Chapter 1: A Cursed Race
She was bred to be evil—we both were. In his millennial exile, Nakavar formed creatures, mutilated elves with dragon wings; creatures cursed to never feel fear or joy or sympathy. But she was never cursed, and so she embraced a higher cause than she was born for. I was never cursed, but I embraced only her friendship and rebellion.
Nakavar gave his creatures, the Livyahaks, no names at birth, and no motherly instincts prompt the cursed mothers to name their children before Nakavar snatches them away. Only after learning to read and studying the history of the elves do the Livyahaks choose their names. Though in the underground caverns of Nakavar’s capitol, I have never felt the wind; I learned that every spring, the elves feel a bitter wind sweep down from the north. The elves named the wind Mar. I knew bitterness; I took the name. I was told Zaehav meant traitor. I did not belong among my own kind; I took the name. And I became a bitter traitor to the Livyahaks, weakened by fickle emotions and alone in a dark world.
But her name I will not speak. When she was born, she was given no name. When she lived, she was known only by me. When she died, no one knew of her sacrifice. The memory of her gentle smiles, so contrasted with her strong dragon wings protruding out of her willowy back, belonged to me alone. No one else could understand her struggles; no one else could understand her sacrifice. Her memory is mine alone; her name belongs only to me. While I live, her courage and friendship will never be forgotten, and when I die, no one will remember her pale, freckled face.
That is the way she would have wanted it. She lived to give me comfort and encourage me to walk in gentleness and truth. She lived not for the dark tunnels of Nakavar’s fortress, but for a world she spoke of that existed after death—a world filled with golden light. When I die, even her memory will only exist in that world of golden light. That is the way she would have wanted it, and that is the way I would keep it.
3387 Era Qaraev
Another Livyahak was already here, and the shadows of his wings flickered on the stone wall. I did not want to fight, but I needed the food.
I had woken up to find myself in the gray, dim room which had been my home for the past three days. Red shadows stretched down from the lone torch high on the wall to illuminate the small boy crouching by the door, but the food had not appeared from the thin slot at the bottom of the iron door. As I cautiously rose to my knees, I first brushed my hands against the stone floor, sweeping away the ashy sketch of a sun on a field of flowers, which I had made last night with our torch. The drawing did not fit with the dark underground world but then again, neither did I, but I was not foolish enough to leave the drawing for others to see.
At the dark door, the boy was small compared to the other six-year-olds, including me, but he hissed aggressively as soon as I started crawling toward him and the door. His gray eyes flashed, protecting his food that had yet to appeared from the slot at the bottom of the door. Slowly moving closer, I raised my hands in a gesture of passivity and searched for any sign of friendliness. It did not matter he was three quarters my size if he could stab me with his fanged wings.
“I only want one loaf.”
The boy flinched at my whispered voice, but his wings, displaying venom injectors on each tip, folded behind his back. After glancing quickly at the ten other children in the room, he seemed relieved that they were still asleep, an eyelid covering each of their ashen eyes. I glanced at him again before sitting down and shifting my focus to the small slot in the iron door. But I would not turn my back and continued watch him out of the corner of my eye, waiting for any sign of aggression.
It was before dawn, or at least, what I knew as the dawn. All I could guess was the dawn happened when they lit the lamps in the tunnels beneath Black Towers. This underground world and the constant cycling through tests and training were all that I had ever known. I never knew what was coming next, but I did know that some of us would die during each test. Nakavar could only have the fittest Livyahaks survive to join his army.
For the three days since they put us in this stone cell, the caretakers slipped us six small loaves of bread through a slot in the door, five minutes before “dawn.” Each loaf was just enough to get one of us to live to the next day. But that was the problem: there were twelve of us locked in the room and only six meals.
Pulling down my oily, grimy dress, I tried to cover up my cold knees as I knelt a few feet away from the other boy in silence. I waited for the bread, but more than that, I waited for the boy to try to kill me. I waited for the other Livyahaks to wake and try to kill me. I waited. At any moment their soulless eyes might flash open, the wings on their backs might expand, and the venom in their fangs would kill me in a few painful hours.
