Fravardin snapped his head around as he heard his father fall to the ground with an agonising thud. Ahead of him, Cidra and Eadulf came to a sudden stop as well, but the baby that Eadulf clutched to his chest seemed unaware of her dangerous surroundings.
“Fravardin…” his father’s voice whispered from the ground, travelling the distance between them in a cloud of dust. Fravardin couldn’t move. On the horizon, he saw the darkness of Desdemona’s army of Blood Shadows roll towards them like a great tidal wave, catching speed as it went. The hex within it pulsed, sparking red lightning across the sky.
“Fravardin!” the Elder Whisper’s commanding voice boomed from where he lay, watching his son’s face turn pale as he looked down on him. “Come here.” Fravardin approached him, and collapsed next to him onto his knees. Breathing heavily, the Elder Whisper reached into the pocket of his vast robes. Fravardin’s eyes travelled towards the Blood Shadows, which were still closing in on them at an alarming rate, sucking the life from everything they consumed. At the head of the horde stood an enormous black wolf, his blue eyes trained coldly on them. A feeling of betrayal seared through them all, but there was no time to dwell on it.
“You need to listen to me. I am not going with you, I am dying. She’s taken too much of my power.” The Elder Whisper touched his son’s face, and Fravardin looked at him, a tear threatening to break loose from his eye. A small, rolled up note lay in the Elder Whisper’s palm, and with the other hand, he reached for the sky. A star began to fall, growing smaller and colder, until the Elder Whisper caught it, whispering in the Old Tongue. The star sparked and spluttered, and opened like a locket. After the Elder Whisper dropped the note inside, the star snapped shut, and turned into a beautiful, silvery oval stone. Carved into its face was a symbol, the Crest of the Royal House – an owl perched inside a ring, with vines creeping up its surface. The Elder Whisper took a thin golden chain from his neck and attached it to the stone. Nervously, Fravardin glanced again at the advancing darkness. It was within earshot now; he could hear Desdemona’s manic laughter breaking the daylight. The Elder Whisper put the stone in Fravardin’s palm and closed his fingers around it.
“You have to go, my son. Make sure the Nightjar opens the stone when they turn eighteen. Remember to take them first…” Groaning in pain, the Elder Whisper pushed Fravardin away from him, and stood up. He watched the horde of Blood Shadows consume the Realm as they approached, a sound like roaring thunder accompanying their menacing advance. Fravardin ran towards Eadulf and Cidra, and without even a backwards glance at the Elder Whisper, they continued towards the Gates.
The Blood Shadows were rapidly closing the distance between them, and Cidra suddenly stopped in her tracks, swinging on her heels. Eadulf and Fravardin stopped too, looking at her in surprise.
“What are you doing? We have to go!” Eadulf yelled, careful not to wake Echo, who was still peacefully sleeping in his arms.
“We’ll never make it, the Gates are too far.” Cidra said, taking up a fighting stance. She brandished her staff, and lightning crackled as her power collected at its head. “Take Echo, and leave the Realm. I’ll hold them off.”
“No, let me do it! You take her and go!” yelled Eadulf, but Cidra simply shook her head.
“You’ve fought well, but you are no longer strong enough, you’ll never be able to hold them back for as long as you need to. Go, now!” charging forward, Cidra raised her staff to the sky and lightning crashed through the flood of hexes, but it barely made a difference. They stopped for a split second before storming on, still closing the gap between themselves and the Royal Family. Eadulf couldn’t wait any longer. He had to get to the Gates. He and Fravardin began to sprint, hoping that Cidra could hold the darkness off. In the distance, Eadulf noticed a faint glow where the Gates were to grow. He yelled in the Old Tongue, and the Gates exploded from nowhere, reacting to their Gatekeeper’s Call. They were huge – two great pillars rose from the ground, nearly twenty metres high, golden vines sprouting from their edges, growing towards one another to form the massive portal which separated the Earth from the Other Realm. It was still too far though, and behind them, Cidra was straining against the Corruption blossoming in her veins.
“We’re almost there.” Fravardin grabbed one of Eadulf’s arms and dragged him ahead, using his power to increase their speed. It was dangerous, using Sympathies in the presence of the Corruption, but it didn’t matter. They had to get to the Gates before Desdemona got to them. Cidra screamed as she turned into a Blood Shadow, her own memories and soul fading into the darkness with all of the others that came before her. The horde advanced again, gaining ground on the trio. Near the Gates stood a small figure, beckoning them to hurry. The little Whisper was Fravardin’s favourite apprentice, and her tiny body ran towards him as Eadulf called to the Gates to open. Behind them, the Blood Shadows were so close that they could feel the Corruption reach out with its wicked tendrils.
