Novel Excerpt

The Rise of Rynn

CHAPTER ONE: MASTER DUKATH


“TODAY’S TEST,” Master Dukath says, “is to bring me the heart of a forest animal.” He leans back in his chair and clasps his fingers together, his voice calm, as always.

I frown. Each day the tests have been getting harder. Yesterday’s was to make somebody cry. I don’t like making people cry, since it reminds me of when I was little and I would hurt people with my Gift powers and I didn't mean to.

Randon stands beside me, by far the most ruthless student in our Ruling Order training program. He succeeded in making someone cry on his way out of Master Dukath’s study yesterday. He told one of the child boarders staying at the school for the summer, that her parents died in a spacecraft malfunction on their way out of the planet’s atmosphere. She ran away crying and calling for her grandfather.

I glance over at Randon now. He has this stupid grin on his face and I imagine he’s planning the most gruesome way to get the heart of an animal. All the tasks so far have been easy for him. Nothing makes him feel bad.

“Go ahead then,” Grand Master says, dismissing us.
Randon turns and walks briskly out of the study, seeming eager to get started. I’m not as fast and get stopped at the door.
“Rynn,” Grand Master says.
“Yes, Your Leadership?”
“Come and have a seat. I wanted to tell you this in private.”

I walk back into the study and sit down, my heart pounding.

“Randon isn’t ready to hear of this yet. He believes he is my favorite student,” Grand Master says. “And I admit that I do find his enthusiasm... praiseworthy. But he is not Gifted and doesn’t possess any real power, like you do.”

I nod, not sure what to say.

“Our new army, the Ruling Order, will be all powerful. You and Randon will rule the galaxy together, and you will be the leader.”

I sit completely still. Did he say I would be the leader? I’m two years younger than everyone else in the program. Grand Master has always believed in me, when no one else did and when even my brother Morlin was beginning to give up on me. But Master Dukath told me he’d foreseen it, that I would become great and powerful if I joined him in building up the new Ruling Order.

“You have your grandfather’s strength and Gift within you,” Grand Master continues. “I will help you use it and you will become the most feared and most powerful ruler in the galaxy.”

My chest fills and it’s hard to breathe. I can’t reply even if I wanted to.

“Your brother has taught you well,” Grand Master nods and I frown. Morlin only held me back, always telling me to repress my emotions. But Grand Master encourages anger and rage and that has made me less angry somehow, and more focused.

“What are his thoughts on your returning to summer training?” Grand Master asks.

I shift in my seat. “I didn’t tell him.”

“Good. And he will be proud of your progress when he returns to find you stronger, the true leader that you were meant to be.”

I hold back a smile. I don’t want to seem too eager for praise, which would be unbefitting for a future Master.

“I have high hopes for you my boy,” Grand Master continues. “You will become a powerful, Dark Master.”

“Pardon me, Your Leadership?”

“All in good time.” Grand Master nods slowly, his eyes never leaving me. “Stay focused on your daily tasks. You must find your darkest emotions to truly become a Master, and I believe you will.”

“Thank you, Your Leadership.” I bow slightly then step back.
“And Rynn?”
“Yes, Your Leadership?”
“Tonight you cannot sleep.”

My chest deflates. “Am I being punished?”

“For asking me that, you will be, once I think of
a suitable punishment.”

My shoulders slump but I don’t reply.

“It’s not a punishment, but to help you master your body and have greater self-control. In battle you don’t sleep, for days, or even weeks, until there is victory. One night should be simple enough, even for you.”

I nod. It’s anything but simple, especially with how I feel the day after I get no sleep. For some reason Randon never has to do any of the self-mastery disciplines. Maybe Grand Master thinks he’s already good at self-discipline. But I know there’s nothing further from the truth. Randon lies and cheats and has no control over his temper or anything else that has to do with his emotions or desires. I shiver at the last thought.

“Very well then, go on.” Grand Master dismisses me with a small wave of his hand and I get up immediately, my head still spinning with all that he’s told me. Now I have to go get the heart of a forest animal. I can’t disappoint Grand Master. He’s the only one who’s ever believed in me.




CHAPTER TWO: THE LITTLE GIRL IN THE FOREST


I LOOK OVER my shoulder to the school building in the distance. From here it looks like a pile of ancient ruins sitting under the sun at the other end of an open field. The forest is dark and unforgiving, even in the daytime. Cool air wafts out from the dense trees forming a wall where the field ends.

