See News From The South for an account of Trey's quest so far.
Targets were lined up against the far wall. They were circular, and each segment had a name. The tiny circle in the centre was called the "bull's eye". The thin ring around it was called the "eye socket". The wider ring around that was the "inner rim" and the even wider ring around that was the "outer rim".
The archers-in-training lined up to take their first shot. Most of the arrows hit the inner or outer rim. The second-from-the-right one thudded into the eye socket. The one at the far right thudded deep into the very centre of the bull's eye.
Hasina calmly reloaded her bow, while taking the congratulations from her friend, Arjuna. He was a great shot, like her, but she was just a bit better. They took their second shots. Arjuna's hit the eye socket again. Hasina's struck the bull's eye.
Before long, the archers had used up their arrows. Their instructor, Aaron Leal, went round to them all, giving words of advice and congratulations. When he came to Hasina and Arjuna, he just gave congratulations.
The two of them wandered back to their rooms in the living quarters of the castle, leaving the other archers to continue refining their skill. Arjuna may have only hit the bullseye once, but that was good enough for him.
"It's your sixteenth birthday tomorrow," Arjuna commented.
"Yeah, it is," Hasina agreed. "I hope everyone remembers."
They both burst out laughing at this, and had barely stopped by the time they reached the living area.
Minister Eldred was in the main room, though apparently doing nothing. Hasina nodded to acknowledge his presence, but no words were exchanged. Eldred nodded in return. Arjuna ignored him. They left the room, and entered the main corridor.
"I don't like the minister," Arjuna said. "I think he's up to something."
"Up to something? It's just your imagination running away with you," Hasina said, smiling. "He was advising my grandfather, he's that old. I don't know how much longer he'll last. He wouldn't be plotting."
"I'm still not convinced."
"You don't have to be. But you're wrong."
Wanting to shift away from uncomfortable topic, Arjuna said, "If it's your sixteenth birthday tomorrow, that means you'll be taking The Telling."
"Yeah." It was Hasina's turn to feel uncomfortable.
"What do you think you're destiny will be?"
"Destiny? You'd really call it that? I don't know. Honestly, I've no idea."
"Nope. Neither do I," Arjuna said. "I'm not looking forward to my Telling."
"At least yours isn't for a few months," Hasina retorted.
Which was true. She was the oldest of this generation of children. At times, it seemed a blessing, and other times, like now, a curse.
"Well, I guess I'll see you tomorrow."
"I guess so."
Hasina disappeared inside her room. Arjuna went inside his room too. He was determined to prove the minister was up to something. There was only one thing he wasn't prepared to lose in doing so, and that was Hasina. But she didn't need to know. He could do it all by himself.
Hasina woke up, a sick feeling in her stomach. She suspected it was to do with The Telling. Nonetheless, she threw off the covers and got up. She felt slightly unsteady on her feet, but she forced herself to stand still. She took deep breaths, and the sick sensation ceased.
Steadier now, Hasina threw off her nightclothes, and got dressed in her birthday suit. The best tailor in the House had spent weeks on this suit, and her father insisted she wore it, much to her displeasure. The top was a pretty silver colour, but Hasina considered it too figure-hugging. The trousers, for she had insisted that she would not wear a skirt, were the same light silver colour, and less figure-hugging. Hasina looked at herself in the mirror, and decided it wasn't too bad after all.
Checking the clock, Hasina knew her father would be up by now. She was expected for a formal meeting in the main room in five minutes. With nothing else to do, Hasina decided she might as well be early. It was her birthday, after all.
When she arrived in the main room, she found her father and Minister Eldred already there. Armand smiled when he saw her outfit.
"I told you you'd look brilliant in it," he exclaimed.
"I don't like it," Hasina retorted.
"If you're that negative towards it, and seeing as it is your birthday, I guess you can choose your own clothes after the ceremony."
Hasina nodded. "I will."
Throughout this, the minister had not spoken.
Aaron joined them in the room a few minutes later. He complemented Hasina's outfit, and she was as polite as she could manage about it. Then, the main clock in the house chimed nine o' clock. The door opened again, and Arjuna entered the room. As soon as he saw Hasina, he just stopped and stared. A couple more boys on the training course followed him in, and were equally stunned, and stood by the door until Minister Eldred herded them to their seats.
For the first time since putting on the outfit, Hasina smiled.
With everyone expected in the room, Minister Eldred began the ceremony. In his dull, droning voice, he began the custom speech.
"We are gathered here on this day, to celebrate the sixteenth anniversary of Hasina Styrke joining us in this wonderful world we live in."
Hasina tuned off after the first bit, having heard the rest fifteen times already, even if she could not remember the first few. Eventually, the minister handed over to Armand, who made his own short speech. Hasina actually listened to it, as her father came up with a new one every year, and their was no disappointment this year either.
"And now," the minister continued, "As is customary on any person's sixteenth birthday, Hasina will go and speak to Drabardi, for The Telling."
The room was hushed. Hasina stood up, kissing her father as was also customary, and left the room.
Before going to see Drabardi, Hasina rushed back to her own room, and threw off the outfit onto her bed. She put on her favourite clothes; a worn, long-sleeved top coloured jungle brown that was not figure-hugging or revealing, and a pair of matching-coloured trousers that she tied in place with a leather belt.
Suitably attired now, she entered Drabardi's room. Drabardi was waiting in her wooden chair.
"You have come," she said, in her croaky voice. "Now, for The Telling..."
Drabardi stood up, and picked up her chair, placing it to one side. She gestured for Hasina to stand next to her, then crouched down, and appeared to be feeling for something on the floor. Her long nails seemed to grip something, and with a grunt, she lifted up an entire section of the floor.
Hasina quickly realised it wasn't a section of the floor, but in fact a well-concealed trap door. It seemed to lead straight down into darkness.
"You must go first, young one. The ladder will take you down safely. But be careful, lest you slip; you do not know how far down it is!" At this, Drabardi started cackling manically. Hasina was beginning to doubt both her sanity, and if she was really on her side.
Nevertheless, she had to complete The Telling. It might be like this for everyone; she had no way of knowing, as what went on in The Telling was a strict secret between Drabardi and the one being Told. They rarely even told any details of their prophecy.
The ladder was rusted, slippery, uneven and apparently not bolted to the wall of the shaft very well, and Hasina couldn't see a thing. She tried to reassure herself by remembering everyone else had survived The Telling, and so would she. It didn't work.
Eventually, she felt her foot touch solid earth. With relief, she let go of the rusted ladder, rubbing her hands together to shake off any flakes that may have got stuck to her. She felt around her, seeing as their was no light down here. The walls were about a metre aprt, and the ceiling was not much higher than her. Suddenly, there was a clanking, and Drabardi joined her in the tunnel. She had her crystal ball, which gave out its bright blue glow, illuminating the tunnel. Drabardi led her for a few metres, after which the tunnel became a dead end. There was a small opening on the right hand side, and they took it.
Hasina gasped in amazement. They were in a huge chamber, so huge that the crystal ball coud not illuminate the walls or ceiling, they were so far away.
"This is where you will have The Telling. But I will warn you now; no-one is to know of this place until they come of the age to undertake The Telling themselves. Understand?"
Hasina nodded, too awed to speak.
"Then we can begin."
Drabardi set the crystal on a stand, about one metre high, with a diameter only slightly larger than the crystal.
"Now, you will place your right hand on the crystal ball," Drabardi instructed. Hasina did as she was told. Drabardi put her left hand on top of Hasina's right, and then placed her own right hand on a different place on the crystal. Then, she closed her eyes, as if in a trance, and stayed that way for many seconds. Then, she released Hasina's hand, telling her sharply to remove it from the crystal. Then, she moved her own hands in a mesmerising way over the crystal ball.
"It tells me!" she cried. "It tells me your future!"
Arjuna politely excused himself from the main room, saying he had a couple of things he needed to check up on. What he didn't mention was that one of those things was the minister.
He walked down the main corridor to the minister's room. It was locked. He had expected this, though, and quickly went into his room, retrieved his dagger, and went back to the lock. The dagger wasn't ideal, but it was quite thin, and he reckoned he should be able to pick the lock.
A few minutes later, he was sweating, and the dagger was slick in his hands from fear of discovery, when he finally succeeded. He slipped in, closing the door silently behind him. The minister's room wasn't much different to his; it had a desk, wardrobe, bed, chair, and a small bath in one corner. Arjuna went straight for the desk. Lying on its surface were several files, but nothing of interest. Damage reports for the most recent Deathbringer attack; archery test results; reports of the record of sword production. Nothing useful. There was also a pen and a bottle of ink.
However, the desk had two draws, one on each side, and these looked more promising. One, however, was unlocked, and held nothing except a dragon scale. Nonetheless, Arjuna found this suspicious, as he thought the only dragon scales in the House were those on Armand's shield.
