It was the last morning.
The last morning I would wake up in Blush, in my attic bedroom. It was the morning after I had shown Candle the rooftop, and the windows, and we had shared with each other pieces of the melancholy parts of ourselves. The sun was sharp and hot through the slanted window, warming my face as I lay in bed.
I had to work at the investiture, so I changed quickly in the silence of my room, shoveled down a quarter sleeve of weybisks as I took care of some tasks in Hero Trotter, then made my way down the stairs to the ninth floor.
But before I could make it to the lift, the woman at the front desk of the law office called out to me.
I turned, half a weybisk still sticking out of my mouth.
“Hi,” I said. It was more of a startled reaction than a greeting.
The woman leaned forward on the desk, peering at me from across the lobby and through the open door. This woman was cool. She had long eyelashes and dark, straight hair that was cut in a line at her jaw. She wore big, dangly earrings and two-dozen bracelets, which lined her forearms in glinting bronze. She smiled at me.
“You’re the kid you helped crack open the Diosec, aren’t you?”
She winked. “It’s okay. We hear things in my line of work. We’ve got sources everywhere.” She made a nebulous gesture with one hand. “We won’t tell. Hey, how’s that shiftie captain doing? The one who got stuck as half a bird?”
“I… ” I swallowed what was left of my weybisk, then edged closer to the elevator. “Rhyme said she’ll be okay. Eventually.”
“Good to hear it. I figured her form would eventually snap back to normal. They’re like rubber bands, those shifties.” Then she shuddered. “Still, can’t imagine it. I’m not a wizard, but I wouldn’t want anything inside of me breaking like that.”
“No,” I said, moving even closer to the elevator. The woman had to lean to the side to see me through the door.
“Hey. Be careful.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“And when you aren’t careful, let us know. Orbi and Orbi will sort out any of your problems, kay?”
I hurried into the lift before she could say anything more.
As I rode down to the first floor, turning the conversation over and over, berating myself for not being better at talking to strangers, an odd thought wiggled into my mind. Airbird sevens. Supposing I wanted to track him down… find out who he was…
Maybe the answer had been one floor below me the entire time.
Maybe. Someday. If I could get up enough confidence to talk to that woman again.
The lift dinged on the first floor, and the doors opened. It was still early in the morning, and no one was in the investiture, yet. The aisles of candy and snacks, of magazines and toiletries, were empty, and the only sound was the cool rush of the air conditioning. I looked out into the pavilion and noticed that the windows were smudged. That would be the first task of the day. Window cleaning.
I went to Gruffin’s office and knocked on the door. It was open a crack.
“Gruffin?” I said. “Can I get the keys to the utility closet?”
There was no answer. I pushed the door open.
“Hello, Nova,” Plum said, grinning.
I froze on the threshold. Plum was sitting behind Gruffin’s desk with his fingers steepled. He still wore his purple suit, perfect as ever. The breaking of the Diosec cell beneath the takky shop had not put even one golden hair out of place. He stared at me over the top of his spectacles.
Seven other Diosec agents stood around the cramped, cluttered office, and, sitting on the floor against the front of the desk with his feet outstretched before him, his hands bound and his mouth gagged, was Gruffin.
I took a step forward.
“Ah, ah. Not so fast,” Plum said. All seven agents trained their glimmers on Gruffin. Gruffin’s eyes went wide from beneath his bushy eyebrows. “You saw what one glimmer can do. Do you know what happens when we use seven at once?”
“No.” My voice cracked when I said it.
Plum smirked. “Neither do I. And I don’t really care to find out, do you?”
“No.” Deeper, this time, but still shaky.
“Please.” Plum motioned across the desk then re-steepled his fingers. “Pull up a chair.”
Slowly, I approached the desk and sat. Gruffin was on the floor just beside me, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his shoulders tremble slightly.
Plum stared at me for a long moment. Then, abruptly, he stood. The suddenness of it sent me flinching back. His voice was low and even.
“The variable will look into the Crystic at a moment of need, and thus, know himself.” Plum moved out from behind the desk and began to circle me. “I have given you so many opportunities, Nova Scratshot. I have kidnapped you. I have abused you. I have deprived you of comfort. I have hurt people in your presence. None of it worked. None of it was enough. It makes me wonder. Do you even care about the Ferren at all?”
“Maybe I’m not the Answer,” I said.
“Mm. That is not what our source tells us.”
“Still, best to be sure.” He came around beside me and knelt in front of Gruffin. Staring at the grizzled wizard, he removed his spectacles. His face looked naked without them. His eyes drawn and tired. “What do you think, Garrel? Is this a moment of need?”
Gruffin trembled again.
“Yes,” I said quickly. “Yes, it is.”
Plum snapped his head around to look at me. His gaze was like an arrow piercing the soft space between my eyes.
“Then look into it.”
Plum motioned to one of his agents. They came forward and handed him a glimmer. Without breaking eye contact with me, Plum leveled the glimmer at Gruffin and shoved the long, glinting barrel against his forehead. Gruffin leaned back against the desk, pinned.
