He could picture them taking shape. Theirsizzling eyes waking up, blue flames billowing out of their nostrils. Usingtheir sharp claws to dig themselves out of their thousand-year grave. The firstthing, Nesto imagined, the dragons would probably do would be to spread theirwings and fly back to the skies, where they belonged, with a thundering roar.And the second thing…the second thing was obvious. Their divine blood woulddefinitely seek revenge.
Nesto knew where his thoughts, thesepictures, were leading him. And he didn’t want to go there, to that kind ofthinking; it was dangerous. Too dangerous. He had succeeded in banishing suchthoughts, when Silan-te told him about his divine blood, but he wasn’t sure ifhe could do so, now. Because now, it was too real. And, yes, it frightened him.
He hid the mark with his top, and turnedaround. Behind him. No, not behind him; towards the wall to peek through ahole. He didn’t know what he would like to see; probably nothing. He justwanted to fool his mind. To occupy it with something, anything but thosethoughts, those images. He felt lost and, for a moment, he even forgot where hewas. Daemon was trying to tell him something, but his words didn’t make sense.At least, that weird sound of his voice, was somehow distracting him…
Oh, I wish this flame would stop burningme. That burning sensation was a spark, the triggerfor fear to turn into pictures. He did his best to block those pictures outagain, to become numb, and feel nothing, to not acknowledge them, but hisefforts came to nothing. In the end, they came rushing through his mind: a seaof fire burning towns and villages. Small kids, old people, commoners, andnobles trying to escape that winged threat. All of them falling prey to thedragons’ ruthless jaws. He pictured the City of the Kings going up in flamesand getting destroyed, just like the Fortress of Lord Zoloc on the secondlevel. And I will be the one responsible for all this. Because I soselfishly survived.
All those scary stories about the dragonswould come true, and even more, harrowing stories would be written. It waslikely that his own name would be mentioned in them. Not as a heroic Lord, butas the one responsible for all the atrocities. Not as a hero, but as evilitself. He would be compared to the demon Tzenon, and surely he’d come out as afar greater evil. He would, without a doubt, be known as the greatest evil tohave existed.
And, believe it or not, that wasn’t theworst part. Garon and Lirel would be in danger because of the dragons, too. Theymight be killed because of me. Of course, there might be a slim hope ofsurvival for them, but the Cursed Ones, the ones that betrayed the dragons inthe first place, were surely doomed to suffer their fiery revenge. And Silan-tewould be no exception. I will lose her forever. And he couldn’t handleit, he couldn’t handle any of that.
Everyone will suffer because of me. Itis obvious that I shouldn’t exist. He turned hishead towards the noble. “Daemon, kill me,” he blurted out without much thought.Lord Ereina and the Cursed Ones were in a hurry to kill him, although thealignment had already begun. So, if he were to die right now, maybe, justmaybe, the dragons wouldn’t be able to rise from their graves and kill everyonehe cared about. The chances of him coming out of this alive were already prettyslim, anyway. He would be doing everybody a favour.
“Hey, look who’s back,” said Daemon, afterhe tore his eyes away from the hole he had been peeking through. “Tired ofstaring at the wall already, commoner? You know that, sometimes, you have thetendency to get lost in thought, right?”
“I know, I do it all the time,” Nestoreplied. “Now, I need you to kill me before I change my mind, before it’s toolate. Just do it. Don’t make me beg you.”
The noble took it for a joke. “I’m honestlythinking about it, but I doubt it would, in any way, help me reach the portal.So, no. I will have to decline your offer.”
“Daemon, I’m serious,” Nesto insisted.“Because of me, the dragons will rise. Don’t you see? I’m the greatest evil.”
“Greatest evil? Clearly, you haven’t met mydear father. You wouldn’t say that if you had seen him.”
Yet, he had seen enough memories of him toknow how merciless and brutal that man was. And I’m still a far greaterevil. “You saw what that one dragon was capable of. Cities and villageswill be reduced to ashes in their wake. I can’t even imagine how many willdie.”
The noble remained silent for a while,sizing him up. “That’s not my problem,” he finally said. “Nor is it yours. Letthe Order of the Lords handle it. They are not that weak. They will find a wayto protect most of the cities. Besides, if you wish so badly to die, then whydon’t you do it yourself?” Daemon got closer and took his glassy dagger. Hewrapped Nesto’s hands around its handle, and then aimed its sharp point at hisheart. “Here you are! Just a small push, and everything will be over. All yourguilt will be gone.”
His hands grabbed the green dagger, whilethis seemed to be slipping away. The mark was still burning him, making his palmssweat. Just a small push, and Garon, Lirel, and Silan-te would be safe. He sawthe noble look at him, his eyebrow raised. “You don't really think I will doit, do you?” Nesto asked.
Daemon shook his head. “No, not really.One’s own survival always comes first. You are the one who said it, remember?”
He took a decisive step backwards. Thiswasn’t a joke, a game. Killing himself ought to be the best choice, no matterwhat that son of the demon said. But…his father and brother knew about it and,still, they wanted him to survive. “Just keep in mind,” said the noble with asmile. “If you die, Silan-te is mine. Not that you stood any chance against me,anyway. I’m just clearing it up.”
That was enough to bring him back to hissenses. I think he knows me too well. Maybe, even more than I know myself. Andpart of him hated him unbelievably for that, while the other part was grateful.“You’d wish, noble. She belongs to me.”
“Not if you are dead. So, go on. Killyourself. Don’t worry, I’ll wait patiently,” Daemon said and crossed his handsabove his chest.
