The huge council chamber was dimly lit by a beautiful chandelier that hung from the ceiling. A magnificent carpet covered the floor. The members of the High Council were seated in stone chairs that stood against the circular wall of the chamber. The stone wall between the chairs was decorated with artistic carvings, depicting the mythical battles between gods and monsters.
The Emperor of Aria, Viktor Grimm, sat on a high backed marble throne at the back of the chamber, directly opposite the ornate door. He had long, dark hair and slightly pointed ears. He was wearing a blood red armor, that gleamed in the dim light from the braziers. He looked like an ancient gray statue from a long forgotten time. His crimson eyes reflected the light from the chandelier, giving him a sinister look. The six members of the Imperial Guard stood on either side of his throne.
On the seat to his right, sat Hector Talbot, the Wolf King of Lycaonia. He was huge and strongly built, with long, gray hair and white beard. He wore an untidy black cloak which covered the steel armor that he was wearing underneath.
″Has the Hunter been caught?″, asked Viktor.
″Not yet″, replied on of the council members. ″We asked Zelda to track his location, but she is not obliged to help us″.
″Is that true?″, asked Viktor, turning his head.
″The Hunter has found a way to evade my sight″, replied Zelda, who was standing among the Imperial Guard. The black raven on her shoulder croaked as if in agreement.
″Not to worry″, reassured Viktor, turning back to the council. ″I will send Valentine along with a few Vlarik″.
″That won’t be enough″, said Hector. ″He is one of the original members of the Imperial Guard. He cannot be underestimated″.
″I cannot spare any more troops. Not till I have rooted out every hideout of the Resistance from my kingdom″, said Viktor, with a tone of finality, closing any discussion on the subject.
Viktor turned towards the woman sitting second on his left.
″I hear there have been rebellions in Cerebrene?″.
″Yes, your grace. The elves are unhappy with the present administrative condition. A few have even deserted the kingdom to join the Resistance″, she replied, somberly.
It was Irwen, an envoy from Cerebrene. She was attending the council on behalf of the Elf Queen. She was strikingly beautiful, with her delicate, sculpted features.
She had brown eyes and high cheekbones, with long dark hair that flowed down her shoulders. She wore a sleek armor made of elven forged steel, underneath a green cloak, clasped at the hollow of her neck with a rose shaped brooch. Upon her brow, rested a silver circlet, inlaid with gems.
″The Resistance must be brought to an end once and for all″, snarled Viktor, his voice layered with malice. ″The Hunter is still on the loose and the rebels are gaining strength. I want you to send more soldiers to the north″, he said, addressing the council. ″I will send Stonearm with the remaining troops to cleanse the Empire of all the rebellious scum″.
At that moment, the heavy doors opened and a messenger entered the chamber, with a scroll in his hand. He bowed, before presenting it to the Emperor.
″An urgent message from Atticus, my lord″.
Viktor took the scroll from the messenger and dismissed him. As he began reading it, his eyes narrowed and a shadow passed across his face. He held it up for all the council to see.
It was a sketch of a red haired girl with blue eyes. Lucien stiffened when he caught a glimpse of the picture. Zelda threw him a suspicious glance, before turning her attention back to the scroll.
″This is ill news indeed. She must be dealt with before she causes any trouble″, said one of the council members.
″But she is not born yet. It is just a foolish prophecy″, replied another, with a exasperated wave of his hand.
For the next few seconds, the chamber was filled with murmurs and whispers.
″Quiet″, snarled the Emperor.
″Zelda″, he called, motioning with is finger.
″Yes, my lord″, she replied, stepping forward.
Viktor gave her the scroll and said, ″I want you to track her with your magic″.
″I won’t be able to track an unborn child, my lord″.
″The mother″, he snapped.
He turned to the council, ″Send our men to all the corners of the Empire. I want her found, dead or alive″, he thundered.
″Leave! I have an important task that needs my attention″, he said in a cold voice. Everyone stood up, bowed and walked out of the chamber.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
It was always cold and gloomy in Argent. Dark clouds drifted across the sky, covering the sun. On its outskirts, upon a hill overlooking the city, stood the castle of Lord Lucien Ironfang of the Imperial Guard. It was surrounded by large trees that towered over its walls. Servants could be seen attending to their work around the castle. Lucien’s wife Victoria was picking flowers in the garden, humming to herself.
