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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Chapter 9 Water

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“How’s the pain?” Tal asks, sitting next to Ari.

“Constant and bordering on unbearable.” She’s sitting near the back wall, away from most of the group. Water floats over her wounds, cooling the burns. “The water helps, though.”

The woman moving the water over Ari smiles, weakly. “I wish I could do more.”

“What you’re doing is enough, Kelis,” Tal says.

Vico leans against the wall behind Ari, his eyes tracing the burns on her body. He works string in his hands, creating patterns, trying to calm his mind. It isn’t working.

Turning to him, Ari watches him work, noticing his hands shaking and some of the patterns not keeping well. Meeting his eyes, she realizes he’s staring at the burns on her face. Feeling embarrassed, she turns away.

“Don’t feel ashamed,” he says, anger thick in his voice. “You did nothing wrong.”

“I know.”

Sitting on her other side, Kemp and Vesna keep the rest of the group back. “Why did they do this?” Vesna asks.

“Punishment.”

Kemp shakes his head. “For what?”

“Because of my parents. What they did during the Blood War.” She shifts uncomfortably. “And the malice of a grudge-filled parent.”

Everyone stares at her confused, but no one wants to speak. If she wants to say they’ll give her the chance to explain.

“If it isn’t obvious to any of you, she’s talking about Blood King Klaeon,” a voice says from outside the bars. Ylan closes the door behind him and walks up to the bars. “She didn’t mention the man who branded her was his father?”

The mention of Klaeon’s name sends a shudder through the group. Except for Tal and Vico who storm forward and grab the bars.

“Glare all you want. I’m here for her.” Ylan points to Ari.

Glancing up at him, she motions for Kelis to stop. The water falls to the ground and Kelis moves back. Ari stands, with assistance from Vesna and Kemp.

“Why her? Haven’t you done enough?” Tal says, banging against the bars.

“You’re not taking her alone. I’m going with her,” Vico demands.

Ylan raises his hand and the ground rises, forcing Tal and Vico back. “I was told to only bring her. Please, don’t make me take her by force.”

“I’ll go,” Ari says, walking to the door. Vesna and Kemp help her, but she pulls away. “I’m fine.”

The group clearly doesn’t believe her, but step back as Ylan opens the door. Ari joins him and he closes the door, eyeing Vico who remains the closest to the bars. Tearing his eyes away, he grabs her by the arm. She inhales sharply at the pain, but immediately feels Ylan’s magic soothe her wounds.

They leave the building, her noticing a dark stain on the ground in front of the pit. “Where’s Crofton?” she asks, swallowing a lump in her throat.

A strange expression flashes across his face. “It’s best if we don’t talk.”

“I think I’ve been quiet long enough. What is he planning to do with us?”

“I don’t know. The original plan was to intercept your group and try to scare you from continuing on.”

“What’s the plan now?”

“I don’t know why they made your friend chosen.”

“What does that mean? Chosen?”

Ylan stops, turning to her. “Your parents never told you about Klaeon’s magic?”

“There were things we didn’t talk about in Kellahn. He was definitely number one, but my mother mentioned his magic was unique. Does that have anything to do with being chosen?” Her mind races as she remembers Crofton. “What does that mean for Crofton?”

Ylan walks, pulling her along. They head for the same building of her initiation and her heart pounds loudly in her chest.

“No more talking.”

“Fine.” Her eyes trail down to the brands on the side of his body. “What did you do?”

“What?”

“Your initiation. What did you do?”

Stopping at the door to the initiation building, Ylan glares at her. “I liked you better when you didn’t talk.” She doesn’t think he’ll answer her question, but then he says, “I wanted to leave.”

“They punished you for that?”

“Only the chosen may leave.” A dark shadow crosses his face. “First offense is an initiation. Any more…” his voice trails off.

“Is that why there aren’t many more people here?”

“You noticed. Our village used to be alive with people.”

“What happened?”

Ylan opens the door. “The Blood King lost.”

He forces her to walk in front of him, but he keeps a hand on her shoulder. He guides her to the room she met the Elders in, the smoke gone and only a few of the candles still lit. A huddled figure sits at the center of the room, his knees pulled tightly to his chest. His head rests on his knees and he rocks slightly back and forth.

Ylan slams the door behind her and she walks slowly towards the figure. Even in the dark room she recognizes him

“Crofton?” She keeps her voice soft. “It’s me, Ari.”

The figure tenses before lifting his head. Dried blood on his right cheek creates a path to the rag covering his eye. His other eye takes a second to focus on her face. When it does he comes to life. He backs away from her and grabs his head with his hands. He collapses forward, placing his forehead on the ground.

Ari runs to him and places a hand on his back and her other hand on his shoulder. “What happened? What did they do to you?”

He mumbles something, his back shaking with emotion. Leaning down close to him, she strains to hear what he’s saying. “Dead…killed them…he…I couldn’t…” She only catches every other word, but the ones she hears send chills through her.

“Talk to me. Who’s dead?”

His body stills and he turns his head to see her. The look in his eye is strange and she wonders if he’s still mad at her. He lunges at her, his hand closing around her throat and the rag falling from his face. She grabs his arm, her eyes widening in shock. He doesn’t tighten his grip enough to cut off her breathing, but she still feels her throat tightening from surprise. She meets his eyes and sees his right eye is now an icier blue from his left…or perhaps it’s the lighting in the room?

