“Well, did you finish your history lesson?” Commander Rhyme said.
We were surrounded by shifties in the sunlit dome, on their knees with their glimmers raised, silver barrels winking with the silver spider leg pylons, black uniforms blending with the coiled black cables. Everything wound tight and ready to spring. Hazel Mars stood behind the kiosk with her hands up. Fogwillow had her staff ready, one step in front of me. I hadn’t yet summoned mine.
Rhyme stood on the other side of the terminal, empty-handed.
“You told me you’d bring her,” Hazel Mars said. “You told me you’d let her go.”
“And I’m a slipshape of my word,” Rhyme said. He gave a signal and the ranks parted. Two shifties came forward, holding Candle by her elbows. When they reached the front, they stopped, and Candle shrugged them off.
As she composed herself, her eyes met mine—and then passed right over them. It was like a punch to the gut. She was mad at me. Still. If there was any comfort, it was that she gave the same look to her sister.
“Are you all right, Emmy?” Hazel Mars said.
Candle’s response was curt. “I’m fine.”
I tried to press the pain down, but it was like pressing a finger against a sore; it only made things hurt more. All right then, she could still be mad at me. There was nothing I could do about it right now. I tore my gaze away from her and focused on Rhyme.
“I’m surprised they gave you another chance,” I said. “What is this, strike three?”
“Third time’s a charm.” There was little warmth left in his eyes for me. I imagine getting walloped by Fogwillow on my behalf would do that to a person. “Why don’t you put that away, Master Fogwillow?”
Fogwillow only gripped her staff more tightly. “There are too many of them,” I said to her. “It’s okay.” She didn’t move a muscle, but a moment later, her staff was gone.
“Thank you.” Rhyme sounded genuinely relieved. “Let’s get this settled then, shall we?”
Another signal. Half a dozen shifties came forward, some with handcuffs. As they closed in, though, I felt a prickle of magic gather around me. At my side, Fogwillow was as dense and leaden as a boulder.
“Fogwillow, no!” But it was too late. She lashed out and the approaching shifties’ feet went out from under them. They slammed to the ground.
Several glimmers went off around the dome. Two of them struck, and Fogwillow went to her knees, gritting her teeth as fuchsia bolts of magic broke around her.
“Hold your fire!” Rhyme barked.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Hazel Mars said. “There’s valuable stuff in here.” Overhead, the steel pylons shuddered, and the hanging cables swayed as if in a light breeze.
Another squad of shifties approached. Fogwillow’s magic was still breaking inside her from the glimmer, but she rose to her feet all the same and swung her fist at a shiftie, stumbling forward. Shouts. The shifties rushed her and knocked her to the floor in a dog pile, wrenching her arms back. I called her name but was pulled away by the elbows, kicking, and for a moment there was general confusion as Rhyme rounded the terminal to get a handle on things and shiftie bodies went sprawling as Fogwillow fought them off.
It ended abruptly with a voice from the back of the dome.
“Eoea’s staff, must we be so dramatic about this?”
The hairs on my neck stood straight up. I stopped struggling, and Rhyme and a couple others hauled Fogwillow, finally overpowered, to her feet.
The ranks parted again. Footsteps clacked on the tile floor. And there she was, like a god descending from the heavens. At last.
“Nova Scratshot,” Dean Enislen said. “I knew you’d come for her.”
She smiled with half her face. The other half was slack, scarred. Less red than when I had seen it on the news, but still noticeably injured, the white ridges of stitch-lines branching up from chin to hairline.
She was a lot shorter than I remembered.
The petite woman took Candle and gently ushered her away from the two shifties guarding her. Candle squirmed, but Dean Enislen’s grip tightened around her shoulders as she led her around the terminal, right up to Hazel Mars.
“Your sister, no worse for wear,” she said. “Thank you.”
Hazel Mars grabbed for Candle and pulled her in tight, her eyes wet and a little frightened. Dean Enislen turned on her heel to face me.
“This was fun, wasn’t it?” she said brightly.
