Mar 20 2012 3:00pm
Morning arrived in Indigo Springs, but it did not bring the dawn.
The shattered remains of Astrid Lethewood’s hometown rested beneath a dense thicket of magically contaminated forest. Earthquake-tumbled buildings lay in pieces in the understory, the concrete rubble interspersed with steel beams, plastic refuse, and the knotted roots of overgrown cedar and spruce.
Though daylight could not penetrate the matted canopy overhead, it wasn’t dark: the glow of raw magic suffused everything it contaminated. The massive trunks of the alchemized trees cast a lambent blue-white light. Their glimmering, fast-growing roots eroded ancient bedrock and cement building foundations with impartial ruthlessness. Blades of grass and seed cones shone; motes of dust hung in the air, winking like stars.
The trees had crushed cars and shoved whole homes aside as they shot upward, like a thousand fairy-tale beanstalks . . . and then died. Even magical plants needed sunshine, and most of the affected trees had lost the race to the sky. Much of the luminescent tonnage overhead, as a result, was deadwood.
As the federal treason trial raised its curtain in Utah, as Sahara Knax threatened judge and jury and Will Forest finally lost faith in the system, Astrid was planting tomato seedlings.
She had erected a makeshift greenhouse atop one of the few buildings that had weathered the disaster—the Indigo Springs Grand Hotel. The hotel was the center of her world, in a sense: when she escaped government custody, six months earlier, she had found it standing here, stately and solid, defying overgrowth and tremors alike. Here, in the heart of the enchanted forest, she had begun pruning out the tons of sun-starved vegetation around the building. By reducing the dead trees to chips, she had carved out an open space at ground level, a clearing both supported and illuminated by the trunks of the surviving trees.
Beyond and above the perimeter of the clearing, the forest remained overgrown and impassable. The tangle blocked out daylight, but it also shielded them from ground assault and from Roche’s planes.
As if summoned by her thought, a jet howled past, rattling the panes of the greenhouse.
“You could just make tomatoes using magic.”
Astrid had not been alone, even in those early days. Mark Clumber had been with her ever since she got away from Roche. An ill-tempered sound engineer with mismatched eyes, Mark had always seemed like a big-city con man to her, not a hometown boy. In reality, they’d known each other since kindergarten.
“Gardening helps me think, Mark,” she said. “Plants won’t grow without real light.”
“I’ve chanted the helium tank over there—it’ll make sunshine.”
Mark frowned. “Government might pick up the heat.”
“Then what? They bomb us? They’re already bombing us.”
“You’ve been keeping the air force out of here.”
“Doesn’t mean I want you making my job harder.”
If they were mobile, protecting themselves would be simpler, a game of hide and seek. But Astrid was tied to Indigo Springs. The magical well was here, and they had to defend it.
“It’s a teeny bit of sunlight, Mark.”
The two of them had never liked each other: it was one of the reasons she trusted him now. Sahara had flattered them both— then lied. She’d agree to something, then do as she pleased. And that was before she’d lost her mind.
These days, Astrid preferred honest dissent.
“Today it’s sunlight. Tomorrow you’ll want to put in a landing strip for the jets and see if you can win the pilots over to Peace, Love, and the Magical Way.”
“Think that would work?”
He covered his face in his hands, moaning.
Astrid relaxed. “You’re not angry.”
“The bombing runs have been off target, haven’t they? Nobody’s getting to the well as long as I’m around.”
True, so true, a voice tittered. She shook it away, like a mosquito.
“So,” Mark harrumphed. “Sunshine?”
With a magician’s flourish, Astrid lay her hand against the rusty helium tank. Waxy drops of golden light wobbled into the air, filling a nonexistent balloon that shivered liquidly as it grew. It rose to the scooped-out ceiling of the clearing, splatting against the trees and coating them in light. The encampment brightened, and Astrid felt warmth on her skin.
“Waste of power—vitagua throws plenty of light to work by.” Mark gestured at the glowing tree trunks.
“Cold light. Anyway, it’s not extravagant. I’m just borrowing some of the sun shining on the canopy.”
