“I’ve seen what they do.” Achayk squatted down to the height of Khodan’s head where he sat bound to look him in the eye. “You don’t want to do this. No one has lived. You are powerful… I could talk—”
“You could let me go.” Khodan met Achayk’s dark eyes with a weighted stare.
It was Achayk who looked away first. “They would only catch you again.”
Khodan raged against the chain that held him and stole his power. If he were free, he’d shake Achayk until sense returned to him. If he were free, he would do as Laith Lus had suggested and join at least with the Kith. But bound and powerless, all he could do was convince Achayk with his words.
“We have been friends since we were five. We tamed our first horses together.”
Achayk moistened his lips, still refusing to meet Khodan’s gaze. “That was before. It is different now.”
“Only because you let it be. If—”
“If you want to live, join the Church of Four Orders.” Achayk finally looked at Khodan again. His expression destroyed Khodan’s hope.
“And betray everyone I have known?”
Achayk hissed and rose to pace away through the darkness of the camp. Alone, Khodan pulled again at the metal that bound him, feeling the barbs sink into his flesh. Blood ran down his arms where they were bound behind his back. Khodan finally stopped his struggle as nausea flooded through him in waves.
He sucked in a breath to ease the desire to retch. Instead, he gagged on the smell of burnt hide from the tents destroyed in the morning raid. When fire had wrapped around the village, igniting tent and clothing, Khodan had pulled at the flames, wrestling for control from several who fought him. Calling for help, Achayk had come with the power stealing chain in his hand. Khodan didn’t realize who Achayk was there to help until the links were embedded in his skin. With the ability to control elements ripped from him, the fight had become physical.
Khodan had attacked Achayk, but his old friend hadn’t been alone. Despite Khodan’s size, three to one, with the other three having elemental power, made for a short fight.
Overcome with pain and memories, Khodan rolled onto his side in the mud. The liquid earth eased burns that he could not heal and sealed cuts that oozed with blood. The lack of power throbbed through him as if his sight had been stolen or hearing and scent. The world that had rippled with power he could manipulate felt distant and alien. And without being able to touch life, he did not know how many had died or where friends and cousins were held. If they lived.
He’d been warned. He should have known. But Khodan had thought this new Church of Four Orders would not care about the nomadic people of the island of Kailal. But they did. He just couldn’t imagine what for.
The question of why, why his people, his tribe, burned through Khodan during the long night and pulled him from the ache that threatened to mire him in darkness. He would know why. And he would avenge his people.
By dawn, Khodan had squirmed upright again and waited for Achayk. But it wasn’t his longtime friend who came. It was the two who had helped Achayk subdue Khodan and then destroy the village.
“You are from the eastern plains?” Khodan asked, surprised at the dryness of his throat that ate his voice.
“We are from the Church,” the older of the two answered.
The words twisted in Khodan’s stomach. Both men had the long, dark hair and copper skin common to the island. “You are Erowok. These are your people.”
“Our people are dead.”
Khodan fought the words as well as the hands that pushed him to his feet. His power remained beyond his reach as if he were an archer with no hands to hold a bow. With effort, the two men wrestled him between the scorched remains of tents belonging to families he knew. In the morning light, Khodan could see the damage to the village. It was worse than he had imagined in the darkness of night.
Corpses of half burnt horses lay scattered across the hillsides. Every once in awhile a smaller, black body rested on the dark earth. Khodan’s eyes stung from the ash and the thoughts of wondering who had run so far only to be overcome with freedom a few yards away beyond the hill’s crest. But that thought was false. Knees weakened, Khodan realized there was no safety on the island of Kailal. Escape would take more than to run over a hill.
Stumbling, the men pushed him to his knees. Khodan fell, resistance waning after what he had seen. Numbness ate his limbs and mind, much like his erased power. Words half heard floated around him as his eyes slowly focused on a form laying in the mud.
Tikka, his cousin’s teenage daughter, lay with her hand outstretched as if to shield herself. He recognized her only from the necklace she always wore, but the rest of her… was no longer human. Scales patterned her twisted limbs. Only the one out-thrust hand, the ridge of her cheeks, and her forehead remained smooth skin. Tusk like fangs jutted from her lower jaw and sliced through her upper lip in a ragged tear. A long tail wrapped around one malformed leg, ribbons of flesh attaching the two. What held his eyes, in the end, were the leather-like wings that protruded from her back and were coated in blood as if just birthed from her shattered ribcage.
Khodan shook from the horror of it. “What did you do to her?”
“What we had to,” Achayk answered. “You are the most powerful of any Erowok I know. This doesn’t have to be your fate as well.”
Khodan stared at Achayk, looking for something that said this man was not the face of his friend, someone he’d grown up with. Achayk’s warm hazel eyes begged him to agree. The faint scar on his cheek from where he’d been thrown from a pony traced a fine line across his brown skin. That time had been the first Khodan had used his fledgling gift of healing. This was his friend. And he had done this to him, to Tikka, to their people.
Khodan spat in Achayk’s face.
A man with ebony skin snorted. “Clear her away and then begin again. I will not have your most recent failure mar the next attempt.”
Red robes covered him from shoulder to booted ankle, a hood cast back from his dark braids. The blonde woman next to him wore red as well, but far less fabric. Below her breasts, only narrow bands of cloth covered her navel and spine to hold loosely in place the silken swirl of her full skirt. Brighter than the color of the clothing she wore was the aura of fire around her as if the air itself burned.
“He is powerful. Maybe that will help,” she said.
“Something must.” The red robed man sounded bored, his gaze on the two Erowok who dragged Tikka’s polluted body away.
Khodan felt a tug at the bonds chaining his arms and power. A tingle surged through him.
“Don’t bother fighting,” Achayk hissed. “They think it is a sport to burn those who try to escape first.”
The warning was enough to keep Khodan from calling the power that bubbled to life through his limbs. He waited as Achayk pulled the last barb free, releasing fresh blood that slid down his wrists. Head down, he watched as seven Erowok mages spaced themselves in a circle around him. Power filled the air, brushing against his skin like the promise of a storm on a hot day.
An itch to change into a new form itched under his skin. Khodan resisted. Power pushed against him.
With a leap, Khodan launched into the air, using the pressure to become something new to fuel his transformation into a bird. He made it twenty feet in the air before the world warped around him. Wings slipped toward arms as the air catching his feathers thinned. Khodan plummeted to ground that wrapped around his limbs and held him fast as he fell into it.
He fought, one against seven, then nine as the two Fire Elementals sent ribbons of super hot flames along his skin. He couldn’t free himself and resist the command to change. Bones cracked and reshaped, his teeth itched, and vision blurred.
Khodan pulled in a last deep breath, ignoring the stink of burnt skin to savor the faint smell of herbs and wild sedge born of the grasslands. He held it and the remembered joy of wildly riding across the damp moors until a scream ripped the air from his lungs.