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R.J. Craddock

The Official Author Site

"Nations conquered and true love prevails, all encompassed in a poet's tale."

Free Chapter from "The Forsaken" (Children of Cain Book One)

Prologue

                    Her innocence had drawn them to the woman. Tonight’s prey was named Laura, and her ridiculous optimism made her perfect for their twisted little game. They had been at it all night, hunting her from dream to dream. The two friends, Deverick and Onan, liked to work as a tag team. First, Onan entered her subconscious, learning all he could about her hopes and fears. Then, he became part of the dream, making himself one with her fantasy like the romantic hero, a dark, mysterious lover. Only after she had succumbed to his friends’ influence did Deverick disturb her universe, re-arranging the dream into something horrible and sickening: himself, the monster in the darkness that fed on her fear. Laura kept turning to Onan to rescue her, believing he was her hero, a part of her mind. She did not realize that he, and the demon that chased her, were in league with one another, best friends enjoying the simple pleasure of tormenting her. Even as children, dream hunting had always been their favorite forbidden pastime.

                    In her latest attempt to protect herself, their victim had transformed the dream into a place where she felt safe. Her childhood home, a simple brick bungalow in a non-descript suburban neighborhood. Behind her, Deverick was a pack of red-eyed savage wolves followed by a black tempest that ate up the blue sky as it moved toward her.

Suddenly, Onan swung open her front door. “Laura!” He beckoned the confused woman, and, like a trusting fool, she ran to him and to the refuge of the home she loved.

                    Once they were out of sight, the wolves melted away into a solitary man. Deverick laughed softly to himself as he sauntered up to the walnut tree in the front yard. He was a striking young man of twenty-two with a strong build and a handsome face which was neither too masculine nor too pretty. His hair was black as night, his eyes blue and gold. All around him the tempest still raged in Laura’s dream world, engulfing the house in its shadow. He leaned up against the tree trunk to wait. It was now Onan’s turn to be the monster. A terrified scream came from within, and Deverick smiled, listening to the sounds of Laura’s pain and horror as Onan had his fun.

                    Deverick felt no remorse for her, she was just a human and thus inconsequential. It didn’t really matter what they did to her. After all, it was only a nightmare. None of this was real. There would be no lasting damage done, no physical damage anyway. Nonetheless, she would awaken in the morning terrified of ever falling asleep again. Usually they only stalked a prey just once, but perhaps they might visit Laura’s dreams another night. The thought made Deverick smile again.

                    “Deverick!” Startled, he looked around him, knowing that voice too well to confuse it for something within the dream, but still half-expecting to see his mother standing behind him.

                    “Deverick! Get up, boy!” He felt the waking world tugging at him. With a groan he turned toward the house.

                    “Onan,” he called. “Sorry to interrupt but I’ve got to go.”

                     All at once, his friend appeared before him. A couple inches taller than he, Onan looked fierce with his long auburn hair hanging wild and free, half dressed with bloody claw marks across his bare chest. Looks like Laura has more fight in her than I thought, Deverick mused.

                    “It must be morning; my Mother’s come to wake me,” Deverick confided, letting out an exasperated sigh.

                    “Old Mum again? Tell her I said good morning.” Onan chuckled, his smile spreading to his light-green eyes, the gold around the center lending him the feral look of a wild beast.

                    “See you tonight.” The two friends clasped hands in farewell.

Laura’s dream faded away into a plain white room with nothing but two doors standing side by side, one red and one black. With a wicked smile, Onan turned the gold knob on the red door, stepped through and suddenly he and the door vanished from the dream.

                     Alone now, Deverick stood before the black door. This door represented the path back to the waking world, the door he must step through to reconnect his mind to his body. He could simply step out of the dream but it was dangerous to do so. There were far too many stories of dreamers like him who never found their way back, never to wake up again. Deverick opened the door and stepped through…

                     Sunlight rudely disrupted the stillness of the once darkened room; Master Deverick Hawthorne stirred in his lush silken bedding, shielding his eyes against the harsh light, a thin feminine silhouette hovering before the glaring light in the window.

                      “Mother!” Deverick grumbled with a husky voice. “I don’t have any appointments till noon, let me sleep.”

                      “This is not a day for slumbering in your bed like a fool,” Lady Raizel Hawthorne retorted.

With a groan, Deverick shuffled into a sitting position to look sternly at his mother. The look did nothing to intimidate the lady.

                      “All right, what have I done now?” he asked, clearing his dry throat.

His manservant, Reece, hurried to his bedside with an empty glass goblet, uttering a simple water spell. As he handed the glass to his master, the goblet quickly filled with water as if poured from an invisible source. Nonplussed, Deverick took a long swill. There were other servants in his bedchamber as well. Some busy laying out breakfast for him and his mother on the table by the fireplace, the rest were scurrying about the room collecting his belongings, gathering his clothes from the wardrobe and packing them into several large trunks.

