The smell of the fire still clung to the boy.
It clung to all of his friends as well, filling the space of the small wagon they slept in. In spite of the open top, in spite of the cold breeze that blew throughout the day, even in spite of the two weeks that had passed since the night the orphanage burned down, the children still carried the smell with them. The scent of soot and ashes, of fear and death.
The loss of the orphanage weighed on him more than he thought it would. It had not been much, but in the two years he had been there, it had been more of a home than he had ever known. It had been where he first met the others, and where they welcomed him in as family.
And now, they had all lost everything.
Roan slammed his hand against the wagon’s side, the coarse grained wood biting into his knuckles. In the cold, quiet of the late evening, the sound of it was like a crack of thunder, and immediately he regretted it.
“Can’t sleep?” Kay’s dark brown eyes shined in the low light.
“Did I wake you?” he whispered.
“No,” she said, rubbing her eyes sleepily as she sat up. Her long brown hair had fallen forward, obscuring her face. Her features were soft and pale, accentuated by large, bright eyes that seemed to take in everything at once. He had always thought she was beautiful.
“I did. I’m sorry, Kay,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Go back to sleep.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, shifting more upright, a slight edge of tension in her voice.
“Nothing. Just excitement, I guess. Cadell says we should arrive at Resa the day after tomorrow.” He gestured toward the only adult in the wagon, the old man handling the reins of the mule team that pulled the wagon. The back of his bald head was wrinkled and marred with small scars and dark, tattooed lines.
Kay’s eyes narrowed. “Do you really think we can trust him? That he’s telling the truth about starting new lives there?” she asked. “I mean, after everything, how can we trust anything?”
“He did save our lives,” he reminded her gently.
“And you saved his.”
“Well, that means we should be able to trust each other, don’t you think?”
Kay was quiet for a moment. “I guess so,” she said, but there was no confidence in her words.
In the half light, she looked smaller. Diminished. The suspicion and doubt in her voice hurt Roan in his heart. Kay had always seen the best in people. She had always been the first to smile. The first to trust.
But that was before the fire.
Roan reached out and Kay moved to sit beside him. She seemed so small as she settled in. He tousled her hair in an effort to try and cheer her. “Come on. There are great things ahead for us. We’re going to become Razors. Like the great heroes in Elinor’s stories.”
The wagon rocked slowly and both looked to Elinor asleep on the floor, Alys and Ferran beside her. Roan felt a twinge of sadness at the thought of separating from his friends after they had been through so much.
Almost as if she could read his thoughts, Kay sighed. “I wish they could come with us,” she whispered.
Roan slowly nodded. “Me too, but they won’t be too far away. And they’ll be following their dreams. Making them come true, just like we are.”
“Are we, Roan?” Kay asked. “How? Other than kitchen chores, I’ve never held a blade in my life. How am I going to become some great warrior?”
“That’s what the school is for,” he chided her gently. “They’ll handle teaching us and Cadell said he will give us a letter of introduction, so they will give us a chance. That chance is all we need.”
Even as he spoke, he hated himself for lying. Kay was right. She had no experience fighting, and she would be going up against the best in the kingdom, students who trained their entire lives for that one sole purpose. She had little chance of making it. And if she didn’t, if she failed, then she would truly have nothing.
But what choice did they have?
“What if I don’t make it?” Kay said quietly.
“How do you know that?”
“Because I’ll make sure you do,” he said. “I’ll be there by your side.”
There was a pleading look in her eyes. “And if we fail?”
His lips tight, Roan locked eyes with her. “Then we face whatever comes after. Together.”
Kay found his hand and gripped it tightly with both hands. Roan squeezed back. She nodded softly, and then laid her head on his shoulder. He could hear her soft breathing and in a few moments, she was asleep again.
Despite her warmth, Roan felt cold.
His mind brought forth memories of childhood, of being on the ragged edge, fighting for every mouthful of food, desperation turning you into a wild, feral thing that was barely human. That had been life, until Kay and the others took him in. He could not allow her to fall into that existence. It would change her. It would break her. As he had seen it happen to so many others.
