I saw myself as a beautiful algorithm, covered in blood.
“Do you think he’s going to be all right?” someone said. I was sitting on a bench in the investiture with my back slumped against the wall. It was cold, and the nearby magazine racks were rustling in the air conditioning. Cheery music still played from the radio behind the counter. Two people stood over me—guarding me, I suddenly realized, which seemed wise considering the circumstances. One of them, the man who had spoken, turned to look down at me from over his shoulder. He had thick, bristling eyebrows, firm with disapproval.
“He’d better be all right,” the other guard replied. She didn’t even bother to look.
I stared at my hands, resting in my lap. They were clean. I checked under my fingernails. They were clean, too. Wrists: clean. Forearms: clean. My skin was soft and brown and spotless. That wasn’t right. I let out an involuntary gasp, or maybe more of a sob.
“Figures,” the man said, muttering this time. “We finally find him and he’s a staving lunatic.”
I didn’t know what to do, so I counted the bodies. They were laid out side by side over smears of blood, and the bright morning sun through the investiture windows caught the tile floor around them in a blinding glow. I made it to six and then lost track as the numbers slipped from my mind like a wheel slipping off its axle. I couldn’t concentrate, and my hands were shaking. Near the register, the owl clock ticked steadily on as if the world still cared about something so arbitrary as time when there were—let’s see now, eight?—yes, eight bodies to take care of. Every sound was hushed and distant: the clock, the radio, the ringing in my ears, even the gentle scuff of shoes as the Shift Patrol cleaned up the mess.
“He’s trying to say something,” said one of the guards.
So I was. I hadn’t even realized. I tried again, over a dry and sticky tongue, to get the words out.
“Did I do that?”
The woman’s mouth pressed into a tight, thin line. “Mmm,” she said. “Mostly, anyway.”
She and her companion with the eyebrows were both dressed in silver cloaks, which sparkled in the wash of light as if they were set with stars. I didn’t recognize the clothing.
“Are you shifties?” I asked.
The man’s eyebrows lowered again. “No, we’re a… third party.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said. “The dean will explain soon. Once she’s cleaned up.”
That reminded me. I checked my fingernails again. Still clean.
The doors of the investiture slid open and a tall, tattered figure burst in, a tangle of mud-stained robes and long gray hair. Fogwillow. She paused on the threshold, recoiling at the sight of the bodies, then glanced around wildly. When her eyes fell on me, she let out a cry and swept forward, pushed aside the silver-robed sentries, and knelt.
“Nova,” she said. “What happened? Are you all right?”
She reached out a hand to touch my chin, but I jumped back, knocking my head into the wall.
“Don’t touch me,” I said.
“I’m sorry, I know. Nova, my dear… ”
When Fogwillow looked at you, it was as if you were the only spark of magic in the Ferren. She was tall, sturdy, and etched with infinite frown lines. Her hair spilled around her shoulders, and when she swallowed, the tendons in her neck tightened like the cords of a bridge.
She carried an oaken staff, which she set down gently and gathered her robes up around her. They were thick and heavy, and always smelled of moss, mud, and the smallest hint of steckleberries.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” she said.
I checked my palms. Clean.
The silver-robed guards stepped up behind Fogwillow. “You’re the Wizard Rarecrest?” the woman said.
“I don’t go by that name,” she replied without turning away from me.
The guards shared a look. After clearing his throat, the man said, “We have this in hand—”
“I’m sure you do,” Fogwillow said to them. Then, “Nova, tell me what you’re thinking.”
I held up my hands. “How do they look?”
“Skeletal. What have you been eating lately?”
My eyes started to burn. “How do they look?” I said again.
“They’re fine,” Fogwillow said, searching my face. “Normal.” I looked at my hands. She was right. They were clean. I checked my wrists again. Clean. “Nova, what are you doing?” I twisted to either side and looked underneath my arms. I looked down at my chest. I looked up again, at my fingers. All clean. All normal. “Nova,” Fogwillow said, and her voice drew my gaze to her.
“Where’s the blood?” I said.
I held up my hands again, which were still trembling. And still spotless.
Fogwillow sat as quietly as a moss-covered boulder, staring at me as I broke down, her face expressionless. Behind her, the guards shifted their weight. Behind them, a few of the Shift Patrol looked up from the bodies to see what was happening. I forced myself to take deep breaths, to calm myself. Then, softly enough that only I could hear, Fogwillow said, “You never know what you’ve never known.”
