We were on the fifth day of our expedition through the mountains. Morning.
Dean Enislen crawled out of her tent and stretched her arms high above her head. She looked small from where I sat cross-legged at the top of a hill. In the days of travel, her short hair had lost its gloss, and was sticking up. She still wore her suit, but it was weather-beaten and dusty. Her locket hung down from her neck as she bent over and curled her fingers under her toes.
When she straightened, she saw me sitting on my hill and smiled, coming up in long strides.
“Good morning!” she called as she neared. “Nice day for traveling. Clear. Not too hot. I’d say we should reach our destination before lunch. How’re you feeling?”
“Ready for this to be over.”
She laughed and stopped before me, placing her hands on her hips. “Don’t forget, once we make it there, we have to make it back. There’s always a return journey.”
I groaned. “I think I was hoping there would be a cloudweaver at the other end.”
“No, no, no, Nova. Never hope for the easy way out. We could have flown here from the beginning, but think about how much you would have missed out on! The beautiful scenery. The pleasure of traveling under your own power.”
“The sore limbs and exhaustion.”
“I think you will appreciate the destination that much more because of it.” She wagged a finger back and forth. “We will never opt for shortcuts here. You must squish the clay to mold it.”
Comments like that always took me aback. It was strange to hear someone speak so openly about how much they were going to make you suffer. I guess all pretenses fell away when I eavesdropped on her and Fogwillow.
We packed up camp and headed out in a long line through the valley. Dean Enislen took up the lead, as usual, with Fellish close behind. There was a scattering of silver-cloaks in between us, and a small guard following up in the back.
Marewill Noal had taken to walking near me, just behind. We hadn’t spoken much since that first day, but I think he was keeping tabs on me, monitoring my speed, my food intake, my breathing. Whenever we took breaks, it was usually Marewill who called for them. I used to think it was because he didn’t have the stamina of the others, but I soon realized that it for my sake that he called for carefully planned stops, like variables in an equation. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t too comfortable with someone being so invested in the world of my cold, hard algorithms, or my soul transmuted to a clipboard.
He would often hum as we walked. I think it drove the silver-cloaks mad.
The valley was called Hefestra’s Bed. The grass was soft and icicle white, and here and there grew small teal flowers on long, twisting stalks. We had entered the valley late in the afternoon the day before, and followed the high ground around the outskirts. Now, we plunged directly into the pale grassland, cutting toward the center. Yesterday, each step had been a monumental effort, but today my legs seemed to move in a rhythm like flowing water, growing used to the motion of forward, forward, forward.
Around midmorning, we stopped for a break, and Fellish approached me as I dug a granola bar out of my backpack.
“Feeling good? Feeling spry?” she said.
“I’m feeling like I could walk while sleeping.”
“No good at all.” She shook her head. “When you’re done with that, join me over there. We will train.”
Fellish didn’t tolerate my groans as much as Dean Enislen did, so I stifled it with a bit of granola.
When I joined her, she was standing with one foot up near her knee, her hands closed loosely at her sides. She inhaled through her nose, and as she exhaled she brought her foot down slowly, with perfect control, as if she were pressing a steady, inexorable energy straight down into the ground. I came up beside her and she eyed me in her periphery.
Together, we went through the poses she had taught me.
My muscles stretched and strained, but never tightened, worked loose by the flow of the movements. It took a razor blade of focus, and within minutes I was sweating. Each bend of the knee, each lift of the foot, was an act of deliberate concentration, each movement of my body a movement of the viscous space around me. I couldn’t move a pinky unless it was with the will of the mountains.
Across the white field, in the teal flowers, small birds fought over a worm.
“What you do, you must not do mindlessly,” Fellish said, holding a pose. “A wizard is of the Ferren and so a wizard’s actions are the movements of the world. When we walk, we do not walk by rote. We hold the Crystic in our steps.”
We breathed, and moved.
“The Wizard Mendiwat says you have not grown closer to reaching your staff.”
I cringed, and immediately regretted the wasted energy the expression took. My magic lessons with Mendiwat had gone no better recently than they had the day Fogwillow carried me from the equatorial room. I still could not connect to the deeper parts of the Crystic. My memories of the incident with the Diosec were too strong.
“It’s all right,” Fellish said. “You must simply do the work. In the old days, wizards would deepen their understanding of the Crystic by growing closer to nature. These days, we mostly achieve such ends through education and schooling. But even the most rigorous mental shaping takes into account the need to connect with the world now and again. It is what we are. Did it ever occur to you, Nova Scratshot, that the journey to our destination was an end in itself?”
My limbs were shaking.
“Let them shake,” Fellish said. “Look into the middle distance. Fix your eyes on the Ferren.”
My core felt solid and strong and so incredibly painful.
At a call from Dean Enislen, we gathered our things and set out, but no sooner had we gone a quarter mile than we paused again, drawn up short by the hurried whispers of the silver-cloaks.
One of them pointed, and we all strained to see.
Barely twenty steps away, hovering between the long stalks of the flowers, was a cluster of orangey light, in the form of sharp overlapping squares. Its darkened eyes were fixed on us, and its gaping mouth hung open in curiosity.
“An elegon!” someone said.
“A good omen,” said someone else. “It means we are on the right path.”
Beside me, Marewill scoffed, too quietly for anyone but me to hear. I looked at him curiously.
“You don’t think the elegons are signs of favor?” I said.
Our traveling party moved forward again, but turned and threw glances back now and then to watch the static spirit as it turned, in kind, to watch us.
