Chapter One: Awakening
A blood-curdling scream rent the still night. Valeria sat bolt upright in bed, realising that the sound had been emanating from her own throat. The remnants of the nightmare that woke her swirled around her head in disarray. She tried to make sense of her scattered thoughts and recall what had frightened her to the extent of screaming … An image of a battle in which the Fae were wiped out by an army of demons flashed into her mind… and she had been at the front lines… fighting back … wielding magic …
But that was utterly ludicrous; the Fae had been devoid of magic for centuries. No one had witnessed even the slightest remnant of magical energy since the war. The Fae possessed their usual heightened senses, strength, speed, agility, and accelerated healing. Additionally, a few Fae were born with some of the ancient abilities like telepathy and being able to heal others – however, their gifts were only a trace of the power possessed by their ancestors and were nowhere near as potent. But actual magic … wards, spell-work, and wielding elemental energy … could only be read about in the history books and had not been glimpsed in eras. Valeria was one of the rare Fae with telepathic abilities; however, her family had kept her gift a secret. Those with telepathy were recruited at a young age and trained to become interrogators, and her parents had sought to spare her from that fate. The only other Fae who knew that she was a telepath were her best friends. She couldn’t read an individual’s exact thoughts without focusing unless they were projecting it, which usually occurred in times of distress. Most Fae were cautious and had mental guards in place, protecting their minds from intrusion. She mostly picked up a sense of what someone was feeling and their general disposition… but had learnt that it wasn’t always a good thing to know what was going on in the minds of others. So she had trained herself to block out the thoughts of those around her.
“Argh, that’s what you get for being practically obsessed with magical artefacts,” she groaned to herself as she rolled out of bed. Valeria had been a scholar tasked with translating and cataloguing the sacred tomes and scrolls of the Fae that were housed in the arcane compendium. She spent hours poring over every piece of parchment that documented the splendour of her people when magic still coursed through the realm and there had been peace. The Fae Queendom, Somnium, was magnificent back then, and she liked to imagine herself living in that era and revelling in all the wonders that no longer existed in her world. The history books intrigued her, but it was the relics in the archive – which contained all magic-related knowledge and artefacts – that captivated her mind. She was inexplicably drawn to them, as though they were calling out to her, and she couldn’t help but gravitate towards the relics whenever they were in her presence. Very few still understood the ancient Fae language, and the oldest collection in the compendium was comprised solely of glyphs that no one seemed to comprehend any longer. Those were the ones that drew her attention the most, the shapes of the glyphs told a story, and if she concentrated hard enough, she thought she could almost understand what they symbolised. But she had always dismissed the notion and attributed her thoughts to sleep deprivation; after all, the language of the Elders was long forgotten; there wasn’t a Fae alive who could read it.
Valeria shook off her reverie; she no longer had the time for fanciful daydreams and magic artefacts … Not since her parents had been murdered by Nefas demons. Her mother, Cesya, was a teacher; and her father, Orion, was a castle guard. The two of them were the kindest people she had ever known, and they had filled her life with love and light. But that light was extinguished when rogue Nefas demons breached the queendom’s perimeter, where Orion had escorted Cesya while she gathered wild herbs for her student’s next lesson. Her parents were slaughtered, and Valeria’s world had shattered asunder. She had left her life as a scholar behind and enlisted to join the Ares battalion, which was an elite force of the most fierce and lethal warriors entrusted with protecting Somnium. This drastic change had alarmed her best friend, Tristan, and he had attempted to dissuade her from enlisting. But she was a broken shell of her former self after the tragedy, and he could see that training was slowly helping her recover by giving her a purpose. So, he supported her on her new path and witnessed how she turned her pain into perseverance and grief into grit. She had spent the last three years of her life training in order to qualify to join the Ares ranks. It had been an arduous journey, at the least, especially for someone who had previously lived their life surrounded by books and had the muscle density equivalent to that of chocolate pudding. The daily routine of a scholar had definitely not equipped her for the gruelling training she’d had to endure as an Ares recruit. She was a quick study at battle strategy and memorising demonology, but she sorely lacked in the combat department. After getting beaten bloody in her first few sparring sessions, Valeria had worked tirelessly to improve her physical strength and endurance, vowing to never permit herself to be bested so easily again. Soon she revelled in the physical activity and pushing her body to the limit; it helped focus her thoughts and energy on her new objective. She trained every day with her parents’ memory spurring her on and endeavoured to become a formidable warrior so that she could protect her people from ever having to endure the heartbreak of losing a loved one at the hands of demons, as she had.
