I didn’t expect part of my training at the Advance Academy to involve learning how to eat. The most I ever cooked in the small kitchenette at the investiture was packets of noodles. Candle sometimes forced me to eat an actual meal at a restaurant—usually Renela’s down the street—but that wasn’t all that often. Now, there are meals prepared every day, and I’m always surprised to find myself hungry.
“I’ve never seen you take such an interest in food before,” Fogwillow said, watching me over dinner one night. We were the only two in the wide, sterile cafeteria in the observatory.
“I don’t think I ever understood why I had to eat,” I replied.
“It’s a bit different when you’re not sitting indoors all day.”
“I guess that has something to do with it.”
“Does this mean you’ve left weybisks behind?”
I paused, lowering my spoonful of beans and rice. “Why?” I said, barely able to keep the hope out of my voice. “Do you think they have weybisks?”
Fogwillow raised her bushy eyebrows, giving me a skeptical look. “Nova, I think they would have anything you asked for.”
I remained motionless for a moment, then glanced down at my spoon and quickly shoved it in my mouth. “I suppose I could take a break from them,” I said through my food. “For now.”
I like having Fogwillow here with me. She’s my only connection to my old life. When I see her, it helps hold the pieces of my self in place inside of me. She draws me up like a magnet, and in the midst of all this confusion and uncertainty, I know who I am. Fogwillow has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Not a friend, exactly, and certainly not a parent. Somehow, she’s more like a tree that grows in the backyard.
I’m worried they’re going to take her away from me.
It started during one of my magic lessons with the Wizard Starmine. These are the most difficult, longest parts of the day. After the mid-day run, after lunch, I’m escorted to the equatorial room, which I’ve come to learn is the name for the big domed space that is the focal point of the observatory. The room is vast and shining, with an enormous silver telescope that expands seemingly in all directions overhead in gleaming, knife-like rotary tracks. The dome opens up in wide glass panels, which lets the afternoon sun down in sharp patches across the floor, broken by the crisscrossing lines of the hanging instruments.
Skirting the edge of the room is a narrow balcony, on which Dean Enislen is always watching, clutching the railing and staring down into the space as if it were an amphitheater. Marewill Noal, the alumscript, is always in position behind her, his face carefully expressionless, his clipboard in hand. Down below, two silver-cloaks stand watch by the doors, and Fogwillow stands next to them. Sometimes she paces.
I stand in the center of the room, across from the Wizard Starmine.
This is how it always is. This is how it was yesterday, when I nearly killed everyone. Again.
“What is magic?” Starmine said.
I knew this one. “Connection.”
“Well that’s a kyving relief,” she said, and I flinched at the use of the word. “You at least know the basics.” I found Starmine to be a frightening woman. She was towering, broad-shouldered, and fearsomely muscular. Her silver robes were cropped off at the sleeves, and her chalkwhite arms bulged in places I hadn’t realized arms could bulge. She looked like she could palm a tree trunk and tear it up by the roots. Her blond hair was thick and long, and unlike Fellish, whose smile never seemed to touch her mouth, Starmine’s never seemed to touch her eyes. When she spoke, each word was like a boulder, ready to roll forward and knock me off my feet.
“I am connected,” she barked, “to each wizard, to each prism, and to each terminal in the Ferren. As are you. As is everyone. With each connection, the pattern of magic grows exponentially more complex. And we call this pattern... ?”
She gave me a sidelong glance.
“The Crystic,” I said.
“Kyving right we do. And what do we use the Crystic for today?” Her face twisted in disgust. “To play games. To send little messages. To store information. Disgraceful. In our time together, we are going to explore what the Crystic actually is.”
She sounded like Gruffin.
“Every time you reach for magic you are accessing the Crystic. Pulling power directly from the energy of connection. The Crystic is so vastly complicated that in its infinite calculations can be found not only magic, but the answers to life, to the past and the future, to the inner geometries that formulate our existence.”
“If only we could read them.”
Starmine gave a sharp laugh, and threw an amused look up to Dean Enislen in the balcony.
