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Ben in Winter

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As the winter’s frost pushes back on the slowly encroaching reaches of spring, as Rosana picks up the axe and the book and the trowel, Benjamin strays.

Freed from a fate a child cannot understand and that he will profess to have forgotten, he stretches the radius of his already overstretched parent’s reach to explore the secrets of the Last University.

Where adults like Throndir the Ranger and Lord Ephrim see seeds of ruin and sprouts of promise, Benjamin sees secret havens. While the refugees form an ever-fracturing community, Benjamin finds places no one else can fit into and claims them for himself - and later, for Blue J.

Playing with Red Jack’s many children, he quickly finds kinship with one who shares his joy in exploration and secret keeping. They both feel the immense, unspoken weight of a father’s legacy, and the bittersweetness of a lack of supervision. Blue J crouches small, crawls into crumbling basements and up into bowing treetops, and listens quietly while Benjamin enthuses on the things he has learned, both children reveling in the empowerment of knowledge.

Red Jack is an absent parent by design, whereas Rosana has little choice. She holds her son tight every night she can; threads her fingers through his tangled curls and makes up stories about a world where things are better. When she has been called upon to deal with the sick and the dying and the discontent, however, Benjamin pulls out a book or three and lights a candle, reading until he can’t keep his eyes open any longer, or until the candle melts away.

Benjamin has always been connected to something outside himself. He feels a tug in his guts, in his brain. He feels something electric in the air sometimes in certain parts of the University, or around certain members of this struggling society. Sunder Havelton can see the magic in him, but he, to not even Blue J’s knowledge, has another teacher. Where Red Jack’s errant child finds guidance in Throndir and has taken up his discarded bow, Benjamin is taught magic by a ghost.

He finds the crystals long before he figures out how to use them. Eventually he intuits from various diagrams in nearly unreadable old scrolls what they might be. Trial and error yields failure upon failure, but his determination only grows. He must know the secrets the crystals hold. Months go by before he discovers the correct magical mechanism for activating the Crystallized Lectures of Fantasmo.

The elf he sees projected before him is lined and dour, wearing long robes and a pair of tiny spectacles. He fits every idea Benjamin had of what a professor at this strange University would have been like, before this long and painful Winter. He looks wise, but he also looks irritable. He launches into lecture without context almost immediately, and Benjamin doesn’t realise the connection goes both ways until Fantasmo snaps at him: “Are you taking notes? Pay attention.”

Fantasmo becomes a fixture of Benjamin’s life that only he knows about, his own secret. Of course Blue J will find out eventually, but nobody else has to know about the small licks of flame he conjures in his palm, or the dirt he fashions into the double of a sleeping animal, or the bread that flies to his grasp from his bag. The power Fantasmo teaches him how to harness is theirs alone to witness for now.

Every time a crystal is activated, Fantasmo gives Benjamin a look of annoyance as if he’s been interrupted during some vitally important task. It’s not for a while that Benjamin realises that this version of Fantasmo that resides inside his lectures doesn’t have anything else to do or anywhere else to be. He’d been put there to teach students of the Last University, a long long time ago, and is now fulfilling his purpose. Benjamin can never bring himself to ask, but he often wonders if Fantasmo waits the weeks that might come in between lectures in his cold stone tower, entirely alone. He starts to just talk to him: telling him how his day went, relaying the latest news - the frequent bad and the occasional good.

He starts to see kindness behind those tiny spectacles, affection in the slight turn of those disapproving lips. And he starts to feel a warm joy when that ever present scowl shifts into even the smallest smiles, which themselves begin to come more and more often as Benjamin begins to understand Fantasmo’s strange sense of humor and his self-centered manner; and as Fantasmo begins to understand the boundless enthusiasm and hunger to learn that only a child can show.

From Fantasmo’s point of view, to witness Benjamin’s exponential improvement is a gift he never could have foreseen when he placed this fractured version of himself inside the crystals. At first he tells himself the pride in his heart is at his own acumen, Benjamin as reflection of his teaching methods. But Benjamin’s skills outpace anything he might have expected. The boy has some connection to magic that even Fantasmo cannot quite put his finger on. He finds himself content to watch that connection spark and grow.

The moment comes where Benjamin and Blue J can no longer hide what they have been learning from the adults. As they step out of the woods with food for their community, the power of the Ranger and the Wizard can no longer just be theirs. The secret of Fantasmo kept but the secret of Benjamin’s power now known, the responsibility both children feared begins to weigh heavy as they grow towards adulthood.

Benjamin tells Fantasmo one day that he’s been asked to begin formal training. He relays the news with the smallest laugh, the tiniest bit of his teacher’s haughtiness creeping into his tone, the smallest notion of the stubbornness of the father Fantasmo has yet to meet, has yet to betray.

Fantasmo sees then the person Benjamin could become, cold and alone in an invisible tower he built for himself, forsaking the care of even his closest friends and loving nothing but his own research. He thinks about the child he has watched grow over the years: his bright eyes, his lanky limbs, his fingers rough from climbing. He thinks about what he knows of Rosana, working so hard and so lonely to build a life for her family and her people, and about Blue J, the topic of whom never fails to make Benjamin’s eyes that much brighter. He thinks about the stories he’s been told about this struggling community, constantly on the brink of starvation and war, built on top of the ruins of the University he sees out his very window as thriving, as none of his concern. He clears his throat.

“That’s wonderful news. A talent like yours should be used! Knowledge is meant to be shared, or else people in palaces or hidden rooms will start to think they’re better than those they’ve kept in the dark. You mustn’t secret yourself away. Step out into the light of day and do what’s right.”

Benjamin nods, and smiles, and learns.