The sky was lightening outside her window, the violet hues brightening to coral, indicating that it was nearly dawn, and a flutter of butterflies began in Valeria’s stomach. Having completed their written examination the previous week, today, the trainees’ would undertake their last exam that determined which of them would qualify to finally join the Ares battalion. The recruits would each fight an opponent, the winner of every bout would progress to the next round, and so on until only twenty of the best warriors remained. The tournament rules were simple; candidates could only use non-lethal force to win by either knocking their opponents unconscious, getting them to yield, or making them cross beyond the demarcation of their duelling circle. Although recruits were prohibited from employing lethal manoeuvres, many past trainees had been permanently injured, lost the use of limbs, and a few had even lost their lives after being unable to recover from the wounds they sustained. Protecting the Fae against demon-kind was a solemn responsibility that only the most prestigious warriors were entrusted with, and they had to put their lives at risk in the line of duty daily. So, the candidates undertook the same risks in order to be inducted into the Ares battalion. She performed her morning stretches and proceeded to the bathroom. Where she examined her reflection in the mirror, she possessed the usual pointed ears and defined features characteristic of the Fae. Valeria stared at the shadows beneath her golden eyes; they had been there ever since the death of her parents, as though they were a permanent physical reminder that she would never be the same again. Her olive skin, once pale – from spending years cloistered in the archive barely obtaining any sunlight – now had a golden hue from her outdoor training in various terrain and weather conditions, and she was now also toned and lithe as a result of which. Her dark hair, which was a deep shade of indigo-violet, was mussed and sticking up at odd angles around her head. Evidently, the strange nightmare had had her tossing and turning all night; additionally, it had left her with a lingering sense of foreboding. With a deep breath and a long exhale, to free her mind from the clutches of the eerie dream, she steeled herself, tied her hair back into a long braid and began preparing for the daunting day ahead.
“You’d better not die on me, Val, or I’ll have to kill you myself,” said Tristan, as he helped her don an armoured breastplate. Tristan was also a scholar, but he was a member of the engineering guild and could often be found tinkering with one of his inventions. He had designed Valeria’s armour out of some new blend he had created that could apparently withstand more force than conventional material. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Tris,” she replied sarcastically, mock punching him in the arm.
“Only attempting to lighten your mood,” he stated, with a twinkle in his grey eyes and his palms facing forwards in a supplicating gesture. “I know very well that I am in the presence of the realm’s most lethal warrior.”
“Quit messing around,” chided Tristan’s boyfriend, Caelum, who was a royal guard.
“She needs to get her head focused on the duels,” he added, ruffling Tristan’s dark locks.
“Any final words of wisdom?” Valeria asked Caelum.
“Just try to remain calm, don’t overthink it and let the other trainees psych you out. I’ve seen you spar; you could wipe the floor with any of them. You’ve got this,” he replied.
“Okay, that settles it; Caelum is definitely mate material,” Valeria said to Tristan, while Caelum looked away, trying to hide the blush creeping up his chiselled face all the way to the roots of his silver hair.
“Are you TRYING to embarrass me to death!?” Tristan responded, his pale face also beginning to redden. “And where pray tell, is this unsolicited mating advice coming from?”
“What? I’m merely pointing out that Caelum here is the only one you’ve dated that I actually like; he’s good for you,” said Valeria.
“Agreed!” exclaimed Tatiana, who had heard the last part of their conversation while making her way over to the group. “Caelum is infinitely better than that witch, Rosalyn.” At the mention of Tristan’s ex-girlfriend, Caelum’s blue eyes turned steely, and Valeria’s hands curled into fists. Rosalyn was infamous and much despised amongst the group; she had only been using Tristan to gain access to his inventions and sell them on the black market. Tristan, who was too good looking for his own good and accustomed to amorous attention, was blind to her true intentions. Thus, Rosalyn was only exposed when one of her customers caused an explosion by misusing one of Tristan’s more temperamental trinkets and had told the investigating authorities just how he had acquired the item in question. But of course, Rosalyn was highborn and the daughter of a duke who promptly made the entire matter disappear without any repercussions.
