"Love The Wheel of Time? This is about to become your new favorite series."
— B&N SF & Fantasy Blog
The blade traced a slow line of fire down his face.
He desperately tried to cry out, to jerk away, but the hand over his mouth prevented both. Steel filled his vision, gray and dirty. Warm blood trickled down the left side of his face, onto his neck, under his shirt.
There were only fragments after that.
Laughter. The hot stink of wine on his attacker’s breath.
A lessening of the pain, and screams—not his own.
Voices, high-pitched with fear, begging.
Then silence. Darkness.
Davian’s eyes snapped open.
The young man sat there for some time, heart pounding, breathing deeply to calm himself. Eventually he stirred from where he’d dozed off at his desk and rubbed at his face, absently tracing the raised scar that ran from the corner of his left eye down to his chin. It was pinkish white now, had healed years earlier. It still ached whenever the old memories threatened to surface, though.
He stood, stretching muscles stiff from disuse and grimacing as he looked outside. His small room high in the North Tower overlooked most of the school, and the windows below had all fallen dark. The courtyard torches flared and sputtered in their sockets, too, only barely clinging to life.
Another evening gone, then. He was running out of those much faster than he would like.
Davian sighed, then adjusted his lamp and began sifting through the myriad books that were scattered haphazardly in front of him. He’d read them all, of course, most several times. None had provided him with any answers—but even so he took a seat, selected a tome at random, and tiredly began to thumb through it.
It was some time later that a sharp knock cut through the heavy silence of the night.
Davian flinched, then brushed a stray strand of curly black hair from his eyes and crossed to the door, opening it a sliver.
“Wirr,” he said in vague surprise, swinging the door wide enough to let his blond-haired friend’s athletic frame through. “What are you doing here?”
Wirr didn’t move to enter, his usually cheerful expression uneasy, and Davian’s stomach churned as he suddenly understood why the other boy had come.
Wirr gave a rueful nod when he saw Davian’s reaction. “They found him, Dav. He’s downstairs. They’re waiting for us.”
Davian swallowed. “They want to do it now?”
Wirr just nodded again.
Davian hesitated, but he knew that there was no point delaying. He took a deep breath, then extinguished his lamp and trailed after Wirr down the spiral staircase.
He shivered in the cool night air as they exited the tower and began crossing the dimly lit cobblestone courtyard. The school was housed in an enormous Darecian-era castle, though the original grandeur of the structure had been lost somewhat to the various motley additions and repairs of the past two thousand years. Davian had lived here all his life and knew every inch of the grounds—from the servants’ quarters near the kitchen, to the squat keep where the Elders kept their rooms, to every well-worn step of the four distinctively hexagonal towers that jutted far into the sky.
Tonight that familiarity brought him little comfort. The high outer walls loomed ominously in the darkness.
“Do you know how they caught him?” he asked.
“He used Essence to light his campfire.” Wirr shook his head, the motion barely visible against the dying torches on the wall. “Probably wasn’t much more than a trickle, but there were Administrators on the road nearby. Their Finders went off, and...” He shrugged. “They turned him over to Talean a couple of hours ago, and Talean didn’t want this drawn out any longer than it had to be. For everyone’s sake.”
“Won’t make it any easier to watch,” muttered Davian.
Wirr slowed his stride for a moment, glancing across at his friend. “There’s still time to take Asha up on her offer to replace you,” he observed quietly. “I know it’s your turn, but...let’s be honest, Administration only forces students to do this because it’s a reminder that the same thing could happen to us. And it’s not as if anyone thinks that’s something you need right now. Nobody would blame you.”
“No.” Davian shook his head firmly. “I can handle it. And anyway, Leehim’s the same age as her—she knows him better than we do. She shouldn’t have to go through that.”
“None of us should,” murmured Wirr, but he nodded his acceptance and picked up the pace again.
They made their way through the eastern wing of the castle and finally came to Administrator Talean’s office; the door was already open, lamplight spilling out into the hallway. Davian gave a cautious knock on the door frame as he peered in, and he and Wirr were beckoned inside by a somber-looking Elder Olin.
“Shut the door, boys,” said the gray-haired man, forcing what he probably thought was a reassuring smile at them. “Everyone’s here now.”
Davian glanced around as Wirr closed the door behind them, examining the occupants of the small room. Elder Seandra was there, her diminutive form folded into a chair in the corner; the youngest of the school’s teachers was normally all smiles but tonight her expression was weary, resigned.
Administrator Talean was present, too, of course, his blue cloak drawn tightly around his shoulders against the cold. He nodded to the boys in silent acknowledgement, looking grim. Davian nodded back, even after three years still vaguely surprised to see that the Administrator was taking no pleasure in these proceedings. It was sometimes hard to remember that Talean truly didn’t hate the Gifted, unlike so many of his counterparts around Andarra.
Last of all, secured to a chair in the center of the room, was Leehim.
The boy was only one year behind Davian at fifteen, but the vulnerability of his position made him look much younger. Leehim’s dark-brown hair hung limply over his eyes, and his head was bowed and motionless. At first Davian thought he must be unconscious.
