Three days into the walk to the South Pole Alice started letting her mind wander. The flare was working well enough and she was now so used to the spells she needed to keep it all going that she didn’t need to think about them. It was better not to, anyhow, because if she started thinking about what she was doing then she might start to get worried about how dangerous the spells were and how risky it was to mess with them to produce heat. And besides, she couldn’t see anything and there was nothing much to see anyhow. She was just plodding on towards the pole, putting one foot in front of the other in the snow, which melted around her bare feet.
Really, she thought, maybe she had meant to throw that bag at Mayakovsky. It had been such an utterly pompous move on his part. She’d studied Chkhartishvili’s Enveloping Warmth, of course. She knew it backwards and forwards (though she hadn’t had a chance to cast it backwards and see if she could make it produce an equivalent enveloping cold) and all she’d needed was a reasonable amount of sheep fat. And then the sick bastard had made her strip, losing everything she’d scrounged. To toss her the one thing she needed after all of that? Screw him. She’d managed just fine without it.
Alice renewed one of her spells when she felt it start to fade and the necessary motions and incantation didn’t even make her pause. This was what it was supposed to feel like. This was the reason for this whole horrible semester in Antarctica. The cold, the austerity, the mind-numbing sameness of it all. This was it.
The landscape changed, but the changes were insignificant. Hour after hour it was the same windswept peaks and creaking crevasses. Alice thought maybe she saw someone in the distance once when she gave in and looked back the way she’d come, but then it was gone. She started contemplating who it was and having conversations with them, one possibility after another.
“Rather nice weather,” she heard Elliot say in her head. “A little brisk, don’t you think?”
“Just a bit,” she replied out loud. “After all, we are in fucking Antarctica.”
“Well, yes. It’s hardly Ibiza, is it,” her imaginary Elliot sighed. He lit a phantom cigarette as he walked beside her and she considered that bit of fantasy. He’d have had to strip, just like her, unless Mayakovsky was a perverted misogynistic sadist on top of all of his other faults, and only made the girls strip for the little jaunt through the antarctic wastes. Anyhow, she supposed, Elliot would have found a way to secret a few smokes for the trip.
Elliot faded from her mind as two spells started to sputter out. She quickly reworked them, smiling to herself as she managed to get a fiddly bit of one - a tricky spell for lengthening her strides - to work better than before. It was hard to tell with the blank snowy peaks all around her, but she thought perhaps she’d managed to increase her speed by half again.
“Think you’re pretty clever,” sneered an imaginary Janet from several yards ahead of Alice. She was somehow strutting backwards, nipples pert and high on her A cups. “You’re going to burn yourself out,” she taunted. “Leaking heat like that. It’s a wonder you’re not a little Cinder-Alice by now.”
Alice glared at her. She wasn’t real. She was straight out of Alice’s own head and Alice knew that with a bone-deep certainty. But with her reserves depleted and her mind running on its own she couldn’t quite dispel this ghost.
“You should hurry up,” Janet told her, still walking backwards as if she didn’t care where she was going. Which she didn’t, what with being imaginary. “We’re all waiting for you at the Pole. Mayakovsky’s got himself a spa there. Quentin got there days ago. I’ve had to keep him company for you.”
That was all Alice could take of that particular vision. She quickly muttered Miller’s Flare again, this time letting more of the energy actually go into light than heat. She’d probably pay for it later, but at least it had the effect of temporarily blinding her enough that Janet disappeared, blanched in the pink light of the flare.
It was a full day before anyone else popped out of her subconscious and when it happened she started to run full out before she realized what she was doing. Because it was Charlie. Not dead after all. Not long gone, mysteriously and so obviously not killed in a car accident. He waved to her on the horizon. Mercifully, her mind had decided not to make him naked, which would have made this whole mirage far more awkward than she was prepared for. Instead he was dressed in the Brakebills uniform, jacket open and tie loosened. He was wearing the school tie, she noted as she drew closer. It was hideous.
“You’re almost there,” he told her when she was close enough to hear, though a detached and sensible bit of her mind pointed out how silly that was.
“How do you know?” she asked him, keeping her distance as the sensible voice in her head told her that trying for a hug would shatter the illusion. “How do I know? How close is almost?”
Charlie smiled and pushed his hair back off his forehead. “I just know. So be careful, Al. Don’t burn out. Slow and steady and all that crap.”
Alice watched him closely. He wasn’t really there, of course. He was long gone and certainly his ghost wasn’t about to show up in Antarctica. But it was still the first time she’d seen him in years. Mayakovsky had said something about true magicians being able to will things into existence. Maybe she’d done just that and conjured up her brother in the middle of what was, for all intents and purposes, a frozen desert.
