He stepped off the staircase.
His cold eyes were like a hawk's, sharp and brilliant orange, and little flames seemed to sparkle at his temples.
A person didn't know what power was until they laid eyes on him.
He moved with unnatural grace, strong chin held high and lithe body held on long legs, his hands tucked behind his back in an authoritative posture.
The nobles, even the old rulers, bowed before him, and he felt a small smile press at his mouth.
Smart nobles, wise nobles.
“We're honored to host your presence,” the king said, and his small eyes glinted, his pride unwilling to bow in his own kingdom.
But Cthalu could have cared less for his pride.
“I won't be long,” the man with the orange eyes said, and flames flickered on the shoulders of his cloak, matching the white, sharp-canined smile his face wore.
He brushed a hand through his oak hair, a casual gesture meant to put the room a little more at ease, but it didn't work, and he wanted to roll his eyes at these people and their paranoia.
But. . . he couldn't blame them for it either, he'd be wary of himself too.
He surveyed the room, and his eyes glinted a little brighter, “I'm looking for one Jorga Gendalla. Is he here?”
The temperature of the room seemed to drop, but it wasn't him.
It was the queen, her magic awaking at the name of the Crown Prince on the Magicker's lips.
Cthalu smile dat her, “Don't worry, I have no ill will.” He laughed, “why would I, when you walk on eggshells around me?”
No one laughed.
He twitched his mouth in mild annoyance at the loss of his joke, but didn't say anything else, choosing instead to walk further into the beautiful room.
The nobles parted for him, and you could have heard a pin drop in the silence, even the band had stopped playing, instead gripping their instruments with cold fingers.
Finally, he found the prince.
A man of 31 years, he sat with a pale-faced serving girl on his lap, her tray on the table and his dress shirt rumpled and half-untucked.
Cthalu noted with disgust that his trousers were wrinkled, and he smelt like a pig.
He was one, after all.
“Jorga,” he said with a polite smile, and the man's unkempt beard wrinkled around his mouth as the royal looked up to see who would dare call him by his name and not his title.
The harsh words never fell from his lips.
“Magicker,” he said instead, “How can I help you?”
Cthalu smiled, “Come with me.”
His Highness stood, sending the serving girl to the floor, and she whimpered, scuttling away from the men.
He paid her no mind.
Instead, he focused on the prince, “Come with me.” It wasn't a request, it was an order.
Again, the nobles parted like water, but this time, his sharp eyes caught the gazes of the curious, bolder ones.
He walked toward the staircase where he had come, able to hear the man's heavy footsteps stop at the base of the stair, and turned, foot rested on the fourth stair, “Jorga.”
Again with the names.
Oh, he loved making people uncomfortable.
He glanced at the old king and queen, “Don't worry, dear rulers, your time is not yet done.”
He smiled, and with the flash of white teeth, there was a flash of orange before both the Magicker and the Crown Prince vanished.
The drums beat a mournful tune in the night air.
Only the crackling of the fire accentuated the deep-toned instruments, which seemed to beat along to his heartbeat.
His hands, tied behind him on the post, sent pulsing pain up his arms, into his shoulders, drawn at the awkward angle they were.
His breath rattled fearfully in and out of his chest, his efforts to calm himself in vain.
He was a soldier; he could handle a little interrogation.
But this wasn't an interrogation.
Twenty people stood around the campfire, each as silent as the grave, their pale eyes and paler skin gleaming eerily in the light of the bonfire.
He could feel its heat from the edge of the camp, over ten yards away, and yet, they stood right next to the rocks of the fire pit, bodies dripping sweat and skin turning red.
The drums beat again, a thudding, one-two beat that kept a steady cadence.
His arms pulsed.
He wasn't the only captured here; there were three other men with him, all that was left of his squadron of twenty, and they were tied to similar posts to his left.
He looked the face of his friends, able to see the blood dribbling down Tafen's face from his temple, and the wide, terrified eyes of them all.
Thump-thump, said the drums.
A tribesman moved.
The first movement in long minutes, and it was to draw a knife from the waistband of his pants.
A long, serrated knife, meant for rough surfaces and soft interiors.
