Chapter One: Nix
“Wake up, Prince Phoenix.”
“What is it, Elek? It’s the middle of the night,” I said, letting a groan escape. I wasn’t young enough to complain or moan about the inconvenience, so I tried to keep my voice neutral. Ignatius Elek, royal advisor to my father, the king, wouldn’t wake me without reason. “It’s too early for sword practice.”
His subtle shaking of my shoulder had pulled me from my dreams. As I sat up in bed and wiped the sleep from my eyes, I caught a glimpse of the veil of night, full moon and stars dotting the sky through my bedroom window. I flopped back onto my bed.
Elek drew back my covers and held up a cloak. “You must get up and come with me. Hurry.”
I shifted my weight to the edge of bed. “Where’re my clothes?” I glanced around for my pants. Usually the brownies―servants to the royal family―had them ready in the armchair next to my bed. Prickles ran over my skin.
“There’s no time. I’ll explain once I’ve taken you to safety.”
Cool dread coated me, turning my blood to jelly at his words. “Has the Twilight Realm been attacked?”
I pulled my boots on, adjusting the legs of my pajama bottoms overtop, and then swung the cloak over my shoulders. I tucked my pendant under my shirt. It was a symbol of the Royal Tree and a seal my sister and I always wore.
Elek’s face fell. “It is worse.”
I froze. “My parents?” And then I thought of my little sister, only six. “Zyanna?”
“Her nurse has her. Come, Prince. There really isn’t time and I swore to your father I’d keep you safe.”
I held back a grunt and fastened the cloak with a bit more force than was necessary. Was the Royal Tree under attack? No one could breach the Royal Tree. It certainly couldn’t be the brownies; they would never betray us. It would go against their nature. And no other elf in the Twilight Realm had access. Even Elek needed permission to enter the Royal Tree.
The air sizzled and popped. Cocoa, the head brownie, suddenly appeared next to Elek. It was something I’d seen her do before, but it was still startling to have her unexpectedly pop into existence next to us. Like all brownies, she was tiny, only coming up to Elek’s waist. She had long black hair, wide eyes, and a pointed face.
“Prince Phoenix, Royal Advisor Ignatius Elek. These are for you.” Cocoa thrust a small black bag at Elek.
He took it, then his eyes slid in my direction and Cocoa nodded.
“Very well.” Elek stuffed the bag into the folds of his robe. “We must get the prince out of here.”
“My family and I have kept the back stairs clear. They run straight to the kitchen’s entrance. There is a door to the outside you can use.”
“Thank you, Cocoa.”
The brownie nodded, then as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone with a pop.
I shook my head. I knew the brownies had magic, but they were sweet, happy creatures who got pleasure from cleaning and cooking and remaining unnoticed. They seldom revealed themselves in the homes they inhabited and were able to pass through most, maybe all, magical barriers without issue.
If the Royal Tree really was under attack, shouldn’t the brownies be leaving? The image of the childlike creatures trying to defend the tree was so comical I had to struggle to keep my laughter from busting out of me.
Guilt followed. My family and our home were in danger. I shouldn’t find anything amusing, but the momentary distraction helped me focus and calmed my racing heart. I sobered back to the reality of my precarious situation.
I followed Elek into the darkened hallway, lit only by an eerie glow from the occasional window.
“This way.” He motioned me forward to the kitchen.
I bit down on the questions and scenarios that surged through my mind, each unthinkable and impossible.
We tiptoed down the back stairs that led us directly to the brownies’ quarters. I didn’t see any of them, but brownies by nature kept themselves hidden, perhaps invisible. I didn’t know the range of their magic since they were so secretive. Experience and knowledge about their race told me they were there keeping the path clear as Cocoa had promised.
My attention was stolen by the sound of muffled cries and scuffling in the distance. I tripped down the last two stairs.
“Careful, my prince.”
My hands smarted from the fall, but I accepted Elek’s help and bounced back onto my feet. I glanced down the corridor to the front foyer. The noises were coming from that direction. My heart froze in my chest. Were my parents okay? Had the Royal Tree really been breached? It was supposed to be impossible. The reality of this situation caught up with me and my fists clenched. Who was threatening my family? My home?
