Chapter 2: The Burning Ceremony
Concentrated streaks of sunlight spilled into the study, illuminating the dark hardwood floors. The red wallpaper soaked in the daylight, the colour practically glowing in its intensity: red as blood and flames. The broken pieces of charcoal lay abandoned upon the curled canvas; the half-finished portrait forgotten. Staring out the study’s large window, Mina clutched the leather bound book tightly to her chest. Cautiously, she leaned forward, her forehead brushing against the warmed glass. Peering outside, she looked towards the front of the house. Small birds swooped by as they chased one another mid-flight before settling upon the budding branches of the trees outside the house. Life outside was abundant, fluttering and chirping happily. In the study the air stood frozen, nothing moving. Mina glanced back at her grandfather.
In his wheelchair, he looked small and fragile but his face belonged to a man with purpose. His eyes addressed her directly, his deep-set wrinkles creasing as his mouth pulled into a hint of a grimace. She had been drawing his portrait, dragging the charcoal across the page as she shaded the shadows cast by his bushy brows when her attention was pulled away from her work. It was a solitary, bony finger beckoning to her that set the cogs in motion. He had not spoken when he drew the limp, leather-bound book from inside his oversized sweater. Not a word spilt from his mouth as he slipped it into her hands. Only the intensity of his eyes spoke of his urgency as he shoved it towards her. Perplexed, Mina examined the book. The cover was soft and unassuming. She asked him what it was, hoping he- somehow- could communicate. He remained silent but pointed out the window.
Gradually, Mina withdrew from the window, her shoulders slumping as she relaxed. Sighing, she turned. “What is this?” she asked, lifting the book into the air.
Eyes wide, her grandfather sputtered in panic, his hands smacking haphazardly against his limp legs. He motioned towards his sweater where the book had been concealed. Mina spun on the spot as her grandfather rattled in his wheelchair. Snatching her art satchel from the floor, Mina struggled as she shoved the book inside. A smile, barely noticeable, spread across his face when the book disappeared from sight.
“That’s good?” she whispered as walked towards the man. “You want me to hide this book? Keep it out of sight?” she fished.
The old man stared peacefully, mindfully laying his hands upon one another. Mina held the satchel, felt the book inside, her curiosity peaking. “What is this book?” she inquired.
Tilting his head, her grandfather regarded her thoughtfully before tapping his finger to his forehead. Struggling, he managed to sputter out one word: “Burn!”
“You want me to burn it?” she asked in disbelief. She did not understand. Whatever the book was, he had gone to great lengths to hide it, to pass it on to her. Why burn it? she thought.
Her grandfather jutted out his lower lip, his face twisting into something resembling a scowl as his eyes narrowed. Slowly he shook his head.
“Okay, so don’t burn it. I understand. But what do you want me to do with it?” she asked again, hints of frustration beginning to show. “You want me to hide it, but then what?”
Slowly, her grandfather shook his head again, his wrinkled deepening with frustration. Extending his thin finger, he shoved it against her shoulder.
Mina- studying the man’s face as he gazed up at hers- tried to decode his message, trying to understand his purpose. “Keep it?” she whispered to herself.
Suddenly, her grandfather let out a sharp, loud grunt. His lips twisted and spurted as he forced himself to speak. “B-Burn!” he spat.
Brows furrowed in confusion, Mina pushed her hair out of her face. “You just said not to burn it!” she hissed, her frustration growing.
The old man’s mouth grew tight and his eyes narrow once more as he shook his head sluggishly.
Kneeling at his side, she grasped the edge of his wheelchair- the metal cold to the touch- and stared, searching for an answer. Mina watched his lips begin to twitch again but he could not force any words out. “I don’t understand,” she murmured.
“Done with that picture?”
Like an alarm, the voice shot through Mina’s ears. She shot to attention, her hands snapping to her sides as she wheeled towards the study door. “Grandma!” she exclaimed, desperately trying to swallow the panic bubbling in her voice.
The older woman stared, befuddled, as the blood began to return to Mina’s cheeks. Much to her relief, her grandmother began to chuckle as she looked upon her granddaughter and husband. “Did I scare you, dear? Interrupt a thrilling conversation?”
