Choosing a Path
Finn sat on the couch with her legs crossed, the Aurcænos propped open across her lap. “You’re hovering again,” she said.
Tom jumped backward like a scolded child. “Sorry. I-I didn’t mean to.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Finn said, turning the page. “Don’t worry, I’m just reading it. I’m not ripping out pages and making hats with them.”
“I didn’t say…why would you…?” Tom reddened as he got flustered.
“Relax. I know that Kenneth sent you in here to make sure the Book was safe.”
“He didn’t…I mean, he just wanted me to keep you company while he and Morris have a private word.”
Finn smiled wryly at Tom, who stood behind the couch she sat on, very nervously edging toward the wall. It’d been over an hour since Morris and Kenneth had stepped outside, and by the sound of the shouting it was more than just those two out there. “Kenneth sent you in here to guard me. It’s ok, I know I’m the outsider here. Just don’t hover, it makes me nervous.” She turned back to the Tome. “You could even sit down.”
Very cautiously, as if Finn were a wild animal, Tom walked around and sat in one of the armchairs. He was quiet for a long time. Long enough for Finn to read a few more pages before he spoke again. “It’s not that I think you’re going to do something with the Tome,” he said. “It’s just…it’s the Tome. I’ve never even seen it before.”
“Would you like to read it?” Finn picked it up and held it out to him.
Tom shook his head. “I can’t. I tried reading over your shoulder and the pages just looked…blank. I think I’d have to touch it or be tested by it in order to read it. There’s an old legend about that.”
Finn set the Book back down in her lap. “I wonder why I can read it, then.” As soon as Kenneth and Morris left, before Tom was sent in, she had opened the Book just to see what it looked like. The script had transformed before her eyes into plain English, still hard to read, but understandable.
“It’s probably because Cassady gave it to you. So you have her permission.”
“Like an interim Keeper?” Finn said.
“Maybe. The legend says only worthy Craftlings can read the Book, but maybe if the Keeper gives you permission, a Malcoh can too.”
“Malcoh,” Finn repeated. She’d read more about the classifications of magic users, and it seemed strange to be lumped in with such powerful people just because she’d been born near them. If there were magical Malcoh on Earth, Finn was definitely not one of them. “Can I ask you a question?” she said to Tom,
“The Malcoh…most of us on planet Earth don’t have any magic. Pretty much everyone thinks it isn’t real. I don’t know about the other planets, hell, I don’t even know if I believe the other planets exist, but I have to think that they aren’t 100% magical either. So I was wondering, are the Craftlings that way? Are there some Craftlings that are born without being able to use magic?”
“Honestly?” Tom said. “No. There aren’t. Craftlings are Craftlings, every last one of us. It’s the same for the Dacruum I think. The Malcoh are just…well your ancestors went through a lot and some family lines don’t have magic in them anymore. Back then people could make that choice, to rid themselves of power completely. Nearly the entire planet Earth did, all at once. That was a few thousand years ago. I’m sure the Book tells it better than I can.” He pointed to the Tome. “Try looking up the Covenant of Earth.”
“That’s easier said than done,” Finn said. The Book, being a magical object, didn’t seem to keep its pages in any sort of order. They moved around, sections expanding or shrinking at will. So the Book never got any fatter, but it was always a chore trying to find what you wanted. Finn had discovered that if she thought hard enough about what she wanted to read, it would eventually appear. Maybe it was the Book taking pity on her, letting her read while its real Keeper was gone.
As Finn flipped through the pages she said, as casually as she could, “There is something else I was wondering.”
“What is it?” Tom seemed more relaxed now. Maybe she had proved that she wasn’t about to bite.
“Earlier tonight, or yesterday I guess, we were attacked outside Cassie’s grandmother’s place. We didn’t really get a chance to talk about it. All Kenneth and Morris said was that it was Dacruum soldiers after the Book. And that’s certainly what it seemed like. But I’ve been thinking, and some of this stuff that I’ve been reading about the Dacruum…well you would know better than I would. Do you think they did anything after we left? Would they hurt people, go after our families, something to try and find us?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Tom said. “I actually went back there a few hours ago and they were gone. No damage, no one injured. I’m pretty sure they never figured out who Cassady really was, other than the Keeper. They got whatever they came for and left.”
“I thought they came for the Book?” Finn held the corners defensively, as if someone might try to snatch it away even now.
“They did. But they can’t do anything if the Keeper has it. And she’s safe. There were some other things that they wanted, and I’m afraid they got those.”
“They looted the house?” Finn said. “Who were they, really? They didn’t seem like ordinary soldiers.”
“Well they’re not, exactly,” said Tom. “They were Dogs. It’s a nickname for an elite squadron of soldiers. They’re not part of the main military. It’s kind of hard to explain; you’d have to understand Dacruum politics. See, where we have the Consulate to balance the queen, they have only an Emperor with three advisors. The advisors are called the Triumvirs, and they each control a branch of the military. Part of that includes a squad that answers only to them. The Dogs, the Riders, and the Reapers. The Dogs belong to the Hunter. Get it? The hunter’s hounds? They can be dangerous, you saw that. But they’re single minded. They follow orders to the letter and only kill when they have to. You shouldn’t have to worry about your family.”
