Hunting Grounds: The Silent Empire (Part One)

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Some say the Mirage is the legend who stops the nine kingdoms from falling. Others say the Mirage is the one who causes the demise of it all. But only a few know the true story. It's up to Harper, Emrys, and the Strongmoor Division to uncover the identity of the Mirage before it is too late. One wrong move could result in either one of their own assassinating them, the nine nations becoming silent, or both. "You can run, but you'll never escape," people told them. "You're going nowhere." ||Part one of a two part book, and book one of The Strongmoor Chronicles|| ||Part Two coming out soon...||

Thriller / Mystery
Ryley Dillard
Age Rating:

Chapter 1 (Emrys)

We were warned. Did we listen?

The Panic of Prian resulted in three of my Beta agents swimming in their own blood. They were dead, all dead! I could've saved them, but I chose not to. We chose not to.

I stared down at my full-hunter pocket watch as it ticked. The crack ran from the left side, and stopped halfway and split in three different lines. The silver case was chipped near the crown. Strange engravings swirled on the cover that I never deciphered, and I never bothered to ask my father, who gave it to me, what it all meant.

It ticked, and ticked. Exactly five moons prior, blood stained the hands that carried the watch. The very same watch, as it rested in those same hands, ticked away the ashiti it took for the dark apocalypse to take over the new host. To completely obliterate their mind, their soul, their heart, and everything they ever stood for. In the end, there was nothing but death.

We were warned not to go to that camp that day, specifically by a witch that went by the name of Rina. We didn't know her last name, nor why she told us, but we didn't listen. We waved it off like some kind of novice being.

At that moment, it was my duty to replace the dead members, no matter how much it hurt me. The three spots opened, and that allowed for my fiancé, Harper Reid, to finally get a chance to be present on the team. Did I really want the same risks for her? I watched as the hand passed the ten ashiti to the thirteenth moment mark. "Ten ashiti, Harper!" I shouted to the woman sprinting through the open field.

She displayed her middle finger as she grew closer. A chuckle escaped my lips. I took a step back and tapped the button on the stop watch as she passed me, but sighed when I looked down at it. Three ashiti too late.

"Damn it!" The black haired woman huffed, then muttered something in another language, while peeking over my shoulder. The smell of her sweat hit my nose, so stepped away. Her hand ran through her hair as she shook her head. "Three ashiti?"

"You aren't ever going to make it on the Linbridge team, let alone to the Strongmoor Division, if you can't get below that running time," I said, spinning around to come face to face with her.

Her hazel with brown speckled eyes narrowed and she rubbed her middle finger in my face. My eyebrow shot up. She adjusted her loose tank top, which displayed her black ink tattoos; her sleeve on her left arm, which consisted of a blooming flower on her shoulder, with a chain and a ribbon around more flowers, ending in a stop watch with no arms. The stopwatch had a crack in it. I found it strange how my watch and that watch looked so similar. Even stranger, she was born with all of the ink. It reminded me of her tattoo that went down her spine, the latin quote "Memento Mori"--also born with it. Her other arm was covered only halfway covered in Mehendi tattoo designs, which was her own little touch. She displayed her ink with pride.

I shook my head when I caught myself staring at her tattoos. I took a quick step back, again.

"You still haven't seen if you make it yet? In your visions, I mean," I whispered, turning my eyes away from her. My cheeks warmed with color and I scratched the top of my head.

She folded her arms and looked to the sky. I did too, but I knew nothing was worth starting up at. We never saw the sun on Gwelivia. It was only a span of the thirty-two hours of day and night; just the grey sky during the thirteen hour day, and black during the nineteen hour night. Occasionally, we would see the three moons shine through the thick clouds at the darkest part of the night.

She bit her lip before responding, "No. Like I've said thousands of times before, I don't see anything that involves me."

I turned to face the Silvershore Wall, which surrounded Wrikoven Castle and the villages. I thought about the first time I ran outside those walls. Being on the Strongmoor Division almost got me killed only about fifteen times, and I was only twenty-three nijahre old. What was beyond those walls gave me nightmares half of the thirteen month nijahre. Harper was only a nijahre younger than me and her determination to get onto the Strongmoor Division grew stronger with every passing day, but she had to pass the tests and qualify before she could even be considered to join the best of the best: the fastest runners. I hated the idea of her joining.