Careful to keep my own dragon wings folded behind my back, I leaned against the stone wall and stared at the sleeping others, each wrapped in their sinewy, symmetrical, perfect leather wings. We were the perfect army, unlike the elves. Though our first ancestors had been Eshaem elves, and each of us bore some resemblance to the race. Most had the elves’ pale skin and red or golden hair. But none of us had their blue eyes; with our gray eyes, we boasted better. Instead, we had dragon wings on our backs and a venomous fang on each wingtip. The elves slept in fear; we slept with death in our wings.
A small grating sound reached my ears. I jerked my head back to the boy. He shifted to his hands and knees, staring at the food slot with his mouth agape. The food slipped in from the crack at the bottom of the door. Grabbing one of the six loaves, I scurried to a corner and started to scarf it down quickly, barely pausing to breathe. While the food kept me alive, it was dangerous to be caught with it. While I moved away, the scrawny boy began devouring the food without first moving away from the door. His mistake.
An Azaz, those bred to be commander and elite assassins, might have the strength to dare the others to fight him, bravely fighting for the food, but I was not that strong yet. I was just an Ebed, like the rest of the Livyahaks in the room, and we were only meant to become foot soldiers. Someday, when I survived this, I would be stronger. I would be a commander or assassin; I would be an Azaz.
It did not take long before the ten others woke up, and I watched the inevitable from my corner. With hideous screeches, they pounced on the food, each of their venomous fangs extended. They quickly spotted the boy with his half-finished loaf, and he, too, disappeared in the scramble for food. As I swallowed the last bit of my bread, the thick food caught in my throat, and I gagged.
The five victors, one with only a half loaf, dispersed, hissing protectively over their spoils. The boy twitched on the floor. The spots from the fangs were just visible, but they did not swell. It was a cruel joke. Though the venom was fatal, the puncture wounds never swelled. With the sting on his neck, he would die in a just few minutes. I glanced at two other Livyahaks, the only two girls in the room beside me, who had missed out on getting their food for all three of the past days since we were thrown in this room. They would die, too, except they would die more slowly than the boy on the floor. There were three others besides the girls who missed out on the food, but unless they were unusually weak, they would last through the day and die during the night, or perhaps the next day.
It was horrible fate I had. None of the others felt what I could feel—a clutching hand in my throat, showing the horrors of life. The others mocked the dead boy and did everything in their power to make the suffering of the ones doomed to die of starvation last longer. But throughout the day, I hid in my corner, sometimes sleeping but sometimes crying softly and out of sight. If I showed I was weak then they would certainly kill me, too. I could do nothing to stop their fate and little to change my own. All I could do was strive to be stronger.
The next day—or perhaps it was the day after that—they let us out. Relieved, I fell out of our small room. Even the air in the underground passage felt cooler and more refreshing than the thick air of the dark room. I blinked, looking back into the hallway and trying to orient myself in the lengthy halls. One of the cats, which patrolled the tunnels for rats, streaked by, hissing. In my split second of confusion, a strong, hard grasp locked my hands behind my back and into the cold iron of a rough, heavy chain. As the calloused hands let go, the chain dropped its heavy weight, pulling me over.
I heard the distant thud of someone hitting the ground; then the pain grasped my shoulder as it was wrenched from its socket. With my teeth tightly clenched, I struggled not to scream, but silent tears traced wet lines on my face. The adult turned around and kicked my shoulder causing it to crack back into the socket. I writhed on the floor and yelped, hoping that he would let me lie there, but he had other plans.
“Get up, Ebed!” He pulled my chain and lifted me off of the ground until I locked my wobbling knees into place. The towering Livyahak scowled. “Let this be a lesson to all of you. From now on, I don’t want to hear anything, see any tear, or find you skipping training because of any pain—or because of anything at all. The next time one of you even winces the punishment will be worse.”
Not daring to look up, I stared at the floor as I scraped my tears onto my shoulder. If I was ever going to be an Azaz—if I was ever going to be strong—I need to start now.
