Midday light cut through the valley, warming the otherwise chilly day. Sweat glistened on Tetra’s chest and arms. Wending its way through the valley, the breeze brought with it the smell of grass and growing things. Birds chirped in the distance. He focused on these sensations, hoping they’d distract from the growing tension that straightened his spine and caught at the nape of his neck. When this didn’t work, he cast his gaze out over the village, thinking the familiar, comforting sight might soothe him.
The valley’s edges had been cleared of the woods, making way for stepped crops, allowing packed dirt-and-cobble roads to wind through the busy village of Jaegen. Buildings stood two stories at most in Jaegen, a village that had spread out rather than up. Unlike many villages in the kingdom, most of the roofs were steepled and shingled, rather than thatched. The rains on the edge of the Rocmire Forest were heavy, with monsoons twice a year, and thatch didn’t hold up.
Villagers meandered along the streets, going about the varied tasks of the day, though none came near the grassy clearing at the center of town. There, a massive wooden pole stood, carved and polished to a near-reflective sheen, a glowing green crystal atop it. The crystal pulsed with a rainbow of colors, always returning to its base green between flashes. Like thousands of other settlements across the lands, Jaegen was built around a shard of the Heart of the World.
A group stood with Tetra, forming a ring around the pole—six other adolescents and an older man whose head was crowned by long white tresses. A full and lengthy beard dominated his features. While he leaned on a cane, their instructor’s brown breeches and leather tunic exposed a surprisingly muscular frame for his age. His skin was bronzed by decades of exposure to the sun, and weathered by the winter winds he had endured.
The Elder’s attention focused on Tetra. The gangly boy tried to ignore his overheated brow as he concentrated on Sven, who struggled to lift a rock the size of a man’s head. It sat atop a thin pillar of earth that stood at eye level, bobbing and swaying as bits of the supporting column crumbled and fell away. Sven fought to replace the falling pieces of earth, keeping the pillar intact and the stone balanced upon it.
“Concentrate …” Elder Proumin patted Sven on the back. “Good.”
Glittering lines of force shimmered in the air as Proumin exposed the magics at play, creating a map of the power the boy used. As a Prios, Jaegen’s elder instructor used his affinity to expose the use of magics to others, allowing for easier demonstrations of how to effectively employ their abilities and learn how to work together.
“Tetra,” Proumin said.
Tetra pushed damp brown locks out of his eyes and looked over to his grandfather. “Yes, Elder?”
Proumin raised a bushy, white eyebrow. “Can you help him?”
“I—I’m not sure.” Tetra reached out with his affinity, probing the stone, studying the lines and seams of millennia spent in its growth. The process proved more intimate than reaching out and taking hold of the rock. The elements, the inner power holding the stone together, became part of him, as much as his own bones and blood. Yet if he flexed the control, as he would his own muscles, it would cost him dearly. Using affinity magic burned the body’s energy faster than ordinary muscle use. “It has a high iron content. Perhaps Malec can—”
“You’re a Graviton, Tetra. You can help him as easily as a Magnus. Iron is a good start. Look deeper.” Proumin shifted his weight on the walking stick, studying the interplay of magic. “Sven, allow his magic in. Loosen your control without losing your grip on the magic itself.”
Sven grunted. Sweat beaded on his forehead, clumping together the sandy bangs above his hazel eyes. Tetra knew his probing threatened Sven’s tenuous control, but he acted under his grandfather’s orders.
Concentrating harder, Tetra tried to lighten the rock, affecting its density. He stood with legs spread wide, fists clenched at his side. Raising one hand, he fought an invisible resistance as the earth in front of him rippled. Elements and forces bound the stone together, a maze of titanic proportions compacted into a miniscule space. Confusing, almost maddening, to track them all. His back tensed and a familiar pain flared along his spine, threatening his focus. What good did sensing the rock’s composition achieve if he had no way to affect their shape like Sven?
Knuckles whitening, Tetra let a huff escape him.
“It’s alright,” his twin sister whispered. “You’re doing great.” An encouraging smile flitted across Halli’s lips, quickly replaced with a frown. Wavy brown hair crowned her face, where earth-colored eyes sparkled with encouragement despite the frown. He knew she always believed in him, no matter what.
Tetra huffed again, pushing against the mingling magics, exerting his will. Sven ignored everyone, focused on keeping the rock aloft while allowing Tetra’s magic in. The stone jerked and rose several feet. The air around it distorted with a heat wave shimmer as Sven pushed it higher.
