Yin and Yang Book One

Yin and Yang Book One

They took the baby the day it was born. Right from its mother’s arms. As tears streaked down the woman’s cheeks, sobs echoing around the small, dirty room, they stole her only child.

The savior.

A child of legend.

Chapter 1

“Stay focused,” Castor says as I sigh deeply.

I watch him from across the room. Despite the distance, I see how furrowed his brow is. Large, bushy, silver eyebrows descend over eyes the color of alluvial mud, making his displeasure obvious.

Despite how aged and grey and old Castor has become, his gaze always flashes with the fire of youth. And, when I'm around, frustration.

“Yin, focus,” he says once more, making his lips press hard around each word, his voice little more than a terse breath of air.

He’s always this way when I train. Ever since I can remember, Castor has pushed me on and on. It's not because he thinks I'm lazy, nor does he believe I need encouragement.

No.

It's because of what awaits me.

I'm the Savior.

A sorcerer, I can command magic and summon spirits. On the final day of the age, I will summon Gaea, mother of all spirits. I will fight alongside her to hold back the Night.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of pressure on me.

Crossing my arms, I lean backwards until my shoulders press against the wall behind me. The wood is cool, and it's nice to rest my body after such a hard workout.

“Yin,” Castor's voice becomes even deeper, and seems to rumble through the floor itself.

Letting out a long sigh, I push myself forward, close my eyes briefly, and reply with a shrug.

Then I surge forward and attack.

Around my left wrist is a simple bangle. Silver blue with lines of light pulsing through it, it’s far beyond anything our age can produce. It’s a remnant of those that came before. An ancient race who inhabited the land long ago.

The bangle enables me to cast spells. All sorcerers have such devices clamped around their wrists from birth. By early childhood, they can no longer be removed, as the body and device grow as one.

As I race forward, bare feet leaving sweaty footprints on the mat, I command the bangle.

Power surges through it. All it takes is a thought.

With a great cry, I thrust forward. As I do, energy erupts from my fingertips.

Real, burning, crackling, power. It shoots out, spinning around itself like a hurricane.

Castor, eyes wide, jumps back. The sound of his simple leather shoes squeaking across the mat fills the room. He doesn't scream. He doesn't shout. He doesn't even grunt.

He's the epitome of the competent warrior: silent, deadly, and ever watchful.

Despite the power of my move, Castor dodges. And despite his age, he somehow flips, planting his hands into the mat and tumbling forward like a cat in play. With speed impossible for an ordinary man, let alone a geriatric, he closes the distance between us.

I skip backwards, my bare feet leaving two sweaty footprints imprinted into the worn blue mat.

He sweeps towards me with a fast kick. It flashes a mere centimeter from my nose, sending a sharp blast of air into my loose black hair.

Again I send the power arcing through my hand. I close one fist as I punch forward with the bangle, an arc of energy spewing forth from the center of my palm.

Castor twists to the side, and my blast races past his left shoulder, doing nothing more than ruffling his long, grey beard.

“Crap,” I curse as I try again. Once more I command the bangle, black bursts of energy crackling high over my skin.

“Don't become flustered,” Castor warns me as he expertly rolls to the side, the soft thump of his body hitting the mat the only sound he makes.

Gritting my teeth, I try to catch Castor again with another blast, and then another.

They just eat into the mat, bursting through the stuffing and cracking the wood underneath, or they sink deep into the far wall, leaving nothing but a softly smoking crater behind.

No matter how hard I try, I just can't hit him.

If I can't hit Castor, then I have absolutely no hope against the Night.

While Castor is training me—and knows when to stop—the Night will not hold back. It will come for my blood, my bones, and my destiny.

It will steal the soul that resides within, and it will end the ages of light.

The Night is a vestige from the days of old. It comes from the same ancient time of my bangle.

Just as I spring up, and in desperation punch a wall of crackling blue energy straight at Castor's chest, he springs forward.

He is wearing special silver armor over his chest, legs, and arms. Snow-white symbols are emblazoned across it, and whenever the light strikes them, they dance like ice-cold flame.

They aren't just there for decoration: they absorb my blasts, making sure any errant burst of energy doesn't fry Castor's beard and take his chin with it.

Still, a well-placed blast should knock him off his feet.

Should being the operative word.

But this one doesn't.

With nothing more than a slight grunt, Castor pivots on his foot, and leaps up, meeting my volley right in the chest. It slams against his breastplate, rattling it in place. Shots of blue and black, flame-like energy disburse over the metal, making those snow-white symbols suddenly glow with an eerie brilliance. Then Castor flashes forward, lands but a few centimeters in front of me, spins, and knocks me across the jaw with a powerful punch. “You need to keep on your toes. You might be a sorcerer, but you must rely on more than your power.”

Even though I'm expecting it, I double back, surprise shaking through me. I try to keep my balance.

I can't.

With an almighty crack that rings through our empty training hall, I fall.

I don’t stay on the ground though; I get up, pushing to my feet before Castor can pin me.

I double back, keeping light on my toes. As I do, I try to command the bangle. I can’t win this fight without it.

I must find the balance to keep dodging Castor while also calling upon the mental control to command the bangle and access its incredible power. So I clench my left fist as tight as I can, concentrating with all my might on the smooth metal band that’s half embedded in my wrist.

As I fight Castor, I flip and pounce and jump. Technically I don’t have to—I could just stay stationary and call upon enough power to slam him against the far wall. I’m not that stupid, however—Castor would cripple me before I even have the chance to raise my hand. As he said before—I have to stay on my feet. If I remain still in battle, I'll be a fine target for an arrow or gun. Plus, it takes time and will-power to command the bangle, and even the most proficient of warriors can’t send out a constant barrage of power. They must bide their time, calculate their shots, and most importantly, stay out of range of their foe's weapons.

As I take a step back and thumb my sweat-caked nose, nostrils flaring as I stare at Castor, I calculate my next move.

We train for the next hour. I never beat him. Despite the force I can call on, and the incredible power of my ancient bangle, Castor is too quick, too trained, and too smart.

But that's the point. He is there to teach me what he can. If I don't learn, everyone loses.

Chapter 2

When I'm not training in secret with Castor, I live a very boring and simple life. Our village is high in the mountains, a good trek from the main city of the Kingdom. Though on a quiet and still and bright night you can see the lights of the city flickering far away in the valley, most of the time it's out of sight and out of mind.

Which, if you ask me, is a good thing. On the few occasions I've met people from the capital, I've always come away thinking they're arrogant, flashy, and out of touch with reality. And, no doubt, they go away thinking I'm simple, ignorant, plain, and boring. But I can live with that.

I prefer a quiet life. I train in the mornings, early, well before dawn, then I help Castor out by collecting ingredients for his medicines. Then, after dusk, I train some more, before going to bed.

That's my life.

Or at least it will be for a few more precious years.

Because soon, soon the end will come. The final year of the age. It is during that year that I will have to fight. I will have to hold back the Night. If I can’t, there will be no more age for our kingdom, for there will be no day in which to live.

Though I understand that, I don't know as much about my destiny as I would like; what I know I've learnt from old, tattered scrolls encrusted with the blood and tears of former saviors.

Still, whatever the exact details, the conclusion will be the same. Either I fight and win, or lose and die, taking everyone else with me.

Despite the burden that rests upon my shoulders, I like to think I don't have a particularly morose personality. You don't see me walking around, my eyes filled with tears, my lips never curling into a smile. Nor do I sit tucked up on my bed, the blankets pulled high over my head as I shudder and shake at the destiny that awaits me.

No. For the most part, I try not to think about it. While Castor thinks that's a sign of weakness, I'm not so sure it is.

I want to live while I can. I want to smile and laugh while time allows it.

Who knows what will happen in the year that ends the age. So I have to live now.

It's with that philosophy that I smile as I bathe after my training session, dressing in a simple tunic with black, light pants. Strapping some well-worn sandals onto my feet, I don't even bother to run a brush through my thick black hair. It usually sits about my shoulders like a wild, matted lion's mane. It's more of a hat or a cape, and less like hair. But I like it that way. Plus, who do I have to impress? The trees? The woodland creatures? The snow-covered crags? While there are people in my village, as it would be a pretty lonely village if it was just me, they tend to avoid me. I'm just the girl who collects Castor's herbs. The strange creature that lives with him in his lonely mountain home.

They all think I'm his apprentice in herbal medicine. In a way, I am. But my apprenticeship runs much further than just learning the medicinal healing qualities of the mountain herbs. Castor instructs me in the art of combat, strategy, and endurance.

Still, despite the fact I'm somewhat of a village pariah, I’m never lonely.

As the Savior, I have a natural affinity for the land and its animals. A babbling brook can just as easily keep me company as a hall full of friends. I often prefer to walk on my own in the high mountains, with only the hawks and mountain lions to talk to.

Still, being the Savior does not prevent boredom. Right now, as I finish buttoning my tunic and patting down my pants, I chew on the edge of my fingernail as I stare out of the window.

Then, far off down the path, I see movement.

People hardly ever make the extra trek up from the village all the way to Castor's home unless they need something.

Yet as I peer through the window, I catch sight of a hobbling man resting hard on the shoulder of a large woman.

I instantly recognize them as a mother and son from the village. And, with one look at the particular stride of the son's hobble, it's easy to conclude he's broken his leg.

“Castor,” I call as I pull my well-chewed nails from my mouth, “we've got visitors.”

I needn't have bothered shouting out to him; by the time I finish, I see he's already making his way down the path to greet our visitors.

Castor has a strong stance about him, and for good reason. He is one of the toughest people I have ever met.

He is the embodiment of true grit. Nothing but blazing eyes, a curly grey beard, and pure, undiluted will.

Right now as he walks down, I can see the mother visibly relax. Her broad shoulders shift in, and I see her chest push out in a deep sigh.

“Right,” I mumble to myself as I press a hand against the cool glass and shift forward, getting a better view. “Stop spying and get the room prepared,” I chide.

Finally I take my own advice, push away, and dart quickly across the room.

At the back of Castor's house is a large room he uses solely to treat his patients. There is a table with a sheet over the top that I have to wash every day, regardless of whether it's been used. And around the sides of the room are shelves and tables and old wooden chests. Stacked on top of them are glass jars full of liquid and ointments and dried herbs and colored clays.

Though I know how to make my way around Castor's treatment room quite well, there are still plenty of herbs I don't know how to identify, and a whole group of ointments I have no idea how to administer, let alone make.

Humming to myself as my sandals slap across the wooden floorboards, I hear the front door open.

I feel the pounding beat of footfall as the group make their way further into the house. Unhurried, I select a fresh sheet from a box and furl it over the table. Then I grab the small tray of tools Castor usually uses to diagnose his patients, rest it atop the sheet, and stand back.

A second later, the door to the room opens, and Castor walks in. Behind him is the large mother lugging her son.

As soon as the two of them see me, I see their eyes narrow.

It's not suspicion.

Nor is it outright hatred.

They're just uncomfortable.

I watch the mother as she looks from my tunic down to my pants and then up to my unruly hair. She presses her lips together, and I can tell she's trying to swallow her words. She needn't bother; I already know what she wants to say.

I look like a boy, don't I? If not a boy, then I don't look like a proper lady. From my tunic and pants to my lean, muscular figure, I lack all of the trappings of femininity. I have no adornments; I don't have time for them. I barely have manners, too.

To underline that fact, I cross my arms and lean back, staring the woman right in the eyes.

Castor clears his throat just as the lady gives a slight harrumph. Then she turns her attention away from me, probably hoping that if she ignores me, I'll scuttle off and stop bothering her.

“Help your son onto the table,” Castor says in a firm but gentle voice. His tone rings with a comforting timbre, one that can never fail to calm somebody.

“He's broken his leg,” the lady says as she takes a deep, rattling breath. “He was helping build the new wall around the town hall,” she clarifies as she sniffs, “and one of the stones fell off and struck him. You've got to help him,” she adds as she tries to help her boy onto the table.

“A wall,” Castor notes as he selects one of his tools, “why do we need another wall?”

“Security measures,” the son speaks, his voice ringing with pride as he does, “you never know when the Carcas are going to attack.”

Castor doesn't say anything as he runs his thumb over several jars of ointment, concentrating as he tries to select one.

“Those Carcas have been moving through the mountains,” the woman adds as she plants a ruddy hand on her chest, “it's up to us villagers to defend ourselves.”

“The Kingdom,” the son shifts up on the table. “We're the first point of defense. If we fall, those Carcas rats will be able to just sweep down into the Capital.”

“They aren't rats,” I mumble as I cross my arms harder and now lean completely into the wall behind me. “The Carcas aren't going to risk taking their army through the crags. Not in autumn.”

The son, who is still propped up on his arms, shoots me a disgruntled look, but it isn't a touch on the disgust that flares in the mother's eyes as she glares at me.

“My son is about to join the Royal Army. He knows what he's speaking about,” she half spits.

I open my mouth to retort, but Castor gets there first, “Yin, please go and select some yaron lotion from the store room.”

“We're all out,” I point out as I pull myself off the wall and unhook my arms. I still shoot the woman a challenging look for good measure, though.

“Then you will need to go and collect some more yaron leaves, I'm afraid,” Castor says quietly.

While his voice barely registers above a hush, that doesn't hide his pointed tone.

He wants me out of this room before I come to blows with this woman and her son.

Fine.

Shaking my head, and mumbling a, “right,” I quickly retreat.

As I walk through the door and out into the drafty, dark hall beyond, I can't help but overhear the woman as she points out, “what a dull girl. I see why her parents gave her up to be a herbalist; she will never be marriage material.”

Marriage material?

Oh sure, I'll never make a good wife. But I'll make a great Savior. I won't cook and clean and keep house, and nor will I massage some man's ego while he treats me like dirt.

I will, however, save the world.

I'll learn the ancient arts of sorcery and summoning, and I'll hold back the Night for the last year of the ages. That seems a trifle more important than marrying some hick and being a good woman.

Feeling a rush of frustration, I strike out at the wall. With distracting ease, I punch right through the beams, shards of wood cracking around my knuckles.

Now that's how I keep house.

. . . .

Though of course Castor will probably make me fix that hole right up when I get back, it feels momentarily good to strike out.

It feels like, with a simple punch, I can strike right through the idiotic traditions of those small-minded villagers.

I'm no fool, and I know it will take more than lashing out, but it still feels good. Especially when I imagine that woman's reaction to the hole I've left in the wall. I can just see her round, permanently-red cheeks puffing out as her eyebrows shoot up behind her fringe. “Ladies don't punch walls,” she'd likely say.

Yep. Ladies don't.

But I'm not and never will be a lady.

With that thought filling my mind, I yank open the front door and jog up the path that leads to the woods.

As soon as I walk under the canopy of those great, gnarled trees that border the forest, I let out a sigh.

Then another. I even let my eyes roll into the back of my head.

As I breathe in the fresh mountain air, I let it soothe me like only nature can.

I understand nature. Nature doesn't give one hoot that I don't dress in lace and carry a parasol. Neither does nature care that I won't make a good wife someday.

That's why I've always liked the outdoors.

As I patrol the forest, looking for yaron leaves and just generally wasting time, the sun rises high in the sky. Though it's tipping into autumn, and the wind now whistles with a cold kiss through the trees and crags, I don't feel cold.

I’ve always got my bangle and ready access to the incredible magic within.

I usually hide it with gloves or long sleeves though. Castor won’t let me show it to people. He keeps the fact I’m a sorcerer secret. Though not everyone has the ability to use the devices of those that came before to summon magic, it isn't a unique skill. The Royal Army is full of practitioners, and I know of a few even here in my lonely village.

As the Savior, I have unique skills, however. On the final day of the age, I must use my abilities to summon Gaea. I will fight alongside her, or die trying.

I can also conjure spirits to guide me on my quest. Or, at least I will be able to, once I learn how.

Try explaining that to the simple minded folk in my village, though. Whilst they've heard of the Savior, they think she's little more than a myth. Why wouldn't they? There hasn't been a Savior for 1000 years.

Sighing to myself, I run my hands through my hair just as a strong breeze whips past me. I smile into it as I feel its power. Far off, I can hear the wind ripping past the crags, sending a constant, low moan filtering out into the valley beyond.

A chill escapes over my skin, and as I breathe in deeply, I smell rain far off.

I could very easily stay up here all day. I could run through the forest paths in nothing but my worn sandals, my hair whipping behind me like a mane, my arms pumping and my lungs struggling to draw in my next breath. Or I could climb every gnarled tree, leaping from branch to branch as my rough hands scrabble for purchase. Or I could venture high into the mountains and take a swim through one of the iridescent blue tarns, the ice cold water caressing my skin.

. . . .

But Castor would kill me. Okay, he wouldn't kill me, but he'd likely make me train twice as hard for a week in punishment.

Still, I take my time as I wander back to my home. I deliberately take one of the long, winding routes that travels along a steep cliff with a fantastic view of the village below.

It's when I'm walking confidently close to the edge, every step disturbing stones that tumble into the ravine far below, that I see something.

There's a long, wide, stone road that leads up to the village. Though it's but a strike of grey against the rolling green hills and slate-colored roofs of the town, I manage to make out forms moving along it.

I also hear the neighing of horses carried far on the wind.

While some in our village have horses, something doesn't feel right.

In fact, as I stand there and stare, one foot propped on a stone perilously close to the edge, I lean forward. The chill wind whips through my hair, making my cheeks tingle and my ears prickle.

Slowly that feeling that something isn't right creeps over me. Like the whistle of the wind behind, it steadily grows until it roars in my mind.

Ever since childhood, I've always had a sense for danger. It is part of being the Savior. With a close connection to Gaea, I am continually in contact with the natural world. And when malaise and doom descends upon it, it descends upon me too.

As nerves escape over my back with swift ease, I force myself to turn from the view.

Though people do visit our village, and of course merchants travel here with supplies, on occasion we receive so-called official visits. Whether it be from the police investigating some crime, or the tax-collectors, it is usually never good.

Yet as I continue down the path, the feeling that descends upon me is more than simple unease.

The wind begins to roar louder through the crags, and it rushes with ferocious power through the trees and bushes. Taking it as an omen, I push into a run. My feet move expertly through the loose stones, and I never stumble.

I've wandered a far way from home, but it takes me less than 10 minutes to get back.

Barreling into the house as if my life depends on it, I practically kick down the door. “Castor, I think something's going on. I saw horses heading up the road to the village. They're probably there already . . . . Castor?” I call as I rush through the main rooms.

I've tracked dirt and mud through the hall, but I don't care. I turn on the spot, my eyes wide as I search for any sign of my guardian.

All too soon it becomes apparent he isn't in. Though I know I've been away for a long time, Castor would have waited for me to return before leaving. While he’s more than happy to let me wander in the lonely mountains, he doesn't like to leave me at home alone. It's not because he's worried I'll make a mess and punch through all the walls. It's because he doesn't like people dropping by with only me in the house. Not only am I trite, rude, and dressed like a boy, but I am the Savior, and it is his duty to protect me.

But as I stand there and call out his name one last time, hearing my voice echo loudly through the empty rooms and halls of our house, I realize he simply isn't here.

Clutching a hand on my stomach, my fingers digging hard into the smooth fabric of my tunic, I start to feel sick. My muscles cramp, and sweat slicks fast across my brow and between my shoulders.

I can't shake the feeling that something isn't right.

So, backing off, I quickly twist on my foot and head back through the wide open front door. Jumping the distance between the top step and the last step, I land easily and skid across the loose stones of our path.

I'm about to shout out his name again, hoping that he is just out in the garden, or busy ferreting away in one of the back sheds.

I stop.

About a meter to my left, I see an indentation in the path. Horse hooves.

Searching the ground, I find others.

Then footprints. Large and heavy, they clearly come from sturdy boots.

People have been here.

Though I've spent a long time in the woods, Castor still hasn't taught me all there is to know about tracking. I know enough, however, to realize a group of heavy-set, armored men have been here, and in all likelihood, Castor has left with them.

For several seconds I stand there, curling my fingers slowly into fists. As my nails dig easily into the soft flesh of my palms, I feel the magic within. The power. It always reacts to my emotion, especially despair. Not, of course, that my life is usually filled with despair. But on the few occasions I have ever felt true fear, the power I use to call on my bangle always flared. Now as I stand there staring at those hoof prints, it is no different. I feel sharp tingles race across my shoulders, down my spine, and deep into my legs. With little effort, I could command my bangle to send an arc of magic sinking into the ground, sending mounds of earth more than a meter into the air.

That, however, won't bring Castor back.

Instead I close my eyes and tell myself that wherever he is, he is fine. Castor is one of the most powerful warriors ever to have lived. As the guardian of the Savior, he kind of has to be. So, despite the fact it worries me he's left mysteriously with men on horseback, I tell myself he'll be okay.

Then I stand there, slowly turning from the open front door towards the bottom of the path.

Castor hates it when I don't follow orders, and he has a strict rule about me wandering into town on my own. Chaperoned is one thing, but he probably thinks that if I ever head into the village without him, I'll tell the first person I see that I'm the Savior, and when they predictably laugh in my face, I'll summon the spirit of the Earth to consume them.

Yet I can't turn away and walk back inside.

Though I know Castor can look after himself, I can’t deny how fast and strong the wind has become. It's no longer whistling through the mountains—it's nigh on screaming. With one look up to the horizon, I can also see clouds streaming in. No, it's more like they're marching to the beat of a war drum. In the few seconds I stare at them, they swell, turgid with snowy whites and gunmetal greys. They promise a downpour, and with the wind so ferocious, a storm to remember.

I breathe in.

I can't deny the sense of danger that fills me as I do.

While Castor is always telling me to keep safe, he also encourages me to follow my instincts. To do what my body tells me is right. To heed the warnings and messages from within.

. . . .

I walk up to the door and I close it. Then I turn, jump down the steps, and continue down the path.

I might be contravening a direct order, but I'm following an indirect one. My gut tells me to go, so I'm going.

Chapter 3

The walk down into the village isn't one I take very often. I don't have time to loaf about in the inn, nor do I have the friends to keep me company as I do so. I'm the Savior. All of my days are spent in training.

So as I head down the winding path that connects to the old stone road that travels through our village, I notice things have changed. The verge is well cut, and several trees have been removed, possibly on the premise that Carcas warriors could hide behind the branches or the blades of grass.

Though the woman this morning was irritating, her talk of the growing threat facing the Kingdom wasn't one I hadn't heard before. It seems that every patient Castor sees shares a similar story. Once I even overheard from a traveler who came all the way from the capital that they were planning to draft young men into the army.

Though I usually ignore such stories, that one flashes before my mind as I walk faster and faster.

Despite how chill the wind has become, I don't feel cold; my nerves are igniting through me like fire. If I'm not careful, my bangle will react, sending blazing power washing over my whole body.

Though others in the Kingdom are sorcerers, my abilities are unusual to say the least. My power is far more linked to my emotions, and far more powerful in general. So as I race forward, I try to control myself.

I tell myself I'm going into the village to find Castor. I will not make a scene. I will simply check that he is okay.

It doesn't take long to reach the village. Though the walk is a circuitous one, that usually takes at least 20 minutes, I race down the hill in less than five. Without pausing to think, I easily throw myself down steep, bramble covered slopes, blasting through the prickles if they dare scratch my skin. Then, when I hit the open road, I sprint with all my might.

My arms are but a blur by my sides, and on several occasions, I strike the ground with such force, my worn sandals actually crush the pebbles underfoot.

The village is quite disbursed, and occupies a good kilometer over the side of the hill. Old houses of stone and wood are nestled into the trees, with cows and goats and sheep tethered beside them.

Chickens usually line the road, only getting out of your way if you threaten to trample them. Then giving you a surly look as they squawk and flutter into the closest bushes.

It's quaint.

Or at least it's meant to be. But now as those rolling clouds come thundering across the sky, every shadow deepens and every sign or shop bell bangs in the powerful wind.

Powering my way down the road, the first thing I notice is that the streets are bare.

Nobody seems to be around. Yet, as I concentrate, I swear I can hear voices far off in the distance.

I sprint through the streets, and as I do, a fine mist of rain begins to fall. As it strikes my shoulders and my exposed cheeks and hands, it tingles, merging with the power filling me from the bangle.

My long sleeve hides it from view, and I compulsively tug it further down as I rush forward.

It seems that practically everybody in the village has congregated around the town square. It's little more than an old statue of a tired looking warrior triumphing over some fiendish looking enemy. Apparently it depicts some famous soldier from long ago who hailed from the village.

Well right now, I practically gasp as I see modern soldiers standing underneath it.

Close by horses are tethered, and with one look I can see they belong to the army. Glistening clean red, gold, and black armor adorns their heads and flanks. While normal horses have a kind, gentle nature about them, these beasts look like thunder tamed by saddles.

While the horses themselves are impressive, it's nothing compared to the soldiers. All are large men, and all wear heavy armor. Also gold, yellow, and black, they have breastplates and helmets and gauntlets and boots. Even from a distance I can see that all are adorned with specific engravings that provide protection against magic.

What are they doing here?

I can hear women sobbing, and as I push my way through the crowd, I notice that all the young men of the village are lined up close by the soldiers.

Conscription? Was that traveler right? Have the army come all the way up to our village to draft young men?

As I near, I notice there are several old men lined up, too.

Though I barely know anyone by name, I recognize them from the injuries Castor has treated, and quickly conclude that barely any of the older gentlemen are fit for war. In fact, hardly any of the younger men are either; they are flighty, undisciplined, and untrained. If the army intends to use them, then it really must be desperate.

I reach the edge of the crowd, and as I take a step beyond it, someone growls at me.

I turn around to see a whopping great man in enormous armor. He has a sword strapped to his back, and the gauntlets along his hands, wrists, and arms are studded with spikes.

I've never seen something so ludicrous. Training with Castor has taught me that you win battles not based on brute force, but on speed, on cunning, and on willingness.

So I'm not in the least bit intimidated as this man takes another heavy, rattling step my way.

“Get back, woman,” he snarls.

I barely look at him. “What's going on here?” I ask as I stare around, trying to catch the gazes of the people closest to me.

“I said, get back,” the man says as he reaches me. Without warning, he lays one greasy, heavy hand on my shoulder and shoves me back. Or at least he tries to shove me back. I pivot on my foot and step lightly to the side, and his move sends him stumbling to my left.

Again, I barely glance at him as I turn to the woman closest to me. “What's going on? Have you seen Castor?”

On the words have you seen Castor, she stops ignoring me, and her eyes grow wide. “They've taken him and some of the other men into the hall,” she says just as the man gets to his feet behind me.

With a growl, he tries to grab my shoulder again. Once more, I dodge past him. “What do you mean they've taken him to the hall? What's going on here?”

“This is conscription,” another soldier says as he marches up to my side, presumably to help his fumbling friend.

“Conscription? What's that got to do with Castor?” I demand.

“If by Castor you refer to Castorious Barr, then his services are in demand by his Queen. The Royal Army needs his expertise once more,” the soldier says in a rumbling voice. “Now stand still.”

I can't believe this. Castor is being conscripted? He's an old man. While I know from experience he's just as deft on his feet as a mountain lion and twice as strong, these men shouldn't know that.

I blink rapidly, sweat collecting over my top lip and between my fingers.

They have to be joking, right? Castor is 70 years old. They can't possibly be drafting him into the Royal Army.

But then I see past the soldiers to the half-open door of the hall. They begin leading men out. Right at the back, I see a flash of grey beard.

It's Castor. I'm sure of it.

They are leading him away.

I act.

“What are you doing?” I scream as I muscle forward, straight past the two soldiers. “He's an old man. Just leave him alone.”

I rush out, and I feel the leaner soldier snap towards me.

Again I easily dodge him.

“Leave him alone,” I scream, craning my neck as I try to catch another glimpse of the men they are leading from the hall.

“Get back here, woman,” one of the soldiers snarls from behind me.

I may be just a woman, but I'm clearly more than the man can handle, as no matter how hard he tries, he can't grab me.

There's quite some distance between the hall and me, and filling that distance are military horses and soldiers. That doesn't faze me though; I dart forward, as light on my sandals as a cat on its paws.

At one point, a soldier atop a horse tries to ride into my path, but with one look at the horse, it stops.

I told you, I have an affinity with animals, and even though these military horses are harder and gruffer than the creatures I'm used to, that affinity still stands.

I almost reach the hall.

Then one of the guards outside jumps clean off the top step, lands, and launches at me.

The guy grabs me roughly by the shoulder. Yanking me back, his fingers dig hard into my flesh. He twists me around, then shoves his face close to mine.

“This is a restricted area,” he says, his putrid breath breaking against my cheek. “You are interfering with military business, woman.”

“You have my uncle in there,” I hiss back. “He's just an old man.”

“Well, that old man is coming with us. And unless you want to join him, shut up.”

I stare into his eyes.

He towers above me, and though he's not as enormous as some of the other soldiers, I can tell by the way he moves he knows how to handle himself. Attacking him would be a mistake. In fact, everything I have done so far has been a mistake.

I know how important I am, and I know how critical it is that I keep my secret.

Yet I can't stand this.

“Let me go,” I warn through clenched teeth.

He shakes me. “I said shut up, girl.”

I know I have to keep control. But as I stare up at that man's arrogant, hateful expression, I snap.

With one smooth, practiced move, I shove him off. I pivot on my hip, pushing my shoulder into his and knocking him backwards.

Though he is clearly a competent and trained soldier, I best him easily.

It happens so fast, the man doesn't have time to gasp.

In the blink of an eye, he goes from manhandling me, to lying in the dust.

But there he does not stay.

With a grating snarl, he jumps up. As he does, he snaps his left hand into a fist.

He has a bangle, just like mine, though his is far fancier. Embellished with a design of curled flames and dragons, as his fingers curl, the design comes alive with energy.

Energy erupts from his hand.

He launches towards me, magic spewing from his glove.

While he's wearing armor that would protect him from such a blow, one touch from those magical flames, and my skin will blister and burn.

Or rather, it should.

For I'm stronger than I look. I also have a bangle of my own.

Just as those blistering hot jets of red and deep orange surge towards me, I activate my bangle, and send a burst of my own magic against his.

Mine is stronger, and redirects his blow back against him.

Not a single magical spark strikes my skin.

It strikes his breastplate instead, and though the engravings across the metal dance with power, they can't protect him from the full force of my blow, and he slams into the ground once more.

I turn.

I intend to head into the hall. Then I see the soldiers staring at me, the villagers too.

“She's a sorcerer,” one of the soldiers shouts.

“She has an Arak band,” another screams.

In the common tongue, those who can manipulate the power of the ancients, are called sorcerers. Arak is the term they give to those who came before, and the devices they left behind.

. . . .

Castor has always warned me not to show my powers in public. While there are plenty of other people in this land that can command Arak devices, including women, it is imperative I stay safe until my time arrives.

Right now, I’ve blown my cover.

All it took was a single moment of fury.

I can't take it back now.

In a split second, I turn over my shoulder, and I see the expressions on the faces of the soldiers closest. It's a stomach wrenching mix of surprise, disdain, and awe.

Sorcerers are valuable. Especially to the army.

I twirl on my foot, my sandal squeaking against the polished stone of the step. I launch towards the hall.

I don't reach it.

Two soldiers dart towards me, both launching forward with grunts.

I pirouette, springing off the ground in a graceful move and spinning in the air, letting both men fall to the ground below me.

While more often than not I get by on speed and strength, Castor has always been sure to teach me agility too. Now I use it.

Just as I sprint past those soldiers, several more jump before me.

“Come quietly,” they warn.

I reply by leaning back, bringing my foot into the air, and slamming it into the ground. As I do, I concentrate. In my mind, I sing to my bangle. In response, it pushes out, cracking the flagstones with magic, and sending them flinging towards the soldiers with the speed of a bird on the wing.

I have barely a second to enjoy my victory before I see something. From my left comes a jet of green power. Deftly, I drop to my knees, and roll to the side, dodging it easily.

But as I do, one of the soldiers launches forward, and grabs my ankle as he rolls onto his stomach.

I stumble, but I don't fall. Instead I wrench myself free. Fear climbs my back, my power surging with it. As I see more and more soldiers flood towards my position, I realize how perilous my situation has become.

I can't even see Castor. I have no idea where they have taken him.

This is the first battle I have ever fought without him by my side. In fact, in many ways, it's the first battle I have ever fought full stop. All those games with Castor, were just that; he was training me, and never had any intention of hurting me.

But from the wild expressions on the soldiers' faces, I realize they do not share his compunctions.

I throw myself to the side, just as a jet of magic shoots past my left shoulder. It captures my loose hair, and I smell it beginning to singe.

I have no idea what to do, so I keep fighting.

In my head, if I can clear through these soldiers and get to Castor, that will be all that matters.

I can’t be alone. He is my guardian. Without him, there will be no one to lead me to the end of days.

Desperation washes through me now. In a flood of panic, I spin on the spot, catching flashes of the circling soldiers. From their weapons to their burning gazes to their gold and black armor.

They are pinning me in, corralling me like a wild animal.

Shots of green and red and blue energy pass me, striking the cobblestones and bricks and steps, sending chunks of rock hailing around in arcs. The pound of each shot blasting into the ground is a deafening beat.

Then the heavens open up. With a crack of thunder far off in the mountains, the rain pours down.

It doesn't drizzle to begin with—it sails down in a flood.

The rain strikes my face and arms, driving down my back, the water soaking through my thin tunic and pants. The fabric clings to my skin, and my hair whips around my face, sticking to my cheeks and forehead as I try to keep all of the soldiers in my sights at once.

Another soldier flings himself at me, and I dart back, my sandals slipping on the rain-soaked road.

I have to end this and get away.

But I can't.

I can't.

I may be the Savior, but I can’t take on a whole unit of soldiers. Perhaps one day, but not this day.

As that realization dawns on me, I make a mistake, shifting back too swiftly and slipping. I fall to the side, my sandals shooting out from underneath me.

Then, almost as one, the soldiers pounce.

One of them barrels into me, pinning my head to the ground with a strong, wet grip.

Just as I try to shove him off, another skids across the road, shifting water with the speed of his move as he ploughs into me, grabbing my shoulder and shoving it into the ground.

“Get off me,” I scream.

Another soldier launches himself forward, grabbing my legs and locking them together.

Though I have felt fear, I have never experienced the surge of terror that now engulfs me. It feels like a flood as it washes through me, shaking every muscle and sending every hair standing on end.

I struggle.

They pin me harder into the ground.

I can no longer count how many there are; I can only feel their distinct grips as they grab my arms and head and legs and back.

The fear burns even brighter within. Building and building and building.

The rain drives down all around, splashing over the dirt-covered road and turning to mud. As my face is shoved harder into the ground, the mud covers my cheeks and eyes, even collecting at the corners of my tightly-closed lips.

“Let me go,” I plead.

They shove me down harder.

The fear peaks.

I shake so badly I start to cry. Tears collect down my cheeks, indistinguishable from the rain.

As my panic becomes so powerful I can barely breathe, I hear something.

Far, far away. Carried on the wind, borne on the rain, driven by the crackles of flame—a muttering. Low and constant, it's dark. Beyond light, in fact, it is Night.

The Night.

The force that will end this age. The very thing I must fight and defeat as the Savior.

I’ve only ever heard its whispers rarely and never so loudly. In times of great stress I've become aware of its presence, but now I feel it all around me. It seeps from the cracks in the stones by my face, coiling up like trillions of dark-bodied snakes.

The harder the soldiers push me down, the more I see the dark. The more it mutters in my ears.

I feel like I'll be dragged down by it. As if the dark will reach up from the deepest reaches of the earth, and pull me down into the never-ending Night.

But I won't let it.

I will fight.

Fear, as Castor always taught, can only be conquered by action. By turning to the dark and throwing oneself right into its center.

“Get off me,” I scream one final time. As I do, bright white energy collects along my lips. I breathe it into the driving rain. With each desperate word, I speak it right into the shattered cobblestones and ground below.

I connect to my bangle, to the very force that lies within.

I give my mind up to the magic.

I push back.

The road underneath breaks and the rain hisses into steam.

Every soldier is thrown back, and I jump to my feet.

Power pulls up through my veins, making my flesh tingle with force.

I breathe.

I'm free.

“Castor,” I call into the driving rain. I will find him. That's all that matters now.

I try running forward.

Something snakes out of the darkness. Something fast, something strong.

It pushes into my back.

I have no time to register what it is before it starts curling around my ankles and wrists.

“Let me go,” I scream wildly.

I'm yanked to the side by that mysterious force, my knees driving into the mud as I'm pushed into the ground. It's only then I realize what's captured me.

Magic.

Lines of magic have wrapped around my wrists, locking me in place.

It takes a person with rare control to master moving magic in that way. Most ordinary sorcerers can only send blasts and shots of power emanating from their Arak devices.

Yet before me, somewhere out there in the rain, is a man with enough control to bend magic to his will.

Then I see him.

He comes striding out of the rain, his fingers stretched and stiff.

“Let me go,” I scream.

“What the hell is going on here?” he marches forward.

Though I struggle against my magic shackles, I can't break them. They move with me, absorbing every gram of strength I throw at them.

As the man strides forward, the soldiers begin to pick themselves up.

“What the hell are you all doing?” the sorcerer demands again.

“Sir, we . . . she's a sorcerer,” one points out as he wipes the mud from his face.

“I can see that. But that's no reason to pin her to the ground. Now get up,” the man demands.

Every soldier stands and then salutes.

Though the rain is still heavy, pounding into the ground with the force of mini cannon balls, as the man approaches, it eases.

Finally I can see him in full.

In fact, he walks right up to me and stares down.

Just like the other soldiers, he's wearing gold, red, and black armor. But his helmet is much fancier, with golden dragon wings emblazoned on each side. The magical engravings across his chest plate are also more detailed, and twinkle in the dim light that makes it through the storm.

Without a word, he continues to look at me, his eyes darting across my face, down my wet tunic, and over my bedraggled, mud-covered hair.

“Let me go,” I plead. “I haven't done anything wrong.”

The man raises an eyebrow. “Apart from attack a garrison of Her Majesty's Royal Army,” the man points out. Then, surprisingly, he shifts his hand to the side, and the shackles binding me shatter.

I fall onto my hands and knees.

I'm free.

My first impulse is to fight. To plough through these soldiers until I find Castor and get the hell out of here.

But as I raise my head and push to my feet, that man stares at me, his piercing gaze travelling right through mine. “Don't,” he says. “I've let you go for now, but if you try anything, I will bind you again.” He speaks with force, and I can feel his natural power lacing through his words.

I stare back at him, locking my teeth together and pushing hard into my jaw. I part my lips a centimeter and hiss, “what are you doing here? Where's my uncle? Where's Castor?”

For a moment, he doesn't say anything. Again his gaze darts over my face. “He is being drafted. The Queen needs him.”

“He's just an old man,” I say through a locked jaw. “He's of no use to you. Let him go.”

Once more the man descends into a lengthy silence before he says, “I'm afraid I can't do that. His Kingdom needs him. We are entering uncertain times, and must draw on every resource we can to secure our freedom.”

“There are plenty of other soldiers to fight your war,” I point out as I stutter through a breath.

I'm covered in mud, frozen cold by the rain, and my body aches from my fight. But I do not wobble, and nor do I fall to my knees.

I will stand, and I will fight.

If I fall again, the darkness will come crawling up from the cracks to claim me.

“As I said, we are entering uncertain times, and must draw on every resource we can,” he points out calmly.

“He's just an old man.”

“And you are just a woman. Hold your tongue and show Captain Yang some respect,” one of the soldiers snaps.

The sorcerer—Captain Yang, as I have just learnt—raises one hand swiftly to silence the soldier. “Let her speak. She wants to know what's happening to her uncle.”

“No, I want you to let him go. There are so many other soldiers to fight your war,” I say. Or at least I try to. Despite my best efforts, my voice begins to waver.

I hate showing tenderness. Tears are not for me. After all, I won't have time to cry on the final day, will I? So what's the point of getting into the habit now?

I can't afford to feel weak and small, but right now I can't avoid it.

Whereas once the rain hid my tears, now it can't, and they streak freely down my face. “Just let him go,” I try once more.

Captain Yang stares at me. His helmet is large, and hides the majority of his face, but in that moment I swear his lips soften into a commiserating smile. “Don't fear—he will be treated well. He is a war hero. We know his value, and we respect his sacrifices.”

I curl my hands into fists, hating that tears still tumble down my cheeks. “Just let me see him.”

Captain Yang nods. Then he reaches up and removes his helmet.

For the first time I see his face in full. With pale brown eyes tinged with gold, he is clean shaven, with neat cropped hair and a handsome, gentle face.

I don't have time for men. Again, I kind of have something much more important to worry about. Plus, that woman was right—I'm not marriage material. With my unruly hair, lean figure, and hot temper, I'm the equivalent of a bramble bush, and not a soft rose petal.

So I don't blush. I don't step back and fan my face at how attractive the Captain is.

I stare at him straight in the eyes.

“Show me my uncle,” I demand.

Yang nods his head low, then moves his arm to the left in a sweeping move.

“Captain,” one of the soldiers says in a low, warning tone. “She's dangerous—”

Yang raises his hand in a silencing move once more, and the soldier cuts off mid-sentence.

I stare at him warily.

Again Yang sweeps to the left with his arm.

Carefully I take a step forward, then another.

When the rain doesn't twist down to strangle me, and the soldiers don't surge forward to pin me to the ground, I uneasily walk towards Yang.

With a nod, he silently leads me through the rain.

I can tell the soldiers are more than uneasy to let us leave, but none of them say anything more.

The rain still thunders down, my sandals churning through the mud and splashing it over my torn black pants.

I'm still cold, and I carefully run my hands up and down my arms.

Yang watches me. In fact, Yang hasn't stopped watching me from the moment he strode out of the rain and broke up my fight.

He isn't overt about it now, though. But as we walk forward, I can tell his head is inclined to the side, his pale brown eyes surreptitiously gazing my way.

There's something very still about the man. He reminds me easily of a mountain, sure footed and unable to be moved.

“You're a sorcerer,” he suddenly notes.

I don't answer.

What's the point? He saw the fight. He saw what I did.

“Did your uncle teach you that?” he continues. “Did he give you your bangle?”

I still don't answer. I do, however, run a hand over my Arak glove.

“You're quite skilled. You gave my men a run for their money.”

“Just take me to my uncle,” I whisper harshly.

“I am. You have my word.”

Though I've been steadfastly staring at my feet or hands, I now let my gaze flicker up to his.

I want to fight it, but there's something calming about his tone. Something trustworthy.

I take a breath.

The wind roars high in the mountains.

I feel connected to it as I breathe out. From the rain to the mud to the lightning flashing high in the crags, I suddenly sense that ever-present connection.

Gaea.

The original Goddess. The origin of all summoned power, and that which I must call upon on the final day.

With another calming breath, I see him watching me attentively.

“What are you looking at?” I ask defensively. “And where's my uncle?”

“Your uncle is here,” Yang answers as he gestures towards a cart.

The cart is large, strong, and has metal bars over the windows.

My heart pounds in my chest.

“Castor?” I cry. “Are you in there, are you okay? What have you done to him?” I whirl on Yang, “he's not a prisoner.”

Before my anger can burn through me and ignite the ever-present power of my bangle, I see Castor walk around the side of the cart. Though there are two soldiers with him, he isn't bound.

My heart lifts.

Then my heart descends as I see the expression on his face. At first he's surprised to see me, then I see obvious fear flash in his eyes as he looks from my bedraggled form across to Captain Yang.

“What are you doing here, Yin?” Castor asks in a booming voice. Although he has no power of his own, in many ways, he is far more powerful than most sorcerers.

“I saw tracks leading away from the house,” I answer in a stutter, trying to get all of my words out at once, “what are they doing to you?”

Slowly Castor presses his lips together and stares at me.

Which isn't the reaction I expect to see. On any other day, if I had directly disobeyed Castor's command never to venture into the village on my own, he would have spent the next half hour berating me over my mistake. But now, he barely has several words to share.

Again my stomach twists in a knot of nerves.

If I needed any more evidence that what was happening here was serious, Castor provides it.

“You didn't mention your niece was a sorcerer,” Captain Yang says as he takes several steps away from me. Yet, as he does, he casts me one more careful glance.

I would give anything to know what he's thinking.

Right now, I have nothing to give, because I'm about to lose everything.

“You also informed us that she is your apprentice,” Captain Yang says slowly as he looks right at me, “in herbal medicine,” he adds carefully. “Is there something more you wish to share?”

Castor looks straight ahead. He does not make eye contact with Captain Yang, and nor does he glance my way. He sets his features hard, as if he has cast them from stone.

“We were of the opinion that the great Castorious Barr had not taken any apprentices in the arts of war for over 20 years,” Captain Yang continues.

Again, Castor does not answer. He stares right over Captain Yang's shoulder, his eyes locked unblinkingly on the driving rain beyond.

“Answer the Captain,” one of the soldiers says, and he moves forward quickly to viciously shove Castor in the shoulder.

“Don't,” Yang snaps as he yanks his hand up in a stopping motion. “We are not here to make enemies.”

“Then let him go,” I say in a warning tone.

Though I have just been through one hell of a fight, I can feel my energy returning. I can feel my anger and frustration peaking too. How dare the Royal Army think it can come into this village and round up all the men for its stupid little war. The Carcas haven't attacked in years. The Queen is warmongering. Yet the army feels it has the right to ruin people's lives based on that lie.

As Castor has always told me, peace is never won by war alone. True peace can only be achieved, not through endless victorious skirmishes, but through managing people's expectations. By stemming the tide of nationalism, by providing opportunity, and snuffing out elitism in all its colors and shades.

Captain Yang arches his neck and glances my way. “As I have told you, the Royal Army requires your uncle's assistance.”

“To get to him,” I begin, intending to tell the pretty boy Captain that he will have to go through me first.

I don't get the opportunity.

“Yin,” Castor says in a warning tone.

I should listen to my guardian, I know that. Yet, for some reason, I can't. Maybe it's the memory of the fight, and being pushed down into the ground, my soaking hair splashing into my eyes. Or perhaps it's the distant muttering of the Night. Maybe what’s really bothering me is that this stupid army can't see the real threat. While they're playing war with the Carcas, the real war is left to me.

I'm the Savior. I shouldn't have to hide in the shadows. I shouldn't have to beg for these men not to take my guardian away.

But as Castor always says, you aren't given your life, you earn it.

To him, I've always had to prove myself as the Savior. I've always had to try my hardest. He has never given me anything based on who I am.

Right now I can't heed his advice. Right now, I can't stem the anger at what these men are doing. They are making my life harder, impossible even. Why? Because some pompous, rich, arrogant Queen and her advisors are telling the Kingdom it ought to go to war.

Soon I will face the end of the ages, and these people are worried about pleasing a foolish monarch.

As those thoughts run wild in my mind, the power brews within. I can feel it crackling up my spine, arcing between my teeth, and burning deep in my heart, dispersing through my bloodstream with every beat.

With the amount of force surging through me, soon my skin will light up the rain-soaked streets like a star forming out of my very body.

“Yin,” Caster warns again, this time the control in his voice wavering. Without even looking at him, I can tell that the stony expression he's been sporting for the past five minutes is cracking.

I know he wants me to stop, to pull my head in, not to show my true power. But what's the point? I've already showed this pompous pretty boy Captain and his useless, arrogant soldiers what I can do.

So where is the harm in showing them what I can really do? Where's the harm in calling upon Gaea herself to imbue me with the very spirt of all power?

If I can defeat this army unit, then Caster and I can escape. We can travel the mountains and find some other village to settle down in. I could cut my hair, he could shave his beard, we could reinvent ourselves, hide away until the final year of the age is upon us.

Captain Yang looks at me. Perhaps he can sense how much magic is building within my bangle, but he doesn't do anything.

“Captain, she is charging,” one of the soldiers says. He is a tall man, with gaunt features and keen, hawk-like eyes. If he can sense that I’m building up force, it means he has an ability of his own.

Captain Yang raises a hand. He doesn't turn to the soldier who spoke, and nor does he suddenly send magic rushing into me, shackles forming out of pure power.

No, he simply stands and stares.

I clutch my hands into fists, concentrating my attention on my Arak band.

“Yin, no,” Castor says in a forceful voice that vibrates through the air like a blast from a horn.

In fact, there's such force in it, that just for a second it manages to capture my attention.

“Let him go. He is just an old man. You don't need him for your stupid war. The Carcas haven't attacked in years,” I spit.

“I am afraid I can’t let him go. I am afraid you are wrong: the Carcas have attacked. They continue to do so, all along our northern and eastern borders,” Yang says softly and calmly. “I am afraid he is not simply an old man. He is one of the greatest warriors this kingdom has seen. And in our time of dire need, we must call upon his services once more.”

“I'm not going to let you take him,” I say.

“Yin, don't,” Castor tries, his voice now wavering with clear desperation.

I can barely hear him anymore. The rage has built to such a level that I swear it's ringing in my ears, screaming at me to do something about this injustice.

It's my responsibility to save the world, but if I can't even save my guardian, then what good am I?

I act.

With a smooth, practiced move, I open my left palm, and send a surge of force through the bangle and into my fingers. Magic erupts over my skin.

It's bright. Fiendishly bright. It leaps high, arcing like lightning.

I'm aware that the soldiers spring towards me, but Captain Yang doesn't react. He is barely two meters from my side, and he's facing me, those pale brown eyes locked on mine.

He doesn't move. He doesn't stop staring.

The soldier with the hawk-like gaze reaches me first. With a mighty cry, he slashes my way with a kick. As he does, I see two large rings on his middle fingers. Depicting twisted tree roots, they are made of the sleek metal of the Araks.

I hear something crack up from the earth.

Roots. Great gnarled roots from trees and shrubs and grasses and flowers. They come spewing out of the cracks in the cobbles, gathering towards me in a fierce storm.

At first I shudder back in shock, but I don't have time to be surprised.

I leap back, pushing easily into a flip. Where my hands land on the stone, the power crackling over my palms shatters them, sending great swathes of charcoal black singe marks scattering everywhere.

The man with the sharp features and hawk-like gaze is a plant sorcerer. He can call on the spirits of trees and grasses and bushes, commanding them to aid him.

I have never met a plant sorcerer, and I've only heard of them rarely from Castor's tales.

Whereas I can only command pure magic itself, there are sorcerers out there with the most unique of skills. The man before me is one such example, but I’ve heard of others—from men and women who can command light itself to the very weather.

“Stay still,” the plant sorcerer warns.

I dodge past an enormous gnarled root that's cracking from the pressure of moving at the pace of a sweeping bird. Shards of bark blister everywhere, and a powerful dank smell fills the air, mixing with the musty scent of mud to make it feel as if I've been plunged deep into the earth itself.

I do not stay still.

Just as a clump of roots threatens to grab me by the ankle, I shift back and slam my left hand into the cobbles. They burst up in a rain of burning hot stones and shards.

Without thinking, and relying on my instinct, I twist into that shower of hot stones, and kick them forward.

They hail down on the plant sorcerer, but before they can do too much damage, his armor lights up, and most of them scatter across his helmet and chest plate, sizzling as the energy leaves them.

Castor screams my name, begging me to stop, but I ignore him.

It has already gone too far. Either I fight and win, or I lose and am taken away.

Castor has always warned me to stay away from people, especially anyone in authority. From the police to the army, he is especially wary of letting me come in contact with people who may appreciate my powers.

Now I have broken that rule. I have shown my full might to the Royal Army, and there's no going back. The only way to get out, is to win and escape.

So with that conclusion pounding hard in my chest, I jump back as another clump of roots threatens to curl around my legs.

The plant sorcerer seems to be the only soldier with any Arak ability in this group, apart from Captain Yang.

But Captain Yang isn't doing anything. In fact, for the entire battle, he has been standing there, staring at me, like he always does.

Yes, he looks surprised, shocked that I have attacked maybe. Or perhaps his real surprise is that a mere woman would have the gumption to take on the army.

Who knows what he's thinking, but what's important is he isn't attacking get. That gives me an opportunity to deal with the plant sorcerer before Yang weighs into the battle.

Though the other soldiers aren't sorcerers, they aren't pushovers either. They attack in a coordinated, organized manner, supporting the plant sorcerer and never leaving him open to attack.

I have only ever trained with Castor, meaning I have only ever fought one person at a time.

I'm rapidly learning that fighting in a group is completely different. I can't face everyone at once, and whenever someone creeps up behind me, I have to turn fast enough to see what they're about to do.

It's fraught. No, it's beyond fraught: it's virtually impossible.

Just as I skip backwards, narrowly missing a clump of roots that threatens to trip me up, a soldier whirls around with his spear. Thankfully he's not using the pointy end, and only raps me across the shoulders with the handle.

Still, it's a solid blow, and it drives me to my knees.

Pain erupts over my arm, but I don't give up.

I just jump up, curl my hands into fists, and keep fighting.

One soldier gets close enough that he tries to grab me by the arms. I lock my hands around his head, kick my legs out from underneath me, and throw the both of us to the ground. Whereas he lands with a heavy, cracking thump, I absorb the force of the fall, roll, and push to my feet just as another soldier threatens to pin me.

Though I shouldn't have the attention left over, I'm still aware of the fact Captain Yang hasn't done anything yet. A few times he’s curtly warned his soldiers not to hurt me, but other than that, he remains standing in the same position staring with that same fixed concentration.

Castor has always taught me to stand my ground. According to him, at some point, all battles whittle down to one simple fact: who is willing to stand firm and sacrifice more to win.

I've always assumed that means aggressively fighting, but as I catch a glimpse of Captain Yang standing calmly in the center of a fraught battle, I realize he's standing his ground in a completely different way.

With calm, focused attention, he's watching, and doing little else.

I turn to him again, catching his gaze, and it's a mistake. The plant sorcerer whirls around, launching himself high in the air, and striking me across the jaw with a powerful punch. While he is decked out in full armor, I'm wearing nothing but a sopping wet tunic. The blow connects, sending my head jerking backwards. There’s enough force behind that punch to render me unconscious, but I hold onto scraps of my awareness as I fall against the shattered cobbles.

In fact, I have just enough focus to feel as roots suddenly spring up from the ground, coiling around my legs and arms, and locking me in place.

My nose is bleeding, and I feel the warm liquid trickling down my cheeks and collecting at the corners of my lips. As I thrash around on the spot, trying to get free from my wooden shackles, I cut my wrists and legs too.

It doesn't matter.

Nothing matters but winning.

“Stop struggling,” the plant sorcerer hisses, his voice sounding almost exactly like a swift wind rustling through a forest full of leaves.

I ignore him, and keep thrashing about on the spot, trying to find a weakness in the wood.

“You'll hurt yourself,” the plant sorcerer warns.

I don't care.

Not only am I focused on escaping, but the longer I'm trapped, the more I hear that dark muttering. The Night.

For the second time in a day, I feel it coming closer, far closer than I have ever felt it venture.

That fills me with a terror far more powerful than the panic of being tied down.

I can feel my bangle starting to react, my fear coupling with the power within and surging like a tempest.

The wood suddenly feels less like gnarled roots, and more like an ice-cold shadow reaching out from the depths of the earth.

“Stop struggling, girl,” the plant sorcerer warns once more.

I can hardly hear him. In fact, I can hardly see him. I swear my vision starts to go dark, as if the Sun has been extinguished in the sky.

“Yin,” I hear someone call my name, and soon realize it's Castor.

Throughout this entire fight, not once has he come to my aid. He is meant to be my guardian, but he's simply been standing there, watching me fight and ultimately fall.

I can't feel betrayed, though, not with that icy touch wrapping itself around my wrists and legs, threatening to drown me in its shadowy embrace. The only thing I can feel is gut wrenching, spine shaking fear. Fear the likes of which ordinary people will never have cause to feel. The fear that your destiny, once so grand, is about to come to a violent and untimely end.

Just as I feel the panic reach up and coil itself around my throat like hands trying to choke me, I'm aware that somebody leans by my side.

I can hear the creak of armor, the movement of an arm. Then I feel something being pressed into the center of my head.

The blackness engulfs me. But not the dark of Night—the simple embrace of unconsciousness.

I fall into its arms, unable to resist.

Chapter 4

Captain Yang

I have no idea what just happened. This entire mission was meant to be easy. Granted, we were sent up to this small village to draft Castor Barr, a legendary warrior. But I had not expected to find . . . whatever I have found.

Blinking, I shake my head as I stare down at the now comatose Yin. I have rendered her unconscious with a sleeping spell, or at least I hope I have.

“Captain,” Shang says from behind me. I half turn my head, but am unwilling to take my eyes off the comatose woman.

Surprising doesn't even begin to define this situation. Complicated comes close. Whilst my original mission was to draft Castor and other able-bodied men in this village, now things have become confusing.

Ordinarily the Royal Army does not draft women. But there are still some women amongst its ranks, especially sorcerers. With the power a trained sorcerer can bring to battle, only a fool would reject one from the army based on gender alone.

As every officer knows, it is their obligation to bring the existence of any sorcerer to the awareness of the high command, especially in times of conscription. One powerful sorcerer, after all, can easily change the tide of battle.

So I know what I have to do. I must take her back to the capital, and from there, hand her over to the high command. Either she will be deemed untrainable, or she will be absorbed into the ranks of the army. If she is deemed untrainable, however, who knows what the high command will decide to do. In times of war, they are just as keen to keep hold of their sorcerers as they are not to let said sorcerers fall into the hands of the enemy.

Shang mutters something to me, but I ignore him. For several more seconds I lean there next to her. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I think she has somehow managed to resist my sleep spell, and will jump to her feet, magic blazing from her hand once more.

My sleep spell appears to be holding, however. I’m still wary of her, though.

Whilst she seems impetuous, I can't deny she is also powerful. She gave two groups of my soldiers a tough fight. Including Lieutenant Shang, one of the finest plant sorcerers in my division.

“Sir, we need to move. I do not trust those rain clouds. I fear there might be snow on the horizon, and we can’t afford to be trapped in this village. We must make it back to the capital,” Shang advises.

I mutely nod my head. Whilst Shang fears that snow is on the way, I know it is. I can feel it. The power within my Arak device is practically humming with the certainty that snow will soon fall. A curious fact considering it's barely autumn. But these mountain ranges are high, and a good captain knows that the weather can change in an instant.

I push myself up, but for a few more seconds, I stare down at her.

Her hair is a mess over her shoulders and face. Black and clogged with mud, it looks as if it's barely been brushed in a year. That's not to say anything of the simple tunic and pants she's wearing. They are torn, singed, and dirty.

“Captain,” Shang tries to capture my attention once more.

I turn.

Then the questions start to flood into my mind like a tidal wave. What exactly happened here? And who is this girl?

Neatening my breastplate, I turn my attention to Castor Barr. Throughout the entire ordeal, he screamed at Yin to stop, but he did not intervene. He was not shackled, nor was he tied down, and considering his reputation, he could have easily taken on my men. Yet he just stood there, watching, begging her, but doing nothing to help.

My eyebrows crumpling down over my narrowed eyes, I run a thumb over my chin. “I thought you vowed never to train anyone again?” I ask Castor as I face off against him.

