“Getting ambitious, aren’t you?” Nanu said, squinting at the page Kalen had shown her.
“Could you form this pattern, Teacher Nanu?”
The two of them were seated on top of the rock, eating pickled soft crabs from a jar that Nanu had brought with her. It had been four days since the aurora appeared, and Nanu had finally made her way here. As usual, she’d brought a few supplies for Kalen and some notes she’d made for him to think about.
“Mayhap I could,” she said, licking crab juice from her fingers. “But why would I? I could not have empowered such a working when I was a young, fresh-eyed thing, and I can not do it now. Not to mention that sing-songy chant. A lot of trouble for ‘stirring the air’ if you ask me.”
“Oh.” Kalen tried not to sound disappointed.
Nanu eyed him. “More to the point, can you form that pattern? I don’t think you can. I don’t think you can form anything close to it. And we’ve talked about half-measures, haven’t we?”
Kalen groaned and flopped backwards onto the hard stone. “I know. I have to be able to do it perfectly or I shouldn’t even try. Because I might hurt myself.”
“Hurt yourself? You might blow yourself up. Or worse—you might blow me up. Best to stick with what you’ve practiced and save dangerous curiosities for when you’ve got more experience.”
Kalen had never been sure if Nanu’s dire warnings about wizarns accidentally exploding themselves were meant to be taken seriously. The books he’d read did speak of practitioners injuring themselves, but it seemed the main danger was doing harm to your internal mana structure, not your physical body.
Maybe it was different for Nanu since she had been trained by a fire practitioner?
They spent the rest of their lunchtime playing with the magnetic wood Kalen had made. Nanu was very pleased with it. “If you can make its hold just a little stronger, it could be used for buttons.”
“Buttons?” Kalen asked, perplexed.
“It would be a fine thing for arthritic old fingers,” said Nanu, waving her own gnarled ones in front of Kalen’s nose. She lifted the bag she’d brought. It closed with a leather lace.
“Stitch a wood button here and another here.” She pointed at either side of the bag’s opening. “And it could be pulled open and shut again with ease.”
Noticing Kalen’s lack of enthusiasm for this suggestion, she shook her head. “Foolish small man. Such a thing may be little use to you. But it can be made easily and sold. Make it fine enough, and your uncle could even sell it to a shop on the continent for you. It’s a point of pride for the common folk there to have an enchanted piece, even one so small.”
“Oh!” said Kalen, eyes widening. “I could get money for books!”
“So you could,” said Nanu. “And…what are you doing now?”
Kalen had leaped to his feet and run for the storage cubby at the top of the stairs. He pulled out a hatchet and waved it at her. “I have to go cut wood for buttons.”
Nanu blinked at him. Then, she laughed. “Nobody wants their fine enchanted buttons carved by ten-year-old fingers. You figure out the spellwork, and I will find good buttons for you. I doubt we’ll have time for such a project during this aurora, but by the next, we’ll be ready.”
“But this aurora’s not even half over yet!” Kalen protested.
If he could really do something to make money, he wanted to do it as soon as possible. Uncle Holv would be back in the village soon, and assuming everything went according to plan, he and Lander would be sailing for the continent not long after that. Kalen might have to wait a whole year to sell his buttons if he missed this chance.
“It’s been several days already,” said Nanu, squinting up at the sky. She’d told Kalen she couldn’t see much of the aurora in daylight, though it was plain enough to his own eyes. “Mayhap you’ll have a couple more days for your practicing. They shouldn’t be wasted on this new project. Or on stirring the air.”
Frowning, Kalen let the hatchet fall by his side. “It’s not going to end soon, though. Can’t you tell?”
He could feel it. Usually, he only had a few days to practice. Maybe a week if he was lucky. But this time, the aurora’s power was still building in the atmosphere, like it was in the process of arriving not leaving.
The old woman stared up at the sky, rubbing her chin. “Can you tell?” she asked finally. “For sure?”
“Hmmph.” Nanu muttered something unintelligible to herself. “Well…for now, work on what you’d planned ahead in your journal.”
“If you say so, small man. If the aurora hasn’t gone by week’s end, I’ll come back to check on you or send someone else to do it. Make sure you head home before then if you run out of food.”
