TOWER OF THE LORDS

SYNOPSIS

Nesto aspires to
become an exceptional hunter, like his uncle, but, because of a strange mark on
his body, he ends up becoming the hunted one, instead.

That was why his
elder brother, Almar, decided to join the Order of the Lords, so that he could
earn the same title as the heroes who were bestowed with the fiery power of the
ancient gods and slew the vicious dragons. To gain the power needed to protect
Nesto from the unknown forces that wanted him dead.

Or, at least,
that’s what his uncle claims – his brother never actually returned to their
village. Under Almar’s instructions, Nesto is to follow in his brother’s
footsteps and undergo the ritual to accept the flame of the gods inside his
body. To learn how to control that burning power – capable of reducing his body
to ashes – and overcome the impossible trials in order to obtain the title and
the protection it grants. Oh, and all that, while he keeps his mark hidden, of
course.

The hard part
begins when he finds out that the unknown force that wants him dead is actually
the Order of the Lords.





PART
1 - TRUST NO ONE



 PROLOGUE




The torch the
old man held could barely cast its light on the winding stairs of the tower.
The livery he wore was now too tight for him, although he had been wearing it
throughout his life. He had yet to convince himself of what he intended to do.
He clambered down the stairs with difficulty, making sure he didn’t trip over
anything and, when he reached the last level, headed towards the third cell.
His boots grated on the rough stones and, although he heard drops of liquid
splattered across the floor, he paid no heed. He leant the blaze towards the
rails, and whistled through his teeth. “Young master…”




A skinny boy lay
coiled up in the corner of the cell, dressed in rags, his black hair greasy and
filthy. The servant took a bunch of keys out of his pocket and, picking one,
opened the gate. “Young master,” he repeated, this time in a somewhat louder
voice. The boy opened his eyes and jumped up, clenching his fist, ready to
attack…but he stopped as soon as he realised who stood before him.




“Velmar?”




The boy breathed
with difficulty, as if he had just woken up from a nightmare, and now that he
stood closer to the fire, he could make out the dried blood across his face,
and his wounds that hadn’t healed yet. “Quick, young master. Follow me. I’ll
help you escape.”




“No. It’s
futile. I’ve tried it so many times before, and I’ve failed. Wherever I go,
he’s going to find me and drag me into one of these cells again.”




His face was
inscrutable, but pain and disillusion was painted across his eyes.




“It’s different
this time. Your father…”




“He’s not my
father, he is a demon!” His teeth gritted, and dark red rivulets of blood oozed
from his lower lip.




“…Master Jenon
isn’t in the castle right now, and I don’t know when he’ll be back. Young
master, you know that there is a place where not even your father will be able
to track you down.” The boy was hesitant for a while, until there were some
heavy steps going down the stairs. Velmar grabbed him by the hand. “Hurry up!
This is your only chance.”




The old servant
walked as fast as he could, he almost ran, while the boy was following him with
ease. “We’ve got to get back,” the boy suddenly said. “The stairs are on the
other side. There’s only a dead end ahead of us.”




“There’s a
secret passage at the end of the corridor that only I know, young master. Trust
me.” When they came up against a wall, the servant brought the torch closer,
and began to grope the bricks with the other hand, while the footsteps behind
them grew louder by the second. All of a sudden, a dragging sound was heard,
and under their feet appeared a new flight of stairs. “Hurry up, young master.
We’re almost there.”




A strong, cold
wind blew inside the passage, making the flame flicker and sway, while the boy
shuddered with cold. Their feet waded through puddles of water, and Velmar was
out of breath from running. At the end of the tunnel, far from the castle, a
carriage with two impatient black horses awaited them. “We made it,” the man
wheezed. Thick droplets danced overhead, making the torch useless. He threw it
to the ground, and took a change of clothes out of his black mantle. “Take
these and go. Now! May the three ancient gods favour you.”




The boy’s face
froze. “What do you mean?” he grumbled. “Aren’t you coming? He won’t forgive
you if he learns you helped me. He’ll punish you. Come with me.”




“I can’t do
this. I have taken a sacred oath. No matter how harsh he is, I will serve
Master Jenon for the rest of my life. Go now, before it’s too late.” The boy
balked, but then obeyed.




The servant
watched the carriage leave, and got back. When he reached the top of the tower,
he was already out of breath, his back was killing him, and his knees cracked
from ascending so many stairs. Another two towers loomed behind him, vying with
each other in piercing through the clouds that engulfed them. Further below,
wild waves, like frenzied monsters, were doing battle for supremacy.




“Master Jenon.”




He saw him standing
next to a thick wooden pole, from which hung heady chains, while his red coat
was flapping in the wind, and his white, moist hair was stuck on his face. To
that very pole, he used to tether the young master, leaving him with no food
for weeks. This was just one of the multitude of tortures that poor boy was
subjected to. “Is it done?” Jenon’s voice sounded heavy and inhuman, like a
hollow whisper.




“I helped the
young master escape, as requested.”




The man with the
white hair turned towards Velmar. Despite his hair, his face looked young, as
if he were only in his early thirties, while his right cheek was furrowed with
three slashes that stood out as they were darker than his complexion. His red
eyes that glistened like rubies turned black, as soon as he blinked. “Very
well,” he said. Just like his red eyes, his inhuman voice vanished. “From now
on, his fate is in that person’s hands—Zoloc.”




“Master…I am
aware that I am in no position to question your decisions, but still, I think
it would be preferable for the young master to stay here, under your
protection.”




He gnashed his
teeth. “We both know full well what happened last time I tried to protect
someone.”




“But that place,
that horrible place…”




“I know.” Jenon
ran his fingers through his hair to pull some wisps away from his face, and
then turned his head over in the other direction. “They want to kill him,
Velmar, and I’m not going to allow this to happen. I have been planning this
for the last sixteen years. Ironically, the safest place for him, right now, is
the place that is known as the most dangerous. The Tower of the Lords.”







CHAPTER
1




Small drops of
rain were raging outside Nesto’s window. It was a rainy day. He hated these
days. His father had abandoned him and his elder brother on an overcast, dull
day. It wasn't raining at the time, but every single time rain reminded him of
his tears. Several years later, so did his brother. He hadn’t cried on that
occasion, but the sky did it for him. Ever since, he hated three things: his
father, his brother and, most of all, the rain. In a way, he was relieved that
his mother was already dead, otherwise she might have dumped him, too.




He lay in bed,
groping the mark across the ribs with his fingers: three dark lines that looked
like scratches. He was trying to remember when he got it, when a double knock
on the door roused him. He put on his boots and hooded top, and went down the
stairs. The house was empty and cold; two bodies weren't enough to warm it, let
alone now that Garon, his uncle, was away, and Nesto was on his own.




His uncle was a
hunter, the best ever, or at least that’s what he was apt to say. He had been
away for the last couple of days. Hunting lasted for at least three days, and
there were times it went on for ten or more, but each time he came back with
enough kill to feed the whole village. He gave it all to the local butcher in
return for a basket of warm bread, cheese, meat and, sometimes, fruit on an
everyday basis.




After another
double knock, Nesto opened the door, only to see the butcher’s daughter
standing there, dripping wet, basket in hand. “You really needn’t have brought
it yourself, Lirelle,” he said to her. “I would have come over to collect it.”
Just as he did every day.




“You were late,
and I wanted to see you.” Her hair was held back, revealing her pretty face.
Blue eyes, red lips, and a curvy body. She was perfect, bar a small flaw—she
was mad and desperate. There wasn't a single boy at Grakehall that hadn’t
received her flirting. Her obsession with marriage had led her to Nesto’s door
over the last couple of days. The other boys must have surely rejected her.
Nesto had curly hair and brown eyes, while his medium height and thin hands
didn’t make him particularly popular with girls. I guess she is that desperate.




She gave him a
slight push with her hand, and walked in. After placing the basket on the table
by the wall, she let her hair down. “Garon must still be busy hunting,” she
said, having shot him a furtive glance. “Great. We are alone.”




“I’m sure he’s done
with the hunting, and will be here any minute now,” Nesto said. That was a lie.
Most probably, the first he had ever told, and apparently not a very good one.




“He won’t be
back until tomorrow, I know that. I’m the butcher’s daughter, silly boy.” She flashed
him a promising smile. “You’ll soon turn sixteen, a grown man. I know that very
well because, every time Garon visits my father, he mentions that we were born
on the same day.” Lirelle shortened the distance between them. She wore an
olive green dress, which didn’t manage to hide her cleavage, and Nesto’s eyes
always fell on it. She grabbed his hand and put it on her heart, while biting
her lower lip. “Don’t you think I’m beautiful, Nesto?” she asked, and she
instantly received a nervous ‘no’ for an answer.




A second lie,
and the fact that his hand still rested on her breast made it far less
convincing.




As soon as he
realised it, he pulled his hand away and took a few steps backwards, while
Lirelle turned in the other direction, holding her body with her own hands. Her
wet dress made her shiver with cold. Nesto offered to fetch her a blanket to
keep her warm, but she paid no heed. “You like me,” she stated after a while.
“I’ve seen the way you look at me. Why don’t you marry me, then?”




The third lie came
more natural than ever. “I can’t. I’m soon leaving Grakehall. I intend to
challenge the Tower of the Lords,” he responded, then he recalled his brother.
Those were, more or less, his words when he abandoned Nesto. He wondered if his
words had been just as phoney.




Maybe it was the
memory of his brother and the rage that it incited, but Lirelle seemed to have
believed him this time. She must have been truly desperate, for she left
without saying a word, almost in tears.




His first lie
came true as Garon returned from hunting that very evening. In contrast to
Nesto, he was tall and stocky, with long black hair. He wore a dark green
hooded coat, and strapped around his shoulder was his longbow. He carried no
kill and, judging by the look on his face as he opened the door, he hadn’t left
it with the butcher. Nesto seldom saw that puzzled and sad expression; only on
those rare occasions when hunting came to naught. He said nothing. He never did
when his pride was wounded, and hunting was the only thing he was proud of.




While Garon was
washing his hands, Nesto was preparing dinner. Even at the table, his uncle
kept silent. “Lirelle’s obsession with marriage has gotten even worse. This
time, she’s drawn a bead on me,” said Nesto, in an attempt to make him speak,
while avoiding any mention of the kill. Rubbing salt in the wound would do no
good.




“It’s not the
girl’s fault. I may exchange my kill with the butcher, but I don’t like him at
all; I never did. I’m sure the poor girl is suffering at his hands.”




For an instant,
he took pity on her, but what could he do? Marry her? No way! Ever since
he was abandoned by his father and brother, he didn’t want anyone by his side;
he trusted no one, except Garon.




Silence reigned
again, until Nesto blurted out: “Was hunting so bad?”




“I didn’t go
hunting.”




“What? Why not?”




Garon huffed and
pushed his plate aside. “I was hoping we could have one last peaceful dinner,
but it seems that I can’t prolong this any more. I went to see an old
acquaintance of mine to make some arrangements. First thing in the morning,
you’re leaving for the City of Kings, Nesto. You are entering the Tower of the
Lords.”




He let out a
muffled laugh. Garon’s completely stern face, though, showed that it was yet
another lie of those Nesto told come true. When Almar, his brother, had
decided, six years before, to leave for the “Tower,” Garon had tried to talk
him out of it. For a whole week, they had been arguing, until his uncle gave
up. He must think that I’m just like him. “I’m not like my brother, I’m
not going to abandon you. Only a fool would try to claim the title of a Lord.”




“Shut up, you
fool!” Garon shot to his feet. “Don’t talk about your brother like that!” He
walked into his room, by the stairs, and when he got back, he was holding a
rag. Unfolding it, he revealed a small green weapon that looked like a knife,
only a little longer. “Don’t you remember a single thing of what he told you
the day he left?” he asked, as he threw the weapon to him.




Nesto used both
hands to catch it. Its handle was wooden, while its shining green blade was
made of glass. It must have been really sharp as, at its very touch, his skin
oozed blood. These red rivulets put him in mind of the rain he detested, and
the memory he had been fighting back rushed through his mind. Tears. He didn’t
want to admit it, but he had cried once again. He had begged, chafed, bitten and, finally, got hold of the weapon
his brother had always carried along, but still he didn’t manage to convince
him.




He looked at his
hand. He cut himself in the very same spot, back then. He broke out in a cold
sweat, when he recalled his brother squeezing and pressing his wound, hugging
him, and whispering: “That mark of yours across the ribs, don’t show it to
anyone. They want you dead, Nesto. Trust no one!”






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  • CHAPTER
    2

    The next morning
    came earlier than he had hoped for. He had been tossing and turning in bed all
    night, trying to put things into perspective. Who wanted him dead? And why?
    Garon had no explanation for either. The only thing he knew, the only thing
    Almar had told him during their altercation, was that Nesto had to enter the
    Tower of the Lords before he reached the age of sixteen. When he finally
    drifted off to sleep, he dreamt about his father. His face looked distorted;
    Nesto could only make out his green eyes and black thick hair. His purple
    mantle was flapping in the wind, while behind him flames had taken on the form
    of horrendous monsters. He could hear the wind hissing and whooshing, along
    with the song of the fire, but his father’s words didn’t reach him. He saw his
    lips move, then the rain set in…the tears.

    Garon strode
    into the room just before sunrise. “Get ready,” he said. “We’re leaving.” He
    didn’t have to remind him where they were heading. The very thought was more
    than enough to have his stomach in knots. Their village storyteller had told
    them so much about the Lords, and so little about the Tower. All he knew was
    that it was a trial and, if you succeeded, you were given immense power and a
    status equal to that of a noble. But if you failed…you died. And almost
    everyone did fail.

    His breakfast
    was the previous day’s leftovers, then he got dressed to leave. They hurriedly
    walked through the village square. It was still very early and quiet, but soon
    the hammering sound coming from the forge would pervade the air, then he would
    hear the butcher’s and all the other shops open up. He thought of asking his
    uncle to wait till all the square filled up with voices and laughter, so that
    he could bid farewell to the kind of life he had got used to, so far. But there
    was no one in the entire village he would really miss or say goodbye to. “Trust
    no one,” his brother had told him, and it seems that he didn’t, albeit
    unconsciously.

    Garon’s old
    acquaintance must have occupied a very important position as, a few miles away
    from the village, a black carriage awaited them—one of those used only by the
    noble and the rich. Nesto followed him inside. Only when the sound of the
    horses’ hooves reached their ears, did Garon begin to narrate all that he knew.
    “Your father is a Lord,” he said in a low voice, making sure no one else but
    Nesto could hear him.

    This did not
    take him by surprise. It was something he had been suspecting since the day his
    brother decided to leave, but still, hearing it made the blood run faster
    through his veins. “He sent you to me with a letter, asking me to take care of
    you. As for the rest, I learnt it from your brother on the day of our argument.
    He knew who were the ones that wanted you dead, but he would not tell me. The
    only thing he did tell me was that, to be safe, you must enter the Tower of the
    Lords before you reach the age of sixteen.”

    “But I don’t get
    it. Why did he decide to enter the Tower of the Lords? Did they want him dead,
    too?”

    His uncle shook
    his head. “I doubt it. Almar is a brave kid. He probably saw it as his duty to
    protect you, to show you that becoming a Lord is not impossible. It seemed to
    me that he knew far more things than he confided to me, but I guess he must
    have thought it was imprudent for us to know. The last thing he told me before
    leaving was that he and your father were expecting you at the top of the Tower of the Lords.”

    Nesto lifted his
    shirt. “What about the…?”

    Garon put his
    finger over his mouth, motioning for him to hush, and spoke more silently this
    time, almost whispering: “Be careful when mentioning the mark. You don’t want
    anyone else to hear you. I don’t know much about it, only that your father had
    a similar mark on his chest. But he got that the day he became a Lord
    Candidate; he wasn’t born with it, like you. His mark is referred to as the
    Mark of the ancient Gods, and it bestowed him with the fiery power of the Gods.
    I don’t know who wants you dead, Nesto, but you’ll be safe with the Order of
    the Lords.” He didn’t say so, but the words sneaked into Nesto’s ears on their
    own. If you survive the trial, that is.

    During their
    journey, Garon would recount stories of his father. How he always longed to
    become a Lord, one of those who protected the Kingdom from the monstrous
    tribes, one of those who had slain all the dragons. Those who had brought peace
    and prosperity to the human race. “Our parents, your grandparents,” he said
    smilingly. “They were at the service of one of the noblemen and, because of one
    of your brother’s dreams, they left his castle, settling down in Grakehall,
    where they became hunters. You see, the Lords were always at loggerheads with
    the noblemen, even with those at their service. And, if they didn’t want to
    ruin your father’s chances—no matter how slim—of earning the title, they had to
    rid themselves of the nobles.”

    Just before they
    reached the City of the Kings, his uncle took out of his pocket his brother’s
    green knife. “I thought that maybe you’d like to keep it,” he told him. What
    with all this, he had completely forgotten about the weapon. “It looks like a
    dagger, but it’s definitely not a normal one.” He wrapped it with a scrap of
    cloth. “Make sure no one sees it, or it may arouse suspicions.”

    They went
    through the silver grey gate of the city just as the sun went down, swapping
    places with the two moons across the vast sky. The city was surrounded by
    rocks, which made it impossible for the enemy troops to seize it. Not that it
    mattered. The Lords would easily fend off any threat. The first house that hove
    into sight through Nesto’s window was of the same size as the one he lived in
    back in Grakehall, and was made of carved white stone. All the houses by the
    gate were small and short, and grew taller and bigger, as they walked on, until
    they came up against a snow-white, grandiose castle flanked by various towers,
    where the King and his noblemen resided.

    Their carriage
    drew up in front of a black castle in the centre of the city, which looked like
    a shadow against the white backdrop. This was the sole exception, the only
    building that loomed just as tall and grandiose as that of the King and his
    noblemen. The Tower of the Lords. White and black. The former were entitled to
    power by birth, whereas the latter earned it by risking life and limb. Nesto
    recalled a story he had heard when he was younger from the storyteller of his
    village. There was a time when a thousand commoners tried, all together, to
    enter the Tower of the Lords, in order to gain the title…and every single one
    of them ended up dead. That was the harsh truth. If you were born a commoner,
    then you stayed a commoner. Those who asked for more only met death. The
    storyteller’s words had scared him because, deep down, he knew they rang true.
    But now, he was here, in a last-ditch attempt to gain the title. Just like
    those commoners…

    Just as Nesto
    was trying to get off the carriage, his uncle’s hand stopped him. He had that
    worried and sad look again, and Nesto knew it was time to go their separate
    ways, bidding farewell, perhaps forever. He wouldn’t cry; he had cried enough
    for his father and brother. No more tears.

    “Nestal,” his
    uncle finally said. “This is your father’s name. You never asked.” His tone
    blamed him for that.

    Words came
    natural: “It’s because I never wanted to know.” No matter the reasons, it was
    his father that had abandoned him. “Farewell, uncle, and thank you for doing
    what my father neglected.” That was harsh and, probably, not fair at all, but
    he could not keep in check all the hatred and rage bottled up inside all these
    years.

    Garon stopped
    him again, this time after Nesto had got off the carriage. “What about
    Lirelle?” he asked. “Won’t you send her your regards? I think you broke her
    heart, you know.”

    That made his
    face crack into a smile. He knew that this was his uncle’s way to avoid
    parting, with only bitter words in mind. “Tell her I’m sorry. And that I lied
    to her. I actually do think that she is beautiful.”

    The man awaiting
    him at the gate was one of Garon’s acquaintances, one of the Lords 
    of the castle named Mendax. Short and plump,
    with a double chin and a grey wisp of hair, this Lord bore no resemblance to
    those he had heard of in stories. Those Lords could make your blood curdle with
    a single look. The only decent thing on him were his bright red clothes and his
    purple mantle that put Nesto in mind of his father’s mantle—the one he had
    dreamt about.

    He was trying to
    banish that memory, while Lord Mendax was leading him to the castle quarters,
    and explaining to him the ceremony that was to take place in a few hours, in
    order to endow the Candidates with the Mark of the ancient Gods. First, they
    would prepare his body, freezing it with cold water, and then he would receive
    the flame of the Gods. “The power of the ancient Gods can seize you, searing
    the life out of you if they do not deem you suitable to wield it. If they don’t
    favour you,” the Lord warned him. It was of rare occurrence to be favoured by
    the three ancient Gods together. Most of the Candidates were favoured by only
    two of the three, while there were also some unlucky ones, as Lord Mendax
    called them, favoured only by one.

    What the Lord
    called the castle’s quarters was a small, narrow room with a bed and a tiny
    table that, instead of a window, featured a small crevice. It looked more like
    a cell. “I know you must be scared, having heard all this about the Tower of
    the Lords,” said the fat Lord, while he was about to close the iron door, “but
    I believe in you.” He grimaced, probably trying to smile. “You have Garon’s
    blood running through your veins. There is nothing you can’t achieve.”

    “These words
    meant nothing to Nesto. They must have been the same words he had told all
    those vying to gain the title of the Lord. After all, he wasn’t scared. If
    that floppy man made it, then how hard could it be?

    But, as he
    closed the iron door behind him, Nesto felt the shadow of fear inside of him,
    its hands gripping his lungs tightly, and he started to choke. He was on his
    own now, together with his thoughts, and whatever he had learnt over the
    previous two days had just sunk in. His father was a Lord, his brother became
    one or, at least, tried to, in order to protect him. There were people out
    there who, due to a mark across his ribs, wanted him dead, and Nesto would soon
    go through the most lethal trial. All of a sudden, marrying Lirelle didn’t seem
    such a bad idea, whatsoever.

    He sat on the
    bed and, instantly, something jabbed his belly. He had hidden his brother’s
    dagger there, inside his trousers. The green colour of the sharp glass turned
    orange and red in the light of the oil lamp. As he gazed at his dark reflection
    in the glass, he felt a pang of remorse for all those times he thought his
    brother had abandoned him, for all the rancour he had felt against him. I’m
    going to survive and meet at the top of the Tower, no matter what,
    he
    thought, as he hid the dagger under the mattress. As Garon had said, if someone
    found it, it would arouse suspicions.

    The shadow of
    fear was still lurking inside Nesto’s body, when Lord Mendax came to lead him
    to the baths hall, where the ceremony would be held. Nesto would have to doff
    his clothes for the ceremony, and the very thought that the mark across his
    ribs would be there for everyone to see terrified him. The Lord must have read
    the disquietude across his face when he opened the door, as he said, to soothe
    him: “Most of the Candidates lose their lives before entering the Tower, but
    almost none have died during the ritual.”

    If that was
    supposed to calm him down, then it didn’t work.

    The hall was one
    level below ground and, as soon as he set his foot there, Nesto felt a cold
    aura engulf his body. Big chunks of ice jutted out of the surrounding walls,
    which gave off a faint white and blue light. “They are called crystals,” Lord
    Mendax explained. Except for a piece in the middle of the hall that looked like
    a corridor, the rest of the surface was gone, and in its place he could only
    see water. Frozen, Nesto supposed, seeing the other Candidates shaking
    while scrambling out of the water onto the corridor. At least, he wasn’t the
    only one to take part in the ritual.

    He carefully
    took off his clothes—his top was the last one he doffed—, while trying to hide
    the mark with his right arm. He dipped in, feeling his muscles contract and his
    heart throb frenziedly, as the water pierced through him like countless frozen
    arrows, preparing his body to accept the Mark of the ancient Gods. He recalled
    the thousand commoners who had lost their lives, and wondered how many of them
    perished during the ritual. Almost none, Lord Mendax had said. All of
    them
    , he heard the storyteller whisper in his ears.

    When he finally
    got out, his breaths were short and fast, while his limbs were numb. Fear oozed
    away and the cold settled in its place. A second Lord was already in the hall,
    holding two small crystals. A white and a black one. He wore the same apparel
    as Lord Mendax, only he was two heads taller, with a square face and a slash
    across his chin.

    The first step,
    preparation, was over, and the second, and last, step was about to begin. All
    the Candidates, more than twenty persons, had formed a line, with Nesto
    bringing up the rear. Lord Mendax took the white crystal from Lord Cornius, as
    he called him, and placed it on the first Candidate’s chest. The Lord’s face
    smiled when the crystal turned dark blue, and said: “Two of the three ancient
    Gods favour you.” Then, he immediately touched the black crystal at the same
    spot. Sparks flew out of it, and the candidate slightly flinched backwards.
    Then, the mark appeared.

    The other Lord
    was jotting down the names and the number of the ancient Gods who favoured
    them, while Lord Mendax was endowing them with their fiery power. Surely,
    they want to keep track of how many of us will survive.
    Every time the
    crystal turned blue, Lord Mendax smiled, while these couple of times it turned
    red, his face cracked into a sad grimace. “Only one of the three ancient Gods
    favours you,” he said, and everyone roughly knew what this meant. He wouldn’t
    be alive for much longer.

    Frozen drops
    trickled down Nesto’s hair, while his body shook like a leaf, when his turn
    came. He stood naked, with his arms stuck to his ribs, trying to hide the mark
    as well as he could. Lord Mendax placed the white crystal on his chest, and
    Nesto wished its white colour would turn blue…but it didn’t. It didn’t even
    turn red. It remained white, and both Lords exchanged surprised looks.

    Then, Lord
    Cornius turned his gaze upon Nesto, and said in his heavy voice: “I’m sorry,
    child. No God favours you.”

  • CHAPTER
    3

    “We cannot endow
    you with the Mark of the ancient Gods. Their power will burn you,” Lord Cornius
    explained to him. “I’m sorry, child, but you won’t be able to enter the Tower
    of the Lords.”

    Two days ago, if
    someone had told him that he wouldn’t be able to claim the title of the Lord,
    he wouldn’t have cared. He might even be happy about it. But, now, things were
    different. ‘They’ wanted him dead, his only salvation was the Tower of the
    Lords, and his brother was waiting for him at its top. “No, you don’t
    understand. I must go, I must enter.” He raised his hands, in an attempt to
    plead with them, but he stopped as he remembered that the mark could be
    revealed.

    “No, it is you
    that don’t understand. If we endow you with the Mark of the ancient Gods, you
    will die, and you are not allowed to enter the Tower without it.”

    He felt his only
    hope ooze away from his grip. The emotions slashed him like a knife. Was it
    fear? Frustration? Anger? Probably all of that together as his throat closed
    up, and the only thing he could do was simply hold back his tears.

    “So what?” said
    Lord Mendax. “Most of them will die before they even enter the Tower. If the
    boy wants to take the risk, I say we let him.” The shorter Lord turned towards
    Nesto: “You want to, don’t you?”

    Nesto gritted
    his teeth and gulped with difficulty, trying to clear his throat. “I do,” he
    said. “Yes, I want to take the risk.”

    “As Lords, we
    have no right to turn him down.” He took the black crystal, ignoring Lord
    Cornius’ advice, and slightly placed its edge on Nesto’s chest. “Prepare
    yourself, this might hurt…a lot.”

    But it didn’t
    hurt, it burnt. It was as if he had inhaled fire. His lungs were engulfed by
    flames as the Mark was formed across his chest. Then, the burning sensation
    crept downwards, in his entrails first, and then pierced through his bones. He
    knelt down when the burning reached his limbs. He wanted to scream for help,
    but it felt like fire was going to spit out of his mouth. This is it. I’m
    dying.

    The others were,
    surely, watching him die. Watching the power of the Gods burning his life. The
    first candidate that failed. That’s me. He felt a leg kick him; he
    barely managed to raise his eyes and see Lord Mendax. He was smiling. He
    revelled in it. He was probably trying to dispose of Nesto’s body, so that the
    other Candidates wouldn’t see where they would end up. But he was enjoying it.
    And he was supposed to be a friend of Garon’s. One last kick threw him into the
    water, and he was sure he was going to die, for instantly relief overtook his
    body. A cooling sensation. Everything stopped burning, and the pain faded away.
    His ears were ringing, and his vision went blurry. His heartbeats reverberated
    throughout his body. That’s what made him realise he was still alive. This
    along with the hand that grabbed and dragged him out. He could tell that
    someone was half carrying, half walking him. He used all the energy he had left
    to coil his hand around the mark across his ribs, and then everything went
    black.

    He had that
    dream again: His father’s purple mantle flapping in the hissing wind. Only the
    flames were different; they didn’t have the forms of monsters, but had engulfed
    the house, burning it down. His father’s hand didn’t let him see the spectacle.
    His lips began to move, but his voice didn’t reach Nesto and…the tears started
    again.

    When he woke up,
    he found himself lying in his bed, naked. In his damp bed. He wasn’t sure if it
    was sweat or just water. It took him a moment to realise what had happened. He
    had managed to survive, at least the ritual. The Mark that had appeared on his
    chest resembled that across his ribs. They had the same black colour, only the
    Mark of the ancient Gods was bigger, and the three lines ended in an apex.

    Yet another mark
    on his body. Hopefully, this, he wouldn’t have to hide.

    He got out of
    bed and put on the white clothes someone, a maid maybe, had folded up and left
    on the small table. He surmised that all the Candidates wore the same clothes.
    He felt his body lighter, thinner. This was, most probably, due to the fact
    that he hadn’t had anything to eat since the previous morning, but, strangely
    enough, he wasn’t hungry. Lord Mendax knocked on the door the moment Nesto was
    lifting the mattress to check if the dagger was still in its place.

    “Oh, you are
    still alive?” said the Lord, almost surprised, when he opened the door. It was
    probably a good-natured joke, but it wasn’t that funny. Not when my life is
    on the line.
    “I thought that you might have turned to ashes while you were
    sleeping.”

    He faked a smile
    “No, not yet, at least.”

    “I’m glad you
    are so optimistic. Now that you and the rest are officially Lord Candidates,
    you will have the privilege of being taught by Lord Cornius all the things that
    you must know about the boring story of the Order of the Lords. Since, unlike
    the others, this is officially your first day in the castle, I am going to show
    you around before I hand you over to him.”

    “What about the
    Tower? When are you going to allow us to enter it?”

    “Hold your
    horses. You still don’t know what exactly the Tower is, and where it is
    situated. If we sent you there in your present condition, you would surely lose
    your lives within less than a single day.”

    He followed Lord
    Mendax across the paved corridor, illumined by torches. The sun must have gone
    up, but its light couldn't reach them down there. There was no window in that
    part of the castle where the quarters were, except for some small slots in each
    room. “In case you’ve forgotten about it, right underneath is the baths hall,”
    said the Lord, while calmly pacing.

    How can I
    forget?
    Actually, he had been so nervous the
    previous night, he couldn’t remember the castle’s interior. All he could recall
    was a purple mantle that he kept following, and the baths, of course. The
    burning sensation that he felt during the ritual, and the fact that the baths
    were the only ones that could control the fiery power of the ancient Gods had
    seared the location of the hall into Nesto’s memory.

    Right before
    them turned up the reception hall. The sun rays beamed down at the big
    colourful windows, casting various shadows on the marble floor. They were small
    pieces of a uniform portrait: a dragon with sharp jaws that received the spear
    of a Lord.

    Lord Mendax
    noticed Nesto’s fixed stare, but he did not remark on it; he actually said:
    “Towards the left of the staircase is the kitchen. Of course, one of the maids
    is ordered to bring you food in your rooms, but no one can forbid you to raid
    the kitchen as often as you like. You won’t be feeling hungry for the rest of
    the day, I can vouch for that, but tomorrow, you will be starving.”

    “Why not?”

    “Because of that
    Mark of yours.”

    He instantly
    felt his stomach in knots. The mark! Had he seen it? There was no doubt,
    Lord Mendax was the one that carried him to his room. He could have seen it.
    His thoughts were interrupted when Lord said, “When they receive the Mark, all
    Candidates do not feel hungry or thirsty the following day. Maybe because their
    body has not got used to the power of the Gods, I am not sure.”

    Nesto did not
    speak; he only wondered for a second what Lord Mendax’s reaction would have
    been if he had really seen the mark Nesto was born with. Would Garon’s friend
    try to kill him? He wasn’t a friend, he remembered. He was just an old
    acquaintance. Of course he would

    He went on to
    say that, next to the kitchen, there was an armoury. A place he had to remember
    as he would often use it. They went up to the first floor, and he hastened to
    point out that the second floor was out of limits for the Lord Candidates.
    There was something in his voice telling him that there was no leeway for
    questions. On the first floor, there were the Lords’ rooms, and the library,
    where Lord Cornius would teach them about the dull history of the Order of the
    Lords. Practically speaking, the only halls he really needed to remember were
    those of the baths, the kitchen, the library, and the armoury, where history
    and weapon practice were taught.

    The corridor
    leading to the library was lined with paintings that portrayed all the Lord
    Commanders that had passed through the Order of the Lords. Nesto observed that
    their apparel and the sword they wielded were the same on all occasions, only
    their faces were different.

    One of the other
    Lord Candidates, of the very few that was around Nesto’s age, stood at the end
    of the corridor, looking intensely, almost spitefully, at one of the paintings.
    He looked taller than Nesto, with short black hair, which jarred with his pale
    complexion. He tried to recall his name, but to no avail. He hadn’t retained
    any names during the ritual.

    “Lord Candidate
    Daemon, it’s a pleasure seeing you again. It’s truly an honour having a
    nobility amongst the Lord Candidates.” Lord Mendax’s voice sounded too thin. He
    was clearly pretending.

    Lord Candidate
    Daemon must have realised it, as well, for he gave him an indifferent look, and
    went away. “Despicable nobles. They have realised that their authority is
    limited, and now they seek to claim the title of a Lord. He won’t admit that he
    is a noble, but his clothes and conduct, when he set foot in here, gave him
    away. The only redeeming feature is that only one of the three ancient Gods
    favour him. His body will most probably turn to ashes before he even enters the
    Tower.” It took him a moment to understand what he had just said, and then
    turned to Nesto. “Oops,” he said apologetically.

    If he thought
    that Daemon wouldn’t even manage to enter the Tower, then what was he supposed
    to say about Nesto? No God favoured him! Yes, exactly. Oops. He wanted
    to bear him a grudge, but he couldn’t. Lord Mendax had saved his life during
    the ritual, dragging him to his room. “Thank you,” Nesto told him after the
    Lord had shown him to the library, “for throwing me into the water.”

    “I had no other
    option. If you had died on the very first day you stepped into the castle, I
    wouldn’t have been able to face Garon again.” A little voice told him that, if
    he died on the second day, then Lord Mendax would have no problem to face
    Garon, but this was merely his instinct warning him not to trust anyone.
    “However, you should bear in mind that, now that you are officially a Lord
    Candidate, you can’t receive or give help. Even if one of the others lose
    control of the ancient Gods’ power in front of you, and goes up in flames,
    don’t you even think of helping them. It will cost you your life. There are
    eyes all around watching every single move you make.”

    He was tempted
    to ask him how and why, but the Lord left hurriedly. The library was a spacious
    room lined with shelves full of thick, leather-bound books, parchments, various
    maps, and age-old artefacts in glass displays. Lord Cornius gathered them
    around an old garment placed above a lighted fireplace. The fire was so big
    that Nesto felt his whole body flare up.

    The Lord’s eyes
    were burning with fire as he narrated the story of the garment. It belonged to
    the first Lord. The first one Gods had chosen. A commoner, not a noble, as he
    stressed, looking at Daemon. The noble Candidate was sitting alone by the
    window, and didn’t seem to be affected by the Lord’s words. “He united all the
    separate human races into one, and created the kingdom of men,” he added. When
    he was done with the first Lord’s achievements and began to tell them about the
    dragons, Nesto had already broken out in a cold sweat, and could barely keep himself
    from opening a window.

    The other Lord
    Candidates were listening attentively, as if it were the first time they had
    ever listened to these words. All the storytellers used to tell the same
    stories in all towns and villages, at least his own. He was only nine years old
    when he first heard them, before his brother left for the Tower of the Lords.
    Dragons were monstrous beings that reigned over the skies, the lands, even the
    seas. Human beings looked like flies before them. Whenever they pleased, they
    would fly down from the skies and burn down villages and towns. They devoured
    everyone in their wake. Nobody dared oppose them. Not even the strange
    northerners with their superhuman power, or the allomorphs and the giants. The
    storyteller always finished, saying: “Of all creatures, only the elves with
    their magic could threaten them, but they chose to become their loyal
    servants.” Lord Cornius, however, finished by saying that the Lords, thanks to
    the Mark of the ancient Gods, slew the dragons and elves, and freed all creatures
    from their tyranny.

    The Lord and the
    rest of the Lord Candidates walked on to see some more exhibits and learn more
    stories, but Nesto stayed behind. It was so hot in the hall that his chest
    frantically went up and down. He had seen that Daemon was no longer at the
    window, and almost ran to open it and stick his head out to draw in some fresh,
    cool air. The window opened up with a slight creaking sound, but the cool air
    never entered his nostrils and lungs. When he put his hand on his chest, he
    realised why.

    The Mark of the
    ancient Gods was burning his body.

    He turned over
    to go away and run towards the Baths, but his legs failed him, and he plumped
    to the ground. He was about to call out for help, but he remembered that no one
    would do that. He gritted his teeth and tried with all his might to stand up on
    his feet. He pushed the wooden door with his body, and it opened wide. The
    fiery force of the Gods was searing his throat now, and he knew which parts of
    his body would follow. He only hoped to make it before his knees failed him, as
    well.

    He couldn’t hear
    his steps as he ran across the marble corridor. The only sound that reached his
    ears was that of his heartbeats. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. His vision got
    bleary, and not even for a second did he think of going down the stairs. He
    jumped right downstairs. It must have been more than seven metres high, yet he
    felt no pain. A bone must have surely been fractured, but the searing sensation
    had reached his entrails, and he wouldn’t dare stop running. Ba-dum, ba-dum,
    ba-dum.

    His mouth seemed
    to be blowing fire when he reached the Baths hall. He dipped into the frozen
    waters with his clothes on, feeling their cold embrace smothering the flame
    that longed to reduce his body to ashes. He was slowly sinking towards the
    bottom, where there were crystals all around giving off a blue glow that made
    them look like the stars turning up over Grakehall every night. Small bubbles
    came out of his body, and in one of them he thought he saw his brother’s face.
    Where was he? he wondered. Had he gone through the same torture? Had he
    acquired the title of the Lord? And if he had, why didn’t he come to see me?
    Why did he say he would wait for me at the top of the Tower?
    So many
    questions left unanswered. He only hoped to live up to his brother’s
    expectations as going up to the top of the Tower now seemed an impossible feat
    to him.

    His heartbeats
    subsided when danger was gone, and his body began to surface on its own.
    Although the water was frozen, he preferred to stay in a little longer to make
    sure that the power of the Gods was under control.

    A plash made him
    realise that he wasn’t alone in the baths. He saw Daemon clamber up to the
    corridor, on the other side. His body must also have been engulfed by the power
    of the Gods at the same time as Nesto’s. Yet, he had had time to take off his
    clothes. He leant on one knee for a second, taking a breath, and then stood up.
    Nesto noticed that his body was full of scars. A huge slash tore his chest in
    two, while another one sprawled across his heart. He wondered why the body of a
    noble was so worn down.

    As Daemon turned
    around to leave, Nesto saw another scar. This was across his ribs: three dark
    lines that looked like scratches. Just like mine…

  • Keep up the good work!
  • CHAPTER
    4

    His body froze.
    The water was frozen, but that was not to blame. Nesto froze in fear. It was
    almost funny how fear could, one moment, look like fire raging through his
    body, and the next, take the form of frozen hands tightening their grip on his
    heart. A part of him wanted to climb up to the corridor, to run and make it to
    Daemon, asking him about the mark. Another part of him, though, was afraid of the
    answer he might get. His brother knew what that mark meant, and had decided
    that Nesto shouldn’t know, at least not yet. This knowledge was so dangerous,
    it had kept their father away from them, forcing Almar to put his life in
    danger.

    He tried to
    convince himself that it wasn’t the same mark, that he just thought it was but
    was wrong. In vain, though. “You may not have inherited the big hands and the
    tall body of our family, but you surely have a hunter’s sight,” his uncle once
    told him. He would have been able to make it out, even from fifty metres away.

    Later at night,
    he tossed and turned in his bed, unable to get a wink of sleep, trying to
    decide whether he should ask Daemon about the mark, thus risking revealing what
    his brother insisted that he keep a secret. It would be, without a doubt,
    foolish to take that risk. Daemon would have answers to many of Nesto’s
    questions, though. What did the mark mean? Who wanted him dead? Was someone
    waiting for Daemon at the top of the Tower, too?

    Maybe, he could
    learn without revealing anything, by lying to him. But he soon realised that
    this wasn’t a very good idea. Daemon wouldn’t trust him. And let’s face it,
    I’m not the most convincing liar.

    When morning came
    and the first sunlight pierced through the crack, he decided that he couldn’t
    stand not knowing any longer, although his instinct bade him not do it. After
    all, most probably, one of these days, he would turn to a handful of ashes.

    Just like Lord
    Mendax had said, as soon as he made his first move to get out of bed, Nesto
    felt hungry like the wolf that sees his prey after many lean days. On the
    table, the servant had left a jug of water and a platter of sausages, fried
    eggs, and freshly-baked bread but, before he tasted it, Nesto knew that this
    food wasn’t enough to satisfy his hunger. He had another half-eaten sausage in
    his hand when he made it for the kitchen. He gulped it down in one go. After
    all, he wasn’t the only one to raid the kitchen. More than half of the Lord
    Candidates had thought the same.

    Fortunately, the
    cooks had made provisions for that as in the middle of the kitchen there was a
    counter full of fried meat from chicken, deer, wild boar, lamb, even horse,
    which Nesto had never tried before. At the other end of the table, they had put
    a variety of pies and pastries, and around them were several baskets full of
    fruit. All the Candidates had gathered in front of the counter, frantically
    biting at whatever they could lay their hands on, while talking to one another.
    They looked like a pack of wolves that had just finished their hunt and were
    now enjoying their kill. Nesto made a dash for the deer. “The best meat a
    hunter can ever catch,” Garon used to say.

    When deer’s meat
    was over, he proceeded to the wild boar, while at times he stuck his fingers
    into various pies. His belly was swollen, and his hunger quite sated, when he
    saw Daemon walk into the kitchen. He was carrying his own platter. He put some
    pieces of horse meat, cut a piece of apple pie and, after stuffing his platter
    with fruit, he sat alone at a table in the corner. None of the Candidates took
    any notice of him; they chose to ignore him, except for two brunettes who were
    stealing glances at him and, all of a sudden, polished their table manners.

    Even in the
    library, he had chosen to sit on his own, away from the other Candidates, Nesto
    recalled. Maybe he didn’t want to consort with commoners, or maybe the other
    candidates didn’t want to be close to a nobleman so much loathed by the Lords.
    It didn’t matter which of the two was true. What counted was that he could
    approach him more easily, without having to think of a way to isolate the rest
    of them.

    His hunger was
    almost assuaged, yet he grabbed a big horse thigh, and headed towards Daemon’s
    table. He introduced himself and sat down.

    “I know who you
    are,” Daemon told him curtly. “The other Candidates have placed a bet how many
    days you are going to hold out until the Gods’ fire burns you. What do you
    want?”

    That took him by
    storm. Nesto himself was just as curt with almost everyone in Grakehall, but
    this behaviour was due to Almar’s flight and his last words, which had been
    seared into his subconscious, not to trust anyone. Probably, before that, he
    must have been normal. What excuse did Daemon have? “How many of them have lost
    so far?” He wasn’t particularly good at conversations, but something inside was
    telling him that it wouldn’t be an exceptionally good idea to ask him directly
    about the mark.

    “At least half
    of them. They betted you wouldn’t hold out for more than a day.”

    “That long?”
    That made the noble chuckle. “Were I in their shoes, I’d bet I wouldn’t live
    through the night. No God favours me, remember?” He was an awful liar, of that,
    he was sure, but it seemed he wasn’t that bad at conversations, after all. He
    took a bite of the horse thigh, but he found it too hard for his liking. “What
    about you? How many days d’ you think I will hold out?” he asked.

    “Probably a day
    less than me. Only one God favours me, remember?” That made both of them smile.

    For as long as
    they engaged in conversation, the two girls were flashing Daemon glances all
    the time. It wasn’t hard to see the reason why. Apart from his haughty style,
    Daemon had high cheekbones, captivating dark eyes, and a charming smile.
    Everything that Nesto lacked, in a few words. At least, there was a girl who
    wished to marry him, although his looks didn’t exactly attract others’
    attention, and she was much better-looking than both of them.

    “That Lord
    Mendax,” the noble finally said, after biting and chewing an apple. “If I were
    you, I’d keep him at arm’s length. He’s weird. I’ve been in this castle for ten
    days now, and I’ve only seen him three times, while the other two, I get to see
    them almost every day.”

    “So what? He may
    have been away on a mission or something.”

    “That’s the
    thing. The Lords of the Castle cannot leave their posts. It’s forbidden. And
    it’s not only this. When in front of the other Lords, he tries to act as normal
    as possible, but when he’s alone, his character changes completely. He tends to
    talk to himself, and he smiles like a fool.” The noble made a grimace.
    “Besides, I don’t like his smell.”