His lips are pressed closed, and there is a fiery look in his eyes. But again he doesn't answer.

Not a word.

“You know what we must do,” I note.

Now Castor's eyes narrow even further, and though I try to fight it, a twinge of fear escapes up my back.

I know better than most what Castor is capable of. The very last man he trained in combat was my own father.

Still, I hold my ground, sidestepping my fear as I straighten up. “We have an obligation to take any sorcerers back to the capital for conscription into the army,” I note needlessly, knowing full well that Castor Barr would understand the regulations of the Royal Army. He was, after all, one of her finest soldiers for almost 30 years.

But then, as the story goes, something happened and Castor Barr disappeared. Renouncing his ties to all friends and family, he became a mere herbalist in the mountains.

And, as I've just learnt, he accepted one apprentice during that time. A woman called Yin.

“If you do anything to her, I will rip your throat out,” Castor now says.

For a man with perfect discipline, his emphatic threat shakes me. Of course it does. I can see it affects the rest of my men too. There's something about Castor's deep, rumbling, gruff tone that would shake through even the strongest man.

Yet once again, I remain standing. Swallowing lightly, I shake my head. “We have no intention of harming her. Despite the fact she,” I break eye contact with Castor as I look around the shattered road, “did significant damage to this village and threatened the lives of imperial soldiers, she will not be treated as a criminal. We simply intend to follow the dictates of the law.”

Castor stares at me. While I spent almost the entire battle staring at the mysterious Yin, the quality of Castor's gaze is different.

Cold. Contained, but ferocious too.

As a sorcerer of the Royal Army, I was taught from a young age to control my emotions. From fear to elation to surprise to love, I have been trained to purge myself of distraction.

Right now, I can’t stop the sweat from prickling across my brow.

Surreptitiously I make a fist, open it, and then make another one. I pump my fingers back and forth, reminding myself that at any moment I can call upon the power of my Arak band.

Before Yin showed up and demanded the release of Castor, I had been negotiating with the man. Not once during that negotiation did he mention her existence, though I had learnt of it from other men in the village. Though I want to raise that point with him now, all I can do is swallow again.

“Captain,” Shang begins.

I pull up a hand to silence him. I can't afford him saying anything that will inflame Castor. One look in that man's eyes tells me that he is on the edge.

“You have my word we will not harm her,” I say, trying to make my words sincere.

I succeed. For that is something else I have been trained in. By controlling my emotions, I can subtly alter the tone of my voice, making it easier for people to trust me.

Though I rely on that ability now, I do so with a heavy heart. There is something . . . empty about it. In fact, there’s something empty about my abilities in general. With such fine control of my emotion, sometimes I don't even feel human anymore. I often consider myself little more than my training and abilities. Whatever soul I once had, I've spent years ignoring until it's almost disappeared completely.

But there is one thing I hold on to. One ability. One force.

Loyalty.

My father taught me that. Inadvertently, but he still ingrained that lesson into my bones and blood.

My entire personality is devoted to my loyalty to my kingdom, the men under my command, and my Queen. I tell myself, practically every night as I drift off to sleep, that I will do anything for them.

As I remind myself of that fact, I stand straighter.

“You can trust us,” I try, “I will vouch for her safety.”

Castor suddenly laughs, but it isn't full of mirth. His derision is obvious. “I know how they train you sorcerers in the army. I know not to trust a word that comes out of your lips.”

I start to feel frustrated, anger cracking through my emotional control, but soon enough I take a breath and push it away. “You can trust me,” I say again calmly. “We have no intention of harming your apprentice,” I choose my words carefully, “she appears to be a powerful sorcerer, and the army can use any soldier it can get right now.”

Again Castor laughs. He doesn't say anything though, he shakes his head and stares at me.

I try to stare back, but all too soon find I can't hold his gaze. So instead I find my head dipping to the side and my eyes travelling back to the comatose woman behind me.

If she hadn't come charging into town, demanding the release of her uncle, we would never have known about her. Perhaps, that had been Castor's plan.

“Captain, we should move out,” Shang insists again.

Once more I find it hard to pull my attention off Yin. It isn't just because she’s a woman lying in the mud after fighting an entire army unit. No, it's the strange, still sense about her as she sleeps.

There's something . . . mysterious about her. It goes beyond the fact she is a powerful sorcerer. My own mother was a sorcerer, so I have little trouble accepting that fact.

It's something more. Something I can't put my finger on.

“Sir,” Shang insists once more.

“Round up the men,” I begin, yanking my gaze off Yin, “and secure them in the cart.”

“And what about her?” Shang points to Yin, and as he does, Castor's gaze narrows in on me.

I’m fully aware that I have to be careful here. Though I am relatively confident that my entire unit could take on the great Castor Barr if we had to, I would rather this not descend into all-out battle. I've already ruined more of this town than I should have.

“Release her,” I say carefully, “and take her to the cart. But be careful not to hurt her. And allow Castor to travel alongside her,” I add, fearful Castor will growl and threaten to rip my throat out again.

I see Shang's expression sour. He knows full well that’s a risk. But I don't have another option. I have to play a very careful game here. We need Castor on our side, and if that means letting him travel with Yin, then so be it.

Before Shang can point out how stupid my plan sounds, I nod my head. “I will travel in the cart alongside them,” I say to reassure him.

His expression hardly improves, but soon enough he shakes his head, and then spreads his fingers wide. There's a cracking, grating sound as the roots that once held Yin in place suddenly coil back into the ground like hands disappearing into long sleeves.

“Very well, sir,” Shang says in a disbelieving tone as he moves down to pick Yin up.

I watch Castor tense out of the corner of my eye. Yet as Shang picks Yin up, Castor does not snap and attack.

I can see he wants to though.

Hell, I can feel the anger washing off him in powerful waves. If I hadn't spent so many years controlling my emotions, I'd be shaking in my boots.

But something, something is holding Castor Barr back. Regardless of whether he wants to rip my throat out, as he puts it, he's standing there.

I want to know why. In fact, I want to know everything. From who she is to why on earth one of the greatest warriors in the history of the Kingdom bothered to train her.

I'm not going to find my answers yet though, especially not with Castor glaring at me with the power of 1000 suns.

Soon enough Shang loads Yin into one of the carts, and they allow Castor to climb up beside her. Immediately Castor loops an arm around her back, and allows her head to rest on his shoulder. He's acting exactly like a protective father—a father ready to take on the entire world if he has to.

It doesn't take long to load up the other men from the village, but I insist they are all squeezed into one of the other carts. I intend to travel alone with Castor and Yin. That way there will be less variables. If there were other people crammed into our cart, I wouldn't want to run the risk of Castor using them as some kind of distraction.

The trip back to the capital should only take a day and a half, but I command the soldiers to push our horses to the limit. Not only can I feel the snow descending from the mountains, but I want Castor and Yin firmly inside the Royal Army's walls as soon as possible.

Still, it's going to be a long day, I realize as I settle down on the narrow, uncomfortable seat of the cart. I feel the horses turn around, and the cart jumps up and down as its wheels negotiate the uneven road. The sound of their hooves and the grating crunch of the wheels fills the cart, but it is somehow not loud enough to mask Castor's breathing. It's deep, it's controlled, and it is calm.

Which can't be said for me right now.

Chapter 5

Captain Yang

I don't intend to rest. In fact, I have no intention of closing my eyes, but as the journey continues, the boredom starts to get to me.

I find my attention being drawn more and more towards Yin. Her head rests against Castor's shoulder, rolling to the left and right with every bump of the cart's wheels.

Her clothes have now dried, but her hair is still caked with mud, and there are streaks of dirt covering her cheeks, hands, and forehead.

“Stop watching her,” Castor suddenly warns, breaking a silence that has lasted almost five hours.

It surprises me, and I blink quickly, yanking my gaze off her as if I were some boy caught staring at a girl he admires.

“Who is she?” I suddenly ask.

“She is my apprentice in the study of herbs,” Castor replies plainly, but his tone is still tight with anger.

Though I try to hold his gaze, I find my eyes drifting back towards her every few seconds, as if I am waiting for her to wake. But the sleep spell I put on her will not be lifted until I choose to lift it. Yet, despite knowing that fact, I can't shake the feeling she will suddenly snap to her feet and continue her fight without pause.

Like all sorcerers untrained by the Royal Army, she has a forceful personality. In the few words I exchanged with her, I realized that. She is no doubt the kind of person who prefers to burn through every obstacle in her path. Her willingness to fight an entire army unit to protect Castor evidences that fact.

I am her opposite. The Royal Army teaches a sorcerer to become cold and devoid of emotion.

A man dedicated to control can in turn control others.

Yet, by denying and purging my natural emotions, I'm left with nothing but an empty, cold void. On still nights, when my mind is exceptionally quiet, I can feel the frozen embrace of my training coiling through my veins, pushing itself out of the Arak device around my wrist, extinguishing whatever warmth still remains in my heart.

Recently, I've only been feeling all the colder. With the changes in the war effort, and the new efforts at conscription, I've been controlling my emotions more than usual.

It's taking its toll.

Without realizing it, I begin to pump the fingers of my right hand. Instantly Castor notices. He glances from my hand to my eyes, and a slow smile spreads his lips. “You're just a boy,” he suddenly concludes.

“I'm the captain of this unit,” I point out calmly. Or at least I try to make my voice calm. I draw on my emotional control to keep my tone as even as it can be.

But it doesn't quite work. There’s a single wavering note of indecision rippling through my voice, and the more I try to control it, the more it wavers.

Suddenly feeling uncomfortable, I shift back in my seat, aligning my shoulders with the wall behind me, and keeping my back as stiff and erect as I can. I need to remind Castor who's in charge here. He may be almost two generations older than me, but I am no boy.

That small smile does not shift from his lips. “You have no idea what you're doing,” he suddenly concludes.

“I'm following orders,” I say.

Castor slowly leans forward, hooking an arm around Yin's back so she doesn't fall from his shoulder. “Yes you are, and that's why you have no idea what you're doing. You're blindly loyal, and will happily follow those orders just as long as you don't have to think for yourself. Just as long as you don't have to develop your own morality.”

I blink quickly, now pumping my hand more and more. “I am loyal to my Queen and kingdom,” I repeat quickly, holding onto that fact. After all, it's the most important fact there is.

Castor shakes his head, laughing lightly. “I see you've been trained well. It seems the army still knows how to sap the emotion right out of their sorcerers. They teach you to practice magic by purging yourself of everything that makes you you,” he notes as he shifts back, once again repositioning Yin so she doesn't fall.

“I have emotions,” I try to say calmly, “I am simply taught how to control them. I do not follow my frustration and anger,” I note as I uncontrollably glance at Yin, “I am trained to know better.”

“You're trained to be empty,” Castor says as he shifts his head forward, dropping it slightly as he looks unblinkingly into my eyes. He has dark brown eyes, but right now they could easily be burning white as ferocity concentrates within them.

“I'm trained to serve my kingdom,” I say.

Then I pump my hand. Over and over again.

Sidestep your emotions, I tell myself. You are water flowing around obstacles, you do not flow into them.

“You're trained to be nothing more than a tool, a cog in a machine. You sacrifice your life, and all you get in return is the myth of loyalty. Trust me boy, I've lived that existence.”

“You have served your country,” I say automatically.

“I don't need you to tell me what I've done. I know,” Castor's voice rumbles deeply, and I swear it's more alarming than thunder rumbling overhead.

Shifting back in my chair, I call on all my training to calm myself.

I can't let this man undermine me; that's what he's trying to do.

“Tell me, what happens when you stop pumping your hand?” he suddenly asks as he points to my hand. “What happens when you run out of all those little tricks they teach you to control your emotions? Is that when you start to feel like a human? Like a man? Is that when the anger and passion return?”

“I serve my country. I do everything I can to be the best warrior I can be for my Queen and kingdom,” I default to saying, the words slipping off my tongue with practiced ease. These are statements I have made before and statements I will make again.

“You are a toy, a piece on a chessboard. Ultimately irrelevant,” Castor concludes with vicious ease.

“I know what you are doing, and I am impervious, I assure you,” I suddenly stutter.

Castor's eyes grow a little wider and his concentration intensifies. He doesn't once blink, and he barely shifts the muscles in his cheeks and jaw as he opens his lips a crack, “I will tell you what happens when you run out of tricks, boy. You feel. All the emotion you once held at bay rushes back into you. A flood, a tidal wave, a monsoon. Every drop of feeling will eat back into the soul you've ignored for years, and drench it completely. I've seen it happen before, and I've done it myself. If you know how, you can break a sorcerer, and I assure you, boy, I know how.”

I stop speaking. Though I open my lips to reply that I am a loyal servant, the words freeze in my throat.

The intensity with which Castor stares at me is one I have never faced.

No, not never. My father used to burn with such powerful ferocity too. But unlike Castor, he was undisciplined, unfocused.

Castor Barr, on the other hand, is rightfully one of the greatest warriors ever to have lived.

As that fact repeats in my mind, I lose a little more of my emotional control.

Castor watches me keenly, his eyes darting around as he takes in my expression and body language. “If you do anything to her, I will come after you.”

Again I don't speak.

Instead I lock my gaze on the floor and concentrate as hard as I can on the scuffed wood.

“You won't be able to flow around me, nor will you be able to manipulate me. If you try to manipulate her,” Castor begins.

“You'll rip my throat out,” I conclude quickly.

“No, I will break you. I'll find the one thing that can tear down your wall of emotional control, and I'll use it,” he says quietly. In fact, his tone is barely above a whisper, and registers as nothing more than a slight hiss of breath.

I stop pumping my hands. In fact, I practically stop breathing too.

Yet somehow, I stand my ground. For all of Castor Barr's threats, he can’t undermine my training with words alone.

“It makes sense for a man like you to be a captain in the Royal Army,” Barr suddenly notes, “you're heartless enough to do anything the command tells you.”

“I am not heartless,” I interject, unable to keep silent.

“Really, you have a heart? Have you ever used it?” Castor states as he leans forward slightly, once more staring into my eyes unblinkingly. His gaze is like a roaring gale, and staring back at it is like standing in a lightning storm.

But swallowing, I manage it.

Then I hold my tongue. I won't let this man manipulate me.

It's hard, though. As soon as silence descends for too long, I find my attention going back inexorably to Yin. The questions fill my mind again, but I'm not foolish enough to ask them. If I engage Castor in conversation, he'll use it against me.

So I press my lips closed and keep my eyes wide open. Though I've convinced myself that if Castor intended to escape he would have done so by now, I still can't afford to take my eyes off him.

In every way he is proving himself to be the legendary warrior of old.

But perhaps it's not Castor I have to worry about.

Chapter 6

Yin

I wake with a start.

I come plummeting out of unconsciousness like a rock thrown off the highest tower. I spring forward, jumping up with the momentum of waking up.

I feel like I've been hemmed in by a wall that somehow trapped me in sleep.

Just as I jump forward, somebody wraps an arm around my middle and holds me in place.

I open my eyes. In fact, the lids jerk wide with such speed it feels as if I'll tear the skin.

My hair flying about my face with the force of my move, I suddenly realize that someone's in front of me.

My mind takes seconds to catch up. It's Captain Yang. As I jerk towards him, he jerks backwards. His face is awash with surprise, those pale brown eyes as open as they can be.

“Yin,” I hear Castor call my name, and suddenly realize that he's the one holding me.

My mind struggles to catch up.

As it does, I stare with open eyes at Yang. My hair slowly settles across my shoulder and brushes against my face, and my limbs, once twinging with action, now relax.

“You're safe,” Castor says as he tries to guide me backwards.

It's then that I realize I'm in a cart of some description. Through the small barred windows, I can see the road outside. I can also hear the clip-clop of horse hooves and feel the rotating wheels underneath the floor.

How on earth I got here, I have no idea.

I let Castor pull me backwards until I sit roughly on a decidedly uncomfortable seat.

“You're safe,” Castor repeats once more as he lays a hand heavily upon my shoulder. The weight of it is reassuring, and I don't try to shrug it off.

Instead I rest further back into the wall and into his grip. It takes several seconds to open my lips and ask, “what's going on?” My voice is croaky and weak, and as I bring a hand up and pat my throat, I realize I'm weary with fatigue.

I feel like I'm still half-asleep.

“How did you wake up?” Captain Yang asks. Though he's no longer plastered against the far wall in total surprise, I can still see shock flickering in his gaze. Which is unusual, because my only impression of the man so far is one of complete emotional control.

Well, right now he looks less like the epitome of calm, and more like an ordinary man.

But all too soon he gets a handle on himself. Lengthening his back and tilting his head down, he clears his throat.

“What's going on?” I ask as I run my fingers over my wrists, noticing the cuts and gouges.

“Stay calm,” Castor says.

Calm?

I can't remember how I got here. In fact, the last thing I remember is . . . the Night.

I jerk back with such force, my shoulder impacts the wall and dents it.

I hear the horses neigh, and from outside a gruff voice asks, “what's going on in there? Captain?”

Yang doesn't answer immediately; he's too busy staring at me with surprise. But as the soldier asks again, he clears his throat and says, “it's fine, it's fine.”

It's not fine.

Pressing my palm into my face and letting my crooked fingers push into my mud-caked hair, I close my eyes.

As soon as I see the darkness, I jerk them open again.

“You are safe,” Castor says in his most calming tone. He weighs his hand further into my shoulder, his fingers spreading as their warmth travels into my skin.

I'm safe.

I try to hold onto that fact, and the more I look around me and see that the Night isn't crawling up from the cracks in the floor or groping through the bars on the windows, I realize Castor is right.

But he’s also wrong.

As I calm down enough to realize the Night is not about to claim me, I understand I still have other problems.

My memory catches up to me, and I realize with a cold shudder that I must be on my way to the capital. The soldiers must have defeated me, knocking me out and shoving me into this cart.

At least Castor is here, though.

. . . .

He's here. In the same cart as me. So why hasn't he done anything? There's only Captain Yang, and presumably a few soldiers on top of the cart to control the horses.

I've fought Castor, and I know from experience how powerful he is. It would not be beyond his skills to overcome Yang and the rest of those soldiers.

So why hasn't he done that?

Slowly I turn to him, my lips parting as I shiver once more.

He doesn't say anything, shaking his head instead.

“How did you wake up?” Captain Yang asks, and again I hear his calm tone waver. In fact, his expression is contorted too, his brow crumpled and his cheeks slack.

“. . . You put me to sleep,” I realize, remembering him leaning down and pressing his thumb into the center of my head.

Again I shudder back, but this time I quickly damp down on my fear with anger.

I press the fingers of my left hand into my palm, curling them until the nails dig directly into the flesh.

Though I still feel half-asleep, that won't stop me from fighting. While Castor seems reluctant to take on these soldiers, I’m not.

But he won't let me. Gently Castor leans forward and wraps one of his large hands around my wrist.

“What are you doing?” I ask as I try to jerk back from him.

“You can't fight them,” he says.

He's wrong; I can. I will.

But he won't remove his fingers from my wrist.

“Listen to your uncle,” Yang speaks, “we don't want to hurt you,” he adds, sounding sincere but still a little unsure of himself.

With one look at him, I can still feel the surprise rippling off him.

In fact, it contorts his handsome face and makes his manly build seem small.

“Try to rest,” Castor suggests in a soothing voice.

Rest? We are in a cart travelling towards the capital, where no doubt we will both be delivered to the army. While Castor will be drafted, I'll probably be locked in jail.

How exactly am I to rest when I should be fighting?

But no matter how hard I try to yank my hand free from Castor's grip, he won't let me. He simply holds on with his usual willful determination.

Eventually I give up, sinking my teeth into my lips as I do.

“Try to rest,” he suggests again.

“I'd rather not take my eyes off him,” I snarl as I cross my arms and stare directly at Yang.

At first he looks taken aback, but all too soon I watch him gather his control. He sits taller, angles his head down, and even shifts his helmet until it hides the majority of his gaze in shadow.

I’m unimpressed, and just cross my arms tighter.

“I'm not a threat to you,” he says as he brings his hands up wide and spreads his fingers.

“Yeah, right. That's why you're taking us to the capital. But hey, if you're not a threat, you won't mind if I let myself out?” I ask as I point a thumb to the bolted door next to him.

Yang slides his gaze across to the door, then back to me. He doesn't drop his hands though. Again I feel like he's exuding calm, like he's just about as sincere as any man can be.

It would be so very easy to trust him, I suddenly realize.

After all, apart from restraining me when I fought his men, he hasn't outright attacked me, has he?

I feel my arms loosening their grip.

. . . .

He smiles. It's gentle. Or at least I think it's meant to be gentle.

That sets me off again. Men like Captain Yang have no business smiling at women like me. I have nothing to give him, and even if I did, I wouldn't.

I clear my throat. “Castor isn't going to hug you, so I suggest you put your arms down,” I snap.

Yang splutters, and I swear Castor gives a soft laugh.

“I don't care how trustworthy you seem, I only care about what you do. You might have promised that nothing will happen to me, but I'm going to wait to see what you really do.”

Yang lets his arms drop into his lap, and he casts his wary gaze between me and Castor. Once again he looks less calm and sure of himself, and once more that makes him seem all the more like an ordinary man.

He looks at me again, but the calm edge is now well and truly gone from his gaze, and he seems more than a little defeated. Then, with a shrug, he swivels that gaze to Castor. “I wouldn't worry about your apprentice; she seems more than capable of looking after herself.”

My eyebrows descend in a snap, and I open my mouth to say something, but Castor interrupts by laughing softly.

Then we all descend into silence. A very awkward, pressured silence.

I keep my arms crossed in front of my chest, and my hands curled into tight fists, and not once do I take my eyes off that man.

I will escape. I promise myself that. I don't care how long I have to wait or how much planning I have to do, but I will free myself from Yang's clutches.

As I stare at him, he does something unusual, and drops my gaze, preferring to look at the floor instead. Yet every few seconds, like clockwork, he glances my way.

Though he no longer looks as sure of himself, something else now flickers deep within those pale brown eyes. Curiosity.

In fact, I've never had anyone, let alone a man, stare at me with such open intrigue. Derision, yes, but not this.

Though I don't want to rest, as the minutes tick past into hours, I grow tremendously bored, and occasionally let my eyes flicker closed.

“Rest,” Castor encourages me, “you're safe here, for now.”

I mumble a “yes,” and despite the fact I try to stay awake, I find myself gently drifting off.

Back into the arms of unconsciousness. But this time Yang doesn’t press a thumb into the center of my forehead; I fall asleep willingly.

It's an uneasy rest, though. Not even sleep can take away the certainty of what will happen next.

My life is about to change, and apparently there's nothing I can do about it.

Yet.

For I am the Savior, and I will find a way.

Chapter 7

Captain Yang

The rest of the journey is spent in relative silence. I now know better than to draw Castor back into conversation. Whilst there are details of his conscription I must discuss, I wisely choose not to in Yin's presence. When we reach the Royal Army barracks, the generals can discuss whatever they wish with Castor, and I will have discharged my duty by getting him there.

I keep telling myself that. All I have to do is to deliver Castor back to the Royal City.

. . . .

Then presumably deal with Yin, and I have absolutely no idea how to do that. With her abilities, she will be a boon to the Royal Army, if she is trainable.

Everything I have seen so far suggests she isn't. She even seems to lack basic manners, especially those expected of a woman.

These thoughts occupy my mind until we make it through the walls of the Royal City.

It's always an arresting sight. In fact, if you ask me, it's the most beautiful view in all the world. I don't even need to have travelled all the world to conclude that. Every time I return home, my heart sings with that certainty. It's one of the few times I can feel it. It's one of the few times I let myself feel any emotion at all.

So as our cart continues past the great golden gates, I shift closer to the window, unable to control my smile. As I stare out of the thick glass, positioning a hand on one of the bars to stabilize myself, I catch sight of Yin.

To my surprise, she's lost that fiery edge in her gaze, and she too has turned towards the window, her eyes wide with surprise.

No doubt she's never seen the Royal City. In fact, she's probably never left that tiny mountain village.

For a second I open my mouth intending to point out the great museum as we pass it, but then I stop.

I'm no tour guide.

In fact, I push myself away from the window, return to my seat, and straighten my back until it is as stiff and tall as I can make it.

Realizing I'll soon have to present myself and my new recruits to the generals back at the barracks, I begin to neaten my appearance. I methodically dust off my armor, even taking off my helmet and neatening my short hair.

Out of the corner of her eyes, Yin watches me.

You would think she had never seen a man in armor, considering how closely she examines my routine.

“It's important to look respectable when greeting one's commanders,” I say by way of explanation.

She turns from me, crosses her arms, and stares out the window haughtily.

For some reason that makes me smile.

Infuriatingly, I don't know why.

As a Royal Army sorcerer, I understand how to control my emotions better than most. So it's alarming and more than a little irritating when I act for reasons even I can't understand.

Shining my helmet with my sleeve, I cram it back on my head, then I lean back against the wall and cross my arms.

It takes me a full five seconds to realize what I'm doing. When I do, I immediately loosen my arms, drop them into my lap, and clear my throat.

I'm not some unruly brat who challenges authority with apathy. I don't slouch and cross my arms—like Yin. I'm an officer in the Royal Army, and it's time I remind myself of that.

Finally we reach the barracks. As our cart slows down and the soldiers atop announce themselves to the guards, a surge of nerves travels through my stomach. Hot and fast, they feel like bubbling water. I even move to touch a hand to my stomach, but I stop myself.

I've been to these barracks countless times; for the past few years, I've lived here. So why do I now feel as if they've changed? As if I've turned some corner, and my life will no longer be as it once was?

As if somewhere, somehow, a fire is about to ignite within me.

A fire I’ve held back for years.

Though my conscious mind can't seem to answer that, my body can, and without knowing it, I turn to face Yin once more.

She’s a powerful summoner, the apprentice of one of the most legendary warriors of our times, and she’s currently sitting in my cart glaring at me.

Perhaps my life has just taken a turn, and nothing will be the same anymore.

Or maybe I'm just unsettled. Yes, that's it, I conclude, as the cart draws to a halt and I hear the soldiers scramble off the top.

All I need to do is relax, meditate, and regain control over my emotions.

Then everything will go back to normal.

. . . .

Even as I tell myself that, a part of me knows it's fancy.

Nothing will be the same again.

Chapter 8

Yin

When the cart stops, my nerves start. In fact, who am I kidding? My nerves have been building ever since we entered this monstrous, golden city.

In all my years, I've never seen anything like it. For in all my years, I've barely travelled from my mountain village. My life to date has been about training, not travelling. I don't have time to be awed by great golden arches and walls as tall as mountains and just as imposing.

I watch Yang stand, and though he's too tall, and has to stoop, that doesn't stop him from compulsively neatening his armor once more. Then, with a slight breath, he unlocks the door and steps out.

I catch a glimpse of an empty square beyond. It's enormous, absolutely enormous.

“Castor,” I begin. I don't know what I want to say, but I can't stop myself from whispering his name.

“Just trust me,” he says quietly, his voice barely carrying beyond his lips.

I turn to look at him.

With a complicated expression, he doesn't face me, and instead stares at the opposite wall.

“What's going on? Why aren't we escaping?” I hiss back, trying to ensure my voice does not carry outside the cart and to Yang's waiting ears.

“Just trust me,” Castor says once more.

“Castor,” I begin, one million questions bursting through my mind. Trust him? How can I trust him when I don't know what's going on? The one lesson he drummed into my mind more than any other is that I must never allow myself to be captured. But now, well, I've clearly been captured, and he is doing nothing about it.

I don't understand, and that fact unsettles me more than Castor's complicated expression.

Before I can question him further, I see two soldiers pop their heads through the open door.

They are dressed in armor that is somehow even fancier than Yang's. Brilliant blue and gold, they look as if they've trapped the very sea and sky in their breastplates and helmets.

“Please exit this cart,” one says in a professional but curt tone.

Without a word, Castor stands and follows their heed.

I don't move though. I sit there, staring in open-mouthed shock as my guardian follows the orders of these soldiers.

What is he doing?

When he steps down from the cart, he turns and nods at me. “Come, Yin,” he says.

I begin to shake my head, but he shakes his head harder. “Please,” he adds.

Feeling more confused than I've ever felt, I stand and make my way out of the cart. As soon as I jump down, I gasp. I can see the enormous square in full. It's even bigger than I imagined, and as I stand there and spin on the spot, taking in the glorious buildings beyond, I realize just how far out of my depth I am.

The mountains I understand. The trees, the crags, the snow, the birds. They sing to me. These buildings, however, are nothing but imposing. They represent a world I know nothing about.

As I stare at the buildings, I notice that Yang stands several meters away talking to an old man with a grey beard and jet-black armor.

Then I notice the man saluting. He places a hand close to his stomach, then secures his other hand on top, and bends forward in a bow. At first I have no idea who he's directing it towards, then I realize it's Castor.

In fact, all of the assembled soldiers repeat the move, and bow one by one.

I like to think I know everything there is to know about my guardian. After all, I've lived with him my whole life, and it's by his side that I will complete my task as the Savior. Still, whilst I know that once upon a time he had served in the army, I'm starting to realize he might have left some very important details out. From the things Yang mentioned and the way these soldiers are treating him, it appears Castor had a far more illustrious career than he's told me about.

Still, now isn't exactly the time to bring that up.

Now is the time to run.

Once that old man in black armor stops saluting Castor, Yang mutters something to him, and he looks directly at me.

That look . . . is terrifying. The old man's eyebrows descend low, and his thin lips spread over his teeth in a crooked smile.

I actually take a step back, and inadvertently knock the cart door, sending it swinging back on its hinges.

“Watch yourself,” one of the soldiers snaps.

Castor has asked me to trust him, but how exactly am I to do that when I'm surrounded by snide soldiers that stare at me like I'm little more than meat with unruly hair?

Still, it's only my loyalty to him that keeps me standing there. That, and the realization that even if I try to take on these soldiers, there's no way I can win. There's too many of them, and the walls of this army base are far too high. Plus, what would happen if I escaped? Where would I go? I know nothing about this city. If Castor is unwilling to flee with me, then for the first time in my life, I will be on my own.

That prospect terrifies me just as much as the old man's stare.

As Yang and the old man talk, Castor takes a step back, getting as close to me as he can. “I need you to trust me,” he repeats.

I don't say anything.

“We will be separated, you will be fine. Trust me,” he says once more.

Separated?

I snap my head around, my hair flattening against my cheeks and forehead. “I'm not going to let them,” I begin.

He raises a hand quickly. Staring into my eyes, he shakes his head. “Trust me,” he mouths.

Then he walks away. Without looking back, he marches up to the old man and bows.

They have a conversation, but it's too quiet for me to overhear, then Castor walks away with him.

I'm left there standing with those soldiers, and I have no idea what's going on.

My whole life I've been taught to be strong; my whole life I've been taught that I'm the only person who can save this age.

But I've never been lonely, because Castor has always been there.

Now, however, he walks away from me. There’s something final about it. As I stare at him, I feel as though he's leaving me for good.

Perhaps he's finally growing tired of my lack of discipline, and he's realized I'm untrainable. Maybe I've insulted him, or maybe he realizes there's no chance I can win, and it's better to give up now.

But all I really know is that my sworn guardian has turned his back on me, and it's left me feeling more alone than I ever have in my life.

Chapter 9

Captain Yang

It's been a long trip, and all I want to do is bathe, eat a proper meal, and return to my quarters.

But I can't. Instead I find myself leaning against a wall, sighing deeply, and nursing a growing headache.

The growing headache has two causes: a long day and one Yin.

Once Castor left with General Garl, that left me alone with Yin and my orders. After I told the General about her powers, he ordered she immediately be housed in one of the barrack quarters until training could begin.

It is up to me to get her settled, apparently.

Garl might as well have given me the task of moving every mountain in the Kingdom and draining every sea.

With the help of the barrack guards, we manage at least to get her in the right building. But that's where my luck runs out.

“Ma'am, you need to go into your room and settle down,” one of the guards says in a gruff tone as he points to the open door before him.

Yin is standing in the doorway, but she clearly has no intention of going inside. Though the soldier tries to shoo her in, she actually growls at him.

I've been to the various villages of the Kingdom; I have travelled far and I have met many. But in all my time I have not met a woman as unwomanly and gruff. Yin is less of a lady and more like a bear. Her unwashed muddy hair only adds to that appearance, as does her torn, dirty clothes.

But her eyes—two piercing pools of velvety brown—are very human. They have such an intense quality behind them, that staring at her is like watching a star be born from the very heavens.

“Ma'am,” the guard tries again, “don't make me push you in there.”

“Ha,” Yin exclaims in a blast of derision that sees her chest puff out and her shoulders shake back, “go ahead and try.”

The soldier takes a menacing step forward.

It's time for me to intervene. Not before he hurts her, but before she hurts him.

She, after all, is powerful. Very powerful. If she truly has been trained by Castor, then she's a potentially invaluable asset for the Royal Army. One that it is up to me to get settled before she can be trained.

Though a man twice her size in imposing gold armor is looming over her, Yin barely bats an eyelash. Instead she arches her neck back, the muscles straining.

She acts like a soldier. Like a man.

She's neither.

“Hold on,” I warn as I take a step towards the soldier before he can make a mistake, “let me deal with this,” I offer.

I don't want to; I'd rather go straight to my bed. With every passing second, my headache becomes more powerful. I can feel my blood pounding through my neck and temples like a blacksmith hammering an anvil.

Still, with a deep breath, I call on my control. It is up to me to show restraint here, for lord knows a sorcerer like her can't. If I wait around for Yin to become reasonable, I'll become an old man with a 20-foot beard.

Yin swivels her gaze to stare at me. I can see the concentrated hatred burning in her gaze.

Which, frankly, is not something I'm used to. I've always been blessed when it comes to women. Most Royal Army sorcerers, after all, know how to read the emotions of others and act accordingly. While we control our own feelings, it's all too easy to read those of others.

The ability to know what a woman is after has always stood me in good stead. My appearance also helps.

Right now my charms clearly aren't working on the mysterious Yin. Rather than looking at me with a blush warming her cheeks, she looks as if she wants to send me hurtling through the wall with a kick.

I clear my throat. “Please, just go into your room. You will be safe there. As I said before, you have my word that nothing will happen to you. I can vouch for your safety.”

“As I said before,” she says, her voice trilling, “I don't trust you. Words mean nothing. Action means everything. If you really want me to believe you, just let me out.”

I press my lips together.

Though I shouldn’t, I feel frustration rise through my chest.

She knows she can't leave; that's been explained to her countless times. In a patient, understanding tone, I have told her she can’t go and that she will be treated well. Yet she persists in demanding to be set free. Reasoning with her is like talking to a mountain lion, and quite possibly just as dangerous.

“Sir, I can deal with this,” the guard offers with a grating grunt. “She's only a woman.”

I don't need to be able to read his emotions to tell he's getting angry. His body language betrays that, as does the look in his eye.

“You can deal with yourself,” Yin barks back. “But if you come near me, I'll show you you're only a man.”

The guard bristles.

He also reaches for his bludgeon.

“I will deal with this,” I step closer to the guard, raising a hand in a stopping motion.

The guard doesn't let go of his bludgeon, but he doesn't step closer to Yin either.

For her part, she leans there in the doorway, her arms crossed, a challenging smile on her lips.

“Sir,” the guard begins.

“You're relieved. I will send for you when I need you,” I tell him as I offer a short salute.

The guard looks wary, but soon returns the salute and begins to walk away. He casts Yin a glare as he does though. One she happily returns as she offers a short wave.

Then she returns her attention back to me.

For a few seconds she says nothing. She stares at me as if she's considering the most loathsome thing in all the lands. “I don't care what you're plans are, I'm not going to help you,” she tells me flatly.

I am used to the ladies of the Royal City being less than direct. Polite, careful, and always thoughtful. Yin, however, holds nothing back.

“You should care what our plans are,” I say, choosing my words slowly, “because if you paused to understand them, you would realize they are good. They are just. We are here to help the people of this Kingdom,” I say emphatically as I spread a hand over my chest plate.

She looks unmoved, and crosses her arms tighter.

“I will do anything to protect the people of this land. From the Queen herself, to every loyal citizen, I am prepared to sacrifice my life for their security,” I continue.

“Anything?” she suddenly challenges.

“Anything,” I agree.

“Including capturing an old man, attacking a woman with an entire unit of soldiers, and warmongering?” she asks snidely.

My calm falters.

She sees it. Narrowing her eyes, she shakes her head. “My uncle warned me about people like you. He told me you always pretend war is immanent so you can keep a stranglehold on resources. So you can keep the populace in a constant state of fear so they are easier to control.”

I falter again. But just as frustration kindles in my belly, something else does.

Curiosity.

What exactly has Castor told this woman? According to the stories I've been told, Castor is one the most loyal and capable soldiers the Kingdom has ever had. But if Yin is to be believed, Castor's legendary loyalty is a myth.

“He's warned me about people like you,” she repeats, suspicion flashing in her eyes.

“What has he told you?” I suddenly ask. “That we're all monsters? That we use our power to control people? Has he conveniently failed to share details of all the villages we have saved, of all the good men we have lost protecting people just like you?”

She presses her lips together and looks surly. But her silence can't last, “he told me men like you distract yourselves. You forget about the real war, and content yourselves with the petty disputes of nations.”

Now curiosity overtakes my fire completely. My eyes narrow and my lips part slowly. “Sorry? The real war? What does that mean? What's the real war?”

She blinks suddenly, and looks as if she's said something she regrets.

“What is your relationship to Castor? He isn’t your uncle, so why do you call him that? Why did he train you?” I suddenly ask, unable to hold onto my questions anymore.

She takes a step back.

An armed soldier couldn’t get her to walk into her room, but my simple questions are enough.

With a steely look she locks a hand on the door. “I'm done talking to you. I've said all I need to. I'm not going to help you.”

“And you're not going to answer my questions either, are you?”

She stands there and glares at me for a single second before she slams the door in my face.

. . . .

I blink, and I stare at her door, blinking again.

Finally I step forward and draw the thick lock into place. Technically the inside of her room should be filled with enough specialized enchantments to stop Yin from using her powers. They stop anyone from summoning magic, creating a wall between them and the power within their Arak devices. Yet as I draw that bolt into place, I can't fight the feeling it won't be enough. It feels a little like trying to keep a raging forest fire back by blowing at it.

Still, as I lock the door and stand back, I feel a measure of relief.

I can finally go and eat, bathe, and sleep.

. . . .

But first I have to walk away from her door, and that's proving to be a harder task than it should.

I find myself locked in place for entirely too long.

It takes another soldier walking down the hall to break my reverie. In a commanding tone, I tell the man to stand guard outside her door, and then I turn and leave.

I do so slowly, though. Every step away from her door is laborious, as if I'm trying to trek through knee-deep snow.

There's something unquestionably mysterious about her. Something more than the force, bluster, and flame.

Right then and there, I tell myself I'll come to the bottom of it. Not for Queen and country, but to satisfy my own curiosity.

Though I can’t know it, that simple oath will alter my destiny irrevocably.

I most certainly will never be the same again.

Nor will the Kingdom I love so dearly.

Chapter 10

Yin

I'm trapped. Like an animal. But unlike an animal, I am fully aware of just how trapped I am.

There isn't much furniture in this small room, but I soon sit on the edge of my simple bed.

I stare around. I see nothing but cold, drab stone walls.

My room at home has a large window that looks out into the forests rimmed with sky. It's breathtaking, and always serves to calm my nerves.

These walls, however, do nothing but agitate me further. The neat, uniformly-carved bricks remind me of the neat, well-trained soldiers. But more than that, of Captain Yang. With his clean-shaven face, carefully-arranged uniform, and falsely calm tone, he's exactly like every brick in my wall.

Unnatural.

Feeling the anger and panic rise all the way up my throat, I sniff wildly and strike out at the wall behind me. Though I ball my left fist up and hit it with all my might, no power erupts over my skin. I can feel it within me, but for some reason, I can’t command my Arak band to spew forth its power.

I jump to my feet, my chest constricting with fear.

Bringing a leg up, I stamp it hard into the floor for balance. Then I punch out with my left hand, concentrating all my mind into my device.

I scream at it to send power rippling out into the room.

It does not. In fact, it barely makes a hissing noise, let alone an explosion.

“What's going on here?” I ask the empty room. “What's happening?” I ask even louder.

For several minutes I keep trying to call up my ability. No matter what I try, I can’t conjure it. Something is blocking me.

Feeling more trapped than before, I race over to the door and tug on it. Though I try to force it, the sturdy metal will not budge.

I’m locked inside.

. . . .

I really am trapped.

I don't even have my magic to rely on.

As that realization dawns, I gasp, my breath catching hard in my throat.

Shaking my head, tears welling in my eyes, I press my back into the door and slowly slide down it. The ragged seams in the metal tear at my tunic, but I don't care. I slide down until I strike the floor. Then I lean there, pulling my legs up until I tuck my head between my knees.

I used to tell myself I'm not the kind to cry. Yet right now, there's no stopping the tears. They rush down my cheeks like snowmelt from the mountains.

Castor is gone, I’m trapped, and somehow this room has captured my ability to cast magic.

Things could not be worse.

. . . .

No, they could be worse. People could find out I'm the Savior.

That's the one secret I still have. The one thing I have left.

Though it's hard, I stop the tears. I swallow and push them back.

I don't dry them though; I let them moisten my cheeks for as long as they will. For I am not ashamed of them. I don't have time for shame.

Instead I sit there and slowly control my breathing.

I will get out of here. I don't care how long it takes, and I don't care what I have to do. But I will break free.

I am the Savior. I have a sacred task to perform, and no one will hold me back from that. Which includes the whole of the Kingdom, and especially Captain Yang.

With that determination building within, I lift myself up and lie down on my bed.

Eventually I fall asleep.

I dream only of the Night.

Chapter 11

Captain Yang

It feels good to wake up the next morning. For the first time in days, I'm refreshed.

Unfortunately all too soon that feeling disappears. Before I can even shave, I receive a knock at my door and curt orders to meet with Garl.

I dress as quickly as I can, then I hurry out my door with my helmet tucked firmly under my left arm.

As I race through the corridors, I notice there are more guards present than usual. They are always easy to spot—whilst soldiers wear the gold and yellow of combat, the guards of the city wear imperial blue. Generals and other men in power often wear jet black, and the Queen and Royal Family are the only ones allowed to wear purple.

That has been the way for countless years, and will no doubt continue for centuries.

For this Kingdom will continue for years and years to come. She will never fall.

Not even the Carcas will be enough to drag her down. Though the threat they represent is a fearsome one, I've always been confident the Royal Army can overcome it.

As soon as I think that, a niggling thought interrupts me. At once I am reminded of Yin's words. She accused me and the rest of the army of warmongering. She accused us of fighting the wrong war.

What could she mean?

What other war is there to fight?

Before I can think that over, I enter the General's office. It is a spacious, regal affair. There are paintings of the Royal Family adorning the walls, and swords lined up above the mantelpiece.

He turns to me as I enter, and lowers his head in a curt bow. I, however, bend double and offer him the traditional salute of the Royal Army.

As I raise my head, it's in time to see a confused look cross his features.

I have known Garl for years. In fact, he knew my father, and I remember Garl from when I was a child. He's always been a stalwart man. The kind of bustling, powerful soldier the Royal Army is founded upon.

Well right now he looks less than sure of himself. Somehow, the man appears rattled.

I do not need to read his emotions to see that; his mere presence reveals his state of mind completely.

“Sir?” I ask hesitantly.

“Sit down, Yang,” Garl says as he sweeps a hand towards one of the large, ornate recliners behind his desk.

Silently I comply.

It takes Garl a long time to sit though. At first he stares out the window behind his desk, his expression unreadable. Finally, however, he walks slowly up to his chair and sits.

Without a word, I watch him.

Could this be about Yin? Did she break out of her room last night? Did she find some way of overcoming the enchantments to summon magic?

Though it should be impossible, in all honesty, it wouldn't surprise me. She overcame my sleeping spell, after all. I saw the burning will she used to fight my soldiers. Woman or not, she is most definitely a force to be reckoned with.

“Captain, there has been a development you should be made aware of,” Garl says.

The hair along my arms and the back of my neck stands on end as a chill wave of nerves passes through me.

It takes a moment, but with a breath I control myself. “What is it, General?”

“Tell me, son, do you believe in the old legends?” Garl suddenly asks as he leans back in his chair, fixes his hands before him, and stares my way.

I blink, unsure what he's asking. “I am a man of tradition,” I decide to answer.

“Just as your father was. But what I am asking is about more than tradition. Do you believe the legends of our people?” Garl asks.

“Which legends, sir?”

“Of sages and saints, of warriors and guardians,” Garl says in a low, respectful tone.

It takes me a moment, then I understand. “You mean the legend of the Savior?”

Garl nods once.

As he does, he looks wholly serious.

Though I'm a man of tradition, there are some traditions even I have outgrown. The legend of the Savior is one of them.

Once every age, one person—usually a woman—is chosen to summon Gaea, the spirit of the earth to fight alongside them on the final day.

The Savior, according to the story, is always a warrior of incredible skill, endowed with the singularly unique ability to summon Gaea, who in turn controls all the spirits of the land.

. . . .

It is a myth. A story conjured long ago in the minds of men too simple to understand forces greater than themselves.

Though I am a sorcerer, I’m also a man of science. I understand the device over my wrist is just that—a device. It belongs to an extinct race far more technologically advanced than our own.

There is no such thing as Gaea or a Savior—they are legends created by people too simple to understand Arak technology.

Yet as Garl looks at me, I would be a fool not to note how serious his expression has grown.

“You can be honest with me, Yang. Do you believe in the legend?”

I press my lips together, but can’t stop my jaw from twitching. His question is leading, and I realize he is after a specific response. I just don't know what it is.

I decide to go with honesty. “No, General, it is a story.”

“I thought you said you were a man of tradition?” he subtly reprimands.

“Some traditions die,” I answer carefully.

“This one does not. Son, what I am about to tell you, I do so only because you are one of my most trusted men. I need you to help me with what comes next.”

I sit there and I stare at Garl.

I want to believe he is playing with me, and this is merely jest. But I can't—I can read his emotions, and know they are just as real as they seem.

“The Savior exists,” Garl says.

I blink. It's all I can do.

The Savior exists? A warrior who will summon Gaea on the final day of the age, and fight to hold back the Night?

It's a fantastic tale, but, at the end of the day, a tale. Yet a man I trust more than most is sitting here telling me it's true.

For the second time in two days, I start to lose hold of my emotions. I start to react.

I can feel a fire burn somewhere deep in my soul.

Just as I do, I rein in control.

I sit in the chair, and I wait to hear what the General has to say.

“There are few who still believe in the legend, but that does not mean it is not true. The Royal Family has not forgotten, and nor have the record keepers that hold our Kingdom's most important scrolls.”

I sit there, and I wait.

I wait for the General to make sense. To defend his statement. I need more than a simple story about record keepers.

. . . .

Or do I?

He is my general and I am obligated to follow his orders. So if Garl tells me there is a Savior, then I have no reason not to believe him.

. . . .

As I think that, I think of Castor Barr. I remember, in exact detail, how he threatened me. How he leaned forward, the sleeping Yin hooked in his arm, and he warned me that he would break me. I remember the look in his eyes and the certainty in his tone.

The unpleasant memory sends a light sweat picking up across my top lip.

I ignore it, and I wait.

Soon the General continues, “the time will shortly be upon us. Soon the final year of the age will arrive.”

Though I am content to listen to the General, now I clear my throat. “I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but I thought there was no way to tell when the age would end? The time of the ages does not align with our own calendars, or so the legend goes.”

I watch the General very carefully as I challenge him.

He nods. As he does, I swear he looks embattled, and that is a wholly odd emotion for a man like Garl.

Men like Garl are the backbone of this nation. They are the strength upon which we all lean. My father taught me that lesson and would not let me forget it.

“You are correct, but only partly. The Royal record keepers have found a way to estimate the time we have left,” Garl breathes heavily.

As he says “the time we have left,” I shiver. It's a cold, quick, tight move, and I hide it by leaning forward and brushing a hand down my leg.

“Sir?” I prompt when he dwindles into silence.

“The record keepers have informed us we may have a month or we may have a year. But the time will shortly be upon us,” Garl continues.

I sit there in quiet surprise. How else can I react to this?

A man I have known nearly all my life and who has always been a pillar of strength is now sitting before me telling me the equivalent of a ghost story.

Out of loyalty, however, I stifle my natural reaction, and keep an open mind.

“It is now more important than ever that we train the Savior, keep her safe, and shepherd her to the final day,” Garl now says, breathing heavily through his words, locking his hand on his chin, and letting the fingers dig hard into his sallow skin.

Her?

A rush of feeling escapes through me. Tingles and prickles and nerves. They rush up and down my spine, blooming through my stomach like hot water melting ice.

He couldn't mean Yin, could he? Is that what this is all about? Is that what explains her sheer power? Could she really be the Savior of legend?

It's ridiculous to consider, and yet I can't push the thought away, and the more it stays locked in my mind, the more it melts through my control.

“Though I have kept this secret along with a few other trusted men, I must now bring you in on it,” Garl continues, letting his hand drop from his jaw and rest listlessly on his desk. He stares at me with a keen but still haunted gaze. I can't deny how undone he appears. Either he's an extremely good actor, and I’m only now learning the depths of his abilities, or the man is truly serious.

“General,” I stutter, unsure of what to say. “How . . . I . . .” I trail off.

I feel cold and hot all at once.

In all my years, I've never faced news like this. Though I still want to dismiss it, I find it almost impossible to do. All I can remember is that moment when Yin woke up in the cart. She went from being completely asleep and completely locked in by my spell, to bursting forward like a ball from a cannon. In fact, with little effort, I can conjure her exact expression, the exact angle of her lips, the exact look in her eyes. Perhaps I'll even be able to remember it the day I die; it's deeply etched into my mind.

“I wish to bring you in on this sacred task. I know I can rely on your calm, directed power. Plus, she trusts you. It is important that she trusts you.”

If I was surprised before, it's nothing to what I feel now.

Yin trusts me? The last time I saw her, she looked as though she wanted to boil the blood from my veins. If that is her trusting someone, I shudder to think of what she does when she doesn't like them.

“Are you . . . sure?” I question the General.

“She has always trusted you. You know this. She treats you as a close confidant and considers you one of her truest friends,” the General informs me with a nod.

. . . .

“I only just met her, sir. Before yesterday, I didn't know she existed,” I point out quietly.

The General shakes his head. “What are you talking about, Yang? This is serious. Princess Mara trusts you. This situation requires we surround her with people she can trust. People that can protect her in the task that awaits. We are gathering the most powerful warriors from the corners of our kingdom. They will be at her side, ready to protect her no matter what.”

. . . .

Princess Mara. The Queen's own daughter. Softly spoken, gentle, and well loved by her people. I've known her for years, and in that time, my affections for her have only grown. In that time, I've also seen her power grow. She is easily one of the most talented sorcerers I've ever met. If anyone were to be the Savior, in a way, it makes sense that it's her.

. . . .

Yet, confusion now sweeps through me. For a few moments, I was so sure he was talking about Yin. Something in my gut told me that made sense.

Now I find myself trying to shake free of that sense, but it's hard.

“I realize it may take more than my simple words to convince you,” Garl says as he gently pushes himself up and walks towards the window. There he pauses with a hand on the glass as he directs his head up towards the palace on the horizon. It always glistens, regardless of whether there's any sun to shine upon it. The gold that plates the pillars and roofs and walls is engraved with so many magical enchantments that they burn in even the darkest nights. It's the home of the Royal Family, after all, and they deserve the greatest protection of the land.

But if what Garl is telling me is true, then they will require more than gold walls with spells engraved across them. If the Princess really is the Savior, then nobody will be able to protect her on the final day. Only she will be able to summon Gaea, and only she will be able to fight alongside the spirit of the earth as they protect all of humanity from the Night.

She will have to be trained. As completely as can be. Far more rigorously than any soldier.

As the enormity of what Garl is suggesting finally strikes me, all thoughts of Yin drift from my mind.

While she has a great deal of power, and briefly it made sense to believe she could be the Savior, she is nowhere near as competent as Princess Mara.

“The Princess has requested that you help train her,” Garl admits to me.

I can't help but blink rapidly. Me? While my father ensured I am a competent warrior, I'm not in the Princess' league.

“She wants you at her side.”

I nod.

“I realize you may still have your misgivings. Finding out what you once thought was a myth is reality is not easy for anyone to deal with. So I give you leave for the rest of the day to visit the record keepers, and they will show you the sacred scrolls. Once you have read them, I am confident you will believe as I do.”

I nod again.

When I woke up this morning, for a brief moment I had the feeling that my life would be different. I thought, however, that the reason behind that difference would be a certain boisterous village girl. I could not have predicted this, however.

But suddenly something clicks into place. “That's why you had me retrieve Castor Barr,” I suddenly say as I lean forward in my chair excitedly.

The General nods. “He is one of the finest soldiers to have served under the Royal Army. He will be an invaluable asset in training the Princess. And after my discussion with him this morning, he has agreed to help her.”

“. . . He has?” I ask carefully.

The last time I saw Castor, he threatened to rip my throat out and break me if I went anywhere near Yin. I believed, at that point, he would find any way to break free. But now I hear he's agreed to train the Princess, and from the General's easy tone, it doesn't seem as if negotiating with Castor was difficult.

“Castor Barr is undoubtedly one of the greatest warriors we have at our disposal, and we are honored that he has agreed to help,” the General continues.

I sit there and press my lips closed, swallowing whatever words threaten to escape.

The man the General is describing is not the man I sat with on that long and bumpy cart ride.

But it's hardly my place to share those misgivings with the General. Still, I can’t push away my curiosity completely.

That's always been the way with me. Despite the fact I've learnt how to close my emotions off, and push my soul far out of reach, there is one force I can’t control. One force that reminds me on the coldest nights that I'm still human.

My curiosity. My need to know more.

So, unable to control it, I stand. “What of his niece?” I ask directly.

Garl looks momentarily confused. “His niece?”

“Yin, the woman that was brought in with him. His apprentice, the sorcerer,” I add with a certain kick to my voice.

“She's nothing,” Garl says without a pause. “We will see if she can be trained, and if she can't, she will be dealt with.”

My eyebrows descend low over my eyes. “And Castor Barr is happy with this?”

“Castor knows his duty. Now he understands the import of this situation, he is committed to training the Princess, just as any good soldier would be. He is willing to sacrifice everything to save her so that she can sacrifice everything to save us all.”

The General's speech is compelling, and if I didn't have direct experience of Castor and Yin, I would believe it. But as it is, I can't.

I've seen the way Castor looks at me, and I've seen the way he protects Yin. I could not imagine a man like that walking away from someone he considered his own child.

“I see,” I say carefully. “But who will train her? I know from experience that she is . . .” I press my lips together briefly, “boisterous.”

“One of the trainers,” Garl says dismissively. “Now, I suggest you neaten yourself up and go to the palace. The record keepers are waiting for you. And once you are done with them, you will go and attend to the Princess.”

I salute. As I do, I feel a twinge of nerves track down my back.

Could this be real? By this afternoon, could I actually be a guardian of the Savior?

It seems too fantastic to believe, but then again, it doesn’t appear as if the General is lying.

I will simply have to find out.

As I salute and leave, I try to focus on what I have to do next. Yet I can’t completely dismiss my curiosity. It's not directed at the Savior, but at Yin.

Though I can easily conclude that she's one of the most tiresome people I've ever met, a part of me is sorry I won't be the one to train her. For a part of me, as wild as it sounds, almost enjoyed facing off against her fire.

There was something . . . almost invigorating about standing next to her and not being burned.

But with a sigh, I realize it's time to push those thoughts away and look towards the future. For the future has just changed completely.

Chapter 12

Yin

I wake early that morning, but they don't open my door until midday.

For hours I sit there with no food, no water, and nothing but those drab stone walls to keep me company.

At first I feel desperate, then I feel defeated, and then, well, I feel angry.

I stay angry.

But the more that anger grows, the more I notice something odd. Whereas at first the enchantments protecting this room hold my magic back, the more I fight against them, the more it works. Though the power still won't coil from my bangle, leap across my skin, and sink into the stone, soon I can make them hiss and crackle just under my flesh. I can feel them, see them, and hear them. The more I try to push them out, the easier it becomes.

As I sit there facing the door, I keep calling on the power within until I hear the bolt grate back.

I expect to see Yang. In my mind, nobody else will come to torment me.

But it isn't him. In fact, it isn't a man at all.

With soft footfall, a woman enters my room.

She is much older than me, possibly in her early 50s, but she has an elegant grace about her. She's slim, and her silver-flecked black hair is kept tied back in a neat bun adorned with a jade studded comb. She's in a delicate light blue robe with gold and black trimming, and she holds herself just like a statue. I've never seen a back straighter, and nor have I seen an expression haughtier.

“Who are you?” I ask bluntly, in no mood to be polite. But then again, when am I ever in a mood to be polite?

The woman doesn't react, or at least she doesn't say anything. She does arch her neck and stare down her nose at me. “Your hair is full of mud and your clothes are tattered and torn,” she points out.

I look at her pointedly. “Oh gosh, I didn't notice. Thanks for pointing that out.”

“A soldier of the Royal Army is expected to keep clean and neat at all times,” she says with a sniff.

“Are they? I suppose looking good is more important than actually being good,” I quip.

“Do you enjoy sleeping in the mud and tracking it across your bed?” she stares in distaste at my silt-covered pillow.

“Well I've kind of been trapped in this room for the past 20 hours without food and water. I'm sorry if my pillow offends you.”

“You are an impetuous, unruly child. I can see why they warned me about you. I predict right now that you will be untrainable, and that the army will have to dispose of you.”

I look up sharply at the term dispose. Though fear starts to rise in me, I damp down on it. I do it with anger. I burn right through that fear, snarling as I do. “I predict right now that if you try to do anything, I will knock down your base.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. “Be warned, we will not tolerate your childish threats. Either you will perform in our training sessions, or the army will dispose of you. There is no one else to turn to, no one you can rely on, and the only way we will respond favorably to you, is if you show yourself to be a loyal, trainable soldier.”

“Where is Castor?” I ask blankly.

“You will not see him. He is engaged in a task for the Royal Family, and you, my child, will never go anywhere near them.”

I stand. Slowly.

I know when I'm being threatened.

“There are countless enchantments protecting this room. You can’t call upon your magic here,” the woman suddenly warns, for the first time looking more like a person and less like a statue.

I go to open my left hand and show the woman just how much magic I supposedly can't call upon, then I stop.

Now Castor is not by my side, it is up to me to protect myself. It is up to me to keep my secret safe.

I let my hand drop unwillingly to my side. Then I stare at the woman and I wait.

She rolls her eyes and pinches her nose. “Training will begin immediately, though you will be given time to clean and dress in appropriate clothes,” she adds as she stares at my sandals.

I don't say anything.

I control myself.

But barely.

Whilst my magic is burning through me, begging to be let out so I can teach this arrogant woman a lesson, my mind controls it.

