1. Price of Magic

The way these kinds of stories usually go is this: the protagonist, the nobody, the unsuspecting kid with no parents, no prospects, and nothing particularly special about him, has strange and wonderful powers awakened within him in a moment of need. He saves himself and those he cares about and, after many trials, takes on the glorious mantle of a classical hero.

I mean, I guess? That’s how it’s supposed to work, but that doesn’t make the story any easier to live.

For example, I first learned I was prophesied to save the world when I accidentally killed a couple people. Sorry, I don’t mean to be glib, I think I’m just frustrated, because that’s the part they always seem to gloss over. You’ve got to do some sort of traumatizing stuff to claim your power. So how about let’s start there. With the trauma. With me having killed some people. It’s kind of starting in the middle of the story, but I’m still trying to figure out where the beginning actually even is, so bear with me here. It’s tricky to figure out which parts to tell.

Which parts are just my life and which parts are a capital-s Story.

The first thing I remember as the adrenaline began to fade, as the panic subsided and the world started to move at a more normal pace, was sitting on a bench in the investiture with my back slumped against the wall. “Do you think he’s going to be all right?” someone said. It was cold. Morning. The magazine racks rustled in the air conditioning. Cheery music still played from the radio behind the sales counter.

“He’d better be all right,” someone else said.

I stared at my hands, resting in my lap. They were clean. I checked under my fingernails. They were clean, too. Wrists: clean. Forearms: clean. My skin was soft and brown and spotless. That wasn’t right. I let out a gasp, or maybe more of a sob.

“Figures. We finally find him and he’s a staving lunatic.”

The voices were coming from two guards, who stood close and gave me disapproving looks over their shoulders from time to time. I tried to ignore them. I counted the bodies instead.

They were laid out side by side in the middle of the store, and the bright morning sun through the windows caught the tile floor around them in a blinding glow. I made it to six and then lost track as the numbers slipped from my mind like a wheel slipping off its axle. Near the register, the owl clock ticked steadily on as if the world still cared about something so arbitrary as time when there were—let’s see now, eight?—yes, eight bodies to take care of. Every sound was hushed and distant: the clock, the radio, the ringing in my ears, even the gentle scuff of shoes as the Shift Patrol cleaned up the mess.

“He’s trying to say something,” said one of the guards.

So I was. I hadn’t even realized. I tried again, over a dry and sticky tongue, to get the words out.

“Did I do that?”

The guard pressed her mouth into a tight, thin line. “Mmm,” she said. “Mostly, anyway.” She and her companion were both dressed in glittering silver cloaks, which I didn’t recognize.

“Are you shifties?” I asked.

“No…we’re a third party.”

“Who?”

“Don’t worry about it. The dean will explain soon. Once she’s cleaned up.”

That reminded me. I checked my fingernails again. Still clean.

The doors of the investiture slid open and a tall, tattered figure burst in, out of breath. She was a tangle of mud-stained robes, her long gray hair a thick bramble, snared with dry leaves, like some kind of emissary of the wilderness. The woman paused on the threshold, recoiling at the sight of the bodies. When her eyes fell on me, she let out a cry, pushed the silver-robed sentries aside, and knelt.

“Nova,” she said. “What happened? Are you all right?”

She reached out a hand to touch my chin, but I jumped back. “Don’t touch me.”

“I’m sorry, I know. Nova, my dear... ”

When Fogwillow looked at you, it was as if you were the only spark of magic in the Ferren. She was broad, sturdy, and etched with infinite frown lines. When she swallowed, the tendons in her neck tightened like the cords of a bridge.

She carried an oaken staff, which she set down gently and gathered her robes up around her. They were thick and heavy, and always smelled of moss and steckleberries.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” she said.

I checked my palms. Clean.

The silver-robed guards stepped up behind Fogwillow. “You’re the Wizard Rarecrest?”

“I don’t go by that name.”

The guards shared a look. “We have this in hand—”

“I’m sure you do,” Fogwillow said. Then, to me: “Nova, tell me what you’re thinking.”

I held up my hands. “How do they look?”

“Skeletal. What have you been eating lately?”

My eyes started to burn. “How do they look?” I said again.

