My brain is a sandstone rock, my heart a cold quartz stone. I am made of my dead mother’s love, I am made of my dead mother’s hate—all mixed up with blood and magic, dirt and clay.
My father does not know this. My father does not care. He is much more interested in the glistening patterns of blood that adorn the walls of the slain wizard’s spell chamber.
“Free magic did this.” Father’s scowl is dark. “The very worst kind.”
I survey the murder scene. The acrid stink of chemicals and freshly spilled blood permeates the room. Slivers of glass poke from between the tumbled books and smashed alchemical paraphernalia, the remains of a once-extensive laboratory. Rays from the setting sun angle through the narrow window and highlight the jagged edges.
Carefully stepping over the debris, I stare up at the victim. He hangs in mid-air, waxy face twisted in pain. Elongated flowers of solidified blood sprout from his broken body. Blackened eyes stare down at me, full of accusation.
“Farima! Away from him.”
I can tell from Father’s compressed lips and furrowed brow that he disapproves of my attention to the corpse.
I move away. Father must be obeyed at all times and in all things, Mother said. Those are The Rules. If I follow them, he will never suspect my true nature: that I am not his daughter. That I am not even really alive.
“Father.” I attempt a look of childlike incomprehension. “Who would do a thing like this?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know.” He leans down and examines the smashed remnants of a writing desk. It has been badly damaged by the flames and violence that scoured the room. “More importantly, I do not know why they would do such a thing.” He utters a quick incantation, and a previously concealed compartment in the desk springs open. Pages of densely scribbled notes spill out. Father grunts and picks through the scorched sheets.
A droplet of blood lands near my foot. I wrinkle my nose. “Perhaps he upset someone.”
Father clenches his jaw, and for a moment I expect a rebuke, for Angry Father to surface, but instead he continues to stare at the soot-covered notes.
There is a clatter of armor. The guards posted outside the entrance to the chamber scuttle aside. A familiar figure sweeps into the blood-drenched room.
Father stands quickly and bows his head. “Your Highness.”
Despite all his rich purple regalia, his tastefully slim golden crown, his oiled and scented locks of long grey hair, the King reminds me of nothing more than one of the poisonous rock toads that infest the derelict gardens of Cradlegate. His eyes bulge at Father. “What are you doing here?”
“Zeffron was a colleague, Your Highness.” Father clears his throat and edges away from the collapsed writing desk. I notice he has tucked the notes out of sight. “I was to be his guest for dinner tonight. Instead, I found... this.”
The King’s scowl matches Father’s. “Well, it’s a good thing you displayed your usual tardiness, Mevlish. Otherwise you might have ended up a victim yourself.”
“That’s... possible, Your Highness.”
“And have you found any sign of who did this?”
Father shrugs. “Free-magic zealots, no doubt.”
The King nods. He seems to notice me for the first time. “And what is little Farima doing here?”
“She follows me, Your Highness. You know how’s she’s been since Kaffryn left.”
“She looks pale.”
“She always looks pale.”
The King peers at me, and I can’t help but wonder if he suspects my secret. My false skin crawls beneath his gaze. “Well, make sure she doesn’t mention any of this to the scullery maids. It’s important we manage the announcement of this... development.”
Father is the Royal High Wizard and Master of Dragons. He works for the King; dark, bloody work, most of it a mystery to me. Every time we fly on one of our dragons here to the great city of Proximus, Father spends most of his time huddled away in council with the King and his advisors. No doubt they discuss dark, bloody matters that only adults can understand.
“Of course, Your Highness.” Father becomes hesitant. “Zeffron said he had made an important discovery. Something he needed to share with me.”
The King gives Father a sharp glance. “Oh? And what was that?”
Father shakes his head, and I wonder if he is more saddened by the loss of the unrevealed secret than he is by the death of his colleague. “He never got a chance to tell me. I thought it might have had something to do with his research interests. We rarely spoke about anything else.”
The King toes one of the half-burned books littering the floor. “Research? What research?”
“I thought you must know, Your Highness. Zeffron studied the nature of magic itself. The field and the Source.”
The King shrugs. “Do you know how many magicians in Proximus claim me as patron?”
“Zeffron was an expert in field theory. Probably the best there ever was.” Father glances at the dangling body. The death spell is fading; the body’s stiffened limbs have begun to droop. “There’s no reason I can think of for the free magicians to target him, Your Highness. He was a pacifist; he never dirtied his hands in any of our campaigns in the Far Kingdoms. He was no threat to them at all.”
“The free magicians are worse than animals, Mevlish.” The King’s tone is curt. “Don’t assume they think like us. And leave the investigation to my trained augurs. They will find the killers.”
Father bows his head. “As you wish, Your Highness.”
The King sweeps out of the chamber without a backward glance. “Clear this mess up!” he barks at the guards waiting outside.
Before the armored men can clatter in, Father leans down and grabs the scorched papers from within the collapsed writing desk, shoving them deep inside his jacket. I automatically grasp hold of his hand as he stands and reaches towards me. He gives my fingers a gentle, conspiratorial squeeze.
I squeeze back.
