Towns were built around heat sources. That much was a common element in every case. Some had forges with rings of charms that coaxed heat from fissures in the earth up to the surface, or great rune-complexes that ate water and spat out heat, or sucked in all the starlight from the sky, turning it black, turning it into just enough heat to sustain a tiny village. Supposedly. Mave hadn't ever been outside of her own town, Alluvium, built around a starstone that had fallen from the sky ages ago, on the crater it made when it fell. The starstone was poorly named, in Mave's opinion, because it was clearly manmade and stone implied something more natural, less elegant, not a contraption with interlocking metal belts and rings, two ports on opposite sides that spilled pure blue-white fire, with a smooth surface that (supposedly) stayed cool to the touch against all evidence to the contrary. Charms, etched into the metal and blazing pure truth, complicated glyphs nobody knew, glyphs some people knew, and a smattering of ones even a kid could identify, like those for numbers and directions and the now-dead sun and the moon which hid in the night sky, only detectable by absence of stars.
Mave didn't think the word 'stone' didn't quite cover how it changed over time, smooth pieces sliding at a glacial rate only noticeable between day to day, enough that engineers had to re-align the heat receptacles once a week. She knew that it changed because she crept into the glass-walled balconies overlooking the starstone chamber whenever she had time. The starstone fascinated her. The etched charms were always the same, but if she squinted she could see ghostly, real charms superimposed on them, and those changed, as slowly as the starstone did, and she wanted to figure out why and how they changed in the way they did but there just wasn't enough time, enough glyphs she knew, and then before she knew it hours had passed staring at the starstone and she had to go back home or back to her work learning normal charms that worked in simple, practical, boring ways, imagining that she could still see the blue-purple-black afterimages of the twin light beams of the starstone as she carved the glyph for light onto a wooden board under the careful eye of her master at her apprenticeship.
At least, that's what she assumed. He wasn't even looking, cupping his chin as he stared off into space, edges of charms swirling in and out of view. For a single, less than lucid moment, she thought his wispy hair looked just like his charms. "Focus, Mave," he said. Mave jumped, fixed her grip on her chisel, and returned to filling out the curling sixth stroke of light.
Charms weren't permanent. Like a spoken word, each charm exerted its changes on the world and faded away, temporary and fleeting and leaving nothing but a faint recollection. But you could write a word down, and so could you a charm. It took effort, of course. The more the better. Writing a charm on paper was barely any better than a free charm. Chiseling a charm into wood was good for something you used for days or weeks. Etching or casting a charm, years. She thought of the hundreds of charms ringing the starstone. How long would those last? As long as the town had, at the very least. Even more. She wondered which poor apprentices had gotten the task of doing the hard work.
Mave walked the road from work to home. The sound of her boots hitting the fitted flagstone echoed only briefly—the snow on both sides of the road drank it up, and if any was left, the darkness beyond ate that, too. Her shadow splintered in six directions around herself. All the streetlights made her a new shadow apiece, and they swirled as she walked. Streetlights had a charm inside them, twelve characters tightly fitted inside a metal plate the size of her two palms together. Draw heat from the starstone, make light and warmth here. She would've been biting cold, dead in minutes, if not for the stone.
She took a sharp left. Nobody saw her as she walked up to the starstone's building, opened the door that wasn't locked, climbed the narrow white-stone stairs to the observation galley. The starstone sat in its chamber, gently turning, charms swirling on and around it. She leaned against the window, pushing hair out of her eyes, and watched the charms. Heat. Light. The sun and the moon. Numbers. Yesterday, a particular group of charms, set off from the others and glowing above sun-period on the equator of the starstone had said something... 147... something. Now it was something, 146, something. Followed by the sun again, then more numbers that constantly changed. She wondered if it was a countdown, and to what.
One night Mave looked out her window and saw a new star in the distance, where the flat land the town was on ended, where it rose steeply to meet the forever-night sky. She narrowed her eyes. It refused to turn itself into any clearer of an image. She could think of charms to help, except she couldn't handle three glyphs at once without chiseling them somewhere. Too much to keep track of, too hard to keep the first two glyphs from dissolving while she wrote the third one. The light gently bobbed, and it didn't twinkle.
