Defending the Land of Ardan, a reluctan princess grows into a Queen.

“…And when the lasting darkness threatened,
through shadows She led our way;
beneath the mountains tall and strong,
hiding us, She bid us stay.
Then a whole Land She created,
named it Ardan, and let us be.
Mistress Nature1, our Great Saviour,
magic creatures all saved She!
In peace and glory, She departed,
and gave us back our liberty…”

— “Mistress Nature, Our Great Saviour”
Traditional Songs of Ardan
(Translated from Ardanian by Mili Fay)

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Warriors of Virtue

Translated from Ardanian by Mili Fay

“The Design of the Universe is such that it forbids a Golden Age to last forever. Despite our best intentions, History repeats itself. Battles that once were, are fought again, and again. Guardians are needed to protect the World in its darkest hour. Thus, Mistress Nature created Warriors of Virtue to protect Ardan and its peoples from the wrath of the Dragon Lord.”
Known History of Ardan

Chapter 1

We Shall Do — What We Must

Armalis Forest, Ardan
March 5999A2

In the depths of Armalis Forest grows a cottage. Hidden within a cluster of closely-knit trees, the squat stone, wood and thatch structure is a part of an ancient oak. Above the roof, the lateral branches spread wide, like leafy tentacles, to block out the peeping sky. Standing below the canopy, one can almost see the foundation of a second-floor room sprouting out of a bulbous burr situated on a particularly fat branch. As no guests are expected by the occupants, the cottage must know something they do not.

Behind the cottage, a brook flows from an ancient well that, instead of keeping fresh water within, allows it to seep between its stones. Today, the brook neither ripples nor bubbles. The water flows stealthily, as if afraid of disturbing the unusual silence of the morning — one of those mornings when you can taste the tears of Nature on your lips and smell the subtle threat of her restrained power in the air. As an eerie breeze whistles its mournful tune through the branches, a thin wisp of bluish smoke winds its way from the cottage’s chimney, dispersing into nothingness.

Inside the one-room cottage, a prudent distance away from a sizable stone fireplace, a collection of furniture is scattered across a swept wooden floor. Most prominent are the towering bookshelves stuffed with hand-written sheets of parchment and piles of books of all colours, shapes, and sizes. More books litter the floor and some are stacked haphazardly on a round wooden table. Curious metal and glass instruments and gadgets fill the few spaces left unoccupied by the books. Within the only alcove of the room stands an enormous black cauldron.

Thrown by the crackling flames, a shadow of a tall figure clad in long flowing robes drapes the room and its contents. Pacing from left to right, right to left, dragging its shadow with it, this figure is collecting various books into its large hands. It pauses, lifting its head as if to listen for some indistinguishable sound.

“I am sensing something ominous, Artemis,” the figure speaks. His voice has the pleasant timbre of an erudite thespian. He turns his head, allowing the warm glow of the firelight to outline his long aquiline nose and the gentle slopes of his silver beard.

As in response to the old man’s words, a rustle of feathers and a weary hoot come from a tiny brown owl perched in sleep atop the tallest shelf.

After stacking some books on the table, the man moves his armchair and angles it to face the fire. He sighs, sits, and proceeds to brood, gazing into the flames as if expecting to find some clarity in their spirited dance.

His name is Cornelian the Great. A long time ago it was just Cornelian — an odd name stitched into a scarf identifying an orphaned baby left one winter night on the doorstep of a lonely Overworldlian3 orphanage. Now, he is a famed wizard, the best the Land of Ardan has ever seen, his reputation solidified by the renowned deed that contributed to the Dragon Lord’s defeat.

As if finally realizing that staring at the flames will not give him the answers he seeks, Cornelian leaves the armchair to sift through the piles of books resting on the round table. Not that he could tell from the gathering gloom outside the cottage, but time is passing. Soon, he will have to leave for the Empyreal Castle. Wondering if, once again, Lauraliee will be the only one of his students with the homework completed to his satisfaction, he is startled by the cry of his companion and friend, the wise owl Artemis. Turning toward the sound, he sees the tiny owl wide-awake, circling the old and battered cauldron, hooting, “Hoooot! Hoooot! Cornelian, Cornelian, come quick! Hoooot! The water in the cauldron is moving! Hoooot!”

