1: Chapter One [ 15 years later with Ezra aka "Micah"]
Keegan loomed over his shoulder. "I need your help with this, kid."
"You always need help," Micah replied coolly.
He ignored the boy next to him in favor of making last minute changes to his report. Eyes obsessively skimmed over the neat penmanship, searching for any error.
It had to be perfect.
Perfection was the only way to get accepted into Concordia Military Academy. Living in the slums of Concordia's outskirts hardly got one recognized, after all.
Throughout his childhood, he and his mother had moved region to region. While he understood it was imperative that they kept moving, it was beginning to take its toll on his mother.
The woman, who once lived a life dripping with luxury as queen, was deteriorating. The illness inside of her steadily grew worse. It was impossible to heal her, not only because of the lack of money, but because they had waited too long to get her diagnosed.
His gloved hands curled into fists.
What little healing he could offer his mother wasn't enough. Her continued state of weakness was just a reminder of his failures.
"Look. Micah." The boy tapped his arm. "We're both Igni men living in Region 20. That means we need to work extra hard—a lot harder—than those who live at the capital or even Region 5. The academy even rejected you five times."
"Four times," Micah corrected without looking at his classmate.
Setting down his pen, he surveyed the boy next to him.
Keegan was a poverty-stricken twenty-four-year-old who had applied to Concordia Military Academy over seven consecutive terms. Like Micah, many of the outskirt students tried to apply to the academy in hopes of scholarships.
Unfortunately, only a handful of students were selected for a scholarship, and that was usually because they had connections within the military.
"What is your point, Keegan?" Micah inquired tiredly.
"We should work together." Keegan plopped down on Micah's desk. "You may be a perfectionist, but there is one thing you aren't all that great at."
He paused dramatically, as if waiting for Micah to either inquire over his declared flaw or grow upset over the prospect of having any sort of weakness. When Micah simply offered a slow, unimpressed blink, Keegan sighed with disappointment.
"Grammar," he revealed triumphantly. "If you help me with the analytics, I'll proofread your report before you send it in."
If it had been anyone else, Micah would have been suspicious of their motives. But this was Keegan Flint, the same stubborn kid who refused to leave Micah alone, no matter how coldly he treated him in turn.
"I'll even make you dinner. I know your mother isn't feeling well—"
"I don't need your charity. Neither does she," Micah informed tightly.
Standing, he gathered his things and left the study room.
Skillfully avoiding the loose and damaged floorboards of the derelict school, Micah breezed past the empty classrooms and out the front door.
An excess amount of pride stiffened his spine as he crossed the barren landscape.
If there was one thing his mother constantly nagged him about, it was his posture. While he actively concealed his royal lineage, refined posture was something even the poorest of individuals could possess and master.
"Not everyone has ulterior motives!" Keegan called after him.
The boy's shoes scuffed the decrepit steps as he hurried after Micah.
"There are people out there who are friendly just because they want to be." Throwing an arm around Micah's shoulders, he tugged the younger man against him. "I'm trying to look out for you, kid. I've known you for three years and you have yet to relax and let someone else take the reins."
Despite the extra weight around his shoulders, Micah managed to keep his pace.
"Relax?" he echoed disdainfully. "There is no reason to relax, and there are no reins, simply because I have everything under control."
Keegan sighed and lapsed into a pensive silence.
They walked through the wasteland of Region 20, encountering nothing but dried weeds, cracked earth, and barren, naked trees.
The only redeeming quality to their village was the freshwater well and the few crops that grew readily in the desert climate.
The decrepit school they attended was the only institution located in the sprawling region. As such, children located in further villages did not have access to it. What students could attend had to share the sparse resources. Considering the capital provided these resources, little care was exhibited for their quality or quantity.
Region 20 was an outskirt region, after all.
"I hope you can trust me someday." Keegan remained persistent. "You may be reserved, but I see your redeeming qualities. They're the things that make everyone drawn to you."
Micah scoffed. "They can't possibly see anything in me because those things don't exist."
"Untrue. Something definitely charms bystanders, not just me." Keegan reached out and pinched Micah's cheek affectionately. "Of course, it could be this pretty face of yours."
Micah turned and coolly assessed the young man beside him.
