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DestinyQuest 2: The Heart of Fire Prologue

Tomorrow sees the launch of the second of Michael J. Ward’s DestinyQuest adventures, The Heart of Fire. Below you will find the prologue to the adventure, and be sure to check back tomorrow for your chance to win a copy of this remarkable book!

 

Prologue:  The Great Escape 

 You are in free fall.

The black rock of the mountainside streaks past in a deadly blur. Your descent is fast – unstoppable. You can only watch, paralysed by fear, as the world tumbles through blue sky and earth. Then a wave of ash washes over you, turning bright day into a murky twilight.

Through the thickening dust, you see the ground spiralling up at an alarming speed; a pock-marked plain of splintered rock and fire-rimmed craters.  Behind you, something rumbles and booms… then you feel a scalding heat at your back. For an instant the darkness becomes light as an immense ball of flame roars overhead, slamming into the ground and sending ash billowing across the hellish plain.

You spin and twist through the smoke, your broken body smashing off rock and stone as you tumble down the slope. You finally slam down hard onto baking hot ash, your exposed skin blistering on contact.

Gagging from the sulphurous fumes  you struggle onto your back, aware that the ground beneath you is shaking. From the dark sky falling stone beats against the earth, bouncing and rattling off your soot-streaked armour. Shielding your eyes against the barrage, you fix your gaze on the dark mountain. Through the ash you can dimly make out its summit, fountaining an endless column of rock and earth into the sky.

This is the end of the world.

And you are here to see it.

The ground shakes, a continuous and steady rhythm. You twist around, as you have done a hundred times before, to gaze upon your nemesis. It strides through the smoke, a shadow amidst the swirling red ash. An immense creature, impossibly large, with black wings and iron-tipped horns that blot out the broken landscape. Its charred body is crisscrossed with vivid veins of magma, pulsing with a hellish glow. And in its hand is a sword – a sword as big as the mountain itself, its serrated edge crackling with fire. 

‘NO!’ Tears sting your eyes as the demon stalks towards you. You cannot see its face, but its gaze is inescapable: a single orb of crimson hatred, blazing hot like the sun.

‘My journey is complete!’ The demon snarls, flames rippling across its body.  ‘Ragnarok is remade! ’

Scrambling in the dust for a weapon, your hands find only rock and earth. As you turn back, gripped with panic, you see the demon standing over you. It raises its mighty sword, the black metal inscribed with a thousand dark runes. Set into the crosspiece is a fist-sized gemstone, glowing with a piercing white light.

‘Ragnarok is remade!’  The demon turns the blade and then, with a roar as loud as the raging mountain, the beast plunges the sword into your heart…

 ***

‘No!’ You jerk backwards, flinching from the strike. The rattle of chains remind you that you cannot move your arms. You are a prisoner, bound within the four walls of a cell.

‘Ragnarok…’ you gasp.

In a corner of the room, a white shape is bent over a table. You hear the scratch of a pen on parchment. The noise is grating; each stroke setting your teeth on edge.

‘The sword,’ says a voice, cold and impassionate. There is a pause in the incessant scraping as the pen is lifted off the parchment. ‘Tell me again what you saw. What is this… gem that you speak of?’

Already the vision is fading, replaced by a sickening wave of nausea. Once more you pull against the chains, struggling to break free, but the effort only brings you pain. You sag, hanging limp, your knees scraping against the hard stone floor.

‘Answer me,’ demands the voice.

You scowl at the thin, bald-headed man, his scarred scalp peppered by an occasional grey hair. A scholar, a librarian. Forever hunched over his writing table, forever asking questions. You count seven rolls of parchment resting against the wall. Each one, you know, will be covered in hundreds of neat lines; every word dragged from you, like a vulture constantly pecking away at a corpse in the desert.

‘I’m done,’ you mutter, letting your head fall against your chest. ‘I’m done…’

‘You’re done when I tell you!’ snaps the man. He stands suddenly, pushing the desk away. His hand goes to his belt, quickly unfastening the straps around a leather flask. ‘More of this will make you talk.’

