/* PCD change http to https for CSRF JUL 2017 */ The Book of the Fallen (sequel to Lord of Night) | Chapter Twenty-Three | KidPub Press //
The Book of the Fallen (sequel to Lord of Night) | Chapter Twenty-Three

The Book of the Fallen (sequel to Lord of Night) | Chapter Twenty-Three

Posted April 7th, 2018 by maxi

by Max
in Erissa, Erilea, Westeros, The New York Institute, Roshar, Scadrial, New Chicago, Eye of the World, Metallica and Questeria

Author's Note: Wow! I haven't posted any of this for so long. I feel awful for anyone that has been waiting for me to post this, but I've been on a hiatus from writing for so long. I've finally got back into the groove of it after I got inspiration and I'm suddenly writing thousands of words. I've been writing chapter 32 today for quite some time and I've got a solid conclusion to Book Three that I'm 100% sure I'll stick with. I'm around 4/5ths done with this book and then it's time to write the final book of the series. A war is coming, my friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hirri woke up to voices speaking in the darkness.

            Her head throbbed and ached as her eyes readjusted themselves to the blackness. No shaft of illumination was to be seen. There was nothing but for the dark.

            Memories floated to the surface of her mind: Meliosa becoming her true form, Eonova; being leashed to her; being teleported into the Lightlands. However, the most recent memory had her becoming undone, her soul shed from its shield.

            New faces. Those memories held two people: a shaggy-haired blonde, tanned, lanky boy and a woman wrapped in a shawl with deep-set eyes and darker skin than the boy’s.

            At first, she thought of Klaus. Though once she had gotten a hold of him in the darkness, she rid all worries away from her mind. Instead, she feasted upon the new memories that had been set into her head like papers to assess.

            She shook her head in a frenzy, movement and sound and motion circling her like a vulture—

            And came sprinting back into reality upon which she dashed to the surface. Beside her, she found Klaus in the dark room. His eyes were large, shimmering and full of tears. No sound came from him, though; she’d come to realise that had been blood boiling in her ears.

            No, voices. Still, those voices.

            She looked to the other side of the room to find the two people. The boy and the woman. No, he was a man. He was royalty. He was Jauqin, Prince of the Eastern Kingdom.

            Hirri Kralos had heard of him. In all her assignments, a Tsaron warrior was to know of her surroundings. To know of royalty—in case they were found, captured or kidnapped. Truth be told, they did not know much of Althulor or any other maliciously magical sorcerers. However, true-born princes were something important to know of. And so, she’d studied up on him to find the brutal nature of the kingdom.

            Oftimes, she winced at the remembrances of what he must’ve gone through.

            “Prince… Prince Jauqin,” she murmured into the darkness, her voice sharpened like a blade.

            “Who are you?” Jauqin yowled, his own voice strained by the clutches of Eonova. She could taste the fear in the air, the worry and taint of evil. “Don’t come near me! Don’t hurt me!”

            As soon as Hirri noticed a glimmer of tears in the man’s eyes, she immediately spoke up, “I’m Hirri Tsaron-white Kralos of Tsaria. Do not worry, my prince. There is no need to be frightened. I’m here. I’m here.”

            She didn’t know why she’d repeated herself, but the urge had called. Perhaps there was still some tinge of respect inside her.

            “Why are you here?” the prince breathed into the musky darkness. Nothing but specks of mottled light provided illumination for the four captives. An eagerness, a keen eye, in the prince’s voice indicated that he knew more than the average man.

            Hirri just hoped he’d come to realise that she’d been through Hell and back, too. She rose an eyebrow inwardly before hacking up a cough, her throat dry and coarse. She shouldn’t have strode into the foreign empire like she was prepared for it.

            Gods be damned, she should have been more prepared.

            “I—I—” There was no point in lying, now; if they were stuck together, this would have to do: truth and honesty. “I was brought here by Mel—Eonova. She brought me and my friend, Klaus. An enemy of ours transported us by foreign magic to this shit-hole of a kingdom. We’re lost, prince. We’re lost.”

            A scoff sounded from the other woman’s direction. Hirri barely glimpsed eyes narrowing with a viciousness she’d never seen before. “Lost. You know you’re lost when you have no one, woman. Be thankful for the companionship you and this… Klaus has.”

            What with her bitter tongue, Hirri was ever so tempted to snap back at her. But it would cost her time and health. The last time she’d tried to speak, she’d been coughing ravenously.

