Soldiers filled the hallway, forcing Aron to push his way past as he followed silently behind his father and older brothers. Outside, lightning illuminated the stormy night sky to be quickly followed by a deafening clap of thunder. Rain steadily drummed against the corridor’s windows, and at the end of the hall, the throne room loomed like a cavern, its doors hanging askew on their hinges, the wood blackened and warped. The stench of burning flesh and cloth permeated the air.
Aron peered through the doorway, speechless. Everything in the room was charred and covered in a thick coat of ash. Guardsmen lay scattered around, dead or dying, the agonizing cries of the living echoing off the walls. A thin layer of hazy smoke filled the air, causing his eyes and lungs to smart.
His father, Caius, strode across the room, deliberately stepping over men who cried for help. As Aron followed, he could just make out the shape of something that did not belong. He stared in disbelief; it was a young woman, dressed in a black shirt with sleeves that stopped above the elbow, dark blue pants of a coarse-looking fabric that fit like a skin on her body, and black shoes with white stars on the side. He had never seen such clothing. This person should not be here, yet, there she was, alive, and untouched by the blast.
As Aron drew nearer, he studied her features. Curly brown hair, riddled with hints of red, was splayed across the floor and over her shoulders. Freckles dotted her pale skin like haphazard constellations, and her lips were parted slightly, the sound of her breaths slow and steady. From the padding on her body, she was used to a life of luxury.
He knelt beside her and as his hand swept a strand of hair from her face, a sensation that sent chills and pins across his body caused him to pull away quickly.
His older brother, Braxton, prodded the girl’s shoulder with the tip of his boot.
She did not stir.
Caius stood behind them, finding the girl of little importance, then walked over to a nearby solider, who barely clung to life.
Kolt, the second of the three Alagard boys, followed their father.
Aron was surprised Caius was not more interested in the girl, then realized it was not out of his father’s character to ignore the subject of concern. Then again, the dying deserved priority.
The soldier’s skin was cracked, the red of his flesh showing, and his breathing was labored, as if each gasp caused excruciating pain. “Sir,” he croaked, “water, please.”
Caius knelt beside him. “What happened?”
“Water,” the man begged.
Caius’ expression was as blank as slate. “Answer me and you will have your water.”
The man reached toward him weakly. “Please.”
Anger flashed across Caius’ face. “Answer the question before I end your wretched life.”
Fear sparked in the man’s eyes and he began to speak, coughing every few words, “We were standing guard, when– a bright light filled the room. There was… an explosion…” He gasped and the words died in his throat as his chest ceased to rise and fall.
“Useless.” Caius straightened up and turned to the girl. Stooping, he grabbed her wrist and satisfied with what he saw—or did not see—let her arm drop limply to the floor. Leaving, he ordered two guards, “Put her in a cell. If her condition changes, alert me at once.”
Braxton and Kolt followed silently after their father while Aron lingered.
He looked at the girl again; she appeared so innocent. He felt a pang in his chest as he realized it was going to be stripped away. Two guards removed the girl and he strode after them, wishing there was something he could do to save her.
Braxton followed his father and Kolt through the castle. No words were spoken, which was fine with him as it gave him time to ponder. The girl… young woman—she was no child, but certainly not older than his twenty-four years of age either—was mysterious and questions raced through his mind. Where did she come from? How had she survived the blast? Who the nastor was she?
Finding himself standing outside his bedchambers, he shook his head, pushed open the door, and glanced at his bed, which was in a state of disarray from his hasty departure. Deciding to forego a candle, he quickly slipped from his clothes and crawled back beneath the covers.
Tired as he was, it was difficult to sleep and get the girl out of his mind. There was something about her, though every time he thought he understood, the idea was swept away.
His dreams were strange that night. He started in a void, where he could hear nothing, see nothing, and feel nothing but the weight of existence. Pigments slowly began to add themselves to the dark backdrop, seeping in like a sunrise; they were dusky colors, mostly blues, browns, and grays. Slowly the bolts of stain began to pull into rough shapes.
When those became clear, he could see two people, holding hands as they ran and instantly recognized one of them as the girl who had caused tonight’s commotion. Fear was plastered across her face, etched into every pore of her skin. She pulled against the person leading her and began speaking. Whatever words were exchanged were muffled and sounded as if they were in a foreign tongue.
He tried to focus on the person she was talking to, but the face was blurry. The only thing he could see was an intense pair of blue eyes that felt familiar. He concentrated on them, but slowly they began to cloud. The world around him faded to shapes again, then to color, then to nothing.
When he stirred, sunlight was pushing through his window, and there was a knock at the door.
“Give me a moment,” he called, throwing the covers back and quickly dressing.
Standing outside was a soldier.
“The girl is awake.”
The girl’s frightened face flashed across his memory, sending a shiver down his spine. He pushed the image aside, hating himself for what he was about to do, and began making his way to the dungeon.
