Zephyr stood in one of the Academy’s courtyards, his bare feet gripping carefully arranged stonework, and tried to focus his sight. His classmates stood around him like a circle of mirrors with varying faces and bodies. Any one of them could be him, with their dark skin, dark hair, and pale robes extending to their wrists and ankles. They fitted like a jumpsuit, but flowed, unfitted, for easy movement. Zephyr stole a moment to look around at his peers to his left and right, trying to remember if he knew their names at one point. But their faces were set like water in glasses: still and heavy, but without hardness. Their eyes gazed into the Void, a place beyond their sight, but still glimpsing the world around them. When Zephyr had shown this look, this pose for concentration, to his twin sister Dwyn, she laughed at him.
“The Void? Really, Zeph?” she had said. “We call it spacing out. Maybe even closer to going into a trance. You Mages sure are… upbeat.”
A student across from Zephyr had broken her concentration on her own Void and Zephyr caught her blinking rigorously. Any bodily movement and the Senior Apprentice would scold them, force them into group meditation again, and restart the class. They were nearing the end of the lesson. Zephyr looked at the girl’s face—it was Nerissa, standing a few people away from her ex-girlfriend Harlow. He glanced between the two: Harlow entirely lost to the Void, encompassed in that liminal space between “here” and “there,” and Nerissa readjusting herself quickly. She’s supposed to be top of the class, he thought. At least I know you don’t need to be perfect to be number one.
And you’re number two, he reminded himself.
He closed his eyes tightly, visualising colours until his mind’s eye was a kaleidoscope of jewel and earth tones, shifting between vibrant and muted, saturated and dull. He opened his eyes and transitioned to the Void.
“Presence is key,” the Senior Apprentice said. She stood somewhere among the students, but Zephyr only heard her voice. He saw no lips move and could not pinpoint where the sound originated. Like a ventriloquist, he thought. Throwing her words into the wind like sand.
“If you lose yourself at any moment, you will stumble. You stub your toe. You knock over a dish and it breaks.” Each of her words brought a vague memory to Zephyr, as out of frame as the stones and students in his peripheral vision; as unfocused and blurred as what his open eyes stared at. The Senior Apprentice’s voice became more ethereal, like smoke in a breeze, as she said, “Each of these mishaps, these misfortunes, occur because half of you is somewhere else. It does not matter where it is: it only matters that it is not with you. You can look for it and wait for it to return, but”—she smashed something into the center of the circle and a few students gasped. Zephyr witnessed the clay pottery pieces spread like a stain on the courtyard. He almost lost himself to a curiosity to look for designs on the pieces or where the pot originally sat before the Senior Apprentice had retrieved it.
But he stayed in the Void. Nothing. Nothing.
“Even good things can happen when you are not here,” she went on. “Hours pass and good news arrives. Water boils. Plants grow. You sleep, possibly dream, and wake up. It is impossible to be present at all times, but it is possible to be present when it is important.”
An uncountable amount of time passed as the students stood in their circle in silence. A collective breath moved through them, an inhale and an exhale, not synchronised or perfectly paced, but existing within each of their lungs as they meditated.
Zephyr released involuntarily, letting his chin fall closer to his collarbones, and his face flushed before he noticed an felt a slight, invisible tap in the back of his head. He whirled around and saw the Senior Apprentice behind him. She stood with another woman in the shade of the cloister encircling the courtyard. She spoke to the Mistress—the head of the Academy, a master of magic—who fixed her gaze on him. The Senior Apprentice turned to see him. A gust of wind blew into the courtyard and brought the smell of fragile dehydration, typical of Ysenia and its entire existence in clay. Zephyr blinked and squinted against the billowing dust, and abruptly felt the warmth of the sun. He lifted his brown face up to the sky, noticing it centered above the courtyard, and looked back to the women. The Senior Apprentice pointed at him and the Mistress nodded. Zephyr glanced to the other students, all of them in their Void, and left the circle.