“I mean this was fun. You gave a good chase, Nova, and I have to admit that you slipped away a few more times than I expected you to. For a while there after the Pillars, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to track you down again. But! All’s well that ends well.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“Oho, listen to you. This isn’t a game. You’re starting to sound like a real hero, Nova.”
“And you’re starting to sound like a real villain.”
“I’m leaning into it.” She turned to the shifties holding my elbows. “Come on, you two, not so rough, huh? Let him breath a little bit. I think he understands the situation.”
Hesitantly, the shifties released me, and Dean Enislen drew closer. It was all I could do not to back away. She had a glimmer in a holster at her waist, but she left it untouched, peering up into my face, genuinely curious. Her eyes danced, shifting back and forth between my own.
“You look well. I’m so glad to see that.”
“What did you expect?”
“Marewill gave it a fifty-fifty chance you would abandon your training while you were in the wild. I’m so happy to see you made the right choice. You see, Nova? There’s some wiggle room in the numbers for you to cut your own path.”
“—is your father, yes, I know. I’ve always known.” She licked her lips and squinted, as if trying to peer deeper into my face. “Did you have a good time, Nova? Did you have fun?”
Why lie? “Yes. Mostly.”
“Good. Now are you ready to get back to work?”
I didn’t respond to that. What would have been the point? Dean Enislen smiled, raised a finger, and flicked her nose. “Okay, then. I can see we have many long talks ahead of us. Let’s not waste time.” The floor squeaked as she turned on her heel again and headed toward the doors. “Move out!” she barked.
The shifties rustled to life. I was led forward, and found myself close to Fogwillow as we went. Her head was hung. She looked miserable. When she spoke, her voice came so quietly I wasn’t sure I’d heard it at first. It was the voice of a ghost.
“Get in front of me, Nova.”
She hissed. “I said get in front of me.”
Trying not to cause too much fuss, I carefully maneuvered my way forward until I was walking just ahead of her. We were nearly to the doors. I was about to turn and ask what she thought she was doing, when a sharp, painful jolt thudded up my spine. I let out a cry and quickly staunched it, but the shifties had stopped, eyeing me cautiously.
Another jolt. I bit my tongue. And then four more in rapid succession. My spine turned into a whipcord of energy, my brain fuzzed over, and then cleared as a knife-like focus cut through. Fogwillow was powering my prisms.
I rounded on her in the middle of the shifties, eyes wide, and she looked at me from beneath her brow, smiling.
I leapt into the air, pushing power down through my heels to send me higher than should have been possible, over the heads of the shifties. A few fired, but most were too shocked. Hazel Mars screamed as I landed on top of the terminal, and Candle took advantage of the momentary confusion to break free from her sister’s grip and shove one of the shifties to the ground, snagging her glimmer. She met my eyes, and nodded.
Grinning, I drew on the Crystic. Magic snapped up my spine, more than I had felt in ages, and—since I wasn’t as powerful or well-trained last time they were charged—more than I had felt possibly ever. I found channels in the Crystic I hadn’t known were there, grooves of magic that hummed through my skin. I pulled them up and let them go, until the Crystic was reverberating so fast within me that I thought my bones might rattle right out of their sockets. The geodesic dome groaned and whined, whistling an increasingly thin and piercing tone.
And then it shattered.
The panes of glass blew outward in snowflake fragments, and the sun shone down between the steel framework, harsh with the first rays of spring. The shifties broke rank, hands over heads, crying out in alarm. Hazel Mars shouted to be careful.
I leapt from the terminal and launched myself through one of the dome’s empty triangle panels, landing in the plaza outside to see Dean Enislen only a few yards away. Her brief and delicious look of shock was replaced almost immediately by resignation—boredom, even.
She drew a line in the air and her black, needle-thin staff appeared in her hands. A flick of my wrist, and my own staff was out before me. Dean Enislen didn’t even wait. She let forth a burst of fuchsia, which I fumbled to block.
Several shifties were running for me, but they dropped one by one as Candle climbed out the side of the ruined dome, firing her stolen glimmer. She took aim at Dean Enislen, but the dean snapped her staff to the side, and Candle went sprawling back over the cobblestones. I roared.
