I felt sick the next morning. I spent most of the early dawn with my arms wrapped around a bucket that was in the corner of my room.
By the time my stomach settled enough for me to do anything, I donned the same gown I wore the day before and made my way downstairs to find most of the Marked Guard was having breakfast around the map on the oak table. Marilla ushered me to a seat and served me a bowl of much, which I picked at while everyone shoveled their food down.
I heard nothing of their conversation, except for the light jokes and gests they threw at one another. It grated against my ears, my skin, to hear everyone so jovial and light. I could also feel their stares, their side glances; especially Oryn’s. His eyes continually made their way back to me, assessing and trying to read what was happening inside.
It was infuriating.
Thankfully Kierian had arrived, ate quickly, and motioned for me to follow.
Kierian took one glance at me and, thankfully, didn’t say a word as he took me to a large room that was full of many different items I didn’t recognize. We were the only two in the room, the rest of the house seeming to still be asleep. But the room showed evidence of being used often.
The walls of the room were lined with rack after rack of various weapons; swords, daggers, bows, arrows, and much more I didn’t even recognize.
There were practice dummies thrown up against one wall, and targets lined against another.
The middle of the room had been lined off to form a ring of sorts that seemed to be for fighting. With swords or fists, I wasn’t sure.
Kierian had explained that the Marked Guard was trained to use their powers, but was also skilled in using other weapons to fight. I was surprised to find this out, wondering how gifted Oryn was and if was able to fight.
As if reading my thoughts, Kierian said. “Oryn’s the best of everyone at just about everything.”
I raised my brows, both at the claim and at the jealousy that laced Kierian’s words.
I watched as Kierian walked about the room, inspecting the heavy curtains of the windows. Making sure they were secure and in place. He gave each a good tug, and once he was satisfied, he turned to join me in the middle of the room. It was just the two of us in the room, and however much I did not like it, I was growing to find out that Kierian wasn’t all that bad. He was quiet, contemplative, but I could tell that he could have a wicked sort of humor if given the chance.
That was evident this morning at the remarks he made under his breath during the meal we all had.
He was funny, and light. A welcome relief from a dark day.
“Are you sure you want to be wearing a dress for this?” Kierian asked as he looked me up and down, his brows raising as he took in my simple cotton gown.
“I don’t have anything else.”
“I’ll make sure you’re given something more…accommodating.” Kierian said, “It will have to do for now. First, we have to discuss what you know you’re capable of.” He circled me, looking at me and inspecting what he saw from the outside. I tugged at the sleeves of my gown, making sure they were in place. I guess I didn’t need to be so conscious about this while I was in here, but old habits die hard.
“I don’t know where to start.”
“Just start with the basics. What’s something you find yourself doing when you’re most relaxed? Our gift is a part of us and it functions as a basic need. Take your lungs for example. They always work on their own accord. You don’t have to constantly remind your lungs to breathe because they are capable of doing it themselves. So, you find that you breathe when you’re most relaxed. But as soon as you have difficulty breathing, you must think more about it and what your lungs are doing.” Kierian came to a stop before me. He stood several feet away, but a wicked warmth radiated from him, making me feel hot in my gown.
“Is that natural for you?” I asked. He shrugged one shoulder.
“Heat is one of the many facets of my gift. When you’re able to control light, you find that there are many branches to the one ability. Arryn, for example, is a healer. She mended your bones without much hesitation. She also finds that she can manipulate the growth of certain plants for medicinal purposes. That’s the branch of her power. Depending on the size of the power you could have many branches. It all depends on the size of the markings.” He explained. “Giving off heat is something that started at a very young age for me. It was hard to keep it under control. When I was younger, I wondered if I would be able to bend and manipulate fire. But I didn’t realize the full potential of my gift until a few years later when I discovered I could manipulate the light around me.”
He held out his hand, and with one breath, he pulled the light in the room towards him. Strange darkness filled the room, one that tugged at a space in my chest. It was the darkest black I had ever seen. A complete absence of light.
And all that light now rested in his palm.
Kierian held a floating orb of brilliant light. It pulsed like it was living and trying to get out. Kierian focused as he moved his hand causing the light to stretch and expand. I watched as it grew into a long shaft, a point at one end forming a spear of sorts.
