Free {Kingdoms of War}

An outlaw, tuned to kill. A shifter, transformed from myth to monster. A prince, denied rightful claim to the throne. An assassin, adapted to survive and to kill. Four monsters, and a common enemy to unite them.


2. Chapter One

Axel watched them lazily from his perch on the rooftop. He didn't understand humans, with their excessively boring lives. How could anybody be content to repeat the same process, day after day? How could they call that living?

He supposed they were interesting creatures: intelligent and yet so very foolish, hideously ugly but with such beautiful eyes, cattle that declared themselves free. And they were oblivious, too - so, so oblivious. Axel sometimes wondered what it would be like to be that clueless. Was it wonderful? Dull? Did it make life easier to bear? They didn't see that their lives were, ultimately, pointless - mere cycles of endless repetition. Everything the fools did, they did again and again. Each day, they would repeat the events of the last, with little differentiation. Why live like that? Was there some goal implanted within their strange little minds, that made them aim to endure it? To simply act as the pawns of their ruler? Axel would never see that life as one worth enduring. Why should he abide by the rules of normality, like the flock of sheep that was humanity?

Of course, they weren't living with the threat of torture hanging over their heads from all directions like he was, but that was a minor detail. Shouldn't you strive to live rather than simply survive? So therefore, shouldn't you do what you so desired, even if it meant that mocking death was a frequent action?

A drop of rain hit the roof beside him, and Axel glanced up. The sky was grey, and the darkening clouds were managing to swallow up the remnants of sunlight. It was probably time to go, Axel decided, standing and casting one last look at the humans milling about the streets below him. And then he was gone, melting soundlessly into the shadow beneath his feet. 

Instantly, a wave of cold washed over him. It wasn't the biting cold of a sadistic blizzard - more like the cool, refreshing sensation provided by a breeze. Before him, there was only inky darkness. That was another thing with humans: they feared the dark because something could be hiding within it. Axel loved it for the very same reason. Life was more beautiful when it was bursting with the unknown. The dark was not something to be feared. It was to be cherished and loved.

Besides, it didn't matter that Axel couldn't see through the dark. He knew where he was going, could sense it in his mind.

Shadow-voyage was like sailing through a river: it was simple if you knew the current, allowed it to take you. But for somebody who didn't know, it became impossible, like trying to fight against the current. Only with shadow-voyage, it wasn't simply a matter of going with the current. You had to create a current, and control it, else you would be lost within the darkness for the rest of time.

Or at least, he thought so. It was probably true, but you could never know with magic such as this. He remembered once, when Skala had first tried using the shadow-voyage. She had almost become lost - she'd simply been floating endlessly through the darkness, wild-eyed and terrified. Of course, that had been her first attempt, and she had mastered using it quickly. Now, she loved it as much as he did.

Axel allowed himself to sink, his body becoming heavy once more. A few times, he'd wondered just how much faster it was to travel through shadows, but later, he and Skala had simply decided that it was good enough to know that they could reach somewhere in a matter of minutes - somewhere that would take Skala hours to fly to, let alone walking.

His feet touched down onto solid ground, and suddenly the world was no longer pleasantly chilling, but warm. Orange fingers of fading sunlight brushed gently against his pale skin, and Axel paused for a moment to absorb the light.

"Have you found something interesting to steal?" Skala asked from behind him. Turning, the boy gave a knowing smile.

"Of course," he replied. "Probably our most dangerous outing for a few months. A baron's prized jewel, an ancient family heirloom."

As he spoke, Axel noted the particular beauty with which the sun reflected from the stream that ran through the emerald glade in which the two of them resided. It seemed to transform the water into a ribbon of fiery reds and oranges and golds. Axel had always liked fire: the way it danced, twisted, whirled in a glorious vortex of unpredictable power. Above all, after all, fire was free.

"When do we leave?" Skala's eyes were gleaming eagerly. She loved the danger as much as he did. Without the thrill of it, the two of them would never have been able to occupy themselves. It was their passion, their reason, the very meaning to their existence.

Besides, without danger, they could never make a mark upon Haven.

"Two hours after dark," Axel told her. "Sound good?"

