The last potently coloured rays of the blood red sun sunk behind the Desolare Mountains. Stars as diminutive and white as the fine grains of salt dashed the black sheet of night. A single grain sparked intensity, and fell leaving an already faded chalky path behind it.
'Nino!' Squealed a shrill voice in fevered excitement. 'Nino did you see that? A star fell! A star fell!' A head of tawny brown hair barely distinguishable in the dimmed lamplight turned around and twitched from side to side.
'Nino where did you go?' A wooden door scraped against cold floors as a pair of bare feet padded in the thin darkness. The feet walked through an arch of freshly varnished wood, paused then began to pound the ground towards a tiny thread of amber light peeking through a slightly ajar door stretching across the floor. Slender fingers slipped between the slit of the doors and pried them open letting a burst of light to permeate the room whilst revealing a boy kneeling on the floor next to a tiny silver lamp with a flickering flame.
'Shh Amalya! Get in here quick before Mamma finds us!'
The young boy grabbed the girl's hand and pulled her inside the wooden doors before shutting them firmly behind her.
'Nino what are you doing in here?' Asked the girl anxiously. She noticed a cloth laid across the boy's lap with a small gold ornament laid across it and gasped. 'Nino... Is that gold?'
The boy Nino hastily crumpled up the cloth and hid it behind his back.
'I want to see!' Cried the girl as she leant forward and tried to reach behind the boy.
'Amalya quiet!' Hissed the boy. 'I will let you see but you have to keep quiet and not tell Mamma or Pappa.'
'Where did you find it?' Whispered the girl in a low voice. The boy replied with silence and waved his hand over the lamp, the flame dimming in reaction. He reached behind him and pulled out the cloth and placed it upon his lap. The girl could see the cloth was expensive as it shone with an opulent white sheen in the lamplight and was emphasised in every fold and crease. The boy hesitated a while and looked up and directly into the girl's eyes before looking back down. The girl narrowed her eyes, her curiosity and fear dancing hand in hand.
Gently he unfurled the fabric, using only the extreme tips of his fingers as though his hands were touching something so delicately pure and fragile that his fingers may violate its purity. The girl's eyes opened wide at once and her hands clenched onto the skirts of her dress immediately as she saw the unmistakeable glint of pure gold.
'Is that a ring?'
Sheepishly the boy lifted it to the lamplight using only his index finger and his thumb to allow the girl to see it better. She tilted her head to her side and frowned.
'What is it?' She breathed, her dark olive green eyes twinkling with orange flames.
'I don't know...'
'Turn it over.'
The boy turned his wrist a couple of degrees revealing a different facade of the gold instrument that was carved with a tree and inlaid with precious gems.
The girl paled.
'Nino... Where did you find that?'
'Why?' He replied defensively his hand recoiling from the lamplight.
'It... It has the crest of the Asperati... Oh no Nino how did you find this?'
The boy hesitated and cast his eyes down to the floor.
'I woke up early and wanted to explore the Last Castle of Asperati... I crossed the boundary and went to the castle... And then... And then... I found this.'
'Nino!' Chastised the girl with rising trepidation in her voice. 'Mamma and Pappa told us to never go near the Last Castle! It is dangerous there and you know... And you know there are Shadowers who patrol there!'
'I know Amalya but I thought that maybe at dawn the Shadowers would not be there because it becomes bright and-'
'Oh Nino this is bad, this very bad! You know what Mamma and Pappa told us, you know the castle is cursed which is why we cannot go there! And now we have this gold thing which has the Asperati crest!'
'Does that mean we are cursed too?' Said the boy in a wavering voice as he fought a stinging sensation in his eyes by blinking wildly.
'Oh Nino... Why did you go there? We are hiding from the Blood Kingdom... Mamma and Pappa told us that this was the safest place for us as long as we did not cross the boundary and go into the Last Kingdom of the Asperati.'
The boy kept his head down and sniffed miserably.
'I wanted to help Mamma and Pappa and Amalya... I thought maybe there are lots of treasures in the castle so I could bring some back and give them to Mamma and Pappa so we could go back home.'
