As she walked through rubble-strewn streets of Perilea—some as wide as Manhattan’s First Avenue—the city’s ruins rising up all around her, Mia couldn’t help but feel like a small bug creeping through the clean picked bones of some massive creature. It was still early, but the salty haze that had cushioned the air since dawn had dissipated. Burned off by the sun shining down from the blue sky with all the intensity of a halogen bulb.
Mia’s nostrils flared as a wave of salt and fish washed over her. Brought on the back of the sea breeze that never stopped blowing through the city. She came to a sudden stop in the middle of the street. Her whole body was rigid as she clamped down on her hundredth gag of the morning.
Stupid. Mia breathed through her mouth. She forced her eyes to stay open. She’d learned the hard way that even closing them for a few seconds resulted in a painful readjustment. She was so stupid for doing this now. For trying to cram months of work and conditioning—things, she should have been doing since her Power had awakened—into a single morning. A stupid idiot, that was what she was. A wuss and a coward.
Up ahead, the scuff of Orden’s boots on the cracked cobblestones ceased. Mia reshuffled her face, burying the useless thoughts as she started forward. When she had almost reached him, Orden started walking again.
It did no good to keep reminding herself of her failures. Mia had already spent most of the night and early morning doing just that. In the tiny, overgrown garden at the back of the house, they’d taken over. She’d snuck out there not long after Orden had started snoring—giving up on sleep altogether. It wouldn’t change anything, and it didn’t help. All Mia could do now was suffer through it and hope that she adjusted quickly.
Or you could give up and put the dampers back…
The thought popped into Mia’s head countless times as the day wore on, each time accompanied by a fresh wave of shame. Looking at Orden, watching him try to hide the signs of what was now so obviously the strain of powering the ward... It made Mia sick to her stomach.
She was the reason he was here.
The reason he was miles away from his home and the ward he kept in place there to protect his family. Mia didn’t want to consider what the added distance cost him. It killed her, knowing that he was doing it for her. Suffering on the off-chance that she might change her mind about quitting. Strange how the likelihood of that happening had seemed so small even a few hours ago. Now Mia wasn’t so sure anymore.
She couldn’t follow Orden through his city and not wonder what it must be like. To walk between the shattered remains of places you once knew, and find them wholly unrecognizable. Could Orden feel the hum of life that had once filled the now still air? Did it travel through the cobblestones beneath his feet?
Mia had to reign in her imagination as the scorched white sandstone that surrounded her on all sides blurred and reformed as the shining glass and hard concrete of Manhattan. Her eyes burned, and it had nothing to do with midday sun hanging directly overhead. Mia sniffed as discreetly as possible, not wanting to draw attention to herself. Not as images of her own city, reduced to rubble, continued to force their way in. Nothing left of it but a faint shadow of its former glory. All its people dead and gone.
And this was just one city.
That was the most chilling thing of all. All of the whole North looked like this. Its cities and lands burned to ash, its people either killed or enslaved by Kairos and his followers. So much destruction. So much death—and nothing to stop it from spreading south. If Kairos were to continue unchallenged, the rest of Nethea would meet the same fate.
Unless… Mia stopped herself from going there. To think about her role in this—to even consider—No. Not now, not yet. She couldn’t deny the uncomfortable feeling growing in her gut, a need to do something—but she could ignore it. At least for a little while longer.
Mia knelt before the hearth. Her face hovering inches from the sputtering embers of the fire she was trying to coax into life. Mia sucked in a breath, filled her lungs, and blew it out. Aiming the steady stream into the center of the neatly laid fire, she’d built out of bits of furniture lying around the house. Right at the dried out swallow’s nest, she was using for kindling.
The embers flared in a promising manner but still refused to produce flames. Frustrated, Mia took another breath and blew—a little too hard this time. She reeled back from the hearth hacking and sputtering. Her eyes stinging from the cloud of old ash and dust, her efforts had sent billowing into her face.
“I told ye to clear the ashes before ye started.”
Mia squinted in the direction of what used to be the house’s kitchen. Orden was a blurry shape in the dim light, bent over the only surviving pieces of furniture in the house, a small square-topped table that stood no taller than his thighs. The squelching sound of Orden’s knife as he gutted one of the fish he’d speared that afternoon made Mia grimace. That and the smell of blood and fishy entrails kept her from making a sharp retort. Mia looked away as blood dripped over the edge of the table and fell into a chipped earthenware bowl on the ground.
