Chapter 1
Ryland

The city of Midayel was breathtaking during the summer festivities. It was built over the estuary of the river Vell, and it had over a hundred bridges connecting the city together. Now those bridges were full of decorations, bright and colorful, that made them look like sparkling serpents from the height of my palace tower. People would come from all over Saferion to participate in the celebrations, and the ones who couldn't afford one of the inns in the city, would camp outside the city walls. There were at least a thousand tents, creating a mosaic of colors in the valley.

A lot of people would come by boat from either the Vell river or the south ocean, and our five ports were full of white sails. Even though the city was beautiful during these times, I hated the Days of Glory. There was nothing glorious or honorable in celebrating the enslavement of an entire race, and I despised having to be a part of it. As the third and youngest son of the king, I had to actively participate in the festivities, even though it would always make me sick to my stomach.

"Prince Ryland, are you ready?"

I sighed, leaving the views of the city behind me and turning to face the captain of my guard. Darhius was a broad man in his early thirties, who was entrusted with protecting my life, since I still hadn't wanted to get my own elf. He helped me put my blue and golden armor on, which was extremely uncomfortable.

"How is someone supposed to actually fight in this thing?" I asked him, complaining about the stiffness and heaviness of the armor.

"Thankfully you will never have to find out," he said in a mocking tone.

I knew exactly what he thought of me, what everyone in the palace thought of me. I was the weak, spineless, and spoiled prince, who nobody respected or feared, unlike my two older brothers, Karon and Tay. They both left the palace when they turned four, and were sent to live with the soldiers to learn the ways of battle, and didn't come back until they were sixteen years old, except during the summers. I, on the other hand, escaped those twelve years of hard and ridiculous training. My mother, the queen, begged my father to leave me in her care. He had already taken away from her two of her sons, and she couldn't handle losing a third, so my father took pity on her, and decided to let me spend my childhood in the palace with her. So, unlike my brothers, I wasn't taught in the way of fighting and leading, but in the ways of the mind and the heart, like my mother used to say. I was taught history, mathematics, science, and I knew how to fluently speak five different languages. I also learned about art, literature, and poetry. While my brothers' most trusted companions were their swords, mine were my books.

"A pure heart and a trained mind are more useful than the strongest of arms," was one of the things my mother used to tell me whenever I would cry because I wanted to be outside with my brothers learning how to fight, instead of being inside the classroom.

As the years went on, I started to appreciate all that I was being taught. My brothers were interested in learning how to kill people faster, while I enjoyed painting them. They wanted to know which weapon was the deadliest, while I wanted to know which stars formed each constellation. Soon, we had nothing in common, except the blood that pumped in our veins.

When I looked in the mirror though, after Darhius handed me my sword, I felt like I was staring at them instead of me. We all looked a lot alike, with our dark hair and dark eyes, just like our father's. My lack of muscles was hidden behind the armor, and for the first time in forever, I felt like a true Khujan prince. I felt a sense of pride in my image, which was quickly replaced by guilt. I had always felt ashamed to carry the Khujan name, the name of the first man to be Blood Bonded to an elf.

"Follow me, Prince Ryland," Darhius told me, and I hastily looked away from the mirror.

When we walked through the door of my room into the hallway, I slightly bowed my head, saluting Darhius' elf, Alani. She reciprocated the gesture, giving me a hint of a smile. Even though the humans in the palace mocked me, the elves here all somewhat liked me.
I followed them through the maze of corridors that was Midayel Palace, until we arrived in the main hall. My parents were already there, along with my siblings.

"Look at you, all dressed up!" Tay called out to me giving me a slap on the shoulder.

Karon scoffed, rolling his eyes, and looked away. My father didn't even acknowledge me, and kept barking orders at his elf, Mihan. My mother gave me a gentle hug, and then tried to fix my hair, but I moved away. Everybody already called me a Mama's boy, and I didn't want to give Tay something else to make fun of me for.