In answer to that, Nesto put the daggerback into its case, and feigned a smile. “I changed my mind. You are right. Ionly care about my own survival, after all.”
That smug smile turned up across his lips,as usual. “I’m always right. Can we focus on how to reach the portal withoutgetting killed, now?”
They sat on the ground, and focused only onthis, but no plan seemed to be good enough to be worth taking a risk for. Fromthe start, they rejected the idea of messing with whoever came their way, andforce their way into the portal. That would be plain stupid. Especially if theLord Commander was guarding it. After a long dispute, Nesto managed to convinceDaemon to also reject the idea of one of them being the bait, while the otherwould escape. The one acting as a bait would most probably die. And it wascertain that, in the noble’s mind, the bait would be Nesto, since he was theone that the Order of the Lords wanted so desperately to kill.
They were still thinking, when they saw aCursed One hurriedly and clumsily heading in their direction, his green daggerglowing in the dark. They instantly separated and retreated, as silently asthey could, in even darker recesses of the ruins. Obviously, the masked men hadalready searched a big part of the island—without finding anything—, and nowthey were focusing their attention on the ruins. There was only one of them,but a shout would be enough to summon all the Lords and Cursed Ones.
He never had the chance, though. Nestosliced open his throat, coming from behind, and the masked man died in completesilence. He was ready to throw the dead body in some dark corner, when Daemonstopped him. He bent over the soulless body, removed the white mask, revealinghis sparkling green eyes, and pensively checked his clothes. “I just thought ofa way to reach the portal unnoticed,” he said. “If we wear the mask and theirblack clothes, they would never be able to tell us apart. What do you think?”
Nesto had to consider it for a while. Hehad to admit it—it was the best thing they had come up with up until now,although it was somewhat crazy. It was worth a try; they could take the risk.“I think Lord Zoloc would be proud of you.”
“Oh, shut it,” he said, and began to removethe clothes of the masked man. “We’ll need another mask, and a second pair ofclothes. I’ll dress up as a Cursed One, and go kill another one. It should beeasy enough.”
“Why you, and not me?”
“Why don’t you trust me? Do you perhapsthink that I’m going to abandon you here, or use you as a bait?” he asked. Ican’t say that it didn’t cross my mind. The noble’s arguments were that hehad observed Silan-te for a long time, and could mimic their movements better.He was the one most likely to succeed. “And, of course, I don’t even have tomention that I don’t trust you completely. You might change your mind again,and ask a Cursed One to kill you before it’s too late, or something like that,”he added. On the other hand, Nesto’s arguments were nonexistent.
Daemon put on the mask, took off his ownripped clothes to wear those of the masked man and, covering his head with thehood, took the glassy dagger. “How do I look?” he asked.
He looked like a murderous shadow. “It’smore than enough to fool me,” he said. “As far as I can tell, you look exactlylike a Cursed One.”
When the noble was gone, Nesto hid back inthe dark, without even bothering to peek through a hole, for an incomingthreat. His mind and emotions were in such a state that he might end up staringat the wall again. He had to strive to keep himself under control. And,somehow, he knew it wasn’t just because the dragons were rising. It was fardeeper than that. It might have had to do with the alignment. Lord Zoloc hadmentioned that, when the alignment took place, Daemon would feel the urge tokill him because of his divine blood.
And this is what I feel because of theblood that runs through my veins. Total chaos!
At least, the noble seemed to control it,otherwise he would surely have killed him, when Nesto asked him to. To thinkthat only a few thoughts are enough to forfeit my life. Blaming thealignment wasn’t a good enough excuse. Daemon was right, after all, aboutcalling him weak. And he had realised it from the beginning.
The Cursed One he had killed carried someberries, so Nesto kept himself busy chewing, while waiting for Daemon to comeback. A couple of hours had passed since their last meal, but the run and allthose thoughts had whetted his appetite. Not to mention that the meat wascompletely burnt.
Daemon took so long that, for a moment,Nesto doubted if he would actually come back. But, fortunately, he did. “Putthem on quickly!” he said, as he took out the white mask and black garment. “Imade the Cursed One share with me everything he knew before I killed him. Youwere right. Lord Commander Legris is guarding the last portal, and he might notbe the only one.” He paused for a while, then said in a lifeless voice, “Theyalso succeeded in slaying my demon father.”
The noble stayed silent after this, behindhis impersonal mask. Nesto didn’t speak, either. He didn’t say a word, evenwhen he put on the black clothes of the Cursed One, and the white mask thatlooked like transparent glass on the inside. What were the right words to say,anyway? How would I feel if my father was dead? How would I feel if he was ahateful demon? He had been in a similar state the first day they met masterRaizel, when he learnt about the noble’s demon blood. And he didn’t know whatto do, back then, just like now. This kind of things, obviously, weren’t hisstrong point. Of course, back then, a small joke would be enough to banish thatirksome feeling. He could do that right now, but his instinct stopped him, foran unexplained reason. So, they set off for the portal in awkward silence.
The wind was howling, and it was heardeverywhere, as they ran incessantly. At every step he took, Nesto felt hissenses heightening, and his heart trying to leap out of his chest. Fear lurkeddeep inside of him. The noble seemed to be in a worse state. He was clumsy, andhad nothing to do with Silan-te’s elegant movements. He made no attempt toavoid the branches, and they avenged themselves by ripping his clothes andscratching his skin, the way they fell on him. The further they moved, the moreCursed Ones they saw. Chances were getting slimmer and slimmer.