I step over thick branches as I enter into the brush. Above me the white clouds are obscured by gnarled branches and leaves. For a moment I wish that I could fly, away from the daily tests and from Randon, from Aurah the only girl on our summer training team.

She leans over the lunch table in front of me so I’ll notice her breasts. I try not to look but I always do and I hate it. I'm not supposed to like girls or think about those kinds of things. Master Dukath says those things are for the weak and undisciplined, that Dark Masters don’t allow such things into their minds or lives to distract them.

The wind rustles the leaves and I shiver. I came out here to find an animal but they all seem to be hiding, like they know I want their hearts.
“I can do all things through the Gift which strengthens me.” I whisper the mantra my brother taught me as I walk through the trees. I can’t tell if it actually helps to use the mantras but it’s become a habit now.

A sound catches my attention and I stop walking to listen. It’s coming from my left and sounds like a child crying. I head in that direction and see a little girl through the trees. She’s kneeling in the dirt, mud on her light colored clothes. She’s the same girl Randon made cry yesterday. She’s holding something in her hands.

The leaves crunch beneath my boots and she looks over to me, her eyes wide and full of tears. I’m not supposed to talk to anyone outside of our summer training group, not even my mom on the comm unit, not until the training is over. But I can’t help but be curious about what she’s holding. I’ll just add this to the list of everything I’m going to be in trouble for anyway.

“She fell out of her nest,” the little girl says. Her voice has a sweet childlike sound that I’m not used to hearing.

“Can I see?” I ask. She gets up and walks to me. I step back, thinking she might accidentally touch me. I’m not allowed to touch anyone. When I do, Master Dukath seems to know instantly and I get punished. He says it will spoil my training.

But he never seems to notice when Randon pushes me or bugs me, because Randon’s Grand Master’s favorite student, or at least I thought he was.
Now I know I’m his favorite, since he said I’d be a Dark Master someday and the leader.

“She’s still alive!” The little girl holds up her hands to me and I see a tiny baby bird. I pick it up, careful not to touch her fingers as I do. The baby bird’s tiny heartbeat flutters in my palm.

“My name’s Rita-Rue,” the girl says. “My grandfather calls me Rue. He lives here.”
I watch the bird struggle in my hand and don’t respond.
“How old are you?” the little girl asks.
“Fifteen.”
“I'm five.” Rue holds up her palm and spreads out five chubby fingers to show me the number.
“Oh, I thought you were like... three.”
“I’m not three!” she yells. Her high pitched squeal makes me jump. I step back.

“I’m not supposed to be talking to you,” I say, wrapping my fingers around the baby bird. I have what I came for and I should head back, before someone finds me talking to this five-year-old.

“I’m turning six soon you know,” she says, clasping her hands behind her back and standing up on her toes. I nod and start to walk away.

“Wait!” she runs after me and grabs my cloak. “We have to put the baby bird back in its nest.” She points up into the tree. I look up too but I don’t see the nest.

“I’m taking the bird,” I say. There’s no point in letting her think I could be her friend or something.
I frown. Usually kids are scared of me, like they can sense that I’m dangerous, but Rue seems different.

“Why?” she demands, putting her hands on her hips.
“Because I have to take my Master the heart of a forest animal.”
I look down at her round little face, expecting her eyes to go wide with fear at what I’ve said. But she only nods, as though she’s thinking.

“Okay,” she says. “The baby bird has a heart. I could feel it in my hands. You can take her to your Master.” She crosses her arms. “But you have to bring her back when you’re done and climb in the tree and put her back with her brothers and sisters after!” She purses her lips and tears fill her eyes. “You have to promise or give her back to me right now!”
“I promise,” I say.

“Okay. But she’ll miss her brothers and sisters. She’ll be scared.”

“She won’t be scared. She’s resting, see.” I open my palm to show her then quickly close it again. “My hand is like a nest. She likes it.”

Rue nods and wipes her eyes. “Okay. I have to go back to grandfather, but can I come play with you after lunch?”

“No,” I say.

Rue’s face turns red and my chest tightens. I’ve never met anyone so emotional. Maybe if I lie to her she’ll go away.

“I’ll come find you after I put the baby bird back and then we can... play.”

She smiles. “Okay. What’s your name?”

I almost say Bryn but stop myself. “It’s Rynn.”
Rynn’s the new name I was given when I started training with Grand Master. And now everyone calls me Rynn. Except Randon and Aurah.

