She doesn’t know how long she was out, but the pain doesn’t allow her to stay long. Pain on her right side drags her back to consciousness and her vision returns. She’s on the floor, somehow her writhing freed her from the chair. She wants to move, but her body won’t listen to her. Her eyes burn, making every blink another point of racking pain.
Feet come into focus in front of her. She forces her eyes to roll up to see the owner. Ylan watches her from the chair she once sat in. He sighs and leans forward.
She sees it. She didn’t notice before, but his body has brands along his sides up to his neck. His initiation.
“You’re awake. Too bad.” He grabs her arm and tries to pull her up.
The pain returns and she screams, though it comes out mostly as squeals. Her body moves on its own and she rolls away from him, freeing her arm. Instinctively, she throws her other hand towards him and air magic slams into him, knocking him and the chair over.
The sudden movements only intensify the pain and she convulses into the fetal position, even touching her own skin hurt.
“Gods, just kill me!” Her voice is hoarse, sounding strange to her ears. The strong plea brings tears to her eyes as she realizes she truly wants it. She wants the gods to kill her.
The pain slowly melts away and she feels a hand on her side. Ylan is leaning over her, his expression blank. Soothing waves of magic cover her and she finally has the strength to sit up.
“You’re a healer?” she whispers.
He places her clothes next to her. “No, I can soothe pain, but I can’t heal it. Get dressed.” He stands and moves away, giving her privacy. “Elder Vacuda told me to wait until you were awake to take you to your comrades. He wants you to be there when he takes the chosen.”
She grabs her clothes, but can’t bring herself to put any of it on. The pain may be at bay for the moment, but magic can only cover it so long. “What are they going to do to Crofton?”
“The chosen are given to the Living Darkness. What happens after that depends on them.”
She lifts her arm and stares at the brands. The raw flesh is discolored and reminds her of cooked meat. Nausea clenches her stomach and she closes her eyes. “Why did he do this?”
“The initiation is punishment. Temporary for small infractions, permanent for…well, more severe ones.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Ylan turns to her. “The punishment was for your parents. Since he can’t do anything to them, he took it out on you.”
She lays her clothes on the floor in front of her. She carefully puts on her underclothes, wincing as her aching muscles protest. “Who’s the one he’s afraid of?”
“He said the one he’s afraid of ordered him not to kill me. Who is it?” She gathers the rest of her clothes and holds them close to her chest.
“The only ones the elders are afraid of are the Living Darkness and…” His voice trails off and she notices his hand go to his brands.
He raises a hand and the ground beneath her rises, lifting her to a standing position. “We need to go. I have to take you to your comrades.” He grabs her arm and leads her to the door.
They leave the room and head to the entrance. She sees the door leading to the room with the candles is shut, but she can still feel the magic inside. She shivers, the soothing effect of Ylan’s magic beginning to fade. The burning is bearable, but she knows it will soon become extreme again soon.
Opening the door leading out into the village, the woman from before jumps. Her eyes widen at Ari’s brands and she meets Ylan’s eyes. He shakes his head to keep her from speaking and she silently grabs Ari’s other arm.
They walk towards the building Crofton and Vico were taken to quietly. Soon it becomes clear another figure is following them. Turning her head, Ari sees the large man from the initiation. He carries a bucket filled with a dark liquid and a dagger. Approaching the building, the two women elders appear on either side of the man.
“They’re called Lineage,” Ylan whispers to her. “The others the elders are afraid of. They’re the servants of the Source. They were the ones who told us of your group’s coming.”
The pain is forgotten for a moment as she hears the name of her mother’s murderers and her hunters for the first time. Did this mean the Source was responsible for Blood King Klaeon’s rule? Then why would it want magic to fade?
The pain grows as Ylan’s magic grows weaker. She gasps and winces, feeling every step and every breath. Trying to keep her mind clear, she taps Ylan’s side, tracing the brands. “What did you do?”
Thrown off by her sudden interest, his eyes bounce from her hand to the woman on Ari’s other side. “I asked to leave the village. Only the chosen may leave.”
“Ylan, don’t be so chatty with her. Remember, she’s an outsider,” the woman says.
They reach the building and the door opens as another man covered in mud walks out. He smiles at Ari, his rotting teeth looking more like wood than teeth. “We heard the screams from here. Her group made the most wonderful faces listening to her pain.”
“Enough, Asco,” the woman says. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“Little Taimi, big mouth. Must not have learned your lesson last time. Should I remind you what happens to those who speak back to their superiors?” He moves close to her and strokes her arm.
She releases Ari and steps back from him. “I’m your equal now. I proved myself.”
“Enough, both of you.” The two elders spoke in unison. Taimi and Asco glare at one another, but fall silent. “Ylan, return her to her comrades and bring us the chosen.”
Ylan shoves Ari through the door. Her eyes adjust to the darker building and she sees bars splitting the building in half. Behind the bars, she sees a large number of the caravan. Seeing her, they come to life, approaching the bars. At the front of the group are Tal, Indra, Vico, Vesna, Kemp, and Crofton.
“Ari!” they all yell, each with an expression of horror at the sight of her wounds.
“You bastards!” Crofton yells, banging against the bars. “What did you do to her?”
A knife presses against her throat and the cool metal sends a new surge of pain through her, the magic barely soothing her.
“Step back or I’ll do worse,” Ylan says. “I want all of you back against the wall, except for the one named Crofton Hila.”
The group slowly does as he says, Crofton’s rage filled eyes locked onto the man holding Ari at knifepoint. Once they’re all clear, Ylan steps forward. He pulls a key from his pocket and unlocks the door. Opening it, he motions for Crofton to step out.
Crofton walks out of the prison and stops next to Ylan. He glances at Ari’s brands and the fury twists his face. He reaches out to touch her, but she flinches away, afraid of the pain his touch will cause.
“Outside.” Ylan pulls Ari away from Crofton.
He leaves, the sound of a struggle following once he’s out of sight. Ylan walks Ari into the prison and helps her to the floor. He removes his knife and quickly leaves, shutting and locking the door behind him. He meets Ari’s eyes one last time before following Crofton outside. The darkness of the door closing fills her with fear, but the pain of her burns are soon the only thing on her mind.
The group comes alive and circles around her, but the heat from their bodies only makes her wounds worse. Realizing her discomfort, Tal and Indra force everyone back.
Vico collapses to his knees in front of her, his hands hovering over her, but afraid to touch. “Does it…”
“Is there anything we can do?” Kemp asks, kneeling beside Ari.
“Where’s Nov? He isn’t in the other prison, is he?” Tal’s voice echoes through the room.
“He is,” Indra answers.
“Healers can’t do anything,” Ari says, her voice catching in her throat. Sobs rise in her chest and she leans forward. Tears drip to the floor and she cries, feeling safe among her friends even with the pain covering her body.
A tentative hand touches a spot on her back with no burns. “Tell us what happened,” Kemp says, softly. “When you’re ready.”
She nods her head, but before she can begin, she looks at the closed door leading outside, where Crofton is now.