Excerpt - Chapter 1
No place like home
The palace was too quiet.
It should have been abuzz with many familiar noises: gardeners tending the plants, cooks clanging the utensils, and servants running errands. Instead, the rhythmic clip-clop of the hooves from Ciaran’s horse was the only sound echoing across the palace courtyard. The perfectly manicured shrubs and flowers blooming during peak summer looked exhausted, having to keep the facade of their expected sunny disposition. In contrast, barricaded in a garden corner, rooted yet lifeless, the prana plants glinted cunningly. With the sunlight bouncing off their amber-colored crystalline form, it was as if they were watching him.
As if they knew something he didn’t.
The trained senses of a King’s Knight warned him, but Ciaran dismounted, nevertheless. How could he be wary of a place he had called home for so long? After a few moments of deliberation, Ciaran decided to tie his horse to one of the pillars near the doorway, just in case.
He had practically grown up at the palace, having arrived there at thirteen to live and train as an apprentice knight. His father, Oswald—a Bender and the Lord of Korbridge—had still been alive then to watch with pride when Ciaran had received the royal crest that declared him a King’s Knight five years later. The metal emblem, carved with a golden sun rising from behind a jeweled dagger, was pinned to the chest of Ciaran’s black coat when Oswald passed away a few months after the ceremony. That had been six years ago. Malakai had stayed by his side through the ups and downs, the triumphs and losses. He was a friend, a rival, a comrade, and the closest thing to a family Ciaran had left.
He would gladly walk into a raging fire if it were for Malakai.
Now, Ciaran walked into the decidedly frosty palace.
No one greeted him in the main hall. The throne room, offices, and foyer were all eerily deserted.
He could sense people around, hear their hushed whispers and the echoes of their footsteps, yet it seemed they were deliberately avoiding him. Ignoring the strange stillness in the air, he resolutely walked toward his sleeping chambers in the north wing. Of all the knights in the country, only ten were chosen to be King’s Knights, the ones who lived in the palace, attending to the ruling King of Castellon.
Halfway to his destination, he stopped at the edge of the winding stairs. The stairs diverged here: one set of steps went up to the royal residence, and the other went down to the palace dungeons, a place that brought back haunting memories for him. He tried to shake them off and turned to take the stairs going upwards.
“I see you’re back already.” The hostility in the voice of General Atkins standing before him startled Ciaran. The five knights, who had crept up behind him in the meantime, didn’t appear any friendlier. Reva, Lucia, Feris, Goran, and Jahir all held weapons. To make things worse, they knew each other too well.
“General, where is he?” Ciaran could not stop panic from rising in his heart. The aging General had gray in his hair, but his height and breadth made him a mountain of a man. The formidable presence of this experienced warrior was enough to make grown men wet themselves (most grown men). Still, Ciaran did not break eye contact with his mentor, his emerald eyes demanding answers.
The General winced almost imperceptibly before replying, “The king sent him to Lasceraz.” Ciaran’s blood froze in his veins; he was too late for his friend.
“They’d such a shouting match that the stewards had to call me from my home in the city,” Atkins said. “I found Malakai unconscious on the floor, and the only thing I got from the king was the order to transport him to the dungeons in Lasceraz. In chains. Ciaran, what’s going on?”
The General implored him for some explanation.
“How long ago?” Ciaran ignored the General’s question to ask his own.
“Nearly three days now. What are you guys keeping from us? Answer me!”
Ciaran didn’t reply, his mind already calculating his next steps. Lasceraz, the infamous prison, was in the southernmost corner of the country. It would take several months to reach it on horseback unless he secured the service of a space-Bender mage—like the General, for sure, had. Fortunately, he knew one who used to work for his father, but Bender Farley lived in Ciaran’s hometown Korbridge, and it would take a few days to reach there from Castle. The longer he delayed, the more time Malakai would rot in Lasceraz.
Just as Ciaran turned around to leave, the knights readied their weapons: two sets of daunting daggers, two shining swords, and one menacing mace pointed straight at him. The General himself did not carry anything, standing with his arms crossed in front of him. Not to mention that Ciaran was not a mage, but two of the knights and the General were. Taking a deep breath, he brushed his sandy hair back with his right hand; a few locks strayed back over his green eyes.
“You truly believe you can stop me from leaving?” he asked, smiling for the first time since entering the palace grounds.
The knights looked highly uncomfortable, for they were well aware of who they were up against. People in the kingdom might not know his name, but every knight in the country knew of Ciaran’s reputation.