“Bye, Rynn.” Rue runs off through the trees, like a little bird herself, her light frame moving fast. I’m tall and lanky and not a very good runner. I watch her go, wondering if she actually knows the way out of the forest, or if she’ll just get lost deeper in it.

Should I follow her? The forest is scary at night and lots of people have seen ghosts wandering here, of dead Masters.

I open my palm and look down at the baby bird, Rue’s words still running through my head, she’ll miss her brothers and sisters. The bird’s tiny heart still beats. I want it to live and I want to return it to the nest, but I won’t.

I sigh, closing my hand again, then hurry back to the school.



CHAPTER THREE: FAILURE


I WALK INTO Master Dukath’s study and Randon is already there. We’re the only two who are part of the personal training with the Master. The other kids that are in the summer training for future commanders and leaders of the Ruling Order don’t do the daily tests we do.

I stop at the door, wondering if I should just wait until Randon leaves. I hate him. He always says something to make me look bad in front of Master Dukath, and sometimes he even makes stuff up. Then I sound stupid when I say it’s not true, like I’m the one who’s lying and trying to cover it up.

“Rynn,” Grand Master says from inside the study. I freeze. “I know you’re out there. Come and join us.”

I step inside, the baby bird sweating in my hand. Randon glances at me when I walk in. He has a stupid smirk on his face and his hands are all red with blood.

“Nothing to show for yourself, as usual?” he says.
I ignore him and walk to Master Dukath’s large wooden desk and set the bird down. It moves but has lost most of its energy now, like a fish running out of air.

Master Dukath looks down at the sad, little creature and I can tell he’s disappointed.
“I asked for the heart, my dear boy, not the entire animal.”

I don’t answer and Grand Master looks up at me. “You know all of these... creatures, are for our use, do you not?” he says. “They exist to help further a greater purpose, our purposes. Today it is for the purpose of your training, that this bird will be killed.” He studies me a moment. “Do you feel sorry for the bird, Rynn?” he asks.
“No, Master.”
“Then perhaps Randon could bring us a knife?”

My shoulders stiffen but I don’t say anything. The bird moves again, trying to get up from its side but unable to. I close my eyes, angry at the little girl for making me promise to take it back. I’ll tell her tomorrow that I killed it, and I’ll make her cry, like Randon did. Then she’ll leave me alone and not ask me to play with her anymore.

I hear Randon’s hurried footsteps approaching from the hall and open my eyes. How did he find a knife so quick? He’s breathing fast when he walks in. Did he run? There’s an evil grin on his face that makes my stomach tighten. He holds out a large kitchen knife to me. I take it and look at Master Dukath. He nods for me to continue.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says, putting his palms out. “Go ahead. The bird may be innocent, but sometimes we have to kill the innocent, to show those in power that we are serious and will use any means to achieve our goal. You will not be able to save the lives of many, if you cannot end the lives of a few. Go on. The bird’s sacrifice is your growth in the powers of the Gift.”
He’s right. It’s just a stupid, little bird.

I clutch the knife handle, turning it in my hand. The bird is still alive. Why couldn’t it have just died already, like a fish?

Suddenly Randon grabs the knife out of my hand and slams the blade down over the baby bird’s neck.
“You lose,” he whispers to me, then reaches in front of me for the bird. I turn away, unable to watch.

I know what I should do. I should push Randon away and do it myself and get the heart, but I can’t.
I’ve failed again.

“You’ve failed again,” Master Dukath says, echoing my thoughts.
I turn to face him. “And for that I know I will be punished,” I say. It’s the response I’m supposed to give if Grand Master says I’ve failed. I used to try and give explanations as to why I failed, but it doesn’t matter. I know Grand Master approves more of this simple response, than excuses.

“For your punishment, you will stay out in the forest for the entire night. You must not sleep or even sit down, but wander deep into the forest and think about all the life around you, the life that is there to serve you, to serve all of us, feeding us and giving us air. We do not serve the creatures and plants, they serve us.”

“Yes, Master,” I say.

“You may both leave now.”

Randon and I bow then walk out. I brace myself for Randon’s ridicule, once we’re in the hall. But he doesn’t say anything and hurries ahead of me instead.
I frown. He’s either in a really good mood or has something bad planned for me later.
I look down at my cloak. There are spots of blood on it from the bird.

I don’t care what Randon says. I haven’t lost.
I won’t lose my chance at being a leader in the Ruling Order.