His breathing picked up.
He tried to stop it, tried to keep his terror under wraps, but he knew the traditions of this tribe, of the gory way they left their prisoners.
He didn't want to die.
The drums picked up a beat.
“I don't want to die,” the soldier on his left whimpered his own thoughts, boots scrambling at the dirt beneath him.
A haunt picked up with the drums, made of a dozen raised voices, low and drawling cold, chanting soft words into the air, mixing with the crackles of the bonfire and the whimpers of the soldier to his left.
The man with the knife looked up, and his pale eyes gazed right at him.
“I don't want to die,” Sam whimpered again, and the tribesman moved forward.
Toward Tafen, at the other end of the line, standing over him, the light of the moon glinting in Tafen's terrified eyes and off the knife in the tribesman's hand as it raised.
The knife came down, but no one was looking.
My name is Roland Takene, he told himself, and squeezed his eyes shut as the screams of his friend split the night air.
My name is Roland Takene, and I am of the desert, I am calvary, I have tamed a beast of the sky and I will not bow.
The screams cut off, there was a laugh, and a different man screamed.
I have tamed a beast of the sky, his lips moved with the words as his third companion began to wail.
I am a warrior.
Sam whimpered to his left. Poor, poor, fresh-faced Sam, still unbroken by war.
Roland turned his head, meeting the young man's now-lifeless eyes.
He hadn't even screamed.
I will not bow.
The knife rose above him.
And Roland looked up, into the face of his killer, and smiled.
“I will not bow to you,” he spat, and the knife fell.
I was taken when I was seven years old.
"Hey, little boy, yeah, you! You wanna piece of candy?"
I gripped the handlebars of my bike a little tighter, glancing back toward the house where Mom was, but didn't see her. "Momma says not to take anything from strangers."
"And your Momma's right." The man grinned, leaning out the window of his gray van, "which is why I wanna give ya some candy! You being all smart and all."
I preened a little, glad he knew just how awesome I was.
He looked nice, what was Mom so worried about anyway?
Still. . .
" C'mon little man," he said, and ducked into his car, reemerging with a piece of Snickers candy, my favorite, and tossed it across the sidewalk to me. "See?" He said as I bent to swipe it up, "I'm tellin' the truth!" This time, he had a whole handful, and I spoke around my mouthful, "Well, okay."
I rode my bike a little closer, and reached out to take the handful of candy.
" Whoops!" He laughed when a few fell on the ground, and I scrabbled for them.
It happened in seconds.
The van rolled forward two feet, I heard the click and roll of the door, and a hand grabbed the back of my jacket.
I screamed as my feet came off the ground, scrambling for my bike and my mom.
"Momma-" a hand fell over my mouth, sweaty and greasy, and me and my bike were scooped into the van.
A laugh, the slam of the door, and I started to cry.
I could hear Momma screaming.
The Sand and The Blade
Of all people, why her?
“Ready,” Kayne said, and I pulled my knives as she pulled her daggers.
I barely had time to bring my left knife up before she was on me, and the world sharpened into focus. I blocked a backhanded swing and knocked aside a feint, feeling the touch of her breath on my cheek as I ducked into a kick to her knee.
But she was quicker than I anticipated, moving easily out of the way and under my guard, her dagger rising toward my throat and barely being avoided by my yank to the side, feeling the tip slice past an inch from my jaw, her other coming hilt first toward my side.
I pressed forward, tipping my shoulder into hers to knock her back and swinging my leg around to catch the back of her leg. She went down, the breath huffing from her lungs, but was back on her feet and coming toward me in seconds.
Our blades screamed as they met, her strokes collected and furious, and I knew that I was going to lose.
She had years of practice, I could feel it in the way she moved, and I. . . I had a few months.
But I couldn’t lose, not in front of the king, who’s champion would I be?
I stepped back, then back again, her swings getting faster and sharper, my reflexes all that kept my blood from being spilled as her daggers glinted and sliced.
I tried to advance, but she swept her right dagger at my side, and I forted with my left knife, retreating when she flipped to a reverse grip and lunged in a sweeping thrust.
I forted her knife and blocked her second cut, barely able to keep up with her whip fast strikes.
