Fallen Empire, p.1K.N. Lee
Book One of the Empire of Dragons Chronicles
Captive Quill Press
Copyright © 2017 by K.N. Lee
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Killing a person was such messy business. There was the begging, pleading, and ultimately, the screaming. Then, there was the blood.
Father Marduk left the ceremony room before the chanting even ended. His hands were reddened from the bathing of spirits and lost souls. But, on this day, he’d rather wait outside. Though he made the sacrifice. He knew it wouldn’t work.
It never did.
He clenched his jaw as he pushed the heavy wooden doors outward and let in the bright sun.
Outside the double doors, bodies hung along the stone-paved road that led down from the Temple of the Sky Brotherhood. They’d been bled, in the old tradition, and left out to the elements. Still, none had proved to be of use.
The last source of true magic.
Blood stained the hundreds of steps leading to the top of the temple. It was five tiers tall, built at the beginning of time by slaves conquered during the first Reign of Fire. Comprised of mud brick, wood, and stone, the temple would stand until the end of time.
Ahead lay Tir, a desert wasteland that stretched for miles until meeting the red mountains. The temple stood at the edge of a rocky cliff, with an enchanted sea gently rolling behind and on either side.
Father Marduk stood outside on the top of the stairs just outside the temple. He turned to his right at the green Tigiri Sea, whose waters were so clear that one could see to the bottom where pure white sand lay undisturbed. The waves were calming, creating a white mist as they gently crashed along the gray stone. Serene. Such a stark contrast to the gruesome—yet necessary display of the bodies they’d left out to rot.
If they were going to save the world, they would need to sacrifice every Mage until they found the right one.
“Father Marduk,” a soft voice called from behind him. “I have a request for the next territory we shall search,” Brother Dagan said.
Marduk looked over his shoulder at the aging man who had shuffled out of the temple while he was contemplating his next move. Brother Dagan’s long white hair nearly reached his knees, yet his frail body was hidden by his heavy purple robes, made even heavier by the golden crest of their sect.
“And, where would that be?” Marduk asked. “Say Skal one more time and I will have your head on a pike.”
Dagan's mouth opened and snapped shut. He swallowed and redness spread across his hollow cheeks.
Marduk rolled his eyes and looked back at the darkening sky. “Just as I expected. As I said every time before, we will not risk angering the gods by invading neutral territory. Don't you think we've lost enough favor with them that we should at least honor their wishes to leave peaceful lands at peace?” Though he spoke those words, he yearned for the opportunity to enter untouched lands—lands kept safe by old rules made by dead deities and forgotten gods.
“Of course, great leader. As you wish,” Dagan said and Marduk listened as he turned and headed toward the door.
“But, you had something else you wanted to say.”
He always did. Brother Dagan was a devout monk, one of the best in the sect. While he trained most of the new recruits in the mystical arts of battle and sorcery, he tended to have a knack for exerting his opinion upon Marduk. But, Marduk was a master manipulator, and had an idea to make Brother Dagan’s opinion work in his favor.
“Well,” Brother Dagan murmured.
Better to let the old fool take credit for the idea to invade Skal. Better to let it fall on his head if things turned out disastrous. Marduk didn't become head of the sect by taking unnecessary risks. That's what his minions were for.
He summoned his inner rune spirit and a blue orb materialized and floated above his head, showering him with rejuvenating light. It was all he could do to keep himself from falling over in exhaustion. Marduk didn’t sleep.
Not after all of the things he’d done.
Not until he put the world back the way it should be.
“I would, but I fear you'll have my head for that as well.”
A chuckle vibrated within Marduk's chest. “Speak freely.”
“Thank you, Father,” he said, bowing his head. “The Stones of Tarth all point to Skal. The Stones do not lie.”
Marduk closed his eyes. “If you think I am going to follow some stones, you have lost more than your mind. But all of your senses.”
“But, Father. The Stones were left in this world to guide us.”
Marduk turned to him. “Their rocks. Rocks with etchings made by blind children back when the world was cast into darkness.”
“That may be, Father. But, the Cleric has had a vision.”
That was interesting. Marduk lifted a thick black brow. He slid his arms into his sleeves and folded his arms under his chest. Then, he took a step forward. “Go on.”
Hope filled Dagan’s eyes.
Yes, they might have a valid excuse to do what Marduk wanted all this time. He knew his patience would be rewarded.
“She says the Mage we need has been seen between the two red rivers. A true descendant of the Erani clan.”