CHAPTER FOUR: RANDON


THE FULL MOONS shine through the trees of the forest, casting ghostly shadows all around. My breath puffs out into the cold air and I pull my hood over my head to keep the chill away.

I’ve spent the night roaming the forest before, as punishment. The first time was the worst and I had nightmares for weeks. But I never saw any ghosts, although I thought I heard them, and now I think I hear them again.

“I can do all things through the powers of my Gift, which strengthen me,” I whisper.
My words get lost in a gust of wind.

A tree branch moves like the arms of a giant, with gnarly fingers silhouetted against the starry sky. I walk faster, heading for a clearing up ahead.

The snap of a branch behind me makes me stop. I turn, my adrenaline pumping. Visions of ghostly Masters with dark hoods and no faces invade my thoughts. But it’s too dark in the trees to see anything.
Probably just a forest animal. I pull my hood lower over my head and keep going.

My boots crunch the leaves and branches as I hurry to the forest’s edge. The tall trees sway wildly overhead and the wind lifts the leaves up around my feet.
Another branch snaps and I stop to listen.

Suddenly, a dark shape jumps out at me and I scream, falling to the ground. Two hands hold me down and I know by his familiar grasp that it’s Randon. The roots of an old tree stab at my side, sending pain shooting up my back.

“Get off of me!” I yell, but my voice is drowned out in a rush of wind. Randon pins my legs down with his bony knees and his hands push on my wrists, making my fingers numb. My heart won’t calm down, from the startle of his attack. “You’re not supposed to touch me,” I say.

“No, you’re not supposed to touch anyone,” he replies, sounding out of breath. “Because Master thinks you’re so special. But you’re not. And I can do whatever I want.”

“Get off!”

Randon leans in close and I turn my head to the side. “I’m the only one that’s ever going to want to come anywhere near you,” he growls. “Even Aurah would never lay with you.”

“I don’t even want her to,” I say, trying to push Randon off, but he’s strong and two years older than me. My heart pounds wildly. I’m not allowed to use my Gift powers or I’ll be expelled from the program. The tree roots dig further into my side and I clench my jaw.

“We need each other, Bryn,” Randon says, his face close to mine.

I hold my breath, my stomach twisting. “I don’t need you. I’m going to be like the other Grand Masters, who don’t need anyone.”

“Who said you could ever be a Grand Master?”

“Nobody,” I say quickly.

“Well, you’ll never be one. You’re too much of a coward.”

“Why don’t you go to Aurah?” I say. “She’ll let you lay with her.”

“She’ll let anyone lay with her. I don’t want Aurah. I’ll get thrown out for unclean acts.”

I don’t respond and look out past the trees at the stars in the distance. One day I’ll be all powerful and I’ll have armies and weapons and battle starships at my command. But for now I have to deal with Randon.
“Why won’t you just leave me alone?” I say. “I failed another test. Isn’t that good enough for you? You’re passing them all.”

Randon seems to consider this for a moment.
“You’ll never make it through the training course,” he snarls, climbing off of me. “Have fun in the forest.”

I sit up slowly, my back aching from the fall. Randon is already gone back into the dark woods and I’m alone again, my body suddenly cold from his absence.

***

“What happened to you?” Aurah asks as I walk by her table in the dining hall. I try not to limp. I don’t want to look even more pathetic than I already feel, for being sent out into the forest for the night. I hurt my ankle, climbing on rocks near the large river and now it’s making me hobble as I walk.

I ignore Aurah and keep going.
After Randon’s assault last night I walked as deep into the forest as I could, not caring about the ghosts anymore. I dared them to come and destroy me. Randon’s words got to me. I was no longer sure I’d make it through the training, let alone become a Grand Master someday.

When I reached the wide river I considered jumping into it, but the water wasn’t deep enough for me to drown in and I came back instead. Now I’m running late reporting back to Master Dukath.

“Where are you going?” Aurah calls after me. “Come and have breakfast with me.”

I keep going to the next building, connected to the dining hall by a wide archway, leading to Master’s study. The sun shines through the long windows, so bright that I feel like I’m walking in a dream, my mind hazy from lack of sleep.

Master Dukath isn’t in his study when I get there.
I frown. I’ll be in trouble when he returns, for being late. But at least I completed my punishment this time. I’ll just have to wait here until he comes back.

There’s a movement near the door and I stand up straighter, thinking it’s Master Dukath. I look and see the little blond girl, Rue. She’s got her hair in braids today and is wearing her beige pants and a dust-colored shirt with a towel wrapped around her neck. The towel hangs down like a cape. She stops when she sees me in the study.

