War horns blared near the horizon, echoed by haunting screams—women and children suffering at the hands of marauders.
Adira sprang from her worn floor mattress and snatched the bronze sword Pa had given her. Thrice this month those soulless beasts had attacked the neighboring villages. But what kept them from Pielon?
She pushed open her bedchamber door and strode into the stuffy fore-room. Pa faced the entryway, clenching his shield and sword. Only a few spots of his tarnished suit of armor shined in the table lantern’s light.
“Are they coming, Pa?” Adira approached.
“Only time will tell.”
Pa’s bedchamber door creaked open. Ma inched into the fore-room, her blue eyes wide with dread. She brushed away pale blonde tresses from her face, revealing the wrinkles that had aged her a decade though still failed to diminish her beauty.
An explosion erupted afar off. The ground quaked.
Adira pulled aside tattered curtains from the fore-room’s only window. Crimson smoke slithered into the evening skies. Adira squeezed her hilt. What the Golden Knights called Blood Smog; when Black Knights burn children alive.
As she turned from the window, dear Ma pressed a shaking hand over her chest. “Are they coming?”
“Not yet.” Adira walked to her side and gently clasped her arm. She led Ma to the couch, and she sank onto the dirty cushion.
Another explosion shook the cottage.
Tears swelled in Ma’s eyes. “Maybe if we flee now—”
“We will not flee.” Pa kept his stare on the entry door.
“There is nowhere to go, Bilhah!”
The tears spilled down her cheeks.
Adira’s palm stroked Ma’s frail back. “We’ve survived this long. An elite camp is in our midst.”
She peered up. “I grow faint of merely surviving.”
Pa veered around, his weathered boot-heels scathing the wood. “Then you take up a sword and defeat the enemy.” He strode forward, jabbing his blade in the air at invisible foes. “Go. Fight, kill! See if they cease coming!”
Adira slowly stepped in front of Ma, her hilt warm in her grasp. “She is simply weary, Pa. That is all.”
He jeered. “Weary? She is weary?” Poisonous laughter dripped from his tongue. “How many Black Knights has she battled? How many times has she been wounded by the enemy?” He shoved Adira aside with his shield before dropping it and snatching Ma’s arm. “Where are her scars? Where are they?”
Adira gradually lifted her sword as Ma trembled and wept. “Pa, not tonight. Please. Just release her.”
In the dim lantern’s light, blackness swallowed Pa’s brown irises—like the soulless. He heaved, and his blood-stained breastplate glinted.
“I am warning you.” Adira took a half-pace toward him.
Pa’s eyes flickered. His grip on Ma tightened, and she wailed. He could break her arm with ease. He’d done it before.
“Are you going to strike your father?” He spoke gruffly, as if drunk. “Am I the enemy? You want to slay me like I am one of those accursed beasts?”
Adira’s hand shook. “I will not ask you again.”
The thick veins in Pa’s neck protruded, and he spoke through gritted teeth. “I do not need your permission, girl.”
A banging rattled the door.
He held Adira’s stare a moment longer and then thrust Ma onto the couch. Pa grabbed his shield and marched to the entryway as Adira bustled to Ma. One arm aided her to a seated position while the other extended the sword.
Pa raised his. “Who is there?”
“Sir Maveth.” The man’s voice trembled.
Pa threw open the door.
A Silver Knight stood on the portico. “Be ready for battle. The Black Knights are—” a large ebony-flamed arrow jutted through his breastplate. An exhale fell from his mouth, and he collapsed face-forward into the doorway.
“Stay here.” Pa lifted his shield and treaded outside as men cried, “Ambush! It’s an ambush!”
Adira gripped her sword as her heart thrashed within. Ma sobbed, and her delicate frame quaked.
Kneeling, Adira held one of Ma’s shaking hands. “Remember the hymn you sang whenever I was frightened?”
“Can you sing it again? Please?”
Ma’s lips pressed together and her brow furrowed as if the song sat on her tongue, but tasted bitter. Outside, clashing swords and dying groans orchestrated their own morbid song.