“It’s lighter!” The blond boy sounded jubilant at the sudden success.
“Good.” Proumin flicked a finger, using his affinity to brighten the manifested force lines and expose the intermingled magics. “You didn’t lose control as the density changed. And Tetra fused his magic without disrupting Sven.”
Tetra gasped. Pain flooded through his body; a thousand needles pierced his muscles as rivulets of fire coursed through his veins. Nausea and lightheadedness overcame him. The world spun in place, he fought to remain standing.
With two quick steps, Halli stood at Tetra’s side and slipped his arm over her shoulders. He felt her other arm wrap around his waist. Resentment for her interference warred with gratefulness for the relief Halli provided through her magic as Tetra leaned his weight against his sister.
Tetra’s grip on his magic slipped, breaking the bond with Sven. The other boy gasped, and Tetra felt another excruciating stab of pain in his back. He was still connected to the rock, but now his magic was in conflict with his friend’s, rather than in harmony. The flows contorted, working against each other as Tetra tried to regain his hold on the magic. The stone sank as Sven tried to retain control of the rock without Tetra’s magic to assist him.
“Alright, that’s enough.” Proumin stared at Tetra. Worry lines creased his grandfather’s brow. “Listen closely, children.”
Releasing his tentative bond on the stone’s density, Tetra leaned harder on his sister. While he appreciated the relief, he also didn’t want anyone to know how bad his old injury was, and Tetra disguised the motion of leaning on his sister by adjusting his stance. The muscles in his back tightened and the rock crashed down.
Sven released his hold on his own magic and the pillar crumbled to the ground, smashing as dirt fell over the rock. “Sorry.”
Tetra smiled wanly. “You did great.” The cool caress of Halli’s affinity probed his spine. Turning his head, he saw her eyes narrow as she studied him.
Tetra pulled away from Halli and sat, ignoring both the pain and his sister’s inspection. She wouldn’t be able to delve too deeply without touching him. That was his only salvation now, his only way to hide his weakness.
“Wrestling with an affinity takes a toll on the body,” their grandfather explained. He pulled up his mat and sat cross-legged, his walking stick set parallel to his knees. “It usually manifests as exhaustion, much the way the body weakens if it goes too long without food. There are even legends of arch mages who have died of starvation by using their magic on too grand a scale.”
“I’m fine,” Tetra lied, forcing himself not to look at Halli as the telltale sign of her healing magic faded from his back. A strong Geist, Halli used the twins’ bond in unfair ways, he felt. Their connection didn’t give her the right to constantly probe.
He almost wished her magic wasn’t so good. Almost. Yet magic ran strong in their family. According to Academy testers, Halli demonstrated a once-in-a-century healing talent, and their village only held one other person with such a strong spirit affinity—their mother. Though even hers didn’t have the same potential Halli’s did. Despite that, she was still the strongest Geist the village had ever known. With his back injury, a broken spine when he was an infant, Tetra walked only because of their mother Leta.
Proumin stroked his beard as he watched the children, paying particular attention to Tetra. “Listen, boy. This isn’t about you alone. These are things you all must learn. You all may be strong, but none of you are so strong that you can’t fall prey to your own affinity … especially if you never fully understand the magic you wield. Fusing affinities is no simple task. Two wills and two minds must work together. If you fail, the results can be disastrous. For other races this is a simple task. Every oroc uses the same two affinities, which means they understand how they work without the risks we have. With us, it is not just a matter of understanding the magic, it is also a matter of trusting the person. You must get that into your heads.”
Tetra exchanged glances with the other children, contemplating what his grandfather said. They’d heard all this before, but tomorrow marked their departure for the Academy. These repeated lessons ran deeper than mere words. The concepts Proumin taught would take years to master. They were seeds being planted in the kid’s minds, aimed at growing over the years at the Academy. And yet, he wanted to grasp them now. He had been studying under his grandfather’s tutelage for years, without achieving the control he so desperately wanted.
“Both of you,” Proumin looked between Tetra and Sven, “had to fight your natural resistance to work together. Each of you wanted control, neither wanted to cooperate. This is natural. But fighting to allow another in costs as much, if not more, than using magic itself. To work together, you must let go of this natural tendency.”
The pressure of Halli’s gaze shifted as she considered Proumin’s words. Tetra sighed in relief. This day had been difficult enough without his sister adding to his fear—the ultimate dread of someone discovering his magic usage worsened his spinal injury.
