It was difficult to tell where we were running and not get turned around in the onslaught of white. Entire trees materialized out of the snow inches away from me, and I swerved, slipping, scanning wildly for Candle or Fogwillow and trying to stick close to their heels. My lungs felt like they might burst. The cold bit my nose, but every other part of me was hot and sweating and tired as I sped forward.
Animal sounds at our back. They seemed to have emptied an entire Vault after us. I caught half-second glimpses of them every time I looked around, passing between the tall shadows of the trees. Wolves and ocelots. Foxes and elk. Wings disturbed the air unseen overhead, and there was even, crashing through the bare branches in an explosion of snow, a black-furred howler monkey.
“They’re hemming us in!” Candle shouted.
It appeared to be true. Blurs of shadow passed by on either side, the soft swoosh-pat of paws through snow. Branches snapped overhead. They were drawing the noose.
“A little farther,” Fogwillow said. “We can lose them in the Pillars.”
I slipped. My chest and chin hit the ground hard, and I scrambled to my knees with no air in my lungs. When I glanced back—which was a mistake—a white spotted leopard launched itself into the air, and as it came down on its feet it slipped into its human shape. A long, silver barrel flashed in the man’s hand. I recognized the glimmer immediately.
There was the familiar plunger-sucking sound and a bolt of fuchsia light whistled through the snowfall. I still couldn’t believe the Shift Patrol was using those things.
Panicked, I launched myself to my feet. The shot went wide and struck a tree, but the impact sent a hail of hot pink sparks arcing across my path. I skidded to the side, flailing, and the rampant energy snapped against my foot. I yelped. It wasn’t as painful as being hit directly, but my leg all the way up to my calf went numb and tingly, like it’d fallen asleep. The magic within it muted.
Step-hopping as fast as I could, I caught up with Fogwillow and Candle, who hadn’t even noticed I’d fallen.
“They’ve got…glimmers,” I panted.
Candle groaned. “And why are we running? Fogwillow…your staff…?”
“For pity’s sake, I’m not the only wizard here.”
It took a moment to realize she meant me. Then the full weight of her implication hit me. “Are you really using this as a teachable moment?” I all-but-screamed. “We’re about to be caught!”
“Better do something then,” Fogwillow said.
Groaning, I twisted on my heels, planted my feet, and summoned forth my staff.
The bone-white wood was incongruously warm in my hands, like holding a mug of hot cocoa. I stared at the stampede of slipshapes speeding toward us and tried not to let my fear get the best of me. Not fear of the Shift Patrol. Fear of what I held, of how I had obtained it, of the power—still in my mind unearned—that I had been scared to use ever since I cast Dean Enislen away in the equatorial room. I raised my staff, completely unclear about what I was doing, and connected to the Crystic…
…and understood what Fogwillow meant when she said the staff was a focusing of, not just the Crystic, but of my will.
It was like holding a lightning rod, and my fear and panic only let the power run all the more off the rails, completely unchecked as the full force of the Crystic poured through me. Every hair on my body stood on end, my blood boiled, and even the cold at the tip of my nose was banished in the surge of magic. My breath came up short and I screamed, mostly in shock.
A powerful force flew forward from me. It was nothing like when I had seen Fogwillow do it. Her jabs of power were controlled. Measured. This was chaos. There was no filter between me and the twisting storm of fuchsia and glass. I could see the magic in the snow as it flew outward, sharp patterns of the Crystic made visible in the dancing flurries, spikes and planes interwoven into strange geometry as they charged toward the shifties.
The shifties were thrown backward, battered with a force that broke the trees. Branches snapped and flew away. Trunks creaked, and bark tore free, stripping the surrounding forest down to its bones.
When it was over, the weight of my body seemed to settle back into itself and I swayed on the spot. Looking down, I discovered I was standing on dead grass, the snow having either been blown from under my feet or melted. The forest was quiet again, but we were surrounded by humped shapes in the snow, already trying, dazed, to get back to their feet.
“Well,” Fogwillow said. I spun to find her standing with her arms crossed. Candle looked stunned. “So that is your pure, unadulterated will. Better learn some control.”
I grimaced and let go of my staff. It snapped back into the Crystic.
“Wait no,” Candle said. “Don’t put that away.”
“Come on,” I said darkly, already on the run again. “I don’t think that bought us much time.”
