Authors: Craig Andrews
Table of Contents
Copyright © 2014 by My Story Productions. All rights reserved.
First Kindle Edition: 2014
This eBook is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the original purchaser only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this eBook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
For my Mom, who’s the strongest, most compassionate, hardest working person I’ve ever met.
And for my Dad, who taught me what it means to be a man, a father, and a geek.
Four days since I became a murderer
His stomach twisted at the thought as the memory flooded back. He could see Lukas clearly, as if he were standing in the small cabin bedroom with him. Red coils of electricity wrapped around Lukas’s golden skin, shaking his rigid frame violently. Steam rose from his blistering body, and Allyn closed his eyes, pleading for the image to disappear. It didn’t—it never did. He gagged, drowning in the putrid scent of burning flesh, like a shipwreck survivor in the middle of the vast sea of regret. Everywhere he went, he could see it. Smell it. Taste it. The vision had become a waking nightmare—and sleep was worse.
The springs of the old twin mattress groaned as he rolled out of bed to open the small single-paned window nearby. A bitter winter breeze slapped away Allyn’s nausea and dried his flushed face. He leaned his forehead against the fogging window, breathing raggedly—only the cold helped him escape the nightmare. He closed his eyes, relishing the short reprieve.
Liam’s scream cut through the early morning like a siren.
Allyn snapped open his eyes and whipped his head around to look at the door behind him. Liam had grown quiet—his scream muffled and cut short. It could mean only one thing. They had been found.
Allyn turned back to the window, peering into the night. Thick fog blanketed the gravel driveway, mixing with the freshly fallen snow so that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. Hidden amid the fog, the evergreens were little more than shadows, still and unimposing. A thin layer of ice covered the windshield of the old Cadillac Jaxon had bought after fleeing the manor, but the property was otherwise undisturbed. Nothing was amiss.
Then why the scream?
Allyn made for the door. The cabin was quiet, and though he was mindful of his footfalls, the floor squeaked, piercing the silence. If the police had arrived, he would have heard them.
The door would have come crashing down. There would have been shouts of alarm and orders to freeze. Something was off, and Allyn was beginning to think it had nothing to do with being found.
He grabbed the tarnished doorknob and slowly opened the door. The dry hinges squealed. Allyn stopped and waited. When he didn’t hear anything, he drew close to the door and peeked through the crack. The cabin was still. Moonlight reflecting off the snow outside illuminated the cabin through the living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows with a soft white light. The couches that had been pushed to the edges of the room to create more sleeping space were empty. So were the large rug in the center of the room and the area in front of the brick fireplace. Allyn didn’t see
. The cabin was bursting with occupants, and magi should have been strewn about under blankets and in sleeping bags, on the couches and rugs, and in front of the fire. One or two missing would be normal. Restless sleepers rose throughout the night to walk around and stretch aching bodies, while others would be up to relieve themselves or to grab a drink of water.
The floor creaked.
Allyn drew closer to the doorframe.
Was that a shadow in the—
The edge of the door smashed into the center of his forehead. Dazed, Allyn staggered back, one hand covering his face.
Four dark figures rushed into the room. They were on him in a blink, wrestling him to the ground and binding his hands and feet. Stunned, Allyn didn’t fight back. Blood trickled from his forehead, catching in his eyebrow, as the figures pulled him to his feet and ushered him out of the room.
Comprehension returned with each step. The cabin was being attacked. Allyn dared a glance to either side, but the firm hand holding his neck kept his gaze on the back of the slender magi in front of him.
They ushered him outside. The snow bit the bottoms of his bare feet, and the icy air took care of his remaining wariness. Dim starlight revealed a scar that ran from the corner of the procession leader’s eye down to her jaw. Allyn knew that scar.
“Ren?” Allyn asked. He hadn’t had many interactions with the woman, but she had been a member of his squad when they reclaimed the McCollum Manor. She ignored him, but the way her body had tensed when he’d identified her told him he was correct. “What are you doing? Where are you taking me?”
“Quiet,” the man with the firm hand said.
I know that voice
. Allyn instinctively turned to look at him, but the man’s fingers tightened around his neck and held his head in place. The magi at his sides slunk back, falling into step with the man behind him so he could no longer see them.
Ren led them into the forest, following one of the magi trails. Boredom plagued the younger magi, and they had taken to hiking the hills surrounding the cabin. Kendyl enjoyed being their guide and revisiting scenery she had loved as a child.