Outside of the big double doors of the main hall, I could hear the loud crowd, which had gathered in the gardens. Today was the first day of the Glory Days, and we kicked off the celebrations with a parade. Father hated the word, he preferred calling it a "ride through the city," but in all reality all he wanted was to show off our supposed greatness and power, and I was always incredibly surprised by how many people wanted to take a look at the Royal family, feeling like a fish in a tank. During our "ride", people would call out my name, point at me, and throw me flowers. They were cheering for us, and for humankind in general.
The only ones who weren't as excited as the rest, were all of the elves. I felt so ashamed looking at them, from high up on my horse, with their tattooed hands as a sign of their slavery.

We had been riding for about twenty minutes when we reached the Ja'an bridge, one of the biggest and oldest bridges of Midayel. There were probably over a hundred people gathered on it, waiting to see the Royal family walk through it. They we calling out to us, waving their hands, throwing flowers at our feet.

My father was savoring all of the attention, with a bright smile across his face, sitting on his horse in a regal and elegant way. He was in his early fifties, his once black hair was now tainted grey, and his dark skin was wrinkling around his eyes. But he still seemed as strong as ever, his muscles bulging under his expensive clothing. For some reason, people adored him. He was their hero, their protector, their provider.

I watched his subjects bowing their heads at him, shouting out their gratitude, love, and support. The people who weren't focused on the King, were looking at the Queen, my mother, the fair beauty from the North, with her long blonde hair and pale skin, and her warm smile. Then, there were the younger girls, who came all of the way here for Karon and Tay. My brothers' fame and glorious gestures were told all across our kingdom, and my father had recently made known that his sons were ready to marry, which made all of the young ladies in our lands very happy and hopeful. And there they were, dressed in their best clothes, winking and sending kisses to the Princes, hoping they would notice them.

Nobody was really paying attention to me, the youngest and least attractive son of Vyktor and Astra, who rode quietly behind them all. I didn't mind the lack of notoriety, and if I was going to be recognized and admired someday, I wanted it to be because of how I made the world a little better, not because I had the biggest muscles.

As much as I hated the parade for what it represented, I didn't mind the opportunity to ride around the city, and I especially enjoyed looking at the citizens of Midayel. The only people I was really around were the ones working at the palace, either as guards or servants, and my teachers, and aside for my visits at the orphanage once a month, I spent most of my time away from big crowds. So this was a special occasion for me to see the variety of faces that populated our city, to watch them interact with each other, and with us.

I loved seeing children holding their parents' hands, lovers embracing each other, friends laughing together, and for a small moment, I was a part of their normal and ordinary lives, even if only as a witness.

I waved at the people on the bridge as we were riding through it, and I was surprised to see somebody looking back at me. Our eyes met for a brief moment, but something in his gaze made me shiver. He was a short man with a long red beard, and instead of cheering for our family, he was staring straight at me, a serious expression across his pale face.

I wasn't great at reading people, but even I could tell he was anxious and worried, by the way he was stomping nervously with his leg. He gave me a soft nod, and then he disappeared in the crowd. I tried to follow him with my eyes, but there were too many people and he was quickly gone out of my sight.

I didn't know why that encounter bothered me so much, and when we reached the middle of the bridge I was still thinking about that strange man. I looked back to where I first saw him, but he was gone. And then, all of a sudden, I spotted him out of the corner of my eyes on the river banks, with two elves by his side. Both of their hands were tattooless, which sparked my curiosity, making me wonder what those free elves were doing out in the open, and why that man was with them.
Something didn't seem right, and I abruptly stopped my horse, but I was too late. I watched the elves move their hands together in an elegant motion, and I immediately felt the ground beneath me shake.

It was barely noticeable, at first, but the earthquake quickly grew in intensity, and as the people began screaming, my horse started bucking and I fell off of it.
A moment later Darhius was next to me, grabbing me from my arm, trying to help me keep my balance, but he was actually making it worse. I called out for my mother, worried about her safety, but I couldn't see anything in the chaos that was around me, with people running everywhere and pushing and shoving each other.
As the pebbled surface of the bridge kept trembling, I heard a loud noise, like an explosion, and I saw straight ahead the pillar that was keeping us above water collapse, and we all started falling forward.

The bridge was sinking, like a ship, and people started falling in the river, who had all of a sudden become tumultuous and angry with waves.

"Alani!" Darhius yelled, calling his elf, but she wasn't fast enough.