            Instead, she kept her words in her mouth.

            As sly as a cat, the other woman shuffled over to the other side of their small, confined prison cell—or at least that’s what it seemed to be. The woman’s feline grace caused her to collapse to the ground effectively, sitting aside Hirri.

            “Be careful,” Hirri whispered. “I bite.”

            The woman only held out a hand, the slants of light exposing the callouses on her palms, and smirked. “Veela Draenor.”

            “You already know my name.”

            Veela rose an eyebrow, gestured from Jauqin and then back to Hirri, before saying, “I think you two will be the best of friends. Snappy retorts seem to go hand in hand with grumpy princes.”

            Hirri contemplated the woman’s appearance. Judging by the scarf that wrapped around her head, mouth and neck, Veela most likely resided from one of the southern kingdoms of the Dustlands. The Queen of the Desert, Scarla, was one of the most renowned throne-bearers—if only for her brutality and viciousness. Perhaps that was where Veela had gotten her attitude from. Hirri didn’t sprint past the possibility; instead, she embraced it and the consequences of it.

            After some thought, Hirri replied, “I’m not searching for people to be friends with, as much as it might amuse you. What I’m up to is none of your concern nor your business.”

            “Ah, you’re working on some secret mission, I assume.” The woman chuckled. “You hear that, Jauqin? She’s making a living from secret missions.”

            A heavy silence hung between the two groups, Klaus gnawing on his fingernails.

            “Leave them be, Veela,” Jauqin said. However, even after the words left his mouth, the eastern prince uncoiled to his feet and strode over to the other three as they sat on the ground. “They have their own troubles to deal with.”

            A thought sparked into mind as Hirri watched Jauqin walk over to them. How come the guards hadn’t put them into some sort of restraint? Were there no chances of adding chains and shackles? She certainly didn’t want them, but she thought it was a bit too easy.

            In an instant, she came to another sudden realisation: magic must’ve been restricted in the cell. In a quick attempt to summon some of her otherworldly abilities, she drew from her Essence and dug deep into her Holdings—finding nothing but the remains of some ashen corpse of her magic. From that, she tried to wield that magic, that power within her…

            Only to find nothing.

            She sighed, flinging her silken white hair back. This war had better give her enough strength. The battlefront was going to damage her, body and soul.

            “We already tried,” Veela admitted, her voice echoing in the confined passages of the cell.

            “You… You have…?” The words came from her mouth as fragmented and broken as could be. Her heart pounded against the crisscross of her ribcage, fast and erratic like a war-drum.

            Jauqin squatted down in front of them and let out a heavy exhale. “No, she doesn’t. I do. I only found out about my powers when I was eight years old. After that, I could contain it. I’m not sure why, but the strength within my magic was so immeasurably gifted. And yet, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. The Eastern Kingdom knew of my magic, but they didn’t do anything so harsh such as kill someone for it. Especially not me—I was the prince of the east. They needed someone to rely on and my father had no other heirs.”

            “I… I understand.” She hoped, for once, that this was someone she could rely upon. That this person could be someone she could express her thoughts to. “I have Infusion. Only Sterium, but it’s still a pain in my side trying to work out the configurations of it. I’ve only just gotten used to levitation and using threads of magic to glide.”

            Jauqin gave her a sideways smile. There was no wickedness in it—none at all. In fact, she sought out knowledge and wisdom in his voice. The voice of a worshipper of the god of wise things, Raddeith. “You’ll get used to it.”

            “There’s only so much we can do now,” Veela interrupted, giving Klaus a glare. He, a child brought into the storm of war, glared right back. The woman’s eyes widened in surprise. She turned back to the others. “I worry that it’ll break my reputation if Jauqin and I aren’t capable of escaping this place.”

            “Where do you plan on heading?” Hirri asked out of pure curiosity.

            “If we don’t get slaughtered by pigs, our plan was to go to the Darklands. But I do not suppose that’s going to dwell nicely with Eonova.”

            Hirri hadn’t gotten used to the name yet. Every time she heard it, her heart pounded fiercely in her chest. Every time, she was reminded of the name she’d come to understand—cherish, even, before the damaging betrayal: Meliosa.

            Although the Sovereign of the Erased Monarchy was something of a damning, a curse, it was difficult to know that things had once been easily interlinked. She had been loved. Respected by someone she knew.