Back then I thought the cruelty could not get any worse. I was wrong. If I had known the truth, maybe I would never have tried to be strong. But I had committed myself to strength, and there was no going back.
Leading us down a long corridor, our drivers prodded our backs and kicked our feet with their hard boots. I knew better than to hope to see dawn up on the surface, but my footsteps still grew heavier as we plodded deeper underground. It was not long before we came out into a large room filled with hundreds of children. Some were six years old like me and the others whom I had been lock up with, but others were older and as tall as our guards.
As we entered, the children hissed loudly and teased us by dangling their venom injectors in front of our faces. I remember cowering backward, but for my hesitation, one of my drivers rewarded me with a strong kick.
Our drivers lead us to the center of the room where they handed our chain to another group of fully grown Livyahak guards, but I was not watching my new masters. I stared at a stone slab, about a yard high, rested ominously in the middle of the room and looming over me. Standing on my toes, I could make out that there were chains on top; their one purpose was clear—to restrain a Livyahak. An iron bar, a glass-studded whip, and hot coals rested at the base of the gray rock. A shudder trembled through my body, but I took a deep breath and clenched my fists.
The masters smiled, but their lifeless gray eyes mocked. One clamped his hand on my shoulder as he opened my shackles and lead me to the stone block. Staring around at the other children, I noticed the burning lashes on their arms, the deep purple bruises on their legs, and an brand decorating the occasional cheek. No child was free of the marks. My throat constricted and my legs trembled as a master dragged me to the block.
The cold iron of the chains clicked into place around my wrist, waist, and ankles, and my hand gradual began to tremble. Then I saw the whip raised high above my head. Any control or resolution I had fled before the whip. Violently thrashing about, I tried to break free. Like black lightning, the whip flashed in the air. A half-second later, the thunder of pain resounded through my body. I screamed and begged. The whip flew again. The other children laughed.
Pain was supposed to leave one numb, but pain offered no such pleasure. Each moment was a struggle. Each moment was another scream. Each moment was another fire raging. Time did not disappear; time stretched into forever.
Only after a while, the whip no longer brought pain, but still the agony increased, clouding out the sound, dimming my sight. I was not falling into cold nothingness; I was drowning in burning heat, suffocating. I survived their starvation test, but now I would die as no one.
Then there was coolness—a cold slab against my back, scrapping by underneath me. Two circles of pressure, different from the iron cuffs of the block, gripped my wrists. Pain still wrapped its cruel net around my body, but it was not all I could feel. The cold floor stopped moving. For a moment, I felt nothing, and then fingers pulled my hair away from my face.
Before my vision faded from black to clear, I began to identify the pain: my swollen skin, my bruised side, and my bloodied back. Someone was stroking my hair and talking kindly to me, though words were difficult to make out. As I opened my eyes, the few torches cast too much light. I could see Livyahaks swaying, calling out for the masters to continue the torture. Like a brown sea, the mob swarmed around me. For a moment, I went stiff with panic, suffocating under their crowded, beating wings. A paralyzing scream pierced the room, but it was not mine. They were not interested in me but in the next victim. I began to breathe again and tried to ignore the mass.
“There you go. You’re going to be okay.” A soft voice whispered, and I could feel the fingers going through my hair again.
Gathering my senses, I realized my position. I had to move away. Livyahaks only brought pain and death. After taking a deep breath and bracing myself, I jerked myself upright and thrust my venomous fangs in the direction of the voice. The overwhelming darkness began to invade my vision again. I choked on my tears, but I couldn’t stay like this. “Get away!”
“Wait! Hey! I’m sorry—“
In the dark fog, I saw color: two points of blue in the black. If hope had a color, that color was blue. Instead of dragging me under, the blackness slowly retreated, and I sat staring in the face of a Livyahak girl like me. Her eyes were blue.
“I’m sorry. I mean, I should have known not to scare you just yet, but I couldn’t leave you unconscious next to the table.” She was a few feet away from me, wings carefully folded behind her back, and her hands outstretched in a sign of peace.