It’s what The Rules say I should do.
Father’s love for me—if that is truly what it is, not just some dutiful mask of care—is based on a lie.
I cannot love him back. My heart is a cold quartz stone. I cannot feel; Mother told me so. The Rules have no place for emotion, no quarter for passion or compassion. This is the rigid truth of my existence.
To him, I am the one and only Farima: his progeny, his precious daughter, the one pure thing he helped bring into the world. He does not see my fossil bones, my smooth muscles of clay, or my skin of dry papyrus and rags; Mother’s enduring glamours camouflage my true nature. He has no inkling that every day here in the glittering city of Proximus is an agony to me, away from our home near the Source, the ultimate engine of my animation.
And to Mother? I was only ever a convenient tool of misdirection and revenge. Created in a moment of desperate need, she molded me from the materials at hand only days before she was driven into fatal exile. She instilled in me a single purpose: to fool Father into believing I was his daughter whilst the real Farima and Mother fled beyond the Wizard’s Wall, forever beyond his reach. She discarded me with hardly a thought.
Still, it is her blood that infuses my being; her guiding hands and mind which made me. I am as much Mother’s creation as that other child of hers, my namesake sister, the Farima of flesh and bone. Where is she now, my dear sister? Has she made good her escape from Father’s clutches? Is she living somewhere in Proximus, disguised as a scullery maid, or a rich merchant’s wife? Perhaps she has flown to the Far Kingdoms and joined a rag-tag band of rebels, plotting the downfall of the King and all his prohibitions on free magic. Maybe she has settled down, content with her lot, as a fish wife with a bawling flesh-baby of her own.
I do not think so. My sister was as beguiled by the Source as my mother. I know where she is—as close as she can possibly be to that mysterious place that is fatal to all mortals, where the magic field increases in strength the closer you approach until it first drives you mad and then kills you. That is where Mother and the real Farima are: somewhere in the warped, rippling landscape beyond the Wizard’s Wall, their cold and desiccated fingers stretched towards an unreachable goal, burned by its irresistible flame. I would join them in an instant, if I could.
As it is, I am just their echo. A temporary measure. A diversion.
A clay doll, made to fool.
“I’ve been a fool.” Father hurls a porcelain teacup across the room. It smashes against the lavishly painted wall, leaves a darkening stain. He breathes rapidly as he glares at the fragments.
We have returned to our Proximus residence, a grand villa in the grounds of the King’s palace: a maze of richly decorated and furnished rooms and halls, with fragrant gardens full of dancing pools and yew clipped in the shape of gladiatorial dragons. A hateful place, to my mind: a gilded pen to contain us at the King’s behest. Thankfully, Father is only required to be here a few weeks in the year, the rest of his time spent battling the free magician’s in the Far Kingdoms, or with me, at home in Cradlegate, near the Wizard’s Wall and the Source.
He paces the room, still dressed for the dinner in his formal dragonmaster uniform of black and silver. Zeffron’s flame-licked notes are scattered on the floor around him, a few crumpled sheets grasped in his hand. He curses. “It wasn’t free magic at all. The King knows damned well who killed him.”
More sheets fly from his hand as he whirls to look at me. It’s as if he has only just realized I am still in the room, although I helped him gather the notes earlier after he had tossed them on the floor. I take another cup of tea from the tray I have brought in and offer it to him. My hands do not tremble.
“Gah.” It looks for one moment as if Angry Father is about to be unleashed—but he merely brushes the offered cup aside and slumps into the chair beside the arched glass window. He stares out at the yew dragons in the garden below. The sun has set, and the shadows of the fierce topiary beasts dance in the breeze-twisted torchlight. Somewhere outside in the city a bell tolls the hour.
“The King ordered Zeffron killed, didn’t he?”
Again Father looks at me. I fear that I, too, will be swept against the wall, smashed to tiny clay pieces, but Father just slumps further into his seat and nods. “Yes, I think so.”
“I don’t know. But it has something to do with this.” He waves the sheaf of notes at me. “You’re not to repeat this to anyone, Farima, do you understand? Not a word—unless you want me nailed to a cross outside the palace walls, or dangling in the air with my guts spilled out.”
“I won’t say anything.”
Father looks down at the notes but his eyes do not see them. His voice becomes thoughtful, soft. “It’s long been thought there were eddies and currents in the magic field, but according to this, Zeffron created an apparatus sensitive enough to make accurate measurements. He found a consistent flow. A direction to magic.” Father stares up at me, as if he has said something of the utmost significance. “His measurements show that the direction of magic, the flow of the field, is towards the Source. Not away.”
I look at the field that swirls around us. Despite Father’s reaction, Zeffron’s discovery is no surprise to me. I know Father cannot see it, and for a moment I almost feel sorry for him. Not that quartz and clay and stone can feel.
The field is as obvious to me as a current to a fish or a breath of wind to a bird: it dances all around us, its wispy filaments aligned with that fierce beating vortex beyond the Wizard’s Wall. I have long since come to realize that people cannot see or sense the same things I can, so I do not speak of them; it would reveal my true nature, and that is forbidden by The Rules.
