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Chapter 16

Sweat like burning acid rolled over Mia’s forehead, finding its way into her eyes. Mia gasped. Her vision blurred so that the pool of water she’d drawn up from the earth smudged around the edges. Mia swiped an arm across her face, the material of her shirt rough as sand paper against her skin—and pitched forward as a fresh wave of intense heat lashed through her body. Still Mia fought to keep hold of the writhing, flaming thing that was her Power.

Mia’s breath came in loud, wheezing gasps. Each breath was agony. Air like heated razor blades, cut and flayed a path down Mia’s throat, shredding her lungs as she tried to keep the water from flowing back into the soil. It was too much. Mia couldn’t hold it, she had to let go—

“Not yet Mia!” Orden’s voice was a bark in the distance, muted by the roar of flames in her ears.”Push past the pain—hold it a little longer.”

She couldn’t look at him,“I can’t!”

Relief was instant. The fire that had raged through Mia’s body with such ferocity, went out suddenly, blinking out of existence like a light on a switch. A faint heat remained, pulsing in time with the rapid beat of her heart. Mia’s throat and lungs ached as she stared at her hand, planted in the grass in front of her. Her mouth flooded with sour tasting saliva.

“Do it again.”

Mia closed her eyes at the command. She pulled a shaky breath through her nose and opened them. “Not yet,” Mia’s head felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds, her neck straining with the effort it took to lift it high enough to look at Orden.

His expression was closed and stony, hard with disapproval. There were heavy bags the colour of ripe plums beneath his eyes. Exhaustion oozed from every pore in his sallow skin.

“I need—”

“What you need, is to build tolerance,” Orden’s voice was as harsh as gravel ground into the skin. His blood shot eyes, bright among the dark hollows of his face, burned with a feverish light. Mia felt sick.

Tolerance.

After almost two months of training, this was what it had all come down to—tolerance. How well Mia could stand the pain her Power inflicted with each use—the price to be paid for all the gifts it bestowed.

Since Mia’s Power had come flaming to life inside her, Orden had taken great care and time to teach her how to use, and control it. He’d shown her how to manipulate air particles into groups to make walls and shields of hard air. He’d taught her how to conjure flame without burning everything down around her, and how to draw water from the air and the earth. Because of Orden’s gentle coaching, Mia could heal small cuts and scrapes, she could fix split lips and bruises. And what he could not teach her through practice, Orden had shown her through thoughts and memories so that Mia could one day mend broken bones and repair the fragile membranes and tissues of the body.

“But none of these gifts will serve you, if you do not develop the tolerance to sustain them.” Orden had explained to Mia that day in the clearing after she had told him about magic in her world. “The time swiftly approaches when you will be the one who stands between life and death. Your Power the shield that protects one, or thousands. Will that shield hold, or will it splinter?”

It was a good question, one Mia thought about often. Orden was right, there would come a day when she would hold another’s life in her hands. When she would have to put that person—those people—before herself… She couldn’t bear the thought of being too weak to do it. Of failing.

“You will fail.” Orden had said when Mia had voiced her fear. “You will not be able to save everyone and that will be difficult for you to accept. Others will blame you. You will want to blame yourself—but you can’t.”

The Orden who had spoken to her so gently, firm but understanding, was not the same man who stood before her now, leaning heavily on a willow staff.

“Please Orden,” Mia pleaded. Her heels dug into her glutes as she sat up on her knees, “Just give me a minute.”

“We do not have a minute,” Orden said, his feverish eyes going wide, “we do not have seconds to spare. You must do it again.”

“But—“

“Now!”

Mia couldn’t remember when things had changed, when he had become so impatient with her—so easily frustrated. Of course there had always been a sense of urgency when it came to Mia’s training—it was the cause of countless sleepless nights—but it seemed to have quadrupled sometime in the past week or so.

Gone were the assurances Orden had offered, as Mia worked to suspend objects in the air. Gone was Orden’s gentle coaxing when Mia couldn’t think for the agonizing pain her Power exacted. Orden had stopped believing in breaks. He dismissed Mia when she insisted that she needed to rest, repeating the same sentence over and over, “There is no time.”

Something had changed, something had happened, Mia was sure of it… if only she could figure out what. She’d been too scared to ask Orden directly so she’d asked Vander if he too had noticed a change. He hadn’t. What Mia couldn’t know for sure was whether Vander really didn’t know anything, or if he and Orden were both hiding something from her.

Mia stared at Orden and a spike of anxiety went through her at the cold intensity of his gaze, the sharpness of his features—lines and shapes that had become as familiar to her as those of her family back home. The relentless gleam in his eyes filled Mia with hopelessness. She wondered if Orden knew how close she was to breaking—Mia wondered if he cared.

Her heart was a wild thing in her chest, every beat a hollow echo against her ribcage. Mia tried not to think about the pain but it was all she could think about as she sucked shallow breath after shallow breath through her nose. With one last pleading look at her mentor, Mia stretched a hand toward the shallow pit she’d cut from the earth and at the same time, reached inside of herself for her Power. She didn’t have to close her eyes to see the glowing chain of fire lying dormant and deadly, a coiled asp in the darkness.

It was like sticking her finger into an electrical socket—at the first hesitant touch, a searing heat exploded outward from a place just over Mia’s heart, burning with a ferocity that set her bones ablaze. Tears like boiling water rolled down her cheeks as Mia directed her Power through her outstretched fingers and into the earth. The pain was unbearable. Mia struggled to breathe past it as she delved into the soil, searching for water. A sob racked her frame when she found it.

