Darius felt as if he had been clubbed with one of the shields during combat training. He dragged up himself up on his elbows and blinked his eyes.
“Why can’t I see?” he muttered, rubbing his eyes. His head pounded. He leaned his head back to increase the blood flow.
A groan came from his left.
“Tarvus?” Darius stretched out towards the sound.
“Uhhh…What….where are we?”
Darius shook his head, as a pale blue light came into his vision. “I don’t know.” He tried recollecting where they were.
“We’re stuck down in the bloody hall,” Tarvus’ voice shot into one of concern and fear.
Darius jolted upright. Tarvus was right. They were still in the cavern. Tarvus was dragging himself up. “What knocked us out?”
Tarvus stumbled a couple of steps before righting himself. “Oh, the ringing in my head…I…I don’t know. I don’t remember being attacked. Was it a rock from the cave in?”
Darius flinched as he stood up. The pain in his palm had returned. He raised a hand over his eyes. More sunlight poured in than before and he saw shadows of movement from the other side. But they were about ten feet from any of the stones. “I don’t think so.” He stepped forward gingerly, feeling out his left leg.
“Then what knocked us out?”
Darius shrugged, stepping towards the stream. He leaned down and splashed water on his face. And cupped water in his palms to drink. The cold water chilled his throat as it descended down.
Tarvus moved over to the walls. “Where we came through wasn’t an entrance, so there must be one built for this hall.”
Darius looked around the alcoves but could not see beyond the first set of pillars. “We need to fii…” A bout of dizziness hit, as the hall around him spun. Tarvus’ shout seemed distant as he tried to stay on his feet. He felt as if someone had spun him around a hundred times.
He felt Tarvus catch him and lay him down. “Darius, what happened?”
The spinning slowed down but he felt bile come up in his throat. He dragged himself over the wet rock to the water and dipped his face in.
“No, Darius, wait.” Tarvus yanked him back. “It’s the water. That’s it. That’s the only thing both of us drank and that’s what giving you a headache this time too. There’s something wrong with the water.”
Darius nodded. He felt groggy but his head was clearing up. “The…water?” It did make sense. “But there’s no pain this time. My head just spun.”
“Eitherways, this water is not for drinking.” Tarvus helped him away from the stream.
A rumbling from the passage alerted them. Rocks and stones tumbled the slope they had fallen from.
Zeb’Haik and four soldiers slid into the cavern.
Tarvus helped the Halan Prince up. “You know, you didn’t have to enter like us and roll in the dirt.”
The Prince’s expression of terror surprised him. “We are under attack. Hide! Hide!” He shouted to them.
“What? Attack by who?” asked Tarvus.
Darius knew better than to question a scared man. “This way.” He led them towards the stone statues. Shrieks and shouts rang outside.
Two of the Halan soldiers gasped. “What is Az’turan’s shivering earth are those?”
“We don’t know. They look like statues. But keep your voice down. Our voices may echo.” He turned towards Zeb’Haik. “What happened?”
“My men encountered rebel tribes who followed them. We do not have enough men here to fight them off.”
Darius nodded and they waited by the stone statues, the blue water trickling by them. “How many are there?”
“Legions of them…my men say thousands.” Zeb’Haik kept staring at the statues.
“Do you know these statues?” Darius asked, expecting a lore story about one of the Halan gods but the man shook his head.
His head began to throb again but a strange calmness spread through the pain. Darius closed his eyes and tried to focus but loud shouts and rumbling forced him out of his reverie.
“They are here,” hissed Zeb’Haik, raising his blade. The other Halans raised spears too.
Darius drew his sword too. The entrance wasn’t visible from here but they kept retreating. From the chatter and the footfalls, over two dozen people had entered the cavern. There was no way they could win a fight.
Suddenly, a loud crack rang through the cavern. Everyone looked around for the source.
Tarvus tugged at his sleeve, gulping in fear. The statue at the entrance of the tunnel had moved its head away from the wall.
Darius froze as the statue pulled itself away from the wall. As it did four others moved. Darius shuffled back and away from the statue he stood against.
He heard a holler and the rebel Halans came rushing towards the sound. The men paused at the entrance at the look of the lumbering statues. But they charged forward. The statue turned and quickly grabbed the lead man and picked him up putting its head against the man’s. The man let out a loud scream before falling limp.
The statues beside them had begun to stir too. Darius, Tarvus and the Halans bunched together in middle of the stream to avoid them.
Darius could sense the fear in his companions and none of them could even speak.