Mina giggled nervously, wrapping her arms defensively around her body. “Yes! Yes, you scared me good, Grandma,” she forcefully laughed. “Good one.”
Shuffling towards Mina- her cream coloured slippers dragging noisily across the floor- the older woman looked on curiously as she adjusted her glasses, pushing them further up the bridge of her nose. With every step, her ornately constructed necklace swayed, the red stones reflecting the sun into Mina’s eyes. “What were you two doing?” her grandmother inquired as she drew closer.
“I thought I heard grandpa say something so I was trying to get him to speak again,” Mina quickly lied as she rubbed her eyes. Nervously, she smiled. “Guess I misheard.”
Grinning, her grandmother carefully bent down and planted a quick kiss on her husband’s forehead, leaving a faint red lip print on his skin. Raking her aging fingers through the man’s thick, snowy hair, she chuckled once more. “Dear, your grandfather hasn’t spoken a word since the accident. Sometimes a sound or two will escape him but nothing we would understand as words,” she explained bluntly. “He’s full of sounds but no sense, no matter how much you wish.”
As her grandfather’s mouth twisted into something resembling annoyance, the man glanced up at his wife. She smiled apologetically as she spoke. “Sorry, Adam but it’s true. Half the time you don’t even recognize the room you’re in.”
With her grandmother’s attention fixed on her husband, Mina swiftly gathered the portrait and her supplies, shoving them into her satchel before throwing it over her shoulder; the book nestled secretly inside. “He seems to be having a good day though. He’s really with it today,” she said, offering a smile.
The older woman shrugged as she finished fixing his hair, patting down the flyaway strands. “He has some good days,” she whispered softly. Suddenly, her eyes grew bright. “Where is the picture you were drawing? I’d like to see how it turned out,” she requested sweetly, her fuzzy slippers scuffing noisily against the floor as she shuffled closer. “I love looking at your pictures.”
The hairs on the back of Mina’s neck stood on end as her grandfather’s eyes grew wide. Her hands tightened, wringing the strap of her satchel as the book burned against her side. Her grandmother’s eyebrows rose, waiting patiently.
Cautiously, Mina reached inside the bag as she turned away, trying to keep the book out of sight. Curious of her granddaughter’s behaviour, the older woman leaned in, catching a glimpse of red leather. Immediately, her face drew into a dubious frown. Mina stiffened, her body suddenly burning with unexpected anxiety.
The old woman stared, her brows lifting as her eyes raked over her granddaughter. “Do you mind if I get a peek into your bag, dear? There’s been a book misplaced and I’ve been looking all over for it.” Smiling sweetly, she outstretched her thin and age spotted hand. “Please, dear. I just want to make sure it isn’t the one I’ve been looking for. Your uncle really needs it.”
As her mind raced to spit out an excuse to refuse her grandmother, a chilling scream rang out from the front of the house. Both women gasped and rushed to the window, pressing their hands and foreheads against the heated glass as they searched the grounds for the source.
“It’s Madison and Johnathan!” Her grandmother pointed out the window; her fingertip leaving smudges on the pristine surface. Mina- squinting past the bright sunlight- spotted her cousin kneeling in the grass. Madison, Sophia and Zoey’s sister, was clutching her fiancée in her arms as he violently heaved, vomiting into a thick, pink puddle of bile next to her. Her grandmother’s tiny hand shot out and grabbed Mina’s arm, squeezing it urgently as her eyes popped wide, pleading. “I’ll go get your uncle! You go help Madison!” she commanded.
Mina pushed off from the window and shot out of the study. Her feet felt light and her steps agile as flew through the hallway to the foyer. She slammed into the heavy, wooden door, shoving it open and darted out the front of the house. Her heart was pounding and the pit of her stomach beginning to turn.
As they came into view, Madison’s dark hair- draped over her fiancée’s back like a sheet of silk- stood out like a beacon. Johnathan- on his hands and knees- was facing away from Mina, his body heaving and shaking.
His face was ghostly white, his lips blue. Beads of sweat were forming on his brow, dripping to the ground like plump raindrops. Madison- her arms wrapped tightly around his waist- struggled as she tried to steady him and pull him away from the pool of vomit forming beneath him but slowly, Johnathan began to go limp.