Kalen glared at her. “Why does everyone think I’m going to let myself starve!?”
On the eighth day, the aurora was still building, and it showed no signs of slowing down. Kalen was in heaven. He’d rarely had such a long span of time to practice. And he felt like he was growing. On the inside. Just from taking the magic in and filling himself over and over and over.
During the daylight hours, he worked on improving the enchantment for the wooden magnets and discovered that by carving a mirrored image of the runes on a second piece of wood he could make them adhere more strongly. It would work for a button, he thought.
When his fingers were too full of splinters to continue, he spent an afternoon at the sea again, improving his control over the breath-hold thrawning. He couldn’t stay underwater much longer, but there were significant improvements in his speed at putting the pattern together correctly in the first place.
It felt like his mana was flowing more efficiently thanks to the frequent use over the past few days.
Not that it had helped with his other project. Twice, he’d tried to create the internal pattern for the air cantrip. And it quickly became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to build something so complex from scratch in the near future.
But Kalen wanted it.
At first, he had a faint hope that he might be able to get around the problem. Maybe if he could pluck away at the place inside of him where the magic flowed in that vaguely similar shape, he could alter it enough to match the elegant diagram Brou had drawn in his book.
It certainly sounded easier than building something completely new.
But it turned out that anything more than the smallest untangling of his chaotic magical pathways was painful in a way that felt dangerous. It caused a deep hurt, one that Kalen couldn’t quite define in words. And it triggered an animalistic self-preservation instinct.
He’d tried exactly once, and within minutes, he collapsed, shaking and heaving.
After that, he felt certain that a person wasn’t supposed to unravel themselves in the way he'd tried. If he told Nanu what he’d attempted, Kalen had a feeling she’d drag him back to the village in an instant. In the worst possible scenario, he imagined her telling his mother he’d hurt himself doing magic.
Shelba would probably feed all of his books and scrolls to the pigs.
At times like this, Kalen really wished he had a more complete set of novice practitioner manuscripts. It seemed like this sort of basic information should be covered somewhere. In the absence of true instruction, he was forced to ponder the problem himself. That was what he was doing during his eighth afternoon atop the rock.
He lay with his stomach pressed to the stone, enjoying the way the sun warmed his back while he wrote notes about the air cantrip in his grimoire. Maybe if I designed a magic circle to stand in while I recited the cantrip? he wrote.
He was listing the pros and cons of this idea when a familiar voice called out a greeting from below him. Kalen leaped to his feet and raced to the edge of the rock.
Lander stood under a tall fir tree, grinning up at Kalen. He had a large burlap sack slung over one shoulder, and he was waving enthusiastically. To Kalen’s surprise, Iless was at his side, her small cheeks red with exertion.
It was a long walk from the village, and no doubt Lander had set a brisk pace.
“Hi!” Kalen called to them. “Come on up!”
A few minutes later, they stood together on the rock, and Kalen showed Iless around, pointing out all of his diagrams and supplies like a proud homeowner showing off their best furniture.
“She couldn’t bear to be parted with me for even a day,” Lander teased, tugging on one of his little sister’s pale red braids. “When she heard I was coming out to see you, she threw a fit until mother agreed to let her come, too.”
“I didn’t throw a fit!” Iless said, stomping one foot. “I just wanted to go camping! Kalen gets to!”
Kalen was surprised Aunt Jayne had let her come, but he didn't say so. Instead he showed off a little, performing the cantrip to weaken metal and another he’d learned months before that made water cooler. Iless seemed only mildly impressed, so when Lander built the campfire that evening, Kalen expended a great deal of unnecessary effort to light it with the spark circle from Basic Magical Practices.
He flooded the pattern with far more magic than he usually would have. Fountains of dark orange sparks shot up into the darkening sky, and Kalen finally had the satisfaction of seeing his little cousin’s eyes grow round with wonder.
He plopped down beside Lander when he was done, determined to ignore the headache that left his temples pounding like they had a second pulse. They had a feast for dinner that night, courtesy of the bag of supplies Lander had brought. And after the roasted vegetables and cheese and toasted brown bread had all disappeared, the three of them drew a game board on the stone with a piece of Kalen’s chalk and played noughts and crosses until Iless started to yawn.
