By the time the sun was between its zenith and the horizon, Dawn had stopped the ship and hid it in the nearby dunes. The vast Endii mountain range reared up in the distance to the east, dominating the skyline. The four teenagers dismounted from the ship and walked the last few miles through the warm sand until they reached the end of the desert. The terrain gradually transferred from gold to green. After a wide area of unkempt tufts of grass, then rugged hills, the surroundings became recognisable as farmland.
Mighty mohorns pulled carts and ploughs through fields while dakdaks and flibles wandered their enclosures searching for food. The boys steered clear of the sheep fields but only shuddered when Dawn asked why.
The farmers in the fields gave the teens inquisitive glances before continuing with their work. They were used to travellers visiting the city, but a group of four teenagers, all dressed in desert tribal robes, three of them looking like they had been through hell while the last looked like a princess, was something they didn’t see every day.
Trey had never been to Onlasar before so he wasn’t sure what to expect. He did know that it was supposed to be the greatest place in modern Farava. In the past, Pastrino was the most pleasant settlement to live in because the other two cities were always at battle with barbarian tribes, but now Pastrino was just a place to live. It was overcrowded and boring. Onlasar was supposed to be the entertainment capital of Farava.
“Onlasar is right ahead now,” informed Billy, who had been several times with his parents.
“Where, I don’t see it?” asked Trey as he looked where everyone else was looking. There were trees and mountains but little else. Then he spotted it, hidden in plain sight.
The walls around the city were all made of the same rocks that made-up the Endii mountains. The tall peaks served as a stunning background for the city. The few sections of buildings that could be seen over the walls were all fashioned to look like the surrounding area too. Trey guessed that many of the smaller mountains had been converted into vast buildings. A diverse array of flags and banners were just visible above the walls.
The massive wood and iron doors into the city were open, welcoming all visitors, but a guard was stationed at either side of the wide entrance. The thick wood looked very sturdy and was further strengthened by metal beams and plates. If closed, the doors looked easily capable of halting an army.
The guards each had a large shield depicting a red field and the image of another shield bearing the Faravian crest to symbolise the city’s position as ‘Farava’s Shield’. In their other hand was a mace. Both were highly decorated, as were the armour plates they wore. The crimson surcoats were embossed with yet more shields.
“How are we going to get to the Lord of Onlasar?” asked Trey. “He’s the only person who can actually help us.”
Billy was about to answer when Zak walked up to one of the guards and said in a strange voice, “Take me to your leader!” The guards looked at each other in a confused manner. Billy ran forwards before Zak could mess the situation up further.
“Excuse my… associate for his strange behaviour. He’s somewhat moonstruck. We need to see your Lord for we have important information.”
“No one may see the Lord without going through the legal procedures first,” answered a guard gruffly.
“How long would that take?” asked Billy, trying to contain his rising anger.
“It would depend on how many other people have appointments ahead of you. It could be weeks before he can see you,” the same guard replied.
“We don’t have weeks,” said Billy, his eyebrow twitching.
“Sorry, there’s nothing I can do. I just stand here and look impressive. You’ll have to petition for an audience with him or something,” said the guard in a bored tone.
“Let’s storm the castle and make him listen to us!” roared Zak, readying his axe.
“Let’s,” agreed the now very annoyed Billy as he drew his sword.
Trey sighed. “The fools,” he mumbled to himself. He was about to take their weapons off them and point out how foolish they were but Dawn beat him to it. She had picked up a nearby branch and smacked them both across the back of the head with it. The guards seemed satisfied as they watched the two boys roll around the ground clutching their heads.
“Does this warrant an audience with your Lord?” asked Dawn as she pulled something from under her robe.
She revealed a necklace. It was masterfully crafted from an extremely rare green metal named kizni. In the centre of that was embellished a finely cut gem that was the very colour of a red sky at dusk or dawn. Inside the gem, Trey could just make out what looked like a small pile of sand.
The guard who had been speaking to them before stayed tense, unsure of what she was holding. The second guard, who was older and had remained silent, lowered his weapon.
“Tommy, keep guard. I’m taking these kids to the castle,” ordered the older man.
The younger guard, Tommy, looked slightly confused but replied “Yes sir.” He knew not to question an order.
