SNEAK PEEK: The Halves of Us, First Chapters!
The Halves of Us is the start to the debut epic fantasy trilogy by Sydney Paige Richardson, and it's here TOMORROW!!
Get the novel on October 9th. Today, read two sneak peek chapters exclusively on The Parliament House blog...
A canvas of dark indigo filled Thindoral’s night sky, and the silver light of the stars reflected the mischief in Aura’s eyes. She counted them one by one, waiting for the Guards to finish their rounds. Waiting for the moons to rise high in the sky. Waiting for the right moment, when the palace was asleep and she could use the stolen key.
As the residents of the Dome grew quiet and Aura could no longer hear the hustle and bustle from the Town Square below, she tiptoed toward the door adjoining her room to her sister’s. Reaching into her pocket, she ran her fingertips across the roughly carved key to the Holding Room which she’d stolen from her Uncle Gossamer earlier that evening.
She shivered as the cold brass handle of the door met her palm. The wooden door creaked as she eased it open.
The thin white silk of the bed’s canopy fell in folds as it twirled down the dark wood of the bedposts. Aura tiptoed across the room and looked at her twin.
Adie slept peacefully. The moonlight cast through the windows of the double doors leading out to their shared balcony. Aura knelt on the floor beside the bed and tugged on one of her sister’s scarlet braids, a replica of her own. She hid, crouching down as Adie rustled awake.
Adie sat up, her eyes still heavy with sleep. Aura jumped up onto her sister’s bed, giggling.
“Aura!” Adie said, throwing a pillow at her sister. She lay back down and covered her face with another pillow.
“Come on!” Aura pleaded.
“It’s the middle of the night. Let me sleep,” Adie begged, her voice muffled beneath the plush fabric.
“Look what I have . . .” Aura’s voice trailed off as she pulled the key out of her pocket. Chiseled from petrified wood, the key’s intricate design cast shadows from the moonlight onto Adie’s bed.
Adie raised her head, her sleepy eyes growing wide as intrigue filled them.
She crawled across the bed, taking the key from Aura. “How did you . . . when did you—” She stopped.
Aura failed at hiding her smile. Adie always made her thieving ways feel like grand accomplishments. “We have to go tonight,” she whispered, taking the key back from Adie and putting it in her pocket.
She motioned for Adie to follow her as she made her way to the door leading out from her sister’s room and into the hall. She could hear Adie’s hesitant footsteps coming up beside her. She signaled Adie to stay back as she reached for the door handle.
Aura tucked a crimson curl behind her ear and tried to steady her breathing before peeking out. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears, nearly drowning out the nearby footsteps as Michael, Security Major of the Guard, paced the hallway as he did every night. The gold emblem of Thindoral’s sacred pendant, the Rokis, shimmered on the back of his dark blue uniform beneath the dim light cast from the lanterns on the walls.
She spun out of view when Michael glanced over his shoulder, and she silently begged Adie to stay quiet. They held their breath, and Aura swore the beating of her heart was now loud enough to give them away. Closing her eyes, she prayed he hadn’t seen her. If he had, he would never leave his post again.
After pleading to Fate herself, Aura’s gaze shifted out her bedroom window as she waited. Two silver rings lined Thindoral’s largest moon, reflecting bright light through her windows and creating a soft hue around a worried Adie in front of her. Michael’s footsteps faded down the granite hallway as he continued the last of his rounds throughout the Dome, and a grin stretched across Aura’s face.
“Are you sure we should do this?” Adie’s voice peaked as she stepped back toward her bed. “Mother always said the Rokis must never be touched by anyone but the Ruler, and—”
Aura stared at her. “Mother says lots of things.”
“What about Michael?” Adie frowned as she stepped out of bed.
“He just finished his rounds. Come on!”
Aura opened the door and searched both directions of the hallway. Michael was nowhere to be seen. She took Adie’s hand as they moved down the lonely hallway, followed only by the sounds of their bare feet pitter-pattering across the granite floors and the light scratching of the designs etching into the walls.
Aura released her grip on Adie’s hand and stopped to watch the pencil-like lines swirl around one another, forming mesmerizing odd shapes and letters. Her mother always told her these were secret messages left by the Designers, the godly beings who created the universe and all life within. Those worthy of their secret messages could decipher them. But to this day, none knew what the messages meant. Some areas of the walls repeated, and some changed as someone touched them.
Aura reached out to touch a design, and a flower bloomed where her fingers had just been. As the petals grew larger, her breath caught when the corners became black and shriveled, ultimately falling away from the stem and fading back into the colors of the wall. Her brow furrowed as she skimmed her hands along the rough lines of the walls. The texture moved under her palm like worms through thick dirt.
“Aura! Come on!” Adie whispered, breaking Aura from her trance as she grabbed her hand, pulling her farther down the dimly lantern-lit hallways.