Kalen spread out his bedroll for her, and in minutes, she was snoring so loudly that the forest creatures were probably fleeing to the other side of the island.
Lander snickered at Kalen’s pained expression and gave him a shove. “You’ve been away from home for a few days, and you’ve already forgotten what she sounds like!”
“I’m glad you came.” Kalen rubbed his shoulder. Lander was growing like a weed, and his shoves had more strength than Kalen remembered. “I was going to head home in a day or two if you didn’t.”
“Really? Did you get hungry?”
“No. I mean, yes, but I wanted to make sure I saw you before you left with Uncle Holv. I was worried you might go earlier than planned.”
Lander lay back and stared up at the night sky. The aurora outshone both moon and stars. “Da made it back day before last. The ship needs a few minor repairs, so we’re due to depart in fifteen days. I’ll come back again before I leave if you’re still out here. And if you haven’t turned into a small, dirty bear by then.”
“Excuse you. I went swimming just yesterday. I’m not dirty.”
“If you say so. Dort gave me some questions for you to ask your wizarn coin before we set sail. It’s all ridiculous stuff.”
“I don’t mind.”
“And Nanu sent along a box of wood buttons? She’s been buying them up all over town. Most of them are actually mother’s, though.”
“I’m going to enchant them,” Kalen said. “And then I’ll give them to Uncle Holv to sell on the continent.”
Lander fell silent. After a moment, in an overly casual voice, he said, “You should give them to me to sell. Not Da.”
“I’ll do a good job of it,” said Lander quickly. “I promise. I’ll ask around and find out what they’re worth, like a proper merchant.”
“Uncle Holv never complains about buying my books for me in Baitown,” said Kalen. “He’s done it several times.” He’d meant to sound casual, like his cousin, but he heard the hurt and uncertainty in his own voice.
“It’s not like that,” said Lander, not quite meeting his eyes. “I promise it isn’t. He’d never do a poor job selling your buttons or buying your books on purpose. It’s just…he’s a little uncomfortable with wizarn things, and when he’s uncomfortable he hurries things. Since I’m going this time, I’ll be able to take my time and figure out what’s right.”
“Oh yourself.” Lander reached down and gave him another shove. “You know Da loves you. He’s just like this about some things is all. You remember when he brought home the underwear for our mothers?”
Two years previously, on one of his trips to the continent, Uncle Holv had been tasked with bringing back fine undergarments for the whole family. Aunt Jayne was as snobbish about fabrics as a woman on a remote island could be, and she wanted particular pieces for her and Shelba to wear under summer and winter skirts.
Uncle Holv had managed to procure respectable underclothes for most of the family, but when it came to the ladieswear, he had apparently been overwhelmed.
“‘For the gods’ sakes, Holv!’” Lander said in a poor imitation of Kalen’s mother. “How big do you think my rear end is? And why are they bright red!”
In spite of himself, Kalen laughed at the memory. “And then he got Aunt Jayne those bloomers with the ruffles all over them!”
Kalen’s aunt had ended up disassembling the offensive garments and stitching them together into things that fit her and Shelba. But of course the patch-worked results were hardly the fine city underclothes she’d envisioned.
“That’s why you should let me sell your buttons,” Lander said matter of factly. “So that he doesn’t end up bartering them away for ruffled pants instead of coin.”
“Okay,” said Kalen. “Thanks.”
“Just remember how helpful I am when you become the best wizarn on Hemarland. You can do spells for me all the time.”
“It’s a deal.”
For more than a week, Kalen enchanted buttons.
Afraid he might run out of time and magic, he worked on the project constantly. It was much harder than he’d thought. He couldn’t carve runes into the small buttons, so he had to use mage paint. And he didn't have a brush small enough to paint such tiny runes accurately, so he had to use the tip of a needle.
He’d have abandoned the task altogether if not for his grimoire. During his brief breaks, he read over all the notes he’d made during the past couple of years—all of his longing for understanding and his enthusiasm for his various projects (most of them failures in the end) was laid bare there.
And so were all of the “I wishes…”
I wish I understood why the runes in a magic circle have to be laid in a certain order.
