I was deep in the Crystic. Farther than I’d ever gone before. In the real world, in the Ferren—rods, I could barely even sense it anymore—I was sitting on the ground across from Fogwillow, eyes closed. Doing nothing. But across that magical divide, I was floating in the glass plains, spikes of fuchsia and magenta and cherry blooming outward in endless fractals. Interwoven bits of plum and rust repeated outward in spirals of reflections and refractions. The Crystic was calm today. Each time I breathed—a sensation I felt around me, rather than within—the pink and pale folds of magic bowed out in lazy drifts, and I fell farther, deeper, outward. Somewhere distant, there was the quiet shhhhhhhhh sound of either rustling boughs or gentle waves. One or the other.
In the slow turning of the Crystic before me, I sensed other points of warmth. Pins stuck deep in the latticework, tugging the lines of power in all their disparate directions. These anchor points were everywhere, wizards and prisms and terminals, a scatter of stars across the magical firmament. I let myself hang in the tension of their current, a pilgrimage through lightning. Through a thousand variables in an algorithm too large for me to comprehend.
And then I opened my eyes.
In the Ferren, Fogwillow was already standing, her staff held before her. Unhurried, I brought myself to my feet and readied my own staff, my mind still synced with the Crystic. I was keenly aware of Candle, sitting off to the side. She’d looked up from whatever project she was working on and was eyeing the pair of us curiously.
I was keenly aware of everything, really. The edges of the Ferren were lined and sharpened with shadows of the Crystic, pink shimmers of power overlaying tree and rock and sky as I stood balanced within two worlds. It was as difficult as balancing on one foot in Fellish’s poses.
It was dark, though it got dark early these days. The weather was mild, warm enough for a t-shirt so long as I didn’t mind goosebumps every time the breeze picked up. At least there wasn’t any snow. The trees in this scraggly little forest were bare-branched, their bark a deep, dark almost-black. Fogwillow had led us to another of her waystations, about a week out from Smoke Town. This one was nothing more than a few shelves of supplies carved and hidden in the side of a wide, dried out gully where it bent into a shallow basin. It offered good cover from wind and rain and prying eyes. Up top, the edges were lined with those trees, a solemn audience to our activities. Even the moon could be seen trying to get a view through their branches.
Fogwillow and I made eye contact. To the side, Candle whistled. “Go, Nova!”
I smiled at the support, but it was maybe too late. The fight was already won or lost during the time spent charting a course through the push and pull of the Crystic, the time spent shaping the magic within us. What came next was almost a formality.
I thrust my staff out. Power surged through me, jolting my bones in their sockets, warming them from the inside. I unleashed the torrent toward Fogwillow, a strong, steady stream of it, and she crossed her staff before her, hair and robes billowing as she blocked. I ground my teeth, pushing harder. Then, much to my surprise, Fogwillow’s heels inched backward from the force of the attack. It was disorienting. I felt the crack in her defenses like a hook in my gut, the feeling of flailing into empty space when you expect resistance.
That was the end of me. Fogwillow took advantage of my surprise and twitched her own staff upward. From overhead came a sharp, sickening crack, and when I looked I saw one of the trees lurch sideways, its trunk severed. It toppled over the edge of the gully and arced directly toward my head.
Panicking, I diverted my magic, raising my hands and pushing up with all my power. The tree soared into the sky, but no sooner had it reversed its course than another wave of power slammed into my gut, and I was thrown backward, landing in a heap, head over heels, next to Candle and her workstation. As I righted myself, the tree came crashing back down, falling in a snap of twigs between me and Fogwillow, whose staff was already back by her side.
“Well,” Candle said, just barely off her cheer. “I suppose I can’t call that disappointing when it’s no less than what I expected.” She went back to her work, twiddling a screwdriver between her fingers.
“That was very good, Nova,” Fogwillow said, coming around the fallen tree.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, sitting up, bruised in more places than one. “I still lost.”
“You managed to put up more of a fight. You’re improving. If you weren’t up against me, you might actually have a chance.”
“How did you get to be so good?”
Fogwillow smiled and put a finger to her nose. Then she extended her hand and helped me up.
“I guess it doesn’t matter, does it?” I said, wiping my jeans off. “The Ryvkk will be better.”
“Still. I probably could have beaten you…if I’d had all my resources available.”