No. He couldn’t let it come to that.
He wouldn’t let it come to that.
She had saved him. Now, he would do the same for her.
He wrapped his arms around her and stayed perfectly still as she slept. The thud of the team’s hoofbeats seemed to count down the moments remaining in their journey to Resa, the capital, and to the Razor School of Faith, where their new lives awaited.
Kay was an orphan.
In her fourteen years of life, that was the sum total of all that she was and all she ever thought she could be. It wasn’t a sad thing for her. She had seen others at the orphanage broken and tormented, but she never felt that crying over her lot would change anything.
In fact, Kay had learned long ago the secret to happiness. It was simple. It was just learning to not want things. To not expect them. And that secret had served her well in all her fourteen years.
Today, standing in the crowded streets, surrounded by more people than she had ever seen before, on the cusp of a new life, that detachment seemed impossible.
This was Resa, city of legend. The capital and the heart of the kingdom. It was whirling, vibrantly alive around her, with people everywhere she looked, wearing the latest colors and fashions. They were busy with lives full of purpose and meaning she could not begin to fathom.
She took a deep breath and let it out, trying to focus, but her eyes darted from one new wonder to the next. Yet despite all the new sights, it was Roan she kept coming back to.
There was a tension and excitement in his bearing, and quickness in his step. His long, lean form seemed drawn tight like a bowstring, not with anxiety, but with a thrilling anticipation. His blue eyes seemed to take in everything.
Roan had always been different. Kay and the other orphans had grown up on the dreams and stories of the old legends, playing the parts of the great heroes. But nobody ever thought they could really become like them when they grew older. Except Roan.
He made her believe they were destined for great things. He made her believe anything was possible, so long as they were together. His hope was fearless and she was grateful for that. Loved him for that.
“There it is,” Roan said, his voice breathless.
In the distance, a shining white edifice towered above the Crucis District. Sunlight played off the white marble of a massive central dome, making the statues seem to sway and move as if they were alive.
They were finally here. The School of Faith.
A gate of intricately wrought ironwork marked the entrance. Past it was a long, broad promenade lined with vibrant green grass and trees shaped in strange and delicate ways.
On the other side of the iron gate stood a young woman dressed in the school uniform: a black leather jacket with a white cape that snapped and danced in the wind. Now that she was closer, Kay saw the bright shine of the jacket’s golden buckles.
“Your business here?” the girl asked.
“We have an audience with Preceptor Pamalia,” Roan said.
To Kay’s surprise, the girl smiled. “Hopefuls, then? Well, if you are expected, let’s get you in to see the Preceptor.” She slid back the bolt as she spoke and, with a friendly wave to come in, she swung open the heavy gate.
Roan and Kay stepped inside the grounds. As the gate clanged shut behind them, Kay felt excitement and tension in equal measure. The uniformed girl strode ahead, down the broad path leading to the magnificent school.
Here and there, young people of various ages moved around them. Some appeared to be little more than five or six summers old, while others seemed on the verge of adulthood. All wore their black leather buckled uniforms.
Eventually, the girl came to a stop before a door of rich, dark wood and knocked smartly.
“Come,” said a rich voice from inside.
“Hopefuls, Preceptor Pamalia,” the girl said as she opened the door.
Preceptor Pamalia was an older woman, her dark hair streaked with bold lines of gray. She had soft features and her hands had long, nimble fingers that she spread out on the desk before her. There was a moment’s pause and then she gestured toward two chairs. They sat quickly.
Roan produced Cadell’s letter. Pamalia read the contents, and then peered at them over the top of the paper. Kay shifted in her chair under the scrutinizing gaze.
“At what age did you first pierce the veil?” the preceptor asked.
Kay looked at Roan, but his face showed that the words were as meaningless to him as they were to her. “Pierce the veil?” she asked. Kay tried to keep her face impassive, worrying that their ignorance might in some way disqualify them.
