21. The Whisper

The Wanted Woods was very gray. We approached it around mid-morning, tired from lack of sleep and still coming down off the adrenaline rush of our close escape. In the distance, the trees were all large and humped, with weeping branches that appeared to be covered in some kind of growth, despite the season. They weren’t leaves, though. As we drew closer, I realized that every branch was covered in drooping plumes of soft, gray fuzz. Maybe it was because of my exhaustion, but the woods, where it spread along the pockmarked landscape, looked like nothing so much as an enormous pillow.

Fogwillow picked up the pace as it came into view. “This place provided good cover for those fugitives who managed to escape Smoke Town.”

“Oh, perfect for us, then,” Candle said.

We came to the treeline half an hour later, following a narrow road that got swallowed by the woods just ahead. The trees were even taller than I’d realized from afar, reaching as high overhead as some of the buildings back in Blush. I arched my neck, scanning the tops, where a couple white birds flew circles around each other.

“And the Whisper is inside?” I said, slowing to a stop. It had been months since we made this plan. Months in the wild. Months for the reality of what I was doing to sort of slip away. It came back in full force, now.

“By all accounts.”

A thought occurred to me then, a horrible thought that I didn’t know why I hadn’t asked about before now. “What if they turn us in?”

“Why would they do that?” Fogwillow said.

“I mean how do we know they’re on our side? Why wouldn’t the thaumaticians just hand us right over to the Shift Patrol?”

“Because the thaumaticians serve the Crystic, not the Ferren. The only authority they recognize is Eoea’s.”

“And if Eoea wants me back in the shifties’ hands?”

“Then you better throw yourselves into them.” Fogwillow waved her hand. “Don’t dawdle.”

We crossed into the woods.

It smelled musty inside. The trunks were wide around and worn to a pale nothing color. Their branches domed overhead, cascading in wide circles like soft, downy cathedrals. The air was thick with floating fuzz, which I got up my nose more than a few times as we crossed beneath the boughs, through dome after dome of wide gray space. The strange growth on the trees seemed to absorb all sound, so the woods were oddly muted. Our footsteps sounded lazily in the thickness.

We traveled like this for another hour or so. Once, Fogwillow tried to stop for lunch, but none of us were really hungry, so we kept on.

“Are we nearly there?” I asked.

“Half an hour, maybe.”

I fell in step with Fogwillow and pulled my staff out of the Crystic. Its bone-white wood was smooth in my hand and I thumped it in time with Fogwillow’s. The pink leaves that had started to grow at its tip rustled as it swung back and forth. Fogwillow gave me a sly look out of the corner of her eye, then nodded. Candle followed behind.

I heard the monastery before I saw it. At first, I thought it was the wind shifting through the weeping trees, but the farther we walked, the more distinct it became. A quiet, sifting sound, built up of layer upon layer of discrete hushes and soughs. Whispering. It made the hairs on my neck stand up.

“What is that?” I said quietly.

“You hear it too?” Candle said. She looked relieved to realize she wasn’t the only one.

“It’s the thaumaticians,” Fogwillow said.

The whispering floated around us, rising and falling in slow, unpredictable rhythms, as soft and overwhelming as the drifts of fuzz. My hand tightened around my staff. “What are they doing?”

“Reading the Crystic.”

She led us off the road, which had become little more than a narrow strip of broken cobblestones, and over the hard, stale ground. I was surprised to see an elegon peering down at us from a notch in the branches, a brilliant spot of orange in the midst of all the gray. As we pressed deeper into the woods, more elegons began to appear, pink and purple and red and blue. They clustered within the roots of the trees and drifted, solitary, along the bending branches, watching us with curious expressions. There were even more here than there had been down in the Pillars, the deep of the Wanted Woods thick with spots of brightly colored static. A few even followed at our heels as we walked, and I found myself treading with high, careful steps. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I accidently stepped on one. Surely Eoea would smite me for that.

Fogwillow was smiling. She kept scanned the trees, greeting the elegons with a flash of her eyes, her pace steady and unhurried.

“Up ahead,” she said. “There’s a glade with a terminal in it. The Whisper should be there.”

And she was right. The trees parted, the gray hangings pulling back like a veil, and I was met with the sight of something so entirely different from anything I had ever seen before that I don’t know I have the vocabulary to translate the image into words.

