28. Bower

Yillig was a different place in the daylight. It appeared the streets did quiet down eventually, it just happened in the early hours of the morning. Storefronts were closed or just opening up. The levitation discs were washed out. Buildings still floated and swayed, but the sun brushed everything flat and pale. People passed in ones and twos without a glance to the left or right. Everything was much less crowded.

“There are a lot of ink-stained flags,” I said. “I didn’t notice that last night.”

Hazel Mars, walking a few steps ahead of us, looked up at the black-speckled flags hung in windows, or cinched along iron fences, or draped over entryways. She shrugged. “College town. Does it make you feel safer?”

I tugged my hood farther over my face. “No.”

We passed the Vault, though kept our distance. I saw its black shell appearing and reappearing through the streets for several blocks, and then it was behind us. Worse than that, there were animals everywhere, and while I was pretty sure they weren’t shifties, they did nothing to set my mind at ease. Every time we crossed an intersection, a wave of pigeons fled before us, and I was certain one or two of them were looking right at me. Which was ridiculous. What self-respecting shiftie would choose to be a pigeon?

We pressed farther in, keeping to side streets and alleys, passing under footbridges and even, a few times, hurrying through the gaps beneath entire buildings. I didn’t like it when we did that. The thrumming in my bones grew more intense beneath the levitation discs, and I could feel all that weight hovering above me, pressing down.

Eventually, the passersby began to thin, until it seemed like we were the only three people in the city. This, more than anything else, put me on edge.

“Where is everyone?” I asked Hazel Mars.

“We’re near the city’s terminal.”

“Oh. Is it broken?”

She gave me a look and then scanned the area, as if to emphasize the fact that the buildings were still standing. “No. Not yet.” We passed another person coming the opposite way, and I pressed closer to Fogwillow, hiding in her shadow. “After what happened in Blush,” Hazel Mars continued in a quiet voice, “the city decided to evacuate a one mile perimeter surrounding the terminal. Just in case.”

“That’s…a big undertaking.”

“It seemed worth it, at least to those who didn’t have to be displaced. Trust me, there was a lot of resistance. It’s taken months. But at least now, if the terminal is attacked, it won’t be as bad as…well…” She broke off, and didn’t speak again until we came to the crest of a footbridge that looked down into a plaza, at the center of which was a large geodesic dome. The glass paneling of the dome was white and opaque, and it sent triangles of sunlight reflecting off the floating towers surrounding it. “Some of my students have taken to calling this the Specter’s Land.”

I shivered. Something about the utter silence and those floating towers, riding empty on the wind, struck me as terribly ghostly. “And we’re here…why?”

Hazel Mars nodded to the dome. “Yillig’s terminal is in there. It supplies all the magic for the entire city. I want you to see it.”

“What, we can just go in?”

“You forget, terminals are my field of study.” She waved a keycard back and forth in her fingers. “Which means special privileges.”

We wound down into the courtyard. As we came around the side of the dome, the city parted before us, giving me a clear view to the other side of the plaza, and beyond it—

“Whoa,” I said. “I didn’t realize we’d come this far.” I split off and hurried to the far side, past the dome’s entrance.

“Nova,” Fogwillow said. “Nova!”

“I want to see.”

The plaza stopped at the edge of the Chasm, the upper limits of Yillig, of Gesh itself. It was a jaw-dropping sight. The gap spanned for miles across, and boundless along its length in either direction. Yillig seemed to crash right up against it, a wave breaking against the void, only a meager handful of silver spires brave enough to float out past the drop-off. There were barely even any barriers. Just a stone bulwark and a line of streetlamps, as if they could ward off the doom. That was the word that came to mind, staring out at this thing, this splinter driven through the Ferren: doom. It might be older than remembering, but it made its point clear.

There were some observation decks. Long, cantilevered bridges that stretched out over the gap and ended many yards away with nothing more than a meager railing. I hurried up one, though didn’t go far. Across the Chasm I could see the faint haze of more buildings, and a perpetual fog in the air over them from what must be factories. Holding fast to the guardrail, I took a risk and looked down.