Morning light filtered through the barred window, casting decrepit shadows over Keegan’s body. She lay on the cot, blanketed in the sweet serenity of sleep. Sluggishly, she opened her eyes and still in a state of pseudo-sleep, yawned. She bolted upright with the realization she had overslept and was going to be late for class. It took her mind a moment to start racing in bewilderment as she glanced at her surroundings.
Where am I? Her eyes darted around the barren room, which appeared to be a dungeon cell. Am I still dreaming? She pinched herself. A disquieting feeling rose in her stomach like bile.
Warily, she stood up and walked to the door, holding back a wave of panic. Finding there was no way to open the door, she began pounding her fists on the wood and yelling. After several minutes with no response, she backed away and sank onto the cot, eyes wide, mind reeling, and a lump stuck in her throat. Someone has to be here. They have to.
Time slowed, each minute stretching into what felt like eons. There was no one word for what she felt—a pit of unease in her stomach that seemed to swallow her up, a blanket of shock that shrouded her in empty thoughts, a fear of the unknown that led to only one outcome: death. Waves of emotions threatened to break free from their cage and form into salty ribbons that would stream down her face.
No. She rose to her feet and began pacing; had to distract herself. Breathe. Think of something happy: puppies, chocolate, diving… Oh, God, what if I die here? No. Focus. Snow, piano, reading on a rainy day…
She was pulled from her thoughts when she noticed the opening set within the door. Standing on her toes, she was just able to look through the bars, and saw the backs of two men who wore black tunics underneath sleeveless shirts of chainmail.
What the hell; why are they wearing armor? “Hey,” she called, “where am I?”
One of the men started to turn but the other gave him a hard look and he continued to stare forward.
About to repeat the question, the sound of footsteps echoing around the hallway staid her.
The guards moved aside to reveal a man standing before her. He was tall, easily reaching six feet in height—about a foot taller than her. His black hair was close-cropped and his eyes were a sullen blue, as if they’d given up hope. The thick, white outline of a scar followed the contour of the bottom of his left eye.
He inserted a key into the lock.
She scrambled away from the door, wandering what harm he intended and eyed the sword belted around his waist nervously. She desperately wanted to believe it was for show, but knew it was lethal. “Who are you? What do you want?”
He ignored her and stepped forward.
Keegan backed away, dread blossoming in her chest. Her eyes darted to the still open door; it was a long shot, but… she had to try. The muscles in her legs tensed and she rushed forward. As she ran past, the man wrapped his arms around her torso and swung her around until she was back where she had started.
“Stop,” he commanded, pushing her against the wall. “Please, do not resist. I do not want to hurt you, but he will make me.”
Keegan wasn’t given time to consider his words as a second man emerged from the shadows. He had paling blond hair, stubble marked his square jawline, and his brown eyes stared at her cruelly.
The man holding her against the wall seized her arm and pulled her forward.
“What have I told you about showing kindness, Braxton?” the older man drawled.
Braxton said nothing, instead fixing his gaze on the floor.
Blood pounded in Keegan’s ears. “Who are you people?”
The man turned his attention to her. “I am Caius Alagard. Who might you be?”
Keegan ignored his reciprocated query, focusing on prying the hand off her arm.
Braxton dug his fingers into her bicep, “Answer him.”
“Keegan,” she stammered, “Keegan Digore.”
“Keegan Digore,” Caius repeated, lifting her chin with the tips of his fingers, “you—”
“Don’t touch me,” she bit defensively, pulling away.
Caius grabbed her chin. “I shall do whatever I please.”
With her free hand, she dug her fingers into the underside of Caius’ wrist and wrenched his hand away. “Over my dead body.”
Caius gave her a look of contempt before striking her.
She stared at him loathingly, her eyebrows knitted together in fury, as her hand rose of its own accord to brush her now stinging cheek.
“That can be arranged.”
The malice in his voice sent spikes of fear through her as his lips pulled into an unsettling smile, leaving her with no doubt that he would live up to the threat gladly.
“You can’t do this! I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Caius gave a maniacal laugh, walking from the cell and leaving her with Braxton.
Braxton released her arm. “Do not push him.” Then locked the door behind himself.”
Tears began sliding down her face. She wiped them away with a shaky hand but more kept coming and refused to stop.
Braxton stood outside the cell again, this time, alone. Keegan was curled into a ball on the cot. It had been all too easy to see the terror on her face before and he hated himself for having taken part in its cause. Steeling himself, he pushed open the door. As it scraped across the stone floor, Keegan bolted up, the same expression already on her face.
He gently took hold of her arm, causing her to flinch. He could feel her trembling.
She stood when prompted and looked at him blankly before lashing out.
He quickly spun her around, wrenching her arm behind her back, and pushed her from the cell. As they walked, he could not bring himself to look at her.