Charlie smiled and fell into step beside her, saying nothing. He was her silent companion for the next ten miles or so and then he just disappeared when she wasn’t paying attention. She’d been refreshing the flare, or maybe putting up a new shield for the wind. She looked around for a moment, but he was gone, just as surely as he had been for years.
Alone again in the vastness of Antarctica, Alice resisted the urge to break down in tears - not that she had any moisture to spare but she would have sobbed if she’d allowed it of herself. And even fighting that pressing need she knew she hadn’t stopped moving. There’d been a time when such a blow would have sent her reeling, but she didn’t have the time. She didn’t have the leisure to mourn Charlie all over again. So she did what she’d done in the woods in New York, desperate to find her brother’s school and certain it was there and she could get into it if she just kept moving. She pressed on, moving faster and faster.
After almost falling down the third crevasse she passed over, Alice spent a precious bit of energy to cast a topographical spell mostly used by cartographer wizards. It wasn’t her specialty, but she managed it well enough to give her a view of the contours of the land about a mile ahead of herself. That achieved she sailed over crevasses and weak patches and almost ran straight into Penny when he suddenly popped into existence in front of her.
“Oh hey!” He grinned, clearly pleased with something other than seeing her, but seeing her was icing on his cake. “Where the hell are we?” he asked, looking around.
Alice sighed and kept moving, forcing this bizarre manifestation of someone she didn’t even spend time with anymore to follow her.
“I wasn’t sure where I was going,” he admitted, jogging a little. Something about him seemed insubstantial, like he wasn’t really there, which was ridiculous because of course he wasn’t. But Elliot and Janet and Charlie had all looked thoroughly solid.
“I’ve been doing the coolest stuff,” he continued. “What have they had you guys doing? You know they don’t tell us anything. Seems like it’s kind of boring.”
Alice couldn’t argue with that, so she just threw him a look and increased the power to her flare a little. But he didn’t disappear as easily as Janet had. Instead he just kept going with her, a dogged reminder of Brakebills that she could have easily done without.
“Well,” he said finally, seeming to realize that she wasn’t really the best of company. “I should get going. Places to go and all.” He hung back for just a moment, then jogged forward to get in front of her. “Sorry, this is probably the only chance I’ll ever have to try this.” And he leaned forward. She was certain in that moment that he was going to try and kiss her, but he never made contact. An inch away from her lips he faded out and she ran right through him.
Fucking Penny. He was such an ass sometimes.
No one else was forthcoming for another day and Alice started to wonder where everyone had gone. She’d had so many visitors at first. Her friends, her enemies, her family. And now no one. Just her and the snow and the cold and the utter certainty that she could do this. This was what would prove she had really been right about Brakebills and her right to a place there. Of course, she’d thought that about other milestones too, like finishing her first year, finding out her Discipline, things like that. But this, this would be it. And besides, if Josh could make it into and through Brakebills, with his patchy and unreliable magic, then she sure as hell could. He’d probably gone back to school without attempting the trek to the Pole. After all, what would he do if his magic crapped out all of a sudden out here? He would have been foolish to try.
As Alice continued she was getting better and better with the flare spell. The light she was throwing off wasn’t nearly as bright as it had been when she’d started and she was sure she felt warmer than before. It was coming naturally now, like walking or riding a bike. She smiled to herself with dry and cracked lips and smiled wider at the reminder that she was really and truly in this place, doing this fantastic and impossible thing.
Alice crested a hill and saw something near the foot of the other side. It was a man on a couch. It was her father. He had on an impossibly ugly Hawaiian shirt, which was odd because she could have sworn he’d done the beach tourist thing years ago and tired of it almost immediately. But there he was. And it wasn’t a couch, she realized. It was a deck chair. As she approached he didn’t even sit up, though he did put his elaborately garnished coconut shell drink down in the snow beside himself.
“Ah! That’s the trick!” he called to her as she passed. “Nudity! I’ll do a nudist colony next! Perfect, Alice!”
She had no time or patience for her father’s brand of nonsense, though she did wonder if she should have mentioned Charlie to him. When she saw her mother, back turned to face a desk full of paper covered in musical notations, she slowed down a little bit. Her mother was humming something faintly, but it was blown away by the wind before Alice could really catch it.
“Mom!” she called, but her mother didn’t turn.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” she said as she wrote, ignoring the snow that was now beginning to cover the desk and the papers and herself. “I’m really extremely busy. Tell me later!”
Somehow her back stayed turned to Alice even as Alice passed her.
“I saw Charlie!” Alice called over her shoulder, hoping to see her mother’s head rise even a fraction of an inch. But it didn’t, and she felt a perfectly foolish pang for the phantom Charlie, stuck here in Antarctica with her two phantom parents. The family that didn’t exist. But her parents were truly back in Illinois, probably doing exactly what she’d seen, but not in the middle of a blizzard. Or maybe they were if her father had decided to go with an igloo for his latest home design inspiration. Who knew?