The Whisper was a monastery made of glass and light, in a hundred different shades of pink and fuchsia, magenta and cherry. The color of the Crystic, its magic and its static, made real and here. A construct of the blossoming fractals, the panes of magic, the rippling spread of pattern after pattern, condensed and shining and formed into sheer walls and archways and quiet rooftops. A cutout of the Ferren, a basilica-shaped hole punch, through which the glass plumes of Crystic lattice wove itself, needle-sharp and tight-stitched, through the world-matter of the forest. An edifice made of magic. It was both painful to look at and utterly beautiful. A sharpness against my eyes. An ache in my stomach. We were all struck speechless.

The quiet voices were, of course, coming from within the monastery, which was itself surrounded by elegons. A little ways to the right, a shallow brook trickled out of the woods, pooled at the Whisper’s base, and ran off again.

“I thought,” I said, or tried to say, but my voice didn’t work at first. “I thought it was called the Whisper because it moved from place to place.”

“That’s right,” Fogwillow said, and even she sounded awed. “But also because of the sound of the thaumaticians as they speak the Crystic.”

“Do we have to go in there?” Candle said. No one responded.

Fogwillow was the first to snap out of her daze. “Come on, then.” She led the way into the glade, through the elegons, and up to the shining front door of the thaumaticians’ monastery.

Which opened immediately. It didn’t swing inward or anything, it simply fizzled out, like dying sparks above a campfire, leaving visible a wide entryway, and a small child standing on the other side.

“Master Answer,” the little girl said. It wasn’t said in welcome or curiosity or even disappointment. Her voice instead held a hint of…resignation? She had dark skin and coarse black hair that had been twisted into two thick clumps. She wore a pale blue robe tucked slapdash around her somewhat scrappy frame.

It was a moment when some prior version of me would have lost his nerve, and I stood there, waiting for it to happen, to crumble into a tangle of anxiety…but it didn’t happen. Instead, I felt a surprising surge of something I would only name later as determination, standing on the threshold of magic in my travel-worn clothes, with my staff held out to my side, my hair long and puffy and face in need of a shave.

“I’m here to—”

“Yes, we know,” the girl said, cutting my burst of confidence short. She sighed. “All right, then. So this is happening. Follow me.” With a hint of reluctance, she turned and led the way in. I looked at Candle, who shrugged, and Fogwillow, who smirked, and the three of us did as instructed.

The hallways of the Whisper were wide, bright, and airy. The floor was polished, glassy, and the walls were unadorned, their pink glow surprisingly gentle when viewed up close. The whispering itself was everywhere now. It came from all directions, hushed and oddly prayerful.

“Where—”

“I am taking you to your quarters,” our guide said, forestalling my question. “You’ll be quite comfortable there until the Argentane can see you. The Argentane,” she continued, forestalling my next question, “is the head thaumatician. We do not believe in hierarchy here, but we have found, on occasion, that it is helpful to have someone who can make the final call, settle disagreements, that kind of thing. We vote to replace the position every couple years in a process called the domascese, though the current Argentane, Cozelta, has won the past five domascai handily. She is very well liked in the Whisper. You’ll like her too.”

Well. That was more information than I really needed.

“What’s your—” Candle began.

“My name is Thetazin. And yes, Master Answer, I am a thaumatician. Even at my age!”

I closed my mouth.

We passed several other thaumaticians as we went. They didn’t pay much attention to us, treading slowly down the hallways in twos and threes, eyes straight ahead in hundred yard stares. They spoke quietly under their breath, and though they all wore the same blue robes, tucked in careful folds and tied around the back of the waist, there seemed to be no other common features about them. They were young and old, male and female, dark-skinned and light, some with piercings, some with scars, some with shaved heads and some with long, curly hair. If there was any sort of method or reason to who could join the thaumaticians, I couldn’t tell by looking at them.

Except…

There was one thing. I was trying not to stare too much, not to make a gaping fool of myself, but after a while it was hard to ignore the fact that every thaumatician had milky white eyes. They were all blind.

Our guide, too, now that I looked at her more closely. Beneath thick eyebrows, the little girl’s irises and pupils both were clouded over in a pearly haze. Nevertheless, she led us without hesitation through the halls, up two flights of stairs, and to a large parlor, where she smiled at us and bowed her way out. The door fuzzed shut in her wake.

