed out of the university district, towards downtown. I started cruising the streets, looking for a mortal who was alone, and either homeless, or drunk, or both. Someone who either would not tell anyone about what I had done, or if he did, no one would believe him. It took about forty minutes of slow driving through the red light district.

Finally, I spotted a suitable victim in an alley. He was a disheveled wino sleeping one off in the middle of a pile of dirty blankets and pieces of a cardboard box. He was perfect, because if he stayed asleep while I did the changes, he might not even know what happened. And if he did somehow remember, he might think it was just some bizarre nightmare brought on by alcohol. I could get away with it and no one would be the wiser.

I pulled my car into a parking space on an adjoining street, and walked over to the guy with my textbook in hand. First, I double-checked that no one was around, and that the guy was unconscious. Then, I pictured Daisy Fuentes in my head, and willed my magic toward the guy laying before me as I read the spell. Poof!

And it worked! Instead of a middle aged guy with a full, frazzled beard and disheveled, smelly clothes, there was a beautiful woman with long sandy brown hair, a sexy, busty halter top and tight shorts covering a full, feminine ass, and beautiful, shapely hairless legs. And she was still sleeping peacefully in the alley, unaware of my presence. So, I didn't waste any time. I cast the reverse spell, and beat a hasty retreat out of the alley and back to the car.

It didn't matter that I had just committed my first real crime. I was exhausted but pretty damn happy, to tell you the truth. Because I knew that I could do it to someone else. Eventually, once I got over the block in my mind, I should be able to transgender myself properly as well.

The next day when I showed up to class, I had a plan. Okay, I thought, maybe I'm still shooting too high. I needed someone who was a famous woman, but someone I wasn't really attracted to--someone who would not be vetoed by my subconscious. I'm a fan of the show 'Seinfeld', so I tried Julie Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Elaine. My logic was that she is not ugly, but she is more of a guy's girl. After all, the main characters on the show never really made a play for her, even though she was supposed to be Jerry's ex-girlfriend.

The instructor set up a full length mirror in front of the class, and had us go up one by one. This time, most of the guys did better. They announced who they were shooting for, and cast the spell. And almost everyone nailed their choice. One guy even did a naked Jennifer Aniston, though I still can't understand how he could picture her without any clothes on.

Finally, it was my turn. I walked up to the front of the class, announced my choice, and thought of Elaine from 'Seinfeld', just like I had seen and heard her on television about a hundred times. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and focused on her, and chanted the spell. Bang!

Before I opened my eyes, I listened for any reaction from the class or the instructor, but no one said anything. So, I turned toward the mirror and opened my eyes. And there she was! I was a dead ringer for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, complete with wire rimmed glasses, loose brown hair that went down past her shoulders, and I was dressed in the snappy business suit and high heels that she wore to work at the J. Peterman Catalogue.

Then, I decided to talk. My intention was to make a joke about my choice by repeating a line of dialogue from the show. I got as far as scrunching up my face and starting to whine, "Jerry!" The problem was the sound that came out of Julia's mouth. Instead of her high, feminine voice, what came out was my own, masculine voice. As soon as it came out, I just froze. I knew I had screwed up. There was some nervous laughter from the other students.

The instructor could have been more supportive. He said, "Well, Dexter, you are showing improvement, but this is still not good enough." He turned toward the others, and gestured toward me as he made his point. "Class, this illustrates a common mistake in transformations. This is caused by a lack of concentration. Your voice is the source of your magic. Thus, it can be the last part of you to change." He turned back toward me and addressed me. "Unfortunately, I cannot give you full credit for almost completing the assignment. You get a 'D.' Change yourself back and sit down."

Man, was I pissed! You could hear it in my voice as I chanted the reverse spell. After the mist cleared, I went back to my seat and flopped down, making sure everyone else knew I was going to sulk the rest of the class.

And to further humiliate me, Graham went next. He announced that he would turn himself into all three actresses that played Charlie's Angels, from the movie. Here's the kicker--he would be all three, at the same time! The rest of us just gasped in shock, and even the instructor was a little taken back.

"Now, Graham," the instructor said, "you don't need to do that. A multi-transformation is a dangerous spell. I don't want you to get hurt."

Graham looked offended that someone would doubt him. "No, I can do this. Just watch." The rest of the room got real quiet as Graham closed his eyes and chanted the spell. You could feel the power--not only was there a loud pop and a cloud of mist, but you could sense in your gut that there was a fountain of magic flowing through the room. When the mist cleared, I'll be damned if he didn't do it! Three beautiful women faced the rest of the class. Cameron Diaz wore the tiny yellow two-piece bikini and tinted wraparound glasses she had on in the beginning of the movie. Lucy Lu and Drew Barrymore wore black scuba suits, but their hair looked like it just came out of the salon--full and sultry. All three bodies were perfect.

