5. Connection

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That evening, Candle said she wanted to be alone, and I couldn’t blame her. She went to find a quiet place to sleep on one of the abandoned floors of the building, and I was left in my attic. With barely any magic running through the city, there were no lights except the moon through the window. A full-length mirror stood by my bed, and I stood in the darkness before it.

When my hair grew out, as it had over the past few weeks, it tightened into dark, puffy curls. Those certainly weren’t Marewill’s. I thought of the soft, mild-mannered alumscript from the Advance Academy, his tired eyes, his thinning brown hair, his slumped shoulders. I tilted my head, looking for a trace of him in my jaw or my nose. There might be something there. Maybe? My skin was certainly much darker, but something about the eyes…

There was something I found unexpectedly uncomfortable about sharing a resemblance with my parents. I’d always wanted a normal family, but I’d also always been my own thing, and it was weird to think, in this suddenly very real world where I knew who my father was, that there were pieces of me beyond myself. That I was tied, physically, to someone else in some other part of the Ferren.

Marewill Noal. As alumscript, master of information, he’d helped the Advance Academy find me. He’d boiled down my existence into numbers and equations, into algorithms of the Crystic. Into something predictable, manageable. A pattern. He’d wanted to find his son.

Nova Noal. That sounded terrible. I immediately discarded the name. He might be my father but we certainly weren’t family. He’d known what Dean Enislen was doing and he’d gone along with it anyway. Was it worth finding me just to let the Academy break me? Was it wiser to—like my mother, airbird sevens—keep me at a distance but try to protect me? And then another question popped into my head, one that seemed significant on some metaphysical level.

Which one of them had named me?

I sighed and took a step back. A gross, uneasy twisting took hold of my gut as I pulled off my shirt and turned to study my back. Six brilliant crystal prisms studded my spine from the base of my neck nearly down to my waist. They caught the moonlight, and for a moment I could almost feel the brightness sinking into me, traveling the wired pathways to my brain. I reached back to touch one. Fogwillow had refused to charge them, or even look at them, since we left the observatory, so it had almost been easy to forget they were there. They didn’t hurt anymore. They just felt like more bones working against my skin, like elbows or something.

My palm gripped the prism. I felt the fleshy edges of my skin folding up against the stud. I wondered what would happen if I pulled it out.

The door opened. I tugged my shirt back on hastily and turned to see Fogwillow standing on the threshold.

“Hi,” I said.

She said nothing. She came into the room and shut the door behind her, then crossed to the window and peered out at the unlit city. “It’s like we’ve been thrust back into the Lorn,” she said quietly. She turned to look at me, and the shadows darkened the deep wrinkles on her face. “How do they feel?”

I shrugged. “It’s hard to sleep on my back, now.”

“Let me see.”

She pulled the back of my shirt up. We stood there for a good minute or so as she poked and prodded the prisms with blunt, medical efficiency. At one point, she even gave one of them a bit of magic, and I inhaled sharply as heat lanced up my spine. My vision blurred, and by the time I recovered, Fogwillow had taken a step back. The examination, it seemed, was over.

“Do you feel weak when they’re not charged?” she asked.

“I feel stronger when they are charged.”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“I know.”

Her frown could have made the wind shiver. “I notice you haven’t been carrying your staff.”

“I…” I trailed off. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t confirm my deepest fears. So Fogwillow did it for me.

“You don’t feel like you’ve earned it.” It wasn’t a question.

“The only reason I was able to pull my staff out of the Crystic was because of these things in my spine. I feel like I cheated.”

“Candle would hate to hear you say that.”

“Yeah, well. I’m not sure Candle really understands what it means to be magical.” My shoulders inched up and my ears began to burn. I couldn’t look Fogwillow in the eye. “Don’t tell her I said that.”

“I wouldn’t dare. You should probably tell her yourself.”

“Why? Do you think technology is the future? You spend your time in the woods, eating berries, and I don’t think you’ve ever even used a thaumascope. You’re as natural a wizard as they come.”

Fogwillow only looked at me, and there was too much focus in that look, like being held under a magnifying glass. But there was also sadness in there, buried deep behind her eyes. I thought of her fight with Gruffin, which seemed so out of character for her, and wondered if the reason Fogwillow looked out at the world so intently was to avoid having to look inward, and confront that sadness.

“Let me see it,” she said.

I flinched. “What? Now?”

“A wizard should be able to handle his staff at any moment.”

“That, uh, sounds kind of dirty.”

Fogwillow rolled her eyes to the heavens. “Eoea give me fortitude to suffer the wits of a teenage boy.” She swept over to the bed and settled down on the edge. With her own staff, she nudged my shoulder until I was facing her, then rested it across her knees and gave me an expectant look. When I only stood there, fidgeting, she gestured with one hand. “Close your eyes.”

I closed them. Fogwillow told me to connect to the Crystic, but I was already one step ahead of her. It had become second nature by now. I thought back to my days before the Advance Academy, when I had stayed put in the shallows of the infinite pattern of magic, in my comfortable space. I thought of all those days in the equatorial room with the Wizard Starmine, pushing myself farther into the Crystic, straining, breaking myself to build my strength. It seemed like so long ago. Now, I didn’t even bother taking my time; I plunged straight in.

