The Darkest KingBy: Gena Showalter
The Realm of Lleh
Many millennia ago
A brutal punch broke the boy’s jaw. He wheeled to the rocky, soot-covered ground, spitting blood and teeth. Searing pain snatched the air from his lungs as stars flashed before his eyes and acid filled his stomach. He healed faster than most, his bones quickly fusing back together, but the pain continued to radiate.
Claw, the male responsible for his current torment, kicked him in the ribs. “When we give you food, you eat it.” Kick, kick. The overgrown brute had horns, tusks and muscle stacked upon muscle. Like everyone else in the realm, he wore a stained loincloth for “easy access,” shin guards and boots made of stone. “Do you understand?”
Between wheezing breaths, the boy sneered, “Oh, I understand.” Even as blood trickled from his ears and mouth, he remained aware of his surroundings. A hilly wasteland completely devoid of vegetation, overcrowded with immortal cannibals, rapists and murderers who’d been exiled from their homeworlds. Night had fallen, the camp illuminated by firepits...where prisoners roasted on a spit, their melting flesh dripping into the hissing flames.
Acrid wind blustered, stinging Scum’s wounds, and whisking his mind back to Claw. “By food you mean another captive’s thigh. You can take your food and—”
Kick. “Months ago, you fell from the sky and we welcomed you with open arms. You had no name, so we gave you one. You had no home, so we took you in. Your mind was a blank slate, so we gave you memories. This is how you repay our kindnesses?”
Kindnesses? He gave a bitter laugh, only to choke on blood as—he assumed—a broken piece of rib punctured and deflated his lung. “You call me Scum. And your precious shelter? A too-small mud hut bursting with captives, all chained.”
As for his memories, he shuddered. The terrible acts these awful males had committed against him and others... Part of him would do anything to scour his mind. The other part preferred horrors to near blankness. How sad was that? He just... He wanted to know his truths.
Who am I? How did I get here? Why am I here? Do I have a family desperate to save me?
A pang of longing nearly rent Scum in two. There are so many people here, yet I feel as if I’m alone, always alone.
“You dare complain?” Claw kicked the back of Scum’s head.
Tears stung his eyes, and panic set in. The moment you revealed a weakness, you taught your enemy how to defeat you. As quickly as possible, he blinked those tears away. If anyone spotted a glistening drop—
“Tears?” Claw laughed with glee. The growing crowd of onlookers laughed, too, and Scum ducked his head, ashamed.
Hoping to distract Claw, Scum said, “You were wrong. I wasn’t memory-less.” Anytime he closed his eyes, he saw a single moment on repeat. An echo of a life before this one.
“Tell me you remember your mother, and I’ll go get her for you.” Another brutal punch, this one to the temple.
A rush of dizziness, of agony, and the laughter reignited.
Vision blurring, Scum reached out a hand, praying someone, anyone, would help him. Someone stomped on his wrist, breaking the bones. The pain! More than any one person could bear, surely. Yet, the beating still did not compare to his sense of isolation.
Punch, punch. His brain rattled against his skull, his body going blessedly numb. Punch, punch. His eyes swelled shut. The beating faded from his awareness, the memory overtaking him.
I stand beside a boy I do not know. I’m not sure why we’re together, or how we ended up in the clouds. I only know his nearness comforts me.
A beautiful woman with curly black hair and flawless black skin descends from a haze of fog. She wears a flowing ivory gown, her white-and-gold wings gliding up and down. Up and down. I am awed by her. Is she an angel or Sent One? Maybe a Harpy or bird-shifter? The possibilities are endless, for every myth and legend is steeped in truth.
I feel a connection to her. What if she is...my mother?
My heart leaps at the idea, but I’m not sure I’m joyous or fearful. She lands, tears glinting in her baby blue eyes. She’s definitely not a Harpy, then. Not a shifter, either. Somehow, I know those species believe as I do: tears are a weakness, and weaknesses must be eliminated.