“Good,” Finn let go of a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. It’d probably been stuck in her lungs ever since Cassie first touched the Book and collapsed. It was actually nice to have Tom here babysitting her. He was earnest and positive, if a little skittish. She continued to flip through pages, hoping for something about the Covenant, whatever that meant.
From the moment they’d walked into that attic, Finn had been on edge. It was like her whole body was hyper-alert, ready for anything at any moment. She knew she should be scared. Even now, she wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t dreaming. But at some point between being attacked by fire, transported by song, watching Kenneth’s eyes change color like a high-quality mood ring, and holding a star in her hands, Finn had found herself in a calm, observational state. Magic was real, as was everything that came along with it. Whatever might happen next, it couldn’t be stranger than that. It was a challenge, a dare from the universe to keep her and Cassie safe until all of this was over. And so Finn simply watched and listened, cataloguing information in case anything turned out to be important for their survival later. It was surprisingly freeing.
Tom seemed to be leaning forward, straining to hear the conversation on the other side of the door. Finn hadn’t gotten a good look at him earlier. His grey suit went well with his olive complexion, and his hair was well groomed away from his face. His dark eyes were bright and eager, and his cheeks were brushed with freckles. He looked quite a bit like that man Carlton from before, but he was shorter and stockier. He seemed kind of like a football player in a suit—a bit out of his element.
“Do you know what they’re talking about out there?” Finn said, trying to start up the conversation again.
Tom shrugged. “Not really. Though every argument’s the same with Morris involved. He’s always trying to prove that his way is the only way. Still, even though he’s technically just a steward, he carries a lot of influence. He’s been here a long time.”
“And he’s loyal to a fault,” Finn repeated Kenneth’s words from earlier.
“Basically,” Tom actually smiled. “Right now Morris wants to send out a search party looking for your friend, and Kenneth says that if we let her come back on her own it will prove to her that she can trust us.”
“Who do you think is right?” Finn tested.
“We both know Kenneth is,” Tom said without hesitation. “If she feels like a prisoner here, why would she agree to stay? We all want her to stay.”
“Because you need a queen,” Cassie said.
“Of course. The Consulate can keep order, but only the queen can protect the realm.”
“You mentioned that before,” Finn said. “What exactly is the Consulate? I thought this was a monarchy.”
“That’s kind of—”
“Hard to explain?” Finn finished for him. “Just try me.”
“Ok. It’s actually really interesting. See, an Order like ours isn’t much like a monarchy at all. The Queen—” A loud bang cut him off. Followed by shouting, the braying of a horse, and the sounds of sudden movement. “Uh-oh,” Tom said. He rushed to the door.
Finn was right on his heels. “What happened?” When Tom flung open the door she pushed past him into the hallway, but froze when she saw the scene before her.
Morris was lying on the ground, trying to push himself upright while holding his head in pain. None other than Charlotte Brewell stood above him, her face redder than her hair, which, like her clothes, was in complete disarray. Two boys and a girl in their early teens were trying to restrain an older man in a raincoat and a unicorn who were both shouting—or in the case of the unicorn, whistling—angrily. Kenneth stepped forward. “Calm down, Charlotte,” he said.
“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Charlotte snapped. “This man kidnapped my daughter last night.”
“Still no excuse for cracking a man’s head against the floor,” Morris said, getting to his feet. “Your daughter came with me of her own free will.”
“Accepting candy from the man in the van doesn’t mean she wants to come home with you.”
“Whatever that means,” Morris snorted. “You’re the one who had her trapped. Who lied to her. She didn’t have to accept the Book, didn’t have to say the spell. She was practically begging me to bring her to this life.”
“You son of a bitch,” Charlotte raised her hand and her palm started to glow. But before she could move, Morris threw his arm out in a sweeping gesture and Charlotte shot eight feet into the air, a hazy light distorting the space around her. With an indignant squeaking sound she let fly the glow still in her palm and a hot bolt of light shot straight toward Morris. He rolled out of the way, spinning to his feet as the beam ricocheted off the floor with a bright pinging sound. The unicorn brayed again and the three kids threw themselves to the ground, arms over their heads.
Kenneth ran forward, throwing his hands in the air. Two purple spheres encircled the combatants like cages. “Stop it both of you. You’re acting like children, and you’re going to get someone hurt. Charlotte, you laid the spell, you know we couldn’t have taken Cassie unless she came willingly. And Morris, stop being an asshole about it. Now please, can we be civil and talk about this?”
Neither of them said anything for a moment. Morris was glowering at Kenneth, but Charlotte was looking around. She met Finn’s eyes and Finn could see something besides anger. Charlotte had noticed Cassie’s absence. Finn felt a sudden guilt creeping up on her. How much time had passed since they’d left? What must her parents have thought when she didn’t come home?
“Let me down,” Charlotte said calmly.
“Morris?” Kenneth said.
Morris didn’t drop his scowl, but he waved his hand and let Charlotte drop to the bottom of Kenneth’s shield sphere. Kenneth rolled his eyes, but lowered the shield to the ground. Morris brushed himself off angrily. Charlotte rushed forward to Finn.
“Are you all right?” she demanded.
“I’m fine, Ms. Brewell,” Finn said, her shoulders straightening unconsciously. “And Cassie is too, I swear.”
“Why is she not with you? Where is she?”
It was hard to lie into Charlotte’s intense green eyes. “Not…here,” Finn managed.
