Throne of Dust – E.M. Knight

There is a moment, right before you face your death, that time slows. For a flicker of a second, the world goes still, peace descends upon you, and all is quiet. Then the roar of the imminent avalanche rips you back to reality and you know that peace was an illusion. As I look across the cavern floor, I see the snarling faces of The Convicted army opposite me. My coven’s vampires are at my sides. The scent of blood and death is heavy in the air. The rock is stained red. Behind me, the human women are crying, the children are screaming, and their fear is like a palpable thing. I am not afraid to die. Now is not my time. But the humans who are being protected by the very vampires who’ve preyed on them their whole existence, they are all terrified of the Final Sleep. I chance a glance back. The men have collected the women and children in a tight circle. They stay around them, bruised and bloodied and weaponless, but determined to protect their own. I feel a flicker of admiration for those men.

If The Convicted break through, it’ll be a slaughter. Hell, many of my own vampires must be tempted by the fresh, succulent meals behind them. My influence keeps them in line. For now. Who knows how long it will last? “Last chance,” the leader of The Convicted, the one possessed by The Ancient, snarls. “Step aside and give us the humans. Then, if I’m feeling generous, some of you might be spared.” He smacks his lips together in a hideous motion. “I will take care not to kill the strongest. Logan would unite our best.

He does not want—“ The Convicted’s head suddenly twists, and a violent spasm goes through him. Blood spurts from a hole in his neck. He reaches up to touch the spot—and falls flat before his hand even gets halfway. “You will not, ever,” Morgan announces, “speak of my husband again.” I look at the downed Convicted, and see the silver dagger sticking out from his neck. Mother had flung it at him from her spot of safety on the cliff above us. That opens the floodgates. The Convicted charge. The mass of bodies crashes into us like a malevolent black wave. “HOLD!” I scream at my comrades.

“Protect the humans at all costs! Don’t let any through!” But my shouts are lost in the uproar. We’re not a trained army. The Convicted are operating as a hive mind, directed by The Ancient. Individually they are weaker than we are. Together, as a group… The shouts of battle fill the air. Two Convicted jump at me as one. I leap out of the way, almost stumbling on an upturned rock, before reclaiming my balance and thrusting my claws through their chests. Both hands find the hearts of my enemies. I rip them out without mercy. Somebody shouts to my left.

My head snaps over. Sarah, one of The Haven’s vampires, is flat on her back. Three Convicted are on her. Two are holding her arms and legs, while the third is gripping her face, ready to sink his fangs into her exposed neck. A flare of rage erupts in me. I lose myself to the vampire instinct as I bolt to her defense. I shoulder slam the first Convicted off, just moments before he would have tasted blood. I spin and kick at the second. My foot catches him across the jaw, making his head snap sideways with the satisfying crunch of breaking bones. I don’t get to do anything about the third.

At that moment, two strong hands wrap around my shoulders. I’m picked up, and, in the midst of battle, flung away. I hit the ground hard. I leap to my feet as bewilderment rushes through me. Who would be strong enough to do that to me…? And then I see him. He’s an absolute behemoth of a vampire. He has to be at least seven feet tall. His whole body is corded with muscle. He’s not one of The Convicted, and neither is he one of ours. Then who…? His attention is only on me.

He starts to pick his way over the bodies, approaching with a broad smile. As he walks, The Convicted around him determinately scramble to get out of the way. I steel myself. I’ve got a fight on my hands. I don’t know who this vampire is, but I know he’s not friendly. My eyes quickly go to where Sarah had been. But the spot’s empty—the battle has already moved on. As the giant gets even closer, a space clears around us. Then it’s just me and him in an empty ring. Almost like we’ve stumbled into a gladiator’s arena.

With a start, I realize that all sound has been cut off. I can hear nothing—nothing except my labored breathing and the giant’s lumbering footsteps. I do a double-take. Nobody on the outside of the sphere is paying us any attention. It’s like he and I do not exist to them. My eyes narrow. “Magic,” I snarl. The big vampire laughs. He spreads his hands in a gleeful gesture. “What gave it away?” And then he charges me.

