Wren Celwyn: You may recognize Wren, other characters, and locations/languages from WC-4. That's because all stories indexed with the code WC have similar casts of characters. I like to imagine different iterations of the same cast like movies with the same actors, or alternate universes. Here, Wren is an 18 year old with a speech disorder that gains magic powers after a fight. Fun fact, Wren originally had a speech disorder, which was removed in some iterations, but they don't seem themself without it, so I put it back. Their mana is a warm, honey-like amber.

Johnathan Bach: Johnathan was originally an antagonist and based loosely off a good friend of mine, but I liked his character so much that he eventually just became a good guy. Here, he is an 18 year old who lives at Daybreak Orphanage with his sister, Anna, and has developed a deep mistrust for strangers after escaping the Sunken Cities of southern Kestarin with her. Since coming to Tatara, though, he's learned to relax. His mana is a cool, thin blue that rests over the surface of his body.

Asile: Asile is actually from CL-3, but she's always interesting to write. Here, she is a 7 year old who came from Enri, who's been at Daybreak for two years. She has a natural affinity for numbers and patterns, and was an altefel from birth. Her mana is violet and tends to form binary trees that branch out perpetually.

Olly Roser: Olly also was originally an antagonist, but I like his character a lot too. Also, Olly is sometimes short for Olive, and sometimes short for Oleander, and he's sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy when I write him. Here, he's an 17 year old who has lived at Daybreak since he was 7, after his family vanished into the sinkhole. He loves numbers, simulations, and forecasts, has an obsession with betting on things and often wins. His mana is pure gold, and tends to form chains so thin they look like strands of cobweb.

Sunny Adjest: A character from WC-2. She's the long-standing director of Daybreak but likes to be called Headmaster instead. Though often curt and cold, she works hard to make Daybreak a welcoming place. Her mana is a sunny yellow, which tends to move and settle like water.

Anna Calloway: Like Johnathan, Anna was originally an antagonist and based loosely off someone I knew, but I ended up liking her and making her a good guy. Here, she is a blunt, down to earth 18 year old who lives at Daybreak Orphanage with her brother, Johnathan, and works at the local casino after school. Her ability as an altefel and her physical strength make her the perfect security guard... Her mana is clear, and very difficult to see even for the most powerful of altefel.

Isai: A stranger in his late 30s or early 40s who appeared in Tatara one day, claiming to be an ecologist. However, after meeting him at a Carheliod tournament, Olly has determined that the man is an anthropologist, and is here to study the residents of Tatara rather than its wildlife. He is a tall, quiet man who speaks with a mild Perseidic accent. His mana is an unobtrusive orange.

Hero: A stranger in their late 20s who appeared in Tatara one day along with two other strangers, claiming to be there on business for a telecommunications company looking to test out a new long range communication device. They are misleadlingly cheerful, and their motivations are unclear. Their mana is an electric yellow that zigzags everwhere. They seem interested in Wren for some reason. They also always wear a gomuki, a uniform worn by ancient Kestarin scholars, specifically from the long-gone Illudra kingdom.

Warden: A stranger in his 40s who appeared in Tatara along with two other strangers, claiming to be there on business for a telecommunications company looking to test out a new long range communication device. While he usually seems stoic and calm, he has a temper that flares up without warning. His mana is a shimmering pink, and he always dresses up like a cowboy.

Avi: A stranger in her 30s who appeared in Tatara along with two other strangers, claiming to be there on business for a telecommunications company looking to test out a new long range communication device. She seems less malicious than her two companions, and does not speak. Her mana is a foggy grey and stays close, avoiding touching anything else. She seems to be able to naturally conceal her presence extremely well.

Enrose Sang: You may recognize Enrose from another world... Here, they're a long-dead legendary spellcaster from the island of Carheliod, said to have pioneered the method of spellcasting known as Arithomancy, and said to be the most powerful Artificer the world has ever seen.


Tatara: A small, very isolated town in Northern Kestari. Surrounded on three sides by dense forest, and ending in a sharp cliff on the fourth side. Most people who are born in Tatara stay in Tatara, though it sees visitors fairly often. Ten years ago, half of it collapsed into a sinkhole.

Kestari: A country that takes up the entirety of the Kestarin continent. It's northern half and southern half are distinctly separate in dialect, culture, and ancestry, but the two halves were united in a way about seventy years ago, with the northern half– previously called Inderton– losing to the southern. After immense strain on mana fissures during the war, parts of the continent have begun to sink and collapse, including the Sunken Cities in southern Kestari. It is known for its military power, dedication to scientific progress, and its multitude of strange idioms and other odd figures of speech that make the language colorful.

Daybreak Orphanage: One of twenty seven orphanages in Northern Kestarin, with a max capacity of 50 children, though it regularly goes over that number. Run by Headmaster Adjest, twenty staff members, and the help of the older members of the orphanage.

Tatara Public Library: The only library in Tatara, which hosts monthly Carheliod tournaments.

Salera City: The capital city of Kestari, located in southern half of the continent. It is home to the Athenaeum, which is the largest library and research lab in the world. It is home to thousands of Librarians, who live within the Athenaeum or perform fieldwork all over the world.

The Perseids: A country that takes up a sliver of the Ancient continent, called the Strand, and a series of islands off the eastern shore, called the Isles. It is known for its elaborate and extensive trading relations, agriculture, and eloquent, poetic language.

Carheliod Island: An island in the Perseidic Isles, which rested right over a mana fissure deep under the sea. It is the birthplace of the strategy/war-simulator game Carheliod. The island was puleld downwards by the mana fissure beneath it and sank thousands of years ago. There seems to be a strange connection between ancient Carheliod Island and the modern town of Tatara, onopposite sides of the world...


Altefel: People who can use mana, either through altering their own form or externally manipulating it into spells. Most people awaken as altefel as children, and awakening after 13 years old is rare. In Tatara, about 25% of the population is altefel, but nationally only about 11% of the population is altefel.

Talons and Fates: there are two types of altefel. One kind, the Talons, have mana that remains attached to their bodies at all times, and are able to alter or enhance their own form. Talons often have enhanced physical capabilities, and can use their mana instantly to this end. Fates have to manually manipulate their mana into spells, but can potentially create any spell they'd like. However, since spellcasting is incredibly difficult, most Fates specialize in one type of spell only.

Charms: Charms are pre-packaged spells created by Fates which can be used by anyone, altefel or not. Most charms activate through physical skin contact, but there are many activation techniques.

This is a story meant to be read out loud to put someone to sleep, so I often pay attention to the combinations of the sounds of words and focus on description over the plot. This kind of writing takes a surprising amount of iteration and reading out loud to yourself. Not that I've been doing that lately.
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Chapter 1: Wren in a parking lot

The town of Tatara rests on an incline of long gold grass and scrappy trees which leads up and up to a steep cliff, about a hundred yards from the edge of town. Ten years ago, Tatara used to stand on a large hill, but half of it had collapsed a hundred and fifty feet down into a sinkhole, swallowing up half of the town in an instant. Instead of leaving, the town had blanketed the area in a network of magic struts and scaffolding, holding the entire town safe in a perfect balance of mechanical construction and magical stasis. After all, a quarter of Tatara’s population are altefel, people gifted with the ability to use mana, either by expending it on themselves to push their abilities past human limits, or by shaping it externally into magic. Isolated from the rest of the living world by thick forests, an eternity of grey skies, and cold earth, Tatara is a paper crown resting on top of the head of a creature much greater than itself, pinned into place against the wind and refusing to move, even though the era for kings and crowns is over. It’s never been much, but it remains after all this time.

Wren Celwyn has lived in Tatara for their entire life, and has never left it for any amount of time. Wren isn’t extraordinary in any regard other than that. They suffer from the inescapable cabin fever that most people experience after being alive in the same small town, the same small body, for eighteen years. They also feel constantly as if there’s something wrong with them. Every prayer is an apology, every new god never sits right in their chest, their eyes slide uneasily away from reflections of their face, and there’s an itch in their brain they can’t scratch that drives them crazy. They often dream about the blunt points of their fingers digging into their skull, cracking through plates of bone and plunging down through the folds of their brain, nails caking with flesh and finally scraping against the itchy spot behind their eyes. 

Then again, most eighteen year olds in Tatara feel unhappy with themselves, like there should be something more to them, like there’s something they should be chasing. It’s not ambition, not determination, just the nauseating miasma of dissatisfaction, the foreshadowing of change in a place where nothing ever changes. Is it because Wren is growing up, that they feel like this now? Or is it something else? Is it a web of electric impulses rocketing through their body? Is it the mana flowing through their chest as they lie unconscious on the cracked asphalt of some unknown parking lot? Who knows. All Wren knows is that their head hurts, and they don’t want to open their eyes.

Chapter 2: Johnathan to the rescue

Though the residents of Tatara all know each other a little too well, Wren is not that knowable, not too close to anyone. And when you think you know everything that goes on in a town, new things suddenly become your business. So as soon as Johnathan Bach sees Wren spreadeagled on the ground in a ShopRite parking lot, he comes to a quick stop, leaves his bike at the top of the slope he’s riding on, and jogs down to check out the scene of the crime. He looks left and right for lingering assailants or mothers in minivans making a quick stop at the store before dinner, head turning with the quick, efficient movements of a man trying to surreptitiously protect his own reputation. When he deems the situation clear, he heads over to them, still at a light, unenthusiastic jog.

Wren is shielded from view of the cheery yellow facade of the store by a few cars, and a shopping cart lies on its side nearby, dented slightly, the only indication that anything had happened, aside from the seemingly unconscious high schooler on the ground. The only blood at the scene is smeared on Wren, almost unquestionably theirs, but Wren isn’t actively bleeding and doesn’t seem to have any broken bones, their mana is just a little disrupted, so Johnathan isn’t too worried about their medical condition. Lying there flat on their back, they also seem to be the perfect picture of serenity, one hand resting lightly across their stomach, expression relaxes and placid.

First impressions of Wren are that they’re tall, with a vaguely rectangular-ish build. They have dark hair just past their jaw, hanging in gentle curves that fall away from their face. They have a multitude of scrapes and bruises across their cheeks and chin, and long, finger shaped bruises around their neck. For a moment, Johnathan is tempted to line up his own hands in the marks, to measure their size, to understand how Wren’s attacker had felt as they tried so hard to choke Wren out that blood began pooling in the crescent shaped gouges where their nails dug in. But he just winces and pities Wren for being left out here alone. Wren wears no backpack and their school uniform is hidden by a large, dark red hoodie that hangs halfway down to their thighs. Should he look for a bag nearby?

As Johnathan inspects the scene from a safe distance, he also notices that Wren’s hands twitch slightly as if trying to grab for something, or perhaps keep their grip on someone. Maybe they’re dreaming of their fight, haunted by the abject physicality that violence deals into the cards, or maybe they’re in the midst of throwing off the throes of the desperation to win, to destroy, to wholly dominate an enemy, a sensation which possesses a man under attack like the obsessions of a madman. Wren has a good amount of blood caked under their nails, after all. Or maybe they’re scared, still feeling imminent pressure from a danger that had abandoned them in favor of a toy that struggled less and squealed more. It’s hard to tell; their expression in sleep is more suited to comfortable naps in the sun, not depressing bouts of unconsciousness in a public parking lot.

They do look like they’ve taken a beating, but somehow they still seem peaceful, breaths leaving them in steady, regular motions of their chest, each being wound in slowly to their lungs, then released in a steady stream, a dependable cycle of biology and time, the ticks of a clock unique to Wren only. For Wren, the flow of time currently seems slow and comfortable. But as soon as Johnathan leans over them to see the damage closer, they open their eyes and stare back up at him hard, making it somehow difficult to look away. Their dark, deep set eyes with rather small irises and dark, straight eyebrows give them a very serious appearance, even though they’d presumably just been laid out good in a parking lot brawl.

“You good?” Johnathan asks tentatively, but they don’t answer. They exhale through their mouth instead, breath rattling in their chest, and cough. 

He takes that as a no; they don’t look too good. They have dark grey-tinged circles beneath their eyes and a flush from the chilly air runs across the tips of their nose and ears. How long have they been lying here? The blood on their hands is crusty and dry, and the bloodstains around the rips in their clothes are also dry, when Johnathan touches them. Something had cut through the fabric and grazed their skin, cutting neat slashes into them, not too deep, but not that shallow, either. The person they’d been fighting had a weapon, and Wren has been lying here long enough for their injuries to start wetly scabbing over. If they’d gotten into a fight right after school, it’s been two and a half hours; the private school lets out earlier than the public one Johnathan goes to.

“Mana,” Wren croaks out, voice low and almost distorted by how difficult it is for them to breathe. Their eyes are still locked onto his, as if trying to beam the meaning of their words into his head.

“You need mana?” he guesses. “We don’t seem compatible, sorry. See, mine is blue, and yours is orange. They’re opposites.”

Wren scowls up at him but is unable to say anything else.

“You’re Wren, right?” he tries. “You used to be friends with Olly. I live with him. You used to come over and play when we were kids. Remember?”

Wren does not seem to remember him, but then again, they can’t react in a way that would indicate they do. When that line of conversation fails, he looks around. The parking lot isn’t that big, and Johnathan spots a car pulling in, about to circle around looking for a spot. Having judged Wren as alive, conscious, and able to be annoyed, he helps them to their feet before they can hold up traffic and drags them up the slope to his bike.

“I was going home,” he tells them, as they limp along beside him. Wren has no reaction to what he says, but they’re following him, so he goes on. “I can patch you up. The orphanage has a first aid kit right by the front door.”

Wren still doesn’t say anything, but they nod heavily in response. Their mana, a warm amber, is collecting around their head, wisps sparking and dissolving into the air, creating a large, hazy cloud of amber-tinged mana. They start swaying as they walk and the cloud of mana grows denser, their heavy footsteps slightly off kilter and getting more and more so as they go. Johnathan stops walking. Wren stops walking.

“I can carry you on my back,” he offers, after an awkward pause. “Probably.”

Johnathan is not as tall as Wren, but he thinks he could drag them home. He doesn’t want to leave his bike here, but he also doesn’t want Wren to collapse in front of him. Cars drive past them every now and then, probably heading home after finishing work early. He’s wondering if he should flag one down for help when Wren suddenly starts walking again. He takes that as a No to his offer. He’s kind of glad.

“What happened to you?” he asks, as the orphanage comes into view in the distance, its pointy blue slate roof washed grey by the watery late afternoon sun. “Who’d you fight?”

Wren, as expected, doesn’t respond. Johnathan often talks to fill silence, to make sure he’s not being weird or awkward. But he gives up and just keeps walking this time. His bike, old and grey with the paint peeling, rattles along on his right, and Wren’s dragging, uneven steps and labored breathing follow on his left, packing into the gaps left by the quiet air in an almost rhythmic assortment of sound.

They’re taking up the entire sidewalk, but by some miracle they don’t encounter anyone and Wren stays upright until they get to the front porch of the orphanage twenty minutes later. Then they immediately topple forward. Johnathan lunges to grab them with one hand, the cool, icy blue of his mana gathering around his hand and then extending out in Wren’s direction. In the gentle mist of his mana, an extra hand appears, sliding right below Wren’s head before impact. There’s a loud bang of his new hand against wood and Wren lies there, unmoving.

Johnathan retracts his mana and parks his bike, scraping down the kickstand with one practiced shove with the side of his foot. He rearranges Wren so they aren’t facedown on the stairs, then grabs the first aid kit just inside the front doors, narrowly avoiding stepping on Wren’s face on the way back. He’s not that worried; the giant hole in the second step where Wren’s head had made contact is probably more damage than their skull sustained in the fall. Most of it had been immediately absorbed by his mana, which had in turn made his real hand buzz with pain for a couple seconds, but he’s used to using his power to save the children at the orphanage from bad falls or from having things fall on them.

The orphanage used to be a mansion, and its wide property is set back from the road and surrounded by a dark iron fence and a bunch of giant dark oak trees. As a result, there’s a lot of open space in front of the house to play in, and after Wren drops limply to the ground, children who had been playing out in the front start to gather around them. Johnathan doesn’t bother telling them to go away, but does tell them to give Wren space, like they do in movies.

He first produces a health pack, one of the small, mild strength ones. It looks like a fever patch and its smooth, minty green surface is cool to the touch, a gentle flow of mana circulating just beneath the surface. When he presses it to Wren’s forehead, it glows faintly and dissolves against their skin in an instant. The minor cuts and bruises heal up all along their upper body, and their breathing eases up, but they don’t open their eyes.

“Did they die?” chirps one of the children, eyes round with curiosity. 

“No,” another child says, and puts a tiny hand on Wren’s chest. “Can’t you hear them breathing?”

Johnathan gently lifts the hand away. “Don’t touch them, Asile,” he tells the girl, and produces a second health pack. “I’m not done. Could you go find the headmaster? As fast as you can.”

Asile is a tiny seven year old wearing a loud, tie-dyed t-shirt two sizes too big, electric blue socks, and pink jelly shoes, with a head of windswept brown hair and smudges of dirt and chalk all over her face and hands. She hops to her feet and runs into the house as fast as her tiny little legs can take her, determined to find the headmaster right away. 

The real reason why Johnathan had told her to go is because Wren’s mana is acting strangely, and Asile is highly sensitive to mana. The mana in Wren’s chest, just below where she had placed her hand, roils and snaps angrily, like it’s about to boil over. He thought it was because of their injuries; imbalances happen after you exert too much mana and then get injured in a way that makes it regenerate irregularly. But as Wren heals, they aren’t regulating their mana like they should. It actually just seems to be getting worse. Surely this isn’t a symptom of an altefel awakening. Wren is eighteen; most people awaken as young children. But that’s the only thing Johnathan can think of. Either way, if this keeps worsening, Wren might die, their body burning out into a dead shell around a core of unbearably hot, brilliant mana that sparks out of control.

Most of the children here haven’t awakened yet, so they can’t even see mana. Johnathan tries to keep his cool and uses the second health pack without comment. Wren’s burning up like they have a fever, face covered with a dark flush, and as Asile dashes back outside with the headmaster in tow, their mana begins to flicker wildly, growing brighter, then almost fading out completely, then growing brighter again.

“They’re awakening,” the headmaster says shortly seconds after seeing them. She sweeps Wren up quickly and Johnathan lets her take them away. Some children scatter and go back to playing, while others follow the headmaster in, curious. 

Headmaster Sunny Adjest has managed the lives of hundreds and hundreds of children, and has always done what’s required quickly, with no fanfare or pretense. Johnathan is sure Wren will be fine in no time; the headmaster has seen dozens of awakenings and knows what to do. She’s the first adult he’s ever trusted, and she’s never let him down, not even once. At this point in his life, he’d forgive her if she did, but she remains a dependable, steadfast figure in the lives of all of her wards, and intends to stay that way until the day she dies. Wren is in good hands.

Johnathan gets up to put the first aid kit away when he hears a phone buzzing. The grass of the front yard is neater than the back, but it’s still long and thickly peppered with weeds and wildflowers, so at first, he can’t figure out where the phone is. Asile, staying with him, reaches down into a clump of grass and pulls it out for him, waving it in his direction in victory. The caller ID identifies Cain Celwyn, Wren’s weird older brother. Wren has no picture for his contact, no nickname. It’s just his name. Johnathan himself has a weird, ugly picture of his sister for her contact in his phone. Maybe those two aren’t close?

“You answer,” he tells Asile nonchalantly, as he inspects the new gap in the second step up to the porch. The edges of the wood look singed, and the splinters lie in a sparse, charred layer in the sandy dirt beneath the porch. The mana moving chaotically about Wren’s head must have burnt the step to some extent. The phone is still ringing, and he looks back at Asile, who is still holding it out to him, her uncertain silhouette rising up before him, dark against the light grey sky.

“Me?” Asile squeaks, and when he nods, she picks up the call and holds the phone to her ear with both hands. “...Hello?”

Johnathan straightens, on his knees, and leans closer to listen in. He can’t hear everything, but it’s definitely Cain on the other end and he sounds confused. Johnathan has never heard the guy talk in anything less than a short snap, but he seems to be talking more gently to Asile.

“...Wren there?” Johnathan hears him ask.

“Who’s that?” Asile asks back.

“ younger sibling. Tall, shadow-dark hair– Look, where did you get this phone, doko?

Doko is a sound effect in the dialect of Kestarin that’s spoken in this northern region of the country, meaning the sound of someone patting you on the head. It’s used as a reassuring term of endearment for small children, who you might pat on the head to assure that they haven’t done anything wrong. Johnathan isn’t from this region, so he had to learn what that meant the first time he heard it. Asile doesn’t quite seem to understand it, either, but it’s fine, since she rarely feels like she’s done something wrong.

“I found it in the grass after some tall person fell down in the front yard,” Asile says informatively. “Is that Wren?”

“Probably...” Johnathan can’t hear what Cain says for a second. “...them to fall?”

“Their mana was all crazy!” Asile says, waving her free hand around to demonstrate, as if Cain can see. “It was whirling around all crazy, and bubbling up in their chest. So I think they were sick.”

“...can’t be them, then. They don’t have any mana,” Cain says. “Where are you right now? I can pick up their phone.”

“The headmaster says I can’t let strangers come to my house,” Asile says back.

“Okay, so you’re at the orphanage,” Cain says, and Asile makes a startled noise of consternation. “No worries, doko. Go tell Headmaster Adjest I’ll be swinging by, okay? My name is Cain, can you remember that?”

“Yeah, I can. But she’s busy. She said your sibling was Awakening,” Asile adds calmly, and Cain is silent for a moment, during which Asile looks at Johnathan uncertainly. He almost takes the phone from her to hang up, but Cain finally answers.

“Is there an adult near you?” he asks, and Asile says yes before Johnathan can tell her not to. “Can I talk to them?”

Asile holds the phone out to Johnathan, clearly waiting for him to praise her on the phone call. He takes the phone and pats her head as a gentle breeze runs through the yard, heralding the arrival of another resident of the Daybreak Home children, the aforementioned Olly Roser, come to whisk Asile away.

“Hello?” Johnathan says reluctantly into the phone, as Olly comes flying into the yard, about one or two feet off the ground. He’s an interesting guy, wearing a giant blue witch’s hat, tall electric blue rain boots, and a yellow and red Christmas sweater, plus his backpack, which is covered in keychains and pins. He prefers flying over walking, and is constantly gilded with threads of his gold mana, shining gently over his shoulders. He promised Asile he’d take her to the Carheliod tournament being held at the public library, else he’d be out gallivanting around town until midnight, looking for something exciting to do.

“Who is this?” Cain snaps on the other end, irritated when Johnathan is silent for too long. Johnathan shakes himself, turning away to stop himself from being distracted. Behind him, Olly swoops in and scoops up Asile; her surprised shrieks and the wind Olly carries with him makes it kind of hard to hear what Cain is saying.

“I, uh... live with Asile. You’re Wren’s older brother, right? They’re in the orphanage.” Johnathan looks over his shoulder and watches Olly fly in a big loop, then land back on the ground, talking to Asile animatedly. Because the orphanage is at capacity, Asile shares a room with the older kids, so with Olly, Johnathan, and his sister. Over the two years she’s been here, Olly had taken a liking to Asile, sometimes telling people that she’s his little sister when they go out, or giving her his bad fashion advice, or letting her play games on the console the older kids had used all their money to buy, or animatedly telling her about his latest foray into numeromancy, an interest that they both share.

“What happened to that bird-headed fool this time?” Cain asks impatiently. The age gap between Cain and Wren is just as big as the gap between Olly and Asile. The two sets of siblings are awfully different.

“They’re here. They just got here.” Johnathan says and gets up, looking around idly for something to block the hole in the stair with so someone doesn’t step into it. “The headmaster said they awakened.”

Cain hangs up, and Johnathan tuts in irritation and sticks Wren’s phone into his pocket.

“Olly!” Johnathan yells up to Olly, before the guy can fly into his bedroom window on the second floor.

“What?” Olly yells back, and floats back down when Johnathan beckons. “We’re gonna be late for the tournament,” he says, voice lower. “What is it?”

“Wren Celwyn’s in there,” Johnathan tells him, and Olly blinks, puzzled.

“Wren? Why’s that guy here?”

“Got awakened,” Johnathan says shortly, adjusting his backpack over his shoulders and walking a couple steps away to pick up a frisbee abandoned in the grass. He drops it over the hole on the stairs. “Adjest took them in.”

Olly loves odds; he deals in the art of probabilities and the thrilling world of luck and pure chance, where the universe conspires in the realms of fate and the future. The odds of Wren Celwyn becoming an altefel at the late age of eighteen reeks of a bet that he almost can’t resist. Johnathan can see it hovering at the tip of Olly’s tongue, but Olly glances at Asile, sitting patiently on the swings nearby, and shakes his head.

