Chill Winds 4

Something had changed, once Solange came out of her coat. It started with Flare asking a few pointed questions about the eel. They were sharp, like Flare’s questions usually were, but they weren’t all sharp.

“And their aggression?” Flare asked.

“Oh, as long as you keep them well-fed and clean it’s fine. I checked,” Solange said.

And Flare hummed and the conversation moved on, but I let my thoughts wander around it for a moment more. There was something in Flare’s tone, or just under it. There was something in Solange’s reply, mixed in with the smiles. The way Flare just accepted Solange’s answer. The way Flare seemed not curious but concerned. The way Flare didn’t seem to be so otherworldly, here.

Solange had asked about me, a little, but Flare’s answers about me had been short, and succinct. I was an apprentice. I was to become a witch. That was all. There was no reason she gave, though it seemed like Solange wanted one. I certainly wanted to know the reason Flare had been willing to bring me along. The conversation had simply left me behind, though. Flare and Solange became totally wrapped up talking to one another and I got the chance to just watch.

Flare had gained an expressive quality, as well. Flare had always been in control of her hands, but now they began to open and shut to punctuate her remarks. Flare had always been terse, but suddenly she was making little nothing noises in response to things Solange said. Flare had always been in charge, and now she was just here with us.

Solange, in turn, demonstrated an incredible range of happinesses and cheerfulnesses. She never seemed to lose those underlying bubbles, but they would change as the conversation did. They would mix into an effervescent blend of curiosity and enthusiasm when she began to talk at length about her eels. They would leave a nostalgic aftertaste when she began to talk about a friend of hers who was still back in Liar’s Mint. They would fizz and pop in a concoction of frenzied collection when she began to describe a strain of river-rock she’d found a little ways to the north.

I got up and started to wander about the cave some more, leaving them to talk. Neither one of them noticed as I got up.

Hung on the wall near the paintings were a collection of odd metal knots. They were each made up of a couple separate pieces, all tangled up together in a confusing mess of iron. I looked over at Solange. She didn’t seem to be looking over at me. She would probably have said if they were somehow dangerous.

I picked one up and turned it over in my hands. One of the loops of metal seemed loose, so I began to tug at it. When I got it disentangled from everything else, it freed another loop up just enough to twist free. It wasn’t long before my hands were full of loose loops of metal.

I couldn’t remember how to put it back together.

I looked back at where Solange and Flare were talking, and Solange’s attention turned to me. She got up, and said, “Hey, you like loop puzzles too?” Flare settled back into her char. I sheepishly placed the metal loops I had remaining on a flat stone slab in front of me. Then I yawned.

Solange plucked another knot off the wall. “Here,” she said, “Try this one, it took me a long time to get it apart. Me and Flare are probably going to talk far a bit longer. Bedroom’s right back through there.” Solange pointed at the forest of coats hanging in the cave. I nodded. Solange sat back down with Flare.

There was a simple bed with a big pile of fur blankets in the back. The muffled sounds of continued conversation came through the coats, but I couldn’t make out the words anymore. I looked at the beed. Solange would probably still want it. I put down my pack and got out my bedroll, laying it out on the floor. More polite to leave it to Solange. Or Flare, possibly. I wasn’t sure who exactly would take it.

At some point, toying with the metal knot led to sleep.

In the morning, I got up, yawned, stretched, and then noticed something worrying. The bed in here was untouched. Flare and Solange had never come in last night. I wasn’t entirely sure what could have caused that, but given the amount of oddities in the cave one of them was bound to be dangerous.

My fingertips tingled as I brought a charm to the forefront of my mind. The jumping charm had proven useful in Crownsbreak, and I was willing to trust it here. Whatever had happened, it hadn’t come into the bedroom. Meaning, hopefully, I could just jump back into the bedroom to collect my thoughts if it was particularly bad.

I didn’t see Flare and Solange immediately. The coat hadn’t moved from where Solange had discarded it, and the eel appeared to still be inside, but there was no sign of Solange. The odds and ends lying around were undisturbed. The crystal centerpiece of the room was unbroken.

I crept around the crystal, and found them. Flare was sitting in a large chair, asleep on a cushion of animal furs. Solange was curled up in her lap, her head tucked under Flare’s chin, also fast asleep. There was a blanket which had half fallen off the two of them as they slept.

The magic went out of my fingers. I crept back to the bedroom, to toy with the metal knot some more. Nothing had happened. No lives were at stake. No monsters had attacked. Flare and Solange had just fallen asleep together.

A piece came off the metal knot. I hadn’t even known if Flare had any acquaintances, let alone someone like Solange. This confirmed it. She returned to places, sometimes. It was something she did. It was even possible that we’d go back to Scorched Rock someday. I didn’t know a Solange there, but that was fine. I didn’t really need a Solange in my life. It just wasn’t an issue.

I let Flare sleep.

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Chill Winds 3

Solange’s cave was the sort of cluttered-cozy that made me think of the stalls in the marketplace that never changed. The ones with owners who had been calmly setting their wares up since time immemorial, that every day had new antiques or glassware or books to put on the little square of space that was theirs, that existed in that little perpetual-motion cycle of caring.

Soft red-orange light spilled out from the entrance where it was tucked between a large boulder and a tree whose trunk had cracked and shattered and fallen over to form a little natural arch. Inside, little chunks of stone had been placed around to create shelves, and little alcoves had been carved, and sitting all around all of these were curious odds and ends that drew my eyes with enough force to shut out the conversation Solange and Flare were having.

On one shelf were glass jars, all organized to create a gradient cascade of color from a dark blue-black all the way up to a light pinkish. Inside each of these colored jars were little glowing things with too many legs. They skittered drunkenly around the insides of each jar, and I wondered if the jars were the only things coloring the light, or if each of the little skittering things gave off light of their jar’s color.

On a tree stump placed a little further in was a mosaic of colored stones, all different shapes and sizes. One was a deep purple, with jagged edges that faded to a pure white. Another was a striped sequence of varied blues, smooth and round. Another was geometric, octagonal towers all clustering together in a pale green. I didn’t pick any up, since I wasn’t sure what they were or how they were organized, but I felt a twisting squirming urge to race up and down my forearms.

Then there were the flasks of fizzing liquids. The monstrous limbs, chopped off and dried and preserved and tacked to the stone walls. Then there were the small clay jars filled with pigment and the fantastic images and incomprehensible mathematics scrawled all over the wall above them. Then there were the other furs and clothing hung along the back walls of the cave and extending deeper. Then there were the chairs carved out of wood and stone and anything available.

And there was the centerpiece.

The source of the light and the warmth in the cave, a huge chunk of jagged quartz, and trapped inside and writhing restlessly inside the oversized gemstone, an eel of some sort. It twisted and turned and knocked itself against the edge of the quartz, and as the eel moved the glow and warmth rolled off of it and filled the cave.