There was another explosion, and the ground beneath us crumbled, and we all fell in the cold water. I was immediately pulled under, and my heavy armor was a tomb that was slowly making me drown. I couldn't swim, no matter how hard I tried, and the current was too strong for my weak and weighed down limbs.
It was dark underwater, but I could see other people drowning around me, and I was completely terrified. Gasping for air and coming up empty was the worst feeling I had ever experienced, and I wanted to rip out my own throat from how badly it was burning.

I knew I was dying, and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt completely helpless, and I gave up trying to fight. I wondered if somebody other than my mother was going to mourn me, if any other life would've felt my loss.

I knew the children at the orphanage would miss me, but they would soon grow up and forget about the Prince who taught them how to read and write. I felt dizzy, and I knew the end was near. I was so angry at myself, because in these last moments I realized I wasn't satisfied with my life, with the person I was. I was going to die of a meaningless death after a meaningless existence.

All of a sudden I felt something envelop me, an invisible force that started pushing me towards the surface. Part of me wondered if I was dreaming, but when I felt the cold air on my skin, and I was able to take a deep breath, I knew that I was going to survive.

Whatever had lifted me up from the depth of the river carried me against the growing currents, taking me to the safety of the shore.
Once I was there, I noticed tentacles of water wrapped around my waist, but they dissolved as soon as I was back on land. I fell on my knees, still coughing and spitting up water, when Alani knelt down beside me.

"Did-did you save me?" I managed to ask her, still in shock.

She nodded, and I noticed that on her left hand the tattoo of the Blood Bond was gone, which meant that Darhius had died. She was a free elf now, and instead of running away she took the time to save me from drowning. I pulled a jeweled ring off my finger and handed it to her, thanking her. She grabbed it before jumping in the river and disappearing with the current. I prayed in my heart that she wouldn't be captured, and that she could find a place to be safe, and that my small gift would help her in her search for freedom.

As soon as I had regained part of my strength, I took off my heavy armor, and started helping people on the shore. So many of them were injured, or in shock, and I tried to be as helpful as I could. I pulled an old man out of the water, applied pressure on a woman's torn up leg, and took care of a child until I was able to find his mother. When my father's guards found me, I refused to go with them, knowing I would be more useful here than inside the safety of the palace walls, but they didn't take no for an answer. They helped me up on a horse, and I watched the devastation of the collapsed bridge with an ache in my heart.

The guards informed me that all of the Royal family had survived, and even though I was happy to know they were all safe, especially my mother, I couldn't help but mourn all of the other lives lost that day.

When we reached the palace I was escorted to the throne room, where all of my family had gathered. My mother ran to me, wrapped her arms around my neck and started crying, telling me how worried she had been. Before I could ask my father about what happened on the bridge, and if they knew it was an attack, someone called out his name.

"King Vyktor, you asked to see me?"

I felt chills run down my spine. I heard her voice coming from behind me, and I could feel her evil eyes on me. We all turned around, and bowed our heads in reverence. All except my father. He didn't bow for anyone.

"Yes, I did. Please come with me, Rayka Nebula."

The witch gave me a crooked smile before following my father into his war room. Her skin was pale and wrinkly, her long silver hair touched the marble floor, along with her black robes. She had always terrified me, but her eyes were what scared me the most. They were pitch black, and they looked empty, hollow.

She was the Rayka of Midayel, the leader of the witches that inhabited the city. They lived in the shadows, underground, and away from the curious human eyes. But they were always there. Watching, plotting, using their dark powers to enslave the elves. They, the witches, were the ones who performed the spell that Blood Bonded the elves to the humans, that had been cursing their race for centuries. Behind every Blood Bond tattoo, there was the work of a witch and her evil enchantment.

I had witnessed the Blood Bond of my oldest brother Karon, and it was something I would never be able to forget.

I was eight years old when it happened. Karon had just turned eighteen, and we had all traveled to the Drahakas so he could choose his elf. I absolutely hated it there. I thought it would be a place where they trained the elves, but it was nothing compared to what I had in mind. It was below the earth, and it reeked of sweat, blood, and witches. They were everywhere in the maze of underground caves, and I remembered holding tightly onto my mother. We walked through rooms with empty cells, and I pitied anyone who had to be confined inside of them. They were small, dirty, and the bars were made out of this black and purple stone I had never seen before.

