The lynx stood up, its form slipping away, and then Chief Inspector Rhyme was before us. His shape wavered as it came together, outline loose in the darkness and then tightening into the limber, tired-looking man I’d seen in the investiture that morning. He gave me a weary smile.
“Nova. It’s good to see you. It really is.”
My knees shook as I stood, and there was a panic in my chest that threatened to pull me inward. Fogwillow and Candle came up on either side of me, the terminal at our backs. The moon had nearly reached its height. The distant skyscrapers shone white as bone, and the flatlands shimmered like the surface of the ocean.
I nodded. “Chief Inspector.”
“What, ah, what are you doing out here?” Rhyme said.
“It was Fogwillow’s idea.”
Fogwillow sniffed. “What do you want, Rhyme?”
Rhyme laughed at that, short and sharp, and finished with a long sigh. He looked to the heavens. When he spoke, it was as if to himself. “What do I want? Eoea knows.” Then to us: “I’m very proud of you, Nova. I read everything you wrote. Never missed an entry. Between the four of us, nothing would make me happier than to let you all go on your way.” I raised my eyebrows, and the Chief Inspector frowned. “Does that surprise you? I’ve always thought of us as friends.”
“Even some of my friends think I should go back to the Academy.”
“People don’t understand. They’re scared.”
“Well you have to look at it from their point of view, Nova. Three days after a major attack, you decided to up and disappear. It took years to find the Answer. Who knew if we would ever see you again.”
He took a step forward. Beside me, Fogwillow twitched her staff in warning, and Rhyme stopped.
“I’m not going abandon anyone,” I said.
“I know that. But you’ve got the whole Ferren watching you now. People who don’t know you as well as I do. The only thing they have to trust in is the structure. The structure you abandoned.” We stared across the scorched earth, each waiting for the other to do something. Eventually, Rhyme pursed his lips and tapped a finger against the yellow Shift Patrol insignia on his uniform. “My job is to serve that structure, Nova. I ensure it hums along, makes people feel safe, gives them the protection they need. Your protection.”
“So you’re here to take me back. Stick me with Dean Enislen so she can plug me into her system?”
“I believe in systems.”
“I’d prefer you to believe in me.”
“Oh Nova, I want you to be happy. Can’t you see that?” He reached for his waist. “But it doesn’t matter what I want.” And suddenly his weapon was in his hands, though he kept it pointed at the ground. Fogwillow took a defensive step in front of me, and I gasped when I saw what Rhyme was holding. It looked like a gun, but silver and shiny as a mirror. It had a long, long barrel, and a prism was nested into the metal where its hammer would strike.
My face drained. “A glimmer.”
“You’ve seen them before.”
“You have too. You saw how it broke the magic inside your own people.”
“Those weapons were being smuggled by the Diosec,” Candle said.
“Who were really just a front for the Advance Academy,” Rhyme replied, “and, by extension, the Assemblage. They were happy to let my forces make use of them once they were no longer needed as props.”
“Is this really necessary?” Fogwillow said.
“You get to wave that staff in my face, Fogwillow. I don’t see how this is any different.”
I crossed my arms, mostly because it made me feel protected. My voice was stony. “I can’t believe you would use those after seeing what they did to people. After knowing what they did to me.”
I would never forget the feeling of magic breaking inside me, of the fractures passing up and down my body in waves, thrusting me deeper into the Crystic when I wasn’t ready, provoking the power I didn’t know I had. I would never forget the bodies and the blood I’d seen in the aftermath of that power.
“Oh come, Nova,” Rhyme said, “you think all wizards are model citizens? We’ve long needed a way to bring them to heel when they begin to think themselves greater than the law. Wizards can be criminals just like the rest of us.”
“Is that what you think I am? A criminal?”
“Again, it doesn’t matter what I think. I have people to answer to, Nova. You must understand.”
And here he turned his head to look at the distant stretches of flattened earth behind him. The movement, the sudden dropping of his defenses, caught us all off guard, and we scanned the horizon, trying to see what he saw. It looked empty.
Fogwillow hissed. I came up next to her, squinting, and was just barely able to make out what seemed to be a dark shape in the distance. It was traveling toward us through the smoke. The figure was tall and solitary, far enough away that I couldn’t make out any features. Its shadowy form blurred on the horizon. It was coming closer. Unhurried.
“Who is that?” I said.
Rhyme grimaced. “That is a Headstone. A member of the Assemblage.”
My mouth dried up. “Here already?”
“He arrived this afternoon. A strange man. Very soft-spoken. Not at all how I imagined one of the rulers of the Ferren.”
My heart beating faster, I took another look at the dark form edging toward us through the night. Was it just my imagination? Or could I see the moonlight winking off the prism set into his forehead?
“He’ll be here soon,” Rhyme said. “Maybe best we settle this before he arrives. It’s one thing to disrespect me, quite another to go against someone like that.” He brandished the glimmer again. Fogwillow, Candle, and I each took a step back. I held my hands up.