I wish I had just one spatial magic spell so that I could try it out.
I wish I knew what all the authors mean when they talk about the five basic mana cycling processes. I think I’m supposed to be using those.
Maybe, if he made enough buttons and Lander sold them well, a few of those wishes could come true.
For days, in his head, Kalen had been drafting his first ever formal letter. It was addressed to the imaginary owner of an imaginary magical bookshop--a continental one full to the brim with all the materials a practitioner could ever need. When the letter was perfect, Kalen would write it out in his neatest hand and have Nanu check it over for the spelling quirks he was still prone to. Lander would take it with him on his travels.
Hopefully something good would come of it.
Kalen was in the middle of his fiftieth mental draft of the letter when he reached toward his button bag and found it suddenly empty. In a work-induced daze, he felt around in the empty bag for a while before he finally came to his senses.
Blinking, he looked around and realized he was done. Finally. He’d enchanted every single button. There had been quite a few failures in the beginning, but for the past two days, he hadn’t made a single mistake. The buttons he’d been working on today were arranged before him, each paired with its mate. Stuck fast by magic.
Still somewhat befuddled, Kalen swept them all into the little box where he’d been keeping the completed pieces. Then he stood and stretched and tried to take stock of himself.
He’d been pulling the copious ambient magic into himself by rote to prepare for the next enchantment. So, magically, he was full to bursting. But that was the only way in which he felt truly well. His fingers and wrists ached. His eyes were dry and gummy. At some point he’d skinned his knees on the stone.
Kalen’s stomach growled, and he remembered with annoyance that he’d eaten the last of his supply of ship's crackers yesterday.
Looking up to check the sun, he decided it was nearly midday. Even as exhausted as he was, he could easily make it back to the village before nightfall.
And for the first time in his memory, Kalen was actually so tired of doing magic that the idea of taking a break from it held some appeal. He could re-supply. Eat a home cooked meal. Sleep under a roof for a night. Offer to do some chores so that he wouldn’t be entirely out of his family’s good graces. Find Nanu and have her read his letter.
Really, this was for the best. And Kalen could deliver the buttons so that Lander didn’t have to make another trip out here when he was no doubt preparing for his own upcoming adventure.
Decided, he packed the buttons up along with a few other things that couldn’t be left behind for the day or two he’d be gone. Then, he set out toward home.
It had been days since Kalen had really taken stock of himself or the aurora. But he began to as he made his way through the forest. While he was hopping over tree roots and occasionally stopping to pluck an edible mushroom from the loamy earth, he examined the ambient magic and his own internal pathways.
He discovered that he was drunk. Or it was something like how he imagined being drunk would be. If drunkenness had to do with imbibing too much magic instead of alcohol. His pathways were chaotic and tangled, but they were usually solid. Magic was supposed to follow the tangles neatly, and it always had before.
Only now it was spilling out. Like a river that had begun to eat away at its banks.
It didn’t hurt, exactly, but it made Kalen feel…internally haphazard? He’d been managing the magnetic wood enchantment well, but perhaps that was because he’d done it so many times over the past few days.
When he stopped and tried the water cooling cantrip on the few swallows he had left in his flask, the water cooled off like it was supposed to. But the simple cantrip had definite leakage of some kind.
It was almost like Kalen could taste the spell in the air.
He searched his immediate surroundings, trying to figure out if the leaking magic had done anything. But everything was pretty normal for the forest. Trees. Rocks. Fallen pine needles. A patch of spongy moss that looked like it was rotting away at the edges.
Kalen examined the rot on the moss, then shrugged. Plants sickened and rotted all the time. That couldn’t be it.
He decided he would track Nanu down when he reached the village and ask her if practitioners could get drunk from pulling in too much power. Maybe he’d been overdoing it.
A couple of hours later, he met Sleepynerth at the forest’s edge. He cooed over the sow and fed her a mushroom. She grunted affectionately and followed him home like a puppy.
He stepped through the door of his family’s cabin and stopped in surprise at the sight that greeted him. Nanu sat at the table with his parents and his aunt and uncle. A jug of beer had been set out along with bread and butter, but nobody was drinking or eating.