Solange picked up one of the stones off the tree stump and pressed it to the surface of the quartz, and the stone passed inside, and the eel crunched it gratefully. Flare said, “You seem to have indulged your curiosity a bit.”

Solange laughed and took a seat in one of the chairs, which creaked and groaned under the weight of her coat. Flare sat down on a rock next to her. I sat on the floor, on a fur rug.

“A bit, yeah. Not much else to indulge out here.” Solange said, and stretched. The coat’s fingertips scraped the top of the cave.

Flare nodded. Then she said, “Why not aim for Greenscap? It’s not too far off.”

“Nah, too hard to abandon the old haunts,” Solange said. “I mean, I visit ‘em sometimes. They’re nice to talk to, every so often. But I feel pretty obligated to stick around here.”

“You could just leave,” Flare said.

Solange shook her head, which due to the coat involved shaking most of her upper body. “I can’t, Flare.”

“I’ve never heard of anything that could–” Flare started, but Solange cut her off by raising a hand.

“I know,” Solange said. “I hoped if I saw you again you’d have seen something but, I know. It’s fine. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, right?”

“What’s worth trying?” I asked.

“Saving Liar’s Mint,” Solange said, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Flare wince. Solange didn’t seem to notice, because she continued. “Monsters can be really helpful. And it’s pretty fun to study them, besides. I call it studying. Studying’s a strong word. But I mess with them, and I find things out.”

“It’s why we’re all nice and warm here now. And, you know, maybe it could work. Maybe I’ll find something. You never know, right?”

“Solange…” Flare said.

“I’m doing fine out here, Flare. Really, I am,” Solange said, and her voice was so earnest it was almost believable that she was. “You don’t need to worry about me. I didn’t worry about you.”

“Crownsbreak tried to capture me. And kill me. That was last week.”

“Yeah, but you’re fine.”

“Solange…”

“Look at yourself,” Solange said, and her voice carried a bright strong smile with it. “You’re Flare! You just gotta act like it, right? Like, I would not be here if you hadn’t–”

“Solange,” Flare said, and Solange stopped talking. Then Flare looked away and said, “Could you take off your coat?”

Solange nodded, and again it took most of her upper body to do. Then she began to take her coat off. It started with the massive hands of the coat, the stitchings coming smoothly unraveled from some setup I couldn’t see. The hand popped off, revealing Solange’s own hand. It was thin, and delicate-looking. Then the other hand of her coat came off, thudding to the ground and revealing another delicate hand. Then the tree-stump legs were removed. And then the torso of the coat unraveled, and folded back, and revealed Solange on the inside. As well as something else.

The something else was an eel similar to the one in the quartz. It was wrapped around Solange’s body tightly, and wound itself into the fabric of the coat, and nipped at her fingers as she began to unravel it from around herself. An opalescent dark green stone was removed from a pocket inside the coat, and fed to the eel, and the eel went slithering away into the furs to crunch on it.

“Ah,” Flare said.

Solange herself was surprisingly small. Petite was the word, maybe. She made up for this by radiating happiness to fill up all the space her physical body didn’t. She grinned at Flare. Flare actually smiled back at her.

“Hey,” Solange said.

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Chill Winds 2

Flare packed up the camp. I stood, watching the mountains. They did not move. Their peaks reached up to touch the stars. Was that why? Would you get too close to the sky? Would the stars take you?

“Come on,” Flare said.

We didn’t walk through the town. I thanked Flare silently for that. Instead, our path led us through a small copse of trees. I stepped carefully, avoiding their roots, looking down at my feet. I could feel the trees standing watch around me, blocking the outside out. The world was a little smaller while we passed through. I breathed.

Then we were out, cutting around the town, angling for the mountains. Flare didn’t speak. It was a normal thing, to walk in silence, and for the most part that was fine with me. I could look around and wonder at the landscape, at the stars and the stones and the stillness. The former village intruded here, though, to the point where I wished there was something else I could focus on besides the landscape.

Flare’s lamp was curious. There were no charms carved into it, but the lantern itself also didn’t appear to be made in a conventional style. Instead of straight, functional lines the lantern’s iron was made of whorls. It was asymmetric, solidifying in a strange half-cocked shape that made me think that it could never rest on a table without falling over. Flare carried it easily enough, though. For all the adornment, very little functionality had been sacrificed.

There weren’t many more thoughts that emerged about the lantern, but I continued to look at it regardless. To watch it swing lightly to and fro in Flare’s hand. To watch the light play over the ground. Then my eyes travelled away for a moment, and spotted a frozen house in the distance, and skittered back to the safety of the lantern.

Flare stopped, and I nearly bumped into her. She raised the lantern, though it didn’t help the light travel any further, and gazed into the trees. There was movement between them. Something large, ambling towards us.

“What is it?” I asked.

Flare didn’t respond.

“Should we run?” I asked.

Flare didn’t respond.

“Do you know what to do?” I asked.

Flare didn’t respond. The lumbering shape grew nearer, silhouette made indistinct by branches and ice and fickle starlight. I tensed, my muscles starting to groan. They still ached from Crownsbreak. Sleep helped, but it didn’t fix things entirely. I wasn’t ready to run, and there was nowhere to go besides. Flare was the one who held the lantern, Flare was the one who held the only thing capable of staving off the cold. If I ran out of the circle of light, I would die.

The shape was large, and rounded. I could make out more details, now that it was growing close. I could see fur, thick fur, fur coated with frost and streaked through by icicles. Fur that covered something three or four heads taller than I was. Something with no obvious head of its own, just a large, hulking body, rounded at the top and sloping downwards.

There were arms, I could see now. Huge arms, pushing branches out of the way with such force they shattered. Hands at the end, big enough that one could wrap fully around my torso and the other could effortlessly crush my skull.  The creature’s legs, if it had any, were in shadow.

It moved closer, and I could see its eyes. Glowing blue beads, like stars as cold as the world around us, tucked into a dark fold in the fur between the shoulders of the creature. They locked onto Flare’s lantern.

It moved within reach of Flare. Flare stood her ground. “Hello, Solange,” Flare said.

The hulking creature said, “Flare!” The hulking creature’s voice sounded almost bubbly, the voice of the irrepressibly cheerful. She also sounded particularly happy to see Flare.

“I’m glad to see you’re alright,” Flare said, and Solange took another step further. In the witch-stone’s light, as the ice vanished from the furs, I could see that they were an extremely thick coat. There were a few seams I could see, here and there, and the barest telltale glimmer of light shone from inside them.

“Back at you, Flare! I was worried you wouldn’t come back,” Solange said. “Here, here, I don’t have my old house anymore but I can at least bring you back to where I’m staying now.”

Flare nodded, and to my surprise I could see the barest touch of a smile on her face. Then Solange said, “Oh, and who’s this? I thought you said dragging someone after you through the ice–”

“She’s my apprentice,” Flare cut her off shortly.