Then she moved too fast for me to follow, the hilt of her dagger snapping against my wrist and sending my left blade flying.
Her left dagger landed against the throat, slicing a trail before it stopped.
Blood dripped down my neck.
The pit was silent, her golden eyes glinting in the light as she held me at checkmate.
Then Kayne was there, hardly a foot away, snarling in my face with fury, “Stop going easy on her, fool!”
I threw my other knife aside to free my hands, grabbing her wrist with my right hand and twisting her arm off my throat and out of the way to punch her in the sternum.
She choked, her knees buckling, but I was already twisting the dagger out of her hand and bringing the hilt down on her opposite wrist, barely tempering myself in time to keep from breaking the delicate bones, and she dropped the blade into my waiting hand.
I retreated, and she glared at me with focused intensity, struggling back to her feet.
I glanced down at the beautiful daggers, the golden hilts smooth in my palms from years of use, the blades nicked and sharpened, little threads of fabric caught between the blade and the guard from the wrapping used for sparring.
They were beautiful, light and balanced and true.
I tossed them aside.
In a way, Kayne had been right; I’d been going easy on her, not wanting to embarrass a beautiful girl if she lost and not wanting to hurt her.
But beautiful or not, she would hurt me just the same, kill me if she could, all because I was a human that dared to stand against the highest of species.
This time, I moved before she could, knocking aside her weak barrier, unpracticed as she was at unarmed combat and elbowing her in the rib, feeling her breath rush from her lungs for the third time as I slid around behind her, pulling her against my body and curling my leg around her ankle.
She fell, and I flipped us so I landed on my back, arms encircling her neck, her body flush against mine as I pinned her there.
“Yield,” I snapped in her ear.
She grunted, trying to elbow me, but I freed one hand to slam hers against the sand, feeling the bones bend and cringing at her cry of pain.
“Yield!” Please, I wanted to say, I don’t like hurting you.
I didn’t like hurting anyone.
“I yield,” she choked, bucking her hips against my hold, and I released her.
She rolled off and to all fours, coughing and choking the air back into her lungs.
I felt a rush of panic as I heard the breath rattle in and out of her chest, suddenly terrified that I’d really, truly hurt her, and when she clutched at the rib I’d elbowed, I knew I had.
"Don't let go," I choked, scrabbling at his arm with my free hand, hardly able to see past the tunnel vision.
My body hung in nothingness, my only anchor to life Soren's hands, strong, but failing as he struggled to hold on to my wrist.
My vision tunneled.
My chest seized to take air.
"I've got you," he grunted, and my free hand found the rocky overhang he was half-hanging over as he pulled himself back.
Then I was on solid ground, choking, gasping for air and trying not to hyperventilate.
You're probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.
He leaned on a balcony.
Wind lifted black from his forehead, brushing the silver circlet there, embedded with emeralds said to match his eyes.
A party was in full force behind him, women dripping jewels and fine silk, men in silk to match the ladies and weapons to match their personalities, highlighted by white tile flooring and gold-threaded marble pillars. Red wine in glass goblets and and green grapes on delicate china.
But he didn't care for any of the gilded cause, how could he, when he stood in front of a paradise?
Paradise, a beautiful, strange, undefined word.
But he'd found the meaning of it.
HIs meaning stretched out in front of him, a soft green meadow, tall grass lit silver by the light of a full moon, the wind waving it lazily onto the spiraled railing he leaned against.
Green cloak to match the grass, shined black boots to match the formalities, and a white lace cravat tied around his throat, so tight it felt choking.
Grass waved in the meadow, rustling softly against itself.
He reached a hand out.
His long, calloused fingers touched grass, but it wasn't the grass he was focused on.
It was the white-spotted, red deer that flicked its ears at him, lifting tiny, delicately thin legs to approach him, flowering vines swinging from its large antlers white tail flicking.
Its black nose reached to touch his fingers, and for a minute, everything was frozen.
The smile on his face, the twinkle of his emerald eyes, the bronzed skin on the back of his hand as he reached to touch the nose of the red deer.
Two worlds, gild and grass, separated by the spiraled stone railing.