I say, “What does it mean, Father? Why would the King have Zeffron killed for that?”
Father frowns. “I don’t know.” He scans the dense scribbles, the cramped line-drawn diagrams. “This overturns everything we thought we knew about the Source. It’s not the fount of all magic—it’s actually drawing magic away from the world. The gradient created by that process, the Source concentrating the field around itself, that’s what makes magic so strong here in the Near Kingdoms.” Father’s lips move silently for a moment as he reads the bloodstained notes. He stabs his finger at a crumpled page. “Here it is. Zeffron had a plan. To get nearer the Source than anyone has before.”
I try not to show it, but my interest spikes. Everyone knows the Source cannot be approached. The magic grows too strong, too quickly, to allow anyone to survive being close to it.
“He’s formulated a spell—one that feeds on magic, that draws its power against itself. The caster is left inside a zone of no magic. Zeffron probably first developed it to use against the free magicians, but then he must have realized its true potential.”
Father stands. “Ah, but this was Zeffron’s genius. Don’t you see, Farima? With such a spell you could walk through the Wizard’s Wall and beyond it, farther than any human being has gone for thousands of years... perhaps right to the Source itself.” He stares out the window.
“And he told the King?”
“Of course.” Father holds up a tattered page. He stares at it for a long while, and then mutters under his breath. The page curls and smokes and bursts into flame. He shakes his fingers and ash drifts to the marble floor.
“What did you just do?” I ask, although I know. He thinks he is now the only one who knows the spell.
The hour bell tolls across the city again, and he glances at an elaborate clock standing in its carved wooden cabinet near the door. “It’s past your bed time, Farima. Mention none of what I’ve said to anyone. Not a soul. Do you understand?”
“To bed, Farima.” His voice and stony gaze brook no argument. Father has his own Rules too, and Angry Father does not hesitate to enforce them.
I bow my head. “Good night, Father.”
Later, when I hear his familiar snores and I’m sure he is in his usual nightmare-laden sleep, I slip out of our gilded house, between the rows of snarling hedge dragons, to the real one chained up and feeding noisily outside the courtyard.
It is not in The Rules, but it is clear to me what I must do now.
They say that Mevlish the Mighty’s witch-wife, Princess Kaffryn of Admar, grew fey. Her mind became damaged from living too near the Source. She abandoned her husband, young daughter, and the grey fastness of Cradlegate to build her own tower beside the Wizard’s Wall, so close to the extreme edge of magic that few could approach it. They say that despite Mevlish’s entreaties she would not budge from her self-styled Lighthouse, spending her days and nights regarding the Wall and the unreachable pass that lay beyond it.
Trapped by her obsession for magic—refusing to see anyone, not even her own daughter—she eventually withered away. Her spirit still haunts that empty bone-white outpost by the Wall, wailing regrets to any who are willing to hear. The demons that lurk near the heart of magic claimed her soul for their own, capering now within her hollowed out skin, tempting and taunting those foolish enough to wander too close.
These stories are not true... except perhaps one.
Those times when Father is away and his telltale servants are busy, I creep out of Cradlegate and trek the half-mile or so up the mountain valley to the location of the Wall. I stand there and listen. And sometimes I think I can hear Mother’s voice, calling.
I have explored the abandoned Lighthouse, moved through its rooms grown warped and strange from prolonged exposure to magic. There is no sign of Mother there; not even of her spirit. A few of her servants wander there still: persistent kobolds determined to dust, garden, and otherwise maintain the folly they helped build; other barely sentient guardians squat over chests of past-their-best alchemical supplies and obsolete magical equipment. The place is haunted, certainly, but only by my own memories of my birth there.
I have tried to follow Mother and my sister, cross through the Wizard’s Wall myself. As a creature of magic, I thought myself immune to the strength of the field; I thought I would be unaffected by the madness inflicted on mortals. I managed to climb past Mother’s tower, past the last warped skeletons of the ambitious and the foolish, but only a few yards beyond the Wall the magic became too strong even for me. My vision swam, sparks flew from my dead twig fingers.
The feeling of strength was immense, intoxicating. I felt like a giant marching across the boiling landscape; I felt I could leap across mountains... but even in the midst of the exhilaration, I knew it was an illusion. The field was tearing me apart.
My bones cracked beneath muscles grown too strong for them. Every move I made tore ligaments of string and tendons of rope; the dry salt crystals of my eyes sweated grit tears. I had no choice but to turn back, just barely past the last human skeletons. They were not those of Mother or the real Farima. Their final resting place remains a mystery, far beyond my reach.
Outside our grand apartment in Proximus, Gron is feeding at his specially constructed trough. Unlike Mother, who hated and feared Father’s dragons, I have grown up with the creatures and do not mind them. Gron is the oldest and the largest.
I step before his monstrous snout as he devours a half-rotted sheep’s carcass and kick him as hard as I can, dancing away from the burst of flames.
“Shhh!” I say. “Don’t wake everyone up.”
He shakes his head from side to side; his fierce yellow eyes squint at me.
“We’re going for a ride,” I say, my tone both nonchalant and full of authority. With dragons, as with people and dogs, expect a thing to be done, Father says, and it will be done.
