3. branded

It was one of those moments in time Dom wanted to savor and learn by heart so he would be able to relive it later on, just by closing his eyes.

For the first time, Dom was able to taste the lips his eyes had already kissed so many times over. They were soft and yielding, parting at times to welcome Dom, to drag him in a little deeper. Then they would close again, leaving Dom's mouth with a soft smacking noise before diving in again.

Dom flicked his tongue over Elijah's top lip. Elijah moaned quietly, the sound vibrating in his throat and pouring over Dom's mouth in a little puff of air, his breath caressing Dom's lips softly. Dom smiled and opened his eyes as he deepened the kiss. He found himself staring into Elijah's closed eyes, long lashes spread against his cheeks. Elijah inclined his head slightly to the right and Dom saw the spinning crystal ball behind him. He gasped and jumped back in fear.

"What's going on?" Elijah frowned. "I didn't... bite you, did I?"

Dom pointed behind Elijah's back, where the ball's appearance changed slightly as it reached two feet in diameter. It became transparent and gelatinous, like a giant soap bubble. The colored light splashing on its sides moved faster and faster as the sphere expanded.

As Elijah tried to turn around to see what Dom indicated, the sphere grew big enough to touch his legs. The moment it made contact, Elijah was yanked off the bed and pulled toward the giant bubble, which was now reaching a diameter of five feet.

"Lij!" Dom reached for Elijah, but just as he got to him, Elijah disappeared completely into the sphere. Dom's fingers touched its surface and he felt something jerk his arm. He was sucked head first into the crystal ball.

He found himself pinned to the side of the spinning sphere. The air was so hot it nearly choked him. Colors moved sickeningly fast, colliding with the sides of the sphere and bouncing in all directions. Dom closed his eyes and tried to bring his hands over them, but the strong centrifugal force pinned his arms to his sides. He willed himself to fight the nausea that overwhelmed him. The headache caused by his fall earlier was back in full force.

A bright light flashed, then everything around him went black and wet. He was falling. The transition into cold, rainy atmosphere was almost painful. He gasped for air, tried to open his eyes, but he was going too fast to do anything. He fell for what seemed like miles. "I'm going to die when I hit the ground," he thought briefly. But he didn't hit the ground; he fell into running water.

He opened his eyes and saw he was in a river. He tried to shake the water out of his eyes but found it was difficult due to the rain. The current was extremely strong and drove him dangerously close to a jagged rock. He gasped and swallowed a mouthful of salty water. A bolt of lightning tore the sky. Dom was able to see his surroundings for a split second and he saw Elijah a few feet away from him, fighting the current.

"Elijah!" Dom shouted, but he barely heard himself over the noise from the river and the storm. He tried to swim to his right. The rapids were still pushing him forward incredibly fast, but as he and Elijah were going the same speed, he thought there was a chance of reaching him if he moved laterally.

Another bolt of lightning allowed him to look around again. He saw Elijah, who wasn't any further than an arm's length now, getting slammed head first into a rock by the river. Dom panicked as he witnessed Elijah going completely underwater.

Dom moved his arms frantically, trying to find Elijah in the dark. Something bumped into his knees, and it felt too soft to be another rock. Praying it was Elijah, he spread his legs slightly to keep him in place. He reached underwater, his entire body aching with the effort of keeping himself still in such powerful rapids.

He felt around until he found something to hold onto. He finally grabbed a handful of hair and pulled Elijah's head out of the water. He encircled Elijah's waist with his other arm, steadying the drowning man above the surface.

Elijah secured against him, Dom tried to calm down. He took a deep breath, head tipped back to make sure he wouldn't swallow too much water. His arms and legs were burning from the fight against the river, his head was pounding and his eyes were irritated from the salty water.

A frightening thought occurred to Dom as he let the current guide them. He wasn't sure how long Elijah had been underwater before he'd managed to pull him back out. Given their position and the noise around them, Dom had no way of making sure Elijah was even breathing still. They needed to reach the shore as soon as possible.

He looked around. He could barely see Elijah's head, three inches from his eyes. His chances of seeing the shore were close to none. Taking a wild guess, he began to swim left, carrying Elijah's limp body, hoping the shore was close by.

Dom saw something flickering further down the river. He squinted, trying to see through the rain. It looked like fire. As he got closer to it, he realized it was a lantern, and there were two tall figures moving next to it. "A boat," Dom thought, relieved. He shouted, but realizing he wouldn't be heard, he saved his energy.