I'm doing this for Castor, I tell myself. I will find him and I will find out what's going on here. Then I will convince him to flee, and we will begin our lives anew. I don't have time for this stupid misadventure in the Royal City; I must spend every day training if I have any hope of defeating the Night.

Yet, if I want to get out of here, I have to be careful. I can't burn through the walls; there are enough soldiers around here to stop me. This time, they might just kill me too.

I have to be careful.

It's only with that realization that I follow the woman and allow myself to be cleaned and dressed.

I tell myself I will play their game until I see an opportunity. And, just as Castor taught, I will take that opportunity and I will burn down any obstacle that gets in my way.

Chapter 13

Captain Yang

I shake a little as I run down the halls back to my room. As I close the door behind me, I lean against it for a few minutes. Though I know I have to neaten myself up and head straight over to the Royal Palace, I can't pull myself away from the wall.

Up until now I have had a stable, reliable life. Whenever it's become rocky, I've smoothly flowed around obstacles like water.

But now it feels as if I've been dammed up. I have never faced something like this before, and half wonder how many people through the ages have.

Though I don't know as much about the legend of the Savior as I should, I still appreciate that a Savior is only born every thousand years. So how many other people in the history of the ages have been placed in the position I now find myself in? It could be no more than a handful.

“If it’s real,” I suddenly say aloud.

Listening to my voice and my words make me let out a short laugh.

Then I stop, abruptly.

I don't laugh.

I don't doubt. I'm never overcome; I am a Royal Army sorcerer.

As I think that, I take a breath, walk away from the door, and head over to my shaving basin. Soon enough I clean myself up, and then, selecting my dress uniform, I don it and leave my room.

Walking through the halls of the barracks, I feel as if I'm in a daze. There's too much information to process, and presumably after the record keepers are finished with me, I'll be even more overcome.

Shaking my head, unable to lift the daze, I find myself heading across the square. It's an expansive space, and needs to be, considering the amount of dangerous training that occurs there.

Yet even though it is so large, I glance up and recognize two figures training in the distance.

One of them is Mae, one of our only female sorcerers.

The other, well, of course it's Yin.

Though it would be quicker to walk through the square, I find myself walking around it, coming as close to Yin as I can without stepping into the square itself.

In fact, all too soon I find myself leaning against a pillar as I watch them train.

I'm not the only one. Several guards and soldiers have paused what they're doing as they stare her way.

Yin is no longer dressed in the drab clothes she arrived in. She's in the same light blue dress, delicate pants, and white shoes as Mae. While the army does accept women sorcerers into its ranks, they do not dress as the men do.

Yin's unruly black hair has been combed back, and is in a tight bun resembling Mae's.

Initially, she looks completely different, then I catch a glimpse of her expression, and realize it's the same woman.

“This is ridiculous,” Yin says as she stamps her foot on the ground. The move is light, yet her power travels far. She shakes the cobbles, crackles and flames curling underneath her shoes.

Mae rolls her eyes in disgust. “You have power but you lack elegance. Someone has taught you sorcery, but they have also taught you to fight like a man. You must learn to fight like a woman.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize they taught me to fight like a man, I thought they taught me how to win,” Yin snaps back.

Despite myself, my lips curl into a smile. As soon as I realize what they're doing, however, I straighten them out.

“You must pay attention, and keep quiet. Speak only when you are spoken to. A lady does not blab; she holds her words for when they are required.”

“And what exactly does this have to do with sorcery? You haven't even showed me what I'm meant to do. You are a sorcerer yourself, right?”

Mae is usually a controlled woman. I've seen her stare down Carcas warriors without losing the haughty edge to her expression. But now her nostrils flare.

Without warning, she raises her hand and spreads it forward. Magical flame shoots from her fingers. An arc of it, a brilliant, blinding jet of pure force.

The move is quick, and I can see Yin isn't expecting it. Yet, though it strikes her right in the chest, it doesn't knock her over.

She just leans into it, and the flames disburse across her torso as if she's wearing armor.

Even from this distance, I can see her expression. Her eyes are narrowed, her lips pulled hard against her teeth. She looks like the epitome of strength—the exact opposite of the refined, womanly presence Mae wants to instill.

As the flames dissipate, Yin leans back, shifts her feet into a defensive pose, and raises her arms.

She does not miss a beat.

“Is it my turn yet?” she asks as she flicks a few loose strands of hair over her shoulder.

There's a single moment where Mae looks surprised—just a flash of amazement flickers in her usually controlled gaze. Then she composes herself and lifts her chin. “Anyone can learn to block a single blow. Don't for a second think I'm surprised.”

“What? You're not surprised? He is,” Yin points out as she points right at me.

Up until now, she hasn't looked my way once, and I thought she wasn't aware of my presence.

Awkwardly, I stand straight and clear my throat.

Mae shoots me a terse look.

“You're training is not impressing anyone—your lack of manners, however, is. You are like a creature at the zoo,” Mae stares down her nose regally. “They've only assembled to watch me train a wild bear dressed in women's clothing,” Mae indicates the soldiers standing around the square with a sweep of her arm.

Yin doesn't react. If I'd said that, she would have ripped my head off. But, for some reason, she's showing restraint today.

Pressing her lips together, I watch her breathe steadily.

I also see her eyes dart steadily over Mae, then to the square behind, then up to the buildings and the city beyond.

Is she still looking for a way to escape?

Just as that thought flashes through my mind, I notice something else.

There is a truly far-away quality to her gaze. The look behind her eyes is almost . . . dream-like. Not to say she looks disconnected. Far from it, in fact. It seems . . . she's staring at something I can't see.

. . . .

I shake my head, realizing my mind is playing tricks on me. No, worse than that—I'm deliberately using the mysterious Yin to distract myself from what I've just learnt.

Princess Mara is the Savior. The Savior.

Here I am leaning on a pillar and watching a village girl train.

I straighten up and stand back, breathing steadily and deliberately as I do.

I call on the ever-present cool calm of my magic. I let the numbing qualities of my power wash through me. As it does, it cleanses emotion. Simply draining it away like blood from a wound.

I step back again.

I go to turn.

Something holds me back.

“This training will be short,” Mae says as she takes a careful, dignified step back, furling her hand before her as she does. “You may have . . . a measure of power, but unless you can learn to fight properly, you will have no place in the Royal Army.”

I watch Yin bite down on her lip. I can see the move as if she's right in front of me and I'm staring at her mouth and neck. Every jerk of her muscles betrays her emotion, as does the burning look in her eyes.

As a Royal Army sorcerer, I can read emotion, but there are some people whose emotion you need no special power to see. Sorcerers like Yin especially wear their feelings like garments, unobstructed and unhidden.

Yin, however, is so intense, I feel like I'm inside her very mind. I know exactly what she's feeling.

So, without realizing it, I find myself taking a step closer again and losing myself in the show.

“Just do what you have to,” Yin snaps.

“Defend yourself,” Mae snaps back. Then she flings her hand to the side.

Not once does she actually launch herself at Yin. That's not how women fight. Female sorcerers tend to stay on the edges of any battle, providing long-range support, but never entering the fray.

Yin, however, clearly doesn’t know that. For as Mae sends a burst of magic her way, she jumps up to meet it again. She does not double back and try to dodge—she leaps into the crackling, flaming blast as if she doesn't care that it can burn her.

. . . .

Maybe she doesn't, because once more I see the look in her eyes.

I've been around soldiers my entire life—I've seen bravery in all its shapes and sizes—and yet there's something about the pure intensity behind Yin I've never met before.

Without realizing it, I take another step forward, forgetting about my pressing task.

I'm not the only one either—soldiers and guards are filtering out into the square, craning their necks to watch.

Mae flicks her hand, and sends another shot of power spiraling towards Yin.

Once more, Yin jumps up to meet it, letting the crackling blast slam against her stomach.

The force of the impact is enough to send her shifting back, but she twists in the air, and lands on her own two feet.

With a slight grunt, Mae sends two bursts of magic from both hands. They arc around and travel right at Yin.

Yin . . . jumps up to meet them both.

She could have dodged. Easily, considering how deft she is on her feet. Yet she deliberately meets each shot head on.

She lands, pressing one hand into the ground as the magical flames disburse off her body.

Despite the intense light of the magic bursting around her, I swear her gaze burns brighter.

I watch as Mae hesitates, and I catch a glimpse of her expression. The haughty quality of her gaze is starting to crack. She looks confused.

“What are you doing?” she asks as she sends yet another shot of power towards Yin, and Yin leaps up to meet it once more. “Why aren't you dodging?”

Yin doesn't answer. She flips and rolls and sprints, catching each burst of magic right in the chest.

I watch Mae flick her hands wide and shoot a jet of magic far away from Yin. Yin puts on a burst of speed and flings herself forward, catching the blast in the chest once more.

Her tunic is ruined, and singe marks cover her arms and cheeks. Her once neat hair is now a loose mess over her eyes. It can't hide her gaze though. Nothing this side of solid lead could hide Yin's intensity.

“What are you doing?” Mae hisses, her voice shaking slightly. “Why are you meeting each of my blows?”

Yin lands, and I see she's out of breath. Yet she pushes herself up, shifts one foot back, balances her stance, and looks Mae dead in the eyes.

She doesn't say a word.

Mae is getting flustered, and I have never seen her do that. She hesitates, bringing her hand up but pausing. Then she shoots another jet of magical flame at Yin, then another. The entire time Mae hardly moves. She shifts her hands in beautiful, choreographed arcs, yes, but she doesn't run around and jump and tumble like Yin.

Women sorcerers tend to stay in exactly the same spot and let the male warriors do the legwork in any battle.

But not Yin

Without a word, Yin manages to slam herself into both of Mae's shots.

Then she lands. This time the move is heavy, and she stumbles. Her chest punches in and out as she struggles for breath.

But she doesn't fall. She still doesn't say a word.

“What are you doing?” Mae, looking completely flustered now, gazes over to me, then back to Yin. “You are meant to defend.”

Yin stands there, her stance balanced, her eyes open and unblinking, and her lips closed.

Now I swear every single soldier in the barracks has come out to watch.

Mae hesitates again, but brings her hands up once more. “Defend yourself,” she demands as she shoots another jet of magic at Yin.

I can see the power as the blast slams forward. It's hot white and crackling.

And yet, incredibly, Yin turns, and faces it. Spreading her arms wide, she doesn't protect herself—she opens up and lets the magic slam into her chest.

The force of the blow is such that she’s knocked clean off her feet.

I automatically jerk forward, taking a step down into the square.

. . . .

Then she gets up. Yin presses her hands into the stones below her and hauls herself up. The whole time she doesn't say a word. Though her clothes are ruined and her hair is a mess over her soot-covered face, she doesn’t scream nor grunt nor curse nor beg.

Astoundingly, she shifts one foot back and takes up a defensive position once more.

She is bedraggled, beaten, and barely standing. Yet, from the look in her eye, you can't tell that. In fact, if you saw her expression alone, you would think she could do this all day.

. . . .

Mae's hands shake slightly as she shoots me another flustered look. Her hair, as always, is perfect. Her tunic is clean and neat. Her shoes don’t have a single mark upon them. In other words, she looks completely different to Yin. The contrast is so stark as I swivel my gaze between them, that my lips part open in surprise.

“I said . . . defend yourself,” Mae says as she brings both hands up.

I can tell she's getting ready for a devastating blow—I can feel her magic charging.

Yin doesn’t shift back. She doesn't whimper, she doesn't even wince.

She doesn't even wince.

Power builds up along Mae's hands from the double bands encircling her wrists, crackling between her fingers like lightning arcing through the clouds. The next move she makes will be enough to bring down an army, let alone an already weakened woman.

. . . .

Yin doesn't shift back. She shifts forward.

The blow could kill her, and she still moves right into it.

But so do I. Before I even know what I'm doing, my body leaps forward, and I call magic out of the ether. Punching my fist out, I send a wall of twisting blue and white blasting into Mae's blow, extinguishing it completely.

I land right before Yin, facing Mae.

She's as surprised as I am.

“Enough,” I find my voice. “You've made your point.”

Mae looks indignant, but concedes my order with a short nod.

Though she doesn't say it, I can tell from her emotions she's relieved. Better I end it than she. It is obvious she has never faced a recruit quite like Yin before, and has absolutely no idea how to deal with her.

And neither do I, apparently. For as I stand there, I feel a light touch on my arm.

Yin pushes into me and shifts past. Without a word, she takes up a defensive position beside me, no longer allowing the bulk of my form to block her from Mae.

Mae, about to turn away, stops. She stares over her shoulder at Yin, her lips parting open with surprise. “It's over,” she hisses.

Yin doesn't say anything. She holds that defensive position, her balance almost perfect, despite the fact I can tell she can hardly stand.

“It's over,” I repeat. “Yin?”

She looks at me. From under her soot-covered brow, she stares my way. “Are you giving up?”

I stutter through my surprise. My brow crumples as my lips pull wide. “It's over,” I say again, “It's just training.”

“You foolish girl,” Mae adds. “You're impressing no one with this game. It's clear you can’t be trained,” Mae concludes with an unsettled breath. “You would be nothing but a burden to the Royal Army. If this were a real battle, and Captain Yang here hadn't decided to intervene,” Mae notes with a sniff, “you would have lost long ago. You know nothing about true battle.”

Yin, somehow still standing, raises an eyebrow. “First you endure,” she says quietly, “then you attack.”

A cold shiver passes up my back, forcing my hair to stand on end. “Sorry?”

“That’s all you need to know about training, battle, and the art of victory,” Yin says smoothly.

As she speaks, I swear I can hear Castorious Barr's grumbling tone. No doubt that's a phrase he's repeated to her multiple times. Indeed, considering what I've just seen, it's also a lesson she's taken to heart.

Mae snorts and turns to move away.

She can't. Something has caught her shoes, locking them in place. As she tries to move, she loses balance.

I rush forward and grab her before she can fall. It's only then I realize her shoes are stuck to the cobbles.

The soles have been melted.

With one hand on Mae's shoulder supporting her, I turn slowly to face Yin.

Throughout the battle, she melted Mae's shoes, and Mae didn't even notice.

Still holding her defensive position, Yin relaxes, crossing her arms before her, apparently not caring about the injuries she's given herself.

“You . . . you melted my shoes,” Mae roars.

Mae ordinarily never loses her temper. She is restrained, refined, and dignified. Now her cheeks are hot with rage, and her eyes are flickering with unrestrained indignation.

“I endured, then I attacked,” Yin says.

“How dare you,” Mae snarls through a locked jaw, her lips moving sharply over her perfect teeth.

Yin crosses her arms harder and stares Mae down.

. . . .

I realize I have to do something, and yet I can't quite bring myself to act. In all my years I’ve never seen someone attack quite like Yin did. From seasoned warriors to sorcerer masters, even to generals.

She melted Mae's shoes, for god's sake.

And Mae didn't notice. Whilst she was busy attacking Yin, sending bursts of power slamming into her chest, Yin was busy casting her own subtle but effective spell.

I try to calm myself down, telling myself it isn't that impressive, but then I make the mistake of staring out around the square. Every soldier is watching on in uneasy, awed silence.

“You'll never learn to fight like—” Mae begins, her cheeks hot with rage.

“A woman? Good. I was taught not to fight like a woman or a man. I was taught to win,” Yin says. Then she turns away. “I'll show myself back to my room, shall I?”

I should say something—tell her to stop, punish her for what she's done to Mae. Instead I stand there and watch her stalk across the square as if she hasn't just endured a frantic, violent battle.

Her head is held high and her footfall is measured. Though she stumbles occasionally, she never lets herself fall.

It takes until she's halfway across the square until I regain control of myself. “Show her back to her room,” I demand as I point at the nearest two soldiers.

It takes the both of them a few seconds to relax. Then they scurry off. As they do, I can see they look wary.

Who wouldn't?

Yin endured every blow Mae sent at her, while winning the battle in secret and in silence.

“I will see to it myself that she is dealt with,” Mae suddenly snarls in my ear as she tries to jerk her feet free.

I still have a hold of her shoulder, and I can feel how hard she struggles to yank her shoes from the cobbles.

Despite her efforts, she takes the shoes off, growling as she does. “She is untrainable. She has no place in this Army.” Mae straightens herself up now she is free, and pats down her dress. With a breath, she appears to compose herself, though I can still feel her rage bubbling within. “I am sorry you had to see that, Captain. I will inform General Garl myself. That creature is useless to us.”

I don't reply. There's no point.

General Garl, I am confident, will find out what happened here soon enough. Just as I am confident General Garl won't agree with Mae.

Yin, though impetuous, arrogant, and gruff, is in no way useless to the Royal Army. Someone with that much power is precisely what an army needs.

Granted, Yin is a woman, but her power is the only thing Garl will care about. After all, no matter how engrained a tradition or taboo, at the end of the day, power is the only thing people desire. If Yin can be trained, she could be an enormous asset to the Royal Army.

If she can be trained. Considering the display she's given though, I know Garl will not give up until he confirms completely that she can't be.

Eventually Mae stalks off, and the rest of the crowd slowly disperses, leaving me standing there next to a pair of melted white shoes.

It takes me far too long to pull my mind off what Yin's just achieved, and back to my plans for the day.

. . . .

With a jolt I realize I have to head to the palace. The record keepers are waiting for me.

Twisting on the spot and racing across the square, I chide myself for being so stupid. Though Yin's display was truly impressive, I should not have let it distract me, especially considering how important my task is.

The legend of the Savior may be true, and the Kingdom's own Princess may be the prodigy that fills that role.

. . . Yet, try as I might, I can't get Mae's melted shoes out of my head.

It's with muddled confusion that I make my way out of the barracks and through the city. As I race to the palace, I use every technique I know to purge myself of emotion.

And, slowly but surely, it works. I allow my feelings to wash away until my cold, calm detachment returns.

It is only then I am ready to face what will happen next.

Chapter 14

Yin

I should be tired. After a training session like that, I should be nothing more than a heap of pain and groans.

I'm not.

I let those soldiers lead me back to my room, and I don't fight as they close and bolt the door from the outside.

I’m sure to keep my stance strong and my expression stony until they leave. Then I cover my face with my hands and take in a rattling, dramatic breath.

Then another, and another.

I stop, and I start to check my injuries. With careful moves, I brush my hands up my arms, looking for burns and cuts.

Though ostensibly my arms and chest should be little more than burnt, charred lumps of flesh, I'm mostly fine. There are red marks here and there, and I can see bruises peeking up from underneath the soot covering my skin. Yet apart from those minor maladies, I'm fine.

Castor taught me how to take a blow. He also taught me to fight without armor.

And today, that came in handy. Still, I can't quite believe what I achieved.

Flopping back on my bed and locking my wrist onto my brow, I close my eyes and remember the fight.

Amongst all the details, a few stand out—the look on Mae's face as she realizes I melted her shoes, and how Captain Yang somersaulted through the air and blocked Mae's last blow.

I remember precisely how he moved. As he jumped forward, he was strong and quick. As he called upon his magic, I felt the air sing with its presence.

There's no doubting he's powerful. And irritating.

Letting my arm drop from my face, I stare glumly at the ceiling.

I want to see Castor. No, I need to see him. I have no idea what I'm meant to be doing. Does he want me to fight? Or should I be cowering in a corner pretending I can't do anything?

What's going on here?

Letting out a groan of frustration, I ball up a fist and strike it on the side of my bed. As I do, the smallest crackle escapes along my thumbnail.

I look down at it.

Slowly I smile. It's more evidence that if I try, I'll be able to overcome the enchantments preventing me from conjuring magic in this room.

. . . .

Then what?

Even if I could blast through this place and somehow get away from all the soldiers and guards, what do I do when I'm free?

I have no idea where Castor is. And worse than that, I have no idea whether he'll flee with me even if I find him. In fact, a horrible twisting feeling in my gut tells me he won't.

He had multiple chances to get away from those soldiers in the village, then again when they transported us to the city. Yet he didn't take them.

Something’s going on, and I have no idea what it is.

Groaning, I turn to my side, the soot over my chest and arms and cheeks marking my pillow and covers. Though it's childish, that makes me smile. The stuffy Mae would be appalled at me tracking muck over my bed. So I'm sure to rub my arms harder against my mattress just to spite her.

Slowly, as I lie there, the adrenaline of the fight abates. My limbs no longer tingle with power, and the ache of slamming my chest into countless magical blasts starts to build.

With the softest of whimpers, I curl up on myself.

If I were at home, I would wander off into the forest to collect some healing herbs. I'm not though. I'm trapped in a room with no windows, no herbs, and no help.

So it's just me.

That's fine.

Because I'll manage. I’m the Savior, and I have no choice.

Chapter 15

Captain Yang

I reach the palace with a fine sweat covering my brow. Plucking my helmet from my head, I neaten my hair and take a calming breath.

Walking up the enormously long palace steps, I feel my chest swell with pride. Our kingdom is the finest in all the lands, and I'm honored to be allowed in the palace.

From its thousand carved steps lined with silver and obsidian, to its gold-plated pillars, it is a testament to achievement. It's unquestionably the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

As I walk up those steps and face the majestically dressed palace guards, I let my pride swell.

It's one of the rare emotions I let myself feel. In fact, I encourage it. I've been taught to encourage it. As a sorcerer, you are trained to only let selective emotions pass through your wall of control: loyalty and pride for your kingdom and Queen. Everything else must be expunged. For all other feelings have no place swelling in the heart of a soldier.

Maybe that's why I enjoy coming here so much; the palace is one of the few places I feel truly alive, for it's one of the only places I let myself feel anything at all.

Still, the thrill I get as I walk up those steps, introduce myself to the guards, and am led inside, is unmistakable.

Just as soon as that thrill peaks, responsibility kicks in. Garl has sent me here in order to convince me the legend of the Savior is true. Then . . . I will directly guard the Princess herself.

. . . .

It's a fact I haven't truly considered until now. With the distraction of watching Yin fight so powerfully and unconventionally, I haven't had the opportunity to realize what's ahead of me.

Now I can't turn away, because soon, I will protect the Princess.

I feel my heart beating uneasily in my chest and am all too aware of the blood thrumming through my body. Nonetheless, I let nothing show.

A contingent of two palace guards leads me through an enormous atrium. Though I've been to the palace before, I can't say I've seen it all. In fact, if you gave me a week, I would be unable to tap all its secrets. It's one of the biggest buildings in all the Kingdoms. Sprawling and elegant, it has been added to for millennia. There are secret tunnels, lost rooms, and whole sections that can only be accessed by members of the Royal Family alone.

All of it is stunning. Every pillar is carved and pressed with precious metal. There are adornments everywhere, from snarling lion statues to jewel encrusted boxes from faraway lands. Everything glitters with extravagant beauty.

I let those sights distract me as I march through that cavernous hall. The sound of my heavy footfall intersperses with that of the guards. In fact, it’s the only sound as they lead me through a hall, and then another, and then another.

It takes almost 15 minutes before we reach the records room. If I was impressed by the rest of the palace, this place is arguably 10 times more incredible.

The palace guards lead me to an enormous, ornate set of blue and black doors, mumbling at me that I have leave to enter on my own. Then, with salutes, they march off, their boots echoing through the hall like beating drums.

I stand before the doors, press my lips together, and breathe.

My body is unusually tense, raw emotion unsettling my firm resolve.

Although I'm not normally one for dramatic thoughts, facing those closed doors feels a little like facing destiny.

Still, after another moment's pause, I push into them and walk through. As I press one hand firmly into the ornate blue and black metal, it parts before me like nothing more than cloud. It doesn't even groan.

As the doors open, they reveal an enormous room. If I'd believed the atrium was large, I now realize it's small in comparison.

As I step out onto a mezzanine level, my gaze is drawn forward. The room is domed, with mezzanine level after mezzanine level circling around the sides of the building. And everywhere, as far as the eye can see, are books and scrolls.

Their colorful spines look like gems all lined up in neat rows, and they are lit up by the soft, muted light streaming in from the enormous skylight above.

I stand there and stare, my hands hanging loosely at my sides as I cast my gaze everywhere.

It takes me too long to hear several steps echoing towards me. Turning to my left, I see two men walking up a twisting staircase that leads down to the level below.

They are both wearing long white and red robes that hide their feet and make it seem as if they are gliding along.

Both greet me with dour smiles, and both look alike—old, with sallow, pale skin, and hooded eyes. I doubt either gets much sun, and from the bored looks they give me, I imagine they rarely meet other people too.

“Sirs,” I say as I bow, feeling clumsy as my armor bulks uncomfortably around my move.

Again I feel unsettled. Again I can't quite marshal control over my emotions. My mind is a mess, and for some damn reason I can't get Mae's burnt shoes out of my head.

“We were informed you were meant to arrive,” one of the men says.

“Two hours ago,” the other finishes.

I bow low and offer a polite smile. “I was unavoidably detained at the barracks. You have my sincerest apologies.”

Both men stare at me as if I'm a blotch on one of their perfect books.

“Whatever detained you at the barracks can’t compare in significance to what we are about to share with you,” one of them points out with a heavy sigh.

I nod.

“Come,” the other waves me forward.

Silently they lead me down several levels. All the while, neither of them speak.

As I walk, I stare at the books around me. I can't even begin to estimate how many there are, and nor can I begin to imagine how much knowledge they must contain. Yet as we descend, the books begin looking older and older. The brighter colors of modern times are left behind as lines of sun-kissed scrolls meet my gaze instead.

When we reach the very base of the room, and I walk out onto a great black marble floor that has been polished with hundreds of years of footfall, I shiver.

Not only is it cold down here, there is a distinct sense of . . . age. It feels as if I'm walking back in time, and I'm about to face the very genesis of the Kingdom itself. Perhaps even the Araks.

As we walk, the two record keepers lower their heads in reverence, draw their arms in, and clasp their hands together. They look as though they are about to go before the Queen.

I want to find out where we're going, and yet I can't interrupt. There's something powerful about the silence that makes me shiver at the thought of breaking it.

Instead I clasp my hands behind my back and march on.

Finally they lead me to a slab of simple white stone that looks like a roughly made lectern. Then one drifts off as the other reverently cleans the stone with a white silk cloth he produces from somewhere. When the other returns, he has something tucked under his arm. At first it looks like nothing more than a simple tube lacking any decoration at all. The closer it gets, however, I realize it's smooth, sun-bleached bone.

In fact, now I pause, I realize the roughly hewn lectern isn't made out of stone at all—it's bone too. One enormous chunk of bone.

With extremely careful moves, the record keepers open the bone tube and produce a slim scroll.

It is small, and as they roll it out, it’s little more than the length of a man's arm.

Yet, as they roll it out, my stomach clenches with a sudden bout of fear.

I'm a soldier, and I've trained for years. I have faced truly terrifying enemies, and yet right now, as a mere scroll is unraveled before me, I feel like I'm facing off against the gods themselves.

With a fine sweat picking up across my brow and top lip, I try to still my rapidly beating heart.

It doesn't work.

Both record keepers take several steps back, place their hands up, and start to chant.

Their chanting is low at first, but quickly arcs up, and as it does, it seems to fill this entire enormous room.

Suffice to say it is one of the eeriest experiences of my life. I want to interrupt and ask them what the hell they're doing, but I can't muster the courage. So instead I stand there and wait.

I'm drawn towards the scroll, and want to walk over and find out what's on it, but I know my place. I will not move forward until I am told to.

So there I stand and listen as I wait.

With that constant, droning chanting filling the room, and the cold air, my skin crawls with a fiendish chill. Yet I stand and neither move back nor forward.

Finally the record keepers cease. Suddenly. So suddenly, in fact, my muscles jerk with surprise.

I've come down here to be convinced that the legend of the Savior is true. While I have just witnessed a somewhat unsettling routine, I'm still no nearer to finding out what's really happening.

“Come,” one of the keepers says as he moves his arm in a wave, his long sleeve billowing.

I walk forward, trying to hide my hesitancy.

I reach the bone table and stare down.

Under the dim light that reaches through the skylight far above, I see an aged section of tanned hide. It is old, ancient even, and yet is still whole, the writing on it visible.

And something else.

Blood.

For that's the first thing I see: bloodied handprints cover every section of the hide. Though the blood is old, somehow it still shimmers with that of a freshly cut hand.

Amongst the handprints is writing. Ornate and old, it's of a script I have never seen. It’s also glowing. A hot white blue, it looks as if lightning is trapped within every word.

It's mesmerizing, and draws me in. In fact, without knowing it, I place my hands on that smooth, cold bone table, and lean forward, my face inching ever-closer to that fresh blood and those burning words.

The record keepers do not speak and neither do they yank me back. Even if they tried to, I doubt I'd notice.

There's something so . . . bewitching about the scroll. As I stand there staring, I feel bound to the spot by some unseen, unknown, powerful force.

Though my gaze darts methodically between the writing and the blood, I can't read, nor understand it. Whatever it's meant to signify is lost to the sands of time—the script so old I've never even seen it. Who knows, it could even be Arak.

Somehow, the feeling I get as I stand there makes up for the fact I can’t read those symbols.

This palpable, strong feeling of import descends upon me. It pushes down from above like some great weight settling on my shoulders, and yet it also ascends from the floor, creeping and crawling up my skin like thousands of spiders squeezing behind my armor and clothes.

My face is now so close to the scroll, my skin almost touches the blood and blazing letters. I know I should not touch it; I know I shouldn’t even be leaning this close. Yet I can’t pull away.

I can’t pull away.

I stand there, stooped forward, stuck. Unable to move back, my gaze is drawn further and further into those blood rimmed symbols.

That incredible sense of importance now becomes twice as strong. It draws me in again. Right into the scroll, as if the old, tanned, blood-covered hide wishes to consume me.

I try to pull back.

I can't.

Instead it pulls me forward. As it does, my mind is beset by a completely different sense. Far from import, now I feel a growing darkness.

From all around, something builds. Something that makes my skin crawl, my back stiffen, and my heart almost stop.

I've never felt anything like it, and as long as I live—no matter what enemies I fight—I likely never will again.

It feels as if I'm sensing the very origin of evil itself. The very genesis of hatred, violence, and destruction.

Something that long ago the Araks referred to as the Night.

Now the Night crawls all around me. Creeping up my skin, it wends its way into my bloodstream, then seethes and bubbles as it's carried to my heart.

Suddenly I feel a hand on my shoulder, and I'm jerked back.

I gasp, clutching at my chest, my sweaty fingers scrabbling for purchase over my smooth breastplate.

. . . .

It takes far too long to realize I'm no longer pressed over that scroll, something drawing me in.

My mind can't catch up, and my body is too filled with the fire of fear.

Still, as I flatten a palm on my chest plate and breathe deeply, I realize nothing has happened.

I'm fine.

. . . .

Or am I?

I have never felt anything like that.

Both the record keepers now stand before me, blocking my view of the scroll atop its bone plinth. They stare at me with blank expressions.

“What . . . was that?” I manage, still struggling for breath, despite the fact I have not run, nor fought, nor exerted myself in anyway.

Yet I'm wearier than I've ever been. I feel as if I've just battled every army in all the lands.

“This is the scroll of the Saviors. Across its surface is the blood of every Savior since time began,” they explain.

“What does the writing say?”

“We do not know. It is in Arak script. All that matters is . . . the force. Did you feel it?”

I stare at them, my mouth agape, my body still shaking. “Yes,” I manage. “I felt it. What was it?”

“The battle. Night against Day, light against dark, death against life,” they answer opaquely.

“What?”

“You felt the never ending battle against the Night, Captain Yang. The battle the Savior herself must fight at the end of each age.”

I still don't understand . . . . Or perhaps I do. My body still crawls with the sense of doom that claimed it. That . . . feeling of some immense dark force pressing into me.

I shudder.

I try to pull myself together, but it's far, far harder than it should be. Though I try to marshal my emotions, they run freely through me like water gushing from a broken dam.

“Do not worry, Captain Yang; the effects will pass. It is almost impossible for a sorcerer to control themselves around the Savior’s Scroll. It unsettles the very basis of your magic. But as we have said, it will pass,” they assure me.

I shake my head, pushing a hand into my brow. I don't know what to say, and even if I could find the words, I doubt I could force them from my shaking lips.

“It is that force that the Savior must fight,” one of the record keepers says as he points at the scroll. “The Night. Now you have faced it, you can appreciate this situation.”

Yes . . . yes I can.

Before coming here, I was undecided. In my mind, the legend of the Savior was little more than a story. Though General Garl himself had told me it was true, in my heart I still hadn't believed it.

Now . . . now I can't deny it. The certainty of it pumps through me with every beat of my heart.

“Now, Captain Yang, Princess Mara is waiting,” both record keepers bow low. Then one waves me forward as the other reverently packs up the scroll.

Though I follow as I'm led away, I can't help but stare over my shoulder as the scroll is rolled and packed back in its bone sheath.

. . . .

I've never felt like this before. With good reason—the emotions I'm experiencing now are far more powerful than a properly trained water summoner should ever endure.

Maybe that more than anything unsettles me, for its evidence that perhaps I'm not as powerful as I like to believe.

As I'm led back up those spiraling staircases, I start to calm down. In fact, the further I get from the scroll, the more my control returns. Yet it can't return completely; a seed of what I've just experienced will be with me forever.

When I first entered the library, I'd been overcome by its beauty. Now, all I want to do is get out. For some reason, I'm desperate to feel the sun against my cheeks, to breathe real air, and to get out from this dungeon, no matter how beautiful it might be.

I half jog, turning around every now and then, hoping that the slow record keeper would just be a little faster.

“This will be a sacred task,” the old man says as he reaches the mezzanine level that leads to those two enormous blue and black doors.

I don't reply. I nod curtly, turn around, and practically sprint for the doors. I don't care if I seem impetuous or I'm acting out of turn; I have to get out of here.

The record keeper mutters something again, but I don't hear it, and jog forward, reaching the doors. I practically shoulder them, and spring right out as they open.

It's only when my heavy armored boots strike the smooth floor outside that I start to truly calm down. Even then, I still have to control my urge to run until I can get right out of the palace and as far away from that scroll as distance allows.

You're a captain in the Royal Army and you’re a sorcerer, I try to tell myself.

No matter how much force I put behind that thought, it can't cut through my nerves.

Which is, perhaps, only reasonable. I've just learnt that not only is the legend of the Savior true, but the legend of the Night is too. Worse than that, I've just met that dark, chaotic power.

Now, well, now I am to devote my life to helping Princess Mara keep that dark force back.

. . . .

My life has taken an incredible turn, one that will take me to a destination I never before imagined.

Chapter 16

Yin

It doesn't take long before someone knocks on my door. At first I think it's the arrogant Captain Yang. After all, he always seems to be there. He appeared whilst I was training with Mae, and stood there and stared at me the entire time. Though for the most part he is usually completely calm and collected, a few times I saw him smile.

That makes me hate him all the more. Whatever he thinks about me, he’s wrong. In fact, whatever any of them think about me, I'll prove I don't care.

Jumping angrily to my feet, I saunter over to the door, standing before it as somebody opens it roughly.

It isn't Yang. In fact, it's just two guards. They look amongst themselves warily, then cast their gazes over me.

They look . . . I can't put my finger on it. It isn't exactly scared, but it's close. As I realize that, I smile.

I also cross my arms tighter. “Are you here to let the bear out so she can train again? Does Mae want to dress me up in pretty white shoes and watch me dance?”

“You're coming with us,” one of the soldiers says flatly, though I sense a note of hesitancy, one that he covers up with a gruff cough.

“Don't try anything,” the other soldier says as he tries to look at me severely. But he too can't quite hide the fact he's scared.

“And do I get to ask where I'm going?”

“You're coming with us,” the soldier repeats, then he points with a stiff hand through the door.

“If you try anything, be warned, we are both competent sorcerers,” the other soldier says darkly.

I smile. “I'm sure you are,” I say sarcastically.

The soldiers exchange glances, then I watch as they stiffen their stances, curling their hands into fists.

“Don't make this hard on yourself,” one of them warns.

Though I could happily go toe to toe with these two men all day, I find myself raising my hands and spreading my fingers in submission.

Whilst I'm confident I can easily take these two men on, despite how proficient they claim to be, I still can't risk it. I still don't know where Castor is and why exactly he has left me here.

He’s meant to be my guardian, his sole task is to keep me safe until I summon Gaea.

But I'm hardly safe now, am I? So either the most loyal man in the world has suddenly abandoned his sacred task, or he has something planned. Something I don't currently understand, but something I should trust in.

He did ask me to trust him. And with little effort, I can remember exactly how he looked at me when he pleaded with me last night.

So, closing my eyes for a brief moment, I let my hands drop, and I stare at my feet as I do.

For now I will offer no resistance. Okay, a little resistance; these soldiers are so arrogant and chauvinistic that somebody needs to tell them off. But I won't attack, I won't escape, and I'll keep myself mostly contained.

They lead me out into the corridor, and it is only then that I notice all of the other soldiers. They are carrying proper weapons, and with one glance at their armor, I can see it's the stuff they usually drag out for heavy skirmishes.

It's clear they're expecting trouble.

But I don't give it.

I walk forward quietly, my hands clasped, my messy hair hooked over both shoulders so I can hide behind its bulk.

I don't bother asking where they're taking me; it's clear they are in no mood to chat. So I wait. We head through various narrow corridors, out into the square, and into a small building I've never seen before.

It's more ornate than the drab buildings of the barracks. The first thing I notice are the paintings on the wall. In fancy, ornate, gilded frames are pictures of people I don't recognize, but who I can guess the identities of nonetheless.

The Royal Family.

They are all lined up in a row, and from the frames to their prominence on the walls, their importance is obvious.

That makes me want to hurl a fireball right through every damn picture.

Castor taught me to believe no man nor woman could claim to be above another. There are no hierarchies in the world of souls. The trees and mountains and wind and rain don't care if your parents were wealthy or held claim to a throne.

Blood, lineage, inheritance—it's all irrelevant. The only thing that truly matters is our connection to Gaea, the spirit of life and light.

Everything else is a distraction. From the wars and kingdoms of man, to the tales they tell about themselves, everything blinds the eyes to the true reality.

I can't exactly tell the stuffy soldiers leading me around that, though. So I bite down on my tongue and wait.

They instruct me to take a seat, pointing over to a simple bench set back at the far side of the room. It’s decidedly the least decorative thing in here. Well, apart from me.

Once I sit, the soldiers watch me warily for a few moments, then leave the room.

I push my back into the cold wall behind me and cross my arms.

If all I can do in this ridiculous, confusing situation is cross my arms at it, then that's what I'll do.

I wait a few minutes in relative silence, only the sound of training from the square outside filtering in. I can hear grunts and cries, and the voice of some gruff-voiced disciplinarian snapping at his recruits to try harder. It vaguely reminds me of Castor. But then again, Castor was a far better trainer than any of these soldiers can ever be.

Despite the fact he possesses no magic of his own, his knowledge of combat and strategy is so complete, I swear there's a library where his brain should be. An angry library.

Sitting there, I start to swing my legs back and forth.

Then, completely bored, I stand.

It's only then I notice there's someone in the room.

Towards the door, there's a shape. Just an outline really.

A presence.

But as I focus on it, I realize it's not something—it's someone.

“What the—” I begin as I take a step forward.

Something resolves right out of the wall. Whereas once I saw little more than wood and paint, now I see a lithe man in a jet-black costume. The black fabric covers him completely, with only a slit for his eyes.

In my lonely mountain village, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn directly about the many magics that exist. What I learnt, I picked up from Castor's stories and the few ancient scrolls he possessed. Everything else was hearsay and fancy.

One story he told me, however, stuck. It was about a tribe in the eastern islands who practiced a special kind of mirage magic. According to Castor, they could manipulate the very air to conceal themselves.

I thought my master was simply telling stories, but now I realize he was right.

The man dressed in black takes a step forward. “You saw me,” he says in a quiet voice that hardly travels.

I stare at him with my lips pressed open in surprise.

Ordinary magic I know; it leaps through my bones and blood. It sings to me. Via the Arak device on my left wrist, I am always connected to it.

But this, this mirage magic—I have no base for comprehending it. It seems so very alien, it feels as though I've wandered into a dream.

The man takes several steps forward, dipping his head to the side as he watches me. Though I can see nothing more than his eyes, I can still register the curiosity flashing within. “There are few talented enough to see my kind.”

I go to step back, but realize there's nowhere to go; my legs are already flush against the simple bench behind me.

Instead I stand and stare.

“There's no need to be alarmed; I intend you no harm. This was a test,” the man admits as he half bows. Yet he never takes his eyes off me. No matter where he moves, those two pinpricks of perfect clear blue are locked on me like a boat tethered to jetty.

I fight the urge to run the hell away. Instead I blink my eyes closed and summon the power within.

I took on the haughty Mae, I defeated Captain Yang's soldiers . . . kind of. So I can take on this man, I tell myself.

Though he walks towards me, he doesn't do so directly. He dips and weaves and watches, like a predator circling its prey.

“What do you want?” I hiss.

“Nothing. You are merely being tested,” he admits again.

I draw in a stilling breath. As I do, I command the fire to burn.

The man looks down at my hands. Obviously he can sense I'm drawing on my power. Yet, he doesn't do anything. He stares at me curiously.

“If this test is over, then I guess I'm allowed to leave,” I ask, testing him as I take several steps towards the door.

“Yes,” he says, his head ducking to the side as he stares at me strangely once more.

I bite down on the panic. I know this man is trying to rattle me, and I will not permit myself to become unsettled.

Whatever the Royal Army wants, I won't give it to them.

I take one wary step towards the door. It's only about ten meters away. I can tell from the lack of shadows filtering underneath, that there's no one standing behind it. Ostensibly, I could leave.

Before I make another move, I swivel my gaze back to the strange man. He's still watching me like a prowling cat.

Grating my teeth together, I take another step.

This has to be a trap, I tell myself. As soon as I turn my back on this guy, he's going to attack me.

Yet, the door is just there. I could get out. Heck, for all I know, the square outside could be empty, and I could make a good go at getting out of this place entirely.

Though I've already concluded that escaping isn't safe, now, in the heat of the moment, my mind is reassessing that.

The longer I stay in these barracks, the riskier it is. At any time I could do something to accidentally reveal my true identity. Plus, without access to Castor, I have no idea what he truly intends. Maybe he's expecting that I'll flee—maybe he's counting on it.

I hate this place, and I hate the arrogant, pride-filled soldiers and guards too. They live a life I've been taught to reject. From their fascination with protecting the wealthy dictators they call the Royal Family, to their warmongering, they live lives that curl my toes.

I can't stay here. I can't put up with their ‘tests.’ I have to escape and get back to my real task.

With those thoughts running through my mind, I snap.

I push forward, running for the door.

It's only when I near it, that I realize there's another mirage sorcerer in the room.

Without thinking, I fling myself to the side. My body knows what to do, and my mind follows up with a grunt.

Just as I dodge to the ground, rolling over the well-swept floor, something snakes out of the air.

That something is a fist.

It wasn't there moments before—and neither was the body it's attached to.

There's another one of those sorcerers in the room. This entire time, and I hadn't noticed.

As I scrabble to my feet, I realize the other mirage sorcerer has disappeared. No door has been opened, and no window has been kicked in.

No. The man has slipped back into nothingness. Somehow using magic to hide himself from my eyes.

I stand in the center of the room, twisting on the spot as I desperately survey my surroundings.

My eyes are so far open, I swear I'm going to crack my cheeks, but I can't close them.

I have to figure out where those two sorcerers are so I can attack.

All of a sudden, I feel a rush of air from behind me, and I push forward into a flip. I narrowly miss a foot as it comes swiping out of thin air.

Just as soon as it materializes, it disappears.

My heart is a mess in my ribcage, beating so wildly I fancy it will pop.

But it doesn't, and I find the courage and gall to jump to my feet and keep searching for those men.

They could be anywhere. Worse than that, there could be more than two. For all I know, there's one in every single chair, behind every piece of furniture, and lined along the walls.

Getting more and more desperate, I launch myself into a series of acrobatic flips, actually jumping clean over a table, just to ensure I keep on the move. If I stay in the same spot, I'll be a sitting duck. If I have any hope, I have to keep moving, and preferably erratically.

As I conclude that, I suddenly change direction and leap directly up as if I'm trying to attach myself to the ceiling. As I jump, I swear I see the slightest flicker of a shadow at the far end of the room.

It's so quick and indistinct that it could easily be a trick of the light.

I aim towards it, letting loose with a kick.

Though this room is nice, it won't be when I'm finished with it. It looks like I'm going to get a chance to burn through those pictures after all.

I time my kick perfectly.

Though the move is powerful, it strikes nothing but air.

“We aren't over there,” I hear the two men say.

Their voices echo from everywhere.

Instinctively I send magic bursting out in all directions. It singes the floor, blasts up the ceiling, and rattles the windows.

“Come with us,” they say.

I have a second to shake before I feel someone grab me by the collar as someone else kicks my legs out from underneath me.

I slam into the ground, but before I have a chance to fight back, someone strikes me hard across the jaw.

Then I'm dragged across the room and thrown out the door. It's opened by an invisible hand, and the same invisible hand tosses me out without care.

I stumble, unable to gain my balance, and I crash down the steps until I'm back in the blasted square.

The stone underneath me is hard. I know from my fight this morning with Mae, that the same stuff is enchanted.

It would have to be, after all—with the amount of sorcerer training going on here, you would need to protect the buildings, lest they be blown up every other day.

As I fall, it takes me barely a moment to right myself. I stumble to my feet, ignoring a drop of blood that issues from a cut just above my brow.

It doesn't matter how much I bleed if I can't find those two mirage sorcerers.

Staggering back I whirl around on the spot. Though I'm focused on identifying the mirage sorcerers, I can't help but notice I have an audience.

Again.

I’m used to fighting alone with Castor. My fight with Captain Yang's troops yesterday was the first time I'd displayed my powers in front of others.

For the second time today it looks as if I'm going to have to perform in front of a silent, judgmental crowd.

Great.

Just as I dart back once more, I feel another whoosh of air from behind, and something strikes me hard across the back, sending me flying.

I slam face first into those cursed stones, my lips cracking as I do.

Castor taught me never to show my back to an opponent. He didn't mention those opponents could be invisible.

Trying not to groan as I get up, I force my mind to focus.

There must be a way to tell where those mirage sorcerers are; I sensed one before, and I can do it again.

I still my mind by drawing in a deliberate, slow breath.

Then I leap forward, plunging into a roll. As I jump up, I see the flash of a foot where I had once been.

I can tell they’re circling me, keeping their distance until they see an opportunity.

It's what I’d do.

Out in the square, there's less furniture to get in my way, but that doesn't mean I suddenly unleash with a tower of magic. Though I could let loose with my power, something holds me back.

For my entire life, Castor has been trying to instill discipline in me. With every training session, he always emphasized I must learn to control myself. From fear to instinct, I must learn to work with all my emotions in complete harmony.

Become too frightened, and you'll cower until someone strikes their final blow. Become too relaxed, however, and your senses will become too dull for the fight.

No. You can neither embrace nor fully reject fear. You must find your balance.

Find your balance.

That's Castor's motto, and it's one that springs to mind now.

I can't all-out attack for the fear I’ll waste my magic, allowing myself to become tired without furthering the battle.

Plus, I will distract myself if I just attack randomly, trying to strike it lucky.

That, after all, is what I did to Mae this morning. I allowed her to attack and attack, using her own ferocity to distract her from my spell.

That's what these mirage sorcerers are trying to do to me now, I'm sure of it.

I won’t fall for their trap.

Instead I contain myself, and conserve my energy for dodging.

I no longer flip around wildly; I only jump back when I feel an impending attack.

Find your balance.

Just as I repeat that, I narrowly miss a kick that's aimed right at my head. The leg and foot, covered in black fabric, come snaking out of the air as if they've been drawn their by the hand of god.

I push back, the force of the kick blowing my hair over my forehead.

I shift to the side as a punch comes rocketing from my side.

I dodge.

Then I dodge again as another punch sails close to my gut.

I'm still aware of my audience. In fact, though I can hardly stop, turn, and count, I swear it's getting bigger with every second.

Worse than that, however, I recognize one of the soldiers. The man in the heavy black armor from last night—the General. He's standing close to the open door I was flung through.

I can't pause to register his expression, but I can bet it isn't nice.

Find your balance.

If Castor were here, that's all he would say. Then again, if Castor were here, these two mirage sorcerers would have been dealt with long ago.

Castor has always had uncanny senses; he knows what you're going to do well before you do it. He can read your body before your own mind can. Over the years he's tried to instill this skill in me, but I am a poor student. Ordinary magic I can understand, but the magic of the mind is still a mystery to me.

The two sorcerers heat up their attacks, and they kick, punch, and leap.

Somehow I keep on my toes and dodge though. Using every acrobatic skill Castor taught me, I stay out of their way.

Barely.

I'm using every skill I know, and all my energy too. I haven't even started to attack.

I just have to figure out where they are. If I can find a target, then this fight will be over.

These mirage sorcerers might be powerful, but without the ability to hide themselves, they're just men. Fair enough, if they were equipped with blades, then this battle would be distinctly harder. In fact, as I imagine that, I realize that's likely what they're used for: assassins. Silent and virtually undetectable. Though I want to believe no one would use them like that, I don't have any faith in this Kingdom and its army. I've seen how far they're willing to go—rounding up old men and drafting them without a care.

Still, right now these mirage sorcerers don't have blades. They are, no doubt, just a test. A vicious one, but a test nonetheless.

However, unlike Castor, I'm pretty sure they're willing to hurt me, just not kill me yet.

I skip to the side as a hand gropes out and latches onto my wrist. It pulls me forward just as a knee appears out of nowhere. I jerk back, but can't get free. The knee slams into my nose, blood cascading out in an arc.

I don't even bother screaming.

I just redouble my efforts to locate them.

I fought Mae, I can fight these invisible men.

If I find my balance.

Though I've been running and dodging for a solid 10 minutes, I am not done.

In fact, it's time to get started.

Just as I feel a foot push towards my head, I lean right into it. I let it kick me.

Right across the face. My head jerks back from the move, blood escaping over my lips and chin.

That's not me giving up though. It's me figuring out just how hard these guys are willing to fight.

The answer my ringing head gives me, is very hard. Unlike Mae, they don't hesitate. If I leave them an opening, they snap in and take it with criminal ease.

So, if they aren't going to hesitate, it means I need to find some other way to fight them.

While the stones below me are strong, they are still well worn, and there’s dust caked between them. No doubt the dust produced by countless soldiers training for countless years, their heavy armored boots grating across the cobbles and smoothing them down.

Well, right now, I realize I can use that dust. There may be no weapons to speak of, nor any objects to hide behind. But I know you're only as good as the opportunities you can find.

I find the dust.

Experimentally, I jump up, and land, striking the ground with all my might.

Sure enough, the dust erupts up in a small cloud.

Almost immediately the two sorcerers attack, but I dodge easily. It doesn't matter that my face is covered in blood and my limbs are starting to fatigue from constant activity; I push past that.

Once more, I jump up and slam down, this time forcing magic to shoot out at my move. It bursts from my knuckles as they impact the stone, and I send it travelling deep into every groove between the cobbles.

A hand appears behind me, and clutches at my throat. I lean forward and roll, using my momentum to break free.

Then I do it once more. I leap up and land, forcing magic to burst out into the cracks between the stones, unsettling all the dust I can.

I don’t want to burn the dust—I want to set it flying. That it does. In great clouds, it starts to billow around me.

For the first time, I feel the mirage sorcerers hesitate. They don’t throw themselves at me—they back off.

I take the opportunity. Summoning magic—as much as I can—I beat the ground one last time. This time I send my power as far out as it’ll go, commanding it to dig deep into the stones, uprooting as much dust as it can find.

It erupts up in a great cloud.

A cloud that stretches for a good 20 meters around me.

I don’t pause.

I push both my hands forward, plunging my burning fingers into the fine rock dust.

I set it all on fire. I push my magic into the first few particles, and watch it multiply and jump forth until the entire dust cloud is alight.

Then I hear them, and see them. With two gasps, the mirage sorcerers stumble back.

They’re both behind me.

I dip to the ground, roll, and jump towards the men.

I see them both turning and trying to run. I don't give them the chance.

Leaping into the air, I slam myself into the closest one, bringing my body down in a great tackle. Without pause, I twist around the falling man, using him as leverage, and flip forward, collecting the other sorcerer right in the gut with a powerful kick.

They both hit the ground with thumps.

They go to get up. I command my Arak bangle, forcing magic to pump through my body. It races over me in a great wash of white sparks.

The cloud of dust is still on fire, and sparks settle all over my skin and hair. But they don’t burn me; they are me. They’re borne of my magic, and they can’t hurt me.

The two mirage sorcerers, however, are a different matter. Their black costumes smolder, and I watch them pat at their arms and legs.

I don't move—I keep standing there with my arms aflame with magic, only a meter away from them.

I go to step forward.

“Enough,” I hear someone command in a rumbling tone.

Slowly I turn.

Through the crackling dust, I notice two sorcerers leap down into the square. They both set about removing my flaming dust cloud—chanting and waving their hands about it.

I mutter a, “ha,” and walk away.

Not towards the General that commanded me to stop, but back in the direction of my room.

I'm done here. This test is over. I have no idea whether I've passed and pleased my captors, and I don't care.

I can't deny, however, that I've learnt something. Though it took me a while, I figured out how to fight mirage sorcerers, and maybe that will be worth something to me one day.

For now, however, it's time to return to my room.

I don't get the chance.

I notice the General marching up to me, several large guards walking with him. These soldiers are wearing armor I haven't seen before. It's black and white, with dragons emblazoned across the front and back. The dragons are not breathing fire and raining destruction down upon hapless villagers though; they are swallowing their own tails.

Though Castor never spoke much of our kingdom and its capital, on occasion he mentioned how important symbolism is to the army and the Royal Family. Every one of their traditions, he told me, harks back to some symbol, some metaphor, some legend.

I can't tell what dragons swallowing their own tails is meant to symbolize, but I can guess it’s important. Just as I can guess these soldiers are too.

Though I feel like being surly and ignoring them, I quickly find my path being blocked by other guards.

“General Garl wishes to see you,” one of them says. As he speaks, I can see his eyes staring out at me from under his helmet.

He looks fearful. Surprised. Impressed. Astonished even.

Yet as I swivel my gaze to the General and his special guards, I note they look completely composed. Well, the guards do—the General has an odd and completely unsettling look in his eyes.

“If you're about to demand I join your army, don't bother. I'm never going to fight for you,” I say before he can speak.

He narrows his eyes. “They tell me Castorious Barr trained you. Is this true?”

I press my lips together and stop speaking.

“I see a little of him in you. He always taught his pupils to adapt to their environments,” Garl continues.

I don't say a word. It's one thing to taunt and intimidate these arrogant soldiers, but it's another thing when they question me about Castor.

I know I must keep my secret, and Castor's too. They mustn't know I'm the Savior, and they can't guess that he's my guardian.

So I stand there and hold my tongue.

“You have nothing to say? My soldiers inform me you are usually brimming with inane comebacks and language inappropriate for a woman. But now you are mute?”

I cross my arms at the phrase “language inappropriate for a woman,” but I don’t speak.

Garl looks me up and down. “You will either submit to training, or you will be killed,” he suddenly says flatly.

I blink back my surprise.

Though people have threatened me, this is the first time someone has done so with something concrete. Death, to be precise.

“I wager you believe you are strong enough to take on a unit of my men. And perhaps you are. But you are not nearly trained enough to take on these men,” Garl opens his hands wide, indicating the soldiers in white and black armor behind him. “Should I order it, they will kill you. There will be no fanfare, no final warning. With nothing more than a look from me, they will end you.”

I blink, breathing erratically.

“Do you understand me?” Garl asks quietly.

I don't answer.

“Do you understand me?” he screams, his voice so loud and brutal it makes me shake.

I gasp.

He stares at me with nothing but concentrated hatred.

I make the mistake of looking past him at his guards. Not one of them registers any emotion at all. They barely look human, in fact. They just appear to be men carved out of black and white ice, their expressions colder than any I have seen before.

“Do you understand me?” Garl asks once more, his voice dropping so low I can barely hear it.

I nod, my head jerking with the move.

“You will have no preferential treatment; you don't deserve it. You will be treated as a captive until you prove yourself to be something more. Wherever you go, you will be shadowed by these men.”

I keep shaking, the fear rising through me.

I can't die. Not now, not here. Not when I have such an important destiny before me.

. . . .

I have to do what he says.

Or do I? Is he actually being honest? Would he really have me killed?

Maybe he sees my indecision, because he takes a menacing step closer. Despite the fact he's in thick, sturdy, immaculate armor, and is accompanied by guards, I don't step back.

I might be afraid, but I find my balance.

I stare up at him.

“My soldiers and I are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect this kingdom and our Royal Family. Anything.”

I hold my ground. I might be terrified on the inside, but I don't let it show.

“You might not fear for your life, but I'm sure your fear can stretch to others,” he warns.

“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask quickly, my heart skipping a beat.

“Your decision will affect more than you yourself.”

He's being deliberately opaque, but the twist of cold nerves in my gut tells me his threat, though veiled, is real.

“If you threaten this Kingdom—those that I care about and am devoted to protect—I'll find someone you care about,” he says.

I grit my teeth as hard as I can. “I don't care about anyone. I've always been a loner.”

“You trained under the great Castorious Barr for years—were you alone then?”

“What are you saying?”

“That this army will find a way; we always do. For we appreciate what is at stake.”

“You're going to threaten Castor?” I ask in stuttering disbelief. Then, unable to hold it in, I let out a short, sharp laugh. “I'm one thing—but not even your guards here would be able to take on Castor. Trust me,” I say, my voice echoing around the square with power. “Plus, you need him.”

Garl doesn't blink once. His grey, sallow skin offsets the intensity of his gaze. A gaze that, if given hands, would be right around my throat, squeezing the life out of me.

I swallow, but it isn't a dramatic move. As I do, I call on my courage.

“Don't assume anything. I warn you, unless you want to tap the depths of my wrath, do not challenge me,” his eyes dart across my face, as if he's daring me to make even the smallest sign of rebellion.

I control myself.

I stand there and let him win.

Maybe this is a fight I can't afford to win.

To confirm that fact, he leans back. “You may consider yourself a loner, but nobody is ever truly alone. We all have our weaknesses and soft spots. If you challenge me, I will find yours. I will make it bleed.”

With that, Garl turns to walk away. “You will be given instructions. Follow them. You will be trained, and if you wish to keep my favor, you will be diligent, silent, and loyal. Now, go and have your injuries seen to and report back to the square.”

“I'm not injured,” I whisper as the enormity of what he's said hits me.

. . . .

He's going to find my soft spot and make it bleed. The people I've known, the friends, however few . . . if I don't do exactly what he says, he's going to hurt them. I know he'll do it—I see it in his eyes. I feel it in the way he looks at me. Garl is a man willing and prepared to go to any extreme.

He could go after Castor, heck, he could even go after my village, burn it down and destroy the home I love so dearly.

. . . .

I . . . I have to do what he says. There's no way out.