I learned right away, though, that there were some limitations to a multi-transformation. Since one mind controlled all three bodies, they could only move and speak in unison. When one tossed her head or lifted an arm or changed expression on her face, they all did. But it was still damned impressive, and far beyond anything I could ever do.

You could tell the instructor was more than impressed, but I think he also realized that Graham was showing off. He sort of nervously cleared his throat and said, "That's enough, Graham. Please change yourself back." The three gorgeous women chanted the reverse spell in unison. I had to admire the fact that not only had Graham got the three bodies right, but each voice was perfect as well--this after I had just screwed up the voice for one woman. Flash! The tiny, mousy little man was back. He sat down, looking a little smug.

Instead of praising Graham directly, the instructor turned to the rest of us. "This is what the you can accomplish if you apply yourselves. Whether it's in this class or in the advanced classes, every single one of you should be able to do a multi-transformation spell by the time you graduate." Yeah, I though to myself. If I graduate.

It was about the end of class, so the instructor wrapped it up. "For next week's class, I want you to pair up. This assignment combines a transgender spell and a mind-reading spell. Pick your own partner. You won't know the target woman ahead of time. I will show one of you a name on a piece of paper. Your partner will read your mind, and change you into the person named on the paper. Then, you will do the same to your partner. When both of you have successfully performed the spells, you will have completed the assignment. Good luck. See you next time."

About half the class looked at Graham. Everyone wanted to be his partner, including me. But for the first time, he looked scared. He bolted from the room without giving anyone a chance to talk to him.

But I had just gotten a D, and I wasn't going to let it happen again. I grabbed my books and rushed out into the crowded hallway, looking for him. No Graham. He was just gone.

I went back to my dorm room and stewed for a while. The more I thought about it, the more mad I got. Why should Graham be so good and myself so bad? What's wrong with him helping me? My blood was hot, and I made up my mind that I was going to make Graham be my partner, whether he wanted one or not.

I got Graham's address through the student directory. It was an off-campus apartment. That was unusual, since the university's rules said that all freshman had to live in the dorms. It should have been my first hint that something was up with Graham, but that never crossed my mind. I just wanted to find him, and to make him help me with the next class assignment.

I headed out on foot, across the campus. Soon, I was walking down the quiet side streets off campus that contained private homes and apartments for faculty, employees and students. After finding the address, I climbed the stairs to an apartment above a garage. The windows were all covered over, either by thick drapes or with paper taped to the inside--even the small windows at the top of the door.

I knocked. After a couple of seconds, Graham's thin, wheezy voice came from behind the door. "Who is it?"

I tried to sound as non-threatening as possible. "It's me, Graham. Dexter, from Transgender 101."

His answer sounded like he was surprised, even a little afraid. "What do you want?"

It felt funny talking to a door, but I kept going. "I want to talk to you about the next assignment. We're supposed to pair up. I was wondering if you wanted to team up with me."

Several seconds passed in silence. The door stayed closed. Finally, he asked, "Why should I?"

It was a good question. There was no reason why the best student in class should help the worst. I could even make him look bad, if that were possible. I had to do the verbal equivalent of getting on my knees and begging for help. "Look," I said, "I know I stink. But I figured that a guy like you could show me some pointers to make me better. You've got to help me. I don't know what I'm going to do if I don't pass this course."

More silence. I could almost picture him on the other side of the door, thinking. In desperation, I tried the hard sell. "Graham, you've got to pick somebody to pair up with. That's the assignment. And think of it. If you help me to do it, then you really are the best. Everybody, including the professor, will know it."

Finally, the door cracked open a few inches. Grahams mousy, bespectacled eyes peered out at me from the dark interior.

I was practically pleading. "Come on, Graham. Let me in. Give a guy a break."

The corners of Graham's mouth twitched up into a sly, knowing smirk. He stepped back, and the door swung open. I stepped in, and he shut the door behind me.

It was a typical efficiency apartment. I was standing in a little dining area off the kitchen. The rest of the room was a living room, compete with a battered couch and small television. In front of me, there were two doors side by side, one to a bathroom and the other to a bedroom with a single twin bed.

What made the place unusual was that it was almost dark. The only light came from thin slits of sunlight that found their way past the edges of the curtains or the papers taped to the windows. It was a little creepy, to tell you the truth, but I was glad to have made it inside.

I kept up the sales pitch. "Like I was saying, Graham. We could be a team. I'd do anything you told me to do. Honest. We'll do it just the way you want."

