Just outside Blush, a little ways into the cebelis forest, a large set of stone ruins slept between the trees. Towers and parapets rose into the quiet heights while fallen shrines and roofless houses accepted the visitation of wind and rain and the comings and goings of squirrels, birds, and other woodland creatures. Everything was overgrown with grass and wildflowers, though since fall was approaching, many of these had turned brittle and dropped their petals by now. The trees reached their bony branches through windows in crumbled walls, roots pushing up between cobblestones in courtyards that must have once seen the crossings of thousands of people. These were the sixteener ruins, remnants of some forgotten, Lornic city. Candle’s parents had studied them once, to unearth clues to our past. They’d taken Candle and I here many times on expeditions, to get us out of the house, out of the city. To show us a glimpse of something old.
We took a moment here, now, to catch our breath.
Candle and I dropped our backpacks and took long swigs of water. It was still night, but we didn’t dare light a fire. We wouldn’t be able to stay for long, anyway. Rhyme had certainly recovered by now, and was probably already mobilizing the shifties to come after us. But after everything that had happened in the last hour—the broken terminal, the cracks, the Headstone—we needed space to recover. My hands were still shaking. I sat with my knees to my chest, trying to hold myself in place.
I watched as Candle swayed on the spot, wiping her mouth dry. She cast me a hasty glance, then turned and disappeared through the doorway of a ruined tower. Probably to be alone. She seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. I wanted to stop her, to tell her it was dangerous, but who was I kidding. With parents like hers, she knew these ruins better than I ever would.
Fogwillow was crouched in a corner, trying to coax an elegon out of hiding. The little blue spirit was made of overlapping squares of light, darkening where they touched in some strange, sharp-edged geometry. I could hear Fogwillow whispering, but couldn’t make out the words.
I sat there, alone, in the middle of the ruins. Dust motes drifted down.
This was dumb.
I had always preferred being alone, but the isolation forced upon me at the Advance Academy had been beyond even my ability to bear. And now I’d escaped, and Fogwillow was as distant as ever, and Candle had been acting weird ever since we’d arrived in Blush. I’d escaped, but all of my problems came with me. Dumb.
I marched up to the tower Candle had disappeared into and peered through the door. It was dark inside. Up near the top, part of the structure had crumbled away, revealing a glimpse of the sky. There was a set of twisting stone steps, and I took these cautiously, past small windows lined with moss. Fallen cebelis leaves crunched beneath my feet as I went.
I emerged at the top, through the half-crumbled roof, to see Candle sitting in a crenellation with her feet kicked out over the edge. I saw her first, then saw what she was looking at, and whatever I had been about to say caught in my throat.
The skyline of Blush was visible from here, broken as it was. The dark shapes of buildings rose like crumpled monuments over the forest, the ruined city calling out a strange echo to the ruins beneath our feet.
I found my words. “You said this would happen.”
“What?” Candle didn’t turn.
“You don’t remember.” I drew closer and contemplated taking a seat in the crenellation beside her, but the stones seemed unstable, and the fall was quite a ways. I had never longed to fly as Candle had.
I sat down with my back against the battlement instead, just beside her, facing away from the view. I drew my knees to my chest. It was kind of chilly up here. “After we first broke into the Diosec’s hideout, when we realized I might be the Answer. I didn’t want to be the Answer. I tried to ignore it. You warned me about what would happen if I ignored it.”
Movement beside me. Candle stiffened at the memory. “Nova…”
“You told me something bad was going to happen and it would be all my fault.”
“You can’t blame yourself for Blush.”
“Of course I can. I should. Everyone should. I didn’t want to be the Answer. I resisted my training. I wasn’t strong enough soon enough. I felt sorry for myself all the time. Candle, I—” My words almost failed me here, but I forced them out, wet and stuttering. “I’m afraid I killed your dad.”
Candle looked sideways at me, and it seemed like the whole of the Ferren stretched between us, an impossible gap to cross.
“Is that why you followed me up here?” When I nodded, she let out a long sigh. “How disappointing.”
Candle swiveled to face me. She placed her hands primly in her lap. “Okay. Fine. Let’s do this. What else is the matter, Nova?”
