The cold burn of magic singed Relnek's hand where his prince's fingers brushed against him. Biting his cheek, he withdrew his hands from the leather tome Prince Zestron now held. Relnek put them behind his back in a semblance of attention and rubbed the burned area.
Zestron caressed the book with his hands. A smile, only partially hidden by his cowl, graced his finely chiseled face. His smile and charisma enchanted most people, his charm bending many to his will.
He loved to be fawned over. His one weakness, and Relnek's main defense.
"My Prince, the great and most loved, this book contains the names of all the Knightens, sealing their fate to your will."
"You have done well, Commander." Zestron murmured. His eyes glittered with warning. "So long as this is the true Knightens Registry."
"It is, My Prince." Relnek bowed his head. "Three of my men died in taking it."
Zestron drummed his fingers on the registry. "They died well?"
"They did, My Prince. They proclaimed their loyalty to you in their dying screams, and killed all of the Knightens guarding the book."
Zestron’s smile widened, showing perfectly formed, pointed teeth. “Then we must begin.” Zestron turned his face upward, his cowl falling back to reveal black hair set against pale skin. “My father will soon be able to escape through the rift I created in his prison. The Druids locked him into a Void; I will do the same to their precious Knightens.”
Relnek bowed his head respectfully, a twinge of shame and remorse racing throughout him at the part he played. “Yes, My Prince. The prophecy will not be fulfilled.”
“And my father’s reign will be assured.”
Zestron turned, his dark robes billowing, and walked to the stone platform which held the throne. Cracked and broken stone pillars sat on either side where he had ordered the images of the God and Goddess, Empre and Hurand, smashed. He placed the Knightens Registry upon the altar in front and sat on the throne.
The prince sat without speaking, gloating, and Relnek gazed around the abandoned temple during the uncomfortable silence. The white marble walls rose towards the impressively carved ceiling. Images of the goddess, Empre, and her female acolytes mingled with male disciples of the god, Hurand. Many of the images showed the couples in situations of courtship and love.
The carvings continued down the walls where subtle mage lights flickered, bringing the images to life. Relnek still felt they desecrated sacred ground, as he had when they had first opened the temple and cleared away centuries’ worth of debris.
Guilt ladened with fear dwelled within Relnek’s heart over the desecration of the temple, even though it had been abandoned many years before Zestron claimed it. We risk angering two gods to appease a non-god. How wise is that? Yet, what else can we do?
“Tell my priests that we are ready, and have your guards in position.” Zestron arranged the folds of his robe about him, then straightened his mustache. “I must contact my father before we begin.”
Relnek bowed to one knee. “Yes, My Prince.”
Zestron dismissed him with a wave, and he ran to do as his master ordered.
* * *
Zestron breathed deeply, relishing the feel of the magic source surging beneath the temple. He could hardly wait until he called that power through the throne and into himself. He hungered for the intense pleasure of calling the power through the throne and into him. Both for the intense physical ecstasy it gives the user and the knowledge of harnessing such power, even if he had to stay on the throne to maintain that control. The power of the gods themselves, The Forbidden.
But first, he needed to let his father know that all was ready for his return. Finally, after centuries of learning how to control The Forbidden, he and his father would be reunited, and they would rule the world together.
Drawing upon the power source beneath him, he sent his thoughts upward into the sky, seeking the mysterious areas called Voids: places of imprisonment and gateways to other realms.
“Father Dithron,” he called.
“Yes.” An icy voice hissed.
“I am ready to wipe the Knightens from the land. The heir will be lost, and the prophecy will not be fulfilled. You will be free to rule.”
“I shall enjoy making the Druids suffer for what they have done to me.”
“Yes, my father.”
“Do not fail me.” The threat, sent through the open channel, plunged like a flaming blade deeply into his brain. Zestron shrieked in agony. Slowly, the pain withdrew, leaving him weak and trembling.
“I will make you proud, my father,” he whispered breathlessly.
The connection was broken, and Zestron shuddered as he considered his father’s threat. Dithron did not tolerate failure, not even in his son. Zestron knew that if he failed, his father would happily destroy him…after days, years, perhaps centuries, of torture.
* * *
Relnek settled his sword into its scabbard and grabbed his spear from his room. Although he kept the fire lit and had extra mage lights brought in, the room still felt dark. As though it was grieving. Once the beautifully carved chamber of Harand’s head priest, the walls now showed only images of gloom, covered with black roses. Relnek knew the roses were not supposed to be black, but no amount of scrubbing by servants could lighten them.
"The day is finally here." The voice of his first Lieutenant and friend broke into his musings.