Fogwillow’s face tightened, and I felt Candle’s interest perk up. I was about to laugh the comment off, when Fogwillow broke into a genuine, if slightly strained, smile. “You don’t want that path, Nova. Brute power. Storm and thunder. You can be a better wizard than that. You are a better wizard than that.”
“I could learn to control it.”
“You weren’t meant to control it. The Advance Academy wanted a hammer, so they built a hammer.” All at once, she looked incredibly weary, shoulders slumped, face slack, a rare moment when her age caught up with her. I knew when a conversation was over. “That’s enough for tonight. I’ll build a fire. Nova, Candle. Fetch a couple jars from the stores.”
Fogwillow’s supplies were hidden in a narrow cleft in the side of the basin, just wide enough for one person to slip down if they sidestepped the whole way. Candle wedged herself in and took a few jars of preserved food from the shelves. She passed them to me through the opening, and soon my arms were laden with clinking containers of beans, nuts, and cured meat.
“Hey, what’s this?” Candle said. I fumbled for the jars as she paused in the crevice and reached for a high shelf.
Fogwillow had a tiny flame going a few yards away, and she looked up as Candle stepped into the open, holding a ragged doll in one hand. It had buttons for eyes, and yarn for hair, tied in two pigtails. The stitching was starting to come undone, loose threads unraveling in a messy aura around it. It wore a checkered blue dress, faded with dirt and age.
I had never seen a face get so angry so fast. “Don’t touch that,” Fogwillow hissed. Candle dropped the doll in surprise, and Fogwillow marched forward and swept the item up, vanishing it somewhere in her cloak. “That isn’t yours.”
When Fogwillow’s back was turned, Candle and I gave each other bewildered looks. We split the jars between us and carried them, cautiously, over to the campsite.
Dinner was silent that evening, save for the roaring fire. Fogwillow had kept piling wood and kindling on it, working with a single-minded intensity as she coaxed the flames higher, driving away the night and the cold. Now we sat and watched it snap loudly, as if making up for the lack of conversation, as if Fogwillow had worked some of her fervor into the flames and now they gave it back in hisses and sparks. Candle kept shooting me glances in the orangey glow, but I didn’t know what she wanted from me. It’s not like I could decipher Fogwillow’s moods better than anyone else. Sure, she’d allowed me closer in the past few weeks, but not that close.
So with the night at our backs and the heat of the campfire and our own embarrassment at our faces, we dutifully ate our flavorless beans and too-salty mystery meat. Fireflies faded in and out within the darkness of the gully. Overhead, the trees filtered moonlight through the smoke.
“It belonged to my sister,” Fogwillow said at last. She was staring into the fire, though her focus was on something else, something altogether farther away. I froze mid-bite, unwilling to bat so much as an eyelash in case it sent Fogwillow scurrying back down her hole.
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” Candle said carefully.
“Well, she’s dead now, so I wouldn’t expect you to.” Candle and I shared a look, which Fogwillow noticed. Leaning back, she sighed, at last allowing some of the tension that had been eating at her all throughout dinner to dissipate. “It’s okay, you don’t need to treat me like I’m a cornered deer. I’m just…not accustomed to speaking about my family.”
“You never do,” I said.
“And for good reason. What do you know about the Rarecrests?”
“Candle and…” I swallowed. “Candle and I once tried to find out about them on the Crystic, but there isn’t much.”
“They’re really wealthy,” Candle said. “But that’s about the only information available.”
Fogwillow looked amused. “No, there wouldn’t be much to find, even before I started scrubbing the Crystic.”
“A minor hobby of mine—and a bad habit, I admit.”
Candle looked distressed. “Fogwillow, there are hundreds of intrusion measures coded into the Crystic to prevent that kind of thing. To prevent meddling from wizards like you.”
“There are no wizards like me, Emma Lyn.” She looked directly at Candle when she said it, and I felt a moment of pity for my friend. It was not easy to fall under Fogwillow’s stare. “All this technology—these thaumascopes and forums and databases—these are guests on our lines of connection. The Crystic belonged to the wizards first.”
“No, there are no wizards like me, though there should have been. There once were.”
“You think technology made your kind weak,” Candle said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I jumped in, hastily veering us away from dangerous territory. “Is that why I can never find any information about you? You’ve been…deleting it?”
Fogwillow shrugged, looking back into the fire. “Like I said, a bad habit.”
