It’s the fifth year of magic school that can kill you. There is a miniscule but significant failure rate—not all children are meant to be magicians, even if they have actual magical powers. Magic without control is useless, and control is only obtained through training.

The parents have learned to accept that this is the year that the danger happens, that the testing begins in earnest. They have been through the gauntlet themselves and emerged out the other side; they approve of the ancient ritual, but they worry nonetheless. They know, even if their children don’t, that there is a slim difference between life and death.

Bryce has learned to manipulate the illusions that may keep her alive during that potentially fatal fifth year. She has studied countless books, listened to her professors drone on for hours, and practiced. It is not always easy to carve out a quiet space for herself, but she has figured out how to unstitch the tiny seams that hold one dimension to another. In the spaces between, she chats with ravens, explores new worlds, and tends to her giant granny. With all the hours that she has prepared, she feels confident that she can handle whatever the magic school throws at her.

This is a grave miscalculation.

She does not know what to do with the softly singing tree, nor how to break out of the glass hemisphere that she is imprisoned in as part of the test. And worst of all, there is the acidic ooze that laps at her feet and gently burns with each wave. Death is almost preferable to a lifetime of being trapped here.

But passing the test is preferable to both.

Bryce knows she cannot choose to give in to the acid and the pain. There is the tree and the glass hemisphere and the ooze—they must be dealt with, somehow, neutralized so that they no longer hurt her. If they really are her challenges. Because that is the true problem with the fifth-year test: there are things that are true and not-true, and it is up to the student to choose correctly among the what-ifs and maybes that litter the illusions.

Because the wrong choice can only lead one way.

Granny does not like her rheumatism. Her knees ache on a daily basis, and there is no true cure for it. Magic is not a remedy for the aches and pains of aging, and the herbal options can only alleviate it so far. This would be unfortunate under most circumstances, but it is complicated by the simple size of her joints—larger body parts ache more than smaller ones, in Granny’s learned opinion.

She misses the heartsblood tea that her little granddaughter has learned to make for her. It is hard for her to gather the delicate red herbs anymore; bending to the forest floor is made even more difficult by the scrape of bone against bone in her knees. It is not so much that the tea cures the rheumatism as that it alleviates her mental suffering from it. The herbs mixed with the love of the one that prepared it makes for a heady brew.

Giant magic is different from human magic; the art of illusion is less purposeful and rarely used. It is the magic of the earth—the deep movement of the plants, the striations of the rocks, and the undulations of the hidden lava flows that make up the world. There are few incantations or spells with this kind of magic. Instead, it comes from the heart, from the muscles, from the slow steady dances of the giantkind. Granny has tried to teach it to Bryce, but she fears that she has failed. There is only so much that she can pass on to her dear one, and this may not be transferrable.

Illusion is the lifeblood of magic; without it, there would be no spells, no other worlds, and no way of doing anything unusual. Intellectually, Bryce knows that a tree cannot sing. That does not stop her from being fully convinced that the tree is singing a lullaby to her. It seems to want her to sleep, which is a sure path to failure.

The glass hemisphere sits curved-side up, its translucent dome stretching upward into nothingness and its flat floor covered with the bubbling, burning ooze. There’s a slight lip around the interior circumference of the hemisphere, the tiniest platform to stand on and avoid slipping entirely into the acid. Bryce is not sure that even her bones would survive prolonged immersion in it.

But then, there is also the doubt—will this be the illusion that kills her? Or is it merely a trap with no teeth?

There are fairy lights throughout the tree at the center of the hemisphere, scattered from branches like hanging stars. They open and close rhythmically, pulsing in time to the tree’s gentle murmurings. If Bryce looks too closely, she is half-sure that her heart will begin to beat in time with the tree, her blood slowing to its gentle pace.

A splash of the ooze snaps her out of it; there will be scars on her ankles when all this is said and done. She sucks in her breath at the ache and begins to run through the catalog of spells she has memorized. Spell after spell falls from her lips, and nothing seems to have an impact on the tree. Bryce lets the ooze splash her again; the pain keeps her sharp, and sharpness is needed here.

