Twilight of the Empire (Ertera: Book 2)

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The short...
Michelle is an enigmatic and elusive indie author. Emerging from her author cave to gather resources...coffee and dark chocolate. Over decades she has mastered the coveted skill of Bodacious Awesomeness. Her books bear testament to this rare feat.

...and the long of it.
Michelle Emberstar Meraki (1367 L.H.) was the most skilled path creator to new worlds in all Jérin. Her many research expeditions contributed valuable information to the academic societies of Argara. She explored many realms with her inventions and each quest was successful; until she forged the mirror-ring. The mirror-ring was Michelle’s grandest invention; it opened a portal to a planet in a distant galaxy. Overcome with wanderlust Michelle ventured through the portal but in her eagerness, she forgot to secure her way back home. Her nemesis, Xelara Nephane, snuck into Michelle’s workshop, overpowered her beloved, Balthazar, and destroyed the star shards that stabilised the portal. Michelle realised her error too late and found herself stranded on the foreign planet called Earth. Yet fortune favoured her and kind, loving people took her in. They cared for her as their own and Michelle became part of their family. Since people thought her insane for telling her stories Michelle’s family encouraged her to write them in books. Some might call Michelle’s books fantasy novels but writing is the only way she kindles hope to return to her beloved Balthazar and Jérin.

For more information or to subscribe to Michelle's Fantasy Rebels Mailing List visit: www.michellemeraki.com


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The Empire’s future dangles in the talons of a deadly dragon…

Dangling from a drake’s talons, Megara is convinced that her only chance of survival is to escape her captor. However, her abduction soon appears to be a blessing in disguise as she learns more of her late mother’s secrets.

Lira’s return to the mysterious Rorrel Mau, leads to her discovering powerful abilities. She must master her powers before someone gains control of her and wields her like a weapon.

Cassius’ world of secrecy is shaken once more when the truth about Nibu’s Wall surfaces revealing a traitor in the Empire. A traitor linked to Megara’s abduction.

Can Cassius find Megara and the traitor before more damage is done?

Twilight of the Empire is the second book in the fast-paced Epic Fantasy Adventure series Ertera. If you like well-written plot twists that keep you on the edge of your seat, colourful characters, and magic you’ll love Twilight of the Empire.

Buy Twilight of the Empire to unmask the Traitor today!


‘Chapter 1’

 

THE THUNDERING OF CANNONS SURPRISED Emperor Cassius as he rushed to the Spire. “Captain Bren, send men to the fairgrounds. Ensure the safety of my daughters and report back on why they fired the cannons,” Cassius demanded and then turned to the flight of stairs that led up the Spire. Captain Bren barked orders to his men whilst the Emperor was still within earshot. Cassius made his way up the stairs with a sinking feeling in his stomach. “What was the real reason for the alarm if not the escape of the witch?” he muttered to himself as he made slow progress. Indistinct voices arguing in the corridor below interrupted his muttering. Yet Cassius continued his ascent in silent determination. He had to secure the Spire at all costs, it was his duty and priority. Nothing else compared to the importance of this one task. The end was almost in sight as the light from the Spire windows brightened the stairway. As he approached the entrance, he heard someone rummaging through drawers. He knew one day someone would come looking for the sacred knowledge his wife had guarded. Automatically his hand retrieved the compact crossbow from its usual hiding place and kept it at the ready. Attentive to the intruder’s sounds, he could guess where the trespasser was in the chamber. As Cassius prepared to launch himself into the Spire, a hand pushed him back against the wall and a rush of air blew past him. He heard a sound like lightning and peered around the corner to see Vredin facing Vadara. Bright green fire smouldered in her side and a look of shock registered on her face. She hissed something in an unknown language as black smoke swirled about her. Then with a blood-chilling screech, she disappeared. Astonished, Cassius stared at the space she had occupied.

“Please accept my apology for pushing you,” Vredin said as he turned to face the Emperor.

“No need to apologise old friend. I fear my crossbow would have been useless against her.” Cassius confessed as he returned the small weapon to its holster. “Thank you Vredin”. Silence filled the room as Cassius composed himself. Vredin cleared his throat, but before he could say anything, Cassius spoke up. “How did you know she was here?”

“I arrived at the stairway the same time Captain Luen delivered his report. I was persuading your guards to let me deliver urgent news. When I heard Vadara had escaped, I realised that you would be in danger.”

“What urgent news do you bring?” Cassius wondered with sudden alarm. Vredin had no time to lose though he did not relish giving Cassius the terrifying news.

“They took Megara,” he said unable to hide his own anxiety. The Emperor grew ashen, but then an angry scowl darkened his noble face.