“Did you fall out of the tree?” she asks, her eyes going wide.
“What tree?” I blink, squinting to see her. She’s standing in front of the hallway windows with the sun shining so brightly behind her that it hurts to look at her.
“When you took the baby bird back,” she says.

I quickly glance at the wooden desk, then let out a sigh of relief. It’s cleaned off and the bird is gone. I look back to Rue again. “If Master finds me talking to you I’ll be in big trouble.”

She nods then starts to walk away.
“Rue?” I say in a loud whisper.
“Yes?” she replies in an even louder whisper, looking back into the room.
“Why are you wearing a towel around your neck?” She narrows her eyes at me in an angry glare.
“It’s my cloak,” she growls, then stomps off loudly down the hall.

I hear new footsteps approaching and my heart speeds up.
Hurry Rue.
I can’t afford any more mistakes. I’m starting to lose count of how many I will be punished for. What if Master Dukath regrets his decision to take me on as his personal apprentice? Randon says the only reason Grand Master tolerates me is because I have Gift abilities. But I know I can be a leader. I’m the youngest one here and I get no respect from the other students. But when I’m older, it won’t be that way.

Two elderly Masters walk by in the hall, their cloaks hiding their faces. My shoulders relax when I see it’s not Master Dukath. I’ll have to stand here and wait for as long as it takes for him to return, if I can stay awake that long. I close my eyes and see Rue silhouetted by the sun, standing in the hall the way she was only moments ago, with an angry glare on her little face.
I smile. She reminds me of me, when I was little.



CHAPTER FIVE: YOU SHOULD BE SCARED OF ME


I LIGHT A CANDLE and sit down on my bed. The smell of the sulfur and wax relaxes me and I stare at the flame. I used to miss the modern luxuries of home, but now I’ve gotten accustomed to the simple life style of the Masters and I almost prefer it.

A breeze blows in through the partially open window, almost blowing out my candle. I look up at the picture of my mom on the dresser. I never did get a frame for it, but for some reason I brought it with me.
I close my eyes, feeling tired. Tonight I’m allowed to sleep but I can’t. I thought I’d be so glad to finally get to bed, but every time I lay down I think of home and of Mom. I don’t want to miss her, she’s the one who sent me away in the first place. Then she expected me to come back once it was summer break, but I stayed to do the leadership program.

I get up and walk to my bookshelf to take down The Book of The Masters. Reading should help me fall asleep, or at least get my mind off of things.

There’s a gentle knock on my door and my grip on the thick book tightens.
Please don’t let it be Randon again.

I go to unlock the door. At least I won’t be alone with my thoughts, even if it is Randon. I don’t have the energy to hate anyone today.

The hinges creek as I open the heavy, wooden door. At first I don’t see anyone, then I look down at a head of blond hair.

“Hi,” Rue says, tilting her head up and smiling.
I frown. “Where did you come from?”
“My home planet.” She sticks her chin up and gives me a defiant look.
I grin. “That’s not very specific.”

Rue seems to consider my words, but I can tell she doesn’t understand. “Yes it is!” she finally replies. “Shhh...” I kneel down to Rue’s level. “You can’t be here. I’ll get in big trouble.”

She shrugs, seeming unconcerned about me getting into trouble.

“Actually,” I continue. “You’ll get in big trouble.” Rue crosses her arms and still doesn’t move. “Rue,” I give her my most serious look. “I’m training to be an evil Master. I do evil things now, things you don’t know about. I’ve always done evil things, like hurt people when I’m mad, even when I was only two years old. You should be scared of me.”

Rue gives me a curious look but doesn’t respond.

I sit back onto my feet, my knees sore from kneeling. “I could hurt you,” I say. “Or kill you by accident.”

Rue uncrosses her arms and her hand comes up and smacks my cheek.

I blink in surprise. Did she just slap me? Her tiny palm stays against my face.
I take her hand away. “You can’t touch me or you’ll get into trouble.”

Rue shrugs and I realize she doesn’t care about getting into trouble.

“If you touch me you'll get really sick and die,” I say.

Her eyes go wide and she shoves her palm in my face again. “Is that why you have the red spots on your face? Because you have a disease? And you’re going to die?”
“No!” I take her hand away again. “Don’t touch my face, or my cloak, or my hands. And don’t come to my roo-”
Rue squishes my nose with her palm.
“What about your nose? Can I touch your nose?” “No.” I push her hand away again. “I told you, I can be very mean, and scary.”
“You’re not scary.”
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not.”
“If I get mad, I could kill you.”
“You won’t kill me.”
“How do you know?”

