Outskirts of Ostaria, many years ago
The night is cold and dreary, hinting at the weather that’s soon to come. The trees are bare of leaves, the animals already hibernating for winter. Everyone is inside their cozy cottages, preparing for a nights rest. Everybody except a girl.
The young girl knows she shouldn’t be out this late, but her curiosity mixed with dark intent forces her to push all cautionary thoughts aside. Looking around the bedroom, she sees her sister sleeping soundly in the bed across the room. She frowns in hate. Her perfect sister, always the good one. She knows thoughts like that shouldn’t be in her head, or the voice that whispers dark deeds, but she can’t help it.
Easing the bedroom door open, she peeks out to make sure their parents around before quietly walking over to the door. A blast of frigid air hits her upon opening. Go now! The dark voice hisses, making her wince with dread. She’s always heard the voice, not letting it control her until now. The voice promises dark things, things she desperately wants.
Pulling the hood of her black cloak up, she steps outside and trenches through the wind, feet quickly becoming numb. Stopping in front of the forest, she looks behind her for any other presence before stepping forward.
The dark forest has always been off limits. Inside are some of the worst creatures to walk the land, ready to hunt down any prey that dare to walk it’s paths. She feels no fear though, in fact, she braces the darkness with a grin. The forest comes alive, the power surging through the roots and into her soul. It’s time. Open the gate! Listening to the voice, she begins to run. She doesn’t know where the gate is, but she’s no longer in control. The voice is. It takes over her mind, controlling her legs as they propel her further into the forest, the moons bright rays guiding each step.
Here. Stop. She stops, chest heaving, and looks around. “There is nothing here,” she mutters, brows drawn down in confusion.
Just as she says those words, her eye catches something. She stumbles forward, grazing a vine before tugging on it. The wall of moss and thorny vines fall to the ground, revealing a large, metal circle with pictures on it. Carvings.
“Now what?” she asks the voice.
Say the words. Use your magic. Leave the rest to me. She nods and holds out a hand before saying the words she memorized years ago. “Aperta Quaerere,” she whispers over and over again, her voice becoming stronger, louder. The wind whips around, lifting her hair back, the cloak bellowing out around her legs. She clenches her teeth as a wave of dizziness rushes over her, and unable to keep it up, falls to the ground. For a moment she thought it was ruined, but then the stone begins to shimmer blue. Then black pieces begin to fall off, one by one until the portal is revealed. Blackness swirls around in the portal.
They are coming. Rising from their torment. They shall listen to your command. She turns around as the night echoes out with screeches of pain and misery. Shadowy figures swarm, their forms blinking in and out of existence, their screams forever lodged in her mind. They float before her, faceless, limbless, and wait for her call.
She raises her arms slowly, feeling the ground shake with her power. Finally, after so long, she’ll be free. Free of her perfect sister, her too strict parents, and the disgustful stares of the people.
The power surges, wrapping itself around her. She feels stronger, darker… revengeful.
A man appears and steps forward, glaring at her before kneeling down, bowing his head. She grins in malice, knowing that it’s her time now. and she’ll be named the most evil witch-ever.
“My queen,” the man rumbles before standing up. “What shall we call you, my queen?”
Throwing her head back, she cackles before narrowing her eyes on the man. “You shall call me… Morgana,” she grins once more before stepping into the portal, taking dark destruction with her.
The punch comes from nowhere.
Normally, I’m good at seeing them come. It’s not like I’m an amateur, but something else had caught my eye, distracting me. Distractions are deadly, especially in my line of work.
Swinging around, I block another punch that’s aiming for my ribs and kick out, hitting the knee of my opponent. He goes down with a grunt. Grip tight around my bo staff, I swing it down, but he rolls out of the way, leaping up into a defense crouch. Grimacing, I wait, watching his every move. We circle around each other, everything else still around us as we wait for a move to break the tension. He lunges at me, and he would have knocked me out if I hadn’t seen his right leg shift. I hold out my hand, quietly incanting the spell.
His bo staff swings around in an arc, sweeping me off my feet as I try to jump away. The spell releases and hits him square in the chest, but not before his weapon hits me.
Landing on the ground with a thud, I squint up at his mocking eyes. Before anything else can happen, I roll to the side and swing the staff behind his leg, knocking him to the ground. Kneeling, I take out my dagger and slice it down, halting inches from his neck.
