For the record: it was Candle who decided to attack that first shiftie, not me. He was patrolling the perimeter of the camp when we approached, flashlight sweeping ahead. Past him, crowds of tents ran off into the woods, some dark and some letting off a deep glow from behind their canvas. We crouched behind a line of rocks near the bank of the brook and watched the shiftie walk back and forth only a few yards away.
“Next time he turns,” I said, “we’ll creep past behind him. Ready?”
Candle grabbed my sleeve. “What? No. He’ll hear us immediately. Nova, you’re going to have to take him out.” I must have given her quite the look, because her eyes widened and she held up her hands. “Not kill him! Just, you know, make him sleep for a while.”
“I can’t do that with magic.”
“No, but I seem to recall you have a very large blunt object you can summon forth at any moment.”
Reluctantly, trying to avoid looking at the curious elegon that was peering down on us from atop a rock, I pulled my staff out of the Crystic and stared at it. “I don’t know…”
“Oh, for Eoea’s sake, give that thing to me.” Candle pulled the staff out of my hands and hopped over the rocks.
“Candle,” I hissed, but she was already halfway to the shiftie. Her footsteps crunched over dirt, the shiftie tensed, and his flashlight curved around. Candle was within swinging distance. I squeezed my eyes shut, ducked beneath the rocks, held my head in my hands, and wished more than anything for the moment to be over.
There was a swift crack. A thump. Footsteps.
And then a body swung down next to me. I peeked out from between my arms.
“Almost felt like a proper mage,” Candle said, shoving the staff back at me. “No thanks to you.” I glowered, uncurling, and snatched it back, immediately surrendering it to the Crystic. She did a little mock flourish with her hands. “The way is clear, master wizard.”
“Will you stop that?” I said, but she was already gone again. I tried not to look at the fallen body as we passed.
The camp was quiet. There was no wind in the forest, and the swooping branches of the gray trees hung still and ghostly overhead. We kept low and crept between the tents, following the shadowed paths and keeping clear of the dull sounds of conversation drifting from around the watch fires. Once, when we heard footsteps approaching from up ahead, we made a hasty retreat and crouched behind one of the darkened tents.
“Where do you think he is?” I whispered.
“How should I know? I’m not the one who instigated this dumb assault. I am a mere lowly human with no magical powers whatsoever.”
“Eat a brick, Candle.” We fell quiet as the footsteps passed, and I gave it thirty seconds or so after the last of them had faded away before daring to speak again. “Okay. Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get as close as we can to one of those watch fires and eavesdrop and hope they say something about where Rhyme is. But we have to hurry because I don’t feel like I can breathe.”
“Or we could follow those elegons.”
I looked where Candle was pointing and did a double take. In the middle of the path behind me, a small orange elegon drifted a few inches off the ground. And several feet past that one was another elegon, and several feet past that, another. In fact, they seemed to form a trail, bending off out of sight between the tents. They watched us with wide, shadowed eyes.
“Oh,” I said. “What…?”
But there wasn’t time. Candle shoved me forward, and we set off, following the way laid out by the geometric spirits. When I looked back, I saw them turn to watch us go, and then slowly fade away in our wake. To be honest, it kind of creeped me out.
The elegons led us to the far side of the camp, halfway around the outskirts of the glade. We had to splash through the brook, and came very close to a number of patrols, but the way ahead was always clear, and the journey was just long enough for me to start wondering why the elegons were helping us like this, and if they could even be trusted…
And then they stopped.
The last one bent upward to give us a gaping expression and then went out (not unlike, I realized, the way the doors fuzzed out in the Whisper). Candle and I halted. We stood before a clearing, a watch fire just ahead, and past it, several black tents, larger than all the rest, with tall pointed canopies and yellow trim. There were no more elegons, but there was a shiftie, sitting beside the watch fire and looking straight at us. Our sudden appearance seemed to have taken her by surprise.
All three of us remained frozen, wide-eyed. And then the shiftie leapt to her feet, and as she did, I rushed forward, empty right hand outstretched. The shiftie reached for her glimmer, but wasn’t fast enough. I sidestepped, brought my hand around, and suddenly it wasn’t so empty anymore. The shiftie found my staff crossing her throat as I slipped behind her, pinning her in place.
“Which tent is Commander Rhyme’s?” I said. The shiftie pointed, and Candle went immediately to the entrance, scanning the area for more guards. “I don’t want to—” I began, but then, horrifyingly, the human body I held trapped before me distorted, slipping from its boundaries like a broken egg yolk. I recoiled without thinking as the shiftie fell to her feet and slipped into the form of a large bristling canine. She spun, paws splayed before her, baring her teeth.