Rounding a corner, he could see the two soldiers waiting for them outside the Red Room and the girl instinctively began fighting against him again.
“What took you so long?” one asked, an air of agitation in his voice. “He’s been waiting.”
Braxton understood the subtle warning, “I am here now.”
As the soldiers opened the door, he pulled Keegan through. Waiting inside, as they had said, was his father, along with Kolt.
A chair sat in the center of the room and Keegan strained against him; it would have taken a blind man to overlook the gaping scars in the chair’s wood and the deep red stains. Various instruments designed to cause pain hung around the walls and chains dangled from the ceiling.
Braxton did his best to hide his revulsion to the strong scent of iron in the air and forced Keegan to sit.
Caius told him, “You know better than to keep me waiting.”
“I apologize, father,” Braxton bowed his head.
Keegan looked between them, questions hanging in her eyes. Plucking up her courage, she asked, “What do y’all want with me?”
Caius went towards her. “Do not speak unless spoken to.”
In a show of false bravado, she did not choose her words carefully. “Who died and made you king?”
Braxton saw anger pull at his father’s face, but just as soon as it surfaced, it was pushed away.
Turning to Kolt, Caius asked, “Would you care to deal with this?”
“Kolt smiled and Keegan paled as she realized the magnitude of her blunder.
“You will show us respect,” Kolt yelled.
She responded to the verbal assault by covering her head and bringing one knee up to guard her torso.
“You are nothing,” Kolt spat, placing his hands on the chair’s armrests. “You will do as we say. Understand?”
Her eyes did not lift.
Kolt grabbed the front of her shirt and flung her from the chair.
She landed on her hands and knees and quickly tried to stand, seeming to know what was coming next. The kick caught her in the stomach, leaving her winded.
Braxton knew the beating would continue unless he stepped in. His brother was cruel—even more so than their father. He moved between them as Kolt brought his foot back to kick again. “Stop.” The kick landed on his own shin and he winced. “She did not challenge you.”
Kolt shoved him aside and knelt beside the girl. “Do you understand?”
She looked at him with watery hazel eyes and gave a slight nod.
Grabbing her arm, Kolt shoved her back into the chair then clutched her chin and drew closer to her. He gave a wicked smile, running his thumb along her lips before retreating to where their father stood.
Keegan hiccupped and took a shallow breath.
“Where do you hail from?” Caius asked with a knowing smile.
“Charlotte,” she answered meekly.
Braxton was taken aback by her answer. Most times, Caius asked a question, made his way into people’s minds, and answered himself to further mystify and baffle them. As a telepath, by simply making an inquiry, he could lead their thoughts to where he wanted them to go.
Frustration pulled at the corners of his father’s lips and confusion knitted his brows. “Where is this Charlotte?”
Caius paused, something striking a chord with him. “North Carolina,” he repeated, as if trying the words out. “How curious, I know of that place, but not of Charlotte.”
There was no such place as Charlotte or North Carolina in Arciol; how could his father be familiar with the latter?
“It’s not like it’s the biggest city in the state,” Keegan said sarcastically.
Caius snarled a warning, “Watch your mouth.”
She looked away in compliance.
“Where are you from?”
“There is no such place.”
“Yes, there is.”
“Where are you from?”
There was a false calm about Caius, but Braxton knew the subtle signs, he was becoming increasingly agitated.
“Charlotte. But I go to school in Wilmington,” Keegan offered.
“Tell me about Wilmington.”
“Uh… It’s a college town on the Cape Fear River.”
Braxton stood quietly, waiting for Caius to move to the next question.
Do it, boy! he heard his father yell, clearly dissatisfied with the answer.
Glancing at Keegan and hating himself, he struck her.
Caius turned his back to them and was replaced by Kolt as the interrogator. “How did you get here?”
Keegan shook her head, “I don’t know.”
“You have to know how you got here,” Caius said from the background.
“I- I don’t.”
“What do you know about the Lazado?” Kolt continued. “How were you planning to kill my father?”
“The who? And what?”
Kolt prepared to strike and she raised her arms in defense. Infuriated, he grabbed her hand and before Braxton could intervene, snapped one of her fingers.
Her cry tore at his heart. He clenched his fists and retreated within his mind; he had to, for his sake. Stealing a glance at her finger, he was relieved to see it was merely dislocated.
“Tell us what we want to know,” Kolt demanded, placing his hand around the girl’s throat.
“I am,” she wheezed, kicking him back. She would rather endure pain than face death.
The screams she emitted were painful to hear and Braxton stared at the wall, refusing to look at what was happening.
By the time he returned her to the cell, she was compliant and seemed to care little about where he took her. Already a few cuts and quickly forming bruises marred her features. He let her walk into the cell of her own accord.
