Interlude Part IV: Goddess of Destruction
Tristan coughed towards his chest as the cloud of dust and dirt from the swarm of calvary men and horses around him filled his burning lungs. The scarf meant to protect his airways had fallen free during their breakneck pace through the narrow pass. Tristan could do nothing about the scarf. His only useful hand was wrapped tightly around the reins as he fought to keep himself in the saddle with one good leg.
And to think King Henri had once praised him for his warrior’s prowess on horseback. ‘Can’t hold a sword. Can barely stay in the saddle. I might not even walk again if I lose my leg.’
A growl of fear and anger tightened against the back of Tristan’s throat, then choked as the horse vaulted a fallen boulder, and Tristan nearly went over the stallion’s head. His chest landed against the warhorse’s neck, while his left hand and the reins awkwardly remained twisted and trapped beneath his gut. The stallion’s muscles tensed as its footing faltered, and Tristan’s gaze came closer to the pounding hooves beneath him.
A hand grabbed a fist full of the prince’s armor then hoisted him back into the saddle. Garrett eased his horse a safe distance away, the tether still tied between them as Tristan scrambled to secure his position.
The stallion tossed its head as it tried to follow the confusing signals of its rider. Tristan managed to get his right foot back into the stirrup while Garrett paced beside them and soothed the confused animal. A moment later, with his sore left wrist readjusted around the reigns, Tristan leaned closer to the stallion’s neck—and recovered from his latest brush with death.
Bright flashes of light danced before Tristan’s eyes as he tried to focus through the blur of knights, horses, hooves, and dirt; and the never-ending ravine path. When he wasn’t choking from the constant inhalation of dust, he struggled to breathe at all. His armor seemed to have tightened around his chest, and even his helmet felt like a death trap intent on crushing his throbbing skull.
Tristan gritted his teeth and glanced towards his left leg, which dangled uselessly beside the stirrup, the saddle beneath it coated in dust and blood.
Liam’s betrayal clouded his head along with the image of the blue ghoul’s mask. No matter how Tristan arranged the facts and events of the last two days, they all led to the same conclusion. King Henri and the Dowager had sent him on this expedition to die.
“Rockslide!” The knights shouted ahead of them.
“Don’t stop, or they’ll pin us in!” Garrett roared back.
The heart-sinking rumble of death descended towards them with a billowing cloud that obscured the path ahead moments before the boulders crashed and flooded the pathway behind them. The black stallion flicked its ears back and forth but maintained its gallop with the steel nerves of a beast that had faced the destruction of war many times before and become numb to it.
Tristan pressed himself closer to the stallion’s neck as he glanced back and willed his men to move faster. The calvary’s desperate movement was muffled by the monstrous pounding of massive rocks that collided at their heels—and then the back row of knights vanished as a giant boulder devoured them.
Garrett took one look back and cut the lead to Tristan’s stallion before smacking the beast’s flank with the flat of his blade. With an indignant cry, the warhorse surged past Garrett then jostled its way through the knights ahead with the speed and ferocity its bloodline had been bred to produce. Tristan held onto the beast desperately as the adrenaline of terror exploded in his chest, roared against his ears, and twisted his stomach in helpless panic.
Clouds of darkness rained cold dust upon Tristan’s neck and pelted against his armor as death closed in. He thought he glimpsed Garrett somewhere in the roaring storm of earth to his left just as the path before them narrowed—and ended in a solid mountain wall.
Tristan barely turned the stallion’s head before Garrett’s warhorse collided with them. The mountains tipped sideways as their horses toppled and fell. Then Tristan’s face and shoulder impacted with the ground below.
The muted screams of man and beast mingled with the desperate thrashing of hooves. Boulders crushed and shattered the trapped calvary as a cloud of earth and dust billowed over the ravine.