“Crazy bastard,” Olly says. “I knew that guy would end up an altefel one way or another.” This is an odd statement to make; Wren is almost too old to awaken. But Olly’s gone before Johnathan can ask him to explain, flying back up to the second floor and vanishing through his bedroom window.

Chapter 3: Asile watches the goings ons

The orphanage was made ten years ago, a week after half the town had collapsed. Asile wasn’t even alive yet then, but she’s heard about it a lot. Most of the kids who are over ten at the orphanage are from Tatara, and their parents had died in the sinkhole. Asile herself came here two years ago, from an equally small and isolated town fifty miles away. Asile is one of the rare cases where a person is born awakened, but since she’s so young, it’s unclear what her power is. Whatever it is, she gets overwhelmed if she’s around too much mana at once, which made it hard for her parents to take of her. Mana is so noisy to Asile that when she was younger, she couldn’t hear a thing anyone said to her, and they flashed lights in her eyes so violently that she could barely see. They made her feel sick, too, until she couldn’t get out of bed or stand up. Asile doesn’t actually even remember her parents anymore, but she still feels bad for making them deal with her.

When she came to Daybreak Orphanage, one of the first people she’d met was Oleander Roser, sixteen at the time. He’d been wearing something strange again; flowery pink headphones with antenna on them, which bounced up and down every time he moved his head, pink and gold overalls over a giant white t-shirt, and big, white, clunky Mary Janes with at least two inches of height in the soles. He had these hair clips that flashed with lights, too. He looked like some sort of pink robot. Asile had just stared at him, not listening to anything he said, not able to. 

Olly’s mana is an opaque gold with a heavy luster. He spins it into threads like a spider, weaving webs and neat grids of mana to blanket the world, creating spells that color the grey of Tatara with life. He’d spun her a gold ribbon, tied tight with a cool metal clasp around her wrist, and suddenly all of the noise and flashing lights had calmed down. For the first time, the symptoms of Asile’s early awakening had subsided. She could see Olly’s face, beaming at her, and the little white bunny he’d woven into the ribbon, and she could finally hear what people were saying, could be in the room with more than one altefel at a time.

Asile now looks down at her bracelet as she sits in the swing set in front of the orphanage, then looks towards the building. There are two tall pointy spires, topped with gold and shingled with an ashy blue tile, and the walls of the building are a darker, bluer blue, with small yellow stars and red flowers painted on the walls. The window and door frames are a deep yellow, the doors are all made of red wood, and the windows are made of colorful panes of glass that tint the light that comes into the home. Because of Olly, twinkling lights float idly around the pale gold grass and past the windows, gathering in the dark corners of the orphanage so no one gets scared. Most people call them “Olly’s stars”, but Asile knows they’re more like very shiny bugs, which function on a very simple mechanism of mana consumption, storage, and expenditure. Olly had explained it to her once; that was the first spell he had taught her. 

A couple of Olly’s stars float back and forth with Asile as she swings. There’s a playset across the yard, currently host to a game of lava tag, where you aren’t allowed to touch the ground, but Asile prefers to wait for Olly on the swingset instead. Olly also likes to swing; a lot of the lights gather around the swings at night, even when he’s not there. At night, too, the tiles of the wide walkway that lead up to the house glow when you step on them, so you can see where you’re going. Sometimes frogs will hop on them and make them light up, too. 

That’s what Olly is to a lot of the children at the orphanage; the guy who lights up the dark, who makes the world brighter, makes living at the orphanage not so bad. Asile would hesitate to call Olly her brother without feeling like she’s lying, and she doesn’t know what family feels like, but she trusts him more than anyone else in the world.

“Seelie!” Olly calls, as he zips out of their bedroom window, one hand holding his hat to his head. “Ready to go? Do you want to fly?”

Olly flies everywhere, but hasn’t quite come up with a good way to fly a second person with him without using mana on them. Because of her sensitivity to mana, stuff like that makes Asile sick, so Olly will carry her. He likes to say that his arms have gotten stronger because of her, but Johnathan had confided in her and told her that Olly works out to make his arms stronger.

“I want to walk,” Asile says, randomly deciding not to fly.

“Sounds good to me,” Olly agrees, and Asile hops off the swings. “What are the odds we get a victory today?”

Olly likes asking about odds and such. Asile has a spectacular head for numbers, patterns, and proportions, and so does Olly; it feels like a language that only the two of them can speak. Asile is about to answer with the odds that they win at Carheliod night, but someone bursts into the orphanage yard and she stops to watch him. He’s Wren’s big brother, Asile can tell right away. Their eyes look the same, dark irises small enough that they don’t touch the bottom lid, and dark circles along the lower half of their eye sockets. 

He had come running through the front gate at a hard sprint, hair pushed back from his face by the wind, leaving behind a faint trail of dark green mana, contracting and expanding in a hypnotic sort of rhythm, like the breaths of some invisible creature. He looks for a grown up, Asile can tell, but only sees Olly, who doesn’t look that happy to see him.

“Cain,” Olly says, voice now serious. He takes off his big hat and puts it on Asile’s head, hiding her face so she can’t see for a second. “I heard about Wren.”

“Tell me where they are,” Cain demands, sounding a lot meaner than he did on the phone. He’s not out of breath, even though he had run so fast, and his mana pools around his chest and head, just like Wren’s had. Asile peeks at the two men from below the brim of Olly’s hat. There’s some weird, unexplained tension in the air that she doesn’t understand.

“I’ll take you there,” Olly decides. “Can’t have you running through the home on your own. Wait for me, Seelie.”

Asile wants to go with him. As the two turn towards the house and walk inside, she counts to ten, then goes after them. A couple of Olly’s stars flit around her as she sneaks a glance inside and sees them vanish around the corner, down the hall that leads to the infirmary. Asile decides to run around the outside of the house, then look in through the window. She pulls a wooden toy crate through the long grass with some difficulty, then climbs onto it to look over the bottom of the window frame and into the room, through a pane of rosy pink glass.

Directly across from the window, Wren is sitting up in one of the beds, hands pressed tight against their mouth, eyes wild with fear. Asile can see that they’re holding back a huge surge of strangely shaped mana— it seizes and twitches oddly, flickering wildly, fighting to escape their lungs and leaking out between their fingers. It’ll feel better if they let it out, but they seem scared of it. They shouldn’t be. Beside them is the headmaster, talking to Cain, and Olly kneels by Wren’s bed, his back to the window. He’s probably telling Wren to let their mana out naturally. If anything bad happens, the headmaster and Olly can save the day. 

Wren suddenly looks up and sees Asile through the window, and the wisps of mana that slip from them cool from amber to a flushed, airy violet. Asile knows the color better than the back of her hand; it’s the color she dreams in, the color that fills her brain and spins her tall tales about the numbers of the world. It’s the color of her mana. Asile stares at Wren. Wren stares at Asile. They lower their hands and cough up clouds of violet mana; it zigs and zags through the air around them, curling up tight, then relaxing, spreading gently through the air in long, binary branches, just like Asile’s does.

Asile leans away from the window, uneasy, and tips off the box, landing hard on the ground. Her tumble sends a small spray of soil, scuttlebugs, and stars through the grass and weeds, and she watches as the bugs scurry back into hiding. Did that person just steal her mana? She holds up one hand and closes her eyes for a second, imagining her mana gathering in a little ball in her palm, just like Olly had taught her to do. Her heart pounds a little harder than usual, but the cool touch of her mana rises readily to her hand. When she opens her eyes, she sees it blossoming into the air like it always does, and relief washes over her. Fears assuaged, she picks herself up and climbs back onto the box. Olly is now facing the window and sees her appear. He waves, expression not so serious anymore, and crosses the room to open the window.

“Did you see that?” Olly asks her gently. “Wren’s power?”

“It looked like mine!” Asile exclaims, eyes round, begging for an explanation.

“Wren has the ability to imitate the powers of the people around them,” Olly tells her. “They’re okay now. I’ll be out in a second.”

Asile hops off the box and runs back around to the front, blades of grass scraping against her bare legs. That’s not a power Asile has ever heard of before. Maybe it’s special.

Olly emerges from the front door just as she gets there, flying an inch off the ground. His toes tap the ground and he lands beside her, then takes her hand. The two of them set off out of the orphanage gates towards the library. Asile is still wearing Olly’s hat, and has to use her free hand to keep the brim tilted back away from her face, so he spins two small threads of mana up for her, rolling the brim away a little so she can see.

“So is Wren a Talon, or a Fate?” she asks him, turning to look at his face.

Olly purses his lips, thinking, then shakes his head. “I don’t know if you could call them either, but by the way I saw their power work, I’d say they’re a Talon.”

The altefel in Tatara divide themselves into two categories, Talons and Fates. The two terms vary depending on the region, but their meanings stay the same. Talons can only use their abilities to change themselves, whether it be their mind or body. Johnathan can turn into a ghost but can’t change anything else, so he’s a Talon, and so is his sister– they both can change their forms and only their forms. Fates have to manipulate their mana externally into spells, and can use it on the world around them. Olly is one of the Fates; he can cook up all sorts of spells. He was born with the ability to use one spell in particular without even thinking, and that’s his ability to tell if someone is lying. But since it requires him to manually and externally move mana, it counts as a Fated power. Asile doesn’t know which one she is yet, and if Wren can take on the powers of anyone near them, she doesn’t know which one they are, either.

“Do you want to bet on it?” Asile asks brightly, and Olly laughs. He has a big laugh, leaning back to do it sometimes. If he’s laughing really hard, he leans forward as if he’s about to burst with his amusement. Asile likes it when she makes him laugh. Sometimes when other adults laugh, it feels like they’re looking down on her, but when Olly does it, it’s just because he likes what she said.

“Don’t make a bet you can’t win,” he says, like he always does, and Asile pouts.

“You make bets you don’t know you can win all the time,” she points out.

“I calculate the risks I take before I make them,” Olly tells her. “You don’t. It’s not a good habit to get into.”

Asile knows about Olly and his bets. She’s seen a fair number of people angry with him because he wins most bets he makes, sometimes for staggering amounts of money or severe penalty. But she thinks it’s fun. He always seems to have fun doing it, anyway. He won’t make any bets with her, though.

“Well, I’ll go talk to Wren and see which one they are,” she says stubbornly. “Then we’ll know.”

“Wren...” Olly’s hand tightens around hers for a second; it doesn’t seem like he notices. “Wren’s nice. But they get into trouble a lot, you know. Don’t go around looking for them.”

“What kind of trouble?” Asile persists. “Big trouble?”

“Physical fights,” Olly tells her, not in the habit of keeping things from her. “Really bad. Some of the people here are off their rocker, Seelie. They’ll bring you to the edge of death if you cross them wrong. I don’t want you mixed up in that.”

The library is one more left turn away. Asile watches the other pedestrians as they get closer, trying to guess where they’re going. It’s never sunny in Tatara, which Asile notices, but other people never comment on. Day after day, they walk around in their grey town, never leaving, doing the same thing every day. Tatara always looks perfect, the roads smooth and dark, the white picket fences clean, the people seeming calm and normal. People like Olly and Asile, who only go somewhere if it’s fun, who dress in bright colors and have smudges of chalk or strands of mana all over their clothes, never fit in. At school, no one ever makes Asile feel like she doesn’t fit in, but she’s always different. She knows the answer to everything, has little patience for easily solved squabbles between her classmates, and doesn’t make friends that easily— none of the kids at the orphanage do. They could be gone in an instant, adopted by a family out of town.

They get to the library in a couple minutes, and Asile lets go of Olly’s hand and runs further inside as he talks to someone at the front desk. Asile is a regular patron of the public library, mostly for the free ice cream coupons from the reading program. But on the last day of each month, the library holds a Carheliod tournament, which is Asile’s favorite game. Olly and Asile are always the youngest two there; everyone else who plays Carheliod seriously is over sixty, and Asile never gets first place, but she does get second or third sometimes. Olly gets first place all the time, though.

In the event room off to the right from the main area, they’re setting up the tables. Asile opens the door and looks in as the Carheliod boards float through the air and land neatly on each table, pieces filing out of each board and stacking up on either end in tall, uniform columns. She slips in and spots someone sitting in a corner, waiting. He waves at her and she waves back, then trots over, weaving between floating chairs taking their spots on the floor.

“Finally back again for another tournament, Asile?” he asks. This is Clarist, the ice cream shop owner that gives free ice cream coupons to the library. Asile wasn’t at last month’s tournament, but she had beat him the time before, putting her in second place. He’s really good at Carheliod; he’s been playing it for years and years longer than her.

“I had to do a school play instead of the last tournament,” she tells him, sliding onto the seat next to him. “I was the stage lights manager.”

“Good for you. I didn’t know the elementary school did a play in the fall.”

“I’m in middle school!” Asile protests. “I’m in seventh grade. My name’s on the playbill. We did The White Tiger King this year.”

People have begun to file in, including Olly, done with entering their names into the tournament. He comes over, giant hat flopping with every step, and sits next to Asile. Olly is really good at strategy games like Carheliod, because he likes looking into every single possibility. Asile just likes to play because it’s fun. It feels like she’s in a real life battle, when she plays, but everything is neater and more satisfying. Each piece has its own role, each formation has its strengths and weaknesses. Asile isn’t as good as Olly at looking ahead and strategizing— her strength lies more in pure numbers, calculations of quantities, numerical relationships, and sizes and shapes. She can calculate the trajectory of a frisbee ten minutes before Johnathan even thinks about throwing one, but she can’t predict what he’s going to do after he throws it. Sometimes he tackles people when he plays frisbee.

Chapter 4: Johnathan the tour guide

Johnathan is currently sitting in a wicker chair on the front porch of the orphanage, his legs stretched out up onto the railing and slouched so far down he’s just staring at the sky. He does this a lot; he’s usually exhausted after track practice and just wants to sit. It’s not a rule that kids playing outside always have to be actively watched; with the headmaster and her power around, a caretaker keeping an eye out through a window is usually enough. But he likes sitting outside either way, and more often than not, someone will run up and ask him to play, if they need an extra person in one game or another.

The front door opens suddenly and Wren steps out. They stand there, surveying the area placidly, then looks down at him. He looks back at them in alarm; Wren had been basically comatose ten minutes ago and they’re trying to walk around? Did Adjest let them get up?

“Should you be up??” he asks, hopping to his feet, grasping them by the shoulders and forcing them to sit in his chair. “You just awakened! Congratulations, by the way. Most people are in bed for hours after an awakening.”

Wren shrugs. It seems they’re just as talkative as before. They sit there, then wave their hands vaguely in his direction. He squints at them suspiciously, and they falter, ears turning slightly red. It’s not sign language, but are they trying to communicate? Why won’t they talk? They finally make a recognizable symbol, thumb and pinky sticking out by their ear in the universal symbol for phone, then smile sheepishly. 

“Oh! I do have your phone.” He fishes it out of his pocket with a thin blue loop of wispy mana and hands it over, then smiles back, more relaxed now that Wren has cracked a smile. “The screen was shattered pretty bad; I don’t know if it was like that before.”

Wren shrugs again. They drop their phone into their own pocket, then start to get up but stop mid-motion, looking at him like an uncertain child asking for permission to do something, presumably because he told them to sit. They seem a lot less mysterious and dangerous like this. Johnathan leans back against a column supporting the porch roof and crosses his arms like he does to the kids, and is satisfied when Wren sits back down.

“How do you feel?” he asks. “You have mana in you for the first time in your life. You must still be getting used to it.”

Wren shrugs again. Is that all they know how to do?

“Well, stay sitting, either way,” he says. “I’m Johnathan Bach. You’re Wren Celwyn, right?”

Wren nods awkwardly, then holds out a hand for him to shake. They refuse to speak, it seems. Johnathan usually lets Olly handle all the oddballs, but he’s not here and Wren doesn’t seem so bad after all, so Johnathan shakes Wren’s hand as Cain steps outside, with Headmaster Adjest in tow.

“Johnathan,” Adjest says, “Wren transferred out of the private school to your school, but the Celwyns aren’t equipped to handle an awakening. Wren will be staying here for the night and going to school with you in the morning. Do you mind showing them around?”

“They’re fine,” Johnathan protests, immediately unwilling to babysit. “Look at them.”

Adjest shoots him a look, brows furrowing severely for a split second and sending a jolt of regret through him. Johnathan backs down, annoyed and hazards a glance at Wren, belatedly realizing he could have offended them. They seem equally annoyed with the predicament they’ve been put in, and stare daggers at their brother, who is ignoring them pointedly. Now that they’re side by side, Johnathan can see how similar the Celwyns look. Wren seems to have done all they could to make themself look different than their brother– Cain has short cropped hair and wears a lot of tighter-fitting clothes, while Wren has long, kinda shaggy hair and wears baggy clothes. But their faces are still exactly the same. 

“Wren will be perfectly fine,” Adjest tells Cain mildly, ignoring the myriad of furtive glances going on to her left. “Don’t worry. They’ll be stabilized in no time.”

Cain leaves without saying anything to Wren, despite how worried he had seemed initially. He’d come running just to see if they were okay. Johnathan watches him go, mystified at the guy’s behavior, then turns to Adjest, about to have a second go at his protests.

“It’s one night,” she says firmly, and lifts a finger to shush him before he can start. “Just in case they’re still unbalanced. You remember what it was like when you awakened.”

Johnathan does, and doesn’t want to think about it, so he relents. It’s probably for the best, and he’s starting to think Wren isn’t that bad, anyway.

“Can you walk around?” he asks Wren, who gets up instead of replying. “Alright, then let’s go.”

Chapter 5: Wren at daybreak

Wren had always secretly wanted to live in Daybreak Orphanage as a child. Most kids from Tatara do. It sparkles with lights, it’s colorful and bursting with life, and the playground equipment and toys that are always left in the front yard are nothing to sneeze at. The headmaster likes to make sure kids feel welcome when they come here. Wren has been here before, to play with Olly as a child— Johnathan had been correct in recognizing Wren, even though it’s been over ten years since they were last here— but they’ve never gone inside the house. There are rumors that there’s a movie theater in the basement, and a ballroom on the third floor. But Wren is eighteen, less enchanted with the place, and being dumped here by your tempestuous older brother while he works through his emotions over something you have to deal with is not fun.

“We have one free bed,” Johnathan tells Wren, as he leads them inside. 

He keeps glancing at them like they’re about to keel over at any second, but Wren feels totally fine. They feel like they’re chugging alcohol, actually; their chest burns strangely, the anxious, overwhelmed tightness bordering on heartache, the curved fingers of their ribs clenching tight around their lungs. Rather than feeling tense, Wren feels a heavy elation, the kind of reassurance you get while you’re heaving for breath, the determined persistence of the feeling that you’re alive, even through struggle. Wren’s small sliver of the universe had just ticked around them, grinding to life out of stark stillness and rotating freely like the hands of a clock on which Wren stands at the center. The world is bright and vivid at the seams of their vision. Colors bleed into view, becoming more vibrant and clear every time they blink. They’re finally seeing mana, seeing the magic they’ve never been able to touch before.

“We all sleep in bunk beds except Asile. No one sleeps at the top of my sister’s bunk, so you can share with her,” Johnathan continues, unaware of Wren’s entire world view changing as he speaks. 

Wren has no idea who Anna is, but they nod, more interested in looking around. The inside of the home is as colorful as the outside, and is full of chaotic motion. Children are all over the place; the front foyer seems like a popular place for slightly younger children to play. It’s big and tall, with dark wood floors and a dark blue carpet stretching across the floorboards. Wood beams stretch up the walls and bend gently along the incline of the ceiling, and a large, simple glass chandelier hangs from the center. Benches line the wall beside the front door, and two giant staircases on the left and right lead up to the second and third floors. There seems to be a game of hide and seek going on in the entrance, except the seeker wears a blindfold and wanders around the room with their arms out. Wren dodges a wandering, waving hand and follows Johnathan into a room off to the left, glancing over their shoulder as a couple children, waiting silently nearby, scatter as the seeker comes closer, trying their best to be quiet.

“This is the living room,” Johnathan tells them, without any other detail. Most of the kids here are slightly older, watching some sort of documentary about Brilla whales on TV on the carpet or sitting at the coffee table or window seats doing their homework. It’s a very large living room; the walls are host to bookshelves and toy boxes and comfy couches, and a handful of photos of large groups of children are dotted around in worn frames. In the darker nooks of the room, small lights bob up and down, lighting them up like fireflies. Wren enviously eyes one of the window seats, full of large cushions of all colors and sizes, before they follow Johnathan elsewhere.

Now that Wren can see mana, they can see it everywhere. The walls hum with magic and the creak and sigh of the floorboards whisper quietly with secrets Wren wasn’t allowed to hear before, all gently colored in a silky smooth, sun-faded yellow. This is the headmaster’s mana, which fills the entire house and the front and back yards, all the way to the heavy metal fence. Wren somehow innately knows what the headmaster's power is, just by looking at her mana. She can control inanimate objects, giving them what might seem like a life of their own. It’s a Fated ability, but that seems to be about the only spell she’s capable of. It must come in handy when running such a large house full of children. Wren doesn’t question how all of this information got into their head, doesn’t marvel at the irony that after years of wanting what other people have, they’d finally gotten it in the most literal sense possible. They just follow their tour guide through the building. 

They go up to the second floor. The nursery is on this floor, as are the staff quarters and the laundry. Johnathan doesn’t bring them into any of the rooms, just gestures down the hall, but they look inside a couple. Wren has never seen such a big washing machine or dryer before. There are also a few babies, which Wren has also never seen in person before.

“What are you doing?” Johnathan asks, noticing Wren looking into the nursery. He looks over their shoulder at a baby snoozing away in a crib near the door. “That’s Ellis. He got here two weeks ago. You wanna hold him?”

Wren looks at Johnathan in alarm and shakes their head.

“Holding a baby isn’t that hard,” he tells them, but doesn’t press the matter any further.  “Well, let’s go upstairs.”

As they go back to the stairs, Wren looks at the lights floating in the corners of the hall. They’re made of gold mana, bright and shiny. It must be Olly’s. Wren hasn’t seen Olly since they’d awakened and couldn’t see mana that well yet, but everyone knows Olly has genuinely gold mana, which is pretty rare. The break up between the two friends six years ago had been as nasty as it can get between two twelve year olds, but Wren still feels happy that they can see the magic an old friend had always talked so excitedly about. 

“Third floor is the rest of the rooms,” Johnathan says, pulling Wren away from the lights. “Those lights down there are Olly’s stars. They’re like nightlights for the kids.”

The third floor is messier than the second. Toys lie scattered around and the carpet is all bunched up. Occasionally, a child will come running out of one of the rooms and into another, bunching it up even more. There are pictures framed on the walls here. Some of them are drawn by children, others are more professionally done paintings of bright landscapes. There are also a lot of Olly’s stars here, covering the entire ceiling. Some sort of spell, also by Olly, had been put up there, making the ceiling dark, so it really does look like a night sky full of stars. The colored glass panes of the windows let in neat rectangles of light of every color, projected onto the left wall, and a lot of the doors have notes and pictures taped to them, or names of their room’s occupants. There are bathrooms and showers here as well, and at the very end of the hall is the headmaster’s office and room, heavy door locked tight shut.

“This is my room,” Johnathan tells Wren, opening up a door beside the headmaster’s. The door itself has a piece of paper with decorated names on it, clearly done by a child. It lists Johnathan, Anna, Olly, and Asile. Judging by what they saw of Asile through the window of the infirmary, and what they know about Johnathan and Olly, each name is written in the color of each person’s mana. Anna’s name is white with a black border, but that doesn’t really clue Wren in to who she is.

Inside the room there are two bunks and one single mattress. The mattress is on the floor in the corner of the room, with blankets and sheets pinned up onto the walls and floor around it so that it looks like a tent. A whole host of pillows and stuffed animals peer out from the tent flaps at Wren, and a single blanket is folded neatly at the foot of the mattress. Olly’s stars swarm the corner as well, keeping it lit up. 

The other two bunks are in varying states of disarray. The bunk up against the wall obviously has two inhabitants; Johnathan says he uses the bottom bunk, neatly made but with a mess of schoolwork and sports equipment on top of the mattress and shoved into the drawers below it. Olly’s bunk, above that, has a curtain all around it, bolted to the ceiling, but Wren can still see dirty clothes, old junk food wrappers, and a bunch of books sticking out of it. The posts of the bunk are hung with a bunch of clothes, too, and clothes spill out from the single wardrobe in the corner. The second bunk is empty on top, and the bottom bunk is unmade, but the drawers beneath are neatly shut.

“You can sleep up there,” Johnathan says, vaguely pointing up. “Oh, also, Olly flies in through the windows all the time, so don’t stand in front of them if they suddenly open by themselves. Hm. That’s about it. When you hear a bell ringing, just go downstairs and follow all the people into the dining room for dinner. In the morning, we’ll wake you up.”