You flinch, knowing what is to come. The Elysium. A truth serum. It makes the visions stronger; more frequent. ‘No, please, no more…’

There is a click of boot heels, echoing in the passageway. Two men appear at the bars of the cell. One is tall, dressed in a long grey coat. His face is hidden beneath the brim of his hat. Next to him is an inquisitor, a holy warrior, dressed in the white and gold armour of his order. The inquisitor produces a ring of keys from his belt. There is a rattling clatter followed by a grating squeal, as the cell door is unlocked and pushed open. The inquisitor stands back, his head bowed, as the stranger in the grey coat strides into the cell.

‘What is this?’ snaps the librarian, scurrying out of the man’s way. ‘I demand to know your purpose here!’ His head jerks back and forth between the stranger and the guard, but he receives no answer.

Instead, the grey-coated figure halts, the heels of his boots snapping together in military fashion. He places a gloved hand inside a pocket and pulls out a letter. He holds it aloft, waiting for the librarian to take it.

‘This better be good.’ He snatches the document, scarred cheek pulling a crude sneer. There is silence as he unfolds the paper and begins reading.

‘You can’t!’ he gasps suddenly, looking up in shock. ‘By what right?’

The stranger removes his hat, revealing a gaunt face covered in vicious-looking welts. His left eye is missing entirely, the pulpy flesh covered by a gem-encrusted patch. He takes a step forward, placing a gloved hand beneath your chin and lifting it up. His one grey eye scrutinises you with interest.

‘On Avian Dale’s orders,’ says the stranger, his voice deep and gravelly. ‘This one is now my property.’

The librarian is struggling for words, his upper lip twitching. ‘But you-’

‘My name is Virgil Elland.’ The stranger turns his head slightly, looking back over his shoulder. ‘You know me?’

‘I… I do,’ gasps the librarian, his eyes widening. ‘You’re a witchfinder. One of the king’s confessors.’

Virgil grins, displaying a set of gold teeth. ‘Once upon a time.’ He leans towards you, his grip on your chin tightening.

‘You caught this one, back in Tithebury – yes?’ The librarian glares sourly at his back.

‘No, that was another – Eldias Falks. I read his report.’ Virgil leans back, following the length of your arms to the chains hanging above your head. ‘A child was murdered.’

The librarian nods quickly. ‘Edward Cooper. The miller’s son.’

The man plants his hat back onto his head. ‘Common criminals do not receive the attention of the inquisition.’

‘Common!’ The librarian snatches one of the rolled parchments, holding it out in front of the man. ‘You know why this one is here. They claim to see the future – a prophet!’

Virgil ignores the proffered parchment. Instead, he plucks something from your arm. You feel a stinging pain, followed by a warm sensation running over your skin. You try and turn your head, but you are too weak to move.

‘Ah, of course.’ The witchfinder holds up a bloated leech. Scowling, he squashes it between his gloved fingers before sniffing the gooey residue. ‘Elysium.’

‘Yes, a necessary evil in these dark times.’ The librarian’s eyes dance shiftily. ‘Any normal person would have died months ago, even with the leeches. But this one… Their body doesn’t fight it. It’s almost as if it accepts it.’

‘Interesting…’ Virgil releases you, letting your head slump forward once again. ‘Bring more leeches. I want this one clean. Two days, I’ll be back for collection.’

He turns on his heels, revealing a vast array of pistols and rifles strapped across his shoulders. ‘This one is very precious to me. Understand?’

‘But what of the Lord Justice? I can’t believe that…’

‘It’s taken care of.’

‘But…’

‘Avian Dale has made all the arrangements-’

The men’s voices become distant. You struggle to focus but the room is blurring into a fevered haze. There is an echoing clang: the cell door closing. Then you are gone, adrift in another dream.

***

A rolling boom of noise.

You are thrown awake by a tremor, which has set the very walls to shaking. Still groggy from sleep, you struggle to bring your surroundings into focus. A cell; small and cramped. The desk in the corner has been over-turned. Ink is spattered across the dusty floor.

Another thunderous boom.

Stone and dust rain down from the ceiling. Your chains rattle back and forth, forcing you into a swaying dance. From the passageway you hear raised voices and the clash of steel. Another explosion is followed by screams. Dust and debris billow down the passage. A woman’s voice is raised above the din. You can’t make out the words.

