An emergency trip to the doctor set me back. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to post yesterday, but here I am with excerpt #2, as promised!
And don’t forget, you still have time to enter the giveaway! I will be giving away a pack of really pretty fairy glitter tattoos as well as a free PDF copy of Zerah’s Chosen, so go on over to Monday’s post and let me know which Elemental is your favorite and why, to qualify to win!
The Dark One
The crowd gathered in the Great Hall of the House of Eukleides waited with eager anticipation for the death sentence of a woman none of them knew. They huddled along the edge of the expansive rotunda, gathered in the portico’s colonnade, hung over the second story balcony. In a land where disobedience meant Divine Judgment, they watched, impatient to see who had been bold enough to go against the Code. Their voices, en masse, created a mind numbing hum, a swarm of hornets eager to attack.
Kieran glared at them, challenging them with his eyes.
Bronze double doors opened with a heavy thud, ripping his attention from the crowd. The excited whispers died. All eyes turned toward the deliberating jury of High Priests as they walked into the Great Hall. Kieran cursed their dour faces under his breath. He knew what they would say.
Everyone around him stood at attention, but he remained seated. He would not now, or ever, give them honor they did not deserve.
With a heavy heart, Kieran watched as a woman was brought in and forced to stand in the center of the room. She looked nothing like the tender-hearted mother he knew, with her soft hands and loving smile. Instead, her delicate wrists and ankles were bound with thick rope. Her long, ebony hair fell disheveled over her face, a clear sign of dishonor. The tattered remains of a white hava draped her body, soiled and ripped, barely held up by the broche on her right shoulder. Still, she stood with pride, her posture straight and her shoulders back. A woman with nothing to be ashamed of.
His throat thickened. Guilt burned a hole in his stomach. He’d woken that morning on a comfortable bed covered in plush linens. He’d eaten from a buffet of fruits and grains, and washed himself with warm, clean water. Meanwhile, she’d sat alone in a dark cell all night. No telling what abuses she’d suffered there. Whether they’d even allowed her water to drink.
Seven of the priests sat, almost in unison, on a long stone bench, their robes sweeping the floor, while one near the center, Ophiuchus, remained standing. Kieran glared at him, the head of the House of Eukleides, the man who proclaimed himself the mouthpiece of the Beings.
Kieran knew with absolute certainty that Ophiuchus had never once heard the Voices, never felt Their presence. The weight of it would have bowed the old man’s shoulders, would have painted shadows in eyes that didn’t sleep. Kieran sneered. No one knew what a connection to the Beings meant better than he did.
Ophiuchus spoke directly to the woman who stood before him. “You have shown a blatant disrespect for the Code in the handling of your son. From the moment of his birth, he was marked for service at the Temple. After his weaning, you were to bring him in for training. How do you account for your selfish indulgence? Do you know the danger you have placed upon us all?”
Kieran winced at the charges she faced. It took all his self-control not to speak up for her, but an outburst would only make matters worse.
“I make no apology for what I have done.” She kept her head high, though tears shimmered in her silvery eyes. “He is my son, given to me by the Higher Beings that I might be blessed with motherhood. It is what I prayed for and it was granted. How could I give him up when I had only just received him?”
“It does not excuse you. This child, with the mark of the Dark One upon him, should have been delivered to the Temple years ago. Now, we have seen the consequences of such frivolity. A man is dead, a seer from your province. How do you account for this?”
Kieran fought the memories that surfaced at the mention of the old seer. He bit down hard and tasted the metallic tinge of blood. Nausea filled him. He envisioned the man’s milky white eyes, the look of horror on his face when he realized just who, or rather, what Kieran actually was.
His mother didn’t flinch at their accusation. “I take full responsibility—”
“No!” Kieran jumped from his seat. “That is not true!”
Strong hands caught him and pushed him back down, the faces of the two armed guards at his left and right expressionless.
She never looked at him. “I accept my punishment with humility. I know the Beings to be full of mercy.”