She was beautiful with reddish brown hair and amber eyes. She smiled, feeling the hump on her stomach. She was excited, as she was expecting a child.
She stiffened, as she felt a soft breeze caress her face. She looked up to see her husband standing in front of her. He looked grim, different from his usual cheerful self. He looked tired and nervous.
″What troubles you, my lord?″, she asked, looking at her husband with concern.
″A message was sent from Atticus foretelling the downfall of the Empire″, he said looking at her gravely. ″The prophecy warned about a red haired girl. She is a splitting image of you. I suspect it might be our unborn child. You are not safe here. Viktor has already sent his men and the witch will start looking for you soon enough. You have to leave Aria″.
″The Emperor? But he has been so good to us″, said Victoria, puzzled.
″Only because of my father. But he won’t take kindly to a threat to his throne. You do not know Viktor like I do″.
She looked at him with a shocked expression on her face. She would not let anything happen to her child. If what Lucien had said was true, she had to go as far as possible from the capital. She did not want to leave without her husband. She loved him more than anything in the world, but she had no other choice. She was ready to sacrifice anything, if it meant the safety of her child.
″We cannot put our child’s life in danger. We must protect her at all costs. I will leave at dawn, and I will take Isabella with me″, she said, her face set with determination.
″I wish I could come with you, but if I leave, Viktor will know of my betrayal and he will have half the Guard on my tail. You should go to Brytos. I have a friend in Acantha. Go there and ask for Tristan Black. He will help you find a safe place in Brytos. Stay there for a while. I will come for you when all this is over, I promise″, he said looking at her.
Victoria set out at the break of dawn, along with her handmaiden, Isabella, and two of her most elite guards. They had packed the necessary rations for the journey in their saddlebags. Her sword, Shadowfang, was concealed under her cloak.
Lucien had given it to her the day before she set out from the vampire capital, Argent. It had a blue moonstone embedded on its pommel and a red sunstone on the cross guard. ″This is Shadowfang, one of the five great swords. It is not an ordinary sword. It is said that, these swords belonged to the gods themselves. Its blade is lethal to both vampires and werewolves. Carry it with you at all times″, he had said.
They took the road for some time, before diverting to a forest path to the left, towards the Risetta River. They mostly kept to the woods, which would hide them from Viktor’s men. They would follow the river till Theos. She knew it was just a matter of time before the witch located her position. She had to move fast. The path was narrow and covered with brambles and bushes on either side.
The river rushed by, gorged by tiny streams. It was a brute force of nature, battling against rocks and boulders that barred its way. They made good progress, until they stopped to take some rest when the horses got tired.
By nightfall, they came across a small fishing village, a cluster of brown buildings, on the banks of lake Westria. White smoke rose from the chimneys. The settlement was secluded and surrounded by lush, beautiful land.
The village was composed of log buildings with low thatched roofs and wide porches. They stopped at the only Inn to spend the night. Victoria sent Isabella to see if there was any news from the capital. She returned after some time with a troubled expression on her face. ″We should keep moving. I got some information at a local tavern that some soldiers had come by, the day before yesterday, looking for a red haired woman. Looks like the Emperor already knows about you″.
″The witch must have located me. Get the necessary supplies and tell the men to ready the horses. We leave before dawn″, she said looking at Isabella.
She was the only one Victoria could trust besides Lucien. Bella was like a sister to her. She had always been there for her ever since Lucien had brought her to his castle in Argent.
They started at sunrise. Within a few hours, daybreak finally started to flood the sky with warm sunlight. They continued their journey along the banks of the lake, keeping to the cover of the trees.
It was not long before they heard the roar of Kil falls, where the lake spilled down the mossy cliffs into ravine below, where it would continue as River Kilway to join the sea. They camped some ways back from the falls. If they continued at this pace they would reach Theos within a week.
The next day they continued their journey east. They were halfway between lake Westria and Theos, and it was nearly dusk, when the sky was blanketed with heavy, dark clouds. The wind started howling, threatening to rip away the boughs of trees.
Soon the air was filled with cold, heavy mist as the gray water started pelting against the leafy roof overhead. Everything was blurred by the heavy, relentless downpour.
They were forced to find shelter under a rock outcropping. Since it was already dark, they decided to spend the night. They removed their saddlebags, before picketing the horses under a nearby cluster of trees, which would shield them from the battering rain .
