Midday light cut through the valley, warming the otherwise chilly day. Sweat glistened on Tetra’s chest and arms. Wending its way through the valley, the breeze brought with it the smell of grass and growing things. Birds chirped in the distance. He focused on these sensations, hoping they’d distract from the growing tension that straightened his spine and caught at the nape of his neck. When this didn’t work, he cast his gaze out over the village, thinking the familiar, comforting sight might soothe him.
The valley’s edges had been cleared of the woods, making way for stepped crops, allowing packed dirt-and-cobble roads to wind through the busy village of Jaegen. Buildings stood two stories at most in Jaegen, a village that had spread out rather than up. Unlike many villages in the kingdom, most of the roofs were steepled and shingled, rather than thatched. The rains on the edge of the Rocmire Forest were heavy, with monsoons twice a year, and thatch didn’t hold up.
Villagers meandered along the streets, going about the varied tasks of the day, though none came near the grassy clearing at the center of town. There, a massive wooden pole stood, carved and polished to a near-reflective sheen, a glowing green crystal atop it. The crystal pulsed with a rainbow of colors, always retuning to its base green between flashes. Like thousands of other settlements across the lands, Jaegen was built around a shard of the Heart of the World.
A group stood with Tetra, forming a ring around the pole—six other adolescents and an older man crowned by long white tresses with a full and lengthy beard dominating his features. While he leaned on a cane, their instructor’s brown breeches and leather tunic exposed a surprisingly muscular frame for his age. His skin was bronzed by decades of exposure to the sun and weathered by the winter winds he had endured.
The Elder’s attention focused on Tetra. The gangly boy tried to ignore his overheated brow as he concentrated on Sven, who struggled to lift a rock the size of a man’s head. It sat atop a thin pillar of earth that stood at eye level, bobbing and swaying as bits of the supporting column crumbled and fell away. Sven fought to replace the falling pieces of earth, keeping the pillar intact and the stone balanced upon it.
“Concentrate …” Elder Proumin patted Sven on the back, “good.”
Glittering lines of force shimmered in the air as Proumin exposed the magics at play, creating a map of the power the boy used. As a Prios, Jaegen’s elder instructor used his affinity to expose the use of magics to others, allowing for easier demonstrations of how to effectively employ their abilities and learn to work together.
“Tetra,” Proumin said.
Tetra pushed damp brown locks out of his eyes and looked over to his grandfather. “Yes, Elder?”
Proumin raised a bushy, white eyebrow. “Can you help him?”
“I—I’m not sure,” Tetra reached out with his affinity, probing the stone, studying the lines and seams of millennia spent in its growth. The process proved more intimate than reaching out and taking hold of the rock. The elements, the inner power holding the stone together became part of him, as much as his own bones and blood. Yet if he flexed the control, as he would his own muscles, it would cost him dearly. Using affinity magic burned the body’s energy faster than ordinary muscle use. “It has a high iron content. Perhaps Malec can—”
“You’re a Graviton, Tetra. You can help him as easily as a Magnus. Iron is a good start. Look deeper.” Proumin shifted his weight on the walking stick, studying the interplay of magic. “Sven, allow his magic in. Loosen your control without losing your grip on the magic itself.”
Sven grunted. Sweat beaded on his forehead, clumping together the sandy bangs above his hazel eyes. Tetra knew his probing threatened Sven’s tenuous control, but he acted under his grandfather’s orders.
Concentrating harder, Tetra tried to lighten the rock, affecting its density. He stood with legs spread wide, fists clenched at his side. Raising one hand, he fought an invisible resistance as the earth in front of him rippled. Elements and forces bound the stone together, a maze of titanic proportions compacted into a miniscule space. Confusing, almost maddening, to track them all. His back tensed and a familiar pain flared along his spine, threatening his focus. What good did sensing the rock’s composition achieve if he had no way to affect their shape like Sven?
Knuckles whitening, Tetra let a huff escape him.
“It’s alright,” his twin sister whispered. “You’re doing great.” An encouraging smile flitted across Halli’s lips, quickly replaced with a frown. Wavy brown hair crowned her face, where earth-colored eyes sparkled with encouragement despite the frown. He knew she always believed in him, no matter what.
Tetra huffed again, pushing against the mingling magics, exerting his will. Sven ignored everyone, focused on keeping the rock aloft while allowing Tetra’s magic in. The stone jerked and rose several feet. The air around it distorted with a heat wave shimmer as Sven pushed it higher.
“It’s lighter!” The blond boy sounded jubilant at the sudden success.
“Good.” Proumin flicked a finger, using his affinity to brighten the manifested force lines and expose the intermingled magics. “You didn’t lose control as the density changed. And Tetra fused his magic without disrupting Sven.”
Tetra gasped. Pain flooded through his body; a thousand needles pierced his muscles as rivulets of fire coursed through his veins. Nausea and lightheadedness overcame him. The world spun in place, he fought to remain standing.