Think logically, she tells herself. The tree does not seem affected by the burning ooze washing at its roots. And even though it is still singing its soporific tune, it is noticeably higher up than anything else in this glass prison. Most importantly, its branches stretch out over the ooze to the edges of the dome.

Bryce reaches for the nearest branch and begins to climb.

Granny begins the lessons the first day that Bryce appears. She does not know how the human child has managed to make her way here; it is usually only the most skilled of the giant magicians who attempt to dance upon the great quilt of multiple worlds. But she is here, and so Granny teaches her.

They spend long hours in the forest, bathing in the air and light that seep through the leaf canopy. Granny shows Bryce how to breathe; the slow inner breath that can regulate heart rate and respiration enough to enter a state of calm. When the rain comes, they soak in the wetness and contemplate how the soil feels.

It is never enough.

For all the time she has with Bryce, Granny wishes for a hundred times that amount. There is no way to follow her back to the human realm; Granny has tried and failed, unable to figure out how Bryce travels among the worlds. She does not want to relive the pain that came when she attempted to breach the barrier.

So she knits, with fingers that hurt with age, and she waits. Granny is long past the age where she can play the heroine, and she has long accepted that her life will be confined to her cottage and her forest.

But still, she wonders if she should try anyway.

It is much harder to ignore the tree’s singing when she is in its branches. Bryce rips the lace trim from the bottom of her tunic and stuffs it in her ears. It mutes the lullaby just enough that her brain stops trying to hum in tune with it. Her ankles are definitely blistering, but if she gets out of this with only those burns, she will count herself lucky.

For a moment, she considers repeating the spells that she tried before; it would be easy to give in to that desire, to assume stubbornly that everything she was taught in school will be the solution and that the spells might only require a second casting to work. But this is a test designed to weed the weak from the strong, and part of Bryce realizes that she must try something different.

She snuggles into a crotch in the tree branches and takes a deep breath. If Granny were here, she would ask what the tree itself needed. There must be a reason it is singing a lullaby. Even if this tree was created by human magicians, it is still a tree. It has—and Bryce doesn’t know how to conceptualize it in any other way—tree-feelings. Granny would say that the key to solving this mystery is to ask the tree itself.

So, Bryce surrenders to the lullaby. She slows her breathing as Granny has taught her; she removes the cloth from her ears. Every part of her threatens to beat in time with the tree’s song, but now that she is safe above the ooze, she lets herself succumb.

She becomes the blessed and the strong; she becomes the tree. Her roots are sunk deeper than the ooze and the glass hemisphere, through the illusion and into the solid earth. The magicians have compelled her to sing this tune, but it is not what her sap wants. The leaves and the fairy lights that line her branches long for the forest and the cool stillness of twilight. She is weary, and she wants nothing more than the deep, quiet calm of arboreal solitude.

With an effort, Bryce pulls herself back from the tree. The roughness of the bark against her skin and the weight of her own body pressing into the branch ground her. She stuffs the cloth back in her ears. She can see it now: the golden sap within the tree and the angry red net of illusion that runs through it. Carefully, slowly, she begins to unpick the net, teasing it apart knot by knot, like a tangled skein of yarn.

She mutters spells under her breath: unbinding spells, unweaving spells, spells that tear and break at the illusory net. If she sinks her mind back into the tree again, she is sure that she will feel it groan in pain. It is a living thing, and if her brief stays among the giants have taught her nothing else, it is that living things are always more than what they seem.

The tree disappears when she is finished unraveling the net from it, sending Bryce tumbling back into the ooze. She expects the pain; she welcomes it. This is more than pain: it is a shock to her system, a searing blow that knocks the breath from her body. She does not know how long it takes her to react, only that she somehow manages to find her way to that tiny slippery platform at the edge where she can perch and shake.