Holding Elijah close, Dom let the current guide them toward the boat. As they neared it, they encountered a small waterfall. The drop was less than three feet, but it was enough to split them up and send Dom spiraling underwater.

His first reflex was to get back to the surface. He swam as hard as his tired body allowed, but he couldn't tell which way was up; it seemed as difficult to him to swim one way as the other. Just when he thought he was going to pass out, a wave spit him out and he was able to take a much-needed breath.

He searched around him to find Elijah again, but to no avail. He grew more and more panicked as seconds flew by. He needed to find Elijah or he'd drown. He took a deep breath and was about to dive back underwater when someone grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him out by the collar. "I got him!" Dom heard a man yell as he was pulled onboard.

"Let me go!" Dom cried. "I have to get to him!" He went to dive off the small boat, but another pair of arms grabbed him and held him back.

"Stay!" the other man ordered.

He struggled against their grip, making the boat rock dangerously. "Elijah!" he shouted. "Elijah!"

"He's going to make us capsize!" one of them said. "Do something!"

Dom felt a strong blow to the back of his head, and passed out.

* * *

Two fingers pressing on his forearm woke Dom up. He vaguely thought they might be checking for a pulse, but realized as he came to his senses that the hand, halfway between the wrist and the elbow, was too high up his forearm to do that.

"It's not even faded, Shakal," Dom heard the man say before taking his hand away from his arm. He spoke English, but he had an accent Dom had never heard before, like old English with a touch of an American drawl to it. "It's not there at all."

"Check again."

Dom opened his eyes. He was dizzy and his head was killing him. He was in a carriage of some kind, drawn by horses, judging by the sound and the smell. Over him stood a young man holding a lantern in his hand. By the weak light, Dom could see long hair, possibly blond or light brown.

"It's not there. It's not going to suddenly appear, no matter how many times I check." His eyes fell on Dom's face. "Hey, he's awake!"

"Put the light closer to his arm," Shakal said. "Maybe you'll see it."

"I'll set him on fire," the blond man said. "Besides, I could feel the brand in complete darkness -- if it were there," he added pointedly before turning to Dom. "Greetings."

Dom was dumbstruck. He opened his mouth, but couldn't form a coherent thought.

"Do you understand me?" the stranger said, enunciating every word carefully.

Dom nodded slowly. The gesture made the world spin. He closed his eyes again.

"Don't be afraid. We're not going to hurt you," the man extended his hand to touch Dom's shoulder. Dom recoiled, opening his eyes again and gasping. "What's your name?"

Dom looked at him for a moment, then said hesitantly, "Dominic."

The man smiled. "I'm Ariel," he said warmly.

"Where's Elijah? My friend?" Dom managed to say weakly.

"He talks in an odd way, that one," Shakal said. "I still say he's an Amathian."

"Amathians don't talk like that," Ariel argued. "And, as I've told you, he's not branded."

Shakal growled. "He's probably just another spy, you fucking unclean."

Ariel scoffed. He moved away from Dom, sitting on the bench opposite him and hanging the lantern he held to the carriage's ceiling. The swaying light made Dom nauseous, so he closed his eyes. He soon passed out again.

* * *

He was in a bed when he woke up again. He felt much better than before: his headache was completely gone and only a slight nausea remained, which Dom was sure was due to hunger. He hadn't eaten in quite a while -- possibly over a day, as he wasn't sure exactly how much time he'd spent unconscious. There were no windows in his small room, so he couldn't know if it was night or day.

He sat up, looking around. A small lantern was lighting the room from the opposite wall. Other than his bed, the room's furniture included a small table with a single chair near the door, and on the wall facing it stood a cabinet. Dom got up and opened its two large doors. Inside were half a dozen uniforms: brown trousers and dark red shirts and boots. There were also two silver helmets on the top shelf.

He closed the cabinet and headed out the door. He found himself in a narrow hallway. The color scheme was similar to the clothes in the cabinet, with additional purple and gold touches.

"Hey, you!" Dom heard from his right, and turned his head in the direction of the voice. A man was running towards him. He was wearing the same uniform Dom had seen in the cabinet, in addition to which he wore a silver breastplate. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Nowhere," Dom said. "Do you know--"

"Go back to your room and wait."

"But I just want to know if my friend--"

"Go," the guard said, unsheathing his sword.

