Atlantis the beginning, p.1
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Atlantis The Beginning, p.1

           A. Royden D'souza
Download  in MP3 audio
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Atlantis The Beginning
 

  ATLANTIS

  by

  A.ROYDEN D'SOUZA

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  This e book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with.

  Copyright © 2016 A. Royden D'souza. All rights reserved. Including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the author.

  Version 2016.12.25

  ISBN 978-1-365-73465-6

              

      Dedicated to

                Slim Shady

         

                                  

                     CONTENTS

  PROLOGUE : The Birth..............................................................7

  1. At the Arma...................................................................................30            

  2. The Hunter's Mark................................................................57

  3. Aboard the Dark Angel...................................................80

  4. Strangers at Beachcastle..................................................104

  5. The Imperial Feud..................................................................129

  6. Silver of Atlantis......................................................................151

  7. The Raid of Crystal Mill.................................................176

  8. To the Wolf Capital.............................................................195

  9. The Dark Side............................................................................211

  10. The Vampire Hunter.........................................................230

  11. The Lycan Council...............................................................256

  12. Pirates and Vampires.......................................................274

  13. An Ally in Acantha.............................................................291

  14. The Black Castle...................................................................309

  15. The Final Battle........................................................................306

  16. A City Beyond the Mountains...................................337

     

              ~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

  Prologue : The Birth

  The huge council chamber was dimly lit by a beautiful chandelier that hung from the ceiling. A magnificent carpet covered the floor. The members of the High Council were seated in stone chairs that stood against the circular wall of the chamber. The stone wall between the chairs was decorated with artistic carvings, depicting the mythical battles between gods and monsters.

  The Emperor of Aria, Viktor Grimm, sat on a high backed marble throne at the back of the chamber, directly opposite the ornate door. He had long, dark hair and slightly pointed ears. He was wearing a blood red armor, that gleamed in the dim light from the braziers. He looked like an ancient gray statue from a long forgotten time. His crimson eyes reflected the light from the chandelier, giving him a sinister look. The six members of the Imperial Guard stood on either side of his throne.

  On the seat to his right, sat Hector Talbot, the Wolf King of Lycaonia. He was huge and strongly built, with long, gray hair and white beard. He wore an untidy black cloak which covered the steel armor that he was wearing underneath.

  ''Has the Hunter been caught?'', asked Viktor.

  ''Not yet'', replied one of the council members. ''We asked Zelda to track his location, but she has not been very helpful''.

  ''Is that true?'', asked Viktor.

  ''The Hunter has found a way to evade my sight'', replied Zelda, who was standing among the Imperial Guard. The black raven on her shoulder croaked as if in agreement.

  ''Not to worry'', reassured Viktor, turning back to the council. ''I will send Valentine along with a few Vlarik''.

  ''That won't be enough'', said Hector. ''He is one of the original members of the Imperial Guard. He cannot be underestimated''.

  ''I cannot spare any more troops. Not till I have rooted out every hideout of the Resistance from my kingdom'', said Viktor, with a tone of finality, closing any discussion on the subject.

  Viktor turned towards the woman sitting second on his left.

  ''I hear there have been rebellions in Cerebrene?''.

  ''Yes, your grace. The elves are unhappy with the present administrative condition. A few have even deserted the kingdom to join the Resistance'', she replied, somberly.

  It was Irwen, an envoy from Cerebrene. She was attending the council on behalf of the Elf Queen. She was strikingly beautiful, with her delicate, sculpted features.

  She had brown eyes and high cheekbones, with long dark hair that flowed down her shoulders. She wore a sleek armor made of elven forged steel, underneath a green cloak, clasped at the hollow of her neck with a rose shaped brooch. Upon her brow, rested a silver circlet, inlaid with gems.

  ''The Resistance must be brought to an end once and for all'', snarled Viktor, his voice layered with malice. ''The Hunter is still on the loose and the rebels are gaining strength. I want you to send more soldiers to the north'', he said, addressing the council. ''I will send Stonearm with the remaining troops to cleanse the Empire of all the rebellious scum''.

  At that moment, the heavy doors opened and a messenger entered the chamber, with a scroll in his hand. He  bowed, before presenting it to the Emperor.

  ''An urgent message from Atticus, my lord''.

  Viktor took the scroll from the messenger and dismissed him. As he began reading it, his eyes narrowed and a shadow passed across his face. He held it up for all the council to see.

  It was a sketch of a red haired girl with blue eyes. Lucien stiffened when he caught a glimpse of the picture. Zelda threw him a suspicious glance, before turning her attention back to the scroll.

  ''This is ill news indeed. She must be dealt with before she causes any trouble'', said one of the council members.

  ''But she is not born yet. It is just a foolish prophecy'', replied another, with a exasperated wave of his hand.

  For the next few seconds, the chamber was filled with murmurs and whispers.

  ''Quiet'', snarled the Emperor.

  ''Zelda'', he called, motioning with is finger.

  ''Yes, my lord'', she replied, stepping forward.

  Viktor gave her the scroll and said, ''I want you to track her with your magic''.

  ''I won't be able to track an unborn child, my lord''.

  ''The mother'', he snapped.

  He turned to the council, ''Send our men to all the corners of the Empire. I want  her found, dead or alive'', he thundered.

  ''Leave! I have an important task that needs my attention'', he said in a cold voice. Everyone stood up, bowed and walked out of the chamber.

             _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

              

  It was always cold and gloomy in Argent. Dark clouds drifted across the sky, covering the sun. On its outskirts, upon a hill overlooking the city, stood the castle of Lord Lucien Ironfang of the Imperial Guard. It was surrounded by large trees that towered over its walls. Servants could be seen
attending to their work around the castle. Lucien's wife Victoria was picking flowers in the garden, humming to herself.

  She was beautiful with reddish brown hair and amber eyes. She smiled, feeling the hump on her stomach. She was excited, as she was expecting a child.

  She stiffened, as she felt a soft breeze caress her face. She looked up to see her husband standing in front of her. He looked grim, different from his usual cheerful self. He looked tired and nervous.

  ''What troubles you, my lord?'', she asked, looking at her husband with concern.

  ''A message was sent from Atticus foretelling the downfall of the Empire'', he said looking at her gravely. ''The prophecy warned about a red haired girl. She is a splitting image of you. I suspect it might be our unborn child. You are not safe here. Viktor has already sent his men and the Witch will start looking for you soon enough. You have to leave Aria''.

  ''The Emperor? But he has been so nice to us'', said Victoria, puzzled.

  ''Only because of my father. But he won't take kindly to a threat to his throne. You do not know Viktor like I do''.

  She looked at him with a shocked expression on her face. She would not let anything happen to her child. If what Lucien had said was true, she had to go as far as possible from the capital. She did not want to leave without her husband. She loved him more than anything in the world, but she had no other choice. She was ready to sacrifice anything, if it meant the safety of her child.

  ''We cannot put our child's life in danger. We must protect her at all costs. I will leave at dawn, and I will take Isabella with me'', she said, her face set with determination.

  ''I wish I could come with you, but if I leave, Viktor will know of my betrayal and he will have half the Guard on my tail. You should go to Brytos. I have a friend in Acantha. Go there and ask for Tristan Black. He will help you find a safe place in Brytos. Stay there for a while. I will come for you when all this is over, I promise'', he said looking at her.

           

  Victoria set out at the break of dawn, along with her handmaiden, Isabella, and two of her most elite guards. They had packed the necessary rations for the journey in their saddlebags. Her sword, Shadowfang, was concealed under her cloak.

  Lucien had given it to her the day before she set out from the vampire capital, Argent. It had a blue moonstone embedded on its pommel and a red sunstone on the cross guard. ''This is Shadowfang, one of the five great swords. It is not an ordinary sword. It is said that, these swords belonged to the gods themselves. Its blade is lethal to both vampires and werewolves. Carry it with you at all times'', he had said.

  They took the road for some time, before diverting to a forest path to the left, towards the Risetta River. They mostly kept to the woods, which would hide them from Viktor's men. They would follow the river till Theos. She knew it was just a matter of time before the Witch located her position. She had to move fast. The path was narrow and covered with brambles and bushes on either side.

  The river rushed by, gorged by tiny streams. It was a brute force of nature, battling against rocks and boulders that barred its way. They made good progress, until they stopped to take some rest when the horses got tired.

  By nightfall, they came across a small fishing village, a cluster of brown buildings, on the banks of  lake Westria. White smoke rose from the chimneys. The settlement was secluded and surrounded by lush, beautiful land. 

  The village was composed of log buildings with low thatched roofs and wide porches. They stopped at the only Inn to spend  the night. Victoria sent Isabella  to see if there was any news from the capital. She returned  after some time with a troubled expression on her face. ''We should keep moving. I got some information at  a local tavern that some soldiers had come by, the day before yesterday, looking for a red haired woman. Looks like the Emperor already knows about you''.

  ''The Witch must have located me. Get the necessary supplies and tell the men to ready the horses. We leave before dawn'', she said looking at Isabella.

  She was the only one Victoria could trust besides Lucien. Bella was like a sister to her. She had always been there for her ever since Lucien had brought her to his castle in Argent.

  They started at sunrise. Within a few hours, daybreak finally started to flood the sky with warm sunlight. They continued their journey along the banks of the lake, keeping to the cover of the trees.

  It was not long before they heard the roar of Kil falls, where the lake spilled down the mossy cliffs into ravine below, where it would continue as River Kilway to join the sea. They camped some ways back from the falls. If they continued at this pace they would reach Theos within a week.

  The next day they continued their journey east. They were halfway between lake Westria and Theos, and it was nearly dusk, when the sky was blanketed with heavy, dark clouds. The wind started howling, threatening to rip away the boughs of trees.

  Soon the air was filled with cold, heavy mist as the gray water started pelting against the leafy roof overhead. Everything was blurred by the heavy, relentless downpour.

  They were forced to find shelter under a rock outcropping. Since it was already dark, they decided to spend the night. They removed their saddlebags, before picketing the horses under a nearby cluster of trees, which would shield them from the battering rain .

  Victoria was woken up the next morning by an anxious Bella. The rain had abated and the sun had already come up, lighting up the surrounding land in bright, brilliant colors.

  ''We have company'', said Bella, fear clearly showing on her face.

  They heard the voices getting nearer. Her guards were ready with drawn swords. She sprang to her feet and fumbled around for Shadowfang, which she found near her pack. The voices got louder and a dozen men stepped out of the woods. They were tall and wore brown cloaks that blended well with the surroundings. They carried longbows and their swords were strapped to their sides.

  One of them stepped forward and removed his hood. He had long brown hair and a scruffy beard. He smiled at them and said, ''You can lower your weapons. We mean you no harm''.

  Victoria lowered her sword when she realized that these were not Viktor's men. She gestured at her guards to do the same.

  The leader looked at her and said, ''I am  Zelroth Blackwood, captain of this company. We were expecting you. We know that you were headed to Acantha, but you cannot go there. Viktor has already sent his soldiers to Theos and Acantha. Come with us. We will take you to our hideout at Jedborough. You will be safe from Viktor's soldiers''.

  She had no other choice. She wasn't safe anywhere in the kingdom. She might as well take her chances with these rebels.

  ''We will come with you, but let my men go back home. They have their families to return to'', she said.

  ''Can we trust them to keep their mouth shut?'', asked the leader.

  ''Yes. They are mute. They cannot speak even if they wanted to'', she replied.

  The leader agreed to let them go. Then he escorted Victoria and Isabella back to his camp. There were a dozen tents sprawled across the clearing. Within a few a minutes, the men had finished packing and were ready to leave.

  ''Wear this'', said Zelroth, handing a hooded cape to Victoria. ''We will keep to the woods most of the time, but I don't want take any chances''.

  After a week of riding they were able to see the hills of Jedborough at a distance, surrounded by a dense forest.

  Victoria's legs were sore from riding continuously for so long and the sun was beating down on them with unrelenting intensity.

  She heaved a sigh of relief when they finally entered the forest, grateful for the shade of trees. She heard the chirping of birds and chattering of squirrels as they rode on in silence.

  The trees were tall with knobby roots that jutted out of the soil. Vines and creepers crawled on the ground, which was carpeted with grass and ferns.

  Finally, the woodland started to grow thinner as they reached the foot of a hill. In front of them was a narrow valley.
A small shallow stream of water was flowing out through it.

  She felt a prickling sensation on the back of her neck as if they were being watched. She glanced around the valley, but did not see anything out of ordinary. Everything was silent except for the tinkling of water and the clattering of hooves on the stones.

  They stopped when they were halfway through the valley. There was nothing but huge boulders and trees as far as Victoria could see. Zelroth jumped down from his saddle and walked towards the steep rock outcropping on the hillside.

  He picked up a rock and rapped on the stone face in a complicated sequence. After a few seconds, a part of the rock face started moving sideways, revealing an entrance.

  Zelroth nodded at Victoria and entered. She followed him and gasped in surprise as she entered a huge cave. It was lit by a number of lanterns attached to the wall. A line of armed men stood inside, pointing their spears at the doorway. They relaxed when they saw Zelroth and drew back.

  The cave was bustling with hundreds of people. The men wore leather armor and had daggers at their waists. There were women too. She even saw a couple of children playing in the corner.

  ''What is this place?'', asked Victoria, looking around with awe.

  ''This is a temporary base for the Resistance'', answered Zelroth. ''I will have someone take you to your quarters. Make yourself at home. Ask if you need anything''.

  The servants took away the horses to the stables. The cave was huge and there were doorways that led to other rooms. It was like a small village inside the cave.

  A couple of maids stepped forward and escorted Victoria and Bella to their respective quarters. Victoria looked around her cave room and sighed.

  There was a bed in the corner, along with a fresh set of clothes. It had been a long journey and she was tired. She placed Shadowfang in the corner and changed, before settling down on the bed. It was very uncomfortable, but after a while, she finally fell asleep.

  The next day, after a long bath, Victoria and Bella went to the kitchens, where they had their breakfast.

  They were about to return to their quarters, when she saw one of Zelroth's men walking towards her.

  ''Lady Victoria'', he said. ''You have been summoned by the Commander''.

  They followed the messenger, who escorted them to an intricate door at the end of the hallway.

  Bella nodded at her. ''I will be waiting outside'', she smiled.

