On my first morning at the Advance Academy, I was awakened before sunrise by someone pushing me out of bed with the butt of a staff.
I fell to the floor in a tangle of sheets, knocked my head, and groaned. With my arms pinned tight at awkward angles, I peered up through the darkness at an older woman staring down at me.
“Good morning,” she said in a tone of voice that was far too robust for how early it was. “You will train your body to awaken at precisely this time each day. I will push you out of bed until it happens on its own. Now up!”
This was my introduction to the Wizard Fellish, who turned out to be my physical instructor. I had three separate hours of physical training every day, at morning, noon, and night. At first it was mostly running. Fellish would thrust me out of bed before dawn and boot me out into the biting air, where she would chase me through the sloping mountain paths.
Fellish was a small, dark-skinned woman in her late fifties, spry and steadfast and surprisingly strong given her birdclaw limbs, which stretched with thin muscle and betrayed not an ounce of body fat. Her hair was gray and coarse, shaved nearly down to the scalp. She seemed to find little use for smiling, but her eyes sparkled like a rogue’s every time she gave me an order, and somewhere within that wire frame was a well of energy that shot down through the earth and opened up to the sky.
I suspected that instead of sleeping, she stared with wide-eyed intensity at the moon all night, urging it on, faster and faster.
“Will I be challenging evil to a race?” I said one morning from the floor beside my bed, sleep having done nothing for my weariness. Fellish frowned down at me.
“The Splintered One will be stronger than you, there is nothing I can do about that. But I can try to close the gap.”
The Splintered One. The Specter of Anon-Golish. Dean Enislen had scarcely even mentioned him to me, in all her breathless monologues about claiming my destiny. This struck me as odd, considering that this was the destructive force I was to, in turn, destroy, this being of light and mist and void.
Perhaps the dean didn’t want to scare me.
But Fellish had no such qualms. I ran, and she ran behind me, biting at my heels, pushing me faster and farther, telling me the Red Wilkin was almost upon me. She never seemed to have as much trouble with the steep terrain as I did. And she never took breaks for quite as long as I wanted.
“Good,” Fellish said one night as she led me back to my quarters. “But you can do better. You are a point of connection along the myriad pathways of magic. Don’t be a weak one. In order to strengthen your power, you must strengthen your body. It is your physical anchor to the Crystic.”
But every muscle was aching, and I felt not so much an anchor point of the Crystic as a hole. I barely made it to my bed before collapsing, drawing in quietly trembling breaths. All of this physical exertion seemed to be breaking the careful barriers I had laid inside of me, crushing up my interior and allowing strange emotions to bubble to the surface.
I stared up at the ceiling. This room was nothing like my attic bedroom back in Blush. It was part of the dormitories for the scientists who had stayed here before. The sheets were scratchy. The floor was hard tile. There was nothing in it but an empty table and a small, round window with a view of the mountains. I lay there in the dark with my eyes open, feeling my way through my own body, searching out the pieces that were familiar, the pieces that reminded me of home, and tugging them along toward each other. I drifted off to sleep holding a careful pattern of my self inside.
It wasn’t until the morning of Batten on my second week that I sat bolt upright in bed, leaping to wakefulness with wide eyes just in time to see Fellish lifting her staff to send me tumbling out of bed. She paused—startled, I think—then lowered her staff, her mouth merely twitching, but her eyes virtually on fire with satisfaction.
“You have absorbed the lesson,” she said.
“I don’t know what I did.”
“Your body does. All it takes is repetition. Incessant repetition.”
She gave me a few moments to change. I stood in the bathroom, staring at my hands and checking to see that my carefully held pieces where still in place inside of me. Then, I wrapped my robes snugly around myself. They were pure white, like Blush in winter. Cold, like a nose print on the glass.
“We’re going to do something different today, wizardling,” Fellish said as we stood in the courtyard, getting ready for our run. The sun hadn’t risen, and my breath was visible in the chill air. “Today, we are running farther than we have before, and longer. Today, we have a destination.”
She clapped me on the back and I flinched. She pushed me forward and I ran.
“Where are we going?” I said as my feet found the path away from the observatory.
“You’ll see,” Fellish said. “Head left here. Go! Go!”