Candle simmered beside me, but let the matter drop. And I thought that might be the end of it, the end of our peek into Fogwillow’s life for the night, but eventually she found her way back.
“There is something you must understand about my family, before all else. It is the most important thing, the end all and be all: The Rarecrests are for the Rarecrests, and that is it. There’s a word for it.”
“Loyalty,” I said.
Fogwillow laughed. “I suppose, but insular. Twisted. No, the word I was looking for was incestuous. When the Rarecrests face a crisis, they go inward. They stick their fingers in each other’s business and let no one else in. Sometimes not even each other. Did you know that I didn’t learn my grandma had died until a year after she was already buried? I was eight. My parents took me to the cemetery one day and there was her gravestone.” She took a deep, shaky breath and let it out slowly, crossing her arms around herself as if she could push the words out. “Everything was secrets. Sneaky little secrets. I never heard them say they loved me. Not once. No Rarecrest ever told anyone a single genuine thing, no matter how small.”
“Why?” I said.
“I don’t know.” And here I heard the most emotion I’d ever heard in Fogwillow’s voice. It wasn’t much, just a hint of a rasp, but it was there. “I don’t know. I suppose they felt threatened. It never made any sense to me.”
She sniffed, then reached into her cloak and pulled out the doll. With one dirty thumb, she brushed the yarn hair out of its face, gently.
“Her name was Elora. She was four years younger then me. When we were kids, she was the one who conformed to the Rarecrest way. I was a bit wild, you know. I’m sure you’ve heard the nickname.” A slight smile passed her lips, there and then gone. “But Elora toed the line and kept the secrets, and always looked so innocent and quiet. She had these big round dinner plate eyes—beautiful eyes. Everyone said so. We never got along all that well.”
Fogwillow wrapped one fist around the doll and grew quiet, staring into its button eyes. Candle and I sat on the edge of our seats, dinners forgotten.
“What happened?” I said quietly.
Fogwillow blinked, looking at us as if emerging from deep water. As if she couldn’t remember what she was talking about. A wave of confusion passed over her, then realization, and she shook her head. “Many things. Too many to tell.” She held the doll up. “I made this for her, you know. In school, during arts and crafts.” I was momentarily jarred by the mental image of a young Fogwillow sitting at a table with pipe cleaners and glue. “Gave it to her on her birthday. She loved it. Carried it around everywhere well past the age when she was too old for such things. It had a name…I think…can’t remember it now…”
She frowned, staring into the doll’s face as if she could coax it to speak, to tell her the secrets Fogwillow had long since forgotten. As we waited in silence, I watched a slow transformation come over her. A cold disappointment rose up in her eyes, her brow furrowed, and her mouth grew tight and pinched. The shadows in her face sharpened. The searching expression, the thoughtfulness, vanished and was replaced by something deeper and darker and older. Her fist tightened.
All at once, Fogwillow sat straight up, drew her hand back, and flung the little doll into the fire. She stared as the flames bit into the fabric and the loose threads brightened like filaments. Then she yelped, reached to the side, and batted the doll out of the flames with the butt of her staff. It flung ash as it rolled across the rocks, and Fogwillow got to her knees, beating the flames out until it was left singed and smoking, but safe. She slumped to the ground beside it, breathing heavily.
Candle and I had no words.
“You know what the worst of it is?” Fogwillow said. “It’s that as much as I’ve tried to change, as much as I’ve tried to escape it and be Fogwillow, I’m still a Rarecrest through and through. I still keep secrets. I still wipe the Crystic of any shred of information that would embarrass the family. I still share nothing genuine with a single other soul. Rods, I’ve buried myself so deep, but the truth is I’ve never felt like Fogwillow at all.”
She laughed, a high and tinkling sound, and then descended, unceremoniously, into a sober silence. Nobody moved, and for the space of a few round minutes the world seemed slow and big and quiet. Carefully, I eased out of my seat and came around the fire, lowering myself down next to Fogwillow. We stared at the stars together.
“I’m sorry, Fogwillow.”
She stood abruptly, wiped her cloak off, and stalked away into the night. I put the doll back in its place on the hidden shelves of Fogwillow’s waystation.
She didn’t return by morning, and we didn’t see her for several days afterward either. But we knew where were going, and Fogwillow had trained us well, so we stuck to our northward path. She rejoined us, eventually, returning without a word one midmorning, like a wandering cloud. I hadn’t been worried. I knew she would come back.
Fogwillow was always there.