The glass is cool against her forehead, cold and comforting. Bryce takes one deep breath, then another, and thinks. She casts the first spell that comes to her mind. Something, anything to get more of the cold that feels so good against her skin. The fact that she manages to freeze the ooze is only an added benefit.

On the day that Granny teaches Bryce to knit, the girl cries in her kitchen. Her tears are small piddling things that run down her cheeks like tiny rivers. Granny is used to her own tears, the large galumphing puddles that fall like angry rain. She does not know exactly how to stop Bryce’s sobs, but she does know that tea can help.

Carefully, she pours some into a doll’s cup. Bryce takes two sips of the tea and sniffles. She rubs her eyes with the doll’s handkerchief that Granny hands her, and her tears slow somewhat. The raven that has accompanied Bryce caws sympathetically from its perch on Granny’s curtain rod.

“It’s my birthday,” Bryce says with a wobble.

“Happy Birthday!”

“I don’t get to have happy birthdays.”

“Why?” Granny says, handing Bryce one-quarter of a fresh-baked cookie. Bryce takes the treat, which is almost as large as her head, in both hands and starts to nibble on it.

“My parents are dead.”

She starts to talk and talk, until Granny is not sure that she will ever stop. About the death of her parents, about the long years she has spent alone at magic school, about the way she is constantly trying to find a place to fit in. Granny nods while Bryce tells her about the magic test she must take, then bites her tongue to avoid saying anything.

The inherent cruelty of it all makes bile rise in her throat; the thought that parents would willingly condone their child’s possible death is anathema. This would never happen among the giants—they would never even contemplate it—but Bryce is just a visitor here. Granny swallows her rage down, packs it away inside, and stares at the child sitting opposite her.

Children are children are children, and this, this exam—

“When is it?” she asks.

“They don’t tell us.”

Granny nods again, because nodding is all that she can do. There is no way she can replace the girl’s parents; there is no way she can even guarantee that Bryce will pass the magic test. But the thought of Bryce dying nags at her, while she clears the dishes and gathers toothpicks and thread for Bryce to use. The thought of her never coming back is almost too hard to contemplate.

It eats at her and eats at her: when Bryce follows her outside, when she sits on the snowy ground with Bryce, when she wraps Bryce’s scarf more tightly around her. As the great clouds of snow fall around them, she tries and fails to silence the voice that screams inside.

“It’s cold out,” Bryce says.

“And we’re making something warm,” Granny says, forcing out her words with deliberate calm. “Balance.”

Granny gives her clear knitting instructions, watching as Bryce struggles to master manipulating the toothpicks and thread. She breathes in, she breathes out, and all the while, she watches Bryce scowl even more. Granny sees her make mistake after mistake, and her eyes begin to look teary again.

The anger inside her threatens to spill out. The great quilt of worlds is capricious at best, and Granny does not even know whether Bryce will be back before her test. All the years that have taught Granny to breathe with each day seem useless. What good are the small joys of living if they cannot save what you love?

But still.

But still.

Granny places her huge warm hands gently over Bryce’s tiny ones and helps her knit.

Bryce is fairly sure she cannot summon a raven; that there are barriers within the glass hemisphere and her eventual exit is blocked by whatever magic is confining her. That the professors would not allow such a thing—and that she must play by their rules, if she hopes to survive.

That if she fails, there will only be an empty space where she used to be, a place that people will point to with vague interest. It will be disappearing from an existence that has barely begun and which she suspects may not be terrible.

So, she doesn’t try: no raven summoning, no picking apart the stitches of the world, nothing that a normal student of magic wouldn’t be able to do.

Bryce kicks at the frozen ooze with her shoe and remembers the snow. It is not that she wants to melt the ooze back into its deadliest acid form but more that the opposite of cold is warmth.

