Chapter 1: A Cursed Race
She was bred to be evil—we both were. In his millennial exile, Nakavar formed creatures, mutated with dragon wings. There was a rumor that we were descended, not only of the fiery makhaedracs, but also of the god-like ruah whom Nakavar once led. No matter our twisted origin, Nakavar cursed his creatures to never feel fear or joy or sympathy so that we would be the perfect soldiers in his war against Bara. But she was never cursed, and so she embraced a higher cause than Nakavar’s war. I was never cursed, but I embraced only her friendship and rebellion.
Nakavar gave us, the livyahaks, no names at birth, and no motherly instincts prompt our cursed mothers to name their children before Nakavar snatched us away. Only after learning to read and studying the history of our world 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 four Native Races, created by Bara, feel a bitter wind sweep down from the north. The Natives named the wind Mar and cursed her coming. I knew bitterness; I took the name. I was told Zaehav meant outsider. Livyahaks are outside the Native Races, but more importantly and unknown to them, I did not belong among my own kind; I took the name. And I became a bitter outsider, traitor to the livyahaks but weakened by fickle emotions and alone in a dark world.
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 the 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.
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 a 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 sketch of a sun on a field of flowers, which I had started last night with torch ash. 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.
The boy at the door was small compared to the other six-year-olds, including me and the other three girls, 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 appear 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. Outside of training manuals and educational pamphlets, 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 and six tins of water through a slot in the door, five minutes before “dawn.” The water was just enough to get one of us to live to the next day; the bread was a gift to spark fighting. For 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 silently a few feet away from the boy. I waited for the water, 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 Natives, though our first ancestors had been makhaedracs and each of us bore some resemblance to the race. Most had the makhaedracs’ pale skin and fiery red hair. But none of us had their pupiless blue eyes; with our cursed gray eyes, we boasted better. Unlike the fire fae, we had dragon wings on our backs and venomous fangs on each wingtip. The makhaedracs and all other Natives 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 and water slipped in from the crack at the bottom of the door. Grabbing one tin and one loaf, I scurried to a corner, gulped the water, and started to scarfing the bread down quickly, barely pausing to breathe. While the food kept me alive, it was dangerous to be caught with it. However, as I moved away, the scrawny boy began devouring the food without first moving away from the door. His mistake.
A Rav, those livyahaks bred to be commanders and elite assassins, might have the strength to dare the others to fight her, bravely warring 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. But someday, when I survived this, I would be stronger. I would be a commander or assassin; I would be a Rav.
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, one girl and one boy only now waking up. They 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 who missed out on the water, 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—the clutching hand in my throat, making it hard to breathe and turning my mind to see the horrors as horrors. 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 and 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 six of us out. 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. As I stared after it, 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 tore through 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 a Rav—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 locked 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 almost cowered back but remembered the warning of our driver.
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; the one purpose of their placement 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 hands 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 a meaningless Ebed.
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 those thick words spoken in 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 was any different; I needed to find a place where I could defend myself before the one with the blue eyes focused 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 a Rav. 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 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 Ravs 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 Ravs get.”
The Ravs 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?”
“Don’t say that!” she gasped and laid her hand on my arm. When I jumped and drew away from her touch, she sighed and collected herself. “It is okay; I don’t think anyone heard you. 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 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 the ruah told me. Of course, the livyahaks 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 suddenly changed topics. “Can you imagine it? We aren’t curse! We are free. It’s almost as if we were creatures of Bara!”
“But we are not Bara’s precious ‘Children of the Land.’” I puckered my lips and frowned. “I thought all ruah were like Nakavar; why would one visit you, and why aren’t we curse?”
“Not the one that visited me. He said that he served Bara, and I could, too. Isn’t that exciting?”
“I don’t want to serve the Natives’ god. Why aren’t we cursed?” I repeated my question, and though the girl’s face fell into frustration, she answered this time.
“I don’t know, but they will kill us if they find out.”
“Why?” I furrowed my brow in confusion.
“Because—” The older girl seemed to recover from her frustration 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 Ravs—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.
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 and love 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 a Rav. 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 a Rav, then I would know for sure.