His hand releases her and snaps to his side. His eyes take her face in and hesitate over the branding on the sides of her face. He slumps, exhaustion filling him.

“Talk to me, Crofton.” She speaks slowly, calmly. “Who’s dead?”

He leans his head to the side and his eyes stare off towards the edge of the room. She follows his gaze and her breath catches in her throat.

Against the far wall, lying in a pool of their blood, are the two women elders. Their throats are cut and a bloody dagger sits next to them on the floor.

“Who did this?”

A low moan rises from Crofton and he places his hands on his head. “They…they kept saying I was…chosen and…they said I had to make a sacrifice. They threw me into that pit and I saw…”

“What did you see?”

A strange calm comes over him and he meets her eyes. “I saw…” The calm passes and fear returns. “We have to leave. He’s going to kill everyone.”

“Are you talking about that insane elder?”

A flash of rage makes Crofton sit up and grab her arms. “He’s going to kill everyone except you and me. He wants us to be the messengers for his twisted revenge against your father.”

“He’s right,” Ylan says, entering the room. “Your companions are to be killed at sundown. But I can help you all escape. In return I ask a favor.”

“What kind of favor?” Crofton demands.

“I wish to return this village to its former glory. The glory we had before he stained it with his poor leadership.” He eyes the dead women against the wall. “My favor is the death of Elder Vacuda.”

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Chapter 8 Water

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“The Chosen,” the two elder women speak excitedly. They lead the small group towards the center of the village to the large pit.

The large man with the bucket and dagger waits patiently at the edge while the woman and man with rotting teeth hold onto Crofton tightly. The man who brought Ari to the building stays back, watching in silence and with a stern expression.

Crofton doesn’t care what the old women are saying. He sees Ari’s burns in his mind and he can barely contain his rage. He will kill them all. This whole village will burn for every mark on her body.

Reaching the pit, the two holding Crofton force him to his knees. The elder women stand in front of him, motioning the large man forward. He throws the contents of the bucket on Crofton. Blood covers him, soaking his clothes and dripping into his mouth. He spits at the elder women, but it falls short.

“The blood of a newborn shall protect you, but before you’re sent below you must give sacrifice,” the elder women say.

The man with rotting teeth takes the dagger from the large man and pulls Crofton’s arm tighter, spreading his fingers. He places the blade against his middle finger, readying to cut, but the elder women stop him.

“It must be the same sacrifice.” They motion to the large man and he drops the bucket. He moves behind Crofton and holds him.

“Ylan, hold his arm,” the rotting teeth man says.

The other man moves forward and takes his place. He avoids Crofton’s glare, holding his arm tightly.

Rotting teeth man steps in front of Crofton and grabs his chin. He waves the dagger in front of his face. “Ready, chosen?”

Crofton clenches his fists. “Just fucking do it.”

Rotting teeth man releases his chin and grabs the back of Crofton’s head. He grabs his hair and forces his head back. He places the tip of the dagger under his left eye then moves it to under his right eye.

“Hurry up, Asco,” the woman holding Crofton’s arm says. “Stop messing around.”

Rotting teeth aims the dagger at her. “Don’t rush me. I might cut too much.” He makes an annoyed sound and tightens his grip on Crofton’s hair.

Without warning, he plunges the dagger into Crofton’s right eye. The sudden pain causes him to scream and he fights against those holding him. The dagger moves and he feels a pressure before a sharp release. Asco releases his head and he jerks his head down. With his good eye he sees a white blob on the ground in front of him. He realizes it’s his eye and struggles to free himself.

“You fucking bastard! I’ll fucking kill you!”

Asco leans down and picks up the eye. He holds it in front of Crofton and laughs. “Want it back? Go get it.” He throws it into the pit.

The large man lifts Crofton up with surprising strength. The two on either side of him let him go and step back.

“May your soul be strong and your body fit for a ruler,” the elder women say, throwing powder into the pit.

A strong wind rises from the pit and the large man moves closer, holding Crofton with his feet dangling above the ground. He tries to kick at the large man, but it doesn’t affect him.

Asco throws the dagger into the pit and turns to Crofton. “You might need that down there. Some times it’s easier to end it quickly. The Living Darkness likes to drag things out.” His smile widens. “And don’t worry. I’ll make sure to take real good care of that little wind mage of yours. Maybe I’ll add more marks on her.”

Crofton kicks him in the gut, groaning at the strain. Asco’s smile disappears and he punches Crofton across the face. Crofton yells as he’s reminded of his fresh eye wound.

“I hope the Ones With No Names tear you apart.”

The large man throws Crofton into the pit. He tries to grab for anything, but the pit is too wide across. The wind rising from below slows his fall, but he knows the landing is still going to hurt.

And he’s right.

The ground slams into him hard and he takes a moment to figure out if anything’s broken. Finding no new injuries, he stumbles to his feet. His hand touches something sharp and he carefully picks it up. The pitch-blackness at the bottom of the pit is disorienting, but tracing the object with his fingers, he realizes it’s the dagger Asco threw down.