"All right. I'm going," Dom said, before retreating to his room.

He sat cross-legged on his bed and leaned his head back against the wall, sighing.

He wondered where Elijah was, if he had made it to the shore or if a boat had picked him up. He had no idea what kind of boat Ariel and Shakal had used, but he had a hard time picturing what could possibly navigate such waters. Fast as the current of the river was, boats would be far and few between on it.

Maybe they had been closer to the shore than he thought, and Elijah had washed up on a beach somewhere. Maybe he'd woken up, confused, and was still wandering along the river looking for Dom.

Or maybe he'd just drowned.

Dom closed his eyes. He knew that was the most plausible answer to his question, but he couldn't accept it. He wouldn't assume that Elijah was dead, not like that, without proof. There was still hope.

Dom was pulled out of his thoughts by the sound of the door opening. He opened his eyes to see a tall man enter the room. He was dressed in clothes similar to those worn by the guard Dom had met down the hall, except that this man's armor was more refined and his helmet was gold instead of silver. He was, Dom guessed, the hall guard's superior.

"I was told you were awake," the man said. "My name is Celmin, I'm the high knight of the castle."

"Do you know where Elijah is?"


"My friend, he was with me..."

"You were brought here alone, lad," Celmin answered. "Come with me."

"I'm just wondering if maybe another boat had picked him up--"

"This is no bother of mine."


"I am not here to answer your questions. Now, follow me," Celmin said, putting a hand on the pommel of his sword.

Dom held his hands up. "Woah, you people are on edge," he said. "Calm down, I'm coming."

Celmin stepped aside to let Dom out of the room first. He followed him out and closed the door behind them.

"Rami!" Celmin called out to the guard down the hall. "Have someone bring food in to this room before we come back." He headed to the left, and with a wave of his hand, he beckoned Dom to follow him. He led him to what was, without a doubt, the entrance hall of a castle. The circular hall was vast and at least ten stories high. Each floor was bordered by a balcony and led to a majestic stairway that stood on Dom's left hand side. On Dom's right hand side was the entrance door, made out of bronze and at least three stories high. It had carvings, but Dom couldn't see what they were.

"Hurry up," he said to Dom as they stepped on the stairway. They went down to the first floor, then to their left. Behind a door marked "Dungeon", they took another stairway down into the basement of the castle.

As they went lower and lower, the dungeon became danker and darker. The light, coming from the torches on the walls, gave the stairway an eerie feeling. From below rose wails and cries, and the noise of metal on metal.

"Where are we going?" Dom asked, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. Celmin didn't answer. They entered a hallway to their right. The noises from the prisoners grew distant.

The blood-chilling scream of a child tore the air. Dom stopped. "Where are we going?" he asked again, terrified. It sounded like someone being tortured. He remembered bits of Ariel and Shakal's conversation the previous night, and wondered if Shakal had won the argument in the end. Did they think he was a spy?

"I'm not going," Dom said. If they were going to torture him for some information he didn't have, he certainly would not follow willingly.

Celmin looked thoroughly annoyed with him. "Quit making trouble and follow me," he said, stepping towards Dom.

Dom turned around and bolted away, running. Celmin swore and took after him. Within a few steps he'd caught up with Dom and slammed him to the damp ground. He stood over him and pressed the tip of his sword to the back of Dom's neck. "Don't even think about trying that again."

Dom slowly got up, berating himself for his foolish idea. It was ridiculous to try and run away from this dungeon, and all he'd gotten from his evasion attempt were scrapes and bruises.

He walked in front of Celmin, feeling his sword pressed against his back. The child was still crying, a heart-breaking sound echoing around them and getting louder as they got closer to the door at the end of the hallway.

"Go on," Celmin said as they reached the door. Dom opened it and, to his surprise, the room wasn't full of torture machines, but was clean and almost elegant, though it was freezing cold. In the middle of the room was a shallow pool, and in it a baby boy, crying his heart out. His mother was kneeling by the pool, holding him and whispering calming words.

"What is this place?" Dom asked, feeling rather stupid that the cries of a baby who disliked baths had scared him so much. "Why is it in the middle of the dungeon?"

"Wait here," Celmin said before going to the back of the room and talking to the guard standing there.

Dom clicked his tongue, annoyed. He glanced around the room for someone who would answer his question, but apart from Celmin and the guard, the only other people in the room were that woman and her baby, and she seemed rather too busy for mindless chatter.