“I’m Grace,” I said.

“Good to meet you, Grace,” Solange said. “Now let’s get you two out of the cold. Right this way!”

Solange began to stomp her way back through the forest away from us. Flare took one step forwards. Then she stopped, and said, “I’m sorry about Liar’s Mint.”

Solange paused for a moment, her fur-clad foot crunching through a tree root as she leaned heavily on it. The barest bit of shoulder-slumping was visible through her coat. Then she said, “It is what it is, you know?” and kept on walking.

Flare began to follow her, and I followed Flare. Nobody said anything. Discomfort drifted lazily in the air. There was a lot of crunched ice and broken tree branches before Solange finally said, “So, I haven’t heard about what you’ve been up to, lately. I’m excited to hear where you’ve been, what you’ve seen. So much world out there, you know?”

Flare didn’t say anything, but the way she didn’t say it was comfortable, and Solange could hear that. She kept talking. The words began to slide off my ears, but they didn’t need to be heard to fill the silence.

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Chill Winds 1

This town was already gone.

It was obvious from the moment we crested the rise. There was no light, and no movement. Just a town, locked away. I could see the sheen of the metal plate the town had been built on, channeling nothing but cold now.

“We can rest here,” Flare said.

Flare didn’t bother with fanfare or ceremony. The town we had been heading towards was gone, so we would rest and move on. I didn’t know what map Flare was working from, or where we would ultimately be headed. I just followed. I hoped I would find out eventually, it wasn’t easy not knowing what was in the distance for us. If it would be like my hometown, or like Crownsbreak.

Or if it would be like this.

Flare lit a fire, and placed the witch-stone in it. We had a circle of golden warmth. Even so, the stillness loomed. I could see people, former people, I could see statues in blue glinting in the starlight in the town below. They were seated, looking up. Looking up at the darkness and the light and the soft twinkling. The stars were all that moved, here.

I shivered. It was chilly. I knew about death. I’d seen plenty of it. Harvesters whose charms had failed them, frozen stiff, carried into town by a solemn procession. Forgekeepers who had stumbled too close to the flame itself. Disease, age, injury, accident, murder. It all funneled through my dad, and it all was laid bare in front of me. It didn’t make it better. Crownsbreak, decimated. Scorched Rock, frozen. This town, nameless now, one large gravestone for everyone who had lived in it.

Flare said, “Do you see it?”

I looked at her.

She said, “How the town made its warmth.”

I looked back down at the town. At the metal plate on the ground, and the little dome structure in the middle of the town. “They lit a fire under the town, and then the plate carried the heat everywhere?”

“Good,” Flare said. “Get used to looking for that. If you find a monster interfering with a town’s heat, get rid of it.”

“The Toads?”

“Body heat,” Flare answered. My face began to curl with confusion. Flare elaborated. “They used the tree to trap body heat. When people vanished, it got colder.”

I nodded. Flare said nothing, and I wondered if that was all the lesson I was going to receive. I stared at the town. Why did its fire go out? And why did all the frozen people look so peaceful, gazing up at the stars? Relaxed, maybe. Serene. My mind began to slowly click into gear, spinning ideas of what happened.

A town where they knew the flame was going out. Where they knew it was only a matter of time before they would all go. Where they wanted to make sure their last moments were peaceful. Holding hands with loved ones. Then the fire had died, all at once, and the cold rushed in, and that was the end of this town.

Somewhere inside me, a wellspring of curiosity and sadness and anger and determination began to emerge. I could feel it roil and bubble as it filled me up, and though I did my best to not break Flare’s silence, it bubbled too much. “What do witches do?” I asked.

Flare didn’t say anything. Curiosity burbled out of my mouth. “What do we–” I caught myself, “Do you do? I know you deal with monsters, and you travel, and you take things that you need, but what do you do? Where are we going? What do you want? What is the witch-stone? What does it do? How did you cast a charm with your tongue? What was this town? Why is it frozen? Who are you? What’s in your coat?”

Then the curiosity petered out, and the echoes of my questions began to ring out through the silent landscape. I was louder than I’d intended, and asked more than I should have, and Flare still said nothing.

I breathed in, and I breathed out.

In the distance, there was a crack. I whirled. In the forest, a tree limb, weighed down by ice for too long. I watched as it snapped free, and fell into the forest, and a crashing and a shattering echoed around us, washing my questions away.

“Laminate Pass.” Flare said, finally.

“What?” I said. I didn’t know what she was answering.

“I’m looking for Laminate Pass. We’ll travel through it, and make through the mountains. It’s too dangerous to climb.”

I nodded. One question was answered. The only issue was that two more questions were raised.

“Don’t you know where it is? And why is climbing dangerous?”

Flare didn’t respond. Then she looked down at the town. “They knew.”

I looked at the mountains. I looked down at the town. It hadn’t even been in my musings on what the town had been like. What had they known? I couldn’t ask them anymore, their knowledge was locked behind blue lips and unmoving eyes.

What charms did they use? How did they manage the metal ground of their town? What fueled their fires?

I looked down at myself. At my hands. I thought about the charms I knew. I thought about the sticky-fingers charm in particular. I had come up with the charm, had put two charms together to make it. And it might not have been the most useful charm in the world, it might not have been around because nobody needed rather than me being some sort of charm-master, but the sticky-fingers charm was mine. And I had shared it with Flare, and the sticky-fingers charm could spread to others.

I wondered if Marz would be able to copy it from what she had seen of me using it. That would be nice.

I looked over at Flare. She could cast charms with her tongue. Whose was that? Was that hers, or a teacher of hers, or a secret of witches? She had already produced her bedroll, was already getting ready to sleep. Nothing more would be answered for the moment.

The thought crossed my mind that maybe I should ask her more questions. Even though her silence loomed like an army of frogs and fake coal. Maybe she had more sticky-fingers charms.

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Bubbles in the Crucible 7

I’d brought charm after charm into existence, hoping there was some way to break through the cell’s bars, to no avail. Shoving with jump-charmed legs, trying to use a springtime charm to force the tree to grow and break the bars, completely failing to get a heat charm to function, nothing would let me break free.

The other three didn’t say anything beyond tentative suggestions of things I could try. Now they were silent, and I was lying on the floor, panting. The exhaustion made every bruise I’d suffered at the hands of the Crown leap into the forefront of my mind, shoving everything else out. And then I heard Flare say, “Hello, apprentice.”

I pushed myself onto my elbows, groaning a little, and looked up at her. She looked almost bored. She made no moves to break herself out, and she didn’t look fazed at all from being cuffed and caged.

“You’re awake!” Vin said.

“We need help,” Grint said.

“Can you escape?” Marz asked.

Flare stared them down for a long while. Grint took this as an invitation to elaborate. “The Steward’s gone mad. He’s killed the King, he’s imprisoning people every chance he gets, he’s making people disappear, he’s–”

“We don’t know he’s making people disappear,” Vin said.