She found a piece of paper and a brush and an inkwell that hadn't been opened. The cap was discarded on the floor, and she splattered ink as she wrote the glyphs in broad, messy strokes, then rushed to the window, still clutching the paper. Seeing far with charms was always a strange experience. She could see just as wide as she could normally, not anything like looking into a telescope, but things that were blurs resolved into detail. It would've given her a headache if she could pay attention to that much at once. The bobbing light was a lantern, glowing a gentle yellow, swaying from left to right, then back again, held by someone she couldn't see except as impressions of flickering lumps of black and white. There was no snow at the figure's feet. Then she felt the charm fail, and she could only see a star. Where her glyphs had been was nothing but clean paper. The rest of it had disappeared, even the splatters.
She didn't know who to share this news with, so she ran to her mother, and then down the stairs and out into the streets. Who would know what to do? The mayor, the chief engineer, her master? She hesitated on her first step onto the road, then decided on the first.
It turned out to be a good decision, because the mayor believed her tale, recounted between gasps for air and fumbling for words. He had a telescope, one with dusty brass caps and a tripod to stand it on, and they went to the edge of town and set up the telescope and Mave found the star. Maybe it was the glass, but it wasn't as good as using the charm. All she could see was the lantern, and nothing of the person behind it. But that was enough.
Another hour passed before the lantern descended to the floor of the crater and reached the outskirts of town. The mayor and a handful of curious people who'd self-appointed themselves as the greeting committee met them, Mave included, though she preferred to hide in the wake of the rest of the group. The travelers were visible with the naked eye—plural, because it was two. A tall woman with red hair tied back held the lantern, and trailing behind her was a shorter girl with dark hair, maybe Mave's age or a couple years less, looking like she'd been swept up by something so much more massive than her that she couldn't escape from the eddies that followed it. Like Mave, really, except she was chasing a dozen adults and the girl, one.
They walked in a circle of green. When the lantern swayed to the left, new life sprouted under it: baby shrubs, little more than a central stalk and leaves, tough prairie grass, timid ferns just starting to uncurl from their fiddles' heads. Behind them, the snow and cold tumbled back in, burying the greenery like it had never existed. Powerful magic, perhaps in the lantern, perhaps in its bearer. Mave wanted to know more, and that want tickled her from the inside like a little candle.
The mayor and the travelers exchanged initial greetings, to which the woman, Flare, seemed to be trying to reply to as briefly as possible, and in which the girl, Grace didn't say a word aside from her name. He asked: "What brings you to Alluvium?"
"This and that."
"You know charms?"
"Some." Mave watched a shadow of something flit over Grace's face as Flare spoke. Recognition, but also something more. Confusion?
A pause, as the mayor waited for her to elaborate. She didn't. "We hope you find warmth in our town," he eventually said. "We can find lodging for you and your charge—"
"Apprentice," she corrected.
"—apprentice, with one of our families."
"That won't be needed," she said. "We only need to resupply."
"It is the sleep cycle," he said. "The crafters are at home, and the market is closed."
"One night, then."
"We'll find a bed for you two."
The mayor turned, and Flare and the girl followed. They passed close enough to touch. Mave hesitated—she couldn't, what if her mom said no but she needed to know—then blurted out, "They could stay at our house."
The mayor looked at her. So did Flare, and the girl, and a lot of the hangers-on in the welcoming group. "Did you ask your mother about this, Mave?"
"No, but, we have room. Guest room, and it faces the street, and it's not like they'll be much of a burden..." The more she spoke, the more it felt like a bad idea, but the mayor nodded at the end.
Her mother was surprised but didn't say no. The two disappeared upstairs.
"Why'd you want her to stay?" she asked.
Mave bit her lip. "I don't know. I think, maybe, maybe because I was curious."
Her mom chuckled. "What of?"
"Everything. Charms? I bet she knows a lot of charms, traveling out there." A nod from her mom. "And the girl with her. I don't know, isn't it interesting?"