“Eoea’s staff, Rhyme, you don’t need to do this,” I said.
Rhyme made no movements. He stood as still as a statue in the moonlight. “I remember when Fogwillow first brought you to Blush,” he said. “You were such a tiny little thing. I remember promising to check in on you and Gruffin. See that everything was in order and you were being taken care of. Fogwillow made sure quite a lot of people had an eye out for your well-being, Nova.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Almost makes me wonder if she knew what you were. That you were the Answer. It’d be very unfortunate if she’d kept that information to herself all these years. Almost as unfortunate as Gruffin covering for you these past few days.”
“You wouldn’t do anything to him.”
“Not of my own will, no. However…” He gave a small nod backward, toward the approaching shadow. It was a tiny bit larger now, and growing closer by the second. I shivered. “Nova, please. I like you. I like Gruffin. But I am Chief Inspector of the Shift Patrol in Blush. I must serve the structure.”
“I won’t go with you.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
I looked between Fogwillow and Candle, and wavered. Maybe this was the end. Maybe this was as far as we would go. Well. It had been a welcome change while it lasted. The Headstone was drawing closer. Still unhurried, as if the shadow were merely meandering through the moonlight.
I was nearly ready to go to Rhyme, when Fogwillow chuckled. “There is one thing you haven’t accounted for, chief inspector.”
“We’re in the middle of a field of impact caused by a broken terminal. A magic-less space. That glimmer is powered by a prism. It won’t work here.”
Rhyme smiled. He lowered his weapon, but smiled all the same. He met Fogwillow’s eyes. “Neither will your staff.”
We stood in awkward silence, Fogwillow and Rhyme clutching their useless weapons. Then Fogwillow turned on her heel and gave me and Candle a shove.
We did. We passed the broken terminal with its silvery cracks and then we were off over the flatlands, running toward the other side of the field of impact and the skeletal buildings rising in the distance. Our backpacks bounced on our shoulders as we went. I looked back once to see Rhyme standing there, holstering his glimmer. And then he slipped down, taking the shape of a large, shaggy lynx, and padded after us.
“Rods!” I gasped. “We can’t outrun that.” Candle threw a look back and her eyes went wide. “You don’t have anything that could slow him down, do you?”
“Nothing that isn’t powered by a glimmer,” Candle said.
“We just need to make it to the border,” Fogwillow called from behind.
I ran like I’d never run before, even during all those days training with the Wizard Fellish in the mountains. Pain erupted down my side, and my knees were still weak from my collapse at the terminal. Through our frenzied breathing, the steady beat of the lynx’s paws grew closer. When it was right on our heels, Fogwillow stopped, flung her staff out, and cracked Chief Inspector Rhyme across side of the head, even as he pounced. The lynx let out a whimper and slammed to its side in the ash and smoke. We kept running while he picked himself back up.
“They always underestimate me,” Fogwillow muttered.
The edge of the terminal wastes was coming into view up ahead. Beyond, the rubble-strewn streets of the city stretched back into shadow. Fogwillow ran ahead and Candle ran behind. I held a hand to my side, wheezing.
“Nova, look out!” Candle screamed.
Fogwillow was just crossing into the city. She turned back at Candle’s shout. I was only a few yards away. I reached…
And felt a whoosh at my back. An immense weight barreling down. Broad paws lurched into me and I went sprawling. The ground smashed into my shoulder, I bounced and spun, once, twice, and my backpack ripped free. I came to a stop facing the sky and the lynx pinned me down, snarling. I squirmed. Looking into the creature’s eyes, I could see the chief inspector there, in the emerald green, the person buried deep inside the animal. There was commotion behind me. Tilting my head, I saw Fogwillow standing beyond the border, hurling plane after plane of glossy pink magic at Rhyme, but each attack fizzled into sparks and smoke as it crossed into the field of impact.
I dug my hands into the lynx’s paws, trying to heave them off. They were like sandbags against my chest.
“You’re just going to keep me here until that Headstone arrives, aren’t you?” I growled. “What a waste. They’ve got you just as imprisoned as I was, Rhyme.”
The lynx snarled, but beyond the anger I thought I saw the human rising behind his eyes.
Candle arrived a moment later. She launched herself at Rhyme and they went stumbling together, right across the border into the city. Gasping in breath, I scrambled to my feet just in time to see Fogwillow sweep out with her staff, spreading a wide swathe of magic, and send the lynx flying backwards into the brick wall of a building. The creature slumped to the ground and didn’t get up.
Silence followed. Every part of my body was trembling and aching. My breath came in stuttering gasps.
“Is he okay?” I said.
“He’ll be fine, unfortunately.” Fogwillow motioned for us to hurry. “We need to get away from here.”
I scooped up my backpack and limped through the smoke. Stepping out of the area destroyed by the broken terminal was a palpable relief. As we disappeared into the northern side of the city, though, I looked back one more time and a final, chilling sight met my eyes.
The Headstone, standing like an obelisk in the middle of the scorched earth, too far to see clearly. Not moving toward us. Waiting.