“Indeed,” she said, clasping her hands and pacing slowly around me. “Kyving indeed. Though we can access the Crystic’s magic, we are still woefully unqualified to access its knowledge. And knowledge, I’ll have you understand, is vastly different from information. But that is not the kyving point. The point is, any wizard who hopes to be anything must learn to be comfortable within the folds of the Crystic’s algorithms. Normally, young wizards are started on this path as children, but you have had no formal education, have you?”
“Then this will be fun.” Her eyes flashed dangerously. “Tell me, what is the threshold of becoming a true wizard?”
“Obtaining a staff.”
Starmine stopped her pacing. Grinning widely with a set of perfectly white teeth, she motioned to the side, pulled down through the air, and a staff appeared in her hand like a line being drawn in the light. Her staff was metallic, a dark copper rod that ended in a sharp flourish.
“A true wizard has a staff,” Starmine said. “Before then, you are nothing but a two-trib magician, able to feel the raw, primordial power of the Crystic, but unable to use it. Oh, you can do little things, sure, like charge prisms in a dead-end job at an investiture, but until you are educated you are nothing. A staff is powerful. A staff is precise. Got it?”
With a crisp, direct movement, Starmine raised her staff, then thrust it down. Its end made a heavy thud when it struck the floor, a sound as deep as a bell that seemed to send vibrations through the mountains themselves. The sound warped, metallic, and the top of her staff glowed pink with the Crystic.
As it did, my feet left the ground, and slowly I began to float upward, weightless.
Everything, even the sun, seemed to darken against the power of her staff, which shone like a rose-colored star in the observatory as I went higher, limbs lifting, caught in an updraft of steady magic.
“Once,” Starmine said lowly, watching me drift, “long ago, when there were fewer of us, wizards would go on long, personal quests, communing with nature, traveling through towns and meeting the people there. Solving problems. Listening. Through these activities they would slowly draw closer to the Crystic, and when they were ready, when they had attained the wisdom of the mages, they would reach into the Crystic’s many patterns and pull forth their staff from the threads of magic, themselves.”
I hung there, suspended in a moment that seemed to stretch forever. It was electrifying. It was powerful. Starmine’s hair curled up at the edges, and I could feel magic surging through me, like the ocean out of a pinhead. I caught Dean Enislen’s eye. Her face was lit from below, enraptured.
Then Starmine tapped her staff again and I fell to the ground in a heap. The light returned to normal.
“We have no time for such kyving nonsense,” she said, standing over me. “There are faster ways to develop understanding. On the day of the... the incident... was that the farthest you had ever looked into the Crystic?”
I groaned, sitting up. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Hm. I’m going to have you try to reach that place again. Now.”
All at once, my hands went clammy. “Now?”
“I said kyving now. Stand up.”
I did so. Starmine eyed me up and down, her look sharper than I would have liked. “Close your eyes,” she said, and I did. “Now reach.”
It was a simple thing, at first. Something I had done every day in the investiture. I tapped into the Crystic, immersing myself in the web of energy that ran through the Ferren. Once again, I was warmed from the inside, as if my bones were growing hot. I could feel my mind opening, joining with something like itself, something similar but larger. Vastly larger. I was back in my comfortable place.
“Good,” came Starmine’s voice. “This is the entry point of the Crystic. Any fool wizardling can get here. But you are special, Nova. You aren’t going to be a third-rate, magic-whoring investiture attendant forever. You are going to reach further. Reach.”
My mouth was getting dry, and I was starting to tremble. My mind kept flashing back to that day in the investiture, and the dead bodies. It was difficult to breathe, but slowly I pushed further into the Crystic, leaving my nook of magic behind and pressing my mind through the woven folds of energy.
There was a barrier, there. A dead weight. Tapping magic was a physical activity, as sure as pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill. The more you did it, the more exhausted you became, and there were some points you just couldn’t push past.
“You will never grow stronger if you don’t stretch yourself, Nova Scratshot. Reach!”
Smothering my fears, every muscle straining, I remembered all at once what it was like to run through the mountains with the Wizard Fellish at my heels, to push my body onward past what I thought possible. To let my legs fall into a steady, powerful rhythm, simply because it needed to be done.