Allyn probed the oppressive night, seeking an escape route. Whatever Ren and the rest of the magi were planning, they had taken to force, and he wanted no part of that. But even if he could get free, the dense forest was black, and the snow deep. The binding around his feet allowed him to walk, but he couldn’t run.
, he thought.
You were taken in your own room.
They crested the hill then continued down the hillside into a clear-cut area. Young saplings covered the hillside, mixing with dead trees and discarded timber like flowers atop a grave. The moon had risen high, lighting the edges of the thin clouds above like a fire burning the edges of paper.
Allyn cursed to himself. The four people around him were magi who could wield. He could wield, too, even if it didn’t come naturally yet. His first instincts were to punch, kick, fight, or run. He hadn’t lived with his abilities long enough. And if he did wield… the scent of burning flesh returned.
Allyn began his calming exercise, focusing on the freezing elements when he saw them. A group of people dressed in black stood in a circle in the center of the clearing. Jaxon waited atop a fallen log, his powerful frame bulging under his sleeveless black vest. The wind kicked up, blowing across his branded arms, but Jaxon remained still, unfazed. His large expressionless eyes looked like tiny moons watching Allyn.
The circle opened, allowing Allyn’s procession to enter. Liam was on his back at the center of the circle with his legs tied to a stake in the ground. His arms were outstretched, palms facing the earth, and tied to two stakes of their own. He saw Allyn and smiled.
Allyn tried to speak, but nothing came out. He was confused beyond words. The sight of his friend smiling eased his nerves, but there was something else in Liam’s eyes—fear.
What would make a man fearful yet happy?
Ren led Allyn to the center of the circle and began to undo the binds at his hands. Allyn looked around. Familiar faces watched him—Mason, Rory, Andrew, Topher, and others. All magi. No clerics.
Where are Nyla and Leira? Where’s Kendyl?
“Lay down,” Ren said as the bonds tying his hands slackened.
She pointed at the cleared space beside Liam, where three more stakes had been driven into the ground. Liam watched him with the same befuddled smile. Instinct pleaded with Allyn to run. Curiosity urged him to stay. His body coiled like a spooked steer in the stockades, and he took a hesitant step backward, ready to bolt.
They were on him in a second. Two of the guards from his procession took him by the arms and dragged him forward. One swept Allyn’s feet from under him, and he went down hard. The magi who’d tripped him—Allyn never got a good look at his face—straddled his chest, driving his knees into Allyn’s arms and pinning them to the ground while the other magi bound them to the stakes.
Allyn fought. Shifting and screaming, writhing and turning, he bucked like a bull trying to toss a cowboy. The magi on his chest rocked forward, and his knees slipped under the muscle and settled on a nerve cluster, sending enough pain shooting through Allyn’s body to paralyze him. Ren and the others quickly tied his wrist to the stake and moved to the other. With his second hand fastened and immobile, they moved to his feet.
The pressure on Allyn’s chest and arms relaxed as the man rocked backward. With the moon directly behind his head, Allyn couldn’t see his face, but the man gave Allyn a gentle slap across the cheek that said, “Good try.” Finished with his hands and feet, the three magi withdrew, disappearing into the mass of people.
“It’s okay,” Liam said softly. He looked at Allyn as though he were thankful to experience this with him.
Heavy footsteps drew closer, and Jaxon appeared. He stepped between Allyn and Liam, walking toward the bottom of the circle, his back to Allyn. Something dark rested over the crook of his arm. He stopped beside Rory. The young magi’s face still bore the scars from the Reclaiming, a constant reminder that, if not for Liam, he would have died that night.
Jaxon held out the dark object, and Rory wielded fire around its tip. After a few moments, Jaxon moved to the next magi, then the next, working his way around the circle. By the time he was a quarter of the way around, Allyn realized what was in Jaxon’s hands. He sank deeper into the ground, his uneasiness blossoming into panic. He didn’t know who had grabbed it or when—most of the ancient magi artifacts had burned with the manor—but there was little doubt in his mind as to what it was—a brand.
It’s an initiation
. They weren’t doing this out of spite or cruelty. They were doing this because they deemed Allyn and Liam worthy. Because he and Liam were like
All Liam had ever wanted was to fit in. And the Branding was the symbol of that acceptance. It was barbaric, if a bit poetic, and Allyn had never signed up for it.