I gasped, memories flooding my mind. I remembered the nights my mother would send sparks of light around the room, her power weak but beautiful. She didn’t’ use it often and when I would see the marks on her arms, they always looked faded. Like white scars that raced up and down her arms. But I knew she could manipulate light the way Keirian was now. I never knew the extent of it, but the similarity was astounding.
I wasn’t sure what to think about that. I knew two people could have the same ability. I found a strange sort of nostalgia blossom through me as I watched Kierian play with the light.
“This is my core power, my true gift.” He threw the spear causing the light to disperse around the room. “It took a lot of time and practice, but once I mastered it, it became like breathing. That’s why most here don’t have any episodes. We’ve learned how to master it. But my question to you is, why haven’t you allowed yourself to explore it?”
Listening to what Kierian was saying, I watched as the light-filled the room again finding its proper place. It felt as if I was in a trance, and I found myself talking before I could stop myself.
“I thought it would be easier to hide if I didn’t learn about my ability. I was afraid that once I started exploring, the easier it would be to detect me.” I looked at Kierian, his eyes intent on watching me. He didn’t say anything for a moment as he thought.
“You were afraid of it.”
“I wasn’t afraid,” I said, frustration rising. “I was cautious.”
“My power isn’t as…happy as yours is,” I stated.
“Not all of them are.” He shrugged his shoulder, shoving his hands into the pockets of his pants. I had never seen a style of pants such as the one he wore. They were loose, made of cotton it seemed. They appeared to be comfortable, and a part of me envied how comfortable and relaxed he seemed.
I nod, closing my eyes as I focused on that stream of magic. I pulled the darkness to me, much like Kierian had pulled the light to him. When I opened my eyes, darkness pooled in my palm, dripping off in thick streams of dark mist.
Kierian watched with a smile, his eyes seeming to glow in the foggy darkness that had settled over the room.
“Wonderful,” Kierian said with a smile. “Now bend it to your will.”
“I...” I hesitated, “I don’t know what to do.”
“Try to create something with it.” I stared at the swirling orb of darkness, trying to force it to move, to expand and shift its form as Kierian had done with the light.
Kierian watched me as the minutes ticked by. Sweat started to bead across my forehead as I begged the darkness to do something, anything.
“It takes time.” Kierian said, “It takes most Marked years to master their ability.”
My temper getting the better of me, I threw the darkness. “I don’t have years!”
The shadows were set into motion about the room, ebbing and flowing with the anger and frustration within.
“Keep trying,” Kierian said.
I tried for the rest of the day, but all I was able to do was pull the darkness to me creating a useless ball of darkness. Kierian waited with me, giving points and tips throughout the day as other Marked came and went from the training room. Marilla kept returning, checking up on my progress, and having discussions with Kierian in hushed whispers.
Which made it even more difficult to focus.
But thankfully Oryn didn’t show once.
It was exhausting work, and after about the hundredth time of calling the darkness to me, I turned and walked out of the training room, no one stopping me as I headed straight for my room.
Four days passed as I tried to show Kierian what I was capable of. We met every morning after breakfast and stayed within the infernal training room until dinner only breaking for lunch. It had been the most frustrating four days of my life as I tried to force something to happen all the while knowing Oryn and the others were out wandering the city searching for any sign of Carena.
I knew because Oryn had been giving me updates every night after dinner. He would meet me in my room and let me know if they had managed to find any sign of her. It was the only time I was able to tolerate him, and he never stayed longer than five minutes. I hardly said a word to him as he told me the information I needed. His urgency hadn’t died since we arrived and, despite my frustrations with him, I was thankful for that.
On top of the pressing matters, such as finding Carena and trying to control my ability, I found that the weight of guilt and shame was the most crushing consequence of the past few days. The numb grief of loss had loosened by the third day, but the guilt only grew as I failed and failed in the training room.
If only I had begun training earlier, then maybe I would have been able to protect those around me. Maybe Tristan would still be alive, maybe Carena would be here with me. We could have stayed safe and I would have been able to protect us from the guards, the hounds. I could have protected myself when we crossed through the forest and I wouldn’t have arrived looking so...useless.
