The woods surrounding the Whisper glowed bright that night. The yellow of floodlights and flashlights mingling with the pink of the monastery walls, all of it tangled up in moonlight from the deep purple sky. The Shift Patrol camp was quiet, most of the shifties asleep in their tents, those on guard marching in calm, assured routes through the glade. They’d made no sudden movements, no indications of any sort of attack. The most aggressive thing we’d seen from them so far was shortly after they arrived, when a burly man approached the monastery entrance and delivered a slip of paper to the thaumatician who greeted him. If the message was for me, though, I never saw it. No one visited our room all afternoon, and try as I might, I couldn’t get the door to unfuzz the way the thaumaticians had.
“Are we prisoners?” I said at one point. “Did they turn us in?”
“I don’t think so,” Fogwillow said without opening her eyes. She’d spent a large part of the day meditating in the corner.
“They don’t seem to be in any hurry,” Candle said from the balcony.
“Why should they be?” I said. “There’s nowhere we can go.”
Around dinnertime, a thaumatician entered with a rolling cart and a pot of some kind of black, lentil soup, but didn’t have any useful information for us, and no sign of that slip of paper.
“They will not enter the monastery,” was all he said. “You’re safe here.”
So we stayed in the parlor, watching by turns from the balcony as the evening wore on. Eventually, another thaumatician arrived, looking harried and apologetic.
“I am deeply sorry for our lack of communication. The Argentane will see you in the morning and explain all. Until then, you may sleep here tonight.” She made a circuit around the room and opened a few doors I hadn’t realized were there. The parlor, it seemed, was the common area for a suite of four tiny bedrooms, scarcely larger than the beds they held. She left without further explanation.
I tried the door again, even connecting to the Crystic to feel out the mechanism of it, but it wouldn’t open.
“Well,” I said. “What do we do?”
Fogwillow looked grim. “Try to get some sleep.”
But I tossed and turned in my bed for hours. The mattress was stiff and as unyielding as a sack of flour. I tried lying on my back and counting breaths, and made it into the hundreds before giving up. I tried wrapping a pillow around my head to block out the faint glow of the walls. I had barely slept at all last night, and it seemed tonight wouldn’t be much better. Eventually, after thrashing around for a bit, I gave up, curled onto my side, and contented myself with listening to the quiet, sleeping breaths coming from Fogwillow’s and Candle’s rooms. How did they do it? How did they sleep so well with the Shift Patrol on the doorstep?
“Are you awake?”
The voice—quiet, but sudden—nearly made me jump out of my skin. I sat up to find that little girl standing beside my bed. Her dark hair was still tied in two round clumps.
“Thetazin,” I whispered. “What—”
“Can we skip this whole part?” she said.
“What whole part?”
“The part where you’re confused, and then mistrustful, and then gradually curious about what I want to show you? It’s just it’s very predictable, which means it’s very boring, and there are far more interesting things to linger on tonight. Come with me. But, no, we shouldn’t wake the others. Just you and me.”
My mind went into overdrive trying to keep up with Thetazin, who’s every sentence seemed to leap ahead into different parts of some unspoken conversation, skipping past moments I hadn’t even arrived at yet.
“Um—” I said, confused.
Thetazin sighed. “What did I just say?”
Maybe sleep deprivation made it easier, but I nodded and forced myself to skip those moments, too. I threw the covers back and climbed out of bed. “Okay. Where are we going?”
We crept through the halls of the Whisper, which were shadowed pink and purple, and mostly empty. Mostly. Every once in a while, Thetazin would slide behind a corner, or duck into an open door, and we’d wait, breathless, while a thaumatician passed, whispering to no one in the nighttime air.
“What’s going on?” I said once, as we crouched behind a pillar. “What do the shifties want?”
“You, of course,” Thetazin said.
“The note? From a friend of yours. Commander Rhyme. And no, Master Answer, we’re not going to turn you in. But the arrival of the Shift Patrol gave a certain amount of weight to some of our more…isolationist tendencies.”
I stared at Thetazin. “You don’t speak like a ten-year-old, you know?”
“No personal questions, please.”
We fell quiet as the shadow of a thaumatician approached, and then passed, and the whispers faded off down the hall. We came out from behind the pillar and pressed on again.
“Could you have this entire conversation by yourself?” I said.
“To a point. Eventually I would need more input to predict the next string of events. More constants to inform the variables. Yes, it is impressive, or so I’ve been told, and no, I shouldn’t be speaking to you right now at all, but like I said…isolationist tendencies.”
“Cozelta is supposed to meet with me in the morning.”
“And tell you jack-squat. Felzir’s cohort overruled her, no thanks to your friends outside.”