Like the majority of the Igni population, Keegan possessed bronzed skin and dark hair. The boy, like most boys—men—his age, strived to grow out their hair to resemble the notorious and proud warriors of their time.
Repeatedly, Keegan expressed fierce complaints about his hair's inability to grow. It barely touched his shoulders and had been that way since Micah knew him.
Aside from the hair dramatics, Keegan's finest quality was his large, beaming smile. Despite the hell he lived, despite the suffering, it was rare to see the boy without a cheek-straining grin.
Micah had never encountered anyone so wholesome.
At times, he wondered if he could confide in the boy.
"Why do you want to attend Concordia Academy, Keegan?" Micah asked casually.
Keegan visibly mulled over the question.
Concordia Academy was the largest and most prestigious military school in the kingdom. With latest lectures and acclaimed professors, the academy provided students with the opportunity of a promising career.
Education aside, it also appealed to future military men who wished for positions of high ranking.
Students were grouped in teams based on skill level and were then sent out on missions. Though Concordia Academy appealed to intelligent students, most of those applicants were rejected because they showed little interest in fighting in the military.
It was a double-edged sword.
To attend the academy, one must fight for Concordia.
"I want to fight and defend my kingdom, but I'd also like a respectable job after I graduate. I want to support my family now that my dad is getting older."
Keegan spoke as if it were something that he'd repeated several times before. And perhaps it was his hook that he'd used in his previous scholarship applications.
A heavy pause stretched before Keegan switched on the hysterics. "I also want to see the palace and the capital! I mean, we get free food and board on scholarship. Three meals a day? Comfortable beds? It's hard to imagine that luxury!"
Micah found himself unsurprised at Keegan's answer.
"What about you? Why do you want to attend the academy?" Keegan asked, clasping Micah heavily on the back. "I know you've been taking sword lessons with Master Idris, but I imagine you'd make a good professor someday."
Micah shrugged off Keegan's arm and increased the distance between them.
"Because I'm bored."
And he was.
After years of hearing of the legendary Josiah Azeri and Calder Talise, Micah wanted to meet them face-to-face. He'd been taught the necessary evils of each man and the prospect of interacting with them was... stimulating.
Challenging, but exciting.
"That's not an answer, Micah." Keegan suddenly appeared serious as he eyed the other man from the corner of his eye. "What's your real reason?"
Curling a hand firmly around his textbooks, Micah focused on the stiff, dead grass. Internally, he debated with himself. If, for some reason, they were both accepted into the academy, Micah could use an ally.
He raised his chin and looked directly at the other boy.
"I find it tasteless how the Igni people are still being treated as outsiders in Concordia, even after twenty-two years of peace."
No matter where the Igni people relocated, they were always discriminated against for their culture, race, and their losing status after the war. As a result, the Igni people had built villages outside Concordia's capital just to escape the discrimination.
Villages that were full of poverty and crime.
"The Royal Council and King Calder spend money on their citizens at the capital, but they can't spare a penny to those of us who have built homes in the outskirts. They work behind the scenes to make the poor poorer and the rich richer.
"The nobles are self-entitled bastards who get positions of power through lineage, not hard work. If it were up to me, I would give power to those who have the dedication to make our kingdom less skewed. I would eliminate bloodlines and nobles. I would give everyone a fair chance at succeeding."
Judging from Keegan's taken aback expression, Micah figured he'd given the boy more than enough to ponder over.
Even Keegan had to acknowledge it was all true.
The boy's expression turned grim. "I never knew you felt so strongly." Amber eyes roamed Micah's expression. "Then you want to be a politician after you graduate?"
Micah exhaled in amusement and shoved his leather-clad hand in his pocket. One did not simply become a politician. After several active years, they were appointed as esteemed members of the court and society. They were influential figures of the capital.
He set his sights ahead and numbly observed the nearing village.
Sheds and crumbling structures lay slumped. The crown hadn't given them enough resources to fix up simple buildings, let alone build new, necessary, constructs like a proper infirmary.
"All the things you said are true. You'd make a good politician, Micah. Of course, your social skills may need some improvement..."
The last bit was added lightly, but held some truth.
Micah hummed lightly. "I hate politics."
Silence stretched before Keegan inquired further.