"I suppose it is," her mom said, then promptly tasked her with helping prepare vegetables without using cutting charms because that just wasn't as good as the good old knife and board. She didn't argue, because her mom's food never failed to be tasty.
She went to call Flare and the girl to dinner. One knock and the door opened; they were both sitting cross-legged on the floor, the wisps of an unfinished charm melting away. They came with her. The meal wasn't too different from the usual. A big pot of meaty soup, spicy and with mushrooms, vegetables and plenty of thick noodles; other dishes of little things she and mom had made before, cold-tossed bean sprouts or pickles or dried radish bits, kept in the foodbox.
Flare wasn't very talkative. In fact, she didn't say anything at all, nor did she make any sound while eating. The girl glanced around the kitchen, barely looking at her food, maybe wanting to know everything about Mave's kitchen.
"I hope the food is to your liking," Mave's mom finally said, manners winning out over Flare's frosty demeanor. "It's not much, but..."
Flare nods twice, quick jerks of her head. "It is good. Thank you for the meal, and the hospitality." Her expression doesn't reflect the warmth of her words.
"We hope you can let down some of your travel's burden during your night here."
"Travel may be difficult, but we are used to it."
Her mom persisted. "Have you found the room to your liking?"
"It is much more comfortable than anything we could get outside."
It felt like a verbal ball game, her mom pitching these politenesses and Flare deflecting each time, expending as little effort as she could, precisely answering each question but not returning any. All the while, curiosity burned in Mave like a little candle, the same thing that had made her volunteer earlier. She decided to ask. She waited for that break in the conversation immediately after Flare answered, then jumped in.
"Can you help me with charms?"
The girl's attention was on her, now, as well as Flare's, and her mom's. Mom opened her mouth, about to try and smooth over her breach of conduct, maybe, or back her up with the authority she had, being an adult in a social situation with adults, but Flare replied first.
"She's an apprentice to Master Hyne, one of the charmsmakers," her mom started to explain, then she stopped at a glance from Flare.
"Not that. There's a—a machine, a starstone, that makes heat and light for the town, and it's covered in charms, but I don't know a lot of them but I was curious..." She started out brave, but she couldn't help but flutter under Flare's intense gaze. "There's a countdown," she managed, before feeling like she had to stop.
"A countdown?" The girl.
She didn't remember her name, or even if it was mentioned, but it was better than trying to talk with Flare. "I could read numbers, just not anything else. A hundred forty, and it goes down. I think it's days, but to what?"
The girl looked towards Flare, who shifted. "After dinner, then," Flare said.
"After dinner," Mave said. Her mom shot her a warning look, but she didn't care. That could come later, after going to see the starstone.
Hundreds of glyphs still overlapped each other in the chamber when Mave and Flare and the girl went after dinner, sometimes threading into nonsensical patterns, sometimes separating into wisps of strokes that no-one living could've written. Flare's own gaze was like a needle tracing over each character on the starstone.
"Hm," she said.
"It's beautiful," the girl said, and her voice was awed in a way that Mave could empathize with.
"I come watch it a lot," Mave admitted. "After work, before dinner. Sometimes on weekends. My mom thinks I'm wasting time, but at least she doesn't stop me."
"I could totally see myself doing that, it's right here to see and there's so many glyphs, and I want to know—you said you work with charms, right?" Mave took a step back when the girl turned her attention from the stone to her. It was like momentarily being blinded by a streetlight, even though it was so much better than the cold, but then the moment passes and you can see again.
"I do," she managed.
"What do you do?"
"I make charms." Mave traced a square in the air with her fingers. Some part of her noticed it was the entry glyph. "I carve them into wood or metal and activate them."
"Why carve? Can you do it with writing and paper?"
"You can," Mave said, shrinking back a little, "but it never lasts long. I used a brush and paper to look at you when you were walking down the crater, you know."
"Which glyphs, can you show me?"
Mave nodded and traced the three glyphs in the air, though she didn't bother trying to hold onto them as she wrote the next ones. "View. Far. Execution particle."
The girl hummed thoughtfully, then asked her to show it again, then she wrote the three glyphs. "I don't feel any different."