Proumin stroked his beard. “Learn everything you can about each other. The closer your bonds, the stronger you’ll be at the Academy.” He turned his attention to Malec. “A final demonstration. Lift the stone.”
With a sly smile, Malec tossed his black curls aside and set his dark-eyed gaze on the stone. The heavy rock shot into the air. It stopped at eye level and rotated slowly, the small sparks of mica shimmering in the sun. Miming a yawn, he twiddled blades of grass between his fingers.
“Very good, you’ve been practicing.” Tetra watched his grandfather take in the casual gestures of confidence of Malec’s blatant posturing. “… but enough showing off.”
The stone dropped to the ground with a thud, kicking up a cloud of dust.
The Elder tugged his whiskers. “We’re proud of you all. The village hasn’t had the honor of sending anyone to the Academy for four years, and now we’re sending seven.” He rose to his feet, joints creaking and popping. “Continue practicing, but be careful. The magnitude and strength of your affinities could pose a natural danger to you and anyone around if you lose control at a critical moment. Remember that, always.”
Walking to the edge of the green, he paused and looked back to the children. “Take the rest of the day for yourselves. Tomorrow you leave for the Academy.”
“Thank you, Elder Proumin,” the youngsters said in unison. As Tetra’s grandfather exited the green, the children rested in contemplative silence. Noises from the bustling village washed over them: people talking, the soft slap of laundry being cleaned on a washboard, the clack and clatter of a wagon’s wheels over the cobblestones. Everything changed tomorrow, and the normalcy of those sounds would be gone.
As usual, Pavil broke the silence first. “Hear that? Our affinities have personality!”
Halli blinked. “What are you talking about?”
The boy grinned. “He said they have magnitude.”
Katerine rolled her gold-green eyes. “That’s not what magnitude means.”
“What does it mean, then?” Pavil leaned out of Halli’s way as she tried to ruffle his blonde hair.
“It means I’m hungry,” Laney groaned as she flopped back, unruly gold locks curling off her head in all directions. The youngest of the group, only twelve years old, she always found something to complain about.
Halli sat down beside Tetra. Leaning her arms over her knees, she nonchalantly tugged at blades of grass between her feet. The afternoon winds carried the scent of wheat across the village, and Tetra smelled roasting rocboar coming from the village inn. His stomach grumbled.
Halli nudged Tetra with her elbow. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
Forcing himself to smile, Tetra nodded. She smiled back. Neither of them was fooled. She felt his pain; he sensed her worry.
“It means you’re an idiot,” Katerine said, retying a cord around her hair. Malec’s snorting laughter grew, while Pavil’s expression darkened. The rest of their friends seemed to be in a different world from the one that Tetra and Halli inhabited at the moment, one that they, as twins, knew all too well.
“Food does sound good,” Sven said. Laney sat up with a squeal.
“Mealtime?” Halli asked Tetra. He nodded again. She stood and reached out, helping Tetra stand even as he rolled his eyes at her.
Malec copied Halli and held out a hand to Pavil, who took it and jumped to his feet. Pavil pulled hard as he jumped up, and Malec wobbled in place, almost falling over.
“About time,” Laney said. “I’m close to starving.”
“Exaggerating much?” Pavil asked. “I can provide a magnitude of talent to sustain you.”
“I don’t want any magnitude from you,” Laney said, strutting off the village green, holding her hands sternly on her hips.
The others broke into laughter. Tetra trudged down the street leading from the green to the Bicks’ residence. Women and men worked hard at the end of the year’s cleaning, ready to welcome the harvest moon with the celebrations it brought. Rushes were replaced and lamps readied for the winter to come. Always full of something to talk about, Laney chattered away beside him as the others fell in step. The day’s heat sat heavy on their heads, but the cool breeze caressing the valley made the day beautiful.
The aroma of freshly cut wheat, grown on the cleared steppes, filled the air along with the quiet hush of the scythes wielded by the reapers. Preparations for the harvest festival were underway. It saddened Tetra to know he’d miss the celebration, though he wouldn’t miss the town itself. Their departure for the Academy in Aldamere had been pushed up nearly two weeks sooner than in years past—due to the prediction of an early winter. Under the cheery autumn sun, winter seemed too far away.
“I wonder what it will be like,” Halli said, gazing into the distance. “Classes. A big city …” Tetra’s sister echoed his thoughts until she grinned and added—“Boys.”
“I can’t imagine it will be anything like Jaegen,” Katerine said.