    “I’ll keep that
    in mind.” Nesto did not mention that the short Lord was an old acquaintance of
    his uncle. He had built some kind of intimacy with Daemon, and he feared that
    this knowledge would bring them back to square one. “Did he tell you the second
    level is out of bounds?”

    Daemon snorted.
    “His exact words were that he would kill me if I didn’t obey that order,
    although I am a noble…especially because I am a noble.”

    “So, not even
    you know what lies up there?”

    “I’m sure that
    the Lords are full of secrets, which they wouldn’t reveal even to the King
    himself, let alone me!”

    Nesto tried to
    direct the conversation towards the mark, mentioning the incident at the
    library, which made him run in the direction of the baths. That made Daemon
    confide to him an unexpected piece of information that could keep him alive
    until he could enter the Tower of the Lords. “Don’t use the baths only when you
    feel the Mark of the ancient Gods sear your skin,” he told him. “The more often
    you use them, the fewer the chances of the Gods’ fiery force getting out of
    hand.” Something that the Lords had failed to mention.

    He was so happy,
    he had almost forgotten that his goal was to learn as much as possible about
    the mark across his ribs—not so much about the one on his chest. When it
    finally dawned on him, all the Lord Candidates were walking out of the kitchen,
    leaving behind bones and an empty counter. So did Daemon. “Come on,” he told
    him, “we don’t want to be late for our first lesson at the armoury. They loathe
    me quite enough already; we don’t have to make the situation any worse.” Nesto
    followed him.

    The walls of the
    corridor that led to the armoury were adorned with various words that seemed to
    be in the ancient language spoken by people before the First Lord united them.
    Try as he might, Nesto wasn’t able to make head or tail of them. It didn’t
    strike him as odd that, when he stepped into the armoury, he saw a huge place.
    All the halls—the baths, the library, even the kitchen—were spacious. He was
    pretty sure that even the Lords’ rooms were equally big. Only ours look like
    cells.
    That was probably due to the fact that the castle had been built
    with the aim of housing hundreds, maybe thousands, of candidates, who obviously
    ignored the peril the Mark of the ancient Gods entailed. With so many deaths in
    the history of its Lords, it was really strange that he wasn’t the only Lord
    Candidate.

    The place
    smelled of metal and rust. There were various weapons hanging from the grey
    walls, and there were even more of them piled in a corner. Anything ranging
    from duty swords to sharp spears, big bows and heavy bats that hadn’t been
    properly preserved. Further afield were three steps that split the armoury into
    two zones: the place where all the weapons were stashed, and the training area.

    Out of the three
    Lords, this one—the one in charge of their training in guns—was his least
    favourite, Nesto concluded. She was a stocky woman with relatively short hair
    and shoulders broader than those of Lord Cornius that called herself Lord
    Ereina. She had a stern, scary face that made her look like a wild beast. But
    this wasn’t the reason why Nesto liked her the least of the other two. It was
    what she did. She locked the iron door of the hall! She locked it, dooming with
    this act all those candidates that would be unlucky enough to lose control of
    Gods’ fiery power.

    If I judge by
    yesterday, I’ll probably be the first one…

    Right after that
    unexpected surprise, the Lord bade them hold a sword.

    Nesto hesitated
    for a while; long enough for Daemon to ask him what was going on. “I don’t know
    how to wield a sword,” he admitted. He was good at the bow and knife, but Garon
    had never shown him the sword.

    “Of course you
    don’t; you’re a commoner,” said Daemon in a haughty style befitting a noble.
    Suddenly, it was pretty clear to Nesto why everybody loathed Daemon. The noble
    took two swords, gave one to Nesto, and they both headed towards the training
    area, where the paved floor was full of nooks and hollows that must have been
    formed by various fights.

    Their first
    lesson had to do with the Mark and all the gifts it bestowed. In theory, their
    body was stronger and faster than that of an ordinary human, while their skin
    was as hard as iron. Impenetrable, as the Lord pointed out. And she didn’t
    stick with theory alone; she even showed it in practice. She took a sword and,
    after lining them all, she tried to stab them without hesitation.

    Thankfully, her
    words came true as no candidate bled. The only thing left behind was a small
    rash and pain. Unbearable pain! “Iron swords won’t be able to kill you
    anymore,” said Lord Ereina. “Only the flame simmering inside of you. Even this,
    you will be able to tame, at least some of you. You will learn how to erase the
    Mark at will, and the danger of going up in flames will cease.”

    Afterwards, the
    Lord showed them only two simple moves, how to attack and how to block, and had
    them practise all day long. The clangour of steel striking steel reverberated
    on the walls. The force hidden behind every single strike made it sound like
    thunderclaps. It feels weird, Nesto thought, as he held onto the sword
    with both hands, and charged at Daemon with all his might. His body was
    unexpectedly light, and shortened their distance in the blink of an eye. The
    sword felt extremely light, too, despite its size. Daemon’s blade was shaken by
    Nesto’s attack, but his hands remained steady.

    Nesto got back
    in position and prepared for the block. He lifted his sword horizontally
    overhead, as Lord Ereina had shown them, but Daemon’s attack came from below. A
    powerful thrust with the point of the sword aiming at his heart. The blow
    hurtled him onto the hard ground, and the pain was acute. The blade didn’t
    pierce through his flesh, but Nesto was sure a bruise would appear at the spot
    the following day.

    “You know that
    I’m still a beginner, right?” he grumbled after standing on his feet. “Can’t
    you hold back a bit?”

    Daemon’s
    arrogant smile turned up across his face. “I’m sorry, that was actually me
    trying to hold back,” he said.

    “Well, you
    weren’t trying enough.” Nesto kept down the urge to punch him.

    “Don’t blame me.
    It’s not my fault that I was never taught how to hold back.”

    Clearly, he
    wasn't lying as, every time it was his turn to attack, Daemon struck with incredible
    force, aiming at spots that, but for the ancient Gods’ power, would have cost
    Nesto his life.

    By the end of
    the day, all the Lord Candidates were drenched in sweat, their bodies breaking
    out in a rash at the spots the tip of the sword had missed. Some of them were
    throwing up their breakfast, while others looked at the door patiently, their
    hands stroking the Mark on their chest. When, finally, the Lord unlocked it,
    all of them stormed outside, pushing and jostling their way towards the frozen baths.
    Strangely enough, Nesto didn’t feel his body hot, nor there was any sign that
    would have him believe the ancient Gods’ power was going to engulf him in
    flames. Still, he preferred to follow the other candidates to the baths, along
    with Daemon.

    Nesto and the
    noble came last, while the rest had already taken a dive. Their bodies stayed
    afloat, tinged with a blue hue, thanks to the glow of the crystals. That was
    the first time, after the day of the ritual, that all the Lord Candidates had
    gathered all together in the Baths Hall. “All but one,” Daemon noted. “I’m the
    only candidate that is favoured by only one God. They found the other guy’s
    ashes on his bed this morning.”

    Nesto could
    easily have been in his place. But such thoughts were absolutely meaningless,
    that’s why he tried to ignore them, dipping into the water. His body relaxed,
    and he felt fatigue ooze away. Bubbles came out of all the bodies, and there
    were so many of them that they sounded like music to his ears. A smile formed
    across his lips, while he was musing over that morning’s incidents. The food in
    the kitchen, the conversation with the noble, the practice with him, his
    company. He was surely arrogant, and the haughty tone of his voice was so
    irritating, but it wasn’t unbearable. It was nice having someone to talk to.
    Someone to help him, someone that he could trust…a friend.

    All the doubts
    that had wedged themselves in his mind since that morning were now gone. He was
    bent on revealing Daemon’s mark. He waited till all Candidates went away, and
    then, when they were on their way to their rooms, Nesto went up to him.
    “Daemon, wait,” he said. “There is something I want to tell you.”

    His wan face
    shone in the torchlight when he turned in Nesto’s direction. “If it’s to do
    with today’s practice, then I’m sorry. I will try to hold back some more,” he
    told him in his haughty tone of voice.

    “No, it’s not
    that.” Of course, he wouldn’t mind if he really tried a bit harder. His stomach
    was in knots, and he was almost shaking. He didn’t know how to initiate the
    discussion, and decided to cut to the chase. “I’ve got the same mark as you,”
    he confided, anxious to see his reaction.

    “I know,” said
    Daemon. “All candidates have the same mark.”

    “I’m not talking
    about the one that appears on all Candidates’ chests…I have a second mark
    across the ribs.”

    The noble’s face
    turned even paler, as if there were no blood in his head. He hurriedly looked
    behind him, then his black eyes were menacingly glued to Nesto’s. He didn’t
    even have time to see Daemon’s hand tighten its grip on his throat, pulling and
    locking him against the wall. His pressure was so immense, he could barely
    breathe, while he felt his vision go blurry. “I knew it was you from the
    start.” Daemon’s frozen breath made him shiver. “Die,” he said.

    I guess I should
    have listened to my brother. I should have trusted no one.

  • CHAPTER
    5

    He didn’t have
    time to think why Daemon did such a thing. He desperately tried to extricate
    himself from his clamp-like grip, but to no avail. He stuck his nails into the noble’s
    hand, and tried to push him back, but he felt drained out. His vision was black
    when Daemon suddenly turned his head away and released him.

    He could hear
    his steps fade away, as Nesto was gasping for air. He didn’t know who, but
    someone had turned up, and their presence must have prevented the noble from
    chocking him to death. “There are eyes that watch every single move you make,”
    he recalled Lord Mendax’s words, and suddenly he felt grateful for those eyes.
    He staggered to his room, coughing, and tried to take a deep, unimpeded breath.
    His body was in a state of shock, so was his mind. We have the same mark.
    Why is it, then, that he tried to kill me?
    He racked his brains, but he
    couldn’t make sense. His thoughts were garbled, and always ended in the same
    phrase, “They want you dead, Nesto.” He started shaking at the very thought. He
    listened to his uncle and followed Almar’s steps, for some people wanted him
    dead. But it looked so unreal. Just like a dream, just like a scary dream…but
    now it had become reality.

    The maid had
    left his dinner on the table: fish cooked with onions, and two pears beside the
    plate. He made an effort to gulp down two morsels of food, but it was difficult
    to swallow. He only drank a few drops of water with difficulty. He decided he
    had to sleep to put his thoughts in order, but sleep didn’t come, despite his
    exhaustion. For two nights in a row, he stayed wide awake and, when the
    following morning came, his eyes were puffy and red; he could barely keep them
    open.

    When the maid came,
    carrying a tray full of figs, warm bread, and honey, he devoured them in no
    time. He ate the figs first, then he spread the honey on the soft bread, and
    finally licked his fingers. Lack of sleep wouldn’t help him in Lord Cornius’
    lesson, and lack of food would make him feel even worse. He’ll be there, as
    well. I must have enough energy to face him.

    He didn’t know
    what would happen if they were left alone again. Would he try to kill him at
    the first opportunity? That’s why Nesto waited until he heard footsteps along
    the corridor, then he mingled with the rest of the candidates, where he would
    be safe. In the library, he found Lord Cornius indifferently leafing through an
    old book. For an instant, he thought of telling him that…that what? That the noble
    wanted him dead due to a mark he wasn’t supposed to reveal to anyone? Would he
    make the same mistake, trusting someone, while his brother had clearly told him
    to trust no one?

    Daemon was
    nowhere to be found, which was a relief. Nesto wished Daemon had lost the power
    of the ancient Gods while he was sleeping, and his body had turned to ashes,
    just like the other Lord Candidate, who was favoured by only one God. But his
    wish wasn’t granted as he saw the noble walk into the hall and head towards the
    window, shooting him a fixed stare. He knew what those dark eyes were telling
    him. Die!

    The Lord began
    to read some heroic deeds of the Lords from the book, but Nesto couldn’t absorb
    a single word. He recalled Daemon saying, “I knew it from the start,” and he
    started to bite his nails in anguish. He had surely seen the mark on the day of
    the ritual, when he almost went up in flames. He wondered how many others had
    seen it. Perhaps someone of the two Lords always present?

    He reproached
    himself for being so open with Daemon. He should have seen through him. At
    first, he had looked brusque, but soon he became overly friendly, and confided
    to him the secret, so that he would survive until they entered the Tower of the
    Lords, thus gaining Nesto’s trust. In fact, the only thing he wanted was to find
    the right opportunity to kill him. He remembered the way he had been charging
    at him with the sword in the practice area. Every time the tip of the blade
    aimed at Nesto’s heart, throat, and chest. Maybe he hoped that, if he exerted
    enough force, the blade would manage to pierce through his skin, although the
    Mark protected him. And no one would ever blame him for such an…accident.

    The question
    was, why did he want him dead, since they had the same mark? But it didn’t
    really matter now, did it? Only one thing counted, and that was to survive. And
    he wouldn’t let anyone steal life way from him. Not even the Mark of the
    ancient Gods, or Daemon. He looked at him, wondering why he feared him so much.
    He was simply good at the sword, nothing else. Just a spoilt noble.

    And then it hit
    him. The one who tried to kill him was a noble. What if “They,” meaning the
    ones who wanted him dead, were the nobles? It made perfect sense. It explained
    why his brother insisted that Nesto enter the Tower. The nobles and the Lords
    were at loggerheads and, if someone could protect him from the former, then
    that was the Order of the Lords. And there was a Lord among them that had saved
    Nesto’s life. Someone that could help him.

    Lord Mendax.

    When the history
    lesson was over, Nesto watched Daemon walk out of the hall. Then, he went up to
    Lord Cornius and asked him about Lord Mendax’s whereabouts. Nesto hadn’t seen
    him for the past couple of days. “I guess he is in the kitchen,” the Lord told him,
    somewhat annoyed by the question. “We used to hang out together a while ago, but
    now he prefers avoiding me.”

    “What if he
    isn’t in the kitchen?” Nesto asked.

    “Then, he’s
    surely in his room. He’s usually cooped up in there for hours on end, and he
    doesn’t want to be disturbed.” He gave Nesto a cold look. “I doubt it whether
    he would like to be disturbed by one of the Lord Candidates,” he told him.

    At the third
    door after the library hall, he found Lord Mendax’s room. On the wooden door
    was carved the Mark of the ancient Gods, and right beneath it was his initial
    letter, “M.” Despite Lord Cornius’ advice, Nesto knocked on the door. He
    knocked for a second time, but he didn’t get a reply. He looked for him in the
    kitchen and, when he drew a blank, he went to the armoury. He looked in almost
    every nook and cranny of the castle, until he thought that probably he was on
    the second floor. Eventually, he decided to make a beeline for the baths hall,
    just in case.

    With his body
    frozen and his mind mulling over the mark and the nobles, Nesto found himself
    standing at Lord Mendax’s door again. After a few strong knocks, he heard the
    Lord’s voice. “Haven’t I told you not to disturb me when I am in my room?” he
    said, his tone of voice betraying his irritation.

    “I am sorry to
    disturb you, Lord Mendax. It’s me, Nesto. I would like to talk to you about…”

    “Oh, it’s you,
    Nesto. Please come in.” He did. The window was closed, and the only light that
    crept in came from the lighted fireplace. Two paintings of the plump Lord adorned
    the walls, and it was apparent from their quality that they had been made by
    the same person. In the middle of the room stood a table and two chairs, the
    one slanted at an angle. The room looked untidy, while there were muddy
    footsteps across the red carpet. “I thought it was one of the other Lords
    again. They tend to become really annoying,” said the Lord. Nesto noticed that
    he wore the same garment even when he was in his own room, and his shoes were
    full of mud. None of the three Lords was allowed to leave the castle, so how
    had he soiled them? He wondered if Daemon was right, until he remembered that
    it was Daemon who wanted him dead.

    “I’m glad that
    you have survived so far. Of course, I always believed you would, but it’s good
    witnessing it with my own eyes. Do you want something to drink? Wait here for a
    moment.” The Lord went into the other room and, when he came back, he was
    holding a decanter full of red wine, and two glasses. “This wine is of
    excellent quality. Only the King and His few select nobles, apart from us, have
    the opportunity to taste it,” he said as he filled the glasses. He gave one to
    Nesto, and he began to drink out of his own.

    That was the
    first time he had ever tried wine, and its taste was particularly sharp and
    rich. The Lord lifted the chair that had fallen over, and had Nesto sit. “How
    do you like its taste?” he asked.

    Nesto took some
    time to speak. “Strong,” he finally said.

    “Good, but don’t
    drink too much. I have heard that wine is not particularly helpful in keeping
    Gods’ power under control.”

    The sip he took
    instantly spurted out of his nose. “You could have told me that before you
    offered me some,” Nesto complained.

    “It’s alright.
    This small quantity is not enough to do you any harm, trust me,” Lord Mendax
    said, and offered him a handkerchief. Trusting someone was the most difficult
    thing for Nesto right now. Wiping himself with the handkerchief, he put the
    glass on the table, and decided that he would be better off, from now on,
    without a drink.

    “So, tell me,
    Nesto. Is Lord Cornius’ history lesson still as boring as it always was?”

    He couldn’t tell
    if it was really boring or not. Both times he had attended, he was busy. On the
    first occasion, the fire of the Gods nearly burnt him alive, and on the second,
    he was preoccupied with the thought that Daemon and the others wanted him dead.
    The lesson was far from boring, on that score. “No, it was quite interesting,”
    he was forced to say.

    “Really? I guess
    his lies have become more interesting.”

    “What do you
    mean?”

    Lord Mendax hesitated.
    It was obvious. That was something he wasn’t supposed to mention. “Oops,” he
    finally said. “Sometimes, I tend to speak without thinking first.” He gazed at
    his empty glass. “Even more often when I drink. I guess it won’t do you any
    harm if I tell you about it.” He re-filled his glass with wine. “All the new
    candidates, just like most of the Lords, are taught that they are powerful
    enough to kill a dragon. That’s a lie. Only a special few of them can actually
    harm one.” The Lord looked at Nesto, and smiled. “Do you know what that means?”

    “What?”

    “It means that
    the Lords weren’t the ones that killed the dragons and ended their dominance.
    It was the elves.”

    “But I thought
    that the elves were loyal to the dragons.”

    “They were, at
    first, but in the end they saw their mistake, and the loyal servants betrayed
    their masters. Do you want to know how they managed to kill them?” Of course he
    did. Nesto nodded.

    There was a
    spark in the Lords’ eyes, and it didn’t come from the reddish light of the
    fireplace. “If you look carefully at the paintings in the corridor, you will
    see that all the Lord Commanders wield the same sword. The Dragonslayer. A
    sword made solely for slaying dragons. It is said that its handle is made from
    the bones of the First of the elves, and it contains his enormous magical
    power. It was crafted by the elves themselves, and the legends have it that
    they had so much confidence in their craft that they used it directly on one of
    the dragons. Just one slash was enough to penetrate his scale and steal his
    life.”

    “So, they used
    the sword to slay all the dragons?”

    “No, only one
    dragon was slain by the Dragonslayer. One sword wouldn’t be effective against
    hundreds of dragons now, would it? In terms of force, the dragons would lose to
    no one, so they changed their tactic. Instead of a weapon, they crafted a gift.
    A tower whiter than snow and brighter than the sun. The magnificent White
    Tower, as it was called. Thanks to the magic of the elves, it hovered over the
    Mountain of the Dragons, and it became their second home…and also their doom.

    ”Magic has so
    many ways to harm you. But the best way is to make you harm yourself. The
    constant effect of magic blindfolded them, and those they used to see as
    friends became their foes. After a bloody battle, the White Tower was blown to
    smithereens, and their kind went extinct by their own hand, or I should better
    say their own claw.” The Lord laughed, as if he were the one to have devised
    that devious scheme. “That’s how the era of the dragons ended, and the era of the
    Lords started. There is a legend, though—actually, it’s more of a tale that
    some storytellers narrate to become more dramatic—, that one of the dragons
    survived. It took a human form and still wanders our world, waiting for the
    right moment to reclaim the skies. But that’s just silly.”

    “But, if it was
    the elves that wiped out the dragons, why does everybody believe that they were
    slain by the Lords?”

    “Well, if you
    keep repeating a lie, eventually it will become the truth. Besides, you have
    witnessed what the Mark of the Gods is capable of. It wouldn’t really seem
    impossible to slay a dragon with that kind of power. Now, if…”

    A heavy knock on
    the door interrupted him. “How many times have I told you not to disturb me
    when I’m in my room?” he said at the top of his voice.

    “Lord Mendax,
    Lord Commander Legris just arrived and requested your presence on the second
    level,” a female voice said, probably a maid.

    “Lord Commander
    Legris is here, at the castle? Oh, well, that’s a first. My apologies, Nesto,
    but him, unfortunately, I cannot ignore.”

    The Lord
    escorted him to the stairs, and then went on the second floor, out of bounds
    for the Lord Candidates, while Nesto descended them, heading towards the baths.
    The Lord’s words about the wine had affected him a lot, if not frightened him.
    The sun had set and all the corridors were illuminated by torches. He hadn’t
    found the opportunity to talk to Lord Mendax about Daemon, but he certainly
    would the next day. The more he delayed, the greater the danger. He surely couldn’t
    trust the Lord completely, but he was an old acquaintance of his uncle, and had
    already saved him once. That was worth something, wasn’t it? Besides, what
    other option did he have?

    He wasn’t alone
    in the baths, and he was grateful for that. Daemon might be lurking somewhere,
    biding his time, waiting for the right time to kill him, but Nesto had no
    intention of making it easier for him by isolating himself.

    Drowsiness
    spread all over his body like a wave, and the frozen water couldn’t keep him
    awake. He hurriedly went back to his room, and lay in bed, without even
    glancing at the tray with his dinner. His eyelids closed, and he felt his body
    hover in midair and float in water.

    His sleep
    brought back the same dream. He stood on a small hill teeming with pine trees,
    while in front of him his father’s purple mantle flapped in the wind. The wind
    had picked up, and there was another sound that resembled a baby’s cry. A house
    was engulfed in flames further afield, and Nesto felt his chest hurt. There was
    something in the house, something he would miss, something that caused him the
    pain in the chest. A hand forced him to turn around his head and fix his stare
    into his father’s green eyes.

    “Look at me and
    listen carefully.” This time, his father’s words reached him. “I need you to be
    brave, alright? Listen, they want him dead…” Tears trickled down his cheeks.
    “No, don’t cry. You are not a child anymore, you have to be brave now.” His
    father wiped off Nesto’s tears with his thumbs. “I want you to make sure that he
    will enter the Tower of the Lords. Do you understand?” Nesto nodded. “Good boy.
    Remember, he has to enter the Tower before he reaches the age of sixteen.
    Because of the mark, they will hunt him down. The Lords will want him dead,
    Almar.”

  • CHAPTER
    6

    Dawn found him
    seated on the floor, with his back against the wall. The intoxicating slumber
    that had visited him the previous night gave him only one nightmare, and then
    disappeared, leaving him breathless, his body drenched in sweat. His face must
    have become bony from lack of sleep over the last days and the meagre portions
    of food he had, while there were black circles under his eyes from the very
    first day. All through the night, every time he shut his eyes, they stung, and
    his eyelashes grew heavy. But they would open up instantly when he pictured a
    pair of green eyes close in on him from behind and slash his throat. He
    couldn’t bring himself to sleep; sleep might mean death.

    What he had seen
    can’t have been just a dream. He knew it, he felt it. The pain he had felt was
    much too real. And his father’s hand on his face…was a memory, a weird memory,
    well hidden in his mind that showed him who his real enemy was. The Lords.

    When the maid
    came carrying his breakfast, Nesto caught himself nervously tapping his fingers
    on the floor. He tightened his jaws and clenched his fist. Everybody looked
    like enemies, people who wanted him dead; even the maid, who would just bring
    him food. As she left one tray and took the other, she looked at Nesto. She saw
    the awful state he was in, but she was courteous enough not to speak—or she may
    have been too indifferent. He made an effort to have a few spoonfuls of the
    mushroom soup, but in vain. His stomach was in knots, and he was off his food.

    He went out in
    the corridor, heading for the armoury. The torches were aglow, yet the corridor
    looked strangely dark. His gaze focused more on the dark places. Perhaps, it
    was because he was hungry, but his senses were heightened now, and that almost
    drove him mad. At every step he took, he could hear his boot grate on the
    floor, and see the shadows scurrying along the walls to kill him. He would turn
    his head around every so often to defend himself, to react, but the shadows
    were his own, not of any Lord with green eyes. Calm down. You need to calm
    down, Nesto
    . His heart hadn't ceased to beat fast, ever since he woke up,
    and now it was driving him up the wall.

    A hand that
    touched his shoulder from behind made him jump, and instantly blood rushed
    through his head. That was definitely not his shadow. Instinctively, his own
    hand moved with a jerk, and his elbow hit the shadow’s face. The thrust was so
    strong, he pushed the shadow over onto the ground.

    “I guess I
    deserved that,” said the shadow, and the tone of voice made him breathe more
    heavily. “Since I tried to kill you.” Daemon stood up and rubbed his jaw with
    his hand, the flame of the torch nearby reflected in his dark eyes. “I came to
    apologise, but it seems that I don’t have to, anymore. Now, we are even.”

    That was a lie.
    Another deceit of his. “Your tricks won’t work on me again.”

    “What tricks? It
    wasn’t a trick. I’m telling you we’re even. Don’t expect me to apologise now.”

    He wouldn’t fall
    for that, he wasn’t that foolish anymore. “Don’t come closer again. Next time,
    I won’t hesitate to kill you,” Nesto warned him, and hurriedly walked away,
    covering himself.

    He got to the
    armoury, looking behind rather than in front of him. The Lord Candidates had
    gathered outside the door, waiting patiently. Nesto joined them, until a maid
    appeared, who informed them that the three Lords were on the second floor,
    conferring with the Lord Commander. Great! thought Nesto. He couldn’t
    stand being locked up all day in a hall full of people who wanted him dead.
    Now, they were only candidates, but soon some of them, if not all, would gain
    the title of the Lord, and they would surely want him dead.

    This thought
    made him flush, and he felt even worse when he tried to think what kind of
    mystery was behind that mark he had across the ribs. He had a headache, and felt
    his body sweat profusely. This time, he knew what exactly this meant. The Gods’
    fire was trying to sear the life out of him.

    He took a few
    deep breaths, and took to his heels. Things were getting worse and worse.
    Daemon wanted him dead, the Lords wanted him dead, even the ancient Gods wanted
    him dead. Well, at least the Gods, he had a way to stop them. He got to the
    baths hall, huffing and puffing. He took off his clothes and dipped with no
    hesitation. Instantly, a wave of freshness and relaxation gripped him. As soon
    as he shut his eyes, he felt them bleed from within. He hadn’t slept a wink for
    three days now, and his body and mind were suffering. Only water could offer
    him that serenity. And security. He felt more secure here. Everyone and
    everything wanted to kill him, while these baths were the only thing that tried
    to keep him alive.

    He didn’t
    realise how and when, but he dozed off, and woke up restful, his body floating
    on the water surface. The burden he had felt on his chest all these days that
    crushed his bones was gone. What threatened his life wasn’t yet gone, but the
    solution was there, plain to see, all along. He snorted when that thought
    sprang to mind. He wouldn’t have to trust Daemon, Lord Mendax, or the Order of
    the Lords. The only one he had to trust was his brother. He surely had a plan
    according to which Nesto had to be under the same roof with those who wanted
    him dead. And maybe, Daemon wasn’t one of his enemies, after all. They had the
    same mark. The Lords might want him dead, as well. He even came to apologise
    to me.

    He couldn’t be
    sure of Daemon, but there was only one solution, and that was confronting him.
    His stomach began growling. First of all, though, he had to make a dash for the
    kitchen. He was starving.

    The sun was
    about to set, as he noticed on his way to the kitchen. He had been sleeping for
    the best part of the day. After eating a whole hot loaf of bread and two big
    deer thighs, he headed towards the corridor with the paintings. Daemon couldn’t
    be in the library or the armoury, and he certainly wasn’t in the baths or the
    kitchen. Nesto hoped to find him shooting black looks at some of the paintings,
    just like the first time. At any rate, the fact that he took a dim view of the
    Lords’ paintings was a good sign. He gave Nesto yet another motive for
    approaching him again.

    He didn’t find
    Daemon there but, when he turned to go, he met Lord Mendax. The meeting with
    the Lord Commander was obviously over. “Oh, Nesto,” he said. “I was looking for
    you. We left our discussion incomplete, and I have the impression that there
    was something you wanted to tell me.” Nesto stared at him, his receding
    hairline, green eyes, weird smile, and purple mantle touching the marble floor,
    and instinctively took a step backwards. He was a Lord, one of those who wanted
    him dead. He looked weak, but the Mark of the Gods was surely etched in his
    chest—and there was nothing weak about the divine flame running through him. He
    felt his neck tighten, but he loosened it up again. Lord Mendax wouldn’t kill
    him. Not as long as he didn’t know
    about the mark.

    He tried to come
    up with a plausible lie, but in vain. “No, it wasn’t something special. Has the
    meeting with the Lord Commander come to an end?” he asked, trying to steer the
    discussion away from himself.

    “Yes, our
    beloved Lord Commander was trying to convince us that the castle doesn’t need
    all three Lords to prepare the Lord Candidates and, when he saw he couldn’t, he
    forced Lord Ereina to follow him. She needed her for a personal mission. Then,
    they left.” He heaved a sigh. “Yes, Lord Commander Legris really counts on our
    opinions,” he said jeeringly.

    “What did he
    need Lord Ereina for?” Not that he really cared; on the contrary, it gladdened
    him. Nesto would have one less Lord to fear. And that was probably the most
    frightening one.

    The Lord took
    some time to think. “Has Lord Cornius ever mentioned the story of the White
    Lords?”

    Nesto had no
    such recollection. “No, he hasn’t,” he finally replied.

    “Yes, I wouldn’t
    expect him to do so. The very memory would wound his pride as a Lord. The White
    Lords—there were ten of them—were the elite of the Lords. Handpicked by the
    previous Lord Commander himself. Among them were Lords strong enough to wound a
    dragon. They were the ones favoured by all three of the ancient Gods. Yet,
    despite their strength, almost all of them were cut down by a single person.”

    “Only one?”
    Nesto found it hard to believe. “Is that even possible?”

    “Still, it is.
    Because that person hid a demon inside his body. Normally, demons cannot enter
    our own world because of the barrier between the two worlds erected by the
    ancient Gods, but in some way that demon managed to pierce through this. He
    single-handedly slaughtered all the Lords that dared attack him, and then
    vanished without a trace. Of course, the Lords kept their humiliation well
    hidden.”

    “What does Lord
    Ereina have to do with the story of the White Lords?”

    The Lord smiled,
    and his voice sounded different when he said: “Because the demon is back.” He
    coughed and his voice got back to normal. “He got out of his hiding place, and
    he left traces, so that they might find him, and another bloody fight takes
    place, similar to that sixteen years ago. Lord Commander Legris is trying to
    gather the strongest Lords to face him, and Lord Ereina is a Lord favoured by
    all three of the ancient Gods.”

    Good, let them
    kill each other. So much the better for me.
    “If
    Lord Ereina is gone, then who’s going to be in charge of lessons in the
    armoury?”

    The Lord proudly
    crossed his arms above his chest. “You needn’t worry about that,” he said.
    “Lord Cornius and I have taken care of that. Tomorrow, you are practising the
    sword, as usual, or whatever you’re practising. If I were you, I’d me more
    concerned about other more urgent issues. For example, the flame of the ancient
    Gods that is burning inside your body.”

    “What do you
    mean?” There was something in the Lord’s voice that made Nesto swallow with
    difficulty.

    “Oh, nothing
    special. It’s just that, were I you, I’d make sure I controlled the flame, for
    shortly you will be in for a little surprise, and then the Portal to the Tower
    of the Lords will open up.”

    Nesto headed
    towards the Lord Candidates’ rooms, still remembering Lord Mendax’s last words.
    Soon enough, he would be one step closer to his brother…and his father. He
    didn’t yet know what he felt for his Lord father, but he had no intention of
    forgiving him so easily. At the same time, he was preoccupied with the surprise
    Lord Mendax had mentioned. It must surely be an awful surprise if he mentioned
    it.

    He was thinking
    that it was already too late to meet Daemon, when he saw him leaning against
    the wall, next to his room door, arms crossed. “My apologies,” said Daemon when
    he saw Nesto. “Are you satisfied now? This is a lot more than being even. My
    jaw still hurts.”

    Nesto was on the
    defensive. “How did you know which one was my room?”

    Daemon gave him
    a look that said: typical commoners. “Your name initial is carved here, right?
    You see it?” he said, after pointing at a spot on the iron door.

    “Why did you try
    to kill me?”

    Daemon’s smile
    was gone. “When you mentioned the mark across the ribs, my mind went cloudy,”
    he said, trying to justify himself. “I thought my father had sent you to kill
    me or, worse, to take me back to his castle.”

    “It couldn’t
    possibly be that bad living in a castle,” Nesto said, before he recalled the
    slashes he had seen in Daemon’s body.

    “Oh, you don’t
    know my father. You don’t know what it is like living with him. Whoever was in
    my position would rather enter the Tower of the Lords than live in my father’s
    castle.”

    He felt sorry
    for him for an instant, until he realised that this could be yet another lie.
    He mustn’t make the mistake of trusting him so easily. “What makes you think
    that your father didn’t actually send me to take you back?” he asked in a
    serious tone.

    Daemon’s haughty
    look came back across his face. “That’s easy,” he replied. “I should have
    realised from the start, but my judgement was clouded. My father would never
    send someone like you. I mean, you can’t even hold a sword properly, let alone
    use it. This may come as a shock to you, but you are really, really weak,
    Nesto.”

    That extra
    ‘really’ hurt him a little bit. “If I was that weak, then your jaw wouldn’t
    still hurt.”

    “It doesn’t. I
    just said it to make you forgive me more easily.” Daemon paused for a while.
    “We’re still friends, right?” he finally asked.

    Nesto nearly
    snorted at the sound of that word. “Yes, we’re still friends.” Until he
    betrays you again,
    a voice whispered.

    He walked into
    his room with yet another predicament. He wasn’t sure if Daemon’s words were
    real, but at least now he wouldn't be completely unsuspicious. He would pretend
    to be his friend, and this way he would watch his every move. If Daemon did
    want to kill him, he would discover that Nesto wasn’t so weak as Daemon would
    like to believe.

    His dinner
    included fried hare, sausages, apples, and pears. Only a few hours had passed
    since his previous meal, but his stomach kept asking for food to make up for
    the ones he had skipped. When he was done, his stomach asked for more, but he
    thought it would be better not to overdo it. He lay down, with Lord Mendax’s
    words at the back of his head. Whatever that surprise was, it couldn’t be
    something good. What he mentioned about the fire of the ancient Gods worried
    him. Could that be connected somehow with tomorrow’s lesson in the armoury? It
    wouldn’t strike him as odd if the new Lord in charge of the lesson forced them
    to stay in the hall, until one of the Lord Candidates lost control of the power
    of the ancient Gods and went up in flames.

    And that Lord
    would probably be me or Daemon…and somehow I doubt it would be Daemon.

    That made him
    get out of bed. He had spent the best part of the day in the baths; that was
    certainly enough to keep him from turning to ashes during the night. Still, he
    would feel more secure if he dipped his body into the frozen water one more
    time. It limited the Gods’ fire. The following day would probably prove the
    worst.

    He went out and,
    as he tried to walk as silently as he could, he heard some alarming voices
    coming from below, from the baths hall. He wasn’t the only one headed there.
    Other Candidates had got out of their rooms, while some of them were running,
    as if their Mark were searing their innards. Nesto found them all gathered
    outside the iron gate leading to the baths. They were all agitated, while two
    of them bent over a third one, wrapping a piece of cloth around his belly.
    After a while, he noticed the blood over their hands and the garment. It took
    him a second to realise that, normally, no blade could pierce through the flesh
    of a Lord Candidate as he was protected by the Mark.

    He turned around
    to figure out who could be responsible for that, and then he saw them. Two
    shadows standing in front of the door seemed to be hovering in midair, but
    Nesto finally made out their black feet treading on solid ground. They were
    dressed in black, and looked like scarecrows. But for the white masks covering
    their faces, he wouldn’t have been able to discern them in the torch light.
    Overhead, carved in the heavy door, shining like green flames, were several
    words that formed a clear message:

    NO CANDIDATE MAY
    ENTER THE BATHS HALL

    That did really,
    really surprise him. For all he knew, Daemon could still want him dead. The
    Lords surely wanted him dead. It seemed, though, that the ancient Gods were the
    ones that were actually going to kill him. Or, more precisely, their fiery
    power.

  • CHAPTER
    7

    Nesto moved
    aside, as the two Candidates went past him, transferring the wounded man
    possibly to a room of a Lord to treat his wound. He wondered if, in that case,
    the Lords were allowed to help or not. If he had to guess, then probably not.
    There was no doubt that one of the two masked men was responsible for that
    wound. The Candidate, in an act of despair, must have tried to force himself
    into the baths hall, and one of them must have used something sharp to pierce
    through his skin. Enter the hall and you die, don’t enter the hall, and you die
    again. Not much of a choice there.

    He looked all
    around, and saw angry, scared, and desperate faces. They didn’t look like
    wolves now, as they had seemed to him the morning of the third day, when he
    went to the kitchen. Then, they were drooling, and charging at their prey
    without hesitation. Now, they were the prey, shaking before Death’s jaws. They
    looked like a herd of deer that had been cornered. Deer would use their horns
    in a desperate attempt to escape, but these Candidates wouldn’t dare. Not yet,
    not as long as the ancient Gods’ flame was not threatening their lives.

    Under normal
    circumstances, that would have been his own reaction, but for some reason he
    was weirdly calm. Now, all of you will experience the ordeal I have been
    through so far, when they told me that no God favoured me.
    All these who
    were favoured by two of the three Gods would now feel the terror Nesto felt
    every time he lay in bed and shut his eyes, without knowing if he would be
    lucky enough to open them again the following morning.

    He was being
    mean, but so what? They were all enemies. Some day, they too would want him
    dead.

    “That’s not
    really good news, especially for us.” Daemon went closer to him from behind. He
    must have turned up that very moment; Nesto hadn’t seen him earlier. He looked
    quite calm. Maybe, death would be preferable to going back to his father’s
    castle.

    “Why do you
    think they are doing this?”

    “Doing what?”

    “I mean, trying
    to kill us.” Nesto’s mind scurried to the mark both of them hid across their
    ribs. “Especially us,” he said in a lower voice as he turned to look him in the
    eye.

    Daemon showed no
    signs of comprehension; he might have pretended not to understand. “This way,
    they're preparing us to survive in the Tower of the Lords, where there will be
    no baths hall. Or they may simply be perverted. There are so many people like
    that. The more power they’ve got, the worse they become.” He was certainly
    hinting at his father.

    He was in for
    another surprise in the armoury the following day. Lord Mendax was their new
    weaponry instructor. Compared to Lord Ereina, he wasn’t that strict. Actually,
    he was extremely lenient. They found him sitting on a chair in the corner, with
    his legs splayed out on the table, and his hands behind his head. When, after
    some time, he decided to occupy himself with their practice, he stood up and
    carefully picked the sword he would use.

    His ability
    regarding the sword was astounding, but not in a positive sense. In an attempt
    to show them how to attack from below, the Lord’s sword slipped through his
    hands and landed on the opposite wall. “It seems I am a bit rusty,” he
    justified himself with a chuckle. “It’s been a long long time since I last had
    to use a sword.”

    “He’s even worse
    than you, Nesto,” Daemon noted. “Aren’t all the Lords supposed to be fierce
    warriors with excellent swordsmanship? I told you he’s weird.”

    Lord Mendax
    didn’t bother to wield the sword again. He simply told them to practise what
    Lord Ereina had shown them, and then he left them alone in the armoury.

    The unbridled
    clangour pervaded the room again, with the swords clashing so fiercely, Nesto
    wondered what kept them from smashing into pieces. Daemon’s attacks were
    exactly the same. They were all meant to kill. Even the look in his eyes
    resembled sharp blades, and these managed to pierce through him. Whenever Nesto
    complained about it, he would reply in the same haughty tone, and many a time
    he would compare Nesto’s abilities to those of Lord Mendax.

    Half way through
    the day, the Lord turned up again. At every single move he made, he left muddy
    steps behind. When he ensconced himself on his chair, one of the Candidates
    asked him what had become of the wounded Lord Candidate. “Dead,” the Lord
    replied. “Just like any one of you who will try to enter the Baths Hall. Those
    treacherous things have orders to kill whoever goes too close to the door.”

    Their image
    flashed through Nesto’s mind. A dark aura engulfed them, and their snow-white
    mask, which did not give away any characteristic, made them look fierce. “What
    are they, and how did they manage to wound a Lord Candidate?” he wanted to
    know. “Even a sword can’t penetrate our skin.”

    All the
    Candidates had stopped practising, and gathered around the Lord, curious to
    know more about the masked men. “With the appropriate weapon, even maids can
    kill you,” explained the Lord. “As for them, they’re damned creatures. We call
    them the Cursed Ones. They watch your every move, and hear all your
    conversations. There are more than one in this castle. But they move like
    shadows, and the uninitiated cannot perceive them. Their existence is known
    only to the Lords, and are only accountable to the Lord Commander. Their
    strength does not compare to that of the Lords, but a Lord Candidate doesn’t
    stand a chance against them, so do not make the mistake of messing with them.”

    Daemon snorted.
    “If I ever have to choose to oppose the power of the ancient Gods, or that of
    the Cursed Ones, then I will take my chances with the masked men.”

    “Then, you will
    die,” the Lord said with a smile.

    “Maybe, maybe
    not,” Daemon stated, shrugging his shoulders.

    “Definitely, I
    will make sure of it. Rules are to be adhered to by everyone, even by the
    nobles. After all, there is a way to control the fire of the Gods, until your
    bodies manage to tame it.” He paused, and it seemed to Nesto that he did it on
    purpose, as if he really enjoyed seeing them all anguished. “Take deep breaths,
    and simply try to relax. The more you panic, the faster the fire will spread
    over your body. That’s it. So simple.” Nesto hated him for these words.
    Something so simple, they could have mentioned it on the day of the ritual, but
    no Lord had even bothered.

    The first day
    passed without any Candidate turning to ashes, although, on certain occasions,
    Nesto wished Daemon went up in flames. It wasn’t his poignant remarks or his
    dexterity in the sword that had irritated Nesto. He wasn’t sure, but it was
    something deeper than that. He realised it when he lay down in bed and thought
    one more time of his brother and father. His own father had abandoned him,
    while Daemon’s, no matter how mean, had found the time to teach him. He had no other
    recollection of his father, except the one he constantly saw in his dream.
    Still, it seemed that there were some parts missing from that memory. He
    didn't even bother to pay me a single visit.

    On the second
    day, during Lord Cornius’ lesson, he noticed that there were fewer Candidates
    attending. At least five of them must have lost their lives while sleeping.
    That relieved him, making him feel more secure. His enemies were dwindling in
    number. Although he didn’t want to admit it, he was glad to see that Daemon had
    made it through the first day.

    His joy was
    short-lived, though. He had spent a whole day in the Baths hall, that’s why he
    had managed to keep the fire of the ancient Gods in check for almost two days,
    but at the end of the second day the first signs appeared. The flush in his
    chest forced him out of bed. The burning sensation in his throat got him out of
    the room, while his stomach, which was on fire, dragged him to the baths. When
    he realised what he had done, he stopped and went down on his knees. He had
    nowhere to go. The Cursed Ones were going to kill him before the frozen water
    of the baths managed to tame the Gods’ fire. Was death the only choice? If so,
    then he would prefer to die fighting the masked men, just like Daemon had said.

    He tried to
    stand up, but his legs wouldn’t obey, so he began to shuffle. I don’t want
    to die here.
    He stuck his nails into the cracks along the paved floor, and
    dragged his body. If his nails were to open up under the pressure, there would
    certainly be no blood, only flames. Not this way. He gritted his teeth
    with all his might, and kept shuffling. His eyes stung and, all of a sudden,
    there were more torches along the corridor than he had seen in the entire
    castle. For an instant, he thought it had gone up in flames, but it was only
    his eyes that were burning.

    He was almost
    blind when a hand grabbed him by the shoulder. He figured out he had reached
    the heavy gate. Now, all he had to do was overcome the obstacle of the Cursed
    Ones. They didn’t try to kill them on the spot. He heard the door open, and
    they dragged him in. “Drink this,” one of the two men told him, taking him by
    storm. His hand touched a cold jug of water. Why weren’t they killing him? Had
    they decided to spare him his life, or did they simply want to torture him?

    Amid his
    delirium, Nesto knew that plain water wouldn’t do him any good. “No, I have to
    dip in the baths,” he said, and felt his throat melt.

    One of the
    masked men snorted. “Commoners,” he said, his tone of voice sounding much too
    familiar. “Why do I even bother?” He felt a hand forcefully open his mouth, and
    some cool water refresh his whole body. The fire inside of him began to die
    down, and his vision got back to normal. He expected to see a white mask right
    before him, but what he saw was Daemon’s arrogant face.

    “You…” He
    coughed. His head was reeling, and he found it hard to collect his thoughts.
    “You are one of the Cursed Ones?”

    Daemon’s eyes
    flew open. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m a noble,” he said. “And the one that saved
    your life. Don’t compare me to such…stuff!”