I jammed my staff forward, releasing a precision force of power. The Crystic opened up within me, jagged fuchsia blossoms funneling through my body, down my arm, and out through the silence-honed passage of my staff.
The shiftie flew backward. She landed several yards away, at the edge of the clearing, and didn’t get up.
“You’re getting better at that, Master Wizard,” Candle said when I joined her. I mumbled a thanks, wiping sweat off my forehead with my pajama sleeve. The Crystic always warmed me from the inside out. Candle eyed the staff. “Best not put that away.”
We faced the darkened flaps of the tent entrance and collected ourselves. There was still time, even now, to turn back. To return to the Whisper and crawl into bed and wake up the next morning to deal with Cozelta the Argentane and the rest of the thaumaticians. And for a brief moment, I could see a whole other path unfurl before me, different variables snapping into place and the equations unwinding toward a wholly different end. It would be safer.
Then I thought of Thetazin, and what she’d told me of Eoea’s staff. I thought of waking up the next morning to closed mouths and tight lips, and the Shift Patrol still at our doorstep. Safer, maybe, but more disappointing.
I pushed my way into the tent.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
The canvas fell shut behind Candle and me, and I blinked, eyes adjusting to the sudden dimness. The place was filled with dusty shadows. Moonlight filtered through mesh patches in the canopy high above, and the only other light came from a single work lamp, sitting on a desk in the middle of the tent. It illuminated, in faint shades of yellow and orange, the bare wood grain of the desk, and on top of it a shining silver glimmer and an old telephone. A tall backed, leather chair sat on the other side of the desk, facing forward. It was empty.
Candle and I took a few hesitant steps toward the desk, hardly daring to speak. Wound taught, ready to spring, I listened carefully for sounds of life from somewhere within the tent, breathing or footsteps or…paws. It wasn’t that big.
“They said you’d come,” came a voice from the shadows. I jumped and came to a stop, only a few feet from the desk. That glimmer was glaring light right into my eyes.
“Rhyme?” I said.
But even then, I knew. It wasn’t Rhyme, but I said his name anyway as my mind struggled to fit my expectations to reality. Someone moved at the back of the tent, feet shuffling—dragging, was the word that came to mind, as if reluctant. A man stepped into the light.
It was Marewill Noal.
He looked much the same as he had before. More stressed, maybe, the lines beneath his eyes drooping into bags. He was paunchy and round-shouldered, his lab coat hanging lifelessly down to his ankles. Behind a pair of style-less glasses, his eyes seemed to reach out and flinch at the same time, wanting and withholding. He wavered behind the leather chair. Where was…? Ah, there it was. The clipboard. He set it on the desk, pushing the glimmer aside.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Ah, of course.” He tapped his forefingers together. “I suppose that must be earned.” He looked like he wanted to say something more, but swallowed it, his eyes moving to Candle. “I’ve read about you.”
“I’ve read about you.” Candle’s face was stony.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
Marewill forced a mild smile, then motioned. “Will you have a seat?”
There were two chairs this side of the desk. Everything in me screamed to run away, to abandon him here the same as I had the last time I’d seen him. But I was stronger now. I could handle this. And this was, in one way or another, why I had come. To talk some sense into those who pursued me. I sat. Marewill looked relieved and pulled back the leather chair, sinking into it. Candle took the chair beside me.
I leaned my staff against the desk with a pointed clack. I crossed my arms, and stared across at my father.
“Where is Rhyme?” I said.
“Commander Rhyme is about. I’m sure he’ll be along shortly.”
“You knew I would sneak into the camp.”
“Mm. No.” He tapped the clipboard. “They knew you would sneak into the camp.”
“The numbers.” I frowned. “I removed myself from your system. You shouldn’t have been able to find me.”
“True. The algorithmic trail went cold for a while there. But she knew. She guessed where you’d go.” I didn’t need to be told who she was. Suddenly, Marewill leaned forward. “Why did you go to the thaumaticians, Nova?”
The question was too familiar. The guilt threatened to boil up again, the feeling that I was wasting time here when I could be out tracking down the Ryvkk.
“Because I wanted answers. I wanted to know what to do.”
“No. Think harder. Why did you go to the thaumaticians?”
“Because…because…” The realization came like a slug slipping down the back of my throat. I tasted bile. “Because Rhyme told me to.”