“Very well then.” The Priest rubbed at his thick grey beard. “In accordance with the Code, we, the adjudicators of the House of Eukleides sentence Najad of the Province of Aipa to public execution, to be carried out at first light tomorrow.”
“No!” Kieran fought the hands that kept him down. He could not let her do this. It was his fault. All of it.
Harsh whispers traveled with lightning speed, the noise deafening. The weight of the crowd’s macabre joy filled the room. He lost all sense of reason. Time slowed. Desperation fueled something dangerous in him.
He recognized the sensation. This time he didn’t fear the surge of power that filled him. He embraced it, fueled it with his rage, bitterness, and remorse.
Sudden silence broke the footpace of time.
Each person’s soul began to separate from their bodies, called on by his authority over them. Their delicate spirits became a tangible cloud of life that hung above their heads like halos. He reached for the cloud above the High Priest’s head and tugged at it, soft at first, then harder, willing it to come free from the man’s body.
Ophiuchus grasped at his neck. His wrinkled skin bunched in a pained, strangled expression as he struggled to breathe.
“She will not die.” Kieran’s voice, like rolling thunder boomed throughout the chamber.
Time returned, racing through the crowd with the swift strength of a tsunami. Eyes stared at him wide with horror. The guards stepped away in alarm.
“Restrain him!” Person after person called out orders until voices came from every direction, circling him.
“Enough!” his mother commanded.
Immediately, the spell of death dissipated from his hands. Ophiuchus’ breath came in heavy, panted gasps. He fought the very atmosphere, drank it in as though he knew each gulp of air might be his last. Kieran gathered sadistic pleasure in Ophiuchus’ suffering.
“Is this what you want?” Najad faced him. “With this senseless act you prove only that everything they fear about you is true. This is not who you are, Kieran.”
The accusation in her voice tightened his chest. “I cannot let you die. Not because of me.” He fought the childish tears that attacked him, refused to cry in front of so many condemning eyes. He would not give them the satisfaction of knowing they’d broken him.
“If you had killed that man, I could never forgive you.”
Her words pierced his heart. He froze, uncertain what to say or do. Didn’t she realize he did it for her, for them?
“If you ever kill a man of your own accord,” his mother cut into his thoughts, “you go from being a victim of circumstance to being a murderer. There is no mercy for those who take lives senselessly. The power that lives within you would consume you and you would become the very thing you fear. You are not Death, Kieran. You simply control it. Do not let it control you.”
“It isn’t fair!” he shouted, angry with her for not understanding, angry with himself for having lost control. “Remove this burden from me! I do not wish to be marked!” He ripped his wrists, scratched at the spiky black tattoos that had branded him into servitude from birth until blood leaked onto the stone floor.
“Take the child away,” Ophiuchus called out, “before he harms himself.”
He fought the unmerciful grips on his arms. He would not leave until he saw his mother to safety. “Let me go!” he shouted. Another wave of dark energy flooded him, this time without warning. The very foundation of the room shook. The crowd gasped.
“Be still.” His mother’s voice calmed the demons inside of him. He broke free of the guards and rushed to her side, fell to her feet, and wrapped his arms around her. “I will go with you. I will go wherever you go.”
“Kieran,” she whispered as though they were the only two in the room. The tips of her fingers grazed his hair. “Look at me.”
He glanced up, unable to fight the tears when faced with her all-seeing eyes.
“Perhaps you are too young to understand that in life, all have a purpose. Mine was to bring the Child of Darkness into the world, that he might know love and compassion. Not just death. Yours, Kieran,” she sighed, a weary little breath that signaled her exhaustion. “Yours is yet to be determined. Find peace in knowing that I have done my part. It is time to set the balance straight. Rules are to be followed, peace to be kept. When these things are disrupted, someone must be held accountable.”
“But I did it,” he cried out, “I killed the old man!” Chaos traveled like a wave amidst the crowd. One of the Priests slammed a gavel onto the stone bench.