The walls of the Chasm were utterly smooth and straight, diamond cut in their precision. When I looked down at that dizzying darkness, it rose up to meet me with a weird telescoping effect. My brain couldn’t process the depths. Swaying, holding tight, I looked up at Fogwillow. I though back to the Broken Bridge, to arriving on the stone shore all the way to the south amid the crashing waves.

“Look Fogwillow,” I said. “We did it. We traveled from one end of Gesh to the other!”

“Yes, congratulation, come away from there.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Hazel Mars said. “Those bridges are reinforced by levitation discs.”

That did not inspire confidence, as suddenly I thought I could feel it swaying beneath my feet. Fogwillow was motioning furiously, and I stepped down from the overlook—to appease her, of course. Not because I was scared or anything.

Hazel Mars had her hands on her hips. “Are you two coming or not?”

Fogwillow gave one last, harrowed look over her shoulder as we turned to follow.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Inside the geodesic dome, the crackle of magic was everywhere. Not just a static aura, but a movement, an invisible stream, tugging me forward. I could feel the magic sloughing off my skin, sucked toward the center of the dome and disappearing into a giant hole of rushing power. I froze just inside the doorway, trying to figure out what was going on.

The light coming in through the glass panels was flat and white. It lit an airy space filled with gleaming, spider-like mechanisms that curved up from the floor in a perimeter around the dome. They bent toward the middle, where a squat, slant-topped terminal jutted up from the tile floor. The terminal was covered in cables—heavy, coiled slugs, patched to the thing with plungers, curling like vines across the floor and rising to meet the spidery pylons. It looked parasitic. It looked painful.

Which was a silly thought. Terminals couldn’t feel pain.

It was the terminal, though, that was pulling the magic into it. It sat like a lead ball upon my senses, drawing everything in, and all at once, everything about Yillig clicked into place, this whole strange ecosystem of magic and mechanisms. The terminal was what I’d felt when I first saw the city, a nexus of concentrated power, pulling all the surrounding magic of the Crystic up into the Ferren, pushing it through these cables, into the city power grid. Lighting up the levitation discs and sending the city soaring. I winced as the magic brushed past me, abrasive and sharp. I withdrew, as much as I could, from the Crystic network, drawing myself up out of the lattice of power I’d come to feel as a second skin for most of my life. It helped a little.

Fogwillow wore a grim, though curious, expression as Hazel Mars led us closer to the terminal.

“What do you think?” she said.

“It’s certainly impressive,” Fogwillow replied, and seemed to leave much unsaid.

I drew closer to the glowing pink slab, careful not to trip over the cables. “This powers the entire city?” Hazel Mars nodded. It seemed wrong. I tried to square what I was seeing with how the terminals were treated in Blush, with the almost shrine-like austerity with which Fogwillow and Len and Martha Candle had treated them.

“The terminals,” Hazel Mars said, “as I’m sure you know, never lose their connection to the Crystic.”

“Unless they’re shattered by the Ryvkk,” I said, putting a hand to my head. “Hazel Mars…Hazel Mars, what if the Ryvkk strikes here next? All those levitation discs…all those buildings…”

“Relax, bud. Like I said, the destruction zone has been evacuated, and there’s enough reserve power to keep the city afloat long enough to get everyone out. Several months at least. You don’t think we’d place all our eggs in the integrity of a single terminal, do you?”

That, at least, was a relief.

“I guess…I guess this makes sense,” I said. It was more an effort to convince myself than anything else. “We use prisms to power everything. Why shouldn’t people try to tap into this power, too? Into terminals.”

“People,” Hazel Mars repeated, crossing her arms. “You say that from such a distance.”

“I didn’t mean to sound—”

“No, of course not. Anyway, if we, the people, are going to dredge so much energy up out of these things, it seems important to make a concerted effort to understand them.”

Fogwillow snorted. “People have been trying to understand the terminals for centuries.”

“And I stand on the foundation built by all of their work,” Hazel Mars said solemnly. “Look.”

She crossed to a kiosk and pressed a few buttons. A large lightscreen came to life at the far end of the dome. She navigated through some files and pulled up a few photographs and pages of documents.