“What?” Candle said.
I leaned forward and put my head in my hands. This was unbelievable. I had completely misinterpreted this entire situation. “He was in the investiture that day, questioning Gruffin. He told Gruffin…he told him that if he were me, he’d be halfway to the thaumaticians by now. Eoea’s staff, I’m such an idiot.”
“You knew we were there,” Candle said slowly to Marewill. “You planted the idea.”
“Everything is a manipulation,” I whispered.
Marewill remained silent, letting us stew in our own shock. Eventually, I straightened, and was disappointed to find not even one ounce of regret in the man’s eyes. “He tried to warn me,” I said. “Rhyme did.”
Marewill stirred. “Unfortunately, yes. On the bridge. A regrettable moment of weakness. It’s why I’m talking to you now instead of he.”
“And of course you won’t show the same weakness,” Candle said coldly. “Not for your son.”
Marewill didn’t reply directly. Keeping his gaze on me, he said, “I am driven by a more reliable barometer. A system with more consistent positive results.” He winced, raising a hand to his forehead, where I had once taken him across the face with a bout of magic. “Even so, your point is well taken, Emma Lyn Candle. I have been known to be weak before. So I must, unfortunately, take a step back from these proceedings.”
The telephone rang.
Candle and I both jumped in our seats. The noise pealed through the tent, harsh and vibrating. I stared at the phone, and then at Marewill, who stared at me, unfazed. The phone rang again.
“Answer it,” Marewill said. “It’s for you.”
I swallowed. My hand trembled. My mind felt heavy and strained with the effort of holding a thousand painful memories at bay, because I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who was going to be on the other end of that line. I reached. It was like drawing close, compelled, to the edge of a cliff. The heat from accessing the Crystic hadn’t fully dissipated, and sweat broke out again along my brow. I lifted the receiver and held it to my ear.
Silence on the other end. Gentle breathing. And then:
The world fell away. The voice was hers. Bright. Crisp. As sharp as her red lipstick and pixie hair. Everything—the tent, Candle, my father—disappeared. Just me and the voice. It was a while before I could speak, but she waited. Eventually, I worked up enough saliva to wet my tongue.
“You’re still telling the story.”
“I’m helping you find who you already are, Nova. And let me tell you, it is so exciting to see how far you’ve come. I mean just look at yourself. When I found you in that two-trib investiture you would never have been able to handle a journey across half the Ferren. Not in a million years. I bet you’re getting pretty good with your magic, too, huh?”
“Please don’t do this.”
“Pretend like you care about me.”
“Oh Nova, to think I don’t want the very best for you is a tragedy.”
“If you really wanted the best for me you’d leave me alone.”
“And if I did that, where would you be now? You’re not thinking straight, Nova. If it weren’t for me you’d still be hiding out in the ruins of Blush. No goals. No wants. No destination to funnel your efforts into. Without Rhyme slipping you the plot, there would have been no journey. And to sweeten the pot, you even got to imagine you were making a choice.”
“I would have left. Fogwillow and I were going to travel the wild.”
“And you did, and I am so happy for you. We both got what we wanted. You got to travel the wild and I got you to visit the thaumaticians. A compromise.”
“Why didn’t you just capture me? You knew I was in Blush, why didn’t you capture me four months ago and bring me here yourself?”
A long sigh. “Because, Nova. You were right. I’m not too big to admit it. In my willingness to sacrifice everything for you, I failed to see the bigger picture. I can be…single-minded. But even I could tell you were withering at the Advance Academy. I just couldn’t figure out why.”
“Because nothing was real.”
“Of course it was real,” she snapped. “It was ordered. It was controlled. It was meticulous. Do not confuse that for a lie.”
“It wasn’t working.”
“And that is why I let you go. You convinced me, Nova. You convinced me that you needed a little time on your own, that a little wildness could do you good.”
My voice grew heated. “You didn’t let me go.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll grant you that. But once you left, I did some thinking and realized that really, this would work out much better if we let the wild have you for a time. So we gave you a goal, and we gave you a chase, and look at you now.”
“You’re a monster.”
I could practically hear her roll her eyes. “Such a teenager. Sometimes I forget. I am okay with being the antagonist, Nova. It wasn’t how I pictured this going, but if that’s how you see me then I can play the role. As long as you understand that the story itself is not what you should be fighting against.”
