Heretic

Chapter One – The Spark

February, 3170 – Temple of the White Cross, Zenith


"Byron!" I scolded. "You're not supposed to be up there!"

My brother was sitting on the wall of the Temple, and I'd been tasked by Sister Evelyn with making him climb down before he broke his neck. He glanced at me and stuck out his tongue. He was at least twelve feet up, so I couldn't really reach him, but I jumped and took a swing at him anyway.

I usually tried to be a model Novice, but I felt certain that the God Arion made exceptions for rotten little brothers.

"You are so dumb. You're going to kill yourself, and I don't care if you do! There's no way we're related anyway. Father must have found you under a rock somewhere when he was on a Mission," I said.

"If he did, he found you under the same rock. Brother Vincent called me "Rilla" again today," Byron replied.

"Well, he's blind!" I protested, although that wasn't true.

Though I would never admit it, Byron and I did look a lot alike, so much so that sometimes Mother switched our baby pictures. Like our father, we both had big noses, green eyes, and unusual red hair with little streaks of black in it. I hated the fact that my eyebrows looked like two furry caterpillars, and wished I could go to a salon where the beauticians could make me look more like one of the girls I saw in magazines. It was embarrassing to be mistaken for a boy, especially my little brother. Really, I didn't understand the confusion. Byron had stupid-looking elephant ears which stuck out from the sides of his head, and at least ten times more freckles than me.

"Get down," I repeated for what felt like the hundredth time.

"You're not the boss of me," Byron replied, swinging his feet at me.

"Mother is going to be back soon," I warned him.

"No, she's not," Byron informed me. "She's going to be at the hospital all night."

My mother was a nurse. She worked at St. Mercy's Hospital, which was located beyond the Temple's walls, but not too far away. She came home just after my afternoon classes, always tired. The two of us would share a pot of tea, and I would tell her all about my day. She never talked about her work. I usually got the impression that she didn't like the hospital.

My father never talked about his work either. He would be gone for weeks or months at a time, but that was to be expected, because he was a Missionary.

The Missionaries of the Order of the White Cross are counted amongst the God Arion's most dedicated servants. While they are not soldiers, their jobs are dangerous by any standards, and they sometimes have cause to use the guns they carry. The deep lines in my father's face showed the strain his duties placed upon him. It's hard to explain how it feels to be the child of a Missionary. I always tried to be stoic in his absence, but I loved him dearly, and I always feared that one day my father would be sent on a mission that he would not return from. Every day that he was gone, I found my eyes drifting towards the empty peg on the wall where his red cloak normally hung.

"Brother Simon says we've got to go stay with the Old Groaners," Byron informed me.

"Byron!" I gasped, pretending to be more shocked than I actually was. Byron always got into trouble somehow while I was watching him. After Byron stuck a fork in a fan and had to get stitches, Mother forbade the two of us to stay home alone. It was humiliating for me, because I thought I was too old to be supervised. I also thought it was unfair that I was being punished for something that had been Byron's fault.

"You can't call the Elders that!" I protested.

"I can if they can't hear me," Byron replied arrogantly, climbing down from his perch. When he got to the ground, I grabbed his belt and tweaked his ear as hard as I could.

In truth, my best friend Amelia Ann sometimes referred to the Elders as "The Old Groaners" too, but to be caught using such callous language meant a sharp tweak on the ear and extra chores... so I never said anything so rude myself.

While some are born into the Order as my brother Byron and I were, others came in from the outside world, finding Arion's path only after living out most of their lives. They helped the Temple however they could, mostly by sewing, cooking, or gardening. The Elders spent the rest of their time praying or tending to the children of busy Priests and Missionaries. We were all supposed to call them "sir" and "ma'am", not because they were important, but because they were old.

Playing the part of a good big sister, I made Byron apologize twice to Brother Simon before we headed over in the direction of the Temple.

