When the World Falls to Darkness

A kingdom at war, a web of truth and lies, a vicious game of friendship and betrayal, and a world that will kill you, whatever path you take.
When the World Falls to Darkness, nobody is safe.
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Beautiful cover by River_Summers.

(I also promise much more frequent updates starting July, when exams are over. :D)

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1. Traveller

The snow was a deceptive thing, really.

It dusted the landscape with a sugary coating of beauty that had at first seemed entirely enchanting - until he'd been forced to battle through it, each step an impossible assault upon the ocean of white. Then there was the matter of the cold, and the cold was a monster. No matter how closely he pulled the sodden furs around his trembling body, it would still slash at him, wearing him down with fangs of frost and ice and attacking ferociously with daggers of frozen wind.

He stumbled.

For a moment, Lukas simply remained there, sprawled out in the snow, chest heaving beneath the cloak of fur. He should stand. He should continue in this endless war against everything else. After all, he was close to the village - and they'd have food, and drink, and a warm bed...

Somehow, he struggled to his feet, pushing himself up with numbed fingers. Warmth. He tried to remind himself once of its replenishing sensation, whispering its name against the howling of the wind. One night of warmth, and then it was back to this again. One night was enough. It had to be, after all, because that was the whole reason why he was alive. Should he remain in a single place for too long, then somebody would find out who he was. And then they would kill him.

Besides, he should be grateful. Only raiding parties and soldiers of the war could cross safely between all four kingdoms and return to their own with their body parts intact and wallets full enough for survival. If they were lucky.

Those people - and Lukas.

Staggering blindly onwards, he watched his breath as it faded into the night, a curling wisp of steam that had been quenched by the cold. Any distraction. Anything to rescue even a little of his conscience from the knowledge that the village might be anywhere, and that if he didn't find it soon, he'd have to revert to that. Which, all consequences considered, made a frozen death seem merciful.

Another of the violent shudders rippled through him. Lukas tried to ignore it, inhaling another deep breath of bitter air before pushing on again.

Was it really that much to ask for a single night of warmth? Safety would be too much to ask for, though perhaps if the scales of fortune finally decided to tip even a little in his favour, he would find a haven in which his sleep would not be brimming with nightmares woven from the cold reality of his past. The haven would be beautiful, glorious, everything he had ever possessed and everything he had ever lost.

For now, warmth. The only feeling he had left was the weight of dread and bitterness and desperation.

Lukas raised his head, and saw them instantly. Lights.

Illustrious, glorious, celestial lights.

Instantly the slope of the icy mountain seemed insignificant, and the only thoughts that filled his head were of a fire, food and a bed. The cold had been rendered a secondary obstacle; the exhaustion was snatched by alleviation.

He finally set foot in the village and realised that the snow was shallower here - shallow enough that he could still see the frost-tipped fur of his boots. The half-submerged dwarven buildings, so far untouched by the constant battles between armies, managed to block at least some of the wind, and he stood there for a moment, allowing himself a moment of rejuvenation.

Lukas made his way through the streets, glancing at the buildings in hopes of spotting a convenient inn somewhere amongst the other buildings. Once or twice, he considered stopping one of the dwarves to ask them for directions, but quickly ruled out that idea. The less he spoke, the higher his chances, no matter how numb his fingers were.

It had been a while since he'd been around this race. His last kingdom had been that of the humans, and Lukas found himself comparing the buildings as he dragged his frozen body through the streets. Humans resided in structures that were usually above ground, while the dwarves were happier either on ground level or below it. Their shelters were built into the earth, submerging only as rounded domes of earth, constructed in messy lines to form streets. Lukas liked both, but right now the small, cosy dwarven rooms seemed preferable to the spacious rooms of a human residence. The dwarven rooms, would be warmer, after all.

Spotting the inn before him, Lukas allowed the hint of a smile to touch the corners of his lips, half-stumbling into the entrance as he pushed open the door. Immediately a wave of noise struck him, and it took him a moment to realise it was voices. Apparently, this inn served also as a tavern: a fact evident by the surplus of drunk, jesting dwarves clustered around small wooden tables, none of whom paid him much attention.

Ignoring their raucous hollering, he forced his way through to the woman at the bar, and she welcomed him with a broad, friendly smile. She looked - as did most female dwarves - almost alike her male kin, minus the beard and with longer hair. For a woman to be broad shouldered and boisterous was common among dwarves.

"You look cold, traveller!" she observed heartily in a voice that was almost deep enough to be male, and Lukas nodded, forcing his own smile to extend. The dwarves were a merry kind - so very different to him.

"Indeed I am," he replied through chattering teeth, slipping his hand into his money pouch. His fingers fought to retrieve any coins. "How much for the night?"

She laughed heartily. "Straight to the point, I see. A silver coin, two if you want a meal now and in the morning."

Lukas made himself sustain the smile, and nodded. "A warm meal?"

"What else?" she chuckled as Lukas handed over two silver coins in agreement. "Room three," she told him warmly, pressing the heavy iron key into his hand.

