Then, I fall. It feels like I plummet forever, and with every inch the light behind me grew brighter and brighter. Deafening silence filled my ears instead of rushing wind, and my back grew hot. Something searing and sharp scratches the back of my neck, and I'm so shocked my whole body tenses up.
That had become a recurring nightmare in the past few months. It started popping up a little after father decided I should attend a new school. My anxiety kept me up through most of the night, and based on the time I only managed three hours. I could never go back to sleep once I wake up, so I decided to eat breakfast before the sun rose. It was rare I got to catch a sunrise, so I sat at the window in the kitchen and watched my neighborhood wake. Cereal somehow tasted better early in the morning when the rest of the house was asleep.
He was so groggy his head was tipping wherever he threw it and he couldn't even be bothered to fix his disheveled pajamas. Coffee filled the air with its rich scent, making him raise his head a little. Neither of us uttered a word, he was tired and I didn't feel like talking about school. Even if I was going today, I wanted to neglect the thought as much as possible to keep my composure.
Mother pulled the house together like she always did, getting my sisters ready for the day and waking my father up enough to function. As the only person in the house without powers, I found her the most magical because she was by far the most capable. She was the only person that could truly wake our home up. Everyone was prepared to see me and father off before the clock struck nine. While the car warmed up we said our farewells. My sisters gave me curt hugs and complained about me leaving, seemingly angry with me for the decision I didn't make. Their protests were snuffed quickly by mother, and she stepped through them to embrace me. Her hold was strong like she was trying to merge us together. She did the weird thing where you rocked the hug and rubbed her cheek on my forehead.
“You don't have to do well, just promise me you'll do your best.” I heard her mutter above me. All I could do was slowly nod my head, though I couldn't bring myself to verbally sign that promise. Part of me still had reservations about going, even though I was literally heading off.
Father honked the horn impatiently, wanting to be as quick as possible about the entire trip. I gave mom another tight squeeze and pulled away from her, waving as I walked to the car and slipped inside. My mother and sisters waved us off as we reared out of the driveway, watching us buzz away with saddened smiles on their expressions. After we turned off of our street, the house left my vision and I felt a soft sigh escape me. It would be a while before I saw it again, but I was completely aware of that fact. The reality was, it wouldn’t be my home for the rest of the school year. I thought this feeling wouldn’t come until I left for university, but here I was on route to my new school.
“Son, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m leaving you under the temporary guardianship of your Uncle Brian. He’s a bit intense at times, but he’s the only person I trust in the magical realm. At least enough to keep an eye on you, ” Father’s sudden speech pulled me away from my cell phone for a moment to look his way. His tongue reached up to lick his rough, curly mustache as he combed through his thoughts, thumbs tapping gently against the worn leather steering wheel without any kind of rhythm.
I caught a hint of reluctance in his words, but that was only because I knew he wasn’t particularly chummy with uncle. The nature of their relationship became somewhat clear to me one Christmas dinner when I was younger. There are few messages exchanging the mutual gift of coal could convey, and while most of the family saw it as a humorous situation, I saw the truth. Had I not been on my father’s lap, looking them both in the face, I would’ve probably fallen in line. However, I felt the energy of the gifting- the animosity spiking within the few feet of space between them. It was enough to sour my own holiday spirit. Thankfully, they maintain a certain amount of cordiality toward one another; at least enough to celebrate every once in a while.
I still didn’t understand why they acted the way they did, but I always thought Uncle Brian was pretty cool on a surface level. He’s tall, strong, handsome, kind of rich, and always brings gifts when he comes to town. By pretty much every metric, he’s the most successful person in my family tree, and he makes sure everyone knows it by constantly throwing parties and flashing expensive, exotic items from random places I’d often never heard of. Uncle Brian lives the bachelor life, and that’s just about the only flaw anyone notes of him. I imagined living with him, thinking about late nights, loud music, and whatever else a single man would do with his sixteen-year-old nephew; it was anxiety-inducing, to say the least.
“There are some things I want you to remember about him. Make sure you jot this down," He said to me, glancing in my direction before looking back to the road, "First, he's a bigoted psycho. Pay attention to what he says and don't let him gaslight you into agreeing with him when you know you shouldn't.”
"Why would he do that?" I asked before I could stop myself.
"He's very... manipulative. Just keep your mind sharp, okay? You'll be there for a while, so you'll figure out what I'm talking about sooner or later." He grumbled lowly.