The only redeeming feature was that theirgarments were enough for the few Cursed Ones not to bother taking a second lookat them.
Nesto knew they were almost there, when thesmell of smoke assailed his nostrils, and he saw something that looked like twobig stone horns jutting above the rest of the trees. The easy part of theirplan was over, and the hard part, which wouldn’t forgive the slightest slip,was now unfolding before their eyes. And they couldn’t just wish in like that,not when Daemon was obviously distracted. It was the noble who had accusedNesto of getting lost in thought, however he was the one lost now. “Are youalright?” he asked him in as low a voice as he could muster, since he washiding behind a bush to observe the territory. Fortunately, no masked man wasaround.
The smell of smoke was coming from theswaying fires burning in some iron baskets placed on tall poles. Two suchbright lines ended in the wide open jaws of a huge stone dragon with holloweyes. From a distance, it seemed like the dragon was breathing fire. They hadto go through these jaws to reach the final portal. And Lord Commander Legriswould be there waiting for them, prepared to slay them with the dragonslayer.
“I’m perfectly fine,” replied Daemon.
“Well, you don’t seem like it. If it’sbecause of the demo…”
“No, it’s not that. It’s nothing. I justremembered something that I had long forgotten, and it distracted me. A certainmemory that I had promised to engrave into my mind. It’s not really thatimportant.” It was obvious that it had to do with Tzenon’s death. That demonwas still torturing him, even after his demise.
“It certainly isn’t,” said Nesto. “Surelyno more than our lives.”
“Yes, probably not.”
“Good. Because now, we need to stay focusedif we want to even hope to survive this thing.”
“I don’t need to hear that from someonewho, only a while ago, asked me to kill him, commoner.”
He couldn’t argue that down. At any rate,life seemed to have returned to his voice. That was somewhat reassuring.
Dawn was playing hide-and-seek, togetherwith them. It must surely have been waiting impatiently and fearfully for theright opportunity. Two Cursed Ones that suddenly took to their heels, right infront of them, heading for the mouth of the gigantic dragon made their heartbeat faster. They stood right at the entrance, with their heads bent over. LordCommander Legris paced towards them, motioning for them to raise their heads.He knew it was him, although he had never seen his face, as he wore the silveruniform of the Commanders with the Mark of the ancient Gods drawn across hischest in purple. His long hair, as well as his thin mantle, were flying in thestrong wind, while in his hand he held his sword, the famed Dragonslayer.Another two Lords dressed in crimson turned up by his side.
Nesto could barely hear them, but hethought they were saying that they had traced the two with the divine blood,and they were now chasing them. Which, of course, didn’t make any sense. Weare right here, and I’m quite positive that no one has sniffed us out.
The masked men left just as suddenly, whilethe other two Lords followed them, leaving the Lord Commander alone, guardingthe portal.
At a glance, it seemed hard to understandwhat was going on. However, it became quite clear—after some thought. This wasa distraction, just like the dragon, back on the second island, was supposed tobe. And Lord Zoloc ought to be behind this one, too. He was trying to draw alltheir attention to him. And it was working!
I partly blame the alignment for thiskind of thinking. But now, I really feel that we might actually get out of thisalive.
“It’s him. This is Lord Zoloc’s doing,” hesaid, as he watched Lord Commander Legris go back into the dragon’s stonemouth.
“Yes, there’s no doubt about it,” saidDaemon. “I’m not entirely sure if I’m happy that he is here, or sad that he isstill alive.”
“Oh, you are happy. You just don’t want toadmit it,” said Nesto. And grateful, too. Because now every singleCursed One and Lord, apart from the Lord Commander, that had been summoned tohunt them down were eradicated. They were blindly chasing the shadow of LordZoloc. And, knowing Zoloc, it was almost certain that they would never be ableto catch it. The combination of his magic and his craftiness would make sureNesto and Daemon had a lot of time on their hands to go through Lord CommanderLegris’ obstacle. Nestal, his father, could not have hoped to find a betterally than him.
He has succeeded in upsetting both ofthe forces that were sent to shed our divine blood.
After careful thinking, they concluded thatfacing head-on the Lord Commander wouldn’t be such a good idea. They had betterplay it safe. To keep their disguise on and try tricking him. Surely, anopportunity would come for them to make a run for the final portal. They alsoadded a small detail to their plan to ensure their success. A detail that wasmostly inspired by the so many distractions of Lord Zoloc. They’d inform LordCommander Legris that the ones with the godly blood were finally caught andslain. Relief and joy will seize his body. And those emotions ought toblind him, even if it would be just for a while, for a moment.
What was needed was for them to wait forsome time, so that their words would be convincing. Maybe, he would beincredulous if they rushed into the dragon’s mouth just now, after the othertwo Cursed Ones had left.
As he felt scared and jittery, he had nomemory of that wait, nor could he recall himself leaving the protection of thebush. All of a sudden, he caught himself running between the flames, towardsthe dragon’s jaws, with the noble next to him dressed up as a Cursed One. Itwas so sudden that he began to panic. He couldn’t breathe properly, and he keptfeeling the Deathlord’s spear pierce through his chest. Everything seemed towarn him to run away: the howling wind, the black trees all around and, ofcourse, the fire burning behind his divine mark. But he chose to ignore them.
He tried to imagine and mimic Silan-te’selegant movements, but it was far more difficult than it seemed. At least, herthought managed to calm him down a bit. They came to a halt, when they wereunder the not so sharp stone teeth, and bent their heads over before the LordCommander. He stood bolt upright, on the alert, while his uniform was stainedwith blood. Nesto hoped it was his.
