The Advance Academy. The observatory. The equatorial room.
It took me a moment to realize someone was saying my name. I sat in the middle of the domed space, beneath the telescope, Marewill’s notes surrounding me on all sides. They spilled across the floor in drifts, like autumn leaves. Slowly, tugged by the sound of the voice, my mind resurfaced as if from an ocean.
I looked around, my cheeks stinging.
The Advance Academy. The observatory. The equatorial room.
Dean Enislen stood on the balcony, just outside her office. Her hands were folded before her and she was looking down at me. Her slight form was straight and proper in her black suit. The sun had gone down—when had that happened?—and her hair gleamed a darker shade of auburn in the night.
“Nova, what are you doing?”
I simply stared at her. I had lost all of my words. My mind was too jumbled, still too immersed in Marewill’s notes and my own horrible memories to think. Dean Enislen gave me a look of concern from up above.
“You’ve probably killed it, you know,” she said. “My narylis flower.”
The Advance Academy. The observatory. The equatorial room.
“You’re them, aren’t you?” I said at last, my voice a croak. I didn’t understand how, or why, but it was there, in Marewill’s notes. Long pages of arithmetic linking me into the Advance Academy by way of a global criminal organization. “You’re the Diosec.”
And here, Dean Enislen’s look turned to one of pity. Of a teacher looking at a student who could not grasp the solution to a problem. “The Diosec,” she said, shaking her head. “The Diosec doesn’t exist.”
“Where am I? Who are you?”
“We are precisely what we have always said. We are the Advance Academy, ordained by the Assemblage to find and train the Answer to Prophecy. The Diosec is but one part of that training.”
“A program,” I said. “A lesson.”
“Nova, Fogwillow is here.”
I swayed a little bit, caught off guard by the sudden shift in topic. It took a moment to understand the words. “Fogwillow?”
“She arrived not fifteen minutes ago. She’s safe, Nova, and she wants to see you. Will you let her in?”
That didn’t make sense. I had stopped forcing the doors closed almost an hour ago. Anyone could have come into the equatorial room whenever they wanted. And then my breath caught, and I understood. She was giving me a choice.
“No,” I said. “Not yet. I’m not ready.”
Dean Enislen smiled. “I hoped you would say that. We have a lot to talk about. A lot to do.”
She crossed to the stairway leading down into the chamber. She descended slowly, with practiced patience. Overhead, the silver telescope twinkled in the moonlight. I stood when she reached the bottom, and a scatter of notes drifted off my lap.
“We are not the Diosec,” Dean Enislen said, moving toward me. “The Diosec is a front. A shell with no substance. It was his idea. He always had the brilliant ones.” She raised a hand to her locket. “It was a curriculum run by the Advance Academy to build your confidence. To help you discover yourself. To earn your trust. And to endear you to the public. I am proud to say we accomplished all four objectives.”
“Does she know?” I said. “Does Fogwillow know about the Diosec?”
“Of course not. Only members of the Academy knew, and the Assemblage.”
“Then she’s in danger.”
“Nobody is in any danger—”
“What would you do to prevent her from finding out?”
“I don’t want to talk about Fogwillow anymore,” Dean Enislen suddenly snapped. “Fogwillow, Fogwillow, everything is always Fogwillow. I’m here now.” She slammed a hand into her chest. “I am your mentor.”
I took a step back. Notes crumpled beneath my heel.
“You’re jealous,” I said, realization dawning. I remembered all the times she had looked at Fogwillow and me together, her strained smiles, her guarded eyes. Her flushed cheeks. “You’ve always been jealous.”
“I have been so nice to you. So understanding. I have tried so hard.” She was getting closer, and her eyes were sparkling. “I thought things might change when Fogwillow left, but no. When you needed to confide in someone you went to Marewill. Marewill. Of all people.” She gave a short, sharp laugh, like a knife point. “Do you know how much suffering you inflicted on that poor man? To want to comfort you, but know that he cannot.”
I didn’t understand what she meant.
“I was supposed to be the one to advise you. But it doesn’t matter.” Dean Enislen shook her head. Then shook it again. “My feelings are immaterial. You are all that matters, Nova. The Diosec was for you.”
“The Diosec… ” I repeated. “The Diosec kidnapped children.”
“No. They didn’t. It was just a story, and it took years to tell. We didn’t know when we would find you, but we wanted to be ready when we did. So we built a tale, and the Assemblage helped. Together, we spread word of the Diosec throughout the Ferren. Carefully, and quietly. It was surprisingly simple. Plant a story of a kidnapping in Eldehill, then one a few months later in Gesh. Our little stories hopped around the Ferren, establishing a threat that needed defeating, a threat that you helped defeat, Nova, even before you knew you were the Answer. Such a triumph! The people loved you for it from the start.”