Stone crumbles and breaks around the edge of your cell. For a second, you are convinced you are still dreaming; you can’t understand how the stone is moving, coming apart before your very eyes. Then you see tentacle-like roots, pushing up out of the ground, splitting the stone as if it was nothing but loose earth.

The cell door buckles as the stone shifts around it, filling the space with a thick cloud of dust. Unable to cover your face, you are seized by a coughing fit – the thick particles forcing their way to the back of your throat.

Eyes streaming, you watch as a dark shape moves towards you through the mist. For a moment you fear it is the demon from your dreams; the one that haunts your every waking moment. But this is a man.

He is short and wiry, dressed in half-tanned furs and rusted chainmail. As he steps closer, you see that his face has been painted: a black band cuts across the ridge of his nose, highlighting the whites of his eyes.

He mutters something in a guttural language, raising twin daggers that glow with an angry red light.

‘Free me…’ you manage to choke, fixing him with a hard gaze. ‘Free me.’

The man pushes his face close to yours. He sniffs you, then jerks back, his eyes widening with surprise.

‘Old one.’ His tongue struggles with the words, lisping through sharpened teeth. ‘Old one.’ In the distance, you hear another explosion. There is a rumbling crash as something heavy topples and smashes to the ground. The dust in the passageway grows thicker.

With a growl, the man swings his arms in a cutting motion.  The weight that was pulling at your arms suddenly disappears, throwing you forwards onto your stomach.  The severed chains rattle around you.

Weakly you try and rise, but there is no strength in your arms. You slump forward, your exhalation sending dust whirling before your face.

There is the scrape of boots as the man moves behind you. Strong hands take your shoulders and lift you up onto your knees. A gourd is pressed to your lips. You sup it greedily, the warm liquid washing away the dirt and dryness, and bringing fresh strength to your limbs.

When the gourd is taken away you are able to raise your hand to your lips, catching the last of the syrup as it drools down your chin.

‘You owe me,’ growls the man, thumping a fist against his chest. ‘You owe the Wicca.’

Then he is gone – moving swiftly back into the cloudy maelstrom. You are left alone in the cell, as another explosion – more distant this time – echoes back through the subterranean rock.

Bodies choke the tight passageway. It is difficult to pick out anyone’s allegiance, as each corpse is caked in a thick white dust. You stagger through the murky twilight, avoiding the side passages where the sounds of battle still rage. You flinch, drawing back against the wall, as one of the painted warriors races past you, heading back the way you have come. He pays you no mind, the hatchet he is carrying caked with blood.

You stumble onwards, your feet dragging through the loose rock and dirt. Then a sudden movement forces you to turn. An inquisitor looms out of the darkness. A jagged cut has bled down his face, mixing with the dust and coating his eyes in a bloody sludge. His first swing goes wide, but the second blow hits home – his sword punching into your chest. For a second, you both glare at each other down the length of the blade. Then white hot pain lances through your body, forcing out a gurgling scream…

***

You stumble onwards, your feet dragging through the loose rock and dirt. A sudden movement forces you to turn. The inquisitor. Somehow, you already know how this encounter will end. His first swing goes wide, but the second blow you dodge, letting it slam into the wall, jarring the blade from the warrior’s grasp. With a strength born from fear you kick back at your opponent, sending him tumbling back into the cell. His head thumps against a rock, drawing a muffled grunt. Then silence…

Quickly, you reach down and grab the inquisitor’s sword:

 

Knight’s folly

(main hand: sword)

+1 brawn +1 magic

As you continue down the passage, you find yourself pondering this sudden twist of fate. The inquisitor’s blow had been fatal. You had seen it; felt it crush your ribs and pierce your lungs. But it had all been a vision – a glimpse of a possible future. As you gaze upon the sword, its magnificent blade glowing with holy scripture, you feel a newfound energy surging through you. Perhaps some of the Elysium is still in your bloodstream, heightening the strange powers that you have had from birth – the ability to see the future.

You have gained the following combat ability:

Prophecy (co): Use this ability when you have lost a combat round, to avoid taking damage from your opponent.  You can only use this ability once per combat.