Rue tilts her head to the side, as though studying me. “Because I know. Mom says it’s my gift. I can tell when people are nice inside or if they are evil inside.”

I stare at her for a moment. A sound in the hall makes my heart speed up. “You have to go now.”
“Can I stay here? I’m scared in my room.”
“No.”
“But I can’t sleep.”
“Then stay awake, but do it in your own room.”

“I want to stay here. I don’t want to be alone.”
“No Rue.”
“Please?”
“It’s against the rules.”
“Everything is against the rules!” Rue cries. “Shhh...”
I grab her by the shoulders, then quickly let go, remembering that I’m not allowed to touch anyone.
“You’re right,” I say. “There are a lot of rules here.”
“Why?”

A shadow moves in the torchlight down the hall. Someone is approaching. I hesitate a moment then quickly pull Rue into the room. I turn the handle all the way so it doesn’t make a click sound when I push the door closed, then I slowly release the handle.

“If you get me into trouble I’ll...” I turn to find Rue pulling out my grandfather’s sword from under my bed. “Don’t touch that!”
Rue jumps back, letting it go.
“It’s mine!” I yell. “You can’t just grab my stuff. It isn’t yours!” I push the sword back under the bed. Rue backs away from me until she hits the wall, then covers her face with her hands. I’m still on my knees, having tucked the sword safely back under my bed, and I wait to see what she’ll do next. She crouches down and hugs her knees, then she begins to sob.

I groan. “I told you that you wouldn’t want to hang out with me,” I say, feeling bad but not wanting her to know that. “Just go back to your room.”
“I’m sorry I touched your toy,” she says, her voice muffled in her knees.
“It’s not a toy.”

She keeps crying and I suddenly feel tired again. “Please just go. I want to sleep.”
“I want to sleep too,” Rue says lifting her head.

Her face is streaked with tears. “I can’t sleep in my room, it’s dark and scary and cold and I can’t light the candles by myself.” Her bottom lip quivers.

“Why do you cry so much?” I say, trying to sound angry so she won’t feel sorry for herself.
“I don’t know,” she says, crying even more, only now she isn’t covering her face anymore, and seeing her cry makes me feel like crying. I go over to her and sit down beside her, leaning against the wall.

“Just... stop crying, okay?” I say.

She takes a few deep breaths and looks at me. “I just cry at night time, because I always think of my mom and dad.” She hiccups, then continues. “In the daytime, I forget about home when I go look at all the plants and bugs, or when I play with Mr. Rock... Oh no!” She screams her last words and I jump away from her in surprise. “Mr. Rock! I have to get Mr. Rock! He’s going to be so scared! I forgot Mr. Rock!”

“Shhh...” I put my hand over her mouth to stop her from yelling but my palm covers her entire face and she freezes in surprise. I take my hand away and wipe the tears on my palm onto my cloak.
“We have to go get-” Rue starts squealing again.
I cover her face again. “Can you stop yelling?” I whisper.
She giggles against my palm and I pull my hand away.

“You should go back to your room and find Mr. Rock,” I start to say, but Rue isn’t paying attention. She grabs my hand again and pushes my palm to her face, puffing up her cheeks and blowing hard so it makes a fart sound.
She giggles again and this time I get up.

“Wait!” Rue grabs the front of my cloak, putting all her weight into pulling me down again. I land on my knees and she throws her skinny little arms around my neck, hugging me tight, her strength surprising me.
“Please can we go get Mr. Rock? please, please-”

I try to peel her off of me, but she won’t release her death grip on my neck.
“You can go back to your room and-”
“No, it’s too scary! You have to come with me!” “If I say yes, will you let go of me?” I ask.

Rue quickly releases me and runs to the door. “I’ll show you the way. I know all the places in the school and I even drew a map. Oh, I’ll show you my map! It’s in my room, too.”

“I’ll walk you back to your room and you can be with Mr. Rock, okay?”

“And then will you stay, too?”

I hesitate. I should just tell her yes, even if I don’t plan on staying, so she won’t start whining again.
“Yes,” I say.

Rue’s face lights up. “Okay! Let’s go!”



CHAPTER SIX: GOOD NIGHT LITTLE RUE


RUE PULLS HER covers off her bed and lets them fall to the dusty stone floor.
“Mr. Rock, Mr. Rock.! Where are you?”