We pushed on, Fellish directing me from behind, into the high peaks and skirting the deep valleys. The thin air made even the flattest terrain a chore, but I was slowly getting used to it. The walk to the observatory when we first arrived seemed laughable now.
We ran far past the point where we usually turned back. The air wasn’t so cold anymore, and my brow was damp with sweat.
“Down that path there,” Fellish said after a time, and even she was beginning to sound winded.
I jogged down a ways into a wide, grassy area. Up ahead, a copse of stunted trees reached for the sunlight, their needles brittle and browning. Holding my side, I ran the last few struggling steps to the trees and came up short.
Standing beneath the rising pines was Dean Enislen, smiling in her black suit. Marewill Noal stood just over her shoulder, his clipboard in hand.
“Welcome!” Dean Enislen said brightly. She held up a timepiece then tucked it back in her pocket. “Took a little longer than I expected.”
I was too surprised—and too out of breath—to respond.
“He’s improving,” Fellish said, approaching the dean and wiping a hand over her brow.
“No question about it, but is he improving as fast as he could be? Marewill?”
“We’re within parameters,” Marewill said.
“I’m so glad.” Dean Enislen ran a hand over her head, smoothing down her hair, and flashed me a cherry smile. “Come this way, Nova, if you please.”
She and Marewill parted, and for the first time I caught sight of something brilliant and shining in the grass between the trees. I gasped, and, sure enough, felt my sense of magic heighten.
“You recognize it?” Dean Enislen said as our small party approached. “You have seen them before?”
I nodded. “There are a few... ” I took an exhausted breath, “in the forest around Blush. There’s one in the city, too... in Central Circuit.”
“Then you know what it is.”
“It’s a terminal.”
Dean Enislen flashed me a look of approval. The terminal was a large, crystal block nested into the ground. It was about waist high, squat like a stump, and it glowed pink with magic, the color flaring out to illuminate the weary bark of the trees. The grass grew in long tufts around the base, where it was said the terminals shot down into the core of the Ferren. I’ve heard that no one’s ever dug deep enough to excavate one.
“What are the three vessels that form the Crystic?” Dean Enislen said.
“Prisms, terminals, and wizards.”
“Excellent. Three points of magic, all connected to one another, their connection shooting out to form the great web of magic that is the Crystic. Prisms store magic. Wizards manipulate it. Do you know the significance of the terminals?”
“They create it,” I said. “They’re made of the same material as prisms, but they never lose their magic. They never lose their connection to the Crystic.”
“Very good! Not only do they never lose their connection, they are, in point of fact, the source of connection. The linchpins. The fasteners. The buttons of magic.” Dean Enislen looked away and placed a hand on top of the crystal stump. “Where does it go, do you think?” she said, almost to herself. “What mystic place does it pierce, so deep below the ground?” I didn’t think I was supposed to answer. Suddenly, she turned to me, clasping her hands. “This is what you are to save, Nova Scratshot. A threat to the terminals is a threat to all of the Ferren, and what is the primary threat to the terminals?”
I broke out in a cold sweat that had nothing to do with exhaustion or running. A tight, clawing feeling started in my gut and reached its spindled arms up through my throat. A spike of pain—a memory—seared through my head.
I tried to speak but I couldn’t get the words out.
“Tell me what it is you are fighting, Nova. Who is your enemy?”
“The Splintered One,” I said. “The Specter of Anon-Golish.”
“These are aliases. Obfuscations. Your enemy has a name, Nova, and you must familiarize yourself with it if you ever hope to conquer it. Who is your foe? What devilry has the Crystic declared you the Answer to?”
“The Red Wilkin,” I said weakly. “The Antithetical.”
A terrible name came to mind, and all at once I was back in the investiture, during the incident, staring into the Crystic and seeing myself—the beautiful algorithm—the blood—seeing my self reflected back at me, along with all the horror of a dying world.
I remembered the name tearing through me, as surely as if I’d been ripped in half, and the memory was too much.
The pieces inside of me shriveled up, try as I might to reach for them, to hold them where they should go. But my self would not stay. All I could see were patterns and endings.
“Name it!” Dean Enislen said. “Name your enemy.”
I couldn’t do it.
The name was almost on my lips.
But my knees buckled and I fainted instead.