~ CHAPTER ONE ~
I outlined a fresh grave for the cemetery as bells rang from the isle’s tower, signifying the start of the celebrations. The soil reeked of ammonia and rot, but the crisp morning breeze washed the scent away, dispersing it over the ocean. I removed my shirt, allowing the wind to cool me while I worked.
Every ten years, the people on the Isle of Ruma gathered to watch the fledgling phoenixes bond with a few chosen mortals. Lamplighters did their duty despite the glorious sunshine, each lamp’s fire representing the flames of phoenixes. Merchants cleared their horses and carts from the main road in anticipation of the crowds.
This was my second Day of Phoenixes. A decade ago, on my fifth birthday, I missed the bonding ceremony to attend my father’s trial. He was convicted of murder, but because he hadn’t been born on the island, he was taken to the mainland for final judgement. That was the last time I saw him.
Although the last Day of Phoenixes had been inauspicious, I intended to change that. Once I had finished digging a shallow grave, I would make my way into town.
I slammed the shovel’s head into the dirt and scooped deep. The cemetery sat near the edge of the island, far from those gathering to observe the hopeful students trying to win the favor of the phoenixes.
Tradition stated that anyone who handled sewage, waste, and dead bodies wasn’t allowed to attend the bonding ceremony, which was just my luck. After my father was sent away, I could’ve been given to any profession for apprenticeship. I could’ve gone to the carpenter and learned the craft of woodworking, or I could’ve gone to the silversmith and learned the art of fine metal work, but misfortune hounded me like a shadow. I was given to the gravekeeper, slated to dig corpse-holes until the end of time, forever exiled from the festivities.
I still intended to go. Even if it meant ignoring the traditions of the isle—something unheard of on our tiny spit of land—no one could stop me from proving myself to a phoenix. No one.
I scooped another mound of dirt and tossed it to the side.
“You look deep in thought, Volke,” my fellow corpse-hole apprentice, Illia, said. “What’re you planning?”
“I’m waiting for the trials to begin.”
“And then what?”
Illia sat in the shade of a cypress tree, her legs crossed and her chin in both hands. Most people hated the thought of sitting on graves, since it was supposed to bring bad luck, but Illia wasn’t like most people. She leaned back on a headstone and exhaled as the ocean wind rushed by, catching her wavy brown hair and revealing the scars on the side of her face.
She held a hand over the marks, like she always did. The moment the wind died down, she pulled some of her hair around to cover her scars, hiding the old knife wounds that had taken her right eye.
I finished one half of the grave and huffed.
Illia and I lived in a tiny cottage on the edge of the cemetery, apprenticed to Ruma’s sole gravekeeper. We both held the glorious title of gravedigger. Like me, she had no family. Well, we had each other, and Gravekeeper William, but he hardly counted.
For ten years, Illia and I had considered ourselves brother and sister, and siblings always know each other’s mood. Illia displayed all the telltale signs of irritation—narrowed eye, rarely blinking, her mouth turned down in a slight frown. She hated the fact I was keeping secrets from her. If I didn’t explain myself quick, she’d exact her revenge.
“I don’t want to become the next gravekeeper,” I said as I threw a mound of dirt off to the side.
With an eyebrow sarcastically raised, Illia asked, “So you’re going to impress a phoenix and leave this place, is that it?”
“Only two phoenixes were born this year,” she said, wagging her finger. “And the schoolmaster has already picked his two favored disciples to win the right to bond. No one wants you to take a phoenix from either of those try-hards.”
“I don’t care.” I scooped out another clump of dirt, my grip on the shovel so tight it hurt. “Bonding with a phoenix is too important. Besides, no one on this isle likes me anyway. Why should I start caring about their opinions now?”
“Hmph. I should’ve known you’d say that.”
Of course. Anyone who bonded with a mystical creature, like a phoenix, became an arcanist—a powerful wielder of sorcery, capable of great magic based on the creature they bonded to.
Arcanists were the pinnacle of society, the most influential people, and revered by everyone. Some arcanists could control the weather, or devastate armies, or make the land fertile. Even the weakest and laziest of arcanists were well-thought-of and important members of powerful guilds, shepherding humanity to greatness with a mere flick of their wrists.
What I wouldn’t give to become an arcanist. They were things of legend.
