Once We Were Kings Online - Ian Alexander

FORE WORD

Gathered round the wide and level stump of the Great Ancients' Tree, the Twelve Elders of the Sojourner's Council stood within the stone walls of the courtyard and rejoiced that the fulfillment of Shamis the Stargazer's prophecy was now at hand.

By the alignment of the northern constellations they knew that the time of deliverance drew nigh. By the anomalous tide shifts and the unprecedented lunar phases, they knew that the dark reign of Malakandor would soon come to an end.

What they knew not was that a traitor lurked amongst them.

Oreus, the chief elder stood and raised his chalice. "Brethren, you have honored the name of Valhandra with longsuffering and steadfast hope." He turned to the elder on his right. "Hephesta the Wolf-Hearted, you have endured three wars over the course of five hundred years."

With deep humility, Hephesta arose and inclined his head.

"And Bereus, the Tiger-Hearted." He too arose. "Thy service as the stalwart protector of the royal line beyond three hundred years has not gone unnoticed." This continued until he turned his attention to the final elder. At seventy-nine years of age, she was the youngest, most spry of them all.

"And you, dear youngling—Lucretia, Raven-Heart." At the very mention of her name, the council began to applaud to such effect that a flock of wild night birds flew blackly from tree branches into the deep and purple sky. A fleeing cloud. "Unto thee do we bestow special honor. For fearlessly have you employed the gifts bestowed by Valhandra for a cause predating even your own birth." Once again Oreus regarded the entire council. "Would that we possessed such faith as our beloved sister, when we ourselves were but fledglings."

Completely aware of the effect her beauty had upon all who beheld her, the impostor who had killed the true Lucretia and taken on her likeness now feigned a smile and inclined her head.

"Rejoice brethren, for our redemption is nigh," declared Oreus. "And now, among the faithful, in the villages of Talen Wood, in the great Citadel of Valdshire Tor, yea, verily, in thine own hearts," once again he lifted his chalice and cleared his throat, "Prepare ye the way for the beneficent reign of the Great Deliverer!"

They all responded lifting their chalices. "The Great Deliverer!"

"The Deliverer." The false Lucretia scoffed quietly as she tapped her cup against those of the other council members. She smiled again at the old men as they imbibed of the ceremonial Dragon'sblood Wine. Noble warriors though they were, able-bodied and powerful though they were, she could not help but laugh at the pathetic manner in which they would meet their demise.

First, Hephesta fell. Clutching his throat, his eyes widened with something entirely alien to those who'd known him and certainly to himself:

Fear.

A chorus of confused cries filled the courtyard. All gathered around the fallen Hephesta. The impostor did not join in. Rather, she watched with satisfaction as the pulverized Shikar stone mixed in the wine began to take its toll.

One by one, they fell. Ancient warriors who had arrogantly considered themselves immortal. Just like Hephesta, now writhing, now frothing. A most pleasing sight indeed.

Now, the impostor did not even attempt to restrain her smile.

Having witnessed the violent throes of death and realizing what was happening, three of the surviving Elders—Oreus amongst them—stopped short of drinking the poisoned bloodwine. They saw her laughing and charged forward, swords and crossbows at the ready.

"Lucretia, what have you done?" cried Oreus.

Timena and Cerbeas trained their weapons upon her.

"You have not only betrayed us, but all Sojourners,” said Cerbeas as he drew his crossbow.

"And it is you who have betrayed the true ruler of this world!" Her hands trembled. If only she could fly this very moment. But she had prepared for this, trained her reflexes, her mind.

"You have turned against Valhandra, Himself," said Timena.

"Valhandra is dead!" The impostor stood defiant. One hand still in her pocket, she fingered the razor-stars fashioned out of smooth Shikar stone. Their very presence weakened her, but not for long.

Oreus lifted his staff. The orb atop glowed blue and white. The impostor knew better than to hesitate. "Would you compound the pain of this betrayal by compelling me to deal with you as I must?" His eyes now brimming azure pools, Oreus pointed his staff.

"But I am not Lucretia, old fool!"

Stunned, Oreus hesitated.

The impostor let out a feral cry and leapt into the air. She forced her eyes shut and invoked utter blackness around her entire being. In one swift motion, she flung the three