I would not have expected one with his size to move so fast. Before I know it his shoulder rams into my middle. I go hard into the ground. He lands on top of me. Again I’m staggered, not just by his physical presence, but by his vampiric strength. I can sense it, and there’s no way it should give him this much of an advantage. We should be near-equals! But that is just a fleeting thought as his fists start to rain down onto me. I deflect the worst of the blows but still take some in the ribs and abdomen. I struggle to get him off. Pinned to the ground like this, I lose all advantage.

The punches continue to fall. I feel a rib crack, and then a sharp pain shoots down my back. I’m entirely on the defensive, and I’m fading fast. He is just toying with me. If he gets bored, it’ll be alltoo-easy to end my life by tearing out my throat or ripping out my heart. The dome surrounding us filters out all sounds of the battle, and I realize the fight on the outside has been stealing my attention. That is what my focus has been on—because all of my concern lies with the humans. But what good am I to them dead? Another surge of adrenaline takes me as I commit fully to my fight. I catch one of the monster’s fists in two hands. He blinks in momentary surprise.

That’s all the chance I need. I bring my legs up and kick him off me with all my strength. He flies not far, but high, and his trajectory is cut off when his body hits the invisible barrier above us. He grunts from the impact and falls straight back to the earth. By then I’m back on my feet. I race toward him in a blinding rage and attack. Our positions switch. Now he’s on the defensive, barely holding me off, while I give in to all my vampiric darkness to fuel the attack. I channel all the anger, all the hate, all the fury I have to destroy this beast who dared attack me. Grim determination shows on his face as he attempts to defend himself.

He might be strong, but I’m fast. I’m quicker. I dart back and forth, in and out, striking at him like a viper. I never stay close enough for him to catch me. Because if this fight goes to the ground, where he can grapple, I’d be done for. “You’ve got more guts than your brother. I’ll give you that,” the giant vampire snarls. I fly at him again, claws going for his neck, but he manages to swat me back. “James would have never fought as hard as you.” Hearing my brother’s name throws me off.

“What do you know about James?” “Isn’t it obvious?” He grunts as he fends me off. “I was the one brought here to retrieve him for your Father.” I leap at him. He catches me mid-jump and uses my momentum to send me flying. I slam into the barrier and all the breath is knocked out of me. He advances on me. “Enough of this.” He reaches down to withdraw a long, curved dagger from his belt. The blade reflects the light, but also modifies it somehow. The effect is strange—if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was very dully glowing.

But as he gets closer, a strange dizziness—a weakness—washes over my body. Suddenly I’m seeing double. I try to stand, but my steps are lurching. I’m like a drunk. The other vampire laughs. “Not so mighty now, are you, Prince of The Haven?” He waves the weapon in front of him, showing it off. “The blade is made of silver, but that is not what’s special. The hilt, infused with magic, is what gives it its might. A single stab—“ He jabs it at me, mockingly. I nearly fall over my feet trying to get away.

“—and a vampire will be at its owner’s mercy for days. It forms a link, you see, and if this blade tastes your blood—you become my puppet until you die.” With a savage snarl he throws himself at me. I try to get away, but something is drastically wrong with my body. It’s almost like—almost like a much stronger vampire is exerting his influence and making me lose control. The blade slices through my leg. I scream out in utter agony and crash to the floor. “With that,” the vampire announces, “my mission is done. You will receive a message from my King in a matter of days. If you want to live—“ he laughs, “—you would do well to heed what he says.

” Darkness starts to close in on the outside of my vision. I try to hold on, but I can barely fight the nausea. Convulsions rack my body, stemming from the cut. I watch, feeling weak and pathetic, as the other vampire retrieves an amulet from around his neck. Vaguely, I recognize it from somewhere. I’ve seen it, or its like, before. But I cannot tell where. Thinking is becoming difficult. The vampire holds the amulet out. A second later there’s a blue flash.

A round portal opens up from behind him. A shorter vampire, somebody I don’t know either, steps out. The smaller vampire looks at me. His eyebrows go up. But whether in surprise or indignation, I cannot tell, because the larger one grips his shoulder and spins him away from me. “Get us out of here, Riyu,” my attacker says. “We’ve done all we were sent for.” The two vampires step through the portal, and it winks out of existence. The moment they’re gone, the force field disappears. All the noises of the surrounding battle crash into me.

In my wretched, weakened state, the blast of sound is enough to make my system shut down. The entire world turns black.

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