That was how I felt every day since I arrived here.
I saw it in the way Kova looked at me, I heard it in the sighs Kierian gave every evening after an uneventful day, and especially when Marilla checked in on us throughout the day.
I was completely useless to them.
“Maybe we should take a break,” Kierian said as I once again failed on being able to do anything with the darkness. Why was it so hard? When Oryn had walked into the library the first time I saw him, I was able to command the darkness with a single thought. What was so different now?
“No. I can do this.” I snapped.
“No offense, but you’ve been saying that for the past four days,” Kierian said. I opened my eyes, rage simmering low in my stomach.
“How is it that my power can randomly show up, at the worst times possible, but when I need it I can’t summon it?”
“That’s because our ability is a reaction, just like surprise or a flinch or a scream. You may have noticed that in stressful situations it’s harder to keep your ability in check. Maybe you have random outbursts when you’re upset, sad, frustrated. It’s how most young Marked discover their ability when it first begins to show. Their power shows as a response to those emotions.”
That lined up with what Oryn had told me. I had kept reminding myself of this fact over and over, but it seemed to make no difference.
“Part of learning to use your ability is learning about yourself. Our abilities are a part of us, or who we are. Without them, we wouldn’t be the fullest version of ourselves. We would only be a portion of who we are.” Kierian added. “That’s why it’s difficult for some people. Some just don’t like the nature of their abilities and who that makes them.”
I didn’t say anything as I stared at the swirling orb of darkness.
“How do I begin to do that then?” I asked. “Why have you waited until now to tell me all of this when you could have told me that on day one?”
“I figured you already knew that.” Kieran shrugged, “It’s hard to explain this to someone after I’ve become so used to it. Not every Marked can ignore their power. It takes a strong person to be able to deny themselves the use of their ability. Someone who has a lot of power already.”
I wasn’t sure what to think of that. I didn’t agree with him, but what would I know?
“Let’s take it back to the basics. When a young Marked first begin to understand their power, they can use it in the simplest form.”
“Which would be...” I led him on.
“The simplest form would be whatever comes naturally to you. The part that you find the easiest to control. Every ability has levels of controllability. Some things come easily for some and others that are much more difficult to control.”
“So I just need to figure out what comes naturally for me.”
“Yeah. Let’s go with that.” Kierian says, his voice sounding less than enthusiastic. I guess after four days there isn’t much room for hope.
The most natural part of my ability was controlling the shadows around me. What I could see with my own eyes and feel with my hands. I was able to listen to them speak to me, hear the whispers of the secrets around me. I could feel them move, hear them speak, see them beckon me. It was how my power first showed.
Ever since I could remember the shadows always whispered delightful, exciting things on their breeze.
I always knew when something was about to happen thanks to the shadow’s warnings.
I could also manipulate them. Pull them close, push them away. I used to do it when I was a child. I would make shadow figures play out little scenes for Carena, making her laugh at the different plays I would come up with.
She had always loved them.
But then the nightmares began, and the shadows took on a darker form.
The darkness started to reveal itself after the shadows.
It was how I knew my power was more than just the shadows.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I calmed the stream of magic, trying to control its flow.
Or...maybe I shouldn’t?
It was harder to control my power when my emotions were everywhere. When I was angry or upset, I found that my power wanted to present itself the most. What if I let that fly? What if I let the magic flow through me?
I decided to let the emotions soar, let that flow of magic come rushing in. I have focused on all the frustrating aspects of my life lately. The way I missed Carena, the fact that I wasn’t able to protect her, the idea that the King has destroyed so many lives to get to me.
Like water breaking free from a dam, I felt the magic course through me. I inhaled sharply at the tight zing that raced through me.
I heard Kierian inhale, the only indication that something was happening.
I opened my eyes to a room of the darkest night. I couldn’t see anything in the room, not even the hand I brought up to my face, my palm resting on my nose.
It was impossible to see through this darkness.
It was suffocating.
I began to breathe hard, my heart hammering in my chest, begging to get out of the darkness.
I couldn’t see anything, hear anyone.