Gron growls in approval, weary—as am I—of our distance from the Source and the relative weakness of magic here. Only around Cradlegate is the balance just right for creatures like us.
He rises, unfurls his wings. I stumble back, driven by gusts of hot air. The heavy iron chain around his neck snaps taut, tied to the anchor buried deep beneath the flagstones.
If Gron harbors any misgivings about the lack of Father’s presence, he does not show it. He is familiar enough with me. I grab a riding stick from the nearby rack and scramble up the worn stepping scales onto his ridged back. The windows in our villa remain darkened as I utter the release spell, overheard so many times as I sat clutching Father’s waist from behind. It pains me to speak the words of magic, drawing on my limited and irreplaceable supply of power, but the chain unravels from around Gron’s neck and he lurches onto his hind feet with a flame-throated snarl.
“Home,” I cry. “To Cradlegate!”
It is a lie, but it’s close enough to serve my purpose. The diversion I have in mind is towards the end of the flight, regardless.
Gron turns awkwardly, an elephantine shuffle, before extending his wings and launching into the air. The down-sweep sends us lurching upwards; we plummet, then we lurch up again, repeated until we have cleared the top of our guest-villa. The turrets and spires of the palace, all the golden night-time glow of Proximus unfold below us, a crescent of light hugging tight against the ragged boundary where the land becomes too wild and too full of magic for most people to live.
Gron’s wings beat more gently after we gain height. The air grows chill. We angle east, away from the dying light, towards a dark anvil of thunderous cloud. Deeper into the magic field, towards Cradlegate, and beyond it, the mountains that hold the Source.
I can feel the strength of magic increasing with every sweep of Gron’s wings. If I had a heart instead of a cold quartz stone, it would be beating so fast it might burst.
And there it is: the Wizard’s Wall, rotating below us as Gron banks and descends through the drifting rainclouds towards the place I know as home. A sharp tug on the stick lodged between the scales of his neck, and our course alters. We sweep past Cradlegate’s tower and the grey stone harbor of the dragon stables, closer to the Wall and the ruins of the Lighthouse, my mother’s last stronghold and the place where I was created. The landscape is all too familiar to me, the ground once churned and formed into armies as Mother fought Father over the destiny of their only child.
I try not to think about that overly much.
Gron settles in a cloud of dust, still some distance from the Wall. Even he, this great creature bred only through the power of magic, has a healthy respect for the strength of the field here. I pat his heaving side—who knows if he can feel my friendly pounding through his inches-thick coat of black, iron-tough scales—and dismount onto the rocky ground. Gron shifts uneasily, but he stays put. It is a good sign. If Father had called him, even from Proximus, he would have returned at once. I have some time yet.
Limestone cliffs loom on either side of the narrow valley, their pale faces reflecting the green light of the aurora that hangs constant above and beyond the Wizard’s Wall. The rising ground between them is littered with rubble and dry stream beds. Nothing much lives here; nothing much can: the magic field is too strong, too inimical to life. Only dust and half-forgotten memories drift through the valley.
Gron snorts flame and growls his discomfort at being so close to the Wall. Much as it will pain me—and I know that it will—it is time to cast Zeffron’s spell.
I am a creature of magic. Each spell I cast draws from the original, irreplaceable well of power Mother vested in me. It is the one failing of mine guaranteed to rouse Angry Father; my apparent unwillingness to use magic infuriates him. At first he blamed it on the trauma of separation from Mother, and for the first few years his own guilt stayed his hand, but over time it has become more difficult to placate him.
Ironic, considering I probably know far more about magic than he ever will; every night when he is asleep, and every day he is away fighting for the King, I sneak past my easily distracted minders into Cradlegate’s vast and ancient library and devour every book I can lay my hands on. Spell books, dictionaries, tomes on history and philosophy; my stone memory is perfect and it takes only seconds for me to memorize whatever I see. If I were to cast even a fraction of the spells I know, my body would soon be reduced to inanimate dust.
But this spell is special. It will take most of my—of Mother’s—life force to cast it. But if it works....
I begin the incantation, the one I glimpsed in Zeffron’s notes as I helped Father gather them from the villa floor. Mother would have scorned my use of incantation, of a spell constrained by word and speech; it was yet another reason her marriage to Father was doomed. She believed in free magic, in shaping the world by will and whim, unfettered by use of written spells approved and censored by the King. But I have no such choice.
The spell is not long, but it is convoluted. The words and ululations weave a pattern in my mind; cause it to interact with the field, to set up complex self-sustaining perturbations that reinforce and overlay themselves... that make and hence unmake magic.
The spell takes hold, and I experience a moment of elation. It is working! The magic field plummets in strength around me. The Wall will no longer be a barrier.
All strength leaves me. I tumble to the ground, a fall of rocks. I try to lift a hand grown as heavy as a mountain. It trembles with the effort, but does not shift.
Oh, but I have been a fool. For all the books and grimoires and encyclopedias of human knowledge I have feasted upon, Zeffron’s spell has exposed my true nature. Without magic to bind me together, I am nothing more than a jumble of sticks and stones and wishes and hopes. The magic that sustains me is leeching away.
