I woke up and stared at the unfamiliar wall for a few seconds.
Well, given the uniform design of Refujeyo dorms, the wall itself was quite familiar, as was the little desk and dresser against it. What was unfamiliar was the absence of all my stuff.
Right, new room. Because of the spell thing.
Well, at least it was the weekend, so no classes. And I knew that Max liked to observe consistent mealtimes, so if I went to breakfast right away, there was no chance of running into him. I had about half an hour before he’d amble in with his smug remarks to remind us how oh-so-educated he was about all the foods.
Or I could sleep in, and go down in an hour and a half instead. That sounded better.
So if curses and spells were the same, that meant mages and witches were the same. Well, not exactly the same – mages were trained, and the other students would all get nice ‘domesticated’ spells, whatever the hell that meant. But I supposed that technically, it meant I was more of a mage than any of the other initiates except Kylie, which explained some of their attitude towards… actually, no, it didn’t. It didn’t explain a damn thing. There was no jealousy in Simon’s snide remarks, or Max’s early condescension, or the whispers of kids in English class. But they had to know, right? The kids from mage families did, anyway. The other kids were probably as confused as I’d been about why Kylie and I were here.
The bare wall I was staring at was starting to annoy me. I was going to have to go pick up my stuff at some point. I didn’t have anything that was mine until I did – all I had on me were my clothes (bought last week at the school shop) and my tablet (school-issued). The clothes I’d brought with me, and my photos – real, actual, developed photos, because the electronic ban had prevented me from bringing any files with me – were in Max and Kylie’s room. There should be a picture of my parents in a hideous yellow picture frame on my desk. But there wasn’t. There was nothing on it.
I made myself get up. Unless I wanted to run to breakfast and bolt something down quick, I couldn’t go to the cafeteria without risking running into Max, so that’d have to wait. But I couldn’t be sure he was out of the room to go get my stuff yet, either, and even if he was, Kylie might be going with him and there’d be no one to let me into the room. No, no; she wouldn’t. She had to be as angry at him as I was. Yeah; if I waited until I was certain he was going to breakfast – another twenty five minutes, let’s say – then she’d be there to let me in. She and I needed to talk at some point, anyway. We needed to talk about what this all meant.
So I had almost half an hour to myself, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit in an empty room and sulk. If I were at home, I’d go for a walk, or perhaps scope out Chelsea’s tracker if it were my turn to do so, but wandering the grim Refujeyo tunnels wasn’t much fun and I didn’t want to go to the valley or Mae and Terry’s island. Was there anything else I could do that might be similar?
Maybe. I pulled up my map and searched for ‘gymnasium’.
Five minutes later, I was pushing open a pair of ornate wooden doors to enter the largest cavern I’d seen at Skolala Refujeyo to date. (The lake monster’s lair didn’t count.)
The gym was big. It was bigger than the cafeteria. It was bigger than the gym at my old school combined with the football field. And it was very, very well-equipped. Every exercise machine I’d ever seen, and several I never had, were lined in neat rows to my left; behind them was a basketball court and then, protected by a fence and many signs emphatically reminding students to shower in multiple languages, a large pool area. To my left sprawled a field of mats littered with gymnastics equipment; I recognised the parallel bars and balance beam and there was a large knotted rope hanging from the ceiling that I was sure I’d seen on American TV. Beyond that was an honest-to-god boxing ring and even more gym equipment – punching bags and weights this time – and beyond that, more things I couldn’t see well enough to attempt to recognise.
It was immediately obvious why this place was so large – it wasn’t just for initiates. The place was full of red, orange and yellow-robed students, and even a smattering of green-robed wizards and two blue-robed masters students. Most of them wore robes cut like karate gis – better for exercising, I supposed, even if they didn’t look as showy and dramatic as most robes.
I wasn’t the only initiate there, either. A couple of grey-robed girls were on the balance beam, and a student I’d noticed at the Magistae’s party because he’d been wearing a really nice belt was in deep conversation with an apprentice with incredibly shiny golden hair. Magistus lay on one of the complicated exercise machines, lifting lead weights with a cable, and stopped to wave me over when he spotted me.