“Good job, Lu,” Matthias praises.
Straightening, I smile over at him and hold my hand out for Sahil. “Good job, Sal.”
He grunts and stretches his back. “Thanks. Not that I ever beat you or anything.”
I wince. Sahil is the weakest on the team, and being dominated by a girl means that he’s the brunt of all jokes. “Ah, next time for sure.” We both know he won’t beat me. Not wanting to embarrass him more, I walk over to Matthias.
Matthias leads the guards. It’s his job to train us, to make sure that when it’s time to protect our home, we can do so without failing. It wasn’t easy to sway him to let me be on the guard rotation, because, well, I’m a girl. The first one to be on the team. It took me a while to get the men’s respect, but once I started knocking them out, I became an honorary brother.
“You have somewhere to be, I believe. Wash up and I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says, combing a hand through his white hair. Matthias is older but quite handsome. With wrinkles around his blue eyes, you can tell he’s laughed a lot in his time. Usually he’s a pretty funny guy, but lately he’s been coming down on us hard. Something is happening.
“Yes, sir. I’ll see you then,” my words are breathy and I try to take a breath. I start to jog, passing the guys on the way. Waving goodbye, my feet pound down the familiar trail to my cottage. It’s one I’ve been using for years now. The two suns shine down, still rising as it’s only mid-morning. I see birds fly by, some other creatures scurrying around on the path.
Once I arrive, I gaze around. The cottage has always been mine. It used to belong to my parents, but they died when I was a baby. It was never a question that when I was old enough this would become mine. Until then, I stayed with my friend Kami’s family. Ostaria is small, and everyone knows everything. I grew up the pariah, still am sometimes. I’m different. I’m the person no one wants to interact with, so it was a miracle that her family took me in.
Shaking my arms, I head inside and take off my clothes. It’s sparse in here but for a few trinkets I’ve collected over the years. Nothing grand or special, buts it’s mine. In the bathroom, I stare at the mirror, seeing why I’m the odd one.
Every single person here is the same. White hair, blue eyes, short women, and tall men. They all look related. Whereas I don’t. My hair is dark, so dark that sometimes it appears blue, and stops at my hips. Eyes the shade of pale gray, and I’m tall for a girl. Nowhere near the height of the men, but taller than I should be.
Shaking my head, I clean myself up, dressing in my typical guard clothing. Dark tight pants, dark shirt, and boots. My boots hold a sheath for my dagger, and my bo staff slides into the one on my back. Before turning away, I raise my hand and feel the raised up scar on my chest. It rests over my heart and it’s white, faded from years.
“Don’t think about it,” I mutter. The scar is a complete mystery to me, it’s always been there and no one can tell me where it came from.
Heading out, I walk the same trail toward the center of Ostaria. It’s quiet this far out, just the way I like it. Every morning I wake up early, jog for a few miles, and then train with the men. It’s the same thing every day, and lately I’m starting to tire of it.
A snapping sound has me pausing, glancing around for whoever made it. The sound doesn’t come again, but something isn’t right. The feeling of someone-something-watching me has my guard going up.
But nothing happens.
Even so, I don’t forget about it.
The hub of sits in the middle of Ostaria. Cottages are clustered around the main hub, tents pitched, and tables full of items people sell. It’s bustling with people, children running around and practicing innocent spells. I softly smile, remembering those days.
I’ve never been good at incanting. While all the other kids could master the spells, I was still trying to learn how to make a leaf float. I’m always a stage behind. Having these problems makes me feel less of a witch. Why aren’t I the same? No one can tell me why I’m so different, and I’ve stopped asking, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want answers. I need them.
Ignoring the stares, I walk to the biggest home, nodding curtly to the guard at the door as I pass. Elin’s house is made of stone, green vines cling to the exterior. The balcony, which happens to be her room, is covered in flowers. Inside is clean, only housing necessary items. Elin doesn’t like clutter. Up the stairs, around the corner, and through the hall, I arrive at the door. Without bothering to knock, I head in.
Elin sits at her vanity table, Ralf, her second guard, book bored on the couch. Elin’s room is immaculate and the color pink is everywhere you look. “Well, doesn’t this look fun,” I remark with a smirk.