There was silence on the line for a long time after that. I couldn’t find the words to respond and I drifted, unmoored, in that anti-sensorial place, the receiver pressed to my ear, her breathing coming soft and muffled from the other end. It was the only thing that existed. I floated in it, awash in the in-and-out of wave after wave compression-fuzzed breath.
“Have you still been writing down what’s happening to you?” she said.
“I think you find it empowering. It’s a way for you to control the narrative.” More silence. Then: “I miss reading it, you know? Eoea’s staff, I was surprised by how much I missed reading it. You let so little in. I never felt like I understood any of our conversations until I read your version of them later.”
“Maybe I’ll post my new entries someday.”
“I’d like that.” There was a breathless pause that hinted she had more to say, and I waited for the words to find their way out. “Do you know what was so unexpected about your ticker?”
“That I got to read about him.”
“Yes. Willis. I never let you see how much my brother’s death affected me.”
“His death. You killed him.”
“He killed himself. He forced my hand. And then, later, there he was. In your writing. Staring back at me from within the paragraphs. You did such a nice job of capturing him, Nova. Dramatic. Stylish. Perhaps a little arrogant. He really believed in you, you know?”
“He tortured me.”
“You are so obtuse sometimes. Really. You can’t ignore the good he’s done you. You found your power because of him. Rods, Nova! Your ticker is named after words he spoke to you!”
“Go forth. I regret that, now.”
“You shouldn’t. He used to say that all the time, and he was right. Is it over-dramatic? Too earnest? Yes, but he was both of those things. He believed in the hero’s journey. He believed that the only way for people to make something of themselves was to go forth, into the hardship, break themselves, find themselves. We studied all the steps. We used them to create the Advance Academy. And for you…for you Nova, he believed himself the launching point of that journey. He could imagine no greater honor than to call you into the fire.”
“Please,” I said. “Please just let me go.”
“Gladly, Nova. Gladly. In fact, when the time comes, it’s what I fully expect to occur.”
“You…want me to be free?”
“The turning point in any story is the casting off of the mentor. I welcome it. Only when you must fill your teacher’s shoes will you understand true power. True independence. Unfortunately, Nova, I have a small, a very minor quibble with the way you’ve proceeded in this task thus far, if you’ll permit me to offer you some counsel. Because you removed yourself from my control and put yourself right back into another’s.”
Her voice had grown dangerous. I could see, all at once, where this was going, and it made my heartbeat wiggle up into my throat. “What do you mean?”
“You need to get out from under Fogwillow’s thumb, Nova. As long as she leads you, she will hold you back.”
“I learned more from her than I ever did from you.”
“I sort of doubt that. But even so, you can only remain second tier for so long. The savior of the Ferren must be the savior of the Ferren. Is Fogwillow destined to be the most powerful wizard we have ever known?”
“Then she can only take you so far. I will grant that perhaps she has helped you, but her time must end soon. You must learn to excel on your own.”
“Fogwillow is my friend.”
“Fogwillow is nearing the end of her usefulness to you.”
“I don’t want her to leave.”
“Then I will take her from you.”
In some distant universe, where dull senses like sight and touch still held sway, I was aware that my body was trembling. I was aware that Candle was giving me a worried look, though her face seemed far away.
“Do not stand in my way, Nova. Do not put yourself between the fate of the Ferren and the path I have laid for you, brick by staving brick. I will see this to the end, whether I have your complicity or not. There is too much at stake.”
She bit out the last of these words, then seemed to draw back from the phone with a rattling breath. When she spoke again, it was with a more measured tone.
“Did you learn what you needed to from the thaumaticians?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Good.” The word was brusque. Clipped. It was followed by a click and then without fanfare the line went dead.
I fell back into my body. Into the tent. Candle sitting next to me and Marewill sitting across the desk in the leather chair. The clipboard. The glimmer. The lamp. The hazy light. The phone.
The phone. I pulled it away from my ear and set it back down on the base. I was sweating.
“Was that…?” Candle said. I nodded. She sucked in through her teeth. “What did she want?”
“She wants me to play by the rules.”
“If you do,” Marewill said, “it cannot be argued that the outcome will be satisfactory. The numbers don’t lie.”
“Who is my mother?” I said. The question caught Marewill off guard, and I was glad to see him flinch, grimace, then scramble for an answer.
“Just a name,” I said. “A name is enough.”
“You won’t find her. She’s been missing for years. It was easier to find you.”
“I didn’t ask you to tell me where she was. Just a name.”