Tristan spit up blood and choked on earth as he rolled to his left and tried to rise. A shield loomed overhead as Garrett grabbed him and hoisted the prince to his feet. The thrashing black stallion screamed in agony before another boulder obscured it from view and silenced its pain. Tristan tore his eyes away as he focused on Garrett, struggled to keep his right leg useful, and tried to shake the disorienting ringing from his ears.
Then a boulder bounced towards them, crashed against Garrett’s shield, and they were flung apart like grass dolls.
This time Tristan’s helmet and ribs took the blow. His lungs protested the abuse as he rolled onto his side beneath yet another cloud of dust. The ringing in his ears overwhelmed all other senses as Tristan’s gaze seemed to float above the rock and soil beneath hands he knew were his—yet could not feel.
‘Shelter. I have to find shelter.’
He crawled towards a large boulder only a few feet away. Dirt and dust filled his mouth, nose, and ears as he dragged in one painful breath after another and felt his ribs shift unnaturally.
Like an injured animal, he curled beneath the crevice of the boulder, helpless and afraid as the giant rocks continued to descend, their massive size and brutality unnervingly muted as Tristan waited for the double vision and ringing in his head to stop.
Garrett was gone. The few knights and horses he could see disappeared within the span of two blinks. Boulders filled in the gaps—and then the sun vanished as soil and pebbles poured in around him. Tristan pressed a hand against his mouth and nose and smothered a scream as the mountain buried him alive.
A heartbeat, his own, flickered and faded beneath the river of earth pressed in around him. Tristan held his breath and carefully turned until the grating of dirt against his hand and closed eyelids faded. With slow, shallow breaths that tasted of clay, Tristan stretched out his hand until his fingers found the brittle surface of the boulder. He wiggled closer then rested his helmet against it before he cautiously opened his eyes.
A tomb of earth and stone awaited him. The loosened soil assured that the slightest careless disturbance would extinguish his small reprieve of limited air.
Tristan’s lungs tightened with panic as fear raced through his body in small tremors. “If they can kill a prince, they can kill a Queen.” He choked down another scream as helpless fury filled his gut and chased away the cold sweat of fear.
They would tell Nicholas the Tharynians had killed him. They would feed Eleanora the same lie. And if Durante and the rest of the Red Wolf Army perished, then there would be no one left to thwart their claims.
“Trust no one.”
Angry tears burned through the soil caked against his cheeks, slid across his lips, and pooled against his clenched teeth. The salty-earth taste chased away any momentary thought of revenge.
He was going to die here, alone and powerless—another forgotten victim of Lafeara’s corruption and power struggle.
“Do not yield to death so easily, Tristan. How could the son of the Phoenix and Scorpion perish to a bit of earth?”
His helmet scraped against the boulder as Tristan turned and blinked into the darkness.
“So this is what it feels like to be mortal?” the disturbing yet feminine voice whispered. “A bug trapped under a rock, waiting to die slowly—or is it praying to die quickly?”
Rage burned through him, yet fear held his tongue in check. ‘Where is this voice coming from? They sound close by. Did one of the Tharyn witches get buried with me?’
“Who are you?” Tristan rasped.
Deep laughter echoed through the darkness around him, and the boulders trembled in its wake. No, not just the boulders, the mountain, and earth below him shook, yet not a grain of soil moved.
“I am Death. I am Destruction. I am the Slayer of Gods and the Ravager of Kingdoms. I am the Goddess of Ice and Fire.”
The rock against his ribs and the soil around his chest grew warm as sweat slid from beneath the helmet down Tristan’s brow. He struggled for a moment or two to form the name—that of the most feared immortal among all the forgotten gods. “Kritanta?”
The name ignited the magic within his chest as Tristan’s courage shattered, and painful tears spilled down his cheeks unchecked as he fought to breathe. The soil around him shimmered into brittle shale, then turned to dust as the boulder beside him rippled with heat.
“Do you want to live, Tristan, son of Arius, Emperor of Witches?”
Sparks filled the darkness and only burned brighter when Tristan shut his eyes. “Yes.” Another stab of pain, this time in his gut, made him curl up in agony. “But—more than that—I want—I need—”
His left leg spasmed so painfully that a scream slid past his lips. “Yes!”
