The Thief turned her back on the city—on everything she had once been and on all the lies she had once believed. The ache of loss had honed her, and the weight of memory had pressed her into something new—hard and cold as a diamond. The Thief carried the memory of those losses as a weapon against what was to come as she faced the span of the great bridge.
The dark road spooled out before her, leading onward to where night had already bruised the horizon, its shadow falling over the low-slung buildings and the bare treetops of a land she’d never thought to visit. Measured in steps, the distance wasn’t all that great, but between her and that other shore stood the Brink, with all its devastating power.
At her side stood the Magician. Once he had been her enemy. Always he had been her equal. Now he was her ally, and she had risked everything to come back for him. He shuddered, but whether it was from the cold evening air on his bare arms or from the reality of what they needed to do—the impossibility of it—the Thief couldn’t be sure.
His voice came to her, a hushed whisper in the wind. “A day ago I had planned to die. I thought I was ready, but . . .” He glanced over at her, his storm-cloud eyes revealing everything he wasn’t saying.
“This will work,” she reassured him, not because she knew it was true but because there was no other option. She might not be able to change the past, might not be able to save the innocent or rewrite her mistakes and regrets, but she would change the future.
They couldn’t be seen there.
“Give me your hand,” the Thief commanded.
The Magician glanced at her, a question in his eyes, but she held out her bare hand, ready. With one touch he would be able read her every hope and fear. With one touch he could turn her from this path. Better to know where his heart stood now.
A moment later his hand caught hers, palm to palm.
The coolness of his skin barely registered, because when her skin touched his, power sizzled against her palm. She’d felt his affinity’s warmth before, but what she felt now was something new. A wave of unfamiliar energy licked against her skin, testing her boundaries as though searching for a way into her.
He’d tried to explain—tried to warn her after she had returned from the future he’d sent her to, a future he’d thought was safe. All that power is in me, he’d said.
She hadn’t understood. Until now.
Now the familiar warmth of his affinity was overwhelmed by a stronger magic, a power that had once been contained in the pages of the Ars Arcana the Thief had tucked into her skirts—a book that people she loved had lied and fought and died for. Now its power was beginning to creep upward, wrapping around her wrist, solid and heavy as the silver cuff she wore on her arm.
At the edges of her consciousness, the Thief thought she heard voices whispering.
“Stop it,” she told him through clenched teeth.
His response came out clipped, strained. “I’m trying.”
When she looked over at him, his expression was pained, but his eyes were bright, their irises flashing with colors she could not have named. He drew in a breath, his nostrils flaring slightly with the effort, and a moment later the colors in his eyes faded until they were his usual stormy gray. The warmth vining around her arm receded, and the voices she’d heard scratching at the boundaries of her mind went quiet.
Together they began to walk. Away from their city, their only home. Away from her regrets and failures.
As they passed the first set of brick and steel arches, each step was one more toward their possible end. This close to the Brink, its cold energy warned anyone with an affinity for the old magic to stay away. The Thief could feel it, could sense those icy tendrils of corrupted power clawing at her, at the very heart of what she was.
But the warning didn’t stop her.
Too much had happened. Too many people had been lost, and all because she had been willing to believe in the comfort of lies and too easily led. It was a mistake she wouldn’t repeat. The truth of who and what she was had seared her, burning away all the lies she’d once accepted. About her world. About herself.
That blaze had cauterized her aching regrets and left her a girl of fire. A girl of ash and scars. She carried a taste in her mouth that made her think of vengeance. It stiffened her resolve and kept her feet moving. Because after everything that had happened, all that she had learned, she had nothing left to lose.
She had everything left to lose.
Brushing aside the dark thought, the Thief took a deep, steadying breath and found the spaces between the seconds that hung suspended around her. Once she had not thought of time, or her ability to manipulate it, as anything particularly special. She knew better now. Time was the quintessence of existence—Aether—the substance that held the world together. Now she appreciated the way she could sense everything—the air and the light, matter itself—tugging against the net of time.
How could she have missed this? It was all so startlingly clear.
The streetcar’s bell clanged out its warning again, and this time she didn’t hesitate to use her affinity to pull the seconds until they ran slow. As the world went still around her, the rumble of the streetcar died away into silence. And the Thief’s breath caught in a strangled gasp.
“Esta?” the Magician asked, fear cracking his voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Can’t you see it?” she asked, not bothering to hide her wonder.
Before her the Brink shimmered in the light of the setting sun, its power fluctuating haphazardly in ribbons of energy. Visible. Almost solid. They were every color she had ever imagined and some she didn’t have names for. Like the colors that had flashed in the Magician’s eyes, they were beautiful. Terrible.
“Come on,” she told the Magician, leading him toward the barrier. She could see the path they would take, the spaces between the coiling tendrils of power that would let them slide through untouched.
They were in the middle of the swirling colors, the Magician’s hand like a vise around hers, cold and damp with his fear, when she noticed the darkness. It started at the edges of her vision, like the black spots you see after a flash of light. Nothing more than wisps at first, the darkness slowly bled into her vision like ink in water.
Before, the spaces between the seconds had been easy to find and grab hold of, but now they seemed to be slipping away, the substance of them dissolving as if eaten by the same darkness filling her vision.
“Run,” she said as she felt her hold on time slipping.
“What?” The Magician looked over at her, his eyes now shadowed with the creeping blackness as well.
She stumbled, her legs suddenly like rubber beneath her. The cold power of the Brink was sliding against her skin like a blade. Everything was going dark, and the world around her was fading into nothing.