Chapter 17 Water

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Ari leans against Crofton, her eyes watching the wind move the grass. The moonlight makes the fields look like a sea of silver. She squeezes her arms with her hands, fighting back the fear still inside her.

The camp is a good distance behind them, far enough in case her magic flares up again. The tears stopped quickly as her strength returned, but she isn’t ready to face the group yet. Crofton hadn’t spoken to her since leading her from the camp, waiting for her to be ready to talk.

She’s relieved, but she can’t stop thinking of the look in his eyes. She knew something was different when she found him in the initiation building. She isn’t sure what it means, but now isn’t the time to ask him about it.

Footsteps cautiously approach behind them. Vico walks up next to them, a ball of string in one hand. He rolls it around his palm with his fingers while his eyes watch the waves of grass. “Seems the excitement has finally passed.”

Angling her head, she watches the ball move easily in his palm. “How is everyone?”

He leans his head to the side, shrugging his shoulders slightly. “Drained. Finding comfort in those without magic.” He pauses, choosing his words carefully. “Do you feel like talking about what happened?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know…what to say.”

Crofton places a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to have all the answers. I think everyone needs reassurance.”

“Reassurance of what?”

Sitting next to them, Vico moves the ball of string from one hand to the other. “That you’re okay, they’ll be okay, this wasn’t an attack…anything else similar.”

“So, admit I did this to them.” She turns her attention back to the fields. “Admit to them it’s my fault this happened.”

“Well, it was your fault,” Crofton says.

She glares at him, clenching her fists painfully. “Really? I’m feeling like shit and that’s what you say?”

“You want me to lie to you?”

“Of all the times to be communicative, maybe this isn’t the best choice.”

Standing, Vico puts the ball of string away. “I’ll let everyone know you’re okay.” He quickly walks away, sensing the argument about to happen.

Scooting away from Ari, Crofton faces her, confused. “So you want me to cheer you up or do you want me to sit here in silence?”

“I’m experiencing new magic that’s scaring me more than I’ve ever been scared before and when all I need to hear is everything’s going to be all right, you amplify the guilt I’m feeling.”

“Why does this magic scare you?”

“Because this isn’t how it’s supposed to feel.” She turns away from him. “I know you don’t like my magic so maybe you won’t understand.”

“I don’t have to understand. You clearly just want to speak your thoughts out loud. Use me to practice what you’re going to say to everyone else.” He shrugs. “Or what you don’t want to say to them.”

She holds her hand up, opening and closing it. She struggles finding where to start, taking a deep breath. “When my wind magic first appeared, I asked my mom how it was supposed to feel. It should be an extension of yourself, she told me. But when I asked if it felt the same when she used her magic to bring someone back from the dead…she told me that was different magic. Healing magic was part of her, but her life magic was different. It filled her with light when she used it.”

She eyes Crofton, wondering if she’ll see boredom or annoyance in his expression. He watches her attentively, encouraging her to continue.

“I asked if my father felt the same. She told me when she asked the same question he said when he found his true fire magic it was as if he finally became whole. A part of him he never knew was missing suddenly became available to him.” She crosses her arms, hugging herself. “But when I use this new magic I don’t feel either of those. All I feel is something I can’t control, something unnatural, and I’m afraid of it.”

“You weren’t afraid of your wind magic when it first appeared?”

The question catches her off guard. “I mean, yes, when it first started I didn’t know what to do. It took some time to learn how to control it, but it didn’t feel like it didn’t belong.”

Crofton sighs and stands. “Maybe it feels unnatural because it’s different than your wind magic.”

“Of course it’s different than my wind magic.”

“Then why are you trying to use it like your wind magic?” The tone of his voice changes, as though he were scolding a child.

She strains her neck to glance up at him. “Like you know anything about magic.”

“Maybe not, but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” He holds a hand out to her. “And I think you’re forgetting to ask an important question.”

Taking his hand, she stumbles to her feet. “What question?”

“What purpose does this kind of magic have?”

“Purpose?”

“There’s a reason it was locked away, right? Maybe you’ll learn why the more you learn how to control it.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. Do I really want to unlock more of this?”

“The way to do it is finding masters of magic. I doubt they’d help you if the magic inside of you was bad.”

Was that true? The figure from her dream said the magic inside of her could save or destroy the world, but how? It clearly affected others with magic, but what exactly did it do?

“Are you ready to head back?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

They walk back to the camp where the rest of the group is waiting. As the two approach all eyes watch them. Vico sits close to his sister, his hands working string into intricate knots.

Ari looks around the group, seeing exhaustion in the eyes of those with magic. Even Tal, usually high energy, sits with Indra’s arms holding her up.

“I’m sorry, everyone,” Ari says. “I never intended what happened to happen. I hope you all can forgive me.”