Panicking, Mina grabbed his shoulders, clawing at the fabric of his shirt and tugging him back as Madison pulled from behind. Madison fought to gently lower him but his weight was too much for her feeble strength. His body crumbled to the ground, hitting with a muffled thud as he slipped from her grasp. His eyes rolled into the back of his head, his body becoming motionless. Madison screamed. Tears streamed past her red-flushed cheeks as she clutched his face. She bent down and sobbed into his ear, begging him to wake up but her words did not reach him. Frightened, she began to viciously shake him, desperately trying to bring him back but only the white of his eyes answered her cries.
Mina’s body felt numb as she observed her cousin’s terror. Her blood turned to ice as shock invaded her body. She felt helpless. Her mind commanded her to move but she remained rooted to the ground. Useless, I’m so useless. She had never felt so inept.
Abruptly, her body and mind let go of the fear and doubt swirling inside. She felt light and far away from the frenzied panic happening in front of her eyes. It was like a trance. No longer could she hear Madison’s heart-wrenching screams begging her to help or feel her uncle’s thick palm shoving her aside. As the ground slammed against her cheek- firm and unwelcoming- Mina’s mind was far away. She felt nothing. Her eyes flickered up at her uncle as he shoved a black powder into Johnathan’s gaping mouth. Masses of people began to gather: other cousins, other aunts, uncles…
Panicked hands snatched her arms and hauled her onto a lap. Her vision began to blur; she could not make out the face of the person cradling her in their lap. Drips of hot water splashed onto her forehead as she began to drift. Her eyes slowly shut, her breathing slowing. A flash of red shot in front of her eyes before everything went dark.
The book felt warm against her side as her mind shut down.
Groping blindly in front of her, Mina hollered out into the darkness, praying for someone to answer. She heard no reply but- more alarmingly- no sound at all. Her voice was gone. Everything was still. The darkness was overwhelming her senses.
Mina tried calling out again but as before, no sound, no cry for help came from her. Her lips began to tingle as her tongue grew dry, sticking to the roof of her mouth. She tried to swish the little saliva she had around her tongue but the muscle remained rough, drying out like a cracking lake bed.
Her tongue dumb, Mina reached out her arms and waved them recklessly in front of her; her fingernails prepared to dig in upon contact. Viciously swinging, Mina could feel the thick breeze flow around her as she cut through the air. Despite her efforts, she struck nothing solid.
She grew bolder and decided to step into the obscured space. She took a deep breath, gathering the flecks of courage suddenly bubbling in her chest. Stumbling forward like an unsure infant, she felt incredibly tense. The dark void engulfed her as it devoured all; swallowing light and sound alike. But with each step, her adrenaline and frustration grew, edging her forward like a dog snapping at her heels.
Mina waved her hands, extending her fingertips as far as they could reach but was met with mere air. She ground her teeth, her hands viciously slapping in front of her, her anger growing with each step.
Suddenly, a cold, wet chill ran up her spine. The icy sensation morphed into a fiery blaze as it sank deeper into her skin. Her stomach wriggled in pain and began to crawl up her oesophagus, painfully dragging glass-like talons into her chest. It was too much, too painful. It hurt like nothing she had felt before. The darkness began to penetrate her peripheral view. The void was swallowing her.
In the far distance, a soft, gentle, orange light flickered slowly to life. The glow was faint but its delicate beauty was enticing. It beckoned her, calling out to her with its welcoming glow. The pain flooding her body began to evaporate, seeping out as waves of relief washed in from head to toe. Mina felt limp as a puppet but the growing warmth from the flame felt soothing against her skin. Without caution, she staggered forward, arms outstretched and ready to receive.
But with each step forward, the flame retreated further into the hallway gradually emerging from the darkness. Its walls were softly illuminated by the small flame- bathed in its warm light- but even in its ethereal paint, Mina recognized its familiar structures, turns, and aging details. She had spent much of her childhood aimlessly wandering the same path; it was one of the halls of the main house.