“Jump!” Eadulf yelled, and Fravardin and his apprentice did as they were told. Eadulf clutched Echo tighter to him, and followed them into the bright vermillion portal.
“I’ll find you, big brother!” Desdemona’s voice travelled over her armies, and she laughed as the Realm died around them. A menacing howl drowned out the sound of its final death.
It was four years after the Realm fell to Desdemona. Dyvana Acheon stood before the Six Witches of the High Council, highly agitated at her own carelessness. She’d left the Purple Peril Pub to hunt for supplies, which normally wasn’t a problem, but she made just one mistake. One mistake she couldn’t afford, one mistake which landed her in the worst position a member of the Mutiny could find themselves. She’d been caught buying bread from the very same bakery that General Delacroix frequented for its delicious muffins. A stupid, embarrassing mistake, one for which she’d certainly invent a much more elaborate and heroic story, but she comforted herself with the fact that she had to serve only the best bread to her patrons.
The chamber she now found herself in was vast and uncomfortably hollow. She stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by the guards she used to fight with. They kept their eyes trained on her with disdain, no doubt because of her general dishevelled look. Her flame-red hair hung in long, dirty strands around her face and over her shoulders, her once beautiful silver gown was torn and brown now and her feet were bare and filthy. Her blue eyes stood out amongst the dirt which caked her normally friendly, round features like a disease. In the weeks she’d spent in the dungeons waiting for her hearing, she’d lost some weight, but, she thought disappointedly, she was still a plump woman.
Dyvana shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She was trying to keep her eyes away from the floor, which was the colour of stardust, and seemed to move as if alive. This gave her a headache. At the far end of the cavernous hall stood a pitch-black platform, shaped like a winner’s podium. It had six steps – one for each of the Witches of the High Council, and each sat in a throne as dark as their hearts. On the highest two steps, shrouded in grandeur and shadow, sat Gerana, The Witch of Justice, and Satherine, High Witch of the Council, whose throne was far grander than any of the others. The steps below them were occupied by Lilith, Witch of War, and Maraura, Witch of the Houses. Narinia, the Witch of Labour, and Ara, Witch of the Lower, perched on the steps closest to the ground, a good two metres above Dyvana’s head. The rest of the chamber was empty, save for three tapestries on each wall with portraits of each witch looking down upon her. The walls themselves were bland and grey, growing into a dome far above them.
“Dyvana Acheon, you stand before the High Council, accused of the crime of treason against the crown. How do you plead?” Satherine, the High Witch of the Council, had a voice that was as piercingly annoying as it was demanding of respect. Dyvana looked up at her. She sat in her throne straight-backed, with her legs crossed, staring down her small, round nose at the prisoner. She had darker hair than Dyvana, an almost auburn colour, tied back so tightly in a ponytail that her thin eyebrows were permanently lifted. Dark eyes, cold with hatred, sat below them, and her normally thick lips were pulled into a tight line, waiting expectantly on Dyvana’s answer.
“Innocent.” Dyvana’s voice was level, despite standing in a room full of her enemies, who weren’t too happy about her answer. A collective growl swept through the guards who had, for lack of a better word, escorted her to the Council’s chambers. The Council themselves simply arched their eyebrows in unison, and General Duvala Delacroix simply stood in the corner in silence. Gerana spoke with a calm voice, but her sapphire eyes burnt with an anger which bit at Dyvana’s heart.
“All of the evidence points to your guilt, Dyvana Acheon. You are a highly ranked member of the Mutiny. This is a well-known fact, because you are not ashamed of sharing it. You are a traitor.” The last word shattered sharply in the cold chamber. Dyvana looked her old friend in the eye, refusing to back down from the fury that lay there, staying quiet to calculate her answer.
“If you are hunting traitors to the crown, you’d know that the greatest traitor of them all is sitting on King Eadulf’s throne with the skull of the Elder of the First Ring resting by her side.” she finally spat, knowing that she’d sealed her fate.