                       “All right, something’s going on. Out with it, old lady.” This earned Deverick a playful scoff of annoyance from his mother. He smiled mischievously at her, the glint of gold around the center of his sapphire eyes catching in the sunlight.

                       “The King is dead!” Lady Hawthorne announced in a half whisper seeming to glow with exhilaration.

                        Dumbfounded, Deverick looked to Reece for confirmation. Taking Deverick’s goblet, the thin, balding man nodded in affirmation.

                        It took a moment for the shock to wear off before Deverick turned his attention back to his mother. “But when? How?”

                        “Oh, that doesn’t matter!” She gracefully glided across the polished wood floor to sit next to him on the edge of the bed. “The man was                          nearly ninety- eight; it was bound to happen sooner or later.”

                       “Yes, but he looked not a day over forty,” Deverick interjected, running his fingers through his black curly locks.

                       “Yes, well… Kings can afford those kinds of expensive potions, but only Vampires live forever.”

                       “I know that. But still, I wasn’t expect--“

                       “Son, don’t trouble yourself over the whys or the hows. You know what this means? You’re now the King! He died without an heir which makes you next in line.”

                         Deverick gave himself a moment to let this sink in. Although he’d prepared his whole life for this very day, he was still numbed by the shock of it all. Am I ready for this? Deverick asked himself.

                         Of course you are, son. You were born for this! He heard his mother’s answering voice in his head. Their eyes met in a look of understanding as she gave his hand a quick squeeze of encouragement.

                         “Now there’s a lot to be done before we depart. That’s why we ought not to sit around wasting time. It is imperative that we get you to the palace by mid-day.” She spoke aloud. Standing, his mother briskly walked over to the breakfast table.

                         Deverick threw off his blankets and gingerly got out of bed, massaging his lower back as he walked barefoot across the cold wood floor to join his mother. It was customary for them to have breakfast in this manner. After his father died, his mother had started eating breakfast with him every morning in his room, leaving the grand dining hall unused except for special occasions. He had thought of ending this tradition as he grew into a man, but he sensed that his mother was loneliest during the mornings.

                         He couldn’t help envying men of the human world. In their culture, grown men didn’t live with their mothers; they didn’t have family members and servants barging in on them at all hours. He had heard that some bachelors even had the luxury of sleeping naked. How he longed for that kind of privacy, that kind of freedom! But no, these thoughts would never do. If he started grumbling about his current situation, how would he ever come to terms with the life that lay ahead of him?

                         The thought almost made Deverick trip on his own feet as he took his seat across from his mother at the table. The servants lined up along the wall, waiting to jump at their every command. Before him, his food was already piled upon his plate, his usual whims anticipated by the cook and seen to by his manservant, Reece. Strangely, the idea that he couldn’t even be spontaneous with his choice of breakfast made him all the more melancholy.

                         He also realized that there would be no more dream hunting with Onan, not tonight, not ever. It would never do for the King to break the sacred laws. From now on, he would be held to a higher standard of conduct. The personal lives of royalty were always scrutinized and exploited for political gain. Nothing was sacred and nothing could be kept a secret when spies had magic to aid them. In the Wiccan world, even in dreams, walls could have eyes and ears.

                          With a sigh of resignation, Deverick picked up his fork and dug into his last meal ever to be eaten in the home of his youth.

A couple hours later Deverick found himself leading the procession of his household as they marched from Hawthorne Manor toward Black Lake. Since they were trading the country manor for a grand palace, and there was none left in the family but the two of them, the old house would be cleared out and shut up until they had use of it again. His bags, trunks and other belongings were being carried on litters by his servants as they followed behind Lady and Master Hawthorne.

* * * * *

                          The heir to the Wiccan Throne went barefoot through the dew-covered grass, dressed plainly in a white button-down shirt and simple white slacks, wearing only his mother’s family ring and the Hawthorne family medallion around his neck. Ahead of them, two large tree trunks bent and twisted around each other, forming an arch beneath them. Passing through the arch, Deverick and the procession came to the shore of Black Lake.

                          A flat stone disc was raised out of the bank of the lake just on the water’s edge. Kneeling down upon it, Deverick dipped his fingers into the lake, making a pattern in the murky water as it rippled. Muttering an old incantation softly, Deverick made the reflective surface of the water change. No longer did he see the blue sky above him and the woods that surrounded his country estate, but an immaculate garden with a pure crystal fountain at its center, the white palace looming in the background.

                          Standing, Deverick stepped down onto the bank. He knew that should he look over his shoulder, he would see the top of his family home above the tree line, but he fought the temptation.

                          “Here we go,” he spoke under his breath as he walked into the water. The gritty soil of the lake bottom sloped gradually downward beneath his bare feet. He heard his mother step behind him and knew that the rest of the procession would follow in formation behind her, into the water. He didn’t hesitate as he went further into the lake, the water steadily rising around him until only his head was above the surface. Then suddenly, he stepped over the drop off, and he sank into the lake completely.