“Taking things into my own hands.”
“Because I’ve seen the way forward, Nova. I’ve seen the branching paths, and I think it might do some good to shove things in a certain direction, despite what Cozelta and Felzir think.”
“I don’t know if I like the idea that whatever you’re about to show me will set in motion a chain of events you’ve already predicted.”
Thetazin stopped. I flinched, ducking, instinctively, for the nearest hiding spot before realizing that the hall was completely empty. No one was coming.
“It’s bad, Nova,” Thetazin said quietly. “All the paths are bad. But this is better than the alternative.” She turned around and looked up at me—although, I remembered, she could only see my shadow against the Crystic. As she looked at me, I was struck again by how young she was. Her eyes were big and round, her face small and slight. “I’m so sorry.”
I almost couldn’t get the words out past the sudden fear her words invoked. “For what?”
For once, she didn’t reply.
We hurried on. Down a flight of stairs, and then another, to what I thought must be the ground floor. We took a turn into a long hallway, and halfway down I skidded to a stop, catching sight of something through an archway. There was a courtyard beyond, open to the sky, and in the middle of the courtyard, glowing softly…
“A terminal,” Thetazin said.
“Does that…does that travel with you?”
Thetazin giggled. “No. That’s not how it works. That terminal belongs to the Wanted Woods. Come on. Just a little farther.”
I bowed, quickly, in respect to the terminal, as Candle’s parents had once shown me how to do, and then hurried after.
We arrived in a tiny room, filled with shelf upon shelf of books and ledgers and stacks of paper, and in the middle of it all, hemmed in on every side, a narrow desk. Thetazin edged in behind that desk, and I found a place to stand where I could in the close confines.
“This is my own personal study. I’m not old enough to whisper, yet, but I can check and double-check others’ whispers. I don’t read these myself of course,” she added, answering a question I was drawing breath to ask. “A scribe dictates and I verify. Now, there should be a book here with a white cloth binding. Will you open it?” I pulled a heavy tome out of a pile and eased the cover open. Inside was filled with the same tightly packed nonsense writing I’d seen in the Rhithmry. “Section three, subsection forty-six, exhibit five,” Thetazin said.
“Page two-eighteen, I believe.”
The pages were large and stiff, not with age, but with the crispness of something new and rarely used. The spine creaked as I turned. One-seventy-two, one-ninety-nine, two-sixteen, seventeen, eight—
“Thetazin, what is this book?”
On a two-page spread before me was an illustration, sketched in thick black lines, of a wizard’s staff. Not one I had ever seen before. It was broken in two.
The young thaumatician stared at nothing, her milky gaze a mile away, maybe even now within the Crystic, tracing its lattice this way and that, divining meaning the way wizards did in tall tales, in the entrails of an animal. “It’s a new branch of the prophecy,” she said. “We’re just putting the final touches on it.”
“A new branch?”
“Well sure. The prophecy heads off in all sorts of directions, down little paths of numbers and around winding hedgerows of equations. It’s impossible to read them all, but the more time passes, the more of those side paths get closed off, and the clearer the way forward becomes. This branch,” she motioned to the book, “is called the Harmonic Ansatz.”
I ran my fingers, lightly, over the illustration. The staff was beautiful, awe-inspiring in a way that put every other staff I’d seen to shame. Its length was ornately carved, and its top…its top was rung about with seven rings of varying sizes. Metal orbits that spread from the rod on metal spokes, asymmetrical, scientific, elegant. My fingers lingered on the breaking point, just beneath these rings, where the staff had shattered into splinters. Even from just this sketch, it felt like an unbearable loss.
“And…and it’s going to happen?” I said. “The breaking of this staff. For sure?”
“Master Answer, it already has happened. In fact, on the grand scale of things happening, it was one of the first to do so.”
My breath caught. I couldn’t take my eyes off the thing. “This is from the Lorn.”
“Before the Lorn. You’re not thinking big enough.” While I puzzled over this, Thetazin huffed. “That list of questions in your pocket. Which is the most important one?”
I felt, unconsciously, for the folded piece of paper.
“What am I supposed to do?” I said.
“Ah, but you know that. Defeat the Ryvkk. Make the Ferren whole.”
I looked up in time to see Thetazin smirk. “Have you ever heard of the Genesis Rod?” I shook my head. “Oh, I think you probably have, even if you don’t know it. Try to think laterally, Nova. Extrapolate. You probably reference it every day.”
I looked back at the illustration of the beautiful staff, then up at Thetazin again, and did this a couple more times before it hit me. When it did, I staggered, knocking into the shelves of books behind me.