  The commander was sitting on a high backed wooden chair, behind a table covered with maps and books. The wall behind him was carved into niches which contained hundreds of scrolls. The wall on the right side was made into a large bookshelf containing hundreds of books and the left wall was covered with a map of Aria.

  ''Welcome, my lady'', he said, as he stood up and gave her a slight bow. ''My name is Damien Hunt, Commander of the Resistance in the south''.

  He had close cropped black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He had a strong build with broad shoulders. His neck was branded with the tattoo of a black trident, the Hunter's mark. He spoke with a deep and confident voice.

  She had heard about the Resistance. It was a rebel organization that was formed after Viktor had taken over the throne.

  ''You know why you were brought here?'', he asked.

  ''Because of the prophecy, I presume?''.

  ''Yes. Viktor has already started sending his elites after you. This cave is warded against the Witch's sight. We will protect you at all costs. We want to keep you safe''.

  Victoria raised an eyebrow. ''Me or my child?'', she asked, a slight smile curving her lips.

  ''Both of you'', replied Damien, watching her carefully. ''Viktor grows stronger everyday and you are our only hope''.

  ''Why do you fight against the Empire?'', questioned Victoria, curiously. She had always thought that Viktor was a good Emperor, until recently.

  ''Since you are from Argent, I am not sure if you know this, but Viktor is a cold blooded monster. The whole kingdom suffers under his rule, except the capitals. Villages are being pillaged by vampire covens which have started coming south. Children are taken away from their families and turned to join his army. We had no hope until we came to know about the prophecy. Your child is our only hope'', he said looking at her.

  ''I had no idea'', gasped Victoria, horrified.

  She was silent for a while, before she asked, ''Who started the Resistance?''.

  ''Aries Grissom. He is the founder of the Resistance''.

  ''But why?''.

  ''I will have to tell you the whole story'', he said. ''Before Viktor took over the throne, Aria was ruled by a human king, very kind and benevolent. He was a good administrator, but old and frail. The High Council formed an Imperial Guard to protect him, consisting of the strongest warriors from all over Aria. Six members made up the guard, Lucien Ironfang of Argent, Royston Stonearm of the giant sword, the Witch, Zelda Hallowlight, Silver, a hunter from Atlantis, Europa Wynren, an elf warrior from Cerebrene and Carter Dohr of Targantine. They were the original members of the Imperial Guard''.

  ''At that time, Viktor Grimm was in the  High council, on behalf of Orpheus Ironfang, the Vampire King of Argent. In his greed for power he made an unlikely alliance with a fellow council member, none other than the unruly Wolf King of Lycaonia, Hector Talbot. Orpheus was not happy with the alliance, because of his enmity with the Wolf King, but for some reason, even he feared Viktor. Together, they massacred the whole council. They even convinced the Witch, Zelda, of the Imperial Guard to join them, and together they became unstoppable. Even the Imperial Guard failed to keep them in check. Europa Wynren retreated to Cerebrene and Carter Dohr was slaughtered in cold blood''.

  ''What about the rest of the Guard?''.

  ''Lucien had no choice, but to join Viktor, as his father, the Vampire King of Argent, had already sworn allegiance to the Emperor. Stonearm surrendered and was given a position in the new Imperial Guard. Silver was the only one who remained a real threat to the Emperor. He escaped from the capital, taking with him, a valued possession of Viktor. Even I do not know what it is, but it was important enough for Viktor to send his most elite troops to hunt him down. But it was too late. Silver had disappeared without a trace. Nobody knew where he was. The Emperor imposed a huge bounty on his head, but no one has had any luck capturing him till now'', said Damien.

  ''What happened then?'', asked Victoria, her eyes wide with curiosity.

  ''The military general, Aries Grissom stood his ground against Viktor, but he was no match for the Vampire Lord. After being severely wounded, he fled beyond the northern mountains, along with a handful of men who remained faithful to him, seeking refuge in the city of Crystal Vale. With their help, he formed the Resistance''.

  ''Viktor Grimm declared himself Emperor over all the kingdoms of Aria, thus ushering in the rule of Grimoire Empire'', he continued. ''Now, he has his eyes on you. The Witch will track you down sooner or later and you might not be safe here. We will help you get to Atlantis. It is the only country free of Viktor's hold''.

         

  Slowly the days turned to weeks. One day, Victoria was sitting by the stream outside the cave, chatting with Bella, when she felt a sharp pain in her tummy. She gasped and was about to collapse, when Bella caught her. She was having a contraction.

  Bella escorted her inside and along with two other midwives she took her to an empty room and made her lay down on the bed. One of them went to get the necessary materials for the delivery.

  The midwives sat at her feet. Victoria screamed again from another contraction. Bella was wiping her forehead with a wet cloth. Moments passed by as they waited for another contraction.

  ''Its alright, now push'', said the midwife.

  Victoria closed her eyes and grimaced in pain as she pushed again.

  ''Keep going, I can see the head'', said one of the midwives, excitedly.

  She pushed with all her might. ''The baby is out'', exclaimed the midwife. She examined the child. ''It's a girl!'',
she smiled, as she handed over the baby to her mother.

  ''She is so cute''. Victoria's eyes filled with tears of joy. Tufts of reddish brown hair covered its tiny head.

  ''I have decided to name her Scarlett Hope'', Victoria said, looking proudly at her child.

  A month had passed since the birth of the child. Victoria was sleeping in her room and her child was lying in a cradle beside her bed, when she was suddenly woken by the loud noises outside her room.

  She heard the sound of hooves clattering against the stone floor. She grabbed her sword from the corner and as she walked out, Bella came out of her room and joined her.

  ''What is going on?'', asked Victoria.

  ''I don't know, let's find out'', replied Bella.

  They saw people running around. The men were riding out through the front in their armor, ready for battle.

  The commander was standing at the entrance, fully armored with a sword in his hand. When he saw her, he rushed to her side. ''The Empire's soldiers have already found us. Take the child and run. Take the escape tunnels. We will stall them'', he said.

  Suddenly, they heard terrified screams at the entrance of the cave and a few seconds later, something gigantic entered through the doorway. The commander whirled around and cursed. He looked back at them and said, ''Leave, now''.

  But the giant was already in front of him. As the commander raised his sword, the giant swatted him aside with the flat of his huge blade. He was thrown back at the wall, where he hit his head and dropped down to the floor, unconscious.

  The giant was none other than Royston Stonearm of the Imperial Guard. He was about fifteen feet tall. He wore a heavy armor and carried a huge scimitar, which was almost as big as the giant himself.

  As Stonearm turned his cold eyes on them, Victoria froze in terror. Bella stepped in front of her, with a sword in her hand. She was trembling with fear. The giant raised his blade and swung at her. She flinched and averted her eyes.

  Suddenly, there was a flash and a loud metallic clang. Both Bella and Victoria were knocked off their feet by the shock wave of the impact.

  She looked up and saw a hooded figure standing in front of her, blocking the giant's blade with a huge black sword. The pommel of the sword was shaped like a skull, holding a black stone in its mouth.

  The hooded man looked back at them and said, ''Leave, before the rest of them arrive. You are in grave danger. Take the child and run'', he said, pushing against the giant's blade.

  Victoria grabbed Bella's hand and started running towards her room. The cave reverberated with metallic clangs as he fought the giant, their blades clashing with deafening sound. As soon as Victoria reached her room, she whispered something in Bella's ears, picked up the baby in the cradle and together they ran towards the escape tunnels.

  Victoria ran through the eastern tunnel. Bella had taken the one going west. She ran as fast as she could, cradling the bundle in her arms. After what seemed like hours, she finally reached the exit, which was well hidden among the boulders. She carefully climbed out of the tunnel.

  ''Going somewhere?'', said a voice behind her. She whipped her head around and saw a teenage boy leaning against a rock face. He had blue eyes and long shoulder length black hair, that framed a thin face.

  ''Who are you?'', asked Victoria.

  ''It does not matter. Give me the child and I will spare your life'', he replied in a cold voice.

  ''No'', she said, clutching the bundle in her arms. She was about to turn and run when he raised his hand and muttered something. She froze, unable to move. He yanked the bundle out of her arms. As he pulled away the blankets, his face contorted with rage.

  ''Where is the child?'', he demanded, his hands trembling with anger.

  Victoria smiled with triumph. Her plan had worked. Her child was safe with Bella, who was on her way to Atlantis.

  ''You will never know'', she replied, slowly retrieving a dagger from between the folds of her cloak. As he was about to strike her in rage, she stabbed him in his chest and started to run.

  ''Ilia fucime'', he cursed, raising a trembling hand. Victoria gasped as she felt an invisible hand closing around her heart. Together, they collapsed to the ground, sinking into unconsciousness.

          

               ~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

  1. At The Arma

  I looked over my shoulder as I ran through the dark corridor. A number of slit like windows lined the right side of the wall. Suddenly, I heard a blood chilling howl behind me.

  The creature was huge, with blood red eyes and pitch black fur. A number of dagger like fangs showed as it opened its jaws and snarled. It dropped on all fours, bounding down the corridor after me.

  I turned and started running. The corridor started curving to the left. I ran as hard as I could, not even daring to catch my breath. I could hear its heavy footfalls, as the creature gained on me.

  Suddenly, the corridor opened into a broad hallway, but there was no door on the other side. It was a dead end. I stood there, frozen with fear, as the monster advanced. Suddenly I heard a voice calling my name...

  ''Scarlett! Scarlett! SCARLETT!...

  I woke up with a start, breathing heavily. Someone had been calling my name. My mind was still hazy from the horrifying nightmare when my eyes fell upon a dark figure leaning over me.

  ''AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH !''.

  ''Scar, it's me! Are you trying to wake up the whole dormitory?''.

  I relaxed when I heard the familiar voice. It was just Alice. She went over to the window and threw back the curtains. Faint moonlight filtered through the glass, dimly illuminating the room.

  ''What were you doing?! You almost scared me to death''.

  ''I was just trying to wake you up. You were tossing around and muttering in your sleep'', she said, in an anxious tone. ''Are you alright?''.

  ''I think so. Just a bad nightmare'', I sighed, slumping back on my pillow.

  She gave me a suspicious look before returning to her bed. I felt a shiver crawl through my spine as I remembered the nightmare. It had felt so real.

  I glanced around the room nervously. It was same as how it was when I had first arrived here, with two beds  and two lockers and a table in the corner with two chairs.

  My sword, Shadowfang, faintly gleamed on the table. It was a strange sword, with its black blade and the two stones on its pommel. My mother had given it to me during the selection. She had told me that it was my father's sword. A family heirloom. That was the only time she had ever talked about my father. I often wondered who he was. I sighed, leaning back on my pillow. After a few seconds, I slowly drifted back into sleep.

  My eyes fluttered open as I felt a cold, tickling sensation on my face. I swore in anger when I saw Alice standing on my bed with a watering can. I picked up my pillow and hurled it at her, but she was too fast. She ducked and stuck out her tongue at me. I looked at the window. The dawn was just beginning to break.

  ''Why are you up so early?'', I scowled, wiping my face with the blanket.

  ''You know what day it is, don't you?'', she smirked.

  ''The test'', I groaned.

  I slipped out of bed and went to the bathroom, where I filled the tub with warm water. I undressed and slipped into the tub. The water was steaming hot, just like I preferred. I leaned back and sighed as it soothed and relaxed my muscles.

  After I had soaped, I toweled myself and pulled on a fresh set of clothes. As I looked into the mirror, my blue eyes stared back at me. I let my hair dry for a few minutes, before pulling it back in a ponytail.

  Today was a big day at the Arma. It was the day of the final test. The day which would determine whether I was worthy to be a fully fledged hunter.

  The Arma was a training academy for hunters and mages. It was located on the outskirts of Poseidonia, the capital of Atlantis. It was the best training academy in all of Atlantis.

  Children from all over Atlantis were sent to the academy at the age of five to undergo
basic survival training. The humans underwent hard physical and battle training, while the mages were trained to control their magic.

  After undergoing five years of basic training, ten strongest and worthy students, five humans and five mages were selected each year to undergo advanced training for the next five years, at the end of which a test was held.

  Two pupils, one human and one mage, with the maximum points were awarded the Hunter's mark, acknowledging them as fully fledged hunters. The tests were never the same. I was excited, as I had been waiting for this day for the last five years.

  When I walked out of the bath, Alice had already finished wearing her armor. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun, with a few strands hanging loose. Her blood red armor perfectly complimented her pale skin.

  She was fifteen years old, a few months older than me. She was an orphan and had no family. One of the masters had found her abandoned on the streets and brought her to the academy when she was just four years of age. We had been best friends since our first year at the academy. She was like an elder sister I never had.

  ''Get ready slowpoke, we are supposed to assemble in one hour'', she said.

  ''Give me a few minutes''.

  Alice helped me with my armor. I strapped on the bracers on my forearms, before belting on Shadowfang round my waist. I grabbed my helm and together, we went to the mess.

  We piled our platters with some meat, bread and steaming mushrooms, before making our way to an empty table at the corner. Students kept streaming in, and after a few minutes, the whole mess was bustling with people.

  After we had eaten our fill, we walked out into the grounds, where all the pupils had gathered. We joined one of the lines.

  The Arma was surrounded by the dark forest to the east and a small lake to the south. The forest was out of bounds for the students and was surrounded by a magical fence. We were required to stay at the academy till the end of our training.

  The head of staff at the academy, Kaiser Hale, was a member of the Atlantian council. He was standing on a dais in front of the huge crowd of students. He raised his hand for silence, before he started speaking.

  ''Some of you have already completed your training and are waiting to get out into the world. The time has come to test your skills. Only two of you will be leaving the academy with the Hunter's mark. This year, the test is going to be more dangerous than before. It will take all the skills you have gained here, to come out of this alive'', he said.

  ''It has been rumored that one of the five ancient magical swords, lies in the fallen castle, hidden within its walls, in the middle of the cursed forest. The task of the participants is to find the sword and bring it back. You will be divided into pairs, one mage and one human. The first pair to return with the sword will be awarded the Hunter's mark. As you all know, the forest is a dangerous place, even for hunters and mages. You are free to withdraw, if you so wish''.

  ''A rumor?'', grumbled Alice. ''We are supposed to find an imaginary sword?''.

  ''It might be real. He is just playing with our heads. Maybe he wants to see how many of us will give up at the beginning itself'', I whispered to Alice.

