Divinity's Twilight: Rebirth has a long, epic prologue. I should know, since I wrote the massive thing.
Some readers adore it. A few have even said things such as, "It's like the Battle of Helms Deep or Minis Tirith at the start of the series." Truly astounding praise, and I'm thankful to everyone who feels that way.
But if you were thinking of giving the series a go and wanted a, shall we say, jump start on the book, look no further than the new, improved, ABRIDGED version down below. I wrote this new incarnation of Rebirth's prologue after finishing book two, Remnant, and I think it really showcases how far I've come as an author. It still possesses all the heart-pounding action and intrigue of the original . . . but in a fraction (a quarter, to be exact) of the word count.
Whether you're an old fan or a new one, I think you'll love this chaotic glimpse at the origin of Divinity's Twilight. Some things have changed. Slightly. I leave it up to you to figure out what.
And when you finish, please, please, PLEASE leave a comment (or send me an email) saying which version you prefer - the old, or the new. It may become the start of a prequel project or a second edition . . .
“At the Edge of Reason”
697 Years Ago . . .
The thing pinning Darmatus Aurelian to the ground had once been a man.
"Tarn!" Darmatus cried as he shoved against its shattered, warped breastplate. Gleaming red crystals thrust through it like splintered spears, reflecting the light of the forest around them. Fires greedily devouring ferns and trees. Flashing blades, crackling bolts of lightning, and the ebony radiance of a massive vortex spiraling out of control.
Darmatus tried again. "Tarn! This isn't you. Fight it, soldier. Come to your senses!"
The thing that had been Tarn spat its reply, cracked, bleeding gums pulled back in a snarl as it surged again and again and again at the throat of its former lord. More crystals lined its mouth, fangs that tore through flesh and sinew with no regard for what the Creator above had wrought. Tarn's left eye was gone, a blossom of crimson curling from the socket like rampant ivy. The skin of his cheeks sloughed southward, exposing milk-white bone and crystal seedbeds waiting their turn to sprout.
And beneath it all jangled a silver pendant, clasp broken, an ash-smeared portrait swaying back and forth right above Darmatus' drool-drenched nose. Alya, Tarn's wife, stared down at him, hawkish eyes boring through his dented plate armor, his gambeson, his soul.
You did this.
No. No, it was Sarcon, it was his greed, his—
Alya's son glanced up from his toy soldiers, pointing at Darmatus' guilty heart.
You let him go free. You didn't punish him for his crimes. You killed my father.
It was true. With a roar, Darmatus lunged forward, pushing through the drool and blood, the putrid breath of the corpse atop him.
For that was all that remained of Tarn.
All that the Red Plague, unleashed by his elder brother's treachery, had left of him.
The creature clawed at Darmatus' breastplate, gouging furrows in the muddy surface, scarring the silver underneath. Such a pitiful beast, retaining none of the intelligence the knight had once possessed. It came at him, again and again and again, crystal nails raking, jaw snapping like a ravenous drake. Only the light of madness still lit its solitary, bloodshot eye.
Raising a boot, Darmatus kicked the monster away. It tumbled through the muck, bounced off a blackened tree stump, and came to rest against a pile of bodies. Some were just like it, flesh riddled with grotesque growths, veins pulsing red instead of blue. Most wore Darmatus' livery—a lance laid atop a blue field—and screams forever frozen on twisted lips.
In an instant, the vile thing regained its balance, limbs cracking as it turned and charged on all fours. Yet an instant was all Darmatus needed. He reached within himself. Touched the men'ar flowing through his veins, the essence of the Creator this abomination sought to feast upon. Yanking a dagger from his belt, Darmatus jabbed it at Tarn, envisaging a torrent of flames as tears cut the soot clinging to his stubble.
"Spi'ferat," he sobbed.
An inferno gushed from the blade, men'ar crossing the boundary between spirit and the waking world. It wrapped Tarn in a column of dancing reds and oranges and yellows, rending what little skin remained from its bones, dragging animal screeches from its diseased gums. The stench of charred flesh filled Darmatus' nostrils, so familiar it failed to turn his stomach.
And then . . . silence.