“I—I—” Marewill stammered. A ray of light fell into the tent, and there were footsteps behind me. Marewill looked over my shoulder, then down, casting his face in shadow. “I can’t.”
I stared at him. Even as the shifties came up on either side of me, I stared at the top of his balding head. “Nova,” said Commander Rhyme’s familiar voice, but I didn’t have anything left in me to spare for him. “Please don’t fight this.” The shifties gripped Candle and me by the elbows and pulled us from our chairs. They snapped cold, heavy handcuffs around our wrists, and I still stared across the desk at quiet, slumped, disappointing Marewill Noal.
“I wrote, once,” I said to him as the shifties patted me down, “that I knew my dad would crack someday and tell me who he was. I thought the weight of all that secrecy would be enough to break someone. You never had the guts to tell me who you were, but I can’t say I was wrong. You are broken.” One of the shifties reached for my staff, and only then did I turn from Marewill. As the shiftie’s fingers wrapped around the white wood, I called it back into the Crystic. The staff blinked out, and the shiftie gasped, pulling away as if from static shock. My eyes found Commander Rhyme. He was giving me an uneasy expression, his hand inching toward his hip. “Let’s go, then.”
Rhyme’s face only darkened, but he motioned, and the hands on my shoulders and elbows spun me around and led me forward. Candle went ahead, through the tent flap, and as I ducked my head, Marewill spoke at last.
“Lirili. Her name is Lirili Pace.” We all paused. I looked back, but Marewill was still staring at his lap. “Is that good?” he said.
My heart fluttered, but I kept a stony face. “It’s satisfactory.”
Rhyme pushed one of the shifties aside, grabbed my arm himself, and led me out of the tent.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Candle and I were separated. The last I saw of my friend was her struggling to look back at me as the shifties pulled her away. I tried to call out, but Rhyme’s grip tightened painfully and my call strangled off into a choke. As they led her off, we remained, huddled close in the clearing outside Rhyme’s tent. The watch fire still burned brightly.
A shiftie came running up. “Sir?”
“Keep the girl here,” Rhyme said. “I’ll take a patrol and go ahead with the boy myself. We’ll cut north to Yillig and take a cloudweaver to Eldehill. Follow after in the morning.”
“Split up. Is that wise?”
“We’ll be more nimble and less conspicuous. We can’t afford to linger here with him.” He cast an uneasy look in the direction of the Whisper. “We’re not out of danger yet.”
I kept my voice cold, knowing what he feared within those walls. “She’ll come find me. It doesn’t matter how much of a head start you get.”
Rhyme shivered. Without so much as a glance my way, he barked some orders and a squad of shifties, a dozen or so men and women, formed up around us. Then we were off.
Once we entered the woods proper, leaving the camp and watch fires far behind, darkness folded in overhead and the cotton flurry fell before us like bits of shadow, paths cut out by the narrow arc of flashlights. Rhyme released my arm. I let out a bit of the breath I’d been holding, glad to be free of his touch. The handcuffs were strained and awkward against my wrists, but even their steel was preferable to another’s skin. A wave of goosebumps passed through me.
“Don’t suppose we could stop for some actual clothes, do you? I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m wearing pajamas.”
Rhyme’s face gave nothing away. He stared straight ahead.
Eventually, though, he unclasped his own coat and draped it over my shoulders. It was black and heavy, much too big for me. The bottom grazed the ground as I walked. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Yeah, well. You did try to warn me.” I tried to gauge his reaction to that, but there was none. Rhyme seemed to have learned some lessons, then, since the last time I saw him. If he felt any hesitance in what he was doing, he kept it buried deep inside. “You’re not taking me back to the observatory?”
“The Assemblage wants you closer to them. Should anything happen. Dean Enislen waits for you in Eldehill.”
“That’s a shame. I was sort of hoping to see it again. Isn’t that weird? I hated that place and now I suddenly feel halfway nostalgic about it.”
No response to that. The conversation died.
An hour passed. Then another. We walked on through the night. My thoughts turned to Candle, and I wondered what she was doing. I was certain she already had three or four escape plans by now, but that wouldn’t do me any good. I shifted my wrists in my handcuffs experimentally, but they were solid, and even the slightest contortion only made them dig deeper into my wrist bones. I could send a wave of magic outward, of course, though it wouldn’t be as strong without my staff, and Commander Rhyme seemed to be familiar with this trick by now. The thing with huge blasts of power is that they only really worked when they came as a surprise. He kept his hand on his glimmer the entire time we walked, feeling, I’m sure, for the barest prickle of static that meant I was gathering magic. It took me aback to realize I believed he’d use it, if needed. How odd, to know a person means you harm. I got lost in that thought for a while.