Victoria was woken up the next morning by an anxious Bella. The rain had abated and the sun had already come up, lighting up the surrounding land in bright, brilliant colors.
″We have company″, said Bella, fear clearly showing on her face.
They heard the voices getting nearer. Her guards were ready with drawn swords. She sprang to her feet and fumbled around for Shadowfang, which she found near her pack. The voices got louder and a dozen men stepped out of the woods. They were tall and wore brown cloaks that blended well with the surroundings. They carried longbows and their swords were strapped to their sides.
One of them stepped forward and removed his hood. He had long brown hair and a scruffy beard. He smiled at them and said, ″You can lower your weapons. We mean you no harm″.
Victoria lowered her sword when she realized that these were not Viktor’s men. She gestured at her guards to do the same.
The leader looked at her and said, ″I am Zelroth Blackwood, captain of this company. We were expecting you. We know that you were headed to Acantha, but you cannot go there. Viktor has already sent his soldiers to Theos and Acantha. Come with us. We will take you to our hideout at Jedborough. You will be safe from Viktor’s soldiers″.
She had no other choice. She wasn’t safe anywhere in the kingdom. She might as well take her chances with these rebels.
″We will come with you, but let my men go back home. They have their families to return to″, she said.
″Can we trust them to keep their mouth shut?″, asked the leader.
″Yes. They are mute. They cannot speak even if they wanted to″, she replied.
The leader agreed to let them go. Then he escorted Victoria and Isabella back to his camp. There were a dozen tents sprawled across the clearing. Within a few a minutes, the men had finished packing and were ready to leave.
″Wear this″, said Zelroth, handing a hooded cape to Victoria. ″We will keep to the woods most of the time, but I don’t want take any chances″.
After a week of riding they were able to see the hills of Jedborough at a distance, surrounded by a dense forest.
Victoria’s legs were sore from riding continuously for so long and the sun was beating down on them with unrelenting intensity.
She heaved a sigh of relief when they finally entered the forest, grateful for the shade of trees. She heard the chirping of birds and chattering of squirrels as they rode on in silence.
The trees were tall with knobby roots that jutted out of the soil. Vines and creepers crawled on the ground, which was carpeted with grass and ferns.
Finally, the woodland started to grow thinner as they reached the foot of a hill. In front of them was a narrow valley. A small shallow stream of water was flowing out through it.
She felt a prickling sensation on the back of her neck as if they were being watched. She glanced around the valley, but did not see anything out of ordinary. Everything was silent except for the tinkling of water and the clattering of hooves on the stones.
They stopped when they were halfway through the valley. There was nothing but huge boulders and trees as far as Victoria could see. Zelroth jumped down from his saddle and walked towards the steep rock outcropping on the hillside.
He picked up a rock and rapped on the stone face in a complicated sequence. After a few seconds, a part of the rock face started moving sideways, revealing an entrance.
Zelroth nodded at Victoria and entered. She followed him and gasped in surprise as she entered a huge cave. It was lit by a number of lanterns attached to the wall. A line of armed men stood inside, pointing their spears at the doorway. They relaxed when they saw Zelroth and drew back.
The cave was bustling with hundreds of people. The men wore leather armor and had daggers at their waists. There were women too. She even saw a couple of children playing in the corner.
″What is this place?″, asked Victoria, looking around with awe.
″This is a temporary base for the Resistance″, answered Zelroth. ″I will have someone take you to your quarters. Make yourself at home. Ask if you need anything″.
The servants took away the horses to the stables. The cave was huge and there were doorways that led to other rooms. It was like a small village inside the cave.
A couple of maids stepped forward and escorted Victoria and Bella to their respective quarters. Victoria looked around her cave room and sighed.
There was a bed in the corner, along with a fresh set of clothes. It had been a long journey and she was tired. She placed Shadowfang in the corner and changed, before settling down on the bed. It was very uncomfortable, but after a while, she finally fell asleep.
The next day, after a long bath, Victoria and Bella went to the kitchens, where they had their breakfast.
They were about to return to their quarters, when she saw one of Zelroth’s men walking towards her.
″Lady Victoria″, he said. ″You have been summoned by the Commander″.
They followed the messenger, who escorted them to an intricate door at the end of the hallway.
Bella nodded at her. ″I will be waiting outside″, she smiled.
The commander was sitting on a high backed wooden chair, behind a table covered with maps and books. The wall behind him was carved into niches which contained hundreds of scrolls. The wall on the right side was made into a large bookshelf containing hundreds of books and the left wall was covered with a map of Aria.
″Welcome, my lady″, he said, as he stood up and gave her a slight bow. ″My name is Damien Hunt, Commander of the Resistance in the south″.
He had close cropped black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He had a strong build with broad shoulders. His neck was branded with the tattoo of a black trident, the Hunter’s mark. He spoke with a deep and confident voice.
She had heard about the Resistance. It was a rebel organization that was formed after Viktor had taken over the throne.
″You know why you were brought here?″, he asked.
″Because of the prophecy, I presume?″.
″Yes. Viktor has already started sending his elites after you. This cave is warded against the witch’s sight. We will protect you at all costs. We want to keep you safe″.
Victoria raised an eyebrow. ″Me or my child?″, she asked, a slight smile curving her lips.
″Both of you″, replied Damien, watching her carefully. ″Viktor grows stronger everyday and you are our only hope″.
″Why do you fight against the Empire?″, questioned Victoria, curiously. She had always thought that Viktor was a good Emperor, until recently.
″Since you are from Argent, I am not sure if you know this, but Viktor is a cold blooded monster. The whole kingdom suffers under his rule, except the capitals. Villages are being pillaged by vampire covens which have started coming south. Children are taken away from their families and turned to join his army. We had no hope until we came to know about the prophecy. Your child is our only hope″, he said looking at her.
″I had no idea″, gasped Victoria, horrified.
She was silent for a while, before she asked, ″Who started the Resistance?″.
″Aries Grissom. He is the founder of the Resistance″.
″I will have to tell you the whole story″, he said. ″Before Viktor took over the throne, Aria was ruled by a human king, very kind and benevolent. He was a good administrator, but old and frail. The High Council formed an Imperial Guard to protect him, consisting of the strongest warriors from all over Aria. Six members made up the guard, Lucien Ironfang of Argent, Royston Stonearm of the giant sword, the witch, Zelda Hallowlight, Silver, a hunter from Atlantis, Selene Earthrun, an elf warrior from Cerebrene and Carter Dohr of Targantine. They were the original members of the Imperial Guard″.
″At that time, Viktor Grimm was in the High council, on behalf of Orpheus Ironfang, the Vampire King of Argent. In his greed for power he made an unlikely alliance with a fellow council member, none other than the unruly Wolf King of Lycaonia, Hector Talbot. Orpheus was not happy with the alliance, because of his enmity with the Wolf King, but for some reason, even he feared Viktor. Together, they massacred the whole council. They even convinced the witch, Zelda, of the Imperial Guard to join them, and together they became unstoppable. Even the Imperial Guard failed to keep them in check. Selene retreated to Cerebrene and Carter Dohr was slaughtered in cold blood″.
″What about the rest of the Guard?″.
″Lucien had no choice, but to join Viktor, as his father, the Vampire King of Argent, had already sworn allegiance to the Emperor. Stonearm surrendered and was given a position in the new Imperial Guard. Silver was the only one who remained a real threat to the Emperor. He escaped from the capital, taking with him, a valued possession of Viktor. Even I do not know what it is, but it was important enough for Viktor to send his most elite troops to hunt him down. But it was too late. Silver had disappeared without a trace. Nobody knew where he was. The Emperor imposed a huge bounty on his head, but no one has had any luck capturing him till now″, said Damien.
″What happened then?″, asked Victoria, her eyes wide with curiosity.
″The military general, Aries Grissom stood his ground against Viktor, but he was no match for the Vampire Lord. After being severely wounded, he fled beyond the northern mountains, along with a handful of men who remained faithful to him, seeking refuge in the city of Crystal Vale. With their help, he formed the Resistance″.
″Viktor Grimm declared himself Emperor over all the kingdoms of Aria, thus ushering in the rule of Grimoire Empire″, he continued. ″Now, he has his eyes on you. The witch will track you down sooner or later and you might not be safe here. We will help you get to Atlantis. It is the only country free of Viktor’s hold″.
Slowly the days turned to weeks. One day, Victoria was sitting by the stream outside the cave, chatting with Bella, when she felt a sharp pain in her tummy. She gasped and was about to collapse, when Bella caught her. She was having a contraction.