No, not silence. The sounds of battle slammed into him like a wave. Dying screams. Shouts of triumph. Exploding spells, clanging swords, the otherworldly shrieks of beasts beyond mortal ken. One noise consumed them all—a whirring wail louder than all the fell spirits of the Afterplane singing in unison.
Darmatus knelt, ripped his lance free of the dirt, blood, and spilled innards, and stood to glare at the calamity his eldest brother had created. At the Oblivion Well Sarcon had summoned when he'd at last been cornered.
Up and up and up it stretched, out of the forest, into the storm-darkened heavens above. It was a vortex. No, not merely a vortex. Darmatus could feel it. Calling to the men'ar in his blood, the arcane energy that was him. Even as its crashing, coursing winds grated against his ears, willing him to curl up and shield his head, it hummed a haunting melody inside his mind.
Be whole again.
The shout tore Darmatus from his reverie. Beckoned by that phantom whisper, he'd taken three steps toward the maelstrom—right into the path of a charging pyrevant. All five of its bleeding faces bellowed as it charged, flame-wreathed granite arms reaching to crush the life from Darmatus' lungs.
He pivoted, blocking with a wall of wind that streamed from his lance in either direction. Embers surged from the rock monster's fire-laced cracks as it galloped past, but the magic-infused gusts turned the heat away from Darmatus and the man cringing in his shadow.
"Jarrik, what are you doing here? It's safer at camp than—"
"Safe?" The man ran a hand along his graying widow's peak, wiping away sweat and flecks of mud and ash. "Nowhere's safe anymore, My Lord. More of those," he pointed at the pyrevant, which mindlessly dashed through a cordon of Darmatus' knights before bashing off two of its many arms on a tree, "are crawling out of the ground every minute. Ellara has abandoned her camp and is bringing the reserves forward."
Darmatus glanced past Jarrik, his eyes darting from melee to melee, trying to make sense of the chaos. Two more pyrevants rushed a phalanx of knights with heavy spears. The first spitted itself on the jagged weapons, rearing back as mages hurled bolts of lightning at its engorged torso. Most glanced harmlessly off its hardened flesh, but one punched through a red-hot vent and into its core.
Shrapnel exploded in all directions. Shards of granite, hunks of coal, gleaming yellow crystals. Cheers of victory instantly turned to shrieks of despair as a cloud of expanding steam melted knights within their armor, searing plate to flesh, cooking their eyes and organs. The second pyrevant bounded through the wreckage of the first, pounding bodies into the ground with its vicious hooves.
"She mustn't commit the reserves here." Darmatus grabbed Jarrik's leather-padded shoulder, preparing to send him somewhere—anywhere—but here. "This battle is lost. We need to withdraw to . . . to . . ."
He trailed off, and Jarrik nodded. "There's nowhere to retreat to. The Alliance wandered into your broth . . .'' Darmatus' eyes flashed fury, and Jarrik bit his tongue. ". . . Into Sarcon's trap. We thought he was weak, but this," he waved at the blood, the death, the carnage, "was clearly his plan all along."
The whistling winds grew louder, their gusts tugging at discarded banners, snapping the gilded tassels on fallen officers' cloaks. Darmatus and Jarrik rose from their huddle, eyes glued to the Well as its ebony wall crept forward in a circle. Trees burst to dust at its touch. A knight encased in scarlet crystal stumbled against it and disappeared without a shriek.
All life was its to claim.
"To what end?" Darmatus mumbled. "Would he let the Well destroy everything just to spite us? Consume Lozaria to spite me?"
Jarrik bowed his head. "I cannot say, My Lord."
My Lord. The title rankled Darmatus like nothing else. Those two words bound him. To the fate of this army, to the lives of his men, to the wellbeing of his people. And, more than anything else, they had bound him to the accursed choice that might cost him two brothers this day.
"I am lord of nothing now, Jarrik. Do not call me that." Darmatus stared at the mud gripping his boots, so soft, so welcoming. To curl up now and be rid of it all would be such sweet release.
Then give it to me. A velvet-soft finger caressed the inside of his temple, its soothing whisper rising from deep within. I can take your burden.
I can give you victory.