She begins with the lace trim—frayed and grubby—and casts a transfiguration spell. It becomes a shovel, which she balances carefully on the tiny platform, its handle against the wall of the glass hemisphere. Then, another strip of cloth ripped from the bottom of her tunic and transfigured into a sturdy copper cauldron. That goes into the frozen ooze itself, too large and unwieldy to even think of putting on the platform.

Bryce begins to shovel the ooze into the cauldron, her back and shoulders aching at the effort. It is heavy, and there is so very much of it. When she manages to fill the cauldron, she carefully places the shovel back on the platform and tries to catch her breath.

There is playing by the rules, and then there is working between the rules.

Bryce casts a checking spell, a searching spell, a spell to find the tiniest crack in the world of the glass hemisphere. It is not a magic-school-issued spell but a half-stitched together hybrid of illusion and the world-traveling magic that comes to her so naturally. She circumnavigates the glass hemisphere, testing the very air for a crack. Granny has told her that the roots of trees are vast, spreading far from the trunk to balance the branches that stretch towards the sky. And this tree’s roots have grown below the hemisphere’s floor. Even the cleverest illusion cannot intersect another illusion flawlessly—there is always a weakness left behind.

It is not cheating, she decides, so long as she remains in the world of the test. It is merely bending the very fabric of reality to save her self.

Bryce ignores the pain from her blistering ankles and stands on tiptoe to place both her hands at the weak spot that she has finally located. The air feels thin here, and like a seamstress, Bryce begins to work at it. She uses her magic to widen it, bit-by-bit, as she rips the threads that hold it closed. Eventually, it is wide enough to stick her hand through, and so she does.

There is a feel to each place—the air of Granny’s world is green against her fingers, and the world of the ravens is full of dust and stone. This world is harsh heat and parched dirt; all Bryce cares about is that it’s not a place she knows or loves.

She brings her hand back into the glass hemisphere and walks all the way back to the copper cauldron.

Carefully, she uses illusion to create a fire around it, and just as carefully, she creates a tunnel in the air connecting the cauldron with the hole. The toxic vapor that comes from the melting ooze wafts through it in a cloud of black smoke.

For a long, long time, Bryce does nothing but shovel frozen ooze and stand watch over the burning cauldron.

Granny can feel the thunderstorm building in her bones. Her joints ache with the weather: pain interlaced with humidity; none of it kind, all of it unwelcome. If she had a choice, she wouldn’t move—there is a certain appeal to becoming a statue in your own home, as if refusing to use your body will make the pain stop.

But that’s not how it works; it never is.

Bryce might come for tea, and there’s water to boil and cookies to set out. There are things to fuss over: setting the table, repositioning the flower vase that would obscure her view of Bryce, placing a stack of cushions on a chair for added height. All the things that make a guest more comfortable because Bryce is so much more than a simple guest.

Granny places heartsblood tea in her own mug and tea leaves in a doll-sized cup for Bryce. She pauses to listen to the wind outside; it’s strong enough that the cottage shutters start to bang and the branches outside creak with the strain. She would like to sit down—her body insists that she sit down—but the storm sounds powerful.

It will not hurt to open the door, just for a bit, just to see if Bryce is coming. There have been so many days when Granny has opened it; there have been so many days when there has been no child and raven to bang their way into her lonely world. Hope is a thing that only makes Bryce’s rare visits even more precious.

But the door is just a door, and the wind taunts her with its howls. Granny stands in the open doorway, letting spikes of rain hit her face, and curses under her breath. She makes herself move, a slow dance of pain and patience while she takes the kettle off and banks the fire.

It may be nothing; it is probably nothing. There is no knowing whether Bryce has taken the magic test yet—Granny is not even sure that the passage of time moves at the same speed among all the worlds that make up the great quilt. But it may be something, and worry over Bryce thrums in her chest.

Granny puts on her cloak and steps into the storm.

There is only the fatigue and the fear and the feeling of the cold glass of the shelf. Bryce sits with her head on her knees, staring at the top of the hemisphere. The tunnel in the air above her is still black with remnants of the toxic vapor, and a proper magician would close it off.

