Rashell held her breath while the hushed forest begged for silence. She waited, just as the forest waited, wondering if the distant sound from moments earlier had been a cruel trick of the mind. She’d stepped out of the cottage, unbothered at such a late hour to exchange her nightgown for daylight attire, or her bandana for one of her wigs. Most likely, the sound had only been a phantom—a side effect of restless sleep.
Fresh screams lacerated the air, stripping the silence with wild agony.
Rashell startled as the cries swept across the rolling hills and sunk to a disgraced murmur at the tree line. More panicked and crazed screams followed. Flashes of violet light illuminated in perfect synch with the sounds, blooming in the distance beyond the branches. Her eyes trailed after the haze of color. It bled out from the nearest house of the fields, positioned atop a hill. The grand display of color banished the darkness for mere seconds, like flashes of lightning.
The screams were its thunder.
Rashell sprinted. The cries continued, and she swore they quickened and intensified the faster she ran. She breached the tree line within a dozen strides and her feet adjusted to the changed terrain of packed dirt. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears, adding organic drums to accompany the pained shrieks dragging across the night air.
The house grew closer. The purple beams leaked out of its windows, streaking between the tall crops. Rashell entered the light’s reign, and skidded to a stop outside the house. Darkness overtook the night again for the briefest moment, only to relent again to a blaze of purple flashes from the house’s windows. More cries punctured the air. Rashell squinted and tentatively made her way to the window’s ledge to peer in.
She knew what she’d see. She knew what the flashes and screams meant. But she’d never personally witnessed the trial by purge. It had never occurred during her residence.
She only stood in the window long enough to soak in the scene. As expected, the house’s rustic interior featured minimal and plain decor—quilted rugs, stitched curtains, and the such that warmed the otherwise bland kitchen and connected hallways. A few candles lit the space.
The figures gathered in the kitchen captured Rashell’s attention. She instantly recognized the residents of the house, as well as their obvious guest. Uthar, the patriarch of the house, and his wife Terra stood in a tight embrace. They stared with wide eyes at the scene unfolding within the confines of their home.
Rashell bristled at the sight of The Village Head, Keer, looming over the couple’s eating table. Bundled in a thick, unblemished white cloak that contrasted the dark shadows, he held an exquisite staff outstretched above the table. Candlelight reflected off the staff’s slender, metal frame.
Someone unfamiliar to Rashell lay prostrate across the table.
Realization snaked through her mind within seconds, just before a bright flash erupted from the head of the staff, choking out the darkness in an explosion of purple light. Rashell leapt from the window over to the adjacent door, not waiting for the screams. By the time she burst through the door, the stranger’s cries from the table echoed through her ears once again, and she witnessed one last flash as she broke upon the scene.
The sound of the door opening broke the stares of Uthar and Terra, who startled at Rashell’s entrance.
“What are you doing here?” Uthar asked with indignation.
A moan broke from the table.
“What’s happening here?” Rashell demanded. She kept her tone level, hoping it would de-escalate the tension of the room. Accusation wouldn’t get her far with this audience.
“Don’t act naïve, Rashell,” said Uthar. “It’s not flattering.”
“Do you even know this stranger’s name?” she asked. “Did you try conversing, or did you go immediately to purging?”
Uthar scoffed. “He was blabbering like a madman, which was enough reason to summon Keer.”
Rashell shifted her attention to the Village Head, who had not turned around at her intrusion. Keer’s cloak defied the darkness, startling to behold without a single blemish. He had propped his staff against his side, head declined as he silently stared down at the traumatized stranger on the table.
“What did this man say, Keer?” Rashell asked.
The question finally stirred the man to turn and bestow her an even, calm expression. Cleanly shaven hair, raked to the scalp, and a well-trimmed goatee evoked a pious and vain allure. Keer was surprisedly handsome, even as he donned the wrinkles of prime age and past the years of typical courtship. Yet these features became lost in the abrasions and scars traveling across his skin in chaotic patterns. The dancing shadows from the candlelight conjured a motion that made his wilted skin appear to writhe with unnatural life.
“As Uthar so crudely stated,” Keer murmured, “the man spoke of blasphemous things.”
She swallowed to ensure her voice didn’t crack. “Surely, he said nothing so terrible to provoke this treatment.”
“You twist your words.” Keer said slowly. “This is not a punishment, but liberation. We are cleansing him of outside taint.”
His voice sent a chill down Rashell’s spine. Something in his tone always set her on edge. Perhaps it was the articulated way he pronounced words or the hint of sanctimonious conceit. Most in the village either buckled in the man’s presence or worshipped his dung-stained boots. Rashell saw him for what he was—a man with a dangerous ability to manipulate. At times, she wondered if Keer was even aware of his innate ability to sway others.