No, anything but that. If Sarcon would destroy the world to spite him, Darmatus would fight to his final breath to spite what lay within him—the curse of his power, another thing that should not be.
"Of course, My Lord," Jarrik replied, a smug smile splitting his wrinkle-carved cheeks.
Darmatus punched him in the shoulder. "Sycophant."
Reaching up with his free hand, Darmatus grabbed the thin plate welded over the center of his armor. A single men'ar-enhanced tug wrenched it free, exposing the bright, almost blinding green crystal beneath.
"Illyriite . . ." Jarrik breathed, shielding his eyes. "If you use that, My Lord, then—"
Darmatus nodded. "Emerald green from depths not seen, new life it gives to those unclean," he recited, brushing the legendary stone with his gauntlet. A children's nursery rhyme, one that grew grander with every retelling of how the Aurelian brothers had eradicated the Red Plague.
A plague his older brother had unleashed once more.
"What the stories leave out . . ." Darmatus paused, his smile soft, wistful. ". . . Is the cost. Tell Saris I love her and . . . to guide the boy well. Between the two of you, he will make a fine king."
Jarrik didn't try to stop him. Banging his fist to his chest in salute, he crouched and took off through the dying, smoke-choked forest.
May Sariel and the Veneer watch over you, Darmatus prayed, then thought better of it and spat in the bloody muck at his feet. Sariel cared not for their fates. None of the divine Veneer did.
Now . . .
"To me, knights of the Alliance!" Darmatus roared. Heads turned at his cry, some clad in silver helms that matched his own armor, others with pointed red ears or shaven blue heads. Once, the seven races of Lozaria had been enemies.
Today, over half of them stood on the plains of Har'muth as allies.
They would win.
The alternative wasn't even worth considering.
Wounded and weary, dragging bent swords, broken spears, and heavy shields, they formed around Darmatus. He held his lance in the air as a beacon, feeding men'ar into it until flames surged into the sky, bursting through the gnarled forest canopy, ascending to match the ebony wall across the clearing.
Draconic cries and the beating of leathery wings came from above as the Sylph readied their cavalry for one final charge. Along the line, gigantic Hues beat their four mighty fists against their tower shields, creating a din that shook the very ground. There was still hope in the hearts of mortals. Darmatus could sense it, as surely as he could sense the men'ar thrumming in his veins, begging to be used.
Opposite them, the ground split and trees fell as more pyrevants heaved themselves from the depths. Twisted limbs pounded the earth in a discordant rhythm. Steam jetted from molten seams along their misshapen bulks, and sightless eyes cried tears of blood.
Beneath them huddled hundreds of shambling corpses, their crystal-pocked skin glittering scarlet in the light of the flames. They were horrors one and all, their bellies bloated, heads malformed, and flesh mutilated by hideous crystal flowers. A soldier near Darmatus doubled over at the sight, spilling his morning gruel between his feet. Yet most stood firm, for the alternative was death.
"He . . . hehehe . . . he finally did it, he did," cackled a voice at Darmatus' shoulder. He fought back a fresh wave of tears. He couldn't falter. Not now.
"We will stop him, Rabban."
"Can we, can we?" his younger brother retorted, cocking his head to the side as his grin widened. Dark hair soaked with congealing blood dangled over his leather pauldrons, around his neck, and down his back. "This was his aim. I see-see it now. Good elder brother didn't mean to cure me, no-no, no-no. He wanted poison and antidote both. Control, control, CONTROL!"
It had been a mistake to bring Rabban to the battle. Darmatus glanced around at the soldiers near them, smiling as he dispelled his beacon, wrapped an arm around his brother, and leaned in close. Years had passed since madness had last taken Rabban's senses, but . . .
The corpses started advancing toward them, first at a shamble, then a run. Such a terror was enough to break any man, let alone his brother, who'd nearly died to the crimson scourge. It was Sarcon's ultimate betrayal. A sacrilege. Despicable, disgusting . . .
"We will kill him," Darmatus promised, surprised at the venom in his words. His blood raced. His heart pounded at his ribs like a battering ram. "Slowly, painfully, however you'd like, dear brother. But for now," he patted the glowing satchel tied to Rabban's belt, emerald light piercing the threadbare sack like the noonday sun, "I need you."