I spun the stop watch before closing it, placing it back around my neck, and tucking it inside my white Bastian shirt. My fingers ran though my long, raven colored hair, before getting caught in the knots. I grabbed a fist full of it and tugged. To be honest, no. I didn't want her to join, but anything for the love of my life. Right? What put more fear into me was I knew she'd easily pass.

"Emrys, please. One last tip before mid-day," she begged.

I began to walk back to the castle, careful of where I stepped in the wheat field. I rolled up my pants a bit, so the ankle high plants rubbed against and tickled my bare ankles as if many bugs swarmed them. I fought back the urge to scratch my legs or swat at the wheat. To distract myself, I replied softly, "Beanie, you need to make sure to stay focused. You can't be having a break down and draw what you see in the middle of the trials."

"You've told me that before."

The short woman trailed behind me, waving her hand to make her dark grey beanie appear, and put it over her black hair. No one knew the true extent of her abilities. We only knew she made certain object appear out of thin air and saw the future. She drew what she saw in her notebook, but no one physically saw what she drew unless she ripped the pages out. She sighed heavily and audibly.

"You'll do great, Beanie," I reassured with a soft smile and held out my hand.

She groaned and eagerly snatched it. Our arms swung slightly as we walked on. Moments passed before we entered the village. Cottages lined the cobblestone street we walked on, with kids playing in the dirt with a ball and other toys, and some even playing with fake swords. Each house appeared similar, with rocks for the base and wood for the rest. However, each cottage owner personalized their own gardens and yards. As we passed a gathering of kids, they called our names and ran over, asking for us to play with them.

Harper and I exchanged looks before we both shrugged, and I accepted the invitation, but we only played one quick game of ball and guard. Harper laughed, and the sound of it melted me on the inside. When Harper realized I stopped playing to watch her with the kids with a huge grin, she blushed and allowed for the other team to get the ball. A little girl tugged on her shirt. Harper bent down and the two spoke for a moment. The girl's face lit up before she hugged Harper, which took her by surprise. Turning away, I thanked the kids for the game, offering high fives, and informed them we needed to get going.

They complained, of course, but said their farewells. I gently put a hand on Harper's back to guide her in front of me as we continued our journey. A bitter but sweet smell filled the air, making me examine the source. Purple flowers lined the path to the castle gates.

"I hate that smell," Harper muttered.

With a glance, I furrowed my eyebrows and responded, "Why are you so negative?"

"What? The smell is aggravating," she said with a chuckle.

I couldn't argue with that. Just because she was royalty didn't mean she had to love the smell of flowers or twirl in ballgowns all night. I smirked when I remembered how much she loved to wear cocktail dresses, though. If she wasn't training, you wouldn't see her wearing anything else but those kind of dresses. My eyes scanned the woman as she climbed the stairs that lead to the main gates, but I slowed for a moment when I spotted black smoke twirling around her legs.

I'd only ever seen it happen once before, and I never gave it much thought. We were at a meeting with the leaders of Brerenth Kingdom just 200 miles west from Wrikoven. The Aeggeria Empire attacked soon after I saw the smoke. Those damn pixies thought it was a good idea to kidnap the prince of Brerenth while both allied kingdoms were together with the Strongmoor Division. Harper went with because she, princess of Wrikoven, demanded to go with. The only reason I was at Wrikoven was because I, prince of Brerenth, trained to become a Strongmoor Division member. The smoke vanished before I could tell her, so I shrugged it off.

She halted at the top of the stairs and I did too, seeing the protestors at the gate. They chanted about the Silvershore Wall and other secrets the 'council kept from everyone'. They protested about it for years before that. Their little group remained at eleven members since the beginning, and the kingdom paid hardly any attention to them. Every mid-day, the small group gathered and chanted for answers to be shared.

Harper leaned in close to me and whispered something in a different language that I translated to "they'll never learn to leave things be". I laughed quietly and pushed through the crowd.