“Or that he’s mad,” Marz said.

“The point is you’re a witch and we need help,” Grint said.

Another long moment crystallized in front of us, and then Flare said. “He’s not mad. He’s desparate. Monsters do that.”

“The Steward is a monster?” Grint mumbled to himself.

“I think she means he’s acting like a monster,” Vin whispered to him.

Flare, ignoring the whispering, stuck her tongue out, and then carefully used the tip of it to start drawing a charm in the air. I stared. Everyone stared. The people in the surrounding cells were probably staring. The tip of her tongue glimmered with magical light, dragging the charm into being.

I racked my brain. Was this possible? Was this something all witches could do? Was this something I could do? Slipping your fingertips into magic was a skill in and of itself, easy to learn and very, very difficult to master. To do it with your tongue-tip was, as far as I knew, absolutely unthinkable. The thought simply hadn’t existed in my mind until now.

The charm she was tracing was a wildly complex one. An abstract one. Her tongue whirled and danced with an easy uncaring grace, as though charm-casting without your hands was easy, somehow. The charm was, as far as I could tell, width.

She gingerly brought the charm and her tongue down to one cuff, and it distorted and widened slowly, yawning until Flare’s hand slid neatly free. With that hand she traced width again, and touched it to her other cuff, and that yawned too.

Flare stood up, and walked to the bars of her cell, and traced width in the empty space between the bars, and slowly the bars bent out of her way. Behind her I could see the cuffs slowly ending their yawn, relaxing back down. Flare stepped out through the bars. She widened our bars, too.

“Come on, apprentice,” was all she said, and then she was walking off down the hall. Grint, Vin, Marz, and I all scurried after her.

A Crown, patrolling the halls, saw her, but Flare simply looked at him, and charm-light began to dance off her fingers in a peculiar golden light, and the Crown got the message and stood down as we passed.

We came to a supply closet. Flare opened the door, hummed appreciatively, and said, “You three wait out there. Apprentice, with me.”

I followed her inside without hesitation. She cast a charm with her tongue. What else would I see today?

She closed the door behind us, leaving us alone in the dark cramped closet. I cast a light charm, to save Flare the trouble, revealing a broom, a mop, and cleaning equipment stacked up around us. There were several jars labeled, “Birum’s Wood Polish”.

Flare stood there. I asked, “So, what are we doing?”

Flare said, “Finding the monster.” Then, she took a deep breath, gathered charm-light on the tips of her fingers, and began to scream. The charm light unfolded into two more light charms, painting the closet in an intense white glare. I clapped my hands over my ears and shut my eyes, but the light and the noise pierced through regardless.

Then the screaming began to taper off, and I heard a very soft dripping noise. I opened my eyes.

The Driss family back home had a pond full of frogs, where they got them from I never knew, and sometimes I was invited inside to watch. This reminded me of that: a translucent-skinned tadpole as big as my head and with a tail as long as my arm was floating in front of Flare. Flare said, “Shear Toads. An infestation.”

With one arm, she reached out, and slowly inserted her arm up to the elbow into the tadpole’s forehead. I could see her hand inside it as she began to trace out an unfamiliar charm inside the tadpole. She cast, grabbed, and then yanked.

The tadpole exploded, and a cloud of outward-expanding translucent veins struck me, and suddenly I was seeing double. I was seeing the supply closet, now tadpole free, but I also saw past it. A branching network of vein-roots throughout the body of the tree, and every one of those vein-roots connected to a room, and every room held a translucent, ghostly image of a ghastly creature. Toads standing on their hind legs, with arms that looked warty and knobbly and all too human. Toads with eyes that flickered madly to and fro. Toads wearing torn clothes, with blood running from gashes in their chests, staggering with gooey flops around the ruins of the rooms.

“Getting infected is painful. Eats your stress, you writhe painfully and break things, and then that’s it,” Flare said, in an almost disinterested tone.

“Can you save them?” I asked.

“They’re dead already. Now they just wait for stress to enter their rooms, so they can materialize and eat and add and multiply.”

The damage was staggering. Even seeing the sheer quantity of it laid out in front of me thanks to whatever it was Flare had done didn’t communicate the scale of it. The tree was massive, and there were enough people living in it that it probably could hold four or five Scorched Rocks. And at least a fourth or a fifth of the entire city was gone already. Consumed. Vanished.

“What do we do?”

Flare looked levelly at me. “We clean it out.”

“How?” The word was forced to bear the weight of not only my curiosity but all of my fears and worries besides.

Flare waved a hand, and the visions evaporated in front of me. “We get my coat back.”

Flare threw open the door. She asked “Where do they keep prisoners’ belongings?” to nobody in particular.

Vin’s response was immediate. “Follow me. It’s up two flights of stairs and a bit of a ways this way.”

We all set off again. Nobody spoke, this time. Flare’s presence was smothering. There was a persistent feeling hanging in the air that if anyone talked, Flare would do whatever it was witches did to people who bothered them. Considering what I’d just seen, I didn’t want to test whether or not being her apprentice would change the doubtlessly horrific punishment she might enact. I also didn’t want to risk not getting to see what came next.

There was a Crown guarding the storage room. Flare told them to open the door. The Crown hesitated. Charm-light gleamed on the tips of Flare’s fingers, and the Crown flinched backwards from her. Flare told them to open the door, but slightly slower, and with her glowing fingers raised towards them. They opened the door. Then they ran. Flare walked into the room, plucked her coat off a hook, and put it on. I scrambled to find my pack. Flare was already standing impatiently in the doorway by the time I found it and put it on.

She turned and began walking. “We want to cure it from somewhere central. It’s an infection. Take us to the throne room, please.” Again, Flare didn’t bother to direct her words, and again, Vin simply took the lead. I jogged to catch up to Flare and watch what she was doing.

Flare had in her hands a large jar of a dark liquid, and a block of copper. The top of the jar was unscrewed, and I could see on the underside of the lid a gleaming charm I didn’t recognize inscribed into the metal. She began to trace a charm into the copper, and that revealed something new to me that I had never noticed due to Flare’s gloves: the fingernail of her pointer finger was somehow made of a dark metal. The charm traced on the copper, she placed the copper gingerly into the dark liquid, and the liquid began to froth. She placed the lid back on the jar but kept the jar out. I could see the liquid beginning to turn an eerie bluish-green, pulsing slightly as it frothed.

“What is that?” I asked.

“A cure.” Flare said. When I continued to stare curiously at the jar, she elaborated. “Fake anxiety, hooked to a substance poisonous to Shear Toads. They circulate it like nutrients, they die, they spread the substance all over to stop future infestations. Simple.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You’ll learn,” Flare said.

“Oh,” I said again, lacking anything more intelligent to say. Pain had drained that out of me, and the only thing left animating me at that point was the bloody-minded desire to see how it all ended.