                           He was five the first time his mother took him to the Wiccan Kingdom traveling by water. He remembered the peculiar feeling of nausea and disorientation that came from sinking and rising out of the water at the same time. Only a moment after his head was submerged under Black Lake, he felt himself rising magically back to the surface. As he emerged the bright morning sunlight blinded him as it reflected off of the crystal fountain and the pure, clear water around him. As Deverick walked out of the fountain, the enchanted water dripped off him, leaving him completely dry.

                           Waiting for him by the entrance of the palace garden were three of the previous King’s royal advisors: Gregory Limrick, Delanie DuCall, and Calill Hardenbro, all members of the first families. This morning the rest of the royal officers would be busy arranging the funeral services of the old king. Only these three were left in charge of preparing the new King for coronation.

                           While his mother and servants emerged from the fountain into the garden, Deverick strode up to the three men. Limrick was an old friend of his father’s, in his fifties now. Hardenbro was only a few years older than he was; they shared some mutual friends, but weren’t well acquainted. However, DuCall was Onan’s father, a man that Deverick had come to think of as his father as well.

                           Deverick would’ve greeted them all warmly as old friends but DuCall spoke first.

                           “Lord Hawthorne, it is my duty to inform you that you have a challenger.” The older darker version of his son, DuCall spoke in a cold formal tone, his face devoid of emotion. In all his life Deverick had never once seen Onan’s father without a smile on his face, this demeanor did not suit the man he knew.

                           Something inside Deverick sunk into the pit of his stomach. This was the last thing he wanted to deal with today. He found it difficult enough to face the idea of being the soul person responsible for the welfare of an entire kingdom. And now he had to fight another man for the job, and by tradition, it would be a fight to the death.

                           By the time he had gathered his composure and reconciled himself to the situation, Lady Hawthorne stood by his side. She took one look at her son’s face and knew.

                           “I don’t believe it; a challenger?” Turning her gaze on the three royal advisors she added, “Who? Who would be so foolish?”

Deverick noticed a strange look pass behind DuCall’s eyes but it was gone just as quickly as it came. The other two seemed reluctant to speak; both glanced at DuCall as if expecting him to answer. He said nothing.

                           “Perhaps we should go straight away to the battle yard, my lord. Your challenger is waiting there now,” Hardenbro spoke up. His usual aristocratic air dispelled by the nervous quiver in his voice.

                           “Don’t be ridiculous. We just arrived. I’m sure this contest hasn’t been announced formally to the public yet. Why not hasten

the coronation ceremony and pretend that this challenge wasn’t received in time? No one but us will ever know,” Lady Raizel suggested.

                           “It’s been announced, my lady,” DuCall said darkly, his face becoming hard as stone.

“Yes, a small assembly has already gathered at the grounds to witness the proceedings. We were to bring you and Lord Hawthorne there as soon as you arrived,” Limrick added in a more cordial voice.

                            Lady Hawthorne opened her mouth to object but one look from Deverick silenced her.

                           “Very well. Lead the way, gentlemen,” the would-be King ordered.

* * * * *

                           Stepping onto the battlegrounds just outside the palace walls, Deverick felt a little exposed before the growing crowd that had gathered. Two men stood in the center of the yard: one would be his challenger, the other--dressed in his official uniform--was the captain of the palace guards and he would be overseeing this contest of magical skill.

                           From afar, Deverick didn’t recognize the man standing next to him; he was young, tall, and strong of build. He wore a black scarf around his head and was otherwise dressed all in black, as was customary for the rival to the heir of the throne. If this man won he would strip Deverick’s dead body of his white clothing and dress himself in them, taking his family ring and medallion as trophies--proof to all that saw them that he had defeated the would-be King.

                           Deverick wasn’t afraid of a fight; he had defeated many over the years. He was considered the strongest Wiccan male born in the last four generations, had mastered spells that had long been forgotten and was gifted with rare abilities. Wiccans, as a people, were naturally arrogant and competitive, so of course, no one was convinced he was unbeatable unless they fought him themselves. But this would be the first time such a challenge would result in death. He could’ve killed his past challengers, but it had always seemed so wasteful to him. Why kill one of his own? It was enough to humiliate his opponent to prove his skill; he didn’t need to add bloodshed to enjoy the victory.

                            His mother squeezed his hand for encouragement (or farewell, he wasn’t sure which), and then Deverick left her and the royal advisors behind. Head held high and shoulders back, young Hawthorne crossed the yard, fully aware that every eye was upon him. It wasn’t until he was ten feet away from the Captain, and his opponent, that recognition dawned on him. His heart skipped a beat, his step almost faltered as he looked into the eyes of the man that came here today with the intent to take his life for the sake of a throne.

                            For the briefest moment, Deverick thought it might just all be a joke, some big elaborate prank to congratulate him on his succession. But the dark look in his friend’s eyes told him that this was not so. The man standing between him and his destiny was the same man that had stood by his side his whole life: Onan.

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