Elin’s mouth twitches. “Very funny. You know the fun doesn’t start till you arrive.” Elin is inches shorter than I am, and though her eyes and hair match everyone else, there’s something different about her.
She’s the queen of Ostaria.
And she’s one of my best friends.
I wink at her. “Tis true, my queen. And now that I’m here, what fun should we have?”
She wiggles her eyebrows. “What do I like to do?” She sets down her brush, done getting ready.
I pretend to think about it. “Read?” My drawl tone doesn’t fly over her and she scowls.
“Lu, reading is fun,” she insists with exasperation. We have this talk all the time.
“No, it isn’t fun.” My eyes follow her as she grabs a shawl.
She sighs. “Shopping, Lu. We’re going to the hub. Besides, we can see Kami.”
We all met each other in school. Elin wasn’t born into royalty, she was chosen at sixteen. And she’s perfect for the title. She’s kind and thoughtful, yet stands firm when need be. I roll my eyes. “I’d rather read.” Ralf snorts. I narrow my eyes at him. “Go sleep or something,” I order.
His blue eyes are dull with fatigue and he nods. “Sounds perfect.”
How I wish it was Ralf going shopping, I’d rather clean than shop, but at least I’m with Elin. “Oh, hush. You want to see Kami,” she admonishes.
“Okay, fine. Let’s go then.”
At least I’m not alone. That could be worse than shopping.
The second we’re out in the open, I’m in guard mode. My hand doesn’t stray far from my side, ready to whip out my bo staff if need be. I stay a few feet behind Elin, keeping watch.
We don’t get a lot of attacks, seeing as how small Ostaria is, but on the occasion we get a dark witch or warlock cross into our land from Etra. Etra is where all the dark magic casters live. As well as demons and wolves. Etra has a queen, but she rarely comes out. In fact, I have no idea what she looks like.
Still, it’s always good to watch our queen. We’re taught to expect surprises.
“Oh, there she is! Kami!” Elin grins and wraps her arms around Kami’s stiff body.
Kami is the opposite of me. She’s quiet, never to speak unless spoken to. Her parents are the same, preferring to stay outside of the main hub. Yet, Kami always sticks close to us, and though she’s quiet, the three of us are like sisters.
“Hey,” Kami mumbles eyes downcast.
“Our dear friend, Kami! How we have missed you,” I sing-song.
She giggles. “What are we up to?” She whispers something before pulling a bag of coins from her dress pocket. “I got paid today.” Kami works at the seamstress store.
“I need to get something for the ball,” Elin tells us excitedly.
Arching a brow, I walk a bit faster. “That’s forever away! Why are we out now?”
I can’t see it, but I know she rolled her eyes. “Calm down. This time is for me and as we get closer, we’ll get your stuff.”
Pausing, I gawk. “I’m not going. I have to guard you that night. Who knows what will happen?”
The ball is in her favor, since it’s the day of her birthday. “You can still dress the part. For me, please?” she pleads, eyes wide.
Sighing, I kick the ground, making sure to keep an eye out for trouble. “For you, fine. Now, let’s go already. I’m starving.”
Kami shakes her head. “You’re always hungry.”
After getting the things Elin needs, we stop at a table for food. We take a break to eat, and it’s as we’re heading back to her home that I feel it again.
Someone is watching us, and the feeling of dread crawls up my spine. Later, if it happens again, I’ll investigate, more prepared for something to happen.
“Could you please stand still?” I gripe at Sahil.
After yesterday’s shopping excursion, a good old fashion practice is much needed. Being around frilly dresses and colors-that are not my season¬-according to Elin, took a lot out of me. The suns aren’t even out yet, but I somehow convinced Sahil to practice with me. Poor guy thought I mean a mock fight.
“I don’t think this is a good idea.” Sahil is practically shaking as he talks.
Huffing, I arch a brow. “Nothing will happen to you, I promise. I’ve done this a million times.”
He glares at me, standing a little straighter. “Not with a bow and arrow!”
The bow and arrow is something I’ve yet to use. It can’t be that hard to use though. Point and shoot. “I got this, Sal! Calm down and stay still.” Bringing up the bow, I pull back on the string and quietly incant. Spending most of my days practicing my magic has left me drained, but it’s worth it if I can protect Elin better. Letting out a breath, I let go of the string.
