Up a tree at the edge of a large clearing, fifteen-year-old Crystallin focused her monocular scope on the target. It seemed at first just an amber-colored rock, but as she focused on it, she saw it quiver. The girl fought for calm, but the clamor of battle made calm unattainable. She knew that her mother was somewhere in the struggle below and before her. This was not Crystallin’s first time observing a battle, but she found it hard to adjust to the tension anyway.
Just then, her mother’s voice came through her headset. “Color indicates human seeding. Linnie, can you see a core still or no?”
“I can tell where the core ought to be,” said Crystallin, “but the haze is too heavy for details.”
One of the other two observers in the tree responded, “I’ll try, Mother Coralie.” She slid from a nearby branch to sit beside Crystallin. “Close your other eye, or you’ll get a headache.” Ruia placed her hands against the sides of Crystallin’s head.
With the growing effect of Ruia’s human sense sympathy, Crystallin focused more intently through her scope. The surface of the Decay became as detailed as if the girl stood next to it. She scanned its breadth for the place she had earlier identified as the probable location of the core. The Decay was already turning opaque, but Crystallin’s own mineral sympathy kicked in. She could sense a dissolving mass of calcium within the Decay. “Mom, there is still a core, but it’s going fast.” She described its location as precisely as she could.
“Good work, Linnie. All right, let’s go with stage one. We cannot afford more delays.”
The fire sympathists of the South Territory army launched their assault. Crystallin knew from listening that this first stage was for depriving the Decay of organic matter. Those whose specialty was heat would set controlled burns along predetermined lines, taking care to avoid enemy fighters if at all possible. As Ruia withdrew her touch and Crystallin’s vision returned to normal, smoke began to fill the air. Someone had turned the wind away from the Haazak side, according to plan, blinding the other side temporarily.
Another voice came over the headset. “All clear. Edmund, go.”
The air fizzed. A flash of lightning came out of the smoke and split into a broad web; the accompanying report of thunder was simultaneous and sharp. It shook the tree where Crystallin and the other two observers perched, but it never touched them. Crystallin saw a lone figure through the smoke, walking with his hands outstretched to his sides. That was Edmund, one of the South Territory’s elite electromagnetic energy sympathists, initializing stage two. His electrical discharge would stun most, if not all, of the enemy fighters. Even with the electricity directed away from her position, Crystallin felt the prickle against her skin.
“Stage three,” announced the other voice over the headset. Crystallin thought she recognized the voice as belonging to the first elder of South Territory. Other voices echoed the command up and down the field of combat. The local forces moved quickly to retrieve those among the enemy whom Edmund had stunned, but not to take them prisoner. The captives would be moved to a neutral zone and tended by medics until their condition was stabilized. The main purpose of moving them was to protect them from the very thing they were so fiercely defending.
Crystallin heard a familiar voice nearby, shouting, “Ara, go!” It was Bertie, one of her mother’s four attending combat soldiers. Ara was his falcon friend– for Bertie with his strong animal sympathy identified more with the nonhuman than the human and would never claim possession of any animal that accompanied him.
A rustle of leaves in the higher branches marked Ara’s launch into flight. The sleek peregrine falcon stooped and caught a falling pigeon. Then Ara soared back to land on Bertie’s upraised fist. “Please,” was all Bertie said, but the falcon released its catch into his other hand. She flared her wings a little in dissatisfaction but settled down as Bertie set her on his shoulder.
The soldier opened the tiny cylinder attached to the dead pigeon’s leg and unrolled a strip of paper. He took a long time studying it. “Mo,” he called, “may Ara have him?”
The other observer in the tree with Crystallin called back, “May as well. Is it for Mother, then?”
“He’s one of your pigeons,” said Bertie, “don’t you recognize him? It’s from Elder Stone. Bad news from the capital.”
“Take it to the lieutenant, Mother shouldn’t be distracted right now,” said Ruia suddenly. “They’re at stage four.” From beside Crystallin, she pointed toward the clearing. “Hang on tight.”
Crystallin heeded the timely warning and gripped the limb beneath her with both hands just before a massive tremor made the tree shiver and sway. She saw her mother race across the open ground, stop just out of reach of the Decay, and bend to slam her right fist against the rocky earth. That one impact, slight though it was, split the ground until a sinkhole formed beneath the Decay. Without a pause, Mother Coralie retreated to the front line.