“This has been my work over the last five years. All my notes on everything anyone has ever written about the terminals. I have scans of a centuries old manuscript that refers to the terminals as the Crystiary. I have seven versions of myths copied down from the oral tradition, about terminals as springs of healing. I have maps showing which terminals have been broken, and recordings of refugees telling me what happened.” As she spoke, she flipped through page after page of writing, photographs of old books, and diagrams of terminals from across the Ferren. “But the key…the key didn’t come from any of those, much to my surprise. They key came when I visited my parents for holiday about a year ago, and they showed me their work in the sixteener ruins. Imagine my surprise.”

She stopped on an image of an old stone wall, half crumbled and overgrown with vines. She clicked to the next picture, and the photo zoomed in. The next, and it zoomed in again.

“There,” she said. “See anything intriguing?”

The image was very close, and I squinted at the lightscreen on the far wall, trying to make sense of the patterns in the weathered stone. I started to shake my head, then froze. I had seen something like that before.

A memory came back. Dinner at Len and Martha Candle’s house. Martha showing me a stone fragment she’d acquired, which Candle had later made zoom around the house on a makeshift flying machine. On that fragment, as on the image hovering overhead in the geodesic dome, was a carving of a tree.

At least, I think it was a tree. It was made of broad, overlapping triangles, hard-edged and sharp.

Martha’s voice: That glyph is all over the ruins, especially the big ones like class fours and fives.

Len’s voice: We think it must be the sigil of some kind of government, or ruling class.

“The tree,” I said.

Hazel Mars’s voice was quiet behind me. “That sigil is everywhere, once you know to look for it.” She began to flip through more pictures of more ruins. Some that looked like fragments of tablets, some that might have been broken scepters, or columns. Each photo featured another ruin, and another carved tree sigil.

“It’s one of the clearest signs from the Lorn,” Hazel Mars said, “but no one has known what it meant.”

“And you do?” Fogwillow said.

For once, Hazel Mars didn’t cower under her attention. “I have a very, very strong theory.” The next file she pulled up was a photograph of an old stone tablet, and beside it, a crude scan of the glyphs carved into it.

“What does it say?” I asked.

“Ha, well, isn’t that the question. It’s difficult to know for sure. This tablet is from a ruin in Jorus, written in a Lornic language. But, to the best of our knowledge, it’s a fragment of an ancient poem, maybe even a children’s rhyme, a way to pass down information between generations. The widely accepted translation is ‘We meet it in the heavy air, under shade of stone bower.’”

I looked back at Hazel Mars blankly.

“This is where I lose people,” she said, in a resigned tone of voice. Her next words were spoken slowly. “Just take the first line: ‘We meet it in the heavy air.’ Now, ‘meet’ can also be translated as ‘encounter,’ or ‘join.’ And the use of the word ‘it’ is just filler. We have no idea what that glyph means. It could easily say ‘we meet dogs,’ though somehow I think that’s not the intent. As for ‘heavy air,’ that phrase can also be translated as ‘rough air,’ or ‘scratchy aura.’ Static, in other words.”

“Magic,” I said, trying to keep up.

“Exactly, but here’s the important part: ‘under shade of stone bower.’ That word, ‘stone,’ comes from the glyph cabach, seen there, and it doesn’t just mean a rock. It’s also been used in places to mean ‘sharp,’ and sometimes ‘clear.’ It’s really just meant to capture this essence of sharp, clear hardness, so could also be translated as jewel, or crystal, or even, if you want to stretch it a bit, prism.”

“And bower?” Fogwillow said.

“Well, a bower is a place beneath the trees.”

I made a face, struggling to fit all of this together. “I don’t think I understand.”

“Think about it,” Hazel Mars said. In her growing excitement, she reminded me of her sister, talking about mechanical devices. I pushed down the pang that arrived with the similarity. “That phrase, ‘stone bower,’ has been the accepted translation for years, in a seemingly meaningless nursery rhyme. No one’s really given it much thought in ages. But it could easily be read another way—as ‘crystal trees.’ Or, if you like, ‘prism trees.’”

They say that big ideas take a while to arrive. I could feel them, distant, their shadows lengthening over my thoughts. Slowly, very slowly, they began to arrive.