The group mumbles softly, accepting her apology.

“You’ve all been very…patient, I think, with why we’re heading for Deirak. The true reason, I mean.” She takes a deep breath, but Crofton takes her hand and she finds his touch more comforting. “For those of you who don’t know, my parents are Life Healer Meah Flandine and Fire Mage Ime Gurek. Our home, Kellahn, was attacked by powerful magic users and non magic users sent by something claiming to be the Source of magic. My mother was killed, but my father wasn’t there. He’s been missing for many years after he went on a search for the Source of magic. But that wasn’t the only reason my home was attacked.

“I was the other target. My true magic isn’t my wind magic. It’s something that has been locked beyond my reach, but for some reason it’s slowly being released. The thing claiming to be the Source of magic is afraid of it and is hunting me. There are two reasons we’re heading for Deirak. One is to find my father, Ime, and the other is to find masters of magic to help me learn how to control my true magic.” She squeezes Crofton’s hand, preparing herself. “I’ll understand if once we reach Marpidium any of you choose to part ways with me.”

The group listens quietly, no one moving a muscle. Once she finishes, a few eye each other.

Tal motions to Indra to help her to her feet. He obliges, the two standing together and drawing the attention of everyone. “We’d better get you to Deirak then.”

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Chapter 15 Water

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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.”

“Ari!”

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.

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Chapter 14 Water

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The smoke leaves her lungs and fresh, clean air fills her. Wind surrounds her, blocking the smoke and forcing Vacuda back. Sitting up, she feels magic welling up inside of her, leaking out of her and into the world around her.

She struggles to her feet, holding her sides as the magic inside her grows. She feels it wanting to get out, only small amounts actually escaping her body. Pressure increases threatening to explode. The brands covering her body glow and the winds surrounding her become stronger.

Vacuda fights to stay standing, but the wind knocks him back. He tries to use his smoke to block the wind, but as he tries to use it, he loses control. The smoke pours from him, draining him. He tries to stop it, but something keeps pulling it out of him. He glares at Ari, knowing she’s the cause. He has to stop her. He has to kill her.

Sharp pain in his back catches him by surprise. Another sharp pain erupts on his neck and warm liquid pours down his front. He grabs his throat and tries to touch the pain on his back, but his vision darkens and his body collapses beneath him. He eyes the figure standing above him with a bloody knife.

“You…”

“My accomplishments were never yours to claim.”

Vacuda laughs and tears leave his eyes as his life fades away.

She doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t understand this strange, new magic. She can’t control it the same way she does her other magic. She tries to control it like her wind, but the pressure only grows. She’s scared. She’s scared what this magic is, what it’s doing. She needs help.

“Ari!”

Crofton works to move closer to her, a knife in his hand. Blood stains the metal and Vacuda’s dead body lies behind him. He swipes at rocks being thrown with the force of her wind. One hits him in the forehead, creating a deep gash. Blood pours from the wound, the wind catching some of it and flinging it into the air.

The pressure builds inside of her and she struggles to keep it back, but she knows she can’t keep it back forever. She reaches a shaking hand towards Crofton. He fights the increasing wind to reach her. He grabs her hand and pulls her close to him. A shudder runs through him and he winces.

“What’s going on?” he yells over the gusting winds, pain growing in his voice.

“You have to stop me.”

“What?”

She screams as the magic in her brands burns, more of her magic escaping in a sudden rush. Crofton is nearly thrown back, but his grip on her keeps him close. The pressure threatens to tear her apart from the inside.

“You have to stop me.”

Crofton shakes his head, his eyes glancing at the bloody knife in his hand. “How?”

“I don’t know.”

She can’t keep it in any longer. Power explodes through her, her skin burning as it forces its way out of her. Her body becomes numb and she falls limp in Crofton’s arms. The magic continues escaping her, an almost limitless power. But she feels herself shrinking, feels her body burning away.

The world shivers, twisting as the magic contorts everything around her. A shadow surrounds her and Crofton, filling the room. The wind changes and moves into the shadow. Small rocks and dust rise, being sucked into the darkness. The wind grows stronger and larger objects join, soon even Vacuda’s dead body rises from the ground and disappears into the abyss.

Crofton holds her, grabbing the door of the room, the only stable thing left. He stares at the shadow at the center of the room. As it swallows more and more it grows, rising higher to the ceiling.

“Stop me.” She isn’t sure if her voice can be heard above the wind and destruction, but Crofton turns to her, acknowledging her request.

He takes the knife and with swift movement, slams the hilt into the side of her head. Her vision blackens and the pain fades away.

 

 

 

 

Flashes.