I didn’t know where Kierian was anymore. I didn’t dare take any steps, for fear of what I would find in the dark. I tried to push the darkness away, to force it back into the corners it came from. But it wouldn’t move. My breaths came faster, dizziness overtaking me.
“Aurelia!” I turned in the direction of Oryn’s voice. A small part of my heart was relieved that he was here. How was I to explain to Kierian that I was afraid of the dark? I hadn’t need to tell Oryn, he guessed it all on his own while we did our training in the manor. “Aurelia follow my voice.”
His voice was steady, calm; an anchor in this darkness. I took tentative steps towards the sound, keeping my hands out in front of me to keep from running into anything. I felt a warm body, causing me to jump back yelping a little.
“It’s okay, it’s just me,” Oryn said, his hands coming to rest along my arms. “You need to breathe. Just breathe and focus on what you want your power to do.”
“I already tried that.” My voice came out small, my eyes starting to hurt from the darkness. For once, I couldn’t see a thing. I’d give anything for a candle right about now.
A breath whispered down the back of my gown, I heard a menacing laugh drift on the breeze of the shadow. I closed my eyes, my hands starting to shake.
“Humor me.” He said gently. He gave my arms a little squeeze, which made me notice the warmth that began to fill me. I focused on that warmth that spread through me from Oryn’s hands. I took deep breaths, focusing on how I wanted the darkness to evaporate into the air, to hide in the corners of the room. I wanted the shadows to fall back into their normal place, to find their homes once again.
“There you go, sunshine,” Oryn whispered. “Look.”
I opened my eyes to find the deep blue of Oryn’s. The light had filtered back into the room, although there was still a shadowy mist that seemed to cling to the air around us. I glanced around, finding that everything was light once again. Kierian stood in the middle of the room, a smile on his face as he reached out to disturb some floating dark mist, the shadow curling around his fingers.
“Are you insane?” Oryn seethed as he walked towards Kierian, who promptly began to take a few steps back. I would do the same thing if a mountain was charging at me the way Oryn was charging at Kierian. “Letting her use her emotions to power her ability, that’s what you’re teaching her?”
“I was just trying to show her what she’s capable of” Kierian defended. He quit backing up, trying to take a stand against Oryn, who only stopped a foot away from Kierian.
“I could have told you that, you idiot.”
“But she didn’t know what she was capable of.” Kierian motioned towards me. Oryn glanced at me, his gaze a storm.
“Trust me. Aurelia knows a lot more than you give her credit for.”
Reality seemed to snap into place. I reminded myself of the situation I was in, who Oryn was, who Kierian was. Frustration bubbled. Why was Oryn upset? I had just controlled my ability for once on my own according to my own will. It was a start.
“I fail to see what the issue is,” I say to Oryn, my voice strong once again. I pushed away from the lingering warmth from Oryn’s touch and focused on the cool chill of the midnight air.
“Using your emotions to fuel your power is asking for your power to take control of you. We should never let our emotions get the better of us while we are using our ability. We fuel our ability through the magic that is around us. I thought we already went over all of this.” Oryn snapped, his eyes not leaving Kierian’s.
I gasped as I watched blue marks crawl up Oryn’s arms, his frustration getting the better of him. He seemed to buzz with energy, the space around him seeming to squirm as different images tried to take form. It was the oddest sight to watch, both the images that tried to form but seeing Oryn’s marks.
Both arms were marked heavily, much like mine. It was the first time I had seen his markings, and I wasn’t surprised to find that he was powerful. Oryn had the most markings of anyone in the guard from what I’ve seen, maybe even me.
“It seems someone can learn from their lessons,” Kierian said with a smirk. Oryn’s fingers twitched and the entire room exploded into an array of color and sunlight.
We were standing in a forest, one that I had never seen the likes of. Orbs of light floated on soft breezes, the smell of lavender filled my nose. I heard the soft hum of bees working in the colorful flowers that dotted the landscape around us.
I spun, taking in the tantalizing view.
Mountains wrapped around us, the cool air causing my hair to flutter around my face. I knew, deep in my heart, that this was Oryn’s home. I wasn’t sure how, but the stories he had shared with me came back, the ones of his past.
