Chapter One: It Begins with a Story
Ryanon Cinderspear could not believe this was actually happening. Granted the last few months of her life should have led her expect the impossible, but nothing like this had ever happened to her before. She stared down at it, where it rested the empty alley of the slums of Skalavik. It had been an eighteenth birthday present.
Whipping around she stared down Dak Morninghelm. "I really cannot believe that you just did that!"
Dak shrugged. "You weren't listening to me and it was the only way I could get your attention."
"But I was just getting to the good part!" she objected, once again staring down at her beloved book, which now laid in the middle of the filthy alley. "You are going to have to replace that!"
Dak just waved his hand at her. "As I was saying, the wedding is set to take place in a few weeks."
Ryanon moved away from her window. She would deal with the book issue at another time. "I still can't believe that Vicar is Jessimond's true love."
Dak smiled. "You should see the looks she's been giving him when she thinks no one is looking." He paused. "At least, she still has Amberfall to fall back on."
"Is there anything we can do to stop the wedding?" Ryanon had been thinking about the event ever since they returned from Trelia.
A few months ago, Ryanon and Dak and a group from Xandria had gone to Trelia to break a sleeping curse that had been placed on the land by the Iron Fairy, Nightstone. No one had thought that Vicar would have the power to break the curse, which could only be broken by true love's kiss. At last, Vicar had broken the curse and he and Jessimond were set to be married.
There was still the matter of King Rauffe Eveneye. Amberfall had reported that he was doing well; he was currently being housed in a manor on the Trelian-Zanian border. They still had to figure how to introduce him back into the world stage and had to do so before Vicar had a chance to lay claim to the Trelian throne. Amberfall had had some contact with Trelian leaders, who did indeed report the land still did have some wealth. However, they were far from their previous glory.
Dak peered back at her. "Are you even listening to me?"
Ryanon smiled. "Sorry."
"I was saying the castle is nothing but wedding plans right now. My mother has brought in some of the best wedding planners in all of Eacken."
Ryanon laid back further against the building. "So, it's actually happening?"
"I'm afraid so."
Ryanon wrinkled up her nose. "What does Jessimond's mother think about this?"
"There hasn't been much coming from the queen. It's like she's disappeared from the public eye."
"Why?" Ryanon fired, her brow deepening into a frown.
"She's lost both her husband and daughter, as well as her nation being in pretty much a state of anarchy. Plus, she's just woken up from a sleeping curse. How would you feel?" Dak fired back. "She's only human after all."
Ryanon ran her hands along the uneven brick wall. She wasn't even sure what it felt like to be human, to let your guard down and just be free. "What do we do now?"
Dak ran his hands through his hair. "I don't know."
Ryanon turned and kicked at the wall. "We seem to be saying that a lot."
"I know, but what else is there to say?"Dak looked out into the distance, as if he were thinking carefully about his next words. "There's something in the castle killing and eating peoples'
faces. I had to find that out from Amberfall."
Ryanon tried not to wince. She couldn't even being herself to think about going in such a way.
"And we have no idea what it could be or where it is lurking." Dak sighed. "Now, what do we do?"
"We could try and be happy," Ryanon said with a smile, as she tried to wrap her head around what Dak had just said. It was just downright disturbing. "What is there to be happy about?"
"That is the question no one seems to have an answer to."
A cart rolled down the main drag, an arm flopped out from underneath a blanket. Its lifeless force bounced as the cart hit a rather deep pothole. The scent of rot and decay filled Ryanon's lungs, sending a wave of vile forming in her throat. The Exhausting Plague was still racing through the city, just like hunger was in the villages. How could a king do this to his people?
Plus, she still had to do something about Kjallaksstaoir. Those hollowed out children plagued her dreams even more than Nightstone.
Dak stared as the first rays of sunlight reached them.
Ryanon let the sunlight warm her skin. It felt so good, reminding of her the bed that she hadn't seen in so long. "I'm so tired," she finally admitted.
Dak moved closer to her, wrapping his long arms around her waist. "I know, I know." His breath warmed her neck, making her realize even more just how much she was missing. "It's never ending."
Ryanon leaned into him. "Promise me something."
He nuzzled her neck, almost making her want to purr. "What?"
"Don't let Vicar get control. We still have to fulfill our promise to your mother."
"And how am I supposed to stop Vicar from getting on the throne after we kill the king?"
"We'll have to burn it down."
"You're talking about war."
Ryanon moved away from him, turning to face him. "No, I'm talking about saving our nation."
Amberfall watched as Jessimond and Vicar dinned as the early morning sun filled the dining hall. The grief was still apparent on the princess's face. However, she was still smiling and pretending to be having a good time.
Teodric laughed with his son, while Jessimond attempted to hide a look of disgust. From what Amberfall had been listening to, Vicar had been talking about the elf he had killed. Jessimond hated any kind of killing.