"Princess Reid!" Someone shouted from the group. I spun around on my heels just in time to see a ragged man snatch her by the wrist. Despite his tight grip, she was able to pry it off and bend it, making him drop to his knees with a wince. "Mercy, Princess! Mercy!" He begged, trying his best to remove his dirt smudged hand. A chain with an emblem dangled from his neck with the movements, and it glinted in the daylight. I didn't recognize the symbol, so I shrugged it off.

With her other hand, she took out her dagger and held it up to the man's throat. "Next time, I break it," She growled. After pushing him away, she stepped closer to me. She held onto the weapon as if her life depended on it, keeping it close to her chest.

I gently moved her behind me, placed a hand on my gun holster, and warned, "Sir, I am going to need you to keep your hands off of the Princess and step away. If you have a concern regarding the Princess, you'll need to file it with the council-"

"Scums! You no good, corrupt family! You don't deserve the throne!" Someone in the group shouted, and others cheered after him. Harper sighed, dropped her hands to her side, and walked to the gate.

"It is a mistake being a participant for the trials!" The man who grabbed Harper yelled after us.

She waved her hand, dismissing the comment. Females ran on all Lindbridge team, along with Strongmoor Division's Alpha and Beta, so I wasn't sure what he meant. I scrunched my nose in confusion, rubbing the bridge of it and thinking about Maryka Glencoe. Being captain of Strongmoor Division's Alpha had its benefits, but when the second in command was a snotty, dark green haired, ass hat who stuck her nose in everyone's business, one only starts to wish they were captured by the annoying Pixies instead of being stuck with her stubborn ass. I always pondered why the council opted her for that position. Out of the approximately fifteen times I almost got killed, she was the reason for half of them. I shook my head when I thought about our last mission, and the reason why Beta needed more members.

Beta fought the monsters and creatures while Alpha got the civilians in distress out. It was supposed to be a team mission, not a one man mission, and she saw it that way. Once Alpha got the civilians to safety, they were supposed to get Beta out as well, or make sure they got themselves out of the trouble they were in. A team effort. One team fights the enemy while the other team protects.

Something came over her that night, something that stayed with her. I vividly remembered screaming at her in my communications to pull the Beta members out before it was too late, since she was the only one nearby. I viewed from a watch tower as she froze mid way. The other two Beta members were busy defending the other three Alpha members as they got everyone on the wagons. She was the only one who could save them. Little do I know why she froze, but it was rare. She refused, three out of four times each time we went into the field, to follow my commands for the better of the team, but she never froze. Other than that, the only difference of that time was that people actually died. And she watched. She left them to defend for themselves. She took it too far over the line. I bolted from the tower when she didn't respond, just in time to see the third Beta losing his sanity.

When I realized I stopped, hands in front of me, staring at them, I heavily sighed. The red stains were still visible from moving the bodies, from attending them, watching my friends bleed out and take their last breath.

Harper stared at me, head tilted. She knew what I thought. She knew me like the back of her hand. She had to in order to be my fiancé. Her father wouldn't allow it if she didn't even know my favorite color. I always assumed he wanted to know me personally, considering I was dating his daughter. It was normal for a father to have suspicions of his daughter's boyfriend. I briefly smiled before gliding in through the gates.

Guards greeted us both at the doors, and maids and her butler stood in a line in the main hall. I scanned the vast open hall, lined with marble walls that stood twenty feet tall, and pillars every six feet down the hall. Portraits of the past royalty scattered across the walls in golden frames, each pair of eyes staring down at us as if they judged our every move. Three glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling, ending at the entrance to the throne room. The door remained shut, however, blocking the view of the dome ceiling ballroom and the hand made thrones.

In front of us stood the door to the kitchen, and clanks of pans resonated from inside. I grinned at the scent of the food that filled the air for mid-day lunch. Beside it, the crackling of the lit fireplace in the outer parlor caught my attention. Maybe nights spent in that small room curled up with Harper, with the fireplace warm and a book in our hands, ran across my mind. Too many hours, actually, but I didn't regret a single one.

Her butler, Leighton, stood tall, with a glass of water on his trey balancing on his hand. Kind, emerald green eyes looked over us with a small bow, causing a smile to form on my lips once more. I appreciated the respect Leighton showed me. I rarely received that around there.

"Good evening, Princess Harper and Prince Emrys. Have another successful training session, did we?" Leighton questioned.

Harper and I exchanged looks before she grinned contently and replied, "More efficiently than this morning's run." She gently picked up the glass on the trey and chugged the water down. Once the last drop was gone, she set it back and thanked him for it. The training session at hour six in the morning, an hour before the rest of the kingdom got up at the rise of dawn, crossed my mind. Harper demanded that I worked her hard, pushing her past her limits. Three hours later, she dragged me out for more runs, and that brought us to that point.

Leighton's lips lifted into a grin with his reply, "Wonderful. Wonderful. Now, go get yourself ready for the trials. King Reid plans to begin in approximately two hours and thirty five moments."

We both nodded. She kissed my cheek before splitting to go to the east wing which contained her room. I watched her leave, not realizing I had a goofy grin on my face. Six years and the woman still drove me crazy. Pulling out my sixteen hour stopwatch, I checked the time: hour nine and sixty nine moments. I needed to head to the headquarters. I nodded to Leighton before letting my smile drop to something more serious and strolled off to the west wing.

I shoved my hands into my black pant pockets as I strolled down the hall and arrived at two tall, wooden doors. Pushing one open with my shoulder, I slid into the room. A large rectangular table sat in the middle of the dimly lit room, guarded by fifteen chairs. Screens hung on each slate grey wall, showing nothing but black. Two guards stood at the other end of the room. Their dark eyes remained glued on me. My hand ran across the sanded oak wood counter connected to the wall as I sauntered across the left side of the room. The guard on the left nodded and stepped out of the way to reveal a control panel. Instead of clicking 'turn on screens', I moved in closer to the small camera, inches away, and let it examine my iris. Once the machine accepted it, the screen turned red and slid down. I reached my hand in the slot and placed my finger on a pad.

I didn't wince when a pin pricked my finger and analyzed my blood. I was used to it. I'd been doing that exact process ever since I was seventeen and got chosen to be on Alpha. Unlike the Lindbridge teams who renewed their members every three years, Beta and Alpha only lost members if they were killed or voted off of the teams. I'd been leader for three years and on the team for six.

A portion of the grey wall popped out and swung open like a door, giving me access to the Event Control room. I walked in, letting the door shut behind me. Beeping, talking, and typing filled the small room with six desks. A few people glanced back at me and kindly waved. My eyes automatically went to the purple banner above the large screen in the front. I read, "Code Purple". I rushed down the small pathway to a group of people standing in front of the screen, which showed a map of Gwelivia, and our planet.

"Code Purple? Who went off radar?" I asked to whoever, loud enough that my voice echoed off of the walls. Code Purple was one of the more serious matters; it meant a safe house or camp went radio silent. They went dark.

"Camp Six. They just went off communications n' radar. I was just 'bout to call yah in," Maryka informed me without turning around. I glared at her back. Hard. Sure, we grew up together in Brerenth and trained together for seventeen years, but that didn't mean I had to like the woman. She looked over her shoulder with a cold scowl as she continued, "Somethin' freaky happened before hand. Yah should see this."

I stopped at her side and peered at the screen. Maryka waved to Zander--the man sitting at the main desk in the very front--and he projected images up onto the big screen. I watched intently, narrowing my eyes at the normal picture of the small campground. Three small houses lined the road on each side with a ten foot gate made out of logs surrounding it. My eyes rested upon two guards who walked around the camp. No one else seemed to be around. I stepped closer when the security camera blacked out for a moment, and when it came back up, the two guards were gone, replaced with something black covering the ground. The shadow like anomaly spread across the campground and devoured the buildings until it reached the camera. It went dark again.

"Go to camera four, please," I ordered Zander, and he did as commanded. The picture showed the exact same shadow consume the camp until it went dark. I stared at the blank screen for a moment, knowing Strongmoor would have to go out and investigate. Shoving my hands back into my pocket, I muttered something in a different language before speaking English. "Glencoe, call up the rest of Alpha and Beta. It looks as though we won't be staying for the trials," I said. She rolled her eyes as she strode out of the room. My eyes remained on the screen as I spoke once more, "Zander, show me the contestants aiming to be on Strongmoor with these trials."

