The earth is damp and cool around her. The fear of suffocating fills her, but the familiar feel of magic reminds her they want her alive. Whoever they are. The hands pulling her through the earth one-by-one release her until only two pairs hold her by each arm. The earth opens up and she blinks at the light. When her vision clears, her jaw drops at the sight.
What she thought was light of the outside is actually torchlight. A single opening high above allows little light in from the sky. Otherwise the entire village in front of her is safe beneath the earth. The village is split into two levels. On the higher ground, smaller buildings encircle the lower level. The buildings on the lower level are spread further apart and larger. At the center, beneath the hole in the ceiling, is a pit.
“Stop staring. The Elders are waiting for you,” a voice to her right says.
Ari looks at the voice’s owner. The woman holding her is smaller than her and covered in mud. Her hair is braided close to her head, resting across her shoulders.
“Don’t talk to her. She’s an outsider,” the one to Ari’s left says. The man is the same size as the woman, his hair the same length and braided in a similar fashion. The mud covering him makes his light gray eyes stand out.
The two lead her towards the center of the village. Loud voices attract her attention and she spies Vico and Crofton being lead towards one of the large buildings surrounding the pit. Seeing her, the two struggle against their captors, but are soon dragged inside.
“You’re very quiet. Usually the ones we catch have more fight in them,” the man says. The woman glares at him before rolling her eyes in annoyance.
“There’s no point in fighting. I’m not leaving here without my friends,” Ari answers. She meets his eyes and shrugs her shoulders. “Plus, there’s no point trying to escape from a hole in the ground when your captors are earth mages.”
“We’ll see how calm you are after the Elders are finished with you.”
Walking towards a large building far from the one Vico and Crofton were taken to, Ari eyes the pit at the center of the village. She sees steps leading down into the darkness, but no visible bottom can be seen…but she knows something is down there. The longer she stares into the pit the stronger her feeling of unease grows.
She’s taken to the largest building in the village. The woman opens the door, releasing Ari’s arm. The man pulls her through the door as the woman shuts the door behind them.
He waves his arm over his body and the mud rises off his skin, collecting into a ball in his hand. He throws the ball towards a jug on a table and the mud flies into it.
“Afraid to get mud on the floor?” Ari jokes.
The man tightens his grip on her arm. “Found your tongue, did you? Better keep it in check with them.”
Opening a door she didn’t even notice, the man leads her into a room with candles burning everywhere. A strong smell fills the room and she sees incense burning amongst the candles. The smell chokes her and she coughs, her eyes burning from the incense. She tries to use her air magic to clear it, but the strong scent and pain makes it too difficult to concentrate.
“Present her,” a mysterious voice speaks, but she can’t see the owner.
The man pulls Ari close, forcing her in front of him. He leans close to her ear. “Strip.”
“Strip or else I’ll have to do it for you.” His voice shakes with…desire? No, it shakes with a plea. He doesn’t want to do it.
“Present her!” The mysterious voice commands him.
“Don’t ask questions. Do it.”
She lifts her shirt, carefully pulling it over her head. She throws it to the floor and unties her pants. She hesitates a moment before lowering them and taking her shoes off. She throws them to her shirt and covers her chest with her arms.
The man collects her clothes and places them on a blank table by the door. Then he walks up to her and shoves her to the center of the room. The incense smoke circles her as she moves through it, covering her mouth as the intense smell surrounds her.
Something wet on her back makes her jump and she sees the man painting something on her skin. He works quickly, spending little time covering her in patterns. He lifts his free hand and more of the liquid covers her sensitive areas. The liquid dries and he moves on to carving symbols using a stick.
“I wish you’d fight me,” he says suddenly as he works on her face.
She wants to respond, but the smoke is thicker and she feels her lungs tighten.
“They said you were a fighter. They said you had a fire inside you that came out from your tongue.” He finishes and steps back. “If that was true then this would be worse.”
“Enough, Ylan. Leave us.”
The man, Ylan, heads for the door. She grabs his arm, waiting for his eyes to meet hers before speaking. “Don’t let them keep you buried forever.”
His eyes widen slightly before he pulls away from her and leaves, but she catches his brief glance back at her before the door shuts.
Alone, she searches the room for the owner of the voice, but the smoke is thick and the light from the candles creates dancing shadows against the walls. Closing her eyes, she swells her magic inside her, hoping to clear the smoke away from her. She releases it, breathing out slowly.
The smoke moves away slowly before circling her. She feels it move across her skin and she opens her eyes. She feels it. Magic mixed in the smoke. She watches it circle her and tries to see where the source of the magic is. She concentrates and soon one of the shadows dancing on the walls forms into a figure. An old man with his hands clasped together. The smoke rises from his body and mixes with the incense.
Sensing her eyes on him, he steps towards her. “You are the daughter of the killers Meah and Ime, are you not?”
“They weren’t killers.”
“They were killers. They killed one of our chosen children.” The Elder, she imagines, steps closer to her, the smoke overpowering her magic.
“You’re wrong. They would never harm children.” She coughs as she breathes in the smoke.
“He was our chosen son. Chosen to venture beyond our village. They killed him.” The Elder holds a hand out to her, the smoke ceasing its movement.
Her body stiffens and she can’t move. She curses in her head. The smoke she’d been inhaling was mixed with his magic. She’s trapped.
“He was our chosen King. Chosen to rule all.”
She understands. Fighting the magic holding her, she manages to speak. “Blood King Klaeon.”
The Elder continues as though she never spoke. “But we have been given a gift. A chance at redemption.”
He waves his hand at Ari. Her body moves on its own, lowering her to her knees. Two more figures emerge from the shadows, both women. They move to either side of Ari and place a hand on either side of her head. With their free hands they touch fingertips together, creating a triangle above Ari.
The Elder’s eyes burn with a silent rage and he sits in front of her. “Who will be chosen?”
Ari feels magic force its way into her, but not in the same way as the smoke. She’s felt something similar before. When the Seer Lyrrel shared a vision with someone, it was a similar feeling. But where his was a mutual sharing, this feeling was invasive. It forces its way into her and she feels it searching through her memories. She fights with as much strength as she can, but the magic is doubled with two users and she can’t stop them.
“Crofton Hila,” the women speak in unison. “If he dies, then Vico Skeoll.”
The women release Ari and fade into the shadows again. The Elder relaxes his hands and she feels her body released. She stands and uses her built up magic to send a wave of wind at him. The earth rises in front of him, blocking her wind. Turning, she sees Ylan standing in the doorway, his arms in front of him.
“Take her to the others. But first, initiate her,” the Elder says from behind the wall of earth.
Lowering his arms, the wall falls to the floor. Ylan grabs her clothes before walking forward to grab her.
She readies another blast of air, but her body freezes as the smoke around her tightens.
“Don’t test my patience. I’ve been ordered not to kill you and the one who gave it to me frightens me more than my desire for revenge.” The Elder can’t keep the fury and rage from his voice any longer. “Take her. Be sure the initiation is fitting for a killer’s bastard child.”
Ylan bows before grabbing Ari. The smoke clears and he drags her from the room, allowing the door to slam behind him.
“I told you to watch your tongue around them.”
“Is this…this village is where Blood King Klaeon came from.”
“This was his home before he was given the honor to rule. This is where his Blood Magic was given him.” He takes her to another room in the building and throws her into a chair.
“And you pissed off the man who was his father.”