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The rise always proceeds the fall…
After the events of winter term, Ren wants nothing more than to take a deep breath and be normal—spend some time with her friends, maybe enjoy the festival where shifts are continually unleashed to re-sort everything in the magical world, perhaps actually do something about a particular boy…
But the Department has started a sinister and highly effective campaign, one that threatens everything Ren has built. When unexpected faces and betrayal crop up from her past, she must do anything except engage.
But when a terrible secret is revealed, nothing will stop Ren from unleashing her destiny.
Chapter One: Visits from Old Friends
Machines hummed steadily and wisps of light licked the air as Doctor Greyskull wrapped another thread of magic around my ribcage, fixing the fractures inside. Viewing screens teaming with spells were arrayed all around the room showing other rooms in Medical, areas around campus, the current telecast of the combat competition, and news reports on the Department and Excelsine.
Greyskull had called up each in succession; vainly trying to keep me perched in place while he worked.
I fidgeted, view wavering, as another flurry of mental communications ran rampant through my brain from all of the delinquents—the Bandits, as Patrick kept calling us now—with status reports, updates, or requests for reassurance that everyone in our group was safe.
I was still trying to incorporate the frequency simulator Trick, Saf, and the others had made for me. As an auditory process, it wasn’t easy for me, but the benefit of knowing everyone was safe was worth the pain.
A flurry of replies came back—“Safe!” “We did it.” “Bandits United!” “When are you getting out?” “How’s Olivia?” mixed together in my head.
“Miss Crown,” Greyskull said in a beleaguered voice, and I realized I had twitched again at hearing my friends’ replies, ruining Greyskull’s carefully placed healing string.
I cringed and gave my friends a mental “be back soon,” then swiped my finger over my armband to turn off the communications.
“I know, yes. I just need to sit still for fifteen more minutes. Fifteen minutes. No time! Anyone can do that. I can do that! And, you can call me Ren,” I tacked unnecessarily onto the end.
“Just until everything settles, Ren.” He gave the magic a little twist, completing a complicated knot, and I released a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I did feel better.
“On top of not being completely well at the start of your outing today,” he continued, “during your trip you endured quite a few negative magic impacts.”
There was a gentle rebuke in his words.
“Everything turned out okay,” I said lightly. It was still something of a surprise. I had gone to rescue Olivia knowing that there was a chance I might not be coming back.
He cast a gently chastising glance up at me, then continued his delicate work. “Phillip and Miss Price are home, and that is something to be celebrated. It is to be determined how well everything else turned out.” He pulled a new string of magic through a gash in my side in a quick series of motions, patching it. “And you can call me Grey.”
“No.” But he was smiling.
I relaxed a little. The “to be determined” pieces, as he deemed them, hadn’t been my focus. And I’d learned few things ever went well. I always got the job done, in the end, though—even if I did end up in Medical every time.
I reached into my pocket and touched the marble resting there. I rolled it between my fingers. It contained a trace amount of the Third Layer’s magic. Magic I had put inside.
I was capable of extraordinary things.
I could fix this world.
“And in the three-way tie for first—Alexander Dare!” declared the announcer from the combat competition broadcast on one of the screens to my left. “Amazing turnabout this past day. Fraught with seesawing standings. After destroying the competition for days, no one thought it possible that he still had a chance—not after the Dare scion missed the swords competition this afternoon and looked to be indisposed for the remainder of the events. But he recovered just in the nick of time to enter the Freespar field, and the media mages are still talking about what it was, exactly, that he used on the field at the end to stay in the competition. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it almost looked like a piece of Origin Magic.”
“How interesting,” Greyskull murmured without looking up.
I swallowed, but said nothing in response. I hadn’t given Axer anything. But then, if he wanted my magic, he didn’t need my consent.
The announcer kept talking. “Speaking of earlier events, a record fifty contestants entered the medical tent a few hours ago, beset by the same flu enchantment that disabled Alexander Dare. Freespar was delayed for an hour in order to treat the participants, and though a number of groups are calling foul on the delay, the action was magically supported by no less than three quarters of the competitors. Truly a remarkable cross-layer diplomatic win this week in the sports world.”