"Of course, Mr. Kendall. Anything for the Vice President of Strongmoor," he responded with a grin. He knew it bugged me when I got called that. I rolled my eyes and shook my head. "First candidate: Sienna Quinzel, who is twenty five years old, and um, can do lots of strange magic. She was an orphan and grew up in the Scarlet Terrain."

I examined the two photos he displayed like I was going to be tested on it. Sienna's purple eyes intrigued me, which matched her hair that faded from black to purple. Purple eyes were unique on Gwelivia. The last time I came across someone with a unique eye color like that, they were bad news. My neck was almost slit by her. Luckily, Strongmoor Beta rescued my ass in the nick of time.

He changed the photo and continued to speak. "Naomi Grande. She is from Brerenth. She is from a family of six brothers, and is able to run above average meters per moment. I'm sure you know her, along with our next one, Harper," he said, voice raising slightly. I nodded, so he breathed deeply through his nose and spoke more names. "Landon Creed, twenty two, and is from Brooklake town. He spent his whole life serving as a lifeguard for the lake and has saved over a hundred tourists from drowning. Fifth is Brody Keyser, twenty two, also from Brooklake town. Although, Brody studied in the field of forensics and chemistry and helped local law with crimes. Connor McBride. He's twenty three, was a guard for Dwendaven Facilities, and apparently has one hundred percent body efficiency. Seventh brings us thirty year old Porter Hays, born in Brerenth and now lives here, in Wrikoven, hand chosen by King Reid to help injured civilians inside the wall. Eighth is Nolan Jones, resident of Wrikoven as well. He was the son of a Linbridge Alumnus. I believe that is the only eight wanting to be apart of the Strongmoor, sir."

"Delightful. And we only have three spots open for Beta, right?" I asked, spinning around on my heels. They were all good candidates. This round would be difficult for the council to decide who would be the fittest. I hated the idea that Harper was against professionals, and I couldn't help her out, not like she couldn't handle her own.

"Yes, sir. Council will have a blast with this one." Zander agreed as he scrolled through the candidates some more. "We are in for a real treat with these ones. We even have a half ghoul in the mix."

I leaned in closer to his screen. "How can you tell, Scales?"

He chuckled nervously at the name with a shake of his blond head. "As long as you call me Scales, I'll call you Vice President. Anyway," he went on, pointing at the photo of Landon Creed, "this guy here has the ghoul marking on his back. His goal was to cover it up. And that means-"

"He feels ashamed for being one," I finished his thought. Ghouls often displayed their uniqueness, and the rareness of coming across one who hid it that well remained low. After switching weights on my legs and folding my arms, I spoke, "What about her? Any hypothesis about her purple eyes?"

"Usually, the purple eyes means either the person has messed with dark magic, or just got really damn lucky with how their genetics eye color code turned out, because damn they are rare," he explained, swiveling around in his chair.

"But the dark magic is very likely, since she's from the Scarlet Terrain," I added. My eyes drifted back up to the screen with the seven candidates. Many residents in Scarlet Terrain-that I noticed probably due to the focus of my job-played with the dark arts and developed purple eyes.

"Correct, but they are not known for dark magic, really. Just magic," he shrugged. After removing the eight candidates from the screen, he brought up a photos of Six again. He continued, "Now what do you reason went wrong in Safe Camp Six?"

"I haven't a clue. Never have I seen something like it in my life." My hands connected behind my back. It must have been dark magic. My mind went straight to the Aeggeria Empire. Those bastards were always up to something dark and deadly.

Thinking about the mission, I began to wonder how complicated it will be for Beta to fight off any threats now that they were down three, leaving two members left. I didn't know if I was ready to train three new members. The first few times were always the most difficult with them, considering they've never seen what was behind the Silvershore Wall. A bracelet on my wrist beeped, so I pressed a button and allowed the call to come through to the communications device placed in my ear.

"Are we ready?" I questioned, turning back to the screen. Once Maryka answered, I left the room to meet up with them.
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