  I remembered the stories about the cursed forest that the master had told us during the history lessons. ''A long time ago, before the great forest was born, there was a beautiful city named Avantis, ruled by the Witch Queen, Asteria. She was blessed with both beauty and power, but she craved for more. She wanted eternal life. Her greed drove her to do terrible things. She used forbidden sacrificial magic. But there is always a price for using forbidden magic. As a punishment for her crimes, her life force was bound to the castle, forever cursed to haunt its halls, and her followers were doomed to serve her for eternity. Before long the city was forgotten along with its queen, buried within the green leafy depths of the forest'', he had said, but I had not believed him then. I shivered at the thought of going into the Witch Queen's castle.

  One of the masters came forward and started reciting the names of the participants from a scroll. ''The participants are, Vance Crypt with Belinda Vexx, Alice Black with Damon Crowe, Oliver Fenwick with Nicole Gilbert, Jessika Payne with Fendrell Godfrey, Scarlett Hope with Alexander Thorne'', he concluded.

  At least I was paired with a familiar face. Alec was my second best friend after Alice. The four of us including Damon had been friends since we had started at the academy. Alec was half a year older than me. He had black hair and green eyes. He waved at me and gave me a thumbs up.

  The Head master continued. ''Now you will be given half a day to prepare. You are allowed to carry weapons of your choice. It will take days to complete the task, so make sure to pack the necessary rations. All participants are required to assemble at the arena at sundown''.

  I went back to my room and stuffed the necessary items into my backpack. Alice returned after some time and started packing.

  ''Be careful not to bump into me in the forest, Scar. I might not be so gentle'', she said, winking at me.

  ''As if you can beat me'', I replied, mockingly.

  ''Yeah, right! We will see about that'', she replied, a mischievous smile curving her lips. ''Be careful though. I do not trust that Godfrey kid. He is one evil character''.

  At sundown we headed towards the arena, stuffing our mouth with food. The others had not yet arrived, so we waited at the seats. I started fiddling with my bracelet. It had a red stone pendant attached to the chain links. The stone looked similar to the one on the cross guard of Shadowfang.

  The sound of clattering swords reached us from the nearby grounds, where the juniors were training. Some were clashing with blades while the rest practiced with bows and arrows.

  After a few minutes, the rest of the participants arrived. We shouldered our heavy backpacks and walked down into the arena to join our partners.

  Master Kaiser called us near the gates of the arena. ''Now each pair will be taken to five different locations, from where you will be entering the forest. You will start only when I give the signal. Once you are inside the forest, you will be on your own'', he said, handing us a map. The masters came forward to escort us to the starting points.

  Alec and I were escorted by Julian Le Cordier, one of the swordplay masters. I noticed that we were being taken to the north edge of the forest. After a few minutes of walking, we reached a small arch with a gate marked with runes, beyond which stretched the cursed forest. It looked dark and foreboding in the twilight. We waited at the entrance for the signal. After some time, I heard a cannon blast and the master nodded.

  ''Be very careful out there. Don't ever let down your guard. There are vile creatures in that forest that are beyond your abilities. You will need to use both brain and brawn. Remember everything you have learned till now'', he warned.

  I looked at Alec. He looked a little nervous. The master placed his hands on the front of the gate and the runes glowed. After a few seconds the gate slowly creaked open.

  I had been in here once before, even though it was a different part of the forest. It hadn't been a very pleasant experience. I glanced around nervously, as the gate closed behind us. I looked at Alec and nodded, as we set out into the darkening woods.

  Alec was an elemental mage, and had the power to control the four basic elements, earth, water, wind and fire, but it required a lot of stamina. Alec had almost mastered water, fire and earth magic, but he was still struggling with wind magic.

  There were five mage bloodlines in Atlantis. The five families used different kind of magic. Alice's partner Damon belonged to the Crowe family which specialized in woodland magic. There were other magic users too, but their powers were not as impressive as the five major bloodlines.

  We walked through the dense undergrowth, stumbling over roots and creepers. After plodding on for some time, it started to get dark and we were unable to move forward. So we decided to camp in a small clearing.

  I spread the map on the ground after Alec had finished building a fire. The location of the castle was marked on
the map.

  ''We are still here'', I said, pointing at the spot near the edge of the forest. ''We still have two or three days march up north''.

  The next morning, a light mist had settled in, making it difficult to see the path.

  ''Let's go to higher ground'', I said.

  ''Yeah, you are right. I can't  even see my own feet in this fog''.

  After wandering for some time, we came across a small stream, which was flowing south. We followed it upstream and after some time the ground slowly started sloping upwards. On the way, we saw a couple of rabbits in a patch of grass. Alec raised his hand and two small pebbles rose into the air in front of him. He thrust out his hand  and the stones shot forward, piercing their tiny hearts.

  ''That is enough for a couple of days'', he smirked.

  I rolled my eyes and sighed. We skinned the rabbits and stuffed the meat into our backpacks, before continuing on our way.

  ''I cannot see anything through this damn helm'', I cursed, removing it. The smell of metal was irritating. I hooked it over a dead stump and sighed as I felt the cool breeze on my face. ''I will take it when we return''.

  ''Well, don't blame me when you get your pretty face scarred or your eye poked out by one of these branches'', snorted Alec.

  ''Alright then, you go first. I will walk behind you''.

  After plodding uphill for sometime, I found a tall tree and climbed up to a high branch. As I looked around, I saw an ocean of green stretching for miles in every direction. When I focused on the northern part of the forest, I saw a broken stone tower that rose above the treetops. It would probably take at least a day and a half to reach the castle.

  ''It's a day long march up north'', I informed Alec, as I climbed down from the tree.

  We continued on our way towards the castle. I kept one hand on the pommel of my sword. The back of my neck prickled as I felt the menace emanating from the forest.

  ''Do you think the story is real?'', asked Alec.

  ''What story?''.

  ''The one about the Witch Queen?''.

  ''Probably not'', I replied, uncertainly. ''Even if it is, I doubt she is alive after all this time''.

  ''What if she is?''.

  ''We kill her?''.

  ''Yeah, that is an excellent idea. Never occurred to me'', he replied in a sarcastic tone.

  We had covered most of the ground by nightfall. We decided to call it a day when we reached a small clearing by a stream.

  I gathered some fallen leaves and twigs in the clearing into a pile while Alec went to gather some dead branches. He returned after sometime with the wood, which he piled over the dry leaves. He placed his hands on the wood. The leaves started smoldering, before the wood burst into flames.

  I gathered some water in a vessel and kept it over the fire to boil. I tore four chunks off the rabbit meat and dropped them into the vessel and added some salt and spices for taste. We discussed our strategies for some time till the aroma of the stew wafted through the clearing.

  I took a couple of bowls from my pack and poured the stew into it.

  ''Here'', I said, handing a chunk of bread and a bowl of stew to Alec.

  ''Thank you'', he replied, eagerly accepting the food. He looked very hungry.

  We ate in silence and once we were full, we washed the vessels in the stream.

  ''I will take the first watch'', said Alec.

  ''Alright'', I nodded. ''Wake me when you feel sleepy''.

  I spread my bedroll on the ground and slumped down, using my backpack as a pillow. I watched the stars shining through the gaps in the leaves, listening to the sounds of the night. The chirping of crickets and the occasional hoot of an owl. I closed my eyes, and after a few minutes, I was fast asleep.

  The next day, we started early. I climbed a tree again to check our destination. I saw the tower more clearly along with the rest of the castle, surrounded by smaller buildings. We would probably reach it before sunset.

  ''Do you remember when we first entered this forest?'', asked Alec.

  ''Yes'', I smiled. ''We were twelve. They threatened to expel us''.

  ''I am sure going to miss the academy'', he sighed.

  ''Yeah'', I agreed, as I stooped to avoid a low hanging branch. I had not thought about what I was going to do after the training. I pushed the thought aside. I had plenty of time to worry about it after the test.

  We continued along the path. It was farther than I had thought. The ground was strewn with patches of flowers in between the dense grass, spreading their intoxicating aroma. A stream gurgled nearby.

  Around sundown, the trees started to thin and breaks appeared in the canopy. We passed through an arch made by two large trees leaning against each other, stopping at the edge of a huge clearing.

  ''Welcome to Avantis'', whispered Alec.

  ''Be wary'', I warned. ''If not for the Witch Queen, we must at least be on the lookout for traps''.

  We carefully made our way towards the ancient castle that loomed before us, surrounded by ruins of the long forgotten city. The cobbled streets were covered with long grass, with only some stones visible in between. The ruins were quiet and eerie.

  The back of my neck prickled as we walked towards the castle. I slowly drew my sword, careful not to make any sound. I had a strange feeling that we were being watched. I glanced around, but there was no one in sight.

  We finally reached the gates of the castle. One of the towers had fallen off and creepers had climbed the walls, burying their roots in between the crumbling stones. The thick wooden door, which was reinforced with metal bars, was hanging on its hinges.

  ''Do you think we should enter?'', asked Alec, looking around nervously.

  ''Yes, of course. We have to get that sword''.

  The heavy door made a squeaking a sound as we pushed past it. On the other side of the entrance hall, two stairways spiraled upwards on either side of an ornate door, which had caught mold. The ceiling was covered with cobwebs and a thick layer of dust lay on the floor. We walked through the door into an wide hallway lined with many similar doors.

  ''You search that one'', I said, pointing to the door on the left side of the hallway.

  Alec nodded. I turned towards the one on my right, entering into what appeared to be an old study. Above the fireplace was an old portrait of a beautiful woman. She had long dark hair and penetrating blue eyes, which seemed to be following our every move.

  I gasped when I saw an ancient sword that stood on an intricately decorated stand. I knew that was the sword we were looking for, because there was no smith in this world who could forge a sword like that. Its steel blade had thin black veins crisscrossing across it and it had a handle made of wrought iron with a leather grip. The pommel was shaped like a claw, which held a green stone. Its scabbard was lying beside it.

  ''Alec!'', I called. ''I think I found it''.

  ''What happened?'', he asked anxiously, as he came rushing in.

  His eyes widened in amazement when they fell upon the sword. ''It is magnificent''.

  Suddenly, I caught a movement through the corner of my eyes. It was the painting. The woman inside it was moving.

  ''Alec'', I gasped, pointing at the picture.

  He staggered back in horror as she rose out of the painting. She was clothed in blue robes, her skin pale and translucent. I froze as her blue eyes bored into mine.

  ''Does she look alive to you now?'', he whispered, his face pale with fear. His hand slowly inched towards his dagger.

  Suddenly, the woman shrieked in a shrill voice. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as the cry pierced through my ears. The windows shattered into a thousand pieces.

  ''I have a really bad feeling about this'', I said, as I charged forward and slashed with my sword. It passed right through her, as if she was made of smoke.

  The Witch Queen raised her hand and I was thrown back by an invisible force. I felt a sharp pain as I hit my head on the wall. I saw Alec sprawled across the floor, a few paces a
way from me. I screamed, as I felt another stab of pain in my head. Everything dissolved into darkness as I drifted off into  unconsciousness.

  When I opened my eyes, I was lying on the cold hard floor of the dungeons, bound and gagged. Alec was lying unconscious beside me. As I looked up, I was shocked to see Alice and Damon at the other end of the room. They were shackled to the wall. Alice nodded and winked at me when she saw that I was awake.

  They had probably arrived before us and had been ambushed by the Witch Queen. There were no side windows and the floor was slightly damp. Someone was standing guard outside the cell, but he was facing the other way.

  Alice caught my eye and looked at Alec. I nodded and rolled against him trying to wake him up. After several tries he finally began to stir. He woke up and looked around, taking in his surroundings with groggy eyes.

  I gestured with my head at his hands. He seemed to understand and nodded. He closed his eyes and concentrated. The ropes binding his hands started to smolder.

  As the last of the rope was burnt to ash, he flexed his hands and untied the ropes binding his feet, without making a sound. Then he started on the ropes binding my hands. The guard seemed to be oblivious to our efforts.

  As soon as I was free, I slowly crept forward towards the iron bars. The guard was still facing the other way.

  Suddenly, without warning, he turned back, looking straight at me. I gasped in horror as I saw his features. The flesh on his face had rotten away, exposing the skull underneath. The stench of dead meat hit my nose and I staggered back, but before it could raise an alarm, Alec thrust out his hand and a spire of rock shot out of the ground, impaling the guard.

  Then we proceeded to free our friends. Once everyone was free, we tried opening the door, but it wouldn't budge.

  ''Alec'', said Alice, gesturing at the door, bowing mockingly.

  ''Do I have to do all the work around here?'', he sighed, as he placed his hands on the lock. After a few minutes the lock was lying on the floor, in a puddle of molten metal.

  ''Wait a minute'', mumbled Alec, leaning against the wall. He looked exhausted.

  As soon as he had recovered, we carefully edged towards the end of the corridor, where we found a staircase leading to the upper part of the castle.

  We started up the staircase which led into another room which held the keys to the dungeons. Our backpacks and weapons were lying in a corner. Other than that, it seemed to be empty.

  ''We have to get that sword'', I said. ''We cannot give up now''.

  They nodded in agreement.

  We grabbed our things and walked towards the door on the other side, which led into another room. It had circular walls with three different doors.

  ''What now?'', asked Damon.

  ''We split up'', I said. ''You and Alice take that one'', I said, pointing at the door on our left. Alec and I walked through the one on our right.

  After passing through a couple of doorways, we came across a large, intricately carved door. I pushed it open and peered inside. It appeared to be empty.

  I nodded at Alec and we entered, careful not to make a sound. It was the throne room of the castle. As we walked towards the door at the side, I heard strange growls coming from the shadows. I grabbed Alec's hand and pulled him back.

  ''We are not alone''.

  A dozen undead corpses were closing in on us. They had appeared out of nowhere. I braced myself, ready to fight.

  Suddenly, I heard a cackling sound and whirled around. The ghostly form of the Witch Queen was floating at the doorway. Her pale skin shimmered in the sunlight that filtered through the high windows above. She raised her hand and started muttering a curse.

  ''Run!'', I shouted.

  But, even before I could turn, I felt invisible hands tightening around my neck. I gasped for air, clutching at my throat. Alec was on the floor, struggling to breathe. 

  At that moment, I heard a gasp and the hold on my neck slackened. It was the Witch Queen. She was looking down at the blade protruding from her chest with a shocked expression on her face. She gave a loud wail, as she started dissolving into dust.