This time, when Graham spoke, he was in control. He knew he was the boss. "Fine, Dexter, if you really mean that. But you have to do exactly what I say, no matter how weird it sounds to you." His voice deepened and grew more intense. "And you have to swear your most solemn oath--that you wont repeat anything I tell you, or anything I show you, to anyone."

I nodded. "Absolutely. I swear." I would have said anything at this point to get him to help me.

Graham's tone grew more ominous. "Because you do not want to cross me. Ever."

That last part got to me, though I didn't want to show it. A little shiver of fear went up my spine. But I was too wrapped up in getting through the next assignment. I wasn't going to stop. "No sweat, Graham. We'll do it your way."

At last, he lightened up. "Fine," he said. "Let's get started."

I exhaled in relief. Now, truthfully, I thought we would be there all night. I thought we would have to keep practicing until Graham had drilled the spells into my head. But it turned out that Graham had a few shortcuts of his own.

He grabbed a little slip of paper and a pen and scribbled some words on it. He handed it to me, and said, "This will do the trick. Just before it is your turn to cast the spell, repeat these words in your mind." He leaned forward, and stuck his finger in my chest to emphasize his point. "But do not say these words out loud. Don't even move your lips. Or else."

I took the paper from him, a little dazed. This wasn't making any sense, but I was too nervous to start asking questions. All I could say was a whispered, "Okay."

Now, if I had known what I was doing, I would have seen that the words on the paper weren't from the textbook, or from any book of legitimate magic. It was black magic. The kind that you weren't ever to use, even as a joke. But I didn't know.

For his part, Graham didn't seem worried. He was already pushing me to the door, patting my back as if to reassure me. "Don't practice with it," he said. "Don't even look at the words until right before it is time to cast the spell in class. You never want to spring this spell before you really need it."

My mouth opened to start asking questions, but no words came out. Before I knew it, the front door was open and I was standing on the landing. Graham was standing in the doorway with a wicked grin on his face. He said, "See you in class, Dexter. Have a relaxing weekend." He cackled as if he had just told a very funny joke, and shut the door in my face.

I stood there for several moments, a little dazed. I had no idea what had just happened, but I knew it wasn't good. It felt like Graham had just taken a little piece of me, but I didn't understand why or how. I slunk back to my dorm room, and tried to forget about it.

After a few days, and sooner than I wanted, it was time for the next class. When I showed up, I had the little piece of paper Graham had given me tucked away in my shirt pocket. I had done just what he had told me, not looking at it since I had been in Graham's apartment. I believed in Graham enough to know that, when the time came, it would work.

The instructor went through the pairs of students, testing us. For each workgroup, he gave one student a little slip of paper and told the partner to turn the one holding the paper into the woman named on the paper. The student doing the casting then had to chant a mind reading spell, then the transformation spell. It was actually pretty funny. Between the names the instructor had picked--mostly women athletes like Mia Hamm or the Williams sisters--and the mistakes students made either in the mind reading or in the transformations, only about half the transformations worked like they were supposed to. This assignment was tough.

Graham and I were the last to go. When we stood up from our seats, everybody looked at Graham, the prodigal student. That gave me a couple of seconds to dip into my pocket and pull out Graham's spell. I opened it and repeated the words in my mind.

It was a good thing I didn't have to speak the spell, or I would have tripped over the strange language--double and triple consonants grouped together, hyphenated syllables. But I knew I had gotten it right, because the weirdest, most sickening feeling came over me. The only way I can describe it was like a wave of green, putrid water was flowing over me. I almost couldn't breathe.

Still, I managed to stumble forward to the front of the class. No one seemed to notice what was happening to me. The instructor handed Graham a piece of paper. Almost as if someone else was speaking, I heard my voice chanting the mind reading and transformation spells. But I wasn't trying to do anything, and I never actually knew in my head the woman I was supposed to be turning Graham into.

But there was a flash and puff of mist around Graham. When it cleared, the spitting image of Rosie O'Donnell, dressed in a bulky pant suit, was standing there. I heard her speak. "Nice job, Dexter," she said, her voice just right.

The instructor also seemed impressed. "Yes, excellent Dexter. It's nice to see you showing a little improvement. You can change Graham back now."

Again, I heard my voice, this time chanting the reverse spell. Flash! And Graham was back, a very satisfied grin on his face.

The sickening magic that had taken me was suddenly gone. My knees buckled and I almost passed out. The instructor finally noticed that something was wrong with me, but he must have thought that it was just me getting tired out from the spells. He smiled and said, "Take it easy, Dexter. I know that these spells can use up your endurance pretty quickly. But as you get more experienced, it'll become easier. Trust me."

I took a couple of deep breaths and regained some of my composure. "Thanks," I whispered. "I'll be fine." The effects of Graham's spell were starting to go away, but I knew something very wrong had just happened to me. Graham just stood there, grinning. He knew what was going on.