“Then those agents… the warehouse… everything I saw… ”
“Designed to live up to your expectations.”
I couldn’t breathe. I looked around the chamber, helpless as Dean Enislen stood across from me, silhouetted by the night sky through the window. “It was all a manipulation,” I said. Dean Enislen laughed.
“Did you really expect two teenagers to be able to infiltrate a vast criminal empire so easily? Through a takky shop? You were able to follow Plum to the hideout because he led you there. You saw a shady corporate front because that’s the way these things go. You saw crates being unloaded because that is what you would expect to see criminals doing. You saw agents in yellow uniforms because nefarious teams have matching costumes.”
“I killed people.”
“Yes, and I am sorry for that, Nova. It was… unexpected.”
“You told me I’d done the right thing. That I’d killed the right people.”
“You did exactly what you needed to do. I don’t want you worrying about this again. They knew what they were sacrificing themselves for. We all do.”
She said it with such complacency that I couldn’t quite process it. “Nobody… I don’t want anybody to… the people I killed… ” My breath felt thick in my lungs. I needed the world to stop for a moment, to freeze in place so I could catch up, so I could decipher what I was feeling, but the world wouldn’t let me, and my mind kept leaping to new questions before I was ready. “Was the Shift Patrol part of this?”
Dean Enislen waved a careless hand. “No, no. As if they have the wherewithal to pull something like this off. No, the Diosec program was run at the highest level of secrecy.”
“And the glimmers?”
“Hardly worth noting. The technology was coming. The entire Shift Patrol will be using them soon enough.”
“Hardly worth noting?” My panic was turning to anger. A soft, wet feeling rose in my throat. I clenched my fists. “I saw someone suffer because of those.”
“Captain Kria? A necessary sacrifice to sell the plot. She recovered.”
“I suffered because of those.”
“Yes!” Her face lit up. “And that is what unlocked your potential, what made you peer into the Crystic and find yourself. Don’t you see, Nova? All we do here is in pursuit of that one aim. Nothing else matters. Everything that happens in the Ferren, every piece of suffering, every hardship, every sacrifice, means nothing in comparison to training a hero who can defeat the Ryvkk. It is the prime importance.”
“What about airbird sevens?” Dean Enislen faltered for a moment, and grimaced. When I saw the doubt pass over her face, a small part of me leapt in triumph. I had this, at least. “He’s not part of your plans, is he?”
“I will admit, that was a tiny… a small hiccup.”
“He was trying to warn me,” I said, the pieces beginning to click together. “He told me not to go to the Shift Patrol, because he knew that’s exactly what you wanted me to do. You wanted me to bring down the Diosec. Airbird sevens was trying to keep me out of the whole thing, the whole entire system you set up. He told me to disappear. He wasn’t trying to save me from the Diosec, he was trying to save me from the Advance Academy!” Wide eyed, I looked up at Dean Enislen. “Which mean he knows everything. Who is he?”
“Airbird sevens has been nothing but a nuisance.” Dean Enislen turned to the side and began to circle the room, her finger clenching and unclenching. “We spent years looking for you, Nova, ready to launch the Diosec program when we found you. And every step of the way, our progress was stymied by a person we have not been able to locate. Like a staving poltergeist.” She rounded on me, her expression suddenly desperate. “You want to find airbird sevens as much as we do, Nova. Tell me, is there anything else you know?”
“Anything… anything else?”
“Besides what you’ve written in your ticker.”
The force of the next realization took me like a blow to the stomach. I actually flinched backward, stunned. “That’s… that’s why you had me do it. Everything I’ve been writing… ”
“Obviously,” Dean Enislen said, rolling her eyes. The more she spoke, the more she began to lose herself, her words becoming freer, her gesticulations more and more undone. “Do you know how much of a pain it’s been, allowing you to be so honest in your writing? Every time you post something I get a headache, wondering what you’ve revealed this time. You think we’d risk this much just to further endear you to a public who’s already on your side? We needed you to be truthful, because we thought you might drop more clues about your mysterious friend. Clearly we were wrong.”
“Everything was a manipulation,” I said again, as if repeating the words might help them register. “All of it.”
“Nova, everything anyone ever does is a manipulation. It’s called creation. Through our work, through our systems, through our sheer staving will, we shape what we want from this Ferren. We create you.”