“Who are they? Vredin, I need answers! Where have they taken her? Why her?”

“We will find her. We will find them and bring them to justice. What we know is that our enemy lies north of Nibu’s Wall. Our enemy can control dragons and is a black stone caster. Thanks to Captain Luen’s report, we also know the black stones were with Vadara in her cell. We know Vadara was not working alone. Her escape was the reason for the alarm, but the alarm in response to the drakes drowned out the first alarm. This was a meticulous, coordinated attack. If we can determine what she took, we might have more to work with.” Voicing his thoughts and listing the facts calmed him. Cassius nodded his head in agreement.

“Once I have determined what is missing, I will inform you. First I need to have Megara’s safety ensured. Vredin, I need you to take a squadron of my best men and find her.”

“A squadron? Would that not draw attention?”

“She is all I have left!” Cassius vented.

“You know we will use our abilities to find her, but we need to limit the risk of being seen by mortals when we do. You know our laws,” Vredin explained his concern.

“I understand, sorry Vredin. But I must do something if I sit back and do nothing the people will be convinced that I am heartless. They already think I killed Mereva.” Cassius trembled with pent-up emotion. Vredin rested his hand on his shoulder.

“Give them a good reason to believe that finding her must be kept secret, then send a squad of your best men with Roarian,” he suggested.

“An excellent suggestion. Will you not go with them?”

“I have another duty that is of paramount importance,” Vredin replied.

“More important than Megara?”

“Do not question my love for her, she is as a sister to me. But in the scales, her life does not outweigh the lives of the entire mortal race.” Vredin’s voice grew ominous and Cassius’s eyes widened in apprehension.

“Can you tell me what exactly you are going to do? What could possibly annihilate an entire race?”

“Unfortunately, I am sworn to secrecy. Trust me, if there was another way I would take it. I have abandoned her once before because of duty, now it seems I have to do so again. The joys of being Alther to the King.”

“If the mortal race is at risk, then this kidnapping could be a diversionary attack. Campwall reports state that the north-face has been breached. Even Allistra have received alarming reports. It seems we are on the brink of war with an unknown foe.” Vredin nodded his agreement and turned to leave. “Wait, I will go down with you. I must meet with my family and the generals. We must prepare for war.” Cassius declared his voice like steel.

***

“Faro, get to the tower in Bijor Pass and summon your spies. Find her and keep track of their location. Keep me informed,” Roarian ordered. The two friends exchanged a meaningful glance. Faro placed his hand on Roarian’s shoulder as he saluted. In a heartbeat, he was astride his riverhorse galloping north. Roarian turned to the Stormstride brothers. They had just loaded the last of their gear on the riverhorses and started up the road heading towards the Eastern Trail that led into the mountains.

“We need to tend to the captured drakes before more people get hurt,” Hayden insisted. They had restrained three of the six drakes. Two of them slain by cannon fire and the elusive sixth was already out of sight, far to the north. Roarian agreed and sent a telepathic message to update Vredin.

“Vredin, Faro has gone to Bijor Pass and will keep track of Megara. We are heading to the showground to deal with the restrained drakes. Join us as soon as you can.” Roarian faced his friends with evident concern. “How do you suggest we deal with the drakes? It is most unusual that a cannon ball could kill a drake so perhaps the one at the tree line is just stunned and not dead. If that is the case, we might need to restrain it before it wakes.” He spoke in their native language, cautious to prevent eavesdropping. Medical teams passed them on the harbour road that led to the fairgrounds.

“Let’s get to the drakes and see what we can do with what we have.” Koden always wanted to act rather than plan, which was possibly the biggest difference between him and Hayden.

“Koden is right. We don’t have time to waste,” Hayden stated to their surprise. “There is no sense in putting a plan together when we have so many variables. We could cloak the entire scene whilst we deal with the drakes. I hope you are intending to return them to their original dragon state. Although I don’t think we can do much for the one Megara shot…” Hayden trailed off aware of Roarian’s tense bearing.

“What did she do to it?” Koden wondered as they reached the top of the hill that flanked the western part of the fairgrounds. From there they could see all the carnage the drake attack had caused: the tree line with the field cannons and fallen soldiers, the wrecked marketplace and the bloodied clearing where the solid crystal drake stood.

“I’ve never seen that done before. If she trapped it in crystal I would’ve understood, but to transform it entirely seems too powerful an incantation for her to know. The incantation seems darker in purpose than that of our powers.” Roarian confessed with concern etched in every word. A soft muzzle and hot breath against his hand drew his attention. The black stallion Megara rode stood next to him. A brief smile crossed his lips as he stroked the horse. “Fearless one, aren’t you?” he whispered.

