427 Summers Ago
Drake deflected another blow, exhausted. His muscles shook, and sweat gleamed on his brow, coating the skin underneath his bashed and bloodied armor. Comrades fell before him, blood-soaked and covered in ashen mud where the falling soot had met water. A thick, metallic stench filled the air, and ash coated Drake’s lips.
The city was on fire.
Heart slamming against his chest, he turned to run but found himself facing the Death Seeker, his skin pale blue as if half-frozen, his eyes dipped in crimson. Drake dropped his gloved hand to the hilt of the Demon Killer protectively. He had to keep this relic safe. In the wrong hands, it could cost thousands of lives, if not millions.
The Death Seeker tilted his head and smirked coldly. “You have something of mine.”
Drake’s responsibilities, his promises, all of it flooded his mind in an instant. He had given his word to the king that he would transfer the Demon Killer safely into the hands of the Assane soldiers who waited for him outside their falling city. They had promised to keep it safe, to hide it from the claws of this monster.
Red armor flashed to his left as more of their wretched undead men rushed into the city. His city. It had once been grand, an icon in the Diyrặllian country. Now it was in flames, crippled, and falling apart.
Rage filled Drake and he lunged with his sword, bellowing a war cry with all the strength he could muster, but the Death Seeker pushed the sword aside with a flick of his own. Drake stumbled and tried to regain himself, but he was assailed with a series of blows. The Death Seeker’s handguard was crested with intricately woven steel to protect his gloved hand from the attempts to disarm him.
Drake defended himself as best as he could, but he could feel his strength waning rapidly. The monster was toying with him. He grappled to find a gap where he could place a wounding blow, but alas, none came. The Death Seeker was far too skilled, and Drake was exhausted. He hadn’t rested since dawn, hours ago, and now it was catching up with him. His muscles shook in a last outcry as he deflected another blow.
With a final flick, Drake’s sword flew away out of reach, leaving him weaponless. Somewhere behind him, a woman screamed. Ash coated his tongue when he inhaled sharply. His lungs begged for clean air.
The Death Seeker looked upon Drake as if for the first time, his own sword covered in blood from the countless he had slain. His slick armor was blacker than midnight, devoid of any crest. He wore no helmet—perhaps he had decided it was useless against them, or perhaps he wanted everyone who fell before him to see his face. The Death Seeker’s short, jet-black hair was dusted with ash. It spilled down over his features, giving him a ghostly look.
“You have fought well, soldier,” he complimented, voice smooth and calm.
“What have you done with your soldiers?” Drake cried, gesturing at the calamity of red that swarmed around them. “They will not die!”
“They’ve been given . . . abilities,” he answered, and jerked his blade closer, making Drake shy away. “The legends will speak of your heroic act, young man. The storytellers will sing your name for summers to come.”
Drake shook his head, revolted. No story would be told of him or his people. They would only be known as a few of the many fallen to this massacre. “Why do you do this? Why taint your name and bloody your soul with these cruel acts?”
The Death Seeker laughed, letting a wicked smile touch his lips. Fear clawed its way into Drake’s heart as he spoke. “My dear soldier, you know nothing of me and who I am. And you never will. Now—” He stretched his hand out with a gleam in his cold eyes. “The blade.”
Desperate to delay him, Drake took another step back but felt his boot sink into mud and twist. He inhaled sharply, feeling the strain of his weight crack the ankle with a snap. Pain flooded his foot and he dropped to his knee, unable to bear his own weight. Realizing running was no longer possible, Drake kicked out with his good leg. The Death Seeker sidestepped him with ease, never shifting his bloody gaze.
“The brave soldier,” the Death Seeker teased. “If only your king could see you now.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Drake gasped, shaking his head. Tears burned in his eyes, and he blinked them away. He had failed his king and everyone in his city.
The Death Seeker knelt next to him, his breath hot against Drake’s skin. This close, Drake could practically taste the venom in his response. “I already have.”
Drake lashed out, hoping to catch him by surprise, but the Death Seeker lifted his hand and caught Drake’s fist without flinching. In an instant, bones cracked as the monster crushed his hand. Fiery pain rushed up Drake’s arm, and he screamed in agony.
Crimson eyes paralyzed him in his spot. He took a sharp inhale, watching as the Death Seeker reached over for the Demon Killer. With a tug against Drake’s belt, the blade’s sheath was unclipped. Drake struggled against the weight of the gaze, feeling an icy sensation start in his limbs, wiggling through his chest and into his bones. He was paralyzed, unable to move from whatever magic the Death Seeker had called upon.
Lip curling up, the Death Seeker spat, “Let me tell you this, brave soldier, I have walked this world between the dead and living far longer than you could imagine. I’ve watched empires rise and fall, watched fate twist and contort into something unrecognizable, and now I too shall watch this city fall.”
Then he stood and raised his sword. The metal shimmered from the light of the flames in an otherworldly fashion, captivating Drake as he watched his life dance behind his eyes for the last time.
The Death Seeker struck.