He wasn't sure if he had to blame the chaoshe felt inside because of the alignment, but standing before Legris somehowmade him feel as if he were standing in front of the dragon he had seen on thesecond level. Even his appearance looked just as menacing—that could partly bedue to the mask of the Cursed Ones he wore. Who knows what kind of magicresided in it! The orange and red flames shed their light on his dark eyes, andthey looked like they were burning. There were no horns on his head but, werehe to make a sudden, wrong move, it was almost certain that his sword wouldcome chasing him like terrifying jaws. I’m glad he can’t see my face, orelse he would be able to read my nervousness.
It was hard not to notice the portal behindLord Commander Legris. A black sea, which looked as if painted exactly wherethe dragon’s throat was supposed to begin.
He signalled to them to raise their heads.“What is it? Have they finally been dealt with?” he asked, and Nesto wassomewhat surprised that he didn’t breathe fire out of his mouth.
He let Daemon do the talking. “They have,Lord Commander,” he replied, making sure his tone of voice was respectful. “Thedescendant of the dragons and the son of the demon were caught and killed. LordEreina pierced through their hearts with her sword.”
Legris was supposed to be the one to feelrelieved and blissful, but it was Nesto that experienced those emotions whenthe Lord Commander said: “Good. Lead me where they are. I want to witness withmy own eyes their dead bodies.”
As soon as they managed to keep him awayfrom the portal, everything would be over. They turned around and paced ahead,trying to mimic the movements of a Cursed One as well as they could. Nesto wasthinking that their plan was a success, when he noticed a small straight lineon the ground, made by a sword probably, exactly at the mouth of the stonedragon. It bothered him enough to recall the scene with the two masked men.They hadn’t entered the dragon’s mouth, they hadn’t passed the line, herecalled. They had stopped at the entrance, and they obediently waited for LordCommander Legris to come out. As if they were scared, or perhaps forbidden toset foot inside…But, no matter which of the two, one thing was obvious.
They weren’t supposed to pass the line!
The sudden realisation struck him like afrozen blade. And then, he heard Legris slowly unsheathing the Dragonslayer.Their plan wasn’t a success, after all. He had seen through it from thebeginning. Daemon turned around at the same time as Nesto. He had probably cometo the same conclusion, or even sensed the danger, and it was certain that onhis own chest as well had appeared the Mark of the ancient Gods, burning himwith its power.
They just charged right at him. Just likethat. With no more thinking, no plans, but only the desperate need to survive.Because there was only one person standing in their way, because there was asmall army behind them still looking for them. And, most of all, because theywere so close, just a few steps away. His father and brother were waiting wherethe portal led. And I’ll make sure to get there, even with a sword throughmy chest, if need be.
Still, it wasn’t his chest that was atrisk, but his throat. Lord Commander Legris swung his sword to the side, asthey jumped on him, and Nesto tried to defend by wielding his glassy dagger. Atthe last moment, one of the noble’s black bolts struck Legris in his right eye.And, while Nesto’s dagger was cut in two by the Dragonslayer, his neck wasstill in one piece. The tip of the sword just barely managed to graze it.
His desperate need for survival ordered hisbody to continue running though. He jumped-rolled forward, disregarding thedanger, and somehow managed to pass through the Lord Commander and the secondblade that had materialised in his hand. An acute pang of pain pierced throughhis leg, as he stood up to run again. A deep cut was visible on his knee.Still, he kept on hobbling. Pain was the least he was worried about right now.He ran away from Legris, away from the shadows cast by the torches, as if hunteddown, towards the last portal.
He was almost a breath away from it, whenhe felt that something was wrong. He turned back, expecting to see two bladeslike claws chasing after him. But he didn’t. He only saw Daemon down on hisknees, unable to move, the Lord Commander pinning him down, with theDragonslayer ready to kiss him on the neck. That’s what’s wrong.
But he wouldn’t kill him. Not yet. TheOrder of the Lords was baying for the immediate execution of the descendant ofthe dragons. The demon’s son was not their first priority. And he doesn’tknow which one he is holding. He looked him in the eye, his look warninghim that he would shed the noble’s blood if Nesto dared move.
One small step and he could leave. Escapethe Tower, escape to safety. Daemon would probably do it. Or maybe not. Ican’t be sure. I’ve been wrong about him before. However, I’m not Daemon…
“One’s own survival always comes first,right, son of the demon?” said the noble. And that’s exactly what he was sayingto him. If he had been in his position, he would have left.
“I might have been wrong about that.”Legris had surely been seriously injured, while still fighting demon Tzenon.Now, his wounds had multiplied. He could barely keep his right eye open, whileDaemon had managed to stick his glassy dagger into his ribs. Nesto saw himstanding with difficulty. No matter how strong he might be, he wouldn’t holdout much longer. If he gained some time, if he could go closer…I can dothis. Me and Daemon together, we can do it. We can kill him. “I am thedescendant of the dragons,” said Nesto, and he hobbled towards the LordCommander. “It is me you so desperately want to kill. Let him leave. He is justthe son of the demon, just the lesser evil. Because of me, all the cruel, mercilessdragons will rise from their graves. I’m the greater evil for you, for theOrder of the Lords. For the human ra…”
“He is lying,” the noble claimed. “What areyou trying to do, you foolish noble? I don’t need your help. I’m a God. I’m thetrue descendant of the dragons.”