The magic erupted out of me, and it was all I could do to funnel it into my staff. The white wood shuddered in my grip, leaves at the tip rustling, and my heels slid back as I directed it at Dean Enislen, who tumbled to the side and threw up her staff to block.
“You’re very powerful,” she said when the sparks fizzed away. “Fogwillow and I have done you well.”
My shoulders were heaving. “Just Fogwillow.”
“Nova, you hurt my feelings.”
We traded spats of magic until we were both out of breath and sweating. In the corner of my eye, I could see commotion around the dome as Fogwillow fought to reach me. Some of the shifties had reformed ranks, but they were distracted and broken again and again as they struggled to contain her. Rhyme had his glimmer out, tracing Fogwillow’s movements with a pained expression, unable to fire. Around us, the floating towers drifted, like silver knives held aloft. Staff threatening to slip from my sweaty hands, I launched volley after volley at Dean Enislen, forcing her back to the edge of the plaza, to the stone bulwark and the sheer drop of the Chasm, but she was only toying with me. She was as powerful as Fogwillow, and I would have lost long before now if I hadn’t had the boost through my spine, which was already rapidly draining. I wiped my brow, fending off another attack. This was a waste of time.
Turning about, I flung myself in the other direction, away from Dean Enislen and the shifties. Toward the empty streets. Behind me, she laughed with genuine surprise.
“So you do know when to cut your losses.”
She let me get halfway across the plaza, and then there was a sickening hook in my stomach, jerking me to a stop mid-flight. My feet left the ground, arms and head snapping forward, ears ringing with a dull metallic ping. My staff flew from my hands.
I rose higher, floating, drawn back slowly as if on a reel.
“It was a valiant effort,” Dean Enislen said. “I guess I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t tried to run one last time. You’ve got some grit. When did that happen?”
She came into view beneath my dangling feet, looking up, staff held aloft. I grunted, which was all I could manage to do in response. Her magic felt like a two-ton weight on my chest. She gave her staff a lazy twirl and I spun about slowly to face her. The scene before the broken dome passed before me as I did: Fogwillow surrounded by shifties, sending them sprawling as they regrouped and fired and broke again. Candle was back in custody.
Dean Enislen’s magic was crushing. The world darkened around the edges. Crystalline fragments of pink and cherry flickered up and down the outlines of the Ferren.
“Let’s see,” Dean Enislen said. “What can we do to make it so you don’t try this little stunt again?” She tapped her chin with her free hand, then snapped her fingers. “I know. How about a little fear?”
She swung her staff, and I went flying. I might have screamed, but there was little time to think about it. I flipped, once, soaring back over the edge of the plaza, past the bulwarks and streetlamps, out over the Chasm itself. Emptiness below. A hollow terror in the pit of my stomach. No. I landed painfully on one of the long overlooks, the half-bridges that stretched out like fingers into the Chasm. Sheer panic shut down every functioning circuit in my mind, overriding sense and skill and strength. My momentum carried me onward as I fought for purchase, right down the length of the overlook, where I upset a flock of roosting pigeons. They took to the sky, trailing feathers, as I reached the far end. I didn’t slow. In fact, I even seemed to be picking up speed. I crashed against the railing and it broke off. My legs flew out over the emptiness. I clawed for the ledge, nothing more than a shallow lip of steel. I kept going. I wasn’t going to keep hold.
The fingers of one hand curled around the lip as I flew straight back into empty air. Then another invisible hook pulled forward through the base of my neck. I lurched to a halt.
Gasping, trying to keep myself from crying, I held fast to the ledge and pulled my elbows up over it as my feet swung down from side to side over…over nothing…endless darkness, for miles on either side and fathoms below. The city seemed far away, telescoped out to a postcard snapshot of floating silver towers. It was quiet here. Only the sound of pigeon wings fading away. I let out a sob.
“How do you feel, Nova?”
Dean Enislen was walking down the overlook. Each step was hollow and metallic. She held her staff in her hand, but relinquished it to the Crystic as she neared. Immediately, the hook in my neck lurched free and I fell a few inches, elbows and shoulders straining over the edge.