I wiped my face, the familiar words bringing a little bit of comfort. They were from an old poem, and they were Fogwillow’s way of holding my hand. “And you’ll always know what is ever known,” I replied.
As I gathered my wits, a third silver-cloak hurried up and whispered to one of the guards. She nodded and stepped forward. “The dean is ready for you now.”
“You don’t have to go with them, Nova,” Fogwillow said. “You can walk away.”
The guard gave a small almost-laugh of irritation. “Apologies, Master Fogwillow, but he—”
Fogwillow held up a hand and the guard fell silent. Fogwillow looked at me—she hadn’t stopped looking at me since she came in—with a question in her eyes. I knew I didn’t have to go with them, but I could. I could if Fogwillow was there. I stood.
“I’ll go,” I said to the guards. “Where is she?”
They gave each other a self-satisfied look, then parted and motioned across the investiture. Toward Gruffin’s office. I jerked my head toward Fogwillow as she picked up her staff and rose.
“Can she come with me?” I said.
The guard with the eyebrows frowned. “I don’t think that would be entirely… ” He trailed off after glancing at Fogwillow. “Yes, very well, then.”
I walked toward the office, and Fogwillow fell into step behind me. As I crossed the investiture, giving the bodies and the Shift Patrol a wide berth, it struck me how ordinary everything otherwise looked. Beyond the line of the dead, the pale, blue floors were freshly mopped and shining. The kiosks were perfectly sorted, with their rows of colorful boxes, of prismints and cebelis gum and chocolates from far Yelding. Above the counter, signs advertised the daily sales, and a large scrolling marquee displayed the current price of magic.
It was horrifically normal. A sight I had seen every day. And yet, just beyond the racks of koba crisps, the blood smeared the tile in long dark stains.
It hurt to think about. It made my brain buzz.
I approached Gruffin’s door and knocked.
“Come in,” said a voice on the other side that wasn’t Gruffin’s voice. It was female, light and brisk. I pushed open the door.
The woman behind Gruffin’s desk stood as I entered, smiling. She was petite—spritely, even—but held herself as if carved from stone. She wore a stiff black suit with a collar that jutted up into her neck like it was holding her head in place. Her skin was pale white, and she had bright red hair, short and slicked flat to her head. It was glossy in the light.
“Nova Scratshot,” she said. Her eyes danced. “I hope it’s okay if I call you that.”
I hesitated in the doorway. She looked so out of place among Gruffin’s clutter. A perfect jewel among the slumping stacks of paper and month old mugs of elg.
The woman continued. “I won’t shake your hand, as I know you don’t like to be touched, but please know that I am so excited to meet you. Please, take a seat, and you as well Master Fogwillow. Come in, come in.”
I bristled at being invited into Gruffin’s office by a stranger, but nevertheless took a seat across the desk. The woman was still smiling as she lowered herself into Gruffin’s chair, an expression that seemed out of place considering that she had, barely ten minutes ago, killed a man in front of me. When I looked more closely, I could see that, yes, the front of her midnight suit was still speckled with dried blood. A single drop of it was crusting over on the silver locket around her neck.
“I am Vika Enislen,” the red-haired woman said with enthusiasm, “dean of the Advance Academy. Those silver-cloaked characters are mine, of course. We feel so lucky to have found you when we did. A few more minutes and you would have been a goner. But, you know, here we are to the rescue!”
Fogwillow shut the door, then sat in the chair beside mine, sinking into her robes, her staff slanted across her body. It was a casual posture, but it looked guarded to me. Defensive.
“We have so much to talk about,” Dean Enislen continued, “but first of all, are you all right? Do you need anything?”
All at once, something occurred to me. Something I was angry at myself for not remembering earlier. “Where’s Candle?” I said. “Has anyone told her what happened?”
“Emma Lyn Candle. She’s a friend.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know that name.” Dean Enislen gave me a concerned look, her brow dipping, then leaned forward. “Are you certain you’re all right, Nova? You’ve just been through something extremely traumatic, something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
I looked over at Fogwillow, but she was staring fixedly at a point just over the dean’s shoulder, as if she had forgotten we were here. I looked down at my hands. “I killed people.”
