28. The Brain

Yesterday, as Fellish and I were gearing up for our morning run out in the courtyard, I looked up from stretching to see a figure approaching through the mist, her movements accompanied by a steady thud as her staff fell, with each step, against the ground. My heart jumped up into my throat, and I ran forward to see.

It was her. She had kept her word.

Fogwillow had come to visit.

At breakfast that day, she sat across the table from me, unable to keep the smile off her face. She looked the same as she always had, the same as an old tree always looks from year to year. Her skin was just as weathered, her long gray hair just as knotted. She still smelled of mud and steckleberries.

“You look well,” she said, watching me scarf down my food.

“It’s because you’re here,” I said. “You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve been moping around the place.”

“Are you not enjoying your time here?”

“No, no,” I said lightly, pausing as I swallowed. “It’s fine.”

“Nova, have they been good to you?”

“It’s fine.”

Her smile slipped, her face settling into its usual lines, as she cocked her head and stared at my chin. The swelling and bruising had gone down, but there was still evidence there if someone cared to look. And Fogwillow cared.

She reached a hand out to touch my chin. “What’s this?”

“It’s nothing,” I said. She reached again and I leaned back out of the way. “Nothing.”

Fogwillow’s frown deepened. I dropped my utensils and looked away. We sat there in an uncomfortable silence, which was broken by Dean Enislen’s arrival.

“Fogwillow!” she said with a strained smile, approaching the table. “How nice. We didn’t expect you. You didn’t send word.”

“Do I need to?”

“No, no, of course not.” Then she sucked in through her teeth. “However, in the future, it would be so helpful if you did. We could have had a room prepared.”

“I won’t be staying the night.”

I looked up, disappointed. “What?”

“Oh,” Dean Enislen said, her mouth twitching. “Well, in that case, I suppose… ”

“I’m just here to see how Nova’s getting on. As per our last conversation, I don’t want to interfere.”

There was an uncomfortable moment as all three of us avoided each other’s eyes.

Finally, Fogwillow continued, “I thought perhaps I would sit in on one of Nova’s lessons. If it’s all right with the Academy, that is.”

“Yes. Of course. It’s just… ” Dean Enislen cleared her throat. “You came on a mildly strange day, Master Fogwillow. I’m afraid we’ll be deviating from the established curriculum. Moving into new territory, so to speak.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, my heart leaping when I realized I may not need to see Starmine today.

But Dean Enislen was too busy muttering to herself to answer. “Of course, we could put it off, but no, the plan was today, Marewill said, and we must stick to the plan. It’s all in place… ” She trailed off, blushing a little bit as she caught my eye. It was an unusual reaction for her, and I tilted my head. She composed herself quickly. “Nova, you remember the Wizard Edel?”

I did, vaguely. Of the four wizards I had met on my first day here—Starmine, Ketchling, Fellish, and Edel—he was the only one I hadn’t had any training with, yet.

“Well,” Dean Enislen continued, seeing me nod, “we thought we might start you off with him today. Get the ball rolling on some things. Are you feeling good?”

I was wide awake and ready after my morning training with Fellish. I had finished my breakfast. I may not have to deal with Starmine today. “I feel much better now that Fogwillow is here,” I said, smiling at Dean Enislen.

She gave a quick, high-pitched laugh, her cheeks flushing again, and I gave her another curious look. “Good,” she said, running a hand along the side of her head to smooth her hair. “Yes. Perhaps it’s for the best, then.” Then she frowned. “Nova, what is that on your robes?”

I lifted my chin. “Ink.”

“Do you need clean clothing? We can provide you with—”

“No,” I said. “It’s fine. I like it like this.”

Dean Enislen narrowed her eyes at me and my ink-stained robes, her lips pressed tightly together. I met her gaze unwaveringly.

“Right then,” she said. “If you’re finished… ”

She stepped to the side and motioned to the door. I nodded and stood. Fogwillow snuck a few granola clusters from the table and tucked them into her robe, then rose with me.

We went to Dean Enislen’s office. There were two silver-cloaks standing outside the door, and inside—through the glass wall—I could see a tall man with his back to us, looking down into the equatorial room with his hands held behind him. He was bald and thickset, and though his skin was dark, his clasped hands were patched with early signs of vitiligo, the skin pale and spotted.

