Melkior stumbled through a briar patch and cursed his way through the snags. Thick trees surrounded him, and hounds bayed furiously in the distance, dogging his every step as they had since he’d fled the smoldering wreckage of Lurneville on the edge of Ender’s Gulf. The brambles tore his hands from his chest as he pushed through, exposing the gaping wound that had slicked his hand with blood.
His blood ran crimson, like the humans; though he resembled one in many ways, he was no mere man. Melkior was Eldarim, both a mage and warrior champion… and by his efforts he’d just killed an entire tribe of men and women… and so many more—and after that came the fight against the elves, his friends—many of them intimate.
Ignoring the pain, Melkior snapped his hand back over the ragged tear in his flesh and tried to keep pressure on it. He glanced at his other fist; it was also slicked with blood, but not his own. Splatters of red and green painted him: red from the humans and green from the Selumari, the coral elves who he’d been a sworn protector of.
A tracker howled not far behind him, ominous in the pale moonlight; it had his scent. The blue-skinned elves would be on him soon.
The wounded Eldarim pushed ahead, though his lungs burned as intensely as the leaking hole in his torso. The captain of the elven guard, Leisterbane, would find him soon if he didn’t quicken his pace. He was a formidable opponent—even for the Eldarim champion—the demi-godlike acolyte. That Melkior could lose to Leisterbane in combat was not a possibility two days ago, before Melkior broke faith and attacked the Selumari kingdom under his house’s protection. But now, with so severe of a wound?
But even without his pet drake, Melkior was still formidable; dragon or not, he was still a Dragonlord. At his best, with his dragon at his side, none of the other champions from the other races stood a chance to beat him. He’d just proved as much in the secret room below his keep, battling and defeating the coral elf champion—though he’d paid a heavy price in the combat. He growled at the fresh memory. It had been her life Melkior tried to save… their lives… together.
Something made her betray him.
He grimaced at the hot wound he’d taken from her and bit back tears—more painful than the gash in his flesh were her words. Those had injured him worst of all. He refused to entertain them again.
“I’ll be lucky if death does not find me first,” Melkior panted, leaning momentarily against a tree and grinding his teeth against the pain. The hounds sounded their alarm again and the wounded fighter lurched forward, knowing he could not stay if he wanted to live another day. He took two steps and then tumbled to the ground.
Everything went silent. Blood still poured from his lacerated side, mixing with the silky loam to form a puddle of mud. Smells of lichen and stale water filled his nostrils. Pain wracked his body and told him that he still lived.
He touched his hand to the sticky wound and checked himself. Frankly, he was amazed that he had any blood left within him by now. What happens when I run out? The thought passed as quickly as it came.
Melkior rolled over and stared at the sky. Let the hounds come… what good is living anyway, without her… my Princess Ailushurai.
The moon was up, making her twice daily voyage across the upper atmosphere. Dead trees framed his view as they reached for the air like skeletal arms bursting up from their graves; they shimmered slightly from the glow of a nearby campfire. Such a light would surely draw the enemies quicker than expected, though he wondered that he hadn’t noticed it earlier.
The fugitive rolled over and onto his knees; Melkior finally rose to his wobbly feet. A large pyre, built of charred skulls, towered in the middle of the glade. Flames licked out from empty sockets and gaps between teeth. Everything natural within the bubble seemed to have withered with decay. An ornate throne sat opposite him on the far side of the fire. A fair-skinned man with handsome features leaned forward from his bone chair; peering over steepled fingers, he watched Melkior intently, but said nothing.
With wide eyes, Melkior looked around the profane circle. The atmosphere dripped with corruption. Dread realization set in: Melkior had stumbled into a festration, an arcane bubble of evil where the presence of the Dark One lingered. Terror shot a jolt of adrenaline into his heart; it might keep him alive a few seconds longer, though the certainty that he would die in this corrupted, sacred ring gripped him.
Finally, the man stroked his goatee and waved him forward. He spoke from the throne as his Eldarim guest arrived nearer the fire. “Greetings, Melkior. I have watched you from afar, like I watch so many of Esfah’s citizens. The Teldrim you slaughtered were more children of Tarvenehl, the Creator… my enemy.” The stranger regarded him coolly. “You once fought my forces as a major antagonist against me,” his voice boomed, “but yesterday you murdered the Teldrim chief and wiped the stain of their presence from Esfah’s face.”