“Swear your body, soul, and heart to me, Tristan, and I shall give you more power than even Arius can lay claim too. With it, you shall enslave your enemies and kill all who dare to offend you. I shall give you such power that the world will kneel at your feet and beg to name you their king—but I have one request you must fulfill in return.”
The fingers of Tristan’s right arm twitched as feeling returned to his injured limb and his shoulder burned. Tristan focused on her words as his lungs filled with thermal air mixed with pure magic. “What—Request?”
“Find what was stolen from me. Return my frozen heart.”
Tristan blinked in confusion but nodded readily. The weakened magic within him snapped beneath the weight of her invading fire. He could feel his consciousness fading as his body burned with magic so potent, his left-hand glowed against the boulder in the darkness beside him.
“You must swear it, Prince Tristan.”
Tristan clenched his fist and opened his lips to answer, but his voice remained locked inside his dry throat. He was drowning in her magic. He could feel neither the ground below nor the boulder that stood before him a moment ago. There was only darkness and the burning magic that consumed him from within.
Cold hands touched his face and turned his gaze. Kritanta knelt above him. Her face a withered, dry corpse with peeled, cracked skin. Her soulless black eyes blazed and flickered with a pure white flame. Frost tinged her ashen hair and faded brows, while her cracked purple lips spread into a smile before they descended towards his own.
She breathed into him and Tristan’s mouth filled with the bitter, rancid taste of rotten flesh and brimstone.
“Swear your loyalty to me, Prince Tristan, and I will make you a dragon.” Bile filled the back of Tristan’s throat as the Goddess stroked his cheek. There is nothing of tenderness in her gaze as she assessed his burning body. “Speak my name, and the pact is sealed.”
“To speak the name of the Goddess of Death is to invite calamity and destruction.”
Tristan could not recall where he had heard those words. Eleanora had told him stories of Kritanta, the Goddess of Fire that the Emperor and all of Ventrayna served. But even those stories paled in the presence of the Goddess herself, who knelt before Tristan with an offer he dare not refuse.
Her dry lips drew back into a death-like smile of sharp black fangs. Ebony nails and boney, dry fingers slid across his chest plate. His armor and the garments beneath burned and evaporated into smoke that left his mortal heart exposed. “Mors est in porta,” she whispered, and then her nails ripped through his flesh and bone.
When Tristan watched Iker, the Master Blacksmith, work the forge, he had witnessed the power of magic to mold and shape metal into elite weapons of destruction.
Now his body and soul were at the mercy of Kritanta’s hands, and she burned away his impurities with the callous gaze of a Master who would accept nothing less than perfection.
The power that rippled through him, merged with him, and stretched the very fabric of his soul could only be described as magic—and yet it was so much more.
Life and death pulsed with each breath, heartbeat, and flicker of his eyes. Tristan had never been more afraid of magic—or himself—than in that moment.
When the darkness receded and sensation returned to his body once more, Tristan found himself in the Goddess’s arms on the highest peak of Fogtooth Mountain. Nightfall had claimed the horizon around them, though the stars remained hidden behind the ominous clouds above.
“I have purged poison, both new and old, from your body,” Kritanta said as she studied his naked figure critically. “Your mortal shell has been refined into a vessel strong enough to wield the powers I have granted you, but you are still far from indestructible.” She set him down, and Tristan stumbled on his feet for a moment like a newborn infant. “You must make use of this new power now. Bend this magic to your will, Tristan, or it will break you.”
Her bony finger pointed towards the eastern section of Wolfthorn Forest as her dry lips tugged into a malicious smile. “Behold, the three princes that buried and left you for dead now march on your beloved Lafeara.”
Tristan followed her gesture and spotted the three formations of pagan armies trudging at a steady pace towards Wolf-shield Fortress that guarded Lafeara’s western border.