They peeked down where the corridor ended at the Holding Room.
“No Guards!” Aura smirked, looking to Adie.
They squeezed each other’s hands tighter as they walked toward the towering silver door.
“Are you sure it’s in there tonight?” Adie asked.
Aura nodded. “Every fortnight, Mother leaves it in here for one evening. She says something about it being too heavy to sleep with.”
They stopped in front of the door, looking up as far as they could. Even though the dark of night had taken over the Dome, the door to the Holding Room still glowed. The silver designs carved into its surface reflected in their eyes. An even brighter golden light draped the sacred design of the Rokis which hung above it.
“You did make sure you got the right key, didn’t you?” Adie asked. Her head remained tilted back, examining the door as she fidgeted with her braid.
Aura turned and faced her sister. A mirror image of herself nervously smiled back as she retrieved the key from her pocket.
She handed it to Adie, but she shook her head. “You open it,” Adie insisted.
They walked forward, hand in hand. As they approached the door, Aura broke free from her sister. Adie waited a few steps behind, sneaking glances back down the hallway.
Aura’s hand trembled as she slid the key in the door and twisted. The loud click of the door unlocking hung in the air, and Adie ran toward her.
“Shhh!” Adie hushed. Aura shrugged and grinned as she twisted the handle.
They gazed over their shoulders, peering down the hallway. Adie sighed heavily, relieved as she looked back at Aura and nodded. They were still alone.
Together, they gritted their teeth and pulled at the door with all their strength.
“Keep pulling,” Adie whispered as it creaked open and she slipped in.
Aura pushed her way through the opening, and the door closed behind them.
Plush velvet curtains gathered at the sides of the stone walls around the perimeter of the room, revealing exquisite stained-glass windows. The moonlight poured in, bouncing off the tall ceilings, and a deep rush of color danced across the floor. Aura looked at her blue dress, which now took on a deep red, mimicking the lighting. She twirled around and smiled as the ends of her dress broke the kaleidoscope of colors reflecting on the floor.
“Aura!” Adie whispered as she pointed to the stairs in the center of the room, leading up to a pedestal.
Hand in hand they marched up the four giant stone steps. There lay the Rokis given to them by the Designers, who harnessed the power of a star in its center gem to protect them from the evil residing on their planet. The gem radiated a bright blue light, and twelve golden triangles jutted outward around it, reflecting a ray of sapphire on their faces.
“Touch it!” Aura said.
“No! Mother says I have to wait,” Adie replied.
“Come on! We didn’t come here just to look at it. I mean, it’ll be yours one day, anyway.” Aura stood tall and struck a pose, mimicking their mother.
“The Rokis belongs to the youngest born, the future Ruler.” She giggled and covered her mouth as the sound echoed throughout the Holding Room.
“What’s wrong with touching it now?” she whispered.
Aura watched her sister’s brow crease in thought as she stared at the Rokis, entranced by its beauty. The light of the center gem captured the jade color of her eyes. Adie shivered suddenly and looked back up at Aura with hesitation.
“Together?” Aura asked, taking her sister’s hand.
Adie gulped and nodded slowly.
As they brought their hands above the center of the Rokis, Aura could feel Adie’s tremble below hers. She closed her eyes and lowered their hands onto the blue gem. As soon as she felt their palms reach the center, a surge of light burst throughout the room, throwing Aura down the steps.
The bright light rose higher, climbing up the walls. Pain coursed through Aura’s elbow as it smacked on the floor. Clutching her arm, she tried to stifle her tears. Taking a deep breath, she moved from her stomach to a sitting position and looked around, searching for her sister.
Her bottom lip trembled. “Adie?” she whispered. “Adie!” she whispered louder.
Adie was gone.
A blue light collected around the ceiling, swirling above her. Silent tears fell down her cheeks as her trembling evolved into shakes.
The light came together into a ball in the middle of the ceiling, and Aura froze. It shot down toward the ground, and she shielded her eyes with the back of her hands. Once she felt the light dissipate, she let her hands fall and opened her eyes. Motionless, Adie lay on the floor a few feet in front of her.
“Adie! Adie! Wake up, you must wake up!” Aura ran over to her twin, hushing her voice as she heard the Guards coming down the hallway.
Adie groaned and opened her eyes.
Aura gasped and stepped back. “Adie, your eyes! They’re blue!” She wiped her tears and looked over at the door as the voices on the other side grew closer. “Come on, we have to get you up. We need to go!” Aura said, helping Adie to her feet.
They ran over to the curtains and hid behind them.
“Stand still and don’t make a sound,” Aura begged.
Adie leaned against Aura’s shoulder as they both peeked out from behind the curtains.
“The key. Where’s the key?!” Gossamer shouted from outside the Holding Room door.