The kid was howling as loud as his tiny lungs allowed. Dom noticed that he wasn't submerged in the water. He was sitting on the low edge of the pool and his mother was pouring water on his arm. As the baby kicked around, Dom saw a vivid burn on his forearm.

He thought briefly that he might be in some sort of hospital room. As he tried to figure out why he'd have been brought there, Celmin and the guard turned to him and Dom saw the guard's forearm. The rolled-up sleeve exposed a faded burn, a spiral surrounded by a circle, exactly like the baby's burn, only much larger. Dom remembered Ariel's search for a brand on his forearm the previous night, and now knew what that brand was.

And he was in that room to get his own.

It was too late to turn around - the guard and Celmin grabbed him, each holding an arm and raising him a foot above ground. They carried him to the back of the room and held him bent over a table, his arm extended out, palm facing upwards.

"You can't do this!" Dom screamed. "You have no right!" He kicked and squirmed, but couldn't escape them. They held his arm completely still, so tightly they restricted the blood flow and his arm started to fall asleep.

A curtain was pushed aside in the back of the room and behind it Dom could see an old man pulling a red-hot iron out of a fire oven. "Let me go! You can't do this!" Dom threw his head back and succeeded in head-butting Celmin, who cursed but kept a strong grip on Dom nonetheless.

The man with the iron frowned when he saw Dom. "He's old. Is this supposed to be a slave brand?"

"No, Zaphyr's sign," Celmin said.

"Very well," the old man said. He moved the iron over Dom's arm. Dom could feel the heat on his skin. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, bracing himself for the moment the metal would touch his skin.

There was no preparing for it. His eyes flew open the second the iron made contact. His scream carried through the entire dungeon. The iron pressed into his arm for what seemed like an eternity. It felt like it was burning through skin, muscles and bones, hissing and giving out a smell of carbonized flesh.

When the iron was finally removed, it felt like invisible hands that had been choking him fell away. He gasped, swallowing mouthfuls of air. Celmin and the guard released him and he fell to his knees. Tears of pain and rage rolled down his cheeks. He looked at his abused arm. The brand was there, permanent and swollen.

"Go put it in water," Celmin said, pointing to the pool in the middle of the room.

Dom stood up and walked to the basin, head hanging low. He thought falling face first during a play in school had been the most humiliating moment of his life, but this was it. He felt used and exposed. Never in his life had he yearned so much to be home. He wanted to curl up in his bed, in the dark, and sleep until the world had passed him by.

He plunged his arm in the water. It was glacial cold. It numbed him from fingers to elbow within minutes. The burning eased slightly for a moment, but eventually his frozen fingers were aching too much, and he had to withdraw his arm. Taking a leaf out of the woman's book, he began to pour water on the brand.

"What are you?" the woman asked. "To be branded so old, and not with the slave brand..."

"This is knight's matter," Celmin said to the woman, crouching next to Dom. "Care for your child and leave us to mind this one."

Dom felt an odd sense of pride when he saw that Celmin was holding a bloodstained handkerchief to his mouth. At least he'd managed to do some damage himself, even though Celmin's split lip would soon heal but Dom's brand would not.

Celmin noticed that Dom was staring at his mouth. "Perhaps you are indeed the one." He leaned close to Dom and caressed his cheek, slowly trailing his fingers down his jaw. When he reached the chin, he tipped Dom's head up slightly and caught his gaze. "You've got fire in your eyes."

Dom spat in his face.

* * *

Celmin didn't talk to Dom after that incident, until he threw him a cloth and told him to wrap it around his arm. It had been long enough, and it was time to leave.

They walked in silence until they reached Dom's room. "There is a chamber pot under your bed," Celmin said. "It'll be emptied twice a day. Clean clothes are in the desk over there, put your dirty ones on the bottom shelves and they'll be picked up. As for baths and meals, request them in the room at the end of the corridor. Any questions?"

"No," Dom said, sitting on his bed and staring into space.

"Eat," Celmin said, taking the tray that lay on the table and putting in on the bed next to Dom. "Then rest. You'll meet Zaphyr in the morning." He left the room.

Dom poked his meal a couple of times before breaking down. "Arghhhh!" he cried as he threw his tray at the door. The food and drink spilled on the ground in a cacophony of breaking plates. Dom stared at the mess, breathing hard. He let out a few sobs before bursting into tears. He fell asleep much later, curled up on his bed.

* * *


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