  Alice was standing in the doorway with the magic sword in her hand.

  ''Just in time, Alice'', I said, smiling at her gratefully, massaging my neck.

  ''How did you know it would kill her?'', asked Alec, standing up.

  ''Just a hunch'', she winked. ''Look out!''.

  I whirled around, swinging my blade. It caught the creeping undead in the shoulder. I pulled back my blade and plunged it through its heart.

  We charged through the remaining undead. They were no match for all four of us. As soon as the last one fell, we piled up their bodies and set them on fire.

  As we passed through the gate, more undead started pouring out from the ruins. Alice charged forward with the magic sword, vaporizing the undead soldiers in her path. The sword sliced through armor and shields.

  More undead were closing in. Damon knelt down, placing both his hands on the ground and closed his eyes in concentration.

  Suddenly, roots shot out from the ground and grabbed the undead, dragging them into the earth. Alec ran his hand along the length of his blade and it burst into flames. Any undead touched by his sword was burned to ashes. We continued our assault till there was no undead left standing.

  ''That was exhausting'', Alice said, sitting on the ground and catching her breath.

  ''Let's get out of here'', said Damon, throwing a nervous glance at the castle.

  We made our way back into the forest. We had completed the task, but it was not over. We still had to get the sword back to the Arma.

  Damon was staggering as we walked back through the ruins. He had used too much energy. We decided to rest for a while as it was already getting dark.

  We made camp at the outskirts of the fallen city. We built a fire and I kept the water for boiling.

  Alec returned after some time with a small doe on his back. We cooked only half of it, storing the rest of the meat in our packs.

  As soon we had finished eating, we cleaned and packed the utensils, before spreading our bedrolls on the ground.

  ''I'll take the first watch'', I said, sitting on a fallen brick.

  ''I'll take the second'', said Alice, as she snuggled into her sheets.

  Damon was already snoring. I was starting to feel uneasy. I glanced around nervously, but there wasn't anyone in sight. I sighed, as I started picking at the ground with my blade.

  We started back at sunrise. Going back was easy, as we were already familiar with the path. After two days, we had covered most of the way.

  We stopped to rest in a small clearing beside a brook. Damon and I went to search for food while Alice and Alec gathered firewood. We searched for an hour, but did not come across a single animal.

  ''We have been searching for almost an hour'', sighed Damon. ''We have to split up and search''.

  ''I agree.  I will follow the brook. It might lead to a watering hole''.

  He nodded, before he strode off in the opposite direction.

  After hiking for a while, I came across a watering hole, where the grass had been trampled by multiple hoof prints. I nocked an arrow and waited behind a tree.

  Suddenly, I heard a movement behind me. I whipped around and saw a huge bear standing at the edge of the clearing. I tightened the grip on my bow.

  My eyes widened in surprise as Fendrell Godfrey, one of our fellow participants, stepped out from behind one of the trees, flanked by two huge tigers.

  I remembered that he could control animals. He belonged to the Godfrey family, one of the five great mage bloodlines of Atlantis.

  ''Where is Jessika?'', I asked, looking around.

  ''Give me the sword'', he demanded, ignoring my question.

  ''I don't have it'', I replied in a matter of fact tone.

  ''Give me the sword or I will kill you, like I did the other two'', he said, in a menacing tone.

  I felt a pang of fear, my thoughts immedi
ately going back to my friends. ''What have you done?'', I asked, rage bubbling inside me.

  ''It doesn't concern you, tell me where it is, or you will be next''.

  ''You will never have it'', I spat, angrily.

  ''Kill her'', he commanded his animals.

  The tigers charged forward. I loosed an arrow, which pierced the flank of one of the brutes, but it kept charging. I threw the bow aside and drew my sword.

  As one of the beasts pounced for the kill, I swung my sword, separating the head from its torso. I ducked as the second one pounced on me and buried my sword in its chest, but I failed to pull it out in time.

  The bear was already in front of me, and before I could defend myself, it slashed at my face with its claws. I fell on the ground, clutching my face, screaming in agony. It attacked again and slashed at my side, cutting right through the leather armor. I momentarily blacked out, as I felt the searing pain in my side.

  Suddenly, a wall of water crashed into the beast, throwing it off me. My friends had arrived.

  Alice yelled out in anger and charged forward, burying her blade in the animal, before turning on Fendrell. She grabbed his shocked face and banged his head on the tree trunk behind him. He dropped to the ground, unconscious.

  Alec rushed to my side and started tending my wounds. ''Damon'', he called. ''I need your help. The wound is too deep and she is losing blood. We need to get her back to the Capital''.

  Alice rushed to my side and gasped when she saw my wound. ''You are going to be alright scar. Stay with me....''. The rest of her sentence faded as I slipped into unconsciousness.

                ~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

  2. The Hunter's Mark

  When I regained consciousness, I was lying on a soft bed, with no idea where I was. I winced as I felt my wounds. My left eye was bandaged. I saw Alice sitting at the foot of my bed. She smiled as I raised my head.

  ''Where am I?''.

  ''In the Infirmary. So much for the great hunter'', she smirked. 

  ''I was outnumbered'', I retorted.

  ''Sure, sure'', she said, patronizingly.

  ''How long was I unconscious?'', I asked, scowling at her.

  ''A whole day, since we brought you here''.

  ''I lost my eye, didn't I?'', I asked, feeling the bandage.

  She nodded, looking at me sadly. ''I'm sorry''.

  ''Don't worry about it. I still have the other one''.

  She smiled, shaking her head. At that moment, the healer arrived. She was a middle aged woman, wearing plain white clothes and her dark hair was tied up in a bun.

  ''Are you feeling alright, sweetheart?'', she asked, giving me a kind smile.

  ''Yeah'', I nodded.

  ''What about the eye? Does it hurt?''.

  ''A little'', I lied, even though I felt like it was being pricked by needles.

  ''I am sorry. I did everything I could. The claw punctured the eyelid and damaged the iris''.

  ''Its alright. I can manage with one'', I said. ''When can I leave?''.

  ''You can leave after a couple of days'', she smiled.

  ''But I am feeling great''.

  ''You need more rest. The wounds have not yet healed and you have lost a lot of blood'', she replied sternly.

  I slumped back into bed, disappointed.

  The day passed very slowly. Alice kept me company. Alec and Damon came to visit and brought some food. We ate together, discussing our adventure in the cursed forest.

  ''What happened to Fendrell?'', I asked.

  ''He was sent to the council to face trial for murdering Vance and Belinda'', replied Damon. ''Their bodies were found in the forest, mauled by animals''.

  ''He should be hanged, that weasel'', Alice swore angrily.

  ''Their parents took their bodies'', said Alec. ''They will be buried in their hometowns''.

  ''What about the others'', I asked.

  ''Oliver and Nicole returned shortly after us and Jessika was found later wandering in the forest. Fendrell tried to kill her too, but she escaped'', Alec replied grimly.

  ''Something tells me he was not really interested in the test. He must have been after the sword'', Damon added thoughtfully.

  ''Where is the sword, by the way'', I asked.

  ''Its with master Kaiser'', replied Alice.

  The healer returned and ordered them to leave. I sighed and closed my eyes, pondering about the events that had taken place, before sleep overtook me.

  It was the day of the awarding ceremony. It was almost a week since I was discharged from the Infirmary. The wounds at my side had started scabbing and I had a scar on my left eye. I had covered it up with an leather eye patch, which Alice had made for me.

  ''How are you feeling?'', asked Alice, as we were getting ready for the ceremony.

  ''Never better'', I smiled.

  We slowly made our way to the grounds, where the rest of the pupils had assembled. Everyone was wearing black to mourn the death of Vance and Belinda. The grounds fell silent as the head of staff, master Kaiser Frost, stepped forward on the dais.

  ''There is much I would like to say to all of you'', he said, ''but first we must acknowledge the loss of two of our best students. Let their souls find happiness in the next world'', he said.

  We bowed our heads, paying our respects in silence for a few minutes.

  After some time, he continued. ''Now it is time to award the winners. This year, some changes were made, owing to the circumstances and hence all four participants who came back with the sword will be given the mark. I now call upon the winners''.

  I stepped forward along with Alice, Damon and Alec. The master touched each of our necks and started muttering a spell. I felt a prickling sensation as the mark started forming on my neck.

  The end of the year feast continued into the night. Here and there, people sat on stone benches. The bards played their instruments and sung merry songs while the others danced. Campfires were lit and food was passed around.

  The four of us were sitting on the lawn beside the hedge, watching the campfire. Suddenly, we heard someone whispering in low voices, from behind the hedge.

  I listened closely, trying to make out the voices. It was the head master talking to one of the staff. They were whispering, ''…........has been missing.............hasn't reported since yesterday........ keep it quiet for now. Inform the council. It is very dangerous in the wrong hands....'', the voice faded as they walked away.

  ''What was that about?'', asked Alice.

  ''Dunno'', replied Damon, stifling a yawn. ''Sounded like someone had stolen something dangerous''.

  ''Do you think it was the sword?'', asked Alice.

  ''Who cares, we got the mark'', replied Alec.

  We argued for a while, about the conversation we had just overheard, before heading back to our dormitories.

  The next day, once we had finished packing our things, we were on our way to the city. From there, Alice and I would be heading to Greenport, where my  mother lived.

  I had invited Alice to stay with me, since she did not have a place of her own. Alec's parents lived in the capital and Damon lived in Southshore, which was near Greenport.

  Poseidonia was the most beautiful city in all of Atlantis. The huge ornate houses stood far apart, separated by lush and beautiful gardens. The headquarters of the Atlantian council stood in the middle of the city. In front of it was a huge fountain, on which stood the statue of Lord Poseidon, the patron god of Atlantis.

  ''You two must come to Greenport sometime'', I said, looking at Alec and Damon.

  ''My father works at the naval base in Southshore, maybe I can convince him to take me with him'', replied Alec.

  ''I will definitely visit'', winked Damon.

  After exchanging hugs, Alice and I headed towards the outskirts of the city. We walked for some time along the road leading out of the city.

  ''Finally!'', exclaimed Alice, waving at the approaching wagon.

  ''Wher'ee you headed'', aske
d the coachman in a gruff voice.

  ''Greenport'', we replied, at the same time.

  ''Get in'', he said, gesturing at the back of his open carriage. We sat on the rough wooden bench at the back. It was going to be an uncomfortable ride back home, but it was better than walking all the way.

  The coachman was quite friendly. We exchanged stories as we traveled. After a couple of days we reached a small village named Ostfield. It looked like it had been recently fortified with wall made of wooden logs.

  It was nearly dark and the coachman stopped the carriage near the gate, which was closed. He went up to the gate and knocked. A small window opened beside it and a head peered out.

  ''Who is it?''.

  ''Travelers from capital, headed to Greenport''.

  He peered at our carriage suspiciously. Once he was sure that we were just travelers, his head disappeared from the window and the gate opened.

  ''Come in, make haste'', he said, glancing around nervously.

  As soon as we were in, he locked the gate behind us.

  ''Where can we find an Inn?'', asked the coachman.

  ''The seventh building to the right'', he replied, pointing down the road.

  We headed in the direction he had pointed. The streets were empty and the doors were locked.

  ''Something must have happened here'', whispered Alice.

  ''In that case we mustn't stay long'', grumbled the coachman.

  We found the Inn at the corner. A lamp was hanging over the door, below which swung a signboard that read ' The Anxious Goose '.

  The coachmen tied the horses to a post outside the Inn. As we walked inside the door, I noticed that it was almost empty. A couple of travelers sat huddled in a corner. The innkeeper waved at us from behind a counter.

  ''What can I do for you, my good travelers'', he said, giving us a slight bow.

  ''A room fo' these two ladies, and supper for three'', replied the coachman, handing him some coppers.

  ''Right away, sir'', said the innkeeper, before disappearing behind a door at the counter.

  ''What about you?'', I asked the coachman.

  ''I don't like sleeping indoors'', he replied.

  We sat down at a table in the corner. The innkeeper returned after sometime with three plates laden with  food and some ale.

  ''Wha' happened to this village? It was more cheerful, last I was 'ere'', asked the coachman, looking at the Innkeeper.

  ''Strange things have been happening, my good sir. Some dark creature lurks beyond the walls, terrorizing the villagers. People go missing in the middle of the night. The ones who go to search for them never return. We do not dare even step out of the gates. We had sent a messenger to the capital. He has not returned still. We will just have to wait'', he said, glumly.

  Suddenly, his eyes widened, as they fell on the marks on our neck. ''You are hunters!'', he exclaimed. ''You can help us capture the creature. Please! You are our only hope. It will be days before the council sends hunters from the capital'', he begged.

  ''We are still apprentices, but we will do all we can to help'', I replied. Alice nodded in agreement.

  The innkeeper looked relieved. After answering some of our questions, he decided to show us to our rooms.

  ''This is yours'', he said, opening a door at the top of the stairs. ''Make yourselves at home. If u need anything, I will be downstairs'', he said, handing us the key, before he walked out of the door.

  There were two small beds in the corner and a table. We were so exhausted that we directly crashed into the beds, without bothering to undress.

  ''Do you think the creature is a vampire?'', asked Alice, looking at me nervously. ''Or a werewolf?''.

  ''In Atlantis? I doubt it. It would be mad to enter a country full of hunters'', I said.

  We debated about the attacker for a while, until we finally fell asleep.

  I was woken up by Alice in the middle of the night. Someone was shouting from the streets. I walked towards the window, just as alarm bells started ringing. I saw people walking towards the gate.

  ''Is it the attacker?'', I asked, looking at Alice.

  ''Probably'', she said, belting on her sword.

  I grabbed Shadowfang and dashed out of the door, followed by Alice.

  Almost half the village was gathered near the gate. I squeezed my way through to see what was going on.

  ''What happened?'', Alice asked one of the villagers.

  ''Another attack! The Watchman was patrolling the streets when he heard a scream, but by the time he reached here, the gatekeeper was already dead'', replied the villager, pointing at the body lying in a pool of blood.

  I got down on my knees and examined the body. It was still warm. I pulled out a towel and cleaned the blood off his neck and sure enough there it was! Two small holes, fang marks of the blood drinker.

  Suddenly, a woman came running from one of the nearby houses. Her face was ashen and she was trembling with fear. ''My son!'', she sobbed. ''He is nowhere to be seen. Please someone help me find him'', she begged, tears falling down her cheeks.

