Authors: Kristen Pham
The eight novices,
including Thai, stood in a circle and clasped hands. Magic hummed in the room,
deep and low, creating a pleasant warming sensation within Valerie.
Valerie and the
other observers of the ceremony gasped as the etching of the tree peeled from
the wall, becoming three-dimensional. Gold threaded the dark bark of the trunk
and wound through the veins of the leaves on the trees, like the ones in
Before their eyes,
eight new branches grew from the tree, joining hundreds that already existed on
“Today, you join a
family. We have our roots in knowledge, magic, and intense study. We share the
trunk of common values, to save lives and ease pain. Each of you is a branch
shooting from this tree, and the leaves are the lives you will save.”
The hum of magic
grew louder, rattling the structure of the building until an explosion of
leaves burst from the tree, showering everyone in the room before vanishing
when they hit the floor. When the leaves were gone, so were all of the aches,
bruises, and scratches Valerie had sustained during her many battles. She was
grateful for the unexpected gift.
apprentices, to the Healers’ Guild!” Nightingale said, and the room erupted in
Thai turned to her
then, and she could see even from where she stood the open joy on his face. It
reminded her of the thrill of becoming a Knight when she joined her own guild.
The tree faded back
into an etching on the wall, and Valerie knew she’d never look at it the same
Thai threaded his
way through the crowd until he found her and swept her up in a hug that lifted
her off her feet.
“Can you believe how
lucky we are?” Thai said when he put her down.
“I can’t imagine
life before magic,” she replied.
She wished that
everyone on Earth could have magic humming in their veins and know the thrill
of its possibilities.
“The apprentices have
some kind of top-secret after-ceremony tradition. I’m sorry for bringing you
all this way and then ditching you,” he said.
“Don’t be! Go
embrace your magic. Heal things. Do… whatever you guys do. I’m proud of you,
Thai. And so grateful you’re here, fighting this battle with me. But tonight,
go live it up, apprentice.”
He hugged her one
last time and took off. The other apprentices whooped when he joined them, and
they all ran off into the recesses of the Guild.
Valerie turned to leave,
but Nightingale pulled her aside.
“I will turn no one
aside who needs healing, as I did to you, again. Fractus and Fist are both
welcome here,” he said.
She wasn’t sure she
could trust the offer, but if it was genuine, she also didn’t want to offend a
Grand Master with the potential to help her army.
remember your words,” she said.
didn’t head home immediately. Instead, she walked along the path between the
guilds, watching the stones glow each time she stepped on one.
voice stopped her in her tracks.
Willa was sitting on
the steps of her guild. Her long hair was tied up with three pencils in a messy
bun, and she had piles of books around her.
“Do you have news?
Did Al agree to leave the Fractus?” Valerie asked eagerly.
Willa waved her hand
dismissively. “That old fool did little more than whine and give excuses, as I
knew he would.”
“But I promised you
a solution, and I have found one,” Willa continued. “Magic is wonderful for many
things, but one downside is that we have forgotten the old, non-magical ways of
getting things done.”
“What are you
saying?” Valerie asked.
“I’ve been studying
some scientific texts on farming in areas of low rainfall on Earth,” Willa
said, gesturing to the books around her. “With the help of the Architecture and
Glamour Guilds, which are both allied with the Fist, and the People of the
Woods, I believe we can quickly construct some irrigation canals and hide them
from the view of the Fractus.”
Valerie’s brain tried to wrap itself around what Willa was proposing.
Willa huffed in
exasperation, but the hint of a smile hovered on the corners of her mouth. “I’m
saying that we can end this drought without Al’s help. We can save Silva from
falling into the Fractus’s hands.”
Willa wanted to put
her plan into action that very night, but Valerie convinced her to wait until
morning to begin knocking on doors. She knew from experience that ideas were
rarely well received when people were pulled out of bed.
She raced home,
hoping this would be one of the nights that Henry was home. He was the perfect
person to manage the project and make sure that Willa didn’t ruffle any
In the kitchen, she
found Henry and Gideon talking with Henry’s Empath friends, Elle and Will.
Their grim expressions stopped her from sharing her news right away.
“We were about to go
looking for you,” Henry said.
“The Illyrians are
announcing a formal alliance with the Fractus,” Gideon said.
“We knew that they
were leaning that way. Is this a major blow for us?” Valerie asked.
“The Akashic Records
have provided key intel in weapons development and strategy, among other
things,” Gideon said. “The loss of Illyrian contacts will be missed.”
“Is there anything we
Elle and Will
glanced at each other, and then Elle spoke up. “We don’t tell very many people
this, but our parents were Illyrian.”
“I didn’t know the
Illyrians were allowed to have kids. Ignorant of me, I guess,” Valerie said.