    Nesto leant on
    to his elbows. He wasn’t in the Baths hall, like he thought, but in a small
    room similar to his own. “You shouldn’t have done that.” He was grateful for
    his help. And this, he didn’t really like. “Lord Mendax expressly said that
    whoever helped a fellow candidate would die.” And he didn’t want Daemon to die.
    He didn’t like that, either. Gradually, he trusted him again, and each time he
    trusted someone, it didn’t turn out well.

    “Can you tell me
    how exactly I helped you? The baths hall is being guarded, and the only way you
    can save yourself is dipping into its waters.”

    “I keep asking
    myself the same thing. Water alone cannot have such an effect. If it could,
    every Lord Candidate wouldn’t be threatened by the fiery power of the ancient
    Gods.”

    “It doesn’t have
    the same effect,” Daemon admitted, and brought him another jug of water. Nesto
    gulped it down greedily, and felt even better. “But, if you mix water with
    pieces of the crystals you find in the baths, then it does.”

    He shot to his
    feet. He had regained all his strength. “How did you come by these crystals?”
    he wanted to know. “Did you somehow manage to sneak inside the baths hall?”

    “Of course not!
    I’d taken them before entrance was prohibited. That fool, Lord Mendax, helped
    me realise that such a thing was possible. Not that he wanted me to. His goal
    was to scare me. Like a stocky Lord could ever do such a thing. He cannot even
    wield a sword. I used my last crystal on you, by the way. You are welcome.”

    “I guess now we
    are even,” said Nesto, and what he feared had come true. Daemon had saved his
    life, risking his own, and had used his last crystal on him. How could he
    possibly not trust him now?

    Daemon looked
    furious. “NOW, we are even? We were even the moment you hit me with your elbow.
    Now, you owe me, A LOT! You ungrateful commoner.”

    To appease him,
    Nesto had to reveal to him the information he had obtained from the stocky Lord
    that the portal to the Tower of the Lords would soon open up. But, obviously,
    that wasn’t enough as, even when Nesto was going to his room, he heard Daemon
    shout they weren’t even.

    On the third
    day, there were only twelve Lord Candidates. More than half had lost their
    lives. Only two of those who died had followed Daemon’s advice to attack the
    masked men, as Lord Mendax told them. There would have been three if it
    hadn’t been for Daemon.

    Towards the end
    of the day, there were eleven Candidates as Nesto, with his own eyes, saw one
    of them lose his life. Just like Nesto, he had been trying to drag himself
    towards the baths hall as his knees had failed him. Up until then, he had never
    seen a Candidate go up in flames and, when he did, he wished he’d never see it
    again. Blue flames flared up in his eyes, and then seared his skin. What was
    left were ashes, as all the Lords claimed, and his hair-raising howl still
    echoed in Nesto’s ears.

    He believed that
    such a thing wouldn’t affect him, but he was wrong. It was a totally different
    thing seeing the agony and fear in their eyes than seeing the horror painted
    across the Candidate’s face, while the power of the Gods was robbing him of his
    life. He had to remind himself for several times that they were all enemies, in
    order to swallow his food and stay there. The worst thing was, it would soon be
    his turn. His body had already begun to sweat, and this time Daemon wouldn’t be
    able to help him.

    Calm down, calm
    down.
    He recalled what Lord Mendax had told
    them, as he went up and down in his small room. If the Lord’s words were real,
    then the only one way he would survive was to stay calm. But how could he
    remain calm when the flame was burning his insides? He started taking some deep
    breaths but, every time he felt calm, the Candidate’s picture going up in
    flames and his screams came rushing through Nesto’s mind, and his chest was
    burning again. He needed something that could help him focus on his goal, to
    remind him his brother, to remind him that he had to reach the top of the
    tower.

    The dagger! That
    was it. That would calm him down.

    He bent over the
    sides of his bed, and stuck his hand under the mattress. He didn’t find the
    dagger at his first attempt, and that made him panic. Calm down. He
    searched more carefully, ran his hand from corner to corner, but the dagger was
    nowhere to be found. Then, he decided to remove the mattress altogether. A
    thick drop of sweat trickled down his forehead, and he gulped. The dagger was
    gone…

    Alright, now you
    can panic!

  • CHAPTER
    8

    A kick sent the
    bed flying towards the roof, while more images of the bloodcurdling spectacle
    came out of his unconscious, but this time it wasn’t the candidate burning that
    he saw—it was himself. He didn’t stop there. Now, it was the turn of the small
    table. He kicked it and, when he saw it hadn’t broken, he went closer and hit
    it with his feet, until it smashed into pieces. When there was nothing else for
    him to kick, he began to punch the wall. All the tension, the rage, and the
    indignation he had felt all these days he was in the castle, he gave free rein
    to now, and whatever he saw fell prey to his outburst.

    There were
    already some cracks across the wall when he suddenly felt his stomach turn. His
    dinner—fried eggs with sausages and chilly peppers—came out of his mouth and
    nose. Surprisingly, that helped. He calmed down, and the burning sensation in
    his chest ceased. Something told him that it wasn’t calmness that had helped
    him, but rage.

    Someone had
    stolen his dagger, and a new burden weighed heavily on Nesto’s chest. It
    wouldn’t come in handy as a weapon—actually, its sharp blade wouldn’t be able
    to pierce through his flesh, let alone that of a Lord if Nesto’s secret were to
    be revealed, and he had to kill—, but it was the precious reminder his brother
    had left behind, and he didn’t want to part with it. Most probably, the maid
    had taken it; she was the one to come and go, fetching him food. However, it
    would be useless to her. It looked valuable, but she would never be able to
    sell it. A common maid would never account for being in possession of such a
    weapon, and no one would buy it.

    For a moment, he
    thought of reporting it to Lord Mendax, but that might trigger undesirable
    questions. Questions that he wouldn’t be able to answer without resorting to lies.
    And lies were not his forte. He had resolved to confront the maid, when he
    recalled the image of furious Daemon shouting they weren’t even. The dagger
    would only be useful to him, he thought. And that, only so that they would be
    even. It had to be him…He hoped it was him.

    All the rooms
    were the same, so it took him some time to find the door with the letter “D”
    carved on it. He knocked on the door and, when that opened, he was ready to
    shout at Daemon and grab him by the neck, just like he had done to him, but his
    hand stopped in midair, while his mouth opened only to let out an
    incomprehensible mumble that sounded like choking. Instead of Daemon, at the
    door turned up a girl with long black hair, honey-yellow eyes, and fleshy lips.
    She gave him a puzzled look for a while, and then raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”
    she said.

    “I’m sorry. I
    thought this was Daemon’s room,” Nesto replied when he finally found his voice.

    “You thought
    right,” said the girl and made space, showing with her glance a point where the
    bed could only stand.

    There, he saw
    Daemon in another girl’s embrace. She was flushed, her brown hair tousled, and
    her hands reluctantly trying to push Daemon’s hands away from the buttons of
    her blouse. Nesto coughed, and Daemon turned his head in surprise. “I remember
    telling you to get rid of whoever it was, not inviting him inside,” he
    complained to the standing girl.

    “He is kind of
    cute. I say we let him join us.”

    That was the
    first time a girl had found him “kind of” cute, and he almost instantly blushed.
    The thought of the dagger, though, brought his cheeks back to normal. “NO” both
    of them said, after exchanging looks.

    “Daemon, I need
    to talk to you.”

    “Does it have to
    be right now?”

    “Yes!”

    “Are you sure it
    can’t wait for a while? I promise it won’t take too long.”

    “Yes, I’m sure.
    It’s really important.”

    Daemon looked at
    the two girls, then at Nesto. “Commoner, I…”

    “It’s alright,
    you two lovebirds can have your private time, we are leaving,” the girl in
    Daemon’s bed said, obviously disappointed, and left, along with her friend,
    after doing up her blouse and straightening her hair.

    Daemon looked at
    him with the same murderous eyes with which he always did during the sword
    practice. “You know, I spent two of my crystals on them both. You could have
    waited for a while, until they paid me back.”

    Suddenly, a fire
    appeared in Nesto’s chest, only it had nothing to do with the power of the
    ancient Gods. It was a fire seething with rage. Rage because, a few moments
    before, he had nearly died, while Daemon had spent his crystals to save two
    persons bent on gaining the title of Lord. “Why did you use two of your
    crystals on them?” he wanted to know. Doesn’t he know that the Lords want us
    dead?

    “I couldn’t just
    stand there and watch two beautiful girls get burnt to death. I guess you
    would, but you are a commoner. I wouldn’t expect anything more from you.
    Besides, I have already managed to tame the fire of the Gods. I can erase the
    Mark whenever I like.”

    That was good.
    It was reasonable that his own body would do the same shortly. But he couldn’t
    be absolutely sure of that as none of the Gods favoured him. “Daemon, do you
    know the secret behind the mark across our ribs?” He had decided not to ask him
    until they managed to enter the Tower of the Lords as he didn’t trust him, but
    now things were different. And, honestly, he couldn’t understand Daemon’s
    behaviour. If he were in his position, Nesto would never help anyone what would
    want him dead in the future.

    Daemon’s face
    went completely pale, as if blood had oozed away from his head. “It’s just a
    scar that my beloved father gave me,” he said in a bilious voice. “One of the
    many. There is no secret behind it.” Obviously, he didn’t know about the mark
    or the Lords.

    “Make sure you
    never show that mark to anyone. Especially the Lords, or one of the Lord
    Candidates,” Nesto told him. He didn’t bother to explain why. Not that he
    himself knew anything but the result.

    “Was this the
    important thing you wanted to tell me about?” Daemon asked.

    “No, not that. I
    came to get back the dagger you stole from my room.”

    “Are you calling
    me a thief?”

    “Yes. Can I have
    my dagger back now?”

    “Why would I
    even bother stealing a stupid dagger from you?”

    To get even he
    intended to say, but it was clear from Daemon’s reaction that it wasn’t he who
    had stolen the dagger. The expression on his face told him he was a noble and,
    apparently, stealing was something that only commoners would do. “It’s not a
    stupid dagger, alright? It’s got a green shine, it’s made out of glass, and
    it’s really precious to me,” he said, and slammed the door behind him.

    Since it wasn’t
    Daemon who had stolen it, chances of retrieving it were slim. Come to think of
    it now, it was highly unlikely—and insane—that the maid could have been the
    culprit. Why would she even bother to search his room?

    He returned to
    his room, and wondered if the maid would complain about the mess the following
    morning. He only made his bed, so as to be able to sleep, and lay down, hoping
    that no dream would visit him during the night, unlike the previous days.

    But it wasn’t
    some kind of dream that came while he was sleeping, although that’s what he
    took it for at first, but a Cursed One. Shivers went up and down his spine and,
    when he opened his eyes, he saw the expressionless mask lurking above his head.
    His gloved hand grabbed Nesto by the arm, and led him out of the room, without
    saying a single word. If he wanted to kill him, he would already have done so,
    while still in his room. He must have been carrying out the Lords’ orders.

    It couldn’t be
    about the dagger, right? There was no chance the dagger would betray his mark,
    even if a Lord had taken it. His heartbeats got back to normal when he saw
    other Candidates accompanied by masked men. Just like Nesto, they seemed
    oblivious to what was going on. Their steps echoed in the dark and the dead of
    silence. They went up the stairs on the first level, and then the second one,
    the forbidden. Then, it dawned on him.

    It was time to
    enter the Tower of the Lords.

    The stairs led
    in front of a huge copper wide-open door to welcome the Lord Candidates. A
    black carpet showed them to a pedestal where the Lords were seated, and there
    was an empty chair between them, probably intended for Lord Ereina. Behind the
    Lords was a grandiose fireplace, while its flames looked like a huge burning
    dragon that hulked overhead. The Cursed Ones took their seats; half of them on
    the side of the pedestal, and the other half on the other side, after arraying
    the seven Candidates in line before the Lords.

    “Some of you, I
    never expected to make it so far,” said Lord Cornius, as he stood up from his
    chair. It wasn’t necessary to come and stand before Nesto for him to figure out
    he was referring to him, but he did. “While others”—the Lord walked and stood
    before Daemon, two seats away, giving him a grim look—, “I hoped they wouldn’t.
    But that’s not of any importance right now.” He walked between two persons, and
    then strode towards the door, which made the Candidates turn in his direction.
    Nesto gave Lord Mendax a furtive glance before he joined them. The Lord yawned
    and placed his hand over his mouth. He looked sleepy. That could be it, or he
    was preparing for yet another dull story of Lord Cornius, as he himself would
    say.

    “The time has
    come for you to follow in the footsteps of the most heroic Lords,” stated Lord
    Cornius, and looked above the door. It was the boring story, after all. Several
    designs and drawings adorned the walls and the roof, and the Lord had fixed his
    stare on a specific painting, which depicted a white tower surrounded by some
    dragons and Lords locked in battle. He began to narrate the final countdown
    between the cruel dragons and the courageous Lords, and Nesto knew that it was
    a story riddled with lies. It wasn’t the Lords who had defeated the dragons,
    but the magic of the elves. It wasn’t the Lords who had destroyed the White
    Tower, thus marking a new era, but the dragons themselves, who had been
    mesmerised by the magic of the Tower.

    When he
    mentioned the Tower of the Lords, Nesto figured out that most of his words were
    real as he didn’t hear even a single thing that praised the Lords; besides, his
    story was much too short. After all, Lord Mendax’s yawn was suddenly stifled.
    It was quite clear what he was implying.

    The Tower of the
    Lords was, in fact, four islands formed by the pieces of the White Tower, and
    connected with one another through magic portals. Thanks to the magic of those
    pieces, all the islands, except the first one, hovered in midair, one on top of
    the other, forming a mental tower. They were all inhabited by most dangerous
    creatures that needed the presence of a Lord, so that they wouldn’t kill one
    another, the Lord said to them very briefly. I guess that was a side effect
    of the magic used to turn the dragons against their own kind.
    “Don’t be
    killed by the monsters. Pass the trials of the Lords that rule each island, and
    reach the last portal. That’s all you need to do to obtain the title of the
    Lord,” he concluded. Quite simple. And, of course, deadly.

    Some cooks
    walked in, carrying platters of the last supper for the Lord Candidates, while
    a maid bringing up the rear fetched some new clothes to replace the old,
    tattered ones. They were of a dark red colour, like blood. They got undressed
    in front of everyone else, just like Nesto, albeit more carefully, lest his
    mark be revealed. He hoped Daemon would be just as careful. One of the two
    girls and one more Candidate had managed, just like Daemon, to erase the Mark
    of the ancient Gods at will, as Nesto noticed. The girl caught him staring at
    her, and winked at him, thus making Nesto’s face turn red as her blouse. He was
    appeased by the fact that there were others whose bodies hadn’t yet managed to
    tame that flame.

    Lord Mendax went
    up to him, while Nesto was tasting the chicken and the sweet pastries. “I told
    you you needn’t worry, didn’t I?” he said, while his hair-raising smile flashed
    across his face. That smile jarred with his wide mouth and puffy cheeks. “I
    didn’t have the slightest doubt that you’d get that far. Garon would be proud
    of you, just like I am.” Yes, but Garon wouldn’t want me dead, just like you
    would, if you knew about the mark.

    The Lord came
    even closer and stuck his fingers into the pastries. “The first part is over,”
    he said in a low voice, almost muffling his words with the licking of his
    fingers. “Now is the hard part, but rest assured: in this part, you will be
    able to get assistance openly.”

    Does he know
    that I received help from Daemon?
    If he weren’t an
    acquaintance of his uncle, or if he was another Lord, then both of them would
    be dead by now. For that, he was grateful. He must surely have noticed, during
    the lessons in the armoury, that they were intimate with Daemon, and he must
    have surmised that they were helping each other to the bitter end. Of course,
    Daemon and Nesto hadn’t come to such an agreement. However, since he saved his
    life, such a thing would be expected. Especially if you add in the fact that
    they both carried the same mark. “There won’t be any rules that will keep us
    from helping each other?”

    “Oh, there won’t
    be any rules at all. Just survival.”

    Survival? “I
    have been trying to survive from the moment I set foot in this castle.”

    “Yes, but soon
    after you enter the Tower of the Lords, it will begin for real.”

    He wouldn’t even
    dare think what he had to go through to reach the top. Perhaps, it was Lord
    Mendax’s fault, or he might still be angry at him for calling him a thief, but
    Daemon didn’t speak to him at all during lunch. He only flashed him a look,
    when Lord Cornius had them gather in front of the engraved wooden door by the
    fireplace. “It’s the Portal that leads to the first islands,” the Lord
    explained to them, and that led him to the narration of another story. No
    wonder why Lord Mendax would rather keep him at bay. His stories were enough to
    kill a dragon. They were that boring! It had nothing to do with the way his
    village storyteller used to narrate the stories of the Lords. You could listen
    to him for hours on end, but you couldn’t hear Lord Cornius even for a second.

    After finishing
    his story, Lord Cornius ordered two of the Cursed Ones to open the wooden door.
    They moved silently like cats, black cats, to be more precise. The door split
    in two, as the masked men dragged its two parts, and a wall with circular lines
    appeared. It turned into a black sea when the Lord took a small crystal out of
    his pocket, got hold of its two ends, and turned it upside down.

    One by one, the
    Lord Candidates nervously began to walk through the Portal. Only Daemon and
    Nesto were left behind, when something on the masked man standing on the right
    side of the Portal caught Daemon’s eye. The noble turned and signalled to him,
    and Nesto figured out what he asked him for. His eyes sized up the Cursed One,
    until a small green shine grabbed his attention. It was a small blade strapped
    around his waist that sheened. The difference was that this blade was glassy,
    and its handle was wooden.

    My brother’s
    dagger!

    His white mask
    was expressionless, but Nesto could almost see the faint smile hidden behind
    it. The hair around the neck stood on end, and a shiver went up and down his
    body. He felt the dark eyes of the Cursed One pierce through his mask, and jab
    him in the ribs. The masked man didn’t speak, yet Nesto heard his voice, as the
    darkness of the Portal engulfed him.

    It was heard
    like the hiss of the wind. “I know,” it said to him. “I know about
    the mark…”

  • Hello guys,

    I just wanted you to know that the first book, Tower of the Lords, is complete at 85,000 words (29 chapters).

    It took me a year and a half to finish it and I'm actually considering publishing it on amazon, but first I would like to hear some feedback from you guys.

    So please don't be shy, and post your comments. It would mean a lot to me!

    Regards,

    The wannabe author

    P.S. I will probably post the rest of the chapters in a week or two. Have fun!
  • Strange but in a good way. Can't wait to read the rest!
  • Thanks for the feedback, ChaosRuler!!

    I guess you find it strange because it has almost no resemblance to the Chinese light novels. It's more similar to Eragon(western literature), but it has a darker attitude. 
  • PART 2 – THE THREAT OF THE MARK

     

    CHAPTER 9

    Everything was
    dark around him, as if the black sea had swallowed him. At first, he felt like
    he was walking in a vacuum, then the earth was gone under his feet, and he
    began to fall, which made his stomach jump to head, until he fainted.

    When he came
    round, he was dizzy, while his body was sore. He tried to open his eyes, but
    his eyelids were too heavy, and the only thing he managed to see before they
    closed again was a faint light in the dark, and several thin shadows that
    looked like bars. His numb hands stood over his head, in their own right, and
    something kept his legs from moving. It didn’t take him long to realise the
    situation he was in. Hands and legs immobilised, darkness, and bars. He was no
    longer in the Tower of the Lords, but in their castle, inside a cell.

    There was no mistake
    about it: the faint smile of the Cursed One, his gaze, and his words wasn’t
    just a fantasy Nesto’s mind had created out of fear. They were real. It wasn’t
    the maid or Daemon who had taken the dagger, but one of the masked men. Most
    probably, they had orders to search in all the rooms, for as long as the
    Candidates were busy listening to stories, practising, and trying not to turn
    to ashes. It should have been easy for them. They moved like shadows.

    Then, they must
    have informed one of the Lords, or even the Lord Commander. Maybe the Lord
    Commander’s visit had to do with this. This showed how important, or rather how
    dangerous, the mark was for the Lords. He still didn’t know how he ended up
    bound hand and foot without realising it, since he was sure he had followed the
    rest of the Candidates through the Gate. But that didn’t really matter now, did
    it?

    He felt his
    consciousness slipping away. When he woke up again, he couldn’t tell if several
    hours or days had passed. Hours, he guessed, as he still felt weak. Although he
    could open his eyes, the only thing he saw was a blur. Screams came from all
    around, and they were so loud, for an instant he thought they came from beside
    him. There must have been a special torture chamber in the castle, which Nesto
    hadn’t been to before. Up to now, of course. He wondered what kind of torture
    was in store for him. He had heard his uncle say that in the city of the Kings
    stealing was punished with cutting both hands and, if you made the mistake of
    robbing some eminent noble, punishment was death.

    If that was true
    about stealing, what kind of torture was he worthy of for carrying the mark?

    The door creaked,
    and a figure approached him. He couldn’t make out who it was. One of the Lords,
    he supposed. He stood in front of Nesto for a moment, like he was examining it
    with his eyes, and then took a few more steps beside him. “Just two so far,” he
    mentioned, his voice too thin to belong to Lord Mendax or Lord Cornius.

    Just two so far?
    Was there another one chained in the
    cell? Of course there was.

    Daemon!

    He shared the
    same secret with Nesto. But what gave him away? Was this my fault for
    getting too close to him? That’s just great. If, by any chance, we manage to
    get out of this alive, I will owe him for life. He is never going to forget
    this.

    He lost
    consciousness again, but not before he heard some of the figure’s words, as it
    walked away. “Tomorrow…dead.”

    The cries still
    echoed in his ears when he woke up. Dizziness and pain had ceased, while his
    vision was back to normal. He tried to free himself, but to no avail; the
    chains were so tight. He was in a dark cell, just like he had imagined. It was
    damper and bigger than he expected and, while he smelled something burning,
    there was no fireplace or fire anywhere. Maybe, the smell was coming from the
    torches hanging on the walls.

    “Daemon…” He
    turned to look at him, but there was no one beside him. All he saw were some
    empty chains, gathering dust, like they hadn’t been used for a long time.
    Countless thoughts reeled in his mind, and they were all trying to hold on to
    something to reach the conclusion that Daemon was still alive. One of these
    thoughts told him that the noble had managed somehow to escape, while another
    one said that they hadn’t caught him yet, it was just a dream, and the dust
    over the chains fuelled this thought even more. He knew it, though, that he was
    just fooling himself. He had heard the words uttered by the figure:
    “Tomorrow…dead.” And tomorrow might have already gone.

    He heard
    footsteps close in, and instantly his father and brother crossed his mind.
    Whatever their plan was, it was in vain. Nesto never made it to the Tower of
    the Lords. He expected to see Lord Mendax or Cornius or even Lord Ereina, but
    another female Lord turned up instead. A red mantle was tied on her shoulders,
    while the scant remains of Lords’ apparel was of a gold colour, especially
    revealing. She opened the gate and walked in. She strode towards Nesto, holding
    his brother’s green dagger, and stopped only when she got so close that,
    despite the dim light, Nesto could make out her grey eyes and her thin red
    lips.

    “You have
    survived so far,” stated the Lord, while pointing the dagger to his throat.
    Nesto intended to survive even longer. He had already devised a plan. As soon
    as the Lord set him free, he would somehow distract her and then run as fast as
    he could to escape. With the ancient Gods’ fire inside of him, they would find
    it hard to kill him, he remembered before he recalled Lord Mendax’s words:
    “With the right weapon, even a maid can kill you.”

    The Lord
    abruptly lowered the dagger, and cut Nesto’s shirt down to his chest. “Your
    body managed to tame their fire,” she said, after checking his chest. Her
    breath was hot, stroking his neck. “Unlike the rest, who turned to ashes.”

    The rest? Were there
    more people with the same mark, apart from Daemon?

    “What are you
    going to do now? Kill me or lead me where the other Lords are?”

    She looked at
    him in surprise. “I have no reason to kill you. And it would be hard, even
    impossible, for me to lead you to the other Lords. All I can do is open the
    Portal to the second island if you successfully pass your test.”

    Nesto wasn’t
    sure he really understood what was going on. “What about my mark?” he asked.

    “It’s erased.
    Now, you can show it or erase it at will,” she replied to him.

    But that wasn’t
    the mark he was asking about. Was she not aware of the mark across his ribs? He
    asked one more question to make sure. “The dagger that you are holding, where
    did you get it?”

    The Lord brought
    it to the same height as her face. “What was it that caught your eye? Was it
    the green glow? Some of us Lords have several of them in our possession. They
    have magic inside, although it’s useless to us as we don’t know how to use it.
    As you are going to find out soon, they are very sharp, even for our own skin.”

    Great! he
    thought. His secret was still safe. The Cursed One that had robbed him of the
    dagger hadn’t informed the Lords. Anyway, even if he had, there was no clue
    that would lead them to the mark. Maybe, this way, they would discover that his
    father was one of the Lords, but that would certainly not be enough. But
    then…
    “Why am I chained?”

    “When you went
    through the Portal to enter the Tower of the Lords, only the bodies of three
    Lord Candidates had managed to tame the Gods’ fire, so the Portal didn’t affect
    them. But that was not true for the rest of you. No one without the Mark of the
    ancient Gods can go through the Portal without losing their lives, and it is
    just as dangerous for those who have not been able to tame it. Their fire would
    have burnt you alive. For as long as you were in the castle, you used the baths
    halls to keep the fiery power of the Gods in check, but there are no such
    luxuries on my island. The only thing I could do to help you was immobilise
    you.”

    “And how did
    that help?”

    “Well, you are
    alive, aren’t you?”

    “And what about
    the others who hadn’t tamed the power of the Gods? Where are they?”

    “I confined you
    all to the same room. Where do you think they are?” Nesto looked at the chains
    again that were full of dust. Only it wasn’t dust; it was ash. He recalled the
    screams he had heard and the burning smell. Of the four men, he was the only
    one to survive.

    The Lord
    released him, and Nesto plumped to the ground. His feet were stiff, while his
    hands were in a worse state. They were more than just numb; he felt like these
    limbs belonged to someone else. He must have been chained for several days.
    Blood began to run through the veins of his hands, and that was such a pleasant
    sensation.

    “Rest for now,
    bur prepare for tomorrow as your test begins,” she said to him, as Nesto stood
    on his feet. “Only when you gain the title of the Lord, will you be taught how
    to materialize weapons by using the ancient Gods’ power. That’s why in your
    trial, you will have to use such daggers.” The Lord threw the dagger to him,
    and then turned around to leave. Under normal circumstances, he would have
    caught it with ease, but his hands were still numb, so the dagger stuck to the
    hard floor.

    His hands were
    back to normal when one of the Lord’s henchmen walked into the cell, bringing
    some food, enough to sate another three men—the ones that hadn’t survived. When
    Nesto asked him if he too carried the ancient Gods’ Mark, he nodded in the
    affirmative. He hadn’t gained the title of the Lord, he explained to him, but
    he wasn’t a Lord Candidate, either. He and another one had the duty to serve
    and satisfy every need of Lord Asaer. Apparently, the Lords of the islands were
    top of the Lord hierarchy, and on the islands their authority went even beyond that
    of the Lord Commander, that’s why they could have as many servants carrying the
    Mark as they wanted.

    He drooled over
    the roasted meat and the sweet grapes and, when he tasted them, they were as
    delicious as he had hoped for. The meat tasted like horse, only it was somewhat
    more tender. He ate it all, and wished there were more for him. Dinner on the
    second floor of the castle seemed to have taken place the previous night, yet
    his stomach made him wonder if more time had passed. “How many days was I unconscious?”
    he asked the man, swallowing his last mouthful.

    “Almost two
    days. Usually, all the Lord Candidates go up in flames or manage to tame the
    ancient Gods’ fire, by the end of the first day. However, for some reason, you
    took longer than that.”

    It wouldn’t have
    taken me that long if I, at least, had had one God that favoured me.
    “And
    the other Candidates, have they already passed the test?”

    “No. The Lord
    postponed the trial for tomorrow, and that holds for everyone. Actually, this
    made one of the other three Lord Candidates complain,” the man mentioned.

    It wasn’t
    difficult for Nesto to guess who that was. It was Daemon, for sure. At least,
    he was alive. “Are we allowed to know what our trial will be?”

    “Four persons
    survived after the Gate, but only half of you will proceed to the next level of
    the Tower of the Lords.” He looked at the dagger stuck to the ground, and then
    back at Nesto. “You will fight with each other to death.”

    This cruelty was
    to be expected. They didn’t mind shutting the baths hall and letting the
    Candidates burn to death. This was just one of the many reasons that prevented
    any sane man dare challenge the Tower of the Lords. But still, hearing that
    almost made him throw up what he had eaten. He could think of an excuse for
    whatever the Lords did in the castle. It wasn’t a very good one, but preventing
    the Candidates from entering the baths hall, so that their bodies would tame
    the power of the ancient Gods, was somewhat acceptable. But this, the sole
    purpose of this trial was to reduce the numbers of the Lord Candidates to
    half…”

    Which, actually,
    wasn’t such a bad thing. It just meant that the numbers of his enemies would be
    reduced. He should be more grateful for that. When the man left and Nesto was
    alone, together with his own shadow, he took the dagger, and started swinging
    it around to get used to its weight. He would find it hard to use some other
    sword, but with a knife he wasn’t inferior to anyone. After practising with the
    dagger, he lay on the floor to take a breather. He thought which of the
    candidates had survived, in order to predict his possible opponent the next
    day. One of them was Daemon, the other two… and then he realized it. One of
    them was Daemon!

    Killing one or
    all of the Lord Candidates, he wouldn’t mind, but Daemon wasn’t just a Lord
    Candidate. He had the same mark, the same secret, and he had saved him from
    burning to death. The idea had wedged itself in his mind that they would help
    each other survive, not the other way round. What would he do if he were forced
    to fight with Daemon to the bitter end? Would I try to kill him? Would he
    try to kill me? Somehow, I don’t think that he will have any problem with that.
    He could imagine him saying in his arrogant tone: “I’m sorry, commoner, but
    you didn’t really expect me, a noble, to give my life for you, did you? I mean,
    you don’t even know how to wield a sword. You should be the one to die.” And
    that would sound perfectly reasonable to him.

    He couldn’t go
    to sleep, his body was already well-rested, while his mind too preoccupied to
    drift off. The following day was already there, and he hadn’t yet managed to
    convince himself. What counted more than anything else was his own survival, he
    knew that, but his remorse and doubts weighed heavily on the hand that wielded
    the dagger.

    The same servant
    with the Mark that had brought him food led him to the arena through a tunnel
    lit by torches and some strange crystals that gave off a green, almost yellow,
    glow. They resembled the ones underground, in the ruins of the White Tower.
    Lord Asaer was obsessed with magic, and everything to do with the elves.

    The arena was a
    bit bigger than his room cell, as he noticed when he walked in, and the wired
    iron door slammed shut behind him. The place was damp, and it stank, but at
    least it was bright. Yet, on reflection, it would be preferable to fight in the
    dark, without having to see his opponent.

    But he saw him
    stand in the middle of the arena with his dagger in hand, and he knew that only
    one of them would walk out alive.

    The good thing
    was that he wouldn’t have to fight the noble. The bad thing was that he would
    have to fight with the girl that had found him “somewhat” cute.

    She had been
    smiling last time he saw her, and she had actually winked at him, but now her
    smile was wiped off her face, and her eyes looked focused and wild. She had
    already prepared herself. Her red clothes gave the impression that she was
    covered in dark blood, and Nesto couldn’t help imagining his dagger piercing
    through her flesh, and blood gushing out in rivulets, covering her whole body.
    For some stupid reason, her face was replaced with Lirelle’s innocent and
    desperate one. If only he hadn’t talked to her and she hadn’t smiled at him, it
    would have been so much easier to kill her.

    Oh, well, at
    least it wasn’t Daemon.

  • CHAPTER
    10

    “No hard
    feelings,” she said, her fingers clenched around the dagger handle.

    “Not at all.” He
    couldn’t afford to show any weakness. His opponent might take advantage of
    that. He felt the power of the ancient Gods running through his veins, making
    him stronger, faster, and somewhat fearless, as the Mark began to scorch him
    across his chest. He could hear his opponent’s short and heavy breathing, and
    her heartbeats. It could be his own heartbeat. He couldn’t be sure in that
    confined space.

    She started
    circling around him slowly but steadily, biding her time until she attacked,
    her eyes always locked with his. After each of them coming full circle, Nesto
    heard the sound of the skin shuffling on the rock, and then he saw her charge
    at him. Her movement was so abrupt and quick, Nesto could barely move to fend
    off the deadly blow right in his heart. He stepped aside and her dagger stuck
    into his arm, cutting him deep.

    The pain was
    sharp, and it felt so weird. An iron sword couldn’t even scratch him, and that
    had given him a false sense of security against sharp objects, but this dagger
    could so easily steal his life. He ignored the pain, as he saw his opponent
    charge again. Her movements were fast, but so were his. He pushed her blow
    back, then hit back, making her dagger slip her fingers and hurtle away from
    her. He tried to deal a final blow, but a kick threw him on the wall, leaving
    him almost breathless. When he raised his eyes, he saw her run towards the
    dagger. He stood up and ran after her, while she had already grabbed the
    dagger.

    Nesto’s dagger
    was only a breath away from her throat, when it happened. His feet slipped
    along the damp stone, and both of them plumped to the ground. Blood trickled
    under his eye, at the spot where he had been cut, while they were falling, and
    his own weapon had stuck into her chest. Her face was over his, and he could
    watch her breathe her last. “No hard feelings,” she whispered, frittering away
    what was left of her life. Her lips were red, covered in blood as they were,
    while her eyes gradually changed colour, turning from honey-yellow to green,
    then a bright blue, covering all the white. They looked like crystals.

    Not at all…

    He stood still
    there, only looking at her eyes’ blue glow, captivated by their beauty, and the
    horror hidden in there. He didn’t know how long he had been standing there in
    this state, when one of the Lord’s henchmen came to drag him out of the arena.
    The next thing he could remember was that man treating his wounds. That cut
    under his eye only took a good rinsing with plain water, but the one in his arm
    was more serious. After rinsing it with water, the servant had to anoint it
    with some kind of herb, then dress it to staunch the flow of blood.

    He tried to ask
    about Daemon, but he felt so weak, so exhausted, that he couldn't speak. Had he
    won too or had his eyes turned into blue crystals? It was Daemon, he probably shouldn’t
    be worried about him. Nesto knew how remarkably good he was with the sword. He
    had proved it on so many occasions during their practice, although in this
    trial they had to use daggers, not swords. But still, how bad could he be? He
    felt his strength ooze away, as the Mark of the ancient Gods faded away from
    his chest, and his eyes grew too heavy to keep open.

    A slight sound
    woke him up that was repeated every so often. He leant on his elbow, and saw
    someone in the cell throwing small stones at the iron bars. He stopped when he
    saw him waking up. “I didn’t expect you to survive the battle, commoner. I
    mean, I know how bad you are with a weapon.” He felt glad to hear his voice…and
    also irritated, but a slight feeling of irritation was always expected, when
    Daemon opened his mouth to speak. His worries weren’t for nothing as he found
    him rather worn out after his own battle. A thin gash ran across his face,
    while his left hand and thigh were dressed in bandage.

    “Well, I’m not
    as bad as you, judging by your cuts. What’s your excuse? Are you really that
    bad with the dagger?”

    “Don’t be
    stupid,” said the noble. “I’m really good with all the weapons, and I’m even
    better when I’m not using any. It’s just that my opponent happened to be almost
    as good as I am. If you had been in my position, you’d be dead now.”

    Strangely
    enough, he felt the need to defend, not himself, but the girl Candidate he had
    just killed. “I’m sure my own opponent was just as good as yours, perhaps even
    better. It was one of the girls I had seen in your room, you know.”

    He must have
    sensed some sort of guilt in Nesto’s words because he immediately said: “I
    would have killed her, too.” And there was no arrogance or bragging in his
    voice. “And I would also have killed you, without a second thought.” But now
    there was.

    “Me, too. Without
    even a hint of hesitation.” In his thought, it had seemed so difficult to kill
    Daemon, but now, words came out almost like reflexes.

    “Really? After
    all the things I have done for you! You are really ungrateful and cruel,
    commoner.”

    “One’s own
    survival always comes first.”

    “I will remember
    that, next time you need my help.”

    When he made an
    effort to stand up, he leant on his injured hand, and the wound opened. So,
    when food came, Nesto had to patiently wait until they anointed it with that
    herb, and covered it in bandage, before he could fill his mouth with grapes,
    hard liver, pieces of heart, and offal. When he asked when they would be
    allowed to leave for the second island, the servant told him that, shortly
    enough, Lord Asaer herself would open the Portal.

    The servants
    with the Mark of the ancient Gods had said ‘shortly enough’, but more than an
    hour had passed, and the Lord wouldn’t turn up. The wait and the boredom made
    him tighten and loosen his arm to see if the wound would open up again, while
    Daemon began to remove all bandage. “I’m not much of a healer, but I’m pretty
    sure that your wounds haven’t healed, yet,” said Nesto, looking at him.

    “These,” said
    Daemon, showing him his wounds, after removing the bandage, “are just minor
    scratches. I have had a lot worse than that.” He thought of competing with
    Daemon over who had sustained the most serious wounds during their short lives,
    but that thought was gone as quickly as it appeared. The truth was, Nesto had
    sustained quite a lot of injuries on those few occasions he had gone hunting
    with his uncle: wolf bites in the legs, a rib broken by a deer’s horn, and a
    bear’s scratches across his shoulder, just before Garon stuck an arrow in the
    back of its head. But all this, no matter how spectacular at first, was minor
    scratches compared to the inhuman wounds that dotted the noble’s body.

    The Lord took
    some time to appear, but that wasn’t the worst part. When she finally turned
    up, she refused to open the Portal, claiming that they had to be properly
    trained before she let them pass on to the second level. Apparently, the
    training they had back in the castle was inadequate, and Nesto couldn’t argue
    down that statement. They only had one day of proper training with Lord Ereina,
    the days they spent training under Lord Mendax didn’t really count. And,
    according to the Lord, any kind of exercise that lasted less than two months
    would be insufficient.

    They were given
    one more day of rest, and the next morning one of the Lord’s henchmen would
    lead them beyond the tunnels, at the surface, where their training would be
    held.

    Before she left,
    the Lord took two daggers out of her waist case. “These are the weapons with
    which you killed the other Lord Candidates. You can keep them as mementos. I
    have enough,” she told them, and threw the one to Daemon and the other to
    Nesto. Nesto used his right, uninjured hand to catch it but, for some
    unexplained reason, when he got hold of it, his palm was cut, just like the
    first time Garon had thrown him Almar’s dagger. And what happened next was even
    more weird.

    Dark clouds
    surrounded him, and he felt like he was in one of his dreams. Maybe he was,
    after all, as he didn’t see Daemon or the Lord anywhere, when the clouds
    cleared up; only two flames were flickering next to the iron throne, where a
    man was seated, wearing a black mantle that covered all his body—in fact, he
    was lying down, using his hands as a pillow.

    “No one sits on
    my throne, Zoloc!” That female voice, which belonged to Lord Asaer, made the
    man turn his eyes in her direction. The woman’s eyes had become two slits that
    looked at him angrily, while her sharp boots grated on the marble floor, as she
    walked towards him. Behind her, the fiery red mantle she wore flapped, just
    like the two flames next to the throne. Neither of them looked at Nesto. It was
    as if he didn’t exist.

    “Not even me, my
    love, your soon-to-be-husband?” he said, after standing up. He straightened up
    his crumpled clothes, and then strode towards her, while she stopped short, and
    kept giving him the same angry look.

    “Stop playing
    games with me. I’m not here to ease your boredom. You are one of the Lords of
    the islands. You know what happens when a Lord leaves his island.”

    The man walked
    around her, touched her blond hair, and his fingers stopped at her pretty face,
    as he stood in front of her. “The monsters lose the small sense of logic they
    barely possess, and start killing one another…and, of course, they won’t stop
    until every monster is dead, including themselves. The magic of the elves is
    really terrifying, don’t you think? Last time I left the island, I found more
    than a hundred bodies, including those of the Lord Candidates.”

    Yet, you left the island again”

    “It’s not my
    fault” said the man, and walked around her again. “Your beauty is majestic,” he
    then whispered in her ear.

    “If you don’t
    tell me right now what you really want, I’m going to kill you and ask for the
    Order of the Lord to elect a new Lord of the island,” said the Lord, whose
    patience seemed to be wearing thin.

    “Oh, I see…it’s
    that time of the moon, again. But, you know, I don’t care about the blood.” He
    brought his lips closer to hers. Her grey eyes were glued to his, while her
    hand touched his chest, and started to go up, slowly but steadily, scratching
    him with her nails, until she grabbed him by the neck and began to strangle
    him—with all her might, Nesto figured out as he noticed that the man could
    barely breathe. The Lord bit his lower lip, then took a dagger out of her waist
    case, and brought its tip over the man’s heart.

    The man dressed
    in the black mantle looked at the weapon she held, and raised his eyes to look
    at her, smilingly. The Lord must have surely tried to jab him with the dagger,
    but the man, miraculously, vanished and, in the blink of an eye, appeared on
    the iron throne, leaving her choke the air. “One of these days, I’m going to
    find a way to catch you. And then, I will kill you slowly and painfully.” From
    her lips oozed some drops of blood, which was his own, not hers.

    “You hanker
    after the impossible, my love. I cannot be caught or killed…but I will stop
    bothering you if you do me a small favour,” he said, and then wiped the blood
    off his lips.

    “Why couldn’t
    you say that from the beginning?”

    “I wanted you to
    appreciate what I’m offering…”

    “What do you
    want?” she asked curtly, almost angrily. “I have already changed my trial, so
    that only half of the Lord Candidates survive each time, just like you asked me
    to, last time. What is it that you ask for now?”

    The man twined
    his fingers, and crossed his legs. It was clear from his smile that he enjoyed
    playing with her, torturing her, and seeing her eyes and body sizzle at his
    touch. “How many of the Lord Candidates survived this time?”

    “Just two.”

    “And they’re
    both still small boys. They have yet to become men, I presume.”

    “Yes. How did
    you know that?”

    “It doesn’t
    matter. I want you to lead them to the only Lord, apart from you, who lives on
    this island, and make sure they stay there to train under him for at least two
    months.”

    “You mean Lord
    Raizel, the only one of the White Lords that is still alive? He won’t accept
    any disciple after the incident with the demon, which resulted in wiping out
    almost all of the White Lords. You should know that.”

    “He will if you
    are the one to ask him. He owes you one as you allow him to reside on your
    island.”

    “Maybe he will,
    but I won’t do it,” she took delight in replying.

    “What? Why?” Her
    reply seemed to surprise him.

    “Because now I
    know what you want, and I’m going to make you suffer by not giving it to you.”

    The man smiled
    and scratched his lower lip with his teeth, at the spot where the Lord had
    bitten him. “Fine. I will make another offer, an offer that you can’t decline,”
    he said, and stood up from the throne with a jerk. The flames dancing beside
    him flared up and engulfed him.

    “If you are
    offering me your body, then I’m not interested, unless it has stopped
    breathing,” she told him, looking at him with murderous eyes.

    The mysterious
    man walked towards her, while the flames followed him, scorching the marble
    floor. He bent forward and whispered in her ear.

    “And how would I
    know that you are not lying to me?” she asked, squeezing his throat again. Her
    eyes had no sign of trust.

    “You already
    know the answer to that, my love. Those who can use the words of magic…can
    never tell a word of lie.”

    The Lord let go
    of his throat, and ran her hand through his dark hair, lifting it up to reveal
    his green eyes. “Are these two Lord Candidates so special that you would
    disclose your secrets for their sake?”

    “Well, let’s just
    say they have piqued my interest.”

    Nesto suddenly
    woke up, panting. He held on to the dagger tight and, when he looked around, he
    didn’t see Lord Asaer or that mysterious man, or even the iron throne with the
    two fires next to it. He only saw Daemon eye him with a look that implied,
    “Finally, you have woken up.” “Did you have a good sleep?” the noble asked him.
    “You collapsed out of nowhere. Your body must have been exhausted.”

    But Nesto didn’t
    respond. His collapse couldn’t have been related to exhaustion. That dream gave
    him the same feeling as the one he had seen while still in the castle, the
    dream where his father was telling him that it was the Lords who wanted him
    dead. He remembered the Lord telling him that the daggers hid magic. The
    daggers must have been related somehow. He couldn’t find any other explanation.
    It was as if there were memories hidden deep inside of them.

    His breathing
    was still heavy, and his heart was pounding. There was something else, as well,
    apart from the daggers, that united these dreams or memories. He began to
    sweat, and his hand wouldn’t stop trembling as he reflected on it. His dark
    hair, his green eyes, his look…that mysterious man in his last dream looked
    exactly like Nestal, his father.