With the magic I infused into the arrow, it’ll hit its intended target. So when it pierces through the apple sitting above Sahil’s head, I grin in excitement. “See! I told you I could do it!”
Sahil grunts in disbelief, holding onto the apple. His wide eyes train on me. “You did it, but how? You’ve never shot an arrow before.”
I walk over to him and slap his shoulder. “Because I’m amazing, and the sooner you realize that, the world will start to work again.” Ignoring his confused look, I grab the apple and marvel at it. I can’t believe it worked! The alarm goes off, signaling that it’s time for actual training. Before turning away from Sahil, I slant him a look. “Oh, you really shouldn’t allow someone to shoot an arrow at you. Something could go wrong,” I wink and turn to leave, silently laughing at his puzzled look.
Training is no longer required for those who graduate out and get jobs, but it’s still a good way to keep abilities up. Plus, it’s nice to see the men without getting looks from their wives or sisters.
“Lu, shouldn’t you be with the queen?” Matthias asks, stepping up beside me.
“Not for another hour. Figured I’d watch today,” I nod to the group that’s stretching.
He hums and I know what’s coming. “Why don’t you go relax or something? All you do is work out or worry.”
Snorting, I cross my arms. “Telling the worrier to relax is kind of contradicting yourself there.”
When he sighs, I roll my eyes. “Okay, fine. I’ll go.” Waving goodbye, I decide to stop at the hub and browse around, staying to the outskirts. I don’t want any problems today. But as everyone starts to notice my appearance, I begin to think this wasn’t a good idea. Every time I come here, it’s with the thought that maybe no one will have troubles with me.
“I don’t sell to you,” one woman sneers as I approach her table. Just yesterday I bought something from her, but that’s because Elin was with me. No one can speak badly of me in front of Elin, it’s like a silent rule.
Instead of arguing with her, I just wave a hand carelessly and head to Elin’s. She must have the fireplace going as the chimney is releasing dark clouds of smoke. Like yesterday, I nod to a guard at the front door and head inside. While on duty, we don’t talk to each other in less it’s needed.
“You’re here early,” Ralf remarks once I’m in Elin’s room. He’s wearing his usual guard attire, dark tight pants, dark shirt, and his weapons. His blond hair is looking a little messy today, as if he didn’t have time to comb it.
“I was going to come a bit later but Matthias told me to relax,” I answer his silent question. I walk by him, kicking his legs off the table to grab some grapes on his plate. His eyes darken in amusement before shaking his head. Ralf is quiet and stern, so it’s nice to see him relaxed and almost laughing.
Elin’s eyebrows rise. “So you come here?”
Lying back on her bed, I close my eyes. “Yeah, it’s relaxing here. And if you read, I might fall asleep.” I smirk when a pillow hits the side of my face.
“Queens mustn’t swear,” I interrupt her with a hoity voice.
She continues on as if I hadn’t said anything. “You can be so annoying. I wonder why I even like you.”
Leaning on my elbow, I shrug. “I’m not sure. My sunny composition? My spirited personality?”
“That must be it,” she drawls sarcastically. “How on earth did you get so sassy?”
“She was born that way,” Ralf answers for me.
Glaring at him, my gaze jumps between the two. “Hey! Don’t do that. And for your information, I am not sassy. I just have superior confidence.”
They share a look again. “Sassy,” they both say and I huff.
“Is it time for him to leave?” I ask Elin.
“Five more minutes. Be good,” she orders. With her back turned, I stick my tongue out at Ralf. “Lu!”
“What? I didn’t do anything!” It always creeps me out when she does that. Kami said she has eyes on the back of her head, and now I’m wondering how true that is.
Once Ralf leaves, Elin sits next to me on the bed. “Why do you torture him? Do you like him?” she grins.
Glaring, I sit up. “No, why would you think that?”
“Because he likes you.”
“What? No he doesn’t!” I protest, finding the idea weird. Ralf is handsome, I suppose, but I never thought of him like that. He’s like an annoying brother.
“Yeah, he does.” When I look at her, she’s smiling.
“Why are you happy about this? This is bad!” Lying back again, I stare up at the ceiling, taking in this information. Has he always felt this way? Are there signs I didn’t know about?
She giggles. “It’s fun to watch you. The girl who has never had a boyfriend before, finally figuring out that one’s been waiting.”