“She’s with the Wanderer,” Morris said huffily.
“What?” Charlotte spun around. Finn was half afraid she was going to start shooting lightening bolts again.
“That’s right,” Morris said, “your daughter is off doing exactly what you always did. Reckless, wandering off on her own, refusing to listen to the counsel of others. Only the hard way will do, completely resentful of her responsibilities. You may as well have raised your own clone. I believe you trusted that doddering old Ulcrean once too, didn’t you?”
Charlotte growled softly. “You underestimate me; you always have. And you’re underestimating Cassady right now. You say she came with you of her own free will? Fine. She wants to know the truth, and she knows you’re not telling the whole story. That doddering old Ulcrean may be a bit off his rocker, but he’ll tell her what you’re too afraid to. And once she knows, she’ll never accept.”
“One life is not worth every soul in the universe!” Morris screamed.
There was silence. Morris looked proud for a moment that he had stunned them all, but then he turned where everyone else was looking and saw Cassie and another unicorn standing a few feet down the corridor. “You wouldn’t be talking about me, would you?” Cassie said.
“Cassady,” Charlotte ran forward and threw her arms around her daughter, tears filling her eyes. “I’m so glad you’re ok.”
“It’s all right Mom,” Cassie patted her mother awkwardly on the back. “Everything’s going to be all right.
Charlotte pulled back, keeping a firm grip on Cassie’s shoulders. “Is it? You haven’t decided anything, have you?” Charlotte searched Cassie’s face as if her thoughts might be written there.
Cassie pushed her mother’s arms away. “No, I haven’t decided anything. But when I do, it will be my choice to make. All of you need to remember that.” Cassie looked over Charlotte’s shoulder at Morris, who wouldn’t meet her eyes. “I’m sorry that I left like that Mom, but you have no right to be mad at me.”
“I don’t?” Charlotte’s anger started to rise in her voice again.
“No,” Cassie was firm. “Not after you lied to me. You lied to me my entire life. Do you know what that’s like? To wake up one morning and suddenly realize that everything you thought you knew was wrong? That Book,” she pointed to the Tome in Finn’s arms, “that Book was supposed to be mine. It was trying to call to me, and you blocked that. Millions of people could have died.”
“I was trying to protect you,” Charlotte said.
“And a fat lot of good that does,” Cassie snapped. “I’d have gotten killed sooner or later and so would you. You weren’t protecting me, you were hiding.” Charlotte tried to interrupt but Cassie wouldn’t let her. “Yeah, war is hell and people die, but giving up doesn’t save any of them. What did you think would happen when half the universe got blown to pieces? Did you really think we’d be spared?”
“Thank you!” Morris said. “That’s what I’ve been trying--”
“And don’t get me started on you,” Cassie stepped past her mother, rounding on Morris. “You manipulated me into accepting a role I didn’t even understand. Giving me that Book without warning me what it was is like handing a nuclear bomb to a child and telling them it’s a football. You’re damn lucky I didn’t die the second I touched it. If all you’re looking for in a leader is a propped up wooden placeholder then you can transfer all your precious Brewell enchantments to the stick up your ass and I won’t have to see your ugly face again.”
“Cassie, you can’t…” Kenneth tried to intervene.
“It is possible,” piped up the unicorn that had come in with Cassie. “Not the stick part, but the Watchers say it can be done. The bloodline can be separated from the crown with all enchantments intact. Cassie here wouldn’t have to be your figurehead. But it is dark magic, born from blood. I don’t recommend it.”
“It requires a human sacrifice,” Cassie added. She looked at Morris. “Any volunteers?”
“You spoke to the watchers?” Charlotte said, looking from Cassie to the unicorn.
Cassie nodded. “I did. And they didn’t have any good news for us. Whatever happens now, whether I become queen or not, we’ve come too far to avoid bloodshed.” She looked directly at her mother. “I should have been told. Ages ago; you should have warned me. If you had trusted me enough to tell me the truth, maybe I could have stayed out of this. But now I’m in it whether I like it or not.”
“Cassady stop talking like it’s too late,” Charlotte ordered. “If I could go back and change things…I couldn’t tell you, I couldn’t. You weren’t ready. Don’t you understand? I wanted a better life for you. Knowing about magic, about the Craftlings, it’s too much responsibility for a child. You can’t blame me for wanting my daughter to live a life free of sacrifice.”
“There’s no such thing,” Cassie said. “I know that now more than ever. I’m not a child anymore, Mom. I can’t hide behind your lies forever.”
“I never lied to you, I swear. Not outright. I didn’t tell you everything, but I never fabricated a life for you. You made your own choices, became your own person. You had a freedom I never had. I thought you would want that.”
“Perhaps there’s no such thing as freedom, either,” the unicorn, the Wanderer, said. He said it so casually, shaking his mane out across his neck. “You are here, after all. Where you swore you would never be.”
“No!” Charlotte insisted. “It doesn’t have to be like that. If Morris cares so little for the value of one life, then let them have their human sacrifice. Cassie, this doesn’t have to be your responsibility. These men,” she gestured at Morris, Kenneth, the man in the raincoat, even the other unicorn, “they are the ones who have made the world this way. It’s their burden. And you think it’s so easy to carry? That you can just fix it? Ask Morris where he was when your grandmother died. Ask Kenneth how he got that scar on his arm. You want to take on their pain, their mistakes?”