'Nino we can't go home! Everyone is gone, everything is gone! This is our home!' Cried the girl as she clutched onto the skirts of her dress tighter.
'I'm sorry Amalya! I'm sorry!' He sniffed and rubbed his eyes with his hands. 'I will take it back tomorrow!'
'No!' Whispered the girl sternly. 'If you are going to go I am coming with you. I am older than you and your sister. Mamma and Pappa told us that no matter what as a family, and the last of our people that we stay together.'
'But what do we tell Mamma and Pappa?'
'It's okay; we will go to the Last Castle at dawn and come back just before they wake up as it is their rest day tomorrow. But this time we will have to take Mamma and Pappa's weapons because there might be Shadowers. We aren't big enough to use deception like Mamma and Pappa, but we are lucky that Mamma and Pappa have taught us how to fight.'
The boy looked at his sister mournfully and placed the lavish cloth on the ground in front them. He placed the small gold instrument on top of it with its crest up and looked at his sister again. After a moment of peering into identical dark olive green eyes he replaced his face with utmost concentration and nodded.
'Yes!' He replied fiercely, his sorrow replaced with valour. 'We are Nino and Amalya, proud descendents of Amadeus the Great. We will protect our family and race until death!'
Nodding to each other the two siblings began to gather their parent's weapons in the dark of night. The boy, his father's shotgun and short sword, and the girl, her mother's crossbow and two daggers. They lay in their beds clothed fully in their travelling garments clutching their weapons to their breasts. Neither slept, and before the kiss of dawn they crept outside their home with almost forgotten prayers on the tip of their tongues.
'Nino do you remember what Pappa told us about Shadowers?' Asked the girl as she strapped the crossbow securely onto her back.
The boy nodded clutching his father's large shotgun across his chest.
'They hide in shadows, and have to become visible when they need to kill.'
'Good. So try and be careful when we are near the shadows. We fight with our backs against each other like Mamma told us and only use the knives when they are close to us.'
The girl held in her hand the small silver lamp which now cast out a purple flame that projected a thin blue light. The sun was still sleeping behind the Desolare Mountains but they two knew they had little time to get to the boundaries. An hour passed as they trudged along in their travelling garments until the girl stopped just before a sloping hill. The blue light shone in a straight line just ahead in the direction of a grand castle that lay crumbling with the imprint of large houses and buildings around it.
'That's the Castle, Amalya!' Whispered the boy pointing his finger strongly towards it.
'It looks dangerous...' Replied the girl uneasily.
'It's okay Amalya, when I went it was okay. The rooms are okay inside, the doors have gone bad and there are lots of plants inside, but it is okay.'
'Do you remember where you found the gold thing?'
'I think I do, don't worry Amalya, we will return it back there!' Said the boy as he patted his breast pocket indicating where the gold instrument was located
The girl set off down the hill but was held back by the boy clutching her sleeve.
'No, we have to wait for the sun first to come out from behind the mountains. The Shadowers will go away for that moment.'
There was a millisecond flash of green above the crown of the mountains, followed by the sinister head of the blood sun.
'Not now...' Steadied the boy as both siblings stood frozen on the crown of the hill watching the creeping sun unfurl its rays of light. The girl passed her hand over the blue flame in her lamp hand and it disappeared. The sun rose halfway after several minutes and they both held their breath as the land below them was bathed in blinding yellow light.
'Now!' Said the boy and he leapt to an unsteady run down the hill with the large gun toppling against his chest and with the girl closely behind. They reached the castle in a matter of minutes, weapons poised in their hands as they surveyed the area for any beings.
'I think it's okay. I think we can go inside the castle.' Whispered the girl.
The nodded to each other and faced towards the towering giant. The world felt extremely small for the two children as they passed through the broken gates of the castle and ventured into the ruined courtyard. Large slabs of pure white stone littered the place here and there with a generous covering of vines and grasses and other plants and trees that neither the girl nor the boy had seen before.
'Wow...' Whispered the girl suddenly enraptured with the grandeur of the surroundings and how the Earth was slowly reclaiming it.