“By the Aspects, I hope it isn’t,” Tetra said. “I couldn’t stand a place a hundred times the size of Jaegen, but just as dull.”
“It’s not so bad, is it?” Halli frowned, a chiding look he hated. Her being ten minutes older than him didn’t give her the authority to act so disapproving.
He shrugged. “It’s home and it always will be, but I’m ready for a change. Don’t get me wrong. I love everyone here, but it’s so small, you know?”
“Jaegen never changes. That’s one of the things I love about it.” Halli watched a group of children run past, squealing as they played some impromptu game.
Katerine perked up. “You know what we should do?”
Tetra kicked a rock off the path. “What?”
“We should name ourselves.” She skipped forward a step. “Something like The Jaegen Seven, yeah?”
“That’s silly, Katerine. We’re not a band of storytime heroes or anything.”
“Hush, Tetra,” his sister replied. “I like the idea. A way to remember we’re a group once we’re at the Academy.”
Tetra glanced at her. “Still think it’s silly.”
Katerine pouted. “I just want everyone to know we’re a group. That we’re all friends.” She lowered her head and muttered, “I don’t think that’s stupid.”
He shrugged again and looked away. “Have it your way.”
“Then it’s settled.” Halli chucked Tetra’s shoulder. “What a magnificent band we’ll be.”
The Jaegen Seven continued toward the Bicks’ house.
The Bicks’ home was one of the few two-story stone homes in the village. A much larger single-story wooden structure, the healing house, stood a stone’s throw away. Though it had been built in cooperation with several other nearby villages along the Rocmire forest border, the townsfolk still considered the healing house as part of the Bicks’ place. Tetra’s family had served as healers for Jaegen and the surrounding towns for generations. Even Drayston Castle called upon the Bicks family on occasion.
Tetra turned to watch Malec and Pavil jostle each other as they followed the rest down the street. They were always fighting, always teasing each other, trying to see which one of them would finally be the best at whatever they set their minds to compete about.
Looking back to follow his gaze, Halli smiled when she saw them. She put her hands on her hips and paused. “Stop being clods or the Dreadknights will come get you!”
Malec laughed. “Like they would bother with us. They’re too powerful and we’re just little boys.”
“Little boys who need to be taught a lesson.” Halli gave them a mock-stern look.
They followed the rest of the children to the twins’ home. Tetra listened to Laney regaling Sven with her theories on hypothetical situations and how they might use their magic in each scenario. They rounded the corner of the healing house, steering clear of the front doors to avoid the sick that even now waited their turn, and headed along the fence toward the main house.
“I’m not sure what I’d do,” Laney said as Sven held the wooden slat door open for the group. She bit her lip as she walked. “If I had no choice, I’d probably just use a gale to put out the fire, but that could cause it to spread to other buildings and there may not be a Volcon there to help …” her words trailed off as she disappeared inside.
Sven sighed in relief. Malec patted him on the shoulder as the rest of the group followed Laney into the kitchen entrance. “You had to ask. You know how she gets.”
Tetra stifled a laugh, not wanting to surrender his sour mood that easily. Holding his grudge, though he didn’t know who he was upset with, he sniffed at the air scornfully. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the door, making his stomach growl. His back remained a mass of pain so he walked carefully, trying not to draw attention to himself.
Mealtime at the Bicks’ house had become a common ritual for the group. Long before they’d been selected to attend the Academy by scouts a month earlier, Elder Proumin had them practicing together, learning from each other. Lunch, breakfast, any meal was a commonly shared event amongst them. The kitchen already bustled with people preparing meals for the healing house’s guests.
As one of the kitchen boys grabbed a tray, a stern middle-aged woman in an apron stopped him. Smile lines around Leta’s eyes belied her annoyed expression. She grabbed a small salt dish off the tray of meats and breads, and placed it back on the counter.
“Elder Harbaden will complain, but his salt intake must be kept to a minimum.” The twins’ mother shooed the boy out to deliver the food. Two crystal-tipped wood wands pinned her curly brown hair into a ball—a gift from their father, and also healing implements that amplified her already significant spirit affinity. She wiped hands on her coarse blue tunic and looked over the kitchen with a critical eye.
Her gaze fixed on the children as they crowded around the large baking table. Tetra watched his mother carefully as she studied his friends. A wry smile crossed her lips as she said, “Excellent! We need help with dishes and scrubbing.”