Like most young girls in the Order, I had four chief responsibilities besides my schoolwork, and those were babysitting, helping in the kitchen, gardening, and doing laundry. My best friend Amelia Ann and I would spend hours bleaching, scrubbing, and pressing clothing for our families, and for all of the Priests and Missionaries who were too busy to do their own washing. As we worked, we talked about boys, listened to the music we weren't permitted to like, and looked at pictures from the forbidden fashion magazines Amelia hid under her mattress. It was an innocent sort of rebellion. Amelia and I were disdainfully labeled "good girls" by Amelia's older sister Zelda Ruth and her friends, who got into much more trouble than we ever dreamed of. According to Amelia Ann, Zelda often snuck out of the Temple, and she even had a boyfriend who rode a motorcycle.

I'd never gone on a single date myself, although I was particularly focused on Arthur Edmund-Grace, a brooding, dark-eyed boy who sat in the front row of my Theology class. I drew hearts on all of my notebooks with our initials inside of them, but he never once glanced in my direction. Not that it really mattered. In truth, I was mostly interested in the fictional version of Arthur that I had created in my head. I probably wouldn't have known what to say to the real boy if he had spoken to me.

As we headed inside, I stared up at the white stone walls of the Great Temple. It was a massive square building, twelve stories high, which contained not only chapels and classrooms, but dormitories, a library, a huge communal kitchen, and even a clinic. Our leader was the High Priest of the Order of the White Cross, a father figure to everyone. In a way, growing up in such a place was like being part of a very large family, "The God's Family" as we called it. Most of us never left the safety of our home, and outsiders were seldom allowed in.

In my mind, the Elder's Dormitory was the very worst place on Temple grounds, and getting sent there was guaranteed to be miserable. Of course, Brother Simon was a Missionary, so if he told me to do something, I was going to obey him. The trouble was, the Elders were all nosy, and I couldn't even sit and read without someone hanging over my shoulder asking me what I was doing. I was particularly annoyed because I had an exciting new book in my backpack, one that Sister Evelyn, who was in charge of the library, had specially ordered for me.

I had a secret that I kept even from Amelia Ann, who would have certainly called me "weird" if she had ever learned that I liked to learn about cars, motorcycles, and especially Spellcraft. A few of the Elders had heard about my unusual hobby from Sister Evelyn, and they always clucked disdainfully when they saw me reading something "boyish". Such subjects, they informed me, were necessary for Missionaries to understand the outside world, but they were not good for young girls. Within the Order, women have always been encouraged to pursue "gentle" occupations. Originally, there were no female Missionaries at all, but when my mother was a child, some women had started "taking up the cloak". Things were still changing, but not very quickly, and although my friends had more options than their mothers, most of them were still planning on becoming nurses or teachers when they grew up.

Though I did not expect to become a Missionary myself, I was very anxious to get into Milton Kalvin's "The Physics of Flight". I knew very little about Spellcraft, although whenever I could, I would climb out onto the windows of St. Lionel's chapel, hoping to catch a glimpse of one zipping past.

A Spellcraft is a kind of airship. They look like the sailing vessels of centuries past, but they fly through the sky at startling speeds, propelled by cold fusion and sorcery. When they're hovering steadily in one place, it sometimes snows underneath them. Although the White Cross doesn't approve of the practice of magic, since Spellcraft run mostly on scientific principles, they're generally considered to be an acceptable evil.

When Byron and I made it up to the Elder's Dormitory, I found a spot in the corner to sit in and pulled my knees to my chest so that I could hide the cover of my new book. Of course, that only served to attract my little brother's attention.

"What are you reading?" He demanded, trying to peek over my shoulder.

"Poetry," I lied, slamming my book shut before he could see the diagrams inside. It was an excuse I gave when I didn't feel like justifying my unconventional interests. In truth, I never read poetry, although I did have a dozen books that people had given me because they thought I liked it.

"Lame," Byron rolled his eyes.

"You're lame," I replied.

"You're lamer. You're such a nerd." he retorted.

"I'm not a nerd, you troll!" I swung at him with my book. He stuck his tongue out at me and ran down the hall.

I considered yelling something at him as he took off, but then I noticed two of the Elders standing at the top of the stairs and swallowed the words I'd been about to say. I was five years older than Byron, which meant that I was supposed to be more responsible than he was.

