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Rated: 18+ · Book · Fantasy · #2175359
Evil plans to destroy Etias. The king, known as the Reaper, must save the realms.
Prologue

To proclaim the responsibility of the realms rests on my shoulders would be a gross understatement for what destiny has placed upon me. I am the heir of Etias, and before long I will be king — the Reaper of this land.

As the only child of Lord Xanthus and Lady Syllia, not a soul can attempt to claim the sovereignty from me. Only a fraction of the population would not be envious of my lifestyle; to possess power, wealth, and glory, most could not fathom. To have a beautiful female in my bed each night, sometimes more than one woman is the dream of every man. The people both adore and fear me across the realms.

Alas, I am not content with these things, for the looming cloud of my ever-nearing ascension still hangs above me every day. My grandfather, the current Reaper, rules over this land, as he has for centuries. The world's eyes are forever scrutinizing me with their expectations and comparisons of myself to him. They demand me to be their strength, guidance, salvation, and solace. True, my sincerest aspiration is to be an effective leader. I want to change the entire arrangement of this monarchy, though I discover myself in the throes of self-doubt on a near constant basis. Can I reconstruct the ancient order? Am I strong enough to run Etias alone?

I am only one man. No, not a man for I do not, nor will I ever, associate myself with the likes of humans. My father made it unquestionable since I was young that humankind is the weakest in the realms. Man holds no power beyond the tools he can craft; he is manipulated by pride, greed, or lust. Their lifespan is short, and soon, my eyes must gaze upon the fall of millions while governing them.

My damn eyes! I hate the utter mention of them. I have yearned to rip them from my skull more than once. Blindness would be preferable than to witness the atrocity that occurs should one make eye contact with me. Vivid was my recollection of my first victim when I was but a mere boy. I had insisted to the girl my mother's warning not to glance into the gaze of anyone but those of blood relation. The child had persisted, saying my eyes were beautiful to behold. When I had succumbed and gazed at her, I...

My hand trembles as I pen these words now. These pathetic emotions dwelling deep within my heart may never cease. It is fitting, this existence I am forced to lead. To represent what mortals dread but cannot evade. My orbs depict the lie of life and the horror which they cause symbolize the truth of death.

I curse the gods and their cruel imprint on my being. I have come to the belief they have placed me in this position as part of their malicious game. There is no escape, from my fate or my curse.

- Prince Kyvan Andurth


Chapter 1: Darkness Rising

The human girl wiped a grubby hand across her tear-stained cheeks. The moisture only deepened the color of her eyes, a swirl of a clear blue sky swallowed up into the midnight heavens of her large black pupils. Even at eleven years old, those eyes cut through the grime and the grief on her crumpled features.

The young man beside her spoke with quiet determination. "Please listen, Melina. I pledge to you on everything I am that I will come back to get you."

He understood her trepidation. Nothing in her life so far led her to believe in the words — or the actions — of others. He clutched her slender shoulders, masking his wince at the bony prominences of her emaciated, malnourished frame under the weight of his fingers.

"Wh... when... will you come back, Bleiz?"

"I don't know—"

"I won't let you go!" she cried out.

Bleiz rushed to hush her cry, peering over his shoulder at the slumped form of their drunken father, snoring only a short distance away.

"When I have a house for us, one where you can grow all the trees and flowers you want, I will return for you, I will. OK?"

With a sniffle, she rubbed her eyes again, her thoughts for a moment captured by the hopeful future Bleiz described. It was a shared dream that lived in stark contrast to the nightmare of filth and decay that was her reality.

"Swear on it?"

Holding up her little digit to him, she waited for him to respond. While glancing down, he hooked his pinky finger on hers, sealing his oath to her.

"I promise, Mel."

###


Sir Casimir Armond walked upright with his broad shoulders rolled back, the torches perched in their sconces reflecting small flickers of light against his black glinting armor. His right palm rested against the hilt of his broadsword that lay strapped to his hip. His gray eyes narrowed forward as he stepped through the labyrinth that was Castle Haerton. Here, the king of Etias, the Reaper, lived with his family and closest allies.

The human knight glanced at the diminutive figure that strode alongside him. He could tell judging by her facial expression that Aneira was growing increasingly agitated the closer they approached the bedroom door of Astiroth. Her deep orange dress swirled around her heels with every step she took. Her large prayer beads resting on her neck caught the colors of the torches. In the center of the largest prayer bead was a rich emerald in the shape of a tear-drop, the faucets within the precious stone lighting fires in its depths.

"You need not be here if you're uncomfortable," said Casimir as he lifted his gaze forward again.

"I won't leave you alone to speak with that barbarian," Aneira replied pointedly as she pushed her light blond hair out of her green eyes. Her vision thinned at the approaching door.

"I am not sure if there is much you could do if he attacked."

"I'm more capable than you give me credit for, Sir Casimir."

He conceded her point with a nod as they stopped before the door. Casimir raised a gauntlet covered hand to rap his knuckles against the wooden frame.

###


Draped over the window hung a pair of burgundy curtains. Stretching to their whole length, they swayed and brushed the floor as a gentle breeze moved in through the open window. Beams of dawn flowed into the darkened place, cascading across the rolls of parchment scattered over the desk that rested nearby.

A man lay asleep against the wooden surface of the counter, his face buried in his arms. His dark gray skin blended against his ruffled, shoulder-length black hair. The sunlight crept over his face, disrupting his sleep as he grunted in annoyance. Slowly, his eyes opened, revealing the solid inky blackness behind his eyelids. He growled at the sunlight again as he shifted to sit up, his back stiff from sleeping in the awkward position most of the night.

He glanced down at the various sketches of Castle Haerton's escape channels before him. His foggy brain cleared from fatigue as he smiled down at the parchment.

It would quickly be time for him to leave this wretched castle behind and begin his journey to real power. For months, the man had been planning this escape to travel to the mysterious regions of the west - the lands where the Death Daemon resided. He was only missing one thing, one piece of the puzzle before he may leave the Reaper's side.

The Tome of Death.

A knock on the door broke him from his concentration as he frowned at the entrance to his chamber. Moving fast, he snatched up the rolls of parchment to place them out of sight from any who may enter. When he pulled open the door, he was unsurprised to find Sir Casimir standing before him. He had to suppress a scowl as he stood up straight.

"Yes... Sir?" the gray-skinned man inquired, unintentionally allowing a tone of anger escape in his words.

"Astiroth. The king demands an audience with you. Now," replied Casimir, his rich voice distinct and firm. The knight's grip lingered on the hilt of his sword, his grasp relaxed to exhibit no signs of a threat.

"And may I ask the reason?" Astiroth questioned with a lifted brow.

"I know not. Come," said Casimir as he stepped back to allow accommodation for Astiroth to walk out into the corridor.
Noticing another being before him, Astiroth turned his black eyes to the woman that stood beside the knight. The corner of his lips twitched as he caught the sight of Aneira. The qheilae's eyes narrowed in an unmistakable warning to Astiroth. She maintained her silence, her full lips a thin line from the tightness of her clenched jaw. How she hated this man and everything he represented; his lack of morals, formal etiquette, and cockiness racked at her core.

"Will she be joining us?" asked Astiroth, purposefully not granting Aneira any consideration by giving her an appropriate title. Astiroth knew well Aneira's distaste for him, which only drove him to toy with her further. It amused him every time he looked at those green eyes burn ablaze at his appearance. He buried his snicker at her as he gestured back to his captain.

"I suggest you watch how you address Lady Aneira, Astiroth," Casimir said.

Astiroth bowed in apology before retreating to his chamber to dawn his armor of the royal guard. Unbeknownst to the duo, Astiroth slipped a few pieces of parchment he had hidden before into a pouch on his hip. Though he did not know the reason for being summoned by the king, his senses told him he should prepare for this to be the last time he entered this room. He returned a moment later before Casimir, gesturing for them to lead the way.

Soon, the three entered the throne room. Tremendous braziers attached to one part of each of the twelve onyx columns lit up the lower levels of the throne hall, and their light covered the area in a warm radiance. The marble rock of the embowed ceiling danced in the flickering luminescence while memorials peered upon the mosaic floor.

An ebony rug ran in a circle around the radius of the chamber, with two paths at the throne and the main entrance, while guiding banners with embellished crowns hung from the walls. Between each flag stood a tall candle, a few of them lit and illuminated the depictions of heroes and legends above them. Veils covered stained glass windows of mesmerizing mosaics mimicking the same dusky color as the flags. Burnished corners and fancy tassels adorned the draperies.

A grand throne of obsidian sat at the center of a small platform, adjoined by two similar, but less ornate seats for those closest to the royal highness, one on either position of the more massive chair of authority. Layered engravings coated the chair, emphasizing the great textures of the obsidian stone. Fixed on the broad backside was a form of a gigantic skeletal dragon, its wings outstretched as if shielding the Reaper. Deep rubies replaced the sockets where the eyes should be.

Seated in the chair was a shrouded specter, dressed in long, pitch-black robes that concealed his full outline. His visage was overshadowed by a large hood, but two sharp red points of light glowered from underneath the shadow the cowl cast. An arm rested on each armrest, exposing the white-bone of his skeleton hands poking out from beneath the sleeves of his garments.

Astiroth approached the throne, bending on one knee to bow in respect. Though irritated by the summoning, Astiroth knew better than to disobey the Reaper. The old lich was of the few creatures in the realms that Astiroth admitted could destroy him with ease.

To obtain such authority was Astiroth's deepest desire. Every waking minute, the man craved power over the other pathetic weaklings in Etias. There was never enough for him; his lust for control unceasing. However, Astiroth hid this while in the Reaper's castle. He forced his deranged ideologies to the most posterior part of his mind to turn on the facade of 'weakness.'

"My Lord," he recited in greeting just as he had for years. He silently prayed for the day he would not have to utter it again.

The Reaper's gaze bore into the dark gray skinned individual, scrutinizing him. Aneira always felt the eyes of the king could seep into one's thoughts. Both her and Casimir stayed behind some ways, but they bent in formal reverence.

"Rise," ordered the Reaper. Astiroth stood from his bow, lingering his view below the hood of the Reaper. He had seen firsthand what happens when one peers into that being's eyes. He preferred not to be another statistic to that deadly glance.

The king leaned back further into his chair, placing the tips of his bone fingers together in contemplation. "There are an increasing number of reports of material containing information about this castle being taken."
The knight and lady glanced at each other from the corner of their eyes before looking back at the Reaper and Astiroth.

"Several witnesses report noting a man snooping throughout the escape tunnels the past few nights. Some have placed you as the individual they observed," the king went on, his gleaming orbs never leaving Astiroth.
Astiroth's posture relaxed as he listened to the Reaper's remarks, realizing he was a suspect.

"I do not know what these people could be referring to, Your Majesty. Perhaps they are mistaken? Care for me to 'interrogate' these witnesses?"

The man purposefully insinuated to his barbaric interrogation techniques, which left most witnesses maimed or dead. However, there was no fooling this old shayde, Astiroth knew. He recognized that the monarch saw through his forefront of ignorance.

There was a long pause before the king spoke again, "Sir Casimir, search Astiroth."
Casimir looked startled by this request but did not question it as he walked behind Astiroth, commanding him to hold his limbs up as he searched the many pockets of his armor. Astiroth did not move, his hands in the air as he continued to stare at the Reaper unblinkingly.

"Descriptions of the underground roots, Your Majesty," replied Casimir, holding up the parchment he found in Astiroth's pocket. "And multiple maps attempting to locate a... hiding place, of some sort."

The Reaper's eyes seemed to narrow down at Astiroth. The gray-skinned man smirked, the sneer only growing broader as the king ordered, "Sir Casimir, arrest Astiroth."

Aneira appeared perplexed by this as she drew her staff from the strap on her back. She positioned it at Astiroth, a dangerous green glow omitting from the wooden tip.

Astiroth's emotionless mask cracked, his eyes widening with fury. His nostrils flared as he cried up at the king, "You should not meddle in things that are none of your affair, Your Majesty!"

His voice echoed in the hallway as his hands came out to his sides, the ground splitting beneath him as two long vines of stone snaked their path up into his grasp. Stony spikes appeared in a circular formation around him in defense, forcing Casimir away.

"I sought your guidance, to bask in your strength, hoping to taste it for myself. I played the role of the loyal guard dutifully, yet your training never surmounted to more than a mere pittance," his snarl turned into a perverse smile. "Now I will solicit a being even more powerful than you. Unlike you, she will grant me the capacity I seek!"

The Reaper's flaming eyes narrowed as he rose, lifting his right palm as his scythe appeared in his grip in a wisp of smoke. The weapon itself towered over him two feet; its sizable, curved, smooth blade crafted of titanium. The edge was secured at the top of a long unadorned shaft made of obsidian. There was a constant shifting of swirling mist inside the pole as if the weapon incarcerated the souls the Reaper took within it.

"You are too weak to achieve legitimate power, Astiroth. And you will suffer for your crimes against the throne."

Astiroth snarled at the Reaper's comments, his grasp tightening as if he were to lunge towards the lich. Aneira's long pointed ears perked at the noise of the door behind them being thrown wide. She whirled her head around to look at a young black-haired boy, only fourteen winters of age, rush into the throne room. He fell to a skidding stop as his pupilless blue eyes widened at the sight of the broken marble flooring and the cruel whips in Astiroth's grasp.

"Prince Kyvan, you must go!" Aneira shouted at him.

Aneira's shouts of retreat caught Astiroth's attention, his rage dissipating as a sadistic grin spread across his face. He whipped his wild gaze to study the young boy, examining the distance between him and the adolescent. Astiroth turned his eyes back to the Reaper as he smirked.

"You could have avoided this longer if you had stayed away from my business. No matter."

A soft chuckle rippled from his throat as he raised his fists, still grasping the vines between his fingers. With remarkable speed, the stone whips flew backward to coil around Aneira and Casimir's ankles. Slate thorns sunk into their flesh as Astiroth flung his arms forward to jerk their footing out from under them.

They grunted when they collided with the solid floor below them, their skulls bouncing off the marble. Casimir's vision filled with white spots as he attempted to regain his footing. It had knocked Aneira unconscious, her staff a few yards aside from her limp form.

The gray-skinned man swung, darting for the young boy as both whips returned to his grip. He hurled one at the prince, wrapping him in it as thorns pushed against the lad's torso. The sturdy stone rope pinned his arms to his sides, preventing escape.

"Let go of me!" the prince cried as he struggled against his bindings.

"Do as I say, or I will cut the youth's life drastically short," Astiroth roared as he remained behind Prince Kyvan, his long-clawed fingers twisting in the prince's fine black hair. The man sneered up at the Reaper, "If anyone takes another step, I will paint this entire throne room with his blood."

Kyvan continued to thrash, crying out for his grandfather's help. The temperature of the area turned to an icy coldness as rage burned in the king's beady red eyes. Casimir got to one knee, his now visible breath blocking his vision as his skull throbbed.

"Release him at once!" the Reaper roared, an uncharacteristic angry timbre in his voice.

"You're not in charge, you rotted pile of bones... I am!" Astiroth tugged on the handle of the lash wrapped around the teenager's frame, causing the thorns to dig deeper into his flesh. "You will give me the Tome of Death you have in your possession, or you will observe your precious grandson perish."

Astiroth's smirk remained stretched across his thin lips. His black eyes darted around the chamber, always vigilant to his surroundings. The Reaper's bone grip twisted further against the scythe. He could kill Astiroth. He recognized that fact. But with the proximity of the young prince to the murderous man, the old Reaper did not wish to take the chance of Kyvan being hurt or killed.

"What could you want with the tome?" the Reaper growled at him.

Astiroth shrugged nonchalantly, "That's my prerogative." He raised the youth further in front of him as if displaying him as a trophy to the Reaper. He growled, "Now show me the damn book. You're running out of time."

Astiroth's clutch tightened further on his signature whip, his stance showing his confidence. The Reaper stared hard at the crazed lunatic before he glanced towards Casimir. The knight remained on one knee but gave the Reaper a slight nod in acknowledgment. The knight knew his primary goal was to get the prince the moment an opportunity arose. The lich lifted his left hand, a heavy black book appearing in his clutch.

"Surrender the boy first," ordered the king.

"Do you take me for a simpleton, Reaper?" Astiroth scoffed. "I will free the boy when that text is in my hands and prove to be the real work. You and I both recognize that if I were to free him any sooner, you would slay me. I intend to avoid that."
Casimir shifted as if to stand. Astiroth's eyes flashed as he turned towards Casimir, barking his own charge at his former superior, "Don't test me, Knight. You realize I will slice his throat without hesitation."

The tome lifted from the Reaper's grip to hang in the air. It floated to the half-way point between the two as the hardcover opened, displaying pages written in an ancient archaic language. There were illustrations of what appeared to be a decayed dragon on several pages as they proceeded to turn by themselves.

"This is the Tome of Exos," the Reaper explained.

