At the door, Koren paused. Her pack still hung on the back of her chair. The little waitress was already there piling dishes onto her tray.
“I’ll catch up,” Koren said while all but Kerr passed into the sunlight. He stood waiting for her.
She grabbed the pack from the chair and swung it over her shoulder with a practiced flick. In the process, she knocked a glass to the floor.
The tinkling of glass still echoed through the diner when Rogan stormed from the kitchen, broom in hand. He yelled at the waitress. His powerful voice vibrated through Koren. “You irresponsible ingrate! You cost me more in lost customers and broken dishes than I pay you! Well, no more of that. You work here no more. Return only to pay what you owe!”
Tears glistened on the girl’s cheeks. Her sobs shook her entire body. Her lips pressed tight against uttering a sound. She ran from the room, her apron twisted in her hands. Other patrons averted their eyes and resumed eating in the strained silence.
Koren stepped toward Rogan, watched him angrily sweep the shards littering the floor. Once, twice, the broom passed beneath her feet.
Rogan’s head snapped up. He aimed the handle of the broom at her. Koren caught it without blinking and ignored the sting in her palm.
“Get out, you…” He spat, unable to say the word he intended. “Your kind is not wanted here!” He glared at her, not seeing the familiar student who’d breakfasted here three semesters. He saw only a thing to be feared, a thing that could do things he could not, things that were forbidden because they were not understood. Things that were illegal outside of the Caverns in the Kadari Mountains.
“Rogan,” she said calmly, “look with your eyes, not your fear.”
He followed her gaze to the hand that did not hold the broom handle. Her knuckles were white on the back of the chair. “Am I magic? Or strength? A sorceress or a devout worshiper?”
Rogan paused. The tip of his tongue flicked over his lips. If she were a sorceress, he could unleash righteous anger without fear of repercussions. If she were a worshiper, the Counsel and the Elders would punish him for disrespect. Reverence and hate battled in his eyes.
“Appearances may deceive,” Koran whispered so only he could hear. “The broken glass was my fault.”
Koren released the broom. It clattered to the floor. She stepped passed Rogan, leaving him still undecided as to what she really was. Her boots crunched on glass.
As if the crunch beneath her feet released him, Rogan growled, “Worshipers do not stray so far from their church.”
She looked at him over her shoulder, her gray eyes seared into his brown ones. Seconds turned to minutes for both of them as she held his glare. He didn’t even notice as she swiftly entered and exited his mind. “Even worshipers are allowed time at the universities.”
Blinking, she released him. At the door, she took Kerr’s outstretched hand. Outside, after the door swung closed behind them, her shoulders drooped. She shouldn’t have done that.
“You are a sorceress. Not a worshiper of the Shakars as you would have Rogan think,” Kerr whispered in her ear, waving to their friends up ahead.
Koren watched the sidewalk pass beneath her feet, watched his steps match hers, his boots clicking in time with hers. “What do you think?”
“Doesn’t matter to me either way.”
She stopped and faced him. In his eyes, she found an emotion that took her breath away.
“Nor to them, I imagine,” he nodded in the direction of the friends they’d shared since first year: Corliss, Myrna and Tynan. Friends who were as dear to her as the family she should have remembered fondly, but could barely remember at all.
The Call that guided Koren planted her feet firmly on uncut stone. She blinked away the mist that blinded her. She found herself in a tiny room facing a large iron door. To her right, a ledge, gilded in a soft glow beckoned. Slowly Koren removed her clothes, one piece at a time. She folded them and placed them neatly on the ledge, which stopped glowing the moment she placed her last garment.
Koren stood vulnerable before the plain iron door.
“Child, if you fear you will fail, you will fail.” Mistress Hollis’ words came back to her as softly as she’d uttered them mere hours before.
Koren inhaled, taking strength from the stone surrounding her, taking faith from her teacher, taking love from her friends and touched the cold iron before her. As her fingertips brushed the smoothness, the door swung open. On the other side, a long, narrow hall beckoned.