A few of the rebels seemed to run away but another grisly looking veteran muttered some words and unleashed a white bolt at the creature from his hands. The monster remained unfazed. Instead, it seemed to limber up even more as it took two quick steps and scooped up the man, turning him limp in a matter of moments. The other rebels attacked the creature with their weapons.
“That was magic.” Tarvus’ voice sounded rough.
Zeb’Haik nodded. “Most members of the rebel tribes have magic. That is why we do not get along.”
He acknowledged the presence of magic. “They are ignoring our presence.” Darius mumbled.
“Not just us. They are ignoring few of them too.” Zeb’Haik pointed out. The creatures didn’t seem to care about all the men. They would randomly pick one up and render them limp.
“He’s right,” Tarvus said. “They don’t care about the others. Which is why they aren’t even responding to strikes from them.”
“Ai’Dharak maizu!” the man exclaimed. He babbled something excitedly to the other Halans.
“These monsters. They are feeding on magic.”
“They are killing the magic-men?” Darius asked. It made sense. “They are sucking the magic out of them just like they were doing through the walls. The blue seams running through these walls! The water must be magic.” Panic spread through him. Has the water given me magic? But the monsters didn’t seem to be interested in him.
The remaining rebels scampered off within a few minutes. Seven of their number lay prone on the ground, their faces sullen and dark.
“Let’s get out of here.” Zeb’haik suggested.
Darius was only too happy to comply. They ran past the lumbering monsters, who seemed docile again and scampered towards the opening in the rubble.
They climbed out of the cavern. The torches still burned bright. None of the rebels were visible.
“We must head back to Skala right away. They may come back with more soldiers from their army.”
“Army? They have an army nearby? And you didn’t know?”
“The scouts informed me. The quake opened up a path through the Wall of Green, a few leagues south of here. And the rebels are moving their entire tribes through it including their women and children. I don’t know how they managed to evade our guards.”
“To where?” Darius asked and he immediately knew the answer. “To the northern states. They plan to invade.”
“Yes and we need to warn my father and your king as well.”
Darius nodded and started running out of the tunnel. A blinding flash seared through Darius’ brain. Even with his eyes closed, he could see dots and circles of various colours rushing in front of him. The pain had all but disappeared. The blurry dots began coagulating into lines and the clarity of his vision increased.
He could feel hundreds of individual floating orbs of conciousness. However, he felt no response. It was as if they were not aware of his presence. Slow glacial movements moved before him, taking pleasure in drawing in threads of magic.
“Prince Darius,” he felt himself being hauled up. He opened his eyes to brilliant sunlight and shaded them.
“What happened?” he asked. The orbs of consciousness, however, did not fade away.
“Both of you collapsed on the floor.” He heard Zeb’Haik’s voice.
“Both?” Tarvus sat next to him, holding his head.
“Are you all right?”
Darius nodded. “Yes, we hit our heads when we fell down. Please prepare the horses, friend. We need to leave.”
All the Halans left to gather the animals and provisions for the journey back.
“Tarvus, did you feel what I felt?”
The sea-captain looked groggy. “I don’t know what I feel. Thousands of tiny lights pusling in my head and I can’t get them to stop.”
“I think it’s the creatures below. I think the water has connected us to them somehow.”
“What?” Tarvus exclaimed, sitting upright.
“Don’t be alarmed. I think it’s meant to be. This is all like it happened before in Scipio’s diary. The land is being corrupted by magic and these are monsters he talked about. They are the cure to the corruption.”
“What? Have you lost your marbles, Darius? We don’t even know what corruption Scipio had written about. And you must be crazy if you think those monsters are the solution to anything.”
“Tarvus, don’t you see? Zeb’Haik confirmed it. The rebels have magic. If we don’t stop it now, magic will pervade through the land, unchecked and unbridled. And those magicians who will rise will see nothing but their own gain. Our kingdom will not stand because there will be a thousand magicians vying for the power and we will not be able to stop any of it.” Darius shook his head, his jaw set in stone. “No, we must rip out magic before it takes a hold in our kingdom. I will leech the magic out of these lands.”
“Darius, those are mindless abominations. How do you even plan to control them?”
“We are already connected. I can feel it, Tarvus. I just have to reach out to them. You can feel it too, can’t you?”
The sea-captain bit his lip but then shook his head. “You saw what those things did to those men. And I don’t think they pick and choose who they attack. Anybody with magic will get killed. You can’t justify that, Darius. And you’re going to believe in the words of a man we only know of in a journal, which a child read out to us? How do we know any of it is true? How do we know they weren’t tales from days bygone?”