So that’s how he’d gotten away from the competition. A flu enchantment. Probably with his “body” lying on a cot conveniently next to Ramirez’s.
A fortunate event for Constantine, Olivia, and me. Constantine and I had gone to Corpus Sun to rescue Olivia knowing the risks—knowing we might not come back. That Axer, and whoever he had brought with him, had contributed to us getting out alive was certain, and I was grateful.
We had almost toted Raphael back to campus with us, though, wearing Marsgrove’s skin.
“Would you have known?” I asked Greyskull, knowing he would make the connection to what I was thinking. “Would Raphael have been successful in coming here?”
“Likely, at least for the amount of time he’d need to implement whatever he planned. He knows Phillip, and hides himself well, especially from me.” Greyskull didn’t look up. “Though he will have far more difficulty doing so in the future.”
A tattoo swirled in an infinity pattern on the back of his hand.
I watched it move sinuously across his knuckles. “Because of the tattoo?”
“Because of the tattoo,” he confirmed, nodding.
I recalled the euphoric look of joy that had appeared on Raphael’s face after the tattoo hit him. It had been a magic Raphael had been totally unprepared for. “What did it do?”
Greyskull continued to weave his healing spells, but his eyes were slightly unfocused, like he was internally gazing into the distance. “It was meant to remind him of things forgotten. Emotion can be the most powerful weapon one has.”
I had certainly found that to be true.
“He used the tattoo against Kaine,” I said. “It made Kaine scream.”
Greyskull smiled unpleasantly. “Happiness is a potent sword against someone who lives solely on pain.”
I examined the slight bend of his head as he worked. I thought about the yearbook and the feeling of kinship reaching up from each of its pages. Every choice the doctor made in this war was fraught with possible pain—his friendships pulling him in opposite directions.
“Are you okay?” I studied him closely.
“I am still where I choose to be.” He smiled, directing the healing tattoo into my skin. “Your concern is noted, though.”
There was enough playfulness in that response that I didn’t want to ask the other question foremost on my mind. However, it couldn’t be left unsaid.
“Will you…be targeted by Raphael now, for helping me?”
Greyskull fiddled with another of his tattoos before setting it on the back of my hand. I couldn’t read his expression.
“I gave you something that I hoped would ultimately help him as well.”
Compassion welled within me. I couldn’t side with Raphael, but I understood Greyskull. I could see the hope that he didn’t want to let go of.
“The power of friendship?” I said lightly.
“Perhaps. Never forget that there is a line, though, Miss Crown—Ren. That sometimes the most loyal thing you can do for your friends is to tell them they are wrong, or to help set them on a new path, even though they might hate you for it. Sometimes loyalty is in not towing the line. Or so I’ve been told.” He smiled ruefully. “I will deal with any consequences from my actions. That is all each of us can do, in the end.”
I rubbed my finger against my pocket, over the marble inside.
“I’m going to fix the world,” I said, somewhat absently, looking at the screen in the corner that was cycling through replays of the destruction of Corpus Sun, the abnormal layer shifts currently affecting the region, the last year of terrorist activities, and the news conference being held by the Department’s public relations head.
“I will watch it burn as you do,” Greyskull said, just as absently, as if we were discussing preparations for a summer storm.
“Do you think that’s what it will take?” I asked, watching a mushroom cloud of magic destroying a Second Layer city in a replay on the screen. “Burning?”
“Sometimes you can repair the walls of a home. Shore everything up—rewire, patch, and paint. But sometimes the entire foundation needs to be rebuilt. People have a bad habit of determining which is needed, based on factors apart from the actual timbers.”
I tapped a finger mulling over his words.
I could fix this world.
“I will add,” Greyskull said in an easy and calm voice, “that perhaps you might want to wait a few days before making any major decisions. The world is still running, much the same as it was the day before, whatever the Department wishes in the midst of its scrambling. Perhaps you might consider…being a student?”