The blood covering him makes him shiver as it dries. He covers his missing eye and groans in pain. He knows there are stairs somewhere, but walking in the dark with one missing eye and who knew what else was down there didn’t strike him.

“Crofton,” a voice whispers.

A chill runs up his spine. He turns, expecting to see anything, but the darkness is absolute. His heart pounds in his chest and he grips the handle of the dagger tightly.

“Crofton Hila,” a second voice whispers in his ear.

He panics and swipes the dagger at the voice, but the blade only slices air. He steps back, but his heel hits a large rock and he stumbles back, stepping on sharp objects. Catching his balance he holds the dagger up in front of him. His eyes adjust slightly to the darkness and he can barely make out where the walls are, but that’s it.

“Hungry,” voices whisper around him.

He turns to each voice, shadows dancing in the darkness. They surround him and he feels hands grab for him. He slices at them with the dagger, but there’s never anything there. The shadows close in, reaching for him.

“Tear.”

“Rip.”

“Feed.”

The voices grow louder, overwhelming him. He covers his ears and falls to his knees. He feels hands grabbing him, trying to pull him in different directions. He tries to hit them away, but more take the place of those that are swatted away.

“Enough!”

A booming voice echoes in the darkness. The hands disappear and Crofton looks up. He’s alone again.

Except for a solitary shadow at the center of the room. It walks towards Crofton slowly. “So you’re the one they chose?”

“Who are you?”

The shadow moves closer and kneels in front of Crofton. “I can help you. I know what you want.”

“I don’t know who you are. How can you possibly know what I want?”

The shadow slowly morphs into the figure of a man. He reaches down and picks something up from the ground. “I know what your heart wants and I know what stands between you and your desires.”

“You don’t know anything.”

The man raises his hand. Ari appears in the shadows and Crofton’s eye widens. As he watches her, the man moves closer.

“I understand your heart. I understand what you need and I can help you.”

Shaking his head, Crofton can’t take his eye from her. “I don’t need help.”

Another figure walks up to Ari. It’s Vico and when he reaches Ari they embrace, replaying the kiss he saw at the Lost Raider’s village. Anger fills him and he clenches his hands into fists.

“I can help you, Crofton Hila.” The man holds his other hand out to Crofton. Sitting in his palm is Crofton’s eye. “But you must accept the sacrifice.”

“I haven’t heard anything that sounds like help, to be honest,” Crofton says, tearing his eye from the two figures to the man.

He can’t see the man’s face in the darkness, but he gets the sense he’s smiling. “You hate her magic.”

Crofton’s breath caught in his throat. “How did you know that?”

“You wish she didn’t have it. You want her to be like you. But that’s not a problem for him.” He motions to the false Kemp. “He loves her for her magic. And that destroys you inside.”

“Shut up.”

“I can help…but only with one of these things. I can help you with him or I can help with her.”

With a shaking hand, Crofton stabs the dagger at the man. There’s nothing for it to stab into and the man lifts the hand with Crofton’s eye higher.

“You grew up together. You know her better than anyone. Even better than her family. You were meant to be together then he got in the way. What does he know about her? He doesn’t truly love her.”

“Stop.”

“If she didn’t have her magic, he wouldn’t have any interest in her. But you love her no matter what. And this venture to find her father is suicide. You know it is.”

Crofton stares at his eye sitting in the man’s hand. He can’t deny the thought this search was misguided from the start. The only reason they were after Ari was because they thought she wanted to stop them. If they stayed in Kellahn they would’ve left them alone. Why did her father have to find out why magic was fading away? Why couldn’t he let it be?

“Her father is also the reason she was hurt. Every scar on her body is because of her father.”

The image of Ari covered in her fresh burns sends a wave of rage through Crofton. He was right. Ari was scarred because of her father. Permanently scarred.

“I know how to take her magic away.” The man leans closer to Crofton. “All I ask is the chance to escape.”

“How?”

“Accept the sacrifice.”

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Chapter 7 Water

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She doesn’t know how long she was out, but the pain doesn’t allow her to stay long. Pain on her right side drags her back to consciousness and her vision returns. She’s on the floor, somehow her writhing freed her from the chair. She wants to move, but her body won’t listen to her. Her eyes burn, making every blink another point of racking pain.

Feet come into focus in front of her. She forces her eyes to roll up to see the owner. Ylan watches her from the chair she once sat in. He sighs and leans forward.

She sees it. She didn’t notice before, but his body has brands along his sides up to his neck. His initiation.

“You’re awake. Too bad.” He grabs her arm and tries to pull her up.

The pain returns and she screams, though it comes out mostly as squeals. Her body moves on its own and she rolls away from him, freeing her arm. Instinctively, she throws her other hand towards him and air magic slams into him, knocking him and the chair over.

The sudden movements only intensify the pain and she convulses into the fetal position, even touching her own skin hurt.

“Gods, just kill me!” Her voice is hoarse, sounding strange to her ears. The strong plea brings tears to her eyes as she realizes she truly wants it. She wants the gods to kill her.

The pain slowly melts away and she feels a hand on her side. Ylan is leaning over her, his expression blank. Soothing waves of magic cover her and she finally has the strength to sit up.

“You’re a healer?” she whispers.

