Stirrings in the Dark Vincent Hatcher A lone and hooded figure walked through the streets of the Royal City, a living ghost among the shattered buildings and empty streets. Crushed, useless wings hung like wilted petals from its back; silent and broken, Zhah was a pale, shattered shadow of her once powerful self. The broken and mangled bodies of her people littered the streets, their blood staining the very ground they had fought so valiantly to defend. In the end, it had all been futile. All around her, the agonizing screams of those who had not been fortunate enough to die quickly assaulted her ears, damning her for failing them. She clutched her hands to her ears, shaking her head like a madwoman, wishing that the cries would end and the tortured remnants of her people would be granted the one solace remaining to them: death. Zhah closed her eyes as the tears began to fall again. How had this come to pass? She had been so careful, so diligent. For the past thousand years, she had pushed herself beyond the limits of her own body and willpower, honing herself into a potent weapon. Sacrificing any semblance of comfort or happiness, her life had been consumed by one desire: the eradication of the Void and its threat to her people. Her relentless studying, training, and determination had granted her countless victories against the darkness but, when the battle she had been training for came to pass, she had been defeated as if she were naught but a wingless babe armed with a feather. She was so lost in her misery that she did not hear or notice the massive, hideous daemon that descended from the sky behind her, a twisted smile upon its grisly visage. Cursing herself, she was oblivious to everything but the suffocation of her own failure. It was the cessation of the screams she had only moments ago been praying would end that brought her back, but it was too late. Seeing the shadow that eclipsed the light behind her, she spun around to face her assailant, knowing that it the Defiler had finally found her. The daemon’s smile grew into a maniacal laugh is its claw, covered in blood, reached out to her… …and she shot up in bed from the nightmare, a cry escaping from her. Zhah desperately scanned her surroundings and clutched the sheets to her chest, trying to calm the anxious beating of her heart. The cool night breeze chilled the beads of sweat that glistened across her scarlet skin, returning her to reality. As her breathing became even, the gargoyle queen gazed out the nearby open window, surveying the horizon of Ter Mur. It was a beautiful, calm night, and there were no burning pyres lighting up the night and no screams carried upon the wind. Relief filled her, and she sighed, realizing that her people were safe. For now. Zhah knew that it had not just been a dream; it was a message, and one that she must heed. Rising from her massive bed, she quickly threw on a robe and strode to her bedchamber door. Pulling the doors open, she leveled a penetrating gaze upon the two guards stationed outside. Turning to her, they bowed with respect to their Queen. ‘Summon Linzrom to me, please; I must speak to him at once.’ The guards saluted her and one immediately departed to summon her guard captain. Zhah turned to the remaining guard and advised him to allow Linzrom immediate entrance to her chambers when he arrived. Returning to her rooms, Zhah immediately began donning her armor. When the knock came, announcing Linzrom’s arrival, Zhah was standing out on her balcony, her gaze concentrated off in the distance, as if she were trying to make out something in the night. As instructed, Linzrom did not await her invitation to enter but strode into the chamber, a concerned look on his face. ‘My Queen?’ Pulled from her silent reverie, the Gargoyle Queen turned to her guard captain. ‘The Defiler is stirring.’ The Guard-Captain was a seasoned warrior, hardened by battle, and not one used to fear. Nothing else Zhah could have said would have conceivably instilled the dagger of ice that her words caused to run down the veteran’s spine. ‘Are you sure?’ Zhah nodded, her eyes distant. ‘I dreamt of him this evening, Linzrom. In truth, it seemed more a vision than a dream, of what will come to pass if I fail.’ ‘I take it you are departing once again?’ ‘Immediately. I will be gone only a few days, but I would like you to send a regiment of troops to the Athenaeum. ‘ ‘The Athenaeum, my lady?’ The captain’s voice now held shock; the queen had forbidden any but herself from visiting the isle centuries ago. ‘Yes, Linzrom. I would go myself but it is more important that I resume my gathering. I will reactivate the portals so that they may reach the isle. I want them to investigate the entire isle, along with the spell site, and report back immediately if they find anything out of the ordinary. I cannot shake this feeling the dream left within the pit of my stomach….I fear we may have even less time than we hope.’ Shaking, the guard captain nodded his assent. ‘It will be done, my lady.’ ‘Thank you, old friend. Please leave me now, as I would like a few moments to myself before I depart.’ Linzrom bowed gracefully and exited the chamber. Zhah stepped out onto the balcony, bracing herself against the railing. Her gaze travelled over the buildings of the Royal City, and she smiled at the breathtaking beauty of her city at night. Her gaze met the horizon, and the smile slowly faded from her face. Glancing in the direction of Athenaeum Isle, the dread that had been plaguing her since she awoke flared up once again. ‘I will not let this city fall to you, daemon. This time, I will defeat you.’ Taking a deep breath, the gargoyle queen launched herself into the sky and flew off into the night, her destination known only to her.