The other draw was locked, and the padlock was too small to be picked with a knife. Arjuna gave up subtlety, slashing at the edges of the draw. The entire front wooden panel came away. Arjuna felt around inside. There was a dagger; presumably the minister's personal one. That wouldn't really prove anything. At least, that was what he thought. But upon feeling it closer, Arjuna realised it was wet.
Surely it could only be wet with blood? He quickly wiped his hand on the back panel of the draw, getting the blood off his hands. He quickly took his hand out, unwilling to try and actually pull out the draw and discover its contents. Determined to find more proof, Arjuna next searched the wardrobe. Nothing. He looked, surprising himself, in the bath. Of course, there was nothing. There was nothing on the chair. That left only the bed.
He pulled off the duvet, but this revealed nothing except the mattress. He looked under the bed, but there was nothing. Arjuna was furious that he had no solid evidence. Then, he spotted something glinting under the bed. The crack between the bed and the floor was very narrow, so he hadn't spotted anything. By pure chance, something had reflected the light.
Arjuna froze. The light couldn't possibly reach under the bed. Could it? Then, he realised his back was against the door. The light was coming in through a window on the other side, so the metal thing must be on the other side of the bed. He cursed himself for being so paranoid, then got up and walked round the bed.
He crouched down again, and reached his hand under the bed. He felt cold steel, and pulled the item out. It was a sword.
Arjuna stared in surprise and awe at the weapon. The minister? With a sword? This had to be suspicious. Yet the sword wasn't stained with blood, like the dagger had been. It was a difficult puzzle, that was for sure, but it was one Arjuna was going to solve.
Suddenly, the door handle was turned. Someone was coming in. Arjuna froze. There was nowhere to hide. Except for one place. He dived to the wardrobe, yanked open one of the doors, squeezed himself inside, and yanked the door shut behind him, just as the door opened, and Minister Eldred walked in.
"Oh yes," Drabardi cried manically, "The crystal shows me your future!"
She seemed to spend a second calming down, then spoke to Hasina in a much lower voice.
"Your destiny... it is you, only you who can stand up to the darkness; the bringer of flames, flames of death! He returns, and will again, unless you can kill him. The crystal ball shows faithful companions who stand beside you throughout; who those companions are, I cannot say."
Drabardi was silent for a while, and eventually Hasina asked, "Is that it?"
A fearsome edge to her voice, Drabardi shot back, "You dare question the crystal ball and the treasured knowledge it imparts to you?"
Hasina liked to think she wasn't afraid of Drabardi, but in fact she was forced to admit she was, and muttered an apology.
"It does not concern me. You are new to the ways of adulthood," Drabardi said, and the matter was dropped. "Leave now. I will follow you up later. The Telling is over."
Hasina let out a breath she didn't know she was holding, and walked out of the chamber, puzzling over the vague words Drabardi had given her, the only clue to her future. She wondered if all Tellings were that vague.
She climbed up the ladder again, nearly slipping halfway up. The top few rungs were wet; why was that? They had been bone-dry on the way up, and this didn't look like a place that leaked. She ignored it, and climbed up into Drabardi's room. She went to dry her hands, when she looked at them closely and stopped. She hadn't slipped on water.
Her hands were red with blood.
Horrified, Hasina briefly panicked. She ran out of Drabardi's open door, into her own room. She fumbled for the key, getting it stained with blood in the process, and unlocked the door. She pulled it open, get blood on the doorknob, but was in her room.
She ran over to the bath, set some water running, and cleaned her hands. She took a cloth from her pocket, and wiped the blood away down the plughole, before cleaning the key using the same method. Then she polished the doorknob, rinsing out the cloth once she was done, and placing it back in her pocket.
The panic gone now, Hasina sat down and thought about the blood. It was recent, but from whom? She pondered it for a while, but found no answer, so went back to her Telling, running the words over and over in her mind. Suddenly it seemed obvious; two words far enough apart that she had not spotted them first: bringer, and death. That could only mean one thing. Deathbringer. It was her destiny to slay Deathbringer!
Though she could not help feeling a thrill of excitement at getting such a wonderful destiny, she was also terrified at what she would have to face. Getting to the citadel would be hard enough, let alone climbing it and slaying Deathbringer.
But if she tried, she had to succeed, surely, for Drabardi had foretold it. Faithful companions was another phrase she had used, though she had not said who. Hasina could only really think of one who was that faithful; Arjuna. Yet Drabardi had used the plural. Hasina shrugged, remembering her childhood stories, in which the hero would meet a range of companions on their way to the final goal. Perhaps that was destined to happen to her.
Hasina began to pack her things.
While waiting for Hasina to return from The Telling, Minister Eldred also excused himself from the room. He went to his room, and opened the door. Only once he was inside, did he suddenly realise the door had been unlocked. He was sure he'd locked it.
He went over to his desk, but then stared in horror. The front panel of his locked draw had been removed, and his files were scattered all over the place! He opened his other draw, and breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the dragon scale was still there.
Without thinking about looking for the culprit, he dashed out of the room to inform Armand.
As soon as the minister left, Arjuna made his move. He jumped out of the wardrobe, ran over to the desk, pocketed the dragon scale, slammed shut the wardrobe door, dashed out of the room, and almost walked straight into his locked door. He fumbled for the key, and placed it in the lock, waggling it around for a few seconds, before he finally calmed down enough to turn it properly. He entered his room and slammed the door behind him, but left it unlocked so he didn't seem suspicious.
Only now did Arjuna realise he was both panting and sweating. He forced himself to calm down, take long, gentle breaths, and eventually he managed to regain his self-control. Just in time, too, as Armand opened the door and came in.
"Have you heard any peculiar noises in the Minister's room?" Armand asked him.
"Ur," it took Arjuna a second to find his voice, as he realised he wasn't being accused. "Um, no, I don't think so."
Armand sighed. "Never mind. But did you hear a door slam a minute ago?"
Arjuna knew denying it would seem suspicious, "Yes, I heard that."
Armand left the room, and Arjuna breathed a sigh of relief. Acting quickly, he placed the dragon scale in the thin gap between his bed and the floor. He would have put it under the mattress, but the servants made his bed regurlarly and would no doubt spot it, blowing his cover.
Then, he left his knife on his own desk, and returned to the main room. Despite the recent panic, everyone was now sitting there, calmly.
"Do you know if Hasina has finished The Telling yet?" Arjuna asked.
"Yes," said a croaky voice, and Drabardi entered the room. "She has been Told, and seems quite eager to get about the apparent meaning of her Telling."
"I cannot say. Only she can impart that knowledge to you."
Drabardi left again, just as Hasina entered. She was in her favourite clothes, and had a bag slung over her shoulder.
"Where are you going?" Armand asked, sensing she was preparing to travel.
"I'm going to where my destiny lies," she replied. "Deathbringer's citadel."
There were gasps of shock.
"But- but, you cannot think of going there! It's insane. First you'd have to cross Dread Forest, and who knows what manner of evil things reside in their."
"But I was Told. I have to go."
Armabd sighed, but gave up. "At least allow me to lend you some of my most trusted knights."
"No. The crystal ball said that I would have 'faithful companions' and I do not even know any of the knights."
"But they will be faithful!"
"They are not the ones, I can tell it."
Armand sighed again, and relented. Hasina left the living quarters to get her weapons and armour before leaving. After a few minutes, Arjuna followed her out.
Hasina went straight to the armoury, closing the door behind her. She took out a key from her pocket, and inserted it into one of the two padlocked doors. She twisted the key, and the padlock fell into her hand. She opened the door into her personal armoury.
The armoury main door opened behind her, and she didn't need to turn to know it was Arjuna. She decided to wait for him to speak, and went about collecting her things. She picked up her favourite longsword, and her bow-and-arrow. She slung the bow and quiver over her back, and sheathed the sword on her belt.
"Hasina?" Arjuna asked.
"Yeah?" she replied, turning to face him now.
"I was wondering if, um, I could, maybe, come with you to the citadel?"
Hasina smiled. She had been hoping he'd ask.
"Yeah, sure. Grab your best stuff, and meet me at the castle entrance in ten minutes."
She closed the door to her armoury, and put on her suit of armour. She had a set of relatively thick, steel torso armour, an iron helmet, and iron arm- and leg-plates. She strapped them on, and picked up her elliptical, steel shield, wishing for once that she had a dragonscale one like her father.
She heard Arjuna leave the room, and waited behind a bit. Did she really want to get him involved in this? She didn't want him to come to harm, but felt she might need his support. Eventually, she decided that the crystal ball had foretold she would have companions; it felt good to start with one. She locked her armoury behind her, and wandered over to the castle entrance.
Arjuna was there waiting.
"Ready to go?" he asked, smiling, though it could not hide his nervousness.