Wide eyes stared through him as Rabban tilted his head the opposite way. "Maim, kill, slay. This is good. Very good. We fight, we fight, WEFIGHT!"
Not waiting for an order, Rabban hefted his twin handheld crossbows and rushed their foes. It wasn't the signal Darmatus wanted, but it was good enough.
They thundered across the ruined forest glade, leaping downed trees, skirting bodies and blood-filled holes dug out by rising pyrevants and exploding spells. Sylph astride vicious, scale-covered drakes swooped between the forest boughs. Blue Hue mouths belted war cries loud as any of Nemare's temple bells.
Temples that were now scorched rubble. Bells that would never again toll.
All because of Sarcon.
All because of his voided ambition.
Today, his butcher's bill comes due.
Snarling, Darmatus turned inward, directing his men'ar as a general commands his troops. Light and free, wind danced at his feet. Sturdy and firm, the power of earth formed in his lance hilt.
He shot into the air on springs of air. Higher, higher, until he was positioned directly over a brute of a pyrevant—a massive beast large as a blacksmith's furnace and twice as hot. Then he gathered an orb of flame against his back, a pinprick of chaotic energy small enough to hold in his hand.
Darmatus released it and exploded toward the ground. His lance cleaved the pyrevant in twain, wind rushing from him like wings, blowing its shredded carcass outward in a wave of destruction. Dozens of Red Plague mutants were felled like ripened wheat, their crystal-tortured flesh disintegrating beneath a hail of stone and steam.
But Darmatus wasn't done. He drove his lance into the cracked soil, feeding it his men'ar, willing it to listen. The men'ar that slept there stirred, slowly at first, then faster and faster as his power overwhelmed it.
He was the Triaron, master of the elements.
He would be obeyed.
The forest floor crumpled around him in expanding rings, thumping as it shifted, as it convulsed with each passing second. Then it ruptured. Titanic slabs swung upwards, crashing against each other and crushing whatever lay between them. Great earthen spears thrust skyward, skewering pyrevants and raising them into the air, impaling crystalline monstrosities in their scores.
Dark were Sarcon's magics. Ancient and powerful, not to be trifled with.
But Darmatus was the Triaron, and he would not—could not—lose this day.
The Alliance line closed and fell upon their disorganized foes. Drakes dove again and again, snatching abominations in wicked claws and flinging them toward the heavens. Faratul, Grand Magister of the Sylph, stood atop the black wyvern Khorrix, slashing apart pyrevants with searing beams of light. Kanar'kren, Regent-General of the Hues, shattered creature after creature with four bucklers larger than granary milling stones. Darmatus' own knights waded in with sword and spear, hacking down Sarcon's abominations and their own mutated comrades with tear-filled eyes.
For now, it was enough. Enough to hold the undying army at bay while he did what must be done.
Green light flared from his chest plate as Darmatus drew on the power of his Illyriite shard. Pure arcane energy flowed into him, banishing his aches and fatigue, making his skin tingle and his hair stand on end. It was like holding the sun in his hands, or standing in the middle of a raging storm. Brilliant and electric. A connection to all that was . . . and what would be.
Darmatus felt everything then. The breath fleeing a dying knight as a crystal blade took him through the ribs. Each wingbeat of the drakes above, each flutter of their slotted eyes. Blood trickled from open wounds, drop by drop by drop. Vibrations—stomping hooves, running feet, falling corpses—rushed up his legs like the tremors of earthquakes.
But . . . addicting as it was, Darmatus couldn't stay. He took what strength he needed, then severed the connection. For an instant, he was dead. Cold and empty.
Then he was running, acting and reacting faster than anyone but Rabban—likewise encased in an emerald aura—could see. Darmatus sent a cone of flame forward, scorching the diseased from existence with a hastily whispered prayer. A pyrevant rolled at him, legs and arms tucked against its bulbous body, but a crackling lightning barrier burst from his flesh and dashed it into a thousand fragments.