When we opened the door, he turned, saw me, and smiled, his teeth revealing themselves from within a bushy, neatly-trimmed beard, where they were buried like eggs in hay.

“Nova Scratshot,” he said, watching me, Dean Enislen, and Fogwillow file into the room. He had a wide, round voice, and eyes that turned downward at the edges, as if he were sad.

“Nova, this is the Wizard Edel,” Dean Enislen said, taking her seat behind her desk.

“An honor,” Edel said, giving me a small bow. He turned to Fogwillow. “And Fogwillow, too, how lovely to finally meet you in person. You must accept my thanks for your handling of the reneskopsis in Denroven last winter. Saved my team quite a bit of headache.”

He reached out a hand to Fogwillow, who took it with an uneasy expression on her face. As they parted, she cast a hasty glance my way.

“Shall we?” Edel said to me, motioning to the far side of the room and two low, comfortable chairs. There was a coffee table between them with a silver platter on it, and on the platter, a lumpy object covered in a blue cloth. We sat down in the chairs on either side of the table.

Watching from her desk, Dean Enislen cleared her throat at Fogwillow, who slowly settled into a chair along the side of the room.

The Wizard Edel sat on the edge of his seat, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and stared at me with a thoughtful expression. I sat as far back in my chair as I could, trying to create distance. There seemed to be deep thoughts spinning slowly within Edel’s eyes, but whatever they were, he didn’t share them with me.

Finally, I cleared my throat and said, “What kind of—”

The office door opened, and Marewill poked his head in. We all turned to look at him, and he froze.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “Very—ah—yes, very sorry.”

He slid into the room and shut the door behind him, hurrying over to stand behind Dean Enislen’s desk with his clipboard. Dean Enislen took a sharp breath in through her nose. Marewill gave me a weak smile.

The smile eased me a little bit, but when I turned back to Edel, I saw that he had returned to staring at me, and my guard went up again.

He seemed to be, as best as I could guess, building a picture in his mind of what I was like, how I behaved, and how he should interact with me. I fidgeted in the chair, turning away, then looking up, knowing that with every anxious movement I was giving him more information, but unable to stop.

Eventually, he seemed to arrive somewhere in his head, and spoke. His words were clear and calm.

“What were you going to ask? Before we were interrupted?”

“I was going to say—what kind of teacher are you?

“I am not a teacher,” Edel said. “I’m a doctor.”

Something clicked.

“I’ve heard of you before,” I said. “Bartholomew Edel. My friend Candle’s mentioned you a few times.”

“Candle? Yes, she would know about me. Good on her.” When I looked confused, he added, “I’ve read your ticker.”

“Oh.”

“She seems like a smart young woman. I can see why you like her.” He gave me a smile that seemed to say too much and too little all at the same time. “And it makes sense that she would have heard of me. My life’s work is studying wizards and the way they interact with magic, which often branches off into the intersection of magic and technology. How do we bring the connection between wizards and the Crystic to the common people?”

“I bet you get along well with Starmine,” I said.

Edel laughed and threw a look over to Dean Enislen before turning his attention back to me. “I have only had the very great pleasure of meeting the Wizard Starmine twice, and between the two of us, yes, we are not entirely compatible.”

“Best not mention what we’re doing today to Starmine,” Dean Enislen said from her desk. “She already knows, but further discussion will only make her angry.”

I didn’t need to be told twice.

“What are we doing here today?” I asked.

“Let’s talk about your brain,” Edel said, and brushed the tips of two spotted fingers against his forehead. Across the room, Fogwillow shifted in her chair. “What do you know about how your brain connects to the Crystic?”

I gave him a blank look. “I don’t… nothing.”

“Understandable,” he said. “Not many wizards care much for this sort of thing. But your brain is why you are a wizard, Nova. Over the last several years I’ve come to believe that magic enters your body through your head. What is magic?”

“Magic is connection,” I said, almost on impulse. It was becoming a meaningless phrase by this point.

“Yes!” The Wizard Edel’s eyes lit up, a grin spreading in his beard. “And so is your mind. The brain is like lightning.” He snapped his fingers in quick succession. “Sparks pass back and forth inside of it, carrying thoughts and feelings, and you are made out of these points of connection, these sparks. When you link into the Crystic, you open your brain up and out—” He gestured up and out, “—and those self-sparks jump, not just between spaces in the brain, but between the brain and the Crystic itself. Your inner mind links up with the mind of the Ferren, passing impulses and energy—magic—into the world.”