"Yeah. We're not going to get anywhere if we don't get started," Hasina replied, also smiling, but masking her nervousness rather more successfully.
Armand was running across the lawn towards her. There might have been tears in his eyes, but if so, he had wiped them away by the time he reached them.
"Be careful out there," he said, clasping Hasina's hand tightly.
She smiled reassuringly. "I will."
Armand released her hand, and Hasina turned to leave.
"You're going too, are you?" Armand asked Arjuna.
"You be careful too."
They left the castle, walking through the village itself, right to the outer gates. No-one had come to see them go, but that was probably because word of their plight was yet to escape the castle. The gatekeeper let them out without question.
Hasina stared along the road ahead, and at the distant Dread Forest.
"We've got a long way to go," she commented.
"Yeah," Arjuna agreed. "So we'd better get started."
They began to walk down the path.
The road was long, wearying, and boring. After about an hour, they arrived at the fringes of Dread Forest. The path became a mere trail between the densely packed trees, and barely any light seeped through. It gave Hasina an uneasy feeling, and she expected Arjuna felt the same.
"Ready to go in?" she asked, this time unable to disguise the nervous edge to her voice.
"Um, yeah, I guess so."
Hasina was slightly relieved he was feeling the same way as her, but still wasn't really sure she wanted to go in. She steeled herself; if her destiny was to kill Deathbringer, then this was a challenge she would have to overcome. It was just like the questers in her favourite fairytales.
"Let's go in then."
They were barely a few metres in, and already it was noticeably darker. The light that did get through was tinged green by the amount of leaves in the canopy, giving the whole thing an eerie quality. There was the sound of insects buzzing and making a variety of other sounds in the background.
When she'd set out, Hasina hadn't really thought to bring a lantern. Now, she wished there was a way to trap the sun's rays.
The path was twisting almost imperceptibly to the left, though how long it had been was a mystery to Hasina. For all she knew, they were walking in circles. The path was getting narrower; trees were growing closer to it, and ferns and other low-lying plants were swamping its edges. Soon, they couldn't move without brushing some plant or other, and soon after, they were forced to walk single file. Then the path stopped.
Hasina was stunned. It was simply a dead-end. Trees were packed tight in every direction except the way they'd came. The path didn't lead out of the forest. It didn't lead anywhere. Arjuna was equally stunned.
"Maybe we missed an intersection further back," he said hopefully, unlikely though it seemed. Hasina went along with it, and they walked back the way they'd came, keeping a careful eye on the trees on either side of the path. Soon they could walk side-by-side again, and then Hasina spotted it.
"Stop!" she cried. On her side of the path, the trees were very thin, with a gap of about 50cm between each one. Most gaps had more trees behind them, but a few, which Hasina had spotted, led into another path.
They squeezed between the trees and set out on the new path. It curved rather more noticeably than the other one, but also got wider as they progressed along. Soon, there was probably enough room for four people to stand side-by-side.
That was when a bone-chilling howl split the air. The entire forest suddenly became deathly silent.
"What was that?" Arjuna whispered.
"I don't know," Hasina replied.
The bushes rustled to their left. They turned to face the noise. The bushes rustled behind them too, and they had turned halfway, when it rustled on both sides. Hasina turned away from Arjuna, and they stood back-to-back, one of them facing each side of the path.
The bushes rustled more heavily on Hasina's side. A large creature burst from the bushes. It was nearly as tall as Hasina, and about twice that long. It had a mane of dark brown fur, and a skeletal head with long, curving horns. Its long, muscular legs ended in paws with three claws each. Before Hasina could react, the creature jumped right at her.
The impact knocked Hasina clean off her feet. Arjuna behind her was thrown face first against the ground, and Hasina was sent flying into the trees on the other side. She heard a crack as she hit them, though she was unsure if it was her or the tree. Two more of the creatures - Hyaeners - burst from each side of the path. Both Hasina and Arjuna climbed to their feet and drew their swords. The Hyaener pack was all on one side of them, so they could face them together.
The pack stood their ground, growling at them, and Hasina realised they weren't going to attack quite yet. She unslung her bow, nocked an arrow, and fired in one fluent movement. The arrow hit the soft flesh behind one Hyaener's armoured head, and it squealed in pain and fury before collapsing. Hasina hoped the arrow had pierced the brain.
Hasina quickly slung her bow back over her shoulder, and drew her sword again as the rest of the pack bounded towards them.
The pack split, two going for Hasina and two going for Arjuna.
As the two drew near to Hasina, she crouched down, and thrust her sword through one Hyaener's neck, killing it. She withdrew her sword and extracted it from under the body with speed, but not enough. The other Hyaener struck her in the chest, knocking her flying, and sending her sword spinning out of her hand to embed itself, quivering, in a nearby tree trunk.
As the other two went for Arjuna, he jumped to the left of them both, and stabbed the Hyaener nearest to him in the flank with his sword. It flopped to the ground, mortally wounded, and the time it took the other Hyaener to jump over the body was long enough for Arjuna to retrieve his sword.
The second Hyaener slashed at him with one of its paws, but he parried and struck it on the head. The sword bounced back off the armour with a dull clang, and he barely brought it down again in time to block the Hyaener's next strike. Barely giving him time to react, the Hyaener lunged at him, jaws open wide. Arjuna just about managed to dodge the attack and slash his sword across its throat before it reached the spot where he had been a second ago. It collapsed to the ground, dead.
Arjuna quickly finished off the Hyaener he had wounded earlier, and went to Hasina's aid. The last Hyaener was leering over her, ready to deliver the killing blow and oblivious of Arjuna behind it. He swung his sword, lopping off the Hyaener's head just behind the bony armour.
Hasina cried out in surprise and disgust as the bloody, severed head landed on her stomach. She shook it off, and stood up before the Hyaener corpse could dribble any more blood on her. Regaining her composure, Hasina turned to Arjuna.
"Thanks," she said, breathlessly, before moving off to retrieve her sword.
"No problem," Arjuna replied with as much courage as he could muster, while wiping his sword blade on a rag he kept with him for precisely that purpose.
With the Hyaeners slain, the forest noise returned, reassuring Hasina that there were no more nearby.
"Let's keep going then," she said. Arjuna just nodded in agreement, and they moved off, continuing down the path.
The path continued to turn, although now it began to narrower again. This section was rather overgrown; weeds and grasses sprouted up through the hard-packed earth, and tree saplings were also forcing their way up. This was probably a sign that fewer people had walked this far.
The path straightened out, and Hasina barely noticed it. It widened slightly, and the area became slightly less overgrown. And in the distance, as far along the path as she could see, that might just have been light. Excited, Hasina picked up speed, jogging towards it. Arjuna started jogging as well to keep up.
A wall of trees rose to meet then. Hasina was briefly disappointed, until she realised the path turned a full ninety degrees. And not too long along the new path, was sunlight. They were out of Dread Forest.
However, as they got closer they realised it was not the way out. It was merely a large clearing. All the trees had been chopped down, making a circular clearing with a diameter of about ten metres, large enough to allow a significant amount of sunlight in. In the centre of the clearing was a large, ugly stone building. It had only one window, and that was a wooden shutter at the front.
Hasina and Arjuna were standing, amazed, just a few metres from the door, when it swung open.
The creature that came out of the house wasn't human. It was three metres high and rippling with muscle. It had a long head, with a large, ugly nose and tufts of fur clinging to its chin. Sharp teeth protruded upwards from the lower jaw, pressing the upper lip inwards. It had clawed hands and feet, and was wearing a few scraps of clothing round its midriff. In its right hand it carried a heavy, wooden club. It was an Ogro.
The Ogro growled upon seeing Hasina and Arjuna. It hefted its club, and ambled towards them. It said a few words in a guttural language that neither Hasina or Arjuna could understand, and continued to advance. Another, slightly larger Ogro stepped out of the house. As well as its club, it was wearing some spiked shoulder armour, and looked twice as mean as the first one.
The Ogros got closer. They towered over Hasina and Arjuna, and the larger of the two swiped its club at Hasina. She barely had time to draw her sword and parry the blow, and the impact jarred right up her arm. The other Ogro's club smashed into the side of her head, knocking her flying several metres, she bumped and rolled along the ground until she struck a tree on the edge of the clearing. Blood trickled from a wound in her head, and she was clearly unconscious.
Both Ogros turned their attention to Arjuna. The smaller one swiped downwards at Arjuna with its club; he raised his sword to parry the blow. His sword point embedded itself in the wooden club, and as the Ogro pulled his club back, the sword was yanked out of Arjuna's hands, along with most of the skin on them. He cried out in pain, and then the larger Ogro swung its club into Arjuna's midriff, sending him flying backwards into a tree stump, where he hit his head on a protruding piece of wood.