"Yes." Relnek turned to find Mesk sitting on a chair in the corner, the man's lean figure stretched out in a restful repose.
"How is he doing it?" Mesk leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. "How is he harnessing the power to use The Forbidden and open the Void?"
Relnek shook his head. "He just is. His mother, Queen Onessa, knew the secret of long life and she taught him, so he's had many years to work on it. I remember my great grandfather telling me stories of the Great Prince's magic."
"Did you see Aneya?"
"Yes." Relnek sighed. He wished he didn't have to be Zestron's right hand, but it kept their families safe. Zestron rewarded those who followed him by protecting their families from the blood rites. "I may not be able to leave the Great Prince's side very often. You must look after her, and Revi and little Ataya." His voice quieted to a whisper at the end.
Mesk stood and placed his hand on Relnek's shoulder. "Don't worry. I will look after them. And Lara will keep Aneya company as always."
A gong sounded, signaling the procession of priests to the throne room.
"It's time." Relnek laid his hand on Mesk's. "For our families."
"For our families." Mesk agreed softly as he followed his commander out the door.
Exuding the confidence Relnek knew his men respected, he brought his boot heels down hard enough against the marble floor to echo down the corridor. He stood very still as he made a show of inspecting the guards closest to his door, and then turning, he walked through the lines of red uniforms, not stopping when he came to the end, knowing all fifty were accounted for.
Mesk stepped sharply at his heels and the rest of the guards followed. The tempo of the boots upon the marble floors echoed through the great hall and calmed Relnek’s nerves by the time they reached the throne chamber.
There, Zestron’s priests already knelt before the throne. Relnek ordered his men to either side of the room, directing them to guard the entrances to the chamber. He then took his place a short distance from the stone platform, but far enough away to avoid getting caught in the magic the Great Prince was about to call forth.
“My Prince, all is ready.” He knelt to one knee, his head bowed.
“Let us begin.” Zestron pinned him with his gaze. “Do not fail me, Relnek. Although I will be joined to the power source, I can still reach out to you.”
“I will not fail, My Prince.” Relnek clasped his trembling hands behind his back and kept his voice firm.
Zestron faced his priests. “Open the sky doors.”
On either side of the chamber two guards turned large wheels. The men heaved, sweating with the effort, and the creaking echoed throughout the chamber. A loud grating sound came from the ceiling as two slabs of stone parted to allow sunlight through. At first there was only a crack, but another man joined those at the wheel, and the gap grew until half the ceiling lay open to the sky.
Small chips of rock fell from where the slabs of rock scraped the loosened bits. Clouds of dust floated downward, the sunlight streaming through in bright yellow rays. A few of the younger guards coughed from the dust, earning them warning glares from their more seasoned comrades at making a sound that could get them severely reprimanded from the Great Prince.
The guards, panting and drenched with sweat, returned to their positions when finished, daring to lean against the walls as they regained their strength.
Zestron’s high priest rose and took the Knightens Registry from the altar to Zestron. He knelt at the Great Prince’s feet, his blood red robes pooling around him.
“You and your priests will keep me supplied with energy during this time.” Zestron reached forward and with a long, pointed fingernail, slashed the high priest’s cheek. He cupped a few drops of the dripping blood in his fingernail and sucked it.
“As you command, My Prince,” the priest said without flinching.
The priest returned to his position, blood dripping down the side of his face. Zestron lifted his hands to the sky.
The floor shook and a great rumbling came from below them. More frightened of disobeying Zestron than of the floor collapsing, Relnek stood his ground. Many of his guards’ eyes were wide with fright and they trembled, but they too remained at their positions.
Zestron glowed faintly red, his body wavering. Relnek shivered at the vile hunger in the Great Prince's eyes.
The chamber shook; sconces and people swayed. The priests lay prostrate at their places, screaming their chants. The ground beneath rumbled louder, and the light around Zestron intensified. Zestron reached down and grabbed the Knightens Registry, holding it up to the sky. He chanted words Relnek strange words and the book burst into flames. The flames surrounded the book, yet it did not appear to burn.
From nowhere, screams sounded all around them, and many of the guards looked ready to bolt. Zestron’s voice reverberated through the chamber. “Do not fail me!” That threat was enough to keep them at their post.
With one last mystifying word from Zestron, the flames leapt from the book into the sky. The red glow around Zestron swirled and followed the flames.
The chamber stopped shaking, and the tremors settled into a slight, but constant, rumble. Zestron sat on his throne with the Knightens Registry resting in his lap. The glow had been replaced by a red fog that swirled around him.
“Close the doors, and bring me energy.” Zestron’s voice echoed through Relnek’s head, its sound even more malignant than before.
