“You or him. Don’t keep me waiting. Your friend doesn’t have much time left.” Vacuda laughs, moving Crofton back and forth.
Stopping her magic, Ari lowers her arms. “Let him go. Do whatever you want to me.”
In one movement, he throws Crofton to the other side of the room. Smoke leaves him and his breathing returns to normal. The smoke gathers around Ari as Vacuda walks towards her.
“I left enough inside of him to block his airways if you try anything.”
“I won’t try anything.”
“We’ll see.” He grabs her arm and stares at the mark Ylan placed on her. “I see, that’s how you escaped. Once I’m finished with you, I’ll be sure to punish those who betrayed their village.”
He wipes the mark away. Immediately the pain of Ari’s burns return and she winces. Her legs weaken beneath her and she struggles to keep from crying out. Holding his hand out, the smoke brings a lit candle to him.
“Your initiation clearly didn’t punish you enough. Before I kill you, I want you to feel the pain I did.” He takes the candle and lowers it to one of her brands. The magic remaining in the mark burns, reminding her of when she first received it. She cries out, trying to pull away from Vacuda. He only tightens his grip and allows the hot wax of the candle to drop onto her skin. The heat spreads through the marks on her arm and she screams.
He releases her and she collapses to the ground. Leaning down, he grabs her chin in his hand and forces her to look at him. “Do you wish to die?”
She grabs his wrist and tries to free herself. His hand moves down to her throat. The candle moves close to her, the heat aggravating the brands on the side of her face. She gasps for air, but the smoke surrounding her causes her to cough.
Vacuda tightens his hold on her throat and the smoke seems to rise from his skin. “You’ll wish for death.”
He touches the flame to her face. The pain explodes across her entire body, the brands glowing with magic. Her screams burn her throat, tears taking away the moisture from her eyes. Her hands grasp Vacuda’s wrist tightly, her nails digging into his flesh.
He removes the candle and the pain subsides, but only enough for her hands to fall limply at her side. He releases her and she crumples to the ground. He kneels beside her and lowers the candle again, this time touching the flame to her arm. The pain fills her again and her body convulses, her back arching sharply.
Her vision darkens, fading to pinpoints before the pain eases again. Her back slams into the earth. Her head falls to the side and she sees Crofton’s still body come into focus. A cool sensation on her cheek soothes her a little, the drool falling from her mouth uncontrollable.
The candle is stuck into the ground in front of her, hot wax rolling down its sides. The smoke circles in front of her eyes, dancing with the flame.
“Do you wish to die?” Vacuda’s hot breath plays against her ear.
She can’t answer him, she can’t move. Her eyes focus on Crofton, his chest moving up and down as he breathes. She wants to reach for him, but her body won’t move.
“Shall I free you?”
The smoke in front of her gathers, making her vision foggy. As it swirls, she almost makes out Crofton slowly sitting up, his head lifting to watch. His right eye is open, focusing on her.
“Join your mother in hell.”
Smoke forces its way into her mouth, into her lungs. She gasps, but her chest tightens painfully. She tries to force the strange smoke out, but she doesn’t have the strength. Her heart pounds loudly in her ears, fear taking control. Darkness creeps into her vision and the room fades away.
She sits up, blinded by a bright sun. The grass against her skin is soft, too soft to be real grass. She glances around, confused. Where is she? What happened to Vacuda and Crofton? What happened to her?
She grabs her throat. The smoke, it suffocated her. She remembers the feeling of her lungs filling with it and the pain.
“I’m dead,” she whispers. It’s the only explanation.
Standing, she watches the strange grass beneath her move to an unfelt wind. The grass is a strange cream color and the ground beneath it soft and warm. In the distance she sees two strange trees. They don’t have leaves, but large branches reaching up to the white sky.
Walking towards the trees, she feels the ground beneath her shake, but it soon passes. As she approaches the trees she sees someone sitting between them. She can’t really make out the figure, its form continuously shifting.
She stops behind it, unsure of what to say or do now that she’s there. The trees on either side are covered in the grass, thinning as it reaches the higher branches.
“You’re not dead, Ariana Flandine Gurek.” The voice is neither male nor female, but at the same time both male and female. “Sit with me.”
“Who are you?”
She does, her body compelled to move on its own. She stares ahead, watching the strange grass move. She spies a hill in the distance, but when she blinks the hill is gone. But as she watches, the hill reappears slowly rising.
“You’re not dead. Not yet.” The figure’s odd voice pulls her attention to it. “Don’t worry. I don’t intend to send you back only to die.”
“Who are you? Where are we?”
“The where isn’t important. And who is not a specific enough question.” The figure raises a hand with its index finger pointing at the sky. “But why…that is important.”
“The magic they are after, the magic they are afraid of…it’s time to begin its awakening. It’s true awakening. The Great Spirit of the forest has broken the barrier between you and I, but it’s only the first step I can grant you. I’m sure he informed you of what you must do?”
Her mind races back to Kellahn, to Lyrrel’s possession by the Forest Spirit. “Masters. I have to find masters of magic.”
“Yes. True masters who understand that which the rest never will.”
“But how do I find them? Do you know who they are?”
“You must not seek them by name. They will make themselves known when you are ready for them.” A sadness fills the figure. “But this is all moot until I ask you the important question.”
“That is your important question. Mine is not as simple. The magic locked inside of you has the potential to destroy the world or save it. Once it is fully unlocked you will choose which, but the choice will be yours alone.”
“But why? Why unlock the magic? Why not keep it locked away forever? Why even allow such a magic to be born?”
“Your important question. You will find the answer when the time is right.”
“You seem to know, why can’t you tell me?”
“Who am I, Ariana Flandine Gurek?”
She’s about to answer, but realizes she can’t. How can she when she can’t even understand what this being is before her?
The ground shakes below them and she grabs the grass in her hands. As she touches the blades, it reminds her more of fur than grass. Turning her head to the distant hill she understands why it continuously moves up and down. It isn’t a hill.
It’s a head.
She’s sitting on a massive creature. So massive she can’t even see where its body ends. Even stories about the giant creatures known as jordra never told of one so large.
“The important question I must ask is too complicated to placate into one word,” the figure rises, towering over her. “You must give me an answer. Are you ready for your power to awaken? Are you ready to decide to take the world’s future into your hands?”
She stares up at the figure, feeling fear rise within her, but beneath it is excitement…and beneath that hope.