2:00 A.M.: WREN WILLEMSON, 16, SWORDS
by Marieke Nijkamp
In a small room in the Swords Tower of the Galileo Academy for the Extraordinary sat a young Sorcerer who--according to their stepfather--had been born under unlucky stars. Wren sat cross-legged on the bed while a dead spider crawled across the bedspread. Despite the late hour, Wren still wore their regular clothes. A dark hoodie, easily two sizes too large. Compression gloves on their hands. A bulky walking brace around their left ankle, which had dislocated again. They tugged strands of blue and silver hair behind their ear, and a small bubble of low magical light that floated above their bed flickered.
The light barely illuminated their bland, narrow room, with its pale walls and looming wardrobe. Wren had never made an effort to decorate. The only signs that a student lived here at all were the stack of textbooks near the door, a stack of sketchbooks on the windowsill--filled with endless patterns and paintings that Wren didn’t share with anyone--and the rat skeleton on the bedside table.
The dead spider shivered before its legs gave out from under it, and it curled up again, lifeless and broken.
Wren grimaced. With a wince of pain, they tossed the spider corpse out the open window. The bubble of light above them wavered briefly once more, and their hands trembled.
“Stop it,” Wren hissed--and the light steadied.
“Focus,” they told themself sternly--but their hands kept trembling.
There was a restlessness inside them that set Wren’s teeth and joints on edge. Even though the Swords Tower was quiet and the night calm, Wren felt like their bones were going to crawl out through their skin. Because every time they closed their eyes, their mind replayed the afternoon’s encounter at the Gargoyle Keep, and every part of them wanted to disappear.
They’d needed time for themself after spectacularly failing yet another telekinesis test, and the bestiary had been crowded with Cups students and their biology classes. So Wren had kept walking in the direction of the Gargoyle Keep to stare for a while at the majestic stone creatures--only to collide headlong with Professor Dropwort, Galileo’s history teacher and the school’s prime bully. He was the type of teacher who looked down his nose at any student who wasn’t a legacy student, or at the very least a fine young cis man, whole of mind and body. Wren’s mere existence as a Sorcerer was an abomination and an offense to his sensibilities.
Just like their appearance in the Gargoyle Keep had been an affront to him, apparently. He’d stepped back, brushed down his clothes, and lifted his chin. “Thinking of adding ‘assaulting teachers’ to your list of failures, Willemson?”
Wren had mumbled an apology and turned to walk away, when the professor’s voice had stopped them. “I’ve spoken to your head of house, you know. Professor MacAllister tells me you’re last in all your classes, in direct violation of your scholarship. There’s no place for a disappointment like you here at Galileo.”
The all-too-familiar words had landed like physical blows, and Wren had frozen in place, their hands clenched into fists, and their heart pounding the same rhythm over and over again.
Cursed. Unlucky. Failure.
Professor Dropwort had laughed. “Run along now.”
Wren still didn’t know how they’d made their way back to the Swords Tower, or their own room. They must’ve eaten dinner, but the encounter kept plaguing them, even now. It hurt. It hurt so freaking much.
Cursed. Unlucky. Failure.
Professor Dropwort might have been a malicious malcontent, but he wasn’t wrong about Wren failing their tests. Professor MacAllister had told Wren the same thing just before the school had made port in Stockholm. Wren’s aptitude for kinetics and manipulating approved forms of magical energy was meager, scarcely enough to justify a magical education. If they got kicked out now, they’d be forced to return to an unwelcome home, where their stepfather would know they were all but powerless. There’d be nothing they could do to protect themself or their Neutral sister from his cruelty.
“I hate him, Rat,” Wren whispered.
They slammed a fist into their pillow, and they did the only thing they could do. They took all their pain and rage and flung their awareness outward.
Earlier in the night, the darkness had remained opaque and impenetrable. But now, it opened up to Wren. It flooded with colors. Neon green and pale orange. The softest of pinks and the deepest of purples. Here a bright blue thread stretched out and led all the way to Professor Ram, the head of Wands and a world-renowned textile mage. It rather looked like the magic thread he used to weave spells. Further, the soft golden threads of Principal Fornax’s life force spread like a web across the entire school.
Wren’s shoulders loosened.