He places her clothes next to her. “No, I can soothe pain, but I can’t heal it. Get dressed.” He stands and moves away, giving her privacy. “Elder Vacuda told me to wait until you were awake to take you to your comrades. He wants you to be there when he takes the chosen.”

She grabs her clothes, but can’t bring herself to put any of it on. The pain may be at bay for the moment, but magic can only cover it so long. “What are they going to do to Crofton?”

“The chosen are given to the Living Darkness. What happens after that depends on them.”

She lifts her arm and stares at the brands. The raw flesh is discolored and reminds her of cooked meat. Nausea clenches her stomach and she closes her eyes. “Why did he do this?”

“The initiation is punishment. Temporary for small infractions, permanent for…well, more severe ones.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Ylan turns to her. “The punishment was for your parents. Since he can’t do anything to them, he took it out on you.”

She lays her clothes on the floor in front of her. She carefully puts on her underclothes, wincing as her aching muscles protest. “Who’s the one he’s afraid of?”

“What?”

“He said the one he’s afraid of ordered him not to kill me. Who is it?” She gathers the rest of her clothes and holds them close to her chest.

“The only ones the elders are afraid of are the Living Darkness and…” His voice trails off and she notices his hand go to his brands.

“And?”

He raises a hand and the ground beneath her rises, lifting her to a standing position. “We need to go. I have to take you to your comrades.” He grabs her arm and leads her to the door.

They leave the room and head to the entrance. She sees the door leading to the room with the candles is shut, but she can still feel the magic inside. She shivers, the soothing effect of Ylan’s magic beginning to fade. The burning is bearable, but she knows it will soon become extreme again soon.

Opening the door leading out into the village, the woman from before jumps. Her eyes widen at Ari’s brands and she meets Ylan’s eyes. He shakes his head to keep her from speaking and she silently grabs Ari’s other arm.

They walk towards the building Crofton and Vico were taken to quietly. Soon it becomes clear another figure is following them. Turning her head, Ari sees the large man from the initiation. He carries a bucket filled with a dark liquid and a dagger. Approaching the building, the two women elders appear on either side of the man.

“They’re called Lineage,” Ylan whispers to her. “The others the elders are afraid of. They’re the servants of the Source. They were the ones who told us of your group’s coming.”

The pain is forgotten for a moment as she hears the name of her mother’s murderers and her hunters for the first time. Did this mean the Source was responsible for Blood King Klaeon’s rule? Then why would it want magic to fade?

The pain grows as Ylan’s magic grows weaker. She gasps and winces, feeling every step and every breath. Trying to keep her mind clear, she taps Ylan’s side, tracing the brands. “What did you do?”

Thrown off by her sudden interest, his eyes bounce from her hand to the woman on Ari’s other side. “I asked to leave the village. Only the chosen may leave.”

“Ylan, don’t be so chatty with her. Remember, she’s an outsider,” the woman says.

They reach the building and the door opens as another man covered in mud walks out. He smiles at Ari, his rotting teeth looking more like wood than teeth. “We heard the screams from here. Her group made the most wonderful faces listening to her pain.”

“Enough, Asco,” the woman says. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“Little Taimi, big mouth. Must not have learned your lesson last time. Should I remind you what happens to those who speak back to their superiors?” He moves close to her and strokes her arm.

She releases Ari and steps back from him. “I’m your equal now. I proved myself.”

“Enough, both of you.” The two elders spoke in unison. Taimi and Asco glare at one another, but fall silent. “Ylan, return her to her comrades and bring us the chosen.”

Ylan shoves Ari through the door. Her eyes adjust to the darker building and she sees bars splitting the building in half. Behind the bars, she sees a large number of the caravan. Seeing her, they come to life, approaching the bars. At the front of the group are Tal, Indra, Vico, Vesna, Kemp, and Crofton.

“Ari!” they all yell, each with an expression of horror at the sight of her wounds.

“You bastards!” Crofton yells, banging against the bars. “What did you do to her?”

A knife presses against her throat and the cool metal sends a new surge of pain through her, the magic barely soothing her.

“Step back or I’ll do worse,” Ylan says. “I want all of you back against the wall, except for the one named Crofton Hila.”

The group slowly does as he says, Crofton’s rage filled eyes locked onto the man holding Ari at knifepoint. Once they’re all clear, Ylan steps forward. He pulls a key from his pocket and unlocks the door. Opening it, he motions for Crofton to step out.

Crofton walks out of the prison and stops next to Ylan. He glances at Ari’s brands and the fury twists his face. He reaches out to touch her, but she flinches away, afraid of the pain his touch will cause.

“Outside.” Ylan pulls Ari away from Crofton.

He leaves, the sound of a struggle following once he’s out of sight. Ylan walks Ari into the prison and helps her to the floor. He removes his knife and quickly leaves, shutting and locking the door behind him. He meets Ari’s eyes one last time before following Crofton outside. The darkness of the door closing fills her with fear, but the pain of her burns are soon the only thing on her mind.

The group comes alive and circles around her, but the heat from their bodies only makes her wounds worse. Realizing her discomfort, Tal and Indra force everyone back.

Vico collapses to his knees in front of her, his hands hovering over her, but afraid to touch. “Does it…”

“Is there anything we can do?” Kemp asks, kneeling beside Ari.