I wasn’t really in the mood to play games with family mages right then, but it’s not like I had anything better to do. A draft pulled at my tshirt as I headed over; if only I’d been wearing robes, so they could whip dramatically out behind me.
“Surprised to see you here,” Magistus said. “Decided to bulk up?” He flexed a pubescent bicep.
I raised an eyebrow. “Probably not a great idea. Your massive guns are already taking up half the space in here; if I bulked up, too, nobody else would fit.”
He barked a laugh. “I guess you’ve come to spot me, then.”
“Magistus, if the only thing standing between you and death crushed under a huge weight is my teeny muscles, you’re going to be crushed under a huge weight. I was actually thinking about checking out some of that gymnastics stuff, but it looks like it’s all in use.|
“You’re a gymnast?”
“Definitely not. But this place doesn’t seem to have a… a track, or a climbing wall, or anything.” Was there an outdoor area with a running or hiking track? I hadn’t thought to check.
“Oh, you just want some aerobic exercise?”
“I, uh, I guess?”
“You’re in luck. We do have a climbing wall. Come on, I’ll show you.”
He pulled himself up, rubbed the completely clean machine down with a towel like he’d probably seen someone do in a movie or something, and lead the way through the gym towards some plain white doors at the far end. Most of them were labelled how I’d expected – toilets, equipment, showers – but Magistus pushed open one that said climbing and a gust of chilly air blew into the gym.
It lead outside. Specifically, onto a large balcony built of flat, well-worn stones, about the size of a backyard. The balcony was semicircular, and edged with those alternating stones you see on castle walls – what are they called, crenellations? – for archers to shoot between. These ones were obviously decorative, as they weren’t even high enough to form a proper fence to prevent people from falling off, let alone shield archers.
Besides, there was nothing to shoot. Off the side of the balcony was nothing but clear blue sky, and far, far below us, a dark green that could have been either trees or grass. The balcony was built into a cliff. In true Refujeyo fashion, architecture was slapped straight onto nature – the cliff itself was wild and untouched.
No, not completely untouched. Some parts were worn smooth, and clear of loose stones and clinging plants. The natural effect of hundreds or thousands of hands and feet. People had been coming out here and climbing this cliff for a long time.
I looked for any safety ropes or harnesses. I found none.
I glanced at Magistus. He was sitting on the crenellations, legs dangling over the edge, apparently unbothered by the fact that a particularly strong gust of wind could send him hurtling to a very literally impactful death.
“Is that safe?” I asked him.
“Safe?” Magistus rolled his eyes, but planted his feet back on firm stone. “He goes to mage school and wants to know if it’s safe. Check this out.”
With one hand, he plucked my tablet out of my hands. With the other, he grabbed a fistful of my shirt, and threw me over the edge of the balcony.
I panicked, of course.
I reached for a handhold, but I’d been thrown with some force and was drifting away from the balcony and cliff as I plunged down, down to the green below. There was nothing to grab onto, nothing to use to generate drag and try to slow my fall, and once I’d accepted that there was nothing I could o, I felt… calm. My life had been a long series of things happening to me. This was another thing that was happening to me.
Why, though? Why would Magistus kill me, and in such a roundabout way? To look like an accident, I supposed; he could just say I’d fallen off the edge. But he was putting a lot at risk, and for what? What did he gain from me being dead? And what kind of psychopath would just throw another student off a building like that? Apart from me, I mean.
I was so distracted by this line of thinking that it took me a while to realise I’d slowed down. The cliff wasn’t rushing past me any more; it was just sort of idling past.
In the wrong direction, too. I was… rising?
I was rising. The air itself was bouying me up, like water. It wasn’t thick like water; I couldn’t swim through it, and I had no control over my progress. But I rose gently, and a breeze tugged at my legs, pushing me back towards the cliff.