They’d never found the right word for what they saw, exactly. It was energy and magic, but not like the bland energy they were tangling with in their classes. It was life, and whenever Wren managed to get their focus just right, it turned Galileo into a kaleidoscope of constantly changing shapes and colors, like the endless patterns they sketched, though they’d never been able to get this sensation quite right.
With their hands in front of them, Wren sorted through the tangle of energy. They reached out beyond their own bedroom toward their neighbor Saga, whose energy was a warm burnt amber, like narrow flames sparking up and away from her. The energy burned radiantly when Saga was casting--or throwing snide remarks in Wren’s direction--but it still danced while she was asleep.
Wren tilted their head and reached a hand toward the flames. They summoned their own energy--glinting like sharp silver knives--and cut a piece of Saga’s energy away. The flames’ warmth seeped into Wren’s skin like molten wax. It curled around their ankle and numbed the pain, and on the bedside table, Rat, the rat skeleton, moved. It turned to face them and chattered brightly.
Wren’s frown softened. They might not excel in kinetics, but they had this at least. This ability to see and control the magic in the world around them. No one else knew about this aptitude, because manipulating life energy and life force, like all other forms of necromancy, was strictly forbidden at Galileo and beyond. But it wasn’t the all-encompassing destructive force that people whispered it was. It helped Wren kill their pain, envision a brighter world, and connect with Rat.
Until Rat’s squeaks made way for a different sound. A voice, as loud as the brightest colors.
Hunger, it whispered, a dozen voices amidst a swirling slate-gray energy, shaped like small rocks and pebbles, and equally rough.
Wren started. They tried to pull back from the energy, but just like it had been impossible to focus all night long, now it was impossible to let go. Wren reached for Rat and cradled the skeleton close. They saw energy. They’d never used it as a means to communicate. They hadn’t even known that was possible. “Who’s there?”
Their voice wavered only slightly. Who had they bumped into now?
The room stayed quiet.
Wren shivered. “Show yourself,” they tried again. They reached deeper. Desperation turned to determination. They took more of Saga’s energy. A haphazard snap of another student’s blustery gray. “Who are you?”
Wren bit their tongue. When Wren had accidentally reanimated a kitten once, as an eight-year-old, their stepfather had made it painfully clear to them that they were cursed and useless. Courting death, he’d called it. Was this what he’d meant? For Wren, their necromancy never felt like a curse. It felt like a comfort.
Wren haphazardly seized a maroon branch of energy and drew strength from it. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The answer came after a torturously long moment.
The gray mass swirled together, and Wren reached for more energy still--more than they’d ever tried to hold at once. A ribbon of deep magenta that danced through the air and briefly connected Wren with Bhavna, one of the other students in the Swords Tower. A tendril of soft pink flitted around Wren and reached all the way back to the Wands Tower. Wren gathered as much power as possible, until the voice sharpened and cleared. Energy became image. Pebbles became teeth. Rocks formed claws. Dark cavities where eyes would be. Hungry, ferocious, gleeful grins.
“Gargoyles!” Wren’s eyes shot open, and in their shock, they lost their focus. The bubble of light floating above them extinguished. Rat curled up and hissed. And the sound formed a roar that rumbled through Wren’s bones before it faded away, leaving nothing but silence and a dark night once more.
Wren cursed softly. Their hands still trembled, and Wren felt worse than they had minutes ago. “What do you want?” Their voice cracked. They didn’t expect a reply--their connection to the energy around them was gone. Rat would be awake for a few minutes more at best, and Wren had failed at this--whatever this was--too. They hadn’t known it was possible for gargoyles to reach out like this. How did they do that? And more important, why? What if they had an important reason to? What if they needed help? What if Wren was the only one who could hear--
Wren nearly dropped Rat when the voice still echoed around them, the energy not entirely gone. “What’s wrong? How can I still hear you?”
Come. A call. A beckoning.
Wren got to their feet. They pushed a trembling hand through their hair. “Why? Do you need anything?”
The gargoyles didn’t elaborate, but Wren realized that the answer was obvious. As far as they knew, there were no other necromancers at school. No one else who knew about the life energy that swirled around them. Wren was the only one who could hear this. That meant they were the only one who could answer, and the gargoyles must need them for a reason.