No Crowns patrolled the halls as we made our way up, and once we reached the floor where the throne room was we could see why. Our way to the massive gilded double doors of the throne room was barred. The Crowns had begun corralling civilians out of our way, and grouped up in our path. The Steward stood with them.

“Witch, you are not allowed to enter the hall of our King,” the Steward said. “You are a criminal and a thug, and no matter how many people you think you can scare here, you cannot scare me.”

Flare stared at him, and then she rose one hand and began to cast a charm. The Steward flinched back as she did, as did everyone in the charm. Witches carried weight here. It was funny how different Scorched Rock had treated her.

Then the Steward yelled, “Get her arms, stop her!” and three moss-coated Crowns, braver than the rest, raised their gauntlets and launched the branches at Flare. Without missing a beat, Flare simply and smoothly transferred the charm-casting to her tongue as the branches enveloped her, and this time some of the Crowns really lost their nerve and began to back away. The bravado streamed off the Steward’s face.

The charm went off, and a pulse lanced through the hall, and suddenly my double vision was back. The screams of the crowd and Crowns told me they could see it just as well. The network of translucent veins crowded the air in the entry hall, piercing every wall dozens of times over, spreading outwards through the tree. Ghostly images of the toad-beings began to phase in through the walls, and the screams became panicked. The Steward babbled something about ceasing this hellish attack.

I asked Grint if he could snap the branches off from around Flare. To his credit, he did it, though he never stopped staring at the toad people. Flare said a brief, “Thanks,” when freed. She walked forwards toward the hall. Nobody stopped her. I ran after her and slipped in right before the doors slammed shut.

Tapestries on the walls had been shredded. Not one torch stood where it used to. The hall was dark. At the end of it, a large, fat toad man with a crown wedged onto its head sat on a wooden throne. Flare held the jar out to it, offering.

The toad’s mouth closed around it.

The toad began to glow that ethereal blue-green from the inside out, the light spreading like ink in water through its body as it started to convulse. The veins in the area began to spread the light too, and the light had just began to pass through the veins out of the room when the toad began to flake apart and vanish into nothingness.

I collapsed to my knees. My knees hurt. I collapsed onto my side. My side hurt.

Flare said, “Alright. Rest up, I’ll make preparations for our departure.”

I passed into a smooth, dreamless sleep, and when I awoke again Flare was carrying me on her back away from the tree-city.

I wouldn’t miss it.

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Bubbles in the Crucible 6

The armory itself was the tricky part. It was unavoidably close to a barracks, it always had a Crown milling about outside it as far as we knew, and it was locked. Luckily, we had a plan for this, too.

Marz had been the one to ultimately come up with it. She remembered when she was a kid trying to figure out how to paint slightly more permanent charms onto paper or wood. She never got very far, but she asked me if I knew how to do it, and I’d dabbled in it before.

So I had a torn-out page of a notebook with the charm for light painted onto the top and the charm for silence painted onto the bottom. Neither charm was exactly great quality, but all I really needed was for them to last me long enough to pull off this trick.

I wrapped a jump charm around my feet. That was step one. I turned the corner into the hallway to face the Crown. That was step two. I leapt at the Crown as they turned to see who had just walked in. That was step three. I slapped the paper on top of his face before he could yell. That was step four. I sticky-fingered my hands, gluing the paper to their helmet. That was step five.

Step six was hold on.

The Crown grabbed onto me and wrenched. My arms screamed in their sockets. The Crown stumbled backwards, then regained their balance and slammed me into the wall. My body rang with pain. The Crown wound up a fist and punched me square in the gut. I bit down on my tongue to kill a scream before it could escape.

As we wrestled, Marz came up behind us and stole the keys off of the Crown’s hip. She started fiddling with the lock. I had my head smacked against the floor as the Crown fell forward onto me, crushing me with their weight. I could feel blood in my mouth. I hadn’t stopped biting down on my tongue. The pain came, then, but given that my tongue had to wait its turn for every other part of my body to scream at me, it wasn’t altogether too terrible.

It was about an eternity of this before I heard the armory door get unlocked. Then Grint loomed in my vision and, hands bound in thick wooden gauntlets, slammed the Crown once, twice, three times. The Crown went limp on top of me. Grint said, “Sorry,” very quietly. Then he dragged the Crown off of me.

Vin helped me up. “Are you okay?” she asked me. I just nodded. I’d taken worse. Vance had given me worse. At least I knew the Crown’s punches weren’t meant personally. They’d beat up anyone attached to their face like that.

Grint was fine with just the wooden gauntlets. Marz put on a little more than that, adding a helmet and some plates for her elbows and knees, but she seemed to regret the helmet the longer she kept it on. Vin put on a full suit of Crown armor, and she still seemed to be mostly okay, although she talked a lot less and breathed heavily a lot more with it on.

I found one set of gauntlets that fit my hands, and immediately found that there was a problem. I couldn’t weave charms at all with them choking my hands. Finger-motions that were second-nature became awkward and clumsy, gestures were suddenly difficult and tiring, and worst of all I could hardly feel the electric dance of lightning thrumming up and down my tendons under the weight. I threw the gauntlets off. I would have to just make do without.

When we exited the armory, we found something else that had gone wrong. Apparently the Crown outside had been stunned, but not knocked out, and had scurried off while we were equipping ourselves. We could hear the hammering of heavy wooden boots against the floor heading our way already.

“Run!” Vin said, and we did. We had turned the first corner under Marz’s urging before it occurred to me that Vin hadn’t followed us. The sounds of shouts and wood thwacking against wood chased us down the corridors, and I grimaced. We just had to get to Flare. Flare could fix this.

We thundered down the stairs, stealth forgotten, and when two Crowns came up the hallway to investigate the noise, Grint charged ahead and slammed his gauntleted fists into their faces. Their moves were sluggish. Marz tugged me along path them. Grint said, “I’ll catch up!” More footsteps burst out of the staircase behind us.

Grint didn’t catch up.

Marz gasped to me, mid-run, “Do you have a way to get the cell open when we find her?” I nodded. I had a few ideas. Marz threw off the Crown armor pads she’d added in the armory, and her breathing grew less labored. The heat shoved itself down my throat, making every breath I took feel like it took the effort of ten.

We reached the first layer of cells. There were two or three prisoners packed into each one. I leapt over a Crown patrolling the hall, and Marz ducked under their swinging arm, and we soon outpaced them, burdened as they were by the armor and the everpresent heat. There was no sign of Flare in any of the ones we passed. Marz gasped out, “If she’s a witch, she’s probably lower! They wouldn’t pack her in with people like this, she might break them out!”

The logic checked out with me. More dangerous prisoners must be lower. Harder to get to them, harder for them to get out. The only problem was that as we went down, the cells started to get more crowded, four or five prisoners in each one.

“There has to be a layer for charm-users, right?” I asked, as we thundered down yet another set of stairs.

