Zane Lukas gave up on trying to break the chains. With a suppressed yell of frustration, he fell back against the cold walls of his dungeon cell. He stared up at the stone ceiling, imagining he saw the sky, the real sky, with all the stars looking down at you. Zane’s mind began to wander. For a man condemned to die, he had quite a life left behind. He thought about Orion, about the Elves, about the forests, about his dreams and the impossible quest he saw in them. And about Indigo. He thought about her every day, even the times she was standing beside him. Then his mind wandered further, and he thought about where it had all began....
His opponent’s sword thrust downward, cutting straight for his chest. Skillfully, young fighter Zane Lukas dodged the thrust. One step back. Two steps back. Defensive position. Two-hand grip. Circling around and around. Do it right or die. That was the rule in swordplay, and Zane wasn’t about to get it wrong. Half a step back. Stock still. Locked eyes, just waiting to see who made the first move. His opponent swung, clash! Metal against metal. Frenzied blows.
Zane’s forehead was stained with sweat. He swung his sword around in a wide arc, knocking his opponent down. He’s down...no, he’s up again! Another clash of blades. Stab right. Stab left. He was hit. Dodge. Parry. Strike, parried.
With an even louder clash!, the two duelist’s swords met again. They struggled, blades locked, Zane’s back shoved against the wall. He pulled away, made one misstep, and fell, dropping his sword. “Hold!”, he shouted. “Hold, Shyane! I give!”
Zane’s opponent dropped his training sword and helped his friend up. “And I win again,” he said smugly.
“Honestly,” their instructor scolded, “I expected more from you, Zane! If that was a real duel, Shyane would have no trouble killing you! If you ever expect to be any help to anyone in a real battle, you need to try harder!”
“Yes, Sir Nilsson.”
“Not the first time I’ve caught you slacking either.”
“Slacking? Me?”, Zane said innocently.
“Oh yes, you! Skipping training to go off with Carsamir Geoffery and play tricks, and you are not slacking how exactly?”
“Well, okay, maybe a little.”
“The point is, you need to work harder. Both of you.”
“Well, whatever he says, I think you were great,” said Shyane as the two young men collected their things and left. “You nearly got me this time.”
“Yes, well, nearly isn’t enough for anybody, Shyane Telmar,” Zane said. “He’s right, I’m not doing too well. I’m almost afraid I won’t make it.”
“You, not get accepted into the Corp? Perish the thought, my friend! Anyway, you should consider yourself fortunate. It isn’t often that a boy or girl from the Thirteenth City is taken in for training at all.” The two friends fell silent as they walked through the halls of the Knight’s Corp Training School in the Second City, where they were squires learning to fight for the great King Remus.
They entered the quarters they shared with their friends Benetar and Carsamir and put their things down. “Well, I think I’ll try to get some sleep,” Zane said, “you?”
“Not yet,” Shyane replied, “I have extra practice in Defensive Tactics tonight. With Journada.”
“Oh, alright then,” Zane grinned, kicking off his shoes, pulling off his shirt and jumping up onto his bunk.
“I saw that smile.”
“And why not? It’s a well-known fact that you always show up to the same classes as her, and you-”
“Oh, shut up! Well, whatever you want to do, I am leaving now!”
Zane just laughed and called, “Have fun!”, then went back to staring at the ceiling. For someone who had grown up rather unlucky, his life was pretty great now, he thought. The Second City, he thought. Who’d’ve thought I’d ever make it up here? Shyane’s right, for a poor city like mine it’s a rare case. If only Father could see me now! Hm. I wonder why he hasn’t written. Maybe I should. Write, I mean, not something I’d usually do.... Zane’s eyes grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep, and in his sleep he dreamed. His dreams were not like other people’s though. They were vivid, scarily realistic dreams...and the things that appeared in them usually held some meaning for his future. He had never told anyone of these dreams, except Shyane, and even then he never explained what he had seen. He was simply too afraid.
