A boy, little more than eight years old, slept fitfully in his makeshift bed. His name was Samuel, though everyone called him Sam, except his mother. Tangled in his sheets, he kicked and turned, eyes tight shut and broken words bubbling from his lips. Outside their tiny hut a storm spat rain into the night and he flinched at every flash of lightning, curling tight into a shivering ball. Sam never had nightmares. He slept so peacefully, his mother joked, he wouldn’t wake even if the walls collapsed around him. But tonight his dreams were dark and terrible.
He was trapped in a circle of fire, whirling in a panic, unable to escape. Flames stabbed at his skin and he called out for his mother but from the darkness came only the screams of strangers.
As he slept a pair of hands reached out to shake him.
“Wake up Samuel! Wake up!” His eyes sprang open, wide and confused.
“Mother?” He drew back from the shadow looming over him. Satisfied he was awake, his mother stepped back,
“Get dressed, quickly!” she said and turned away before he could speak, over to the door, pulling back the wind guard and peering into the night.
Samuel struggled out of bed, still half asleep. He pulled on his shirt and pants and searched the floor for his shoes. He could still hear the spitting flames from his dream and the screams of its victims and though he shook his head to scatter the sounds, they rang out louder than ever. He shuddered. The noise wasn’t inside his head, it was coming from outside. Orange embers and thin fingers of smoke drifted in from the hole in the ceiling. What was happening? Was the hut on fire?
His mother turned to him, agitated.
“Hurry Samuel!” He stumbled to her side, a knot of panic growing in his stomach. Something terrible was happening; his mother was never afraid. She took his wrists and though her face softened a little, there was terror in her eyes.
“You must be brave Samuel,” she said. One hand came up and gently brushed his hair from his eyes. “Stay with me, we will go to the castle. It will be safe there.” She didn’t sound convinced.
“What’s happening?” He tried to sound brave but his voice trembled.
“The castle Samuel, just think of that. Once we are outside, do not stop, no matter what you see. Do you understand?” He nodded, and she turned back to the door. Her grip was hard around his wrist. She took a deep breath and flung back the sheet, dragging him into the night.
They burst from the hut at a run. Rain thumped down and crowds of screaming villagers hurried past, churning the street to mud. They were wild eyed with panic and barged Samuel aside, though his mother dragged him quickly after them, pushing on towards the looming shadow of the castle. Many of the huts lining the street were ablaze, crackling in the downpour, and waves of heat burned his face. Suddenly lightning cracked overhead and the dark clouds rattled thunder. Samuel glanced up, squinting against the rain. He felt his legs buckle.
The sky was full of dragons.
Samuel heard stories of dragons from the northern territories, but had never seen one. Now there were hundreds, swooping in and out of the clouds; thin serpents with black leathery skin and wide ragged wings; sleek in the rain. Throats bulging and jaws wide they dropped from the sky belching streams of fire into the village. On their backs thin, wiry riders bellowed commands and hauled on their reins, driving them to attack.
Samuel stumbled and was hauled back to his feet by his mother, pressing through the crowds with dogged determination. Up ahead another hut exploded into flame. Bodies were flung across the climb, collapsing into the mud and she changed direction, dragging him into a thin side street. There were fewer people crowding the tight spaces between the huts and they sped along, lurching around corner after corner, Samuel half-blind from the rain in his eyes.
Suddenly they stopped. Samuel thumped into his mother and fell to the floor, his arm pulled up by her iron grip, still clamped around his wrist. She told him to keep moving, no matter what. Why had she stopped?
A deafening roar shook the walls of the alley and sent ripples through the puddles.
A black dragon stood ahead, blocking their way; staring right at them. Thick lids blinked over its black eyes and it snorted out jets of steam. In the press of the alley its wings were drawn in against its glistening body and its tail flicked against the walls, splintering wood.
The dragon’s rider, rain dripping from its bony head, leaned forward and snarled at them through rotten fangs. It looked like a man, though its skin was grey and scaly, with small spikes of bone breaking from the flesh along its muscled arms. It kicked its heels against the dragon’s flanks and the beast took a thumping step forward.