“And there slithers the general that betrayed you, on his way back to Lafeara with his tail between his legs,” she added and shifted her finger south.
General Liam’s army scurried north while keeping a wide berth of the Tharyn princes. Even from a distance, Tristan could see their numbers had dwindled significantly, yet the Tharyn army made no move to pursue them, though it would have been a simple matter to change course and crush the remnants of the Red Wolf Army.
‘Then, Durante—is he?’
Heat ignited in Tristan’s hands. Twin flame dragons curled up his wrists and hissed against his skin, eager yet patient, as they waited for the massacre to come.
Kritanta moved behind Tristan and whispered against his ear, “Which shall you spare?”
Tristan’s jaw clenched as his burning gaze moved between the Tharyn forces of three thousand men to the north and the barely four hundred Lafearian soldiers before him. “Neither.”
The Goddess of Destruction chuckled. Her breath ruffled the curls of his midnight-blue hair while her left arm slid around his waist. “You will make a worthy consort.” She slid her ebony nails along his right arm and raised it towards the horizon. Tristan followed her movements towards the dark clouds above Wolfthorn Forest, which flickered ominously with an orange-red hue. “Now, let me give you a taste of dragon magic.”
The crown of the forest swayed beneath the glow of a hellish dawn. The Tharyn and Lafeara armies paused, their unease as tangible as the sulfuric taste of destruction that coated the breeze just before clouds erupted and shattered the earth below in a deluge of hellfire.
The mountain trembled at Tristan’s feet as forest and armies vanished in an instant. The projectiles of heavenly brimstone descended and exploded in an endless volley of fury until all that remained of the western territories of Lafeara was a lake of burning souls, a reborn pure-blood fire witch, and the Goddess of Death and Destruction, Kritanta.
Eleanora followed the palace steward with her parents, Lord Alastair and Lady Isabella, close behind her. They moved in absolute silence through the sand and marble sculpted halls of the Scorpion Palace. Eleanora shivered as the open windows permitted just enough of the cold morning breeze outside to send goosebumps up and down her arms.
The steward led them to a side chamber, which he unlocked and opened. “If the Lord and Ladies would please wait here until you are summoned.”
Eleanora fidgeted with the hem of her transparent veil as she entered. She examined the familiar, private space that connected to the throne room through another door in the back corner. She headed towards the door promptly and tested the handle. “It’s locked,” she muttered tensely.
“You must be patient, Eleanora,” Lady Isabella hushed as she took her daughter’s arm, adjusted Eleanora’s veil, and then pulled her towards a long comfortable sofa set before a glass bowl of exotic fish.
“I would feel less impatient if I knew why the Emperor had summoned us so suddenly,” Eleanora grumbled as she grabbed the nearest pillow and hugged it against her lap. She picked the golden flecks from its woven cover absently as she focused on Lord Alastair. “You heard it too, Father. The palace servants were gossiping about an attack at our border near Deadwood forest. What if Ventrayna goes to war with Lafeara?”
Isabella glanced towards her husband, who waited silently by the door. His fingers fidgeted with his empty sword belt as he sighed.
“If there was an attack, it more than likely had something to do with the Tharyn,” Isabella said reasonably. “Or some manner of trickery from the Pope.”
“Father.” Eleanora turned her pleading gaze towards the silent Lord, who had once been a prominent member of Lafeara nobility and government before he married Lady Isabella. “Can you hear nothing?”
Lord Alastair turned towards his wife and daughter and shifted his brows uncertainly.
“No!” Isabella interjected. “Until we know what has happened, we mustn’t do anything to anger the Emperor!”
Alastair drew his lips into a thin line as his topaz-blue eyes examined the door at the end of the room. He silently mouthed an incantation, and the women fell silent as his invisible magic slipped past them through the cracks into the throne room.
“Alastair!” Isabella hissed urgently.
Alastair’s steady gaze remained focused on the door. Shock and anger flashed across his face before he blinked and turned to Eleanora. “Tristan is dead.”