Koren stepped through.
The moment she cleared the doorway, the iron clanged shut. Her hands pressed over her ears to dampen the resounding bang. The effort was futile. The sound reverberated through her entire body, strumming her insides without mercy. She stepped forward.
Her footstep replaced the bang instantly, slipping almost silently over the rough stone. She dropped her hands to her sides and ran her fingers over the bumpy, uncarved walls. She walked slowly. Through the doors on either side, she felt the steady churning of Power as other students were Tested.
A door on her left felt empty. It glowed at her touch and swung outward. She felt the wind of its passing touch her nose, but had no time to flinch. The open door revealed a tiny chamber the size of a broom closet. Koren stepped inside and the door closed behind her.
Long moments passed in silent darkness. Long empty moments filled with Koren’s breath, deep, sustaining draughts of oxygen that echoed on stone.
Between one blink and the next, a coffin of stone no longer surrounded her. The tiny room grew vast, now half a cocoon of stone opening into a balcony on the other side. The walls glowed so softly she almost didn’t notice except that the balcony opened up to a deeper darkness. There was no moon to lay its silver rays on the mountain and the valley below. Koren walked across the room.
An infant, no more than a month from its mother’s womb, lay naked on a blanket as blue as the summer sky. Koren’s heart lurched when the baby kicked. He was too close to the edge. The blanket draped over the stone into nothing.
Mistress Hollis had taught her more than sorcery tricks. Mistress Hollis had slipped Koren a tiny volume, the knowledge of which, no un-Tested student should have.
The most important lesson in that book was to follow your instinct. Moreover, Koren’s instinct bypassed any thought she may have had. She knelt beside the baby boy, ignoring the jeweled hilt of the knife shining next to the blanket and the black-cloaked figure kneeling to her left.
Koren wrapped the blanket tightly around the infant and picked him up. She held him close to her heart to share warmth and prayed for what she was supposed to pray for: youth in Power, vitality in Life. She inhaled the delicate scent of the baby’s soft head and prayed for Wisdom and Strength and Mercy.
The baby gurgled, almost laughing as Koren added words to the prayer, words of Calling, words she was not supposed to know.
Long moments passed in silence. Koren gazed into the darkness past the balcony, saw lights from the town twinkling below and fires flickering in the cavern pockets of the Mountains that ringed the City. Along the ridge of the Mountain stood huge carvings of animals that represented all those things that resided in the heart of humans. Stone statues of Snake, Bear, Lion, Wolf, and more looked down on the City and seemed to judge rather than protect.
A crackle of stone and Koren’s eyes flickered over the statues. It took her a moment to see the wings of Owl slowly rise and fall. It took a step off the ridge, fell a bit, found an updraft and lifted itself high into the night sky. Koren watched it soar high above before circling down. It hovered at the edge of the balcony peering into Koren’s eyes.
Koren saw nothing but the large diamonds that were Owl’s eyes. She saw no judgment, no decision, no emotion in the stones that studied her. She lifted the infant in offering to the Owl.
The bird touched her forehead with its beak and she knew that rather than death, the infant would have a long life studying in the City below, reunited with his family. Nevertheless, blood still had to be spilled.
In the process of gently enclosing the baby within it claws, Owl scraped across the back of Koren’s hand, her left hand, her Power hand.
Darkin faced his Prince, the boy he’d help raise to almost a man. “There are too many. For every one slain, ten take its place. They are at the walls.”
Something inside the Prince cracked.
“I will not hide,” the Prince said with such force Darkin stepped back.
“You must. Your people need not lose you as well.” Darkin took the Prince’s shoulder with long familiarity. “I will Call the Elite to surround you deep within the bowels of the castle where the enemy will be unable to find you. We will regroup and destroy them from the inside.”
They heard the first defeated cries of the people as the daemons breached the outer wall. Emotion fought in the Prince’s eyes as he nodded agreement.