“Stop kyving slouching. Stand up straight. How many times do I kyving have to tell you?”
I did my best to straighten, and met the Wizard Starmine’s pale blue eyes. We were in the equatorial room, and Dean Enislen and Marewill were, as usual, looking down on us from the balcony. I had not missed this.
We made it back to the Advance Academy after another five-day journey, and the routine started up again. Physical training with Fellish. History with Ketchling. Practical magic with Starmine. Meals three times a day. Waking before sunrise and going to sleep as the sun set. Wandering the white, curving halls of the observatory during my free time.
But things were different now, even though the motions were the same. I had spoken the name of the being I was being trained to defeat—the being I would defeat, if the variables were properly satisfied—and the word seemed to sustain itself, a low buzz beneath everything I did. The Ryvkk. Everything at the Advance Academy seemed sharper, and more important somehow.
I still didn’t want to be the Answer, and I still don’t want to be the Answer. A part of me still overflows with doubts and dissatisfaction, and Dean Enislen was right when she said that I didn’t truly feel for the loss of the crashed Exigence, or the destruction of the terminals, or the chaos the Splintered One was causing. The problem was that it was just too distant. I was sad in an abstract way, and wracked with guilt that I couldn’t bring myself to the same level of zealous fervor as Dean Enislen. Still, the guilt itself was progress, evidence that maybe I wasn’t as self-centered as I feared. I wanted to be driven, which was a change. I didn’t want to be a person who didn’t care about the fate of the Ferren just because the Ryvkk had never taken anything from me.
Except maybe he had.
Because of the Ryvkk, I was turned into something I didn’t want to be. I became an Answer instead of a person, my visions of a normal future with a normal family taken away. If I defeated this specter, maybe I could go back to being who I was before. I could be the hero because I didn’t want to be the hero.
Not the strongest reason, I know, and I don’t think it’s what Fogwillow had in mind. But it would do. For now.
Starmine circled me, each step slow and dangerous, her towering shadow falling across the scuffed floor. She crossed her arms, thick and muscle-bound, and drew her head back to get her long, blond hair out of her face. Outside, it was abnormally windy, and the wide windows rattled in their frames. Overhead, the shining instruments jittered with each blast. It made the room feel hollow—the footsteps, the clattering, Starmine’s voice—it all echoed in the relative stillness.
“Why do we use magic?” she said.
“To serve Eoea.”
Starmine snorted. “And why did Eoea gift us magic in the first place?”
“Unknown. If there was a purpose, it is lost in the Lorn.”
“You’re being obtuse today, Nova. Answer the kyving question.”
I hesitated, trying to recall my lessons with Ketchling. “Most scholars agree that if there is any point at all to magic... it is to serve the Ferren.”
“Most people,” Starmine said, and sneered a bit when she said it, “view magic as expendable, lightweight, applicable for any indolent, weak-minded whim. It’s the rise of prisms that’s done it. Prism-powered technology made anyone think they could be a wizard. They have gadgets. They have kyving devices. Magic is used to move people between floors, to tell people the time, to clean a dirty room. Disgusting.”
She circled back and rounded on me, jabbing a finger toward my face.
“You are a guardian of arcane power. Magic has gravity, an atmosphere. Through the Crystic you channel the force of god. True wizards will always respect that. Are you a true wizard, Nova?”
I gave her the barest of nods. It was all my anxious stomach would allow.
Starmine seemed to accept it. She crossed her arms again.
“Today,” she said, “you are going to reach, once again, for your staff.”
My careful composure almost broke. I flinched. “With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t think I’m ready. My connection to the Crystic—”
“Is weak, yes, but better than it was when you arrived here. Your body is your vessel, and the Wizard Fellish has been doing you well. You are stronger. You are more in control.”
“But my mind... I can’t concentrate.”
“That is a problem we will begin to solve now. You will enter the Crystic.”
“You will come up against the same barrier you have always come up against, and you will use your bodily strength to push yourself deeper.”
I clenched my teeth.
Starmine drew a line in the air and pulled her staff out of the Crystic, grinning. I eyed it uncertainly as it winked copper in the light.
“Close your eyes,” Starmine said.
I did so. Then—almost by instinct, muscle memory, a reflex—I reached out and connected to the Crystic. My bones warmed. I felt the sharpness of a thousand connections prickling through me, knew that if I pulled on any one of them it would send ripples through the network, shifting the pattern, spinning the variables.
Here I was. In my comfortable place. With my familiar magic.
And then I went further. I plucked one of the threads and forced myself along it, deepening my connection, lowering my mind into the thickened web of energy. “Good,” came Starmine’s voice. “You will soon come across your barrier. Don’t think, just push!” The barrier loomed large before me, built by the memories of the incident at the investiture. I steeled myself and broke through. It was easier than it had been before.