I felt the urge to roll my eyes into the back of my head but reluctantly pulled the ballpoint pen from my shorts pocket, tuning him out for a second. There was a notepad in the glovebox my dad kept to doodle in when he was waiting at my sister’s soccer practices or sitting in his study. He and I were alike in our lack of enthusiasm for athletics and appreciation of solitude, though I seemed to lack his artistic abilities. One could imagine he would be a fine artist based on how detailed and life-like his work could be. There weren’t many blank pages in it, so it took me a while to find a proper script. My hands sat on the page, idle as I pondered what he meant by that.
He told me about the strange shift in dynamics he noticed in the community during his youth and how the world he grew to love became a stain on his life, as well as why he doesn’t speak to Uncle Brian unless he has to. Apparently, he was overwhelmingly in favor of the way the area developed socially and it made me lose a little respect for him. There was little tolerance in me for discriminatory behavior, and to know I would be living with this person made it worse. As it turned out, the Golden Continent was being ruled by "monsters" that were even more steadfast in their beliefs, a council that ruled with icy, calculated authority and a twisted code of ethics for over a decade.
Though I disliked the ride itself because of the unnecessary amount of storytelling that came along, I enjoyed the views enough to tough through it as we drove along the interstate. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good story; he’s just bad at telling them. The windows were rolled down completely, keeping us cool as we chased after the warm, late-summer sun on our route. When we turned onto the cracked roads that led to the mountains we passed hikers and tourists occasionally, and for some reason I couldn’t help but feel the butterflies stirring in my stomach. My life was going to change forever in just a few hours, and now I really wasn’t sure if it would be for the better. My best bet would be banding together with whoever isn’t a bigoted psycho and keeping my head low.
Father's cellphone rang from his pocket. When he checked it, a questioning expression etched onto his face. He cleared his throat and answered.
"Hello?" He listened for a moment, "Oh... wait, why are you calling? You shouldn't be able-"
The person on the other end cut him off, and father waited for them to finish. He flicked his moustache with his tongue and rolled his eyes.
"Fine, whatever. I don't care what or who you're doing, just make sure you check up on my son by tomorrow or we're gonna have problems. You got me, 'Big Bro'?" Father hung up immediately, and all but threw the phone into the backseat. Uncle Brian made him angry, again. I looked to the window and pretended I wasn't paying attention, but I had a feeling he knew I was listening. Father focused on the road and cooled down, so we sat in silence.
The drive finally seemed to end once we turned off the freeway and I could look to see the peak as it pierced through the clouds. I pressed myself up to adjust my position, trying to regain feeling in my bottom and The station wagon wasn’t good for off-roading, but dad forced the poor hunk of junk through anyway. I tried not to think about why we were there if only to save myself nausea from a bumpy, dirt road. My leg bounced quickly to ignore the hole the acceptance letter was burning into my pocket... or maybe it was the rattling of the vehicle. I could hear the things in the backseat tossing and fumbling about, hitting the back doors every once in a while. My father wasn’t a very organized man, but he was an efficient one.
My mom lent me the travel bag grandma gave her a few winters ago to bring more clothes in a compact way, so I had nearly my entire wardrobe and access to a stash of food if I needed it. Of course, that was being thrown about as well in the backseat bash. None of us were sure how long I would be gone, so we just decided to pack everything. At first, it felt like I was being cast out forever. By the time we were ready to leave, my room looked so bare and empty it was like I barely existed. Mother gave me an entire speech about how much she was going to miss me and almost crushed me in the last embrace before we left, but I was glad to have the affection. Still, I felt as though my spot in the family had been totally erased.
Dad eventually pulled in beside a small group of vehicles parked in a lot. The road ended around there, so we assumed we were going the right way. “Looks like we’re footing it, huh son?” He threw the old bat in park and stretched back a bit, the seat creaking as he wiggled his numb driving leg awake.
“I suppose so,” I mumble back, rolling the window up before he can turn the car off. Once I stepped out, my whole body shuddered as I reached for the sky, stretching for the first time in forty-five minutes-- I was nervous about getting started. My dad grabbed the bag from the backseat while I walked toward the trail guide setup beside the entrance. The paths mapped were long and winding, and many of them connected to one another. “Is it this way?” I asked father, my eyes anxiously scanning the map. There were quite a few trails that formed a network within the High Point Forest. My acceptance letter instructed me to follow the “Destiny” trail; rather grandiose and accurate. Still, I wasn’t certain my destiny truly lied at a magical school. If anything, I was only accepted because of my academics-- that also worried me. They proved to be my strong suit on paper, but in practice, I wasn’t sure how well my GPA would carry me in a magical institution.