“Let me up!” I screamed. “Let me up!” I heaved but there was little strength left in my arms.
Dean Enislen drew closer. “You’ll have to lift yourself up, I’m afraid. You made that bed.”
“Enislen. Please, Dean Enislen!”
“I’m not going to catch you if you fall, Nova. You’re going to have to get up on your own.”
But my ability to hold on was rapidly failing. My arms and shoulders shook uncontrollably. The magic was leaving the prisms in my spine and as it went it seemed to take everything with it. I tried not to kick my feet. It was too easy. It only reminded me that there was nothing down there.
“Please,” I said hoarsely. “Please, please.”
Dean Enislen stood over me now. I was staring at her black, laced shoes, small and pointed. “Nova, get up.”
I screamed in fear and determination, heaving myself as far as I could before slumping down again, chin nearly resting on the ledge. I cried for help.
Fogwillow’s voice, in answer. “Nova!” I heard rapid footsteps, and felt the overlook vibrate disconcertingly as they neared. Dean Enislen turned, but she wasn’t fast enough. I saw a glimpse of Fogwillow’s cloak, flapping in the wind, and then heard another sharp ping.
Dean Enislen rose off the platform, a strangled cry caught in her throat. Fogwillow stepped forward slowly with her staff held high, a look of pure fury on her face. I had never seen her so angry before. Every line was etched as if into stone, and her eyes could have burned a hole in the Ferren itself. As she neared, she swung the floating Dean Enislen out over the Chasm where she hung like one of Yillig’s stalwart buildings.
“Monstrous.” Fogwillow said. The word came out like a hiss of pressure through a pinhole.
“Wasn’t…” Dean Enislen struggled to speak. “Wasn’t going to…”
“I don’t care,” Fogwillow said. “You have never had his best interests at heart.”
“The Ferren…the Ferren…”
“I don’t think you give a damn about the Ferren. You’re just in too deep.”
Dean Enislen made an unintelligible sound. Her arms were pinned to her sides, her chin tucked into her neck. I watched them helplessly, scrabbling for purchase against the edge of the overlook. With a wave of her staff, Fogwillow brought Dean Enislen closer, into the heat of her gaze.
“Listen to me, Vika. If you ever so much as touch Nova again, I will blast you so far into the Crystic that every wizard in the Ferren will feel the meat of you, shredded against their lattice of magic. Do you understand?”
There was real fear in Dean Enislen’s eyes. She made another unintelligible sound, which seemed to satisfy Fogwillow well enough. Fogwillow turned her head to look down at me.
“Are you okay, Nova?”
“I’m—” I cut off. From where I clung for dear life, I saw Dean Enislen struggle to reach something at her waist. “Fogwillow!” Too late. Dean Enislen’s hand was pinned awkwardly at her side, but her finger was around the trigger. She aimed the glimmer up, and fired.
Magenta sparks. A sudden oomph. Fogwillow stumbled backward and lost her grip on her staff, which clattered down and vanished. Dean Enislen fell as if a line had been snipped. She crashed to the overlook and knocked into the flailing Fogwillow, who stumbled back, tripping, limbs entwined with deep purple lightning. The dean’s eyes went wide and she reached out to grab Fogwillow, one hand seizing the collar of her cloak. Fogwillow let out a noise I had never heard from her before: a soft, delicate whimper. Dean Enislen’s fist closed, and Fogwillow jerked to a stop, tipped out over the void.
Everything ground to a halt. The skyline of Yillig itself seemed to freeze. In those slow, irretrievable moments, I saw Dean Enislen’s eyes slide over to mine. In them, I saw her mind make a dozen calculations. I saw those calculations lock into place. I saw her look back at Fogwillow. I saw her face harden.
She let go.
When Fogwillow looked at you, it was as if you were the only spark of magic in the Ferren. She was always there. She couldn’t be counted on to be much more than there, but there she was. She smelled of steckleberries. She was as wild as the wilds she called home. She had once been in love with a man named Garrel Gruffin, and though they never talked much anymore, with him she had raised a child.
