16. Fallen

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Breathe in.

Movement. Careful and controlled.

Breathe out.

I stood in the semi-darkness, going through forms once taught to me by the Wizard Fellish at the Advance Academy. The limber old woman, with her birdclaw limbs and closely shaven head, had brought me through these poses every day. Arms held calmly at my sides, breathe in, one leg up, breathe out. Find your balance. Fix your eyes on the Ferren. Et cetera. By the end of my time there, I knew them so well my body seemed to drift toward them naturally—magnetically. Each pose was a keyhole, and when I clicked into place, for a moment it felt like I actually knew where I belonged.

Breathe in.

Arms extended now.

Breathe out.

Fogwillow had woken up shortly after our encounter with Rhyme. She said hardly a word about what had happened, though I saw her bring a hand to her head several times that day. We called a halt earlier than usual that evening. It had stopped snowing, so we made a fire in the middle of one of the pillars and tried to find a sleeping arrangement farthest from the edges. When I awoke the next morning, Fogwillow was sitting by the ashes, staring into the distance. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t slept.

Breathe in.

Sweat ran down my temples as I lowered myself onto one leg, arms coming straight forward. The transitions were just as important as the forms themselves, Fellish had said. The sliding movements were calm, focused, and inexorable. Each shift made as if it were a shift in the Ferren itself. The entire world in the arc of a heel.

Breathe out.

We’d journeyed northwest through the Pillars for a day or two, over what seemed to be an unending pathway of bridges. The weather stayed clear, and we had enough supplies stored up that food wasn’t an issue, but there were other things to be concerned about. Birds circled overhead. Shifties. Keeping an eye out. Waiting patiently. On the morning of the third day, I found Fogwillow standing at the edge of the drop, looking down to the unseen basin floor beneath us, deep in thought.

“We can’t keep going,” she said.

It turned out there were very few bridges leading into or out of the Pillars. (One less now that Candle had cut it down.) It would be easy enough for the Shift Patrol to post squads at the remaining exits, which meant that for all intents and purposes, we were trapped wandering this pockmarked chasm. We weren’t in imminent danger, sure, but they had us right where they wanted us. A maze for mice.

Breathe in.

My leg trembled. I didn’t try to control it, but I did try to ignore it, pressing down with all my strength as I lifted into a standing position, pivoted my weight and pressed down with my other leg, lowering it straight into the ground. I raised my arms upward.

Breathe out.

So, with eyes above and certain capture waiting for us on every side, we went the only direction left available to us. We went down. Several of the pillars had old stairs cut into their sides, winding around the rock spires into the depths. Most were half-crumpled or weather-beaten smooth, but Fogwillow led us to a wide, squat pillar whose steps had maintained somewhat more of their integrity than the others. We went at night, when shadows hid us from things above, down the steps, descending into the deep.

Breathe in.

It was now the fifth day since our encounter on the bridge. Midmorning, but very little of the sun filtered down here to what felt like the underside of the Ferren, and what light did make it through the heights was soft and pale. It was warmer down here. Humid, too, and if the snow had fallen this far it had long since melted. Short, white flowers grew beneath my bare feet, stems twisted, tangled, and tough. The kind of weed that could stand darkness and neglect. The kind that could grow in the shadows of sightless places, unbothered and unbothering. Completely disconnected.

I was trembling all over now, and sweat came in runnels. Fellish told me that when the forms seemed impossible, when the last of my strength wasn’t going to be enough, to fix an image in my mind, something powerful that would drive me through. So I did. The image varied, but today it was of a younger me, hunched over his desk in the attic, who would never have believed where he’d one day end up.

“What exactly is the point of this?”

At the sound of Candle’s voice, I let out a shout and toppled over.

“Eoea’s staff,” I gasped from the ground. “I thought I’d found somewhere private.”

“You would have,” she said, “if I hadn’t followed.”