I turned to Fogwillow. “They’re blind.”

“That’s what happens when you stare into the Crystic for too long.”

“But how do they see?”

“Um, do you need a refresher on what the word blind means?” Candle said.

“That’s not what I meant. You saw how she was leading us.”

“Think about it,” Fogwillow said. “When you enter the Crystic, are you seeing it with your eyes?”

“No…usually my eyes are closed.” Fogwillow nodded. I frowned at the closed door, where our guide had disappeared. “So they can see the Crystic?”

“They can see magic. And this building is made of magic. Its very walls exist, in fact, on another plane altogether, poking through into the Ferren.”

“We’re in the Crystic,” Candle said. She looked at her surroundings with renewed interest. The parlor walls shimmered slightly, blooming with pink, and they opened up at the corner onto a wide balcony, beyond which was a view of the Wanted Woods. It was like looking past the boundary between two worlds. The edges didn’t quite meet.

“Sort of,” Fogwillow said. “The Crystic is immense, deeper than the ground. This is more like…a rabbit hole. Shall we make ourselves comfortable?”

She motioned to a low table—made of ordinary, though still beautiful, wood—and we shed our belongings and sat on the floor before it, with a view of both the door on one side and the outside world on the other. I kept flicking my eyes out past the balcony, or inspecting the dark tabletop, eager for the relief of looking at something ordinary. The simple sight of the room was exhausting.

There was a basket of rolls on the table, spongy and golden, along with a pitcher of something weird colored that I guessed was some kind of iced tea. Fogwillow pulled the basket over and passed a roll to each of us, taking one for herself and secreting another away into her robes.

“And did you hear her answers to my questions?” I said. “I don’t even remember half of what she said.”

“You’ll need to get used to that,” Fogwillow said through a mouthful of bread. “That’s what the thaumaticians are. Bottomless pits of information. That’s why we’re here, remember?”

“Masters of information,” I said, staring at my own untouched roll. In my mind arose the image of a man in a white, threadbare coat. A clipboard tucked under his arm. A room full of numbers. “Sort of like the alumscripts.”

Fogwillow paused and eyed me warily. “The alumscripts are an offshoot of the thaumaticians, yes. They are the non-magical branch.” When I didn’t reply to this, Fogwillow wiped one corner of her mouth with a thumb and set her hands in her lap. “What’s the matter?”

“Did you notice how she seemed to know what I was going to say, before I was going to say it?”

The uncomfortable silence that followed was interrupted as the door opened.

“Master Answer. Blessed Resolution, it’s good to have you here.” The woman who entered was very tall and very large. Her robes were thick and enormous, folded over layer after layer, brushing the ground in heavy sweeps. She had pale white skin and enough hair to match her robes in thickness and sheer volume. It rose from her head in a curly brown mass and fell, long and wild, across her broad shoulders. Her eyes were milky, of course, and when she moved she seemed to pull the world with her, a tug of some kind of extra-worldly gravity in her steps and gestures. “I am Cozelta, the Argentane.”

I stood, almost by compulsion. Fogwillow and Candle did, too.

“Nova,” I said. “Nova Scratshot.”

“Mm. A cheeky name. Not your real one, of course.” She barely gave me time to react to this before moving on. “And who are your companions?”

“I am Fogwillow.” Fogwillow stepped forward and nodded her head brusquely. “Though that is not my real name, either.”

“Not your original name, no, but I think it has become real enough. And the third?”

“Emma Lyn Candle.”

“Solid. Straightforward. Though I think deceptively so.” As Candle’s shoulders rose toward her ears, I stepped up to join Fogwillow.

“You know all this already, don’t you?”

“I don’t know any more or less than any other person in the Ferren. I merely have very educated guesses.”

“The girl who led us in answered my questions before I asked them.”

“Did she? I told her not to do that.” Cozelta the Argentane shrugged, and the movement was so broad it caused thick strands of hair to fall away from her shoulders. “Thetazin is very good at riddling the possibilities out of a scenario, but even with a mind like hers, nothing is certain.”

“She was waiting at the door for me.”

“Yes, she did put her money on your arrival this morning, though some among us thought you would choose…other paths.” A moment of hesitancy. Then she relaxed. “The truth is, Master Answer, that until the moment you stepped through that door, every resolution was at play. Some more likely than others, to be sure, but even so…you know more than most, I think, about constants and variables.”