All at once, I fell into the new plane of existence. And I was standing there, eyes open, as the whole of the Crystic blossomed around me. Threads of magenta light unfurled hugely, weaving up and down and back and out. Images shifted within, tucked in the sky-deep folds of its lightning-sparked petals. Patterns emerged in the unspooling fuchsia.
I saw, in a flash, Plum rising up through the energy, his image blooming like a flower. I recoiled, my stomach lurching.
“Don’t back down!” came Starmine’s voice, and she sounded far away. “Farther! Into the magic!”
My face burned against Plum’s image like I was staring into the sun. Everything inside of me wanted to slide back down into the equatorial room and curl up. But my muscles were tugging against my skin, and I felt the now familiar motions of movement and strength urging me on.
With the slow power of Fellish’s poses, I pushed my legs forward. It took all the effort of heaving a boulder aside, and I suddenly understood why Fellish had me execute my training with such control and precision. With my body falling into the welcome grooves I had carved out through sweating repetition, I took one step forward.
The Crystic shifted, triggered by the step, like light through a gem. The patterns turned in on themselves. Plum’s image folded over. The deep pink light split and spun. It reminded me of the kaleidoscope Fogwillow had once brought back for me after one of her disappearances.
I huffed, standing still again. Sweat tickled my forehead. It was all I could do simply to stand in one place without being buffeted back by the power. Everything felt sharp. The jagged magic around me was dangerous, and I knew that if I lost control, it would slice me to pieces. My leg burned at the memory of a cut.
I took another step.
“Excellent!” came Starmine’s voice.
This time, as the Crystic turned, a spike of pure white light punched up through the pink, like a nail jammed into the firmament. My heart leapt. It was far away—so far—but I knew with certainty that it was my staff.
My body strained, I pressed my lips between my teeth. I brought another foot forward with a slow, fluid movement, but before I could set it down, the weight grew to be too much, and I buckled and fell to my knees.
“Get up!” Starmine said. “Get up!”
I trembled for a moment, then lifted my head toward the distant spike of white light. I would never reach it. It was too far and I was too weak. My body would be crushed to splinters before I took another two steps.
And suddenly, Plum unfurled before me again. His golden hair. His purple suit. His cufflinks sharp and pointed as bullet holes.
A spasm took hold of my body and I gasped. I turned my head away from Plum’s smiling face and stretched a hand out, straining to reach the staff, even though I knew it was too far away. Plum chuckled.
And then I saw myself in the turning patterns of the Crystic. I saw the algorithm. I felt, once again, the blood dripping down my skin. A terrible shudder passed through me. One by one, a line of bodies burst up through the Crystic, shattering it in spindled lines where they lay. Dead bodies. Bloody bodies. Bodies I had killed on cold tile beneath the quiet whir of ceiling fans. Bodies that marked who I was.
I sobbed. And I felt the explosion of power, of pink and white lances, threatening to burst out of me, straining against the bounds of my will.
“Stay with it!” Starmine said.
But I couldn’t. I maintained my connection to the Crystic but, impulsively, in the real world, I opened my eyes to make the images disappear.
Starmine stood before me in the equatorial room, looking furious. The feeling that I was about to explode diffused, but with my connection to the Crystic still open, and the power flowing through me, deep as I was into the folds of magic, everything looked different. The two realities I existed in were layered on top of each other. Everything was brighter and sharper and bigger. I could see long shards of pink energy unfolding around the edges of my vision. The world seemed to bend slightly around Starmine, as if warped by her gravity. In her hand, her staff was a copper beam of light.
I started to withdraw from the Crystic.
Then, with a speed like a launched cannon, Starmine barreled forward, swung her staff, and cracked me in the chin. My head snapped back. My body slipped out from under me. I landed on my back and a sharp pain spread up my jaw.
Starmine thrust her staff into my chest, pinning me to the floor.
“Don’t you dare,” she growled. “You will disconnect when I say you can disconnect. Stay with it.”
I choked. I could feel bile coming up my throat. Starmine’s staff was hot as a branding rod against me.
“Where is your staff?” Starmine said.
“It’s too far,” I managed to croak. “Too far.”
“It would—” I gasped “—break me.”
“Then you must be broken! A muscle torn is a muscle strengthened. This is the way of the Ferren.”
She pressed her rod even more firmly into my chest, against the bones in my ribs. I couldn’t breathe. My chin was on fire from where she had hit me.
“Fogwillow isn’t here to save you this time,” she hissed. “Close your kyving eyes.”
With a whimper, I closed them again.