Marz shrugged. “How many charm-users are there that would need special cells?”

I didn’t know. Neither did she.

More Crowns started appearing. Coming down staircases in front of us, and behind us. We kept moving, hoping to outpace them, or to find Flare. Something.

I writhed and I struggled when they finally caught up to us, but Marz just kind of went limp in their arms. They dragged us down even further. I tried to use charms, to struggle, to break free, but they clamped down on my hands, and that was that.

Marz and I were thrown roughly into a cell together. Grint and Vin were already inside. Vin waved to me, awkwardly. In the cell across from us, sitting alone with her hands clasped in large wooden cuffs, was Flare. She appeared to be dozing.

“You found her,” I said.

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Bubbles in the Crucible 5

The roots were a long way down. It didn’t help that there were no easy routes down there. The only ways down were circuitous, winding, through tunnels that grew narrower and less well-lit as we walked them. We gradually stopped seeing anyone else in the halls with us as we went.

Plan was really a generous word for what had wound up being worked out. Grint and I would be at the lead, trying to push our way through any Crowns that might be guarding the hallways down to where the cells were. Our first goal would be to reach the Crowns’ armory. There, we could pilfer armor for everyone else, and gauntlets for me that hopefully I could figure out how to use in time.

Once we were there, we would need to figure out where Flare was being held, break her out, and then she would tell us what to do next.

Most of the planning that had been done had been less about what we needed to do, since we couldn’t drill through miles of solid wood, and more about our routes and strategies for dealing with the Crowns. From what I’d been told, only a few of the Crowns could actually use the charm needed to launch the grasping branches from their gauntlets. For the rest, they were trained in hand-to-hand combat, but they mostly relied on the bulk and toughness of their armor to bring miscreants down.

We had a few advantages. I could use a few charms to even the odds, and Grint was a former member of the Crowns himself, so he had some ideas on how to fight them. More importantly, we knew from his current job doing logistics work from the Steward that there was some kind of quota of prisoners that he had to meet.

In the past, not meeting this quota was usually followed shortly by a long series of arrests. This time being the furthest below the quota they’d been in a long while, it was little wonder they’d leapt at the chance to arrest Flare and I.

The biggest advantage we had, though, was our route. Vin worked a custodial job, cleaning the halls, which was how she’d put together her maps. She knew where they were likely to post Crowns, and where the armory was, and which places were furthest from any barracks, and she’d designed our route down with all this in mind. The fewest actual confrontations, the quickest way down, the best odds for getting Flare out in one piece.

“Is it just me, or is it getting warmer?” Marz asked. We had only just made it to the areas that people who didn’t have jobs to do seldom went.

I thought about it. Was it warmer, or was I just imagining it was now that Marz had mentioned it?

“Yeah, it is,” Grint said. “You think it means something?”

Marz shrugged.

A few flights of stairs later and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was getting hotter. The heat soaked into everything, making walking down stairs harder than it should have been, making the walls feel like they were pressing us in, making it feel like we were going to be baked alive if we descended any deeper.

What made it worse was that it was an unfamiliar heat. The heat of the forge in Scorched Rock was overpowering, but it never felt like it stuck to you. It never felt like it was dragging the breath out of your lungs. It never made things heavier. Maybe they didn’t even lock the prisoners in, down here. Maybe the heat was enough to keep everyone from trying to escape.

“I never really noticed when I came down here before,” Vin said.

“How could you not notice this?” Marz asked.

Vin shrugged. “I wasn’t really paying attention to it.”

Now that I looked, as much as the heat affected Marz, Grint, and myself, Vin hadn’t slowed her pace or anything. She looked entirely unconcerned with the heat, in fact. I reflected that maybe that was why they kept sending her down here to clean up. She must have been the one custodian they had that could stand this stuff.

Up ahead around a corner we heard the thunking of wooden boots on wooden floors. A Crown. Grint got himself ready to fight, wiping the sweat off his brow and slowly cracking his knuckles. I flexed my hands, ready to sling charms as well as I possibly could.

The Crown came into view. Grint tensed. Then the Crown said, “Oh, thank heavens. Have any of you got some water?” The Crown rested their gauntlets on their knees and panted.

Marz offered some of the water she’d brought.

“You’re a life saver,” the Crown said, and drank greedily. It seemed like the heat was even worse for them, as hot as it was for us it was probably ten times hotter under all that armor. I rethought how much armor I wanted to pick up at the armory. The gauntlets would be uncomfortable, but at least I didn’t have to wear the full suit.

Maybe the heat was a blessing in disguise.

The Crown handed back Marz’s canteen, and said, “Thank you so much. Have a nice day.” They squeezed past us and started to walk away. We all enjoyed the profound relief of not having to fight.

The Crown turned back to us, and we all tensed. They said, “Oh, and if you’re lost, you just want the next staircase on your right, then two more flights past that, and there should be another Crown up there who can help you a little further.” Then the Crown walked away for real.

“Do we even need to get to the armory?” Vin asked. “If the heat’s messing with the Crowns that badly, maybe we can just go up to one and ask for more directions to Flare’s cell.”

“Let’s just be safe about this,” I said. If Vin could walk through this heat unaffected, there would doubtlessly be a few Crowns who could deal with it, too.

We kept walking.

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Bubbles in the Crucible 4

It wasn’t quick, exactly, but rumors always circulated in marketplaces. It was true in Scorched Rock, and it didn’t stop being true here. A little time was all it took for me to start hearing the right ones.

“-other group of travelers? I thought they would stop coming, since none ever leave.”

“These ones came from a different direction. I think the Steward is panicking. Nobody’s seen the King in weeks.”

“You don’t think?”

“Have you seen anyone go into or out of the throne room?”

“I don’t work anywhere near the throne room.”

“Well, do you know anyone who has?”

That was the first rumor I heard. That was the rumor when it occurred to me that the Steward might be creating the disappearances himself.

“Is it getting colder?”

“It’s just your imagination.”

“No, she’s right. Have either of you been barkside lately?”

“No.”

“What’s going on?”

“I heard from my buddy in the Crowns that people are starting to see their breath.”

That was the second rumor I heard. That was when I wondered what the people were being kept in the roots for. The third one was the one I was waiting for, though.

“It’s terrible.”

“What?”

“What’s going on, Grint?”

“The roots. There’s not enough.”

“Shit. Have you heard what the Steward is planning, Marz?”

“No, but whatever it is, it can’t be good. We have to do something.”

“What exactly can we do? Between the three of us we know one charm. For light. That children use.”

That was the moment I let go of the sticky-fingers charm and landed in their midst. Flare had been the first person in a long while to find me while I’d been hiding above eye level. Sandy had beaten one lesson into me above all others; people don’t look up.

All three of them froze in place, in the little hallway off the main marketplace they’d been hiding in. I took that chance to say something to keep them from scattering. “I know charms.” I said. “There’s a witch who just got arrested who knows more. She’s my mentor. I need help.”