“Sir, it’s open . . .” replied one of the Guards as they eased into the room.
Aura pulled the curtain back over them, listening to Adie’s heavy breathing. She tried to calm her down, hoping the Guards wouldn’t discover them.
“I was making my way back to my room, when I saw a bright light come from behind the door. That’s when I discovered my key missing . . .” Gossamer’s deep voice bellowed.
“We were on guard, sir, but saw nothing,” another Guard replied.
Aura peeked out from the curtains once more. Gossamer walked up the tall steps to the pedestal, a puzzled expression on his face.
“The Rokis is still here, unharmed.”
“It could’ve been the stained glass windows reflecting the light, sir,” suggested the short, squatty Guard.
Gossamer spun around to face him, and Aura quickly stepped back behind the curtain.
“Have the other Guards stand directly outside the entrance. We’ll begin a search for the key.”
“Minister, could you have possibly misplac—” the Guard began.
“The keys are always on me.” Gossamer pulled on the iron loop around his belt. Hundreds of keys dangled atop one another and clinked together as he released the loop. “They never leave my side. And remember, no one is to touch the Rokis but the Ruler herself. Its powers are far more than we can comprehend. Have the Guards check all the exits. Make sure everyone is accounted for. The last time this happened . . .” He paused, his hands still in fists. “Double the Guards around the Ruler and Adie and Aura’s chambers.”
Adie gasped, and Aura quickly covered her sister’s mouth. She narrowed her eyes at Adie in a silent plea to keep quiet. She frowned upon seeing her sister’s eyes remained bright blue. They stood perfectly still as Gossamer and the Guards quieted. Aura prayed they didn’t come any closer.
“Sir, I don’t think we should alarm the staff. We haven’t had an intrusion in years.”
“We take no risks!” Gossamer shouted.
Aura peeked out as her uncle walked toward the entrance. His face reddened as he took a few long breaths. She’d never seen him this angry.
“Check the exits. Do not wake the Ruler. I will inform her myself. Keep Guards at the door until the key is recovered,” he ordered.
The door closed behind them, and Adie removed Aura’s hand from her mouth. She peered out into the empty room. “We have to get out of here!” Adie’s stomach churned as her nerves took over.
Aura stepped out from the curtain and ran after Adie, hugging her tightly.
“What happened? I thought you were gone!” She pulled away from Adie, wiping away new tears. “And why are your eyes blue?”
“I don’t know . . .” Adie tried to hide the welling in her eyes. “But if Uncle Gossamer finds us in here, we’ll be in terrible trouble. We have to get back to our rooms.”
Aura nodded in agreement. “I’ll leave the key here. He’ll think he dropped it.” She knelt and carefully placed the key on the floor.
“I suggest we pretend this never happened.” Adie bit her lip to hide its trembling.
“Agreed.” She made her way to Adie, hugging her again. “You had me so worried. Where did you go?”
Her sister’s arms clung tightly to her. A warm tear fell down Adie’s cheek. “I don’t know. Let’s worry about getting out of here first.”
Aura pulled away from their embrace, heading toward the entrance of the Holding Room.
“Wait! The Guards?” Adie stepped in front of her, blocking her way toward the door.
Aura tugged Adie’s braid. “Those are the same Guards who were sleeping through their shift. How do you think we got in here without being detected?” Her mouth curled into a mischievous grin.
“No! No! Aura, what if they are on the other side?”
“We can’t hide in here forever,” Aura replied.
“Maybe we just confess . . .”
“And explain to Mother what happened?” Aura said.
Adie froze, holding her breath as Aura cracked the door and glanced through the opening.
She closed the door slowly and turned toward Adie. “There are two Guards with their back to us. We’re going to count to three and make a run straight out of here. Got it?”
Adie nodded back at her and finally breathed.
“Hey,” Aura said as she reached for Adie’s hand. “They’re on the other side of the door, toward the left. We can make it. Count with me. One . . .”
“Two,” Adie replied.
“Three!” they whispered as they slipped out of the tiny opening of the door and darted down the corridor.
“They didn’t see us!” Aura said, but Adie dared not look back.
They continued to run down the hallway and dashed into Adie’s room. Adie shut the door quietly behind her as they heard footsteps coming down the hallway.
“Quick! Into bed!” Aura whispered.
They both jumped into Adie’s bed and huddled together.
“Close your eyes!”
“Shh!” Adie responded.
Her bedroom door creaked opened, allowing a sliver of light halfway into the room. Adie squeezed her eyes shut as she heard Gossamer sigh and close the door.
Aura pushed the covers back and jumped out of bed, listening to his footsteps disappear down the hall. Adie opened her eyes and turned over, clutching one of her pillows as Aura got back in bed with a satisfied grin on her face.
“Adie, your eyes aren’t blue anymore!” she exclaimed. Her smile grew wider.