A group of eight soldiers dashed out from shelter as Mother dashed in. These were the specialists in charge of stage five, the complete destruction of the Decay. Most were elite thermal energy sympathists, able to generate fire at much higher temperatures than most heat sympathists. Crystallin saw Edmund in their midst. He raised one hand toward the sky. Lightning struck with concussive force.
Crystallin almost fell off her branch despite her grip. Her ears were still ringing when a pillar of fire rose from the sinkhole. An indescribable stench filled her nose and mouth. The Decay was burning.
At her right, Ruia was already preparing to climb down from the tree. “Better be quick, Linnie. If it’s bad news, Mother will want to move fast.”
When they reached the field headquarters tent, everything was in uproar already. Mother Coralie had the strip of paper crumpled in her fist; she was questioning their staff driver Kellerine about departure options. Beside them, the local elder Clarence Sterns was listening with a thoughtful frown.
“What news?” Ruia asked the third woman of the group.
Lieutenant Perdita Jasper had served as Coralie’s adjutant for as long as Crystallin could remember. She was also Crystallin’s godmother. She answered Ruia, “It’s hard to know for sure. Conneran Stone is too cagey to be explicit, but he used the words sedition and imprisonment. He isn’t the type to send a pigeon unless there was no other option.”
“That Bertie,” said Ruia in irritation. “If he had told us, we would be halfway ready to leave by now.”
The local elder had interposed his own voice into Coralie’s conversation. “You could pack up your four combat soldiers and go ahead. We can get the rest of your staff transported when they’re ready.”
“It’s those four that take so long to pack up,” said Coralie in frustration. “To be specific, Bertie and his animal friends, and Ambrose with his machinery. My noncombatants would be ready long before those two.”
“Then borrow two of my soldiers,” said Elder Sterns. “Actually, take Edmund. He has his own vehicle, specially adapted to his sympathy. He’ll get you there in a blink. He and August Yeardley would be willing, I’m sure.”
Coralie only hesitated for a few seconds before she said, “I’ll take you up on that. How soon can they be ready?”
Crystallin hastened to the tent she shared with her mother. They all called Coralie “Mother” because that was her official title, but Crystallin was the fourth and last child born to Coralie. She had been traveling with her mother since completing public school at the age of fourteen the previous autumn. This meant she was thoroughly familiar with the process of packing her own and her mother’s sparse luggage. She did so now swiftly and efficiently, knowing that Coralie would not wait for her.
When she returned to field headquarters, she found a bulky all-terrain truck parked in front. The back hatch was raised, and a dark-haired local man was loading luggage into a compartment there. When Crystallin handed him two bags, he hesitated with a glance toward Coralie. “Are you coming too, little miss?”
Crystallin looked full at her mother also. “Larimar and Slate and Mica are there, and Lyndon and his brothers.”
For a few seconds, Coralie looked inclined to say no anyway. Then she said, “There won’t be room in the truck, dear.”
The man Edmund came around the other side of the truck. With his helmet off, he looked much younger and less imposing. His short sweat-dampened hair bristled upright. He inspected Crystallin with his serious eyes. “When my sister and niece ride with me, they both sit in the front with me, and she isn’t much bigger than little Tilde.”
Coralie gave a decisive nod. “If Captain Haigh says so.”
After they had all climbed into the truck, the other man said, “You know, I don’t know how you dare ride shoulder to shoulder with little Tilde, Edmund, even with her mom there to suppress her sympathy.”
“She doesn’t mean any harm,” replied Edmund mildly. As soon as his hands closed on the steering wheel, his truck roared to life. Tiny sparks of electricity danced on his knuckles. “You might as well admire how she can ride shoulder to shoulder with me.”
“What is your niece’s sympathy?” asked Coralie.
“Plant,” said Edmund, “strictly toxic plants.”
“How rare! How old is she?”
“Twelve.” He gave a quick sidelong glance at Crystallin. “You okay?”
“Fine,” she hastened to assure him. “It’s a little tingly.”
“Tell me if it gets worse.” Edmund flipped a lever attached to the steering wheel and pressed his foot down on the accelerator, causing the truck to shoot forward.
