A soft gust of wind brushes my bare arms, sending icy shivers through my body. Goose bumps rise on my skin, even though our sun, Zon, shines down warmly. But the balmy breeze isn’t what chilled me.
Tonight marks the beginning of the end.
The unwelcome thought descends upon me like a dark omen. It’s happened before, these flashes of clairvoyance, especially just before life-changing moments. And my Path Ceremony certainly constitutes one of those.
I rub my hands back and forth across my forearms—dissipating the raised bumps—before grasping the waist-high granite wall on the roof of our home, Spektrolith. Ignoring the foreboding in my heart, I focus on the Hyggelig Mountains in the distance. Their shimmering sapphire peaks are an ideal audience, allowing me to practice my Path Ceremony lines in private.
“I should have known this is where you would be, brother. Off in fairyland, reveling in your great purpose.”
So much for being alone. My twin, Dameaon, has joined me, casually reclining against the west tower’s wall. Dressed in black cargo pants, a V-neck T-shirt, and scuffed leather combat boots, he’s a dark blemish on the roof’s golden granite surface. His uneven, choppy hair—as dark as the shadowy depths of the Abyssal Sea—falls over his forehead and into his eyes, making it impossible to read his mood. Not that it matters; he’s always full of hostility and wrath. Especially around me.
“Did you need something?” I ask, keeping my tone light.
“No,” he says. “The house is too noisy to think.”
“Everyone’s getting ready for tonight.”
“Yep. All for the big day.”
His tone is flat, so I can’t tell if he’s serious. “Well, it is a big day for us.”
He hoists himself up onto the roof’s wall, balancing on the five-inch granite ledge. His serpentine movements are akin to the oily ankerias that dwell in the Shadow Grove, slinking down from vine-covered branches to terrorize those brave enough to enter the forest’s domain. “Yeah, sure. A big day for you. For Mom and Dad. And maybe even the powers that be. But me, I don’t care.”
“How can you say that? You get to choose your Path tonight and become a Seeker. That’s one step away from being an official member of your Class.”
His mouth twists into a smirk. “I turn sixteen and I’m magically supposed to know what I want to do for the next hundred years. I don’t even know what I want to do tomorrow.”
I clench my jaw. “One hundred years is insignificant when you’re immortal. And we’re fortunate to have a choice. Not everyone is so lucky.”
“Oh yeah, I’m so lucky.”
I sigh. “I think—”
My twin hops off the wall and takes a step toward me. “You don’t think, and that’s your problem. You accept things the way they are, and don’t question how they should be. I want to be free to do what I want, when I want. To live day-to-day, making it up as I go along.”
“You’re so focused on what you want, you’ve forgotten it’s our duty to contribute to the universe in some way,” I say. “I’m glad you’re choosing the Path of a Soldier. It suits you . . . and your flippancy.”
He crosses his arms. “Being a Soldier is just as important as being a Guide.”
“Being a Guide requires discipline and sacrifice. Being a Soldier requires nothing more than muscles and the ability to swing a sword.”
“I’ll make sure to tell Dad how you feel about his Chosen Path.”
I shake my head. “Father is an exception, which is why he was the best Soldier ever. And why he’s our governor now.”
“He’s governor because Mom throws the best parties in Belkin.”
“Whatever, Dameaon. I don’t have time to argue about frivolous nonsense. Leave, so I can be alone.”
“You don’t own the roof. Go to your room if you want to be alone.”
“I was here first,” I say. “And you said it yourself. The house is noisy, and I need to practice. I actually care about the Path Ceremony, so you go.”
My twin moves closer, his face inches from mine. His hair falls into his unnaturally lit amber eyes, but it does little to shield me from their intensity, even more pronounced with his anger. We glower at each other, and I steel my spine, determined not to be the first to look away. Eventually, he breaks eye contact and heads toward the stairs to the house.
I smile; it is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Dameaon’s voice echoes back to the roof. “Be careful, brother. Being a Guide takes compassion and an open mind, neither of which you have. I predict you’ll botch your Guidance duty and end up in Rehuido, shamed and lonely.”
His admonition causes the air to stall in my lungs. I place my palms against the railing to support my shaking legs. He’s just trying to rattle me—I know that—but my trepidation has returned, beating wildly inside my chest.