As he relayed the orders, the guards pulled once again on the wheel, and the sky doors ground closed. Two priests ran from the chamber. They returned quickly, dragging a struggling peasant boy. The high priest pulled out a sacrificial knife and waited at the altar.
* * *
The butterfly flitted from flower to flower as Taun followed it. With patience, she worked her way towards the creature. She gnawed on her lower lip, inching her fingers forward, and snatched at the brightly colored wings.
With a squeal of delight, she ran to where her parents sat by the creek. She carefully held the delicate creature in her hand and flew into the man's arms. "Daddy, I caught it!"
Her father gave a "Harrumph!" as she threw her weight into him and smiled at her, his eyes twinkling. "I see you have."
She laughed as she released the butterfly and watched it flutter away. Her father shifted under her weight, and she jumped up to sit beside him on the log. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I didn't mean to hurt you."
He hugged her close to him. "I know, my little rose. I forget sometimes how much you've grown."
"Except when the boys come calling," her mother teased in her sweet voice while playfully nudging him from the other side.
He groaned. "Don't remind me." He hugged Taun closer and kissed the top of her head.
Birds flitted from tree to tree, sounding a chorus of chirps and song. The cool autumn breeze blew from the mountains, reminding them that it was time to go.
"Taun, make sure our fire is out." He indicated the pile of smoldering wood across the clearing. "It's time we headed home."
"It was a nice holiday," her mother said as she began gathering up their packs.
"Yes," he said and then laughed. "I imagine Davak is furious that I took you two from the caravan." He turned and stooped to pick up the blanket they used to sit on earlier in the morning.
Taun laughed too as she poured water on the wood. "That's silly! We're safer with you than anyone."
Rough arms grabbed her from behind, pinning her to a solid chest in foul smelling clothes. She screamed.
"Taun!" Her mother cried as two more men appeared between them. One sneered and held a crossbow pointed at her father.
A dangerous light gleamed in her father’s eyes, and she told herself not to worry. This is nothing. My father can handle ten of these stinky men easily.
Her father glowered at the man holding her before returning his gaze to the man holding the crossbow.
Taun gulped, her throat tight with fear. Never had she seen him so angry. Anger in someone so powerful made her nervous. Please be careful. Don't overdo it and blow me up too.
She braced herself against the brute holding her, ready to dodge her father’s unleashed power.
"Yeah, honey. I'll take care of you soon." The words wafted through foul breath from the pig.
Good! Don't expect it! I'll dance on your dust afterwards.
The dirty clothed man holding the crossbow backed towards her, while keeping the weapon on her father. "Stay where you are, or the girl dies."
"What about the woman?" the other man said, spittle flying from a mouth full of crooked and broken teeth. "We could get double pay for her." He waved a knife at her mother.
"No," the one holding her said. "She's too old. They like 'em young and sweet. Like this one."
She jumped at the way he squeezed her side. Her father's glare at the man intensified and she marveled for a second that the man hadn't disintegrated to ash.
"Take her away," the crossbow wielder said. "I'll take care of these two."
"No!" Her mother screamed, falling to her knees as she reached for Taun.
The man holding her dragged her backwards towards the forest's edge. Her father raised his hand, pointing it at the crossbow. Taun struggled, dragging her feet, and digging them into the ground. Trying to force the man to slow down so her father would have time to act.
The man with the crossbow tensed, preparing to fire. "Don't move!"
Her father's hand rose partway. Now!
A blinding flash of light struck both of her parents, and her mother’s scream was cut short. The light surrounded them both and the attacker with the crossbow shielded his eyes with his arms.
"What the…," The man holding her hid his eyes behind her head.
White hot heat exploded through her and searing pain shot through her head as she cried out. The light surrounding her parents faded, and they were gone. And then darkness overcame her.
* * *
Druid Mage Chadric leaned back in his chair, resting his arm on the table while propping his legs up on another chair. The sunshine warmed his bones, bones that felt older than his four hundred years.
Andulin, the Knightens ambassador, sat across from him. The man's light complexion accentuated the seriousness of his visit, although his blue eyes still reflected the love and compassion the Knightens were so well known for.
Still, his words were not good.
"The disruptions in Moor-Knight's magic are growing stronger," the young man said. "The land trembles, and threatens to return to a wasteland once again, in spite of our efforts." He passed a trembling hand through his blond hair. "Even the Goddess Empre is weakened from the strain and cannot help us."
Chadric sighed and looked out the window as a spryk eagle soared in the distance. Not good at all. For the last century, disruptions in the world's magic had threatened the people and the land. He still was unable to find the cause of it.