At that moment, though, I wasn't going to call him on it. I took seriously Graham's threat for me to keep quiet. I had no idea what someone like that was capable of doing to me. I'd have to figure it out later.

The instructor handed me a slip of paper. Almost as soon as the words hit my brain, I heard Graham chanting the spells as fast as he could. I guess if he was limited in terms of what he was supposed to do, he was going to show off by doing it faster than anyone else in class. Poof!

When the mist cleared, there were some giggles from the other students in class. I looked in the mirror. Hillary Clinton stood there looking back at me, complete with the same blue overcoat and goofy blue hat that she'd worn at her husband's first inauguration. I grimaced and said in her stern voice, "That's enough. Turn me back." The instructor laughed, enjoying his own joke. Graham quickly recited the reverse spell, and I was myself again.

This time, when the class was over, Graham followed me out into the hallway. He grabbed my arm, and spun me around to face him. He had this big, self-satisfied grin on his face. He spoke in a low, confidential tone. "Yes, Dexter, let me congratulate you as well--since I'm the only one who really understood what went on in there."

By then, I had gotten my senses back enough to be angry. I leaned over and spoke directly into his face. "Yeah, Graham. You can wipe that smug expression off your face. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we did the assignment. But what did happen in there, really?"

Graham did not seem intimidated by me at all. He answered, "You'll find out, in time. When I think you are ready. But I can say that you've got potential. Stick with me and you'll be a better wizard than you could have ever imagined."

My head was swimming. I had no idea what he was talking about. At that moment, though, all I wanted to do was to get back to my dorm room and lay down. I pushed Graham away. "Just leave me alone."

He let me go, but I could hear his slow, quiet laugh as I walked away.

The whole thing just freaked me out, so I stayed away from Graham over the rest of the semester. And I never looked again at his spell. I tore it into little shreds and burned the pieces. Even if I didn't know what it was, I knew I didn't want any part of it.

So, I was back to being the real me, the one that could barely keep up with everyone else. I had gotten an A on the assignment with Graham, but it was almost like half a real grade because everyone assumed that he had somehow gotten me to do it right. The rest were C's, D's and a couple of F's. I was probably going to pass, but barely. It would all depend on the final.

It was going to be a tough one. The test would be a two part spell. First, you had to change yourself into a woman described by the instructor. Instead of a real woman, someone you could name or picture in your head, he would give you the physical characteristics you had to meet. Second, he would tell you to alter one part of the body into that of an animal, like giving her a dog's muzzle or a duck's bill. She would be strictly a product of our imaginations.

What's worse, the instructor announced they were going to do something they had never done in that class. They were going to move the last class to a large lecture hall, and invite other students, professors, and even a couple of the top university officials to watch us. Graham's reputation had gotten around the campus, and people wanted to see him in action. They knew he would put on a show. But for me, that just meant more pressure, and probably more humiliation when I screwed it up.

That's when Graham again approached me. He knew I needed help with the final, that I was so desperate that he could talk to me despite what had happened earlier in the semester. He found me a couple of days before the final, as I was heading to another class.

"Hey, Dexter," he said. "Ready for the big test in Transgender 101?" He had this big, superior grin on his face.

I should have just punched the little dweeb right then and there. But I didn't. I was actually afraid of him. "I'm a little worried, actually. You already know that." I acted like I was in a hurry to leave. "So, what do you want, Graham?"

He laughed. He had me right where he wanted me. "Well, I might be able to help," he said. "Why don't you meet some friends of mine at a little get-together we're having tonight? They're really experienced wizards, and they've helped me to become the wizard that I am. Maybe they can to the same for you."

Without waiting for me to answer, Graham handed me an address and turned and walked away. I stared after him, not quite sure to make of the whole thing. Part of me wanted to just throw the piece of paper on the ground and forget about it. But I couldn't do it. Maybe Graham and his buddies could help me, make me as good as he was. I had to find out. No harm in just going to a party, right?

So, I went. It was at the home of a member of one of the high-ups of the University, some Vice-Chancellor or someone like that. The home was in an exclusive little cul-de-sac near the campus, the kind where the houses are big and ornate, and however much they cost, you knew you could never afford to live there. There was a long tent set up out back and a catered buffet, with guys in crisp white suits handing out champagne from little silver trays. About fifty guests were there, mostly other students, but also four or five professors and some administration types milling around. Everyone seemed pretty chummy.

Normally, this sort of snooty shin-dig would have bored me stiff, if I would have gone at all. But I was there to see Graham and these friends of his. As soon as I got there, he spotted me and walked up to me with this big grin on his face. He stuck out his hand and pumped a hard handshake. Graham said in this real loud voice. "Hey, Dexter. Good to see ya, buddy!" I almost couldn't believe this was the same, shy little geek I had seen in class, and in his apartment. Now, it was like I was on his turf, surrounded by his friends. Here, he was the star.

