19. Expedition I

This morning, the Advance Academy packed its bags and headed out into the mountains.

“It’s going to be so helpful,” Dean Enislen said. “I think you’re really going to appreciate this little trip. It’ll take a few days to reach our destination, and we’ll all be gross and sore and tired by the end, but it will be worth it, Nova. I think it will be worth it. You will find your purpose.”

She wouldn’t tell me where we were actually going, but if the supplies we packed were any indication, it was a long way off. One of the silver-cloaks had come to my room last night and helped me pack up a backpack of spare clothing, food, water, and camping gear. When we were all done, she held up the straps and hoisted the backpack onto my shoulders, grinning as I began to tip. I grabbed the nightstand to steady myself.

“All right?” the silver-cloak asked.

“It’s a little heavy.”

“No wonder, Master Answer. You’ve got about thirty pounds in there.”

We woke before the sun rose. Out in the courtyard, the mist hung like phantoms, and the outline of the dark, distant peaks was slowly being traced in red. I yawned. My eyes were drawn and tired, but that wasn’t anything unusual. Weeks of waking up for physical training with Fellish had taught me to ignore it.

“I’m sure you’re tired,” Fellish had said one morning, after I had made a comment about wanting to go back to bed. “I’m tired too. We’re all tired. What does that have anything to do with anything?”

I could see Fellish now, stretching beneath the statue of the wizard holding the star and telescope, preparing to set out with us. It seemed even backpacking through the mountains I still couldn’t escape her. The training had shifted recently. We’d slowly moved away from running and begun other, more strenuous exercises. We stood in bright rooms overlooking the valley and she had me hold poses for much longer than I was comfortable holding them. She taught me to control my body, to move from one position to another with steady movements, as if the air were thick and viscous. She taught me to heave with the will of mountains and press with the vastness of the sky. I hadn’t thought I could be more sore than I had been running, but I was wrong.

I walked to the statue and stretched with her.

A group of sliver-cloaks milled about nearby, staves in hand, and as I slipped wordlessly into the poses alongside Fellish, I saw Dean Enislen emerge from the observatory, followed closely by Marewill. They both had backpacks similar to mine, strapped snugly around their shoulders and chest. Dean Enislen was carrying her black, needle-point staff.

“Beautiful day!” she said.

When we left, we took a path I had never taken before, heading north from the observatory. It sloped downward, deep into the jagged cliffs of rock, and I had to lean back and plant my feet to keep myself and my backpack from toppling forward. My ankles were sore by mid-morning.

The path leveled out again after lunch, and the cliffs opened to sloping hills and grassy knolls. We were passing through some kind of basin, and to the east I could see a bright blue ribbon of water flowing off into the mountains. We reached the river and filled our canteens, then pressed on again.

The sun was brutal as the afternoon wore on, and my shoulders ached with the weight of the backpack. No one spoke much. I passed the time thinking of Blush, and Candle, and Gruff Stop, and tried, for the first time in almost two weeks, to think about Fogwillow.

Ever since she left the Academy, every time I got an image of her in my mind, or remembered something she said, or even caught a moment of the subtle feeling of comfort she instilled in me, my body would seize up, like a hard shell around a tender wound. If I didn’t protect myself, the wound would consume me. Even though I didn’t get to see her all the time, even though she would frequently disappear for weeks on end, Fogwillow had always been a permanent fixture of my life, and I didn’t know what that life even looked like without her in the background.

But it seemed like out here in the wilderness, away from the observatory’s sterile halls, I could allow her memory just a little bit closer—for now. It was impossible not to feel Fogwillow’s presence out here. She was the earth and sky. She was rock and wind. She was an old oak tree and the stream that runs by it.

And that, in many ways, was the problem. Fogwillow merely was. She was always there when I needed her, but never much more than there.

Lost in my thoughts, I stumbled over a crag in the path and fell to my knees. My palms scraped across the ground, burning, and I grunted.

We had left the basin and were entering another twist of high rock paths and steep, ruthless slopes, this time going up. I fell back on my heels and inspected my palms. They were scraped white and pink. Dean Enislen and Fellish were both far up the trail and didn’t notice my fall. A couple nearby silver-cloaks stopped and looked down at me uncertainly.

I avoided their eyes.

When I tried to stand, my limbs were too sore and rubbery, and I fell to my knees again. I knelt there, drawing in quick, shallow breaths, my head down and shadowed. And then suddenly someone was heaving up on my backpack. The straps strained around me, supporting me as I clambered to my feet. I looked around to see Marewill, his expression troubled.

“Are you all right?” he said. His voice was dry and dusty, like a library shelf. His slightly pudgy face was dotted with sweat, and his thin brown hair was lying flat on his head.

“Mmm,” I mumbled. “Okay.”

He continued to stare at me with the same troubled expression…

No…

Not troubled. There was something deeper inside of the quiet, harried alumscript, something I hadn’t noticed before in all those times seeing him standing over Dean Enislen’s shoulder. Was it hope?

I tucked my chin, embarrassed. Dean Enislen was always saying that people believed in me.

I turned and continued up the path.

“Looks like rain,” Marewill said, coming alongside me.

“Oh.” I dug my fingers into my straps and hefted my backpack back into place. My white robes were already stained with dust, and the knees were now scraped from the fall.

“Such a clear day,” Marewill continued. “But there’s clouds up ahead. Odd, isn’t it? How fast the weather can change? I’ve seen storms blow in within—oh—” he looked at his watch, “—let’s call it nine minutes.”

I looked up at him, squinting against the sun. He was huffing a little as he spoke. He wasn’t particularly out of shape, but there was a bit of a paunch showing beneath his cloak. He wore the standard silver of the Advance Academy, but his cloak looked more like a lab coat than a robe. I suspected he was not a wizard.

“How much further do we have to go?” I said.

“We’ll stop for dinner soon and set up camp.”

“But total?”

“Total? Oh, let’s say it’s a journey of almost 100,000 steps. We’ve taken 19,236 so far. 19,237.”

I stared at him. “You’ve been counting your steps?”

“Even now. It’s just the way my mind works. I’m an alumscript. Everything is information. There are a thousand numbers in your aura, Nova. And hundreds of equations. I know you ate 730 calories for lunch, and a 230 calorie bar when we left the basin, and at our current pace you should be getting unbearably hungry in roughly one hour and forty-five minutes, which is when we’ll stop for the day. By then, it will be raining.”

I looked ahead again, suddenly wondering what kinds of things Marewill was always writing on his clipboard, with all its tattered pages.

“So, how many days is that?” I said. “100,000 steps?”

Marewill chuckled mildly. “Ideally, five. Four if we push it.”

“Something tells me Dean Enislen will push it. She seems to like pushing things.”

“Please. Nova. You don’t have to tell me that.”

He was right. We stopped just shy of two hours later. The rain was a steady mist coming down from the peaks high over our heads. We found a wide ledge to set up camp, and ate dinner (“1,200 calories,” Marewill whispered to me) as the storm picked up and the tents strained against their stakes. Fellish took me through a series of poses outside on the darkening cliffs, to ease my muscles and wind me down from the day of travel. The rain poured over the pair of us, washing away the dust and sweat.

Now I’m sitting in my tent against the glow of the thaumascope, listening to the wind and rain outside. I can’t remember ever feeling so tired. Everything in my body feels like it’s tearing apart, and we still have three more days.

My eyes are closing…

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