The smaller Ogro grunted something to the older one, who went back inside the house. A minute later, he came out with a bundle of rope. It ambled over to where Hasina lay, club still in its hand. But it needn't have worried; Hasina was out cold.
However, just before the Ogro bound Hasina's arms and legs, a large white horse bounded into the clearing. But, though it appeared to be a horse at first glance, it wasn't. A long horn spiralled from its forehead; it was a unicorn. The large Ogro stared, slightly surprised at the new arrival. In that time, the unicorn covered the distance between them, and embedded its horn in the Ogro's chest.
The Ogro stared down, rather shocked, then returned to its senses, bashing the unicorn round the head with the club. It staggered away, dazed. Now, the wound in the Ogro's chest began to bleed profusely, and the Ogro collapsed unconscious. With a feral roar, the other Ogro launched itself at the unicorn.
The unicorn neatly sidestepped, and smashed one of its hooves into the Ogros back as it ran past. The Ogro staggered, off balance, and fell. The unicorn took advantage of this, and bounded up to it, stabbing its horn into the Ogro's neck. Then, it trotted over to Hasina. Its horn seemed to glow briefly, and Hasina's wounds healed up, and she regained consciousness.
Though she got a fright upon seeing the unicorn, she quickly realised it meant her no harm, and stood up.
"Did you heal me?" she asked hesitantly, feeling the wound was no longer there.
The unicorn nodded, but did not speak.
"Could you heal my friend?" she asked.
The unicorn seemed to be about to say something, but decided against it, instead nodding. It trotted over to Arjuna, and once again its horn seemed to glow. Arjuna wounds healed instantly.
"Thank you," Hasina said, but the unicorn had already disappeared into the forest.
"Come on," she said to Arjuna, helping him to his feet. "We need to get going."
"How did they...?" Arjuna asked, gesturing at the Ogros.
"It doesn't matter. What does matter is we get to Deathbringer."
They made it out of Dread Forest without an incident. The path continued for a good few miles, but in the distance, they could see the enormous, ugly spire of Deathbringer's citadel. The sight of it made them shiver, despite the warmth.
They continued onwards along the winding path. About an hour later, they were nearly at the foot of the citadel. It towered above them, blank and menacing. Its shadow covered the fields to their left near-completely. It was solid stone, and the lower levels were pockmarked from futile attempts to gain entry.
Not that breaking in was necessary; as if showing Deathbringer's confidence, there was an enormous, empty archway twenty metres high giving easy entry to the citadel. Few people had ever dared to walk through the archway; none had walked back out. Hasina and Arjuna couldn't help shivering from fear.
Then, as they got closer, they noticed another man, mounted on horseback, trotting back and forth in front of the archway, as if deliberating over whether or not to go in. Unsure if he was hostile or not, Hasina and Arjuna drew their weapons and advanced silently.
When they close enough, Arjuna drew his dagger, and pounced on the man, holding his knife to his throat. Hasina walked round in front of him.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, "And what is your name?"
"Trey. I've been sent from the north to kill Deathbringer."
"You've come all the way from the north just to die here?"
"I had an ally... his name was Titanus. He's the last of the Titan Dragons, but he's gone ahead into the citadel. He'll be killed! I have to stop him."
Hasina pitied Trey, and stood there for a moment, considering what to do.
"Let him go," she said to Arjuna, and then to Trey, "You can come with us if you like. We'll help you save your dragon."
Trey almost pointed out Titanus wasn't his dragon, but decided not to bother mentioning it.
"The thing is," Hasina told them, "I've done a bit of research on the citadel, and their are ogres, called Sluha, on every floor. So Titanus will have to fight his way through them, and we won't. We can make faster progress than him, and this thing is so tall we're bound to catch him up."
"Then let's get started!" Trey said.
The three of them entered the citadel. Despite the enormous door that had allowed even Titanus in, it quickly drew fairly dark. Lava spurted from fissures in the walls and floor. Hasina yelped and jumped away as one spouted right by her foot, lightly singing her armour.
A wall of spiked rocks blocked their way, about two metres high. With difficulty, they managed to hurdle over it, and landed in puddles of Sluha blood, which was black. Five Sluha bodies lay on the ground, burnt and maimed. Titanus had been there not long before.
Soon, they reached a winding staircase that went up for the equivalent of around two floors. Then they ended up on another floor, pretty much the same to the first.
The third floor was more of a maze, with tall, rock walls dividing the floor into several paths. One went left, one went right, and one went straight on.
"Any ideas?" Hasina asked, turning to Arjuna and Trey.
"Left," they both said simultaneously.
They went left, and as soon as they turned to first corner, almost walked straight into a living, breathing Sluha.
The Sluha towered above them, and as soon as it spotted them, swung its club straight at them. It caught Arjuna full in the chest, and threw him backwards several metres. At the same moment, Hasina drew her sword and stabbed straight at the Sluha, but it responded quickly, turning side-on to them so that the blade hit its shell. When it did so, the blade shattered into many little fragments, leaving Hasina with the hilt and a short, jagged blade.
The Sluha turned back for another attack, but Trey had drawn his own sword and stabbed it right in the abdomen. The Sluha gave a strangled moan of pain, and doubled over, wrenching the sword from Trey's grasp. Then it collapsed, landing on the sword.
Hasina bounded over to Arjuna, and helped him to his feet.
"Are you OK?" she asked, concerned.
"Yeah," Arjuna replied, forcing out a smile. "Let's keep going."
"Erm, could you help me get my sword out from under this Sluha?" Trey asked.
"Oh, yeah, sure," Hasina replied.
Eventually, it took all three of them to shift the Sluha. Trey withdrew his sword from the Sluha's abdomen, but the blade was bent at the hilt. Trey stared at it in dismay.
"Don't worry about it," Hasina said lightly. "My sword is completely gone."
"Yeah. Sorry about that," Trey mumbled.
"Never mind. At least we know not to go this way."
"Oh yeah," Arjuna realised. "Titanus would have slain any Sluha in his way. As he didn't get this one, it must be the wrong way!"
"We'll try going right at the junction," Hasina said, "Straight ahead seems too obvious."
"And that might be the sort of mind games Deathbringer wants to play with his potential killers," Arjuna replied.
"True. We'll go right anyway."
The trio took the right path, and Sluha carcasses lying on the edges of the path showed that Titanus had been this way, and therefore it must be the way to the next floor. Sure enough, they soon reached a spiral staircase that took them to the next floor.
When they reached the next floor, they stopped suddenly. The only obstacle on this floor was a river of lava, which by rights couldn't exist, but was there.
Hasina uttered an ancient oath under her breath.
"What is it?" Trey asked.
"Titanus could get over this easily. It's going to slow us down and allow him to get closer to Deathbringer!"
Trey seemed unsure of what to say next, so Arjuna interrupted. "We'd better get started then."
"Is the girl out of the way?"
"Yes, yes. She has been sent to her death."
"You can assure me that?"
"She was given a fake Telling. She has set off on the wrong quest. The boy has gone with her."
"Good. Now no-one can put a stop to my plans."
Between the three of them, Hasina, Arjuna and Trey managed to lift a slab of black stone from the previous floor, long enough to make a bridge across the lava.
"I'll go first," Hasina said, "To check it's safe."
"But-" Arjuna began.
"No buts. Someone's got to try," Hasina interrupted. Then, she trod carefully across the bridge, to the other side. Trey went next, and also arrived safely. Arjuna went last. He was halfway across, when a long crack spread from one edge of the rock to the other.
"Jump!" Hasina cried.
Arjuna leapt, just as the rock beneath his feet split into two and fell in the lava. Arjuna landed on the other side heavily, on his stomach. Hasina and Trey helped drag him away from the dangerous lava, and then he struggled to his feet and brushed himself down.
"We made it, then," he said, smiling.
"Yeah," Hasina agreed. "Just."
As they continued to climb the Citadel, they were posed with many more challenges. There were several mazes, and they'd once found a wall of rock that stretched from one side to the other, and from top to the bottom of the floor. However, hidden behind a lava waterfall they had found a secret tunnel, and just about slipped in without getting burnt.
After what seemed like hours, and probably was, they reached what was apparently the final floor before they would confront Deathbringer. It was a straight corridor, with a staircase at the end. However, before they could reach it, two enormous ogres, about four metres high, appeared as if from nowhere and blocked the way.
"Deathbringer's final guards, I suppose," Arjuna said.
"We... not... guards," one ogre said hesistantly. "We... door... ogres."
"Deathbringer... busy... now. You... no... pass!"
"Yup," Hasina agreed, "They are guards."
The first Malus quickly lost its temper, and grabbed Hasina round the chest, lifting her off the ground easily.
"Let me go!" she protested, struggling in vain.
"You. No. Pass!" the Malus roared, lobbing her down the length of the corridor. She bounced several times on the rocky surface, before coming to rest, battered and bruised, against one wall. Arjuna rushed to help her to her feet.
