The voices rise from the darkness as Meah regains consciousness. Her eyes are still too heavy to open and her head swims as the effects of the sleep dart fade slowly. She rolls on the ground and feels bodies around her, one on each side as though they were laid out in a line.
The voices surround her, hands grabbing her arms. She’s lifted from the ground. Groans from the ground as she’s moved are silenced.
She’s carried a short distance. She moans as more hands grab her legs and clothes. A sharp prick on her neck from a dart sends a small surge of energy through her. She tries to fight the hands from her, but sleep envelopes her and everything goes black.
Meah opens her eyes, the effect of the sleep dart wearing off. It takes a moment for her vision to focus and she stares at her feet. She’s standing. She tries to lift a hand to her eyes, but they won’t move. She rolls her head to the side to see ropes keeping her tied to a pole.
Adrenaline shoots through her body as the realization that she’s restrained sinks in. Her arms are wrapped around the pole behind her. She lifts her head and her focused eyes search for help.
The sight before her turns her blood cold and makes her heart pound loudly in her chest.
A strange village surrounds her. The trees surrounding it block light from above. But torches placed throughout the village provide enough light for Meah to see each disturbing detail.
A large fire pit is several yards from her making up the center of the village. Huts made of bones create a circle around the fire pit. Large bones create irregular shapes on the huts, deforming them so that each is unique. Animal skins cover the roofs and create makeshift doors. Encircling the fire pit and lying at the base of the pole are human skulls.
Meah struggles against her restraints. Her eyes dart around the village and she turns her head. Between a few of the huts hang nets full of still bodies. It isn’t until one of the bodies moves that Meah recognizes it as her group. She wants to cry out to them, but her voice catches in her throat.
Most are still unconscious, but one opens his blue eyes and stares at Meah.
“Meah,” Jaxon’s raspy voice says, barely above a whisper. His eyes move lazily around, taking in the scene. Realization fills his eyes with alertness. He tries to grab his dagger or sword, but his weapons are gone. He turns his attention to another in the net, but his weapon is gone as well.
Lying in front of a hut holding one end of the net is a pile of weapons, safely out of reach. Jaxon curses and his eyes meet Meah’s. They fill with magic and he prepares to use his fire on the ropes of the net.
A blow of air precedes a dart stabbing into Jaxon’s neck. He quickly grabs the dart and throws it to the ground, but it’s too late. His eyes glaze over and he falls unconscious again.
Turning her head away from Jaxon, Meah spies the one responsible. The man lowers the blow dart from his lips, his eyes moving from Jaxon to Meah. He lifts his head and screams. Echoing screams fill the surrounding forest and drums begin playing. Hundreds of bodies emerge from the darkness of the trees and the surrounding huts. The drumming only stops as the drummers move their instruments to the center of the village. When they play again, it’s with more fervor and energy.
White powder covers the bodies of the villagers, creating different designs. Most reflect the skeletons their village is made of, while others create masks on their faces. They fill the center of the village and dance to the drumming, screaming or whooping as the excitement fills them.
The man who screamed, summoning the others, is painted with a red substance too bright to be blood. He waits, watching the others dance to the drums. He walks forward, through the dancing bodies until he reaches the head of the fire pit. He raises his arms above his head.
The villagers stop and the drums fall silent. They watch the man in red, as still as statues.
The man in red, the Elder Meah believes, releases a guttural yell. Meah has never heard a human voice make such a sound. Elder brings his arms down, palms facing the fire pit. Flames shoot from his hands and ignite the pit in a spectacular explosion of light and heat. The villagers cheer. The drums begin again and dancing resumes.
Elder walks around the pit, the flames dancing in his eyes. He stops in front of Meah and moves close to her. She tries to pull away, but there’s nowhere to go being tied to the pole. He holds his hand out and a small villager, a young girl approaches. She puts a bowl made from the top of a skull into his outstretched hand.
The bowl is filled with a dark liquid. Elder dips his fingers in the liquid then raise it to Meah’s face. The metallic smell hits her nose and she realizes it’s blood. She jerks her head away, but Elder easily draws lines on her skin. He continues until he’s satisfied. He hands the skull bowl to the girl and speaks strange words to her.
The young girl runs off into one of the nearby huts, disappearing behind an animal skin door.
Elder’s eyes observe his work on Meah and he leans close to her face. He says something, but Meah doesn’t understand him. Suddenly he slaps her and repeats his words.
“I don’t know what you’re saying,” Meah says quickly, flinching as he raises his hand again. The second strike is harder, leaving a sting on her cheek.
The drums stop, pulling Elder’s attention away from Meah. The villagers fall to their knees.
The young girl has reemerged from the hut followed by a large man. He has to bow low to make it through the doorway and when he stands he’s taller than the hut. The young girl holds his hand tightly, her other hand playing with her bottom lip.
The large man’s thick body is completely covered in ashes. His eyes match the dark color, but his hair is grey.
Elder faces the fire pit and whistles. The villagers raise their heads to the trees and speak quickly. Their voices become a low drone as Elder speaks loudly over them. He raises his hands above him. The young girl and ash man move forward, approaching the fire pit.
Meah turns her head to look at the nets holding her group. Most awoken at the loud noise slowly realize what’s happening, helpless to do anything.
Ime opens his eyes and immediately sits up. Shaking the net enough to knock him back down. His eyes search for an escape. But when they land on Meah tied to the pole a good distance away she sees anger and fear mix in them. He clenches his fist and the earth beneath rises. A villager, hidden by the shadows of the trees, materializes next to the net and buries a dart into Ime’s arm. Ime is able to use his air magic to throw the man away. But the effect of the sleep dart quickly takes over and he’s unconscious before the man hits the ground.
Kylii sees Ime’s failure and prepares to burn the net. Daniil stops him, whispering quickly in his ear, “They’ll only do the same to you. Stay calm.”
Everyone in the nets must watch, powerless to stop it.
Ash man reaches his free hand into the blazing fire. The flames dance around his arm as he reaches the bottom of the pit. The young girl leans against his side and a short yip escapes her lips. The villagers closest to her echo her small sound and soon the village is filled with short yips.
Pulling his arm from the fire, a weapon forms from the ashes of the wood and bones burning. Ash man raises the blade and it forms into a large axe, its blade black as the night. He swings the blade effortlessly through the air and bellows.
Explosion of drums and yells bring the villagers back to life. They leap to their feet, dancing around the fire as Ash man and the young girl make their way to a large block of wood.
The Elder turns to Meah. He draws a long knife and cuts her free from the pole, though he quickly binds her hands together behind her back. Grabbing her arm, he leads her to the wood block. He forces her down to her knees before Ash man and lays her across the wood block.
Her head hanging from over the edge, Meah, realizing what’s coming next, struggles to stand. The Elder calls to two villagers who grab her, holding her down against the wood.
Those trapped in the nets scream to Meah. But there’s nothing they can do. Whenever a magic user tries to use their magic, a villager shoots or stabs a sleep dart into their arms or necks.
Ash man lifts the young girl onto his shoulders, one of her legs on either side of his neck, before grabbing his axe with both hands. He lifts it above his head. The young girl leans on top of his head and watches Meah, both hands playing with Ash man’s grey hair.
The drums are beaten harder and Meah can almost feel the earth shaking. She closes her eyes and waits for the end.