Before the reception begins, Ash and I retire to a room with a large, balding man called Snake. He is human and apparently an expert on Blood Marks. Ash gets my initials in my blood tattooed onto his chest, just above his non-beating heart. When it’s my turn, Snake hesitates.
“You sure about this?” he asks me quietly, looking uncertain.
I roll my eyes, “Why does everyone keep asking me that?” I sigh, “Yes, I’m sure.”
He nods, filling the ink chamber of his tattoo gun with Ash’s blood. He inks the inside of my wrist with Ash’s initials, the color of it much different from the red blood in my veins. Where the mark upon Ash is a deep red from my human blood, the mark on my wrist is a cloudy gray color. When the Blood Marks are complete, I feel and instant tug toward Ash that is stronger than the force I had always felt toward him. It isn’t unwelcome, though I know it will make it more difficult when I leave this place.
I know that it is wrong to give him my mark and for me to take his, knowing what I am about to do. It is a selfish thing, but something I cannot stop myself from doing. The reality of being able to take a small piece of him with me is too tempting to ignore. I quickly excuse myself to the washroom and slip upstairs to grab the bag I already packed with supplies.
I take Neena’s original warning seriously. I am a warrior and I am well trained, but I am unprepared to face multiple Reapers. Ash said that no Reaper but him would dare to take my soul once I bore his mark, but that would not stop them from taking up a blade and sticking it into my heart while I slept. I had seen the way she looked at me during the ceremony. Her intent is clear and I can no longer stay here, married to Lord Sebastian or not. I strap knives onto my body and I sling my bow and quiver over my shoulder. I slip out of my room and down the stairs, moving toward the servant’s quarters. I push through the delivery door of the kitchen and breathe the cool air of the coming winter.
“Running away will not keep fate from showing up at your door,” the scratchy whisper returns after a long stint of silence.
I stop, dead in my tracks. Why return now? It has been silent for so long. Why is this happening to me? I feel as if I’m going insane.
I move off of the castle grounds and through the town square. It is just past midnight and the streets are empty. I throw up the hood on my cloak as I approach the dirt path that will lead me to the Fortis woods. I know that it is risky to take the same path home that I took to get here, but it would be the quickest way to disappear. I suddenly wish I would’ve changed out of my dress, but there wasn’t enough time for that.
Would Ash miss me when he realizes I’m missing? Will he search for me? I push the thoughts from my mind and move forward. This time, I move through the Fortis woods unscathed, emerging on the Medeor side of the forest. I cannot return to my home, for it will be the first place anyone will look for me. I keep to the woods, trudging along the muddy trails that are only visible to me, for I know them by memory. It takes me two days to weave my way through the dense forest before I break into a clearing and see the crumbling grist mill ahead.
If I close my eyes tight enough, I can still see the smoke billowing from the chimney of the hearth inside, the smell of rabbit stew hanging heavy in the air. Home. I move quickly across the field and give the old wooden door a hard shove. It gives way with a loud scrape as it drags across the stone floor. I push the door closed behind me and drag a table in front of it, just as a precaution. I won’t risk a fire; the smoke would give me away. I find Garrison’s old trunk and throw it open. I pull out an old horse blanket and a change of clothes. I change and shove the ruined gown into the trunk before settling into a corner of the room. How had I managed to get myself into this mess? I want to blame Elliot, for it was his desire to volunteer for the Arena so many months ago that led me to be in the square the day I was chosen. But, in the end, I think fate would have led me to Ash in some way or another.
I spend the next four days living in the grist mill. I survive on rabbit that I cook over a small fire, extinguishing it as soon as the meat is cooked. I don’t sleep well, jolting awake at the slightest sounds. I don’t venture into town, for fear of being recognized. I don’t know if anyone is looking for me, or if maybe, they’ve chosen to forget me and move on.
I hear people talking somewhere outside the mill and I peek through a small window. Keepers march toward the mill, dressed in scarlet uniforms. I look around for somewhere to hide, settling for the chimney. I climb up easily, bracing myself against the brick. The soldiers push into the building a moment later, sending the table clattering to the floor. I hear them moving things about. They are humans, bearing the Arcanum uniforms. If they were Vampires, they would’ve sniffed me out by now.
“Someone’s been staying here,” one of them points out.
“Well, whoever it is, clearly isn’t here now,” another comments.
“They will return,” the first man says.
“This is bullshit,” one soldier says, “Why do we get stuck searching for some defiant human while everyone else is out there fighting the Death Stalkers?”
“Why would you want to fight Death Stalkers? It’s almost guaranteed to be a losing fight,” someone retorts.
“At least they are getting some action. The Dark Lord is unrelenting. Even his father fears him now,” the first man says.
Their voices trail off as they leave the grist mill. I wait a few minutes before lowering myself down from the chimney. The Dark Lord. Could they truly be talking about Ash? Is he here in Medeor? Were the Death Stalkers the Mortem army? What is going on out there? All I know is that I have to abandon the grist mill. I quickly gather my few belongings, running for the cover of the woods before the soldiers decide to return.