From the back seat, a whoop of laughter escaped Saloma, Coralie’s combat soldier with thermal energy sympathy. Saloma liked fast driving and similar kinds of rash behavior. The truck quickly hit speeds that pressed all the passengers back into their seats. People near the road scattered promptly, as if they had rehearsed the maneuver often.
“I see why Elder Sterns said we would get there faster this way,” remarked Honey, the other combat soldier in the back seat. Her voice never changed from its usual level tone.
“This is him, holding back,” said Edmund’s friend, “if you’ll believe it. He’s being careful because of the little miss. Edmund has a real soft spot for young girls.”
“Aug, that sounded wrong.” Edmund did not raise his voice, but an extra crackle of electricity suggested that he was annoyed.
Aug, as his friend called him, hurried to explain. “I didn’t mean it like that. He’s just a doting uncle, that’s all. Maggie, his sister, always complains that he spoils little Tilde terribly.”
“It sounds like you are a close family,” said Coralie. “We shall try not to keep you from them too long.”
“I don’t mind. This is a good way for me to deplete, and that saves Maggie lots of work.”
“Does she work as an adjuster for the civilian sector?”
Edmund nodded. “After practicing on me for all these years, there isn’t much she can’t handle. I don’t like imposing on her too much, though. She keeps busy with her regular paying clients.”
Coralie shifted her attention to the other southerner, Aug, drawing him out about his family. He talked cheerfully about his wife Janie and his two little boys, and all the while the scenery tore past them. Aug broke off at one point and said, “I heard the little miss say something about someone named Lyndon. It’s an uncommon name. Might she have meant Lyndon Tate of the Garden District, by any chance? He’s a sort of cousin of mine.”
“Yes,” answered Coralie. “My Everard and his father Archet are childhood friends, so Lyndon and his brothers grew up with our children. You must be related to their late mother Nirva. I know she came from South Territory.”
“Maybe I can visit them while I’m in the capital. I almost never get the chance to head up north, and Archet never comes south.”
“It’s still hard for him, poor man,” Coralie agreed. “But I believe I heard that Archet is in East Territory, visiting Everard with his third, Rusza, right now. Rusza just finished with public school, and Archet wants him in the army straightaway.” She frowned and lapsed into silent thought.
No one spoke for a while, but Crystallin had a question that pressed for an answer. “Mom,” she said at last, “what was it in that message that upset you so much?” She knew she would have to wait for her answer; Coralie had a habit of measuring her words slowly at times like that.
In the back seat, Aug whispered, “Upset?”
Honey, who had served on Mother’s staff for several years, whispered back a few words. Crystallin couldn’t hear everything, but she knew Honey was explaining how Coralie usually was a good deal more laconic than this, how Coralie only chatted like this when she was trying not to think about what troubled her.
Eventually Coralie had her answer prepared. “Conneran Stone writes to say a group of young elder candidates have taken control of the Government Center. It looks like sedition, and Mica is involved somehow.”
“Mica!” Crystallin gawped at the idea. “But Mica is always so… so… so proper!” She grasped at another thought. “What about Slate? Larimar?”
“Nothing about them.”
“What about the elders?”
“Imprisoned inside the Government Center, he hopes.” Coralie shook her head. “He hopes. That means they might just as easily be dead.”
At Crystallin’s other side, Edmund lowered his foot even harder on the accelerator. The truck flew over bumps and rises in the road. “We won’t stop unless there’s an urgent need. I’ll get you there by morning.”
Edmund’s word was good. The rest of them dozed as best they could in the jarring truck throughout the night, but Edmund stayed awake and drove. By sunrise they saw the outer fields of the capital’s second ring. Coralie stretched her shoulders. “Slow down here and take the next right,” she advised. “I want to stop at the house and check on the other two boys.”
For the remainder of the drive, Edmund held the truck to a staid speed, following Coralie’s directions, until they rolled to a halt outside of Crystallin’s childhood home. Coralie was first out. She stretched her stiff muscles while Crystallin slid out beside her. “Wait here,” she commanded the other four.
The front door opened to reveal Crystallin’s third brother Larimar. His amiable face was tense, and his eyes strayed off to their left.
“What’s going on?” Coralie demanded without so much as a greeting.
Larimar hugged his mother. In a whisper, he replied, “They’re watching us.”
