Failure was not an option, not for me.
The survival of the Sanctum rested on my narrow shoulders. The life I’d come to know hung in the balance. To keep my world the same, I had to pass.
Nerves shallowed my breathing as the angry buzz of what felt like hundreds of hungry wasps whirled against my stomach. In my five years of apprenticeship, failing the Tests had never been discussed. Success was expected of me.
But what if I failed? I stopped my thoughts before they could go any further and took a deep breath. While I exhaled, I stretched my shoulders back, straightened my stance, and lifted my chin. I can do this, I told myself. I have no choice. I took another breath and closed my eyes. I must. Resolute, I snapped my eyes open and turned my head to the left.
Nikolai, my master, stood behind me as he had for the past five years. “Ready, Alena?” His green eyes flashed beneath a mat of messy, dark brown hair, and a mischievous grin crept to the corners of his mouth.
I tried not to roll my eyes. I was glad he found the situation so entertaining as I stood there hoping my latest meal stayed where it belonged—on the inside. Still, his teasing smile meant he was confident I’d pass, which had to count for something. Instead of sticking my tongue out at him or throwing up on his boots, I gritted my teeth and strengthened my will. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
He smiled, and this time, the smile reached his eyes. “You look lovely, by the way.”
I blushed and averted my gaze. The heat from my cheeks came as a welcome distraction, and the buzz of the wasps quieted and shifted into the pleasant, soft flutter of butterfly wings. Nikolai never commented on my appearance, and to hear him do so made me heady.
I grabbed the memory with my mind and stashed it away to treasure and decode later. Now was not the time.
He was right, though, I did look lovely. My long blond hair was pulled up into a stylish bun and a few strands had been curled and left free, framing my angular face. The light blue gown I wore, though simple, was made of fine silk and hugged close to my chest before billowing out as it reached my waist.
When I fidgeted with a diamond and sapphire bracelet around my wrist, Nikolai’s voice stopped me. “Still your mind.”
“How?” I snapped and half-winced as I turned to glance at him. To my surprise, he appeared bemused. A blush rose to my cheeks once more. Five years, and he still surprised me.
“Keep your thoughts in the present like I’ve taught you. The past is over and the future is unknown. We can—”
“Only affect the present,” I finished, and his smile widened.
I let out a deep, exasperated sigh but turned my attention forward and tried to do as he’d said.
The antechamber to the Inner Sanctum was a large, open room, lined with gilded chairs. The butler who’d ushered us in, a minor air mage like all the Sanctum’s butlers, had told us to sit, but I couldn’t. I wanted to pace but couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched. With no other choice, I forced my muscles into rigid compliance and focused on the large mahogany double doors leading to the Inner Sanctum.
Atop those doors, the Sanctum’s words, spelled out in Starariječ, were etched deep into the wood: Saxea est iter percurrimus. It is a rocky road we travel.
I stared at the words. It wasn’t only the doors they had been carved into; they’d been imprinted in my mind as well. Since the day Nikolai had pulled me from the streets and brought me to his home, he’d repeated those words. I knew they were important, but I didn’t understand the depth of their meaning.
My road would be hard, Nikolai had assured me time and time again. I was the first water mage with great enough power to be Tested by the Sanctum in fifty years. I was gifted with strength and cursed with responsibility. I would be hunted by those who would seek to use my power. I would be tempted to take an easier road. But, he would say, I must always remember the words and the law. And when he said this, I would nod obediently into his kind but serious green eyes, never quite grasping his vague message but never feeling comfortable enough to ask. Nikolai was a gentle master but questioning the wisdom of the Sanctum was not something he tolerated.
Until this point, my life as a mage had been easy, and I’d given the words of warning little more than a passing thought. Yes, yes, I’d say, rocky road, when are we going to the river?
Tension knotted my stomach as I gazed up at the saying I’d heard a thousand times. I’d come here to take the Tests because I wanted to make Nikolai proud and because I wanted to make the Sanctum proud. Never once had I questioned where I was going or why, but as I read and re-read the words, I couldn’t help but wonder—where would this infamous rocky road lead me?
I didn’t turn toward Nikolai as he spoke, just braced myself and lowered my eyes. The doors began to open and I gazed at them, defiant. It was time, and I was ready.