“Forgive me, Argentane, but no one seems particularly excited to see me here.”

She ignored the comment, and held out her hands. “I know you don’t like being touched, but will you allow me?” It was my turn to hesitate, a tremor of unease somewhere behind my bellybutton. “Nova. Please?”

Carefully, I approached her, leaning back on impulse as she reached toward me and laid one hand on either side of my face. Her touch was warm and soft. It sent jolts of panic through my chest that I had to fight down.

“I’m sorry,” Cozelta said. “But I can see you only as a shadow against the Crystic. This helps.” Her fingers moved gently across my face, and I closed my eyes, forcing a deep breath. She padded over my eyelids, up my brow. And then it was over. A waft of coolness spread across my face as she withdrew. I opened my eyes. “You are much younger than you could have been,” she said. “Though that, I think, is not your fault.”

I didn’t need to be told whose it was.

We all sat back down at the table, Cozelta taking a kneeling position opposite us. “You’ve begun to make peace with your staff,” she said, nodding to where I’d set it against my backpack.

“Oh. I guess.”

Candle leaned forward. “Do you think it’s okay how Nova got it? Do you think he cheated?”

Fogwillow and I both went rigid as boards, but Cozelta laughed. “The methods were unconventional, no doubt, and perhaps should have been performed with more discretion, but no, I do not think he cheated.” Candle threw me a smug look, but Cozelta held up a hand. “However, the question overlooks the function of a wizard’s staff. Not to own, but to wield. Not to obtain, merely, but to master. Traditionally, wizards demonstrated this mastery through the act of obtaining, but the two are not actually linked.”

Candle’s expression got a bit more confused. As did mine.

“These are not,” Fogwillow said stiffly, “the questions we came to ask, though. Right, Nova?”

I gave a start and dug into my backpack, pulling out a crumpled sheet of paper. It took me a moment to find the folds, and the room was filled with a crinkling sound as I pulled it apart one way, then the other, and then another. Cozelta sat with a patient, amused expression as I ran the sheet across the edge of the table to smooth it out. Laying it flat, I spread my palms over it. I cleared my throat.

“Okay. Um… ” I scanned my list of questions. They all seemed so big, and kind of scary. Nothing I really actually wanted the answer to immediately. So I went off script. “I’ve heard the Whisper moves.”

Cozelta smiled. “Indeed.”

“Why? How?”

“We find it best not to linger in one place for too long. The Crystic looks different from different parts of the Ferren. As for the how, well…there will be a time to answer that later.”

“You can’t just tell me now?”

“You will know everything you need to know, when you need to know it.”

“That seems like a lazy reply.”

“On the contrary. You are not a hero, Nova Scratshot. You are an answer. You know this. Solving for the correct variables at the correct times is rigorous work, for both you and me.”

“And for Dean Enislen,” I said. “And the Assemblage, and Commander Rhyme, and the whole staving Ferren. Everything is a manipulation.”

“Yes and no.” When she could sense I wasn’t satisfied, Cozelta sighed. “Blessed Resolution. If you insisted on knowing how the Whisper moves across the Ferren at this very moment, if you were stubborn about it, absolutely steadfast in your desire to know, I would tell you. But now, knowing there will be a time and a place, a perfect moment when the information will be most effective, when it will imprint itself upon your soul, would you insist on such a thing? Do you still insist upon it now?”

I hesitated, then gave in. “No.”

“And if you tried to go after the Ryvkk right now, do you think you would succeed? Do you think you are everything you can be?”

Again, I gave in, though it didn’t make me feel good. “No.”

“Sometimes an answer needs time to grow. Sometimes it needs to arrive at the proper moment.”

“The problem is,” I said, looking down at my list of questions. “I don’t know when that moment is. Or if it will ever come.”

Cozelta looked at me—or, at least, at the shadow of me in her mind—with a strangely pleased expression. “Fogwillow, Emma Lyn Candle, will you remain here?” Without waiting for a reply, she heaved herself up. “Nova, come with me. I want to show you something.”

I scrambled for my staff, rising, pulled along in her wake. “What is it?”

“A beautiful algorithm.”