It's strange that I can remember that ridiculous conversation so clearly... when so much of what happened afterwards is just a blur in my memory. In any case, sleeping in the Elder's Dormitory was not something I liked to do. Sharing a room with Byron was usually miserable, but spending the night in a row of snoring, weird-smelling old women was even worse. As it was, I read until lights-out and then tried to get comfortable in the bed that had been made for me. It was exactly like my bed at home, but it felt different somehow, probably because the mattress had been squished in strange places by other people sleeping on it.

I didn't really know what to do with my blankets. They felt too hot when I pulled them up to my chin, and I got too cold when I kicked them down to the foot of my bed. I grumbled a little, and stared at the ceiling for what felt like hours, but eventually I did fall asleep. If I did have a dream or a nightmare, it was nothing I ever remembered. I just closed my eyes, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up. I thought it might be morning, but it wasn't. I felt my heart skip a beat.

Something was wrong.

People were shouting in the hallway, and there was smoke everywhere, thick clouds of black smoke! The beds on either side of mine were empty. A glass of water was knocked on the floor, and sheets and pillows were thrown everywhere.

The next thing I noticed was that my blankets were on fire.

At first I stared at the flames in horror, wondering why I couldn't feel them burn. Then I started to get really scared, and they leapt even higher. Coughing in the smoke, I scrambled out of my bed and ran for the door. When I touched the knob, it seared the palm of my hand. I didn't understand why I couldn't feel the fire itself, despite the fact that it was following me. The floor even felt hot under my feet, and anything the fire had touched, like the doorknob, still burned me easily enough.

Frantically, I searched for another exit, and then saw an open window with an emergency ladder folded out of it. Without hesitation, I ran for the ladder, stopping only to seize my copy of The Physics of Flight which was about to be burned up. I stuffed the book into the elastic waist of my pajama pants and climbed down as fast as I could.

It was only after my feet touched the grass that I realized the ladder had led down the outside wall of the Temple. A crowd was gathering on the corner, mostly Elders in their nightdresses. Sirens echoed down the street and a pair of fire engines careened around the corner, followed by three squad cars and an ambulance. I stared in awe, not moving from where I stood until I heard my brother Byron's voice.

"Rilla!" He shouted, waving from behind a Knight's barricade. "Rilla!"

"Byron!" I shouted back. Even if he was an annoying ten-year old pest, I was very glad that he was all right. The fire engines extended their ladders and began to put out the blaze. Water rained down on me and I stopped suddenly, hearing a sizzling sound. I felt a little dizzy and numb, as if I'd just come out of the cold and jumped into a hot shower.

I fell to my knees. Medics came running with a stretcher, yelling words that I didn't understand. They forced me to my feet, even though I still felt wobbly. The last thing I saw before I passed out was a black singe-mark on the grass, a singe-mark exactly the size and shape of my hand.

I woke up for the second time at St. Mercy's Hospital. I'd never been to the city hospital before, although that was where Mother usually worked. A lot of priests had jobs there, but I could tell as soon as I opened my eyes that I wasn't in the White Cross wing. The doctor who held my hand wasn't even human.

Her green eyes were almond-shaped and her skin was almost golden. Her fine blond hair was pulled back into a tight bun which made her pointed ears all the more obvious. She was an Elf. I pulled away immediately and stared. I was too shocked to realize that I was being terribly rude, and still shaking as if I had a bad case of fever.

"Sweetheart, it's all right," the Elf soothed. "You're at St. Mercy's Hospital. You're going to be fine."

"The… the fire!" I coughed. My lungs still burned from all the smoke I'd breathed in.

"It's been put out. Everyone is safe," the Elf smiled. "Please, try to stay calm," she was trying to comfort me, that much I understood... but I'd never met an Elf before and part of me feared that she would do something terrible to me, even if she did seem kind.

"Where are my parents?" I demanded, sitting straight up. "Where's my brother? Byron!" I shouted.

"Shh, shh!" The Elf soothed. "They're on their way. We had to rush you here. Now dear… please just relax."

I bit my lip and slowly leaned back. I felt dizzy and when I moved one of my hands to brush my hair out of my face, I stared in horror at the smoking black mark I'd left on the white hospital mattress. I screamed. I felt like I'd been dreaming before, but at that moment I was lucid enough to realize that I was destroying anything that I touched. It was more terrible than the worst nightmare I'd ever had! Fire leapt from my fingertips. It turned the sheets I was sitting on into a curling mess of embers, and filled the air with the noxious smell of burning plastic.

