NOTE: Serial prequel (distant past) to The Unknown Sun which is now published. This work of fiction is not professionally edited and is for entertainment purposes only and I retain full copyrights of the following original material.
The purple sky lightened little with the sunrise. Ivo and Jaeger stood guard at the edge of the trail, their shadowed eyes unreadable in the gray light. The subdued silence was mutual—as natural as breathing for them.
Thunder rumbled and one of the women shifted behind them. Ivo turned and green eyes narrowed as they pinned on Emaranthe as she drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders and rolled over with a faint sigh. He turned back and caught Jaeger’s inquisitive look.
“She’s still asleep.” Ivo grunted as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Jaeger shot a curious stare over his shoulder before turning back and surveying the wide desert valley that stretched out before them. They were high up, so high that they could no longer see the bottom of the gorge in the gray light. Still, Jaeger figured, there was many hundreds of feet left to climb upwards on the trail.
The plateau was immense, dotted with spires of red rock formations and arches hollowed out over eons of erosion. His eyes caught and held on an enormous windmill far across the gorge on the other side. Its colossal green blades spun with lazy indifference.
“Mirena would have loved it here,” Jaeger whispered, his eyes still on the windmill. “She had always talked about travelling to the south to see the Burning Desert and the Wind Walkers.”
Ivo hesitated, startled by the tumble of memories those few words brought back. Guilt rocked him as he shot Jaeger a sideways look and watched pain tighten his brother’s face into a mask of agony.
Empty blue eyes stared ahead, lost in thoughts and memories that had been pushed aside in order to survive a world gone mad, “And here we are not a league from the one place she will never get to see.”
“Jaeger—“Ivo jerked his helm off.
“No, it wasn’t your fault Ivo,” Jaeger said, his eyes still unfocused, remembering. “I never blamed you, even after all of these decades.”
“I should have been—“
“No, I should have been there,” Jaeger closed his eyes. “Mirena was going to make fish soup, remember? She’d been planning it for days.”
“Jaeger—“ Ivo swallowed thickly. There were no words for the tortured look on his younger brother’s face.
“—she was brushing Anya’s hair when I left. It had wanted to curl in the humidity.” Jaeger ignored his brother and spoke as the tide of bitter memories consumed him. Anya’s hair, so long and wild —a mane of brown waves, just like her mother’s. He remembered her vivid blue eyes sparkling with mischief as he’d blown her an adoring kiss goodbye. He’d then pulled Mirena close and kissed her fully on the mouth, with an unspoken promise for later —.
A promise he’d broken.
“Jaeger! Stop!” Ivo snarled. He flung his helm down. It bounced and clattered behind him, before hitting the red sandstone wall and tipping to a halt. “Don’t do this to yourself again!”
“I let them die—“Jaeger choked out. His shoulders slumped as guilt and pain pulled on him. “I wasn’t there to save them. They’d trusted me—“
“Brother, no one could have foreseen that day.” Ivo rumbled, almost a sigh. He too, had tried to bury the guilt and pain with little effect.
His brother’s wife, his little niece…their lives traded for a hunting trip.
Almost against his will, he remembered returning to their small village days later, proud of their manly accomplishments and feats of prowess. Their kills were impressive and would feed their whole seaside village in the distant eastern kingdom of Saro-shir. Sea and Wind, it meant in Sarhiran, their native language.
Instead of a village full of family and friends, there was a sea of death to greet them. Black water gushed and swirled waist high as they waded into what had been the village circle, their faces pale and voices mute with horror. Sturdy rock walled homes were tumbled and flooded with foul water and bloated bodies, very few, floated on the evil current, pushed by a wind that howled from every direction at once. There was no escaping the biting pull of the wind or the seductive tide of water it stirred with angry shrieks.
Crates, chickens, cracked and mangled wood frames—the brothers shoved past these as they searched, thrashing wildly through the water, screaming against the foul wind for Mirena and Anya. The water kept rising, tugging on them, pulling them…and in the boiling, frothing torrents where the wind and waves met, little maddening whispers could be heard—join us…join us…join us…
The mad voices filled the flooded village, taunting…calling…
Ivo finally found the foundations of Jaeger’s home—even the great stone walls were torn and washed away. Hoarse from screaming, tears blurring his sight, he could only watch his little brother wade through the torrents of water, white eyed with anguish and horror, as he searched futilely for his wife and daughter.