Frostfire studied Amberfall out of the corner of his eye. "I heard you, the princess, and Queen Ariana are planning an outing later this morning."
Amberfall nodded. She had not been alone with the queen since their meeting with Lady Alexis, the one where she admitted that she wanted Captain Morninghelm on the throne. To look at the queen now, one would not think that she was a killer. Who killed their own husband and pitted her own children against each other? That in itself made Amberfall very leery of Queen Ariana.
However, Soul Reaper, Longblade of Truth being found after all this time did give Amberfall hope and she was going to give the blade to Captain Morninghelm. Plus, she had also given the captain blazewing as well, just in case he got a clean shot at his father. However, the captain had said it was either use it at Nightstone or not come back at all. As long as Captain Morninghelm was alive, they had a chance.
No matter what they did, things were just going to get downright messy.
Amberfall took a bite out of her muffin, enjoying the moist feeling that it left in her mouth. She could had gone back to Zania, but she couldn't leave Jessimond here with the monster.
Vicar whispered something in Jessimond's ear, which caused her look of disgust to change to one of love. Maybe he was actually her true love. After all, he did break the curse.
Still, it just didn't seem possible.
How could someone so foul be someone so sweet true love?
Frostfire kept eyeing Amberfall. "You look like you're about ready to murder someone," he said, so softly that she almost didn't make out his words.
"It's just wrong," she answered. It was times like this that made her very thankful for human's overall poor hearing. "This should not be happening."
"But it is," Frostfire pointed out. "It's happening."
"I'm not going to let it go much longer," Amberfall answered. "We are going to have to put a stop to this."
"And how do you plan on doing that? The wedding is being planned as we speak."
Amberfall just gave him a long look. "Don't you worry about that."
Dak found himself sliding into the castle just moments before he was supposed to report for duty. He would have scolded his men for cutting it this close and was probably going to get an earful from his father. He straightened the uniform that he had managed to grab off his floor, hoping that it wouldn't make his tardiness even more noticeable.
Hell, he wasn't even sure if it was clean.
Juel Firedew gave him a long look as he walked up the stairs. "Why didn't you shave?"
Dak just gave him a dark look. "Why don't you shut up?" He ran his hand over his unshaven face. "Does it really look that bad?"
Juel studied Dak in a way that made him kind of nervous. "You do look like you've been out all night."
Dak shoved past the other guard. "Great, just another thing for the king to gripe about."
Juel feel in step next to Dak. "I guess he hasn't complained about you yet this week."
"We wouldn't want that to stop now, would we?" Dak muttered as he started straightening up his uniform. He didn't think he looked that bad...
The two young men paused outside the throne room, neither one of them could make themselves open the door. Dak wasn't sure why Juel didn't want to go in. Maybe he was lingering to make Dak feel better about himself.
Or maybe he could also sense the darkness around the king too.
"General Malculmus Irondrifter arrived last night unexpectedly," Juel said. "I tried to find you, but you weren't in your chambers. He wants to know why his men haven't been paid yet."
Dak frowned. "I thought we sent the payment."
Juel shrugged. "Well, they didn't receive it."
Dak fought the urge to groan. General Malculmus Irondrifter was the commander of Leira's legions-the same legions who had gone on the Trelian mission. Leira was known throughout the world for producing Xandria's finest legions. Though the general hadn't gone on the mission, he had still been a key player. The legions were more loyal to him than they were to the king, which was not a good thing. If King Teodric didn't make things right with the general, Xandria's fiercest legions could turn on them. Why did his father have to cross this man?
"How bad is it?" Dak asked.
"Let's just say there's no war yet, but we aren't far from it," Juel answered.
Dak rested his hand on the heavy door. As if things couldn't possibly get any worse. "Let's get this over with."
The heavy door opened and right away Dak could feel the darkness in the room. He really couldn't tell if it was from his father or the general's rage. The general stood a couple of steps below King Teodric.
"Sire, my men are going to starve if they do not get their wages," General Malculmus Irondrifter was saying.
King Teodric eyes narrowed just a bit-not enough for the general to notice. "I sent their wages as soon as we returned. Are you implying that I would not see that those who serve me well are not taken care of?" He laughed. "Trust me whenever I say that I take care of my people."
Dak fought the urge to snort.
General Malculmus Irondrifter smiled. "I'm not saying that you didn't, but any good king would make sure to keep his legions happy. If they are saying that they didn't receive payment for what you call a job well done, I would make sure that I paid them again." His voice grew dangerously low with each word.
The little hairs on the back of Dak's neck stood up. He wanted to say something, but knew better than to cross his father.
Teodric looked back at the general. "I will look into it."
General Malculmus Irondrifter's eyes narrowed. "You had better do more than look into it. I want it fixed and I want to fixed quickly." With a swipe of his cape, he turned and stormed out of the throne room, nearly knocking into Juel on his way out.
Teodric waited until the door was completely closed before speaking. "Well, I thought we would never get rid of him."