Darius waved around the cavern. “Does all of this not feel real to you? Everything Scipio’s journal talked about is here. These beings leech out magic. They are healing the wounds of the earth. Besides we were meant to come here. You cannot deny that it is our blood that let us enter here.”
Tarvus shook his head. “That was an accident. Assuming these men existed long ago, all of us here may be descended from them. And there was a reason these creatures lay buried all these years. Why wake up monsters when there are enough in the world to begin with? And besides these monsters aren’t going anywhere. Let us get back to Skala and send a message to Thaddius. Then we will decide what to do.”
“No, Tarvus. There is an entire army heading into my kingdom. Ruthless Halans and worse, Halans who are magic-men. I cannot let that come to pass, my friend.”
“But that is exactly why we need to get the message across to Thaddius as soon as we can.”
“What will father do? What can any of us normal people do against such blind rage and such profane power? They will tear through our armies with magic. No, we must destroy them the only way they can be destroyed.” The dots became clearer and clearer. He could feel each of the monsters individually. They felt content and with their thoughts he felt calm as well.
“Are you insane, Darius? What do you intend to do?”
“These beasts are the saviours Sucellok has offered us. I must stay behind and try and contact them. You go on ahead and warn the Halans and father.” Tarvus opened his mouth to argue but he kept a hand on his shoulder, a slight pain erupting where he had injured it. “My mind is made up. Tell Zeb’Haik I intend to study these monsters to see if we can use them as a weapon. I’m sure he will appreaciate it.”
Tarvus rolled his eyes. “You have lost it. Snap out of it. Those things are monsters. We need to get back.”
Darius hadn’t felt this calm even in the Sen-Tian Palace. “Tarvus, you’ve become a brother to me. I will always cherish the memories we have together.” Darius pulled him into an embrace and clubbed him on the back of his head with the pommel of his sword. The Captain crumpled on the floor.
Darius turned back towards the entrance to the cavern. I need to make sure they cannot follow us. Hundreds of lights flashed in his mind.
The closer they marched towards Ianthine, the more Fabius felt agonized about her. They had camped a few leagues outside the black city but even its sight reminded him only of Elena. After all it had been ten years. But one meeting had changed all that. His self-control was gone. His mind kept flitting back to her smile, the way she flicked her hair, the first time she had caressed his hand. He felt a smile played on his lips as the memories of the short and fleeting first kiss in the training grounds of Sen-Achen played over in his mind. How they had sneaked about and kissed everytime they thought no one could see them. Even now Fabius could imagine her soft warm breath on the nape of his neck, as she rested on his chest.
It wasn’t as if he had not tried forgetting about her. He had tried spending time with women, talking with them and trying to see if they interested him. But although he did end up making small talk which sometimes led to good friendships, he could not get Elena out of his mind and heart. No girl howsoever beautiful could tempt him for a kiss.
Fabius let out a roar of exasperation. This was no time for dawdling in his daydreams. His childhood sweetheart or not, Elena had gone rogue which threatened the kingdom. He had never believed himself to be a protector but with the kind of oppression he had witnessed through Averness, he knew he had to help the people. Magic was beyond his understanding but it did not seem to specifically rest with oppressors. Sucellok hasn’t chosen magic to be given to only those who could misuse it.
Fabius felt a void in his chest and a rising pain. He knew he’d missed Elena all these years but it had not struck home how much it coagulated to. He’d never womanized in the taverns even though he had had a fair share of attention from the ladies. Somehow, it hadn’t felt right.
And here he was having met her after so many years, spurned. She loved him still, he was sure of that. And she knew he would’ve done everything to save her father had he known.
“Why won’t she be with me?” Fabius screamed, flinging the goblet from his hand against the wall. It clanged down on the floor, a large dent on the lip.
“Concentrate, Fabius. There’s more important things to look at here. I can’t let Ianthine undermine the Throdden rule.” He slapped himself.
He walked over the table with the freshly drawn maps of the northern states delivered half an hour ago. Evidently, a huge army of bandits was amassing at the borders of Nordan. Tremane considered it a disturbing development if they moved towards Ianthine but his heart wished that they did.
But his thoughts kept drifting back to Elena. His breath grew erratic. Fabius stumbled over to the window, his chest constricting. “Why won’t you accept me, Elena?”
No, this will not do. I must know the reason. She can’t just turn away our destiny. Fabius looked at the stars obscured by the ever-present reddish cloud of dust. And I will have them.