"You're talking about treason, kid. If you don't want to fix things through political means then what the hell are you planning to do with that pent-up aggression?" Keegan leaned closer to Micah, a worried frown on his face. "Assassinate them?"
At Micah's hard look, Keegan paled.
"You're kidding me!"
"I'm not going to assassinate them, Keegan," Micah reprimanded darkly.
"Your hands are scarred, aren't they? That's why you wear those gloves all the time. And your mother..."
"Don't even finish that—"
"Is scarred from fire as well," Keegan finished softly. "You and your mother were attacked by a noble fire Elemental, weren't you? You are too young to have been injured during the war, so it must have happened sometime after. But it surprises me. You're of Igni descent and you speak highly of the Igni people, yet you were attacked by one. I would think—"
"You're not all-knowing, so stop guessing," Micah whispered icily.
Keegan was intelligent, but Micah hadn't imagined he'd be so observant.
Nevertheless, the boy was only half-right. Micah was of both Igni and Unda descent. And he didn't hate the Igni people for what his uncle did, just as he didn't hate the Unda people for what his father did.
The younger man hardly batted an eye as he ducked away from the reaching arm.
"Drop it, Keegan." He pivoted toward the opposite side of the village, leaving Keegan behind. "Meet me at the bazaar tomorrow at noon. I'd like to get our applications submitted as soon as possible."
As he walked through the slums of Region 20, he considered Keegan's reaction.
While it wasn't what Micah had anticipated, it hadn't been a complete failure either. It seemed as if the boy agreed with the capital's corruption, but overall, Keegan appeared more concerned with Micah's safety than the issue itself.
He couldn't really fault the boy.
Keegan didn't know the extent of Micah's abilities. And for some unexplainable reason, Keegan actually cared for him.
Scoffing to himself, he ducked down a set of stairs.
He entered the dark tunnel and into the cell-like apartment building.
As he strode down the corridor, he passed several rooms with their doors open wide to circulate the stale air. Smells of frying foods and raw, human odor wafted through the air. Though he hadn't eaten all day, the smell was enough to curdle his appetite.
Considering most of the residents had little to steal from, most doors stayed open at night with no lock. But with high crime in Region 20, Micah always remained vigilant by keeping their door shut.
"Hello, Mother," he called as he entered their apartment.
Setting his pile of books by the door, he forced his eyes to adjust to the dark.
Their living arrangements were abysmal.
It was only a single room equipped with a small bathroom and a tiny kitchenette. A mattress lay haphazardly on the floor in what he called their great room. Judging from the darkness and the scent of sour sickness, he presumed his mother hadn't moved at all today.
He withheld an irritated sigh.
The relationship he shared with his mother was... complex.
At times, he hated her ferociously, suspected her of deceit, but most of the time, she stimulated feelings of reluctant respect and admiration.
He was anxious to leave her behind, yet he also felt guilty for doing so. A part of him believed it was his duty to take care of her, to make her better. She depended on him, and as much as he hated admitting it, he depended on her as well.
It was a collection of messy, contradictory emotions.
He wondered if Ember had planned the codependency from the start.
Switching on the single, dim lightbulb that buzzed loudly, Micah entered the apartment. He approached the curtain that separated the kitchenette from the back of the apartment.
As he pulled aside the curtain, he stared down at her.
She was asleep, her long, dark hair strewn across her pillow. Her color was a bit off and there were frown lines creasing her face. Nonetheless, she didn't appear to be in pain, and she didn't seem to have a fever.
Just as he was about to shut the curtain, she called out to him.
His hand fisted furiously in the curtain. She hadn't called him by his given name in months. Typically, she used the name 'Ezra' when she felt especially nostalgic. Even so, she knew how much he detested it.
"I'm here," he responded tightly.
He observed her closely, knowing his scrutiny would bother her, but remembering Keegan's observation from earlier. Scar tissue puckered and disfigured the entire right side of her face, even turning one eye milky and blind.
According to Ember, Josiah had delivered a cheap shot across her face.
Micah imagined Ember just hadn't been prepared to go up against her brother—the very same man who was renowned for his dueling skills in both Elemental magic and as a swordsman. Fortunately, she had managed to turn away in time, effectively damaging one side of her face rather than the entirety.
