A line ran through the city, a sharp boundary that separated what remained from what didn’t. On one side of the line lay the debris of fallen buildings and smashed sidewalks, piled high. On the other side, nothing. A desert of gray, scorched earth, flattened and quiet. Skyscrapers stood bisected along the border, guts exposed to the wind. Looking across the wastes, I couldn’t see exactly where the field of impact ended, but I could see, a couple miles out, the humped and blurry shapes of skeleton buildings on the northern end of the city as well. I stood just this side of the perimeter. Between me and those distant buildings, the world was dead.
“When you wrote about this,” Candle said at my side, “the broken terminal you saw in the mountains…I didn’t think…” She trailed off, shivering.
Two steps ahead, the ground became flat, cobblestones beaten to fine gravel, the remains of the city—of buildings and sidewalks and lampposts and fences—scattered as a dark, glittering sand. Wisps of smoke curled over the impacted ground, a field of ghostly flowers. On our right, a trolley lay askew, its levitation disks dead, body sliced in half where it breached the border. Candle and I had ridden a trolley very much like that one once, toward this very part of the city, Central Circuit, to file a complaint with a certain chief inspector. It felt like it could have been yesterday.
We crossed into the dead space.
Immediately, all sensation fell away. No warmth. No coldness. Nothing but smoke and stillness. If I had tried to connect to the Crystic, I would find it wasn’t there. The Ferren and the Crystic—the physical and the magical—both fell away in this void of brokenness.
“We’ll be exposed,” Candle said.
She was right. There was no hiding here. If the shifties were patrolling, they’d spot us in an instant, even under the cover of darkness.
“Maybe their superstitions will keep them from looking too close,” Fogwillow replied.
We continued across the charred landscape with Fogwillow in the lead. Bits of ash fluttered at our feet. The moonlight spun silver through the rising smoke. Everything smelled thin, like it had up in the mountains.
“How do your prisms feel, Nova?” Fogwillow said lowly.
“Like someone’s taken a hole punch to my spine.” Even when not charged, I had always been able to sense the six prisms in my back, like knots in a tree trunk, but in this deadened, connectionless space, they were more like hollows. If there had been a wind, I imagined it would have blown right through me.
“How do we know he’s not still here?” Candle said.
Fogwillow cast a glance over her shoulder. “The Splintered One?” She scanned the landscape. “I’m sure he is, a part of him at least.”
“A part of him?”
“I think Nova likely has the best sense of it. Right, Nova?”
I opened my mouth to protest, but on second thought realized I understood what she meant. I had seen the Ryvkk. I had felt the specter of him in my vision of the Crystic, when I first learned I was the Answer. I had tried to hold him in my palms, wrap him up in the algorithm of myself. “The Ryvkk,” I said, and at the name something slithered up my skin, terrifyingly distinct in this place without sensation. I looked about.
The landscape was dark and empty. I started over.
“I don’t think the Splintered One is really a person. Right?” I looked to Fogwillow, who made no move to interrupt or correct. “He’s like a thunderstorm, except…except more like the opposite of a thunderstorm.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Candle said.
“I’m trying. He’s like…energy, except the opposite of energy. It’s hard to put into words. People personify him because it makes things easier to understand—the Red Wilkin, the Specter of Anon-Golish—but words aren’t equipped to contain him. I saw him once. He spoke his name, except it wasn’t like speaking and it wasn’t like sound. I heard the name as a tear in my mind.”
We walked across the flatlands in silence. The world seemed to roll beneath us, the distance curving toward our feet.
“He’s a shadow of the Crystic,” Candle said.
I nodded. “A being that exists in its breaking. Magic is connection, so I guess what Fogwillow means is that…the specter is here because in some sense he lives where the Crystic does not.”
“You’re saying he’s death.”
“Sort of? He’s…he’s…”
“He’s disconnection,” Fogwillow said.
Candle paused. “Oh.” Then, after a moment’s thought: “Why couldn’t you have just said that?”
“I wanted to hear Nova muddle through it.”
“Thanks,” I muttered. I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered. I could still feel the whisper of sensation against my skin. The icy feeling of a touch withdrawn.
“And what does he want?”
But Candle’s question went unanswered when Fogwillow swung her arms out and forced us to a halt. “There,” she said. We had almost missed it. The broken terminal sat in the ground up ahead, a stump of jagged crystal so clear it was all but invisible, save for the slender cracks running through it, cracks that seemed to split the air itself. Each of us took in a sharp, simultaneous breath.
Slowly, we drew closer. I tensed, expecting something to happen—for something to smite me, for the Splintered One to rise up out of the ground—but nothing did. Nothing could.
“People used to believe these were indestructible, you know,” Candle said. “Prisms, too.”
