I sat cross-legged with my staff in my lap. “Are we going to actually, like, do anything?” I asked.
“Shh,” Fogwillow said. “Just sit.”
I huffed and closed my eyes again. The problem, of course, was that sitting was boring. Fogwillow, presumably, was training me in the use of my staff, had been training me for the past couple weeks as we cut across the Geshan wilds, but it was nothing like any of my lessons at the Advance Academy. With the Wizards Starmine or Fellish, magic was all about action and movement. Of doing things. Fogwillow’s primary mode of education seemed to be not doing things.
This morning, we were doing nothing at the edge of a frozen lake. It was snowing. Thick, fluffy cotton balls of it. If we did nothing much longer, we would soon be buried.
“Listen to the snowfall,” Fogwillow said.
I listened to the staving snowfall. It didn’t sound like much.
After another twenty minutes or so—or who knows, maybe it was only five—I opened my eyes again. Fogwillow was sitting directly across from me with her eyes shut. Her tangled gray hair was damp and powdered with snow. The deep wrinkles in her face were slack, her leathery skin still and calm.
“I’m bored,” I said.
“Boredom is a kind of magic,” Fogwillow replied, unmoving.
“What does that even mean?”
Though her eyes were closed, I could swear she rolled them.
“Okay,” she said. “Get up.”
I gave a start. “What?” In all our “lessons” together, she had never given in to my complaining. Maybe I’d finally broken through.
Opening her eyes, Fogwillow came to her feet and I followed, a little nervously. The snow was only coming down harder, and though we only stood a few feet apart, it was like being on the other side of a curtain.
“Ready your staff,” she said.
“This will take twice as long if I have to repeat myself every time.”
“Huh. You’ve never seemed too worried about how long things were taking before.”
Fogwillow shot me a glare. “That’s a lot of talk for someone who’s about to find himself face down in the snow. Hit me.”
This was a surprising turn of events, but for once I didn’t question her. I swung out with my staff. It didn’t go very far. Before I’d barely even lifted it, Fogwillow tapped her own staff gently against the ground. A sudden force gripped me around my torso and I flew backward, spinning, landing face down in the snow.
“You didn’t even try,” I said, spitting a mouthful of slush.
“Neither did you.”
I made to thrust my staff at her, but I barely even managed to grip it. Another tap, another sudden force driving me face first into the snow.
“Okay, okay.” I twisted around and began to get to my feet.
Another tap. Face down in the snow.
“I didn’t even try to hit you that time!” I said.
“You were going to.”
“How do you know?”
Fogwillow bent over me lazily, leaning on her staff. “Because, Nova, I have spent my entire life learning how to read others, how to read the Crystic, and how to read the Ferren itself. Do you know how?”
“Let me guess.”
“I watched. I listened. I sat very still and let the world come to me.”
“You did nothing.”
Fogwillow sighed and held her hand out to help me up. “Let’s go for a walk.”
We set off along the edge of the frozen lake. My gloves were crusted with ice, and I practiced swinging my staff as I went, same as Fogwillow. It didn’t come naturally. Especially not through half a foot of snow.
“You think I do nothing,” Fogwillow said.
Well. I hadn’t expected us to dive right into it. Apparently, when Fogwillow committed to teaching me, she decided to go all in. About time.
“Fine,” I said. “Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe you’re not doing nothing, but if that’s the case then I don’t understand what you are doing. I feel like I can never see you.”
“This isn’t about the training.”
“I mean, it’s partially about the training. You’re supposed to be making me a better wizard, but you’re treating me the same as you always have.”
It took me aback to hear her say it. Made the fire go out of me, replaced by a burst of embarrassment. It was like realizing someone had heard you talking about them behind their back. Which, I realized, was kind of true. I had never really thought about how Fogwillow would feel, reading what I wrote about her at the Academy. Fogwillow was always just Fogwillow. Impenetrable. Unaffected. There.
“It’s not just you,” I said. “It’s…it’s both of us. We don’t really talk, and I never feel like I know what’s going on.”
“Hm.” We came to a fallen tree and had to help each other over. “How did you feel,” Fogwillow said once we’d navigated the impasse, “when you saw him on the lightscreen? When we first came to Gesh.”
“No. Your father.”
My face grew warm. “Don’t call him that.”
“But he is.”