“We command that the witnesses be escorted out. This matter has become a private hearing.”
Guards herded the audience, despite their groans and complaints, through the double doors that led outside and slammed them shut. The sound echoed against high limestone walls and marble ceiling tiles.
“Is this truth that you speak, child?” Ophiuchus’ brows furrowed in displeasure.
“It is.” Kieran forced himself away from his mother to stand before them. “I did not mean for it to happen. The man meant only to heal me of my curse.”
“It is not a curse. Your branding is a blessing from the Beings.”
“No blessing could be complete without my family.”
“The bond between you and your mother is troubling,” the Priest said. “As Guardian you should not have formed it.”
The men leaned in to whisper among themselves. Ophiuchus nodded and turned his attention back to Kieran.
“Your murder of this man, though unfortunate, was not purposeful. You lost control because you were never trained. But you are marked, which means you have been bonded to the Dark Stone. With the new group of Guardians growing older, time is not an option. To wait for another born with the mark would unbalance our society. Zerah has never been without a soul keeper. We cannot afford to lose your power because of a triviality.”
“A triviality? I killed a man. Should I not die too? Does his blood not call for restitution? I lost all control. I killed him and I deserve to die.”
“The blame lies on your mother for not delivering you according to the Code.”
“If she dies, then I shall die with her. I will not be the one to carry her soul into Arezh. I refuse.”
The priests turned away, speaking to one another in hushed whispers.
Kieran’s stomach turned. He had no idea what their sudden silence meant.
His mother’s eyes closed in prayer. Her lips moved in silent worship. Did she beg for mercy, forgiveness, or did she seek to clear her sins one final time? Kieran followed her example, and closed his eyes in quick prayer to the Beings he’d lost all faith in, the ones who demanded a task of him heavier than he could carry. He would do whatever They asked of him as long as his mother’s life was spared.
The eight men straightened and turned to him, their faces set, and Kieran took a deep breath.
Ophiuchus spoke the final verdict. “It is the decision of the House of Eukleides, under the divine influence of the Higher Beings, that Najad of Aipa be held in captivity for the remainder of her days.”
“Captivity?” Najad gaped at them in shock.
“She will be held in the dungeon, never to step on the Holy Grounds of Zerah again. Find comfort, Kieran, Guardian of the Dark Stone, that your mother will be alive and fed. You, Najad of Aipa, will suffer enough, alive but unable to see your only child grow into the powerful man he will become. The day will come when you will wish you’d perished rather than be left to die alone.”
Content with their decision, the high priest summoned the guards. “Take this boy to the Temple immediately and call forth Master Iagan.”
“Wait!” Kieran reached for his mother’s hands. “Let me say goodbye.” The guards lifted him off the floor by the waist. He fought them, but their physical strength far surpassed his smaller frame. “Mierma!”
To his surprise, she smiled sadly, but no fear or bitterness marred her gaze. Her lips shaped the words he wanted so desperately to hear.
I love you.
He tucked them away into the very depths of his soul for safekeeping.
Those three words would have to last him a lifetime.
Gossip within the Temple complex burned like wildfire. It reached the school so fast that by the time Iagan arrived at the stone steps of the House of Eukleides he already knew why he’d been summoned.
Just that morning a woman had stood before the panel of Priests for breaking the Code, the mother of the child who had been brought to him in the middle of the night. The young man had been out cold, lost in a sleep so deep he hadn’t stirred when the servants bathed the dirt and grime from his ink-black hair and pale body and tucked him into bed.
When he’d awoken that morning, his wide, onyx eyes had registered panic, and his first cries were for his mother. Even after they’d explained her whereabouts, explained that he would be safe within the Temple walls, the boy could not be appeased. He spent the rest of the morning in a trance, unable or unwilling to speak to a single soul.
