Aunt SaRa reined in beside SoYa’s mount, a concerned look on her face. Her cream-colored rhawn sidestepped tensely as the woman spoke, “SoYa, we need to rest. If I don’t tend the child’s wounds soon, she’ll only grow weaker.”
The young Apprentice turned to look at the wilted form of the girl slumping in the saddle in front of Aunt SaRa. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth and her breath came in rasping gasps, as she struggled for air.
His own concern rose in his reply, “They could be following us. Who knows how close. All they had to do is saddle up a few rhawns and they’d be on our trail in no time.”
“I know,” in a long graceful motion, the woman swung down from her mount’s back. Her expression was one of mystery. “But we’ve been traveling faster than your eye lets you believe.”
SoYa pursed his lips nervously.
“Besides, the rhawn need a break,” Aunt SaRa added lightly. “I know that your father taught you to treat your mount better than this.”
That’s true. I won’t see Thorne exhausted by my careless riding.
Weaving the reins between his fingers, the Apprentice dismounted and ran one hand along the neck of his steed. Thorneblade had been a gift from his father. If there was one love that the two of them shared, it was for the rhawn stallions.
Aunt SaRa laid the girl out on her cloak. Other than a random soft-throated cry, the child made no sound the whole ride. Her face was flushed and feverish and SoYa could see that she had slipped into delirium.
The woman’s hands worked deftly, hovering inches above the broken remains of the girl’s bloody wings. A soft shimmer of white traced the outline of her palms. Her mouth moved with words of healing power, a rising and falling cadence of breath and light.
SoYa watched, keeping his distance. He knew about healing arts, however, the magic that his aunt wove was far beyond his scope. It made his eyes water to watch her, so he decided to stick to his own business and give the rhawn a good rubdown. As the Apprentice’s hands ran along the flank of his steed, he fought against his wandering mind. Up until now, he was so intent on simply getting the three of them away from Nefol that he didn’t have a chance to reflect on the dire consequences of their situation.
More than anything, his thoughts shied away from what he’d done. SoYa could still see the slack-jawed faces of the Council members as he forced his will upon them. He could still hear the accusation in his brother’s voice as he uttered the single word that SoYa feared more than anything else.
SoYa only ever used his power for small, harmless things. To trace the thought patterns of someone to find them over a distance. To sense the emotions of someone in grief to lessen their pain. To help ease his brother off to sleep after a nightmare when he was a child. Never had he taken control of another’s mind.
And what’s worse…
After years of enduring the jeering and disappointed looks, after years of feeling last in his class, after years of failing in the eyes of Nefol, he’d shown them all. Blown them all away. Left them standing in wide-eyed and open-mouthed awe.
And it felt so good.
How can you think like that?
SoYa removed his cap and ran his fingers through his hair.
How can you be proud of what you just did?
One part of him was elated that finally, after so many years, he was given the chance to show everyone that he was indeed the son of ZenToYa, a power to be reckoned with. Another part of him shunned the arrogance of such thinking. Yet another part was scared. By his own hand, he destroyed what little was left to his familiar life and became a hunted man in his own homelands.
A soft, familiar touch dropped on his shoulder. SoYa’s head jerked up, facing his Aunt. At first he wanted to pull away from her, a hissing whisper of loathing choking in his throat. Loathing for himself. Loathing for the changed form of his aunt. The wings were now gone from her form, but she, too, was no longer what he always knew her to be.
Her hand tightened upon his shoulder. SoYa could feel it, once again, a parting of confusion replaced by clarity of mind.
The Apprentice blinked, coming to his senses, “What… what was that feeling?”
“He’s trying to take you, too.”
“Huh?” SoYa gave a questioning look. “Take me? Who is?”
“The one who’s taken Tsu’s mind,” Aunt SaRa gave a pained look. “I didn’t see it until it was too late.”
He waved his hands back and forth in confusion, “What are you talking about?”
The woman pursed her lips, a deep weariness wrinkling her brow. In that moment, she felt like the Aunt SaRa he had always known. “Do you think that Tsu would act this way of his own free will? Do you really think he’d take the position of High Guide like this?”
“I… don’t know,” SoYa admitted. “It always bugged him that I inherited Nefol. He never saw me fit for the position.”
“You can’t say it wasn’t true!” he protested, spilling out what had been unspoken all this time. “No one said it outright, but the feeling was there. Everyone thought I was weak and a disgrace to Father’s memory.”
“SoYa,” she said again, this time more firmly.
He looked away, finally answering her question, “No. It’s not like Tsu to do something like this.”
“Something has embedded itself in his mind,” Aunt SaRa spoke quietly. “I felt when I confronted him today. I don’t know what it is, but I can tell you that TsuYa isn’t acting of his own will.”
“Isn’t there something we can do to help him?” SoYa swallowed.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “But I do know that the darkness wants you, too. And you can’t help Tsu if you allow yourself to be controlled. You must fight the thoughts and fear in your heart. You have to recognize they aren’t of your own making.”
SoYa blinked up questioningly.
“I don’t even think that it was your impulse that led you to cast magic on those men,” Aunt SaRa gave him a long, quiet look. “It was not like you…”
“No,” he shook his head somberly. “That’s my power, Aunt SaRa. I really am…”
“Athrylith?” she finished for him.
The woman sat stone-still, continuing to watch him.
“Do you… hate me?” SoYa finally asked, the silence growing too much for him.
“Of course not, SoYa,” she said quietly, without a second of hesitation. Then she added, “I could ask you the same thing about my wings.”
The Apprentice took in a quick breath, studying her. Her voice, her mannerisms, her gentleness… it was all the same as he remembered. Even with the wings.
“Do you think that I’m the cursed creature your brother proclaims?” she asked.
Their eyes met for a long moment. SoYa didn’t trust himself to answer.
“Everyone embraces their own secrets, SoYa. Some secrets are heavier to bear than others,” her voice came softly to his ears. “There will always be the frightened people who will shun things that are different. But you have to go on loving those people, just the same.”
SoYa felt his chest tighten as Aunt SaRa uttered the words that his father used to speak.