“I want to do what is right,” Cassie said, her voice matching her mother’s in volume, “whatever the cost.”
“It costs your life! And I won’t allow it.”
Cassie’s voice was harsh, but underneath she sounded sad. “You don’t have a choice. None of us do.”
They spent that night in the Royal Suite. The rooms were bright and airy, comfortably decorated by Cassie’s grandmother with plenty of paisley and chintz. Finn haggled with Morris about whether or not they needed anything for the night. As uncomfortable as she was here, after Cassie’s outburst Finn knew that she needed to be the one with the level head if she wanted to keep things from getting worse. Cassie hadn’t even said goodbye to her mother. Charlotte had given Finn a hug before she left and promised to try to explain things to her parents. Both girls would have liked to go home, but apparently it was impossible. Since they had been magically transported such a long distance on their first run, their “cellular structure was too unstable to be broken up again.” They’d have to wait at least a couple of weeks before they’d be able to transport anywhere. At least, that’s what Kenneth had said. Everyone else seemed to agree, but Finn wasn’t completely sure they weren’t just trying to hold them here.
As soon as Morris shut the door behind him, Finn turned around to find Cassie leaning on the windowsill looking out at the garden that formed the center of the Royal Suite. Finn walked up to her and looked over her shoulder. The moonlight was bright, glinting off the towers. It was a small garden, just a couple of benches and an archway covered in a vine thick with white buds. Everything in the garden was white, the flowerbeds practically overflowing. Finn actually recognized some of the flowers, like dragon fruit and queen of the night. She wondered if Cassie’s Gran had brought them all the way here.
“You ok?” Finn asked gently.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Cassie sighed and turned around. “I’m sorry about all this.”
“For dragging you along. I didn’t have to make you come with me. And now you’re stuck here and I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”
“It’s ok, really.” Finn smiled. “I know this is insane, but I’m all right. Besides, I don’t want you to go through this alone.”
“Thanks,” Cassie said. “You being calm actually helps me be calm.”
Finn raised her eyebrows. “You call that calm back there?”
“Ok, calmer than I could be,” Cassie admitted. “It’s all pretty overwhelming.”
“Tell me about it.” Finn crossed the room and sat down on the bed. It was enormous, wider than she was tall and topped with a lace canopy. The whole room was huge, really. Cassie and Finn could have fit together in the chest at the foot of the bed, and the vanity took up half the wall. The closet was bigger than Finn’s room back home and the dresser was the size of a bear. Looking around, Finn wondered if Cassie’s tiny grandmother had really lived in this place. And if, one day, Cassie would come to stay here too. “You know,” Finn said, “as much as I love my mother’s stories and fantasy novels, I never really dreamed a place like this could exist. I know this inheritance stuff scares you, but…maybe being a part of all this wouldn’t be so bad.”
Cassie came and sat down beside her friend. The Tome lay where she’d tossed it on the coverlet, and she traced her hand over the title fondly. “It’s not that that worries me,” Cassie said. “Could I hold on to this Book for the rest of my life? Sure. Could I live in a palace and be a queen? That’s every girl’s dream. But when I fainted in the attic I saw…I don’t know what I saw. Anyu says it was a vision of a possible future. And none of it is a future I want to see. When I went to the Watchers they told me so much, but they didn’t say how I’m supposed to handle any of this.”
“Maybe they didn’t know either,” Finn said. “You know, I read in the Book that the Watchers are supposed to be the guiding hand of god. And that whatever parts of life are predetermined, they’re supposed to make sure that they happen. But so much of life isn’t predetermined; it all depends the choices we make. So the Watchers wouldn’t know much more than you do.”
“That’s not as comforting as you think it is,” Cassie said. “And since when are you able to read the Book?”
“Since you handed it to me,” Finn said. “I think it cast some sort of spell on me, because now I can read it and all the signs that we passed on the way here. Maybe when you and everyone else left me alone with it, it commiserated with me. It may have abandonment issues.”
“Impressive, for a Book,” Cassie said. “But I suppose it’s powerful enough. It’ll take me a long time to figure out how this thing works.”
“Maybe, but maybe not. It’s like anything else really—you fumble around for a while and then once you get the hang of the rules, it starts to get easy. I was looking at the Doctrines and those sections of the universe that Morris was talking about. It’s pretty hard to follow, but it’s all there. How everything works. And I mean everything. From molecules to planets they have a neat little explanation about what it is and how it works. These guys may be confusing as shit about the future, but they know the way things stand. If anything is going to help us, that knowledge will.”
Cassie played with her necklace the way she did when she was thinking. She opened the Book to a spot in the middle and flipped through the pages. “I don’t know if we have time to learn everything we need to,” she said. “But whatever we can find out would help.” She looked up at Finn with a bit of a haunted expression in her eyes. “The only thing I know is the stakes. The Watchers showed me some of the Realm. All those people…cities and farms and mines and little houses by the sea. I used to think Earth was so big and now” she sighed, “now I don’t even know where we are.”
“I asked, but no one wants to say,” Finn said. “I think they think we’d freak out if we knew. As if that would be the surprising part. Still, it wasn’t hard to figure out.” Finn spun the Tome toward her and started to flip through the pages. Soon she found what she was looking for and turned it back so Cassie could see. Sprawled across the pages was a map covered in lines and pictures labeled with tiny writing. “Look: a map of the universe.”