The Wanted Woods was much bigger than I’d anticipated. We’d originally come from the south, but northward there seemed to be no end. My mind drifted from Rhyme’s capacity to hurt me back to ways to slip loose, and then eventually to a meditative nothingness. Soon, in the midst of that blank exhaustion, deeper thoughts began to bob to the surface. Among them, a name.
Lirili Pace. I liked the sound of it. It sent a flutter of want through me, desperate and painful, a feeling that reminded me of who I’d been before, of the boy waiting on the rooftop, staring out at all the families in the windows. It was a feeling I’d held within me for most of my life, but had been dormant ever since Marewill Noal told me who he was. That had killed it for a while. Here it was again. A piece of my self rising through the debris of whatever was left, whatever I’d been trying to fit back together. Airbird sevens. Lirili Pace. I wondered what she looked like. I wondered where she was.
Lirili Pace and Marewill Noal. A matching set at last. My parents.
That thought sustained me through another half hour or so, until the woods began to seem a bit brighter, and the fragments of sky I could see through the white willows turned toward a lighter shade of purple. The air smelled soft and new, and I was suddenly very, very tired. When was the last time I’d gotten any sleep? Since before we’d arrived in Smoke Town? I laughed a little at the thought, and Rhyme gave me a cautious look. My eyes felt like they wanted to crawl out of my head.
I had to get out of here. This wouldn’t do. Dean Enislen could never have me again. And if I couldn’t brute force my way out, maybe I could return to my original plan, the one I’d snuck into the Shift Patrol camp with in the first place: exploiting Rhyme’s fondness of me. Whether he was capable of hurting me or not—and I had to believe that at this point he was—he did have my best interests at heart once. There had to still be a weakness in him somewhere, no matter what his stoic expression was trying to communicate.
“I found out how the shifties are made,” I said quietly as we walked through the dawn. Beside me, Rhyme stiffened. If the others in the patrol heard me, they didn’t give any sign of it. “Is it painful?”
“Who told you?”
“My friends at the Whisper. They know a lot about magic.”
“Not this,” Rhyme said. “No one knows about this. Not really.” He scanned his fellow shifties nervously, but they didn’t acknowledge him. He lowered his voice, just on the edge of hearing. “It’s like a long, red-hot needle, right between the eyes.”
“Did you know it would hurt?”
“It seemed worth it.”
He lowered his gaze, troubled, and didn’t respond directly. “The Assemblage imagine themselves gods. And they might be. They have the power to create astonishing things.” He splayed his fingers, briefly, then curled them into fists and dropped them. “They just don’t know how to use it, yet.”
I decided to go all in. “Where is it? Where is their piece of the Genesis Rod?”
He looked at me, startled but somehow not surprised. “I’m not letting you go, Nova.”
“I know. So it can’t hurt to tell me.”
His eyes wandered my face, and I did my best not to look away. “Eldehill, where else?” he said eventually. “The Shift Patrol headquarters.”
Of course. Eldehill. Capital of the Ferren. Where the Assemblage’s tower stretched into the clouds. “Thank you.”
“You won’t be able to—”
I never found out what I wouldn’t be able to do. A cry of alarm came from up ahead. Rhyme cut off and drew his glimmer. A curtain of mist was rising in the dawn light, pulled from the ground in curling spools. It shrouded the way ahead, and the white trees were merely half seen shapes in the pale morning haze. A couple of the shifties before us had come to a halt, glimmers out, pointed forward.
Pointed at a dark figure in the mist, straight and still as a tombstone. Rhyme made a sound that was half sigh, half snarl, and strode out ahead of the patrol, coming to a stop a few yards away. The shifties tightened around me. I could feel their nerves bristling.
“Let us pass,” Rhyme said.
“No,” Fogwillow replied.
Rhyme shot. The jet of light went wide. A warning. Fogwillow didn’t budge.
“Let us pass,” Rhyme repeated. More desperate this time.
“You’ve shot me once before, you can do it again,” Fogwillow said.
So he did, but again it went wide.
“Oh come now,” Fogwillow said. “Believe in yourself.”
“Let us pass,” Rhyme said one last time.
“You’ll have to shoot me first.”
