* * *
KARA WAS AWARE of little over the next few days, but she knew the Thinking Tree’s acorn was safe. She had buried it in her cloak outside Solyr. The glyphs she had scribed had almost killed her, and her hands had been shaking when she piled on the dirt.
She drifted in and out of consciousness for what Solyr’s Bloodmenders told her was three days. In her dreams, wolf tails stabbed her, trees ate her mind, and a dead man with bloody red eyes chased her through the woods. Early in the evening on the fourth day, Senior Mender Landra finally dismissed her.
Landra led Kara to a plain changing room with light cedar walls and a hard marble floor. Kara entered by a thin sliding door marked with the chalk outline of a mending glyph, the symbol for transfusing one’s own blood. A worn mirror hung inside.
She donned a thick gray shirt split by thin golden lines, a pattern specific to Solyr initiates. She tugged on a pair of tough cloth pants and cinched a handcrafted belt around her waist. Finally, she strapped on the flat forearm pads that all initiates wore at the academy, hard surfaces ideal for scribing blood glyphs.
She stared at her own tan face and blinked her orange eyes, the unnatural color of her irises a reminder of the first glyph she had ever designed. That seemed so long ago. She pulled back clumps of brown hair that had fallen into disarray, kneading and twisting it all into a long braid. Finally, she pulled on her simple leather boots, wincing at the needles in her shaking legs.
That did it. She was a person again. Kara took a breath, smiled at the orange-eyed woman in the mirror, and stumbled from the infirmary gritting her teeth. Her muscles were sore, not ruined.
She stepped out into a cool, clear evening beneath a setting sun. It cast odd shadows over the ancient poplars and marble columns that sheltered the soft grass of the Solyr Commons. Mage stone walls, rocks no power could shatter, surrounded the academy and glittered with a thousand colors in the fading light.
Kara remembered the grayback pushing toward her throat and shuddered. She had never come so close to dying. She thought of her mother, of her friends, Sera and Byn. She thought of the strange man she had dragged out of the woods.
How had that man come to be so injured? She pictured his tangled black hair and blood-smeared face. He had been ranting about demons. Was it possible—?
Kara turned to find a slim woman running at her with arms wide, and she could not help but smile. Sera all but pounced as she hugged Kara tight, and Kara let her. That hug just felt so good.
“You’re out!” Sera pulled back. “Are you feeling all right? Is there anything I can do?”
“I’m fine. Perfectly fine. What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I didn’t have a choice. Landra wouldn’t tell me when you were getting out.” Sera wore the same shirt and pants that Kara did, an outfit common to all initiates. “What happened to you out there? How did you burn so much blood?”
Sera’s long dark hair hung in wavy curls, framing her narrow face, and her green eyes were wide. Kara couldn’t tell anyone about the Tellvan battlemage or the graybacks that he had sent to kill her. That news had too many dire political repercussions.
“I found a man half dead. Bleeding. Either bandits got at him or he tumbled off a cliff.”
“Really?” Sera raised a slim eyebrow.
“I did what I could to stop his bleeding. It took some blood. Then I had to drag him back here. He weighed as much as a dead boar.”
“I see.” Sera snorted and rolled her eyes. “It’s okay. I know you’d tell me if you could.”
“I did tell you.”
Kara winced and looked away. Bloodmenders learned everything about the human body. They knew it intimately, caught lies without meaning to, and Kara knew no way she could lie to Sera. Not about the woods. How could she explain?
“Listen.” Kara looked up. “I wish I could, but—”
“I don’t care if I ever get the whole story. It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad you’re alive and here, with me.”
“Really. Now walk with me. It’s the best way to get better. We’re going to go to the cafeteria and get some food in you right now.”
Sera pulled her out onto the grassy Commons. Her friend had a healer’s voice when she needed it, confident and brooking no argument. They had been friends since Kara first came to Solyr.
In addition to mending skin and organs, Solyr’s Bloodmenders were able to transfuse their blood into patients at a slow rate. Saving people. Mages like Sera were rare, even at Solyr, as only those with pure blood could transfuse it into others. Those without pure blood could harm those they tried to heal, even kill them.
Small cuts took minutes to heal. Larger wounds took days. The man Kara had saved would be in the infirmary for at least a week.