A set of stairs take you up into a torch-lined corridor. Your surroundings have become more opulent, with lines of fine tapestries covering the stone walls. The only sign that something is awry are the dusty footprints that track back and forth along the plush red carpet.

You find a side chamber, with several chests and bags resting at the foot of a bed. Aware that you are dressed in little more than a ragged gown, you quickly duck into the room and begin rummaging through its contents.

You find a backpack, 30 gold crowns and the following items, which you may take:

 

Plumed helm                 Saddle blanket                            Rider’s jerkin

(head)                                  (cloak)                                           (chest)

+1 armour                         +1 armour                                     +1 speed

 

Another corridor brings you out into a wide, vaulted hall. Its central pillars are carved into figures of warriors – both male and female – resplendent in decorative plate armour.  They provide useful cover as a tight knot of inquisitors rush past, their armaments clattering noisily in the echoing chamber.

You break from cover, moving quickly towards the bright band of daylight seeping between a pair of arched doors. Several bodies lie amongst the shadows to either side, green-fletched arrows protruding from their chests. Without stopping, you slip through the doors and out to freedom.

***

The glare is almost blinding; the light of the pale sun reflected off the glistening snow.

As you crest a hill, you look back at the place that once held you prisoner – a vast cathedral carved out of a spire of black rock. Durnhollow: the dungeon of the inquisition. You spit into the snow, before turning and heading down the wooded mountainside, into the valley below.

A narrow trail brings you to a well-worn track, carving its way through rolling hills. As you join the track, you see a procession approaching from the east; a group of dusty travellers, with carts and wagons piled high with belongings.

You wonder if they are fleeing some disaster, but as they near you see that several of the travellers are bedecked with garlands and crucifixes. Pilgrims, you suspect. You nod to one of the men, who is carrying a young girl on his shoulders. He smiles, then points ahead along the track.

‘Look Aimee, we made it. That’s Carvel, up there on the hill. We’re following the path of the saints, just like I said we would.’ He looks your way, offering you a grin. ‘Are you headed our way, pilgrim? Come to pay your respects?’

You follow the child’s gaze, towards a walled town perched on a plateau of rock. It promises you a new start; a safe haven from the prying eyes of the inquisition.

‘Yes. Yes, I am.’ You clasp the man’s hand in welcome, before joining the procession.

‘I’m Bernard. This is Aimee.’ The girl giggles and waves. ‘I’d say we made good timing; looks like this weather’s gonna hold after all.’ He frowns up at the heavy white sky. ‘At least ‘til we see the warmth of a tavern, eh?’

You peer sideways at him, offering a grin. ‘I very much doubt that.’ A moment later rain begins to fall, spattering off your helm and cloak.  You raise your eyebrows. ‘Told you, so.’

Bernard gives a snort of laughter. ‘What’s this, we got our very own prophet?’ He pats the legs of his little girl. ‘See, Aimee. We come to the holy lands and find ourselves a prophet, just like the great Saint Allam. It’s got to be a sign – a sign that our luck’s changing.’ He gives you a sly wink. ‘What do you say, prophet?’

You keep your eyes set ahead, your hand gripping the pommel of your sword. For as long as you can remember, you have been hunted – running from town and village, with nowhere to call home. Will Carvel be any different?

‘Tell me, Bernard. Do you believe that the future can really be foretold?’ You glance up at the darkening skies. They promise a storm.

The traveller lowers his little girl to the track, helping her to fix her hood. ‘I say it’s up to the One God to decide our fate. None of our business is it, the future? Not unless you’re a saint, like Allam.’

You nod, eyeing your reflection in the fast-forming puddles. A gaunt, pale figure; a stranger you barely recognise. ‘Yeah, none of our business.’ Your boot splashes down into the muddy water, obliterating the face staring back.

Your attention shifts to the welcoming lights of Carvel, blinking on the horizon. For now, you are happy to put thoughts of demons and dark mountains from your mind. The only future you want to see is a hot meal and a warm bed. ‘Come,’  you look to Bernard, gesturing towards the town. ‘That tavern of yours is sounding like a very good idea.’

 

You’ll have to pick up the book to start your quest! The Heart of Fire is released on Thursday the 15th of November 2012. And come back tomorrow for a chance to win copies of the book as well as some ultra-rare loot cards!