            Hirri bent over, clutching her forearms to her knees as she settled into a loose position. “The Darklands is full of brutality and violence. Madness, it is. I doubt you’re going to get anywhere by reassociating yourselves with the hands of reawakened kings.”

            Her magic ran dormant in the crater of her lonely heart. Emotions flurried around inside her in a whirlwind of cacophony. Memories flooded her mind of escaping the kingdom, of realigning herself with people who knew her better than she knew herself. Everything had changed so quickly—and surely not for the better.

            “We don’t want to die,” Jauqin exclaimed, raising his hands in a surrender-like motion. His eyes gleamed a dark, sharp light in the cell. “We want to become aware of what we’re up against.”

            “If you want that, build an army. Recruit soldiers into your battalions, make yourself the defender of your people. Don’t face your enemy with only one person by your side. You’ll be sure to die a quick death by doing so.” Jaton. Jaton died the same way, she reminded herself. “Trust me. I know.”

            Klaus shivered next to Hirri. In response, she wrapped a friendly arm around him and kissed him on the forehead. His face did not express any disgust or confusion to the gesture; instead, he embraced it, cuddling closer into Hirri’s lithe form.

            Jauqin’s eyes flashed to Klaus’s for a moment before he replied, “Veela and I want to kill Althulor. We want to kill the one who wronged us.”

            For a moment, she could’ve sworn there was death lurking in those eyes. Personified Death. That was before a flash of lightning, a bolt of white, snapped across the window-slit in the cell, revealing nothing in his eyes but for soft eagerness.

            “How did he wrong you?” she asked. Sure, Althulor had wronged the masses—executed families, slaughtered hundreds of thousands on the battlefield. But that was dust and memory. That was aeons ago, when the world had been tainted by dark creatures known as Shadows.

            When the bones of the world were stable—not as fragile as they were these days.

            “Too many ways,” Veela responded, shaking her head, sadness impregnating her gaze. “Too many to list.”

            “The stronghold of the Eastern Kingdom was left in tatters around the time I was ten,” the prince answered. “This was when I was still figuring out my magic. Nevertheless, it was still difficult to confront such a darkness. He killed my cousin, Faror, and I could never forget that day. He was one of my best friends—family, yes, but the other half of my soul. Althulor killed him.”

            The story brought sadness and grief into her heart, yes, but something didn’t quite add up. Something that had been lurking in her mind ever since he’d mentioned the age at which he’d confronted Althulor.

            “You said you were ten. How old are you?”

            “I’m twenty now. Ten years since he killed Faror.” A crack conjured from his voice—deft, shattered.

            “Fravado didn’t identify himself as Althulor that long ago,” she said. “Are you sure it was him you saw?”

            “I’ve never been so sure of something in my entire life.” His eyes welled with tears, glimmering like stardust and diamonds. “I’ll never forget something like that.”

            Thinking of such things, of Althulor’s presence winding up in two simultaneous circumstances and locations, caused a rift in her mind. So, Hirri Kralos didn’t think too further onto the topic until she felt Klaus slump heavily into her figure.

            She sighed—he had fallen asleep in her arms. His even, steady breathing—a wisp of air in the darkness—wheezed from his mouth contently as Hirri ridded the dark thoughts of Althulor away from her mind. Even though she knew she’d have to fight him one day, that she’d have to face the Death Lord himself, she’d keep it for another time.

            “Are you warriors?” Hirri asked. The question was a reasonable. If they wanted to slaughter the Druid-King, they’d need more than just a good, brave-hearted mind. They would need weaponry, the skill set to use such weaponry—and the ability to wield them and harness the brunt force of the weapons on the battlefield.

            “No,” the pair said in unison. To emphasise the point, Veela shook her head, clamping her lips together.

            Hirri chuckled. A thought came to her of Veela and Jauqin whipping out their swords and fighting their opponents mindlessly, aimlessly. The chuckled was subdued by the time she sighed, coming to the sudden realisation that it’d better be her to aid their assistance.

            “You’re going to need to be trained in weaponry in order to use weapons to kill someone,” the warrior-woman stated. “Even if it is magic you’re using, you’re going to have to train. I know you have some knowledge of it, but the more the better.”

            Veela rose a brow. “Who are you to question either of us?”