Intoxicated by the light’s warmth, Mina followed the flame without question, her feet instinctively carried her along, not caring that the hall should have come to an end long ago. Her eyes lazily traced the edge of the pulsating light when she noticed the state of the hall; the paint was lifting, pulling and curling away from the plaster. For whatever reason, she paid no mind.
Continuing to follow the illuminated path, the peeling paint grew worse. Large chunks clung limply to the wall while some broke free, fluttering to the floor like crumbling autumn leaves. From the naked walls, quiet whispers of wind blew through Mina’s ear, filling her head with a whirlwind of hush whistles. She could hear the paint chips crunching under her bare feet, the edges lightly digging into her heels. The walls- devoid of their colour- displayed thin cracks. Gradually, the narrow lines grew wider and deeper scrawling, across the plaster like giant, crooked spider legs.
Like a slap to the face, Mina awoke from her drunken haze. The hall was no longer welcoming but a space of danger and decay. Mina whimpered, jumping as she felt the air puff out from between her lips. She called out. Her voice was raw but deeper than normal, more powerful than before. She screamed. Her voice echoed down the hall, the small light flickering as it blew past.
There was a reply; muffled voices summoning her with desperate pleas. They urged her to save them, to dig them out. Mina stood silently, straining to locate the source of the voices. She lifted her hands to her ears and cupped them, hoping to draw their calls in more clearly.
Walk towards us. The flame is our design.
The voice came out clear: strong and commanding. Mina stepped forward cautiously, her eyes scanning the hall for the source of the ones calling to her. She called out to them, asking where they were but the voices refused to reply. Only quiet murmurs continued, requesting Mina now by name. They grew louder as she approached an unfamiliar corner.
Following the bend of the hall, Mina screamed in horror. Protruded from the walls were body parts, wriggling and twisting in agony as they tried to free themselves from their plaster prison: elbows, knees, foreheads, bits of stomach, ears. Against the glow of the now intense flame burning at the end of the way, they appeared as writhing shadows. She could hear their cries, their pleas. She could feel their immense pain bubbling in her stomach. Mina stumbled forward, tears pouring from her eyes as she heard their suffering moans begging her to dig them out, to break them free. The arm closest to her twisted; the hand twitching frantically at her as its bracelet bounced noisily against its thick wrist.
Panicked, Mina slammed against the wall, digging her nails in where plaster met flesh. She choked back her sobs as her fingers began to bleed, smearing thick red streaks across the dusty surface. She could feel her nails begin to lift from their nail-beds but Mina pushed on, screaming as tears streamed down her face. Desperately, she clawed at the wall, trying to push down the pain. She could not stop. She had to get them free. The bracelet: it was her Aunt Emily entombed in the structure.
Tearing piece by piece, Mina frantically glanced at the other bodies protruding into the hallway. Her panic rose, her heart lurching with each glance as she recognized hair colours, toenail paints, birthmarks, and curves of ears. It was her family plastered in the walls, begging her to save them.
Hands covered in blood and her sight blinded by tears, Mina pleaded to them as she continued to claw at the wall hopelessly, “Please, wait! I’m trying! I-I’ll get you out. Just wait. Please!”
Behind her, an unnoticed shadow- a puff of coal tainted smoke- leached in through the cracks and gathered around her ankles undetected. It slithered slowly up the side of her calf, twisting its way around her thigh like a snake on a tree branch. It yanked itself tight. Mina screamed as the bones in her leg snapped, the warm blood flowing down and pooling around her feet.
The shadow sprouted arms and sank its claws into her stomach repeatedly. The blood began to rise, bubbling out of her mouth and dripping down like thin rivers on a map. The claws melted into one long blade and hovered over her, threatening to drop. Please, no. No more pain. It swung into her belly and made her grunt as she spat out a glob of blood. She barely felt the pain as the blade- slick with red- slid out from her body. As she drifted, the shadow wrapped itself tightly around her, binding her lifeless body together. Gently, it wisped around her ear, flicking its tongue inside as it whispered.
“You’ll never have my family.”
A rush of flames blew in Mina’s face. She was on fire.