  ''Stay here. We will find him'', I assured the woman.

  I looked at Alice and whispered, ''You were right''.

  We grabbed a couple of torches from the brackets near the gate and searched the outer perimeter of the village.

  ''Scar, here'', called Alice, from the edge of the forest.

  There was a trail of blood leading into the forest. We informed the villagers and set out into the woods, followed by the watchman from the village.

  The forest was dark and strangely silent. We followed the trail, deeper into the woods. Moonlight shone through the gaps in the leaves. We walked in silence, our eyes fixed on the ground and our ears strained for the faintest sound.

  ''What if it attacks us?'', whispered the watchman.

  ''Shhh! Quiet''.

  As we went deeper and deeper into the forest, the trail started getting fainter. Suddenly we walked out into a clearing. A lone battered cabin stood at the center.

  ''What is that?'', Alice asked the watchman, pointing at the cabin.

  ''A family of trappers used to live here, before they relocated to the north. It is abandoned now'', he whispered, glancing around nervously.

  ''A good hiding place for the creature'', muttered Alice, as we started walking towards the cabin.

  The roof had almost caved in and was covered with vines. A foul stench hung over the cabin. The door had fallen off and the inside was in even worse shape. The furniture had decayed and the ceiling was covered with cobwebs.

  I saw a fresh set of footsteps on the dust covered floor leading to a door at the other end of the room. It was slightly ajar. As I pushed it open, I saw a set of stairs leading down into the basement.

  I cautiously walked down the stairs, gripping my sword in one hand and the torch in the other. I gestured at the others to follow me quietly.

  When I reached the foot of the stairs, I saw a pile of dead bodies lying in the corner. I gagged in revulsion, as the sickening smell hit my nose.

  In front of the pile, stood a small boy. His clothes were stained in blood. He was staring at me with wide eyes. I handed the torch to the watchman and started walking towards the boy.

  Suddenly, I heard a low growl and something crashed against me, throwing me onto the floor. I lost my grip on Shadowfang and it skidded out of reach.

  A hideous vampire stood over me, Its lips smeared with blood. It was dressed in rags, its body was covered with bruises and cuts.

  It opened its mouth, baring a set of sharp fangs. Without warning, it lunged, aiming at my neck. I was ready. I grabbed its face and gouged its eyes with my thumbs. It screamed in pain and jumped back on its feet.

  The watchman was trembling with fear, cowering against the wall. Alice jumped forward, driving her sword through the vampire's chest, but that did not seem to have any effect.

  It snarled and grabbed her neck, lifting her off the floor. But she was quick. She caught the handle and
pulled upwards, ripping through its flesh. It wailed in agony, dropping her to the floor.

  It removed the sword from its chest and looked at Alice with hatred. Its wounds were already closing. I crawled towards my sword, which was lying in the corner.

  Before it could regain its composure, I picked up my sword and jumped back to my feet. I lunged at the vampire and drove Shadowfang into its heart. The vampire looked down in horror at the blade protruding from its chest.

  ''No!....It cannot be....'', it whispered as its whole body started smoldering, before dissolving into a pile of ashes.

  ''How did you do that?!'', asked Alice, shocked.

  ''Do what?''.

  ''A vampire cannot be killed by inflicting physical injury, except with fire. So, how did you kill it?''.

  ''It must have been my sword'', I said, holding up Shadowfang, even the vampire blood on its blade was evaporating. ''Here'', I said, offering my hand to Alice.

  ''I knew your sword was not normal. It is imbued with magic'', she said, as I helped her up. ''Thank the gods for that. For a moment I thought we were dead meat''.

  ''Our first hunt'', I smiled.

  I picked up the small boy who was cowering in the corner and made him sit on the stairs. His neck was still bleeding. I tore a piece of cloth from my tunic and bandaged his wound. He seemed to have lost a lot of blood.

  ''We should burn it down. Especially with all these bodies rotting in here'', I said.

  Once we were outside. Alice grabbed a torch from the watchman and set the whole cabin on fire. We headed back towards the village, as the cabin burned to the ground along with the creature.

  ''Thank you'', said the watchman. ''Without you, we would've been doomed''.

  As soon as we reached the village, the boy's mother ran towards us. She grabbed her son from my arms and thanked me, crying out with joy. The two men recounted the events to the villagers who had assembled at the gate. Everyone started cheering as they came to know that the danger had passed.

  We set out at noon. The villagers had given us free food and other supplies for the journey. We were in a cheerful mood, proud of ourselves.

  ''I wonder where it came from'', said Alice, thoughtfully.

  ''Probably escaped from one of the prison ships'', answered the watchman.

  ''What prison ships?'', I asked, surprised.

  ''The most dangerous criminals are taken to the Iron tower of Astaroth on the island of Dragontooth. Sometimes the prison ships from Aria stop in Southshore to gather supplies''.

  ''How do you know this?'', asked Alice.

  ''I was a sailor once, when I was younger''.

  ''Wait a minute'', said Alice. ''You mean those ships take them directly to Dragontooth? Isn't that too dangerous''.

  ''Yes, very dangerous. The ships stop at a small island halfway between Atlantis and Dragontooth, where the prison guards come to collect the prisoners''.

  ''What if the vampire escaped from the prison itself?'', I asked.

  Alice looked at me as if I had lost my mind. The coachman burst out laughing. ''Escape from the Iron tower she says!''.

  On the third day, it was still noon when the sky started getting darker. Storm clouds were rolling in from the coast. It started drizzling after a few minutes.

  ''Can't you wait till we get to Greenport'', complained Alice, frowning at the sky.

  We reached the next village at sundown. The rain had stopped and the sky was clearer. Unlike the last village, here the gates were open and travelers were coming in from Greenport and other nearby towns. The streets were bustling with activity.

  We managed to find an Inn at the end of the street. It was nearly full. We took a table near the door.

  ''Fancy, seeing the two of you here'', said a familiar voice from behind us. I turned back in surprise.

  It was Julian Le Cordier, one of our masters. He was standing at the door with a broad grin on his face. ''Nice pirate look you have going on there, Scarlett''.

  ''She was injured during the test'', said Alice.

  ''I am sorry'', he apologized. ''What are you doing here by the way?''.

  ''We were on our way to Greenport'', I replied. ''What about you?''.

  ''What a coincidence. I was headed there myself'', he said, delightedly. ''Maybe I can accompany you''.

  ''That would be great'', I smiled.

  He joined our table and we ordered some food. After we had finished eating, we talked for some time before Alice and I headed to our room. I was so exhausted that I  fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

  We headed out before the sun's rays could break through the horizon. Julian followed us on his horse. We reached Greenport the next day around dusk.

  ''Home, at last'', I sighed, breathing in the salty air.

  The sprawling port city was surrounded by an outer wall, fifty foot high, with walkways on top and equally spaced watchtowers. The three entrances were at the east, west and the south side, guarded by iron portcullis. The walls were designed to guard the city against pirates.

  As we neared the gates, the guards came forward and stopped us. They let us in after inspecting the carriage.

  The coachman stopped near the market. We paid him a couple of silvers. He thanked us and continued on his way.

  ''Well, I guess I will see you around'', said Julian, as he headed to the northern part of the town.

  ''Such a beautiful day'', commented Alice, as we started towards my home, which was located on the other end of town, near the beach. The clouds had already cleared out and a cool breeze sifted through the city. ''I love this place''.

  ''Yeah'', I agreed. ''We can visit the beach tomorrow. It has been a long time since I felt the sand under my feet''.

  As we walked up to the house, I felt a strange sense of foreboding. The house was dark and the door was open.

  ''That is strange'', I muttered. ''Be careful!''.

  I drew my sword and slowly walked inside, followed by Alice.

  ''Mama?'', I called.

  Suddenly, flames burst into existence in the fireplace, illuminating the scene in front of me. There were two men standing on the threshold. One of them was holding a knife to my mother's throat. He was big and muscular.

  The smaller one was a teenager, but he looked scarier, with multiple scars that covered the left side of his face. He had dark hair and wore a simple black cloak.

  ''Scarlett! Run!'', sobbed my mother.

  ''Drop your weapons and keep your mouth shut'', demanded the man holding my mother.

  ''Don't do anything to my mother. Please!'', I begged, as I placed my sword on the ground and took a step back.

  I had no idea who these men were and why they were here.

  ''It is a great honor, seeing you in person, Scarlett Ironfang. Your reputation precedes you. You will do as I say, or you will lose your mother'', threatened the scarred teenager, stepping forward. He spoke with unquestionable authority.

  ''I don't know what you are talking about. My name is Scarlett Hope. You must have mistaken me for someone else'', I said.

  The burly man laughed and the scarred teenager smiled in amusement. ''We do not make mistakes. I am quite sure you are one we are looking for''.

  ''Who are you and what does your king want with me?'', I asked.

  ''He is Alistair Talbot of the Imperial Guard'', said a familiar voice behind me. I whipped my head around in shock, to see Julian standing in the doorway.

  ''You!'', exclaimed Alice. She lunged at him, trying to punch him in the face, but he sidestepped and caught her hand.

  ''Alice, as feisty as ever'', he chuckled.

  ''Enough with the pleasantries, Julian. Tie them up. We do not have much time. We must leave now'', said Alistair Talbot.

  We were bound and gagged. Julian pointed at my mother and asked, ''What about her?''.

  ''Tie her up and lock her in the basement. We do not want her raising an alarm'', he said.

  I started struggling against my bonds, but they were too tig
ht. Alistair Talbot saw me and waved his finger.

  ''We still have your friend'', he said, pointing at Alice. ''So you better behave''.

  Alistair Talbot led the way and Julian steered us behind him. The burly one walked beside us, his sword drawn. They mostly kept to the shadows. It was dark and everyone was in their houses, going on about their lives.

  As we approached the eastern gate, I saw that there was only one guard. He looked on as if nothing was happening. I watched in surprise and disgust as Alistair Talbot passed a fat bag of coins to his hands, which he slipped into his pockets and proceeded to open the gates.

  As we passed through, Alice made a sound through her gag, staring angrily at the guard, who shrugged and patted his pocket.

  We walked along the beach for some time, through the edge of the forest. Soon, the lights of the city were far behind us.

  The forest opened into a small cove, where a long boat was moored to the beach. We were forced on the boat and the rest of them climbed aboard.

  Julian and the other man started rowing towards the sea. As the boat turned around the edge of the cove, I saw a huge ship anchored at a distance. It was pitch black, the name 'Black Angel', painted in gold letters, across its prow. It had white sails, bearing the crest of the Empire.

  As we drew astern the ship, a rope ladder was lowered. Julian removed the ropes binding my limbs.

  ''Climb'', snarled the burly man, holding a dagger to Alice's throat.

  I started climbing the ladder. As soon as I was aboard, my eyes fell upon a huge figure sitting on a chair below the main mast, partly hidden in the shadows. Beside his chair was a gigantic scimitar.

  ''Welcome aboard'', boomed his voice.

  ''Who are you?'', I asked, in a trembling voice.

  ''I am Royston Stonearm of the Imperial Guard. You must be Scarlett Ironfang. You look just like your mother'', he said in a deep voice.

  ''We must leave now'', said Alistair Talbot, who had just climbed aboard. ''It won't be long before they find out''.

  ''Lock them in the brig'', commanded the giant, gesturing at one of the crew.

  As we were taken below decks, I heard the captain's voice booming across the ship. ''WEIGH ANCHOR, HOIST THE SAILS AND SET COURSE TO WESTERPORT ''.

              ~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

  3. Aboard The Dark Angel

  I held on to the bars, trying not to fall as the ship rocked violently in the storm. I was trying very hard not to throw up. A guard stood nearby, keeping watch.

  Alice was making a racket by shaking the cell door on its loose hinges. ''Let us go!''.

  ''Shut up!'', shouted the guard, as he strode towards our cell.

  Suddenly, the ship listed steeply towards starboard. The guard lost his balance and collided with the bars.

  Alice jumped forward and grabbed his neck through the gap, holding it in a vice grip with her elbow.

  ''Scar! The keys'', she  shouted, as the guard struggled to get free.

  I dashed forward and grabbed the keys from his belt. The vessel shook again.

  ''Got them'', I said, holding up the keys.

  Alice tightened her hold on his neck till he went limp. She let him slide to the floor.

  Once we were outside, Alice tied up the guard and pushed him inside the cell, bound and gagged. He was still unconscious.

  ''Wait, I'll check the upper deck''.

  I slowly climbed up the ladder and lifted the hatch slightly, peering through the gap. There was no one in sight. I signaled Alice to follow.

  ''How are we going to escape?'', I asked.

  ''We will steal one of the boats. We are not that far from Atlantis''.

  ''In this storm?!''.

  ''Maybe it's not as bad as it sounds'', she said, hopefully.

  We held on to the ropes as the ship continued to list from side to side. Finally we reached the gun deck.

  ''Hide!'', I whispered, when I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. I grabbed Alice's hand and pulled her behind some crates as someone passed by. It was just a crew member.

  ''Come on'', I whispered.

  We climbed up the ladder and peered through the hatch. The crew members were running about on the main deck, trying to secure the ship against the storm.

  ''Going somewhere?''.

  I almost fell off the ladder when I heard the cold voice of Alistair Talbot. He was standing behind us, at the foot of the ladder.

  Alice jumped at him, her hand outstretched, but he was too fast. He sidestepped and pushed her against the side of the ship.

  I jumped down from the ladder, before I crouched and swung with my feet, sweeping his legs from underneath him. He fell on the wooden deck with a loud thud.

  Suddenly, the ship listed again and I lost my balance, falling flat on my back. Alistair jumped back on his feet and ducked as Alice swiped at him with an oar.

  Before I could even regain my bearings, Julian and a couple of men rushed down from the main deck.

  ''Alice, stop, you cannot beat him'', said Julian.

  I jumped at him in rage, trying to punch him in the face, but he tackled me to the floor, pinning my hands behind my back.

  ''Do not even try, Scarlett. He is a werewolf'', whispered Julian.

  Once we were subdued, they took us to the giant. He looked quite surprised, but his frown slowly turned into a grin of amusement. ''You are brave indeed, trying to escape from my ship, or maybe foolish. What were you planning to do 'eh? Jump into the ocean? Or maybe take a boat? Even if you could survive the storm, there are monsters in this sea that can take down entire ships. Be careful, lest your stupidity be the end of you''.