The rage swelled within me. Along my spine, the prisms snapped like flint and tinder. I couldn’t keep it down. My head was overwhelmed with heat.
“All of this for what?” I said. “Just to create a moment of need? I would have found out I was the Answer eventually.”
“What, after half the Ferren was blown away by the Ryvkk? Would you have found it out before you died in the splintering of Blush? We don’t have time to be gentle, Nova. We have no history, and our future is dying. We’re a marooned people. You are the Ferren’s only light, and I don’t think you’re grateful for what we’ve done for you.”
“Grateful?” I spat the word. Dean Enislen spat back.
“We forged you, Nova, according to all the traditions of such a tale. You got your little hero story. The Diosec threatened your way of life, you defeated it, and you rose to new heights as a champion of the Ferren. We constructed this so carefully for you, so you could become what you needed to be. You got to live a perfect narrative, a hero’s journey. You threw down the bad guys and come out victorious. Do you know how many people would kill for that? That doesn’t happen in real life.”
“Overcoming the Diosec almost broke me.”
“Exactly. But you became someone new. You were more confident. You became someone who understood what it meant to save people. You saved Garrel Gruffin when you couldn’t save Captain Kria. You think you could have done that before? You scarified your own well being for him, and you will do the same to save us all.”
My fists clenched. “I can’t stand this place. Nothing here is real!”
“Good, Nova. You’re feeling something. Feel it.”
“Stop telling me what to do!”
“You’re strong, and your emotions are stronger for it. You can use them. Emotion can carry you the same as magic.”
I was losing control. My body felt directionless, it was hot and shaking and tangled. Overhead, the vast silver instruments trembled where they hung from the dome. Dean Enislen was giving me a fervent look.
“You feel that, Nova? That is what has been missing. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Why you can’t reach your staff. What we’ve been doing wrong. It’s this. This right here.”
“Stop,” I said, and a wave of vibrations swept out of me. The telescope trembled again in its rotary. Dean Enislen glanced up at it, smiling, but when she leveled her gaze at me again her eyes were filled with hurt.
“You can hate me, Nova. That’s okay. It’s not what I wanted, but fine. We can use it still.” Another wave of vibrations pulsed out of me, and the prisms flared, restless. The entire dome shivered. “You feel that power? Imagine what you can do with it.”
“Stop it. This isn’t another lesson!”
Dean Enislen drew a line through the air and pulled her black, needle-like staff into her hand. “Yes,” she said. “It is.” She swung the staff down, and a wave of energy sent all the boxes and all the pages of Marewill’s notes flying to the outer edges of the room where they tumbled and settled. Dean Enislen circled me in the clearing. “We’re going to get your staff, Nova. We’re going to get it right now. You’re primed and ready. Now reach into the Crystic.”
I obeyed. Obeying Dean Enislen was a reflex, now.
The Crystic poured through me immediately, violently. I shuddered. The world disappeared, and I found myself in the sprawling pink landscape, the sharp geometry unfurling in every direction. It was wild tonight. My anger set the patterns shifting like a storm. I wiped a hand across my eyes, and looked ahead through the chaos. There, only a few steps away, was the brilliant rod of white light, like a beacon. My staff.
The anger bristling within me, I took a step.
Shadowed forms bloomed before me. Plum, with his look of horror at seeing what I had done, the people I had killed. And the bodies themselves, laid out in a line. I stumbled back, shielding my eyes as a force of energy buffeted me like a gale.
“Those people,” I heard Dean Enislen say. “You killed them, Nova. You killed them and there’s nothing you can do to change that.”
The anger crashed again, sweeping all my other emotions aside in a pummeling wave, leaving me shocked and battered. The prisms in my spine were sparking out of control as I reached for a surge of power. My body was so heavy it felt as if it were breaking. But I knew what I needed to do.
And so, fueled by emotion, and by magic, and by months of grueling training, I took another step. Directly through the image of Plum.
The infinite patterns shifted around me. The bodies fell away, as did Plum himself, his form breaking as I passed through him. The staff was within reach. I held my hand out.
And grabbed it.
It was like grabbing hold of the sun. My palm was burned raw, and an enormous amount of sheer power thrummed up my arm, jolting my senses. I couldn’t have let go if I wanted to. My muscles had seized up, locked around the staff.
“Yes!” Dean Enislen said. “Yes, Nova. Now pull! Bring it back with you.”
I took a step backward, pulling the staff along before me as I began to exit the Crystic. The patterns turned over themselves, and the equatorial room flickered into existence around me, broken and shimmering as I slid between worlds. Fuchsia streaks broke up and down the dome, blinking polygons stuttering along the outlines of the physical world. Wave after wave of energy came pouring through the fissure I had opened as I pulled a piece of the Crystic back with me. The entire room shook.