"Brother Richard, get Master Flock!" The Elf ordered. A priest standing by the door jumped at the sound of his name. "Get him in here now!"

The priest ran out the door, and not a moment later another man burst in. He had short, dark hair, and he was dressed in a blue robe that looked almost like the one my mother wore after taking a bath. Was he a wizard? I told myself that he couldn't be. I had always believed that I would know a heretic if I ever met one, and he seemed too ordinary. But then the strange man spoke some words I couldn't understand and held up his hands. Something gold glimmered around his neck. A brilliant light welled up around me. The fire still burned, but it stopped before it reached the Elf-doctor who was standing with her back against the wall. I stared at the wizard in horror. Fire raced up my arms and caught my hair. But my hair didn't actually burn like the mattress that I sat on. It just sort of waved around and floated, crackling with golden sparks.

The wizard stepped forward. "Calm yourself, girl!" He ordered. "I am holding you back for now, but you are much stronger than you realize!" He pointed one blue glowing finger at me.

"H… heretic!" I coughed.

"My name is Master Flock. And I'm not here to hurt you, I'm here to help you," he corrected. His tone of voice was strangely soothing, and as afraid as I still was, I suddenly lost the will to fight him. "What's your name?"

"Kamrilla Joy-Clare," I replied, still watching him.

In truth, everyone called me "Rilla", except for my father. I knew that I had been named after my father's sister, although I had never met her. All I really knew about her was that she was dead, and that my father didn't like to talk about her. My mother had once told me that Kamrilla was a very brave woman, and that my father had loved her very much. Knowing that made me want to live up to my unusual name.

"Kamrilla, do you understand what's happening?" He asked.

"I… I'm on fire but I'm not burning. Why am I not burning?" I whispered uneasily.

"You're not burning because you are causing the fire. And if you want to stop it, you must do exactly as I say. Take a deep breath and blow out all the air in your lungs," the wizard ordered.

I took a breath and felt a sharp pinch in my side. Breathing out was easier than breathing in had been. Fire flared all around me for a moment and then dissipated.

"Again," Mr. Flock ordered.

I took another breath. My hair went out, and the fire that had run up and down my arms went back to just touching my fingertips. The wizard's circle of light remained. It felt sort of cool, like I was standing in front of a fan. "It went away," I observed.

"Very good, Kamrilla," Mr. Flock nodded.

"How did I…" I began.

"You have a Gift, dear. A very, very powerful one," he smiled slightly.

"What you have is called emotive pyrokinesis," the Elf corrected. It was the first she had said since I'd started burning down the hospital room. "Also know as Arkin Syndrome. Now I won't lie to you, it is a very severecase, but Master Flock is right… you can learn to manage it. A little medication and some simple exercises," she explained.

"Medication?" Mr. Flock frowned.

"Buspirone," the Elf clarified, talking to the wizard. "The treatment is similar to most anxiety disorders."

"Mm," Mr. Flock nodded. "That's one option."

"It's the only option. Most of the other drugs available are for short-term usage only," the Elf replied. "Edward, I know what you're thinking and… look, not every kid who accidentally starts a little fire wants to study Invocation."

"She didn't start a little fire!" He hissed. I suspected that he thought I couldn't hear, but I heard him all right. "She started a five-alarm blaze that burned down half of that damned compound! It's amazing that no one was killed!"

I gasped in horror. Once again, fire leapt from my fingertips.

"Edward!" The Elf scolded. "Oh Fyeris, she heard you! You're setting her off again!"

The wizard sighed heavily and spoke a word I did not understand, waving his hand dismissively in my direction. The blue circle around me flickered, and before I could sort out what had happened… I was soaking wet. The wizard sat down on the stool next to my bed and folded his hands, staring at me gravely. "I didn't mean to scare you, dear. And I'm sorry that you're drenched now, but if you panic, you'll only start burning things again," he paused, touching the chain he wore around his neck. As he came closer I realized that it was a pendant in the shape of a little gold dolphin wrapped around a stone that was the color of the ocean.