“How dare you speak of the Queen like that!” screamed Satherine, her calm mask falling apart. A guard raised his fist, and it smashed into Dyvana’s face with unspeakable force. Her knees buckled, but she remained standing, and spat the blood that began to fill her mouth onto the floor. The puddle that had formed began to bubble when the High Witch lifted her hand, and it turned into an arrow which flew up and hovered just centimetres from Dyvana’s nose. Dyvana did not flinch, but her heart lurched. She wondered for a second if her plan to get out would be ruined, but then reminded herself that her plans were flawless and always worked perfectly. Or at least most of the time. She stole a look at the General, but his face was as stony as it had been when he had recognised her in the bakery.
“I should kill you right now.” Satherine said, and a murmur of agreement rushed through the rest of the Council.
“The thing is, I don’t think you can.” Dyvana answered, trying not to look at the shadows where she knew Maghanym was hiding. She expected the arrow to move, but it didn’t, and, instead, Satherine laughed. It sounded like a thousand evil little chimes echoing off the walls.
“You stand here, surrounded by guards, and six people wielding the strongest magic in the Realm, where your own magic is bound by the shackles you wear; and you have the insolence to tell me I cannot kill you?” shrieked the High Witch. Dyvana smiled.
“Of course you can’t, you silly bean –” another punch, this one hitting her square in the eye, and Dyvana dropped to one knee, but she continued. The arrow once again hovered in front of her face, but with one eye swelling and the other watering, she could barely see it.
“You forgot something, Satherine. I designed the symbols on these shackles. I created the binding magic within them. I know how to counter every single Tattoo you have shielding you from me. Without magic, Satherine, you’re just another bitch on a throne.” Dyvana got to her feet, and the shackles which had kept her hands tied before fell to the ground with a clang. In an instant, her power bound the magic of every person in the room, save one, and the blood arrow dripped to the floor, useless. The four guards leapt at her, but without their magic, they could not conjure their weapons, and Maghanym chose the perfect moment to leap from the shadows. His shaggy blonde hair covered his eyes, but Dyvana saw him smile as darkness enveloped his left hand, forming a long black blade, which flowed through the dim light with vicious grace. The rest of his shadow grew into that of a six-tailed beast with three horns adorning its head, roaring as it consumed one of the guards completely. The General did not attack, but instead instructed the Council to follow him out of the room, and let the guards take care of the Mutinists. The Council, having bragged about how they were the strongest people in the Other Realm, ran from the room with their tails between their knees, screaming that they’d have justice.
“Way to take your time.” Dyvana sneered, while dodging a fist. Maghanym grinned as he swung his blade to meet the arm of the guard who threw it. A scream followed, and the guard fell to the floor, clutching his new bloody stump.
“The door’s clear. Zuhl, you take care of the others.” Maghanym said, and he dragged Dyvana to the gigantic door, which stood slightly ajar. The Schlaibreea grunted, turned its colour-changing eyes toward the two remaining guards and stormed at them. An alarm pierced through the halls of the palace, but Maghanym and Dyvana kept running. They reached an intersection, and just before slamming into the wall, swung left.
“Wait, wait!” Dyvana stopped suddenly, leaving Maghanym staring quizzically after her. She pointed at one of the many glass cases which stood in the corridor, and Maghanym smashed it. Inside were an ancient black bow and a quiver with eleven arrows, resting on the arms of a suit of armour. Dyvana grabbed it, and they headed down the halls again. They knew the palace by heart, but it was still a long way to the kitchen’s back exit, and they were being chased by tumultuous guards.
“Yeah, the plan for the back door won’t work.” Maghanym pointed out, panting, while the guards closed in on them.
“Then we find a window.” Dyvana veered to the right ahead of him, and ran right into General Delacroix. Her head smacked off his armour and she backed up a few paces to regain her balance. Maghanym ran around the corner and came to a dead stop when he saw who they’d managed to find. The guards were about ten seconds behind them, and they knew they had to act quickly, but even though the General’s magic was immediately bound by Dyvana’s, he always carried around a real sword, and he was a fierce fighter. He didn’t look surprised to see them in the least. His blue eyes did not betray any emotion, and he barely moved. Just beyond him was a window, which opened onto a roof – the perfect escape route. Dyvana drew the bow from her back, and Maghanym held his blade ready. Duvala moved so fast that they couldn’t even see him remove his blade from its scabbard, and he planted his left hand behind Dyvana’s head and threw her to the floor, using the momentum he gained from it to launch himself at Maghanym.
