“I don’t know how you escaped, but I’m not helping you,” Taimi says, her anger increased by her position in the large cell. Her hands are tied together in front of her with thick rope, courtesy of a forgotten bag in the corner of the room.
“If you tell us where Vacuda took our friends, we’ll let you go.” Tal’s voice is calm, but doesn’t fully hide the threat hidden beneath it. “Then we’ll leave.”
“You’re wasting your time. I don’t know where he took your friends.”
“Then answer me this, why those three?” Ari demands.
“Does it matter why? They’re your comrades and he hates you.”
“She’s not being as helpful as I’d hoped,” Tal says. “We should search the village ourselves.”
Kneeling, Ari places a hand on Taimi’s leg. The young woman stares at her, confused. She tries to pull away, but her back is already against the wall.
“Elder Vacuda has gone mad with thoughts of vengeance for his dead son. Many of your people were killed simply for wanting to leave. Your village is nearly empty and those who remain are too afraid to leave their homes. You’re afraid, too. I can see it in your eyes. If you help us, we can stop him.”
Taimi listens quietly, her bottom lip trembling. She looks away from Ari and kicks her hand away. “I don’t know where he took your friends.”
“Come on. We should go.” Tal heads for the window, stopping to wait for Ari.
Standing, she leaves the cell and closes the door, locking it behind her. She throws the key to the side, within reach from the cell.
“Elder Vacuda’s house is the building behind the Initiation Hall…the building where they marked you.” Taimi lies on the floor, her bound hands resting on her stomach. “He may have taken them there. If you have trouble finding it, look for the door with his mark.”
“Whose mark?” Tal asks.
A memory flashes in Ari’s mind, of she and her mother sitting in the courtyard of their home. Meah was teaching her the symbols of the ancient language, pointing to each symbol and explaining its meaning. When she reached one symbol, she grew silent, staring at the symbol with a frightened expression. Ari asked what the symbol meant and her mother whispered the word softly.
“Blood,” Ari says, walking to Tal. “The ancient symbol for blood. The Blood King’s symbol.”
“You know it?”
“Yes. Let’s go.”
They climb out the window, still no sign of anyone else in the village. Taking the lead, Ari heads back towards the building where she received her brands for a third time. This time she walks past it and sees several buildings. She searches the doors until she finds the one she’s looking for, the symbol carved into the wood sending chills through her.
“This is it.”
“Are we going through the front door or window?” Tal’s tone suggests her preference.
Ari grabs the handle and opens the door. The house is dark and quiet, but a thin layer of smoke hovers in the air. She walks in, straining her ears for any sounds. The smoke burns her eyes and she uses her air magic to clear it.
“Tal, can your shield magic keep this smoke away?”
Coughing softly, Tal closes the door behind them. “I can keep it from touching our skin, but inhaling is a bit of a problem.”
“Do what you can.”
Tal touches Ari’s shoulder and small pressure surround them. Using her air magic, she keeps the smoke away from their heads. “I can’t keep this up or he might know we’re here. Let’s try to keep quiet from here on.”
Releasing her magic, the smoke surrounds them. It encircles them, hovering over their skin, but Tal’s magic keeps it from touching them.
The house is one level, rooms branching off from the main hallway. Following the smoke, Ari watches how it moves, trying to locate its source. Peering into the rooms they pass, she makes out in the darkness a room filled with books. In another, she sees a bed and another boxes, barrels, and crates.
The final two rooms’ doors are closed. Tal crosses to one and motions Ari towards the other. She does, grabbing the handle and locking eyes with Tal. She nods and opens her door. Peeking inside she shakes her head at Ari, but before closing the door she notices something. She motions Ari to continue and she walks into the room.
Unsure what could’ve been in the room, she debates following, but time isn’t on their side. She needs to find Kemp, Vesna, and Vico before Vacuda does anything to them.
Opening her door, she sees stairs leading down. Gathering her magic, she heads down. The smoke becomes thicker, making it even more difficult to see in the darkness. She reaches the bottom and finds another door waiting for her.
She presses her ear against the wood and listens. She hears multiple voices, but can’t make out what they’re saying. She takes a deep breath, readying for whatever she may find on the other side of the door.
A hand grabs her shoulder and she quickly turns, throwing her magic at her unseen attacker. The force of the wind sends the figure into the wall with a loud grunt and she barely makes out his face.
“Crofton! What the hell? What are you doing here?” She barely manages to keep her voice low. “You were supposed to lead everyone to Ylan.”
Gasping for air, Crofton braces his back on the wall, his legs shaking from the shock of being slammed into it. “I did. But Indra told me why you and Tal stayed behind. So I spoke to that girl you left tied up and I came to help. Gods that hurt.” He places a hand on his chest and leans forward.
She quickly covers his mouth with her hand. “Don’t breathe too much of the smoke in! Vacuda uses magic to control it.”
“Okay, but it’s probably a little late for that, isn’t it?” he mumbles through her hand. “I’ve been breathing it in for awhile.”
