Humans newly come to the World of Amedia were astonished to learn that the planet was sentient. They were devastated when that sentience declared the air, which seemed so fresh and wonderful, to be far too rich in the element oxygen for those technologies on which humans relied to be safe.
Technology, Amedia told them, was forbidden.
The World then offered an alternative.
A genetic condition existed in a small portion of the newly arrived population that would allow them access to unique fields of power naturally generated by Amedia. This power could provide an interim solution for many of the needs that their technology had filled.
The people would come to call this power Magic.
There are two very important definitions to remember when considering the history of our World:
(1) The period of time that it takes for Amedia to make a complete revolution around the sun. (2) A period of time containing 366 days.
(1) The year that never was. (2) 366 days erased from time through the actions of Amedia’s Emissary and her companions.
A Chronicle of Elsewhen: The Year That Never Was,
by Maikela Gentlehaze
Primary Historian, School of New Wizardry
A LIFETIME LATER
Firsteve, First of Summer, AY 7523
The final guests have made their excuses and vanished into the night. I am left at last with the only gift I truly wanted on my centennial birthday: Silence.
Though I love them all dearly, none of my friends seem to understand my need for silence. No one understands that “my birthday” doesn’t matter.
In point of fact, festivities on First of Summer only sharpen the painful memories of those other things that happened on this day eighty-seven years ago. The pain. The destruction. The loss. No one gets it, not even those who were there: Nik, Maikel, Jenna. Certainly not the kids. Well, maybe Blight—though my old nemesis keeps his own counsel and merely stays away from the revelry.
Not that it matters. Even in the silence, there is no silence
—my thoughts buzz with remembrances of Elsewhen.
Why ever did I let young Maikela talk me into this “history project” of hers? Turning my journal into a “story”? Rereading old journal entries only serves to remind me how naive I was as a young Plain girl. The words might as well have been written by someone else, in a different lifetime! Magic was a dream, then. Thrilling. Captivating. Enchanting. All these decades later the bitter reality of Magic sometimes feels like a cold stone deep inside of me.
“The year that never was,” Maikela has come to call those twelve long months of Elsewhen. Were they necessary? I come back to that question over and over, because my heart can’t bear to accept the answer that my head knows to be true.
Was it worth it? For that question there is only one possible answer: The World hung in the balance. I did what had to be done, and would do it all again if need be.
Yet ... I do miss the simple Plain girl that I was back then.
A WINTER VISITOR
Late Maia, AY 7427
It is my oldest memory, as Magically clear as though it had happened only yesterday:
“What are you doing?”
The man I was talking to, dressed in a billowy robe, looked sideways at my
not-quite-four-year-old self and grinned from behind a close-cropped beard. “I’m about to use Magic to light your family’s Hearth,” he told me, chuckling lightly as he spoke.
The man’s grin faded a bit but his eyes still sparkled. “Because the fire went out, and your mom and dad need to have a fire to keep your house warm and be able to cook your meals.”
“Oh.” I shifted my attention to the Hearth where there was a newly arranged pile of logs. “Is Magic hard to do?”
The man had turned his attention to the Hearth and didn’t look at me as he answered. “It’s not hard when you know how,” he said, a bit distracted as he arranged himself into the same funny-looking position I’d seen two other men use when they’d come to our house over the last couple of sixdays. Apparently our fire had needed re-lighting before this, and it hadn’t registered with me just what was going on.
“Can you teach me how?”
I saw a brief flicker of something flash across the man’s face, but he said nothing. Instead, he reached one hand out, held it over the logs in the Hearth, and muttered words that I couldn’t understand. Flames immediately sprouted from the logs. He held the position for a few moments, keenly watching the fire as it took hold on more of the wood, then stood up and turned to me once again.
“I certainly can’t teach someone as young as you how to light fires.” Somehow he managed to look as though he was genuinely sorry to have to tell me that. “Besides, I’m sure that your mom or dad will have other things that you’ll find a lot more interesting to do when you grow up.”