"Where... other... pest?" the Malus asked. "There... were... three."
Trey had sneaked past the Malus while it was busy, into the alcove where it hid. He drew his sword, silently as possible, and prepared to launch an attack.
Trey leapt at the Malus, grabbing the spikes on its gauntlets with one hand, and using them to propel himself upwards. He stabbed his bent sword straight into its chest, but the blade actually ended up striking it on the right side. The Malus let out a strangled gasp of pain, and clutched at the sword, trying to remove it, but its efforts were futile. Trey jumped off the Malus just as its corpse hit the ground.
"Their hearts must be on the right side of their chest," Trey yelled to Arjuna.
Arjuna left Hasina, and drew his own sword, the only one that wasn't damaged. He changed his mind, sheathed it again, and took out his bow instead. Trey started to withdraw his sword from the dead Malus, but the other punched him straight in the face, sending him cartwheeling into the back wall of the alcove, where he lay, blood streaming from a cut lip and a broken nose.
The Malus turned to Arjuna, but he was ready. he fired an arrow, and it seemed his aim had improved since the arrow shooting task a couple of days ago. It thunked into the right side of the Malus' chest, causing it to let out a gasp like the other Malus. It tried to remove the arrow, but succeeded only in snapping it and leaving the head stuck in its heart. It collapsed dead a few seconds later.
Arjuna helped Hasina to her feet, and the two of them stumbled over to Trey. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. Hasina quickly took off one off her shin plates, and tore off a strip of her trousers. She dabbed Trey's lip, and then tied it in position round his nose, to catch the blood.
"The best thing to do is leave him here," Hasina whispered, putting her shin plate back on. "It isn't his fight. We can rescue Titanus and get him out safely without risking his life any further."
Arjuna nodded in agreement, and they climbed the final staircase.
When they reached the top, Titanus was already in fierce combat with Deathbringer and it wasn't going well. He had a scar that nearly cut through his right eye, and another gash that narrowly missed the gem in his chest. Deathbringer apparently sensed them arrive, and decided it was time to end his combat with Titanus, as if he had been playing all along.
He released a huge ball of dark fire, which smashed into Titanus. There was a bright flash, and Titanus was thrown backwards, but suddenly he wasn't there. A pile of ashes remained on the floor where he had just stood.
"Titanus!" Hasina cried. Even though she had never met the dragon, he obviously meant a lot to Trey, and now he was dead. They were too late.
"HM HM HM," Deathbringer chuckled. "I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU LONG ENOUGH. IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO EXPERIENCE MY FULL POWER, MY FULL WRATH! YOUR SCREAMS WILL RESOUND AROUND HELL FOR ALL ETERNITY!"
Deathbringer launched himself at them, and Hasina rolled to one side. Even so, his claws caught her full in the chest, and she was sent flying against the back wall of the chamber. Arjuna was caught in the same way, and also thrown against the wall.
"HOW PITIFUL. I WAS HOPING FOR A BIT MORE A CHALLENGE. NONETHELESS, YOUR JOURNEY ENDS HERE!"
Something glinted at the far end of the chamber that caught Hasina's eye. She looked at them, and suddenly shivered. She went cold as fear grabbed hold of her, paralysing her.
"No..." she began. "That... It can't be..."
"What?" Arjuna asked.
"Deathbringer's got eggs!"
Both Hasina and Arjuna were shocked into silence. Deathbringer had been menacing this area of the south for centuries. If he had children, then his menace could spread across Emiria, and possibly even further.
Hasina jumped to her feet and took Arjuna's blade. She raced forwards, ready to engage combat against Deathbringer. She made an enormous slash across his chest, which he blocked easily. Each of his ten claws were the size of a sword, and it was like fighting ten swordsmen at once. Ten very skilled ones, at that.
Deathbringer's tail suddenly snaked round his body and smashed into Hasina's chest, and she crumpled, doubled over in pain. Deathbringer grabbed her in one enormous paw, and threw her across the room. An arrow bounced off his scales, and he turned to see Arjuna pelting him with arrows. He released a stream of flame, and Arjuna cried out in shock and pain before disappearing under the smoke.
Trey suddenly staggered into the room. He saw Deathbringer, the badly burned Arjuna, and Hasina, who was bleeding all over, but he didn't see Titanus.
"What...? Where's Titanus?" he asked.
"Sorry," Hasina croaked. "We were too late."
"YOU ARE AN ASSOCIATE OF TITANUS? THEN YOU SHALL DIE"
Trey drew his sword, ignoring the fact it was bent, and went to engage Deathbringer in combat. Laughing, Deathbringer slashed downwards upon Trey, destroying the sword and leaving a long, deep gash along one of his legs. He cried out, and crumpled to the ground.
"NOW, YOU INSOLENT PESTS SHALL DIE, ONE AFTER THE OTHER!"
He reached Arjuna in one enormous leap, and pinned him down between two claws.
"THIS MALE WILL BE FIRST."
"No!" Hasina cried.
Deathbringer ignored her, and brought his fist down hard on Arjuna. The snap of bones was audible all round the room. Deathbringer pounded him twice, then a third time. When he was finished, there was clearly no life in Arjuna's limp body. Deathbringer picked it up like a rag doll, and tossed it all the way to the other end of the chamber.
"YOU, ASSOCIATE OF TITANUS SHALL DIE NEXT."
Trey attempted to get to his feet, but was too weak. He watched helpless as Deathbringer approached him slowly and deliberately, like a hunter that knew its prey could not escape.
"No!" Hasina cried again. "Stop!"
She threw her shattered sword at Deathbringer, but he appeared not to notice. However, he paused for a moment, and turned to face Hasina.
"YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME!" he roared. As he did so, Trey finally fainted from blood loss caused by the gash in his leg. Deathbringer turned back to him, and flipped the limp body over a few times with a flick of his claw.
"THE ASSOCIATE OF TITANUS IS DEAD ANYWAY," he declared. "FOR YOU, THE HORROR WILL BE WORST OF ALL. I SHALL SLAUGHTER YOU, BUT NOT HERE. I WILL SLAUGHTER YOU IN THE BURNING REMNANTS OF YOUR VILLAGE!"
Deathbringer waved his claw, and a hole appeared in one of the citadel walls.
"YOUR TOWN WILL BE BURNING WHEN YOU RETURN, AND I WILL BE WAITING THERE TO SLAUGHTER YOU!"
He jumped out of the hole, and as he did so, it closed up. The chamber was silent.
Hasina knew Arjuna was dead. Tears had carved paths down the grime on her cheeks, as there was nothing she could do for him now. Worse, Deathbringer was right; there was nothing she could do for her village either. It would take her hours to get back down, as tasks such as the lava river would take much longer alone. Titanus had been completely vapourised, so she couldn't him either. Right now, there was only one person she had a slight chance of helping, and that was Trey.
She stumbled over to him, a felt for a pulse. It was still there, but faint, and fading fast. As quickly as she could, Hasina took off her armour, and tore a long strip from the bottom of her top. She did her best to bind Trey's wound, and stop the bleeding. She checked his pulse again, and fear jolted through her, as she realised there wasn't one.
However, she wasn't about to give up on Trey. She knelt down in front of him, and put her lips to his. She had been to a few medical lessons with Drabardi, and she had learnt that you could make someone breathe again by giving them some of your air.
She breathed into Trey's mouth, and again, and again. She felt for his pulse, but there was still nothing. In frustration, she thumped him on the heart, as if that might somehow kick-start it into life. Hasina was ready to give up, when she realised that there was a pulse, albeit a very faint one.
She gave him some more air, then tried pushing down on his heart again. At last, she feel the pulse returning, strong and steady. Trey suddenly spluttered, then sat up, sucking in deep lungfuls of air.
"I'm alive," he said, shocked.
"Yeah," she said. "Arjuna isn't."
"I'm... I'm sorry," Trey said.
"Never mind. It wasn't your fault. But we need to get back to the village. Deathbringer's left to attack it."
"OK," Trey said, suddenly sensing a familiar presence in his mind. "I'm just going to get my sword," he lied. "I'll catch up with you in a minute."
"That's alright," Hasina said, leaving the chamber.
"Titanus!? But, I... I thought..."
"You must remember, a Titan Dragon's greatest weapon is his magic. Although it drained much from me Trey, I was able to teleport away before I was burnt to mere ashes. I am not sure where I am, but it is quite cold. I am suspecting I teleported to Xenox."
"I'm not sure where that is, but can I reach you there?"
"Oh... Well, you don't think you could help us, could you? We're trapped in Deathbringer's Citadel, we need to get out without climbing back down."
"I can deal with that. Call your mate back."
"She isn't my..."
Trey jumped down the stairs three at a time.
"Hasina!" he called. "Come back up here!"
"Why?" she asked.
"Just come on!"