“Miss, if you and your escorts would please follow me I’ll take you to my Lord,” the guard said in a respectful manner. “Or at least as close as I can get you.”
“Thank you,” said Dawn as the man began to lead them to the hollowed out mountain at the far side of the city that the guard informed them served as Onlasar’s castle.
The buildings they passed were a wild array of different designs and cultures. The majority were built from the same brown stones that littered the entire region, but splashes of colour ran rampant at ground level. Banners crisscrossed the streets and posters, wall art and bright fabrics gave a permanently festive feel. All of this was hidden from the outside, any invading enemies only seeing the brown spires of rock. Not that many armies had ever attempted to storm the city. Barbarian hordes from the mountain passes were the main threat now.
No one paid the group any attention along the streets. There were people from all over Farava frequently visiting the city so it was a mixture of different fashions, cultures and tastes. There were even the occasional international travellers revelling in the rich environment. A small group of teens didn’t stand out, even wearing the yellow robes.
As they drew nearer to the castle, there was an increase of guards that they passed. The buildings that lined the streets were becoming more official, like offices, banks and other important looking structures. There were less general shops and more expensive restaurants. The amount of tourists was no less dense though.
Up close the mountain castle was truly magnificent to behold. It was easily the tallest and broadest structure in sight. A nearby sign stated that it was a real mountain that had been dug into and converted into a human stronghold during the Klade War. The city had grown around it after the war until it became the metropolis that it was today. It alone took up a fifth of the city.
The guard turned to address Dawn. “Please remain here while I sort out the necessities. I’ll return as soon as the Lord is notified.” He bowed to the girl then entered the castle without even a glance at the three boys.
“How rude,” complained Billy.
Trey ignored him. “What was that necklace you showed that guard?” he inquired.
Dawn slowly pulled it from her robe as she began to explain. “It’s a family heirloom. There are only three in existence. All of them belong to the Heptalli. It’s a sign of royalty. Anyone who knows of the Heptalli knows that piece of metal is a symbol of power.”
For the next ten minutes nothing happened. Zak and Billy started to argue about paint drying, Trey had seemingly fallen asleep on a nearby bench, while Dawn scribbled thoughtfully on a small note book. The instant the castle door opened she snapped the book shut and rose from the bench. Trey slowly opened one eye and looked at the door as well.
The grizzled old guard stepped out onto the street, followed by a young woman who wore an obviously fake, over exaggerated smile. He bowed his head in respect to Dawn then headed back the way they had come. The young women looked at the small group then motioned them to come inside.
“I am the Lord Baranox’s personal assistant,” she stated. “If you would please follow me then I can take you to the audience chamber for your ‘emergency’ hearing with my Lord.” She added emphasis on the word emergency and spoke down to them in a patronising voice as if they were young children. She was still wearing the fake smile.
The corridors they were led down were magnificent to say the least. Crystal chandeliers hung from the roof every ten yards and the finest of tapestries decorated the surface of the walls. The carpets were of a lush red and the image across the entire roof in between the chandeliers depicted the holy Sprites in many beautiful and glorious positions. The rock walls had been smoothed down to perfection.
The woman didn’t speak a word after her initial introduction. She seemed to be grudgingly taking four teenagers to see her lord. She only spoke after several minutes of traversing the maze of corridors when they arrived at a huge iron door that was stunning to look upon but in the opposite way than the rest of the castle. It was ugly compared to the vast artwork occupying the other areas. It had no decoration and big, bulky beams and rivets blotted its dull surface. In the centre of the iron door was a small but grandly designed entrance, built into the bigger door. It was a masterpiece of craft and art.
“Once through this door you will be in the audience chamber and in the presence of our Lord. You will show him the proper respect. Do as he orders, if not, you will be punished severely.” Her voice was harsh, but her facial expression had yet to change. She gave Trey the impression of a doll.
She rang a small silver bell hung by the door then waited. A few silent seconds passed by then another small bell sounded from the other side of the door. With over exaggerated movements she swung the door open.
The chamber they stepped into was huge. It looked like it could seat the entire city. The space spoke of the ancient tradition of the people gathering together to decide upon policy rather than the select few that had now taken over that role. Padded pews encircled the chamber, leaving only gaps for the door and the throne at the opposite end. A few important looking people were dotted around the pews in silence. Elegant and colourful clothes of finest silk stood in contrast to the stern, arrogant looks that seemed commonplace on the face of nobles.