Dropping the books on the table, Cornelian hurries toward the alcove housing the cauldron. Indeed, the water within the cauldron is bubbling and glowing with excitement and — to his eyes — information. Previously, in the shadows, the cauldron’s surface looked even and uniformly black. Now, the light catches embossed images and symbols, revealing a large apple tree—

Shaking his head, Cornelian reaches for a silver staff leaning against a shelf. With a breath, he summons the power at his core, feeling it flow through his body to concentrate in his fingertips. Exhaling, he directs the full blast of the gathered power through the staff. Pointing the large blue-grey opal at its top at the cauldron, he speaks in a clear, firm voice:

“Magical cauldron, I charge thee,
Open your eyes and reveal t’me,
What thou hast seen, I cannot know,
Until you take away your magic glow.”

Within the cauldron, the red glow of the swirling water turns to light, revealing recognizable shapes that mould into a clear image.

Within the cauldron, the red glow of the swirling water turns to light, revealing recognizable shapes that mould into a clear image.

As if through the eyes of a flying bird, the cauldron shows Cornelian the entire Land of Ardan, then focuses on the Forbidden Mountains. Atop the tallest mountain stands Storm Rock, an ancient castle and home of Ardan’s past kings. Passing by the sentries, the cauldron’s gaze bursts through the balcony doors into the cavernous throne room and rests on the granite monolith that has held Dragon Lord Malachite imprisoned for nearly one hundred and fifty years.

Cornelian’s heart begins to drum faster. He has not seen the monolith since he and the Warriors of Virtue trapped Malachite within, ending the civil war that nearly destroyed Ardan.

“No.” Artemis whispers, landing onto Cornelian’s shoulder.

Cornelian stares with disbelief as a tiny pebble falls away from the stone, creating an initial chip. The chip splits, becoming a crack. From the crack veins spread through the stone, running in all possible directions, bisecting, trisecting each other. For a moment, the monolith appears to breathe in, before expelling the breath in a fury, shattering the granite in every direction.

Cornelian moves to avoid the flying stones, before remembering that he is safe in his own cottage. Stepping forward once more, he watches as the dust cloud settles and Dragon Lord Malachite unbends his spine.

“Impossible…” Artemis whispers.

The cauldron does not lie. Dragon Lord Malachite Pendragon is alive.

Beneath his regal posture, Cornelian senses suppressed anger pulsing through the Dragon Lord’s withered muscles. His royal robes are shredded beyond recognition and his hair is dishevelled. His usually bright green scales look dull and chipped. He may be haggard and much thinner than Cornelian remembers him, but those amber eyes are still bright.

Malachite takes a careful step away from the rubble, then turns, looking around the throne room. His gaze settles on the obsidian throne, where a circle of gold rests upon the red-cushioned seat. Haltingly, as if every step were causing him tremendous pain, the Dragon Lord makes his way to the throne. He picks up his golden crown. Turning it, he sees an empty impression, where Cornelian knows a ruby use to glow brighter than any flame.

Malachite grips the crown, tight enough to break his skin. As blood begins to drip from his hands, he hurtles the golden circlet against the marble floor. Clenching his fists, the Dragon Lord releases decades worth of pent-up rage in a roar so loud that the entire throne room shakes with his fury. Surprised guards rush inside…

“Enough!”

At Cornelian’s exclamation the magic recedes and the water in the cauldron stops whirling. After a moment, it glistens dark and empty, nothing but ordinary water once again.

Unable to quite comprehend what he has seen, Cornelian stares at the water. A sharp jab of pain at his shoulder alerts him to Artemis’ talons sinking into his flesh as the owl tightens his grip. He turns his head to look at the tiny owl and moves to give him a good swat, but before his hand connects Artemis flies out of reach.