Hasina followed Trey back up to the top floor, where the hole Deathbringer had left through had reappeared, and strolling in was a proper Rage Dragon.
"Get on my back," it said. "Quickly. We don't have much time."
They did so, and the Rage Dragon leapt from the citadel. Again the hole closed behind them.
"That... was... straining. Deathbringer's magic... is stronger... than I expected," Titanus said.
"At least you're OK," Trey replied, but Titanus had already left his mind.
When they arrived back at House Styrke, the village was already aflame. They had almost got within two hundred metres when Deathbringer spotted the Rage Dragon, and instantly identified them riding it.
"INSOLENT PESTS! HOW LONG WILL YOU DEFY ME!" he roared, swooping towards them. The Rage Dragon dropped suddenly, but so did Deathbringer, and he cannoned into them, sending the Rage Dragon crashing to the ground. Hasina had one leg pinned down by the Rage Dragon, which had fallen unconscious and therefore couldn't move.
"Go," said Hasina to Trey. "You don't stand a chance against Deathbringer; none of us do. Just escape with your life."
"I'll be alright. Well, that's unlikely, but it's better for one of to die than both of us."
"I could get help."
"We'll never move a Rage Dragon."
"We could lift it, just a bit, and you could get out."
"Alright. Go to the castle, ask for Armand. Armand Styrke. Find him, and say... say my Telling was false. That it wasn't to be. He'll understand."
Trey limped off, but Deathbringer had clearly spotted him. He took a deep breath, and Hasina knew what was coming next.
"Trey! Look up!" she called.
He did, just as a jet of flame streamed from Deathbringer's mouth. With his good leg, Trey pushed off and rolled out of the blast radius. As Deathbringer prepared to let loose with another blast, Trey turned to Hasina. Hasina couldn't be sure, but she thought she could see a tear running down his cheek.
"I'm sorry, Hasina. I'm so, so sorry."
Then, he was swallowed up by a jet of flame. Deathbringer turned to face Hasina.
"YOU SHALL DIE NOW. YOUR TIME IS UP."
An arrow bounced off Deathbringer's scales, and he turned to look at the disturbance. A knight approached, clad in black armour, on a strong, black stallion. He had a sword in hand, but even so, Hasina could recognise him. It was Minister Eldred.
He flicked his visor up, and Hasina was proved right.
"I am the last of the Order of Dragonslayer Knights!" he bellowed to Deathbringer. "You shall die now!"
He uttered words in an arcane tongue, and lightning leapt from the sky to his sword. He brought the sword down, and the bolt of lightning slammed into Deathbringer was a phenomenal bang. One of Deathbringer's wings went limp, and he spiralled towards the ground out of control, but before he hit the ground, his wing snapped open again and he halted his fall.
"YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME, KNIGHT!"
A bolt of dark fire leapt from Deathbringer's jaws. Eldred's horse whinnied in surprise and pain, before keeling over and dying. Eldred remained mostly unaffected for a few seconds, but then his armour too began to melt. He desperately shoved the molten metal off of him, and got off his burning horse.
"But..." he began.
"I AM THE BRINGER OF DEATH. YOU CANNOT BRING DEATH UNTO ME!" Deathbringer proclaimed, and dived for Eldred, claws out. Hasina had heard of legends of the Dragonslayer Knights, one of which had been they could resurrect their fallen comrades. If Minister Eldred could do that, she needed him alive. She drew her bow, loaded it, and fired it straight into Eldred's shoulder.
The impact knocked him backwards and spun him out of Deathbringer's reach. One of his claws still connected with Eldred's hand, nearly tearing it off, but other than that he remained safe.
Eldred spotted Hasina, and ran over to her.
"What?" he asked.
"Long story. Beaten by Deathbringer in the Citadel, left by Rage Dragon, wound up here."
Eldred muttered some indistinguishable words, and the Rage Dragon rolled over, freeing Hasina.
"Arm yourself," he said. "The fight with Deathbringer ends here."
"Deathbringer!" Eldred called. "This bitter, unending war against you shall finish, right now!"
"REALLY? I AM FAR TOO TIRED NOW TO BOTHER WITH DESTROYING YOU ALL. I SHALL END IT ANOTHER DAY. UNTIL THEN, LANGUISH IN THE PIT OF DESPAIR!"
With these words, Deathbringer beat his powerful wings and bulleted off back to his Citadel.
"What's happening, Minister?" Hasina asked.
Eldred sighed. "I am the last of the Order of Dragonsbane Knights. They were dedicated to wiping out all dragons, but Deathbringer destroyed the Order hundreds of years ago. Only my grandfather survived, and he has passed on the spirit of the Dragonsbane Knight to my father and myself. I studied their arcane arts in the hope that one day I could finally destroy Deathbringer. It turned out not to be."
"If you know their arts," Hasina said, "Are you capable of resurrecting people?"
"Yes," Eldred said, "At great cost, I can."
"Then, could you perhaps resurrect him," Hasina said, pointing to Trey's burnt corpse.
Eldred knelt down in front of it, and studied it.
"I can do this," he said.
He muttered away, and a bright light covered Trey's corpse. When it cleared, he suddenly started coughing, and his eyes opened. As he sucked in deep lungfuls of air, he looked around, bewildered. Hasina came up to him.
"What? How am I still alive?" Trey asked.
"Minister Eldred is somewhat experienced in the arcane arts," Hasina said, smiling.
"Ah," Trey said, standing up.
"Come on," Eldred said. "We must help the villagers."
They ran off to the village, Trey's leg wound now healed. They arrived, and ran almost straight into Armand.
"Hasina!" he cried, embracing her. "You're alive!"
"Yes, father. Barely."
"Where is Arjuna?"
"Oh. Um... well, who's this?"
"Trey. He's a bounty hunter from up north."
Trey and Armand shook hands, and then they all made for what remained of the castle.
"Now, I don't know about you," Armand said, "But with so much happening, I'm a bit confused right now. Guards!"
Two guards came at Armand's call, and took hold of Eldred.
"You undoubtedly held secrets from me, Minister. You are to be locked up until this crisis is sorted."
"No buts, Minister."
Hasina had slept the night in her room, one of the only two to survive the attack, while Trey slept in the other. When she awoke, Trey was still sleeping, so she left him, and went off to do some investigating of her own. Drabardi's room was destroyed, a mass of indistinguishable rubble. No-one had seen Drabardi since the attack, but Hasina knew exactly where she was.
With great effort, she lifted some of the rubble away, revealing the trap door down which she had climbed to have her telling. Hasina grabbed a large slab of rock, and hurled it downwards at the trap door, which splintered upon impact as the stone went right through. Hasina kicked open a hole large enough for her to squeeze through, and grabbed on to the familiar ladder rungs.
She descended into the darkness, instantly regretting the fact she hadn't brought a candle. She felt her way along to the large chamber where she had gone for her Telling, and like she had expected, it was illuminated by a bright blue glow coming from a crystal ball.
"The crystal ball predicted you would come," Drabardi said, standing between Hasina and the crystal ball and blocking out its light."
"You did this," Hasina said simply. "Look how many people you've killed."
"No," Drabardi countered. "You did this! You brought the wrath of Deathbringer down upon us!"
"No! If you'd told me the truth, I wouldn't have gone after him in the first place!"
"Oh, so you know, do you?"
"Yes, I know everything," Hasina lied. "Why did you do it?"
"Minister Eldred's dragon scale went missing. That was part of the reason. The only two people who would have had the chance to take it were you and Arjuna. You were getting too meddlesome. We suspected whichever one of you took the scale would leave it behind as you were going on a quest of such importance. That was not so."
"Arjuna!" Hasina realised.
"He stole it?"
"Well then, tell him to return it."
"Don't you dare say that!" Hasina shouted. "He died up there! He's lying dead in Deathbringer's Citadel because of you! And the scale's there with him. Good luck getting it back."
"Idiots," Drabardi hissed. "The scales on your father's shield belong to the inferior Rage Dragon Dreadfire, whom Deathbringer defeated above this very village. Eldred's scale was the one and only scale we own belonging to Deathbringer!"
"Minister Eldred's locked up now. Why don't you just give yourself up too?"
"Never," Drabardi cackled. "Tellers have access to some choice books on the arcane arts."
With a wave of her finger, Hasina was lifted into the air and thrown against the far wall of the chamber. A bolt of lightning crackled above her head, singeing her hair. Hasina grabbed her dagger, the only weapon she was wearing, and threw it blindly in Drabardi's direction. There was the sudden sound of shattering glass, and the blue light in the chamber went out. The only sounds were Drabardi's moans. They sounded like they came from the throat of a dying animal, not a sapient human being.
Hasina had shattered the crystal ball.
"Ohhhhh! Nooooo! How... could this happen?"
"It's nothing less than you deserve," Hasina retorted.
