Chapter One – A Prince of Darkness
Justin descended the ladder to the bare stone floor of Freedom Hall. He ducked his head under the dragon skeleton’s jawbone on his way to a stack of crates. Thunder boomed and rain drummed on the peaked roof. His black hair stuck to his neck and sweat ran under the gold-trimmed collar of his crimson robes. In the summer, without the doors open wide, the great hall became a brick oven.
The Queen’s Empire’s lack of amenities, and in some cases basic needs, made him miss Dromkin, the capitol of the Gnomish Guild-State. He had apprenticed under his wizarding master, a gnomish Archmage there for four years. Coming home had been like a trip back in time. In Dromkin, tubs had enchantments that heated water as it filled, and light orbs banished the darkness when he entered a room. Here, he boiled buckets over a hearth for baths, and the halls used torches for light.
Examining the last dragon tooth as it lay on its bed of hay in the crate, he used a piece of rawhide to tie his black hair in a short ponytail. When he came home, it measured longer than his mother’s. They shared the same nail-straight, black hair. He had it cut to spare himself a heat stroke. Despite the weight, his enchanted crimson robes did a fair job of keeping his body cool in the summer, but not his head, neck, or face.
Freedom Hall had no windows, just narrow slits on the second floor that whistled and howled in the wind. The iron torch sconces spaced along the walls added to the heat, so Justin had doused them, leaving only the oil lamp chandelier above the dragon’s head for light. He had left his light orb on his desk, back in his room in the main keep. His mother had forbidden him to carry it around the keep. It was the first one in the Empire, and it would not do to have the High Priestess of the Dark Temple’s son carrying around a glowing testimonial to the God of Light.
Only one tapestry adorned the room; navy blue, displaying the Night Goddess’ five red stars of the Ouroboros constellation. It hung on the wall behind the long, rectangular table where his mother, her entourage of Red Knights, and Priests sat during celebrations. Another one sat folded atop the crate next to him. Also navy, it bore the five red stars as well, but they encircled a heraldic dragon. Justin fought the urge to wipe his face on it and used the crimson sleeve of his robe instead.
His mother must have called the storm. It had come in so fast his ears popped, and the shadows deepened within the hall in seconds. Good. Maybe it would break the oppressive heat of the past few days. The idea that something could be amiss had occurred to him, but he continued working. The city had legions of Red Knights at its disposal, the militia, and his mother. She could wipe out a small army on her own. If she needed him, she knew where to find him.
He ducked under the dragon skeleton’s open jaw and climbed two rungs on the ladder. He inserted the tooth into the socket of the jaw bone and held it in place as he fished two loadstones from a hidden pocket in the sash of his robe. The words of the spell spilled forth and Justin opened his hand. The lodestones came together with a click in unison with the tooth and jawbone. The magnets disintegrated on contact and the spell vanished from his memory.
Justin tested his dentistry. Satisfied, he descended the ladder. Tomorrow at sunset, the anniversary celebration of the Battle of Hornstall would begin. Justin leaned to the side with one arm over his head, stretching the knot in his spine with a groan. He had finished his project just in time, his back could not take much more. Justin’s master had once told him human backs were too long for real work. At almost seven feet tall, Justin agreed – he preferred his books.
He surveyed the crates scattered about the room with tufts of hay hanging out the sides and strewn on the floor. Old plates and half-empty wine goblets littered the tables. He had spent twenty days in Freedom Hall assembling the skeleton. In all that time, he never once thought to clean up. He left through the back side entrance that led into the keep only to relieve himself, and spell-locked door when he did. His mother wanted the heraldry change, and the indoor monument to remain secret. He never noticed just how bad the mess had gotten.
Justin backed away from the ladder for a wider angle on his work, ignoring the mess as best he could. He posed the dragon’s horned skull low, neck arched, and mouth wide in a silent roar at the grand entrance. The body was supported by a single stone pillar, holding the dragon up in a mid-flight pose so as not to obstruct use of the room. The wing bones spread over the width of the hall, delicate tips touching the stone wall near the ceiling. The tail curled high above the table, in front of the tapestry, and along the wall.
The mess came back into focus and brought anxiety along with it. He leaned against the arched double doors of the grand entrance with a heavy sigh. The two illusions he planned to use to finish the display were all he had left. He planned on an illusory storm to fill the rafters above, complete with lightning and gentle breezes.
“Justin!” His mother’s voice came from under, and between the steel banded doors.