The flooding waters continued to rise with unnatural speed, but they paid it no heed. Ivo perched atop the remains of a barn, wrapped in the loathsome wind, his body bent against the unnatural urge to flee from it and vanish into the churning water below. It was no use in the end. The brothers were now forced to swim as they searched, struggling to shove splintered timber and sodden, floating carts aside—but the howling wind was strong and the voices in the roiling water were seductive—join us…join us…
As Ivo watched, Jaeger was pulled beneath the black water. At first he thrashed his arms, resisted, but as his fingertips slid below the surface, he stilled —as the mad voices grew irresistible at last—join us…join us…
Ivo plunged after him. Howling with rage and grief, he flung himself deep into the cold darkness after his little brother. He’d given it no thought. The black void beneath the water was a swirling vortex and he tumbled and tossed on the violent current. Brief images of other things in the black water…a crate…a beam of wood, a cart wheel…Jaeger’s limp, wide flung arm…
He kicked his feet and lunged after his brother and gripped his unmoving arm. What little light left faded and the only thing that was left was the black numbness of the dark water churning beneath the wicked wind and his brother’s arm clenched in his fist—and the cruelly laughing voices…
Eternity happened, maddening dark eternity.
Then the water drained away in a rush of light, sound, and motion. He inhaled suddenly, freely, felt the weight of death vanish. He gagged, coughed, inhaled air as if his lungs could never fully fill. Something or someone next to him was also choking, gasping…
“Jaeger! Jaeger!” Ivo choked, gagged on more water. It gushed from his mouth and nose in dark trails. He pried his eyes open and blinked at the light. To his left, Jaeger jerked himself upright, his eyes glazed with confusion.
Ivo jerked to the present as his brother stumbled beside him with a keening cry. Jaeger bent at the waist, hand on knees, as grief tore at him.
“Jaeger, you must stop. Mirena is gone. Anya is gone.” Ivo swallowed the words we wished he could say, wanted to say, but the unrelenting wind shoved them back into his throat.
“Maybe, maybe they are here too. Maybe they are like us,” Jaeger whispered. The wind returned and whipped sand and rock about their feet angrily as he spoke. “There are so many lands left to search, so many other immortals.”
Ivo closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very old and tired. Thunder rumbled, closer this time, the reverberations shaking the ground beneath them.
“I’m sorry Jaeger.” Ivo moved away from Jaeger and retrieved his helm from near Emaranthe with a sigh of despair. “I’m sorry.”
Jaeger straightened wearily and turned to look at his brother as he returned with the helm. Sad blue eyes locked with troubled green and held for an eternity.
“I know. I—I don’t know why—“ he swallowed, his blue eyes misting, then freezing into anguished chips of ice. His breath fogged the air with his despair, “I wish I had stayed dead.”
“Don’t say—“ Ivo growled as the wind eddied and swirled about them in a rush of fury. It settled as Ivo stilled and his pained gaze dropped to the gritty red ground. “Don’t say that.”
A deep, earthy rumble filled the air. He stopped and traded frowns with Jaeger.
“What is—“Jaeger spun and stared up the barely visible trail. The rumble continued, louder and angrier. The rock and dirt beneath their feet groaned and creaked as if cracking from within.
Emaranthe shot upright with a gasp as her cold stone bed shifted and buckled, sending pebbles and debris raining from the cliffs above. She stumbled toward the brothers, dodging the raining debris.
Jadeth followed on her heels, coughing. The rumble became a roar as the sky darkened and clouds swirled and frothed above them. A thread of light and a flash of purple streaked across the sky far above them.
“What’s happening?” Jadeth narrowed her eyes on the odd clouds as she fought the shifting, shaking ground to remain upright.
Four pairs of eyes watched the roiling purple clouds swirl and mass together until a sharp flare of inky light lit up the sky. Black shadows erupted out of the light, shifting and slithering with each crackle of lightning. The ground beneath their feet shook, buckled. Dust blanketed everything, turning the garish purple light into a reddened miasma. The inky shadows spread until they blanketed the top of the plateau.