Now, hours later, Iagan wondered just what had really happened at the hearing. Whatever it was, it kept the crowds outside murmuring. He stepped into the Great Hall and bowed before the panel of Priests, each grey with wisdom and experience. Ophiuchus stood to greet him.
“Thank you for being so prompt, Master Iagan. We realize you are deep in your preparations for the Festival, however, there is much we must discuss.”
“I understand,” he nodded. “The arrival of this new Guardian is of great interest to me. I seek whatever guidance you may have concerning him.”
Ophiuchus visibly tensed at the mention of the boy. “Although he is late to the Temple, he will be raised along with the rest of the trainees.”
Iagan’s brows furrowed. “Is that really wise, your Grace? The boy, though still young, has surpassed the normal age to begin training.”
“He is clearly marked with the symbol of the Dark Stone. The Temple is where he belongs.”
“That may be true,” Iagan argued, “however the children have already spent the last few years of their lives together. They have formed bonds, friendships. His entry into this new world with no visible place for him will make for a difficult transition.”
Ophiuchus leaned forward, his hands folded on the stone bench before him. “He is not there to make friends, Master Iagan. The boy is in desperate need of training. We expect you will take a personal interest. He will be inducted with the rest of the Guardians tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Iagan almost laughed. That was absolutely absurd. “With all due respect to the House, a Guardian is not to be inducted until they fully understand their place in the Circle. Until they choose to willingly follow this life course. He does not even understand his mark. One night is not enough time to help him build the appreciation necessary to induct him.”
“He has killed a man.”
Iagan blinked. He shook his head. He couldn’t have heard
correctly. “I beg your pardon?”
“A seer from Aipa is dead.” Ophiuchus spoke without emotion. “In a fit of rage, the boy took a life.” He paused, his lips stretched into a thin, angry line. “Today, he nearly took mine.”
Iagan stared at the panel. Words refused to form into coherent thoughts.
“So you see, Master Iagan, our soul keeper must be trained, fast. He is a danger to society and to himself. If he cannot be trained, he must be replaced, and another Guardian is only appointed when the current one dies…”
Iagan swallowed hard. He could not live with the bloodguilt of a child, a Guardian at that and they would kill him if it meant the harmony of the Circle. “I fear his life outside of the Temple has given him a skewed perspective that might interfere with his training.” Iagan finally found his voice. “As a Guardian, he should never have used his power in that way. It is unnatural. It goes against everything he represents.”
“Because he has arrived to you so late, he does not understand this. Yet. It is our desire that you teach him. He will be difficult, no doubt, but he will learn to adjust. If he ever gives you trouble, remind him that his mother still lies in the dungeon, alive so that he can fulfill his destiny.” Powder blue eyes glared at Iagan from beneath thick, shaggy brows, and the pulse at the priest’s temple ticked visibly, a sign of the anger he fought to control.
Iagan stared at the leader of the House of Eukleides in amazement. He had never heard Ophiuchus speak with such contempt. “I will not threaten the boy concerning his mother. This has been a very difficult day. I suspect yesterday was no better. Taking a life is something that will forever scar him. I need not add to his pain. There is no doubt he is already harmed.”
“Do what you must,” Ophiuchus said dismissively. “As long as he is inducted tomorrow.” The panel of elders leaned in to whisper. Ophiuchus nodded his head. “The Book of Prophecy speaks of one with great power who arrives belatedly. What word on the Guardian of the White Stone?”
“She is yet to be found, your Grace.”
“How is that possible?”
“It could be that she is not yet born.”
“Are the Guardians not all to be near the same age?”
“So how do we account for this?”
“Perhaps she too has not yet been brought to the Temple.”
The Priests whispered in a hurried frenzy, their faces tight. Disapproval creased the corners of their eyes.
“We cannot be too careful. If the Soul Keeper is the one referenced in the Great Book then he must remain in control. We expect reports on his progress. Keep a close eye on him, Iagan,” he warned, “The future of our world depends on it.”