Samuel’s stomach lurched. He pulled at his mother’s hand, trying to drag her back the way they had come, but she was fixed in place, solid as a rock; her eyes locked on the dragon. It held her gaze, taking another step closer and the ground shuddered.
The Dragon’s throat bulged, heat boiling up inside, and its jaws opened, streams of smoke snaking between its fangs.
Finally Samuel’s mother snapped out of her daze. Her bright eyes darted back along the street. Flames had spread from the huts, blocking any retreat and the walls of the alley were too wet to climb. She dropped down in front of Samuel,
“Close your eyes,” she said.
Samuel obeyed and she pulled him in tight. Even over the roar of the fires and the pounding of the rain he could hear her heart thumping. The dragon roared and Samuel braced himself for the flames. Instead he heard a horrible crunch. The dragon’s bellow ended abruptly and there was a heavy thud.
He opened his eyes. The dragon’s head was inches from his nose, its hot breath on his face and its cold eyes staring into his own. He yelped and jumped back, dragging his mother with him. The rest of the dragon thrashed wildly, crashing into the huts lining the street, the neck which once held the severed head whipping like a snake. On its back the dragon rider tried to hold the dying creature steady but it bucked wildly sending its master tumbling to the floor.
Through the smoke came a man. He walked calmly and his eyes never left the beast rider, which scrambled back to its feet, bent low, ready to pounce. Samuel recognised the solider; Commander Vale, the King’s protector. Everyone had heard stories about him; they said he was invincible, but he looked the same as any soldier Samuel had seen. He wasn’t a giant, or dressed in fine armour, and only his sword suggested there was something different about him, its edge flickering with sparks. A Majia blade!
The beast rider moved. Its hand whipped forward, so fast that one moment it seemed to be at its side, then suddenly stretched out in front, sending a dagger shearing through the air at the Commander’s heart.
The Commander didn’t blink. His arm rose in a fluid arc, sword twisting round in a dance of sparks. With a solid clatter of steel the dagger was deflected, shuddering into a wall, and the beast rider’s eyes popped in disbelief. Before it could recover the Commander sprang forward, driving his sword through the stunned creature with a horrible crunch. It fell gurgling into the mud, thrashing in agony and after a final gasp was still. The commander pressed his heel down on its chest and wrenched his sword free, turning to Samuel and his mother. His calm expression became concern.
“Are you hurt?” he said. Samuel shook his head, helping his mother to her feet and she pulled him close.
“You must go,” the Commander said. He whistled through his fingers and from the downpour a mounted soldier appeared. He steered his horse through the burning wreckage and stopped before the Commander.
“Take these two to the west catacombs,” the Commander said, “Press north through the caverns. There is no safety in the city now.”
The soldier hauled Samuel up into the saddle and his mother pulled herself behind, locking her arms around him. Wheeling the horse, the soldier hesitated for a second,
“What of the King?” he said. Commander Vale’s face darkened,
“This Kingdom is lost,” he said.
Elvan Caldor, King of the realm of Hatriila, second son of Treyd Caldor, paced back and forth across the castle’s throne room trying to keep his anger at bay. Except for his heavy footsteps, the room was silent, though sounds of carnage outside drew his gaze to the chamber’s high windows, where orange light flickered from the burning village below. He wasn’t alone. Royal Archers lined the walls, bows trained on the chamber’s entrance and beside them a dozen soldiers stood ready, swords gripped and shields raised.
Aeris Greenlaw, his wife and Queen watched from her seat beside the empty throne. He avoided her worried glances.
“Be still Elvan, please,” she said. He stopped and let out a frustrated sigh,
“I shouldn’t be skulking in here while my men are falling,” he said, “What use is a King who hides away like a frightened mouse.” The attack had been sudden and parts of the city were blazing when his Royal Guard reached the streets. Reports put the invading army at thousands, too many for his forces to hold. Where had Avarat found so many men! Barely a month had passed since he took the realm of Groll and no-one had guessed he would march on Hatriila so soon.