“That’s where they’re coming in!” Jaeger snarled, pulling his great axe free. Ivo followed suit and his axe sang and whistled in the sharp wind. Fury darkened his face, fueled by bitter memories. “If we don’t stop the spread of the darkness the whole valley will be over run in hours!”
“Dro-Aconi,” Emaranthe shuddered, unable to look away from the eerie scene. “They are here in person this time.”
“Why?” Jadeth asked. Her scarlet braids whipped on the dusty wind.
“They need the stone.” She said. She rubbed her bare arms with her gloved hands where goosebumps rose freely.
“We need answers,” Ivo added grimly.
Gold eyes flicked between the brothers, and then up at the writhing shadows of evil high above. Emaranthe sighed, but the wind dragged it away unheard.
The men launched into motion with wild cries that defied the wind. Jadeth followed at their heels— her hammer high and bright. Emaranthe’s drifted after them, her feet a blur, barely touching the quaking ground, blond braids trailing.
Gold eyes steadied on their backs as her chest tightened with a sudden, unnamable fear…
Green eyes narrowed as they studied the red rock landscape and steep path as he pushed himself into a wary run. Beside him, Jaeger was growling, panting, and snarling like a predator nearing the kill. The narrow path abruptly swung left around a hair pin turn. Both Ivo and Jaeger shouted, dug their boots into the rock and dirt, and slid to a dusty, grinding halt, weapons high and ready. Jadeth slid to a graceful stop beside Jaeger. Ominous thunder rumbled from above as the clouds rolled and swirled with the evil shadows in an inky fury.
“What is it?” She gasped as she let her hammer drop to her shoulder. Emaranthe walked up past the three, blinking as dust and rock rained down the cliff walls. The stiff, turbulent wind whipped and dragged her pale braids from her shoulders.
“The mines,” Emaranthe turned and fell in beside Ivo, her eyes oddly neutral in the graying purple light.
“Um. People go inside those?” Jadeth frowned. Elfkind didn’t do well in dark holes, preferring hills and trees. Dread pulled on her. She swallowed thickly as her sapphire eyes flicked between Ivo and Jaeger for reassurance.
Neither male’s face offered any.
Ivo frowned at the pitch black rectangular hole into the cliff, his dark brows drawn and lined. Jaeger’s face was grim, but resolute. If it came to a battle in the mines, there would be little room to maneuver, and both men knew how perilous that could be.
Thunder shook the ground and echoed off the cliff walls. Four pairs of eyes snapped up as far above them on the pinnacle of the plateau the Dro-Aconi, the living shadows of death, their world’s oldest enemy, swirled and stormed.
“We have no choice—” Emaranthe called out over the ghastly screeches and moans emanating from the shadows high above. “—if we are to get up there. This is the only path.”
Ivo dropped his gaze with a grimace.
“Yes. Let’s finish this,” his hand clenched around the shaft of his sword until the leather in his gauntlets creaked. “Be warned, fighting, if it comes to it, in a mineshaft is deadly business.”
“Be wary.” Jaeger shifted his feet, ready to spring.
“Can we have light in there?” Jadeth licked her dry, cracked lips. “What if there are bottomless pits or gorges?”
Emaranthe caught and held Jadeth’s eyes, burning gold and jeweled blue. She nodded and lifted her small gloved hand, palm up. A small, luminescent flame ignited and flickered and twisted in the stiff wind. She cupped her fingers slightly, shielding it, and its soft light steadied and brightened. Four pairs of eyes watched the small flame with a sense of both dread and hope.
“Ready? Emaranthe, follow behind me, then Jadeth, then Jaeger you can be rearguard.” Ivo turned and vanished into the darkness. Emaranthe followed, holding the tiny lamp aloft. Jadeth hesitated a half second. Her innate fear of dark holes dragged her usually lithe feet and spirit to a standstill. With a soft snarl she dove after Emaranthe and the guiding light she held.
Jaeger followed on her heels, his eyes wary and watchful in the dim light. Both hands gripped the shaft of the great axe as he ran lightly behind the other three. For long, tense moments the only sounds were their ragged breathing and the swift and sure steps of their feet echoing in the dark.