He lowered his hands and gave me a humble look.

“These are all very recent theories, mind you, but they have enabled us to experiment with things no one would have thought possible as little as ten years ago. Take, for instance, a prism.”

He rifled in one of his pockets and pulled out a small pink prism, no larger than a fingernail.

“They’re like a small brain,” I said.

“Spot on,” Edel said, beaming at me. He set the prism down on the coffee table, next to the silver platter. “When they get recharged, they link into the Crystic in much the same way that your brain does, opening up to the web of magic all around us. As they lose their charge, they close off to the Crystic. Lose their connection.”

He stared at me, still beaming, as if waiting for the ball to drop, for me to erupt with excitement at everything I was learning. I furrowed my brow and picked up the prism, turning it over in my hands. “So,” I began, slowly, “when we talk about the three points of connection that make up the Crystic, we should really say terminals, prisms, and brains?”

Edel swung his arms together and clapped loudly, giving a deep-bellied laugh. “I don’t think we’ll be changing that one anytime soon. Not quite as appealing as terminals, prisms, and wizards, is it? Anyway, this is all academic. It’s not why we’re here.”

He reached down and pulled the cloth off the silver platter.

I went stiff. I forgot about the prism in my hands as a slow, prickling sensation began to eat its way up from my gut.

On the silver platter was another glowing pink prism, a bit larger than the one I was holding, about the size of a walnut. It was set into a silver ring that was edged with jagged teeth. On the other side of the ring, trailing out the back of the prism like the tail of a kite, were thread-thin wires, as long as my forearm, steely and coiled.

“Yes,” Edel said in a suddenly soft voice. “Now, I think, you are getting it.”

I set the smaller prism down on the coffee table and rose to my feet, unable to tear my eyes away from the thing on the platter.

“No,” I said.

From her desk, Dean Enislen spoke up. “Nova, you must reframe this in your mind. This is so exciting. We are pushing the frontier of magic.”

“Fogwillow,” I said, turning to look at her. She wouldn’t meet my eyes, and this made me angry.

“You are talented, Nova,” Edel said, coming to his feet as well, “but the Ryvkk is a force of evil unlike anything we have ever seen, and we—the Advance Academy, the Assemblage, the entire Ferren—want to make sure you are prepared. That you have every advantage modern technology can afford a hero. We are not wizards of the Lorn.”

He bent down and lifted up the device with his thumb and forefinger. The wires unspooled toward the ground.

“I won’t lie to you,” he continued, “this is experimental, but it is entirely safe. To succeed against the Ryvkk, you will need a power far greater than any that has been seen in the Ferren. It is in the best interest of everyone to… give you a boost.”

The silence that fell was so thin that it tingled.

“What happened,” I said after a moment, “to my traditional training? Aren’t I supposed to be getting stronger, more connected, like a real wizard? Isn’t that the point of all my time with Fellish? And Starmine?”

“This is the entire philosophy of the Advance Academy,” Dean Enislen said. “We must build our heroes. Not wait for them.”

“And don’t think of this as a replacement of your traditional training,” Edel said. “Think of it as a supplement. They will work in balance, magic and technology.”

I looked around the room. Dean Enislen had her hands laced on her desk, her quiet fervor thrumming behind her eyes. Marewill was writing on his clipboard. Fogwillow still wouldn’t look at me.

I turned back to Edel, and nodded to the device.

“How does it work?”

Edel’s shoulders relaxed. He was back where he was comfortable. “Think of it as a magic amplifier. This prism—” he touched the prism lightly, “—gets planted at the base of your neck, just above your shoulder blades, and these wires—” he ran a hand down the wires, “—are surgically woven into your spinal cord, connecting the power source—the prism—to your mind. The entire procedure will take three hours, and you won’t feel a thing. When you wake up, it will be like having—”

“Another brain,” I said.

Edel smiled again. “Good.” He let out a small sigh, and threw Dean Enislen a relieved look. “And this is just the first. In the end, you will have seven of these guys embedded down the length of your spine. But for today, just this one.”