Everyone was silent. Then, Grint, a tall man with a voice as wide as he was tall, said, “But you’re a child.”

Marz, a woman who stooped a little and wrung her hands a lot, said, “She’s just short.”

“She’s a child! How could a witch mentor a child?”

“Wouldn’t most people mentor children? I’m Vin, by the way.” Vin was a woman with a severe-looking face which nonetheless had held nothing but warm and inviting expressions for the few minutes I’d seen her.

“A witch! You, know, like the stories? Tread softly in the halls when everyone is asleep, the next bit I forget, and then the next breath you take is when the witch takes yours from you!” Grint said.

“Flare isn’t like that, I don’t think,” I offered.

“Look at it another way,” Marz said, “The Steward tried to have a witch, you know, like the stories, arrested. And, apparently, if this–”

“Grace,” I offered again.

“If Grace is to be believed, they succeeded.”

“Flare, the witch, would probably know what’s going on with all the disappearances, too.”

All three of them paused to digest this information. Vin said, “Those weren’t the Steward?”

“If it were the Steward, wouldn’t he clean up the rooms people disappeared in?” I asked.

“Also if it were the Steward, why would disappearances happen in the Crown barracks? Or the farming branches? Or, really, anywhere important?” Grint asked.

“I was thinking that the people who disappeared were all dissidents,” Marz said.

“Then why aren’t we gone?” Grint asked.

“How did they arrest Flare?” Vin asked.

“She was asleep.” I said.

“Witches sleep?” Grint asked.

The conversation continued to meander for a while, as everyone got caught up with everyone else. Grint was the only one who really asked if I was telling the truth, after I showed off my sticky-fingers charm again.

The three of them had what amounted to a hideout, from which we could lay out a plan of attack. Hideout was a strong thing to call Vin’s apartment, but she did her best to make it live up to the name. Stockpiled food, purchased maps of various bits of the city, drawn maps of various other bits, thick notebooks which, while none of them had much written in them, I appreciated greatly for helping get plans worked out in my mind as I tried to make something workable.

That said, my appreciation wasn’t enough to make the plans actually come. I didn’t know this city. I didn’t know what monster might be hounding the people who lived here. The one thing I did know was that Flare was in the roots, and that if we could just get her free, she would know what to do.

It was around when Marz woke me up from having dozed off with my nose firmly in a blank notebook for the second time that I gave up. I wrote down every charm I could think of that I could reliably cast, and Vin led me off to her bedroom. She insisted on me taking her bed, that I would need to rest up, that there would be a plan of action waiting for us in the morning.

Even then, exhausted as I was, I couldn’t help but listen in to the three of them argue. Grint was still asking questions about me. He would name charms I had listed with incredulity, shout about how far-fetched some of the things I had said were, about how I had fallen out of the sky into the middle of them. He never once said that he wouldn’t go through with the plan.

Marz would, every so often, stop to say something. Whenever she did, there was always a little pause, barely there, and then the conversation would continue again. She would point out little observations about the Crowns, about the layout of the warrens through the tree, about something they’d forgotten. At the end of a topic of discussion, Marz never had a disagreement to voice.

Vin filled in everything the other two didn’t say. Occasionally, she filled in things the other two had said, but after she filled them in again things Marz had wondered about before would be followed by a hum of understanding, and things Grint had reservations about would be met with agreement.

At some point, I fell asleep. They kept talking in my dreams. The words stopped making sense, but the rest still did. It still felt like it made sense. I woke up sure that we had a plan.

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Bubbles in the Crucible 3

I was lying awake in my bed, thinking about the blood in room number one, and about Hiller’s hatred of outsiders, and about what rotting in the roots meant, and about how quickly I could convince Flare to leave this place. Assuming that Flare could be convinced to do much of anything. It was a whirlwind of worries and thoughts and fears that ripped any possibility of sleep to shreds.

The door slammed open, and I heard Hiller yell, “That’s her!” I shot up in bed.

Two large figures in twisted wooden armor stormed into the room. The armor was knotted, and whorled, and had numerous twiggy branches coming off of it. It was almost as though the armor had been grown onto the figures. Their helmets sported the most branches, to the point where the many spiky growths made it look almost like a crown.

A Crown, even.

I scrambled back out of my bed as the figures advanced, and racked my brain for something I could do to get out of this. Fights were not something I was good at. My mind was overtaken by flashes of past brawls, of Sandy driving an elbow into my chest, of Vance pinning me so the other kids could get their licks in, of Lilly shoving me up against a wall. I didn’t win fights.

I could avoid them, though. My charms were at my fingertips in a heartbeat, pulsing with energy, begging me to use them. I wrenched one into existence. A jumping charm. I leapt, aiming for the ceiling, as the Crowns lunged. My sticky-fingers charm was there for me as I made contact, and I held fast to the ceiling. There was another Crown in the doorway, filling it up with their wooden mass. I paused.

An idea struck me. I dropped to the ground, then charged for the doorway. Before I hit, though, I twisted a lightening charm around them, and when I collided with their stomach, that sudden lightness meant they couldn’t keep their footing, and the two of us bounced into the hallway.

The Crown had their arms around me, now, but I twisted my legs under me, and strained my fingers to bring the jump charm back, and then I pushed, and the Crown’s arms were torn away, and I sticky-fingered myself onto the arched hallway ceiling.

I looked. There were more Crowns coming out of Flare’s room. Two of them held an unconscious Flare between them. Another crown, this one with greenish moss-bands sticking to their wooden armor, turned to look at me.

“I told you to be careful! She’s an outsider, she’s dangerous!” they yelled. I could see Hiller standing next to them, glaring up at me. I could also see the Steward behind the two of them, wearing a fake apology on his face.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention, young lad,” the Steward said. “We can’t just let outsiders run amok threatening our people.”

The moss-covered Crown then raised their hands at me, and I could see them casting what looked like one of the springtime charms the farmers in Scorched Rock used to make their plants bloom. Then their gauntlets grew, branches grasping their way through the air towards me. I yelped, and let go of the sticky-fingers charm, and dropped to the floor just as the branches hit the space I had been clinging to. There were no Crowns in the hallway behind me.

“Come peacefully,” the moss-covered Crown said. “You’re only making it harder on yourself and your friend here.” They snapped the fresh-grown branches off their gauntlets, and aimed anew at me.

I panicked, and my hands leapt up, and they traced the amber charm. A shaky, ill-formed imitation of the one Flare had first used on me. The moss-covered Crown’s branch-growth bounced harmlessly against the edge of the amber.

I ran. Behind me, I heard Hiller yell, “Yeah, you’d better run!” I ducked into a staircase, then through another hallway, and I ran and I ran until I’d left my memory behind, no idea where I was or how to get back to my room. Until my lungs were on fire and every muscle was smoldering coal. Until I outran even my exhaustion, pure fear spurring me on.

