By Julie Abe
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From this day forward, we will believe in the impossible.
Eva Evergreen has fulfilled her dream of earning the rank of Novice Witch, and discovered the chilling truth behind the mysterious Culling — the violent magical storm wreaking havoc across Rivelle Realm.
Revealing the truth, however, proves to be a difficult task and soon the culprit is at large. To make matters worse Eva learns what might be the horrible truth behind her pinch of magic and her mother's own mysterious connection to the Culling and rogue magic.
With her spirits at an all-time low, Eva must muster up the courage to prove her mother's innocence and learn to believe in her own magic, if she wishes to put a stop to the Culling once and for all.
THE CRYSTAL CASTLE
Glimmering in the sky, the tips of the queen’s crystal spires blazed like torches in the early-afternoon sun. But Mother and I flew low on our broomsticks through the side streets, swathed in the shadows of the magnificent castle.
“It would’ve been faster to fly overhead.” Mother’s eyes darted around as she nodded for us to turn left after a cobbler’s shop. “Yet, if we tried that…”
“Grottel might see us,” I whispered, fear lancing my heart. Mother nodded grimly. Her hair, the same inky black as mine, swirled around her shoulders in the chilling wind.
Even Ember, my flamefox, seemed wary as he stuck close to me, the warmth of his red-gold fur emanating through the canvas of my knapsack. He, too, understood the gravity of this mission. Just earlier today, after the ceremony where I’d received my rank as a Novice Witch—finally, I was an official member of the Council of Witches and Wizards—I’d managed to cast a spell on a map of the realm, searching for the source of the Culling. The last place I’d expected it to come from was Grand Master Hayato Grottel’s tower.
And Grottel, the leader of our Council, was to be meeting with the queen any moment now. If he was the one who started the Culling, a strange, cursed force of nature… Each year, without a moment’s notice, the Culling pelted the land with anything from a nearly unquenchable wildfire to the typhoon that had hit Rivelle’s east coast, including Auteri, the town I’d sworn to protect. If Grottel was truly responsible for the Culling, the queen was not safe.
Mother and I looped around a family on a stroll and sped through the wide stone street needling through the wood buildings of Okayama, Rivelle Realm’s capital city. Each sharp turn matched the pitter-pattering beat of my heart.
“There’s a side street here.” Mother nodded to the right. Her eyebrows were pinched with worry, which was strange on her usually serene face. “Takes us to a bridge, and—”
We flew around the corner, and I breathed in with delight.
The North Torido River rushed under a bridge, rippling playfully. Sunlight danced on the surface of the deep blue-black waters, a clashing, beautiful mixture of dark and light. On the water, a steamboat much like the one I’d taken to Auteri chugged along. The start of my Novice quest had been only a moon ago, but with everything that had happened since, it felt like a year. Novice, Adept, Elite, Master, Grand Master. There were five magical ranks, each more difficult to reach than the last, but joy still tingled through my veins: I’d managed to make my first step into the Council.
We swerved around a wood house, lines of laundry fluttering from the balcony, and then the street opened up to the castle, separated by only a moat. My boots skimmed the surface of the waterway, and a few floating birds rustled their wings, squawking loudly. We shot up a thin, rocky ridge snug against the castle. The thick crystal walls were opal-like, swirling white at the base, but without a door to be seen.
Mother pulled up her broom, gracefully landing on the stone ridge. I tugged up on the Fiery Phoenix, my broomstick, but it tilted to the right, as if it wanted to keep on flying.
“I’m going to turn you into firewood,” I hissed, and half stopped, half fell when the Fiery Phoenix unceremoniously dumped me off. I stumbled to avoid hitting the patches of white flowers along the wall. Dusting off my skirt, my cheeks burned as Mother glanced at me. I quickly looked around at the sharp rocks leading back down to the moat and the thin line of dusty cliffside Mother and I were precariously perched on. “Um, where’s the door?”
“Witches always have more than one entrance,” Mother said, raising an eyebrow.
Ember jumped out of my knapsack and pawed the wall, but nothing happened. I looked closer and noticed etch marks in the crystal.
FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, WE WILL BELIEVE IN THE IMPOSSIBLE.
A CASTLE OF CRYSTAL, A DREAM OUT OF REACH.
ALL CREATED BY TWO FRIENDS WHO WILL NEVER FALL APART.
FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, THIS CASTLE WILL PROTECT THE TRUE RULER OF RIVELLE.
A.S. & N.E.