I winced. She seemed to be waiting for me to speak, but my words felt like a dream, as I focused on her glistening eyes. “I am alright.”
I knew all too well the lifeless gray of Livyahak eyes. I had never seen eyes with such color. But I had to focus on what I knew: all Livyahak were cruel. As children, they tortured those who were doomed to die and they delighted in killing. As adults, they took pleasure in bringing pain to anyone weaker than themselves. No Livyahak could be different; I needed to find a place where I could defend myself before the one with the azure eyes turned on me.
Trying to stand up, I attempted to find a more defensible position than submissive sitting, but yelling, I collapsed after rising only a few inches. Biting my mouth to keep the tears away, I had no other option but to lie there, helpless, in the care of one who would kill me.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,” she spoke again and gently touched my right shoulder, which seemed to have escaped the whip and the club. I jerked my shoulder away; nevertheless, she crooned on. “Just lie there are a little bit, and then we can move to the back. There are fewer Livyahaks there.”
Blinking away the salty drops which began to form, I tried to protest, but there was nothing I could do. I could never be an Azaz. I was too weak. With an audible gasp, I released some of the tension which had been holding my body together like a spring ready to fire. Perhaps there was some kindness in this Livyahak, but I dreaded hoping. Maybe I could get answers to some of my questions before this Livyahak turned on me, too.
“W-will it happen again?” This Livyahak girl was most likely an enemy and cruel like the rest, but she seemed nice enough for the moment, and all I wanted to know was if I would be harmed again. The torture did not make sense.
“Yes, but not for about a month,” The girl cooed in my ear and tried to calm me. “They rotate through the hundreds of Livyahaks in this room, and it takes them a while.”
“Do the Azazs have to go through this?”
The girl stared at me for a moment, her eyebrows raised and delicate mouth slightly open, before she tried to answer, “I think so—I hear their basic training is mostly like ours with the exception that they are better educated in knowledge and war. I mean, they give us lessons here every day, just not as much information as the Azazs get.”
I sighed. The Azazs were always better, but at least they had to go through the same things. Staring at the Livyahak next to me, I observed her mess of blonde-red hair and freckles, and once again, I came back to her strange eyes. Not only were they blue, but they seemed to sparkle as if there was more light shining on them. I hoped she would not turn on me yet. “Why are your eyes blue?”
“Shhhh,” she whispered and laid her hand on my arm. When I jumped and drew away from her touch, she sighed. “Lie still, and don’t let them know you can see the color of my eyes. Livyahaks can’t see color.”
Twitching my mouth, I puckered my lips, though I did remain still. “But we’re Livyahaks. That doesn’t make sense. I can see that your eyes are blue and that their eyes are that awful gray.”
“Yes, of course you can, and I can see your eyes are bright green.”
“Mine are green?” I frowned and fingered the area around one eye. I knew my features by touch, but I had never seen my reflection. “Why do we have bright eyes? Why don’t they?”
“Because,” the girl answered, keeping her voice low. She did not even look at me, but continued examining my wing. “We were never cursed.”
“Cursed?” I flinched as the Livyahak on the block screamed again and resisted covering my ears to block it out.
“Yes. When we are newborns each Livyahak is cursed, and we become like them—or at least, that is what I think happens; I’ve been trying to listen to the guards. Of course, they brag about it—boasting like the curse is some great gift. They don’t feel emotions like we do, and I don’t think they are truly alive—if you get what I mean. It’s like they are dead, but can still do everything we can.” She shuddered, but I was more concerned with us than them.
“But why weren’t you and I cursed?”
“I don’t know, but they will kill us if they find out.”
“Why?” I furrowed my brow in confusion.
“Because—” the older girl sighed and leaned back. “How do I explain…?” she muttered. “Well, do you know why they beat all of us on the stone table?”
I winced from still lingering haze of pain; I shook my head.
“They do it so we learn how to overcome pain, and that is why all Livyahaks—even Azazs—have to go through it. They won’t stop beating you until you stop screaming or even wincing—or until you pass out,” she explained, and I watched her body give another slight shake. “They are training us to be ruthless killers, to be the bringers of death. They cannot have compassion or emotions in a soldier.”
“But why don’t they just kill us because we have—com-pass-shon?” I replied slowly, getting more and more confused with her strange words and phrases.
I watched as another small smile decorated her face. “Because, they can’t see color; they cannot tell if your eyes are gray or a totally different color. They have to guess based on if we show compassion or not, which is why I need both of us to look in different directions and stop talking now. Once we move you to the back, we can talk more.”
Obediently, I turned my face away and shuddered every time the poor child on the table screamed. It was a horrible scream filled with agony at what was happening, terror what was about to happen, and rage at what had already happened, but it was more than that; it was the helplessness they echoed that cut me apart. There was no hope in this place, but if I was ever to have even the chance of hope, it would be to become an Azaz. Slowly, I began to drift off into an uneasy sleep, but here nothing good could last for long or be truly peaceful.
That was the first of many uneasy sleeps in that room, and each time I woke I would find myself curled up in a ball with my hand covering my ears as I tried in vain to block out the horror in my life. When I did wake, the kind Livyahak would help me get through just one more day. For many days, we did not share names, but then she mentioned her name, and I whispered mine in return: Mar Zaehav. But her name is only for my ears, as her memory is only for my eyes.
We had many talks in the corner of the stone room, and it was there that I learned she was two years older than me. The pain continued for eight more years in that room, but we suspected it would last a lifetime. If only I could become an Azaz, then I would know for sure.
Until the Guards Come
7th of Mulqosh, 3397 EQ
A crack split the air half a second before the skin on my abdomen was torn open in a perfect bloody line. Parallel to the three that had been placed there just seconds before, the cut would join the hundreds of scars, given over eight years, laced across my body. Clenching my teeth together, I closed my eyes and focused on the well-worn stone beneath my bare back and the smooth, familiar iron manacles.
My palms tightened up, but I kept them from curling into a tight fist. Another lash broke open my skin. The muscle on the bottom of my left hand decided it would be a good time to cramp up. Annoying. The whip had tightened around my leg and jerked a strip skin off. I wondered how many Livyahaks it had taken to make the stone so smooth. Again the whip slashed open my arm and shoulder. I managed a smile. I could play this game all day.
There was a pause in the rhythmic bursts of pain, and I opened my eyes calmly. My smile grew; I could see my lack of response frustrated the Livyahak who stood above me. He had given up on the whip, but I knew what was coming next.
I concentrated on making every muscle relax to keep from crying out. If I even lent my thoughts in that direction for too long, I knew I would become a trembling, pathetic mass. This was only a game, and I was winning.
The unnatural silence brooded the next torture that was to coming. A small sound broke the silence: the pop of sap burning in a fire. If I had not known before, I knew now what was next. They intended to use the brand. Undisputedly the worst weapon on the table, I had only felt the melting of my skin twice before. Forever, I would have a sharp backward three emblazoned on my right ankle and my left forearm, and within the next few minutes, I would have at least one more to match.
I had been trying so hard. Last month, I had two chances to pass the pain test, but each time I got through the club and the whip, the brand would break me. Once again, I stared at a point on the wall and forced my various muscles to relax: palms first, then my forearms, upper arms, shoulders.
In the corner of my vision, I glimpsed the crooked metal brand approaching my leg. My left leg twitched, and I hoped the masters had not seen. But there was no use in giving up now. Either my tormentor noticed, and I would have to wait another long month before my next test, or he did not see anything. There was always hope, and I kept steady as the falling fiery star touched my skin. A fire of pain raged up my leg; the hair on my skin caught the wrath and was reduced to ashes. Clenching my teeth harder to smother a rising scream, I heard a tooth chip in my mouth, and a grainy piece fell onto my tongue, but the pain from my leg was too overpowering for me to feel my mouth or anything else.
I had to focus if I was ever to become an Azaz.
Focus. Relax your foot. Now your ankle. Slowly, come on, let your calf go limp now. There you go. My vision had begun to gray around the edges from the pain, and all I could do was hope I was not crying. Suddenly, I suddenly felt the same fiery knives return, but this time on my right cheek. My hands arched, scrapping my nails against the stone; blood suddenly filled my mouth from biting my tongue to resist one last scream. My head and body stayed still.
Though my whole body cried to surrender, I kept silent and focused on each breath I forced through my clenched teeth. An Azaz would not scream, so neither would I. I would not scream this time. Finally, the tormentor seemed to think I would not break, although I knew only one more burn was all it would take.
The chains which bound me dropped free; yet, I lay still on the smooth, cold stone, panting and trying to keep the blackness from taking over my vision. The one last crack of the whip provided sufficient motivation to leave. As I crawled through the crowd of Livyahaks, a master bent down and clipped something to my left wing.
Once I was concealed from the masters at the block, I collapsed on the ground and landed heavily on my wing, still unable to feel the pain. I could not feel much save the searing pain on my leg and the blisters forming on my cheek. Yet, as I stared blindly at the gray rock ceiling, a small smile broke through. The brand on my face screamed in protest, but I kept smiling. I was triumphant. I had passed the test. Perhaps now, I could show them I should be an Azaz.
A hand gripped my shoulder in an excited squeeze, and I heard a whisper in my ear. “You did it Mar! You’re gonna move on!”
Rolling over onto my uninjured shoulder, I grinned into her blue eyes—the only other Livyahak who escaped the curse. She could never be near the block while I was on it, but afterward she was always close at hand. Now we could share the glow of victory we had dreamed of. Slipping her arm under my shoulder, she helped me stand up even though she was a full six inches shorter than I. Making our way slowly, I tried to keep most of my weight on my own legs even though the pain increased at every step.
Like the hiss of a spark leaving a fire, the sound reached my ears just before the sight reached my eyes. A gloating boy stood in front of us, his wings expanded to their full length and the fangs on the end of each wing dangling on each side of us. With an exaggerated sigh, I stood up taller and stopped leaning on my friend, though I kept my weight off the one leg. I took one glance at the fangs looming over my head before I shoved them aside with my own wings. Trying not to limp, I took a step forward and growled, “If you want trouble you came to the right place, but only for yourself. Move. Now.”
“Ooh! Someone’s got a larger tongue than she has strength to defend it!” the Livyahak boy teased through his teeth and brought his threatening wings back close to me. Once again, I pushed them away. “But, I didn’t come here to fight you, girlie.”
He touched his left wing to mine, the one which the masters had messed with. “See? We both passed the test, right? They marked us to take us out. I hear that where we are going is even worse. They want you to die there. They want to prove that you are weak. They want to remove you from the blood line.”
“Don’t touch me.” I replied, standing up a bit straighter and staring into his dead gray eyes. I was going to become an Azaz eventually, and I did not need the help of this Ebed boy. “They have been trying to kill us since we were six. Nothing will change except the methods and the type of training. What’s your point?”
His ignorant smile widened. “We will be in a large group, and not only will we have to survive our trainers, but also survive the other Livyahak. To do that, we need them to respect our power.”
“There is no our about this.”
“Perhaps.” He shifted backward and leaned against the stone wall. “I’ve been watching you. You seem to absorb the most information in the lessons. You’ve got a good head—better than most. But I am stronger than you, even though you have more brands, right? They count your initial position by how much pain you can go through—or how many brands you have—and your knowledge of war. The best of the Azazs have five brands, and only one Livyahak had six. But we Ebeds don’t have that many. You have four, but see, I only have two, even though I am stronger than you. You could get me that respect—“
“No.” I glared and spat on the ground before I added a sweet smile that dripped with as much venom as my wings. “I mean, ‘no thank you.’” However, despite my protests, I kept smiling. I was one step closer to becoming an Azaz. I was a threat to this boy, and I would be a threat to many other Ebeds seeking promotion.
“Look, girlie, I am giving you a chance; you will die in the room without me.” He took a step forward and his voice was like the stone floor we stood on: cold, hard, and desperate to stay strong.
“Apparently, I know more about this place than you do.” My eye brows rose up in defiance. “It is not a ‘room’; we will be training out of doors. This just proved I do not need your lousy little life to help me. Now if you will excuse my friend and me…”
Another hiss from the boy was all I needed to see he was not willing to let either of us leave, and I was prepared when he pounced. I welcomed the action. Fighting and killing was part of what got one noticed: one of the necessary steps to becoming an Azaz.
I threw myself to the side and under his wings, and I hoped my friend was smart enough to do the same thing. My leg screamed in defiance of the action, of the whole fight, but pain was temporary. I ignored it, using my other leg to push against the ground, spin around, and launch onto the boy’s back. As I landed, my arms grasped his long hair and pulled his head back just before my right wing stabbed his neck with my venom. It was over in seconds. He must not have known what was happening as I attacked him, but I was sure he knew he was dying as he lay on the floor. Yet I could not bring myself to check. I could not look at him.
He was just a boy trying to stay alive, a voice whispered in my head.
Just a boy trying to kill me, and besides, they are all evil, I countered. I just need to become an Azaz; then I can have the luxury of saving lives.
The kind Livyahak saves lives, even as an Ebed. Perhaps there is more to life than becoming an Azaz.
No, being an Azaz is my only hope, my only plan; perhaps if I had been an elf, I could do something greater. Becoming an Azaz will be my greatest accomplishment. Becoming an Azaz is the greatest goal in reality. A growl escaped through my lips as I limped over to my friend who was just now getting up. She glanced over at the body lying limply on the ground, and I watched her freckled, delicate face pale. Sighing, I jerked my head in the direction of our corner. “It’s okay; he was trying to kill us.”
“He was trying to keep from being killed, Mar.”
“Yeah, and he was going to kill me to do it– not going to happen.”
The kind Livyahak breathed deeply before getting up, then she pushed her shoulder under my arm in order to help support me again. “I know, Mar. But we have to keep from killing—when we can. We are separate; we can’t become like them. I’ve told you before, we are meant for something more.”
“Something more? Something more! Then tell me what. What is there beyond Black Towers for us? We are monsters. I’ve told you before—even if we joined the elves, they would not accept creatures like us, and they would be right…” …at least to scorn me; maybe they would accept you. Frowning, I started walking, using the kind Livyahak as my crutch. If we were set apart—if we really should no longer kill to keep ourselves alive—where would we be? There would be no way I could ever prove to the commanders I was really an Azaz without killing. I could not even protect her without killing. No, it is the only way to keep alive here, and the only way to achieve anything. Perhaps in some perfect world killing isn’t needed, but this was not that world; it was kill or be killed here.-
Making our way with as little shoving as we could, we found ourselves once again in our corner of the great room. We had been fortunate enough to get a blanket, though the threads shown through the thin fabric, and the kind Livyahak kept it on her constantly. Now, she took it off her shoulder and laid it down on the ground. Lowering myself slowly, I copied her position, but stuck my left leg out to both protect and display the swollen brand.
Trying to keep my mind off the pain and the previous event, I looked at my friend. “So when do you think you can pass the test?”
“I don’t know, probably another month or two,” she replied with a sad smile. “I don’t even have one brand yet.”
I wished it was not true. I wished she would never have to go through the pain, but until she did, she could never move on with me. And I could not lose her. Frowning, I twisted over so my back was facing her and she could see my tagged wing. In spite of the pain the movement brought, I did not grimace as I spoke; I guess the training had worked. “Do you think you can take off whatever they put on me, and put it on you?”
“I’m not going to take your pass out of here.” She chuckled in insolence of the situation and wagged her head back and forth, her curly strawberry hair swinging. “Besides, the tag is punched through your wing. You would have to rip it out, and I have no clue how we would get it into me.”
“I can always get another one in a few weeks. Like the boy said, they might respect me more,” I suggested, but I could see it in her reprimanding face. She was not willing to let me go through the torture again. My wing flicked forward and I examined the tip. A small metal clip pinched the edge of my wing between the two sides. At first, I hoped that they only used a strong magnetic force, but then I realized there was a metal bar that pierced my wing and connected to the other side of the clip. Flying back, my wing snapped behind my head with the force of irritation at being fooled into thinking I could take it off.
“It won’t come off, will it?” Still smiling, she leaned back on the blanket and wink a glistening eye. Of course, she would be happy that I could not take it out. She had given me hope and love when I had nothing, but yet, she would never allow me to save her. Maybe if she wanted me to be set apart from the others, she should give me something to be set apart for.
“I could rip it out,” I responded indignantly. “I just couldn’t get it into you.”
“Of course! I forgot you have passed the pain tests.” Her playfully mocking took this world all too lightly, as she lay back against the wall.
I looked away and rolled my eyes, but a second later a dull weight slammed into my arm. Spinning around, I glared at her and at the thick book which had fallen next to me.
“Better study up, Azaz.” As her smile radiated through the dark, stone room, she nudged The Fighting Methods and Mentality of Elves with her foot. I did not understand how she could be so happy when all that existed was pain and cold stone walls.
My grumble was the only compliment to her grin. I snatched up the book, but I never stopped staring at my friend. She seemed to be ignorant of the fact that we would be separated and left alone in a matter of days or even hours, but I knew her well enough to know she was not stupid. She must know and purposely be ignoring the facts. As I saw it, that was the same as deceiving yourself.
Even as I studied her with the open book on my lap, her eyes lifted up and met mine, and I quickly ducked my head and started to read. Elves tend to possess a strong emotional bond between themselves and others of their race, and often this bond leads to irrational and impractical behavior. This bond is especially strong between the parent and the offspring and between mates, but also exists between siblings and often any companion that the elf has spent significant time with. If exploited correctly, a Livyahak may use this to kill a strong magic user by simply threatening a weaker elf. The stronger elf will most often allow itself to die for the insignificant other. There are many methods to apply this, but the most common would be…
I closed my eyes and stopped reading. Most of the time, studying focused my thoughts; it was comforting to know if I studied enough, I could have the knowledge of an Azaz, but for once, that was not what dominated my thoughts. The kind Livyahak and I would be separated in days, perhaps even hours, if we were especially unlucky.
I tried to fathom up other options, but the tag on my wing seemed to block every alternative. I wanted to become an Azaz, but I needed her more. The only option I could think of was to run away. My own grim laugh mocked my thoughts at the absurdity of it; we had not even been in the hallways since we were six, and then, it was just a short walk down from one room to this one. Yet, that did not keep me from speaking about it to her, even though I did not lift my head. “We could run off…” My voice was hopeful, although I was ridiculing myself for voicing such ludicrous thoughts.
I looked up and saw that she had been staring at me. My comment seemed to finally break her unperturbed calm, and her joyful face washed into a morose expression. Seeming hesitant to speak, she paused for a moment. “I would not want to risk your life; you’re doing so well right now.”
Though I had regretted speaking, something about her comment sent a fire back into my spirit. This was not about me. This was about her. “Yeah, I’m about to go to the next torture they have for us and then I will be doomed to fight in Nakavar’s army—doing just fine. You said there was something more, so let’s go find it.”
“Mar,” she corrected patiently, “above ground and outside Black Towers you will have a much better chance of escaping during fight training in the open. Here we don’t even know the way out. It’s ridiculous to think of it.”
“Well, then I just need you to get with me to the end and be put in the army. I promise you I am not leaving until you pass these tests.”
“Now, don’t be silly. You will leave without me unless by some miracle I pass in the next few days, and if not, then I will pass in a year or so. Everything will be fine.”
My face tried to twist into a frown at her attempt to mother me, but something about the situation prevented it. “I’m not going to leave.”
The kind Livyahak laughed. “I’m sure you will think differently when the guards come.”