“Your hand is bleeding,” Garl says as he walks away. “Go see the doctor, and return to training. I trust I will not have to speak to you again.”

As he walks away, I stare at my right hand, then my left.

As I bring my left hand up, I practically jump back at what I see.

While my face got a beating from those mirage sorcerers, I can feel the bleeding has stopped, and my magic will deal with the bruising soon enough. Yet as I stare at my left hand, I'm met by a harrowing sight: it's covered in blood. Absolutely covered. The whole palm and all my fingers, just dripping in blood as if I've plunged a knife deep into my palm.

I shudder back.

I don't remember hurting myself. I don't remember feeling anything at all. In fact, as I stare in horror at my mysterious injury, I realize I can't feel it at all. There's blood alright, but just no pain.

Eventually several soldiers walk up and mutter that I'm to follow them to the medical facilities.

I let them lead me with no resistance. In fact, I don't say a thing as I palpate my left hand, looking for any sign of injury.

I can't find one.

. . . .

I'm not cut.

So where did the blood come from?

Chapter 17

Captain Yang

I don't know what I feel as I'm led all the way through the palace and out into the east wing where the Royal Family resides. My insides are as chaotic as a storm.

But I hold myself together somehow. It helps when I exit out onto the great, spacious balcony that runs around one level of the east wing. It has a splendid view, overlooking the entire city, from the spires of the cathedral to the river that runs through her center.

As soon as I walk out into the sunlight and air, I feel a measure of the dark lift. That powerful sense of doom that descended upon me when the scroll was opened, sails away.

Not all of it though. A seed remains. A seed it feels I'll never be able to dig out.

After all, I've just learnt the stuff of nightmares—the Night itself—is real.

Now I'm about to meet the woman who will hold it back. Princess Mara.

Two guards lead me along the balcony, their strident footfall muffled by the wind. Throughout the halls and great atriums of the palace, every footstep felt like the beat of a drum. Out here, though, everything returns to normal.

Or at least a measure of normal.

For as the guards lead me around the balcony, we ascend a short flight of stairs and enter a section partitioned with majestic potted plants. I spy blood red roses from the east, delicate irises from our own lands, and the rare beauty of jeweled desert orchids.

The wind picks up, but it doesn’t roar. It rushes freely by me, bringing with it the refreshing scent of rain from the mountains behind the city. It also whistles past my armor, cooling my exposed hands and cheeks, and chasing away the lingering touch of the Night.

Walking past a bank of luscious green plants, we enter an enclosed area with a grand golden and white recliner. Above it is a delicate red and blue shade umbrella, decorated with beads that tumble and clink in the wind.

Sitting beneath is Princess Mara.

Beautiful, graceful, elegant Mara.

She looks up as we approach, then she jumps to her feet, the bracelets around her ankles and wrists tinkling lightly, banging into to the Arak device that holds her magic.

I watch a happy smile spread her ruby lips. Then she claps her hands together. “You're here.”

I try to contain my own smile as I bow formally, practically bending in half as I sweep my arm before me.

“Don't stand on ceremony, please,” she says as she races to my side. She stops just before me, but in a moment of hesitation, it seems as if she wants to throw her arms around me in an embrace.

My cheeks redden, and I tell myself it’s just the bite of the constant wind.

Mara now clamps her hands firmly behind her back, and rocks back and forth on her feet awkwardly. She can't seem to shift her smile though; she beams up at me as if we're long parted friends who have met up once more.

In a way, we are. I've known her for years. My father was one of the head guards at the palace. I've seen Mara grow up.

Now . . . now she's the Savior.

Despite her warm smile and welcome, I can't forget that.

My chest deflates slightly and my own smile slowly drifts into a frown.

She watches me, and takes a breath, turning and pushing her hair behind her ears.

She’s wearing golden anklets and bracelets, and a white trimmed fitted blue dress with loose black pants. Her lustrous black hair lies loose over her back, held back only by a jade comb.

However, even her appearance can't make me forget why I'm here.

“You . . . know then. They showed you the scroll?” Mara doesn't turn to me, her voice growing uncharacteristically tight.

She's one of the happiest, most carefree people I know.

Yet here she is unable to face me. I know why.

. . . .

She's the Savior.

The enormity of that fact suddenly hits me, and my shoulders deflate, my skin feeling deathly cold.

She half turns over her shoulder, and though she tries to hide her expression, I can tell it borders on morose.

For someone usually so cheerful, it's painful to watch.

I can't lift her burden though, can I? No matter what I do, I can't change the destiny that awaits her.

. . . .

Again I'm hit by the reality of the situation. On the last day of the age, Mara will have to summon the great earth spirit and fight alongside her to keep the Night at bay. No army will be able to assist her. No one else will be able to stand by her side.

She’ll be on her own.

Her only hope will be her training. If she goes in as prepared as she can be, she may have a chance.

Yet if the legends are true, and if Mara fails, then there will be no more ages of the earth. The world will be plunged into the perpetual Night, all creation crushed back into chaos.

“I . . . I don't know what to say,” she admits with a heavy sigh. “Just . . . thank you. It means a lot that you would agree to help train me.”

I press my lips together, unable to say a word. If I speak now, my words would be a jumble of breath and emotion.

So I stand there, staring at my boots, unable to even face her.

“They tell me training will have to begin as soon as possible,” she admits as she runs a hand up and down her bare arm, her bracelets jingling lightly with the move. “I want you to help plan and schedule them. I want someone I really trust,” she says with a nod.

I nod back.

Then I move to shake my head.

I have to train Mara—the Royal Princess. That fact slams into my gut like a blow.

She's a princess, a princess. I'm going to have to train her like a common soldier.

She’s meant to be protected from war, and yet she’ll have to be trained far more thoroughly than any warrior in all the Royal Army.

“Yang . . . say something?” she turns and looks up at me, one hand locked on her wrist. “Yang?”

“Princess—”

“I told you, don't stand on ceremony—you can use my name.”

“Mara,” I swallow, “I . . . I'll do everything I can.”

Though my words are weak, somehow they make her smile. “Thank you,” she manages quietly. “Hey, this means I get to beat you at magic,” she says as she playfully lifts her hand and sends a light shower of sparks raining down beside me.

Despite how horrible the situation is, I smile. Then once more as she sends another playful jet my way.

I laugh lightly, putting my hand up and easily forcing the magic back.

. . . .

The smile doesn't last.

I have to . . . help her and organize the rest of her training. I'll have to find warriors and sorcerers skilled enough to show her what she needs to know.

This task is . . . enormous. Unfathomable, almost.

I start to flounder, but Mara just smiles harder.

“I thought you Royal Army sorcerers weren't meant to have emotions,” she points out as she hooks her hand behind her and leans in with a pressed-lipped smile. Though I can tell she's still tense and sad on the inside, she puts on a show of being easygoing.

“Ah . . . sorry?” I suddenly realize what she said.

“You look nervous,” she points right at me, “and I thought the great Captain Yang couldn't get nervous.”

I open my mouth to protest.

She waves me off. “It's okay,” she says in a much softer voice, “it's . . . okay,” she half turns again.

I wish it were.

“So . . .” she sighs deeply, “we're meant to begin soon. Apparently they've found some great warrior to train me. They were going to let him be in charge, but I demanded you be my overseer,” Mara notes as she sweeps her arms in front of herself and starts to distractedly pick at one of the plants before her.

“You did?” a shot of nerves rekindles in my gut. For a Royal Army sorcerer, I'm being alarmingly emotional. I try to believe that the record keepers are right—and it's just a transient reaction to the scroll—but I can't kick the feeling it's something more.

Maybe I'm feeling so much, because I've never experienced so much in such a short time. Maybe all that training I underwent for all my life isn't enough to prepare me for what I'm going through now.

Then I stop. I realize what she said.

“Hold on. Do you mean Castorious Barr?” I ask, a slight waver to my tone.

Princess Mara turns and nods. “Yes, that's his name, I think. I'm meant to begin shortly. I'm so glad you're here though. I'm sure this Barr fellow will be happier knowing a fellow soldier is around.”

I don't say anything. I don't even raise an eyebrow. I do, however, swallow.

Castorious Barr will not be happier knowing I'm around. The last time I sat alone with him, he threatened to rip my throat out and break me.

I don't, of course, share a word of this.

I stand there and nod.

“Are you ready?” Mara turns, lets her arms drop loosely by her sides, and closes her eyes for a brief moment. “Well?”

“I nod.”

“Then I am too,” she walks forward, and to my total surprise, hooks an arm into mine.

Before I can splutter and pull back, she pats my elbow and walks off. “Thank you for being here,” she says quietly as she walks away.

. . . .

I follow. Not before the wind rushes into me, smelling of rain from the mountains. I stare up, catching a glimpse of those frozen, snow-covered caps in the distance.

Wild and untamed, they remind me of her.

Yin.

Someone I shouldn't have the time to think about. Yet someone, apparently, that will not get out of my mind.

The memory and power of her is about as potent as the woman herself.

Still, with a determined breath, I push her from my mind and follow.

For now I am needed.

Chapter 18

Yin

When I’m taken to the doctors, they are thankfully busy.

With so many soldiers under their care, I imagine they never have a dull moment.

Which is perfect. I don't want anyone else to see my hand.

Pumping it back and forth, I confirm once more that it isn't injured. Somehow it has become covered in blood . . . blood that's appeared out of nowhere.

While for a short while I wonder if it has something to do with the mirage sorcerers, I quickly dismiss that possibility. Somehow, I know the blood is mine.

. . . .

I just don't know how it got there.

Though my guards grumble at me to wait, I duck forward and grab the attention of the first doctor I can see. “Excuse me, doctor, I can see you're busy. I can treat myself. I've been an apprentice herbalist for years. I don't have to bother you. I need some water, a bandage and some yakar ointment.”

The doctor looks flustered.

“Doctor?” I prompt.

A patient screams from behind him. I can see from the look of the man's leg, it's broken in several places.

“Doctor?” I prompt again, knowing I have to get my answer before I give the man time to think.

“Fine,” he mutters, pointing towards the far section of the room.

I swallow a smile.

Well that's the first thing that's gone right all day.

Ducking across the room, I get to a basin of water and wash my hand well before my guards have a chance to catch up. Then I expertly smear yakar ointment all over my palm, and bandage it quicker than any seasoned doctor could.

With my palm and fingers completely hidden by the thick, sticky, jet-black ointment, I breathe a sigh of relief.

The relief doesn't last.

As soon as my guards see I'm bandaged up, they snap at me to follow.

Though I really want to snap back, I don't.

General Garl's warning still rings in my ears. The look he gave me still burns in my mind too. In fact, I know that when or if I get a chance to close my eyes tonight, it’ll haunt my dreams as well.

Feeling trapped, but still happy I managed to hide the mysterious blood on my hand, I follow my guards all the way back to the training square.

It's safe to say I'm starting to get heartily sick of this place. Not only because every time I come here I seem to draw an audience, but because I've already had more than enough for one day.

Though Castor would always make me train hard every single day, with no reprieve, I would have plenty of time off in between. In other words, I lived a life.

Now I realize that life is far behind me. For now, until I find a way out, this training square will be my home.

“So what happens now?” I ask one of my guards.

He doesn't even bother to look at me. “Women should speak only when spoken to,” he sneers.

I go to tell him that doesn't stop me from hitting him over the head with a brick, but quickly hold my tongue.

I can't afford to slip up. I can't let my temper get the better of me.

I just have to endure this until I can find some way of getting out safely.

Endure, then attack—Castor's motto. Well, now more than ever I need to rely on it.

So, lifting my chin, I set my gaze forward and I tell myself I'm ready to face whatever will come next.

As that resolution solidifies within me, my nose automatically crumples. As I imagine my training, I imagine one man only.

Captain Yang. Though I didn't see him during my fight with the mirage sorcerers, no doubt he was there. Though I only met the man a day ago, he's like my shadow.

I can just bet he'll be the one in charge of torturing me.

Still, as I crane my neck and look around the square, I can't see him. Sure, there are plenty of other soldiers in armor engaged in training exercises, but as far as I can tell, Yang isn't amongst them.

He'll be here somewhere though, ready to admonish me for not being loyal enough, or just as ready to manipulate me with his false calm.

I spend so much time looking for him, I don't notice when someone else I know walks up.

Though I should say stalks.

Glancing to the side, I see Mae.

She's in a different pair of shoes, possibly because the ones I melted are still stuck in the ground.

She looks at me exactly like someone staring at the most disgusting thing in the world. Her head couldn't be held back any further, and her nose couldn't be at a stiffer angle.

I hear one of the soldiers behind me snicker.

Despite the fact I'm supposed to be on my best behavior, I turn slowly over my shoulder and shoot him a challenging glare.

Satisfyingly, he shuts up and even swallows.

Then Mae is upon me. She stalks right up the steps and comes to a rest practically under my nose. “The General himself has asked me to train you. He has requested I try. He has told me you will behave. In fact, he's told me that if you don't, I am to report directly to him.”

I stand there and stare straight ahead.

“I haven't and will not forget what you did to me. You are unfit for training, and are little more than a mountain bear pretending to be a woman. Well, we both know you will slip up, and I will tell the General.” Mae stops abruptly, apparently having said all she needed to.

I don't move. Nor do I dare say anything. I swallow my anger, because I can’t afford to let it show.

“I will wait for you to fail, and then I will stand there and watch whatever punishment Garl decides upon,” Mae assures me.

Again, I don't react. It takes all of my discipline though. I see the hatred and fire burning in her eyes, and all I want to do is reach in and snuff it out. Not her life, but her indignation. Her arrogance. Whatever ignorance sees her following such a twisted man as Garl.

Though I can appreciate being one of the only women in the Royal Army must be hard for Mae, that doesn't give her the right to do this.

Nothing gives people the right to blindly follow such violence.

“Now, come with me,” Mae flicks her hand down to the square.

I follow.

As I do, I shut my mind off. The caring, feeling side—I just put up a wall. I won't react, I tell myself. No matter what she does, I won't react.

I will endure, then I will attack.

With that mindset, I stand before her, and I train.

Chapter 19

Captain Yang

I try to prepare myself for this, but no matter how many mental tools I call upon, it's not enough.

I follow the Princess back into the palace, and into an enormous room. There's nothing in it save for multiple sturdy training mats, all new and glittering blue.

Then, at the far end, a door opens. Three men walk through.

I recognize one as the head of palace guards and the other as General Qor.

As the third approaches, my gut twists.

It's Castor.

For a single second he stares right at me, and I see the same threat dancing in his gaze.

But just as soon as that look hardens his jaw, it's gone.

Princess Mara steps forward and bows low. “I am told you are the legendary warrior Castorious Barr. It is my privilege to receive you.”

I wait for Castor to scoff. After all, from what Yin told me last night, it seems as if Castor thinks nothing of the Royal Family.

Yet, with only the slightest pause, he returns Mara's bow. “The honor is mine, your Highness.”

I watch Castor, waiting for him to slip up, but he doesn't.

If I didn't know better, he looks exactly like the loyal servant he's meant to be.

. . . .

Maybe Garl was right. Maybe once Castor realized what the army needed him for—the training of the Savior—the legendary warrior mellowed.

Still, I can't take my eyes off him. As for Castor, however, he barely glances my way.

“They tell me you haven't trained anyone in 20 years,” Mara says as she nods politely. “I hope I am a worthy student.”

I look keenly at Castor now. We both know he's trained someone in the past 20 years. In fact, it seems as if he has spent those 20 years doing nothing but training Yin.

“That is true. Apart from my apprentice herbalist, I have not formally trained anyone in the arts of combat,” Castor says smoothly.

It isn't an outright lie, but it isn't exactly the truth. Yin has to be more than his apprentice herbalist—she melted Mae's shoes, for god's sake.

Still, I hold my tongue. Not only is it not my place to talk, I don't want to draw Castor's ire again. Like it or not, Mara needs him. I will not jeopardize her training as the Savior.

“Instruct me, and I will follow your orders,” Mara says as she bows in the traditional manner of a trainee facing their master—with both hands pressed together and eyes directed at the ground.

As is customary, Castor does not return the bow. Instead he strides onto the mat.

There's total silence in the room. Which isn't surprising—Castor's reputation precedes him. He single handedly modernized and reformed the entire training program for the Royal Army, and was personally responsible for training some of the greatest men to have served with her in the last half a century.

He's the closest thing to a living legend.

. . . .

No, Mara is now the closest thing to a living legend, considering she is the very embodiment of the Savior myth.

But the fact still stands, Castor has knowledge and skills far beyond that of most men. So there’s total silence in the room as he prepares to train the Princess.

“We will begin our theory today, but before we can properly train, we will need to find another, more appropriate space,” Castor says in a calm but authoritative voice.

“There are many rooms in the palace, Master. I'm sure we'll find one to your liking,” Mara begins.

“No, not in the palace. If you are to learn to become a warrior, you must train amongst them. The training square of the Royal Barracks is by far the most appropriate space,” Castor says.

Mara looks surprised, but nods her head. “As you wish. I don't usually venture out of the palace—”

“Castorious,” Qor clears his throat, “that may not be appropriate.”

“It is best we keep the Princess' training secret,” the head of guards adds.

“I understand these factors, but I must still recommend training in the square. To instill in the Princess the proper discipline she requires she must be amongst warriors. We can’t afford to take this lightly—the fate of the world rests on our shoulders. I realize it may not be appropriate to take an ordinary princess into the Royal Barracks and have her train amongst our soldiers. But Mara is no longer ordinary. Her fate requires we are bold. We must ensure her training is as quick and efficient as possible—we do not have time to waste. While we could bring all the equipment we require to the palace, and ship in the best warriors we can find, all we seek is already at the barracks. I suggest we don't make an already hard task harder, simply for tradition's sake.”

I watch the head of the guards pale slightly. Qor looks quickly between Castor and the Princess.

Castor has given a compelling argument.

Nevertheless, it's a smoke screen.

I wager the reason he wants to take the Princess to the barracks has nothing to do with training her amongst warriors, and everything to do with Yin being there.

Before Qor and the head of the guards can protest, Mara steps forward and nods her head. “Very well, it is decided. I will train at the barracks.”

“Princess,” Qor begins.

She raises a hand to silence him. “It is decided, General. I trust Castor. I will follow his judgment in this matter. Now, Master, let us begin,” she nods again.

Castor nods too. Though his mouth is obscured by his beard, I swear he gives the smallest of smiles.

I tried to warn Garl about Castor, but Garl did not believe me. Yet as I stand and watch, I realize I'll have to try again.

Castor is most certainly up to something.

For the rest of the training session, I stand and watch.

Castor runs through basic theory with the Princess, teaching her nothing I haven't heard before. So it provides me with an opportunity to stand there and think.

And think I do.

Not about the Savior and the end of the world, but about the mysterious Yin and her legendary Master, Castorious Barr.

Though I should not have the time to spare, I declare to myself that I will find out what's going on.

No matter what it takes.

Chapter 20

Yin

I train late into the night.

I haven't eaten, I've barely drunk, and I'm wearing the same burnt clothes from this morning.

I don't complain. I don't even speak.

I do exactly as I'm told.

I follow Mae's every move. When she furls her hand, I furl mine. When she stands stiff and straight and conducts her magic with elegance and poise, I try to do the same.

I shut my mind off to my anger. I push it out. It makes my magic weaker and my emotions duller, but I still have the power and grit I need to continue.

Though I draw an audience to begin with, as the hours tick on by, most of the soldiers and guards wander off.

People still watch me though, right until Mae tells me it's over for the day.

As I walk out of the square, my body heavy with fatigue, I catch a glimpse of two men in white and black uniforms.

Torches have been lit all around the square, and I see the two of them standing off in the far distance.

Watching me.

Just the sight of them sends a flight of nerves dancing through my stomach. Nerves that somehow manage to punch through my fatigue.

The men don't do anything, though, and soon enough I'm led back to my room.

I walk in to find a basin of water, food, and clean clothes. Even the sooty blankets on my bed have been changed.

Silently I wash, dress, and eat.

Then . . . I sit there and stare at the wall.

I've never been in a position like this. And just maybe if I hadn't gone after Castor yesterday, then I wouldn't be in this position. If I'd just trusted he could free himself from Yang's soldiers if he wanted to, and I'd stayed at home, then I'd still be at home.

Instead I have nothing but a cold stone wall to stare at.

Eventually I crumple my hand over my face.

I'm the Savior and I know the responsibility that falls upon my shoulders. I have to spend all the time I can training. But here I am, stuck.

. . . .

Training.

I crumple my lips together as I realize that.

Today I learnt to fight mirage sorcerers, and though I hated every minute of Mae's lesson this afternoon, I can't deny I learnt a few things. Even though she's stuffy, painfully proper, and powerfully arrogant, she's also pretty powerful.

My whole life I've trained only with Castor. While he possesses enough knowledge to run an army, there's something to be said of finding out what other people know.

Still, I might be learning a few things, but I'm trapped, with Garl's threats to haunt me at night. I have no idea where Castor is, or even if he's fine.

I'm just . . . alone.

I flop down on my bed.

Then, without realizing it, I bring up my left hand. I start playing with the bandage, plucking it up and rubbing the fabric in my fingers.

When I realize what I'm doing, I stare down at it.

Safely tucked away in my room, I remove the bandage and stare at my completely undamaged hand.

How on earth did blood appear over it without any injury? I didn't feel it. It just . . . .

I take an unsteady breath.

As the Savior, I know I can do some unusual stuff. After all, though I'm not meant to be able to, I can still do magic in this room. But . . . bleeding without an injury? That's not an ability—that's horrifying.

I grind my teeth together as I worry about what it could mean.

If Castor were by my side, I’d ask him, and he would know; he knows everything. If he doesn't know, he finds out.

I'm on my own, though. So, with no one to ask, I eventually tuck my hand back under the bandage and lie down.

Though I am indisputably tired, it takes hours to fall asleep. I stare at the wall, unwilling to close my eyes and submit to the dark.

But the dark, and sleep, claim me. For they can't be held back forever.

Chapter 21

Captain Yang

I return to the barracks that night slowly. Though I am bone-weary with fatigue, I wander the streets. I take in the burning lanterns with their eerie flickering light. I walk close to the river, listening to the quiet, calm movement of the water. I walk the streets, staring past their lights and up into the lights of the heavens, the stars beaming down with their distinct glow.

I've never done this before—just wander the city at night. I've always had purpose. The calm certainty of a Royal Army sorcerer, the cold knowledge of someone completely in control of themselves.

Well, I can't rightly hide from the fact I don't feel in control anymore.

Though the record keepers promised that the unsettling effects of the scroll would pass, they haven't.

I can still remember, in perfect detail, being drawn in by the power of that scroll, my face pressing so close to it, the blood almost smeared over my cheeks.

It makes me shudder just to think about it, and I haven't shuddered in a long time. No, that's a lie—for the past day and a half I've been shaking all over the place. Unsettled doesn't even begin to describe what I feel now—undone does.

My life, once so calm and sure, is now something else.

As I walk, I near the barracks. I see those enormous sturdy walls, and though the sight usually fills me with strength, tonight, for some damn reason, I shudder. It's my home, I tell myself, but that does not shift my unease.

Walking through the gates, the guards on duty salute. I return their salutes, though I can't quite manage to look them in the eyes.

I want to return to my bed, lay my head down, and forget.

No matter how much I try to forget, however, it won’t change anything. Tomorrow Castor will bring Princess Mara to the barracks to train her.

. . . .

I feel sick with responsibility. It's like a shroud has descended over me, one that chokes every breath with cruel ease.

Shaking my head, I rush through the square.

Then I stop, because, despite the lights surrounding it, I almost trip over something in the dark.

It doesn't take me long to realize it's a pair of pretty little white shoes.

Despite everything, I laugh. Short, sharp, and quiet.

But I laugh.

I might be bemoaning the fact my life has changed irrevocably, but I'm not the only one in this boat.

Yin, a simple mountain girl, is here with me. Her quiet life has now ended. From now on, she will be a soldier in the Royal Army. If she can learn to behave as they wish.

Just thinking about her shifts my focus. Instead of worrying about the impossible weight of responsibility, I start wondering how she did during her training sessions. Did she pass? Or did they already kick her out. Or worse?

Hurrying across the square now, I get the suicidal idea of going to check on her in her room. It is easily 2 AM, but I still want to pop my head in the door.

Of course I don't, though. Not only would she rip my head off, the other soldiers would rightly wonder what I'm doing.

No.

I resolve instead to see her tomorrow. That distraction gets me through the night.

Chapter 22

Yin

It's a long night, and I toss and turn, restless. Every dream is nightmarish, just shadows chasing me through equally shadowy halls and corridors. Whenever I turn to fight, just as I've been taught, it doesn't matter. My pursuers always overcome me.

They are stronger, faster, and smarter, and there is nothing I can do against them.

I go to bed with a pervading sense of powerlessness, and when I wake, that sense has become even more engrained.

I don't have a chance to wallow in it though; within minutes of waking, there's a rough knock at my door.

I roll to the side and stare at it, offering it a defeated look.

Then the damn thing opens.

In walks Mae. She looks disgusted at finding me in bed. Though I want to point out that she barely waited a few seconds before opening the door, I don't.

I hold my tongue. From now until the day I get out of here, I’ll have to keep my anger checked.

She walks into the middle of my small room, locks her hands on her hips, and looks down. She's in the same delicate blue dress with that same jade comb holding her silver-flecked hair back.

“Get up,” she says through a snarl.

I comply.

“Neaten your bed, get dressed, and meet me in the square,” she adds with a huff.

I comply.

I don't ask whether I'll be fed, I just do exactly as I'm told.

Oh, if Castor could see me now. Though I was never exactly rebellious around him, I wasn't a saint either. If I didn't want to do something, sometimes I'd just take off and head into the mountains.

Now there are no mountains and there is no escape.

Once I'm dressed, I try to do my hair as I've been instructed. Try as I might, I can't figure it out. Getting frustrated and realizing I'm running out of time, I scrunch it together and tie it in a knot. Then, with a deep breath, I walk out into the hall.

Two soldiers are waiting there for me, with Mae nowhere to be seen.

They both shoot me disgruntled looks. Though my first reaction is to shoot one right back at them, I press my lips together and look at the floor instead.

“I see Garl has finally got you under control,” one of them mutters.

Though I want to keep staring at the ground, I can't. My eyes flash as I look up. The soldier has turned from me as he leads me forward, but I glare solidly at the back of his head.

I want to point out Garl doesn't have me under control . . . but he does, doesn't he?

All he had to do was threaten me, threaten Castor, threaten my village. Now I have no fight left.

No . . . the fight is still there, burning steadily in the center of my chest like the molten heart of the earth itself, but I just can't call on it.

That doesn't mean I'll let it go out. So Garl might hold all the cards now. Fine. But he will slip up. Just as he rightly pointed out I have a weakness, he will have one too. Given time, I will endure what he throws at me, and I will find it.

Then I'll attack.

I won't give in to him.

It's with that attitude that I exit into the square. It's early morning, and there's a fine mist hanging at the edges of the building. With one look past the numerous rooms of the barracks, I note the mountains beyond are hooded in cloud.

It's brisk, but that invigorates me. I'm used to snow and hail and frost, so a little morning chill won't harm me.

Oh, and I can call upon the fire within any time to warm my hands and toes.

There are several other training sessions going on as I'm led into the square. The space is so enormous that you could easily train a force of a thousand men, and yet have plenty of room left over for a game of magic ball.

The soldiers guarding me continue to mutter amongst themselves, no doubt amused by my unconventional hairstyle. Well, that's fine by me. Better they get distracted by my hair than my hand.

. . . .

I still have the bandage wrapped securely around it, with the hope that I'll take it off in a couple of days. Though I wracked my brain last night to come up with some reason for what happened to me, I can't find one.

How can a hand bleed with no injury? Does it have something to do with being the Savior?

These are questions I won't find answers to any time soon. Still, I let them distract me as I walk out to meet Mae. Once again she fixes me with a look that lets me know I'm worth just a lit bit less than slime.

“Take up position,” she commands.

I do as she says. It's then I notice there's a folded up fan lying close by. “What's that for?”

“You speak—” she begins.

“When spoken to,” I finish with a sigh. “I am sorry,” I force myself to say.

Mae looks mildly mollified. Then she gestures to the fan. “Pick it up. Today, I will instruct you in the true combat arts of female sorcerers.”

I hold my tongue as I lean down and pluck up the fan. What exactly am I meant to do with it? Start a cracking bonfire and industriously fan the flames towards my opponent? While I'm sure that will give my guards something else to snigger about, I doubt it will be effective in an actual fight.

Mae waits for me to pluck up the fan, then, without a word, she produces one from under her sleeve and unfurls it in a pretty, dramatic arc.

I'm usually quite observant—Castor would have it no other way—but I had not seen that fan.

If you'd asked me yesterday, I would have fervently exclaimed that I have nothing to learn from Mae. She's arrogant and bitter, and can't notice when you're actually melting her shoes into the cobble.

Now I frown.

Her fan is ornate, mostly black with the prettiest gold and blue winding design climbing the wood and flourishing over the fabric.

She holds it easily.

She nods at me to unfurl mine, and I do, but a whole lot less elegantly.

“Now, watch me,” Mae says as she takes a deep breath that pushes her chest out steadily. Blinking her eyes closed, she starts to move around in a fan dance. With true grace and quite a bit of agility, she shifts back and forward, moving the fan as an extension of her own body. With powerful, echoing snaps, she closes and opens it in time with her movements.

It's a beautiful dance . . . but I can't help wondering what exactly it has to do with learning how to beat people with magic.

Then, just as I get the impulse to cross my arms, I see the tiniest flicker of power.

It's curling around the fan. No . . . it's inside the fan. On closer inspection, I notice that the intricate design winding all over the fabric and wood has channels within it. Right now those channels are filling up with magic. Orange and gold, it’s barely visible against the ornate design.

“What . . .” I begin, moving back a little.

Mae attacks. She lunges forward, placing one foot before the other and leaning into her stance as she swipes the fan around.

A jet of super-heated magic bursts out and strikes me right in the chest.

I know how to defend myself. I know how to draw my magic in front of me like a shield, letting attacks disburse off an invisible barrier of energy.

That doesn’t stop me from being flung backward.

The force of Mae's blow is so damn strong, I go tumbling over myself until I land several meters away.

I'm still alive—I managed to draw up enough of a defense to stop Mae's attack from bursting right through my chest—but I am surprised.

Also, monumentally out of breath.

With a grunt, I push up, not bothering to stand as I sit there, my hair tumbling freely over my shoulders and back.

I've trained hard all my life in magic, and I'd like to think I know most of what there is about that sacred art.

I've never seen anything like this.

Mae actually smiles. Though she's usually restrained, I see her ruby red lips part and curl. “Have I managed to surprise the great bear of the mountains?”

A few nearby soldiers snigger at her insult.

I ignore them and focus all of my attention on that fan . . . . How could it store fire magic like that? That's what happened, right? During the dance, Mae pushed her magic steadily into the fan, and it stored it until she unleashed it in an unholy blow.

Is it somehow an Arak device?

Again she looks pleased with herself, then she snaps, “get up. Stop wallowing.”

Stop wallowing? I just received a blow that could have killed an ordinary person.

Still, with a muffled groan, I stand.

I'm still holding my own fan, and now I bring it up and inspect those gold channels carefully. As I do, I notice there are blue ones as well.

Experimentally, I try to force some magic through my hand and into the wood. While the gold channels light up and glow like, fire, the blue channels don't. “What are these?” I ask as I point down to them.

“Do not speak unless spoken to. I have not instructed you on how to correctly channel your magic into the fan yet,” Mae snaps.

Still holding the fan, I let it drop to my side.

Mae pauses for several seconds, then huffs before saying, “the blue channels are for a male sorcerer. When the fan dance is done properly, both a female and male sorcerer are present. If the dance is done correctly and balance achieved, then both become more powerful than the sum of their parts.”

I dip my head to the side, confusion parting my lips. “How can you achieve balance? Won’t the two sorcerers just cancel each other out?”

Just as I think Mae will snap at me only to speak when spoken to, she shakes her head and sighs. “There appears to be a great deal you do not know. There is much to train you in.”

She seems . . . just a little softer than usual. Of course she still stares at me as if I'm the scum that collects along a polluted river, but she also seems a little more mollified.

“Now, take up position once more. I will instruct you in how to correctly channel your magic. But first, you must learn the correct movements of the dance. You must be elegant, yet forceful.”

“Okay . . .” I manage, not really understanding, but realizing if I push Mae for more, she'll likely snap at me, or send me tumbling over the cobbles with another devastating attack.

“You will watch and mimic my moves. Try to be graceful. You can’t jump around like a mountain bear—you must draw upon your feminine qualities—if you have any,” she adds with a huff.

Again more laughter from the soldiers. Yet, once again I don't care.

I'm intrigued now. Castor has always told me to learn whatever I can from whatever source I can. He used to instruct me to go out into the mountains just to watch how the air moves through the trees, or how the water moves itself seamlessly around the rocks of the rivers and streams.

There are lessons everywhere, if only you open your mind to them.

Though I had closed myself to Mae, now I realize that, just maybe, there’s something to learn.

So, with a determined breath, I watch and I mimic.

And . . . I'm really bad at it. All the moves I've been taught are strong, fast, and entirely lacking in grace. I jump around and flip like . . . well, a man.

A particularly gruff one.

Mae spends most of her time snapping at me to try again.

So I do. For absolutely hours on end.

By the end, I've only improved a fraction, and Mae couldn't be angrier. “You will have to practice for years before you can master this,” she says bitterly, though I hint just a note of pride ringing in her high-pitched tone.

After all, she's just proved she's better than me, hasn't she? I might have tricked her and melted her shoes to the cobbles, but despite hours of training, I'm still hopeless at this fan dance.

“Garl will be disappointed by this,” Mae adds as she closes her fan and reaches a hand out to take mine.

I don't give it to her. “I'll train harder,” I say.

Mae blinks her eyes rapidly. “You must now return to your room. You have trained for hours.”

“Let me keep the fan, and I'll train in my room. What's the harm? I can't do magic in there,” I add, keeping my voice even as I do.

Mae looks as if she wants to snap at me, but soon shrugs her shoulders, though elegantly. “Very well, but I don't see the point—you're hopeless.”

I nod. “Are there any scrolls I could borrow? I can study them and practice in my room.”

Mae laughs. “You can read?” she challenges.

I don't answer.

I just look at her. I'm sure to make my stare unchallenging, but at the same time I don't look away.

“Very well,” she concedes. “It won't do you any good though. Still, I'll be sure to bring you a scroll with lots of pictures.”

“Thank you,” I say.

I endure Mae's laughter.

I can do this. I will not be defeated by this stupid fan dance. Nor will I give Mae the satisfaction of setting me a task I can't complete.

How hard can jumping around with a fan be, anyway?

I get my answer when I return to my room and set to work practicing on my own.

My room is tiny, and though I'm sure to push all the furniture to the sides, that gives me barely a meter-squared to move within.

Still, despite how frustrating it is when I keep banging into the bed or the walls, I don't give up. Nor do I give in to my growing weariness. I may have been training for most of the day, but I just push back my fatigue.

When my legs become too wobbly to stand, I sit on my bed and pore over the scroll.

Despite Mae's aspersions, I can very much read. I've been taught how to analyze, think critically, and follow arguments. Castor was also sure to school me in multiple ancient languages.

So, for the rest of the day I switch between reading and practicing.

I've taken off my dress, and wear nothing but my loose black pants and singlet.

I don't expect to be disturbed, yet, late in the evening, I hear a careful knock on my door.

Absorbed in one of the books I've been given, and thinking it's probably Mae at the door, I stand and say, “come in.”

I don't even look up as I turn a page and continue reading.

The door swings open and I hear someone splutter.

. . . .

Captain Yang. He's standing there, a surprised look on his face as he stares at what I'm wearing, or, what I'm not wearing.

I don't try to cover myself up. Seriously, I'm not naked. I'm in full pants and a sturdy singlet. But from the look on his face, you'd think I'm in nothing but an artfully arranged fig leaf.

“Captain?” I bring my book down, but I don't close it. “Do you want something?”

“I . . .” he trails off, looking extremely uncomfortable as he does.

His usual calm control has been replaced by red cheeks and a stutter.

“Yes?” I prompt.

“Yin,” he takes a breath, and as he does, he straightens his back, and locks his gaze at eye level. That, however, does not stop his cheeks from glowing red. “I have been instructed to ascertain how you are going,” he manages, his voice steadily becoming more controlled.

“I'm training,” I answer.

Though I know I'm not meant to be trite—not since Garl's dire warning—I can't stop myself around Captain Yang.

It's not just that I blame him for everything that's happened to me . . . it's the man himself.

He's so damn calm and controlled, and yet I'm rapidly learning that's all an act.

In other words, he's fake. Easily the fakest person I've ever met.

While the people in my village had often been tiresome, at least they'd been genuine. Yang, on the other hand, promised me everything would be okay. He gave me his word that both Castor and I would be fine.

His word was worth nothing.

Hardly realizing I'm doing it, I cross my arms, securing my book in one hand. “I'm fine,” I say, my words biting.

Yang seems a little more comfortable now I've hidden my singlet with my arms, and he straightens up further. “Garl has asked me to report—” he begins.

I jerk back, my indignation easily giving way to fear.

Captain Yang notices, and I can see surprise breaking through his stoic control.

His pale eyes narrow in confusion. “The General,” he continues in a somewhat unsure tone, “has asked for a report.”

“I'm fine. I'm doing exactly as I'm told,” I say, dropping Yang's gaze and staring at the floor.

Even though I'm not looking directly at him, I can tell Yang is still surprised by my behavior. Maybe he's expecting me to bite his head off.

I withdraw instead. He's not the only one who can put up a barrier.

“Are . . . you alright?” he asks, voice still hesitant.

“Yes. I'm doing what I'm told,” I answer.

“Ah . . .” he trails off, possibly looking for some reason to keep standing in my doorway. “What happened to your hand?”

“Nothing.”

“It's got a bandage on it.”

“I cut myself yesterday,” I mutter quietly, “while I was fighting those . . . mirage sorcerers. Or whatever they are.” I look up briefly to see astonishment flicker in Yang's eyes.

“Wait, what? Do you mean illusionists?”

“I don't know what they're called, but they could make themselves invisible. I cut myself, I fixed it up, end of story. You can tell Garl I'm doing exactly what he wants. I might have stuffed up that fan dance, but I'll train. I'll get better,” I don't look at Captain Yang as I speak, preferring to settle my gaze on some innocuous patch of floor by his boots instead.

“Really, he made you fight illusionists?” Yang asks again, apparently stuck on that fact.

“Yeah. They cut my hand,” I add defensively as I tuck my bandaged palm closer to my chest, hiding it as best I can.

“. . . Wow . . . ah, I mean . . .” Yang trails off and clears his throat.

Slowly I look up at him.

He looks different somehow. There's a lot more emotion playing across his face than the man I remember from the village. It's almost as if . . . something's changed him.

I should tell him to leave—that I've already satisfied his curiosity and he can report his findings back to the Garl—but I don't.

I can't.

So I stand there, half staring at the floor and half at him.

“I saw you training today,” he notes through a suspiciously uncomfortable swallow. Isn't he meant to be a cold-hearted Royal Army sorcerer? Isn't he meant to flow around emotion like water around stone?

I don't reply.

“You're not . . . that bad. It'll just take some time. The fan dance requires fluid movement, or at least from the female sorcerer. You'll get used to it.”

Is he . . . trying to make me feel better? Is he encouraging me?

Why? So he can manipulate me more? Does he want me to trust him, just so it's easier for him?

I let my arms drop and though I'm not meant to, I stare at him with a challenging look in my gaze. “What do you want?”

He looks taken aback.

“Did Garl tell you to be my friend so I can become more pliable? Well tell him his threats are sufficient. I won't dare disappoint him. He doesn't need you to try to get me on side.”

“Ah . . . what?” Yang shakes his head, looking genuinely confused.

“Tell General Garl, I won't dare disobey him,” I step forward, right into Yang, grabbing the door beside him and leaning forward. My fingers are so tight around the metal, and my anger so hot, I could easily burn right through it.

Though Yang starts shifting back, he doesn't actually step back.

So, still right up close to him, I look into his eyes with all the determination I can muster.

“I'll do what he says. I'll train, and I'll fight his little battles. But don't you dare think I'll ever be truly loyal. I'll go through the motions, but you won't change my heart. I will do whatever I can to save Castor and my village. I don't care about my life,” I say with a huff, “and you can tell Garl I can endure anything he throws at me. So are we done here?” I ask as I shift the door forward, moving it as close to Yang as I can without actually slamming it into him.

He is standing right in the doorway, after all.

At first he opens his mouth, his usually handsome face contorted with what looks like genuine confusion. Then he stops and he looks at me.

I could go toe-to-toe with him, I really could.

My stomach clenches for some reason, and I step back, still locking my hand on the door though.

“What did he say to you? No one is going to threaten Castor, or your village; we're not monsters.”

I start smiling, and it isn't a happy move; it's disbelieving. Can this guy really think I'm that stupid?

“I'm done speaking to you,” I say as I push away from the door and turn from him.

It's so childish, but it's the only thing I can do. I can't attack him, and god knows I can't shout at him—other soldiers would hear, and my disobedience would soon make it back to Garl.

So I just turn, pretending he isn't there.

. . . .

He stands for a while. Then, without a word, he closes the door and I hear it being bolted behind him.

I press my lips together and stare at the wall. Slowly but surely my eyes fill with tears. I try to hold them back, pressing my lips together all the tighter, but it won't work.

I hate that I'm getting emotional. More than that, that it was the arrogant Captain Yang that unsettled me.

I can't fight it. So eventually I give in and flop on my bed.

I wallow.

Yet despite how horrible it feels to be trapped and at the mercy of the treacherous Garl, I don't stay defeated for long.

When I'm ready, I stand back up, I pick up my fan, and I train.

Chapter 23

Captain Yang

I walk away from Yin completely confused.

Worse than that, unsettled. After my long, thoughtful walk last night, I spent the majority of today engaging in powerful emotional cleansing techniques. I drew on my training, and for a while there, I honestly thought it had worked.

. . . .

Then I open the door to Yin standing around in a singlet, and I start stuttering like a child.

Just when I pull myself together, she pulls me apart again.

Why was she so afraid? What did Garl tell her?

If you’d asked me, I would have told you there wasn't much in the Kingdom that could control Yin's anger.

I was clearly wrong. I saw how withdrawn she looked. Her bitter words only underlined how . . . trapped she appeared.

That didn't stop her from grabbing the door and trying to close it on me, though.

. . . .

With a careful breath, I puff my cheeks out and start to walk faster.

She stood right before me, staring up with as much concentrated force as she could muster.

. . . I didn't stand back. I stared right down at her like a man facing a volcano.

It felt . . . good.

“Control yourself,” I mutter quickly, making sure my words don't carry, “you've got a job to do.”

Unconsciously I start pumping my left hand back and forth. It's something I only ever do when I feel out of control. A habit I thought I’d rid myself of over the years, but one that had reared its head in the past few days.

Ever since meeting the indomitable Yin.

Just thinking about her again makes me pump my hand all the harder.

Though it sounds suicidal, I want to turn around and go back to her room. I want to stand there and explain to her that no one is going to threaten Castor or her village. She must be mistaken.

. . . .

I hope.

I've known Garl for years, and in all those years he's always shown himself to be competent, loyal, and upstanding.

However, he's also proved himself to be uncompromising. It's a required trait of a Royal General. He does not back down.

If he wants something, and deems a goal to be in the best interest of the Kingdom and the Royal Family, then he goes after it.

. . . .

I latch a hand to my jaw and push my fingers hard into my chin as I manipulate it back and forth.

I concede that Garl may have threatened her—he may have underlined how important serving the Royal Family is.

But he would never actually murder a citizen—especially not someone as valuable as Castor—just to prove a point. The very thought of burning down a village of loyal citizens is pure and simple madness.

No, Yin must be confused. She must have taken Garl's warning to mean more than he intended.

As I convince myself of that fact, a single flame of doubt ignites in my mind.

Everything is different now Mara is the Savior. The stakes have changed. Never has this kingdom faced a task more important.

The end of the ages is upon us all, and the Savior alone has the power to save us. Though the Royal Army has fought many important wars over the course of Garl's illustrious career, he would not have faced anything akin to what he does now.

Responsibility has a way of changing a man, forcing him to consider options he would usually turn from.

With a dry mouth, I reach my room. Quietly I open the door, and quietly I close it behind myself.

For the first time in years, I feel like screaming at the walls.

This situation is too much. There are too many variables, too many unknowns.

Sitting in the middle of it is something I shouldn't be allowing to distract me—Yin. The simple girl from the mountains. The not so simple student of Castorious Barr, the most legendary warrior in the past century.

Pressing my fingers into my eyes, it takes a long time to walk away from the door.

I should get some rest, I know that—it's been a long day, and tomorrow promises to be even longer. For tomorrow Princess Mara will be coming to the barracks to train.

I can’t even face my bed though.

I want this ordeal to be over so my life can return to normal. It's an empty wish, though. For now until the last day of the age, I will be at Princess Mara's side, helping to save the whole damn world.

Wincing, I start to pull my armor off.

I'm aching, even though I haven't trained at all today. It feels as though I've stood in front of a runaway cart. Maybe I have—the image of Yin facing me and staring fire into my eyes will probably be with me for life.

In fact, as I dress for bed and lie down, that image is all I see as sleep meets me.

It won't be the last time I fall asleep thinking of her.

Chapter 24

Yin

I wake early in the morning, and begin training again. As I do, waving my arms as gracefully as I can, I try to be more fluid, as Yang put it. Though I hate to be taking the advice of that man, I know what's at stake here.

. . . .

Plus, in the absence of Castor, I need to keep training. I might not be able to do a fan dance on the final day of the age, but mastering it could give me an edge. I could learn something important.

It's with that attitude I keep training.

It's also with that determination that I keep pushing against the magical barrier in my room.

The more I practice, the easier it becomes to call on my magic. Though I still can't conjure up a proper blast, I can at least set sparks crackling over my hands.

I can also send those sparks into the fan.

That, right there, may be the opportunity I've been waiting for.

If the fan can hold my magic, conceivably I could use it to escape. All I would have to do is sit for a few hours, pumping the little power I can conjure into the channels over the fan, then use the thing to blow the door up.

I can't risk doing it yet—Garl's warning is still ringing in my ears—but it's still an advantage.

I will gather my opportunities until I have enough to defeat him.

Soon enough I hear a knock on my door, and I wait for the thing to swing open.

Though my heart skips a few beats as I wonder if it's Yang, it isn't.

Mae stands there, dressed impeccably as always.

I've tried a little harder to comb my hair back, and though I'm proud of what I've achieved, Mae snorts. “You will never be beautiful, but the least you can do is try to be neat,” she snaps as she stalks over and straightens my sleeve. Then she mutters something unkind as she tugs my hair into submission.

I stand there and stare out of the open door, shooting a challenging glare at the amused guard outside.

When Mae is finished she snaps at me to bring my fan, and I follow her back into the square.

Though I've been at the Royal Barracks for several days now, I've barely seen the place. I get shepherded from my room to the square, then back again. The routine doesn't change.

Today as I walk out into the brisk morning air, I notice there are more soldiers standing around than usual.

Perhaps word has gotten around at how inept I am, and they've all come to see.

Before I can conclude that, however, I note that they seem different somehow. They aren't wearing the same gold and red armor.

“What's going on?” I ask, forgetting my place.

“Though it is none of your business, we will be honored today by a visit from Princess Mara.”

“Oh,” I mutter as I walk on by, staring at the extra guards but no longer thinking anything of it.

“Now,” Mae gestures down the steps into the square, “go and take up position.”

Before she can add some insult, she turns around as a guard hurries up to her.

I watch them both as I trundle down into the square.

The guard talks hurriedly, and before I know it, Mae starts walking away with him. When I move to follow, she snaps at me to “stay,” as if I'm little more than an obedient dog.

Sighing, I tuck my fan under my arm.

The morning is a chilly one, and with one look up to the clouds, I see they're laden with rain. Billowing and navy blue, it looks as if it will be heavy rain, too.

As a chill wind picks up through the yard, I start to swing my arms, the boredom setting in.

I look around and stare at the guards amassing over on the other side of the square.

Why could one person need so many people to look after her? I know the Princess is meant to be important, but it looks as if there's a small army over there.

Are they worried she's going to trip over and bump her perfect little chin? Or maybe they think she'll get worried if she doesn't see at least 1000 men at her beck and call.

I hate royalty. I hate the idea of it. Your blood doesn't make you better than anyone else. Nor does it give you the right to make others bleed on your behalf. That's what the Royal Family does. They send soldiers off to war to fight on their behalf, demanding their subjects sacrifice their lives so . . . what? The Royal Family can amass more wealth?

Castor has always told me to distrust them. He's told me on numerous occasions they are nothing more than leeches living off the women and men of the land.

Crossing my arms as I stare at the guards, I sigh loudly.

Then again.

Time goes on, and Mae doesn't return. When I ask one of my own guards whether I can go back to my room, he just snaps at me to shut up and wait.

So I do.

Then it starts to rain.

Heavily.

In fact, it's as if the heavens open up and release a sea upon the earth.

I watch my guards shelter further under the awning that covers the steps and leads down to the square.

I, however, stand there, allowing myself to get sopping wet.

The rain soaks through my light clothes in seconds.

I don't shiver though, nor do I move to wipe the rivulets from my cheeks and chin.

I just let it rain.

It rains so damn heavily I feel like I'm in my own world, cut off from all those guards and soldiers by a veil of continuously falling water.

Tipping my head back, I smile as I let the water drive into my cheeks and lips.

It's invigorating.

The smell of it fills my nostrils, and the constant bite of the driving droplets makes my skin tingle.

Staring up at the downpour, the clouds rolling and boiling like smoke from a fire, I laugh, letting my head drop forward.

I watch the water spread out below me, darting towards the cracks in the stone as it moves back towards the earth.

It moves so quickly, so efficiently.

It always takes the shortest path. No flourish, just flow.

My lips press together as I feel the fan in my hand all of a sudden.

Become fluid like water—that's what they've been telling me.

So I watch the water.

I see just how easily it moves around things.

But it isn't graceful—it doesn't prance around like a lady with a fan. It flows, never stopping, constantly moving beyond and around and through.

It doesn't follow any set of prescribed movements—it reacts to each obstacle, finding a new way to flow around it as it does.

There's no dance—there's just constant, deliberate movement.

As I stare, I understand.

Without being told, I start to train.

I don't care that no one has told me to start, and nor do I care that I have an audience.

I just move.

It's up to me to draw what lessons from nature I can, and I mustn't ignore this one.

I might be trapped, but that does not mean I can’t learn.

As I start to move, I push all distraction from my mind. The whole world could be looking at me, but it wouldn't matter. All that matters is capturing the moment before it slips away.

I focus all my attention on my Arak device. Though you are taught as a sorcerer to conjure magic seamlessly—connecting so much to your bracelet that it feels indistinguishable from your own arm—now I concentrate on it. I link to the spirit of magic trapped within the metal, and I invite it into my every movement.

I don't try to dance. Mae is right—I'm never going to be elegant nor graceful. My body isn’t built for it. It is, however, built for power.

I let my magic build, the force moving with the fan as I furl and unfurl it.

I don’t follow any distinct set of movements. Yet from the scrolls I read last night, I know the fan dance requires a proscribed set of steps.

Instead I take to heart the underlying lesson. Move with fluidity, not force.

Though I’ve never bought into all the traditions that surround gender, I know force is reserved for a male sorcerer, whilst a woman is meant to be more receptive and supportive. This entire fan dance is built around that duality.

But underneath that, is a lesson.

I know how to be forceful, but now, as I attune to the water washing around me, I understand flow.

I’ll need to learn both if I want to defeat the Night.

At first I'm awkward, just jumping and leaping about like a child at play.

I should feel foolish—with so many potential onlookers, I should stop right now.

I don't.

Because I don't care.

Sparks start to play along my fan, and I can feel how much magic it's absorbing. But the power doesn’t burst out. It builds and builds and builds.

I'm calling upon the force within, but it is not dancing around me—it's concentrating, virtually unseen. For the first time in my life, I can practice without being distracted by the white-hot brilliance of my magic. The distraction of its hissing, crackling, sparking power.

The rain drives around me as thick as a watery shroud.

Perhaps it hides my display from everyone else, maybe it doesn't.

But again, I don't care.

In fact, I keep moving. I won't stop until someone tells me to.

I might be trapped, but from now on, it will be on my terms.

Chapter 25

Captain Yang

As soon as the rain starts driving down, I know it's going to be a trying day.

Which is strange—usually rain lifts me up.

Not today.

Today, I feel unsettled.

Which is a problem, because Princess Mara is about to arrive.

I pace back and forth in front of Garl's office, waiting for him.

The preparations for today have to be perfect. The Queen's own daughter will be practicing, and I can’t afford to have anything go wrong.

I try to tell myself everything will be fine, but my mantra is a hollow one.

There are so many variables at play. Members of the Royal Family are hardly ever taken out of the palace, and usually only when it is strictly necessary. Their safety is the most important factor in the entire Kingdom.

Now I am facing the harrowing possibility that for the foreseeable future Princess Mara will travel to and train at the Royal Barracks.

All because Castor convinced her to.

As soon as I think about that man, I shake my head.

I know he's up to something. Maybe he wants to see his apprentice, Yin, or maybe it's something else.

But his loyalty is not what everyone else assumes it to be.

It is a show.

As Garl's door opens and the man heads out with a nod, I return it and seriously wonder whether I should share my reservations about Castor.

But I already have, and no matter what I say, nor how emphatically I say it, Garl will not believe Castor is a threat.

To Garl and every other soldier in the Kingdom, Castor is a hero.

A living legend.

“Yang, I trust all the necessary preparations have been made,” Garl asks as he straightens his helmet underneath his arm.

I nod low, trying not to pump my left hand as I do. “Everything is ready, sir. Though I must point out that it is currently raining.”

“We can use as many Royal Army sorcerers as it will take to keep dry,” Garl says dismissively.

Briefly, I'd wondered whether he would say it didn't matter—that the Princess could just train in the rain, because she's the Savior, and will face much worse.

I'm wrong. Garl will use his best men to ensure not a droplet of water strikes her.

I smile. Or I try to. My nerves are a hard, twisting knot in my gut.

A knot I try to untie as we walk through the wide corridors and out into the square.

“Did you manage to secure a female sorcerer?” I ask Garl as we walk, “I heard last night that Castor requested one.”

“Yes, Mae will suffice,” Garl says as he marches forward.

I open my mouth to point out Mae would be busy training Yin, but something holds me back.

That something is Yin's reaction from last night. How she'd withdrawn at the mere mention of Garl's name.

Not for the first time, I wonder exactly what he said to her.

I hold my tongue.

We reach the square. Before we do, I feel the rain.

I feel it as if I'm standing right underneath it, opening my arms to its power.

I touch, smell, and taste it.

Eventually we walk out and I see it.

The clouds are a rolling, grey mess above. They send down a ferocious downpour that covers the square in drenching sheets of rain. The square itself is filled with puddles, water tracking around it, rushing into the gutters that will lead it outside onto the street, and eventually down to the river.

The smell that meets me as I breathe in deeply is truly invigorating.

It doesn't last.

Drawing my head down from staring at the clouds, I see Mae march up to us. When she reaches the General, she dips down low in a graceful bow.

“General, I am honored,” she says.

“I trust you have been informed how important this task will be,” Garl asks as his chest puffs out pompously.

No, not pompously, loyally. I have no idea where that thought came from, and I chastise myself for even daring to think it.

“I have,” Mae looks a little surprised as she swallows heavily, but soon enough she straightens her back regally, “and I will not disappoint you.”

“I trust you won't,” Garl says. He gestures forward, and we all begin to walk.

I watch Mae's shoulders tense at Garl's words. Perhaps she found his statement threatening, but I know he's underlining how important this task is.

So unbelievably important.

As we walk, and tension winds itself harder and faster around my gut, I can't help but stare at the rain. With my head twisted to the side, I watch those droplets fall in a storm of motion.

I see something moving amongst them. No, at first I feel it.

As we get closer, I realize it's a person.

When Mae takes a sharp breath, I realize who that person is.

Yin.

Of course. It couldn't possibly be anyone else.

She seems completely oblivious to the fact she's drawn an audience. And quite an audience she has drawn.

Not only are her guards watching her, but several other soldiers have come out from nearby rooms as well.

Now Garl draws to a halt under the awning, inclining his head down as he stares at her dancing in the rain.

No. She isn't dancing. There's no wild abandon about her moves. Nor is there any great elegance or grace.

What there is, is deliberate, directed force.

It's the most arresting sight I've ever seen.

It takes me too long to realize she has her fan in her hand.

“I thought I was told she is falling behind in training with the fan?” Garl notes as he does not turn his head from her.

His expression is mostly hidden from me.

Mostly.

I can see just a slice of his left eye and the corner of his lips. The effect they have is a chilling one.

No, I chide myself immediately. It's the angle.

“I . . . she was,” Mae stutters quickly. “She has just . . . benefited from my training. I set her work, gave her books to read.”

Garl nods. He doesn't say anything more. He continues to stare.

The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. Then, unable to stop myself, my gaze is drawn back to her.

I can't look away.

I can tell she knows we're looking at her—I'm sure she's aware of the crowd she's drawn. She doesn't care, though.

My life is dictated by tradition. Hers, it seems, by choice.

As I think that, I shake my head.

I draw myself back to earth, my awareness pulling away from her dancing, rain-covered form.

That's when I see her fan glowing red-hot with magic.

Ordinarily fans are made to store magic as long as they can. They concentrate it, enabling one to produce devastating blows.

However, like all magical weaponry, they can't hold that magic forever.

They have a limit. Yin's fan is rapidly reaching its.

I jump forward, out into the rain.

I don't think, I act, driven on, not by my mind, but by something else.

She turns, halfway through a powerful, sweeping turn, and sees me. Her hair is plastered over her face, water soaking every centimeter of her.

Where her gaze was once focused, mesmerized even, now her eyes open in surprise, water cascading over her lips as she jerks them apart.

I plunge forward.

She takes it as an attack, darting back.

“Stay still,” I command, but my voice is drowned out by the pounding force of the rain. As it slams against the cobbles of the square, it creates a din that fills the air.

Usually I can force my voice through any storm—drawing on the power of magic within.

Today, I can't.

I jump towards her again, but she darts back, her eyes now narrowing in a snap.

I've fought her once before, and that was during the driving rain too.

But she wasn't prepared for me then, and she is now.

She shifts back, watching me warily.

“I'm not attacking you,” I snap, “you need to stay still and let me—”

She darts away.

As she does, she lets the fan swing close to her chest. With the amount of energy charged within in, one wrong move and she could slice through her own torso.

I put a hand out, my fingers spreading wide in desperation, the rain striking them and thumping hard against my armor and helmet. “Please, stay still.”