The Crystic exploded around me, magenta panes of magic unfurling toward a bright white horizon. The razor-edged pattern folded in on itself like a kaleidoscope, and within the glass algorithms, the pink infused geometry of light and energy, I saw the infinite reflections of wizards and prisms and terminals all across the Ferren. Magic was connection, a power formed between those that held it. To be a wizard was to be in sync with that connection, and to pull even one thread of that power sent ripples throughout the entire Crystic. Here, in the pattern of Eoea himself, I could access something that by its very definition was greater than myself. It was a direct uplink to wonder.

I reached for my staff.

When I stepped out of the Crystic, Fogwillow was waiting for me, still sitting on the edge of the bed in the darkness. The planes of magic folded in on themselves and disappeared, and I was back in the Ferren.

I had brought something back with me, though. In my right hand was a tall white staff, smooth as bone. It broke into twisting shapes on the end, like the branches of a cebelis tree. Fogwillow beckoned, and the staff felt ungainly in my hands as I passed it over, unbalanced and awkward. Still, as it left my grip, something lurched inside me, terrified at being parted. I’d been through so much to obtain that staff, even if it didn’t fit me yet.

Fogwillow tilted the staff and looked it over from one end to the other.

“Well?” I said after a time.

“Well what?”

“Is it worthy of belonging to the Answer to Prophecy?”

She handed the staff back, and didn’t answer the question. Instead, she said, “Do you know why we carry staves, Nova?”

“I know you need one to be a powerful wizard.”

Fogwillow shook her head. “That’s the what for, I’m asking about the why.”

I gave my staff a sidelong look. “I guess not.” But if Fogwillow had any answers to give they were not forthcoming. I stood before her with my staff held at an awkward distance, and when I realized Fogwillow was not going to say anything else, I slumped down onto the bed beside her. My eyes felt like two lead balls. It had been an exhausting day.

“Garrel Gruffin and I have a history,” Fogwillow said out of the blue. I stirred, and tried to meet her eye, but she was staring fixedly at a point near her feet. “He and I met when we were young…I mean older than you, but younger than we are now, and…he never…I mean we tried, but…when I found you…of course that was much later…” She descended, gracelessly, into silence.

I was frozen. Too scared to blink in case it sent Fogwillow fleeing back down her hole. It was impossible to get anything out of her if she didn’t want it out. The harder you tried, the deeper she went. Why any of this was floating to the surface now, even if it was in half-thoughts and fragments, I couldn’t begin to guess.

“You’ll notice he never carries his staff,” Fogwillow finally said.

“I always wondered,” I replied, slowly. “He taught me a lot about magic, but never more than what we could do with our own hands. Sometimes I wonder if he even has a staff.”

“He was a very powerful wizard in his time. We both were.”

“What happened?”

Fogwillow stiffened, and I thought I’d gone too far. But then she spoke again, the words barely escaping. “I broke it.”

“His staff?”

“To be fair, he broke something of mine, too.”

That, it seemed, was the end. We sat quietly as the stars shifted outside. With the city darkened, there were far more of them than I was used to seeing out this window.

“Fogwillow. I still need help.”

“I will take you wherever you need to go, Nova. I’m not leaving you again.”

“No, I know. But it’s more than that. I need you to be more than…” I choked. They were words I had thought dozens of times, but I still couldn’t quite get them out. My mental repetitions did nothing to prepare me for the act of actually saying them. “I need you to be more than there.”

Finally, Fogwillow tore her eyes away from her spot on the wall, and for once in our entire life together, I had the pleasure of seeing her squirm.

“What?” she said.

“I need you to teach me.”

“Teach you what?”

“I don’t know! Everything. Anything. I hated being at the Advance Academy, but Candle’s mom was right. It was an education, and I abandoned it. I do need to be stronger if I’m going to take on the Ryvkk. I need to know more. I need to…” I brandished my staff awkwardly. “I need to know how to use this.”

“Well to start with, don’t wave it around like it’s a fishing pole.”

“That’s what I’m talking about! I don’t know anything, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now that I’m not caught up in the Academy’s algorithms.”

“That was the point, Nova. To not have a plan. To go into the wild.”

“But we’re not in the wild. I’m sitting back in my bedroom in a city that’s been demolished, with staving tourists outside my door who expect me to save a world I don’t know how to save. What am I supposed to be doing?”

That is something I cannot teach you.”

“I need…” I took a breath to steady myself. “I need a mentor, Fogwillow. I need a—” And I stopped myself just short of saying parent, “—teacher.” We sat side-by-side on the bed, staring at each other. “And it can’t be Gruffin this time.”

Fogwillow’s brow twitched, and all at once she seemed a thousand miles away. That was it. I’d gone too far. She was still sitting next to me, of course, but wherever she had gone she was no longer in this room with me.

“I need to go to bed,” I said.

“Yes. Of course.” Fogwillow rose and went to the door. When she reached it, she paused and looked back. “Are you enjoying being home?”

“Well. If I’d known Gruffin was going to hug me, I’d probably have stayed at the Advance Academy.” Now I knew she really wasn’t here, because she didn’t even crack a smile. She just nodded and left.

I stayed up for another hour, mulling over our conversation, picking apart every word I could remember and trying to figure out what they meant, and where I was supposed to go from here. Eventually, I gave my staff back to the Crystic—it vanished in a fold of pink light—and fell backward onto my bed. I was asleep within seconds.