  • CHAPTER
    11

    Could it really
    be him? I mean, I never imagined him being like that. The picture he had
    of his father had nothing to do with what he had seen. What kind of father
    would have been so easy-going, flirting, and playing games, while his son
    risked losing his life? That made Nesto hate him even more. But, on the other
    hand, this could just be an act. He hadn’t revealed anything to Lord Asaer
    about Nesto being his son, so that meant he didn’t trust her. And he had kept
    track of him, and Daemon, too. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It was the
    mark. Somehow, everything revolved around the mark across their ribs.

    But then again,
    he could be wrong. Just because that man looked like Nestal didn’t mean it was
    his father. In the end, he barely remembered his face.

    The Lord must
    have wanted to make sure that White Lord Raizel would accept them as his
    disciples, as she led them to her quarters to wash away all that dirt. In
    contrast to the arena and the rooms where the Lord Candidates were held, the
    Lord’s quarters was mainly snow-white, and the walls gave off a white-gold
    glow. Walking past the hall with the iron throne that Nesto had seen in his
    dream, they entered another bigger hall with dark walls, lit only by the white
    glow coming out of a statue of a dragon, over ten metres tall. It wasn’t only
    light that came out of it; cold, crystal-clear water oozed out of its wide open
    mouth, forming baths that resembled those in the Black Castle of the Lords.

    They took off
    their clothes, and dipped into the cool water. Scrubbing hard but carefully, so
    that their wounds wouldn’t open up again, their black, dirty bodies shone like
    the dragon’s statue, when they stepped out. The Lord had replaced their
    tattered garments with clean clothes that weren’t so worn out—they must have belonged
    to her two servants. When Daemon covered his scars with his sweater, Nesto
    noticed that the scratch across his face was gone. “How long has it been since
    I passed out?” he asked him. Such a wound couldn’t have healed in a few hours.

    “A little longer
    than half a day,” the noble replied, rubbing his hair dry. “The Lord was
    worried about you. For a moment, she thought you were a goner, until she heard
    you snoring.”

    “That’s a lie. I
    don’t snore. And I must have been sleeping for more than half a day. The
    scratch on your face has already healed.”

    Daemon seemed to
    have been taken by storm, and was on the defensive. It gave a strange sensation
    like he was hiding something. “Trust me I know what I heard, commoner” he said.
    “And that scratch on my face was a tiny one. Half a day was more than enough
    for it to disappear.”

    “Alright, I will
    admit that I might snore” said Nesto. The phrase ‘trust me’ still bothered him
    so much. It felt like a stab. “But let me see your hand.” He grabbed Daemon’s
    hand, and saw that, while the wound hadn’t yet healed completely, it looked as
    if it had been quite some time since he sustained it. There was only a long,
    thin scratch along his palm. There was nothing serious that called for special
    care. “You’re lying” he accused him. “I must have been unconscious for days!
    What are you and the Lord hiding from me?”

    Daemon pulled
    back his hand, and he looked irritated. “I already told you, didn’t I? These
    were just minor scratches and, besides, the herb they anointed them with must
    have done a really good job. What’s wrong with you, commoner?”

    The noble’s
    angry look made Nesto realise how paranoid he must have sounded. “I’m sorry,
    you’re right,” he admitted. “I just had a strange dream.” Daemon had no reason
    to lie to him. It can’t have been more than a day. It was just his instinct
    that bade him not trust anyone, especially the noble, who was too close to him
    now.

    The Lord
    prepared a kind of dinner that looked like soup, and tasted even worse, and
    then later she had one of her men lead them beyond the tunnels, outside the
    ruins of the White Tower, where the White Lord was supposed to be. Under normal
    circumstances, Nesto’s priority would have been to reach the top of the Tower
    of the Lords to meet his brother, but now he had no other option but to stay on
    the first island as his father or, at least, the man who looked like his
    father, wanted Nesto to train under Lord Raizel for two months, making him
    stronger.

    Strong enough to
    deal with a Lord? I don’t know.
    What he knew was
    that, completely by chance, Nesto would turn sixteen in exactly two months’
    time. And his brother and father desperately wanted him to enter the Tower
    before he came of age. This was just as mysterious as the mark across his ribs.

    After some miles
    and a while later, they reached the cave where the Lord dwelled. Almost two
    weeks had passed since the last time he felt the sun burning…no, not burning.
    That’s what the flame of the ancient Gods did. The sun was warming him, giving
    him hope, not despair and sleepless nights. Next to the entrance, between the
    huge rocks, flowed a stream that ended in the verdant forest behind them, while
    along the stream were ten vertical burning sticks. The island, especially the
    forest, was full of bizarre monsters, but not even one dared approach the cave
    where the Lord lived.

    They learnt why
    the monsters didn’t get close, when the servant left them standing there,
    telling them that they would be better off staying outside, rather than
    entering the cave, as Lord Raizel was ruthless and a half-lunatic. Such an
    intrusion would even cost them their lives. Both of them decided to follow the
    servant’s advice.

    “How come you
    have the same weapon as a Lord?” Daemon asked him, while waiting outside the
    cave. His question gladdened him as he wasn’t sure if the noble was still angry
    at him. For as long as they were in the Black Castle, he had blamed him for
    stealing his dagger and telling him lies, and that he and the Lord were hiding
    something from Nesto. Daemon, probably like most nobles, seemed to be
    oversensitive to such insults. “That’s what the dagger stolen from you looks
    like, right?” he said, while holding the dagger.   

    “I think it
    belonged to my father. He was a Lord,” he replied. Nesto took his own dagger
    out of its case. Carrying it around was a bit tiring. He didn’t like that
    dagger; he preferred his brother’s. He felt it heavier and, although it looked
    sparkling clean, he could still see on it the blood of the Lord Candidate that
    had been his opponent. Yet, he couldn’t throw it away. It was the only weapon
    that could pierce through the skin of a Lord. And you never know when it may
    come of use.
    Especially if his enemy was ruthless and a half-lunatic.

    He gave in to
    the temptation of sharing with the noble the reason why he had entered the Tower
    of the Lords and the few things he knew about the mark, but it was so difficult
    for him to trust someone that, at the very thought, he felt two frozen hands
    gripping his throat. Maybe Daemon had a share in that.

    Anyway, he had
    managed to enter the Tower, and the noble had already proved he was
    trustworthy. So, no matter how hard it was, he decided to ignore the voice that
    kept whispering to him not to trust anyone, and confided everything to Daemon.

    The threat that
    the mark imposed on them, Nesto had already revealed to Daemon, when they were
    in the castle, so that part wasn’t too hard to believe. Convincing him, though,
    of the dreams-memories he had had, and that training with Lord Raizel must
    probably have been his father’s idea, was a little bit harder. And by
    little, I mean A LOT harder.
    He was laughing and saying that the flame of
    the ancient Gods had inflicted permanent damage on Nesto’s head. Until he heard
    that Nestal had not only kept track of Nesto, but him as well. That silenced
    him up for some reason. The last part, he couldn’t be entirely sure of, but it
    was quite satisfying seeing him flinch, almost terrified.

    “So, what
    happens when you reach the age of sixteen?” Daemon finally asked.

    “I don’t know.
    In my village, I get the right to marry the woman I want, and raise my own
    family.”

    “That’s it,
    then, commoner. The Order of the Lords is aware that you don’t know how to
    treat a lady, and they want to kill you before you get the chance to marry
    one.”

    “Very funny. Do
    I need to remind you that they want to kill you too?”

    “I’m a noble. Do
    I need to remind you that they wanted to kill me from the day I was born, just
    like every other noble? Now, they just have another reason to want me dead.”

    “Are you sure
    you don’t know anything about the mark? Isn't there anything your father might
    have mentioned to you?” Nesto asked. It was almost scary the way his blood kept
    disappearing from his face whenever his father was mentioned.

    “No, we barely
    even talked.” His voice had become solemn and strict. It was as if there were a
    wall between them. “And the few words we exchanged had nothing to do with the
    mark or the conversations a father can have with his son. Unless you discussed
    with your father how badly you wanted to kill him, and the way in which you
    would go about it. Oh, wait. Your father abandoned you,” he said with a grin.
    “We’re not all as lucky as you are!”

    Any more
    questions about the castle where Daemon lived, or about his father only managed
    to turn his answers into virulent remarks and jokes, that’s why Nesto finally
    stopped insisting.

    They waited for
    long, but only the countless stars turned up in the sky as it got dark, not the
    Lord.

    When he opened
    his eyes the following day, he saw two big fangs drooling blood over his head,
    greeting him good morning. He got startled and tapped his feet on the ground,
    dragging himself backwards, until his back landed on a tree trunk nearby. “You
    can count yourself dead,” the old man told him. On one shoulder, he was
    carrying the carcass of a four-legged monster, a little bigger than a wolf,
    while one of his legs pressed on Daemon’s throat, who lay still on the ground,
    struggling to let go. “While you,” he said to the noble, “you have, at least,
    good instincts. You might have survived, if your opponent had been a wild
    beast.”

    “Are you White
    Lord Raizel?” Nesto asked him, propping up his neck. He thrust the dust off his
    clothes, and tried to remove the blood stains, but to no avail. The man did not
    respond, but it was definitely him. He could figure it out from the look he
    gave him. It was as if he had heard something that annoyed him, a name maybe
    that he hadn’t heard for years. Besides, how many people, apart from Lord
    Raizel, could be residing on the surface of the island? Probably none.

    “You two must be
    the Lord Candidates that Lord Asaer told me about.” After carefully looking at
    them, the Lord told them—it actually sounded more like an order—to take off
    their shoes and hop into the stream, with no further explanations, then he went
    back into the cave.

    Judging by the
    Lord’s tone and the way he had woken them up, their decision to take up the
    servant’s advice not to intrude on his privacy was certainly the right one.
    Both of them did what Raizel told them, and stood barefoot in the cold water,
    ankle-high. Daemon’s face had lost its arrogant look and, for some reason, he
    seemed to be shocked. “Normally, no one can catch me unawares,” the noble
    explained to Nesto. “Even while sleeping, I can hear the slightest sound, I can
    feel any presence…but this time it was too late, and his foot was already on my
    throat.”

    Just then, the
    White Lord came out of the cave. He wasn’t carrying the wild beast on his
    shoulder, and Nesto was now much calmer to examine his characteristics. His
    grey beard was almost as long as his long thick hair, while there was a big
    scar in his throat. Under the rags he wore, his broad shoulders and wide chest
    were easily visible. His gait was scary, and made you swallow with difficulty.
    If he had to picture a face in all those stories he had heard about the Lords,
    then that one would certainly belong to Raizel. Fierce and powerful to the
    point that his gaze could make you tremble. The exact opposite of Lord Mendax’s
    face.

    The Lord
    approached Nesto, and placed his hand on his chest. “Call forth the power of the
    ancient Gods,” he ordered him. “I must see which of them favour you, before our
    training begins.”

    That was not
    necessary. Nesto already knew the answer to that. “None,” he told him and, for
    some reason, he felt embarrassed admitting that to the White Lord.

    “Don’t talk
    nonsense, child. That’s not possible. No Lord in his right frame of mind would
    have let you take part in the ritual and, even if someone did, you would be a
    pile of ash trapped in the baths hall right now.”

    “But that’s what
    the Lords of the castle told me.”

    “Then, probably
    these Lords were fools that didn’t know how to perform their duties. Most
    likely, you are favoured by all three of the ancient Gods, and those impotent
    Lords must have been confused as they had never had the chance to see such a
    Lord Candidate.” However, when Nesto revealed the Mark, Lord Raizel immediately
    changed his mind. “That’s unprecedented,” he said without hiding his
    disappointment. “You will be the weakest Lord in the history of the Order if
    you manage to obtain the title.”

    Nesto erased the
    Mark. He didn’t turn to look at Daemon, but he was sure his face was adorned
    with that arrogant smile, or he was trying to stifle a laugh. And he didn’t
    have to tell him; he could almost hear the noble’s thought. “You see, I told
    you that you were really, really weak, commoner,” it was saying to him.

    “If that was
    true, I wouldn’t be standing here, alive,” he said, trying to defend himself.
    He would say more, but he stopped because, now that he was thinking about it,
    he didn’t actually care about how strong he would be. His main and sole purpose
    was to survive and reach the top of the Tower of the Lords. Everything else
    didn’t really matter.

    When it was
    Daemon’s turn, Lord Raizel gave him a scrutinising look for quite some time,
    before he placed his palm on the noble’s chest. “You look awfully familiar,”
    stated the White Lord, but he didn’t get any response. That was quite weird,
    considering the fact that what the noble needed was something that would
    trigger a ironic remark.

    This procedure
    lasted longer than in Nesto’s case and, when the White Lord finally removed his
    hand, he remained silent, his nostrils twitching and the muscles of his body
    tightening. “The only God that favours you is the initial ruler of the skies,”
    he told him. But something was definitely wrong, he could feel it, he could see
    it. Nesto’s instinct was right as he heard the Lord’s teeth gritting and, then,
    in the blink of an eye, a kick landed on Daemon’s head, sending him hurtling
    out of the stream, his legs dragging along the ground, and crashing into a
    rock, which began to crack. Instantly, dust picked up, and that obstructed his
    view: he couldn't see what state the noble was in.

    The dagger was
    in his hand, without even realising it, while the Mark of the ancient Gods
    began to scorch his chest, as it appeared. Why did he do that? Did he
    somehow find out that Daemon is a noble, or is he simply a half-lunatic and
    ruthless?
    It was of little importance. Daemon was in danger, and maybe it
    would soon be his turn. After all, it was time to pay the noble back for all
    his assistance. He only managed a tentative step before Lord Raizel’s voice
    froze his body. “You are his son, aren’t you?” he asked Daemon in a voice
    tinged with hatred. Nesto could clearly see him trying to restrain his anger.

    He loosened his
    grip, and the dagger made of glass dropped, when he heard the White Lord tell
    him: “There is no point in hiding it from me. You are the son of Jenon, admit
    it. Son of the Demon!”

  • CHAPTER
    12

    “Well, I’m not
    his daughter, that’s for sure.” The dust began to clear up, and Nesto could
    make out Daemon’s figure. When it was gone completely, he could see the wound
    across his forehead, and the blood trickling down his face. What was most
    alarming, though, was his smile. It was a cross between arrogance and madness.

    “It’s not only
    your appearance. You are cocky and disrespectful, too. Just like your father
    was,” said the old man, walking towards Daemon. Every step he took made him
    look like a predator.

    “I have nothing
    to do with that demon. I’m not like him!” screamed the noble, and snapped his
    body off the rock. At first, Nesto thought that the blood coming out of
    Daemon’s wound was over his eyes, dyeing them red, but he was wrong. The
    noble’s hair had turned silver grey and, coupled with his bloodthirsty red
    eyes, he looked like a creature that did not belong to that world.

    A demon!

    Lord Raizel
    covered the distance between them with a leap. He grabbed Daemon by the throat
    with his left hand, and pressed him against the rock again, while in his right
    hand a sword began to materialise, which shone like the sun. The tip of the
    blade aimed between Daemon’s eyes. “Oh, but you are…you are just like him in
    every way,” he said. Tension on Raizel’s body was obvious. It seemed like he
    desperately wanted to pierce through the noble’s skull, but he was restraining
    himself. More likely, he was waiting for him to make a move. The wrong move,
    and then the noble would find himself with a burning sword stuck into his
    forehead. “The worst thing of all is that his fiendish blood is running through
    your veins. A blood thirsty for battle. I’m sure that right now you are feeling
    the urge to kill, to destroy. A demon’s only desire is to wreak havoc.”

    Thankfully,
    Daemon didn’t try to attack; he didn’t even try to resist. His hands were loose
    by his sides. “I’m not like that. I can control my desires…I can control the
    demon inside me,” he claimed. He was probably telling the truth because his
    hair turned back to their normal colour, so did his eyes.

    “If only it were
    that easy.” The Lord stopped choking him, but his sword was still pointed
    dangerously close to him.

    “It is for me.”

    The old man
    snorted. “You must be really naive to believe something like that,” he said.
    “Don’t you know what your father did? Hasn’t he told you what that demon inside
    you is capable of doing? All my friends, my family, all those that bore the
    title of the White Lord lost their lives to that monster.”

    Instant relief
    coursed through Nesto’s body as he knew what came next. Maybe it was thanks to
    the stories he had heard from his village storyteller, and those from Lord
    Cornius in the Black Castle, but he was able to tell when a story was about to
    be told. And now was one of those times. The sword disappeared from Raizel’s
    hands just as quickly as it had materialised. The Lord started his story, while
    Nesto and Daemon listened, standing still, the one with his feet dipped into
    the stream, and the other with his back pressed against the rock. Threat still
    lingering in the air.

    The White Lords
    were formed more than fifty years ago, and only those who were favoured by all
    three ancient Gods had the privilege to bear that title. They had a single
    duty. To hunt down all the remaining dragons.

    That came as a
    shock to Nesto. “All the remaining dragons?” he asked. “Weren’t all the dragons
    killed by…the Lords centuries ago?” The dragons were actually eliminated due to
    the magic of the elves, but he wasn’t sure if that was the right time to reveal
    that knowledge he possessed.

    “The Order is
    insisting on keeping a lot of secrets, I see. No, the last dragon was killed by
    me almost twenty years ago, I believe, and this scar is a reminder he left
    behind,” said the White Lord, showing the scar in his throat.

    Lord Raizel went
    on to tell them about Jenon, Daemon’s father. “He was a disciple of mine,” the
    old man admitted bitterly.

    He had loved him
    like he was his own son. His skills were unparalleled as a Lord Candidate, the
    most promising of them all. But, when he obtained the title, even though as a
    Lord he was favoured by all three of the ancient Gods, he refused to join the
    White Lords. According to Raizel, Jenon became by far the strongest Lord in the
    history of the Order of the Lords. His swordsmanship was said to have been
    envied even by the ancient Gods. That was what caused his downfall. He became
    arrogant, overconfident. The reason why he didn’t join the White Lords was
    because he wanted to hunt down the dragons by himself.

    A demon breaking
    the barrier that separated the two worlds had only occurred once before, when
    the dragons still ruled the skies, so when another demon broke the barrier
    again, there was turmoil in the Order. The White Lords waited for their orders,
    but Jenon, blinded by the glory he would receive, tried to eliminate the threat
    of the demon all by himself, and he was victorious. The only problem was that
    he had decided to accept the demon inside his body. He had gone mad, he wanted
    a power far greater than the Mark of the ancient Gods. He wanted to become
    equal to a god.

    “He swore to me
    that he could control it, and then he killed almost half the ruling class.
    Rumours have it that he even wounded the previous King. In the end, he escaped,
    hiding away from the nobles’ rage. But the Order couldn’t let him get away with
    it. They tracked him down, and ordered us, the White Lords, to eliminate him. I
    was the only one to refuse. I still cared about my disciple, but I regret it
    now. If I had joined them, perhaps we would have managed to kill Jenon and the
    demon that he accepted inside his body, and my fellow Lords and friends would
    still be alive now.

    ”Most of them
    were his friends, too, and one of them, Lord Commander Ousen, was his father…He
    slaughtered his own father, while he had sworn to me that he could control it!”
    He paused only to look Daemon in the eyes. “Do you still think that you can
    control it, too?”

    Daemon did not
    respond; he didn’t say a word, and that was probably the best thing to do, for
    it was clear that the Lord could barely keep his anger in check. Nesto followed
    the same policy, so the old man stood looking at them in silence, not sure how
    he should react. Finally, he walked into the cave, cursing himself, the Order
    of the Lords, and that ominous day the demon managed to break the barrier.

    Nesto expected
    Daemon to ask him to leave as fast as possible, and go back to Lord Asaer to
    ask her to open the Gate to the second island, before the old man changed his
    mind and resolved to let his rage run wild. However, all the noble did was sit
    on the ground, his back leaning against the rock, and his stare blank, lost in
    thought, making a gloomy face. Could he not sense the danger he was in?

    Everything sank
    in, amid that hush that fell on them. What Daemon was, the story of Lord Raizel
    about Jenon. Nesto even remembered Lord Mendax telling him the story about the
    demon that wiped out the White Lords. “The demon is back,” he had said. Could
    it be that he had returned because he was searching for his son? The noble had
    mentioned that he had run away from his father, so that was a possibility. Or
    maybe what Lord Mendax and the old man had said was true, and the demon was
    just seeking a bloody battle.

    Nevertheless,
    the Lord Commander was on the move, too. Lord Ereina was one of the Lords that
    he had recruited in order to stop Tzenon, and surely there ought to be a lot
    more Lords like Lord Ereina that had been summoned for the specific mission.

    The sun had set,
    and the air had grown chilly. It seemed they would spend another night out
    there. After he retrieved the dagger, Nesto picked up some dry twigs from the
    wood, making sure he wouldn’t stray too far away from the cave, so as not to be
    attacked by any wild beasts, and started a fire close to Daemon. He sat next to
    him, not knowing what he was supposed to do. This was the first time he had had
    a friend, let alone a noble friend in whose veins ran a demon’s blood. His mind
    pictured a scene where Daemon, having lost control, was covered in blood, not
    his own, trying to kill everyone that dared approach him, even Nesto. He tried
    to shake it off, though, as such thoughts wouldn’t be particularly useful right
    now. After all, he had constantly been under the threat of death ever since he
    set foot in the Black Castle. There shouldn’t be anything too scary for him
    anymore, not even a demon.

    What he needed
    now was to find a way to console Daemon, like he had when Nesto was feeling
    guilty about killing that girl Lord Candidate. “Not sure what’s worse,” he said
    in order to strike up a conversation. “Being a commoner or a demon?”

    “I’m quite sure
    we both know the answer to that,” the noble replied almost indifferently, his
    eyes staring at the fire.

    “Yes, nobody in
    their right mind would want to be born a commoner.”

    “Exactly.”

    “Actually, I
    still think being a noble is far worse.” Making jokes seemed to work. Daemon
    smiled; he even let out a snort of laughter.

    “Don’t be
    ridiculous, commoner.”

    The fire danced,
    reflected in Daemon’s eyes, making them look almost red and just as scary as
    Nesto had seen them that morning. For fear of being caught staring at them, he
    raised his eyes to the wound. “The wound on your forehead has almost healed,”
    Nesto noted.

    “That’s one of
    the good things about having the blood of a demon. My wounds tend to heal a lot
    faster than normal. The one on my hand is already gone.” He showed him. “However,
    just like Lord Raizel said, one of the bad things is that we feel the urge to
    kill and, apparently, that urge grows stronger towards our fathers. I didn’t
    know that he had killed my grandfather,” the noble admitted. “I didn’t even
    know about his battle against the White Lords. I only thought he was a ruthless
    man, who had somehow managed to get a demon’s power in his hands.

    ”I can see now
    why our housekeeper insisted on my entering the Tower of the Lords. Because of
    the previous incidents, my father wouldn’t dare search for me here. For me,
    this is the safest place I could be if no one knew about my connection to Jenon.”

    Nesto was tempted
    to tell him that demon Jenon was on the move—he might even be on his way
    there—, but he couldn’t be absolutely sure of such a thing. Perhaps, it would
    be better not to upset the noble, especially now.

    He had gone
    without food for more than a day, so it didn’t strike him as odd when his
    stomach began growling. Hunting, though, with his injured hand was out of the
    question, despite the protection the fiery power of the ancient Gods gave him.
    Instead, he was content with imagining the food he would eat if he were in the
    Black Castle. His thoughts filled with fried eggs, sausages, and meat from deer
    and wild boar. In the end, he pictured gorging himself on pastes for the sweet
    taste that lingered afterwards. I had no idea I would miss the Black Castle
    so much…well, their food, actually.

    When Daemon
    managed to close his eyes, the fire was almost out, so Nesto went gathering
    some more dry twigs to maintain it. On his way back, the smell of burning meat
    assailed his nostrils. It came from within the cave. The old man was surely
    about to taste all that crunchy meat from the morning kill.

    He was wondering
    if it was safe to spend the whole night outside the cave, while Raizel had
    clearly shown them his intention of killing whoever was associated with Jenon
    and the demon he had accepted inside of him, when the White Lord got out and
    went closer, with a face that Nesto couldn’t read.

    He shook Daemon
    to snap him out of sleep, and prepared for the worst. He placed his hand close
    to his glassy dagger, and forced the fiery force of the ancient Gods to engulf
    his body by making the Mark appear.

    “Did you come to
    take your revenge?” the noble smilingly asked, and he sounded almost happy
    about it, as if he had been expecting it all day.

    The old man’s
    inscrutable face didn’t change, and he said: “I don’t blame you for your
    father’s sins, and I don’t hate you for being his son. It’s only him I want to
    kill. But you also share the same demon blood, and this, I cannot ignore. I
    will train you for two months, as I promised Lord Asaer, but if you ever dare
    show, even once, the demon’s face you hide inside of you, then I will kill you without
    a second thought.”

    To be honest, I
    wasn’t expecting something like that.
    He
    was even kind enough to throw them each a piece of meat. It almost made me
    trust him…almost.

  • CHAPTER
    13

    The next
    morning, he was awakened by a bucket of cold water. Although the sun was
    strong, and it was a hot day, Nesto’s body immediately began to shake as he
    recalled the frozen waters of the baths hall. Lord Raizel stood above him
    again, holding the bucket in one hand, and carrying one of the forest beasts on
    his shoulder. The words he didn’t say were written all over his face. “You can
    count yourself dead again.” The old man headed towards the cave to leave his
    morning kill, while Nesto went by the stream to wash, just like Daemon.

    The previous
    night, Nesto had a wild thought. What if the mark across his ribs meant that he
    had the blood of a demon inside of him, just like Daemon? It could be. I
    mean, it explains why the Lords would want me dead. They wouldn’t like the same
    incident that happened to the White Lords. The sooner they get rid of me, the
    better.
    But this thought was gone when he saw the noble washing himself.
    Except for the scars on Daemon’s chest, inflicted that day in the baths hall,
    all the other wounds had already healed, even that on his forehead, while
    Nesto’s arm still ached every time he abruptly moved it.

    That most
    probably indicated that he was no demon.

    The White Lord
    decided to make some things clear before he commenced training. The first thing
    was that they would have to call him “master,” from now on. Secondly, he
    decided to name Daemon “number one,” and Nesto “number two.” He had asked what
    their names were, and they told him, but apparently they weren’t to his liking.
    He even threatened to kill them if, by any chance, they used their real names
    or if they failed to call Raizel “master.” And he really meant it because the
    first time Daemon disobeyed him, he got a kick in the ribs as a warning. And he
    made it clear that there wouldn’t be another one.

    Unlike the Black
    Castle, here, no breakfast waited for them on the platter. They would simply
    have to settle for a piece of meat at night, when the Lord was to cook his
    prey. So, they embarked on their training on an empty stomach.

    Because of the
    lack of ancient Gods favouring him, even the White Lord wasn’t sure if Nesto
    could perform the basics of what a normal Lord was capable of. So, when the old
    man asked him to materialise a weapon of his choice in his hands, and he did it
    at his first attempt, all three of them were flabbergasted. Nesto only had to
    picture the frame of the weapon, as Raizel told him, and then he felt the
    ancient Gods’ flame run through his right hand, taking the form of a dagger
    similar to the glassy one he carried on him.

    His joy was
    short-lived as Master Raizel told him off for his choice of weapon, saying that
    all Lords worth their salt chose to use swords, and only rarely did the Lords
    opt for spears. Anything beyond these two choices was deemed to be useless or
    second-rate in a battle. And, when Nesto showed him the glassy dagger and told
    him there were surely some Lords who used it, thinking of his father, the old
    man adamantly refused it. “That’s a weapon of the ones we refer to as the
    Cursed Ones,” he said scornfully. “No Lord would ever use that kind of weapon.”
    Then, he grabbed the glassy dagger from Nesto’s hands, and threw it away.

    Under the Lord’s
    orders, Nesto materialised a sword that shone, its tip almost going up in
    flames, and he began to train. Daemon, unfortunately, was as impressive as
    Nesto in materialising weapons and, apart from this, he had one of the ancient
    Gods, the initial ruler of the skies, favouring him, which meant that, with a
    lot of practice, he could shoot bolts out of his hands.

    After some
    training and lots of sweat, the Mark of the ancient Gods on their chests
    vanished by itself and, despite their efforts to call it forth again, nothing
    happened. When they informed master Raizel of the incident—he had cut off ten
    small twigs, and was now placing them along the stream—, he explained that overusing
    the power of the Gods would lead to the Mark getting erased. They would need to
    rest at least half a day to be able to make it reappear.

    All the days
    flew by, with all three of them doing the same things. Every morning, Nesto and
    Daemon would practise the sword, while Lord Raizel would put town twigs along
    the stream, setting them on fire. Usually, by midday, their bodies were
    exhausted, and the Mark erased itself, and then the old man had them climb up
    the rocks next to the cave or run through the forest. That was always the worst
    part of their training, and also the most dangerous.

    You don’t know
    how fast you really are until you are forced to run through a forest that is
    filled with wild beasts, without any sort of weapons or the power of the
    ancient Gods.

    Mastering the
    skill of the ancient God that favoured him seemed quite easy for Daemon. He was
    shooting bolts out of his hands as early as the first week. He was good, no
    matter what he applied himself to, and he always attributed that to the fact
    that he was born a noble. So irritating. Even master Raizel praised him
    for his dexterity with the sword. He was constantly comparing him to his
    father, and that was something Daemon didn’t like.

    His humiliating
    remarks on Nesto’s performance was a permanent fixture but, thanks to the White
    Lord, Nesto had found a way to pay him back. So, when the noble saw him
    practising the sword and made a remark, like: “I see that you are as bad as
    ever, number two,” Nesto would reply: “Yes, and you are almost as good as your
    father, number one.” That made the noble gnash his teeth and flash him a
    vengeful smile. The truth was, Nesto felt satisfied and, at the same time,
    guilty for making the noble suffer this way…but, mostly, satisfaction.

    Beyond the
    noble’s irritable behaviour and his display of swordsmanship, which made him
    seem unbearable, there were times when Nesto felt sorry for him. Out of the
    blue, Master Raizel tended to hit him on an everyday basis, probably venting
    his spleen on him for all the hatred he felt for Jenon, for he hardly ever hit
    Nesto. On one occasion, he hit Daemon so hard, who was protected by the power
    of the ancient Gods, that Nesto thought he was going to die. The noble’s
    clothes were covered in blood, while he sustained some broken bones. The Lord
    had seen Nesto’s worry painted over his face. “Don’t worry, number two. He
    won’t die from anything like this. Demons are quite resilient, I think,” he had
    told him. And, for some reason, Daemon didn’t complain even once.

    Days flew by
    more quickly and calmly than ever. Even though Nesto had to deal with someone
    that carried the blood of a demon inside him, and might have lost control
    whenever they practised and fought together, and a half-lunatic that threatened
    to kill them if they didn’t call him “master,” he felt more secure here than
    back in the Black Castle. Perhaps, this had to do with the fact that master
    Raizel was focused on the Lord Candidate who was the son of Jenon, and not on
    Nesto, a weak Lord Candidate that no God favoured.

    After almost two
    months, they had consolidated all the techniques the Lord had shown them in the
    sword. The only thing they lacked now was experience of real battle. Besides,
    they were able to master a skill that normally only the ones favoured by all three
    Gods could learn. Within short distances, they could talk to each other only
    through thought. That made the old man suspicious. While he usually didn’t pay
    much attention to Nesto, when they sat around the fire to fill their stomachs,
    master Raizel began to ask him about his ancestors and his father. Questions
    that Nesto couldn’t answer truthfully. But, thankfully, he didn’t know the
    entire truth, so telling the Lord that he never knew his father and that he was
    raised by his uncle, Garon, was partially, if not entirely, true.

    “For an instant,
    I thought you were going to reveal to the old man all the things you once told
    me about your father and the mark across the ribs,” said the noble, when Lord
    Raizel walked into the cave, and left them alone. “If we consider the fact that
    he didn’t kill me, although I’m the son of the odious demon, Jenon, then I
    think it’s safe to assume that he wouldn’t kill you, either, if you showed him
    the Mark. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Order of the Lords wouldn’t
    kill you…us. I’m only saying that master Raizel seems different from the other
    Lords. He has a sense of pride and morality that all the Lords at the Black
    Castle lacked. He resembles more of a noble than a Lord in that matter.”

    It was such
    words that sometimes made Nesto doubt about Daemon’s judgement. For some
    reason, he believed that nobles were paragons of gallantry and morality. And
    from the stories Nesto had heard, that was most certainly not true.

    The fire they
    had lit sizzled, and some howls were heard coming from the dark forest, so it
    was highly unlikely that their conversation would reach the old man’s ears. “I
    can’t trust anyone so easily. It’s against my instincts,” Nesto told him,
    making sure his tone was low, despite the noise. I barely trusted you. He
    had to admit, though, that it would have been easier for him to trust Daemon
    from the start if he had known that a demon’s blood was running through his
    veins. Knowing that there was someone the Lords would definitely want dead,
    perhaps more than himself, would probably have broken the barrier between them
    far more easily.

    “What a pity!
    Maybe, Raizel could tell us what will happen when you reach the age of sixteen.
    He seems knowledgeable. Certainly more than Lord Cornius.”

    “I don’t need
    Lord Raizel,” declared Nesto. “I’ll learn that by myself soon.”

    In two days’
    time. That soon.

    The last night
    they would spend outside the White Lord’s cave, under the countless stars and
    the two moons that were almost fused together, Nesto couldn’t sleep. At first,
    it was because he had turned sixteen a few hours before, then it was the howls
    of the night predators and the same cold, strong wind that surrounded them
    every night. Later, he was no longer feeling cold, and the reason why he
    wouldn’t go to sleep was that his body grew so hot, he felt the fiery force of
    the ancient Gods was trying to scorch him. He was wrong. It wasn't the Mark of
    the ancient Gods. He figured that out when all that warm sensation was
    concentrated at one single spot…

    Where the
    smaller mark was.

    The burning
    sensation there was unbearable. He had to bite his lips to keep himself from
    screaming. And he wanted to scream so badly and hit something so hard that even
    the pain would go away. But he couldn’t let Lord Raizel know, that’s why he
    swallowed his howls, and forced himself to take it silently. When the burning
    sensation eventually subsided, he lifted his top to check the mark. The three
    lines that looked like scratches were bright blue and cold to the touch,
    although, deep within, he still felt warm, as if someone had lit a fire there.

    As that flame
    gradually went out, he felt weak, his consciousness slipping away, and his
    eyelids growing heavy. There was immediate need for sleep.

    Several repeated
    sounds awakened him. It was as if Daemon was exercising with his bolts, but
    that couldn’t be right. It was still early in the morning, the sun hadn’t come
    out. That was the time when master Raizel usually went hunting. “What’s going
    on, Daemon?” he asked. When he turned over, he only saw his back. Black bolts
    bounced off his left hand, and a sword was forming on his right one. But why?

    He saw why, a
    moment later. Someone was standing opposite him, and they were aggressive.
    Nesto saw the black clothes flapping in the wind, and the white mask that hid
    any facial characteristics. A Cursed One! What’s the masked man doing here?

    He didn’t have
    the chance to ask him as the noble started shooting bolts out of his left hand,
    while the Cursed One was desperately trying to fend them off. Then, Daemon
    charged at him. His hand moved incredibly fast, and the masked man was barely
    able to follow his movements. If Daemon were a normal Lord Candidate, he would
    be dead by now, just like Lord Mendax had warned them the first time they saw a
    cursed one. But now, things were different. The noble had cornered his opponent
    with countless attacks in a row and, finally, dealt a blow to the man’s face,
    breaking the mask in two. Yet, it wasn’t meant to be the final blow as green
    smoke came out of the glassy dagger that the masked man wielded, forming a
    weird four-legged monster with sharp fangs that made the noble step back.

    The monster
    vanished as fast as it had turned up. That was probably some kind of magic.

    The female face
    that was revealed when the pieces of the mask fell off was majestic. As the
    faint moonlight shone on her, her skin looked as dark as the night sky. Her
    hair was pitch-black, held back, while her green eyes glistened, almost as
    bright as the two moons, making Nesto’s heart beat faster.

    He didn’t
    realise how and why but, when he saw Daemon tighten his grip on his sword,
    ready to attack again, he ran as fast as he could to prevent the noble from
    harming her, putting the girl behind his back. Why am I doing this? Is it
    perhaps because of that girl candidate that I killed?
    No, that wasn’t it.
    It was something else, something deeper. He felt the burning desire to protect
    her, no matter what.

    “What are you
    doing, you foolish commoner?” Daemon demanded to know. “She wants to kill you.
    Get away from that thing immediately.”

    “I don’t wish to
    kill him,” claimed the Cursed One, while she threw the glassy dagger as proof.

    “I guess I was
    wrong, then. Wasn’t it you standing over his head a few moments ago, sticking
    your sharp weapon into his throat? It must have been another Cursed One,” said
    the noble, his ironic tone more than obvious.

    “It’s true, I
    won’t deny it. For a moment, I was tempted to kill him. However, the true
    reason why I am here, believe it or not, is to keep him alive.”

    While the girl
    was telling them about Lord Mendax’s big mouth that finally led her to Nesto,
    he didn’t stir from his seat as Daemon kept on giving her that black look he
    flashed at Nesto every time they practised. A piercing gaze, just like a blade
    that promised a swift death.

    While pacing the
    corridors, the Cursed One had heard Lord Mendax—on one of the countless conversations
    he had had with just himself—speak of a glassy dagger he had seen under the
    mattress of one of the Lord Candidates. At the first opportunity, she scoured
    all the rooms, until she found it. The dagger was, obviously, the same as those
    used by the Cursed Ones. A normal Lord Candidate shouldn’t be able to obtain
    something like that, that’s why she decided to silently follow the candidate it
    belonged to to learn more about him and how he had come by the specific weapon.

    “The next
    evening, I overheard the secret that you confided to the noble,” said the girl.
    “I was so taken aback that I almost revealed my presence when you two started
    fighting. Who could have imagined that someone who bore the mark still
    existed?”

    “So, you know
    what the mark means? Tell me,” Nesto asked her.

    “The Cursed Ones
    know what it means better than anyone else. I will tell you the meaning of it,
    but first there is one thing that is a matter of urgency. Your blood has
    awakened, and now all the Cursed Ones are aware of your presence. I must use a
    word of magic on you in order to make it harder for them to find you. Please,
    trust me,” she told him, as she bent over to pick up her dagger.

    It was almost
    disturbing how easy and natural it felt trusting her. Trusting her every word
    like he had known her forever, while he hadn’t yet trusted the noble, even if
    he had saved his life, when the fire of the ancient Gods almost turned him to
    ashes. The girl picked up her dagger, and then put it in its side case on
    Nesto’s chest, after asking for his permission. “That’s what I was trying to do
    when you suddenly began to attack me,” she said, looking at Daemon out of the
    corner of her bright green eye, while he gave her a look of doubt.

    “Isihir
    Occultus,” she whispered, and Nesto saw a puff of green smoke come out of the
    dagger, which surrounded him, before it vanished again. “That will make it
    harder for the other Cursed Ones to track you down. The Lords must have already
    given them orders to run after you. They definitely want you dead.”

    “We already know
    that,” said Daemon. “What we want to learn is why.”

    “Because the
    mark shows that he has the bloodline of the Gods. He is what the Order of the
    Lords fears the most.” She turned towards Nesto, her eyes carefully lowered,
    avoiding any eye contact. “The Lords have disguised their fear into a trophy,
    and they do not miss the opportunity to show it to the whole world. You have
    seen it in the Black Castle. You have heard it in their stories. They even made
    you believe that you could easily kill it.”

    Nesto stood
    there, puzzled. What she was implying, what she was saying actually was…what
    was it?

    The Cursed One
    knelt before him, and said in her soft voice what Nesto couldn’t fathom: “You
    are a descendant of the almighty dragons, Lord Candidate Nesto.”

  • CHAPTER
    14

    He could hear a
    faint nervous laugh from somewhere, but it didn’t come from Daemon or the
    Cursed One. Most probably, it came from his own mouth. He imagined himself
    through the girl’s eyes. A look of disbelief, his mouth wide open, while blood
    must have oozed away from his face, just as it happened with the noble every
    time he heard of his father. His mind couldn’t fully apprehend what those words
    meant, so Nesto instead tried to focus on the next words that came out of the
    Cursed One.

    “Soon enough,
    there will be a phenomenon that occurs every thousand years, more or less. The
    alignment of the planets and the two moons. If you, in whose veins runs the
    blood of the dragons, are still alive when that happens, all the dragons will
    rise from their graves, and the era of the dragons will start once again.”

    Suddenly, he
    remembered Lord Mendax saying, after the story of the White Tower, “There is
    a legend, though, that one of the dragons survived. It took a human form and
    still wanders our world, waiting for the right moment to reclaim the skies. But
    that’s just silly.”
    And he started laughing again, nervously. Nesto tried
    to focus, but his head kept spinning. He felt like a leaf that was about to be
    blown by the wind.

    Well, here it
    was. The secret of the mark was revealed to him. There was a moment he had
    desperately wanted to know and, now that he did, all he wished for was to
    somehow forget about it. Pretend like he had never heard it, as if that would
    somehow change the truth of things. What was he supposed to do now? Panic?
    Would that help him in any way? Probably not. Now, I understand why my
    brother wanted to keep that secret.

    His mind went
    blank, and he barely remembered the rest. What he retained in his memory was
    that the girl and all the Cursed Ones were, in fact, elves that, because of
    their betrayal, received a divine curse, which cost them their immortality and
    almost all their magic power, and had them wander throughout their lives like
    treacherous beings. At some point during the day, he thought he had caught a
    glimpse of White Lord Raizel and Lord Asaer, but he wasn’t absolutely sure.

    He must have
    spent at least an entire day remaining silent, and hearing strange noises that
    couldn’t reach him, when his mind started working again. It was probably the
    sensation of falling that woke him up, then he abruptly plumped to the hard
    ground. He had the taste of mud in his mouth.

    “Do you like the
    mud so much that you’re thinking of lying in it all day, commoner?” Daemon
    sounded annoyed.

    Nesto tried to
    get up, but it was harder than usual. He felt heavy, as if carrying someone on
    his back. After his shock, he wasn’t sure of his whereabouts. “What happened?”
    he asked, while he stood up with difficulty. His legs almost trembled under his
    weight. “Where are we?” Fortunately, he still possessed the survival instinct,
    which was pushing him to get hold of himself. He looked around, and saw there
    was fog, like it was dawn and the sun rays would soon come out. All around, he
    could see some strange black trees with dozens of thick leafless branches,
    while their trunks were thick as five persons standing side by side.

    “Finally, you
    were able to utter some words. For the remainder of the day, you were lost in
    thought. Every time I spoke to you, all you did was nod unceasingly,” the noble
    complained.

    “How would you
    react if you were in my place?” Nesto almost shouted. He didn't want to raise
    his voice at Daemon, but he felt the need to take it out on someone, to blame
    someone, even if they had nothing to do with all those things that troubled
    Nesto’s mind.

    “But I am in
    your place…I have the same mark as you, and I’m also the son of Demon Jenon,”
    he
    said inside his thought. Probably, the Cursed One didn’t know about Daemon’s
    mark, and the noble must have wanted to keep it under wraps. “We’ve just got on
    the second island,” he said softly after a small pause, acting like he wasn’t
    really affected by Nesto’s shouting. “And, according to Silan-te here,” he cast
    a glance at the Cursed One, “we have to survive for the first seven days
    without the fiery power of the ancient Gods. Unlike the other three islands,
    this particular one has a lot of magic on it, and this affects—not in a
    positive way—all the Lord Candidates who set foot on it for the first time.
    Until our body gets used to it, it is almost forbidden to use the Mark, unless
    we want to suffer the side effects. But you should not worry. Because Silan-te
    has promised to protect us from the wild monsters of this island, and from the
    other Cursed Ones that will be hunting us down.” The noble smiled, almost
    ironically, at this statement.

    “I only serve,
    Lord Candidate Nesto,” Silan-te said brusquely, “not you.”

    Daemon’s smile
    was wiped off his face. “Why not me?” he asked.

    “Because my kind
    was created for serving the sons of the ancient Gods, and the only way to
    remove the curse placed on me is to do exactly that, and only that. Besides,
    Lord Candidate Nesto also tried to protect me, while you, on the other hand,
    tried to kill me.”

    “I thought we’d
    gone over that, when I agreed to let you serve me.”

    “I never agreed
    to that”

    They continued
    to bicker, showing that they weren’t fond of each other’s company, until Daemon
    suddenly said, “Shh, I hear footsteps. Follow me quickly.” And he quickly
    strode towards a tree trunk. Nesto called forth the Mark, and followed the
    noble. Clearly, right now wasn’t the time to worry about the side effects his
    body would have to face for using the power of the Gods.

    “Is it the
    Cursed Ones?” asked Nesto.

    Silan-te stood a
    few steps ahead of the noble, away from the tree foliage, looking far beyond
    with her bright green eyes. “It’s a herd of lygars,” she said in a calm voice.
    “Dangerous creatures, but they never attack members of my race.”

    “Yes, but I’m
    sure they attack members of my race.” Daemon held Silan-te’s hand, and pulled
    her back, so that the monsters wouldn’t see her. That pull was so strong, he
    lifted her up in the air, hurtling her between himself and Nesto. Almost by
    reflex, Nesto kept her waist from hitting the trunk, and then felt her black
    hair stroke his face. As he held her tight to protect her, his lips softly
    touched her neck, while the enticing scent of her hair assailed his nostrils.