I took another step back, and the equatorial room became clearer, but my hand, along with the staff it held, was still stuck in the Crystic. I pulled, but it was jammed, caught on a knot of power. Across the room, through the rapidly blinking, flashing pieces of the Crystic, I saw Dean Enislen staring at me with her hands clenched around her own staff.
And then the prisms in my back began to sputter out, one by one. I gasped, staggering as each one went dead. When the final prism, at the base of my neck, popped, I stumbled forward and almost dropped the staff. I was losing power.
“No,” Dean Enislen said. “You’re so close.”
Flares of light shot around me as I stood caught between the Ferren and the Crystic. Panels of magic, sharp and translucent, spiked out around my body as if I were emerging from a jagged, glass flower. The staff slipped in my sweaty fingers, but I managed to hold on.
“Come on, Nova, pull!”
“I can’t,” I said.
Suddenly, Dean Enislen threw her staff to the side, and then she was beside me, reaching both arms into the Crystic and grabbing my wrist, heaving me backward.
I was too weak. I was collapsing. It was all I could do to hold on.
The planes of magic scraped past Dean Enislen’s face, warping her image as she pulled. Her eyes were on fire.
“Stop,” I said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“We can do it!” she cried. “Together we can do it!” She pushed farther into my blossom of magic, and I felt her fingers close around mine, pressing my hand tight around the staff.
I flinched at the touch, trying to recoil, but held in place by exhaustion and fear. We pulled.
Then, exposed to the power of the Crystic, in the rippling, cutting, shimmering plumes of magic, Dean Enislen’s face began to peel open. I watched, horrified, as the skin along her cheek stretched and ripped, and blood flew out in the force of magic like droplets on the wind. She didn’t release her grip. She faced forward, determined, as lacerations spread up one side of her face and her blood splattered our arms.
“One more heave,” Dean Enislen said. “Ready? Now!”
I grounded my heels and gritted my teeth. To my surprise, something gave, and we popped backward, landing on the floor as the Crystic collapsed. A wave of energy exploded outward, shaking the building. Dean Enislen’s locket was sliced from her neck, and it clattered off over the floor. Up above, the cold silver metal of the observatory telescope shattered into a thousand pieces as if it were made of glass. I landed on my back, each prism like a punch to my spine, and stared up as the bits of metal shimmered and spun throughout the dome, pushed outward by my magic. They landed in a broad circle around us, bouncing and twinkling like stars in the moonlight.
I rolled onto my side, groaning, trying to ignore the flecks of someone else’s blood that peppered my robes and forearms. And as I rolled, I was surprised to find that locked in my grip was a tall white staff, smooth as bone.
I lay there for a while as the world stilled and went quite, too terrified to do anything but keep myself together, just for this moment, and then the next. Eventually, I heard a soft voice above me.
“You did it,” Dean Enislen said.
Without looking at her, I held the staff to myself as tears fell, unbidden, down my cheeks. Slowly, like water seeping into the ground, the horror was returning, and with it, a new realization. Impressive. I hadn’t thought there was anything left to be surprised about.
“The narylis flower,” I said. “Even that. It wasn’t an accident that I bumped into it. You wanted me to find it. Everything that just happened. Telling me about the Diosec. It was all planned.”
“Creation,” Dean Enislen said. “You would never have reached your staff unless a powerful enough emotion propelled you forward. So I took a risk. I let you find out. And I was right again.”
I turned over and struggled to sit up. Dean Enislen was standing over me, and I froze when I saw her.
The left side of her face was covered in blood and torn skin.
“So now you know everything,” she said. “And look what it’s done. I’m proud of you, Nova.” She took a step forward. I scrambled back. She stopped, gave me a curious look, then raised a hand to her face. “This? Don’t worry about it, Nova, don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
I edged backward again, and when I did, my hand fell on something sharp. I flinched back, thinking I had crawled into the ring of broken metal, but when I looked around I saw that I had actually laid my hand down on Dean Enislen’s locket. It had popped open when it landed and it lay face down on the floor. I picked it up. I turned it over.
Inside, there was a picture of Plum.
It felt so out of place that I was suddenly dizzy. Two worlds crashed together within me, and I understood just what had happened—how I had been played—in a way that mere words never could. With Plum’s golden hair and broad face smiling out at me from the locket, it was as sharp and terrifying as being caught between the Crystic and the Ferren.
“His name was Willis Enislen.”