More significant than a gravedigger, anyway.
“You’re not the only one with plans today,” Illia said. She waited a minute before adding, “Aren’t you going to ask me what I’ll be doing during the bonding ceremony?”
I shoveled another chunk of dirt, taking some weeds with it. “All right. Tell me. What will you be doing?”
“It’s a secret.”
She stood and brushed herself off with a few gentle pats to her dress. Then she crossed her arms and stared at me, no doubt waiting for me to pester her about the secret just so she could say, see how annoying it is when you do it?
“I’m sure you’ll have fun doing whatever it is you have planned,” I said with a shrug.
“You’re not the only one who wants to become an arcanist, Volke,” she replied, saying my name as though it were venom. “But there might be easier ways than embarrassing yourself in front of everyone.”
I finished carving the outline of the grave, determined not to be sucked into asking her what she meant. I had too many things on my mind to get into an argument. Besides, I knew she was right. It was irksome being excluded from secrets, especially by family. But I didn’t want to run the risk of her trying to dissuade me.
Another round of bells sounded in the distance. I threw my shovel to the side and turned toward the cemetery cottage. “I have to go. Whatever you do, don’t get into trouble.”
Illia replied with a smile. “Never.”
Something about her sarcastic tone told me she had trouble planned, but there wasn’t any time to go into it. I jogged into the cottage, ran up the rickety stairs, and then dashed straight into my room. It was technically a storage closet that Gravekeeper William had converted into a sleeping space so that Illia and I wouldn’t have to share the second bedroom.
The cramped room fit my cot, a chair, and a trunk for my clothes. That was it.
I squeezed myself in, ripped off my dirty trousers, and then dressed in a clean white shirt and black pants. Although I owned nothing fancy—everything in my trunk had been Gravekeeper William’s at some point—I still wanted to make an effort. The phoenixes bonded with individuals they liked the most after the Trials of Worth were over. I needed to impress them, and I couldn’t do that with grave dirt on my clothes.
Once dressed, I combed my disheveled hair, even though it never cooperated. For some reason, it always puffed out and tangled at the ends, defying gravity just to make me look foolish. And the blackness of it—an inky hue taken straight from the midnight hour—wasn’t common on the isles. Everyone else had red or blond hair, so other kids made fun of me.
Coal head. Ink brush. They weren’t clever kids—any dumber and you’d have to water them twice a week—they were just mean. No one harassed me after I grew tall, however. Six feet meant I stood out in the group, and not in a wimpy way.
When I finished the last of my brushing, my hair puffed back out.
Satisfied I had made myself halfway presentable, I laced up my boots and headed downstairs to the kitchen. I grabbed a small canteen of water and the cleanest rag we owned before rushing out the front door.
The vast ocean sparkled in the distance, so blue it put the sky to shame. The winds brought waves, but nothing strong enough to reach far inland—just the melody of water lapping across the white sand beaches.
With the breeze in my face, I ran down the dirt road until I came to the cobblestone streets of the city. I pushed my way through the crowds of people swarming toward the town square.
Our small island didn’t have much flatland, so the one city—creatively named Ruma, like the island—was the only place to live. The two-story houses were smooshed together, most with stores downstairs and homes above. Despite the congested living arrangements, people went out of their way to keep the place lively. Potted flowers, colored cobblestone for the roads, wrought-iron fences in the shape of fish for the balconies—Ruma had a special beauty waiting in every nook and cranny.
The crowds made their way to the Pillar to watch the bonding trials begin.
The Pillar—nothing more than a sheer column of pointed rock jutting straight up into the sky—was well over one hundred and twenty feet tall. It could be seen from anywhere on the island, the reddish stone shimmering in the sunlight. A single tree grew at the top, its branches forever swaying in the ocean winds, its roots laced over the rock, its fruit rare and delicious.
That sole charberry tree was what had attracted the first phoenixes to our island centuries ago. The spicy fruit tasted like a chili pepper, but sweeter and juicier. Phoenixes loved them.
The base of the Pillar was the starting location for the Trials of Worth—the tasks given to the wide-eyed hopefuls wanting to prove their value to the phoenixes. I continued through the crowd, my head tilted back, my gaze locked on the Pillar. A staircase wrapped around the column of rock, all the way to the top.
