“How’s the pain?” Tal asks, sitting next to Ari.
“Constant and bordering on unbearable.” She’s sitting near the back wall, away from most of the group. Water floats over her wounds, cooling the burns. “The water helps, though.”
The woman moving the water over Ari smiles, weakly. “I wish I could do more.”
“What you’re doing is enough, Kelis,” Tal says.
Vico leans against the wall behind Ari, his eyes tracing the burns on her body. He works string in his hands, creating patterns, trying to calm his mind. It isn’t working.
Turning to him, Ari watches him work, noticing his hands shaking and some of the patterns not keeping well. Meeting his eyes, she realizes he’s staring at the burns on her face. Feeling embarrassed, she turns away.
“Don’t feel ashamed,” he says, anger thick in his voice. “You did nothing wrong.”
Sitting on her other side, Kemp and Vesna keep the rest of the group back. “Why did they do this?” Vesna asks.
Kemp shakes his head. “For what?”
“Because of my parents. What they did during the Blood War.” She shifts uncomfortably. “And the malice of a grudge-filled parent.”
Everyone stares at her confused, but no one wants to speak. If she wants to say they’ll give her the chance to explain.
“If it isn’t obvious to any of you, she’s talking about Blood King Klaeon,” a voice says from outside the bars. Ylan closes the door behind him and walks up to the bars. “She didn’t mention the man who branded her was his father?”
The mention of Klaeon’s name sends a shudder through the group. Except for Tal and Vico who storm forward and grab the bars.
“Glare all you want. I’m here for her.” Ylan points to Ari.
Glancing up at him, she motions for Kelis to stop. The water falls to the ground and Kelis moves back. Ari stands, with assistance from Vesna and Kemp.
“Why her? Haven’t you done enough?” Tal says, banging against the bars.
“You’re not taking her alone. I’m going with her,” Vico demands.
Ylan raises his hand and the ground rises, forcing Tal and Vico back. “I was told to only bring her. Please, don’t make me take her by force.”
“I’ll go,” Ari says, walking to the door. Vesna and Kemp help her, but she pulls away. “I’m fine.”
The group clearly doesn’t believe her, but step back as Ylan opens the door. Ari joins him and he closes the door, eyeing Vico who remains the closest to the bars. Tearing his eyes away, he grabs her by the arm. She inhales sharply at the pain, but immediately feels Ylan’s magic soothe her wounds.
They leave the building, her noticing a dark stain on the ground in front of the pit. “Where’s Crofton?” she asks, swallowing a lump in her throat.
A strange expression flashes across his face. “It’s best if we don’t talk.”
“I think I’ve been quiet long enough. What is he planning to do with us?”
“I don’t know. The original plan was to intercept your group and try to scare you from continuing on.”
“What’s the plan now?”
“I don’t know why they made your friend chosen.”
“What does that mean? Chosen?”
Ylan stops, turning to her. “Your parents never told you about Klaeon’s magic?”
“There were things we didn’t talk about in Kellahn. He was definitely number one, but my mother mentioned his magic was unique. Does that have anything to do with being chosen?” Her mind races as she remembers Crofton. “What does that mean for Crofton?”
Ylan walks, pulling her along. They head for the same building of her initiation and her heart pounds loudly in her chest.
“No more talking.”
“Fine.” Her eyes trail down to the brands on the side of his body. “What did you do?”
“Your initiation. What did you do?”
Stopping at the door to the initiation building, Ylan glares at her. “I liked you better when you didn’t talk.” She doesn’t think he’ll answer her question, but then he says, “I wanted to leave.”
“They punished you for that?”
“Only the chosen may leave.” A dark shadow crosses his face. “First offense is an initiation. Any more…” his voice trails off.
“Is that why there aren’t many more people here?”
“You noticed. Our village used to be alive with people.”
Ylan opens the door. “The Blood King lost.”
He forces her to walk in front of him, but he keeps a hand on her shoulder. He guides her to the room she met the Elders in, the smoke gone and only a few of the candles still lit. A huddled figure sits at the center of the room, his knees pulled tightly to his chest. His head rests on his knees and he rocks slightly back and forth.
Ylan slams the door behind her and she walks slowly towards the figure. Even in the dark room she recognizes him
“Crofton?” She keeps her voice soft. “It’s me, Ari.”
The figure tenses before lifting his head. Dried blood on his right cheek creates a path to the rag covering his eye. His other eye takes a second to focus on her face. When it does he comes to life. He backs away from her and grabs his head with his hands. He collapses forward, placing his forehead on the ground.
Ari runs to him and places a hand on his back and her other hand on his shoulder. “What happened? What did they do to you?”
He mumbles something, his back shaking with emotion. Leaning down close to him, she strains to hear what he’s saying. “Dead…killed them…he…I couldn’t…” She only catches every other word, but the ones she hears send chills through her.
“Talk to me. Who’s dead?”
His body stills and he turns his head to see her. The look in his eye is strange and she wonders if he’s still mad at her. He lunges at her, his hand closing around her throat and the rag falling from his face. She grabs his arm, her eyes widening in shock. He doesn’t tighten his grip enough to cut off her breathing, but she still feels her throat tightening from surprise. She meets his eyes and sees his right eye is now an icier blue from his left…or perhaps it’s the lighting in the room?
His hand releases her and snaps to his side. His eyes take her face in and hesitate over the branding on the sides of her face. He slumps, exhaustion filling him.
“Talk to me, Crofton.” She speaks slowly, calmly. “Who’s dead?”
He leans his head to the side and his eyes stare off towards the edge of the room. She follows his gaze and her breath catches in her throat.
Against the far wall, lying in a pool of their blood, are the two women elders. Their throats are cut and a bloody dagger sits next to them on the floor.
“Who did this?”
A low moan rises from Crofton and he places his hands on his head. “They…they kept saying I was…chosen and…they said I had to make a sacrifice. They threw me into that pit and I saw…”
“What did you see?”
A strange calm comes over him and he meets her eyes. “I saw…” The calm passes and fear returns. “We have to leave. He’s going to kill everyone.”
“Are you talking about that insane elder?”
A flash of rage makes Crofton sit up and grab her arms. “He’s going to kill everyone except you and me. He wants us to be the messengers for his twisted revenge against your father.”
“He’s right,” Ylan says, entering the room. “Your companions are to be killed at sundown. But I can help you all escape. In return I ask a favor.”
“What kind of favor?” Crofton demands.
“I wish to return this village to its former glory. The glory we had before he stained it with his poor leadership.” He eyes the dead women against the wall. “My favor is the death of Elder Vacuda.”