Astiroth loosened his grasp on the whip, the stone thorns sliding from the boy's body. He snapped his other weapon expertly to snatch the Tome of Exos out of the air. With a firm tug, the tome flew towards him. He reached up with a clawed hand to seize it by its spine.

He shoved the prince to the ground as he spun on his heel, sprinting out of the throne chamber. A blockade of stone erupted from the earth, creating a barrier between himself and the others to slow any pursuit.

Kyvan collapsed to his hands and knees, finding his breath scarce as his body trembled from adrenaline and pain. Blood streaked down his extremities from the puncture wounds left behind by the thorns. Casimir rushed to the prince, scooping him up as he whisked him away to safety. The Reaper raised his robed arms, and the castle groaned and rumbled around them.

In the corridor, the floor lurched beneath Astiroth's feet, slamming him into the opposite wall. Before he could re-orientate himself, the room inverted, smashing him against the ceiling. The roof which was now the floor to Astiroth shifted and warped as the metal twisted and wrapped around the evil man to sink him down into its depths.

Astiroth cursed under his breath as he collected himself. He snapped one whip forward, the stone length coiling around the nearest protruding wooden beam. He hauled himself ahead and out of the swallowing wall, crawling on the ceiling as the now living castle kept up its pursuit. The man grew excited to see the threshold to the high balcony come into view. Astiroth snapped the second whip once again, pulling himself along the disorienting place.

He reached his destination, throwing wide the exits. Astiroth ran to the end of the terrace before he clambered up onto the banister and leaped. His freedom was within sight now as he looked down at the ever-nearing earth.

The glint of the deadly blade came before Astiroth could dodge it. The mighty scythe of the Reaper sliced across the man's back, tearing through muscle and bone without slowing, narrowly missing Astiroth's spine. Though the old lich could not grab the man, his lethal weapon had performed its job as the flesh that surrounded Astiroth's gaping wound blackened with decay.

The force of the blade caused Astiroth to turn in mid-air to look at the lich. The poison of the necromancer's power seeped further into his organs and tissue, his flesh dying rapidly. Astiroth smiled sinisterly up at the Reaper as the ground below him warped into a considerable hole, preparing to take him. It engulfed his body, concealing him from view before it settled to its solid form once again.

The Reaper was left behind upon the porch alone, the voice of Astiroth's mocking laughter resonating in the castle.

Chapter 2: Amongst the Dead

Disembodied voices of long-forgotten souls whispered through the fog that rose from the cracks in the acidic soil of the hardened earth. Heavy air hung still, not even the faintest rustle of a bird blown in the realm of death. The sky was black, as it consistently was on this part of the world, for the sunlight never beamed on these lands of Etias. Instead, a full, blackened moon forever loomed in the perpetual night sky, cascading its evil ambiance over the always perished terrain.

Crumbled, moss-laden marble pillars stood as despairing guards on either side of the cemetery threshold. Behind the ancient wrought-iron gates stood rows of disheveled tombstones. No stone had been left untouched by the hand of time, the names of those laid to rest now long forsaken. In the cemetery's heart stood what was once a beautiful likeness of an angel. She stood erect, her features carried a serene expression. But now, the endless seasons had worn away at the rock of the sculpture's youth, leaving behind deep crevices along her form.

Despite her angel-like countenance, there was something dark emanating from the bust. In the gloomy light provided by the onyx moon, it revealed that her right hand was not one carved to represent flesh but of bone. The wings etched to protrude from the figure's back appeared rotted, torn, and bony. Blackened sockets filled the angel's skull were eyes were. The longer one gazed at the statue, the more horrific it presented.

Before this statue kneeled a silver-haired woman. Her heavy black cloak concealed her frame from view as she kept her head bent in reverence before the bust, never raising her gaze.

"I come with news, Master," she declared in the distinct daemon-tongue. Another figure moved from behind the cracked marble, stepping forward into the murky light. The second figure carried an enormous weapon in its right hand, a shaft that held a long, slim, barbed blade composed of obsidian on the top and bottom. Intricate rune patterns incised into either knife, the designs themselves omitting an eerie purplish glow.

The figure that held it was emaciated; its outline visible even through the robes that draped over its skeletal frame. It bore a low cowl over its head, its face invisible by the shadow cast.

"Speak," the thing demanded of the woman.

"Xarsunon and the dragons have agreed to the alliance," the woman answered.
The report gave the creature pause. It approached the kneeling individual, gliding over the dirt as the mist swirled around its garments, "Rise."

The woman obeyed as she stood to attention towards her master. As she picked up her head, the moonlight gleamed on her face to display her solid silver eyes, and half shadowed features, appearing as though she bore a black mask on the upper part of her visage.

"What are his contingencies, Niaris?" inquired the scythed figure, pacing through the dense gloom in reflection.

"He demands to be the General of the South and East."

The gaunt figure scoffed at the notion, waving a hand at the idea, "He is a fool to expect I will ever permit him such authority. I would never trust a dragon for such a position."

"Then what shall I inform him, Master?" she asked.

The figure paused, moving a bony finger to its chin. It planned for a long moment before shifting to glance at the silver-haired female, though Niaris could not see the figure's eyes.

"... Tell him if he wants his position, it will be by my laws. If he intends to be in my troop, then particular conditions must be met."

Faint heavy breathing, broken occasionally by slight groans caught their awareness as the scythed figure stepped back further in the shadows to remain out of sight. Niaris turned around towards the source of the noise.

Astiroth pushed his course along the gravestones, his body weakened from the strike by the Reaper. Stumbling, his eyes shifted towards Niaris as he forced his way through the graveyard.
The woman lifted a hand, a swirling form of black mist emanating between her fingers, "Halt! Who are you and what is your business here?"

Astiroth flashed his devilish grin at the sound, the presence of a woman bringing life to his wounded form, "I have come for the being they call the Death Daemon. I seek word with her with a peace offering. The legend has it she lives by this sculpture," he gestured behind the woman towards the decayed bust.

The woman's strange bright eyes narrowed, not lowering her weapon hand. Though slight in build, it was clear by her gait she was a true warrior, not someone who could be overpowered.

"Do you take me for a fool? To think a lowlife could stroll into my Master's territory and expect a greeting with open arms?" She hesitated, her senses finding something compelling on his being. "You do not address my Master until you present this item. I am the Death Daemon's ambassador, so I will conduct any business relations. What is this 'peace offering' that you speak? If this is a trick, I will see that the flesh is flayed from your bones."

Astiroth's grin diminished as he glowered at her, unaccustomed to a woman speaking to him in such a manner. However, he did not argue the point, knowing he would soon die from the wound. He gritted his teeth as he waved his hand, vines climbing from the soil, resembling a massive pile of snakes intertwined. The vines shifted to reveal the cover of the Tome of Exos to Niaris.

"I come with significant knowledge of the workings of the Reaper and his army. I can provide much to the Death Daemon," he replied before the vines wrapped back around the tome again, masking it from sight.

Niaris observed the book for a moment before turning her intense gaze back on the man, "And what could you hope to gain from providing such material?"

"Power..." Astiroth hissed before he collapsed to a knee, his legs no longer able to support his weight as the slash on his spine continued to rot. He snapped his head up, his white hair matted to his face as he scowled at the woman. "If you continue to waste my time, this wound the Reaper inflicted on me will kill me, and you will lose the tome forever."

"Hm... perhaps I should let you suffer longer," she replied as she leaned more weight onto one leg, jutting out her hip as she sneered at him. "I love to watch a man grovel."

"Niaris," a voice came from behind the statue. Niaris frowned as she peeked over her shoulder to see the dark hooded figure still looming in the shadows.

"Stop playing with your food..." the figure stated as it came out to glide across the ground, the mist swirling around its robes.

Astiroth lifted his black eyes to peer at the Death Daemon. He bent his head in respect, providing a clear view of his gruesome injury that traveled the length of his back. "I presume you are the one they call the Death Daemon?"

The hooded creature raised a withered hand, pulling its cowl to reveal a wiry white mane that tumbled along its back. One-half of its lineaments were of a woman, with thin, bow-shaped lips, pale skin, and other attractive components of an elf. But on the other side of its face, its flesh had blackened and decayed. Without it smiling, the creature's teeth and saprogenic gums were discernible in a permanent grin. Gone were the creature's eyes, leaving behind only two pinpoints of red glowing lights within the sockets.

"You presume correctly. State your business before I slay you where you stand."

Astiroth could sense the power radiating from this being, excitement burning in his coal-black eyes. He struggled to his feet, nodding towards the bundle of vines to his side that pulled aside to display the leather cover of the book once again.

"I bring this offering to you as allegiance to your cause."
The Death Daemon lifted her free hand, and the tome shifted, floating away from the vines and into her grasp. She opened the ancient book, skimming the text with her red eyes.

"Hm... impressive. How did you get this?"

"I was a member of the Reaper’s royal guard for years. The king did not agree to my philosophies, so I used the young Prince Kyvan as leverage to demand the tome," he explained. "It only furthered my opinion on the weakness of the Reaper, granting the life of an insignificant child to hold power over him. Although, he did not leave me unscathed." He shifted to display the decaying laceration on his vertebra.

The Death Daemon glanced up once and then back at the book, her bone finger running across the parchment. She appeared unbothered by the man's tale, "I understand you desire power, correct? I can offer that to you... but do not be so foolish as to suppose that this contribution will be enough. It's a good start..." the creature chuckled. "But you have a long way to go."

Astiroth's face contorted into a toothy grin as he declared, "I will serve you and do your bidding without question."

The tome closed shut with a loud bang as it disappeared in a burst of flames. The Death Daemon lowered her hand by her side as she sneered at Astiroth, "Niaris... heal him. " She spun to leave but halted as she scanned over her shoulder, "just not entirely."

Astiroth's eyebrow raised, understanding her granting him to suffer still was a method of control. The extent of power that seeped from this being was tremendous, and he dared not dispute her. He yearned for that power, even if just a taste. He turned to Niaris, flashing her a cocky smirk. Astiroth's eyes scanned her body once over before looking her in the face.

"Well? You heard her."

Niaris sneered at the man as she neared him, "One wrong move, and I'll kill you." She walked behind him as her hands glowed with purple energy. Niaris placed her palms against the wound. She sent her healing magic into his flesh, the rotting skin returning to its usual deep-gray hue. Though she healed the bones and the deep muscles, she allowed the injury to remain partially open on his skin.

Astiroth rolled his shoulders as he stood straight once more, the bones in his neck popping as he stretched his healed back.

"What brought you to the Death Daemon?" he inquired as he rounded to face her after his healing was complete.

The woman took a step back as her hands dropped back to her sides, her cloak covering her frame from view, "She is my creator," Niaris said as she stepped back around him towards the cracked angel figure. "Myself and my sisters, the other Faceless Daemons. We are Elementals."

Astiroth's eyebrow raised as he crossed his arms, following her to the sculpture, "So there are others like you? Where are they?"

"Various locations throughout the realms. I am searching for one in particular," Niaris said as she reached up to brush a growing vine from the arm of the statue. "Have you ever heard of a daemoness named Azara?"

Astiroth thought on the name for a moment before shaking his head, "No I can't say I have." A sinister light gleamed in his eyes as he continued, "Does she require punishment?"

"Yes," Niaris turned to face him, her white eyes shining from the cast of the onyx moon above them. "She has been defiant against our Master, and now she's been trying to influence the others to do the same. She has bared children against the Death Daemon's laws for us Faceless Daemons."
Astiroth stepped over to lean against the statue, his eyes never leaving her, "Why not just kill her and her children?"

Niaris gave him a pointed glance out of the corner of her eyes, "It's not that simple. We could murder the offspring... the Death Daemon prefers that. But we cannot kill Azara. She is essential to our master's plans. Azara will realize we want to rid of her children, so she has hidden them carefully."

Astiroth moved before her, his tall body dwarfing the female, "Tell me what you know. I'm confident I can track them." He smirked, tilting his head in reflection. "Or we force her out of hiding someway. Bring in someone dear to her, perhaps?"

Niaris folded her arms over her chest as she lifted an eyebrow up at him, "She's stayed hidden for so long, it would be difficult to discern who she is devoted to anymore. Unless we can track her mate..." Her voice trailed off as she pondered on that for a time.

"Do you know her mate's name? Or his potential whereabouts?"

Niaris rested a hand on her hip, "His name is Etriz. A fire daemon in the south. He is as elusive, if not more so than Azara."

"Then maybe we provide him a reason to show his face," Astiroth surmised. "Something that will force him out of hiding."

"It is rumored that he oversees a nearby village and views himself as its 'protector.' The pathetic humans believe him to be a god, even though he is nothing of the sort. Attack the village... and he'll reveal himself," Niaris smiled as she replied. "And more than likely, Azara will be in tow."

A twisted flicker of excitement lit in Astiroth's eyes as she mentioned attacking the village, "I suppose I need to make a trip to this town of his. I must prove my worth to our master." He pushed his hair out of his face. "Care to join me? I intend to make him, and those villagers, suffer."

Niaris pressed a delicate finger to her lips in reflection, "Very well, I will go. Just be sure the show is entertaining to me." A wicked smile spread across her pale face. Underneath their feet, deep beneath the dead earth's surface by the base of the broken angel statue, came the boom of slow but rhythmic knocking.

Chapter 3: Ashes of Roses

Aurae breathed in and out rhythmically, her eyes closed in concentration as she focused her core strength to hold herself upright. She was standing on her hands, her feet pointed straight up in the air during her meditation, her long black hair falling to the floor.

Kaziel strolled over to his sister, clicking his tongue as he did, "Oh the potential to ruin your meditation right now. With a single push, I could—"

"Touch me, and I will throw you off the mountain," said Aurae, her tone calm while her eyes never opened. She maintained her upside-down stance in perfect balance. Kaziel laughed, a wide toothy grin spreading across his handsome face.

"I can fly... that would make your threat an empty one, little sister."

"It's not if I clip your wings."

Kaziel paused at that final threat from his younger sibling, contemplating whether she was joking or not.

A deep, resonant voice called from behind them as a towering, well-muscled fire daemon stepped out from an alcove in the temple's side, "Kaziel, quit teasing your sister. You should follow her example and meditate."

Their father, Etriz, walked over to the pair to clap a large hand on his son's strong shoulder. He noted how tall and strapping Kaziel had grown, the boy as tall as his six-foot-five frame. Etriz and Kaziel shared the same dark-gray skin tone, though Aurae held the simmering golden eyes her father had.

Kaziel gave a shrug as he stretched out his stiff muscles, turning his gleaming red eyes to Etriz, his gaze appearing much like Azara's, "I did. I'm always one step ahead of Aurae." With a grin, he turned his head to look around the open chamber of the ancient temple. "Where's Ma?"

"Possibly hiding away from her troublesome son," said Aurae.

Kaziel smirked as he playfully pushed his sister. With the grace of a warrior, the fire daemoness tucked her legs under her and rolled to a standing position.

She shifted her golden eyes onto her brother, her visage so similar to Azara's with the black-shadowed skin over the upper half of her face, "Just you wait, Brother... you have to sleep at some point."

Etriz chuckled as he observed his daughter's quick reaction, casting a smirk at Aurae, "Impressive recovery, little one. But cease threatening your brother, even when he deserves it. You two should practice teamwork instead of badgering each other." The older male fire daemon turned his head to acknowledge his son, his smile vanishing from his face. "Your mother is up further on the mountain. She mentioned she sensed something nearby."

He turned his head, looking up the ridge toward where his wife stood, "I don't have the same sensory abilities as her, but I know what she is referring. I feel it too."

Kaziel raised an eyebrow at that, "What does she sense?"

###


High above the ancient temple where they resided, Azara stood facing the vastness of the wilderness below her. Her red eyes scanned the tops of the giant oak trees hundreds of feet below. She brushed her long black hair out of her eyes, revealing the black-shadowed portion of her face while her crimson and black cloak billowed in the wind. She recognized, as much as she wanted to deny it, that her elemental sister was near. However, the sensations were faint, so Azara knew the woman was not close to her home.

Every fiber of Azara's senses was lit with the familiar dread and apprehension that consistently came about when Niaris was close. She frowned, irritated that the Faceless Daemon of Shadow had not shown herself. But, that had never been Niaris's style; she was ever the one to keep Azara waiting in anticipation.

Off in the distance, in the nearby village's direction, a great plume of smoke steadily grew above the forest. Azara's flaming eyes narrowed in the smoke's path. She wasted no time to jump off the ledge where she stood. In a burst of fire against her back, broad dragon-like wings sprouted from her spine. She soared downward, pulling up at the last minute as her heeled boots touched the stone floor of the broken temple.

"There is smoke coming from the village," she announced, uncharacteristically urgent as she walked towards her family.

Etriz turned to her, the fiery golden ring in his eyes instantaneously flickering with flames. A fire consumed his frame, and once the blaze receded, maroon and gold armor constructed of dragon scales adorned his body. A helmet that resembled that of the top half of a dragon's head concealed his face. The rings of fire in his eyes were the only thing visible through the eyeholes of the headpiece.