I kept my cool, though. "Hi, Graham. Here I am." Even as I was shaking his hand, I made like I was already angling to leave. "Say, I can only stay a few minutes. How about introducing me to these friends of yours?" I wasn't going to stand and pretend like I was happy to be there.

If he was offended, he didn't show it. He actually giggled a little bit when he realized how uncomfortable I was. "Sure, Dexter. Let's get right down to business." He guided me over to a little knot of people, and pulled this one gray-haired old professor away. "Professor Hughes, this is the student I was telling you about."

I actually flinched when the guy turned his eyes on me. From the side, he didn't look like much. Hughes was this short, kind of plump middle-aged guy, with a weird combination of a bald top to his head, but this long straggly hair that stuck out from the side of his head down to his shoulders. He wore a rumpled brown tweed suit jacket and baggy pants that didn't quite fit him. His shoes were scuffed and badly in need of a shine. His face had a day's worth of stubble from the bad shave he had given himself that morning.

But the eyes! They were these intense, bullet gray eyes that bored right into you. It was like he knew everything there was about you the moment they locked onto you. He ran those eyes up and down me while I just stood there, nervously waiting for him to finish sizing me up.

When Hughes spoke, his voice was velvet-smooth, calm and self-assured. "Ah, yes. This must be Dexter." He gripped my hand and gave me a firm handshake. "I've been looking forward to meeting you." I could tell right away this guy was a big-time wizard. Standing there, I could almost feel his power. It scared me.

Still, I managed to grin a little. "Nice to meet you, sir."

He flashed me a slimy smile. "The pleasure is all mine, believe me. Graham's told me he thinks you'd make a wonderful addition to our team."

I wasn't sure what he meant, exactly. "Team, sir? Graham just told me that I'd be able to get some help here with my final exam in Transgender 101."

"Well, son, Graham and I are part of a group that practices a new and different kind of magic. One that can help you not only in one class, but in every area of your life."

I asked, "A fraternity?" Boy, was I dumb.

Hughes laughed. "In a way, I suppose, we are a fraternal order of like-minded individuals. But it is more important than that." He leaned in and lowered his voice to a whisper. "We stand for one basic proposition--that those with magic should rule. Our group is against the Treaty of Magic, or any agreement with the mortals that limits our power. We intend to overthrow the current order, including our esteemed Supreme Council. We mean to be in charge, of everything."

Suddenly, I knew. These guys were practicing black magic. That's why Graham was so damned good at everything. To this day, it still irks me. He wasn't special at all. He was cheating!

I tried to stay cool, but my voice must have been about an octave higher. "Really? What would I have to do to be a part of this?"

Hughes and Graham both seemed pleased. They smiled and exchanged a quick look of satisfaction between themselves. Hughes kept up the sales pitch. "There would be an initiation into the group," he said. "One to cement your commitment to our cause. Then, all of our collective power would be yours to control. For the benefit of the group, of course."

I didn't like the sound of that. There were wild urban legends about what happened at these gatherings of black magicians. The most disturbing rumor was about an oath of allegiance to some ultimate wizard, the Dark Master. And once you sold your soul to that guy, you were done.

I countered, "What if I don't want to join up? What if I were to go to the authorities and tell them all about your little organization?"

Hughes didn't bat an eye. "That would be unfortunate. For you. Do not underestimate the reach of our group." He chuckled. "Also, Dexter, we would be forced to reveal your own little breach of the rules."

That caught me off guard. I asked, "What? What do you mean?"

Hughes replied with utter confidence. "My good boy, don't me so modest. Your transformation of a mortal a couple of months ago. Remember? You went downtown and turned a homeless man into a female model, then back. That, sir, is against the Treaty of Magic."

Oh, my God! I had almost forgotten! I blurted out, "How do you know about that?"

Hughes answered, "As I said, Dexter, do not underestimate the breadth of our organization. But, rest assured, we have not breathed a word of this to the authorities. And, we will not, provided you promise not to reveal the existence of our group."

See, that's the thing with these guys. One minute, they're acting like they're your friends and they want to help you. The next, they're blackmailing you into keeping your mouth shut.

Hughes kept going. "Of course, my hope is that you will choose to join us. As a token of our good will, we will help you with your final exam in your Transgender class." He gestured toward Graham, who withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. "The word written on that piece of paper is another trigger spell. Reading it will allow you to access our magic for one spell. It will enable you to ace your exam." Hughes patted me on the shoulder and concluded, "I trust you with that, my friend. I know you will do the proper thing."