I pierced him with a look of horror. “I’m a woman of action. Such choices would damage my reputation, Skeletor.”
“My name is from a distinguished line of healing mages who practiced the mental arts, I’ll have you know,” he said placidly, while deliberately spinning the tattoo he was manipulating on my skin.
“Ow, ow, ow!” His manipulation didn’t really hurt; it was more the way someone might repeatedly activate my funny bone or the weird spot under my kneecap—sending my leg into spasms.
“Okay, okay, settle down. You know you are the only hero for me.” I rubbed my leg, and tried to hide my grin. “Don’t you have healer’s oaths—do no harm, and all that?”
“Mages are tricksters in all things. Better to trust no one,” he said gravely, unable to hide the twitch of his lips, though he, too, tried.
“I’ll certainly trust your word on that,” I said, just as sincerely.
“You are wise beyond your fourteen years.”
“And you are witty beyond your forty.”
He shook his head. “My wintered eyes weep.”
With his intensity, physique, and tattoos, Greyskull physically looked like he participated in a Fight Club after hours, but as a doctor, he always projected patience and kindness when he healed a student. It was an interesting juxtaposition.
I patted his hand affectionately. “Your eyes are like dark chocolate chips of sadness.”
He produced a sandwich from the ether. “Don’t eat them.”
“No promises.” I snatched the food, suddenly realizing I was starving. It had been a while since Constantine and I had eaten.
I let Greyskull work undisturbed while I ate and watched the screens monitoring Olivia’s and Constantine’s rooms.
Olivia was still out cold in hers.
Constantine’s long body was reclined against a mass of pillows, like a sultan in his posh tent, and he was staring at the ceiling of his room while manipulating small bits of magic between his fingertips. Plotting something. Always.
A heavy field of healing magic surrounded his midsection.
I forced the last bite of sandwich into my mouth, relaxation failing me.
Greyskull had prioritized our injuries immediately, and had deemed Constantine’s stomach wound—containing necrotizing components from Kaine’s shadows—the worst of the lot, even above Olivia’s mind-alteration.
I’d been allowed to hover and help Greyskull tend Constantine’s wound, then secure Olivia in her own room, before being bustled into a third room for my examination.
I wiped my hands slowly against each other, gaze fixed on the wound. “Constantine will be okay?”
Greyskull tipped his head, and a tattoo rose and circled his neck, then disappeared beneath his shirt. He seemed to understand that I was looking for reassurance. “If you hadn’t used the lotus bloom along with your connection to him, your friend’s fate would have been different.”
“But he’ll be okay?” I probed, sinking the nails of both hands into the underside of the chair.
“Your friend will recover fully, especially with the group dynamics you have all stumbled into. The lotus held the shadows in a type of stasis, and we eradicated the seeds before they were able to do their intended damage. If left to serve their purpose, the shadows kill or…alter the victim. Kaine’s shadows corrupt.”
There was bleakness in the statement. And when it came to Greyskull, that almost assuredly meant the words tied back to Raphael.
“Shadow magic doesn’t have to be evil.” Greyskull delicately tied together two ends of my magic that had been hanging in burnt tatters for the past week, his fingers rock steady even through his bitter sadness. “But Kaine has few positive emotions. It makes his spells especially twisted.”
“Raphael was with Kaine, fighting him, when they disappeared. Do you think…?”
Greyskull’s lips tightened. “I don’t know.”
The two men were wherever the portal pad had spit them out—or maybe in some sort of in- between. A shadowed limbo state created by the combined magic of a Shadow Mage and a man who had Origin magic at his disposal and protection magic in his blood.
I wondered what a hybrid of Kaine’s and Raphael’s differing brands of insanity would look like.
Greyskull’s lips tightened further, seeming to understand my unspoken imagining.
“Happier thoughts, Ren,” Greyskull murmured.
