An explosion rocks the castle as a boulder crashes into a wall below the south tower. Several books from the uppermost shelves fall helplessly to the earth. Emilio manages to duck out of the way of one musty volume, but another hits his shoulder, deflected by his blood-streaked armor. Emilio’s chest and back plates are dirty and dented, his helm lost hours ago. He shakes a sweaty clump of dark hair out of his eyes.
“Are you insane, old man? I can’t leave! What about my father? My mother? My brothers might be falling in battle while I am shut in here listening to your madness. I won’t run.”
“Highness, your father has ordered it. And if you do not, your beloved family will be doomed. You must return the artifact before the next full moon rises over Umberdon. Otherwise, Milton will be invincible.”
Emilio grips a handful of his own hair and squeezes, wishing to tear it from his head along with everything Astrark has said in the minutes since he captured Emilio, spiriting him away from the fight. The silver edge of his wrist gauntlet feels cool against his forehead. As much as he wants to choke the old scholar, Astrark is right. There is no one else with Emilio’s abilities. Not here, and not now.
He crosses the room. The volume of steel clanging on steel increases, assaulting him in a roar as he opens the balcony doors to take one last look at his family before accepting his duty.
The field is a mess of bodies, mud, blood, and weaponry. At the edge of one garden hedge, Emilio’s eldest brother holds off two opponents with a short spear in one hand and a flail in the other. Not his usual combination—he must have lost his sword and dirk. Emilio last saw his younger twin brothers heading into the forest, longbows slung over their backs. He looks down, and on the stone patio, his father hurls conjured balls of ice at the invaders.
For a split second, King Tomas looks up. His eyes meet Emilio’s, imploring his son to make haste. The full moon is only two weeks coming. The king’s guards will hold the castle.
His head drooping, Emilio pounds his fist into the railing. His hands clench, dirt-packed nails digging into rough palms. After a moment, he turns to the scholar. “All right. Tell me again, quickly, what to do.”
Following behind Astrark, Emilio catches a glimpse of himself in one of the castle looking glasses. His dark hair curls and mats in places. A pendant of the family standard—three swirls, symbolizing the wind, circled by seven stars—hangs around his neck, a gift from his mother last year when he finally reached the age of manhood. A brownish-red slash divides his bottom lip in two, and his normally tan skin is mottled with black, blue, green, and red stains.
Emilio chuckles at the memory of Darnel, one of Milton’s newer captains, delivering the blow that split his lip. Emilio could easily use magic and avoid marring his pretty face, but honestly, there’s nothing like a good brawl to get the blood pumping. He recalls the satisfying crunch of Darnel’s nose under the impact of a well-placed elbow.
He touches his medallion and hurries after Astrark.
They travel through hidden stairwells that are unknown to Emilio. How much had the scholar been keeping from the royal family? Down and down, through the cellar, past unfamiliar rows of cells.
“Ast, what is this place? A dungeon beneath the dungeons?”
“Magical prisons, Highness.”
Emilio would have to ask Father about this place later.
“Where are you taking me?” the prince grumbles. The heat of battle is starting to cool, and his wounds and aches begin to complain. Not badly yet, but it won’t be long until they are screaming bloody hell.
“My lord, precision is key, and according to my calculations—”
“All right, I understand. I’m just anxious to get there and return. You’re sure time will move differently there?”
“Just a guess, my lord. I may be mistaken. Time may move at the same pace or faster. Best to find the medallion as quickly as possible. Ah, here we are. Are you ready?”
A rickety wooden ladder leads up to a square door.
“Where will this take me?” Emilio asks, looking up at the hatch in wonder.
“Er…the gazebo, my lord. A hidden trap door.” Astrark fidgets with his fingers.
“What?” Emilio shouts. “Why not walk straight out the back door and paint a bull’s eye on my chest? I’ll be right in the middle of the battle!”
“Yes, my lord. Your father is aware and says that he will take care of it. Do you trust him, even if your trust in me has wavered?”
Emilio scowls at the man who has taught him since childhood. “I never said—”
“No, and now is no time to discuss it. I assure you, this is absolutely necessary.”
“Fine. Let me be gone, then.”
The ladder creaks and lists with Emilio’s weight as he climbs to the top. The trap door sends down a shower of dust, adding layer of gray over the other colors painting the canvas of his face. He eases the door open. Milton’s forces are held at bay.
Light streams down over Emilio, temporarily blinding him after spending so long in the catacombs of his home, the home he might not find when—and if—he returns. He takes a deep breath. With a nod back at Astrark, he pushes up through the opening.
No one notices him. Emilio has a moment to take in what will be his last image of home for a while. A line of bodies tangles together through the tree line. Every few seconds, a green-clad figure falls with an arrow sticking from it. Apparently, one or both of the twins are still alive, probably engaged in a morbid contest to see how many men they can assassinate before they have to relocate.
A strong, frosty wind kicks up around Emilio, blurring his view. He spins to see his father chanting, hands outstretched toward him as if longing to embrace his middle son. Green-clad soldiers, led by Darnel, rush toward Emilio. He has been spotted. He spares a wave to his father, his king, and then turns away to concentrate.
He has spent countless hours training for this. Emilio blocks out the impending attack and sounds of battle, staring straight ahead until he visualizes the rectangular space, opening and widening before him. He does not know where or when it will take him, but if Ast is right, it will lead him to the object of this quest.
The pounding of his heart in his ears creates a rapid drumbeat. Marching drums. He only needs to step forward into the unknown.
The ground beneath him shakes. Darnel and his men arrive at the base of the gazebo. As the first boot stomps on the bottom step, Emilio turns to fix Darnel with a smirk, a wink, and an obscene hand gesture. He steps through the portal. It blinks shut behind him, stifling Darnel’s frustrated howl.
He focuses again to find the miniscule glimmer of white that will show him a way out of this emptiness. There is no sound or sensation. The darkness closes in. Emilio’s breath constricts. He reminds himself that this is just an illusion as the first fingers of fear tickle his consciousness.
What if you don’t find it fast enough, Emilio? Will you be lost forever in nothingness? Will you fail before you even begin?
He controls these thoughts and pushes them aside. Squeezing his eyes shut, he struggles to feel something. To feel some sense of power within this void that always reduces him to a small, helpless speck.
Opening his eyes again, he scans ahead. And then he finds it. The light. Such a thin sliver it might be his imagination. It isn’t. He reaches for it. Power surges down his arm, beyond his fingertips. The light grows into a door. Emilio steps through and studies the surroundings.
It is daytime and noisy. The air holds a crisp bite. Sharp stinks make his nose burn. He seems to be in a tunnel yet above ground—he can see daylight.
He can turn toward the portal or continue in the direction he faces. Looking back is not an option. Emilio walks forward and begins his search.