From The Onyx Seeler - Prologue
The Realm of Kaf, inside the Royal House of Krave
Early nineteenth century
When the tips of six blades are pressed into one’s neck, it’s hard to see reason. The only thing Prince Manick of Krave saw was red.
“You accost me at the expense of your own gruesome deaths, Enforcers.” Fear had no place within him, wedged out as it were by their judgment roiling through his veins. No matter that he stood in the place of the victim—the reversal of their roles would be swift. As would their punishment. He didn’t reign as a foremost authority in one of the two ruling houses of the Marid tribe in name only.
The defenders of law surrounding him might sit a few rungs lower on the totem pole of clout in the Krave House than Manick did, but as they angled towards him with jutted chins and curled upper lips, he wondered if they’d grown tired of the status quo and decided to take down the royal families—starting with him. Give him about a half-second with his blade and innate fire power, and bloody Enforcer limbs would litter the white marble floors of his home like garish confetti. He’d disabuse them of that notion real quick.
With only Enforcer Brylon’s smirk as warning, bolts of electricity shot from the group, each arch a spoke on the wheel of energy. Blue light and scorching heat slammed into Manick, effectively trapping the wrath of his fire from pouring out onto their heads. Like boiling oil, the fire shut in his bones gurgled and twisted. Functions locked down. His power rendered useless. Helpless to do anything else, every fiber of his being zeroed in on the stone in his chest. Received at puberty with his power, the onyx hadn't hurt this bad when it'd first been embedded into his skin.
The suction that tackled him next, like a leech at the vein, immobilized even his thoughts in absolute terror. Bit by bit through that shaft of fire, the Enforcers pulled at the power he’d possessed for more than five centuries. Wrestling inside his body, he grabbed at his strength, tried to curl into himself and protect it. The effort proved in vain. The taking of his power was the complete antithesis of the giving. As pleasant as sucking an elephant through a fucking straw.
In spite of their efforts though, a sliver of strength remained. He hung onto that shred like a thick rope thrown into his hands and he floundered neck-deep in quicksand. With a valiant surge he tried to force his mouth open but to no avail. No spell, no demand for answers, could be spoken. He tensed to travel to another time or place but time was no longer his to sift. Throat clamped shut, he forced the words out through his mind. Using his feelers might be his last recourse for help, the last shot at communicating, and he called out with desperation, shoving one word through the cloud of pain enveloping him. “Father!”
The unanticipated silence chilled his blood. Jaleel had never failed to respond. Ever. For the first time in his military life, the stench of his imminent death filled his nostrils. His own and, it seemed, his father’s. Wretched stabs of fear pierced his heart. Not for his own life, but for his family’s. For the sake of whichever relatives might still be alive, he had to focus, had to survive this ambush.
Though he’d rather the ignorance, he fully understood the Enforcers’ actions if not their reasons. Their judging eyes cursed him and their thoughts blasted holes into his skull, making it clear they clamored for his death harder than the Grim Reaper himself. A death he stood a strong breeze away from. Closed off as their minds were, he couldn’t penetrate to dig out answers. The fog of their control surrounding him, their sheer will to ensure justice served, was the only thing keeping his depleted body upright.
One of the Enforcers fisted his hand around the spoke of fire coursing between himself and Manick and wrenched backwards. The skin separated from his onyx stone clear down one side. If his vocal chords hadn’t been sabotaged Manick would have screamed like a little girl and loud enough to burst eardrums.
Enforcer Brylon leaned in, the djini’s facial muscles contorting beneath his pale blue skin. “If it were me in charge, your Highness, I'd slay you where you stand.” Spittle from his mouth spattered Manick’s face, inches above the blades already drawing blood from his neck. The hot trickle down his chest confirmed the unmistakable. And the way the enforcer regurgitated the word ‘Highness’ implied ‘Lowness’ in spades. “Standing before the council is better than you deserve.”
So there would be a trial for whatever perceived crime he’d committed? This strip job had been for show and not results? Could have fooled him.
What the hell kind of game were they playing?
For hundreds of years he'd been one with his stone and everything that had come with it: time travel, control of the elementals, strength. He'd be nothing without his abilities. No. Screw this.
They hadn’t succeeded in taking everything. And giving up was not an option.