None of Kalen’s cousins were around, though they normally would have been at this time of day. And surely Uncle Holv should be overseeing the repairs to his ship with the long journey ahead of him so soon?
The adults seemed to be in deep discussion. But they all fell silent when Kalen stepped through the door.
“I just came home for supplies…” he said uncertainly. “Is everything all right?”
The silence lasted entirely too long for his comfort.
Finally, his mother smiled at him. “Well, that’s good timing you’ve got!” she said bracingly. “Come sit down, Kalen. We’ve something to discuss with you.”
Feeling unsettled, Kalen approached the table. He sat down beside his father, and Jorn cut him a hunk of bread and buttered it.
Kalen stared down at the bread.
“Am I in trouble?” he asked. He tried to think of things he might have done to earn a meeting of the whole family. Maybe he shouldn’t have stayed away for so long?
“Ought you be?” Nanu asked in a wry voice.
“Of course not!” said his father, clapping him on the back. “Nanu was just telling us that the island will probably have a guest soon, and we were talking about how we should deal with the matter.”
A guest? Kalen’s confusion must have shown because his mother answered. “It’s the wizarn who comes sometimes,” she said. “The powerful one who asks all the questions and brings the healing potions.”
“She’s a full sorcerer,” Nanu said bluntly. “And an annoying busybody.”
“Oh.” Kalen remembered, of course. He’d heard about the powerful wizarn for the first time on board the ship on his way to Hemarland. She was the reason Jorn had started raising fancy pigs in the first place. In order to make money to pay for… “Am I going to get a little brother or sister?”
Kalen’s mind, so full of magical matters a moment before, immediately switched gears. He would have to start planning right away. And he’d need to question Lander thoroughly before the older boy left for the continent.
Kalen had never really been a big brother before, but he had strong opinions on the matter. After all, his very first memory was of his own big brother, and confusing and uncomfortable as that situation was, Kalen still considered Tomas to be family in a way that none of the other Orellens he’d met had been.
Tomas had tried his best to take care of Kalen. Lander took care of his little siblings.
It was a lot of responsibility.
“The baby can share my room,” Kalen said thoughtfully. “And I’ll teach them how to swim.”
He looked up to see all the adults staring at him like he’d grown a third eyeball.
“Ha!” his uncle said suddenly, pounding a fist against the table. “That’s right, Jorn! We haven’t even talked about the good news. What else have you been saving all that money for if not to buy the wizarn’s help for Shelba?”
“That’s right,” Aunt Jayne said, laying her hand atop Kalen’s mother’s. “I’d love another baby in the house.”
As if someone had drained invisible tension from the room, they all began to talk at once. Laughing and joking while Shelba flushed redder and redder.
Only Nanu was silent, looking across the table at Kalen with a peculiar expression on her face.
He frowned at her, and she sighed. She stood from the table, and with a smile at Shelba she said, “That’s right. I didn’t mean to bring troubling thoughts along with such happy news. Come along Kalen. We’ll discuss our wizarn matters together first, and we’ll let your family know what we decide.”
“Yes, that’s best,” Uncle Holv said, sounding relieved. He turned to Kalen. “And if you decide to come to the continent with me and Lander, we’ll have a fine time of it! Though there’ll be no wizarn work on the ship, there will be plenty of other tasks to set your hand to. I might make a sailor of you before you know it!”
What? So they hadn’t been talking about Shelba having a baby? They’d been talking about Kalen going on a trip to the continent?
He felt so baffled by this turn in the conversation that all he could do was nod. He followed Nanu outside.
“I don’t understand what’s going on!” he said, as soon as they were out of the house. “Why would I go with Lander and Uncle Holv? What wizarn matters are we supposed to be discussing? Why is everyone—”
“It’s my fault,” Nanu grumbled, kicking a twig out of her path as she stomped toward the barn. “I set the conversation off on the wrong foot when I should have started with you anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
The old woman glanced down at him. “Kalen,” she said seriously, “what do you want more—to study magic or to stay here with your family?”
“I want both,” said Kalen, alarmed by the question. “Why would I have to choose?”
“What I mean to say is, if you want to become a great practitioner, you will one day have to leave this place and travel somewhere where magic is richer. If you merely want to be a fine local wizarn, you can live out your life here instead.”