***

Pale desert sand reflected the bright afternoon rays, setting the city of Muhar aglitter. In this light, it lived up to its epithet, Jewel of Tagor. Queen Toryza stood on the balcony of her private chambers in the north-western tower of the palace. She had her gaze set on the mountain range of Tyreek that formed the northern border of her kingdom. A sudden gust blew into the chamber, followed by a gut-wrenching sound, a loud thud, and a faint moan. Toryza rushed inside to find her daughter, Vadara, sprawled on the floor.

“Dear child!” she exclaimed as she turned the injured Vadara face up and saw a thick black liquid ooze from her fragile naris. “You must have angered him. What happened in Ertera? Was your mission successful?” Toryza pressed. Yet Vadara could not utter a response and her eyes slid shut as she lay, exhausted in her mother’s arms. Toryza sighed in frustration as she called her servant girls to tend to Vadara. She removed Vadara’s black crystal necklace, got to her feet and made her way to her jewellery room. Toryza placed the necklace in her vault. She donned her own extravagant black crystal headdress. Strands of crystal draped down onto her shoulders. The Queen of Tagor made her way to her private shrine.

Toryza rubbed a polished obsidian disc, the sole object in the shrine. She murmured words in a dark language. The sounds seemed to stick in the back of her throat before she spat them out in a frustrated hiss. Her words set sparks arcing from the crystals of her headdress into the obsidian disc. The obsidian disc reverberated filling the shrine with a deep yet eerie tone. Billows of thick smoke rolled out from the dark stone.

“You dare disturb me!” a voice hissed as a shadow loomed out of the obsidian disc. Toryza did not fear the Shadow as much as he wanted her to. She knew he was vulnerable and that she could end his existence if she so wished it.

“Calm yourself. I’m merely requesting an update on matters. Had you not debilitated my daughter I could have asked her,” Toryza retorted. The Shadow seemed amused by her words and an eerie laugh effused from the smoke.

“Darling dark Queen of my heart. Your wench failed in every manner conceivable! She got herself imprisoned and lost control of the Duriard Prince. Yet the assassin has proven worth more than his weight in Drin,” the Shadow hissed. Toryza paced the shrine as she thought of the implications of Vadara’s failure. “Stop!” the Shadow bellowed in flaring outrage. Toryza froze in place. She wondered how she had transgressed this time then recalled his earlier request.

“I’m sorry that my pacing makes you miss your physical form,” she said with feigned sincerity. A sly smile crossed her face as she pulled her dress up off the floor and jumped up and down like a lunatic. She twirled around and her demented laughter echoed through the chamber as the Shadow raged at her with gusts of wind and clouds of smoke. Toryza settled down catching her breath again between stray giggles.

“You are a mean hearted Rog, maybe that is why we get along so well. Once I have my body, I might consider not killing you,” the Shadow confessed.

“Aw, thank you. Now don’t lead me to believe there is kindness in you, it might dissuade me from helping you,” she teased. “If Vadara has failed, then what benefit is there in keeping the Princess?” She pressed, sensing he was keeping things from her; things that might jeopardise her own plans.

“Misdirection. Diversion. A beautiful distraction. While Ertera looks for her, they will miss our true triumph. So regardless of her failure, our goals still advance. We need to find another angle to complete their isolation. Arov will ensure Duria’s animosity. Our allies will keep the elves so busy they will not come to Ertera’s aid, not until it is too late that is.” The smoke swirled in response to the dark spectre’s delight.

“Perfect but what of Argara? How will we keep the immortals from interfering?” Toryza was uncertain when matters involved the immortals. The Argarians were too mysterious for her to analyse them and their weaknesses. For this reason, she had no way to turn them from their alliance with the Empire.

“Don’t fret about it, darling. I am already working on a plan which I will share with you when I am ready. Now, I must rest. Teleporting your offspring has taken its toll.” The smoke swirled and the obsidian disc grew dim.

Toryza smiled at the prospect of their success and even more at the thought of her own plans succeeding. She strolled back to her jewellery room and removed the headdress locking it away in the airtight vault, along with all the other black crystal objects she owned. The Shadow was fickle, and she had no desire to become one of his puppets. She made her way to Vadara’s bedside. Toryza knew she was a terrible mother; she suffered no delusions in that regard. However, of late she discovered a tender-hearted fondness for Vadara lurking in her heart. It was strange how she had despised the girl for most of her life yet it was not the child’s fault. No one chooses how they enter the world, only how to walk upon it. Vadara came from great violence and sorrow yet she had always tried to bring Toryza joy. Toryza smiled at memories of her daughter and it somehow steeled her resolve. She will exact her revenge and ensure a glorious future for them both. Vadara’s eyes fluttered open as if she woke from a nightmare. “You’re all right. You’re safe,” Toryza soothed.