Jaxon worked his way around the circle until he finished where he began. He handed the brand to Rory, and they stepped forward with two other magi that Liam had saved during Lukas’s assault on the manor. Rory walked with a limp—his knee hadn’t healed completely since the Reclaiming—but he strode purposefully toward Liam.
Liam shifted uncomfortably as they approached, the orange tip of the brand reflecting in his glassy eyes. Jaxon walked around Liam and knelt over him, gently taking his head in his hands.
One of the other magi placed a cork in Liam’s mouth. “Bite down on this,” he whispered. “It’ll help.”
Rory waved the brand in front of Liam’s face, drawing jagged and curving vertical lines in the air. Allyn recognized it as the magi symbol for fire. Heat radiated from the tip of the brand, distorting the air. Liam gulped.
Jaxon drew closer, his lips beside Liam’s ear. “Ready?” he whispered.
Liam gave him a terrified nod.
“From our collective fire, we deem you
,” Jaxon announced.
The collective murmur among the magi was interrupted as Rory drove the brand into Liam’s upper arm. It hissed, and smoke curled into the air.
Allyn nearly vomited.
Liam screamed, his chest arching toward the sky, the veins in his neck bulging. Jaxon spoke to Liam, but his words were too soft for Allyn to make out. The other two magi held Liam still as Rory rolled the brand from one side to the other, making sure to get good contact around Liam’s skinny arm.
When Rory finally pulled away, a bloody, black and red wound remained. Liam’s screams subsided and were replaced by short, ragged breaths. He stretched his neck to the side in an attempt to see the wound, but the bonds held his arms in place, and Jaxon held Liam’s head still.
“Not yet,” Jaxon said.
Rory stepped around to Liam’s other arm.
, Allyn remembered.
I have to go through this twice.
Apprehension settled in his chest, stoking his fear like a coal burner.
Rory picked the same spot on Liam’s opposite arm, so that the two brands would mirror each other. Allyn tried to drown out the sights, sounds, and smells by focusing on his physical discomfort. A fist-sized rock was digging into Allyn’s lower back, just below his kidney. He pushed against its weathered edges, and sharp pain shot through him. He focused on that, pushing harder. The pain took his breath away.
Liam laughed. The sound sliced through Allyn’s distraction, leaving him with only a dull ache where he had sought solace. It was a pained, relieved laugh. Tears slid down the side of Liam’s face, and more threatened to follow. Jaxon smiled at him, patting him gently on the cheek, as the two magi undid the binds at his arms.
Liam sat up and inspected the blistered brands with a grimace. They almost seemed to glow from within. Blood trickled down his right arm, disappearing under his elbow and dripping onto the white snow. Liam looked at Allyn, prideful, and Allyn tried to smile back, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. His mouth was beginning to salivate, his throat constricting. He tried to take slow, deep breaths to relax, but even that proved difficult.
He’d gone to battle and seen magi die around him. He’d even killed, but his body had never betrayed him like this.
What’s different? The anticipation? The binds? The
Rory wielded more fire, reheating the brand until it glowed orange, then passed it to Liam, who had gotten to his feet. Rory and the other two magi returned to the circle. Mason and Ren advanced.
Allyn wanted to laugh. He barely knew Ren, and he didn’t like Mason. He was the bully on the playground who pretended to be friendly from time to time. Allyn didn’t have the temperament to deal with his arrogant, self-indulgent, abrasive personality. And yet, here he was, initiating Allyn into the magi ranks.
The question reverberated through Allyn with a spike of remorse. While living with the McCollum Family, he’d grown closest to Liam and Nyla and developed a mutual respect for Graeme and Jaxon, but he knew little of the rest. He knew dozens of other faces and even a few names, but they were little more than that. He’d never gone out of his way to meet the other magi. They had intimidated him, and he hadn’t expected to stay with the Family for long.
His purpose had been simple: rescue his sister. But things had grown complicated, and he had remained with the Family, even rising to a prominent figure within their ranks. Thinking about it made Allyn uncomfortable. He didn’t know the magi around him. Still, they were inviting him to join their Family, welcoming him with smiles and respect.
I can do this
. Allyn steeled himself and met Liam’s eye. He stood above Allyn, holding the glowing brand in both hands, blood seeping from his wounds. Something about Liam felt different. He looked stronger, more confident. He looked like a leader.
Allyn gave him a slight nod, and Liam drove the brand down onto Allyn’s arm.