“What use is a dead King?” the Queen said, “While you live this Kingdom has hope.”
“Hope? What hope have they got now their homes are destroyed and their families lie dead? I would rather die fighting. Better I am remembered for that.” The Queen looked away and he knew it was hopeless to try and convince her. She was happy to see him safe, and he understood her desire to protect him. He was sorely out of practise, weak from countless hours on soft cushions. How many days had he wasted in this room, bored out of his mind, listening to the endless prattle of men who ran his city. How many nights had it taken for him to become fat and unfit on wine and feasting. He couldn’t remember the last time he held a sword or rode with the hunt. Now his enemies were at his door and he had neither the strength nor skill to oppose them. Avarat had taken the three realms quickly; now he knew why. He commanded a host too strong to be opposed.
Quick footsteps rang into the chamber and the King’s soldiers tensed, eyes fearful and weapons raised, until a familiar figure entered.
“Commander Vale,” the King said, “How goes the evacuation?” He had sent men to protect the people and lead them from the city. There was little point trying to resist Avarat’s horde; better to save as many as they could.
Vale approached the King quickly, bowing to one knee,
“Many have escaped into the catacombs Sire. Most of your city burns and the lower castle is lost, though if we move quickly we may escape.”
“No.” The commander glanced up at the King, puzzled.
“This battle cannot be won sire! We have allies throughout Antigol, and many more pledge to resist the invader. We must go to them.”
“I will not run Commander. The realms of Aysh, Lotun and Groll have already fallen. Our enemy will not rest until he takes Hatriila and claims the throne. If we run he will pursue. We will be running forever.”
“Then stand against him another day when there is hope to prevail!” The Commander’s voice was sharp and he dropped his head, cheeks reddening. “I am sorry my Lord, I did not mean to speak out of turn. Forgive me.”
The King rested a hand on the Commander’s shoulder,
“Your concern needs no forgiveness my friend, but I cannot run.” Caldor felt sorry for Vale; he was a loyal man and swore his life to Hatriila, never seeking glory for his own sake or gold for his purse, but driven by duty and honour. He would obey now, though it would likely lead to their deaths. Bowing, Commander Vale rallied himself and rose quickly, turning back to the watching soldiers.
“Bar the doors and set the locks. We will not make this easy for them.”
Quickly the guards closed the heavy doors. They slammed shut like a tomb and thick, metal bars slid into place with a clang. Commander Vale stepped closer, hands moving over the locks, whispering secret words, and along the metal colourful sparks appeared. He stepped back,
“It will not stop them, but it may slow them down.” It was an empty gesture. As strong as they were, the doors would not hold off the invaders for long. Messenger birds were already speeding to the King’s allies but it was unlikely they would rally in time to be of help, and once Avarat claimed the throne they would be wise to swear loyalty to their new King or find their own cities in flames.
The King returned to his throne and held out a hand to the Queen. She took it gently and gave him a reassuring smile, though her eyes told a different story. Outside the storm eased and the villagers’ screams faded. Soon only crackling of fires and screeching of dragons could be heard.
By the door a soldier leaned forward, ear pressed against the wood. He looked back to Commander Vale, barely managing to keep terror from his face.
“They are here,” he said.
The King looked quickly to his wife who squeezed his hand tightly. Around the room Majia lanterns flickered and silence deepened. Even the dragons stopped wailing. A creaking sound caused the King to look up. Across the chamber’s ceiling hanging lanterns were tilting towards the doorway.
The doors exploded.
Wood and metal shattered, flying across the room in pieces. Soldiers closest to the door were thrown aside, crashing into walls, and archers were caught by the blast, sent sprawling to the floor but scrambling back to their feet, bows raised. The King rose from his throne and the Queen gripped his hand tightly, holding him back from whatever danger approached.
For a moment there was silence again. A cloud of dust thinned in the archway and there was nothing to see but darkness beyond.
Finally from the gloom came a man; tall and gaunt, dressed in heavy robes. His hood was drawn back revealing deathly flesh, cut deep with scars, from which a pair of pure white eyes stared out, devoid of emotion. Sparks flickered across his fingertips. The King drew himself to his full height, breaking free of his wife’s hold.