"You two get inside. Do not come out under any circumstances, understood?" Etriz stated in a stern voice to his children.

"But Father—" Aurae protested but the dark glance her mother cast her silenced her tongue. Their children bowed their heads in respectful obedience, though they hesitated as they watched their parents hurry down the mountain to the village.

###


Astiroth snapped his whip forward, the great rope coiling around a village woman's waist. With a simple tug of his wrist, the whip tore through her midsection, separating her body in two halves. Streams of blood flowed around Astiroth's feet as he smiled, basking in the enveloping chaos.

An inexperienced man came speeding up the road with a short sword poised to strike Astiroth from behind. The demonic man was the quicker, his large hand wrapping around the young man's esophagus as he dug his sharp claw-like-fingers into the flesh of his tender neck. Astiroth sneered into the young man's horror-filled face.

The young man kicked and fought against Astiroth's grasp to free himself. Astiroth chuckled at his flailing before he moved his free hand, gripping the back of the man's skull to hold him in place as he tore the human's throat out. He dropped the man's body to the ground, listening to his victim gurgle and choke on his own blood. Astiroth turned his eyes forward, scanning the square for another victim.

"Where is your so-called savior?" Astiroth howled.

He made his way down the village street until he stood at the edge of the town. Astiroth wiped the blood from his face, his black eyes staring out into the neighboring forest. Etriz broke through the woods in a rush, stopping in his tracks at the sight of the fire that had overrun the village. His burning eyes grew more intense as he caught sight of Astiroth, standing nonchalantly at the end of the burning town.

Azara stopped beside her husband, her crimson eyes wide at the horrific sight before them. The iron-rich smell of blood violated her senses. She snarled as she raised her hands, about to extinguish the flames on the buildings when the form of a lean woman with silver hair stepping out from behind one burning home stopped her in her tracks.

Niaris looked at Azara with her gleaming white eyes, a wicked smile plastered on her face as she tossed the body of her most recent victim off to the side. Blood coated the Faceless Daemon of Shadow from head to toe, the thick, sticky substance nearly making her unrecognizable.

"Well, well, well... if it isn't my betraying wench of a sister," Niaris hissed between her fangs, her voice sickly sweet and taunting. "I've been seeking you a long time, Azara. Mother says it's time to come home."

Astiroth looked at the armor-clad dragon man in front of him, cocking an eyebrow in amusement. He gestured towards Etriz as he chatted to Niaris, "Is this him? He looks ridiculous in that get-up. I'll tear him apart, just as I did his precious village." His baleful gaze shifted over to Azara, "And this must be the beautiful Azara. The gods must be smiling upon me favorably today."

A growl resounded in Etriz's throat as he plodded towards them. Despite his rage, his warrior-instincts refused to let his anger cloud his reasoning. He could tell these two were dangerous and needed to be handled carefully. Astiroth's grasp tightened on his whips as he watched Etriz move towards him and Niaris.

"Hmm..." Niaris purred, leaning on one hip as she continued to stare at the Faceless Daemon of Fire, speaking to Astiroth. "Do what you wish to the male. I care nothing for him. Azara we must keep alive... even if only barely."

Astiroth nodded in understanding as he smirked back at the fire daemon. In the flicker of an eye, Niaris's corporeal form dissipated, leaving behind a shadowed being. The figure launched itself at Azara, colliding with her midsection and shooting them both into the enormous trees behind them. The sheer force of the charge caused the dense oak trees they crashed into to splinter and tumble with a resounding boom.

Astiroth charged forward as he cracked his whip at Etriz, aiming for the man's ankles. Etriz growled, the noise echoing in his helmet like the bellowing of a dragon. Astiroth underestimated the large man's speed, Etriz avoiding the stone whip with ease. Flames engulfed Etriz's fist as he stalked towards his prey. Astiroth sneered in frustration as he sent the other switch forward, this time aiming higher at Etriz's neck.

Etriz's hand snatched the lash in the air before it hit his nape. The vine sprung to life, slithering around his grip like a snake and holding fast to his skin. Astiroth yanked back hard, pulling Etriz off his feet into the air, sending him flying towards Astiroth.

As Etriz flew towards him, Astiroth pulled his hand back, ready to strike Etriz mid-flight. Just as he started his motion forward to pummel the man into the ground, Etriz swung his armored foot to collide with the side of Astiroth's face. He sent Astiroth flying away from the village, his body tumbling along the ground.

Etriz glanced back at his wife and the vile woman attacking her. In their struggle, Azara freed herself from the Shadow Daemon's grasp, rolling them over in the air as she slammed Niaris into the ground. The earth shook violently as they crashed, a crater left where they landed.

Niaris lifted a flexible leg between them, thrusting a solid kick into the middle of Azara's chest, sending her flying backward. The Faceless Daemon of Fire collided with the ground but stood back up a moment later, ignoring the sharp pain in her ribs with every breath she took. Niaris flew for Azara, extending her now visible raven-like-wings out wide at her sides. Ebony flames licked at her clenched fist as she sent it flying at Azara's face who ducked low to dodge the attack.

Azara sent her own strike of burning flames towards Niaris's midsection. The Faceless Daemon of Shadow dodged and shot higher in retreat from the assault. Azara did not relent, her crimson eyes smoldering with fury as she opened her mouth in a scream of aggression, built up energy materializing into a fire as it erupted from her mouth. Niaris blocked the blast with her wings, and although the attack wounded her, it did not knock her out of the sky.

Azara kicked off the ground, sending her soaring towards her enemy as her scaly wings spread wide. As the smoke cleared around Niaris, a bolt of blackness supercharged Azara once again. She had no chance to get out of the way. The wind left her lungs in a gasp as Niaris collided with her, forcing her body downward at neck-breaking speeds. It was Azara's supernatural power that prevented her bones from shattering under Niaris's charge when they smashed into a large boulder. Cracks ran up the rock, a dent left where Azara's body struck.

Dazed, Azara tried to open her eyes when Niaris's hand grabbed her by the throat. She hoisted Azara high in the air with ease, her other-worldly strength apparent in her vice-like grasp. Niaris's silver eyes glared up at Azara as she squeezed the life out of her. Azara's hands reached up to grab the other daemoness's arms in an attempt to escape her grasp.

When Azara's hands touched Niaris's skin, the woman's flesh sizzled and popped as smoke ascended. The stink of charred flesh wafted into the air. Niaris howled in agony as she released Azara and fell backward, clutching her burned arm.

"You little wench!" Niaris hissed with pure loathing as she swung her seething gaze back on Azara who was now on her feet once more.

Etriz's shoulder collided with Niaris's back, catching her off guard. He sent her soaring to the side, her body skidding across the ground in a heap. He spun back around to meet his other opponent, not wanting to let them regain the upper hand. As he turned, Astiroth flung his palms upward towards the sky. Under Etriz's feet, the ground rumbled as two large rock slabs raised on either position of him. They crashed together to crush the warrior between them.

Etriz knew he was not quick enough to elude this trap as he used his mighty power to hold the plates at bay. Astiroth smirked as he charged toward Etriz, laughing maniacally as he held a sword made of sharpened stone gripped in his fist.

A dense, flame-engulfed missile collided with Astiroth hard from the side, sending the crazed man careening off his course. Kaziel, fires still covering his frame, slammed Astiroth into the ground to keep him aside from his father.

Azara, preparing to attack Niaris, looked towards her son with wide eyes, "Kaziel!"

Distracted, she did not note the blackened blade Niaris summoned as she sprinted towards her. Azara's eyes widened in shock as the knife slipped through her abdominal wall with efficiency. Stunned by the searing pain coursing through her, her glowing eyes remained full as blood seeped from between her parted lips.

"You will face our Master for the crimes you have committed against her," Niaris hissed in Azara's ear. Niaris twisted the sword further, not only to deepen the pain of her victim but also to reveal a ruby embedded within the hilt. Azara's body turned into flames, the fires licking at the knife before being sucked into the gem. Niaris sneered down at it, a glow emanating from the precious stone.

Astiroth hit the ground hard, creating a small indention into the earth. The hit stunned him for a second, causing his influence on the stone slabs to stop, their force easing against Etriz's arms. The fire daemon pushed the plates away from him, whirling about just in time to witness the blade take his bride.

"No!" he roared as he charged towards Niaris, his judgment clouded by his sole focus on the silvery wench that had Azara. Niaris heard the bellow of denial from the male fire daemon, shifting to see him charge towards her. She laughed at him before she raised a hand, snapping her fingers and with a blink of an eye, she disappeared from view.

Etriz paced around the spot Azara had stood, growling in desperation as he looked for some sign that the two were still close by. Astiroth stood, looking at Kaziel with an expression of fury.

"You will regret that, foolish boy!"

Astiroth threw his whip at Kaziel's neck, the stone vine wrapping around it and squeezing tight. Kaziel roared as he struggled against the vine collar, thrashing his body around. Before Astiroth could pull, however, two slender hands reached from behind him to sink her nails into his flesh. Aurae, her palms as hot as iron in a blacksmith's forge, growled as smoke wafted from Astiroth's face, his skin bubbling and hissing beneath her grip.

Astiroth roared as he drove his whole body backward, slamming her into a tree behind them. The tree cracked under their weight. Astiroth spun around to grab her throat, yanking her forward slightly and smashing her again into the tree trunk. Aurae's mind was in a daze as her vision doubled and blurred, unable to concentrate on what was happening before her.
Astiroth's lips curled into a tantalizing grin as he leered at her. Astiroth leaned forward, his face inches from hers as he inhaled deeply through his nose to take in her aura. He let out a slow, contented sigh.

"I have your scent now. I will make you pay for scarring my face..."

Astiroth lifted his eyes as he noticed her enraged father storming their way. Etriz launched himself at the silver-haired devil holding his daughter. Before he could strike, Astiroth sunk into the ground, dissolving from sight. Etriz wrapped his arms around his daughter in protection, peering back at his boy to ensure he was alright. His armor dissipated in wafts of vapor from his body as he held Aurae, tears of rage welling up in his golden eyes. His vision did not leave the spot where his spouse had stood only moments prior.

Young and inexperienced, Aurae trembled in her father's arms, though she shed no tears. She knew just from the look on Astiroth's face he meant every word of his threat. Kaziel, enraged, stormed about the clearing, roaring aloud to no one for the 'cowards' to come to face him. The younger male fire daemon turned to his father, his red eyes burning.

"We have to find her!"

Etriz shook his head as he continued to hold his daughter, "No. You two need to get back to the temple and stay out of sight. Your mother would not wish you to get involved in this. I will search for her."

"You saw what those two could do, Father!" Kaziel argued, his fists clenched by his side. "You see what they're capable of. There is no way you can take them on your own!"

Etriz let go of Aurae only to put his hand on the back of his son's head, pressing their foreheads together to calm the fiery young man, "I know that, my son. But I cannot risk losing you or your sister. There is a reason your mother had you hidden in the temple to train with the monks. She did it to protect you from something more powerful than her and I combined."

Aurae spoke up before her brother could protest further, "Then what are we to do? What are you to do? Papa, you cannot go after her alone. It would be a suicide mission."

Kaziel agreed with his sister, pulling his head back to nod, "If this group is as powerful as you say, then we would lose not only our mother but you."

Etriz stood there for a moment, the flames in his eyes dancing from a gentle simmer to a wild blaze and back again as he thought long and hard of what his next move would be.

"I will need to seek guidance with Krextia. She above all others will know what to do." He looked between both his children, observing the appearance of their mother in either of them, "My greatest concern is neither of you is safe out in the realms, not even in the temple."

"Krextia knows these people just as well as Mama. She will know how to protect us from them," Aurae said, her golden eyes lightening a little at the recall of their aunt, the Faceless Daemon of Wind.

Etriz nodded his head at his daughter before turning to walk back up the mountain to the temple, "I agree, little one. Let us make haste."

The children followed him, both glancing once behind their shoulders at the destroyed village they left behind.

Chapter 4: Planning a Coup

Azara groaned as Niaris sent a sharp kick into her side, sprawling the daemoness into the cold dirt. Azara struggled to get back onto all fours, a chain around her neck glinting in the light of the black moon. Niaris snickered down at her sister, approaching her to grab a fist full of her black hair, painfully pulling back Azara's head to look down at her.

"Not so high and mighty without your powers, are you?" the Shadow Daemoness hissed.

"Enough, Niaris," came the Death Daemon's voice as she appeared in the fog.

Niaris turned to glance at their master before letting Azara go, giving one last kick to her prone form as she did. She stepped back from Azara, allowing the Death Daemon to step closer to the injured Faceless Daemon of Fire.

"You have caused me a great amount of grief," said the Death Daemon, her piercing red eyes glaring down at Azara. "First you betray me... followed closely by having offspring. I look forward to destroying those children of yours before your eyes."

Azara gave a weak glare at her old master, having propped herself up on all fours, "You'll get your hands on them... over my cold dead body."

"Is that a challenge?" the Death Daemon's permanent grin widened at her.

Astiroth chuckled as he stood to the side, watching them, "I think it is, Master." He smirked, staring at Azara, his stark black eyes like that of a mad-man, "I have your daughter's scent. Such a sweet little thing... I wonder how long she would last compared to the others?" Astiroth shifted down to Azara's height to get at eye level with her. "She can't escape me once I have her scent. I pride myself in tracking down my prey."

Azara lifted her gaze to the evil man as she gave a weak but confident smirk, "If you were ever foolish enough to lay your filthy hands on my daughter... I can assure you, you will suffer. And not in any pleasurable way as I know someone as deranged as you would enjoy."

"We will see about that, but I promise you even if that were the case, I will scar her before that happens. She can never step outside again from the fear and pain I will cause her. Oh, and that other cocky little brat of yours... I want his skin as my throw rug. Perhaps that along with your mate's head mounted on my wall."

Azara's eyes did not express emotion, her smirk remaining stretched on her lips. She spat in his face, showing no fear of the consequences.

Astiroth snarled as he instinctively swung a hand forward, his sharp fingers striking her across the face to send her sprawled onto the ground. He stood up, kicking into her abdomen. He wiped the spit from his face, pulling his hand back as his whip formed in his grasp, preparing to strike her again.

"Whore! I'll show you scarred!"

"Enough," the Death Daemon growled at him warningly, her red eyes staring at him. Her tone showed she would not warn him again if he disobeyed her. She looked back at Azara, waving a hand outward as the daemoness's body vanished into flames, retreating into the gem on the hilt of the dagger which now rested against the Death Daemon's hip.

"I hate that female as much as ever," said Niaris casually as she examined her fingernails.
Astiroth seethed but knew better than to disobey the one person who could make him more powerful. He let the whip fall to the ground as it slithered into a crack. He turned to Niaris and the Death Daemon, closing his eyes for a moment to collect his enraged thoughts.

"Master, I would like to request Azara's daughter be mine to annihilate. I want to teach the wench a lesson for scarring my face the way she did."

The Death Daemon turned her gaze to look at him, "Very well. You may have the daughter. But not now. The family will be on alert, and no doubt will have received aid to find Azara."

Niaris walked over to sit on a nearby tombstone as she looked at them both, "What now, then?"

"We will continue our negotiations with Xarsunon," replied their master. "And grow our army until we are ready to strike the throne."

Astiroth nodded as sick fantasies ran through his thoughts, folding his arms over his chest. The dangerous man still could not shake off that two children had nearly overwhelmed him. His expression went sour as he glared at the ground, his hands clenching his arms.

"I see you have something on your mind?" The Death Daemon observed of Astiroth.

Astiroth lifted his gaze to look at her, "Those two children... they overpowered me. How could they accomplish such a thing against me? I am never caught by surprise."

Niaris spoke up, speaking in a mocking tone to Astiroth, "Until now, that is. That is because they are the offspring of two powerful beings. Two sources of power mating will bring forth a child of great strength. That's why they could overpower you."

Astiroth scowled at Niaris, but his eyes flickered as an idea came across his thoughts. He stared hard at the female, his scowl turning into a wide grin.

"Yes. That's it..." His eyes scanned her up and down, studying her womanly curves.

The Faceless Daemoness folded her arms over her chest as she cocked an eyebrow at his expression, "What is that look for?"

Astiroth stepped closer to her as he spoke, the tone of his voice lowering to one of seduction, "Two beings of great power creating an offspring. Imagine an offspring created from us? The power that child would hold."

Niaris scowled at first, scoffing at the notion before she paused when the Death Daemon spoke.

"You are suggesting you mate with Niaris to bring forth a child?" The Death Daemon did not seem dismissive at the idea, but contemplative as she stared at the two.

Astiroth never removed his gaze from Niaris as he answered, "Yes, Master. Imagine the power that a child would hold with three elements under their control. Fire, earth..." His eyes narrowed intensely at Niaris as he added, "And shadows. That child would have power the likes of which the world has never seen."