Though my plea is once more drained out by the rain, I watch her stop.

Maybe she picks up on the desperate look in my eyes, but she no longer moves back. In fact, she stands there, confused.

Then she lets the fan drop towards her side as she takes an unsure step towards me.

I watch a lick of brilliant white magical flame start to leap from the fan towards her body.

I move faster than I ever have before. I flow forward like water let out from a dam.

She doesn't jerk back as I leap beside her, grab the arm holding the fan, and direct it towards the sky.

Though she twitches back at my sudden move, I won't let her break my grip, and she twists into my chest.

Then the magic escapes.

In one brilliant shot of lightning, it leaps into the air. It has so much power that it actually shoots through the clouds, pushing them back in a circle.

With a resounding boom like thunder, the last of it dissipates.

I let her hand drop.

She doesn't move away. She leans there, right against me, shaking. “What?” she breathes sharply.

I push back, releasing my hand from her wrist and letting her arm drop.

I watch her stare at the fan, her face contorted in fear and shock. “What just happened?” she asks again, her voice barely more than a whisper.

I try to answer, but can't find my words. They’re lodged far below my churning emotions.

Finally someone speaks, but it’s neither myself nor Yin.

Instead Mae comes darting into the yard, as the rain starts to abate. “You fool,” she shrieks.

Yin doesn't even look up. An angry Mae is bearing down on her, and all she does is stare from the slowly smoking remains of her fan then up at me.

I try to hold her gaze, but can't. I jerk to the side, clear my throat, and stare into the sky instead.

Mae reaches Yin, her ferocity making her cheeks a wild red like powdered ruby. “You idiot,” she snarls through clenched teeth, “you could have killed someone. How dare you be so foolish. You ignored my warning about the fan,” she begins.

“You never warned me,” Yin says in a quiet, far off tone as she stares up at the point where her magic parted the very clouds.

“Do not speak back to me. I told you during our first lesson that there is a limit to how much magic you can push into a fan.”

“You told me to watch and copy; you didn't tell me anything about the fan,” Yin answers, still distracted by the clouds above.

They are . . . thinning. Whereas once they'd been thick and dark, now they are dispersing with a quick wind.

“How dare you,” Mae snarls. “You endangered Captain Yang and yourself.”

“I was in no danger,” Yin answers quietly, still looking at the clouds, her lips parted and her gaze lost in the sight above.

Mae gasps. She moves forward to slap Yin.

I jerk in front of her grabbing her hand.

I tell myself it's not because I'm trying to protect Yin. Just the opposite, in fact—I'm protecting Mae.

Mae stares at me, but doesn't try to yank her hand free. She raises her head haughtily and waits for me to drop it.

I do, and I stand back quickly. Not to the side—I take a step back towards Yin, ensuring I'm still blocking her from Mae.

I should say something, but I can't. Instead I concentrate on the light drizzle touching my neck, and Yin's gaze, because I know she's staring at me.

Just as Mae looks as though she wants to push around me to get to Yin, Garl descends down the stairs and into the square.

I stare at him, but try as I might, I can’t fathom his gaze. It has an intense, concentrated quality. What it means, I can't guess.

It leaves me feeling cold though as he moves easily around me to get to Yin.

I stiffen, my body wanting to act on its own, wanting to take a step back so I stand before her, blocking her off once more.

It's mad. It makes no sense. Yet I can’t deny what I want to do.

Still, I control myself.

Twisting to face her, I watch Yin warily stare at Garl.

At some point she dropped her fan, and Garl now descends slowly on one knee to pick it up. Thoughtfully he turns it around in his hand, inspecting the damage with a few swipes of his thumb.

Yin flinches.

Garl keeps inspecting the fan, then he hands it to her.

She takes it from him with a trembling hand.

I wait for him to speak—and it's clear everyone else does too. But he doesn't. He turns and walks through the puddle-covered square, his heavy boots splashing through the water as he marches back up under cover without a word.

Mae looks from me towards the General. She snarls a quick, “I'll deal with you later,” before running off after Garl.

I should follow them.

Princess Mara is waiting.

The Savior.

Yet I can’t walk away.

Yin stands there, her hand still trembling from when Garl handed her the fan. For the very first time since meeting her, she looks small.

“I didn't . . . know,” she manages.

At first I'm surprised she's actually trying to explain herself to me. I would have thought she would merely cross her arms, turn her back, and tell me we're done here.

“I didn't know,” she says again in a quiet voice, looking up at the sky.

Though it would be easy enough to believe Mae—considering how hot-headed and rebellious Yin is, I can't.

While Yin is hot-headed and rebellious, I doubt she’d do something so dangerous knowingly. Castorious Barr would have taught her how to look after herself.

“It's not your fault,” I find myself saying.

I mean it.

I don't try to make her believe I'm being genuine—I am genuine.

She looks up at me. That usual hard edge to her stare is gone, and she looks vulnerable.

“You should get out of the cold,” I suggest in a whisper.

“And go where? Back to my room? Won't the General . . .” she shudders. “Won't he punish me?”

I open my mouth.

I don't know what to say.

Garl reacted . . . strangely. If he'd been angry at her apparent lack of care, he'd hidden it well. No, if anything, he'd been impressed.

His gaze had been calculating, not menacing.

Involuntarily, I shiver.

Yin notices. “I thought you Royal Army sorcerers couldn't get cold?”

She could be taunting me, but the quality of her voice is too worn out.

“We don't, and I'm not,” I answer. “That was just close,” I add before I realize it.

At first she looks unconvinced by my words, but as I admit my true feelings, she looks up.

“I . . . should go,” I manage. “Just head back to your room. I'm sure your training will be cancelled today, considering what's about to happen.”

Though she still looks fragile, her brow crumples in confused interest. “What's happening? Mae said some princess is coming. Is she inspecting the barracks or something?”

I feel instinctively irritated as she says “some princess,” but I don't draw her up on it. Neither do I answer her question.

She has no need to know why Princess Mara is coming here.

She looks at me expectantly, then sighs. “Fine, I get it; I'm not worthy enough to know. Sorry I almost killed you,” she mutters as she moves passed me, her waterlogged clothes sticking around her.

“You almost killed yourself,” I correct automatically.

She glances at me from over her shoulder. “I would have been fine.”

I can't help but laugh. It's half frustrated and half disbelieving. “The fan would have discharged all your magic back into you.”

She presses her lips together and shrugs. “I would have been fine.”

Frustration starts to rise in my belly. “You would have killed yourself. You need to be more careful.”

“Why? So General Garl can figure out what he wants to do with me? I saw how he looked at me when he handed me that fan.”

My mouth is open, but the words won't come out.

I know what I should say, but I can't. So I close my lips in frustration and stare at her.

Again it's like I'm staring into the fire, waiting for it to engulf me.

But the fire quickly dies. Yin turns around, sighs, her shoulders dropping forward sharply, and then she begins to walk off.

That's when I notice her bandage has slipped off her hand. I lean down to pick it up, staring over at her left hand as I do.

It seems unharmed.

I'd been informed that she'd cut herself badly in her fight with the illusionists. According to one of Garl's guards, her hand had been soaked in blood.

Now, in the brief glimpse I get of it, it appears unharmed.

“Hold on,” I say as I rush up to her.

She turns with a terse look in her eyes. Raising an eyebrow, she asks, “what?”

Silently I hand her the bandage.

She barely glances at what I'm handing her. She reaches out with her left hand.

I lock the bandage in her hand, then quickly reverse my grip, grasping her wrist gently but firmly as I raise it up.

She jerks back, and her move is strong. I get to see as much of her palm as I need, though.

There's no cut. It's completely fine.

“What are you doing?” she asks, her breath short.

“Where's your cut?”

“It healed,” she says in a choked voice.

I nod. I hand her the bandage.

She hesitates, then snatches it off me.

“I'm leaving now,” she whispers as she grips the bandage firmly in her left hand and hurries off.

She doesn't once look back. I, however, don't take my eyes off her until she disappears into the building.

. . . .

Either Garl was wrong—and her hand was never covered in blood, or . . . what?

Am I to believe such a serious injury could just heal so quickly?

Feeling confused, I shake my head.

I jerk back and realize I have somewhere to be.

Yin has distracted me from a far more important task. I must get to the Princess.

I run forward, my wet boots slapping against the equally wet stone.

It is time to begin my day. Or, rather, my destiny.

From now on, I will watch over and organize Princess Mara's training. I will help make her into the Savior.

With that thought pounding in my mind, it should be easy to keep all others at bay.

. . . .

I can't though. As I race through the square, I turn to face the buildings, scanning over them until my eyes lock on the one where Yin's room is.

The way she moved in the rain was . . . more than incredible. Beyond words, really.

She's proving to be far more powerful than I'd first thought. And just maybe, more powerful than Garl thought too.

I want to tell myself I didn't see that calculating look in his eyes, that I didn't feel how cold and dark his emotions were when he faced her.

But that would be a lie.

Instead I race forward, trying to push all of that away.

It's like pushing into a wall of water though—my hands slip through and flounder.

Chapter 26

Yin

For the first time, they don't take me back to my room. I'm expecting them to lock me in there for the rest of the day.

They take me to some . . . library instead.

I pass other soldiers, but they aren't the usual surly guards I'm used to. They appear, well, smarter. Though I'm not really confident, I think from the insignia on their uniforms that they're officers.

There are numerous wide tables dotted through the large room, and books and scrolls line the walls, long wooden ladders reaching up to the ceiling.

“Study,” one of my guards tells me as he points me roughly in the direction of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase.

“Study?” I repeat.

“Read,” the guard says slowly, as if I'm too simple to understand what that means.

I roll my eyes and walk forward.

I'm intensely aware that the officers in the room pause what they're doing to look up at me. They don't exactly shoot me friendly glances as I walk amongst them, rubbing my arms as I do.

I'm still sopping wet, and I trail water everywhere until some bright spark says, “she's too wet to be in here. She could damage the scrolls. Take her to dry off.”

Just as my guards move in, I shrug my shoulders, bring my arms out wide, and force the magical heat to rise on my skin. I don't send it surging out, burning everything in my path. I pump out enough to dry my clothes and skin.

As the last wisps of steam cascade off me, I smile at the surly officer. “Is this dry enough for you, sir?”

He looks disgusted and moves away.

I smile as he does.

The last thing I want to do right now is go back to my room—which is no doubt where my guards would have taken me to dry off.

Though my room has become my only sanctuary in this god-forsaken place, I can't spend another full day in there. I'd go mad.

I'd far rather spend it in this library.

While Castor had his own collection of ancient scrolls, they could only teach me so much. As I stand there and stare at all these books, I can't help but smile.

I might be trapped, but I'm still determined to make the most of this. I will learn everything I can.

Apparently I have a lot to learn. I had no idea those fans had a limit to how much energy could be pumped into them . . . even though it makes total sense.

Then again, I didn't even know something like those fans existed until yesterday. So as I look around at those books, I excitedly wonder what else I don't know.

“Don't get into any trouble. We're watching you,” my guards mumble as they take up position by the door, crossing their arms and looking surly.

I smile back and walk into the room.

I try to ignore all the judgmental looks the officers give me, but it's hard. Out in the driving rain when I practiced with the fan, I didn’t care what people thought. I'd known they were watching me, and it hadn't stopped me at all.

Now, however, without a veil of water and the distraction of the dance to distract me, it's not as easy to ignore them.

Up in my village, people hadn't really liked me. Apart from Castor, I'd had few friends. The villagers were mostly distrustful of a woman who didn't, well, act like a woman.

While the villages hadn't liked me, they hadn't been so damn open with their hatred. These officers, however, look as though I'm insulting them with my mere presence.

One even mutters, “women should not be allowed here.”

“You better leave if I'm making you uncomfortable,” I mutter back.

The man looks powerfully indignant, and snorts as he walks away.

I laugh softly. Then almost immediately feel guilty, wondering if my little act of rebellion will make it back to Garl.

Garl.

God . . . what does he want? Does he intend to use me as a soldier? Train me up and let me loose on the next person he wants to intimidate?

I shiver as I think about it. Tracing my hand up my arm, I stop as I realize it's my left one.

Damn.

Yang knows it isn't injured. He grabbed it and checked for himself before I could jerk away.

Damn that man.

Damn him.

Even more than Garl, he makes me angry. Because, unlike Garl who isn't pretending to be nice—Captain Yang honestly seems to think he can be my friend.

Or at least he wants me to think he's my friend.

“He's so see-through,” I mutter as I walk amongst the book shelves, picking out whatever interests me. Once I've gathered a massive pile, I shove them onto a table and sit. Everyone else at the table promptly leaves.

As I start to leaf through the books, I get an idea.

Though they mostly cover the various details of martial combat, I start to wonder what else this library has to offer.

Specifically, whether it has anything on the Savior and her legend.

While Castor has scrolls, and of course he taught me about the story and the part I will play in it, there's still so much I don't know.

Whenever I asked for more information, he always told me there were scrolls in the possession of the Royal Family that told more of the story. But as we had no way to get to them, it didn't matter.

Now, just maybe, I have a way to get to them. Hey, who knows, some of those very books could be in this room. If not those exact tomes, then other ones that could help me.

Pushing my current pile of books to the side, I start a more thorough survey of the library. I climb up the ladders, leaning confidently as I snatch up even the most hard to reach books. I also lean down on my haunches as I pluck up tomes from the dusty bottom shelves.

I search and I search.

I start to find things. Mentions, here and there. Snippets of the story.

I even find a book dedicated to the guardians of the Savior.

That's when I get excited. The book itself is on one of the hardest to reach shelves, but I don't let that stop me. When I hold it in my hands, I can't help but smile. A smile warmer and more genuine than any I have given in days.

I can do this, I suddenly think. I can use my imprisonment to my advantage.

Opening the book, I get a surge of power as my fingers track over the old, yellowed pages.

It's written in an old dialect, but one I can read thanks to Castor's tutelage.

Pressing my finger into the print, I scan the words, my lips crumpling in with concentration.

The guardians, I read, are chosen by destiny. Men and women ordained to train the Savior. They use their own magical skills to strengthen her own.

. . . .

Castor doesn't have magic, or at least not the obvious kind. His determination and knowledge, however, are more magical than flame bursting from one's fingertips.

I continue to read, becoming thoroughly immersed in what I'm looking at.

I shift around on the spot, then I take a step backwards as I'm still reading.

Someone jostles into me, and I drop the book, watching it skid across the ground, its pages fluttering.

“Hey,” I snap as I turn.

Captain Yang.

He looks startled as he blinks quickly. “What are you doing here?”

“I was told by my eloquent guards to read,” I say, mimicking their gruff tones. “So I'm reading,” I place my hands on my hips.

I shouldn't be sassing him, but I can't help it.

There's something about his face. No, about him.

I blame him. Everything is his fault.

He raises an eyebrow, then quickly shakes his head. “Study is virtuous,” he mumbles as an afterthought.

I can tell it's not what he wanted to say—it feels like something he just blurted out. In fact, after he says it, he winces a little.

“Anyhow, please move, I need to access that ladder,” he says as he points to the ladder behind me.

“Why do you need a book? Does the Princess want you to recite poetry to her?” I ask, hardly thinking as I speak.

My irritation at Captain Yang gets the better of me.

“No,” Yang answers as he races up the ladder, his poise perfect. He searches the shelves, clearly looking for something.

“Why do you need a book then? Is it so you can stand on it and impress her highness with your mighty height?” I ask, laughing at my own truly dumb joke.

“No,” he answers. He huffs. “Where is that book?”

“I'll leave you to it,” I say as I walk over to pick up my own book.

Yang jumps down from the ladder. He doesn't climb down—he lets go, landing with hardly any weight. He doesn't shake the bookcases, causing scrolls to come tumbling down around him. He lets go and falls like a single droplet of water, landing with just as much force.

I look at him startled, before continuing to lean down for my book.

He gets there first. He ducks in and picks it up. Turning it over, he looks at the title.

He looks right at me.

I want to say something trite and defensive, but I can't.

Suddenly I'm terrified.

I thought it would be a smart use of my time to look up the Savior myth. Now, however, I realize it has left me exposed.

“It's just a book,” I swallow. “It looked interesting. No, it fell from the bookcase,” I suddenly change my mind in the most obvious lie ever.

Captain Yang narrows his gaze.

“It's just a book. It's a . . . myth,” I add in a weak voice.

“Aren't you meant to be studying combat?” he asks carefully.

I swallow again. If I'm trying to look calm, I'm not managing it. Even a blind man would be able to see how nervous and flustered I am.

“They just pointed at the books and said study. And, well, I got bored so I . . . looked at that book. It's just a harmless myth,” I add quickly. “Nobody believes in the Savior anymore,” I practically whisper.

Yang nods.

I catch him staring at my left hand again. He almost looks like he wants to grab it up and inspect it once more. So I tuck it firmly behind my back. “Are we done here?” I instinctively ask.

He doesn't answer. He dusts the jacket of the book carefully with his palm, then walks away. As he does, he stares at me from over his shoulder. In fact, he doesn't turn around until he makes it out of the door.

I'm left . . . terrified.

Of course I am.

He looked suspicious.

Could he . . . have guessed what I am?

While Castor told me that there are few who still seriously believe in the legend of the Savior, it would take little to rekindle their belief.

Especially when coupled with my power.

I place a hand on my stomach and try to breathe. It's hard though. All I imagine is Captain Yang racing back to Garl and telling him what he suspects.

Feeling weak, and hating myself for it, I walk behind a row of books, finding a little nook where I can be on my own. Then I lean my back into the hard wood and close my eyes.

“You have to be more careful,” I whisper to myself. Without Castor, I'm on my own.

Chapter 27

Captain Yang

I hold onto the book as I jog back through the corridors, heading to the Princess.

I also hold onto the memory of how Yin reacted.

She isn't the kind to get flustered. Powerfully angry and determined, yes. But not nervous.

She'd looked as if I'd caught her. While technically she should probably have been studying combat, I doubt she was skittish just because I'd found her looking at something else.

No, the way she looked at me had been so . . . vulnerable.

The second act of vulnerable she's shown today.

I try to wipe all of that from my mind as I head quickly back to the Princess. Her training has already been delayed by the rain. Now they are waiting on me to bring this book. I can't dither thinking about Yin's curious reaction.

Her hand.

It isn't injured at all. Though I want to question her about it, I know she won't answer. She'll snap at me that “we are done,” and turn her back.

I have never met a woman like her. Bolder than most soldiers under my command, she has a streak of will so determined, it feels as if parts of her are made of solid diamond.

Realizing I'm still thinking about her, I roll my eyes.

Finally I reach the correct room. It's spacious with pictures of the Royal Family—including Mara herself—lining the walls. There are also beautiful antique chairs and couches, and a large, ornate cherry wood table.

It’s a room specifically intended for receiving dignitaries.

Of which the Princess is unquestionably one. However, I can't help think that as she's seated on a deep purple cushion sipping at tea, she isn't training.

She should be out in the puddle-soaked square learning how to fight.

As I catch myself thinking that, I'm appalled. She's the Princess, I tell myself.

But she's also the Savior.

The Savior must save. Drinking tea on a purple cushion isn't going to aid that holy quest.

It's not my place to interrupt, though.

As I enter the room, Mara smiles at me. It's such a warm and inviting move, I feel like blushing. Qu, Garl, and Matok—the head of the palace guards—are all in the room, and all can clearly see the way she's gazing at me.

Oh, and there's one other person. Castorious Barr. He, unlike the generals and the Princess, is not seated.

He is standing with his back to the far wall, his face angled out of the window as he stares watchfully into the square.

Is he looking for her? Yin?

As I clear my throat and present the book to the Princess, Castor turns around.

I feel his gaze like fire burning through water.

Clearing my throat, I nod at the Princess. “It was a little harder to find that I thought it would be,” I say truthfully, though omit the reason why, “but here it is.”

Mara smiles again, then carefully opens the cover with her delicate hand, her bracelets tinkling lightly against it.

With a watchful, intelligent gaze, she scans through the book. “It's in the Old Dialect,” she suddenly says, disappointment filling her tone. “Do we have a translation?”

“It is?” I ask, confused.

Either Yin was lying, and wasn't reading the book, or . . . she can read the Old Dialect.

Few scholars can, so why would a simple girl from the mountains have been taught to?

I find myself looking back at Castor.

He stares my way, his arms crossed, one leg locked over the other as he leans against the wall.

They've given him armor fitting his old rank—major. It's finer than most, though, and even bears the purple insignia of the palace. It is testament to how easily they have accepted him back.

The great, the powerful, the loyal Castorious Barr.

I turn from him slowly, clearing my throat as I do. “Princess, we will hand it over to the record keepers and have it translated at once,” I suggest.

“I'm sure they have their own translation,” Castor interrupts. “Anyhow, I did not request this book so that it can be read. I am interested in the pictures. If you turn to the middle, you will see several illustrations depicting a series of movements. It is a powerful combat form, and I want you to memorize it.”

The Princess nods her head firmly. “Of course. Will that be my lesson for today?”

“No. We will go out into the square to train,” Castor says.

Garl clears his throat, as does Matok.

“Castor, we must act with some discretion. I do not believe it wise to have the Princess train before my men,” Garl says carefully, “we should endeavor to keep her training secret.”

“No, we should not. We should make it as public as we can. The people need to know what is before them. They must know what their Princess is to go through so that they can help her in any way they can.”

Garl clears his throat. “I disagree. We must keep this secret. There is another training square behind my office. There are no windows that look into it, apart from my own. We will be safe there. With discretion, we will be able to keep this secret.”

“You will not. It will come out. Sooner rather than later. You do not need to hide this, nor be ashamed of it. Tell the people what they deserve to know,” Castor says.

Garl clears his throat again. I can see his ire rising, but he does not dare glance towards Castor.

. . . .

Garl is scared of no one.

So is that real deference holding him back, or something else?

As I look, I swear I see Garl's eyes narrow in calculation.

“Castor,” the Princess turns on her chair, “I understand what you're saying. But for now, let us train in secret. The people will know when they are ready to be told. I don't want to delay my training any longer to discuss when that will be. We will let them know when the time is right.”

“Or wrong, Princess. For it is my experience that keeping secrets as important as this does not lead to protecting people—it leads to disadvantaging them. Whether we like it or not, soon the age will begin to end. Your record keepers tell us we have anywhere from weeks to a single year. But as that age ends, chaos will break free. The hands of the Night will start to reach up from the cracks in the ground. Monsters will begin to roam the land. Now, you may choose to believe you are doing people a favor by telling them only when you're ready, but recognize that benefits you, not them.”

I watch Garl's expression turn from calculated but controlled, to pink with rage. It's a sentiment shared by the other men in the room. To them, challenging let alone insulting the Princess is tantamount to treason.

Yet not one of them rises to pull him into line. They watch to see what the Princess will decide.

She looks over at Castor, and her usual gentle but regal countenance cracks a little. Looking uncomfortably between Castor and the generals, then up to me, she is clearly lost.

People don’t usually challenge the Royal Family, and she clearly has no experience with what she should do should anyone try.

“I . . .” she trails off.

“You need to realize you're no longer a Princess. Your attachment to the Royal Family is now irrelevant. From now on, you are only the Savior. All other duties must be ignored, for all other duties will detract from you destiny,” as Castor speaks, his voice becomes . . . intensely powerful.

I know the man doesn't technically practice magic, but there's still something out of the ordinary about him. Otherworldly almost.

In fact, for some time I'm too impressed by his powerful words that I fail to realize what he's said.

. . . .

I step forward. It's more of a knee jerk, actually, one that sees me lurch a little into the room as surprise loosens my cheeks.

I go to say something—to defend the Princess. Castor gets there first. Looking right at me, he says, “I'm saying what you know, but won't dare utter.” He doesn't take his eyes off me. “You can't sacrifice yourself to save the age whilst drinking tea and sitting on a royal cushion. Now, until you recognize that, there's nothing I can teach you,” as he speaks, he never looks away—he stares only at me.

Right at me. His eyes boring through mine, his concentration like a jet of flame.

I hear the Princess breathe sharply, and Garl gets to his feet, his indignation making his cheeks so hot, they could melt snow.

Without another word, Castor walks away. With his shoulders thrust back and his head held high, he marches for the door and walks right out.

. . . .

No one tries to stop him.

With another gasp, the Princess gets unsteadily to her feet, placing a hand flat on her chest. “What did I do? Did I insult him? Yang?” she turns and fixes her flickering gaze on me.

I barely look at her. Instead I watch the door close and listen to Castor's footsteps as he marches off.

. . . .

No one stops him. Not the generals and not the soldiers outside. Why would they? He's the great Castorious Barr—the greatest warrior the Kingdom has. A veritable hero. And a necessary ingredient in the Princess' training.

“This is outrageous,” Garl says. “We can’t do as he says. We must keep this training secret. For the Princess' safety,” he nods at Mara, “it would be inconceivable to make this public. It could put the Royal Family in danger.”

I hear Garl's words.

They should make perfect sense. I should be just as incensed by Castor's suggestion. Yet a part of me can't help but think he's right. A small part. For I am still fiercely loyal to the Royal Family. However, I can't shake the feeling that there's a grain of truth to the man's message.

The Savior can’t perform her job atop a comfortable purple cushion.

But she's simply resting, I tell myself immediately. Her training has not yet begun in full. When it does, she will be diligent enough to succeed.

As for making this public—telling the Kingdom Princess Mara is the legendary Savior—is completely foolish. The public would not know how to deal with such monumental news. To tell them the world as they know it will soon end, and they will be ushered into a new age only if Mara defeats the Night . . . there would be pandemonium. Pure, violent panic. And under those circumstances, it would become even harder to train Mara.

No, Castor is wrong. I know that . . . . So why am I not saying that aloud? Why am I not using my own force, passion, and reason, to discount his?

Something is holding me back. Something strange.

For a man who reportedly has no magic, Castorious Barr is proving to have abilities I can’t explain.

“This is outrageous,” Garl continues.

The Princess immediately puts up her hand. “We need him, Garl. He knows so much. I have barely trained with him, and yet I can sense his power. His knowledge of the arts of magic is phenomenal. I can think of no other warrior in the entire Kingdom more suited to teach me. We must keep his confidence. And . . . perhaps he is right,” Mara concedes as she gazes down at her hands, her eyes darting over her golden bracelets. She begins to take them off slowly. “He already warned me this would take sacrifices. I can’t be a princess and live in luxury, yet expect to become a warrior. If I am to become the Savior, then I must learn to sacrifice.”

She continues to take her bracelets off, placing them carefully on top of the cushion beside her.

“No, Princess,” Matock says in a rumbling tone.

“Please, Matok, do not make this harder for me. This is a confusing situation, and we all must endeavor to determine how this is to work.” Once she removes the final bangle, she closes her eyes for a brief moment, before opening them and turning towards me. “Yang, please find Castor and tell him I am ready to cooperate. I . . . will discuss with my mother whether we should make this . . .” she uncomfortably looks at her hands, “public. But for now assure him I am ready to relinquish the trappings of my station. Anything for his return and cooperation.”

I want to tell her she shouldn't have to do that. I want to point out that regardless of what she is to become, she will always be the Princess.

Yet I don't. The words are there, but I can’t say them.

It's as if the effect of Castor's powerful display still lingers in the room. As if, somehow, he's still present.

Even Garl—usually an indomitable force—looks more reserved, wary even.

. . . .

I know Castor has no magic—or at least no recognized kind. Could it be possible he possesses some other strange ability though? Or am I making it up to explain my own weaknesses and inability to match him?

“Captain Yang?” the Princess prompts. While she is not affected in the same way I am, she is still acting strangely. I can see how reserved her expression is, and all it takes is a quick glance at her hands to see they are curled and white with nerves.

“Yes, of course, your highness,” I manage, breaking myself out of my reverie with a quick nod.

I turn, so sharply my boots squeak across the floor.

I rush for the door. When I open it and exit the room, I can't help but taking a stuttering breath.

It's almost as if I've come up for air after being half-drowned.

. . . .

I push myself forward, my movements a little jerky. Yet the more I move away from that room, the less of an effect Castor's display has on me.

I feel my usual control returning.

I walk faster.

As soon as I run into a soldier, I snap at him if he's seen Castorious Barr.

The surprised man nods his head and points down the hall.

In the direction of the library.

. . . .

Could he know Yin is in there? Was this all a ploy to go see her? He hasn't seen his apprentice for several days now, and as far as I'm aware, nor has he asked after her.

I speed up, running now, my arms pumping beside me and my armor rattling over my chest.

There's still a strong smell of rain in the air, and the square is filled with puddles.

I let its presence calm and bolster me.

Be like the water, I tell myself, move around all that stands in your path. Do not destroy it in one obvious blow—undermine it slowly but surely.

I take comfort from my thoughts, but as soon as I dare think of applying that philosophy to Castorious Barr, I actually cringe.

Though I have fought many incredible enemies in my time, I can't help but feel he is completely different. Flowing around him may not work.

Finding out what he's really up to, however, just might.

Running as fast as I can, and ignoring the strange glances I get, I reach the library. Without pause, I knock my shoulder into the doors and push through them, grunting as I do.

As one, every man in the library looks up, surprise then alarm playing over their faces.

“What's the matter?” one snaps, standing from his chair.

Though I want to shout out, I manage to control the volume of my voice as I ask, “did Castorious Barr come in here?”

The soldier looks confused, then shakes his head. “Not that I remember.”

I push past the man, my head sweeping left to right as I try to confirm that for myself. “Where's Yin?” I ask instead.

One of her guards, who was previously leaning against the wall relaxing, stands up and points towards the back of the library.

“What did she do?” he asks with undisguised delight. “The General finally going to show her who's boss?”

I ignore the man. I can’t stop my stomach from tightening at his crude words.

Still, I push into the library, marching, then jogging, then almost running until I make it all the way towards the back. Darting in and out of the bookshelves, I come across her.

I stop.

She has her eyes closed, her hands held out before her as she clearly practices some move.

Her expression is . . . peaceful. In fact, it's by far the most peaceful I've seen her. Even when she rested against Castor's shoulder after I cast the sleeping spell on her, she didn’t look so . . . restful.

At first I hesitate, not wanting to interrupt. Then I remind myself why I'm here.

I clear my throat.

Her eyes snap open. They grow wide with obvious alarm. Taking a step back, she places a hand on her chest defensively. “Why are you watching me?” she snaps.

Though I'm on an important mission from the Princess, that doesn't stop me from feeling . . . awkward. “I . . .” I clear my throat quickly, “have you seen . . .” I trail off. This time on purpose.

If Castor isn't in the library, isn't it safe to assume he didn't come here? Is there any reason, then, to alert Yin of his presence?

She shifts her head forward, her lips compressing in anger. “What? What do you want to know? Are you after some book? Or are you just here to check up on me? In which case you don't need a stupid story. And,” she spreads her arms wide as she turns slowly on the spot, “you can see I'm fine. I'm not doing anything Garl wouldn't approve of. Now you know that, you can leave,” she turns back to me and promptly crosses her arms.

I swallow harshly, my Adam's apple pressing tight against the collar of my uniform. “Very well,” I go to turn away.

I stop.

Slowly I turn my head back to her. As an idea flashes through my mind, I feel my cheeks and forehead tighten, my nose crumpling as my lips pull up. “Hold on.”

“What now? Are you here to admonish me on what I did in the square this morning? I'm telling you, Mae never told me the fan could do that. In fact, she hardly tells me anything at all. She snaps at me I'll never make it and that I'm an ugly little mountain bear. So if you're looking for a sorry, you're looking in the wrong place. Go find Mae.” With that, Yin turns with a huff and pretends to look at one of the books she's stacked by her feet.

“I need to ask you something,” I take a step towards her, but she doesn't turn.

Frustration peaks in my stomach. For all Yin's power, she acts like a child. While a part of me understands this situation must be hard for her, the rest of me is appalled by her lack of etiquette.

She is completely the opposite of the Princess. Mara is refined, polite, gentle. Yin, on the other hand, is boisterous, rude, uncultured, and irritating. Truly irritating.

Maybe it’s my left over anger and confusion at Castor, but frustration curls higher in my stomach.

“I'm still talking to you,” I say loudly. I usually attempt to control my voice—as a Royal Army sorcerer, I know how to act to keep a person's confidence. Castor called it manipulation, but it's more than that. I never choose to erupt—I leave that to sorcerers like Yin.

Right now, however, I can feel my anger igniting.

I don't need this. With the shocking surprise of the Princess becoming the Savior, I have far more important things to worry about than Yin, no matter how mysterious she might be. In fact, come to think about it, her inclusion into this mess has done nothing but distract me.

I stop short of thinking it's all her fault, but only just short.

Yin completely ignores me, grabbing up a book and leafing through it.

I'm unused to dealing with people so . . . childish. How can she ignore me when I'm standing right behind her?

I try to control my anger, but it keeps billowing up.

I take a step forward, pumping my left hand back and forth as I do.

Yin takes a step away, her back still to me as she continues to read the book she's holding.

As my anger climbs through my stomach and to my throat, I act. With a deft, truly quick move, I step behind her and grab up her wrist.

The book falls from her grip, clattering to the floor.

At first she doesn't look at me. I'm standing right next to her, holding onto her wrist a little tighter than I should be, and she won't even look up.

Slowly, she lifts her head, her eyes travelling from my hand to my arm to my neck to my eyes.

It's categorically the most intimidating move I've ever seen. Which is quite a statement considering I have lived my life in the army. Yet as Yin coldly gazes my way, she looks more intently threatening than Garl himself.

Though my instinct is to drop her wrist before she can follow up her threatening gaze with an equally threatening attack . . . I don't.

Again, it's like staring into the heart of fire itself, waiting for it to engulf you.

“Are you scared? Do you need something to hold onto?” she asks as she stares at my hand. Though her words and attitude are undoubtedly challenging, I sense slight hesitation in her tone.

“I'm . . . not done talking to you,” I manage through bared teeth. I don't mean to snap my words; it's the only way they can come out.

There's something about the mysterious Yin from the mountains that . . . unsettles me.

Though unsettle isn't the right word, I can't think of a better one as she continues to glare at me.

“Do you need some help taking your hand off my wrist? Is it stuck?”

I keep baring my teeth, but I don't let go. “Stop acting like a child. I need to ask you some questions,” I say, unable to control the anger twisting through my tone.

She raises an eyebrow.

. . . .

There's nothing that scares her, is there?

. . . Except for Garl.

I could mention him, warn that if she doesn't cooperate completely, I'll tell him.

Maybe I should. After all, my primary concern now is the Princess and her training, and Yin is an unwarranted distraction from that.

Maybe my thoughts play across my face, because her eyes open wider, her cheeks slackening. Slowly, she presses her lips in hard against her teeth. “Go ahead. Go tell him. That's what you're thinking, right? I'm not playing along, so go tell Garl and see what he does. Hey, maybe Garl will get his strange white and black guards to beat me into submission. Heck, maybe he'll let you watch. You'd like that, right? Seeing me lose, that would make you so happy—”

“No. Believe it or not, I don't want to see you get hurt,” I say.

. . . .

I mean it.

The words flow out of me. Like water from a broken glass, there's no way to catch them once they are out.

She looks shocked, and to tell the truth, so am I.

I let her hand go as I step backwards. My move is a little too quick though, and I bang up against the bookcase behind me. Without realizing it, I unsettle a book from the highest shelf, and it comes tumbling down.

Quicker than a mountain lion, Yin steps in, lifts up, and snaps the book out of the air before it can hit me on the head.

Without a word, she hands it to me and steps back. Then she crosses her arms and leans into the bookcase.

I hold the book, my fingers a little sweaty. “I . . . thank you,” I manage.

She nods. “What do you want to know?” she asks quietly.

“Whatever you know about Castorious Barr,” I practically whisper.

Her expression crumples. “Sorry, what?”

“Does he have his own magic?” I ask directly. I don't have the time to choose my words carefully—I need to know what Castor is capable of. I also can't waste any more time with Yin—the Princess is still waiting for me.

Reminding myself of that fact, I draw up to my full height and wait for Yin's answer.

“No,” she says, looking shocked. “Everyone knows that.”

“I know the story. He can't practice ordinary magic, nor illusion, nor any of the other kinds. But . . .” I trail off, trying to put my diffuse suspicions into words.

“But what? Castor doesn't practice magic. Believe me, I would know,” Yin interrupts.

I look at her from under a crumpled brow. Is she telling the truth? I can tell my question has shocked her, and her usual defensive expression has given way to crumpled-nose confusion.

“He's powerful,” I say flatly, trying to figure out exactly what I'm trying to ask.

Is Castor a danger to the Kingdom? Does he have something planned?

“Look, he doesn't have any magic, and you're right, he is powerful. But what's this about? Why do you care? You haven't seen him, have you?” her eyes suddenly light up with hope. It's so very different to the fiery challenging look she's usually shooting me. Now her cheeks are slack, her lips parted as she waits for me to answer.

“I . . . no,” I lie.

She crosses her arms tighter. “I can see you're lying. Fine, whatever. Don't tell me. But don't expect me to answer your questions,” she snaps.

Again my hackles rise at her reaction. She is so quick to anger and bite back. She doesn't pause to assess a situation—she jumps in snarling like a lion.

“You have an obligation—” I begin.

“Don't threaten me,” she says. If she snarled before, it's nothing to the vehemence behind her words now. They could shake right through a man and leave his courage as nothing more than dust.

I take an involuntary step back, my eyes widening at her tone.

She takes a step back too, checking over her shoulder as she does. As a touch of fear tightens her neck muscles and contracts her cheeks, it's clear she's worried her guards will hear and interrupt us.

“I've seen him. In fact, I saw him less than ten minutes ago. He's at the barracks,” I say.

I shouldn't. I should keep my mouth shut and not breathe a word of Castor's presence; there is no good reason for Yin to know.

I can't stop myself though.

Her threatening expression completely collapses. It's like watching a wall fall down. She lurches forward slightly, her eyes darting about as she searches mine. Whereas once they burned with hatred, now they flicker with tears. “He's here? You're . . . not lying? Can I see him? Is he okay?”

I'm not prepared for her onslaught of emotion. It's so . . . real. She isn't holding anything back, isn't hiding how she feels.

It reminds me of how she danced in the rain only that morning. Without a care for who was watching. Now she doesn't seem concerned about showing her vulnerability as she takes another step towards me. “Please, let me know.”

“He's fine. He's been staying at the palace. He is working . . . with the Royal Family,” I say, surprised at my own honesty, yet still careful enough not to share the full story.

I watch her nose crumple as her head jerks back slightly. “The Royal Family? What? Castor hates—” she cuts off quickly.

Now I step forward. “He hates what? You said before he despises class inequality. How much? I mean, would he be prepared to . . . do something about it?” I can't find the right words, and the ones that come tumbling out are weak, but the sentiment is there.

I take another step forward. She doesn't shift backwards, she just looks right up at me.

“No,” someone answers.

It's an unmistakable voice, and with a snapped move, I turn to see Castor walk up behind me. I twist so quickly, my amour clanks and my boots scratch the floorboards.

“Castor,” Yin exclaims as she anchors a hand on my arm and pushes past me.

She flings herself past me and right at Castor.

Though he accepts her embrace, almost immediately he pushes her back.

I can see her shock. No, I can feel it. It washes off her in waves.

“Castor, I . . . where have you been?” Yin asks, her words thick with tears.

They streak down her cheeks, collecting along her chin, but not once does she move to wipe them off. She's crying, and it seems she doesn't care.

Again I'm reminded of her dancing in the rain.

Castor barely looks at her. Instead he shifts his gaze over her head and locks it on me.

Though his expression is not outwardly challenging, my skin crawls.

“Captain Yang, you will learn nothing from my former apprentice that you can’t learn from me. You don't need to interrupt her training when all you have to do is ask me instead,” Castor says.

His voice is controlled, smooth, and calm.

Yet it feels like ice forming in my blood. There's just . . . such a cold, warning presence about the man. It's not in his tone, nor his expression, nor his choice of words.

It’s simply in him.

I start pumping my left hand back and forth.

“Castor, what's going on?” Yin asks as she takes a step back, staring from me to her mentor. She locks a hand on her arm, and I can see from the white touch of her knuckles that she holds on fast.

I barely glance her way though. Instead I hold all my attention for Castor. Turning from him would feel like turning your back on a rampaging bear. Or, aptly, the most terrifying warrior in all the lands.

“Your presence is requested back in the discussion room. We . . . wish to convey that we are now ready to begin where we left off,” I say, muddling over my words as I try to hide the truth from Yin.

She's still slowly turning her head between the both of us, her confusion so palpable, it feels like I could reach out a hand and hold it.

“From that rather opaque statement I take it to mean the Princess is now ready to train on my terms,” Castor smiles.

I baulk. “This is no place to discuss this,” I say quickly.

“It isn't?” Castor barely looks at me as he now swivels his attention to Yin.

She is understandably confused. “What's going on?” she hisses.

“You are sworn to secrecy,” I quickly interrupt.

Castor doesn't even look at me. Instead he stares at Yin, his gaze darting down towards her left hand.

She's secured the bandage over her hand once more, even though there's no injury to protect.

“What happened?” he reaches towards her.

When she hugged him before, he barely reacted. Now that facade of indifference collapses. He looks exactly as protective as he did in the cart when he warned me he would break me.

Yin snaps her hand back before he can touch it. “Nothing. Nothing happened. It's fine. I just cut myself a little. But it was pretty small, and it has healed already,” she says in the same breath, her words a rambling mess.

“How?” Castor asks .

“They made me fight . . . I can't remember what they're called . . . but they can make themselves go invisible. I just . . . got sloppy and must have injured myself. I'm fine though. It's healed. I found the best herbs in the infirmary and they worked fast.”

“Illusionists,” Castor says. He looks at me. “They're called illusionists. It . . . surprises me they made you fight one.”

“Two,” she corrects, her breath still quick and filled with nerves.

“Two,” he repeats. He doesn't take his eyes off me as he adds, “you must have made quite an impression if they requested you train with such . . . merciless opponents.”

“It wasn't really a request,” Yin notes as she hides her left hand behind her back.

Castor nods.

He doesn't turn to her once. He holds all of his attention for me. “Well, I trust you aren't giving anyone trouble,” he says quietly.

Yin looks powerfully confused now as she bites her lip. “I . . . Castor?”

“I trust you will also be more careful. Now, if you will excuse us, Captain Yang and I need to discuss something with her Royal Highness Princess Mara,” Castor nods at me.

I don’t return the move.

Instead I wait for him to tell Yin everything. That's what he's going to do, right? That's what this whole strange routine is in aid of.

Or is he trying to unsettle me further?

“I . . . but . . . what's going on? When will I see you? Do I have to stay here?” Yin begins, her words a torrent now. “I want to go home,” she adds, her voice shaking so much it makes me shiver and blink quickly.

I still don't shift my gaze off Castor though.

“You are no longer my apprentice; I now work for Princess Mara. You are now at the disposal of the Royal Army. You will never go home again,” he adds as he turns from her.

She chokes, slamming a hand over her mouth as more tears race down her cheeks.

“Study hard; the Royal Army does not accept failure,” with that, Castor turns to the shelf, selects a book, and hands it to her in a fluid, smooth move that sees him barely stopping as he walks away.

For the first time I take my eyes off him and I watch her.

With tears streaming down her face, she closes her eyes and hugs the book close to her chest.

Torn between staying and following—even though I have no reason to comfort her—I turn away and jog to reach Castor.

He doesn't stop, he doesn't look back—he marches for the door.

I'm barely a step behind him, and I feel like I'm walking in the wake of a tidal wave. Officers and soldiers move out of his way wordlessly, and I see the reverence flashing in the gazes.

There's no reverence in mine though. Just confusion and repulsion.

Yin, despite her annoyances, didn't deserve that.

It's clear Castor is the closest thing to family she has. Yet apart from his brief interest in her injury, he showed her nothing but cold disdain.

I press a hand into my face, wiping it down my closed eyes as I follow Castor silently into the hallway.

Again anyone in our path moves away without request. I half start to wonder if the very walls would do it too if Castor walked close enough to them.

It's as if nothing would dare get in his way.

“There's nothing she can tell you,” Castor speaks as we enter an empty hallway.

I don't answer, but I do shiver.

“She knows nothing of my past.”

I don't speak. I walk a step behind him.

“Is it standard practice to pit a recruit against illusionist assassins? Or is Garl trying to send me a message?” Castor suddenly asks.

I blink back my surprise at his question.

He stops. Dead in the middle of an abandoned corridor, he turns to me.

“I asked you a question? Is Garl trying to send me a message?”

“Garl . . .” I begin.

“Did they have knives?” Castor changes the topic quickly.

“Sorry, what?”

“The illusionist assassins—did they carry knives. That’s what they usually carry. That is how they kill so quickly and silently. Now, tell me, did Garl arm them before he sent a woman against them? It sounds like something he would do.”

I shake my head. “Garl is—”

“Ruthless. A man who gets what he wants no matter the cost. Now answer my question. Is that how she was injured? Defending herself from an armed enemy she has never seen and has no training against. Unless things have changed, it takes years before a soldier is ever pitted against an illusionist—to do so early would lead only to injury or death.”

“I . . . don't know how she got cut. In fact . . . she's not even injured,” I answer truthfully. I'm so flustered, I don't realize what I've said until Castor's eyes lock on me.

“What are you talking about?” he asks, and there's such a commanding quality to his voice that it feels as if he's somehow wheedled his way into my mind.

“Her hand is uninjured. I don't know why she's wearing that bandage. I saw her palm this morning—there's no cut.” Though I know I shouldn't be speaking to him, no matter how hard I try, I can't stop.

It really is as if he's in my head.

He takes a step closer to me, his expression darkening. “Tell me.”

“I . . . heard from the soldiers attending the fight she was injured badly—her left hand was covered in blood. But this morning, I could see no sign of any cut. She tried to hide it from me, but her bandage slipped off. She's hiding something,” I add.

I . . . can't stop myself from speaking.

I try, with all my might I try, but I am being compelled, and I can’t fight it.

Staring at him in horror, I repeat, “she's hiding something.”

Castor shifts his head to the side, a calculating look flashing in his eyes. “Let us return to the Princess,” he says.

I blink, staggering back. “What . . . what did you just do to me?” I say, my words a gargling jumble.

“Sorcerer, I told you I would break you. I told you it would be easy. It is.” Castor turns and walks away.

I stand there with a hand hooked on the wall for support, breathing as hard and fast as I can. With my chest pumping against my armor and sweat pouring down my brow, I watch Castor get further away. “Stop,” I manage through a wheeze. “Stop.” I push myself up and command magic to burst over my hand.

It's cold. No, frozen. The feeling of it jumping out of my body bleeds the emotion building within.

That cold certainty and comfort my magic has always given me bolsters me now.

Castor slowly turns. “Whatever you say to Garl, it won't matter. Whoever you tell, it won't matter. Nothing you do, Captain Yang, will matter.”

I take up a defensive stance, the magic now gushing down my arms as it whips faster and faster around my outstretched hands. Despite the fact there is little light in this corridor, a blue glow emanates from the center of my Arak band, illuminating my arms in an eerie, cold fire.

“You're planning something, and I am not going to let you get away with it,” I manage as I draw in another cooling breath. As the magic builds within, it keeps bleeding the feeling from me until I feel numb.

Thankfully numb.

No more confusion, no more fear. Just nothing at all.

Castor smiles. “I'll admit, you are very good. I can feel your control even from here. Your connection to your Arak device is strong. However, the spirit within is cold, leaving you completely open to attack.”

“Try it,” I say harshly. “I won't hold back,” I assure him in another breath.

“I don't want you to,” Castor exclaims.

I shift forward, my boots squeaking over the hard stone floor as I fling myself at him.

Castor doesn't move as I send a powerful jet of magic shooting right towards him.

He stands there and takes it.

He is not wearing armor, and unlike a sorcerer, can’t summon his own magic to protect himself. Instead he shifts forward slightly and lets my blow slam into the center of his unprotected chest.

Immediately the move reminds me of what Yin did in her first fight with Mae. Yet while Yin jumped and twisted and rolled, flinging herself with violent force at Mae's attacks, Castor barely shifts.

Yet, somehow, my jet of magic breaks against him.

I shift back, but I don't stay surprised for long. Instead I swing forward with a violent move of my arm, and send another powerful slice of magic shooting towards him. It's enough to chop through a wall, and yet, as it reaches Castor, all it does is cascade off his chest.

Letting out a grunt, I move my whole body forward as I command all my magic, sending an enormous wave of power towards him. It's enough to topple ten men, yet Castor . . . he walks right through it.

It breaks around him, sparks rushing down the corridor in great waves.

I rock back now, unable to contain my shock.

Castor takes the opportunity. Putting on a quick burst of speed, he flips right over my head.

Just as I shift back to defend myself, he anchors a hand on my neck and one on my arm. Then he muscles me to the ground in a powerful move that I can’t resist. Pressing my head into the stone, it's clear I've lost.

Trying to wrestle free, I can't. So I lie there, waiting for him to do his worst.

He leans down close to my ear. “If you are to be her guardian, you will need to learn to defend yourself better than that.”

I shift back, but he locks me in place all the harder and continues, “if you wish to learn to fight, you must find the true base of your power. Not what the army has taught you—the spirit of magic. The fundamental base of the force your Arak band unleashes. Until you know that, you will be useless to her.”

“I'll do whatever I can to protect Mara,” I snap back.

“Hmm, Mara, yes, of course,” he says distractedly. “But your best will not be good enough. If I can beat you, they will be able to as well.”

“. . . Who?” I stop struggling, my head now turned to the side as I breathe against the polished stone.

No matter how much I try to call on my magic, it will not come.

“They'll come. This age is ending sooner than I thought it would. They will come. With the first drop of blood, they'll be called to her. Now, if you want to fulfil your destiny, you must learn to fight.”

“I'll do whatever it takes,” I say through bared teeth. “Now let me up.”

“Learn an espre ritual, find your center,” Castor says. Then, without another word, he steps away.

I push myself up immediately, backing away from him and keeping my fists up as I watch him warily.

He raises an eyebrow and closes his eyes as if he's bored by my act.

It doesn’t last.

The same fire I heard in his voice returns to his expression as he takes a step closer. “Tell Garl if you please,” Castor looks from my feet to my face, “but I would not trust that man if I were you. His goals are not yours. Nor are his methods. If you were to dig into his past, you would realize that, son of Baqu.”

I shudder back. Up until that point, I'd been determined to show no weakness, but now I can't hold it back.

“I trained your father. In fact, he was the last person I trained before renouncing the Royal Army and leaving for the mountains. You have a little of him in you, but not enough,” he begins.

“Shut up,” I snarl.

“To ruin you,” he continues. “When I learnt who you were, I thought you'd be irredeemable, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you can renounce your origin and find your own path, after all.”

“My father was a good man,” I spit, so emotional I'm actually shaking. My eyes are wide and my lips jerk back and forth with every word.

“Your father was worse than Garl. Now you have two options—you either learn from his mistakes and walk away from his ways, or you embrace them. Do the latter, and I'll kill you myself,” Castor warns.

“How dare you—” I begin.

“If you dare do anything to her, I will break you down, wall by wall, and watch you drown under the torrent of emotion you've pushed back and denied your whole life.”

I open my mouth. I'm full of hatred, disgust, and fire, but just can't get it out. It's stuck in a growing ball right between my chest and throat.

“Now. Learn. Go find the true base of magic. Commit the ritual. You'll be useless to her until you have,” Castor turns and walks away.

“I'll report you to the General,” I manage, only able to speak once Castor's overpowering presence is gone from my side.

He doesn't turn. “And say what? That the Kingdom's most legendary warrior attacked you in a corridor . . . yet nobody saw and nobody heard?”

As he notes that, I realize that . . . somehow, no one has come out of the doors dotted along the hall, despite how loud our battle was.

. . . .

I look up at his departing form.

“Tell Garl. Share your suspicions. He won't believe you. He needs me. And so, Captain Yang, do you. Follow my warning. Follow my advice. Or turn down the path of your father and see what horrors await you there instead.” With that, Castor walks out of sight.

He leaves me . . . a mess.

Breathing erratically, I push my back into the nearest wall, pressing a hand over my eyes.

I try, I try to control the torrent of emotion tearing through me. I try to stem the tide by building wall after wall before it. I can't.

No matter what training I call on, feeling leaks through my defenses.

My father always told me that to be the best Royal Army sorcerer I can be, I must purge myself completely of emotion. No trace of feeling should remain in the body of a sorcerer—for feeling stops the control of magic. Worse than that, it directs it, when only the cold logic of the mind should.

I stand there for too long trying to get a handle on myself until I regain enough control to walk away.

Shaking.

Confused.

Terrified.

Yet . . . curious. More curious than ever, in fact, to find out what's really going on here.

Before in the library I concluded Yin was nothing more than a painful distraction. Now, however, I realize she could be the one and only key to finding out what's really going on here.

It's only that promise that sees me straighten my back, dry my brow, and continue on.

Chapter 28

Yin

I return to my room. I don't care that I'm crying—why should I? Though it seems to amuse and bolster every soldier I meet, I don't try to hide it.

I was taught never to hide my emotions. Get in the way of feeling, and you get in the way of magic. I might have hated my tenderness before, but now I realize I can't deny it.

I'm not like Captain Yang—I will not purge myself of emotion, no matter how inconvenient and uncomfortable those emotions can be.

Plus, these soldiers can enjoy my tears all they can now, but I won't be crying forever. Nor will I be trapped forever.

I will endure, and then I will fight.

For now, however, I can't stop the torrent of tears.

When I reach my room, I crumple against the wall.

I hook my arms around my knees and I hug them close to myself.

I don't sob; I let the tears flow freely.

I want to tell myself that Castor wasn't telling the truth—that his act of indifference was just that. An act.

But . . . I just can't shake the feeling it's more than that. That, just maybe, he's right: I'm no longer his apprentice and I'll never see my home again. For now until they grow bored of me, I'll be the property of the army.

I start to break down again, the tears coming fast as I breathe hard.

Though I’ve been taught never to hide from my emotions, I want nothing more than to push them back now. They are just so powerful. I feel so small and insignificant in comparison. All those years of training, of strengthening myself, seem completely insignificant as I rock back and forth like a child.

Castor always promised me that he would be there, right up until the end. No matter what happened to him, no matter what he had to endure, he would help me until the final day of the age. After all, he's my guardian, and that's what a guardian is meant to do.

Now as I sit there with my back pressed up against that cold, hard stone, I can't help but think it's over.

Though I want to believe that he hasn't abandoned me, I can't force myself to accept he will continue to be there for me either.

Something complex is happening, and I have no idea what it is.

So . . . what do I do?

I've had it drummed into my head that as the Savior I have to be so very careful. There are forces, that if they know who I am, will come after me.

Far more vicious than an illusionist, these creatures are the foot soldiers of the Night. They would make the General seem tame in comparison.

Shivering as I think about them, I run my hands up and down my arms, my fingers bent, sweat collecting between them.

How can I be careful if Castor isn't by my side? He knows so much more than me. My training is incomplete, and I need someone like him.

I can't do this on my own.

Feeling colder than I ever have, as if the spirit within my Arak device has burnt out completely, I let my back slip off the wall, and I crumple to the floor. Though it may be unfathomably pathetic, I just lock my arms around my chest and bury my head into the crooks of my elbows.

I sob, I weep, I cry. I let it all out in one unending rush of sorrow and fear.

Yet, through it all, despite how low I am, I don't give up.

There is that grain, the spark that never goes out, that is buried deep in my soul. No matter the hardships I endure, it remains. No matter the successes, no matter the failures, it remains.

It's always been there, and if I'm willing to believe in it, it will always be there.

Something to hold onto even in the darkest of nights.

Right now, though it's hard, I hold onto it again. Slowly, I let the last of my tears trickle down my blotchy cheeks. I shift my head back, and rest it against the cool stone floor. Then I turn, rolling onto my back as I stare up at the ceiling.

Reaching my hands out, I unfurl my fingers and stare at my palms.

Even when you are weakest, you are powerful just so long as you remember what it feels like.

To reinforce that fact, I fight against the magical enchantments enshrouding this room, and I force several sparks of magic to collect over my fingers. They dance and crackle, their light playing against my dirty hands.

With wide eyes, I watch them. I watch them as they grow, oh so slowly, but grow they do.

. . . .

I can do this.

Even if I don't have Castor, and there's nobody to help guide me, I have to try.

That is my destiny. No, it's more than that: it's my choice.

I will face the Night. If I am willing to do that, then surely I can do this?

I can find the strength to move on. Without Castor, I will train myself. Whatever it takes. Even if it means staying here willingly, and learning whatever I can from Mae and Garl and all those other arrogant fools. Even Yang. If he can teach me anything, I will learn it.

I will gather those lessons like a rolling stone gathering speed as it tumbles down a hill. The more I learn, the stronger I will get.

I won't let a soul stop me.

Finally I push up. I don't dry my tears; I let the magic within do that. As I force heat to rise through my cheeks, the moist feeling disappears. Then, with a breath, I extend my arms and take up a defensive position.

“Nothing is going to hold me back,” I tell the empty room. Though my voice is not particularly loud, it echoes around that tiny space. As it does, I let myself believe my own words.

Nothing is going to hold me back.

Chapter 29

Captain Yang

It's the hardest thing I have ever done, but I control myself. As the day continues, I say nothing. I don't breathe a word of what transpired between Castor and myself.

. . . .

I tell myself it's because I am biding my time, waiting until the General is alone so I can tell him without Castor or the Princess present.

As the day comes to a close, and the Princess is taken back to the Palace, Castor with her, I still find myself unable to breathe a word.

Everything I want to say is stuck in my throat. It's as if Castor has tied my words to a rock and lodged it in my chest with whatever strange power he possesses.

Or maybe it's more than that. Maybe his words are starting to affect me. His veiled warning about Garl.

Though Garl is the kind of man who will do whatever it takes, I tell myself Castor is overstating things. Garl is no monster. In fact, he's a hero. Just as my father was.

My father . . . .

As soon as I think of him, I feel a cold sweat slicking across my brow.

Of all the things that can undo me, thinking of him is the worst.

Though he died long ago, my relationship to his memory is just as complex as my relationship to the man had been when he had lived.

He was a strong and truly uncompromising man, and he single handedly taught me how to be the best Royal Army sorcerer I could be. In fact, he demanded it. He was a sorcerer himself, and he had learnt the art like no one else could. His ability to purge his emotions was second to none. Even towards me, his only son, he had never shown a gram of compassion, let alone love. Emotion would only get in the way of training.

Though perhaps I had not understood that fact as a child, I understand it now. I'm not bitter towards him, because there's nothing to blame him for. Without his insistence, I wouldn't be the man I am today. And considering the destiny that awaits me, protecting the Savior herself, I must thank him.

Yet still, I can’t deny that merely thinking of him sends tense shivers darting through my back and arms.

No matter how unsettling the memory of him is, however, I will not renounce him. I will never do that.

There's nothing to renounce. He was a hero.

A hero, I tell myself firmly as I walk through the square.