With a deep roar, Gron launches himself into the dust-laden air. I watch, helpless and unable to move, as he flies back in the direction of Proximus.
Mother is building.
Rock and dirt. Twigs, sticks and stones. All manner of debris taken from the dry, rocky soil that surrounds the Lighthouse. Her hands work the material, binding it with magic and blood, with love and with hate, with fear and courage.
She is building me.
“These are The Rules, my new daughter. Do you understand?”
I remember nodding. Knowing that nodding meant “yes”. Mother’s blood has mingled with my being and given me this knowledge.
“Never reveal what you are. Not under any circumstances. You will appear to be a girl, and that is what you must make others believe you are.”
“Your name is Farima. You are the daughter of the wizard Mevlish the Mighty and his witch-wife, Princess Kaffryn of Admar. You are eight years of age.”
I repeat the lie.
“You must obey the man who is soon coming here to take you away. His name is Mevlish, and you will treat him as your father. You must obey him in all things, apart from The Rules I have already set out.”
She holds a golden strand of hair between her thumb and forefinger. “This belonged to your sister. I am binding it to you. It will truly make you her twin.”
I stare up at her with lifeless, rock crystal eyes, dumb and uncomprehending. And then she mutters the incantation, carefully licks the hair and places it upon my forehead.
I gasp as I draw in my first breath and twist in pain as my sister’s memories flood into my rocky skull. “No,” I say.
Saltwater sparkles in Mother’s eyes. They are beautiful; rainbow aglitter. She leans forward, and her long dark hair brushes my face. She smells of sweat and dust and apples. I long to touch her, to feel her damp warmth.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
A tear lands heavily upon my cheek. My parched skin sucks it in, greedy for moisture. Greedy for life.
My arms press at a jumble of rocks: my organs exposed. I struggle to contain them within my disintegrating body. Narrow plumes rise from my innards, my life-force escaping. Soon I will return to the dust that gave rise to me.
The aurora writhes above, indifferent to my fate. A shadow looms and blocks it from view.
I cannot turn away from his gaze. He kneels down, black and silver dragonrider jacket undone and askew, hastily donned; his chin and cheeks bristle with stubble, his eyes are sunken and dark. His voice is hoarse as he mutters an incantation.
Again, I realize the extent of my folly. It is merely Zeffron’s spell, spoken in reverse. I feel the magic flood back into me.
My scattered parts reassemble, drawn back together; my cracked skin seals itself as best it can—but seams remain broken in places and bulging in others. I stare up at Father. Surely he has seen me for what I am?
But Angry Father cannot see.
“Farima.” He grips my shoulder. “What have you done?”
“I’m looking for Mother.”
A low moan escapes him. His fingers convulse, and not for the first time I am thankful I am not mere flesh and blood. “Are you mad? She is gone. Long gone. Don’t you dare follow her, I forbid it!”
And there it is, what I had feared most. Father commands, and I must obey. Now, I will never find Mother.
It is against The Rules, but I cannot help myself. My laughter is like a fall of pebbles. “She was never mad.”
“Farima!” His voice is a snarl. His other hand reaches for my throat. At the last moment it falls short. “Your mother is dead. She killed herself.”
“That’s not true. You murdered her. Or as good as.” I close my eyes and wait for the blow.
It does not come. Eventually, I risk a peek. His head is lowered; bedraggled silver hair dangles over his face. “Oh, poppet.” His voice is thick.
I sit up. The light cast by the aurora flickers for a moment and darkens Father’s silhouette. He is hunched, trembling. There is a sudden ache in my throat, and I say, “Sometimes... sometimes I think I can hear her voice.”
Father takes me gently by my arms, lifts me up, hugs me so tight the rubble inside threatens to spill out again. I do not know what to say or to think. The Rules do not apply.
The wind in the valley keens. Only it isn’t the wind I hear; it is a voice, calling. I stiffen, and Father does the same.
From through the Wall. A voice both familiar and strange. Father stands. His face could have been carved from the same stone as mine as he peers into the roiling darkness beyond the Wall.
“Kaffryn? Is it you?”
The Wall is not made of bricks or boulders or wood or glass. It’s location is marked by a series of widely separated wooden posts, set like squat sentinels across the rock-littered floor of the pass. There is nothing obvious to stop a person walking straight between them. Not far beyond the line of posts, the ground shimmers. The boulders seem to distort, their outlines hazy—inconstant. The farther one looks beyond the Wall, the more uncertain, the more fluid, the landscape appears. One feature is obvious, however: the bodies of those fool enough to breach the invisible barrier lie just beyond it, skeletons grown strange by long-term exposure to the intense magic field.
Father approaches as close as he dares to the Wall. In the curdled sky above the pass, the strange green glow flickers and churns. The field itself ripples, stirring his iron-grey hair. “Kaffryn!”
This time there is no answer. No matter his shouts, the ghost—if that is what it is—ignores him.
Father turns, crunches across the talus towards me. “This is madness.”
“Use Zeffron’s spell. Let’s search for her together.”