I sat up. Candle stood across the way a little bit, between two enormous stone pillars that reached beyond our sight. We avoided each other’s eyes. Candle, I think, regretting interrupting me, and me embarrassed at having been interrupted.

“Those were Fellish’s poses, weren’t they?” Candle said at last.

“It’s supposed to help me connect to the Ferren.”

“And how is that supposed to help?”

I shrugged. “I mean, magic isn’t just…” I waved one hand in a nebulous gesture. “You know?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I mean it’s not just, like, air. Or weightless energy. A wizard is a physical anchor of the Crystic. Fellish told me not to be a weak one.” We still weren’t looking at each other, but slowly I tilted my head in her direction, curious. “How long were you watching me?”

Candle flushed and held something out. “You might want this back.”

Ah. My shirt.

I came to my feet and grabbed the shirt, turning away to lift it over my head. Before I could, Candle’s voice came again, very quietly, from behind.

“Do they hurt?”

I paused. Looking over my shoulder, I caught her staring at my back, eyes running up my spine. My stomach twisted. I had almost forgotten those were there.

“Not really,” I said. “They sort of feel like…I don’t know…joints or something.”

“Kneecaps.”

“Yeah. Kneecaps in my back.”

“Gross.” Candle dug one heel into the ground. “Can I…can I get a closer look?”

“Um…”

“Sorry, I know you don’t like…”

“I don’t think it’s really…”

“Forget it.” Candle shook her head. We stood frozen, both of us too scared to move, for what must have been one hundred years. Finally, I lowered my arms.

“Yeah, go ahead.”

Candle’s face could have lit up a room. “Really?”

I shrugged. It was really more of a squirm, but Candle didn’t seem to notice. She rolled up her sleeves. “Okay, uh, lay down, why don’t you? I think that will be easier.”

The twisty white flowers were rough and spongy against my stomach as I lay down, arms at my sides. I turned my head—away from Candle—and rested my cheek on the cool ground.

“You’re sure this is okay?” Candle said, kneeling beside me.

“It's fine.” Sweat broke out along my brow again. “Just…try not to touch me…too much.”

“Of course, of course.”

I waited in silence, forcing myself to breath, and then, eventually, felt a dull pressure on my spine and heard a light tick tick tick as Candle tapped one of the prisms. She traveled up the length of my spine like this, poking and prodding, rapping with her knuckles and pushing with her fingers, though staying away from the skin itself. I felt like a patient in a doctor’s office.

Soon, she zeroed in on a single prism, the one embedded between my shoulder blades.

“It does raise an interesting question, though,” she said. She waited for me to give the obvious response, and when I didn’t she pressed on. “I mean, you asking me not to touch you, even though I’m touching the prisms. So are they you? They’re obviously a part of you, but are they you? Like your hair or fingernails. When do they become incorporated into this whole, um…you-ness.

“They’re not me.”

“Hm.” Her hair brushed against my back as she leaned in close to inspect, and I flinched. She sat up quickly. “Sorry.”

She worked in silence as I lay there counting seconds, trying to ignore the jabbing. At one point, there was a slow tug, as if she were attempting to pry the crystal out of my skin. I gritted my teeth.

“There were supposed to be seven,” I said, mostly to distract myself. “They never put the last one in.”

“And they’re supposed to make you more powerful.”

“That was the idea. A wizard’s connection to the Crystic is through their brain, and these sort of widen the channel. Send extra magic up my spine.”

“As long as they’re charged.”

I let out a hollow laugh. “Right. I guess it’s really just a way for me to leech power off other wizards. Dean Enislen charged them, at the expense of her own energy, and I get to use that expense to…I don’t know, kill the Ryvkk or whatever.”

“Dispersing power…they doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.”

“You would interpret it like that, wouldn’t you?” For a while there was no feeling at all in my back. Candle seemed to have stopped her examination, but before I could let the moment pass, I asked quietly: “Do you think you could help me remove them?”

I couldn’t see Candle recoil, but I heard it in her voice. “Why would you want me to do that?”