They look at each other awkwardly, now that the tour is over. Wren likes Johnathan; he seems a little odd, but nice overall. He looks very normal, with dark hair and freckles, and a very commonplace attractiveness. He has a rather bulky build for someone on the track team, but in a way that makes him look pleasantly substantial. Having been dragged to their feet by him, Wren knows that he’s incredibly muscular. They wonder if that means he’s a fast runner or a slow one. Wren is also obviously grateful that he brought them here instead of leaving them to die in a parking lot, which is an effort they feel like they should repay.

“You don’t have to talk, if you don’t want to,” Johnathan says suddenly, leaning back against his bunk in a ploy to seem relaxed, “but did you get into a fight out there?”

Wren nods.

“With someone from your school? Is that why you transferred?”

Wren nods again.

“Well… um…” he scratches the back of his head before he continues, awkward again despite his best efforts. “You can hang out with me. At school. Tomorrow. Even if you and Olly still don’t get along. Honestly, I don’t even remember what it was you two fought over.”

Wren shrugs. That’s their usual response to questions too complicated to answer by shaking or nodding their head. They’d like to say thank you, but bowing in this situation would be odd, so they just shrug. But they do need to somehow communicate now, to tell him that they’re leaving to get their stuff. Or they can just walk off and go get it, but he might not like that.

Wren stares at Johnathan, wishing they could just beam their words into his head. He squirms uncomfortably. My stuff, Wren says in their head, then repeats it in their head ten more times, determined to get it out.

“My stuff,” they blurt out, voice way louder than they intended. Johnathan flinches, surprised, but understands.

“You need to get your stuff,” he guesses, and he seems to deflate in relief when they nod. “Of course. You shouldn’t be gallivanting around town, so I can go get it for you. Stay here. I’ll give you my number, and you can send me the list.”

Does he know where they live? Tatara isn’t big, and there aren’t many people with older brothers who convert the back end of their house into a greenhouse for plants. Since Johnathan doesn’t ask, Wren assumes he does know.

“You only have one contact,” he comments, as he types his number into their phone, and they cringe slightly. “Well, now you have two. I’ll be back in no time.”

Then he’s gone. His body seems to flood with his cool, blue mana, and then disappear entirely, with no indication of where he went. 

After composing a list of items and sending it to him, Wren looks around the room, looking for something to do as they wait. Investigating Asile’s little corner of the room seems extremely appealing, but that’s her space, so they sit at the only desk in the room instead, which is also the home to the only chair in the room. The desk is all beat up, with names carved into the wood, and currently has someone’s physics textbook and notes on it. The handwriting is scratchy and disorganized, like the author hadn’t really been paying attention, just writing down what they happened to have heard while doodling in the margins. The doodles are much more expansive and elaborate, depicting strange shapes and symbols arranged into large circles that run over the entire page. Wren knows, as is common knowledge, that these are fragments of mana circles, one way to arrange mana to form spells. Wren has yet to see such a complicated spell, so they inspect the doodles closely. They don’t mean anything to them yet, but knowing that simple lines of graphite on paper can be magic has never made any sense to Wren. Something about the angles and precise distribution of empty space is magic. 

After failing to be able to read any of the notes and noticing that the author can draw perfect circles, Wren sits patiently and waits. They flip through the textbook idly, wondering what classes at the public school are like. Harder, because there are more students per teacher, so you don’t get as much help? Or easier, because the standards are lower for free education? 

As Wren is wondering about this, someone comes into the room and stops dead in the doorway, floored by the unexpected appearance of some guy in her room.

“Who are you??” she demands. 

Wren looks over, totally unfazed by her reaction. She’s wearing some sort of work uniform that Wren can’t identify, with a crisp white collar, a dark red coat, and a short, tubular skirt. She also wears scuffed red sneakers, and is carrying a backpack and an umbrella under one arm, which is a weird way to carry both those things. Her hair is long and water-smooth, practically dripping down her shoulders and back. It’s pretty. Wren likes it.

Wren looks at her some more, this time to gauge her expression. She’s waiting for an answer from them, getting more uncomfortable the longer they stay silent. They point to their mouth and make an “X” with their hands.

The girl frowns. Wren suspects she’s Anna, the sister Johnathan has mentioned a couple times; her mana is perfectly clear, which is something Wren has never heard of before, but would match the name tag on the door, and she goes to the bunk Johnathan said was for his sister.

“No one told me a new kid was coming today. I thought we were at capacity,” she says, more to herself than Wren, and then drops her things onto her bed. “Just because we have a bed free doesn’t mean we can feed another mouth. Well, I’m Anna Calloway. I’ve been here for years. Did Johnathan show you around? He usually does it.”

They don’t have the same last name, Anna and Johnathan. Their mannerisms are similar, though, most strikingly their way of speaking. Kestarin is a language with many regional dialects, and the northern dialect, which Wren and Tatara natives speak, uses more descriptive speech. There are many words to describe one thing, even words to describe things that don’t exist in other dialects. The siblings don’t have an accent, but they avoid using descriptive language where a Tatara native would. For example, in Northern Kestarin, you usually refer to siblings using a term of endearment or a nickname, especially if you’re close in age, but Anna just calls her brother by his name. Even Cain and Wren use nicknames for each other; Wren calls Cain “big tree”, which roughly means “stubborn stick in the mud”, and Cain calls Wren “bird-headed fool”, which roughly translates into “stupid idiot”. 

Anna also speaks very literally, simply saying, “I’ve been here for years”, where someone else might have picked the version of “been” that has the connotation of belonging, or perhaps the connotation of being stuck somewhere, and would’ve most definitely used a signifier on the word “here” to indicate how she feels about the place. It feels like a very empty way of speaking, but Wren can understand that the northern dialects can take a while to get used to.

More importantly, though, Anna thinks that Wren is a new member of the orphanage, which is a misunderstanding they need to quickly dispel. They take their phone out hurriedly and begin typing, which is difficult when your screen has been smashed to a million pieces by an angry eighteen year old, but they eventually hold up the screen to Anna. She reads their message quickly, expression unchanging, neither impressed that Wren has become an altefel so late, nor annoyed that they’re staying the night.

“I see,” is all she says, before she sits on her bed and stretches out her legs with a yawn. Wren turns and sits backwards in their chair to face her. “So why don’t you talk?”

She’s blunt. Wren doesn’t know what she means by it, either, because of her way of speaking. They look at her, bewildered and scrambling for an answer, wishing she’d elaborate.

“I just think I’ve heard of you before,” she says, to Wren’s relief. “Someone was talking about you at a party the other night. You stabbed some guy in the shoulder with a butter knife.”

Wren doesn’t respond, and Anna looks at them, eyebrows raised. Her eyebrows are darker than her hair, but it doesn’t seem like she dyes her hair. They wonder if she’s wearing makeup.

“So you did?” she asks, determined to draw an answer out of their wandering thoughts.

Wren nods slowly. They open their mouth as if to explain, but change their mind. Instead, they wait for her to say something. She has an incredibly inexpressive face, in contrast to her brother, and isn’t quite as concerned with being polite or accommodating as he is. Wren can’t tell how she feels about them. Her posture is pretty relaxed, so she must not feel like they’re dangerous for stabbing someone, at least. 

“They bullied you for not being an altefel, since everyone at the private school is one,” she says flatly. “You still gonna transfer?”

Wren nods. 

“It’s not so bad at my school. It’s almost all normal people, so people don’t get bullied for that stuff. I mean, you’re an altefel now and you look cool, so you might be more popular than you’d expect.”

Wren doubts it. They don’t talk. That makes them weird enough to be bullied.

“Everyone’s scared of my brother,” Anna says unexpectedly. “Stick with us and you’ll be okay. Olly is kinda weird… but if he doesn’t like you, he’ll just leave you alone, that’s it. He’s not a bad guy.”

Wren knows. Olly has always been kind. Maybe not nice all the time, and not kind to everyone, but at his core, he has an intense loyalty to the people he loves and can’t stand to see people suffer for no reason. 

“Some people call him the watchful eye of Daybreak,” Anna tells Wren. “He looks out for all the kids here. You might hear some crazy things about what he does in his spare time, though. And they’re all true.”

Johnathan returns all of a sudden, carrying a duffel bag. There had been no indication that he was about to appear, but here he is.

“Oh. Hey, Anna,” he says, as he hands the bag to Wren, who sets it on their knees and looks inside. “Wren’s staying the night. What were you guys talking about?”

“I was telling them not to get weirded out by Olly,” Anna says, and yawns again. “Where is he, by the way?”

“Carheliod tournament.” Johnathan flops down onto his own bed, pushing things off it with a clatter. “Wren already knows him. They used to come over and play, remember?”

“No,” Anna says, surprised. “With Olly?”

Wren is surprised Johnathan remembers, too. They’d only come over twice, and they don’t remember him or Anna at all.

“I remember we played Sardines,” he says. “And they fell asleep on top of me. I had an asthma attack.”

“Ah. So that’s why you remember,” Anna says wryly. “A medical emergency. I wasn’t even there that day.”

Wren vaguely remembers falling asleep after crawling under the back porch, but they don’t remember a guy being there. They believe him, though. It was dusty under there, which even made their throat itchy. They have a fuzzy recollection of the cool shade, the sun coming through the gaps in the boards above, and the sensation of quiet solidity when they pressed their ear to the ground, trying to hear the breath of the earth that Cain always talks about. But it was silent. Wren wonders if they could hear it now.

“Someone should grab sheets for the top bunk,” Johnathan says tiredly. “You do it, Anna.”

“I don’t want to,” Anna refuses, and the two exchange irritated glances. Wren gets up quickly, before they can argue, and goes to get sheets themself. Johnathan hadn’t pointed it out, but the door by the bathrooms had the words “LINEN CLOSET” stamped onto it. Wren would rather get up than sit awkwardly in a room with two strangers.

They head down the hall, narrowly avoiding a pack of children scurrying to the stairs, carrying a large kite with them. It’s not that windy today, but maybe they’ll be able to get it up into some high air current. It’s a pretty kite, painted in blue and yellow birds, and with long colorful streamers haphazardly glued on. One falls off as they rush past, and Wren picks it up. They watch the group go, then wind the streamer around three fingers and fold it into a little rectangle to put into their pocket.

The orphanage seems massive while standing in its halls. It stretches out in all directions, straight halls branching into numerous rooms, the floors below buzzing with life. There’s probably an attic, and a way to get into the spires that punctuate the mansion’s roof, maybe a way to climb onto the roof itself. Looking through the closest window, Wren sees a wide side yard, with carefully curated patches of herbs and vegetables. Two children bumble their way around the garden, like bees, one with a watering can and another reading out loud from a piece of paper in their hands.

“Got lost?” Johnathan’s voice suddenly comes down the hall, and Wren looks towards his room. He’s leaning out into the hallway, making sure they’re okay. “What are you looking at?”

Wren points vaguely out the window and he trots over, no longer tired.

“Ah, that’s our garden. It must look like nothing in comparison to yours.” He looks outside, then opens the window and calls down to the children below, asking what they’re watering. “There’s a schedule they take turns following.”

Wren looks down at him, leaned towards the window with his hands against the sill. Then they look out the window as well and wave down at the children there. They wave back.

“You were almost at the closet,” Johnathan says, straightening and shutting the window. Wren knows, but is in the habit of letting that sort of thing slide. “Are you an archer, by the way? You said to pick up a bunch of arrows, in your list.”

Wren nods, crossing the hall with him to the closet. He’s not looking at them, so he doesn’t see. Speaking has recently become incredibly difficult for Wren. They’re still getting used to it, which is why they struggle to communicate so much. They still talk to their brother, since he won’t make fun of them, but even he gets annoyed when they stumble too badly. Saying my stuff to Johnathan was the first time they’ve spoken in two months. Maybe it’s because he’s been friendly, or because he seems so non-threatening, but despite all that, Wren finds themself answering out loud again.

“Yeah,” they say, and Johnathan doesn’t flinch this time.

“We have an archery team at our school. Are you going to join?”

He glances at them this time, so they shake their head. “That’s cool, that’s cool. There’s no reason why you have to.” He pulls out a stack of sheets and turns back to Wren. “Are you good at it?”

Wren doesn’t know how to answer, so they just shrug. Wren doesn’t know how to do modern archery like they do in the public school archery team, Wren does a type of traditional Kestarin archery called boundshooting, which is slower, uses simpler equipment, and has more rules about how you’re supposed to shoot. They could probably pick up ordinary archery, but they don’t want to mess up their muscle memory, even if they have been doing it most of their life.

“Can I see?” Johnathan asks, shutting the closet door with a ghostly hand. Since he’s a Talon, he doesn’t have to take the time to form a spell like the Fated do, so he uses his power seamlessly, like his mana is just an extension of his body. It’s so natural to him, but to Wren, who’s never seen anything like it before, it’s cool. He noticed them looking and grins, proud of himself. “Now that you can see my mana, I’m pretty cool, right?”

“Yes,” Wren says clearly, and Johnathan pats them on the back.

“I’ll let you copy my power to practice using yours,” he offers. “But you can’t get better at it than me, okay?”

Wren nods obediently. Who are they to intrude into other people’s areas of expertise? They’re just happy they have mana at all.

“You might get really sick again,” Johnathan warns, as they head back to his room. “For most people, using your power consciously really strains your body. As you get better at it and sort of beat your mana into shape, it’ll get easier. You could be different… Asile, for example, has always been able to move her mana around no problem. But that’s rare, and probably because she was born with mana already. You’re basically the opposite of her… means you’re rare, too.”

Chapter 6: Olly at the library

The game of Carheliod is a war-simulation game like chess, but with more involved roles for each piece. Because it’s so complicated, not many people play it, but it’s been played for at least a millennia, originating from the now sunken island of Carheliod. Olly has always wondered how the game was created, why a game so intricate had stood the test of time. Yes, Olly finds it fun; the sensation of completely dominating a field feels good, the pieces move in patterns and shapes through time that his mind patches onto. But it’s got pages and pages of rules, something unsustainable if you’re planning on surviving the course of time. Perhaps it came from real life strategizing in times of war? Or maybe something innate to it that makes it so satisfying to play? It’s an oddly popular game here in Tatara but virtually nowhere else on the continent, which is nowhere remotely near where Carheliod used to be. It can also be played perfectly with multiple decks of cards, even though the island sank hundreds of years before playing cards were standardized. It involves serious bookkeeping, visual deception, and elaborate estimations of the future, all appealing to Olly. He’s been playing since Anna taught him how seven years ago, when she came to the orphanage. Apparently her mother used to be a Carheliod master, but she never mentions it anymore, so Olly actually has no idea if she’d been telling the truth when she said that, the day they first met.

Carheliod is also fun because of Asile. After the headmaster asked Olly to help Asile on her first day at Daybreak, the kid had started following him around. It was a little annoying at first— Asile didn’t even know how to speak that well; since she hadn’t been able to hear well before coming here, her parents never talked to her and left her alone in her room most of the time. She was only five years old, and Olly didn’t want her tagging along while he hung out with his more questionable friends, too. So he sat down in a corner of the living room on a nice, sunny day and started playing a game of Carheliod with Anna, intending to bore Asile into leaving him alone. Instead, she sat next to them and watched. She watched the whole thing, then wanted to play, tiny hands grasping excitedly at the pieces. Anna had explained the rules to Asile, who had listened patiently, even though Olly could tell she didn’t understand a thing Anna said. And then Asile had proceeded to beat Olly so bad he got upset. He had gone easy on her because he assumed she didn’t know how to play, and then had been unable to recover. They played out the entire game anyway, then started a second round. Olly beat her that time, then over and over, until she got upset. Then they’d become friends.

Asile is currently dominating her side of the Carheliod bracket at the library tournament. Most people who enter are just casual players here for the snacks and the opportunity to socialize, but Asile spends almost all her free time thinking about Carheliod. It’s her favorite game. Olly only likes playing the game in his spare time, but he’s still better than her, for now. He just has to play as hard as he can. 

“How’ve you been, Oleander?” Olly’s opponent asks him, as he sets up an attack in his third game of the evening. “Thinking about jobs after school yet? We have plenty of openings for a bright kid like you at my store.”

Olly doesn’t intend to work at a hardware store all his life, so he declines politely. Most people in Tatara never leave, or if they do, they never come back. Olly doesn’t know what to do exactly, but neither option seems particularly attractive. He doesn’t hate Tatara. He loves it here, really, it’s home. But he can’t stay here all his life. He needs to defy all odds, needs to succeed on a cosmic scale— he wants to see it all, learn everything, color the world in more lights. There’s always been a nagging anxiety in his mind, like he’s forgetting something really important, like he’s not fully himself yet. Like he could be more. The urgency to reach his peak potential is almost panic inducing sometimes. He has to be better, has to hurry and get stronger, become a better spellcaster, anything. 

He’s already arranged to help out at Daybreak with Adjest for a year while he looks for a job. As he taps the smooth plastic tiles of the Carheliod set onto the board, he can’t help but wonder if he’s stacking his pieces correctly; if he should just get a job in town after all. People always tell him that he’s “bright”, that they have a spot perfect for him, but Tatara is so grey and unchanging. It’s not going to take him anywhere.

Olly wins this round and finds himself matched against a newcomer. Newcomers at the tournament aren’t too odd, but Olly has never seen this man in his life. He’s not from town.

“Hi,” Olly says calmly, waving a hand over the board. The pieces click and clatter back into neat columns off the board, ready for a new game. “I’m Olly.”

“Isai,” the man says shortly.

“Where are you from?” Olly studies the man. He’s tall, extremely tall, with light, caramel colored hair and a soft, old-fashioned attractiveness. He wears a brown suit and leather shoes, and wears thin, round glasses perched on the bridge of a high nose. He speaks quietly, almost nervously, with a broad, trans-Perseidic accent. His Kestarin is passable, but bland, and he fidgets with his hands as he replies.

“I just moved here from the Perseids,” he says, matter of fact. “I’m living in Enri, but I’m here for a little.”

Enri is the town Asile is from, about fifty miles away and situated in a gap between two high plateaus. It’s closer to the city, so it sees more strangers, but they rarely make their way up here.

“What brings you here? It’s quite a trek for zero reward.” Olly has the first move. He considers his first turn carefully. He wants to win no matter what, and he doesn’t know anything about how this guy plays.

“Work. I’m an ecologist. I’m studying the wildlife here.”

Olly is the first to admit that he’s nosy. Everyone in Tatara is. If they weren’t, Johnathan wouldn’t have hauled Wren Celwyn up to Daybreak. So he doesn’t feel that bad using his statement classification spell on Isai. It’s a spell he’s known all his life, one that he could taste at his fingertips the moment he became an altefel. Like the headmaster’s natural ability to control inanimate objects. The statement classification spell is most simply explained as a lie detector. It can classify a statement as either truth or lie. But it’s a little more than that. Lying to Olly exposes the truth; the best way to lie to him is to say nothing at all. Isai is not an ecologist, he’s an anthropologist. He’s not here to study the wildlife, he’s here to study the people. Olly doesn’t know why Isai lied; the spell isn’t that powerful. Maybe he doesn’t want people to know they’re being studied, so they don’t act differently around him. Either way, studying people means there’s a higher chance you’re good at Carheliod, which is all that matters to Olly right now.

“I like your hat,” Isai says timidly, setting down his pieces. That one’s not a lie. “Where’d you get it?”

“I made it,” Olly informs him, scanning the board. Possibility upon possibility begins to spring up in his mind. Isai could be aiming to go for a people’s defeat, where he kills the commanding officers first. He could be setting up a later king’s defeat, where he decimates all the troops first. Or he could be doing both. Olly always assumes the worst.

“So what brings you to our Carheliod tournament?” Olly asks, completing his turn with a few clicks of pieces into place. “Not much wildlife here.”

“Ah… I’m from the coast of the Perseids, perhaps you can tell by my accent?” He glances at Olly, notices his blank stare, then continues wryly. “Well, perhaps not. I’m from the southern coast of the Strand.”

The country known as the Perseids is split into two parts. The Isles, a collection of islands of which Carheliod used to belong to, and the Strand, a strip of the coast on the south eastern edge of the Ancient continent. All Olly knows about the Strand is that it borders Raldea, and they’ve been fighting over who actually owns the land for as long as Olly can remember. The Perseids have yet to budge, so they must be doing a good job, even though they’re a quarter of the size of Raldea.

“We have Carheliod there, but not many people off the coast have kept it alive. Imagine my surprise when I see it alive and well here, in some tiny town on another continent entirely.” Isai picks up one of the pieces in his reserves and studies it fondly. “I’d love to know how it got here…”

“I don’t know,” Olly says. “I learned it from a friend who isn’t from around here.”

Isai is considering his next move, but once he’s done, he continues the conversation. “How long have you been playing? Who taught you? Someone from the Perseids?”

“A good friend of mine from southern Kestarin taught me the rules seven years ago.”

“Southern Kestarin… how strange. What part?”

“The Sunken Cities.”

“Even stranger.” Isai mulls over this, then seems to think his interest isn’t quite befitting of an ecologist and changes the topic of conversation abruptly to forest creatures. Olly has to give him credit; he’s pretty knowledgeable about animals in the area, which makes it seem almost like he’s an ecologist. Did he study up before he came here? Why?

Olly beats Isai in a short match. He isn’t exceptionally good, but he’s not bad, either. He has an unusual playing style, unconsciously favoring the western side of the board and usually trying to pull off a large number of very simple maneuvers all at once. It almost feels like he’s trying to catch Olly off guard by overwhelming him. Out of all the people in the room, he probably won’t place third or higher, but get pretty close, if he keeps playing like that. But somehow, Olly gets the feeling that he won’t.

“Thanks for the game,” Olly says, as is typical, and Isai nods and moves to the next table. He watches the man walk away, curious.


Asile plops down across from Olly, grinning. Olly has come to realize that Asile doesn’t usually smile so brightly at other people; she’s actually pretty reserved and untrusting of others, even other children her age. He feels sometimes like he needs to make sure she still can smile like that, as if it’s about to vanish at any second and never return. She spent five of her seven years sick with magic, swept away by it, unable to protect herself against it or the people around her who had it. Olly can’t imagine what kind of miserable life that was. He loves magic; he wants her to love it, too.

“Well, well,” Olly says, hands on his hips, and she giggles. “Looks like you lost a game.”

“Yeah! Clarist is good today.”

Asile never minds losing. Olly can’t understand it, but it’s why he doesn’t make betting on things a game around her. She doesn’t think losing is a bad thing, and he’s not about to ruin it for her. A quick check of the bracket being updated on a whiteboard on wheels tells Olly that Asile is now in the running for third place, and is currently waiting for her next opponent to finish a game.

“What do you think of the new guy?” Olly asks, rocking onto the back two legs of his chair. “He says he’s an ecologist, but he’s really a scientist who studies people.”

“Why does he do that?” Asile asks curiously.

“It’s important to study people so we understand ourselves better. That way, we know what to expect of humans. Or what we can do if problems happen. Tatara is so isolated, so it must be interesting to study.” Olly gestures to the Carheliod board, still arranged like it was at the very end of the last game. “What do you think?”

Asile studies the board. Her eyes pick out the same groups of pieces that Olly’s does, traces through paths on the board with the careful reverence of a child inspecting something interesting. “You almost lost,” she says. “I think if you missed even one thing, you would’ve lost.”

She’s right. Olly would’ve been put into a disadvantageous situation, which, in a game played perfectly, signals a loss. But people rarely play Carheliod perfectly, and Olly hadn’t missed a thing.

Asile suddenly looks around, mouth twisting into a frown. She usually makes that face when she suddenly feels sick because of mana. Olly had also sensed someone suddenly using an immense amount of mana. He can understand mana induced sensations better than Asile and can tell it’s coming from the orphanage.

“That’s Johnathan’s,” Asile correctly guesses. Johnathan frequently lets his mana run unabated while he’s asleep, so everyone who shares a room with him is well acquainted with how it looks and feels. But he does that because he has bad nightmares, and it hardly ever happens anymore. Why he’s using so much mana that they can feel it two blocks away is beyond Olly. He holds up a hand slightly and his phone flies out of his pocket and snaps neatly into his palm. He keys in a message to Johnathan and gets an answer from Anna instead.

“Wasn’t J, was Wren,” is all she says. She’s not a woman of many words, but that’s all Olly really needs to know.

“That was Wren,” Olly tells Asile, who relaxes a little. “They must be practicing using their power. Do you feel okay?”

“Yeah,” Asile says, but seems uneasy. “How come Wren took so long to become an altefel?”

“It happens,” Olly says, keeping his voice as light as he can. Honestly, he’s interested in knowing, too. “Maybe it’s for the same reason your awakening happened when you were born. Are you worried about them?”