A.S., as in Queen Alliana Sakamaki? And N.E. as in… Nelalithimus… Evergreen? My eyes widened. I’d heard that the castle had turned from stone to crystal on the day Queen Alliana had stepped into power. I gaped at Mother. “Did you make this?”
The strain around my mother’s eyes lessened, just a bit. “A story for another day. Watch carefully to see how to get in.” She gestured her wand toward the patches of flowers at our feet.
“Do I need to pick the right flower?”
“Everyone thinks it’s the flashy things, right?” Mother knelt down, the thick black cloth of her dress swirling, like the flowing currents of the Torido Rivers. “But it’s the roots that matter. And all you need is a touch of magic.”
I swallowed. A touch of magic was all I had.
Mother whispered to the roots, and I studied the swish of her wand, trying to understand how to cast enchantments like her, when a shock ran through my veins. Her hands were shaking. Ever so slightly, but they were shaking. She was far more worried about the queen than she would admit. “We will believe in the impossible possibilities, a crystal castle, an underground escape, a choice we won’t make.”
The ground rumbled underneath, and she waved. “Follow quickly, all right?”
“What if my spell doesn’t work?”
A gaping hole opened underneath her feet. Mother firmly held on to her broomstick, flashing me a strained smile—
And the ground swallowed her up.
I stumbled back in surprise. There were only the crystal walls, the starburst white flowers shifting gently in the cool air, and me and Ember. My flamefox sniffed the ground, but not a trace of my mother remained. Ember and I were standing on the ridge next to the castle all by ourselves. Across the moat, the city folk strolled through the winding streets, oblivious in their own bubbles.
Ember pawed at me, and snuffled at the ground where my mother had disappeared, his pointy red-gold ears turning left to right.
There was no time to waste. I couldn’t hold Mother back.
“Do not glower, let me underneath these beautiful flowers.” Light flashed from my wand, coating the blossoms with a warm glow. I blinked. The flowers waved happily in the breeze, their petals shimmering sunrise gold instead of white. Wonderful. I’d changed the way the flowers looked.
Knock, knock. I jumped. Below, Mother was likely wondering what in the realm had happened to me. I’d just passed my Novice quest. I had to show her I was stronger, especially after I’d fought the Culling in Auteri. Even though I was only twelve years and four moons old and didn’t have the years of magical experience Mother had, surely I could manage an enchantment like this.
I squared my shoulders and pointed my wand at the patch of flowers where Mother had disappeared. “I will not hide, let me inside.”
Dirt rumbled, covering the tips of my boots. I was sinking. Sinking into the ground. Ember barked furiously at the ground shifting around us, and then jumped into my arms. Had… had my spell worked?
My stomach dropped as the world fell out from under me.
THE SECRETS OF THE CRYSTAL CASTLE
The ground twisted with the sharp scent of fresh dirt and swallowed us up. Ember and I fell through a tunnel, shock reverberating through my veins as I let out a cry of surprise. My knapsack cushioned my back as I tightly clutched my flamefox. Crystallized roots wove into a slide, sending me deep into the earth, curving left and right.
Just as suddenly as we’d fallen through the ground, we stopped, landing in a soft patch of vines, dotted with the same delicate white starbursts.
Ember leaped off my legs, shaking himself quickly. He indignantly eyed the slide. I’m not sure if I want to try that again.
“I agree,” I muttered, grabbing my broomstick from where it had tumbled to my feet. “But no time to worry about how we’re getting out. Let’s go.”
I glanced around, and tingles ran up my skin in surprise.
The secret entrance had taken us to a tall, circular chamber of pure crystal that looked like it had been hewn from a single rock. The glowing torches on the wall made the room incandescent with light, every intricately carved edge sparkling like I stood within a treasure chest of jewels. Mother was nowhere to be seen, but there was only one way she could’ve gone—an alcove at the far end led to a ramp that spiraled up. I jumped onto the Fiery Phoenix, and Ember leaped onto my knee, to my shoulder, and then dove into my knapsack. I pushed off the ground, and my broomstick jolted forward, happy to be flying again.
The spiraling ramp looped and looped a dizzying number of times, like a tunnel leading me into the sky. As I went higher, the outside-facing walls showed slightly clear window-like spots here and there, revealing the city far below and the sky stretching around me. When I felt like I’d flown high enough to pierce the clouds, the ramp ended at a tapestry covering an opening. I slowed until I could dismount.
My heart thudding, I pulled back the edge of the tapestry and peeked out. From my knapsack, Ember sniffed at the air with curiosity. The secret entrance had led us to an empty hallway where everything was crystal: the white tiles underneath, the shimmering walls, the ceiling above. The corridor was as wide as the grandest room in Auteri’s town hall, big enough to fit five sailing ships, but this tower stretched up so far into the sky that clouds drifted past the windows.