“I don’t want them.”

“Nova, they’re…I know Fogwillow doesn’t seem too keen on them, but Fogwillow isn’t the only wizard who matters. Tons of people think they’re a great idea.”

“I don’t.”

“Seriously! Why don’t you like them?”

“They feel like cheating.”

A long, cold silence. “Cheating.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Like, I didn’t work for it. I don’t deserve this power.”

“Oh?” Candle’s voice was dangerous. “Did you work for any of your powers? Do you think you deserve to be a wizard at all?”

“Candle, that’s not what I—”

“You think you deserve the magic you were born with more than any other normal person in the Ferren? More than me?”

“Candle, if I could give you all my magic, I would.”

That seemed to allay her, though I kept my face turned away in the weeds. It burned.

Finally, Candle said, more quietly, “Do the prisms make you more powerful than you could ever be without them?”

“What?”

“I mean, will they always give you an extra boost, no matter how powerful you become, or will they only boost you to a level you’d be able to reach anyway, with enough training? Will you eventually surpass their usefulness?”

“You mean…are they a supplement or a shortcut?”

“Right.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well. It seems you don’t know the answer to very basic questions about their function. Maybe before you have your best friend pull them out of your spine, you should figure out if they’re something that might actually work for you.”

“Maybe,” I mumbled.

“And the only way to do that—” She jabbed a finger into one of the prisms, “—is to use them. Experiment. There’s always room in the Ferren for new magic.”

I thought of Commander Rhyme. Of his belief that whatever new wizardry the Assemblage had performed to create him would make him something akin to a wizard. Of his disappointment in what he ended up as instead.

Or maybe just his disappointment in a world that didn’t accept it.

I sat up and pulled my shirt on. “I think I gave the wrong answer,” I said, “about why I don’t like the prisms.”

“Oh? You want a second chance?”

“I do.” Candle nodded, and I found a seat beside her. Together, we stared into the gloom of the pillars. My voice was unsteady. “I’ve never felt like my body was mine. All of it, the whole thing, feels like an intruder, and I think the prisms remind me that maybe it’s true. Maybe my body belongs to the Advance Academy, to the Ferren, to this stupid prophecy. Maybe I really don’t get to have any control over what it does, what’s a part of it, or who touches it.”

Candle turned to me. “Much better.” She put her hand down on the ground next to mine. Not touching. But near enough.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

We’d set up camp in an abandoned cloudweaver. The gigantic flying machine appeared to have crash-landed in the Pillars decades ago. A good third of it was missing, mechanical parts scattered across the ground, and what was left—broken propellers, cracked metal floors, smashed arrays of gears and cogs—was overgrown with those small white flowers on meandering vines. They padded the rusting floor and hung like pendants from dripping pipes and overhead grating. The Ferren itself slowly consuming the forgotten.

When we’d first come across it the evening before, Candle and I had done a top to bottom exploration of the thing. Candle found it fascinating, and even scavenged a few parts and secreted them away in her backpack, but when I eagerly pointed out that she’d finally accomplished her dream of being in a cloudweaver, she seemed less than amused.

I guess it wasn’t the same as being in the clouds themselves.

Anyway, when we returned from between the pillars that morning we found Fogwillow in the engine room, a cavernous space that had been bisected from end to end, one entire side open to the elements like some kind of amphitheater. She was crouched on the ground near a mess of exposed steel beams, watching a little orange elegon drift across the floor. The murky space at the base of the Pillars was rife with the spirits. They gathered in clusters from ledges and between the clover. They didn’t usually congregate like this, but for some reason they seemed to like it down here. In fact, from where I stood I could count at least a dozen of them, glowing softly from various points within the ruined framework of the cloudweaver, watching. I suppose they liked the quiet.

The one Fogwillow was studying lifted into the air, trailing sharp, geometric squares of overlapping light, and came to rest on the edge of a beam. It swiveled around, and the darkness that seemed to form its eyes turned itself on Fogwillow. I heard her let out a small gasp of pleasure.