Justin leaped away from the entrance, heart racing. The mess. Freedom Hall, as part of the keep, also served as the Temple. If his mother saw the hall in this condition, she might finally make good on her threat to throw him in the dungeon. She yelled again, closer this time and with a distinct note of panic.
“Open the door!”
The crossbar that held the main doors closed measured as thick around as Justin’s waist. He squatted, and lifted the twelve foot beam with his shoulder. The heavy door creaked open, and his mother slid in behind him. Panting, she swiped her wet hair out of her face that had come loose from her braid. Her night-blue scale mail
“Deetra is right behind me.”
Justin struggled under the weight of the crossbar that took two normal men to lift. His voice shook with the strain. He took a short shuffling step to keep it balanced.
“Tell her to get in here.”
Armored footsteps ran up the cobblestone road outside, and the door opened a second time. Deetra pushed it closed behind her. Deetra ducked under the crossbar and moved away from the door, breathless and holding her halved glaive in either hand. She stared at the door, the visor of her ruby helm cut in half, revealing one eye and a deep cut in her cheek. Her armor had been cut clean through in at least a dozen places.
Justin took a step to replace the beam, but the doors opened a third time and bumped him. He let the beam drop with a boom that rattled the chandelier above. He turned to face the latest intruder, ready for whatever horror made Deetra and his mother run for the castle.
The door was pushed open further with a creak, revealing the wet cobblestone street outside. In front of him stood a knight clad in silvery armor, streaked with blood from the slit in the full visored helm to his steel sabatons. The knight took a step back, visor pointed at the open mouth of the dragon skull suspended behind Justin.
Deetra stood next to him, on the balls of her feet, half of her broken weapon in either hand. She hesitated. Justin had never seen his stepmother hesitate when the time for battle had come. Ayla stood behind them, whispering a prayer.
Justin took the moment to ask the only question that came to mind.
“Who are you?”
His mother answered by screaming from behind him. “She’s the daughter of a back-stabber who betrayed his own kind!”
Justin checked over his shoulder. His mother’s face was twisted with hatred, but for the life of him, he had no idea what traitor she referred to.
The silver knight turned her gaze on Deetra. “Hiding on holy ground? Truly, you are a great knight.”
Deetra pointed at the shining blade at the silver knight’s side. “I’ll come out when you put down that sword.”
Justin’s eyes went to the knight’s weapon. It beamed with its own light. The hilt was the body of a dragon, with wings as the weapon’s crossbar. The dragon’s mouth grasped the three-foot-long blade. He resisted the temptation to Detect it for magic; the answer was obvious. He held out a hand behind him, signaling his mother and Deetra to move back.
He stepped over the fallen crossbar, getting between the silver knight and his mothers. “They’re not coming out, and you aren’t going to step foot on holy ground. So, since we seem to be at an impasse, let’s talk.”
The knight’s visor pointed above him to the dragon skeleton suspended above the room and she took another step back. The narrow eye slit prevented Justin from reading her gaze. Wizards were rare in the south, but unlike in the Queen’s Empire, they existed. Anyone from the south had a fair chance of understanding what the red robe meant. The Red Wizards of Drokin, historically, served as arbitrators in the south.
“You’ve seen our faces. Let us see yours,” Justin said.
The knight stood in the doorway for another moment. Time stopped as she lifted her visor with her sword hand. Her creamy skin, framed by curls of flame, made Justin’s heart to skip a beat. The last of the wind outside pulled at her hair. Eyes the color of spring grass roamed over him, taking in the red robes. When they met his, Justin’s stomach dropped, like from a sudden fall. His mouth went dry. She nodded once and spoke again, her tone respectful, but firm.
“Stand aside, wizard,” she said, indicating the direction with a wave of her gleaming sword.
Justin blinked, and the moment broke. This woman was an enemy, and one powerful enough to have made the Empress and the General of the Empire run for holy ground. His mother and Deetra never ran – not from anyone or anything.
“No. Surrender now, and I will see to it that you are returned home,” he said, and then added, “Alive.”
His mother gasped behind him. “You have no right to -”
Justin interrupted her with clenched teeth. “Empress. Let me handle this.”
She came up alongside him and glared at the green-eyed knight from just out of the sword’s reach, daring her to enter the temple. “I was your age when I killed my first Minotaur to avenge my mother. I slit the beast’s throat and drowned him in his blood – the morning after he raped me.”
The wind had picked up again as the storm dissipated outside. Rays of sunlight pierced the gloom above. The breeze and the mention of his minotaur father sent a shiver up Justin’s spine. The very thought of him brought an overwhelming dread and shame. Justin was the product of that horrifying rape. His mother had told him the story of his father once, but only after Justin had asked. Since then, she never spoke of him and Justin never asked again.