Nobody inside the Temple wore jewelry, apart from the occasional pendant or pin showing Arion's Star. I'd always been told that necklaces, rings and earrings were signs of vanity, the "trappings of heretics" but I had to confess that I liked Mr. Flock's little dolphin. It seemed happy… and when I looked at it, I could almost hear it chirping at me.

"The truth is, there is no medication in the world which will take this Gift away from you," the wizard paused. "You can look at it as a curse if that is what you believe it is, but no matter what you choose to call it, it is yours to bear."

I asked the only question I could. "How did I get cursed?"

"Well, Arkin Syndrome is genetic," the Elf explained.

"Oh." I nodded, staring at my hands. I didn't know what "genetic" meant, but the way she spoke that word made me think that it was something like the flu, a thing you could catch.

"Cassie, please see to the priests outside," Mr. Flock dismissed the Elf. "I'm legally bound to say my piece, and then I promise I'll be on my way."

"You know her family is not going to like this," the Elf sighed and disappeared out into the hall. "I'm still giving her the Buspirone," she added, peeking back inside the room.

Mr. Flock sighed and rolled his eyes. He turned back to me. "Now Dr. Myndiel is going to give you some medicine you can try… but it's important that you know you have another option. A safer option," Mr. Flock explained. "You can learn how to control the fire that's in you, Kamrilla, and never be afraid of it again. I'm a professor at Dainor Academy. It's a school for wizards."

"I don't want to be a heretic!" I argued.

"Dear, you don't want to burn down buildings either!" The wizard replied. "I'm not saying that you need to turn mice into teacups! All I'm saying is that you should consider learning how to control the power you have. For your own safety if no one else's!" he replied. "And money is no object. There is a scholarship fund at Dainor which specifically pays tuition for students like your."

I stared at him in disbelieve. "Why?"

Mr. Flock grinned. "Because fire is the most difficult of the elements to invoke, and if you have a natural affinity for it, your Gift must be extremely strong. It took me five solid years of Academy training before I could light a candle!" He explained. "Kamrilla, I know you have a very low opinion of magic, but I'm not trying to insult you when I say that I do believe you'd be exceptionally good at it. Here." He took a magazine and a few brochures out of his pockets. "Have a look."

I stared in awe at the first sheet of glossy paper. It had a castle on it surrounded by snow-covered mountains and dark green pine forests. In fancy golden script the title read "Dainor Academy".

I opened to the first page, which showed a small picture of four kids skiing, and across from them, some students and a teacher sitting at a table surrounded by books.

"Founded in CE 2895 by Queen Sigrid I, Dainor Academy is the finest school of Wizardry in the Realm. Only one hundred students are accepted each year out of an applicant pool of more than five thousand candidates.

A traditional Master-Apprentice relationship is at the core of our program. Our twenty-five full-time Master Wizards personally select the students that they will mentor – offering each incoming Apprentice an unparalleled degree of one-on-one attention

Our Magical Programs are most competitive in every School. Students wishing to study Influence Arts must pass the MAST exam with a minimum score of 700. The same standard is expected for all Invocation Apprentices. A minimum score of 600 is required for entry into Enchantment, Mender's Arts, Bardic Arts and Illusion. We believe in diversity and unlike many other Academies, we encourage our students to broaden their horizons by taking courses outside of their chosen School. At present we also offer secondary awards in History, Education, Medicine, Chemistry, Law, and Engineering."

"For further information on courses of study and admission requirements, contact Irene Lancaster, the office of Headmaster Giovanni Narras (M. Influence Arts, 2998), 101 N. White Mountain Road."

"Dainor Academy is located two hours north of Port Hope in the stunning White Mountains. Wildlife abounds – bears, wolves and elk roam in their natural habitat and students may also catch glimpses of banded tagunassi, speartail rocs and rare albino griffins which roost at the nearby White Mountain Griffin Preserve.

In addition to our unmatched academic curriculum and spectacular natural environment, Dainor Academy is also home to many champion athletes who have brought home high honours in the sports of archery, fencing, jousting, basketball, rugby, ice hockey and skiing. The famous Dainor Academy Dueling Team coached by the three-time realm champion Master Roderick Van Rijn (M. Elemental Invocation, 3150) competes on the very highest echelons of the sport. There are also twenty-eight different student organizations which include the radio station 104.1 ZMKX, Peak Productions theatre, chess club, kayaking and fashion design."