Chapter 7: Anna helping Wren

Wren has absolutely no control over their mana. The best they can do is hold it in their body, but that’s just asking for mana sickness. As Johnathan and Anna watch Wren’s mana warp and twist violently through the air, Anna wonders what the best course of action is in this situation. Wren is reacting a lot like Johnathan had when he first used his power; they’d collapsed to the ground and seem to be struggling to get to their feet. Johnathan ostensibly knows how this feels and why it feels that way, but he’s just panicking. It’s a good thing they went outside. Wren’s mana crackles angrily, flickering between amber and blue so sharply it looks like lightning. It thrashes around wildly, smacking into things in the backyard, totally flattening the shed in the back and sending a bench flying through the air. Johnathan grabs it without a second thought, ghostly form stretching through the air and catching it carefully, but he seems frozen to the spot otherwise.

“Go get Adjest,” Anna snaps at him. “If she’s not coming already.”


“Just go,” Anna insists, and he turns and runs inside. Anna approaches Wren cautiously, keeping lower to the ground to avoid most of the out of control mana. “Wren, you’ll be okay, alright?”

Wren looks at her, expression set into the grimace of someone in an immense amount of pain. Anna’s a little worried about that; it hadn’t ever hurt Johnathan to use his power. Wren’s entire body trembles, sending tremors through their mana, and they try to get up again, barely managing to stay on their hands and knees. Johnathan had described the feeling to her once, the feeling of being crushed under an enormous weight, your body blown out of proportion, impossible to control, a monster tearing itself from the cocoon of your body. He said it had been hard to breathe, impossible to think over the panic, the feeling of an inescapable weight too much to bear.

“You feel like you’re being weighed down by something, right?” she hazards. Wren doesn’t answer, but their eyes remain fixedly focused on her, shining a brilliant amber through the mess of their hair. It feels like she’s talking to some sort of wild animal. 

“This is happening because you’re not controlling your mana at all. I can help you do that, okay?”

Anna and Wren are very different people, and everyone controls their mana differently. The most Anna can actually do is calm Wren down, which is almost guaranteed to make their mana settle.

“You’re a boundshooter, an archer. You’ve set up a shot so many times,” she tells them, as their right hand slides out from under them and skids across the grass, sending their entire body crashing to the ground. They stare up at her, body heaving for breath, fingers clawing into the earth so desperately that it scrapes the skin from their hands and sends drops of blood into the dark dirt. “Imagine that you’re doing that,” Anna says, as she hears Johnathan running back outside. “Every single motion, in detail; every feeling that you feel while doing it.”

“Adjest isn’t here,” Johnathan says, from a ways away, not wanting to come closer. “I told the staff to make sure the kids don’t come out here.”

Anna nods but doesn’t say anything. Wren is still staring at her, their mana still rages through the air, moving with such speed and force that the wind seems to wail as they cut through it.

“You need to do something you’re so familiar with that it’s second nature,” she tells Wren. “Something that involves your mind controlling your entire body. So try boundshooting.”

“They can’t even get up,” Johnathan says, and she looks over her shoulder and shoots him a look.

Wren gets their hands under them again and with a quiet groan of exertion, forces themself to their feet. Johnathan gawks at them as they stand, every single one of their muscles trembling, every single tendon tight under tension, face dead set with a look of determination. Their mana begins to funnel in towards them, howling through the grey skies into a violently spiraling vortex, and they slide their feet into position with a heavy, measured precision. Their right hand hangs limp by their side, fingers curling slightly, and they graze Wren’s pocket. In a flash, a bow appears in their left hand, long and gently curved. It must be a charm of some sort, a prepackaged charm activated by Wren’s touch.

“They’re calming down,” Anna says quietly. “You think they know how to stop using your power?”

“I don’t know,” Johnathan says. “All I know is that they can use the power of the people near them.”

“Then go away, moron!” Anna scolds. “Then they can’t use it.”

Johnathan starts jogging away, and Wren’s mana narrows into one narrow column as they lift their arms. Anna has never seen someone boundshoot in real life, just on TV. She hadn’t thought it was possible for them to do it at all, because it involves using mana, but apparently they can do it using charms, which can be activated by anyone, altefel or not.

As Johnathan gets farther and farther away, Wren’s mana loses its blue color and returns to amber. It’s an overwhelmingly warm color; even Olly’s gold has a cold, metallic quality to it. It seems to sink down into Wren, dripping through the air slowly, reluctantly, much differently from how it behaved when it was Johnathan’s. Once it returns to Wren, it courses through their body and builds in the tips of their fingers, the straight planes of their posture, their eyes, their lungs and throat; they glow with it.

They don’t shoot or anything, but they’ve calmed down. They lower their arms and look at Anna as their bow vanishes. The look on their face is triumphant for a second, then they go back to their usual inexpressive self, mana coiling in the bottom of their chest and settling down.

“Nice,” Anna says to them. “One of the most important things to learn is how to get your mana to settle down.”

Wren trots over, a little unsteady, then sits on a step of the back porch, exhausted. They mouth a word without saying it out loud, but Anna knows what they said. Magic. Most people awaken as children, so their awe and wonder is more easily displayed. Anna wonders how it feels for Wren, especially given the fact that they had spent so many years being bullied for not being an altefel. The first time Anna remembers hearing about them was at work, while eavesdropping in on a guest’s conversation. They’d gotten into such a bad fight they almost died, yet no one seemed to be saying the other person was at fault, just Wren for not running away.

Anna is about to wonder aloud where Johnathan is when Wren takes out their phone and makes a noise of startled dismay. It’s got a giant crack running through the back now, not just the screen, and it won’t turn on. It must’ve gotten flattened.

“Oh no,” Anna says, but sounds unsympathetic. She can’t really get herself to feel bad; Cain Celwyn has an ability unparalleled, and sells all sorts of crops and seeds in huge quantities for cheap and makes tons and tons of money from it. Given his ability, maybe Wren was bound to also have an unusual one. Either way, the Celwyns are rich as fuck. 

Johnathan returns, a little nervous, but he’s relieved to see that everything is okay. Anna can already tell he’s showing an unusual amount of interest in Wren. The guy doesn’t usually want to make new friends. It could be because he’s interested in their power, or because he thinks being friends will help him somehow, but it’s definitely not because he likes them. Johnathan doesn’t like people he just met. Usually it’s up to Anna or Olly to slowly introduce someone new to him, or he’ll act like they don’t exist.

“I didn’t think it would get so out of control,” Johnathan tells Wren. “Do you feel okay? You might start to feel sick.”

Wren shrugs. With their phone dead, they don’t seem to be able to communicate any more than that. Anna knows what happened to them, but Johnathan definitely doesn’t know why Wren can’t talk. Or why they don’t want to.

“If you do, let me know. I can get you a tonic,” he says calmly. 

Anna squints at him suspiciously. It’s weirding her out how nice he’s acting. He's only nice to new kids at the orphanage. He ignores her as the clock tower a few blocks away chimes loudly. The tower sits at the crest of town square— literally a crest, since the entire town is on a slope— and is the tallest building in town. It chimes on the hour, the sound ringing clearly through the thin air. It’s seven, so almost dinnertime.

“Hungry?” Johnathan asks Wren, and holds out a hand to help them up.

Anna likes her brother; they’re step siblings, but they’ve been together since they were eight and fought their way out of the swamps and wreckages of the Sunken City together. Johnathan became an altefel while killing a man who had stabbed her in the back of her left shoulder. She can’t see the scar without a mirror, but it hurts sometimes. That was when they were ten. He’s a good big brother, four months older, but a weird person in general. Having to fight tooth and nail to escape the Sunken City made them both weird, and though they’ve gotten used to life here, neither of them have actually changed too drastically. Anna is the only one who realizes this. So it’s weird that Johnathan is suddenly so different.

She watches him pull Wren up. Maybe he thinks they’re cute? Does he even know how to feel romantic emotions? Or maybe Adjest told him to watch Wren so he’s treating Wren like a new kid. He trusts Adjest.

Dinner is a chaotic affair at Daybreak. Forty nine children are currently all clamoring for food in line or for a place to sit and eat. Anna already knows Olly will take Asile out to the diner for dinner; he likes to get her ice cream after they win a Carheliod tournament. And they will win, Anna is confident of that. Her mother used to be a master at Carheliod. While the world fell apart around them, Anna would stay up late and watch her parents play at the dining room table, watch her mother explain her moves with surgical precision, recount old games against other professional Carheliod players, study Johnathan’s father’s moves carefully. Even when she played against Anna, she’d give each move careful consideration, make it feel like they were equals playing a serious game. Olly and Asile are like that. They take every move seriously, and have an explanation for each one. Sometimes Anna will watch them play and get the same feeling she had watching her mother as a child. 

Anna eats quietly. She half listens to Johnathan talk to Wren, then tunes him out entirely. He’s just explaining stuff about school. To their credit, Wren is listening to him intently, not bored by him at all. They look rough, though, covered in dirt, sweat, and the occasional blade of grass from being crushed to the ground by Johnathan’s power. How they still have the strength to give him their undivided attention is beyond Anna, but Johnathan enjoys it. He’s a pretty tolerant guy, but Anna can tell he gets fed up with having to talk over others or shorten his thoughts to keep people listening to him. He usually talks to young children or other eighteen year olds, so it’s pretty par for the course.

“How come you don’t talk?” he finally asks Wren. “If you don’t mind me asking. People at school will definitely ask, too.”

Wren looks at Anna helplessly. She hadn’t told them she knew why, but they could probably guess. She studies their face for a second, wondering how to say what she has to say.

“An injury,” she says finally. “I’m sure Wren doesn’t want you blabbing about it to everyone, though.”

Wren nods emphatically and even goes as far as to give Anna a thumbs up. They’re weird.

“How do you know?” Johnathan asks, puzzled. How do you know but I don’t? is what he really means.

“Unlike you, I pay attention to other people,” Anna says, as disdainfully as she can, hoping to nudge him back into his usual self. Johnathan looks mildly aggrieved at best; he doesn’t really take hints all that well, or at least doesn’t care to.

They finish eating. Wren seems to want to get out of the noisy dining room as quickly as possible. It’s big, filled with noisy kids, and unfamiliar to Wren. It’s like a school cafeteria, with easy to clean walls and floors, large windows, and many folding tables, and Wren is the overwhelmed new kid. Which they will be, tomorrow. As the three of them head outside, Wren is clearly exhausted.

“We eat outside,” Anna mentions. “For lunch at school. If you were wondering.”

“Your schedule might not match ours, though,” Johnathan adds. Wren’s eyes flicker between the two rapidly; maybe they’re giving Wren too much information at once.

They sit down outside. There are benches all around the home, most lit up by Olly’s stars as it gets dark outside. Adjest never gets mad when people carve their initials into the benches or picnic tables outside, so the bench they’re currently sitting on is covered in names, almost an informal record of those who pass through. If a kid wants to be remembered so badly, Daybreak will remember. If a kid wants to make a mark in the world and control even a tiny part of it, Daybreak will readily bear the marks. If a kid just wants to scratch up the wood, that’s okay with everyone, too. Wren traces the letters dug into the bench by their leg, all written in shallow, choppy lines.

“The attic also has a lot of those,” Johnathan informs them. “I put my name up there, too.”

Anna naturally sits out here after dinner with her brother. She doesn’t actually know why, but they’ve done it since their parents died. Sometimes they have Olly or Asile with them, or they’ll walk around town instead of sitting. They don’t even talk sometimes. It’s just a normal part of Anna’s life to be outside with her brother after dinner.

It’s kind of hard to have a conversation with Wren, so the three of them eventually just fall silent. The sun is setting rapidly over the horizon. Anna always found the speed at which the sun sets to be a jarring reminder that the earth is spinning at an incredibly fast rate. Something about it always makes her feel small. 

Tatara is pretty when the sun sets, too. It’s on a hill which points the entire thing west, so it gets the most sun in the second half of the day. Aside from the single family houses, most of the buildings in Tatara have interesting rooflines, like spires or steeples, dormer windows of all shapes and sizes, balconies hung with laundry or set up for dinner outside or boiling over with plants. There are a lot of rooftop houses and gardens and things like that, probably because no one ever leaving means Tatara is tight on space. The orphanage sits near the top of Tatara, where it’s elevated the most, so they get a good view of the town.

“Show me your schedule later, So I can help you tomorrow,” Johnathan suddenly tells Wren. He’s never really cared about scenery, or if he had, he stopped pretty quickly after he turned eight.

Wren nods absently. They’re staring out into the distance with a slight frown. Anna wonders if they’re looking at the glittering glass panes of the greenhouse stuck onto the back of the Celwyn house, near the edge of town. With a brother who can create plant life from nothing but dirt, a greenhouse isn’t that weird, but everything is big news in Tatara. 

Olly and Asile suddenly return, flying in from the direction of the library. Olly seems preoccupied with thinking about something, and somehow Anna doesn’t notice Wren leaving as she’s looking at Olly.

“Where did Wren go?” Johnathan asks, equally mystified, as Olly and Asile land in front of the bench.

“They left,” Asile says, and she points towards the front gate, which is still swinging shut. “Quickly.”

“Wren was here?” Olly asks curiously, his unfocused, distant expression vanishing in an instant. 

“Yeah, I swear they were sitting here a minute ago,” Johnathan says. “I’ll go look for them; I don’t know if they’re okay to wander around alone next to the road.”

“I’ll fly over and look for them,” Olly offers. “It’ll only take a second.”

Olly is showing his normal signs of nervousness. He’s speaking in short, choppy sentences, pressing his fingers to his chest, and saying more than he needs too. Usually he’d just say something like “I’ll do it”, and start flying, but he’s lingering here, waiting for an answer. Anna wonders why he’s nervous over Wren.

“Didn’t you two stop being friends because you got into a huge fight?” Johnathan asks, answering Anna’s question before she asks it.

Olly shrugs vaguely and hops from foot to foot, floating for a second longer than normal. “I’ll just tell them to come back.”

Chapter 8: Olly hanging out with Wren

Olly Roser takes to the air like cheese takes to crackers. That is to say, very well. As a child, he dreamed of flying so often that he was convinced he really could, if he tried hard enough. He dreamed of shooting through the air in a perfect line, tips of his shoes grazing the clouds, full of thin, clear air and the golden sunlight flooding the heavens. He dreamed of getting sunburned after flying too long, even of struggling to learn how to fly, of the shapes of the spell tangling between his fingers and clinking in his palms. He dreamed of zigging and zagging through cascades of projectiles, sometimes bullets, sometimes just dodgeballs, their every motion expected and understood, the entire world’s motions understood, in the language of probability and the coursing thread of fate that aligned the universe’s randomness into a perfect, coherent line.

He remembers going to the big backyard at Wren’s place when he was ten, and struggling to figure out the spell with an irritated sort of panic. In retrospect, if he really had figured out the spell then, he probably could have saved at least his sister from the sinkhole that opened up three days later. He imagines himself flying in and grabbing her frantic, reaching hand and yanking her from the debris, unafraid of falling in himself. Sure, he’d be a hero, but more importantly, he’d have his sister still.

Wren has never seen Olly fly. He remembers them watching him as he worked, curious, always trying to understand, running back and forth from their house to his perch in their yard to get snacks, or just because they wanted to run. Wren used to be lively and talkative, always asking him questions and whisking him away on make believe quests. Playing with Wren as a child was like being swept up by a storm, spun dizzyingly through a world of secrets and imagined adventures with odds Olly could never predict. 

The Wren now is also like a storm, but probably just because of how violent and miserable their life had gotten. Does Olly feel bad for refusing to stand up for Wren anymore after it got him beat up for the tenth time? Constantly. He was eleven, concerned with fitting in, but Wren was his best friend. They even came to see him at the orphanage after his family died in the sinkhole, brought him snacks and books Daybreak didn’t have, even though their parents had died, too. They always told him that they knew he’d become the best Artificer in the world, even before he became an altefel. The two of them had sworn to be best friends always, or to at least miss each other every day if that wasn’t possible. Not only had Olly ended their friendship of his own accord, he hadn’t missed them a single bit. They only reentered his mind when he heard someone mention that they almost died after getting into a fight with a classmate. Wren had become permanently unable to speak and the other guy got a metal desk to the head and had permanently lost the ability to walk normally. Olly wishes he’d been there to see. Two teens fighting to the death in homeroom and giving each other brain damage? It must’ve been a crazy sight. 

He spots Wren walking calmly back in the direction of their house, hands in their pockets, stride wide and steady. Their mana rests quietly in the hollows of their body, in the curvature of their skull. Wren seems to have sensed him approaching and stops in their tracks to look around.

“Up here,” Olly calls, not quite able to speak as loud as he intended. He feels nervous. He spoke to Wren in the infirmary, held out a hand to them, waiting for them to cling onto it, to seek comfort from him, reassurance, something. But they hadn’t. Do they hate him? Of course. They must. He doesn’t want to face them, doesn’t want to remember the one moment where the odds of his own well-being outweighed his loyalty. His estimation wasn’t wrong. He might’ve gotten thrown to the brink of death if he’d stuck around, might have brought someone to their end with his own two hands. But he’d left Wren.

Wren hears his voice and before they even look up, he can see their eyes light up in excitement. As they look up at him, they grin, any sign of possible hostility totally absent.

“Y- You’re f- f- flying!!!” Wren exclaims. Olly hasn’t heard them speak since middle school, hadn’t even been aware they could speak. Their voice is low, a smooth, leonine purr, even with their stammering in what Olly assumes is shock or awe. It’s similar to Cain’s, but lacks the harshness that his voice always carries. Their enthusiasm brims up in them so strongly that even their mana begins to hum and glow. It’s a pretty color, a warm, earthy amber with a smooth, creamy texture, like milk. It’s what Olly imagined it would be, somehow. Just seeing it feels familiar; most people have mana that reflects them in some way.

“I am flying,” Olly says, as he comes closer, encouraged by their delight, their thrill infecting him. Flying has become second nature to him, but he almost marvels at it himself because of them. He flies in a loop, feeling the air ripple by him, and lands by Wren. “The others told me to bring you back. Where are you going?”

Wren blinks down at him, suddenly unwilling to speak. They’ve also become much taller than Olly, it seems. They point vaguely to their right, then make weird wiggling gestures with one finger.

“…the diner?” Olly guesses, but Wren shakes their head. “Just tell me.”

“Th- The… edge o- of t- t- town…,” Wren says, ears turning red. 

So they speak with a stutter. How long has it been? Three years? To keep silent even though you have a voice for three years is something Olly could never manage. The entire town believes Wren can’t talk. Do they even talk to their brother??

“I’ll go with you,” Olly tells them. “I go there all the time. I’ll even fly you there.”

Wren’s eyes light up again. Olly reaches for their hands gently and his mana flows easily from his fingertips, crossing Wren’s palms in pearlescent drops. Lighter objects always lift first, Wren’s hair floating up around their ears and the ends of their jacket billowing up around their waist. They make a noise of surprise as their feet leave the ground, and they grip Olly’s hands a little tighter.

“Just stay calm,” Olly tells them, watching their face for signs of panic. “My magic will keep you up. I’ll pull you along, okay?”

Wren doesn’t seem afraid at all. Olly flies slowly and stays pretty low to the ground, just enough to pass over most of the low rooftops, but he could probably go much faster and at a greater height. Still, it’s easy to get overwhelmed on the day you awaken, and there’s no telling what might happen if Wren loses control of their mana because of it. Would he be able to calm them down? It wasn’t lost on Olly, the fact that Wren’s mana had only started to settle down when Cain had stepped into the room with them. Who’s to say he’ll come running for them a second time? Cain Celwyn has magic that destins him for greater things than Tatara or the tumultuous struggles of a younger sibling. He rarely has time to worry about anything other than plants. 

Olly is glad the wind makes it hard to talk while flying. It’s weird being with someone who lives such an isolated, lonely life, in part because of you. It would be so easy if Wren blamed him for it all, easy to defend himself against them. But when they’re so pleased to see him, it’s not them he has to defend against, it’s his own nagging guilt that he has to deal with. He should think of what to say when they get to the edge of town, to avoid the topic. Or maybe he should apologize. Or prod Wren on how they feel about it and then decide. Or just not say anything at all.

The sun slips below the horizon and the sky cools from scarlet to an inky black. One by one, stars begin to drop into the sky, blinking in Olly’s field of view as they reach the edge of town. This area used to be well barricaded, preventing people from approaching the edge of the sinkhole, or from disturbing the crumbling earth that is prone to breaking off and collapsing entirely. A tall, standard metal fence crackles with magic, each new shade and hue a sign of a spell put here ten years ago. Olly had sat here and studied each spell until he knew them like the back of his hand. There are strengthening spells to fortify the fence, deterrent spells of all sorts, spells that alert people if the fence is climbed or flown over, spells that reach deep down into the earth and hold it as steady as they can. There are spells sealing off the entire sinkhole as well, a net of sorts that stretches over the gaping maw where the earth had fallen in. The net itself is made of many colors, a joint effort made by almost every single altefel alive at the time, but it has an overarching purple sheen to it, the color of mana belonging to a woman who had since left Tatara, and never come back. Olly has never met her, but knows from the net spell that she must have been exceptionally good at blending wildly differing types of mana into one coherent spell.

Aside from the fences and the spells, there are the signs, warning of danger and calamity, memorializing the area, listing names of those buried in the rubble down below. Wren reads one warning sign with interest, but touches the fence with their bare hands anyway. A zap shivers through the metal, a path of red mana trailing and sparking in its wake, and Wren involuntarily releases the fence.

“It’s a deterrent spell. No matter what you do, you can’t hold onto the fence for long,” Olly says, and Wren looks over their shoulder at him.

Chapter 9: Wren at the sinkhole

A good number of trees grow up here, flanking the path that leads to the area, all of them planted by Cain. Wren recognizes each and every tree, by their colors and shapes, just like everything else in the world to them right now, everything a menagerie of shapes and motion and color. Wren can recognize a tree by how it creaks, by the gnarls in its roots, the whisper of its leaves, even the smell of their bark. Cain had taught them, when they were children, describing them to Wren with painstaking care. And Wren had listened, closely, carefully. So they know now that these aren’t Cain’s favorite kinds of trees, these were picked because he trusts them to hold the earth together the most. Like everyone else, he had jumped into action to hold the earth beneath his feet together. 

Olly stands in front of one tree, turned away from Wren. At its base, in between some of the roots, is a small gravestone. There are hundreds of these, tucked away into the trees and draped with garlands of flowers grown straight from the earth, kept alive by Cain himself. Other items like ribbons, flags, and messages flutter in the breeze, many of them carefully held in place by a stray tendril or low hanging branch. Wren has trouble reconciling the two images of their brother; on one hand, he’s the prickly, unhappy leader of the quickly diminishing Celwyn family, with no time to spare for anything but his work, and on the other hand, he plays the role of the graveyard botanist, the gentle groundskeeper of a small corner of the world where the dead are remembered.

Wren joins Olly, looking down at the creamy marble headstone, no bigger than a standard composition notebook. It’s unweathered by time, protected from the elements by a milky gold sheen, and a few ribbons of muted pink and orange are tied to the roots around it. Wren doesn’t have to look at the initials on the stone to know that this is for Olly’s sister. There aren’t graves for his parents, Randall or Himiko Roser, just this one. Just Seren. Wren hardly remembers her, just has a vague recollection of the sound of red roller skates rocketing over cement and shining eyes. Olly never talked about her a lot when they were kids, but he had changed so dramatically the moment she’d died. Wren had literally seen it.

“Hard to imagine that everyone’s bodies are still down there,” Olly says, still staring down at the gravestone. His voice is quiet, almost monotonous. “Your brother filled it with plants. How old was he, again? Eighteen?”

Wren nods.

“It filled with water. The sinkhole. I watched him come down here and change the plants. To aquatic ones.” Olly continues to talk aimlessly, rambling on without conviction. “All sorts. He’s a pretty powerful altefel. If he was here when it happened, maybe he could’ve saved people, yeah? He seemed pretty torn up about it. I remember seeing him run up right to the edge. He used to be on the track team. Like Johnathan.”

Wren doesn’t know why he keeps going, but they don’t stop him.

“…and anyway, why did you want to come here?” he finally asks, three minutes later. Wren shrugs. “There must be a reason.”

Even if Wren could talk easily, they wouldn’t be able to explain themself. They turn back around to look at the giant hole. It’s too big to see the other end, and difficult to see with the fence preventing you from looking over the edge at the bottom. A layer of water rests about twenty feet below the surface, currently reflecting the black of the sky and the shine of the safety mana net. The lights ripple over the glassy surface as a breeze blows through, and Wren goes back to the fence.

“I…” Wren begins to talk, then trails off. When they try to speak now, a terrible haze fills their mind and they seem to lose their words on the way to their mouth. It’s like playing a familiar song on the piano while your fingers are numb, like running through your house in the pitch black, like trying to talk to a guy who was your best friend until he told you he thought you were a loser and pretended not to know you for seven years. You know the motions so well; the muscle memory is there, the expectation is there, but it feels so awkward, so alien. “I… want t- t- to s… see. M- My p- p- parents.”

