Authors: Kristen Pham
“Thank you for
taking the risk to be here,” Valerie said, and her voice carried, echoing
around the courtyard.
“Valerie doesn’t ask
you to follow her blindly,” Mira said. “She will hear your concerns, but for
now, listen to her.”
There was utter
silence after his words, and Valerie took it as her invitation to speak.
“I don’t know why
you chose to follow Fractus. Maybe you believed in his cause, or feared for
yourselves or your families. Whatever your reason, I don’t judge it. I am
grateful you might be ready to leave.
“There is no way
that I can promise absolute safety to your or your families, or that our side
will win every battle. But someone once told me that having right on your side
is important. I didn’t believe him then, but I do now. The Fist doesn’t seek
vengeance against the Fractus, but to end the bloodshed.”
“The wish in all of
our hearts!” someone shouted, and Valerie squinted into the crowd. She
recognized the face of the speaker, and her own broke out in a smile.
fought by my side once, and I am honored you would consider joining me again,”
Lyonesse had fought
with Valerie in her first battle against the Fractus, but she’d chosen to
“You see? The
vivicus holds no grudges, as I told you!” Lyonesse said triumphantly.
“There is no room for
grudges against anyone, even Reaper himself,” Valerie said, only realizing her
words were true as she spoke them.
Reaper had killed
her father, had made her an orphan for the second time in her life, but if she
let that consume her and drive her, she knew that she’d lose this war. Her
motives had to come from a purer place. Inspiring vengeance in her army would
be easy, but the lift would be temporary. Fighting for true justice, like King
Arthur, was the real answer.
“Join me, and
together, we will create a safer, better future not only for our own families,
but the families of all Conjurors and humans who face the tyranny of the
Fractus. I can’t promise you that victory will come easily, but I know it will
A loud cheer
followed her words, buoying Valerie’s spirits.
“Not bad,” Mira
Valerie turned to
him. “I think that we convinced some of these Knights to join us tonight. But
tell them not to defect from the Fractus yet. I have an idea that could change
the tide of the next major battle, if we do it right.”
“I am glad that I
will be fighting on your side in this war, apprentice,” Mira said. “I do it
because it is right, but it doesn’t hurt that after tonight, I believe it is
also the side that will win.”
Valerie’s ever-present worry about what Reaper was up to during the truce
didn’t go away, she knew that she’d made the right decision to opt for ten days
of peace. Without it, she’d never have had the chance to talk to the Knights,
and her instincts told her this could change the tide of the war.
Somewhere in the
recesses of her mind, Valerie knew that Cyrus was planning a huge party on the
last day of the truce with the Fractus. But she was still surprised when she
stepped out of the Capitol building after a long day of negotiating with the
Grand Masters to see The Horseshoe elaborately decorated. Music played, though
not loudly yet, and glittering lights hung in the air like fairy children,
reminding Valerie of her first date with Cyrus.
Cyrus had also
permanently lit the multi-colored path around The Horseshoe that usually only
glowed when it was stepped on. The result was otherworldly. Which she supposed
it literally was.
When Valerie’s foot
touched the bottom step of the Capitol building, it lit up in a blaze, and all eyes
turned to her. She laughed as fireworks shot up around her.
“To the brilliant,
pure, beautiful leader of all that is right with the world, Valerie Diaz!”
Cyrus’s voice was amplified all around her.
In response, the
hundreds of Conjurors gathered in the courtyard whooped. Valerie flushed at
their response to her entrance, unable to hide her surprise.
After a beat, she
burst out laughing. Cyrus had turned her into a rock star worthy of Hollywood.
She caught Cyrus’s
eye. He was standing to the side of the Capitol building, and he shrugged when
he met her gaze. Her smile must have been huge, because his whole face lit up
when he returned her smile with one of his own. It hit her then how long it had
been since she’d seen him this happy.
A booming base drummed
out a beat that everyone began dancing to, turning the spotlight away from
Valerie. She launched herself into Cyrus’s waiting arms.
“Thank you,” she
“I remember when you
wanted to be a rock star,” he said. “I think you were eight. And now, a mere
ten years later, you kinda are, minus the guitar.”
thought about that in a long time. Any dreams of standing out from the crowd,
dazzling people and attracting attention, had been beaten out of her in foster
care. But Cyrus was right. Once upon a time, she hadn’t shied away from the
spotlight like she did now.