With the miniscule bit of power he had left, Manick railed against the pressure holding him. The growl inside his chest mounted, straining to be released from behind his sealed mouth. But the draining of his powers, his very essence, continued at a slow crawl until one last jerk from his torso left him sucking in a silent gasp. His mind felt split in two. His being, the familiarity of his supremacy, ripped and flung away. What remained, the husk of his skin and bones, though still living and breathing, knew loss and desolation as never before. Weak as a baby, trembling in the hold of the ones surrounding him, the pain at last flowed out of him like the last drops of wine from a cask. And still no answers came.
Emptiness. Shock. The former, so complete it made the latter manifest tenfold, filled in all the cracks and crevices of what had moments before housed the highest power attainable.
Before he digested the significance of his situation, his father materialized across the room, his face a map of whitened blue planes and stretched lines. Manick’s tension eased a degree. Relief boomeranged in and out, each jolt of hope a short-lived respite.
Why hadn’t Jaleel, his father and king, stopped this madness?
Did he know the reason behind this attack? What might have been a speck of hope at seeing his royal sire mere feet away disintegrated at the glimmer of doubt.
No sense. None of it made sense. Jaleel pinned Enforcer Brylon with his turquoise glare. Identical to the stare Manick leveled at him. “Enforcer. Answers. Now.”
The front door burst open so hard and fast it should’ve flown off its hinges. Manick shifted his gaze to see his cousin, Ferro, plowing inside, his father, Saven, Jaleel’s brother and the king of the Gallion house, hot on his heels. More relief pulsed through his heart. Safe. His family hadn’t fallen. The rulers of the Gallion House didn’t bother with meting out punishment for crimes, instead focusing on the creation and administering of law. It appeared whatever had Manick in lockdown had eradicated the line between the two houses’ duties. “What is the meaning of this?” Saven bellowed at the enforcers still converged around Manick. The boom of his footsteps reverberated in time with Ferro’s in the ensuing silence their entrance created. The deep echo matched the beat of Manick’s racing heart.
Jaleel and Saven, still imposing after countless centuries on their thrones, fixed the entirety of their attention on the leader of the assault. The outthrust of Brylon’s chest wavered and deflated the smallest fraction as his eyes flickered to the floor, away from Saven’s unfaltering stare.
Brylon paused a disrespectful moment before responding. The sneer of revulsion disappeared as twin arches of confusion formed over his brows. “B-but Sire, your daughter…”
Though his gaze snapped first to Manick’s, Jaleel questioned his brother. “Sareen? Has something happened to her?”
The enforcer’s audacity catapulted to new heights when he assumed to answer in Saven’s place. “You’re looking at what’s happened to her, my king. Manick remains the only suspect in her disappearance and it is imperative we question him now! She might still be on the grounds—”
Sound faded. Sareen? Missing? God, no! The suck-job he’d barely lived through vanished from memory. Six years old and angelic, his precious little cousin’s face crowded his vision. The room kaleidoscoped before his eyes. If not for the lock on his limbs still keeping him immobile, he’d have fallen to the floor. His insides gelled into horror, pushing at the supper he’d eaten a short while ago, vying for space in his gut.
Who would harm her? Only someone so vile, words failed to describe them, could be capable of hurting one so innocent. The recorder in his mind backpedaled a frantic beat at the thought. Him? They thought he’d done this?
A glance at Ferro’s furious but helpless face said a resounding yes. Manick raged at the absurdity. “How?”
“We don’t know. My sister…” Ferro’s lips compressed, his nostrils flared. “None of the servants saw anything. Nothing out of the ordinary.” Slowly, his Adam’s apple slid up and down his throat and his gaze touched on the others still deep in conversation. “No one out of the ordinary for this late at night, Manick. Except…”
Someone had seen him.
Or rather, someone who wore the guise of him. But who? And why, damn it?
Manick’s mind conjured up speculations galore. The only Silas in their tribe, those capable of taking any form they wanted—himself included in that number—were djinis in his or Ferro’s army. Men who, for centuries, had proven their loyalty to him and the houses of royalty. He dismissed them as suspect without a second thought. That left the filth of their race. The other three tribes. Ilfrit. Shaitan. Ghul. Interchangeable in their worthlessness.
“…King Jaleel.” The grave sound of his father’s name from Brylon’s insolent mouth snapped his focus back to the conversation. “With all the respect due to you, your eldest son committed the most heinous of acts.” Neither Brylon’s words nor his sword arm poised at Manick’s throat wavered. Still unable to move his head, Manick cast his gaze down as much as possible past the blades. His blue skin ran crimson.
Jaleel crowded into the other djini’s personal space. “You cannot believe he did this. What proof have you?”
