Certain death waited ahead. This was it. Mayun Tejans knew she was going to die.
An honorable death? In some grand battle?
No. Not so much.
More of a very awkward, flailing, screaming kind of death where she was at risk of tripping over her own feet and injuring others on her way down.
Just a few feet behind her was the path leading back down the mountain. But even though escape was within her reach, she didn’t dare turn around. There was a totally different kind of doom lying in wait if she did. She could feel her trainer’s steely gaze fixed on her, like a steady pressure at her back.
Eluk Niruv was not a man one wanted to disappoint. He wasn’t a cruel or harsh man, by any means. But he took his duties very seriously, and pushed his students to their limits. He was the Heshiga, master trainer, of jahuni aspect attunement and battle training for the city of Kretore.
When he said to do something, it was done.
Continuing to hesitate also wasn’t an option, unless she planned on fusing herself to the side of the mountain. A warning for future students. Or perhaps just a convenient place to hang their cloaks on their way to the edge of the cliff. She was left with no other recourse than to keep clinging to the rock wall supporting her, and pray God would show mercy and let the ground swallow her whole.
Her whole body was tense, and she couldn’t make herself move forward. Annoyed, she let out a puff of breath, blowing strands of her dark brown hair out of her face, where the wind had blown it. Heavily streaked with thin tendrils of black, and more frizzy than elegantly curly, it refused to stay tied back where it belonged. Instead, it flew forward over her face, obscuring her dark green eyes every chance it had. As if she needed any further assistance tripping over things.
“Sijo Tejans,” Heshiga Niruv said, his tone even, but commanding nevertheless.
She winced at the way he used her title. A not so subtle reminder that he had given her a task to complete, and he wasn’t going to leave, or let her leave for that matter, until it was done to his satisfaction. If she was next in line to be ruler of her city, she had to master this.
“Yes-” Her voice squeaked, and she cleared her throat, fingers curling into the ragged grooves of the wall she was still holding on to. As if that would save her. “Yes, Heshiga?”
When she glanced back at him, she saw that his arms were crossed, and he was assessing her. Glaring at her really, with one dark hazel eye and the other dark gold. Engraved beads the shade of blood clinked together in his long, dark blond hair that fell just beneath his shoulder blades in thin braids. He was as unmoving and stern as the mountain they were standing on, dressed formally in black hide pants and boots, and a white fitted shirt with wide sleeves. Embroidery encircled the edges of his sleeves, the same red as the beads in his hair, and wound upwards, narrowing along the outsides of his arms, to the shoulders. A red sash was tied at his waist, the symbols of his profession and the city of Kretore stitched in white at the ends.
He calmly unfolded his arms and lifted a hand to gesture towards the edge of the cliff. “I’m waiting.” He raised an eyebrow, and she knew her time was up. It was never a good sign when he raised an eyebrow at his students. “If you need assistance-”
“No!” she nearly shouted, her voice hoarse. The eyebrow lowered and he narrowed his gaze. The cliff suddenly seemed so much less frightening. She cleared her throat again, and tried to sound like her stomach didn’t feel like it was full of fluttering insects. “Thank you, Heshiga. I’m ready.”
“Glad to hear it,” he said, glancing at the man standing beside him. Even if he didn’t smile when he said it, she knew he was being kind.
The man next to him was another Heshiga, this time of the obine aspect. And he was the only person she had ever seen dare to call Heshiga Niruv by his first name. She could only assume they were friends. An air elemental, this man, Darenai, had already ‘assisted’ her over the cliff a couple times.
She did not want to have to repeat that particular experience.
It was nothing personal. He was friendly, and actually insisted on the students calling him by his name rather than his title. Perpetually smiling, with dark blue eyes and short, messy, naturally blond streaked, light brown hair, he was easygoing. As usual, he was dressed informally in stitched brown leather pants and boots, and a loose-fitting white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, exposing swirling tattoos on the backs of his hands and winding up his forearms.
But it didn’t matter how much of a nice guy he was when he was in charge of running at the new students and taking them over the edge of the cliff in a free-fall, whether or not they wanted to go.
Hence, the screaming and flailing.
She narrowed her eyes at him, and he chuckled, holding his hands up. “I promise, if you jump on your own I won’t do anything.”
She took a deep breath, and faced the cliff. A wide, flat expanse of rock stretched out in front of her, a carefully molded platform created by earth elementals that could support her once she transformed.
God, give me a sword and I will happily face an army alone before this!
Whether or not she knew how to fight was not the issue here. She could defend herself in her shima form just fine. It was her other form that had her, and everyone else for that matter, worried. A ruler who hadn’t mastered their aspect was vulnerable.
A jahuni, she knew humans had revered her aspect for centuries, calling them dragons. Powerful. Fearless. Terrifying creatures of legend. Their likeness had been painted on shields.
And she had to be the exception. The odd one. Of course.
Perhaps the only jahuni in the history of all jahunina that was afraid of heights.
She let go of the wall and forced herself to move forward. One foot in front of the other. Every muscle in her body was so rigid with fear at this point that she was beyond trembling. Even her teeth were clenched as she stopped a few feet away from the edge.