The Death Daemon seemed to pause at this, mulling the idea over, "Perhaps that would work... a secret weapon. Azara's children would never fight for our cause, but one that is created to destroy from birth..." Her voice trailed off as a plan brewed in her mind.

"I do not want to care for some brat," Niaris snapped, unhappy at the prospect.

Astiroth nodded his head, sliding his tongue across his teeth, "I would keep him here and train him until he is ready to do your bidding, Master."

A stone slab shot up from the ground behind Niaris. Astiroth placed his hand beside her head, his eyes still boring into hers. Niaris cocked an eyebrow at him as she leaned back at the now appeared stone behind her. She did not seem unhappy at a liaison with Astiroth but bearing a child still did not seem pleasing.

"I agree," said the Death Daemon, catching Niaris off guard. "Just as Azara birthed two children of great power, you would bear an even stronger offspring. And we would raise him to use his might, unlike her brats."

The Death Daemon chuckled at Niaris's look of annoyance, "Come now, Niaris. You will enjoy this." Their master lifted her hand, disappearing into the fog. Astiroth smirked as he reached down, yanking Niaris's hands up and pinning them against the stone above her head.

"Let us begin. We have a world-conqueror to create," Astiroth hissed lustfully.

Niaris's silver eyes flashed before she purred, lifting one leg to wrap around his waist, drawing him closer to her, "Just as before, you better keep me entertained."

###


Krextia moved back from behind the bedroom curtain where she helped tuck the fire daemon children to bed, returning to the small living room. She looked over at Etriz with sympathy in her glowing white eyes as he sat before the fire that was lit in the mantel.

Krextia pushed her braided blond hair over the front of her right shoulder as she stepped to gather the tea she had been crafting before the fire daemon family arrived at her home. She walked over to sit beside her friend.

"Everything will be all right. Azara is strong and stubborn... she has dealt with them before. She will not let the likes of them defeat her," she said comfortingly to the fire daemon, scrutinizing his expression. Etriz sighed heavily, placing his face into his hands, the weight of defeat upon his broad shoulders.

"I know she is, but I failed... Not only did I not keep the village and its people safe, but I also failed to protect my family from harm." He lifted his head, staring deep into the fire as if expecting it to offer him a solution to rid himself of the guilt in his heart. "I cannot take on Niaris and that man by myself. The man... where did he come from? Who is he? Azara never mentioned such a being before."

Etriz turned his head, looking at Krextia with exhaustion embedded in his gaze. He refused to sleep, fearful that the dangerous duo would return and attack his family again while he slumbered. Krextia shook her head as she offered him the second cup of tea, picking up her own.

"I do not know. I have never heard of this man before. He is not a part of the Death Daemon's usual lackeys. He must be someone she found... he sounds highly dangerous, and not to be taken lightly," The Faceless Daemon of Wind looked back at the fire, the light glinting off the same shadow on the upper portion of her face just like Azara's. "She let Azara be for centuries... so why come back now? The Death Daemon must be planning something."

Etriz took the tea with a nod of thanks, leaning back into the furniture and took a slow swig. He gazed back at the fire, the blaze in his own eyes dulled with exhaustion and worry, "I know not. Nothing has been right for a while now. The Death Daemon has them and gods know what else behind her. Now she has Azara. Who knows how she will use her for her plans? I've also heard about the dragons stirring."

Krextia shifted uncomfortably before letting out a heavy sigh after taking a sip of her tea, "Unfortunately... I know how she will use Azara. It's how she controlled all of us before."
A look of worry crossed over Etriz's face, understanding the implications of Krextia's words. He had never fought against his wife before, other than the sparring matches they would frequently have.

"Before we attempt to find Azara, we need to place the children somewhere safe. They aren't ready for this... and I can't bear to lose them too."

Krextia paused for a long moment as she stared down at her tea, "The children can stay here while we figure out what to do about Azara."

Etriz’s golden eyes drifted from the fire to beside it where a dragon egg sat on a small cloth. He had carried that egg with him for years, despite it never moving or showing any signs of life inside.

Krextia looked from him to the dragon egg, "I hate to intrude on your private matters, but... why do you carry that egg?"

Etriz tore his eyes away from the egg to look back at the woman, "Hm? Oh no, that's all right."

He stood, placing his tea down as he walked over to the egg. He put his hand on the smooth surface, "When I was young, my village was ransacked, and they mortally wounded my mother. She escaped from the village with me. She stumbled across a cave with an elder dragon living inside. As her dying plea, she begged the dragon to look after me. The elder dragon abided my mother's wishes. He would speak telepathically. He cared for me and trained me."

The male fire daemon paused, thinking over the memories of his guardian, "He died of old age. Before his death, he instructed me to use his scales as a new coat of armor. Dragon scales are the strongest material in the world. After my initial state of grief, I collected his scales and found this egg buried beneath them. He mentioned nothing about it, but I have carried it and protected it every day since."

He lifted the scale-covered egg that shown an iridescent glow from the flames. Krextia listened to his tale respectively, sipping at her tea as she did. Her white eyes examined the egg, studying its features.

"And it has never moved? Nothing has hatched from it? I'd imagine that you got that years ago... long before you met Azara, correct?"

Etriz nodded, using his tunic to polish the egg from the faint dust particles that had collected on it, "I have had it for almost five-hundred years. It has never so much as twitched. But, I feel connected to it as I did the elder dragon who raised me. Therefore, I will never let it leave my side."

Krextia nodded in understanding as she stood up to get herself more tea, "You are right about the dragons. They have been stirring. I've heard of a recent dragon attack as well near to here."
Etriz carefully placed the egg back beside the fire before turning his gaze to Krextia, "Maybe that's somewhere we could start. The elder dragon taught me in many of the ways of dragons. Most I have come across I have been able to speak with."

He lifted his tunic just enough to reveal the faint marking of an abstract dragon that covered the whole right half of his body; the head starting right below his collarbone and the tail ending on his right ankle. "The elder dragon gifted me with this once he had believed I was ready. My natural fire abilities increased tenfold, and I found I could communicate with dragons in their native tongue."

Krextia examined the tattoo, tilting her head slightly at it as she sipped on her new cup of tea, "I assume then your guardian was a fire dragon? Those are the most hotheaded," She smiled at herself for her own use of words.

Etriz smirked at her humor. He lifted a hand, producing a small flame in his palm. As he did, the markings on his side shined a brilliant gold color. When he distinguished the blaze, the glow disappeared. He let his tunic fall back down again as he nodded.

"He was a fire dragon. As much as he taught me, he left me with just as many questions."

"Where would we go first, though? Find a dragon somewhere? They are difficult to track down even if you can speak Draconic."

Etriz looked to the side in thought, his eyes darting around to various points in the room. He turned to the window, gazing out into the darkness. Krextia noted some hopefulness in his gaze once more.

"It would depend entirely on what kind of dragon we discover. Some are easy to track down if you know where to look. Not all are threatening to outsiders, so long as you are careful."
The Faceless Daemon of Wind brought a finger to her chin in thought, her white eyes looking up towards the ceiling as she pondered.

"There might be a blue dragon up north from here. I've heard rumors about it being spotted, but it wasn't behaving aggressively."

He turned to her and nodded his head, "The elder dragon told me that there are few dragons like him. The calm ones were usually the eldest of their kind. He never told me where they were or much else about other dragons, but that is a start."

Etriz moved towards her as he folded his arms over his chest, "If you will accompany me, we will seek this blue dragon."

Krextia placed a hand on her hip as she looked up at him, nodding as she spoke, "Very well. But if I get eaten by any dragons, I will have the Reaper bring my spirit back to haunt you." She gave a wide grin, a characteristic trait of hers. Krextia had always been the good-humored one out of her sisters.

Etriz smiled, her humor lifting his spirits which allowed his troubled mind to ease, "You are a good friend, Krextia. I am in your debt for your help." He sat back in his chair, his body appeared relaxed with the fire back in his eyes. "My children do have a wonderful aunt."

He smiled at her before taking another swig of his tea.

"Oh, I'm well aware. Your children tell me that all the time," Krextia said with a stretch of her slender body, lifting her arms high above her head. "Do try to get some sleep tonight, alright? You won't be much use if you're exhausted." She gave another smile before she turned to disappear into her room.

Etriz nodded as Krextia departed. As much as he wanted to get some rest, he could not get himself to sleep. He spent most of the night staring into the fire and occasionally glancing at the egg by it. Fatigue finally got the best of him, forcing him to shut his eyes.

"I will see you again, my love," he murmured into the darkness of the room as he drifted off to dreams of his wife.

Chapter 5: Reborn

The following morning, Krextia brought the children to the secret haven of their mother's. Once the children settled, Krextia and Etriz began their search for the dragon north of their location, staying near high altitudes as dragon frequented mountainsides. The woman shivered from the cold wind, despite her thick, white fur coat around her shoulders.

She lifted a hand, and at her command, the wind ceased to blow around her general area. She heaved a great sigh as she continued up the mountain.

"Azara owes me for this," she grumbled to herself. "She knows I don't like the cold."

"I swear to you, Krextia, that we both are in your debt," Etriz said. He was a few paces behind her, adorning his dragon-scaled armor once more. The heat emanating from the scales prevented the bitter coldness from nipping at his skin. He carried with him the dragon egg nestled in a leather satchel on his side. They pounded forward through the snow, Etriz's yellow eyes scanning the skyline and the ridges of the mountain for any glimpse of what could be a dragon.

Krextia moved forward still until the pathway became too narrow to continue straight. It forced her to hug the stone wall as she slid her body down the narrow ridge, grumbling to herself as she glanced down to the valley far below them. She sighed as she braced the wall harder, furthering along her path.

When she turned around the corner, she noted a massive ledge that led to a large cave. She hurried along before stepping out before the mouth of the cavern, glancing around slowly with her white eyes.

"This looks big enough to fit a dragon," she whispered. Even at her low volume, her voice echoed into the cave.

Etriz moved to her side, glancing inward at the cavern. He noted the size of it was near the same as the elder dragon's that raised him.

"I believe this is it," Etriz said as he moved into the cavern. As he neared the entrance, the egg that had remained dormant for many years gave a hard jolt. Etriz stared down at it in amazement before he looked at Krextia, "I would say that is a confirmation. It has never moved until now."
Krextia raised an eyebrow at the egg before looking back up at him, "Does it know when there is a dragon nearby?"

Etriz gave a shrug, unable to provide any answers. A low grumble from inside the cavern caught their attention, turning their eyes back to the darkness of the cave. Etriz hesitated for a moment before inching his way forward to investigate. His eyes darted around the walls, keenly aware of any movement.

The low growling grew louder when, from out of the darkness, a giant blue dragon claw stepped forward, followed shortly by a mammoth-sized head. The deep rich blue of the dragon's scales shone even in the cavern's darkness. It turned its icy blue eyes on the two intruders.

"Svaust beviri lekar wer okarthel di Nyvet, ith di wer myvillion?" it asked in a deep snarl.
Etriz's eyes lifted to the top of the considerable creature before him. He understood the dragon correctly. He felt the warmth of his dragon marking on his side intensify before he responded in the common tongue.

"I am Etriz Arkan. This is my friend, Krextia. We come to seek your great wisdom, Lord Nyvet of the North."

He gave a short bow, the dragon-scale armor shining a little brighter than usual. The egg at his side gave another hard tremble. Etriz kept his attention towards Nyvet, not wanting to give the impression that something else was more important than the dangerous lizard before him.
Nyvet turned his blue eyes on the fire daemon, lowering his massive head, so they were eye level. His breath was icy cold like the mountainside he resided in.

"Why do you wear the skin of a darastrix, mortal?" the dragon sneered in the common tongue, his thin pupils narrowing into dangerous slits. Etriz felt a cold shiver run down his spine. This surprised him as his natural hot-tempered race, and the protecting dragon scales always prevented cold from reaching him. This dragon's breath was something different.

Even the egg appeared to feel the biting chill as it shivered against his hip. Etriz stood firm, unwavering as he spoke in Draconic as an attempt to show respect for the dragon, "An elder dragon in the south gifted the scales. He raised and mentored me in the ways of the darastrix, Lord Nyvet."

This seemed to catch the attention of the dragon as it moved its long snout closer to Etriz, sniffing at him and his scales.

"Yes... yes I recognize that scent," Nyvet stated in the common-tongue so Krextia could understand as he lifted his long neck up, still eying the two suspiciously. "Undry, Protector of the Forest. I have not heard of tales of him in many a century."

Etriz didn't move, allowing the mighty beast to take in his scent. He felt his heart leap at the sound of Undry's name being spoken out loud. He had not heard it in centuries, the title all but a faded memory in his mind.

"Yes, Lord. After Undry's passing, I continued protecting that same forest as he did. It has been nearly five centuries since his presence last graced the realms."

The egg gave another hard twitch, shifting its position as it slid out of Etriz's satchel. Etriz bolted to catch the egg before it could hit the ground. Nyvet stared down at the egg in the fire daemon's hands.

"Place the egg on the ground," the blue dragon commanded. Krextia glanced at Etriz before looking back up at Nyvet. Etriz hesitated for a moment before he heeded the lizard's instructions. He carefully placed the delicate egg on the ground before he took a step back.

The egg jerked and rolled as it moved towards the blue dragon. Etriz stared at it in amazement, sincerely at a loss for what was happening. Nyvet lowered his great head once again, eying the egg and its movements in quiet observation. The great dragon exhaled softly, blowing a coldness over the egg, extending his power to the contents within.

The egg shivered from the breath before it hopped several inches in the air. It continued to jolt back and forth before a loud crack echoed throughout the cavern. The egg's scaled outer shell shifted slightly, and a piece fell away. A soft noise squeaked from within the casing, followed closely by a shrill screech.

The blue dragon lifted a giant claw, lightly prodding a piece of the shell away to reveal more of the contents.

"Confn ekik, sart ir," Nyvet said out loud, reverting to the Draconic tongue.

"Come out... small one?" Etriz questioned, his heart thumping in his broad chest as he stared unblinkingly at the egg. Another shifting motion revealed a small, red and gold baby dragon. Its scales were glistening with an inner flame, even in the dim light. It screeched once more before lifting just its head, blinking open its large eyes at Nyvet.

It opened its mouth wide and breathed, sending out small sparks. Thin tufts of smoke filtered from its nostrils as it gave a high-pitched growl. Etriz's eyes widened in shock, realizing it appeared as a smaller, younger version of Undry.

"Such a sweet little one!" Krextia cooed as she clasped her hands together, her white eyes sparkling down at the baby.

Nyvet leaned his head back again to allow Etriz a full view of the tiny dragon, "Darastrixi... we do not die of old age. No. We are like the phoenix - reborn again to grow and live our lives anew. This is how we are eternal."

Etriz kneeled down next to the egg to get a closer look. The small red and gold dragon turned its head towards him as it unfurled from its balled state. It tilted its head at Etriz, omitting a slight cooing noise as it lifted its body up, stretching out its tiny wings. Etriz looked up at Nyvet, stunned and at a loss for words.

"Are you saying... this baby... is Undry born again? Why would he not tell me this, Lord Nyvet?"
The blue dragon nodded, "Yes, mortal. This tiny one is Undry born again. A hatchling must be near a fully grown darastrix to come forth." Nyvet appeared to shrug as he shifted on his giant feet. "It could be he did not want to hatch until the time was right. So, he wanted you to discover this on your own."

Etriz smiled in astonishment as he reached out for the baby dragon, "Undry, even after all these years, you still try to teach me."

The baby dragon hopped onto Etriz's hand and clambered up his arm, perching himself on the top of the fire daemon's helmet. Etriz's scaled armor appeared to have a renewed glow when the baby settled against it. Nyvet chuckled, which came out as a deep rumble that shook the ground beneath their feet. Krextia was staring at the baby dragon before turning her white eyes back up to the Lord of the North.

"My Lord... we come to request information, should you have it?"

Nyvet turned his blue eyes on the female now, his large nostrils flaring as he took in her scent, "I recognize you." His blue eyes narrowed in focus on her. "You are a creature from the Elemental Plane of Wind, are you not? But an evil monster created you... one who has sided with Xarsunon."

"Xarsunon?" Krextia questioned, a look of remembrance crossing her half-shadowed features.

"Yes..." Nyvet's scowl was evident as he lowered his head down to her level. "Xarsunon... the Undead Dragon King."

Etriz's face twisted with confusion before long forgotten memories came back to him. He turned his golden eyes back to Nyvet, "The Undead Dragon King? Undry told me of such a being long ago. If the Death Daemon and Xarsunon are in ties with each other, then already she has a mighty army by her side. But why would she want such an army and my wife?"

The baby dragon on his head perked at the mention of Undry's name. It leaned its head over the face of the mask to make eye contact with the fire daemon.

"Yes, your name is Undry," Etriz confirmed to the dragon who made a clicking noise of excitement before settling back down on his perch.

