After my conversation with Plum, I was left alone in my cell. The chair had been removed and a cot had been set up in one corner. Several minutes after I was shut in, someone arrived with a plate of bread and block of cheese, but I was too anxious to eat, and images of the radet fungus were still going through my head, spoiling my appetite, so I just broke a corner off the bread and nibbled on it as I sat on the edge of the cot, staring off into nothing.
Could this actually be happening?
Plum had said many strange and horrible things in his office, but there was one, small thing that was stuck in my head. Thoughts of fungi and prophecy and variables may feel grander and more important, but I couldn’t get to that place yet because something else had hooked me at the starting line.
We have reason to believe you are the Answer, Plum had said.
I wracked my brain, trying to think over my life in Blush. There was Gruff Stop, and Garrel Gruffin, there to give me everything I needed from a grunting distance. There was school, and the kids who would sneer at me until I took scratshot as a name just to spite them. There were the days after I left school, days spent holed up in the attic at the thaumascope, or down behind the counter at the investiture, filling prisms with magic. There was Fogwillow, checking in on me, Fogwillow beyond the trees, an emotional island I could see but never swim to. There was Candle. Candle who surprised me, Candle who frustrated me, Candle who was far from the first person to like me, but without a doubt the first person to want to spend time with me.
Nothing happened in my life. As I told the story over in my head I continually found that it wasn’t about anything at all.
We have reason to believe you are the Answer.
What reason could there possibly be? Plum was right to wonder why I, specifically, might be the Prophesied One. It was as he said. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t think of a single thing that was special about me.
That was the way I had always wanted it to be. A normal life.
Sinking deeper and deeper into my thoughts, my surroundings fading away, I fell slowly onto my back. I sunk so far into my head that I don’t even remember when or how I fell asleep.
Though I must certainly have slept, because the next thing I knew I was snapping awake to the sound of a bird singing nearby.
I sat up. It was still dark out. It must have been at least midnight. My feet were dangling off the end of the bed, and I had kicked my plate of food while I slept. The bread and cheese were scattered across the concrete floor. Which was a shame, because my stomach was rumbling and I had a splitting headache. I put my palm to my forehead, inhaling sharply. I was probably dehydrated. I should have drunk the tea.
And then I remembered what had woken me up. Looking around, I saw that a small kingfisher was perched on the high window, just outside the bars. Its orange tufted belly ruffled as it called out into the sea, its blue wings folded flat behind it.
I groaned, rolling down onto my stomach. The cot squeaked underneath me. The room had become icy cold.
When my stomach rumbled again, I climbed down onto the floor and picked at the food. The bread was soggy now. I picked off a piece, sniffed it, then looked up at the kingfisher in the window. Sighing, I held out the bread to it.
“Hungry?” I said.
The kingfisher turned its head and looked at me.
My stomach gave a little jolt as the bird swooped through the bars, pecked the bread out of my hand, then fluttered toward the center of the room and shifted. I scrambled back against the cot, eyes wide, as the kingfisher performed an easy fold of its wings and suddenly there was a woman standing before me.
She held the bit of bread in one hand. “Thanks, kid, don’t mind if I do. It’s been a long night.” She popped the bread into her mouth and made a face. “Eugh. That’s disgusting. What’s the expiration date?”
I stared at her in astonishment.
“I’m sorry, did I scare you? You look like you saw the Red Wilkin.”
She wore the black buckled uniform of the Shift Patrol, with the broken yellow circle insignia pinned to her chest. She had a wide mouth with large, prominent teeth, and coarse black hair that was tied up in little bundles all over her head.
“I’m Captain Kria, and I’m here to rescue you. How do you like that?” She made for the door and pressed her ear up against it, then looked back at me, still backed up against the cot. Her eyebrows dropped. “You are Nova, right?”
“Figured as much. You look exactly as the Candle girl said you would, right down to the terrified expression. Hey, let’s get out of here, yeah?”
The shiftie strode forward and held her hand out, smiling.
“Candle told you where I was?”
“She told us everything, kid. I’ve got five squads of shifties waiting on my mark to bust this place wide open. We want to get you to safety first, but yes, the jig and all… you know how it goes.”
Relief washed over me. I choked, holding back my emotions, and took her hand.