Castor is trying to undermine me. At every turn, he says something that he knows will rile me. There's no actual truth behind his words.

. . . .

As I think that, I think of Garl. And more to the point, Yin's reaction to him. The palpable, undeniable fear. I see it every time his name is mentioned. This morning, after her accident with the fan, I saw fear washing through her as Garl stood by her side, his eyes narrowing in interest . . . .

I break off my thoughts, shaking my head to chase them away.

I continue to walk determinedly through the square.

Night settled in hours ago, and torches have been lit, casting their bright, flickering glow over the cobbles before me.

As the wind catches a lamp close by me, I hear the flames crackle and spark. Unlike water, which washes around any obstacles thrown in its path, the fire bends with the wind, but it protests, growing brighter and crackling harder.

Just like Yin.

Yin.

I am no longer going to deny she's at the center of this. She is the key to finding out what Castor really wants.

I am determined to find out what that is. That's why I'm walking quickly and surely towards her room.

In fact, it's becoming an old habit. I have gone to see her in her tiny cell at least once a day since she arrived. Yet somehow it feels like it's been longer than that. Despite the fact I haven't even known her for a week, it feels as if I've known her my whole life. Perhaps it's her intensity, or maybe it's because her arrival has coincided with the complete upheaval of everything I know.

Or maybe it's something I can't even fathom yet.

But the point is, as I reach her door and close my hand into a fist, getting ready to knock, it feels . . . right.

Though we could very well get into another argument—as I seem to do little else when she is around—I still can't deny the desire to see her. Staring into her flaming personality feels like the greatest act of courage I've ever experienced.

As I think that, I squish my face up in contempt. I must be tired, I assure myself, then I lean forward and knock.

She doesn't answer. This time, rather than just opening the door, I knock again. I don't want to find her half-dressed.

However, after I knock multiple times, I soon realize she isn't going to say anything. So, with a rattling sigh, I open the door a crack.

My cheeks flushing red at what I might find, I soon realize she is fully dressed. She's also standing in the center of her tiny room, practicing with the burnt remains of her fan.

She doesn't look up as the door swings open and I take a tentative step into the room. In fact, she continues to practice as if I'm not there at all. With concentration plastering her face, her lips drawn thin against her teeth, she moves the fan in great arcs around her.

Though she lacks the same quality of fluidity she had this morning, her moves are still powerful and direct.

I find myself being drawn in as I watch her, almost forgetting why I'm here.

Then, as she furls the fan around in a great arc, her body moving in perfect time with it, I see her shoot me a terse glance. “Didn't your mother ever tell you not to let yourself into ladies rooms just to stand there and watch them?”

I splutter, taking a light step back, but not actually leaving the room.

“Do you want anything?” She rolls her eyes, but doesn't stop practicing. Every move is strong, directed, concentrated. I can see how much she's been practicing; her once rough moves are now more polished, and yet, paradoxically, freer. It's harder to predict what she'll do next, and it is almost thrilling to watch her.

Realizing I need to say something, I clear my throat. “We need to finish our conversation,” I manage.

“What conversation?”

“You need to tell me everything about Castor,” I say as I cross my arms and lean against the doorframe.

There are no guards standing outside, thankfully, so I don't have an audience. Considering it's impossible to break out of a room like this, there's no longer any point in having soldiers watching her when she's locked inside.

Yin doesn't answer. She turns on the spot and continues practicing until she reaches the wall a meter from her, then she turns again, and practices in the other direction.

“What is he planning? If you know, you need to tell me,” I say quickly.

“You heard him. I'm no longer his apprentice, and he doesn't plan to see me again. He is training the Princess now, whatever that means. That leaves me with you,” she says, her words gruff.

My cheeks redden at the word “you,” but I hide it as I send a burst of practically invisible magic to take the heat away.

As I rely on the magic, I remember how cool and calming it is. How numbing.

It lets me take a step back and assess the situation for what it is.

Yin is clearly not going to tell me anything about Castor, not unless I compel her to. Fighting her just isn't going to work. So the only option left is to make her trust me.

“Believe it or not, I'm on your side,” I say as I let my arms loosen and drop to my sides. I look at her directly, never blinking, fixing my attention only on her face as she twists and turns and practices before me.

“Really? Then you won't mind if I leave and go back to my home and take Castor with me?” she quips.

“I can't do that. But if you let me, I can help you. Maybe one day I can convince Garl to let you go. Before that happens, I need you to trust me,” I put a lot of effort into saying the word trust. As I do, I try to make it sound as genuine as I can.

I pretend my words are as clear and transport as glass. They hide nothing but my true intent.

As I do this, my magic builds. But rather than channeling it into a shot and smashing it against the wall, I push it into my words. Into the exact way I say them, how I look at her as I will her to believe me.

She stares at me as she continues to practice, and I soon realize her moves become all the sharper and stronger, as if she's trying to beat the very air before her.

I have to get her attention. I have to garner her trust. I need to know what Castor is up to. If she doesn't know, then I still need to know everything she does. Every last scrap of information about that man.

With the cool, reassuring numbness of my magic rushing through my veins, my left wrist buzzing as my Arak device practically vibrates, it's easy to pluck up the courage to walk all the way into the room and right up to her.

Without any space to practice, she stops. Though I can tell she wants to continue, taking the excuse to whack me on the head with her fan, she doesn't.

Yet neither does she step backwards. She tips her head and stares into my eyes. “You want me to trust you? How? You don't even trust yourself.”

I try to control my expression, as I redouble my efforts to look genuine, but I can't stop my brow from crumpling. “You can trust me,” I emphasize can with a sharp breath of air, and I smile as I gaze at her.

It's a trick that should work on anyone.

It does not work on her.

She snorts. “You are so fake, you know that, right? I can see through this act. I might have fallen for it once, but the more I get to know you, the more I can recognize it. You think I can't feel you using magic? All the force concentrating on your heart—I can sense it. I know it's there, and I know what you're using it for. But trust me, I'm never going to trust you,” she moves her mouth wide around her words, her voice clipped and clear.

I press my teeth together, swallowing hard behind them. “You can trust me,” I say again, but this time my voice wavers.

She snorts again. Though there’s more than a meter of space behind her, and she could easily take a step back, she doesn't. She stares up into my eyes, making it clear she is not even remotely intimidated.

“You really are fake. Tell me, does anyone actually fall for that?”

I stiffen. “I am not fake,” I say, unable to stop myself.

She raises an eyebrow and crosses her arms. We're so close, her elbows almost brush up against my sides.

I don't move back.

“Yes, you are,” she says directly. “You have more walls set up around your emotion and true feelings than there are in the entire Kingdom. Tell me, when was the last time you actually felt something?” she unhooks one arm to slam it on her chest, the fabric rumpling at her move. “And you weren't ashamed at letting that emotion in?”

“I'm not ashamed,” I say through clenched teeth, rapidly losing control of the situation.

“I read about you in the library. Well, not you specifically, but the way Royal Army sorcerers are trained,” she says Royal Army like it's an insult, “and it's horrible. Why would you do that to yourself? Why would you let yourself become a soulless weapon for the army?”

“You have no idea what you're talking about,” I snap back.

“I wish I didn't. I wish I was still up in my village, blissfully unaware that people like you exist,” the skin around her eyes tightens as she mentions her village, and it's obvious how sad it makes her feel. But she doesn't try to hide it. She stares up at me, letting everything show.

Yet as I glare down at her, I try to keep everything back. As I feel my control slipping, I utilize every trick I know to bring it back. I build emotional walls as fast as I can, trying to push the cold touch of magic through my veins and forcing it to drive out every feeling as it washes through my heart.

We are total opposites.

A fact I don't have time to appreciate as I snarl, “you are naive. A dumb girl from a village, who's never seen the world, and now hides behind her ignorance, fighting everybody who comes near.”

“Well this dumb girl from a village is smart enough to know you are only trying to manipulate her. You want me to trust you so I tell you everything about Castor. Well it is never going to happen.”

“You have an obligation to your kingdom,” I begin, heat rising so fast on my cheeks that no matter how much magic I pour through them, I can’t chill them.

My anger is bubbling away, and I can't stop it.

“And you have an obligation to yourself. You've given away the true source of your power, just to please your generals. And in the deal, you've given up your heart and soul too. You might think I'm dumb, Yang, but I have never met somebody who has sacrificed so much for so little. You may think you're just being loyal, but you're being blind. You're letting yourself become a tool. You have a heart for a reason, you know that, right? You feel for a reason. This,” she drives her thumb into the center of her chest, pushing her fingers down to where her heart is, “helps you to know what to do, and it helps you stop doing what you shouldn't.”

“I—” I begin.

She speaks right over me, “you want to know something about Castor? Okay, I'll tell you. He always taught me that the most important source of power is your morals. That's the real connection between you and the spirit of magic you summon. The true espre of any Arak device. And you, you've given up your morals. You're happy to numbly follow somebody else's orders, never thinking for yourself whether what you're doing is right or wrong. So don't you think you can intimidate me, because you can never be as powerful as I am.”

I want to shout at her. Hell, I even want to strike out. The anger burning in my belly tells me to do something, and as it rears its ugly head, it has the face of my father.

Yet something holds me back, and that something is curiosity.

As it mollifies me, what Castor told me earlier today ignites in my mind.

He warned me that if I am to become a guardian of the Savior, I have to connect to my magic.

He told me to connect to the espre of my Arak device—the true soul of my magic.

Maybe Yin can sense my confusion, because her eyebrows crumple close over her flashing eyes. “What? I'm finally getting through to you?”

“What are you talking about?” I force myself to say. As I speak, I don't control my emotions; they weave through my tone, contorting the words, making my fragility and confusion obvious.

“What? You actually care?”

“What did Castor teach you about the espre of magic? Did he ever teach you any rituals?” I add, latching onto my curiosity with everything I have. The more I invest in it, the more my open fragility is less important.

Yin crumples her brow and goes back to crossing her arms. “Are you playing with me again?”

“You're smart enough to know when I'm manipulating you. So you should be smart enough to know that I'm not doing that now. So just . . . tell me, what did he teach you about the true soul of magic?”

She shakes her head a little. “Why do you care? You're blindly loyal to your Royal Family and generals. Why would what a dumb village girl says matter to you?”

“It shouldn't. I don't want it to matter to me,” I say, incapable of being anything but honest. I can't hide my words nor my true intentions; what I'm really feeling burns through. “Believe me, I want nothing more than to dismiss you and your words completely. But I don't have that luxury,” my voice becomes croaky, “please, tell me.”

She stares at me warily, but the longer she does, the more her confusion lifts.

“Is there some kind of ritual to reconnect to the spirit of my Arak device. Yin? Is there some way to strengthen my link?” I indicate the Arak device on my left wrist, “to the true espre of my magic?” I shouldn't be so honest. It goes against everything I've ever been taught, everything my father taught me. You purge your emotions, and if you can't, you hide them, locking them up behind every wall you can.

They will lead only to ruin.

I can't follow my curiosity and hold them back at the same time; I don't have the attention required, nor the control.

“You give in,” she says quietly.

“Please, I'm being honest with you. If you know anything, tell me,” I say quickly.

“I am telling you. If you want to reconnect to your power, you give in to it. It will show you. The spirit,” her voice becomes far-off, and she gets an almost otherworldly look in her eyes, “within the magic, your Arak device, will show you the way.” She looks up at me and locks her gaze on mine. There is still a distinctly otherworldly quality to it, and it sparks my curiosity even more.

As do her words.

“What do you mean? Is there some ritual I have to follow? Some set of moves? Does it require a sacrifice? Do I need any ritual objects?”

She laughs, but whereas once her snorts were clearly derisive, now she seems to be amused. Maybe it's the first time I've ever seen Yin simply amused. Unable to stop from smiling, she shakes her head. “How would any of that help you? It would just distract you. There is nothing special. You just give in. Go find the great spirit, and be willing to listen to what she says. She will show the way back to water.”

Now it’s my turn to stare at her in confusion. “Be willing to listen to what she says, what does that mean?”

She laughs again. “You really have no idea, do you? Haven't you ever tried to summon Gaea before?”

“. . . No. People can’t summon Gaea,” I point out carefully.

She starts to laugh again, then her eyes grow wide, and for a second it looks as if she has let something slip. As if she's made an unintended error. Then I watch her grit her teeth and push a breath through them. When she’s done, I watch her force another laugh as if she's trying to hide her odd reaction altogether. “. . . To reconnect to your element, you must become immersed in it. You must trust it. Push yourself right into it, and be confident it will protect you. Gaea will guide your way. Give yourself up to her. Don’t control yourself, let her move through you. Don’t be afraid to relinquish the control you think you have,” she distractedly sweeps a hand up her arm, “and just give in to your Arak device completely. It will protect you. When I was young, there was a terrible storm in our village,” she takes a slow breath, and it’s clear she’s about to share something unsettling. She doesn’t stop though. Yin never holds herself back. With another breath, she continues. “I was young, I was terrified, and I was trapped out in the mountains. And, well . . . I climbed as high as I could. I didn’t understand the lightning would be attracted to higher ground,” she laughs uncomfortably, “and I got struck. I still remember it, the power flashing through me.” She brings up her left hand and stares at her Arak device distractedly. “I was too young to use magic to protect myself. It didn’t matter though, because my Arak band protected me any way. The spirit within it, the espre, the true and unbreakable connection to Gaea. I gave myself up to it, and it kept me safe.”

A shiver crosses over my skin at her story, and it, more than anything, vanquishes the last of my anger.

In its place, more curiosity burns. “You almost died?” I ask with a dry throat.

“Almost,” she nods in agreement, “but I didn't. It was up to the Arak device. In that moment, it got to decide whether I lived or died.”

My mouth is now completely dry, and I have no idea what my expression looks like. Maybe I don't care. “How am I meant to do that? Do I have to go out and stand under a thunder storm or plunge into a fire, and wait to see if my Arak band will protect me without my will to force its magic?”

She looks at me directly then shrugs her shoulders. “I don't know. But I don't think it has to be as dramatic. You just have to . . . give in. Stop trying to control the device, stop trying to direct its magic to where you want it to go, and find out where it wants to go. Start trying to listen to its voice until its whisper becomes loud enough to hear. Connect,” she taps her own Arak device, “to it. Understand and appreciate that you don’t have any magic of your own. Every scrap of magic you have, is a gift from your device.”

I wipe a hand down my mouth, crumpling my brow as I do. “Are you sure there is no ritual?” I ask hopefully.

She laughs again, and this time it is a truly easy move. It's light, and it's mirthful. “No. It's not that simple, I'm afraid. Or, in fact, it's much simpler. There's nothing specific you have to do, there is no sacred scroll you have to read, you just have to,” she shrugs again, “reconnect.”

“Reconnect,” I repeat her word, and as I do, my heart sinks. She may think it's easier than some ritual, but what she has just described is . . . . It terrifies me.

I've lived my life under my father's rule, and I devoted myself to the army. Every day, I've had structure, discipline, a set routine to keep. I've known what to do, because somebody has told me what to do.

Now, if Yin is to be believed, there is no specific path I have to follow; I have to make it up myself.

Of all the things that could scare a man, somehow that has the most power over me.

Perhaps Yin can see how apprehensive I've become, because she presses her lips into a smile and raises an eyebrow. “It's not that scary.”

At the term scary, I feel my defenses rise a little. I straighten up.

Laughing again, she takes a step back and raises her hands. “I didn't mean to suggest you are anything but a brave and loyal soldier to the Kingdom,” she says in a sarcastic voice.

I want to get angry at her taunts, but it's hard. There's too much to think about.

Is she right? Is that the only way to reconnect with the spirit of my magic?

Or am I being distracted? Did Castor suggest that to undermine me? To distract me?

I wouldn't put it past him.

“You know, you're becoming cold again,” Yin suddenly says, her voice quiet. “You're putting the walls back up. I can pretty much hear them clunk into place. Well, before you finish, I should probably let you know, that you will never reconnect to the true spirit of your device with those walls in place. You'll have to give into its espre completely. You will have to feel it flowing through you, just its energy and yours, no barriers, no filters. Magic.”

I feel my cheeks stiffening. “I don't need a lecture from you about magic.”

“You asked me,” she says pointedly.

“It was clearly a mistake,” I begin saying. Then, as I realize what I'm doing, I stop.

“You’re right, it was a mistake. Someone like you could never reconnect to their magic; you can’t connect to anything,” she concludes with a huff.

“I'm done here,” I turn to the door.

“Hey, don't let me stop you. And how about next time you want a fight, you go see somebody else.”

I grab the door, my knuckles turning white. “I just wanted information,” I clarify harshly.

“No, you want to be saved,” she says, and as she does . . . I swear her voice does something.

Maybe it shakes the room, maybe it sends magic spewing out everywhere. Or maybe, what it really does, is something to me.

I half turn over my shoulder. “I don't need saving from you,” I say, trying to laugh dismissively, because it is a ridiculous thought.

“I'm not saying I am the one who's going to save you, Captain. I'm just saying that whether you're willing to accept it or not, you're looking for something to thaw those icy walls around your heart. You want to stand and face the fire until it melts through your barriers.”

Stand and face the fire.

. . . .

I jerk back now, and before I can say another word, I slam the door, bolting it behind me.

I stand there, actually panting as I stare at it.

She doesn't say anything, or perhaps she screams, but I wouldn't be able to hear her over my beating heart.

I take a deep breath, trying to slow my heart, but it won't work. It keeps charging on as if it's ready to face the greatest foe in the universe.

But there's no enemies around.

Just the ones within. I bring my hands up and I stare at them. She is wrong, right? And so is Castor. They are both wrong. They’re both just trying to undermine me.

I am connected to my magic. I know how it feels. Its cool, numbing touch has shepherded me through life.

There's nothing else to know.

Holding onto that thought with all my might, I turn and I walk away. But nothing, nothing can stop me from turning around and glancing once more at her door.

Chapter 30

Yin

What an infuriating man. Captain Yang is categorically the most irritating person I have ever met. It isn't just his blind arrogance. It's that streak of . . . naïveté. As if he genuinely believes what he's doing is right.

When I stood there and told him he has no morals, it wasn't true. Whether I want to admit it or not, he is a principled man. His principals have just become twisted by somebody else. He has given too much of his power to others, and he no longer knows what it feels like to make his own decisions.

But it's more than that. He has a strange curiosity I haven't met in anyone else. Certainly not in the closed minded people of my village, and not in the arrogant soldiers of the army.

Though I want to hate him, I can't bring myself to do so completely. Even though he has tried to manipulate me, somehow I can't help but feel he's the closest thing to a friend I have. Castor has abandoned me for whatever reason, and I'm now virtually on my own. So as sad as it sounds, Yang is the closest thing resembling a friendly face, even if I really want to punch that face.

Despite my fight with Yang, I eventually settle down and go to sleep.

I'm not the kind of person who simmers after an altercation. If I were, I'd never get any rest. Instead, after he leaves, I practice for a short while, then retire to my bed.

Though I have a lot to think about, I go to sleep relatively quickly.

I don't stay asleep.

I start dreaming. Strange, shadowy dreams, the likes of which I have rarely experienced. A sense of doom descends upon me from above, and I feel as if something is rising through the ground. Slowly crawling up, out of the cracks in the earth. It reaches towards me, and no matter where I run, I can’t get away. It's everywhere. Seeping out of the mountains, billowing out of the plains, and streaming out of the seas.

The darkness.

The foot soldiers of the Night.

I toss and turn as a dream, as they chased me. No matter how hard I try to attack, no matter what training I rely on, I can’t defend myself. There are too many of them.

Time and time again throughout the night I wake, gasping in pain and terror as I free myself from my nightmarish pursuers. But as soon as I return to sleep, the chase begins anew.

By the time I wake in the morning, I'm exhausted. Covered in sweat and shaking, I spend a long while with my back against the wall, and my pillow cuddled against my chest.

I want to believe they were just dreams, but I can't. My body is so locked with the memory of those nightmares, I feel exactly as if I engaged in the battles in the real world.

It takes me too long to pull myself together, and I can't quite manage it before I hear of rattling knock on my door and someone barking at me to get ready.

I comply, my arms shaking as I do. Worse than that, my left hand keeps gripping back and forth, as if it's clutching at nothing but air.

It hurts too. From the palm to the tips of the fingers, it feels as if it's been flayed. Yet no matter how much I inspect it, I can't find any sign of injuries.

My Arak device feels cold against my skin too. Far too cold. It's as if the soul of magic within has been smothered.

I almost want to take it off, but I can't. Not without cutting off my arm.

I'm deeply unsettled by the time I finish dressing and open the door.

I barely even look at my guards, let alone register their morning insults as I follow them to the square.

Though I'm offered food, I don't eat. I barely drink. I can't stomach anything.

I'm less than gratified to find Mae back. Judging by her expression, she shares my sentiment.

As I step down into the square, and bristle at the cool morning chill, she shakes her head. “I thought you mountain folk could stand the cold,” she snaps.

I don't breathe a word. I can't even think of something to say. My mind is completely focused on my harrowing dreams and what they could mean.

I’m not stupid enough to dismiss them. If I were an ordinary person, maybe I could denounce them as the ramblings of a tired and anxious mind. But I'm not a normal person—I'm the Savior.

They aren't ordinary nightmares—they are portents.

My future. What will come to pass when the age begins to end.

I continue to shiver as I walk up to Mae. She notes it, but rather than ask what's wrong, she mutters something under her breath along the lines of me being impossible.

“Before we begin, I want you to know that you are pulling me away from incredibly important business. But since your less than impressive display with the fan yesterday, where you could have almost killed somebody, Garl has insisted I return to training you.”

I barely look at her. Instead I concentrate on trying to push some heat into my left hand. It feels eerily cold, as if I've plunged it into ice and left it there.

“However, Garl, for some reason, wants you to continue learning the fan dance. Despite your foolishness, you were . . . somewhat effective,” Mae concedes.

For the first time, I actually look at her whilst she's speaking to me.

Somewhat effective? I gathered so much power that I shot through a storm. The amount of magic I discharged into the clouds dried up the rain completely. Though Castor always taught me not to be arrogant and to be humble about my powers, Mae is understating things.

Still, I don't say anything. Nor do I walk away. In fact, I stand there and do whatever it takes to pay attention. I have not forgotten my conclusion from last night. Without Castor's help, I'm still going to continue my journey. I'll do it alone. All alone. I will gather the lessons I need, and on the final day of the age, I will fight the Night.

The battle with the leftover demons from my nightmares is just a prelude of what is to come. Knowing that puts it in perspective. It helps me loosen my arms, helps me to ignore the icy touch crawling up my left wrist, radiating from my Arak device as if someone has replaced it with a band of ice.

Mae instructs me to take up a defensive position, and hands me a new fan. I take it and get ready.

“Do not stand so heavily. You must be lighter on your feet. You are not a bear. Act like a woman. Your movements must be light, delicate, balanced,” Mae's voice reverberates on the word balanced.

I look up.

Castor always told me to find my balance. In fact, he emphasized that balance is at the heart of all sorcery. Without balance, there is only chaos. The same chaos that resides within the Night. To hold it back, I must find some way to summon and balance my own magic with that of the spirit of the earth.

As Mae takes up her own defensive position, and looks perfectly balanced, I realize maybe I don't know what it is. I had the hubris to lecture Captain Yang last night about releasing to the spirit of his magic, but maybe I haven't completely learnt that lesson yet myself.

Maybe I'm truly scared to find out what will happen if I release to my Arak device completely. If I dare call upon the Gaea that resides within me and without.

With these thoughts running through my head, I automatically follow Mae's movements. I don't think about it, and barely any of my attention is focused on her, just enough to follow, but not enough to engage.

My movements, though more fluid than they were the first time I tried the fan dance, are not as free as what I achieved yesterday. With the rain crashing down around me, I completely let go. It was so invigorating. Now with a veil of fear hanging between me and the world, I just can't engage.

We practice for a solid 45 minutes before Mae is called away for a short while. She snaps at me to continue practicing, but to be careful. Then she leaves.

It is the first time I've been left alone to practice. Though I've been practicing in secret in my room, my room does not have the sheer amount of space the square does. I can jump and leap and roll without fear of banging into any walls or beds. At first, I can't take advantage of that though. My shoulders are hunched in, and my moves small and ineffective. It's so strange for me, considering how boisterous I usually am. But the specter of my nightmares still hangs low.

I can't help but feel they are premonitions. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but sometime soon the foot soldiers of the Night will come for me. Without Castor, I will only have myself to rely on.

That thought should fire me up. It should provide the motivation necessary to push past my doubts and concentrate on training.

Not today.

Today it makes me feel smaller than ever.

I continue to train. Except my heart isn't in it, and my mind is far away, under the earth, waiting for the Night to seep through the cracks and claim me.

Chapter 31

Captain Yang

I wake early that morning. Very early. For two reasons. Not only do I want to get some training in before most of the other soldiers wake, but I want to go back to the library.

I want to find out everything I can about the mysterious ritual Castor spoke of. Though Yin told me her version, I can't believe it. No, I don't want to believe it. I need something concrete, something I can follow and analyze. The amorphous idea of just opening up to the magic within is confusing.

I dress quickly, not even bothering to don my armor as I open the library before the first rays of dawn can reach it through the high windows that line the building.

Perfectly silent, even though there is nobody around to disturb, I pick my way through the collection, searching for any reference of what I'm looking for.

I quickly become frustrated. Though there are many mentions of spirits and magic, there's nothing like what Castor or Yin mentioned.

By the time I make my way to the back of the library, I am ready to give up.

Then something catches my eye.

A book has been left on the floor, and as I lean down to pick it up, I recognize it. It's the book Castor plucked from the shelf and pushed towards Yin yesterday.

At the time, I hadn't thought anything of it. It had appeared as if Castor was reinforcing his order for her to study by throwing any old book at her.

Now I can’t deny my curiosity as I run a hand over its spine.

The Illustrated History of the Sun Kingdom, it reads.

Just an ordinary book. One, in fact, I have in my own small library.

I go to put it back on the shelf, but I stop. Without really knowing why, I find myself opening it.

I flick through the pages, and something catches my eye.

Sections are underlined, some of them even circled. Far more interesting than that, they all pertain to Garl.

I now leaf through with more interest, reading any sections that are emphasized under my breath.

Could this be a coincidence? Could Castor have picked some random book, or had he planned this?

Had he been trying to communicate with Yin?

Or me.

The thought hits me all at once, and I feel like staggering.

He's been trying his hardest to warn me about the General ever since he got here. Did he plant this so I would find it? Does he think simply underlining sections about Garl would pique my interest? Burn through my loyalty enough to force me to start asking questions?

No.

It won't work.

I close the book and go to put it away.

As I make room in a shelf and push it in, I find my fingers can't let go.

Wincing and forcing a breath through clenched teeth, I step back. I try my hardest to tell myself that Castor is trying to manipulate me.

It won't work.

Soon enough I turn and head out of the library. Without fully realizing what I'm doing, I take the book back to my room. I place it in my own small bookcase, removing my personal copy. Then I return my personal copy to the library.

After I finish, I'm so surprised by what I've done, I wonder seriously what's wrong with me.

General Garl is my superior. More than that, he was my father's friend. In my father's absence, Garl has been somewhat of a father to me. I owe him my loyalty. And sneaking around like this is not loyalty.

Admonishing myself but unwilling to change what I've done, I dress in my armor and head down to the square.

I need to train. Hard. As hard as I can. That will bring back the measure of control I have felt slipping ever since I returned Castor to the city.

Or at least I tell myself that will.

As I head down to the square, I am waylaid, and it is only several hours later when the sun is high in the sky that I find myself marching out over those familiar cobbles. Though it's mid-morning, there is still a distinct chill in the air.

I breathe it in. Closing my eyes, I smile. It's only half a smile though, and it doesn't reach up to my eyes. There is too much to worry about to take any real joy in this bright morning.

There are many groups of people training in the square, there always are. It's the reason for its enormous size and location.

As I pause and stare out at them all, I can't help but feel . . . disconnected from them. It used to be that my connection to the army was all that mattered. My loyalty for my fellow soldiers, and, first and foremost, the Royal Family.

That's what my father instilled in me. Yet now, as I stare around at the soldiers training . . . I feel cold. It's not a good cold. Not the numbness I associate with my magic when it is in full swing. It's just . . . an empty feeling.

Trying to chase it from my mind, I see a group of Royal Army sorcerers training with swords. Magical swords. They are a tricky weapon to master, and as the men leap, jets of power shoot out from the swords erratically.

Now that's something I could sink myself into this morning. Training with a magical sword. It would be just enough challenge to distract me from my mounting problems. So, walking over to them, I request one of their weapons and then find a quiet spot to train myself.

As soon as I leap into the air and let my magic run into the hilt of the sword and then blaze down the blade, I get a thrill.

The thrill makes it harder to feel the guilt haunting me over what I've done this morning.

So I throw myself further and further into training, leaping as high as I can, and commanding the sword with all my power.

In fact, I give in to the moment so much, that I don't notice I'm slowly gravitating towards the left. With every leap I make, I land, and I shift in the same direction. The culmination is that I travel further and further from my original spot, until I practically bump into a training soldier.

I turn to apologize before I realize it's her.

Yin.

She is . . . distracted.

She looks up to note me, mutters “sorry,” then shifts away. She has a fan in her hand, but it isn’t crackling with nearly as much energy as yesterday. In fact, it's barely got a spark in it. And to be fair, it's the same with her.

I've seen her withdraw before, but now she looks . . . haunted.

Before I know what I'm doing, I stop and I ask, “you okay?”

It takes her awhile to look up at me. “Training,” she notes dully.

“I can see that. But are you okay? You look . . .” I can't put it into words.

She takes a step away and shrugs her shoulders. “I didn't sleep well last night,” she says simply.

All at once, I remember our fight. With everything that happened this morning, I plainly forgot that I petulantly slammed the door on her and told her she was a fool for offering me advice.

Though I know I shouldn't, I feel guilty. “Sorry,” I say before I can stop myself.

She glances my way, and I notice her cheeks are ghostly white. That isn't anything compared to her arms, her left arm especially. In fact, though she’s still insisting on wearing a bandage, her wrist is visible below her sleeve, and it looks like the color of ground up bone. In fact, it's whitest around her Arak device.

I let my sword drop by my side now. “You look . . . unwell. If you need to stop training, go back to your room.”

“I'm fine,” she says.

Before she can turn away, I shake my head resolutely. “You're clearly not. You're no use to anyone when you're like this. Go back to your room. And . . . sorry if our fight stopped you from getting any sleep,” I muddle through my words. As I realize what I said, a wave of embarrassment washes over me.

I should not be apologizing to her. So why can't I stop myself?

She looks up sharply now. “What? Our fight? Oh . . . I forgot about that. It's fine. It's not your fault. I just want to continue training. Ignore me,” she moves away from me, unfurling her fan as she does. But with a jerk of her shoulder, she drops it, and it clatters to the ground.

I'm closer, and I automatically lean down to pick it up. She lets me.

Though I spend a lot of my time bemoaning the fact she's unruly and tempestuous, now I can't deny I'm worried at her sudden withdrawn behavior. Yes, she is silent, but I can't say it's pleasant.

“Return to your room, and I will explain this to Mae,” I say firmly as I hold onto her fan.

“I don't want to return to my room,” she says, and for the first time her voice takes on an emotion other than withdrawal.

Fear.

I would be a fool not to recognize it.

“. . . Why?” I ask ineloquently.

She looks up sharply now, and it's clear she feels she has given away more than she should. “Captain Yang, I'm fine. Please go back to doing whatever you are doing.”

“You aren't fine. You look like a ghost,” I point out.

She shudders at my description.

She also brings her left hand up and cradles it as if it's hurting her.

I note the move with a fearful kind of interest. “Is your . . . injury acting up?” I ask, incapable of saying the word injury with a straight face.

She notices, and she shifts back, trying to hide her bandaged left hand under the crook of her arm. “Like I said, it's nothing. You don't need to worry about me,” she adds breathlessly.

My hackles start to rise. It's not just frustration at her truly irritating behavior.

It's more than that.

“Why won't you let anyone help you?” I ask defensively.

Her eyes dart up, narrowing as she shows me her familiar indignation.

It's just a flicker of what it usually is.

“Because you won't stay,” she says.

She could have said anything. She could have pointed out that I'm technically her enemy, and I brought her here against her wishes. She could have gone on another lengthy rant about how she distrusts the Royal Army.

Anything.

Except for that.

“I need to rely on myself,” she adds quietly.

I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything. I stand there with my hand held out awkwardly.

“Just go away, Captain Yang,” she says with a note of finality as she turns from me and walks several meters away, taking up position with her back firmly directed my way.

I keep looking at her for entirely too long. I don't say anything and I don't act; I stand there and stare, as if I am incapable of thinking of anything better to do.

I'm a captain in the Royal Army. Entrusted with responsibility, competent, and trained, and right now I feel like . . . well, little more than a boy.

There is something about Yin that unsettles me. Deeply.

Yet, no matter how unsettled I become, there is always that flicker of curiosity burning somewhere inside. I go to it now, clutching hold of it as my eyes narrow.

I'm not giving up.

I want to know exactly what is wrong with Yin. How she can go from being one of the most fiery and bravest people I know, to being completely withdrawn. Did something happen last night?

As I consider that, I can't deny that my cheeks suddenly pale and a cold shiver crosses my back.

It feels like a shadow shifting over me.

It couldn't be Garl, right? He hasn't threatened her again, right?

I catch myself. Again? Do I honestly believe he's done so before?

I can't keep letting Yin and Castor cast aspersions against the General. The General is one of the greatest men I have ever met. In fact, it's easy to say that I've modelled my life in part on him. So if he turns out to be . . . some kind of monster, what does that make me?

It takes too long to sift through my thoughts, but no matter how much they assail me, they can’t get rid of the curiosity. So, soon enough I find myself marching forward.

It's not an angry march, just determined.

She resolutely keeps her back to me and continues to practice. She doesn’t have the power nor the fluidity of movement that she did yesterday. In fact, she looks exactly like an uninspiring recruit. She keeps dropping her fan, and for some reason, her shoulders are permanently hunched in, throwing her off balance.

I still have my sword in my hand, and I realize that far from getting any practice done today, once again, I'm letting myself be distracted.

No. I'm not letting myself be distracted. I'm choosing it. I want to find out what's going on here. As I decide that, some of the guilt shifts.

I clear my throat.

“Go away,” she says in a small voice that barely carries.

“Open your shoulders. You're throwing yourself off your balance.”

She doesn't reply. But as she twists on the spot, I see that she does look at me at least. With narrowed, wary eyes, she considers me quietly.

“You need to keep every move centered otherwise you will never be able to follow through with any power,” I say.

Again she watches me. As she does, I swear she tries to open her shoulders a little.

I'm starting to realize that no matter what I say, short of a direct order, I am not going to make her go back to her room. As I watch her shift about, practicing as best she can, I realize maybe she’s doing what I am—trying to distract herself. From what, I can’t say. But the fact is apparent.

So rather than trying to stop her, I'll help her.

“You need to change your center of balance. You press far too far forward. You leave yourself open to attack,” I note as a walk around her.

She shoots me a grumpy look, but at least it isn't a fearful one.

“You're trying to follow your power as you push it into the fan,” I suddenly note, clicking my fingers as I do. “That's what's overbalancing you. As you push the magic out, you try to follow it. You can't. Just let it go. You need to remain centered and balanced,” I continue.

That terse look transforms into an interested one.

. . . .

Does the great Yin realize I have something to teach?

Even though I don't want it to be, it's a humbling thought. Despite the fact she’s unrefined, she is unquestionably powerful. I don't need Garl's interest in her to prove that fact. I've seen it with my own eyes. When I saved her yesterday from the fan, I felt how much magic she had pumped into it. It was almost unimaginable.

Castor, it seems, did a brilliant job in training her.

But perhaps not a perfect one. Despite how legendary the man is, he's still only one man. The benefit of being somewhere like the Royal Army barracks is that there are many people to draw on. Many experiences, many styles.

Yin tries to follow my advice, but soon trips, stumbling as she swears.

If Mae were here, she would probably snap at Yin that swearing is not ladylike. Yet for some reason, I can't help but slowly smile.

She sees, and she rolls her eyes, but soon enough she gets back to practicing.

“Your movements are too closed; they need to be more open. I know you have more power than that, use it,” I command.

She presses her teeth against her lips, narrows her eyes, and looks more focused than before as she does what I say.

She is loosening up a little. Her shoulders are no longer as hunched in, and as she twists and jumps and leaps, there’s more balance in her moves, and she lands far more solidly, no longer wobbling like a leaf in the wind.

There’s still something off kilter though. As I watch her practice, I surreptitiously stare at that bandaged left hand.

She is moving too fast and producing too much magic for me to see how white her skin is. Yet I swear it's still the color of powdered snow.

What has she done to it?

Was I wrong? Did I simply fail to see the injury yesterday? Has it become infected?

As I think through the possibilities, I draw into silence, and as I do, Yin's moves become less centered again.

She lands from what should have been a solid flip, twists on her ankle, and teeters to the side. Though she rights herself before she can trip and slam against the cobbles, she looks bitterly disappointed.

Not in me. In herself. Though if you’d asked me this morning, I would have said I have nothing in common with Yin, I recognize that emotion.

I've spent the last several days being nothing but disappointed in myself. From questioning Garl, to being unable to control myself around Castor, I'm learning I'm much more emotional than I once thought I was.

It's clear that for whatever reason Yin is unsettled, she can't forgive herself either. “Stop holding yourself back,” I suddenly advise, “I know you have much more power than that. And you have the whole square to practice in. Use it.”

“I thought I wasn't meant to. I'm just a woman, after all,” she says, her gaze darkening as she does, “I thought we were meant to stand still and look like statues.”

I open my mouth. Then I close it. I have to be careful here. Though I have stepped in, I am not Yin's primary trainer. Mae is. If I start teaching her things Mae won't approve of, it won't go down well.

Yin stops practicing, and I can tell she wants to cross her arms, lean back against something, and glare at me. Considering there’s nothing to lean against and it appears as if her left hand is injured, she shakes her head instead. “Castor never cared that I'm a woman. All he cared about was whether I could learn.”

I open my mouth again. I honestly don't know what to say.

There are certain traditions in the Royal Army, just as there are traditions in the Kingdom at large. I know them, in fact everybody knows them, so there's no point in explaining them now.

And yes, those traditions in part center on the proper behavior of women.

But as Yin challenges me, I can't find the words to support those traditions. The arguments that should be there, just . . . don't sound right.

She places her right hand on her hip and stares at me. “I don't get it. Shouldn't we all just try to be as powerful as we can be? We're in the army, right? So why would you hamstring your female soldiers, just because you prefer them to stand still and look pretty? I've only been here for half a week, and have only been training with Mae for a few days, but let me tell you, you can't properly defend yourself when you're like that. You get armor,” she points at my breast plate, which is shining in the mid-morning sun, “you get a helmet, you get a sword,” she lifts her hand and emphatically gestures at the sword still in my left hand, “and I get a dress,” she plucks at the fabric. “And you expect me to go into battle? What kind of sense does that make? Do you want to lose? Or is it irrelevant to you if a woman dies?”

I blink back my surprise now. I wasn't expecting this. When I decided to help train Yin, it was a spur of the moment thing. I wanted to help distract her from whatever was going on in her head. Now her familiar fire is returning, and I'm not sure how to deal with it.

“Nobody wants women to die,” I say, picking over my words carefully, my voice staccato and breathy.

She snorts. Then she plucks at her dress again, emphasizing how thin the fabric is by scrunching it up between her fingers. “Then give me some armor. Or do you think I'm too weak to carry it around? If I am, I'll get stronger. Men aren't the only people who can get stronger,” she adds in a powerful voice.

I swallow uncomfortably. “It's just . . . not done. While there are women sorcerers in the Royal Army, when it comes to battle, they are never on the front lines. They are support troops. You don't need armor, because you will not be directly facing enemies.”

She stares at me, and she shakes her head. “Then why have us at all? What on earth are you doing with trained troops you can't fully utilize? And how much does it cost you to make some freaking armor for us? Or is the cost not a monetary one? Is it a social one? An ego one? Are you that scared that a woman could prove herself to be equal to men, that you won't give her the chance?”

I swallow again. I know the arguments I need to draw on. They're the same arguments I've been taught my entire life. Women have a place. They are weaker than men, less intelligent, certainly less objective. Whilst they have a place at home and a necessary position in society as mothers, they have no place on the battlefield.

Though I want to say this to Yin, I can't.

. . . .

I know exactly how she is going to react. She isn't going to be convinced, and worse than that, she’s going to try to prove me wrong.

Perhaps she knows what I'm thinking, because she tilts her head to the side and shakes it once more. “What's more important to you? Winning a battle or preserving your own sense of masculinity?”

“Both men and women have positions. The Royal Army,” I begin.

“Is clearly satisfied to give itself a disadvantage. Who cares what tradition says? I'm telling you that I'm better off practicing to win, not practicing to be like a woman.”

“I . . .” I trail off. I have been uncomfortable before—I haven't always been the cold, calm, emotionless Royal Army sorcerer I want to be. Right now, I'm completely floundering.

I have no idea what to say. Other than . . . it just feels wrong.

It just feels wrong.

“Whatever you're thinking, it isn't good enough. I'm telling you, Captain Yang, I don't need this,” she gestures with her fan, closing her left hand around it, and for the first time not cradling it as if it's injured, “I need that,” she points to my sword. “So why can't I have it?”

She looks directly at me, and though I try to meet her gaze, I can't. Instead I shuffle back, neatening my helmet with one hand as if that will help me somehow.

“Mae keeps telling me I don't know my place. She's right. Because the place she wants me to fit into doesn't make any sense. How can you expect me to save people if you won't let me save myself from your outdated views?”

. . . .

As she says the term “save people,” something happens to her voice. It takes on such a strange quality that I can't begin to describe it. It's not just otherworldly, it's almost . . . divine. It's such a peculiar way to describe it, but nothing else fits. It seems bigger than her, bigger than me, bigger than everything.

Coming from a source beyond mere humans.

. . . .

Suddenly I'm reminded of the odd comment she said yesterday. In order to regain a true understanding of my magic, she wanted me to talk to Gaea.

But humans can’t contact the Great Spirit.

Yet as I listen to her reverberating words, I wonder if just maybe Yin can.

As soon as I think that, I dismiss it. It's impossible. Only the Savior can summon Gaea.

“Don't just stand there, say something. Tell me why I can't be like you,” she says directly, still pointing at the sword.

“. . . Because it isn't done,” I say, “because it doesn't feel right.”

She looks . . . disappointed.

It makes me feel sick. Guilty even.

“That isn't a reason, Captain Yang,” she says in a small voice, “it's an excuse. I can't save people if you won't let me,” she says again, her voice becoming even smaller. She also starts to lose the confidence her argument has given her. I watch her start to withdraw again, her left hand dropping to her side as she slowly stares down at it.

She looks defeated.

So I hand her my sword.

I don't know what I'm doing.

I know it's wrong; all of my training tells me it is. Yet, I hand the sword over anyway. Something compels me to. It's not the same compulsion that seized me yesterday when I told Castor everything I knew about Yin. This one is different. It seems to be flowing through me from a higher source.

The true spontaneity of soul.

She looks up, her expression startled.

“Take it,” I say simply.

She does.

Though the sword is heavy, her arm and shoulder brace against it, and her fingers close around the hilt. She holds it with her left hand, and I see, right before my eyes, as the white skin between the bandage and her bracelet becomes gradually less pale.

“I . . . what do I do?” she asks suddenly.

It's my turn to laugh.

She wanted the sword so badly, and now she's asking for directions?

As soon as I laugh, she tilts her head back and huffs. “Stand back,” she commands me.

I draw my hands up in fake surrender, and take several steps away. “I hope I don't need to tell you that the sword is much more dangerous than the fan. You need to be very careful. Please don't chop your legs off,” I add.

I'm not one for humor. I'm a cold-hearted Royal Army sorcerer, and my father instilled in me that only one thing matters in life: serving the Royal Family. Loyalty to the cause.

I can't quite help but chuckle as she shoots me a challenging glare.

“I'm not going to chop my legs off. If anything, I'll chop yours off,” she adds with a huff.

Despite her threat, I laugh again. I laugh, not at the prospect that I am about to become a legless man, but at the fact her countenance has changed completely.

She's no longer withdrawn. The fear that once laced every movement and every word has lifted. All it took was to give her a weapon.

“Did Castor ever let you train with one of those?” I ask as I gesture to the sword. “Because you're not quite holding it right,” I notice, starting to wonder whether this is a good idea.

“No. We trained with sticks occasionally, but we didn't have any weaponry as fancy as this,” she notes as she taps the metal of the hilt experimentally. Then, before I can stop her, she touches the blade.

She yanks her hand back in surprise, drawing her finger up and gasping as blood trickles from it.

“It's very sharp,” I say as I take a step forward and hold my hand out. “You do know what a sword is, right?”

She crams her finger into her mouth and sucks it, glaring at me as she does. “Yes,” she says around her finger, her voice muffled. “Now stand back.”

I'm seriously starting to wonder whether this is a good idea. I don't need to add to my already growing problems. If I accidentally let Yin skewer herself with a magical sword, I imagine Castor wouldn't wait too long to kill me.

No, break me first, slowly, as he has warned on multiple occasions now.

That thought makes me shiver, and a cold sweat trickles down my back. “You need to be very careful. I . . . perhaps this isn't a good idea,” I realize.

She lifts the sword in one arm, heedless of the weight, and points it at me. It's not a particularly challenging move, and I honestly don't think she's going to thrust forward and plunge the thing through my chest. It's just . . . determined.

“It feels like the fan,” she notes as her eyebrows compress in concentration, “I can push my magic into it.

I start to nod, then I shake my head. “No, it's not exactly like the fan. Each weapon is weighted differently, and can store different amounts of magic.”

“Right,” she says, as she lifts the sword up, and before I can stop her, does a figure of eight. Though her control isn't perfect, her move is strong. In fact, I note with the smallest smile that her strength is now back in full. Before, when she practiced with the fan, her moves were languid and weak. Now the fire is burning bright once more.

I sigh deeply. I'm not going to get that sword back off her, short of trying to knock her out and pulling it from her grip.

So perhaps . . . I could just train her with it?

At that uncomfortable admission, I close my eyes and wince.

A part of me thinks I am going insane. Another part of me is just following the curiosity. That feels . . . good.

I take several steps back. “Okay, your movements are going to have to be a lot more solid. You can’t afford any grace with the sword. And your balance must be perfect. When you fill it with magic, it will become heavy. If you don't correctly center your body, you will find yourself tipping forward. It will make you a very easy target for somebody who is more practiced with their weapons than you are.”

“Got it,” she says confidently, as she does another figure of eight, this time controlling the blade better as it whistles through the air.

“It will take more than one go to get it,” I grumble lightly. “You need to push your mind into the tip of the sword. Treat the entire blade like an extension of your magic,” I say..

“Right,” she says quickly, pressing her eyes half closed as she concentrates.

Before I know it, magic erupts down her arm, through the hilt, and along the blade. It's hot, it's glowing orange, and it's far too quick.

“No, no, no,” I put my hands up quickly. “Not so fast. You have to control it. The sword is not like the fan. It's much more sensitive to your mood. It is much easier to lose control of. You need to build up a charge steadily. And once you've learnt to do that, then you can do it more quickly.”

“I can do this,” she says as she does another figure of eight, magic blazing over the blade now, making the channels and runes engraved into the metal glow like 1000 candles.

I sigh desperately. “Yin, listen to me. Please,” I add.

She actually stops. It surprises me.

“Stop jumping ahead. Let me teach you what I know,” I counsel.

She nods her head, and again it surprises me.

She is actually listening to me.

“Okay, now, begin slowly,” I emphasize the word slowly.

She nods.

Then . . . I go completely against the tradition of the Kingdom and the Royal Army, and show Yin how to use a magical sword.

Of course we draw a crowd. It's not just because of how quickly Yin learns and how competent she is, it's because I'm teaching her something I shouldn't be.

Yet nobody stops us.

They judge, but they don't stop us.

Chapter 32

Yin

It feels so good to use the blade. It feels like I'm finally learning something worthwhile.

Castor taught me so much. Without him, I'd be nothing. Now I no longer have him, I have to continue those lessons on my own. For the first time since I arrived at the Royal Army, I feel like I'm finally doing that.

My time practicing with Captain Yang is some of the most useful I've spent in months.

Though I still pretty much hate the guy, that hate is slowly getting whittled away.

Of all the people here, he seems to understand me. Maybe it's just an act; he's a Royal Army sorcerer, after all, and he's probably just trying to manipulate me. I can't deny my feelings, nonetheless.

He’s attempting to understand me when nobody else is.

He let me train with the blade.

The blade . . . was incredible. So much more sensitive than the fan, and so much more direct. Heck, so much more useful too. When it comes to fighting the foot soldiers of the Night, and then the Night itself, I'm going to need a real weapon. The Night is not going to be impressed with me standing there in a dress and flapping around a piece of fabric and wood.

I need weapons and knowledge to win this war.

So despite how harrowing my dreams were that morning, by the time Captain Yang is finally called away, I feel good. Better than I have since I arrived here.

For the first time, I feel powerful again.

Not completely in control, but getting there.

As Yang is called away, I can't help but thank him.

I've spent a solid amount of time snapping at the man, berating him, and being difficult. Now as he turns and follows several soldiers through the square, I call out a heartfelt, “thank you.”

I'm shocked by how heartfelt it is. In fact, I feel my cheeks bloom with warmth.

He turns and looks over his shoulder. He doesn't say anything, he just nods.

I smile.

It's Captain Yang—the man who started all of this—and I still smile at him.

He takes the sword with him, handing it to some other soldier in the square, and leaving me with nothing but the fan.

I don't mind though.

My spirits have already been lifted.

Eventually Mae returns, and I'm silent and dutiful as I copy her moves.

She snarls and snaps as she always does, but I let her words wash off me. I'm no Royal Army sorcerer, but I pretend I'm just a stream rushing around them.

As I practice, I let my mind drift. I think about my training, about the Royal Army, about Castor, and about Yang.

I couldn't have predicted this new chapter in my life. Several weeks ago, I thought I would be with Castor in the mountains until the end of the age. Now, as uncertainty is my only certainty, I find the courage to smile at it.

Despite what has happened to me, I'm still standing, and despite how weak I've felt along the way, I'm still strong.

If my dreams this morning were portents, for the first time today, I feel like I can fight them. Whatever is coming next, I can fight, because perhaps I'm not alone. True, I have no guardian anymore, and I have no one to confide in. But even the arrogant Mae can help me, even though she doesn't know she’s doing it.

I just have to open up.

And wait for what will happen next.

Chapter 33

Captain Yang

I'm smiling, and I can't stop.

It's been a hectic morning, from sneaking around in the library to training Yin with a magical blade. I shouldn't be smiling, I should be deep in guilt and responsibility.

Still, I can't shift my good mood.

That is, until I return to my room. It's then I remember the book.

I don't want to read it, but I can't stop myself. As dusk sets in, I check my door is locked then return to my bookcase. With a careful move, as if I'm expecting an attack, I draw the book out of the shelf.

My fingers tingle as I do and a particularly quick sweat covers my top lip.

“Right,” I mumble to myself.

Or wrong. What I am doing is wrong. I'm believing Garl—one of the most respected warriors in all of the Kingdom—could be a monster.

. . . .

No, I'm not believing it—I'm checking it.

Swallowing and forcing myself to trust in that distinction, I sit on the edge of my bed and open the book. Placing it on my knees, I angle it towards the light coming in from my window. I haven't bothered to light a torch—as dumb as it sounds, I want to keep this as secret as possible, and kindling a light feels like it would leave me exposed.

Breathing carefully, I leaf through the pages, noting every line that has been altered. There are no words written, no symbols, just sections circled or highlighted.

Reading the sections over, moving my lips but not daring to actually vocalize the words, I frown.

The text details a range of events, from battles to coronations.

All involving Garl in some way.

The man has been in the army all his life, and as he's in his 60s, that's been a long time.

Still, even though I've read this book before, I haven't fully appreciated how . . . involved Garl has been in the history of the Kingdom.

That, however, is no mark against the man. Quite the opposite—it is yet more evidence that he is an upstanding, loyal citizen. One who has clearly devoted his whole life to the service of the people.

Leafing through the pages methodically, I come to the end of the book. There, written on one of the final pages, is a list.

Of names.

Some of them people, some of them villages.

. . . .

It takes a moment, but soon enough I realize all the people are dead and all the villages destroyed. In fact, with a quickly beating heart, I leaf through the book, checking each name and village against the facts within.

I don't stop until I confirm I'm right.

. . . .

I sit there. I let the book lie in my lap as I stare through the window at the night. Dusk is now gone, and all I can see are the stars above and the flickering lamps of the barracks below.

. . . .

I tell myself it's nothing. All those people died in the line of duty or from natural causes. As for the villagers, their demise was either through war or natural disasters.

There is an explanation for everything.

No matter how much I repeat that phrase, it can't sink down far enough to uproot my doubt.

My top lip is still sweaty, and with a shaking hand, I dry it.

I ball up a hand into a fist, and press it against my temple as I move closer to the window. Gripping one hand on the sill, I stare out at the Kingdom. I can see the square below, and the buildings of the barracks, and just above, the Palace. Though I only see a slither of it, it's still beautiful. Lit up by multiple lamps, I can see the gold glittering even from here.

It's meant to be one of the most beautiful views in the world. Yet if that is the case, why do I feel so . . . unimpressed as I stare at it?

Several weeks ago, even several days ago, it would have filled my heart with pride.

Now, no matter where I look for comfort, nothing will wash away the doubt.

“It's nothing, you are overreacting,” I tell myself.

My voice is barely above a whisper, and could not convince a soul.

Closing my eyes and squeezing them tightly shut, I shake my head.

Without realizing it, I turn, and I face the book.

It’s open on the last page, with that list of names clearly visible even in the dying light.

In a snap, I walk over to it and close it. Though I feel like throwing it out the window, or forcing my magic into the paper until I destroy it completely, I don't.

Instead I turn, walk over to my bookcase, and put it back inside.

I stand and stare out the window once more.

At the Palace.

I wait for its mere presence to calm me. I wait for it to inspire the loyalty I should still have.

. . .

I keep waiting.

I probably stand there for at least 10 minutes until I step back.

The doubt will not be assuaged.

There are questions, and I must answer them. I can't push them away any more.

Surprised at that realization, I practically gasp.

If my father could see me now, he would be so disappointed. And angry. He crafted the perfect son, the perfect testament of loyalty to the Kingdom.

And look at me now. I'm doubting everything.

I try to feel guilty. I try to conjure up shame, because that will get me to stop what I'm doing.

No matter how hard I try, it doesn't work.

I can't fight the urge to investigate this, to keep asking questions. Because that urge is the most human part of me, the last true set of emotions to be purged from my soul.

And like it or not, I can't stop holding onto it.

So I take several steps back, and I turn my back on the Palace.

I tell myself it's not symbolic. I'll satisfy my curiosity, and of course I'll prove Garl innocent, then I will return to the same level of loyalty I held before.

Nothing will change.

With that mantra repeating in my mind, I take off my armor and dress in normal clothes.

Then I gently close the door of my room, and quietly leave the barracks.

I don't really know where I'm going. All I have is a list of names of people and places. Though I could go to the Palace and ask the record keepers if they have any conclusive evidence on whether Garl is a monster, I'm not that stupid.

Though I have relented to following my curiosity on this, I won’t give up my common sense.

While I know Garl trusts me, he won't if he finds out what I'm doing. I will ruin our relationship completely.

Indeed, I could even be charged with treason for this. As for my position as guardian of Princess Mara, I would lose it.

Completely.

I could be expelled.

As those desperate thoughts run through my mind, they don’t turn me around. It feels as if nothing can.

I'm being compelled by a force I've never truly understood, for it's one I've spent most of my life denying. Instinct. The culmination of emotional knowledge.

Maybe hope. Hope that if I travel this path something will change. Something within me.

I slip out of the barracks and reach the streets. It's a calm night. There is no wind, there is no rain, and a little of the day's heat still lingers. That doesn't stop me from putting my hands into my pockets and shrugging into my collar. Or maybe I just don't want to be seen. For as I walk the streets, I'm sure to keep my head down as I stare at my feet and don't dare make eye contact with anyone.

It takes a long time to figure out where to go.

Though most of the names on the list are people who died a long time ago, and most of the places are far away, there is one that is within the city.

A district. One that used to house a poor minority known as the Reformists. Though my knowledge of them is rusty, as they existed before I was born, I know they wanted to get rid of the monarchy. Their message, among others, was that the Royal Family had no right to rule. They claimed the Kings and Queens kept knowledge from the populace to keep them weak. Or something like that.

Despite the details, I remember one fact acutely—they wiped themselves out. There was bitter infighting in their group, and one night, they had a mini civil war. It resulted in total bloodshed. There were several powerful sorcerers amongst their ranks, so by the time the Royal Army intervened—for it took them a long time to be alerted to the fight—it was too late.

All the men, all the women and children, all dead. The fools didn't understand their own power, and died because of it.

Though those are all the details I remember, I do know where that district is, and right now I find my feet taking me there.

I breathe in the cool night air, but it can’t dampen the heat that rises through me. I keep telling myself I'll find nothing, but my body reacts as if I will. My heart beats faster, my breath comes quicker, and my hands grasp back and forth—a sure sign I'm unsettled.

On foot, it takes over an hour to reach the district. These days, the buildings have been replaced, and there’s no evidence left of the Reformists. Why would there be?

No plaque, no memorial, no statues. Nothing. They killed themselves. It was a senseless tragedy, and because it was senseless, why would it be memorialized?

I hear myself repeating these facts in my mind, and they feel practiced, and come with familiar ease. Yet . . . they also feel loose. As if they no longer have the traction they once held.

I find myself walking the streets of the district, not really sure what I expect to find. The more I do that, the more frustrated I become.

Why did I even come here? Of course Garl is not guilty.

As I say that, I catch myself.

Something else catches me too. Something I try to dismiss at first, but can't quite.

You are taught in your first year in the Royal Army that the lay of the land is everything when it comes to battle.

The higher you are, the easier it is to observe your enemy. And looking right over the district is a walled-off hill. Above that hill is a series of towers.

These days they belong to the Royal Army, in fact, they've always belonged to the Royal Army. That wall has been there since the very building of the city.

It always has soldiers posted there. It's one of the highest positions you can get in the city that isn't the Palace itself, and that makes it a perfect position for the army to watch the gates. There are two great alluvial plains just before the city, and the mountain ranges behind. Making it very important for the Army to be able to watch both directions at once in case of enemy attack.

. . . .

Before I can take this as evidence of Garl’s guilt, I dismiss it.

It doesn't mean the Royal Army killed the Reformists under Garl's command. It just means . . . it was highly likely they knew exactly what was happening in this district while the so-called mini civil war occurred.

“You need more,” I tell myself out loud.