Thetazin giggled. “Exactly.”
“It’s real? I mean, it’s an actual thing?”
“Eoea was the first wizard,” she said, “and—”
“Every wizard needs a staff,” I interrupted, giving her an amused look. “Doesn’t feel as nice when someone does it to you, does it?”
She turned her nose up at the comment. “But Eoea was more than just a wizard, and his staff was more than just a staff.”
“A wizard’s staff is their will,” I said, approaching the table again, practically bouncing on the balls of my feet. Things were falling into place now, a hundred pieces just waiting to click together. “Eoea created the Ferren and the Crystic both, and his staff was the tool he used to do it. A sliver of something divine. If I could find his staff, if I could wield his will, the will of magic itself. I could have—”
“The power of creation,” Thetazin said. “Of life. Of healing. With Eoea’s staff, one could mend the splinters running through the world. One could seal the Ryvkk up and restore magic and the Ferren to its fullness. Hypothetically.”
“One could,” I repeated. I looked down, troubled. My excited energy left me all at once, and the doubts returned in full force. Greater now, really, given the immensity of what I was proposing to do. I repeated it again. “One could. Does it have to be me?”
“No,” Thetazin said. She came around the desk and felt for the book, the new branch of the prophecy. She turned the page, and I was met with line upon line of the Crystic, written out. She turned another page. Same thing. Page after page. Line after line. A future sculpted in numbers and magic. She stopped. “But it will be you.”
“Then there really is nothing special about me.”
“And thank Eoea for that. Take it from me, being special is exhausting.” I gave her a disapproving look before remembering she couldn’t see me. She seemed to feel my disapproval anyway, or at least guess at it, because when she spoke again her voice was more gentle, and far wiser than an eleven-year-old’s had any right to be. “You are, Nova Scratshot, no more or less than who you are. You don’t need to try to be wonderful. You simply need to try. Linger. Breathe. Relax. That should be comforting.”
I turned away.
“Thetazin, can you read the past on the Crystic?”
“Theoretically, yes, but the Lorn is so far back, and there’s so much of it—”
“No,” I said. “Not the Ferren’s past. My past.”
For once, I actually surprised her. Her eyes went wide and she seemed to lose her balance. It took a few seconds for her to find her way through where she thought this conversation was going to where it actually went. When she did, she blinked and tilted her head. “Your mother will find you, Nova. And this is a conversation you’d rather have with her.”
She was right.
But I have to say, even that little bit of information felt good.
“We should get you back to the parlor before someone finds us.”
“Will you get in trouble? For telling me?”
“Chances are good.” She brushed the comment off, though, then closed the book and headed for the door.
“Hey,” I said. “Wait.” Thetazin stopped, but I could tell she didn’t want to.
“You don’t need to th—”
Her chin lowered into her neck. Her shoulders rose toward her ears. A small smile crept onto her face.
We didn’t speak all the way back to the parlor, which gave my mind time to turn over the new information that had been dumped into it. Not nearly enough time—it would take weeks to process everything and figure out where to go from here—but enough so that by the time we reached the door, a couple new questions had occurred to me. I reached for the most important one.
“The staff was broken in two.” I said, and Thetazin nodded. I didn’t bother with the how, there would be time for that later. “So where are they? Where are the pieces?”
Thetazin looked solemn. We stood on either side of the parlor entry, still closed. “Why did you run away from the Advance Academy?” she said.
The question seemed to come out of nowhere. “What—?”
“Are you really going to make me suffer through this conversation longer than I have to? I’m not repeating myself.”
I swallowed the question. “I guess…I guess because I didn’t like how they were manipulating me.”
“You wanted to make your own choices. Do you really think that’s possible?” When I didn’t reply, she went on. “I have read the Crystic, Master Answer. I have picked apart its lattice. You are a strange algorithm, but you become easier to read with every choice you make. The way forward narrows. The variables fall into alignment. The equation works itself toward an end. If I answer your question, there is only one path forward. Or at least…one highly probable one. One final manipulation. It is not…a pleasant path. So when you ask me where the pieces are, I have to wonder. Do you really want to know?”
“Tell me. Tell me what to do.”
Thetazin sighed. “Well, for starters, I’d maybe try getting my hands on the piece of Eoea’s staff that the Assemblage already has in its possession.”
“What?” I was struck dumb. I had assumed divine, ancient relics like this would be hidden away, in a dungeon or at the far ends of the Ferren. “The Assemblage has a piece of Eoea’s staff?”
“Of course. How do you think they make the shifties?” Another blow, and then the door to the parlor opened, and Thetazin motioned me through. “Good luck. It starts now.”