This particular night, his dream started out pitch-dark. A murky forest. Arrows stuck into the tree trunks, arrows that looked like they were of Elvish make. Zane saw himself standing alone in this forest, a black-sealed letter in one hand and a gold piece in the other, a bloodstained knife on his belt. Thunder rolled in the sky above him. He just stood there, looking around him in...was that fear? Or wonder? Apprehension? Or was he just lost? Well, he was definitely alone.
No, wait, he wasn’t. There was a girl there, a very unusual-looking -- and lovely -- girl, holding onto his arm and slowly guiding him on a winding path through the woods. Her skin was pale, with a rosy tint, and her hair was an odd color that Zane couldn’t quite see, but somehow he knew it was unnatural. Her eyes resembled the night sky above them, very deep blue, not quite black but almost, flecked with gold.
But the oddest thing about this girl was that she seemed to be glowing like the moonlight. Not just standing in light, but giving it off. “Who are you?”, Zane whispered. “Are you a ghost?” The girl smiled and shook her head. “Then what are you? Who are you? Are you a star?” She was still silent. “Please, tell me who you are,” Zane said. “I have to know.” He stopped walking and looked into her eyes. “You’re so beautiful.”
Right then, Zane’s eyes opened. It always took a moment of adjustment after he woke up from a dream. I’m in my bed. It’s almost sunrise. There is nothing here for me to fear. As always after waking, Zane was troubled. What does this mean? A letter with a black seal. That nearly always meant a death, but whose? A gold piece. That didn’t seem to mean anything. A bloodstained dagger. What did that mean? Murder? Zane wasn’t sure. What about the forest? The arrows? He was sure those were Elvish arrows, not that he’d ever met an Elf.
Elves. What do I know about Elves? He knew something about the history surrounding them. They had been the original inhabitants of the land where the Fifty Cities now stood, between the Eastern Waters and the Western. Generations ago, a powerful man named Medec and his young companion, Aeton, had searched for new land beyond the Eastern, and had discovered an impenetrably vast forest, inhabited by Elves. They were so fearsome, it’s said, that he feared to enter, and if he hadn’t then been visited by one of the spirits of the stars, with the message to return with men and take the land, he would have turned back. Eventually, the land had been taken, and cities sprang up all around so fast, there were soon fifty of them under the reign of the Palace City. And Medec became the first king and Aeton, the first knight. But some areas of the forest, the no-man’s-land, were never fully conquered. The Elves still live free, and travelers have learned to beware their fearsomeness. Elves were, out of all the stories of all the races in and beyond the Cities’ borders, the most feared of beings. What do they have to do with my future?
The sun was up almost up now, and Shyane was tapping Zane’s shoulder. “Zane. You’re awake.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Yeah. Hey, shove off, Shyane Telmar!”
“Well, I’ll shove off, but you should know it’s later in the morning than you think, and Sir Nilsson called an important meeting for final-years at nine, remember?”
“Oh, I forgot about that....”
“I think you might want to get up now is all I’m saying.”
“Alright, alright.” Zane got out of bed, put his shirt back on, and splashed his face with freezing water. As he went through his routine actions, one thing kept coming to mind -- who was that girl? It certainly wasn’t anyone Zane had seen before, he would have remembered a face like that. The way she let off that light, a soft, dimming light like the light of a candle from behind glass, that ghostly aura that surrounded her, those eyes that twinkled with gold. But what stood out was the fact that she seemed to know him, the way she touched him and silently led him forward. Is she some part of my future?
When Zane met up with the other last-year trainees, he only saw a few familiar faces among them. Shyane, of course. Journada del Mira, the girl Shyane was always casting glances at. Carsamir Geoffery, their other close friend. Sari Nightrose, the prettiest girl at the school. Lagos Liridam was there too, but that didn’t surprise Zane. If something important was happening, Lagos wanted in. She was the personal protege of Sir Azmari himself, one of the king’s leading generals. Honestly, Zane thought they both had big heads, but there was no denying she was talented.
“I have gathered you here,” Sir Nilsson announced, “because I am pleased to tell you that the king has informed me he is ready to select a new group of knights.” A murmur of excitement ran through the squires gathered. Shyane looked nervous. “And as such,” Sir Nilsson continued, “You will be given a test - to survive in the forest. This will be a real-stakes test that will challenge every part of you. Your skill, your teamwork, your cunning, and, for at least one of you, your leadership.”
“When do we leave?”, asked Lagos a bit snappishly - although Zane thought she always sounded snappish.
“Today. In fact, in three hours. I would recommend you begin preparing. Gather what you think you might need, and be back here no later than noon. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir!”, chimed all the students as they filed out of the room. “I can’t believe it,” Shyane commented, catching up to Zane, “a real mission!”
“Oh, hold it together,” said Zane, “he only said ‘real-stakes’. That doesn’t necessarily mean he has a task for us. It just means we might die.”
“Oh, no, he has a task for us, I’m sure of it. You just wait and see, my friend!”
“Go get ready.” As Zane was packing a bag, making sure he had only things he thought he’d need to survive, he was approached by Sari.
“Oh!” He jumped. “Um...yes, Sari? What is it, shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
“I already did.”
“Oh, well, why are you in my quarters?”
“Lady Eden sent me to get you. She said it was urgent.” Lady Eden was the one who managed letters and papers, although in her younger days she had been a famous tactics instructor. Zane knew that Sari, who had top marks for Tactics, greatly admired her and helped her whenever she could.
“Well, okay. Sari?”
“Um...once we get back from this task, quest, er, thing...maybe you and I could finally do something together? You know, like we have talked about.”
She smiled. “Of course, Zane. I would love to.” Zane was grinning as he walked down the hallway to find Lady Eden. When he found her, she had a letter in her hand. A black-seal letter. Last night...My dreams....
“Ah, Zane! My, you look so much taller! You’re....”
“Yes, you are! Zane, I’m very sorry, but we received this today,” she said, handing him the letter, “addressed to you.”
“Thank you for telling me.” Zane went outside, his heart beating with apprehension and worry. The letter was from his Uncle Ayes, one of the few relatives he still had back in the 13th. He tore the seal off and began to read.
My apologies if this letter is received late. The inter-city post has met with difficulties as of late. It is with a heavy heart that I write to you now. Your father, my brother Weston Lukas, is dead. You know, surely, that among his friends there were some...unsavory characters. I wished to keep his involvement with them from you, but now it is unfortunately too late. There was an incident with the King’s Guard and the local militia, and I fear he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I am sorry, Zane. I will miss him as much as you will, but be consoled that he is with your mother, his beautiful Kari.
Peace be with you.
A cold chill like the breezes before a storm came over Zane’s heart. His hands shook. His eyes filled with hot tears. In blind rage, he tore the letter in two and let it fall to the ground. My father is dead. And the people I’ve given my life to serve killed him.... It wasn’t his father’s fault, he was sure. It was a well known fact the intercity militias, even the Knight’s Corp on occasion, shot first and asked later. “Zane!” Shyane ran up to him. “Zane, it’s time to leave.” He touched his shoulder. “What’s happened, my friend? Sari said she thought you may have gotten a black letter. Is that true?”
“Yes.”, Zane said dully.
“Oh, Zane! I am so very sorry....”
“Yeah, you should be!”, Zane yelled, out of nowhere.
Shyane was taken aback. “Zane, what....”
“You should be! You all should be!” Zane took a deep breath and stopped yelling. “Oh, forget I said a thing,” he muttered, “let’s just go.”
“Well, alright. The horses are ready, you and I have Triumph and Valor.”
Sir Nilsson met them as they were leaving. “Your first task,” he said, “will be to choose one to lead you. Then, you, as a group, will have your first task - to protect the King’s gold as you find your way through the forest. I will be with you in the time of four days. We will see how well you have done then, if you haven’t all gotten lost already. Move out!” The group mounted their horses and moved out.
“Right,” said Journada, “you heard him. The first thing is to choose a leader.”
“I can take that task,” said Lagos.
“Of course you can,” Carsamir said, “but I doubt we’d make it two miles.”
“Oh, and you would be so much better!”
“I think you should lead, Journada,” Shyane said.
“Oh, Shyane Telmar -”
“I mean it! Who’s with me?”
“I’d follow her!”, said Carsamir.