A chilly breeze induces another spell of goose bumps. Zon is already half set behind the mountains, and our three moons, Meta, Hermes, and Yars, are just beginning to shine in the dimming violet sky—evidence that there isn’t much time before the Ceremony.
I steady my legs and head toward the stairs.
Cheerful lyrics from my favorite musical, Beacon of the North, play from the Axaftin Orb on my desk. I tap my fingers against the desk’s obsidian top, drumming along to the sanguine rhythm. Normally, this soundtrack cheers me up, but not now—not when conversations echo up from the foyer below as telltale signs of the gathered crowd.
I swipe my hand from left to right over the top of the Axaftin Orb, and the volume increases, dulling the voices to faint murmurs.
That’s better; now I can think.
I navigate across my plush navy carpet to my king-size mattress and flop down. My ceiling is a painted mural of our galaxy’s stars and moons, as a reminder that Glanchings are responsible for harmony across the universe. With my Path Ceremony minutes away, that responsibility feels more like a burden, invisibly bearing down on my chest, making breathing virtually impossible.
It’s not the way I wanted—or expected—to feel this evening. Not when I’ve been preparing to be a Guide since I was eight. All of my schooling and additional reading focused on the knowledge Guides need to be successful. While my peers were having fun, I was volunteering as an assistant for the Guide department at Moudrost, my school, completing menial tasks for the Gurus in return for their mentorship.
And it’s not just me. My parents have supported my Path since day one, and Moudrost’s professors agree I will excel in this Class. It’s a good decision—perfect, really—and everything was going according to plan, until Dameaon’s threatening words tore into my self-esteem.
I rub my fingers against the back of my neck and then crack my knuckles. Letting him jar my confidence is laughable. While I excel at everything, he blunders through life with barely acceptable behavior. Chances are, if anyone ends up shamed and lonely, it will be him.
But . . . what if he’s right? What if being a Guide is a big mistake? Sure, any Seeker—regardless of Class—who fails training is banished for eternity to the district of Rehuido, to mine Magical Ore at Buhler’s Crest. But Guides have additional stakes the other Classes don’t. If they fail, the Oldungur Council obliterates the Seeker’s planet. Knowing an Original Species will live or die because of me is suddenly overwhelming.
There are other Paths I would enjoy. Easier ones. I’d be a good Mage, learning how to summon Reos’s Elements to protect our planet, or I could create magical potions as an Alchemist. And it isn’t too late; the rest of the Oldungur Council is here tonight. I could ask for a meeting with the head of another Class . . .
A sharp knock at my door interrupts me. I prop up on my elbows as my father, Lord Drasko, strides in.
His forehead is furrowed, and his mouth is drawn in a tight line. But it’s not surprising. By his own admission, he’s all business, all the time. It’s brought him success in every aspect of his life, during his five hundred years on Reos. He outflanked the other Glanchings in his unit during his tenure as a Soldier, he was relentless in his pursuit of my mother to win her heart and hand in marriage, and he demonstrated his strong conviction and beliefs to become governor of Belkin. Anything he has came from hard work and commitment. He’s the paragon of an upstanding Glanching and everything I aspire to be.
He stops when he sees me. “Villow, what are you doing in bed? Your Path Ceremony starts in five minutes.”
I roll to the side of the mattress, swinging my legs over the edge. “I know.”
“Are you all right?” he asks, charging into my walk-in closet.
“I think so,” I say, loud enough for him to hear me through the walls.
He returns with my Path Ceremony robes. “You think so? This isn’t the time for uncertainty.”
I place my arms through the robe’s silk sleeves and tug it onto my angular shoulders. “I guess I’m just a little nervous.”
“No reason to be nervous. You’re a Verchant. You will achieve greatness.”
“But . . . what if I’m not meant to be a Guide? What if I’m meant to fulfill my purpose another way? There are easier Classes—”
“Easier?” he says, scrunching his squinty caramel eyes. “Since when do you do what’s easy? We’ve been planning for you to be a Guide since you were ten.”
I walk over to my full-length mirror in the right corner of my room, fastening the robe’s clasp near my neck. “I was eight, actually. But Dameaon said—”
“Dameaon. Of course. Your brother revels in flustering you. You know that. The only time a Glanching fails is when he chooses the wrong Path. Do you honestly believe you’re not meant to be a Guide?”