“Where’s Nov? He isn’t in the other prison, is he?” Tal’s voice echoes through the room.

“He is,” Indra answers.

“Healers can’t do anything,” Ari says, her voice catching in her throat. Sobs rise in her chest and she leans forward. Tears drip to the floor and she cries, feeling safe among her friends even with the pain covering her body.

A tentative hand touches a spot on her back with no burns. “Tell us what happened,” Kemp says, softly. “When you’re ready.”

She nods her head, but before she can begin, she looks at the closed door leading outside, where Crofton is now.

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Chapter 6 Water

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“His father? But that man was too young,” she says, remembering her mother telling her the Blood King was roughly forty when the war started.

“A gift from the pit.” Ylan throws her clothes and shoes to the side. “And from the Living Darkness.”

“Living Darkness?”

“You shouldn’t ask questions. You probably won’t remember anything after the initiation. Once it’s complete, they’ll return you to your comrades. Then the chosen will be taken.”

“What’s the initiation? What are they going to do to Crofton?”

“I wish you hadn’t pissed him off.” He backs away from her. “You would’ve only been temporarily branded.”

Her pulse quickens. “Branded?”

She readies to stand, but large hands slam onto her shoulders, knocking the wind from her lungs and sending a shockwave of pain through her. She leans her head back and stares into the eyes of a large man wearing an apron and with soot covering his arms and face.

His muscles remind her of the weapon and armor forgers in Kellahn. The apron is made of thick hide and his skin is dark and dry. “Stay still.” His low voice is rough, almost resonating through his arms.

Ylan moves forward and ties her arms and legs to the chair. He’s sure not to look at her sensitive areas, a small blush coming to his cheeks, before moving to the door. He doesn’t leave, but stands in front of it as though to stop her from escaping. His expression is straining to hide his discomfort.

“The Elders have demanded an initiation fitting for a killer’s spawn.”

She glares at him and fights against the large man’s grip, forgetting for a moment her arms and legs are bound. “My parents weren’t killers.”

The large man forces her back against the chair, nodding his head at Ylan. “Show me the path.”

Ylan traces a pattern on his face, mirroring the markings on her. “I’ve laid the path upon her.” He turns away, shame clear on his face. “Do it.”

Understanding, she fights against her bonds, feeling the large man release her. Her eyes lower to the patterns on her flesh, the symbols carved into the liquid covering her body. She pulls against her bonds, feeling the skin around her wrists and ankles burn as they’re rubbed raw. She knows what’s going to happen. She knows now why they had her strip and what the large man was there to do.

“If you’d only kept quiet,” Ylan’s voice says from across the room.

The large man steps between her and Ylan. She forces her eyes to gaze up at him. His face is covered in burns and scars. The soot covering him is thickest on his hands and she feels magic gathering within the room.

He holds his hands with palms up and inhales deeply. Heat gathers in his hands and she leans back in the chair. He reaches for her, the heat emanating from his hands intensifying. Before he touches her, the door opens and the large man stops.

“Elder Vacuda,” Ylan says in surprise, stepping back from the door.

The large man turns and bows his head. “Elder.” The heat immediately dissipates from his hands and he moves to the side.

The Elder stands in front of Ylan, his eyes never leaving Ari’s face. “Leave.” The word is cold, emotionless, but his eyes can’t hide the fire inside him.

“We were about to begin the initiation as you ordered,” Ylan says, confusion clear on his face. “Is something wrong?”

“I said leave. Both of you.”

The large man doesn’t hesitate and quickly leaves the room. Ylan stays where he is, his hands clenching tightly into fists.

Elder Vacuda turns his head to look at the man. “Did you mishear me, Ylan? Do you need another initiation?”

He leaves, slowly shutting the door behind him.

Elder Vacuda approaches Ari, taking off his long robe. He throws the heavy cloth to the side and walks behind her. She strains in the chair, afraid to take her eyes off the man.

“My son’s name was Einar Vacuda. He was chosen by the Ones With No Names to welcome a ruler inside him. He had been afraid, but he proved his and our family’s honor by entering the Living Darkness. The ruler who joined body with him had high ambitions and my son proved his worth to help attain those ambitions.”

As he speaks, he opens a small metal door in the wall. Red light and heat emanate from it and he reaches in.

“The power inside him was evil. It used your son, but didn’t care if he lived or died,” she says, her neck straining to watch him.

“He left our village and quickly attained power and followers.” He continues, ignoring her interruption. “My son brought great honor onto our family allowing me to rise through the ranks to become head of our village. Many other children were chosen, but he surpassed them all with his rise to power. His role in this world was clear, until a healer and her lover challenged him.”

“He forced men and women into slavery to fight in a torture arena. He killed innocents and destroyed homes. He ruled with fear, not power.” She struggles against her bonds again, anger growing.

He pulls a long piece of metal from the heat, its end burning bright. He walks towards her, waving the metal in front of him.

“The Blood War. We both know the outcome. You perhaps were conceived the very day my son fell. Then your bastard mother and father dared to take my son’s body back to their city of murderers. They dared to interfere in the Source’s will and now my son can never be properly put to rest. His body burned and his ashes thrown in some pit or river of no importance!”