Was this their curse? Or a chance? They’d learned to shield their aptitude when they were small, but they longed for the day when that wouldn’t be necessary anymore, when people would see that what they did was good, actually. That their necromancy wasn’t to be feared but understood. They longed to find ways to prove themself. To bastards like their stepfather. To the Professor Dropworts of the world.
No longer Wren, the failing Swords student, whose only official claim to magical prowess was being able to summon decent barriers and accidentally succeeding in telekinetically moving a pen. Once. Wren, the quiet, odd one. Cursed. Unlucky. Failure.
No more. They took every last scrap of their self, their determination, their anger and reached out.
They’d show Galileo exactly what they were worth.
Wren grabbed Rat, pulled their hood up high, and prepared to leave the room, while the voices of the gargoyles still echoed around them.
Some fifteen minutes later, Wren snuck through the hallway. Rat sat in the pouch of Wren’s hoodie, peeking out and squeaking softly.
“It’s well after midnight,” Wren muttered. “No one is out here anymore.”
Rat chattered a protest. She usually became her stiff skeleton self again in the heartbeats after Wren dropped their focus, but right now, she was still awake and full of opinions.
“Fine, you tell the gargoyles I’m not coming.”
“Yes, I know, we’ll be in trouble if we get caught. So we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Something else had changed too, Wren realized when they inched past the doorway to Saga’s room. It was still shimmering with the same amber light that they’d seen earlier. In fact, if they focused just right, every door in the hallway glowed with a different color. The energies that usually dissipated once Wren lost their focus now wrapped themselves around Wren. Tonight they’d reached out further than they ever had before, and it felt as if, as a result, their connection was stronger than ever before too. Wren didn’t understand where the power came from, but the sprawling Gothic building, with its gloomy shadows and hard edges, shone.
Brass fire behind one door. A copper gleam underneath the next. Blue waves so dark they were nearly black, and amethyst storm clouds. Tendrils of emerald energy crackling like electricity.
Necromancy wasn’t just strictly forbidden; it was considered horrifying. But Wren didn’t understand how anyone could be scared of this. This was beautiful. This was where Wren wanted to belong.
A large staircase led from Swords Tower to the main hall. Wren took the stairs carefully, little flares of pain bouncing up their left ankle with every step. By the time they reached the bottom, Wren already regretted not taking a little slice of copper gleam or section of amethyst storm clouds.
Even in this place of magic, where staircases turned into ramps and previous principals had begrudgingly accepted accessibility modifications to the ancient building, Wren still hurt. Daily. Constantly. Galileo might be doing its best to be inclusive and open, but that didn’t necessarily mean it succeeded. Like that bloody telekinesis test. It hadn’t just involved moving things around with their mind, but running and dodging, and Professor Mathews had refused to give Wren a pass. He’d told them they needed to learn how to perform magic under suboptimal circumstances, but how could something that harmed also be educational?
Meanwhile, necromancy wasn’t macabre--it helped. So how could something that healed also be harmful?
A whisper caressed the back of their neck. The echo of chuckling bounced through the massive Gothic hall, where dim lights illuminated the solemn portraits of former principals and teachers.
A bright glow appeared at the edge of Wren’s vision, and Rat squeaked an alarm. Without time to think, Wren pushed themself into the nearest corner, the darkest spot they could see, and held their breath.
In Wren’s strange double vision, ghosts were brighter, their life energy not contained by any sort of corporeal form. But while some ghosts might be lured into curious conversations with a budding Sorcerer in the privacy of their room, the ones that patrolled the school’s buildings wouldn’t be amused at finding Wren wandering. They kept the halls safe at night, and operated under a strict code of conduct that required them to remain visible to students and staff at all times. In other words, they were serious about their job.
Rat retreated into her pouch.
Wren kept still and reached for the nearest tendril of energy they could find. For a pulse-racing desperate moment, the only things that surrounded them were the thick stone walls of the school and the disapproving stares of its teachers.
Then a collection of dark magenta stars sparkled at the edge of Wren’s vision. They plucked a handful of stars without hesitation. One to keep themself standing without trembling. One to ease the tension in their cramped hands. One, two, three to keep them hidden.
Copyright © 2023 by Margaret Owen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.