“Oh. Because you awakened?”

Wren shakes their head.


Wren touches the fence again, and again, their hands fall sally and move back from the metal links. They’re not even surprised; their body hardly feels like theirs nowadays.

“Well, this is as close as you’ll get to them,” Olly tells them, an impatient, almost resentful clip in his voice. “I’m heading home. Come if you want.”

Wren stays, and Olly walks away, vanishing into the dark.

Chapter 10: Johnathan at the sinkhole

Johnathan had expected Olly to come back empty handed, but he didn’t expect him to get back before Wren. Olly is in a bad mood, burrowing into his bed and vanishing behind the curtains without a word. He and Anna exchange looks, but keep their voices down, wary of Asile snoozing in her corner.

“You go look for Wren,” Anna whispers.

“I don’t want to,” he protests. “They could be anywhere.”

“They went to the edge of town,” Olly says, his muffled voice issuing from behind his curtains. “Was just standing there like an idiot.”

“You’re the one who can teleport,” Anna tells her brother. “Go already.”

He sighs and gets up out of bed, scattering homework across the bedspread. After putting on his shoes and a pair of pants, he stands in the center of the room and summons his ghostly form. It encompasses him perfectly, and he feels light for a moment, like he’s slipped into a dream. He projects it all the way to the edge of town, the distance between it and him expanding with a few practiced pushes of mana. He lets go and feels himself warp to his ghost, snapping to where it stands in an instant. Cool night air washes over him as he dissolves his mana, and the sound of singing bugs and sighing winds wind around the trees behind him.

The sound of voices also comes from farther down the path, closer to the actual edge of the sinkhole, two loud and angry adults talking. Johnathan slides back into his ghostly form, wary of the noise, and floats closer, staying in the shadows. Like his sister, he specializes in the quiet, unseen parts of the world. He comes up onto the clearing and sees two figures silhouetted in the moonlight, features barely visible in the shadows, but he can recognize them by voice and general shape. 

The cause of their yelling is clearly a hole in the fence. That thing has been warded to high heaven against intruders and destruction, and had survived a decade of curious teenagers and other natural disasters, just to be cut neatly open by a pair of bolt cutters lying on the ground nearby. Outrageous as it is, Johnathan knows almost instantly that it was Wren. Did they go through? Fall in??

“How could it be broken if you didn’t help!” one of the figures— the groundskeeper for the local cemetery, Eva— is yelling. “Your spells held the others together!”

“I don’t know!!!” The second figure snaps, voice shrill. Johnathan recognizes him as RC Gray, a prolific and reclusive spell maker in his thirties who lives near the orphanage. “I can’t explain it any better than you!”

“Well, fuck that,” the groundskeeper snaps, her eyes flashing angrily. “There’s someone in there! Help me get them out!”

How, Eva?? The net over the water is still up! Or would you rather we broke that, too??”

So Wren is in there. Johnathan somehow doubts they ran here just to die, so they must have a way out. He floats up into the air so he can see down into the hole better, scanning the illuminated water for signs of life. He can see Wren’s mana, very, very far away, a glowing patch of amber distorted by the surface of the water. They’re diving down, deep into the dark, mana growing fainter by the second.

Wren is underwater, which means they disrupted the fine links of spells across the chain link fence, then had somehow slid past the net of spells over the surface of the sinkhole. It should be impossible, and Johnathan isn’t sure anyone else can do that without making the entire net vanish or all the fence spells disappear. Yet the net remains, glistening in the night’s shade, and the spells that clamber all over the fence arch naturally around where the metal was cut. RC and Eva are understandably upset; the magic here had taken months, almost a year to establish, and many of the people who were involved aren’t around to repair it. Johnathan understands that, but he’s more worried about Wren. Something in him starts sounding the alarm once he notices they’re so far under that he can barely see them anymore.

“How did they get past the net?” Eva asks, looking down at the net carefully. “There must be a way to follow them in.”

Johnathan doesn’t know what to do. He’s never worried about a stranger this much before. Should he worry about Wren, or do they have things under control? Is their life in danger?? Olly would know what to do.  Even Anna would have a better idea of what to do.

“They might come back up themself,” RC says. “We only got the alert that they went through the gate two minutes ago.”

“Two minutes is an eternity to spend underwater!” Eva points out. “What if they’re drowning?”

Johnathan doesn’t think they’re drowning. Wren’s mana is too calm. He’s not able to teleport to them because of the protective spells, and he can’t see them very well anymore, so he can’t see too many details, but he knows how their mana blows up when they’re panicked.

Wren starts coming back up, ascending rapidly to the surface. Johnathan moves closer to the water, waiting for them to break the surface, and so do RC and Eva. For a split second, the entire world seems to zoom in on Wren, as the amber haze of their mana diffuses out of the water and into the air. Their head pops up into the air and they suck in a deep breath, then push their wet hair out of their reddened face with clumsy, cold fingers. Something is clenched in the palm of their right hand, too small and dark to make out.

No one says anything as Wren strikes out for the edge of the sinkhole, pale hands reaching towards the earthen walls. They swim with a slow, methodical confidence, every motion deliberate and balanced. They grip the edge right where they’d cut the fence and push themself up out of the water. The lights of the safety net sparkle and dance around them, reflected in the wet, shiny planes of their skin, in their eyes, in the water beneath them. As they roll out onto solid land, the mana net seems to dissolve where it touches them, then reconstitute itself, returning to its perfect grid of squares and colors.

Wren gets to their feet and looks around. They look at Johnathan first, even though he’s hiding, then at RC and Eva. They don’t say anything, but stick whatever was on their hand into their pocket.

“How did you do that?” RC demands, voice jarring and loud all of a sudden, petulant as if Wren has not just climbed up from the cold, glassy depths of Tatara submerged, as if they hadn’t just touched the fragments of the world ten years ago now rotting to pieces, as if the magic in the air hadn’t just fluttered around them like the hands of a long departed friend. To Johnathan, Wren had for a moment been an angel, climbing back up to heaven via the measured thrashing of their limbs, not a trespassing teen out to cause trouble.

Wren shrugs. Johnathan expected them to. They also bow politely to both Eva and RC and start waking away, wet shoes squelching with every step.

“You could’ve taken your shoes off,” Johnathan says, joining them as they walk back down the path through the trees. “And your jacket.”

Wren makes a noncommittal noise and takes off their jacket, wringing it out with their hands as they go.

“Where did you go?” he asks curiously. “How long were you under?”

Wren hangs their coat over one arm and studies the darkened path as it joins up with the road. They speak after a long pause, voice quiet.

“Home,” they say.

Wren’s old house has fallen into the sinkhole. Johnathan knows this because the Celwyns had a house that’s half a giant greenhouse built as a replacement. It’s one of the defining buildings in town. He doesn’t know how they managed to get 150 feet down to the bottom of the sinkhole and then back up in under two minutes, but he believes them.

“T- Tell me,” Wren says suddenly, as they head down the road towards the orphanage. “About yourself?”

Wren talks in slow, halting rhythms but their voice is a smooth purr. Their question is so gently put that it’s nothing more than a suggestion. 

Johnathan clears his throat unconsciously as he considers how to respond. “I came here seven years ago,” he says finally. “With Anna. Before that, we lived in Southern Kestarin, in the Sunken Cities. Anna’s mom was a professional Carheliod player, my dad was a nurse, and they met at a bar. They got married when Anna and I were six. I don’t know anything about my biological mom. And a little later… our city sank. Like Tatara did. Anna and I tried to crawl out of it with our bare hands. Eventually I became an altefel and learned how to teleport. Then we ran up north.”

Wren listens carefully. Johnathan talks with a dry, factual tone and avoids looking at them as he speaks. He somehow manages to seem simultaneously unfazed by his story and gutted just from telling it. He has the kind of face that makes it look like he’s always lying, at least to Wren. It’s not that he looks suspicious, it’s just that he never quite looks like he believes what he’s saying. All the same, there’s a tender, uncomfortable edge to his voice, barely noticeable under the flatness of his speech. It’s just enough to make him seem desperately sad, but his expression is neutral and his body language calm. Wren doesn’t want to make him uncomfortable so they stop staring him in the face and look at a spot vaguely over his left ear.

“What… d- do you… like?” Wren asks, obviously cringing and the awkward way they talk. Johnathan seems unbothered by it and answers normally.

“I like reading. I don’t have a lot of time to, though. Last book I read was Emerson’s Theories on Mana Manifestation. Olly highly recommended it. I don’t know why… I’m not that knowledgeable about mana theory and the book is really advanced…. But it’s interesting.” He hazards a glance at Wren, who is staring at the ground awkwardly as they walk. Or maybe it’s because they can’t see well in the dark. “What do you like to do?”

Wren shrugs. It’s hard to tell whether or not they’re annoyed when he asks them questions, fully knowing that they don’t like speaking. But it’s not that they can’t, just that they don’t want to.

“I can teleport us back to the orphanage,” he offers. “Or we can walk.”

Chapter 11: Anna talking to the new guy

Anna wonders if Wren will end up joining their group. Do they fit in? Maybe. They’re a little weird; there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to speak for one reason or another, and Wren seems like a nice guy. But they just seem weird. They stare at her for much longer than she’s comfortable for, and she knows they have a history of getting into fights and lashing out at people. Olly and Johnathan are weird too, though.

Olly is smart, almost unsettlingly smart; his ambitions and his intelligence often sweep him away and keep him occupied for days. He lives a life of cool, calculating glances, heady, exhilarated laughter, and an almost obsessive drive to succeed in everything he does. Even now, lying in bed, he’s drawing mana circles on the ceiling and muttering to himself; he couldn’t relax if he tried. But he’s still a seventeen year old who has problems making friends, he still sinks into anxiety and self-doubt without warning and without the ability to pull himself out. He’s arrogant and childish, in the way that many unusual people are. Without Asile, Anna, and Johnathan, he’d probably end up absorbed in his spellcasting work, ignoring his responsibilities and ignoring the outside world.

And Johnathan can read a person in a few seconds; he takes in the angles and segments of your posture, the slight motion of your eyes and mouth, and monitors the evenness of your voice, and can pin down your intentions almost immediately. It’s the kind of social intelligence that’s born from years of hypervigilance against strangers, born from the miasma of suspicion and fear of adults who were driven to madness by their hunger. It’s the habit of a child who learned to survive in a world that wanted him dead. He’s never shaken it. He’s suspicious of other people to a fault and desperate to make himself powerful, to make himself a man with his own two hands. If he makes friends with someone, it’s usually strategic, and only because he’s determined that being friends will benefit him in some way. It’s like he’s trying to escape who he was back then, when they were kids. He’s trying to make sure he’s never afraid again. Without Olly and Anna, he’d be a hundred times more of an asshole than he is now.

Wren returns, soaking wet, with Johnathan. She knew she couldn’t trust Olly to keep them out of trouble. And Johnathan isn’t about to help Wren dry off or recover from whatever happened; he’s just going to pretend like everything’s okay like he always does.

“What happened?” Anna whispers, still not trying to wake up Asile.

“They went into the sinkhole,” Johnathan answers, and Anna stares at Wren in surprise. They look back at her, dark eyes glimmering with a spark of a challenge. They don’t want her to ask them about it, she can tell. “I knew Olly shouldn’t have left them there.”

Olly, still in his bunk with the curtains drawn, doesn’t reply, but opens the curtains a crack to peek at Wren with one eye. Anna knows he’s interested in staying friends with Wren; he’d been irritated by them earlier, and Olly doesn’t get irritated by people he doesn’t care about.

“You can go take a shower,” Anna suggests, and Wren nods in thanks as she grabs them a towel from the drawers under her bed. They all wait a minute for Wren to leave, then Olly leans out from the curtains and Anna leans towards Johnathan, both of them waiting for him to explain.

“I don’t know anything,” he says, protesting. “I got there and Eva and RC were there losing their minds. Wren cut the fence and got past the mana safety net over the water without ruining any of the spells. I don’t know how. And I don’t know why. They just told me they went ‘home’.”

“They dove down to their old house???” Olly hisses. “Are they trying to get themself killed??”

“They seemed fine,” Johnathan tells them. “They had something in their hand when they came back up. I don’t know what, though.”

Anna flops back onto her bed. “Who’d do something like that? Unless whatever they brought back was really important, I don’t know what to think.”

“I didn’t think they’d do something so dumb, either,” Olly admits. “That’s why I let them stay there.”

For Olly to guess wrong on something means this was a very strange occurrence. There’s nothing he does better than predicting human behavior. Anna trusts his judgment more than anyone else’s, including her own. Is Olly just biased because he knew Wren as a child?

“You talk to them,” Johnathan tells her. “They seem to trust you the most.”

Do they? She thinks he’s just saying that because he doesn’t want to do it and he already knows Olly won’t. 

Anna finds Wren maybe twenty minutes later out in the backyard. Headmaster Adjest had already repaired the shed Wren broke earlier, using her power to make it reassemble itself. It wasn’t the most sturdy structure in the world, so most of the wooden boards had just collapsed rather than breaking. Or maybe Wren had managed to hold back their power, preventing it from obliterating the entire shed and just knocking it over instead. It’s hard to tell.

Wren is sitting on a bench nearby, illuminated by their mana. At night, the backyard is lit up with Olly’s stars, casting the entire area in a gold glow. The dark iron bars of the fence that surrounds the area flicker dully as lights dance by, most of them spinning around idly on the breeze, or haunting dark corners behind the shed and under the porch. Anna walks down the steps into the yard, the familiar creak of the wood beneath her feet alerting Wren to her arrival.

 Their amber mana flows freely around their hands, clinging to their skin. They seem to be trying to shape it into something, fingers tracing a shallow arc through the air. Their features glow warmly in the light of their mana and when they look at Anna, their smile illuminates their entire face. She’s surprised that they’re happy to see her, for some reason. Their hair is wet, dripping onto a towel around their shoulders and leaving wet trails down their neck that shine slightly in the light. As Anna sits down by them, they tuck their hair out of the way of their face, so they can see her better.

“What are you up to?” she asks. “It’s getting late.”

Wren lifts their hands slightly as if to show her their mana. It has a nebulous warmth; it’s hard to tell where the sensation starts and ends, all you know is that you feel warm. Something about it also feels familiar, calming, like Anna had felt something like this before.

Wren doesn’t say anything to her, just looks, waiting for her to react. They have a quiet, probing gaze that lingers on the subject of their attention a little longer than usual. Anna doesn’t like when people stare at her.

“I remember when I awakened,” she says, surprising herself. “Having mana all of a sudden felt weird and scary.” She holds out her hand, near Wren’s, and her own mana begins to coalesce around her fingertips. It’s clear, so it’s difficult to see, but it causes the air to shimmer and distort slightly. “If you’re trying to shape your mana into something, it helps to imagine what it feels like to move it around.”

Anna closes her eyes. It’s quiet, she notices; the only sounds out here are the wind through the grass, crickets, and frogs. Occasionally, she hears the muted tones of voices from inside the orphanage. At this point in the night, most of the younger children are already asleep, and the staff members are chatting and working on cleaning up for the day.

Anna imagines that she’s holding a cup, and moves her hand around slightly, imagining what the weight and feel of it would be like if she was holding it right now– the distribution of weight through the object, and the resistance she would feel if she twisted it back and forth. Wren makes a noise of surprise, and when she opens her eyes, her mana is shaped like a cup in her hands. It doesn’t stay in that shape for long, and shaping it like that doesn’t do anything, since she’s a Talon-type altefel, but she’s satisfied that she managed to do it.

“Johnathan is a lot better at it. Obviously. His whole ability is making his mana into shapes. If you want better advice, you can ask him or Olly.” She gauges Wren’s expression to see if she’s okay to ask about the sinkhole. They seem pretty calm, but she still doubts she’s going to get much of a response out of them. “What were you doing in the sinkhole, by the way?”

Wren lowers their hands and their mana disperses, collecting back in the hollow of their chest, coiling comfortably into a pool of light. They reach into their pocket and produce a small, dark key threaded onto a black, silky ribbon, still kind of soggy but otherwise looking pretty good for something that spent ten years underwater. It’s not even rusty. 

“A key?” Anna crosses her arms. “What kind of key is worth diving into ten year old underwater ruins for?”

Wren shrugs.

“You don’t know??”

Instead of saying anything, Wren puts the key back in their pocket. They really don’t seem to know what it’s for.

“What are the odds that it unlocks something that is also in the sinkhole? You can’t just go back in there. I’m surprised you didn’t drown.”

She’s aware that she probably sounds like she’s scolding them, and Wren does seem a little irritated at her reaction. But something about how easygoing Wren seems to be, combined with the fact that they’re constantly doing dangerous things and fighting with other people, pisses her off. Do they have a sense of self preservation? What’s wrong with them?

“Whatever. School starts at seven thirty. If you want nine hours, you should go to bed.” 

She gets up and walks away. To Wren, it seems like Anna had disappeared, but not in an unnatural way. Her ability is to slip the minds of everyone nearby and disappear, and for her disappearance itself to be taken as so natural that it isn’t even worth thinking about. 

She can control how far her power extends, and within that range, her power works completely. No matter what, her entire existence is erased from your mind. When she uses her power, her own brother doesn’t even think about her, can’t even perceive her when she’s right in front of him. She slips through the cracks between everyone’s thoughts and moves through the world unnoticed, even in photos and videos and memories. She could punch someone in the face while invisible and their mind would register it as normal, often making up its own version of what had happened.

To Wren, they just forget she had ever been there, on the bench with her, or that they had ever met. Once she stops using her power, they’ll remember everything, and they’ll remember their conversation with her out there on the bench, but her disappearance afterwards will seem normal and not worth even thinking about.

She wanders up back to her room, reappearing when she enters the house. Anna is aware that her power is extremely rare and extremely powerful. She doesn’t have a good use for it, but at least she knows it’s strong. Apparently there’s never been anyone ever recorded with this ability, but that could just be because people with the ability actively use it to prevent others from knowing they have it. That they even exist at all. There’s no such thing as a new power that appeared without warning. People way back in the past must have had something similar to her power. Yet none of them were ever recorded. Why? Anna is sometimes afraid that this means that once she dies, she’ll vanish from everyone’s minds. 

“Weird guy at the Carheliod tournament,” Olly is telling Johnathan, as Anna steps into their room. “An anthropologist here for work. His name is Isai. Tall, quiet Perseidic guy. Kind of the handsome academic type.”

“You think everyone new to town is weird,” Johnathan says. “And that’s because anyone who comes here of their own free will is weird.”

“I mean it,” Olly protests. “This time I mean it.”

“Last time you said that and it turns out the guy was just trying to study sinkholes.”

“That’s weird!!”

“It’s not weird, our country has more sinkholes than any other country in the world!”

“There’s a million other sinkholes and you travel to the middle of bumfuck nowhere to see one??”

“Quiet,” Anna says, as Olly raises his voice. “You’ll wake everyone else up.” She sits down on the edge of her mattress and kicks some of Johnathan’s stuff to his side of the room. “There have been more strangers in town than usual. I saw three at work today.”

“Three??” Olly asks, intrigued.

“None of them were Perseidic, as far as I could tell.” Anna watches Johnathan flop into bed and roll around until he’s totally bundled up in his blanket. He doesn’t really care for town gossip. “All Kestarin. They didn’t say what they were up here for, but by the way they were talking, it made it seem like they’re planning to be here for a while.”

“Where are they staying? Do you know?”

“Nah. But it’s probably the boarding house. They don’t seem the type to stay at the motel.” Anna leans way over towards the wall behind her and manages to hit the lights with the tips of her fingers. “They dressed like they were all very different people.”

“What do you mean?” Olly, unlike Anna, seems to be getting ready to leave, instead of getting ready to go to bed. Anna knows that once she describes the three, he’ll go out and hunt them down to spy on them. He likes knowing everything that goes on in town.

“One guy was dressed like... a cowboy? He had a hat with a wide, flat brim. Not quite a cowboy hat. But he was wearing a pink bandana around his collar and pretty old riding boots. His mana was pink, too, kinda sparkly. Pretty tall, maybe two inches taller than me.” Anna gets under the covers as Olly slips out of bed and floats quietly to the ground. “Tallest one was some lady who didn’t speak. She was super pale. I kept thinking she was about to pass out. She was dressed pretty normal. White button-up, dark jeans, long dark hair tied half up. Her mana was light grey, and all smoky. It avoided touching other people’s mana without her even doing anything.”

“How old would you say?” Olly asks, as he pulls on his shoes.

“Cowboy’s maybe in his forties. Woman’s in her late thirties. Third guy early thirties. They’re short, probably barely taller than you. Wearing a gomuki. Top was navy, bottom was white. Hardware all silver. They had silver hair, as well. Mana was an electric yellow. Zigged and zagged everywhere.” Anna yawns and closes her eyes as she hears the windows open. “Don’t cause trouble,” she says, like she always does.

“Can’t make any promises,” Olly says, like he always does, and then he’s gone, window sliding shut behind him.

Chapter 12: Wren getting in trouble

Anna had told Wren to go to bed, but they had no intention of doing so. After she disappeared, they’d gotten up and started wandering around outside, hands in their pockets, fingers resting against the key there. It’s cold and doesn’t warm to their touch, and it feels heavy and strange resting against their left hip. What could it go to? Should they show it to Cain? Wren’s mother had shown Wren specifically where the key was hidden and how to get it. They don’t think she ever showed Cain. Why?

Wren’s parents played favorites hard. Wren was their mother’s favorite, Cain their father’s. Wren barely remembers ever speaking to their father and doesn’t even ever recall a time when they’d seen Cain and their mother speaking face to face for more than a second or two. Cain is eight years older than Wren; they can’t even remember what he was like before he was a teenager anymore. They remember that they used to remember, but now only have a vague impression of the earth trembling, of leaves flourishing and rustling around his hands, and of the sun. As a teenager, he didn’t get along with their mother. Whatever this key unlocks, it wasn’t something Wren’s mother wanted a teenaged Cain to get his hands on.

“Hey,” Wren hears someone call, and they pause in their stroll and look to their right. They now have a wide awareness of everyone’s mana all over town; they had known there was a guy in the alley to their right before they could even see them. Their mana is bright yellow, crackling with life around them, and they seem to melt out of the shadows as Wren stops.

Wren nods cautiously. They don’t know who this is, and they’re dressed funny, in a gomuki. Gomuki are traditional uniforms worn by scholars back in the day, when Kestarin was still split into numerous kingdoms. The shirt is made from one long piece of fabric that is wrapped and tied securely around the waist, and the pants are loose, but cuffed by thick elastic around the waist and ankles. Gomuki also includes metal pieces, chains and loops and hooks meant for holding writing or lab equipment, typically around the hips and wrists or across the chest. The one this person wears is dark blue and white, so Wren guesses that this particular uniform is from the Illudra Kingdom. Their tools include a couple dark ballpoint pens, tightly rolled sheaves of paper, and what looks like thin metal needles, individually encased in glass tubes. They clink together as the guy comes closer, but Wren notices that their mana seems to be distorting the sound somehow.

Neither of them say anything for a second. Wren notes that the stranger seems tired and disoriented, but doesn’t know if they should offer help. Instead, they nod again, bowing their head slightly lower, trying to get them to say something.

“Got a light?” the stranger asks finally. They’re out of breath, and seem to be relying on the wall they’re leaning against to stay standing. They produce a pack of cigarettes from a pocket and flips open the lid with a thumb. They direct a short, sharp breath at their bangs, blowing a couple silver strands of hair out of their face.

Wren pats their pockets, then lifts their hands and shrugs, indicating that they don’t have a lighter on them. The stranger squints at them, catching onto the fact that they aren’t speaking.

“You good?” they ask. Wren feels like they should be the one asking that.

Wren nods.

“Well. Where ya headed?” They guy puts their cigarettes away and starts following Wren, albeit unsteadily. Wren actually walks way slower than usual so the guy can keep up. “Got a name?”

Wren automatically whips out their ID, by habit, and the guy inspects it closely.

“Wren Celwyn, huh? You know, this thing says you’re not an altefel, but you clearly have mana.”

Wren shrugs, too lazy to explain.

“My name’s Hero. Yuu Hero. You don’t got a lot to say, do ya.”

Wren doesn’t bother answering that. They’re walking towards the convenience store on the corner, eyes fixed on its flickering fluorescent lights, deciding to pop in and get Hero a regenerative tonic. Hero follows them inside, shoes clunking loudly against the steps up to the store. Wren’s gaze flickers through the shelves, checking to see who’s here. They don’t like what they see.

Chapter 13: Hero being suspicious

“Hey, hey! Look who it is!”