I stepped forward, and I gasped with realization: Ember and I were in one of the queen’s famed crystal spires. Where Queen Alliana laid down the laws of the realm, where she met with her Advisors—the princesses and princes who served each region. I turned to see where I’d flown in from, but there was only the tapestry of gray rocks and blue sky, almost like a window to a different realm, and the statue of a phoenix, its wings stretched as if it was just about to take off, and a set of crystal stairs.
“Eva!” my mother whispered, from where she leaned against a tall white birch door, listening intently. I took one more look up and down the empty hallway and hurried to join her. Ember crawled out of the knapsack to lean against my boots, his pointed ears twitching as he kept a lookout for us, too.
Mother muttered a spell, and the door parted ever so slightly, soundlessly. She peered through the crack in the door. “The queen… the queen… Where is—”
Then my mother breathed out in relief. “Hayato isn’t here yet.” She nodded toward the white birch door. “Time for you to properly meet Queen Alliana and tell her what we saw on the map. The truth about the Culling.”
“Right,” I squeaked, plucking a spiderweb off Ember’s ear and brushing dust bunnies off my black skirt. “The queen. The map. The Culling.”
My mother pushed open the doors and strode into the royal chamber, with me close at her heels.
I’d thought the town hall in Auteri was grand, with its five floors of marble staircases and gold doors. But the queen’s chambers were extraordinary. Thick white crushed velvet runners lined the center of the room, and the crystal floor was inlaid with streaks of gold.
At the front, Queen Alliana sat on a gilded throne formed in the shape of the sun, with rays illuminating outward. Her crown rested on the dark hair, streaked with gray, flowing down over her shoulders, but her long, regal face looked like she was ready for war. Her pure white gown, laced with gold, glowed brighter than the sunrise. She was talking to a haughty-looking girl kneeling in front of her, adorned with the same thin circlet Princess Stella wore, marking her status as a princess and one of the Regional Advisors.
To our sides, Royal Guards were stationed all around the edges of the room, their hands on their long swords, but a nod from the queen eased the tightness in their shoulders.
“Alliana,” Mother started. “Queen Alliana. May we see you—privately?”
“The queen has a meeting soon. Please state the manner of your business,” said the princess, moving to the queen’s side. The girl looked to be four or five years older than me, maybe sixteen or seventeen, with freckles smattered over the bridge of her nose and cheeks. I was sure I hadn’t ever met her before, yet the way she carried herself reminded me of Princess Stella, the Advisor to Auteri.
Mother glanced at me pointedly, and I summoned the courage to speak. “It’s… it’s about the Culling.”
The guards lining the room shifted, their metal plates clanking.
“We must speak to you alone,” Mother insisted, staring deeply at Queen Alliana. “It’s vital.”
The queen pressed her lips together as she looked from Mother, to me trailing behind her, and then to the legions of Royal Guards all around. She rose from her throne. “Very well.”
The girl followed in the queen’s path to a side room. “And by alone, she means I’ll join, too,” the princess declared, in a voice that allowed no argument. Mother quirked her lips, but looked to the queen.
“Anri’s right,” the queen said. “She’s my shadow, in the way your daughter is yours.”
“Ah, Eva’s no longer my shadow,” Mother said. “She’s a proper Novice Witch now.”
“Well said.” The queen turned to look over Mother’s shoulder, her dark red lips curving up into a smile. “Novice Evergreen, I’m looking forward to hearing about your quests that are yet to come. I’m sure you will accomplish much for our realm, just like Nela.”
“Thank you, Queen Alliana,” I murmured breathlessly, dipping into a deep bow.
In a room crowded with plush chairs and shelves piled with dusty tomes, the queen walked to the window and stared out at the city. She gazed at the North Torido River running alongside the castle. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The waters flow through our realm like the blood of our land.”
I remembered the common saying: “Our queen is the realm’s heart; the Council is the realm’s blood.” Then I clapped my hand over my mouth.
“Well spoken, Novice Evergreen.” The queen inclined her head.
My cheeks burned. Unintentionally, I’d blurted the proverb out in front of the very person it was about.
The queen added, “And I am lucky for such a faithful Council that serves me and the realm in these times of need.”
My chest clenched. When we told her what I’d cast onto the map… what would she think of our Council then?
Mother carefully closed the door behind us and spun her wand in her hand. A white light flashed on the walls, and the queen smiled, her eyes soft with nostalgia.