I stared at the device in Edel’s hand, and my gut twisted sickeningly. I tried to imagine the cut crystal prism, the pink glowing glass, nestled into my skin. I tried to imagine those spider-thread cords needling up and down my spine. And my head suddenly felt very light, and the world shifted for a moment. I grabbed hold of the back of the chair behind me.

“Do I… do I need them?” I said.

The Wizard Edel frowned, looked at Dean Enislen, then back at me. “I hear you haven’t reached your staff yet, Nova.”

It was like a punch in the gut. Shame welled up inside of me, and I nodded.

“Okay,” I said in a small voice.

Everything happened very quickly after that. Edel gave me a hospital gown and I changed in one of the observatory bathrooms. When I emerged, I was led down the halls in my bare feet, the gown fluttering at my shins. Dean Enislen walked ahead with Edel. Two silver-cloaks took up the rear. And Fogwillow followed, far behind. We walked as if in a dream.

The room they put me in was low-ceilinged, dingy, and cold. The light was flat and harsh from the rows of florescent bulbs. Across the back wall was a mirror. We gathered inside, and I was led to the middle of the room. As I stood there, I wiggled my toes against the scuffed vinyl tile.

“I’m so proud of you, Nova,” Dean Enislen said, almost touching my shoulder, but withdrawing at the last moment. “So proud.” Eoea’s staff, she looked like she was about to tear up. She wiped a finger under one eye. “Listen to me, I want you to know, you see that mirror? That’s a one-way mirror. We will be just on the other side of it, not so far at all. Okay?”

I nodded slowly. “Okay.”

Dean Enislen and the two silver-cloaks went through a doorway into the darkened room behind the mirror. Fogwillow followed after them, but paused on the threshold, looking back and meeting my eye. I tried to give her a comforting look, but I don’t think I succeeded, because her frown only got more severe. Then she withdrew and shut the door softly behind her.

And I was alone with the Wizard Edel.

I could see him behind me in the mirror. He was arranging the device that would soon be piercing my spine on a metal cart. When he was finished, he drew a line through the air and summoned his staff. It was cobalt blue, with a knob on the end as if it had melted like wax.

“Are you ready?” he said.

The room buzzed quietly. I stood in the middle of the room, facing the mirror, and tried to smile again at Fogwillow, beyond, but felt a little silly. All I could see was myself, staring back. It was a little unnerving. The person in the mirror, seen from this distance, wasn’t as skinny as he had been when he sat bent in front of his lightscreen in Blush. His posture was better, his shoulders broader. His hair looked curled, clean, and tidy. But there were also deep bags under his eyes, and a weary curve to his brow. A droop in his eyelids.

I didn’t look like myself.

“Ready,” I said.

Edel tapped his staff against the floor. My stomach lurched as my feet suddenly lifted off the ground and my body swung forward in a graceful arc, as if a pivot had been hooked somewhere behind my navel. I rotated into a horizontal position, facing the floor, hanging in mid-air.

“I’m going to put you to sleep, now, Nova,” Edel said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the device float into the air. “You won’t—”

And that was the last thing I remember.

Sometime later, I woke up in my bed. My head felt shriveled and dry, my throat parched, and it took me a while to remember where I was and why I was there. I tried to sit up, but found I didn’t have the energy, and then, all at once, every sensation began crashing back at once.

It was as if my spine had turned into a burning rod of fire. The heat seared up through my neck and ended somewhere at the base of my skull, where a button sized pool of energy was piercing my brain, sending wave after wave of scalding force rushing up into my medulla and beyond. I twisted in pain, but that only made it worse.

Digging my fingers into the mattress, I stared up at the ceiling and focused on taking deep breaths in through my nostrils. It didn’t help the pain, but it did help calm my mind.

After a time, I raised one hand behind my shoulder and felt, with trembling fingers, the hard, unforgiving sharpness of the prism, nested at the base of my neck. The skin around the edge of the hooped metal setting was bunched and tender. When I drew my fingers away, they were spotted with blood.

I started to panic. It was like someone had dug a hole in my back and stuck their thumb inside of me, where it stayed, even now, wiggling under the skin.

“Nova,” said a voice, and I snapped my head to the side, not realizing anyone had entered. It was Fogwillow. She was standing over my bed, leaning on her staff with both hands, her expression distant and sad.

“Fogwillow,” I pleaded. “Help me.”

Fogwillow turned away, ashamed. “I can’t.”

She left later that day.