Adie stood and walked over to the dark wood vanity by her bed. She examined herself in the mirror. Emerald eyes stared back at her. She pulled at the puffy, tired skin beneath them.
“Now are you going to tell me what happened?” Aura asked.
Adie’s hands dropped to her side. She continued to stare at her reflection. She blinked and froze as the whites of her eyes vanished and went black. She blinked again and the emerald color returned. Taking in a deep breath, she walked back over to the bed, shaking her head and lying down.
“I don’t exactly know, but I think we should promise to never talk about it ever again. If Mother were to find out—”
“She won’t, but I must know!” Aura begged. “Adie, you disappeared—”
Adie looked at her sister, frizzy red ringlets framed her face. She sighed, sitting up and facing Aura. “I don’t know where I was, but there was this tall beautiful tree.” Her eyes grew wide at the vivid memory. “It had long, thin branches that swayed in the wind. They filled the space around me. There was so many I couldn’t see past them! I walked closer to the trunk of the tree, but I had to tilt my head to see the top.” She hesitated.
Her sister’s curious expression was opposite of the worry in her own.
“Then there was this gust of wind, and I turned as a black cloud of smoke came straight toward me. The branches started to lose their leaves, and what I could see of the sky was changing to red.” She paused, fearing her heart would beat straight out of her chest. “So I started running. The next thing I knew, you told me to get up . . .” Adie trailed off.
“Why didn’t I see the tree?” Aura asked, looking down at her hands.
“I don’t know. Maybe I just imagined it all.” Adie said, trying to convince herself nothing happened. She looked at Aura, whose eyes remained down, deep in thought. “Now promise,” she said.
“We never talk about it to anyone. We pretend it never happened.”
“What if your eyes turn blue again?” she asked.
“They won’t. Just promise, please. Okay?”
“Promise.” Aura agreed.
Adie hugged her sister. She closed her eyes, remembering the dark cloud coming toward her. She could never tell Aura the rest of what she’d seen. She buried her face in her sister’s embrace, trying to remove the image from her mind, but the memory flashed across her eyelids, mocking her.
She remembered hearing Aura’s voice and turning to see her sister standing a few feet away, hiding in the thin branches of the tree. A dark smoke-like cloud came from around Aura, charging toward Adie. Aura’s black eyes and haunting smile made Adie shudder.
She must never tell anyone.
Last night had been one of the worst ones yet. Aura shuddered as their Uncle Gossamer led them down the hallway. Adie’s jumbled screams still echoed in her ears. It’s in my skin! It’s in my skin! She had scratched at her forearms until they bled. Aura calmed her and cleaned her wounds while singing her back to sleep.
Maybe it’s time to tell Mother. Adie’s nightmares were getting worse. She shivered, remembering how Adie described the one from last night with their mother dying in her arms. Her flesh decaying, creating dark lines, like snakes, that slithered toward Adie. They crawled through her skin, burning her.
She looked over at her sister. Quiet and pale. Adie had obviously used Fae dust to help mask the bags under her eyes. Her long sleeves covered up the scratches she made last night. She appeared well-rested, but Aura could see the hollowness in her gaze. Maybe she’s stressed about today. Today they
learned their Fate. But it’s not like Adie doesn’t know hers.
Those they passed in the hallway stopped and greeted them with a bow and a slight nod. Aura caught Adie’s bottom lip trembling. She bit down on it to hide it, but Aura saw. She reached and held her sister’s hand. Adie inhaled deeply, her shoulders rising and falling as she exhaled and repeated.
They continued down the granite hallway where large frames made from delicately twisted gold contained paintings of the past Rulers of Thindoral. Michael, their Personal Guard, followed quietly. The designs on the walls wove themselves around and between the paintings, and Aura skimmed her free hand along the corridor as they walked to the stairwell, feeling the movement beneath her fingertips.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard either of you this quiet.” Gossamer chuckled, keeping his gaze forward. He wore his usual black Minister of Affairs uniform with the symbol of the Rokis stitched on his left shoulder.
Aura couldn’t remember ever seeing him in anything else.
He turned to face them, forcing them to stop. “It’s a big day, I know. It’ll be your first time attending the Teachings with other students instead of your usual tutors, and learning your Fates. But rest assured, this is Fate telling us where we are meant to be.”
Aura stiffened at hearing the familiar phrase. It was one continuously used on Thindoral, and it was supposed to be comforting, but something about it always struck her wrong.
“I’m sure it’s just nerves.” Michael came up beside Adie. “They’ll be up to no good soon enough.” He winked at Aura.
“He knows me so well.” Aura smirked.
Michael had been by their side as their Personal Guard since birth and was like another uncle to Aura. Her very first sword was a gift from him. After she completed her Guard training, he’d convinced her parents to allow her to join the Tribesmen from Giriveen in training new recruits throughout the regions of Thindoral.