Hero’s eyes narrow as a couple of kids come out of the shelves, surrounding Wren as they walk as calmly as they can towards a shelf in the back. The kid is tall and well built, but it looks like they aren’t trying to get into a fight. They keep their head down and stay quiet. The other kids, four of them in total, don’t even seem to notice Hero, because they’re so absorbed with Wren.

“You got mana now, huh?” one of them says, and when Wren doesn’t respond, he shoves them to the side. They stagger, right themself, then reach for a regenerative tonic, but the guy smacks their hand away. “Answer me.”

Wren stops, then turns slightly, looking at Hero out of the corner of their eye. Hero sees their hands ball into fists, then relax. So they aren’t going to fight after all.

Is what Hero thinks, but a second later, Wren has shoved the guy back, kicked him in the balls, grabbed a tonic off the shelf, ducked around the other kids, and run for the counter. Hero looks at the cashier. They don’t seem to care, even as the kids all pile onto Wren and Wren goes crashing to the floor.

Hero also just stands there and watches. Wren is a big guy. They struggle to their feet, heaving the other off of them. The tonic is clenched in one hand, and they wind up and throw a punch so hard that the bottle shatters. It connects with a sharp crack, and the guy they’d hit collapses immediately. Wren doesn’t try to do more, just takes the opportunity to jump back. The other three kids are already rushing towards them, yelling.

Wren’s mana, Hero can see, had been resting dormant in their chest all this time, but it surges up into the air and begins coursing through their body, then starts sparking. Its amber hue cools to an icy yellow, just like Hero’s mana, and it begins to crackle angrily around them, the light dancing in their eyes.

It’s a tiny store, only five shelves and a counter, and racks that line the walls. There’s not much space to maneuver, but Hero can tell that Wren is avoiding knocking things over, even if the other kids are. Do they know Hero’s power can avoid destroying any more of the store? Is that why they chose to copy it?

Two of the kids activate their mana as well, but Wren has already begun to use their ability– Hero’s ability, really– seemingly without regard for their own safety. Hero quickly uses the same ability, using it to cover their own ears and Wren’s ears before an ear-splitting shriek rings out through the store. It rattles the entire building, and the three kids still standing, plus the cashier, stagger backwards, then drop unconscious to the floor. The sound continues, rising in pitch until all the glass in the store is rattling. Hero watches one of the kids fall completely limp, then looks at Wren, eyebrows raised.

“Are ya gonna stop?” they ask Wren curiously. Their voice sounds perfectly clear, even with the loud noise. “You could kill them.”

Wren looks scared. Their hands are trembling and their eyes are wide, and it looks like their mana is getting out of control. Hero suddenly realizes that they’re trying to pull back their mana but can’t. 

“Kid. Were you awakened this morning or something?” Hero asks incredulously. 

Wren nods.

“You were???” Hero lifts a hand and the entire world falls deathly silent. Wren relaxes, but their mana is still out of control. Hero is currently using their power to counteract Wren using theirs. “You need to calm down. Look at me.”

Wren turns to face them completely and Hero puts a hand on their shoulder. They’re tall, so Hero has to reach up to do it. They look Wren dead in the eyes and say something in another language, a single word muttered under their breath. Wren suddenly feels calm, the sensation washing over them in a cool wave and settling their mana instantly. They look at Hero, bewildered, as Hero releases their power and the sounds of the outside world return.

“How’d I do that, is that what you wanna ask?” Hero asks, amused. Wren nods, then looks down at their hand. The shattered bottle is still there, pieces of glass protruding from their skin and blood pouring to the ground. They turn and step over the other kids and the stuff they knocked over, then gets a second bottle, and a pack of gauze. Hero follows them, talking the entire time. “It’s a spell. I learned it in Raldea. You could use it on yourself, too. I’ll teach you.”

Wren looks at Hero shyly, then nods, as they get to the counter. They fish their wallet out with their good hand, set some bills on the counter, then the two of them get out of there. 

Hero can tell Wren is a good kid; they’re paying for their things even though the cashier is unconscious. The fact that they felt threatened enough by the kids at the store to use a power they knew they’d have no control over tells Hero all they need to know.

As they plunge back into the dark, Hero studies Wren. Kids like Wren don’t turn out well, even if they are good at heart. Kids like Wren need help from people they feel like they can trust, especially kids as powerful as Wren. For a myriad of reasons, that is of interest to Hero.

Wren can feel Hero’s gaze on their back as they lead the way to a place to sit. Hero is odd, they can tell. What adult would just watch quietly as a bunch of teenagers get into fights? What adult follows a high schooler around in the first place? What do they want?

There’s a raised flower bed nearby, and Wren perches on its ledge and hands Hero the tonic before they start picking glass out of their palm. 

“For me? Thanks.” Hero pulls the cork off with their teeth and downs the whole bottle. Wren, they notice, doesn’t make a sound as they pull glass out of their hand, even though it must hurt. They have a look of intense concentration on their face and they don’t seem afraid or upset over their injury at all.

“You get beat up a lot?” Hero asks, and Wren shrugs, then nods. “You gotta unique power. Never heard of someone who could copy other powers. You should put it to good use.”

Wren rips open the package of gauze with their teeth and begins wrapping up their hand, movements making it clear that they’ve done this before. 

“I can help,” Hero tells them, and Wren seems suspicious. “I’m in town for a while.”

They continue to look suspicious.

“I’m here on business,” Hero explains. “My boss made us come all the way out here to test our equipment. We do telecommunications. We’re trying to make something that doesn’t require any cell towers or nothing. This is the perfect place. And hey. Ya remind me of myself when I was your age. I didn’t know anyone, kept to myself, gotta lot of trouble from others. I’m the perfect guy t’ help ya, too. I learned how t’ control my power in a week. That’s pretty good.”

Wren looks away, gazing up at the sky, holding their injured hand close to their chest. Hero can’t tell what they’re thinking. They exhale slowly, eyes closing for a second, then they nod.

Chapter 14: Olly is on the case

Olly is flying around towards the boarding house near town square when an ear-piercing screech rattles the air. It continues for almost half a minute, and is so harsh and jarring that his head immediately starts to hurt. It’s hard to tell where the sound is coming from, and Olly has to speed away from it before it feels like his head is about to split open.

Once it dies down, he circles around the general area, trying to look for the cause. Lights had come on all up and down a certain area, from people getting up to see what’s going on. Within that area, though, at the very center, one street is still totally dark. Olly flies in and peeks into an open window of an apartment building. People are still asleep here. The entire street is dead quiet. No one’s out walking around, as far as Olly can tell, but he flies past the convenience store and sees people collapsed in a heap on the ground, all wearing uniforms for the private high school. 

The mana that had spiked when the noise started was a yellow, crackly sort of mana, which matches Anna’s description of one of the strangers in town. Olly knew he was right about the strangers being weird. A quick scan of the area doesn’t show anyone with yellow crackly mana nearby. He hadn’t managed to catch sight of anyone fleeing the scene, so they could be anywhere by now. 

“Are you alive?” Olly muses, poking at one of the high schoolers with the toe of his shoe. They’re breathing. Their ears are also bleeding, a slow sluggish trail of blood leaking to the ground and getting in their hair. The noise must’ve knocked them all out. Knowing these guys in particular, Olly figures they stirred up a fight with the wrong guy. A Healer could probably fix them up no problem, even if their eardrums are ruptured. It might cost quite a bit of money and time, though. Still, Olly leaves them there without calling for help and pokes around outside but finds no clues.

Olly might have an unfair mistrust of strangers, but he feels so strongly that these newcomers are up to no good. With Isai, during the Carheliod tournament, Olly had merely gotten the impression that he wanted to snoop around, which is annoying, but not anything exceptionally nefarious. This new stranger in a gomuki, on the other hand, seems willing to use violence, even against a bunch of teenagers. For what? Just for self defense?

After failing to find the perpetrator, Olly continues on to the boarding house. There’s a lot of apartments and such in Tatara, but little to no temporary housing, just the boarding house which can take six guests at most, and the motel, which is basically abandoned and at the outskirts of town, in the woods. Olly gets to the dark brick boarding house and walks inside without a second thought. He’d probably get chased out if he wasn’t friends with the owner’s daughter, Sua. The first floor has a counter to the left, a staircase straight ahead, and a living room to the right, with a door to the kitchen. Sua is in the living room by the window, which is curtained by thick sunny yellow curtains.

“Hi, Olly,” Sua says, from her perch in an armchair in the corner, nestled in a ton of pillows gathered from the couch and the other armchair in the room. She’d been paging through a textbook with a pencil in hand, but she sets the book down when Olly comes in. 

Sua Castellan has big, round glasses and wears her brown hair in two braids, wisps of it falling out around her face, giving her the general appearance of some sort of brown feathered owl. She’s Anna’s best friend, and is on good terms with Olly and Johnathan. Olly knows she’s pretty quiet and doesn’t like being the center of attention, but he comes to pester her pretty often, which she puts up with, with the air of a kindergarten teacher humoring a child. 

“Are you here to ask me to give you personal information about our three new guests, which I’m not allowed to do?” she asks wryly. “I can’t tell you what rooms they’re staying in.”

Three? Anna said she saw three at the casino, and then there was Isai at the library. Maybe they’re not together. So where is Isai staying? Did he get an apartment somewhere? Is he at the motel?

“Just tell me one thing,” Olly says, and Sua nods patiently and waits for him to continue. “Do you feel safe with them in the boarding house?”

Sua frowns, taken aback, the left corner of her mouth twisting downwards. “I mean, my dad’s here, so nothing is going to happen. But, um... one of them kind of gives me a bad feeling.”

“Which one?”

Before she answers, Sua glances upstairs and lowers her voice. “None of them are in right now, but they’re all a little weird. I get the worst feeling from the one with yellow mana. Hero. Tala told me they tried to kick her.”

Sua has the ability to talk to animals. This includes her family cat, Tala. It also includes bugs. Olly doesn’t know anyone better at finding people than Sua, except maybe Olly himself. She just asks her bug network and they can find someone in a matter of seconds.

“Can you tell me where Hero is now?” Olly asks. “Or is that not allowed?”

“They’re not in town,” Sua says immediately. She must’ve been monitoring them. “They left town with a high schooler a few minutes ago. I don’t remember their name… their brother runs the greenhouse in town.”

“Wren? Wren Celwyn went with them?” Olly feels a ball of frustration tighten in his chest, and his mana begins to buzz with the rise of emotion, which Sua notices. “What about the other two strangers?”

“Pink mana is at the bar, grey mana is taking a walk nearby,” Sua answers. “You think something is wrong?”

“…No. I’m sure it’s fine,” Olly says unconvincingly. He obviously just doesn’t want Sua to get involved, and Sua is fine with that. She doesn’t push it any further as Olly turns for the door, too immersed in his thoughts to say goodbye.

According to Anna, the lady with grey mana wasn’t that talkative. The man with pink mana is at a bar, and it might be hard to talk if he’s drunk or doesn’t want other people to listen in. Which one should Olly interrogate first? Olly leaves the boarding house at a sprint and just happens to run into the woman as he heads for the bar. He almost doesn’t notice her at first until she steps into the moonlight and looms over him; her mana is dull and produces no light, and it stays close to her in a thin, foggy haze. It’s almost impossible to see in the dark. Olly has never seen anyone with mana like that before.

She’s walking at a languid pace, a small notebook in one hand and golf pencil held between three thin fingers. Olly catches a glimpse of a page before she closes the book; she had sketched out a bunch of plants with light, careful lines, shading them in with dense, even hatches. They’re competent drawings that demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the structure of each plant; for a moment, Olly wonders if she claims to be a botanist working with the “ecologist” Isai.

She tucks the pencil and book away neatly into her back pocket and turns her attention to Olly. The woman herself is as transient and grey as her sketches. She has long, thin hair that dances through the air with the slightest breeze, she’s shockingly pale, save for the severe dark circles around her eyes, and she wears a white shirt over a pair of dark jeans and sneakers. She could be a black and white photo for all intents and purposes, and she looks like a gust of wind could knock her over. Yet she has a certain air of calm about her that makes her seem cool and in control, and intimidating, at least to Olly, who is a seventeen year old who has issues with authority and likes to think he’s better than most adults. Her eyes are a very dark grey and alive with expression, currently narrowed suspiciously and fixed on Olly’s face. He actually doesn’t sense much of a threat in her, though, just suspicion.

“Hi,” Olly says awkwardly, then plows on. “I’ve never seen you before. Did you just get into town?”

The woman doesn’t respond. That’s not good. The only way to totally fool Olly’s truth-detector spell is to not respond or make any sort of statement at all. The woman keeps staring down at Olly, a pensive frown just faintly visible across her features.

After an awkward silence, she points to her mouth finally and shakes her head. She can’t speak. That’s not a lie. Unlike Wren, who can speak but chooses not to, this woman can’t speak at all. Olly’s truth-detection spell verifies it in an instant.

“You can’t speak.” he says, and the woman nods, then starts walking again, breezing past Olly coolly and vanishing back into the dark. 

Olly flies off, the frustrated knot in his chest growing more tense and more strained than before. What is Wren doing?? Are they okay?? Why can’t they keep out of dangerous situations? Why can’t they help themself? Why can’t he find them faster?

He arrives at one of two bars in town. The man with pink mana is sitting in the left corner of the room, at a table by himself with a large glass of something red by his elbow. He has large, broad shoulders and does indeed dress like a cowboy. As someone who likes to dress up, Olly can appreciate the guy’s look. He likes that he matched the color of his mana to the color of his bandana. Makes everything seem very coordinated. 

“Get outta here, Oleander,” the bartender calls, already used to seeing Olly try and barge in at night. “Try again in March.”

Olly is still seventeen, but he’ll be eighteen in March. Until then, he’s not really allowed to be in the bar after dark, but he comes in anyway. The bartender won’t actually stop him from being here unless he tries to start drinking.

The cowboy observes Olly with an even, unintimidated stare as the seventeen year old in a giant witch’s hat comes beelining for him. He even uses one foot to push out the chair across from him, and Olly sits down in it.

“What can I do for you?” the man asks, voice low and rumbly, an amused smile rolling across his face. “Oleander, was it?”

“Just Olly,” Olly says impatiently, leaning forward with his elbows on the table.

“I like your hat,” the man says.

“I like yours, too. Listen, I-”

The man interrupts him before he can go on. “Where’d you get it from?”

Olly stares at the man, then exhales and leans back against his chair, resigned. Clearly, he’s not going to cooperate if Olly starts demanding answers right away. “I made it. What’s your name?”

“It’s Warden. Tell me a little about yourself, why don’t you? You’ve got golden mana. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Olly doesn’t want to. He closes his eyes for a second, trying to calm himself down, then looks over his shoulder at the rest of the bar. It’s pretty full, and Olly recognizes all of the regulars here. A band is playing some sort of ambient music in a corner, and people are watching a gameshow up at the bar and trying to guess the answers to all the questions themselves. Some people play cards near the center of the room, and the bartender looks over occasionally at Olly, making sure he doesn’t stir up trouble or try to play cards and start a fight like he has so many times before. They make eye contact, and Olly grimaces and looks back at Warden before he can get scolded.

“Um, there’s not much to tell,” Olly says, brows furrowed as he tries to think of a way to get the conversation to move faster. “I’m a spellcaster.”

“A good one?” Warden asks.

“Not bad, at least.” Olly observes the man as he talks. He has an annoyingly condescending smile on his face but Olly doesn’t care; he just wants answers as fast as possible. “I haven’t seen you around. When did you get here?”

“This morning. For work. Boss tells us to come up here and set up our communication system to test it long distance. We’re due to start tomorrow.” Warden leans back in his chair, one hand resting on the brim of his hat. He has very blue eyes that seem to shine even through the shadows cast by his hat, and he’s staring at Olly intently, like he’s waiting for Olly’s next move. Olly can immediately tell that he’s only telling a partial truth. The reality is that they’d been sent up here to set up a communication system and to study the area, namely the area around the sinkhole.

“We just don’t get a lot of visitors,” Olly says. “I’m sure you got a lot of people curious about you.”

“It’s a special little town,” Warden says, which strikes Olly as an odd thing to say. “Never seen such an isolated place being so large. Usually you only get little villages this far out. Maybe it’s because there’s a high percentage of altefel here?”

“That’s what they say,” Olly replies. Why are all the weird strangers that come here all interested in studying the town? Well. That’s not important right now. He just needs to find Wren. “You came here with other people, right? A woman, and someone named Hero.”

“I sure did.” Warden crosses his arms. A sign of defensiveness? Just an ordinary gesture? “Hero’s causing trouble already, I’m sure. From the look on your face, you wanted to ask me about them, right?”

Olly nods.

“Well, I don’t know anything about the guy or where they could be now,” Warden tells him. “I got their number and that’s all.”

“Can I have it?” Olly asks, even though he doubts he’ll get it. It’s worth a shot. 

“Tell you what,” Warden says, “If you can beat me in a game of Cellar Lights, I’ll give it to you.”

“Deal,” Olly says immediately.

Cellar Lights is a children’s game. People used to manifest their mana to use them as flashlights when going into dark areas, like cellars and basements. The point of the game is to create your light and have it last longer than the other person’s, while going somewhere dark or dangerous. The moment someone’s light goes out, the other person becomes ‘it’ and has to tag them before they escape the area. If no one’s lights go out, the one who wins is the first to make it out to the other side. Olly used to play with Johnathan all the time; they’d run through the woods at night or through the old pipes down near the base of the hill that town rests on.

“What’ll you give me, if you lose?” Warden asks, then starts draining his drink, getting ready to leave.

“I’ll give you someone’s phone number,” Olly says. “You can pick.”

“A phone number I don’t want doesn’t have the same value as a phone number that you want,” Warden points out, as he thunks down his empty glass and gets to his feet.

“I can... get you the phone number of anyone you want,” Olly amends, floating up and following him to the door.

“Will you now?” Warden asks, one eyebrow raised. He holds the door open for Olly, eyes scanning the flight spell he’s using to float with a quick look that makes it instantly obvious that this man is familiar with spells. Olly doesn’t know what Warden’s power is; he could be a spellcaster just like Olly, but Olly still feels like he’s more powerful, for some reason. He always feels that way.

“I can get anyone’s number,” Olly says confidently, floating outside. “Where are we playing?”

“You know the area better than I do,” Warden points out. “Why don’t you pick?”

Chapter 15: Wren in a library?

Wren appears in a library. They didn’t think that agreeing to be taught a few spells would mean being teleported away; Hero had brought them both here without warning and without asking them first if they wanted to go. They must be a Fate, a spellcaster just like Olly, capable of making all sorts of spells, not just the noise-making ability that Wren had used in the convenience store. It makes Wren nervous. 

“What do you think?” Hero asks Wren, watching them look around. 

The library is enormous; the two of them stand in the foyer, a round room with a domed ceiling made of blue and green pieces of glass. Moonlight shines down onto the tile beneath their feet and Wren realizes that the patterns in the glass match the pattern in the tile. When angled right, the light from the skylight must line up perfectly with the tile. There are five floors to the library; Wren can see the second and third floor through tall glass windows that line the room; the other floors are too high up and obscured by balconies. Everything is also dark; it seems like the library is closed.

“This is the library I went to as a child,” Hero tells them. “Salera City is my hometown. Special thing about it is that it has quiet rooms that dampen sound and mana. I’ll teach ya the calming spell in one of those. Just so ya don’t kill me on accident.”

Wren looks at Hero doubtfully. They can hear Cain scolding them in their head, telling them that even children know not to go off with strangers, and that there’s no way that they could possibly think it’s a good idea to go anywhere else with the guy.

“Eh, you’re not an idiot,” Hero says, and smiles slightly. “Ya don’t have to trust me. There’s something else I wanted to show ya.”

Hero says another word quietly under their breath— unlike Olly, who uses mana circles and sigils to create spells, Hero seems to rely on words and incantations. The entire room suddenly glows, as Hero’s intense, electric mana flows down through the floor and races up over the walls. Their mana moves through the gaps in the floor tiles, then up along the dark wood supports that line the room, and the air hums with a tight, dry static. It feels like the entire world is suddenly awash with sunlight.

A rumble moves through the floor and Wren almost loses their balance as the tile they’re standing on begins to sink down. They look at Hero, bewildered, and see that Hero isn’t coming down with them. The scolding voice of their brother in their head becomes a panicked alarm telling them that something is wrong, that they have to get out of here immediately.

“I can’t go down with ya,” Hero calls to them, as Wren grabs the edge of the hole they’re sinking into and starts pulling themself up. “I promise it’s nothing dangerous!”

Hero walks over and makes a motion to stomp on Wren’s fingers, but Wren grabs them by the ankle and the two of them go tumbling down into the dark.

Chapter 16: Anna making sure no one dies

Anna can’t sleep. She has an uneasy feeling that she can’t reason away. She’s actually with Olly on this one; something about the three strangers makes her uneasy. The woman seemed nice enough; she didn’t really go to the casino to gamble— she just had a drink, watched her companions for a little, then left. The little guy in the gomuki seemed a little on edge and eager to cause mischief, but Anna is used to customers like that. The cowboy, on the other hand, was not only cheating, but kept overstepping his bounds, flirting with the staff, and constantly flew into a rage without warning. Anna had to throw him out, not that he remembers. She hates people like that. Someone unpredictable, who also seems to lack any sort of respect for other people. Who knows what people like that are capable of doing. She has no doubt that Olly will give up trying to talk to the woman, get annoyed with the chatty little one, then talk to the cowboy. She can’t imagine that’ll end well.

She peeks out over her blankets at Johnathan. He’s dead asleep, mouth hanging open and one arm hanging off the bed. Asile is also still asleep. Usually Anna doesn’t sneak out at night; she lets Olly do whatever he wants, but he’s always too eager to tangle with adult problems. She had no idea where Olly could possibly be right now, and maybe chasing after Olly might not be the best idea. She just sends him a text.

“Where are you?” she types out, and gets an answer almost immediately.

“Playing cellar lights,” Olly sends back. 

The fact that he had told her at all, rather than just telling her to mind her own business, means that he is a little worried. Anna gets out of bed with a sigh and pulls on her coat and shoes, then digs a flashlight out of the wardrobe and heads outside. She uses her power as she walks down the creaky stairs and leaves through the back door, so no one takes any notice of the noise, then heads for the woods. The most popular place to play cellar lights is in the woods at night. There used to be a giant drainage pipe at the base of the hill that Tatara is on, but at this time of year, it’s full of water. The densest part of the woods is pitch black all year round, so Olly probably went there.

She jogs to the bike stand in the front yard and unlocks her bike, then starts biking down towards the woods, taking the most direct route she can. It’s around eleven at night, and Tatara isn’t totally dark, but most people are at home and in bed, and it’s quiet on this side of town. She flies downhill through the cool night air, relatively relaxed, for a good ten minutes before Johnathan suddenly appears beside her.

“Jesus Christ you scared me!” Anna says, coming to a screeching halt. She smacks him in the arm and he winces. “Why are you here?”

“I noticed you were gone,” he protests. “Where are you going?”

Johnathan could be super deep asleep, but the moment Anna is gone and not using her power, he will wake up and notice, and go look for her.

“Olly said he’s playing Cellar Lights,” Anna says, and starts biking again.

Johnathan yawns. He’s still in his pajamas; he must’ve teleported to her the moment he noticed she was gone. “Why would he tell you that?” he asks after a second.

“I don’t know. Don’t make a scene; I’m just going to watch in case something happens.” Anna glances over her shoulder to make sure Johnathan is keeping up. He’s floating along in his other form, one ghostly hand on her shoulder so she pulls him along with her. “Wren wasn’t in the room either, were they?”

“Nope.” Johnathan yawns again as Anna gets to the edge of the woods. “Dunno where that guy could be. Maybe they’re the one playing with Olly?”

They go on foot from here. Aside from the main road and hiking trails, it’s not easy to bike through the area. Olly is definitely off the trails deep in the woods, where the trees grow so close together that their branches have fused together into a thick canopy. Anna and every other kid who grew up in Tatara is relatively familiar with the section of woods close to town, and there are occasionally ribbons and signs tied to branches to give children their bearings. She doesn’t know who thought to do that; it doesn’t look like it was the work of some worried parent. The handwriting on the signs is juvenile and clearly doesn’t belong to just one child, and the knots are clumsy and tied close to the height a child would stand at. Maybe a bunch of kids years and years ago worked together to put the markers together.

“I hear them,” Johnathan says suddenly, and Anna slows down and listens. She can faintly hear Olly’s voice, and a lower, less familiar voice answering back. Johnathan begins to fade and hides away in the shadows, floating closer to snoop, and Anna turns invisible and walks closer.

Olly stands at the entrance to the tunnel of trees with the cowboy. He’s much shorter than the man, even floating a couple inches off the ground. He seems relatively calm, but he keeps his attention focused on the man, not looking away even when he gestures towards the woods.