Eyes fluttering open, Mina squinted, her vision searing. Unfamiliar, distorted shapes dominated her line of sight, concealing the room’s identity. She began to push herself up but produced only a moan of pain. Her body ached as if she had been trampled. Gingerly, she attempted to stretch, her joints popping loudly as she extended her stiffened limbs. Under her fingers, she felt the soft, familiar leather of her mother’s living room couch. The recognizable scent of the house began to register; she was home. She was safe.
Cautiously, she sat up, rubbing her forehead and eyes. “What a messed up dream,” she huffed as she cracked her neck.
Mina glanced up lazily, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun. Her brother stood in the doorway, his long, thin arms crossed tightly across his chest. “I feel like crap,” she grumbled, dropping her arms on top of her legs. “What happened?”
Alex stood motionless except for his eyes. Carefully, they raked over her, studying her worriedly. He dragged his fingers through his hair, pushing it out of his face as he sighed heavily. “Don’t know honestly. It look like you had a seizure. I thought you were dying.”
“No wonder I feel so bad,” Mina groaned as she flopped back against the couch. She relished the way the leather enveloped her, letting her sink into it as she pictured herself twitching and convulsing on the ground. “Wait,” she grumbled as her chest twisted in disgust. “If I looked so terrible, why didn’t anyone take me to the hospital?” she demanded, wincing as she slapped her hand down.
Dragging his big toe on the carpeted floor, Alex chewed his lip before peering at her sternly. “You may have been gone for five years but you know a hospital wouldn’t help. It wasn’t a normal seizure.”
I know, I just don’t want to believe it. Mina snorted. “A hospital can’t help? You could still have taken me to be sure!” she spat. I know it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Alex’s mouth tightened, his entire foot jabbing the floor sporadically as he held himself tighter. He was still a child- only sixteen- but he wore the dark expression of a much older, colder person. “I’ll say it again; it was not a normal seizure. It’s like before when we were still little but now… now it’s gotten worse.”
“How much worse?” she asked, her mind turning to the bodies in the wall.
“That thing… the thing haunting this place, haunting us, well…” his voice trailed off, his eyes dropping to the floor as he roughly scuffed his heel against the wooden surface. “Since Grandpa got hurt,” he whispered, “things have been getting worse. People have been acting weird… going crazy, getting hurt. I’ve had-” Alex froze. He peered up at her, timid and unsure.
Mina stood, her body quivering as she tried to find her footing. “Alex, please. Tell me what’s happening,” she pleaded as she leant against the arm of the couch, her muscles sluggishly calming.
Glaring directly into her eyes, Alex’s face paled. “We need a new protector; either Mom or one of the others. They’re choosing through the Burning Ceremony tonight.”
Alex nodded grimly.
Finally, Mina understood her mother’s relief when she announced that she was coming home. As Mina thought her purpose was to decode her hellish nightmares, her family had other plans. They needed her here, needed her to complete the circle. It would not work otherwise. They needed all the blood relatives there for just that: their blood.
The prayer room was dark. The heavy crimson curtains had been tightly drawn, blocking the last of the evening sun’s dwindling rays. Small, hand-held candles served as the solitary source of light, illuminating the morose faces in the room. Alongside her, Mina’s relatives- blood relatives- stood silently in a perfect circle, their eyes fixed upon the centre of the room. A smaller circle had formed within the other, surrounding an iron plate suspended by chains from the ceiling. Mina’s aunts and uncle stood with her mother, all of them carefully examining the items in their hands: tools for the ceremony. Her Aunt Olivia warily cradled a small, plain urn- dull and discoloured- containing the ashes of Mina’s great grandmother: one of the family’s past protectors. Her Aunt Emily held an empty glass vase in her hands, her eyes unable to look upon it. Her mother, Eveleen, stood quietly next to her sister. In her hand, she held a knife. Reflecting the candles’ glow off the dagger’s pristine blade, Eveleen’s shoulders slumped as she stared, examining the edges of the blade. Beside her, Mina’s uncle held thin branches cut from the black cherry tree in the compound. He glanced distractedly around the room, staring in the eyes of his children, nieces, and nephews. His eyes held a coldness that made Mina nervous. She knew what it was that he was mentally preparing himself for.