“Thanks for bringing up that demoness, Tati,” groaned Tristan.
“I couldn’t help it; I saw her loathsome face when I was entering the arena; she was slithering up to one of the advanced recruits. How I would love to duel her today instead of a trainee and give her a piece of my mind.” Tatiana said ominously whilst twirling the twin axes that were her weapons of choice.
Tatiana’s family owned the largest confectionery store, and her mother expected her to join the family business, or at the very least, pursue a “more feminine” career path. However, Tatiana proclaimed that she had a higher calling and promptly enlisted as an Ares recruit. Anyone who saw her training was inclined to agree because she looked like she was born to wield those axes when she fought. Tatiana was intelligent, quick-tempered, but fiercely loyal, and she and Valeria had become fast friends.
While any Fae could enlist to join the Ares battalion, so long as they passed the examinations and were deemed worthy, Valeria and Tatiana were part of the ‘novice’ recruits’ unit. This was for individuals who had no previous combat training, which usually comprised of Fae who had left other more ‘peaceful’ professions. Whereas the ‘advanced’ unit consisted of recruits who already possessed combat skills, these were usually former guards, soldiers, or law enforcement officers. The unit terms were often misleading, as the ‘novice’ recruits were trained more rigorously, during longer, more gruelling sessions, in order for them to build strength and endurance and gain combat skill. Whilst, the ‘advanced’ unit merely honed their fighting skills and learned the demonology and battle strategy that all trainees had to master. Naturally, this gave the ‘advanced’ trainees the impression that they were far more superior than the others, and this hubris often led to their downfall. Regardless of the unit, all recruits had to meet the same criteria and high standards in order to have made it to this final exam. Now they would all have to survive the duels against randomly selected opponents and make it out in one piece to be granted entry into the Ares ranks.
The atmosphere was charged with nervous energy and filled with a cacophony of sounds, including the clang of weapons and armour, as well as chatter, as the trainees readied themselves.
Noctis, one of the head instructors, sounded the gong, silencing everyone, “The initial pairings have been randomly selected. The examination will commence in a quarter of an hour. Recruits, prepare yourselves, and may the best among you emerge victorious.”
Final words of encouragement and embraces were shared; before the recruits armed themselves and stepped out into the arena. Valeria had her trusted twin short swords and a shield strapped to her back. As she made her way to her allocated duelling circle and surveyed her opponent, the din around her faded away. Her heart rate spiked and then evened out as her body switched into battle mode; she cracked her neck and readied herself. In that moment, nothing else existed … no overthinking or unnecessary drama … it was just her versus her opponent. There was a simplicity in combat, and she thrived on it. Another Fae who lived for the fight was Tatiana, whose duelling circle happened to be located to the left of Valeria’s. It seemed the two of them were both paired against ‘advanced’ recruits, who were sizing them up with smug looks.
“What do you say we wipe the smirks of these idiots’ faces?” Tatiana called to Valeria, with a glint in her hazel eyes.