Laney quieted, and the rest of the Jaegen Seven’s eyes went wide as they looked to Tetra and his sister. Tetra swallowed down a laugh at his mother’s joking, since she knew they were all worn out from practicing. The grin he’d fought to stifle a moment before broke free.
Halli walked to her mother, clasping her hands. Batting her brown eyes, she spoke in her best dutiful daughter voice. “Of course, Mother. Just show us what we need to do.”
Pavil stared confusedly between the food being prepped on the table and the dishes stacked in the sink. “But we’re hungry.”
Halli blinked innocently at her mother. Leta looked at her daughter and burst into high, musical laughter.
Elga, Leta’s white-haired older sister, pushed through the group. “You kids are always hungry.” She placed a freshly baked loaf of bread on the table. Flour dusted her lean form from head to toe. “You’re only getting out of dish duty because you’re leaving for Aldamere tomorrow.”
“We’re not kids,” Laney said. “We’re going to be Arch—”
Elga stuffed a piece of bread into her mouth, silencing the girl. It was bad luck to speak of such things before they came true.
“You all go into the other room and we’ll fix you something.” Releasing her daughter’s hands, she nudged Halli towards the home’s interior. Tetra opened his mouth to ask what they would make, but Leta raised a hand and pointed at the other room.
Tetra gave up and led the way into the dining room. Pavil and Malec earned a playful glare and the menacing shake of a knife from Elga as they each grabbed a hunk of bread on their way by.
As the other six entered the other room, Tetra heard his mother. “Halli. Wait in here. I’d like some help, please.”
Tetra shut the door to the dining room behind the group before his mom could conscript him, too. The long table in the dining room was polished from generations of use. An intricate carving of the Twelve Aspects creating the world decorated table’s center—a depiction often found on wall hangings in homes across the kingdom. Tetra had often studied the whorls of the wood with his eyes, tracing the way Vox met Europina and Agleiopan turned Magethia. Such carvings were rare, but the Bicks family’s centuries of public service had allowed them to collect artifacts of beauty and faith through their lineal journey.
The etching depicted the Twelve Aspects of Magic and the Seven Races of Mortality. Despite generations of use, the table remained in perfect condition. Tetra had fond memories of winter solstices during which his father’s siblings had visited from the neighboring village of Kestalt. The long table had seemed crowded then, and grew more so as some brought expanding families of their own. His friends spread out around the table, taking their usual places and waiting for their promised sustenance.
Laney looked longingly at the door. “Now I’m starving! How long?”
Pavil grinned. “I could help you with that.”
“Don’t even think it,” Laney scowled at Pavil. “The last time you did that, I wasn’t hungry for two days. Keep your Pathos to yourself.”
The others laughed. Tetra wondered if they would be separated at the Academy. Their ages would make a difference, and they would probably be put in different classes, but he hoped they’d get to see one another often. Yet he worried they would be soon separated. Aldamere was a large city and the Academy had several thousand students—at least according to Granddad.
Leta came through the door with Tetra’s twin following meekly. Halli looked abashed and wouldn’t make eye contact. His mother moved behind him and placed her hands on the back of his shoulders. With a sinking feeling, Tetra realized why Halli looked guilty. Coolness rushed over his skin at his mother’s touch. Glaring at Halli, Tetra narrowed his eyes, ignoring their friends. “I’m fine, Mother, really …” His earlier sour mood flared up again.
“Hush.” She continued delving his back. “It’s inflamed. We’ll have to ask your father what he thinks.”
“I’m going,” Tetra curled his fingers into fists, pushing them against the table as his knuckles whitened.
“Yes, well—” She began, her voice trying to gentle him.
The coolness fled as Leta released his shoulders and walked around the table to look him in the eye. “Speak to me like that again and the only place you’ll be going is into the kitchen to help with dishes.”
Features softened alongside her tone as she spoke to him. “I know you want to prove yourself, but if your back is flaring up, we have to consider the strain. This is … troubling.”
Tetra stood, looking away from his family and friends, fists still clenched. Everyone had fallen silent, quietly watching the conflict between Tetra and the Bicks family matron. Leta was normally soft, warm, and friendly. Tetra rarely saw his mom as rigid, or a disciplinarian. She was the very spirit of kindness. But not today. Even Laney was cowed into silence, avoiding her usual vocal complaints about the origin of the next meal.
Steel, like a sword, could be seen beneath her blue eyes. It seemed to Tetra as though his mother’s gaze was daring him to hurt himself, promising she would kill him if he did something stupid. He sighed and slumped his shoulders, then headed for the hallway leading to the rooms at the back of the house.