Eleanora’s fingers dug into the pillow on her lap as Isabella gasped.
“The Tharyn princes ambushed him at Deadwood Pass,” Alastair explained solemnly.
Isabella turned towards her frozen daughter and grasped Eleanora’s hands with tender concern. “Elly.”
Eleanora’s amber eyes filtered around the room as her shoulder and jaw slackened, and her trembling lips trailed out a single response. “Dead?”
Alastair quickly moved beside his shocked daughter and wrapped an arm around her gently. “I’m sorry, Elly.”
“You shouldn’t have told her—they will know you listened in just by looking at her,” Isabella hissed angrily.
“No—it’s—better that I compose myself—before meeting the Emperor,” Eleanora whispered numbly. Her veil trembled as she fought to control her anguished breathing.
A knock proceeded the turning of a lock, and Ambassador Haemish entered through the side courtroom door. His sharp gaze swept over their huddled position around Eleanora, and he sighed. “Really, Lord Alastair.”
Haemish turned, shut the door, and then moved towards the sofa, his gaze focused on his niece. “I can see you already know. I am sorry for the upsetting news, Eleanora. The border troops managed to dig out one survivor who had a final message for you from—Prince Tristan.” He knelt, took her hand, and placed the gold scorpion medallion against her palm.
“A—message?” Eleanora rasped.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise,” Haemish relayed and then patted her knee awkwardly before he straightened.
“Who—was the messenger?”
“A knight captain of the Red Wolf Army, one of its sole survivors by the looks of it.”
“Who?” Eleanora repeated sharply.
“Elly,” Isabella hushed.
“It’s alright,” Haemish murmured as he hooked a thumb through the silk belt of his official robes. “Captain Garrett Durante, son of the Wolfhound Colonel, who also perished while protecting the prince’s escape.”
“Where is he?” Eleanora asked as she rose from her seat, the pillow falling unnoticed at her feet.
“Elly, you should take a moment,” Alastair urged as he moved between her and the Ambassador.
“Your father is right,” Haemish agreed quickly. “At present, Captain Garrett is barely conscious and being seen to by the royal physicians. He has suffered extensive injuries—there is no guarantee he will survive to see tomorrow. The Emperor has given him a room in the palace as a sign of respect to his father.”
“Very well.” Eleanora looked down at the necklace and scraped her nail against the blood and dirt that lined the scorpion’s body. Disbelief and grief battled within her chest as she struggled to maintain her composure and clenched her fist tightly around the engagement gift she had presented Tristan. “I will visit the captain later. If you’ll excuse me—”
“Actually.” Haemish held up an arm quickly to block her path. “There is one other matter I’ve been instructed to inform you of, Princess Eleanora.”
Eleanora tensed at the mention of her title and turned wary amber eyes towards him. “What does the Emperor require of me now, uncle?”
“Nothing really,” Haemish replied as his usually bored expression twisted with the hint of a smile. “Except to inform you that your marriage to Lafeara’s future king still stands.”
Eleanora heard her mother’s gasp as her father brushed past her and slammed Haemish up against the wall.
“What game are you playing at?” Alastair snarled. “Her fiancé just died. Eleanora was engaged to Tristan, not Nicholas!”
“On paper, she is engaged to the next king of Lafeara, which is now Prince Nicholas,” Haemish replied with a grimace. “Now, let me go, or I will alert the shadow guards.”
“Alastair,” Isabella pleaded.
“I won’t do it,” Eleanora breathed out. The scorpion’s tail bit into her palm as her trembling grip tightened. “I won’t—I can’t marry Tristan’s brother.”
Alastair grunted and slowly lowered the Ambassador to his feet. “And there you have it. Eleanora will not marry Nicholas.”
Haemish shook off the noble’s grasp and smoothed out his garment. Then he turned his steady cold gaze towards Eleanora, shook his head, and gave her a pitiless smile.
“You don’t have a choice, Princess. This is the Emperor’s command.”