She gazed at the hearth. Her fire seemed to have found a foothold and was starting to burn in earnest. It was not the flames she saw as she looked into the fire but rather the terrible, empty expanse where the Temple of the Pure had once stood. Hemmed in on all sides by rubble and powdered stone.
Mia couldn’t get the image out of her head. It had remained long after Orden had taken her by the elbow and led from the site while silent tears fell down her face.
Mia didn’t remember how they got to the cliffs. She only recalled the shock of finding herself mere feet from the sharp edge. Nothing but deep blue ocean before her. She did remember—with heart-stopping clarity—how she’d picked her way along a narrow path cut into the side of the cliffs. Following every carefully placed step, Orden had taken before her. At the bottom, Mia’s feet sank into the thin strip of wet sand that lined the base of the cliffs. Exposed with the tide fully out.
She had only a moment to marvel at the feeling of the sand between her toes before Orden produced two wooden rods from a crevasse in the cliff face—their tips sharpened to lethal points—and pushed one into her hand. Then he’d walked off into the surf without a word. Leaving Mia to reconcile what she’d seen today with what she remembered of the temple from Orden’s memories.
Smooth marble and incense. Acolytes dressed in white. The soft rustle of their robes as they moved about the grounds. Through stone courtyards filled with fragrant trees. Ithrielle sitting on her throne, gorgeous and dangerous as a lioness. All gone. Nothing but dust and crushed stone where a proud column of shining white marble had once stood. Stories higher than the rest of the city’s buildings.
Again Mia thought of New York. Of another, skyline forever changed by an act of mindless terror.
Mia was two years old when the attacks on the World Trade Centre happened. She had no memories of that terrible day in American history. Or really any from the years that followed, except for the spotlights. She must have been four or five, Mia couldn’t remember when the twin beams of white light pierced the sky. Shining in the place where the towers once stood.
Grade three history was the first time Mia saw pictures of Ground Zero and heard the horrifying stories of what had happened there. Why it had happened. She could still hear Bella Abelson crying and the teacher trying to console her, with no luck. Then in grade seven, the school had taken a field trip to the memorial site. Mia would never forget that day.
As a class, they had walked among hundreds of trees, even the rowdiest of her classmates silent. The gentle never-ending rush of the massive waterfalls filled the air and drowned out the sounds of the city. Mia shivered, despite her proximity to the fire. She remembered what it was like to look into the depths of those terrifying holes in the earth. To run her fingers over the names engraved into the damp copper plates on top of the barriers. So many names…
Jake hadn’t let go of her hand once that entire trip. Not even when some of the other kids had noticed and started teasing them. He held on, sensing that Mia had needed him. Her heart gave a painful squeeze at the memory.
Orden cleared his throat quietly, but Mia startled nonetheless. He grunted an apology as Mia shuffled out of the way to give him access to the fireplace. Busy reordering her thoughts, Mia didn’t reply. She watched Orden balance the skillet with the fish on top of the fire, then settle back on his haunches.
She was staring at him. Wondering at the thoughts taking place behind those glowing grey eyes when he looked at her. Mia averted her gaze, cheeks flaming.
“You haven’t spoken in hours,” Orden said. “Are you alright?”
Mia quelled the sudden ridiculous urge to lie. She wanted to tell Orden yes, wanted to pretend that everything was fine, that she was fine. But it wasn’t. She wasn’t.
The word eased out of her on a shaky breath, “No.” Mia made herself look at him then. “I didn’t think—” She tried again, “I didn’t realize—”
“I know.” Orden’s eyes shone with understanding and deep, heart-rending sadness that had Mia inhaling sharply.
Mia swallowed past the thick lump in her throat and murmured, “It’s a lot.” When Orden said nothing, Mia let her gaze drift to the fire, to the fish cooking there. For a long moment, the sizzle and pop of cooking meat filled the silence. Even the horses had stopped their incessant chewing of the withered plants in the garden. “But I’m glad you brought me,” Mia said.
She could see Orden watching her intently out of the corner of her eye. Mia faced him. A slow, careful smile tugged at the corner of Orden’s mouth as their eyes locked and held. In the light from the fire, flecks of silver and gold stood out in sharp contrast with the black of his pupils. There was hope in Orden’s eyes, and Mia knew, deep within her soul, that it was not false. Her whole body tensed in terror of that realization.
Orden’s expression softened as Mia struggled with her fear. “I know,” he repeated, his voice as gentle as the hand he placed over hers on the warm stone before the hearth. Mia couldn’t remember being more grateful for a touch.