It didn’t take long for the Shift Patrol to regroup, but by the time they’d regained their lost ground, the trees had cleared and we were out of the forest, racing through an open plain. The snow had lessened a bit, and I could see into the gray distance, where the land suddenly darkened, as if a great shadow had fallen across it.
“The Pillars are ahead!” Fogwillow said.
We made haste over the flatlands, toward that shadow, ankle deep in the snow. My legs were starting to give out, but we were so close. The sound of animal paws and bird wings was at our back and coming up around our sides. It was beginning to feel like we were being herded…
“Fogwillow…” I said as we drew closer to the shadow. “Wait…”
But I was too out of breath, and she didn’t hear me.
And then, as if at a signal, they all fell back. I looked around, gritting my teeth. The Shift Patrol had stopped. I could see them through the snow, sitting on their haunches and staring at us as we ran away. The sight of so many beasts, gazing calmly from a distance, was downright eerie.
“They know they can’t win. They know they’re about to lose us. Look.”
Up ahead, the Pillars rolled into view. The plain ended, plummeting sharply into a deep, deep canyon, the basin floor so far down I couldn’t see it, lost in fog and snow. But jutting up through that haze, almost on a level with the cliff face we were now hurtling toward, were narrow pillars. These solitary obelisks had wide, snow-capped tops that tapered to rocky spindles, like mushrooms. They stretched down into the deep, solid and stalwart, connected here and there by a web of bridges. Like the top-heavy monuments they strung together, these bridges didn’t do much to inspire confidence. Made of rope and wood, they sagged over the chasm, drooping from pillar to pillar, for as far as I could see.
“No,” I said, coming up short. “No, no.”
Fogwillow slid to a stop and beckoned me forward. “There are only a handful of bridges left standing that go into the Pillars. They can’t reach us there unless they go all the way around the basin.”
“I’m not trusting some Lornic old bridge with my life.”
“They aren’t from the Lorn. The Pillars formed during the Shattershock.”
“Nova,” Candle said. “We have to go. They won’t be able to follow us in.”
“And we won’t be able to get out. We’ll be trapped.”
I looked back at the waiting line of shifties, despair taking hold of me.
“Nova!” Candle said.
There weren’t any good options. Resigned, I turned forward and nodded. We ran the remaining distance to a creaking old bridge that swooped across to the nearest pillar. Fogwillow paused at its entry and motioned us across ahead of her. I tried not to think too hard about what was beneath my feet as I hurried after Candle, but I did turn back to Fogwillow for one final comment.
“This better not—”
A whistling spot of fuchsia light bloomed from the snowfall and struck Fogwillow square in the back. She gasped, fell forward, and cracked her forehead on one of the wooden posts at the entry to the bridge. Her body jolted into hectic spasms as threads of pink lightning wrapped between her limbs, breaking the magic within her in wave after wave of Crystic-splintering power. When she hit the ground, it was far too close to the edge of the cliff. One arm thrashed out and dangled in empty space.
There wasn’t time to scream or curse or even think. Every sensation fled from my body and I moved, senselessly, back to Fogwillow, gripped her by the collar of her robe, and dragged her away from the cliff. I couldn’t hear a thing. Candle was shouting something, but in my ears everything was quiet snowfall. I couldn’t see a thing except white plains everywhere, and Fogwillow at my feet. She was unconscious, a line of blood running down her face. I began to pull her across the bridge.
“Nova.” Candle’s voice came from far away. “Nova!”
The world came back slowly, first as a trickle, then as a stream. I stood in the middle of the bridge, which swayed gently beneath my feet. I had stopped halfway across, in a daze, and now Candle was pushing past me to hold the back of Fogwillow’s robe in one hand, my arm in the other. She pulled us both to the other side.
And then she slide a penknife from her pocket and began to cut the ropes binding the bridge to the pillar.
“Wait,” I said. “Not yet.”
She paused and followed my gaze. A thin figure stood on the other side of the bridge, waiting.
“Nova, no,” Candle breathed. “Don’t do something stupid.”
“I’m not. I think I can reason with him.”
“That is the definition of something stupid.” She went back to hacking at the rope, but I stepped out onto the bridge and forced her to stop. Candle let out an aggravated sound. “Nova.”
As soon as I began to walk, the figure on the other side stepped out to join me. We met in the middle of the bridge, with fathoms of empty space and mist beneath us, and miles of snowy air above.
“Is she okay?” Rhyme said.
I didn’t reply.
Rhyme frowned and looked down to where he held his glimmer in delicate hands. On his face was the same mixture of horror and longing I’d seen the first time he held one of the weapons, after raiding the Diosec hideout so long ago.