Gossamer cracked a smile and shook his head as he motioned for them to continue down the hall. “Aura, you know how your mother feels about you wearing the Guard uniform.”
“I did set her out a dress,” Adie said, perking up for an instant.
Aura chuckled. “Oh, we both know that wasn’t going to happen.”
Adie had laid out a matching gown to her own that morning, as she so often did. Adie always told Aura it made her feel as though she could blend in if they both wore the same thing.
“But gold looks so good on you.” She lifted Adie’s hand, forcing her to spin and show off the gown.
As she spun, the light from the lanterns in the hallway caught the glittering floral cutouts throughout her gown, making her appear as though thousands of sparkling butterflies covered her.
Aura relaxed as Adie grinned. The emptiness from her eyes vanished temporarily.
Gossamer cracked a smile, and Aura released her hand from Adie’s after one final spin.
“Don’t let your nerves get the best of you.” He rested his hands on their shoulders. “You will both visit the Room of Papers and discover your Fates.” His grin thinned. “And Adie, today you’ll have your first lesson with the Rokis and learn your power.”
Aura’s stomach dropped, but she kept her face straight. She felt Adie’s gaze on her. Her eyes darted to Adie’s, begging her to stay calm. Don’t tell them what we did.
They had gone through years dreading this day. It’d been four years since that night, and they’d only spoken about it out loud twice. It was maybe two Seasons ago when Adie expressed worry that she wasn’t meant to be Ruler.
She had received no power from the Rokis when they touched it years ago...
Aura reached for Adie’s hand, just as she’d done that day, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. You’re meant to be Ruler. It’s your Fate. She prayed Adie somehow got the message.
Adie nodded as though she did and returned the squeeze.
Gossamer motioned for them to follow him down the hallway and continue down the grand staircase. The dual staircase led up all main floors of the Dome, swirling around and intertwining on the odd floors.
As they reached the second floor, Mr. Ribblet, one of the eleven Council members, greeted them. “Good morning, sir,” he croaked at Gossamer with a slight lisp as his long pink tongue curled out of his mouth. He towered over them, standing on two long, thin legs. His skin was a deep olive green.
Gossamer nodded at Mr. Ribblet as he continued heading down toward the first floor.
“Have a wonderful first day of Teachings, and please,” Gossamer eyed Aura, “behave. I’ll join you both to escort the final year classes to the Room of Papers.” His blue eyes swirled with a shade of brown.
She knew his eyes changed with his emotions, but Mother had never answered Aura when she asked why. Once, she’d overheard Gossamer talking with Tut, the Headmaster of Teachings, about a curse, but then had his office door slammed in her face prior to a lecture on eavesdropping.
Gossamer nodded to Michael. “Michael will announce you and lead you in.”
Michael motioned for the girls to follow him toward the Teaching Hall. The Dome had twelve floors, if you counted the old dungeon room. The Designers carved the circular formation from the side of the mountain when they created Thindoral. It housed all students accepted to the schooling program during the Teaching Seasons, and most of the Guards from Thindoral’s capital, Giriveen. The library alone took up three floors on the left side of the Dome. Two extensions made from colorful stained glass jutted out from the east and west side. One housed plant life from all over the world, and the other led into the Town Square, where many set up trade booths at the beginning of each Season. Aura’s favorite wings, the Training Room and weapons area, were hidden in the bottom floors of the Dome.
They’d made their way down one more flight of stairs and greeted those around them with slight nods as they reached the great wooden doors of the Teaching Hall. The door creaked open, and they entered a room filled with dozens of long tables. Aura immediately let go of Adie’s hand. Numerous students stood around laughing and talking. Two young girls walked by, arm in arm, giggling. Their whiskers on their white, fur-covered cheeks perked up when they saw them. A young boy with dark blue skin and short pointy ears stared as they entered. His orange eyes grew wide. Silence fell over the room as, one by one, each student noticed Adie and Aura’s presence.
“Adie, the future Ruler of Thindoral, and her sister, Aura,” Michael announced, surveying the Teaching Hall.
The students clapped, and Adie stepped forward, holding her hands in front of her. Probably to hide the trembling. Guilt coursed through her for letting go of her sister’s hand. Adie had never handled crowds well. Mother always said that would change when she possessed the Rokis.
Aura held her head high and joined the applause.
Adie glanced back at her with longing eyes. “Aura!” she whispered as she held out her hand.
Stepping forward, Aura took her sister’s hand and stood next to her. Her eyes flickered to Samuel sitting at the table in the far corner. Her cheeks warmed as his gray eyes met hers. He had his long blond hair pulled back into a low braid, showing off his jawline. She looked away, hoping he hadn’t seen her staring.