“So I guess here’s the thing,” Hazel Mars was saying. “The terminals aren’t supposed to be these squat slabs of crystal. They were originally something else. Something that got cut down. They’re—”

“Stumps,” I finished.

Her face lit up. “Yes! The terminals are stumps. And before they were stumps…” She flipped to one, final photograph. An illustration. In sharp, pink colors, it depicted a faceted, crystal trunk and branches. “…they were trees.”

I navigated to the nearest chair and sat down. Fogwillow continued to look up at the rendering of the crystal tree with an inscrutable expression, every once in a while turning to study the terminal in the center of the dome.

“Of course, I haven’t published any of this yet, and won’t be able to for months, if not years. These are just theories, but all the same, it seemed like it might be useful.”

I couldn’t see how, yet, but then again, there was a lot to think about. And Hazel Mars kept on talking.

“It explains so much.” She wasn’t bothering to go slowly now. “For example, the reason prisms are finite, why we can’t find any more. They’re pieces of these trees, chopped down, broken up, and distributed across the Ferren.”

“Prisms can’t be broken,” I objected mildly.

“Well someone broke them. Ages ago. Hm, I wonder if there’s anything in our history that could have caused seemingly unbreakable things to split into pieces.”

“The Shattershock,” Fogwillow said.

“Precisely. And you’ll also do well to remember that prisms are tied to certain terminals.”

“Whenever the Ryvkk destroys a terminal,” I said, “a certain amount of prisms throughout the Ferren go dark.”

Hazel Mars seemed relieved that we were following her on this ludicrous theory. “Right! I think those are the prisms that were originally connected to the now-broken terminal, as part of its tree. They still have a connection. They still share power.”

“And the reason prisms lose their charge and must be reconnected,” Fogwillow said, approaching the terminal and laying a hand on it, “is because they’ve been cut off from their source. From their roots.”

“Now you’re getting it!”

I looked over at the terminal, to where it plunged straight into the ground. The tile floor had clearly been built around it, the gaps between the two uneven and dark, betraying something deep and immovable, sinking to the core of the Ferren. I shivered.

Some unknowable time later, Hazel Mars shut down the lightscreen. I blinked as it disappeared, and looked up. Hazel Mars had grown solemn while I’d been lost in my thoughts.

“Listen,” she said. She was avoiding my eyes. Was she embarrassed? “I think this information is important. It might just seem like history to you, but if it’s true, if I can prove it, it might explain something about the Splintered One.”

My brain still hurt. “Like what?”

“I don’t know, exactly, but how could it not? The trees were chopped down centuries ago, and now this malevolent spirit is going around breaking the stumps? Disconnecting them from what power they had left? There’s something there.”

“I…suppose…there probably…” I looked at Fogwillow, who was giving Hazel Mars a curious stare. “I appreciate you telling me.”

“Well, like I said, I told you because I think it’s important.” She paused to draw in a deep, rattling breath. When she spoke again, her voice was laced with regret. “But it doesn’t mean I think you’re going about it the right way.”

Slowly, I came to my feet. That tone of voice…it sent my heart fluttering. “What do you mean?”

Her eyes met mine, and I saw the pain buried inside of them. The pleading. “Nova, I had to.”

Everything went cold. It was all I could do to get my words out. “Hazel Mars? What did you do?”

Hazel Mars gripped the edge of the kiosk. “Nova, I’m sorry. But you need to understand. My dad is dead. My sister has been captured. My family has been through so much because of all of this. It can’t go on. It can’t.”

Then Fogwillow was at my side, staff in hand. “We need to leave, Nova. Now.”

But I couldn’t stop staring at Hazel Mars, mouth open in disbelief. “You didn’t.”

Hazel Mars winced. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry.” I laughed hollowly. “Do you remember what you told me all those months ago, back in Blush? About loyalty.”

“I’m being loyal, Nova. To my family. To the Ferren.”

Fogwillow tugged on my arm. “There’s no time for this.”

“You’re right,” I said. “There’s no time. Hazel Mars is too smart for us.”

The doors to the dome opened, and the Shift Patrol poured in.