That very moment, Lord Commander Legrispulled Daemon’s head back and removed his mask. He smiled when he saw thenoble’s face. Because he could easily tell he wasn’t the descendant of thedragons. His resemblance to Tzenon was quite obvious. Now, he knows who thereal threat is. He’s going to focus on me, now. “You are not a good liar,Lord Candidate Daemon. It’s because you are still too young and innocent,” hesaid, his tone of voice somewhat sad. And then, the Dragonslayer piercedthrough the noble’s heart…
For a moment, Daemon’s eyes shone through,red and bloodshot, then went out, and he dropped dead.
“NOOOOOO!” Nestocried. “Why?” I can’t understand. I just can’t. His mind was desperatelytrying to find a reason. He was the biggest threat the Order should be worriedabout. Their first priority should be to kill Nesto. So, why? Why was he givinghim the chance to escape? Or did he think that he wouldn’t escape, not now, notafter watching him kill Daemon?
If that was the case, then it had worked.Rage engulfed him, and the fiery power of the ancient Gods consumed him. Theirflame seared his eyes, brushed his thoughts aside, and he materialised aflaming blade in his hand. He wasn’t going anywhere now…
He charged at Lord Commander Legris, fullof hatred, disregarding the pain and the blood that trickled down his leg. Heattacked him with the burning blade, the broken dagger, even with his head.Whatever could be used as a weapon to inflict pain on him. To kill him, ifpossible. Legris seemed taken aback, confused perhaps, by the sudden attack. Byall that power, all that rage and hatred. He took a step backwards, as hefended off Nesto’s blows with his Dragonslayer. He took another step backwards,and another one. At the fourth step, the tip of the broken dagger stuck intothe Lord Commander’s belly. But the sharp blade of the Dragonslayer was alreadystuck into Nesto’s shoulder, and didn’t let him push further and deeper. Just abit more, and he could slice open that belly of his. Nesto’s teeth gritted withfury. ARGHHH!
His rampage came to a stop here. A powerfulkick sent him flying back. He landed on one of the torches, his white masksmashed to pieces, and his head kissed the ground. The bleeding made him dizzy,and it was so difficult for him to stand up on his two feet again. He tried to,but he was pinned to the cold ground. He had managed to lean on his elbow, whenhe saw Legris overhead, threatening to cut his throat off with his sword. But,strangely enough, the Dragonslayer stood there frozen, looking him in the eye.He was still a bit dizzy, and his sight was somewhat foggy, so he wasn’t surehe understood why the Lord Commander wasn’t killing him.
Until he saw a man standing next to Legris.His one hand prevented the sharp sword from snapping off Nesto’s head, whilethe other pressed the dagger Daemon had earlier stuck into the Lord Commander.It was Lord Zoloc. Saving him once more. His clothes were muddy and half-rippedfrom all that running and hiding. His face, though, was composed, as always.
“You…” That came out of Legris’ mouth likea swearword. He gritted his teeth in pain, and with his free hand kept thedagger from going deeper into his flesh.
“Yes, indeed, me,” said Lord Zoloc. “Ireally hope you don’t mind, Lord Commander, but I can’t allow you to kill thisone, too.”
The Lord’s presence didn’t manage to makeNesto’s rage subside, even slightly. On the contrary, due to that smile hangingfrom his lips, it was burning him even more. Although Daemon was dead, that damnLord wasn’t the least upset. He could, at least, have the decency to hide thatsmile.
Everything burnt. He was probably turninginto a pile of ashes because hot smoke billowed out of his nostrils. The pain,physically and mentally, was so unbearable that it made him howl like a beast,no, like a dragon. Like an infuriated dragon seeking revenge. He wanted Legristo experience that kind of pain, the suffering he felt. He wanted to burn himalive…
And burn him he did. All by itself, hishand was raised, and all that fire, all that heat left his body like a swirland engulfed the Lord Commander with blue flames, sending his body hurtlingaway. Nesto couldn’t hear his cries, but he hoped it was because he hadinstantly killed him. The flames almost burnt Lord Zoloc. I wish they had. Ihate him, too. If he had appeared sooner, Daemon wouldn’t have had to die.He knew it wasn’t Zoloc’s fault, but he wanted it so bad to be.
He felt his power abandoning him.Exhausted. Empty inside. All he managed was to crawl next to Daemon, next tothat soulless cold body with the dead eyes. A little voice of hope whispered tohim that the noble might not be dead, that his divine blood had kept him alive.Surely, he would wake up soon enough. And, this time, Nesto would be the one tomake fun of him for being weak.
But, eventually, that voice died out, justlike Daemon had. With the strength he had left, he held the noble’s arm astight as he could, hoping his gift would grant him with a memory, at least. Onewhere the noble was still breathing. He wanted it so bad. It would give him theillusion that Daemon was still alive, that he was still with him. He evenprayed to the three ancient Gods to give him that one last memory, almostforgetting one crucial thing.
When had the Gods ever favoured him?
Never! He only had himself to rely on. Hehad no power left to materialise a weapon in his hands, so he used his nails toscratch his palm, until it started bleeding. Then, he united it with thenoble’s blood. At first, nothing happened but, a while before he started toscream in despair, everything turned black, and the memory he sought came towhisk him off. One last memory of his. I so hope it’s a happy one…
But, unfortunately, it never was. He sawDaemon going away from his father’s castle on the sly, in the dead of night,running through the wood. Trying to escape again. Nobody seemed to be huntinghim down, but the little noble never stopped looking back to make sure. And theshort twigs didn’t forgive him that carelessness. They scratched him, and snappednoisily to give him away. He must have been running for hours, but he didn’tstop, even for a single moment, to take a breather.