Valeria grinned back and saluted her in their usual gesture, just as the gong was struck thrice, signalling the commencement of the exam. She turned back, analysed her opponent and adjusted her stance accordingly. She had fought Fae like him before; he had close-cropped dark hair and dark slanted eyes, he was at least a foot taller than her; and he held himself with an air of nonchalance. She recalled his name from the morning’s registration; it was Cassio. From his expression and posture, it was evident that he did not perceive her as a threat, which would be detrimental. He twirled his spear pretentiously, but Valeria did not draw her weapons; instead, she surveyed his movements intently. He lunged at her with his spear, and she deflected the blow with her gauntlet. The crowd cheered, which seemed to annoy Cassio, causing him to come at her with more vigour. Valeria thwarted his attempts to injure her without landing any blows of her own; she was learning his fighting style; while giving him the impression that she was flustered and that he had the upper hand. Once she was confident in her evaluation of his movements, she went on the offensive and knocked the spear out of Cassio’s hand. As he lunged at her angrily, with his bare hands, she used his momentum to her advantage and flipped him over, which knocked the breath out of him. While he was still winded and surprised, Valeria struck his head with the pommel of her sword, rendering him unconscious, much to the crowd’s delight. As one of the judges came over to inspect Cassio, Valeria looked towards Tatiana just in time to see her ram her shield into her opponent’s face. Which effectively broke his nose and knocked him out. Tatiana grinned as the crowd cheered; her numerous braids were perfectly in place, and her caramel skin hadn’t even broken a sweat. As the judge announced both females winners of their respective bouts, they shared a celebratory fist bump and proceeded to the trainee’s stands to await the conclusion of the other matches. There was already an advanced recruit waiting at the stands, named Mons, who was also referred to as “monolith”. Mons was a great hulking beast of a Fae, who was leisurely reclining as though he hadn’t just been in a duel, and he was merely there to be entertained. Both Valeria and Tatiana hoped they wouldn’t be paired against him, as Mons had quite a brutish reputation. They used the time to observe the other trainees in action and study their movements and were soon joined by other candidates as they waited for the more drawn out battles to conclude.
In the second round, Valeria was paired against another advanced recruit named Quin, who was an expert with a broad sword. It seemed he had learnt from Cassio’s mistake of underestimating Valeria, and he eyed her warily. When the gong sounded, she drew her twin swords and waited for Quin to make his move. However, it seemed he was sizing her up as well.
’This might actually be fun,′ she thought, as they circled each other.
Quin was the first to break their staring contest as he swung at her. Valeria parried with both her swords and swerved away.
’He’s got a longer reach than I do, and there was quite a lot of force behind that blow, she mused. So, I need to draw him in close range, looks like this duel isn’t going to be over quite as quickly as the first.′
They battled with their blades for some time without either of them managing to maim the other. Valeria took the opportunity to study his minute expressions, tells, and the timing between his movements. As she deflected his latest blow, Quin disengaged and swung his sword downwards. Valeria swerved out of the way, avoiding the blow, but his blade narrowly made contact with the tip of her braid, slicing through the ends of her hair. Quin smirked.
’That’s it, enough playing around, she thought, you’re going to pay for that.′
As he adjusted his grip on his hilt, his eyes narrowed, and his body tensed; Valeria knew he was about to lunge. She sprung forwards and blocked his sword with one of her own while slashing his thigh with the other and simultaneously kicking his legs out from under him. As he fell forwards onto his knees, his sword held in only one hand, Valeria swiftly disarmed him and spun around, coming up behind him. Bringing both her swords to rest against his neck with the points overlapping in an x formation under his chin, she commanded, “Yield!”
Quin had no choice but to raise his arms in surrender.
When Valeria made her way to the recruits’ stands, after a judge had announced her to be the winner, other candidates were waiting this time. Her duel had gone on longer than she had anticipated.
Kelemen, a fellow member of the novice unit, handed her some water. “He’s a wily one, Quin; you did well to get out of that unscathed.”
“Not entirely unscathed.” She replied, looking at the now uneven ends of hair that were sticking out from the tie of her braid. “Well, I was due for a trim anyway,” she said, making him chuckle.
Tatiana joined them just as Valeria had finished gulping down the much-needed hydration. “The lousy turd scratched me! He actually scratched me!” she exclaimed, brandishing her arm, where nasty looking scratch marks were indeed present.
“Theon is a pompous git, for someone who is always bragging about being an advanced recruit, you’d think he’d have better combat skill than having to resort to such underhanded tactics,” said Kelemen.
“He’s an honourless twat!” agreed Tatiana.
“And what did he receive in return for his efforts?” Valeria asked.
“I may have broken a finger… or four,” Tatiana replied with a smirk, causing the other two to laugh.
“The final round is up next; it’s definitely going to be the hardest one yet… Are you ladies ready?” asked Kelemen.
“We were born ready,” Tatiana stated.
“Well, I certainly hope I’m not up against either of you; I value my limbs, thank you very much. You’ve broken Theon’s hand and Val’s butchered Quin’s thigh. Who knows what carnage you two are going to be responsible for in the last round?” he quipped.