If I glare anymore, my eyes will get stuck this way. “But… Ralf? I never thought about it.”
Her eyes soften with compassion. “Now that you know, do you like him? Or could you? I think you both are great for each other.”
Could I? Ralf has always been around. We met each other in school, and he was always around when I needed him. He never said anything bad about me, even defended me to the other kids. We trained together; we know each other’s moves before we even think them. I guess I never thought about how in sync we are, despite our teasing friendship. Maybe I should see where this goes…
“Okay, while you think on that, I need to do some business in the office.” Elin’s main job is keeping the people of Ostaria happy and safe. Luckily, not many bad things happen here. We haven’t had a war in years, way before I was born.
“Okay, let’s go then,” I tell her. As we walk to her office, I can’t stop thinking about Ralf. Now that it’s planted in my mind, the idea doesn’t sound bad.
Maybe this never-had-a-boyfriend girl needs to change that.
My body stiffens, lying still as I wait for the sound that woke me up.
Once it comes again, I sit up and swing my legs over the bed. The distant screams reach my ears, propelling me out of bed and to dress into dark clothes. I hurry to lace my boots, sheathing my dagger and bo staff.
Outside, I start running to the hub. All the screams are coming from there, the night sky lighting up by the use of magic. The air is frigid; more so than it should be for the fall season. It feels like winter has arrived, weeks before it should be.
At the edge of the forest, I stop and take it in. Demons are attacking. They hover over everyone, their black shadowy bodies slithering around. Their eyes are red, and the screeches that come from them make my skin tingle with dread.
My head snaps to the right. A little girl and boy are huddling in a corner, one demon in front of them. He starts to take a form, his shadowy body morphing into two claws, their nails long and sharp as they swing out for the kids throats. Before the demon can do that, I hold out my hand and thrust it forward, muttering the right words to hit the thing with a death spell. As the magic hits the demon, it screeches in anger before glowing white and disappearing. I rush to the kids, kneeling down in front of them.
“Are you okay?” I ask them, looking over my shoulder for any other demons.
“We’re okay. But we don’t know where our mommy is,” the girl, obviously the older sibling, tells me. “She told us to run far and not stop but we got stuck.” Her eyes well up with tears and my heart breaks.
“I’m going to keep you both safe but you need to listen to me, alright?” I wait for them to nod before picking up the boy and setting him on my hip. I grab the little girls hand and pull her behind me. I need to get them to safety and fast. And Elin. Please be okay.
I duck and cover as demons swoop down, keeping the kids close to me as I fight. It’s hard but I was trained for anything. When I see the shelter ahead, the one build by magic to sustain such things, I sigh in relief and push my legs harder. “Here, help them find their mom,” I say to one of the ladies and run back out.
I spend the next hour casting spells and using my bo staff before arriving at Elin’s home. I rush inside and look everywhere, finding the inside empty. The same with her room and office. Just as I’m starting to panic, I hear a shout and turn to Ralf with Elin. “Lu!”
Ralf looks me over and I nod, silently letting him know I’m alright. If the moment wasn’t so tense, I would be feeling awkward with the thought of him liking me. “We need to go to the safe house,” Ralf bites out, watching for danger.
“Let’s take the tunnels. They keep coming,” I say and pull Elin with me. The front door bursts open and both Ralf and I spin around, weapons ready. “Kami!” I gasp and rush over to her.
Her body goes limp and I barely catch her. Ralf sweeps in and picks her up, nodding for me to keep going. Elin is waiting for us, wringing her hands, but eyes dark with determination. Elin may be the queen but she isn’t weak. She can hold her own if need be.
We head down to the basement and I pull open the door. Flicking my wrist, a bright orb appears and I hold it out. The tunnel is dark and smells like dirt. I don’t want to know what’s down here. I can fight demons, but bugs? No way.
Once we reach the end, I put my ear to the door and listen. Nothing. Opening it, I step out first and give the ok sign to Ralf. The safe house is a few feet away, hidden under the ground. We rush over and I find the hatch, lifting it up. “Okay, go,” I tell Ralf.
He looks uncertain, as if he’s about to say that he’ll go first, but bites his tongue and heads down instead. Elin goes down next, and as I’m about to follow, something strikes against the back of my head and the trees swirl around as darkness envelopes me.