On our third day at Gruff Stop, we received an unexpected visitor. I was cleaning up glass from some shattered windows on the second floor (we’d decided the best way to pass the time would be to help Gruffin get the building back into a livable condition) when I heard Candle scream downstairs. I hurried down the stairwell, fearing the worst, and when I banged into the investiture I was met with the sight of Candle hugging a taller, older version of herself and rocking back and forth. Hazel Mars. Candle’s sister. Behind them, Candle’s mom entered unobtrusively and tried not to grin.
Gruffin stood in the doorway to his office, and as soon as he’d processed what was happening, he hurried to the front doors and peered out to make sure no one was watching. The morning after we’d arrived, he’d forced the crowd of tourists away from the building by threatening to have the Shift Patrol evacuate the entire block, himself included. Rather than see the holy site abandoned, they’d moved their camp a little distance away. My presence, at least for now, was still unknown.
Candle gave the newcomer one last squeeze and then stepped back, her face flush with excitement.
“Nova!” she said, spotting me. “Look who’s here!”
I’d been trying to sneak away and I froze, caught halfway into the stairwell. I’d met Hazel Mars a couple times before, but she was still mostly a stranger, and I was never entirely sure how to behave around her. Len and Martha treated me like family, and Emma Lyn was obviously my best friend, but Hazel Mars was in her late twenties and had been away at school for most of the time I’d known the Candle family. She’d never quite lost that power strangers seemed to have of making me breathe funny.
“Hey, Nova,” Hazel Mars said. “How’s tricks?”
“I’m fine, how are you?”
She gave me a funny look, and I stepped out from behind the doorway with some resignation.
Hazel Mars looked like what would happen if you took everything about Emma Lyn Candle and made it just a bit, well, cooler. She had the same blond hair, but tamed into a braid and wrapped around the back of her head to keep it up and out of the way. Instead of a mishmash pattern of blouses and skirts, she wore a brown aviator jacket and a pair of boots that looked expensive. They’d both inherited their dad’s soft, heavy build, but Hazel Mars had also gotten their mom’s height, where Candle had not. I could just imagine Hazel Mars sweeping into her favorite smoothie bar and ordering her usual organic strawberry soy protein smoothie with a double shot of magic and a side of, I don’t know, sea salt kale or something.
“When did you get here?” Candle said.
“Just arrived last night. Left as soon as they lifted the air traffic ban.” Hazel Mars flicked Candle on the nose. “It’s good to see you, Emmy.”
Gruffin turned from the windows. “They’re letting visitors in?”
“Well…not really. Don’t think I would’ve made it near the city at all if not for a few professors who’ve got my back at the university. They had some favors to call in.”
“And it doesn’t hurt that her dissertation covers terminals,” Martha said. “Broken and otherwise.”
“I want to read it,” Candle said. “Can I read it?”
“It’s pretty dull. You would—” Hazels Mars suddenly went quiet, and it took me a moment to realize what had changed. Then I felt a shadow at my back and turned to see that Fogwillow had entered the room behind me.
“Fogwillow,” Martha said brightly, picking up the fallen threads of the conversation. “I can’t remember, did you ever meet Hazel Mars?”
“No.” Fogwillow nodded in greeting, and Hazel Mars’s ears went red. She lowered her gaze. Despite Martha’s best efforts, the conversation faltered again, until Gruffin cleared his throat loudly and motioned to the break room.
“I don’t have much to offer, but there’s a pot of elg brewing.”
Hazel Mars shook off her mood, brightening. “Elg would be great.”
“Nova,” Gruffin barked, and I sprang to attention as surely as if I still worked at the investiture. “See if you can find a bag of koba crisps that hasn’t been crushed.”
Everyone filed into the break room and found a seat among the various mismatched couches and folding chairs. Candle and Hazel Mars sat together. Fogwillow found a spot in the corner. There hadn’t been any bags of koba crisps that hadn’t been flattened or eaten already, so I brought four boxes of weybisks, and Gruffin glowered at me from beneath his eyebrows as he poured six mugs of elg from a pot in the kitchenette. I held mine between my knees and stared down into the thick black sludge is if it were a hole I could fall into and escape this entire situation. Across the table, Fogwillow snuck a few weybisks and secreted them away into her cloak.
“What about Alphabet?” Candle was saying to her sister.
“What about him?”
“Is he here?”
“He’s staying with a friend.”
“Who’s Alphabet?” I asked.
Candle turned to me, practically beaming. “Her dog. You would love him, Nova. He’s got this adorable little face.”
“I don’t think I like dogs.”
“When was the last time you even saw a dog?” I shrugged, and Candle rolled her eyes. “Well, you’d like Alphabet.”