  I shivered as the stinging mist washed over the deck. The ship continued to pitch and roll as the violent ocean heaved underneath. The wind howled and groaned like a raging monster, battering against the ship.

  Stonearm turned to his crew. ''Chain them to the foremast. I want them in front of my eyes at all times. I cannot trust you fools with a simple task of guarding two little girls!'', he bellowed.

  It was almost past noon when the waves started getting rougher. Forked lightning flashed overhead, amid the rolling thunderclouds. The salty spray hit our faces, blinding our eyes.

  The giant was leaning back on his seat with his eyes closed. Alistair Talbot was at the wheel and Julian was staring over the port side.

  ''Enemy ships!'', someone shouted from the crow's nest at the top mast as alarm bells started ringing.

  I peered though the swirling mist and saw a warship approaching from the aft. Two more were visible far behind the first one.

  ''They are from Atlantis'', said Alice, excitedly.

  ''She must have escaped!''.

  I was able to make out the trident crest painted on the top sail. The first ship was steadily gaining on us.

  ''READY THE CANNONS !'', started the captain. ''BRING OUT THE...''.

  His voice caught in his throat as a huge snake like creature erupted from the ocean and began encircling the warship in its coils.

  ''What is that?!'', gasped Alice.

  ''A sea serpent'', I whispered.

  It opened its maw and reared towards the sky, its green scales shimmering in the sunlight. Within a few seconds, the whole warship was crushed like a beetle in its gigantic coils. The whole crew stared in horror as the huge warship  was dragged into the depths.

  I almost jumped in fright as the captain shouted, ''WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT, YAH SCALLYWAGS! I WANT HALF THE CREW BELOW DECKS, RUNNING THE SWEEPS. THE REST OF YAH, LOAD THE GUNS AND BE AT THE READY ''.

  The captain was tall and scary, his eyes as cold as the ocean. His thick black hair hung in dreadlocks about his haggard face. He carried a curved sword at his side. He almost looked like a pirate. The crew scurried about, following their captain's orders.

  The whole deck started to vibrate under the drum beats, as the quartermaster set the tempo for the oarsmen. The crew on the deck relaxed as the ship started gaining speed.

  ''This jus
t keeps getting better and better'', muttered Alice.

  Julian walked towards us and sat down on a crate near the foremast. His face was ashen with fear.

  The two remaining vessels were pulling back and there was no sign of pursuit from the monster.

  ''I am sure we did not see the last of it'', he said, wiping his brow.

  ''It probably caught the scent of a backstabbing rat nearby'', snarled Alice.

  ''I was just doing my job, Alice'', he sighed.

  ''Is it going to come back again?'', I asked, nervously.

  ''Why do you think those two warships pulled back. A sea serpent will never let its prey escape''.

  ''Oh great! Now the sea serpent is behind us'', said Alice.

  ''Where are they taking us?'', I asked, glaring at Julian.

  ''To Aregon, of course''.

  ''Why?''.

  ''Because of the prophecy''.

  ''What prophecy?'', I asked, surprised.

  He sighed, staring at the ocean. ''About fifteen years ago, the Emperor of Aria, Viktor Grimm, received information about a prophecy from Atticus. According to this prophecy, you would bring about the downfall of the Empire. He has been searching for you ever since''.

  ''So, we are being taken because of some foolish prophecy made by a stupid fortuneteller?'', asked Alice.

  ''I do not know if the prophecy is real or not. Scarlett was not even born then. The Emperor dispatched his men all across Aria to track down your mother. The Witch, Zelda, was successful in locating her whereabouts. Stonearm was sent to capture her, but he failed. Your mother was captured, but somehow, you were never found''.

  ''My mother was captured?'', I asked, surprised.

  He continued, ignoring my question, ''Later, I learnt that Bella, who was your mother's handmaiden at the time, had taken you to Atlantis. She probably thought that you would be safe in the capital of Atlantis, so she kept your real identity a secret and enrolled you into the Academy'', he said.

  ''You lie!'', I exclaimed. It could not be true.

  ''Ah, you do not know. Your mother is not Isabella. Your real mother is imprisoned in the black castle of Aregon'', he replied.

  I stared at him in shock and disbelief. It was difficult to believe, but he had no reason to lie. Alice threw me an anxious glance. I closed my eyes, trying to get my emotions under control.

  ''So you work for the Emperor?'', asked Alice.

  ''I was actually sent to retrieve the sword from the fallen castle of the Witch Queen, by Hector Talbot, the Wolf King of Lycaonia. Nobody knew where the castle was, except Kaiser Frost, who was on the council. I had to join the Arma as a swordplay master, so I could have better access to the cursed forest. As it turned out, I did not even have to go into the forest myself. It was me who suggested the idea for the final test to Kaiser'', he smirked.

  ''You came to Atlantis for a sword?!'', exclaimed Alice. ''It was because of you Scar lost her eye''.

  ''The five great swords are no ordinary swords, Alice. They are unique, one more powerful than the other'', he replied. ''And what do you mean, she lost her eye because of me?''.

  ''Didn't you send that prick Fendrell to do your dirty work?''.

  ''No'', he said, staring at her incredulously. ''I don't know what you are talking about. I would rather go myself than send someone else. I was going to wait and see if any of you brought it back with you. If you had, I was going to steal it from the academy, and  if everyone failed I was planning on going to castle myself''.

  ''Why does the Wolf King want that sword?'', asked Alice.

  ''Because it belonged to his ancestor, Alarik Talbot. He is one of the old kings of Lycaonia. He lost it during a war with Atlantis. Our historians were successful in tracking it back to the Witch Queen, Asteria''.

  ''What does that have to do with me?'', I asked.

  ''I'm getting to it. Anyway, when I first joined the academy, I saw you and recognized you at once, but I wasn't sure. I wondered how you were able to blend in with the humans. That is, until I saw the stone'', he said, pointing at my bracelet.

  ''What are you talking about?'', I asked.

  He ignored my question and continued, ''When I saw the sunstone, I was sure it was you. I sent a message to Aregon that you were in Atlantis. I was ordered to keep an eye on you, till someone from the Imperial Guard arrived''.

  ''What does the stone have to do with anything?'', I asked, puzzled.

  ''Do you remember the most important property of a sunstone?''.

  ''To suppress a vampire?''.

  ''Yes, exactly. You are half vampire, Scarlett'', he said and Alice gasped. I could imagine her shock. He was probably crazy. Me being a vampire was near impossible.

  ''No, I can't be. It's ridiculous''.

  ''Is it? The sunstone has been hiding what you really are'', he said.

  I felt as if the ground was being swept from beneath my feet.

  ''But if I'm a threat, why am I still alive?''.

  ''They need you Alive for some reason'', he replied, thoughtful. ''They are the Imperial Guard. You can never tell what their goal is and where their loyalties lie'', he shrugged.

  ''Do you know who my father is?'', I asked.

  ''Yes, his name is Lucien Ironfang''.

  Alice gasped, ''The Lord of Argent?''.

  I had heard of Lucien Ironfang. He was well known, even in Atlantis.

  ''Yes. The same one''.

  ''Where is he now?'', I asked. I was still trying to take it all in. It all seemed very extraordinary.

  ''He was imprisoned after being convicted of treason'', replied Julian.

  ''Treason?''.

  ''He was convicted because he helped your mother escape. And one more thing'', he continued. ''Never remove that sunstone bracelet from your hand if you value her life'', he warned. ''You won't be able to control yourself. The thirst for blood will overcome every other feeling till you are an emotionless monster''.

  The storm finally began to abate, as the skies started to clear. The sea was peaceful and there was no sign of the sea serpent. The ship sailed under a steady wind. I gazed at the horizon, listening to the waves lapping against the side of the ship, trying to take in what Julian had said. I was a monster.

  ''Alice? Care to share your thoughts?''.

  ''Are you worried about what I think?'', she asked, amused.

  ''Yes, of course. You are my best friend''.

  ''It does not matter what you are, Scar'', she said. ''It is not your fault. You will always be my little sister. I promise you, we will get out of this mess. We might even get a chance to save your parents'', she added.

  ''Thank you, Alice. It means a lot'', I smiled. At least I had Alice on my side.

  ''As long as you don't try to take a bite out of me'', she grinned.

  Suddenly, I heard a grating sound as the ship listed steeply to port side. The crates started sliding over the deck. Deathly silence fell over the crew. I knew what it was.

  ''Not again'', groaned Alice.

  I started struggling against my bonds, but it was of no use. Stonearm rose from his seat and picked up his huge scimitar. The captain started shouting orders. ''GET MOVING, YAH MAGGOT RIDDEN SNOT RAGS! MAN THE BATTLE STATIONS! BRING OUT THE HARPOONS AND LOAD THE BALLISTAE! DOUSE THE SAILS ! ''.

  The crew started running around frantically as a huge serpentine head rose out of the water.

  They dipped the harpoons in tar and lit their tips on fire, before loading them onto the ballistae.

  ''FIRE'', roared Stonearm and the crew started shooting the fiery projectiles at the monster.

  Its head went over the deck and disappeared as it started coiling around the ship. It roared as it appeared again from the other side. As it started tightening its coils, the main mast broke halfway, crashing onto the deck, a few feet from us.

  ''Julian!'', shouted Alice. ''Remove these blasted shackles''.

  ''I'm quite busy here!'', he shouted back, loading one of the cannons.

  Stonearm raised his sword a
nd was about to strike the serpent, but stumbled backwards as the ship tilted again. The sword glanced off its thick hide.

  We pulled against our bonds, but to no avail. The chains were too thick.

  ''Why does this always happen to us'', I moaned.

  ''If I die here, I am coming back to haunt that treacherous, double crossing traitor'', snarled Alice, throwing a murderous glance at Julian.

  The serpent turned its slit eyes on the giant and its head lashed forward. Just when I thought he was going to be swallowed whole, the giant jumped aside at the last moment and it crashed through the deck.

  Stonearm grabbed the chains on his sword and swung the blade above his head, bringing it down in a sudden arc. The blade sliced right through the serpent's scaly hide, separating its head from the rest of the body.

  I winced as the severed stump flew past us into the water, splattering us with green blood from head to toe.

  ''Just when I thought it couldn't get any better'', sputtered Alice.

  I exhaled a sigh of relief. The monster was dead! The crew started cheering.

  The shouts of joy came to an abrupt end when the giant ordered them to pull out the monster's severed head from the gun deck.

  The ship was heavily damaged. The deck had a huge gaping hole and the sails hung uselessly from the broken mast. Without the sails, most of the crew was below decks manning the oars, while the rest tended to the rigging. It was doubtful that the ship would hold much longer.

  It was past sundown, before the atmosphere on the deck turned back to normal. The stars shone overhead, white sprinkles against the black backdrop of the sky. Alice was already asleep. I leaned back against the mast and closed my eyes, letting sleep take me to the world of dreams.

  I woke up with a start as someone shouted from the forecastle. ''Land in sight!''.

  ''Morning, Sleepyhead'', muttered Alice.

  ''Morning'', I replied. ''How long have you been awake?''.

  ''Since the captain woke up'', she sighed. ''Shouting orders every five seconds''.

  ''DROP ANCHOR AND READY THE LONG BOATS! ''.

  Julian started untying our bonds, and once we were free, he led us down to one of the boats. Alistair Talbot was already sitting on it.

  The island was hilly, with dense woodlands. The outer rim was covered with fine, white sand. It was the most beautiful island I had ever seen.

  The crew started making camp at the edge of the forest, near the mouth of a small stream that flowed into the sea.

  Julian tied us to a tree and placed a guard to keep watch over us. I could see the ship anchored at a distance. The crew went about filling the water cans and casks in the stream. It was already getting dark, so they decided to start the repairs after sunrise.

  ''Hey!'', called Alice, motioning at the sentry. But he ignored us completely.

  It was nearly impossible to sleep, leaning against the rough trunk of the tree, and Alice was complaining continuously.

  ''Julian?! I need a tent. How can you expect us to sleep with all these insects crawling over us. If you don't want me to keep you up all night, you better give us a tent!'', she shouted.

  ''Stop shouting Alice, just go to sleep'', sighed Julian, who was sitting nearby on a log.

  I was staring absentmindedly at the sea, pondering about the recent events. Just a few days back, I was a normal teenager at the academy, without any worries. It all seemed ages ago.

  It was a moment before I realized that Alice had stopped complaining. I glanced at her and saw that she was already asleep, snoring peacefully. Typical of Alice. I rolled my eyes and sighed. It was almost an hour before sleep overtook me.

  The repair work for the ship started the next day. Trees were felled to repair the mast and the deck. Some of the crew went to gather food. It would probably take a couple of days for the ship to be seaworthy.

  It was almost three days before the repairs were complete. Some of the men who had gone into the forest to hunt had not yet returned. Julian was taking us to the longboats, when one of the men came limping out of the forest, severely wounded.

  ''What happened?'', asked Julian, running towards him.

  ''You have to save them!'', he panted. ''We were attacked. They came out of nowhere. I could not even see them. The others have been captured. I barely escaped with my life'', he said in a quavering voice, before he collapsed on the beach.

  ''Leave them'', said Stonearm. ''We do not have time for stragglers''.

  The captain stepped forward. ''We cannot spare any crew, my lord. The sails won't hold for long. We need the whole crew to man the oars''.

  The giant growled in frustration, ''Take the rest and ready the ship'', he told the captain, before turning to Julian. ''You! Bind the girls and bring them too. I do not want them out of my sight''.

  ''Give me a break'', groaned Alice.

  ''Alistair, can you track them?'', asked Stonearm.

  Alistair Talbot nodded, and our small rescue party set out into the forest. As we ventured deeper into the woods, the trees started getting bigger, towering high over us. The forest was unnaturally beautiful, with colorful orchids that permeated the air with their sweet fragrance.

  Only faint shafts of sunlight pierced through the canopy overhead. Underbrush was scarce, except for clumps of short green grass here and there. A stream gurgled nearby, filling the air with a tinkling sound.

  After walking for several hours, Alistair raised his hand, signaling us to stop.

  ''They were ambushed here'', he said, inspecting the ground. The grass was trampled and smudged with droplets of blood.

  ''This way'', he said, following a scent.

  Finally, after another thirty minutes of walking, we glimpsed a gathering of small huts through a gap in the gigantic trees.