“You haven’t used a silencing enchantment in a long time,” Queen Alliana said, tipping her head to the side. “Surely nothing warrants that?”
“We… we want to show you the source of the Culling,” Mother said.
Princess Anri gasped, and the queen stiffened with shock. “The source? But the Council’s been searching for eight years.”
“Hayato’s been searching.” Mother crossed her arms. “I’d been staying out of his way, as he requested, until my own daughter had to fight the Culling.”
The queen glanced at me. “I’m thankful for your help in Auteri.”
Ember nudged me with his forehead, urging me to respond. I bowed, barely able to squeak out, “Glad to be of service, Queen Alliana.” Memories of fighting the storm—the hopelessness that had swirled through me as the waves pounded the coast, and almost getting lost in the thick haze of rain—were so fresh in my mind. But against all chances, I’d used paper to fight water, and I’d managed to expand and waterproof a set of makeshift shields to protect Auteri from the worst of the storm. I shuddered, thankful for the summery warmth of the castle.
“It was frightening to have Auteri in the path of the Culling. Such a lovely town—and on the day of the Festival of Lights, too! But I heard Princess Stella and Mayor Taira’s reports, and I’m very relieved you were there, Novice Evergreen. If you have any insight into the Culling, please share it with me.”
“Watch this,” Mother said, nodding toward me. I pulled the map out of my knapsack, and Ember whimpered nervously.
Mother unfurled the thick paper, holding it out so the queen could see how the map displayed all of Rivelle Realm. “We cast a spell on this, so the paper would fuse with locks of hair from two children, Eva’s friends from Auteri, whose parents are missing. This might give us insight into why Kaya disappeared, Alliana.”
“Elite Kaya Ikko welcomed me to her bookstore with open arms when I first arrived in Okayama, even though I didn’t have a spark of magic,” Queen Alliana said. “Her book recommendations were always the best, almost enchanted. I was terribly worried when she disappeared, and not a clue was to be found about her whereabouts.”
Murmurs of voices echoed through the walls, but no one drew near our room yet.
Princess Anri checked her pocket watch. “The meeting’s set to start.”
Queen Alliana smiled ruefully. “Oh, your spell was always so clever, Nela.”
“They can’t hear us, but we can hear them,” Mother explained to my questioning glance.
“Shall we—may we cast the spell now?” I asked, glancing between Queen Alliana and Anri. The queen had to see this before she met with Grottel. “It’s a simple spell, but shows the location of the three missing parents.” Davy’s mother had disappeared in a previous Culling, whereas Charlotte’s parents had been gone for so long that she had no recollection of them.
The queen nodded. “Certainly. If your enchantment can provide long-awaited answers about the Culling, my meeting can wait.”
All four of us gathered around the map, and Mother said encouragingly, “Go on. You should cast the spell. It worked best with you.”
Me? Just me?
I bit my lip. I couldn’t possibly conjure up my magic in front of the queen.
But Mother nudged my shoulder, her dark brown eyes full of steadfast belief, and I swallowed. Stepping closer to the map, I tried to shutter all thoughts of the queen watching me, or the people outside waiting to meet with the queen. Ember pressed against my boots, giving all his support. I steeled myself and chanted, “A search for two friends—”
Outside, a man demanded loudly, “Why is Queen Alliana with the Evergreens?”
I could recognize that sharp, condescending voice anywhere. Grand Master Hayato Grottel.
A murmur from one of the Royal Guards answered him, and his voice rose. “The Evergreens are meeting with the queen about the Culling?”
A fist pounded on the door.
I tried to continue. “C-close to my heart—” Bronze light rippled over the map and faded as my voice cracked.
“Open up, Nela,” Grottel growled. The door burst open, sending Mother’s charm into a burst of white vapor. Her spell had only silenced our voices from being heard, not sealed the door.
And, in the opening, Grand Master Hayato Grottel stared down at us. His eyes were cold as they scanned me, Mother, Princess Anri, and then Queen Alliana. He was dressed in all black, with a heavy diamond ring on one finger marking his Grand Master rank. Grottel dipped into the slightest of bows toward the queen before eyeing the map.
“What. Is. That.” His cold voice shook me to the bone.
Queen Alliana turned, quietly assessing the head of the Council. “It’s a map of the realm,” she said in a cool, light voice that didn’t betray her thoughts. “But there’s something very peculiar about it. Novice Evergreen ensorcelled the parchment to show a certain phenomenon I’ve wanted answers about, for many years.”
