The sun was coming down, painting the tangle of sandstone rooms at the top of the hill in deep orange. The shadows beside the open archways lost their sharp lines, fading to a dull gray in preparation to sink into the clear coming darkness. Then they disappeared onto clean white stone at the next flash of fire off Toar’s hands.
The air was thick and warm with energy. It dragged across his skin as the breeze threaded through the practice hall and dropped into the open air over the cliff outside. Waves hissed at the bottom, and the air hissed in echo inside the room every time Toar spread his hands. On the other side of the room, Jaera stood calmly, dark hair knotted up in the heat. Her hand hung open at her sides, and she rubbed her thumb and middle finger around each other as if there was something more between them than skin.
Shaking his hands slightly, Toar rolled his shoulders back, and spilled another layer of thin energy into the air. The sheet of ice under the skin of his shoulders and arms grew thicker, and heat whispered through his fingers. He bare felt it leave his palms, and there was barely a sheen in the air. He took on breath, then a second, letting it build up around him. Then he shoved heat out of his hand. It crackled, snapped out brilliant blue light that curled like smoke. The entire wall of energy in front of him exploded into light. Pushing his hands in front of him, he shoved the energy forward, tumbling down the length of the room.
It roared, rolled, ran, and slid smoothly off a slanted invisible wall in front of Jaera.
Jaera turned her face away from it, leaned one shoulder back to mimic the line of the wall, and Toar’s energy burned out behind her. She raised one hand, straight out from the shoulder facing him. Halfway across the room from her, bright white smoke lit and slid across the floor toward Toar’s feet. He didn’t have enough left to smother it, but shoved it to one side with what energy he had, and stepped back to stay clear of it.
Just past him, the smoke turned, and came back for him, flaring to a crackling blue and rising toward his chest. Jaera had closed her fist, started to pull her elbow back to her side.
Toar threw his fingers open, dropped his own crackling energy down over it, and they burned out together on the stones.
Eyes narrowed, Toar glanced at Jaera. “What was that?” he demanded.
He thought he saw her smile, but she didn’t respond.
“What was that?” he repeated.
Jaera took a short breath. “Near perfect?” she said, letting it out.
Toar glared. It had been perfect, control like smooth, poured steel, and such easy moderation that he knew she could continue like that for hours. It was impressive, if a person was comfortable enough with her not to find it plain intimidating. But it wasn’t what he’d asked from her.
“I thought I’d made it clear,” he said. “We’re here to find your limits.”
Jaera closed her mouth gently, raised her chin to look at him.
“You don’t think you should be going a little bigger?” Toar asked.
Holding his eye, Jaera stayed quiet a moment longer. “Because I need to find the end of what I have?”
Toar raised his eyebrows. “Yes.”
“Because that’s the last lesson you have to teach me?”
He paused then, hearing the weight of her tone.
She didn’t wait for him to gather his answer, as if she realized he’d heard more than she wanted him to. Her tone lightened, just a bit, and spoke more quickly. “Because that’s the last lesson every master teaches their apprentice, the last thing, after they’ve taught everything else they need to know. That’s what you said, right?”
“Yes, Jaera,” Toar said. “This is your last lesson.”
Jaera shook her head, a small, slow motion, and she didn’t look at him. “I talked to Royse the other day,” she said.
She took a step forward. It was such a deliberate movement, Toar caught himself staring at her foot for a moment. Then she took another step, and his eyes snapped up to her hands turned palm out at her sides, then up to her face.
“Do you know his last lesson?” Jaera asked. Another slow step, and Toar could feel the heat building around her as the breeze took hold of it. “I know every master is different, that Branten is not you, but do you know the last thing that Branten taught Royse?”
Toar dropped his own hands to his sides. The ice bit into his shoulders, too hard, but he poured clear energy into the air as fast as he could, watching her approach. “What was his last lesson?” Toar asked.
Jaera smiled. “Stamina,” she said. “Branten ran him through his paces, for hours, just to make sure that he knew how to conserve energy and remain effective, so that Royse would almost never tap a finger against the edge of what he could do. They did it four days in a row, and when Royse kept his feet, Branten told him he was done.”
“That’s it?” Toar asked. A line of sweat ran down his back. The heat in the hall built back along his skin. It crawled up his arms, laying itself over the ice beneath his skin. The ice thickened as well, and Toar smiled. It had been a long time since he felt the war of warmth and chill so fiercely on his skin.
“That’s it,” Jaera said. And she smiled, as if she’d just found the joke as well. “He’s not you.”
“He’s an idiot,” Toar said.
“He’s not,” Jaera said, and her smile faded into a straight line.
She took a breath that filled her chest, pushed her shoulders back, straightened her spine. She stopped where she was, barely five strides in front of Toar, and raised her hands. Blue-white fire ripped a jagged line in the air between her flat palms, bloomed around her fingers, spread in an uneven haze from her hands. It built up in front of her, crackling bright sand piling in on the steady support of her skin and falling away at the edges, widening, thickening, and stirring the air to a heat that was hard to breathe.