    She was beautiful,
    he had to admit that. It wasn’t the kind of beauty that Lirel had. It was
    somewhat different, stronger in a way. He was attracted to her smell, her
    melodious voice, her facial lines, and her sparkling eyes. They promised him
    safety and peace of mind. Nothing would be able to reach him. No threat, no
    Cursed One, no monster, no irksome thought, no voice…”Commoner, you are
    drooling.” No. Voices aren’t gone, after all.

    He wiped his
    mouth, but there was no spit; it was just one of the noble’s jokes. I’m glad
    he, at least, is able to retain his irritating, trying-to-be-funny,
    personality.
    When the herd of monsters went away, so did the girl,
    apologising for daring touch him without his permission. Why? Nesto was
    about to ask, but he didn’t. The answer he would get would probably not be very
    pleasant. “Because you are the descendant of the dragons” wasn’t what he
    would want to hear right now.

    They started
    moving. Staying in one place for a long time could be fatal. By now, all the
    Lords of the islands must have been informed about the Lord Candidate carrying
    the mark across his ribs. Passing their trials in order to enter the portal for
    the next island wasn’t an option anymore. They would have to steal the crystal
    that opened the portal somehow. Besides, they had to watch out for the Cursed
    Ones that would be on all four levels. The only good thing, according to
    Silan-te, was that they would have to worry only about a bunch of Lords as the
    reappearance of the demon kept busy the Lord Commander and many other Lords.
    The noble’s father, without knowing it, had made their struggle for survival
    somewhat easier. Not easy, but easier.

    On the other
    hand, though, the magic concentrated on the second island was bearing down on
    them. Nesto’s body was extremely heavy, and his gait looked weird, tiring, and
    clumsy without the help of the Mark. Daemon too seemed to have the same
    symptoms; only Silan-te walked normally, but she was already a creature of
    magic, so she couldn’t be particularly affected. They had been walking for only
    an hour before they were forced to stop for a break.

    They found a
    place covered by thick trees and several big stones, and they sat there to get
    some rest. They didn’t light a fire as this would betray their presence.
    Fortunately, the Cursed One had a small bag full of cooked food she had taken
    from Lord Asaer’s kitchen, so they needn’t worry about that, for the time
    being. For sure, they wouldn’t have to care about water, either. The fog and
    the muddy ground indicated that there was a large supply of it somewhere on the
    island. Apart from meat, Silan-te also had some fruit and bread. This must have
    cooled down, but it was still better than nothing.

    They ate in
    silence, always listening out for various noises that might give their pursuers
    away. When they were done, Daemon spoke first. “We have to find a place to
    hide, until our bodies adapt,” he said. “Then, we’ll think of a way to steal
    the crystal from the Lord of the island.”

    “There’s no
    point in trying to steal the crystal right now,” the girl agreed. “Passing the
    portal, without adapting to the island’s magic, would cause serious side
    effects to your human bodies.”

    “I only hope
    we’ll find your father and brother at the top of the Tower, as you said,
    otherwise I don’t know how we’re going to avoid this,” said the noble to Nesto.
    “I hope I’m wrong but, even when the alignment’s done, I don’t think they’ll
    let us live, after all the trouble they went to. I bet our struggle for
    survival will carry on even outside the Tower of the Lords.”

    I don’t know, he
    wanted to say. How can I be absolutely sure? There’s nothing I can be sure
    of right now.
    But instead, he said in a firm voice: “They will be there. I
    trust my brother.”

    “They won’t be
    able to harm you that easily if you reach the top. If you earn the title of
    Lord, the Order will need the King’s permission to sentence you to death,” said
    Silan-te, trying to reassure them. But she didn’t make it. It was more than
    certain that the Lords would easily get that permission. No one in their right
    frame of mind would deny it. I know I wouldn’t.

    The noble and
    the girl began to talk, ignoring Nesto. Daemon wanted to know as much as he
    could about the Cursed Ones. Was there a way for them to sense them before they
    were too close? Was their sight better than humans’? What spell should they be
    more aware of? What was the easiest way to kill them?

    The last part
    made her flinch for a moment but, in the end, she revealed to him everything
    that he wanted to know, proving to both of them that she meant it when she said
    that her desire was to keep Nesto alive. Their talk went on for a while, and
    they kept ignoring Nesto the whole time.

    He couldn’t
    blame them for that. After his reaction when he learnt what the mark meant, he
    must have seemed weak to them. A mere boy that needed their protection. He
    didn’t like that, nor did he fancy trusting the girl. Why didn’t he doubt any
    of her words? He had been trusting her from the start, without once being
    suspicious. That wasn’t like him. His normal self would be totally different.
    He had only made it so far because he hadn’t trusted anyone. Well, he trusted
    Daemon now, but only because he was in the same situation as Nesto—running for
    his life.

    And he had the
    same mark, the bloodline of the Gods. Of course, he wasn’t a descendant of the
    dragons; he was the descendant of Jenon. A man that had accepted a demon inside
    him. He wondered if the Lords would also need him to be dead when the alignment
    was over. He had the mark…

    He rubbed his
    head with his hands, trying to relieve the tension. All this thinking made him
    feel lost, unsure, and afraid. I should just focus only on one thing. My
    survival…and not trusting anyone.

    “How did you
    manage to find me before the rest of the Cursed Ones?” he wanted to know in an
    aggressive voice, showing Silan-te that he didn’t trust her.

    “There is a
    spell that allows me to locate the previous owner of the dagger,” she said in a
    gentle and submissive voice, taking the green dagger out of her waist case. “I
    was meaning to return it yesterday, but you weren’t in a position to take it.”
    She wouldn’t look him in the eyes, and she seemed so fragile. That made him
    want to protect her. Was it this protecting feeling that made my brother
    risk his own life for me?
    Nesto gave the dagger a careful look before
    taking it. It looked like the one Lord Asaer had given him but, somehow, he
    knew it was the one he was carrying when he entered the Black Castle.

    She had even
    brought back his brother’s dagger. He sighed and put the dagger behind his
    belt. It would be a difficult task trying not to trust her.

    “She has already
    told you that, but you were lost in thought,” the noble declared. “I’m sure you
    don’t remember even the look of the old…” The noble’s face almost froze, and he
    gulped. “I mean MASTER Raizel…when he learnt you were a descendant of the
    dragons, and he searched for the mark across your ribs. I kind of feel sorry
    for him. The shock he received was almost equivalent to yours.”

    Yes, but I bet
    his mind didn’t freeze for an entire day.
    The
    White Lord had learnt about Nesto’s secret, and he already knew Daemon’s, yet
    he let them go. Maybe, the noble was right. Maybe, master Raizel was different
    from the other Lords, after all.

    Silan-te stood
    on guard for at least an hour, so that the two of them could rest their eyes
    and, once they were well-rested, they started walking again, in an attempt to
    find a suitable place that would keep them well hidden from any threat. The
    naked trees did not cover them, but the fog compensated for that and, coupled
    with the lack of sunshine, it was enough for them to move like they were almost
    invisible. They never let their guard down, though, even after several hours,
    when both Lord Candidates’ bodies were drenched in sweat, and Nesto’s breathing
    was short and heavy.

    A Cursed One
    could pop out of nowhere, or at least that was what Silan-te warned them about.
    At times, some branches snapped off, or footsteps were heard on the muddy
    ground, and roars, which made Nesto suddenly turn around, but no masked men
    appeared.

    So far, the only
    thing they had encountered were more packs of lygars. And now, they seemed a
    bigger threat than the Cursed Ones. They were the size of a bear, with pointed
    horns, sharp jaws, and a red fur. I hope their meat will be tasty. They
    would spend at least a week on that island and, no matter how dangerous it
    might look, they would have to find a way to feed themselves.

    His body
    couldn’t take it anymore, and he was slightly bleeding from his mouth, so he
    slowed down. He had to rest again, but the other two kept going at it. They
    wouldn’t stop, until they found a suitable place. He didn’t want to complain or
    look weak, that’s why he gritted his teeth, and kept on walking, no matter how
    heavy his legs felt.

    Maybe, it was
    tiredness or what Lord Mendax had said was true—that the Cursed Ones moved like
    shadows—, but Nesto never saw the hand dressed in black coming from behind,
    closing his mouth and nose, pinning him down…stealing his life.

  • CHAPTER
    15

    The Cursed One’s
    moves were so quick and silent that they caught Daemon and Silan-te unawares.
    Nesto’s half face was plunged into the mud, with the masked man’s hand gagging
    him. He could feel a knee pressing him down, while the man’s other foot stepped
    on Nesto’s left arm. Both of them had one free hand, but for Nesto it was
    useless; that of the Cursed One, though, must have been wielding a dagger made
    of glass, ready to taste his flesh.

    Breaking free
    was too hard. Screaming, impossible. And death probably inevitable, but he
    could still warn the others. “Daemon!” he shouted in his thought.

    The noble turned
    around abruptly, then Silan-te. It was the girl, though, that made the first
    move to save him. And Daemon placed his hand on her shoulder and stopped
    her…STOPPED HER! Was he already beyond saving?

    Something weird
    happened then. Both of them lay in the mud, near the tree trunk next to them,
    and no longer paid any attention to Nesto or the masked man standing over him.
    Their eyes looked up slantwise. When Nesto followed their gaze, he saw through
    the fog two dark figures flit by, silent and noiseless, like shadows. Nesto
    thought the masked man would call them for reinforcements, but he didn’t. All
    he did was tighten his grip on Nesto’s face to block his breathing.

    He was almost
    out of breath, and the figures had gone, when the Cursed One suddenly set him
    free, “Did you have to breathe so hard? They almost noticed you,” he said in a
    soft voice, and stood up.

    Nesto’s mouth
    opened wide open as his lungs gasped for air, bringing back the blood on his
    face. When his muscles loosened up, he turned to look at the man he thought
    would steal his life. It was obvious now that this man had probably saved them
    from an encounter with the two Cursed Ones he had just seen flit by. On the
    face of it, he seemed to be dressed in black, but Nesto noticed the scarlet
    colour of the uniform he wore under the black mantle. His beardless face, with
    the thin nose and the considerably long black hair, seemed familiar to Nesto.
    However, he couldn’t tell with certainty if he had met him before or not, until
    that man introduced himself as Lord Zoloc, the Lord of the second island.

    It wasn’t the
    first time he had heard that name. Maybe, they hadn’t met before, after all,
    but he had seen him in that weird dream-memory, when Lord Asaer had thrown him
    her glassy dagger. It was the man he had thought looked like his father,
    Nestal. Now that he saw him up close, he realised that he didn’t bear such a
    strong resemblance to his father. Only his green eyes were almost alike.

    When Nesto stood
    up, he wiped the mud off his face and hair, and saw Silan-te jump in front of
    him. She moved him away, and stuck her dagger in the man’s throat. “If you
    belong to the Order of the Lords, then why have you chosen to help us?” She
    wanted to know. Her words were carefully chosen, not wanting to reveal so
    easily the secret of the mark that Nesto bore.

    The Lord wasn’t
    frightened or, at least, he didn’t let it show. He touched the tip of the
    dagger with his index, and made a futile attempt to remove it, cutting his
    finger. “You mean even though I am aware of what this boy is?” he said and
    looked at Nesto smilingly. A strange smile that made him seem like he was
    enjoying that knowledge of his, or even maybe the whole situation. “I was asked
    by his Lord father to help him. Almost all the Lords of the islands have
    promised to do so. Including myself, of course. Now, if you please, remove this
    dagger from my throat. It’s quite sharp, and we wouldn’t want an accident to
    happen, would we now?”

    “And why would a
    Lord agree to a request like that?” Daemon asked. Under normal circumstances,
    Nesto would be the first to ask such a thing. He was the one that didn’t even
    trust his own shadow. But he was taken aback by what the man had said. That was
    the first solid clue he had found that proved what his brother had told him.
    They were really waiting for him at the top of the Tower.

    “That’s none of
    your business…noble.” The Lord’s tone of voice betrayed irritation, if not
    aversion, so did his wince. It shouldn’t strike him as odd that Lord Zoloc knew
    of Daemon’s noble origins; after all, everything about him—his stance,
    expressions, and tone of voice—betrayed exactly this thing. The real question
    was, if he knew about Nesto, did that mean that he also knew about the mark on
    Daemon’s body, about demon Jenon?

    “If you don’t
    wish to tell me, I can order my little servant to give that throat of yours a
    kiss with her green knife,” Daemon threatened, mimicking the same grimace.

    Silan-te gave
    Daemon an irritated look, but she didn’t complain about being called a servant.
    I guess having a common enemy has united them.

    The Lord
    carefully scanned the place, and then said: “Now is not the right time to be
    arguing. I will explain everything that needs explaining, eventually. But,
    first, I will have to hide you somewhere where the Cursed Ones and the Lords
    that have settled on my island will not be able to find you. When your bodies
    are ready, I will open the portal to go on to the next level.”

    “Silan-te, put
    away your weapon,” Nesto urged her. “It’s evident that he is not an enemy. If
    he were, he would have informed the Cursed Ones.” It was useless threatening
    him, one way or another, if he remembered correctly what he had seen in that
    dream. The girl obeyed almost immediately, and unwillingly put the dagger back
    in her waist case. “Where are you going to hide us?” he wanted to know.

    “Plain sight is
    always the best hideout. Back in my fortress, with the other Lord Candidates
    that have, by chance, yet to pass my trial. Even though it’s full of Cursed
    Ones and Lords, I can guarantee your safety there. Staying in the woods is
    dangerous. There is an order to kill anyone that is found outside of the
    fortress.” The Lord sucked the blood oozing out of his finger, and then
    addressed Silan-te. “I trust that you know where my fortress is located.”

    “Yes, but why?”

    “Good. Pick some
    plants, and kill some monster. I will go and inform the guards at the gate that
    I sent for three persons to hunt for my needs,” he told them, then vanished
    into thin air, leaving behind a puzzled noble and an astonished Cursed One.
    Nesto couldn’t blame them, in contrast to himself. It was the first time they
    had ever seen such a thing.

    “I don’t like
    the way he was looking at me, or his scent. It reminds me of a specific,
    disgusting Lord,” said the noble after a while. “Do we trust him?”

    There must be something
    wrong with me because I can’t believe I’m going to say this and mean it.
    “Yes,
    let’s trust him, for now.”

    They followed
    Silan-te towards the path that led to the fortress, and picked whatever kind of
    plant they ran into without caring if it was eatable or not. The guards
    wouldn’t probably care, either. They had to hunt, too, and that part would be a
    lot more difficult. Trying to spot a wild beast while keeping an eye out for
    the Cursed Ones wasn’t an easy task. But they were lucky enough to come across
    a pack of lygars. Those packs seemed to be everywhere. Silan-te managed to make
    a lygar stray away from its pack, using a word of magic. The rest wasn’t that
    difficult. A joint attack was enough to kill it. Then, they removed the head,
    and cut the body in three, so that they would split its weight.

    When they got
    out of the forest, the half-hidden sun appeared; it was about to set and its
    red rays spread across the clouds. They looked like burning ropes that pulled
    the orange clouds closer. In fact, they hadn’t stepped out of the woods. It’s
    just that someone had cut off the trees, almost down to their roots, and had
    made out of the trunks what Lord Zoloc had called a fortress. A gigantic outer
    wall that didn’t let anyone peek inside. Undoubtedly, it seemed more than
    enough to protect you from any external threat.

    “Once we get
    inside that, we will be trapped. There won’t be an easy way getting out of that
    thing,” said Daemon when he saw it.

    Silan-te, who
    walked ahead of them, stopped short, and turned in their direction. “We should
    not trust that Lord,” she suddenly said, with an expression betraying she had
    been mulling over that thought for some time.

    The noble
    agreed. “I will have to agree with our cursed servant on that score,” he said.
    “Of course, it’s ironic that these words come from someone who claims almost
    the same thing as Lord Zoloc. But still, trusting a Lord is the worst possible
    decision.”

    “You trusted
    Lord Raizel, didn’t you?” Nesto demurred.

    “I told you: he
    seems different…”

    “I didn’t hear
    it,” said the girl, interrupting the noble, “but I’m sure the Lord used a word
    of magic. And it must have been a very powerful one to make him disappear like
    that. No man or Lord should be able to use the words of magic. Even for us, the
    Cursed Ones, it is impossible without using these daggers. They were created by
    the elves, and only the elves can use them. He is hiding a lot of things. And
    what is more disturbing is that he didn’t flinch while my dagger was stuck on
    his throat. I don’t think it would be wise to trust that man.”

    Why were they
    acting like this now? It must be the sight of the fortress. It’s not like we
    have any other choice.
    Surviving for a week out in the woods with their
    sick bodies having the constant threat of monsters and the Cursed Ones was
    probably impossible. “I heard in a…dream of mine that those who use the words
    of magic can never use a word of lie. Is that true?” Nesto asked Silan-te,
    hoping that he would convince them that way.

    “It’s true, Lord
    Candidate Nesto. But only for the elves. And, even then, there are a lot of
    ways to deceive someone without having to lie. That’s how my ancestors
    killed…yours.” The girl never looked him in the eye whenever she spoke, while
    she had no such problem with Daemon. “What’s more…I’m sorry, but those who have
    the bloodline of a God cannot dream. What you saw must have been a memory of
    another person or even an object. And, if you have seen a dream in your life,
    it must probably have belonged to someone sleeping next to you.”

    “Does this mean
    that none of the dreams I have seen were actually…mine?” he said and this
    realisation left a void inside of him, as if someone had taken away a part of
    his body. A part that, obviously, wasn’t his own. Nesto recalled some of the
    dreams he had seen ever since he was a child. Dreams full of wolves, deer,
    bears, and hunting. Those belonged to his uncle, Garon. Those with their father
    and the fires must surely have belonged to his brother. He also remembered the
    dream where he was still in the Black Castle. His father had referred to him as
    Almar, not Nesto. That must have been a memory of his brother hidden in the
    dagger. Not even one of them belonged to me.

    Eventually, they
    all agreed that they would enter the fortress, on condition they did not trust
    the Lord’s words, and they tried to obtain the crystal at all costs. So, if the
    worst came to the worst and the mark was revealed, they would use the crystal
    to open the portal, even if their bodies had still not adapted.

    The masked men
    guarding the small wooden gate did not suspect them, and it stood to reason
    that they wouldn’t bother them if it weren’t for Silan-te. “Why have you chosen
    to reveal your eyes?” one of them demanded. The excuse that her mask had fallen
    while hunting wasn’t enough. Fortunately, though, Lord Zoloc turned up with an
    angry face, ordering them to let them in. He had waited quite a long time for
    those plants, and now they were making him wait even more? His serious tone of
    voice, and probably the power he wielded on the second level, made them obey at
    once.

    The first
    obstacle was cleared. Yet, no matter how insistent the Lord was, they didn’t
    really feel safe in there. It looked like a small village, with slipshod houses
    built in a row, with their small, almost inexistent, yards, and the wells that
    dotted the landscape, but the tall wall that surrounded everything gave them
    the impression that they were inside a huge cell. They saw no other Lord, as
    they followed Lord Zoloc into his quarters, and there were very few Cursed
    Ones. However, there must have been at least a hundred Lord Candidates
    wandering along the muddy roads. Although they did not yet have the title of
    Lord, they still posed a threat.

    “You will be
    safe here,” the Lord assured them again, while they were entering his house. It
    was a beautiful two-storey building, much bigger than the rest, built
    meticulously. It had a fireplace, a chimney, and a balcony. It even featured
    some windows. The bad thing was, it was farther away from the gate than the
    other houses. “The Lords and the Cursed Ones have focused on searching the
    woods as all the other Lord Candidates residing in my fortress have already
    been checked to find out whether they bear a mark across their ribs. And there
    are lots of them. I am sure that, if you keep a low profile, no one will ever
    suspect that you’ve just arrived on the island.”

    They threw the
    meat and plants in a corner, and Lord Zoloc promised to give them as many
    explanations as they required, at dinner time. He had prepared some hot water
    for them to wash themselves, but only Nesto accepted his polite gesture. The
    other two preferred to stay in the living room, along with the Lord, showing
    him they did not trust him, from the word go.

    The water was
    lukewarm when Nesto got into the wooden bathtub. Still, even cold water would
    be welcome right now as his mark across the ribs was burning him again, just
    like it did the previous night, when he came of age. His body was sore, while
    the taste of blood lingered in his mouth. The stronger he felt when calling the
    power of the ancient Gods, the weaker he was now, under the influence of the
    island’s magic. He didn’t want to admit it, but without Silan-te’s help he
    would be already dead. And regardless of whether I trust him or not, it’s
    obvious that Lord Zoloc’s help is just as important and valuable…

    He waited until
    his burning abated, then he put on his muddy clothes. He almost dragged his
    worn-out body into the living room, where he found the others eating. Silan-te
    nibbled at her food without tearing her eyes away from their host, while the
    noble and Lord Zoloc were exchanging bitter remarks and threats, feigning
    smiles. That was a relief.

    To be honest, I
    was expecting something worse.
    For
    instance, they could be pointing blades at each other’s throats.

    Food here, on
    the second island, looked more like that at the Black Castle, less like that on
    the first level. On the table there were fried eggs, sausages, mushrooms, wild
    boar meat, and several pastes. There was also some red wine, which Daemon
    eagerly savoured, but Nesto preferred to steer clear of it. Same with the meat.
    He had already tasted enough of it over the last couple of months, so he
    settled for some fried eggs and pastes.

    “Enough with the
    pleasantries,” said the noble after Nesto’s couple of mouthfuls, and he placed
    the glass of wine on the table. “You said you were going to give us the
    explanations we need. We’re all ears, then. Speak up!”

    But the Lord
    didn’t have time to do so as there was a loud knock on the door, and a raspy
    voice said: “My apologies for disturbing you, Lord Zoloc. But I was instructed
    by the other Lords to inform you that, tomorrow at noon, there will be another
    check for the mark. We request your permission to gather all the Lord
    Candidates in our headquarters.”

    Lord Zoloc
    seemed unfazed by these words. “Make no sound,” he only whispered to them, then
    he stood up and walked towards the door. Seeing a Cursed One and two Lord
    Candidates dining with the Lord of the island would seem suspicious, to say the
    least. Only a glance at Nesto’s or Daemon’s ribs would be more than enough to
    make at least a hundred people run after them. Still, the Lord seemed oddly
    composed, just like he had been some hours before, when the Cursed One had
    stuck her dagger on his throat. While the look on Silan-te’s and Daemon’s face
    told him they were thinking exactly the same thing.

    So much for
    being safe…

  • CHAPTER
    16

    All three of
    them exchanged quick looks, forming a plan. It was easy to figure it out by
    just one glance. Kill. Don’t get killed. If only it were that easy to
    execute it. Especially the second part.

    Silan-te
    prepared her dagger and, under the table, Nesto could hear black bolts dancing
    in the noble’s hands. He didn’t summon the power of the ancient Gods, but his
    hand stroked the handle of his dagger made of glass. Behind his back, the Lord
    of the island had opened the door, and greeted the man. “Of course, you have my
    permission,” he told him. “And you can tell Lord Doral to skip these kind of
    formalities. I have already given him full authority on my island and on my
    Lord Candidates, as well. Is that all?”

    “Yes, Lord
    Zoloc.”

    “Please forgive
    me. I have a dinner to attend.”

    Nesto felt a
    sense of relief in the pit of his stomach, when Lord Zoloc closed the door and
    went back to his seat. “Is this what you meant when you said that we would be
    safe here?” Daemon asked him in a noble-like tone. There were no bolts flashing
    in his hands, but Nesto couldn’t be sure about his eyes.

    “I must admit
    it—that was…unexpected,” said Zoloc. “But it’s something that I can deal with.
    You are still safe. However, it would be a lie if I said that I didn’t expect
    you to be so easily scared. You are a despicable noble, after all.”

    “You, on the
    other hand, act like you have never feared anything in your entire life. Do you
    want to have a taste of what it feels like?” asked the noble.

    “I doubt that
    you can accomplish that.”

    “Well, if you
    insist…”

    “Daemon, stop
    it!” said Nesto. “Both of you. Lord Zoloc, we are grateful for your help, but
    we would feel safer if you handed over the crystal to us. In this way, you
    would gain our trust.”

    The Lord
    snorted. “I’m glad that I’m not as terrible a liar as you are, descendant of
    the dragons,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d be dead now, and so would you, probably.
    None of you is going to trust me completely, and I don’t expect such a thing.
    All I wish for is to keep you alive until you manage to reach the top of the
    Tower, and see your father. As for the crystal, even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t
    be able to give it to you right now. I have already given it to Lord Doral. He
    is the one that leads the Cursed Ones on this level. He belongs to the guard of
    Lord Commander Legris, and bears the title of Deathlord. A powerful Lord that
    is used for disposing all threats. I strictly advise you to avoid engaging in a
    fight with him, by the way, no matter the case.”

    “You were right.
    Now that we are trapped in here without a method to escape, I feel…safe,” said
    Daemon ironically.

    “There is no
    need to worry. I will think of a way to retrieve the crystal when your bodies
    have adjusted. The only reason why I handed it over to the Deathlord was that I
    wanted to gain his trust. The Order of the Lords suspects everyone, since they
    learnt about the existence of a descendant of the dragons. Even us, the Lords
    of the islands. I had to blind them with actions like that. They wouldn’t
    hesitate to kill half of the Lords, just to make sure that no dragon would
    remain alive.”

    “You are one of
    them. You belong with the Order of the Lords, so why are you risking your life
    by helping Lord Candidate Nesto?” Silan-te wanted to know.

    “And you are one
    of the Cursed Ones. The ones that betrayed the dragons in the first place, and
    yet you have chosen to help him,” the Lord of the island demurred. “You have
    your own reason for helping him, and I have mine. You are probably asking for
    forgiveness, while what I seek is to avenge myself on the Order.”

    Lord Zoloc
    wasn’t clear about the reason why he was seeking revenge, but he gave them all
    the explanations they needed, convincing the Cursed One and making the noble
    less hostile against him. As for Nesto…He still couldn’t trust the Lord the way
    he trusted Daemon, or the unexplainable way he trusted Silan-te, but it was
    enough to convince him. Honestly, it was enough, since he had said he was a
    friend of his father’s. He could tell that these words were real because, if he
    weren’t Nestal’s friend, then how come he knew he was waiting for him, along
    with his brother, at the top?

    The only
    explanation left that the Lord had to give was how they would manage to go
    through the mark control that would be held the next day in the Lords’
    headquarters. Unfortunately, this explanation wasn’t so convincing as the
    others. He just said in a relaxed manner: “I’ve been practising my painting
    skills.” As if a brush and some paint would be enough to fool the Lords.
    However, none of them raised any objection to Lord Zoloc’s plan. Mostly because
    they had nothing better to propose. And, if Nesto had managed to hide his mark
    from the Lords at the Black Castle with no paint, while standing naked in front
    of them, then the Lord’s plan might be successful, after all.

    When they
    finished their meal, the Lord led them through a secret door to the adjacent
    house, where they would stay for the next days, until their bodies managed to
    adapt. Staying in the Lord’s house wasn't really an option as it would grab
    attention.

    Nesto lay on the
    wooden floorboard, and wrapped up in the woollen blankets that must have been
    made of lygar’s wool. There were two beds in their new abode, but Silan-te took
    one of them, at Nesto’s bidding, although she insisted that the descendant of
    the dragons should sleep on a soft mattress. The other one…well, he was a noble—of
    course he wouldn’t deign to sleep on the floor. His butt must have been used to
    sleeping on silk sheets and soft beds.

    After all this
    fatigue and hardship, he should have dozed off as soon as he shut his eyes, but
    worry and fear of what was to happen the following day kept him awake. Maybe,
    if he lay next to Silan-te, he would sleep without fear. He could still
    remember that feeling that seized his body when Daemon had accidentally shoved
    the girl all over Nesto. It was more than just a feeling of safety. He felt
    free, as if all the shackles that weighed heavily on him and trapped him were
    gone. A unique sensation that he wanted to taste again.

    If he asked her
    to lie by her side, she might obey. She seemed to be obedient, no matter what
    Nesto asked her to do. Just like when she was with Lord Zoloc, when she thought
    that some Cursed One had attacked him, Silan-te didn’t hesitate to run to his
    rescue…unlike the noble. Eventually, he slept on his own.

    Silan-te woke
    him up the next morning to repeat the word of magic, so that the Cursed Ones
    wouldn’t be able to sense the dragon’s blood running through his veins. But
    for this spell, the masked men and the Lords would have already spilt my blood
    all over the island.

    “Is there
    anything else I should know about the dragon’s blood, now that it has
    awakened?” Nesto asked her, while Silan-te put her green dagger back into her
    waist case.

    “I’m sorry, Lord
    Candidate Nesto,” she said, “but I don’t know much about your blood. However,
    there are ancient books, thousands of pages long, written on dragons, back in
    the Tree of Life, where my tribe has chosen to hide from the outer world.
    There, you can find all kinds of knowledge. Unfortunately, mine is limited, and
    most of what I know, you already know.” Her bright green eyes never met
    Nesto’s. When he asked her about this, Silan-te said: “Your bloodline is that
    of a God, and my creation was meant to serve you. But the magic that still
    lingers inside my eyes served only to deceive you.”

    Just then, Lord
    Zoloc turned up out of the blue, with a brush in his mouth, holding containers
    of paint. He said something and left them on the floor, but his words didn’t
    make much sense, with the brush still in his mouth. “What are you waiting for?”
    he then said, after releasing his tongue. “I told you to stand up and take off
    your top. We don’t have much time ahead of us, and the paint will take some
    time to dry.”

    Nesto removed
    his sweater, just as he was told, and the Lord began painting him, while the
    Cursed One stood there watching, almost admiring, the mark that had turned blue
    ever since the day his blood awakened. Lord Zoloc was painting the mark 
    and the surrounding area meticulously,
    starting with a white colour, and then adding some darker layers, until he got
    the right shade.

    “What’s my
    uncle’s name?” Nesto asked him, while the Lord seemed engrossed in his task.
    Such questions were almost pointless, now that they were already involved in
    this condition, where they had to trust the Lord of the island. Yet, in this
    way, he might elicit some answers, even for a moment, so that he would get rid
    of that knot in his stomach.

    “Garon. And your
    brother’s name is Almar. Is there anything else?”

    “No.”

    “Good.” The Lord
    raised his gaze and looked into Nesto’s eyes. “There is no need to worry. I have
    already killed two Candidates that look almost like you, so that we’ll have the
    same number of them when they count you, and I’ll be in the hall during the
    check. I know I keep saying it, but you are safe. Both of you,” he said, and
    continued his diligent task.

    “Both,” he
    heard, not “all of you.” Because only two of us are in danger. He definitely
    knows about Daemon.
    And, somehow, he probably knew that they, meaning
    Daemon, had kept it secret from Silan-te.

    By the time the
    Lord completed painting across Nesto’s ribs, the noble had come out of his room
    to find them in the living room. Zoloc must have already covered Daemon’s mark,
    for the noble moved more carefully, and avoided bringing his hand close to his
    ribs. The Lord of the island had also found a mask for Silan-te. All this
    attention to detail and his constant use of the word ‘safe’ gave the impression
    that his plan would work. But Nesto didn’t fool himself. Most probably, that
    check would end up in a bloody battle.

    “Why don’t you
    just reveal your mark to the Cursed One?” Nesto asked him, while the Lord and
    the girl had left earlier to get their positions in the building that the other
    Lords used as headquarters. Both of them had lain on the lygar’s leather,
    waiting for the sun to reach above their heads. Or, rather, above the roof.

    “I can’t trust
    anyone that easily. It’s against my instincts,” Daemon replied. That was
    Nesto’s reply when the noble once posed the same question. Only, back then,
    master Raizel was in Silan-te’s place.

    Nesto too could
    play the same game. “Typical nobles,” he said and snorted. “You are going to be
    annoying till the end. You know that Zoloc’s plan isn’t exactly brilliant. We
    might not make it till the end of the day.”

    “Speak for
    yourself, descendant of the dragons,” said Daemon, and the way he stressed
    ‘descendant of the dragons’ sounded more diminishing than ‘commoner’. Well,
    at least, I’m not just a commoner anymore.
    “I’m not going to die. I have my
    own plan. I’m going to steal the crystal from the Deathlord, and escape to the
    next level.”

    “That’s not a
    brilliant plan, either. You heard what Lord Zoloc said about the Deathlord,”
    said Nesto.

    This time, it
    was the noble that snorted. “I’m not afraid of him. I’m only afraid of one
    man…Besides, I might even use you as a decoy. Don’t look at me like that,
    commoner. Weren’t you the one saying that one’s own survival always comes
    first?”

    He did it
    earlier, and he was doing it now. He was just using Nesto’s own words against
    him. He is probably joking…or not. He couldn’t be sure. Daemon was a
    noble, and claimed to have a kind of honour that Lords and commoners lacked. But
    again, when the time comes, as I had said: one’s own survival always comes
    first.

    They knew it was
    time to go, when they heard some noise, voices, and footsteps wading through
    the muddy ground. They got out and saw the Lord Candidates moving towards a big
    wooden building next to the gate. Before the Lords’ arrival, it was used as a
    training hall to keep all those fools busy, as Zoloc had said. While they were headed
    for the Lords’ headquarters, the Cursed Ones were scouring the empty houses and
    the wells, in a last-ditch attempt to find the descendant of the dragons.

    Maybe, it was due
    to fear but, when they walked into the hall teeming with Lord Candidates, Cursed
    Ones, and Lords, the mark across his ribs began to burn again. The good thing
    was, it was somewhat bearable.

    The Candidates
    were split in two rows, and at the top of each row, there were two Lords
    dressed in grey mantles, seated in chairs on a pedestal; they were the ones
    that made the checks. In every single corner stood masked men, with their
    impersonal masks glowing in the light of the dozens of torches placed across
    the walls. He couldn’t recognise Silan-te, with all those masks around him. He
    even found it hard to make out Lord Zoloc among that crowd, but he saw the
    Deathlord at the end of the hall standing on the pedestal, supervising
    everyone. He stood out from the rest of the Lords. He was dressed in black,
    with a heavy mantle covering his shoulders, while on his chest was engraved in
    golden colour the Mark of the ancient Gods.

    One of the
    Cursed Ones separated him from Daemon, and put them in the two long rows. He
    didn’t realise it was Silan-te until she held on to his elbow tight, and her
    black hair coming down on his shoulder with a jerk. She must have seen the way
    he nervously moved his fingers, and she must have wanted to remind him that she
    was here, by his side, to protect him. As for Lord Zoloc, he was nowhere to be
    found.

    He hadn’t seen
    him even when he reached the pedestal, and he was only ten persons away from
    the check. That wasn’t a good sign. If something went wrong, he would need the
    Lord’s power to steal the crystal.

    Unlike Nesto,
    the other Lord Candidates were completely relaxed, and most of them were
    telling jokes. From the conversations he had overheard, they had the impression
    this was yet another strange trial of Lord Zoloc, which almost no Lord
    Candidate was able to pass. There was one of them stuck on the second level for
    two years.

    His heart was
    ready to burst, when only one Candidate stood in front of him, while the mark
    was still burning. The noble was a few metres ways, second in the row, as well,
    but he didn’t look worried. His gaze was fixed on the Deathlord.

    He is probably thinking
    of a way to steal the crystal.

    “Lord Doral,”
    said the Lord from Daemon’s row, “I might have found what we’re looking for.”
    The Deathlord slowly walked towards him, and then the Lord showed him the ribs
    of the Candidate standing in front of him. Nesto couldn’t rule out the
    possibility of there being another one with the same mark, apart from Daemon
    and himself, but he was sure that the particular Candidate didn’t bear the
    bloodline of a God. What could initially be characterised as a mark looked more
    like a bruise. Besides, it was in the wrong place, over the heart, while
    Nesto’s and Daemon’s mark was hidden under their right hand.

    “I got that a
    few days ago during training,” the Lord Candidate said to account for it, after
    being asked by Lord Doral. From up close, the Lord looked as intimidating as
    master Raizel.

    “Yes, indeed. It
    seems to have been caused by a blow.” The Deathlord groped it with his fingers,
    until his hand tightened up and a sword materialised in his grip. The fiery
    blade pierced through the Lord Candidate’s heart, and jutted out at the other
    end. Exactly where the mark should be. Blood trickled down on the wooden floor,
    like raindrops, which soon formed a red rivulet. “But still, we’d better be
    absolutely sure.”

  •  I will post the rest in a few days. I don't want to spoil you too much, ChaosRuler.
  • CHAPTER
    17

    The atmosphere
    froze solid as more than a hundred people were stunned. All the hum and talk
    ceased just as suddenly. Some of them must have stopped breathing too. Nesto
    was one of them. The burning mark made him break out in a cold sweat, and whole
    beads trickled down his body.

    A Cursed One
    removed the soulless body with the glassiest eyes, so that the check carry on.
    “Next” said the two Lords in unison, and now it was his turn.

    He hesitated.
    Fear had taken on the form of stone hands keeping his legs still. He had to see
    Daemon get on the pedestal to pluck up courage. All he needed to do was take
    off his sweater and show the Lord his bare—free from the mark—skin. If that
    didn’t work out, then he would probably discover how strong he had become thanks
    to his training with White Lord Raizel. He stepped onto the pedestal, removed
    his garment, and stood, his hands behind his waist, while the previous
    Candidate’s blood had encircled his shoes.

    The Lord’s hand
    instantly made for his ribs and, when he lowered his eyes, he knew the reason
    why. The mark’s blue colour had seeped through the layers of the paint, and now
    looked blurry like a bruise. It must be due to the fire still burning inside
    of me.
    There was no other choice now. He knew what was coming next. He
    witnessed it a few moments ago. A blade with a fiery kiss. Another flame
    started to burn in his chest, and the Mark of the ancient Gods turned up. At
    least, he wouldn’t die without a fight, like the other Lord Candidate.

    Although Zoloc
    had advised them not to mess with the Deathlord, Nesto’s first target was Lord
    Doral. Maybe, after that turmoil, Daemon would be able to steal the crystal,
    and escape to the third level. There would be tremendous side effects, but it
    was preferable to death.

    He waited for
    the Lord to call the Deathlord but, strangely enough, he didn’t. His hand had
    covered the mark and, when Nesto looked into his green eyes, the Lord made a
    slight motion with his eyebrows. As if he were telling him to erase the Mark on
    his chest. Like he knew what Nesto was thinking about, and warned him about the
    result; like he was…another ally of his father.

    Zoloc hadn’t
    mentioned any other ally, apart from the Lords of the islands, but what other
    explanation could there be? With a single thought, Nesto’s flame on his chest
    stopped burning, while the Lord pretended to be examining his body thoroughly.
    When he felt he had pretended long enough, he sent him next to the pedestal to
    wait with the rest of the Candidates who had already been checked.

    Daemon too was
    sent next to the pedestal shortly afterwards. “I can’t believe it worked.
    Now I have to apologise to that obnoxious Lord for doubting him,”
    he said
    to Nesto through his thought.

    “You won’t have
    to. It didn’t work. Actually, it half-worked. My mark was almost visible. But
    the Lord didn’t reveal it, even though he saw it.”

    “An ally?”

    “What else?”

    “Your father
    must really care about you. He’s left allies everywhere.”

    He hadn’t really
    thought of that possibility at all. The sudden realisation came as a shock to
    him. My father really cares about me? He didn’t know what to feel. It
    was so much simpler just hating him. Apart from his will to survive, another
    reason he wanted to reach the top of the Tower was his desire to punch his
    father as hard as he could. And, in a way, that had strengthened his will. What
    was he supposed to feel about him now? Love? No, that definitely wasn't the
    right feeling. Not even gratitude felt right. And…and, obviously, this wasn’t exactly
    the right time to be thinking about it. He was surrounded by people that wanted
    him dead.

    Still, that
    thought racked his mind, when the check was over, and they went back to their
    house, safe and sound. He tried to remember his father, but no memory of him
    came out of his head. He even found it hard to remember his characteristics.
    Apart from his look and eyes, everything else was fuzzy. The only recollection
    he had was the dream, but that was Almar’s dream, not his own. A weird one,
    with the orange flames turning an entire house to ashes, and a baby’s cry
    louder than the wind. A baby’s cry…

    A baby!

    Why hadn’t he
    realised all this earlier? It was one of Almar’s childhood memory, and the baby
    that was crying was surely Nesto. That’s why he had no recollection of his
    father.

    “I bet Lord Zoloc
    was scared, and crawled back to his quarters,” said Daemon, as they got to the
    Lord’s beautiful abode, and their own scanty house. Yet, when they walked in
    through the secret door, they didn’t find him there. They took some food from
    the kitchen, and returned.

    Silan-te came
    back after sunset, when she found the chance to stray from the other Cursed
    Ones. Still, she didn’t know Lord Zoloc’s whereabouts. They weren't worried,
    though. There was no way Zoloc would be in danger. It shouldn’t be easy harming
    someone that could pop out of nowhere in the blink of an eye, and disappear
    just as easily, especially if that someone was a Lord.

    That night,
    before turning in—on the floor again—, he decided to place his brother’s dagger
    next to his head, hoping to see that memory hidden inside it, and try to retain
    his father’s characteristics. It would feel weird reaching the top and seeing a
    man of whom he had no recollection. A total stranger. And now, he wasn’t so
    sure about punching him, either.

    Much to his
    chagrin, the following morning came with no dreams or memories. He didn’t lose
    hope, though. Maybe, next time.

    The sound of
    splashing water came from next door, where their well was. Silan-te or Daemon
    must have been having their bath. Most probably, it was the noble as he was the
    only one in the habit of washing once or twice a day, whenever the opportunity
    presented itself. He cared more about his personal hygiene than the risk of his
    mark being revealed.

    “Make sure you
    don’t wash away all the hard work of Lord Zoloc put on you, noble.” Nesto said,
    trying to mimic Daemon’s tone of voice. It felt quite good calling him ‘noble’
    in a demeaning way. It helped with all the nervousness. I should have done
    this from the start.

    “You are awake,
    Lord Candidate Nesto?” said Silan-te.

    “Oh, I thought
    you were…” Nesto was at a loss for words, when the girl appeared before him.
    Her dark moist hair had straggled all over her breast, and beads of water
    trickled down her belly, dancing around her curvy legs, before they dropped on
    the floor. She was naked, as Nesto found out, his mouth wide open. A knot
    suddenly formed in his stomach, and dissipated just as quickly, taking the form
    of a wave, which swept through his body and flustered his face.

    “Well, I guess
    that’s one way to serve Lord Candidate Nesto,” said Daemon, who had descended
    from his room.

    “No! We didn’t…I
    mean she…I was just…” Nesto huffed, giving up any attempt to explain what the
    situation was.

    The girl didn’t
    seem to understand. “I need to use a word of magic on you,” she said, holding
    the dagger.

    “No, you need to
    put something on first,” the noble told her. “While you, commoner, should be
    ashamed of yourself. You still don’t know how to treat a lady.” Daemon took the
    pelt of a lygar, and covered Silan-te, while the girl was using a word of magic
    on Nesto.

    “It was only for
    a single moment, but I saw you call the power of the ancient Gods while on the
    pedestal,” the Cursed One told him, sheathing her dagger. Most of her skin was
    covered, but still some beads were seen trickling between her breasts. “Your
    body already exerts itself under the magic of the island, and my words of
    magic, calling forth the Mark of the ancient Gods, can only make it worse.
    Please, refrain from doing so. How do you feel now? Does it hurt somewhere?”

    “I’m fine,” he
    said, only to find out that he wasn’t. Unfortunately, she was right. As soon as
    the girl completed her word of magic, Nesto felt the taste of blood in his
    mouth. He assumed that the dizziness, the excruciating headache, and his
    rambling legs must have been related to his exertion. “I’m fine,” he repeated,
    more to himself than to the others, but just one step was enough to make him
    fall and smash his face on the hard floor.

    When Nesto
    regained some of his consciousness, he could tell that he was lying on a soft
    mattress. The pain was still there. His eyelids were heavy, and he couldn’t
    open his eyes. After several times of drifting off and waking up again, he
    eventually managed to wake up for good. Next to him was a platter of fruit, fried
    hare, and bread. It smelled good. There was another smell in his nostrils, a
    sweeter one. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, realising that he lay on Silan-te’s
    bed. That sweet smell belonged to her.

    First, he took a
    hot slice of bread, and then tried the crunchy meat. With all those things on
    his mind, he had almost forgotten how good it felt eating. He left the fruit
    last.

    When the noble
    came, there were only a few bones on the platter. “Will you stop being so weak,
    passing out all the time? You are embarrassing yourself,” he told him. There
    was still a hint of headache and dizziness, but it tended to subside. It struck
    him as odd that Daemon wasn’t in the same condition—after all, he used the fire
    of the ancient Gods just as often—, until Nesto remembered that he was the son
    of a demon. With a body that could heal its injuries within a single day. “Can
    you walk?”

    “I think so.”

    “Lord Zoloc did
    us the honour of turning up. He wants to see you.”