"I know not," Nyvet said with a shake of his giant head. "But if he and the evil creature, the Death Daemon, are working together... it can only mean doom for the rest of us. Xarsunon is a monstrosity to darastrix-kind." The great dragon gestured with his head to the eggshell on the ground. "Darastrixi know they will die and be reborn unless someone destroys their souls. Xarsunon was not content with such a fate. He never wanted to die or pass through the stages of rebirth. The Undead Dragon King is a lich, just as the Reaper and the Death Daemon. Unless one were to destroy the phylactery of Xarsunon, the item that contains his soul, that perversion of the darastrixi would never perish."

"Legend has it that the Undead Dragon King hid the information of the whereabouts for his phylactery in three separate tomes," said Krextia, reciting information she learned long ago as she gazed forward in thought. "The Tomes of Death."

She turned her head to look at Etriz, a look of concern etched on her pretty features, "If I know the Death Daemon, she will want those tomes first. If they are working together, she will want to be sure no one can stop Xarsunon."

Etriz stood tall as he looked back at Krextia, "Then it seems we must prepare ourselves for the upcoming war. We need to sort out who or what her intended target is. We start by searching for these Death Tomes."

He turned to Nyvet and bowed deeply, forgetting for a moment the baby dragon perched on his shoulder. The baby sprung to life, scrambling to grab onto Etriz's shoulder pauldron to prevent from falling. Etriz stood up straight and used his hand to nudge Undry securely onto his shoulder.

"Thank you, Lord Nyvet. I am forever in your debt. I pray this coming war leaves you in peace."

"Should the need arise, I will fight against Xarsunon and the Death Daemon," said Nyvet with a bow of his great head. "Good luck, to both of you."

Chapter 6: Deliverance

The now fourteen-year-old Melina woke with a shiver, a flimsy, tattered blanket her only cover against both the cold air above her and the frigid earth floor below. Small rays of sunlight streaked the dark bedroom chamber, cutting through the planks of distressed wood joined by a few remaining nails. Figures moved like shadows outside the room, fluttering the ancient drapery which acted as the only door separating her "room" from the rest of the house.

Doubling over, she cursed to herself.

Her lower belly cramped and ached again as it had on and off for the past two days. She kept the pain to herself as complaining only resulted in punishment and even more misery. A strange sensation moved between and then down her inner thighs — something thick, sticky, and wet. Furrowing her brows, she reached down to determine the source. Her heart stopped as she tugged her hand back to see blood smeared across her fingertips. Blood? Blood?! Why was she bleeding?

Her panic overcame her well-earned instinct to hide everything from her parents. She leaped to her feet, dashing past the drapery barrier and out of the room. Her eyes darted around the shabby central room until she located her brittle and bitter mother, hunched over a ritual book. Off to the right, her father slumped back in an overstuffed horsehair chair, his ever-present bottle of whiskey close at hand. Incoherent, his chin stooped down on his chest as he snored. Mel turned her attention back to her mother.

Slim and petite to the point of frailty, with angular features framed by long, stringy brown hair, there was a strong resemblance between mother and child. But where her mother's eyes sank into a dark, almost fathomless pools of deep brown, Melina's eyes shone a brilliant blue that still reflected something akin to hope.

The older woman turned to her with her usual mixture of annoyance and repulsion.

"What do you want?" she scowled.
Unsure, Melina held up her blood-laced fingers and gestured to her stained dress. A malevolent smile spread over her mother's face.

"Finally, you are a woman now!"

Rushing over, she grasped Melina's head and crushed it into her bosom in a surprising display of interest and feigned affection.

"A woman now?" Melina repeated. She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion.

"Yes, yes!" her mother squealed as she shook the confused teenager with glee.

"What's this now?" her father slurred, awoken by his wife's cheering. Taking another swig of his liquor, he stumbled to his feet, glaring at Melina with his own faded, blue eyes.

Her mother rambled on, ignoring her husband's drunken interruption, "Now you can do our Goddess Qetelias' work! Your womb is ready to accept a man's seed and prove to Her your fertility!"

"My what?!" With horror-filled eyes, Melina pulled away from her frenzied mother. The older woman's pleasure vanished as she stared back at her daughter.

"You are at the perfect age to bear children - many, many children. Your father could sell you to a few of the local tradesmen for fertilization!" At the thought, her mother became excited again, clapping her weak hands together, "You can stop being a leech and contribute something to this family. We will be rich!"

Her father snorted his agreement, "Desperate merchants will pay good coin to sleep with a nasty dog like you." With that, he raised his mug in a salute before swallowing another gulp. The girl flinched at his assessment of her worth. But it was her mother's words that rang again and again in her ears.

"Fertilization?! No, no ... I don't want children—"

A stinging slap cut off Melina's sentence before it left her lips. The stunned girl tumbled to the floor in a heap as her father laughed at her expense.

"Foolish girl," he said with a sneer.

"Defiant wench! To deny our Goddess's will?" her mother shrieked. Reaching down, she entwined her bony fingers in Melina's long hair, grabbing a fist-full as leverage to drag her across the dirt floor. Crying out, Melina reached up, clawing at her mother's hands, twisting her slight frame in a panic to free herself from her mother's relentless grasp. The older woman threw open the lid of a massive, wooden crate on the other side of the room. In a fluid motion, she lifted the small, squirming girl, tossed her inside, slammed it shut. Flat on her back in the box, knees to her chest, Melina shouted and clawed at the slatted lid. The tumblers in the lock clicked as her mother sealed it from the outside.

"Stay in there for the rest of the day and pray to Lady Qetelias for forgiveness for your blasphemous ways!" the woman's angry muffled voice demanded.

The shriek of the girl came from somewhere deep inside her, something primal, trapped and desperate. She fought against the walls of the crate as her fingernails bent, broke and bled, but to no avail. The crate then gave a quick, hard jolt as her father kicked it, bouncing her head against the side. Melina stopped her struggle and curled up in her little dungeon, crying without a sound.

###


Melina was not sure how long she was locked in that trunk. She sat in the darkness, and she could hear her mother mumbling her prayers to Lady Qetelias. Melina stared up at the dark ceiling of her prison, picturing her mother's prone form before her small statue of the goddess of fertility. A large lump swelled in Melina's throat at the thought. She hated that statue, the serene appearance of Qetelias’ features, portraying this false personification of maternal instincts.

Melina closed her eyes, nearly scoffing aloud as she pondered on the notion of the fabricated reality that was the gods and goddesses of Etias. She believed them all to be nothing more than a lie by the priests of their respective religions as a means to control fanatics such as her mother. After all, why else would the gods allow their subjects to interpret their decrees so easily? According to the doctrines of Qetelias, she was meant to be a goddess of fertility and motherly love. Yet, somehow, Melina's mother had taken those teachings and twisted them into something much darker.

Meanwhile, her father was just another mindless drone to the drink. He drank to ignore his raging lunatic of a wife, and he drank to ignore their status in life as humans. He drank to overlook the fact that he was drunk. What had Melina done in her past life to earn such a living, she wondered. Not only was she considered the weakest race of all the realms, but she was also born into a family of fanatical, narcissistic drunks who cared more about producing children than raising them.

As far as Melina was concerned, her predicament was all due to the falsehood that was Lady Qetelias. She wondered if perhaps her mother had never discovered the goddess if she would be different. Somehow, Melina doubted that. Qetelias was just an excuse for her mother's ways.
Melina sighed to herself as she settled deeper into the crate, allowing her thoughts to wonder furthermore.

###


Hours later, her mother threw open the lid of the crate without a word and released her from the temporary prison. Now lying back on the cold dirt floor of her bedchamber, Mel stared up at the shadows crossing the dark ceiling. She considered what it would cost her in mind, body, and spirit to live her mother's definition of womanhood.

A thundering crash and an anguished cry jolted her from the spiral of her thoughts. She sat up, peering around her dank surroundings with fearful eyes. More screaming rattled through the shack, pursued by the loud and deliberate footsteps nearing her room. She huddled further into the corner, making herself as small as possible.

The curtain divider flew open, and someone stepped inside. The low, evening light revealed a man covered from head to toe in fresh blood. Unable to move or to speak, Melina sat frozen in fear under the tattered blanket she used as a feeble attempt to mimic invisibility.
The bloodied figure kneeled in front of her. She inhaled the iron-rich smell that surrounded them both now. Then a familiar voice spoke.

"I told you I would be back. I would always come back for you."
Mel's eyes widened, and she dropped the feeble, fabric shield covering her face, to look into the hazel eyes of her brother, Bleiz. She took only a moment to overcome her sense that this might be a dream. She sprang into his arms, and he wrapped her secure in the strength of his warm embrace.

"Come on..."

Taller and stronger than three years ago, Bleiz was now a man. He lifted her frail frame into his strong arms, carrying her and leaving everything behind.

"What about Ma and Pa?"

He shook his head but said nothing, showing his desire for silence. Out in the conjoining room, Melina saw her father sprawled on the floor, seeped in a pool of blood, that continued to spill from several grievous stab wounds in his chest. He was dead. Her raving mother prostrated herself over his corpse, praying to her evil Goddess to spare her own soul over her husband's weakness and to destroy their murderous son.

Stomach twisting in knots, Melina turned to bury her face into the crook of her brother's neck. Their crazed mother continued to shriek accusations and insults at her son's retreating frame. Bleiz did not acknowledge her screams and never once looked back. He moved forward with Melina nestled in his arms, out past the dark forest and into a world beyond the darkness and sorrow of their childhood.

Chapter 7: Enemy of Embers

White, fluffy tufts of clouds drifted across an otherwise endless canvas of perfect blue sky. The radiant forest was woven together in a thick layer of holly, oak, and ash trees. The crowns of older, taller oaks emerged above, towering as watchful giants over the rest of the forest. Rays of light burst through their crowns, reaching a range of young saplings in the understory layer, as they struggled to take hold in the stony ground.

Creepers clung to the occasional tree, and a range of shrubs and flowers appeared along the floor, contrasting against the otherwise dark terrain. A cacophony of sounds, most belonging to bird songs, resonated through the air, forming a chaotic orchestra disrupted by the occasional cries of birds of prey.

To the untrained eye, the dark form that now moved across the vastness of this landscape could be confused with the massive shadow of one of those birds of prey. But blood-red scales, iridescent underneath the noon sun told another story. As narrowed, red eyes set within a bony, angular skull, complete with two thick, angular nostrils and a flattened nose. A thick, muscular neck ran from its head and into a rippled, bulky body that glistened with crimson scales, acting as armor plating its spine. Smooth leather covered the bottom part of the creature, colored darker than the rest of its body.

Massive wings grew from below its shoulders and ended at its pelvis. Thick leather stretched across the appendages with eerie bone structures and curved points rising from the end as giant scythes. Its tail held a razor-edged tip and covered in the same crystal skin as its body. Four massive limbs carried the immense weight of its body, each ending in a claw containing five digits, adorned with sharp talons made of grayish bone. Its size, color, and terrifying visage were unmistakable, as it circled, dipped and dived across the firmament.

In the forest floor below, a young woman nearing her nineteenth winter pushed through a thorny thicket and paused. Glancing upwards through the tall oak trees above her head, she sought a better view of the other figure hiding amongst the branches. Her protective, leather garments blended well into the green grove around her, shielding her into the scenery, save for her deep blue eyes which stood in stark contrast to the muted earth tones surrounding her. The traces of the girl she once was still lingered in Melina's eyes and thinness of her body, though now her womanly curves were noticeable.

"Do you see anything?" she called upwards, her voice swallowed by the vast array of vegetation around her.

No response. Groaning under her breath, she checked to be sure she strapped her prized bow, Aicanáro the Soul Scorcher, and matching quiver secure to her pack. She gripped a low branch and hoisted herself up into the tree. With honed skill, Melina climbed up the mighty tree until reaching the top, pushing through the leaves to break through the canopy. The fresh breeze felt pleasant against her sweaty face as she brushed strands of her long earthen-brown hair from her eyes. She glanced around, calling again,

"Bleiz?"

She squinted her eyes at the abrupt light from the exposure of the sun, considering her surroundings. From her elevated height, she observed their tiny village, SilentForest, to the southwest and not far away. She clambered back down the massive oak, landing on the grass floor with a gentle thud of her leather boots. As she straightened, a male voice startled her, forcing her to whirl around and stare into familiar hazel-colored eyes.

"Melina, where the hell did you go?"

Bleiz pulled back his cowl, uncovering his short, spiky light-brown hair. Four years her senior, Bleiz stood a half a foot taller than her now, with broad-shoulders and light scars decorating the skin over his lips and under his left eye, hard-won reminders from many years of battle.

Stubble lined his tight, well-structured jaw. His dark eyebrows sloped downward in a perpetual scowl that drew his mouth into a hard line across his face. Bleiz's eyes enclosed a bright amber color around the pupil which balanced with a ring of honey-brown. The young man's gait showed a careful, seasoned warrior.

"SilentForest is a short way from here," Melina stated, ignoring her brother's question. She gestured in the town's direction before she shifted to proceed in the predetermined location. Her older brother sighed before shaking his head, turning to follow the smaller woman. They walked in silence through the dense woodland, breaking through a clearing which opened to a patch of blue sky. Melina stopped to glance up at the stratosphere for a moment, returning to an urgent, nagging feeling that something above them demanded attention. Bleiz strode a few more paces forward before noticing she had stayed behind him. He spun on her in annoyance.

"Are you coming?"

Melina didn't reply right away. Instead, she squinted her eyes against the sun above them. After a moment, she raised a hand, gesturing for Bleiz to follow her gaze.

"Do you see it?"

Bleiz tilted his head upward, his gaze following Melina's gesture to the sky, just as a dark shadow moved the firmament. He narrowed his eyes as he stood straight. The dark shape swept closer and closer towards them, moving at a high rate of speed. Then an ear-splitting roar sounded, causing their hearts to plummet to the pits of their stomachs.

"Dragon!"

Without delay, the siblings sprinted in practiced unison through the timberland, southwest towards the village. Flames erupted behind them, licking the bark and leaves of the oaks, swallowed by mounting embers. The blaze, soon all-consuming, filled the forest with thick, smothering smoke. Melina and Bleiz tumbled out of the woods with the dragon right on their heels. Colossal red wings destroyed tree trunks with absolute ease as another deep intake of breath resulted in flames building inside its chest cavity. Roaring again, the scorching inferno erupted past a range of sharpened fangs, headed right for the fleeing pair.

Flames caught Melina's cloak, igniting the fabric. The sudden, fiery heat on her back caused her to stumble. Recovering, she performed a somersault in the dirt and in a seamless motion, unclasped her cloak and threw it free from her body. Bleiz had run ahead at first, not realizing what had happened until he came to a screeching halt, spinning around to see his sister,

"Melina!"

Melina got on her knees, facing the monstrous beast hovering menacingly above her. Without looking back, Melina reached to pull out her onyx bow Aicanáro. In a flawless motion, she pulled an arrow from the quiver, clicking the nock at the end of the arrow into the bowstring with practiced ease. Taking careful aim, she released the arrow at the dragon. The moment the missile left the string, a small fireball erupted in the sky blinding everyone nearby.

The arrow landed dead center between the dragon's eyes. It bellowed in pain, frustration, and rage as the bolt exploded in a shower of embers against its scales. Shaking its monolithic head, the beast was knocked senseless for a quick moment before it turned its enraged eyes back on the human woman. On her feet now, Melina stepped backward, firing arrow after arrow at the dragon, as bolts of fire from her arrows mixed with the reptile's flames.

Bleiz scrambled up a building spared from the fire-fight around him, his bow out and ready. Though not enchanted as his sister's weapon, his possessed its own extraordinary aim, not once missing his mark, even as the monstrous beast thrashed its body. In a frenzy, the dragon's hazardous tail swished around, crashing into a nearby cart, splintering the wood. Its tail swung back, colliding with Melina's side. She let out a cry of agony as the dagger-like-tail slashed her flank, sending her flying backward through the dirt. Bleiz's eyes widened.

"Damn!" he hissed between clenched teeth. He glanced towards Melina as she struggled to return to her feet despite her critical wound. Her bow had flown from her hands and now rested on the ground several yards from her. Bleiz could not reach his sister in time as the fierce dragon stalked towards its defenseless prey. Like a snake ready to strike, it leaned its head back, massive jaws distended to show rows of razor-sharp teeth. A deep, growling hiss rumbled...

In this commotion, it deafened the sound of pounding, approaching horse's hooves. Someone hoisted Melina up into the air, seconds before the beast snapped its mouth down on the spot where she once sat. She let out a scream of shock, plopped on a saddle. Stunned and disoriented, she looked up at the horse's rider, a man with piercing gray eyes and jet-black hair.

The mysterious rescuer wore a dark gray armor which glinted in the sunlight. Masterfully crafted layers of metal in the shape of dragon scales decorated the man's shoulders, with pointed, half covering rerebraces that sat under the shoulder plates to protect his upper arms. Vambraces shielded his lower arms with two blades attached on each outer side, sharpened for a weapon.

