I know that for the last few weeks you’ve heard a lot about Prince of the Ruined Land. I feel that I owe you for sticking with me and I want to reward you for being loyal readers.
So, here’s the first chapter of Prince of the Ruined Land (Book 4 in the Sacred Knight series)
Prince of the Ruined Land
by Dawn Blair
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
–Seneca (Roman philosopher)
The fact Steigan held onto life startled him.
He thought the last remnants of his existence might be wiped away by the intensity of the magic. Yet he found himself standing, staring at the gray cobblestones of the ruins beneath him.
More than a ghost on the doorstep.
Prophecy had come true: Steigan had returned.
A soft wind sweeping through the rubble brought a chill to Steigan’s skin as he stared at his hands and flexed his fingers. He couldn’t believe they looked so young again, before the age spots had started to appear. A new future lay ahead of him, yet never had the expanse of time looked so bleak.
Some dim part of his thoughts told him he was home, yet he couldn’t fight through the fog that gripped him. He was back, yet he didn’t allow himself to believe. How could this be?
All he wanted to do was rest. He thought by now he’d be able to do that. Where was all the magic? He felt none of it coming to him. Steigan dropped to his knees and shouted out his frustration, tears burning in his eyes.
With some vague awareness, he heard people clamoring nearby as they urged him to get to his feet. Steigan glanced around, a dull numbness over his senses as he tried to pull himself from the confusion surrounding him.
A crash jerked Steigan partway from his trance. He raised his head toward the sound. The wooden main gate of Lilinar bowed inwards as it was rammed from outside again. The securing crossbar bulged and was beginning to crack. He did have to get to his feet. They had to get moving. He knew their urgency was important, but he didn’t remember why.
Steigan looked over at the flattened landscape of the ruins. This had once been his home. In his memories, he remembered buildings along the path, but now he could barely see foundations. Weeds and little skeletal trees that had tried to grow here pushed the rocks apart. Vast expanses of the castle were missing. Only the wind visited Lilinar anymore. He barely recognized it.
Another boom thundered through the ruins. Dust fell from the aged wood as the main gate began to splinter. Martias, Adonid, the domini from the Temple, they would all be coming through to arrest Steigan and the people with him. He really needed to get up. He had made it. Now, he had things to do.
But his body moved numbly. He felt his face. Someone was pulling at his arm now and he shook them off. In doing so, his long hair flipped over his shoulder. In shock at discovering his hair so long, he reached back for the band that held the ponytail and stared at the dark strands of hair.
A young girl’s face appeared in his line of sight. She had leaves tangled in her dirty and tousled blond ringlets. A memory of Martias finding them sleeping next to each other rose in his mind. He had to push it away to focus on what she was saying to him. “Steigan, please,” Aeribela pleaded. “We’ve got to go.”
Steigan looked around again. He’d been unable to save this land before. What made him think he could do it now? What made him think he could save Martias, who stood just beyond the gate waiting for it to give way? He saw Arlyn staring at the main gate.
“That wood is going to snap any moment now. We can’t go any further into the ruins,” Arlyn stated.
“What do we do then?” Ellis asked.
Arlyn looked down with disappointment clear in his eyes. “We have no choice. We surrender. I’ll talk to Adonid. He owes me a favor.”
Steigan heard Aeribela gasp and saw the fear rise within her. It took Steigan a moment to remember that Lilinar and Dubinshire were no longer allies, but rather bitter enemies. Adonid may have mercy for this transgression with Arlyn and Ellis, maybe even Steigan, but he’d never have it for a princess from Dubinshire. No matter the outcome for them, hers would end in execution.
Steigan put a hand on the ground and shifted his weight. “No. I’ve had forty cycles to think about this,” he said, getting to his feet. “We’re going to the West Tower.”
“The West Tower? It doesn’t work, not like it was built to do,” Arlyn protested.
Steigan smiled. The secrets of the Onim, his Onim, were alive and well. They knew the knowledge he’d left them with for a thousand cycles and that pleased Steigan. “I know. Trust me. Forty cycles, a lifetime, to plan this.”
