Chapter 1: Uncertain Journey

Raih watched the river wend through the lush green valley below the sky coach. Sunlight glinted off the window, and she caught her reflection in it for a moment. She hated mirrors. Every time she saw her small, thin nose, she remembered her father and the sound of his screams as the air killed him. She forced a smile across her full lips her mother left her. Worry still shown in her mother’s white-blue eyes. The memories turned her stomach, and she craned her neck to see past her own face to watch the deep sapphire vein they followed out of Sawyer into the mountains of Sihir.

How did she end up on this sky coach? She wasn't a gifted sorcerer, nor had she accomplished anything to draw attention to herself. Why did they choose her? Just yesterday, she delivered parcels for a laurel or two a day. Then the letter came, and now, she rode the carriage through the air with five others on their way to study magic at a school in a foreign country.

Raih took a deep breath and held it for a moment. She closed her eyes. As she exhaled, she relaxed her tense shoulders. They tightened more. Why did she agree to go? She shook her head and opened her eyes.

The indigo sky out the window stretched on forever. She tried to remember the last time she saw it. Living in a city, buildings edged her world and blotted out the heavens. When she traveled Tana’a to Arama, before she met Ema, the horizon stalked her. 

She bared her teeth at the wretched blue thing. It was beautiful, but cradled inescapable death within it.

The wind howled. The glass rattled. Just for a second, she heard her mother screaming. 

Raih turned from the window and closed her eyes. The air shattering around her childhood home. Winds shrieked, and thunder cracked. The squall breach tore through the walls of her house. Boards splintered into flocks of murderous needles. Sharp ice cut through the wood and brick. The wind grabbed everything not locked down and tossed them amid the blades. Creatures roared in the chaos. Her mom threw her into a closet. The bedroom door shattered. Her mother vanished, swept away into the gale. The only thing left was the darkness and the thin barrier that protected her.

How did I survive that? She rubbed her forehead. She was ten and orphaned, alone in the world. The faces of the various family members she had lived with after that flicked past- an uncle who didn’t have time for children, an aunt who wanted her to conform to her own strict view of how to act and live, and her mother’s parents. They were good people. Better than she deserved. She couldn’t bare to see the pain in their eyes when she was in the room with them. She reminded them of her mother. Their lips quivered every time they looked at her, then they went to rest. She stood outside their door and listen to them sobbing. 

She brought them so much sorrow, so she ran away.

A smile broke across her face like a sunrise. If she hadn’t fled from her grandparents, she never would have met Ema Sar. Ema saw something in her, not a problem, or a reminder of a lost loved one. She taught her magic, and how to survive. Without her, she wouldn't be here.

Raih opened her eyes and rested her forehead on the cool windowpane. The sky stretched out into infinity. This was why the pilots she knew from the market always called the heavens freedom. Flying above the clouds, the problems of the world drifted away. They either didn’t know or care about the danger intrinsic in the air.

She looked down. The shadow of their balloon traced the course of the river like a gray beetle undaunted by the hills, trees, and streams. It marched forward. Without fear, ignoring every obstacle in its path. If only life were that easy. Shadows fall where ever they may. Nothing was that simple. That beetle was an illusion, a trick of the light. Nothing lacked anxiety. Everything faced obstacles. Life was hard. 

Her parents were laborers. What would they think about her traveling to a prestigious academy to study magic? She couldn't accept it either. The image of her mother’s smile when she would come home from school pressed on her mind. If only she had more happy memories of them.

The lush green valley ran along ahead to the steep rising Vaim Mountains. The wall of dark gray stones loomed over them and the columned, white stone buildings of Sunsuulyn Academy crowned the top of Mount Atma. 

Before she boarded the sky coach, Ema hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. She whispered into her ear how proud of her she was. 

Raih expected she would join Ema’s order one day. When the invitation arrived to attend the Academy that changed everything. She wasn’t sure how they learned about her, and the only thing Ema would say was, “Fate marks us all.” Cryptic was a second language of the Priests of Unmei. 

Her name must have appeared in their seer’s daybook, or something like that. She wanted a daybook. The enchanted diaries drew out the future after a seer inscribed their question, and she had so many questions. She had studied magic for less than a year, and now she was on her way to a prestigious magic school. The acceptance letter said she was a Shokanshi. A, what did Ema called them? An evoking warrior? Whatever that meant. She had never evoked a spirit. When she asked Ema about it, she only answered, "Every heaven, hell, angel, demon and god lives within us waiting for their opportunity to enter the world." 

I guess she thought that would make me feel better.

A circular white and black marble landing zone just outside the school slid under the sky coach.

Why did I say yes to this? Simple magic comes easy, but what is simple about this.

Weight pressed her down in her seat. Her breath labored to flow in and out. 

Ema said the Sunsuulyn Academy started as feeder school for the Imperial forces of the Nadee Jheel before the empire disappeared. No one knew how the Academy survived and flourished without its imperial funders. Rumors and conspiracy theories swarmed around the school. She had heard about it, but she didn't believe any of them. Graduates worked in prestigious government and business positions. This was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Raih bounced in her seat. The worry holding her down broke like a crystal chalice on a stone floor. They had arrived. Her blood froze. There was no turning back now. 

The hatch opened, and the porter pulled down a small wrought iron stairway.

Raih waited for the others to disembark. Her muscles argued against her standing up, and against walking, but she forced compliance.