He only stopped when he got out of thewood. And that was because he came across a black carriage. His demon fatherstood next to it, the stars over his head, while another one, a younger —butstill old—, Velmar, held the bridles. Tzenon pointed to the carriage, and theboy obediently entered it.
“If I remember correctly, it’s been exactlyone year since you last tried to escape,” said his father, as the carriageturned back. “You turn ten today. Tell me, Daemon, why do you always try toescape on your birthday?” The noble did not reply. He did not even look at him,his gaze turned outside the window. “Is it because of what I said on youreighth birthday?”
“I’m sorry, I never pay attention when youtalk. What did you say, dear father?” asked Daemon, pretending to beabsentminded. Tzenon simply smiled and said nothing.
Later on, in his room, Velmar brought himfood and water. “This is for all that running you did,” he said in a stricttone. “And this,” he gave him a small greenish book, and a kiss on hisforehead, “this is a gift for your tenth birthday, young master.” That made thenoble smile. He didn’t touch his food; he lay in bed, holding the book, andstarted to leaf through it. The servant opened the door to leave but, before hedid, he turned back to say, “I’m sorry for my indiscretion, but what was itthat your father told you on your eighth birthday, and makes you try to escapeon the same day every year?”
“I honestly don’t remember, Velmar,” saidDaemon, looking at the book, avoiding the servant’s eyes.
“I know when you lie to me, young master.Come on, spill it. There is no one you trust more than me.”
The little noble didn’t tear his eyes fromthe book, and thought for a while before telling him. “He said the day I wouldleave, he would die…because he loves me more than anything in this world.”
It started raining again. The worst kind ofrain…tears.
He wanted to just stay there, next toDaemon, and cry his heart out, but Lord Zoloc had a different opinion. Hereminded him that the entire force of the Order was still chasing him, and thathis father and brother were waiting for him on the other side of the Portal. Atthe top of the Tower of the Lords.
But even this wasn’t enough. He had to tearhim away from the noble with force, for Nesto’s hands were tightly clenchedaround his arm. He half-walked, half-dragged him to the portal. “Now, it’sfinally over,” he said, as he pushed him in.
Over? Over for whom? Surely not for me. Thepain of Daemon’s death would haunt him throughout his life. So would the Orderof the Lords. It would never be over. Not until I die. The black sea ofthe portal engulfed him, its darkness similar to his own, and it somehow feltright, more appropriate. A lot more appropriate than the white, frozen worldthat turned up before him. The dim light hurt. It demanded more helpfulthoughts. Thoughts about home, about Garon, Almar, and Nestal. And it was toosoon to demand something like that.
He plunged knee-high into the snow. When helooked around him, it was a uniform scene. Snow, huge mountaintops, andabsolutely no sign of life. The cold must have been enough to freeze even hisbones, but he was too numb to feel it, to care. Nesto had survived the ritualfor the Lord Candidates without being favoured by any of the three ancientGods. He entered the Tower, escaped the claws of a dragon, and fooled theforces of the Order. And he was finally here now, he had reached the top.
But, contrary to what Almar had promised,there was no one waiting for him…
His thoughts became darker again, despiteall the white uniformity that surrounded him. And he couldn’t help but thinkthat Nestal and Almar were probably dead, killed by the Order. Or even thatthey had abandoned him once more. That was the sole reason he didn’t wantanyone to get too close to him. For, when they went away, when they desertedhim, they would take a piece out of him, thus deepening the void within. And,no matter what, they were all bound to abandon him, eventually, right?
He lay on the snowy ground. He had nowhereto go, and he was tired. Really, really tired. He feared that, if he shut hiseyes, he wouldn’t be able to open them again. But, maybe, that was for thebest. Maybe, I should have died, along with the noble. That last memoryhe had seen was reeling in his mind, as he lost his senses. Did it by anychance mean that it was Daemon’s birthday today?
If so, happy birthday, then, my dearfriend.
He came round only for a while, when heheard some voices. He half-opened his eyes, and saw a man, with a slash acrosshis face, standing over him. Lord Cornius. “Congratulations, LordCandidate Nesto,” he said. “You succeeded in acquiring the so desirable titleof a Lord. Too bad you won't be keeping it for long, though.”
His eyes closed and, when they openedagain, he found himself lying on an old bed. The room was small and somewhatdamp, while an oil lamp was burning, trying to brighten it. It looked like theroom he had, back in the Black Castle. Only its door seemed to open from theoutside. There was no doubt about it. The Order had finally captured him. Hewas completely naked, while his wounds had been treated and bandaged. An unnecessaryact. He was going to die, sooner or later.
He tried to call forth the fiery power ofthe ancient Gods to keep warm, but nothing happened. The Mark didn’t appear onhis chest, while the one across his ribs was barely visible; it was hazy andalmost shorn of its bright blue colour. Even that flame was gone. He waspowerless.
He looked around and found several thickwoollen clothes scattered, but folded, around the room. He put them on. A blondservant with brown eyes knocked on the door, a while later, and brought himsome hot soup with small pieces of meat, and burnt bread. Nesto asked him wherehe was, if he had somehow returned to the Black Castle. “You’re still at thetop of the Tower of the Lords, Lord Nesto,” replied the servant.
Lord Nesto. Thattitle sounded so weird to him, but preferable to “the descendant of thedragons” or “the greatest evil.” At least officially, he was a Lord. “And whatexactly is at the top of the Tower?” Nesto asked.