“Um…” said Kalen. “I haven’t thought about it?”
Nanu nodded. “Nor should you have to. It makes no sense for a child to plan out his entire future in an afternoon. But by the time that woman comes, you’ll have to have some sense of how you want to spend the next few years at least. It’s not fair to you or your family, but a choice must be made.”
“Because you’re too powerful.”
Nanu said it bluntly, but Kalen waited for her to laugh. It was such a strange thing for anyone to say about him. Especially Nanu, who was more inclined to chide him for being a silly daydreamer than to praise him for his magical experiments.
“I’m not powerful. I can’t even do most of the things I read about in my books.”
“You’ve no frame of reference at all," Nanu said dismissively. “The only other wizarn you’ve met is me, and I’d not even be called a wizarn in most parts of the world.”
Kalen’s secrets settled heavily in his gut.
He could hardly tell Nanu that he had a frame of reference, and that frame was potions that put you to sleep in an instant, holes in the air big enough for elephants to pass through, a room with the magic circles inlaid in solid gold, and falling suddenly into the middle of the sea when a moment before you’d been safe and warm someplace else.
Nanu leaned down, placed a warm hand on his shoulder, and stared deeply into his eyes. “You’re barely a beginner. You’ve no real foundation. Your magical pathways are more unwieldy than I knew was possible. And yet you still manage to practice at a higher level than this old woman. Even if that weren’t the case, the way you sense the aurora is sign enough. You are powerful. I think maybe you are very powerful. And if the wizarn who is coming—the sorcerer—finds out, she will want to take you away from here at once.”
Kalen didn’t realize he’d stopped breathing until he suddenly felt lightheaded. He drew in some air.
“I…I don’t want to leave.”
“Are you sure, small man? There is a wide world full of magic out there, and a sorcerer could surely introduce you to it.”
Kalen shook his head. Why was Nanu even asking him this? He didn’t want to leave his parents and his cousins. His family. His whole life.
He recalled his old fears, and they returned to him with a vengeance. Strange wizarns from far away stealing him from Shelba and Jorn. His mother crying. The forbidden last name being discovered. Terrible, unknowable things happening because of it.
“I don’t want to leave!” he said a little more shrilly. “I don’t want her to take me away! Nanu, you can’t let her!”
Startled, Nanu stepped back from him. “No need to shout,” she said. “Nobody will let her steal you away from us. Even the villagers who dislike wizarns wouldn’t stand for it. But there are steps we must take to guard against it. That’s what I was trying to discuss with your family before you arrived.”
“What do we need to do?” Kalen said quickly. “When is the sorcerer coming?”
In his mind, she was already here, slinking into the village like a long-clawed, shadowy monster.
“I’m not sure, but not too long, I imagine. I’ve been thinking about it ever since you told me the aurora was still building. She comes randomly, but she always manages to find her way here when the rift magic is this high. These big magical spikes have only happened a handful of times over the past decades, and she follows them here as reliably as a seal chasing after a fish.”
She’s not a seal. She’s a life ruiner, Kalen thought darkly, still picturing the stranger as a shadow monster. That’s what she is.
“How do we stop her?” he asked.
“For heaven’s sake, child! We don’t stop her. She’s a sorcerer. And she's someone who can probably help your mother give you that sibling you were so eager for a moment ago. We just don't want her to decide that you need to be taken away for your own good. Wizarns are a self-righteous lot, and they all have ideas about how young practitioners ought to be raised. We'll just put you out of sight and out of mind aboard your Uncle’s ship for a few months. Or, if you think you’re a good enough liar, you may stay here and meet her and persuade her that you are boring little island wizarn with no bright future ahead of you.”
When Kalen didn't answer right away, Nanu added, “The benefit of you meeting her now is that she won’t be curious about you and stop by in the future to check up on you. She might even give you some good advice about your magic. But she usually stays for a couple of weeks, and that’s a long time to keep up a lie.”
“That part will be easy,” said Kalen.
“Will it now?” Nanu said in a lightly teasing voice.
“Yes,” Kalen said, too worried to be anything but blunt. “I can keep a lie forever. I’m very good at it.”