“The tunnel ends in a clearing,” Olly tells the man. “First one in the clearing wins. No teleporting. Stay inside the tunnel to get there.”

As children, it’s hard to sustain your mana externally long enough to get to the end of the tunnel. As adults, it’s way easier, so this is a matter of who’s faster. Anna had seen the cowboy at the casino, and knows that he’s as competitive as Olly is. She doesn’t think Olly or the cowboy are going to play fair.

“Those are the only rules?” the cowboy asks.


“Can I kill you?” the cowboy asks. His voice thus far had been placid and low, but it’s suddenly loud and much more excited than before. Anna can’t see his face, just Olly’s. Olly doesn’t look scared, just weirded out. “Can I?”

“You can try,” Olly says.

Before she can stop him, Anna sees Johnathan dart out into the open. She should’ve known something like that would’ve baited him out.

“Johnathan,” Olly says, surprised. Since Anna is using her power, he doesn’t remember texting her earlier, so it seems like Johnathan had appeared unprompted. “Why are you here?”

“What’s going on?” Johnathan demands, ignoring Olly. “Who is this guy?”

“I’m Warden,” the cowboy says. “Who are you, kid?”

Anna edges around to get a better look on his face. His relatively expressionless face is flushed with excitement, his teeth bared in a grin, eyes dilated so much that his pupils look like his irises. At the mere mention of murder, he had transformed from quiet and stoic to hysterical with excitement in an instant.

Johnathan scowls. “Not important. No one is going to kill-“

“He said that I could,” Warden insists eagerly. “You did, didn’t you, Oleander?”

“You need to relax,” Johnathan snaps, and one ghostly appendage rises from his back and lashes around Warden’s chest and arms, jerking him away from Olly slightly. 

Pink mana begins to shimmer around Warden’s head, then cascades down his shoulders, latching onto Johnathan’s mana. Johnathan stares the man down, unflinching, even though Anna can see each fragment of pink mana lengthening into sharp, thin spikes digging into Johnathan’s mana. Does it hurt? Is it rejecting his mana? Is it stealing it? Johnathan never lets on if something hurts him, even if he’s close to passing out from it. She hates that about him. 

 “Doesn’t it hurt, kid?” Warden asks, wheezing slightly as Johnathan tightens his grip on the man. He laughs, eyes fixed on Johnathan’s face. “Can’t you feel it? I’m eating you alive.”

“The only thing you’re doing is pissing me off,” Johnathan says clearly, and Olly steps in quickly, cutting him off.

“It’s fine,” Olly says firmly, and Johnathan releases Warden. Both blue and pink mana vanish as they both back off. “I need something from Warden.”

Johnathan grumbles and floats back, arms crossed. He doesn’t look happy, but he watches quietly as Olly and Warden line up at the mouth of the tunnel and summon their lights.

“You count us off,” Warden says to Johnathan, who flares at him. He reaches into his pocket and produces a quarter. He, Olly, and Anna always do this if they need to count something down.

“When the coin hits the ground, go,” he says, and flips the coin up into the air and steps back.

Chapter 17: Wren falls into a hole

Wren feels Hero’s knee jab into the back of their neck as the two of them crash awkwardly to the ground in a heap.

“You fucker,” Hero says, but doesn’t sound that upset, just amused. “The heel of your hand went straight into my nose.”

It’s pitch black down here. Wren gets to their feet, wincing and rubbing their neck.

“Make a light,” Hero says. “Haven’t ya ever seen people play Cellar Lights before?”

Wren holds out a hand and their mana clusters around it, not quite able to maintain any specific shape, but staying around their hand nonetheless. It lights up a small area around them; not good enough to let them see anything except themself and the uneven stone floor they’re standing on.

“You can do better than that, can’t ya?” Hero asks, and holds up their hand. A brilliant ball of light blazes to life over their palm and lights up the entire room. They’d fallen for a long time so Wren had expected it to be big, but it’s way larger than they expected.

An entire cathedral rises out of the yellow glow of Hero’s light, its pillars, stage, and seats carved straight out of the rock. Large reliefs depicting scenes of battles line the upper third of the walls, bodies upon bodies carefully etched into stone, every single one unique, as if each represented a real person who used to exist. Instead of pews like you usually see in churches, the seats are all individually cut out of the rock and meant for one person only. Each one rises out of the stone floor like rows and rows of teeth leading up to the stage at the end. An aisle runs down through the center of the seats up to the stage, where a low stone table sits in the center, stained with some dark substance. Every sound bounces loudly off the walls, echoing oddly, like the sound is twisting into something different, more sinister than what it was before. Whether that’s an effect of Hero’s sound altering mana or just the odd acoustics of the room, it’s unclear. Skeletal arches of stone span the ceiling, some dripping water and shimmering in the light. Wren is suddenly reminded of being down at the bottom of the sinkhole and looking up at the shining web of mana above the surface of the water. They feel like they’re being buried alive, like they’re slowly sinking down towards the heart of the earth. The darkness lingering in the shadows feels even deeper and darker than usual, like it threatens to swallow the world whole.

“The library was a newer addition,” Hero comments. They direct their light to the hollowed out column that the two of them had fallen down. “That there is the only entrance I know of. I don’t know what this place is for, but it’s cool.”

Wren doesn’t need Olly’s truth-detector spell to know Hero is lying. Hero was about to kick Wren down here; you don’t do that for no reason. There must be something down here that Hero wanted Wren to encounter.

“We can’t get out of here the way we came in,” Hero says calmly. “Truth be told, there’s a maze I wanted ya to go through. I’ve been looking for a kid to teach my stuff to, but I gotta make sure you’re good enough.”

Life isn’t a fantasy novel with labyrinths and mentors and tests of strength and skill. Wren knows this with the irritated certainty of someone who had just been basically kidnapped and is waiting to be either murdered or rescued. Hero keeps spouting bullshit. Why? What is it that they really want? If they wanted Wren dead or wanted to rob them, they would’ve killed them in the alley before they even got to the convenience store. They must’ve seen something later in Wren that suddenly made them want to whisk them away to the library. Is it Wren’s power that interests them? If so, what do they gain from bringing them here?

“Seems like ya don’t believe me,” Hero says calmly, eyes flickering yellow in the light of their mana. It’s hard to tell if they’re upset or not. “That’s fine. But I’m not lying. The only way out of here is to go through that door.”

Hero points to a nondescript wooden door behind the stage. Wren hadn’t even seen it earlier. It’s the only thing in this entire place not made of stone.

“I know how to get through it,” Hero tells them. “Go through it with me or stay here; those are your two options.”

Wren doesn’t want to go through that door with Hero.

“I’m not trying to murder ya, I swear.”

Hero waits for about thirty seconds, during which Wren just stares at them. Then they shrug, give up, and walk away, taking all the light with them. They push open the door, which gives way to nothing but darkness, then vanishes inside, letting the door swing shut with a loud bang. 

The entire area is plunged into a heavy darkness. Wren is suddenly aware of how humid it is in here, how thick the air feels. It feels like it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. They don’t know if Hero is coming back; they don’t really want them to, but they’re staring to get nervous being alone. Their phone is also still broken from when they were trying out Johnathan’s magic earlier, so they can’t call for help. 

They could try climbing back up the column they came down in. The fall disoriented them, but they’re pretty sure it’s just a vertical tube. The tile that had covered the hole dropped down pretty quick, making a loud, scraping noise against the sides, but Wren never heard it go back up again, so there must be a way back up, right?

They start shuffling awkwardly towards the column, hands out in front of them trying to feel for it. When they get their hands on it, they step back inside it and look up. The library has been pretty dark, but moonlight still came through. But Wren doesn’t see any light. Did the tile go back up without them noticing?

They hold out a hand and try to focus on their mana, willing it to gather there. Trying to consciously move their mana is like using a very weak muscle; it takes a lot of energy and effort to make it move at all, much less in the direction Wren wants it to go. When it finally manifests, Wren is sweating. It’s a lot hotter inside this tube, for some reason, and it feels like they’d just run a marathon. They crouch down as they catch their breath and stare at the ground. The tile is still there, a circular, muted red piece of glazed stone. They’re standing on it. So what is covering the hole left in the floor of the library above? Surely Hero hadn’t already escaped and blocked it off or anything; it hasn’t even been five minutes. Plus, Wren can still faintly sense Hero’s mana, far away but on the same level of elevation as them. Maybe there’s a second tile that automatically pops out to cover the hole? As they’d fallen, it had gotten dark pretty quickly.

“Wren, th- think,” Wren says out loud to themself, and presses their free hand to their chest anxiously. “Think, think, think, think…”

Their power is to copy the power of someone nearby. There’s no one nearby. Wren is alone. Powerless again. They need to get out of here. 

The walls of the column are smooth and difficult to get traction on, even if Wren presses themself up against all sides as hard as they can and tries to inch their way up. There isn’t anything to pick up and use as a tool; everything in this area is carved straight out of the rock. Wren doesn’t even know where they are. If they unleash their mana as much as they can, will anyone notice? Will the entire cathedral collapse on them? Hero said they’re in a library so they must be near some sort of inhabited area. Right?

They sit in the dark on the floor for a long time. Hero has gotten too far away to sense. Wren's range seems to be a sphere with the radius of about the length of a football field. They can’t see or hear anything except the dripping of water, and they can’t sense any mana nearby. It’s like they’re isolated in an empty, dark world.

For some reason, Wren doesn’t feel frustrated. They don’t feel scared or angry that they’d ended up here. They just feel anxious. That tells them that they’d be fine with their situation if not for something that’s scaring them. Are they scared of dying here alone? No; somehow Wren knows they’ll get out of here somehow, whether that through their own efforts or because they wait until morning to call for help. Are they scared that Hero will come back to murder them? No; they would’ve killed them by now if that was their intention. Are they scared that they’ll get in trouble for being missing for so long? No; they’ve never cared about that. So what is Wren afraid of?

As they ponder over this, they rub their fingers in the divots in the floor. It’s hard to tell, but Wren suspects that water dripping from the ceiling had worn the floor away over time. That makes this place ancient. Their fingers find a cut in the floor, perfectly straight on all sides, maybe about an inch wide. After following it around, Wren finds that it’s similar to the library above, which had channels between the tiles and hidden in the walls to conduct mana into a specific shape. When Hero had done that upstairs, the tile had started to drop. Will it go back up if Wren manages to do the same down here? Hero said there was no way back up without going through the door. Was that a lie? Or does that mean that Wren’s theory about the grooves in the floor down here is wrong? They want to conserve mana for day time when there are people nearby to sense them, but if they can get out of here faster and escape the weird anxiousness they feel, maybe the better.

After crawling around in the pitch black following the grooves in the floors, Wren comes to a few conclusions. One, there are no bugs down here. The cathedral is large, meant to seat many people, so there must have once been a larger entrance that admitted more than one person at a time, that would be used often and so probably easy to access. But there are no bugs down here, no plants of any kinds, no moss or anything. There’s nothing down here at all. The area must be sealed off tight from the outside world. 

Two, the channels here all lead up the stage to the stained, low stone table up there. Wren suspects it’s an altar of some sort, which makes them even less inclined to try and put their mana into the stone. It feels weirdly sinister, like this is a place where awful things have happened, only to be swallowed up by the dark and never spoken of again. Why did Wren even think of this place as a cathedral in the first place? Because of its architectural style? Because of the seats and the stage? It could be a place for performances of some sort. 

The final conclusion Wren comes to after feeling around in the dark is that there is mana here. It’s so faint that it’s impossible to see. But when Wren stays still and pays very close attention to the sensations on their bare fingertips, they can feel the slightest layer of mana over the entire area. It was probably left behind by the craftsmen and laborers who poured over the cathedral and cut it out of the stone with their own two hands. Just like how the headmaster’s mana had left traces all over Daybreak Orphanage, just being in this area and pouring all your energy into it is enough to leave traces of you behind. It feels like the trails of ghosts left behind.

Wren presses their palms flat to the ground, trying to get even closer to the ghost traces of mana, trying to listen close and feel it closer, trying to pick out some sort of signal from it, trying to see if copying it will give them any sort of useful ability. It’s so hard to tell.

They’d done this earlier, with the spells around the sinkhole in town. In that case, they’d been able to make their own mana mimic the spells there, which made it possible to redirect the existing spells enough for Wren to clear a space to get through. That probably won’t help them now; this time, they’ll probably have to actually use the power they copy.

After lying belly down with their ear pressed to the ground for a very long time, Wren finally hears it. Whispers of a memory, a faint remembrance of shape and color. The longer they focus on the sensations from the mana, the better sense they get of what it used to be when it was fuller and brighter. They feel the shapes hovering in the imperceptible layer of mana, not quite fully formed shapes, but the suggestion of them, a tendency to form them. If Wren can use their mana to nudge it back into shape, maybe it would start to coalesce again.

Their back aches from lying so still against such a hard surface, but they don’t dare move, so their motions don’t disturb the traces of mana. They find that the stiller they are, the more the traces tend to form some sort of pattern. This mana tends to form very loose, triangular shapes, and some of those triangles coming together to form other shapes, like squares and hexagons. They cover the entire floor, the walls and their reliefs, the arches and columns, and the ceiling. One type of mana. One person built this entire thing, Wren is almost certain of it.

They need to produced a very small amount of mana, thin enough to match the webs left behind by the mana traces. Then they need to make sure it moves along the patterns formed by those traces. It’ll be hard and exhausting, but at least it doesn’t take up too much mana. Wren is an archer; they’re used to doing the same thing over and over and over again, sometimes to no avail. They can do this. Either that, or day comes around and people at the library notice them down here. They’ve got nothing left to lose for trying, at this point.

Chapter 18: Olly starts the race

Olly and Warden both take off into the dark like a shot. Olly’s gold lights stay over his outstretched palm as he hurtles through the tunnel of trees. He can see Warden’s pink lights about two or three yards away, shimmering and sparkling cheerfully in the dark, but Olly can’t actually see Warden himself; he can’t even sense him nearby via his mana. That’s kind of worrying. Like the woman Olly had encountered earlier, Warden seems to be able to completely hide his presence, and had done so as soon as the coin hit the ground. Olly can do that too; knowing how to hide your own mana is good for sneaking around and being nosy. So he hides. But he’s worried that he’d been a split second too late.

The tree tunnel is only about fifty yards long and Olly can fly that length in two or three seconds, but the moment they’d both started running and Warden vanished, Olly could tell that he’s not making it out of here so easily. He’s not stupid. He knows with a grim certainty that Warden is trying to kill him. He’s never encountered someone with such murderous intent— his experiences in violence are with people overtaken by rage, not with people who derive an unhinged excitement from the power play of life and death, though sometimes other teenagers come close. Warden is crazy.

Olly realizes all of this within the first second after the coin hits the ground– Warden had disappeared, and is determined to kill Olly. In that time, he’s traveled maybe a third of the way down the tunnel, and Warden’s light seems to be keeping pace. In the second second after, he makes a decision. He can either go faster or deal with Warden right now, in the dark. Johnathan is watching; he could help in an altercation if needed. But if he deals with Warden too hard, Olly might not be able to get Hero’s number and then won’t be able to find out where Wren is. So he goes faster.

Just as he rockets forward, he feels something fly past the back of his neck. A split second later, he hears a loud crack and a branch nearby collapses to the ground. Before it can hit the ground, though, Olly feels the rush of air of something else shooting past him. Is Warden firing something at him?? How does he know where Olly is?

“You’re faster than I thought!” a voice cries, right by his ear. Olly lashes out on reflex, a brilliant arc of gold light bursting from his right side, just in time. It clashes against something with a resounding crash. Sounds like something metallic. Feels like it’s small. Like it’s the size of the barrel of a pistol. Warden talks in a fast, frenzied clip. The third second passes. The tree branch hits the ground. Olly is over two thirds of the way through the tunnel. One more second and he’ll be out. He’s concerned that Warden seems to know exactly where he is.

A sharp, cold sensation slams down over the left side of Olly’s head, sending him careening to the side. For a moment, he can’t hear out of his left ear at all, and then the silence is quickly filled with a high pitched ringing. Dark spots dance in his vision, and after the immediate blow, pain begins to thrum through his skull. He cries out without thinking and in an instant, the entire tunnel is flooded with a blinding, cool blue light and the entire world seems to jerk to a halt. He can no longer move; the familiar feeling of Johnathan’s mana is holding him in place with such force that he can hardly move enough to breathe. As his hearing returns, Olly can hear Johnathan yelling, his voice getting closer, and Warden panting loudly, inches away. When the light dies down, Olly slowly looks to his left, an unusual dread filling him. He’s never been scared of an adult before. But as his gaze meets Warden’s, a shiver runs down his spine.

Warden had come out of his invisibility spell and had been a hairs breadth away from grabbing Olly’s skull. In one hand he holds a gun, and his free hand is extended towards Olly, so close that if not for Johnathan freezing them all in place, Olly might as well already be in Warden’s grasp. Actually seeing the gun so close to Olly’s head is jarring; something about knowing that it could end his entire life in an instant and the fact that he hadn’t realized it was so close to his head is suddenly making him reevaluate his situation. Warden’s face is contorted into a sort of snarl, teeth bared, lips pulled back, eyes wild with excitement, breath escaping him in heavy, heated bursts. Olly wants to move away, but he can’t. He never knew Johnathan was actually capable of restraining him. He always assumed he was the strongest when it came to mana.

Johnathan reaches them and immediately grabs the gun from Warden’s hand. He glances at it, then sticks it into the waistband of his jeans like he’s handled a gun before, even though Olly has never seen him with one.

“I don’t know what you want out of this guy,” Johnathan says bitterly, “but I wish you wouldn’t do shit like this.”

“Stop it,” Olly snaps, before he can help himself. He knows he’s just upset because he’s gotten his ego knocked down a couple pegs by both Warden and Johnathan, but he can’t help himself at this moment. “You don’t have to get involved.”

“I don’t have to get involved?” Johnathan scoffs. “You almost got shot in the head.”

He’s angry; Olly can tell by how stiff his movements are and how low and even his voice had gotten. Olly realizes that Warden is frozen in mid-leap towards him, as Johnathan rifles through his pockets. Johnathan’s right; in another instant that gun would’ve been jammed up against the back of Olly’s head and a bullet would’ve been traveling through his brain. 

Johnathan produces a flip phone and a wallet, a pack of cigarettes, and a tube of chapstick. Warden doesn’t seem to be able to move, not even speak, but Johnathan releases Olly as he begins rifling through Warden’s wallet.

“Give me that,” Olly snaps, and grabs the phone out of his hands, then flies off to the end of the tunnel, irritated. Olly just needs to find Wren.

He flips open the phone and goes through it, using the watery moonlight leaking through the trees to look at the keys. Tatara’s forest is known for its size and age; most trees are so large that even in clearings like this, most of the light is occluded by branches and leaves, and this phone isn’t a smartphone, which makes it hard to navigate. Do they even sell phones like these anymore? There’s no camera on it or anything. Just a small screen and a numberpad.

There’s no password on the phone and there’s only two phone numbers saved to it. The only text messages are from the woman from earlier today. Warden asks her to “meet at the usual spot” multiple times, but says nothing else to her. What usual spot? They just got here. And why doesn’t he send the same messages to Hero?

The woman’s name is apparently Avi, and the only message she had ever sent to him was asking him how much longer he was planning on being in the casino this afternoon. Nothing else. No messages from the other number, but Olly assumes it’s Hero’s. Both phone numbers have local area codes, neither of them are saved under names. Clearly this phone had been recently bought specifically for this trip. That’s really strange, if Warden was just here on business.

Olly calls the second number. He doesn’t even need to the other person to pick up; the moment it goes through, he knows where they are and gets ready to teleport. But they do pick up, almost immediately.

“Heya~ Warden; is that you?” a voice on the other end sings out. Why would they ask? Either they don’t have this number saved, or they’re expecting someone else to pick up. 

Olly waits for them to say more, but they don’t. He grimaces, wondering how to respond. He should hang up, right? Or could he pry for more information? What does he even want to know?

“Doesn’t sound like Warden,” the person says. “Who is this??”

“What…” Olly hesitates. “What’s your name?”

“My name? It’s Hero, of course. Yuu Hero. Doesn’t he have my name saved in his phone?” Hero huffs petulantly. “What’s your name?”

“…Cain,” Olly lies. “How are you related to Warden?”

“Hmm… We’re coworkers, ya could say,” Hero says. They haven’t been lying this whole time; that’s good.

“Someone needs to come pick him up,” Olly says. “I’d hate to ask if you two aren’t that close, though.”

“What, did the poor man drink himself silly again? That’s twice in one day.” Hero giggles. “I’m a bit busy at the moment, ya know. You could bring him home yourself. It’s the boarding house. Room five. Key’s in his wallet. Thanks a ton~ bye~”

They hang up. Olly turns to relay the information to Johnathan, when a loud bang shatters the air. A gunshot? Olly zips forward as fast as he can, not even stopping to consider whether it’s safe to approach or not, mind suddenly blank with panic. As his eyes adjust back to the dark of the tunnel, the sound of the gunshot rings in his ears, and for a moment fear rises in the back of his throat, but Johnathan is totally fine. He stares vacantly at Warden, who is bleeding out on the ground, unmoving.

“Johnathan!” Olly calls out, relief audible in his disproportionately loud voice. 

“I didn’t like him anyway,” Johnathan says, in a monotone. His face is hidden in shadow, impossible to read. “He jumped at me.”

“So you shot him in the head???” Olly hisses, getting close to Johnathan and also staring down at the body. A sickening sense of dread begins to fill him, and he tries to brush it off by scolding Johnathan. “You were restraining him! What’s wrong with you??”

“He would’ve shot you.”

“Hey!” Olly grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him violently. He sort of flops back and forth with the force of the motion, limp. “Are you okay? What’s gotten into you??”

“I… don’t know.”

Olly wishes there was someone he could leave Johnathan with while he goes to save Wren from whatever trouble they’d gotten into. Johnathan is so lonely, sometimes. He’s so isolated from people that he starts doing weird things if left unchecked, but Olly never thought he’d go this far. He looks at Johnathan with concern, but the cold, dead silence from the body on the ground creeps over the two of them, making it hard to focus, to correctly judge the situation.

“Come with me,” Olly says finally, deciding to take him along. “We’re going to find Wren, then we’ll go home.”

Chapter 19: Anna and the gun

Olly and Johnathan disappear. Anna is still using her power so no one knows she’s here, and she crouches in the dark, staring down at the body limp in front of her, the cold grip of the gun solid in her hands. She shot Warden. When Johnathan put the gun in his waistband she had lifted it off him, discomfited by the notion of her brother having it. Olly flew off, Johnathan started going through Warden’s wallet. To the both of them, it had seemed like nothing was wrong. Anna had been the only one to notice it. Warden’s mana is usually bright pink, but he had hidden it incredibly well. Anna is very familiar with invisible mana; her own mana is barely visible when she tries hard. She had noticed that Warden was doing the same thing to Johnathan that he’d been doing earlier— shimmers and shards of his mana dig deep into Johnathan’s mana, eating him alive, draining his magic. Warden’s mana is just clear and very difficult to see, now. Still, Johnathan must be feeling it, right? Does he think he can withstand it forever? Why didn’t Olly and Johnathan just run the moment they had the chance?

She knew Warden was trying to escape. She held the gun up to the back of his head just in case. Why did she do that? Was she afraid that her own two hands wouldn’t be good enough to restrain him? She’d thrown him out of the casino earlier; she has a good sense of his strength. She could’ve just grabbed him and held him back. Something about Warden had made her uneasy; her intuition had told her that he was capable of more than he’d let on so far.

When he’d broken from Johnathan’s hold and lunged for him, she shot him. She should’ve just called for Olly to help, or warned Johnathan somehow, or pointed the gun somewhere else, at Warden’s shoulder or something. She could’ve even smacked him with her heavy metal flashlight, which is still in her pocket, or the barrel of the gun. But instead she shot him in the back of the head. She also doesn’t know why she continued to stay hidden after that. The wave of horror in her had hit immediately after she pulled the trigger. But if she came out of hiding, at least it would be her who would be in trouble and not her brother.

Johnathan had observed the event, and her power had made his mind come up with the most reasonable explanation in a world when she no longer existed— that he was the one who shot Warden. She saw the expression on his face go from his typical anger and irritation with Olly to nothing. His face had gone slack, he’d dropped whatever he was holding and just stared. There was no expression of terror or horror. He had suddenly just become resigned to it all. He was a murderer. He believed it. He had no choice; Anna was still using her power. And she still hadn’t come out of hiding. Why? It’s not like she wants him to take the blame for it. It’s not like he’d be any better of a murderer than her.