He stares at me, tight-lipped, emotions crossing his lined and weathered face. I find it difficult to follow human expressions at the best of times, so I do not even try. “Don’t you want to know how far she reached?”
He licks his lips, runs his hands through his hair. “There are monsters beyond the Wall. The world’s nightmares, trapped and magnified by the Source. Some things survive only where magic is strongest, and believe me, Farima, that is a blessing to all of us outside the Wall.”
He is just masking his fear. “What? Are you afraid? That Mother was a better magician than you?”
He bristles. “Quiet, Farima.”
“You are afraid. You’re not man or magician enough to claim your own wife’s body.”
Angry Father’s face and fists tighten. “Enough.”
I press on. “You’re afraid of what the King will do. You’re afraid of the Wall and what’s beyond it. You’re afraid of Zeffron’s spell. You’re afraid of magic... you’re afraid of everything!”
“I said enough!” He pushes me roughly. I stumble back and fall.
He glares down at me and then closes his eyes. For a moment I believe I have failed—then he mumbles the familiar, lilting words. He lifts his chin. His voice becomes strong, full of fury.
The last word of power is a shout.
The spell expands around him. I step back, but I am beyond its farthest edge. I move closer, begin to feel the magic field grow weak, and stop. If I get too close to him, the spell will drain the last of my remaining energy. If I move too far, I will be exposed to the full force of magic outside its zone of protection.
“Come,” he says, breaking any previous restriction on me. He walks towards the Wall.
One step. Two. He is through it.
Father steps gingerly across the uneven ground, and I follow, inextricably bound to him and the spell he has cast. The shield holds, but unless I keep within it, the rising strength of the magic field will tear me apart. In Cradlegate’s forbidden library, I once read a book of ancient myths; one described the narrow path between a great churning chasm and a giant monster, and the fine line the hero had to tread between the pair to survive. Just like him, I am caught between two disastrous fates.
“Come closer, Farima,” Father urges.
I ignore him and keep a safe distance.
The field exerts a pressure against us, even within the spell. It is like walking into a headwind; a wind that strikes sparks off flesh, makes it dance and crawl. Every movement creates sprites of light that flicker and quickly fade; miniature fireworks glimpsed only from the corner of the eye. The valley floor ripples beneath the ghostly pall cast by the aurora.
We pass the last of those who have preceded us, those who crossed the Wall without the benefit of Zeffron’s magic. Father stops to examine a grotesquely deformed skeleton. The bleached bones are twisted and swollen; the skull cave-like, the extended fingers turned into mountainous ridges. Of necessity, I halt too, but I already know this poor warped cadaver is neither Mother nor my sister.
Father hesitates, his face grim. Just as I believe his resolve is about to crumble the wind carries another faint snatch of the siren voice. He starts, looks at me. “You heard it, too? I’m not going mad?”
I nod. “It’s Mother.”
His mouth sets in a thin line. “Let’s end this madness, then. Once and for all.”
I’m not sure what he means, but I have no choice but to follow him as he marches deeper up the valley.
We approach the crest of the pass. A pale blue glow rises beyond it, a proximate indigo dawn capped by the blue-green aurora, both beautiful and terrifying. On either side, the mountains loom, the pass crowded with tumbled rocks. The exact location of the Source has long since been calculated; it lies at the very heart of the Near Kingdom, at the center of the circular zone of intense magic demarcated by the Wizard’s Wall. It is just over this ridge, less than half a mile away, in the cleft between the mountains. I can almost feel the magic flowing over me, through me, drawn from the rest of the world and building in intensity as it jostles around that mysterious exit just beyond sight.
Father’s scowl deepens. He is pale, sweating. The extent of Zeffron’s spell is clearly visible around him, a bubble whose surface glitters in the field. He looks back at me and extends his arm. “Hold my hand.”
I shake my head. I dare not approach too close to him.
Mother’s voice distracts before Angry Father can emerge. He is ahead of me, and taller, and I hear his gasp as he reaches the crest.
The Source is visible at last. But it is more than half a mile away.
Beyond the ridge, the whole world slopes down into a vast bowl-shaped valley. The naked Source lies at the bottom, a miniature blue sun, rotating and flickering and alive with a kind of crackling flame; a shaft of light sweeping round so fast it aches the eye to view it for more than a brief moment. Lightning-rent clouds roil overhead, lit blue by the glow of the Source. Despite the searing light, or perhaps because of it, the valley floor is crazed with deep, confusing shadows; rugged and littered with shifting, indistinct obstacles and ravines.
It will not be an easy climb down.
“This is far too big.” Father’s eyes are fixed on the Source. “You could fit the whole of Proximus in here with room to spare. And the slope is all wrong.” He leans down, picks up a fist sized rock, hurls it down into the valley. It falls far short of where it should and does not bounce or roll as one would expect. Again, I fear he is about to turn back.
Mother’s voice is quiet but quite distinct. Father’s face pales further. He glances at me, licks his lips.
“Come, Father.” I take a step over the ridge, towards the Source. “We’re almost there.”