Mark gave her the look that meant he wished her priorities were in line with his. Thankfully, he seemed as tired of speaking the words as she was of ignoring them.
“Aren’t you guys watching the trial?” Patience Skye appeared on the hotel roof, apparently from nowhere.
Patience, like Mark, had been in Astrid’s house during their standoff with the police last September. Sahara had dunked both of them in vitagua.
The raw form of magic was cursed, and direct exposure turned people to animals—“Frog Princed” them, Mark liked to say. It stripped away their emotional armor, amplifying psychological weaknesses.
Astrid had found a way to arrest the process. It wasn’t quite a cure; it hadn’t cured Sahara’s greed for magical power. But she had managed to keep Patience and Mark from going crazy or devolving into animals.
The treatment involved fusing chantments into their bodies, items that drew the contamination into themselves. It was an okay compromise, and someone thus treated could make use of the magical powers embedded within the chantment.
Patience had been the first attempt. Astrid had fused three objects into her: one gave her stunning good looks, while a second allowed her to pass through solid objects. The third had been a shape-shifting chantment. But three objects had been too many. Patience’s appearance changed at random and entirely against her will.
“Patience, I need a favor,” Astrid began. Then Everett Lethewood—Astrid’s mother, sort of—appeared on the hotel roof beside them.
Like Mark and Patience, Ev had been exposed to raw vitagua. In his case, the contamination had revealed something he said he’d known all along. Ev wasn’t female, hadn’t been meant, he said, to live in a woman’s body.
Her Ma, really a man? At times, Astrid still didn’t quite believe it. But when she treated Ev’s contamination, Astrid gave him the ability to change a person’s sex. Ev hadn’t hesitated: his body now was as male as he claimed his spirit had always been. He hadn’t shown any inclination to change back.
Patience spread her arms wide, drinking in the sunlight. She was short-waisted and petite today, with Japanese features and a buzz cut. “These sunglob thingies work at night?”
“No. You gotta have sunshine to borrow sunshine,” Astrid said. “And they burn out. Someone will have to make new ones.”
“Good job for new volunteers, I suppose,” Mark said.
“It’s a relief to see daylight,” Patience said, basking. “I’ll do it if no one else will.”
“I have something else in mind for you,” Astrid said.
“We need someone to speak for us in the unreal,” Astrid said. The magic she was restoring to the ordinary world was coming from a realm her father had called Fairyland. The trapped residents of that realm were demanding their freedom . . . and Astrid had promised to give it to them. “The pressure on the magical well is increasing.”
“How much?” Mark demanded.
She shrugged. “They’re pushing. Testing me.”
Patience clucked, an old-woman noise that reflected her age more accurately than did her appearance. “They got every right.”
“I’m committed to getting the vitagua back here where it belongs, you know that. But I need time.”
“The question is how much time, sweetie?”
“However long it takes to get the body count down—”
“I’m for no body count at all,” Ev said.
An awkward pause: it was already too late for that.
“You’ve seen the Big Picture,” Astrid said. “We have to take it slow, equip people to deal with the emergence of magic.”
“Fine,” Patience sighed. “I’ll go play ambassador.”
“Pop? Would you go with her?”
“Me?” Ev’s weather-beaten cheeks reddened. “I’ve got a job. I’m helping the trans folk coming through Bramblegate—”
“We can send ’em to you for gendermorphing,” Mark said.
“Young man, I don’t much care for the way you give cute names to every little thing, and that word especially—”
“I’ll make a second chantment for the hospital, Pop,” Astrid interrupted. “The medics can do gender transitions here.”
“There’s Two-Spirited people in the unreal, Ev,” Patience said. “Some of ’em might want morph—transforming too.”
Ev glowered. “Astrid’s trying to get me out of here before someone drops a nuke on her head.”
“Nobody’s getting nuked, Pop.”
“Yes.” She knew the future—bits and pieces of it, anyway. There were disasters in the offing, terrible things, but nothing like that.
“Roche knows that if he lobs a nuke at us, we might manage to send it back,” Mark said. Shortly after their escape, the government had fired missiles into town. Some had exploded harmlessly, far from the magical well. As for the rest, the four of them—with the help of a growing pool of volunteers—had sent them off course.They detonated missiles above the forest, out at sea. They’d even sent one back to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Roche was holed up, blowing it up a few miles from the Wendover air base just to make a point.