“They’re fine.” Fogwillow searched my face. “Normal.” I looked at my hands. She was right. They were clean. I checked my wrists again. Clean. “Nova, what are you doing?” I twisted to either side and looked underneath my arms. I looked down at my chest. I looked up again, at my fingers. All clean. All normal. “Nova,” Fogwillow said, and her voice drew my gaze.

“Where’s the blood?” I said.

I held up my hands again, which were still trembling. And still spotless.

Fogwillow sat as quietly as a moss-covered boulder, staring at me as I broke down, her face expressionless. Behind her, the guards shifted their weight. Behind them, a few of the Shift Patrol looked up from the bodies to see what was happening. I forced myself to take deep breaths, to calm myself. Then, softly enough that only I could hear, Fogwillow said, “You never know what you’ve never known.”

I wiped my face, the familiar words bringing a little bit of comfort. They were from an old poem, and they were Fogwillow’s way of holding my hand. “And you’ll always know what is ever known,” I replied.

As I gathered my wits, a third silver-cloak hurried over and whispered to one of the guards, who nodded and turned to face me. “The dean is ready for you now.”

I was led toward the back office—Gruffin’s office—and without asking permission, Fogwillow fell into step behind me. I was glad. I could probably actually manage to get through this if she was with me. As I crossed the investiture, giving the bodies and the Shift Patrol a wide berth, it struck me how ordinary everything otherwise looked. Beyond the line of the dead, the pale, blue floors were freshly mopped and shining. The kiosks were perfectly sorted, with their rows of colorful boxes, of prismints and cebelis gum and chocolates from far Yelding. Above the counter, signs advertised the daily sales, and a large scrolling marquee displayed the current price of magic.

It was all very normal. A sight I had seen every day. And yet, just beyond the racks of koba crisps, the blood smeared the tile in long dark stains.

I approached Gruffin’s door and knocked.

“Come in,” said a voice on the other side that wasn’t Gruffin’s voice. I pushed open the door.

The woman behind the desk stood as I entered, smiling. She was petite—spritely, even—but held herself as if carved from stone. She wore a stiff black suit with a collar that jutted up into her neck like it was holding her head in place. Her skin was pale white and she had bright red hair, short and glossy, slicked flat to her head.

“Nova Scratshot,” she said. “I hope it’s okay if I call you that.”

I hesitated in the doorway. She looked so out of place among Gruffin’s clutter. A perfect jewel among the slumping stacks of paper and month old mugs of elg. She seemed pleasant enough, but there was something dangerous in her eyes. Something fervent. Eager.

The woman continued. “I won’t shake your hand, as I know you don’t like to be touched, but please know that I am so excited to meet you. Please, take a seat, and you as well Master Fogwillow. Come in, come in.”

I bristled at being invited into Gruffin’s office by a stranger, but nevertheless took a seat across the desk. The woman was still smiling as she lowered herself into Gruffin’s chair, an expression that seemed out of place considering that she had, barely ten minutes ago, killed a man in front of me. When I looked more closely, I could see that, yes, the front of her midnight suit was still speckled with dried blood. A single drop of it was crusting over on the silver locket around her neck.

“I am Vika Enislen,” the red-haired woman said with enthusiasm, “dean of the Advance Academy. Those silver-cloaked guards are mine, of course. We feel so lucky to have found you when we did. A few more minutes and you would have been a goner. But, you know, here we are to the rescue!”

Fogwillow shut the door, then sat in the chair beside mine, sinking into her robes, her staff slanted across her body in a defensive posture.

“We have so much to talk about,” Dean Enislen continued, “but first of all, are you all right? Do you need anything?”

“Where’s Candle?” I said. “Has anyone told her what happened?”

“Candle?”

“Emma Lyn Candle. She’s a friend.”

Dean Enislen gave me a concerned look, then leaned forward. “Are you certain you’re all right, Nova? You’ve just been through something extremely traumatic, something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

I looked over at Fogwillow, but she was staring fixedly at a point just over the dean’s shoulder, as if she had forgotten we were here. I looked down at my hands. “I killed people.”

“Yes, but you killed the right people,” Dean Enislen said with a sad smile. “And everyone will love you for it.”

“Everyone?”