'Amalya!' Called the boy as he drew his weapon down to his chest again. 'It's this way.'
The girl nodded for a moment, and waded through the overgrown thicket of shrubs. Her brother was making his way towards a staircase that led to the main body of the castle and she duly followed him. She tripped slightly on some tough undergrowth and landed on both her knees. She brushed herself off and peered up to see a young oak tree twisting in an odd way. She froze suddenly as she saw a figure upon it. It was bright and red just like the sun, and she could see it gesturing with its hands in a different direction to which her brother was going.
'Amalya!' Called the boy once more who was now on the staircase. 'Hurry up!' The girl's gaze flickered to that of her brother's and back to the tree, but the strange red apparition had disappeared. She looked towards the direction it had pointed and noticed a large wall of vine ruling one facade of the inner castle. She went in for a closer a look and noticed the vines had grown in a rectangular indent.
Throwing all caution, apprehension and fear of any curse behind her, the girl called her brother her fear now channelling into curiosity.
'There's a hidden door here Nino! Look!'
The boy slipped down the staircase and waded through the grass to have a look.
'Amalya... I have a bad feeling about it...'
'Why don't we quickly just see what is there? We will leave the gold thing there after we are done. We don't need to take it back to the place you found it.'
The boy wrapped both his hands around the barrel of his gun tensely as he balanced it on his shoulder. Unease filled him as his eyes surveyed the now curious nature of his elder sister.
The girl stepped forward and began to slash away the vines using her mother's two knives. Within seconds of expertise slicing, she uncovered a rotten door.
'Nino help me push it.'
The boy hesitated, then lined up next to his sister and pushed against the door. It gave away easily and fell away to the floor with the metal parts releasing a large clang. They both looked up in fear as several birds that there lazily sitting on the walls of the castle took flight. With weapons poised both siblings stood back to back, their senses on edge as they listened to the sounds around them.
'Is it safe?' Whispered the boy in a faint voice.
The girl felt her curiosity waver as she swallowed out of fear. She looked to the doorway and saw a flight of stairs leading up to the castle. The girl figured they would be safer inside there and steered her and her brother's body into the castle.
'What are you doing?' Voiced the boy fearfully.
'We'll be okay in here, no one has been in here, don't worry we'll be okay. Now come on let's go. You walk up and I will walk backwards facing towards the door to look out for Shadowers.'
'Amalya I'm scared...'
'We'll be okay Nino, we'll be okay, are there many steps?'
'No, but there is a door.'
The girl turned around to see a withered wooden door on rusty hinges that had not been open for centuries.
'Do you think it will open?' Asked the boy in a hushed voice.
The girl reached for a metal hinge and turned it. The door shuddered, and then with a high pitched shriek fell open. On edge once more from the racket they were creating, they paused.
'We'll close this behind us.' Said the girl once they stepped through the other side to reveal a short corridor with tattered and faded cream woven carpet printed with the insignia of the dead Kingdom. The door emitted another shriek and was closed behind them. Very dim light filtered through the windows making it impossible for the children to make out anything else apart from rug. The girl reached into her pocket and took out the small base of the lamp and it shone a blinding yellow light.
'This will make it easy to find Shadowers.' She said turning to her brother. In the corner of her eye she caught a trail of red fabric that disappeared slowly into a room that had no door and she paused.
'Wh-what is it Amalya?' Asked the boy shuddering with fear as the girl's head snapped in the direction.
'Nino stay strong! Keep your eyes open, remember we have no fear, we are born fighters like Mamma and Pappa!'
The boy shook and nodded his head, his hand cocking the shotgun which was held surprisingly steady.
The girl held out a single knife and the lamp in her other hand and shuffled slowly towards the doorway. She held out a hand to pause her brother, both their hearts beating speedily in rhythm with one and another. She whipped around the corner weapon poised and revealed herself to be in an oddly shaped room with a bookshelf covering the window and an altar on the far right.
'This is a strange place...' Murmured the girl as the lamp shone bright light to all corners of the room.
'Amalya, look there is a scroll on the altar!' Said the boy as he ventured to the right of the room.