"Danocor and Hudan have suffered similar problems," he said, "although not as serious. The Druids have been able to fight the damage with the help of the gods."
The eagle glided out of sight and a cloud passed over the sun, sending a chill through him. He looked at Andulin. "But even their gods are beginning to weaken. We are trying to find the cause."
"I know, Druid Mage. And I'm aware of how overworked the Druids are, but we must ask for your help."
"I understand." Chadric reached across and put his hand on the man's arm. "Chayne was right to send you. We have a small number of Druids with land magic here now. They will return with you."
Relief brightened Andulin's features. "Thank you! I'm sure…"
White fire surrounded Andulin, his figure disappearing in its intensity. Sharp, burning heat struck Chadric's hand and he leaped up, holding his burnt hand to his chest. His eyes watered with the pain.
The white light dissipated. Andulin was gone. Only the scorched chair remained.
Chadric ran from the room, slamming the large oaken door open so hard that it crashed against the wall with a resounding bang. With his injured hand still clutched to his chest, he yelled at the guards. "Andulin is gone! Place the keep on alert!"
The guards ran to do as he ordered. A panicked voice from behind caused him to turn. "Druid Mage Chadric!"
Belgon, a Druid Sentry Commander of many years ran up to him. The man was not easily shaken, but his golden eyes were bright with fear. "The Knightens who arrived with Andulin have vanished. There was a flash of white light, and they were gone, consumed!" The man breathed hard. "There's nothing left of them!"
"Come!" Chadric led Belgon down the long corridor, deeper into the keep. People scrambled to and from rooms as the alarm sounded. The mage and the commander ignored them all, dismissing with a wave those who tried to get their attention. The initial shock subsiding, Belgon asked, "What's happening?"
Chadric led them down another corridor, its walls smooth and unmarred by doorways. Crystal sconces lit his path. "I felt the workings of a Void when Andurin disappeared."
"A Void!" Fear blazed in the golden eyes again. "Only the Druid Mage Kerix knew how to wield that kind of power. He used it banish Dithron into one of those dark places."
"I know." Chadric’s heart tugged at the memory of the loss of his teacher, but he quickly quenched it. The seriousness of the present situation worried him too much to dwell on old sorrows. Void magic was very powerful and Kerix had been the first to summon it. If someone else had found a way, it meant more trouble than any of them could imagine. "We will ask Zuron, Father of All about this."
Shoving the large double doors open at the end of the hall, they entered the room that housed the Orienth Stone. The stone allowed them to find people and magic within the world. It took twelve to operate and they used it most often to find those born with magical talent. Today, they used it to see what caused this disruption. The Druid Councilors, who worked the stone, were already there, having heard the news.
They sat at their designated places at the horseshoe shaped table surrounding the two story stone. The stone pulsed blue, green, and orange with their workings.
"Go, see what the head priests are doing," he said to Belgon. "If they haven't checked already, tell them we need to know of any messages from Zuron."
"Yes, Druid Mage." Belgon dashed through another door, swinging it shut behind him.
Head Councilor Tericol rose. If possible, his usually unsmiling face was even more grim. "We have scried for the Knightens. We cannot locate them."
Chadric’s knees went weak at the news and a sinking despair swept through him. "None of them? Not even Chayne?"
Tericol's gruff voice softened, his eyes sad above his white beard. "Not even your twin brother Chayne."
Chayne was not dead. He would feel it. Taun! "Look for Taun's energy!"
"We have looked for all of the Knightens," Tericol said softly. "We would have felt her too."
"Trust me." Chadric insisted. "If you scried for the Knightens, you may not have scried for her." Please, Zuron let the safeguards we placed keep her safe!
Tericol reclaimed his seat and the twelve closed their eyes, focusing on the stone's power. It trembled, then turned a pale gold. The twelve opened their eyes.
"She is there." A measure of relief showed on Tericol's face. "But the energies are weak. She is still in the world, but we cannot locate her."
Chadric sighed deeply. Thank Zuron for one small favor. "Scry for magic users powerful enough to work a Void."
"A Void!" Tericol's calm demeanor crumbled, and he rose partway from his seat.
"I felt the workings of one when Andurin disappeared. Someone has figured out the magic."
"Impossible!" Terricol muttered as he sat to scry with the others. Long moments passed, the stone turning a multitude of colors, before going black. The twelve slumped with exhaustion. They had expended all their energy, but they could not find the maker of the Void.
A young adult fantasy fiction series by Diana Cacy Hawkins coming soon from Marion Margaret Press
Copyright (c) 2012 Diana Cacy Hawkins.
All rights reserved. Marion Margaret Press Business Office, PO Box 245, Hebron, NE 68370