The clapping ceased with the third sound of the Announcer’s trumpet from the High Perch of the Dome. Every student scrambled to their seats, and Aura pulled Adie to the back table with Samuel. As they passed each table, students of all races gazed at them nervously. Whiskers twitched, long ears stood on end, eyes widened, and voices whispered.
Michael made his way to the wall behind them.
As they reached the back table, Aura’s gaze turned to Samuel. “Good morning, Samuel.”
“Morning.” He smiled, looking to Adie. “How are you?” His palm extended out toward Adie in greeting.
Aura’s eyes shifted to the ground for a moment as her sister placed her palm against his.
Adie quickly pulled away from his touch as though he’d shocked her. Clearing her throat, she gestured to Aura. “I’m fine. Doesn’t Aura look lovely today? I think blue suits her so well,” she said with a smile.
His gaze never left Adie, and the smile never fell from his face. “Yes. Lovely indeed.”
A loud clap and shout at the front of the room interrupted them. “Welcome back for another Season of Teachings. Hush now, we have a lot to get through.”
A few light whispers remained as the students gazed forward at Ms. Nevolie. Her attire hadn’t changed over the years. A white and black dress clung to her top frame and fell in subtle waves to the floor. A black cloth loosely hooded her face, framing her skin covered in pale white fur. Her eyes glittered like gold.
“Shh!” Aura hushed the students talking around her and smiled at Ms. Nevolie. She’d been one of her favorite teachers throughout the years. To Ms. Nevolie, she wasn’t just the twin sister of the future Ruler of Thindoral.
She was Aura.
Ms. Nevolie nodded her gratitude as she surveyed the room. “It’s great seeing all your smiling faces back in these seats since last Season. Please remember, your Teachings are very important. They are what prepare you for the future. Your Fate. Please repeat after me.”
The students’ voices joined in a monotone voice and repeated with Ms. Nevolie, “This is Fate telling us where we are meant to be.”
“Thank you,” Ms. Nevolie said. “Your Fates have been predestined, and it’s an honor to have you here.” She grinned. “You have all been made aware what class you’re in this Season. First-, second-, and third-year students, please make your way to your scheduled class and meet your professor. If you have questions, you may see me or Mr. Falltyer,” she said, pointing to her left at a disgruntled Ogre with gray, scaly skin.
His single eye darted around the room, and he huffed.
“To follow with custom this morning, our final year classes will stay behind for a viewing with our Ruler, before being escorted to the Room of Papers by Gossamer, the Minister of Affairs. This is a pivotal point in your lives. One you will never forget. The day you learn your Fate.” She narrowed her eyes at a few of the students. “You’re all dismissed,” she said, smiling. Her whiskers fanned out about her face.
The sound of screeching chairs and conversations echoed through the air as the younger students rose and made their way down the hallways leading to their classes. The final year teachers gathered at the front of the Teaching Hall, motioning for the remaining students to move from the back.
Samuel looked at Adie and pointed at the empty chair beside him. Aura’s heart sank as her sister took the seat.
Aura sat at the first empty chair she came to. She turned as a dark, curly haired individual sat next to her.
“Felipe,” he said.
“Aura.” She kept her eyes on Adie and Samuel.
“I know,” he said.
Aura could feel his gaze still on her. She shifted in her seat as she tried to listen to Adie and Samuel’s conversation.
Felipe continued, “Blue is a good color on you.”
Aura glanced at the Guard uniform. “Yes, they chose the color because of how good it looked on me.” She avoided his gaze.
He chuckled. “Yeah? Not really my color, though. I think I look better in black.”
“Yep,” she said, barely listening. She furrowed her brow when she saw Adie blush.
“So are you excited about the viewing? The other students haven’t stopped talking about it. Most know about the Sights, but none have seen one.”
“Thrilled,” Aura said half-heartedly.
Adie giggled at something Samuel said. Aura’s nose scrunched up. Why her, Samuel?
Felipe leaned toward her. “So is he courting her?”
“No. No.” Aura shook her head and turned to Felipe. “Samuel is just our Personal Guard’s son, so we’ve known him for a long time.” Aura eyed them as she spoke.
Samuel rested his hand on Adie’s.
“Hmm.” Felipe nodded as he leaned away.
Aura shifted her gaze away from them, looking toward Felipe.
His lips curled into a half-smile. “You know, we met once, briefly.”
Aura nodded as though she remembered.
“I came for some training with the Tribesmen three Seasons ago. You were helping with the training in Donte. You were . . .” Felipe paused, and Aura watched him closely, unsure what he was going to say.
“I was . . .”
He tilted his head, running his hand through his curly hair. “You know the gold stitching on your uniform really brings out the flakes of yellow in your eyes.”
Aura tried to hold back a laugh but failed. “I’m sorry.” She covered her mouth. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t think that’s what you were going to say. I . . . what’s your name again?”