Two layers of the same colored metal created the breastplate, mimicking dragon scales along with the sigil of the Royal Family imprinted in the center. It covered everything from his neck downward. A rounded cuisse covered his upper legs while greaves which had a skull-shaped metal ornament piece on each outer side protected his lower extremities. On his hip rested his sheathed blade. The cross-guard had a lavish dragon tail on each side. His horse was pure white and dressed in matching glinting armor. The horse snorted as it turned around towards the dragon's eyes, coming to a trot now as the man addressed Melina,

"Are you all right?"

He did not wait for an answer. He hopped off the horse while unsheathing his blade in one swift motion. With a quick smack to the steed's rump, he sent Melina out of the fight. The injured woman supported herself against the muscled neck of the mount, one hand pressed against her heavily bleeding side. Spots danced in her vision, and her grip weakened on the mighty animal.

The dark-haired knight spun back to the fight. The dragon, undeterred by the newcomer, opened its jaw wide again to snap its mouth around the warrior. He was the quicker, sliding under its head to position himself under the more vulnerable underbelly. He stabbed his broad-sword upwards; the blade slicing through the softer tissue with ease.

Howling in pain, the dragon reared up to avoid another strike from that wicked blade. This placed the monster in perfect alignment with Bleiz's next arrow, as the pointed-tip slid deeply into the crimson of the dragon's left eye. The now half-blinded beast tried blowing fire sightlessly at its surroundings to incinerate the humans.

With the dragon's focus elsewhere, the knight wrapped his hand around one of its horns atop its head. He swung his body on top of the dragon's head, kneeling between its eyes. With two hands, he stabbed the blade into the beast's skull. Blood and brain matter coated him as the dragon shuddered beneath him. With a thunderous bang, its huge body collapsed into the dirt, dust billowing up into the air.

The man jumped off the now dead creature, wiping his sword clean on its scales. He sheathed his weapon as he turned to the surrounding destruction. With agility fitting to a ranger, Bleiz scaled the side of the building to reach the ground. Ignoring the knight, he ran past him to his injured sister who remained propped on the horse, barely conscious.

"Melina, keep your eyes open!" her brother demanded of her, forcing her to turn heavy eyes towards him.

"Please, allow me to take her to my healers. They can help her," said the knight from behind Bleiz. The younger man turned to glare at him, not at all appreciative of the offer.

"We don't need your help. I know how to take care of my sister."

The man frowned at Bleiz, sensing the unnecessary stubbornness in this one.

"Do not allow your pride to blind you from what's best for your sister's wellbeing. The healers can heal her far quicker than you can," he said. Before Bleiz could bark back, there was a loud thud. The now unconscious Melina fell from her perch upon the horse and lay motionless on the ground, her blood darkening the soil. Her brother knelt over her in shock, the fear of losing her consuming him.

Without looking back at the knight, he said in a hushed, hoarse voice, "Very well... take her to your healers."

A few yards away buried in the dirt, hidden beneath burnt debris and rubble, Melina's bow and quiver lay out of sight.

###


Twenty-two-year-old Kyvan Andurth inhaled through his nose, taking in the heavy air around him before exhaling between parched lips. His eyes remained closed throughout his short meditation, the small crackles of burning candles the only sound in his ears. He let his eyelids slide open to stare at the ritual ring set before him. He shrugged off his black robes, the servants behind him carrying them away without a word.

He was stripped to the waist, his pale skin reflecting off the torchlight that hung off sconces from the dungeon walls. His bare feet padded across the stone ground as he stepped up onto the pedestal of the necromantic ritual display. He turned his pupilless blue orbs only slightly to view a cloaked figure standing off near the shadows of the room, observing him.

Kyvan said nothing as he moved to lie flat on his back on the cold stone floor, ignoring the shivers that ran up his spine from the sudden chill that came over him. He stared up at the ceiling as he continued his meditative breathing, focusing solely on it as the cloaked figure slowly inched towards him. A white skeleton hand lifted, holding a thick black book.

"Are you ready, Prince Kyvan of Etias?" the Reaper asked.

"I am," the prince responded without hesitation.

With a slow nod, the king moved to open the large book to a specific section. He raised his free hand as it chanted in an ancient Archean language. Kyvan hissed between clenched teeth as an invisible force pushed his head further against the stone pedestal. He felt a deep pressure in his chest as his fists clenched to the point of whitening knuckles.

He tried to close his piercing blue eyes, but something forced them back open again as he let out a scream of pain. The lich raised a long blade attached to a staff - a scythe, the curled deadly tip catching the glinting torchlight. This scythe was designed differently than his own, with a second smaller blade attached to the back of the pole.

In his agony, Kyvan cracked open a blue eye to stare up at the weapon. The skeleton lowered the tip of the blade to Kyvan's forehead, and the moment the cold metal contacted his skin, his body lurched backward. His eyes turned a solid electric blue, similar shades of colored light emanating from his mouth and nose.

Wisps of blue vapor poured from his eyes and mouth, an otherworldly screech resonating from deep in his chest. The Reaper did not flinch, holding the scythe against the prince's forehead with determination. The blade began to shift in color to match the same hue that came from Kyvan's features. The blue mist swirled around the edge like a hand grabbing hold of it. Blood trickled down the prince’s forehead as the sharp edge of the scythe cut into his skin.

As quickly as it began, it ended. Kyvan's body went limp as his eyes closed when the light disappeared from them. The monarch raised the scythe up, the swirling blue light still glowing within the blade.

"Take the prince to his chambers to rest," the Reaper commanded. From the shadows, the servants stepped out to help the unconscious man, carrying him out of the chambers. The old lich watched them carry the prince away, and from beneath his hood, two piercing orbs of light could be seen burning in the darkness cast by the cowl.

###


A long oak table stretched a great expanse across the room to make sure there was enough seating for the twenty members of the Elders, the advising council for the king. Each Elder was a voted representative for the various races among the realms. They sat in their usual seating arrangements, everyone's eyes at the skeletal figure at the head of the table.

The Reaper, his burning red eyes staring out at them, leaned back in his chair and pressed the tips of his bone fingers together in contemplation.

"What do you wish to ask me?" the skeletal king asked.

"Your Highness, we must ask... Prince Kyvan? You did not choose your son, but your grandson, to succeed you as the heir. Why?"

The Reaper turned his hooded head to look to his advisers one by one though none would make direct eye contact with him.

"I have my reasons for choosing my grandson over my son to take my place on the throne. Those reasons are mine and mine alone. If I share them amongst you that will be my prerogative. Until that day comes, I expect you to accept my will without question. Is that understood?"

"Yes, my Lord," the group said in unison as they bowed their heads in respect.

"Good. Now, leave me."

Without another word, the group left the Reaper in the gathering hall alone at the head of the large table to contemplate on his thoughts. For close to an hour he sat there, his gleaming red eyes staring off into nothing as he pondered the events from earlier that day.
A soft knock on the door broke him from his concentration. He knew who it was before she entered. However, she felt the need to announce her presence, regardless.

"I apologize for disturbing you, Father," Lady Syllia, Kyvan's mother, announced as she swept into the room. Syllia married the Reaper's son many years previously through an arrangement made with a neighboring country. Though not his daughter by blood, the old lich was fond of Syllia as if she were his own. She bowed before the Reaper.

"It's quite alright, Syllia. Please, sit," the specter responded as he gestured to the seat beside him. The elegant woman obliged, sitting straight as she looked at him with a worried expression.

"I am concerned about Kyvan. Did he do well in his transition?"

He knew she would question the ritual performed earlier that day. The ritual had not been executed in hundreds of years. It was a ceremony that sealed Kyvan’s soul with his phylactery, in this case his scythe. Any mother would be worried about their child when dealing with a stressful transformation such as that.

"He did," the Reaper assured her, reaching out to pat a bone hand against hers. "No need to fret."
Syllia visibly relaxed as the tension in her shoulders released, "I'm afraid I must admit that I am still uncertain about your decision with his being the heir."

"I understand your worry," said the Reaper, not bothered by his daughter-in-law's questioning. "Kyvan is a powerful necromancer. I do not doubt his abilities to take over as king when the time is right."

"When will that time come?" Syllia asked, her hands wrung together in her lap.

"That is still yet to be seen."

The lady of the castle let out a heavy sigh as her shoulders slumped once more. She did not know if she could ever rest now that Kyvan was in the throes of his ascension.

"We must find him a wife and make sure she bears his son soon," Syllia perked at the idea.

If the Reaper had any eyebrows to raise, he would have done so at that moment.

"I would imagine that would be more stressful to your son than entering lichdom," replied the Reaper. "Let him be, Syllia. He will enter a union when it comes closer to the time of his ascension."

"No, Father... he is the only bloodline left. This needs to happen soon," said Syllia as she stood to her feet. "And before he ends up impregnating one of his whores."

The Reaper sighed and shook his hooded head, "I will leave this debate between you two." He waved a hand to dismiss her. She bowed once more and left the room.

Chapter 8: An Order from the King

Thick, red velvet curtains lined with gold hung in generous folds around a mullioned window beside a small wool bed. The warm morning sunlight filtered through Melina's thin eyelids which caused the sleeping woman to stir. With eyes still closed, her groggy thoughts came to as flitting memories of her battle with the dragon.

Melina jolted to a sitting position, her eyes wide as she whirled her head to take in her surroundings. Nothing around her appeared familiar, with the dark rustic furniture, a walnut-colored wooden floor, and high vaulted ceilings. Even the bed sheets underneath her were of fine silk, Mel realized.

The door opened which caused her to jump with surprise. The knight from before strode in the room. He looked surprised to notice her awake but smiled all the same.

"Ah, glad you awoke, my lady," said the dark-haired man, bowing before the confused woman.

"Where am I and where is Bleiz?" she questioned, wasting no time to get straight to the point. Her natural apprehension for strangers was evident to the knight. The man nodded, understanding her sense of confusion and urgency.

"Yes, your brother... Well first, please allow me to introduce myself. I am Sir Casimir Armond, Knight of the Reaper's Royal Guard. You are in Haerton Castle. Your brother is fine. He is in the throne room awaiting an audience with the king."

Slack-jawed, Melina stared dumbfounded at the royal guardsman, at a loss for words. She closed her mouth, re-opened it and closed it again. Casimir chuckled at her stunned silence.

"I brought you both here after the battle in SilentForest. Your injury needed medical attention right away. Your brother hesitated at first, but he understood the gravity of your condition. After I informed him of the fight I saw, the king demanded to speak with both you and Bleiz,"

"I'm going... To speak with the Reaper... Here in Haerton Castle?" Melina clarified, in full belief she was still dreaming or dead.

Casimir nodded in confirmation, "Correct. Now, the servants placed fresh clothes out for you," Casimir gestured to a well-ordered bundle of clothing set on the chair beside her bed. "You need to be dressed appropriately before you speak with the king. Miss Aneira, a soubrette, shall come for you."

He bowed before turning to leave, shutting the door behind him. Melina stared at it for a long moment before looking again at the pile of clothes. She took in a deep breath before sliding out of bed to get dressed.

A few moments later, she stood in front of a full-length mirror in the room's corner. Her refined gown flowed from top to bottom with a jewel neckline. The exquisite fabric covered her stomach where the continuous flow divided by a small cloth band worn around her waist.

Under the belt, the dress opened to the left to show the silk material beneath it. The linen concealed Melina's feet while the back continued a decent length behind her with a narrow-ended curve. Her sleeves were long and slim, broken up well above the elbow where thin, modest bands divided it.

The brunette never enjoyed dressing up like most women her age. She felt restricted in her ability to move freely. A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts as she turned to spot a young qheilae female in the doorway. The qheilae race was known as practitioners of magic and was believed to be darker skin cousins to surface elves. Melina had only met a few in her lifetime and seeing one now surprised her.

Straight, shoulder-length light blond hair framed a delicate-featured face while striking green eyes looked back at Melina as the woman gave a bright smile. The female was rather short, standing no taller than Melina's nose, but the human knew better than to ever be fooled by the qhealiae's minuscule stature. The woman's skin was a smooth dark brown, which contrasted against her lighter hair and eyes.

"Greetings, Miss Melina," said the woman, giving the human a polite curtsy. "I am Aneira Bevan, palace woman to Lady Syllia. Please, follow me."

Before Melina responded, Aneira turned to leave out the door. Melina paused before following her, not enjoying how cautious she had to step to make sure she didn't trip on her dress.

###


Melina stared around with stupefied eyes as she stood beside Aneira, in shock at the elegance of the throne room.

"I know. It's exquisite, isn't it?" Aneira grinned at the human's expression.
Melina noted her brother, kneeling in obedience before the seat of power. Her eyes raised from him to the being he was bowing before, and her heart leaped into her throat.

Seated in the middle throne was a shrouded specter, dressed in long, pitch-black robes that covered his entire frame. His visage was overshadowed by the large hood over his head, but two piercing red points of light glowered from underneath the shadow the cowl cast. An arm rested on each armrest, and Melina could see the white-bone of his skeleton hands poking out from beneath the sleeves of his robes.

Melina gulped as the blood drained from her face. It was him - their king, the Reaper. Her knees weakened for a moment, and it took everything she had not to let them buckle underneath her. Aneira stepping forward saved Melina from her thoughts. She followed the qheilae and kept her eyes to the ground in respect.

Before the Reaper, Aneira bowed in greeting with her head lowered and eyes closed, "My king before you are Bleiz Dawnshade and Melina Dawnshade, brother and sister. These were the humans who fought against the dragon in SilentForest."

Melina kneeled by her brother, bowing as her heart pounded in her ears. A long silence followed Aneira's introduction, and Melina could sense the Reaper's red eyes scrutinizing them both.

"You may go, Aneira," said the Reaper. His voice was gravelly and dark which enhanced the sinking plop in Melina's stomach. Aneira bowed again, turning to leave without another word as she left the siblings alone with the king.

"Rise," commanded the Reaper. The siblings stood at attention as they faced the king, waiting for him to continue. He leaned back further into his seat, placing the tips of his bone fingers together in contemplation.

"I congratulate you both on your efforts against the dragon. You have done the people of our world a great deed by killing such a beast who will not follow our laws. This isn't the first time, and it will not be the last."

Melina and Bleiz both glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.

"More reports are coming in of dragons no longer following the ordinances that were set forth by the Equinox Concordat centuries ago," the king continued, "I intend to send a small group out to investigate the reasons behind the hostility from dragons." The Reaper leaned forward, staring at them both intensely. "I want the two of you to join this expedition. Being only humans, the fact you faced the dragon is impressive. And I know of your tracking abilities. You above all, Bleiz Dawnshade." He turned his attention on Bleiz as the man shifted uneasily. Melina swallowed hard before she spoke.

"Y-Your Highness, it's such an honor to be considered for this. But we are not of any importance. I-I don't know if we would be able to provide you much aid—"

Someone interrupted Mel as the doors behind them swung open. By instinct, the two turned to see a young man walk in with a determined stride, even and quick paced. Dressed in the trappings of royalty, it was plain he was a being of high importance.

Melina did not fail to notice that the man was undeniably handsome.

He stood a tall six-foot-two and of slender build with wide-set shoulders which emphasized his tapered waist. His short, jet-black hair was brushed away from his brow which framed his pale face. His features were robust and defined with a sharp jaw, chin, and angular cheekbones. The most striking feature though was his distinct eyes. His irises were a mesmerizing ghost blue with no definable pupils. Instead, a faint circular white center where the pupil should be, containing a supernatural glow.

It took Melina a moment to realize she was gawking at the man although Bleiz noticed it from the corner of his eye. The man didn't acknowledge either of them, stepping past them to give a bow before the throne. The Reaper seemed unperturbed by the interruption.

"Grandfather, I come with news of possible leads to information regarding the recent dragon attacks," said the man. His voice was to be expected of royalty, silvery and euphonious.

"Good. I will have you brief these humans."
The man paused for a moment before turning to regard the two siblings behind him as if only now realizing they had been there. He stared at them before he turned back to his grandfather.

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me, Prince Kyvan," responded the Reaper in a calm but firm tone. "I am assigning them to the investigation. They will be your responsibility now."

"Grandfather... They are humans!" Kyvan blurted, his face twisting into utter disgust at the thought of having to be near anyone of such a race.

"Correct. And these humans defeated a dragon. There will be no further debate on this issue. It is an order."

The prince stared in shock at his king. There was nothing more he could say, and he knew it. With a huff, Kyvan snapped to attention.

"Very well. I will await their presence in the briefing room with Sir Casimir," said the prince. He gave another curt bow and spun on his heel. He brushed past the siblings, brazenly bumping shoulders with Bleiz as he did. Melina furrowed her eyebrows, not impressed by Kyvan's behavior at all. The corners of Bleiz's mouth twitch as he held his fist in place. The Reaper once again turned his intimidating gaze on the pair.

"That was my grandson, Prince Kyvan Andurth," explained the king, "He is the heir to my throne. I had assigned him to be the leader of this investigation. But, he is inexperienced in the ways of the realm outside of this castle. That is where you two will be of value. Do not disappoint me." The Reaper waved them off then as he finished, "Aneira will take you to meet with Sir Casimir and Prince Kyvan, who will inform you of the details."