Then he noticed Leehim’s hands. Even tied firmly behind his back, they were trembling.
Talean sighed as the door clicked shut. “It seems we’re ready, then,” he said quietly. He exchanged glances with Elder Olin, then stepped in front of Leehim so that the boy could see him.
Everyone silently turned their attention to Leehim; the boy’s gaze was now focused on Talean and though he was doing his best to hide it, Davian could see the abject fear in his eyes.
The Administrator took a deep breath.
“Leehim Perethar. Three nights ago you left the school without a Shackle and unbound by the Fourth Tenet. You violated the Treaty.” He said the words formally, but there was compassion in his tone. “As a result, before these witnesses here, you are to be lawfully stripped of your ability to use Essence. After tonight you will not be welcome amongst the Gifted in Andarra—here, or anywhere else—without special dispensation from one of the Tols. Do you understand?”
Leehim nodded, and for a split second Davian thought this might go more easily than it usually did.
Then Leehim spoke, as everyone in his position did eventually.
“Please,” he said, his gaze sweeping around the room, eyes pleading. “Please, don’t do this. Don’t make me a Shadow. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
Elder Olin looked at him sadly as he stepped forward, a small black disk in his hand. “It’s too late, lad.”
Leehim stared at him for a moment as if not comprehending, then shook his head. “No. Wait. Just wait.” The tears began to trickle down his cheeks, and he bucked helplessly at his restraints. Davian looked away as he continued imploringly. “Please. Elder Olin. I won’t survive as a Shadow. Elder Seandra. Just wait. I—”
From the corner of his eye, Davian saw Elder Olin reach down and press the black disk against the skin on Leehim’s neck.
He forced himself to turn back and watch as the boy stopped in midsentence. Only Leehim’s eyes moved now; everything else was motionless. Paralyzed.
Elder Olin let go of the disc for a moment; it stuck to Leehim’s neck as if affixed with glue. The Elder straightened, then looked over to Talean, who reluctantly nodded his confirmation.
The Elder leaned down again, this time touching a single finger to the disc.
“I’m sorry, Leehim,” he murmured, closing his eyes.
A nimbus of light coalesced around Elder Olin’s hand; after a moment the glow started inching along his extended finger and draining into the disc.
Leehim’s entire body began to shake.
It was just a little at first, barely noticeable, but then suddenly became violent as his muscles started to spasm. Talean gently put his hand on Leehim’s shoulder, steadying the boy so his chair didn’t topple.
Elder Olin removed his finger from the disc after a few more seconds, but Leehim continued to convulse. Bile rose in Davian’s throat as dark lines began to creep outward from Leehim’s eyes, ugly black veins crawling across his face and leaching the color from his skin. A disfigurement that would be with Leehim for the rest of his life.
Then the boy went limp, and it was over.
Talean made sure Leehim was breathing, then helped Elder Olin untie him. “Poor lad probably won’t even remember getting caught,” he said softly. He hesitated, then glanced over at Elder Seandra, who was still staring hollowly at Leehim’s slumped form. “I’m sorry it came to this—I know you liked the lad. When he wakes up I’ll give him some food and a few coins before I send him on his way.”
Seandra was silent for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, Administrator,” she said quietly. “I appreciate that.”
Davian looked up as Elder Olin finished what he was doing and came to stand in front of the boys.
“Are you all right?” he asked, the question clearly aimed at Davian more than Wirr.
Davian swallowed, emotions churning, but nodded. “Yes,” he lied.
The Elder gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Thank you for being here tonight. I know it can’t have been easy.” He nodded to the door. “Now. Both of you should go and get some rest.”
Davian and Wirr inclined their heads in assent, giving Leehim’s limp form one last glance before exiting the Administrator’s office.
Wirr rubbed his forehead tiredly as they walked. “Want some company for a few minutes? There’s no chance I’m going straight to sleep after that.”
Davian nodded. “You and me both.”
They made their way back to the North Tower in thoughtful, troubled silence.
Once back in Davian’s room both boys sat, neither speaking for a time.
Finally Wirr stirred, expression sympathetic as he looked across at his friend. “Are you really all right?”
Davian hesitated for a moment, still trying to sort through the maelstrom of emotions he’d been struggling with for the past several minutes. Eventually he just shrugged.
“At least I know what I have to look forward to,” he said wryly, doing his best not to let his voice shake.
Wirr grimaced, then gave him a hard look. “Don’t say that, Dav. There’s still time.”
“Still time?” Normally Davian would have forced a smile and taken the encouragement, but tonight it rang too false for him to let it go. “The Festival of Ravens is in three weeks, Wirr. Three weeks until the Trials, and if I can’t use Essence before then, I end up the same way as Leehim. A Shadow.” He shook his head, despair thick in his voice. “It’s been three years since I got the El-cursed Mark, and I haven’t been able to do so much as touch Essence since then. I’m not sure there’s even anything left for me to try.”
“That doesn’t mean you should just give up,” observed Wirr.