Valerie saw Thai
watching her with Cyrus, but the smile on his face was genuine. He joined the
throng dancing to the beat thrumming around them, his graceful dance moves
melting into the crowd.
Nearby, Dulcea and
Jack danced together, their bodies moving like they were one person. With them
was a crowd of boys that Valerie didn’t recognize at first without the black
stitches on their throats. Her heart grew even fuller as she watched them
enjoying the music and checking out girls.
“Come on!” Cyrus
said, pulling Valerie into the bobbing mass of bodies.
Valerie gave into
the music, letting go of her worries for a little while. Even Henry joined in
“I’ve got a surprise
for you, too, sis,” Henry said a while later, gesturing to a speck in the
distance that was flying toward them.
It was Dasan, the
leader of Henry’s guild, the Empathy Collective. Everyone cheered as he flew
above their heads.
Henry’s mind was
open enough that she could sense that he was lending his power to Dasan.
Together, they cast a spell of peace over the crowd in The Horseshoe. As
Dasan’s magic trickled down, like a soft, warm rain, Valerie let it wash away
brighter, and the light in her mind was able to overtake the dark, for once.
Dasan settled to the ground beside them.
“Thank you, Dasan,”
Valerie said. She felt so light, she thought she might float away.
“A slice of peace is
no more than we all deserve,” Dasan said, but Valerie saw that he was examining
Henry with his head cocked to the side.
“If only Kanti were
with us,” Valerie said to Henry.
Henry’s face fell at
her words. But her own anxiety had dimmed, and she didn’t overanalyze it when
he left the party.
embraced having her worries temporarily tucked away by Dasan, and danced with
It was hours later
that she collapsed against a tree, her mind empty enough to enjoy a cool breeze
for the first time in a long while. She watched the party, which was still in
full swing. She’d find a way to make it like this all the time after the war
Someone sat next to
her, and she knew without looking that it was Thai.
“Nice moves out
there,” Valerie said.
yourself. Where did you learn to dance? Judging by the seizures that pass for
Henry dancing, it isn’t genetic.”
Sometimes her life before magic felt like a dream. “I had an older foster
sister who let me practice dance moves with her while we watched MTV. I was
never as good as her, but at least now I understand rhythm. Unlike my brother.”
“What happened to
her?” Thai asked.
“She turned eighteen. Was swallowed up by the streets. Last time I saw her, she
was dealing drugs under a bridge where I lived for a while. She didn’t
She turned her head
and found Thai’s eyes searching her face. “You deserve a happy ending. Maybe
once this war is over, you’ll finally get it.”
“We all deserve
that. And we’re going to make it happen,” Valerie said. She didn’t know if it
was because of Dasan’s magic, but she believed the words as she spoke them.
“I want to kiss you
so badly right now,” Thai whispered.
hyper-aware of the inches of space between them. She knew that if she leaned
forward, even by a hair, that he’d close the gap. Having that thought was a
betrayal to Cyrus, and Valerie stood up, stepping back to increase the distance
“I shouldn’t have
said that. I’m sorry,” Thai said. “Blame it on that red bird. What’s his name?”
His joke cut the
tension, and she laughed.
“Dasan,” she said.
“And I have to get back to the party.”
“I’ll see you
tomorrow, Valerie,” Thai said, and headed in the direction of his dorm.
Valerie made her way
through the grass toward the glowing lights and laughter, but stopped when she
saw something glowing on the ground a few yards away. She knelt to pick it up.
It was a flower
formed entirely of light, and there was only one person who could have made it.
temporary peace vanished. Guilt was the first emotion that flooded back in her
mind as she slowly returned to reality.
find Cyrus anywhere at the party, so she turned her steps home. She found him there,
sitting on her front stoop. The strangest wave of dread passed over her.
Cyrus stood, his
face more still than Valerie had ever seen it. “Remember when you, Henry,
Kanti, and I all pledged on Pathos to tell the truth to each other?”
“Of course,” she
said, gripping the hilt of her blade, which hung in its sheath at her side.
“It binds us. Even
if you wanted to lie to me, you couldn’t,” he said.
“But I haven’t lied
to you. And I never will,” Valerie said.
softened by a fraction. “I know. And I know you’re too honorable to cheat on
me. That’s not what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid that you’re going to stay with me
for the rest of your life, even though I’m your second choice.”
“Cyrus, I love you.
I want to be with you,” she said, but a mounting fear was growing in her heart.
“Tell me you love me
more than you love Thai,” Cyrus said. “That I’m your soul mate.”