His mother continued: “But you’re avenging a man who betrayed his people to serve half-beast slavers.”
Before the curse was broken and the minotaurs’ souls were reaped by the Dark Queen, the minotaurs used human women as breeding stock. Justin’s mother and Deetra, both slaves selected for that purpose, had led the revolution to reestablish the Empire under human rule eighteen years ago.
People lingered in the rain dampened street. The storm had broken the heat wave, and more gathered in the ward of the keep as people ventured out of their homes. As Empress, his mother could not afford to lose face. The standoff could not last much longer. He put a hand on her shoulder.
“Mom. Please. Let me -”
She shrugged his hand away. The knight white-knuckled the pommel of her sword as his mother continued. His mother wanted the Guardian to enter and attack. The hallowed ground of the temple would cut the Guardian off from her God, weakening her. The Empress baited the Guardian again.
“He stabbed a man through the back.”
Anger flashed across the red haired knight’s expression. She recovered her one step back from her initial shock of seeing the dragon skeleton. The sword hummed, its pearlescent light intensifying.
Justin barred his mother’s path with his arm. “Mom. St-”
Deetra came up on Justin’s other flank. “But not before he plotted the death of hundreds of innocent people at Hillside. Your father was a monster. ”
They were talking about Dylan, the Guardian of Light whom his mother had tricked into the Dark Temple’s crypt and ultimately defeated. If Dylan had succeeded in killing Justin’s mother, the people of the Empire would still live in chains. The atrocities he committed in the name of the God of Light were well remembered by the people of the Empire.
The knight swallowed before she spoke. “I know my father fell from the Light.” The sword burned brighter and she lowered the visor. “But my Lord spared him from the Abyss, and now he is my light in dark places.”
She stepped onto the threshold and the already glowing sword flared to life. The crowd outside gasped. His mother and Deetra took a reflexive step back, shielding their eyes. The colliding dark and light divine energies around the knight swirled and eddied in tenebrous snakes. Shadows leapt and danced on the walls and into the ward outside. The sword’s hum vibrated the chandeliers above.
Justin backed up, one arm out to corral his mother back with him. He dipped the other hand into the sash of his robe and retrieved a bit of wool – his spell’s component.
“Deetra, I need ten seconds!”
Illusion called for imagination and concentration. The believability of the image depended on his attention to detail. Deetra cut in front of him with a spinning strike at the Guardian. Ringing steel pierced the room as the blade of Deerta’s halved glaive struck the knight’s shield.
Justin held the wool between his eyes, envisioning every bone he placed, the layout of the room, and the way sounds carried through the rafters above. The battle raging a few feet in front of him dulled, muffled by his focus on the spell. The spidery and ancient words fell from his lips, leaving his mind, drawing the magic forth. The pinch of wool disintegrated under his fingertip and cascaded over his eyelashes and nose.
A shriek, a cross between a bird of prey and elephant, ripped through the great hall. The metal bindings that held the dragons segmented tail up on the wall burst out of the stone. The stone pillar that supported it cracked and collapsed in a plume of dust.
Deetra and the silver knight both stopped mid-clash, heads lifted to witness the impossible. The dragon’s clawed feet landed, splintering the wood tables. The bony wings folded to its body with series of clicks. The skeletal dragon leveled its empty eye sockets on the silver knight and glared.
She took a step back, shield up. The slit in her visor alternated its focus between Deetra and the animated skeleton. Deetra dropped her broken weapon and grabbed the Guardian’s mirrored shield. The shield flashed a blinding, brilliant white. Deetra screamed in pain, but held on.
The flash of light and Deetra’s cry broke Justin’s concentration. The illusion would last just another few moments before it faded. Justin pointed at the intruder. The dragon lunged. The knight let Deetra have the shield and dove to the side. The dragon’s jaws snapped shut above her. Deetra dropped the shield and stumbled back.
The dragon struck again, its jaws clacking closed inches from the silver knight. He had to end this fight now, before the illusion dissipated, and without killing her. There were too many questions left unanswered.
“Deetra, get that sword away from her!”
The dragon struck again, but the silver knight was ready. She swung her sword with two hands and a scream of effort. The dragon vanished before the blade touched it. The knight had overcommitted to the attack and stumbled forward, trying to recover, and collided with a table. The room returned to its previous state; tables unbroken, no debris, and skeleton still suspended above the hall.