Stairs moving beneath her, legs struggling to move. The sound of someone struggling to clear an unseen obstacle. Rubble falling down the stairs, hitting her as it passes.

“What an interesting power,” a strange, unfamiliar voice says. “No wonder they want to stop it.”

“Shut up.” A familiar voice. Crofton? He’s struggling, his voice tired.

“Or maybe they want to take it.”

Blackness. Silence.

More than one voice. The air is cooler. Shadows pass over her, but her eyes won’t open. She feels the one holding her. His breathing and pounding heart beneath her. An arm holding her close.

“What happened?”

“She’s alive…isn’t she?”

“We have to get to the others. She needs healers.”

A brief struggle, she feels the world move around her. “How could you let her get like this?”

Another shift. “She’s alive. For now, unless you want to argue and not get her help.”

“Stop fighting, Vico! We should leave.”

“There’s nothing left for us here. Let’s go.”

Silence.

No feeling.

Only nothing…until…

Who are you? Someone, no, something reaching for her.

I know you’re there. Who are you? It searches for her, unable to find her. A spark of pain then laughter.

Ah, it’s you…and another… The laughter continues, growing.

I will find you. Another spark of pain, the thing makes a strange noise. It was hurt. Something stopped it from reaching her, from finding her.

I will… Something slams the connection shut. Multiple layers block it from her.

But she still hears it.

I will take you.

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Chapter 13 Water

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“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?”

“Sit.”

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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.

“Yes.”

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Chapter 12 Water

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“Who’s surprised this turned out to be a trap? Not me,” Vesna groans.

Carrying the unconscious Kemp between them, Vesna and Vico stare at the figure blocking their path. Finally reaching the top of the stairs and walking out into the main hallway of the house, the two were stopped by the man with rotting teeth, Asco.

“I like feisty women. They’re much more fun to break than the weak ones.” He traces his blade across his captive’s skin. Tal fights against his hold, but he twists her arm tightly. She inhales sharply at the pain.

“Who are you?” Vico stares at the knife at Tal’s throat.

“I’m the one who’ll be taking great pleasure in killing all of you. Elder Vacuda told me to be creative.” He wraps his free arm around Tal’s throat and aims the blade at Vico. “But maybe I’d be inclined to let you go if you abandon your friends. I’m feeling a bit generous.”

“No.”

“Well, don’t say I didn’t try to be nice.” He takes his knife and plunges it into Tal’s throat.

Vico and Vesna scream in shock and nearly drop Kemp. Tal’s eyes widen and her hands fall to her sides.

“I don’t usually like killing quickly, but I knew your expressions would make it worthwhile. Who’s next? Boy, girl, or sleeping beauty?” Asco laughs and pulls his knife out of Tal’s throat, but the blade is gone. His laughter stops and he stares at the broken weapon in his hand.

Tal takes advantage of his sudden loose grip and spins, kneeing him in the groin. She then grabs his arm and throws him over her shoulder into the wall. He crashes through the wood sending dust and smoke everywhere.

Rubbing her bruised neck, Tal sneers at the hole. “Barely made it before you stuck me, pig.” She turns to the siblings behind her. “You two all right?”

They nod, still in shock. She walks over to them and lifts Kemp’s head. His breathing is even and there’re no visible wounds.

“How did you—?”

“I made a very hard shield quickly. I’m surprised he didn’t feel it or notice his blade break before he did. We lucked out with a stupid one.” She releases Kemp’s head, letting it flop back down. “Where’s Ari?”

“She’s waiting for Vacuda.” Vico glances at the hole where Asco disappeared.

Vesna nods in agreement. “She’s going to kill him.”

“By herself?” Tal eyes the door down leading to the stairs.

“Crofton is with her,” Vico says bluntly. “Where were you?”

She holds up a book. “Found Ari’s notebook. Vacuda seemed very interested in it. He was making a copy for himself.”

“Why would he do that?” Vesna asks.

“Probably so he could find where Ari’s father is. He seems to have a lot of people searching for him.”

A loud crash draws all attention to the hole. As they stare, a large boulder crashes through the house’s wall and slams into Tal. She’s thrown down the hall and both she and the boulder break through the wall, landing outside. Vico and Vesna draw their weapons, struggling to hold them as well as Kemp.

Stepping through the hole, blood dripping from wounds on his back, Asco glares wild-eyed at the siblings. “That fucking bitch! I’ll crush her to dust, but first you three are going to die.”

He raises his arms and the ground shakes beneath them. Through both holes in the house, earth flies in circling them. Pieces of earth gather, hardening into heavy clumps. The earth stops, hovering around the three, waiting for Asco’s signal to crush them.

“Die.”