They lowered their weapons and went towards the altar. Two heavy gold and jewel inlaid candles were positioned on either side with a long strip of that same sateen fabric that the boy had the instrument wrapped in. 'What does it say?' Whispered the boy as the girl daintily pulled the scroll apart.
'Ah! It's written in the Old Language...' She whispered. 'The one that Mamma and Pappa said that was the first language that was here in this world.'
'Can you read it?'
The girl blinked a couple of times and tilted her to the side.
'I am bad at it... But look there are pictures!'
The two siblings pored over the scroll like an interesting picture book when suddenly the boy gasped.
'Amalya! It's the gold thing of Asperati I found!'
She bent down low and made out the fairly distinguishable shape of the instrument her brother had found. The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out the fabric with the instrument and laid it next to the picture, the uncanny resemblance acknowledged.
'It says it is an a-mu-let. An amulet.'
'Wow! Really, does it do anything?'
'I can't understand it all... But wait... I recognise this word it says 'key' it's a key!'
'A key? But what does it open?' He asked excitedly.
'I don't know...' Replied the girl frowning as she continued to unfurl the scroll. The boy turned away and began to explore the room, tracing the old spines of books that were covered in dust and smelling the air which was rich with damp and earth. They hadn't realised but adjacent to the bookcase and to the left of the door was a pair of curtains that were almost completely drawn shut save for a small gap in the middle.
The boy poised the gun on his shoulder and used the barrel to draw the curtains apart and found to his surprise a large family portrait of the long gone Royal family and a dull silver chest with green on its sides just in front of it. He drew back the curtains completely and allowed the light from the lamp to reveal more.
'Amalya come here, I found a chest and a painting.'
The girl stopped peering over the scroll and walked over with the small lamp and amulet in hand.
'It's very old.' She commented as she peered at the chest. 'I wonder if we can open it?'
'But look Amalya, its the old King and Queen.' Said the boy pointing at the large painting which had the regal figures of the King, Queen and their son and daughter. The boy chuckled.
'It's like our family, Mamma, Pappa, Amalya and me.' He paused for a moment, walked up to the portrait and dusted his fingers over their faces.
'Doesn't the King remind you of Grandpa?'
The girl shone the light closer to the face.
'A little, it's a very old picture from a long time ago. But you know all of our kind is related with the Last Kingdom and Royal family because there are not enough of us. Grandpa told me that.'
'What happened to them?' Asked the boy in a quiet voice.
'Grandpa and Pappa told me that some bad things once happened at the Last Castle which is why it is cursed. They said the Royal family disappeared or were killed by the curse. But no one knows...' A sudden realisation of the words the girl had said weighed down on her. 'This is why we shouldn't be here...Nino we should go...'
'But Amalya, let's open the chest before we go, we can put the amulet back in there before we leave.'
She breathed in and nodded.
'There's no lock and it looks heavy, let's both try and open it.'
The girl placed the light lamp on her side and crouched down. The boy followed due course, and after counting down from three, they hoisted open the lid with great difficulty. The two siblings then were caught with shock at what they next perceived for inside the chest were dozens and dozens of these amulets; some gold, some silver, some copper and some bronze. Some had gems, some didn't, and some had the gems in different shapes and sizes and others with them in a different order.
'Wow.' Breathed the girl.
'There are so many...' Said the boy in awe. 'Wait, look!' Said the boy suddenly as they noticed on the lid of chest was an indentation with gears and locks on the side. 'What do you think that is?'
The girl traced it with her fingers, wiping away grime and dirt.
'It looks like it has another part in the lid which you need to open-'
'The key Amalya, the key! Look someone must have made all these amulets to hide the key and make it hard to open it. Do you think our amulet can open it?'
The girl fidgeted on the spot from excitement and despair.
'Okay, let's try, but we don't know if our amulet is the right one.'
'It must be!' Exclaimed Nino with excitement. 'It's the one in the picture.'
'But it doesn't mean that that is the key!'
'Let's try it anyway.' Said the boy excitedly as he reached into his breast pocket and unfurled the glorious cloth revealing the amulet within it. 'Which way do we put it?' He wondered as he turned it over in his hand and compared the amulet to the indentation.