If Valerie could
have lied then, she might have. Cyrus had been the only constant in her life,
and if she broke his heart and he left her, she might die. But even as she
tried to form the words, they turned to ashes in her mouth. She didn’t know if
it was the spell or her own conscience, but she couldn’t mislead him.
“I don’t know if I
could survive without you,” she said, her hands clenched into fists. “I love
you. Believe that.”
“I do,” he said
softly. “But you love Thai even more, don’t you?”
Valerie stared at
him, tears pooling in her eyes. She didn’t answer.
“Don’t you?” Cyrus
said. “Say it!”
Cyrus seemed to deflate,
to shrink before her eyes.
“We’re over,” he
said. “You’re free. Go be with who you really want.”
turned and left, and Valerie didn’t try to follow him.
Henry’s soft knock
roused Valerie from a restless sleep. She shuffled to her door like a zombie
and opened it.
better at shutting me out. I didn’t know what happened until I found Cyrus,”
“I learned from the
master,” she said, and regretted her words when she saw Henry’s mouth turn
“You have no idea
how much I wish I didn’t have to do that,” he said.
“Maybe what Cyrus did is for the best. I’m only going to end up hurting
everyone I love when my magic destroys my mind. The sooner he distances himself
from me the better.”
“It doesn’t have to
be that way. If you hold back from using your vivicus power—”
Valerie shook her
head. “I won’t watch people die if I can help it. Every battle I’m in, I think
about if I can save more lives by fighting or by using my vivicus power. In the
end, after the fighting is over, it always makes sense to save someone. I
couldn’t live with anything else. By the end of this war, I might be no better
than Darling. Cyrus deserves more.”
“That’s his choice
to make,” Henry argued.
“Maybe it’s for a different
reason, but he already made it. I’m not going to stop him,” Valerie said.
“Just know that you
can never send me away. So don’t try.”
“I think it’s the
other way around. You’re the one pushing me away,” Valerie said. “Cyrus made me
tell him how I felt about Thai by using the truth spell on Pathos that binds
us. I thought about asking you some questions that you wouldn’t be able to lie
“Part of me wishes
you would,” he said, his voice ragged. “But a bigger part of me might lose it
if you did.”
She nodded. “I’m not
going to force you to tell me anything. I don’t like being cornered, and I’m
not going to do it to you.”
Henry hugged her
then, holding on to her like a lifeline.
“Everything sucks so
much, you know?” he asked.
“Yeah, I do,”
Valerie said. “I keep thinking we’ve hit the bottom, and then it drops out from
under us again.”
early morning light stole through her room then, turning everything pink as
Henry quickly wiped a tear from his eye. “This night is finally over.”
For the next few
days, Valerie threw herself into planning her battle strategy with more energy
than ever. Azra and Gideon spent as much time as they could helping her refine
was thrown together with Cyrus as they planned potential ways to combat the new
light-sucking powers of the Fractus, but that was somehow less weird than her
interactions with Thai. Cyrus was always watching them, and she could sense
that he was waiting for a sign that she’d moved on.
Finally, Thai cornered
her at the Lake of Knowledge, where she’d gone for a dip to clear her mind.
“Hard to believe
that a few years ago, you didn’t know how to swim,” he said.
Valerie shook her
short hair to get the worst of the water out and wrapped herself in her towel.
“It reminds me that
I’m capable of overcoming something that really scares me,” she explained,
remembering the first time she’d leaped into the ocean. It was the fact that
she was so terrified that made her success so thrilling.
“You’ve come a long
way since then.”
“I’m more afraid
than ever,” she said with a shake of her head.
“I don’t think so.
You used to have your fear hidden away, but now it’s out in the open and you’re
dealing with it. I think that’s brave,” Thai said.
He’d stepped closer,
and Valerie wrapped herself even more tightly in her towel and started walking
“Are you going to
tell me what’s going on between you and Cyrus?” he asked her when they reached
Her heart hammered.
“He dumped me.”
Thai was quiet for a
long time. “I’m sorry. I know how much you love him.”
“But not as much as
I love you, and that’s why he’s gone,” she said.
He stopped her then,
taking her arm to turn her to face him.
“What did you say?”
Thai’s eyes were alive, his entire face lit up.
But she shook her
head. “I wanted you to know. But it doesn’t change anything. If he saw us
together, it would kill him. And I won’t do that.”
“But later, after
he’s moved on…” Thai started.