Adira caressed Ma’s hair and sang the slow-paced beginning. “The evening may be dark, but the day will bring forth light. Weeping may tarry for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Ma’s soft voice joined the rhythm, faint and somewhat hoarse. “I will not be afraid, I will not be afraid, for hope will rise with the day.”
A child’s harrowing shriek impaled the air. Ma shuddered.
Adira sang louder. “Hope will rise with the day, yes, hope will rise with the—”
Six ebony-flaming barbs slammed through the wood. One pierced the couch beside Ma. She and Adira jumped to their feet. Dark flames devoured the furniture like burning hay. Fire engulfed the walls and filled the cottage with suffocating fumes.
Adira grabbed Ma’s hand and jogged to the door. She kicked it open and raised her sword. Outside, wails cowered under bellowing roars. The ten-foot Black Knights sank their ebony fangs into flesh, and their massive claws tore arms and legs from Silver Knights.
Her heart pounding, Adira glanced around. Where were the Elite?
Pa battled two of the beasts across Sir Taman’s tent. He dodged and jabbed, seeming to have the upper-hand. An obsidian chariot coated with the blood of men sat unoccupied twenty yards to the right.
Arrows charged. Adira ducked and pulled Ma toward the chariot. When they reached it, they crouched underneath, behind one of the giant wheels.
“Stay here until it’s over.” Adira kissed Ma’s tear-tracked cheek. “I promise I will return for you.” She crept into the open with her bronze sword outstretched.
One of the Black Knights kicked Pa in the chest, propelling him several yards back. He crashed through the stone door of Widow Maribel’s tavern. Adira raced toward him. A Black Knight sprang over the obsidian chariot and pounced in her way. Blood dripped from its mouth and soaked its long, leathery neck.
She thrust her sword.
The beast parried the blade and grinned. “You think I fear you, human?” Its raspy baritone taunted. “Your kind is no threat to me.” It stepped forward and licked the blood off its lengthy claws with a wart-covered tongue.
Adira recoiled, her body seized with trembling. The Black Knight sneered as it elevated its muscular arm to deliver a lethal strike. It swung its claws down.
A white-flamed arrow struck one of the beast’s hollow eyes. The ivory flames burst, consuming its head as it fell backwards. Three Golden Knights galloped in on white steeds. Gold-plated hooves clattered against the ground as the riders swung their swords, decapitating five Black Knights. A quiver of flaming arrows and an ivory bow mounted the Elites’ backs. Another pair of Golden Knights launched arrows from atop a two-story stable.
As more beheadings and flames vanquished the accursed, many fled like shadows at dawn.
Adira faced Widow Maribel’s tavern—now ablaze with the perverse fire. “Pa!” She sprinted to the tavern’s entrance. The raging flames made entry impossible. “No. Pa.” Adira dropped to her knees and plunged her sword into the ground near the body of a fallen Silver Knight. Her stomach knotted, and her vision blurred. I didn’t say goodbye.
She scanned the remains of what once was Pielon. Apart from the white steeds, all cattle had dispersed. Tents and cottages burned crimson and black. Broken bodies of men, women, and children littered the ground like wilted crops.
Adira clenched her jaw. Blood boiled within. These hellish beasts had yet again ravaged the lives of the helpless and defiled a village with their execration.
A golden light flickered in her peripheral vision. An elite clenching his sword walked from behind the tavern. A limping Silver Knight leaned on his shoulder.
Pa! Adira yanked her sword from the ground and rose as the few remaining Black Knights fled. Her gaze lifted. The chariot Ma had hidden under was gone.
Adira dropped her sword and bounded to where she left Ma. Cold sweat dampened her tunic as she shouted Ma’s name, searching the outskirts of scorched cottages and stables. “Pa!” she yelled. “Help me find Ma!”
He pushed himself off the Golden Knight and staggered around the dead. “Bilhah? Bilhah!” With each call his cry amplified.