“No. He’s not. He’s just another person who thinks my life can be reduced to numbers and systems. Isn’t that the opposite of what parents are supposed to feel about their kids?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“He’s working with Dean Enislen.”
“As a means to find you.”
The corner of Fogwillow’s mouth twitched. “I’ll give you that. You have no desire to get in touch with him?”
“I left him unconscious on the floor.”
“And airbird sevens?”
My mood only grew fouler at this. My shoulders hunched up near my ears. “I haven’t heard from her since I was taken by the Academy. If she actually cares, she hasn’t been good about showing it.” We stopped, by some silent agreement, and turned to look out over the lake. The world was flat and gray and white, and what trees I could see on the opposite shore were a furry green beneath the snow. I still hadn’t grown used to trees that weren’t pink. “Sometimes it feels like the moment I found what I was looking for I had to give it up. And now I have nothing to want.”
“I’m sorry. I know more than most what it means to have a broken family.”
I turned to her. My voice was as quiet as the snowfall. “Your last name is Rarecrest.”
The lines on Fogwillow’s face tightened. But she nodded. “Wendolen Rarecrest.”
“Gruffin kept trying to call you that.”
“Gruffin’s known me since long before I became what I am now. He fell in love with a different person altogether.”
“What ruined it?”
Fogwillow sucked in a breath and let it out in a long, low stream. I could see it go in the freezing air. “He was always trying to get me to mend things with my family. When I wouldn’t, he brought my family to me. He sold me out. So. I broke his staff. And that was the end.”
“Wow,” I said, which was maybe the wrong reaction. Fogwillow’s cheeks actually reddened, and she turned away. I tried again, but I knew we’d gone too far already. “What…what’s wrong with your family?”
We walked on again. Eventually, Fogwillow picked the threads of the conversation back up. “I think you still want the same things, Nova. Though, perhaps you don’t know what form they will take, yet.”
“That’s what I’m trying to help you find, when we sit and do nothing. Do you understand?”
Slowly, I nodded. But what came out of my mouth was: “No.”
“I asked you, back in Blush, if you knew why wizards carry staves. It’s because a wizard’s staff is their will, concentrated. A focusing of, not just the Crystic, but your self within it. An extension of everything you want and everything you desire to shape. Before you can use it effectively, you must listen to the world, understand it, and know what you want from it.”
Fogwillow chuckled. “At the Advance Academy, you worried you didn’t care enough about saving the Ferren.” I nodded, and she gestured around her. “Look around you. This is the Ferren. The Broken Bridge is the Ferren. Tillamen Road is the Ferren. This lake is the Ferren. This is what you’re here to save. You must be a part of it.”
I looked around. And then came up short.
“Look.” Fogwillow followed my gaze. “Tracks.”
In the snow up ahead, a set of paw prints, running in a line from the lakeshore to the woods. Fogwillow approached and knelt to inspect them.
“They must be new,” she said. “Did you see anything?”
“Maybe if we hadn’t had our eyes closed for so long.”
And, for the fourth time that morning, I found myself face down in the snow.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
When we got back to the campsite, we found Candle sitting on a tarp with the guts of some mechanical device spread out before her. We had hunkered down to wait out the weather in the husk of some ruins, which seemed to be just about the only places in the Ferren that would have us these days. Candle was keeping dry beneath an old stone gazebo. Her tongue was between her lips and she was attempting to fit two pieces together that did not look like they were supposed to go together.
“We need to leave,” Fogwillow said without preamble.
Candle didn’t look up. “Why?”
As Fogwillow scattered our campfire, I stepped into the gazebo and knelt down on the tarp beside Candle. With one finger, I nudged a spool of wire she was using, curious. Usually when she pieced together these makeshift contraptions, I could tell what she was making, and when I couldn’t she usually told me. But she’d been tinkering with these objects for the past week or so, and it was still as much of a jumbled mess as always.
“What are you working on?”
“Nothing important,” she said, a little too casually. She scooped up the mechanical parts and dumped them unceremoniously into her backpack. I was a little offended. Then she changed the subject. “In other news, I’ve been trying to find a way to contact your mother.”
If it was meant as a distraction, it worked. “What?” I said, aghast. “Why?” Candle pulled her thaumascope out.
“I mean, one, she’s your mother, but two, it just kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Who’s the only other person in the entire Ferren who knows more about the Advance Academy’s plans than we do and who we know is on your side?”