Opposite the teens was the throne, masterfully carved from the finest of wood and embellished with a gold finish. Sleek lions stood out from the smooth wood like spirits trying to escape. It was cushioned with lush red pillows.
The man who was seated on the throne was no less decorated. He was tall with cropped black hair and a small but neat black beard. Every finger was in possession of a valuable looking ring that caught in the light of elaborately placed torches and decorative candles. They sparkled like tiny stars. His robes were a splendid purple with gold and silver patterns rolling across its material every time he moved. His body was on the slide towards fat.
He rose to meet his guests. “A princess of the sand comes to seek an audience with me, I am truly honoured.” He spoke in a way that said ‘whoever you are, I am above you but to save time and effort I will feign respect and humour you’.
Dawn gave a perfect curtsy to show her respect while the three boys grudgingly gave a low bow. The lord merely inched his head forward, more to acknowledge their respect than to show them it in return.
“I am Dawn Rayin of the Heptalli clan.”
“What brings you before me, my fair maiden?”
Billy rolled his eyes at that comment while Trey was watching the Lord’s face and actions carefully to judge his character. Zak was humming under his breath, causing Billy’s hair to rise magically unbeknown to him. Pux had remained hidden in Zak’s small rucksack to avoid notice.
“I bring grave news, my Lord,” Dawn began in an official sounding voice. “The great city of Pastrino was invaded and destroyed. Its entire populace was killed or taken as slaves by demonic warriors known as Forukks from the westland.”
Lord Baranox gave a laugh and looked at the girl in a humoured way. “You expect me to believe that the second great city of Farava was destroyed without message reaching us sooner? Speak validly or stop wasting my precious time.”
The women who led them in looked ready to usher them out when Dawn spoke again.
“Why would a princess of the sand lie?” She tried to keep her voice calm but her words still had a keen edge. Her amber eyes burned at the suggestion that she was a liar.
The Lord thought about this for a moment then sighed. “After contemplating the circumstances I see that you may have a valid point. If this is true then we are all in terrible danger. Were it anyone else I would have imprisoned them for wasting my time. Let’s hope that I made the right decision in trusting you.”
After taking a sip of wine from a golden cup that had rested on a small table he turned to address one of the men sat nearest to him. He had medium length blond hair, ice like eyes, and his military uniform had several medals positioned upon it.
“Commander Nakai, what do you make of this whole situation?”
The man sighed thoughtfully. “I would recommend you send out a scout team to head up there and check on the city, then make any necessary decisions after they report back.”
Lord Baranox nodded his head. “Miss Falati, have a scout team dispatched to Pastrino to check on its status.” After receiving a nod from his assistant he went on. “It will take between seven to ten days at the earliest for the scouts to get there and back again. You are welcome to stay here in the meantime.”
“What!” shouted Billy. “Seven days! Our parents could be dead by then. So could everyone else. We need an army and we need one now!”
“Even if what you have said is all true, we aren’t going to drop everything and march off to war,” stated Lord Baranox angrily. “Take the rooms and hospitality we have given you or go. Whichever you choose, no more discussion on it will be had until the scouts return. Now if you would kindly leave I have other pressing business to attend to.”
Dawn gave another small curtsy, turned and left, followed by the three boys who neglected bowing and just walked away.
After the door had closed and the sound of footsteps faded into the distance, Commander Nakai turned to Lord Baranox.
“You don’t think that the demonic warriors she mentioned were from Lanstiro like the last time,” he asked in a low voice that only Baranox could hear.
“I doubt one word she said was true. Pastrino destroyed. Ha!” laughed Baranox as he drank deeply from his goblet.
“If what she said was true though we are in deep water,” Nakai argued. “There could be a large barbarian horde assembling in the mountains without our knowledge. Those savages are always waiting to attack in times of trouble. I would also recommend sending scouts there just in case.”
“Fine,” Lord Baranox agreed. “This will probably be a total waste of time and resources but I will send out the scouts so you can sleep easy at night in the knowledge that the city is safe,” he mocked.