“You see what happens to wizards who don’t tap into their full potential, Nova?” Plum said. “Incompetence. Garrel Gruffin used to be quite the powerful mage in his day, did you know that? Your lady-wizard friend, too. Yes, the Wizards Gruffin and Rarecrest were quite the team. Then they grew lazy—” he punctuated the word by jamming the glimmer forward, sending Gruffin’s head knocking into the desk, “—and weak—” he did it again, “—and now the Ferren has nothing but Wendo the Wild—the dried out husk called Fogwillow—and Gruffin the magic salesman—hooked on elg, too feeble to protect his own employees. It’s a sad lot you’ve allied yourself with, Nova. We can make you better.”
“Stop,” I said. “You’re hurting him.”
“Then look into the Crystic. Find out, at last, who you are.”
My eyes darted over to Gruffin, and then quickly away. A wash of shame plunged into the deep parts of my stomach. This was my fault. I couldn’t help him. Here I was, potentially saddled with the weight of the Ferren, and in all my ignorance, avoidance, and passivity, I was powerless. There was nothing I could do. Except…
I took a breath. The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was Plum smiling.
The Crystic was as warm and inviting as always. When I tucked myself into the folds of magic I landed, snug, in a pattern of infinite connections. You were never alone when you were using magic. It was, by its very definition, impossible.
“You’re going to have to go much deeper than that,” came Plum’s voice.
I winced, comfortable in the secure spot I had made in the lattice through endless repetition. I had been here before, many times a day as I reconnected customers’ prisms. It was my spot in the world, my place in the Crystic, my corner of magic.
“There’s more,” Plum said. “So much more.”
“I can’t go any farther,” I said. My eyes shifted back and forth beneath my eyelids.
“Perhaps you just don’t feel the need yet.”
Nearby, I felt Gruffin’s presence, anxious and agitated. Through the spindled threads of the Crystic, I felt his heat, his point of connection, hot and solid. As Plum threatened him, his energy wavered, sending ripples shuddering through me.
“Why are you scared of this?” Plum said, his voice a lullaby. “Surely you don’t believe you can stay in this spot forever.”
“There’s something… ” I began, “there’s a sharpness beyond.”
“It’s not mine.”
“And yet when you reach it, there you will be.” I could hear the grin in his voice. “So frightened. So frightened of finding yourself. Have you ever left this lonely pocket of the Crystic? Do you even know what’s out there? There are a million shining facets. They will show you, each, another gleam of who you are. It is hard. You will cut yourself along the way, but the faults reflect a beautiful array of light. You’ll see. You must go forth, Nova. Go forth and break yourself.”
I felt Gruffin’s presence waver beside me again, but I still couldn’t bring myself to unpluck from this familiar part of the Crystic. My bones were warm inside of me. Trickles of magic tickled my skin, but beneath it all, a pain was rising, and it took the form of longing. It took the form of guilt. It took the form of a mother and a father, and it took the form of friends in danger. It welled up beneath my comfortable spot like escaping steam. Unbidden, a small whimper escaped my lips.
It was getting hot. Sweat beaded my upper lip. Gruffin’s presence was growing more intense nearby.
I opened my eyes.
“What?” Plum said, noting the look of concern on my face.
We both turned to Gruffin. His face had hardened. Plum had withdrawn the glimmer at some point while my eyes were closed. The gag was still tight between Gruffin’s lips, and it was hard to see his eyes under the brown curl of his eyebrows, but I was certain something had changed in him. He felt more solid. He felt more bristling.
He felt like magic.
The edges of the world seemed to lift and swell. Stacks of paper wavered throughout the room as if in a breeze. His beard rustled as he sat, bound, against the back of his desk. The air took on a sharp quality, each speck of dust pointed and distinct in the light.
I looked at Plum, not understanding why he wasn’t doing something, why he wasn’t stopping Gruffin from using his magic. Plum still knelt in place, knuckles on the ground, a look of intense concentration on his face. And I realized: he couldn’t move.
Around the office, the other Diosec agents were similarly incapacitated. Not frozen. Weighed down, as if their bodies had turned into pure lead. Their muscles strained and their eyes bulged. The tendons in their neck popped.
Gruffin looked at me, sweat beading down his temple, and got partially loose from his gag.
“Nova, staving run!” he said.
He sent a wave of energy up underneath me, and my chair flew into the air, sending me toppling backward to the floor. I landed in a heap and scrambled over to him, untying the gag completely.
“What are you doing?” he said, his voice strained. “Run.”
“Not without you.”
“Rods. I can’t hold this much longer.” His face was taut with effort. On the ground beside me, Plum’s fingers were twitching as they tried to break free of Gruffin’s magic.
Desperately, I heaved on Gruffin’s arm, and he clambered to his feet. I moved around to untie his arms, but he pulled away. “Idiot boy, we don’t have time.” And he made for the door. I followed at his heels.
