© 2019 by S.J.Rapala
This is the prologue to the Book II of the Broken Worlds trilogy, By the Rivers Dark. The entire novel will be made available for free, chapter by chapter, as it is written. Book I of the Broken Worlds trilogy, RIse of the Dragon Riders is available here.
Prologue: Land of Shadows
There was darkness and there were roaring fires that lit up the rugged walls of a cavern. Out of the flames, razor-sharp jagged columns shot up to a roof covered by a thick, palpable blackness; a spiraling void of nothingness. They climbed up, hugging and scraping the walls scarred by deep uneven grooves; raked by the claws of thousands of lost souls who tried to escape. Thick stacks of black smoke swirled around the pillars, circled them with a violent howl and raced up only to be reduced to a wisp once they reached the blackness of the hollow's roof. Sprawled at the base of these jagged columns and bathed in flames there lay city ruins, dark and hollow and void of life; and between them, fiery streams of molten rock seeped lazily. Bubbling, scorching, flaming rivers licked the dark rock, flowed through ruined houses and empty structures, spilled out of gaping windows and doorways, and with the patience of time they cut new grooves and lines, finding new ways and laying waste to everything in its path.
Fanned by dark poisonous winds, great fires thundered amidst the sharp columns in the empty pockets of space between black stacks of smoke and the scorching rivers of molten rock that weaved through it all. And inside the flames, anguished faces appeared, mouths open in terrible screams, eyes wide open with horror. Desperate hands reached out, ethereal fingers tried to grasp anything tangible, anything that would pull them out of the torturous flames. But, ghostly and invisible, they only became real through the flames that devoured them. The fires roared and the faces turned over, thousands, hundreds of thousands of men, women, dwarves and elves, people long dead and long forgotten. Their souls lost to this forsaken land of the dead, the land of anguish and despair.
High above the flaming wasteland, black dragons circled the cavernous hollow and their evil red eyes penetrated every nook and niche. Black wings beat steady against air thick with poison, the beasts' flight level as they soared over this nightmarish scenery, once in a while emitting great screeches and crows. They relished in the toxic winds and breathed the fire; wisps of smoke escaped their flaring nostrils and each time their beaks opened, balls of fire danced between their razor-sharp teeth. Black scales had a polished metallic shine that mirrored the fires below and even in this darkness they served as reminder that the dragons were once the Children of the Sun, and that the sun had long ago abandoned them. Their minds were reshaped and reformed by the Nameless god, poisoned by his dark magic and his hatred for all that was good. Red flames danced on their dark scales and it was the only light they knew. Their blood-red crimson eyes were scarred with a web of black veins through which poison flowed—a sign of their enslavement.
The god himself sat on an iron throne atop a crag, overlooking the hollow that roared of fire and screamed of anguish. His eyes sat deep inside a pale, sallow face; yellow skin stretched over high cheek-bones, and his angular jaw was hard, as were his features. Despite the pleasure he took from the agony of the thousands souls beneath his feet, the god was unhappy. Darkness was in his face and darkness came over Antalea. He could not see it and he did not care for it, but lightning scarred the Antalean sky, the moon hid behind the nearest planet and the world was plunged into a long darkness. Monstrous twisters ravaged the Great Eastern Region where he thought the Slayers and the Riders were hiding with their dragons. Terrible quakes shook the world to its core in the days and months that followed the battle his Black Army lost—following the rise of a power he did not anticipate and the sacrifice that he did not expect.
The god's mood was sinister and pensive, but none of the destruction in Antalea was a direct consequence of his thoughts or actions. Rather, the world responded to his brooding anger and since his mood was darker than it had been for centuries, the surface world was overcome with ruin. His plan laid in tatters, his general was dead and he now faced an enemy that grew in power and one that, though divided and wounded, posed a real threat. However frail, the strand in the Loom was not severed and in the overall balance of probabilities, it could still produce an unwanted outcome.
A great black dragon landed on a rocky outcrop nearby, its bat-like wings beating hard against the toxic winds. Long talons dug hard into the jagged stone, and then the creature folded and tucked its wings away. It cocked its head and looked at its master, eyes red and hateful, but fiercely intelligent. Its breath was foul and fire bubbled just behind the sharp rows of uneven, overlapping teeth and great protruding fangs.
"Alaia," the god mused, but did not move. He lifted his arm from where he sat and beckoned the dragon to come closer. The giant creature, ten times his size, snaked forward crushing the rock beneath it, and a slithering neck carried her black head closer to its master, until the god's unnaturally long fingers touched her beak and caressed it gently. The dragon shivered under her master's touch.
"Alaia," he repeated, his deep gaze penetrating the dragon's poisoned soul. "Calista, your sister, poses a great threat together with her Rider. A threat I cannot tolerate."
The dragon drew back at the mention of the hated name and shrieked angrily, its beak pointed to a roof veiled by the mists of forgetfulness. With a thunderous crow she spewed fire and it shot up like a great spiral, flames and smoke fanning in all directions. She beat her wings furiously and great gusts of scorching wind overcame the god's motionless face.
He watched in silence for a moment while Alaia settled.
"The boy grows stronger and his power is much more than I anticipated," the Nameless continued. "My brother devised a plan thousands of years ago, the complexities of which I am only now beginning to appreciate. I underestimated the Weaver. I must rethink my course."
He looked at his dragon after a short pause, the Black Queen of the Land of Shadows, and it seemed that he just woke from a deep slumber and only now returned to the present.
"And the other?" He asked, but Alaia turned away her ruby eyes and the god clenched his sharp, beastly teeth. Her shame in having failed in the task was matched by his anger.
"He slips in and out of the darkness," the god mused, his dark eyes gathering shadows. "A dæmon of such power, in my own lair, and you and your brethren cannot find him."
He pointed an accusatory finger at his dragon mistress, a long claw stretched forward to reach one of her crimson eyes.
"Find him," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Or I will take your sight and when you finally face your sister, you will do so blind."
Alaia lowered her massive head and withdrew quietly, wisps of smoke trailing behind her. She turned, kicked off the rugged outcrop and leapt back into the poisonous air corrupted by fire and smoke.
The Nameless lowered his arm and withdrew into the shadows of his iron throne.