“I’ve always wanted to be a wizard,” he said, then tore his gaze away from the weapon. “Ever since I was young.”
“You’re a slipshape.”
Rhyme almost laughed at that. “New magic. Not the same. Not nearly.”
“That’s what everyone says.”
“Do you know how we’re made? Slipshapes? How the Assemblage first created the Shift Patrol? No. Of course not.” His smile was pained. “It’s…unnatural. A bastardization of the Crystic.”
“You’ll have to tell me about it sometime.”
“You don’t care. I understand. How could you at a moment like this?” He gestured with the glimmer. “This was supposed to give us the power of wizards. More than that, the power to best them, to be better than them. For once in my life to have control over the thing I wanted. Power to break magic…I suppose that appeals to me because I can’t have it myself.”
“Are you going to take me in or are we just going to stand here until our limbs freeze off?”
That pained smile again. “Nova, I don’t…I don’t want…” He reached a hand out to me, halfway and no farther. The look in his emerald eyes as he stared into my face was the same look he gave the glimmer. Horror and longing. A need for control.
“You want to break me,” I said.
“No, no.” But the hand didn’t fall.
“Prove to the Ferren that the Shift Patrol is mightier even than the Answer to Prophecy, the greatest wizard since the Lorn.”
“Just take me.”
“Nova.” Rhyme’s next words came out as an urgent hiss. “Why are you going to the thaumaticians?”
I blinked. “How did you—”
“I’m sorry, Nova. You were always a good kid, and the Assemblage deserves none of my loyalty. I’d rather not give you to them, but the Shift Patrol, you see…we were supposed to be what came next.”
“What came next?”
“New magic,” he said again. “Imagine my joy when I thought I’d get to be a wizard. But look at me.” He put a hand on the buckles of his suit, the mold that kept his form in check. “The Ferren finds us unsettling at best, inhuman at worst. Staving alts. We need a win, Nova. I’m sorry.”
He took a sudden step forward.
Rods. I thought it’d be easier to get through to him. I turned and ran. The bridge lurched beneath me with each step. Commander Rhyme’s feet sounded at my back.
“Candle!” I shouted.
She stood at the edge of the pillar, knife in hand. When she saw me running, she brought the knife down with a snap. One rope severed. The bridge tilted dangerously to the side, and I scrambled for balance.
“You’ll plunge us both into the canyon!” Rhyme shouted.
Candle held the knife up warningly. “Then you’d better turn tail and run, commander.”
As I neared solid ground, Candle made quick work of a second rope. Rhyme cursed behind me, and I chanced a look over my shoulder to see him scramble back toward safety.
I’m not sure if Candle would have actually cut the bridge out from under him, but I never got to find out, because just before I reached the pillar, the bridge gave an ominous crack and fell out from beneath me.
Candle and I both screamed. I leapt. My hands scrambled through empty space. Candle reached out, dropping the knife. It plummeted into the whistling mists below.
The edge of the pillar slammed into my chest and I let out an oof, holding on with my elbows, feet flailing over the drop. Candle grabbed my backpack, pulled, and hitched me up over the side. We collapsed onto the pillar and took huge, gulping breaths. For a while that was all I had the energy to do. That and feel the snow tickle my face as it fell.
Eventually, I sat up. With my gloved hands trembling over the ground, I crawled to the edge and looked down, then across. Nothing but mist. A sick feeling tugged at my stomach. When I looked around, Candle was sitting up with one hand on top of her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wide-eyed. “I didn’t know what to do.” I couldn’t get the words out to respond, so I just nodded. My eyes wandered past Candle, toward a prone figure lying near the center of the pillar. Candle followed my gaze. “She’s…she’s breathing.”
My shoulders slumped a little, a hesitant relief easing the edges of my nausea. I crawled to Fogwillow’s side and wiped the blood from her forehead, watching the rise and fall of her chest.
“We should get farther into the Pillars,” Candle said. “Lose the shifties completely.”
“We will.” My voice was hoarse. I brought my backpack around and dug into it for the bandages and antiseptic wipes. I removed my gloves, and with cold, fumbling fingers cleaned and dressed Fogwillow’s head. Candle helped. As we worked, I snuck glances across the chasm at the fallen bridge, trailing down the side of the cliff like a length of string.
Rhyme stood at the top, watching us. Nothing more than a hazy shape beyond the falling snow.