A painful throbbing pounded in Adira’s ears, drowning out hers and Pa’s voices. Ma had to be here. She must have hidden somewhere else. She couldn’t have …
Adira’s throat rasped until it broke her shout. The pounding in her head ceased. Quiet subdued, as if she’d been struck deaf. Ma?
“She has been taken.” A calm voice shattered the silence. The Golden Knight that had carried Pa removed his gleaming helmet. Sir Aharon. The commander of the Golden Knights camping in Pielon.
“Taken?” Adira’s knees weakened.
Sir Aharon sheathed his sword as four other Golden Knights tended to the few wounded left breathing.
Pa wagged his head with eyes wide, crazed. “They didn’t take her. She has been slain.”
“Pa, her body is missing.” Adira pointed to where she saw her last. “I hid her behind one of their chariots, and it’s gone now.”
“You know nothing.” He hobbled forward in two strides and clutched Adira’s tunic by the collar, twisting it.
Sir Aharon grabbed the hilt of his sword.
“She is dead, girl.” Spittle rained on her face. “That is what war does. Cope with the loss and trek forward.” He shoved Adira away and limped off.
Sir Aharon slowly lowered his hand. “Your father speaks from pain, but his experience is unquestioned. In these events, more oft’ than not, the captive would be dead by now.”
Adira’s cheeks burned. “I will find her!” She marched to where she’d abandoned her sword and clasped the hilt. Her jaw set, she strode in the direction the last of the Black Knights had fled.
“You will die before you reach a quarter of the way.”
Adira halted and turned.
Sir Aharon caught up swiftly and peered at her with light eyes somehow still aglow. “It will take some time, but I can equip you to rescue your mother.”
“But if we tarry, they’ll kill her. You said—”
“I said more oft’ than not. Yet, these barbarians will not act hastily to kill your mother.”
“How are you certain?”
“Because it is not just her life they desire.”
The daystar emerged from behind dark clouds, golden and bright, as if mimicking Sir Aharon’s armor.
“If you will heed my counsel, come with me.” He hastened back toward his men.
Adira kept her stare on Sir Aharon. He scooped up a wounded Silver Knight and carried him effortlessly to a tent.
She lifted her hand and curled her fingers into a tight fist. Surely, she was strong, but strong enough to defeat those savages? To go alone would be a fool’s errand. Suicide.
As Sir Aharon lifted another knight, Adira whispered, “I can equip you.” With a thrust, she sheathed her sword and ran to join the others.
Three weeks gone.
I hate him.
Adira’s boots sank deeper into the black mud. The loathsome darkness and filthy air surrounded, towering at least a thousand feet high. And this is what that tyrant considers equipping?
The blade of her bronze sword impaled the mire a few paces away where she’d thrown it. She peered at the heavens. Gray clouds shrouded the blazing daystar. The evil smog somehow managed to dull the vivid rays as if the star had grown tired of shining so brightly.
It’s impossible to get out of this merciless pit.
The mud smothered her knees. She’d sharpened her sword, but it still failed her in combat training.
Now here I sink.
A roar of thunder besieged the sky.
Soon, fist-sized raindrops plummeted from the clouds. The icy water merged with the sludge, and it rose to Adira’s waist. Only the hilt of her sword remained visible. Losing it would mean freedom—freedom from that craze-brain who allowed her to be knocked into this abyss by the other apprentices yet again.
Another clash of thunder exploded in the heavens. Adira shuddered. But if she died, what would become of Ma?
“What are you doing, Adira?” Lord Tyrant—Sir Aharon—stood at the border of the pit’s mouth, his golden armor sparkling clean from the rain. He grasped a rope. “You aren’t giving up, are you?”
A torrent of inner heat defeated the cold mire. She averted her gaze. No. My sword—it was just here! She thrashed at the mud. Her skinny, poor-excuse for a young woman’s figure pushed forward—to no avail.
Humiliation once again gallops in on his giant stallion.
