She sits up, the sudden movement surprising the two leaning over her. Her heart beats loudly in her chest and lightheadedness nearly makes her fall back. She fights it and grabs the shoulder of the nearest person.
“She’s awake,” the other one yells towards a group of people. Ari recognizes the voice. Nov, a healer.
The one whose shoulder she’s gripping is another healer, Sil. “Relax. You need rest.”
The large group surrounds her, but know to keep a little distance. A few move close, the few she trusts the most.
“Are you still in pain?” Vico asks, kneeling down to her.
Shaking her head, she releases Sil. “Are we still in the village?”
“No. You’re back in the forest where we left your wagon.” Ylan stands behind Vico, his arms crossed and an intense look in his eyes. “I came back to help you. Found the last of your group struggling to walk and led them here.”
“We were nearly crushed by a collapsing house,” Tal says. “Lucky there were any of us to help.”
“Is he dead?”
Ari lifts her head to meet Ylan’s eyes. “Yes. Your village is yours again.”
“What’s left of it, anyway. Thank you. You’ve given my home a chance to thrive once more.”
“What happened in that house?” Vesna asks, Kemp leaning against her. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Releasing Sil, Ari places a hand on her chest. She reaches deep within herself, feeling for her magic. Her air magic is there, where it’s always been. But now she feels something else, something hidden beneath. She tries to bring it out, but she knows if she does she’ll lose control. Her heart pounds loudly as she feels the unknown magic dance inside, growing ever so slightly.
“Ariana?” Vico places a hand on her shaking shoulder. His touch sends a shock through her and the unknown magic fades back.
“I felt it. That magic came from you, didn’t it?” Tal asks.
Nodding her head, Ari grabs Vico’s arm and tries to stand. He, Nov, and Sil help her up, being careful to avoid as many of the brands as possible.
“I can’t control it. I don’t even know what it is,” she says. “What did you see?”
Tal crosses her arms and leans against Indra. “It wasn’t so much what I saw…that fellow with the awful teeth—”
“Asco,” Ylan interjects.
Waving her hand at him, Tal continues. “Something happened to him. He lost control of his magic and ended up getting crushed by a rock.”
Indra nudges her and squeezes her arm.
“I also may have felt my own magic start to go a little crazy, but I was able to make it far enough away, nothing happened.” She adds the last bit to calm Ari, not wanting to alarm her.
Ari eyes Kemp. “Did you feel anything?”
Shrugging, Kemp tries to give her a reassuring smile. “I felt something, but we were pretty far from the house when it really got bad.”
“Feeling a little left out, not having magic and all,” Vesna says, shifting her weight beneath Kemp’s arm. “All I noticed was the house being crushed. Almost thought you and Crofton had been crushed with it.”
Ari’s eyes widen and she searches the group around her. “Where’s Crofton? Is he all right?”
“He’s fine. Wanted to be alone,” Vico answers. He glances down at her brands before meeting her eyes. “Said he didn’t want to hover and make you uncomfortable when you woke up.”
“Where is he?”
“I can take you to him,” Ylan says. “He’s close to the village entrance and I should be heading back soon. There’s going to be some confusion and I should be there to answer questions.”
“Thank you.” She turns to Vico. “Are we ready to leave?”
“Almost. We’re going to need to discuss what we’re going to do about the wagon, but I think we can have a solution by the time you and Crofton get back.”
“Please, give my apologies to the little man again about his animals. I know he doesn’t want to hear it from me, but I am truly sorry.” Holding his arm out to her, Ylan smiles. “Ready?”
She nods and takes his arm, happy for the support. They walk away from the group, silent until they’re out of earshot.
“What are you going to do now that your elders are dead?”
“Are you worried we’ll release another Blood King onto the world?” He laughs, but there’s a hint of sadness. “You don’t need to worry. I think it’s time for us to turn away from the Living Darkness. It’s brought us nothing but sorrow from the beginning. We need to focus on the people, not the magic.”
“And if anyone wants to leave?”
“They’re free to come and go. It won’t bring those who’ve already died back, but it’s a start to healing.”
“You wanted to leave once, too. You could come with us?”