I shifted uneasily. Her voice was thin and guarded. It felt like a trap. “What’s the matter with you?”
“No, no. You first. Let it out.”
“I don’t think—”
“Nova.” The word cut like a knife. I pulled my knees closer to my chest and mumbled.
“I just feel like…I don’t know…”
“Like you could have stopped this?”
“Like every day the Ryvkk still exists is one more day of failure, and like I’ve already wasted so many of those days. Like from this point on, every death I don’t prevent is on my shoulders. Like bad things keep happening and they’re all my fault.”
“I was frustrated, Nova. I didn’t mean for you to take those words so seriously.”
“But they’re true. My job is to save the Ferren. As long as people are still dying, I haven’t done my job.”
“Well don’t be.”
I stared at Candle’s hardened expression. “Are you okay?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“How could I? You keep disappearing. I hardly ever saw you at the investiture.”
“You think I’m avoiding you.” I nodded. “I’m not. Actually, Nova, this isn’t about you at all.” I tried to respond, but she cut me off. “No. What happened to Blush—” She gestured to the skyline. “It isn’t about you. None of this is about you.”
“I could have stopped it.”
Candle actually laughed at that. “No, you couldn’t have. You’re still feeling sorry for yourself and quite frankly it’s kind of selfish. My dad’s death wasn’t about you.”
“Don’t pretend to take the high road,” I said, bristling. “You haven’t even wanted to look at me since we got here. You blame me, too.”
“Maybe I did for a moment. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a thought that hasn’t crossed my mind since we got here, an emotion I haven’t felt. Maybe I’ve felt a hundred thousand contradictory things in the past few days and it’s all I can do to sort them out. How would you know? You haven’t asked.”
“I haven’t asked because you keep withdrawing!”
“I keep withdrawing because you never seem to be able to make anything about anything but yourself! I am tired of carrying your emotional weight, Nova. Of feeling like I have to ask how you’re doing three times a day so you don’t have a complete breakdown. Did it ever occur to you to ask me what I’m going through? Maybe I don’t want to be alone at all. Maybe I’ve been disappearing because I wish you’d get out of your own way for once. Because you never have anything more interesting to say than an apology. Because I feel just as lonely with you as I do without.”
She finished in a huff and I spread my hands, frustrated. “How am I supposed to know any of that?”
“It just seems like maybe you could have tried harder.”
“When? You keep vanishing!”
“There were other times, so many opportunities, even before…I just…ask me what I did while you were at the Advance Academy.”
“Ask me what I did. All those months you were up in the mountains training and writing about our lives for the entire world to read. Ask me what I did, because you haven’t yet.”
“What…what did you do while I was gone, Candle?”
Candle sighed, and her shoulders slumped. As if hearing that question aloud had sprung some sort of release valve. When she spoke, her voice had softened. “I went to school. I tried to ignore the pointed looks the other kids gave me as you wrote about our lives for everyone to read. I walked home. I read Go Forth. I tried to decipher clues in it, to see if you’d written me any secret messages in your paragraphs. I tried to read between the lines to see how you were really doing. I looked for you, Nova.” She hesitated, and her eyes flicked away, back toward the darkened sky. “I need you to look for me.”
We sat in silence as I let the words sink in, waiting as I tried to figure out how to respond to that. Apparently I waited too long, because Candle spoke again.
“Look. I understand where it’s coming from. I understand that you care about me, and that’s why you blame yourself. But that’s not enough. It’s not enough.”
I took a deep breath and adjusted my position against the wall. Okay. Okay. This was becoming a little bit clearer. I was beginning to see where I’d gone wrong, though that didn’t make my next words any easier to say.
“How are you doing, Candle?” I said, voice tinged with embarrassment.
Candle met my eyes. “I’m sad. I’m really sad.”
“Yeah, it does.” And then she turned away. “Thanks for asking.” Far beneath us, the half-bare treetops shifted in a sudden breeze. Candle shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Did you ever wonder if maybe the Ryvkk didn’t destroy Blush?”