I scrabbled for the balcony as soon as it was in reach. Magistus leaned over the edge and offered a hand.
I took it. “You are such an arsehole.”
“I hear that a lot.” He pulled me up. “Anyway, yeah, it’s pretty safe.”
“Just so you know, I nearly killed the last guy who tried to push me off a building.”
“And yet I’m still alive, which proves you really are secretly charmed by me.” He winked. “Just be sure to kick away from the cliff if you fall; the wind’s supposed to pull you away but there are stories of people taking bumps on the way down.”
I glanced at the craggy face and tried not to shudder.
My plunge into the abyss of sky had soured my interest in the cliff, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let Magistus know that. I didn’t allow myself to hesitate, striding over to where balcony met cliff face, grabbing a hold and swinging out.
“Race you to that weird-looking vine up there,” I said.
Magistus shook his head. “I usually stick to real workouts.”
“Sounds like someone’s scared of heights.”
“Really? Scootch over.”
The vine I’d picked wasn’t that far away, but it took a long time to reach. This is because the both of us kept falling. When we were actually climbing, we were pretty evenly matched – Magistus’ strength and endurance let him climb at a quick pace, barely stopping for breath, while my experience climbing random things gave me a sense for finding the best handholds and little shortcuts around difficult parts – but both of us spent a lot of time dropping off the side, waiting for the wind to pull us back to the balcony, and starting all over again.
After the first couple of falls, it ceased to be terrifying and became a frustrating wait to begin again and make up ground. It was a nice chance to catch our breath, though.
The two of us were neck and neck, barely a metre from the vine, when we reached for the same handhold, slipped, and fell in unison. We kicked away from the wall and dropped. Magistus shouted some kind of trash talk at me, but I couldn’t hear it over the rushing wind. I gave him my most infuriating smile and a thumbs-up. He rolled his eyes, which watered in the rushing air.
We stopped falling. Rose slowly, drifting towards the balcony.
“Out of breath already?” Magistus asked me with mock concern. I was breathing significantly heavier than him. “You sure you don’t want to take a little breather while I nip up the cliff real quick to that vine?”
We were about even in altitude with the edge of the balcony, just waiting for the wind to push us over. I took Magistus’ shoulders.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll handle the vine; you can stay down here and have a rest.”
Then I planted my feet on his chest and pushed, launching myself toward the balcony. Magistus, cursing, flew off in the opposite direction.
The winds that usually pulled us toward the balcony were slow and gentle, presumably to avoid slamming fragile student bodies against stone. My push had left me moving rather quickly, and I smacked my forearms against the balcony with a force that rocked through my whole body. Arms already feeling numb, I just managed to reach out and snag stone before bouncing off.
I pulled myself up and glanced at Magistus. It’d take two or three minutes at least for him to drift back. Perfect. I stepped out onto the cliff.
The first part of the climb was easy; I’d done it over a dozen times. I knew where to put my hands and feet without needing to think about it. I barely needed to look. As I went higher, it became less familiar. My muscles screamed at the repeated demands I was making of them, I struggled for breath, handholds became less certain, and the bumps and bruises I’d collected over my numerous attempts were starting to add up.
And Magistus was catching up.
He’d reached the cliff once again. His strength wasn’t flagging, and the cliff was as familiar to him now as it was to me, which meant I’d lost most of my advantage in being able to find good handholds. I was two-thirds of the way up the cliff and he was barely starting, but I was having trouble lifting my own body weight and he looked like he’d merely been for a brisk, invigorating walk.
I told my muscles to stop being whiny little babies and do their damn jobs. Handhold after handhold, foothold after foothold, I ascended.
He ascended faster.
The gap between us shrank, but I was still an arm-length ahead when I finally reached out and grabbed at the vine, tearing leaves off and dropping them down into the sky. “Ha!”
“You cheated. When you pushed me away like that.”
“We agreed to no such rules. You’re just a sore loser.”
“And you’re kind of obnoxious.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”