She made no noise as she fell into the deep.
The world came snapping back. With it: power I hadn’t known I had left in me. Screaming, I launched myself onto the overlook and grabbed Dean Enislen by the front of her suit, hand closing around her silver locket. I pushed her backward as I went. She said my name a few times, feet stumbling out from under her, but I kept pushing, half dragging her down the length of the overlook until we reached the end, where I shoved her down into the plaza.
She coughed and tried to rise, but I had no time for her. I spun about and looked into the Chasm. There was, as usual, nothing there. Only an endless stretch of quiet darkness.
“No,” I gasped, and felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Nova,” Dean Enislen said.
I shook her off and grabbed the side of my head. “No!”
I screamed. I crouched down on my heels and squeezed my eyes shut and screamed. The prisms along my spine popped with leftover magic, sending sparks pinwheeling up through my head. It was too much. I didn’t want the magic. I didn’t need the magic. The Crystic came flooding through in wave after wave of glass and fuchsia and fractals, tearing my mind, making my thoughts spin faster and faster. Too much information coming in. Too many sensations. I just wanted peace. I needed everything to be quiet, but my body felt like a million spikes of heat.
I pushed the magic out. I was still screaming.
I didn’t see what happened. Later, in an endless series of interrogations and depositions, I would struggle to believe it. I didn’t see it.
I heard it, though. I heard my magic sweep out from me in an ever-expanding ring, a wave of bright magenta. I heard it crash against the floating towers of Yillig surrounding the plaza where the geodesic dome housed the leech-sucked terminal. I heard the blare and felt the static discharge as every levitation disc within a quarter-mile radius divested themselves of power, breaking against the onslaught of my magic. I heard the buildings start to fall.
The world came down around me. Stone mashed against stone. The ground shook. I heard the overlook bridges crack once, twice, and then snap. I smelled the dust as it kicked up into my nose. I heard the screams. I felt the wind rush past, whipping one way and then the next. I heard an unending chorus of smashing and falling and cracking and breaking that all joined together in a dense, meaningless, unending roar.
And when I peeked out from between my knees, I saw entire towers sliding off over the edge of the Chasm. I saw them tip wholesale into the endless nothingness and dwindle to the size of grains of rice before the darkness took them. Just like her.
I screamed until my throat was raw, and when it was over, when there was nothing left but the occasional plik, plik, plik of wayward rocks tumbling over themselves, I heard Dean Enislen’s voice in my ear. It was filled with quiet distress.
“Who died?” I said. The question seemed to confuse her. “Candle. Hazel Mars. Rhyme. Are they okay?”
“I…I…I think…Nova, I think so…but…”
I chanced a look up. Dean Enislen was kneeling before me, covered in dust. Her head was tilted down, expression one of concern and caution. I felt a flash of sick humor as I remembered the photograph from the newspaper in Gruffin’s office. Remembered a moment just like this, the first time I’d exploded. The first time Dean Enislen had taken me away. Kneeling together just outside the investiture.
“I thought I’d learned control,” I said. Dean Enislen swallowed. I tried to find some fury for her, but there was nothing left. I was empty. So it was without much emphasis at all when I said, “You killed her.”
“You killed her.”
“Nova, she was holding you back.”
“Go away. Please just go away.” I tried to push her, but she caught my arms and pinned them in place. I writhed against her grip, whimpering.
“Nova, there’s—calm down! Nova, there’s no doubt Fogwillow was very good for you. But at a certain point—” I let out a strained shriek and tried to break free. She held fast. “—at a certain point, Nova, even the most well-meaning teacher will hold you back. You must rise above.”
“I don’t want to be the Answer!” I said. “I don’t want to save the Ferren.”
Dean Enislen released one of my wrists and slapped me. “Don’t you dare say that. Don’t you dare.” I crumbled. Dean Enislen softened and put a hand on the back of my head. So much touching. I didn’t have the strength to squirm. “Oh, there, there,” she said. “You’ll be okay. You will work through this and be stronger than before. You must break to grow. Believe me Nova, you have grown.”
I put my head in Dean Enislen’s lap and cried.