    “What for?”

    Daemon made a
    face. Nesto knew that face. “I’m not sure. He wants to tell you a story about
    your father or something like that.” Nesto had the same face when he saw the
    other kids with their fathers. A face full of envy. Which was utterly absurd.
    Demon or not, Jenon had been there for his son. At least, he had managed to
    have some memories of him. But that was not something he could discuss with the
    noble. He didn’t react very well to discussions that concerned his father. That
    probably makes two of us.

    “Did the Lord,
    by any chance, mention why he wasn’t there during the check?” Nesto asked.

    His usual
    arrogant look came back on his face. “Believe it or not, he was there. Right
    before our eyes. You saw him. We both did.”

    “No, I didn’t,”
    Nesto said with confidence.

    “Oh, yes, you
    did. He just had a…different face. Lord Zoloc is capable of using a kind of
    magic that even your little servant cannot comprehend. He, somehow, assumed the
    appearance of one of the subordinates of the Deathlord.”

    “You mean to
    tell me that the one who inspected me about the mark was actually Lord Zoloc?”

    “I’m impressed,”
    said the noble ironically. “You are quite smart for a commoner. Guess whose
    else’s face he did borrow. I will give you a small clue. I hate him.”

    That wasn’t much
    of a clue. He hated all the Lords, except maybe Lord Raizel. But, if there was
    someone he really detested, that was… “Lord Mendax,” exclaimed Nesto.

    “Apparently, he
    had been helping us all along, while we were at that castle. Of course, it was
    no accident that the Cursed One learnt about your mark.”

    Nesto stood up
    and walked towards Lord Zoloc with difficulty. He found him in the living room,
    seated in a wooden chair, savouring his red wine. The afternoon sun rays
    piercing through the windows were of much the same colour as the wine. He must
    have lost consciousness for almost a day. “You can call me Lord Mendax if that
    makes you feel more comfortable,” the Lord told him, moving his glass in a
    controlled motion, making sure he didn’t spill his wine.

    “What about the
    real one, the acquaintance of my uncle?”

    “Dead. I killed
    him,” he said almost indifferently. “I can’t take the form of someone who is
    still alive. I’m able to bend the truth of magic, but not break it.”

    For some reason,
    the death of Garon’s acquaintance did not really touch him, nor did the fact
    that Zoloc had been Lord Mendax all along. After hearing about him being a
    descendant of the dragons, everything else seemed so…trivial. That aside, he
    felt a little bit angry. And by a little, I obviously mean a lot! “If
    you knew about my secret all along, why didn’t you tell me? I had a need for an
    ally. For as long as I was at the Black Castle, I would see even my own shadow
    as a threat. I felt, as if I were inside a pit full of dragons.”

    “Then, it must
    have felt like home to you.”

    “Ha! Very funny!
    You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

    “I know.” The
    Lord stood up and walked towards him. “It wasn’t safe to reveal it to you,
    then. I couldn’t predict how you would react. One wrong step, and both of us
    would have revealed our secrets to the Order of the Lords. We wouldn’t want
    that, would we? I’m sure that it’s still hard to sink in that the blood of Gods
    is running through your veins. But, like it or not, that blood is part of you,
    and you have to accept that, sooner or later. That said, I’m going to need a
    small portion of that part.”

    “What do you
    mean?”

    “Your blood. I
    need it. It has power in it, and I’m going to use it to mislead Lord Doral, and
    take back the crystal.” The glass slipped through his fingers, more like he
    dropped it, and smashed into pieces, splattering his wine all over the place.
    Zoloc bent over to pick up the broken glass. “Show me your hand,” he ordered
    him, then the wet glass cut his flesh.

    It happened
    again. Out of the blue. A memory. Was it mine or Lord Zoloc’s? Or was it
    the glass that caused it, or even the wine? It could be anything, really. This
    time, some stone grey walls encircled him, and he found himself in a huge hall
    illuminated by a lighted fireplace and torches hanging from the walls. A man in
    a black-and-red coat stood before him, his silvery white hair almost hiding his
    eyes. Something about him curdled Nesto’s blood. His young face was pallid, but
    there was something dark and unapproachable to it.

    The man’s look
    pierced through Nesto, like he didn’t exist. When he turned back, he saw about
    ten men dressed in white mantles, stabbing him with their eyes, and then it
    dawned on him which memory that was. The slaughter of the White Lords. The
    fair-haired man was, without a doubt, Daemon’s father, Demon Jenon.

    Lord Commander
    Ousen was a step ahead of the rest. He stood out in his silver uniform, with
    his thick grey hair, and the purple Mark across his chest. His face was
    hardened, and Nesto was sure that fear and hesitation tried to hide away in his
    eyes. “Come with us in peace, son. No more blood has to be shed,” he said.

    “You must be
    mistaken,” said the demon in a voice that didn’t resemble that of a human
    being. He ran his fingers through his hair, and lifted it up, revealing his
    bright red eyes. “I’m no longer your son. I’m a God. And no one is going
    anywhere. You will all meet your end here.”

    Silence came
    only to warn them, prepare them, and equip them with fiery spears and swords,
    which seemed to be hiding the sun in them. Then, one of the White Lords made a
    lunge at Jenon.

    One small step
    and one fast swing of the demon were enough to turn the Lord’s white uniform
    into a dark red piece of cloth. The blood oozed away, and the slaughter began.
    The Lords charged like wild beasts, full of power and agility. Their weapons
    pierced through Nesto’s body, and sought to find Jenon’s flesh. They surrounded
    him and attacked him on all sides. Spears wanted to be stuck into his chest,
    blades into the ribs. Some of them wanted to cut his back, while one of them
    tried to give him a fiery kiss on the neck from above. But none of them managed
    to touch him. Not even the tips of their blades were able to graze him.

    A God walking
    among the mortals.
    That’s how the demon’s
    moves looked to Nesto. A terrifying God.

    Nesto saw two
    White Lords, behind Jenon, open up an oaken door, and beat a hasty retreat.
    After a while, yet another one followed. The rest were frantically trying to
    spill the blood of the demon.

    A second sword
    materialised in Jenon’s hands, and then the Lords began falling on one another.
    The first one lost his head, the second one his heart, while the third one was
    found with a blade stuck deep into his belly. All the demon’s attacks were
    merciless. None of them aimed to injure, but only to kill.

    Jenon’s thirst
    for blood was painted across his face, except for his eyes. In the end,
    soulless, gory, and mangled bodies were scattered around the stone hall. Only
    Lord Commander Ousen was still alive, but seriously wounded. Before killing the
    last White Lord, the demon had grabbed the Lord Commander and hurled him on the
    oaken door, smashing it. He left his father in the adjoining hall, with a blade
    jutting out of his chest, and stuck a spear into the White Lord’s eye.

    Nesto followed
    the demon, who stepped on the pieces of the broken oaken door. In that smaller
    hall, he saw the Lord Commander stand up with difficulty, while before him
    stood one of the White Lords that had fled the fight earlier on. He held a
    weeping baby in a protective way, while his own uniform was full of blood. The
    baby was surely Daemon, and there was no other explanation, apart from the fact
    that this White Lord had killed the previous two in order to protect him.

    The Lord
    Commander reached the same conclusion. “What have you done, White Lord…?”
    Another blade was stuck into the old man’s back, and he dropped dead on the
    floor. Jenon stood over him. Wisps of his silvery hair had been dyed red, while
    his pale face was splashed with blood. The demon had just killed his father in
    front of his son, but there was a dark sense of satisfaction in his eyes.

    Daemon’s sobbing
    suddenly ceased, but his tears were still trickling down his innocent face. And
    Nesto couldn’t help but wonder. Was this the kind of memories the noble had
    obtained from his father that he was so envious of?

     

     

  • CHAPTER
    18

    “Are you feeling
    alright? You collapsed for a moment.” Lord Zoloc stood over him, holding a
    small vessel made of glass that contained some drops of blood, probably
    Nesto’s, since his palm was still bleeding. He helped him up and had him sit on
    a chair. “The burden must have been too much for your body. Don’t worry you’re
    not weak. It’s perfectly understandable. You’ve had too much: learning that you
    are a descendant of the dragons, your exertion due to the island’s magic, the
    mark check and, of course, learning that I have been keeping track of you from
    the very beginning. Your head must be boiling.”

    I don’t know why
    everybody thinks that I’m weak, but it makes me furious. It’s like they have made
    a secret agreement with the noble to make fun of me.
    It
    was true that all those things that the Lord mentioned had taken their toll on
    his body. And he had passed out earlier, but this time he hadn’t collapsed. It
    was a dream that I saw, a memory!

    A really sad and
    scary memory that gave a hint as to the reason why Daemon’s blood kept
    disappearing from his face whenever his father was mentioned. He wondered what
    the outcome would have been if White Lord Raizel had finally followed the rest
    of the White Lords. Would they have been able to slay the demon with master
    Raizel’s aid?

    “Apart from the
    need for your blood,” the Lord kept saying, after he drew up a chair and sat
    opposite him, “I thought that you would like to know some things about…”

    “My father,”
    Nesto interjected.

    “Not exactly. I
    wanted to talk to you about your ancestors, not your father. About your godly
    blood, not the human. I have a vast knowledge of ancient creatures and
    forgotten stories. It might ease your burden. I’m sure you’ll learn as much as
    you should about your father from his own mouth, when you reach the top.”

    “I don’t want to
    hear about the dragons,” Nesto insisted. “I want to know more about my father.
    Even a small characteristic of his would be enough. I just want to have a clearer
    picture of him.”

    Zoloc didn’t
    seem enthusiastic. Perhaps because he enjoyed narrating these forgotten
    stories. He did that quite often, when he was at the Black Castle, in the form
    of Lord Mendax. And I have to admit, his stories are a lot more interesting
    than those of Lord Cornius.
    “Your father is a very foolish man,” he
    declared. “And foolishness is usually accompanied by bravery. He is brave
    enough to mess with the Order of the Lords on his own. He is the first Lord,
    after demon Jenon, to do such a thing. I almost admire him. Does that cover
    you?”

    “Yes.” Foolish
    and brave.
    His father seemed like an older version of Almar. It was without
    a doubt foolish of him to risk his own life, just to show that acquiring the
    title of the Lord wasn’t impossible. But, apart from that, he might also have
    wanted to obtain more power in order to be able to protect him. Nesto would
    have done the same thing if he had been in his place.

    He remembered
    that it was Lord Zoloc who had mentioned the story of the White Lords and the
    demon, and he had a wild thought. “Have you seen Jenon up close?” he asked him.
    The memory he had seen could have easily been his.

    “Of course. Most
    of the Lords have. He used to be a Lord, too. The only ones who haven’t seen
    him up close were probably the three Lords who were at the Black Castle. That
    must have been the reason why Lord Cornius and Lord Ereina didn’t recognise
    Daemon as his son. This and their hatred for the nobles. He is both a demon and
    a noble. I almost feel sorry for him.”

    “So, the Order
    does not yet acknowledge that the demon’s son has entered the Tower of the
    Lords. They’re hunting down only me.”

    “They will soon
    know. It can’t be kept a secret much longer, now that Jenon got out of his
    hideout. And when they do know, Daemon will be in deep water. There’s no one
    waiting for him at the top.” As soon as he blurted out these words, he gave
    Nesto a sudden look, his green eyes narrowing dangerously, his tone strict. “If
    you are thinking of taking the noble with you, with your father, then don’t.
    You don’t know the stories, but dragons and demons don’t get along well. You
    both have divine blood in your veins, but it’s from different Gods that hate
    each other. After the alignment, hatred will gradually start to suffocate you
    and, eventually, Daemon will kill you.”

    Nesto couldn’t
    believe that. “I can’t abandon him. He saved my life,” he said. “Besides, when
    we were training under White Lord Raizel, he proved to us that he could control
    his urge to kill. You can’t know for sure that he will try to kill me.”

    “Neither can
    you.” He sighed. “Alright, if you care about him that much, then after you
    reach the top and the alignment is complete, I will find a place to hide him. I
    promise to protect him. I guess that it won’t be that difficult, since the
    Order of the Lords will have their hands full with the dragons coming out of
    their graves.” He saw hesitation on Nesto’s face. “Don’t worry. I can’t lie,”
    he insisted. “No one who uses magic can.”

    The Lord urged
    him to stay in bed for the following days, whereas he would fill the void of
    Lord Mendax and the subordinate of Lord Doral, so as not to arouse any
    suspicions.

    And Nesto did
    just that. He kicked Daemon out of his room, and lay in bed. Silan-te insisted
    on offering him her own room, but it felt wrong letting the girl sleep on the
    hard floor. If he is going to kill me eventually, then the least he could do
    is give me his soft bed.
    It might seem like a joke to him now, but the very
    thought vexed him. Not because he feared that the noble would really kill him,
    but because, in the end, he might end up losing his first and only friend. And
    it was extremely hard to get one, especially for him.

    He placed the
    glassy dagger next to the table, hoping that one of those days it would give
    him the memory it carried of his father, and he tried to relax, sorting
    everything out in his head. One of the things that he mulled over was his
    divine blood, but even now, he was too afraid to touch on that subject. Or what
    would happen when the dragons returned. The Order would surely lose its power,
    or it could even be completely destroyed…then, all humankind would be in
    danger. He wondered if the dragons were really as cruel and merciless as they
    were described in all the stories. Surely, they couldn’t be so ferocious. It was
    the Lords that had made up these stories. It could possibly be yet another one
    of their lies. It wasn’t true that the Lords had killed all the dragons; why
    should that one be true, after all?

    He tried to
    think of Lord Mendax, or better say Lord Zoloc disguised as Lord Mendax. How he
    had mentioned the dragon that had taken a human form and waiting for the right
    moment to reclaim the skies. Nesto also remembered him saying, a few seconds
    before going through the Portal leading to the first island: “Now is the hard
    part, but rest assured: in this part, you will be able to get assistance
    openly.” He had been trying to help me from the beginning.

    In the end, he
    decided to trust one more person. The list of those he trusted was growing
    longer, and he couldn’t tell for sure that he liked it. I feel like a fish
    out of water
    . The first one he trusted was his elder brother, who didn’t
    hesitate to enter the Tower for his sake. Then, the arrogant noble, who had
    been keeping the same secret. Then, Silan-te, whom he trusted for some reason
    from the word go, and now Lord Zoloc, who had kept him alive, for as long as he
    was at the Black Castle, without revealing his presence. I can’t say I trust
    my father, but it wouldn’t be fair, or even true, if I claimed the opposite.

    And Garon! He
    had almost forgotten about his uncle. The one he had actually trusted the most,
    the one that took care of him. He is first on the list. He wondered if
    his uncle, or even Lirelle, missed him. He wasn’t sure about her, but Nesto had
    surely missed his uncle.

    Almost three
    days had passed. Just four more. He spent the fourth day lying in bed,
    waiting. The Cursed One attended to all his needs as well as she could,
    whenever Daemon left her alone. Maybe, it was because Lord Zoloc was gone, and
    the noble felt bored, but he began to fight with her again. They didn’t shout
    loud enough to be heard upstairs, where Nesto lay, but he could see it on her
    upset face. A sort of irritation only Daemon could inflict.

    The evening of
    the fifth day, he decided to stand up and walk as he felt much better and
    lighter. A cool bath would rejuvenate him. He stretched out and went down those
    miserable, slipshod wooden stairs. He didn’t see either of them, but he
    supposed they would be in the Lord’s abode for supplies. At the touch of cold
    water, his muscles tightened up. After that couple of months he spent with
    master Raizel, his body had become more muscular. It had transformed from the
    small boy’s skinny body to that of an adult, with plenty of scars. The spot
    Lord Zoloc had painted now looked more like a dark smudge and, although the
    layers of paint hid the mark, it was completely useless. It was supposed to
    conceal the mark, not draw all attention to it. Nesto rubbed it hard, until its
    blue glow finally appeared. Maybe, it was just Nesto’s idea, but the more he
    looked at it, the more the mark resembled the head of a dragon.

    Daemon was
    already siting in the parlour, when Nesto finished his bath. He was holding
    some juicy grapes, and he was waiting patiently, just like Nesto, just like all
    of them, so that the days would fly
    away and they would move on to the next level. Then, things were expected to be
    easier as the Order of the Lords was focused, and gathered the best part of
    their force, on Lord Zoloc’s island. Most Lord Candidates, almost all of them,
    were on the second island, so that was to be expected.

    “So, did you
    finally get bored with my bed?” asked the noble, while sticking a grape into
    his mouth.

    “Oh, no, no.
    It’s perfect, and soft. I really enjoy sleeping on it. It doesn’t compare to
    sleeping on the floor,” said Nesto. Daemon would surely use that against him.
    But it was worth it. Wiping that smug look off the noble’s face was one of the
    very few things that cheered him up. These chances were rare, so he didn’t want
    to miss any of them.

    This time,
    though, he didn’t succeed. “Yeah, I know. I feel almost sorry that Silan-te is
    forced to sleep on the hard floor.”

    He should have
    expected that. He claimed to be well-mannered, due to his noble descent, but
    Daemon never put anyone above his own comfort. Maybe, that’s why they were
    fighting all the time. The noble had occupied her bed. “Where is she? I haven’t
    seen her all day.”

    “She wanted to
    spy on the other Cursed Ones and the Lords. She didn’t feel comfortable sitting
    and doing nothing but wait. And, for some reason, I don’t think that she feels
    comfortable being around me, either. I honestly don’t understand why. I’m quite
    charming,” said the noble, and he ate yet another seed.

    Nesto flew his
    eyes open. “Yes, you really are. That’s certainly one of the traits of your
    noble blood. Like modesty, I imagine.”

    “Modesty is for
    the commoners,” he stated.

    His empty
    stomach didn’t allow him to dwell on that. He made a beeline for the Lord’s
    kitchen, which was always full of cooked food, pastes, a wide array of sweets,
    and a lot of fruit hard to come by on the island. Zoloc must have been stealing
    them from the kitchen of the Black Castle. Just like his red wine. He gorged
    himself on the food, and stopped eating only when his stomach was swollen, and
    could take no more.

    Silan-te came
    back late at night, her look alarmed. “They have grown restless,” she told
    them. The Order asked the Lords for results as soon as possible, since the
    alignment was on the cards. She didn’t learn any details, but the Deathlord was
    up to something drastic, no doubt. They had also begun to notice the long
    absence of the Lord that Zoloc had killed. Lord Doral was now suspicious of
    everyone and everything. He summoned all the Cursed Ones that had been searching
    night and day for the descendant of the dragons outside the fortress and, after
    placing another five persons at their gate, he ordered to forbid exit to Lords
    and Lord Candidates, alike.

    That night, none
    of them slept a wink. They couldn’t risk it. Not that agony and stress would
    let them sleep. They all gathered in the parlour, and sometimes sneaked a peek
    outside, hoping that, no matter what the Lords were up to, they would find a
    way to deal with it as they wouldn’t be caught unawares. That was naive
    thinking, he knew that. But there was really not much that they could do.

    The stars were
    still shining in the deep blue sky, when Lord Zoloc turned up before them—out
    of the blue, as usual. Clearly, he doesn’t know the meaning of doors. He
    wore Lord Mendax’s clothes, but not his form. It was a scarlet uniform, with a
    purple mantle hanging from his shoulders. His news was as bad as Silan-te’s, if
    not worse.

    “My days as Lord
    Mendax are officially over,” he told them. “Lord Cornius entered Lord Mendax’s
    room, while I was away, and discovered the dead body of his dear friend. That can’t have been very
    sightly. He had been dead for over two months. The Order of the Lords must have
    surely been informed by now. Unfortunately, they’re not too daft to realise that
    the appearance of the descendant of the dragons and the Lord’s death are
    connected. They must have already concluded that Nesto is aided by someone
    belonging to their circle.”

    “So, what are we
    supposed to do now? Do we remain hidden, or do we try stealing the crystal that
    you so willingly gave away?” Daemon asked.

    “You are leaving
    for the next level immediately, of course.”

    “But their
    bodies haven’t adjusted, yet. They need at least another couple of days,” the
    Cursed One demurred.

    “I’m sure they
    will be fine,” said the Lord. “Their bodies must have considerably adjusted.
    The side effects can’t possibly be that bad. After all, I don’t think we have
    any other choice. The Order won’t just sit and watch. Most probably, they will
    have ordered to wipe out all the Lord Candidates.”

    If they were to
    judge by the Deathlord’s actions, then that was probably true. Why else would
    Lord Doral gather all his forces inside the fortress? For once in his life,
    Lord Zoloc decided to use the door to go to his quarters. When he got back, he
    wore his black mantle, instead of the purple one, and held a flask of red wine
    in one hand, and in the other a bag full of food. He put the flask in his
    pocket, and gave the bag to Silan-te.

    “What’s the
    plan? What do we do now?” Nesto demanded. They had to steal the crystal
    somehow, that was for sure.

    “My plan is
    already in motion. Now, we just have to wait,” said the Lord, while walking
    towards the door. He opened it, and looked up. Then, he got back with a small
    smile on his lips.

    Wait? Wait for
    what exactly?

    He found out
    soon enough. At first, a loud bang was heard that sounded like a thunderbolt.
    That very moment, the earth began to shake. Dust seeped through the cracks,
    then a piercing, scary roar was heard that made Nesto’s hair stand on end. His
    heart began to beat fast, while the flame of the mark scorched him again, like
    it warned him about the danger.

    “What…what was
    that?” asked the Cursed One in a quivering voice.

    It was more than
    just weird that there was no worry or fear across Lord Zoloc’s face. It was as
    if that man were immune to such emotions. “Oh, it’s nothing you should really
    be worried about,” he replied nonchalantly, and took the flask of wine to sip a
    few drops. “It’s just a dragon.”

  • CHAPTER
    19

    All three of
    them reacted in exactly the same way. “What?” exclaimed Silan-te, and then
    Daemon and Nesto. “What?”

    His words, so
    calm and ridiculous, sounded like a lie. They ran towards the door and, when
    they opened it up, they saw a small cloud of dust wafting in the air. It began
    to dissolve, giving way to some loud panicky voices and noises that sounded
    like snapped twigs. “It fell from the sky,” a voice was heard amidst the din.
    What fell from the sky soon appeared. It looked like a huge shadow in the light
    of the two moons that had almost fused together. It was only a few blocks away.
    The shadow spread its wings, stretched, and roared, leaving its blue flame sear
    the sky. A flame similar to the one that had stolen the lives of so many Lord Candidates
    in the Black Castle.

    A divine flame.

    “How can…how can
    it be?” asked the Cursed One. “I thought Lord Candidate Nesto was the only one
    left.” Fear was etched in her green magic eyes.

    “He is,” the
    Lord replied. He came closer to take a look outside. “That’s not alive. Not the
    way it would be after the alignment, at least. I brought it up from its grave
    to keep the Deathlord and the others preoccupied.” The dragon’s roars were
    successive, and were now creepier than himself. “I didn’t expect it to be so
    infuriated, though. It might have something to do with the fact that it was the
    first dragon to be killed. Slain by the Dragonslayer.”

    “First the
    painting thing, now this. Your plans are horrible,” complained the noble.

    “Just stay away
    from its jaws, and you will be fine. I would also try to avoid that blue flame
    if I were you. Anyway, try not to die, until I manage to retrieve the crystal
    from Lord Doral.” He turned his gaze on Daemon. “Not you. You can die if you
    please,” he said in the end, assuming the same look whenever he fought with the
    noble, and vanished.

    The dragon had
    burnt alive around a dozen Lord Candidates who didn’t have the foresight to
    steer clear of this creature—some of them were so daft as to try to attack it.
    Then, Silan-te suggested keeping a safe distance as the dragon was dangerously
    closing in. Nesto suddenly remembered that something was missing. “My brother’s
    dagger! I have to get it,” he said and ran back, clambering up the stairs to
    his room.

    He could hear
    the dragon’s fierce clapping of wings rend the sky, wood break, and houses get
    burnt down to the ground. He wondered how Lord Zoloc had managed to bring the
    dragon back to an early life. Nesto’s blood must have surely played a role. But
    was that enough, or was magic involved, too? He found the dagger next to the
    bed, where he had left it, and he grabbed it. Yet, just as he was about to
    leave, the floorboard collapsed with a loud bang, and he found himself buried
    under the debris.

    That couldn’t
    harm him. He thrust it aside, as soon as he called forth the Mark of the
    ancient Gods, and was set free. But the heavy hot breath he heard behind him
    could. What was the right thing to do now? Run as fast as I can? No, no.
    That would probably be the worst choice. Any sudden movement would
    definitely invite it to attack me.
    He turned slowly, too scared to even
    breathe. Nesto swallowed hard, when he saw its blue eyes burning like bright
    flames right before his. Its black horns stuck out a few metres behind its head
    in a slightly spiral fashion, while its hard nostrils gave off a puff of bluish
    smoke with every breath it took. The dragon’s gaze was more than enough to
    freeze his whole body.

    Nesto was
    holding the dagger in his right hand, but the dragon was holding Nesto’s life
    in his terrifying jaws. Even if he could, pointing that dagger at it would be
    just plain stupid. He let it smell him, take his presence in, hoping that his
    being the descendant of the dragons would somehow get him out of this
    unscathed. Nesto understood the flaw in his thinking when the dragon groaned
    and opened its jaws wide to devour him, identifying him only as potential prey.

    It was the ones
    that wanted him dead the most that actually saved him. A Lord accompanied by
    some Cursed Ones attacked the dragon with blades and magic, dragging it away
    from Nesto. The creature spread its perforated black wings, and flew high in
    the sky, clapping them loudly. A vortex of fire was enough to sear the ground,
    along with half the Cursed Ones that had attacked it.

    “Stop staring at
    it, and run, you fool!” Daemon grabbed him by his top, and pulled him away. The
    encounter with the dragon made all his courage disappear. And he ran
    desperately, following the noble and the girl. It didn’t matter where. Running
    away from the dragon, away from the flames was enough. The fire spread fast,
    swallowing all the houses in its path, while the dragon was flying from one
    place to another, gulping down whoever it laid its jaws on. The Lord who had
    saved him had surely fallen prey to the creature, proving that a Lord wasn’t
    capable of slaying a dragon, after all. It was just one of their many lies.
    There was one thing, one story that wasn’t a lie, though. Dragons were as
    ferocious and merciless as all the stories presented them.

    They were
    running away from the fire, but their main problem was that there was smoke
    everywhere. It made breathing difficult, scorching their nose and throat. Tears
    trickled down Nesto’s eyes, and made them itchy. They stopped at a well, which
    the fire hadn’t yet reached, and the noble splashed some cool water over them.
    The tingle subsided, but there was still a burning sensation whenever he tried
    to take a deep breath. And it would certainly keep getting worse. The wooden
    peripheral wall kept the smoke inside, as well as them. The threat was equally
    dangerous for everyone. Lord Zoloc had managed to put the Lord Candidates, the
    Cursed Ones, and the Deathlord in the same difficult position as Nesto. They
    were all running for dear life now. Everyone, except the dragon, that is. He
    was probably the only one to enjoy this.

    “The Lord of the
    island was right,” said Silan-te, pointing to a Cursed One killing two
    terrified Lord Candidates. He came behind them without being seen and, with no
    hesitation, stabbed them with his dagger. “Lord Doral has ordered to execute
    all the Lord Candidates. They must already be aware that the descendant of the
    dragons is hiding inside the fortress.”

    The Deathlord
    could also be aware that this was a distraction for the descendant to get away.
    “We can’t stay here,” Nesto decided, although the fire hadn’t reached them yet.
    “We have to head for the headquarters, next to the gate. Lord Zoloc might not
    be able to retrieve the crystal on his own. We have to make sure he succeeds.”

    No one argued
    with that. They poured some cold water over them again, pulled the top of their
    shirts up over their noses, and started running. This time, not away from the
    fire, but in it. The damp clothes promised to offer some protection from the
    smoke, while the Mark kept their bodies from getting seriously burnt, at least
    for Daemon and Nesto. They put the girl between them to protect her from the
    flames as much as they could. Burnt debris hurtled overhead, out of nowhere,
    while they were running, and several Lord Candidates turned up just as
    suddenly, but these posed no serious threat. The real danger was on all fours
    and it had wings on its back, with such a hot breath, it could scorch you in no
    time.

    They had just
    taken a turn to avoid two Cursed Ones, when he heard Daemon say: “Duck!” The
    noble pulled the girl to the ground. When Nesto saw the black bony tail moving
    like a whip, it was too late. He only had time to place his left arm in front
    of his face, before the thrust lifted him up in the air, and sent him hurtling
    backwards. He heard a loud cracking noise coming from his body, then he hit
    against a wooden wall. He plumped, almost slid, to the ground, letting out a
    scream of pain.

    He gritted his
    teeth to muffle a second scream. This wasn’t the time to let pain take over. He
    had to move again—and fast. He only gave himself some time to assess the damage
    his body had suffered. Something told him that the crack he had heard came from
    his ribs—not the ones with the Mark. His arm, he wasn’t sure whether it was
    broken or not, but he could barely move it. As for the other parts of his body,
    they seemed to be intact. I will know for sure when I start moving again. If
    it weren’t for the Mark, it would have been a lot worse than some broken bones.

    He stood up on
    his feet with difficulty, supported by his right arm. His legs were a bit shaky
    and, when he tried to take the first step, he lost balance and fell, but not
    before he felt a slash on his back. He turned over to see a Cursed One standing
    above him, holding a green dagger. The masked man moved to finish him without a
    trace of remorse. Nesto raised his uninjured hand, a gesture that made him look
    like he was begging for his life. Yet, when the Cursed One got closer, a sword
    materialised in Nesto’s hand, and pierced through his enemy’s flesh,
    eliminating the threat. The face behind the white mask must have really been
    startled. I know I would be. No Lord Candidate should be able to
    materialise a weapon.

    The cut on his
    back gave the impression of being pretty shallow, yet standing back up seemed
    impossible. All his energy was drained from that last effort to stay alive. He
    wanted to run back to Daemon and Silan-te to make sure they were safe, but even
    focusing on that thought alone was too much of a strain. He remained
    motionless, hearing the screams fade away one by one. The only sound that
    remained was the dragon’s roar, and the crackling voice of the flame. The need
    for rest overshadowed the desire for survival.

    Before he lost
    his senses, he came to the conclusion that he didn’t like this plan of Lord
    Zoloc’s any more than the noble did.

    A hard slap
    across his face was enough to bring him back to consciousness. “Stop hitting
    him. He’s already hurt from the blow and the fall.” He recognised Silan-te’s
    voice.

    “I’m not fond of
    taking orders from servants.” Another hard slap hit his face. When he opened
    his eyes, he saw Daemon and the Cursed One over his head. The girl looked
    unharmed, but the noble wasn’t. A deep wide cut started from his throat and
    covered half his face, all the way to his eye. Dark blood oozed out of his wound,
    and it didn’t seem to clot. There was no doubt that the dragon was behind it.

    “New scar?” said
    Nesto, forcing a smile. “It looks good on you.”

    “Yes, I’m
    thinking of keeping it,” said Daemon. “To remind me that I hate Lord Zoloc
    almost as much as I hate my father.” He looked around. “I have to admit it,
    though, that, despite the fire, the Order of the Lords after us and the
    frenzied dragon doesn’t feel as bad as it would if I were back at my father’s
    castle. At least, I know that there is no way he could ever reach me here.”

    The noble began
    to check Nesto’s wounds, while the Cursed Ones stood on guard. The sky was
    still dark, so that meant that he hadn’t passed out for long. Some buildings
    were still burning, but a big part of the Fortress had already been reduced to
    ashes, and the fire had somehow abated. The best part was that the black smoke
    seemed to want to escape upwards. Still, his mind had barely been put at ease,
    when he saw the dragon, on the opposite side, climbing up a wooden wall with
    his sharp claws, then setting fire on it with his fiery breath. The specific
    fire wouldn’t be able to harm them, but the increasing smoke would make their
    survival an ordeal. “A couple of your ribs are surely broken. Your arm…” Daemon
    lifted it up to check it, giving it a light squeeze.

    “Ouch! Ouch!”

    “Judging by the
    pain, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s not broken. It’ll probably heal in
    a couple of days.”

    “No, it won’t,”
    said Nesto. “It will take a lot more than that. I’m not you. My wounds need
    more time to heal.” His dragon blood hadn’t given him this kind of powers. In
    fact, it hadn’t given him anything at all. Only trouble. His only gift,
    discovering the memories that were hidden inside objects or dreams, wasn’t
    exactly much help. In this kind of situations, Nesto considered it to be even
    less than useless.

    “You wouldn’t be
    in this mess, commoner, if you had ducked when I told you to,” Daemon told him
    off.

    “No. I wouldn’t
    be in this mess if it weren’t for Lord Zoloc’s plan, in the first place.” The
    noble nodded in agreement, then he tried to help him up, but the acute pain in
    Nesto’s arm and the rest of his body threw him back to the ground. After
    several attempts, Daemon gave up.

    “Oh, get up, you
    weakling!” he shouted at him. That had Nesto standing on his own two feet in
    the blink of an eye. His will wasn’t strong enough to endure the pain, but
    apparently his ego was. He felt more exhausted than ever and, when he checked
    his chest, he didn’t see the Mark of the ancient Gods. The only flame burning
    inside him was the one on the mark across his ribs, which seemed as useless as
    the powers his dragon blood had given him, if not less. “We are close. Try not
    to be too much of a burden, until we get there.”

    He tried, he
    honestly did, but in the end he had to use the noble’s shoulder to support
    himself. The pain was too much to bear alone. They let the girl stand on guard
    for any possible attacks, while they tried at the same time to move as
    stealthily as possible. They found ashes, debris, and lots of dead bodies on
    their way. Most of them suffered deadly blows from blades, rather than from
    jaws or the fire. They reached their destination exhausted and drenched in
    sweat.

    The plan was to
    help Zoloc steal the crystal, or if that wasn’t possible, then to at least escape
    from the fortress before the smoke choked them to death. However, they didn’t
    find Lord Doral at the Lords’ headquarters, and the gate was still protected by
    half a dozen Cursed Ones. They hid next the building, which was still intact,
    as far away from the masked men as possible, to get some rest and think of
    their next move.

    They hadn’t yet
    made up their minds if they would stay there and wait for Lord Zoloc, or if
    they would take their chances against the Cursed Ones, when a wave of fire sent
    a body hurtling towards them. They barely managed to jump out of its way, and
    fell on the ground. The man was engulfed in flames, while one arm was missing,
    eaten by the dragon, as Nesto judged by the looks of it.

    “I remember
    someone saying that my plans were horrible, that they wouldn’t work. What do
    you have to say now, noble?” Lord Zoloc appeared through the smoke, unscathed.
    His black mantle was full of ashes, while some flames flickered around the
    edges. He was flashily wielding the crystal.

    “I never claimed
    that they wouldn’t work,” Daemon admitted. “I just found them really, really
    horrible.”

    “Is this Lord
    Doral?” asked Silan-te, pointing to the burning man.

    “What’s left of
    him. I had to lure him into an encounter with the dragon, in order to retrieve
    the crystal.” Yet another roar of the dragon echoed in their ears, proof that
    they were dangerously near. Lord Zoloc hurriedly took them to the front side of
    the building and, after he advised them to seek the Lord of the next island at
    the earliest opportunity, turned the crystal, and the portal opened behind
    them.

    He had the
    Cursed One go through the Portal first. It had something to do with the side
    effects, the Lord explained to them. But, when it was their turn to enter,
    Zoloc placed his hand on the noble’s shoulder, and stopped him abruptly. Nesto
    stopped short, too, alarmed by that gesture. There was that strange smile upon
    the Lord’s face.

    “I almost
    forgot,” he said in his usual tone, despite the threat of the dragon. “Daemon,
    Jenon sends his love.” Then, startled as they were, he pushed them gently into
    the vast darkness of the portal.

  • CHAPTER
    20

    Again, there was
    a falling sensation, and then cold waters welcomed them. The darkness of the
    bottom beckoned to them, and Nesto couldn’t turn down its offer. He couldn't
    move his body. His stomach was killing him, as if a cold metal blade had
    pierced through it, his lungs were about to burst from the lack of oxygen and,
    no matter how hard he tried, the Mark of the ancient Gods wouldn’t appear on
    his chest. All he could do was observe the air gush out of his mouth, forming
    bubbles that showed him the way to the surface. Yet, try as he might, he was
    unable to follow them. His body was almost touching the bottom, and his senses
    were fading away, when he felt something wrap around him and pull him upwards.

    As soon as his
    head stuck out of the water, he desperately gasped for as much oxygen as he
    could, then he exhaled with difficulty. Even this was painful. A hand came from
    behind and ran over his chest, pulling him backwards. He would have recognised
    that hand, even if he were blind.

    Without
    realising it, he found himself lying on solid ground. What happened? Why
    can’t I call the fiery power of the ancient Gods?
    he wanted to ask
    Silan-te, but he didn’t have the strength. The only thing he could do was watch
    her looking worriedly at the water surface. Finally, she dipped in again.

    Only when he
    heard him cough did Nesto recall Daemon. He had just got out of the frozen
    water, and was standing up. His hair was stuck on one side of his skull, and
    his face featured another deep cut, a reminder of his encounter with the
    dragon. Blood gushed from his nose, and was instantly washed away by the
    raindrops. He hadn’t noticed earlier, but it was raining, and the sky was grey
    and ominous.

    “Were you
    looking for me, perhaps?” the noble asked, as Silan-te jumped out of the water.
    “I thought you served only the descendant of the dragon. I didn’t know you
    cared so much about my safety.”

    Relief was
    painted across her face, as well as a hint of irritation. “I…your death would
    sadden Lord Candidate Nesto,” the girl said indifferently.

    “So, does this
    mean that, from now on, you will protect me, too?”

    “No, I…”

    Daemon knelt
    before her, coughing up blood. “I’m alright,” he told her, as she gave him a
    scared look. But the noble was far from alright; Nesto could see that clearly.
    His one palm was filled with blood, just like his mouth, while his whole body
    was shaking, and he was sure it wasn’t only the frozen water and the cold rain.
    He wondered how he could stand on his two feet, and talk, while Nesto himself
    could simply look on, impotent and motionless.

    Silan-te dragged
    both of them under a tree. She mumbled a word of magic, and instantly the
    branches of the nearest trees, covered in thick wide leaves, joined together
    and gathered over their heads, protecting them from the fury of the rain. She
    lit a big fire and took off their damp clothes, leaving them with only the bare
    essentials on. When she tried to take off Daemon’s top, he stopped her, but
    Silan-te insisted. The sight she saw, though, made her gulp with difficulty.

    “This is just a
    gift from my beloved father,” said the noble with a forced smile, seeing the
    Cursed One shocked. A huge slash ran over his heart all the way to his pelvis,
    and another one split his chest in two. These two scars were clear on Daemon’s
    pallid skin, and they were so deep, a normal man would have died on the spot.
    Of course, the noble was far from a normal man.

    Nesto mustered
    up the strength to speak. “These are the side effects?” he asked, trying to
    draw Silan-te’s attention away from Daemon. The noble hated showing his scars,
    let alone mentioning his father and whatever had to do with him. Nesto too
    doubted it whether he would enjoy doing it now, after what Lord Zoloc had told
    them.

    He hoped that
    the Lord had simply been trying to provoke him one last time. It certainly gave
    that kind of feeling. After all, the demon must have been too busy facing the
    Lord Commander and the rest of the Lords—sent by the Order to wipe him out—to
    have any contact with Zoloc. Supposing, of course, that both of them had such
    encounters, which Nesto really doubted. However, the memory he had seen about
    demon Jenon made him wonder. It could have easily been Lord Zoloc’s, although
    the truth was, he hadn’t discerned him anywhere in the specific memory.

    “Yes,” the
    Cursed One said, and lowered her eyes in front of Nesto. “Your bodies haven’t
    had the time to adjust, and now they pay the price.”

    I suppose it’s
    preferable to facing the dragon or the Deathlord.
    He
    didn’t know why, but that dragon didn’t look at all like those depicted in the
    Black Castle. He was emaciated and small. The stench of death still lingered on
    him. Maybe, the fact that he had risen before his time was to blame. “Do you
    know when these side effects will wear off? When will we be able to use the
    power of the ancient Gods again?”

    The girl
    rekindled the fire that was about to die out because of the strong wind and the
    raindrops. “In a few days…at best.”

    “At worst?”
    Daemon asked.




    The answer flashed through her face
    before she spoke. Never! “I can’t tell with any certainty. It may…it may
    last for long.” Whenever she spoke, her green eyes travelled, probably
    unconsciously, over the nobel’s slashes. “I have to take care of your wounds,
    and make sure you have something to eat. I’m sorry, but I lost the bag with all
    the food in this turmoil. I’ll go hunting. I’m sure I’ll find some useful
    herbs. I won’t be long,” she said.

    “Catch something
    with wings. I wish to eat a grilled bird today, little servant,” Daemon ordered
    her, as she stood up to go.

    Silan-te turned
    to look at him out of the corner of her eye. She snorted, muttered something
    under her breath, and then left. “Was that a ‘yes’ or ‘no’?” he shouted behind
    her, as she walked away. But the Cursed One chose not to respond.

    Nesto was still
    unable to move his body as it was sore almost everywhere. He was in pain
    because of the smoke he had breathed in, from the dragon’s blow, from the cut
    the Cursed One had inflicted on him and, of course, from the side effects of
    the portal. The taste of blood in his mouth was surely due to these side
    effects. The worst thing of all, though, was that they couldn’t call forth the
    Mark. They were utterly defenceless. They were forced to rely only on Silan-te.
    Which meant that making her blood boil, just like the noble did earlier, wasn’t
    such a wise decision.

    Surely, he acted
    like that because he couldn’t stand the look of pity in Silan-te’s eyes. I
    mean, he can’t be unaware of the dangerous situation we are in. If the Cursed
    One wished to, she could kill us both without even breaking a sweat. And, now
    that she has seen the danger, she is in for allying herself with us, chances
    are, she might actually do it.
    But Nesto had to agree with him on this: any
    other emotion, even hatred, was more preferable to pity. On the other hand, he
    couldn’t exclude the irritating trait the noble was born with. He might not
    be able to help acting like that. They tend to feel superior to everyone else.

    After a while,
    the noble stood up, and put on the top the girl had left by the fire to dry
    out. There was another, deeper scar along his back. Nesto hadn’t noticed that
    before. And it looked just as lethal as the other two. There was a time, back
    in the Black Castle, when Nesto envied the attention Daemon had got from his
    father, but now, seeing all those wounds on his body, he wasn’t so sure about
    that anymore.

    “Are you
    alright?” he asked the noble, as he lay down next to him.

    “Shouldn’t you
    be more worried about your own skin, commoner?” asked the noble. “You are the
    one who can’t heal his wounds in a matter of days.”

    “I’m not asking
    about this kind of wounds. I’m referring to the ones that are inflicted by
    words.”

    Daemon leant his
    head on the tree trunk behind him, and shut his eyes with a wheeze. All the
    tiredness and pain he hid behind his smile appeared in his puffy eyes and the
    furrows across his face. “I doubt that his words were real,” he said. It seemed
    he had reached the same conclusion as Nesto. “Lord Zoloc was just trying to
    play with my mind to infuriate me. Most likely because I insulted his brilliant
    plan. But, of course, we are not too fond of each other, so he probably didn’t
    even need a reason to try and aggravate me, in the first place. He would have
    done it, anyway. I know I would.”

    If that was
    true, then Lord Zoloc had achieved his goal. When the Lord had pushed them
    through the portal, Nesto saw the noble’s face reflect pain, rage, fear, and
    hatred. All this in a hair-raising moment. Even his eyes had turned red,
    showing that his emotions were out of control.

    “That doesn’t
    look like a bird,” said Daemon, when he saw the Cursed One holding a small,
    four-legged monster. “Unless you cut off its wings, while trying to catch it.”
    She was soaked to the bone, and was almost shaking. For a moment, he felt
    guilty for being dry by the fire, but he had no other choice. He could barely
    move his body, which was still sore.

    The girl gave
    the noble an angry look, and Nesto noticed that, apart from her lips, her
    nostrils were also tight. “If you don’t like it, then you might as well
    starve,” she said through her teeth.

    “I guess I will
    have to compromise. Anyway, if I were in Nesto’s position, I would torture you
    every day for your lack of manners.”

    “Oh, don’t
    worry, you already do,” said Silan-te, and put the dead creature she had caught
    over the fire. The girl wasted no more time. She took out her dagger, and began
    to cut her clothes into long, thick straps of cloth. When she was done, she
    took out of her pockets the herbs she had picked, and placed them on the pieces
    of cloth, after she chewed them. The cut across the noble’s face looked more
    serious, but she chose to treat the one on Nesto’s back first. That was the
    price Daemon had to pay for enraging her.

    She asked for
    his permission to touch him, as if he were a God. Which, apparently, wasn’t all
    that wrong. A part of his was divine, which essentially made him a God. A very
    weak one, though, judging by his current condition. He gave her his permission,
    and felt her touch. It was so gentle and warm, it almost made his pain fade
    away. Silan-te bandaged his wound, just like she did with his hand and ribs.
    These two would mainly take time and lack of movement to heal, but the herbs
    helped on that score, especially as far as the swelling was concerned. Finally,
    she used her lips to check if he was running a fever or not.