Adira’s hand brushed against metal. My sword! She grabbed its hilt, the thickening mud now up to her chest. The end of a rope landed in front of her.
“Make haste, Adira!” Sir Aharon shouted over the storm.
Hoisting her sword out of the sludge, she forced her other hand to grasp the rope. As Sir Valor pulled, the rope raised Adira from the muck. She gripped the rugged thread and peered at the swelling blackness below. Maybe if it hadn’t rained, she would have finally gotten out on her own this time.
When Adira’s knees dragged against magenta grass, she released the rope. The thoughtless trainer extended a hand. As Adira clasped it, Luts’s sickening laugh struck from behind Sir Aharon.
The prideful, one-eyed apprentice sneered beside his wee puppet, Keegan. “Maybe now she’ll finally understand she should be threading needles, not wielding swords.”
Sir Aharon pulled Adira to her feet and then faced the mockers. They instantly quieted and stiffened to attention.
“I have two questions for you men,” Sir Aharon said. “First, which of you desires to be mocked by your fellow knights while you lay writhing on the ground in flames before your enemies?”
Lightning pierced the sky, throwing white light on Luts and Keegan’s taut faces.
“And second, do you desire to give up your swords and fight for Leviathan?”
“No sir,” they answered.
“Then retire to your tents.”
“Yes sir.” As they scampered off, Sir Aharon rolled the rope. “I have a question for you now, Adira.”
She stood at attention.
“Why did you give up?”
What a wise inquiry. The searing heat inside strengthened. “With due respect, sir, that was my thirty-second time getting shoved into that devilish pit.”
“And how many failures would it take for you to forsake rescuing your mother?” His words plunged a dagger in Adira’s heart.
“I would never forsake her, sir.”
He smiled. “You’re beginning to sound like a Golden Knight.”
Her blazing temperature cooled to a soothing warmth. “Thank you, sir.”
He tossed the rope aside as more thunder dominated the heavens. “We will continue training when the rain subsides.”
Three months past.
Sweat soaked the inside of Adira’s leather glove as she strangled her shield’s strap and her sword’s hilt.
Sir Aharon and his men watched from beneath an awning of turquoise leaves while the nine surrounding apprentices aimed their blades at Adira. Golden rays speared from above, their light reflecting off her opponents’ hungry eyes.
“Spare yourself from another embarrassment,” Luts crooned. “Sir Aharon understands you are merely a lady.”
The boys laughed, Keegan’s shrill chuckle louder than the rest.
Adira threw her shield over Luts. As the others followed its flight, she dove through the opening between his burly legs and rolled out of the circle. She raced to her shield, snatched it, and turned as the boys trailed. Raising her armor, she deflected blows and countered strikes. Adira delivered forceful thrusts that knocked three swords out of her adversaries’ hands. She lifted her boot and shoved two backwards onto their bottoms, then swiped with her shield. Another pair stumbled to the ground. Only two foes remained.
Luts glanced at Keegan as they circled her. Luts jerked his head, and the puppet lunged at Adira from behind. She ducked to the right while swinging her shield back and driving the blunt of her sword forward. Keegan’s helmet collided with the shield as Luts’ chest slammed against the hilt. They both collapsed.
While Luts coughed, Adira approached. He peered up at her with his single dark brown eye—like Pa’s. She winced as she sheathed her sword and extended him a hand. A frown twisting his mouth, Luts sat up and clasped it.
“Good fight,” she said.
He grunted an agreement as he rose and then stalked off. Sir Aharon drew near, shining with double splendor in the vibrant afternoon light, his hands hidden behind his back. Adira quickly straightened as he halted before her.
“That was impressive.”
A flutter tickled her stomach. “Thank you, sir.”
“In all my years, I’ve known of only one woman who sparred with as much skill and honor.” He revealed his hands.
In his palms, rested a long, shimmering gold sheath with a golden hilt protruding from its entrance. “I believe you are ready to rescue your mother.” Gently, as if carrying an infant, he laid the sheath in her hands.