His emotion overpowers him and he places the hot metal against Ari’s arm. Intense pain and heat blind her. She screams and a putrid smell of burning flesh fills the room.

He removes the metal and the pain eases, but doesn’t cease. “That was not part of the initiation, child. That was for my son. That will heal, but once I touch this to the path not even your mother could heal you.”

“No, please,” she pleads, tears filling her eyes.

“It is my will.”

He touches the metal to the markings on her arm. Heat erupts up her arm as the markings and symbols burn into her flesh. The magic imbued in the substance covering her takes the heat of the fire and brands her. The pain is excruciating, her vision darkening as the pain goes on for eternity. Her throat burns from her screams and her body writhes in agony.

Flashes of memories pass through her mind. She remembers her mother healing her after she fell from the tree at the center of their house. She remembers visiting the Hok stables with Crofton. She remembers a figure standing at the foot of her bed…no, crib. A figure with kind, loving eyes. Her father?

Her vision flashes as the pain increases, burning into her face. Shadows fly past her. The figure of a man standing in front of a wave larger than any mountain, a mountain billowing smoke, a woman floating in a river, a figure dancing with blue fire, and the back of someone. The final figure slowly turns to her, but as it does she feels herself be pulled away as the pain reaches its climax.

She wants the pain to stop. She wishes for it to end. She wishes for death, anything to stop the pain. But the only relief is her tears falling from her eyes onto her burning flesh. It’s a fleeting relief until finally unconsciousness frees her.

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Chapter 5 Water

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The earth is damp and cool around her. The fear of suffocating fills her, but the familiar feel of magic reminds her they want her alive. Whoever they are. The hands pulling her through the earth one-by-one release her until only two pairs hold her by each arm. The earth opens up and she blinks at the light. When her vision clears, her jaw drops at the sight.

What she thought was light of the outside is actually torchlight. A single opening high above allows little light in from the sky. Otherwise the entire village in front of her is safe beneath the earth. The village is split into two levels. On the higher ground, smaller buildings encircle the lower level. The buildings on the lower level are spread further apart and larger. At the center, beneath the hole in the ceiling, is a pit.

“Stop staring. The Elders are waiting for you,” a voice to her right says.

Ari looks at the voice’s owner. The woman holding her is smaller than her and covered in mud. Her hair is braided close to her head, resting across her shoulders.

“Don’t talk to her. She’s an outsider,” the one to Ari’s left says. The man is the same size as the woman, his hair the same length and braided in a similar fashion. The mud covering him makes his light gray eyes stand out.

The two lead her towards the center of the village. Loud voices attract her attention and she spies Vico and Crofton being lead towards one of the large buildings surrounding the pit. Seeing her, the two struggle against their captors, but are soon dragged inside.

“You’re very quiet. Usually the ones we catch have more fight in them,” the man says. The woman glares at him before rolling her eyes in annoyance.

“There’s no point in fighting. I’m not leaving here without my friends,” Ari answers. She meets his eyes and shrugs her shoulders. “Plus, there’s no point trying to escape from a hole in the ground when your captors are earth mages.”

“We’ll see how calm you are after the Elders are finished with you.”

Walking towards a large building far from the one Vico and Crofton were taken to, Ari eyes the pit at the center of the village. She sees steps leading down into the darkness, but no visible bottom can be seen…but she knows something is down there. The longer she stares into the pit the stronger her feeling of unease grows.

She’s taken to the largest building in the village. The woman opens the door, releasing Ari’s arm. The man pulls her through the door as the woman shuts the door behind them.

He waves his arm over his body and the mud rises off his skin, collecting into a ball in his hand. He throws the ball towards a jug on a table and the mud flies into it.

“Afraid to get mud on the floor?” Ari jokes.

The man tightens his grip on her arm. “Found your tongue, did you? Better keep it in check with them.”

Opening a door she didn’t even notice, the man leads her into a room with candles burning everywhere. A strong smell fills the room and she sees incense burning amongst the candles. The smell chokes her and she coughs, her eyes burning from the incense. She tries to use her air magic to clear it, but the strong scent and pain makes it too difficult to concentrate.

“Present her,” a mysterious voice speaks, but she can’t see the owner.

The man pulls Ari close, forcing her in front of him. He leans close to her ear. “Strip.”

“What?”

“Strip or else I’ll have to do it for you.” His voice shakes with…desire? No, it shakes with a plea. He doesn’t want to do it.

“Why?”

“Present her!” The mysterious voice commands him.

“Don’t ask questions. Do it.”

She lifts her shirt, carefully pulling it over her head. She throws it to the floor and unties her pants. She hesitates a moment before lowering them and taking her shoes off. She throws them to her shirt and covers her chest with her arms.

The man collects her clothes and places them on a blank table by the door. Then he walks up to her and shoves her to the center of the room. The incense smoke circles her as she moves through it, covering her mouth as the intense smell surrounds her.

Something wet on her back makes her jump and she sees the man painting something on her skin. He works quickly, spending little time covering her in patterns. He lifts his free hand and more of the liquid covers her sensitive areas. The liquid dries and he moves on to carving symbols using a stick.

“I wish you’d fight me,” he says suddenly as he works on her face.

She wants to respond, but the smoke is thicker and she feels her lungs tighten.

