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PROLOGUE:
The Dark-Eyed Twins

Lucento-Valens Adamantus, Legate

The dark coach careened toward the legionaries. Hungry silver ghosts flew out the windows and around the wheels. The rebels had taken the heavily-fortified city of Dubaquis, proclaiming that Yblis—lord of the underworld—viewed all people as equal, in death.

Lucento—the bloody leader of the Seventh Anthanian Legion, veteran of a hundred wars—shook in his boots. The black coach and its hungry ghosts rode toward the last remaining legionaries. Out of an original five thousand, Lucento could only make out a few dozen still alive.

Dark storm-clouds had formed over Dubaquis, yet no rain came down. The rebels had shattered the aqueducts a week ago, and the parched citizens had let them in. Like demons or dark undead, it seemed they only entered a place with an invitation.

The dark coach rammed into the front lines. The hungry ghosts came with it. The soldiers’ faces melted like wax. Screams rang out. The front lines turned and trampled each other. Yet the loudest noise, to Lucento, was the beating of his own heart.

The black coach continued its hellish ride. Lucento bolted to the right, through the legionaries as they trampled each other, knocking people over before they could knock over him. The world is wild, and only the strong survive.

At last he reached the edge: a stone ridge that extended from the nearby mountains. The black coach, by the grace of the gods, had gone the other way. Lucento hopped toward the ridge. He clutched the rock, but scratched his hands and fell back into the screaming mass. He glanced over. The black coach turned the other way—toward Lucento. The ghosts swirled around it, eating the men’s faces. On the rocky ground, a legionary begged for help.

“Help me up!” he screamed. “Help me up!”

Lucento leapt toward the rocky ridge again, but again failed to gain a handhold. He slipped down, cutting himself and opening a small wound on his hand. “Damn it all!” he screamed. “Hieronus help us!”

Yet the god of justice and just war seemed to be on the side of the rebels. The coach rattled through the army, impaling men on its spiked wheels.

“Help!” the legionary on the ground screamed.

“Forgive me, Hieronus!” Lucento cried, and, using the wounded man as leverage, leapt over the rocky ridge seconds before the black coach skidded next to it, slaughtering all in its path.

Panting and trembling, Lucento staggered across the black earth. Though it was day, the dark clouds overhead turned all to night. Dubaquis was a remote city on the edge of the Iron Mountains. Help was many leagues away. Yet if he ran north, perhaps he could escape the rebels. Perhaps, if he ran many miles, he could reach Novica. Perhaps, if he kept running…

A blue spear of lightning flashed in the distance. A deafening boom of thunder roared across Dubaquis. Rain began, at first a drizzle and then a downpour.

I’m too old for this. I’m too old for war.

He ran as the dirt turned to mud, as the rain soaked his tunic. His sword, a standard Imperial issue, had once given him security. Now, it felt worthless against these forces of the underworld.

Lightning flashed again. A band of rebels ran across the road. Some of them were mortals. And of these mortals, almost all were escaped slaves. Their rebellion against their condition was understandable. Unacceptable, yes, but understandable. Yet they did not realize that they played with fire.  The lord of the Underworld cared nothing about them. And when they were finally defeated, the Empire would torture and kill them all.

“Defeated?” a little girl’s voice said, echoing through Lucento’s mind.

“Defeated?” said a little boy’s voice.

Lucento turned his head. On the paved road leading toward Dubaquis proper, the leaders of the rebellion stared at him. The boy, Fabius, and the girl, Marcia. Ten years old, both born on the thirteenth of Anthanos. The Dark-Eyed Twins.

The girl spoke without moving her lips. “No more slaves. No more poor. No more Knights. No more Augusts. Just darkness. Just darkness. Just darkness.”

“Just darkness,” the boy said silently.

With dark, dead eyes they gazed at Lucento. His neck-hairs stood on end and he backed away from them; but they followed him off-road, onto the damp ground, stepping forward slowly with their little feet.

The boy, Fabius, spoke again in Lucento’s mind. “No more slaves. No more poor. No more Knights. No more Augusts. Just darkness. Just darkness. Just darkness.”

Stop!” Lucento cried.

“Just darkness,” the girl, Marcia, said.

Lucento’s fear at last planted his feet on the ground. He stood there, shaking, as the twins walked toward him.

The last thing he saw was a shapeless, many-fanged face tearing toward his neck; and a hand dragging him into a black abyss.