  Suddenly, I heard a faint whistle, just as Alistair reached out, plucking a sleek arrow right out of the air..

  ''This is bad'', whispered Alice, as a dozen women, wearing leather armor, advanced towards us with spears and bows, but they kept their distance, eyeing the giant's sword.

  ''What business do you have on my island?'', demanded a cold voice.

  The warriors parted, making way to a lean, noble looking woman, who I assumed was their leader.

  She was strikingly beautiful, with long, black hair, on which rested a silver tiara, inlaid with sapphires. She wore a blue cloak, fastened at the base of her neck with a brooch, which was shaped like a trident. She carried herself with the grace of a queen. She looked out of place in this secluded jungle.

  ''Who are you?'', asked Alistair Talbot.

  ''I am Calliope. The guardian of this sacred island''.

  ''This island belongs to the Emperor'', growled Stonearm.

  ''Is that so? Let him come to claim it'', answered the woman, looking at him coolly.

  Before the giant could reply, Alistair stepped forward, ''Give back our men and we will be on our way''.

  ''This island is sacred to Lord Triton, the King of the sea. You have defiled it, letting your men spill innocent blood'', she said. ''Your men will be punished accordingly''.

  Suddenly, Alistair Talbot stiffened and deep growls emanated from his throat. There was a terrible snarling noise as tremors passed through his spine and his face elongated into a snout. Dense gray hair started sprouting all over his body, as he began transforming. Julian swore under his breath, pulling us behind a thick oak tree.

  A huge gray werewolf reared in the middle of the clearing, snapping its dagger like jaws. It was  almost as big as the huts. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as the beast raised its maw to the sky and howled.

  Everyone except Stonearm and Calliope stepped back in fear. A strange expression of surprise and recognition crossed Calliope's face, before it turned to that of rage.

  Everyone was staring at the beast, transfixed. Suddenly it growled and charged at Calliope, but she stood her ground, glaring angrily at the werewolf.

  Just when the beast was about to pounce, she thrust
out her hand and the werewolf was thrown backwards with a tremendous force. It crashed into one of the trees, which broke halfway from its roots under the weight of the gigantic beast.

  ''A werewolf!'', she snarled, her face contorting with fury. ''Leave now, before I change my mind! If you set foot on this island again, I will kill you all!''.

  I felt the raw power rolling off her. Even the giant looked taken aback.

  Calliope gestured at one of the maidens. ''Bring them''.

  She went inside one of the huts and brought out five men bound in ropes, ''Take them and leave''.

  Alistair Talbot had already turned back into his human form. He was glaring at Calliope with both fear and anger. I had never heard of anyone who could stand their ground with the Imperial Guard.

  He stepped forward and cut the ropes binding their hands, ''Let's get out of here''.

  I could feel their eyes watching us as we made our way back towards the ship.

  ''Who was that!?'', whispered Alice, her eyes wide with awe.

  ''Not someone to be trifled with'', I whispered back. ''She is no ordinary Witch''.

  ''Yes. She could've easily killed him, but she let him go''.

  ''She probably did not want any bloodshed on her sacred island'', said Julian.

  Alice looked at me and rolled her eyes.

  ''What is our course, my lord?'', asked the captain, looking at Alistair Talbot. ''We cannot make it to Westerport in this ship, even with the repairs''.

  ''What about Southfay?''.

  ''Too risky, especially in this vessel. Those waters are always infested with pirates. We will be needing a new ship. Our best chance is Beachcastle''.

  ''Beachcastle it is then. I will send a message to Westerport''.

  ''RAISE ANCHOR! HOIST THE CANVAS AND SET SAIL TO BEACHCASTLE! '', shouted the captain.

  The tense mood lightened as the strange island faded from view. Once again, we were chained to the foremast. Even though the ship was repaired, it creaked and groaned, even under light winds.

  ''I hope it will last till we reach the mainland'', said Alice, nervously.

  ''I think I have heard that name somewhere'', I said, deep in thought.

  ''What?'', asked Alice.

  ''Calliope''.

  ''Probably from the old Atlantian myths'', said Julian, who was leaning back on a crate near the foremast.

  ''The legend of the great siblings, Kalypso and Calliope. To make it short, they both wanted to rule the world. They fought against each other, thus starting a war, which came to be known as the Great war of bloodlines. It is said that the war lasted for a hundred years, before they finally ended up killing each other'', he continued.

  ''You think that was her?''.

  ''No'', replied Julian. ''It was thousands of years ago and she is supposed to be dead, killed by her own sister''.

  My curiosity was not yet sated. There was more to that woman than what met the eye. She was very powerful. But I let it drop for now. I had enough things to worry about.

  For the next few days, the weather was peaceful and the sky was clear. With a favorable headwind, we made good progress.

  After  almost five days, the mainland came into view. The stone palace of Beachcastle was located at the top of the cliff overlooking the sea, beside which stood a tall lighthouse, sweeping its hazy beam across the gray water. The docks were to the left, below the cliff. Hundreds of ships were moored to the pier.

  The beach city was beautiful, with widely spaced buildings separated by green lawns and gardens. The waterfront was lined with huge watchtowers, connected by a low wall. Armed sentinels patrolled the battlements. Beyond the city, stretched low rolling hills, blanketed with willows and poplars.

  ''RACK THE OARS! DROP ANCHOR AND PREPARE TO MAKE BERTH! '', shouted the captain.

         

              ~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

  4. Strangers In Beachcastle

  As we walked to the gates, a man clad in fine clothes walked towards us, followed by several armed guards.

  ''Welcome to Beachcastle, my lords'', he said, bowing his head.

  ''Take us to your king'', demanded Alistair Talbot, stepping forward.

  ''Of course, my lord'', he said, and escorted us inside the walls.

  We headed towards the castle, led by the nobleman and flanked by the guards. The road curved to the right before rising steeply towards the castle. A group of children ran between the houses chasing a cat.

  ''Look at that!'', gaped Alice.

  ''Yeah'', I agreed, staring in awe at the castle. ''It is almost impregnable''.

  The inner walls were almost thirty feet tall, with walkways at the top, on which paced the sentries. There was a loud grating sound as the portcullis began to rise. Behind the portcullis was a set of huge doors, reinforced with steel.

  ''Yes, two fold fortifications. They had to make it that way to protect the city from pirates'', said Julian, who was walking behind us.

  The nobleman led us through long stone walled corridors, until we finally reached a set of huge golden double doors, decorated with intricate designs.

  Two guards stood on either side of the door, wearing silver armor. On their surcoat, was sewed the  crest of Beachcastle, two lions holding a shield, which had an anchor painted on it. Both the soldiers were armed with pikes.

  The doors swung open and we entered the throne room. Magnificent white columns rose from the smooth marble floors. At the end of the hallway, was a silver throne on which sat the king of Beachcastle, Dominik Maynard.

  ''Welcome to Beachcastle'', he said, rising from his seat. ''To what do I owe the pleasure of having two members of the Imperial Guard in my palace?''.

  He was tall and handsome, with golden hair and a neat beard. On his head, rested a silver crown, embedded with jewels. He wore a long violet robe over a golden armor.

  ''Our ship was damaged and we won't be able to set sail until a new ship arrives from the base in Westerport. We will be needing accommodations till it arrives'', said Alistair Talbot, giving a slight bow.

  ''Yes, of course. I will have someone escort you to your quarters''.

  Stonearm gestured at one of the guards. ''Lock them in the dungeons'', he said, pointing at us.

  ''Really? The dungeons?'', sighed Alice, rolling her eyes.

  ''No need for that'', interrupted the king. ''There are no dungeons in my castle. They will be given proper accommodations as long as they are here. No one can escape this castle. You can set them free''.

  Stonearm looked annoyed, but he did not press any further.

  Alistair Talbot bowed stiffly before turning his back to the king.

  ''Don't try to escape'', he warned, glaring at us. ''Or you are going to regret it later''.

  A couple of servants came forward and escorted us to the southern part of the castle, where we were given a room. It was very comfortable with two soft beds in the corner and a window overlooking the sea.

  ''At least the King of Beachcastle has some courtesy'', said Alice.

  I nodded in agreement. ''He seems kind''.

  ''Lock them in the dungeons'', mocked Alice, imitating Stonearm and we started laughing. It felt good to be free, even if it was for a few days.

  ''It has been so long since I slept in a proper bed'', sighed Alice.

  ''Yeah'', I agreed, snuggling under the soft blankets.

  For the first time since our capture, we did not have guards behind us, though Julian was sent to check on us now and then.

  We were allowed to go anywhere in the castle, except the grounds. We spent most of our time roaming along the empty passageways.

  ''Alice, if we ever get a chance to escape, you have to return to Atlantis without me'', I said looking at her. ''I have to find a way to rescue my parents''.

  ''I am not going to leave now, after all we have been through. Anyway, I do not have anyone in Atlantis. You are my only family. I will help you free your parents'', she replied. ''Besides you will need someon
e to watch your back, so that you don't do anything stupid'', she winked.

  ''Thank you'', I whispered, throwing my arms around her.

  ''That is what sisters are for'', she replied, patting my back.

  ''Come, let's go'', she said, as I pulled away. ''We still have to check out the lower levels''.

  I could always count on Alice. She never let me down, no matter how difficult the situation.

  We were walking along one of the corridors, when my eyes fell upon a young girl standing near the stairs. She was probably a couple of years younger than us. She looked lovely, with golden hair that shimmered in the light and bright green eyes.

  She almost jumped in fright when she heard our footsteps, but relaxed when she saw our faces. She was wearing a makeshift armor over a dress.

  ''Oh, it's you two'', she sighed, relieved.

  ''Who are you?'', I asked, smiling at her.

  ''I'm the Princess'', she replied, as if that should have been obvious.

  ''What is your name?'', I asked.

  ''Christine Maynard, you can call me Chrissy'', she replied.

  ''Nice to meet you Chrissy'', I said. ''I am Scarlett and this is Alice''.

  ''You two are hunters'', she gasped, ogling at our marks. ''I always wanted to meet a hunter. I want to cross swords with you sometime'', she said, giving us a toothy grin.

  ''Do you know how to hold a blade?'', Alice asked, looking at her.

  ''Yes, of course'', she replied, looking offended. ''Come with me'', she added, leading us down a set of stairs into what appeared to be a basement.

  It was quite big, but it was empty except for some damaged wooden dummies. There were some old swords on a table beside the wall.

  ''My father doesn't want me to be a warrior, since my mother died in war. He says it is too dangerous. So I sneak down here sometimes to learn by myself. My brother Luke and I used to practice every day. He taught me everything he knew about sword fighting'', she said, with a sad expression on her face.

  ''I'm sorry'', I said.

  ''Where is he now?'', asked Alice.

  ''He was summoned to Aregon, two years ago. He has not returned since. I wonder if I will ever see him again'', she said, her eyes welling up. ''I have lost almost everyone''.

  ''Hey, it's alright. You will see your brother again'', I said, patting her shoulder.

  I suddenly jolted upright in my bed. My heart was pounding and my forehead was covered with beads of sweat.

  I had the same nightmare again. The one with the huge black wolf, but this time there was another creature standing at the end of the hallway. It was huge, with leathery, bat like wings and sharp claws.

  I looked over at Alice. She was sound asleep. Moonlight filtered through the windows, throwing a soft light across the room. I closed my eyes and mulled over the details of my nightmare. The black beast was definitely a werewolf, but the other one was different. It had looked more like a huge bat.

  I felt a little better when I woke up. We dressed up and went down for breakfast.

  We were sitting on one of the benches in the kitchen when Alice nudged me and pointed at the door, ''The traitor is looking for us''.

  I looked up and saw Julian at the doorway. He was glancing around the kitchen. When his eyes fell on us, he waved and walked towards our table.

  ''I hope you two are enjoying Beachcastle. I don't think you will have much freedom when you are back on the ship'', he smirked, picking an apple from the bowl. ''Hmm, this is quite tasty'', he said, taking a bite.

  He glanced over his shoulder. After making sure that no one would be able to hear us, he lowered his head and whispered, ''The reason I came here is, I overheard something important concerning you, Scarlett. It looks like the Empire is on the verge of a civil war. The Wolf King Hector Talbot is planning a coup d'etat. He has already sent his packs to capture the small towns around Lycaonia. Even the Imperial Guard has split up. The Emperor had sent Stonearm and Alistair Talbot to kill you, but it seems like they had their own plans. They want to keep you alive since you are their greatest weapon against Viktor. I think they are taking you to Lycaonia'', he said. My eyes widened as realization dropped on me.

  He continued, ''The Wolf King cannot defeat the Emperor all by himself. He needs all the help he can get. Who better than the girl destined to bring about the Viktor's downfall''.

  ''If the Emperor comes to know that you are still alive, he will surely send more soldiers after you. He might send another member of the Imperial Guard itself. The safest place for you is with the Wolf Lord and the giant, because they want you alive''.

  ''Thank you'', I replied.

  ''Why would you give us this information?'', asked Alice, eyeing him suspiciously.

  ''So that you won't do anything that you will come to regret later'', he said, before walking away.

  ''At least now we know why you are still alive'', said Alice, looking at me.

  ''It doesn't make me feel any better'', I grimaced.

  We headed towards the basement, brooding over what Julian had said. I was in a dilemma. If we escaped, we would probably get captured by the Empire. On the other hand if we stayed, it would be a long time before I could rescue my parents.

  ''I still don't know how I am supposed to defeat the Emperor. He is hundred times more powerful than me. I cannot even hope to defeat Julian''.

  Alice shrugged. ''If only you could control your dark side'', she said, winking at me.

  I rolled my eyes, ''Even if I turned, he would still be more powerful than me''.

  As we reached the basement, I heard the sound of heavy breathing and metallic clanking.

  Chrissy was practicing with her sword. She stopped as soon as her eyes fell on us.

  ''Good morning'', she beamed. ''Did you have breakfast?'', she asked, and we nodded.

  She went over to the table and tossed us each a sword.

  ''Who's first?'', she asked, grinning.

  I gripped the blunt sword in my hand and charged. I swung, aiming a her shoulder, but she parried the blow and struck back at my arm. I ducked before deflecting her blade.

  The basement rang with the metallic din as the blades clashed. She was very good, but not as good as an Atlantian. I darted past her guard and swung at her wrist, hitting with the flat of my blade.