“The headquarters of the Order of theLords, of course. What else would there be?”
“Oh…yes, of course,” said Nesto in amelancholy tone. That was perhaps the last thing he had been expecting to hear.All this time, instead of getting away from them, he had been actually gettingdeeper and deeper into their hands. First, it was their entering the Tower, nowtheir headquarters. Were they, Nestal and Almar, really trying to save him, orjust condemn him once and for all? To me, it seems that they didn’t have theheart to kill me with their own hands, and chose to let the Lords do it bypushing me into the Tower.
As the servant left, Nesto noticed that thedoor that held him captive was made of wood. Not only that. There was no guardoutside. For a moment, it struck him as odd, until he remembered where he was.In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Not to mentionthe total absence of the Mark. Escape was deemed impossible.
He had a few mouthfuls of food, then laydown in bed, letting thoughts whisk him off far away. To a different ending. Daemonwas alive, and they had gone through the last portal together. And Nesto’sfather and brother were waiting for him at the top of the Tower of the Lords.These thoughts were all he had left.
The next day, after breakfast, LordCornius, along with two Cursed Ones, stepped into his small cell. They informedhim that they had orders to prepare him before leading him to the hall wherehis trial would be held. Where his fate would be decided. They hadn’t mobilisedtheir entire force, just to let him live, in the end. That was only a typicalprocess as Nesto already had the title of the Lord. That was the reason why theservant was polite to him. Even the Cursed Ones didn’t look too cold. Becauseof the hateful title.
“It’s a shame Lord Commader Legris didn’t manageto kill both the descendant of the dragons and the child of the demon,” saidLord Cornius, as he showed him the way with pretentious politeness. “But, atleast, he got rid of the most dangerous one. That damn noble!”
The most dangerous one? Was he so averse tothe nobles as to actually prefer the death of Daemon to the one that wouldbring back the dragons? No, that couldn’t be it. There had to be a deepermeaning to that. A proper explanation that wasn’t based on pure hatred alone.But he was too mad to ask anything with the same pretentious kindness. “How’syour beloved friend, Lord Mendax?” he said in response. “Still dead?” Thatwiped the fake smile off the Lord’s face. Good, he thought. He couldn’t standthat feigned kindness.
Preparation involved a visit to the baths,which were above his cell. Most likely, they didn’t just want to make sureNesto would be standing clean and tidy before the leaders of the Order of theLords. Those baths looked similar to the ones back at the Black Castle. Numerousgreen and purple crystals jutted out, while the surface of the water gave off agolden colour. “It suppresses the Mark of the ancient Gods,” the masked mentold him. Which explained why he couldn’t call forth their power earlier. Thissurely wasn’t the first time he would be bathed in it. “Just to be on the safeside, we have to render you powerless.”
He took off his clothes, and dipped intothe cold water, which jogged his memories of the first day in the baths hall:the thousand commoners who died, the twenty or so candidates, the ritual of theMark, and the lack of favour from all three ancient Gods. It was somewhat funnyin its own twisted way because he had been the one least expected to survive,and yet he was the only one still alive.
After soaking in the golden water and hismemories for quite some time, he was escorted by the Cursed Ones and the Lordto the higher levels. There was white marble everywhere, and almost all floorslooked so much alike, as if they had been made up of snow. Statues and paintingsadorned the place, but their beauty was no match for the view the windows andverandahs afforded. The headquarters of the Order were built on the side of ahigh mountain, and a look beneath was enough to overshadow the beauty of allthe rest. Lords and servants filled most halls, verandahs, and corridors. Theyall looked at him with feigned kindness, talking in hushed voices.
The hall of the trial was at the top. Sixold, skinny persons with grey, almost white, hair awaited him, seated on theirtall chairs that looked like small thrones. Nesto didn’t really care about thetrial, about this formal procedure, that’s why he blocked out almost whateverhad to do with it. He cared more about his memories, about the past. And notwhen his future would end. What he managed to register was that one of theseven heads of the Order could not attend because of the wounds he hadreceived. And that was because he realised that they were talking about LordCommander Legris. It’s a shame that I couldn’t kill him. That, at least, Icouldn’t take revenge for Daemon’s death. It seems I’m not capable of doingeven that.
“Do you have anything to say in yourdefence?” he was asked at some point.
Of course, he didn’t. I don’t know whatthey accused me of, but I’m quite sure I’m guilty of it. “No, no. Nothingat all,” he replied lifelessly, while shaking his head. All his energy had beendrained. He had no strength even to hate them. He suspected the baths were thecause of that.
The trial seemed to come to an end before iteven began. And the verdict was unanimous, as expected. Death penalty! Whatwas left was the King’s approval, then everything would be gone. He would bestripped of all the layers of protection the title provided him with. But thiswas going to last for a few days, as he was informed. The masked men took himback to his cell.
Days went by with him doing the samethings. He ate, drank, slept, and once a day the Cursed Ones came to lead himto the baths to make sure Nesto would remain powerless. He felt nothing, noteven a hint of fear. He might be expecting his death, but in fact he wasalready dead. He wasn’t sure if he had to blame the baths for that but, apartfrom the fire of the ancient Gods, the very spark of life had died out insideof him.
On the morning of the fifth day, theybrought him breakfast, as usual, but Nesto was off his food. He felt no hunger,and he was in no mood for life. He lay in bed. But, strangely enough, theservant didn’t leave; he only looked around, and made a grimace. “Well, atleast the food is not so bad,” he said. “You cannot complain about that.”