Cozelta led me from the parlor, and I threw a desperate look to Fogwillow and Candle as I went. It didn’t feel right to split up, after all this time traveling here. But they were both giving me encouraging expressions, so I went.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

The room the Argentane led me to, halfway across the monastery in what seemed to be the heart of the Whisper, was enormous and oval-shaped, lined with row after row of books. I gawked when I entered, moving between pillars that were little more than rods of light. There were so many books that the magenta walls were hardly visible, except as a nebulous glow between the shelves. It seemed otherworldly. A bizarre blend of the magical and the richly old-fashioned, before I remembered that the Crystic was older than all of these books combined. Tables ran off in a row down the center of the library, piled high with open tomes, whose pages seemed to fold out into larger and larger banners, all filled with tiny, indecipherable writing.

“This is the Rhithmry,” Cozelta said. “The inner sanctum.” There were half a dozen thaumaticians or so spread throughout the space, whispering to themselves, but Cozelta didn’t bother to keep her voice down. And no one seemed to particularly notice our presence. She led me to one of the tables in the middle of the room and I spread my hands over one of the open books, scanning the dense, loopy writing.

“I’ve seen something like this before,” I said. Several things like it before, in fact. I was thinking, for one, of the pages of notes and numbers in Marewill’s study beneath the observatory, pages meant to capture the equation of my life. But also of the scroll Plum had showed me, in his office in the warehouse beneath the takky shop. A scroll on which, he said, was written out a single section of the prophecy.

I took a step back, gasping, as if the book had burned my fingers. Looking around the library—the Rhithmry—with new eyes, I realized exactly what it was I was standing in the middle of.

“This is the prophecy,” I said.

“Not just the prophecy. The whole of the Crystic—or as much of it as we’ve been able to decipher so far. We look into the magic, we whisper it, and then we have our scribes write it down.”

And that’s when I realized that not all of the thaumaticians I was seeing were blind, and not all of them were whispering. The ones who whispered moved with airy detachment, almost floating through the room, unbothered by their surroundings. But, looking closer, each group of two or three was also accompanied by a thaumatician who wasn’t whispering, who’s feet were as solid on the ground as mine were. These thaumaticians carried small wire-bound notebooks, nothing fancy, and as their fellow monks whispered, they listened, and they took notes.

I looked back at the book before me, old, dusty, heavy, and beautifully illuminated. It was gibberish to me. A string of numbers and glyphs, broken occasionally by paragraphs of nonsense text.

Unbidden, I smiled.

“What?” Cozelta said, seeming to sense my amusement. I looked up at her, wishing Candle were here.

“It’s code.”

Cozelta didn’t respond at once, and I was afraid I’d offended her.

“That’s what it is, isn’t it? That’s what the Crystic is, and magic. Algorithms that operate beneath everything, that run the Ferren. That make it go.”

“That is one way of phrasing it,” Cozelta said.

“Does it matter how it’s phrased?”

Again, she didn’t respond right away. But then her expression softened, and she felt for the table, running a hand over the surface of the books. “Here is what I prefer: Viewed in whole, the Crystic is a strange and elegant pattern. More than that, this pattern tells the story of the Ferren, of life itself, in proofs and puzzles, calculations and clauses. Unfortunately, the Crystic is too large for any one person to view it in whole.”

“So you write it down in pieces.”

Cozelta nodded. “And hope the pieces will tell us something.”

“Do they? Do they tell you something?”

“You should know that better than anyone, Master Answer.”

I frowned, running a finger along the corner of the book, where the pages were bent and folded. I had nearly forgotten Plum’s words to me, spoken in the darkness of his office, light glinting dangerously off his glasses. They came back to me now.

Is there anything special about you at all?

“I…I wonder…sometimes…why the Crystic chose me. Me, specifically.”

“The Crystic didn’t choose you,” came a harsh voice. Cozelta grimaced, and I turned, startled to see an ancient, stoop-backed thaumatician approaching the table.

“Nova, this is Felzir,” Cozelta said. The wizened man was bald, head gleaming like an egg, face knotted into severe lines that were so deep and persistent they appeared to have calcified. He was not blind, eyes a deep brown. He carried a notebook. “He is foremost of our scribes.”

