“His father? But that man was too young,” she says, remembering her mother telling her the Blood King was roughly forty when the war started.
“A gift from the pit.” Ylan throws her clothes and shoes to the side. “And from the Living Darkness.”
“You shouldn’t ask questions. You probably won’t remember anything after the initiation. Once it’s complete, they’ll return you to your comrades. Then the chosen will be taken.”
“What’s the initiation? What are they going to do to Crofton?”
“I wish you hadn’t pissed him off.” He backs away from her. “You would’ve only been temporarily branded.”
Her pulse quickens. “Branded?”
She readies to stand, but large hands slam onto her shoulders, knocking the wind from her lungs and sending a shockwave of pain through her. She leans her head back and stares into the eyes of a large man wearing an apron and with soot covering his arms and face.
His muscles remind her of the weapon and armor forgers in Kellahn. The apron is made of thick hide and his skin is dark and dry. “Stay still.” His low voice is rough, almost resonating through his arms.
Ylan moves forward and ties her arms and legs to the chair. He’s sure not to look at her sensitive areas, a small blush coming to his cheeks, before moving to the door. He doesn’t leave, but stands in front of it as though to stop her from escaping. His expression is straining to hide his discomfort.
“The Elders have demanded an initiation fitting for a killer’s spawn.”
She glares at him and fights against the large man’s grip, forgetting for a moment her arms and legs are bound. “My parents weren’t killers.”
The large man forces her back against the chair, nodding his head at Ylan. “Show me the path.”
Ylan traces a pattern on his face, mirroring the markings on her. “I’ve laid the path upon her.” He turns away, shame clear on his face. “Do it.”
Understanding, she fights against her bonds, feeling the large man release her. Her eyes lower to the patterns on her flesh, the symbols carved into the liquid covering her body. She pulls against her bonds, feeling the skin around her wrists and ankles burn as they’re rubbed raw. She knows what’s going to happen. She knows now why they had her strip and what the large man was there to do.
“If you’d only kept quiet,” Ylan’s voice says from across the room.
The large man steps between her and Ylan. She forces her eyes to gaze up at him. His face is covered in burns and scars. The soot covering him is thickest on his hands and she feels magic gathering within the room.
He holds his hands with palms up and inhales deeply. Heat gathers in his hands and she leans back in the chair. He reaches for her, the heat emanating from his hands intensifying. Before he touches her, the door opens and the large man stops.
“Elder Vacuda,” Ylan says in surprise, stepping back from the door.
The large man turns and bows his head. “Elder.” The heat immediately dissipates from his hands and he moves to the side.
The Elder stands in front of Ylan, his eyes never leaving Ari’s face. “Leave.” The word is cold, emotionless, but his eyes can’t hide the fire inside him.
“We were about to begin the initiation as you ordered,” Ylan says, confusion clear on his face. “Is something wrong?”
“I said leave. Both of you.”
The large man doesn’t hesitate and quickly leaves the room. Ylan stays where he is, his hands clenching tightly into fists.
Elder Vacuda turns his head to look at the man. “Did you mishear me, Ylan? Do you need another initiation?”
He leaves, slowly shutting the door behind him.
Elder Vacuda approaches Ari, taking off his long robe. He throws the heavy cloth to the side and walks behind her. She strains in the chair, afraid to take her eyes off the man.
“My son’s name was Einar Vacuda. He was chosen by the Ones With No Names to welcome a ruler inside him. He had been afraid, but he proved his and our family’s honor by entering the Living Darkness. The ruler who joined body with him had high ambitions and my son proved his worth to help attain those ambitions.”
As he speaks, he opens a small metal door in the wall. Red light and heat emanate from it and he reaches in.
“The power inside him was evil. It used your son, but didn’t care if he lived or died,” she says, her neck straining to watch him.
“He left our village and quickly attained power and followers.” He continues, ignoring her interruption. “My son brought great honor onto our family allowing me to rise through the ranks to become head of our village. Many other children were chosen, but he surpassed them all with his rise to power. His role in this world was clear, until a healer and her lover challenged him.”
“He forced men and women into slavery to fight in a torture arena. He killed innocents and destroyed homes. He ruled with fear, not power.” She struggles against her bonds again, anger growing.
He pulls a long piece of metal from the heat, its end burning bright. He walks towards her, waving the metal in front of him.
“The Blood War. We both know the outcome. You perhaps were conceived the very day my son fell. Then your bastard mother and father dared to take my son’s body back to their city of murderers. They dared to interfere in the Source’s will and now my son can never be properly put to rest. His body burned and his ashes thrown in some pit or river of no importance!”
His emotion overpowers him and he places the hot metal against Ari’s arm. Intense pain and heat blind her. She screams and a putrid smell of burning flesh fills the room.
He removes the metal and the pain eases, but doesn’t cease. “That was not part of the initiation, child. That was for my son. That will heal, but once I touch this to the path not even your mother could heal you.”
“No, please,” she pleads, tears filling her eyes.
“It is my will.”
He touches the metal to the markings on her arm. Heat erupts up her arm as the markings and symbols burn into her flesh. The magic imbued in the substance covering her takes the heat of the fire and brands her. The pain is excruciating, her vision darkening as the pain goes on for eternity. Her throat burns from her screams and her body writhes in agony.
Flashes of memories pass through her mind. She remembers her mother healing her after she fell from the tree at the center of their house. She remembers visiting the Hok stables with Crofton. She remembers a figure standing at the foot of her bed…no, crib. A figure with kind, loving eyes. Her father?
Her vision flashes as the pain increases, burning into her face. Shadows fly past her. The figure of a man standing in front of a wave larger than any mountain, a mountain billowing smoke, a woman floating in a river, a figure dancing with blue fire, and the back of someone. The final figure slowly turns to her, but as it does she feels herself be pulled away as the pain reaches its climax.
She wants the pain to stop. She wishes for it to end. She wishes for death, anything to stop the pain. But the only relief is her tears falling from her eyes onto her burning flesh. It’s a fleeting relief until finally unconsciousness frees her.