            Hirri blew out a breath, watching the winds of it transcend up above in wisps. “I’m a woman who wants to survive. Last year, I wanted to survive my clan and to survive what I’m worth. This cycle, however… I want to survive the war between Althulor and the dreamers. The dreamers who are losing their hope-filled streets to streets running red with blood.”

            The emotion shifted deep in her gut, settling in her heart. She did not falter as she glanced at them, a warm expression in her eyes and a cold demeanour raging through her.

            “You aren’t prepared, my friends,” she said. “I don’t think any of us are.”

            “Whether we’re prepared or not, it won’t matter. He’s coming either way—him and his Sons of Death.”

            “Pardon?” Hirri interjected, leaning forwards ever so slightly. “What’s this?”

            “Sons of Death,” Jauqin echoed. “They’re immortals from another dimension that Althulor conjured by that damned staff. If he’s the villain in our fate-story, they’re his sidekicks. The ones who will obey his every command, bend the knee and worship him as their eternal god.”

            Wonderful.

            Now, not only did they have warring gods, a dark sorceress, neighbouring kingdoms, dark magic and a Druid-King on their trails… But they also had otherworldly creatures, destined to destroy those who came by arm’s width of Althulor.

            “I swear, it’s like things just keep getting better and better.”

            “Fortune, fate, it turns and turns like spokes on a wheel. You come out on top, then you’re on the bottom.” Veela smirked as she spoke, shaking her head mirthlessly. Something dark was in her voice, as if her nightmares had summoned whatever she spoke of. “There’s only so much time before the wheel breaks.”

            The chinks in the stones of the cell seemed to rumble and coil as Jauqin whispered, “I just hope it doesn’t take too long to break. I think I’ve had enough.”

            “When did you two lose so much energy?” Hirri asked, the question lingering in the air along with the scent of something that resembled the recognisable stench of piss. “I’ve never known either of you, but I know that somewhere in your hearts is energy. You’ve lost it. You’ve actually lost that spirit.”

            She knew the answer before either one of them answered her.

            “It’s the war,” Veela replied.

            And she knew she was being truthful. It had gotten to the point where men struggled to stay awake in the morning. Night terrors plagued their once-hopeful dreams, all claws and talons and fear. She worried for the men, most of all. The women had it coming—she knew this. She knew they had to deal with the children, as stereotypical as it might seem. The world was full of dreamers and this world… She had no other word for it.

            It was frightening. Frightening and silent yet deadly as a viper.

            Soon enough, the world would explode from the tension and shatter into pieces. Hirri curled into herself as she was reminded of the terrors, of the nightmares. Klaus shuffled at her side, his eyes stirring beneath their lids.

            Coincidentally, the woman wished Klaus wasn’t currently being infused with night terrors. The boy could handle a lot—his parents being taken, his sister killed in front of his eyes. But to be shown that in pure disarray, in a collection of images not of his own volition…

            The thought was enough to make Hirri shudder in response to its wickedness.

            “It’s the war and there is nothing we can do about it,” Veela went on, readjusting the scarf she wore around her face, her voice slightly muffled as she shifted the fabric-like material. “As much as we’d like to kill Althulor—this is aimed at you, Jauquin—I doubt that we have the power, the might nor the strength.”

            “I wouldn’t judge yourself so quickly,” said Hirri.

            Veela only shook her head. “There’s nothing we can do about it. I’m not going to repeat myself once more. I believe there is a chance for hope in this world, of course, but this time… Perhaps eons on, we will find contentment. That time is not now.”

            Jauqin, it seemed, had resorted to tensing his muscles. The bulging features gleamed as he acted out of pure anxiety and stress. It was evident in the beads of sweat pooling on his forehead, in the widening eyes.

            Coming to the realisation of his worries, Veela shuffled back and rubbed Jauqin on the back. There was deadly affection in her eyes. Hirri would’ve seen it from miles away, she knew.

            “What do you know about Meliosa?” Hirri asked.

            The question had been blurted out of the air, yes, but the warrior-woman could not be left in the dark any longer. She could not waste any more time being parted from her friends of the Allegiance. If time wore on and she had no answers to supply them with, she was better off not existing in the war to come.

            “Who… W-Who do you speak of?” Jauqin asked, the shudder in his voice minimal as the stress in his face ceased to be.

            “Meliosa, the Sovereign of the Erased Monarchy.”

            They both stared at her as if she’d misplaced her brain.

            “Eonova, the goddess of starlight.”