“They said you were a fighter. They said you had a fire inside you that came out from your tongue.” He finishes and steps back. “If that was true then this would be worse.”

“Enough, Ylan. Leave us.”

The man, Ylan, heads for the door. She grabs his arm, waiting for his eyes to meet hers before speaking. “Don’t let them keep you buried forever.”

His eyes widen slightly before he pulls away from her and leaves, but she catches his brief glance back at her before the door shuts.

Alone, she searches the room for the owner of the voice, but the smoke is thick and the light from the candles creates dancing shadows against the walls. Closing her eyes, she swells her magic inside her, hoping to clear the smoke away from her. She releases it, breathing out slowly.

The smoke moves away slowly before circling her. She feels it move across her skin and she opens her eyes. She feels it. Magic mixed in the smoke. She watches it circle her and tries to see where the source of the magic is. She concentrates and soon one of the shadows dancing on the walls forms into a figure. An old man with his hands clasped together. The smoke rises from his body and mixes with the incense.

Sensing her eyes on him, he steps towards her. “You are the daughter of the killers Meah and Ime, are you not?”

“They weren’t killers.”

“They were killers. They killed one of our chosen children.” The Elder, she imagines, steps closer to her, the smoke overpowering her magic.

“You’re wrong. They would never harm children.” She coughs as she breathes in the smoke.

“He was our chosen son. Chosen to venture beyond our village. They killed him.” The Elder holds a hand out to her, the smoke ceasing its movement.

Her body stiffens and she can’t move. She curses in her head. The smoke she’d been inhaling was mixed with his magic. She’s trapped.

“He was our chosen King. Chosen to rule all.”

She understands. Fighting the magic holding her, she manages to speak. “Blood King Klaeon.”

The Elder continues as though she never spoke. “But we have been given a gift. A chance at redemption.”

He waves his hand at Ari. Her body moves on its own, lowering her to her knees. Two more figures emerge from the shadows, both women. They move to either side of Ari and place a hand on either side of her head. With their free hands they touch fingertips together, creating a triangle above Ari.

The Elder’s eyes burn with a silent rage and he sits in front of her. “Who will be chosen?”

Ari feels magic force its way into her, but not in the same way as the smoke. She’s felt something similar before. When the Seer Lyrrel shared a vision with someone, it was a similar feeling. But where his was a mutual sharing, this feeling was invasive. It forces its way into her and she feels it searching through her memories. She fights with as much strength as she can, but the magic is doubled with two users and she can’t stop them.

“Crofton Hila,” the women speak in unison. “If he dies, then Vico Skeoll.”

The women release Ari and fade into the shadows again. The Elder relaxes his hands and she feels her body released. She stands and uses her built up magic to send a wave of wind at him. The earth rises in front of him, blocking her wind. Turning, she sees Ylan standing in the doorway, his arms in front of him.

“Take her to the others. But first, initiate her,” the Elder says from behind the wall of earth.

Lowering his arms, the wall falls to the floor. Ylan grabs her clothes before walking forward to grab her.

She readies another blast of air, but her body freezes as the smoke around her tightens.

“Don’t test my patience. I’ve been ordered not to kill you and the one who gave it to me frightens me more than my desire for revenge.” The Elder can’t keep the fury and rage from his voice any longer. “Take her. Be sure the initiation is fitting for a killer’s bastard child.”

Ylan bows before grabbing Ari. The smoke clears and he drags her from the room, allowing the door to slam behind him.

“I told you to watch your tongue around them.”

“Is this…this village is where Blood King Klaeon came from.”

“This was his home before he was given the honor to rule. This is where his Blood Magic was given him.” He takes her to another room in the building and throws her into a chair.

“And you pissed off the man who was his father.”

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Chapter 4 Water

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“Ari!” Crofton yells behind her.

She can’t tell if he’s getting closer and she doesn’t want to risk a glance behind. She dodges trees, scanning the forest for any sign of the camp.

The earth beneath her feet crumbles and she tries to step back, but the ground behind her falls. She screams and disappears down into a dark hole. She doesn’t know how far she falls, but she waves her hand beneath her, using her wind magic to slow her descent. She hits the ground, but it’s at an angle and she rolls further downwards.

Landing at the bottom, she groans in frustration and pain. She sits up and stares up at the hole above her. She sees Crofton’s head appear at the edge.

“Ari! Are you all right?” His voice is filled with fear and concern. “Please, answer me!”

“I’m fine,” she answers. “I don’t think I can get back up.”

“I’ll climb down.”

Panic shoots through her. She can’t be trapped with him. “No! Go back and get help.”

“I shouldn’t leave you. What if something happens?”

“I’m in a hole. The worst has happened. Just go.”

She sees him hesitate, but then disappear. She releases a sigh of relief, happy to be alone. She pulls her knees to her chest, her mind racing, replaying the confrontation over and over.

Why did she run? She asked for the truth, but when he gave it to her…it frightened her. Why? The look in his eyes when he spoke about Vico, when he demanded an answer…no, it wasn’t that. She knew he’d never hurt her.

She ran from her answer, her answer to both questions. Did she love Vico? Did she love Crofton?

Why did everything change when that one word was used?

A lot of things are different from home.