Bella escorted her inside and along with two other midwives she took her to an empty room and made her lay down on the bed. One of them went to get the necessary materials for the delivery.
The midwives sat at her feet. Victoria screamed again from another contraction. Bella was wiping her forehead with a wet cloth. Moments passed by as they waited for another contraction.
″Its alright, now push″, said the midwife.
Victoria closed her eyes and grimaced in pain as she pushed again.
″Keep going, I can see the head″, said one of the midwives, excitedly.
She pushed with all her might. ″The baby is out″, exclaimed the midwife. She examined the child. ″It’s a girl!″, she smiled, as she handed over the baby to her mother.
″She is so cute″. Victoria’s eyes filled with tears of joy. Tufts of reddish brown hair covered its tiny head.
″I have decided to name her Scarlett Hope″, Victoria said, looking proudly at her child.
A month had passed since the birth of the child. Victoria was sleeping in her room and her child was lying in a cradle beside her bed, when she was suddenly woken by the loud noises outside her room.
She heard the sound of hooves clattering against the stone floor. She grabbed her sword from the corner and as she walked out, Bella came out of her room and joined her.
″What is going on?″, asked Victoria.
″I don’t know, let’s find out″, replied Bella.
They saw people running around. The men were riding out through the front in their armor, ready for battle.
The commander was standing at the entrance, fully armored with a sword in his hand. When he saw her, he rushed to her side. ″The Empire’s soldiers have already found us. Take the child and run. Take the escape tunnels. We will stall them″, he said.
Suddenly, they heard terrified screams at the entrance of the cave and a few seconds later, something gigantic entered through the doorway. The commander whirled around and cursed. He looked back at them and said, ″Leave, now″.
But the giant was already in front of him. As the commander raised his sword, the giant swatted him aside with the flat of his huge blade. He was thrown back at the wall, where he hit his head and dropped down to the floor, unconscious.
The giant was none other than Royston Stonearm of the Imperial Guard. He was about fifteen feet tall. He wore a heavy armor and carried a huge scimitar, which was almost as big as the giant himself.
As Stonearm turned his cold eyes on them, Victoria froze in terror. Bella stepped in front of her, with a sword in her hand. She was trembling with fear. The giant raised his blade and swung at her. She flinched and averted her eyes.
Suddenly, there was a flash and a loud metallic clang. Both Bella and Victoria were knocked off their feet by the shock wave of the impact.
She looked up and saw a hooded figure standing in front of her, blocking the giant’s blade with a huge black sword. The pommel of the sword was shaped like a skull, holding a black stone in its mouth.
The hooded man looked back at them and said, ″Leave, before the rest of them arrive. You are in grave danger. Take the child and run″, he said, pushing against the giant’s blade.
Victoria grabbed Bella’s hand and started running towards her room. The cave reverberated with metallic clangs as he fought the giant, their blades clashing with deafening sound. As soon as Victoria reached her room, she whispered something in Bella’s ears, picked up the baby in the cradle and together they ran towards the escape tunnels.
Victoria ran through the eastern tunnel. Bella had taken the one going west. She ran as fast as she could, cradling the bundle in her arms. After what seemed like hours, she finally reached the exit, which was well hidden among the boulders. She carefully climbed out of the tunnel.
″Going somewhere?″, said a voice behind her. She whipped her head around and saw a teenage boy leaning against a rock face. He had blue eyes and long shoulder length black hair, that framed a thin face.
″Who are you?″, asked Victoria.
″It does not matter. Give me the child and I will spare your life″, he replied in a cold voice.
″No″, she said, clutching the bundle in her arms. She was about to turn and run when he raised his hand and muttered something. She froze, unable to move. He yanked the bundle out of her arms. As he pulled away the blankets, his face contorted with rage.
″Where is the child?″, he demanded, his hands trembling with anger.
Victoria smiled with triumph. Her plan had worked. Her child was safe with Bella, who was on her way to Atlantis.
″You will never know″, she replied, slowly retrieving a dagger from between the folds of her cloak. As he was about to strike her in rage, she stabbed him in his chest and started to run.
″Ilia fucime″, he cursed, raising his hand. His legs had started trembling and the front of his clothes was already stained with blood. Victoria froze as she felt her heart stop and started losing consciousness. Both of them collapsed to the ground, blood pooling around them.