“Strangers are given a choice,” Rashell said firmly. “To turn back, or endure this trial of purification. Did you give this man that choice?” She noticed Terra’s expression twist with conviction, but the men’s faces remained stern.
No one answered, which only confirmed Rashell’s suspicions. As an immigrant to the area herself, she knew what outsiders thought of the village. No one dared breach the wall that guarded the land, and whispers of the village’s purification rites joined the pool of rumors cultivated by Keer’s intolerance of outsiders. No one would willingly choose purification—not this kind. Or at least not with enthusiasm.
“This man was crazed!” Uthar insisted as he broke the silence and pointed to the stranger. “If you’d heard the things he said—”
“I asked you about that,” Rashell interrupted. She cocked her eyebrows at Uthar and glanced around the room at each of them.
“He claimed to have been summoned here,” said Uthar. “We know that isn’t true. He’s a bad omen. Maybe even the culprit behind the graveyard thefts.”
Keer’s hand shot up, and a tense silence fell across the room again. All eyes latched onto the Village Head as he bestowed a curt glare to Uthar. He put down his hand and turned his heated gaze to Rashell.
A lump formed in her throat, but she swallowed it. She refused to be intimidated.
Keer opened his mouth to speak, but she spoke first.
“By law, the man is now protected,” Rashell stated. “You’ve robbed him of the chance to refuse our rituals, and you’ve mistreated him just to satiate your own appetite for power. Our people now owe him a debt.” The tension of the room inflamed, but she pressed on. “If you’d simply taken him into the village until morning, I would have been able to clear up any confusion. It was I that summoned him here.”
Shock visibly spread through her audience. Keer’s eyes grew so wide she thought they’d burst. Uthar and Terra simply stared at her as if she’d grown horns and a pair of wings.
“Why in the Oracle’s good graces would you do that?” Keer asked, his hands curling tight around the staff.
“My brother has been missing for over a week, and you’ve done nothing!” Rashell shouted, no longer able to maintain a civil tone. “He didn’t just wander off like you’ve insisted. Nobody leaves this village without you knowing, and yet, you have no answer as to his whereabouts. So, I’ve brought help from outside. Maybe this man can find one of your flock, Keer.”
“You should have consulted me before committing this atrocity,” said Keer. “You’ve brought taint into our homes and you’ve doomed us with your naivety.”
“Stop acting like this stranger is a fungus,” Rashell snapped. “Maybe if you help us find Teth, he won’t be here for long. Regardless, he’s here to find my brother, and I don’t need your approval.”
Keer raised his chin. “If you do this, he is your responsibility. If he commits any crime, it will be on your head.”
Rashell straightened, squaring her shoulders. “I accept any consequence of his stay.”
“Watch yourself, Rashell,” Keer warned. “You know better than to meddle where you don’t belong. I will permit this arrangement, as I have no wish to abolish any laws that our village has acknowledged since its inception. We failed to give this man his choice.” He held up his index finger, a foreboding pinnacle. “One week. At one week, he will be asked to leave or else endure his purification.”
Keer lowered his finger and gripped the metal staff around the trio of prongs at its top. The subtle action was not lost on Rashell. Keer was a manipulative man, but she knew he rarely bluffed. This threat held weight. One week.
As if on cue, a groan came from the table. Rashell moved swiftly past Keer, taking quick observation of the stranger’s condition. Leather oddly dictated his attire, most notably a large frock that embraced his thin figure. Unsure if Keer’s staff was to blame, she found his pale complexion alarming, and worried he might be dead. She grabbed hold of his shoulder to sit him upright. He was young, not a child by any means, but certainly fresh in the fields of adulthood. Soft murmurs escaped the stranger’s lips.
“Can you hear me?” Rashell asked gently. She searched his face for any signs of response.
His eyes fluttered open and landed on her. Confusion danced behind them, mixed with an inability to grasp his surroundings.
“I’m getting you out of here,” she said in a hushed voice. “But you have to help me. I need you to stand and walk. You can lean on me for help.”
Without waiting for any incoherent excuses, she forcefully pressed him forward and slid him onto his feet. His legs buckled, and she groaned under his weight.
“That’s it,” she grunted. “Follow my lead.”
The march to the door was slow. Rashell ignored the heated glares that followed her and focused instead to keep her new acquaintance balanced on his feet.
A voice from behind gave Rashell pause.
“I expect you at Reverence tomorrow,” Keer sneered. “Bring our new guest. If you don’t show, I’ll drag the whole village to your doorstep. I know how much you’d enjoy that.”
Rashell said nothing, unwilling to validate another of Keer’s subtle threats. She staggered out past the door and didn’t look back.