Without warning, Orden’s hand spasmed. His whole body went rigid, and pain, as clear as day, flashed across his face. Orden snatched his hand back and turned toward the fire clearing his throat loudly.
What’s wrong? The question was on the tip of her tongue, begging to her to ask as Mia stared at Orden. He avoided the look, keeping his gaze trained on the pan and the cooking fish. A thought from the previous day resurfaced--and fell into place. A strange stillness spread through her. Mia sat up straight and narrowed her eyes at Orden.
“Something’s wrong with it, isn’t there?” Her voice was flat, emotionless.
Orden’s eyes drifted shut. Air rushed out of him in a sigh that left him looking ad drooping forward like his neck could no longer bear the weight. “What are you talking about, Mia?” Orden winced as the words rasped out of him. As if it caused him physical pain to give voice to the lie.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Mia said, temper flaring. “I know you made the ward, and I know it’s feeding off you—it’s been feeding off you for years—” And then the sudden change in his behavior. The terrible urgency that had consumed him these past weeks—God! It all made so much sense! “What’s wrong with it, Orden?” Mia demanded, her hands clenched into fists against her thighs.
The old man flinched, but he finally looked at her. His face was a mask of fear and pain, his eyes clouded with guilt as he beheld the accusation written all over Mia’s face. “It’s failing,” Orden whispered.
The words ran down Mia’s spine like droplets of ice water. Her mouth dropped open as all the air was sucked clean out of her lungs, leaving a hollow ache in her chest. “What do you mean, it’s failing?” Mia asked when she could again form words. The ward was failing... the thing that separated them from the rest of the world, the one thing that kept them safe and hidden... How? Why?
Orden just looked at her. Begging her to find the answer, as if it was right there, written in the lines his weathered face. Lines that looked like they’d been gouged out of his skin. Thin as tracing paper, every vein, and artery visible beneath.
Orden’s sad smile was confirmation enough. The ward was failing because he was failing.
“I’m dying, Mia,” Orden said, his voice so gentle it was almost like she was the one who was dying, not him. “I can feel myself getting weaker every day.”
Mia couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. She could only stare at Orden, her heart splintering into tiny pieces as his words sank in. The smell of burning fish filled the room. Orden cursed, jumping into action. He pulled the pan out of the fire by the wooden handle and let it drop to the floor with the jarring rattle of metal on stone.
Orden looked at the blackened fish and shook his head. “Damn.”
“Who else knows about this?” Mia asked, her voice cracking. Dying. Orden was dying—and he’d still brought her here, knowing that it might speed up the process.
Orden tilted his head forward, fixing her with a cutting look from beneath the shelf of his brows. “Only you,” And I would prefer to keep it that way. He didn’t have to say it.
“Why?” Mia let her hands drop into her lap, shoulders turning inward. Why keep it a secret at all?
“The others believe the Oluanvi created the ward. And I never corrected them. I didn’t want them to worry.” About him—the cost of his life. “Vander would insist on sharing the burden. And Hana—” Orden’s eyes clouded. “She and Breahn have endured so much, and I—I want them to live without fear.”
Mia knew without a doubt that Breahn and Hanna would insist he let the ward down. Not to mention that if the protective barrier surrounding them were to come down, all the Power they used daily would act as a beacon. Like a big red x on a map, marking their location for Kairos to find. Her magical training would have to stop altogether. Incomplete as it was.
Orden had no choice but to keep the ward up.
Panic and despair clawed at each other, fighting for space inside Mia’s body. She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. All this pain, all the worry, and fear—it was all because of her.
Orden reached across the space between them and took firm hold of her chin. Mia was forced to look at him. “I know what ye’re thinking,” She gave him a pained look, “and yer wrong.” He held her captive, his eyes boring into hers, letting her see the truth of his words. Then Orden released her, and for a moment, Mia missed the feel of his warm, calloused fingers against her skin. The touch was like an anchor against the rising tide of her emotions that threatened to sweep her away.
Orden let out a tired sigh and ran a hand over his head. “I will maintain the ward long after you leave us. For Hana and Breahn. I will happily let it consume me if only to give them more time.”
“And when you’re gone?”
His tone was grave as he said, “Let us hope that by then, the world will be a better, safer place. For everyone.”
Mia drew herself up, her spine stiff and ready for the heavy weight that settled on her shoulders.