So, the Royal Army may have been aware of what was happening in the Reformist district—but perhaps other things prevented them from intervening.

Perhaps they didn’t have the resources, I suggest to myself as I turn on the spot, staring up at the wall behind the district.

No.

They would have had the resources. The watchtowers along that wall are always kept equipped with both soldiers and weapons. It is also very easy to relay messages between the towers and back to the barracks. So, presumably, at the first sign of bloodshed in the Reformist district, the barracks would have known minutes later.

Maybe there was some other reason the soldiers couldn't intervene, though. Maybe . . . the Reformist sorcerers were too powerful, and the soldiers were overcome before reinforcements could arrive.

. . . .

That wall is considered one of the last lines of defense before the Palace, and I know for a fact it is always staffed by some of the Royal Army's best warriors.

Still, even a great warrior can be overcome if the numbers are against him. Maybe the Reformists ganged up . . . but if they ganged up, that meant they worked together, and civil wars aren't usually such social affairs.

Again my top lip slicks with sweat, and I dry it off with a shaking thumb.

I don't want to believe any of this. Why should I? It's pure speculation. I have no hard facts.

Realizing that, doesn't dampen my doubt. In fact, it reignites it; now I can't ignore the fact it is possible Garl was responsible for genocide.

It's the first time I think of it in those terms, and I shiver as I do.

Genocide.

Even if the army knew the Reformists were fighting and didn't get involved, that is still tantamount to murder. You are taught in the Royal Army that you are there to protect, and sometimes that means you must protect people from themselves. Failure to do your duty means people die.

And people died here. Almost 150 according to historical figures.

150.

How could 150 people kill themselves without anyone else getting involved?

“Don't do this to yourself,” I warn through clenched teeth. Don't ignite the doubt.

It's too late though.

As I stand there and turn slowly on the spot, I can't help but feel the historical events I've learnt about can't possibly be true. Standing here now, I see how very hard it would be for the army to have failed to help before 150 people killed each other.

Either the army willfully turned a blind eye...or...or...they committed genocide.

Eventually I force myself to walk home.

It’s a long and somber walk. I feel colder than I ever have before. Considering I once took comfort in the numbing qualities of that same cold sensation, I should welcome it.

I can't now. It doesn't feel like it's purging emotion, it feels like it's purging everything that makes me more than blood and bone.

I eventually reach the barracks. Without a word to anyone, I go back to my room. I do not go to bed. It's late, but I will not sleep.

Instead, I pull out that book and study it. Well into the wee hours of the morning. I gather every fact I can.

Chapter 34

Yin

I dream again that night and then again the next and the next. Though the dreams terrify me, I try not to let them affect me. Too much.

I hold onto my newfound power. I try to learn every lesson I can, no matter how humiliating.

Because by and large they are humiliating. Mae has a knack for insulting me, and always finds something I can't do and proclaims it makes me nothing more than a dirty mountain bear.

I push through that, and I practice.

Before I know it, a week goes by and then another and another.

Time is drifting past me, and I try not to waste it. As the dreams worsen, I can't deny what is coming.

The end of the age. I don't know when it will be. A week from now, an hour, a year. But it is coming.

So I train and train.

I close in on myself, barely talking to anyone except for him.

Captain Yang.

It's stupid, but if I even so much as glimpse him only once in a day, it lifts my mood.

He’s the closest thing I have to a friend now that Castor has abandoned me. That being said, I never see him as much as I would like.

Though we do train together occasionally, it's only ever when Mae is busy. It's only ever when Captain Yang isn't. And frankly, he seems to be the busiest person I've ever met. There's this cloud of responsibility that hangs over him, and I never see him crack a smile. That being said, he is a Royal Army sorcerer, and they aren't exactly known for being emotional.

My days and nights are exactly the same, and I've fallen into a routine. Begrudgingly, I always do as I am told, and I very rarely act out any more. I don't even bother to threaten my guards. I just let them get away with the insults and the snickering, and I concentrate on the task ahead.

I use the library liberally, or at least whenever I'm allowed. I read everything I can, from training manuals to history. I want to find every edge, every weapon, every possible opportunity.

. . . .

It's exhausting. I never stop, because I'm not allowed to.

As I walk out into the square for my morning training, I notice Mae is nowhere to be seen.

Some officer walks up to me, and rather than talk directly to me, he mumbles to my guards, “she is to train on her own this morning. Mae has been unavoidably detained.”

Without glancing at me once, he turns around and walks off.

One of my guards gestures dismissively into the square. “Don't make any trouble, and stay in your section.”

I feign a smile and march down into the square.

It's a beautiful morning, but it's chillier than usual. My cheeks tingle with a brisk breeze, and I deliberately pump heat into my hands to keep them warm.

Then, without pause, I take up position, and begin to practice.

I’ve become more fluid, and thanks to Yang's tutelage, my balance has improved. In fact, though I can't be sure, I feel I have improved in nearly every single way.

If only Castor could see me now. He always complained that I wasn't disciplined enough, that I couldn't focus when it mattered. Well now, discipline and focus are all that get me through each day.

As I pluck up my fan and begin to practice, I pretend it’s a sword. I wish it was the sword, but only Captain Yang lets me practice with one of those. And even then, I can tell he's taking a risk.

It's frowned upon for a lady to be able to defend herself properly, apparently. Sure, she gets a fan, and she is expected to dance around in a dress, but giving her an actual sword and armor would be a little too much like expecting her to fight.

All ladies are capable of is standing there and looking pretty.

Without Mae to snap at me, I begin practicing how Captain Yang taught me to. His forms are much more fluid than Castor's. Castor taught me to be heavy but quick, strong but agile. Yang, however, blends everything into one continuous fluid movement.

I feel I'm getting the hang of it.

I try to practice every night in my room, and whenever Mae isn't there to snap at me. Still, I want Captain Yang to replace her entirely, then I’ll be able to learn something worthwhile.

Captain Yang. There I go again thinking of that man. I swear, I'm thinking of him more than I'm thinking of the end of the ages and my duty as the Savior.

I'm not just distracting myself willingly; no matter what I do, my thoughts gravitate back to him like the moon orbiting the earth.

I tell myself it's because he is the only person who has shown any real interest or kindness.

As I continue to practice, I notice everybody else in the square around me.

There's always more soldiers about these days, and I gather it has something to do with the Princess' regular visits.

I have no idea what she’s doing here, but I know it involves Castor in some way. He did mention he was training her. But why? I've had it drummed into me that women are very rarely trained, and only if they can offer the Royal Army something valuable. The Princess is . . . well, the Princess. The Royal Family are treated virtually like gods. Why would the Royal Army expect anything of her?

Though I have more than one million questions, there’s nobody to ask, so I keep to myself and mull over them as I twist and turn and jump and leap. I do as Yang says, and rather than follow the magic and overbalance myself, I push it out as an extension of will.

I wonder if he would be proud if he could see me now. But the fact is, I haven't seen him in more than five days. The more the Princess comes to visit, the more absent he is. Does he have something to do with her training? It makes sense; that's what Castor and he argued about in the library all those weeks ago.

“It's not a sword you know; it's a fan,” someone says.

I stop, letting the fan drop to my side, not caring that it has a charge of magic in it, and I turn and I smile.

I shouldn’t be smiling so widely and genuinely, but I can’t stop myself.

Yang comes walking across the square, his hands in his pockets.

He looks tired. Bone weary, in fact. His eyes are hooded in shadow, and his moves slower than usual.

My brow crumples in concern.

Yes, concern.

Several weeks ago, when I first met this man, I wanted nothing more than to put my fist in his face.

But things change.

“Well, you could go and get me a sword,” I suggest playfully.

He shakes his head, and I note again how tired he looks.

“Where have you been?” I ask carefully. At least I hope it's carefully, but my voice teeters a bit.

Though he begins looking at his feet, he raises an eyebrow. “I thought you liked it when I left you alone.”

“Of course I do,” I snap defensively.

He nods knowingly. “Don't tell me you are actually starting to take a shine to me?”

I blush. And when a sorcerer like me blushes, you can see it two kilometers away. My cheeks could fry eggs.

He clears his throat.

I shift about a bit, trying to hide my flush. “I still think you're an idiot,” I snap automatically.

“Well at least some things don't change,” he says. There's a sad note to his voice.

I start to wonder where he has been for the past five days. More than that, what has been haunting him recently?

The Captain Yang I met back in my village was nothing but a calm, controlled Royal Army sorcerer. Cold and numb to the world. His emotions were a tool to get other people to do what he wanted.

Now I'm looking at a completely different person. This Captain Yang is nothing more and less than a man.

“I've been practicing,” I suddenly say.

He looks up at me and slowly nods. “I saw. You're doing great,” he says.

It's awkward, but he doesn't take his statement back, and I am quick to bite my lip, lest another incandescent blush bloom across my cheeks.

We descend into silence. A particularly uncomfortable one. It sees me trying to fix my hair, even though I usually don't care what it's doing. The unruly stuff at the top of my head is usually of no concern to me. Now I try to brush it into place.

“They tell me you're exceeding expectations,” he says quietly.

“They do? All Mae ever tells me is that I'm useless and have no hope of being anything but a dirty little mountain bear. I've actually met mountain bears, and that's not so much of an insult; they're quite nice.”

Though Yang starts looking at his feet distractedly, his eyebrows peak and he glances at me. “Mountain bears are quite nice? They are vicious,” he laughs disbelievingly.

“I've always liked animals. They are simple.”

He nods, his hands still in his pockets.

I want to ask what's wrong, but I know that won't help him.

If it's something serious, he won't say, and even if it isn't something serious, he will still keep it close to his chest. Royal Army sorcerers, after all, aren't exactly known for sharing their emotions.

There is one way I can help.

Distract him.

“I've been looking up more about the fan dance,” I say as I unfurl my fan in a neat move. “Isn't there some ancient form you can do with a partner? One where you keep swapping the fan around, throwing it to each other and charging it in turn?”

He stops looking at his feet, his eyebrows crumpling further together. “Yes . . . . Why?”

I can tell I'm being awkward, but I don't care.

Sometimes you just have to dance in the rain while everybody is watching.

Without pause, I close the fan and hand it to him. “Well, show me.”

His cheeks slacken and his mouth opens slowly. “Show you. I . . . don't think you quite understand what you're asking.”

I start to get defensive, but just huff instead. “I'm asking you to show me how it is done. I don't care if I'm stepping on some tradition. I just want to know what it looks like. I'm here to learn, so teach me.”

He clears his throat, and now he takes his hands out of his pockets as he clasps them carefully but firmly before him. “Yin, the fan dance is usually done before marriage. It balances male and female energy. When two sorcerers intend to form a union, then . . .” he trails off.

I can feel my cheeks starting to blush again, but I lift my head and stare at him. “It's also done as a ritual for Gaea. That was its intended purpose originally. It had nothing to do with marriage; that's the modern concept. At least, that's what it says in the books I've read. The dance is about bringing the flow and force of magic into balance, and nothing more. Tradition came along after and attached gender to it. It doesn’t matter that I’m a woman and you’re a man, the original dance was only about magic.”

He coughs uncomfortably.

I still hold the fan out to him, but he looks at it like it's a snake.

“I can't,” he says, losing that confident edge completely and looking exactly like an uncomfortable boy.

“You can. A while ago you asked me how to reconnect to the spirit of your magic. Well, maybe this will help. I just want to see it done. I just want to . . . learn whatever I can. Please?”

He still looks like I'm asking him to do something incredibly embarrassing, but as he winces, he accepts the fan.

I grin wildly.

Yes, I grin. At Captain Yang. But it doesn't matter.

I want to see this dance.

“Okay, but I am not doing this in public,” he says as he looks to the side at all of the other soldiers in the square. Though they are well out of earshot, I know that if we start to practice, they’re close enough to see.

I nod excitedly. “I don't care. I just want to see it.”

He sighs, and it's very deep and resounding. “I don't know why I can't say no to you,” he says under his breath, then he stops, and straightens up as he realizes what he said. “Just come on,” he says as he waves me forward.

After muttering something to my guards, he leads me across the square.

I feel more alive than I have in weeks.

“There are several other training squares, though a lot smaller,” he notes as we walk up the stairs and down towards a small corridor. Walking through it, we exit via a door into a much smaller paved area.

It's far more ornate than the one we left. In fact, as I stand there and stare at it, I slowly circle on the spot, my mouth open as I survey all of the intricate details. From the carved pillars to the golden blue awnings.

“Yes, it's nice, isn't it?” he points out as he walks roughly into the center of the square. Then he does something odd. He jumps up a little, and angles his head high towards the only window with a view of the courtyard.

“. . . What are you doing?” I ask after a while.

“Trying to see whether Garl is in his office. I really don't want any witnesses. People could get . . . the wrong impression.”

“You wouldn't want anyone to think you're marrying a mountain bear,” I say sarcastically.

He stares at me.

He looks annoyed . . . and something else.

That something else makes my back tingle.

“Okay, I don't think he's in. In fact, I'm pretty sure he's at the Palace. So . . . just pay attention. I'm only going to do this once,” he says quickly.

I put my hands up. “Okay. You have my full attention, Captain Yang.”

He crumples his eyebrows together and looks at me tersely. “Right.”

“Right,” I repeat.

He winces, takes a step back, and unfurls the fan.

“I shouldn't be doing this,” he says, clearly speaking to himself.

“Then you'd better do it. There's nothing like breaking a rule,” I add, kind of babbling.

He raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. “Just pay attention.”

Then he begins.

It isn't what I'm expecting.

I have in my head that he'll start leaping around like the male equivalent of Mae. All refined and graceful, but with a bit more strength to his moves.

That's not what he does.

He . . . simply moves.

There’s no other way to describe it. He doesn't jump or roll or run. It's just . . . amazing.

I think my jaw drops open.

I watch magic build around him, twisting up his arms and legs as his Arak device glows. His power travels into the fan. It moves so fluidly and seamlessly, it's like it's not moving at all. It's as if it's already where it needs to be, and space bends around it. In fact, as I think that, I realize that's how Yang is moving himself. It's as if he's not moving at all, and yet moving everywhere at once.

It's so confusing, because it's something I've never seen before, something I've never experienced.

“All right, I'm going to throw the fan to you, and you need to follow the moves we practiced,” he warns.

I'm not ready for it, and kind of stumble forward, but at least I catch the fan as he throws it towards me.

I try to practice what I know.

The exact jumps and leaps, the exact movements of my feet and arms. But it all feels so unnatural, and as I muddle my way through, I notice the charge of magic in the fan begins to wobble.

Then, with nothing but a pop, it explodes out in a gush of sparks.

I splutter, patting wildly at my hair as it begins to singe.

Yang laughs. It's a full bellied, proper laugh.

I stand there with my mouth open, staring at him. “What happened?”

“You lost the charge,” he says through a lingering chuckle.

“But I followed the moves I've been taught,” I complain as I wipe soot from my face and stamp out the last of his sparks.

He keeps laughing.

I want to tell him to shut up, but that would be against the point.

I asked him to show me the fan dance because I wanted to distract him. And guess what? It's succeeding. So it's better to be humble and just let him laugh.

When he's done, he reaches out his hand and takes the fan off me. “It takes a lot of practice for two people to be able to do this. There's a lot of . . . trust involved,” he says carefully.

My initial reaction upon hearing that word is to snort. Every time he's used it in the past he's been trying to manipulate me.

Now I control myself. I actually hear what he's trying to say.

“You have to rely on the other person. You have to trust they’ll be able to hold your magic,” he says as he gestures to the blue and red channels in the fan. “You have to trust that they'll be there when you need them to be.”

I nod, locking my hair behind my ears as I do. Considering I just roughed it up as I extinguished Yang’s sparks, I know it’s a fuzz ball.

I try to run my fingers through it, but they get stuck.

“This time, just watch what I do and follow,” Yang says as he unfurls the fan.

I take several steps back, align myself with him, and then do exactly what he does.

As he shifts forward, so do I. As he furls out an arm, I do too. As he steps to the side then flips, I follow.

I'm like his mirror, mimicking him perfectly with barely half a second's pause.

Something strange happens as I do that. It's almost as if . . . the barrier between us crumbles.

It's getting smaller and smaller and smaller. In fact, I can barely feel it anymore. It's like I'm inside his head, and he's inside mine.

Suddenly that half a second pause between us feels as though it disappears entirely. I'm moving exactly when he is. No pause, no wait.

No judgment. I don't stop to consider what he's doing. I don't question him at all.

I follow. No, we follow each other.

I start to move a little on my own, inventing my own moves, yet he still follows.

Through it all, I never look away. I stare at him, and unblinkingly, he returns my gaze.

It should be the most confronting experience I've ever had, yet it's not.

It’s the opposite.

It's truly invigorating. Opening. Enriching. It's like it gives me a glimpse into a world I never knew existed.

A world of perfect balance.

Without even realizing it, he throws me the fan, and I catch it, and this time, I don't lose control.

I hold it, and I move, and as I do, my magic moves into it.

It’s seamless. Unstoppable even.

Now we no longer face each other. Without a word, I shift to the side, and so does he. Somehow he follows my movements even though my back is to him and his to mine. I shift forward, furling the fan out, and he does the same with his arm. Then I flip to the side, and he follows with perfect timing.

Time passes, I'm sure it does, but I no longer follow it. The only thing I'm connected to is him. To the balance between our two movements.

The point between force and flow.

I throw the fan back to him, then after a while, he throws it back to me. I lose track of how many times we repeat this, until finally, finally we stop.

Taking one step, our backs meet. Then, naturally, I let the fan drop.

It's not charged and crackling like it was that day I practiced in the rain.

It's . . . glowing. A mesmerizing, deep, pulsing light, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

Slowly I let my arms drop, and then I feel him take a step away from me.

It takes a long time to turn, cradling the fan as I do.

I wasn't expecting that. Heck, I'm still not entirely sure what I just experienced.

I thought the fan dance might teach me something, but it has taught me a lesson I'm not prepared for.

Over the past several weeks, I've tried to truly understand what balance is. Well now I realize it’s something far more mysterious than I ever thought possible.

Yang doesn't say anything for a while, in fact, nor does he make eye contact. He just looks . . . completely lost in thought.

Is he still embarrassed? Is he worried somebody might have seen?

I notice as he draws his hands up and turns them over slowly, staring at them carefully, paying particular attention to his Arak band.

His lips are parted, his eyes narrowed, but his expression isn't one of shame or anger.

It’s total surprise.

“That felt . . . I . . .” he trails off.

“I . . .” I trail off too.

We look awkwardly at each other.

“I didn't realize it was so . . . powerful,” I break my silence.

“It can be,” he says, choking over his words.

“I've never felt . . . so balanced, so in tune with my magic and my Arak device,” I say as I stare down at the fan. It's still glowing, and I wonder how long it will hold its charge for. Is it dangerous? Will we have to find some way to discharge it into the sky again?

Perhaps Yang can read my mind, because he leans down and takes the fan off me. It is a particularly gentle move. He shifts past me and takes it so carefully, I'm barely perturbed by his presence.

“This . . .” he looks at the fan as he turns it over in his hands.

“Is it dangerous?”

He eventually shakes his head. “It's . . . you don't have to worry about it.”

“Why not? I thought you'd told me it's dangerous to build up too much of a charge? That . . . well, it looks pretty charged.”

“It's balanced,” he says, and I can hear how startled he is. His words are high and shaking, his eyes wide open as he continues to stare at the fan.

“So it is safe?”

“Yes.”

“Don't we need to discharge it?”

“Leave that to me,” he says as he lets the fan drop to his side. He spends a long time staring at the ground between us until he lifts his gaze to meet mine. “That's a fan dance,” he says with a swallow.

Considering his expression and the emotional charge in the air, I'd been expecting him to say something different.

I swallow too.

Locking my hair behind my ears, I nod, a little too enthusiastically. “I got that.”

He swallows again. Is there something stuck in his throat?

“You . . . did good,” he manages, wincing once he's done.

“Did . . . it help you?” I suddenly ask.

“Sorry?” he stutters.

“To reconnect to your magic?” I ask quietly.

He doesn't say anything for a long while, then he turns away. He looks up at the General's window high above. After he seems satisfied, he looks at me again.

He nods.

That's all he does.

Then he turns and walks away.

Without a damn word.

I stand there startled.

So it's over? He can't say anything more? Not even a goodbye? Is he that ashamed? Nobody saw us. Plus, what is there to be embarrassed about? We completed the fan dance in its original spirit; as an act of balancing magic, of force and flow, as a gift to Gaea. Who cares what tradition has grown up around it, if that's what it meant for us?

Or at least, that's what it meant for me.

I think.

“Come on, we have to get out of here. I have no idea how long we've been here,” he says with a shaking breath, “so I have no idea how long it will be before Garl gets back.”

Though I want to be mad at him, I can't. Not now, not after that. I'm still buzzing with the power from the dance. More than that, I still feel like I could take on the world.

He leads me out of the courtyard, then carefully through the hallways and doors until we make it back to the square. As he does, he takes off his helmet and tucks it close to the closed up fan, trying to secure it in his arms.

What is he doing?

Once we reach the square, there are too many soldiers for me to ask directly.

“Excuse me,” he says as he walks up to one soldier, “do you know what time it is?”

“One o'clock,” the man says with a salute.

I watch Yang's expression as the shock whitens his cheeks. “Are you sure?”

“The bell rang only a few moments ago,” the soldier notes with another salute before he walks away.

“We were there for two hours,” Yang says quietly, keeping his voice low as we walk past another group of soldiers.

Two hours?

I've lost track of time before, especially when I'm doing something exciting. But that . . . is insane.

We both look at each other worriedly. In fact, as we exchange that glance, it reinforces how . . . connected I still feel to him.

It's as if I know what he's going to do before he does it.

“How the hell did that happen?” he asks quietly.

“Is it . . . normal?” I question.

He doesn't even bother to look at me. Instead he latches a hand on his mouth, the fingers gripping hard into his chin.

“No,” he answers.

His answer gives me a thrill. It should terrify me, but it doesn't.

As the Savior, I have to find tools powerful enough to help me with my sacred task. Before today I thought I had felt power, I now realize I hadn't.

This experience is so astounding, it gives me a new kind of hope.

Yang, however, doesn't seem as pleased. He's shocked, and as he quickens his pace, worried too.

We make it back to where I was training, only to find one of my guards still hanging around.

As he sees Yang marching forward, he stops slouching against a pillar and gives a salute. “Sir, General Garl is looking for you. Where have you been, anyway?” The soldier asks as he looks directly at me and raises an eyebrow.

Yang clears his throat. “Training,” he says in a snap.

“Training, ha?” the guard notes with a slight smile.

“Yes, soldier, training,” Yang emphasizes the word soldier. “Now, stop wasting my time. Where is General Garl?”

The soldier stiffens up. “He's up at the Palace, sir.”

Yang's shoulders visibly deflate. “Very well. And where is Mae?”

“Also at the Palace.”

“I see. Take . . . Yin back to her room.” Yang nods at the soldier, then turns, and I can see he tries his hardest not to make eye contact with me. But he fails. Just for a second, he gazes at me, and I can see how . . . confused he is.

Confused and maybe just a little intrigued.

Is he shocked by what happened before? Was it normal?

I don't get my answer. Instead Yang turns, doesn't say goodbye, and marches off.

Then I have to endure my guard looking at me sideways. In fact, his gaze darts from the top of my head down to my toes, then slowly back up again. Eventually they focus somewhere around my chest.

I don't bother crossing my arms. Instead I say directly, “your eyes seem stuck. Do you want me to punch you in the side of the head to unstick them?”

He snarls at me.

I smile.

Then he leads me back to my room.

When the door is closed and bolted behind me, I don't sit. I stand there and stare at my hands.

They still feel so full of magic.

Experimentally, I unfurl my fingers.

Sparks leap over them. It's as if the enchantments holding my summoning at bay no longer exist.

They can't hold me back any more.

If I wanted to, I could send a shot of magic into the wall and shatter it completely.

In fact, I feel more powerful than I ever have, because I feel in balance, in tune. As if I'm resonating with the essence of magic itself.

I've never truly connected to Gaea before, but now I swear I feel her presence all around me. It permeates everything, and for the first time I can see that.

But that's not all I've connected to.

Yang.

I still can't get him out of my head, even though he left minutes ago. It's as if he's right by my side, as if we're copying each other's movements without realizing it.

“What is going on?” I ask slowly and quietly.

The walls don't answer, but my heart does. And so does my Arak device. It sends a burst of crackling magic ploughing through my veins, and it's more invigorating than anything I’ve ever felt.

A new emotion.

A new kind of trust.

I don't practice. I don't feel I need to. Instead I sit in meditation and think about what's just happened and what might come.

Chapter 35

Captain Yang

I should be a mess by the time I reach the Palace. I should be flustered, guilty, confused.

I'm not.

I'm . . . amazed.

I've never felt power like this, I've never felt as balanced as this.

More than that, I have never felt as in tune with magic as I do now. It's as though I could send out a blast so powerful, it could part the heavens in two. And who knows, with the amount of magic now surging through my body, maybe I can.

My Arak device feels as though it’s melted completely into my wrist—the spirit of magic within becoming indistinguishable from my own essence.

If Yin hadn't convinced me to teach her the fan dance, I would never have felt this. I would never have known it was even possible.

For the past three weeks I've given little thought to anything other than training the Princess and finding out Garl's secrets.

I've forgotten Castor's warning that I must reconnect to my magic.

Now . . . I understand it.

I'm still not convinced about his story. I still haven't found enough to condemn Garl, but what I have found has not cleared his name. In fact, if anything, it's only made me more suspicious.

There have been too many cover-ups, too many coincidences. Untimely deaths, rebellious villagers silenced.

I want to believe he’s not capable of it, but that desire is slowly being overrun with truth.

Garl may not be as guilty as Castor wants me to believe, but I'm starting to find out he's not as innocent as I want to believe either.

But now, on top of that, I have something else to think about.

. . . .

Before I saw Yin this morning, I was weighed down with fatigue and responsibility. The mounting stresses of helping to train the Princess compounded with my suspicions of Garl, have produced a treacherous mix.

Now, however, I feel as though I can take on the world.

I feel more connected with my Arak device and my magic than I ever have before. It's no cold, numbing connection. It's invigorating.

It gives me the energy I need to march up those Palace stairs and be prepare for whatever might meet me.

I can't be sure nobody saw Yin and I practicing. I hope they didn't, but for all I know, Garl may have popped back into his office, only to see me . . . lost in movement.

I just have to find out.

If I walk into the Palace only to have him charge me with treason, so be it.

But as I do walk into the Palace, it's not to the sight of a ruddy cheeked Garl ready to chop my head off.

Instead the Princess comes running up to me, and hooks an arm around mine.

She looks so very happy to see me, her cheeks spreading wide in a warm smile. “Where have you been? Everybody's here, and we've been waiting for you.”

“I was unavoidably detained. I apologize, your Highness.”

“I told you,” she says as she presses her hand into my arm, “you don't have to stand on ceremony with me.”

I nod.

“I didn't want to begin until you were here. I want you here for this,” she says as the happy tone to her voice wavers.

My eyebrows immediately crumple. “What do you mean?”

“They've found another scroll,” she says excitedly, except excitement quickly gives way to fear. “The record keepers. About the Savior. About my legend.”

I swallow and nod.

“It will tell me what I have to do next. The challenges I have to pass in order to develop the skills I need.”

I swallow and nod again.

I should be thinking only of the critically important news the Princess is sharing. Instead, all I can think of is how it felt to have Yin move around me seamlessly, fluidly, the two of us in perfect balance.

“Everybody is waiting in the records room.”

Everybody. Which means Castor will be there.

The same Castor who told me if I ever lay a hand on Yin, he would rip my throat out.

Well I haven't hurt her, but I can't help feeling that if the old man ever found out I taught her the fan dance, he might just rip my throat out anyway.

I'm treading a fine line, and I know that. But I can't stop.

I don't know who to trust anymore. With the questions over Garl, my world is slowly crumbling.

Now I wonder whether I've been looking for trust in the wrong circles.

Whether I've been looking for certainty in the wrong place.

It’s true that I still don't know what's happening. Though the dance was invigorating and powerful, it hasn't changed what's happening to me. From the looming threat of the end of the age, to Garl—all of that remains.

Yet, I feel more certain than I ever have.

Because it has shifted my focus.

With the power running through my veins, and the knowledge of what I managed to do alongside Yin, I realize I shouldn't be caught up in what the world can do to me.

I should concentrate on what I can do to it.

I am not powerless.

The odds may seem insurmountable, but as I learnt today, there are forces out there I can rely on.

So I don’t shake. I walk on, my head held high.

When we reach the records room, those truly gaunt record keepers are waiting for us. Along with General Garl and Castor.

“Yang, so nice of you to finally join us,” Garl says.

I don't cower. I nod. “You have my apologies. I was unavoidably detained,” I say, sharing nothing more. If he asks for an excuse, I'll think of one. For now, I'll act as if I don't have a thing to hide.

“We should get going,” the Princess says as she walks up behind me. She's standing close, and I can tell she probably wants to hook her arm back into mine. Thankfully she contains herself.

The two record keepers bow to the Princess, then they wave us forward. We go down the stairs, flight after fight, until we reach the base of the library.

My stomach steadily becomes more and more clenched. I can remember what happened the last time I went down here. That book, the scroll with the glowing handwriting and the blood soaked hand prints.

It's enough to make me want to turn around and run away. But considering the confidence still burning within me, I step forward and hide my true feelings.

The Princess walks ahead with the two record keepers, Garl just behind them, and I try to take up the rear guard. Try, because Castor keeps falling behind. As he does, he draws alongside me, and I can see him looking at me carefully.

“What?” I ask through clenched teeth.

“I see you have been taking my advice,” he says in a whisper.

My eyes draw wide as my heartbeat reverberates through my chest.

Does he know I'm investigating Garl? I've been so careful, trying so hard to keep my questions as discrete as possible.

“You are no longer denying your emotions, and somehow, you have found a way to reconnect with the essence of your magic. You have a long way to go yet,” Castor notes as his eyes still pierce through me, “but you have started.”

I don't say anything.

“I admit, I didn't think you could do it,” Castor says quietly. In fact, his words are so carefully whispered that I doubt anyone can hear them apart from me. Even if Garl were standing right between us, I doubt he would be able to pick up what Castor is saying now.

For Castor is once more using that strange, unquantifiable magic.

“I don't need your advice,” I say defensively.

“Then stop listening to it,” Castor challenges.

I take a calming breath, drawing on the latent tingles of energy that still fill me from the dance.

They bolster me better than building a wall around my heart.

In fact, though I can feel Castor trying to undermine me, I don't succumb to it as easily.

“Whatever you're doing, I suggest you keep doing it. Then you will find the true power of Arak summoning. The secrets that have been hidden for too long. Keep digging until you uncover the secrets, Captain. For you need to know everything,” Castor says as he breaks away and marches up to the Princess.

She’s standing before that eerie bone plinth.

Just approaching it makes me feel sick.

But not as sick as Castor's words have left me.

My stomach churns. What secrets? Is he talking about more than Garl's cheered history?

What does Castor know?

I want to ask him directly. Throw all caution to the wind, and just stride forward, look the man in the eye, and demand he tell me what he's up to.

If Yin were here, she would do it. She doesn't hold back for anything or anyone.

Just thinking about her centers me, because it reminds me of how balanced I felt after the dance.

Or at least that's the reason I give myself.

The two record keepers disappear, and eventually return with a scroll.

I . . . can't take my eyes off it.

It's compelling. Mesmerizing. Completely absorbing. I feel as if I’m being inexorably drawn towards it. Like an asteroid hurtling towards the Earth, knowing it’s about to crash, but incapable of pulling back.

Still, despite the power it has over me, I manage to yank my gaze off it once to stare at Castor.

He looks . . . terrified.

I have never seen that man look anything but confident.

“Princess, this scroll will tell you the trials you must complete to unlock the powers you require to save the world,” one of the record keepers says as he bows his head low and places the scroll on the plinth.

I watch Mara turn around and make eye contact with us all. Though she looks a little fearful, she doesn't seem to be affected by the scroll in the same way I am, and her fear isn't a measure on the bone cold terror Castor is showing.

Does he know something we don't?

Is this scroll dangerous?

Before I can ask, Mara unfurls it.

It's longer than the previous scroll, and as she opens it, one side tumbles off the plinth, the end of the roll banging against the bone.

That noise makes me shudder.

It feels as if someone is hammering on my own bones.

“There is . . . nothing here,” the Princess steps back, her wide eyes shimmering with surprise.

“Wait,” one of the record keepers says, their voice low and rumbling, echoing easily through the cavernous space.

I watch Mara lean forward.

Then I hear something drip. It's practically silent, but something alerts me to it—a sudden rush of fear over my back and arms.

I take several jerking steps forward, and I notice the scroll is dripping with blood.

Fresh blood.

As the blood trickles over the hide, words appear. Glowing blue, they light up the underside of Mara's face as she leans over them.

I watch her eyes draw wide in surprise as she starts to read.

“I've never seen anything like this,” she says as she leans further forward.

I want to intervene. I want to grab a hand on her shoulder and pull her back. I want to close that scroll up so the blood will stop dripping.

Garl, however, gets there first. He walks confidently up to the Princess. “What does it say? What are you to do next?”

“I . . . don't know. I'm having trouble reading the symbols, they keep shifting around,” she says as she goes to lay a hand on the scroll.

The blood doesn’t repulse her. She reaches out to touch it.

Castor somehow moves like the wind, and reaches her in time to grab her wrist and pull her back.

The Princess, shock rippling over her face, looks at him.

“You mustn't touch it,” he says through gritted teeth. Then, as I watch him close his eyes, it's as if he gets a handle on himself. “Princess, you must be very careful around this scroll.”

“We are the keepers of scrolls,” the record keepers say at once.

Castor barely glances at them as he dismissively says, “and for now, I am the closest thing she has to a guardian. You will follow my heed. This is dangerous. Step back, and I will read it for you,” Castor says.

“You can read those symbols?” the Princess asks in awe.

Castor nods.

I watch him hesitate as if he has to draw up the strength before he can look upon those symbols.

Blood is still dripping down the scroll, and nobody seems to care but me . . . and Castor.

“I have read it, now close it and take it away,” he says as he gestures to the record keepers. “It is . . . dangerous to have it open too long. It may attract the Night,” he says.

“Preposterous,” Garl begins.

Castor turns on him.

The look in his eyes is . . . like fire itself.

“You can't feel it? Then, General, I suggest you take the knife out from the sheath at your hip, cut your hand, and place it to the ground. Leave it there for a few minutes, and you will feel the dark pressing in towards you.”

Garl holds Castor's gaze, but can’t do so for long. Eventually he steps back.

“What's happening?” the Princess questions hesitantly.

“The Savior’s blood attracts the Night,” Castor says as he takes a steadying breath. Actually wincing, he closes the scroll himself. His hands shake as he does so.

As he rolls it up completely, he lets out a relieved breath.

Without realizing it, I let one out, too.

“That is a myth,” the record keepers say as one.

“I do not mean to be impolite, but until several weeks ago, you believed the legend of the Savior was a myth too. Trust me, I know what I'm speaking off. These scrolls must only be looked upon for a short amount of time and only when it is absolutely necessary. To do otherwise, will bring on the onset of the Night. It will shorten this age.”

I can see Garl wants to question Castor, but I can also see he doesn't have the courage to do so.

Everybody looks at each other until the Princess breaks the silence, “what did it say? What am I to do?”

“You must complete a series of tasks.”

“What tasks?” Mara asks in a small voice.

“You must gather together the armor of light,” Castor says.

Silence meets his assertion.

The armor of light? It doesn't exist. It can't exist. It goes far beyond legend, into the realm of pure fiction. Armor made from the essence of magic itself. Not from metal, not from wood. But from the very spirit of every summonable force.

According to the myth, isn’t even Arak in origin—it comes from a time before that ancient race.

“What . . . how? It doesn't exist. I've always been told it was a story,” the Princess stutters.

“It exists. It has to. Without it, the Savior will be unable to fight alongside the spirit of the earth. You must acquire every single piece before the final day of the age.”

“If I don't?” the Princess asks.

Castor doesn't even bother to answer. He just looks at her.

Eventually she shudders back, running a hand up and down her arm as if she's suddenly cold.

I have been cold since I stepped into this room. Colder since the scroll was unraveled and the blood dripped on the floor.

Either I'm overreacting, or I can feel something she can't.

She's the Savior, so clearly, I am the one at fault.

Perhaps the fan dance unsettled me somehow.

. . . .

How could it?

It left me feeling stronger than I ever have before.

So why do I now seem terrified when nobody else does?

Nobody else but Castor.

Still, he's holding himself together better as he stares at the Princess. “You must gather together every piece of the armor, and only when it is complete, can you complete your task.”

“But where will we find it? Does the scroll contain instructions?” she points towards it.

“Not this scroll,” he says as he holds onto it protectively.

“So where do we find instructions?” the Princess presses her hands together, worry forcing her fingers tighter and tighter into her knuckles.

“We follow the legends, Princess,” Castor says as he bows.

Mara doesn't say anything, she looks up at Castor pleadingly.

“We must travel to each of the five ancient temples. When we are there, we must uncover clues that will lead us to the piece of armor within. You, as the Savior, are the only person alive who will be able to retrieve the armor and complete this sacred quest,” Castor concludes.

Everybody is shocked by his words. Even the record keepers, who previously looked as if they couldn't show emotion other than disdain, now look surprised.

“What? Did you think this would be easy?” Castor now asks quietly. “You are the Savior, the first Savior in an age. To fight this war, you will need to call upon the forces that are ageless. You must plumb the depths of your own courage and seek out the secrets others deny,” Castor says, briefly looking at me, “if you are to succeed.”

The Princess glances from Garl to the record keepers, back to Castor, then across to me.

It's clear she is waiting for me to say something.

Should I tell Castor what he's suggesting is impossible? That the armor of light could not possibly exist?

Or should I tell her to trust him?

Before I know what I'm doing, I nod. “We need to try,” I say, surprising myself.

I also clearly surprise Garl, as he twists on the spot and looks at me calculatingly.

I ignore that gaze.

I level my own at Castor.

This better not be some play, some ruse. If he's manipulating the Princess, I will make him pay.

But if he isn't . . . then I will follow.

The Princess closes her eyes, grasping her hands before her. After a few moments of quiet contemplation, she nods. “I will do as you say. Return the scroll to the sacred archives,” she gestures at the record keepers, “and please organize this . . . trip,” she says as she glances from Castor to Garl.

She takes a step backwards, nods at everyone, and turns. She shoots me a rather desperate gaze.

I can see she's confused and scared, but somehow pushing through it.

It’s just what she needs to do in her position, I tell myself.

She’s the perfect person for this, the only person for this.

The Savior of the ages.

In short order, we all exit the library, and Garl and Castor and the Princess return to one of the palace's many meeting rooms to discuss their options.

Though I’m invited to join in, I quickly excuse myself on the premise of returning to the barracks to make preparations.

Soon enough I find myself powering down the steps of the Palace, and practically running through the streets of the city.

My mind is swamped by thoughts. The armor of light? Could it even exist?

There's so much to organize.

But as I reach the barracks, I don’t begin to organize it. Even though I told Garl I was returning to do that, I find my feet taking me somewhere else.

It's drawing on to dusk, and there’s a strange chill in the air.

I keep rubbing at my arms, but no matter what I do, I can't chase back the cold.

Nor can I push back my nerves.

I run a little faster until I reach the right door.

Yin's door.

I shouldn't be seeing her. With the weight of the world on my shoulders and an epic journey to organize, I know where my priorities should lie.

That doesn't stop me from knocking. It doesn't stop me from sliding the bolt to the side and waiting for her to answer.

I want . . . .

I don't know what I want. Resolution. Understanding. I want to find out what happened during the fan dance. How I reconnected to my magic. I want to know how to do it again.

Castor is right. Though I feel closer to my Arak device and the essence of magic than I ever have, I also know there’s a long way to go.

That doesn't dishearten me; it invigorates me.

I feel more alive than I ever have before.

So I wait for her to answer, my heart pounding in my throat. When she doesn't, I figure she's simply being obtuse as usual, and I push the door open.

There are no soldiers in the corridor, nobody guarding her, there's no point anymore.

So there’s nobody to see my reaction as I push that door open.

She's seated on the far side of the room, her back pressed against the wall, her legs pushed up, her head resting on her knees, her left arm covered in blood.

I lurch forward, skid to my knees, and reach her.

“What happened? What happened?” my words rush out, gut wrenching fear making them quick and little more than bursts of breath.

She looks up slowly, her cheeks streaked with tears, her eyes red from crying.

Maybe she can't speak or she doesn't want to tell me what happened, but with a hesitant, gentle touch, I try to pull her bloodied arm away from her knees.

She doesn't resist.

I carefully pry back her sleeve, looking for the injury.

I turn her arm over and over, looking at her palm, her fingers, her Arak device even, but I find no sign of injury.

No injury.

Yet her arm is still bleeding.

“What happened?” I ask in a shaking whisper. “What's happening to you?”

“I don't know,” she shakes her head over and over again, more tears streaking out of her red, swollen eyes and trickling down her cheeks and chin. “But it hurts so much.”

I can't ignore the emotion in her words.

Her arm is covered in blood with no sign of injury. Perhaps it would be easy to assume the blood isn't hers, that somehow she covered her arm in it and tried to pretend she injured herself.

I can't even consider that possibility.

As I try to dab away the blood on her palm using my sleeve, more comes up. It's flowing from somewhere, I just don't know where.

She’s shaking.

I'm shaking.

“What do I do?” I plead.

She just grits her teeth together and sobs.

If I weren't a Royal Army sorcerer, maybe I would doubt her. Maybe I wouldn't be able to feel how raw her emotions are. The fear, the pain. The overwhelming pain.

“I'll get help,” I say as I shift back, intending to run to the infirmary.

“No,” she says as she grips a hand on my sleeve, holding me in place. “No,” she begs.

“It's okay,” I say as I place a hand lightly on hers, “they'll be able to help you.”

She shakes her head. “I don't want him to know. Please.”

I don't need to ask who he is.

Garl.

Though I self admittedly know a lot about the worlds of magic, there are still things I don’t know. Mysteries, whispered rumors. There are so many powers, so many kinds of Arak devices. The illusionists are a prime example of this—people who can make themselves invisible. Beyond those strange abilities, there are others I have only ever heard of. People who can manipulate light, some who can even warp space. And a rare unscrupulous few who can poison blood, torturing people with little more than a look.

. . . .

Could something like that have happened to Yin?

Could someone have attacked her?

Garl.

“Did he do this to you?” I ask, unable to hold my tongue. As I speak, my cheeks become so cold with fear, I know they’re whiter than powdered plaster.

She looks up, tears still streaking down her face, trickling along her chin and neck and soaking through her collar. “I don't know,” she says. “It just happened. I can't stop it. I can't stop it,” she starts to sob again.

I have to do something.

Anything.

But the first thing I have to do is keep her confidence.

Standing up, I move towards the door and I carefully close it behind me, glancing down the hallway as I do.

Hopefully if somebody walks along, they won't notice it's still unbolted.

“We have to get you to a doctor,” I hiss at her as I walk over and lean by her side.

“Nobody can know,” she says as she stares at me with tear soaked eyes.

Reluctantly I nod my head. “We have to stop the bleeding, and I don't know how to do that.”

“I think . . . it's stopping itself. It's not coming as quickly as it did before.”

I need to confirm that fact for myself. So I reach up to her bed and pull off a section of sheeting. Then I use it to clean her arm. She lets me do it, even though I know it's causing her pain.

But sure enough, as I clean off the blood, using up most of the sheet as I do, I soon confirm that she's hardly bleeding anymore. A few trickles here and there, somehow escaping her skin with no cuts. But that's all.

Reaching back up to her bed, I grab one of her blankets and furl it around her shoulders. Then I go over to the small water basin kept in the corner of her room, and I clean her arm as best as I can, washing away as much blood from the floor beneath too.

Once that's done, I force her to drink half of the bottle of water she keeps by her bed.

Then . . . I sit next to her and look at her.

I'm a mess. Understandably, so is she.

Eventually she flops her head back onto the wall behind her and closes her eyes. “It's stopped. I can feel it.”

I take a stuttering breath and nod. “Are you okay?”

It takes a long time for her to flop her head to the side and stare at me. She nods.

Then we just, look at each other. It's a little like what happened this morning when she followed my moves at the beginning of the fan dance. Try as I might, I can’t look away.

And, though it sounds impossible, I feel as though I'm sharing her burden, sharing her pain. A dull throbbing picks up in my left arm, radiating out from my magic Arak device, accompanied by a terrifying scratching sensation.

Maybe it's all in my head, maybe it isn't.

“Would he do this?” she asks, searching my gaze.

I open my mouth to say no.

I can't do that anymore.

I shrug my shoulders instead. “Maybe.”

I can see tears brimming in her eyes again. “He threatened me, but I didn't think he could do . . . something like this.” She starts to cry again. Sobbing far more fitfully than she did before.

I react. Sitting alongside her, I loop my arm around her shoulders and rest her head against mine.

She doesn't shift back. She just cries.

I let her.

The world could be looking for me at that moment, but nothing would make me leave her side.

Not the Princess, not my commanders, nothing.

Which is a strong sentiment considering barely a few weeks ago I thought Yin was one of the most unpleasant people had ever met. Yet as I've gotten to know her, things have changed. Since the fan dance this morning, everything has changed.

Because I have changed. For the first time in years I'm letting myself feel. I'm not pushing away my emotions, ashamed of them.

I'm letting them tell me what's right and what's wrong.

This is wrong. What Garl has down to Yin is wrong.

“How is he doing it?” she asks.

“I don't know,” I say in a husky voice. “But there are sorcerers that can . . . do things to people's blood. Poison it, dry it up,” I say through a wince.

It's as if the full horror of those facts suddenly strikes me. I've known them for so long, but I've never felt them before. They feel horrible.

I still don't know if that's what's happening to Yin, but it seems like the most logical possibility.

Garl, or perhaps someone else, is punishing her. In the cruelest way possible.

Automatically, I find myself pulling her a little closer. Then I stare with a dead gaze across the room at the door.

Again, time stretches out. Minutes or hours could pass, but I have no way of telling.

Finally, however, she pulls away from me. She stands, and she runs her right hand down her left arm.

“I didn't think of it before, but now you mention it, I didn't even realize my hand was bleeding the first time until Garl pointed it out,” she suddenly says as she stares at the blood on her trousers.

I push my back into the wall and stand, feeling wobbly. Then I nod.

Suddenly she looks at me sharply. “You aren't going to tell him, right?”

“Of course not,” I say disbelievingly.

“He's your commander, isn't he? I thought there was nothing more important to you than the Royal Army, your loyalty to the Kingdom,” she says, her voice croaky from all the tears she's cried.

I go to tell her there isn't, then I stop.

I'm not sure of anything anymore. No, I'm not sure of what is happening to me, but I am sure of what I'll do. “I will not tell him,” I say, and I mean it, I really mean it. In fact, I've never meant anything more in my life.

I watch her as she searches my gaze. I know she's skilled enough to tell when I'm trying to manipulate her. She is clearly looking for a lie in my eyes.

She doesn't find one.

There isn't one there.

I take a step forward, placing a hand on her right shoulder.

She stares at the floor, then up at my arm, then into my eyes. “What am I meant to do?”

“I . . . I've been investigating Garl,” I admit.

It's a secret I've been holding for weeks. One I have told myself I will not share with anyone. Yet right now, I share it with her.

She looks confused. “What?”

“Castor . . . warned me about him. I didn't want to believe it, but I . . . I've been investigating my commanding officer,” I say bitterly.

She doesn't react how I think she will. In fact, maybe I'm not even sure how she should react. She shares my sorrowful gaze and nods. “It's hard when your life changes before your eyes, and the things you once relied on disappear,” she acknowledges.

A tear collects in my eye and streaks down my cheek.

I know it's going to happen before it does. I could stop it, but I don't.

She looks at it. Then she sheds her own too.

“I've tried to do everything he told me to. I thought I'd been good,” she says.

“Maybe . . . someone saw us this morning,” I suggest. “Perhaps he returned to his office,” I wince as I think of the possibility.

“So he's punishing me,” she realizes, then she closes her eyes. “That makes sense.”

“No it doesn't. He should be punishing me.”

We look at each other.

What more is there to do?

“We'll find a way to stop him,” I assure her.

I have no reason to assure her; what I'm suggesting is impossible. Firstly, we're not even sure it's Garl behind this, and secondly, he's a general of the Royal Army. I'm nothing but a captain.

But as I look at Yin, I know I have to to help her. Not just with my words, not just with my promises, but with actions.

“I don't want you to get in trouble,” she suddenly says.

It makes me laugh. It's not a prolonged laugh, nor is it particularly mirthful. It's just . . . a laugh. “I'm pretty sure only this morning you said you still hate me.”

She looks bashful, closing her eyes. “I don't hate you,” she says with her eyes still firmly closed.

A shiver crosses down my back, and I find myself gripping her shoulder tighter. “Thank you,” I say.

Perhaps it's the wrong thing to say, but I can't think of anything else.

“And thank you,” she says, her eyes still closed.

Silence descends between us. I have every reason to walk away from her now, to pull my hand from her shoulder and to leave.

Of course I can't though.

I remain by her side, as close to her as I can get.

Until she opens her eyes. “What now?”

As she says that, despite what she's been through, I see that flicker of flame in her gaze.

Determination.

It's just a spark now, but I know from experience it will grow. Like wildfire along a grassy plain, it will become bigger and bigger and bigger, growing into a raging inferno no man can stand before.

Though that prospect would have angered me before, now I smile. Because, despite what is happening to her, I realize she can fight back.

“I'll take you away,” I suddenly say.

Surprise drops her jaw down. “What?”

“I'll let you go,” I say with an unwavering voice.

“Yang?”

“Get you away from here. I'll get you away from him.”

She shakes her head. “But this is your home. There's nothing more important to you than the Kingdom. You've told me that. And what of Garl? Are you just going to let him get away with what he's doing?”

I grit my teeth together. “I don't know how to stop him,” I admit honestly.

She watches me, her chest punching out in deep breath after deep breath.

“In fact, I don't even know what he's doing. What he's done. It is so complex. He's too good at hiding his tracks,” I blurt out, suddenly all of the thoughts I've been holding back streaming forth. “But there's one place I think I can finally uncover his secrets.”

“What do you mean?”

“There was a coastal village that was wiped out 20 years ago. They say it was in a tsunami, but I . . . don't know if I believe that. I think Garl might have had something to do with it. I think this time if I go out there. I might find the evidence I need.”

She nods.

She doesn't shake her head and tell me that's crazy. She just nods. “Where is it?”

“A day away on horseback,” I estimate.

Then I look at her.

I wonder if I can go through with what I'm suggesting. Let her go? Take her out of the city? Go to the coastal village and check to see if the most respected man in the Kingdom is a mass murderer?

I have a duty. A sacred duty to the Princess. She has selected me as one of her guardians, and yet right now I'm turning my back on her.

I tell myself to stop. To think. To act like my father would want me to. In the best interests of the Kingdom.

The only problem is, right now, I don't know what the best interests of the Kingdom are. I know what I've been told they are, but I can't trust that.

“Yang, are you sure?” Yin whispers.

I have to be sure. I can't tell her and change my mind.

Can I abandon the Princess? Can I walk away from being her guardian?

. . . .

Was I ever her guardian? I don't know anything about the legend of the Savior. And all I found myself doing in her presence was trying to figure out what the men around her were planning. From Castor to Garl, it seemed like they had far more power than I ever will hold.

They know more about the situation than I do.

And what kind of guardian does that make me?

Without any knowledge of my own, and with little power, what can I offer Mara?

Plus, if Garl truly did see me teaching Yin the fan dance, and decided to punish her like this, what will he do to me?

Even if I stay, I won't be welcome. I'll do nothing but look over my shoulder, waiting for Garl's attack.

Closing my own eyes now, I nod.

“Yang, are you sure?” she whispers.

With my eyes still firmly closed, I nod.

Then I feel her light touch on my shoulder. “You don't have to do this.”

I place my hand on top of hers. “But I will. You told me I don't understand my magic. Well I don't understand my life either. I trusted that man, trusted this kingdom. I purged myself of emotion, went through the training to become the best Royal Army sorcerer I thought I could be. All for them . . . .” Finally I open my eyes. “I need to know if it's worth it.”

She is looking right at me.

It's an expression I can't quite qualify; it holds more than one emotion and more than one promise.

Swallowing hard, I nod again. “We are getting out of here,” I say.

I mean it.

I mean it.

I am going to abandon the Royal Army and take Yin with me.

There'll be no going back.

As I decide that, it feels as though I'm standing there and staring into the center of fire, knowing all the while it can't burn me.

“When?” she asks hesitantly.

“Now,” I say as I take a step back from her.

“Now?” she asks hurriedly, her surprise obvious.

“We can't risk Garl doing this to you again. If I'm right, and he has found some devious sorcerer who can manipulate your blood, we have to get you as far away from here as soon as possible.”

“But . . . Castor,” she suddenly says, emotion making her eyes grow wide.

I don't know what to say, so I say the only words that feel right, “isn't here for you. But I am.”

Wow . . . did I just say that?

I did, and there's no taking it back.

Yin places a hand flat on her chest and takes a deep breath. “You aren't . . . going to turn on me are you?”

I stare directly at her. If I wanted to manipulate her, I would draw up my water magic, making my words seem as fluid and easy as possible. I don't dare draw upon my magic now. Instead I delve deep into my heart. “No. I can't go back now. There's nothing for me here anymore,” I conclude.

. . . .

There's nothing for me here.

My whole life used to be here, and now, try as I might, I can't find it in the regimes of the Royal Army or the traditions of the Royal Family.

My questions have taken me far off the path my father dictated for me, and though that should fill me with shame, it pushes me further forward.

In fact, I take several steps until I'm looking right down into her eyes. “I'm not going to betray you,” I say.

I mean it.

She nods. “Then . . . what are we waiting for?”

I actually smile. Only Yin can look excited in the face of such hardship.

“Nothing. Garl will be engaged at the palace well into the night. I will go and gather some supplies, secure a horse, and come for you,” as I talk, a latch a hand on her arm.

I'm not manipulating her.

She knows it.

She nods. “Captain Yang, thank you,” she manages.

“I'm not a captain anymore; I'm a traitor,” I say, trying the word on for size.

It makes me feel sick, but it also fills me up with energy.

I know this is the right thing to do.

Not turning from her, I take a step back. Then I go to reach for the door handle.

That's when I hear the bolt being slid into place and a muffled, “who left that unlocked?”

. . . .

No.

God no.

If I call out and tell the soldier to jolly well unlock the door, he's going to open it and see Yin is covered in blood. If I don't . . . I'm trapped.

As I let the soldier walk away, it's pretty clear I'm trapped.

I take a stumbling step backwards.

“We can't get out of here,” I conclude with a shake.

Yin doesn't say anything.

I turn, expecting her to start sobbing again.

She doesn't, she looks at me evenly.

“. . . Yin, we can't get out. We've been locked in,” I clarify.

She presses her lips together. “We can get out,” she admits hesitantly.

“What? We can't. This room is embedded with magical enchantments that ensure we can't summon magic. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but that door is thick steel. There's no tool we can fashion to bust through it. It's . . . over. They'll find us in the morning and,” I shudder.

“Yang, we can get out,” she says.

“Yin, you don't understand,” I say desperately.

She unfurls her hand, letting her fingers drop gracefully as flame springs up over them.

Vibrant, flickering, hot flame.

I stare at her in disbelief.

She looks a little sheepish as she hooks her hair over her ear. “Ever since I was locked in here, I've been able to conjure a little magic. But ever since . . . this morning,” she says uncomfortably, “after . . . the fan dance,” she clarifies with a weak voice, “I've been able to summon just fine.”

I bring my own hand up, trying to send a jet of water over my palm. I can't. I can feel it there, trying to come out, but I can't force it through.

I can't stop staring at her in disbelief.

She can't stop looking back sheepishly. “I've been practicing, in case I have to escape. So it comes quite handy now, doesn't it?”

I press my lips together and nod my head. “How can you do magic in here?”

With wide eyes she stares at her hand then up to me. “I don't know.”

I accept her answer. Then I stand back. “We have to be careful. I know you probably want to send that door ricocheting into the wall,” I say as I point my thumb at the solid steel behind me, “but we have to be quiet. Careful,” I say, my lips moving wide.

I look at her as if we are engaged in training once again. I need her to understand what I'm saying.

She nods. “I can probably just try to melt the lock,” she says as she cranes her neck towards the door, “or at least the place where it meets the wall.”

I nod. At the same time, I feel afraid and excited and amazed.

She can do magic in a room surrounded by enchantments.

. . .

I don't even know how that's possible. But now is not the time to find out.

And . . . maybe it doesn't surprise me as much as it should. Maybe from the very moment she was placed in this room I half wondered whether she would find a way to get out. It's the same feeling I got when I put her to sleep with that spell. I was expecting her to wake up, I was just waiting for it.

“Okay, do we need to take anything?” She looks around her room. “Not that I have much to take.”

“We need to be light so we can be quick,” I say. “I will get money and I will get the bare necessities. I know enough to live off the land. Hey, you probably do too. You were a herbalist, right?”

She nods. “Though I'm mostly familiar with mountain herbs, Castor did make me read books about the rest.”

“Okay,” I manage, feeling amazed that I'm actually about to do this.

“Are you ready?” she asks me through a swallow.

“Yes.” I close my eyes and wait.

She shifts towards the door carefully, waiting, clearly listening out to ensure no soldiers are walking by.

I start to smell smoke.

The truly acrid, powerful smell of metal burning.

It takes barely half a minute, then I hear a creak and a groan. “I've done it,” she says quietly.

I open my eyes to see her pull the door forward.

Then the adrenaline kicks in. The fear, the terror at what I have to do now.

We must escape the Royal Barracks in secret.

I walk forward. I pause in the doorway, right by her side, and I look at her.

We nod. We walk out.

As we do, I know nothing will be the same again.

Chapter 36

Yin

So much has happened in such a short period of time. I can't keep up. Maybe I don't have to. There's only one fact that really matters: I trust him.

I don't know how and I don't know why, but I completely trust him.

Okay, I do know how and I do know why. Ever since the fan dance this morning . . . it's as if I've really seen him for the first time. The walls he keeps around himself can't keep me out anymore. I can peer right into his soul.

It sounds impossible, but hey, I'm the Savior.

Though I can tell he's terrified, that doesn't stop him. He carefully walks forward, pausing every now and then as he waits to ensure the hallway is clear. Once or twice we have to duck into empty rooms. I'm glad that it's dark and there are only a few torches lit; I don't want the whole world to know that a) I'm escaping with Captain Yang, and b) that I'm covered in blood.

The past several weeks have been some of the most stressful in my life, yet as I flee with Yang, I'm introduced to a new level of panic.

At any moment a soldier could come out, spot us, and raise the alarm.