Drabardi's moans ceased instantly.
"Don't you ever say I deserved it," Drabardi hissed. "What if you never discover your true fate? What about all the others that never will?"
"It's better this way," Hasina said simply. "To discover your own fate."
"But yours... yours is special."
"I don't want to know."
"I can see nothing will convince you otherwise. But Tellers have a connection to the crystal ball. You destroyed it, you cut the connection - you must fashion me a new crystal ball."
"What? But I don't have the first clue how to make one. And all these deaths are your fault. Why would I help you?"
"You are destined for greater things-"
"I told you, I don't want to know. Shut it or give me one reason why I shouldn't put my knife into you next."
Drabardi smiled maliciously. "Because I have it."
Hasina looked at Drabardi's hand, and indeed it was there. She uttered some words in another language, and fire suddenly leapt to the knife. Drabardi drew back her arm to throw the flaming blade at Hasina, when something clamped onto her arm and pulled, knocking her over backwards. The knife flew from her hand, its flame snuffed out.
"Trey!" Hasina cried.
"What should I do with her? She's unconscious."
"We'll take her back up to my father. He will decide her fate, just as he will decide Minister Eldred's."
Between them, they managed to carry Drabardi back up the ladder. When they did so, Armand was already waiting at the top.
"When you weren't in your rooms, or anywhere in the village, I went looking. I saw this, and it doesn't take long to put two and two together. What happened to Drabardi?"
"She hid under here during the attack. She'd faked my Telling, so I would go and die at Deathbringer's hands. She caused this. She tried to kill me just now. I think she's in league with Minister Eldred."
"Hmm. I'll get some guards to lock her up too. We'll have to find a new Teller."
"When I fought Drabardi, I accidentally shattered the crystal ball. But I don't think we need a new Teller. Surely it is better to discover your own destiny? Then we won't have any more accidents like this."
"You have a good point. I'll put it up for debate when we recover from the attack."
"Thank you, father."
The interrogation of Minister Eldred and Drabardi began the next day. Armand and Hasina sat on one side of the table, while Eldred and Drabardi were on the other.
"Eldred," Armand said. "What on earth do you mean that you are one of the notorious Dragonslayer Knights?"
"My grandfather was the only survivor when Deathbringer wiped out the Order. He passed down the hatred of dragons to my father and myself, but I saw dragons for what they really were. I just thought, if I studied hard and learnt the arts, I could one day topple Deathbringer. I kept one of his scales for study, but it was stolen during the break-in."
"That was Arjuna," Hasina interrupted. "He thought you were up to something, and he must have pocketed the scale."
"Then where is it now?" Eldred asked.
"At the top of Deathbringer's Citadel," Hasina said bitterly, "with Arjuna's body."
"And Drabardi? What of the faked Telling you gave my daughter, and why were you in league with Eldred?"
"Eldred has more telling to do first," Drabardi said. "Of his grand scheme."
"I planned to take control of the castle and use its troops as a new Order of Dragonslayer Knights. I needed some way to get rid of those who could stop me, especially as they were now interfering in my business."
"A Telling was the simplest way to get rid of Hasina," Drabardi said. "I concocted a fake one that would certainly lead her to her death."
"I've heard enough," Armand said. "You are both to be banished from this House, and you may never return unless you can bring Deathbringer's severed head with you."
"And how will you make us leave?" Drabardi asked.
"Guards!" Armand called.
Two guards made a move towards Drabardi and Eldred, but Drabardi muttered some words under her breath, and lightning sprung from her palms to strike them full in the chest, knocking them to the floor.
"This conversation is far from over," Drabardi chuckled.
"It is over," Armand said firmly. He closed his eyes, concentrating, and suddenly their was a bright flash, and Drabardi and Eldred disappeared. Armand sagged back on his chest, eyes closing.
"Father? Are you alright?"
"Yes. I just... cast a... basic teleportation... spell. They are... gone, but the spell... is very... straining. I simply need... rest."
Hasina left the room, and decided to help those down in the village rebuild their fallen houses. She hoped she might find Trey down there too.
A tall, stone spire thrust up from the ground, like an ugly blot on the otherwise beautiful landscape. Its sides were pockmarked but intact. A beaten path led right up to an entrance at the foot of the spire. A kilometre away, at the top of spire, sat an enormous, red dragon.
"COME, MY CHILDREN. IT IS TIME WE SHALL RISE. LONG HAVE I WAITED FOR THIS ULTIMATE DESTINY. SOON I SHALL BE RULER OF ALL EMIRIA!"
Deathbringer watched attentively as the first of his eggs started to move. Slightly at first, but then it began to rock more fiercely. There was a sudden crack, and a long scar now stretched down one side of the egg. Their was another crack, and the eggshell around the mark shattered. A small, red-brick coloured thing pushed its way out of the egg, landing on all four legs.
It spread its wings, dripping with egg yolk, and shook them for the first time. It was about a metre long, with a relatively large, horned head. Its eyes glowed bright blue, and when it opened its mouth, it revealed rows of sharp teeth. Its wings were already clawed, and its legs were capable of holding its weight. It was exactly the image of Deathbringer.
More of the eggs shook, cracked, and hatched. Each dragon that came out of them looked the same. Three more hatched, and shook the egg yolk off their red bodies. There were now four of Deathbringer's children standing before him, but one more egg still remaining unhatched. After a minute, it too began to shake. Then, it cracked, and finally, another dragon burst out.
It looked exactly like the others, but its scales were emerald green, and its eyes glowed a bright white. Deathbringer picked it up in one paw with surprising gentleness.
"YOU ARE THE ONE. YOU ARE DESTINED FOR GREATER THINGS, GREATER THAN ALL YOUR SIBLINGS."
He placed it back on the ground, and it nonchalantly scratched behind its horns with one of its paws.
"NOW, CHILDREN, WE MUST FLY. YOU MUST LEARN AND GROW QUICKLY, AND THEN WE SHALL RULE OVER EMIRIA!"
With a flick of his paw, Deathbringer opened the hole in the citadel wall.
"FOLLOW ME, CHILDREN."
Deathbringer launched himself into the sky, followed by his five children. Each one snapped open their wings as they jumped, and flapped steadily, keeping themselves in the air and propelling them forwards. Deathbringer set a brisk pace for the children, as he would have to train them quickly. They would reach maturity in a few years, and full size a year or so after that, so they needed to feed a lot and learn quickly.
Deathbringer spotted a Hyaener that had strayed from Dread Forest, and dived vertically towards it. He threw his wings open when he was just metres above it, and landed with crushing force on the Hyaener, but not with enough force to hurt himself.
The five dragons descended and joined Deathbringer. They fed on the Hyaener carcass, but it wasn't enough and they were soon fighting over the scraps.
"HM HM HM. YOU HAVE MUCH TO LEARN. WE WILL RETURN NOW. THERE ARE PLENTIFUL SLUHA I CAN SLAUGHTER FOR YOUR BACK AT THE CITADEL."
With that, the six dragons took to the wing together, and returned to Deathbringer's Citadel.
Hasina was helping a family rebuild their home with Trey, when suddenly she thought she saw something out of the corner of her eye. She turned, and saw six silhouettes in the sky. Even from this distance, they were clearly dragons, and one was several times bigger than the others.
Hasina gasped. It was Deathbringer - and his children. In the chaos, she had completely forgotten to tell her father that Deathbringer had eggs. She excused herself, saying she'd back again in a minute, and rushed towards the Castle.
She found her father supervising the rebuilding of some of the castle that had been destroyed.
"Father!" she called.
"There's something I forgot to tell you. About Deathbringer."
"He had eggs - five of them - and now they've hatched."
"They're small at the moment, but knowing Deathbringer, they'll probably grow really quickly. He could spread his influence throughout Emiria this way!"
"You're right. We'll have to send messengers to the south, east and west. Trey could possibly return to the North with the news."
Then, to two of his guards, Armand said, "Get me Aaron Leal and two of his finest subordinates."
"Yes, sir," they said, and ran off to find him.
"Hasina, you go and find Trey. See if he is willing to return to the north with this news."
Aaron arrived in a few minutes, with two of his finest subordinates.
"You requested our presence, sir?"
"Hasina has brought me grave news. When they visited the citadel, Deathbringer had five eggs. Now they have all hatched. In a few years, they will likely be full grown and threaten to take control of all Emiria."
"That is indeed grave news."
"I need you to travel to Storm's Eye, with this news. Do not be surprised if you are taken in under armed guard. Relations between Emirian nations are fragile at this time. One of you shall travel to the Sky Fort, and must expect the same. The other of you must travel to Land's End. I am getting Trey to take the news to the north."
"As you command, sir."
"Get your finest horses, arm yourself, and leave immediately."