“No. I don’t believe we can manage that…” The General replied truthfully, “But I need to say that we tried our best regardless.”
Ciaran gave his mentor a quick nod, steadied his sword, and took his stance. “I understand.”
He couldn’t understand how he was still alive.
His entire being ached; his muscles and even his bones were sore.
Malakai tried to turn on his bed to find an angle where it would hurt slightly less, and a pained yelp escaped his mouth. The cold iron bit his wrists, sinking its unyielding teeth into his joints. He opened his eyes to find himself chained to the walls.
Lasceraz. A wave of despair overtook him, making it hard to breathe. Was the air always so stale and thick here? Malakai had toured the prison many times but never noticed how dark it was. The cells were made of thick granite, without even a tiny window to allow light to peek through. With some effort, he turned his head upwards and regretted it immediately. Everything swam before his eyes, and a sharp pain made him retch, only to realize he had nothing left to vomit apart from his blood.
After his body stopped shaking from the shock, Malakai felt a strange emptiness inside him; the warmth and comfort of his magic were barely there anymore. The panic that rose through him was worse than the bile he tasted in his mouth. He tried his best to calm himself, to convince himself that it could not be gone, for magic was made of prana: the life energy coursing through every living being. It had to be somewhere if he was here. But the more he searched, the more it became evident that it was dying.
And he was dying with it.
Malakai’s eyes blurred once more. Were they tears of sadness, knowing he had lost everything he held dear, or tears from the burning torment his body experienced with the slightest movement? He couldn’t tell them apart.
As his eyes focused again, Malakai remembered there used to be a window in every cell once upon a time. The first king of Castellon knew light was a beacon of hope; it kept the fight alive in people. His descendant, the current king, also understood what it meant to the prisoners. So, five years ago, he ordered all the windows to be boarded up. Malakai was the one who had supervised the project and seen the dejected looks on their faces, caked with dirt and grime, yet he never fully comprehended. Until now.
Many of them were murderers, kidnappers, and swindlers, but there were others who couldn’t pay the ever-increasing taxes; people who had no reason to be in the infamous jail of Lasceraz.
Yet, they were.
So was he.
“Get 'im to eat somethin’.” The metallic tinkle of keys alerted him as the room door opened. A guard dressed in red and yellow placed a bowl of soup in front of him while another held a lantern in his hand. Malakai wondered how many days had passed since he was sent here and if Ciaran knew his fate yet. It was no coincidence that he was incarcerated when each of his allies within the King’s Knights happened to be out of the capital.
“Three days. You’ve eaten nothin’.” The guard brought a spoon with the soup near his mouth.
“Please!” the man nearly pleaded and added, “Yer Highness.”
The other guard looked equally awkward. Malakai understood how disturbing it must be to treat the second prince of their kingdom as a mere prisoner—torn between their absolute loyalty to the orders issued by the king and their instinct to protect a member of the royal family. His older brother might be the ruler of Castellon (and he made sure to remind people of that constantly!), but Malakai was a soldier, first and foremost. He had spent time with guards, trained them, and inspected prisons as part of his duties, something the pampered king never bothered himself with.
He opened his mouth to let the guard feed him. Under no circumstance was he allowed to be free of his manacles. Such was the rule in Lasceraz, where every prisoner was kept in maximum-security solitary confinement. Sip by sip, he finished the bowl of soup, and the guards released simultaneous breaths of gratitude, likely because they had half-expected him to protest, or worse. Malakai didn’t want to make it any harder on them than necessary, considering they would have a tough enough time when he escaped. His weak stomach rebelled despite his noble intentions not to trouble the guards; a dull ache radiated from his core, spreading out like a volcano spewing lava, and Malakai keeled over in pain.
After they helped him throw up everything he had just ingested in the chamber pot, one of the guards tried to say something but couldn’t. Ignoring the grip of fatigue threatening to suffocate him, Malakai smiled and said, “It’s not your fault.” He meant it, but they hung their heads in shame and left the room without checking the chains, forgetting that they’d loosened the shackles slightly to let him clean up earlier.
He didn’t doubt that Ciaran would find a way to get him out of here.
But maybe Malakai could beat him to it.
Being beaten in a battle wasn’t something Ciaran ever worried about.
However, victory always comes with a price.
As he rode his tired horse away from Castle, the capital city of Castellon, Ciaran had to admit that while he’d managed to get out of the palace in one piece, thankfully without killing any of them, it hadn’t been easy. Every hesitation, every indecision from one side was used by the other. It was a wonder he’d made it this far.