“After all we know now about Dean Enislen and what she did, I keep coming up with this alternate storyline, one where the Advance Academy destroyed your home in order to motivate you. And I know it isn’t true, but I also don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“The Diosec was built on rumors, not actual crimes. I don’t think the Advance Academy would actually kill anyone.”
“The Advance Academy was set up as a structure to produce a hero. It was modeled after ancient beliefs in the transformation of a commoner into a savior, and I have to believe they’re smarter than we are. Even if they didn’t destroy Blush, maybe they wanted you to escape. An adventure through the wilds is a common heroic trope, and maybe we’re playing right into their hands. Maybe every bit of personal growth you experience is a result of Dean Enislen plucking some kind of narrative strings in your life. How do we know what’s real, and what’s a story?”
I gave Candle an amazed look. “I thought I was the only one.”
“You forget: a lot of what she did to you she did to me too, before you were taken away.”
“Do you feel as angry as I do? About the Diosec? About all that time we wasted investigating what was basically a piece of theater?”
She cracked her knuckles. “You have no idea.”
We came down from the tower some time later. Fogwillow was waiting for us in the courtyard, sitting by an old well. The elegon she’d been whispering to was nowhere to be seen.
“We shouldn’t linger,” she said.
I found my backpack and heaved it up onto my shoulders. “Where are we going?”
“North. To the Broken Bridge. From there, we’ll cross into Gesh and on to Smoke Town.”
“It’ll take a while to get to the Broken Bridge,” Candle said.
“Two months if our pace is leisurely,” Fogwillow said, rising. “I’ve made the journey before. I think we can do it in six weeks.”
“Or we could stowaway on a skyrunner,” I said.
Fogwillow shook her head. “Too risky. The Shift Patrol will be watching the skyways carefully. No. We go on foot, like those who came before us.”
Those words seemed to have a particular weight here, and for a moment I was all too aware of the empty spaces in the ruined city around us. The thousands of footsteps sunk into this stone.
As Candle left to gather her things, Fogwillow took me aside, into the cover of some overgrown eaves. “I have been thinking about what we discussed,” she said.
“Oh.” I lowered my head. “It’s fine. Forget I said anything.”
“You were right.” Her voice was kind, and my stomach did a little hop. “You don’t know anything.”
Fogwillow made an upward motion with her fingers, as if she were taking my chin and lifting it, but she knew I didn’t like to be touched so she only mimed the movement. I looked up at her. “You may have left the Advance Academy,” she said, “but if you are to grow into yourself, you still need a teacher. I will teach you, Nova. I will do better by you than I have done.”
“Dean Enislen would be so jealous.”
Fogwillow frowned. “What do you mean?”
“She wanted to be you.”
“Forget about Dean Enislen. That is your first lesson. She doesn’t matter anymore.”
I thought about what Candle and I had discussed at the top of the tower. “But—”
“Don’t let her rule your thoughts.” Fogwillow’s look was stern, and then it softened again and she tilted her head to one side. As she did, I caught a faint whiff of steckleberries. “You never know what you’ve never known.”
“And you’ll always know what is ever known,” I replied. I dug my heel into the ground, uncomfortable. “Did you know what would happen? When I touched the broken terminal?”
All comfort fell from Fogwillow’s expression. “No. I’m sorry.”
“Do you know what did happen?”
She straightened and leaned on her staff. “It’s those staving prisms. In your back.”
Suddenly conscious of them, I reached a hand over my shoulder to rub one, wincing. “They let him in?”
“The Ryvkk walks the pathways of the Crystic. Those prisms are like open doors, meant to funnel magic into your brain. In the absence of magic, though…”
“They let the Ryvkk in.”
“You said he was the cracks?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. It was just a feeling.”
“Well. We’ll have more answers when we get to the thaumaticians.”
Sirens began to wail in the distance. I caught my breath, looking past the shadowed ruins in the direction of Blush. The sound was muted, caught in bits and pieces of the breeze, through the intertwining canopy of the threadbare forest.
“Sounds like the shifties have finally been roused,” Fogwillow said.
Candle hurried over, clutching the straps of her backpack. She looked stricken. “The Ferren is after you, Nova.”
Fogwillow nodded. “And now we run.”