His mother’s words trailed after him. “You’ll have to sit and speak with me about this before I’ll let you leave, Tetra …”
He entered his room and shut the door, barely resisting the urge to slam it.
“I don’t see why, Leta.” Viktor’s deep voice penetrated the bedroom door, drifting into the upstairs hallway. Halli sat on a small bench nestled against the railing opposite her parents’ room at the top of the stairs. Knees tucked under her chin, she wrapped arms around her legs. Flames crackled in the fireplace of the Heart room below. Every home in the region committed its largest space to the Heart room … sometimes making it the only room in the house.
Once lunch had been eaten, in silence after the fight between Leta and Tetra, the rest of the kids had left the Bicks home. They would all see each other in the morning when they left for the Academy. All of them had shuffled out in silence, leaving Halli with looks of quiet concern. She had watched them go, concerns of her own eating at her.
“You remember our time at the Academy,” her mother said. “It’s beyond grueling. If Tetra has been hiding pains from his injury, the trials of the Academy could re-injure him. Or worse. I can’t bear the thought of that, Vik.”
“How does keeping him here change that?” her father asked. “If using his affinity is hurting him, he’ll eventually break, whether he’s here or there. We can’t deny the truth. I know you’re scared, Letty, but we have to let him go to live his own life.”
“You know what they will turn him into.”
“Is that what this is about?” Concern shaded Viktor’s voice. “Yes, they’ll teach him to fight, to lead, to protect. That is what the Academy is all about. He will emerge stronger. A man.”
“They’ll teach him to kill.”
A shiver ran down Halli’s back. Gravitons were, more often than not, warriors. Their ability to manipulate density could enhance and reduce the potency of other affinities. Any magic could be trained for war, but Gravitons seemed to be born for it.
“Soldiers kill, but they aren’t killers,” Viktor’s words stunned Halli. Were they really talking so blithely about Tetra killing? She didn’t understand what they meant, only hearing the surface of the low-toned conversation.
A hiss from her mother. “Are they not killers? Like your brother? Why do you think I am so scared for our son? At least Halli will be protected, nurtured, even if they are taking her away from us.”
“Is that what you think of my brother? No, Letty, you know he is so much more than that. Don’t let your fears rule your words, your heart.” Another long silence. “The decision has always been yours; but if you force him to stay, he’ll hate us. Taking away his future means we’ll lose him just as assuredly as letting him go now.”
“Why both of them?” Footsteps crossed the room, and she imagined her father going to her mother, enfolding her in his arms. Tears welled in her eyes as, for the first time, it occurred to her how much she would miss her parents.
“I know Vik, I just fear for them. But …” While muffled, her mother’s voice sounded stronger. “The decision has always been his.”
As the last rays of the sun found their way through the space between the boards of the shuttered windows, Tetra sat at the foot of his bed, disconsolate, the soft down of his blanket clutched in his hands. He dug his toes into the small-knotted rag rug at the foot of his bed while staring at his belongings. Everything for the journey and new Academy home sat packed and stacked by his door. A few meager trunks, packed to filling with the remains of his life here.
After storming out of lunch and going to his room, he’d turned to packing on reflex, refusing to believe he might be forced to stay home. The smells and warmth of the Heart room left behind, he found the cold of the day had been waiting for him in his room. As he shoved rolled clothes and sundries into his trunks, he cleared his head of the heat of anger, though worry still raced through his mind. After years of hiding the pain his affinity caused, how could he have been found out the day before leaving? What had he done that was so careless?
He spent most of the afternoon lying in bed, gazing at the ceiling and daydreaming about the Academy. Then he paced back and forth, constructing arguments to make his parents understand why he had to go. Staying in Jaegen wasn’t an option. His parents’ raised voices debated his future a couple rooms away, their tones increasingly anxious. The cold floorboards felt good against the soles of his feet.
Stolen snatches of conversation floated through his room. He couldn’t help but overhear. It wasn’t like he was spying. Why did they talk about him being a soldier? If being a soldier meant he could use his affinity to serve the kingdom, then he’d embrace this fate. Why didn’t they understand? Why didn’t they realize he wanted this more than anything? He stared at his trunk, and then flopped back onto the bed.
His parents fell silent and Tetra felt his heart quicken. What was their decision? Footsteps approached his door.