Until Darmatus ran dry, until he breathed his last, he
Wind slashed from his lance. Fire leapt from his fingertips. He waltzed across the battlefield on wings of flame, gusts altering his course, pillars of earth erupting at a thought to give him hand and footholds. Nothing could stand in his path. Not the tortured souls Sarcon had corrupted to his bidding, not the aberrations he'd formed in the bowels of Lozaria.
Darmatus landed at the edge of the Oblivion Well, its keening wails but a whisper compared to the whirlwind blowing inside him.
Rabban appeared beside him, manic grin warping his face, not winded in the slightest.
As one, they grabbed their Illyriite shards.
As one, they thrust the emerald fragments into the seething wall of shadows. Into the coursing, twisting tendrils of ooze that obliterated everything they touched.
No pain lanced through Darmatus' arm. His fingers didn't turn to ash, nor was he swept away on its dark tides. Cracks sounded within their shards, sharp and piercing. Emerald fought shadow, one light devouring the other, then breaking free to consume the other in turn. Over and over again, a cycle that would end when their small pieces were overwhelmed by—
"Not enough, not enough," Rabban babbled.
He looked at the Illyriite in his hand, splinters flaking free, glowing-white fissures expanding across its surface with every passing second. A sad smile graced his lips—the same somber grin he'd worn when he'd told Darmatus and Sarcon to abandon him to the Plague so many years ago.
Straining, Darmatus stepped toward him. "No! You're not going to—"
Light erupted from Rabban, peeling open a gap in the Well even as it turned his flesh to ash.
"NO!" Darmatus screamed again.
Too late. He stumbled through the shadows, his last glimpse of Rabban a fading smile that came apart stitch by stitch as the Well closed behind him. Life was men'ar, but men'ar was also life. What was taken from the Veneer could always be returned.
His tears dried before they ever formed. Yes, Darmatus had lost one brother. But before he gave himself over to grief, before his own end, there remained one more brother to send to the Afterplane.
No, not the Afterplane, Darmatus decided, drawing himself up, stalking forward with lance extended. I'll kill Sarcon so thoroughly his soul goes straight to the Void.
The sounds of battle beyond the Well were absent, replaced by an eerie silence. Where churned mud and brittle grass lined the forest outside, the ground here was like glass or obsidian, dark and polished to the point Darmatus could see in it his haggard, blood-flecked reflection. What was this place? Was he still in Har'muth?
"Sarcon?" he called. The name tasted like bile, but he spat it anyway. "Enough games. Enough running. Let's end this."
His words and footsteps echoed about the space, bouncing up toward the bright heavens far above and off the stones below. There was nowhere to hide. No buildings, trees, or undergrowth. Just the obsidian floor, a slight basin at the Well's center, and . . .
. . . seven pedestals holding seven purple crystals. These were no rough hewn shards, not like the weak illyrium fragments that powered Sarcon's pyrevants or the almost divine Illyriite crumbling in Darmatus' left hand. They were perfectly formed, smooth without cut or blemish. And inside, deep within their ebony confines, floated an inky black fluid.
He stepped up to the nearest, an obelisk the size of his gauntlet-covered forearm. Others were larger, about the height of a man, while some were as small as his fist. What made them different? What . . .
The fluid within the shard moved, tendrils beckoning to Darmatus like a lover's fingers. Calling him closer, nearer. Whispering sweetly in his ear, asking what he—
"Entrancing, aren't they?" croaked a voice from the shadows.
Darmatus recognized that voice. He dropped into a fighting stance, teeth bared, breath coming in heaving grunts. "Show yourself, voidstain. Rabban's soul—the souls of all the comrades you've betrayed—hunger for your blood."
"Would that I could give it." Sarcon's voice was raspy. Weak and ragged. Was this some ploy? Another trick?
Shuffling came from behind the third pedestal to Darmatus' right. He spun, charged, and came to an abrupt halt when he saw Sarcon.
His elder brother was no more. Where once powerful muscles had filled out his tunic, dangling skin and withered bones sagged within a white robe that hung limp atop his shoulders. His long, flaxen hair—his pride and the envy of the kingdom—had been bleached like sand and was just as fragile, falling from his liver-spotted scalp in clumps. Sallow, pockmarked skin peeked through the gaps in his baggy vestments, and a trail of hair, skin flakes, and blood circled the pedestals behind him.