I took a sip of my elg and tried not to choke on it. The stuff was infused with magic, and it sent volleys of sparks up the back of my nose where they snapped behind my eyes. The sensation made it difficult to concentrate on what was being said. Not that my attention was really needed. The Candle women caught up on their lives for a while, and I was allowed to sink into the background along with Gruffin and Fogwillow. The conversation veered in my direction for a moment when Hazel Mars started taking Candle to task on running away from home to help rescue me, but her words were playful, and they passed by without pulling me in. There was something unfamiliar to me in the way the two sisters talked to each other, a mutual admiration, tinged with competition, tinged with sensitivity, tinged with a history I had never seen but could hear the echoes of, even now, as they swapped stories and questions and barbs. They were like two waves crashing against each other.
“You completely destroyed them,” Hazel Mars said, laughing.
“I was eight!”
“Dad stayed up all night to help me copy those notes over, or at least what we could read through the scorch marks.”
“Of course he did. Dad always went out of his way for you.”
At this, Hazel Mars’s expression tightened, but she laughed all the same. They were being careful—almost painfully so—to avoid any discussion of who they’d lost, but his presence was there, just beneath the words. A sadness that never seemed to match what was being said.
Eventually, the discussion began to wind down, and the room rested quiet and content in the fullness of shared memories. Everyone settled into this rounded space, created by something not quite like magic.
Fogwillow leaned forward. “Where do you go to school, Hazel Mars?”
The tips of Hazel Mars’s ears went red again, but she kept her composure this time. “I’m a grad student at Thrush University. In Yillig.”
“Well, it’s no Advance Academy, but they do work me hard.” She threw me a wink, and I squirmed in my seat.
“What do you study?”
“What’s that?” I said.
Candle answered for her sister. “The history of history! Leave it to Hazel Mars to take something useless and push it so far into abstraction that it’s even more than useless. It’s meta-useless.”
“This from the girl who wants to read my dissertation?”
“Only so I can tear it apart.”
“History is not useless, Emma Lyn,” Martha said. “Especially when it comes to studying the terminals.” Candle waved a dismissive hand.
“Aren’t you even a little bit curious about the terminals?” Hazel Mars asked.
“Oh, they’re weird, sure. But we know what they do and we know how to use them.”
“And that should be enough, huh?” Candle shrugged. Hazel Mars pressed on. “Except it’s not. The terminals are the only things we know of that have an inherent, endless link to magic. They’re made of the same material as prisms, but prisms lose their connection and need to be recharged. And wizards only wield magic as a proxy, syncing with the latticework of the Crystic when they need to access power.”
“Wow,” Candle said. “Fascinating.”
“You are infuriating, Emmy. You never ask why, only what for.”
“I’m sorry if I don’t care about helping a bunch of washed up wizards spread antiquated and frankly obsolete ideas about magic. Wizards are on the out. No offense,” she added, throwing a look at Fogwillow, Gruffin, and I. Fogwillow raised her hands as if to say none taken.
Hazel Mars sighed. “Anyway. My dissertation isn’t actually about the terminals themselves. It’s about the way our ancestors wrote about the terminals. How they studied them, what they believed about them, how they described them. A history of history.”
“Is that better?” I asked. “Why can’t you just study the terminals?”
“I mean, you could. There are people doing just that, but the conclusions they draw are informed by generations of scholarly research, some of which is contradictory, and they’re also influenced by the popular beliefs of our own time. No. The only way to truly understand what these things are is to take a step back and study the conclusions and the stories, from as far back as we can find them. Look for patterns. See how the conclusions changed over time, how they’re alike, and who’s they are.” She looked around at the blank faces staring back at her. She took a sip of elg and shrugged, leaning back coolly in her chair. With her other hand, she patted her braids to make sure they were still pinned in place. “Like I said, dull.”
When no one responded, it was Fogwillow who broke the silence. “I don’t think so. Not at all. We see meaning only through what we are built on. The future is defined by the past.” She looked back and forth between Candle and Hazel Mars. Hazels Mars was blushing again, and she took a drink to cover it up.
“Everyone is doing everything they can to crack the Lorn,” she said when she’d recovered. “There are many who believe we can’t continue to move forward until we piece our vanished history back together. So my mom unearths old relics. My dad…” She almost broke. “My dad read runes. I’m just doing what I can.”
On the couch beside her, Candle sunk into a dark cloud, arms crossed.
The conversation puttered on for a while longer, but the life had gone out of it. I wasn’t sure if I was jittery from the elg or from being surrounded by so many people, but my knee wouldn’t stop bouncing, and I couldn’t look at anyone’s face for very long. There was too much information in their eyes and in the set of their mouths. Too much undecipherable emotion to let into my brain. Eventually, Gruffin stood up, grunted, and began to clear away the mugs.
“We should head back to the camp,” Martha said, taking the cue.
“I’ll show you out,” Gruffin said. “Nova, clean those mugs, will you?”
I jumped up, glad to have the chance to detach myself from the group, but my heart sank when Hazel Mars said, “You all go on ahead. I’m going to help Nova clean up.”
The break room cleared, and Hazel Mars and I stood side by side in front of the sink. She scrubbed the mugs in the sudsy water and I dried them off.
“How’re you doing?” she said as we worked. I shrugged. “I followed everything you wrote, you know. Sounded like a rough time.” I made a noncommittal noise, and took a dripping mug from her. “Do you feel ready, though? Do you feel like you can take on the Specter of Anon-Golish?” She said the name dramatically, as if mocking.