Davian hesitated, then looked at his friend in frustration. “Can you honestly tell me that you think I’m going to pass the Trials?”
Wirr stiffened. “Dav, that’s hardly fair.”
“Then you don’t think I will?” pressed Davian.
Wirr scowled. “Fine.” He composed himself, leaning forward and looking Davian in the eye. “I think you’re going to pass the Trials.”
His tone was full of conviction, but it didn’t stop Davian from seeing the dark, smoke-like tendrils escaping Wirr’s mouth.
“Told you,” Davian said quietly.
Wirr glared at him, then sighed. “Fates, I hate that ability of yours sometimes,” he said, shaking his head. “Look—I do believe there’s a chance. And while there’s a chance, you’d be foolish not to try everything you can. You know that.”
Wirr wasn’t lying this time, and Davian felt a stab of guilt at having put his friend in such an awkward position. He rubbed his forehead, exhaling heavily.
“Sorry. You’re right. That wasn’t fair,” he admitted, taking a deep breath and forcing his swirling emotions to settle a little. “I know you’re only trying to help. And I’m not giving up...I’m just running out of ideas. I’ve read every book on the Gift that we have, tried every mental technique. The Elders all say my academic understanding is flawless. I don’t know what else I can do.”
Wirr inclined his head. “Nothing to be sorry for, Dav. We’ll think of something.”
There was silence for a few moments, and Davian hesitated. “I know we’ve talked about this before...but maybe if I just told one of the Elders what I can see when someone’s lying, they could help.” He swallowed, unable to look Wirr in the eye. “Maybe we’re wrong about how they would react. Maybe they know something we don’t. It is different from being able to Read someone, you know.”
Wirr considered the statement for a few seconds, then shook his head. “It’s not different enough. Not to the Elders, and certainly not to Administration if they ever found out.” He stared at his friend sympathetically. “Fates know I don’t want to see you become a Shadow, Dav, but that’s nothing compared to what would happen if anyone heard even a whisper of what you can do. If it even crosses their minds that you can Read someone, they’ll call you an Augur—and the Treaty’s pretty clear on what happens next. The Elders may love you, but in that scenario, they’d still turn you in to Administration in a heartbeat.”
Davian scowled, but eventually nodded. They’d had this conversation many times, and it always ended the same way. Wirr was right, and they both knew it.
“Back to studying, then, I suppose,” said Davian, glancing over at the jumble of books on his desk.
Wirr frowned as he followed Davian’s gaze. “Did it ever occur to you that you’re just pushing yourself too hard, Dav? I know you’re worried, but exhaustion isn’t going to help.”
“I need to make use of what time I have,” Davian observed, his tone dry.
“But if you ever want to use Essence, you need to sleep more than an hour or two each night, too. It’s no wonder you can’t do so much as light a candle; you’re probably draining your Reserve just by staying awake for so long.”
Davian gestured tiredly. He’d heard this theory from plenty of concerned people over the past few weeks, but it was the first time Wirr had brought it up. The trouble was, he knew it was true—when a Gifted pushed their body past its limits they instinctively drew Essence from their Reserve, using it to fuel their body in place of sleep. And if he was draining his Reserve to stay awake, his efforts to access the Essence contained within were doomed to failure.
Still, three years of keeping sensible hours had done nothing to solve his problem. Whatever prevented him from using the Gift, it ran deeper than a lack of sleep.
Wirr watched him for a few moments, then sighed, getting slowly to his feet. “Anyway—regardless of whether you plan to sleep, I certainly do. Elder Caen expects me to be able to identify the major motivations of at least half the Assembly, and I have a session with her tomorrow.” He glanced out the window. “In a few hours, actually.”
“You don’t sleep during those extra lessons on politics? I just assumed that was why you took them.” Davian summoned a weary smile to show he was joking. “You’re right, though. Thanks for the company, Wirr. I’ll see you at lunch.”
Davian waited until Wirr had left, then reluctantly considered the title of the next book he had laid aside for study. Principles of Draw and Regeneration. He’d read it a few weeks earlier, but maybe he’d missed something. There had to be some reason he couldn’t access Essence, something he hadn’t understood.
The Elders thought it was a block, that he was subconsciously resisting his power because of his first experience with it, the day he’d received his scar. Davian was doubtful, though; that pain had long since faded. And he knew that if he really was an Augur, that fact in itself could well be causing the issue...but information on Andarra’s former leaders was so hard to find, nowadays, that there was little point even thinking about the possibility.
Besides—perhaps it was simply technique. Perhaps if he read enough about the nature of the Gift, he could still gain sufficient insight to overcome the problem.
Despite his resolve, now that he was alone again he found the words on the cover blurring in front of him, and his jaws cracking open unbidden for a yawn. Perhaps Wirr was right about one thing. Exhaustion wasn’t going to help.
Reluctantly he stood up, leaned over, and extinguished the lamp.
He settled into his bed, staring up into the darkness. His mind still churned. Despite his tiredness, despite the late hour, it was some time before he slept.