“They call them Eoea’s eyes in some parts of the Ferren,” she said as Candle and I neared. “The Crystic is a sheer, indomitable algorithm, but these…” She reached a hand out, and the elegon shied away. “These have a will.”

“Candle used to like to call them elementals of technology,” I said, earning a glare from Candle.

But Fogwillow didn’t chastise her. She actually chuckled a little bit. “I suppose if your only exposure to magic was through mechanisms, that would make some sense.”

Candle’s shoulders inched up near her ears. “My dad used to call them a facet of the Crystic.”

“Mmm,” Fogwillow said. “Eyes. Elementals. Facets. There must be more to it than that. We speak of Eoea with such reverence. Don’t you ever wonder who he is?”

“Eoea created the Crystic,” I said with raised eyebrows. “You think the elegons did that? That they’re him?”

“I think they are…emotion to the Crystic’s cold connections.”

Before us, the elegon sailed off the back edge of the beam, an orange flare of pure magical static, and then disappeared. Fogwillow remained entranced, watching the spot where it had been, perhaps staring at the afterimage of light. Then, slowly, she stood.

“Come here. I want to show you something.”

She led us to the middle of the engine room, to a wide, overgrown pedestal—the central control unit. Getting to the ground, she pushed her head and shoulders through an opening at the base, where a metal grate had been removed some time earlier. We heard a series of loud, banging noises from inside. Candle and I gave each other perplexed looks.

There was a final grating, rent-metal sound, and then Fogwillow reappeared, smudged and sooty, her fingers slick with oil. She was beaming. “Finally. Been working on this all morning.” She heaved herself up and hoisted something out of the innards of the control unit, trailing wires and gears. “Look at this.”

It was a large sphere, about the size of a beach ball, made of long, golden loops of crisscrossed metal. In the center of the sphere, held in place by the metal bars, was one of the largest prisms I’d ever seen. It also happened to be completely transparent.

Not just transparent, but void. Sharp edges barely visible as a distortion in the world around it. Instinctively, I connected to the Crystic and reached for it, for what should have been a warm spot of magic in the myriad connections, but there was nothing there. The Crystic passed right over it.

“What is that?” I said, coming closer.

“The reason this vessel fell out of the sky,” Fogwillow said.

Candle knelt down and tilted her head at the thing, trying for a better angle. “That’s the prism that powered this cloudweaver.”

Fogwillow nodded. “Did you try to feel for it, Nova?”

“Yeah…”

Candle looked back and forth between the two of us. “Why, what happened?”

“You’ve seen me recharge prisms a hundred times. Normally I could find the empty spot and reconnect it, but there is no empty spot. It’s not just out of sync with the Crystic—it’s not there at all.”

“Completely, permanently, disconnected,” Fogwillow said. “Much to the dismay, I’m sure, of whoever was riding around on this thing.”

My voice grew quiet. “Its terminal was broken.”

“Right.”

We all fell silent. Tacitly, we drew closer together within the abandoned husk, realizing what exactly it was we were standing in. Not the result of a careless pilot. It was bigger than that.

I remembered Dean Enislen talking about this at the Advance Academy. Every prism was linked to a single terminal, its magic sourced from that one pool and no others. At the investiture, when I reconnected a prism to the Crystic, I was pulling it back into the threads of power that ran from its parent terminal. And when the Ryvkk broke a terminal, the prisms linked to that terminal all throughout the Ferren went dark. It had taken us a while to learn to ground flight when a terminal was attacked.

I grimaced at Fogwillow. “So…”

“So it’s completely useless.” She tossed the golden sphere to the side, where it crashed against a heap of other broken parts.

“Then why did you bother taking it out?” Candle said.

“I just wanted you to see it.”

Candle and I shared a look. “Er, how’s your head doing, Fogwillow?” I asked.