I dried the mug with slow, careful motions. “Maybe.”
“I mean, eventually.”
“Eventually.” In her mouth, the word had a hollow tinge. She handed me another mug. “So what’s the plan?” She didn’t reach back into the water. She just stared at me, slowly coming to believe what she had probably already suspected. “You don’t have a plan.”
I shook my head. Hazel Mars pursed her lips and looked around the break room. And then, unexpectedly, she told me a story.
“When Emmy was young, really young, like five or so, she was friends with this kid who lived down the hall. Saia, I think her name was. She was short, kind of scrappy if I remember right. What I do remember is that Saia had an older brother who I was crushing on pretty hard. He liked to talk, you know? And at that age, anyone who could hold a steady conversation without stumbling into a pit of awkwardness was royalty as far as I was concerned. Anyway, Saia was over one day and for whatever reason she snuck into my room and found my diary. I was sixteen, so it was really, you know, really childish, embarrassing stuff.” She smiled at me in some effort to make a connection. My stomach sunk as I thought of my ticker. I wondered if she’d meant her words as a jab. I couldn’t be sure. I wondered why she was telling me any of this.
Hazel Mars cleared her throat and reached for the last dirty mug. “Of course there was stuff about Saia’s brother in there, and when Emmy found out what Saia had read, she made her swear not to tell her brother my secret. They did this whole ritual thing, I heard later. Secret handshake and zipped lips, all of it. Of course, Saia told her brother anyway. How could she not? I was so embarrassed and Emmy…well Emmy never forgave Saia for breaking her trust. She hasn’t spoken a word to Saia to this day, and trust me, that takes some amount of determination when you live four doors down. They’d walk to school together and Emmy would hold her chin up the whole way, staring straight ahead, completely ignoring her friend’s pleas. As far as she was concerned, Saia had ceased to exist.”
I took the mug from her, dried it, and set it on the shelf with the others. Hazel Mars seemed to be expecting me to say something, and when I didn’t she said, very quietly:
“Are you sure you made the right decision?”
My grip tightened on the drying cloth. “You read my ticker. You know what they were doing to me.”
“Nova, I know. I get it, trust me. They were manipulative and insincere. That whole Diosec thing, I just…ugh.” She shuddered. “But I also know they were helping you get stronger. You said so yourself.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I just want to make sure you know what you’re doing.”
“Well, I don’t.”
Hazel Mars snatched the cloth out of my grip and threw it on the counter. She was suddenly standing very close. “You think I don’t know what it’s like to have my professors be tough on me? To get put through the grinder?”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“I’ve given my life for my work, Nova. I’ve barely seen my family in the past ten years. I know the Advance Academy wasn’t perfect, but who else is going to teach you?”
“Why do you care?”
She jabbed a finger toward the door. “Because that is my sister who’s life you’re putting on the line.”
We held each other’s gaze. I watched her focus on one eye, and then the other, until she took a deep breath, dropped her hand to her side, and stepped back.
“Look. All I’m saying is, she risked a lot for you. To help you with whatever this thing is.” She gestured at me, taking in my whole body, as if whatever she was seeing was just a phase. “Stay loyal to her, Nova. She won’t forgive you if you let her down.”
“I know,” I said. “I grew up with her.”
Hazel Mars flinched. A flicker of guilt passed across her face.
Footsteps entering the room. “Is everything okay in here?” Candle stood at the threshold. The light from the storefront turned her hair into bright wisps.
“It’s fine,” Hazel Mars said, kicking herself out from the counter. “Peachy.” She tugged to straighten her aviator jacket, gave me one last look, then brushed past her sister and vanished.
Candle gave me a bewildered look. “What’s her deal?”
“She wanted to make sure I had a plan.”
Candle’s mouth tightened. “Of course she did. I think she has her life planned out right up until she steps down into her grave.”
“Why was she so nervous around Fogwillow?” I said, not so much nudging as strong-arming the conversation in another direction. “That was weird wasn’t it?”
“Eh. I think we just forget how other people see her. She’s just Fogwillow to us, but to the rest of the Ferren she’s Wendo the Wild.” She shook her hands back and forth as she said that last bit, then disappeared back through the door. I was left alone, with soapsuds still drifting through the air.
I thought about Candle and her sister, about how everything they said to and about each other stood on a mountain of history. I thought about Fogwillow, and how she could feel so familiar even with a past she had never let me see. And I thought about the Ferren, which had no history at all and whose future was splintering even as I stood among the bubbles, a hundred miles from where I should have been. Our world stood between two chasms, ready at any moment to crumble and be swept away. In running away from the Advance Academy, my plan had always been some hazy idea of adventure in the wild, like wizards of old, but it was looking increasingly like I needed something sharper. Something more specific.
I was jolted from my reverie when Fogwillow flew into the room and gave me a wild, panicked look. “Find a place to hide,” she said. “Chief Inspector Rhyme is here.”