Screams reverberated through the blazing yard; echoing off the surrounding towering walls. Fire ravaged nearby buildings, devouring shattered windows and broken entrances. A thick veil of smoke billowed into the night sky, obscuring any glimpse of the starlit heavens above from the girl’s terrified eyes.
Crouching low, the girl’s eyes flickered between the shelter of her crumbling home and the comparably safer refuge offered by the yard beyond. Flames danced out of control; the heat pressing dangerously against her dark brown skin. Sweat speckled on her brow as the flames’ menacing presence accompanied the deafening song of clashing steel and the frantic shouts of soldiers.
As fear gripped her, the girl lamented the loss of her mother and brothers. A collapsing beam that had left her paralysed with fear had separated them. A shower of embers and dust erupted around her and she’d been too terrified to act and follow her mother’s instructions to find safety, to stay hidden. Her mother had been desperate to get both her living son and the one in her belly to safety, but the girl had frozen. When she’d finally found the strength to look up, her family was gone, vanished into the abyss of chaos around them.
It shattered her wayward thoughts as someone violently jerked her neck backward, pain shooting through her body, her hair serving as a merciless tool of control. She fought back with the fervour of a cornered animal, unleashing screams and hisses that echoed in the chaotic space. Her voice continued to be ravaged by screams and the invasive smoke that filled her lungs. It threatened to suffocate her if her captor didn’t break her neck first.
They dragged the girl over hot rust coloured dirt before the ground came up to meet her jaw, smacking her teeth up into her mouth, biting her tongue. She cried out, the pain and savagery of the moment unlike anything she’d experience before. A foot kicked her over onto her back, limbs spread ungainly. Mouth bleeding and head spinning, the girl, summoning her remaining strength, scrambled onto her trembling hands and knees. Desperate to identify her captor, through her tears, she strained to make out the figure looming before her.
The soldier wore the regal black and gold uniform that marked him as a member of the Dark Emperor’s Army. A fabric hood concealed his face, leaving only his eyes visible; the orbs were devoid of empathy, betraying no hint of emotion as they met her tear-filled gaze.
“Show me your stomach, girl!” he commanded in Agmantian, a language foreign to his own Cotaini origins, before he pulled her to her feet.
He knows! They’ve come for me.
The brute’s knowledge of another language would have impressed her if he weren’t here to capture her. The realisation left her stunned and disbelieving. They had finally found her. The weight of disappointment that they’d finally found her came crashing down, constricting her heart as her mother’s painstaking efforts to keep her hidden proved to be in vain. She’d only had to do one thing: hide. She felt a paralysing stillness overcome her once more.
“Please,” she begged, her small voice trembling. The soldier leaned in, his rough hands groping at her clothes, seeking to expose the skin beneath. “Please…no!”
Panic gripped her, her pleas escalating into anguished cries, fuelled by the knowledge of the unspeakable atrocities committed by men – these men – who captured and abused countless women as they ravaged surrounding lands. Her mother had always emphasised her value, not just for the power that dwelled within her, but the fragile vessel she was, vulnerable to these ruthless predators.
The soldier persisted in pawing at her garments, the finely crafted tunic and knee-length pants now soiled with crimson dust, remnants of her smouldering city. It crumbled around her, the sounds of people she knew and loved fading away. Whether through escape, death or capture, she couldn’t know.
She fought to keep the tunic in place, painfully aware of the recent changes her body had been through. A blush of shame tinted her cheeks before a sudden blow to her head, left her ears ringing and stopped all the fight she had in her. Flashes of white light disoriented her as she collapsed to the ground.
Amidst the symphony of agony and devastation, a voice penetrated the chaos, resonating with an inexplicable connection within her. It pulled at her heart, warming it like a beacon to safety. Her heart pounded, the weight of it no longer from fear but something else she couldn’t name.
“He wants all potential candidates alive!” the voice echoed, smoother than the brute who had injured her, yet carrying an equally ominous tone. There was something off about it, she realised, even without the face mask she knew would likely cover his face.
“She is alive!” retorted the soldier, his tone brimming with indignation.
“Alive and unharmed!” the voice affirmed.
As the haze clouding her thoughts lifted, the girl shook her head, attempting to regain clarity. When she looked up, she found herself confronted by another face concealed beneath a hood. A tremor passed through her as she locked eyes with him, frozen by the obvious warmth emanating from his jade-green eyes; eyes reminiscent of the serene waters of the Agmantian Sea.