  ''Ouch!'', she swore, dropping her sword.

  ''Never let the opponent get inside your guard'', I smiled.

  Alice and I took turns teaching her some new techniques. She was a fast learner.

  ''Hold your sword a little higher and always aim for the weak spots in the armor'', Alice advised, as they swung their blades, exchanging a flurry of blows.

  ''I think that is enough for today'', gasped Chrissy. We had been practicing for almost two hours.

  ''I never thought you would be that good'', I acknowledged, as we placed the swords back on the shelf.

  ''I have been practicing everyday. Still, I am not as good as you two'', she smiled.

  ''Soon you will be. You might even become better than us'', said Alice.

  ''Thanks'', she grinned.

  We headed straight to the baths, which were on the lower level. The wide room was lined with several pools. There was no one around, except for us.

  ''Why is it empty?''.

  ''They only use it in the morning or in the evening. It is always empty around noon'', replied Chrissy.

  We undressed and stepped into the cool water. The pool wasn't deep and the water only reached up to my chest. I relaxed as it soothed and calmed my aching muscles.

  ''This feels so good'', said Alice, completely submerging in the water.

  ''Yes'', I sighed, closing my eyes, as I floated in the cold water.

  It became a routine. Everyday after breakfast we would go to the basement and practice with Chrissy.

  One evening, we were sitting on the stairs to the basement after a long practice session, when Alice asked, ''What is that?''.

  She was pointing at the wall in front of us.
r />
  At first I couldn't make out what she was pointing at, but as I looked more closely, I saw a faint rectangular outline.

  ''There was a doorway which led the dungeons. It was sealed after my father became the king. Luke told me about it long ago, but I was too scared to go down there''.

  Alice went over to the wall and pulled out a loose brick.

  ''A little help here?''.

  Chrissy and I exchanged an exasperated glance before we joined Alice. Together we started removing the bricks.

  We stood back and admired our work. In the wall was a rectangular doorway. A set of stairs led down into darkness.

  Alice picked a torch from the bracket on the wall, and grinned mischievously. ''Let's go''.

  ''I don't think its safe to go down there'', said Chrissy, nervously.

  ''Are you scared, little princess?'', mocked Alice.

  ''Fine!'', hissed Chrissy, grabbing another torch.

  We picked up a sword from the table and made our way down the steps. At the foot of the stairs, there was a long hallway lined with holding cells. At the far end was the wardens room. There was a stairway near the door that led upwards.

  ''Those probably lead to the throne room'', said Chrissy. ''The door will be locked and there might be guards on the other side''.

  There was a cabinet near the stairs. Beside it, a part of the wall was covered with wooden boards which were nailed to it.

  ''That looks suspicious'', said Alice, handing me the torch.

  She started kicking the boards, which cracked under the pressure and finally gave in. There was a round hole big enough for us to squeeze through.

  ''Did your brother tell you about this?'', asked Alice.

  ''No, he did not mention about any tunnel in the dungeons''.

  ''Alice, it might not be safe'', I said, glancing nervously at the dark entrance of the tunnel.

  ''Who cares. We should definitely check it out. Maybe it leads to some secret treasure'', said Alice, her eyes gleaming with excitement.

  Finally we agreed to go into the tunnel. It was narrow and we had to crawl on our knees. Alice was at the lead, holding the torch.

  After some time we reached the end of the tunnel, where it joined a bigger passageway. It looked ancient, with weird drawings on the wall. It was big enough for us to stand straight.

  The tunnel we had just come through looked like it had been dug later to join this passageway, which stretched in either direction.

  ''What now?'', I asked.

  ''This way'', said Alice, pointing to the left.

  She grabbed the torch from my hand and eagerly started down the passage. As we moved forward, the tunnel started getting colder and walls got rougher.

  ''This is creepy'', whispered Chrissy.

  ''What if there is some kind of monster at the other end?'', smirked Alice.

  ''Alice! Shut Up'', muttered Chrissy, gritting her teeth. I smiled in amusement.

  Finally, we walked into a small cave. Four stone statues stood like sentinels in front of an empty dais. There were half a dozen skeletons strewn across the stone floor.

  ''This doesn't look good at all'', whispered Chrissy, anxiously. ''Let's go back, before we end up like those skeletons''.

  ''These almost look real'', I said, running my hand over one of the statues. What are four statues doing in a cave?, I thought to myself.

  The statues had chains around them and held a sword in each hand. The craftsmanship was extraordinary.

  We searched the room, trying to find its purpose. I was examining the small statue of a mermaid holding a cup, when I noticed the red stains inside the small vessel.

  ''What is that?'', I asked.

  Alice held up the torch and peered at the cup, ''It looks like wine stains''.

  ''Probably blood'', muttered Chrissy, ''by the look of this place''.

  I thought for a moment, ''Wait, I have a hunch''.

  I grabbed a sharp stone from the ground and pricked the tip of my forefinger, squeezing it over the cup.

  As a tiny drop of blood fell into it with a dull thunk.

  ''No!'', gasped Chrissy.

  I heard a grating noise behind me, as the stone statues started moving. The chains clinked as they walked towards us, their swords raised. ''Get out, now!'', I shouted, as one of them swung their blade. I ducked and parried the blow with my sword.

  ''Ahh...!'', I screamed, as I felt sharp pain in my wrist.

  ''Scar! Come on!'', shouted Alice.

  I turned around and ran out of the cave after Alice and Chrissy.

  ''Wait'', I called, looking over my shoulder. ''They are not following us''.

  The stone warriors were standing at the entrance, as if there was an invisible wall preventing them from coming out.

  ''They must be guarding something'', said Chrissy, panting.

  ''Something very important'', whispered Alice.

  ''Let's go back, I've had enough for today'', I said, glancing nervously at the cave. We headed back through the tunnel,  into the dungeons and back to our rooms.

  The next day, we returned, this time taking the right hand passage at the end of the small tunnel. Alice led the way with a torch in her hand, while Chrissy and I followed behind.

  ''I can't believe we are doing this again, after what happened yesterday'', muttered Chrissy, as we walked through the stone passageway.

  ''Are you scared, Chrissy?'', snickered  Alice.

  ''I'm not scared'', she bristled.

  The passageway slowly started to slope downwards, before turning into stairs. The light reflected on the walls, throwing dark shadows behind us. After almost an hour of walking down the never ending stairs, Alice stopped, holding up her hand.

  ''Well, look at that'', she whispered, waving the torch.

  In front of us was a huge cavern. It looked like it had been carved out of rock. Alice placed the torch in a bracket beside the doorway.

  ''Do you think this was a mine?'', I asked.

  ''No, there are no mines in Beachcastle'', said Chrissy.

  ''It looks like this cavern was here even before they built the passageway'', said Alice, glancing around.

  The floor was covered with sand, with small pools of water here and there. The walls were covered with slimy green moss.

  ''There!'', gasped Chrissy, pointing at a curtain of intertwined vines.

  Faint sunlight seeped through the tiny gaps. It was almost like a doorway.

  We walked towards the curtain. I grasped the vines and pulled them aside, revealing a opening.

  ''We have reached the base of the cliff'', I gasped, as we walked out through the leafy curtain. In front of us glimmered the ocean, stretching towards the horizon.

  ''Wow, I never thought there would be a secret passageway out of the castle'', said Chrissy, looking back in awe.

  ''I do not think it was built specifically for the castle. It looked like the tunnel had been dug later to join the passageway'', I said.

  ''Yes, the passageway looked ancient. It must have been there before the castle was built'', agreed Alice.

  ''Luke must have known about it'', said Chrissy, looking over the water.

  ''Look!'', I said, pointing at the docks.

  The Black Angel was docked to the pier, along with hundreds of other ships. The docks were crawling with sailors. Some of them were unloading the goods into horse drawn carriages to take them into the city and others were carrying supplies to their ships.

  ''Come on, let's go inside the gates'', said Alice, excitedly.

  ''Yes, that would be great! I am rarely allowed to go outside the castle'', said Chrissy, mirroring Alice's excitement.

  ''Scarlett, you better cover your hair. It is too noticeable'', warned Alice.

  I pulled the hood over my eyes, as we made our way towards the gates and joined a group of sailors entering the city.

  ''I hope they don't recognize you'', I told Chrissy, but the guards barely looked at us.

  ''They will recognize you bef
ore recognizing me'', she replied, rolling her eyes.

  The streets were filled with hundreds people. As we squeezed through the crowd, I heard the vendors calling out from their stalls.

  ''Do you think they will notice our absence?'', I asked, looking at Alice.

  ''Not if we return before sundown''.

  We roamed the streets for some time, entering whichever shops that struck our liking.

  We were standing on the side of the street when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Chrissy.

  ''Look! guards!'', she gasped, pointing at a group of men in armor, who were walking in our direction.

  Alice looked around frantically. She grabbed our hands and pulled us into the nearest building. It was an old Inn. Almost all the tables were taken.

  We found an empty one at the corner, near the counter. We watched with wide eyes as the group passed by the window.

  The waiter walked towards us and we let Chrissy order the food. It was probably better to wait till it was safe to go outside.

  Suddenly, the door opened, bringing in a cold breeze. I looked over my shoulder and saw two men entering the Inn. Chrissy gasped, holding a hand to her mouth.

  ''Blast it!'', swore Alice. ''Cover Scar'', she told Chrissy, as she readjusted her seat.

  They were fully clad in black, their faces hidden in the shadow of their hoods. They walked over to the counter and tapped it to get the Innkeepers attention. I felt a creepy aura emanating from them.

  ''We are looking for a red haired girl with blue eyes'', one of them asked in a strange guttural voice.

  I looked the other way, trying to hide my face, peering through the corner of my eyes.

  The innkeeper blanched and drew back, before he stuttered, ''I...I ain't seen no red hair in here. You can search elsewhere. Get outta here. You are scaring my customers''.

  They gave him a long piercing stare, before glancing around the room. The innkeeper gripped the counter, his face covered with sweat.

  As the  cloaked men walked out of the door, my gaze fell upon the red crest on their backs. It was a crow with an eyeball in its beak.

  Chrissy and Alice were looking at me with ashen faces.

  ''We need to get out of here'', said Alice. ''Now! Let's go''.

  Chrissy was frozen with fear. ''Th......The crest'', she gasped. ''It belongs to the Witch, Zelda, of the Imperial Guard'', she said with wide eyes.

  ''That is bad'', replied Alice, anxiously. ''Wait here'', she said, as she went outside to check the streets. She returned after a few seconds.

  ''There is no sign of them'', she informed. ''Let's go, before they decide to come back''.

  We slowed our pace as we neared the gates. The guards gave us a suspicious glance as we passed through, but they did not bother to stop us.

  ''Hey!''.

  ''Please tell me it is not the guards'', whimpered Chrissy.

  I spun around and saw a man marching towards us, his eyes fixed on me. He looked like a sailor.

  ''You!'', he said, pointing his finger at me. ''I was at that inn. You are the girl they are looking for''.

  ''No, she is not'', said Alice, looking coldly at the man as he advanced towards us.

  ''Yes, she is. I recognize her from the wanted posters at Kingsport. I am calling the guards'', he said, turning towards the gates.

  ''Wait'', said Alice. ''Before you go, I have to apologize''.

  We gawked at Alice as if she had lost her mind.

  ''For what?'', he asked, puzzled.

  Alice lunged forward, burying her knee into his groin, before finishing off with a downward elbow. A grunt of pain escaped his lips as he collapsed on the beach.

  ''For this'', said Alice. ''Let's go'', she said, looking at our shocked faces.

  ''Alice! That was awesome'', exclaimed Chrissy, as we headed back to the cavern. ''You should teach me how to do that''.

  We had just started climbing up the stairs, when I heard a noise behind us. I looked over my shoulder and saw two silhouettes at the bottom of the stairs.

  ''Run!'', I shouted.

  ''They are back'', panted Alice, as we bounded up the stairs.

  The two cloaked men were gaining on us. Finally we reached the entrance to the tunnel.

  ''Go! Go! Go!'', I urged, as I climbed inside after Chrissy and Alice. We crawled along as fast as we could, scraping our knees and elbows.

  As soon as I was out of the tunnel, Alice pushed the cabinet, closing the hole.

  ''That was close'', whispered Chrissy.

  ''We cannot stop. They are still behind us'', said Alice.

  We were halfway along the corridor, when we heard a crash. I turned my head and saw them crawling out of the tunnel. They brushed the dust off their cloaks and started forward. It was impossible to escape now.

  ''Chrissy, go get help'', I shouted.

  She gave a terrified glance at the cloaked strangers, before running towards the stairs.

  One of them lunged forward, trying to catch Chrissy, but I grabbed the cell door beside me and swung it by its hinges.

  It crashed into the cloaked stranger, who stumbled and fell flat on his back. The other one stepped over his comrade and advanced forward.

  I recoiled when I saw the face beneath the hood. It was not human, at least not anymore.

  It looked as if they had been burnt in a pit of black fire and it was still burning underneath. Their skin was covered with a black smokey substance, which made them look like they were made of shadows.

  Everything about them was pitch black except their eyes, which glowed fiery red. They were more like dark creatures sent from hell.

  It pulled out a knife and advanced. Alice drew her sword and charged, but it sidestepped and parried the blow with ease. It did not even appear fazed.

  ''Alice, don't'', I warned, as she jumped back and thrust her sword at its shoulder.

  It grabbed the blade with its gloved hands and kicked her in the stomach.

  I groaned as Alice crashed into me and we tumbled to the floor, in a flurry of limbs.

  ''Sorry'', she whispered, jumping back on her feet.

  Suddenly, I heard a canine growl as something huge jumped over us. It was the same gray wolf I had seen in the clearing, but smaller. I guessed he could control the size of his transformation.

  The werewolf, which was Alistair Talbot, pounced on one of the creatures, pinning it to the ground under its paws. It snarled, baring its dagger like fangs.

  ''Look out!'', I shouted, when I saw the flash of steel as it raised the blade and stabbed the werewolf's flank, which enraged it further.

  It gave a terrifying  growl and snapped at the creature, grabbing its head in its fangs, and pulled, separating it from the torso. Black blood started pouring out of its severed neck.

  The other one had retreated. Before it jumped back into the hole, it looked straight at me and said, ''We will meet again, Scarlett Ironfang''.

                ~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

 
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll

Other author's books:


Add comment

Add comment