The siblings nodded at their dismissal, gave the king one more bow before they turned to leave. Aneira waited for them outside the room. She led them to a small side chamber where Casimir stood over several maps on a large desk. The prince stood beside him, his hands folded behind his back as he gazed down at the parchments with half-lidded eyes. The knight lifted his head at them, standing straight while the prince didn't acknowledge their presence.

"Judging by your appearance, I can assume that His Highness informed you of your mission," said Casimir with a smile, understanding why the two appeared so displeased. "Fear not. He will compensate you both."

"Who cares about compensation? I want no part of this!" snarled Bleiz, slamming his hands on the tabletop. Melina hissed at him to stop his behavior, but Casimir raised a hand to silence her.

"You have no say in the matter," Casimir informed the hot-tempered ranger, "Should you refuse, I will charge you with treason."

The threat simmered the fuming man, but his glare did not diminish. Kyvan lifted his head to look at the two. He seemed to decline direct eye contact with anyone.

"And... who are you, exactly?"

Bleiz reached out to stop Melina from answering his sister passing him an annoyed look. It was not unusual for Bleiz to speak over her.

"Nothing but strangers from the forest that need not concern you," said Bleiz as he passed the prince a cold expression.

Kyvan scoffed and cracked a wry smirk, "Everyone in all the realms is my concern. Let me guess, judging by the looks of you two, you‘re rangers, I take it? Or should I conclude that you're nothing but bandits? Is that why you won't tell me who you are?"

"He won't tell you who we are because he's an unfriendly person," Melina answered. "Being rangers is a benefit to our being social pariahs. Unfortunately, he sometimes forgets he doesn't answer for me," she added, giving her brother a warning side glare. She glanced back towards the prince before bowing her head in reverence. "My name is Melina Dawnshade."

Kyvan gave her a nod, looking from her to Bleiz, "Are you going to tell me your name, or must I send you to the dungeons before you show respect to your future king?"

Bleiz appeared as though he was about to have another snide comment to make, but a glare from Melina made him cooperate, "Bleiz," he said curtly.

Casimir turned his attention to Melina, believing she was the more reasonable of the two.

"So, who else will be a part of this group?" asked the brunette, having accepted their fate.

"Prince Kyvan and myself. We will also have Aneira join us." He pointed to the well-dressed woman beside them, who gave a slight curtsy at her acknowledgment.

"What? A bedchamber woman? What could she possibly do to help us?" growled Bleiz.

"Aneira is well informed of the bureaucracies of the country. It is important to have a thorough understanding of the inner dynamics of the cities we go to if we need to interrogate someone. She is also an excellent potion-brewer and healer," Casimir replied with narrowed eyes, a warning to Bleiz to keep his mouth shut. Bleiz scoffed as he folded his arms over his chest.

"So, when do we leave and where are we going?" Melina asked.

"We will leave at dawn tomorrow," Casimir gestured to the maps sprawled out over the table, "My sources believe useful information could be found in E'athkadi, to the north." He placed a gloved finger on the map.

"That's where the cryo giants live. What could be there?" Aneira piped in then, leaning over to get a better look at the chart.

"The Astral Athenaeum. Their people have watched over the library's archives for over a millennium. They must have information we could use," said Casimir, staring down at the map. His gaze lifted to them again, "We will see you all at dawn tomorrow."

Chapter 9: Foretellings Told

At dawn the following morning, the siblings stood side by side. Both appeared exhausted, dark circles embedded under their eyes. Bleiz let out a loud yawn as he stretched, ruffling his hair as he did. He cracked open an eye to spot the prince and the knight move in their general direction. Trailing behind them was the palace-woman Aneira leading a horse for each of them. Melina noted strapped to the woman's back was a beautiful staff crafted by the finest wood. The staff widened at both ends but narrowed in the center to allow Aneira a better grip.

On the bottom end were three spikes made of obsidian, decorated with intricate designs with thin, spiky shapes that intertwine and dance around each other. The top of the staff was crafted into an abstract symmetrical design. It had adorned which with a large green gem. Melina noted the jewel appeared almost identical to Aneira's own emerald orbs.

"Greetings," said Casimir as he gave them a polite bow.

"Let's get this trip over as fast as possible," interrupted Kyvan as he brushed past his knight to take his black stallion. There was something otherworldly about the horse, from its sleek black coat and beady red eyes. Melina wasn't sure, but it appeared if it had fangs. Kyvan hoisted himself on the horse who stood obediently for him. Bleiz glowered at the rude prince, but he said nothing.

The rest of the group clambered on their own steeds, and soon they were off down the road at high speed.

###


It took two ten-day before the companions arrived in E'athkadi. The entire town appeared barren, save for the few dozen townsfolk who remained in the scattered structures surrounding the area. Down the road stood a castle-like structure that was half buried from the mounting piles of snow and ice. Four oversized, square towers surrounded the construction in a perfect circle with connecting tall, thin walls made of granite. Dull windows scattered around the walls along with small holes for archers and artillery. There did not appear to be any bowmen or ballista of any kind at the ready for the building's defense.

Casimir's white fur cloak rustled around his eyes. He wore a cloth mask on the lower half of his face to further shield him from the icy bite of the flurries. He pointed to the castle-structure with a gloved hand.

"There," he said, his voice muffled from both the material covering his mouth and the howling wind. "The Astral Athenaeum."

"Why couldn't the library have been on a tropical island somewhere? Or at least somewhere warm," Melina grumbled as she shivered, her brown hair hidden underneath her thick fur hood.

"What security are we looking at?" Prince Kyvan addressed Casimir, wearing a furred black cloak, with a scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face, "I intend on knocking those walls down if they do not cooperate."

Casimir raised a hand as he shook his head, turning to look at the inexperienced Prince Kyvan, although only his own gray eyes were visible through his hood, "I want to approach this without hostility, if possible. We will speak with the Archsage of the library first. If he does not agree to help us, we will need to use force. We don't want to appear as if the throne only ever uses an iron fist."

He turned to the other two to follow him, Melina and Bleiz walking a few steps behind him as they warily stepped through the snow which had piled up to their shins.

"Remember when we were children, and I would shove you into snowbanks about this high?" said Bleiz to Melina as he walked behind her.

"Yes, and if you do that now, I'll smother you in this stuff," she added, watching her steps through the thick substance. The companions passed through the first gate without hindrance, entering an open circular courtyard. A loud voice barked at them.

"Halt!"

Casimir turned his eyes forward to see a tall figure stand before the double oak doors that led into the Astral Library. The man had dark blue skin and solid white eyes. He stood closer to eight feet than to seven, towering the group as he glared down his long slender nose at Casimir with disdain.

"Who are you to be entering our library?" he asked in a melodic but stern voice.

The raven-haired prince stepped forward. He extended a hand; the palm emitting a purple aura, and from it blossomed a considerable scythe. Kyvan's long fingers wrapped around the great scythe the instant it materialized. Melina could not help but stare at the thing. It had been the first time she had seen the beautiful symbol of the Reaper herself. It was as haunting as it was breathtaking.

"I am Prince Kyvan, the heir to the throne of the Reaper," Kyvan called out, eyes narrowed and intense. "I demand to speak to the Archsage."

The cryo giant gave a scoff at this, waving a long elegant hand at the prince, "The throne has no business with the Archsage. Leave. Now."

Casimir stepped forward, his hand on the hilt of his weapon, his eyes narrowing at the giant for his cynicism, "Do not speak to His Highness in that tone, or I shall cut your tongue from your mouth!"

Kyvan scowled, calling back to the giant as he lifted a hand to calm his knight, "Under normal circumstances, we would never associate with the likes of you. But the dragons have been rebelling all across Etias. It will involve you and your people. I must see the Sage!"

The cryo giant opened his mouth as if he was about to give another remark, but a melodic voice spoke over him,

"That is enough, Orist."

The giant turned to see another older cryo step beside him. The second giant appeared much calmer and content than his younger counterpart. His long white hair framed his beautiful features, even with his advanced age. His skin was the same deep blue as his companion, with his eyes the same milky white. Melina wondered if perhaps the entire race was blind.

"I am Archsage Ivsaar. Welcome to my library," he said with a bow.
Kyvan turned his attention to Archsage Ivsaar, bowing his head, "Thank you for your kind welcome. May we enter? My human tagalongs aren't accustomed to this weather."

Melina and Bleiz glanced at each other in annoyance at Kyvan’s remark. They were rangers and had weathered the vastness of all-weather conditions. If anything, Melina mused, it was Kyvan who was unaccustomed to this extreme coldness.

Ivsaar turned with a nod of his head, gesturing for the group to follow him. The double doors opened before him as he stepped inside the stone walls. The moment everyone was inside, the opening closed again to shut out the cold. Ivsaar turned to them in the center of a circular room. Huge windows were on the opposite side on the wall, allowing them a view of the vast snowy wasteland beyond the library.

"Now, you spoke of the dragons rebelling against the other races of Etias? I thought they had struck a deal in the Black Moon Concordant?" said Ivsaar.

"They were still for centuries, content in guarding their hordes of treasure. But something made them rise from their sleep," said the prince, his scythe still clasped in his hand.

"Hm... Interesting. Come, we will speak in my study."

Ivsaar turned to a flight of stairs that went upwards to the second floor. Kyvan turned to Bleiz, Melina and Aneira.

"You all stay here. This is not information you need," commanded the prince with a condescending tone. Melina growled under her breath. This prince's attitude irritated her. Ivsaar glimpsed at them over his shoulder.

"My library is open for you all to view. You may conduct your own research during our meeting. My apprentice Vadik will aide you."

Ivsaar lifted a hand, indicating with a long finger for a young wood elf male around Bleiz's age to come forward, which he did. He was shorter than average height for a man, although he carried himself pompously. He smoothed back his slick blond hair as his grayish-blue eyes glistened.

"This is my apprentice, Vadik," explained Ivsaar as the elf male gave a bow. As he lifted his head, his eyes caught Melina's, and there was an instant flash of recognition followed by a grin. Melina's eyes reflected the sudden realization, but her expression did not show the same joy at the sight of Vadik.

"Oh no," she groaned, slumping back behind her brother, "Not him again..."

"What?" Aneira's eyebrows rose, looking back and forth between Vadik and Melina, "Is he a previous lover of yours?"

"No," Melina mumbled, avoiding eye contact with the blond elf, "he is a man who won't give up."
Kyvan nodded, waving at the three for them to go along, "All right, hurry it up, peasants. We don't have all eternity."

Melina scoffed as if about to say something, but Casimir threw her a warning look. With an angry frown, she turned to shed her heavy cloak off before starting the research process.

The group dispersed in the library, pulling out several massive tomes and scrolls that discussed the dragons. Melina stood in one aisle, a book in hand as she flipped through the old parchment pages, her eyes scanning the sheets when she could feel a pair of eyes on her. Melina lifted her gaze ahead, guessing as to who was leering at her. In a whirling motion, someone flung her around one-eighty degrees as the book had dropped from her hands, Vadik planting kisses on the back of her hand and arm.

"My beautiful starlight! I have found you again!" he cried between kissing her hand. With her free hand, Melina grabbed another volume behind her head from the shelf and swung it down to send it colliding with the young man's head, knocking him flat to the floor. Melina's face twisted with irritation and disgust.

"I swear, you are the worst pest I have ever had the misfortune to meet. You won't go away!" she shouted for everyone else in the library to hear. Vadik rubbed the large lump growing on his head as he pushed himself back to his feet.

"I may not be in your heart now, my starlight, but I know how to win my rightful place there yet."

Melina scoffed at this, rolling her blue eyes, "Oh, with what? Another parade in my honor?" she sneered as she turned to walk away from him. He admired her backside before he spoke a single word.

"Aicanáro."

Melina froze in mid-stride. Even the name caught Bleiz's attention, poking his head around the corner to note the couple. Melina stood silent for a long time before she glared back at Vadik over her shoulder.

"What did you say?" she mumbled.

"You heard me," replied Vadik.

Aneira stepped into the aisle, staring at the two as they continued to argue.

Melina turned to face him now, her arms folded over her chest, "How do you have it?"

"A little birdie told me you lost it," said Vadik, mirroring her movements by folding his arms.

"How could you...? No, I do not care to find out how you knew that. Return the bow," Melina said, extending her hand.

"Ah, ah," said Vadik, wagging a disapproving finger at her. That digit lifted, creating a thin magical line in the air. The two-dimensional contour turned into a mist, which became the solid form of a gleaming black bow and quiver.

It was a polished reflex bow constructed of rare black-wood. Its string was from superior silk, a unique material around these parts of the world. Glowing thread decorated its limbs and ended in long points shaped like blades. Onyx wrapped its handle and adorned it with symbolic writing and small gleaming rubies.

The black quiver was created from thick leather and designed to be around the archer's back. The outer side adorned red silk ribbons - an added personal touch of Melina's.

"Aicanáro the Soul Scorcher," Vadik announced its full title, holding the bow up for not only Melina to see but for Aneira and Bleiz. "My lady Melina's most prized possession. Though, she did not earn it honorably, did you, Miss Melina? During this time of turmoil, you will need it now more than ever."

Melina glared at the blond elf, "So give it back."

"Oh, I'll give it back... after you give me one romantic night."

"Forget it!"

"Very well," said Vadik with a shrug, turning away with the bow.

"W-wait," blurted Melina as she took a step, her eyes locked on the great weapon.

Aneira scoffed and stepped forward, putting a hand on Melina's shoulder, "Don't negotiate with this fool. He requested you prostitute yourself for a bow and quiver." She glared at the elf, "You must have more respect for her than that. It belongs to her, return it.”

Vadik raised a thin eyebrow at Aneira, "Respect? I am enamored by her beauty; my feelings of lust go beyond all sense of rational thought. But respect? No. She is but a woman, just as you are. All that matters is what I want. And what I want is her. Do you understand?"

Bleiz chuckled, shaking his head as he leaned against the library shelf, "You're quite the bastard, elf."

"Shut your mouth, filthy flea-ridden human!" Vadik barked at him.

"Enough of your foolishness!" growled the qheilae woman, stepping forward as she pointed her staff at him. The emerald on the top of the staff omitted an angry glow. "Give her back the bow. Now."

"No. Melina knows what she needs to—”

Before he could finish his sentence, a fist came flying into Vadik's nose, splattering it flat into his face. His eyes rolled back as he tumbled backward, dropping both the bow and quiver to the ground. Melina stood over his crumpled form, shaking her bruising knuckles.

"Maybe next time you'll heed my warning?" she growled before reaching down to scoop up the onyx bow and quiver.

Bleiz grinned and clapped, "That's my girl!"

Aneira watched with wide eyes when Vadik hit the floor, surprised by Melina's sudden, brutal force. Though she did not say so aloud, she congratulated the woman. Aneira lowered her staff as she approached Melina. She held up a glowing green hand with a smile, "No sense in you hurting over that idiot."

Melina nodded her head, lifting her swollen hand for Aneira to heal with her magic. Bleiz walked over to grab the unconscious man roughly by the collar, hoisting him up and throwing him over one shoulder.

"In the meantime, I'll go put him in the barracks somewhere. He will come to, and they'll fix his face. Just blame me if he gets upset about it."

Bleiz gave a grin before he disappeared with the elf. Melina meanwhile sat the quiver on a nearby table and meticulously examined the bow, running her tender fingers over the intricate designs carved into the wood.

"Where did you get that?" Aneira said as she gazed at the magnificent weapon. “Vadik mentioned you did not obtain it honorably?”

Melina pulled the string taught as she held the bow up, readying no arrows, "I stole it from a bandit leader. I saved my brother and took the bow at the same time. Needless to say, the bandit was not pleased by this."

Aneira raised an eyebrow at the human's casual explanation of her story, "It's a beautiful weapon. How did Vadik steal it from you?"

"He didn't," Melina said as she sat the bow back down to look at Aneira. "I lost it back in the fight against the dragon in SilentForest. How Vadik got his hands on it, I'm not sure."

She lifted the quiver and bow on her back before she paused, looking down at one page of a book that was half hidden under other pieces of paper. Vadik had been shuffling through these books and papers right before he harassed her. Melina pushed the documents to the side to get a better view of the text, her finger sliding across the page as her eyes scanned.

"Did you find something?" Aneira asked, walking over to where she read the text.

Melina gave a small shrug, "I'm not sure if it's a direct clue," she pointed to the text she was referring to, "Selirius... An abandoned city up in the western mountains. It mentions something about it being the old home of the dragon king Xarsunon."

Aneira read it over several times, eyes heavy as she focused, "Xarsunon... That name sounds familiar."

Melina chewed on her bottom lip as she picked up the book, "Let us find Ivsaar. Maybe he can explain this more."

The women met up with Bleiz as they tracked down Ivsaar, who was speaking with Kyvan and Casimir about military strategy all over the world in his private study.