I concentrated on the news feed on the left screen—the one giving manic reports on everything from the explosion in Corpus Sun and resulting layer shifts, to the hastily called commission examining the Department, to the All-Layer Combat Competition results.
“Yes,” the announcer said. “The decision is in… A panel has decided that the unprecedented situation of having three combatants tied for first place—one Second Layer mage, one Third, and one Fourth—will be resolved thusly: They will not be competing in additional tie-breaking events, but will celebrate unity across layers as co-winners. They will start their victory tour after the closing ceremony events tomorrow night.”
The combat mages from Excelsine had done extremely well. Nicholas Dare had absolutely dominated the distance categories. Axer’s five-man squad had earned at least one first in their individual specialties as well as the team event, and each had placed in the top thirty overall competitors. A truly excellent showing for one school.
Bellacia had to be swimming in delight. Her broadcast outing the Department’s illegal detainment of Phillip Marsgrove and the praetorians’ accidental trapping of Helen Price’s daughter in “hell” was on everyone’s spelled lips, and Bellacia’s correspondents had been in exactly the right places to gather each piece of news first. She’d had advanced knowledge of what might happen and she’d strategically placed her people.
She deserved the accolades for it.
I stroked my armband, where the recording device had been stashed. The destruction of Corpus Sun was receiving only a quarter of the attention it deserved amidst the other frenzied news broadcasts. It was just another minor data point in a long list of revenge inspired incidents by the Department’s forces against the Third Layer.
News not nearly as interesting as what the government had been engaged in in their own layer.
Another thank you for Bellacia to add to my growing list. I had no doubt that she planned to collect on all of them, too.
Motion at the corridor window caught my attention, and I winced at the people plodding slowly down the hall, their gazes fixed on me until they could no longer crane their necks any farther.
Greyskull, attuned as he was to me while swimming in my magic, caught the flinch of my body and followed my gaze, eyes narrowing on the hall. The glass frosted over immediately.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Take heart. People get used to spectacle, Miss Crown, and then it becomes boring.”
Patrick’s words about me after Bloody Tuesday echoed in my head. “Leper and God, Crown.”
I touched the marble in my pocket again, and looked back at Olivia’s screen, seeking solace in the current safety of my friends.
Olivia’s eyes popped open.
I leaned forward abruptly, eyes narrowing, and Greyskull’s gaze again followed mine.
He frowned and let go of a minor healing string in order to call up a deeper set of Olivia’s vitals. “She shouldn’t be out of the initial coma. No less the secondary measures.” He swiped a hand in the air and a series of blue lines appeared. “Odd,” he murmured.
Tension tightened further, uncomfortably digging into my gut. “You said a healing coma would last for days, if the person holding the magic wished it,” I said.
In the aftermath of Bloody Tuesday, Greyskull had made it seem like a fantastically bad notion for me to undergo a healing coma, stating that if the Department got hold of the ownership of the coma spell things would rapidly spiral out of my control.
The kind of “out of my control” that ended in a collar.
And now, here was Olivia waking up from something that should have had her laid out for days.
“I don’t like it,” I said tightly. The coma had been placed to prevent Olivia from employing the spell implanted in her by Raphael.
I had to hold onto the edges of the chair, curling my fingers into the undersurface, in order to stem the vibrations of my body trying to rise.
“Nor do I,” he said. A wave of his hand brought three charts into view. They shone blue and green in the air. He looked through them quickly. “Her vitals are stable, but her magic here.” He pointed to the back section of her brain. “Highly elevated. Agitated. Something activated the system that flushes outside magic from the body.”
I frowned, and freed from some of Greyskull’s magic, I flipped the view on one of the monitoring screens from Olivia’s room to the hall. No one was standing outside her room. There was just the normal amount of traffic traversing the corridor.
I switched back to her room view. Nothing seemed out of place.
I looked back at Greyskull, who frowned, but shook his head. “She’s not doing anything harmful. We must spend four more minutes here, then the magic will release and you can check your roommate to your heart’s content.”
I remembered the way that Olivia had abruptly awakened when I’d drawn close to her in Corpus Sun. Maybe it was just a thing.