The last thing he heard was, “Just darkness, forevermore.”

PART ONE

 

CHAPTER ONE:
Bad News

Claudio-Valens Adamantus

When the news reached Cipium—the Adamantus family ranch—Claudio’s mother, Catalina, sat down at the kitchen table and poured herself the last of the white wine.

The golden medal of service and the Imperial standard across the coffin were no consolation. Catalina no longer had a husband; he no longer had a father.

“I’m sorry, mother.”

“Do not be sorry.” Mother’s voice was strong. “We must get through this as we always have; we are of the knightly class… defenders of the Empire…” She broke into sobs.

“Damned rebels,” Claudio growled. He fought tears of his own. But expressing emotion was unacceptable as an Imperial Knight; and his mother needed his comfort. She needed a strong rock against this tempest.

“I knew he was too old for war, but he didn’t listen,” Mother wept. “He didn’t listen to me.”

“I will avenge him.”

“No!” Mother sobbed. “I will not lose you as well. You are my only son, and all your sisters have married…”

“Then I will not avenge him. I will do as you wish, Mother.”

“I love you, Claudio. Remember that.”

That night, as the setting sun painted the horse ranch in bronze colors, Catalina, Claudio, and the family servants decided on the time and place for the funeral. The honorable Lucento would be buried the next day at the family ranch, near the horses he loved so dearly.

The priest—a devotee of Hieronus, god of justice and just war—sprinkled the corpse with oil. “Hieronus, take Lucento Adamantus into your home. He has lived an honorable life, and was just in all his dealings. May his eyes look forever skyward until the end of time.”

They laid the wooden shell into the deep pit as Catalina sobbed and Claudio held her. Once the servants began shoveling dirt, they headed back to the ranch house. Along the road they walked. Mother’s sniffling continued, and Claudio, by grace of the gods, was able to hold his tears in.

The sound of galloping echoed through the air. Not unusual for a ranch; but it came from south along the road, not where the horses and foals were. Claudio looked back. A man in the purple-sashed white tunic of the Imperial court rode toward them.

Within seconds he had reached them. “Signore!” the man called out. “Are you Claudio-Valens Adamantus?”

“Yes,” Claudio stated.

“I am so sorry for your loss,” the man said.

Claudio said nothing.

“If you have not heard, the emperor has passed on.”

Catalina gasped.

“His will was read last week. The Imperial Council has conceded to the will and Giton Seánus Algabal now sits on the White Throne.”

Catalina gasped again, but Claudio held his reactions tightly in check. Giton Algabal—a distant relation of the emperor—had moved to the Imperial Palace with his mother three years ago. Rumors had already reached Claudio that Giton was the most cowardly, evil-hearted pleasure-seeker the Councilors had ever seen. In truth, he was barely of Imperial blood at all; his father was a barbarian from Khazidea, and his mother was half Easterner and half related to the emperor. Yet the Council held no real power to go against the emperor’s will. The Council, really, had no powers at all.

“Signore?” the man said, breaking Claudio out of his stunned silence.

“Yes?” Claudio said calmly. “Go on.”

“Your family is among the most revered of the knights,” the man continued. “His Undying Glory is hosting a grand reception on the seventh of Odens to celebrate his coronation. He wishes all his senior knights to attend… I extend the invitation to you as well, signora.

“I do not think we will be able to attend,” Catalina said.

“Forgive me, signora, for giving you counsel. The emperor does not easily forgive slights… if at least one of you does not go, he will have a long memory of that throughout his reign.”

“I will go,” Claudio said abruptly.

“Very well,” Catalina said. “I shall mourn in private. But it is necessary.” She nuzzled her head into Claudio’s shoulder, dampening his shoulder with her tears. “Go, pack your things.” She looked up at the rider. “Tell the emperor to expect my son.” She whispered in his ear as they walked toward the ranch house: “Be careful.”

He set out early in the morning with a handful of servants. He did not ride in the carriage, where all his things were; a knight rode horses, by definition. He would ride until he was saddle-sore, and beyond.

By late afternoon, they reached an immense wooden sign along the main road:

 

THE PATH OF TIDUS

Fort Martello… 55 miles

Aurelea… 75 miles

The sign listed more towns and cities below, but at the bottom, Claudio’s destination was written:

Imperial City… 531 miles

He sighed at the distance. Two weeks’ travel, if all went well. He would grow saddle-sore indeed.

 

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