Anna continues to stare at the body. Warden had collapsed face down, limbs twisted awkwardly beneath him. She tries not to look at the hole in his head, or the splatters of blood and gore that speckle the grass. What should she do? If the body is found, Tatara will be in an uproar. Johnathan and Olly might get into serious trouble. If she hides the body, Warden’s coworkers will still realize he’s gone very quickly. There’s no way to fix this, no way to reverse what she had just done. 

A breeze ripples through the trees, and Anna gets up. Johnathan had dropped Warden’s wallet and other items when the shot had gone off; she picks them up now, studying them closely to distract herself from how sick she’s suddenly feeling. 

The chapstick label is in Raldean, meaning Warden had recently been to the Eastern Continent. The pack of cigarettes is full, and also labeled in Raldean. She drops them into her pocket absently. The wallet is more interesting to her.

Apparently the man is Warden Shou, a forty three year old man from the southern central region of Raldea. His identification card shows a much younger man, his dark hair wild and unruly. He stares at the camera with a dull, bored gaze and the corner of his mouth is tugged down slightly. He looks maybe ten years younger, and the card itself is beat up and nicked along the edges. Other than that, he has a couple bills, some of them Raldean currency, others Perseidic, but the majority is what she’s familiar with. Seems like he travels a lot. She finds a business card for a Kestarin dentist’s office, a couple single razor blades wrapped up in thin, brown paper, a slim book of matches, and an old photograph. It shows Warden, even younger, maybe in his twenties, carrying a girl about six or seven years old in a checkered lilac dress. One of her legs is made entirely of metal and wires, and she wears a pair of white gloves. She’s beaming at the camera, and Warden is looking away slightly, at something out of frame. Seeing him so young is making her feel even more guilty for what she’s done. He’s not much older than her in that picture. Where is the girl he’s holding now? Is she waiting for him to come home? Does she know what kind of maniac he was?

Anna actually recognizes where the photo was taken, too; in the background there’s a large stone fountain with a statue of a woman carrying a tall staff and preparing for combat. That’s the statue of Enrose Sang, an adventurer from the island of Carheliod in the Perseids. Enrose is known for being the world’s first and most powerful Artificer, a spellcaster of unimaginable intellect who had pioneered the method of spellcasting that many people use today. Olly is obsessed with her work, and the fountain is a famous Perseidic landmark. Is Warden from the Perseids? Didn’t Olly say the stranger at the library earlier was from the Perseids as well?

“Now where did I put my wallet?”

The voice freezes Anna to the spot. She hadn’t been paying attention to the body on the ground, but it sits up slowly, with a groan, like something from a horror movie. Warden is breathing, alive, and aside from the blood on his face, he seems totally fine. He groans and rubs the back of his head as he looks around, the winces.

“Got a hole back there,” he mutters to himself, and pink mana buzzes to life at his fingertips and swarms the back of his head. Is he healing himself??

Something falls out of his hair and he catches it in his palm, then looks at it, lifting it up into the moonlight. It’s a bullet, a little warped, but still recognizable.

“Kid’s got balls to pull a move like that,” Warden mutters, and hops to his feet. “He’s strong as hell. I wonder where he went.”

Warden looks around again. He must be looking for his wallet. Usually, if Anna is holding something and using her power, people forget about it. They only remember if it’s something of high importance to them. Warden must really want his wallet back. He looked for it the moment he woke up.

“Did he take it?” Warden mutters. He turns around and finds his hat lying a couple yards away, and when he goes to get it, Anna sets the wallet down carefully on the grass in the shadows, and walks backwards a couple steps. She bumps into something warm and almost jumps out of her skin, entire body recoiling from the figure. That woman is standing there, the one who doesn’t talk. When did she get here? How long had she been standing watching?

“Ah! Avi!” Warden says, when he turns around and notices her. “Now, I know what you’re going to say. And I don’t wanna hear it.”

Avi breezes past Anna like she doesn’t exist, and Anna retreats quickly, heart still pounding. She feels like she’s dreaming. A dead man walking, a woman who was somehow able to sneak up on her, a gun in the pocket of her hoodie.

“I met these two kids. They’re pretty interesting.” Warden spots his wallet, strides over in two rapid steps, and snatches it up, then looks in it quickly. “They took our room key.”

Avi waves one pale, thin hand dismissively. She makes a gesture, stacking her two fists over each other, thumbs and index fingers extended. She wiggles both index fingers, then straightens both hands and taps them together twice, making an “X”. 

“Hero’s always in trouble,” Warden says dismissively. “I’m hungry. Let’s go eat instead.”

Chapter 20: Olly in the labyrinth

They appear in the pitch dark. The air is warm and humid, and by the way noise is echoing, they’re in a long, empty passageway. Olly feels Johnathan nearby— he’s still holding his friend’s wrist and he can feel how hard his pulse is hammering, but his presence alone and the muted flicker of his mana across his skin is comforting. Olly is glad neither of them are alone. He also wants to say something to Johnathan but can’t figure out how to say it the right way. You’re still a good guy. But that sounds weird. He just killed a man. I won’t let you get in trouble for this. But can Olly really promise that? You’re still my best friend. That doesn’t make any sense. Let’s pretend this never happened. But that would be cruel.

“Wren’s close enough to sense,” Johnathan says, voice cracking slightly. He takes a deep breath, then continues. “I don’t know what’s going on with their mana, but that’s definitely them.”

Olly senses it too; a thin veil of amber mana seems to blanket the ground some ways away. It’s not perfectly amber like it usually is; it’s tinged with an airy grey, and it’s oddly thin, a network of filaments slowly growing larger and larger.

There’s also another person here. They can both feel it. Someone is on the other side of the wall to their right, mana intense and electric, giving off a deep, sonorous rumble that rolls through the floor, like distant thunder that never ends.

“Should we split up?” Johnathan asks quietly.

Now that Olly sees that Wren and the person he knows is Hero are separated, he has to rethink his plan. He assumed they’d be together. If they go get Wren, will Hero notice and try to stop them? Then it might be better to split up. But if they’re fast, they might not need to meet Hero at all.

“Who’s over there?” a muffled voice calls. “You can’t be down here, ya know!”

Olly’s grip on Johnathan tightens slightly. “Can you teleport to Wren and bring them home?” he whispers.

“I can hear ya!” the muffled voice calls. “You can’t teleport once you’re in here. There’s spells against it. They’ll trigger as soon as ya do.”

“I’ll go get Wren,” Johnathan says, pulling away. “It’ll be fine. I’ll just run.”

Olly lets him go, mostly because he seems desperate to do something, to exert himself somehow. His mana manifests as a ball of cool blue light hovering near his chest, and he sprints down the corridor and around the corner. Olly also summons a light and looks around. 

The entire hall is carved out of stone, which is slick with humidity. Something about how it looks makes his stomach churn.

“Heeeey. Answer me,” the muffled voice calls. “Ya sound like the guy on the phone earlier. I’m Hero, remember?”

Hero seems to have exceptional hearing.

“Yeah. It’s me,” Olly says, giving in to conversation. “I knew you’d taken Wren somewhere.”

“You two friends? That’s impressive. Did ya track me through the phone call? I didn’t even notice.” Hero speaks in an annoyingly flippant tone of voice. Like they don’t care about their current situation at all. “Before ya start gettin mad at me, I didn’t do anything to them. They refused to come with me once we got here, but they agreed to come here in the first place.”

Olly can sense Johnathan getting further away, closer to Wren.

“This is a maze,” Hero says, and starts to move. Olly follows them on the other side of the wall as they talk. “Ya gotta be smart to get through it. And I gotta say, your little friend's making good time. He’s avoiding the traps like he’s been here before.”

“What traps?”

“Eh, just your usual.”

Olly doesn’t know what a “usual” trap is. He gets to the end of the hall and comes face to face with Hero as he rounds the corner. They look just how Olly had expected them to, though at the moment he can’t quite remember why he knows what they’re supposed to look like. Did he see them around? Did someone tell him? Not that it matters. 

“Nice hat,” Hero says, grinning. Olly doesn’t like how friendly they are.

He gets straight to the point. “Why did you take Wren here?”

Hero feigns a look of innocence, eyes flashing with amusement all the same. “Well, I’m a spellcaster, ya see. Not an Artificer by any means; I don’t make up my own spells. But I can learn them and cast them. Anyone can. I figured I’d teach Wren a spell or two.”

“You don’t have to come here to do that,” Olly says. And not everyone can learn spellcasting. Only Fated altefel can, Talons can’t. Johnathan and Anna can’t cast a single spell. And there’s no way Hero knows if Wren is a Fate or a Talon. But he doesn’t say that. It would take up too much time.

“I did,” Hero says, leaning forwards, hands on their hips. “Don’t tell me ya don’t know, mister Oleander Roser.”

How does Hero know his name? On the phone, Olly lied and said it was Cain. Does Hero have a similar ability to detect the truth in people’s statements? Did Wren mention him to Hero? The uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach grows worse. It almost hurts.

“Did you do anything to Wren?” Olly asks, voice coming out louder than he expected. It rings off the walls, and so does Hero’s laughter. He feels dizzy. Maybe he got a concussion from Warden pistol whipping him earlier.

“Didn’t get the chance. I wanted to,” Hero says, and leans against the wall with a sigh. “Kid’s stubborn. And I’m not about to force them anywhere against their will.”

“You left them alone down here,” Olly snaps. 

“They wanted to stay,” Hero counters.

“What’s here that is so important for them to encounter?”

“Oh, not much,” Hero says airily. “This is just a cool place. Used to be a church of some kind. To a god that we no longer remember, to a people long forgotten. This place existed long before the era of kingdoms in this country. Judging by some of the artwork in the main room, this place has some relationship with the island of Carheliod.”

Carheliod again. The name snaps Olly out of his daze. What is going on? It’s unlikely enough that the complicated, unpopular game of Carheliod has become such a huge deal in the tiny town of Tatara, on the other side of the world from where the actual island of Carheliod used to be. It’s unlikely enough that the stranger Olly met earlier this evening had come from the Perseids, from an area close to where the island had been. What is the connection between these newcomers and Carheliod? The question gnaws at him and the gears in his brain whir as he tries to make sense of it all.

“Ya look confused, Olly,” Hero says, leaning close, a sharp grin on their face. “I used to work as an art appraiser, ya know. Ya should believe me. Those carvings look just like what you’d see in Carheliod art.”

They’re still in Kestari. When he called Hero on the phone, Olly got a feel for their location. They’re about thirty miles north of the capital city, about four hundred miles from Tatara. There’s no reason for an ancient underground church in central Kestari to have any relation to the isle of Carheliod.

“It makes no sense, I know,” Hero says placatingly. “There’s a good reason for it all.”

Johnathan is close to Wren. How much time has passed?

“I won’t stop ya from getting Wren,” Hero says, their voice nearly a whisper. Olly stares at them, into their eyes. It’s hard to read their expression; it’s like staring at a smooth, blank, concrete wall. “But if ya want answers, come find me.”

Chapter 21: Johnathan finds Wren on the ground again

When Johnathan wants to move quickly, he often transforms into his ghostly form and beelines for his target, phasing through solid objects to do so. He can’t do that here. Somehow, he finds himself barred from floating through the walls. Something about the material that the tunnels are made of makes his mana stop manifesting on contact. He almost slammed into the wall trying to fly through it at first. He can fly through the tunnels still, though, as long as he avoids touching anything. 

Because he has the ability to extend his mana way out in front of him, even miles and miles away, he can put feelers out down the hallways, each one snaking around corners and finding dead ends or weird traps, like giant holes cut into the floor and trip wires that activate and make walls pop up and prevent you from going back. There seems to be a way through without encountering any of these, but without his power he would’ve died to a fifty foot drop onto solid stone or gotten crushed to death ages ago. Other traps are charms, spells that lie dormant until they come into contact with living creatures. Some steal your mana, others trigger obstacles like spikes and fire and other unpleasant things. They’re all old, though. Johnathan noticed that they’re slow to activate, or maybe he’s just going too fast. It feels like his mind is racing, like he’s suddenly thinking twice as fast.

He comes up to a heavy wooden door and pushes it open, soaring into a large room. It’s almost a relief, escaping from the claustrophobic crush of the tunnels. The room is enormous and pitch black; his light as it is now isn’t enough to light up literally any of it. Below him, Wren’s mana crawls along the floor slowly, like frost creeping across glass. It casts a watery glow upwards, but it’s hardly enough to help him see.

“St- St- Stay up th- there,” Wren says urgently.

“What? Are you okay? What’s going on?” Johnathan stays in the air, making his light gradually brighter when he gets no reply. Wren is sitting on the floor in the center of an aisle that runs through rows and rows of stone chairs. Both their hands are planted on the ground and their mana leaves them slowly, in fine, controlled patterns. In comparison to how out of control it has been earlier, Wren has remarkable control over their mana. Actually, compared to any normal altefel, this amount of detailed control over your mana is insane. Wren probably wants him up here so he doesn’t disturb anything.

Johnathan looks closer at Wren’s mana. He could swear it looks like symbols in some places; the shapes seem to combine into intelligible forms. There are many types of spellcasting, and they’re often mixed together. Olly’s favorite method is using mana circles, which are concentric rings of shapes and sigils, all placed at exact angles and distances from each other, forming some sort of geometric structure for his mana to take on. Mana and what it does is heavily dependent on its shape and motion. That’s why everyone’s mana moves differently. Johnathan’s mana is light and stays together in sheets, and tends to take on the shape of whatever object it’s touching. Olly’s mana forms webs of strands, which are all tiny chains so thin they just look like thread. Asile’s mana branches out into trees, each branch splitting into two, then two again, and again, and again. Wren’s mana usually moves slowly, as if a viscous liquid, which reminds him a lot of honey. Right now, though, they’re forcing their mana to thin out into strands, none of them unbroken, all of them tracing out some sort of path.

Johnathan can’t see Olly or Hero anymore; he’s too far away. It has taken Johnathan maybe twenty minutes flying at top speed, and his range for sensing mana isn’t that good. Is Olly okay? None of them know anything about the strangers, but if they’re as powerful and unhinged as Warden was, Olly might need help.

Thinking about Warden makes him feel sick. The moment the body dropped to the ground, Johnathan felt as if he was a child again. He remembers vividly staring down at his hands as a seven year old, seeing them coated with blood, picking out the tissue that had caked under his fingernails. He remembers the ragged cut of his breath over his throat, he remembers the adrenaline dying and fading away, he remembers feeling dull and empty, in contrast to the enraged frenzy he had just experienced while killing a man for the first time. 

That man also had a gun, had also been about to kill him. Back then, it was for food, because everyone was starving in the sinking cities. Back then, he’d seen people chasing each other down, tearing them to pieces, stuffing them into their hungry mouths. 

He remembers the horror he’d felt constantly, he remembers feeling inhuman. He’d felt the same way again, just now. He doesn’t like it. Maybe it’s because he experienced it as a child, but the feelings from back then are mixing with the ones from right now, threatening to overwhelm him.

Wren’s mana flashes brilliantly, drawing Johnathan from his memories. Their mana begins to rush back in towards them, plunging the room into darkness.

“Are you good?” he asks, floating down closer to them.

Wren looks at him. Their mana had built up behind their eyes, so bright that he can basically see their skull, illuminated from the inside. It moves differently, still making small shapes and lines like it had earlier, but it’s still amber. He produces light and lands on the ground beside them, studying their face. They look exhausted, face ashy, sweat rolling down their temples and neck. They seem to barely be able to sit up; they keep swaying back and forth unsteadily. Johnathan puts a hand on their back and they exhale heavily, then close their eyes and collapse.

Johnathan slides his arms under their shoulders and knees, then lifts them up. He doesn’t know how to get out of here, but if Wren's mana could touch the floor, chances are that he can phase through the walls or ceiling to get them out of here. He feels around a little bit. As he suspected, they are underground, and he can phase through the ceiling and get out. Should he get Wren out of here first and go find Olly? Should he trust that Olly will be okay? He can’t get home on his own; he has no idea where they are. He’ll have to wait for him either way.

Wren has also used their mana a lot today. Between testing out his power for themself, swimming down into the sinkhole, and now this, they probably feel like shit. He’s worried that they’ll get mana fever again. They seem okay right now, but if something like that happens, he has no way of helping them without Olly to get them home. 

He doesn’t want to go back into the maze, either. Is Olly fighting in there? Talking still? He’s more resourceful than Johnathan; he wouldn’t get lost. Something else is holding him up. Did he get hurt? Did Hero attack him? Should he send him a text?

After waiting for about five minutes, Olly arrives. Like Johnathan, he flew the whole way, and he brings with him light, which blinds Johnathan. He’d just been sitting in the dark, for some reason.

“What held you?” he asks, as Olly zips over.

“That guy just talks a lot.” Olly peers at Wren. “Are they okay?”

“Passed out from using their mana. We should go home.”

Olly flies off, looking at the walls. Now that he’s paying attention, Johnathan notices that the walls have reliefs carved into them, showing battle scenes and mana circles and landscapes. Olly mutters to himself as he studies them, then comes back to Johnathan and Wren.

“What was Wren doing?” Olly asks, checking their pulse in their wrist for a second.

“I don’t know. Doing something funny with their mana. They were probably trying to figure out how to get out of here. If you can’t teleport, I don’t see how you could.” Johnathan allows Olly to grab hold of him and they teleport in an instant, back to the orphanage. Asile is still asleep in the corner, everything is still quiet and calm.

“We should keep an eye on them in case they get sick,” Olly whispers, and Johnathan puts them in the top bunk. “But I’m hungry. I’m going to get a snack.”

Olly leaves through the door. Johnathan is still in his pajamas, but he changes his clothes anyway. He feels heavy with exhaustion all of a sudden, but he sits at the foot of his bed and waits for Olly to return. He does, with Anna in tow. Of course, it doesn’t seem unnatural to either of them that Anna had suddenly reappeared; she’s just here, where she’s supposed to be.

“Warden’s gone,” she says quietly.

“Yeah,” Johnathan says back, anger already ready to spill over again. “I killed him.”

No, I mean he’s gone,” Anna says patiently, and sits across from him on her own bed. “He got up and walked away.”

Olly tosses them both a tube of crackers and sits down by Johnathan. “Spill,” he whispers.

“I hung back once you guys left to get Wren,” Anna says. “I was looking through his stuff and he suddenly sat up. It scared the shit out of me. I didn’t notice any mana moving around or healing him or anything. He just sat up. Then Avi came— that’s the woman he works with— and said that Hero was in trouble. They both teleported away somewhere after that.”

“He sat up,” Olly hisses. “He just. Got up.”


“And he walked away like it was nothing.”


Johnathan doesn’t like that. He’s glad that he’s not a murderer, but he’s not happy that the man he shot point blank is alive and probably mad about it. He listens to the other two talking with a sense of intense dread welling up inside him.

“Anything in his wallet? Johnathan just took the key.”

“There was a picture. Of Warden and some girl. I don’t think it was his daughter, but they looked close. They were standing in front of that statue of Enrose Sang down in the Southern Strand.”

“Enrose Sang! They were in the Perseids!” Olly exclaims. “Near where Carheliod used to be. That’s where Isai— the guy from the library— said he was from. And I just talked to Hero and they said they recognized the art on the church walls as being from Carheliod so they must be familiar with the area as well-“

“What church?” Anna interrupts. “What were you guys even doing? Where did you go?”

Johnathan doesn’t know much about the game Carheliod. It’s not a well known game. Apparently Anna’s mother had learned about it and decided to learn it on her own as a child, and had ended up being the most successful professional Carheliod player in the world. Not that many people even knew about the game, much less that it’s played professionally. His father had learned the rules with Johnathan. He still vaguely remembers his father, and his voice, and how gentle he was, how awkward and goofy he sounded when he said he wanted to learn this game because of a pretty lady he met at a bar.

He also doesn’t know much about the island Carheliod, just that the game came from that area and that Olly’s favorite Artificer, Enrose Sang, came from there. It was an island right above one of the biggest mana fissures in the world; a spot where the earth was cracked open miles and miles below the sea, and pure, unadulterated mana had begun to leak out. Just like in the Sunken Cities where Johnathan grew up, when the mana fissure grew unstable, it started to pull things down into it, causing the island to sink. The island is very far away from here. He never understood why or how the game got traction here in Tatara. Maybe it’s so boring here that people started looking for a really complicated game to pass the time.

“…and then we teleported back here,” Olly says, finishing his recounting of the story just as Johnathan finishes half his tube of crackers and zones back into the conversation. “Do you still have the gun?”

Anna nods. “I took the bullets out,” she says. “I don’t know what else to do with it.”

“How do you know how to do that?” Olly whispers.

“We used to have one,” Anna says, and Johnathan nods. “It was never loaded. We just carried it around to scare people in the Sunken City. Sometimes I hit people with it. Speaking of which, Warden smacked you hard in the back of the head with it.”

“It’s fine.”

“You probably need a health potion,” Anna insists, and leans down to rifle through her drawers for one. “I’m guessing you agreed to play a game with him to get Hero’s number?”

“Wren’s such an idiot,” Olly says irritably, and catches the bottle thrown his way. “Thanks. Can’t take our eyes off them for a second.”

“These strangers seem to be up to something,” Anna says. “We should all be careful.”

“How did Avi seem to you?” Olly asks. “I didn’t feel like she wanted to hurt us or anything.”

“It’s hard to get a read on her.” Anna drops down into bed and then sighs heavily. “I’m tired.”

Olly snags her unopened tube of crackers and floats up into his bunk. “You good, Johnathan?” he asks.

“Oh. Yeah. I’m fine.” He’s still eating and facing his sister; somehow he feels a little safer now that he can look at her and know she’s okay.

“I know Anna said the guy didn’t die, but you still shot him.”

“I’m fine,” Johnathan says, more forcefully this time. “Go to bed.”

He’s tired. A lot had happened in a short span of time, and he’s too tired to process it all, so he’s just overwhelmed. Because of that, he doesn’t think he can sleep; he just sits there on his phone in the dark for a couple hours, which makes him even more tired and just starts the cycle anew. Around three in the morning, Wren stirs, then sits up. They look disgruntled, hair a mess and eyes squinting around the room. Their mana is still hovering near their eyes, but not as brightly; it’s hard to tell what it’s doing. It could be enhancing their vision or something similar. Who’s power is that? Johnathan assumed Wren needed to be near someone to copy their power, but there hadn’t been anyone in that church, or if there was, they’re certainly not here now to copy from. Plus, Wren’s mana isn’t changing color like it did when they copied powers earlier. It’s still amber. Surely this isn’t some sort of spell that they somehow managed to learn in that dark, silent, stone monolith of a room.

Wren looks straight at Johnathan, then blinks rapidly until their mana goes back to normal.

“You feel okay?” he asks quietly, and Wren nods, rubbing their eyes. “You need a tonic?”

Wren shakes their head. The two of them fall silent for a minute, both looking vaguely away from each other, into the dark. 

“I killed someone,” Johnathan says suddenly, trying to keep his voice down but almost failing. “He came back to life, but I still killed him.”

Wren looks unfazed. “D- Did he d- d- deserve it?” they ask quietly. Judging from what Olly and Anna were saying, Wren verbally speaks to him way more than anyone else. Why is that?

“I think so,” Johnathan answers, somehow comforted by Wren’s intense stare. They’ll judge him fairly, they’ll let him know what to think of it all so he can finally go to sleep. He’s sure of it. “I think he was going to kill me. He was hysterical with excitement talking about murdering Olly and I just… I just…”

“Y- You were a- an- angry?” Wren asks, then begins to clamber out of their bunk. 

“I was,” Johnathan admits, “but I didn’t do it because I was angry. I did it because his reaction was unsettling. I had to…”

Wren pads over and sits down next to him. They join him in looking at Anna, who is lying in bed with her head under a pillow. Occasionally, she shifts, readjusting her limbs or taking a slightly deeper breath than usual. Johnathan bets she’s awake. She’s not a heavy sleeper. They probably woke her up while talking and she’s trying to fall back asleep quickly. Johnathan lowers his voice even more.

“It wasn’t fear or anger,” he whispers, leaning closer to Wren. “It was the feeling that if I let him go in that instant, everything would go wrong for us. Like a sense of obligation, if that makes sense. I could have just called the police or something, but in that moment, I was so sure that stopping him for good was the only logical solution. And I don’t know why I thought that. It’s bothering me.”

“F- Felt the same w- w- way in the sink-k- hole,” Wren tells him, voice just as low as his. “Like an o- obligation I d- d- didn’t remember I had unt-t-til recently. A… c- certainty.”

“Right. Exactly.” Johnathan suddenly feels tired. Maybe it’s because Wren is sitting next to him and they’re shoulder to shoulder, allowing him to finally shift some of his weight to someone else. Wren lets him lean on them, sitting perfectly still, and before he realizes it, he’s waking up four hours later to the morning bell.