In the larger outer circle- behind Emily- Sophia, Zoey, and Madison stood tightly together, each shielding baby Elijah with gentle strokes and reassuring caresses as they looked to their mother. Jacob- Olivia’s oldest son- stood tall, his shoulders square and his face stony as he held his baby brother close to his chest. Lucas- ten years old- watched, the terror growing on his face as the elders began to move around the inner circle. His grip tightened around Jacob’s arm, his dark brown eyes widening and unblinking. Mina shook her head sorrowfully. It was clear that someone had told the poor boy what was to happen at the Burning. She wished they had not. She was much older than Lucas but she was still terrified. She could not imagine what the poor child was feeling.
Morgan embraced her younger sister, petting the girl’s smooth blonde hair in an effort to calm her. Younger than Lucas, Sissy stood quietly, nervously searching for her mother as she held her sister’s hand. She glanced up towards her older brother Ethan. He shook his head and directed her attention back to the centre of the room, whispering for her to keep her eyes fixed on their father.
Mina dropped her gaze down to her feet as she swallowed her fear. She reminded herself that it was her own mother performing the cuts. She’s going to be careful. There’s no way she’d let it hurt more than it needs to… right? Glancing out of the corner of her eye, Mina turned to Alex. He stood stoically except for his hands; they shook with such intensity that his candle’s light was wobbling over his features. Reaching out, Mina touched his hand and smiled as warmly as she could. He smiled half-heartedly back.
“It is time to begin the gathering.” Mina and the other’s jerked as their uncle’s voice sliced through the silence.
Seeing her mother sigh heavily, Mina palm began to sweat. Eveleen turned on her heel, twisting around to face her children. Her expression was grave, her eyes filled with apprehension. Marching forward, she stretched out her hand. Expelling her last breath of fear, Mina slipped her hand into her mother’s palm, tears beginning to gather. I trust her. She’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt.
“It’s okay, Sweetheart,” her mother whispered. “I had it done and it wasn’t too bad. I’ll try to be quick and lessen the pain.”
Emily joined Eveleen’s side, her reluctant expression matching her older sister’s. “It’ll be fine,” she reassured as she steadied the jar under Mina and Eveleen’s joined hands.
“Ready?” Eveleen asked, smiling sadly.
Hesitantly, Mina nodded. Shutting her eyes, she tensed as she felt the cool blade drawing closer to her skin. She whimpered- biting back a scream- as the knife pierced her flesh, slicing deeply across her palm. The blood seeped out slowly from the slash. Emily seized Mina’s hand as the blood began to pool and held it over the mouth of the vase. Carefully, she milked the wound, letting the blood ooze into the vessel.
Her knees felt weak as she watched the thick, hot liquid drip from her body. Mina glanced at the others as her head began to spin. Sophia held Elijah close to her chest, nervously caressing the child’s small hand. Madison looked pale, her hand cupped over her face. Sissy was shrieking as her brother grabbed her arm and held her in place while Morgan tried to rub her back. Lucas was also crying but stood quietly, squeezing his brother’s arm as his breathing quickened.
“It’s not that bad. It’s like a quick paper cut,” Mina lied as she took the cloth wrapping from her aunt. She smiled at the younger children- trying to reassure them- as she bound her burning wound. Alex hissed as the blade pieced his skin but smiled at the kids all the same, hiding the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
“It’s okay,” he echoed as Emily drained the blood from the gash.
As the two women made their way to the others- cutting and gathering- the older siblings swallowed their pain and smiled. Sissy was first of the younger children. Ethan picked her up and cradled her in his arms, his uncut hand pressed tightly against her eyes. The younger child wiggled in his grip- kicking and slapping- but Morgan seized her small, thin hand and bent her fingers back to expose her smooth, baby like skin. Mina winced as Sissy’s shrill scream bore into her being.
Lucas paled further, his face white as freshly fallen snow. He looked to his mother when they came to him, his stares pleading to out to his mother but Olivia shook her head. Taking a deep breath, he snapped his eyes shut, his hand shooting out: open and yielding. As the blade sliced into his skin, a loud sob emanated from the young boy’s chest as tears poured over his face. He cried for his mother but she remained still, her eyes fixed upon the urn she held. Jacob wrapped his arms around Lucas as Emily took the blood. The emotion slowly drained from Lucas’ face as more of his blood spilled into the vase until his eyes were cold and detached. Emily let him go and his hand limply slapped against his side. Turning away from the centre of the room, he buried his face into Jacob’s stomach.
