I stood a hundred meters above shimmering blue waters, icy wind whipping through my hair. It was a long way down, and a strange gravity in my chest tugged me forward, urging me to take a step, to jump, to fall. I closed my eyes and imagined plummeting from the cliff, imagined feeling the wind on my skin and the yawning emptiness beneath. My heart skipped. I tried to capture the feeling—excitement? fear?—but it slipped away before I could grasp it.
Hurry up, I told myself. They aren’t giving you all day.
Initiation was held every winter and summer to induct trainees into the Wardenry, the guild that protected the kingdom. Initiates had to take a leap of faith, literally, and jump from the Skircliff. If you were worthy, the gods anchored some of their power in your medium—your most precious possession, forged by a mother during her term and irrevocably tied to your soul—and carried you into the sky to receive your fate. If you weren’t, you fell to your death.
I mustered up the will to move, but Saya, thin and pale, flashed through my mind. A bird with broken wings, tumbling from the sky. I squeezed my eyes shut. I wondered how she had felt, high above the world with the wind in her hair and her future hanging in the balance. I wondered if she’d been scared.
Before that terrible midwinter Initiation, I’d never seen my sister as anything less than an infallible genius, as less than perfect. But now it was too easy to picture Magnus standing over her as he sent her to her death.
He’d killed Saya right here eighteen months ago; his only witness, I’d stood stricken in the forest below as he tore the rings—her medium—from her fingers and tossed her unconscious body over the edge of the cliff. Even through my terror and disbelief, I’d known why. What would his father have done if Magnus were outperformed by a commoner? But it would have been for nothing if I graduated as the best.
Good luck, he’d told me.
I whirled around.
“Scared, Kalen?” Magnus smirked at me from where he leaned against a scraggly Skira tree, hand on the hilt of his sword. My heart thrashed in my chest. He can’t beat me, he can’t beat me, he can’t—
“Of course you’d try this,” I blurted, mind spinning. Should I distract him? Stall him? Fight him? “I see you’re still afraid of your daddy.”
He scoffed, but I caught the tremble in his fingers. “Hardly.” He was afraid—not only of his father, but of me as well. The emptiness pressed at my back, reminding me that if I just turned around and jumped, all of my problems would be solved. Magnus would fail in his endeavor, I would (probably) pass Initiation, and Mother would be proud. But it wasn’t that easy.
Saya, thin and pale. Falling from the sky. There was something else at stake here.
“Shall we?” Lips curved into a hard smile, Magnus unsheathed his sword.
He appeared calm again, as confident as a hunter taking aim at an injured rabbit, and I was the rabbit, cowering from his arrow—but I didn’t run. I touched the smooth metal of my rings and made a decision.
Magnus slid into a dueller’s stance. We watched each other. A splay of limbs against the cold winter sky, Saya flickered across my vision like a flame that refused to be pinched out.
Then, his sword began to glow. A panicked breath caught in my throat. HE CAN’T BEAT ME HE CAN’T BEAT ME— I exhaled. The blade, incandescent, shone brighter and brighter.
My chakra flared into a sphere just as the inferno exploded into light, heat, and an unbearable roar. I fed every last dreg of energy I had in me into my shield as I struggled to stay upright. The heat was horrible, a screaming wall of fire that pressed in on my bubble of safety from all sides.
At last, the flames died. The air was startlingly cold when I released the shield.
Magnus crumpled, sword clattering to the ground. That fire, great enough to make my strongest shield waver, would have torn unforgivingly through all of his chakra gates. He’d been willing to cripple himself to win. Perhaps his father would have crippled him for failure. I felt sudden pity for him, this angry boy who’d once had a beautiful heart to match his beautiful face. I knew, because it had been mine.
Magnus struggled to his knees. I buried those thoughts in bravado, but my voice came out rough. “Is that all you can do?”
He laughed. It was short and bitter. “I hate you, you know.” I glanced at him and saw that his hands were shaking.
“The sentiment is returned in full.” We were both liars.
I forced myself to step towards him.
Magnus gritted his teeth. “Make it quick.”
“My—my death.” Magnus pinned me with a harsh look that made me feel sixteen again: frozen, horrified, and utterly useless. I drew a knife, heart pounding. He deserves to die, I thought.
But despite everything, I couldn’t do it.
“Idiot,” I snarled at myself, shoving the knife into its holster. When I reached for Magnus’s discarded sword—his medium—he could only stagger to his feet and then collapse.
Slowly, almost reverently, I raised the sword above my head.
And smashed it over my knee.
The wail that tore from Magnus’s throat was broken and ragged, a sound that he would have been ashamed of had he been lucid enough to feel anything but pain. He curled into himself, sobbing.
So this is what happens when you destroy a medium. I pressed my lips together, tears hot in my eyes, and turned to fling the jagged pieces of steel over the edge of the cliff. They disappeared into the faraway river. Saya. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath. You have been avenged.