I looked up at the dean. It was difficult to read her expression, but I thought it was sad. Not embarrassed. Not guilty or ashamed. She had the audacity to look sad. In my other hand, I felt my fingers tighten around my staff as a cold sensation spread within me.
“I wish you could have known him,” Dean Enislen said. “Who he really was.”
And I remembered, for the very last time.
The end of the story.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
I remembered Plum holding me in a chokehold on the floor of the investiture. I remembered Dean Enislen sweeping in to save me with her brigade of silver-cloaks. I remembered Plum pulling the gun on me and the hardness of the barrel as it dug into my temple. I remembered Dean Enislen’s eyes going wide as she stood before us.
“No,” she said. “Please.”
“It’s the only way,” said Plum. “I’ve gone too far.”
I’d always thought that was an odd thing to say.
“The Shift Patrol is on its way,” Dean Enislen said. Throughout the investiture, the silver-cloaks were taking up positions, readying their staves. “If you surrender yourself, release the boy, you will get a fair trial.”
Plum only laughed. His arm tightened around me, and I whimpered, flailing. “Look at him,” he said. “The boy needs saving.” And he cocked the gun.
All at once, Dean Enislen flared to power. Her body seemed to lift in a breeze, and a single pulse of energy sent Plum and I sprawling backward. In the force of it, Plum released me and we separated, tumbling our own separate ways. I looked up in time to see Plum getting to his knees. His purple suit was rumpled. One cuff link was missing. His hair was disheveled and one long, curling lock fell down across his face.
Dean Enislen stood over him with her staff in hand, and he looked up at her, spreading his arms.
“I—” he said.
And Dean Enislen sent a lance of magic through his heart. His blood bloomed out from his torn suit like a flower. It splattered Dean Enislen’s suit and face, but she didn’t flinch. A drop of it landed on her locket. Plum sagged and fell to the floor.
I watched, in a daze, as Dean Enislen stepped across the investiture toward where I lay, my cheek against the cold tile, and knelt down, cocking her head. I remember her voice was tender.
“Nova?” she said. “Nova, hello. We’ve saved you and you’re safe now. I killed him for you. You’re safe. I’ll take care of you. I’ve got you, now.”
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Dean Enislen stood before me in the equatorial room. We were surrounded by broken bits of metal and scattered pages of notes.
“You see now, don’t you?” Dean Enislen said. Her torn face seeped blood when she talked. “You see how much I care about you? What I’ve sacrificed?”
I looked down at the locket, then back up to her. I couldn’t think of anything to say, except for, “Why?”
“It was one of the long-standing arguments I had with my brother. After putting you through terrible things to find a moment of need, he thought that the surest way to tie you to me was if I rescued you from certain death. I didn’t think it was necessary, but when he pulled the gun on you he forced my hand. Willis always preferred the dramatic option.”
“You’re crazy,” I said.
“No. I’m not. But I do follow a plan.”
Dean Enislen took another step toward me. I dropped the locket. I thrust my staff forward. A blast of energy surged out and knocked Dean Enislen off her feet. She flew back across the equatorial room, slammed into the darkened windows, and crumpled to the ground amid the shattered silver.
I sat and watched her for a long time as her shoulders rose and fell with easy breathing. Otherwise, she didn’t move. My fingers were still tight around the staff. It really was quite beautiful. Its tip broke into an elegant flourish, like the branches of a cebelis tree. It reminded me of home.
Then, ages later, the doors to the chamber opened behind me. I leapt up and turned on my heel, readying my staff.
It was Fogwillow. She stopped halfway into the equatorial room, her eyes wide and amazed as they took in the debris, Dean Enislen’s torn, unconscious body, and my staff.
I relaxed, and swung the staff out to my side.
“I’m leaving,” I said.
Fogwillow nodded. “I know.”
“Where are the silver-cloaks?”
“I’ve… stalled them. That’s why I’m back. I thought maybe you would want a hand.”
Her fingers curled around her gnarled wooden staff. Her long, gray hair was a mess. Her robes muddy, heavy, and wrinkled. Nothing about Fogwillow was ordered. Nothing was planned. Nothing fit into a neat picture of the future.
But a small, careful pocket of some new feeling was stirring deep inside me. Something I hadn’t felt in a while. Something that felt good. The feeling was small, and fragile, like a sea creature slowly poking its head out of its shell, and I knew it needed to be cared for. I knew the only way to build its confidence was to be gentle.
The feeling, I think, was hope.
“You never know what you’ve never known,” Fogwillow said.
I gave a hollow laugh. “You’re telling me.”