“We categorically do not know that. We don’t know anything about her.”
“She tried to protect you from the Diosec.”
“Barely,” I said. Candle booted the thaumascope to life and a lightscreen popped up into the air above it. “And besides, she failed.”
“But her heart was in the right place. Look.”
Candle’s thaumascope was a portable model. It was smaller, the screen less colorful, and it didn’t need a keyboard. Her fingers maneuvered the light as she navigated to the Hero Trotter forums, where airbird sevens had first made contact with me.
“Are you on my account?” I said, squinting.
“How else am I supposed to trace her?”
“How did you get my password?”
“Please, Nova, do you really think I need a password to break past the security of a ten-year-old game on the Crystic?”
I tried to decide whether I was uncomfortable with this, and ended up giving her a begrudging nod. “Just…don’t ruin anything.”
Candle grinned, satisfied. “How was your communing today?”
And then Candle lowered her voice. “Has she let you charge your prisms yet?”
“I…haven’t brought it up.”
“Has she even mentioned them at all? Ever?”
“I’m telling you, if you could just—”
“Candle,” I hissed. We both fell quiet. Across the ruins, Fogwillow dug around in her pack for something. I took a breath. “I don’t want to use…those things. No shortcuts. No cheating.” Splotches of red formed on Candle’s cheeks that had nothing to do with the cold. I tried again. “I just mean—”
“Whatever. I don’t care. Look.” She finished whatever she’d been doing on the thaumascope with a wave of her hands. What was left on the lightscreen was a string of letters and symbols I couldn’t begin to decipher. “We can’t just try to contact airbird sevens through your account anymore, of course. It’s certainly being watched.”
“Candle, what is this?”
“It’s code, obviously.”
Code. The Crystic, written out. Magic translated into a form non-wizards could understand and manipulate. I reached out a hand to touch the lightscreen, and sent the lines of letters dancing past. I knew about code, of course, but I’d honestly never been all that into the finer points of technology. I didn’t need to be. I could access the Crystic directly in a world of magenta planes and glass. For people like Candle, these letters and numbers were all they’d ever know of magic. A recipe. An instruction book. A song read only as notes on a page. Never sung.
And yet…within this string of information were the same algorithms that had spat out a prophecy from its infinite geometry. Within these glyphs were the million points of connection that wrote out the language of magic…
“Should we be looking at this?” I said.
“I’ve installed some security, I’m not stupid. I’m just trying to trace—”
“What are you doing?”
We looked up, our faces stricken with guilt, and Candle punched the thaumascope off. Fogwillow was standing at the foot of the steps leading up to the gazebo.
“Nothing,” we said in unison.
Fogwillow narrowed her eyes. She walked up the steps and picked the thaumascope up, turning it over in her hands. She gave it a long, troubled look, then handed it out to Candle. “Put your toys away. It’s time to go.”
And then we were alone again.
“I’ve never gotten the sense that she likes me very much,” Candle grumbled as she packed away the last of her things.
“Who, Fogwillow?” Candle nodded, and I poked her bag of Crystic tech. “Why? Because of stuff like this? Don’t be silly, she likes you.”
“She likes you, Nova. I’m just part of the deal.”
“You’ve known her for most of your life.”
“Have I? Is it really even possible to know someone like Fogwillow?”
Candle gave me a strange look, then realization dawned on her. She swung her bag over her shoulder and stood. “No, no. It’s fine. You two keep having your private little bonding meetings in the woods. I’ll just keep watching over camp. Security, you know?”
I stood as she stalked from the gazebo. “Hey,” I called.
She looked over her shoulder “What?”
“You’re right. You are part of the deal.”
Candle’s smile was disapproving, but a smile nonetheless.
I took one last glace around the ruins as we gathered to set out. Stone pillars, brick houses, crumbled towers. Under the cover of heavy snow, it was almost difficult to tell they were even broken. Huge white drifts capped the tops of lantern poles, lined the arches and eaves, smoothing out jagged edges and turning everything seamless and quiet. The snow almost seemed to make the ruins whole again. Perched on what seemed to be an old stone fencepost, a cardinal was singing, cherry red against the white.
“Ready?” Fogwillow said. Candle and I nodded. “Then we’re off.”
