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She turned to me, and the conversation shifted again. Her smile warmed her face, and her long hair swirled around her, teasing the top of her shoulders. “Child, you are my chosen one. You will bring your family back to their glory. They believe their power is of growing things, of manipulating plants and conversing with animals. They have forgotten their ties are to everything this earth offers.”

“I don’t understand.”

She held a hand over the sand and it swirled up in a lazy loop, bits of sparkling quartz and silicone catching the light. “Every particle of the earth is yours to command. When you understand that, you will be in your full power. The earth is the womb of all that IS. It births everything. You will see, fear not. The trials you face will shape and teach you. They must. Or your family and our world will die.”

Chills swept over me. “No pressure there.” My home called to me, tugging on my body and heart. “I think I need to go back now.” Yet I wasn’t totally sure. What would happen if I stayed? Could I stay with her?

“Yes, you do. There is much to be done to cleanse the world of those who do it harm.” With a single nod, I turned and walked away. My testing was complete. I was an Ender.

I thought when my testing was finished, and having gained the approval of the mother goddess, I would be able to connect to my abilities whenever I wanted. That I would finally be like the other elementals and no longer the useless outsider I was raised to believe.

Apparently, not so much. I stood thigh-deep in the water of the testing room, the damp heat from the underground hot spring curling around my naked body, caressing my skin, and making me shiver. Above my head, the stalactites hung low, moisture dripping from them into the pool. I couldn’t quite bring myself to step out of the water, though. I wasn’t ready to go fully back to the world that awaited me.

I stood there, fingers trailing in the water as my mind wandered.

Already the experience on the other side of the hot springs within the mother goddess’s embrace was fading, and I struggled with my insecurities. My whole life I’d been the weak one, the one everyone mocked for my inability. I’d been the one sent to the Planting fields, and even in that I’d failed. And now the mother goddess told me I was her chosen one . . . “Can’t exactly tell her that I decline, either,” I murmured. No, one did not tell the mother goddess, ‘no thanks, I think I’ll pass. Choose someone else to help you.’

Swallowing hard, I held my hand over the water. My feet were half-buried in the hot spring sand. The display the mother goddess had put on, swirling the sand through the air, had fascinated me. Maybe I could do the same. I reached for the power of the earth, cringing just before I connected, unable to make myself grab hold of it. The pain was still too real to me.

“Damn.” I put a hand to my head, rubbing at my temple. The mother goddess’s voice whispered across the water to me.

“Child, it will be many moons before you can fully break the bonds Cassava has placed on your soul. Be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself.”

I rolled my eyes so I could stare at the darkness and stalactites above. The conditioning I’d endured had come close to severing my connection to the earth completely. I didn’t know how close, but I suspected there were more than just my family’s lives in the countdown to destroy the lung burrowers. Had that only been a few weeks ago? Cassava had come close to tearing our entire family apart, nearly killed my father, and had weakened our home by wiping out nearly all of the Enders.

All so she could reign as she saw fit, without anyone to naysay her. The only good thing that had come out of the situation was the training I’d been put through. Becoming an Ender had started me on a path to finding out the truth about myself, my abilities, and the secrets of the past.

I shivered again as my body recalled, all too clearly, the pain when mother goddess severed Cassava’s ties to my heart, body, and soul.

In my time with her, I felt like I’d been stripped to the marrow of my soul.

Flicking my hands across the top of the water, I sent my mind along another path, one that didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies.

The last few months still seemed unreal in quiet moments of reflection. I’d gone from being a lowly Planter in the fields, to training to become an Ender—one of the king’s elite guards—faced down my stepmother Cassava, saved my family from the lung burrowers, and now I’d finished my testing. Something I thought I would never do with my lack of power. I looked around, finally taking note of the beach in front of me. The torches that had lit my path to the hot spring had gone out—except for one.

How long had I been in the water?

Flickering and dancing on a breeze that swept down through the halls above, the last flame beckoned me. A hand-like flare reached out, curling fiery fingers toward the beach. I stepped back. Growing and shifting, the flame leapt from the torch, forming itself into a fire tiger.

The big cat stalked toward me, its coat rippling in the unseen breeze, stripes going from a deep blue glow to a strange green and back again. As beautiful as it was, though, I wasn’t getting any closer.

I took a few steps back into the water. “I don’t suppose you just want to talk, do you, kitty?”

The tiger opened its mouth and roared, a fire storm shooting toward me. I fell back into the hot spring, the water rushing over my head. I stared upward as I sunk into the embrace of the water, while the flames rushed over the surface. Distorted and muted, they still illuminated the hot springs the way human fireworks lit the skies several times a year.

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