“Hey,” someone yelled as I shoved my way deeper into the excited masses. “Isn’t that one of the gravedigger kids?”
I ignored the remark, sidestepped the slow-moving families, and nimbly maneuvered through a group of schoolchildren. If I bonded with a phoenix, I wouldn’t have to stay here anymore and listen to their whispers. All new arcanists traveled to the mainland to join a guild for training.
A third round of bells chimed, and my pulse quickened with each step. I didn’t want to be late for the trials.
The whole population of Ruma packed the streets, shoulder to shoulder. No one missed the Day of Phoenixes unless they were specifically excluded, like the garbage men. Everyone wore their best attire, children tossed red flower petals, and the theater troupe wore costumes made of bird feathers while they pranced around pretending to be phoenixes. It took all of my willpower not to crane my head to get a better look as I ran by.
“—and today is a day of glory,” the schoolmaster’s voice boomed across the town square.
Schoolmaster Tyms was a naturally loud individual—Gravekeeper William described him as a regular blowhard in love with his own voice.
I slipped between two elderly men and stayed off to the side, making sure to remain in the shadows cast by the morning sun. Hundreds of people crowded the center of town, but their gazes never turned in my direction. They all kept their attention on a wooden stage near the Pillar—a platform only a few feet off the ground—where Schoolmaster Tyms stood squarely in the middle, his arms raised.
Whenever he glanced in my direction, I ducked. Schoolmaster Tyms didn’t care for anyone except those who attended his lectures, and he especially hated those with “unsavory” professions.
“I’ve mentored two extraordinary people,” Tyms said. “Both are talented beyond their years and worthy of a phoenix.”
He walked to the edge of the stage, lifting his arms even higher, his wrinkled face pulled back in an unnatural smile. I had seen corpses do a better job at conveying emotion.
But I didn’t stare at him for long because on either side of him, perched on ornate bird stands, were two phoenixes.
I stood transfixed, taking in their lustrous scarlet feathers and golden eyes. They had the build of herons, delicate and sleek, but every time they moved, soot fell from them and drifted to the ground. Fire flashed underneath their wings as though their whole bodies were made of flame. Their tails hung down two feet and twisted a bit at the end, like a peacock.
They were young, not even a year old, but that was old enough for them to leave the island. Mystical creatures didn’t reach maturity unless they were bonded to a person—I was certain they were giddy for the ceremony as well.
“We’re honored to be here today,” one phoenix said, her voice sing-song and brilliant.
The other added, “We can’t wait to see our potential partners.” He lifted his head as he spoke, his voice soft but distinct.
I wanted to hold one in my arms and feel the warmth of their magic coursing through my body, but touching a phoenix was forbidden. Only once they bonded with a person were they allowed to be handled.
The phoenixes tilted their heads as two individuals walked forward. The two were around my age, fifteen, the age of adulthood. They wore robes of glistening white, tied at the waist with silver ropes made of silk. Fancy outfits made on the mainland, betraying their wealth.
Tyms motioned to the rich newcomers. “On this Day of the Phoenixes I’ve selected Zaxis Ren and Atty Trixibelle to take part in the trials.”
Of course they would be picked. Ever since we were kids, they were always favored by the schoolmaster.
I cursed under my breath as Zaxis walked to the base of the Pillar.
He stopped under the metal archway, a century-old artifact which had been shaped into a phoenix and gilded. The arch signified the start of the trial. Anyone who passed beneath it would become a participant.
Zaxis smiled at the crowd with the smuggest expression a human could muster. His red hair shimmered in the sunlight and fluttered about with the wind. It wasn’t long enough to tie back, and I took a small amount of pleasure in watching him clumsily pat it down every few seconds, only for a stray hair to poke him in the eye again.
Zaxis’s family, the Ren House, stood at the front of the crowd, their personal soldiers keeping the “riffraff” a couple feet back. They cheered for Zaxis and threw flower petals. I had never been cheered for anything, yet all he did was show up. Life wasn’t fair sometimes.
“Thank you,” Zaxis said as he flashed a toothy smile. “Thank you. Once I’m bonded with a phoenix, I’ll make all of Ruma proud with my many accomplishments. I’ll become the world’s most renowned arcanist, loved by all.”
I balled my hands into fists and gritted my teeth. He already assumed a phoenix would choose him and that he would make one of the world’s greatest arcanists? Of course he did—he wasn’t expecting any competition.