I close her door and look around the room. It’s small. There’s a tiny bed and a bedside table, that’s all.
No bookshelf or books or toys.

A lone candle sits on the window sill, bathed in moonlight. I glance around for something to light it with but don’t see anything. She’ll have to make do, the way she’s done yesterday and all the other days she’s been here.

“Rue, I’m leaving now,” I say, my tiredness coming back.
“Wait! I’ll find him,” she says, continuing her search.
I turn to leave.
“Found him!” Rue yells, her outburst making my shoulders tense.

“Okay. Have a good night.” I reach for the door handle and Rue scrambles off her bed to get to me, tripping herself up in the sheets and landing on the hard floor. The thump of her head on stone makes me cringe.

There’s a moment of silence and then a tiny high pitched sound that will likely turn into a full fledged wail if I don’t do something.

I hurry over and lift her up into my arms. She’s lighter than my folded cloak to carry. I sit down on the bed with her in my lap. “Are you okay?”

She shakes her head no. “Did you hit your head?” She shakes her head yes. “Can I see?”

Rue stops crying, her breath staggered as she lowers her hands from her head. Even in the moonlight I can see the bump that is forming there. She’s breathing deeply now and her eyelids look heavy. She tries not to close them but they keep slipping down.
My shoulders relax. She’ll fall asleep soon.

“It doesn’t look that bad. You’ll be fine,” I say softly.

She starts to say something in reply but her words drift off and her head starts to nod. She falls to one side and I grab her before she topples onto the floor. Her head falls heavy against my chest and she goes limp.

Something clatters to the floor and I see her rock, spinning to a stop in a beam of moonlight.
I pull Rue’s knees up to keep her from sliding off. She breathes softly against my shirt and I close my eyes, feeling her warmth and listening to her gentle breathing sounds. It’s so peaceful that I begin to nod off too.

I shake myself awake. I need to put Rue to bed and get some sleep. Her bed sheets are thrown aside from when she was searching for Mr. Rock. I lay her down gently and pull the blankets up. She mumbles something and curls into a ball.

My foot bumps something hard on the ground and I look down. It’s Rue’s rock. I pick it up and set it gently in her small hand, then wrap her fingers around it.

“Goodnight, little Rue,” I whisper, tucking her in tight the way my mom used to do for me. Then I turn and leave, locking the door behind me.



CHAPTER SEVEN: IN YOUR MIND


“YOU’VE TOUCHED SOMEONE,” Grand Master says.

I stop mid bite of my bread. Aurah gives me a funny look and Randon stares down at his plate, his
brow furrowing.

The morning frenzy in the breakfast hall suddenly becomes still and I swallow my last bite of bread. It goes down hard and I resist the temptation to take a drink from my glass. Grand Master has never come up to our table before and I’m not sure what to do.

Does he know about Rue? I can’t bring myself to look at him. What if he used his powers to look into my thoughts? He must sense the shift in me. I felt different when I woke up this morning, like I was looking forward to the day. I should have known Master Dukath would notice a change. I can’t let him know that I let Rue get close to me. She’ll get sent away and I’ll get another punishment.

I glance over at Randon, who is also avoiding eye contact with Grand Master.
“It was Randon,” I say, clearing my throat.

Aurah gives me curious glance but I ignore her. “In the forest,” I clear my throat. “The night before, he followed me and... attacked me.”

Grand Master studies me. I hold my breath. If he reads my mind now then he’ll know I’m not telling him the whole truth.

“And did that make you angry?” he asks me.

I glance around at the curious faces around the dining hall. Is Master really going to question me here?

“Yes, it made me angry,” I say. But then I realize it didn’t really, not the way it usually does.
“Did you fight back?”
Aurah looks between me and Randon.
“No, Your Leadership,” I say.

“I’d like to see you both in my study, after breakfast.”

“Yes, Your Leadership,” Randon and I both say.
Grand Master walks away and once he’s at the door I let out a sigh.

“Wow,” Aurah says, biting into her bread. “I didn’t realize you two were together.”
“Shut up!” Randon stands abruptly, his chair scraping loudly across the floor, then storms off.

Aurah turns to me and I look away. I don’t want to talk about the forest, or Rue, or Randon. I push my plate aside, no longer hungry. Grand Master is going to give us another test this morning, and it will probably be something neither of us is going to like.

***

“Seriously?” Randon says, not his usual composed self that he is when around Grand Master.