"Students are encouraged to study abroad. Fourth years have the opportunity to participate in exchange trips to Zenith, Phoenicia or Thanbrul depending on their chosen School. 60% of students completing fifth year are working in Magical Fields, and 95% of our Masters are court-appointed."

"For additional magazines contact Mistress Tarsha Windwing (M. Enchantment, 3164). For information regarding students with special needs or arcane disorders, contact Master Edward Flock (M. Elemental Invocation, 3143)."

I flipped through the rest of the magazine, looking at all of the pictures. There was a big theater, an arena for jousting, a library with over one million volumes, and much more. The laboratories where students could work on scientific experiments especially intrigued me. By the time I was finished looking through the magazine, I was starting to wonder if going to Dainor Academy actually was a good idea.

And then I saw the second thing that Master Flock had passed me. It was a pamphlet which read Managing Arkin Syndrome. It had fire on the front. I didn't think that was very original and frowned at it. I read a little bit about the disease, but I couldn't understand most of the words in the pamphlet.

As I read on, I felt my eyelids growing heavier and heavier. Eventually, I fell asleep.

It must have been very early in the morning when my mother came to get me, because the sun wasn't up yet. When I woke up and noticed her, she was yelling at Master Flock. The Elf doctor was standing with her arms crossed a few feet away, looking very upset. Before I figured out what was going on or why, I was drug to my feet and pushed out the door. I'd never ridden in a car before, but Mother made me get into the white van that made deliveries to the temple twice a week.

My head was still fuzzy, and I wondered if the Elf or the wizard hadn't given me something to make me sleep. I didn't even realize that I was carrying an orange prescription bottle until Mother plucked it out of my hands and stuffed it into her purse.

I fell asleep again as soon as I was back in my bed, and when I finally woke up, I discovered that I'd slept right through morning services. That was something I'd never done before, except when I was sick with the flu. Mother excused me from all of my usual lessons and chores. Around noon, she gave me two white pills. I took them without asking what they were. Ten minutes later, I threw up.

For an hour after that, I could hear Mother shouting at someone on the telephone. I didn't understand the language she was speaking. In fact, I'd never guessed that she knew any languages besides the normal one we spoke every day. Seeing her so upset and not understanding what was going on, I felt like a stranger in my home.

I don't know what time it was Byron came finally back with the laundry, moaning and groaning about having to do "girl chores" in addition to his own... but that was when Mother finally calmed down. She informed the two of us that Father would be home before dinner. Usually, I would have been glad to hear that, but I was afraid of what he would think when he learned what I had done.

Dinner was an awkward affair. With the memory of what I'd done still fresh in my mind, I found that I couldn't concentrate on my prayers or my potatoes. Temple food is rarely very interesting. It's nourishing but no more elaborate than necessary, which means that breakfast, lunch and dinner are generally the same – a cup of tea or milk, bread, a vegetable or a piece of fruit, perhaps a piece of chicken or pork and boiled potatoes,always potatoes! I haven't eaten potatoes in years. I never cared for them to begin with, and being able to choose not to eat them was one of the hallmarks of my liberation.

"Sit up straight, Rilla-dear," Mother ordered. "And don't pick. Have some respect for your meal."

"Forgive me, Mother," I nodded obediently, sitting up straight in my seat. My brother Byron reached across my plate, nearly knocking over my glass.

"Byron, ask if you want something passed to you," Father reprimanded, smacking my brother's hand as he attempted to help himself to a second piece of bread. "And eat your spinach!"

"Rilla-dear?" Mother wondered, again in her little sing-song voice. "Is there something wrong?"

"No, Mother," I lied.

"Kamrilla, you're lying," Father observed. When he called me by my full name, he did so, he wasn't in the mood for games. As a Missionary Confessor, my father was very observant, but the way he looked at me then was impossible to ignore. He had not guessed that I was lying… he knew.