I stared at the man for a moment, then looked back and forth between him and the now happily blazing fire. “No.” I looked at him with as much certainty as a not-quite-four-year-old can muster. “I’m going to do Magic when I grow up.”
The man looked amused and glanced over to where my mother was standing, watching the two of us. I looked at Mother, too, just in time to see her shrug and give the man a knowing smile. He nodded and looked back at me.
“Well, I tell you what, young lady.” His voice contained a chuckle once more. “If you do, you’re going to be just about the most special Plain girl who’s ever been born.”
I distinctly remember blinking at him when he finished talking, then crossing my arms in front of me before saying, “Well, I’m gonna.”
The man laughed briefly. “You know,” he said, the chuckle still in his voice, “I don’t doubt that you will.” He turned, waved at my mother, and quickly left.
Mother looked after him for a moment then came over and squatted down in front of me. “So you want to learn how to do Magic,” she said.
“I don’t just want to,” I corrected her. “I’m going to.”
“I see.” She looked very serious as she watched me. “You do know that Plain folk like us aren’t supposed to do Magic? Magic is supposed to be Wizard’s work.”
“I don’t care,” I told her firmly. I think I stomped my foot, but otherwise held my ground.
Mother was silent for a moment before reaching out to ruffle my hair. “Well, just so you know, I think you’re already the most special Plain girl who’s ever been born.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of that so I just hugged her and headed outside to play for a while.
From that day forward, Magic became more and more the center of my universe.
When I was five, Father told me how Wizards put the Magic Festival Lights in the sky; I told him that when I had learned Magic I would help put them up there. I never seemed to get sick, but like all kids I managed to scrape knees and elbows as I grew up; the way Wizards healed those hurts made my fingers twitch with ambition. Day in and day out I made it known to everyone I met that I would someday do Magic. Be a Wizard.
I practically became a chatterbox when it came to Magic.
At first people laughed it off. I was still only a child, after all, and children love to make-believe. Over time, though, the laughter became more and more forced. Eventually I began to overhear scathing demands to my parents that they teach their child her place in the World. Mother and Father always smiled politely at those who scolded them, but they never scolded me, never told me to keep quiet.
It all seemed quite normal to me, then. Now I know that letting me keep my dream must have caused them pain, maybe even cost them stature in the community. In truth, it might have been better had they prepared me for what would come all too soon: By the time I was eight, the comments were no longer about me, but
I endured. I grew up. Eventually I turned twelve and came of age. By that point I understood the reality that only girls and boys born into Wizard families could be Wizards—were allowed to even
dream of being Wizards. Plain girls like me were not.
It hurt. A lot. Still, the message was clear. I began to keep my mouth shut and tried to be a proper Plain girl.
But I never forgot the dream.
Secondeve, First of Winter, AY 7436
The reality of being an adult meant that I was now old enough to take on important duties. On the day I turned twelve, my parents announce that maintenance of the Hearth would be my primary chore—probably because I’d fussed about the Hearth having to be relit so often once I’d learned about Magic.
I was delighted. I could finally prove myself, with or without Magic! Then I discovered just how difficult it is to maintain the fire day in and day out. I slaved over the logs and ashes. I lived my life covered in dust and soot. I lost sleep from late nights staying up to bank the fire, followed by early morning risings to tend it.
Despite it all I persevered. After six months my record was perfect. Not once had the flames gone out. Not once had we needed to summon a Wizard. I even became a little cocky and inordinately pleased with myself. It was hard work, but I was good at it. I knew that the Hearth was mine to control.
Just as I knew, in the growing darkness of that First of Winter evening, that I had made a terrible mistake. When I heard my mother call out to me I was nearly as filled with fear as I was covered with ash from frantically working on our sputtering fire.
“Astra! Time to go! We’re already late for the festival. And for Amedia’s sake, brush your hair before we leave!”