My time with the great man was over. He turned and walked back to the group of people he was originally talking to, leaving me with Graham.

Graham stood there with this smug smile on his face, like he knew he had me. But he didn't. Whatever you think of me, I would never go for black magic, ever. I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to get him, and his friends. All I had to do was to get out of there without tipping my hand.

I acted like I was mulling it over. "Well, Graham. Thanks for inviting me. You've given me a lot to think about." I shoved the piece of paper into my pants pocket and patted it for emphasis. "And, thanks for this. I'll put it to good use, believe me."

Graham grinned like I was his new best friend. "Of course you will. I knew you'd understand." He gave me a last wave as I walked away. He called out, "See you in class. I know you'll do great!"

Yeah, right. But I realized as I was walking away that I really was in trouble. The piece of paper in my pocket was enough to get me arrested and thrown in jail. On the other hand, if I didn't use the spell they gave me in my final exam--if I tanked because I used my own natural talents--then they knew I wasn't going to join their little group. Who knew what they would do to me then? That thought got to me. Suddenly, the idea of sitting in a mortal jail seemed a lot better than crossing an organization of black wizards.

No, I had to get them before they got me, even if that meant having to admit the mistakes I had made. The problem was how to do it. I could have gone right then and there to the Supreme Council, the University, or the mortal police. The problem was, I really didn't know if the person I'd be confessing to would be a member of Graham's group. That might be the end of me right then and there.

There had to be another way. I went straight from the party to the library to do a little research. Maybe there was a way to defend myself, some protection that I could give myself from black magic.

When I got there, though, I almost immediately ran into a problem. Books on black magic are restricted. It's the same idea as mortal libraries keeping books on hypnosis at the reference desk or safely hidden away. They want to keep the casual reader from learning too much. Believe me, I wasn't about to walk into the restricted reading area and sign out a book on black magic. That was too obvious.

But, instead, I got the answer I needed almost by chance. I remembered an incident from about twenty years ago, in which an ordinary no-talent wizard like me had exposed a whole ring of black magicians. I found a book on it, one of those cheesy biographies written right after a famous event to cash in on the guy's notoriety. But it told me exactly how he had done it. I knew what I had to do.

Two days later, I showed up for the final, and there was already a crowd in the lecture hall. The room was a cross between a classroom and a theatre, with about one hundred seats in tiered rows, rising up from a small round platform in the center. The instructor was down front talking with a couple of his professor buddies. Graham was over to one side, talking to a couple of guys from the party. Besides the other students in my class, there were about thirty others, even a member of the Supreme Council. The guests were there to see a show, especially from the star pupil, Graham.

The instructor set up a full length mirror in the center well, and had the class gather in the closest seats. The guests and onlookers sat in the higher seats. When the time came, the instructor stood up and announced the rules for the final exam. He would describe the features of a woman, which we had to imagine and transform ourselves into. The difficulty would be increased by having us change one feature of her body into a specified animal part. We would be graded on our relative success.

The first guy to go was a freshman who was having almost as much trouble as I was in the class, and you could tell he was sweating bullets before he even stood up. When his name was called, he walked to the center of the well and waited.

"David", the instructor began, "your challenge is to change yourself into a teenage girl with long, straight blond hair, a thin frame with thin arms and legs. She will wear a schoolgirl's uniform with a collared shirt, a buttoned navy blue sweater and a dark plaid knee-length skirt, and black low-heeled dress shoes. Her voice will be a high, thin girl's voice. The modification from a normal girl is that, on the top of her head, she should have a full set of deer antlers."

Actually, that didn't sound that hard to me, because the antlers would just be an addition to a normal girl, rather than a modification to a human feature. Still, David looked a little unsure of himself. He closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths to relax, but his voice shook with nervousness as he chanted the transformation spell. Flash!

The mist cleared, and standing before the mirror was a blond teenage girl with deer antlers sticking out of the top of her head. She saw herself in the mirror and shouted in a perfect girl's voice, "Ha! I did it!" She looked so happy and relieved you'd have sworn she was going to wet herself right there. There was an appreciative round of applause from the audience, and the instructor told David to turn himself back. He did and sat down, with a big fat smile on his face.

The instructor called out, "Dexter!" I cringed. I guess he was trying to weed out the problem students right up front, and save the best, like Graham, for last. My mouth got real dry in a hurry, and I stood up slowly and walked down to the front.

I turned around and looked up. Every pair of eyes in the room were on me. I waited for my test, none too sure about how I was going to do. I could feel the sweat beading up on my forehead.