"Come here," she coaxed weakly as she held out a frail hand.
Kicking off his boots, Micah approached her and kneeled next to the mattress. Accustomed to her 'sick' days, he obediently pressed his cheek against the sweat-smelling sheets and allowed her to run her fingers through his hair.
"Did you eat today?" he asked. "I can make broth if you're not too hungry."
"You have such gorgeous hair, my son." She disregarded his question and tugged affectionately at the loose curls. "You really should grow it out."
Micah narrowed his eyes before closing them. "And be like everyone else?"
Ember continued to caress Micah's hair, having heard his response countless times before, yet continued to ask the same question repeatedly.
He laid there, enduring the touch.
Since Micah was a young boy, Ember had always used physical contact as a control mechanism. As a child, after a particularly brutal lesson, he would obediently kneel as she stroked his hair. During those times, his anger for her had softened into eventual forgiveness.
"You are completely different from them, Ezra. No one is quite like you." She lapsed into a temporary silence. "Have you finished your application yet?"
"Someone from school is going to assist me with the grammar and essay design," he replied formally. "Otherwise, it is completed."
"A friend?" she exclaimed with humor. "Is it a young lady?"
"No, nothing like that," Micah argued, his body tense as he kneeled next to her prone form. "He's just a schoolmate."
He sighed. "Yes, Keegan."
Clearly, his mother was in better condition than earlier that morning. She'd be well enough to eat dinner. His thoughts revolved around the possibilities of what to cook.
They had but a few scrapings leftover from yesterday, so it wouldn't be anything that would fill their stomachs. What little gold Ember had stolen from the palace was long gone. They usually performed chores for the people of the village in order to pay for one meal a day, but it wasn't enough.
"When you get into the academy, I want you to stay clear of your uncle."
Micah's mind briefly blanked from the suddenness of Ember's statement.
It was unlike his mother to be so blatant.
"Don't refer to him like that," he argued ardently, "Josiah is of no relation to me."
"He's a member of the Royal Council and he's a very prominent figure in the military. I have reason to believe he is going to be the new Chairman for Concordia Military Academy." Ember sounded crestfallen. "It can't be avoided, Micah. The academy is your only chance of infiltrating Concordia's elite, but he will recognize you as soon as he sees you."
"That's impossible. My eyes are charmed yellow and my name—"
"It does not matter." Her hand slackened in his hair. "All these years, Calder's men were searching for a biracial child. Disguising you as a purebred Igni was for our convenience to prevent questions from villagers."
"Then how would Josiah know my identity?"
The news was certainly a hitch in his plans.
If Josiah was so close to the academy, that meant there was a possibility Micah would have to interact with him sooner rather than later. There would be no time to observe him. Micah would need to be on guard from the very start.
"He claims you are his Chosen."
Nothing had ever surprised him to the point of speechlessness before, and he was even ashamed to admit he stopped breathing for a moment or two.
It was inconceivable to think he was destined for his uncle. That he belonged to anyone.
It was degrading.
Ember continued quietly, "it was the crux of the issue fifteen years ago." She breathed deeply. "It still horrifies me to think what would have happened if he got his hands on you as a child. He would have twisted you into something completely warped."
Turned away from her, Micah's lips twisted into a smile.
That was rather an ironic statement coming from her.
After all, she'd done enough to warp him.
Acting his role as the loyal son, he squeezed her hand. "But he didn't get me all those years ago. You were strong enough to stop him. I admire your strength and your endurance to forge a new life for us."
Although partially an act, some of it was true.
Ember had risked all the security, all the luxury, to protect Micah from Calder and Josiah. She could have ignored everything and sacrificed her son in exchange for guaranteed comfort. Nevertheless, in the end, Ember chose Micah's wellbeing over hers.
He admired her for that, but Ember also had her own agenda.
In the end, he went from living in a palace of three manipulators to just one.
Perhaps if Calder and Josiah hadn't betrayed her, she would have raised him differently. But she'd been so hurt—so deceived—that she'd stewed for years in bitter hatred.
Micah was Ember's means of revenge, control, and closure.
Her lone gold eye settled on Micah. "You are my greatest blessing." She pressed a hand against his cheek. "Don't ever doubt my love for you. If I had to go back and do it all again, I wouldn't change a thing."