Looking tidy was the last thing on my mind right then, but I pushed my unruly tangle of hair back with a swipe of my hand.
“Go on ahead, Mother,” I called back to her, desperately trying to keep the rising panic out of my voice. “I’ll catch up after I finish with the Hearthfire.”
After I’d finished coaxing the Hearthfire back to health, that is. I’d been so wrapped up in First of Winter festival preparations that I had failed to maintain the diligence a Hearthfire demands ... the diligence that pride had made into my own form of Magic.
The Hearthfire hadn’t gone out. Not quite. But it wasn’t like I could just run next door and borrow a cup of fire if it did die. Fires could only be started with Magic; since all Magic came through Wizards, a Wizard had to be called when a fire went out. I had known those rules since I was a child. They were the biggest part of why I had been so conscientious up to that day.
Despite my anxiety, I worked as quickly as I could, blowing on the fire, coaxing it, adding kindling, then adding some wood until it burned a bit more steadily. Banking the fire as best I could, I fervently asked Amedia to be merciful and let it still be alive when I returned.
I had the queasy feeling it wouldn’t last until we got home, but it would have to do—Mother would expect me to catch up before she reached the festival.
I hastily washed my face and hands and fled toward town.
I caught up with my family well along the winding path to the festival. My brothers and sisters were all laughing in excitement, crowded around my father to sing silly festival songs. Mother trudged along a few steps behind them.
It was already quite dark: Amedia’s larger moon, Liberi, wouldn’t rise until much later; only the smaller moon, Larina, gazed from the sky ... which was a good thing, considering how mussed I was. Any more light and Mother would have seen the ash in my hair and on my festival gown. As it was, when I fell in step beside her she merely gave me a brief glance and continued walking.
“Is everything all right?” Her breath steamed in the cool air as she softly asked the question.
I took a moment to catch my wind. “Fine, Mother,” I finally told her. “The fire just took longer to bank than I expected.”
Mother nodded. She was dressed up in fancy clothes for the First of Winter festival, as were we all. I got the usual impression, though, that she’d rather be working with her quilting. Mother’s reverence for Amedia was as strong as anyone’s, but intensely private; she always remained a silent presence amid the noise and revelry at the seasonal celebrations of the World’s bounty.
I, on the other hand, usually welcomed the chance to party. Right then, however, I was so desperate to go back home to care for the Hearthfire that I almost asked Mother if she would skip the festival with me. She could quilt—she always had a project underway at home, as well as at her shop—and I could make sure the Hearthfire kept burning.
Somehow I managed to hold my tongue.
Soon signs of the festival began to float in the air around us: Music, laughter, the near roar of many people all talking at once, and of course, the delicious smells of many different types of special Winter festival foods cooking in the open air. Despite my continuing worry, my mouth watered at some of those once-a-year aromas.
We finally rounded the last bend in the forest trail and the festival loomed in front of us. As usual, it was spread across the town’s open commons area, where all manner of outdoor gatherings were held. I could immediately see Magically lit fires dotting the scene—torches, cooking fires, and one immense bonfire right in the middle.
My heart wilted. Without willing it, my eyes darted back to the path we’d just traveled, my thoughts to the Hearthfire back home. I well knew that to have our Hearthfire actually
Blight—fail and go out—would be a disaster. The thought flashed through my mind, as it always did at times like this: If only I could do fire Magic for myself.
Once more I mourned the impossibility of my lifelong dream.
Even though I loved the party atmosphere, festival days were always hard for me. There was so much Magic on display it tended to make me ache from wanting to participate, when I knew I could only watch. It wasn’t the festival at fault; how can you not love a full day of fun and celebration? It was just me wanting to live out my dream.
Still, despite the melancholy it caused me, I had always loved First of Winter. It’s one of the two-sunset holidays: The air is always crisp and cool in the mild climate of Wizard’s Reach and it usually didn’t snow until much later in the season, if at all.