“In Skal, Father. I’m sure if the Holy Cleric dreams of this place, it cannot be against the will of the gods. Do you not agree?”
Feigning annoyance, Marduk let out a heavy sigh. He stretched the uncomfortable silence long enough to make Dagan squirm. The Holy Cleric was nothing more than a dark elf girl who would say anything to avoid be sacrificed herself. He allowed it. The chaste monks liked to look at her, and actually believed her prophetic babblings.
Then, he headed to the door, his rune spirit following from above his head. “Very well. Let’s go find this Mage.”
A first kiss was supposed to be special. Memorable. As Tomas pulled away from Amalia, her eyes opened with confusion.
Is that it?
Her silver-gray eyes filled with disappointment.
Was that what she'd been waiting for all of her life?
The taste of onion was on his tongue, and the coarse feel of chapped lips didn't help the experience.
He gave her a grin—a gap-toothed one she had hoped she'd grow to appreciate, maybe even love one day.
Amalia couldn't afford to be picky. Though Tomas wasn't the most handsome, or eve
She licked her lips and forced a tight smile.
He'd have to do.
It was a fact that not many would even consider marrying a Mage. Especially one like Amalia—one marked by the gods. Not when Mages were being hunted down by Wolves, or even worse, the Brotherhood.
Skal was neutral territory. But, invisible borders meant nothing when the people within them held the same prejudice as those outside.
“So,” he said, his cheeks reddening. “What do you think?
“It was lovely,” she lied, blinking.
The look of relief on his face was reassuring. Within a month's time, Amalia would be fifteen and of age. She'd be Tomas' wife.
“Good,” he said. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this moment. Seems like all of my life. For as long as I could remember. At night, all I can think of are the way your eyes remind me of the night sky, and how I’d give anything to look into your eyes every day until the day I die.”
Her smile turned genuine. She should set aside her selfish vanity and desire for a handsome boy, one who would make her heart sing. The time for silly childish ideas about what life would hold was coming to an end. It was time for her to accept her fate and prepare for a simple life with a simple man.
“I had no idea,” she said, reaching out for his hand.
“Of course, you didn’t. You barely looked at me until our parents made the arrangement.”
She ran her fingers through the tangles of her hair. Somehow the long, black strands always seemed to knot around one another. “That’s not true. You are a very nice young man. Any girl would be happy to have you.”
“That’s nice of you to say. But, I know I’m not a knight or a raider or anything special like that.”
“It is the truth. I can’t think of anyone kinder than you in the village,” she said and glanced at the paling sky. The smell of rain was faint in the air, but the clouds were darkening by the minute. “Perhaps we should return to the village. It looks like a storm is coming this way.”
He followed her gaze, combing his long dark hair from his mahogany-colored eyes. “I think you're right.” He reached for her hand. Amalia accepted and he pulled her to her feet.
She brushed grass from her faded blue gown and gray smock and stretched her arms above her head. By the bubbling brook at the foot of the Weeping Mountain, they had feasted on ripe mango and warm honey bread her mother had prepared for their first excursion alone as intended mates.
Tonight, there would be a feast. Their families would dine together and their fathers would discuss matters of joining their resources.
It was the way of the Skal.
A way Amalia wished she could forever be free of.
Together, they gathered their blanket and basket, while the scent of burning wood wafted their way.
Her brows furrowed as she stood to her full height—almost as tall as Tomas. He studied her face, and reached for her hand.
She sniffed the air, and pulled her hand away from his. Warnings bubbled in her belly. “Do you smell something?”
“I do, actually,” he said, frowning. “What is that? Is something burning?”
The air smelled of charcoal and sulfur. Realization washed over Amalia and her face drained of color. She knew that smell.
Her heart sank and she dropped the basket and turned to run toward the village. This couldn’t be happening. It had to be a bad dream.
“What is it?” Tomas asked as he ran after her.
The sky burned red and orange with flames as firedrakes flew from over the Weeping Mountain and toward the town of Skal. Amalia and Tomas ran across the wheat field, desperate to warn the others. Their arms pumped, and their lungs burned as they ran with all of the speed and might their bodies could muster.
Skal hadn’t seen dragons in centuries. Why had they returned?
Her heart lurched into her throat as a dragon swooped down and pierced Tomas in the shoulders by its talons. He cried out. Wild eyed, he reached for her as the dragon lifted him into the sky.
She tripped and fell face first into the grass, scraping the bridge of her nose.