Master’s eyebrows raise slightly at the outburst.
“Is there a problem with my request?”

Randon swallows and shakes his head. “No, Your Leadership.”

“Then go ahead, Bryn,” he says to me.

I turn to Randon, who has an angry look on his face. He’s going to beat me up for this later. I take a deep breath and place my hand on his forehead.

“No, Rynn,” Grand Master says and I quickly pull my hand away. “You can read his mind without touching him. Reach out and concentrate.

I nod and step back, then hold out my hand towards Randon. He still looks mad but I see something else in his blue eyes, something that looks a bit like worry. Is he worried I’ll see something he doesn’t want me to?

I close my eyes and try to focus. I’m not exactly sure how it works, it just sort of does, but no one’s trained me on it so I never use it. Morlin didn’t think it was proper use of my Powers so he never taught me. Yet, with Mom it just comes naturally and I don’t even have to try. Maybe because she’s Gifted too.

I push aside my reservations. I’m under Grand Master’s teaching now and he’s asked me to do it. I start with Randon’s surface thoughts. I have to push past his initial layer of emotions before seeing his actual thoughts.

There is the anger first and foremost, and that worry which I thought I saw in his expression. Or maybe it’s embarrassment. I realize I don’t know what certain emotions feel like for other people. Not exactly.
I reach further and Randon resists.

I stop, not wanting to persist because I’m scared of what I might find.

I open my eyes. “He’s resisting,” I say quietly. “As he should,” Grand Master says. “Try harder.”

I nod, my palms sweating.
I close my eyes and try again.

Randon’s anger has subsided a bit and is now replaced with confidence. I catch a thought. He thinks his resistance to my powers is stronger than my ability to see into his mind, that I’ll fail again in another test. I search further, he’s scared that I’ll see something...

“If he is hiding something he doesn’t want you to see,” Grand Master says, breaking my concentration, “then it will be the most prominent thing on his mind.”
Easy for him to say. I focus harder, curious now.

Then I see it. Randon doesn’t want me to see how strongly he feels about me.
I take a step back.
It’s not hate that he feels so strongly, as I expected, but something else. An emotion I didn’t think he was even capable of.

I quickly drop my hand and open my eyes.
Randon’s brow is furrowed in a look of anger. But I know it’s actually embarrassment. I saw into his mind.

Our eyes meet for a second and I don’t need to read his mind to know that he knows I’ve discovered his secret.

“Well then?” Grand Master says, bringing me back to reality. Except now, reality has changed. I know something I was never meant to know. It should have been Randon’s decision to tell me, if he ever wanted to, which I’m quite sure he wouldn’t.

“What did you see?” Grand Master insists.
“Pardon?”
“You must tell your victim what you see, so they know you were successfully reading their thoughts,” Grand Master says. “Then he will be aware of your power to see what he is hiding and it will break down his confidence.”

I look at Randon. “I saw anger,” I say. “Randon is mad that I’m allowed to read his mind.”

“What else?”

I hesitate.
Randon gives me a look I can’t decipher, his lips pressed together as he waits in silence, with nothing to say for once. He shakes his head slightly at me, as though telling me no.

“I... I couldn’t read him very well,” I lie. “He was resisting too much.”

Grand Master sighs, leaning back in his chair. “Now, as for today’s test...”

Randon sighs ever so slightly, his shoulders relaxing as he looks away from me to Master. For once he doesn’t seem eager to hear what the day’s test will be.

“You will practice mind reading,” Grand Master continues, looking at me. “Then return again tonight to try and read my mind. I want to see how much strength you have to do it, even though I know you will not be able to accomplish reading me, I can still feel your attempts at getting in, whether it’s weak or proves a challenge to me.”

“Yes, Your Leadership,” I say. I take a deep breath, my pulse racing at the thought of practicing my powers. This is the first time I’ve gotten permission to use my Gift since classes started this summer.

“What about me?” Randon asks, then quickly adds, “Your Leadership.” He bows slightly. “What’s my test?”

“To do the same thing.”
Randon frowns, looking confused.

Grand Master continues. “Go and find out the secrets of others and bring the information to me,” he says. “You do not have to have mind reading ability to do that. You only need patience and observance.”

“Yes, Your Leadership.” Randon bows again to Master Dukath then gives me a glare before walking out.
My stomach drops. He’s determined to find out something about me, I just know it, because I found out something private about him, that he doesn’t actually hate me the way I thought, but quite the opposite.

---------------------------

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