Grottel froze, his dark, hooded eyes flicking between me and the glowing map, and scoffed. “What’s this childish map supposed to prove?”
“The Evergreens are looking into the source of the Culling,” the queen said. When Grottel’s forehead pinched, she added, “At my command.”
“The map shows the complete path of the Culling,” Mother said. “And it’s quite an… illuminating path, to say the least.”
Grand Master Grottel froze, his face unreadable. I tried to study him, to see if there was some way it could be possible that the leader of our very Council was the one behind all the harm that had been done to the realm… but I couldn’t sense a single trace of worry or surprise through his hard eyes. If anything, he looked calculating, but could that be just because Mother had finally gotten permission to look into the Culling without Grottel’s say in the matter?
Grottel, after all, had been the one who’d taken over all efforts to find the source of the Culling. But after eight years, he’d been unsuccessful. Or, perhaps he was hiding something.
Mother crossed her arms, and Grottel raised a greasy eyebrow back. A slow anger simmered in my mother’s eyes; Mother had fought each Culling, and had seen the destruction it wrecked across Rivelle, every year. She knew the terrible toll the Culling had extracted from the realm.
A head poked in from the main room. “Sir, Grand Master Grottel,” Elite Norya Dowel, a perpetually nervous witch and Grottel’s assistant, chimed. “We were hoping to begin the meeting, but the queen—”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, is that a charmed map?”
“It’s nothing of significance,” Grottel snapped. “My meeting is of utmost urgency.” He sneered, looking between me and Mother. “I suppose it’s convenient you are here, Nela. We have no time for this map or foolishness, not now. First, come, join us.” He gestured back into the main room, the corner of his lip twisting up. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy hearing what we have to discuss with the queen. Norya, it’s time to discuss that matter.”
His assistant squeaked in surprise. “But the merchant guild’s requests—”
“Now. I will call the Inner Council.” Grottel pulled a handful of black-tipped papers from his pocket, no bigger than the palm of his hand. With a few muttered words and a jab of his wand, the squares folded into birds with sharp wings and took off, soaring so fast that they were gone in the instant I blinked.
Mother and I glanced at each other in confusion. He was summoning the Inner Council? But—why?
Grottel bowed, motioning for Queen Alliana to exit the room ahead of him. After she passed, he straightened from his bow, looking down at Ember. “Is that a flamefox that doesn’t light up? Does it even know how to breathe fire?” His lip curled derisively.
Ember let out a sad cry, and I took a step forward to defend him—
But before I could speak, Grottel spun on his heel, stalking into Queen Alliana’s meeting room, his back already turned to us.
THE CONFESSING MAP
Mother stopped in the doorway, and I looked up at her curiously. Her tanned skin bleached bone-white with shock.
“What is this?” she whispered, scanning the room. I craned to look around her.
I tried to muffle my gasp.
Earlier, the room had glimmered with light streaming through crystal windows, but now it seemed as if Grottel had dropped a cloak over the sun. The right side of the room had been thrown into darkness, with Queen Alliana’s throne moved to the center. Nine tall-backed chairs surrounded the throne. All around, the Royal Guards stood watch, hands on their long swords. Princess Anri moved to the side, standing by the wall.
Grottel strode to the chair to the right of the queen’s throne.
Mother started toward the chair to the left, but when Grottel settled into his chair, he raised a hand. “Oh, Nela,” he said, shaking his head with fake pity. “I don’t think there’s a spot for you to sit, not right now.”
The queen looked up from her throne. “Whatever do you mean, Grand Master Grottel? The agenda was merely about some inter-guild requests.”
Grottel sneered, steepling his fingers.
“Ah, but I’ve invited the Inner Council, you see,” he said as the door swung open. It creaked ominously as a hooded figure stepped inside and made their way to the nearest open chair. “All Inner Council members should be here soon… and what I have to share, well, it’ll be worth the short wait.”
Less than a half hour later, the chairs for the Inner Council were filled. Except there was no seat for Mother—she’d had to charm up two chairs for me and her on her own. But judging by how they were hardwood and without a cushion for comfort, Mother was distracted. These chairs were nothing like the plush armchairs she would usually summon out of thin air.
Cloaks covered the nine members’ clothes that might identify their ranks; deep hoods hid their faces. I’d tried guessing, many times over the years, who might be on the Inner Council, but even when I stood in front of them, their faces were too well concealed.
They lounged on their chairs almost as grand as thrones in the shadows of the room. The lanterns, enchanted with a flameless glow, didn’t seem to be able to cut through the darkness.
- On Sale
- Aug 3, 2021
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers