Mark of Love (Love Mark #3) by Linda Kage

Prologue





Quilla





THE TENTH REAPING


I clapped my hands over my ears as another scream echoed down the hall, this one louder and closer than the last. It sounded like Mama.

When the cry stopped abruptly, I gave a thick swallow, tucked my knees up to my chest, then squeezed my eyes shut, rocking myself slowly back and forth.

I guess Mama was gone now. Just like Grandpa, Grandma, Daddy, my brother Quatro, and a handful of cousins.

I had just seen them all die.

I’d never witnessed murder before.

And I didn’t want to ever again.

Huddled in the dirt behind the main staircase, I swiped the back of my hand across my upper lip when the slow trickle of something wet slid from my nose. My hand came away red and sticky.

Blood.

Bleeding made sense. A hailstorm of debris had hit me when Grandpa’s brother’s family had invaded the great dining hall by blowing out one of the sidewalls I’d been sitting near.

My palm trembled as I prodded my hair, checking for more wounds, and rubble dust fell from the ratted strands, landing on the frayed and grimy hem of my dress. As if they were lethal, I kicked the chunks of wall away with a bare, scraped toe before I tucked my leg back under my skirt and returned myself to the fetal position, hugging my knees and rocking again.

Distant bellows and shrieks began to fade further away. I hummed to myself—just inside my mind though, so no one else could hear it—to block out the rest of the world.

But that didn’t help. Jolting when a shout sounded from nearby, I sucked in an involuntary gasp. Boots pounded closer. I tensed, fearing I’d been discovered. But the clanging of metal and swords slamming together told me the runner had been fleeing from someone else, and they weren’t coming for me.

I had no idea who was fighting this time. Honestly, it no longer mattered. As soon as my grandfather’s brother Orick and his family had invaded, everyone had turned on everyone else. It was impossible to know who to trust anymore. To know who was good.

One minute, Grandpa Obediah had been raising his goblet with a toast and smiling to celebrate Grandma’s birthday, then a loud boom made my ears ring. Dust clogged my vision, and the next thing I knew, Grandpa’s head had landed on the floor, no longer connected to his body.

Utter madness followed. Brother turned against sister, husband against wife, mother against son.

I’d been so stunned watching my cousins Queen and Quote stabbing each other to death, I hadn’t even noticed my own brother Quatro charging toward me with a raised dagger until Mama screamed a warning. I’d turned just in time to see her thrust a sword into the center of his back to stop him.

Frozen, I gaped as the blade emerged through the front of his chest and blood bloomed across the cloth of his tunic. My mother had murdered one of my brothers. To save me.

I would’ve remained stupefied even longer, trying to process what was happening, but Mama had roared, “Run, Quilla, run!” just as Daddy rushed at her from behind, spear raised, only for Uncle Palmer to slay him with a battle-ax before he could reach her.

A whimper filled my throat. My entire family had gone insane. It could only mean one thing.

Another reaping had begun.

Grandpa had taught us all about the reapings. He’d survived one already, back when he was twenty-nine, he claimed, before he’d met Grandma or the rest of us were born. Before even Daddy was born.

With the curse that had plagued our family for centuries, the bloodlust for power and magic would sometimes seize a member of House Graykey until they could no longer control the insatiable thirst for more, and they attacked the rest of the family, intent to consume their abilities and take them for themselves.

From the moment that first strike in a reaping came, a struggle for dominance and control took hold of the rest of us until only the strongest survived. Just a rare few Graykey members were able to avoid that unquenchable hunger for more power whenever a reaping began. Grandpa Obediah claimed to be immune. He was still a carrier, though, so he had passed the curse down through the generations to the rest of us.

I slowly twisted my wrist until I exposed the smooth, hairless inside of my forearm where a light blue vein ran through the center of the tattoo I bore. I’d been born with the pentagram with the letter G in the center, a mark that signified I came from the Graykey line, and therefore I carried the Graykey curse.

Meaning I should be filled with bloodlust right now, too, murdering the rest of my family like everyone else.