The earth clumps close in around them, quickly. Their weapons are useless and Vico and Vesna huddle close around Kemp, their eyes closed. They feel the pressure of the earth around them, but not the crushing sensation of death. Opening their eyes, they see the earth encasing them in a dome.

A dome of magic.

“What the hell?” Asco’s voice barely makes it through to them. The earth falls away.

“You sneaky bastard. No one said you had earth magic hidden in your filthy body,” Tal’s voice echoes down the hallway. Turning to the destroyed wall at the end of the hall, everyone sees Tal’s form standing in the opening. Her hand shakes from the strain of her magic. “I don’t like using it from such a distance, but I made it in time.”

Asco yells angrily at her, throwing earth towards her. She easily deflects them with her magic and draws her own weapon. Anger burns in her eyes and she runs towards him.

Realizing he can’t stop her approach, Asco gathers earth around his arm and uses it as a shield as she swings her sword at him. It hits the earth and buries into it, but not enough to hit him. As he smirks at her, she kicks him in the gut, sending him limping back. She swings again and he’s unable to gather more earth. He falls out of her way, her blade missing him by inches.

Scrambling to his feet, he makes a spear out of earth and tries to stab her. She uses her weapon to change its path and head butts him in the face. A sickening crack signifies his breaking nose and he throws a punch at her, but her magic deflects it. Screaming wildly in frustration and pain, he backs away from her.

Vico and Vesna watch with wide eyes. They’ve never seen someone so easily overpower another.

“We just gonna stand here gawking? She’s buying us time to escape,” a weak voice says. Kemp carefully stands, keeping a hand on Vico’s shoulder. “What a thing to wake up to, huh?”

“How long have you been awake?” Vesna pouts.

“Doesn’t matter,” Vico says, “He’s right. We should take advantage of the distraction and get out of here.”

“What about Ari and Crofton?”

The house shakes, wood creaking loudly. “They’ll be fine, but I have a feeling this house isn’t going to last much longer,” Kemp says.

Asco flies in front of them, slamming into another wall. The wood snaps and he falls halfway through the hole. Tal walks to Kemp and hands him Ari’s notebook. “You got somewhere safe for this?”

Taking it, Kemp holds it in front of him before moving as though to put it on an invisible shelf. As he does, the book disappears. “I’ll hang onto it for now.”

“You three wait outside. Once I’m done with the rock thrower we’ll get out of here.” She walks past them, waving her sword in front of her.

The three quickly leave, glancing back at Tal and wondering how Ari and Crofton are faring against Vacuda.

Asco sits up, throwing debris off him angrily. Tal holds the tip of her sword in front of his face and he freezes.

“I recall someone saying they were going to crush me into dust. Ready to try again?”

Yelling, he slaps her sword away, cutting his hand in the process. He leaps to his feet and tries to grab for her throat, but she sends a shield of magic out, causing him to bounce back. He attacks again only to have the same thing happen. On his third attempt he bangs his fists on the magic shield clawing at the unseen obstacle until his nails break off.

“I’ll kill you!”

Tal raises her sword and prepares to run him through, but the ground beneath them lurches and both fall to the ground. “What the hell was that?”

The ground lurches again and the smoke filling the house disappears. A surge of power fills the air and Tal shudders. Asco screams, grabbing his head and the earth rises around him. Tal feels her magic grow and she can’t stop it. Realizing the surge of power is driving her magic wild, Tal sheathes her sword and tries to leave.

A hand grabs her ankle and she falls to the floor. Turning she sees Asco holding her tightly. His eyes are crazed, the earth flying like mad insects around him. He holds his head with his free hand and screams.

She feels her own magic tightening her. Filling her yet also squeezing her. It’s a terrifying feeling and she knows she has to get away or else she’ll die.

Kicking at Asco, she frees herself from his grip and crawls towards the exit of the house. She watches the screaming man behind her try to follow, but the earth buzzing around him moves faster and faster, slamming into him and creating deep wounds.

She turns to the exit and notices the large boulder that slammed into her before whiz overhead. She flattens as much as she can, feeling the pressure as the large object passes over her. She sits up and watches as the boulder slams into Asco, crushing him. His screams stop and his arms fall limp on either side.

Knowing she’ll soon share the same fate if she doesn’t hurry, she clambers to her feet and runs. As she exits the house she feels her magic calm, but when she turns back to the house her eyes widen. Kemp, Vico, and Vesna join her to stare at the unnerving sight before them.

The house is surrounded by a shadow, slowly shrinking and melting the house away. The roof is already gone, the walls slowly following suit.

The only thought in all their minds being: who is responsible?

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Chapter 11 Water

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“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.”

“Got it.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

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Chapter 10 Water

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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.”

“Gorgi?”

“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.

“Who’s this?”

“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.”

“Thank you.”

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.

“Who?”

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.”

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