“You’re here,” Vadara whispered surprised. “I didn’t get the scroll’s location, mother, but I got something else.” Vadara spoke with difficulty, her breathing strained. Toryza noticed the blood-stained bandages around Vadara’s abdomen. “I know how to break their Wall and something about the Shadow…” Vadara passed out once more, leaving Toryza with newfound hope. She smiled at the fortunate turn of events. Vadara had found valuable information which the Shadow was unaware of. This information could change everything, to her advantage. Toryza wondered what Vadara had learnt of the Shadow, but let her rest.

***

Air rushed past her face as the great beast flew towards the grand cascading waterfall. A wave of nausea washed over Megara as she dangled in the razor-sharp talons of the dragon. The Amuric Falls drew near and the fine mist moistened her skin. Suddenly the talons gave way, and she was falling. Megara screamed in horror as the deep blue waters of Lake Emuri rushed closer. Her heart froze as she tumbled through the air unable to breathe. A sharp snap ripped through the air as a leather strap wrapped around her waist ending her fall. Megara felt herself being hoisted onto the creature as it flew towards the shoreline. Their landing was sudden and almost sent Megara flying. The black clad rider pulled her off of the beast, but her legs refused to co-operate. She collapsed to the ground still struggling to breathe. The tall figure loomed over her, studying her. “Just take long deep breaths before you kill yourself,” he growled. Megara tried to control her breathing.

“What’s it to you if I live or die?” She managed out of breath. The masked figure turned to face her. Small lines appeared around his pale blue eyes. Is he smiling? Megara wondered.

“Where’s the fun in dropping you in the lake? If I wanted to kill you, I would find a better way. My beasty was just getting tired. Odd, you don’t look that heavy. Seems you had too much birthday cake!” Megara’s expression must have said more than she ever could because he cried with laughter. “If you behave yourself, Princess, I might let you ride in the saddle next time. Unless your royal preference is talon transport?” The man was still laughing as he walked to the lake side to fill his water canister.

Megara caught her breath. She unwrapped the leather strap which she discovered was a whip. Her heart was pounding in her throat, drowning out all the other sounds around her. She observed her captor. He had pulled his mask down and leisurely sipped water as he looked out over the lake. The winged terror had disappeared and Megara rapidly formed a plan. She forced herself to take deep breaths her heartbeat slowed in response. She got to her feet without a sound and made her way across the pebble beach to the forest edge. To her knowledge, there was a mountain pass close by if the maps in Ilialoe she had studied were correct. She kept glancing over her shoulder to check on the dark figure. Still at the lake shore. Megara added speed to her actions as she weaved her way through the shrubs at the forest edge.

A crackling like lightning pealed through the hushed afternoon followed by a sharp sting to her abdomen and rapid tightening as the leather whip wrapped around her. She bit her lower lip to keep from screaming at the pain that shot through her body. “Tsk-tsk, Princess. I thought after your near-death experience you would be more cooperative. Perhaps more inclined to ride in the saddle rather than the talons.” Megara strained against the whip hoping to, somehow, unravel from the restraint. Her captor yanked the whip causing her to fall to the ground. Over twigs and branches, scraping the skin off her arms and legs, he pulled her towards him until he loomed over her. “How very unfortunate that you didn’t consider my offer.” He shook his head in disdain and tied her hands and feet before he summoned the drake to his side. The beast still seemed listless and exhausted. Megara studied the man as he secured her wrists and ankles. She noticed a ring bearing a foreign crest.

Vredin mentioned a ring when he shared what he learned from Major Marick’s memories. Perhaps he is the Major’s attacker, and the one who murdered the apothecary and the Corporal. Megara thought and it made her shudder. She studied the vile winged creature and its master.

“Are you still tired?” He asked as he looked up at the creature. The creature seemed to mewl as it inclined its head toward him. The man sighed then stroked the rough skin. “Well, beasty, you rest some more. I’ll take care of this broad before she runs off again.”

The way he spoke of her appalled her but before she could object he turned to face her. A strange pain on the side of her head followed his menacing grin. Then light and colour slipped from her vision and a soothing black overwhelmed her.