“Kozane,” he said, “Had you knocked we would have gladly let you in.” Though the King’s words were playful, his eyes were deadly serious. For years Kozane had served as advisor to the throne, before changing his allegiance to Avarat. Many believed him to be Antigol’s greatest Warlock and though Caldor knew better, Kozane was still a man to be feared.
Kozane stopped in the shadow of the archway and looked around the room, seemingly unconcerned about the arrows trained on him, or the soldiers ready to strike. His voice was a dull drone,
“Where is Maven?” Though he remained calm it was clear he was disappointed. “It would appear your faithful advisor has fled.” The King flinched. Maven had his faults, not least his habit of vanishing for days at a time, but he was no coward. This time at least his absence was a stroke of luck; as powerful as he was, he could not match so vast an army. He was safer beyond the city’s walls. Still, the King bristled at Kozane’s disrespectful tone.
“I am still King of Hatriila, address me accordingly,” he said, “You were my advisor once; allow me now to counsel you. Leave Hatriila and you may live.” Kozane gave no sign of having heard the King’s words. His gaze found the Queen, sitting beside the throne, stiff with defiance, and he bowed before rising to the King.
“Lord Avarat approaches your Grace,” he said, “Yield and you may live.” A flush crept into the King’s cheeks and he clenched his fists at his sides to drive down his anger. Is this what they thought of him in the three Kingdoms; a King who would hide from battle and bend the knee to anyone who came knocking.
“A dozen arrows could drop you where you stand Kozane. I say again, leave, while you can.”
Kozane’s expression remained unreadable. He flicked his hand, a tiny movement and a sudden force broke across the chamber like the ripple from a stone dropped in water. Archers and soldiers were thrown into walls. They dropped to the floor, unconscious. Commander Vale glanced at the fallen men and stepped forward, sword raised.
“The King’s protector,” Kozane said, “They say you cannot be killed.”
“True enough, so far,” the Commander said.
Kozane nodded and his fingers flicked again, sending out a second blast, pushing back the bodies of fallen guards. Overturned tables slid into the walls and pots shattered. Commander Vale remained unmoved, though Kozane was unimpressed,
“Perhaps the stories are true. You are strong, though how strong remains to be seen.”
His arms rose quickly, hands bent like claws, fingers crooked. Arcs of energy, like lightning caught and thrown, leapt at Commander Vale. He leaned into the blast, sword gripped tightly in both hands and energy bit into the blade, crackling and spitting, but he held it there, gritting his teeth. With a shout he flung his sword wide, sending the blast back at Kozane, and before the Warlock could react it burst across his chest sending him flying across the room. He landed in a heap, smoke rising from his charred robes and regained his feet, the scars on his head pulsing brightly. He looked more puzzled than angry and raised his hands to strike again.
A deep, commanding voice echoed through the room. Kozane froze and turned, head bowed, to the chamber’s doorway, where a dark figure was watching them all, eyes shining with amusement. The King glanced at his wife and from her desperate look he knew she recognised the voice.
A man stepped from the shadows, dressed in regal robes, a wicked smile on his lips. The Queen gasped and dropped her gaze.
His face was a mess of peeling skin and deep cuts, eyes sunken into hollow orbits and hair sprouting in clumps from his bloodied scalp. Lord Avarat, feared across the four Kingdoms of Antigol and spoken of in whispers as the Dark Invader, looked on the verge of death.
“Enough games Kozane,” he said, “We are not here to enjoy ourselves.” Kozane bowed low and moved to stand beside his master. From the darkness more figures crept into the room; fanged demons in blood-stained armour, sneering and brandishing daggers and swords. They scuttled behind Avarat, chattering as they came.
“So this is where the brave King hides,” Avarat said and the creatures brayed laughter until he raised his hand to silence them. The King rose angrily from the throne but the Queen gripped his hand so fiercely her nails broke his skin. She gave him a pleading look and he read the silent warning on her lips. Majiak!
Smiling, Avarat stepped forward but Commander Vale blocked his path.