Sarcon's dark, sunken eyes roved the room, searching for him. Dear Veneer, he was blind—his milk-white pupils rheumy like some ancient crone decades older than he should be. "Where . . . where are you, brother?" Sarcon mumbled through pale, sore-coated gums.
This changed nothing. Darmatus strode forward, leveling his lance, gaining speed with each step. Whatever sorcery had cost Sarcon his youth, it couldn't placate the rage burning inside him. Couldn't turn back the clock and resurrect Nemare—raise its marble walls, rebuild its libraries, or revive the scholars that had choked on the fumes from their own books.
Darmatus reveled in the carnage he was about to unleash. He'd flay the skin from Sarcon's flesh, pull out his entrails, and stuff them so far down his throat he'd be—
Sighing, Darmatus stopped in front of Sarcon. Those were not his desires. It was the thing in his mind, the entity tied to his power.
Sarcon would die, but there was something he needed to know first.
"How do I stop the Oblivion Well?"
Sightless eyes swung toward him, and desiccated lips pulled back in a grin. "You don't."
"Wrong answer." Darmatus grabbed Sarcon's limp arm, snapping it as he shoved the living-corpse against the purple crystal. Shrieks shattered the silence as his brother tried, and failed, to break free of his grip. "Try again."
"You heard the Elysium," Sarcon said, blood dripping from his mouth to stain his robes. "It calls to you, asking your greatest desires. I made a wish. I gave it my soul, my youth, my time."
Reaching up, Sarcon wiped the blood from his lips, then let his remaining arm fall to his side. Would breaking that one make him more pliable?
"I can sense your fury, your rage," Sarcon continued. "But it's too late."
Darmatus brought his lance tip up until it touched the spot below Sarcon's heart. "I can still kill you. What was that advice you always gave me? 'Slay the mage, end the spell?'"
A mad, blood-flecked laugh answered him. "Ha! You are fighting against powers beyond your ken, brother. Forces you couldn't possibly comprehend. Kill me, and the Elysium will . . ."
Sarcon smiled, a manic, ear-to-ear grin.
". . . still . . ."
He swung his unbroken arm forward, then smashed it back against the obsidian shard, blood-smeared fingertips swiping along its gleaming surface.
". . . carry out . . ."
Darmatus flung Sarcon aside, his body cracking as it struck the stones. The whole space lit up with purple radiance, the stones on the pedestals glowing brighter and brighter. Above, the swirling winds redoubled in strength, the shadows within their walls darkening until they were black as pitch. No light shone through. Not a drop from the heavens, nor a flicker of flames from the forest outside.
". . . my . . . will . . ." Sarcon gasped, curling about his ruined body.
Men'ar raced to the tip of Darmatus' lance, expanding into an orb of violent lightning that scorched the ground beneath it. He stabbed it forward. Thrust it at the final obelisk, the one Sarcon had activated with his blood.
The tip bounced off the crystal. The lightning shot away, into the Well where it disappeared without a shred of smoke or fire.
Frantic, Darmatus glanced around. At the other six plinths, beaming forth rays of darkest light. At the trail of blood leading up to each of them, around and around the room, ending where Darmatus now stood.
And, last of all, he staggered backward and stared up at the wailing walls of the Oblivion Well as they shook, trembled, then surged outward with the speed of a rushing ocean wave. Death was coming for Lozaria, and he had failed to stop it.
He had lost.
The voice came from the other side of the Well, past the basin, beyond the seven plinths and their shards of crystal. Darmatus rounded the pedestals, lance pointed at the back of the tall, raven-haired man who stood there. A dark robe, its shadowy hem twisting and warping in the windless silence, cloaked him from head to boot, hiding whatever bulged between his shoulders.
How in the seven hells had Darmatus not seen him until now?
"Is it not beautiful?" the raven-haired man asked, clasping his arms behind him.
A meaningless question. Only one thing mattered now. "How do I stop it?" Darmatus growled, funneling men'ar into his lance.
The raven-haired man turned . . .
. . . and Darmatus' lance began to rattle in his hand.