“What has Cadell told you?” the preceptor asked.
“Almost nothing,” Roan said.
The preceptor sighed. “I suppose that has always been his way,” she said, settling into her chair. “So you know nothing of becoming a Razor?”
Kay leaned forward a bit. “We know the stories.”
“The legends. The ones of Aedan and the First Ascended. And how they promised their very souls to one another, pledging their strength and power to each other, even in death.” Kay’s voice was clear and strong as she explained the old tales. Elinor would have been proud.
“Those are no stories,” Pamalia said. “They are our history. The very foundation of who and what we are. That power, that promise made so long ago, is the source of the energy we as Razors draw upon today.”
Kay met the preceptor’s gaze. “That is why we are here, Preceptor. Why we asked Cadell to bring us here. We want to learn. We want to honor them.”
“Do you know what it is you ask? To enter Faith with no training? No preparation? And at so late an age?” There was no malice in her voice, no cruelty or harsh tone. In fact, it was the straightforward nature of the question that gave it even greater weight for Kay. “Tens of thousands of children train and fight daily at the Fairgrounds for the opportunity you seek. Most of them have been there for years. Some since they could take their first steps.”
Kay felt disappointment stab her, but she forced it down, knowing this was a desperate attempt with no real hope.
Pamalia touched her fingers to her chin in contemplation. “What could you have possibly done for old Cadell that he would ask this of me?”
“We saved his life,” Roan said.
“Is that so?”
Roan sat forward, perched on the edge of his seat, his hands before him. “Please, Preceptor. Just give us this chance. We will be worthy of it. We can learn to pierce the veil, or anything else you ask of us.” His hands clenched into fists. “The First Ascended did not have a lifetime to train or prepare. Aedan called on them in a moment, when all seemed hopeless, and they answered. Call to us. I promise we will answer that call. We will show you our worth.”
Pamalia was silent. The only sound Kay heard was the frantic beating of her own heart. The seconds dragged on like an eternity, but at last Pamalia spoke.
“In the darkness of the first days, Aedan and his people fought against the ancient Ruins of the Dark. Through the power of oath and sacrifice, warriors promised their very souls to their brothers and sisters. With each fallen hero, the remainder grew stronger, more powerful, until the few who remained could defeat the horrors of the Dark.
“When the last of the great Ruins had been destroyed or banished, the remaining warriors of that time were filled with the power of all their fallen brothers and sisters. They chose to return that power, spilling their very essence into the air around us.
“They are the First Ascended,” Pamalia said. “They were the first and most powerful of us. It is their power that we marshal. And it is our promise to them that grants us use of that power.” There was a pride in her voice, almost as if those legendary figures were her kin. And in a way, that was exactly what the woman was saying.
Pamalia fixed her sharp gaze upon Kay. “All students have but one requirement for entry into Faith: you must make contact with the spirits of the First Ascended. You must pierce the veil and touch the infinite beyond.” She spread her hands out on her desk. “We can teach you to shape it, to focus it, to master it, but the first step of all hopefuls is your own.”
Turning her focus to Roan, Pamalia continued, “This ground you are upon is sacred. This school and all the schools of Crucis are built upon the very ground of the last great battle of Aedan and the titans of the Dark. The very same ground upon which the first ones ascended into the heavens. If you cannot pierce the veil here, you never will.”
With an air of finality, Pamalia put the letter from Cadell into a desk drawer. Kay’s eyes followed the movement, unsure of what was to come next.
“One month,” Pamalia said. “I can give you one month and no more. You must pierce the veil in that time or you must leave the school and make room for another to show their worth,” she said. “It will not be an easy road. Are you sure you wish to walk it?”
“Yes, Preceptor,” Roan said. “We will not fail you.”
In her mind, Kay could only hear the Preceptor’s earlier words. One month and no more.
They had one month to change their lives.
Release: December 15, 2015
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