Prologue—The Rebel Queen
Once my people were free. We made our own laws, living for what was good and true. Evil was far from our borders.
Then the Naxiens came, and we soon found that the freedom we had loved was hostage to a price.
I watch from the shadows. Every year four are selected. Every year four die.
“No!” the woman shrieks as a guard holds her back and her child, a daughter of thirteen, is ripped away from her. “You can’t do this!”
“Young blood is the best,” another guard taunts as his men tie the hands of the terrified girl and lead her towards a caged cart where three other prisoners wait. The expressions on their faces show the fight has been drained out of them.
Tears stream down the mother’s face and she looks toward their black masked leader.
“Please. You were once one of us! Don’t do this!”
He draws out his blade and points it lazily towards the girl’s neck. “Your contribution will be greatly appreciated,” he says with a hidden half-smile.
“No! Stop this! No—!” The mother’s screams are cut short as the guard knocks her unconscious, letting her slump to the ground.
I draw out my sword and step out from behind the wall of a dwelling. “Let the girl go, Apprentice.”
“Ahhh, the rebel queen.” I can tell he is smirking, even beneath a shadow of concealment. “Have you come to surrender at last?”
Guards surround me but gasp in bewilderment when I vanish in front of their eyes. Invisible, I step away from their circle. “Let the girl go,” I repeat.
I murmur a spell and the ground convulses, throwing guards onto their backs. The Masked Apprentice manages to keep his feet but curses under his breath.
Zeraphyx swoop from overhead and armed warriors jump from the backs of their small dragon-like bodies. The zeraphyx then return to the darkness, ready at any moment for when we will need them to escape. My warriors, the golden key gleaming off their swords, bows, and armor, disarm the guards around the girl while another zeraphyx rider swoops low and flies her out of danger. More of my warriors take over the weapons of the guards in front of the cart and release the three prisoners.
The Masked Apprentice charges at me, drawing his sword. I’m unable to hide a slight laugh as my blocking it sends him slipping back. “For all an emperor of darkness has taught you,” I tell him, “is that all you can afford to bring against me?”
“Maybe you’ve forgotten the price of treachery,” he says between gritted teeth as he quickly rises.
“Teach me,” I respond with another laugh. “Perhaps we will learn a thing or two from one another.”
Again we clash, draw back, cross blades again. We pull back once more, circling each other like beasts stalking their prey. As I draw my blade back to strike again, I involuntarily freeze where I am. I panic and struggle to move; I am rooted to the spot.
The Apprentice smirks and presses the blade of his sword against my neck, just cutting the surface of my skin. “Where is your Guardian now, false queen?”
Naxiens surround me in a circle and I feel a dark presence approaching. The circle parts for a silvery robed figure to enter. My breath becomes heavy and I gasp as the emperor approaches, raising my chin to face him. Under a spell, my eyes are forced to lock in with his.
“How I wish I could destroy you now,” he says softly.
“Then why don’t you?” I manage to whisper.
“Still,” he continues as if I never spoke, “I will strip these rebels of their false leader.” I am dragged away by two guards.
The villagers scream as Naxiens invade, led by the Apprentice. Freedom is costly; but how much more bloodshed is necessary before that price is met?
Unable to do much else, I try to curl my fists as the guards force me in the direction of my castle, now my prison.