“Yes, but you killed the right people,” Dean Enislen said, giving me a sad smile. “And everyone will love you for it.”
Dean Enislen leaned back and gestured with one hand. Her fingernails were painted a perfect red, to match her hair. “The public, of course. Your name is about to be known all throughout the Ferren. You’re a hero, Nova. More than a hero. You know that, right? You understand what you saw?”
Blood and emptiness and cataclysm.
“I’m the Answer to Prophecy,” I said with resignation.
“Right,” Dean Enislen said kindly, her brow scrunching even closer together. “Have you heard of us? The Advance Academy, I mean?”
I nodded, my voice sullen. “You were set up by the Assemblage long ago to track down the Prophesied One.”
“The Answer, yes. I apologize that we didn’t find you sooner. In hindsight it’s obvious. An orphan, working a job of little esteem, hidden away in a city at the edge of the world. You conform to all the variables.”
I wasn’t sure how that was supposed to make me feel better.
Dean Enislen sighed when I didn’t respond and leaned back in the chair, which squeaked on its springs. “I’m sorry if I seem overeager, especially considering the ghoulish circumstances, and the sorry way in which we were introduced… ” She hesitated, and took in a rattling breath, perhaps remembering the look on the man’s face as she sent a spike of magic through the front of him, and a jet of blood out the back. For a moment, her pixie face lost its composure. “But you must understand,” she continued, pulling her smile back on, if a bit more strained this time. “We’ve been looking for you for such a long time, Nova Scratshot. The Advance Academy is a meticulous, mechanical, rigorous operation. We’ve investigated thousands of children over the course of nearly three decades, ever since the prophecy was written out. I myself have interviewed more young wizards than I care to count.”
She leaned forward suddenly, placing her arms on the desk and hunching over. “The Ferren is nearing a dangerous time. Finding the Answer to Prophecy has never been more vital. You will save us, Nova. So you’ll understand if I’ve let my excitement run away with me.”
When I, again, didn’t respond, she sat up straight and pulled down to adjust her suit jacket.
“How old are you?” she asked, allowing her voice to go flat and professional.
“Sixteen,” I said.
She nodded approvingly. More satisfied, I think, that she had gotten me to speak than with my answer itself.
“And you’re an attendant at this investiture?”
I nodded, and looked to Fogwillow again. She was still gazing off into the distance. The silence extended longer than was comfortable. Dean Enislen cleared her throat.
“What can I do for you, Nova Scratshot?” she said. “How can I make you feel better? You’re the Answer to Prophecy for Eoea’s sake! You will be a great wizard! You will save us all!”
I looked at her. “I want to see Candle.”
Her smiled slipped.
“I’m afraid—I’m so sorry—but I’m afraid there’s no time to wait around.”
“No time?” I repeated.
“Well… ” Dean Enislen’s eyes shifted up and to the side, and she bobbed her head back and forth. “Now that we’ve found you—the Answer—we can’t just let you go on with things. Not when the fate of the Ferren hinges on your choices.”
I felt my insides go cold.
“You’re taking me away.”
“We have found you,” Dean Enislen said, “but the Advance Academy’s work is far from over. The Assemblage has tasked us with your shaping as a hero. As a wizard. We’ve requisitioned a private location in the mountains west of here. You are to come with us to be trained. I apologize, but you are far behind standards for someone your age.”
“I couldn’t afford an education.”
That wasn’t entirely true. There were other reasons I had dropped out of school.
Her eyes widened, and she said in a gentler voice, “No, no, and no one expects you to be perfect. Not right away, at least.”
Her hand went to her locket, absently, and she rubbed the dried blood off. It drifted away in small, brown flakes, leaving the locket shining silver against the black velvet.
“When are we leaving?” I asked.
“As soon as we can. There’s no point in delaying. Not when the future is thumping at the door. What do you say, Nova? Can you do it? Are you ready to claim your adventure?”
As last, Fogwillow broke her trance and looked over at me, but I avoided her eyes. They were pale eyes—colorless and utterly clear. It was too much, like a window without blinds. I could feel her soul itself shooting out of her skull like the headlights on a skim.
“Are you ready, Nova?” Dean Enislen said.
I sucked in a breath. It was the opposite of everything I had ever wanted. My eyes started to burn again, and I looked to the ceiling as my lips twitched, trying to get the tears to fall back down inside me.