Cocoa’s petite, childlike face popped through the kitchen door, pulling my attention from the foyer. She looked only a few years older than my sister, though it occurred to me that as the head brownie of the Royal Tree, she had to be least one hundred years old. No one knew for sure. The brownies rarely told elves personal information.
Cocoa waved us through into the kitchen. “We have kept the kitchen safe,” she said, nearly running to keep up with Elek’s long strides.
Again, the image of Cocoa and the other brownies fighting off invading forces entered my mind leaving me with a scowl. I didn’t want any harm coming to these childlike creatures. What could they possibly do? Hit an attacker with a frying pan? Polish the floor to such a shine that whoever was attacking the tree would slip and fall? That might be kind of fun to watch, but I still couldn’t imagine the sweet creatures ever fighting.
Elek turned in time to catch the twitch of my lips. “Do you have something to add?”
“I just wondered what a brownie could possibly do to fight off an attacker.”
Elek grunted. “More than you think.”
Cocoa stopped in front of me and planted her hands on her hips. “Never underestimate the power of nurture.”
I gave her a quick nod and then padded after Elek. I kept my expression neutral, but inwardly I continued to question their defensive or offensive abilities. The distraction helped keep me from worrying about my family.
A cluster of brownies peeked their heads above the kitchen counters and watched us as we passed, their eyes wide like amazed children but their lips set grimly. I didn’t know how many brownies the Royal Tree housed, but seeing so many of them surprised me.
Elek paused at the door we’d just come through and peered back into the corridor.
Voices drifted toward us.
“Check every room.” A deep, gruff voice carried into the kitchen. “Lord Leski wants the whole family.”
“Yes, sir,” a younger-sounding male voice replied.
“Elves! Loyal to Leski and Sirina Dion,” Elek muttered. His words were coated in curtness, giving them an edge.
The royal advisor hurried away from the door, pulling me along with him. Cocoa scuttled ahead, leading us to the back exit out of kitchen and out of the Tree.
Footsteps from the hallway reached the kitchen. I glanced back as the door leading to the corridor opened a crack. The brownies were all focused on the sound as well, moving from behind the counters to form a line in front of the door. They really were going to fight for me and Elek. Did they even have a chance?
“Now, you must go.” Cocoa forced us the last few steps toward the back exit of the Royal Tree. “We’ll protect you.”
Elek and I stumbled outside just as a blinding flash of light from the kitchen lit up the darkened forest around the Royal Tree. Before I could look back, Elek grabbed my sleeve and yanked me to follow him through the underbrush.
I hoped the brownies were safe and hadn’t lost their lives to whatever power was thrown at them.
Our feet padded noiselessly over the soft ground. The sound of the river gently trickling by as it ran past the Royal Tree felt oddly comforting, but I couldn’t see it because of the thick fog. We moved with stealth through the dense foliage, the leaves and branches from closely growing trees pressing against us.
Elek nudged me away from the tree and I followed with reluctance. I still had no idea what had happened to my home and my family. Curiosity filled my thoughts. I couldn’t leave my family, no matter what the advisor had said. My family came first. I paused and turned around. I had to go back to the Royal Tree and help my parents and sister.
A glow up ahead pushed through the fog, and it called to me. Elek was next to me a moment later and tried to lead me away from my home, to stop me from walking toward the Royal Tree, but I ripped free of his hold. But before I drew near, I stopped and crouched behind a bush, my eyes riveted on a small crowd forming in front of the Royal Tree’s main entrance. Among them were Lord Leski Dion, his wife Lady Sirina Dion, a few soldiers—and my parents.
Hadn’t Lord Leski come to the Royal Tree and sought audience with my father only a little while ago to request reinstatement to the Twilight Realm? He and his wife had just returned from their exile to the Night Realm. They had instigated resistance against the monarchy before I was born. Now, seeing the soldiers holding my parents as if they were the criminals turned my stomach. Was this why they returned? To take the throne from my parents? To finish what they had started before they were banished? Impossible! The line would never be broken unless every last member of the royal family was murdered.
Elek settled in beside me, navigating with such stealth that the bush didn’t even move.
“My prince, we must leave,” he whispered, his warm breath tickling my ear. “I promised your father I would keep you safe.”