A river flows up a cliff, curving away out of sight above and below us; more than one moon stares down from the sky. We are crossing worlds, it seems, and not just distance.
We teeter over a spindly arch of rock that spans a seemingly bottomless ravine. The currents of magic are so strong here that Zeffron’s bubble is constantly buffeted. One half of me lies exposed outside the increasingly defined edge of the spell, glistening and feeling over-sized yet also strangely light. My other half is numbed by the lack of magic. The contrast between the two zones threatens to tear me apart, but I dare not step fully into one side or the other.
“We must be close,” Father says. He looks drained. Haunted. I have no idea what sensations a mortal must feel in this strange place and under these conditions. “We’ve been walking for hours now. We can’t go much farther. The spell won’t hold.”
“It will hold.” The elegant internal construction of Zeffron’s spell is still clear in my etched-stone mind. Like all magic, it will only grow stronger along with the field.
Father rubs his face. “This is madness. We must head back to the Wall, Farima.”
“No! You said yourself we are close.” I can no more understand his fear than I can understand his love. Only a little farther and we will be right upon the Source. Mother and Farima must surely be near.
Anchored to the spell that protects us, I pace its trembling boundary. Father sits in the dust. Blue light beats against the jagged landscape around us. Beyond the impossible bridge we have just spanned, the approach to the Source looks relatively flat. The ground is covered in strange patchwork patterns, like a giant checkerboard. What look like buildings dangle suspended in mid-air above the blindingly bright point; towers, columns, and blocks that lean at odd angles or slowly rotate, drifting like polyhedral clouds.
Father nods towards them. “People once lived here.”
“The creators of the Source, do you think?”
“I thought it fell from the sky, a gift from God.”
Father shakes his head. “No one knows the origin of the Source, Farima. No one alive today.”
“Perhaps we will find out, if we get closer.”
“Perhaps.” He squints at the Source, shading his eyes with his hand, his fingers curled into claws. “Or maybe there will just be more lies and infernal illusions.”
“Those aren’t illusions.” I sweep my hand at the floating buildings. The tips of my fingers tingle as they momentarily pierce the skin of Zeffron’s spell. “They’re as real as you or me.”
Father grunts. “And who’s to say we are real? That we’re not just part of the Source’s dream?” He shifts forward, his drawn face intent. “Who’s to say that if we get closer we won’t wake something up, disturb its slumber, and then we’ll be gone in a blink of some monstrous eye—erased as a new dream or nightmare begins?”
“You’re being silly.” There is a rumble and the ground beneath us shakes. I stumble and sway but retain my footing. I extend my hand towards him. “Please, Father. Let’s see how close we can get. I want to find Mother.”
For a long time he just sits and stares at me. I grow uncomfortable, but I am trapped; I can neither retreat nor go nearer him. Has he at last seen through Mother’s cloaking spells? What is he thinking behind those glittering blue eyes? It is my curse that I can never know for certain. But am I really so different from any flesh and blood person in that respect?
At last, Father stands. “Very well. Only for you, Farima. Only for you, to the bitter end.”
“The end won’t be bitter,” I say.
He doesn’t answer. Inextricably tied together, we descend towards the checkerboard plain and the final resting place of the Source.
Father stops. His eyes widen.
She is there. They are both there. Standing, hand in hand, between us and the pulsing blue heart of magic. They rise from one of buildings that has collapsed and cracked open like a monstrous egg; girders and filaments spilling out like an explosion of trembling spider’s legs.
Mother is a giantess. She stands like a colossus upon the plain. The Source itself is much smaller than it had seemed; no larger than a person, perhaps even smaller than that. It seems shy, shrinking with each step towards it. I wonder if it will vanish entirely if we get too close.
My flesh-sister Farima stands beside Mother. The pair are billowy, unsolid; I can see the Source right through them. They are puffed up, bloated: like week-old drowned corpses.
Father moves forward as if he is sleepwalking. “Kaffryn! Is it truly you?”
“Father,” I warn. “Stay away.”
He does not slow or stop. I am forced to follow him, tied by our invisible bond; if I were to step outside the protection of Zeffron’s spell now I would be crushed in a second. The magic field is thousands upon thousands of times stronger here than it is at the Wall, and every step closer to the Source magnifies it a thousandfold.
But that same spell will destroy Mother and Farima and whatever strange magic sustains them here, unless Father stops. Does he not realize that?
“You’re going to kill them!” I shout.
Father does not hear, or chooses not to. I cannot grab him, cannot hold him back. I shout again for him to stop, to warn him off.
He does not stop.
Protecting Farima is the first, most fundamental Rule. I cannot allow him to harm her, no matter the cost. I prepare to dive forward to grab hold of him, even if it means my own life force will be extinguished.
Mother growls. For a brief moment she speaks no language I have heard or ever want to hear again. I remember all the foolish tales; of demons that make their home near the Source and wear the skins of those mad or determined enough to seek it. Those tales suddenly don’t seem so foolish. What if these creatures aren’t Mother and Farima at all but demons who took their guise after they passed? The ghosts of the first magicians; those who created the Source by accident or by design, flayed of their humanity by the unforeseen power of the field and left as corrupt imprints in its folds and whorls? What if they were never human, but beings of pure magic, drawn to and captured by the irresistible inflow of the field from this world or another?