He saw them kiss. He watched Vico kiss her and she reciprocated. How could she not realize it? She used to be able to know every thought that crossed his mind. She used to be able to talk to him freely without worrying what he thought of her. Now, he was an enigma, able to keep secrets. He was ashamed to tell her things; furious she couldn’t tell what bothered him.

Did she no longer trust him because of what he said? When he said he hated her magic? It pissed her off, sure, but who wouldn’t be angry when their best friend told them they hated the very thing that made them special?

Listen for the words he won’t say.

Her eyes widen and she leans her head back against the damp wall.

“Vico isn’t a magic user.” She says the words out loud, as though saying them would make them appear in front of her.

Was he ashamed Vico could accept her magic when he couldn’t?

Dirt falls on her head and she jumps in surprise. She glances up as a hand reaches for her. It takes a second for her to process what she’s seeing. The hand is reaching through the wall of the hole, dirt hitting her in the head.

Flashes of her nightmare fill her mind, freezing her. The hand’s fingers brush her forehead then move wildly, opening and closing quickly, trying to grab her. The feel of skin against skin sends a shock through her. She realizes she’s very much awake and the hand grasping for her is very real.

Another hand forces its way through the wall, reaching. It grabs her shoulder tightly and she finds her voice. Screaming, she slaps the hand away. Her magic fills her and she sends a rush of wind at the wall. The force surprises her and she’s thrown back against the opposite wall. The hands retreat into the wall, dirt filling the holes, as she gasps for breath.

Her legs shake with adrenaline and she leans her head back. She stares at the hole above her, wondering if she could use her magic to escape.

Arms punch through the wall behind her, wrapping around her waist and neck. Hands grab her ankles, wrists, and her head. She screams as they pull her against the wall.

She prays Crofton and the others are close enough to hear her, but as the hands and arms tighten around her, she feels hopeless. Tears roll down her cheeks and her struggles weaken.

“Ari!”

The voice sounds so far away. Fighting the arm around her neck and hands holding her head, she looks up. A rope falls down to her and Crofton rappels down. Another rope falls down and Vico follows. Others appear at the top of the hole, weapons drawn. They appear to be fighting someone above, but she doesn’t care about that.

Crofton came back. He came back for her.

The two men reach the bottom of the hole and lunge for her. Crofton draws one of his blades and carefully attacks the arms holding her. Sensing the danger, the arms withdraw into the wall before he can strike them. When enough have retreated, Ari frees herself, slapping the last few away with her wind magic.

She runs into Crofton, his free arm holding her tightly. “Are you all right?”

“They’re in the walls.”

“Earth mages. They ambushed the camp while we were gone,” Vico says. “Most of the caravan has been taken. The few left are above.”

“We need to get out of here before they regroup.” Crofton hesitates before gently pushing Ari towards Vico. “Get her out. I’ll make sure none of them grab you.”

“What if they grab you?”

“Just go. They need more help above.”

“Grab on,” Vico says, pulling Ari close.

She meets Crofton’s eyes before moving behind Vico and wrapping her arms around his neck. “You better come back.”

Crofton draws his second blade and laughs. “I’ll always come back for you.”

Vico grabs the rope in his hands and starts climbing. Hands try to reach for him as his feet touch the wall, but Crofton swings his weapons at them, forcing them back. The hands change targets and try to grab for Crofton, carefully avoiding the swinging blades.

Halfway up the hole, Ari risks a glance back and sees more and more hands reaching for Crofton. He’s able to keep them at bay, barely. Suddenly, hands emerge from the floor, grabbing his legs. He swings his weapons down at them, but a man explodes from the wall and slams into Crofton, knocking him to the ground. The hands in the floor grab his arms and stop him from being able to move.

“He needs help, go back!” Ari yells at Vico.

Wincing at her loud voice in his ear, Vico shakes his head. “We need to regroup with the others. The ambush wasn’t one to kill. They’re gathering us like animals.”

“I don’t care. I’m not leaving him behind.” He doesn’t slow his climb and she groans. “If you don’t go back, I’ll let go and fall back down there.”

The rope jerks, slamming Vico into the wall. He glances up before attempting to climb higher. Another jerk causes him to slip down the rope a short distance.

“You may get your wish. Someone’s cutting our escape rope.” Vico notices the second rope Crofton used. He motions towards it with his head. “Any chance you could grab it? Or use your magic to get it closer?”

“I’ll try.”

She throws a small breeze towards the second rope. It swings away before moving close, but still out of her reach. She tries a larger breeze and the rope swings into her hand. She holds it out to Vico, but as he reaches for it, the rope in his hands snaps and they both fall.

The rope burns Ari’s hands as she falls and she throws it away from her, the pain bringing fresh tears to her eyes. They both slam into the ground next to Crofton. Hands grab them, immobilizing them.

The man who slammed into Crofton walks over to Ari and leans down. The mud covers his entire body, his hair matted against his head. Others emerge from the walls, men and women. They lift the three up to their feet.

“Take the two men with the others. This one is to be brought before the Elders.” He smiles, revealing rotting teeth. “It is their will.”

Those holding Crofton and Vico drag them away, disappearing through the walls of the hole. Ari fights against her captors, but they only drag her in the opposite direction. She feels the earth surround her and she panics.

The last thing she sees is the man lower into the floor, laughing.

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