“The whole universe?” Cassie said, leaning over the map. “It’s…well I always pictured it more swirly.”
“I don’t know,” Finn said. “It doesn’t seem to show any star systems that aren’t inhabited so I guess it could be more swirly than it looks here. Plus I think this is to scale so everything’s really tiny. The guide at the bottom indicates were the map has removed the empty sections. Space is mostly…space.”
Cassie squinted to read the labels on the different galaxies printed neatly along the grid. “Every single one of these systems is inhabited?”
“Seems so.” Finn turned the page to an informational list. “This section is some kind of atlas. There’re facts about each planet or moon with intelligent life on it. Who’s there, imports/exports, major cities and attractions. NASA would kill to get their hands on this. Look here’s Earth. We are the ‘furthest out of all planets in the shadow realm and the only inhabited planet in our sector’.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m pretty sure it means that there are a ton of galaxies between us and the next intelligent life form.” Finn flipped back to the map. “Which makes sense, because as far as we can see into space right now, there’s nothing. The rest of the Malcoh must be really far away.” She pointed to a small oval galaxy at the bottom of the page. “Here we are. See these lines?” Thicker than the grid guidelines, there were two lines that split the map into three sections. “This whole center part is the Shadow Realm. Morris wasn’t kidding when he said we were literally caught in the middle of the war. Here on the left, is the Realm of Light, which is where I think we are now.”
“Well that would make sense,” Cassie said. “We’re supposed to be in the Craftling capitol, so we’d be where the Craftlings are. Which planet are we on?”
Finn pointed to a dot in the center of the left-hand page. Its galaxy shared a sun with another, creating two overlapping ovals that resembled a large infinity symbol. There were three other occupied planets around it. “The planet Renalia,” Finn said. “Home to the capitol of the order, Marupren, the Palace of Light, the Royal Mausoleum, and the Archives.”
Cassie measured the distance with her hand; it was almost a whole foot away from Earth across the pages. “Kenneth wasn’t kidding when he said we’d come a long way,” she said.
Finn nodded. “I tried to calculate the distance with the key, but I can’t translate the unit here.” She pointed to a square in the corner of the map full of very complicated-looking symbols. “There must not be any English equivalent ‘cause the scale says they’re 100,000 something apart and that number is way too small for light-years or AGN reverberation or even—“
Cassie cut her off. “Please don’t start talking about science while you’re reading a magic book. It’s just too much.”
“Sorry. I guess it’s just…the less in the dark we are the more I feel like we have a chance. And once you accept that magic and aliens and unicorns are real, it’s almost exciting. Just think of the possibilities.”
“I know all the possibilities.” Cassie said, her voice tight.
Finn blanched a little at that. It was easy to get caught up in all this new information, but she wasn’t the one whose life was at stake. As kindly as she could, Finn said, “You’re putting too much pressure on yourself, you know. Things don’t have to be as grim as you’re making them out to be.”
Cassie shook her head. “Maybe they don’t. But I feel like I’m being pushed in this one direction, and no matter what I learn or see there’s this huge destiny hanging over me. And whatever I decide, someone is going to get hurt.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Anyu was right—the choice is already made and all I need is the conviction to commit to a decision.”
“Does that mean you’ve chosen?” Finn asked.
“No,” Cassie said, “it means that I lack conviction.
Late into the night, so long after moonrise that a second moon began to sweep the sky, Finn was still awake. Cassie, exhausted and overwhelmed, had fallen asleep not long after she climbed into bed, but Finn could barely lie down for a few minutes at a time. That strange buzz of adrenaline was still coursing through her. She couldn’t help but feel like there was something else for her to do, something left for her to find. After at least an hour of reading the Tome by moonlight and finding nothing, Finn couldn’t stand it anymore. With a last glance at Cassie, sleeping sound, she left the bedroom as quietly as she could
In the dark, it was a little harder to navigate the clutch of rooms that made up the Royal Suite. Finn banged her leg on the furniture three times before she found the outer door. Once in the hallway, she wasn’t sure exactly where she was going. She’d done her best to memorize the ways they’d taken around the palace earlier, so she started retracing her steps listlessly. It wasn’t long before she found the door marked “Library”. Finn slipped inside.
The room she entered was familiar. It looked out on the courtyard from before, the Star of Rhiath sparking quietly to itself, a pale mirror to its fellows in the sky. Aside from the wall of windows, there didn’t seem to be any lights to turn on or even any torches to light. Finn walked along the rows of books, trying to read the faded covers by moonlight. If she could find something here, anything…
A sudden noise broke the silence; no more than a soft thud, but Finn was instantly alert. She looked around. On the other side of the room, where the sound seemed to have come from, there was an open doorway. Walking through it, it turned immediately down a short hall. At the very end, light flickered against the wall from an open door. Carefully, walking on the pads of her feet to avoid making a sound, Finn went to the doorway and peered inside.
This room was circular, with the bookcases jutting out like wheel spokes. The wall itself was lined with books too, not a single window to break up the shelves. The ornate chandelier was dark, but a lamp blazed on a large central table. The table itself was covered in books save for the very center where an overlarge wok sat on a stand. Underneath was a pan full of ash that had probably once been a small fire. Finn couldn’t see into the wok, but strewn around it were various herbs, sticks, and a knife.