It was no secret in the Temple that my father took a heavy dose of medicine every morning to suppress the curse he had been born with. When he didn't take his pills… he could tell what other people were thinking, and sometimes even more than that. I'd heard the High Priest whisper once that my father could "bend" the wills of others so that they would do whatever he told them to. The thought was terrifying, and as much as I loved my father, I was also afraid of him. Former heretics were admitted into the Order if they forswore sorcery, but it was often said that they made poor priests. Magic was a very great evil, but it was also a temptation like none other. It provided an "easy" solution to a multitude of problems, and heretics who had become accustomed to relying on it often used it without even thinking.

Mother eyed Father suspiciously. I could tell she was wondering if he had read my thoughts. If he had, it wouldn't have been the first time.

"Very sorry, Father," I replied, knowing it was useless to resist him. "There is something I want to talk to you about… but I'd rather not discuss it at the dinner table. Or in front of Byron," I added.

The little weasel had already betrayed me once when I'd tried to skip out of choir practice! If he learned what I had really done, it would only be a matter of time until the whole temple knew. Of course, there was the possibility that everyone knew already. I shuddered at the thought.

"You are forgiven," Father replied in the same tone he used to absolve other priests of their sins. I felt sort of small and unforgivably dirty.

"Aw!" Byron whined. "I hate secrets! Why are you keeping secrets from me?"

"Because every time I tell you anything you tell everyone in the world!" I shot back.

"What if I pinky-swore?" He suggested. "Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye?"

"Byron William-Arthur!" Mother reprimanded. "I will wash your mouth out with soap! There will be no such talk at this table! Besides." She paused, looking very stiff and proper. "Your sister's business is not yourbusiness. She's almost grown-up now, and she doesn't want to share everything in her life with a ten-year old boy! When you get older yourself, you'll understand."

"You're no fun anymore. Stupid girl," Byron glared at me, crossing his arms and rocking his chair away from the table. Father stopped him before he would have flipped himself flat on his back. Byron looked startled and slowly inched forward until his feet were on the floor.

"Don't rock your chair!" Father warned, and Byron nodded obediently.

Though I was glad that Mother had defended my right to privacy, my mind was still racing. What was I going to say? Father would know if I lied, and I couldn't hope to hide the truth of what I had done. Someone could get hurt, and I didn't want that.

I had to find a way to go to the Academy. It was the only place where I could learn to control my curse… or as Mr. Flock had called it, my unruly "Gift".

"May I be excused?" I asked.

"Rilla-dear, you didn't eat your potatoes," Mother replied.

"I'll eat em'!" Byron volunteered, snatching my plate.

I smiled slightly to myself. That was one good thing about having a little brother.

"Kamrilla?" My father interrupted before I could walk out the door. "If you're finished eating, you can help your mother wash up. When the dishes are put away, please come see me in my office."

"Oooh, busted!" Byron exclaimed, talking with potatoes still in his mouth.

"No! It is not funny! You stupid little... poop-head!" I snapped, not caring that Mother would scold me. The stove right behind Mother immediately caught fire, and the sight of those flames shocked me so badly that I forgot I was mad at Byron.

"Oh dear, I must have forgot to turn the stove off!" Mother exclaimed, smothering the flames with the lid of the potato pot, although from the expression on Father's face, I could tell that her ruse wasn't fooling him. He knew what I'd done, that much was obvious, but he wasn't angry at me. He didn't seem disappointed either, or at very least he didn't scrunch up his nose and wave his finger in my face like he usually did when I did something wrong. He looked sad, like somebody had just died.

After cleaning up the kitchen with Mother, I paced back and forth for a full ten minutes in front of the door to Father's office. Since Father was a Missionary Confessor, the room sealed tightly, and no prying eyes or ears… not even Byron's would be able to reach us inside. That was certainly for the best. Fear seized me momentarily. If someone did find out what I had done, would I be excommunicated? Would Father tell the High Priest? Would I be expelled from the temple? I was only fifteen! I couldn't imagine being branded a heretic. As far as I knew, I'd never done anything that should have offended the God. I didn't know why Arion had chosen to curse me. Secretly, I suspected that the doctor at the hospital spoke the truth – that what was wrong with me was not the result of anything I'd done but simply "genetic". I was wondering if a good strong dose of honeyed ginger tea might cure me. It was my mother's solution to everything.

"Come in, Kamrilla," Father ordered.

I stepped into the office.