I remembered this. Both prisms and terminals were made of the same smooth crystal, impossible to break, chip, or scratch. The terminals were lynchpins of magic in the Crystic, never losing their connection, and the prisms snapped and wove through that pattern, disconnecting and, with the aid of wizards like me, reconnecting, bringing that magic to anyone who would use it.
“It doesn’t seem right,” I said.
We came to a stop and Fogwillow lowered her arms. “It’s not right.”
Looking around, I tried to imagine the plaza as it used to be. The dark cobblestone circle. The people crowded in, weaving to and fro. The glass pavilion where the trolleys swept those people to other parts of the city. Up ahead, the corner where the black domed headquarters of the Shift Patrol sat like a beetle with a shining carapace. The Vault. Its remains were dust beneath our feet.
“Touch it, Nova.”
I looked up to see Fogwillow staring at me. I almost choked on my reply. “What?”
She nodded to the terminal. “Touch it.”
Fogwillow shrugged. “I want to see what happens.”
I glared at her, and Candle suppressed a snort. “Has anyone touched a broken terminal before?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. Many times. But the Answer never has.”
“I don’t think I’m that different from anyone else.”
“It’s time you stopped believing that.” She whipped her staff out and swung it in the direction of the fractured terminal. “Touch it.”
I approached the terminal and knelt to one side. It was so clear, and the night was so dark, that it was difficult to see the boundaries of the thing. In fact, the most obvious sign that there was anything there at all were the cracks, running faintly silver through the air. They branched up from the base of the terminal in such a way that it almost looked like a miniature tree. I ran my hands on the ground along its base. The terminals had deep roots. They continued down into the earth like buried crystal pylons, and no one had managed to dig far enough to unearth one. When I looked down through the transparent terminal, as if looking into a hole, I could see the walls of calcified earth where they pressed up against the crystal. At least for a little bit. Less than a foot down, everything faded to shadow.
I placed a hand on top of the terminal.
“Well?” Fogwillow said.
“I’m not sure what you expected to find here, Fogwillow. It’s just a dead terminal.”
The old wizard’s face fell. “There must be a way…”
“A way for what?”
She tucked her staff in close and let out a huff. “You don’t think it’s odd that for all the years the Splintered One has been haunting the Ferren, for every broken terminal that has flattened its surroundings, for all the thousands of people who have died—for all of that, no one can claim to have seen him?”
“You asked my mom,” Candle said. “You asked my mom if she’d seen anything.”
“People have claimed to have seen him,” I said.
“Rumors,” Fogwillow replied. “Hearsay. There are no photographs, no one credible with any reliable description. The stories of him vary wildly. You’re meant to go up against the most destructive being the Ferren has seen since the Lorn, and we don’t know anything about him. More importantly, you don’t know anything about him.” She began to pace, and rolled her eyes. “The opposite of a thunderstorm. Rods.”
I frowned. “Maybe if I’d stayed at the Advance Academy…”
“You really think if Dean Enislen had known anything that she would have told you? She’s building her storybook hero. Her paint-by-numbers Answer. She doesn’t need you to know things.”
My hand was still resting on the terminal, and I used it to push myself up. As I drew away, though, something leapt between the transparent crystal and the tips of my fingers, a slithering sensation that slipped beneath by nails. There was a sound like two panes of glass scraping against each other. It cut a line between my ears and made my head ring like a bell. I gasped, and tipped back into the air as my feet flew out from under me…
And then I was falling.
Time expanded. Minutes seemed to pass in the fraction of a second it took for me to hit the ground. Something cold rushed up the prisms in my spine, as sharp as ice water against teeth and gums. I went rigid with the shock, my head so taut it seemed to vibrate, and then crack.
I think I lost consciousness.
The next thing I remember, Fogwillow and Candle were kneeling over me. I tried to get to my feet, but Fogwillow pushed me back down.
“What happened?” she said.
My breath came in sharp gasps. There was a stitch in my side. “The Ryvkk.” And the word was a rent, a tear, a fracture. It made me double up again in pain. Spots popped in my vision. Candle held a hand to her forehead, worried.
“You saw him?” Fogwillow said.
“Some part of him,” I managed to reply. “You were right. Some part of him lives here, in the terminal.” I stilled, everything stripped away except a cold realization. I sat up. “No. No, not in the terminal. In the cracks.”
All three of us looked at the shining web of fractures, spun like spidersilk in the moonlight, a fission of thin air, trapped in unbreakable crystal.
Fogwillow stirred. “He lives in the cracks?”
“I think…I think he is the cracks.” As if on cue, we all averted our eyes. I twisted my fingers one way, then the other. “We should go.” But when I went to stand, Candle placed a hand on my shoulder. I shrunk away from the touch.
“Nova,” Candle said. “Look.”
No more than ten paces away, a lynx sat on its haunches. It watched us with a knowing shimmer in its green eyes.