It was still almost another two months’ walk to Smoke Town. We’d been keeping to the wilderness, but civilization was never all that far away, which meant we could never quite escape the sense of impending danger, of stopping for rest only to feel the prick along your neck that told you you’d been still for too long and should really be moving on again. Though Gesh was huge, with lots of open space between the more populated coasts, Tillamen Road itself was always only a few miles to the east. Up until a few days ago, Candle would head that way for supplies every now and then and come back with rumors. She told us our watchman friend Gorman had finally ratted us out, that everyone knew we were in Gesh. She told us the Shift Patrol was thick along the Road now, that you couldn’t go two feet without seeing a shiftie. And then, one day, she told us our pictures were up in an investiture, hers included. And that was the end of our supply runs.
Now we relied entirely on Fogwillow, who seemed to know the wilderness like an old friend, with a familiarity she had never shown to anyone else. She led us up paths that weren’t marked on any map, paths that ran through her mind alone. She helped us bundle up at night so we wouldn’t be cold. She showed us how to trap our dinner, how to skin it, how to cook it, though in the end this proved merely theoretical, as Candle and I refused to take part. Every so often, we came to another of her waystations, which seemed to be peppered throughout the wilds, jars of preserves and dried meats hidden in clefts or the hollows under the roots of a tree.
“I don’t suppose anyone knows what day it is,” I said once the ruins were a good distance behind us. Candle looked at her watch.
“Eptre. Tenth of Bwirr.”
“Huh. If I were still at the Advance Academy, today would have been my day off.”
“Which would you rather have?” Fogwillow said from up ahead. “Days off or freedom?”
“Seems like those shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.”
We trudged for nearly an hour through the snow, which was only coming down all the harder. I could feel it clumping against my eyelashes, melting on my lips. “I though Gesh was supposed to be tropical.”
Fogwillow chuckled. “We’re still quite a bit south. It’ll get warmer the farther we go.”
“And how much farther is that?”
“We’re making good time. We’ll reach the Pillars today, I think, and from there it’s only a couple weeks until we hit the midlands.”
“You’ll see. It’s one of my favorite parts of—”
A high piping sound cut her off. A flap of wings, too close, and we all jerked to the side as a bird cut straight through us. As we straightened, I wiped my nose on my glove and watched the speck of red disappear up ahead.
“That’s weird,” I said. Fogwillow gave me a funny look. “I saw another bird like that back in the ruins. Seems too cold for—”
Before I could finish, Fogwillow hoisted me by the front of my coat and threw me behind a tree. Candle joined us under the cover of the bare, snow-laden branches. I stared at Fogwillow, realization dawning. Her senses were on high alert, her eyes focused. “Shifties,” she whispered.
A chill spread down my spine, colder than the snowfall. As one, we all peered out from behind the tree, squinting through the flurries.
A dark shape. Tall, thin-limbed. He stood with his hands cupped, breathing warmth into them as he stared up into a tree, where the cardinal was perched on the branches like a bright red apple. Then he turned his head toward us. He didn’t seem surprised.
I stepped out from behind the tree. “Rhyme,” I called through the snow. “Commander.”
His voice sounded unusually faint. “Oh, you heard, did you?”
“Are you proud of that promotion?” Candle said, joining me.
The snow twisted between us, and his face passed in and out of sight, impossible to decipher. When there was no answer, I called across the distance again. “How did you find us?”
As if in response, the cardinal dropped from the tree, and before it hit the ground, it was a person again, short and round, her head bundled in a fur-lined hood.
“My scouts patrol the wilderness from here to Yillig,” Rhyme said. “You think our moniker is for nothing? Nova. This will be a lot easier if you come with me. Your friends can stay. I don’t need them. Just you.”
I looked at Fogwillow, still behind the tree, then at Candle.
“No way,” Candle said under her breath. “No way!” she shouted to Rhyme.
“You cannot hide from every animal in the Ferren.”
“Wanna bet?” Candle said.
The figure seemed to shrug. He made a gesture toward us, and I followed the movement, twisting around to look behind me. My heart skipped a beat. More dark figures swayed in the blizzard at our backs, one after the other in a formless menagerie of slipshapes, inhuman and primal.
“Hang on,” I said, turning back to Rhyme. “Let’s talk about this.”
“No talk this time,” he said. “I learned my lesson.”
And then he was gone.
No. Not gone. His fur was white. It blended with the snow. He was coming straight for us.
Fogwillow heaved Candle and I back with both hands, spun us about, and shoved us forward. We broke into a run.