Stopping at the door, she adjusted her navy blue blouse with a pointed vest hem and matching ankle length skirt with a ruffle along the bottom. It was the best she could afford in the Arama market. She ran her fingers through her shoulder length, black hair, and arranged it to frame her face. The cold air at this altitude goose bumped her golden tan skin. 

She stepped out of the coach and joined the other at least thirty students standing in a loose group on the platform. They were a diverse class. Some wore clothes from Cishan, Golyn, and Sawyer. She even recognized some patterns from as far away as Danu. They all spoke Sadharana, the language of the old Dhuvani Rastra traders who used to ship goods all over the world before the Sawyers conquered them.

One of the other students, an olive skinned woman with her black hair in a braided bun behind her ears looked as nervous as Raih. Her large onyx eyes stared at her feet. She wore gray wrap jacket and matching pants.

Raih stepped toward her.

Thunder clapped and light flooded a stone dais between them and the school. 

Raih ducked for cover. She glanced back and the sky coach had left. Her muscles ached to run. Her hot breath pulsed in the cold air.

No wind followed. No terrible cracking of the air.

Raih straightened up and steadied her breathing.

Twelve people stood on the platform in such a variety of clothing they looked like they didn’t belong together.

A distinguished man with long white hair pulled back in a ponytail dressed in red and gold cloth armor stepped forward and raised his arms.

The crowd fell silent.

“Welcome all of you to the Sunsuulyn Academy for the Aetheric Arts.” The distinguished man's voice echoed through the valley. “My name is Wulfric Cacuun, the Grandmaster of the Academy. Master Jaan Sosin pulled all your names from the fire.”

A thin raven haired man with dark eyes wearing black leather armor next to him on the dais bowed with a flourish.

“The fates have chosen you for our school,” Grandmaster Cacuun continued, “But before you can enter the academy, you must go through orientation.” A sly smile parted his lips. “We will open the Cave of Spirits to you one at a time.” He pointed off to his right to a stairwell leading to somewhere underground. “In the labyrinth, the spirits will test you, and you will emerge with your path clear.”

Some of the students gasped, but most murmured to themselves.

Raih didn’t take her eyes off the Grandmaster. He didn’t look malicious. He held something back. Nothing about him unnerved her. This was a trick, a test. What were they testing?

“Don’t be alarmed,” Cacuun said in a voice so soothing Raih's shoulders relaxed. “Orientation will help you find your way. It is a blessing, and if you get nothing else out of your time here, the lessons you learn in the labyrinth will help you for the rest of your life. If I can give you one piece of advice, don’t rush it. It will take the time required. I, myself, spent three weeks in the cave before I found my way. The spirits will offer support while you are there. The other masters and I will patrol the labyrinth every day in case you need any help.”

Raih swallowed hard. Trapped in a labyrinth with heavens know what kinds of monsters? This was a mistake. She glanced back to the landing pad and beyond to the sheer cliff hundreds of meters above the jungle. There was no way to escape this. 

When the letter arrived, Ema was so proud. They hugged, and Ema even enchanted an old piano to play. That night, they threw a party. They had cake and danced into the early morning. If Ema trusted them, Raih wanted to trust them too.

This is how I am supposed to leave Ema? She pushed the thoughts away. Ema was the only family she had. 

Disaster scenarios filled her mind. Most were unrealistic, others rehashed problems she had faced. Even if the Spirits abandoned her like her family had, she didn’t have any other choice. She agreed to go to the school, and she had to keep her word.

After Cacuun stopped talking, he walked over to the entrance to the labyrinth. He said a brief incantation and a thick fog rose from the stairwell.

A line of students formed. One at a time, the grandmaster talked to them before telling them go down the steps. He waited for a moment, chatting with the student before he motioned from them to enter the fog.

Raih wasn’t sure if the line moved slow or if her anxiety just stretched out the moments before she walked into the unknown.

With three people in front of her, Raih fidgeted. She wanted to leave more than anything. The thought of learning how to call and control spirits thrilled her, but it didn’t feel like it was something she could do.

Only two students left before she stood next to Cacuun. Raih expected to go to classes or apprentice with a master. She didn’t think they would test them right when they arrived. Had she learned enough from Ema? What did they expect from her? She hoped she would have the skill or whatever they were looking for to pass this test.

A single person stood between her and the labyrinth. The stress all flooded away. She wasn’t sure where it had gone. Maybe it was the inevitability of the task, or perhaps she had hit a saturation point beyond her ability to perceive. Her mind roiled. An empty calm filled her, cold and isolating.

Grandmaster Cacuun placed his hand on her shoulder before she realized she was next in line.

“Don’t be afraid child,” the grandmaster said in an avuncular tone. 

Raih smiled. 

Cacuun continued, “There is nothing in the labyrinth we don’t bring with us.”

She lost herself in his green eyes.

“Your name is Raih, isn’t it?” the grandmaster said.

She nodded.

“I remember the stone with your name. The spirits etched it deep in the stone,” he waved for her to walk down the stairs. “That is a great sign child. Take that with you.”

Raih didn't understand the process. Some spirit etched her name into a stone, and that is how she received her invitation. Had her mother or father called her here? 

She stepped forward and went down steps. The thick fog surrounded her. Everything didn’t go black. The whiteness of the mist illuminated the path. Noise from the crowd faded away. The fog grew thicker until all she could see was white.