The instructor finally broke the silence. "Dexter, I want you to turn yourself into a buxom twenty-something woman, five and a half feet tall. She has large, full hips, thick thighs, and breasts that are far too large for her body. She has wide, piercing green eyes. Her brunette hair is full and thick, and reaches down to the small of her back. She is wearing a tiny two-piece yellow thong bikini, with a series of beaded threads that hang down from a band around her waist. She stands on four inch high red heels. Her voice is a soft, throaty purr. And for her animal modification, all of her exposed skin, including her face, is covered with a thick black bear's fur." There were a few muffled giggles from the audience.

Now, no one else knew it, but the instructor was trying to give me a break. Minus the bear fur, the woman he was describing was the woman I had tried to turn myself into for the first assignment of the semester--Miss Starr Light, the porn star. I guess during that second week he had done a mind reading spell on us, so he could compare what we were trying to do with what we actually could come up with. Of course, I came nowhere close, and ended up with an obese, middle-aged business woman.

I guess he figured, incorrectly as it turned out, that I would have gone back and tried it on my own after class. Just to prove to myself that I could do it. So now, all I had to do was to slap some fur on something I should have been able to do the first assignment, and I'd walk out of that exam having passed the class. The problem was that the instructor really had no idea how little self-motivation I had. Yeah, I was upset, but I never tried to do it again after that class. I just went looking for the easy way, like cheating through Graham and his buddies.

But at that moment, I had no choice but to try. I coughed to clear my throat, shut my eyes, imagined Starr Light with a thick mat of black fur on her, and chanted the transformation spell. Bang!

I hesitated for a second to open my eyes. Instead, I listened for some clue from the audience as to how I had done. And the sounds I heard weren't promising--little groans, a few mocking chuckles, but mostly silence. With a sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach, I opened my eyes and turned toward the mirror.

Through the last wisps of clearing mist, I saw a woman reflected in the mirror, but she was not even close. I had turned myself into Carrie Fisher, as Princess Leia from the first Star Wars movie--complete with brown biscuits of hair on either side of her head, a white robe and no bra. She was no heavy-chested porn star, and there wasn't a spot of black fur anywhere. My only consolation was that I had Leia's voice right. "Sorry, sir," I squeaked in an embarrassed feminine voice. "Can I try again?"

The instructor was a little ticked. He had spotted me an easy one and I had blown it. "Well," he said, "if I give you another opportunity, does that mean I have to do the same for everyone?" I didn't know how to answer that. I badly wanted a second chance, and frankly I could have cared less about anyone else. So I just stood there, waiting for him to decide. But everyone else in the room was watching my failure unfold like a little drama before them--like driving past a car wreck and not able to stop yourself from looking for a body.

I even risked a quick glance at Graham. He was just plain mad. He had given me a black magic spell that would have helped me ace the exam, and I wasn't using it. In fact, I had the folded slip of paper in the pocket of my jeans. I was ready up to the last minute to cheat, but I couldn't to it. Graham, though, knew what that meant. I could almost see him decide right then and there that I was going to rat on his little band of black magic wizards. The thought of what was going in his little mousy head sent a shot of real panic through me. God only knew what they were going to do to me.

Finally, the instructor groaned in exasperation. "Go ahead, Dexter. Give it another shot."

I breathed a quiet thanks and chanted the reverse spell. Carrie Fisher was gone and I was back. Before the instructor could change his mind, I closed me eyes, focused, and chanted the transformation spell. Flash! This time, there was a more positive reaction from the audience, and I quickly opened my eyes and looked in the mirror.

My breath caught in my throat. Miss Star Light, in all her curvy glory, was looking back at me! She was all there, from the boobs straining to break free from the tiny yellow bikini top, to the thick, wavy brown hair cascading down her back, to the piercing green eyes and luscious, full lips. There was just one problem--no black bear fur, just acres of tan human skin.

Even so, I opened my mouth to sell the idea to the instructor that I almost did it right, so I should pass. "Sir, I did everything but. . ." And that was all I got out before I realized there was no way I was going to pass. Instead of the soft, sultry feminine tones of a female porn star, it was my own loud, masculine voice that came from her mouth. It was no use saying another word. I had just flunked in front of a lecture hall full of people, and I knew it.

Before you get the wrong idea, I had practiced. I was up late the night before, running through the exercises in the textbook. But with my other classes and my research to try to show up Graham, I didn't spend as much time as I really needed to get the spell right.

I could see the instructor felt bad for me, but there was nothing else to do. "Okay, Dexter, change back," he said, and turned to the papers in front of him to pick who was going to go next. I chanted the reverse spell, and as the smoke cleared, I was already heading back into the audience to find a place to hide. I ended up in the far back corner of the lecture hall, behind and away from everyone else.

The rest of the class went by without me paying much attention. Truthfully, I wanted to run out of there. And after casting four spells in a space of five minutes, I was pretty exhausted. But even as I sat there and stewed about how I had screwed up, I knew something even bigger was going to happen when Graham got up for his turn.