I slowed, and stopped. A couple people walking by glanced curiously at me, then paid me no mind. I breathed.

My pack was still in my room. My amber was still in my room. Flare was being taken down to the roots, wherever that was. And people were vanishing mysteriously, rooms being closed off.

Flare might know what could be causing it. No, Flare definitely knew. She had just been waiting until she’d had a chance to sleep before getting to work fixing it. I didn’t know anything about monsters. Flare hadn’t taught me anything yet.

The roots. She was being taken down to the roots to rot. Meaning if I was going to save her, I would need to find those roots. I would need to go very far down, past a lot of prying eyes who probably felt similarly to Hiller.

I would need clothes. Maybe a disguise. Some way to avoid the guards. A better way than panic and charms. I would need a plan.

I would need help.

The only issue was that I had no idea where to go for help doing this. The whole tree felt like a terrifying claustrophobic maze, and anyone inside could be another Hiller, another outsider hater. Another person who believed in brainwashing charms. I would need help, but I would need to be careful, too.

But first, stealing. I would do Flare no good getting caught myself.

I looked for the nearest clothing store. I noticed Crowns wandering the halls, people getting out of the way, fear obvious on their faces. I ducked into staircases and side passages when I spotted them. I’d been moving for what felt like forever when I finally found a marketplace.

There was a clothing store, closed up, presumably due to the disappearances. I slipped in through a window in the side-hallway next to the store. They wouldn’t miss the clothes I took.

The interior of the shop was absolutely destroyed, dried blood and broken racks and torn clothes strewn all over, but a few simple outfits had survived. I grabbed them, and changed, and snuck out again, listening all the while for any bumps or creaks that might signal the arrival of whatever monster might be causing the disappearances.

I slipped back out, into the hallway. From there, trying to find an ally was just a matter of walking, exploring, and watching. I hoped it would be quick.

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Bubbles in the Crucible 2

The marketplace was half-asleep by the time I reached it. A good half of the shops had little ‘closed’ signs in the windows, a good half of the people still wandering the place were yawning. The space itself was structured like a large, long hallway, with shops carved into each wall underneath a tastefully charm-lit arched ceiling.

The shops were interesting to peek into, but I very quickly found a problem. I had a purse full of the little copper coins that circulated in Scorched Rock, but none of the shoppers I saw used anything similar. They all used little strips of paper, instead. A few people shopping at a butchery seemed to be bartering, trying to get the butcher to take a bundle of hand-sewn clothes in exchange for a chunk of weird-looking meat, but even then all I had on me that might buy me anything was my piece of amber, and that wasn’t getting traded away no matter what.

Instead, I just wandered from shop to shop, marveling at how familiar yet different everything was. The animals strung up in the butcher’s were unrecognizable, but the fruits in the grocery were all normal. The clothes people wore seemed normal, but none of the regular blues or greens I was used to seeing showed up in them. The charms in the charmworks were all the usual ones I recognized for light or cleanliness or the like, but instead of the little stones or statuettes they got carved into at home they were all carved into wooden plates.

I was poking through a store selling odds and ends, looking at an interesting crystal that caught the charm-light from the ceiling and then sent it spinning out in striking shades of purple when somebody clapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey, you can’t sleep either?” I heard, and turned to look. It was a guy maybe a year or two older than I was, with a rakish grin and the muscles of someone who’d been doing labor all his life. His grin waned as he saw my face.

“Oh, sorry. Thought you were someone else,” he said. He put a hand sheepishly behind his head, and stuck his other one out for me to shake. “Hiller. Nice to meetcha.”

“Grace,” I said, and shook his hand.

“I haven’t seen you around before,” he said. “Are you from the east side? I don’t talk to east side folks much. Blues the new thing over there?”

I looked down at my clothes, suddenly having the distinct feeling of being an ill fit for a place that I used to feel hanging around the other kids back home. “No,” I said, “I’m actually from, um, from Scorched Rock.”

“I’ve never heard of that neighborhood,” Hiller said, “But then again, if I was any worse at directions my uncle would probably just lock me in the carpentry workshop so he wouldn’t lose me.”

I almost corrected his thinking that I was talking about a neighborhood, but I also didn’t want to reveal exactly how much I didn’t fit in. He might not talk to me if he knew I was Grace, the weird charm-girl from the chilled wilderness. Instead I asked, “Do you want to look around together?”

He said, “Sure, I’ll even buy you something to eat,” and that was that. We walked and talked. I did most of the walking, moving from store to store to peer into each one’s interior, and he did most of the talking, about his work or his uncle or his friends, and this division of labor satisfied both of us.

Eventually, though, he said something that made me pause. “Yeah, it sucks. Ever since my aunt, well, you know, my uncle has been meaner than ever.”

“You know?” I asked, midway through peering at a little glass statue in a glassblower’s shop. “Know what?”

“Oh, come on,” he said. “Like you haven’t heard.”

“I haven’t,” I said, feeling my pulse quicken.

“They closed, like, the whole first floor because of it. At least, over here they have been. Has this not been happening over on the east side?”

“Um, no,” I said. I needed more information. Details, descriptions, some idea if this was possibly connected to the guest room having been destroyed. “What hasn’t been happening over on the east side.”

“The disappearances!” Hiller said. “The creepy rumors I’ve heard about rooms where if you enter, you never leave. The reason why they’ve been closing up so many of the shops.”

I looked around me. “Wait, these shops don’t close normally?”

Hiller gave me a funny look. “Do shops close normally on the east side?”

“Um. Yes,” I lied.

“What neighborhood did you say you were from, again?” Hiller asked.

“Scorched Rock,” I said. I could almost feel his suspicion rising.

“And in Scorched Rock, shops close. And it’s a regular thing.”

“Yes?”

“Why do the shops close?”

“Well, the owners need to sleep, right?” I was sweating now. Talking to someone this much was unusual, lying on top of that made my nerves all want to scream.

“Why not have the apprentices mind the shop like normal, then?” he asked, and suddenly his face was very close to mine, and his eyes were squinting as though that let him see through lies, and I gulped.

Then he leaned back, and said, “You’re an outsider, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” I said. I had used up all of my lying to make it this far, no point in exhausting myself further and digging myself in deeper.

“You’re an outsider.”

“I am,” I said. His gaze turned hateful and angry.

“Uncle always told me outsiders would gladly lie to get what you have. I didn’t realize outsiders would look like anyone, use anyone, to get to you too. How old are you, even? Were you born here, and when the outsider charmed your mind away did it erase that too?”

“What?” I was suddenly as confused as I was fearful.

“I’m going to get the Crowns. Run along, little outsider-slave, and when you get back to your master tell them they’ll rot in the roots with all the rest of you lot.” Then Hiller ran.

Not wanting to find out who the Crowns were, I ran in the opposite direction, back to my room.

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