We stumbled into the investiture together. I was already exhausted from just the short time I had spent connected to the Crystic. My feet scuffed against the tiles as I hurried past the counter, gripping the edge for support. Gruffin half limped, half hopped ahead of me, and I passed him, making for the sliding glass doors.
They were just ahead, through the aisles. I squinted against the glare of the florescent lights and the sheen of the rising sun through the windows. The ceiling fans sent cold air brushing against my forehead.
And then, there was a groan behind me, and I skidded to a stop. I turned. Gruffin had frozen in place. He swayed for a moment, then toppled over, exhausted, onto his side. I felt his magic break, and heard desperate scrambling from his office behind the counter. I looked back at the sliding glass doors, only a few feet away. I was so close. I could find a payphone. I could call the Shift Patrol.
Then, turning back to Gruffin, I saw the seven Diosec agents fighting through the office doorway, reeling and disoriented. Gruffin was still weighing them down, but the effect wasn’t as strong. Several of them made it over the threshold, teetered around the counter, and trained their glimmers on Gruffin, who lay in a stupor halfway between us.
I remembered Captain Kria. I remembered her twisted form as the weapon broke the magic within her. I remembered standing there watching. Doing nothing. I remembered Plum’s words. Again.
Is there anything special about you at all? Looking at you now, I wonder how you could possibly save anyone. Can you even save yourself?
And I ran for Gruffin. I heard the click of the triggers, and the terrible, snapping, plunger-sucking sound. I lunged the last few steps, over Gruffin, into the path of the glimmers, and was still in midair when the bolts hit me square in the chest.
I flew backward, slammed into the ground, slid across the tile, and smashed into the rack of koba crisps. The bags fell down over me. Pain like I had never known before cracked through my body. I tucked my knees to my chest, hissing. The magic within me was breaking. My connection with the Crystic splintered, resealed, and splintered again and again. In wave after wave I was broken and made whole.
Clenching my teeth, I tried to crawl to my knees. I managed to raise my head as a few of the agents approached. One raised his glimmer and snapped me point blank in the forehead.
I screamed and fell to the floor again.
Flashes of the Crystic spilled through my mind. Shards of pink, blossoming in crystalline flashes between visions of the investiture. In my panic I sent my mind crashing into the waves of magic, and was thrown, my stomach twisting, out of my comfortable spot, down through the top of the Crystic, falling into a flickering world of magenta fractals.
The shadows of the seven Diosec agents fell over me. Their eyes were shrouded by their mustard caps. They raised their shining weapons.
And in the folds of wizardry, in the spiraling design of the Crystic, I saw myself, reflected back in a geometric pattern too vast, too complicated to fully understand. And between the spiking design, in the crevices of the endless reflections, I saw—I felt—chaos. I heard the cries of people dying, and saw a landscape of desolation, a journey into cataclysm. I tumbled through the middle of it all, holding it in my chest, in my soul, in my very self, and the name—Ryvkk—came like a tear in the soft tissue of my brain. As the name spread, this enormous fissure, I tried to hold the specter together, press him shut with the palms of my hands. But he was sharp, and his jagged edges, like lightning, cut into my skin, into vein and muscle. I broke trying to hold him down.
And I saw myself as a beautiful algorithm, covered in blood.
And then I exploded. My eyes snapped open. The Crystic disappeared.
No. Not disappeared.
The Crystic flew out of me, in lances of magic all pink and white. They impaled the seven Diosec agents surrounding me. Their bodies—just bodies now, nothing more—flew back as the magic tore through them, ripping holes in the softness of their selves. The sound of seven bodies hitting the floor would haunt me for days to come. It lodged itself in the hollow of my ears.
The heaviness of it. And the wetness.
And then silence and stillness. I looked around me at the lifeless forms as, trembling, I came to my knees.
Gruffin was lying where he had been before, unharmed, unconscious, but still breathing. I slumped backward, too shaken to be relieved. Across the investiture, Plum stood in the doorway to Gruffin’s office. He still wasn’t wearing his glasses, and I could see, with perfect clarity, the look in his eyes as he took in the scene. It was horror.
He stepped out past the counter, into the investiture, and gingerly lifted a leg up over one of his fallen agents. His eyes caught on the dead body as he passed, but they soon shifted back to me. I stared at his leather shoes as they approached, and stopped. Plum knelt down before me in the circle of death.
“Who are you?” he whispered. “Were we right? Did we find you?”
I nodded miserably, and his face broke out into a broad smile.
I looked away. I stared at the dead bodies. They were a part of me now. A set of variables that had been locked in place inside of me. I was their Answer.
And then the sliding doors opened behind me. The sound made me lurch in surprise and I wheeled about. As I did, Plum wrapped an arm around my neck and pulled me to his chest, my chin squeezed in the crook of his arm. I gasped, struggling against the chokehold, as I watched a swarm of people in long, silver robes rush into the investiture, and between their glittering robes, like a curtain parting, emerged a petite woman in a deep black suit.
“Dean Enislen,” Plum said. “Right on time.”
And he pulled a weapon from inside his coat and pressed it to my temple. Not a glimmer, this time. Just a gun.