“No, you were right,”
Will said. “It’s against Illyrian law, and our parents were both cast out
forever when the authorities found out. They couldn’t survive on land for
She remembered Leo
saying that when Illyrians who had lived beneath the waves for a long time returned
to land, they had trouble remembering how to function with human needs, and
“You must miss them
so much,” Valerie said softly. The pain of her own loss overcame her so fast,
she didn’t see it coming, and she had to bite her cheek to contain her tears.
Elle cleared her
throat as if to shake off the painful memories. “Before they were cast out, we
lived in Illyria for over a century. It’s not very long in the way that
Illyrians measure time, but we do know more than anyone else on land about the
world beneath the waves.”
“We don’t think that
you should accept the Illyrian alliance with the Fractus without visiting the
people yourself and seeing if you can change their minds,” Will said.
”Or maybe convince a
few to disagree and stall an official agreement,” Elle said.
“If a formal
alliance with the Fractus is declared, a spell will be placed on the waters so
that only Fractus can contact Illyrians,” Gideon explained.
“How do I talk to
them? It’s not like I can swim there and meet them in person,” Valerie said.
“In fact, you can,”
Elle said. “Technically, Will and I couldn’t be kicked out of Illyria because
we hadn’t broken any laws. We chose not to return because of what they did to
“We can both return
whenever we want—and Illyrians are allowed to bring guests under special
circumstances,” Will said.
“In this case, as
the leader of the Fist, we could bring you to Illyria to plead your case,” Elle
“You want me to swim
to Illyria as a merperson?” Valerie asked, simultaneously thrilled and
terrified. “I only learned to swim a few years ago.”
Elle and Will
“It’s all different
when you have a tail. It’s as natural as breathing,” Elle said.
“When do we leave?” Valerie
“No time to lose.
The alliance could be formalized at any time,” Henry said.
at dawn,” Elle said.
After filling Henry
and Gideon in on her plans with Willa, Valerie tried to sleep. But the idea of
being deep underwater, with leagues of ocean pressing on her, led to her old
nightmares of confinement.
She awoke in a
sweat, and decided not to try to rest any longer. Instead, she jogged to the
Lake of Knowledge, where she’d agreed to meet the twins. When she arrived, she
saw someone sitting by the shore.
recognize the bend of that head anywhere in the universe. At the sound of her
approach, Thai jerked awake from what must have been a deep sleep.
“Didn’t think you’d
be here so early,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“It’s a bit of a
long story,” Valerie said. “How was your night with the Healers?”
apprentices are kind of intense. I think the Healers’ Guild attracts that type
“I can see why you’d
fit right in,” Valerie teased.
Thai tugged her
hand, so she sat next to him and leaned into his warmth as she told him where
she was headed.
“For some reason,
the thought of you so far away makes me nervous,” he said, his grip on her
tightening. “Dumb, I know, since it wasn’t that long ago that we were a
“At least, if
anything happens, you’ll know the best person to heal me,” she said, and Thai
“Don’t even joke.
Can you bring someone with you?”
“She’ll have me,”
Elle said, and Valerie turned to see her emerging from the trees.
“He went ahead of us
to scout out the city we’ll be visiting,” Elle explained. “Getting to Gabriel
won’t be simple.”
She’d met the
Illyrian when he’d visited Arden as an ambassador, and he’d been distant and
difficult. Negotiating with him wouldn’t be easy.
Illyrians don’t have Grand Masters or kings or anything, because everyone is
considered ethical and in charge of self-policing. But unofficially, Gabriel is
one of the oldest Illyrians, and a lot of people listen to him. He’s one of the
most skilled readers of the Akashic Records.”
“The Illyrians value
integrity, right?” Thai asked.
“Yes, that’s an
essential trait to be considered for immortality,” Elle confirmed. “Though I
don’t know if I agree, since they kicked my parents out and basically handed
them a death sentence for falling in love and having kids.”
“If even just some
of them value true integrity, then I know they’ll listen to you, Valerie,” Thai
said. “If they believe in what is good and pure, they’ll believe in you.”
Thai was giving her
the intense stare that she remembered from the first time she’d seen him. His
faith in her was a powerful thing.
Elle moved toward
the water’s edge. “Let’s go, Valerie. It’s a long swim to Alexandria, the city
where we’re going.”
Valerie joined her
in the water after a last look at Thai. Elle placed her palms on the flat
surface of the water and began to hum a strange tune. A gold ribbon of light
swirled through the water. Valerie watched it in fascination.
A sharp tug pulled
her beneath the surface, and Valerie gasped, expecting to pull in a lungful of
water. Instead, the water passed through her system as naturally as air, and
she didn’t choke.