“Byn’s waiting at the Path of the Makers,” Sera said as they walked. “A horse went lame today, and he spent most of the afternoon tending it. The poor thing’s much better now.”
Kara smiled at the thought of Byn tending a horse. They had grown up together, playing and wrestling the day away and getting into more trouble than most children thought possible. They had spent many summers away from Solyr braving the waters of the Northern Sea in Byn’s rickety fishing boat. Until a few years ago.
Kara still went home every summer, but she now spent her time tending to her mother. The debilitating disease that afflicted Ona was mysterious, resilient, and agonizing. Little worked, but Ona was stronger than Kara was. She was the strongest woman Kara knew.
Kara felt a lump in her throat and fought it. Now was not the time. As she and Sera passed other students in uniforms like their own, Kara focused on the academy to block out all else.
Solyr’s builders had placed benches of smooth marble and stone throughout the many poplars, some sheltered by awnings of light-colored wood. The buildings surrounding the Commons were stone and brick covered in panels of treated wood. Candles burned inside their windows, unadorned stone portals with glass frames.
As they neared Solyr’s central square, a squirrel ran into their path and stopped. Squirrels were common in Solyr, of course, but this one looked different. Purposeful.
Sera stopped. “What’s it doing?”
The squirrel stood at attention like a tiny sentry, nose straight and bushy tail raised in salute. Then another joined it, and another. Soon six squirrels were arranged in a straight line in the middle of the path, tails raised and twitching noses pointed. At them.
Someone big swept Sera off her feet. Kara spun to face the threat as the squirrels scattered, dashing off into the Commons grass. She gasped as she remembered a grayback lunging for her head.
This was no grayback, no threat. It was Byn Meris, squirming as he spun with Sera in his arms. He was being an idiot again.
“I caught a mermaid!” Byn laughed as he fixed Kara with playful brown eyes. “Can we keep her?”
“Drown me, Byn!” Kara shoved him and he stumbled back, Sera eeping as he nearly dropped her. “You put that poor girl down.” Her heart still pounded.
Byn just laughed as Sera swatted his chest, forcing him to put her down, but her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were wide. She did love Byn. Kara loved him too, even if she wanted to kill him sometimes. Having a brother felt like that.
“I’m sorry.” Byn sobered as Sera found her feet and shoved him. “I just wanted to surprise you. What did you think of the squirrels?”
Byn was the same height as Kara, but his wide farmer’s frame could lift one of Sera in each thick arm. His uniform was cut differently, with shoulder pads and a raised collar. He had a round face and a nose too big for it, but he carried himself with grace.
Kara took a breath. “It’s a good trick.” So far as she knew, no instructor in Byn’s Beastruler school dealt with squirrels. Byn had figured this out on his own, and useless as it was, it did impress her.
“You all right?” Byn stepped closer. “You look pale.”
“I look like someone just scared me half to death, Byn Meris.” Kara always used his full name when she wanted to be cross with him, just like his mother. “We’re going to get food now and I can hardly walk, let alone wrestle you, so you can come with us or go have dinner with your squirrels.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous.” Byn squeezed her shoulder. “You don’t have to walk. I’ll carry you. C’mon, hop on.”
“Try it and I’ll break both your arms,” Kara said, but a grin split her face despite her best efforts. She struggled to stay angry at him and failed. Byn just made you want to like him.
Sera took their hands and dragged. “Food, now. No more stalling.” She pulled them both along. “Why squirrels?”
“Because it made you look.” Byn pointed at a squirrel hopping its way across the Commons. “It’s harder than it is with horses, if you can believe that. Their little minds don’t think about much more than running and eating.”
Kara snorted. “I see why you get along so well.”
“Hey now. Just hope one doesn’t climb your lovely braid.”
Kara reflexively grabbed at her hair and then cursed Byn’s name. Being with her friends made the horror she had faced in the woods seem far away, a bad thing that had happened to someone else. She took Byn’s other hand, and he didn’t stop her.
The three of them walked hand in hand until they reached the central square, then separated. Public displays of affection were frowned upon at Solyr. No point in starting rumors.
The circular fountain at the square’s center reflected towering columns that formed a complicated protective glyph. It felt safe inside the square. Warm. Students sat on blankets spread across its dark cobblestones, laughing, reading, and resting.