“No. I know I’m meant to re-create an Original Species.”
He takes the red-gold braided belt off my bed and stands behind me. In the mirror’s surface, my father’s reflection towers over mine; at a little over six feet tall, he’s got at least five inches on me, and his shoulders are much broader. His black suit is in stark contrast to my robe, but his tie is a perfectly matched scarlet, in honor of the Ceremony.
“Then it’s settled. A Guide you shall be.” He ties the belt around my waist and steps back. “Look at you. So grown up. I couldn’t be prouder, son.”
His kind words are a sponge, sucking up the anxiety and doubt inside of me. I hug him. “Thank you, Father.”
He returns my embrace and then straightens the robe’s hood, laying it flat against my shoulders. “Oh, I almost forgot. There’s been a small change of plans. Master Oldungur Cassandre is leading your Ceremony tonight.”
I still; that news is far from a “small change of plans.” Three days ago, Oldungur Mekhi, the Guide Class representative, traveled from Kapitala to Belkin, our district, to confirm I was a suitable Guide Seeker. Once he approved my Class choice, we practiced my Ceremony, and I was comfortable with him.
“W-W-Wait, what? I thought Oldungur Mekhi was leading my portion of the Ceremony.”
“He was. But when the rest of the Oldungur Council arrived a few minutes ago and Cassandre suggested leading both Ceremonies, I gladly accepted. This is quite the honor for our family.”
The clock strikes eight, and my stomach churns. I need time to process this—to prepare—but I don’t have it. Frantic, I search for something to give me strength to leave my room.
My eyes lock on my desk. I open the bottom drawer and pull out a navy velvet pouch, loosening the strings and turning it over. My lucky friendship bracelet drops onto the desk. I slip it on my wrist and pull the robe’s sleeve over it.
“Ready?” my father asks, opening my bedroom door.
I breathe in deeply and take a step toward him.
This is it.
I’m ready for this.
I have to be.
The foyer lights are off for the Ceremony, but bister flowers are strategically placed on the floor. Their petals’ golden hue offers enough illumination to safely navigate to the top of the staircase, where Dameaon and my mother are waiting.
My father clasps my twin’s shoulder. “Good luck, Dameaon,” he whispers and turns to my mother. “You ready, Actavia?”
She kisses my cheek, and they start down the stairs, my father on the right and my mother on the left. They rejoin on the landing, and arm in arm, their silhouettes disappear into the blackness, joining our hushed guests below.
Alone with my twin, a sense of camaraderie overcomes me, as if we’re about to engage in a joint battle.
“Good luck, Dameaon,” I whisper.
He stares straight ahead, either not hearing or ignoring me. Probably the latter, and I regret saying anything.
The orchestra starts playing, and the Sympohoe, our district’s most prominent choir, chants, “Dunaphasorre, dunaphasorre, hernaseephonee,” over and over to the beat of the music.
“So it begins,” Dameaon says and starts down the left staircase. Cursing silently, I race down the right side’s first three steps to catch up. Then we descend slowly, our steps in sync, until we meet on the landing. The perimeter’s square railing has bister flowers wound around it, making us visible to the crowd.
Master Oldungur Cassandre rises from the void below like an enchanting chimera. She smiles at me, and my forehead moistens with sweat. While her beauty is undeniable, so is the shroud of power surrounding her. The few times I met her before tonight—all when she was the Oldungur Mage representative and not the Master Oldungur—made me jittery and unsteady on my feet.
Cassandre’s thick jet-black braid skims the ground as she steps up to the podium. She grasps the microphone and addresses the crowd in a loud, commanding voice. “Good evening, fellow Glanchings. Thank you for joining us at the Verchants’ charming home for the celebration of their sons’ Path Ceremonies. From the moment of creation, a Glanching’s life is a gift. With our eminence, we are honored to dedicate part of our lives to helping the universe. Dameaon and Villow are eager to share how they plan on making this impact, so let us begin.” She turns to face me. “I ask Villow Verchant, son of Drasko and Actavia, to join me and declare your desired Class.”
Even though I knew it was coming, I shudder at my name. As the eldest, Dameaon has control over the order we declare our Paths. He opted to go second, probably speculating going first would rattle my nerves. It was a correct assumption. I’m frozen, as if I accidentally cast Ice Magic on my legs.