Three people sat around the table. One man lay his head on a stack of volumes like a pillow, and the other was curled up in his chair in what had to be a very uncomfortable position. After a moment, Finn recognized them as Tom and Carlton. Across the table from the brothers, sitting with his back to her, was Kenneth, absorbed in several books laid out in a line in front of him. He was mumbling to himself and writing notes on a thick pad. Finn cleared her throat softly.
Kenneth jumped. He leaped to his feet and spun around, arm out. Finn stepped into the room, arms raised. “Hey,” she said sheepishly.
“Finn?” Kenneth dropped his arm, shoulders slumping. “What are you doing here?”
“Sorry, I couldn’t sleep. Am I disturbing you?”
“No,” He sat back down in the chair wearily, “no, you’re fine. Is everything all right?”
Finn walked up to the table and scanned the odd assortment of things on it. The wok was only filled with more ash. “I should be asking you that. You look like death.”
“I just mean you’ve been falling down exhausted since we got here. You shouldn’t be conscious.”
He chuckled, “yes well, a Lord’s work is never done.” He patted the books in front of him. “This couldn’t wait. I can sleep for a week once I finish.”
“At least you have help,” she nodded at Tom and Carl. “Must be fascinating, whatever you’re doing.”
“It’s just past their bedtime,” Kenneth joked.
Finn leaned over to look at the book next to Kenneth’s writing pad. It was thin with a black cover made from some kind of hide. The words were printed in an odd configuration—starting from the top left and going around the page marching inward in a spiral. Finn read from the top line, “…and on the death of the king the land shall be bathed in blood. The seat of power will be torn asunder and no man left unscathed.” She clicked her tongue against her teeth, “Some bedtime story.” Kenneth didn’t say anything. He stared, eyes wide as if Finn had grown a second head. “What?” she asked him.
“You…you just read that.”
“Oh, yeah,” she smiled guiltily. “I think the Tome may have put an enchantment or something on me. Not really sure how it works, or if it’s gonna go away, but it seems to be coming in handy.”
“Right, the Tome,” Kenneth said. “Tom told me you could read it. I just didn’t realize it applied to other text too. Must have been one hell of an enchantment. I can’t even read this.”
“You can’t?” Finn looked back at the book. It seemed to be written in English, but if she relaxed her eyes she could see the real words—a series of glyphs like the clear calligraphy of Chinese script.
“This is Daeorian writing,” Kenneth said. “No Craftling can read it. That’s what I’ve been doing here. I’m trying to translate it, and it takes some strong magic to do so.”
Finn looked at the other books strewn around. They all seemed to be dictionaries or linguistic texts. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “It must be the power of the Tome.”
Kenneth looked back down at the book. “Yeah, I guess it must be. Or your Malcoh blood. Either way, this could be good.” He turned back to her. “Would you read this for me? It’d be so much faster.”
“Sure, I guess.” Finn pushed a stack of books aside and hopped up onto the tabletop. Maybe this was what she had been wanting—the chance to do something useful. She picked up the thin book, skimming through the open pages. “Do you want me to just start at the beginning?”
“No, you don’t have to,” Kenneth said. He turned his pad to a clean sheet of paper. “I had to translate the whole thing because I can’t look for what I want. You can actually skim it. Flip through and try to find anything relating to an ‘Ultimate Power’.”
“Ultimate Power? What kind of book is this, anyway?” Finn closed the book to look at the cover. There was a single glyph stamped in the center of a circle with what appeared to be a snake wound around the edge. She had to concentrate a little harder to read the name written there.
“Those are the prophecies of Elysiaa,” Kenneth said. “She was the greatest Seer the universe has ever known. As a child she was kidnapped and held in the Dacruum capital for most of her life. It’s why she wrote this way. They say that when she was rescued and brought here, she would speak only in prophecies. Except to the King, her husband, and that was only in private.”
“She married your king?”
“Well she was very beautiful,” Kenneth said. “There’s a portrait in the library’s main room; you should go look at it.”
Finn opened the Book again. “She certainly sounds interesting. But beautiful or not, her writing’s a little…dark. And cryptic. Listen to this: ‘…there the warriors of light shall fall, unless they dare submit to the stranger’s power.’ How is that supposed to help anybody?”
“Prophecies hardly ever make any sense,” Kenneth said. “The seers say it’s because they have to account for all possible outcomes, but I think they’re covering for the fact that they can’t actually see anything useful about the future. This book is very old though, it’s more for information, not answers.”
“I think we’ll be lucky if we can get even that.” Finn turned the book to follow the swirling script. Even with the words translated it was difficult to understand much of anything. She read aloud every passage that mentioned great power, but nothing seemed to be what they were looking for. Until she reached the very last entry in the book.
“Here it is!” Finn exclaimed. She read, “The Ultimate Power shall devour him, and with him all creation shall fall.” She looked up at Kenneth. “That doesn’t sound very good.”
“No,” Kenneth agreed, “it doesn’t. Can you read that section from the beginning?”