He looked down at his hands again. The tiniest change seemed the biggest: he no longer wore the black, fingerless, gloves. He also wore Searn’s armor, but so far no one had noticed those changes except him. Yet he had never expected his youth back; that was probably the most significant change and seemed too good to be possible. Still, he had planned for what needed to be done and he had to make that happen. He’d stick with his plan.
“No,” Arlyn protested, grabbing Steigan’s arm. “What good will it do?”
Steigan whirled around toward Arlyn and came up close to him. “Are you going to tell me now that the Onim has no idea what the importance of the West Tower is? I grew the group and taught them everything they needed to know so that the knowledge would be saved in the future.”
“Which is precisely why I don’t want to draw their attention to it!” Arlyn answered, flipping his hand toward the main gate.
“We have Shant’olin creeping closer,” Ellis warned, tapping Steigan’s arm while he looked deeper into the ruins.
“Gargaxes above us,” Aeribela said moving in closer, her gaze to the sky where three gargaxes circled above them.
“Time grows short, Arlyn.” Steigan started walking toward the West Tower hoping the others would follow, but he didn’t even bother to look back to see if they were or not.
The bar across the main gate broke with a heavy crack. The wood fell to the ground. The gates parted a sliver, but more from their own weight rather than anyone pushing them. Several mounted domini moved just on the other side.
“Time to come out!” Adonid shouted. Steigan saw Adonid moving closer to the gap between the gates, peering inside. “This is your last chance to surrender.”
“He won’t come inside,” Arlyn said. “But we need to move before he sends the domini in. He’ll use them as fodder to get to us.”
Steigan continued in the lead. “Why won’t he come inside?”
“Later. If you think the Tower is our hope, then we need to get there.”
They began moving down the broken streets toward the looming gray tower standing in the south-western portion of the ruins.
Steigan looked to the sky for the gargaxes. They weren’t there. He scanned around quickly and found them trying to open the massive gates to the ruins which would allow the domini entry. Was Martias already able to control the gargaxes or were they merely operating under the premise of the enemy of my enemy is my friend?
“We’ve got to hurry,” Steigan said, picking up his pace.
As Steigan passed a crumbled wall, he caught a flash of two bright blue orbs from the shadows within the dark crevice. “Milady Lihn, where is she?” came Dragzel’s voice.
Steigan stopped, blinking in surprise. Had the cahaster just said that to Steigan or had he imagined it? Even as he thought of how to respond, the silvery cahaster slipped out from the cranny and slithered around behind the pile of rocks, keeping his blue eyes firmly on Steigan while staying low to the ground. The cahaster broke away suddenly and ran toward Ellis. Steigan made a grab for the animal.
“Dragzel!” Ellis cried out as he saw Dragzel. The cahaster scrambled up on Ellis’ shoulder, wrapping itself around the boy’s neck.
“The gargaxes, they made me do it,” Dragzel loudly whispered into Ellis’ ear.
Unease filled Steigan as the nightmares of being in the room of fire and surrounded by the gargaxes flooded back to him. It had been so long ago, but it was only part of his concern. “Ellis, your cahaster is a creature of Gohaldinest. He can’t come with us.”
“Gohaldinest,” Ellis asked looking taken aback. “It doesn’t exist.”
“It does. ‘Tis a city, now buried beneath Dubinshire.” Steigan flinched at his own slip backwards into the ancient language.
But Ellis wasn’t looking at Steigan. The boy had turned toward Aeribela as if to confirm everything Steigan had said. She had dropped her gaze to the broken ground, turning the simple action alone into a shameful confession.
Ellis’ eyes filled with tears. “No, tell him it’s not true. Dragzel is good.” But they all knew the truth: nothing good came from Gohaldinest.
“We don’t have time for this,” Arlyn reminded him.
Steigan felt torn and knew Arlyn was right; they didn’t have the time for this delay. He rocked back and forth on his feet wishing he had some assurance. “Do you mean any of us harm?”
Dragzel started carefully moving down Ellis’ chest, putting forth one paw to tentatively test his footing. Then, when Ellis put his arms out, the cahaster jumped onto Ellis’ forearms and sat back on his hind legs. “These other mortals, no,” Dragzel answered. “You who seem protected beyond reason, I would see you dead. But I know Milady Lihn is close and upon her return, you might find redemption with my forgiveness.”