Felzir waved a hand back and forth as if the compliment were a gnat he could shoo away. “You weren’t chosen,” he repeated. “You are a variable, the solution to one algorithm among millions. You are a leaf that, left on its own, would have fallen in the autumn and been swept up by the stream. Instead, we climbed the tree in spring, tore you from the branch, and threw you into the stream ourselves. If anything, we chose you.” My head was beginning to spin. Felzir dismissed me. “Madam Argentane, may I—”

Cozelta cut him off, bluntly and loudly. “Felzir was among those who transcribed the prophecy.”

“A mistake,” Felzir said, seething. “A grievous mistake.”

“So…” I tried to make sense of everything. Tried to sort it out into a pattern, but it wouldn’t be sorted. “So it’s not all just a formula?”

“Of course it’s a formula!” Felzir said. “That doesn’t mean it’s certain. Madam Argentane—”

“The Crystic is dynamic and lively,” Cozelta said, cutting him off again, “with dead ends, loops, and twists. Its variables are ever shifting.”

“But they speak of me. They tell you what I’m going to do.”

“Blessed Resolutions, Nova! It’s not as simple as that. Why do you think it takes a hundred thaumaticians to read the Crystic? Why do you think we go blind in the attempt? Yes, the Advance Academy was trying to force you down one path, applying the variables needed to get the equations to shake out a certain way. But they can shake out another way.”

“Madame. Argentane.”

Yes. What is it, Felzir?”

Felzir seemed to wither as Cozelta finally acknowledged him. “Er…may I speak with you for a moment?” Looking put out, Cozelta withdrew a few paces with the old thaumatician.

As they spoke, I stood there and tried to comprehend all of this, staring at the lines of code written before me, surrounding me. When they returned, I had come no closer to understanding my role in all of this than before, and by the looks on the pair of thaumaticians’ faces, I probably wasn’t going to get much closer today. Cozelta was clearly annoyed, and Felzir crept behind her, looking smug. This trip was not panning out as I had expected.

“Master Answer,” the Argentane said in a tight voice. “I apologize. There has been a…change in circumstances. And there is some disagreement among us about how to proceed. How much aid to lend you.”

“How much—?” My anger rose. “But I traveled all this way!”

“I know, and I am honored, and I wish to tell you as much as I can. However…” She hesitated, and gave a curt, conciliatory nod to Felzir. “The thaumaticians have traditionally kept aloof in matters of the Ferren.”

“Aloof. Like when you spread the prophecy from Trill to Kelefen?”

“That,” Felzir said, “is precisely why we must nip this in the bud. Look what happened there.”

“I just want to know more of what it says. I need to know what to do!”

“We will speak again in the morning,” Cozelta said.

“But—”

“In the morning, Master Answer.” Her tone was enough to silence a storm. My shoulders slumped, and she turned toward the front of the Rhithmry. “Thetazin, are you still creeping around?”

Coyly, the young girl appeared from behind a bookcase.

“Yes, Madam Argentane.”

“Take Nova—”

“Back to the parlor, yes, of course.”

“And while you’re at it, stop doing that.”

Thetazin performed a quick curtsy and motioned me along, leaving Cozelta and Felzir behind in tense conversation. As the two of us made our way back through the halls of the Whisper, Thetazin seemed to pick up on my mood. Or I guess maybe she knew it already, picked out the most likely variable given the constants she’d already studied.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Everything will work out.”

I tried to give her a smile. “Thanks. That’s comforting.”

“I mean, it’s unclear whether it will end in ruin or restoration, but either way the Ferren will work itself out to either end.”

“So what you’re saying is…things happen?”

“All the time.”

When we arrived at the parlor, she did another hasty curtsy and scampered off.

Candle and Fogwillow were standing on the balcony when I came into the room, staring out at the woods. “I’m back,” I said. Neither of them seemed to hear me. Though I could only see their backs, something seemed wrong. They were both stiff, gripping the railing too tightly. A warning bell went off, faintly, in my head. I thought of Cozelta’s abrupt dismissal, and only now registered what she had said.

A change in circumstances.

I was almost afraid to ask. “What’s wrong?”

Candle turned halfway around. Without a word, she raised one hand and pointed. I crossed the room and stepped onto the balcony.

The Shift Patrol was coming out of the woods. Through the gray, cottony trees, between the wide, pale trunks, men and women emerged in careful rows, dressed in black-buckled uniforms, marching alongside leopards and bears, cranes and foxes. They were carrying supplies. Setting up tents. Starting fires. They were everywhere. Enough to mount a siege.

“They found us,” Fogwillow said.