“Felipe.” He extended his palm forward, facing her.
She placed her flat palm against his in greeting.
“I’m on your sister’s Council, representing the—”
“Ambrielle, Ruler of Thindoral.” Michael bellowed before bowing and quickly stepping to the side.
The doors opened, and Ambrielle entered with their father, Nemiah, by her side.
The room hushed, and everyone stood. Ambrielle’s emerald dress billowed around her as she seemingly floated toward the front of the Teaching Hall. Headmaster Tut, disheveled as always, greeted her at the front before she faced the students and motioned them to sit. Her scarlet curls were pinned in a half-updo, showcasing her high cheekbones. The Rokis lay on her chest. The center blue gem beamed, creating a hue around her.
Aura had always admired her mother’s beauty. Even if her mother wasn’t the Ruler, she was sure the room would go silent the moment she walked in.
“Greetings,” Ambrielle said. “This is Fate telling us where we are meant to be.”
Everyone echoed her sentiment, and Aura mumbled the words.
“It’s an honor to be here today. This year’s final Teachings are special, as they contain our future Council and our future leaders of Thindoral. I implore you to explore, question, and take in every bit of knowledge your teachers and predecessors provide you.” She neared closer to the tables, and the students straightened in their chairs. “The Ruler has been entrusted by the great Designers of our universe to protect not only our world, but the whole universe from the darkness they’ve locked away in Vadim, the forbidden area to our north.” She placed her hand on the Rokis. “As custom, I’m to discuss and show you what lies in Vadim so you may know the importance of your leadership and so you can be prepared for anything.”
A large Ogre from the far side of the room raised his hand. Ambrielle pointed at him, and he stood.
“Greetings, Ruler Ambrielle. I’m Jikohg, future Council member from Tanhera.” He cleared his throat. “What is it exactly we need to be prepared for? The evil residing in Vadim has remained there for . . . well, since it was placed there, right?” He sat back down in the chair he barely fit in. His single eye looked quizzically at Ambrielle.
“Good questions, Jikohg. And please, call me Ambrielle.”
She stepped closer toward the students. She pulled the Rokis from her chest, inhaling deeply as she placed it on the table in front of her and stepped away. Her shoulders drooped, and Aura wondered if anyone else noticed the slight trembling of her hands.
“I know many of you have heard tales of how our world came to be.
Wendelone, or as she’s often referred to among the regions, the Wicked Willow, was once a Designer. A great one, one of the most powerful. She wanted to rule our world and others to bow down before her. But Fate tasked the Designers to only create life, not rule it. Because of her greed, her power grew dark. With permission from Fate, the other Designers banished her to a tree on our planet, in the region of Vadim. She is to remain there, bound for all eternity. It was said the Designers were told by Fate to strip her of her powers, but before they could, she hid them. With what little power she had left, she was deemed harmless. It’s our duty to keep it that way.” Ambrielle placed her hand on the center gem of the Rokis. “Show me, Vadim.”
Aura’s breath caught as a bright light burst throughout the room. She blinked as her eyes adjusted and an image surrounded the Teaching Hall. Above them, the sky of Vadim reflected shades of dark red, not the normal bright blue she was used to. Scattered gray clouds loomed above a stone wall to their left, with the symbol of the Rokis on top. Opposite the wall, stood a single decrepit tower.
“In order to protect the world and the universe from her darkness, the Designers bestowed upon us a gift, the Rokis.” Ambrielle’s fingers traced the corners of the Rokis. “They tasked us with making sure the darkness never left our world, and thus created an everlasting line of Rulers to manage the power of the Rokis and keep the universe safe. However, over time, Wendelone’s anger and loneliness grew dark. It consumed the land around her, creating the forbidden region we call Vadim. Her wickedness became stronger, casting shadows that took form and serve her—the Sights. They’re bound to the region and cannot pass through the gate surrounding Vadim.”
Aura looked around at the wide-eyed students as the air grew heavy and still. Her gaze returned to the lonely tower. Its front double doors were open as though it expected company. A low whisper came from her left side and vanished as she glanced over her shoulder. A girl with iridescent, glowing skin gave her an awkward glance and turned away. Her mother’s voice brought her attention back to the front of the room.
“The Wicked Willow seeks power so she can escape.” She eyed the Rokis.
“The Rokis will protect the owner if ever faced by a Sight or someone as dark as Wendelone herself. The Rokis protects us from the darkness. However, in the wrong hands, it could destroy all that is good.”
Ambrielle placed her hand back on the gem and motioned forward. The image in the room quickly shifted, zooming in the opposite direction of the tower, toward the far side of Vadim as a tall black structure appeared. It grew larger and larger as they neared it.