Sabotaging unmanned missiles had been no small feat. Magic took power. Diverting those first barrages had left them starving, kitten weak, and half frozen. But Roche got the message. Now he sent manned flights, planes with napalm. Will must have told him that Astrid wouldn’t harm the pilots.
“The point of Sahara’s treason trial is to show that the government is in control of the magical outbreak,” Mark said. “They can’t go nuclear on us without seeming desperate.”
Ev relaxed. The chantment Astrid had embedded in Mark—his eyeglasses—made it impossible for him to lie.
Astrid took his hand. “Pop, I’m not coddling you. Sending you to the unreal shows I’m serious about keeping my promises. Please go. Remind the Roused we’re on the same side. They have something I want, remember?”
“Jacks Glade.” Pop nodded. “Okay. Patience can calm people down, I’ll . . . gendermorph the transgendered folks there.”
Astrid felt a surge of relief. The grumbles, those little voices she kept hearing, claimed Ev was going to survive this crisis. But knowing the future didn’t keep her from worrying.
“Astrid?” Tuning forks hung around their necks quivered, projecting a lilting Irish voice. “There’s a newcomer caught in Briarpatch. I think it’s Will Forest.”
“Is it Will day?” she said, pleased.
“Gee, I guess we’re all saved,” Mark muttered.
“Don’t be a grouch.” Astrid headed through the nearest archway of brambles.
She stepped out onto the intricately patterned marble floor ofan old train station. Gleaming rose-colored stone stretched between its crumbled walls. Scarred oak benches with thick leather upholstery formed a gallery to one side of the gate, across from a big ARRIVALS board that still showed the time of day in cities around the world. Two dozen people were gathered on the benches, watching a glassed-in television that was tuned, naturally, to Sahara’s trial.
Over where the departure platforms had been, columns of frozen vitagua rose skyward, casting their oceanic glow.
As Astrid crossed the marble floor, she became part of a small crowd flowing through the archway; the train station was their primary transportation hub. Anyone who passed through the gate of brambles ended up here.
Mark appeared at her side, hustling to catch up.
“Would I miss the big reunion?”
They crossed the plaza, stepping among the blue glowing columns and murmuring “Briarpatch” in unison. Blue light washed out everything . . . and then they were at the rim of a pit of blackberry canes. Will Forest stood in its midst, his hand—the one with the chanted ring—snagged in blackberry thorns.
A rotund Swede in a parka got out of a lawn chair, raising his hand in greeting. “I tried knocking him out,” he said, breath misting in the chill. “Didn’t work.”
“He has a protection chantment,” Astrid said. “You’d just be vamping calories off him.”
“Don’t worry; I stopped.”
“Mark? You going to let him loose?”
Mark tsked. “There’s security on Bramblegate for a reason.”
“Come on, he’s not dangerous.”
“Yes, infallible one,” Mark sighed, speaking to his security people. “Jupiter, pull the pin on Bramblegate.”
The thorns entangling Will’s arm curled back. Astrid brought them all into the plaza, into the semiprivate alcove near a bank of lockers.
Will blinked, adjusting to the changed light. “Mark, hi. Hello, Astrid.”
Astrid fought an unexpected interior flutter. “What’s the etiquette for this? I feel like we’re friends, but the only time we met was when you were interrogating me for the Roach.”
“Want to see how a hug feels?”
Mark grimaced, no doubt biting back a sarcastic comment. Will opened his arms, and Astrid stepped into the embrace. It felt more natural than she would have guessed.
“I guess you knew Arthur would strike out on finding Carson and Ellie,” Will said.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“Ever since we caught Caro and the children weren’t with her . . .” He was hollow eyed and thin. “I need you to find them, Astrid.”
“I can’t do worse than Roche.”
“More optimism, please. By now I’m probably wanted for treason.”
“I can do upbeat.” She gave him a smile, tried to seem steady, rock certain. “Remember the grumbles?”