In the foyer’s inkiness, a single golden beacon shines. It’s Katarin De Legard, my fifteen-year-old best friend, conjuring a fireball in her hands. The flame illumes her smiling face, gleaming against her unbridled emerald eyes. She manages to do what she’s always done: find a way to reach me, even across the darkness.
My body unclenches. Kat’s support ignites my inner courage. I can do this; I was created to do this.
Master Oldungur Cassandre gestures for me to join her with her left hand, the tips of her long red nails brandished like phoenix talons in the flowers’ light.
I take a deep breath and step up to the podium.
This close, the heady scent of her jasmine perfume encases me, and my vision blurs. As if she can sense my muddledness, she places her hand on the small of my back and pushes me closer to the microphone.
The darkness below offers a weird sense of isolation and gives me courage to begin, shakily. “I, Villow Verchant, do on this day, pledge my life to the higher order of all Glanchings, to serve others and enhance the lives of those around me, to make choices for the greater good, and to renounce selfishness and personal need.” I hit a stride, my voice steadying. “I vow to live according to our Rules and the Glanching Code of Conduct. On this day, I choose the Path of a Guide, to be responsible for another planet and its inhabitants. I vow to lead my Original Species with integrity and develop a society full of peace and love. If I do not live up to these vows, may the Oldungur Council bring its judgment upon me.”
Cassandre lifts the hood of my robe over my head, indicating her acceptance of my Chosen Path. Then she hugs me from behind—one arm around my shoulders and the other around my waist. Her embrace shackles me, draining the air from my lungs, and I fight the urge to shake her off.
“Congratulations, Villow,” she whispers. “I expect many great things from you.”
She releases me and claps her hands. The crowd joins in, erupting into cheers. Out of her embrace, I’m no longer frozen, and I can breathe again.
An impish smile twitches on my lips. I did it. I’m a Guide Seeker.
As the crowd’s applause diminishes, I return to my spot by Dameaon.
Master Oldungur Cassandre approaches the podium, saying, “Dameaon Verchant, son of Drasko and Actavia, please join me and declare your chosen Class.”
My twin steps up to the microphone without hesitation. He becomes an outline, but his booming voice resonates. “I, Dameaon Verchant, do on this day, pledge my life to the higher order of all Glanchings, to serve others and enhance the lives of those around me, to make choices for the greater good, and to renounce selfishness and personal need.”
He’s saying all the right words, yet his inflection makes a mockery of the Ceremony. He spits the words “personal need” like they’re poison in his mouth.
He pauses, throwing a glance at me over his shoulder. “I vow to live according to our Rules and the Glanching Code of Conduct. On this day, I choose the Path of a Guide . . .”
He continues, but for me, everything stops. The blood in my veins turns into icicles, chilling every bit of me. I never realized one small word could shake me to my core.
Dameaon just said Guide.
Movement brings me back to the present as Cassandre lifts my brother’s hood over his head, accepting his choice. She embraces him—just as she did me—and the crowd cheers.
Releasing my twin, she speaks into the microphone. “Fellow Glanchings, may I present Dameaon and Villow Verchant, the newest members of the Guide Class.”
Everyone applauds again, and the foyer lights turn on. I step forward, clutching the graphite marble railing. The crowd below is so dense that not an inch of the speckled gray marble floor is visible.
Dameaon steps up next to me, leaning against the railing. “Interesting turn of events, huh, brother?”
It takes all my strength not to walk away, but our peers are watching. Instead, I offer the crowd a small wave, doubling their applause.
“What exactly are you trying to prove?” I ask through clenched teeth.
He doesn’t answer, and our father ascends to the landing, his eyes shrouded with darkness; he’s not happy about Dameaon’s ambush either.
My father steps up to the podium. “Members of the Oldungur Council, my fellow colleagues, and other esteemed guests, thank you for joining Lady Actavia and me to celebrate our sons’ journeys to purposeful lives. If you head out to the backyard, we will continue the festivities with great food and entertainment from the Sympohoe.”
He locks eyes with me and shakes his head, silently communicating that this isn’t the time to talk about Dameaon’s mishap. Then he starts down the steps, joining the crowd below.
“You are in so much trouble,” I whisper.
Dameaon shrugs. “We’ll see.”