His smile fades and his free hand drifts towards his own brands. “It’s a tempting offer, but I must think of my village first. We have a lot to do to wipe away the sins of our elders. Perhaps one day I’ll see what’s beyond our forest, but it’s not meant to be now.”
“What’s the name of your village?”
“We never had a name. No one thought to give it one.”
She stops, her arm pulling free of his. “Tell me more about the group hunting us.”
He turns to her, confused. “Lineage? Anything specific you want to know?”
“They know about your village. Aren’t you worried they might…?”
“Attack us? It’s possible, but they might not. At this point, I don’t really care. Our village is our own and we’ll choose whom we ally ourselves with. It’s time to end our solitude and make up for what we’ve done.”
“You didn’t do anything. It was the elders.”
“We didn’t stop them. We fell in line with their traditions because of fear and deserve as much of the guilt.” He walks close to her and grabs her arm, placing his other hand on the side of her face. “Because of my cowardice, you’ll wear these marks for the rest of your life. Perhaps Lineage destroying our village will be our own initiation.”
She jerks her arm free and steps back. “You said Lineage was the servant of the Source of magic. Why do they want to destroy magic? Why does the Source want to destroy magic?”
“I said they were servants of the Source. I never said they were servants of the Source of magic.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whatever Lineage serves may want to be the source of magic, but it isn’t the true Source of magic. Beyond that, I don’t know much about them. They’re comprised of magic users and non-magic users. They have a leader, but no one knows who he or she is. The elders were the only ones who ever spoke to them, but I’ve heard they have members all across the continent.”
“What about off the continent?”
“I can’t answer that, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Nodding her head, Ari imagines Lineage has members across the sea already searching the continent Deirak for her father. But then why keep her alive? If they wanted her magic gone, they would’ve killed her already.
“Your friend is close. Perhaps it would be best if you met him alone. Do you know the way back to your group?”
Glancing behind her, she nods. “I think so. I can always use my wind magic to send a signal.”
“Then this is where we part ways.” A small laugh escapes his lips. “We never formally introduced ourselves to each other, did we? I don’t even know your name.”
She’s about to correct him, but realizes it’s true. She only knew his name after hearing Vacuda say it. “I guess, think of this as your first connection to the outside world. Ariana Flandine-Gurek.” She holds a hand out to him.
He takes it and shakes it firmly. “Ylan Grent. I hope to cross your path again, Ariana Flandine-Gurek.”
“I hope to see you outside of this forest, Ylan Grent.”
Releasing her hand, he walks away. “Your friend is straight ahead. Goodbye.”
“See you again.” She watches him disappear through the trees and releases a shaky breath, walking in the direction of Crofton.
The forest seems less unwelcoming. Ari wonders if it’s because she’s used to it or perhaps if any of the villagers used magic to give it a sense of unease. Whatever the reason, she sees beams of light forcing their way through the thick canopy.
She spies a figure sitting against a tree and quickens her pace. Crofton’s sleeping form adds to the newfound peace of the surrounding forest. His face is one of calm, but the gash on his forehead still has dried blood around it, creating a path down his face. Dirt covers his clothing and his hands are scarred and covered in filth.
Sitting on the ground in front of him, she stares at his hands. She remembers Vesna mentioning the collapsed house and she imagines Crofton digging through dirt and moving large pieces of wood, fighting to free them from the rubble.
Exhaustion fills her. She moves next to him and rests her back against the tree. She takes his hand in hers and looks up at the canopy.
“Not exactly like the forest back home, is it?” Crofton’s voice is rough, scratchy from sleep.
She turns her head to stare at him. His eyes are still closed, but a sly smile plays on his lips. Leaning her head on his shoulder, she squeezes his hand. “A lot of things are different from home.”
He angles his head towards her, his eyes opening. “Do they still hurt?”
Shaking her head, she touches the brands on her face with her other hand. “No, but there’s magic trapped in each symbol. The same magic to keep the marks from ever healing fully.”
“If magic is involved, there must be a way to reverse it.”
“You sound optimistic. When did that start?”
“When I finally got some dreamless sleep. Are we leaving soon?” He sits up, readying to stand.
She gently pushes him back down, moving closer to him. “Not yet. I want to imagine we’re back home for a little longer.” She closes her eyes and listens to the wind blowing through the trees.