“Yeah,” Finn said. She flipped to the previous page. “My husband has achieved his goal. Creation is unsealed and the universe returned to its original state. Some will find salvation in this new era, others great suffering. Still, it won’t be until the reawakening when any of them will find true redemption. Hardship will test the people and rise up the mighty and the brave until the next era can begin. At that time the one true heir of Mercutio will be born to face the ancient trial. Only she can undo what has been done and cast off Origin forever. However to do so, she must stand against a great evil. In many ways and with much bloodshed the dark one will seek that which should not ever be. They will come, if bid, but he who compels them will find only what he has always sought: foolishness and death. The Ultimate Power shall devour him, and with him all creation shall fall. What then but to fall to one’s knees before divinity and pray for salvation? The heir must learn the secret of the fallen, and unite that which has not been for many hundreds of years. The strongest light shines in darkness, and the brightest star casts the largest shadow. It is true that one who desires to live a life of magic must walk down one of three paths, but there are other lives to live and other paths to follow. Destinies are made by force of will even when the fates stand against us.”
Finn looked up. “Does that…help any?”
Kenneth sighed, looking down at the transcript he’d scribbled down. “Not really. But it gives us a place to start, anyway.”
Hesitantly, Finn asked, “Are you trying to find this ‘Ultimate Power’?”
“No,” Kenneth laughed. “You read what’ll happen if its summoned. I’m trying to stop it. A few weeks ago, we received intelligence that the Dacruum are trying to summon the Ultimate Power. Unfortunately this is best lead I’ve gotten so far about how to fight it. Still, I have no idea who the fallen are or what will need to be united. And the heir of Mercutio…are you sure there’s nothing else?”
Finn turned the book around to show him. “That’s all she wrote. When exactly did this Elysiaa live, anyway?”
“Some five-hundred years ago by universal reckoning,” Kenneth said. “She died not long after the Rite of Origin was completed. In childbirth, I think.”
“Five-hundred years ago? Man.” Finn looked down at the page again. “What is the Rite of Origin? It says a lot about Origin and Creation in here.”
“That’s kind of a long story, and not a happy one,” Kenneth admitted. “But I suppose you’ll have learn about it eventually. Hand me that green book behind you and I’ll explain what I can.”
When Finn shook Cassie awake, she sprang up and nearly smacked Finn in the face. “What? Who’s there?” It took a second for her eyes to focus on Finn sitting on the edge of the bed. “Finn? What’s going on?”
“I did it,” Finn said. “I figured it out.”
“Figured what out?”
“Everything,” Finn said dramatically. She held up a piece of paper with a crudely-drawn symbol on it.
“Is that…it?” Cassie asked.
“Yes,” Finn said, grinning. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but it’s the answer to everything.”
“What exactly do you mean by ‘everything’?”
“I mean what we were talking about earlier,” Finn said as if it were obvious. “About how you thought you didn’t have any options? I found an option.”
“Oh, ok,” Cassie said. She turned her head to look at the strange symbol from a different angle. “So what exactly is it?”
“This is the Daeorian glyph for ‘Creation’.” When this only produced a blank stare from Cassie, Finn said, “Maybe I should start from the beginning.”
“Please,” Cassie said.
“Ok.” Finn took a deep breath. “So I ran into Kenneth in the library and he was trying to translate this book of prophecies.”
“He was still up? Shouldn’t he be resting after today?”
“Yeah, he should. He looks like hell warmed over, but he was determined. And this book—it’s important. He’s not able to read the writing, but apparently that enchantment the Tome put on me lets me understand it. Kenneth thinks it’s because I’m a ‘Malcoh’ or whatever. And these glyphs are not like normal writing.”
“What are they, then?” Cassie said.
“Well apparently when language was first invented no one ever wrote anything down. But when the Designators came up with the idea for the whole Tome thing, they had to create writing. Basically each one of them spoke the same language but came up with an entirely different way to write it down. That weird language in your Book? That’s High Renalian, the writing of the Craftlings. This,” Finn held up the piece of paper, “is the Dacruum writing. It’s just called Daeorian Glyphs.”
“And you can read that?”
“Yeah,” Finn nodded. “I translated that book for Kenneth, and that’s where we found the answer.”
“Ok,” Cassie said, “so what exactly is this answer of yours?” She put a hand up before Finn could say anything. “And don’t show me the paper again.”
Finn laughed. “Ok, ok. Do you remember Morris mentioning something about the Rite of Origin?”
“Yeah. He just said it was the reason my ancestors had to lay all those enchantments.”
“It was,” Finn said. “Because before the Rite, they weren’t necessary. See, it all goes back to when the universe was created. According to Kenneth, those three Designators were the first beings to have magic. And they had to decide among themselves how to use it. The Designator of Light had one idea, and the Designator of Darkness had another idea, and the Designator of Shadow thought they both made excellent points. So they couldn’t agree. That’s why there are three sections of the universe and three doctrines. Three ways to access power, three ways to use it. Three paths.”
“Ok,” Cassie said, “but what does that have to do with Origin?”
“Everything,” Finn said. “Origin is the name for the state of the universe when it was first created. Things like the laws of physics and the way matter reacts, and definitely magic, were all in sort of a raw, beginning state. But supposedly, the whole “Creation’ thing was a long process and eventually the state of the universe changed.”