Rhyme took aim and fired. I gasped. The fuchsia blur went straight for Fogwillow. She didn’t duck or dodge. She barely moved at all, except for in one moment she stood there empty-handed, and in the next she had her staff, which she nocked to the side, into the path of the oncoming bolt. The shot from the glimmer broke apart in a spray of pink sparks, discharging into the air and sending the mist around her whirling. Overhead, the trees rustled.
Fogwillow took a step forward. “You need to commit, Rhyme.”
“FIRE!” Rhyme shouted.
The air was filled with static as a dozen shifties fired their glimmers at the same time, and kept firing. Magenta bolts snapped through the chill air, breaking the seams of reality, spikes of the Crystic forcing their way through as shot after shot of magic-breaking force barreled toward Fogwillow. The woods were filled with snapping, plunger-sucking sounds. They echoed in the stillness of the morning.
And ahead, Fogwillow gracefully moved her staff into the path of each oncoming bolt, each impact making my teeth rattle, until I could barely see her through the shower of sparks and swirl of mist, and the hanging branches rustled in the breeze of displaced magic.
Rhyme held up a hand, and the shooting stopped. Fogwillow still stood, patient as ever, in the settling air. Rhyme let out an unintelligible sound and stepped forward. He fired. Fogwillow blocked. He stepped forward. He fired again. Fogwillow blocked.
He continued his slow march forward, firing to no avail, drawing closer through the sparks of his own dashed magic, until he was near enough that Fogwillow spun her staff, struck down one final glimmer shot, continued the arc, and snapped Commander Rhyme across the head.
Rhyme swayed, then collapsed.
There was silence in the forest. I held my breath. Around me, the shifties hesitated, then corralled themselves, raising their glimmers…
Fogwillow tapped the butt of her staff against the ground. It made a round, metallic noise that popped my ears. The world seemed to darken around the edges, crackling with static, and as it did, each of the dozen or so shifties rose from the ground in slow, dreamlike movements. Their limbs flailed gracefully outward, glimmers spinning from their lazy grasps, winking as they tumbled end over end. They rose higher and higher, spreading, hanging in bent and curious forms beneath the canopy of white.
Then Fogwillow tapped her staff against the ground again, and they fell. I winced as I heard at least a couple bones snap. The world returned to normal, but I suddenly felt woozy, and the darkness seemed to keep encroaching. I stood in Rhyme’s heavy black coat, and spread around me on the ground were the humped forms of unconscious bodies.
I blinked, looking up from the bodies. Fogwillow was approaching. She smiled. I tried to get some words out, but they wouldn’t come. I was so tired.
With a ring of keys she’d taken from Rhyme, Fogwillow unlocked my handcuffs, and as I rubbed some feeling back into my wrists, she said, “They always underestimate me.”
I tried to smile back. Really, though, all I wanted to do was lie down right there and take a long nap. But the relief only lasted long enough for me to remember the full scope of our situation.
“Candle,” I said.
“Of course. Not even a ‘thank you, Fogwillow,’ first.”
“She’s not here,” I said. “So she must still be back at camp.”
“Then we’d better hurry.”
I shoved my exhaustion down as far as it would go, and didn’t bother with one more look at Rhyme or the other unconscious shifties as we turned around and headed back the way we’d come as quickly as we possibly could. It wasn’t until we’d covered some distance that I finally turned and smiled at her, albeit wearily.
“Thank you, Fogwillow.”
She gave me a small, quiet nod. “Someday, you’re going to have to stop counting on me to save you.”
I sat with that troubling thought all the way back, a voice on the other end of a phone line echoing in my ears. I tried to drown it out by telling Fogwillow what I’d learned about Eoea’s staff. She listened and nodded, looking solemn, and asked good, pointed questions about everything Thetazin had said. I did my best to answer them, but it wasn’t enough to distract me. Already, I felt that voice echoing between us, creating a distance that hadn’t been there before.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Two people traveled much faster than twelve. We made good time. But not good enough. When we arrived back at the glade, the Shift Patrol camp was gone. It was late morning.
“No,” I said, standing on the edge of the treeline, Fogwillow just behind. “No, no, no, no.” My breath was coming in painful gasps. There was a splitting headache developing just behind my eyes. I dropped to the ground, my legs finally giving out, too tired to sustain my weight any longer. “No, no, no.” I had no other words, it seemed. My mouth failed me, my brain failed me, my legs failed me.
I had failed her.
“No, no, no, no.”
“She’ll be fine,” Fogwillow said, though even her voice held a tinge of worry. “I’ll remind you that she is the one who gets you out of most of your scrapes. She probably already has an escape plan.”