Without a sound, she rolled into a ball on the cot, staring blankly at the wall, the hand with the dislocated finger cradled against her chest. He stood and watched her until the guards made the evening rounds, bringing trays of what could barely be called food.”
Aron wandered past the cell slowly, peering through the small, barred window. The girl lay curled up and it appeared she was asleep. Dark bruises mottled her face.
As he made his way through the castle’s corridors, his heart was tearing in two. He wanted to help the girl, but he feared his father more. His mind was dragged away from the girl as the dread of what he was about to face began to overwhelm him. Most evenings, he ate in the kitchen with the staff—at least they tolerated him. Because while he always had a place at the table as an Alagard, he was not truly welcome. He shuddered, recalling his three broken ribs from the last time he had dined with his family. The only reason he was braving the table tonight was because he wished to learn more about the girl.
Since birth, his family had found him to be nothing more than a nuisance—like a forever-present itch. As a child, he had struggled to understand why they disliked him, but at the age of five, Braxton had sat him down and explained; he was the reason their mother died.
Kolt, two at the time of their mother’s passing, had not understood why she was no longer present but had realized it was Aron’s doing—and had yet to forgive him. Braxton had been four, and while he too had been upset, he also understood Aron was not to blame.
As Aron grew, he began to look like his mother; it was one of the few reasons his father tolerated him to the extent he did, but also the reason he wanted nothing to do with him. Both were blessings.
While Braxton did not loathe him, he was being pulled in two different directions; he had lived long enough to be nurtured by their mother, but as the only elemental of the three boys, was under the cruel tutelage of their father. Never had Aron wished for the life Braxton led.
The dining hall’s large double doors loomed ahead and the two guards outside gave each other enquiring looks as he approached. His brothers were already inside.
Braxton sat with his feet propped on the table, cleaning his nails with a knife. He glanced at Aron before returning absentmindedly to his task.
Kolt stared at him with disgust.
Aron chose a seat at the far end of the long table, well outside of Kolt’s reach—or so he hoped. No one spoke and a strained silence fell around them. Time slipped by slowly until their father arrived.
When Caius saw Aron, he paused, then proceeded to disregard him as well. “Get your feet off the table,” he snapped at Braxton, “you were not raised in the fields.”
Food was brought out by servants. Aron ate slowly, more interested in what would be said about the girl.
“Keegan,” Kolt started, “she is—”
“A problem,” Caius finished. “I gathered that after I was unable to hear her thoughts.”
“How were you not able to get past her wall?” Braxton questioned, genuine surprise and concern in his voice.
“Royik if I know,” Caius answered, “But she will tell me what we want to know.”
“She told us what we wanted to know,” Braxton said quietly.
“Charlotte does not exist,” Kolt barked.
“I am having some doubts,” Caius said. “It has been well over two hundred years since my Nanagin.”
Aron quickly recalled everything he knew about Nanagins, which was not a great deal. They were rare magical portals, requiring one to be in just the right place at just the right time, and transported a person to another world. In Arciol, it left behind a destructive blast. Throughout history, there were only a handful of occurrences where an Arciolan had been able to return. When they did, they boasted accentuated powers, well above the abilities of others. From what they could determine, the more time spent in the other world, the greater the augmentation.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Kolt snapped.
“Nanagins transport a person to another world,” Caius began, “And I was taken to a port city called Wilmington in North Carolina. Quite a lot of time has passed; it is possible that much has changed.”
“I am inclined to believe that is the case,” Braxton agreed. “And she did mention Wilmington.”
“You would be stupid to believe her,” Kolt sneered.
“Either way, everyone has their breaking point,” Caius uttered, ignoring them.
“Breaking point for what?” Braxton snapped.
Kolt commented, “With Braxton that could take months.”
“Time is of no matter,” Caius said, ignoring Braxton’s question, “but if she is not broken within the week, you may take over if that suits you.”
Kolt grinned sinisterly at the prospect.
“Of what importance is she?” Aron asked boldly.
Kolt looked like he was going to fly across the table and beat him.
“He poses a good question,” Braxton remarked, shifting the attention away from Aron.
“Why?” Caius said. “Because she is the key to finding the Child of Prophecy.”
The Child of Prophecy—or the bane of Caius’ existence—was his father’s obsession that spanned longer than Aron’s nineteen years. Though Caius was the strongest elemental in the world, the Child of Prophecy was said to be stronger and the only person who could end his reign. While Aron, and most of the world, did not think that was such a horrible thing, Caius had devoted years to finding and destroying the child.
Aron stood up and quietly exited. It was best to leave while his father and Kolt were preoccupied with something other than him, and he had heard enough. Keegan would either reveal the whereabouts of the Child of Prophecy, or, she would die.
Leaning against a windowsill outside the dining hall, he gazed over the plains surrounding the castle. The sun had set, casting pink hues into the sky. While he wished no harm upon Keegan, to help her would mean a world of pain for him.