She wrapped her fingers around the hilt. A surge of wind, warm and powerful, flooded through her entire being. Her pulse quickened as the wind blanketed her heart like a cloak. Gazing at her reflection in the sheath, she brought it close to her face. Her hazel eyes had lightened like the sky at dawn. She replaced her old sword and sheath with her new one as the wind inside settled to a serene breeze.
Sir Aharon’s warm palm cupped Adira’s shoulder. “We will depart at dusk.” He turned and walked toward his tent.
A prickling rose up her back as she faced her own tent, staked across from the turquoise forest of Kuwn. A shadow disappeared beyond one of the lofty trees, and the itchy sensation subsided.
“Pa?” she whispered.
Three days come.
Blood-red coated the horizon. Below the bleeding skyline, a land of blackness stretched. At the bottom of a slope, hundreds of obsidian chariots occupied the dirt ground to the right, and at least ten thousand Black Knights lingered around a cave with human carcasses piled near the opening.
Adira’s heart skipped and her stomach churned. How could she and five men defeat ten thousand of these savage beasts?
Crouched on the grassy hill behind his shield alongside the other men, Sir Aharon clenched his ivory bow. “Do not fear their number,” he said. “They are without the Host of Heaven’s armies.”
Adira, also behind a shield, closed her golden helmet’s visor, and squeezed her sword’s hilt. The warm wind seeped through her glove and into her palm. She could prevail—she would, for Ma.
“Prepare your arrows.” As Sir Aharon and the rest grabbed the smooth shafts from their quivers and set them to string, the arrows ignited into ivory flames. He aimed at a Black Knight standing directly before the cave’s mouth.
Adira and the men shifted their barbs in the same direction. The wind coursed through her, intensifying the warmth already gracing her from the holy fire.
“Steady …” Sir Aharon spoke quietly, concentrated. “And … strike!”
The string snapped free from Adira’s fingers, and the arrow flew to its target. It impaled the forehead of an accursed as the other arrows struck their marks. Six Black Knights collapsed in rapidly consuming flames, and the army dispersed, their roars bellowing in unison.
“Charge!” Sir Aharon leapt over the hill and ran down the steep incline.
Adira and the men snatched their shields and sprinted behind him. Two six-winged beasts soared overhead. Blood drizzled from human arms on the creatures’ torsos.
One landed in Adira’s path. Four faces rounded its head, the first like a man with pale-blue irises. Thick fur covered the others, each with either an elongated beak, bloody fangs, or a snarling snout. The creature stood on its hind legs, black wings outstretched. A metallic sword strapped to its hip reflected the crimson sky. It strode toward her while the men engaged its twin.
“Sir Aharon, I know,” the warped beast said in a voice that boomed over the chaos. “But who are you?”
She unsheathed her sword. “You will know me soon enough.”
“A woman?” It stepped back and removed its own sword. “What name shall I put on your mounted head?”
“My name is Adira, but it is your head that will lose its mount.” She raised her blade and lunged at the creature. It evaded the blow and swung its weapon. She dipped back, and blocked with her shield. Realigning, she swiped her sword and beheaded her foe. As the beast fell, Adira bounded toward the cave. The Black Knights surrounding it charged. She slashed at chests and limbs while the fiery arrows of her brethren brought down chariots and their riders, clearing a path to the cave’s entrance. She weaved around the adult corpses before it, keeping her gaze ahead.
A roar thundered from within, and the ground quaked. She staggered—but kept her course.
“Adira.” A voice like a squadron of thunder growled her name. “The mouse has taken the bait.”
She halted. An enormous winged-beast zoomed out of the cave, its crimson scales flaring, and irises ablaze.
Her throat dried. Leviathan.
He opened his snout, and a torrent of ebony fire surged her way. She blocked the inferno with her shield. Flames streamed past, singeing her exposed curls. This beast would scorch her to ash before she could take a pace closer to that cave. Her arms trembled against the scalding barrage. She dropped to a knee.