“It’s this one going west,” He said, “I’m sure you’ll do better, amazing, I have faith in that. You’re smart, which is more than I ever was, and you’re more focused than anyone I’ve ever met. You’ll even outshine your uncle, believe it. This is your chance, Winston. Learn from them, but change on your own terms.” My father said to me, both encouraging me and amplifying my nerves so much they made my feet tingle. I didn’t know what I was made of, or what I was focusing on. I only knew what kind of powers I possessed because of uncle Brian. Since then, I always found myself thinking about the aspirations my family had for me and how they would affect my life. Unfortunately, opportunities with my dad’s side of the family were far and few in between.
As we traversed the pathway, walking into the grass more than properly paved trail, a sudden feeling of warmth washed over me. The sensation was shocking- as if I had dove headfirst into a pool of hot bathwater.
“What was that?” I gasped loudly, inspecting myself. The old man turned around to put a hand on my shoulder and look me in the eyes, something that caught me by surprise for many reasons, “The magical world and the mortal world are like twins. The places where they are most identical in both worlds act as portals for those with the ability to bypass the bonds of one world. Since humans can’t do this naturally, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to enter the magical world accidentally. We, as beings with magic, have the ability to do this. This mountain is one of the portals.” My mind turned into a swirl of questions and responses ranging from confused to intrigued. It made me nervous, knowing so little about my own powers and needing the knowledge of magic beyond my grasp. Even if it was supposed to come completely natural to me, I’d never gotten comfortable with my own powers.
With a little forced pep in my step, I continued on down the winding trail. Before too long, I could spot the top of someone’s poofy hair past the bushes. It was finally time for me to meet my exam group, and with every step I took the butterflies in my stomach flew with more ferocity. I shoved my hands into my pockets and started rubbing the smooth fabric beneath my fingers in an effort to calm down.
My father wrapped his arm protectively around me as we got closer to our destination, and soon we could see the whole group. I immediately felt intimidated and out of place by the other kids in my group. The parents and their children were lined up beside each other like toy soldiers, standing in front of a short, slender person in a dark cloak. “Looks like you got a young one,” Dad whispered to me, pointing toward them as we joined up with the line. The other kids piqued my curiosity more, seeing as they were all dramatically different in appearance; the one that drew my eye immediately was the person with what I assumed was white paint on their face. I was a little confused when I thought back to the conversation we had in the car. If there was some sort of racial animus in this world, why was there such diversity in my group? There were six of us including myself. I assumed we were all about the same age, though some seemed more mature than others.
After a moment of standing there in near-complete silence, I couldn’t help but wonder what we were waiting for. Some of the other parents seemed to share a similar attitude, but no one bothered to ask. Eventually, another couple rounded the bush with their son. A rugged brute of a boy, he looked annoyed and unhinged, with his messy black hair and sunken, dark eyes adding to the gloomy style he sported. He trudged to a halt in the line while his moms joined the other adults, and finally, our group was complete. The cloaked figure lifted their hood, letting flowing white curls bounce out from beneath and revealing her visage. She looked rather young, no more than a decade older than I was, and that threw us all off for a second. ‘Is she a student?’ I wondered, waiting for her to address us.
“Now that the gang’s all here, I can get started,” Her voice was high and crisp as she started to pace from one end of the line to the other, “Let me start off by saying thank you all for making the trip. I imagine it must have been a long journey for some of you.” A few of the parents chuckled behind us at the joke, but none of the incoming applicants found it amusing. I guess we all hated the ride here.
I could see the dark grey clouds that detailed the cloak’s silky body and belled sleeves as she passed. The scent of rain hit me like a ton of bricks when she walked by.
“I’m Captain Hinkley, your official guide for the exam tour. We’re going to head to the dormitory first to get you settled for the next few days, then we’ll move on to the exam arena to begin the division process. The walk would normally take about a day on foot, which is why we aren’t going to be walking.” With a wave of her hand, a gust of wind swept us all off our feet like cyclones were swirling beneath us. As we rose up I turned to see my dad watching me go, lighting a cigarette up as we ascended to the clouds. The other applicants were surprisingly calm about the display, some not even batting an eye as we passed the normal altitude of a plane. We continued up into the air until the land below us seemed like nothing but trees and mountain range. The view, as breathtaking as it was at such a height, did nothing to calm me. I could only keep my limbs tucked in and try not to think about falling because I was not a fan of being able to see how high I was. Still, it was astonishing to see such prowess so soon.
“A little more information you all should know,” Hinkley turned toward us as we flew and shouted over the rushing winds that carried us, “I won’t be the one briefing you on the exam! There’s going to be an assembly to announce everything you’ll need to know, so keep all your questions for then. You’re allowed to use your magic on campus, but using it freely anywhere else isn’t allowed unless you’ve been permitted or have a license. Also, this trip is still going to take about twenty minutes so try not to move around so much. I’m looking at you, raccoon boy.” The boy who arrived last gave her a middle finger, earning an interested chuckle from the captain and a couple of the other kids, “Let’s get a roll call going.” She pulled a list from who-knows-where and cleared her throat before reading off names.