Somehow we make it through the barracks though. Yang ducks off and gets some supplies, then we make it around to the stables.

Though it's easy enough to make our way out of the buildings of the barracks, the stables are different.

They are permanently guarded.

Horses, after all, are valuable.

Still, Yang decides to take a risk. He whispers at me to trust him, and then he ducks out of where we're hiding to create a distraction so I can escape.

Apparently, he's going to meet me out on the street after he secures a horse.

My heart is no longer beating at one million miles an hour; the pace with which it rips through my chest is one that's not quantifiable. I may have fought numerous battles, and Castor may have trained me to embrace risk when I have to, but this is different.

I feel as if I have so much to lose. Not just my freedom, not just Yang's, but my destiny. If I step wrong, and we are captured, presumably Garl will follow through on his threat. He will kill me, possibly taking Castor and my village with me.

If he kills me, he can say good-bye to this age and the next. There will be no one to hold the Night back.

With that kind of pressure pressing down on me, I use every technique I know of to control my fear.

Then I listen and wait as Yang straightens up his armor and marches towards the closest soldier.

“I need a horse,” he says flatly, “prepare one for me now.”

“Yes, sir. Though . . .” the soldier trails off.

I can't see his face, but right now I would give anything to see his expression.

Why is he hesitating? Is he suspicious? Has Garl already put the word out against Yang?

“I don't have time to wait around,” Yang says tersely. “I am on a very important mission for the Princess herself.”

“Yes, sir,” the soldier says.

Then I hear him scurrying off, his heavy boots scuffing against the dirt floor of the stables.

Placing a hand on my chest, I actually wince.

“No, not that horse—the fastest one we have,” I hear Yang say as he marches off after the soldier.

Then silence, or relative silence.

I force myself to peer out of where I'm hiding.

I have completely put to rest the possibility that Yang is tricking me somehow. After our fan dance this morning, I feel that if he ever tried to trick me again, I would know. Not by reading his expression or the timbre of his voice—I would just know. His emotions are open to me, and I can read them as easily as any scroll.

So I don't hesitate.

When I see an opportunity, I trust in Yang, and I dart forward.

Keeping low, I'm careful not to let my footfall scrabble. The last thing I need is for the guard attending Yang to hear some suspicious noise and come running.

So I use my trusty sandals to dampen my footfall as I race forward.

In that moment I am more than thankful that I have a natural affinity for animals. It would be quite easy for somebody to disturb the horses as they scamper along the ground, sweat dripping from their brow, their fear arcing out in waves.

For me, however, though the horses look at me in interest, none of them make a noise.

I smile. It's small and it's a mostly bitter move, but it's still there.

I'm doing something. I'm finally escaping.

I make it to the great big door at the back of the stables.

I reach a hand out to it, then I notice it's locked.

Right now I could tip my head back and swear like a soldier.

Instead, I dart backwards quickly, and assess my environment.

I can't afford to elicit any suspicion, not while Yang's back there with the soldier.

If the two of them come out when they are finished only for the soldier to see the back door hanging wide open, it's going to start a panic, and Yang could be drawn into that.

I have to make this as seamless and quiet as possible.

So I take a step back, twisting on the spot, and I see a set of windows built high into the top of the stables.

There are only several sheer walls leading up to them, and no normal man would be able to scale the distance.

But I'm not normal, and I'm not a man.

Pushing forward, and reaching out to the horse in the stable next to me, it voluntarily comes closer and nuzzles its head into my arm. Patting it quickly along the back, I don't hesitate as I push up and jump onto its back.

Then, with a silent command, I instruct it to move closer to the wall.

It does.

Standing on the back of the horse, careful not to let my shoes dig hard into its back, I reach up, jump lightly, and manage to grab hold of the window.

Forcing them open, I roll through the tiny gap, and make it to the outside, gripping my feet on the wall just as I hear people moving inside the stables.

Then Yang's voice filters out. “Hurry up and open the back doors,” he says, a note of stress twisting through his tone. “Why are they closed anyway?”

“New decree, Sir. General Garl has increased the security of the barracks. He feels . . . some kind of attack is imminent.”

“. . . I see,” Yang manages. “Very good. The general always knows what he speaks of.”

“Yes, sir, he does,” the soldier says automatically.

Though I hang there on the outside of the window listening, I now let myself fall.

Though I'm quite far up, when I hit the ground, I do so with the lightest of rolls, coming up onto my feet and darting forward with ease.

Thankfully it's a dark night, and though there are various torches around, only a few of them are lit.

I stay deep into the shadows.

But just as I'm racing forward, I hear footfall from behind. It's not Yang and his horse; it's coming from around the building.

Heavy, with the distinct grate of armored boots, I realize it's more soldiers.

Staring around with wide eyes, I note there is nothing to hide behind.

I'm completely in the open.

But it is a very dark night.

Without thinking, I spread my fingers out wide, close my eyes, and command every torch to go out.

“What the heck? Why is it so dark around here? Did Cao forget to light the lamps again? The general is going to kill him,” I hear one of the soldiers say.

I take the opportunity, and I run.

As fast as I can, as low to the ground as possible, and as silently as I can manage.

Though I've never been behind the barracks, I keep to a narrow alleyway until I find myself along what must be some main street.

It's well lit, and there are people milling about.

Instinctively I tuck my arms close to my chest, not only making myself a smaller target, but hiding the blood along my tunic.

The smell of food fills the air, and it instantly makes my stomach rumble. Though the Royal Army has been feeding me, if you could call it that, I long for some real sustenance.

Castor, among other things, is a fantastic cook. From hotpots to fruit preserves, there was always something to eat, and it was always delicious.

But I can't afford to dart forward and grab one of the tantalizing pancakes or freshly squeezed juices from the stalls around me.

Instead I walk forward, keeping to myself.

Thankfully people hardly stare at me, and I stay close enough to the shadows that they don't suddenly scream out that I'm covered in blood.

Then, just as I'm walking behind a stall, I spy a long coat. Thankfully the stall owner looks relatively rich, and is looking in the other direction, so I duck forward, grabbing the coat and moving on smoothly.

When I'm far enough away, I furl it around my shoulders and hug it close to my chest.

Then . . . I wait.

Yang told me to meet him out on the main street.

Here I am.

Waiting.

And waiting.

All the while fearing that he did not manage to get out.

Chapter 37

Captain Yang

It feels like hell lying my way out of the barracks.

It's been my home for as long as I can remember. A symbol of everything I stand for. Loyalty and protection, security and strength.

Now it's just a question mark. I don't know what it stands for. Maybe I never knew.

Once I leave the soldier, he opens the door, and I lead the horse out onto the cobbled area behind the barracks. Then things start to set in.

The enormity of what I am doing.

There is no going back.

No . . . if I turn around right now, return the horse, and raise the alarm that Yin has escaped, then maybe I could go back.

But what's the point? There is every likelihood that General Garl is after me.

It's just too late.

Plus, I'm not sure I could do that to her. I looked her in the eye, after all, and told her I wouldn't betray her.

Some ragtag girl from the mountains. Someone I should hold no loyalty for. A woman who, self-admittedly, stands for everything I don't. She questions the legitimacy of the Royal Family, the sanctity of the Kingdom. She holds nothing but suspicion for authority, and is arrogant and forceful enough to forge her own path.

. . . .

Yet, now she is the only thing I have left.

I chose to flee with her . . . and I'm going to have to live with that.

My life is now different, and I can’t stand here and mourn the loss of what I once knew.

I have to forge ahead.

So I raise my chin, take my helmet off, secure it under my arm, and I lead the horse forward.

As I do, I wonder where she has gotten to.

When I saw that the door at the back of the stables was locked and bolted, I pulsed with fear.

Then . . . I remembered who I was dealing with. Yin. She might be a woman, and around these parts, we might not expect much from women, but she is categorically one of the strongest people I have ever met.

“She has found a way out,” I whisper to myself under my breath.

But as I continue to lead the horse through the narrow side streets that link up to one of the main roads of the city, I start to doubt.

I twist my head around, checking for her everywhere, stopping just short of calling her name.

Where is she?

. . . She hasn't, run-off on her own, has she?

I was sure I got through to her. I was sure I made her trust me.

But as I search for her, I start to doubt.

Maybe it makes sense. I was the one who brought her to the barracks, the one who turned a blind eye as General Garl threatened her. I tried to manipulate her in the past, forcing her to trust me so she would stop being rebellious.

But now I can’t deny how sick it makes me feel.

We reach the main road, and my stomach feels as though it's in freefall.

Again I twist my head from side to side, but I can’t see her anywhere.

The conclusion that she really has run off without me seems undeniable now.

Just as my heart sinks lower than it ever has before, I notice a woman in a thick coat walk up from the side.

I barely glance her way, then I realize she is following me along, albeit at a distance.

Just as she walks under a lit lantern, she lifts her head slightly, and looks right at me.

Despite the distance, I recognize her.

Of course I do. I could probably recognize Yin at 1000 paces. It's not her appearance anymore, it's . . . something more than that. A connection I can't really describe, and one I don't have time to anyway.

Nodding at her, I angle my head, trying to communicate nonverbally for her to follow.

I don't particularly want to ride through the city with a cloaked woman as a passenger. I want to give us as much of a lead as possible before General Garl figures out we escaped.

She seems to understand, and she drops back.

I turn my head around, and lead the horse through the main street, trusting she's still following.

Then, when I reach one of the less populated roads, I climb atop the horse, and start to ride. But slowly. While Yin is incredibly fast, she is not that fast.

I reach the great gates of the city, and as I see them looming up before me with their enormous carved poles with dragons emblazoned around them, I almost feel like shedding a tear.

This is it.

Possibly the last time I will ever see them.

Turning around on my horse and craning my neck, I stare up at the Palace atop the hill.

It's the last time I'll see that too.

The greatest wonder in all the lands. With its golden pillars and its obsidian steps, it is a testament to the power and wealth of the Kingdom.

Power and wealth I am turning my back on.

Literally.

Without pause, I force myself to turn forward, and I tell myself I will never look back.

The guards at the city gates don't even question as I make my way through. Why would they? I am a captain in the Royal Army and a close friend of the Princess. To them, I am one of the most loyal and trustworthy men they know.

They are completely wrong.

I don't even bother thanking them as they open one of the much smaller side gates and let me through.

I do, however, turn and engage them in conversation, hoping to give Yin time to escape.

If she were any other woman, or indeed, a man, I'd be frightened right now. Terrified that she might not be able to make it.

The gates into the Kingdom are meant to be some of the most protected in all the lands. Tall and with watchtowers on top, they are always guarded and well lit. They protect not only against marauding barbarians, but against thieves wishing to find their way into the city at night.

Yin is no thief. Well, not usually—I'm sure she hardly paid for that jacket.

What she is, however, is the last known pupil of one of the greatest warriors in the Kingdom. Castorious Barr. Though I am fearful for her, that does not diminish the fact I know she'll make it through. Even if she has to blast her way through the meter thick front gate, she will do it.

There is no doubting the fire that burns within her.

After all, she did the impossible, and managed to conjure up magic in a room that should have made it impossible.

The enormity of that fact still hasn't hit me, for I haven't had the time to truly assess it.

The number of enchantments hewn into the rock of that cell should make it impossible for anyone to even call up a spark of flame, let alone enough fire to melt a metal lock.

Who is she?

Really?

Why would Castor train her? I heard him mumble something to General Garl that Yin was left with him as a child, and he had nothing more than a moral obligation to look after her. He did not seek her out, and neither did her parents grow fed up at her power and beg him to take her of their hands.

If you believe Castor, he trained her because it was kinder than kicking her out on her own.

Now, I don't believe that. In fact, I doubt I ever believed it.

Having seen the sheer ferocity with which he was willing to protect her, I know it's something more than that.

Something big.

Though Castor is undoubtedly an incredible warrior, and could teach any soldier how to plumb the depths of their power, he couldn't make them as powerful as Yin.

She woke up from my sleeping spell, she managed to hold her own against two illusionists, and she can conjure magic in an enchanted cell.

Castor could not have taught her any of those things. He could have refined her ability, yes, but he couldn't have given it to her.

. . . .

These are some of the questions that have been assailing me for the past few weeks, questions I thought I would never get the answer to. But now, I just might. Because, if she trusts me enough to flee with me, perhaps she trusts me enough to tell me the truth.

That possibility gives me a thrill. An undeniable sense of excitement. I might just be trading the only life I knew, but the one that awaits me may be far more exciting than any I have imagined before.

I keep an ear out as I chat to the soldiers, and force my senses to become as acute as possible.

I try to sense magic, and to figure out if anybody is practicing it nearby.

Sure enough, just at the edges of my awareness I feel crackles and sparks.

Yin.

She is close by, and the more I chat to the soldiers about inane things like the upcoming lantern festival, the closer that spark comes.

I don't know how she does it, but at one moment she is on one side of the gate, and in the next, she is on the opposite side.

She gets through.

Just a darting shadow and practically silent scrabbling feet.

Giving her a chance to put some distance between her and the soldiers, I say my goodbyes, turnaround, and urge the horse forward.

The night is a dark one. Overcast, there are no stars in the sky and no moon to throw its silvery light over the land.

Though the gate is particularly well lit, the further I get away from it, the more my eyes have to adjust.

There is a long dirt path that leads up to the city walls, parts of it cobbled, parts of it in need of repair.

A short distance from the city gates is a bridge over a running creek, and then much farther along, a larger wooden bridge over the river itself.

Well right now, when I know that I'm far enough away from the gate that nobody can see me, I pull right off the road and into a thicket of bushes.

“Are you . . . here? I ask, speaking through clenched teeth.

At first all I hear in reply is the soft hoot of an owl sitting in a tree nearby.

Then, the slight sound of footfall.

I can't stop a shiver racing down my back. It could be a spy, a soldier, a citizen, or it could be Yin.

The prospect that it’s her still warrants a shiver. Not a fearful one, just an excited one.

I see her walk forward, my eyes having to squint to adjust to the dark.

Shadow plays across her face, but I can easily recognize the shape of it, the tapering chin, her wild hair, and her strong form.

“We can't afford to wait around this close to the city; we need to get out of here,” I say quickly.

She nods.

Then she hesitates.

“You're not regretting this, are you?” I ask quickly, stumbling over my words.

“I suppose . . . I'll never see Castor again,” she says, sadly.

I let my hands clutch tighter to the reins, then I nod. Almost immediately, however, I shake my head. “I can't answer that. I don't know. He's . . . a determined man. If he wants to see you again, he will. And trust me, he'll want to see you again.”

“He abandoned me,” she says in a far-off voice.

“No, he didn't. Castor did everything he could to keep you safe.”

I watch her look up, and though I can’t see her exact expression, I know what she is feeling.

Confusion, and yet hope.

“What do you mean?” she tries in a light voice.

“I mean, trust me, and trust him,” I say as I reach a hand out to her.

My stomach tingles, my hands feeling cold and hot, and my back racing with nerves.

She considers my hand, then reaches up, grabs it, and without waiting for me to pull her up, uses me as an anchor as she jumps onto the horse.

I'm used to women needing help. I'm used to them being polite.

I'm used to everything Yin isn't.

Yet, I can't stop smiling as I grab hold of the reins, trust that she is balanced, and maneuver the horse out of the thicket.

Then we face the night.

It's so thick, but there's just enough ambient light that the horse can chart a path.

We push off into the dark.

Silently.

The both of us no doubt lost in thought. For there is a lot to think about.

This time yesterday I was lost in my duty as a guardian of the Savior. The most sacred duty in all of the ages.

Now I'm fleeing with the woman I barely know, shirking that responsibility, never to accept it again. Even if I left Yin behind and returned to the Palace, there would be no way the Princess would accept me again.

. . . .

I try to feel disappointed at that. I try to feel ashamed at what I'm doing, but the sensation is shallow. And sitting underneath is . . . excitement.

Excitement that I'm doing something that feels right. And more than that, surprised that I'm doing something that feels.

For so many years I purged myself of emotion and did what I was told.

Now I am relying on that emotion to decide what I want to do next.

“We will head to the coastal village, I have to find out what Garl did,” I say.

Yin is seated behind me, one hand hooked on my arm for balance, the other resting on the flank of the horse. “All right,” she says. “But what . . . do we do when we find the evidence you're after?”

“I . . . don't know. I just have to find out first.”

I trail off. Then, once again, all those millions of thoughts return to my mind. Some of them about the Princess and the Savior, but most of them about Yin. I'm dying to ask her what her secret is, but I can sense that it's too soon.

She is clearly confused about leaving Castor behind, and if I push too much, I know what she will do. Snap at me. We might be the only friends each other have, but I know that's not going to stop Yin from standing her ground when she has to.

So instead, I let us dwindle into silence. Just the pounding sound of the horse's hooves as she races across a grass field. Just the clink of my armor as it moves around me. Just our breath as it drifts off into the cold night.

The further we get away from the city, the more the cloud above thins, until the eerie silver glow of the moon is visible from above.

I see the lay of the land before us. The fields undulating and leading up to the mountains. If I turn, I can see the glitter of the city so far away now.

This . . . is it.

For a man who has always lived his life by a particular set of rules and to a particular routine, I'm being plunged into the dark.

There will be no more routine, no more rules. I won't wake up early in the morning to train in the square, then wash and have breakfast, and attend to my duties as a captain.

There will be no more meetings with Garl as we discuss strategy and security. There will be no dinners at the Palace with the Princess smiling over at me.

There will only be running. Living off the land, reacting to what comes next.

A mix of apprehension and invigoration swells together in my stomach.

As it does, I swear the horse starts to go faster. With its pounding speed, I come closer and closer to a new destiny.

One I am to decide for myself.

Chapter 38

Yin

My life is so different now. I long for the simplicity of the mountains. Training in the morning, helping Castor in the afternoon, and wandering through the forests.

I knew that life, I was comfortable with it. And within its structure, I could deal with the fact that I'm the Savior.

Castor made it manageable. Every day he would train me more, helping me to feel that just maybe I can go through with this. That just maybe I can complete my destiny and bring the world into a new age.

Now, I have nothing but questions. Nothing but uncertainty.

This morning I couldn't have imagined that I would be fleeing with Captain Yang of all people.

I thought that one day Castor might come back to me, that one day he might knock on my door and pull me out of the barracks, taking me back to the life I once knew.

Now I realize how naive that hope was. It was nothing more than a childish wish.

My life will never go back to what it was.

It will only go forward.

Maybe I grip Yang's arm a little harder as I realize that.

For the past several months, I've been fighting the onset of the end of ages.

Sure, at the barracks I convinced myself to garner any lesson I could to help me on my path.

But that doesn't mean I wasn't fighting it. Refusing to open myself up to the possibility of what was right around the corner.

Chaos.

The foot soldiers of the Night crawling out of the cracks in the ground to claim me.

Now . . . it's right upon me.

My life is quickening, pushing forward toward one inexorable conclusion.

I shiver slightly. Trying to close the jacket around me with one hand.

“We need to keep going tonight,” Yang says from before me. “I'm sorry if you're cold,” he adds.

I press my lips together and smile.

Three weeks ago, if Captain Yang had said sorry, I would have known he was lying. A Royal Army sorcerer, I would have convinced myself he was capable of nothing but spineless, immoral manipulation. Trained from birth to purge his emotions, there would be no way I would trust him.

Now, I can't stop my lips from curling at his words and my heart from warming. As my heart warms, my skin does, natural magic flowing through my veins and soaring into my limbs.

“Or you could just warm yourself up with fire,” he suddenly comments.

“. . . You can feel that?”

“Yes,” he says.

. . . .

While I have a connection to Yang, I can't ignore the possibility he might have one to me.

While I can read him like an open book, is it possible he can do the same when he stares upon me?

As a fire sorcerer, I'm used to showing my emotions. There are still some, however, that I choose to keep hidden.

Not from Yang, apparently.

For the first time I truly wonder what my new life will look like. On the run with a man I barely know, and one who, up until hours ago, I wanted to punch more than talk to.

Still, there's nothing for it. There's no other way.

I can only go forward now.

We ride well into the night. Though I'm tired, and I still ache terribly from the mysterious injury to my arm, I hold on. I don't complain. I just keep going. A few times Yang asks me if I'm okay. I mumble a soft reply, if any, and I go back to concentrating on keeping warm and keeping upright. Though I'm tired, the last thing I want to do is fall asleep on a speeding horse and fall right off. I'll be useless to Yang if I'm injured.

We don't pause until the first rays of dawn light up the horizon. The colors that play along the wisps of cloud are majestic, and they easily draw the eye. From oranges to purples to flaming reds, they remind me how beautiful nature can be.

The Royal City is meant to be attractive. The Palace, apparently, is meant to be one of the greatest wonders in the world. With its obsidian steps and its golden pillars, it is a testament to human wealth. While the dawn, as it dazzles the grass plains and mountains behind, is a testament to natural wealth, to the underlying beauty of the land, stripped back from the machinations of men.

I've long ago given up doing anything with my hair. It has become a riotous mess. Without anything to tie it down, it jumps up and down around my face with every stride the horse takes. Messy hair, however, is the least of my problems.

A few times I run a hand up my left arm, tentatively touching my wrist and palm.

Did Garl really do that to me? I hadn't even thought it was a possibility until Yang mentioned it.

I distinctly remember the hatred in Garl's eyes when he threatened me. I have no questions that he is capable of doing something like this; he has no compunctions to hold him back.

. . . .

Still, I can't quite push away the possibility that what's happening to me has something to do with the fact I'm the Savior.

Even as I think that, I shiver.

“We will stop soon, sleep for an hour or two, and continue,” Yang says as he half turns around.

He is no longer wearing his helmet. In fact, he wanted to throw it away, and he tried to. I stopped him, though. Not because I thought he would regret it later, but because the heavy helmet is be worth a pretty penny. Now we are both on our own, we are going to need to take every step we can to survive.

Still, I can see how much he wanted to rid himself of that symbol. With dragons emblazoned over the metal, no doubt it reminded him of everything he just turned his back on. From the Royal Army to the Royal Family, his armor is one of the last symbols he has that connects him to his old life.

And me . . . I have nothing. No, as soon as I think that thought, I dismiss it.

I have something.

The training Castor gave me, the strength I learnt whilst at the barracks. I have the power, in other words, to rely on myself. That's all I need. Not fancy armor, not money, not the trappings of success. Self-reliance.

True to his word, we soon stop. He pulls up close to a babbling brook, taking the horse down to the bank and letting it drink.

With a hand on the creature's neck, I watch him as he stares past the creek, up to the dawn above. Though I can't see his expression in full, the quality of his gaze is . . . sorrowful.

I still can't believe he was willing to give up so much for me. If not for me, then for a sense of morality I thought he never had.

“Yang, thank you,” I say suddenly as I take a few steps away and turn to face the dawn myself.

“You don't need to thank me. But . . . I would like to know more about you. Now that we are . . . travelling partners, I want to know who you are. Did Castor really just take you in off the street and look after you because nobody else would? Why are you . . . so strong? Did he teach you how to use magic like that, or is it a natural skill?”

Once Yang gets started, it's like a dam has broken, and question after question comes flooding out.

At first I'm surprised, then I slowly press my lips together and draw them in.

I thought I had made my peace with the fact I've given up my old life, that I've left Castor behind, and must now forge ahead on my own.

Yet, now, as Yang questions me so eagerly, I can't answer him.

Instead, my shoulders pressing together, I clutch one hand on my stomach and turn from him to stare at the view instead.

“Yin, please. Tell me. It's not like I have anyone else to tell,” he says bitterly.

Slowly I swivel my gaze to stare at him.

He looks different without his helmet. Or maybe he looks different without that facade of cold indifference. He is no longer numb; I can see the emotion rippling over his face just as obviously as day compared to night.

Suddenly he sighs, and that once eager look in his eye is replaced with a tired wince. “You must be fatigued. Ignore me. Drink and wash,” he says as he glances down at my still bloodied tunic. “I will go and see if I can find any food.”

He begins to walk away.

I should let him walk away.

I can't.

“Castor didn't take me off the street,” I say in a stuttering voice, feeling like every word is a drop of blood I'm freely giving up, “and he trained me because . . .” I trail off.

“Because why?” he prompts gently.

“Because he thought that one day it might be important,” I manage, my voice so quiet I doubt he can hear me.

“Why?”

Why.

Because I'm the Savior, the last of the sages, and the only one who can save the age of light.

But how do I tell that to Yang? Like most other people, he probably thinks the Savior myth is just that, a myth. If I tell him, he's either going to laugh in my face or walk away from me, thinking I'm crazy.

So I hold my tongue.

“He never told me. He kept a lot from me,” I say slowly, and as I speak, I realize it's true.

Castor was always holding back. He would always tell me that he would reveal what I need to know when I need to know it.

And ever since abandoning me for the Princess, I realize how true that is.

Though Yang was halfway through turning away, he stops. He doesn't say anything, he stares at me for a few seconds. “I know what it's like to have people keep information from you,” he says. Then he hesitates. He seems as if he's ready to tell me something, but then he withdraws. “I'll go find some food. Wash up.”

I nod, then I stand there and watch him walk away.

In fact, I don't turn until he is completely out of sight, behind a thicket of trees and bushes.

. . . .

“I'm the Savior,” I say in the tiniest voice possible.

He is far too far away to hear me.

“Captain Yang, I'm the Savior,” I say again, as quietly as I can.

It feels good to say it out loud. It feels like fighting against the secrecy that has kept me locked in my whole life.

“You're the first person I've ever told,” I continue whispering to myself, “but there it is, I'm the Savior.”

I stare at the trees and bushes before me. From the gnarled branches to the twisted roots and leaves, I wait for him to suddenly dash out, his eyes wide.

Of course he doesn't; he never heard my admission.

That doesn't diminish my desire.

I want to tell him, I want to tell someone, anyone. I want help, more than Castor, someone else to rely on. Someone else to share the burden with.

. . . .

But I can't tell him yet.

So I turn and I face the cold stream next to me. I watch the water flow in and out, cascading around any rock or branch in its path. So fluid, so unstoppable.

I'm drawn into that movement.

I close my eyes.

Reminded of the freedom I experienced during the fan dance, the connection, the balance, I breathe deeply. Then again, then again.

When I open my eyes, I stare up at the horizon and the glowing dawn with a new sense of possibility.

There may be hardships on the horizon, but there'll be surprises too. Opportunities.

Endure, then fight.

Endure then fight.

That is what I will do. Whatever uncertainty is thrust before me, I will plough through it. I will learn what I have to do as the Savior, and I will fulfil my destiny.

Finally I turn from the dawn, and I lean down and plunge my hands into the cold water.

Though it chills me, sapping at the heat in my fingers and palms, it also thrills me.

Water, an element completely opposite to fire, and one I have never understood.

Not truly.

Yet one I am now inexorably linked to.

Chapter 39

Captain Yang

I can't push her. I realize that as I walk away and begin looking for food.

Plucking leaves and berries and mushrooms from the bushes and the forest floor, I collect them into my helmet. As I do, I think.

Whatever secret she is holding, she's been holding it for a long time. Maybe, just as she said, she doesn't really know what Castor was up to. In fact, I can believe that easily. Castor seems like the kind of man to only ever tell you what he wants you to know.

Still, I can tell she is holding something back. It's not just my ability to read emotions; it's my growing ability to read her.

I watch her withdraw, and I felt it. It was as if she turned the fire back in on herself, trying to close herself down and swallow the spark.

“Show her she can trust you, and she'll tell you,” I speak to myself out loud as I continue to search the forest floor for food.

I thank my lucky stars I was always a conscientious student. I learnt survival well in the Royal Army. As a child, I was fond of coming into the forests and learning how to live off them, but as an adult, I haven't had the time.

And perhaps not the inclination. There is something about the wild nature of the woods that used to invigorate me, but that unsettles me as an adult.

I prefer the cold, clean stone of the barracks to the unruly roots and gnarled trees of the forests.

Now, I have no option.

I take my time looking for food, realizing we may not come across an area as rich in sustenance for a while.

My plan is to rest only as much as we need to, and then to plough on to the coastal village. I want to get there as soon as possible. I need to get there as soon as possible. I have to put the demons running through my mind to rest. I have to know just how guilty Garl is.

Though I tell myself there's no longer any doubt, I need tangible proof if I am ever to convince other people.

I suddenly catch what I'm thinking and shake my head. If I am ever to convince other people?

Who?

The Royal Family? Other soldiers of the Royal Army?

They would never believe me. Garl is a hero.

As of last night, I'm a traitor.

“Pull yourself together,” I tell myself tersely as I fill my helmet and return to the creek.

At first I can't see Yin, and my heart flutters in fear, then I notice she is tending to the horse.

The creature looks calm and at ease.

I hang back and silently watch her. She looks so lost in her task that she hasn't seen me. It takes several moments before she glances up and sees me there.

Shock pales her cheeks. “How long have you been standing there?”

“I just got here,” I lie.

She seems contented, and moves away from the horse.

With a glance at her tunic and pants, I noticed she has washed and dried them, probably using her own magic rather than letting the scant sun do it for her.

She has even washed her hair, though I can't say it looks any neater. With a compulsive movement, she brushes it over her shoulder, then gets fed up and pushes it behind her. “Did you find any food?”

I nod, and hand her the helmet.

She takes it, and gingerly sorts through what I found. “I would have liked an apple pie and a dumpling stew, but this will do,” she manages.

I snort softly. “I'm glad.” Then I stop myself before I say she may never partake of such luxuries again.

Silently, she sits down by the horse, and I watch as the horse maneuvers itself until it stands close by her side. The creature doesn't seem perturbed at all as Yin bangs around loudly in the helmet, searching for all of the juiciest berries.

“Once you've eaten, get some rest. I'll stand guard,” I say as I walk over to the creek, glancing away from her as I drink some water and clean my face.

“Let's just push on,” she says without pause.

“You're tired,” I say as I sit forward on my haunches, turning over my shoulder to face her.

She shrugs. “And so are you. But we still want to get as far away from the city as we can. I can keep riding, how about you?” She looks at me challengingly.

I want to point out that last night she lost so much blood that it covered the floor, and that she hasn't slept in over a day, let alone eaten.

I don't.

I realize there’s only one response she’s going to accept. “Fine,” I eventually say.

She leans over and hands me the helmet. “Then drink up, refill the bottles, and get on the horse when you're ready,” she says as she stands, stretches her shoulders back, and mounts the horse in one fluid moment.

“Hold on,” I stutter quickly, “I should ride the horse first; it knows me.”

She turns around on her saddle, barely yanking on the reins to make the horse move with her. “It likes me better,” she points out flatly. “Now drink, fill the bottles, and you can eat while I ride.”

I feel my mouth dropping open. There are so many things I want to say. But again, I know there is only one thing she wants to hear.

“What, are you embarrassed to be seen riding behind a woman?” she challenges suddenly.

“No,” I rally, “we are traitors. That's the only thing people are going to care about from now on,” I remark, realizing it’s true once I've said it.

It really doesn't matter that Yin is a woman. The only thing that matters is that we do whatever we can to keep on the run. So even though it is a blow to my ego to let her ride, I have to appreciate it makes sense.

She seems to have a natural affinity for the horse, and can control it easily.

. . . .

But she is a woman, my traditional brain says.

I'm a traitor, I reply.

The rules have changed.

I have to change with them.

Silently I fill the bottles, drink, and mount the horse behind her.

“Let's go,” she says with a grunt, then pushes the horse forward.

She doesn't even have to pull on the reins, in fact, she barely touches it, resting a hand on the back of the horse's mane instead.

The horse barrels forward, and I have to grab a hand around something to hold on.

That something, is Yin's waist.

It takes me a moment to realize what I'm doing, and I jerk back. The move is so sharp, I almost fall, my helmet half full of food falling with me.

Yin just reaches around, locks me in place, and secures the helmet at the same time.

“Are you trying to fall off?” she chides.

“I just . . . I have nothing to hold onto,” I say with a cough.

She snorts. “You had no problem with me holding onto your armor last night. Now get a grip on my tunic,” she says, “and eat your food. We will reach that coastal village before you know it . . . . As long as you tell me where it is,” she adds.

Without letting me pull away, she guides my hand until it's locked onto a section of her tunic.

It's . . . one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. A man should not hold on to a woman's hips as she rides a horse.

Then again, a man should not betray his entire kingdom and run away with a prisoner.

As uncomfortable as it is, I keep a hold of her tunic, and maneuver the helmet between us and eat my fill.

With every movement of the horse, her hair whips over her shoulder, and I have to lean to the side to avoid it as it tickles over my cheeks and forehead.

There is no avoiding it though, so soon enough I just get used to it.

The horse somehow seems faster. Though it has run all night and should rightly be exhausted, Yin is pushing it on, and the horse doesn't seem to mind.

Which is yet another mystery to add to the growing pile of questions I have about her.

If you had asked me several weeks ago, I would have confidently proclaimed that I had never met somebody as annoying as Yin. As outrageous, as uncouth. But even then I would have had to admit I've never met somebody as amazing either.

From her power to her will, she is no ordinary woman. No, she is no ordinary person.

As the world around us flashes past, I'm drawn in to the colors and forms. The dusty greens of the drying grass fields, the earthy browns of watery pools of mud, and the radiant blue of the sky above. If I wasn't on the run from the Royal Army, this day would be pleasant indeed. A picnic by a river, and an invigorating horse ride in the fields.

But the closer we get to the coastal village, the more my stomach cramps with nerves.

. . . .

What if I don't find anything?

No evidence whatsoever of the massacre, just indications of a natural disaster?

What if I turned my back on Garl for nothing?

Maybe Yin can sense my growing hesitation, because once or twice she turns around and looks at me. She doesn't say anything, she just looks at me. And every time she does, it's as if she can pull me right out of the pit I'm sinking into.

The sun seems to grow brighter, the air fresher, and the world around more beautiful.

A few times, however, I notice Yin turn around with a confused expression on her face. She twists on the saddle until she looks behind us. Sometimes she even maneuvers around me, as if she's trying to spot something along the path we just trod.

“What is it?” I hiss.

She doesn't answer. Her face just crumples further with confusion.

“Yin?”

“It's nothing,” she manages, “or at least I hope it's nothing.”

“What do you mean?” I now ask as I turn around and survey the grass fields behind us. I see nothing but the gently swaying grasses and the trees beyond. In the distance, covered in cloud, a few mountain peaks, and above I watch birds darting on the wing.

“It's nothing,” she repeats to herself as she turns around.

Though it seems as though she is right, and there's nothing behind us, that doesn't stop nerves from prickling quickly down my cheeks and sinking into my chest.

The closer we get to the coastal village, and the more the grass fields thin, the more she turns around.

“It's not nothing,” I interrupt. “What do you see?”

“That's just the problem, I'm not seeing anything. But I . . . sense there's something out there,” she says.

What she is saying sounds paranoid. I've been on enough missions and in enough battles to know that soldiers can be spooked by the shadows. With the adrenaline and pressure of fighting, you can overreact to every creak of a stick and slither in the grass.

But this is Yin. A woman who can wake herself up from a sleeping spell and break herself out of a magical cell.

I can’t dismiss her fear. As I sit there with her, one arm hooked on her hip, I start to feel it myself.

I turn too, but as I survey the field, I can't see anything.

The horse goes faster and faster, and we get closer and closer to the coastal village.

I start to see a sliver of the ocean before us. That glittering line of blue. So inviting, so mesmerizing.

I can even smell it. Drawn along by a brisk wind, the unmistakable scent of salt fills the air.

As a child, I loved nothing more than going to the ocean. It was such a rare treat, that I remember every holiday with pure joy. Joy, my father always told me was an emotion unfit for a Royal Army sorcerer.

But as a Royal Army sorcerer there is something about the inherent power of the ocean and being close to that much water that fills me with wonder. Invigorates me, excites me.

It is the base of my power, and as I draw closer, I can't help but feel it.

But Yin now turns around in her saddle once or twice a minute, her face awash with fear.

I try to tell her there's nothing there, but I can't force the words out.

“I swear something is following us,” she says in a small voice.

I turn once again, looking, but unable to see anything.

“Just ride faster,” I advise.

We do.

We barrel over the fields until we reach a sand touched dirt road.

It is old, and barely recognizable. But here and there I see way stones covered by creeping vines and clogged grass.

. . . .

A sense of doom starts to build. But it doesn't press down from above, rather it feels as if it creeps out of the cracks in the earth. Slowly drawing upward like a poisonous mist.

“It's around here,” I say, unwilling to speak out loud, but hissing through a whisper instead.

She nods, her hair flicking over her shoulder as she turns around once more.

The horse starts to slow, and soon enough we reach an open area.

There are no trees, no plants, just sand covered dirt.

Without telling her, Yin stops the horse.

I have no way of knowing whether we've reached the remains of the village, other than the spiraling fear that catches hold of my heart.

I can't push it away. And with the power of the ocean so nearby, it magnifies the emotion until I actually start to shake.

Once the horse stops, I push myself off, stumbling as I land.

“Yang,” Yin says as she jumps down after me.

I don't say anything. I turn around, my mouth pressed open as I scan that sand covered dirt.

“Is this the place?” she asks in a small, shaking voice. In fact, she sounds so scared that I look up and note her cheeks are as pale as freshly fallen snow.

Can she feel it too?

Without speaking, I press down onto my knees, brushing back the sand to reveal the dry dirt underneath.

I don't know what I'm expecting to find.

This is an open area devoid of trees. But that doesn't make it the site of a once destroyed village.

It doesn't make it anything at all.

Then again, where are all the plants? Unless this area was recently cleared, you would think there would be a few sand grasses or beach flowers growing amongst the dirt.

There's nothing.

In fact, as I lean down and push the sand back, I don't even spy any insects.

It's just . . . dead. Everything is dead.

I turn around to see Yin standing right behind me. In fact she is pressing closer, one hand locked on her arm as she stares fearfully around her. “This place feels . . . wrong.”

She puts into words what I can't. But as I press up off my knees and stand beside her, my wide eyes flickering around, I realize she is right.

This place feels wrong. No, that's an understatement, it feels like hell.

Barren, devoid of life, and completely desolate.

At one point, Yin gets so close that she bangs into my side. I don't push her back, instead I offer a nod. “We need to . . . search, try to find any clues. I think this is the village . . . . But I can't be sure.”

She looks terrified. No, more than terrified. She looks as if she can see something I can't. Something horrifying.

“Yin?” I ask as a cold sweat washes down my back, and my arms and chest prickle with fear.

“We should get out of here,” she suddenly says.

“We need to find evidence,” I begin.

“People were killed here,” she suddenly says.

My brow scrunches together. “What do you mean?”

She grits her teeth together. “Gaea unsettled,” she says.

It takes me a moment to really understand what she's just said. Gaea is unsettled?

That's the second time she has suggested that she can connect to the greatest spirit of all. Gaea herself. But any child knows that's impossible.

Or it should be impossible. But I can’t discount she is experiencing something as she recoils, her cheeks now so pale it's as if every drop of blood has drained from them.

“Yin?” I ask in a croaky, husky voice.

“Something so horrible happened here,” she says, shaking as she clasps both hands over her mouth.

The fear is palpable, and unable to stop it, it starts to consume me too. My rational mind tells me we haven't come all the way here, and I haven't risked everything, just to leave now. Granted, this desolate space is eerie, but I'm an ex-member of the Royal Army, and I can push past that. I can be objective when I need to be.

Yet no matter how much I acknowledge that, I can’t dampen the fear.

Yin takes several ragged steps backward, and she is categorically more terrified than I have ever seen her.

“Just get back on the horse, and head to the road. I'll . . . finish up here, and come get you when I'm done,” I try to say bravely. But there's no way I can control the pitching of my voice.

She shakes her head vehemently. “We have to get out of here before it comes,” she says with a full-bodied shudder. “Before what comes?”

She looks up.

Slowly. And until the day I die, I will always remember her expression.

I've seen people terrified before. Working in the army, I've seen my fair share of men dying, and sometimes facing things far worse than death even.

But the way she looks at me. The vulnerability, the terror, are purer and clearer than any I have ever seen.

“Before the Night comes,” she says in a voice I have to strain to hear.

But there's no doubting what she said.

The Night. Just the mere mention of it forces my gut to clench and fear.

The Night.

The same Night the savior must hold back. That chaotic force that will end the age.

I faced it once before, I realize. The first time the record keepers of the Palace showed me that scroll, the Night tried to draw me into it. That cloying, smothering, overpowering sense.

That which is opposite to light.

The Night.

I should tell her she is just overreacting. I should tell her the Night is a myth. But it isn't. I know that now. So I . . . move forward, catch her by the wrist, and run to the horse.

We are going to get out of here. I'm going to trust my gut instincts and hers.

But we don't get the chance.

With a snap, she suddenly stares around, her eyes pressing so wide I swear the skin is going to tear.

“Yin, what is it?” I ask as she stares at that simple dirt path leading into the village.

“Something's here,” she gets a chance to say.

Then something snakes out of the darkness and strikes me right in the chest.

I fall to the ground.

Chapter 40

Yin

Illusionists.

For the past several hours, I've been unable to shake the sense that something was following us. Now, as my terror could not be greater, I realize what it is.

Those sorcerers I fought at the barracks.

Though I can't see them, I know they're there.

Then, before I can react, something coils out of the darkness and collects Yang hard on the chest, making him slam hard into the ground by my feet.

I shift to the side, intending to loop an arm around his and pull him to his feet, but he stares up into my eyes and screams, “no, get back.”

It's too late. I feel something materialize beside me, and then a pair of black-clad, strong hands collapse around my neck.

With a grip stronger than steel, the hands try to strangle me.

I splutter, trying to draw in a breath as I flail with my arms and legs.

“Let her go,” Yang screams. But as he pushes to his own feet, I watch in horror as a knife slices out of nowhere, collecting him along the side of the chin. It slices open his cheek, blood splattering out in a great arc.

But rather than flinging him back, Yang somehow fights the force of the move, and barrels forward. For a brief moment I hear him connect to something. To armor of some description. But then he's thrown backwards as a foot materializes and collects him right on his cut chin.

I try to scream at him to watch out, but I can't speak.

I can't breathe. The hands keep pressing into my neck, robbing me of my energy and magic as blackness builds at the corner of my vision.

I fight it. I try to push my magic out, into my hands, up into my throat, and into whoever is strangling me. But it's hard. Something's blocking me. Pushing it back. Somehow disconnecting me from my Arak device and the power within.

The illusionist.

With its hands around my throat, it's keeping my summoning at bay. As if it can not only hide itself, but can hide my true power from me too.

As unconsciousness threatens, I watch Yang stumble up and lurch towards me, his face a picture of pure fear. He screams my name, or at least I think he does.

I start to feel myself shutting down. I can no longer scrabble against the grip around my throat, and my hands just glance off, my arms collapsing beside me.

Then, Yang screams.

Such a deep, thundering move, it shakes the ground itself.

Out of nowhere, a jet of water comes slamming into me.

Somehow it rushes around my form, but it does not rush around the illusionist. I can feel his grip as it is yanked away from my throat and the man himself is pushed backwards.

I stumble to my knees, gasping, drawing in as much air as I can.

Yang screams my name again, but just as he does, and he flings a hand forward to catch me, I watch as a fist appears beside him, and collects him against the side of his head.

There's a sickening crunch, and he's thrown sideways, more blood spilling from the wound along his chin.

It's my turn to scream his name. I thrust forward, trying to catch him before he can hit the ground.

But somehow he manages to roll and stand, then he sends another jet of water forward.

Though his aim is good, and I can tell it should collect the illusionist right in the chest, somehow that man twists in midair, the water breaking all around him, but not forcing him back. I barely hear two feet hit the ground, then nothing.

Instinctively Yang and I back towards each other, until our shoulders press together.

He doesn't say anything. Neither do I.

There is no reason to waste our breath.

There's only reason to fight.

Yang sends a burst of water out of his hands, and it washes forward with incredible power.

Again I watch it slam against the invisible outline of a man. But again the illusionist just jumps into it, somehow absorbs the power, and lands.

I try to punch forward with a fiery shot of my own. The illusionist is too quick, and by the time the magic spills from my hands, I have no idea where he is.

Then I hear something.

Two things, in fact. The unmistakable sound of knives being withdrawn from metal sheaths. I feel Yang jolt back into me as he realizes what's about to happen.

The illusionists are going to kill us. Stab us.

They are not going to play around.

“Just attack,” Yang says, desperation making his voice barely recognizable.

I don't hesitate. I send fireball after fireball bursting out of my hands.

But with nothing to direct them at, they confuse me further.

As fire and water dance around us, I stare into the chaos, searching for the illusionists.

Here and there I hear their footfall, and the slice of blades in the air.

But I can’t see them; I don't know where they are.

Then, one dashes forward, and just as I jolt back into Yang, I feel something move beside me. So quick, so powerful, and so impossible to fight.

A knife slices half a centimeter from my face, pressing down into my left arm.

I try to defend myself against the blow, try to push magic into my body to bolster it, but I'm not quick enough, and I don't have enough power to stop the knife from eating easily into my flesh.

I scream, thrusting back just as magic crackles down my injured limb.

“Yin,” I feel Yang turn, lurching towards me.

But as he does, I can sense one of the illusionists closing in on him.

With a knife to his back, they're going to skewer him through the heart.

With as much force as I can, I push forward, ramming my shoulder into Yang and forcing him out of the way as a blade materializes out of thin air and is plunged deep into my already injured arm.

I can feel it go in, slicing between the muscle and grating against the bone. Pain shoots through me. Faster, harder, clearer than anything I have ever felt. It's as if I'm drowning in the sensation.

Blood erupts from the injury, splattering out. For the briefest moment, one droplet lands on something. One of the illusionists. But just as quickly as I see it suspended there in the air, the man wipes it off, and becomes completely invisible again.

Yang calls my name, over and over again.

I want to turn, want to reach out to him. Before I can, something latches onto my hair and pulls me roughly to the side. Without so much as a grunt, one of the illusionists throws me to the ground, and I can feel their foot press into my neck as they lock me in place.

“Yin, no,” Yang screams.

For me. He lurches forward, hand outstretched, to catch me.

The man I thought I could never trust, and now the last man I'll ever see.

I can feel a blade being pressed into the back of my neck, and suddenly Yang stops, but I can see from the wide-eyed terrified look he gives me that he can see the blade too. “Let her up,” he pleads.

Out of the air behind him, one of the illusionists appears. And in a swift, vicious blow, he curls his knuckles into a point, and slams them into Yang's coccyx.

Yang gasps and falls to his knees, teetering on the spot until he can balance himself no longer, and falls to the ground.

He faces me.

We stare at each other.

I watch the illusionist behind him pull out its knife and press it into the back of Yang's neck.

It's over . . . .

This is the end. I'm the savior, but I'll never get a chance to fulfil my sacred destiny. These illusionists will take that responsibility off my hands.

. . . .

Though it shouldn't, that idea gives me a measure of relief. I'm about to die, and all I can think of is that I'm being let off the hook. That it's easier to let the illusionist slice me through the back of the neck than it is to fight the Night and usher in a new age for man.

Then something happens.

Just as I prepare to surrender to that fate, I watch tears swell in Yang's eyes as he looks at me.

He doesn't look relieved. He looks as if he's about to lose something.

I watch one of the illusionists lean down close to Yang and whisper in his ear, “the General can’t abide traitors.”

“The General is a monster,” Yang replies, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. “Let Yin go. You can kill me. But let her go.”

“We intend to. The General still has uses for her. You, however, Captain Yang, will now meet your inglorious end. Die knowing you are nothing more than a traitor.”

They're going to kill him.

And all he can do is sadly look my way.

“You'll be alright; you'll get free,” he mouths to me.

Though he does not speak his words, I swear they shake my heart. They push right through the submission that has settled there. The desire to surrender to my fate.

I am the savior.

I endure then I fight.

Now, I will fight.

I do not hesitate further.

I draw on the sacred power within.

Just as the illusionist behind Yang tightens his arm muscles, and I can tell readies to plunge the knife down, I push out.

With everything I've got. With the very spirit of fire itself.

I make no movement, call upon no spell.

I just merge with the fire. Not in my Arak device, but in my heart, and I send it out in a great arc.

Castor taught me to fight. He trained me in the various arts of combat.

But try as he might, he was never able to teach me to feel. To develop within me the instincts of power. That connection that bypasses knowledge and training, and accesses the raw force within, undiluted and unconstrained by knowledge or tradition.

The true spirit of magic.

The true source of all power.

Gaea.

No, Yang taught me that, even though he doesn't realize it.

Well, right now, I use it.

Without a movement, without a weapon, and without a word, I let the fire fight for me.

It does.

It surges out, in one great explosion of force.

The illusionists have no time to plunge the knives into our necks; the speed at which the fire slams out is beyond their comprehension. The force with which it hits them is beyond their ability to withstand.

Both of them are flung backward with so much force, they twist in the air until landing and tumbling uncontrollably, only coming to a rest far away in the dust and sand.

Though the fire burns around me in a great halo of power, it does not burn me, and it does not burn Yang.

With wide eyes, he looks into mine, staring at the flames like a man uncaring of how hot they may be.

Once the halo of fire around me dies, I push myself up, then I lean forward, stretching a hand out to Yang.

He doesn't hesitate. He closes his palm around mine, and together we pull each other to our feet.

Without hesitating, he runs over to the illusionists, checking them as I stand ready in a defensive position to attack should they rise again.

They don't, and with a terse, “they are down,” Yang strips them of their weaponry. Then he makes a fist and holds it out as he produces two sets of watery ropes and ties their hands and feet.

Then . . .

He turns to me.

He . . . stares. Just like he did when we first met.

So silent, so watchful.

But not cold.

The emotion cracks his brow and makes his cheeks flare with heat. “How did you do that?” he asks, his awe obvious.

I don't answer. I don't need to.

“Thank you,” he eventually says.

I look away, unable to hold his gaze.

I couldn't let him die.

But if he hadn't been there, I would have let myself die.

The prospect of losing him, however, was what made me fight.

“I can't believe Garl sent them after us,” Yang says as he shakes his head. “Illusionist assassins. I should have thought of this. I should have . . .” Yang trails off, sighing morosely, blood dripping down his chin. He's still holding one hand out, the fingers outstretched as he maintains the watery ropes keeping the illusionists in place. That doesn't stop him from turning towards me. Nor does it stop his eyes from growing wide as he stares at my left arm. “You're so injured. How are you standing? We need to—”

He cuts off. Not because the illusionists suddenly spring to their feet to continue the fight. But because I lurch down to my knees, clutching my arm as pain shoots through it.

“Yin,” Yang shouts desperately.

I . . . can feel it.

As I lean in the blood soaked dust, that most dreaded of senses returns to me.

The dark.

I can feel it crawling towards me. Slipping up through the ground, its formless hands groping my way.

I can't speak, I can't breathe, all I can do is feel the dark clawing its way closer.

“Yin,” Yang scream, landing on his knees as he skids towards me, one hand still outstretched as he keeps the illusionists locked up, but all the rest of his attention locked on me. As his eyes desperately search mine, he begs, “just hold on.”

“Get me out of here, get me out of here,” I manage, using all the strength I have to speak.

“I will look after your injuries. Just hold on,” he begs again. Reaching forward and collapsing a hand tight over my wounded shoulder.

I shake my head fervently. “You have to get me out of here before they come. They're coming, Yang, they're coming,” I say before I collapse.

“Yin.”

I shake.

I wait. Feeling them draw nearer, but unable to do anything about it.

“Yin? Who are you talking about?” Yang questions.

I can't answer.

I can't answer.

Then, I scream.

He collapses one arm around me, trying to hold me against his chest, trying to comfort me.

But it's too late.

I can feel him snap backwards as a strange, hissing noise sounds out behind us. “What the hell?” he begins.

I see past him.

And what I see is the end of me.

Shifting up through the sand and dirt, darkness solidifies into forms.

Faceless, eyeless husks. With long arms and an exaggerated humanlike form, they reach forward.

It's too late.

I can't get away.

Whilst I was ready to submit to death when it was at the hands of the illusionists, this is different.

The foot soldiers of the dark will draw me right down into their realm, and forever more I will be trapped inside chaos, punished for what I am.

I expect Yang to kneel there in terror, overcome by what he sees. Though he does for a few precious moments, he overcomes his fear.

He springs to his feet, standing before me, his arms spread wide.

He should be terrified beyond measure.

He should have no idea what those dark husks are.

He should be unable to move.

Yet he's none of those things.

Ignoring his own injuries, he draws upon the water within, and sends several bursts out, pushing the husks back.

Despite how weak he should be, his blasts are stronger than they've ever been.

They collect into the center of those foul creatures, and push them back.

I would help, but I can't.

The nearer the husks come, the more the injuries in my arms burn.

But it is not a burning I am familiar with.

It is not a fire that invigorates me.

It's pure pain. Nothing but torture.

There's nothing I can do but wait and hope.

Though the husks continue to push out of the ground, Yang doesn't stop. When one nears him, he leaps up and launches towards it, sending a watery kick slamming into its face.

As another crawls towards me, stretching its hand out to my throat, Yang comes spinning around and forces it back with a wave of water.

The husks relentlessly attack, but Yang keeps them back.

He calls upon power I didn't realize he had, the force of his waves vibrating the ground beneath us.

He keeps them back.

But they keep coming.

“We have to get out of here,” I manage.

We have to get out of here.

Yang hesitates for a moment, and I wonder if he's ready to give up.

He isn't. He closes his eyes for half a second, closes his fists together, and then spreads his arms out in the quickest move I've ever seen.

Water rushes out from every direction.

It's as if the ocean itself has suddenly transported right to us. As if the air has transformed and there is nothing but Yang's magic.

That enormous swell of water washes out, and collects every single husk, driving them all back.

Then Yang does not wait.

He rushes over to me, leans down, picks me up, and runs forward.

We reach the horse, he places me on top, clambers behind, and screams out.

The horse rushes forward, the sound of its hooves deafening.

I feel Yang lean backwards, sending blasts of power out as the horse gallops onwards.

Onwards and onwards.

Until finally, finally it feels as if the Night is giving way to day.

The sun above feels warm again, and my eyes can see the color and light.

He did it. We escaped.

Yang just keeps spurring the horse forward, never letting up as we flee further and further from that destroyed coastal village.

It takes a long time before the horse begins to slow. Then, with the gentlest voice, he tells me, “I need to bandage your injuries.”

The horse stops, and I feel him get off. His heavy armor clanking around him.

Tenderly he places an arm on my shoulder.

I look up, right into his eyes.

I expect to see some mix of fear and surprise and shock.

What I see is . . . something I don't understand.

“It's okay,” he says in a calming tone.

Then he helps me off the horse.

Though my arm is undoubtedly injured, it doesn't feel like it did when the husks attacked.

They managed to call pain into it. But now we have left them far behind, I can use my own magic to help heal it.

I'll need more though. Bandages, herbs, and rest.

Yang stands close to me as he helps me off the horse, offering his shoulder as I lean heavily into it.

There's a moment when we are close enough to stare into each other's eyes.

That moment drags on and on.

As it does, I feel lost in time. More than that, lost in the balance. It reminds me of that extended feeling I only glimpsed during the fan dance. That space beyond where I usually live. A space of pure flow.

He’s the first one to pull away.

As he does, he latches a hand on my shoulder and guides me gently into a seated position.

“We need to stop this from bleeding,” he says as he winces and palpates the injury on my shoulder.

I let him inspect the injury, and don't even dream of pulling away, despite our proximity.

It takes a long time, but I whisper a barely audible, “thank you. Thank you for saving me from those . . . things.”

He looks up sharply.

At first I doubt he can speak, then he manages, “the Night. It's called the Night.”

I jolt backwards, surprised.

“It's okay,” he anchors a hand on my shoulder. “There is . . . a lot I need to tell you. But the creatures back there, they belong to the Night. I know you probably believe it's a myth, but it isn't . . . . I know it's very hard to believe, but just let me finish. The age is ending,” he says in a shaking voice. “As it ends, the Night is setting in.”

“You . . . how do you know that?”

“I,” he closes his eyes, and it's clear he's deciding whether to tell me, “have felt it before,” he answers.

I stare at him in disbelief.

“Just, trust me,” he suddenly says.

Trust him.

Trust Captain Yang.

Yes.

I trust him. Completely now.

In a short time, we have come so far together. But as the memory of those husks still burns bright in my mind, I realize there is yet further to go.

If I'm lucky, he will stay by my side.

He'll save me when no one else can.

He'll guard me from the Night.

I may have lost Castor, but I have gained Yang.

Though he can’t possibly know it, he just saved the Savior.

He is my guardian.

Chapter 41

Captain Yang

“I trust you,” she says, and there is so much emotion behind her words, that it is clear to the world she's telling the truth.

I swallow suddenly.

There are so many things I want to ask her.

Before the Night attacked, it was as if she could feel it. She begged me to get her out of there before it came.

Before the husks crawled out of the dust towards her.

Why would they do that?

Why would they attack?

Is it simply because as the age ends, we quicken towards the final day? Is chaos spilling into the land? The foot soldiers of the Night attacking whomever they please?

As I tear strips off my uniform to attend to Yin's wounds, I can't help feel that it's more than that.

The memory of how she forced those two illusionists back is still strong in my mind.

The power. The unadulterated power.

I have never seen anything like it.

It was as if she could connect to the spirit of fire itself. To the true essence of all force—Gaea herself. As if she could become completely balanced with fire's full force.

As I swab at the blood along her cheek, neck, and arm, she doesn't say anything. She stares over my shoulder. Instead of crying, however, considering her injuries, there is a bitter kind of smile on her face. It looks a little like hope.

I suddenly want to tell her that I won't leave her side. The thought blossoms in my mind, growing from some energy I can't recognize.

It's foolish and out of place, but I can't stop myself. “Yin, I won't leave you. I won't abandon you. We are in this together,” I say, still unsure of what exactly I'm saying.

She faces me, her lips parting, those usually blazing eyes opening with surprise, then half closing with some other emotion.

Thanks.

Without a word, she reaches a hand out and locks it on my sleeve.

Without a word, I turn my hand down, until I grab hers and hold it tightly.

There's so much I want to ask her.

But I can't ask now.

The time for questions and answers will come.

Right now, there is only one thing I need to do.

Stay here. The two of us, silent but present.

They say in legend that fire and water never mix.

They are natural opposites, and one will always extinguish the other. The force of fire is not compatible with the fluidity of water.

Yet right now there could be no other person who to comfort. As she smiles at me, I wonder if it's the same for her.

I have no idea what will happen next.

Not only is Garl after us, but I must face the prospect that the Night is quickening.

Soon the age will end.

Though I have abandoned my duty as a guardian of the Savior, I can’t turn my back on what is happening.

So I will find some way to fight.

To protect.

To forge a new destiny.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring, not even what will happen in a moment from now.

But with my own decisions, I will forge my own path through that uncertainty. As I lean there and hold onto Yin's hand, I decide to stay here.

For as long as it takes.

When we are ready, we will move on.

To whatever awaits us.

The end of Book One. The rest of this four-book series is currently available from most ebook retailers.


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