Then Atty stepped forward, and the crowds hushed.
Unlike Zaxis, whose insufferable attitude knew no bounds, Atty held herself with regal sophistication. Her long blonde hair, tied in a neat braid, didn’t twirl in the winds. She held her head high, her slender neck adorned with a silver necklace depicting a charberry tree. I had always admired her poise and grace, like a pauper admires a member of royalty, even when I was young.
If things had been different—if I wasn’t a gravedigger—maybe I could’ve courted Atty. No doubt she would be disgusted to have someone like me approach her now. But once I bonded with a phoenix, perhaps I’d have the courage.
“Thank you, Schoolmaster Tyms,” Atty said, her voice a sweet relief after a long day’s work. “It’s a privilege to prove myself worthy of a phoenix. If I become an arcanist, I swear to dedicate myself to becoming a helpful ruler, one all of Ruma can be proud of.”
Atty’s family, the Trixibelle House, owned most of the buildings on the island. They sat on nearby balconies, each of them poised on chairs and cushions, cheering for Atty, along with everyone else on the island.
Although I wanted a phoenix for myself, I almost joined in on the clapping. Her answer was perfect, and when the phoenixes exchanged glances, I knew they thought the same.
No one else stepped forward.
While other people could offer themselves to the phoenixes, it was frowned upon. The schoolmaster knew best, or so they said—for centuries the keepers of knowledge were deemed the wisest and most capable of determining who would become the best arcanists. It was tradition. And for the last few decades, the schoolmaster hadn’t even made it a competition. He simply chose the exact number of students equal to phoenixes, ensuring his recommendation carried more weight than gold.
And the Isle of Ruma knew the importance of picking the right people to become arcanists. If the competition was open to everyone, someone with ill intents could gain vast magical power. The schoolmaster was supposed to weed them out and put forward only the best, most deserving people. That was why no one else entered the competitions. Following traditions is the way of the isles! Our island’s motto.
But even if I was noble of spirit, Atty and Zaxis studied and trained eight hours a day under the care of Schoolmaster Tyms. Everyone else, myself included, had work and chores. Atty and Zaxis were lucky. I wasn’t. How could I ever hope to match their knowledge and skills?
That didn’t matter, though. I wouldn’t make excuses. The phoenixes could, in theory, bond with anyone they found worthy. And I would show them just how worthy I was by passing each of the three trials.
“Once our hopefuls walk through the archway,” Tyms said, gesturing to the gold phoenix arch, “they will officially become participants in the trials. For the first task, each hopeful must walk up all one hundred and twelve steps of the Pillar to the charberry tree. Then they will pick a fruit to present to the phoenixes and return down the stairs.”
Every Day of Phoenixes had the same three trials. The charberry tree was the first. Only one stairway led to the tree—the spiral stairway made of stone steps that wrapped around the Pillar. The steps were hundreds of years old and worn smooth from use. Oh, and no railing, which was why I never felt safe standing on them, as falling from anything past the tenth step meant serious injury, possibly death.
“And with that, you may begin,” Tyms shouted.
Both Atty and Zaxis bowed to the crowd before turning and walking through the archway.
This was it.
I ran through the crowd, pushing people out of the way when I needed to, even knocking over a few men of the Ren Family as I dashed toward the arch. My heart beat so hard I almost didn’t hear people screaming for me to stop.
“Hey!” a woman barked.
“What’s he doing?” someone else shouted.
But before anyone could grab me, I raced through the archway, dashing past Atty and Zaxis.
“What do you think you’re doing, Volke?” Zaxis growled. “Good-for-nothing gravediggers can’t enter the trials!
I had my foot on the first step of the Pillar when I glanced over my shoulder. “I already passed under the archway. That makes me a participant.”
“What? That’s not allowed!” Zaxis glanced over his shoulder. “Right, Master Tyms?”
Tyms blubbered and flailed his arms. “How dare you, Volke! You walk back through that archway this instant. You’re disgracing all of Ruma with your disrespect!”
I ran up the steps, taking them two at a time despite the lack of railing.
Today I would prove myself to a phoenix. I would prove myself to all of Ruma.
I was more than just a gravedigger.
I wouldn’t stop. Not now, not ever.