With two quick steps, Halli stood at Tetra’s side and slipped his arm over her shoulders. He felt her other arm wrap around his waist. Resentment for her interference warred with gratefulness for the relief Halli provided through her magic as Tetra leaned his weight against his sister.
Tetra’s grip on his magic slipped, breaking the bond with Sven. The other boy gasped, and Tetra felt another excruciating stab of pain in his back. He was still connected to the rock, but now his magic was in conflict with his friend’s, rather than harmony. The flows contorted, working against each other as Tetra tried to regain his hold on the magic. The stone sank as Sven tried to retain control of the rock without Tetra’s magic to assist him.
“Alright, that’s enough.” Proumin stared at Tetra. Worry lines creased his grandfather’s brow. “Listen closely, children.”
Releasing his tentative bond on the stone’s density, Tetra leaned harder on his sister. While he appreciated the relief, he also didn’t want anyone to know how bad his old injury was, and Tetra disguised the motion of leaning on his sister by adjusting his stance. The muscles in his back tightened and the rock crashed to the ground.
Sven released his hold on his own magic and the pillar crumbled to the ground, smashing as dirt fell over the rock. “Sorry.”
Tetra smiled wanly. “You did great.” The cool caress of Halli’s affinity probed his spine. Turning his head, he saw her eyes narrow as she studied him.
Tetra pulled away from Halli and sat, ignoring both the pain and his sister’s inspection. She wouldn’t be able to delve too deeply without touching him. That was his only salvation now, his only way to hide his weakness.
“Wrestling with an affinity takes a toll on the body,” their grandfather explained. He pulled up his mat and sat cross-legged, his walking stick set parallel to his knees. “It usually manifests as exhaustion, much the way the body weakens if it goes too long without food. There are even legends of arch mages who have died of starvation by using their magic on too grand a scale.”
“I’m fine,” Tetra lied, forced himself not to look at Halli as the telltale sign of her healing magic faded from his back. A strong Geist, Halli used the twins’ bond in unfair ways, he felt. Their connection didn’t give her the right to constantly probe.
He almost wished her magic wasn’t so good. Almost. Yet magic ran strong in their family. According to Academy testers, Halli demonstrated a once-in-a-century healing talent, and their village only held one other person with such a strong spirit affinity—their mother. Though even hers didn’t have the same potential Halli’s did. Despite that, she was still the strongest Geist the village had ever known. With his back injury, a broken spine when he was an infant, Tetra walked only because of their mother Leta.
Proumin stroke his beard as he watched the children, paying particular attention to Tetra. “Listen, boy. This isn’t about you alone. These are things you all must learn. You all may be strong, but none of you are so strong that you can’t fall prey to your own affinity … especially if you never fully understand the magic you wield. Fusing affinities is no simple task. Two wills and two minds must work together. If you fail, the results can be disastrous. For other races this is a simple task. Every oroc uses the same two affinities, which means they understand how they work without the risks we have. With us, it is not just a matter of understanding the magic, it is also a matter of trusting the person. You must get that into your heads.”
Tetra exchanged glances with the other children, contemplating what his grandfather said. They’d heard all this before, but tomorrow marked their departure for the Academy. These repeated lessons ran deeper than mere words. The concepts Proumin taught would take years to master. They were seeds being planted in the kid’s minds, aimed at growing over the years at the Academy. And yet, he wanted to grasp them now. He had been studying under his grandfather’s tutelage for years, without achieving the control he so desperately wanted.
“Both of you,” Proumin looked between Tetra and Sven, “had to fight your natural resistance to work together. Each of you wanted control, neither wanted to cooperate. This is natural. But fighting to allow another in costs as much, if not more, than using magic itself. To work together, you must let go of this natural tendency.”
The pressure of Halli’s gaze shifted as she considered Proumin’s words. Tetra sighed in relief. This day had been difficult enough without his sister adding to his fear—the ultimate dread of someone discovering his magic usage worsened his spinal injury.
Proumin stroked his beard. “Learn everything you can about each other. The closer your bonds, the stronger you’ll be at the Academy.” He turned his attention to Malec. “A final demonstration. Lift the stone.”
With a sly smile, Malec tossed his black curls aside and set his dark-eyed gaze on the stone. The heavy rock shot into the air. It stopped at eye level and rotated slowly, the small sparks of mica shimmering in the sun. Miming a yawn, he twiddled blades of grass between his fingers.
“Very good, you’ve been practicing.” Tetra watched his grandfather take in the casual gestures of confidence of Malec’s blatant posturing. “… But enough showing off.”
The stone dropped to the ground with a thud, kicking up a cloud of dust.
The Elder tugged his whiskers. “We’re proud of you all. The village hasn’t had the honor of sending anyone to the Academy for four years, and now we’re sending seven.” He rose to his feet, joints creaking and popping. “Continue practicing, but be careful. The magnitude and strength of your affinities could pose a natural danger to you and anyone around if you lose control at a critical moment. Remember that, always.”