Her eyes adjusted to
the underwater world. From above, the water’s surface glittered. But once
beneath the surface, she could see a complex series of pathways on the floor of
She saw Elle
elegantly slicing through the water with powerful flicks of her tail. Valerie
admired her own tail, which shone with green scales. She’d wondered if having a
tail would be like trying to walk with her legs tied together, but it was
nothing like that. Her tail was a natural extension of her body, and propelling
herself forward was as easy as taking a step on land. Easier, even.
“Come,” Elle said,
her voice sounding a little hollow, but reaching Valerie’s ears with no
Valerie swam after
her into a dark tunnel in the corner of the lake that quickly gave way to open
ocean. Her tail was more powerful than she imagined it would be, and as they
sped through the water, it strangely reminded Valerie of when she’d flown
through a wind tunnel years ago from Elsinore to Dunsinane. She was weightless.
Water rushed past her skin, exhilarating her.
The deeper they
went, the cooler the water became, but it wasn’t dark. The water was lit by
thousands of little sparks, like underwater fireflies. The effect was a surreal
blue-green world highlighted in gold.
Unless Elle or
Valerie spoke, it was also a silent world, and Valerie found it peaceful. She
could understand how decades might pass down here without the Illyrians
The first sign of
the city of Alexandria was a giant, spiraling conch shell with light shooting
from each of its points. As they swam closer, she saw hundreds of other shells
surrounding the main conch, like homes surrounding a palace.
“I can see why
people don’t want to leave,” Valerie said, taking in the ethereal world.
between structures and off into the wider ocean. Next to Valerie, Elle surveyed
the scene with a strange expression on her face, her hair a gold cloud around
“It still feels like
home after so many years away. I wasn’t sure if it would,” she said.
Elle swam toward one
of the shells a good distance away from the giant conch. Up close, it was as
big as Valerie’s home on land. There was no door, only a small opening where
they could swim inside.
Will was waiting for
them, turning over strange silver triangles in his hands.
“Mom and Dad’s tools
are still here. The whole place is exactly like we left it,” he said.
covered in algae,” Elle said.
“Remember how we’d
race to see who could find a bit of trivia in the records the fastest?” Will
said, still fingering the triangles.
“The winner would
get to choose the story we read that night,” Elle said, her voice more
childlike than Valerie had ever heard it.
The twins seemed to
snap out of their memories at the same time, and they turned to Valerie.
“Gabriel’s here for
the rest of the day. We made it in time,” Will said. “He didn’t recognize me,
and he definitely won’t be expecting Valerie. We should go now and not waste
the element of surprise.”
“Are you ready?”
Elle asked Valerie.
She nodded, and then
followed the twins to the conch shell. When they swam in the opening, Valerie
immediately noticed a change in the temperature of the water. It was warmer,
and filled with bubbles. The extra oxygen when to her head, making her a little
The inside of the
shell was pearlescent, lit by even more of the underwater lights. It was a
giant room with grooves in the walls where Illyrians gathered in pockets. At
the very top was a small crowd.
“His majesty is on
his throne,” Will said, and Valerie couldn’t miss the bitterness in his tone.
“The last time we were
here was when Gabriel sent Mom and Dad to the surface. He took their
immortality right here in this room. They almost drowned before they made it to
the surface,” Elle explained.
“He sounds like a
hard man,” Valerie said.
They swam closer to
“What if there are
pockets of knowledge in the seas on Earth that we don’t know about?” Gabriel
asked the group, who listened eagerly. “The Fractus will give us the chance to explore
those depths. The Fist will shut us off from that knowledge forever.”
“Not true,” Valerie
said, not waiting to be invited to join the conversation. “As leader of the
Fist, I don’t wish for a future where connection between the worlds is closed.
But we need to do it responsibly, in a way that is safe for those without
Gabriel hid his
surprise well, but his brows drew down in obvious displeasure at her presence.
His quick eyes took in Elle and Will, and his frown deepened.
“The child-leader of
the Fist has come to our depths. What an honor,” Gabriel said, not bothering to
hide his condescension.
Some of the other
Illyrians were more excited, muttering to each other and taking the chance to
examine her more closely. Valerie could see merpeople from around the conch
She raised her voice
so she would be heard. “You were all chosen to guard the knowledge of the
universe because you are the best among us. You chose paths of integrity. I ask
you, is it right to use violence to force a world order upon the humans?”
“You said nothing of
this, Gabriel,” an Illyrian woman said with a flick of her tail.
There will be conflict, but the Fractus’s goal is to save lives, not end them.
The humans are irresponsible and need to be reined in,” Gabriel explained.
“Is it ethical to
decide what’s best for them? True, the Fractus may stop some of the evil people
on Earth, but how many good people will be quashed in the process, because they
do not possess magic?” Valerie said.
“Perhaps the answer
to this problem exists in the seas on Earth,” Gabriel said. “We’ll never know
if we don’t have the chance to explore them.”