“There are limitations to our powers,” Oryn said, turning to me. “For me, the larger the illusion, the more concentrated I have to become. Yet the bigger the illusion, the more I have to practice it ahead of time. The smaller the illusion, the less I have to focus. It’s easier for me to cast disguises over us than it is for me to create this scene.” Oryn said, watching as I tried to mask the amazement on my face. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was able to create this scene so easily because it was his home, and maybe he visited it often on his own. But I didn’t reveal any of that, I didn’t even bother to show that I was impressed by his display. Oryn watched me, searching for something, some understanding or connection. I slipped the mask in place, giving him a dead stare.
“Show off,” I say, not wanting to agree with him. He wasn’t even supposed to be in here.
“It’s like breathing.” Kierian continued. “Just take a deep breath, and focus on the magic that surges through you, then let it out. All in one long, controlled breath.” I couldn’t help but notice the eye roll from Oryn as he crossed his arms over his chest, letting the illusion fade back into the training room. I nod, trying to process everything they have told me so far. Use my emotions, don’t use my emotions, limitations, breathing.
I took a deep breath.
But nothing came. I exhaled in frustration as I looked to find two pairs of eyes watching me.
“Here.” Oryn reached out to grab my hand, but hesitate. “May I?”
I watched him for a moment, wanting to say no with everything in me. But I reminded myself why I was even here, stuck in this room with these two trolls. I needed to find Carena, and I needed my power to at least somewhat listen to me before I head out into Abberton.
“Close your eyes.” He said. “You’ve been pushing your power away for years. It’s not going to listen to the first call. You need to show it what you want. Take a deep breath and imagine what you want your power to do. Focus everything on what you want it to do. Push every other thought away from you, don’t let anything else distract you.”
I took a deep breath and focused. I pushed every ounce of my thought into where I wanted my power to show, what I wanted it to do.
The truth was, I had known what my ability was for years. But, I had never tried to make it show at will, to use it as a weapon that I controlled. It had always been something that showed up unwanted, unneeded. There has never been a time that I needed to defend myself, defend others, and maybe if I had gotten past the idea of hiding, I would have been able to do this long ago.
I wouldn’t need others showing me how to use my ability, something that was a part of me. In a way, I felt I was discovering a part of myself I had refused to acknowledge for years. Pushing away my ability, denying the use of it, was like ignoring a part of who I was. I had been ashamed of that part for years, wishing that it would go away and change. But now, I needed that part of me more than ever. I needed to no longer be ashamed and rather, I needed to embrace the darker side of me.
Because without it, Carena will die.
“Open your eyes,” Oryn said. I opened my eyes.
In my palm, an orb of the purest night floated perfectly and contained. It was darker than anything I had ever seen, different than the ones I had previously created. I gasped as I watched it float in my palm in time with my thoughts. Oryn took a step back, a small smile resting on his face. The orb was something I had created, forced into being.
“Darkness,” Kierian whispered in awe. “You can control darkness.”
I nodded, the truth of it feeling real. A weight seemed to lift from my shoulders as I stared at the orb. This felt right, and a strange, far off, part of me wanted to giggle with glee. But I had work to do, and there was no time for celebrating.
“It would explain the shadows,” Oryn said.
“And all the shadowy mist in the room.”
“And the nightmares,” I whispered more to myself than to them. I focused on the orb, at the lightness of it in my palm. I willed it to move, to float higher, spreading across the room. I watched as it slithered through the air, twirling in a beautiful line. A streak of light raced through the air controlled by Kierian. I watched as his light collided with mine.
When the two met, there was a loud hiss, and both the light and the dark fizzled out, leaving more mist in its wake.
“Interesting,” Kierian murmured.
“That’s a good start,” Oryn said, his eyes bright with excitement. “Now all you have to do is work on becoming faster at it. When it comes down to life or death, you won’t have time to take deep breaths and focus. It needs to become second nature.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Practice,” Oryn said as he headed out of the training room.
And that’s what I did the rest of the day. I practiced calling the darkness and pushing it away. Kierian left after about an hour into my practice, his teaching no longer required.
Not that he did much anyways.