The girl ran to the altar with the light and shone it over the scroll again. 'Try with the symbol side facing inside.'
The boy bit on his lower lip tentatively as his sister returned and shone the light on the indentation. With his small fingers nimbly holding onto all edges of the amulet he slotted it carefully into the impression. They held their breath, and then suddenly they heard a small click as the gears inside the chest began to turn. Without warning, the compartment flew open and inside the two siblings found a scroll of paper and a crudely constructed paperback book.
'What are they?' Breathed the girl. She could not bring herself to explore these new findings as it was evident this scroll and book was incredibly important and potentially very dangerous as to why they were hidden in the first place.
The boy let go of his hesitation and unfurled the small scroll. Again they found it was written in the Old language, and it was impossible to decipher. Next he picked up the bound book and found them to be notes crudely put together, but nonetheless in a language they could read and understand.
'It says... Lucifer's Last Word.' Breathed the boy and he fell deathly silent. The girl suddenly became weak and clammy and snatched the book from the boy's hands. The girl could not believe it. Suddenly fear erupted in her and she knew what they had just found was going to lead to bigger and more dangerous problems.
'Amalya...'Said the boy in a voice that had suddenly risen in pitch. 'Amalya, what does it mean?'
She scanned over the words again and opened the book. She dropped down to her knees, trembling as she read a passage:
'I, the creator of the Darkness will return when the bloodline of the first-'
She dropped the book as from a dark corner emerged a hand which clamped over the girl's mouth and immobilised her hands. The boy stood stunned, forgetting his oath to protect his sister he stepped back fear dancing in his eyes.
'Amalya!' He suddenly screamed as he reached for his father's shotgun but found his body had been strongly pinned to the ground by some unseen force.
'What are two rats doing in this Castle?' Crooned a dangerously silky voice. The girl struggled against the hands that held her sending out angry screams of desperation as she beseechingly locked eyes with her younger brother. The young boy stood helpless, tears streaming down his face as he fought against the sensation halting him from flexing a muscle. The voice belonged to a male who wore dark unshapely clothing and stooped strongly as he held onto the struggled girl. He was thin, almost emancipated and his eyes had sunken into his skull.
'Enough enough.' Drawled a second voice as in the doorway stood two more figures. 'Did they find it?'
An obscure being clad in black and red crossed towards the boy and looked directly into his eyes. The boy's eyes opened wide as he screeched. 'Demon!'
The figure chuckled and bent to pick up the dropped book. The boy and girl could not see its face but the atmosphere in the room suddenly changed causing the little silver lamp to have its unwavering flame flicker uncomfortably.
'It's... Here. It's all here. The transcription and the translation... It was only a story but it's really here. And to think what was stopping us from coming here was a small enchantment that was broken by our two little guests here.'
The third figure which leant against the frame of the door added in a deep booming voice.
'We should take the children. They are rare after all...'
The male holding onto the girl made a sound of displeasure.
'They aren't even adolescents, the boy has two to four years at a least.'
'Even so.' Cut in the voice from the obscure figure from the doorway. 'We can utilise these children when they have matured, though, we will have to gift the girl to the Blood Kingdom as a means to protect ourselves when presenting them with this... Finding.' Finished the figure as he weighed the final word. 'The boy will eventually become a valuable asset to us.'
'Enough enough. Time to put these two to sleep. Their job is complete.' Drawled the male in black and red vestments. 'Time for bed little girl.' He said in a dangerously sweet voice as he neared the girl. Tears streamed from her eyes as a muffled scream escaped through the gaps of the male's hand that was clasping her mouth. The boy joined in with her shrieks as the red and black clothed male neared her body and waved a hand over her eyes. They drooped. The muffled sounds ceased leaving only the boy drowning the room in screams.
'Now your turn.' Grinned the figure.
The boy Nino fought against the bind once more, and with his last moments of conscience before the male reached him, screamed his sister's name and cursed the moment he touched the gold crest of the fallen Asperati Kingdom.
The chain reaction had already begun.