There’s something unusual about touching a shiftie. Their skin feels unstable. As Kria’s fingers folded over my hand, they wobbled slightly, like I was grasping hands with water, though from all outward appearances, everything looked normal.
“Stay here,” she said as she pulled me to my feet, giving me her toothy smile. “I mean, obviously, you have to stay here, but just, you know, be patient.”
She took two running steps toward the window, jumped, shifted, and flew between the bars. I followed after, reaching to pull myself up so I could get a better view. The sea was a black shadow that faded into the distance. The kingfisher was nowhere to be seen.
I dropped to the floor, pacing back and forth. After a few moments, I heard a commotion from beyond the cell door. People grunting and bodies falling softly. Then there was a key in the lock. The door swung open, and Captain Kria smirked at me, nightstick in hand. Two Diosec agents were slumped, unconscious, at her feet.
“This way,” she said.
We ducked out into the warehouse. It was dark and deserted, and we ran along the rows of crates toward the stairs to the catwalk.
There was a Diosec agent up ahead with his back to us. I slowed down at the sight of him, stumbling over my feet, but Kria grabbed my wrist and dragged me along, faster, directly toward the yellow-uniformed man. At the sound of our steps, he turned, and his eyes went wide.
Without breaking speed, Kria released my wrist, shifted into her kingfisher form, flew over the agent’s shoulder, shifted back to human, and thwacked him in the back of the knee with her nightstick. It all happened with the speed of a lightbulb blinking on and off. She popped into her bird shape again, flew upward, popped back to human as she tumbled through the air and cracked the agent across the head, then popped back into the kingfisher and soared over to me, landing on two feet as a human while the agent collapsed to the ground.
“That’ll have attracted someone. Maybe a whole lot of someones. Hurry up.” I scrambled at her heels as she booked it toward the stairs. As she ran, she spoke rapidly into her wrist. “En route with the kid, may have some trouble though.”
At that moment, someone gave a loud, unintelligible shout from the other end of the warehouse. We’d been spotted. Light began to flicker on around us and the shadows popped back and forth. Diosec agents suddenly appeared on all sides, weaving toward us through the crates.
“Rods!” Kria said, and picked up the pace. They were closing in.
I was out of breath, with a stitch in my side. I had never run like this before.
And then, just before we reached the stairs, we were surrounded. Kria cursed again, coming up short before a group of agents in their mustard yellow. She backed up close to me and brandished her nightstick, her other arm outstretched behind her to keep me guarded. She pivoted around me as the Diosec agents circled us. I scanned the crowd. Plum was nowhere to be seen.
“Sorry, kid, this didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped.”
“It’s okay,” I said, and Kria laughed.
“No, it’s really not.”
She lifted her wrist toward her mouth, but before she could say anything, one of the Diosec agents stepped forward and leveled a long, silver weapon at her, a prism glowing sharply where the hammer should fall.
The agent’s lips cocked upward, and he fired.
The hammer struck the prism.
There was a round, plunger-sucking, spark-snapping, whistle-searing sound that I had never heard before, and a jet of fuchsia lightning spat out of the barrel. It hit Captain Kria square in the chest. She slammed back into me and we both hit the ground hard.
Gasping, I pushed her off and stumbled away, forcing myself to connect to the Crystic. But I was still too tired. It was like pushing through solid stone.
The agent fired the glimmer again, and I realized, seeing it a second time…
It wasn’t firing lightning all. It was more like… cracks. Cracks in the world itself, exposing the raw Crystic beneath.
The cracks hit Kria and she screamed, and then her body began to lose itself. The agent fired again. As the magical fault lines swirled around the shiftie, her skin began to bristle with feathers, up and down in waves. One arm grew into an enormous wing, then popped back again. A bird’s beak punctured up through her mouth, stifling her scream, then folded back in on itself. One foot stretched into a long, grotesque claw.
Her magic was breaking inside of her.
When it was finished, she didn’t change back. I stared, horrified, in the uneasy stillness that followed. Captain Kria was alive, but her breaths were small and wheezing. One arm was half transformed, a mangled wing fused with a human hand, and there were patches of ruffled feathers sticking out all over her. Each breath she took was accompanied by a faint, broken bird whistle.
“What did you do?” I said, my face burning, tearing my eyes away from the mutilated Captain Kria.