"What is that?" I had asked my mother pointing at the strange rock.

"That's Rayka Stone. Do you see the purple veins running through it?"

I nodded, paying closer attention to it.

"They are moving!" I exclaimed, jumping from the surprise.

"That's the witches' powers flowing inside of it. They contain spells and curses, don't ever touch them."

We kept walking through the halls, and I squeezed closer to my mother. When we finally reached the arena, I gasped in wonder. It looked like a canyon, and it was huge. We were right at the top on some sort of balcony, looking down to the underground field crowded with elves dueling each other. I had to cover my ears with my hands, the sounds of the battles were too much for me to handle. I was mesmerized by the colors of the elements they were using against each other, and even though I was terrified by the brutality of it all, I couldn't take my eyes off of them. I noticed they were wearing black collars around their necks, that sparkled with purple lights every time they used their elemental magic.

We stayed up there, watching the fights below us, for what felt like an eternity, until Karon pointed towards the elf he had chosen. I followed his finger to a young male elf, who I had noticed for its strength and versatility with the elements. He could wield fire, which I had heard was one of the rarest elements to possess. I trembled, thinking of what my cold and heartless brother would do with that kind of power at his fingertips.

The witch who had been accompanying us, a scary looking and toothless old thing, led us through another series of creepy hallways, until we stopped in a cave whose walls and ceiling was made entirely of the Rayka Stone. I could see the purple veins beating as if pumped by their own heart. There were candles all around, and two stone tables with chains in the middle of the cave.

My parents, Tay and I waited by the doors, while another witch, a younger but still scary looking, made Karon lay on one of the tables and chained him to it. If I had been in his place, I would've been scared to death, but he looked excited for what was about to happen. I was sweating, and my juvenile and small body was shaking. Thankfully we didn't have to wait long for the elf my brother had chosen to arrive, along with two other witches. There were four of them in total now, and I could barely tell them apart, all of them with their long silver hair and black tunics. The poor elf, who I found out later was named Leor, looked terrified. He still had his Rayka Stone collar on, which I imagined stopped him from using his magic or trying to escape. He laid on the table next to Karon, and then they chained him to it.

The witches positioned themselves near the tables, two by each one, and then started chanting in a language I had never heard before. It was a sinister sound, and the veins of the Rayka Stone around us beat in unison with their voices. After a few minutes, one of the witches that was standing right next to my brother, took a dagger from under her tunic, and I gasped. I felt my mother's hand tighten around my shoulder, and I glanced at my father, who was looking at me with admonishing eyes. I took a deep breath and clenched my fists. I had to be brave, to show my father I wasn't as weak as he thought I was. I made myself turn towards Karon again, and I saw him stay completely still as the witch cut through his palm with the dagger. Red blood started flowing from his hand, and the witches started chanting again.

Karon's blood turned purple, and then it started moving as if guided by the sound of the witches' voices. It flowed down off the table, onto the stone floor, and then started rising again, until it stopped a few inches away from Leor's hand.

Another one of the witches, with another dagger, cut the flesh of the palm of his hand, and as soon as their chant started again, this time more hastened and intense, Karon's purple blood entered the wound on Leor's hand. As soon as it touched his skin, the elf started screaming and writhe in pain, and I felt tears fall from my eyes. I wanted to wipe them off so my father wouldn't notice them, but I was paralyzed in fear. Leor must have been going through excruciating pain, because I had never heard anybody scream like that, and those sounds would haunt my dreams for years to come.

The elf's skin became almost transparent, and I could see the bright purple blood flow underneath it, creating a mosaic of lines and spirals, permanently tattooing his hand. When the chanting stopped, Leor's agonizing yells ceased as well, and he closed his eyes and laid unconscious.
The ritual was finally over, but I carried the horrors of that moment with me throughout the years. Even now, as I watched Rayka Nebula leave with my father, I glanced at Leor, standing by my brother's side, and stared at his tattooed hand.

I hated us humans for what we did to elves, but most of all, I hated the witches, who made it all possible.