The mineshaft was narrow and only so often was shored up by fire blackened timber bracing. Often Ivo and Jaeger both ducked as the roof itself abruptly lowered. Emaranthe paced behind Ivo easily despite her smaller stride and her arm did not tire from holding the flame aloft. It cast a puddle of gold about their feet and the fast moving shadows of their legs and arms marched beside them along the walls and ceiling.
The shaft dove steeply down for many yards before angling up again and veering sharply to the left. Every so often another shaft would drift off to the side and the four would hesitate in caution before resuming their steady run. At one such offshoot Emaranthe halted with a gasp as her flickering lamplight fell on its walls.
“Wait!” She lifted her arm higher, dragging both the golden glow and their shadows higher on the cold stone walls. The side shaft was empty and silent, but still she stared into the blackness beyond. “There’s something here.”
Jaeger frowned suspiciously into the dark. “What?”
Ivo too, stared puzzled into the deep side shaft, his eyes narrowed as they searched for an unseen foe. “What is it Emaranthe?”
“This.” Emaranthe stepped into the side shaft and lifted her arm high above her head, as close to the stone ceiling as possible for her diminutive frame. The flame in her hand flickered and twisted in some draft and as they watched an iridescent red glow bloomed within the rock above the flame.
The red glow glittered and spread, spiraling and streaking along the ceiling and down the walls. The veins of red continued to multiply until it was racing almost against itself down the dark tunnels, leaving a bright glittering glow in its wake.
“Wow.” Jadeth watched the mesmerizing dance of red trail down the mineshaft until it vanished into its depths elsewhere. Bathed in the incandescent light, the four traded amazed —and simultaneously worried— looks.
“Raw Starstone.” Jaeger inhaled deeply and shifted his axe to his shoulder. “I didn’t know it could be found so close to the surface.”
“This is why the Dro-Aconi have come. It is easy to get.” Jadeth shivered as an icy draft tugged fitfully on her braids and chainmail dress.
“This discovery is not news, but nonetheless grim.” Ivo sighed. “There are neither minions nor other slaves here mining, so what is going on? How will they dig for it?”
Emaranthe let her arm fall to her side with a weary sigh. Her little fire flickered and died, leaving them bathed in the vivid red glow of the Starstone veins. Now charged with her power, they would glow for days. Their ability to remain undiscovered was numbered now.
“We must get to the surface,” she whispered. “I’ve left a trail for any foes to follow us I am afraid.”
As one they turned aside from the now lit shaft and pushed themselves into a swift run. Emaranthe’s flame rekindled in her hand, small and white hot. Ivo reassumed the lead, his sword raised before him, but nothing evil lurched out of the dark tunnels to waylay them as they wound through the maze higher and higher toward the surface.
The first hint of inky, clouded sky showed itself as they angled around a steep turn in the tunnel and a rectangle of grim light appeared. They halted as the mineshaft quaked and rumbled from the force of shadows close by. Dirt and dust choked the air as Emaranthe closed her fist over the little flame and it flickered and died.
“Keep close, keep wary,” Ivo crept toward the exit. Green eyes swept over the exposed landscape outside the mine shaft, noting the terrain and foes with a single glance. “The shadows stretch across the expanse of the plateau. I cannot see what evil is stirring within it.”
“Let me see,” Jadeth poked Jaeger in the shoulder. Reluctantly, he moved aside just enough to let her slip to the front. She dropped into a wary crouch, her keen eyes narrowed on the gruesome turmoil within the odd tangle of shadows swirling about the plateau. Not just the Dro-Aconi, but instead four generals. A fifth perhaps of a higher rank, stood at the center of the chaos.
“There are at least four generals. They guard a fifth figure in the center. I can’t see who or what it is.” Jadeth hissed over her shoulder. Ivo’s features tightened.
“And the Dro-Aconi?” He asked.
“None yet, but their shadows twine and cling like the slime of a slug.” Jadeth whispered. “They are close, but not strong enough to materialize yet.”
The Dro-Aconi have no corporeal bodies. They are the true evil, manifested only within the darkest moments of reality. Their shadows come before their forms, with long reaching senses and abilities used to conquer and enslave. Their slaves were once free peoples of Ein-Aral. Bitter minions now, half dead, perhaps undead, and all corrupted by the stench of darkness the precedes the most terrifying evil in their world. To face the true Dro-Aconi is to face true evil. True terror. Only The Four have ever done so, in ages past, and now they are missing. Legend speaks that they will return only when truly needed.