“Tetra?” His father knocked gently. The door cracked open and Tetra sat up. “I thought you might be asleep.” Viktor entered, coming to sit on the bed beside Tetra. They remained silent for a moment while Viktor gathered his thoughts. Tetra feared breaking the silence, feared the words to come. Fighting the urge to nervously toy with the blanket, Tetra disciplined himself and placed his hands in his lap, waiting.
“I spoke with your mother,” his father said.
Tetra grimaced. “I heard.”
His father put an arm around him. Tetra kept his back straight, waiting. “She loves you very much, you know. We both do.”
“Is that why she’s going to keep me prisoner?” Frustrated tears burned the edges of Tetra’s eyes.
His father frowned and looked at Tetra’s belongings. “You sure you’re not forgetting anything?”
Tetra drew a sharp breath, finally daring to look at his father.
“Things are expensive in Aldamere, three times what they are here.” Worry still creased Viktor’s face but Tetra saw the serious intent there. He wrapped arms around his father’s chest and hugged him tight. Viktor returned the embrace. “About your back, Tetra. There are some things you need to know.”
“I’m sorry,” Tetra’s voice was muted, his face still buried in his father’s chest. He was hiding tears of relief. He spoke, the words rushing from him, “I should have …”
“You haven’t hidden it as well as you think. Listen to your body, don’t push it too hard.”
“There’s nothing we, or the healers in Aldamere, can do for you. You have to be careful. If you re-break your spine, you might never walk again.”
Tetra pulled back, rubbing his cheeks, clearing away the tears. He looked his father in the eye. “I know. I’m careful.”
Viktor studied his son’s face and then pointed back to Tetra’s trunks. “Be sure to double check everything. We’re going to miss you. Both of you. Write your mother every week, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
He stood and exited the room, but stopped before closing the door. He seemed about to say something, but only smiled grimly. The door shut with a soft thud.
Tetra’s stomach growled. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone so long without eating, but felt too drained from the emotional day to want to leave his room. Using his magic during the practice earlier only compounded the spent feeling. But, food could wait until morning. Lying down, his eyelids grew heavy and he started to drift. Tonight, he slept in his bed, in his home, near his family.
Tomorrow … his world would change forever.
Heat flooded over Tetra’s body, the instant discomfort waking him from a sound sleep. Bleary-eyed, he sat up, trying to shake off the grogginess. Somehow, he had gotten under his blankets from the foot of his bed, where he had fallen asleep. Now it was stifling hot. Yelling sounded outside his window. Confused, he pushed back the bed sheets and stumbled to the shutters. What caused such an intense heat?
Grasping the locking clamp, he loosened the two boards protecting his window and pulled them open. Carnage greeted him; the fallen bodies of his neighbors littered the streets. Flames enveloped the village. Heat pushed at him from outside and he took a step back from the incomprehensible chaos. He blinked, his sleep-addled brain refusing to connect the inferno and screaming with reality. Behind him, the door crashed inwards. Tetra spun around.
His grandfather’s body, battered and bloody, lay across the doorway amidst the splintered wreckage of the door. The threshold frame had been cracked from the force of his grandfather’s body being flung through it. Two remaining chunks of wood hung from the hinges.
“Granddad!” He rushed forward. “What happened?”
The old man remained limp, unresponsive.
“Granddad? Granddad!” Tetra wanted to run forward, to grab his grandfather, but fear kept his feet rooted. Yelling and screaming from outside assaulted his ears, the odors of the burning village threatening to overwhelm his nose. There was a smell there too, one he didn’t recognize. Almost like wet iron. It stank, turning his stomach.
Out in the hall, his grandfather’s attackers turned at the sound of his voice. A seven-foot oroc, all sinewy muscles and vines, wearing the strange living foliage clothing of his species, stared at Tetra. He spoke in a broken, gravelly voice.
“Little human sapling. Should have stayed hidden.”
Tetra finally broke the fear that controlled him and ran forward, then grasped his grandfather by the shoulders. Tears streaked down his face. His grandfather’s chest didn’t move.
The oroc lumbered closer. Tetra looked up, crying openly. “Who are you? What have you done? Why are you here?” His emotions were a mess, fear battling with confusion, but at their core, anger was burning in his heart.
The oroc tilted his head to the side. “I am Gnarrl. I killed him? Yes. Humans betray. You break treaties and murder. We return betrayal.” Gnarrl knelt, studying Tetra. “You are human sapling, no?”
Petrified, Tetra could only swallow. “Y–yes. I am.” Every muscle in his body screamed at him to fight, but fear froze him in place.