            Veela’s mouth gaped open. “Oh. What does she have to do with Meliosa?”

            This is going to be harder than expected, Hirri thought to herself, her mind drifting out of reality.

            She realigned herself back into her consciousness, clinging onto society as best as she could. With what strength she could muster, Hirri faced the two strangers—at least to her—and let out a deep breath.

            “Meliosa is Eonova, the goddess of starlight. Before her Claiming, she had been the Sovereign of the Erased Monarchy, which is the Old Age name for the Darklands Kingdom. It had been a time of balance and peace compared to these dark periods. She was glowing, shining, levitating. I’ve never seen anything like it. What I want to know… What I want to know is what you know of her. Is there anything that could support me in figuring out any weaknesses? Vulnerabilities?” she said, desperation leaking out from her voice.

            Her eyes shifted from Veela to Jauqin, as if searching for any help—any—that could perhaps bring her back to reality.

            “Neither of us know much about the gods,” Veela confessed, her eyes lined with lack of knowledge. “I don’t think there’s much hope in using us as a way to sort out your problems.”

            Hirri shook her head and said, “I’m not trying to do that. I just… There’s too much on my mind and I was transported here without any aim. I have no idea what to do. What Fate tells me to do.”

            She’d known it from the start of her journey. Fate worked itself in its own ways. Perhaps it was controlled by some benign, unseeable force. Or perhaps it was just circumstances playing out naturally.

            Whichever it was, Hirri knew that she couldn’t help herself much longer. She’d need companions to guide her.

            Prince Jauqin lifted his head. His eyes searched Hirri’s own, as if looking for something within. However, as his gaze averted to someplace else, she reconsidered that possibility of recognition.

            Once he’d let out a breath, he said, “We can help. In return for a favour, of course.”

            She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. As of late, it seemed that all noblemen and women wanted was a way to get beneath the skin of others. If it was the work of manipulation, or the magic of such, Hirri could not see it in the prince’s eyes.

            And so, she trusted her own instincts as she replied, “What do you need help with? It seems we’re already doomed enough as it is. I wouldn’t expect much help from me.”

            Despite herself, Jauqin smirked. Chuckled, even. Who knew, in such a state of deprivation and misery, the prince could put a smile on his face?

            Chinks of light shuddered across his face like a patchwork of light and darkness as he retorted, “We all need guidance in some way. The gods of the Father won’t help us in any respect.”

            The Father—an ancient name for All, the God of all gods.

            Veela interrupted, “What we need is to escape. I’m sure you need this as well—as does your little friend here. When Eonova comes for us next time, we want to be organised. Stealthy and armed to the teeth. Whatever we can gather, we’ll need it.”

            “A sort of rebellion.”

            Rebellion. The word resonated, echoed through her as the prince said it. She’d taken much thought into arranging a rebellion against Althulor. However, now that she thought of it, a full-scale war would be much more preferable to attack the mighty powers of the Druid-King with.

            Yes, rebellions would help. But only in reclaiming that which used to be your own.

            “I suppose so,” Veela agreed. She shifted her glance to Jauqin, who—in turn—gazed right back at her. The two of them shared a camaraderie that Hirri hadn’t seen in some time.

            Or maybe that was the homesickness of not seeing the Allegiance in so long calling out to her, like a second heartbeat.

            “If you’re wanting to start a rebellion, you’ll need more than just weaponry.” Although weaponry would help, the mind was more valuable than muscles. “You’ll need tactics, strategies, anything that can sway the people of the Lightlands to fight back. Else they’ll be enslaved to the goddess for All knows how long.”

            “We can hire war ministers and councillors,” Jauqin proposed. She supposed his time in court had given him much to consider, being the prince of a kingdom. “Although they’re more for long-term missions, it’ll still be reasonably helpful. Contributes to the masses.”

            Knowledge swirled in his own eyes. Ageless, unending. Although he was only—by her own eyesight—in his twenties, there was some ancient mystery lurking there.

            As if he knew something they didn’t.

            “That will be good enough,” Hirri said, her voice terse with worry. Worry that it wouldn’t go down well. Worry that she’d never get back to the others in time.

            But, most of all, there was doubt. In no way possible were they going to defeat Althulor. An army of countless beings from other realms would pummel hopeless royals into the ground.

            “Why?” The voice came from Veela’s mouth. Behind her scarf, her slightly muffled voice spoke reason and logic. “Why are you helping us? What’s there left to believe in? That we’ll all survive this coming storm?”