“Maliki Boweritch,” Hinkley spotted the raccoon boy raising his hand, nodding as she checked it off.
“Orion Dmondi?” The mage with the markings on their face, as well as the only one of us that seemed to be completely bald, raised their hand silently.
“Abraham Escanor?” The tall, muscular boy with brown hair gave a two-finger salute as his name was called, pearly white teeth showing as he grinned comically.
“Lior Grant,” No response, “Lior Grant?” Hinkley looked up toward us. After a moment, the blonde boy mindlessly chewing on the drawstring of his hoodie noticed he was being called and gave her a short nod. Sighing, Hinkley checked his name and moved on.
“Winston Hunt,” For some reason, she made direct eye contact with me when she said my name. I didn’t even have the opportunity to raise my hand, but she was correct in her assumption so I didn’t say anything.
“Sophia Parker?” The blonde girl turned the moment her name was called, raising her hand quickly and with enthusiasm. Hinkley gave her a pleased smile and jotted her attendance down.
“Arthur Proud?” The rather plain-looking boy answered to the name. He was twiddling his fingers in his lap as he watched the trees passing below us; his fearlessness was something I feared for some reason. He must not have been afraid to die.
“And last, but not least, Catherine Savant,” Hinkley noted the last applicant in the group and tucked the list away again, glancing toward the girl who was silently reading a book, “Alright, it looks like we aren’t missing anyone. This is the biggest group I’ve been in charge of for this...”
Flying through the sky at such a height made it easy to watch the sun slowly lowering past the mountains. The moon was visible in the cloudless sky and blended seamlessly with the colors of the sun as it set. It would’ve been beautiful to observe if the sun wasn’t beaming directly into my eyes, but turning my head handled the issue well enough. Besides, the colors of the sky were still pretty.
“Does anyone want snacks? My mom packed me a bunch of applesauce pouches, so I’m totally cool with sharing,” Lior offered, digging into his backpack and pulling out a couple bags of potato chips and other candies I’d never heard of.
“I’ll take one,” Maliki said, leaning over to see what was being offered. Lior wiggled one my way, but I declined.
“So... what kind of magic do you have?” Sophia spoke up. I thought she was asking someone else, so it took me a moment to notice she was talking to me. Her legs crossed as she turned her body a little more toward me, waiting for an answer— almost insisting on it.
“Oh, my powers? Uhh... my uncle said it had something to do with ‘Force’,” I replied, turning a bit to face her as well. Her hand lifted to push her shiny, platinum blonde hair behind her ear. “What about you?” I batted back, noticing she seemed displeased with something I said.
“Crystal Creation Magic. I can make anything out of any kind of crystal you can think of and use them however I please.” Sophia emphasized ‘magic’ as she perked up a bit, glad the conversation had picked up, “Are you excited? I’m excited. I’ve wanted to be a part of the Witch’s Council since I was a little girl, and everyone knows all the greatest council members attended Erntwes.”
“The Witch’s Council?” That name sounded familiar, but I had nothing to draw on.
"Well, seeing as they make the decisions of this world, it didn't take me long to figure out why I wanted to be a part of them," Sophia explained, "They make the rules and lead our nation. Being on the council is a high honor, even more so than the actual title royal families carry."
It certainly wasn't a goal I had in mind for the future, but Sophia seemed to have what it took at first glance. She looked like one of those girls that hid their vicious intellect behind fantastic makeup and social media followers. It was hard to read into her, let alone figure out if her desire was genuine. I may not have spent much time in the magical world, but I was made well aware of its politics throughout my life. They truly aren't any better than those in the mortal realm. Sophia seemed like a pointed and straightforward person, at least with her chosen career; she was put together and very professional.
"I'm sure you'll do well as a witch. As for me... well, I don't know what I want to do just yet. I suppose the whole point of us being here is to figure that out, right? So, I'm just going to try and graduate." Looking onward I could see the shape of a large building in the distance. My eyes widened when I became aware of just how big it was. Even as we soared high in the air, seeing any on our journey as little more than specks, the round watchtower pierced through the sky like a lance. The sheer size of the building was only graspable at such height, and I could tell there was more of it behind what the profile revealed.
Sophia giggled a little and sat up, turning her nose up at me, "We'll see if you do, Winston. I anticipate your final speech." Her words made me uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to rebuttal, but all I felt I could do was silently turn away from her.