They left Armand, and collected their swords, knives and bows. They mounted their horses, and set off immediately. They left through the main gates of House Styrke, and split from their, going round Dread Forest and Deathbringer's Citadel their own way. Unfortunately, they still passed too close to it.
"CHILDREN. HUMANS WHO WOULD BRING ABOUT OUR DESTROY RIDE PAST THIS CITADEL. THIS IS A SUITABLE TEST FOR YOUR FIRST HUNTING CHALLENGE. DESTROY THEM!"
He opened the hole on the citadel walls, and the youngsters jumped out. They were already experienced flyers from the couple of lessons they'd had. They split into two groups of two to go after the subordinates, and the green dragon alone went after Aaron.
It dived towards him, claws outstretched, but suddenly Aaron spotted it coming. He drew his sword and sliced upwards in an arc, but as it connected with the green dragon's scales, it was sent flying forward by the motion of the dragon. It swooped around for another attack, but Aaron had already drawn his bow. Arrows bounced uselessly off its scales, and the green dragon cannoned straight into him.
He was knocked flying off his horse, which bolted away. He smashed his head against the ground, and blacked out. He came round a few seconds later, with the green dragon standing over him, its jaws coming down to snap his neck.
He desperately tried to hold it back, but grabbing its neck in his arms and pushing it away. One of the dragons paws lashed out, and Aaron heard a crack as it collided with one of the bones in his arm. His defence gave way, and the dragon bit down on his neck, snapping it.
The other two messengers were less lucky. They just splitting at a point beyond the citadel, so all four dragons descended upon them at once. There was a clash of swords against scales, but they were thrown uselessly from the messengers' grasp. Some of the dragons attacked the horses, panicking them and causing them to throw the messengers off. Lying on the ground, they were completely unable to defend themselves, and the four dragons killed them.
They fed on the remains, until just a crushed skeleton with scraps of flesh clinging to it remained, and then they flew back to the citadel. The green dragon was already there, having eaten its fill of Aaron Leal.
"YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED. NOW EMIRIA WILL BE TAKEN BY SURPRISE WHEN I RISE TO RULE IT!"
Three panicked horses bolted riderless through the village of House Styrke, and into the castle grounds. Armand spotted them, and identified one of them as Aaron Leal's horse, and thus assumed that the other two belonged to his subordinates. One horse had three deep scars in its flank, still bleeding profusely.
"Dragon talons," Armand identified. "The children of Deathbringer have struck."
Armand gathered up three more messengers, but gave them different commands.
"One of you shall travel to the west. You will go directly north from here, and then into western territory. One of you will go to the east. You will also go directly north, then head east for the rest of your journey. Another one of you will go to the south. You will have to go north, east and south, to circle round the Deathbringer's citadel."
The three messengers nodded in understanding and left to saddle their horses and arm themselves.
Hasina found Trey exactly where he had been before she left, helping rebuild the house.
"Father wonders if you would mind returning to the north to bring them news."
"Deathbringer has children. Five of them. We've got a couple of years, tops, before they're as powerful as Deathbringer himself. Then he could wreak havoc across all of Emiria."
Trey was silent for a moment, as if thinking, and then said, "Alright. I'll go."
"Good. Just don't pass anywhere near the Citadel. I'll go and fetch you a horse."
Hasina came back a few minutes later. "This is one of the finest horses in the stable. It will travel fast and for a long time and will not prove any trouble."
"You'd better be leaving now. The sooner the north gets the news, the better."
The horse was a large stallion. It was impeccably clean, and its was a shining, chestnut colour. It had a white diamond on its forehead, and white bands round its hooves. Trey mounted it with little difficulty, and then walked it to the edge of the village.
"So, I guess this is goodbye," Trey said.
"Yeah. I guess so."
With one last wave, Trey set off on the horse. They galloped north with great speed, until they were just a speck on the horizon. Not once did Trey look back.
Hasina walked back into the village, and returned to helping rebuild damages houses. However, she had only been doing so for about thirty minutes, when there was a sudden shout from nearby.
"Deathbringer! Deathbringer is coming!"
Hasina look to the sky, going cold with fear. Indeed, Deathbringer was powering towards them, his children behind him. The look in his eyes, and his behaviour, told Hasina that this time, he was here to finish the job.
She left the houses and bolted for the castle. By the time she reached the drawbridge, Deathbringer was above the village. He released great gouts of flame, incinerating everything in their path. his tail swung to and fro, destroying everything in its path. His claws slashed down, slaughtering those in the open. Hasina made it inside the castle just as Deathbringer smashed straight into the front wall.
In an enormous explosion, brick and stone was sent flying. The gateway collapsed just as Hasina jumped clear, and stone literally rained from the sky. People cried out, raising whatever defence they could, to no avail. Hasina narrowly dodged a chunk the size of a person, and rolled out the range of a shower of smaller fragments. As Deathbringer wheeled around for a second attack, he bathed the castle in flames, setting fire to the inside.
Hasina saw her father lying pinned to the ground by a lump of rock, flames licking at its other end. She ran over and tried desperately to lift the rock, but it was too heavy.
"Leave me," Armand protested. "You must help the others!"
"No, father. Deathbringer's been tormenting us for long enough. Now he's here to finish the job."
The living area, at the other side of the castle, exploded as it was struck by a ball of dark fire. Flaming fragments rained down and the dark fire spread with alarming quickness.
Pushing herself to her limits, Hasina managed to lift the rock a fraction for just a couple of seconds, in which Armand withdrew his leg.
"Now!" Hasina cried. "We have to get out of here."
She ran for the stables, but Armand went towards the armoury.
"We don't have time!" Hasina called.
"But the dragon shield!"
Armand dashed inside, and a minute later, burst through the door, dragon shield in hand. A blast of fire struck the armoury, and it exploded, knocking Armand to the ground.
He struggled to his feet, and ran for Hasina. She grabbed his hand and they made a dash to the stables. Dark fire was already licking at one corner. They entered the other side, and picked the best two of the available horses. The front wall was suddenly blasted away by a jet of fire, and Hasina and Armand ducked to avoid the worst of the stone fragments, but one still scarred Hasina's shoulder. She cried out in pain.
They jumped until the horses, and urged them to move quickly. They galloped across the flaming castle ground, but suddenly noticed one of Deathbringer's children diving straight towards them. There was no way it was going to miss its target.
Armand got his horse to push into Hasina's, knocking her out of the dragon's aim. He grabbed hold of the reins tightly, as the dragon's claws smashed into his face. His horse was pulled backwards and he was yanked off, but the dragon didn't gain a hold on him.
Armand now had three long scars along his cheek, narrowly missing both his eye and ear. As he had hit the ground, he had heard a click, and he was sure his back was damaged in some way. Hasina dismounted and ran over to him.
"No," he said weakly. "I can't make it. Go... save anyone you can."
"Father!" Hasina cried, tears running down her cheeks. "Father, no!"
He shook his head, and winced from the pain. "Your Telling may not have been the truth... but I hope... that one day... you really do bring death to that good-for-nothing dragon."
His head lolled to one side, and his eyes closed. Hasina felt for a pulse, and found none. She was going to try to bring him back, like she'd done with Trey, but her father's words burned in her mind. She would never slay Deathbringer if she died, here and now. Tears still streaming down her cheeks, she mounted her horse, and galloped off, through the burning castle grounds, out across the burning, weakened drawbridge, and through the burning village.
All around her, families mourned their dead, tried desperately to fend off Deathbringer's attacks. Young children and adults alike were crying. Fire and debris rained down on the village. This had been their home for years, decades even. Deathbringer was destroying it in mere minutes.
As Hasina rode, young children held out their hands to her, wanting help, wanting to be saved. Adults tried to block her path, tried to make her stop and take them with her. Though it tore her heart apart to see this devastation, she knew she had to escape alone to stand any chance. She passed through the gates to the wilderness, and an arrow embedded itself in her horse's hip.
She urged it to ignore the pain, carry on. They rode north, non-stop, for another ten minutes, leaving House Styrke behind, before the horse finally collapsed from its wound. Hasina leapt from the falling steed to avoid being crushed, performing a neat roll as she landed.
On the very edge of the horizon, she could still see the smoke and flames from the burning village. If the messengers didn't make it to their destinations, no-one would know of Deathbringer's children.
Hasina had no idea where she was. She had never travelled significantly north of House Styrke before. She decided to continue north-west, and try to keep near to the coast of Emiria. That way, she should eventually stumble upon a village in the west, who would hopefully take her in. If not, she would have to head east back into neutral territory. She had heard there were some villages situated around the middle of Emiria, therefore not in any territory owned by the North, East, South or West.
The only problem with this was that in a couple of years, when Deathbringer's children were fully grown, one of them would no doubt inherit his citadel, and he would build another, slap bang in the middle of Emiria.
Wearily, Hasina left her horse, and began the long trek north-west on the lookout for a village.
To be Continued