A nod. “They tell you the future.”
“They speak of a classroom of children, all learning how to chant. And your kids are there.”
“A magic school? What if it’s Alchemites teaching them—?”
“It’s my class, Will. I hear me.”
“You’re absolutely sure?” He looked hopeful and apprehensive. “The grumbles have lied before.”
“They withhold things, but they don’t lie.” It was something she understood better now. “And the longer we’re in the Spill, the more I learn.”
“In the Spill?”
Careful, she thought, take it slow. “Before, there was almost no magic. People like my dad made chantments and Fyremen hunted them, closing down the wells. I screwed all that up—”
“—by spilling tons of vitagua into the ravine, I know.”
“Will, we’re still spilling. The more magic we dribble out, the better it will be when the well pops.”
“When it pops, not if?” He took that in, evaluating the information without seeming to judge her.
He had never judged her, Astrid thought, not even when she told him she’d killed Jacks’s dad.
“When,” she confirmed.
“I call it Boomsday,” Mark said. “Astrid doesn’t like that, so much—it rhymes with Doomsday.”
“Which is why you do like it?” Will asked.
“Astrid prefers the Small Bang.”
“Because the smaller the better,” Astrid said.
“Yessir, boss, sir.”
Will wasn’t tracking their banter. “What does the well opening have to do with Carson and Ellie?”
“The grumbles say we have good days ahead, Will. They talk of magicians digging wells, feeding the hungry. A floating city in the Pacific, cleaning the water, repopulating fish stocks. The Roused free, the curse broken . . .”
“Meanwhile society goes down the toilet?”
“No! We figure it out. Will, there’s still going to be cars and email and plastic surgery. It’s just there’ll also be magical cures for cancer and, you know, sea monsters.”
“Happily ever after?”
“I don’t know about ever after, Will, but it’s going to be good. A long honeymoon. Lifetimes.”
“Happy After doesn’t have the right ring.”
She tried a disarming shrug, realized she was aping a move of Sahara’s, and ended up feeling self-conscious. “This is why I leave naming things to Mark.”
“A good future.” Will chewed this over. “You promised that my children would be fine. That they’d thrive.”
She let the grumbles in, listening for the children. “I hear Carson. He’s chanted a pair of magic . . . skates, I think. He’s laughing. You’re arguing with Ellie over homework. . . .”
As she spoke, she felt the shape of that future; she was cold, for some reason, chilled to the bone. Will was teasing her about being a permissive stepmother. . . .
Stepmother? Were they together, then? Her emotions surged, tangling: hope, panic, a pang of guilt for Jacks, who had loved her, an upwelling of nameless, unidentifiable grief.
“How soon?” Will’s brittle tone brought her back.
She shivered. “They’re young, Will, still young. It can’t be long.”
Mark shot her a worried glance from behind Will’s back. Soon wasn’t good: they were trying to hold off the Small Bang.
Will looked at the glowing columns, the people vanishing into the blue light. “I don’t know how long I can wait.”
“We get them back, Will. They’re young, they’re chanters, and we’re all laughing.”
“Har dee har.” He took a ragged breath, turning to Mark, and began to extend a hand in greeting. Then fighter jets screeched overhead, and he froze.
Astrid covered her ears. Seconds later, explosives whumped a few miles away.
“Off target,” Mark said with a smug grin.
“Mark’s keeping the bombs off us,” Astrid explained.
“All by himself?”
“Not at all. I have minions, underlings, cannon fodder—”
“Mark!” Astrid said. “He’s kidding about the fodder.”
Mark said, “Speaking of my team, I should be with them. You giving Will the grand tour?”
“Catch you both later, then.” Giving Will a nettled look, Mark headed off into the glow.
“What now?” Will said.
There were so many answers to that question: she wanted his advice on a dozen different things. “I’ll show you what we’re doing here. It’ll give you an idea of how we’ll go after your kids.”
It was the right answer: he brightened.
She led him among the columns of vitagua, saying, “Bigtop,” as they stepped down the concrete steps and came out in front of the hotel.
Will’s jaw dropped.