“Impossible! Hoooot! That should be impossible!” the owl screeches as he flies back and forth across the room. “He cannot have escaped! No one can escape granite!”

“The cauldron does not lie,” says Cornelian as he ducks to avoid the feathery mess that threatens to smash into him with every turn. As the owl makes another pass over his head, Cornelian snatches him from the air, allowing only the owl’s tiny head to peek out of his fist.

“Calm yourself Artemis!” Cornelian shakes the tiny owl until fear vanishes from his wide eyes.

“Calm? Hoooot! Calm! How can I be calm? How can YOU be calm?!” Artemis shouts. “The Dragon Lord has escaped! In the millennia of my life I have never seen anyone manage to even CRACK the granite! And he shattered it! SHA—TTERED—IT!!!”

“Obviously, Malachite found a way,” Cornelian responds with undisguised awe in his voice.

“Oh, should we give him a medal?”

Cornelian looks down to find Artemis staring up at him.

“By Nature, man! Hoooot! He is not one of your students! This is not the time to contemplate finer points of spell-casting!”

“You said it yourself, it should have been impossible. I wonder how he did — AARGH!”

Cornelian looks down to find the tip of Artemis’ sharp beak sunk into his flesh. Reflexively opening his hand and releasing the owl, he steps back as Artemis knocks on his forehead in the imitation of some deranged woodpecker, “Will! You! Snap! Out of it!”

Cornelian reaches for the owl, but Artemis flies away before he can grab and throttle him.

From a distance they glare at each other.

Artemis is the first to break eye contact. He lands on the nearby table and sighs. “Malachite is insane, Cornelian,” he says in a small voice. The owl turns his head back to look at him, his bright eyes full of sympathy and understanding. “He is broken beyond repair. The great king and the man you called your friend is gone forever… Oh, what is the use in dredging up the past! He must be stopped. He must!”

The horrors of the last years of Malachite’s reign flash through Cornelian’s memory. The wizard turns his back to the tiny owl as he wrestles with the almost-forgotten pain, a hurt he did not feel in decades. He tries to calm his breathing and hold back the tears that well within his eyes.

A few minutes pass in absolute silence, before Cornelian feels Artemis land on his shoulder to give him a comforting squeeze. The wizard winces as sharp talons pierce his robe and jab his skin but, lifting his hand, he proceeds to smooth the owl’s warm feathers.

“What shall we do?” Artemis asks.

A hush falls over the cottage, disturbed only by the crackling of the fire in the grate. Artemis looks at Cornelian, wondering if he heard, if he should ask the question again, when Cornelian picks him up and brings him forward to look directly into the owl’s terrified eyes. Releasing a soul-wrenching, deep breath in a long exhale, the wizard replies, “We shall do — what we must.”

Letting go of the owl, Cornelian takes two strides with his long legs to reach the door. Gripping his silver staff with one hand, he uses the other to take his most-presentable hat off its peg, jam it tight over his head, and adjust its wide brim.

Creaking, the door of the cottage swings open, letting in more shadow than light. The fire sputters and dies in the grate, plunging the room into darkness. As Cornelian turns his head to look back at him, Artemis can only see the wizard’s eyes glowing with the blue light of his power.

“Come, Artemis. The Warriors of Virtue are waiting.”

[1] Mistress Nature is the creator of the Land of Ardan, a haven for all magic and magical species of Earth. Simply put, she is Life. Like all powerful gods, she is gender-fluid and ageless. In this timeline she chooses to appear as a sweet old lady attended by butterflies. In my mind, she is a cross between Disney’s Merryweather and Betty White.

[2] March 5999A (A stands for Ardan, the number before indicates years since its creation) = March 1999 A. D. our time.

[3] Overworld is what Ardanians call our part of the world. Ardan is located deep beneath the Alps.

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This is the end of Warriors of Virtue: Book 1 sample. If you would like to read the rest of the story for free in exchange for an honest review, join the Warriors of Virtue Review Crew below. You will receive the Advanced Reader’s Copy PDF as soon as it becomes available.

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