Walking to the edge of the green, he paused and looked back to the children. “Take the rest of the day for yourselves. Tomorrow you leave for the Academy.”
“Thank you, Elder Proumin,” the youngsters said in unison. As Tetra’s grandfather exited the green, the children rested in contemplative silence. Noises from the bustling village washed over them: people talking, the soft slap of laundry being cleaned on a washboard, the clack and clatter of a wagon’s wheels over the cobblestones. Everything changed tomorrow, and the normalcy of those sounds would be gone.
As usual, Pavil broke the silence first. “Hear that? Our affinities have personality!”
Halli blinked. “What are you talking about?”
The boy grinned. “He said they have magnitude.”
Katerine rolled her gold-green eyes. “That’s not what magnitude means.”
“What does it mean, then?” Pavil leaned out of Halli’s way as she tried to ruffle his blonde hair.
“It means I’m hungry,” Laney groaned as she flopped back, unruly gold locks curling off her head in all directions. The youngest of the group, only twelve years old, she always found something to complain about.
Halli sat down beside Tetra. Leaning her arms over her knees, she nonchalantly tugged at blades of grass between her feet. The afternoon winds carried the scent of wheat across the village, and Tetra smelled roasting rocboar coming from the village inn. His stomach grumbled.
Halli nudged Tetra with her elbow. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
Forcing himself to smile, Tetra nodded. She smiled back. Neither of them was fooled. She felt his pain; he sensed her worry.
“It means you’re an idiot,” Katerine said, retying a cord around her hair. Malec’s snorting laughter grew, while Pavil’s expression darkened. The rest of their friends seemed to be in a different world from the one that Tetra and Halli inhabited at the moment, one that they, as twins, knew all too well.
“Food does sound good,” Sven said. Laney sat up with a squeal.
“Mealtime?” Halli asked Tetra. He nodded again. She stood and reached out, helping Tetra stand even as he rolled his eyes at her.
“About time,” Laney said. “I’m close to starving.”
Malec copied Halli and held out a hand to Pavil, who took it and jumped to his feet. Pavil pulled hard as he jumped up, and Malec wobbled in place, almost falling over.
“Exaggerating much?” Pavil asked. “I can provide a magnitude of talent to sustain you.”
“I don’t want any magnitude from you,” Laney said, strutting off the village green, holding her hands sternly on her hips.
The others broke into laughter. Sven trudged down the street leading from the green to the Bicks’ residence. Women and men worked hard at the end of the year’s cleaning, ready to welcome the harvest moon with the celebrations it brought. Rushes were replaced and lamps readied for the winter to come. Always full of something to talk about, Laney chattered away beside him as the others fell in step. The day’s heat sat heavy on their heads, but the cool breeze caressing the valley made the day beautiful.
The aroma of freshly cut wheat, grown on the cleared steppes, filled the air along with the quiet hush of the scythes wielded by the reapers. Preparations for the harvest festival were underway. It saddened Tetra to know he’d miss the celebration, though he wouldn’t miss the town itself. Their departure for the Academy in Aldamere had been pushed up nearly two weeks sooner than in years past—due to the prediction of an early winter. Under the cheery autumn sun, winter seemed too far away.
“I wonder what it will be like,” Halli said, gazing into the distance. “Classes. A big city …” Tetra’s sister echoed his thoughts until she grinned and added—“Boys.”
“I can’t imagine it will be anything like Jaegen,” Katerine said.
“By the Aspects, I hope it isn’t,” Tetra said. “I couldn’t stand a place a hundred times the size of Jaegen, but just as dull.”
“It’s not so bad, is it?” Halli frowned, a chiding look he hated. Her being ten minutes older than him didn’t give her the authority to act so disapproving.
He shrugged. “It’s home and it always will be, but I’m ready for a change. Don’t get me wrong. I love everyone here, but it’s so small, you know?”
“Jaegen never changes. That’s one of the things I love about it.” Halli watched a group of children run past, squealing as they played some impromptu game.
Katerine perked up. “You know what we should do?”
Tetra kicked a rock off the path. “What?”
“We should name ourselves.” She skipped forward a step. “Something like The Jaegen Seven, yeah?”
“That’s silly, Katerine. We’re not a band of story time heroes or anything.”
“Hush, Tetra,” his sister replied. “I like the idea. A way to remember we’re a group once we’re at the Academy.”
Tetra glanced at her. “Still think it’s silly.”
Katerine pouted. “I just want everyone to know we’re a group. That we’re all friends.” She lowered her head and muttered, “I don’t think that’s stupid.”
He shrugged again and looked away. “Have it your way.”
“Then it’s settled.” Halli chucked Tetra’s shoulder. “What a magnificent band we’ll be.”
The Jaegen Seven continued toward the Bicks house.