Kara measured her breathing as they exited the square. The Path of the Makers stretched ahead, a road of solid black stone. Hundreds of flowers in dozens of colors bordered that road, but the statues among them were the true spectacle. The pride and power of Solyr.
Solyr’s founders had formed these statues of The Five Who Had Made the World. The effort had required great skill and a generous amount of blood. Each statue looked formed of white marble, but Kara knew appearances meant nothing. Not with blood magic.
Life came first, praying and frozen in crystalline ice. Heat came next, smirking as he crackled with living fire. After him came Breath’s child-slim silhouette, rippling in a fog that rose from her marble pedestal. Beyond her stood Land, his bald, chiseled figure hewn from glyphed rock. Finally, Ruin watched over them all, a nebulous outline inside a black void.
Kara shuddered. Ruin represented the end of all things, ceasing to exist, and ceasing to exist made her colder than a grayback in the woods or a man covered in blood. That wild man had warned her of demons, and demons were Ruin’s domain. Forbidden.
Soon they reached Solyr’s cafeteria, and Kara could breathe again. Unlike the modern buildings that bordered the Commons, its plain rock walls would fit into a mountainside anywhere in Mynt. It was dark brown and round as a hive, hardened with time and age.
Solyr’s histories said its first Earther battlemage had raised the cafeteria as a tribute to Land. The histories also said there had been four more buildings like it, one raised to pay tribute to each of the Five. They had all been destroyed in the All Province War almost seventy years ago.
Kara hadn’t been alive in that time, but the histories of Solyr were legion and she had read them all. Magic academy fought magic academy and Demonkin walked the land. Torn Honuron, High Protector, had stopped all that. A legend among legends. He had sacrificed his life to save their world.
Kara and her friends eased into the short line filing into the cafeteria and entered a wide room with a smooth domed ceiling and striated walls. Years after the elders formed the cafeteria, they had hung trays of bluish phantom fire from wooden beams above. Their bright light lent the otherwise cavernous space a warm, open feel.
Tonight Solyr’s chefs had prepared honeyed meat slices, cheese squares, and bowls of spiced mushroom broth. It was a feast fit for a king, but students ate far better than where Kara had grown up. Practically everything in Boon was fish related. They each took a glass of the academy’s red wine and found an empty table to share.
Byn ripped into his meat like the wolves he sometimes scribed, ravenous as always. Kara slurped her soup, not caring who noticed. She could be ravenous as well.
“Drown me.” Byn slammed down his bowl. “I was so happy to hear they released you, I just forgot.”
Sera frowned at him. “Forgot what?”
“His royal Lockeness visited while you were sleeping. A total ass, of course, all feigned concern. You’d think he already won your triptych duel.”
“I knew it!” Kara slurped more broth and savored the warmth in her stomach. “Let me guess. I faked my injuries. I was scared to face him, knew I’d lose, so I chickened out. Is that about it?”
“I’ve been hearing that nonsense all day. It’s been all I could do not to punch someone in the face.” Byn thumped the table and the silverware bounced. “Aryn’s games won’t fool the elders. Elder Halde knows why you couldn’t duel him, and we do too.”
Kara wasn’t so sure about that. Aryn was her last remaining competitor for the post of royal apprentice and his father, Mayor Dupret Locke, visited often with Mynt royalty. Her triptych duel had been her chance to prove she outmatched Aryn, and she had missed it the day she almost died in the Lorilan Forest.
The Thinking Tree’s acorn was the second to last of many reagents Kara needed to complete an incredible new glyph: Transference. To complete that glyph she needed magesand, powder made from the ground up bones of mages long dead. It was priceless and only available in Mynt’s capital of Tarna. She would never see it if Aryn took the post of royal apprentice.
“Find him for me.” Kara took a big bite of honeyed meat. “I have two days before Selection Day. I’m going to challenge him.”
“Nonsense,” Sera said. “You need to heal.”
“I can’t just run away. You know why I need to duel him.”
“Bah,” Byn said. “You’ll crush him when you’re ready.”
“You need to recover,” Sera said. “Aryn understands that.”
“Maybe so, maybe not.” Kara tore into the last of her meat and chewed fast. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Aryn Locke was walking right for them.