“Something called the ‘Progression of Creation’. Remember how the Shadow Designator couldn’t decide between the other two? Well he made his cool compromise way, but he thought that his people should have the right to choose. The other Designators just made their realms and their Doctrines and left it at that, but every planet in the Shadow Realm had to decide for themselves which path to follow. And with every choice, the universe became more stable. But it took like millions of years, and in the meantime, the war started. Light and Dark tried to influence each planet to one side or the other when its turn came, and they fought pretty brutally over it.”
“This war has lasted millions of years?” Cassie said.
Finn nodded. “They say it will never end. As long free will exists, blood will be shed in the attempt to force other people to choose what someone else wants.”
“That sounds accurate,” Cassie said. “So all the planets chose shadow, didn’t they?”
“Yup,” Finn said. “And that’s when the universe was finished. As soon as the last planet, which was Earth by the way, made their choice, the universe sealed itself, sort of like a finishing touch. I’m not sure exactly what it did to the laws of physics, but apparently there were barriers between the realms and new types of magic, and every planet got some huge power boost. That final state, which only happened a few thousand years ago, was Creation, all neat and tidy.”
“And let me guess,” Cassie said, “this ‘Rite of Origin’ made it all go away?”
Finn tapped her nose. “About five hundred years ago, a man named Mercutio found a way to undo the sealing of the universe and return everything to the State of Origin.”
“Why would he do that?”
“No one knows. But he performed a powerful rite to do it, and it cost us all the awesome things about a sealed Creation.”
“No barriers, no strong magic,” Cassie said. “That’s why they need all those enchantments my ancestors put up.”
“Exactly.” Finn said. “But what if we could re-seal Creation?”
“This is the answer you found, isn’t it?” Cassie said, starting to pick up Finn’s excitement. “If we could re-seal creation, then the Craftlings would be safe on their own. I wouldn’t have to be Queen and no one would have die.”
“Not a one,” Finn grinned proudly. “And that’s what the paper is for.”
Cassie chuckled. “Ok, ok. So what does the glyph have to do with all of this?”
Finn cleared her throat and held up the paper again. “The old language is so powerful that the words don’t just represent something, they reflect its true nature. That’s why it works so well for magic, according to Kenneth. But I think the words themselves can also tell us about what they represent, things we wouldn’t otherwise know.” She pointed to the glyph. “This says ‘Creation’. But look at this.” She turned the paper over so that the glyph was upside down.
“I can tell that I’m supposed to be impressed right now,” Cassie said, “but all I see is triangles and squiggly lines.”
Finn sighed. “This is the glyph for ‘Origin’. It’s just the reciprocal of Creation.”
“And that means…”
“That means that the two are connected. See, all this time everyone thought that in order to go from Creation to Origin, Mercutio had to tear apart the universe. And if he ripped everything up and broke it, then it was irreversible. But—”
“But if they’re connected, there might be a way to change it back?”
“Right,” Finn said, pointing enthusiastically at Cassie. “Think of it as an electromagnet. Set it up one way and it’s negative, but set it up in the opposite direction and you have a positive current.”
“And you’re saying that you and Kenneth found some way to flip the switch?”
“That’s what the prophecy in that book was about. It said that the one true heir of Mercutio would have the power to reverse the Rite and seal Creation again. And we think that you are that heir.”
“Why would I be the heir of Mercutio?”
“Cause he’s your great-great-great-great-something-grandfather. He was the King married to Elysiaa, who wrote the prophecy.”
“Aw man,” Cassie said. “My ancestors sure seem to be ruining my life lately.”
“Trust me, Elysiaa is on our side. Her prophecy tells you all you need to know, in a cryptic sort of way. And I’m sure it’s right. It even said the heir was a girl. And the whole ‘Ultimate Power’ thing is happening at the same time, and that can’t be a coincidence.”
Cassie covered her face with her hands. “Am I going to regret asking you what you meant by that?”
Finn grimaced. “Uh…no?” She sighed. “Ok probably. The Ultimate Power is this thing that the Dacruum are trying to summon. Supposedly it will backfire on them and destroy the whole universe. But on the bright side, you’re supposed to be able to stop them.”
“Awesome,” Cassie said. “The prophecy does say how to stop them, doesn’t it?”
“I think so. Like I said it’s cryptic, but the information is still there. And we have time to figure it out. I think.”
“I’m gonna have to read this prophecy. I think you’re trying to make it sound better than it is.”
“It’s not that bad,” Finn insisted. “Besides, it gives us a much better option. You said that it was too late to avoid bloodshed, but maybe this could be a way.”
Cassie thought for a moment. “In order to do this, I’d have to accept the crown, wouldn’t I?”
“For now, probably. To keep people safe while you work on the prophecy. Plus the extra power would help.”
“I don’t know how I like that, but I guess this way it would only be temporary. If I wanted it to be,” Cassie added. “Still, it’s a compromise. And that’s much better than what I had before. As long as we’re careful and take our time, it could work.” She looked up at Finn. “It will work, won’t it?”
“I think so,” Finn said. “I hope so.”
“I guess that’ll have to be good enough. But I have one condition.”
Cassie reached out and took her friend by the hand. “You have to do it with me. You have to stay. I know it’s too much to ask, and you’ve helped so much already but—”
“It’s ok,” Finn cut her off. She gave Cassie’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “I want to stay. You always get into trouble when I’m not around. I promise, we’ll do this together. No matter what.”