Steigan gave a laughing scoff. “I can live with that. Bring it, but the cahaster is your responsibility, Ellis. It comes close to me again and I will kill it.”
“Steigan?” Aeribela gasped as if shocked by his harshness. He hoped that the cahaster never sent gargaxes after her or Ellis. But if Dragzel was looking for this person named Lihn and kept searching through history for her, making the vengeful cahaster appear repeatedly in Steigan’s life, then there had to be something important about Lihn. He now knew that he needed to find Lihn as well, and only the cahaster could identify her.
As Steigan continued for the Tower, Arlyn jogged up beside him. “What has happened to you?”
Steigan ignored him. So many events scrambled through Steigan’s mind; trials and incidents he held behind tightly closed doors and hoped to never crack open again.
There were the books he’d hidden away, the days he’d spent crawling through caves near Dubinshire in search of the pieces of the many gargaxes he’d hacked up during his nightly hunts, and the reckless things he’d done in order to keep the Temple in terror. How long had Tanold lived in fear after Steigan had disappeared from that time?
Being able to view it in hindsight, knowing the results from his spent lifetime, and seeing all the wreckage of the once great city all around him, how could he even begin to speak of such things to Arlyn? Steigan chased off all the rushing thoughts with a shake of his head. For now, he had to continue to hold them at bay.
“Dominus Arlyn,” Adonid shouted from a distance behind them, “I command you to arrest your apprentice. In the name of the Goddess and for the Temple, you must bring him to justice.”
Arlyn looked back. “I can’t tell if he’s actually in the ruins or not. He’d be a fool to come in, like us.”
“Shant’olin!” Ellis screamed as a ghost floated up before him.
Steigan spun around, unsheathed the sword — Searn’s sword — from his scabbard, and fanned the mist away. Both Ellis and Aeribela ran around them, drawing in closer to Steigan and Arlyn.
Screams of rage and pain sounded deeper in the ruins.
“The domini,” Arlyn said, stopping and listening. He started to move in the direction of the shouts.
Steigan reached out and snagged Arlyn’s arm. “We can’t help them and ourselves.”
Feeling the time ticking away, Steigan began to jog toward the West Tower and stopped before it. All of the stone and the wooden door looked intact as if untouched by time.
“Arlyn, I need your help,” Steigan said, putting his hand on the metal handle. “There is not enough magic in this world. Keteria’s spell may be weakening, but it still holds strong. A pinhole leak in a floodgate. I can’t do this alone and we need to be gone before they get this far into Lilinar.”
Involuntarily, Steigan looked back in the direction of the main gates. A decaying rock wall blocked his view of the gate itself, but he really wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d seen Adonid and Martias coming around the wall now. They’d taken too much time already.
“What do you need?” Arlyn asked.
“Lean close and say ‘holicathida.’” Steigan dropped to kneel by the lock and after a moment Arlyn did the same. They both leaned so close to it that their heads nearly touched.
Steigan looked to Arlyn. “Holicathida,” they said in unison. Steigan felt the last remnants of his normal magic leave him. It left him with a deep sensation of emptiness.
The door clicked open and relief flooded Steigan’s chest. Rising, Steigan pushed his way into the darkness of the Tower. It didn’t respond to his domini power, which made Steigan take another relieved breath. Only a sliver of light coming from the open doorway provided some illumination of the interior stone walls.
Ellis was at his heels. “Wow!” He quickly hurried off, the cahaster in his arms as they went to explore the Tower.
Steigan went to the backside of the door and palmed the absorption stone he knew was hanging there. “Aeribela…” he said, motioning her over to him while seeing that Ellis and Dragzel were swallowed up in the shadows of examining the Tower. When she was close enough, he handed her the stone and continued softly, “Take this. Go for a short walk, and drop this along the path somewhere outside. Don’t go too far, but don’t let the cahaster see you do it.”
Aeribela gave him a questioning look, but didn’t speak as she took the stone and slipped it into her pocket.
“Ellis, come here please.” Steigan walked over to the boy coming back out of the shadows. “I’m sorry, but I need your cahaster to wait outside along with Aeribela, please. It’s only for a moment.”