            She was right. And yet…

            “I believe in karma. I believe that if you give someone advice, if you help someone, that help will come back and bite your enemies in the ass. You helped me understand something, Veela. In these few moments, I see you as a good person. A worthy person. There’s not much else to say about that and I am willing to see you on the fields of war. No matter how long you stand on them, I’m willing.” She’d kept those words implanted in her mind for so long that she felt like she’d become not a warrior, but a theorist. But the oncoming war proved otherwise.

            If there were no other full-blooded warriors ready to hold their swords aloft, Hirri Tsaron-white Kralos would stand on the battlefront. Ram through as many monstrous men as she could.

            If only for a chance to keep this world’s heart beating.

            “Hush,” the prince breathed into the darkness of the cell.

            Through the ever-shifting black, Hirri saw the prince press a finger to his lips—and then moved that finger to the mahogany door of the cell. Shuddering torchlight peered through the gaps beneath and above the door.

            At that moment, Hirri heard voices mumbling outside, unaware of the prisoners’ conversation about the war—about an alliance only recently forged in words and promises. In goodness.

            She listened, her ears intent on searching out the voices.

            There were two guards outside. One man, his voice guttural and throaty, chuckled, “Might’ve been a bit of a surprise for the prisoners, don’t you think?”

            The other standing beside him—Hirri watched the motions of the shadows—had a high-pitched voice. “I reckon the Claiming was too much for them. People, ordinary ones, don’t know how to deal with extraordinary things. Could tell my mother that, if she weren’t dead.”

            “Eonova has arisen from her grave and you’re weeping about your mother? Boy, stick your head out of the clouds and get to thinking. Why would she use this time to start her Claiming? A true form doesn’t unleash until the worlds have aligned.”

            “Then, what do you know? The worlds have aligned.”

            “I think there’s something else. This war ain’t starting any time soon. I’ve seen no attacks or even battles happen. Maybe I’m just on the wrong continent. Bah! Nevertheless, we need time. The goddess needs time. She needs to know her powers and how she can work with them.”

            “Eonova is but one child of All. All is everything that is life. The Darkness is Death. Do you see the problem with that?”

            “Spell it out for me, kid.”

            A sigh. “The God of Life itself can easily kill all those who stand before him. All enemies that come for him. But, if he does that, then he’ll just be giving more allies to the Darkness.”

            “Why doesn’t the Allegiance just off the Darkness, then?”

            “That’s why the Darkness is building up its own legion. Armies and armies, swathes and swathes, of Darkbinders and aolixes and demons from other realms. From the Other Dimensions. Althulor doesn’t outrank the persona of the Darkness, my good man. He’s just a king with the power to open worlds. The Darkness is the power.”

            Images swam through Hirri’s mind. No matter how hard she attempted, there was no banishing the memories—or visions—that swarmed her mind’s eye: blinding blue light, symbols hovering in the air, a king sitting atop a bejewelled obsidian throne. And an army of countless demons rising from their unmarked graves, wielding weapons of unnatural quality.

            The gods only knew what came with that. The aftermath of the war with Althulor was sure to bring Hell to Questeria—and all of its endless worlds.

            However, Hirri steeled her nerve as she leaned forward, calming herself. Calming her heart.

            Her bones quaked in their joints as she prepared for the next bout of knowledge and history and background on the enemy.

            Before she could do so, there was a whine of a blade and two thumps outside. The sound of flesh meeting stone. Skulls against brick. Her ears peeked up as she listened to the deaths of the two guards.

            Upon hearing this, Klaus awakened, his eyes wide with fascination as he beheld, in his tear-stained view, a figure opening the door and walking over two bodies—throats slit from ear to ear. Walking past the threshold.

            The figure stood there, all shadows and glory and viciousness. That was before the newcomer brought a torchlight to their face, the flames displaying feminine features. Unbound shimmering black hair spread over broad shoulders, like a man’s. The woman wielded a blood-drenched short sword and a fierce grin.

            Hirri’s voice broke as she whispered, “Nurka?”

            Nurka. The Black-Tsaron Clan Leader. Her friend, who had been there with her when she needed her most. Her rival, when she had escaped Tsaria and all its horrors and delights.

            She was here. In this festering dungeon in a land long thought to be peaceful… But finally unravelling itself to show its true face. One of demons and monsters made flesh.