“Two of the Gallion servants saw him leaving from the back entrance. With a covered bundle in his arms.”
Manick’s gaze shot back up. Damning evidence like that wasn’t disproven easily.
Saven stepped close enough to wrench the enforcer around. The point of his sword twisted with the movement and Manick had to stop the swallow from traveling down his throat. Uncle Saven took up the nose-to-nose space he shouldered Jaleel from. “You know as well as I, our enemies, especially the Ilfrit, would do anything to cripple us. Laying the blame on the Krave’s future king is the perfect way for them to hurt and divide us.”
“On that same token, you know as well as I, none of our enemies can cross The Cleansing.”
True, asshole, but—
“They can with an escort,” Jaleel bit out. Exactly. Manick applauded his father’s similar thinking.
“There’s no proof of a traitor. Manick was seen alone.”
Damn it. They’d framed him in tight. Based on that damning evidence, if the Dual Council of the two Houses held him accountable, the kings could do nothing to overturn their decision. In such an extreme situation, their decision trumped even the kings’ proclamations.
Jaleel and Saven moved a dozen paces away, heads together. They would come to the same conclusion Manick had. The situation didn’t bode well for him.
A fresh wave of grief singed his brain. Getting his ass out of the ringer got pushed to the back burner. He’d deal with his innocence and finding the evidence to prove it, later. If he had a later. He didn’t care. That sweet baby girl took utmost priority. She hadn’t yet honed her telepathic skills. The knowing of which might have saved her.
Another enforcer smoked into the room, down on one knee before the kings.
Bits of the conversation between his father and uncle floated his way. Sorrow filled the breaks in their words, an exact replica of what took up space in his soul. But resolve had sprung up alongside the wrenching emotion. No matter what happened to him, he would find Sareen and kill the perpetrators who’d set this horror circus in motion.
Even if it meant he had to crawl back from the manacle clutches of death.
172 years, 8 months, 19 days, 4 hours, 36 minutes and 42, 43, 44...seconds later. In other words—present day
MANICK KINDA LIKED HIS LITTLE HELL.
Yeah, it had really grown on him. ‘Cause truth be told, who wouldn’t want to have been living for near two hundred years in a twenty by twenty room with nothing but a bed, a book shelf (with the ridiculous one book allowance at a time on it), a clock, and a bathroom?
Oh. And he couldn’t forget the twelve by twelve wall of black swirling fog that could keep a fella entertained for hours on end. Yeah, it was really starting to grow on him. He peered at the Abyss, as he’d named the wall eons ago, and then at the clock on the wall to his right. Only three and a half hours since Ferro had brought him breakfast, thus giving him at least some kind of connection with the outside, but he prowled the small space all the same. Anything to relax.
He hadn’t felt this wired since the day the Dual Council’s enforcers had stormed his home all those decades ago and yanked him from the delusion he’d called life. He, Manick of the House of Krave, only 527 years old, high prince in his prime and one of the two generals of the mighty Marid army, had been sucker punched like some bitch that didn’t have a clue.
Untouchable, he was not.
Fast approaching his seven hundredth year of living, he still had more than three centuries to go on his sentence. Which meant that if he hadn’t sliced his own damned throat by then, he’d see his thousandth year still deep in this hole.
Best not to go down that road of happy memories. ‘Cause it went round and round with no pit stop of understanding in sight.
He breathed deep then gathered his dark hair into a leather tie. It was too long for his liking, down past the small of his back now. He jumped up and grabbed the exposed piping in the ceiling, launching into another round of one-armed pull-ups. For the millionth time he wished for his magic. Without its aid, he couldn’t keep his face hair-free and the hair on his head at his shoulders where he liked it, and after seventeen decades…
Fortunately, he’d gotten good with the provided blade after about, say, year three behind the Abyss. He’d used it a few times to chop off a good portion of his mane and another such time was upon him.
He dropped to his feet with a loud thud and then further down to the floor for some pushups. The need to work the agitation from his limbs intensified. Sweat dripped from his brow and splashed on the cold concrete.
As he flipped over and slid under the bed for some chest presses, the whirring started. “What the hell?” He backed out and jumped to his feet in one smooth motion. It had to be Ferro because in all this time, his cousin had been the only one allowed to come down to his pit, and then no more than twice a day to bring him food and other necessities.