“Let’s go.” Jaeger snarled.
They crept out of the shaft into the barely brighter light. The clouds roiled and swirled in the inky gloom and a peal of thunder shakes the rocks beneath their feet. They hugged the cliff wall to the left, skirting the open landscape in favor of the cover of the few spindly bushes and craggy rock outcroppings.
Emaranthe pulled her staff free and it gleamed faintly with smoldering fire as she bent and crept behind Ivo. Gold eyes flicked between the few generals guarding the rift. They were singularly evil, twisted beings—higher forms of minions clothed in midnight black robes. Instead of empty eye sockets in fleshless skulls, twin beads of black fire burned as eyes.
Ivo held up a hand.
They halted, now as near to the generals as they dared, behind a spiny bush and knobby rock outcropping nearest the eastern edge of the plateau.
“We need to pick them off one by one.” Jaeger studied their movements, his eyes narrowed as he tried to see beyond them to the being in the center. The frenetic pacing of the generals made identification frustrating.
“Okay, nearest first.” Ivo pointed a gauntleted finger at the towering, robed skeleton. “Remember, these have powers the lower minions didn’t.”
Jaeger shifted his axe. It’s razor sharp edge bled water and froze, now much sharper, and deadlier. Ivo freed his shield, the motion sending a nearly invisible gust of wind ricocheting around his massive body. The wind eddied and twisted until it swirled before his battered shield, creating a blanket of buffeting air. Dangerous air.
Jadeth held her hammer low to the ground so that its healing glow would not attract unwanted attention. The gritty sandstone dirt shifted and sank beneath the weapon, leaving a carpet of green in the exact same shape as its shadow behind. The tiny plants and vines coiled and waited for their orders. Emaranthe inhaled deeply as ghostly flames licked and curled from her staff up her arm to her shoulders and over her body. Fire writhed and twisted, nearly invisible, until her entire body was sheathed in a layer of living flame.
Ivo shot a glance at his friends and three pairs of determined eyes met and locked with his own. He nodded and turned with a blur of speed. With a blast of wind, he heaved his shield into the air with a silent, furious cry.
It arced across the short distance, spinning and glinting in the gloom, but silent and true. Guided by the wind, it turned, clipping one general in the shoulder, before spinning back to him with unnerving accuracy. Ivo caught it with an outstretched hand just as the infuriated general turned and screeched with slack jaws and bony arms outstretched. Still unable to see its attacker, it shambled closer to them.
They waited for a long, breathless moment for it to be out of range of its companions. With a suppressed snarl, Jaeger launched forward, axe singing in a brutal arc. It connected with the outstretched arms and they cracked and snapped like dry branches of a tree and clattered to the rocky dirt, frozen solid. Ivo darted in and swung his sword low, snapping it at the knees and sending it flailing to the ground. Its screams of agony and rage were short lived as Emaranthe grabbed a moth eaten fold of cloth and a hungry flame consumed as it spread. The odor of charred bone joined the stench of death and decay.
One down. Three to go.
Ivo crept forward again, his green eyes pinned on the next general. He felt Jaeger beside him shift to reposition for the attack.
Twin gasps, gagging chokes from behind made both pause, then spin on their heels. Blue and green eyes stared in dawning horror at Jadeth and Emaranthe.
“No!” Ivo growled. His sword clattered to the ground.
Long, strong fingers wound around both of the women’s slender throats, lifting both high in the air. Her skin was dark, or well tanned perhaps, but well toned with muscle and voluptuous curves. Long, lithe legs drew the eye up to her lush body and her face was shockingly, horribly beautiful. Lush lips, dark red, wanted to pout but tended to sneer instead. Dark eyes burned black in the inky light and her red curls, held in check by a headdress, towered high and regal.
Emaranthe scratched and clawed at the vice-like grip. She tried to suck in a gagging breath, but couldn’t. In the towering demon-woman’s other hand Jadeth struggled frantically to breathe, her long legs kicking valiantly.
“Well, well well…two men, an elf girl, and a child.”
The strange woman cackled and the hairs stood on the men’s arms. Her voice was as lush and as deadly as her beauty.
Ivo fell to his knees…