It was similar to what I’d been thinking just hours earlier, but the difference was that now I was much more tired, I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I hadn’t made it back in time to help. “I’m not worried she’s in danger, I just…” Tears sprang to my eyes. “I just want her here.” Abruptly, I stood, swayed as the blood rushed to my head, and struggled to find my balance. “We have to go after her. She helped rescue me from the Advance Academy, I need to return the favor.”
“Nova, right now, you need to sit down.”
“We just…we just need to gather our things from the thaumaticians and…” I turned to the Whisper, and received my second cold shock of the morning.
It wasn’t there.
“No, no, no, no, no.”
I sunk to my knees. Despair crept up from the bottom of my stomach, a dark, tightening, painful claw that threatened to pull me inward, down, down, down.
“Bastards,” Fogwillow whispered behind me.
Eventually, even my string of no’s trailed off, and my jaw worked soundlessly. The glade was completely empty. The brook ran through a stretch of soft grass, still hung with dew. The sky was open overhead, and the cold sun spread itself through the gap in the trees. In the middle of the clearing, right around where the Whisper had once been, its pink walls piercing the boundary between the Crystic and the Ferren, was a squat glowing terminal.
And next to that terminal, a blue-robed figure. Large and tall, with a mass of long, curly brown hair tumbling over her shoulders. The Argentane. My heart leapt into my throat.
I stood, wobbly, and took a few steps forward. “Nova,” Fogwillow said, but I ignored her. I went fast, tripping over my feet. Cozelta stood in profile, her back to the terminal, facing the woods she could not see. As I drew closer, she turned to me. There were three backpacks on the ground by her feet.
“Where did you go?” I said, rather nonsensically.
Cozelta smiled sadly. “It was time to move on.”
“Now! Of all times!” I stumbled to my knees again, before her.
“We waited here for you, Master Answer. We waited a long time. Did you learn what you needed to?”
I thought of Thetazin and sneaking through the monastery. “No thanks to you.”
“Mm, you still don’t understand.”
“I wish people would stop telling me how much I don’t know.”
“My hands are bound, Master Answer. The thaumaticians, collectively, do not wish to meddle.”
“It’s a little late for that!” I all but shouted. “You were the ones who told everyone about the staving prophecy in the first place.”
Cozelta grimaced and laced her fingers, pressing her thumbs against one another. I had a feeling the Argentane of the thaumaticians was not used to being upbraided. “The prophecy,” she said in a tight voice. “We were trying to give the Ferren hope when we shared the prophecy. The Ryvkk was breaking terminals across the Ferren, and people needed to know there would be an end. So we wrapped up a neat little strand of the Crystic and branded it prophecy. It did create hope. Also, though, the Advance Academy and the Diosec…and you, as you are now.” With great effort, she lowered herself down to one knee and reached out a hand to find mine where it was digging into the grass. She set hers atop it. “If there had been no prophecy, your mother wouldn’t have given you up. Can you deny our meddling has caused more pain in your life than good?”
I flinched, but the fire didn’t go out. “Obviously not. The least you could do is help clean up the mess.”
“I am trying, Nova. Everything that happened here happened as it was meant to happen. You came. You learned.” She pulled back and stood. “And now you must leave.” I knelt, open-mouthed, as she turned toward the terminal. “There is one final thing I can tell you, though. Something I promised to tell you before.” She reached out and laid her palm flat against the top of the terminal. “The Crystic is a network. You know this, but you do not know how deep it goes. Magic is connection, and so everything that taps into it is connected.” She looked up at the sky, as if daydreaming. “The terminals are linked, Master Answer. All of them. The ones still powered, anyway. No one knows this, because no one really knows what the terminals are, though there are a few who are close. That secret is hiding in the Lorn.” She looked back down at her hand. “If a wizard is in tune enough, if they vibrate with the Crystic, they can ride that link from terminal to terminal. It’s how me move, the thaumaticians. It’s how we take the Whisper and transport it across the Ferren. We sync with the magical lattice, and we let it take us.”
The information barely sunk in. I had no capacity anymore. I was done.
“Remember this, Master Answer,” Cozelta said. “You will learn all you need to. When the timing is just so. Goodbye. We will not meet again.” And then she flexed her fingers against the terminal and disappeared.
Her absence left a faint ringing in the empty air, and me kneeling before the terminal, distraught. Fogwillow came up behind me, her presence heavy and unspeaking, and we remained, alone, in the empty glade. The ringing faded away.