“What could happen in four minutes, right?” I asked, trying to relax.
“Naught but a pinch of time,” Greyskull agreed, picking up the magic string he had set aside. Olivia’s monitor zoomed nearer at his silent command so that we could both keep a closer watch. He tied the string to another in the healing web he was stitching.
I took a deep breath and let it out.
Olivia’s gaze zeroed in on me abruptly, staring right at the enchanted bug in her room that I was looking through. My breath caught on my exhale.
“Can she see—?”
Olivia’s gaze sliced toward her door and she pulled her legs beneath her, rising on her knees.
“Something’s wrong.” Heedless of patient courtesy, I reached out and switched to the hall view again, breaking one of Greyskull’s careful stitches.
There was someone just coming into view. Who…? All breath in my diaphragm whooshed out as my gut clenched and I surged forward.
Helen Price strode fully into frame, heading straight for Olivia’s room.
“Miss Crown! Ren!” Greyskull made a grab for me.
“No, no, no, no—” I started ripping away the healing magic hindering me as I tried to lunge toward the door.
Greyskull grabbed me, and immediately secured my arms to my sides with magic. “Security,” came a shout, inside my brain, stunning me into motionlessness for a moment. It sounded like Greyskull was speaking out loud, but his lips weren’t moving. “Corridor E2WA immediately. Escort Mrs. Price from the premises. She has no authority to be here.”
I understood in some deep recess of my mind that Greyskull had shared his end of a frequency communication, and was letting me listen to what he was mentally ordering. I also understood he was doing it for my benefit, and in order to keep me under control, but I couldn’t look away from the feed where Olivia’s mother was drawing closer to her room. I started struggling again, blindly pushing at the magic binding me.
“No, I do not understand,” he responded to someone. “What directive? From whom? Belay th—Stand by fo—I need you here. Unacceptable, Provost Joh—All doors, lock. Head access only. Administrator Stone, no I will not back down, this is my facility and I have direct c—”
His shared frequencies were becoming mentally entangled as he tried to respond simultaneously to multiple people. The edges of each interrupted thought curled in my brain like mist blown by a breath on a cold morning, eventually lost in the ether. The stunning nature of the mental share finally receded enough that I stopped trying to keep any track of what he was saying, and put all of my focus into fighting to get free.
“Ren, cease. I can’t—No, Provo—”
I stilled as Helen’s hand hit the handle of Olivia’s door. And something about that must have registered with Greyskull, because suddenly there was silence in my head, as he, too, focused entirely on Olivia’s mother’s hand.
I’d heard Greyskull give an overriding lock command on the whole ward. Olivia’s room had already been made inaccessible to anyone but those healers to whom Greyskull had given explicit permission. An overriding lock should cancel everyone but the head of the ward—Greyskull.
The door was locked. Helen couldn’t open it. She’d just have to stand there, ranting. That could be dealt with.
On the feed, Helen smiled. There was something very wrong with her eyes and she pulled a finger over her heart in a spelled line.
Blind panic surged in reaction to whatever I unconsciously recognized, reptilian instinct activated, and my magic shoved at Greyskull’s. His magic unraveled around me and I managed two stuttered steps forward.
Greyskull grabbed me, freezing me again. “Answer,” he yelled. Something had to be wrong with his mental voice if he was speaking audibly. “Fitz? Ng? Phillip? Anyone? Answer. Miss Price? Olivia, I need you to answer.”
But in the feed, Olivia was completely focused on the door.
Helen Price smoothed back her perfectly coiffed blonde hair, removed a pin from beneath the strands, and touched it to the handle of the door.
The lock to Olivia’s room clicked open, and in that second, my world collapsed.
This will be the fourth book in a planned five book series that will wrap up the threads that started in The Awakening of Ren Crown.
The Awakening of Ren Crown (1)
The Protection of Ren Crown (2)
The Rise of Ren Crown (3)
The Unleashing of Ren Crown (4)
Final Book (5)