But Bryce is tired of being a proper magician.

She is tired and hungry and desperately wants to pee. Even with the tree and the ooze gone, there is still the glass hemisphere, and she is not sure that she has enough left to break free from it. If her professors truly wanted her to survive, would they have created such a difficult test? Or is she the only one they’ve treated like this?

Bryce is done with it, done with them all, with their droning and their lectures and their inability to acknowledge that their way of magic isn’t the only one. If this is what playing by the rules has gotten her, she is no longer sure that she wants to be bound by them. She is tired of always being on the outside, of trying and failing and never quite kenning to the way of her world. Of filling the holes in her life by digging more holes, until there is nothing left that is pure and good and worthy.

Almost nothing.

Bryce gets to her feet and starts to pull at her hair, strand after strand. Her scalp stings, but she doesn’t stop until she has a fistful of it. She casts a spell—half-illusion, half giant magic—and the hair in her hand becomes matted and solid. Bit by bit, she uses more magic to create the likeness of a bird, coaxing the matted hair into the shape of wings and feathers.

“There,” she says to the hair-bird “You’ll do.”

Bryce looks at the tunnel above her and casts yet another spell. A coaxing spell, a making spell, a spell that speaks of the birth of heartbeats and the power of breath. The black smoke from the tunnel swirls down to her, wrapping itself around the hair-bird in her hands. She feels when it changes; the way that warmth blooms and flesh becomes real.

“You worked,” she whispers.

“Caw,” says the raven in her hands, and Bryce coaxes it to perch on her arm. The pain of its talons through her tunic is a welcome one.

“Get help,” she says, and urges the raven toward the tunnel in the air with a flying spell. It speeds off with black wings beating.

For a long time after, Bryce stares at the tunnel and ignores the pinch of hope in her heart.

Granny runs through the rain.

Lightning forks on the horizon and thunder cracks against the sky. The forest is dark; not the dark of true night but the storm-dark, the hurt-dark, the foreboding-dark that heralds that there is something not quite right with the world. The wind whips the water against her face; she is already soaked to the skin, her dress and cloak drenched, her hair in rat-tails.

Granny ignores it all.

The desire to find Bryce is a pulsing thorn in her side. She cannot shake the feeling that has engulfed her: the compulsion to do something, anything, to make sure that the child is safe. If Bryce cannot come to her, then she will go to her.

When she reaches the clearing where she and Bryce first met, she stops running. She sinks to the muddy ground, the pain rushing up at her from all over, and for a moment, there is nothing but her joints and her aches. But there is no time for that, so she straightens as best as she can.

It has never worked before; it will likely not work now. But that doesn’t stop Granny from asking, from drawing deeply of the forest itself—the strength of the trees, the wetness of the leaves, and the quiet of the ground. All of it has purpose; all of it matters. Every bit of everything is part of something else, and among the giants, all of it is magic.

Granny asks, and the lightning answers. As the storm rages on, as she negotiates with the world, it strikes the center of the clearing in a blinding flash. When her vision clears, she sees it.

The door in the clearing is not supposed to be there, but then again, she is not supposed to be running through a thunderstorm. There is nothing to do but get to her feet and walk through the door into the unknown.

The haze hits Granny first—the way the cloudiness of the sky seems to push down on her and mix with the dry heat of her surroundings. The air smells of dust and stone and desperation, and Granny knows in her bones that this is a place not for people.

She stands in an open courtyard paved with cobblestones, the water from her dress dripping noisily onto them. The door is open behind her, and she is careful not to let it close; there is no telling whether she will be able to leave this world without it.

With one hand on the door, she stares at the giant wood and metal structures that line the edges of the courtyard—a series of long beams supported by columns with flat platforms scattered throughout. Granny squints and realizes that there are ravens perched on the structures—more ravens than she has ever seen in one place; an unkindness of ravens. Their black beady eyes stare at her, and her skin crawls.