He charges up the stairs, leaving me on the landing alone. I find Katarin in the swarm below, and she mouths, “Hurry up.”
I nod, heading up the right staircase to change for the party.
I’m inside my closet when the enormity of what happened hits me. I grab the hangers with my party attire and return to my room, perching on my bed.
Dameaon is a Guide Seeker. My selfish, undisciplined twin chose the most selfless Path possible. But why?
Perhaps it’s his idea of a joke or a prank. Leave it to him to do something idiotic during our most important ritual. But his insolence only goes so far; even he wouldn’t risk something so brazen.
And he must know he won’t be successful. An Original Species will suffer at his hands until the Oldungur Council deems him a failure. Then he will be forced to mine Magical Ore at the southern part of Reos—forever.
Worst of all, the Verchant name—one of the most prominent in Belkin—will be tarnished. When I was nine, it happened to our family friends, the Rosemalds. Their daughter failed her third trial as an Alchemist and was sent to Buhler’s Crest, but the rest of the family suffered too. Everyone avoided them, as if their child’s failure was contagious. Eventually, the Rosemalds moved to another district, never to be heard from again. Now, because of Dameaon, that will probably be the Verchants’ fate.
I rub my fingers against my forehead. Maybe he’ll come to his senses. The Oldungur Council grants Seekers three days to request a Class reversal, just in case a Seeker has a change of heart. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Although it’s not ideal, it could be worse. Dameaon would survive that. Our whole family would.
But it’s wishful thinking; I know my twin. He’s too arrogant to admit he made a mistake. That means he will be a Guide, and he will fail. I bend my head forward and close my eyes, drawing in deep breaths.
“Things didn’t go well, I gather?”
I glance at the door; it’s still closed, so I scan my room. Our family’s pet wyvermalkin is perched on top of my bookshelf.
“Hello, Cinders. I didn’t realize you were in here,” I say, moving across the room to reach up and stroke his soft cheek. He shoves his petite, angular face into my fingers, demanding more affection.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
“That’s not important. What happened?”
I drop my arm to my side. “Dameaon was Dameaon. He chose to be a Guide.”
He blinks his round yellow-green eyes rapidly four times. “What about you?”
“I’m officially a Guide,” I say. “As planned.”
“So then what are you upset about?” He licks his right paw with his pink tongue, running it against his face and the six long whiskers protruding out the side of his gray muzzle.
I return to my bed and take my shirt off the hanger. I manage to pull it on, but when I attempt to fasten the buttons, my unsteady hands don’t cooperate. “Didn’t you hear me? My brother is a Guide. He’ll fail, and our family will be ruined.”
Cinders stands. He only weighs eleven pounds, but his fluffy ash-gray fur makes his sleek body appear bigger. He extends his two wings—one attached at each of his bony shoulders—above his head, revealing their leathery gray skin. “Are you certain he’ll fail?”
“Because he will.”
“That’s a ridiculous reason,” he says, launching himself and gliding over to my lap with lithe agility. “Just focus on yourself. The rest is needless worry about things you can’t control.”
“It’s hard to do when his decision can destroy the Verchant name,” I say, lifting him off my lap and placing him on the bed. “Everything I’ve worked for will be for nothing. Everything my father . . .”
Of course; there’s no way he’s going to let my twin remain a Guide. He’ll demand Dameaon change his Class, and the Glanching Code of Conduct states we must honor and respect our parents, so he’ll have to comply.
“Cinders, you’re a genius,” I say, stroking his back several times.
“Well aware of that,” he says, curling up on my navy bedspread and covering his face with his right wing. “Make sure you shut the light off when you leave.”
I laugh and attempt to button my shirt again. My steady hands complete the task effortlessly, now that I’m certain my brother’s time as a Guide is short-lived. I put on my gray suit jacket and check my appearance in the mirror, slicking back my wavy hair—the color of coffee lightened with cream—with my fingers. Then I pause.
I’ve been so focused on my twin, I haven’t reveled in my own success. Cassandre accepted me into the Guide Class. I will re-create an Original Species, and they will succeed because of my decisions and leadership. This time, the magnitude of that obligation falls on my shoulders, not my chest, and I’m certain I can carry it.
I won’t fail; I can’t fail.
The corners of my mouth turn up. My foreboding was wrong. Today isn’t the beginning of the end at all; it’s the start of a purposeful life.