"Thank you," Lukas nodded with appreciation, quickly ordering his meal and taking a seat in the corner of the tavern. Solitude suited him best. Sometimes, he wondered if he should evade the dwarf kingdom entirely. They were nothing like him: they laughed; they spoke; they were social, jovial and completely different to Lukas. The shadows were his sanctuary; the silence was his symphony. And besides, the dwarves could be greedy. They had joined the humans in their war so quickly it was almost unbelievable.

The meal was delivered, and the scent of the meat and mead filled his nose with its sweet aroma. He ate in blissful silence, speaking not once to those on the table adjacent to his own as he savoured each bite. 

As quickly as he could, Lukas finished the meal. Swallowing the final gulp of mead, he rose, leaving the plate and tankard in the centre of the table.

"The meal was delicious," he praised the woman as he left the tavern, to which she nodded her head in thanks before rushing off to serve one of the louder dwarves.

Lukas headed down the stairs, admiring briefly the masonry of the dwarves. The other races' abilities could never compare to the skill of the dwarves when dealing with the underground.

He unlocked the door of the second room on the right, arriving in a small and humble chamber with a comfortable bed in the corner. Closing the door, Lukas swung his pack down onto the floor beside him, shedding the snow-soaked furs before collapsing onto the bed, leaving them in a crumpled pile on the floor. Sinking into the mattress of the bed, Lukas felt his eyes closing to the world around him. Darkness swallowed him.

 

 

Lukas was woken from the claws of his nightmare by the loud, insistent smashing of a fist against his door. Gasping in a breath, he stumbled from the bed, calling a somewhat listless, "coming!" to the dwarf behind his door before proceeding to tug the furs back over his body, shoving his feet into his boots and slinging the pack over his shoulder.

The dwarf woman was behind the door, her eyes sparkling with a strange concoction of amusement and irritation.

"You overslept," she stated. "It's mid-morning already!"

Lukas managed to force a smile onto his face, clapping the woman on the back in the fashion common to this race, and laughed.

"Must be the brilliant food," he jested playfully, and the woman sighed. The flattered crimson flush of her cheeks did not go unnoticed by Lukas as he followed her up the stairs and back into the tavern.

She set to work preparing his breakfast, leaving him to sit in the corner to consult his map.

A few minutes later she walked over with two plates piled high with meat, egg and bread, setting them on the table before returning with two tankards of mead. Apparently she was going to eat with him. Such a shame he wasn't in the human kingdom - the arrogant fools were so accustomed to cursing at each other that he could send the woman away with a shake of the head and still be considered polite. But here, company was greeted with pleasure. Unfortunately, there were few exceptions.

"Where you heading to, traveller?" she queried. Lukas shrugged dismissively.

"Anywhere and everywhere that I take a liking to." He managed a grin, downing half the mead and taking a bite of the first chunk of meat. The venison had been cooked well; it warmed his chest as he swallowed.

"That so? What've you seen?" she asked. Her eyes were wide with curiosity - a trait most common to humans, or so Lukas had found.

"Many things," he replied, realising she expected more. "The tallest mountains in the realm, the biggest cities... Been in a fair few caves, actually, so huge you could fit a dragon inside!"

"Then what brings you here?"

Conversation was not a strong point. Every phrase could reveal a secret; each word could force his identity from the shadows in which it was cowering.

"Everything. The valley, the friendly people... Sometimes it's a nice change to visit a village," he replied, swallowing down the bread and some more of the meat. She nodded thoughtfully, reaching for the mead with an arm of rippling muscles.

"Well, I must admit I don't like cities... But it would be even worse in the kingdom of men! Imagine having windows! Being able to see outside when you're in your own room..." she wrinkled her nose in distaste, and Lukas silently kept back his argument that actually, he rather liked windows. But he kept quiet, choosing instead to wolf down the final chunk of meat.

"Thank you for the meal," he said, bowing his head. "But I'll have to be going now. More places to travel."

She nodded, standing and leaving her meal on the table to bid him farewell.

"Must be lonely," she shrugged, and he gave a false smile.

You have no idea, he wanted to tell her.

"Not really," he said.

Lukas thanked her a final time and turned to leave. The pack on his shoulder was a familiar weight: an unwanted, heavy burden that served as a constant reminder of his need to travel everywhere. Never staying in one place. Never settling.

Weaving through the streets, Lukas headed through the village, wondering how many days it would take for him to reach the next town; the next warm bed. He reached the rear gate of the curtain wall, nodding farewell to the dwarf at the gate.

"Might not want to go that way," the guard commented, glancing at the towering pass that stretched on before Lukas. "You realise that leads you to the elven realm, don't you?"

"I know another path that leads you deeper into the dwarf realm," Lukas replied, and the man grinned.

"Be careful, lad," he called after him. Lukas smiled and nodded, but as soon as he turned back to the path again, the false joy was replaced with a sorrowful loneliness. Moving on again already. No place to stay and no place to rest safely.

Lukas didn't look back. He never did.

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