“Many innocent people have died today Avarat. You attack without warning and commit treason against Hatriila. You will answer to the Council of Twelve for your crimes.” Avarat was unconcerned by the Commander’s accusations.
“The Council has no interest in our wars Commander. They will support this occupation as they did Aysh, Lotun and Groll. I regret lives have been lost, but how else can I establish rule if not by force? The fools are steadfastly loyal to their King. Your own loyalty is commendable but no less foolish. Surely you can see how Antigol has suffered under your King’s rule? I am not here for further bloodshed; I seek only to re-unite the four realms and claim my rightful place on the throne.”
“Hatriila will not bend as easily as you would like,” Commander Vale said, “You would unite the realms through fear. If your cause is just, take your claim to the High Lords.” Avarat’s face hardened,
“Have you forgotten the words of prophecy Commander? Do you bury your head and ignore the coming war? Antigol has grown as soft as the bellies of the men who rule her! There is no time for debate, Antigol must be protected. I say again, there is no need for bloodshed. Step aside and let your King speak for himself.”
Avarat took another step forward and Commander Vale blocked him, raising his sword.
What happened next would burn forever in the memories of those who survived. A sudden burst of colourful light lit the chamber throwing twisted shadows across the walls. With it came a strange melody; a low lament of notes, as if the dead were singing a gruesome accompaniment to Commander Vale’s screams. The King tried to run forward but the Queen held him fast.
“No!” she said, “It cannot be fought!” He knew she was right but Vale’s screams tore at his heart. He clapped his hands over his ears, snapping his gaze away, knowing his protector could not be saved. The song grew louder, rattling inside his skull, and he fell to one knee. Now he knew the truth of it. Avarat’s army had defeated the three realms, this power had won them for him. The Queen was right, it could not be fought.
Commander Vale’s sword slid across the stone floor towards him and came to rest against the throne, the sparks along its blade barely visible against the glare of the fierce energy filling the room. Finally the strange dance of lights softened and the song faded until the chamber hung in silence, broken only by the thump of Commander Vale’s body falling lifeless to the floor.
The Queen lifted her head and gave a cry, letting the King’s hand fall. She ran to the body, falling beside it, and cradled Vale’s head in her arms, tears falling to her cheeks. Avarat smirked and brushed down his clothes before stepping around the sobbing woman,
“Not nearly as invincible as people thought,” he said.
The King roared and snatched up Vale’s sword. He lunged at Avarat, who stood unmoving, smiling in amusement, and a blast of white energy lifted the King from his feet. He crashed to the floor with a painful yell and the sword clattered from his hand. Kozane stepped forward, fingers bristling with energy, ready to strike again, but Avarat waved him back and looked down at the sprawled King with pity.
“Give it to me,” he said and stretched out his hand. Incredibly, the King smiled and Avarat drew back, confused. “You do not have it?”
“Not all a King’s actions are witnessed,” the King said, “The final Majiak is beyond your reach.” Avarat’s careful composure fell away and he snarled,
“Give me what I’m owed..!” Slowly anger drained from his face and his eyes widened. “The boy!” he said, “The boy survived! “ He leaned forward, “Where is he?”
“Safe,” the King said. Avarat glanced to the Queen, sobbing over Vale’s body, before turning to Kozane.
“Kill him,” he said. Kozane raised his hands, energy building in his palms and the King braced himself.
“Wait!” The Queen stood, her face lined with tears, “Will you let him live?” She looked at Avarat fiercely.
“You are not in a position to bargain, Queen.” Fury burned in his eyes, “I claim only what is mine by right!” He looked away, his anger fading, “If he gives me what I am owed, the boy will not be harmed.”
“We can’t...” the King began, but the Queen snapped her gaze to him angrily. The pain on her face choked the words in his throat.
“Enough people have died today!” She turned back to Avarat, “The boy lives among the Shades.” Avarat eyes widened,
“Impossible. The council outlawed Majia Gates centuries ago. The Shades are lost to us.”
“No. A gate remains,” she said, “It will take you to Earth, and to our son.”