Mave tilted her head. "Well, we're indoors right now. You wrote all three?"
"Yeah, I do it a lot. Can't you?"
"No, usually just one. I can't concentrate on three at the same time. Two is my best, and only if it's simple."
"What you need to do is try not to remember every stroke, but just like, you know, have the entire thing as an. An image."
Mave furrowed her brows. "An image?"
"Yeah!" The girl was getting excited. "So you only keep track of one thing instead of ten or fifteen, then you write the other one, and maybe if you're good at the holding thing you can use three, or maybe even four!"
"I know my master can do three," Mave said softly, "but it'll take a lot more practice for me to ever get there. I think that…" She trailed off, then changed topics. "Oh, yeah. You carve because you can get really complex charms that way, and they can be used again and again. Did you see the streetlights coming in?" She nodded. "It's twelve characters on a steel plate. They last forever. It draws heat and light from the starstone and puts it where the lamp is."
"Do you know those characters?"
"Yeah, though my master doesn't let me try because, you know, it's kinda hot and dangerous." She traced the glyphs for her, and watched her green eyes dart over the strokes, the dots, absorb the knowledge. Mave had no doubt she'd memorized every single one. To say she was smart was to say outside the town was chilly, a fatal understatement sharp enough to draw blood. She got things, and it came to her so naturally that Mave knew someone like herself would never, ever be able to keep up.
"I see," Flare said, and both of them looked at her. She turned and started leaving, and the girl went to catch up, and Mave tried to follow the girl, but her earlier thought kept her feeling like she was slipping away.
"What do you see," she managed to say.
Flare glanced at her. "The problem."
"There's a problem?"
Mave had to fight for every word from Flare. "What's the problem?"
"The sunstone will be shutting down in one hundred forty days, give or take."
Mave stopped. "What?"
Flare did not stop, so Mave was forced to walk again if she wanted to keep up.
"It is as I said."
"Why? And where are we going?"
"I will not repeat myself. Wait."
Flare lead them out of the building and to the mayor's house. She seemed to know the way well enough, even though it was probably her first time in town. Good memory, maybe. An eye for detail. Which probably helped with learning charms.
The mayor didn't believe Flare as easily as he had Mave. "The stone's been active for as long as I've been alive," he said slowly. He was at his desk, a wooden thing with smooth metal edges and a glass top.
"Do you have proof?"
Flare inclined her head. "Only my word. Whether you believe what I say, the facts do not change."
"And what do you have to do with this, Mave?" His voice was gentler, but Mave almost tried to hide behind Flare again before she caught herself.
"I followed her..." No, that wasn't quite true. "I told her about the starstone."
"Your mother told you to not spend so much time staring at it, didn't she?"
"Well, yes, but—" Mave took a breath, gathering the thoughts that were trying to spill out of her without direction. "I saw there was a number on the starstone and it was going down, and I knew Flare was good at charms, so I thought I would ask. I know," she emphasized the word to preempt the mayor, "that Master Oleyani knows so many more charms than me, but he also is very busy."
The mayor steepled his fingers. "That's fair, I suppose. Is what Mave said true?"
I wasn't looking at her, but I briefly could feel her eyes on me, hard and sharp. "There is a countdown, yes," she said. "The starstone, as you call it, is evidently of human make. If it weren't, I would understand your suspicions."
The mayor considered Flare. "So it will turn off in—how many days?"
"One forty two."
"Is there anything we can do about it?"
"Perhaps." She seemed to think, then nodded to herself. "There are some ways I can think of. Are you familiar with monsters?"
The mayor gently tapped his fingers on the desk, enough that they didn't make any noise. "Yes, though they stay outside of the city. The wards, you see." Which also stole slivers of the starstone's energy, using it to weave magic far more potent and longer-lasting than even Mave's master could do on his own.
"There are ways to use them. For heat, or light."
"Can you show us how?"
"Yes. Tomorrow." Her part said, she turned and left, blowing through the gap between me and the girl without faltering. Mave turned to follow, or maybe to go back home. She didn't exactly know, because she was caught up in Flare's turbulance, too.