I climb into the trees, leaping from branch to branch. When I get closer to town, the sight terrifies me. Buildings are nothing but ash piles on the ground. The few that are left standing are ablaze with flames. It was all out civil war at this point. I hear cannon blasts in the distance. My brain is screaming at me to run away from the fight, but I can’t. I know that this was brought on because of me. This is my home, my family that is in danger. I move toward the sounds, my heart beating rapidly as the blasts grow louder.
Near the main square, things are chaotic. Screams come from every direction. Children huddle in alleys, orphans of war. Black clad soldiers clash with humans and Vampires alike. I can’t imagine any force being able to withstand the Mortem army alone, much less with Medeor’s human soldiers. But when I get a glimpse of the Mortem Death Stalkers, I understand just how outmatched Medeor truly is. Then, I realize that the soldiers facing the Mortem army are not Medeor humans, but Arcanum Vampires. The creatures called ‘Death Stalkers’ are shoving humans out of the way to get to the Vampires. Immortal creatures attempting to do the impossible; kill one another. The shadow figures they call Death Stalkers are large and move swiftly through their enemies, plunging shadowy arms through the chests of the Vampires and ripping out their hearts. It is truly horrifying and exhilarating all at once. I immediately feel guilty at the pleasure I feel at watching such violence, but this is how Garrison raised me.
I climb up to the roof of a small bakery, one of the few buildings that hasn’t collapsed yet, to get a better vantage point. I keep my hood up, unwilling to let my copper hair give me away. I draw the bow from my back and nock and arrow into place, but when I get ready to take aim, I am unsure whose side I am on. I scan the crowds, surprised when I see Ash’s familiar face, fighting alongside his own soldiers. Not many leaders would do the same. Then I see him cornered. Three Vampire soldiers circle him and I know he cannot Reap them all at once. The largest of the men grabs Ash by the throat, squeezing hard, making him unable to morph to his Reaper form. Now, I know what I must do. I nock two additional, silver tipped arrows and draw my bow, taking aim. My heartbeat quickens as the fear I feel for Ash increases, taking over my thoughts and emotions. This must be part of the bond we now share. The feeling is overwhelming and I begin to shake. I look at my fingertips as they begin to glow, emitting a light I have only seen once before. It runs out of my fingertips and wraps itself around the arrows I still have aimed. I let out a breath and let the arrows fly. The light-charged bolts sink into the backs of the bloodsuckers. I watch the three Vamps crumple to the ground, writhing in pain. The silver arrowheads would weaken them, but not kill them, and frankly, I’m not sure what the light will do to them, if anything. I watch as Ash lands hard on his hands and knees.
He looks at the bodies before him, touching the arrows lightly before looking up, his eyes landing on me. Though I know he cannot tell who I am by sight, I see the recognition on his face. Even if it weren’t for our bond, he would recognize the arrows that he had given me, and if that were not enough, he knows my skill and there are not many who can do what I do. Then his look of recognition turns to one of cold fury. His form shifts into the black smoky mass of his Reaper form and he floats up to the rooftop before turning back into his human form.
“Tell me, Lark,” he says, “How does it feel to be the cause of civil war?”
“I am not the one who commands these armies,” I argue, taking a step back from him.
“You fear me, Lark?” he asks, “After everything?”
“I fear what the anger you feel toward me might make you do,” I tell him honestly.
“I’m angry that you left in the middle of the night, sneaking off without a word,” he says, “After our vows and taking Blood Marks.”
“And look where it got me,” I say, looking down at the battle happening below.
“You could’ve just told me that you wanted to leave,” he says.
“I didn’t want to leave!” I shout.
He looks at me with surprise, “Then why did you?”
“Because of your mother!” I cry out, “And Angeline and Moren and Bertram.”
“Why would you listen to them? I told you I would protect you,” he says.
“You can’t be with me around the clock, Ash,” I say, “That’s unrealistic.”
“That’s why I gave you this,” he grabs my wrist and taps the Blood Mark. They can’t touch you. But, no,” he shakes his head, “That’s not it. You just don’t trust me.”
I don’t meet his eyes, knowing his words are true, but still willing to argue the point, “Your mark might keep them from reaping me, but what would stop them from stabbing me through the heart, poisoning me at dinner, or even hanging me in the town square?”
“You’re making excuses,” he says knowingly.
“I was raised to trust no one. It only leads to hurt and betrayal,” I tell him.
“So, what now?” he asks, “I’ve initiated warfare within my own country and yours to find you. Killian is stopping at nothing to get his hands on you. Now, here you are.”
“Will you retreat?” I ask.
“From Medeor? That depends on if you are going to return with me to Mortem when this is all over. If so, then I will march my army out of Medeor. But retreat isn’t an option,” he says, hardening his resolve, “I will not continue to ravage Medeor, but Arcanum has engaged with me and my army, trying to get to you.”
“Why?” I ask in confusion, “Why does he want me?”
“Killian wants you for himself,” Ash explains, “Though I don’t understand why Killian would care about one human girl, no offense.”
“He’s got soldiers scouring the city, looking for me,” I tell him.
Ash looks enraged, but he takes a deep, calming breath, “I will not let him near you, Lark. I swear it.”
“Then what comes next?” I ask.
He looks at me with a little surprise and admiration before he answers.
“I must take Arcanum for myself,” he says.
“Then, perhaps,” I say, “I can help.”