I found that as each hour passed, I learned more about my ability, and calling the darkness to me became much easier. Lunch came and went, but I found I wasn’t hungry. Rather, excitement filled me. I watched as I began to manipulate the darkness in the room, sending it from pitch black to gray mist. I also found that I could form the darkness into different shapes; orbs, circles, the shapes of humans. It reminded me of when Carena and I were younger and I would make shadow figures put on plays for her. But the most interesting shape was the spear of pure darkness.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about holding the spear in my hand. I stood in the middle of the room, looking at the long shaft of night. I knew that if this were to hit someone, the damage could be done. I practiced mimicking the different weapons I found around the room. Daggers, spears, swords, and even a bow and arrow. I melded the darkness into different weapons, but none of them felt familiar in my hand. I had no idea how to use any of the weapons I created.
Maybe someone could show me. I felt Kova would be the one to ask about that.
She seemed like someone who would enjoy carrying sharp and pointy things.
“I see that things are getting easier for you.” I whirl at the woman’s voice to find Marilla standing just inside the doorway. She had her arms crossed over her chest and she watched me with immense sadness. She had looked at me that way when she first saw me like I was a ghost from her past. I wasn’t sure why she would think that though, I looked nothing like my mother.
Maybe she’ll cry when she sees Carena, but something told me Marilla wasn’t the type to get weepy over-sentimentality.
“I guess you could say that I had a breakthrough this morning,” I said, pushing the darkness out of the room. Marilla nodded as she walked towards me.
“That’s good because we really could use you on our team. I know that you’re here because of Carena and that getting her back is your priority, but just know that someone like you, with your ability, could be useful around here.”
“I’m sure someone else will come along that would be a better...fit,” I reply. Marilla only shrugged.
“Your mother seemed to think there was something pretty special about you, so I’m inclined to think we may want to keep you around.” She said. A subtle pang went through my chest and I was surprised to find that it was a pang of jealousy. This woman knew more about my mother than I had, and she had been trusted with secrets I never grew old enough to know. I wasn’t sure how to respond to her statement. I didn’t know why my mother would think that or what it is about my power that would make me so special. I also still had no answers as to why the King would want me, or why he would be spending so much time and effort looking for me.
These were all things I hadn’t let myself wonder over the past four days. I had focused solely on getting my power under control, and now that I had that mastered, I was ready to find Carena.
“Are you sure the King is looking for me? Are you sure that he wants me?” I asked, not sure why I had decided to ask her. Marilla sighed, looking down at her feet. She shuffled from foot to foot, her arms crossed over her chest.
“I guess we can’t say for sure but I can’t help but feel you’re the one he is looking for. Why else would all the other girls look somewhat like you, or have qualities that are just a shadow of you?” She glanced around the room, “No pun intended.”
I felt the urge to smile, but nothing came in response.
“My priority is Carena,” I say, not wanting to give her any hope beyond that. Marilla only nodded, her steel-gray eyes inspecting every inch of my face.
“Tomorrow, Oryn and Kova are heading out to canvas a potential exchange. I got word that there is going to be another girl exchanged to head to Tricine and I think it would be best if you went with them.” She said, her words surprising me.
“You want me to go on a mission?” I ask, “What happened to me staying put and training.”
“You have obvious control now. Unless you don’t want to head out into the city and search for Carena?”
“No!” I started, “It’s just...I figured…” I didn’t know what I thought. I was just surprised she wanted me to go, to be a part of something so…important.
“I need you to know that if you go, you will be sworn to secrecy just like the others. Each Marked knows the risks of going out into the city, and the consequences of what will happen if they are caught. You cannot...cannot, give away the identities of any of the Marked Guard, myself, or our location. In doing so, you condemn us all to death. Do you understand this?” There was such finality, such urgency, in her voice that goosebumps trailed over my skin. Marilla was fierce and protective, of what she started here with my mother. There was such pride as she spoke to me, but great fear in what would happen if someone was caught. She watched me with uncertainty, and I figured it had something to do with whether or not she trusted me. Which was confusing to me, because I had been very clear with where I stood with the Marked Guard. But, if going out to intercept this exchange would help me find Carena and get information, then it was the first step in the right direction.
“I’ll do it.”
Marilla smiled, a true smile that glowed with rarity, setting a hand on my shoulder as she said, “Welcome to the team.”