Zoey offered her hand to Eveleen first as Sophia’s grip tightened around Elijah’s small palm, her thumb rubbing over the back of his hand obsessively.
Madison offered to go next. She winced but then turned and smiled at Sophia, reassuring her younger sister. “It’s not too bad if you don’t think about it,” she whispered. “It’ll be over before Elijah even knows about it.”
Unconvinced, Sophia glared at Eveleen and Emily as the former reached out for the baby’s hand. “Mine first,” she demanded as she slapped Eveleen’s hand away.
“No,” Mina’s mother said outright.
“We’ll do Elijah first,” Emily whispered to her daughter. “It’s better this way.”
Eveleen took Elijah’s hand, pointing his tiny, exposed palm towards her. She repositioned her grip on the knife, aiming only the point at the child’s skin. Elijah jumped as she pressed down on the blade, dragging it across his flesh. His face turned bright red as he screamed, his entire body convulsing as he wailed. Emily switched places with her sister and took the boy’s hand, tenderly kissing the back as the blood dripped into the almost full vase. Mortified, Sophia stared blankly at her child as the two women moved towards her. Her face remained emotionless as the blade sunk in; no sign of pain etched on her face. Emily handed two wrapping cloths to her younger daughters, both quickly turning to aid the young mother and child.
Mina frowned as she looked at her palm. The blood continued to flow, sluggishly staining the bandages. She nudged Alex, motioning for his hand. He turned up his palm. His cut- like hers- continued to bleed through the cloth.
Glancing up, Mina watched her mother cut into Emily, Olivia, and James’ skin before digging the knife across her own palm. James placed the branches into the hanging iron plate and began whispering as Olivia gingerly sprinkled the ashes from the urn on top of the wood as Emily and Eveleen resumed their positions.
Quietly, James spoke as he walked around the room, pouring thin lines of powder out of a small vial; from the suspended plate to each of his siblings like spokes to a wheel. “To find our family’s next protector, we must offer something precious and symbolic of life and our desperation. It is through our blood- our pain- that the flames will illuminate our saviour to protect us from that which plagues us.” Returning to his post, he pulled out a match. “Emily will pour our blood- our family’s sacrifice- onto the wood which serves as a marker of past generations to mix with the ashes of one of our first defenders. With the burst of flames, one of our trails will be ignited. It will this person alone who can protect us.” Peering up from the plate, James opened his arms above his head. “Mother, our Sun and warmth. Help guide us in our time of need,” he prayed. Turning to his sister, he then nodded. “Ready, Emily?”
James tossed the match as Emily dumped the contents of the vase into the plate. Blood poured over the edges, spilling onto the floor then quickly burst of flames.
Mina threw her arms up to shield her eyes from the intense light. She tried to block the painful rays from her eyes but from the corner of her eye she saw a misty yellow figure. It was waving at her. Slowly, she lowered her arms to get a better look but as the bright, fiery light dimmed, the figure vanished. Instead, she found all eyes fixed upon her: wide with shock and disbelief. Confused, she turned to Alex but found him with his eyes budging and his mouth pressed firmly shut. He pointed towards the floor. Mina’s heart began to hammer against her chest as her eyes apprehensively turned downwards. In front of her a thin trail of flames flickered softly.
She had been chosen.
About to cry, Mina’s mouth dropped open when another’s scream filled the room. Everyone turned to Lucas as his hands clamped over his eyes. Jacob sank onto his knees and snatched his brother’s wrists, forcefully dragging his hands away from his face.
Olivia screamed, the urn slipping from between her fingers as she ran to her sons. The urn shattered into dozens of pieces, scattering across the floor as the remaining ashes exploded up into the air.
Thin lines of blood expelled from Lucas’ eyes like thin trails of tears. His once brown irises were now a misty blue. Lucas screamed again. He was blind.