"Sounds good," Skala confirmed, a grin touching her lips. In her 'human' form, she was strangely alike him: pale, corpse-like skin, hair blacker than a raven's wing, storms of the purest silver dancing within her eyes. To say the least, neither looked like the normal humans that milled about like sheep, simply allowing their superiors to order them into their completely mundane lives.

"In that case," Axel grinned, "I'm going to find something we can carry the jewel back in."



When they left the glade, the stream was no longer a ribbon of flame, but a ribbon of silver. It wasn't quite so intense as their eyes, Axel noted, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Behind the trees that surrounded the clearing, there was an almost invitingly murky darkness, but there were far better shadows to be lurking within.

Axel slipped into the dark of the night, feeling himself glide gently into the blackness of shadow-voyage. As soon as he entered, the comforting coolness returned, and his body once more became almost weightless. Skala melted into the dark beside him. He couldn't see her, but that didn't matter. He could sense her presence through the power she used to control the ocean of shadow, and that was enough for them both.

He set off, with Skala trailing a few steps behind. Together, they moved forwards with perfect control. No longer was his friend a creature of the light: she had committed herself to the power of the shadows long ago. Now, Skala was faultless in her control over shadows.

"What sort of a jewel is it?" she asked from behind him. Her quiet voice echoed, obscurely distorted in this realm of black, but the sound was strangely soothing.

"A soulstone," Axel said, a smirk touching the corners of his lips. A thrilled gasp escaped the lips of the shifter. Soulstones were incredibly rare, and to steal one from a baron would be suicidal - for a normal person. For them, it was another challenge, another beautiful taunt for death.

"You never told me we'd be getting into that much trouble," she exclaimed, and her somehow melodic laughter rolled through both Axel's ears and the darkness.

"I decided to leave it as a surprise," Axel said in return. He paused. "We're here. Let's go."

They emerged from the dark to stand before the drawbridge of the baron's castle.

The stone building towered above them, cast into darkness and unlit but for a few fire torches held aloft by patrolling guards who gazed downwards, their eyes perfectly trained to spot intruders. By now, one of them would have noticed them, but they were meagre humans. Against monsters, they stood no chance.

Axel walked up to the drawbridge, setting his feet upon the rough wooden surface.

"State your business!" demanded the gruff voice of a guard on the other side of the portcullis.

"We're here to steal the soulstone," Axel called back loudly. "So do us a favour and let us through, or we'll have to force our way in."

"You're both fools, if you think you can get past the defences. We'll shoot you down before you can so much as fight back."

"Go on, then," Axel invited him. Already, his heart had begun to pulse more violently within his chest; his mind was completely tuned in for the upcoming fight.

For a long few moments, the guard's face seemed twisted in an expression of shock and confusion. Another amusing aspect of the human nature - they were never prepared for the unexpected. They reacted in such a stupid way.

Finally, the man seemed to regain his composure.

"Archers!" he shouted. Two men stepped forwards with bows, swiftly notching arrows to their bowstrings and drawing back. Axel could see the look of steely determination glinting within their eyes as they aimed through the bars of the portcullis; the grimness within their expressions was easy to detect as they released, sending the arrows towards both he and Skala.

Instantly, a wall of darkness leaped from Axel's shadow, twisting upwards and shielding them both. Just a split second could have been the difference between life and death in Axel's timing. A fraction of a moment late, and they both would have arrows protruding from their chests.

But this was the danger - the sensation for which he lived.

Allowing the shadow wall to sink back into the ground at his feet, Axel grinned devilishly. Behind the portcullis, the guard's faces were painted with fear.

"I thought you said that you were going to shoot us," he laughed, taking a powerful step towards the portcullis. Speech in battle somehow made it feel so very much more real to him. Like talking would bring him more thrill, more exhilaration. "But now, I suppose it's my turn."

Axel raised his palms, and a burning dark energy burst to life within each hand, a vortex of the darkest black. "Farewell," he muttered. And with that, the energy shot forwards, snaking out into long, pointed whips of power.

The moment after, every guard behind the portcullis had a spear of energy tearing a ragged hole through his chest.

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