But this is where the door has brought her, and so she will make the best of it.

“Can you find Bryce?” she asks the ravens, and they caw at her.

Granny stands her ground as the ravens surround her, more silent on their wings than any bird has the right to be. There are so many birds, all of them swirling around her until she and the door are encased in a column of moving wings. Granny fights the panic that rises in her; she is too old for this, too old for journeys and dreams and traversing the great quilt of worlds. She wants her cottage and her granddaughter and a hot mug of tea.

“Please,” she says.

“Yes, yes, yes please,” they answer, and Granny watches them rip a ragged hole in the sky. They stream through the gap, one after the other, disappearing until the only thing left is the courtyard and the wooden perches.

And there is nothing to do but walk back through the door.

The raven returns.

After it, raven after raven flies through the tunnel, pushing it open with their wings, slowly widening it to allow even more ravens through.

Soon, the dome of the glass hemisphere is filled with ravens, blackening it. The light that filters down to Bryce is gray—gray like the clouds before a storm, gray like her worry, gray like all the things that she hasn’t yet done. If the only way out of the dome is this raven-enlarged tunnel, then Bryce will take it, regardless of whether her professors would approve.

There are more ways of magic in the world than they can even imagine, each more impossible and impressive than the next. If all of her life has been bound by illusion, then it is only right to acknowledge that illusion can also set it free.

“We’re going to do this my way,” she says, and begins to cast a spell.

A spell that’s never been done, and probably should never be done. Illusion and world-traveling and giant magic, rolled into one, and it flows out of Bryce like fire. She waves her hands, and the ravens obey her. They fly in formation, diving politely to the bottom of the glass hemisphere and forming themselves into a door: an upright frame filled with birds and showing no doorknob. A living, beating door that moves its wings and stays still at the same time. It is both an abomination and an innovation.  

For someone who is used to traveling between dimensions, she is suddenly shy; wary of opening it. There is a weight of expectations about what could happen, and not all of these are good. But if she doesn’t try, then she will be as good as doomed to die in this prison.

Bryce knocks on the raven door, and the birds caw at her as they rearrange themselves, revealing the small dimensional hole at the heart of the door. Bit by bit, they weave in and out, using their wings to widen the hole until it’s large enough for her to pass through. The birds reform again until Bryce is left staring at an open doorway surrounded by loudly cawing ravens.

She takes a deep breath and walks through the feathers.

Back in her cottage, Granny has dried her hair and changed her dress. She has built the fire back up, put the tea kettle back on, and eaten more cookies than she should to calm her nerves. The shutters are open to let in the breeze, the cool green of the forest evening filling the cottage, and there is not a drop of rain in the sky anymore.

While the kettle boils, Granny sits and knits. She contemplates the relationship of the water and heat, of energy and entropy, of the things that giants know and never need to speak of. The door in the clearing was just a door, she tells herself; there is a part of her that is still spooked from her journey to the ravenry and another part of her that wants to do it again and again.

She closes her eyes, just for a minute, and rests her head against the back of the chair. The lightning has passed, the door has vanished, and there are certainly no talking ravens among the giants.

But there is cawing coming from outside the window.

It is loud enough and raucous enough that Granny opens her eyes and gets to her feet. She pushes down the hope—the insistent feeling in her chest that threatens to explode into butterflies at the thought that ravens and Bryce are inextricably linked. There will always be possibilities that she cannot know and outcomes that she cannot control.

She opens the door anyway.

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Jenny Rae Rappaport has been published in Lightspeed, Escape Pod, and Daily Science Fiction, among other magazines. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and holds a BA in Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. In the past, she has worked as a literary agent, a marine sciences field guide, and spent a semester observing monkeys as an intern with the Pittsburgh Zoo. Jenny lives in New Jersey with her family, where she divides most of her time between writing and herding small children. She can be found online at www.jennyrae.com and on Twitter at @jennyrae. This is her second appearance in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

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