“Elek, my parents.” I pointed to the front of the Royal Tree. “Did you know they were taken? That the Royal Tree was breached? That this was happening?” I managed to keep my voice low but felt my anger rise with each question. It wasn’t Elek’s fault. But my parents were captives. Held by elves they should never have allowed back into the realm.
Elek looked at the ground and shook his head. “The Dions got in. I don’t know how, but Cocoa came to me and brought me to the Royal Tree to rescue you. Please, my prince. It’ll do you no good to stay.”
Elek wrapped his hand around my arm, but I jerked it from him, disturbing the bush in the process. We both grew very still, and I checked to see if we’d been spotted. Leski and his crowd seemed oblivious to our presence.
Anger ignited in me. How could Elek think of walking away? I glared at him. “I’m staying. You might not care, but I do.”
I couldn’t leave my family. There had to be a way to save my parents.
The royal line had been established by the first rulers, Paz Mier and his wife Nazira. They established their five children as rulers over each of the realms: Day, Night, Dawn, Light, and Twilight. My family line had ruled over all the elven races of the Twilight Realm since then. Our line was protected by the strongest magic in the realm which gave us favor with our subjects, though I was too young to fully understand how it worked.
The royal line would be protected. I felt confident of this. There was no need to rush away like Elek wanted. My parents’ abilities would subdue Leski and his followers. I’d seen how the royal power worked to calm crowds when my father gave a speech. It would work here.
“Phoenix!” Leski Dion called out, his voice carrying clear into the forest. His long, blond hair was tied neatly at the base of his neck and snaked down his back. “Son of the king and queen, crown prince of the Twilight Realm, step forward if you wish to spare your parents’ lives.”
Leski stood with his arms outstretched, as if expecting me to run to him in an embrace. His loose-fitting shirt and pants hung on him in the motionless air.
My heart stuttered in my chest. I inhaled deeply to slow my breathing, then brushed my blond hair back over my pointed ears and shook it over my shoulders. I wiped the moisture from my forehead with my sleeve.
My parents were bound and kneeling—weak and helpless. Impossible! They shouldn’t be forced to kneel. Not the monarchs. Not here. Not in the Twilight Realm.
Leski had once been a high servant of my father’s, but due to his rebellious behavior he and Sirina had been expelled to the Night Realm a long time ago. They’d recently returned, however, asking for redemption—and the king and queen had given it to them.
My gut churned seeing my parents’ state. It had only taken the traitor and his small squad of soldiers a matter of hours to somehow break into the Royal Tree. From the look of them, dark hair and creamy skin, the members of the squad were all from the Night Realm. Twilight Realm elves usually had lighter brown to blondish hair and a warmer golden skin tone.
I shook my head in confusion; it was impossible to enter another elf’s home. Access to an elf’s tree was tied to our magic. I’d place my hand on the marker and the magic within the tree would recognize mine, allowing the doorway to peel back giving me entrance. If I didn’t have access, or if the tree’s magic didn’t read mine, then the tree would remain sealed. Had someone given Leski access to the Royal Tree? But who? And how? It wouldn’t have been the brownies. They would never betray the family they served.
“Phoenix, we’re waiting,” Leski said. He then whispered to a soldier just behind him who grabbed my mother, Calla. She moaned.
“No, take me,” my father, Alistair, cried out. “Calla!” He struggled against the elf holding him down.
The guard raised my mom to her feet, and she did not protest. I watched her vibrant blue eyes dart wildly as the elf’s arm encircled her waist. His other hand raised a sharp blade and pressed it to the main artery in her throat. A cry escaped her mouth as a drop of blood, red and precious, trailed down her neck, reaching the collar of her nightdress. It pooled there and fanned out as the material absorbed it.
My throat tightened and my shoulders slumped. I had to help my parents. I had to do… something. But it would be more than a century before I was recognized as a mature adult elf. I had only just started my sword training.
“Phoenix, your parents’ lives are in your hands,” Leski said. “Come forward. Now!”
His words held a compulsion, strong and powerful, but I shook off its effects. This traitor had the ability to control those around him through either his voice or persuasion. A part of me wanted to jump out of my hiding place, wanted to move forward. Sweat trickled down the sides of my face in my effort to fight the pull of Leski’s power.