The set rules had dictated that he couldn’t get within three feet of the Abyss, so he shifted over to the worn spot he’d occupied for so long on those much-awaited visits. He waited for Ferro’s voice to drift across the fog, or his arm to protrude through, delivering whatever it was he’d come for. An arm that, if attached to anyone else, might have been broken or skewered before now. Likely, the only reason he’d been given sharp objects to play with was because the DC knew he’d never use a knife against his blood.
Right now, regardless of who it belonged to, not a peep or limb came through.
“Hey, Ferro. You out there?”
A cleared throat. A curse.
“So you gonna say what’s up, or you only here to warm me with your presence?”
“Har har. Yeah, I’m frontloading a ton of sunshine,” came Ferro’s gravelly voice.
Manick grinned. “Are you now? You look black and cloudy to me. Oh, wait. That’s just the Abyss.” Always the Abyss... “I’m all cozy inside. Those asses actually let you come down here past the quota? I’m impressed. Or scared shitless.”
“Well, I have some news. You sitting down in there?”
Okay, scared, no, but getting an overkill vibe of weirdness? Yeah, a bit. “How ’bout you put yourself out of your misery and tell me what’s on your mind.” Good conversation might be what he needed to ease the tension along his shoulders. Not many things hit his trigger button these days.
“They’re letting you out,” Ferro muttered.
Okay, except that. He took a jerky step back, tripped over the bookcase and promptly fell on his ass.
FERRO CURSED HIMSELF NINE WAYS TO THE SABBATH when the crash sounded on the other side of the shield. Well, fuckola. He was about as delicate as a herd of buffalo at one of his mother’s famous teas. “Hey, Mann? You okay in there?”
“This is real?” The djini sounded rightfully skeptical, his question more of a croak.
Ferro exhaled. “Yeah, that about says it.”
“What…how…when?” Manick demanded.
“About thirty minutes ago.”
He didn’t have an immediate answer. The why of it had him so enraged he’d almost melted the gold off the table the Dual-Council prided themselves on owning. They knew nothing about war yet had decided both generals of the Marid tribe should be involved in the upcoming crusade. And he needed to tread with caution here. Lord only knew what kind of shape his cousin might be in after so long with no training. They’d never spoken of it in all this time because Manick not being able to train with him, with his soldiers, was something Ferro had never wanted to pain the djini with by yakking about it. No Kodak moment, that.
Their military training was, and had always been, what defined their soldiers as the elite of the Djinn. Their discipline and physicality remained superior above those of other tribes because it had to be for the safety of their people and that of all humans. And more important, Manick would never let his current lack of strength stop him from jumping, sword raised with a battle cry on his lips, into the melee.
Ferro didn’t have the heart to tell him they’d be waiting on him to train. Nope, not gonna happen. He let out a strained breath. “How about we get you out of here first and then we can get into the details. Sound good?”
Manick muttered something unintelligible, still from the vicinity of the floor. “Ferro, I’m…”
Shit. Yeah. His goatee got a quick tug. He could only imagine how surreal this would be for Manick. “Hey, Mann, don’t sweat it, alright? It’s just me out here, and you and me, we’re gonna take this one step at a time.”
“Yeah. Yeah, got it.”
“Good. Now, I need to take this shield down.” He cocked his head back and peered at the filmy wall from one top corner to the other. “But I don’t know what kind of reaction we’re going to have here, so back up.”
“Aw, it’s gonna be sort of sad to see the Abyss go, Ferro. I know this swirling bastard like the back of my hand.” Typical. Down for a few seconds then back up to see the silver lining. If it were him in there…
He imagined Manick, gazing at the yawning blackness with those intense turquoise eyes of his, though he truly couldn’t fathom how the guy would want to look at it for even one more second.
“You want me to give you a minute with your lady, bro?”
“Nah, I…well, I just didn’t wake up this morning thinking this would be going down today.” Some shuffling and then, “Alright, I’m back. Do your magic.”
Ferro shifted his shoulders. Rolled his neck and took a deep breath. In all his time fantasizing about destroying the cloud of doom that imprisoned Manick, the risk factor had never taken hold of his gut. Probably because there’d never been a chance of him actually doing it without getting thrown in there with his comrade. Doing it in reality shot the stakes sky-high and had his insides under siege.
“Quit pussying around!”
Ferro couldn’t hold back the wry grin. “Like you even remember what one of those looks like.”
“I think you’re pretty, too. But not interested, thanks.”