What if they are hostile?
Mother leers. Sister Farima simpers. Their eyes are howling black holes. This is not how I remember them. This is not how they would be. “Father!” I shout. “It’s not them!”
Mother’s face melts and twists as we approach. At last, Father hesitates. “Kaffryn?”
“No, Father! You have to go on!” The irony of the reversal is not lost on me. Father must destroy these beings before they destroy us. There is only one way we can do that.
Demon Mother looms tall, stretches up like a tilted reflection. Her talons reach the edge of Zeffron’s shield—and cast bright sparks. She shrieks in pain, quickly withdrawing; the giant Farima gasps in fear. Like some panic-stricken animal, Mother-creature emits a stream of noxious-looking black gas. It gushes against our shield, but only harmless soot drifts to our feet.
Father slows for a moment, then picks up his pace. “Stay behind me, Farima.” His face is grim, his eyes flash dark, and for the first time I have some inkling of how the free magicians in the Far Kingdoms must feel when the King orders the wrath of Mevlish the Mighty down upon them. Even without his accompanying flight of dragons, even deprived of his ability to utter the cruelest munitions spells, the expression on his face is enough to strike fear into any demon’s heart. This is not Angry Father: this is War Father. He marches on in full knowledge of what he is about to do.
False Mother and False Farima shriek and howl, but they appear tethered to the collapsed structure. Their forms dissolve, shed their last vestiges of human resemblance. They are mostly teeth and flailing claws and cold, cold hunger. As the edge of Zeffron’s spell hits them, they writhe and foam and shrivel away like salt-encrusted slugs. The gantries upon which they stand scream in sympathy; sent spinning down.
It is one of these that strikes Father: a sheer physical object with weight and momentum that doesn’t care a jot about the laws of magic. A metal stanchion whipsaws and cracks loudly against the top of his head as the demons dissolve in a rain of ash. For a moment he just stares at the blackened spot where the warped images of Mother and Farima once stood, and then he staggers. He falls, and lies still.
I reach towards him, but a huge block crashes down from the demons’ nest. Instinctively I jump aside to avoid the tumbling mass. The world explodes into a blaze of shimmering color, as if I have smacked into a pool of translucent paint. My skin tingles; hot, cold, hot, cold. Everything is dissolving, whirling.
I am outside of Zeffron’s spell, in the region of strongest magic. The Source zooms forward to claim me.
Father struggles to breathe. His face is drawn, waxy, dripping sweat. A thin line of blood trickles from beneath his disheveled hair. He mumbles, delirious, Mother’s name and mine, again and again. Around him, the frayed edges of Zeffron’s spell beat like pennants in a storm, fading along with the health of its caster.
The Source glitters in its self-made bowl only a few steps away. The magic field howls in a vortex around it, unimaginably strong. Radiated power infuses my bones. For whatever reason, I have not yet been torn apart. Perhaps there is something special about this location so close to the Source, in the eye of this storm of magic. Perhaps there is something special about me. I can feel myself changing, my clay becoming molten, reshaping... I don’t know yet into what. My human form crumbles between the competing forces of magic and anti-magic; becomes something more earthen, more elemental.
Father’s slack frame shudders. Unlike me, the magic will soon overwhelm him. While it lasts, Zeffron’s spell cancels out the field around him, albeit in a diminishing radius. But placed at the tightest knot of magic, at the Source itself, the spell still has the power to undo it: the field, too, has Rules it must obey, even unto its own death. The howling storm would be quenched; the fissure sucking magic from the world plugged, once and for all.
This is why the King had Zeffron killed. The King, Proximus, the Near Kingdom; all gain their power from their position near the Source. Zeffron’s spell has put that all at risk. If the flow of magic ends, the field will rebalance, will equalize; much weaker here, but stronger throughout the Far Kingdoms. After centuries of oppression, the rebels will wreak their revenge.
And it will be my end, too. The power that kindles my thoughts, that drives my motion, will fade—and I along with it.
But that need not be my fate. All I have to do is leave Father where he lies. He will perish, consumed by the raging field, and there will be no more Angry Father. No more coping with his quiet desperation; no more lies about my nature; no more Rules That Cannot Be Broken. Instead, I will step towards the Source, into its cleansing blue light. Surely that is what Mother did; the Source’s call is irresistible. She and the other Farima stepped inside it. Through it. Into somewhere and something else.
I take a step forward.
The Source crackles, seems to surge, to swell in anticipation.
I stop and look down at Father. I admire his flesh, so pale and near death, so very different from my own. We are not related, but still there is a strange tightening in my throat. Only the destruction of the Source will weaken the field enough to save him. Good Father or Angry, he is all I have. All I ever had.
I know I cannot love. Mother told me so. My heart is a cold quartz stone, my brain a sandstone rock.
But even cold quartz can sometimes strike a spark.
I lean down, put my arms about him. The strength immediately begins to drain from me, but he and I still have a little time.
I lift him. I take one step. Two.