She gasped. “Dear gods, help us.”
Run, an unfamiliar female voice commanded.
Confused, Amalia did the opposite. Numb with fear, she rolled onto her back. She had half a second to decide whether to use her power, or hide.
That second fled faster than she expected, and she watched with horror as the dragon pulled Tomas by the head and thighs, and ripped him into two.
The color drained from her face. His scream would haunt her for as long as she lived.
Guilt washed over her. She could have saved him. She could have at least tried. What use was magic if she was too afraid to use it? How many times had her father warned her against using magic? Magic was dirty. Evil. Using it would only bring the wrath of the gods to their peaceful realm.
Still, why did they give them magic only to forbid them to use it?
Warm tears fell from the corners of her eyes.
Get up, and run!
The voice came from inside her head. At least, that’s what she thought. She couldn’t be sure. But, there was no one close enough to whisper to her like that. Nothing was around her, but an odd eagle flying across the sky and toward the woods on the other side of town, and several dragons.
She’d ran from the Weeping Mountain to the village. Now, she hid in the tall wheat stalks, fearful that if she moved, she would be the next to lose her life.
“Who said that?” Amalia asked in a whisper.
A loud roar caught her attention. She lay there, watching, frozen with fear. Eyes wide, she watched the dragons flap their red wings and blow fire onto the town without mercy or prejudice.
“Amalia,” her mother yelled as she and her father led a procession of survivors from the burning village and into the wheat fields.
But, Amalia could not move. Her muscles were stiff. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the sky and replayed the death of Tomas repeatedly. The thumping of her heart was so loud that it drowned out the screams that came from all around.
Just minutes ago, she had been enjoying a relaxing morning with her future husband. Now, her life and that of her family was in danger. Now, Tomas was dead.
Why couldn’t she move?
She yelped when her father grabbed her by the arm and carried her away. He tossed her over his broad shoulders and ran with her toward the Never Woods.
“Hurry, Levi,” Amalia’s mother shouted as they left the town and fled across the meadow.
The screeching and roars of the firedrakes filled the air. Amalia glanced back to see a man scream as he was plucked from the ground only to be silenced when the firedrake ripped him in two. Just like Tomas.
The darkness of the Never Woods was almost as frightening as the drakes. Most would steer clear from it, but today they had no choice. Today, they would rather risk entering the enchanted woods—and never leaving—than to be burnt alive or ripped apart by dragons.
The thick canopy loomed above, and all sounds were muted by the magic of the Never Wood. Everyone stopped running and looked to one another. No man, woman, or Mage had entered the woods and lived to tell about it. Not even the firedrakes dared to enter. They remained in town, destroying everything in their path.
She prayed that they would soon leave. Skal was the only home she’d ever known, and all of her friends were back there, fighting for their lives.
Father held onto Amalia’s hand, and together they looked up at the trees as the leaves swayed with an unseen force. The air was stale, and smelled of something strong and putrid, like old lemons left out in the sun.
Torris, his wife Mally, and daughter Beata stepped closer to Amalia and her family. They jumped when more villagers entered
“Everything’s gone,” Frestice said, hands on his knees as he worked at catching his breath. The young man was followed by his wife, Anga. He looked up at Levi. “I don’t know how we will rebuild after this.”
Amalia watched her father, knowing he would find a solution. He always did. He was the rock of the town. As the sheriff, people looked to him for protection and guidance.
Levi’s brows furrowed as he stroked his black beard. The silence of the woods was made even more tense as everyone waited for his reply.
“Now that the firedrakes have returned, we will have to find new territory, and rebuild,” he said, finally. “I know this is our home. We’ve lived here for centuries. But, it will never be the same. The firedrakes have now claimed this land. And, they will continue to return and destroy anything we try to rebuild here. Our future lies as far west as we can go without entering into Wolf territory.”
A collective gasp spread through the villagers as a firedrake flew into the veil of the woods, and a man leaped from its back.
Amalia’s jaw dropped as she took a step backward. Since when did dragons have riders? Everything she’d ever known seemed to be crumbling around her.
The rider was tall, and cloaked, but she could tell that he was well-built and strong. He lifted his hood and revealed a swarthy face marred my scars that were perfectly symmetrical lines that ran down both cheeks. He had a long, narrow nose, and thick black brows that matched his short, curly hair. His gray-eyed gaze scanned the villagers and landed on Amalia.
Fallen Empire by K.N. Lee / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes