Wednesday was the best day to set my boyfriend on fire. That was what his father said, anyway—so he could get it done before anyone else turned seventeen. And I got to watch. Lucky me.
Luke lay on his stomach, splayed atop a long wooden altar, his torso stripped bare. A rough hole cut into one end hid his face, so his head appeared to be just a mess of tousled black hair. Behind him, an Outsider stoked the fire and dropped in a thick rod topped with a large metal ball. It struck the stone of the fire pit with a heavy clank, but Luke didn’t flinch.
I wished I hadn’t.
Our generation, all still marklings, packed the Temple of the Descendants, a wide, round clearing deep in the woods of Northern Montana. Curious murmurs rippled through the crowd. A year ago, I would’ve shared that excitement. Now I just wanted this night to be over.
“Hey, Genn,” my brother said in my ear. He plucked at the shirt—Luke’s T-shirt—that had somehow wrapped itself around my fingers, tight enough to cut off the circulation. “You finally starting to doubt him?”
“Shut up, Seth.” I unwound the shirt and blood rushed into my fingertips, stabbing like a thousand tiny pins.
He smirked and shook his shaggy, blond mane out of his eyes with a flip of his head. “You’re totally freaking out.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious. “I am not freaking out.”
“You know, no one would blame you for doubting him. Wouldn’t hurt him to fall down a few notches, or . . .” He shrugged. “Off a cliff.”
I opened my mouth to tell him again to shut up, maybe with a little help from my fist, but a deep clanging froze my tongue—the bell signaling the start of the ceremony. The elders, all seated at the back of the clearing, stood as one and drew up the hoods of their robes. High Elder Abrams, Luke’s father, stepped from among them, toward the platform.
Before he’d taken three steps, the world settled into an overwhelming silence. Gravel crunched beneath Abrams’ feet, his heavy robe swish-swishing with each sluggish step. A breeze stirred and flicked the torches lining the edge of the clearing.
I returned my focus to Luke, to his chest rising and falling, slow and smooth, just like we’d practiced. We’d done so many things to get him ready for this, but how could he ever truly prepare for the pain he was about to endure? My fingers began to tingle and I unwound the shirt again. Abrams wasn’t even halfway there.
Four eternities passed before he reached the stairs leading up to the platform. He took those just as slowly, the old wood creaking under his weight. A few more steps and he stopped beside the altar. He stared down at the boy I loved, obviously delighting in what was about to happen. Sadistic bastard. After a moment, he brushed his fingers over the base of Luke’s neck, over his Mark. A wide smile split his face as he turned and stepped to the front edge of the platform.
He pushed his hood back, revealing close-cut, sandy blond hair, and swept his dark gaze over the crowd. With the way the setting sun filtered through the trees, his narrow face was almost bearable to look at. Almost. Good thing for Luke he took after his mother’s side of the family.
“Welcome.” Abrams’ deep voice bellowed in the silence. “Today is my son’s seventeenth birthday. Tradition dictates that before he can become the elder for your generation, he must prove himself three times. I am very pleased with Luke’s choice to be here.”
Some choice—accept tradition and risk his life to “prove his worth” or live like one of the Outsiders, tongue cut out and everything. I never should’ve convinced him to stay when he wanted to run away last year.
“Only the purest of our people can hold the title of Elder,” Abrams continued. “And only the purest can withstand these tests, the first of which is fire.” The man actually had a twinkle in his eye when he said that. “Three chances to prove the strength of his Mark . . .”
I tuned him out. This was first time the other marklings had heard any of this, but it was all Luke and I had talked about since his sixteenth birthday, when his father first told him about the tests.
Seth made a sizzling noise in my ear, and I “accidently” elbowed him in the stomach. He folded over with a grunt.
“Oh, whoops. Sorry,” I whispered with a shrug.
He glared, like he wasn’t the one being a total ass.
I froze. Did Abrams seriously just say my name? Certain my nerves were making me hear things, I turned my attention back to him. He was staring right at me. And so was everyone else.
“Am I disturbing you?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
“Sorry, sir.” For Luke’s sake, I bowed my head. Abrams making a spectacle of my interruption looked bad for me, but it could ruin everything for Luke. “My brother has a weak stomach. I was worried he might puke.”
A few snickers echoed through the crowd. I could practically feel Seth’s glare boring into the back of my head, like two hot coals.
Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on whose side you were on—Abrams didn’t look like he bought my story. Not that I really expected him to. Only three days younger than Luke and therefore second in line for the title, Seth could do no wrong in the eyes of the glorious High Elder. Luke, on the other hand, couldn’t fail fast enough.
Abrams stared down his nose at me for a few more seconds, then said, “See me after the ceremony.”
And that made Luke flinch. Or maybe it was more of a jolt. Judging by how white-knuckled his fists were getting, I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t launch himself off the altar and pound his father’s face right then and there. Good thing Abrams had his back to him, though not for long.
My stomach crawled into my throat as the High Elder walked around to the back of the altar, slid on a pair of insulated fireproof gloves, and pulled the long rod from the fire. Several chunks of coal wiggled loose. One glowing ember tumbled out of the pit and landed on the Outsider’s bare foot. He twitched it off. Unintelligible whimpers poured from his throat.
Abrams glared at the Outsider until he quieted down, then turned back to the altar. He gripped the rod with both hands, holding it a few inches above Luke’s Mark. The searing hot ball crept toward his exposed skin.
It hissed on contact and Luke’s chest expanded. I braced myself, waiting for him to exhale, praying he didn’t scream. He held perfectly still, every muscle taut, but he didn’t make a sound. The scent of cooked flesh permeated the air. I pressed Luke’s T-shirt to my face to block the barbecued-Luke smell before it permanently implanted itself in my memory.
Abrams wore a tiny smile as he took his time rolling the huge chunk of metal over the base of Luke’s neck. Finally, he lifted the ball. Something went with it. I shuddered. Luke just lay there, still as stone.
Breathe, Luke. A knot settled in my gut. I’d heard stories of Descendants whose Marks had been permanently removed. Seemed like those stories always ended with the de-Marked dead, but I didn’t think it would happen right away. Don’t die. Please.
Seconds passed—it felt like hours—before his fingers twitched, and slowly, his chest contracted. He pushed himself up off the altar, only a slight tremor visible in his arms, and hopped down onto the platform. Seth made a noise behind me, similar to the grunt produced by my elbow meeting his gut.
Luke shot a shaky smile in my direction before giving the other marklings his full attention. They waited in silence as he swept his sweaty mop of hair from his eyes.
“Well, it’s official,” he said, his tone deceptively light and confident. “I am smokin’.”
The crowd erupted in a combination of cheering and laughter. I rolled my eyes but smiled. Typical Luke.
His father’s brow drew down, his lips a tight line.
“Thanks for the support, everyone,” Luke said. “See you all here again next week.”
Sure, join us again next week for the Let’s See if We Can Kill Luke Show. It’ll be fan-freaking-tastic.
Still smiling, he jumped off the platform and sauntered over to me. Before I knew what was happening, he took hold of my face and firmly planted his lips on mine. All for show, of course, and the crowd reacted as I was sure Luke hoped, whooping and hollering like we’d actually done something worth cheering over.
After a moment, he moved his mouth to my ear and whispered, “There is no way I can do this again.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I wrapped my arms around him and held him tight. His body trembled against mine, his breathing erratic. There had to be a way out of this.
“Well done, son.” Abrams clapped Luke on the shoulder. “You made me proud today.” He sounded pleased, but his eyes screamed disappointed.
“Thank you,” Luke said, using the formal tone he reserved for his father. He moved so he was standing beside me, his arm around my shoulder, but still leaned on me enough that I had to push into him to keep from falling over. At least he kept his voice steady. “Given the occasion, you think you could give Genn a pass on interrupting the ceremony?”
Several of the marklings were close enough to hear their conversation. Abrams would look bad if he denied him now. And Luke would pay later for forcing him to let me off the hook.
“Sure.” Abrams nodded, frowning. “You two go celebrate. I’ll see you at home.”
Luke somehow managed to stand on his own without shaking. He took my hand and tugged me toward the trees, in the opposite direction from his car. We walked in silence for at least half a mile. Well, I walked. Luke stumbled several times, but he wouldn’t accept my help.
He all but collapsed onto a fallen pine tree and pulled me down beside him. We just sat there, not talking for several minutes. The very edge of his burn, his skin raw and angry-looking, was visible from where I sat. It had to hurt so much more than he was letting on.
“Sorry if I made it harder for you,” I finally said.
He started, like he’d forgotten I was there, but he gave me a half smile. He raised my hand to his lips and kissed my palm. “You’re what got me through it. If I’d failed, I never would’ve been able to convince my father to let you off.”
“You shouldn’t have done that. It’s only going to make things worse.”
He tucked my hair behind my ear. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
I wished I could believe that, wished I could take the all too familiar look of pain from his face. He’d never given me any details about what his father did to him when they were alone, but I had a few guesses. He dropped his gaze to the ground and drew a circle in the dirt with his shoe.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
He tensed. “Does what hurt?”
“The burn, dummy.” I nudged him with my shoulder. “C’mon, turn so I can see it. I brought some salve for the pain.”
He slumped forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Medicine is against the rules.”
“Only medicine for healing.” I pulled a small, flat jar of ointment from my pocket. “This’ll just numb it. My mom made it special for you.”
He made a low, rumbling noise and peeked at me from the corner of his eye. “Your mom’s the best.”
“Yup.” I pushed his T-shirt into his hands and gave his shoulder a gentle shove. “Now be a good boy . . .”
He held up his misshapen, heavily wrinkled shirt as he straddled the log with his back to me. “What’d you do to this?”
“Took my frustrations out on it, instead of Seth’s face,” I said, but my focus was on Luke’s back. Stretched across his neck and shoulders, a good half a square foot of skin was burned down so far that muscle showed in places. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat. “How are you even conscious?”
“That bad, huh?”
“Yeah, bad . . .” Most of it looked excruciating. Some of the skin was red and raw, some charred black, but, even in the fading light, it was clear that there was more black than that. New black. “This is already starting to heal.”
“My father said the same thing happened to him. Only took his burn two days to heal completely.” He glanced back at me, twisting as if he’d be able to turn around enough to see the burn. “Must be why it itches so much.”
He groaned as I rubbed a bit of ointment around the edges and worked my way toward the center. He’d healed enough that the basic shape of his Mark was clear—a black hand gripping the area where his neck met his shoulders—an exact replica of the Mark all our people bore, though Luke’s was the darkest I’d ever seen.
As the ointment worked its magic, his muscles relaxed. Soon the whole thing was covered and he turned to face me.
“Better?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He smiled and scooted closer, lifting my legs up over his. “Thanks.”
I forced a smile in return, not really looking at him as I wiped the excess ointment onto my jeans. “Which test is next?”
His grip tightened around my knee. “Acid.” As in, pour-it-on-until-it-completely-eats-away-his-Mark acid. Were we really living in the twenty-first century? He trailed his fingertips down my cheek, under my chin, and gently lifted until my gaze met his. “I don’t want to talk about the tests.”
I didn’t either. Still, I said, “We have to find a way out of it. Maybe running away—”
“Genn, I . . .” His gaze roved my face, like he was gathering pieces of it, saving them for later. He leaned in, brushed his lips over mine. “You know I love you, right?” he breathed, his voice so low I wouldn’t have heard him if he wasn’t so close. “I’ll always love you.”
“I love you, too.” I laid my hand on his bare chest, over his heart. “I hate that they’re making you—”
“No tests,” he whispered against my lips. “Just us tonight. Please.”
“Okay,” I mumbled, even though I wanted to tell him I would go anywhere, leave forever with him if it meant he would never have to endure that kind of pain again. “Just us.”
He let out a soft groan and kissed me. And I let him because as much as I needed him to know I’d run away with him right now if he asked, I didn’t really want to think about the tests or the possibility of losing him forever. I just wanted to feel him, his hair tangled around my fingers, the soft texture of his lips and tongue, the pressure of his hands warm on the small of my back. I breathed him in, the scent that could only be described as Luke, pure and perfect.
He tensed suddenly and pulled away. As he did, I thought I heard a whisper of a laugh behind me. Then I was on the ground, the forest tilting around me. And Luke was yelling, somewhere in the distance.