Raising his own hands, Toar forced more heat out of his palms, stacking it against hers. As always, his own energy felt cooler to him, even in a blaze, than hers ever did. He let out a sharp laugh, and leaned forward, bracing his hands on the thickening heat.
“He is,” he said.
Then she took another step forward.
Toar tried to stay where he was. He rolled back on his heels. Then he had to slide back to lean forward again.
“We’ve been playing this for twelve years,” Jaera said.
“We like games,” Toar said. He glanced up at her face, then back to her hands, nearly hidden in the fire coming off them. She took another step. He grunted and stepped back.
“I have learned everything you handed out, and begged for more,” she said. “I’ve needed you. I’m not forgetting that.”
“Good,” Toar said.
Another step forward, and another, and the heat between them built like a furnace. Toar, almost grinning, set his shoulders and pushed back. He was taller than her by a full head, and he brought his hands up to drive down on her. For half a second, she faltered, rocked back on one foot.
“But I don’t need this,” Jaera said. She rose on her toes and pushed him back farther.
He put one foot behind him, braced himself, and still couldn’t hold it. He met the wall behind him, heel first.
She dropped one hand to her side, as if she’d suddenly remembered that she didn’t need it.
He backed away from her, away from the heat rolling off her, and in a moment, his shoulder blades were pressed to the cold stone, his shirt sticky with sweat between them.
“After twelve years, training next to you, the great Toar ShatterIron, I think we both know what I’m capable of. Because there’s no mark you’ve set that I haven’t hit, and overshot. Because I’ve kept up with you every step of the way,” she said.
“You’ve done very well,” he told her.
Her next step came, and Toar pushed himself into the wall for more space. There was no more, and the next time her foot came down, it felt like being leaned on by a mountain. She still held that single hand in front of her, fingers lightly spread, relaxed, even while she leaned her shoulder forward behind her arm.
“When was the last time I was the one to call the end of the day?” she asked. “You’ve called the halt, for years.”
One more step, and Toar watched her fingers tense, barely a foot from his chest. He snapped his hands wider, drove the energy down his arms to meet her, and it exploded at his palms, all ice and fire mixed, too fast, tearing at the callused skin of his hands. The fire turned from white to deep blue, and between his fingers it turned black. She pulled her fingers taut and matched him, the black spreading from her palm like ink in the watery white smoke. In a moment, it was all that deep bruise blue-black.
And her hand was inching forward.
“You’re ShatterIron,” Jaera said slowly. “You were four when you Showed. You were seven when you started your training. You were lighting bonfires on your skin at the age when other keimon just felt an inch beneath it. You can lean into metal and stone, and crack them in heat, before they even have the time to melt. You boil a pool at a touch. And I’ve seen how the other keimon look at you.”
“Their awe is very memorable,” he said.
Her hand was completely wrapped in her energy now, inky black, and shining, like some star-nothing beyond the sky. She didn’t look at him, focused on the front of his shirt, of the narrow space between it and her fingers. He was pouring energy out to meet her, and it just burned away under her fingers, swallowed by her nothing, cracked into ash that drifted down to the floor.
“You don’t mind that they’re afraid of you,” she said. Her voice had dropped to something dangerously thin. “Why should you?”
“Jaera,” Toar said.
She shook her head, pressed her hand forward, slow, steady. The heat burned across Toar’s cheeks. He shut his eyes against it. He was breathing in more of her energy than his suddenly, and it bit into his lungs, hot where his own energy would turn cool as soon as it hit his chest. He swallowed, coughed against it.
And then it burned hotter.
His eyes flew open, just so he could see how close she had come. There was inch between his chest and her fingers, between him and the rolling black fire on her palm. He pushed back with everything he had. She locked her arm out straight, bend her head just a little.
And then she was touching him. He gasped.
But it didn’t burn. In an instant, she had dropped everything, and it was just too-warm skin against the front of his shirt. And she was staring at her fingers, swallowing hard, mouth open, blinking. It was perfect, control like iron.
Toar rested his head against the wall behind him, and dropped his hands. He swore quietly.
“How long have you been able to do that?” he asked.
Jaera paused. He thought she might pull away. She stayed, though, exactly where she was, as if she wasn’t sure that hand belonged to her, if it was something for her to move.
“All of this stopped being a stretch for me a long time ago,” she whispered.
“Holy hell, girl,” he said.
She blinked, faster, and still didn’t move. “If I can do this to you,” she said. “And not even feel it the next day…” She turned her face up slowly, met his eyes and held them. “… who knows what I am? And why should we ever find out?”
Jaera yanked her hand back as if his skin had started to burn her. Turning, she stalked to the wall, picked up a towel off the stone bench in the corner. She scrubbed at her hands first, then up her arms. It was an afterthought when she pressed it to her neck and face, taking the sweat from her skin.
“You don’t have anything left to teach me,” she said. “Don’t try again.”
Toar nodded, though he knew she couldn’t see him. He rubbed his chest, still feeling the deep press of her fingers. “Oh no,” he said. “That would be much more imbecilic than I like to be most days.”