The three move through the village quickly, keeping quiet to avoid any unwanted attention. Though the shadows shifting in the windows of nearby buildings show their presence is not unnoticed.
“They’re afraid to leave their homes,” Ylan explains. “So many of us have died at the hands of the Elders these many years, but none of us have had the strength to do anything about it.”
“You all seemed pretty strong when you ambushed us,” Ari says.
“Catching someone by surprise doesn’t equal strength. More than anything, it’s a sign of weakness.” He frowns. “I’m tired of our village being weak.”
Stumbling, Crofton leans against the wall of a nearby building. He covers his right eye and winces. Placing a hand on his shoulder, Ari notices cuts on his arm and hands. They remind her of the cuts she and Crofton got from falling from the trees in the forest in Kellahn.
“They really threw you down there.” She nods her head at the pit behind them. “What was it like?”
Steadying himself, Crofton stares at the ground. “It was dark and…alive. Or there were things living in the darkness, but not really alive. Maybe they’d been alive once? I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Living Darkness,” Ylan says. “Living within it are the Ones With No Names.”
“Who are they?” Ari asks.
He hesitates. “Our village…centuries ago used to kill powerful mages. We’d throw them into the pit and starve them or throw wild beasts down to fight them. The magic left their bodies and gathered in the darkness. A child of the village fell into the pit one day. When he managed to climb back out, he had become a magic user. Others tried to gain magic like the boy, but few returned. Those who did could use the magic of the mages killed in the pit.”
“But you were born a magic user.”
“Eventually natural magic users were born, but still we’d send a non magic child into the pit to be blessed with powerful magic.”
“We’re wasting time,” Crofton says. “We have to free everyone and get out of here.”
“And kill Vacuda.”
They continue, following Ylan between the buildings. He stops by a window and peers inside. “We’ll start here. It’s the other half of your group. They aren’t guarding this building.”
“Why? That doesn’t seem very smart. They could just escape,” Ari says.
“They don’t guard the buildings, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to escape. You may not have realized it, but the bars are infused with magic. It prevents the prisoners from even thinking of trying to open the door.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
“It’s Gorgi’s specialty.”
“Big guy, covered in soot.”
Ari remembers him, his deep voice and large muscles. Ylan helps Ari through the window before following. Crofton follows after one last look for anyone.
Those in the cell jump at the sudden appearance of the three, but relief fills them quickly when they see Ari. They run to the bars and Ylan works on the lock.
“Are you all right?”
“We heard screaming.”
“Where are the others?”
“Everyone, stay calm. We’re going to get out of here,” she says, holding her arms up to calm them. Seeing the brands on her arms, the group goes into another explosion of noise.
Forcing their way to the front are Guto, Link, and Sten, three of the original members of the caravan.
Link is shaking with high emotion and his eyes are red. “They killed the groduns! The horses got away, but my groduns were slaughtered! Why? What did they do? They’re gentle beasts, wouldn’t hurt anyone unless threatened and they killed them without a thought.” Fresh tears threaten to swell in his eyes.
Touching his arm, she leans close to him. “I’m sorry. I wish I knew the answer, but now we have to focus on getting ourselves out of here.”
Seeing her burns up close, Link’s eyes widen with surprise. He pulls his arm away and collapses to his knees. Sten grabs him by the shoulders and gently pulls him away.
“He’ll be fine. We’ll get him some nice new baby groduns and he’ll hop back to it,” Guto grumbles. “Now, how are we getting out of here?”
“You’ll have to split into groups to sneak out of the village. Otherwise, it’ll be pretty obvious what’s happening and someone will alert Vacuda,” Ylan says, opening the door.
“One of the locals,” Crofton says.
“Thought so.” Guto grabs Ylan by the shoulder and punches him across the face. “I held back so no broken nose, but only cause you’re helping us.”
Ylan glares at him, holding his aching jaw. “Thanks for the consideration.”
“If we separate, how will we find each other? We don’t even know how to get back up to the forest,” Ari says, returning attention to their escape.
“Do either of you remember how to get to the other building holding the rest of your group?”
Crofton nods his head slowly. “I think so.”
Ylan hands Ari a key. “You two free them. I can lead a small group out to where we left your wagon. Then I’ll come back for another until everyone’s out.”
“You didn’t take the wagon?”
“We’re not thieves. We were only meant to take your group. Nothing from the wagon.”
“Then why kill my groduns?” Link’s angry voice calls from behind Guto.
Ylan eyes Ari, a hint of shame in his eyes. “We don’t get many large beasts in this forest. Couldn’t pass up the meat.”
A shriek of rage precedes Link shoving his way past Guto towards Ylan. Guto catches him and Sten grabs the angry man around the waist.
“Get him to the back. He’ll need to calm down before he leaves.” Guto waves another to help Sten. The two struggle to pull Link back. “I’ll stay with those two. You get going.”
As the group organizes into smaller clumps, Ari and Crofton head back out the window. Ylan grabs Ari’s arm before she can move away. He smudges a mark on her arm, similar to the symbols burned into her skin.
“That’ll help with the pain when you get too far from me. Can’t have you passing out again.”
He disappears inside the building and she follows Crofton. He cautiously moves forward, his eyes frantically taking in the village around them. Every now and then she catches a strange smile on his lips, but it only stays for a flash before worry overtakes his expression.
Moving close to him, she takes his hand in hers. He jumps at the touch, but doesn’t pull away. He stares at her, confused.
“When we left Kellahn, I didn’t think it would be like this.”
“What like what?”
“You remember my mom telling us about the escape from Bloodfall Arena? She made it sound terrifying, but still exciting. I could never imagine how dangerous everything actually was. I never imagined how scared they all must have felt.” She squeezes his hand and traces the burns with her other. “I understand now. I understand this is only the beginning. Things are going to get worse the closer we get to my dad.”
“It was silly to think this would be a fun trip. Even if we weren’t being chased by maniacs.” He stops and peers around a corner. “The rest of the world isn’t like home. Better to learn now than later, I guess.”
They reach the familiar building holding the rest of their group. Standing in front of the entrance is Taimi. She leans against the wall, her arms crossed. Being quiet, Ari and Crofton move quickly to the window and peek inside.
There’s no sign of anyone else inside guarding the cell.
“Looks all right. I’ll get everyone out and we’ll take them back to Ylan.”
Crofton helps her inside and she heads for the door. As the group sees her they become excited. She motions for them to be quiet and uses the key to open the door.
“Everyone, out the window. Not a sound.” She sees the flashes of fear on their faces. “We’re getting out of here.”
They follow, silently and climb one by one out the window.
“They took a few others after you,” Tal says, stopping next to Ari.
Indra stands beside Tal. “Kemp, Vesna, and Vico.”
Her heart sinks. “Where did they take them?”
Shaking her head, Tal leans against Indra. “We don’t know. That disgusting man came back with one of their elders and took them.”
One of their elders, it had to be Vacuda. What else would he do to punish her?
“I’m going to find them. Have Crofton take you where they’re keeping everyone else. A man named Ylan is helping us escape.”
“I’m not leaving you alone,” Tal says. She looks up at Indra. “You go, make sure everyone gets out and keep an eye on our helper.”
He nods his head and climbs out the window.
“Right, where do we start?”
Turning her gaze to the entrance of the building, Ari smiles. “We’ll need another helper.”