To my surprise, there was a look of profound discomfort on the Diosec agent’s face. He lowered the glimmer, his jaw working slowly. He licked his lips and took a step back. A few other agents shuffled uneasily around us.
Rage welled up inside of me. I took a shaky step toward Kria.
“Stay back!” someone shouted.
There was the sound of a glimmer being drawn across the circle. My knees buckled. I tucked my shoulder and rolled sideways as the glimmer fired, the fault lines skimming my heels. I ended up pressed close to the shiftie captain, her whistling breath in my ear.
I grabbed her arm and pulled her wrist—the normal one—up near my mouth. Sure enough, there was a little communication device embedded in the cuff.
“Help,” I said. “We need help.”
There was the sound of a firing glimmer, and I braced myself for the impact…
But it didn’t come. All at once, there were shouts and running feet. I peeked one eye open and saw the circle of Diosec agents scattering, firing left and right. I struggled up onto my hands as yellow uniforms stumbled past me and people cried out in alarm, lifting their weapons to the ceiling. I looked up.
An entire flock of birds was pouring from the catwalks, birds of every shape and size. There were sparrows and canaries and hummingbirds and parrots. And swinging after them came monkeys—marmosets and macaques, capuchins and baboons. Then cougars and panthers and cheetahs, padding down the grated steps, their heavy footfalls rattling. There was a brown bear and an iguana and a long-eared jackrabbit.
The Shift Patrol was here.
As they infiltrated the Diosec’s forces, their forms changed in sudden pops here and there, from human to animal and back again as they brought down agent after agent, a menagerie of feathers and fur crashing through the warehouse. All over the vast space, shapes lost their meaning, and shadows spilled like flowing water as the shifties splintered the Diosec, knocking weapons from hands, sending agents falling to their backs.
Beside me, Captain Kria whimpered.
“It’s okay,” I said, though I wasn’t sure it was true at all. “You’ll be okay. Thank you.”
And then, faster than I would have believed possible, it was over. The sounds of running and fighting dropped off, and when I looked up again from Kria, there wasn’t an animal in sight. The warehouse was filled with men and women in black-buckled uniforms, standing over groups of Diosec agents, who were seated on the ground with their hands cuffed behind their back.
I came to my feet slowly, trying to keep my hands from trembling, and flinched when a loud voice called out across the room. “Nova Scratshot!” I turned to see Chief Inspector Rhyme striding toward me, and gave an inward groan. His emerald eyes sparkled, and his long, limber form stepped through the scene as if he had forgotten he wasn’t a lynx anymore. He held out a hand as he approached, and, not seeing any way out, I took it.
His grip was mercifully short, and I winced as he withdrew.
“Got yourself in quite a mess, didn’t you?” Rhyme said, winking. Then he looked down at Captain Kria and his face fell. “Eoea’s staff.” And, speaking into his wrist, “Harriet, get medical down here with a stretcher. Tell them to hurry.” He knelt down next to Kria and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Captain. I’m so sorry.”
I turned away, unable to watch…
…and saw Candle, pushing her way through the catwalks, brushing off a shiftie who was trying to reign her in. When she saw me, she gasped, and sped down the stairs while her handler gave an exasperated look behind her.
“Nova, you staving idiot,” Candle said, darting across the warehouse. She came up short in front of me and punched me in the shoulder. I grimaced. “Yeah, you deserve it. I told you to tell someone.”
“Maybe now is not the time, Candle.”
“I know, but I’m mad at you anyway, and I’m so, so happy you’re okay. The punch was a mercy. I’d hug you if I didn’t think it would send you into conniptions.” She glanced over my shoulder, and her expression twisted.
“What happened to her?”
I looked back at Kria.
“Plum’s weapons,” I said. “Crystic technology.”
Candle fell silent, her face distant and unreadable as she watched the shiftie captain get loaded onto a stretcher.
Another shiftie ran up to Rhyme, who stood a few paces back, one hand over his mouth, looking at Kria being taken away but not seeming to see her at all.
“Chief Inspector,” the shiftie said. Rhyme blinked and looked sideways at him.
“We finished a cursory sweep of the place. Sir, there’s no sign of the leader.”
Rhyme threw me a look and I stepped past Candle, aghast.
“Plum?” I said.
The shiftie nodded. “He’s gone.”