He didn't know the extent of what had happened fifteen years ago. Sometimes he dreamed of that night, always ending at that moment when he was enclosed by flames. Someone was always there, reaching boldly into the fire and rescuing Micah from the stifling heat.
King Calder had told the public that both Queen Ember and Prince Ezra were lost—taken.
Throughout the years, as mother and son moved from village to village, Ember had tutored him in the ways of politics and proper etiquette. He grew up detesting both Calder and Josiah, but also idolizing them. He found himself eager to interact with them, to see if he could keep up with them.
"I was naïve for the majority of my adolescence," Ember continued. "Despite it being an arranged marriage, I thought there was only good in Calder. And in spite of the fear that I held for my brother, I just believed he was just wrongly perceived."
Micah propped his chin upon his open palm, giving her his undivided attention.
"Despite said naivety on my part, I firmly believe I raised you with your eyes wide open."
That was an understatement.
"I know you are destined for great things. You cannot trust anyone, Micah. But always maintain a friendly demeanor and do your best to help those in need." Her lips pursed and her one eye flared with such strong intensity. "I don't ask things of you often, but I want you to promise me you will never give into Josiah. He's manipulative and charismatic and he'll do anything to lure you into his hands."
Extremely insulted and embarrassed, Micah pushed off from his position on the floor.
"You underestimate me," he whispered coolly. "How weak do you think I am to succumb to his advances? My own uncle?"
He wasn't very familiar with the subject of Chosen. All he really knew was that he could increase the man's power if they ever initiated a bond. Micah refused to give Josiah higher ground than he already possessed, let alone more leverage to weave his manipulations.
"I don't underestimate you."
"Then why wait all these years to tell me I was his Chosen?" Micah demanded. "All those years of conditioning me into the weapon you want me to be—"
"You are not a weapon!" she exclaimed fiercely.
Micah almost believed her.
Bracing her arms on the mattress, Ember struggled to sit up. "I needed to prepare you for what's to come." Her expression softened. "Would you rather I had let you grow up oblivious?"
He turned away from her, both of them already knowing the answer to that.
Leaning against the far wall, he ignored her silent amusement.
All those lessons, all those discussions, only led to one result: infiltrating the elite in order to gain the trust of Calder and Josiah. Only then, according to Ember, could he oust them.
For the first time in a long time, he full-heartedly agreed with his mother.
Not only had the two men betrayed his mother, but they also scarred her, ruined her. Moreover, they had given Micah this life. A life of slums, danger, and uncertainty. They damned him to years of hell with a bitter woman, a woman who had taken away his childhood, who had corrupted and warped him.
Despite such bitter resentment toward Ember, he cared for his mother enough to fulfill her request in usurping Josiah and Calder.
And he'd do so with honor.
The hand stroked his cheek softly before proceeding to brush aside a few loose curls.Micah closed his eyes into the affectionate touch, never feeling as warm nor as comfortable as he did just then. Through the warm, fire-like haze, he was able to discern that he was dreaming.It was one of those dreams again.The dreams that made him feel so good, but disenchanted at the same time. No matter how much he tried to control the dream, he wouldn’t wake up until the flames engulfed him. His body was tiny as it sat upon the man’s lap.“What did you do today, Ezra?”But that voice.Even after years of dreaming about it, the voice always sent a startling thrill down his spine. It wasn’t a deep baritone, but rather softer, almost menacing in quality and every bit serpentine. Many would find the voice allu
When the rhythmic stirring came to a sudden, unexpected halt, Healer Destan looked up from the unconscious boy and toward his apprentice.Healer Kendra's hold on the stirring rod slackened as she looked fearfully at the entrance of the compartment.Curious, he turned, his eyebrows climbing when he saw the dark figure waiting at the threshold. It was rare to see such an influential man concerned with recovering patients, but then again, this was a special patient, was it not?"Lord Josiah," he greeted casually, "good that you're here."Taciturn eyes leveled the female Healer with an impatient stare.Ah, secrecy.Right.Healer Destan nodded to his assistant. "I will take it from here, Kendra."The young Unda Healer abruptly nodded and fled the room. Destan sighed, watching the blonde-haired woman's hasty retreat.<
The dull ache in his chest was still prevalent that morning. Considering it wasn’t anything like the excruciating pain he’d endured yesterday, Micah couldn’t complain.Sitting at the edge of the bed, he marveled at the mattress and the plush pillows.The last time he’d slept on a mattress was at a derelict hostel a few years ago. Typically, his mother had always claimed the mattress and Micah had never expected anything less. He’d only seen a small section of the train, and already, it possessed far more lavish items than he had the honor of possessing his entire lifetime.Next to the bed lay a black and gold military uniform.Micah’s assumptions proved accurate, then. Josiah planned to take him to Concordia Academy.He would recognize that uniform anywhere, as it was on the propaganda booklet when he applied each term.