Sir Aharon leapt in front of her, his golden shield lifted. The armor deflected the raging flames. “Rescue your mother!” He lunged at the enemy with his sword and steered Leviathan away.
Adira ran under the billowing fire toward the cave. Leviathan’s tail whipped around and knocked Sir Aharon into a throng of Black Knights. The tail jerked high and slammed in front of Adira, tossing her onto her back. Her helmet smashed into the ground, and her shield slipped from her grasp. A brief whiteness fogged her vision.
Leviathan tramped toward her. With each weighty step, a tremor flung her upwards and then down again. Her head seared and pounded, but she clung desperately to her sword. Blazing scarlet eyes like blood mingled with fire peered into hers. A suffocating heat breathed against her face.
“Adira,” he whispered. “I know you, and I know why you’ve come.”
She squeezed her hilt, and the aching in her brain intensified.
“You cannot win this fight.” His words echoed in her mind. “But you can join me.”
Her grip loosened. Join him? A pang struck her head and thoughts fumbled in her mind, as if planted there by this beast. It would be easier this way. No one will have to die.
“I will spare your mother, and even your men. Simply give up, and you shall become a hero.”
Give up? She sucked in breaths to ease the agony attacking her brain. But I can’t. Sir Aharon flashed in her mind like gold lightning. He would keep fighting, wouldn’t he? Her fist tightened around the hilt, and the warm wind gushed from her chest and slammed into Leviathan.
The beast recoiled. She sat up and drove her blade into his unguarded belly. “Your kind is not heroic.” She withdrew her sword, and a shower of ebony blood rained over her lap.
Sir Aharon dashed in their direction as Black Knights fled from his shining presence.
Adira jumped to her feet and darted into the cave, Leviathan wailing behind her. Carcass-stench infected the sweltering air, and a woman’s whimpering traveled through the hollow.
“Ma?” Adira grabbed a flaming arrow and held it in front of her. Ivory radiance chased away the darkness. Ma sat huddled against the anterior wall, her body bruised and bloody.
Adira raced to her side. “Ma, I’m here. I came for you.”
Snot and dirt sullied her now bony face.
“Oh, Ma.” Compassion twined with hatred as Adira scooped Ma into her arms. “Leviathan will never harm you again.” The warm draft eased from her hands. “No one will.”
A tremor shook the ground. Golden brightness shined at the cave’s entry. Adira carried Ma to the light.
Between Leviathan’s disembodied head and scaly body stood Sir Aharon, the other Golden Knights behind him. Though ebony blood soiled his armor, the metal still glimmered under the daystar’s kiss. All the darkness that smothered the ground had washed away. Only a defeated Leviathan and thousands of his slain minions remained.
Adira looked to the hills from whence she and her brethren came. A Silver Knight rode a brown horse down the magenta highland. Pa.
He reached the bottom and sped toward them. The wind inside Adira stirred. Pa’s horse stopped in front of her and Ma. He swiftly dismounted and threw off his helmet. His dark eyes glistened as he gazed at Adira then at Ma.
He stepped forward. Tears trailed his now-bearded cheeks. “Bilhah. Adira.” He dropped to his knees and held Adira’s ankles like a slave bowing before his master. “Forgive me. Please forgive me.”
The wind swelled inside Adira’s chest, once again consuming her heart.
Ma peered up at Adira. “Please put me down, daughter.” Her voice dripped with weakness.
“Are you sure?”
She gave a nod.
Pa released Adira’s ankles as she gently set Ma on her feet. He bowed his head and wept. Bending, Ma grasped his arm. Adira clasped the other. Together, they raised him up. His weeping turned to sobbing as he collapsed into their embrace, broken and heavy like the burden he bore.
“I love you, Pa,” Adira whispered.
“And I love you. I love you both so much.”
The wind poured from her heart and enveloped all three of them in a warm and gentle swirl.
Adira clung tighter to her family. Like a torn garment, they had been severed from one another for so long. But now, it felt as though a divine weaver had mended the tear, and love would bind their souls together for all eternity.