***

Emperor Cassius was concluding his meeting with his family and the generals. “News of the abduction would send a message that we are powerless. At all costs, we must not allow our people to conform to this idea. As a united people, we are powerful and we will show our enemies they started a fight they cannot win!” Cassius bellowed. Cheers of agreement rose from those assembled. Cassius summoned Captain Luen and charged him with leading a group to find the Princess. Luen and his men were to join the Argarian Prince, and their quest was to remain a secret. Once the meeting adjourned Vredin approached Captain Luen with a note.

“Captain, I need you to deliver this note to Crown Prince Roarian. He is expecting me at the showgrounds, but this note will explain my absence.” Luen nodded his comprehension.

“Is this a discreet matter?” Luen asked. Vredin nodded, and the Captain comprehended the hushed manner of the Argarian lord. Luen took the note as he shook Vredin’s hand. “I will do as you ask, only remember me and this which I am doing for you in trust.” Vredin nodded his understanding and agreement then left the gathering hall.

Vredin walked through the main hall towards the less frequented courtyard. His intended heading the rotunda of seven doors. He did not know what Vadara had found in the Spire. If she had discovered the secret location of the Yresa scroll, he had a specific protocol to follow. One decreed by King Roanan Triphire of Argara. Vredin needed to find the Witness, Aryn, to unlock the Keeper of the scroll. Aryn dwelt at Milas, Temple of the Satari. Vredin had reached the centre of the courtyard when he heard hurried footsteps behind him. He turned to see King Bryce of Tana making his way toward him. “Lord Vredin, we must speak.” King Bryce said as he pulled back his sleeve to reveal a tattoo on his inner-forearm. Vredin recognised the mark. “Satari,” Bryce confirmed. “I need to get to the Temple. They are our only aid in this matter,” Bryce explained.

“I myself need to take council with them. There is a way we can get there by dusk. Follow me,” Vredin spoke in hushed tones. They rushed along keeping to the shadows until they entered the seven-door rotunda. Vredin went to the first door on the right, and they disappeared down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs, they passed through a door and stepped out on a suspended balcony. The balcony ran along the circumference of the secret garden, out of sight at a level below it. Four great marble statues of ari were the sole objects on this level. Each statue faced a different direction. Vredin made his way to the one facing west. Bryce followed. Vredin placed one hand on the chest of the statue, the other on his omis. At first he hummed, then he sang words too beautiful to utter. Bryce had never heard such emotion in the voice of any living being. Golden light gleamed in every line of the statue. Then the light burst through the marble with a rush of air that blew their hair back. Vredin fell silent and a deep rumbling shook the balcony. The statue moved and scales of marble fell from the creature with every motion.

“Alther Vredin,” a deep voice rolled. Bryce stood in awe as he saw the ari come awake.

“Aberon,” Vredin greeted the majestic beast. “We need to reach Milas before nightfall. Would you be able to carry both of us or must I wake your brother?”

“We can reach the Temple before day end Alther. However, it would be faster if we woke Theor,” the ari agreed. Bryce watched the spectacular display of Theor’s awakening. Within moments the small convoy took wing toward Milas Temple that lay west in the realm of Tana.

***

“They’re all dead,” Hayden reported out of breath as he re-joined Koden and Roarian.

“What do you mean they are all dead?” Koden demanded in confusion. Hayden made a gesture showing he was as baffled by the discovery as they were.

“What I can tell you is that these creatures seem to be imitation dragons. They do not have the robustness normal dragons do. For instance, normal steel blades penetrate their hide. I don’t know what they are, but they are not dragons.” Hayden shook his head in disbelief but more so in perplexity. Koden studied the carcasses hoping to see some hidden clue. Perhaps they had missed something that would explain the whole enigma.

“Do you think someone could conjure up these creatures with the black stones?” Roarian asked in their native language. His mind was racing at the implications if this were the case. Hayden shook his head not daring to venture a guess.

“Prince Roarian,” a clear voice drew their attention. “Emperor Cassius has sent us to go with you on your quest. Captain Luen at your service,” Luen saluted in a militant fashion.

“Well received Captain. Are these all the men you have selected? If they are ready, we can leave this instant.” With a slight nod, Captain Luen answered his question, and the Argarians mounted their steeds in unison.

“Lord Vredin asked me to deliver this note,” Luen said in a hushed manner as he steered his horse next to Roarian. A quick glance over the parchment informed Roarian that Vredin was on a quest of his own. Although the note was brief Vredin mentioned Yresa, the sacred scroll.

“Thank you, Captain.” Roarian steered his horse to the Eastern Trail and set a pace for the group to follow. To his amazement the black stallion followed, running alongside Roarian’s riverhorse.


 

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