I closed my eyes and calmed myself. A new resolve settled over me as my muscles relaxed and I filled my lungs with fresh oxygen. My fingers moved to the pendant I wore around my neck; it bore the symbol of my lineage: the Tree of Life, the Royal Tree, planted by the first royal family next to the river that ran only a few steps from me.
“Phoenix, I am a reasonable man, but you have pushed me beyond my patience.” Leski turned sharply to the guard holding the queen. “Finish her!”
With a swift movement, the guard’s blade sank smoothly into my mother’s soft flesh.
An internal roar rose from my depths. Then I heard another howl, this one aloud; in my peripheral vision, my father leaped forward against the elves who held him. My mother… she crumpled to the ground.
Raw terror engulphed me as her blood flowed like a fountain, saturating the earth. She struggled, gasping, her eyes roaming wildly, helplessly.
“Mother,” I whispered.
Her eyes found me. I could read the pain in her expression and see her mouth move slowly: “I love you. Live.”
Her body stilled and the spark of life left her eyes.
My heart pounded as I reflected on my mother’s final wish. Live? How could I? I’d just failed to protect her.
My father’s sobs filled the forest. The regular sounds of nature dimmed as if observing a moment of silence for their fallen queen. My tears fell and I turned from the sight.
Elek gripped my shoulder. “My prince, I wanted to spare you this.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“We should go.”
“No, I can’t… my father’s still there.”
Sobs threatened to rip from my chest, but I held them back. I’d save them for later. When my father, my sister, and I could mourn together. Hope—the expectation of a chance—hung in the air. Certainly now my father would exert his power.
I stilled my emotions and looked back at my mother’s body, limp and lifeless. My father had crumpled at her side but was unable to hold her while Leski’s soldiers restrained him.
My eyes settled on the gloating Leski, and this time I didn’t sense fear but an ominous power creeping toward me. I drew on all my senses and dug my fingers into the dirt to keep myself stationary; if not, I might come out of hiding. I couldn’t let that happen.
Leski grabbed a fistful of my father’s hair and yanked his head back, exposing his throat. He brought his own knife to the king’s neck.
“Last chance, Phoenix.” His hand didn’t flinch as his eyes scoured the foliage, searching for me.
“Phoenix!” my dad called, his chest heaving with effort. “My son, run. My life, your mother’s life, we are nothing. Run.” His breath came in quick gasps. “It’s not… it’s not your time.”
My skin tingled and I felt frozen. My father then pushed forward, lurching as he stood up. With that movement, Leski’s knife slid to the king’s chest.
“No one takes my life,” King Alistair declared. “I give it for the Twilight Realm. Let the elves know that their king was not slain, but sacrificed his life for them.”
The king brought his bound hands up to the knife and thrust his chest upon it, falling forward. He tumbled, taking Leski down with him.
“Father…” I mouthed the word as tears flowed freely down the sides of my face. My parents, at the entrance to the Royal Tree, maybe twenty steps away, lay dead.
“Come.” Elek placed his hand on my shoulder again and this time I did not resist him.
Slowly and with careful steps, we walked into the dark forest until I could no longer see the Royal Tree or hear the river that ran next to it. The emptiness of the dark night consumed me. My parents were gone.
I cried silently as we walked into an older part of the forest. The trees grew close here, but Elek navigated a path with ease.
We came to an old tree that had expanded to a greater circumference than the Royal Tree. Elek placed his hand over a carving in the wood, and in response a door peeled away, revealing an entrance. This was his home, and it was massive. Trees that elves inhabited were always larger on the inside. It had something so do with the way our magic connected with the earth and nature.
I followed Elek through a maze of corridors to a room containing towers of boxes and books. He walked through a small pathway between these towers to a desk, where he settled into a soft chair.
Elek pointed to a chair on the opposite side of the desk. “Have a seat.”
Now that my tears had subsided, I noticed a small greenhouse bulging inward in the space behind Elek. From the outside, it probably looked like a large root extending from the base of the tree.
Elek bent low. I heard the soft shush as wood ran against wood. I couldn’t see from this side, but it sounded like Elek had opened a drawer. He lifted a box and set it on the desk. With a swift movement, he lifted the lid, but the box was empty. He dug into a pocket in his robe, and he pulled out the black pouch I had seen Cocoa give him. He set it beside the box. It was round like a small pillow, closed with a drawstring.
“You, as the crown prince, are now the king of the Twilight Realm,” he said. The weight of his words dropped on me, and I slouched in my chair. “But you aren’t ready. What Leski did tonight took planning, and I fear that crowning you king now would only put you in greater danger.”
I cleared my throat, not fully trusting my voice. “Then what do you suggest?”
“I suggest you give yourself a chance to grow and become an adult.”
“I’m only thirteen, Elek. Do you really think the Twilight Realm can wait eighty or so years until I reach maturity?”
He waved his hand. “At least wait until your child-adult years. We’ll know the time when it comes. When you’re ready to rule and govern the elves of the Twilight Realm.”
I frowned, knowing that I’d never be ready. I should have had hundreds of years to train under my father’s tutelage. I was pathetically unprepared.
Elek opened the black pouch and laid a series of royal objects on the desk: my father’s signet ring, his seal, and his crown, an unadorned circlet. I fingered each one, realizing they were now mine. When I slid the ring on my finger, it spun loose. Would it ever fit my hand?
“And in the meantime?” I asked, placing the ring back on the desk.
Elek slowly arranged each royal piece in the box and locked it. The black pouch lay flat beside it. “You can remain here. We’ll change your name to Nix, and mine to Nate.”
“Nate?” I raised an eyebrow.
“My first name is Ignatius.”
I studied the older elf. He looked like he’d been alive for a few hundred years, unlike most other elves I knew. Had he served my grandfather? I pushed aside my curiosity for another day.
Elek cleared his throat. “You’ll stay here and learn to be less regal, to blend with the populace. Once you’ve aged some, you’ll be able to go out more, but for now, we must keep you safe and your identity a secret. In time, we’ll decide on the next steps.”
My lips curled at his statement. I didn’t want to think about next steps. The raw pain of watching my parents being murdered was too fresh, and I didn’t want to be king.
Elek studied me.
“And my sister?” I asked, thinking of little Zyanna.
“Wherever her nurse took her, we’ll find her.”
“Elek, my father. What did he mean when he said that he sacrificed himself for the Twilight Realm?”
Elek sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “These are mysteries best explained at a different time, but to give a brief understanding: When your father gave his life, he ensured the Dions wouldn’t gain any power. The royal magic is ancient. It is blood magic, meaning it is tied to the generational line of Paz Mier and Nazira. Its descendants―you.”
A cool sensation like water being poured over me made me shiver. “If they had killed my father?”
Elek shrugged. “They wouldn’t have gained access to the royal magic running through your blood. It might have weakened though. And the Royal Tree might have lost its magical seal. At present, it is tied only to you and your sister Zyanna, and the brownies who serve there have access. Cocoa will ensure the Royal Tree is well maintained. The tree will have sensed the passing of the ruling monarch and you will have to regain access one day.”
One day. The Royal Tree could remain sealed as far as I was concerned. I never wanted to return.
Elek pushed back from the desk and rose. “Come, I’ll show you to a room where you can get some rest.”
I followed him through another maze of corridors until he left me in a room with a bed, soft carpet, and a well-padded chair in the corner. A small round window about the size of my head perched above the bed. The sky was still dark. I didn’t know the time but since the black of night hadn’t dulled to charcoal or deep gray, there were still a few hours before daylight. I buried my face in the pillow, wanting sleep to take me so I could wake up and find out this had all been a horrible nightmare. But I couldn’t sleep.
As I lay in bed, I replayed the scene of my father giving his life for the kingdom. It seemed a useless gesture. Elek’s explanation didn’t satisfy me. Why hadn’t my father done something, used his power? I closed my eyes, but the scene continued to play in my mind, mocking me.
My parents were dead. The truth of that settled on me. My father had died for me.
I shook my head as the emotions raced through me in a torrent.
He’s dead… for me… for the Twilight Realm.
I made the decision to never again let someone else sacrifice themselves for me or this kingdom. I wouldn’t be able to survive it.