            Hirri’s mind didn’t stir once as she took to her feet, struggling all the while. The others in tow behind her, eyes gleaming like those of feral beasts, they stumbled to the door. They clung to one another, the prince letting out a vehement curse as if he knew this was a miracle.

            As if he knew that they’d found their leap for freedom.

            “How—how did you get here?” Hirri asked, the question lingering on her lips even after she’d asked it.

            Before Nurka could answer her, a vibrating sound rang through the prison, the city, the empire. By the gods, the guards must’ve heard them and sent a militia of men to their attention. The pealing of distant bells waned as Hirri took in the sight of her friend.

            “There’s no time for that,” Nurka breathed, her face pale. “We have to move. Hirri, by my side. Prince, guard the woman and the child.”

            Nurka began to shuffle out of the prison cell, the darkness slowly fading away into the shuddering golden torchlight. But Hirri grabbed the woman by the arm, whirled her around to her face.

            The words spilled from her mouth slowly, like honey. “Thank you, my friend. Thank… Thank you for this.”

            Nurka nodded back in response, a tight smile lifting up the corners of her lips. That was before a deadly calm swept over her face. She bore weapons. Weapons. Hirri had never seen the woman more prepared for battle. For bloodshed.

            “When I say go, you’re going to charge for the guards,” she whispered to Hirri, unsheathing a curved dagger the size of her forearm. She put it into Hirri’s hands. “Your friends and I will follow you once you’ve dispatched them.”

            “Why aren’t you killing them?” There was no childishness in it. Just pure challenge. She wanted the fight, but was suspicious on why Nurka had given her the order and not done it herself.

            “I have to give you some welcoming gift, don’t I?”

            At Nurka’s grim smile, Hirri’s mind flashed back to undiscernible memories that splayed out before her. They were blurred, distant… shadowy. She couldn’t understand them. Well, not until she looked her friend in the eyes.

            Nurka turned back to the threshold of the prison cell. She looked outside to the dank chambers, the hallways that spread farther out than the eye could see. The twisting hallways descended into an ageless, beckoning darkness that haunted Hirri every time she put her gaze upon it.

            The sound of distant footsteps echoed, along with the deep and guttural voices of nearby guards. Nurka held out a hand in front of her Tsaron friend, as if to back her away from the storm she would unleash.

            Hirri glanced back at Veela, then Jauqin, then Klaus. They all wore unreadable expressions, except for Klaus. Utter, undiluted fear was spread across his face, his cheeks tinged red in the darkness. Albeit his small mass, he was as trifling as Hirri had ever seen him.

            Her heartbeat raged in her chest with the sound of violence. A night-laced wind swept by into the prison cell, undoubtedly from the barred windows within.

            “Wait,” Nurka whispered, the single word turning into many in Hirri’s head.

            The voices rose. The footsteps became heavier, more compacted.

            “Wait.” A command—an order. A glimpse from the past, the past where Nurka had been a commander of armies. Where she had stalked her prey down long into the night. A warrior-goddess.

            Quiet fell.

            And a storm awakened.

            “Now.”

 

Despite being upon the threshold of the hallway, Prince Jauqin Dannanus of the Eastern Kingdom was in shock—complete and utter shock—at Hirri’s fighting skills. Especially after the fear that had torn through her during Eonova’s Claiming.

            Hirri Kralos took down the foot soldiers and guards like they were a stampede and she were a shooting star.

            Blazing alight like hellfire, she cut through the men and women. Groans and moans spilled from their mouths, curses and profanities, as she whipped them down with the curved dagger so graciously given to her. By her friend…

            Nurka, another one of her kind.

            Jauqin could tell that they were of the same kin, or at least the same kind, as a savage delight creeped upon Nurka’s face. Her feral smile turned beastly as Hirri finished off her maelstrom of a fight, whipping her hair back.

            Her blood-flecked clothes glistened scarlet and crimson as she finished the last man, knocking him down with her boot and then—with a roar—cut his throat down to the bone. His final words were gurgles that echoed into the cavernous ends of the Lightlands dungeon.

            Jauqin’s eyes were wide as he said gently, “By the damned gods.”

            In response, Hirri only smiled at him and made a gesture for them to follow her. She flicked two fingers at them.

            And so, Jauqin followed their small group’s trail. It wasn’t so grand as the infamous Allegiance—who had gotten into more trouble than the other empires had anticipated—but it was hopeful enough that they could make it out alive.