Glad to have the momentary distraction from what she was about to do, she called on the power of her aspect, and took on her first form. Light enveloped her, and her skin paled to the pure white of her scales as they rippled over her arms, legs, and back. The edges of her scales shimmered with different colors in the sunlight. The nails on her hands became deadly black claws, and two small, curved, black horns grew on either side of her head above her ears. The loose-fitting, light blue dress, draped so that her back was exposed, had been carefully chosen to accommodate the leathery, white wings that grew from her shoulder blades. Flexing her shoulders, she extended them until they were fully open.
She closed her eyes, taking several deep, slow breaths, and reminded herself for the millionth time that there were multiple layers of stone infused with Darenai’s power at the base of the cliff. It was a giant safety net made of air, more than large enough and strong enough to stop her descent even in her bigger jahuni form. She had seen the pale blue, glowing crystals, infused with the air element, in passing on several occasions as she plummeted towards the ground. Towering pillars of stone, banded with large sections of infused crystal, would have broken the horizon ahead if she cared to open her eyes again and look. Which she didn’t. They formed a semi-circle about a mile out in each direction, completing the safety net.
Just as she was about to leap out into the open air, alternately praying and cursing in her head, she felt a third, even more unsettling, presence behind her.
She mentally cursed in every single language she knew. Twice.
Of course. Why wouldn’t he be here to witness me make a fool out of myself again?
He certainly seemed to be there for every other occasion of her stumbling, or rambling nervousness, or in general awkwardness. Without fail.
And she knew it was him. Toren Shanek. There was no mistaking his energy, not that he bothered to hide it.
Damn arrogant, overbearing jerk.
She had left while he was away on purpose. She hadn’t wanted him there, despite her parents’ wishes. Just the idea of him being so close the whole time she was training was enough to drive her insane.
Unable to help herself, she opened her eyes and slowly turned. She was immediately met with his pale blue glare, his eyes as arresting as the glowing stones that stood between her and death on a daily basis lately. His black hair, almost below his shoulder blades, wasn’t tied back. The wind-tousled look only made him about a billion times more distractingly gorgeous. He was wearing his usual black armor, showing his position as her Telesil. Her highest ranking protector.
There was something in his expression that got to her, as it always did. He never looked at her younger sister with such disapproval. Probably because her sister was more elegant and graceful than she could ever hope to be, and much more suited to rule.
Even across the distance, she could feel the anger rolling off him as he stared her down. That mild, insect-like, nervous fluttering in her stomach became an entire flock of giant, angry, clumsily flapping birds.
She was thankful her skin was too thick for her to blush in this form. She vividly remembered the first time she had seen him. A sathra who had gone too long without feeding, she had found him taking blood from a woman’s wrist. Logically, she knew his aspect needed blood to survive, but seeing that had made her uncomfortably aware of him.
And stupidly, foolishly, ridiculously curious of how it would feel to have his lips against her wrist. She refused to acknowledge the edge of jealousy she felt knowing he’d probably fed from others since then.
Heshiga Niruv said something to him, but when he answered his gaze never left her.
He took a step towards her, and that was all the incentive she needed.
Toren reached the top of the path, where the two Heshigana were waiting, just as Mayun was transforming. He was almost glad he wouldn’t have a chance to speak to her, or possibly strangle her, before she jumped. He still didn’t know if he was angrier at her, or at himself. He should have been in the city when she left.
He should never have run away.
And oh, did it ever drive him insane that he had, in fact, been running, damn her. He had taken every chance he could get to leave the city. The farther from her, the better.
“The Sijo said you would not be accompanying her this time,” Heshiga Niruv said, and only then did it really sink in that he wasn’t alone on the mountaintop with Mayun.
“She was mistaken,” he said, annoyed all over again that not even he knew why she had left without him.
“I see,” the Heshiga said, and Toren hoped he really didn’t.
Mayun slowly turned, knowing he was there as she always seemed to, and he was reminded yet again of how inappropriate his fascination with her had become. Even with wings, horns, and pure white scales, she was the most breath-taking woman he had ever seen. So seductively curvy that he greedily drank in every line of her body like a man dying of thirst.
At first, he had been able to lie to himself. When he couldn’t help the way his gaze lingered on her, he told himself it was his duty to watch over her. When, because of his aspect, he had thirsted for her blood, he convinced himself he had merely gone too long without feeding properly. When he realized he liked her company, he swore to himself it was only that he was loyal to her and her family.
But none of his excuses could even begin to cover the way he watched her now. Wishing he could touch her. Hold her. Kiss her. Or the way he hungered for her blood specifically, and that the blood of others was strangely unappealing to him since they had met. Or the way wanting her company had changed into just plainly wanting her.
When he had learned she left without him to train, against the wishes of the Jiruna, his initial reaction had been an unreasonable level of anger and fear. Why would she put herself at such risk? Everyone knew that two cities had been attacked, their Jiruna targeted directly.
God help him if anything happened to her.
He’d had his suspicions up to this point, but this seemed the most damning evidence of all. She actually seemed to be afraid of him for some reason. She went out of her way to avoid him. There was an ache in his chest at the thought.
He took a step towards her, strangely uncomfortable with the distance between them. She chose that moment to take her jump, and his heart nearly stopped with a sickening lurch in the brief moment it took him to remember the safety net at the bottom of the cliff.
He sighed, trying to center himself again and slow his racing heart.
Considering she would rather leap backwards off a cliff than talk to him, he knew this was going to be a very long couple of months.
Ascension (Chapter One) <– You are here. 🙂