Removing her hand, she knows he’s right. Even she and Tal had probably already breathed in too much. “Let’s find the others and get out before he finds out we’re here.”
She turns back to the door and opens it. The room is circular and reminds her of the room in the Initiation Hall. Curtains hang from the ceiling and a symbol is carved into the floor. It isn’t the symbol for blood and she doesn’t recognize it as the ancient language.
Sitting at the opposite end of the room are the still figures of Kemp, Vesna, and Vico. Thick ropes keep their arms and legs bound. Chains attached to collars keeps them connected to the wall. Blindfolds cover their eyes and gags keep them silent.
There’s no sign of Vacuda.
Running to the three, Ari uses her wind to move aside the smoke surrounding them. She takes off their blindfolds, waking Vesna. As her eyes focus and she sees Ari, she tries to speak, but the gag prevents her. Ari quickly removes the gags from Vico and Kemp, but the two remain unconscious.
“Where’s that creepy elder?” Vesna asks.
“Don’t know. We’re getting out of this village.” She works on untying Vesna’s arms and legs. “Did he do anything to you?”
Vesna shakes her head. “He didn’t do anything to me, but he took Kemp and Vico somewhere else. When they came back they were already unconscious. If he did anything to them, I have no clue.” With her hands free, she works on the collar around her neck.
Crofton peers out the door, waiting for signs of anyone approaching. “We should hurry.”
“I know that, Crofton. But we have to meet back up with Tal first.” She finishes untying Kemp and Vico and begins working on their collars.
Freeing herself, Vesna helps, undoing her brother’s collar first. Ari frees Kemp and the two try waking the men. Vico is the first to open his eyes.
He quickly sits up when he sees Ari. “You’re all right? They didn’t do anything more to you, did they? I’ll kill them if they did.”
“I’m fine, but we have to get out of here. Help me with Kemp.”
The three struggle to lift Kemp and drag him towards the door. Ari hands him off to Vesna and Vico. “Take him upstairs. Tal should be there and she’ll lead you guys out of the village.”
“And what are you planning to do? We shouldn’t separate,” Vico says, his eyes hovering over her wounds.
“Crofton and I are going to kill Vacuda.” Crofton stares at her with wide eyes. He didn’t expect her to say his name.
“I should stay, too. I can help.”
“You’re not leaving me to carry Kemp alone.” Vesna hits her brother with her free hand. “They’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
The two leave, grunting as they begin the climb up the stairs. Ari walks to the center of the room, taking calming breaths. Hesitating at the door, Crofton eventually follows her.
“Are we just going to wait for him to come back?”
“That might take awhile.”
“Maybe. But I think there was a reason he brought those three here.”
“It was to get you here.”
The door slams shut behind them. Crofton runs to it and tries to open it. “The hell? It’s stuck.”
The smoke thickens and swirls around the room. Vacuda appears in front of Ari. “I was told to leave you alive or else they would kill me. But what do I care about living? What did your mother and father care about my son’s life?”
“You’re killing your own village. Your people are afraid to leave their homes and your desire for revenge is blinding you to their pain.”
“I don’t care about them. I don’t care about the Ones With No Names and what they desire. My son was the greatest of the chosen. He was going to rule this world and through him I would have unspeakable power. But now I rule only a pathetic village that will never know greatness again. But if I kill the child of Myldea’s saviors I will gain ultimate power. True immortality. My name will be known throughout the world.”
“You’re going to die unknown. Even your own village will erase your name from their history.” She gathers her magic, concentrating.
“You will die begging.” Vacuda raises his arm.
The smoke circles around her, trying to restrict her movements, but she releases her magic and wind surrounds her. The smoke is kept back and she holds her hand out to the side. Wind gathers in her hand and she winces as the force agitates her wounds.
“You might be able to keep my smoke at bay, but you seem to have forgotten the one behind you.”
Turning to Crofton, she sees him holding his throat. The smoke forces its way into his mouth and nose. He gags, trying to breathe. He falls to his knees, his eyes going out of focus as he loses oxygen.
She tries to clear the smoke with her magic, but it’s too late. Crofton collapses, unconscious. But he doesn’t stay down long.
“It’s much easier to control someone when they’re not consciously fighting me.” Vacuda lifts his arm. As he does, Crofton slowly rises to his feet. “If you want to save him, you’re going to have to kill me. But if you attack me, I’ll use him as a shield. How long do you think he can last without being able to breathe?” He laughs, filling the room with his madness.
Ari throws her concentrated wind at him, but with a swift move of his arm, Crofton appears between them. Quickly she tries to change the winds direction, but it still hits Crofton’s arm, cutting a deep gash into his skin.
Smoke continues to force its way into him and she feels her heart pound. “Stop it! You’ll kill him!”
“His life or yours. Or do you want to try throwing more wind at me?” He moves Crofton’s limp body from side to side, mocking her.
She clenches her fist, trying to think of some way to stop him. But there’s only one.