            The prince knew they didn’t have much time and, fortunately, it seemed that Nurka and Hirri had taken this into heavy consideration as they embraced in the semidarkness of the dungeons.

            Amid the stench of unwashed bodies and rotting flesh, Nurka breathed, “I’ve missed you, heart-friend. I’ve missed you and all your dumb bravery.”

            Hirri inhaled, as if carrying the burden Nurka had upon her, and replied, her voice husky and tear-laced, “I’ve missed you, too. There’s… There’s so much I need to tell you, yet so little time. My Allegiance will undoubtedly kill me if I don’t get to them soon enough.”

            Time—they didn’t have enough time. Not for finding the Allegiance, and certainly not for any friendly reunions.

            Jauqin swallowed. “We need to keep our heads forth. The sentinels will have our hands on us if we don’t keep moving.”

            Hirri pulled from her friend and their embrace, her smile as bright as the golden days of Jauqin’s childhood. She reminded him of what the world could be, how it could be. A world where there was trust and peace and no sacrifices had to be made in order to keep things progressing. A future. She reminded him of the future—at least now, in this very moment.

            Suddenly cognizant of the plan and what it ensued, Nurka came to the realisation that she’d been meddling too long in friends and hadn’t studied their battle tactics long enough. Jauqin noticed this in her eyes as she kept in pace with Hirri in front, Klaus and Veela ahead of him and the prince in the back.

            “Do you have a plan?” Veela asked, arrogance edging her words, as if she were a blade beginnings its descent into flesh.

            “Somewhat,” Nurka admitted, “but it’s well enough that we won’t get slaughtered. I haven’t thought of the consequences, but we’ll get to that when it’s important.” She let out a heavy breath. “We’re going to take down the Royal Guard of the Lightlands. I have some of my spies lurking around the edges of the empire. There’s no way in Hell we can take out Eonova, but she wouldn’t unleash her wrath just because her Royal Guard has been dispatched—not when she’s a living, breathing world. We’ll take her men down. I’ve planted some naval forces hiding, cloaked in one of my warrior’s magic. We’ll go down to the docks… and then set sail for Ilisian.”

            Ilisian. The capital of Tsaria, Hirri Kralos’ homeland and the only place she’d been before the tumultuous events that had taken place.

            Prince Jauqin knew nothing of Tsaria. But he knew of Ilisian. Word of the mouth claimed that legends of nightmares stalked Ilisian, dragging the fiercest of men mad and into the clutches of foul beasts, fell monsters.

            A shudder went down his spine, as chill as the cold breeze around them.

            “Ilisian?” The word was on Hirri’s mouth in an instant. There was nothing human in those dark eyes of hers, the prince saw. Nothing that had been seen by him only a few moments ago. “Why would we go there?”

            Klaus seemed to clutch onto Hirri, his face pleading. But for what?

            They continued to walk deeper into the blackness of the dungeons, the swamp-like dampness almost suffocating. Jauqin could’ve sworn he heard the churning of oceanic waters as he paced forwards, his mind set on their goal. On attaining peace and quiet, whether that be in this land or Hirri’s.

            “It seems,” Nurka answered, “that the High Queen of Drali, the western country of Tsaria, has decided to establish a new kingdom from the ruins of an old one. This new kingdom happens to be on the border between Drali and Eirasa—if only to aggravate her rivalling queen. Ilisian is the stronghold of the kingdom… and so we shall flee there.”

            “What of the threats? I’ve heard fell forces lurking there, Nurka. If we expose ourselves to that kind of darkness—”

            “The world is changing. You’ll find that our homeland is much different. Our ways of life, our inhabitants, our people and hopes. Everything is twisting and corrupting other ways of life. But we strive, don’t we? Maybe you can in Ilisian. Maybe you can’t.” A deathly look had taken over Nurka’s face.

            Jauqin wanted to melt away into the darkness. If what Nurka spoke of was true, if this new kingdom had been established in the nearby location of an unfathomably dark land… Well, he wasn’t sure whether he should be surprised or not.

            “Ilisian, then.” Hirri’s form was rigid and stiff as she continued to walk.

            Nurka looked behind to check on the prince, Klaus and Veela. “Ilisian, then.”

            Jauqin just hoped that her plan wasn’t folly. That Tsaria’s capital would truly make them content.


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