    If Nesto hadn’t
    been running a fever, he certainly would now. For some reason, blood rushed
    through his head, while his mark began to sear him dangerously. It was so
    intense, it almost made him sweat. The burning sensation inside his chest was
    similar to the one caused by the fiery power of the ancient Gods, but not so
    painful. The girl had to move away before Nesto’s colour got back to normal,
    and the burning sensation abated.

    “Your wound
    seemed to be healing a lot faster,” the Cursed One realised, when she began to
    treat the noble’s wound. She pushed it with her hand, and Daemon let out a
    grimace of pain. She pressed it again, showing she hadn’t done that by
    accident. “My apologies. I don’t mean to torture you,” she said without really
    meaning it. The satisfaction oozing out of her eyes showed the exact opposite.
    “But, since we don’t have a healer with us, you will have to compromise,
    again.” She wrapped the piece of cloth around his head in such a way that
    almost shut one eye. Strangely enough, the noble let her do it without
    complaining. Maybe, he realised—at last!—the disadvantaged state we are in!

    She forcefully
    removed Daemon’s top, and checked for more wounds, starting from his back.
    Watching her touching the noble with her warm and gentle hands gave Nesto an
    unpleasant feeling. He didn’t like the kind of smile she was trying in vain to
    hide behind her lips, either. It was a different kind of pleasure, this one. It
    made him wonder if she had the same smile when she was treating his own wounds.

    These thoughts
    faded away when Silan-te’s hand fell on Daemon’s mark. She groped it with her
    hands, but the corrosion due to the water hadn’t washed away all the layers of
    paint, and it must have looked to her eyes like an innocent bruise the noble’s
    duel with the dragon had left him with.

    Until the meat
    was cooked, all the touching, the awkward silence, along with the weird feeling
    on Nesto’s chest, had stopped, and Daemon had returned back to his usual
    irritating self. Most of the pain wore off, but Nesto was so exhausted, he
    dropped off after a few bites, having in his eyes the last image of the
    raindrops falling incessantly, while in his ears jingled the bickering between
    Silan-te and Daemon.

    Lots of weird
    dreams visited him in his deep slumber. And all of them were mainly about the
    Cursed One. She saw her on her knees in a dark room, where a green light
    glimmered. Her face was pale and looked somewhat scared, while her hands were
    gory. Before her stood five persons dressed in black robes and white masks, who
    chanted loudly. “We are the Cursed Ones. We hide our shame. We seek our former
    glory…” One of them took a step forward and placed a white mask over Silan-te’s
    face, hiding her bright green eyes, while the rest continued to chant. “We are
    the Cursed Ones. We hide our shame. We seek our former glory…”

    He saw her again
    along the torchlit corridors of the Black Castle, blending with the shadows.
    Away from the Lord Candidates’ unsuspicious eyes. Away from his own and the
    noble’s eyes, while pacing towards the armoury. The unknown ancient words that
    adorned the stone walls revealed their meaning to Nesto’s eyes now. “Beware, if
    you can hear them talk, then you are one of them.”

    He followed
    Silan-te, and she led him to a Lord’s whispers, which weren’t so indifferent, a
    hidden green dagger, and a secret that needed to be kept hidden from the Order
    of the Lords. A desperate Lord Candidate was stabbed outside the baths hall, in
    his attempt to enter it. Pain was painted across his face; Nesto could see it.
    It was so vivid, he could almost feel it.

    He watched her
    sneak onto the second level of the castle, the forbidden one, and open the
    portal, making sure she didn’t get caught. He saw scenes of the disputes
    between Daemon and Silan-te. Their mutual aversion was so clear that Nesto never
    saw it coming.

    The soft kiss.

    The noble
    wrapped his hand around her waist, pressed her against him, and his lips softly
    stroked hers, leaving her frozen. Maybe, he hadn’t felt the pain of the Lord
    Candidate that was stabbed in the stomach with the dagger of a Cursed One, but
    I think I can feel it now. Not in my stomach, but deep inside my chest. Like
    something is being torn apart.

    The next
    morning, that weird dream was still etched in his mind. After that, he had
    suddenly woken up, breathing with difficulty, and hadn’t gone back to sleep. He
    only lay, drenched in sweat. He recalled the image of Daemon holding and
    kissing Silan-te, and he felt the stab in his chest come back again. That was
    just stupid, feeling that kind of pain only because of a thought. Only someone
    in love should be overpowered with such emotions…Could it be? No. No, no,
    no. Definitely not.
    Besides, it was only a dream, just a stupid dream.

    Only it wasn’t
    his own dream. Nesto himself couldn’t dream…

  • CHAPTER
    21

    Five days had
    passed, but rain continued to fall continuously. All those days, he had been
    listening to the raindrops trying to pierce through the green leaves gathered
    over their heads, forming a makeshift roof flapping in the strong wind.
    Obviously, on the third level, the damn rain never stopped. After so many days,
    his wounds had healed to a certain degree. The deep cut across his back looked
    as if it had never been there, while he could freely move his injured hand
    without feeling any pain. His ribs, though, needed some more time.

    As usual, the
    noble was in better condition. The cut across his face had surely healed, but
    Daemon still had that piece of cloth tied around his head, so that his quick
    recovery wouldn’t arouse the suspicions of the Cursed One. Unlike Nesto, there
    were no side effects on his body, and now he could freely call forth the power
    of the ancient Gods. It almost makes me wish I had the blood of a demon,
    too.

    So did the
    noble. “No difference, as far as the Mark is concerned?” he asked in a
    displeased tone. His fingers groped the cut under the bandage, and cast a
    furtive glance at Silan-te, who stood on guard duty. Throughout those five
    days, the Cursed One had been patrolling the place in the rain. She would let
    her guard down only when she was forced to sleep for a few hours at night. But,
    even then, she would suddenly wake up, wielding her dagger. The frenzied dragon
    had inflicted no wounds on her, but all this exertion must have brought her to
    a state worse than Nesto’s.

    “No, nothing.
    I’m feeling better, so I guess it won’t be long till I’m able to call forth the
    Mark again. In any case, something tells me that it’s going to take less time
    than the wound on your face.”

    He faked a
    smile. “It wasn’t that deep. Don’t be surprised if you see it’s fully healed by
    tomorrow.”

    “I won’t,” said
    Nesto, returning the fake smile, and stood up to drink some water from the
    lake. He wasn’t particularly thirsty, but he wanted to keep his distances from
    the noble. He couldn’t bear him any more, he couldn’t stand anyone right now. I
    really hate the rain.
    It crushed him emotionally. It brought back emotions
    he had put aside. Pain and hatred, especially pain. Even though he now knew
    that Almar and his father hadn’t exactly abandoned him out of choice, the memories,
    along with the horrible feelings, were still there. And the rain helped them
    emerge.

    He carefully
    walked towards the lake, looking out for possible enemies. The trees and their
    branches kept them away from any prying eyes, but it was easier for someone to
    track them down around the lake. As early as the second day, Silan-te had
    suggested looking for the Lord of the third island, as Lord Zoloc had told
    them, but Daemon and Nesto were opposed to this idea.

    “Not until we’re
    able to call forth the fiery power of the ancient Gods again,” the noble had
    said. They didn’t know what risks looking for this Lord might involve, or even
    what was in store for them on the fourth island if they managed to go through
    the portal. Without the Mark, any reckless move would almost certainly lead
    them to their graves.

    A scream of pain
    pierced though Nesto’s ears, and then shivers went up and down his spine, while
    he was coming back from the lake. It was Silan-te. She was holding her right
    hand, shaking. Her legs were about to buckle but, before she plumped to the
    ground, Daemon was by her side, running his hands around her waist. “What
    happened? Are you hurt?” he asked.

    That scene put
    him in mind of the dream he had seen, with the noble bringing her close to him
    and kissing her. Then, there followed the stabbing sensation in his chest. It
    was no use denying it anymore. Maybe, I just have to admit that I like her.
    I don’t love her, of course, but I do like her…a lot.
    He wondered if
    Lirelle had felt the same pain when he turned her down. He hoped not. A second
    scream coming out of Silan-te’s mouth made his thoughts go away, and Nesto ran
    towards her. For a moment, he thought that perhaps it was a side effect from
    the previous level, that she too had been affected, but no, this couldn’t be
    true. She is a creature of magic. She is not affected.

    Tears trickled
    down her face, while her teeth bit her lower lip with all their might. She
    looked so sensitive. “What…what is this?” Nesto asked. Her black garment was
    fraying at the edges in her right hand, and red flames seared her skin. It
    looked like some kind of magic, but Nesto didn’t see an enemy, a Cursed One,
    anywhere around.

    The flames died
    out before Nesto himself tried to smother them, leaving behind various marks.
    No, not marks. They were words.

    THEY ARE
    ACCOMPANIED BY ONE OF OUR OWN

    The Cursed One
    stood on her two feet, as the words disappeared off her skin, turning into
    green smoke. No scar was left behind. Her face looked calmer now, but her body
    didn’t seem to have recovered yet. She held her right hand tight. “It’s a
    secret way of communication used by the Cursed Ones,” she said, obviously
    scared. “It’s very very old, and they don’t use it, unless there is something
    of extreme emergency.”

    “I don’t
    understand. Why did they send that message to you?” asked Nesto.

    “They didn’t.
    The words appear to all the Cursed Ones, and then disappear. The thing is, the
    person who sent it has to bear these marks forever. This is the first time I
    have experienced anything like that. I didn’t know it was so painful.”

    “So, now, they
    know that a Cursed One is helping us,” said the noble, but it was a lot more
    than just that. The message read, “They,” not “He.” They know I’m not alone.
    That Silan-te is not the only one helping me.
    Lord Zoloc had told him that,
    sooner or later, they would find out about the demon’s son. Most probably, they
    already knew. They must have assumed that those with the divine blood have come
    together, in order to survive. And, more or less, that’s exactly what we
    have done, even though it was by pure coincidence.
    He wondered if that
    would make the Order focus more of their force on them. They might withdraw
    some of the Lords they had sent to face demon Jenon.

    “They must have
    seen our little servant on the second level, when she went through the portal,”
    Daemon continued. “But it’s been five days since then. Why did they send it
    now?”

    “Because
    something must have been preventing them, so far,” said the Cursed One. “Our
    lack of magic energy makes it one of the hardest incantations. One that
    requires time and space to perform. It should have been impossible for them,
    given that they had a dragon over their heads. Especially, if they had Lord
    Zoloc pursuing them. Isn’t that the very reason why he chose to stay behind?”

    “Does this mean
    that the dragon has stopped its rampage, or that Lord Zoloc is actually…dead?”
    asked Nesto.

    Silan-te
    shrugged her shoulders. “Lord Zoloc is quite cunning, and he can use the words
    of magic in a strange way that no Cursed One can, but his lack of fear in the
    end might have led to his death.”

    “That would be
    exceptionally good news for once, even though I doubt it,” said the noble.
    “Anyway, we can’t stay in this place for long. My body has fully recovered from
    the side effects, and I can freely call forth the Mark of the ancient Gods. I
    suggest waiting until tomorrow, hoping that Nesto’s body will have managed to
    recover, then we search for the Lord of the third level.”

    Nesto nodded in
    agreement, but Silan-te seemed preoccupied with her thoughts. When Nesto asked
    her, she said: “It’s nothing, Lord Candidate Nesto. Really. I just feel that
    I’m forgetting something, but I can’t remember what. Maybe, it’s because I
    haven’t used the word of magic on you, yet, to conceal your presence,” she
    concluded.

    She asked him to
    stay still, and took the glassy dagger out of her case. As the green smoke
    engulfed it, a disturbing thought hit him. Nesto had his father and Almar
    waiting for him at the top, while Lord Zoloc had promised to secure a safe
    place for Daemon, although they did not get on very well with each other—on
    condition he was still alive, of course! What about the girl? What would he do
    with her? Will she carry on following and serving me?

    “Will you still
    have to use a word of magic on me every single day after the alignment?” he
    asked, hoping that she would have to remain by his side.

    “No, it won’t be
    necessary. All the dragons will have risen from their graves by then, and your
    presence will no longer stand out. The Cursed Ones won’t be able to track you
    down…Oh, no!” she suddenly exclaimed.

    “What is it?”
    Nesto asked. Her face had gone pale.

    “Quick! There’s
    no time! Run as far away from me as you can! Now!” Her voice seemed to come out
    of her lungs with difficulty, and her chest went up and down at a fast pace, which
    was far from normal.

    “I think that
    you’re showing some side effects from the previous level’s magic,” said the
    noble in a mocking tone, however, he got closer to check up on her.

    The Cursed One
    paid no attention to him. “Since I saw the message, there was a whisper in my
    head, bothering me. Warning me,” she said frantically. “There’s an old spell
    they can use to track me down. And, if they can find me…”

    “…then, they can
    find us, too.” That realisation made Nesto’s blood curdle.

    “You must leave
    immediately! Before they do find me.”

    “Too late. I
    already did.” Nesto turned his head, while these words still echoed in his
    ears. Some metres away from them, there were two dark figures. A Cursed One,
    he thought, as soon as he saw the white mask one of them was wearing. The
    other one wore no mask, only a hood that covered his face. Grey smoke came out
    of his mouth, but Nesto had focused on the golden symbol across the chest of
    the dark-clad man. The Deathlord! Lord Doral had the same golden
    symbol on the second level.

    The flame under
    his mark began to sear him again as a warning.

    Everything
    happened so fast and so slowly, at the same time. As soon as Daemon turned to
    look at the Deathlord, he charged him, while there were two black bolts in his
    hands. But everything was in slow motion: the noble’s legs jumping off the
    ground, hurling mud behind. The raindrops that looked like small pins piercing
    Silan-te’s face slowly and torturously, the Cursed One charging him, seemingly
    rending the air, like a winged predator. He felt empty inside, as he tried to
    call forth the power of the ancient Gods. The Mark wouldn’t turn up on his
    chest, no matter how badly he sought it. That flame wouldn’t flare up. In all
    this void he felt, the only thing he could hear were his heart beats. Ba-dum,
    ba-dum, ba-dum.

    Daemon’s fist
    collided with that of the Deathlord, and black sparks came out of his hand.
    Nesto saw them pierce through the raindrops, as a hand pushed him over, and he
    was sent hurtling up in the air, his body parallel to the ground. Ba-dum,
    ba-dum, ba-dum.
    Silan-te had moved him away, saving him from the attack of
    the Cursed One. Green monstrous forms had turned up under the masked man’s
    feet, and all of them, including him and the girl, collided. They were dragged
    metres behind, until they were out of Nesto’s eyeshot.

    Nesto could
    almost feel his body hovering. He was moving so slowly towards the ground that
    he thought someone had frozen time. The sound of the rain falling on the leaves
    reached his ears in a distorted way. It seemed to him that dozens of drums were
    playing above his head. He could see the noble exchanging fists with the
    Deathlord, and every time their hands touched each other, there was a loud
    clangour. But it was his heart beats that were clearer and louder. Ba-dum,
    ba-dum, ba-dum.

    The fall to the
    ground and the mud that stuck in his mouth and nose seemed to wake him up.
    These strange sounds and everything around him moved at a normal pace. The rain
    sounded normal, too. Strong, but normal. The leaves overhead were back
    in their former position, now that Silan-te was away. The thought of her made
    him worry about her safety, but he knew that, apart from Daemon, he himself was
    in greater danger as he still couldn’t call forth the power of the ancient
    Gods.

    He stood on his
    two feet, and spat out the mud. Next to him, he saw the noble land on a tree
    trunk, and a pang of pain, like the sound of a branch breaking, pierced through
    his ears. He wished it had really been a branch, not Daemon’s back. “You are
    too weak, son of demon Jenon,” he heard the Lord say.

    There was no
    doubt anymore. They really know the noble. And, just as Lord Zoloc had
    said, they didn’t find it particularly hard to recognise him. Not that it was
    any difficult. Between the two, Daemon looked more like his father, Jenon, than
    Nesto did.

    There were some
    black sparks glimmering in his hands, and Nesto noticed that the small finger
    in the noble’s left hand was crooked and at an angle. He removed the bandage
    Silan-te had used—that blocked his vision—and said: “If I’m the weak one, then
    why are you the one that is bleeding?” The Deathlord’s hand disappeared into
    his hood for an instant and, when it came out again, his fingers oozed blood.

    “I’m going to
    enjoy killing you,” said the Lord, after snorting and wiping the blood on his
    mantle. He turned his head towards Nesto. His eyes weren’t visible, but he was
    sure he must have been looking him straight in the eye. “You must be the dragon
    that still walks among us humans. I’m pleased to say that I have some unpleasant
    news for you. Your kind won’t be ruling the skies any time soon. I have already
    killed the Lord of this island, and Lord Zoloc must have been dealt with by
    now. Most of your allies have been eliminated. You can't escape from this
    island, and there is no dragon here that can save you. All who bear the divine
    blood are going to die today.”

    I am a dragon. I
    can save my own self,
    Nesto wanted to say,
    but he was a powerless dragon. Without the fiery power of the ancient Gods, he
    was a powerless Lord Candidate, too. The only positive thing was that there
    couldn’t have been any other enemies around there. Otherwise, several Cursed
    Ones must have surrounded them already.

    The black bolts
    in Daemon’s hands multiplied and glowed. One of them hit a tree, ripping its
    trunk in two, while some others hit the ground. Finally, the noble walked
    towards the Deathlord. They destroyed whatever they could lay their hands on,
    like countless whips, before they aimed at the Lord’s leg and face. The
    Deathlord shuffled a few steps backwards, while his hood fell and revealed his
    characteristics. Black smoke came out of one cheekbone, while half his face was
    covered in a weird tattoo made up of curved lines and various letters of an
    ancient language. That tattoo went all the way to the top, covering the best
    part of his shaven head. Maybe, it was due to the blood running through his
    veins, or the dream he had seen, but Nesto could understand those words.

    “Even Gods
    tremble in fear before death,” it read. And if I’m considered to be a God,
    then I won’t deny it. It’s true. I’m shaking like a leaf.

    The Lord began
    walking towards them slowly but in a creepy way, his spiteful smile sending
    shivers up and down Nesto’s body. “You don’t know how to fight effectively,” he
    said. “You’re wasting your power of the ancient Gods, and you’ve already broken
    two bones. Just like I told you, you are weak!” Two spears materialised in his
    hands, and they shone and seared the rain. “Let me demonstrate to you the right
    way of fighting.” The first one aimed at Daemon’s heart. There was a hiss, as
    it rent the air, then stopped on the two hands that were placed above his
    chest. But the second one was stuck into his shoulder, before the noble had
    time to react.

    Blood began to
    trickle down his arm when Daemon removed the spear, but most of it was being
    washed away by the rain before it reached the ground. In the white of his eyes,
    there were some red lines, and it seemed that he was finding it hard to muffle
    his dark smile that strove to appear across his lips. “Commoner, go away. Find
    Silan-te. You’ll be safer there,” he told him, and a sword materialised in his
    hand, which sparked like lightning.

    With a jerk, he
    charged at the Lord. His blade was pushed back twice by a spear, before it
    managed to kiss his enemy’s flesh, right above the elbow. It wasn’t deep
    enough, though. Not enough to cut off his arm. With a move, both of them were
    disarmed. The spear and the blade were sent hurtling away from them. The noble
    managed to land one of his fists on the Lord, before he found himself on the
    ground, with the Deathlord’s foot pressing him on the chest. It was obvious
    that there was a whole lot of a difference between them, power-wise.

    “Death has come
    for you,” stated the Deathlord, his smile darker than ever. Nesto tried to call
    forth the power of the ancient Gods, and cursed himself when he drew a blank.
    But that sense came back. Time began to freeze, and his heart beats were heard
    louder than ever. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. The wind spoke to him in a
    language he couldn't understand, while his hand began to burn, as if engulfed
    by flames. Just like his mark did. He charged the Deathlord. He couldn’t let
    his irritating friend die. Not here, not like this. Not on another rainy day
    that he so much hated. The pain would be unbearable. His body moved so slowly,
    but he wasn’t the only one; everything around moved just as slowly. He saw the
    Lord stand over the noble, the rain trying to obliterate the ancient letters
    off his face, his mantle flapping in the wind. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

    He had almost
    covered the distance, when the Deathlord turned to tell him, “I guess death
    wants you first.” His voice reached Nesto’s ears distorted, as if the words hit
    the sharp raindrops. Nesto could see his own reflection in the Lord’s black
    eyes. But his own eyes looked blue. Blue like the flame dancing around
    his hand. Before he had time to touch his burning hand on the Deathlord, he
    felt something sharp pierce through his chest, which made him cough. Blood
    splashed all over the golden symbol, and Nesto felt his heart beat slow down. Ba-dum,
    ba-dum.

    He found himself
    hover in midair, stabbed with the Deathlord’s spear. Everything got dark. His
    first thought was Silan-te. He wondered if she was safe, and slightly chuckled.
    I’m the one dying, not her. Then, he thought of his brother and father
    waiting for him at the top of the Tower of the Lords. How much longer will
    they be waiting until they give up on me?
    His last thought wandered off to
    the noble. He lowered his eyes and, before everything got dark forever, he saw
    Daemon’s bright red eyes wake up.

    Ba-dum…

  • CHAPTER 22

    Silan-te dropped to the ground, breathing
    with difficulty. She was more wearied than she wanted to admit. Next to her lay
    the dead body of the Cursed One that accompanied the Deathlord, with his dark
    blood oozing from his neck. She hurriedly looked around, although she was
    almost sure that there were only two enemies from the start. Only one now. The
    Order of the Lords was definitely short on manpower. They were lucky on that
    score, at least. If they managed to kill the Deathlord, then the 
    path to the fourth level would be clear. But
    she damn well knew that there was a catch in that “if.”



    She stood up with difficulty, placed her
    hand on the face of the Cursed One, and borrowed his white mask. The only way
    she could get close enough to the Lord, so that she would deal a deadly blow,
    was to pretend to be one of his allies. There was really no other way for a
    Cursed One or even a Lord Candidate to be able to wound someone who bore the
    title of a Deathlord. She was aware of the formidable power of the Lords who
    belonged to Lord Commander Legris’ guard as all the Cursed Ones took orders
    directly from him.



    Some of them were considered to be of equal
    power with the rumoured White Lords.



    She put on the mask and, without a moment’s
    rest, headed for the other two. There were more trees and bushes, as Silan-te
    ran as fast as she could, with the rain weighing heavily on her body, and her
    wounds taking their toll on her steps. There might be only a few scratches
    along her arms, but one of the monsters created by her opponent had stuck its
    sharp jaws into her leg, and every time she put it down, pain shook her body.
    Her fight with the other Cursed One had led her quite far away, but she
    hoped they were both safe. Even Daemon.



    Before the Old Ones had her wear the white
    mask, Silan-te had been taught about death and mortality. “We are no longer
    immortal,” those older than her used to say all the time. “We will eventually
    die. This is something that we need to live by.” But they hadn’t prepared me
    for this.
    It was one thing dying, and another thing killing. The hand in
    which she held the green dagger was still shaking, as her thought scurried back
    to the scene where she forced its glassy tip to kiss the throat of another Cursed
    One.
    She couldn’t see his face under the mask when she did that, and she
    was grateful for that. I had to do it, she kept saying to herself again
    and again, but she found it hard to convince herself.



    She looked at the overcast sky. She
    couldn’t see it, but the two moons must have become one. The alignment might
    take place by the end of the day or the next one, at the latest. The day she
    would be free from that curse was within her grasp. It looked so near, yet so
    far away…



    Silan-te could recall the Old Ones
    constantly chanting: “We are the Cursed Ones. We hide our shame. We seek our
    former glory…” She herself was surely cursed. She didn’t need to hear it from
    the Old Ones; she could feel it deep inside; the wind was whispering it to her,
    the sea, and the trees. But she no longer wanted to hide her shame behind a
    white mask, just like the rest did. She had decided to break that curse that
    held her tied to death, misery, and isolation. It was selfish of her, she knew
    it, but she was intent on keeping the Oath her ancestors had taken to the
    dragons, even if that meant their return and the destruction of the rest. After
    all, the Old Ones said that. We seek our former glory.



    When her leg failed her, she decided that
    it was necessary to bandage it. The signs of the monster’s sharp teeth were
    etched on her skin. Fortunately, they weren’t so serious as she had thought. If
    she stopped the bleeding, maybe she wouldn’t have to lose part of her leg. She
    quickly tore off a piece of her already tattered trousers, and wrapped it
    around her wounds, tightening it with all her might. That was enough, for
    the time being.



    The Deathlord was on his knees, and
    standing up bolt upright, when Silan-te found them with a hobble. He thrust
    back his head and wiped with his hand the blood trickling down his face from a
    hole under his eye. “You are stronger than I thought. I should have killed you
    first,” said the Deathlord, and only then did she notice the dead body left a
    few metres away from Daemon. His head was titled to the side, and had a faint
    smile across the lips. He would have seemed to be sleeping if it hadn’t been
    for his gory top and the blood all over the place. The rain was trying to wash
    it away in vain; that blood would not leave that body.



    “Lord Candidate Nesto?” Her lips moved, but
    no sound reached her ears. No, it cannot be. She threw the white mask,
    ran towards him, and knelt over his head. His eyes were still open, but they
    were blank, looking nowhere. She didn’t know what to do. What could she do? How
    could she fix this?



    She was shivering, she noticed. She didn’t
    know if it was the rain or the unsightly spectacle. She placed her hands on his
    face. It was frozen. The flame of life had died out. She turned her eyes
    towards the noble, tears welling up in her eyes. She wondered why she was
    crying. Did this have to do with the oath, or had she grown attached to him? If
    the last descendant of the dragons was gone, then she would never be able to
    liberate herself from the curse. For the curse, she said, trying to
    convince herself, but she wasn't successful. “Daemon…” Her voice crackled,
    before she could say anything else.



    “Have you lost your sanity, son of Tzenon?”
    asked the Deathlord. A small hollow laugh was heard from the noble, but it was
    so bad and wrong that it curdled Silan-te’s blood. His hand was gory, but what
    scared her was the sinister smile and mainly his eyes, which were bloodshot.
    She had never seen anything like that before. His eyes looked like they were
    bleeding from the inside, but no cut was visible.



    “No, not son of Tzenon. Son of Demon,” the
    noble corrected him, after he stopped laughing. His voice, though, didn’t sound
    the way Silan-te was used to. It sounded deeper, more like a loud whisper. His
    blood stopped trickling down to the ground, and it turned dark. So did his
    flesh. A pair of sharp black wings jutted out of his back, boring more holes in
    his top. Two grey horns came out of his head, while his hair got longer, the
    colour of the moons. Some sharp lumps decorated his elbows and shoulders.
    Silan-te covered her mouth with her hand to stop herself from screaming, when
    she saw that his face was completely raw-boned. His sight was even more
    frightening than the black dragon she had seen on the second level. He looked
    more dead than alive.



    Son of the demon…Well, that explained everything. His appearance. My
    uncontrollable trembling. The cold sensation wafting in the air.
    That was
    the first time, however, that she had heard that this unwieldy demon had a
    child. Another one that carries the blood of the ancient Gods. And this is
    the most terrifying one.
    Had it been fate that brought those two boys
    together? Or had it perhaps been the desire of their divine blood? Of course,
    that didn’t count that much, now that Lord Candidate Nesto had already gone out
    of their reach.



    “Daemon…,” she said in a trembling voice,
    but shut her mouth again, when that creature in front of her roared,
    frightening even the rain.



    “Nothing is going to change; you are going
    to die, just like the one with the dragon blood did,” said the Deathlord. “Your
    blood isn’t going to save you, monster. I already told you. All who bear the
    divine blood will die today…even your demon father. Lord Commander Legris and
    the rest of the Lords are making sure of it.” Without wasting any more time, he
    materialised a burning spear, and immediately charged at him. His attacks rent
    the air, but not the noble, although he made no attempt to fend them off. The
    spear smashed into pieces, throwing up sparks, in its attempt to pierce through
    the creature’s hard chest. All it could leave were a few scratches that could
    in no way be considered wounds.



    In his frenzy, without realising it, the
    Lord’s head was found in the grip of the demon’s sharp nails. He fought tooth
    and nail to set himself free, but to no avail. There was a huge difference of
    strength. Finally, the creature set him free, only to thrust him onto a tree.
    The Lord’s body snapped a few thick branches, and landed on top of some others.



    Wait, Daemon! she wanted to tell him, as he was heading for the Deathlord, but fear
    stopped her. That was not the Daemon she knew. He wouldn’t respond to her with
    an offending remark, just for the sake of teasing her, having that complacent
    smile across his lips, like he always did. Had she lost him, too? All the
    hopes, the sense of security, and the warmth she had felt by their side were
    gone. Her dream to get rid of her curse was long shattered. She was truly
    cursed. No matter what she did, death and loneliness would follow her forever.



    “How can this be possible? You should be
    the one to tremble with fear, not me. Why won’t you die, damn it! Why won’t you
    die!” she could hear the Lord shouting, as more branches broke, and sparks were
    thrown up. But the creature wouldn’t reply; only its roar could be heard, and
    that was enough to strike fear into her heart. It pierced through her and made
    her blood curdle, while it whispered the sweet song of despair.



    The descendant of the dragons was the only
    one who seemed not to hear that song. Fear hadn’t touched him, even when he was
    breathing his last; you could tell by his smile. Silan-te wondered which could
    have been his last thoughts that made him so happy. Maybe, he thought he had
    reached the top of the Tower of the Lords, or of his father and brother, who
    were waiting for him there.
    “Do you have a family?” she recalled Nesto
    asking, when they were still hiding at Lord Zoloc’s Fortress. He lay motionless
    in bed, his body trying to adjust to the magic of the island. That question had
    struck her as odd as the boy seldom talked to her. He may have protected her
    from the noble on that single occasion, but that was due to his non-human
    blood. He didn’t trust her. And he showed it at every opportunity.



    “Yes, I do, Lord Candidate Nesto,” she had
    replied, thinking of all the Cursed Ones. These were her family. But not
    now.
    Not after what she had done. I betrayed them with my choice to ally
    with the descendant of the dragons.



    After the fall of the dragons, the Lords
    and the Cursed Ones joined forces to hunt down all the remaining dragons,
    making sure that none of them would survive. Her own tribe worked in the
    shadows, while the Order of the Lords took all their glory. But that didn’t
    really matter. As long as the tyranny of the dragons ceased to exist, they were
    ready to stand everything. After all, lack of recognition was nothing compared
    to the curse they had to bear because of their betrayal.



    The ones that were born by the purity of
    magic were, in the end, abandoned by it, thus losing all that was pure and
    sacred. The name Cursed One, we deserve for sure.



    She betrayed them because she wanted to
    change that. To feel the purity her ancestors possessed. She had promised
    herself to grasp the glory they once had, but now she was still there, on the
    third level, with the rain blaming her for her failure.



    After howls, curses, and broken branches,
    the Deathlord’s body dragged itself across the muddy ground, and stopped next
    to her. “I do not fear you…I do not.” His face was furrowed, so was his body,
    while one hand had been cut off. She wanted so badly to take out her dagger and
    stick it into his heart. He stole my dreams, he deserves this! She was
    that close to doing it, but she stopped her hand, when she heard his delirium.
    “Why won’t you die? Why won’t you die…,” he kept saying. Death would only
    relieve him from his pain. He deserved to suffer even more. It if weren’t for
    him, everything would be different. No, it’s my fault. If I had remembered
    the existence of that spell sooner, they wouldn’t have found us.
    Both of
    them would have escaped to the fourth level. There can’t have been any other
    enemies, except the Lord and the Cursed One, otherwise they would have turned
    up by now.



    A black monstrous hand came from behind
    her, and Silan-te was forced to muffle a howl. The hand gripped the Deathlord’s
    head with its nails. The pressure was so great, one ear was cut off in two,
    while there were some sounds, while his skull was being smashed into pieces. He
    lifted him up in the air, and the blood started to gush from the joint where
    there used to be the hand and the shoulder, dyeing the ground red. He dropped
    him headlong. He repeated this again and again, while in her mind reeled the
    words the Deathlord had blurted out, “Why won’t you die! Why won’t you die!” He
    won’t die, but you will,
    she thought.



    Silan-te gulped with difficulty, as
    Daemon’s bloodshot eyes silently scrutinised her, after he stopped pounding the
    Deathlord’s dead body. He had thrown his carcass aside, and now it was time for
    her to receive the monster’s frenzy. It moved towards her. But she didn’t step
    back, nor did she think of running away. It would be futile. I will leave my
    last breath here,
    she said to herself. We are the Cursed Ones, we hide
    our shame, we seek our former glory…but we will never taste it.



    If she had a choice, she would rather see
    Daemon’s real face, not that of the demon, as her last image, but maybe that
    was too much for a Cursed One to ask. She had accepted the idea of her own
    death, when suddenly a strange net, which looked like a piece of rag, was
    thrown around the noble, and then stuck into the ground, bringing him down on
    his knees. She took a step backwards, having Nesto’s soulless body in her
    hands, and watched that creature, which used to have the noble’s face, roar and
    try in vain to set itself free.



    Surprised, she looked around to see a man
    with a furrowed face getting closer. He wore no top, only a pair of trousers
    full of holes, so she could see the wounds that studded his body—new and old.
    His long grey, wet hair covered his face, and Silan-te couldn’t tell who he
    was, although his gait seemed familiar and frightening. A white sword began to
    materialise in his hand—first the handle, then the blade—, shining like gold
    for an instant and, when he stood before her, he turned it against Daemon.



    “Number one,” he said, his tone of voice
    wearied, rather than exasperated. “I thought I had warned you. If you ever
    dared show that dark side of yours in front of me, I would kill you…”



     

  • CHAPTER 23

    “NOOOO!” she cried. She had seen the
    Deathlord’s spear smash into pieces, in his attempt to pierce through the
    creature, that’s why she couldn’t believe that White Lord Raizel could harm
    him, but the black blood that began to gush out of Daemon’s chest gave the lie
    to her assumption. “Please, stop! Don’t hurt him!” Even though that old man
    didn’t quite belong to the Order of the Lords anymore—he proved that when he
    spared Nesto’s life, although he knew about the mark across his ribs—, trying
    to stop him still meant treason. Death.



    But she didn’t care. In her mind reeled only
    the memory of the noble saying to her: “So, does this mean that, from now on,
    you will protect me, too?” and the only thing she wanted to do was cry, “Yes!
    Yes, I will!”



    The White Lord looked exhausted, just like
    his body. An old scar studded his neck, and came all the way down to his chest,
    while some new ones were still bleeding on the opposite side and his belly.
    “Silence, Cursed One,” he said, and Silan-te could now see hesitation in his
    eyes. “There is no turning back for him. The demon has devoured his soul and
    mind. The only thing he desires now is massacre and death. He is no longer the
    boy you knew. He has to be killed.”



    She knew she couldn’t let that happen, but
    she didn’t expect her body to move on its own and threaten the old man by
    sticking the dagger into his throat, whispering to him the song of death. “I
    have nothing left, and I don’t fear death,” she said. Her hand was shaking, but
    she hoped that the cold would hide her terror. “If you value your life, then
    please put that sword back in its place.”



    The White Lord shooed the glassy dagger,
    like it was an annoying fly. “You are too young to be making threats, Cursed
    One,” he stated. Strangely enough, though, the sword disappeared from his hand,
    then the old man suddenly sat on the ground, sighing and swearing. His wounds
    seemed to be sore. “I have to admit, for a certain amount of time, I truly
    believed that he could control his tainted blood. While he was training under
    me, I made sure I broke him to the point where his only desire would be to kill
    me. Not just because of his blood. Even a normal human being would burst, in
    the end, and try or even think of killing me. But, to my surprise, number one
    never did.”



    “Then, why? Why did it happen now?”



    “Would you be able to stop your blood from
    boiling if a friend of yours were to be killed in front of your eyes? This was
    the line, the limit that he couldn’t surpass. No one ever can. And I have to
    stop him now, otherwise the twigs I burn every day in honour of the Lords that
    perished because of my decision will be over ten.”



    “No, please. There has to be a way to bring
    him back.” Her throat burnt, and she couldn’t tell for sure if she was crying
    or if the hot raindrops were trickling down her face.



    “I only know of one way. By killing the
    initial ruler of the skies, one of the ancient three. The God that created the
    abominable world of demons. Do you think that you are up for the task, Cursed
    One?” he asked in a mocking tone.



    She was getting cold, feeling her strength
    ooze away, and the world reeling around her. She wasn’t sure if this was
    because of the White Lord’s words that left her bereft of hope. It could be the
    emotional pain, or those last sleepless nights that she stood on guard duty,
    making sure that those two were safe. It could also be her wound that seemed to
    be bleeding, despite the makeshift bandage—maybe, it was all this together.



    She bit her lower lip, in an attempt to
    keep herself from fainting. It seemed pointless. Her eyelashes were unbearably
    heavy and, much as she tried, she couldn't stop her eyes from closing, or her
    body from falling. Silan-te knew what to expect when she opened her eyes again.
    The noble’s soulless body lying in the rain, just like Nesto’s. There was no
    doubt that the Lord would kill him as quickly as possible, and she wouldn’t be
    able to do anything about it. If that’s the way it is, then I hope never to
    open my eyes again.



    Cursed as she was, the Gods didn’t make her
    wish come true. She ought to have known better as it was the Gods themselves
    that had cursed her tribe, in the first place. She opened her eyes and,
    instinctively, tried to run towards the noble, but a hand held her pinned to
    the ground. “Sit still, or else you will reopen your wound.” The Lord had gone
    to the trouble of treating and binding her wound. This act of kindness held no
    meaning. She would be dead soon. A Cursed One, most probably, or even a Lord
    would come, seeking to steal her life.



    She couldn’t feel any pain coming from her
    leg. The old man must have put on it various herbs, otherwise he wouldn’t have
    managed to staunch the flow, let alone allay the pain. She wondered if he had
    carried them on him all along, or if he had collected them for as long as she
    was unconscious, after killing Daemon, of course. The roasted meat he was
    holding pointed to the latter. She must have been unconscious for too long.
    Lord Raizel had had enough time to slay the demon, pick up the herbs, and hunt
    for food.



    The creature’s roar startled her. “You
    didn’t kill him,” she realised.



    “Yes. It’s not an easy task killing your
    own disciple. No easier than killing a God,” the old man said, almost
    ashamedly. “Right now, I need to keep you alive, so don’t make any rush
    movements.”



    Right now, I need to keep HIM alive. She looked at the creature, which ran his claws over the strange
    white net, trying in vain to set himself free. Somewhere behind his emaciated
    mask and those bloodshot eyes lay Daemon’s face. She could almost see his
    arrogant smile. She never expected to miss it so much.



    Killing a God…Well, she had nothing left to lose.



    “Why didn’t you kill Nesto when you found
    out about the mark?” she asked. “Why didn’t you kill Daemon…or me? I’m sure you
    knew about him from the beginning. Don’t you oppose the Order of the Lords with
    these actions?”



    “I do as I please. And I have stopped
    taking orders from them for a long time. They think I am insane, that’s why
    they leave me alone. Maybe, I am…” He looked at the demon, then at Nesto’s body
    lying next to her. “Maybe, I am…because they remind me so much of the family I
    once had.”



    “Then, help me kill the ancient God.” It
    sounded crazy to her eyes, but so what? White Lord Raizel himself admitted to
    his own insanity.



    The old man snorted with laughter. His
    wounds must have been serious as his laughter turned to cough and blood, which
    oozed out of his mouth. “He has captured your heart, hasn’t he?” he said,
    wiping his lips with the back of his palm.



    “No, I…,” Silan-te started to speak, but
    the words wouldn’t come out.



    “No you what? You can’t lie, Cursed One.
    The pure magic in your eyes isn’t letting you.”



    It was true. She could feel her throat
    choking, not allowing her to speak any words of lie. Which was so bizarre. Of
    course, she didn’t want the noble to die, but him capturing his heart… “I care
    about them both,” she finally said.



    “Then, you should focus your energy on
    number two. He is the only one you have a slim hope of saving.”



    “What do you mean? How?” Warmth returned to
    her frozen body. It was hope now that was warming her.



    “I will make a deal with you, Cursed One. I
    will tell you how to bring number two back to life and, in return, you will
    convince me that killing that demon is for the best for us and, especially, for
    him. What do you say? Remember, you can’t lie.”



    “I will try,” she said almost immediately.
    That wasn’t exactly a lie, even though she wouldn’t really try that hard.



    The old man shook his head. “That’s not
    enough. Trying to deceive me won't do you any good. Won’t do any of us any
    good.”



    Silan-te looked at Daemon again. If only
    she had been given that choice on the first day she met them. She wouldn’t have
    hesitated for a moment. Back then, he was just an obnoxious Lord Candidate, he
    wasn’t a noble, he didn’t have a name. He was a stranger, someone she could use
    as a shield to protect the descendant of the dragons. Dead meat. The only thing
    that mattered to her was lifting her curse.



    And lift the curse, I will. If what the White Lord said was true, then she was given another
    chance. It would be foolish of her not to take it, grab it. Besides, the noble
    may have gone forever, unlike Lord Candidate Nesto. Killing one and saving the
    other was the best decision…But I can’t do it. In her mind reeled
    Daemon’s words. “So, does this mean that, from now on, you will protect me,
    too?”
    The picture of him coughing up blood still haunted her. And what
    if the Lord is lying?



    But he obviously wasn’t. He had no reason
    to. She took a deep breath, and gave herself some time to relax, physically and
    mentally. To make a decision. To convince myself, I should better say. She
    knew what she had to do, what the right choice was. She could no longer fight
    herself. There was no way she could prevent this from happening…—at least, not
    her.



    “So, what do you say? Do you agree with my
    proposal, Cursed One?” asked the old Lord.



    “I do. I agree,” said Silan-te in a firm
    voice. She would honestly help him, convince him that killing Daemon was for
    the best, for all of them, even for the noble. Of course, this didn’t mean that
    Nesto would be agreed. If she managed to bring him back to life, then he would
    surely stop them. Definitely!



    The Lord gave her the piece of meat he was
    holding. “Good,” he said. “Eat up now. You’re going to need all your energy.”



    For as long as Silan-te was eating her
    roasted thigh, Raizel—obviously tired—was narrating the way in which she would
    be able to breathe life into Nesto’s soulless body. The dragons, and surely
    their descendants, needed just a trigger to defy death. For the divines, death
    was something temporary. And a part of Nesto, the one running through his
    veins, was godly, so bringing him back to life was not an infeasible task. The
    alignment of the planets was that trigger. That was well known to many, but
    only a few knew about a second trigger. One that wasn’t so distant, so rare.



    Her tribe had burnt all the books mentioning
    such a thing as the Old Ones and the rest wished to sever all their bonds with
    the dragons once and for all, and eradicate the temptation. However, in the
    library of the King of Humans, there were still such books. And the White Lord
    had come across one in his youth, when he had just acquired the title of a
    Lord. His position as personal guard of the King allowed him to visit the
    library whenever he saw fit, and he had not let that chance slip by. His days
    began by the King’s side, and ended over big, heavy, and ancient books. “It
    would be no exaggeration to say that all the world’s knowledge resided in those
    books. Things that even the ancient Gods might have forgotten,” the old man
    stated.



    One of those books revealed the second
    trigger to him. “It is you,” said the Lord, and that made her heart skip a beat
    for an instant. “Your tribe, the Cursed Ones. Their green eyes,” he carried on.
    The pure magic that still lingered inside them, more precisely. The very eyes
    with which she didn’t dare look Lord Candidate Nesto in the eye. When Raizel’s
    story came to an end, she realised that his knowledge was somewhat patchy.



    “Pure magic is the trigger to make Lord
    Candidate Nesto’s heart beat again. It will cost me the magic of my eyes, I
    understand that. But how exactly am I supposed to do it?” she asked.



    “That, I do not know. You have to find out
    for yourself. I suppose you use a word of magic or something like that. Isn’t
    that what your cursed race does?”



    She knew that, on the third level, rain
    would never stop, but she hoped the sun would come out, even for a while. She
    couldn’t take the ruthless patter of the rain anymore. Most branches were
    broken in the aftermath of the fight between the demon and the Deathlord, so
    she couldn’t use them to cover them. She thought of moving to another tree that
    had remained intact, but she didn’t want to stray away from Daemon. He is
    worriedly calm,
    she thought when she gazed at him. He was no longer
    fighting; he seemed to have given up all effort.



    She carefully sat up, so as not to open her
    wound, and leant towards Nesto. She held his hands. They were frozen. She had
    shut his eyes. She couldn’t bear his blank stare, with the raindrops falling on
    them, but they still wouldn’t close. She held her weapon, and bent over him.
    She didn’t know exactly what she had to do, although it was certain that a word
    of magic would be necessary. That was the only way to call and activate the
    magic hidden inside her eyes. That’s what her tribe did, that’s what all those
    who wanted to use magic did. Except for Lord Zoloc. She was almost sure
    that, even in the library of the King, she wouldn’t find an explanation for it.



