We arrived in the mountains at dawn. The Spirit of Deliverance slid down below the clouds, trailing mist in its propellers, and settled in a high valley.
I had only ever seen the Iniblis Mountains from afar, as a flat cutout against the horizon. I liked them from that angle. They were majestic and quiet, and their whole range fit in my field of vision. But here in the middle of them, sunk in this patchy field, I couldn’t get a good sense of where I was. The high peaks broke the clouds above, which were even now turning orange with morning. I could see nothing beyond them. I had no sense of scale or scope.
“The air,” I said, pausing to catch my breath after climbing down from the cloudweaver.
“It’s thinner up here, isn’t it?” Dean Enislen said. She held her hands to the sides, sucked in a deep breath, and expelled it in a long sigh. “So refreshing. Makes one feel gauzy and faint, doesn’t it? Like you might burst on the wind. Such a lovely sensation, to feel like your skin might rip away from you.”
I held my head and tried not to faint.
A bundle of nerves had uncoiled inside of me. Nothing seemed like it was actually happening, like my limbs were moving automatically, entirely disconnected from my thoughts. There was no time to process, and that bundle of nerves felt like the most solid, most certain part of me. Dean Enislen was right. It did, indeed, feel like my skin might rip away.
Fogwillow nudged me from behind and I moved along, into the valley. I had nothing to carry. They had told me to leave it all behind.
“Where’s the observatory?” I said, eyeing the silver-cloaks as they disembarked. They kept their distance, each holding a thin, white staff.
Dean Enislen smiled, her pixie face half alight with the rising sun, her short hair gleaming red. “Up there,” she said, motioning. “In the mountains. We’d better get moving. We have a long way to climb.”
I swallowed and looked up at the terrain.
“We can’t take a seed?”
“Aha,” Dean Enislen said, holding up a finger. “Your first lesson. Sometimes it is most satisfying to accomplish a task on the strength of your own will.”
Then, she held a hand out to the side, drew a line through the air, and her wizard’s staff appeared in her hand. It was matte black, rounded at the top but tapering to a sharp point at the bottom, like a needle she might push through the world. Adjusting the collar of her suit, fingers tightening on the staff, she turned and led the way.
The climb was a test of endurance. I was faint-headed the entire time, and a dull pain bloomed behind my eyes from lack of sleep. I wanted to show I could do it, though, so I pressed on, even though my legs felt like sticks, like they would snap at any moment. Dean Enislen showed no signs of exhaustion, smiling as she stepped lightly up the path. Behind me, Fogwillow pushed steadily forward with slow patience. I don’t think I would have made it if it weren’t for her. She was the weight that was propping me up.
At last, we rounded a sharp outcropping, and what I saw stole the small amount of breath left in me.
The sun broke bright and yellow over a vast terrain of smaller mountains, and across a wide gulf, lodged in a promontory overlooking the vista, was a cluster of white buildings clinging to the rock. The observatory. At its center was an enormous dome, half open to the sky and shining with glass. Through the dome, even from this distance, I could see the glint of exquisite instruments, dormant and unused. It was beautiful.
“You earned this view,” Dean Enislen said, seeing my face. She hardly seemed winded.
“You emptied that whole place for me?” I asked.
“What is done for you is done for the Ferren,” she replied.
It was another hour’s walk to reach the observatory, cutting back around the mountain and then out again to the promontory. By the time we reached the stairs up to the courtyard, my legs felt as brittle as koba crisps.
“This used to be known as Severet’s Lookout,” Dean Enislen said, leading me up the stairs. “But now, of course, it is the provisional home of the Advance Academy. Let me be the first to welcome you.”
It was full morning by now, and the whitewashed courtyard almost hurt to look at. In the center was a towering statue of a wizard holding a staff in one hand and what looked like a star in the other. As we neared, I saw that the staff was actually a telescope.
The silver-cloaks flanked me on either side. Fogwillow trailed behind. Past the statue, on the other side of the courtyard, a set of tall double doors led into the observatory, carved with the sweeping lines of a starmap. In front of the doors stood a small assembly of men and women. They wore silver clothing as well, though in a fashion decidedly more modern than the mages to either side of me.
“May I introduce,” Dean Enislen said, approaching, “the Wizards Starmine, Ketchling, Fellish, and Edel.” Each of those gathered before the doors bowed in turn, though not before letting their eyes catch a fleeting glance at my face. They were a sundry bunch that nonetheless felt like they fit together, like a set of silverware laid out in a row. “Their knowledge in their respective fields is unrivaled,” the dean continued, beaming. “They are brilliant, peerless, and their teachings will comprise the core of your training as a wizard and a hero.”
A fifth man stepped forward from just behind the four wizards.
“And this,” Dean Enislen said, motioning him forward, “is Marewill Noal. Marewill is our alumscript, our master of information. You’re here in large part because of him.”
Marewill tucked an overstuffed clipboard beneath his arm and clasped his hands before him, nodding in a sort of bow. He had soft, sleepy eyes and a strained look about him, as if he had spent too long staring at that clipboard in too little light. He was balding, and his wispy brown hair fluttered lightly in the breeze.
“I’ve been piecing your trail together for many years, Nova Scratshot,” Marewill said, giving me a studious once-over. “After so many wrong turns and false positives, I think I speak for everyone here when I say that it is a relief to finally meet you.” He gave me an amused look, and then his eyes found Fogwillow. His expression faltered. “And will the Wizard Rarecrest be joining us at the Academy?”
Fogwillow lifted her chin ever so slightly. “Nova was entrusted to me as a babe. I will be staying with the boy until such a time as I am satisfied he is well cared for.”
Marewill’s smile was pained. “You are welcome, of course.”
“Shall we move inside?” Dean Enislen said, her voice tight. “There are so many things to show you, Nova. There is so much to do. Where in the Ferren are we even going to find the time?”
Marewill the alumscript turned to the doors with the starmap engraved on them and pushed them open. We filed into the observatory, into the cool blue light beyond the doors, into the long white hallways and bright open rooms with their shining silver instruments and their windows with a view of the rolling mountains I had never expected to see so close.