Dean Enislen leaned back and gestured with one hand. Her fingernails were painted a perfect red, to match her hair. “The public, of course. Your name is about to be known all throughout the Ferren. You’re a hero, Nova. More than a hero. You know that, right? You understand what you saw?”

I saw myself as a beautiful algorithm, covered in blood.

“I’m the Answer to Prophecy,” I said with resignation.

“Right,” Dean Enislen said kindly. “Have you heard of us? The Advance Academy, I mean?”

I nodded, voice sullen. “You were set up by the Assemblage long ago to track down the Prophesied One.”

“The Answer, yes. I apologize that we didn’t find you sooner. In hindsight it’s obvious. An orphan, working a job of little esteem, hidden away in a city at the edge of the world. You conform to all the variables.”

I wasn’t sure how that was supposed to make me feel better.

Dean Enislen sighed when I didn’t respond and leaned back in the chair, which squeaked on its springs. “I’m sorry if I seem overeager, especially considering the ghoulish circumstances, and the sorry way in which we were introduced... ” She hesitated, and took in a rattling breath, perhaps remembering the look on the man’s face as she sent a spike of magic through the front of him, and a jet of blood out the back. For a moment, her pixie face lost its composure. “But you must understand,” she continued, pulling her smile back on, if a bit more strained this time. “We’ve been looking for you for such a long time, Nova Scratshot. The Advance Academy is a meticulous, mechanical, rigorous operation. We’ve investigated thousands of children over the course of nearly three decades, ever since the prophecy was written out. I myself have interviewed more young wizards than I care to count.”

She leaned forward suddenly, placing her arms on the desk and hunching over. “The Ferren is nearing a dangerous time. Finding the Answer to Prophecy has never been more vital. You will save us, Nova. So you’ll understand if I’ve let my excitement run away with me.”

When I, again, didn’t respond, she sat up straight and pulled down to adjust her suit jacket.

“How old are you?” she asked, allowing her voice to go flat and professional.

“Sixteen,” I said.

She nodded approvingly. More satisfied, I think, that she had gotten me to speak than with my answer itself.

“And you’re an attendant at this investiture?”

I nodded, and looked to Fogwillow again. She was still gazing off into the distance. The silence extended longer than was comfortable. Dean Enislen cleared her throat.

“What can I do for you, Nova Scratshot?” she said. “How can I make you feel better? You’re the Answer to Prophecy for Eoea’s sake! You will be a great wizard! You will save us all!”

I looked at her. “I want to see Candle.”

Her smiled slipped.

“I’m afraid—I’m so sorry—but I’m afraid there’s no time to wait around.”

“No time?” I repeated.

“Well... ” Dean Enislen’s eyes shifted up and to the side, and she bobbed her head back and forth. “Now that we’ve found you—the Answer—we can’t just let you go on with things. Not when the fate of the Ferren hinges on your choices.”

I felt my insides go cold.

“You’re taking me away.”

“We have found you,” Dean Enislen said, “but the Advance Academy’s work is far from over. The Assemblage has tasked us with your shaping as a hero. As a wizard. We’ve requisitioned a private location in the mountains west of here. You are to come with us to be trained. I apologize, but you are far behind standards for someone your age.”

“I couldn’t afford an education.”

That wasn’t entirely true. There were other reasons I had dropped out of school.

Her eyes widened, and she said in a gentler voice, “No, no, and no one expects you to be perfect. Not right away, at least.”

Her hand went to her locket, absently, and she rubbed the dried blood off. It drifted away in small, brown flakes, leaving the locket shining silver against the black velvet.

“When are we leaving?” I asked.

“As soon as we can. There’s no point in delaying. Not when the future is thumping at the door. What do you say, Nova? Can you do it? Are you ready to claim your adventure?”

As last, Fogwillow broke her trance and looked over at me, but I avoided her eyes. They were pale and gray. It was too much, like a window without blinds. I could feel her soul itself shooting out of her skull like the headlights on a skim.

“Are you ready, Nova?” Dean Enislen said.

I sucked in a breath. It was the opposite of everything I had ever wanted. My eyes started to burn again, and I looked to the ceiling as my lips twitched, trying to get the tears to fall back down inside me.

Wait, no. This is all wrong. Let me start again.