And I broke through the barrier.
It was something entirely different.
I was no longer in the observatory, but in a vast magical landscape. I was in the Crystic. I could see it. In the real world—in the Ferren—my eyes were still closed. But some other part of me had emerged into another reality. An endless crystalline landscape unfurled before me, prismatic and pink, planes of magic reflecting the brilliant light in layer after layer of sharp, shifting designs. It was beautiful and terrifying, and I felt like if my eyes could just catch the rhythm of the razor-edged movements, I could read something there. Something vitally important.
And then the horror began.
I saw myself in the pattern, reflected in the crisp sheets of magic, drifting apart in broken variables, spinning in elegant loops. And then I felt, with a terrible certainty, something hot and wet dripping down my skin, like blood. Fear gripped me, but I could do nothing to wipe away the filth. My muscles seized up. I tried to open my eyes, but they were stuck together.
“Stay with it!” Starmine said. “Welcome the fear.”
I gasped, losing control of my limbs, and spasmed. All at once, Starmine was behind me, pressing up against me. I lurched forward as I felt her against my back, but she swung her staff across my chest and held me, pinned with all her considerable strength, against her. I squirmed.
“Don’t touch me,” I whimpered.
“Take control of yourself,” Starmine said. “Magic is sharp. If you cannot restrain yourself you may find that it bites. You must stay here, in this moment. This is your way into the Crystic. Through fear and uncertainty. Don’t back away.”
My body lurched uncontrollably, but Starmine held me fast, her towering figure hard on all sides, hair brushing my own shoulders, staff firm and painful against my chest, voice biting my ears. When I thrashed again, I felt something hot against my leg as the Crystic slipped and a blade of magic cut into my skin.
I was covered in goosebumps, and the pain in my leg was blooming outward. I wanted to shrivel into nothing, a dried out husk that would fall out of Starmine’s arms. It was too much. The Crystic was sending terror through my mind and Starmine’s touch was sending panic through my body.
And then I exploded. Magic burst out of me in every direction, sharp lances of power that screamed through the air all pink and white. I didn’t need to see them. I’d seen them before.
Starmine released me and I fell to the floor holding my leg, shuddering, my connection to the Crystic gone, the plains of pink vanished. I was empty and exhausted, and afraid to open my eyes. Afraid I had killed them all.
But when I finally did, I saw Starmine smiling down at me, her staff held high. I sat up.
She had created a force field around me, protecting her and the others from my power. She had known this was going to happen. She had expected it. She had planned.
I started to cry. I was terrified. Terrified of the triumphant look in Starmine’s pale, blue eyes. Terrified of the intense fervor on Dean Enislen’s face. Terrified of the awe and fear I saw in Marewill, who had dropped his clipboard. Terrified that I’d almost killed them all and that they had wanted me to do it, made me do it. Terrified of my power.
Starmine pulled the force field away, twisting her staff, and compressed it into an enormous bubble of light, where all my destructive energy had been absorbed. With a sheer, savage heave, she sent it bursting up out of the observatory dome, into the hot afternoon sky.
I stared at her from the floor, trying to speak through sobs. “I don’t want to do this. I want to go home and see Candle.”
Starmine grinned. “You’re a kyving miracle, Nova Scratshot.”
“The magic hurt me.”
“The Crystic is a dangerous place.”
I removed my hands from the searing pain in my leg, and was surprised to see that, though my robes were ripped, the cut itself was barely bleeding. It felt much deeper. Then there were hands on my shoulder, and Starmine gave a start.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I think that’s enough for today,” came Fogwillow’s voice. She thrust her arms under my neck and legs and scooped me up. I didn’t even care that she was touching me.
“We’re just getting started,” Starmine said, furious. “You have no right. This is my classroom.”
“We’re done,” Fogwillow said. “That’s enough.”
She carried me toward the door, but any comfort I took in her presence was pushed away as I looked up at Dean Enislen, who was staring down at Fogwillow and me with a deep, deep frown.