Orden watched in silence, unmoved by the thin whimper Mia made as she coaxed her Power into a barrier that would lift the water to the surface. The deliberately slow and careful process of guiding the water up through the earth had Mia clenching her teeth so hard it felt like they might crack under the pressure. She took a quick gulp of air and bore down on the pain until a vein throbbed in her forehead and the tendons in her neck stood out. Her skin was on fire. Every inch felt as if it had been burned away, leaving a raw, blistered wasteland in its place. The fibres of her clothing scraped mercilessly against her skin. Mia gasped—and felt her control slip.

She couldn’t do it. She was failing, her tolerance evaporating in the heat of the fire raging inside her body. She had to get the water to the surface before she had nothing left. She had to at least try—or risk upsetting Orden further. Once, that would not have mattered to her, now… A scream started somewhere low in Mia’s belly and clawed its way out of her throat as she released a surge of Power. Water sprayed from the earth in a scalding torrent that drenched Mia from head to toe. She made a truly terrible sound then, screaming so loudly that her voice cracked and split. Mia’s vision flickered and went black. The last thing she was aware of before passing out was the sound of Orden’s voice, and her Power, twisting in smooth, languid movements through the darkness.

§

Orden’s scent was strong in the air when Mia came to. She took a long, deep breath through her nose and tasted Orden in the back of her throat. The smell of him, his skin, his essence—it pervaded everything in the close, warm cocoon Mia found herself sequestered in. Orden’s Power was all around her. Mia was aware of the warmth of his body, the feel of his chest against her back as he cradled her to him. Orden made soft, comforting noises as he stroked her hair back from her forehead in a surprisingly tender gesture. Mia’s insides twisted themselves in knots.

She didn’t want to open her eyes. Mia didn’t want to leave this blissful in-between place where she could hide and avoid her failure just a little longer. A failure that went deeper than just losing the battle against the pain, or losing control of her Power. A failure that weighed heavy on Mia’s heart and pinned it somewhere deep in the pit of her stomach where it beat a slow and hollow rhythm. She couldn’t do it. Tears welled behind Mia’s closed eyelids and seeped out of the corners of her eyes. She couldn’t do it—she couldn’t do any of it.

Mia’s breath caught in her throat with a moist sound. Her eyes felt like they’d been superglued shut. She managed a small sliver before she gave up trying and stared at the bright clearing through a blur of tears and interwoven eyelashes. Orden’s hand stilled on her forehead.

“Mia?”

Mia felt the deep rumble of Orden’s voice against her back. She pressed her eyes shut. How was she going to tell him? How could she say what she already knew—that she wasn’t cut out for this. Not in the slightest.

“I’m sorry.” The words slipped out, so quiet that for a moment, Mia wondered if she’d said them at all.

Orden said nothing. His chest expanded behind her and remained solid against her back for a few long seconds before he exhaled in a slow breath. “No, it is I who should apologize to you.”

Mia bit down on the inside of her cheek. She squeezed her eyes tightly, expelling fresh tears, and opened them. “No,” Mia said with a small shake of her head, “you shouldn’t.”

Orden didn’t move or say anything as Mia crawled stiffly out of his embrace and struggled to her feet. Her body ached with the memory of fire and pain. Behind her, Mia heard a rustling of grass and clothing, and knew that if she turned around now, she would find Orden leaning against his staff, exhausted after healing the wounds she’d inflicted on herself. She couldn’t bear to look at him.

“I’m sorry,” Mia repeated. Her spine stiff as an iron post. Her skin felt flushed and stretched. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this.”

“Mia—“

“Orden,” Mia stopped him with a pained look over her shoulder. Guilt seized her at the sight of Orden’s bowed shoulders. It squeezed her heart mercilessly, the way his mouth twisted with the effort of supporting his drooping head. “I can’t.” She turned to face him fully, “I am so—so sorry I—.” Tears washed down her cheeks. Mia didn’t bother to wipe them away. “I’m—I’m not—I’m too—“ She couldn’t get the words out past the tightness in her throat. It hurt to swallow, “Weak. I’m too weak. I c-can’t do it.”

“But you can!” Orden took a lurching step toward Mia, a look of unbearable anguish written on his face. “Mia, you can,” he said when Mia shook her head in denial. “You have nothing to apologize for. It is I who is to blame, not you. I pushed you too far. I should not have—“

“Orden stop!” Mia cried, her hands in fists at her side, “Please, just—stop.” She couldn’t stand it. Not the way he looked at her. Not the way his arms beckoned her, as if he would console her. An edge crept into Mia’s voice, “Stop lying to me—and stop lying to yourself. I. Can’t. Do. It. I’ll never be what Nethea needs.”

“You are Chosen!”

Mia gasped, “Then someone somewhere made a huge fricken mistake.”

“Mia!”

Mia halted mid turn. The desperation in Orden’s voice threatened to pull her back, when all she wanted to do was leave. “Please,” Mia met Orden’s eyes and hoped he saw the agony she was in. How much she hated herself for letting him down...for letting them all down. Breahn, Hanna—even Vander. Vander who had been right all along. Mia’s shoulders drooped, “please don’t hate me.”

She grit her teeth and straightened her spine. Each time Orden called her name or asked her to stop felt like a pebble bouncing off her back. He hobbled after her, and Mia ran.

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