“You’re correct, Jikhog, in saying that the evil in Vadim has stayed there. But we must always keep watch. It’s our job to keep the darkness contained, and darkness can be unpredictable.”
As the projection continued to zoom, a breeze rushed passed them, holding the class in amazement. The zoom stopped, and the shadow of a tree cast itself across the room.
Before them stood the Wicked Willow. The light emanating from the Rokis allowed them to take in the large structure. They all looked upward, admiring the height of the dark tree with its thousands of thin, wispy branches covered in dark green leaves. Roots protruded from the ground as if it were attempting to free itself and walk away, but the tree stood silently and black as night.
Aura heard Adie gasp, and their eyes met. Adie’s mouth opened as though she wanted to speak but couldn’t. A coldness moved across Aura’s skin, rippling down her limbs. The low whisper returned.
This time she knew something was behind her. She looked over her shoulder as other students moved away from her, toward the front of the room.
Aura stood from her chair and froze. Her face gripped in fear. Felipe grabbed her hand, and she glanced at him as everyone else scattered away.
A Sight stood directly in front of her. An unwelcoming heat permeated from the skeletal frame that towered over them. The black exterior glistened like silk over lumps of bones on the body of the Sight.
Aura squeezed Felipe’s hand tighter as the red glow of its eyes, the only visible feature on its face, seemed to zero in on her. The Sight lifted its elongated arm and pointed its bony finger toward Aura.
“What do I do?” Aura whispered.
“It can’t see us. We’re just viewing a projection from the Rokis,” Tut said as he walked toward Aura.
The Sight turned its gaze toward Tut, making him stop in his tracks. It jolted its attention back toward Aura.
The whisper returned, soft and low, repeating. Aura’s brow furrowed as she tried to discern them, unable to take her eyes off the Sight.
The whispers stopped, and a low voice made her jump. “Vow now, sayeth aye.”
She heard it speak. She peered into the red eyes of the Sight. It spoke!
“What?” she whimpered, clutching Felipe’s hand even harder. Her heart raced, and a feeling of dread weighted her down, keeping her frozen in place.
Felipe moved in front of her. The Sight let out a shriek that echoed through the room, piercing their ears. Ambrielle froze and Tut ran up to her, tapping the center gem of the Rokis twice.
The projection disappeared.
Felipe’s hands rested on Aura’s shoulders, turning her to face him. He leaned toward her. “Hey! Hey!” he said, trying to bring her back to reality.
Aura tried to focus on him. Her hands trembled, and she reached unknowingly for his. The crimson eyes of the Sight carved itself into her memory. “It could see me,” she whispered. Her eyes met Felipe’s, looking for help or reassurance that it couldn’t be possible. She could only see worry.
“There were whispers . . . and I heard it speak!” Aura’s gaze shifted to her mother at the front of the room as the students and teachers looked between them.
“The Sights do not speak,” Ambrielle said. “They can wail and shriek, but they don’t speak.”
“But I heard it. I heard it, Mother. It said, ‘vow now, sayeth aye.’ I heard it speak,” Aura replied. Her throat tightened as her eyes brimmed with tears.
She watched her mother instantly stand upright as she placed the Rokis back on her chest. “I heard it . . .” Her voice trailed off as the Teaching Hall fell into a deep silence.
Ambrielle turned over her shoulder. “You’re mistaken. The Sights do not speak.”
She raised her hand, silencing Aura. With a nod, she motioned for Gossamer to come forward.
Tut cleared his throat. “Aura, none of us heard anything. Perhaps your fear got the best of you.” He placed his hand on her shoulder.
Fear? Aura’s jaw clenched. “Don’t you fear them?” Aura asked, almost shouting at Tut.
Every eye glanced at her, and Aura heard the clicking of her mother’s heels move toward her. She forced herself to look at Ambrielle. Her mother kept her poise and stared into Aura’s eyes.
“We fear what we do not understand. We fear what we do not know. We fear what we cannot see, whether what we fear is real or not. The choice you have to make is whether you allow the fear to consume you.”
Aura’s gaze dropped to the floor.
Ambrielle returned her attention to the rest of the room. “Gossamer will lead you to the Room of Papers now. Let this all be a lesson for you on the darkness in Vadim and how important it is we keep it locked in that region.”
Aura slowly sat back down in her seat. She heard the swish of her mother’s dress as she left. Her chest grew tight with each breath as she tried to calm her heavy heart and swallow the lump in her throat. Don’t you dare cry, she begged herself.
She blinked back the tears. Felipe moved closer to her side, her hand still gripping his. She told herself to let go, but she couldn’t.
He pulled his chair closer toward her and sat. “Aura,” he whispered. “I heard it, too.”
She looked at him. Her mouth fell partially open as her brow furrowed. Her thoughts raced as she studied him, trying to read his dark eyes. “What did you say?”
He only nodded at her.
He had heard it, too.