Aeribela lifted Dragzel from Ellis’ arms. “Come on, little guy. Let’s wait outside for a moment.”
“This better not be a trick.” Dragzel scowled at Steigan, but only a little puff of steam rose from his mouth. Steigan figured that was an improvement from the jetting flames Dragzel usually sent in his direction.
“Hurry,” Aeribela mouthed to Steigan as she glanced at him with fear and worry.
Steigan nodded, turning to watch her exit the Tower. The moment the door closed behind her, the Tower swirled to life. Blue light filled the room as golden lines scrolled over the floor and up the staircase.
“Saint’s blood…” Ellis muttered.
“Goddess!” commented Arlyn as he did a slow turn as he tried to take in the whole expanse of it. “I’m actually inside the Tower.”
Steigan nodded as he caught Arlyn’s gaze, which went from wonder to a look filled with terrible remorse. Arlyn crossed his arms in front of his chest. He raised a hand to his face, putting his thumb beneath his chin and curling the last two fingers of his hand as if he were thinking. He double tapped his lips with his index and middle fingers. Arlyn wanted to talk in private, but it wasn’t immediately urgent. Steigan tapped two fingers against his thigh to acknowledge that he understood the signal Arlyn had given him.
“Arlyn, you’ve already told me that your blood comes from the lineage of the domini,” Steigan said. “Ellis, I don’t know about your family, but I need someone I can trust with a secret.”
Arlyn stepped up and spoke quickly. “I can vouch for his lineage. He comes from a family of true domini.”
Steigan noticed the shocked look Ellis gave to Arlyn, but Arlyn seemed to refuse to look down at the boy. There was more to the story, more Arlyn wanted to add, but now wasn’t the time to press for details.
Steigan went over to the staircase and turned back toward Arlyn and Ellis. “The stairs respond to the magic of a dominus.” He put his foot on the first step and the second one lit with golden writing.
“That’s the ancient language,” Ellis said.
“A dominus has his path lit before him,” Arlyn translated.
Steigan started up the stairs, vigilant to duck back as flames shot out of the wall.
“Steigan, careful!” Arlyn screamed.
“Just a demonstration. It gets more dangerous from here. Let’s not trust the old workings any further.” He moved back down the stairs a little and the gold writing reappeared: A dominus has his path lit before him. “You have to respond to the words,” he explained before adding in ancient, “The Goddess shows us Her light.”
The words faded and another set appeared further up the staircase. The Goddess holds these always. The words disappeared nearly as quickly as they had appeared.
“She holds my life and my sword,” Steigan answered, moving further up the stairs. He glanced back to make sure Arlyn was getting this and if Arlyn understood where this was going. One day, their lives might depend on knowing the secret of the West Tower.
The next words read: Cobblestone streets are no man’s desire.
“The streets of Gohaldinest are paved with gold,” Arlyn answered in ancient. The way he said it gave a strange accent to the words.
Knowing that Arlyn was beginning to understand that these clues were based on the dominus’ oath, Steigan laughed. “Actually, they aren’t, but we’ll save that for another day.” He moved up the stairs again.
What’s your desire?
“I seek a richer treasure,” Steigan replied.
What’s your desire?
“It just asked you that,” Arlyn commented, confused.
“I want to live,” Steigan responded quickly. He glanced back at Arlyn. “And the first time I nearly took an arrow to the chest for thinking just as you did.”
Horror played over Arlyn’s face and Steigan hated the satisfaction he felt in seeing it. He found himself wanting a moment, just a moment, where he could yell at Arlyn with all his rage. Why had he needed to be the one to go back into the past? Arlyn was the older, more experienced person. Why hadn’t Arlyn gone back instead? Maybe if Arlyn had gone, things would have turned out differently.
But no, Steigan knew that it had happened exactly as it had been meant to happen, exactly the way it had been planned.
“Welcome faithful dominus,” a disembodied voice rang out from above, pulling Steigan from the flash of thoughts going through his head. The room lit in gold.
Steigan hurried down a couple of stairs. “Ellis, go get Aeribela and Dragzel.”