Suddenly it all seemed to come crashing in on her. Alice looked ahead and saw nothing but more of the same. It would never change. Maybe that was the true test. To see how long they could bear to be out here, working magic with no purpose or end in sight. It could all be one big terrible metaphor for her parents’ lives. For her own future.
“I hate this,” said a new voice. A familiar voice. The last voice she’d heard aside from Mayakovsky before starting this damn fool trek. Quentin’s voice.
He was jogging along through the snow just like she was. Naked and painfully skinny and focused on the land ahead of himself.
“I hate this,” he repeated. “It’s miserable. Why do we have to be naked for this? It’s not like that pajama uniform we’ve been wearing would have offered much protection.”
He was whining. Even in her imagination Quentin was whining. Alice sighed and held up three fingers in his direction, not caring if he saw them or not because truly, this was all for her own benefit.
“One, Gomani’s Armored Cloth. Turn that uniform into a cross between kevlar and tyvek. Two, the Pikeman layering charms need a cloth base but once you have that you potentially have an infinite number of garments. Three, that spell Josh found last year but could never work, that was supposed to turn any pair of shoes into seven league boots.”
“But that last one didn’t work and the first two only sort of help. Not much,” Quentin pointed out. He was right, but she was sure there were other spells they just hadn’t had the time to tease out. Ones that depended on a garment, however flimsy, and could make you a full snow suit and probably some snowshoes if you were willing to fiddle a bit.
“Quentin?” Alice said, turning to look at him. He looked thoroughly miserable in the way only Quentin could. “Sometimes you need to just let it go, okay?”
He shrugged and kept going, just like she was. “I try,” he said after a mile or so of nothing, just the sounds of their feet in the snow. He was using a different set of spells than she was and the snow didn’t melt around him. “Some days I just can’t. I don’t know how you do it.”
“I don’t either,” she admitted. “Sometimes I can’t. Even when I know something’s no good, I just keep at it. I just hide it better.”
She could see his smile out of the corner of her eye and it was such a welcome sight she turned her head to really look at him.
“Quentin?” she started. “When we get back to Brakebills, when this is all over? You be happy, okay? You really are allowed. Especially after something this bad.”
She waited for an answer and got nothing. He seemed focused on the task they were both absorbed in and now it was like he couldn’t even see her. She watched him for a little bit, letting her feet guide her until she had to stop. She couldn’t go on. Something was holding her back.
Alice looked around frantically for Quentin as whatever had stopped her forced her to sit down. She struggled a little, needing to find Quentin, before she realized that it was Mayakovsky holding her, wrapping her in a blanket and whispering a few quiet spells that dissipated her own. All except the flare.
“It is over, my girl,” he told her. “You have finished. You have done it. Ah, you know, you are the first!”
Alice stared at him, utterly dumbstruck. First. She had walked from Brakebills South to the South Pole. She had spent days working powerful spells and managing her magic and keeping herself alive against all possible odds. She thought perhaps she’d lost control of her mind for a while there. Or maybe she still had, and Mayakovsky was another figment. But she could feel the blanket. It was wool and it itched at all the raw spots where she no longer had any flesh to cover bone.
Mayakovsky crouched down next to her. He must have had his own set of spells going, and she was pleased and amused to note that there was no hint of a spa here. She’d beaten Janet and Elliot and Josh if he’d stupidly gone out. She’d beaten Quentin and everyone else.
“You, my dear,” Mayakovsky told her as he made a few motions that opened up a portal nearby, “are a truly gifted magician. Never forget that. Never doubt it. Use it carefully, but use it. It is a gift.” And then, with that oddly heartfelt message, he propelled her through the portal and into a warm, sunny Brakebills day.
Alice swallowed tightly and let the flare fade. Her throat hurt. Her skin hurt. Her eyes hurt. Everything was a reminder of what she’d just spent who knew how long doing. She stood on the stones of the terrace she’d come through onto and felt the warmth of them rise up through the soles of her feet. The blanket was horrible, but it was warm and she clutched it around her shoulders, relishing even the scratch of it.
It seemed there was no one to greet her, but she couldn’t move. She stared out into the woods. The woods she’d torn through, weeping and lonely, to find the school. And she’d thought then that that had been an arduous trip.
Somewhere behind her there were footsteps coming towards the terrace from inside the school. She didn’t know who it would be. She was finding it difficult to care. With a quick motion of her hands and the last magic she thought she would summon for maybe a month, she turned the blanket into a cloak of luminous ice-blue silk. She was a magician, after all. She could do anything.