It took him some time to realise it. He satup, then looked the servant in the eye to make sure. It wasn’t difficult forhim to make out the servant’s eyes in the dim light. They were green! “LordZoloc,” he said in a low voice, although there was no one at the door to hearhim.
“You look…I was going to say fine, but youlook awfully lifeless. What kind of tortures have those savages subjected youto?”
“Well, that seems to be quite effective onyou,” the Lord said, and threw a red apple to him.
Nesto let it hit the wall and drop to theground. “Are they dead?” he asked. “Nestal and Almar, my father and brother.Are they dead?” The Lord slightly nodded, and that was more than enough. “Ifyou came to help me escape, then don’t. I don’t want to,” he said. He hadnowhere to go anymore. And he was sick of running and hiding all the time. Itwas pointless. In the end, everything he had done proved to be pointless.
“There is hardly any need for that. TheKing is not going to consent to your death penalty. Now that the alignment isover, and the dragons are awakening one by one, you are more valuable to himalive than dead.”
That sounded to him more indifferent thanreassuring. “Then, what are you doing here? You are not here to pay me a visit,are you?” He tried to sound ironic, but he failed, even in that.
The Lord shut the wooden door behind him,and leant against it. “No, not really,” he said. “I just wanted to give you theflame, the motivation you will need to survive the depressing after-effects ofthe ordeal that you just went through. Besides, there is one last story that Iwant to share with you. Actually, I came mostly for the story.”
“A story? You sneaked into the Order of theLords, killing the servant and taking his form, just to tell me a story?”
“More or less. It’s a really good story. Ithas nothing to do with all these dull stories Lord Cornius recounts, I promise.It’s a story mostly about you. Would you care to listen to it?” he asked, buthe didn’t wait for an answer.
Zoloc told him about the White Lords, aboutTzenon and their battle, about things that Nesto already knew. And then, hetold him about things he didn’t know. “Your father was one of the noted WhiteLords,” he said. “He gave his life in that battle, in order to protect Daemon,thus forcing Tzenon to promise he would take care of you. When dying, herevealed that the Lords would want to kill you, too, because you shared thesame mark. The mark of a God. The responsibility of raising you redounded onthe demon. Yet, those hands were already more than full. That’s where I comeup.”
Lord Zoloc had been at Tzenon’s servicesince ever, as he pointed out. It was he who had left them with Garon with thatletter, having assumed Nestal’s form. And that of the storyteller. He had beenthe storyteller all along. He would often disguise himself as such to pay thema visit and make sure that Nesto’s mark was not revealed. But, eventually, itwas. In the sixteen years of his life, his divine blood would awaken, and theCursed Ones would become aware of his presence. Then, the hunt would commence,more fierce and ruthless than ever. Because the alignment would be on thecards, threatening the entire world.
There was never anyone waiting for him atthe top—Almar had actually died in the Black Castle, reduced to ashes from thefiery power of the ancient Gods. It was merely a small part of a thorough planthat was devised by Zoloc to lead Nesto to the Tower of the Lords. They did thesame to the noble, so that Zoloc could keep both Daemon and Nesto safe there.Even Silan-te was a simple pawn in his plan. “Tzenon made sure to lure almostthe entire force of the Order away, and I made sure to keep you hidden untilthe alignment was over,” he concluded.
I can actually see my whole worlddissolving in front of my eyes. He let it allslowly sink in, but it was hard. And it was even harder to accept. He foundhimself laughing again nervously. After finding out that he had the blood ofthe Gods inside of him, everything else should seem believable, and yet thiswas so hard to believe. Daemon might have called it horrible, ridiculous even.Just like every other plan of Lord Zoloc’s. But Daemon was dead. He breathedhis last in the Tower, despite this “thorough” plan. Just thinking about itmaddens me. “Well, it didn’t work,” said Nesto, blaming him for it. “Youfailed. In the end, Daemon died.”
“Yes. It was unfortunate, but Daemon had todie,” said the Lord, then carried on, talking to him about the alignment, aboutthe barrier that separated the two worlds being destroyed because of the noble,or something like that, but Nesto’s mind clung to these first words.
“Daemon had to die.” There were so manythings hidden behind those words.
“You wanted him dead, too, didn’t you?”Nesto demanded, even though an answer was unnecessary. Of course he did. Heknew this would happen. Wasn’t he, after all, the one that had been pulling thestrings all this time? He had planned it all along. Surely, he hadn’t turned upby chance, after the noble had died, to save the Lord Commander. He was waitingfor his death. And Legris, Legris knew Daemon’s name. Lord Zoloc must have beenthe one to have informed the Order about the existence of the demon’s son.
Although the baths were suppressing thefiery power of the Gods, a small flame started burning on his chest, and itswarmth spread everywhere, awakening him, filling the void within with rage.More and more emotions were constantly bursting out of him. It was so powerfulthat his head was about to burst. He got out of bed, and instantly felt thewhole world reeling. He could barely stand without falling.
“You lied!” he accused him. Abouteverything. My father, my brother, but mostly about Daemon. “You promisedme that you would protect him.”
The Lord got up to him, held his hand, andsteadied him with his grip. “Didn’t your brother warn you?” he asked, aftershaking his head in a disappointed manner. When he smiled, his green eyes shonein the dark. Zoloc let go of Nesto’s hand, and the world started going aroundagain. The fall was imminent.
He never said the words. Yet, Nesto couldhear them being whispered in his ears, as he was going down. “Trust no one!”