All of my resolve pooled in my feet as I saw that Mother and Father were accompanied by the High Priest himself and a red-cloaked Missionary I had never seen before. I wondered if he was from another temple... and if so, why had he been summoned? Was it all my fault?

"I didn't mean to! Don't cast me out!" I cried. "Please, I promise I'm not a heretic!"

"Rilla, control yourself!" Mother ordered. "You are not being cast out."

"I'm not?" I stared in disbelief, not sure whether I was relieved or frightened to learn such a thing. "But I… I started the fire in the dormitory," I whispered.

Very slowly I pulled the letter from the hospital and the introductory pamphlets that Master Flock had given me out of my robe. I put the blue one that read "Managing Arkin Syndrome" on the top so that I wouldn't have to say anything. Everyone stared at me in silence.

"They told you already? Why didn't you say so when your mother picked you up?" Father demanded.

"I don't know! I couldn't think! My head was fuzzy, and I didn't know what was going on! Mother was so angry and she yelled at everyone! She took the medicine from me when we were in the van just put it in her purse. I think she gave me some earlier, but I just threw it up. I'm sorry."

My mother looked a little embarrassed as she realized that everything I'd said was true. She turned to my father who nodded slowly.

"It was an accident!" I protested. "I swear!"

"An accident?" The High Priest raised an eyebrow skeptically.

"I was asleep. I did it when I was sleeping," I explained. "They gave me medicine."

Mother took the pill bottle out of her purse and showed it to the High Priest. "The doctor said it might not work, but Mr. Flock said that he could help me," I finished.

"Edward Flock?" My father wondered. He definitely seemed to know the name."
I nodded.

"Ah," The High Priest's assistant smiled slightly. "So the old ambulance chaser's still at it, is he?"

"What's an ambulance chaser?" I wondered.

"Brother Michael, shut your mouth!" The High Priest ordered. "Rilla, please continue."

Mother covered her mouth in shock. She obviously didn't like anything she had heard so far. Father did not seem surprised at all. Then again, it was fairly difficult to surprise him, seeing as he could read other people's thoughts.

My father turned the pamphlet and the brochure over to my mother without so much as looking at them. Mother was already crying. She held her sleeve to her nose and glanced to the High Priest as if she expected he would know what to do.

I felt awful.

"Please," I finished helplessly. "Please, forgive me!"

"You are forgiven," the High Priest nodded. "But you should have said something earlier! Did you honestly think that you were the first Novice to have such a problem?"

I was very surprised to hear that I wasn't and my shock certainly registered on my face.

Brother Michael looked amused. I was beginning to be a little afraid of him. The High Priest shot him a condescending glare.

"We were prepared that this curse might manifest in either you or your brother,"the High Priest explained. "It runs in your father's family, and though he is a good and loyal priest himself, he has not been able to purge his blood of this particular affliction."

"Can you cure me?" I wondered hopefully.

"Only the God Himself may do such a thing," The High Priest shook his head heavily. "But we can help you manage your illness. You know the prescription your father takes."

"It gives him headaches," I nodded.

"It also suppresses his curse," the High Priest informed me. "Starting tomorrow you will report to Brother Michael every morning at the Missionary Captain's Office. He'll monitor your condition until we find medication which is suitable for you."

I stared in disbelief. "You're a Mission Captain?" I knew I should have been more polite, but I couldn't help myself. I knew many Missionaries. But to be a Mission Captain, a priest had to be totally pure of heart. It was said that only the truly faithful could call down the powers of Arion himself, a white fire from the heavens which purged all evil from the world.

"Brother Michael is very experienced in dealing with such problems and can protect you should anything go wrong," the High Priest finished.

Thinking back to what Mr. Flock had said earlier, I felt a little uneasy. "Is there anything I can do for myself?"

"Nothing," Brother Michael replied.

"Mr. Flock said I could..." I began.

"Rilla, you must forget everything that heretic told you," The High Priest cut me off. "Wizards are masters of lies and enemies of the God."

"Yes, High Priest," I replied, bowing my head. The way I felt was troubling. Though I did not have my father's ability to know the truth, I felt in the pit of my stomach that I was being lied to. Of course, what I did not understand then… was why.