She realized anew how strange it looked. Even with the overgrown trees and brush cleared away, the forest floor was drenched in vitagua, dangerous and uninhabitable. They’d left it that way, a bright impassable lagoon of magical fluid and mulched forest. Glowing mushrooms formed a carpet over the slime, toxic bluetinged amanitas in fairy rings, clusters of gold-streaked honey fungus, fluted chanterelles and tall, porous morels all lending an exotic, fairy-tale look to the place.
Working up from the floor, she and her volunteers had created an island of fill by gathering the bones of the destroyed town, forming piles of concrete and steel among the enormous stumps of the dead trees. Abandoned cars, bits of highway, and garbage bridged the clearing; brightly colored silk tents were pitched on its main hub. New fill radiated from the central campground in spokes, raised pathways that expanded outward into the lagoon.
The fill bridged the space between the hotel and one other building they’d managed to salvage whole—the Indigo Springs hospital.
Sunshine globbed onto tree branches like paint, a camp built on rubble, vitagua-filled bottles hung from the trees, magic mushrooms, tinkling musical messages . . .
Will turned a slow circle. “This is your base of operations?”
Astrid nodded. “Let’s start with the ravine.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Will followed.
“How much do you remember about vitagua?” she asked.
“Let’s see . . . magic used to be a living cell. It allowed people to bend the rules of nature.”
“Right,” she said.
“Centuries ago, when the Inquisition began burning witches, the cells—”
“Magicules, right, were driven into the unreal and they became vitagua.”
“Blue in color, thick as blood, dangerous as hell,” she said, quoting her father. The fluid had been drizzling back into the real world for centuries. Well wizards like Dad had taken it drop by drop, locking it within magic items like Will’s ring.
The physical breach between the real and unreal was in the ravine. It had been concealed in the chimney of Dad’s old house, and an irregular pile of bricks still marked the epicenter of the Spill. Blue fluid oozed through the porous, cracked bricks, pooling in the ravine, forming a boxy lake.
Will peered down. “That’s . . . a lot of vitagua.”
“Barely a drop in the bucket,” Astrid countered. “Remember the glaciers in the unreal?”
He nodded. “You’re spilling it into the woods?”
“I’m also making chantments.” She pointed at a line of shopping carts filled with junk: small carvings, combs, dishes, lampshades, books, tools, purses, plastic necklaces, jewelry boxes, flowerpots . . .
“Where’s all that coming from?”
“There are crews out salvaging in the evacuated towns. See that work crew there, going through the stuff?”
“That’s . . . what, twenty people?”
“It’s a lot of work. They have to sort through everything. Broken stuff has to be mended. Glass and electronics can’t be chanted at all.”
“You must be making hundreds of chantments.”
“Abracadabra.” She’d had a gold barbell pierced through the web between her right thumb and index finger: chanting required a break in the skin. She twisted the barbell before bending to dip her fingers into the flow of vitagua from the ravine.
Liquid magic passed through her body, seeping from the piercing in the web of her hand and, from there, into the rescued objects. She’d shown Will how this worked before; she didn’t need to explain that she was binding raw magic into the scavenged items so people could safely access its power.
Peace and a sense of vitality flooded her.
This was what she was meant to do. The personality juggling, the meetings, the planning and recruiting, the endless defense of the town—those were just by-products of the Spill. Item by item, she made the junk into chantments. Volunteers bustled in to take the carts away.
Will asked: “What’ll you do with them?”
“Mostly, give them away.”
“You’re not hanging on to everything?”
“Only what we need. Being a well wizard is about sharing power.” She pointed at a red silk tent. “Over there, we have a team of volunteers using chantments that make them psychic. They’ve been working on locating your children.”
“What if they say the kids are in Timbuktu, surrounded by heavily armed Alchemites? Got a plan for that?”
“Of course,” she said. “You think I’ve been sitting around all this time?”
A smile—a real one—broke across his face. “You are more of a go-getter than a sitter.”
“What we’re gonna go get is your children, Will.” Astrid found herself wanting to hug him again. Instead, she led him toward the hotel. “Come on, I’ll show you the rest.”
Blue Magic © A.M. Dellamonica 2012