Deetra jumped up onto the table and stomped her armored foot down on the knight’s wrist, pinning the sword. The silver knight swept Deetra’s legs from under her. Deetra landed on her back with a crash of metal on wood that echoed through the rafters above.
The silver knight brought the sword down through Deetra’s breastplate. Ayla screamed from the back of Freedom Hall as Justin bolted toward the knight. Deetra grabbed the blade of the sword and held it with her burned hands, preventing its withdrawal. The blade sputtered and smoked, the God of Light’s power further cooking Deetra hands in her gauntlets.
Justin leapt in a flying tackle. All seven feet of him collided with the silver knight. The sword came loose from her hand as they tumbled to the floor together, Justin on top. Her visor came up as they landed, face to face.
Justin hugged her arms to her sides, and again he noted her emerald colored eyes. She headbutted him in the nose. His vision blurred and eyes flooded. Blood ran from his nose and onto her helm. He squeezed her tighter and turned his head to the side.
“Justin! Help! She’s dying!” His mother’s voice pleaded from the table above him. The knight below him struggled and kicked.
“I can’t let her go!” Justin yelled back.
His mother dropped down from the table to the floor, her black boots next to his head. She whispered the prayer of humility.
“Mother of night, your daughter is in need and begs…”
The silver knight’s struggles turned frantic and she screamed in his ear. “No! Get her away from me!”
“… humbly, for the voice of the Goddess.”
Ayla leaned down. Her voice vibrated the air around them. “Don’t move.”
The struggling stopped. The knight lay there, rigid as a plank of oak, green eyes wide with terror. His mother pulled him up by the arm. Her hands, face, and neck were blistered and burned. Her long onyx hair had shriveled. She did not seem to notice or care.
Deetra laid atop the table, sword in her chest. Blood ran between the boards in rivulets. Deetra’s eyes went to him. She opened her mouth to speak but it had filled with blood.
His Mother showed him her burned hands, her voice frantic. “I can’t pull out the sword and I can’t heal her with it still in there.”
Justin peeked under the table. The sword had not penetrated the wood. It should just come straight out. He flexed his hands once, readying himself for the inevitable pain. He grabbed the hilt with both hands and a sharp breath of anticipation.
Nothing. No fire. No pain. The sword came out with a simple pull. Justin stared at the weapon in his hands, his stepmother’s blood filling the groove in the center of the blade and dripping to the floor.
His mother shoved him. “Get that thing away from her.”
Justin walked backward away from the scene as his mother knelt next to Deetra, tears spilling down her blistered cheeks. She whispered the prayer while holding Deetra’s hand. She kissed her wife on the forehead.
Deetra sputtered, coughed, and rolled to spit a mouthful of blood over the side of the table. Justin stood in the center of the room, sword in hand. His mother cupped her hands below her chin and prayed again over Deetra.
Justin marveled at the sword. It weighed next to nothing. It fit his hand as if made for him.
Deetra sat up and pulled a dagger from a sheath at Ayla’s waist. Deetra stepped on the bench seat of the table, and then down to the floor to stand over the silver knight. She put the dagger to the Guardian’s throat.
“Wait,” Justin said, but stayed back. The sword no longer glowed, but keeping a safe distance from his mother and stepmother seemed prudent. “We need to know who sent her, and why.”
His mother stood atop the table, her face healed. She stared down at her attacker, wintery blue eyes distant. There were times when memories from her life of suffering overwhelmed her. It did not happen often, but it crushed Justin’s heart each time. He knew his mother’s tale, and it was a story he could never have survived. Deetra watched and waited, dagger to the silver knight’s throat.
“Ayla,” Deetra said, but his mother did not hear her. She was lost in a reverie of pain.
“Mom?” Justin urged.
Running armored footsteps approached from the now crowded ward. The crowd stood back a few dozen feet from the open doors of Freedom Hall, muted by fear and awe. They parted as a squad of eight Red Knights ran for the door.
“Mom,” Justin said again. “She has to live. There’s too much we don’t know.”
The Red Knights cleared the crowd and ran across the cobblestone ward, boots echoing in the silence. His mother blinked and looked at him, then down to the sword in his hand. Justin laid it on a table to his right but stayed within reach, afraid to leave it unattended.
His mother closed her eyes and nodded. Deetra shot him an angry look over her shoulder. She removed the dagger from the girl’s throat and spit in her face. The first Red Knight made it to the door and Deetra pointed at the silver knight with the slender blade.
“Take this murdering piece of shit to the dungeon.”