“People like to think they’re doing the right thing,” Marewill replied. “And so any divine events are interpreted to serve them. But an elegon is simply a manifestation of Eoea’s will. Seeing one doesn’t mean he favors us, it just means he’s watching us.”
The sun reached its zenith before we came, at last, to our destination.
It started as a smell of sulfur, a scent we began to catch before we could see anything unusual before us. Soon, however, I noticed that there were no more birds about, and the air had grown hauntingly still. Dean Enislen called my name, and I hurried up to the front of the line, Marewill huffing along behind me.
“Look at that, will you?” Dean Enislen said. “Up ahead.”
We were still in the middle of the white valley, but little more than a quarter mile away, I could see a field of darkness on the ground. As we drew closer, it became clear that the darkness was an immense patch of scorched grass, blackened as if by fire. When we reached it, we gathered at the edge, no one daring to cross the line from living meadow to brittle earth. The area of destruction was vast and circular. I could barely see the other side.
“This happened eight years ago,” Dean Enislen said. “And you can see, its still smoking.”
She was right. Thin curls of smoke lifted from the dead grass, drifting up in the stolid air like ghostly arms, reaching. When Dean Enislen spoke next, the loudness of her voice made me jump.
“Everyone will stay here,” she said. “Nova, Marewill, you will come with me. When we return, we will rest, and tomorrow morning, we will set out back home.” She leveled her gaze at me, and a spark of something eager and desperate shone in her eye. “Onward, Nova.”
We stepped into the dead space.
Immediately, all sensation dropped away. There was no warmth, and there was no coldness. There was only a sense of rawness, of something abrasive rubbing up against my skin, stripping it down to the muscle. On instinct, I tried to connect to the Crystic for warmth, for life, and was shocked to find that I couldn’t.
Weirdly, this didn’t frighten me. In fact, what I mostly seemed to feel was relief.
We walked for a while before nearing the center of the circle. There, in the middle of the blackened earth and smoky air, we came upon a terminal. But it wasn’t pink. It sat like a stump in the dead grass and it was perfectly clear. So beautifully transparent that I didn’t think I would have been able to see it at all if not for the fact that it was cracked. A web of splintering lines ran through the stump of crystal, gleaming faults that seemed to break the very air. My breath came up short and shallow as we approached it, and I stopped.
Dean Enislen threw me a sparkling look and rounded the terminal. Marewill stood behind me, with his clipboard.
“So you can see,” the dean said. She motioned to the dead terminal. “Prisms store magic. Wizards manipulate it. And terminals create it. Unless… ”
“I already knew this,” I said. “I knew the terminals were breaking. I knew the Splintered One was shutting down the Crystic.”
“But had you seen a dead terminal? Had you felt the brokenness of the world?”
I shook my head and tried to say no, but the word wouldn’t come. My mouth was too dry.
“We don’t know how the Specter is doing it,” Dean Enislen continued. “We don’t know why. We don’t know where it is, or where it will strike next. We only know that every time a terminal breaks, the web of connections that makes up the Crystic dwindles. A handful of prisms across the Ferren go dark, never to store magic again. The last time a terminal broke, two years ago, I watched, with my own eyes, the cloudweaver Exigence go down as the prism powering it fell out of sync with magic.”
I remembered the crash of the Exigence. I had been fourteen at the time. The ship had fallen on the city of Owlo, in Gesh. I remembered watching the smoke billow on the lightscreen in Gruff Stop. I remembered one of our customers standing in the aisle with a pack of koba crisps in hand, forgotten, his head turned to the screen.
Dean Enislen continued with fervor. “You hear me speak of this tragedy, and you don’t care. You didn’t know any of those who died.”
Her hand went up to her locket. Her eyes were wet.
“You have no idea what I have sacrificed for you, Nova. You haven’t got a clue.”
“I do,” I said weakly. “I do.”
“You must feel loss,” Dean Enislen said. “You must feel pain. You must stand before this broken terminal and feel its absence if you are to ever understand the stakes of everything that you are. That is why I have brought you here. You need a reason to be the Answer? Here is your reason. My pain. And everyone else’s.”
The smoke curled around us. The grass crunched under my feet as I shifted my weight.
Dean Enislen lowered her chin, looking across the broken terminal at me from beneath her eyebrows. Behind me, I could hear the scratch of Marewill’s pencil on his clipboard.
“Tell me what it is you are fighting, Nova,” the dean said. “Who is your enemy?”
“The Splintered One,” I said. “The Specter of Anon-Golish.”
“Again, you pivot. I don’t blame you. Names have power, and to speak the name of your enemy is a fearsome thing. Nevertheless, you must face your task head on. You must greet the threat of the Ferren like a hero. Who is your foe?”
“The Red Wilkin,” I said. “The Antithetical.”
“Name it! Who has done this to the terminal? Who has killed thousands? What terrible equation are you the Answer to?”
I was back, once again, at the investiture, staring into the Crystic at the chaos of the world—at the chaos of myself—hearing the name that was like a severing in my mind—
“Name it!” Dean Enislen said.
But to name it would be to acknowledge my pain, acknowledge its power, acknowledge everything I had left behind and everything I had done, the people I had killed, the fear of who I was—
“Name your enemy.”
The name came to my lips. I was stronger, this time, and could say it. It was like dragging up a boulder from the bottom of the river, water-worn and spit-shiny. The splinter in the Crystic. The scorched Ferren. It burned my throat raw to say it, as if I had been screaming, though I spoke in a whisper.