“It’s fine,” she replied bluntly. My eyes flicked up to where she’d struck the post. There was a big black and blue spot blooming out from beneath her hairline, but it was true. Fogwillow seemed to be doing just fine. Scavenging junk prisms and communing with spirits notwithstanding.

And then something occurred to me.

“What happens if all the prisms go dark?”

Candle crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “You’re just wondering this now?”

“It’s not a bad question,” Fogwillow said. “Write it down.”

“On what?”

“On your list of questions to ask the thaumaticians.”

“What list, should I be making a list?” I turned to Candle. “Should I have a list?”

Candle shrugged.

“Many people forget that prisms are finite,” Fogwillow continued. “They’re not mined or manufactured. They’re found.”

“Like old relics.” I knew this, of course. It’s why prisms were so expensive, why investitures were so lucrative, and why the most common careers for wizards these days were in the service industry. It’s why we’d found ways to pipe magic through wires from centralized prism stations, rather than power everything with a prism of its own. “More leftovers from the Lorn,” I said. “So really, Candle, your obsession with technology is actually an obsession with the past.” I pulled a fingernail-sized prism from my pocket, glowing bright pink. “You study ruins just as much as the rest of your family, ha!”

“Yeah, yeah, and here I am on my first cloudweaver ride. That’s not really the point.” She snatched the prism out of my fingers. “But thanks for charging this for me,” she added in a mumble.

We left the engine room and headed up to the observation deck, where we’d stashed our things, and prepared to set out for the day. Several elegons—emerald and purple and bubble gum pink—trailed after us, and drifted up to the shattered dome roof to watch us work.

“Anyone have any paper?” I asked as I dug through my backpack.

“Why?” Candle asked.

“I’m going to make a list.”

Candle rolled her eyes, but tore a page out of one of her notebooks.

While Fogwillow stared off the side of the cloudweaver—probably charting a course—and Candle cleaned up the mechanical parts she’d somehow managed to scatter across the floor in the twelve hours we’d been here, I huddled in a corner and put a pencil to my forehead. On an iron strut above my head, an elegon watched me curiously.

Slowly, in terrible, painstaking handwriting, I wrote:

1. What happens if all the prisms go out?

And then thought for a moment. The thaumaticians had devoted their lives to studying the Crystic, experts in all things magical, but in some ways that was too broad a canvas. I had so many questions I didn’t even know where to start. How about: What even is?

No. I supposed I should start with the obvious:

2. What does the prophecy say I’m supposed to do?

I mean, the answer to that was kind of obvious. Defeat the Ryvkk of course, but aside from some kind of fractured presence—cracks, I guess—I barely even knew what the Ryvkk was, and so:

            3. What is the Ryvkk?

            4. How did the Ryvkk come to be?

And for that matter:

5. What is the origin of the prophecy?

6. What exactly does it say?

And then another question flashed through my head, spoken in the cool, easy voice of a certain commander of the Shift Patrol. Why are you going to the thaumaticians?

Something soured in my stomach, as it had nearly every day since Rhyme had asked me that question on the bridge. I began, once again, to second-guess myself. To wonder if this was all even worth it. Did I really need to know the ins and outs of how everything worked? Couldn’t I just go straight for the Ryvkk and defeat him before any more damage could happen? Before anyone else had to die? Before another Blush? Another fallen cloudweaver? Another Len?

Sure, I probably wasn’t strong enough, yet, but there were six prisms running up the length of my spine…

“Ready to go?”

I jumped when Fogwillow spoke. “How much farther?” I said, stuffing the list of questions in my pocket.

“We’ll be out of the Pillars within the next few days. With any luck we’ll emerge far from any shiftie scouts. From there, it’s still about another month to Smoke Town.”

“A month,” I echoed. “That’s a long time.”

“We’ll make use of it. You still have a lot of training to do, and a lot can happen in a month.”

“Yeah…” I forced away the sour feeling.

“So, then,” Fogwillow said. “Are you ready?”

She didn’t wait for me to answer before pulling out her staff and heading for the exit.