The new soldier brought her to her feet, his hands gently holding her elbows. She stood there, stunned at his proximity to her. He was only a few inches taller than her, with a slimmer build than the other guards. His penetrating gaze hit her like a blow to the gut, stealing her breath before she crashed back to reality. Her heart raced, her narrowed eyes fixated on this stranger who elicited such a visceral reaction within her. The soldier reached out, his finger underneath her chin. She hated she noticed how calloused his finger was against her smooth, untainted skin.
The girl watched as his eyes suddenly averted, severing their connection as he dropped his hand and turned to face her abuser. Blocking her view of the soldier; her saviour positioned himself in front of her, yet his defiance was unmistakable.
“She’s just a child!”
“As are you,” came the retort, the soldier’s voice brimming with belligerence. That was what was different about his voice, she thought. He’s just a boy.
The boy advanced towards the soldier, closing the distance and locking eyes with him. “I’ll show you how much of a child I am.”
The air seemed to shift with his words, the intensity of the moment heightened by the dark clouds gathering above them. Her gaze shifted to where the boy placed his left hand on the hilt of a concealed sword—a scimitar, judging by the sheath’s shape. It was unlike any other sword sheath she’d ever seen. It was adorned with precious gems against a backdrop of solid gold. The boy’s other hand fisted by his side and the girl swore that darkness seemed to gather there, swirling in a faint mist. Fascinated, her caution waned until another voice interrupted their encounter. No mere boy would wield a sword like that. How old was he? Who was he?
“Do you have it?” Another voice joined them from the surrounding chaos that had the girl rooted to the spot. The chill of airless darkness crept across her skin, the girl’s heart racing now not from the warmth of the boy who had come to her aid, but from the fear of this man who she knew instinctively would bring her demise.
“She awaits examination, Your Majesty.”
The Dark Emperor! He was here!
She knew her gift was powerful. She knew the price people would pay for it, for her, but the emperor here invoked a fear she couldn’t describe.
“Get on with it then!” commanded the emperor, and everything seemed to fade as he approached. He was clothed in magnificent battle armour crafted from some gleaming dark metal. It shimmered in the glow of the surrounding flames, reflecting the devastation of her home on his breastplate. The girl averted her eyes, afraid to draw his attention to her face.
The soldier who had beaten her, and another who seemed to have arrived with the emperor, grabbed her arms, forcing them out by her sides. They no longer needed to lift her tunic; the mark on her midriff was now exposed. A whimper escaped her lips, terror gripping her, knowing that her tears would not save her from unthinkable abuse.
The Dark Emperor reached out and traced the top of her mark before tugging at the waistband of her silk pants to see it in its entirety. It was an insignificant birthmark in the shape of a star on her hipbone. Inconsequential. Nothing.
She saw his eyes come alight, flames dancing within them as they met her gaze. His smile was cruel, causing a chilling sensation akin to spiders crawling over her skin as his lips receded from his teeth. He fingered the mark before trailing his finger slowly up to her navel, then curling back into a fist.
“Please,” she whispered in Cotaini, desperate in her last moments. Maybe speaking to him in his own tongue would help her. “Please, don’t kill me.”
The emperor looked abashed. With an eyebrow raised, he looked at the soldier and the boy now standing on either side of him. “Why would I kill you, sweet girl?” He responded in Agmantian. “When I travelled this far to find you?”
“I don’t understand.” She said, remaining in her native tongue, just as he had subtly insisted.
“You and I are destined for great things,” he declared.
“Father…don’t do this.”
Her eyes shot to the boy beside him, then back to the emperor. Father?
“Hold your tongue!” The emperor snapped at the boy, and he visibly recoiled as though someone had slapped him. “You’ve served your purpose!” The prince stood to attention as his hand gripped the hilt of his sword, knuckles tight. The girl watched as the faint darkness swirled around his fist once more, darkened, then disappeared completely.
The girl chanced a look into his face and found the boy’s gaze fixed upon her. Those captivating green eyes held her hostage in that fleeting moment, and so she took a chance,
“Help me,” she said. “Please.”
The boy cast his eyes downward before walking away, leaving the girl broken. The rejection pierced her core, leaving her feeling oddly alone. She’d been stupid to think there was something else in his eyes. He wasn’t her friend. He didn’t know her. He was her enemy.
“Have her bound and ready to leave,” the emperor declared, ignoring the exchange. His dark eyes remained locked on her even as she continued staring at the boy beside him. “My war is ready to begin.”