As Valeria watched her friends banter, a tingle of anticipation travelled up her spine. This was it. This is what she had been training for over the last three gruelling years. The forty remaining candidates would battle it out, and the ones still standing at the end of it all would be inducted into the Ares Battalion. Noctis announced that the final round would begin shortly, and the tension in the arena became palpable. The air was electrified with a mixture of excitement, apprehension, and determination. Valeria arrived at her duelling circle, but her opponent was still absent. She was mentally preparing herself and pondering who she would be paired against … when a massive shadow fell across the circle … cast by her opponent as he stomped over… It was Mons. The gong sounded.
“Faex!” cursed Valeria. ′Tristan’s armour better work,′ she thought.
The advice Valeria had been given about fighting a larger opponent was based on the premise that the individual would be slower and that she should use speed to her advantage. And all that advice amounted to nought… because Mons wasn’t just big … he was fast as well. She narrowly managed to evade a blow from his mace, which had enough force behind it to take her head clean off had it landed. Valeria unleashed herself and fought without holding back. She almost looked as though she were performing a ceremonial war dance as she spun and leapt while wielding her twin swords. She had managed to land shallow cuts on Mons’ chest and bicep, but it appeared as though he barely felt them. Her usual technique of analysing of her opponents battle strategy yielded no insight in this instance because it didn’t seem as though Mons was employing any strategy at all. He merely relied on brute strength, which appeared to be serving him quite well thus far. However, he seemed to be getting frustrated by not having landed a blow as yet; and was beginning to swing his mace around erratically. Valeria saw an opening; she sidestepped his swing and slashed at his non-weapon-bearing arm, which resulted in a deep gash that spouted blood.
“You bitch!” roared Mons. “I’ll make you pay for that”.
She used the opportunity of his frenzied state to reach out with her mind and get a sense of what he was thinking. Her mind was flooded with Mons’ rage, hatred, and thoughts of bashing her skull in.
‘Charming’ she thought, noting that it was probably time to swap one of her swords for her shield.
The sense of triumph that Valeria felt at landing a blow was short-lived, as a sharp pain speared through her head, and a melodic echoing voice resonated through her mind.
“My heir, the time has arrived for you to awaken,” it said … Her mind was inundated with flashes of images, symbols, and glyphs while the strange voice echoed through her head …
Mons took advantage of her disorientation and swung his mace towards her, she attempted to dodge the attack, but his weapon connected with her side. As she struggled to leap out of reach and regain her footing, he lunged forward, delivering a savage kick to the same area. She fell backwards, reeling from the force of kick …
Mons preened and pranced, gesturing at the cheering crowd. She sheathed one of her short swords in favour of her shield and managed to get back up just in time to block a brutal blow from his mace that was delivered with such force it made her arm reverberate.
’Okay, that definitely broke some bones, had it not been for Tristan’s armour, I’d be reunited with my parents,′ she thought as she coughed up blood.
She tried to ignore the strange occurrence with the voice and symbols; there would be time to dwell on that later … if there was a later … right now she was in trouble, she was injured, and it would slow her down, a disadvantage that she couldn’t afford in this fight, or she may not be able to walk away from it in one piece, if at all. Pain seared through her side as she raised her shield to ward off another attack; the agony was so excruciating she could hardly breathe. Before she had a chance to recover, Mons rained a barrage of blows down on her that she barely managed to deflect. She could scarcely keep up with the onslaught of his attacks for much longer; the impact of each hit coursed through her, sending piercing pain spearing through her side.
’This is it; if I drop this shield, I’m done for.′
As white-hot agony surged through her and she fought to remain conscious ... a symbol appeared in her mind’s eye ... it was a glyph she recognised from the arcane compendium ... the shape blazed brightly ... barely conscious she didn’t understand what on Asteria was going on ... but she somehow knew the symbol was her salvation ... she focused every ounce of her will on the glowing glyph ...
And suddenly, Mons was blasted away from her and thrown across the boundary of their duelling circle, hitting his head on the floor as he landed and passing out. Valeria spat blood and fell to her knees, starring dazedly as one of the head instructors, Selene, announced her to be the victor ... then the darkness clouding the edges of her vision took over ... and everything went black ...