“Zuhl!” Maghanym shouted as his blade smashed into Duvala’s in a faltering attempt to block it. Dyvana got up, dizzily, watching Maghanym duck, panicking, under a precise swing from Duvala’s sword. The Schlaibreea emerged from the shadows on the wall, trying to swallow the General like it did to the guards, but Duvala simply swung his sword to block its teeth, and ducked out of the way of its pronged talons. Maghanym raised his left arm, and brought it crashing down towards the back of Duvala’s head. The General side-stepped him, and with a terrible shriek of disbelief, Maghanym’s blade smashed through Zuhl’s shoulder instead. Maghanym had to think fast, and he whirled to meet his enemy’s sword again. Dyvana inched towards the window as she watched them fight, notching an arrow into the ancient black bow. She pulled it back, raising it to aim at Duvala’s head. Maghanym had a look of pure, frightened panic on his face as he flung his blade to catch Duvala’s merciless slashes time after time. Dyvana locked the bow onto her target, but she hesitated for a split second, and it was during that moment that Maghanym slipped, and Duvala’s violent flourish found its mark. Maghanym screamed, and Dyvana did not have time to think about the terrible reality of his hand falling into a pool of blood on the floor. She released the arrow, and it embedded itself in the General’s back. She jumped forward to grab Maghanym’s raven-coloured leather jacket and pulled him after her, scrambling out of the window. Behind them, she could hear Duvala’s roar of anger, and Zuhl’s shrieks as it flailed about to protect its master.
“It’s gone, man, it’s gone…” Maghanym was hyperventilating, but throughout his panicked state, tendrils of shadow crawled around the wound where his hand used to be, staunching the blood which had been flowing from it.
“We don’t have time to think about that.” Dyvana stumbled across the roof and clambered down some rails to reach a balcony below them. Maghanym followed, his body trembling, whimpering as he used his remaining hand to climb. “We need a plan.” The ground still seemed far away, and it was crawling with guards. They wouldn’t be able to get out by storming through them.
“Now would be a nice time for a miracle.” Maghanym clutched his arm, which was swarming with shadows. They slid down a nearly vertical stretch of roof, landing awkwardly on another balcony. Dyvana heard people inside the palace, heard the General yelling orders, and her mind tumbled into overdrive. She stopped for a second to survey their path, trying to think of their options. There didn’t seem to be any.
Until, suddenly, a small spot of sky near her head began to shimmer and darken, until it became a black spark hanging in the air. The yelling from inside the palace dimmed, and even Maghanym’s loud sobbing seemed distant.
“What… is that?” he said eventually, as the spark began to grow and expand into a shape roughly the size of a house. Detail began to appear and the shape became oddly familiar.
“It’s… it’s the pub?” Dyvana’s eyes were wide as she recognised the front door, and without even a second’s hesitation, she jumped towards it, and grabbed onto the handle. She twisted, and it swung open, and she fell flat on her face inside of the Purple Peril. She heard a thump as Maghanym landed behind her, and immediately the door snapped shut. Suddenly the entire building began to tremble violently, shaking so much that glasses fell off tables, and just as unexpectedly as it began, it stopped. Dyvana got to her feet and, with curiosity in her eyes, she opened the door. Outside was a field of grey, dying grass, stretching on for ages into the distance. She turned towards the tall, pale, bald man standing behind the bar, who was cleaning out a glass so dirty it had turned an interesting shade of green. She breathed a sigh of relief.
“One of your new tricks, Lawrence?” she inquired of the barman, who simply smiled at her. Lawrence was a man of no words. “A teleporting pub, eh? That could be a useful thing to have.”
“I lost my hand, Dyvana, because you got caught by a man who bought a muffin.” Maghanym grumbled, staring at the stump he was clutching with his right hand, ignoring the fact that they now had an awe-inspiring teleporting pub, something which was sure to count in their favour during marketing stunts.
“You lost your hand because you saved me from the man who bought a muffin. You’re a good friend.” Dyvana took off her jacket and threw it on the bar, running a hand through her hair. “But we’re not telling anyone about the bakery. We’ll tell them we were overwhelmed by guards while trying to save a Mutinist baby from a fire. Or something.”
“How am I going to play games now?” Maghanym went on. “Generally, you need two hands for that.”
“We’ll find you a new hand, stop whining. Lawrence, how’s dinner going? I need some sludge to calm me down.” Dyvana collapsed onto a rickety chair, and put her head in her hands. Lawrence strode towards the kitchen silently, still cleaning the glass. “How are we going to win this?”
“We have to wait, Dyv, and we have to help her.”