Micah was grateful he was able to observe the academy before the other students arrived for the next term.There was something oddly lulling about his boots echoing throughout the silent and still corridors. No one was around to observe his dumbfounded expressions. No one was around to witness him walk into dead ends and retrace his steps.It had taken him days to map out and memorize the floorplan.The building was constructed into the shape of a cross with four separate wings. One wing for each cadet year and one for the instructors.Each wing housed study rooms, bedrooms, and large bathrooms.In the middle of the building, there were numerous levels. Classrooms took up the majority of the upper levels, while he discovered an expansive training arena and an array of other amenities down below.On his third day at the academy, he stumbled across
He’d gotten accustomed to the solitude and the quiet halls.He would miss it.For over two weeks, with the exception of the academy servants, he hadn’t encountered another living soul. Josiah, Destan, and Kendra remained elusive.The three individuals understandably had other duties that kept them away from the academy. In Josiah’s case, he didn’t want to draw Calder’s—or anyone’s—attention to Micah. After all, Micah was just an ordinary student under scholarship.At first, he had been delighted in Josiah’s unannounced absence.Yet, as the days stretched, Micah couldn’t help but to think of the man regularly. Trivial and silly sentiments. He unmistakably enjoyed the man’s conversations to the point of dwelling over the possibility of seeing him again before term.In an attempt to ignore Josiah&
My hand aches.” Keegan paused. “But last night was the best sleep I’d ever had. The beds are extremely comfortable! And the showers? I didn’t think I could ever get out!”In the hall, a chorus of scornful laughter sounded upon Keegan’s admittance.Micah looked apathetically at the group of blond-haired students as they gestured towards him and Keegan. Their expressions ranged from hilarity to aversion as they watched the two scholarship students pass.Talia stood amongst their group, positioned at the outskirts, desperate to be a part of them but no doubt an outsider. She looked at Micah, her mouth scowling and her eyes averting.“Enjoy it while you can,” one of the boys remarked spitefully. “You and pretty-boy may be smart, but as soon as we start the physical assessments, you’ll be eliminated and sent back to the desert.”<
“Stop… shifting.”At the cold command, Keegan abruptly realized his knee bounced uncontrollably and he hastily stopped moving. “We’re going to get expelled from the academy,” he explained in a high-pitched tonKai Edlen had already exited the office a few minutes earlier. Besides the dark expression on Edlen’s face, Keegan couldn’t discern what had transpired inside that office. Not only did they face possible banishment from the academy, but the man inside that office also petrified Keegan to the point of nauseJosiaThe true King to the Igni peopl“We’re not going to get expelledKeegan rubbed his sweaty palms across his trousers and looked at the younger man sitting beside hiAs usual, Micah was the picture of serenity and composure. He ran a critical eye down Micah’s f
“I acknowledge what you did for me.”Micah and Keegan both turned toward the voice, their mouths full of food. Aiden approached them purposefully, having found their hidden alcove within the maze of the academy’s massive layout.Instructor Candace had called for a short recess after Kai and Micah’s duel.Food, in massive quantities, was made available for the cadets as they waited for the instructors to deliberate the teams. The observers from earlier were sent home and the students, who did not make the final cut, were told to pack their things.Having both succeeded in the trials, Keegan and Micah had grabbed a heaping plate of food and ducked out of the dining hall before the other cadets made an appearance. Micah had wanted to eat without disruption and Keegan was more than willing to accompany him.Across the room, Aiden focused intently on Micah as h