"Ah, I see you found something... where is Vadik?" Ivsaar noted.

"He's still researching downstairs," Bleiz answered. Ivsaar studied the ranger for a moment before he turned his attention back to the others. Melina handed him the book, keeping it open on the page she had read. He set the book down on the table in front of Kyvan and Casimir. The blue giant had to double over just to be close to the height of the others.

"This text speaks of Xarsunon the 'Destroyer of Man' and the Tomes of Death.'"

"Who is Xarsunon?" Kyvan asked, eyes narrowed in concentration. His expression reflected true concern. Ivsaar thought for a moment before looking at Kyvan.

"Xarsunon is a darastrix-anatar, otherwise known as a dragon lich," he explained. Kyvan scowled at this new information.

"What?" he said, shaking his head, "I was never told this. A dragon lich? How is that possible?"

"What is a lich?" Melina asked.

"A lich is a powerful undead being that has separated his soul from his body to achieve immortality," said Ivsaar as his light eyes directed towards the human. "The Reaper himself is a lich, although he is not evil. This is a rare occurrence, as most liches do not come out that way," he folded his slender hands in front of him, the long sleeves of his robes embellished with stars. "Xarsunon can travel through the material realm and the spirit realm just as the Reaper. He feeds off souls to gain power. I do not know where he has been hiding all these years. I had always assumed him destroyed before they had drafted the Equinox Concordant."

“The Equinox Concordant was a treaty written when the Reaper first became king,” explained Casimir to the rangers’ confused expressions. “It swore the dragons would cease all attacks against the other races. In exchange, the dragons would have all their treasures without disturbance.”

"And what of the Tomes of Death?" asked Kyvan.

"There are three Tomes," replied Ivsaar. "Oblis, Exos, and Manes. It is said these tomes hold the secret to lichdom, and thus helped create your grandfather into what we know him as today." He gestured to the prince. This caught Kyvan by surprise as he raised a thin black eyebrow.

"Before him, Xarsunon was the king. Xarsunon crafted the tomes to explain how true immortality was achieved. It is believed the location of his phylactery is hidden within these texts," Ivsaar continued.

"What?” Kyvan cursed through clenched teeth. The prince looked at the others, "If he was indeed the former king, I would take a guess it relates him to the recent dragon attacks," Kyvan ran his nimble fingers through his raven hair in frustration. "So many pieces to this puzzle. We do not have the time to be solving riddles. We need to find these Tomes. Ivsaar, do you know where we should go next?"

"I do not know. I can offer you the limited amount of literature I have on Xarsunon and his army, but most of their information was lost with time."

"Gods be damned! We do not have time for this. We need answers now!" Kyvan snarled, pacing around the room.

"Our future king," whispered Bleiz to Melina, the girl having to hide her snort of laughter.

"That text mentioned an ancient city named Selirius?" Aneira questioned as she nodded to the book on the table. The sage looked down to scan its contents before he nodded.

"Yes, it mentions Selirius. Before Dragonsbreak, the current capital of Etias was formed, Selirius was the raining capital and thus, the home of Xarsunon and his generals. Although it notes nothing specific, I suppose it would be worth an investigation. I must warn you, it could be dangerous."

Kyvan stopped his pacing as he pondered for a moment, "It is a clue to start somewhere, so that is a risk we will have to take," Kyvan pulled the hood of his cloak back up. "We shall leave for Selirius now. I thank you for your help, Ivsaar."

Chapter 10: In Shattered Mountains

The search for the Death Tomes had run dry over the years, with every search Etriz and Krextia attempted reaching a dead end. Though they continued their search by reaching out to other sources, they turned their energies to training Kaziel and Aurae. The two fire daemon children were growing stronger by the day, and Etriz knew the time of hiding them would soon end.

Krextia stood before her home, her eyes distant in thought. Her hair had grown a little longer over the past few years, but she did not appear that much different. Undry, the dragon, lay curled as he rested near the home. His size had nearly quadrupled over the many seasons, the top of his head near Etriz's strong shoulders. Etriz was nearby to Krextia, sparring with his children to practice melee combat. His continuing emphasis on teamwork was evident in their fighting style, the siblings working with each other to take down their father.

A movement in the sky caught Krextia's attention. She raised her white eyes, lifting her hand up as a messenger hawk landed on her arm like a branch. She pulled the small letter strapped to its leg off, scratched its feathers affectionately, and sent it on its way. She turned to open the small scroll of parchment, her eyes scanning its contents carefully.

Etriz ceased the sparring match with his children when he noticed the messenger hawk on Krextia's arm.

"Is everything all right?" Etriz called out to her. Undry opened a sleepy eye as Etriz approached the Faceless Daemon of Wind.

The daemoness held up the letter for him to see, "I have been corresponding with Sir Casimir Armond, Captain of the Reaper's Royal Guard." She lifted her gaze to look at Etriz. "I informed him of our findings regarding the Death Tomes and Xarsunon. He said they have found more solid clues in the Astral Athenaeum. He, Prince Kyvan, and a few others are heading to an ancient city called Selirius. They plan to be there in a ten-day."

Etriz glanced over the letter before he nodded, "We should rendezvous with them." The fire daemon glanced back at his children before returning his gaze to Krextia. "They still have work to do, but they are both powerful. However, I cannot help but worry about bringing them into battle."

Krextia nodded in understanding as she looked over at the children. Kaziel was fully grown, his body finely honed with rippling muscles. Aurae, now a young woman, appeared so much like her mother except thinner, not having Azara's same curvaceous figure. Her long black hair fell down her back, even when she pulled it up in a ponytail.

Undry lifted his head to look at Aurae, bounding over to her and nudging her hand with his snout. Aurae grinned as she reached out to stroke Undry's scales across his neck, settling to rest against the dragon. Undry curled around Aurae, shielding her with his body protectively. Even when he first met her as a baby, he was drawn to the young daemoness.

Krextia turned to look at Etriz again, "You have been training them extensively. But the only way they will learn how to fight in a battle is to be in one. They need to be a part of this now. I know you're scared, but you cannot hide them forever."

"You're right, Krextia. I cannot keep shielding them from potential danger. They want to find their mother just as bad as I do." He turned his golden eyes to look over at his children again. Both Kaziel and Aurae had grown and matured much over the past years since their mother's disappearance. Etriz smiled at the sight of the dragon with his daughter.

"Undry will not let Aurae out of his sight. However, I worry he will draw unwanted attention."

Krextia gave him a little grin, "He will, yes... and with the increasing number of dragon attacks, people might be wary. But he is still just a babe and traveling with the heir to the throne will prevent many people from trying to get close to him. Besides, I'm sure Prince Kyvan would appreciate having a dragon on his side."

Kaziel's pointed ears perked at the name as he turned to walk over to them, "Prince Kyvan? What about him?"

Etriz raised a high eyebrow as he turned to his son, "We will assist the prince in following up a lead on one tome. Why so curious, son?

"I heard you mention us meeting him?" Kaziel folded his arms over his chest, "I've always wanted to meet the royal family, ever since I was young.”

"I heard Prince Kyvan is quite handsome, so I wouldn't mind traveling with him," Aurae teased with a grin.

Etriz rolled his eyes, shaking his head, "Let us not waste any more time. Gather your things so we can push out."

###


Kyvan would not relent on their travels as the group marched from the snowy regions of the north. It was not until Casimir convinced the ill-tempered prince his human companions could not continue on without rest did he allow them to set up camp for the evening. Kyvan growled and rolled his blue eyes at this information.

"Humans... Such a waste."

Casimir took nothing by his remark, considering the knight was also human. He was used to the entire royal family holding a high prejudice against his race. It was a common theme throughout the lands. Casimir bowed to the prince before he turned to inform the others they would set up camp for the night. Bleiz started a roaring fire while Melina pitched each tent.

Prince Kyvan ignored everybody, save for a few comments here and there. He sat on a nearby log, studying several maps and scrolls he had brought along for the journey. He did not aide anyone in setting up the campsite. Melina glanced at the man from the corner of her eyes, a bubbling annoyance building in the pit of her stomach. She did not care what his title was; to act so high and mighty was irritating to her senses.

The young woman grabbed the prince's bedroll before standing to walk to him. He did not glance up at her or acknowledge her presence. Melina lifted the bedroll higher before she let it fall at the prince's feet with a dull thud in the dirt. He stared at it before raising his eyes to glare up at the girl. Melina was undeterred, her arms folded over her chest as she narrowed her eyes down at the prince.

"As important as your studying is, I would think you can stop for a moment to help your companions set up camp," said the woman.

"It is not my place to do anything of the sort. Such work is for commoners like you," he snarled back at her, annoyed for being interrupted. Melina huffed as she planted her hands on her hips, her anger rising with each syllable that passed Kyvan's lips.

"You may get away with that haughty attitude in the castle, but out here, you need to contribute just as much as everyone else."

Kyvan let out something like a dry, humorless laugh, "Excuse me, but I do not need a pathetic human girl to give me instruction. Hold your waggling tongue. I will solicit your advice only when I demand it."

Melina's upper lip curled into a disparaging smile, "Last time I checked, you're the one who needs our help, not the other way around. So, you will expect suggestions from us every now and again, including what needs to be done on your end to keep everyone else happy."

Kyvan closed the book he was reading as he stood straight and tall. He was well over half a foot taller than the young woman and carried an air of superiority. He did not look into Melina's eyes, although he considered it every time she argued back at him.

"If you cannot figure out your place as a woman and subordinate to the crowned prince, then you should runoff back into the forest with the little birdies and squirrels where social pariahs like you belong!"

"Oh?" said Melina, turning her sharp glare at the black-haired man. "Maybe you should run off back in your ebony tower where you're better suited to keep the thick stick up your ass!"

Bleiz was beside his sister as he grabbed her by the arm to drag her away off to the side before Kyvan could explode back at her.

"Enough!" Bleiz hissed under his breath, "You will get us both killed with that mouth of yours."

"I don't care!" Melina snapped right back, the fire in her blue eyes making them burn like sapphires. "There isn't a damn thing any of them could do that I would fear or dread. The only thing in this world I consider torture is traveling with a self-righteous, pompous asshole like him! Let his world burn for all I care. Better that than to have him as our ruler." And with that, she turned on her heel to storm off into the trees, disappearing from view.

Bleiz let out a heavy sigh and ruffled his spiky brown hair, rubbing the back of his neck as he shook his head. Aneira let out a slow breath as Melina walked away, having witnessed the entire exchange. She stepped forward to speak to Bleiz.

"You need to talk some sense into your sister. We are with a prince that comes from a family of human-hating shaydes. We must keep our focus on saving the world, rather than petty squabbles. If he orders an execution on you both because of her mouth, there is little I can do to convince him otherwise."

"And tell her what? 'Oh Melina, don't hate the man who thinks you're a wasted breath of life, and whose family would prefer to see you eradicated.'" He spoke loud enough for Kyvan to hear him. Kyvan glared at the two from where he stood. Bleiz approached Kyvan before he stopped parallel to the prince, returning the glare tenfold. "He was just born an ignorant, arrogant ass... isn't that right, Your Highness?"

Bleiz walked on, bumping his shoulder into Kyvan's just as the prince had done to him back at the castle. Kyvan said nothing, only frowned at Bleiz as he stepped away. It was the first time anyone insulted him to his face, and in public, no less. Aneira watched the two siblings walk off before she turned to Kyvan, bowing before him as she spoke.

"I still hold strong to my stance on the matter, Your Majesty. We ought to think about a true alliance with the humans if we hope to stop whatever darkness is threatening Etias."

"I do not need the humans. I can do this without them slowing me down!" Kyvan spat back, whirling around to glare an Aneira.

"Forgive me, Your Majesty, but you're wrong," the qheilae woman insisted, remaining strong despite the prince's glower. "You have little to no idea what you are doing out here. How long have you spent outside Castle Haerton? You do not know the soils of the earth nor the ways of navigation, not like the rangers do. I understand the humans can have irrational behaviors, but you must let them help you. You must trust them. Believe me when I say their race is capable of good."

For a long moment, the prince said nothing, pondering Aneira's words before he glanced over his shoulder at the direction the siblings had walked off through the trees.

###


Bleiz knew the surrounding area like the back of his hand. He also knew his sister, so he knew where he would find her. Bleiz stepped through the brush with ease, ducking and weaving through the thick branches. He broke through a clearing to find the brunette woman, laying side-long in front of a small pond, one hand playing in the water.

"I could smell something burning," said Bleiz with a smirk as he walked over to his sister. "What with that hot-head of yours."

"You are hilarious," said Melina, though she did not look up at him.

"Thank you, it took the entire hike over here to come up with that," he said as he sat cross-legged beside her. He looked up through the thick trees to stare up at the night stars. They both sat in silence for a long time.

"I know you will not stop trying to save the world," he said.

"Then you don't know me that well," she spat in response.

"Oh, but I do. And I know how stubborn you are to prove a point," Bleiz looked down at the top of Melina's head. "But for now, you need to bite that sharp tongue back. And that is saying a lot, coming from me. You are not doing it for him. You're doing it for everyone else."

Melina sat in silence, thinking for a moment before she shifted into an upright sitting position, staring out at the still water ahead of them, "Why do we get ourselves into this kind of trouble?"

"Because 'Trouble' is my middle name," said Bleiz with a smirk.

"No, it's not... it's Barnaby," said Melina as she gave him a sidelong glance.

Bleiz frowned at her, "Hush. I don't want everyone else to know that."

That got his sister to grin. She rested her head against his strong shoulder as he gave her an affectionate kiss on her crown.

###


Over the next several days, their travels remained uneventful, much to their relief. The mountain paths became narrowed in the rocky passes. A sharp right would have sent them careening off the cliff down to a raging river far below. The higher they climbed, the colder the surrounding air became. Frosted wind stung their eyes and forced its way into their throat and lungs. Piles of snow and ice covered the rocks, slowing the companions travel with no trail for hundreds of years.

Kyvan turned his head as he lifted a hand to signal the others, "Over here." He gestured to an unusual marking in the stone. A crumbled flight of stairs led up to a landing far above them.

"This must have been the entrance to the city," said Casimir, looking up at the decay of the front pillars.

Aneira gazed up the nearly collapsed stairs, "It doesn't appear stable.”

Bleiz shrugged as he stepped forward, "Just step carefully."

They ambulated up the crumbling stairs until they reached the top of the landing. A gust of bitter wind hissed through the maze of ancient stone buildings where tattered tapestries of old doors blew in the howling wind. Only small streaks of sunlight could peek through the haze of the gray clouds while a heaviness hung in the air. There was no movement save for the winter wind. Everyone felt the hair on the back of their neck stand on end, their senses screaming at them that something was wrong. Far on the opposite side of the courtyard stood a high canopy, shielding the snow from blocking a large entryway.

The group approached the archway, staring inside into the gloom. Darkness descended the staircase, the thick smell of decay looming in the air.

Melina squinted into the darkness, "I doubt anything good is down there..."

Bleiz pulled his longbow from his back, "Let's go then," with that, he brushed past Kyvan and walked down the stairs, an arrow pulled taught at the ready. Melina pulled out her own bow as she stepped in practiced coordination with her brother.

Kyvan summoned his scythe and gripped it tight in his hand as he lifted his free hand to cast a floating ball of light beside him. He followed behind the siblings, "Casimir, what do you know about this place? What are we to expect?"

Casimir pulled an unlit torch out from a sconce against the wall, setting it aflame as he drew his sword, "I know little, Your Highness. Judging by the information we collected, this was where Xarsunon had his generals' rule over the land long ago before the Reaper took over. They were involved in necromancy, so it's likely there are many evil spirits still lurking around the area."

Kyvan rolled his eyes and shook his head, "Wonderful."

They reached the bottom of the stairs, stepping out into a full cavern. Mummies half crumbled in their sarcophagi lay scattered across the edge of the room.

"This looks like a mass tomb," Melina noted as she glanced at the long-decayed bodies lining the walls.

A sudden roar thundered from somewhere far beneath them, causing the ground to rumble and crack. Before any of them could stop to act, the floor crumbled beneath their feet, sending them tumbling and falling on a giant slide deep into the earth below into complete and total darkness.
#11. Prologue
ID #950998 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:58pm
#10. Darkness Rising
ID #950493 entered on March 17, 2019 at 8:42pm
#9. Amongst the Dead
ID #946201 entered on March 17, 2019 at 8:44pm
#8. Ashes of Roses
ID #950494 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:16pm
#7. Planning a Coup
ID #950500 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:00pm
#6. Reborn
ID #950503 entered on March 17, 2019 at 8:48pm
#5. Deliverance
ID #950517 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:24pm
#4. Enemy of Embers
ID #950992 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:02pm
#3. An Order from the King
ID #950996 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:03pm
#2. Foretellings Told
ID #951134 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:03pm
#1. In Shattered Mountains
ID #951135 entered on March 17, 2019 at 9:04pm

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