Gnarrl grasped Tetra’s cheeks with a vine-covered hand. “You are male, human. Hmm.”
A second oroc appeared out in the hall, coming from his sister’s room, dragging a limp form. It took a moment for Tetra to recognize his twin sister’s prone body. The world snapped, crumbling outside his awareness. Ice had been growing over his heart, formed by the fear and conflicting emotions. It shattered when he saw Halli.
The inferno outside? Pointless. All its heat and flame was nothing compared to the spirit of destruction filling his mind, body, and soul. He rose, releasing his grandfather’s body, and pointed at the oroc carrying his sister.
“Let her go!” His voice sounded alien to his own ears. It was deep, commanding. No trace of the conflict in his heart remained. Love for his sister was fueling the hate consuming him.
Gnarrl fell back, inhuman face twisted in shock. Tetra’s back transformed into a mass of pain, but he didn’t care. He barely even noticed. Gathering every last ounce of energy in his body, he focused on the head of the oroc dragging his sister. The rafters and walls creaked in protest as Tetra exerted his will. The creature froze as its skull’s density amplified, becoming several times heavier than its entire body. The neck muscles gave, unable to hold up the creature’s head any longer.
With a loud snap, followed by muscle and sinew ripping apart, the head rolled forward and the oroc’s body fell back. Dark liquid spurted against the walls.
Gnarrl roared and swung a huge fist, catching Tetra across the chest. He flew back into the wall. Hardwood smashed into his back, crushing the wind out of him. In a smooth motion, Gnarrl swung a hand up while splaying the fingers of this other hand across the floor. The floor cracked apart and an earthen spike thrust out, piercing Tetra’s abdomen as he fell. The boy screamed as the earthen spike tore at his flesh, ripping through his body and pinning him in the air. Pain wracked him, dousing the fires of hate and anger. The oroc made a side-to-side motion with his other hand, then jerked it back and slapped his palm to the ground.
Tetra fought to control his mind. Slick blood coated the spike already, but he fought to grip it. With every fiber of his being, he pushed at the impaling earth, trying to get himself off it. The oroc was forgotten momentarily as Tetra struggled to free himself. He lost. The oroc’s voice, resonating with Geist magic, whispered to his soul, telling him to give up, give in. He did.
The fire of vengeance in Tetra’s spirit extinguished. He hung limp on the spike, which now shot out of his back. He would die tonight, watching, helpless, as Gnarrl killed him. Instead, the oroc turned away. Lumbering over to his fallen companion, he crouched over the body. Gnarrl rolled the body onto its back, then replaced the head, settling the corpse into a more peaceful repose.
Tetra tried to gather the energy to fight, but it wouldn’t come. Something was inside his head, inside his heart. It was like his mother’s calm healing magic, only in opposite. The cold was piercing, instead of cool, and ripped away any attempt he made to rally hope. He struggled, every motion a sharp claw of agony as he tried to pull himself off the spike—until he lost the strength for even that.
Gnarrl chanted, a strange sound, unlike anything the boy had heard before. As the chant rose in intensity, the wooden floor split open, exposing the earth below. The ground rose, opening up, allowing the body of the fallen oroc to sink. Once the body submerged, the chant softened until only the screams and crackling fires outside the house remained.
Through the haze of immobilizing pain, Tetra noticed that the oroc’s shoulders shook. He’s crying.
Gnarrl stood. He grabbed one of Halli’s ankles in a massive hand and dragged the girl along. Then he stopped and turned back to Tetra. “I not steal your life. If you survive this night, you earn life I spare. A life you do not deserve. If we meet again, though you hide in guise of sapling, I shall not treat you as such, human warrior.”
Tetra had never seen oroc tears before, though their warriors and traders often passed through his village. The oroc wept translucent green tears, like thin sap. Gnarrl lifted one hand and blew on his palm. “I release your spirit, human. But be warned. Use your magic against me, and I shall destroy forever the soul of this small one with me, even if be my dying breath to do so.”
Tetra moaned, not understanding what happened. His mind occupied one world, his body another. The oroc snapped his fingers and, all at once, those two worlds crashed together. He screamed as they collided and his mind registered the physical wounds inflicted on him. Pain crashed through his body, starting at his spine and radiating out like the flames that engulfed the village outside.
Dragging Halli by her leg, Gnarrl strode down the hall and out of the house, into the inferno of the village beyond. Tetra watched, helpless, until the pain overcame him.