“Okay, okay, I’m starting.” Another breath. Enough with the stalling. Ferro raised his arms, his left hand over the right in front of him, hovering apart, forming a circle. His fire lazily bloomed, greens and blues swirling together, and began a slow and steady spin as his hands generated the cycle. He closed his eyes, letting the fire, the spell—the emotions—consume him. Heat prickled the depths of his vision as he dragged his eyelids open. A sure sign the color of his irises had darkened into their molten, coppery shade. In a steady voice he began to declaim:
Let the dark become light, what is hidden revealed
For all that is damaged is now fully healed
Let fire without smoke emerge from depths deep
For the Lord’s righteous hands will calm and will keep
With only the smallest amount of trepidation, Ferro thrust his hands out towards the bleak wall, fingers splayed, relinquishing his hold on the fire between his palms.
His heart stalled in his chest. He was going to fry the council. The ebb and flow of the prison wall didn’t so much as stutter.
And then it did.
A mere blink of interruption, but it altered—an insignificant change at first, but a change nonetheless. The swirling fog went from black to…well, to less black. And then to charcoal and on to gray, going through the spectrum of shades from darkest to lightest until the shape of a bed on the other side came into sight, vague but recognizable.
With the slightest hissing sound, the color completely gave way to nothingness. And, yep, there sat the bed. He stepped forward. And stopped. Shake the nerves, moron. He’s still the same wise-ass cousin you’ve always known. No different.
But damn him if this didn’t feel different.
Exhaling hard for what felt like the twentieth time since he’d been down here, Ferro took another determined step, crossed the threshold for the first time in his life and turned.
His eyes nearly popped out of his freaking head.
WITH HIS BACK AND SKULL PRESSED AGAINST THE WALL, Manick couldn’t open his eyes. Not yet. His lungs punched hard in an effort to breathe, the vital air harsh and coming out way too fast. Dear God. Shock had given way to hyperventilating. Ha! How messed up was that?
First shock—and now delirium to boot.
He was a seasoned warrior, not some scared-ass newbie on the field for the first time. But that whole incident a moment ago had radically changed his world as he’d privately known it for nearly two centuries. Maybe not for the better.
The familiar and—yeah, comforting—big wall had disappeared. As the final tendrils of the Abyss had gone into nevermore, a ridiculous sadness and nervousness had invaded his heart. What would his world soon become? It was what—the twenty-first century now or somewhere near it? What did his family look like now? Had any more news on Sareen surfaced? The familiar pressure clogged in his throat. God, I cannot think of her right now.
What of his men? He didn’t even know if a new leader had been plucked from the ranks to fill his spot like he was yesterday’s news, because Ferro had never volunteered that slicing tidbit of info…and cowardice or no, he’d never asked.
On that thought, Ferro now stood in the room, his presence encompassing. Reassuring and complementing to Manick’s own. After all, they’d been linked since their youth; both born the oldest child of their families, bred to one day lead the two armies and ultimately their people. Theirs were two halves to a whole that made an irrefutable bond, the onyx stone in Manick’s chest a testament to that fact. It vibrated as the sapphire in Ferro hummed its hello.
“Holy… freaking… shit, Mann.”
Manick opened his eyes, and with his head still back, glanced down his nose at Ferro’s stupefied statement. “What?”
“Yeah, so? I’ve been working out for a hundred and seventy-two years. Pretty much non-stop.” He shrugged. Options had been basically nil. Entertainment nonexistent.
Ferro’s black eyebrows crept up into his hairline and his whole head eased back a good three inches as he stared at Manick’s runicai-covered pecs and arms like he’d grown an extra set during his hiatus from the living. For crying out loud, he hadn’t had a full-length mirror to see himself, but he had been able to look down. And his body felt like it always had to him. Lifting his head away from the wall, he did a quick inventory. Raised his arms a bit and peered at his sides. Both of them. Yeah, still blue, through and through Marid djini. What? His hands mimicked the confused thought, flicking up a bit. Everything looked normal to him.
He glanced back up, perplexed. Ferro’s mouth did a move reminiscent of a fish.
“Enough already. What?”
Ferro started to laugh. A chuckle at first, then his face split into a grin that threatened to blind. Manick was about to ask for some shades when Ferro shook his head and like a shot, lunged at him, clamping him in a hug that shocked him to the core. Manick couldn’t move. Not his mouth to form words, not his arms to return the gesture. To have been denied touch of another for so long and then have it poured on in one massive instant overwhelmed the mind.
But just for a moment.
It only took a millisecond, and he was hugging the other djini back with all he was worth. And then some.