Arlyn started to come up toward Steigan. His attention snapped to Steigan when he realized Steigan wasn’t moving. “Really, Steigan, what has happened to you?”
“’Twasn’t a gift to live the life of Saint Steigan,” he responded in ancient, knowing that Arlyn would understand him. “I can sit here and recite oaths all day, but that does not make me faithful.”
“I’m sorry,” Arlyn responded with a shake of his head. “If I had known, I would’ve prepared you better.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered. I made sure that the teleportation spells I performed intentionally erased my memories of this time.” He paused to let Arlyn have a moment to process that information. “I came to realize I could change nothing in that time. I have to do it now. There is more at stake than you know.”
Something slammed into the roof and dust flitted down on them.
“What was that?” Arlyn shouted as another attack rattled the tower, this time raining larger bits of stone down on them.
Ellis and Aeribela ran inside. Aeribela dashed up the stairs while clutching Dragzel close to her. “The gargaxes are throwing stones at the Tower,” she yelled.
Ellis dropped a rock he’d hauled in with him and dropped it against the door. “Domini are coming down the path. That won’t hold them off for long.” He started up the stairs two at a time.
Steigan turned back to the blue column which contained with several images floating inside. He knew he had to make a decision and quickly.
“What is this?” Ellis asked as Dragzel jumped back to the boy.
“It’ll take us away from here,” Steigan answered. “We need to decide where to go. Do any of these places look familiar to anyone?”
One of the images looked like a sandy beach but it was hard to see too far for the thick rain falling so hard it acted like a curtain. Several others had forest areas, but there were no identifying markers that Steigan recognized.
Aeribela pointed to one that had gray rocks blocking the view. “What is that?”
“The Cauldron of Life,” Steigan replied, “or what remains of it.”
“Saint Steigan…” She breathed in sharply as she clasped her hands over her mouth and looked at him.
“Yes, I destroyed it.”
“But why? No one ever knew why.”
Steigan grit his teeth. It felt weird having to justify his actions after a thousand cycles. So many people had blamed this action, the destruction of the Cauldron, as the actual reason magic had been gone from the world. “The gargaxes had fouled it. They made it poisonous to anyone who entered.”
“I knew it.” Aeribela did an excited little hop as she held her closed fists close to her chest. “I knew there had to be a good reason. I always said he wouldn’t have –“
Steigan cut across her, “There is no time. We need to choose. It’s only a matter of time before the domini get here.” Steigan went back to looking in the column until he felt a hand upon his arm. He looked down into Aeribela’s sweet face so filled with imagined pain. She knew the history of what he’d gone through as St. Steigan, or as much as Annae had managed to record. But there was no way Aeribela knew the whole story. Goddess, if they knew what St. Steigan had really been through…
He squelched the thought. Too much pain had been hidden behind the many smiles he had faked. He mustn’t think or speak of those times. No one remained alive from those cycles. The past was buried as it needed to be. He’d done what he could to fulfill those commitments he’d made back then. Now he was back and he had to complete the mission he’d strategized for so many cycles and that started with getting all of them out of the ruins.
A crash at the door below pulled him back to the present. The stone scraped across the floor as the door got pushed open.
Arlyn pointed at one of the pictures and shook his head. “I think this is near Hallon, but I can’t be sure.”
Steigan nodded. “Good. If it is, we’ll be close to Dubinshire.”
“We can’t –“ Arlyn started.
“Anywhere not here is good,” Dragzel said.
“My mother, I can’t leave her,” Ellis also protested over the top of Arlyn.
Aeribela added, “The answer is here in New Lilinar.”
Steigan ignored the barrage of voices coming at him and reached up to touch the picture Arlyn had indicated. “There is nothing here in Lilinar except your death if you stay. I’ll not have any arguments about this.” Steigan drew his sword and hung it inside the blue column. He reached for Aeribela and pulled her through the column with him.
Find out what happens next!
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Prince of the Ruined Land- copyright © 2018 Dawn Blair
Published by Morning Sky Studios
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 by Morning Sky Studios
Cover design by Dawn Blair/Morning Sky Studios
Cover art copyright © Lasse Behnke | Dreamstime.com
This excerpt is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.