“Of course! She’s perfect!”, said Sari. Other students chimed in their votes. “Zane,” said Sari, “what do you think?”
Zane didn’t say anything. Neither did Lagos. “Majority rules,” said Shyane. “Take the lead, Lady del Mire.”
Journada turned red. “Shove off,” she muttered. “Let’s move!” They rode off into the forest, making their way through the winding trees along the ‘paths’ that had become overgrown long before they arrived.
As the hours ticked away, and the sun rose and set on days, Zane’s thoughts began to drive him mad. The same nightmare he had had before leaving came back to him every night, growing more feverishly realistic every time, different objects appearing in his hands. The letter. The gold. The dagger. Once he found himself holding one of the elvish arrows. Once it was some sort of gold necklace. And once his hands were empty, dripping with blood. That seemed to be the one constant -- he was always stained with blood. And the girl never spoke to him.
He was struggling with his commitment to the Corp as well. Why should I give them my loyalty after they caused my father to die? I don’t owe them anything. I shouldn’t even be here, rightly. It was a mistake. His thoughts grew into an inexplicable antagonistic attitude toward his friends, the knot of black hatred for them in Zane’s heart growing larger every hour. He wondered if he had snapped, and if this was what it really felt like to be going crazy. Finally, by the night before Sir Nilsson was set to arrive, he couldn’t take it anymore. He knew Lagos usually had some knowledge of disturbances. As they were settling down for the night, Zane and Lagos on guard he approached her. “Lagos,” he said, “You know something about disturbances. Did you hear what happened in the Thirteenth?”
“What? What happened?”
“Nothing of consequence.”
“Don’t give me that! You tell me!” She didn’t answer him. “Tell me!”
“I don’t understand why you see so much in it, just some incident with some troublemakers. Struck down on the spot, I’m told, even if that might be exaggerating a bit. We do well, don’t we?”
“Do well?” Zane was enraged. “That was my father! Are you honestly telling me you feel pride, feel ‘we did well’ for striking down an innocent man? Honestly?”
“We are knights, Lukas. We have to do what must be done.”
“Oh, is that true?” In a swift, angered motion Zane pulled out his knife and had it at her throat. “Then what if I feel you should be ‘struck down’ then? Hm?” All the madness and hatred that had been boiling in his mind for days was rising to the surface and overflowing.
“Don’t you dare touch me,” said Lagos, shrinking back slightly.
“You, listen to me. I am not one of you. I can’t count myself with you any longer. You stay back now, and I’m going to take this,” Zane said, gesturing to the box that held the gold, “take it and leave. You want a troublemaker? Well, you’ve got one.”
“Now, Zane,” said Carsamir, the other squires having been awakened, “put the knife down. I don’t know what you’re doing, but put it down. Don’t do this. If you need help....”
“Zane. Zane, listen to me. I don’t know what’s happening with you, but turning on us is not going to help you.”
“I said shut up!”, Zane shouted, whirling on him with the knife. “I’ll kill you,” he said, his voice trembling, “I’ll kill you all, I swear I’ll do it.”
“Zane, stop....” Carsamir grabbed Zane’s wrist. “Just put the knife down.”
That was a mistake. Zane lashed out, knocking the Carsamir to the ground. The knife in his hand pierced the other squire’s back, and Zane jumped back as he felt the blood soak through onto his open hands. The knife.The blood. Sari screamed, and the other squires recoiled. Shyane put his head in his hands. “What have you done?”, he murmured.
Journada swallowed hard and stepped forward. “Zane Lukas,” she said, “as your appointed leader, I am hereby taking you into custody under a charge of betrayal and...and murder.”
Zane hadn’t realized until then that he had his hand on the gold box. Wincing, he bent down and removed his knife from his friend’s body. “Get away from me,” he snapped. “I’m sorry. But I am no longer one of you.”
Then, he did the first thing that came to his mind. He ran. Into the dark forest with no idea what he was doing, just ran. As the sun rose, he came to rest on a cliffside. Sinking down underneath a tree, his eyes began to well up with tears. “What have I done?”, he whispered. “What have I done?”