“Let them. Where is Slate?”
“Still at breakfast. I came when I heard the truck—”
Coralie ushered her son indoors even while he was still talking. Her second son Slate appeared in the doorway to the dining room. “Mom! You have to do something about Mica and his friends.”
“I intend to.”
Larimar said, “But those watchers outside– they won’t just let you go now. They’ve kept us here ‘for our safety,’” he said with heavy sarcasm, “all day yesterday and now today. Mica’s orders. He says he’s speaking on Dad’s behalf while Dad is away.”
“What are they saying about the elders?” asked Coralie.
It was Slate who answered, “They claim all the elders and even some of their assistants were exposed to infection by the Decay. They claim to be holding them in quarantine.” His voice was softer than his younger brother’s, but his sarcasm was no less. “They claim to be taking emergency action to stabilize leadership while the elders are incapacitated, as if anyone could believe that.”
“Then I know what I need to do.” Coralie paused to lay her hands, one on Slate’s shoulder and one on top of Larimar’s head. “Stay here. I don’t want the two of you involved.” But to Crystallin she said, “I think we’ll need you, dear. Will you come with me?”
Crystallin recalled the words that had returned to her from time to time during the long night drive: He hopes. That means they might just as easily be dead. Her bone-specific mineral sympathy would be useful, if it turned out they needed to look for bodies. She blinked back tears. “I’ll come.” Her shaky hand was glad for the strong warmth of her mother’s hand.
They returned outdoors to find the four soldiers standing ready beside the truck. A man lay on the ground in their midst, writhing and whimpering and snorting through his nose as swarms of flies covered his whole body. Honey saluted at Coralie’s approach. “This person attempted to apprehend us. He seemed to think we would capitulate without any difficulty, so I took it upon myself to correct him. Should I release him?”
“Will he come to any real harm as he is?” asked Coralie.
Honey shook her head. “The bite of the horsefly is painful but not dangerous, and the command will wear off by itself before half an hour passes.”
“Then leave him to think about the consequences of his choices. We have business at the Government Center.”
They left the fly-covered man where he lay and climbed back into the truck, heading for the capital’s geographical and political center. Hundreds of people were in the streets, so that Edmund had to slow to a crawl in order to avoid hurting anyone. When people began to notice Coralie sitting in the front passenger seat, they drew to the sides of the street to let the truck pass and then closed ranks behind it.
Ahead of them, the Government Center was coming into view. An assembly of young people had gathered on the front steps. Crystallin could see Mica near the front of the crowd. She squeezed her mother’s hand.
“I want you to wait in the truck at first, dear,” said Coralie. “Give me time to get their attention fully on me. Then, when you think they’re unlikely to notice, get out and circle around the edge until you get to the door. I would recommend starting in the basement. There are several secure rooms down there where they might have locked up the elders. Captain Yeardley,” she said, turning her head to look at Aug, “would you accompany Crystallin?”
“Captain Haigh, I’ll be relying on your assistance with those.” She gestured to the young assembly. “This is about near enough.”
Edmund parked the truck at the bottom of the stairs. Coralie was out the door almost before the vehicle stopped moving. She walked up the steps as her eldest son descended to meet her.
Mica did not look at all comfortable with the situation, but he spoke with forced pleasantness in front of his associates and peers. “Mother, you’ve returned!”
“I will ask you directly,” said Coralie, “what you think you are doing. I recommend you answer me clearly and quickly, not to mention truthfully, or I will assume that you are stalling for time for some underhanded reason as yet unknown to me. This is your only warning. Why are you participating in open insurrection, Mica?”
Her eldest son stammered, “I wouldn’t call it that, Mother. I mean to say, this is just—”
By the time he had completed his first sentence, Coralie had sighed loudly. She interrupted his second sentence, which was clearly going nowhere, by punching him in the stomach. As Mica dropped to his knees and started to vomit, Coralie raised her voice. “If any of you expects me to be gentler toward you than I have been toward my own son, whom I love, then you are more foolish than you have already proven yourselves to be.” She stepped over Mica, with her three attendant soldiers flanking her.
Crystallin and Aug Yeardley exited the truck. “And that’s why they nicknamed her ‘Mother Granite,’ is it?” said Aug in some awe. “Well, little miss, lead on.”