See, I was waiting for my chance to cast a reveal spell. That's what I learned in the book at the library. If I cast a reveal spell, the black magic that Graham was going to use would be visible to everyone in the room. And the spell itself was one of the easiest in the textbook. Unlike a transformation spell, which altered reality, the reveal spell would just show what was actually there, but hidden. And all the other students, professors and university types that were not part of Graham's and Hughes' band of merry men would be there to take care of Graham. Right then, all I wanted to do was to shove that spell down Graham's throat, and get back a little of my self-respect.

Finally, all the other students were done, and it was the turn of the star of the show. Graham headed down front with a smug expression on his face. He knew he could handle anything the instructor was going to throw at him. Everyone else in the room leaned forward in their seats, ready for the big show. If they only knew.

For his part, the instructor tried to give Graham a tough one. "Alright, Graham, I've saved up a special one just for you. And our assembled audience." He paused to build the tension, but Graham just stood there, ready. "I want you to change yourself into a pair of female Siamese twins, joined at the hip. They should both be in their early twenties, with red hair done in a shoulder length perm. They should be full figured, with ample breasts. But instead of legs, give them both mermaid tails covered in shiny emerald fish scales. And here's the really hard part. I want independent movement and distinct, separate voices. They should not act like two women controlled by one mind, but women with separate personalities and actions."

Wow! I'm not sure the other professors in the room could handle that one. There was an excited murmur from the crowd and a few appreciative chuckles. If Graham pulled this one off, the whole campus would probably know about it within a day or two.

But the problem didn't seem to phase Graham at all. He closed his eyes and began to recite the transformation spell.

And in the far back corner of the lecture hall, I quietly chanted the reveal spell. Suddenly, the air around Graham began to darken and thicken into a black, smoky haze. All around this feet, a muddy fluid started to bubble up from the floor and gather around this feet, filling the stage. It was disgusting. Just the sight of it turned your stomach. Even more frightening, there was a faint sound, like a thousand voices screaming in agony from some far away place.

About halfway through the transformation spell, Graham realized that something was really wrong. He stopped and opened his eyes. In the space of a couple of seconds, his face had changed from utter confidence to confusion to the start of mild panic. I don't think he realized what was happening, but he knew it was not good. Black magic was visible, and all around him.

After an initial few seconds of stunned silence, some in the crowd began to stand and shout out warnings. Graham's allies jumped up and headed down to join him. Everyone else either headed toward the exits or braced themselves for what was about to happen.

All hell broke loose. The air was full of spells being cast, and magic thundered through the room. Chairs and wizards were tossed everywhere. To this day, you can go to the building and still see the cracks in the masonry from all the power that was released in the space of a minute.

My plan almost backfired. The idea was that there would be enough of the good guys in the room to beat the bad guys. But it turned out there were more of Graham's friends in the room than anyone could have guessed--over half the wizards in the hall. And they would have won, too, if it weren't for the biggest heavy hitter in the room, the guy from the Supreme Council--Councilor Alexander, I think his name was. He cast a spell which cut off the source of the black magic, until Graham and his friends could no longer function. Finally, they were overpowered by the rest of us, and we held them until the cops got there.

Okay, that's not quite true. Beyond casting the reveal spell, I didn't actually do anything. I hid underneath a desk until the magic stopped, then slipped out the exit before anyone could finger me as the one that had cast the reveal spell. Or so I thought.

Graham and Professor Hughes and all of their secret society were arrested, tried, and stripped of their magic. They tried to deny it, of course, and claimed I was the one who was the real black wizard. That was ridiculous, since everyone knew I could hardly do anything. Plus, the slip of paper that Graham had handed me at the party came in handy at their trial. It was black magic in Graham's handwriting, and investigators were able to connect his trigger spell to stuff they found in Hughes' office. In the end, it was an open and shut case.

But they did figure out right away that it was me that had gotten the fight started. The police caught up with me in my room a couple of hours later, and I had to face the music. I got kicked out of school, and I had criminal charges filed against me for violating the Treaty of Magic. My dad got me a good defense lawyer, though, and I copped a plea. Since it was my first offense, I got probation, community service and a fine. That was the bad part.

The good part was that I cashed in. I got to be a celebrity, of sorts--the student that stopped a ring of black wizards at Wizard University. I got an agent and went on a speaking tour. There's even a guy writing a script that might turn into a made-for-television movie. And I'm going to ride that wave while it lasts. Nothing wrong with making a little money, right?

There's only one thing that still bugs me--turning myself into a beautiful woman. I still can't do it right. The thing that I learned through all of this, though, is that I'm going to keep at it until I can do it, every time. Without cheating.