    She placed her glassy dagger on top of the
    boy’s wound, with her one hand holding the handle, and with the other the green
    blade. Words of magic, words of magic…, she kept repeating in her mind. But
    which word?
    Finally, she decided to use the word “life.” She took
    some time but, finally, remembered the word in her ancestors’ language. Zivor.
    She took a deep breath and shut her eyes, while whispering “Isihir Zivor,”
    focusing all her magic energy on her dagger. She repeated “Isihir Zivor, Isihir
    Zivor…”



    After several attempts, while her stomach
    was in knots due to the doubt that had gripped her, she heard the White Lord’s
    voice saying: “Use your eyes, foolish Cursed One. Don’t keep them closed.”



    She opened her eyes, just like the old man
    said, and kept saying the magic words. “Isihir Zivor, Isihir Zivor…” To no
    avail. She wanted to blame the rain and the wind, but she ended up blaming
    herself. She was aware of the risk they ran. She had to be more careful; she
    had to remember that spell; she should have run away as fast as she could. She should have.
    But she
    hadn’t done anything of the sort. Tears trickled down her cheeks. It was then
    that she felt the pure magic power of her eyes waking up.



    Everything around her was dyed a beautiful
    green colour. Nesto’s face, the tree trunks, the cloudy sky, even the
    raindrops. Her tears didn’t burn her anymore. She could see them glistening
    like thousands of small crystals that resembled distant stars. As the bright
    green colour began to fade behind a huge, dull grey expanse, she knew that the
    magic of her eyes abandoned her to enter the lungs of the descendant of the
    dragons, granting him the gift of life.



    She allowed herself a single moment to take
    a deep breath of relief and elation….And now was time for the hard part.
    Killing the noble.





     

  • CHAPTER 24

    Am I dead? Is this the afterlife? Nesto wondered, as he fingered that spot on his chest where he
    remembered there was a hole from the Deathlord’s spear. The hole was gone. He
    didn’t feel the pain in his broken ribs either. That means I’m dead. But
    why did he feel like he was dreaming again? The place where he now was had
    black clouds, darker and more ferocious than those on the third island, which
    hid the sun or the two moons. He couldn’t see if it was day or night. He lay on
    some grey stones and, when he stood up, he noticed that he was stepping on top
    of a tower. Another two grey towers loomed ahead. These three towers were
    connected through three stone broad bridges on their tops, and just as many in
    their middle.



    He heard waves roar behind him and, when he
    turned his head, he saw a small battered body bound hand and foot with thick
    chains, on a wooden pole, forcing it to form the letter Y. “Daemon?” he
    shouted, as he got closer. It was the noble, but he looked four or five years
    younger, almost a child. Daemon, are you alright? What happened? he
    wanted to ask him, but he didn’t. This must be a dream, a memory of his, he
    thought. The noble wouldn’t talk to him, no matter how loud his yells. Nesto
    was no part of this memory.



    Under the tower were some rocks eroded by
    the sea, and waves that were trying to reach that small boy, setting him free.
    Little raindrops were falling on his emaciated, worn-out body. There was no
    trace of fat on him, only skin, bones, and almost no muscles. He must have gone
    without food for weeks. There were many scars on his body. Obviously recent
    ones, otherwise his demon’s blood would have already healed them.



    No matter how hard he tried to find those
    marks he recalled over his heart and on his chest, Nesto drew a blank.
    Obviously, he hadn’t sustained them yet. Suddenly, the sound of the waves was
    gone, and the wind abated, whispering in his ear, warning him about what was to
    come. Noiseless thunderclaps began to illuminate the towers and the mountainside,
    when he turned up behind Daemon. His father, Tzenon. The demon.



    He wore black trousers and an elegant blue
    coat over his white top. His hair was white and gold, his eyes dark like the
    abyss, while three slashes were visible on the right side of his jaw. They
    jarred with his fair complexion. They bore a remarkable resemblance to the mark
    they both bore across their ribs.



    “Is it over so soon, or is it time for the
    bolts to come out?” the noble asked, his stare inscrutable. Yet, no matter how
    expressionless his face, his voice was vivid and tinged with irony.



    “You are strong enough to speak in such a
    tone, so I suppose Velmar’s worry and entreaties were purposeless.” Tzenon’s
    face looked just as expressionless as his son’s. His hands grabbed the chains
    that held Daemon captive and, with no further ado, these were pried open.
    Daemon plumped to the ground, his legs shaking, but he soon stood up and
    stretched hands and body. The small noble seemed to be trying not to show any
    signs of pain or fatigue in front of his father. Perhaps, he doesn’t want
    him to take delight in his pain.



    “Oh, if it’s not the bolts, then it must be
    our little sparring. Good, sparring is the one I enjoy the most,” he said,
    while trying to loosen up his numb wrists, preparing them for battle.



    This took place on the stone bridge, which
    had no protective rails. A small slip, a thoughtless move, and you fell off,
    meeting your death.



    The thunderbolts didn't stop illuminating
    the castle, even for a moment. The demon must have been responsible for that.
    It was as if they obeyed his orders. The wind was blowing, especially up there,
    on the bridge, where father and son stood. Tzenon was as hard as nails, but his
    coat was at the mercy of the wind. Daemon’s body, on the other hand, was so light,
    he had to be on the defensive, like a wild animal, ready to attack its prey, so
    that it wouldn’t be blown away. “Are you ready to die, son of mine?” Tzenon
    asked, as he threw a sharp sword to him. He picked up another one he found in a
    corner of the bridge.



    The boy grabbed it with his left hand, then
    passed it into his right. He held on to the handle contentedly. “No, but I’m
    ready to kill you,” he replied and, with a growl under his breath, charged at
    him like a cat. Three strides brought him close to Tzenon and, holding the
    sword with both hands, brought it down with force. His father, the demon,
    fended it off rather effortlessly. He kicked Daemon in the chest, sending the
    small noble hurtling back.



    “This is not what I have shown you,” said
    Tzenon in a cautionary voice.



    “Shut your mouth, and just die.” He charged
    him again, just as strongly and thoughtlessly. This time, the demon just turned
    to one side to ward off the attack, then pulled Daemon’s hand, throwing him off
    the bridge, where there were only rocks and waves.



    “You rely too much on your brute force, and
    you have no balance. You don’t pay much attention to your surroundings, either.
    That will get you killed,” he said in a calm voice, as his son’s body fell off
    the cliff.



    “NOOO! Daemon!” He knew it was just a
    memory, but Nesto couldn’t keep himself from shouting. He ran to the edge of
    the bridge. His heart beat fast, when his eyes fell on the sea and the rocks,
    which seemed to form the huge jaws of a horrible monster. But, much to his
    surprise, the noble was suspended in mid-air, as if tied with a rope. He held
    on to his sword, and his face looked at the void beneath him in fear. Tzenon’s
    face was tranquil, almost as tranquil as that of Lord Zoloc. Like fear had
    never visited them.



    In his left hand, the fingers were
    intertwined and, as he lifted it, he hoisted the boy’s body. “I have told you
    before. Do not disobey me,” he said, then immediately turned his palm to his
    side and moved his fingers in Daemon’s direction. His son’s suspended body charged
    him again. With a jerk on Tzenon’s part, a rivulet of blood was splashed all
    over the noble, who was thrown onto the bridge wall.



    This is how he got one of his scars, Nesto assumed, as he saw the huge cut along Daemon’s body. The demon
    silently approached his son. “Now, embrace the pain because it will follow you
    forever,” he said, and left him suffering.



    In the past or, more specifically, until
    recently, he thought he had every reason to be hating his father. I was
    wrong! I was just an ignorant child.
    It was Daemon’s hatred towards his
    father that was completely, beyond any doubt, justified. Not mine. They
    were father and son, indeed, but he shouldn’t be deluding himself. There was a
    reason why everybody wanted Tzenon dead. It was his cruelty. And I’m not
    entirely sure that this cruelty has anything to do with the demon blood in his
    veins.



    Fortunately for the noble, a while later,
    an old man came to take care of him. Judging by his clothes, he can’t have been
    a noble; he was rather a servant. He helped him up tenderly, and carried him
    from the one tower to the other, until they got to his room. A warm, neat place
    with a fireplace and a big bed, overlooking the wild sea. The servant had him
    lie on the soft mattress, and left, only to come back later.



    A damp piece of cloth, a little stroke, and
    a sad smile was all it took for the man to treat the little boy’s wound, and
    allay his pain. The bandages and various herbs would come to nothing; they
    wouldn’t make much of a difference, nor would the dampened cloth. The demon’s
    blood was more than enough to heal his wound. Then, he placed a platter of food
    by his side, and left again. This time, Nesto followed him.



    The servant went down some steps, and
    crossed one of the bridges that led him to two big oaken doors hiding a
    spacious library. Countless books were scattered all around, while in a corner
    there was a long wooden counter with a pile of tattered books on it. He found
    the demon—on the opposite side of the counter—searching through the shelves
    lining the walls.



    That was not what Nesto expected to see. To
    be precise, it was the last thing he expected to see in that tower where the
    demon resided. A torture chamber would be more than predictable, a bloody hall
    of dead, butchered bodies almost…understandable, since, according to White Lord
    Raizel, demons were beings baying for blood and slaughter. Killing was their
    calling. So, how come there was a library in a demon’s house? It was surely
    part of his human side.



    “Any luck finding a way, Master Tzenon?”
    the servant asked.



    “I have, Velmar. But it is not to my
    liking,” said Tzenon with subdued rage. He failed to keep it in check, though,
    as his hand came down on the books like a thunderbolt, sending the whole shelf
    hurtling to the ground, along with the rest. “It requires my death. There must
    be another way hidden in these books.”



    “And I suppose that, by throwing these
    books all over the place, will somehow help you find it. You should try and be
    more patient with…”



    “I don’t need your preaching, Velmar,” he
    cut in abruptly, raising his palm. “It is wasted on me. I’m good at killing,
    not reading. And, whenever I have to read in an ancient language that my human
    mind cannot comprehend, I thirst for more blood. I might be able to use the
    gifts given to me by the godly power of a demon, but I also have to tolerate
    its curses.”



    The demon picked up a book off the floor,
    walked towards the counter, and drew up a chair to sit on. “Now, tell me
    quickly what you really wanted to tell me, before I start reading again. I’m
    sure it has to do with Daemon once again.”



    The servant didn’t seem to hesitate in the
    least. “Don’t you think you are being too harsh on him?”



    Tzenon shook his head. “Not at all. On the
    contrary, I think I’m being too lenient. He might not be able to overcome his demon
    blood if I continue to be so…affectionate to him.”



    Affectionate? Really? Did he have any idea what the word ‘affectionate’ meant, or did it
    have a different meaning for the nobles? He wouldn’t be surprised if it was the
    latter. The world of the nobles never stopped surprising and amazing him. Not
    in a good way…at all times. Obviously, it had nothing to do with the world of
    the commoners. Nesto had already given up any hope of understanding them.



    That memory carried on with Tzenon showing
    his son how affectionate he was every day. And Daemon, whenever he could,
    showed his father a few signs of affection, as well. Mainly in words, while
    sometimes he used his sword, fist, nails, and spit.



    Such a caring family.



    When the noble didn’t fight with his
    father, or wasn’t forced to suffer any other tortures, he spent the rest of his
    time recovering from his wounds, reading the books the old servant would bring
    him. The only occasions when Nesto saw him smile was when he was alone with
    Velmar, as the demon called the servant. That man, he never threatened by
    telling him how much he wanted to steal his life. Their conversations were
    somewhat normal.



    “Does my beloved father know you bring me
    books to read?” Daemon asked Velmar on one occasion.



    “It depends. If he does, will you still
    continue to read them, young master?”



    “Probably not.”



    “Then, no, he has absolutely no knowledge
    of it,” the servant smiling stressed, shaking his head. “I bring them on the
    sly. I fear that, if he learns about it, he will punish us both. Is that enough
    to make you want to keep reading the books?”



    “Oh, I want to read them more than anything
    else now,” said the young noble, returning the smile.



    If only his demon father was as kind and
    caring as this old man was.
    Honestly, it was no
    surprise to see Daemon making an escape attempt. It would be irrational if
    someone didn’t try to escape this nightmare that tormented him. He slipped out
    in the dark, through the small window of his room. He climbed down the tower
    with dexterity that resembled a squirrel, then ran towards the wood that
    sprawled on the opposite side. Away from the frenzied sea and his affectionate
    father. Unfortunately for him, his attempt was a complete failure. His escape
    led him to one of the cramped and dirty cells on the basement of the tower.



    It seemed that it was no easy task escaping
    the demon’s vigilant eyes, or those of the guards placed in the castle and
    across the wood. Why they carried out a demon’s orders was anybody’s guess.
    There was no other punishment, though, apart from his confinement to that tiny
    cell. On the other hand, what worse could he have thought of doing to him that
    he hadn’t already done?



    Nesto didn’t quite have a sense of time in
    that memory, but Daemon must have spent a long time in that cell. His father never
    bothered to pay him a visit. Velmar only brought him a metal platter of fruit
    and cooked meat every day. He kept him company, and discussed with him for a
    few minutes, then went back to his duties.



    The noble’s belly was full of pork and
    onions the day the servant came to get him out of the cell. He opened the door,
    and gave him a sharp sword.



    “So sweet of him to start the first day of
    my freedom with my favourite lesson,” the boy said ironically.



    “You know very well what your father is
    like, young master,” stated the servant with a sad smile. He took a pleading
    tone. “I beg you, try not to disobey him so much.”



    Tzenon was already standing on the stone
    bridge, like he hadn’t budged an inch since their last duel, when Daemon
    arrived. He wore almost the same clothes again: dark trousers and a blue coat;
    only his white top had been replaced with a dark one. It was probably morning,
    but the dark clouds that surrounded them hid the sun. The wind didn’t seem to
    be particularly strong, but it must have been quite cold as he could see the
    little noble shivering.



    “I hope you enjoyed your small break, son
    of mine,” his father greeted him. “You have Velmar to thank for that.”



    “Don’t you worry. I will thank him by
    killing you.”



    “Very good. Shall we begin?” said the demon
    and, without waiting for a reply, rushed headlong onto the small boy, who only
    wore a robe full of holes to protect him from the cold. Daemon fended off the
    attack, just like his father had shown him. His moves were no longer hasty or
    angry. There was more technique to them, rather than brute force or feelings
    that prevented him from thinking. But that didn’t last long. He quickly lost
    his calm—a knee strike in his stomach was enough to cause this—, and he tried
    to pierce through his father’s heart with his sharp blade. That brought him
    down on the hard wall, boring another hole in his already ripped robe, and
    sustaining a wound in his body.



    Tzenon threw his gory sword, and turned his
    back on his son, untouched. He took a few steps, when a voice suddenly made him
    stop short.



    “Not so soon. Our sparring hasn't come to
    its end. I have yet to kill you.” That voice didn’t sound like the noble’s; it
    was different. It was heavier, and sounded as if someone were whispering in his
    ears. The boy stood on his two feet, ignoring his wound, holding the blade, his
    eyes bloodshot and creepy.



    A black puff of smoke came out of the
    demon’s shoulders and head. Nesto saw him clench his fists and, when he finally
    turned his head to look at the little boy, the black abyss of his eyes turned
    into some red, bloody flames simmering at every glance. A fiendish smile
    studded his lips, with the dark clouds having formed a vortex over his head.



    “So, you finally decided to show
    yourself…son of Demon,” he said. He went closer and picked up his sword to
    compete with his son. But he suddenly stopped, and averted his eyes, as if he
    had realised something. An intruder. Nesto!



    He looked him in the eye, his glance
    killing him in a thousand different ways. He can’t see me, it’s just a
    dream, it’s just several memories of Daemon’s. I don’t exist in this dark
    world,
    he said to reassure himself. The demon took a few steps forward, and
    Nesto instantly felt the need to take a few steps backwards. But behind him was
    only the void. When the demon came before him, Nesto gulped with difficulty,
    and lowered his eyes, in hopes that, this way, he wouldn’t be perceivable.



    It didn’t work. His heart started racing
    and banging against his chest. Even the flame under the mark flared up as a
    warning. “This is the Nest of the Demons,” said Tzenon in a voice that made the
    hair on the back of his neck stand on end. “You don’t belong here, descendant
    of the dragons.” He raised his free hand, and placed it on Nesto’s chest. With
    a soft, slow, and torturous move, the demon pushed him off the stone bridge,
    while Nesto felt the wild, frozen waves devouring him.



     

  • CHAPTER 25

    The ancient Gods smiled at her. Probably
    for the first time. Nesto’s wound started to heal, and his heart beat again. A
    while later, everything got even better. Silan-te kept her promise, and
    convinced the White Lord to kill Daemon but, as he went about doing so, the
    noble’s body got back to normal. Whatever fiendish had gripped him was gone,
    and the old man fell to the ground; he couldn’t believe his eyes. “He was
    telling the truth. He can actually restrain his demon blood,” he exclaimed.



    In the end, Raizel stood up with
    difficulty, and grabbed the net that had trapped Daemon. It suddenly turned
    into a tattered sweater, and the old man put it on. Silan-te could barely keep
    herself from running to him to check every inch of his body for wounds and
    fractures. She only checked his pulses with a soft touch on his throat.



    She regained what precious she had lost.
    Both of them. The need to keep them safe took over her body and, in an instant,
    they were all under branches and leaves, defying her wounds. She was so elated
    that she even whispered a word of magic to bring the leaves together,
    forgetting that no magic lingered in her eyes anymore. Then, something weird
    happened. Almost unexplainable. She felt all her body respond to her will, and
    the branches obeyed her voice. Magic gushed from her cursed body. There was
    such harmony inside of her and, for the first time in her life, she didn’t feel
    cursed, but blessed.



    She turned to the White Lord, and gave him
    a look that sought an explanation, which he furnished. “You proved your loyalty
    to that boy’s godly blood,” he said. “Rejoice, little girl, your curse is no
    more. No one will refer to you as a Cursed One anymore.”



    Words weren’t enough to describe her joy. I
    made the right choice.
    She had followed the words of disguised Lord Zoloc,
    and she had been rewarded for it. The risk was incredible, but it was worth it.
    The days—especially the nights—that had followed after finding out about the
    hidden knowledge of the mark were an ordeal. During the day, she was consumed
    with guilt and a sense of betrayal, while at nights, her heart leapt for hope
    that the Lord’s whispers gave her. They were so enticing that obeying Lord Candidate
    Nesto was her only choice.



    And this is my reward. My curse has been
    lifted. My wish came true!



    Of course, she was well aware now that her
    hearing those words and serving the descendant of the dragons had been from the
    beginning a plan of Lord Zoloc’s, so that he could lead that boy to the summit
    of the Tower. He needed her to keep Lord Candidate Nesto’s presence secret from
    the rest of the Cursed Ones. It looked insane to her, but this act of hers of
    bringing back to life the descendant of the dragons could have been a plan of
    the Lord. However, she quickly ruled out that possibility. No matter how hard
    she thought about it, chances were slim, almost nil.



    She had to admit it: she didn’t trust that
    Lord. But she was still thankful to him.



    “Do you feel any difference between this
    and your previous self, or have your magic powers increased?” the White Lord
    asked her.



    “I do,” stated Silan-te. “There’s no
    comparison between this and my previous self.” Nature used to curse her or, at
    best, ignore her. But now, things were different. The trees kept whispering it
    to her, the wind was singing about it, while the rain was shouting it. YOU
    ARE FREE!
    She could feel their approval and love. Her wound had completely
    healed, while the colours came back to her eyes, more vivid than ever. Nothing
    remained hidden from her sight.



    The descendant of the dragons and the
    demon’s son lay next to each other. Silan-te got closer and clearly saw the two
    blue flames hidden behind Lord Candidate Nesto’s wet eyelids, and a third one
    simmering under his Mark. Daemon’s eyes, on the other hand, were red as blood,
    while in his chest lay the dark abyss.



    She checked the wound on Nesto’s chest, and
    it seemed to have healed. She hesitated to approach the noble, let alone touch
    him. It had nothing to do with his demon blood or the scary looks he had had
    earlier on. It was just…Every time her gaze fell on him, she felt the old man’s
    penetrating eyes pierce through her, and she almost heard his words: “He has
    captured your heart, hasn’t he?”
    And, for some reason, she couldn’t deny
    it. Her body, even her thoughts, wouldn’t let her.



    Lord Raizel’s words weren’t exactly true.
    Yes, there was a certain strange emotion that gripped her every time she saw
    Daemon. And, no, that emotion wasn’t just unbearable irritation. But this was
    surely due to that kiss they had exchanged when they were still in Lord Zoloc’s
    Fortress. “Exchanged” wasn’t the right verb. That rude noble had stolen it from
    her.



    Lord Candidate Nesto had kicked Daemon out
    of his room, and he had asked her to share her room. To be precise, her bed.
    She refused without a second thought, of course. But the noble, instead of
    giving one of his usual speeches on how she should serve him too, he just leant
    close to her and, out of the blue, placed his lips on hers.



    “I will have either you or your soft bed.
    You choose,” he told her with that irritating smile of his.



    The kiss startled her, and she gave him her
    room without demur. But the worst thing was that his soft lips kept haunting
    her in her dreams. Because of that moment, she had this weird feeling, which
    she clearly shouldn’t. She was supposed to serve the descendant of the dragons,
    not have this kind of emotions, these unexplainable desires. In a way, it felt
    like she was betraying him. And betrayal was what caused the downfall of my
    race.



    She finally chose to keep her distances
    from Daemon, from that dangerous emotion. He was alive and breathing; she
    didn’t have to approach him to see that. She started a fire, using a word of
    magic, to keep them warm, and she told the old man that she would go hunting.
    Those two were surely ravenous. Their bodies needed as much energy as possible,
    after all they’d been through. After all, at the moment, she needed to be left
    alone for some time to clear her thoughts about the noble and the descendant of
    the dragons.



    She made sure not to stray too far away.
    She had a strange hunch, leaving them alone. Last time she did, one of them
    lost his life, the other one his mind, and Silan-te her hope. Clearly, this
    ominous feeling was somewhat justified. But now, the White Lord was with them;
    he would keep them safe.



    Some fat four-legged creatures were boring
    holes in the ground, and climbing up the trees, but they would have to wait. So
    would Nature’s call. As her curse had been lifted, she felt the need to set
    herself free to become one with nature and the pristine side of magic. But not
    yet. Time was not propitious. Her priority was to convince herself, then fill
    the others’ stomach, along with her own. It was a task she always did whenever
    her heart wavered. When a decision had to be made. And it had never failed her
    so far. She just had to convince herself out of this dangerous emotion.



    She leant against the trunk of a tall tree
    and, taking a few deep breaths, she ordered herself to follow three simple
    commands:



    Do not touch him!



    Do not think of him!



    Do not return his gaze!



    She added a fourth one, just to make sure:



    Do not dream of his kiss!



    There was no way she would risk losing what
    she had fought so hard to obtain. Salvation from this curse. Her former glory.
    This emotion, that kiss, she denied herself.



    When she finished making her resolve, she
    caught two of those four-legged creatures with no particular difficulty. She
    got back quickly as she still had that knot in her stomach, and she found
    Raizel standing bolt upright with difficulty, wielding a sword that seared the
    rain. The other two were safe. The Lord had turned it, so that it faced him,
    while his face was convulsed with pain.



    “My wounds are still bleeding,” he replied
    when he saw her puzzled expression. “No matter how many herbs I applied, they
    came to nothing. The only solution is to sear them.” He placed his searing
    blade on the wound in his throat, and the smell of burning skin instantly
    assailed her nostrils.



    “Were you forced to fight with another Lord
    or Cursed One, before you managed to track us down?” she asked him, while the
    old man did the same to the other wound close to his shoulder. The sudden
    thought that there could be more enemies on the third level started to alarm
    her.



    He simply laughed, gritting his teeth with
    pain. “Even Lord Commander’s personal guard would find it hard to inflict such
    wounds, my little girl. Let alone a Lord or some Cursed Ones.”



    “Then, who?” she asked, then immediately
    remembered the dragon on the second level. “The dragon,” she exclaimed.



    “Lord Asaer informed me of a frenzied
    dragon on the second island,” he said, ready to treat his next wound. “For an
    instant, I feared it was number two. Can you tell me which of these two jerks
    awakened that monster, and how? I doubt whether you could have.”



    “It was Lord Zoloc, but I don’t know how.”



    “No doubt, I never liked that man.”



    “He did it, so that we could escape the
    Deathlord,” said Silan-te, trying to justify him. She didn’t want to put the
    blame on him after all he had done for them.



    “Very witty of him. The only thing is, that
    half-dead creature flew all the way here, following you. It would have killed
    you if I hadn’t been quick enough.”



    After that process of searing his wounds,
    the last drop of energy seemed to have oozed away from the old man. He lay on
    the ground, not very close to the fire that was still burning, and shut his
    eyes.



    His wounds were large, and his body now
    weak. There was still another question Silan-te wanted to ask and, now that the
    Lord was almost unconscious, it was the right moment. The old man wouldn’t have
    the strength to change his mind now. “Why did you help me bring back to life
    the descendant of the dragons?” she asked. “The alignment will take place one
    of these days, you know that. Then, the dragons will come back to life.”



    “They are meant to come back to life,” murmured
    the White Lord. His voice could barely be heard. “Just like I’m meant to slay
    them.”



    Just like I’m meant to serve them…She could kill him. Right here, right now. He was too weak now,
    probably already passed out. As their servant, wasn’t she supposed to eliminate
    anyone that threatened them? But, instead, she made sure she took care of his
    wounds. The old man had already done too much for them. The least she could do
    was spare his life, this time. This was probably what Lord Candidate Nesto
    would have wanted.



    Silan-te bandaged Raizel’s wounds, using
    pieces of cloth made of the rag the Lord had for a sweater, after she first
    anointed them with the leftovers of the herbs. Then, she pierced the prey with
    two sharp twigs, and stuck them into the ground by the fire. Only then did she
    decide to respond to Nature’s murmured call.



    She got closer to the lake, and removed
    what was left of her clothes. She didn’t feel cold, and the raindrops were no
    longer piercing her like pins. Their touch looked like a soft touch. She dipped
    in, the cool water immediately embracing her. The swim looked like dance, and
    her heart gave the rhythm. Only one breath was enough for her to dance in the
    depths of the lake all day. Down there, all her thoughts ceased to exist, and
    what lingered was a tender, fulfilling emotion.



    So beautiful, she thought as, through her hazy vision, an explosion of colours
    took place. Vivid blue and purple colours appeared from the depths of the lake.
    Blends of green and yellow adorned the trees and the grass, while some shades
    of red and orange sprang from the ground. Everything had a touch of perfection.



    If only those two searing eyes hadn’t
    turned up outside the lake that scorched her skin. Silan-te turned to the other
    side, hoping that it wouldn’t bother her, and she repeated the commands. Do
    not touch him. Do not think of him. Do not return his gaze. Do not dream of
    his…



    Her skin froze. And it wasn’t the cold
    water. She felt Daemon’s touch on her leg, and saw him suddenly appear from
    underneath her. As he emerged, his hand stroked her whole body, until it
    touched her face and lips. He kissed her, again! Softly at first, but then more
    passionately. He ran his other hand around her waist, and pressed her against
    his body, his heartbeat banging alongside hers. She tried to pull back. She
    shouldn’t surrender to his kiss, his touch, to this desire.



    But her body didn’t obey her will. Desire
    was burning her. She wrapped her legs around him, while her hands ran all over
    his body, asking for more. She ordered her body to stop, but it clung to him
    more tightly, returning his forbidden kisses.



    So much for convincing myself.



    She didn’t know how, but after a while she
    finally managed to find the strength to let go of his lips. “Why do you always
    do this?”



    “Do what?”



    “Steal my kisses.”



    “Oh, that. I thought master Raizel had
    mentioned it to you. My father is a demon. I can’t control the urges of my
    tainted blood. To be absolutely honest, I don’t really enjoy kissing you…that
    much. Not that I’m complaining about it, though. It seems you don’t, either.”



    “I…I…”



    “You…You…You can’t lie, right?” he said
    with a smile of contentment.



    I can’t, but now I really wish I could. Just so she could wipe out that smug look off his face.



    He leant again and kissed her. So suddenly
    that Silan-te didn’t have time to react. She broke free, and then slapped him
    just as suddenly, and turned to the other side, swimming out of the lake.



    Aaaaah! The
    slap she gave him was so satisfying, but she also liked his kisses. What’s
    wrong with me?



    When she got out, she realised she was on
    the wrong side. That unbearable noble and his kisses had distracted her. Her
    clothes were on the opposite shore. But Daemon was already behind her, with his
    own damp clothes sticking to his body. “Why don’t you just admit you like me?”
    he said in a tone of voice full of self-confidence.



    “Why didn’t you tell me that you are also a
    descendant of a God?” She didn’t really care, but she couldn’t answer his
    question. Her body wouldn’t let her lie. And, no matter what, she wouldn’t give
    him that satisfaction.



    “I didn’t want you to serve me because you
    were obliged to.”



    “I wouldn’t. I don’t have to. My race only
    serves the dragons, not just anyone who bore the divine blood. Our Oath
    concerns only them.”



    “I didn’t know that,” admitted the noble.



    “And why do you want me to serve you so
    badly? Is this also one of those urges that you can’t control because of your
    demon blood?” She got closer. So close, she could almost taste his breath.



    He didn’t budge an inch. “Well, I wouldn’t
    blame my demon blood for this one,” he admitted. “This urge is due to my noble
    blood, I would say. As you can see, I’m a victim of my own blood.” He came
    closer, too. His lips almost touched hers.



    “Yes, I almost pity you.” If all this
    carried on much longer, she would give in, and kiss him, she knew it. She
    placed her lips on his ear. “I have a different proposal for you. Why don’t you
    serve me, instead?” she asked him, then abruptly pushed him into the lake. His
    surprised look, as he fell, was so funny, she could barely muffle a laugh.



    Daemon stuck his head out of the water, and
    thrust it back. “It’s an understandable request,” he said, while he lifted his
    hair. The raindrops were softly kissing his face. “Very well. Let’s compromise,
    then. How about serving each other?”



    “Hmmm, that’s a tempting offer. Still no,
    though.”



    “Why not?”



    Silan-te had almost forgotten the reason
    why, until she happened to lift her eyes. Through the dark she was plunging
    into, she saw two bright blue flames on the opposite side of the lake staring
    at her. Accusing her of betrayal.



    That’s why…

  • CHAPTER 26

    The wound in Nesto’s chest had somehow
    healed, but the sight of their kiss made him feel like another spear had
    pierced through his flesh. This one stuck right into his heart. He averted his
    eyes, and went back where the small fire was burning, trying to convince
    himself that he was in no particular pain. The two pieces of prey had been
    cooked, but he didn’t bother to remove them from the fire. The only one who
    would hate to have his meat overdone was the noble. And that was more than just
    welcome right now.



    After that grim memory he had seen with
    Daemon and his demon father, he feared that, every time he looked at him, his
    eyes would be full of pity. Somehow, he doubted whether that would pose a
    problem anymore. Thinking of the noble no longer caused him that feeling; only
    annoyance and a little bit of jealousy. As always. He wondered what kind
    of emotion he would be gripped by when he looked at Silan-te. Would it be
    silent torment, or would it still be a joy hard to hide?



    Master Raizel lay unconscious on the
    ground, feverish, his body full of burns. Nesto could find no explanation for
    that. His own wounds had all healed. What was most important, he wasn’t dead.
    Nor were Silan-te and Daemon. Only the Deathlord had been killed. He saw his
    lifeless body dumped in the rain. He could find no explanation for that,
    either.



    The girl was the first to get back, then
    the noble, after a while. “You look too gloomy, even for someone who, a while
    ago, had joined his dead ancestors in their eternal sleep,” he remarked, before
    he sat by the fire to dry. He looked somewhat annoyed, but he was smiling.



    Nesto wanted to say something smart and, if
    possible, demeaning and offensive, but he didn’t. Not out of superiority, of
    course. He just couldn’t think of anything. There were so many things,
    thoughts, and emotions distracting him. So, he just gave him a smile that would
    probably look quite murderous.



    “Yes, about that ‘had joined my dead
    ancestors’ part,” he said and looked at Silan-te, looking for an explanation.
    He hadn’t made it out from the start but, as the flames lit up her face, he
    noticed that her hair was of a lighter colour. Yellow, almost whitish. And her
    skin was no longer dark, while her eyes had lost their green sheen, turning
    grey. So much had changed about her, but her beauty was the same.



    She narrated to him in her sweet voice
    about the soulless body she had found when she got back, about the
    uncontrollable demon that had seized Daemon’s body, and almost tore the
    Deathlord’s body to pieces. About master Raizel, who slew the dragon and almost
    beheaded the demon. In that part, the noble’s eyes were wide open in fear,
    perhaps remembering the old man who had warned him that he would kill him if he
    ever let that dark side show. Finally, she told him about her teardrops and the
    magic of her eyes that had brought him back to life. “My curse is no more,” she
    added.



    She only skipped the kisses she had
    exchanged with Daemon. But that, I suppose I already know.



    “Does that mean that you don’t need to
    serve me anymore?” he asked her.



    “No. My oath is eternal,” she said, taken
    by storm. “And my desire is to keep serving you.”



    That heartened him more than he wanted to
    admit. “That leaves only one question. What do we do with master Raizel?” he
    said, addressing both of them. “Obviously, we can’t take him with us. And we
    can’t stay here any longer. It’s too dangerous.” Besides, his father and
    brother were awaiting him at the top of the Tower. Every single moment that flew
    by put them in a more dangerous position. They had to move as fast as they
    could.



    “I’ll stay with him,” Silan-te declared.



    “No!” said Nesto. The word came out of his
    mouth spontaneously, almost immediately. “That’s too dangerous…for both of
    you.”



    “They won’t be any safer with us,” said
    Daemon, and unfortunately he was right.



    “I’ll make sure I protect him and stay well
    hidden,” said the girl to reassure him.



    But it wasn’t the old man he was worried
    about. It was her. But there was no better choice. He only hoped there weren’t
    many enemies left. That’s what the fact that only the Lord and a Cursed One
    attacked them on the third island went to show.



    The last meal together, and probably the
    last meal they would have at the Tower of the Lords was overcooked, if not
    completely burnt. He had come to regret his earlier decision. He should have
    removed the meat from the fire. They ate mostly in silence. The girl spoke only
    once to give them some information about the fourth island. The portal to the
    last level was always open, so they wouldn’t need any crystal, and it was in a
    gigantic head of a stone dragon. Because of its size, it would be really hard
    to miss it, she told them. If the Order had sent other Cursed Ones or Lords,
    then that’s where they would be waiting for them.



    When they finished their meal, she
    retrieved the crystal from the Deathlord’s dead body, and opened the portal for
    them. She just waved them goodbye with no words. Yet, as a gift perhaps, for
    the first time, she looked Nesto in the eye without lowering hers. At that
    brief moment, he realised he couldn’t have asked for a better gift.



    A joy hard to hide. That’s the emotion she made him feel.



    The darkness of the portal covered him, and
    Silan-te snapped out of his eyeshot. He didn't hold on to that emotion for
    long, as the portal shoved him onto a hard, dry ground, taking away from him
    the joy, and only giving back pain and dizziness. The sky was illuminated by
    hundreds of tiny stars and a round moon. Nesto stood up and found himself
    standing right at the edge of the fourth level. Just a breath away from the
    void. The wind was so strong that, if he wasn’t careful enough, he could fall
    down to the third level, and die.



    “I had almost forgotten that these islands
    float in the sky,” said the noble, gazing at the void and the grey clouds
    beneath.



    He wasn’t exactly right. They didn’t just
    float. Being parts of the White Tower, they tried to rise up to their initial
    position. To what they used to be. Just like the dragons. It was Lord
    Cornius, or perhaps Lord Mendax that had mentioned that, he wasn’t sure which
    one. Both of them were crazy about stories and legends. Perhaps more than an
    actual story-teller was.



    “There is something I want to tell you, now
    that it’s just the two of us,” said Nesto. “It concerns Silan-te.”



    Her name made Daemon’s eyes turn to Nesto.
    “What is it?”



    It probably wouldn’t make any difference to
    Daemon as, apart from that single occasion at the lake, he always treated her
    badly—more or less, that’s how he had treated those two girls at the Black
    Castle. He had taken an interest in them just to while away the time. Anyway,
    Nesto felt the need to tell him. “I want to make her mine. To make her my
    wife.”



    The noble looked taken aback. “Well, that
    makes two of us,” he said. His face was all serious.



    I have to admit it, this is one of those
    rare moments that he catches me off guard.
    He
    didn't expect to hear something like that and, maybe for the first time, Nesto
    got mad at him because there was no arrogance in his tone. Because…because he
    wasn’t joking; he really meant it. “I saw all of her dreams. They were about
    me,” he said, panicky. That lie had come out surprisingly easily. Luckily,
    Daemon seemed to believe it.



    “She kissed me, more than once.” He blurted
    out that lie just as easily. In the dream Nesto had seen, the noble was the one
    to kiss her, and not the other way around.



    But he let him have that one, since Nesto
    also lied. “I know,” he said, stressing the word. “I saw you at the lake.
    However, she wants to serve me forever.”



    “I know,” he said in the same tone. “I was
    there. Apparently, she doesn’t know what she truly desires.”



    “I couldn’t agree more.”



    “So, what do we do now, commoner?” Daemon
    asked. “Let her decide?”



    “Obviously,” said Nesto, but it was quite
    hard not to give in to the temptation of pushing the noble over.



    He was still mad at Daemon, when they
    started running towards dark trees and the ruins of the White Tower, to where
    they hoped the portal would probably be. As if that weren’t enough, the flame
    turned up under his mark, giving him an excruciating burn. As always, out of
    nowhere and for no apparent reason. A completely useless gift. If it was
    indeed a gift of his divine blood. Perhaps, its usage was to warn him for an
    upcoming threat. Whenever he had been in danger, the mark had always burnt him.
    But that was highly unlikely. There was no…



    The noble’s hand grabbed him and dragged
    him under a tree trunk. He instantly knew, that meant danger ahead. Alright.
    Maybe, it wasn’t a completely useless gift.
    He looked where Daemon was
    pointing, then stuck his head behind the tree. He could feel beads of sweat
    trickling down his forehead. He looked at the noble, the expression on his face
    indicating that they shared the same thought. There’s too many of them! Cursed
    Ones. Dozens of them. More than they had seen in the Fortress. Why were there
    so many of them? They moved silently and more stealthily than night itself.
    Only their glassy weapons and their whitish-green masks that reflected the
    faint green light of their daggers gave them away.



    Earlier on, he had failed to make them out
    because he was still preoccupied with being mad at Daemon. And what the mark
    did—whose purpose was supposed to warn him—was distract him even more. Once
    again, the noble’s reflexes and instinct had saved his life. And, for some
    unexplainable reason—he wasn’t absolutely sure, but he guessed it might have
    had something to do with Daemon claiming that he wanted to make Silan-te his
    wife—, that made him even madder at that damn noble.



    Fighting them would mean jumping to their
    deaths; running away seemed too hard. Hiding was the best choice. And all those
    ruins scattered all around were favourable. Daemon had come to the same
    conclusion first. He pointed with his finger to some of the ruins of the White
    Tower that were fairly close to them. It was a great temporary hideout.



    The strong wind reached their ears like a
    song, deadening all other noises that their footsteps could make, as they
    hunched hurriedly towards the bulky ruins. They were slightly taller than a
    plain house and, while it was full of cracks and holes, these were not big
    enough for them to risk being seen. They hid behind the tall weathered walls,
    and peeked through the holes to see if those who were sent to hunt them down
    had by any chance discovered their trail.



    It seemed that they hadn’t, although his
    mark was still burning. Nesto saw them running like shadows, holding their
    green daggers, looking around with their impersonal masks on. It was really
    hard picturing a face under those masks. They were so different from Silan-te.
    She was warm and gentle, while the others seemed too distant and emotionless.
    They probably numbered close to forty men…no, at least fifty. Way too many! Especially,
    considering the fact that there were only a couple on the previous level.



    Their great numbers were truthfully
    unanticipated. Lord Zoloc had made it clear that the Order of the Lords had
    gathered all those men, Lords and Cursed Ones, that they had, whom they sent to
    the second level, as soon as they perceived the presence of an individual with
    the blood of the dragons. And most of them, if not all, had been burnt alive,
    mangled by the dragon. Those left must have died at Lord Zoloc’s hands.



    And, of course, from the beginning, their
    force had been limited, since a big part of it—Nesto guessed they must have
    consisted of hundreds of Cursed Ones and dozens of Lords—was busy fighting
    Tzenon, the demon, who had re-appeared, threatening them. Unless…unless they
    decided to focus all their attention on me.
    The real threat. On the face of
    it, it was obvious that the demon was dangerous, and it had also tarnished the
    Order’s reputation. However, that could in no way be compared to the undeniable
    threat that the descendant of the dragons posed. If I were to survive, all
    the dragons would come back to life.
    Killing the demon, or stopping the
    dragons from digging out of their graves? The answer was quite clear. They
    don’t care about the demon or his son anymore. They only seek me, my death.



    “I guess that the portal is in the
    direction of where they came,” said Daemon, as he peeked through the holes.
    “There are lots of them, though. We have to find a way to move without being
    seen, before the night’s gone.” He turned his gaze upon Nesto. “Any ideas,
    commoner?”



    Nesto shook his head. “If only we had Lord
    Zoloc with us. I’m sure he would be able to think of something.” The noble
    looked at him in a way that didn’t approve of his thought. “What? His plans are
    crazy, ridiculous, and surely dangerous beyond any doubt, but, in the end, they
    worked.”



    “Only by pure luck,” Daemon demurred. “And
    there’s no reason why we should be discussing this right now. Lord Zoloc is not
    here to help us. We’re left to our own devices.”



    The Cursed Ones came to a halt, several
    metres away, close to some other ruins. A loud voice made them freeze in their
    tracks. They made room for that person to walk. When her face was illuminated
    by the green sheen of their daggers, Nesto could recognise her: Lord Ereina!



    Her appearance bore his thoughts out. The
    first priority of the Order of the Lords was definitely the boy with the blood
    of the dragons running through his veins. And I bet Lord Commander Legris
    must be somewhere around here.
    Maybe, he was the one guarding the portal.
    That wasn’t good at all. Just one Lord, a Deathlord, to be precise, was more
    than enough to almost kill them both. And now, they had to face at least two of
    them, without considering the Cursed Ones, of course! Yet another obstacle that
    looked insurmountable. Now, I really wish Lord Zoloc were here.



    He was too far away for Nesto to make out
    what she was saying to them, until Lord Ereina lifted her eyes high to the dark
    sky. “It has already begun,” she almost shouted, and the masked men became one
    with the dark, spreading all around.



    They were in such a hurry that they didn’t
    even take a look at the ruins. Nesto and Daemon didn’t move, though, even when
    the Cursed Ones were nowhere to be seen. Not until they could come up with a
    plan that would give them a slim hope of successfully passing the portal. Dying
    once was more than enough.



    “I didn’t expect to see Lord Ereina here,”
    said the noble in a low voice. He was still breathing hard from that run. “I
    thought she was hunting the demon, along with the Lord Commander.”



    “Well, they were. But not anymore,” said
    Nesto. “It seems that they consider me a bigger threat than your demon father.”



    “That, or they succeeded in slaying him.”



    I highly doubt that. Daemon couldn’t have ever seen his father’s real power. But Nesto
    had. Only that single memory was enough to see how incredibly strong he really
    was. He was untouchable. How come all these blades of the White Lords couldn’t
    bite his flesh? But Nesto preferred not to tell him. Maybe, it would be better
    for Daemon to believe that the demon could never keep him trapped in his castle
    again.



    His mark kept on searing him and, of
    course, now he couldn’t tell why. It was quite certain that there were no
    masked men, no threat nearby. Words weren’t enough to describe the rage, the
    hatred he felt about this useless gift of his. His nails held on to the mark
    tight, and it took a great deal of strength and patience to keep himself from
    ripping that piece of flesh off his body.



    It wasn’t a surprise to see the noble doing
    exactly the same thing. That was the noble he knew. The one he met at the Black
    Castle. Always mocking me. Even at such moments. If it weren’t for the
    threat of the Cursed Ones warning
    him at the back of his head, he wouldn’t be able to resist the irrepressible
    desire to hit him. So, he settled for a hateful glare. But wait…The
    noble’s lips didn’t form a smile, and there was a dark reddish light coming out
    of his ripped top. His hand wasn’t enough to hide its glow. Nesto looked under
    his own top. His blue mark shone through the night…



    And, suddenly, he knew. He knew why this
    was happening, why the Cursed Ones were in such a hurry that they didn’t even
    look through the ruins. The two moons that were one, the marks that were
    burning and glowing, Lord Ereina’s words. This could only mean one thing.



    The alignment had already begun!



    He looked at Daemon again, his look being
    scared, this time as it dawned on him what this exactly meant. “What?” said the
    noble. Except the burning sensation, he probably hadn’t noticed his mark
    glowing, let alone the fact that the alignment was taking place.



    Nesto showed his radiant mark. Now, its
    shape clearly showed the head of a dragon. “The dragons are rising,” he only
    said.

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