The festival always attracted folks I didn’t know on sight—other people’s relatives come to visit, people just passing through, and a Wizard or two from Thunderhead Town to help with the Light Show. There was music and dancing and storytelling. Often one of the several groups of traveling entertainers would drop around to perform their latest skits and comedies.
Then there was the food. Ah, the food! Meats and sweets and pastries—especially my favorite, glazed apple tarts.
That night, though, I couldn’t focus on the festival. My mind was in a fog, still back at the Hearthside, fervently asking Amedia to keep the flame alight. Someone passed me a plate and I took a hot pastry, but I couldn’t really taste it. Nor could I pay proper attention to what people around me were saying.
Mostly I tried to hide, tried not to think about the Hearthfire. Tried not to think what a nightmare it would be if the Hearth went out and I had to find a Wizard to relight it. Except, not thinking about those things only made me think about them all the more.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t have sought out help. There were several Wizards around; I had even recognized a couple of women who had provided Wizard services to our family in the past. Any of them would have gladly helped, though all of them would be very busy in the wake of the festival craziness. But my pride wouldn’t allow me to seek help while a chance remained that the Hearth would be fine.
At one point I contemplated slipping into the shadows and taking off, forgetting about the festival and heading home to tend the fire. I tried to tell myself that I was only one person, that no one would miss me.
The reality was, though, that I would be missed. Mother always counted noses when everyone gathered to head home. Besides, it’s not seemly to leave before the Light Show ends—it’s an insult to the World’s grace.
So, I stayed. And I worried.
At least my siblings enjoyed themselves. Once the Light Show finally started, they were all a-wiggle, laughing and cheering and oohing and ahhing as a multitude of Magical creatures and fabulous objects danced across the sky in animated splendor: Birds, and fish, and animals; stars, and flowers, and trees; and a myriad of others less easily described.
“Ooh!” Never one to contain herself, my eight-year-old sister, Phillina, squealed as one strikingly large and luminous burst drenched the World in shades of orange light. “I never saw anything so pretty!”
“Aw, that was nothing, Philla,” Auric replied, his voice dripping with scorn. Ric was eleven then, and considered himself an expert in all matters. He also believed that he should have been our family’s firstborn and that he should be the one to manage the Hearth rather than merely assisting me.
“It was so something, Ric!” My other sister, Renata, was ten and had an artist’s eye for such things. “I don’t ever remember a light so bright, with so many colors.”
“Just shows how poor your memory is, Reni,” Ric taunted.
“Hush!” mother hissed at her brood. Of course, that only made their voices turn to raspy whispers still clearly audible between the noisy pops and bangs that filled the night ... not to mention Philla’s continued squeals of delight.
I wasn’t delighted—I wanted to scream in frustration!
Finally, after half an hour that felt like an eternity, the Light Show ended. I gave quick hugs to my parents and Grandmother Astralicia; they would all stay to talk with friends a good while longer. Meanwhile, I took off as fast as I could toward home and the failing Hearthfire.
The failed Hearthfire.
I felt my heart sink as I came in sight of our cottage. There was not the slightest hint of light from the Hearthroom’s large window. The fire was out.
I stopped at the edge of our yard to gasp for air, breathless from the long run, and from fear. I almost turned back toward town; all my instincts screamed for me to take off running, despite the fire in my lungs and a stitch in my side. Wild thoughts spun in my head: Maybe I can find a Wizard as the festival winds down. Maybe one of the Wizards I saw will be on the path and I can ask her to come and rekindle the flame. Maybe....
Before I could move, though, a voice whispered to me through the darkness, seeming to come from the grove of trees beside our cottage. My heart was nearly startled up into my throat.
“Astra!” the voice called out—soft, barely there, but still reaching my ears with ease. There was something about the voice, beyond its very presence, that caught my attention. Something familiar, and yet not....
I spun to see who had called my name and nearly fell to my knees, suddenly dizzy from more than just running. Liberi was just peeking over the horizon, adding the first of its light to the tiny glow Larina offered. As my faintness eased I peered at the woods, at first unnerved that someone might be there.
Oddly, it was a relief when a shadow detached itself from the trees and ghosted toward me. In the space of a heartbeat the shadow resolved itself into a human figure clad in what looked like a dark Wizard’s robe. The late-night caller spoke from inside a deep, shadowing hood that completely hid her face.
“I’m a friend, Astra,” the shadow whispered as it drew close to me. From the sound of the voice the ghost now seemed to be a girl, maybe a bit older than I was. “I know about your Hearthfire,” she added as she drew up next to me. “I want to help.”
I was stunned. How could anyone know about the Hearthfire? Then I felt myself filled with a sudden hope.
“Are you a messenger from Amedia?”
The words sounded almost like a prayer as I said them. Had the World heard my pleas and sent help? The stranger, though, seemed to hesitate.
“I—” She hesitated again. “You mustn’t think of me that way,” she said at last, a definite tone of worry in her voice. “Just think of me as ... as someone who’s been in your position.”
That confused me. It also calmed me. “You mean, your Hearthfire has gone out?”
“Yes!” I could hear relief in the stranger’s harsh whisper. “Exactly. I’ve faced a Blighted Hearthfire, when no Wizard was available. Just like you are, right now.”
“So what do I do? I must get the Hearthfire relit, so we don’t all freeze tonight!” Though my breath was still coming in shallow gasps, my fear had vanished with her words. Still, I’m sure she could hear the desperation in my voice. Winter nights could be treacherously cold, even in the usually mild climate of Wizard’s Reach.
The shadow nodded its head. “Your fire will be lit, Astra,” the stranger told me. Her voice suddenly gained a note of urgency.
“You will light it for yourself.”
“M—me?” I was so stunned at the thought, it caused me to stutter. “But ... but I’m not... ”
The girl cut me off sharply. “Yes, you are , Astralicia Fairweather!” Her voice was still quiet but now rang with intensity. “Haven’t you noticed how often you do more than you think you can? How many of those things seem almost Magical?”
I tried to form an answer, but no words would come. When my voice refused to work, the stranger continued in a rush. “Magic runs deep in you, Astra. You’ve merely been deluded by all those who derided your dream. The ones who mocked you were wrong. You have not only dreamed of Magic all your life, you have been doing Magic all your life. You just haven’t realized you were doing it.”
She took a step toward me as her hissing whisper took on an added sense of insistence. “Tonight you will do Magic on purpose. Tonight you will light your own Hearthfire.”
I stared at the shadowy figure for a long moment, my head spinning at her words. How could I do Magic? I was only a Plain girl. Amedia couldn’t have blessed me with Magic!
Memories of things that had happened over the years began to tumble through my thoughts, memories I’d long forgotten or dismissed. I’d never been able to explain the time my brother Alec’s lost toy had seemed to leap up into my hand when I reached into the pit where it had fallen. There was the time I found my mother’s lost wedding charm, when everyone else had given up hope. More recently there was the Hearthfire—I’d managed to maintain it flawlessly for six months, up to that very night, when most families were forced to summon a Wizard once or twice a month.
The memories faded and I flashed on a conversation I’d overheard as a child. My father had been defending one of my “Going to be a Wizard” comments to some of his friends:
“Don’t be ridiculous,” one visitor had argued. “Only those born Wizards can do Magic.”
My father had smiled in response.
“But how did they get to be born Wizards?”
“They are born of Wizard parents, obviously,” another guest said.
“Maybe so,” Father replied. “But what about in the beginning? I mean, we’ve all heard stories of the times before Magic, haven’t we?”
There was a general nod of assent around the trestle where they sat, although a couple of them muttered things like “Hah!” and “Yeah, in fairy stories.”
“Well then,” Father went on, “who birthed the first person to be a Wizard? His parents had to have been
Plain, just like us. That’s all there are, Wizards and Plain folk, right?”
I refocused on the robed figure as emotions tore at me. I desperately wanted to believe this stranger. The spark of my Magical dream still smoldered within me. No matter how I’d tried to deny it, the dream had always remained.
But it had been so long since I’d believed in that dream. I could feel the deep scars on my heart from the repression of those yearnings; scratching at those wounds would hurt even more the second time.
Even as I stood frozen with indecision, though, I knew there was only one choice I could make. I stiffened my spine and focused all my attention on the stranger.
“What do I do?”
The figure motioned me closer, then remained silent until I drew close enough to touch her, close enough to see how tattered and shabby her robe looked, even in the dark.
“You must hold your right hand out, like this,” she whispered. The hand she held out to demonstrate seemed oddly worn and dirty, for someone offering to teach Magic. “Hold your hand over the center of the Hearth, just as you’ve seen Wizards do. Visualize a fire in your mind. Concentrate until you can hear it and smell it and feel its heat. Then say, ‘Flammae Adustum!’”
She paused, obviously studying me in the dark. “Can you remember that? You must say it exactly as I did.”
“Flammae—” I started to say, but the stranger cut me off with a harsh word.
The shadow hissed in what sounded like fear. “You mustn’t say it here! You don’t want to set the trees or the grass on fire, do you?”
I shook my head, mute with horror.
“You must say the words only at Hearthside, for now.” Her voice was quiet once more, but still filled with a sense of determination. “The Hearth itself will help you. Until someone can teach you more, your Magic must be used only in the most private of ways.”
I was suddenly more than a little nervous. “Is it that dangerous?”
She almost spat the word. In a moment, though, I heard a soft sigh and she continued in a calmer tone. “Yes, it is dangerous. You’ll be fine if you’re careful, though. Certainly it’s less dangerous than to use Magic without realizing you are doing it.”
The stranger paused. She drew a deep breath before continuing, as though to control her emotions. “Soon you will learn more,” she went on at last, a wistful note now in her voice. “Much more. Magic is your destiny, Astra, but your time is not yet here.”
Those words confused me again. “My time?”
The girl sighed again behind the voluminous hood. “Not yet, Astra, but soon. Very soon.” I could feel her staring at me from the deep shadows of her hood. Finally she raised an arm to point toward our cottage.
“Now, go and light your Hearthfire. Tell no one—but record it all in that journal you’ve been thinking about. Update it each day, in as much detail as you can.”
“What?” I was suddenly very confused. I’d told no one that I’d been thinking of keeping a journal, not even Reni. “How did you—”
The stranger suddenly motioned me to silence and glanced around, as if she had heard someone coming. “Go, quickly,” she said in a hurried whisper.
Before I could say anything she had pulled back into the shadows and disappeared. I stood there a moment longer, staring at those shadows, wondering if I’d just been the victim of a hallucination.
Magic was my destiny?
Shivering slightly, I pulled my cloak more tightly around me. There was nothing for it but to try what she had said. I turned from the woods and hurried across our yard and into the cottage.
My stomach churned as the hooded stranger’s words echoed in my mind: Magic is your destiny. Your time is not yet here.
For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine having “a time”—unless it was the time Mother spoke of, when Father would arrange a marriage for me.
Or maybe a time when some Wizard would hire me as their housekeeper. That had become my fondest hope, once my dream of being a Plain Wizard had been quashed. At least as a Wizard’s housekeeper I would live close to Magic.
Now a stranger had told me that I was destined for something more, something far beyond what anyone else had ever allowed me to believe. My heart soared for one amazing moment.
Then reality returned with a crash as I came face to face with the dark Hearth and the night’s darker reality. How could I hope to be a Wizard’s housekeeper, much less a Plain Wizard, if I couldn’t keep my own Hearthfire going?
I placed fresh wood in the Hearth, steeled myself, and held out my right hand the way the stranger had shown me.