“The Chosen,” the two elder women speak excitedly. They lead the small group towards the center of the village to the large pit.
The large man with the bucket and dagger waits patiently at the edge while the woman and man with rotting teeth hold onto Crofton tightly. The man who brought Ari to the building stays back, watching in silence and with a stern expression.
Crofton doesn’t care what the old women are saying. He sees Ari’s burns in his mind and he can barely contain his rage. He will kill them all. This whole village will burn for every mark on her body.
Reaching the pit, the two holding Crofton force him to his knees. The elder women stand in front of him, motioning the large man forward. He throws the contents of the bucket on Crofton. Blood covers him, soaking his clothes and dripping into his mouth. He spits at the elder women, but it falls short.
“The blood of a newborn shall protect you, but before you’re sent below you must give sacrifice,” the elder women say.
The man with rotting teeth takes the dagger from the large man and pulls Crofton’s arm tighter, spreading his fingers. He places the blade against his middle finger, readying to cut, but the elder women stop him.
“It must be the same sacrifice.” They motion to the large man and he drops the bucket. He moves behind Crofton and holds him.
“Ylan, hold his arm,” the rotting teeth man says.
The other man moves forward and takes his place. He avoids Crofton’s glare, holding his arm tightly.
Rotting teeth man steps in front of Crofton and grabs his chin. He waves the dagger in front of his face. “Ready, chosen?”
Crofton clenches his fists. “Just fucking do it.”
Rotting teeth man releases his chin and grabs the back of Crofton’s head. He grabs his hair and forces his head back. He places the tip of the dagger under his left eye then moves it to under his right eye.
“Hurry up, Asco,” the woman holding Crofton’s arm says. “Stop messing around.”
Rotting teeth aims the dagger at her. “Don’t rush me. I might cut too much.” He makes an annoyed sound and tightens his grip on Crofton’s hair.
Without warning, he plunges the dagger into Crofton’s right eye. The sudden pain causes him to scream and he fights against those holding him. The dagger moves and he feels a pressure before a sharp release. Asco releases his head and he jerks his head down. With his good eye he sees a white blob on the ground in front of him. He realizes it’s his eye and struggles to free himself.
“You fucking bastard! I’ll fucking kill you!”
Asco leans down and picks up the eye. He holds it in front of Crofton and laughs. “Want it back? Go get it.” He throws it into the pit.
The large man lifts Crofton up with surprising strength. The two on either side of him let him go and step back.
“May your soul be strong and your body fit for a ruler,” the elder women say, throwing powder into the pit.
A strong wind rises from the pit and the large man moves closer, holding Crofton with his feet dangling above the ground. He tries to kick at the large man, but it doesn’t affect him.
Asco throws the dagger into the pit and turns to Crofton. “You might need that down there. Some times it’s easier to end it quickly. The Living Darkness likes to drag things out.” His smile widens. “And don’t worry. I’ll make sure to take real good care of that little wind mage of yours. Maybe I’ll add more marks on her.”
Crofton kicks him in the gut, groaning at the strain. Asco’s smile disappears and he punches Crofton across the face. Crofton yells as he’s reminded of his fresh eye wound.
“I hope the Ones With No Names tear you apart.”
The large man throws Crofton into the pit. He tries to grab for anything, but the pit is too wide across. The wind rising from below slows his fall, but he knows the landing is still going to hurt.
And he’s right.
The ground slams into him hard and he takes a moment to figure out if anything’s broken. Finding no new injuries, he stumbles to his feet. His hand touches something sharp and he carefully picks it up. The pitch-blackness at the bottom of the pit is disorienting, but tracing the object with his fingers, he realizes it’s the dagger Asco threw down.
The blood covering him makes him shiver as it dries. He covers his missing eye and groans in pain. He knows there are stairs somewhere, but walking in the dark with one missing eye and who knew what else was down there didn’t strike him.
“Crofton,” a voice whispers.
A chill runs up his spine. He turns, expecting to see anything, but the darkness is absolute. His heart pounds in his chest and he grips the handle of the dagger tightly.
“Crofton Hila,” a second voice whispers in his ear.
He panics and swipes the dagger at the voice, but the blade only slices air. He steps back, but his heel hits a large rock and he stumbles back, stepping on sharp objects. Catching his balance he holds the dagger up in front of him. His eyes adjust slightly to the darkness and he can barely make out where the walls are, but that’s it.
“Hungry,” voices whisper around him.
He turns to each voice, shadows dancing in the darkness. They surround him and he feels hands grab for him. He slices at them with the dagger, but there’s never anything there. The shadows close in, reaching for him.
The voices grow louder, overwhelming him. He covers his ears and falls to his knees. He feels hands grabbing him, trying to pull him in different directions. He tries to hit them away, but more take the place of those that are swatted away.
A booming voice echoes in the darkness. The hands disappear and Crofton looks up. He’s alone again.
Except for a solitary shadow at the center of the room. It walks towards Crofton slowly. “So you’re the one they chose?”
“Who are you?”
The shadow moves closer and kneels in front of Crofton. “I can help you. I know what you want.”
“I don’t know who you are. How can you possibly know what I want?”
The shadow slowly morphs into the figure of a man. He reaches down and picks something up from the ground. “I know what your heart wants and I know what stands between you and your desires.”
“You don’t know anything.”
The man raises his hand. Ari appears in the shadows and Crofton’s eye widens. As he watches her, the man moves closer.
“I understand your heart. I understand what you need and I can help you.”
Shaking his head, Crofton can’t take his eye from her. “I don’t need help.”
Another figure walks up to Ari. It’s Vico and when he reaches Ari they embrace, replaying the kiss he saw at the Lost Raider’s village. Anger fills him and he clenches his hands into fists.
“I can help you, Crofton Hila.” The man holds his other hand out to Crofton. Sitting in his palm is Crofton’s eye. “But you must accept the sacrifice.”
“I haven’t heard anything that sounds like help, to be honest,” Crofton says, tearing his eye from the two figures to the man.
He can’t see the man’s face in the darkness, but he gets the sense he’s smiling. “You hate her magic.”
Crofton’s breath caught in his throat. “How did you know that?”
“You wish she didn’t have it. You want her to be like you. But that’s not a problem for him.” He motions to the false Kemp. “He loves her for her magic. And that destroys you inside.”
“I can help…but only with one of these things. I can help you with him or I can help with her.”
With a shaking hand, Crofton stabs the dagger at the man. There’s nothing for it to stab into and the man lifts the hand with Crofton’s eye higher.
“You grew up together. You know her better than anyone. Even better than her family. You were meant to be together then he got in the way. What does he know about her? He doesn’t truly love her.”
“If she didn’t have her magic, he wouldn’t have any interest in her. But you love her no matter what. And this venture to find her father is suicide. You know it is.”
Crofton stares at his eye sitting in the man’s hand. He can’t deny the thought this search was misguided from the start. The only reason they were after Ari was because they thought she wanted to stop them. If they stayed in Kellahn they would’ve left them alone. Why did her father have to find out why magic was fading away? Why couldn’t he let it be?
“Her father is also the reason she was hurt. Every scar on her body is because of her father.”
The image of Ari covered in her fresh burns sends a wave of rage through Crofton. He was right. Ari was scarred because of her father. Permanently scarred.
“I know how to take her magic away.” The man leans closer to Crofton. “All I ask is the chance to escape.”
“Accept the sacrifice.”