the queen of duska paperback
queen of duska paperback

The Queen of Duska (Paperback)

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BOOK 2 OF THE DEMONIC COMPENDIUM DARK FANTASY SERIES.

The royal family has felt the pain of death many times over.

Newly appointed Queen Avana struggles to hold the very fabric of her kingdom together. 

She yearns for the days of harmony — the days when her husband, the fallen prince, was by her side. The days when demons were but a legend… 

But rest is a luxury even the queen can’t afford, and her mistakes weight heavily on her heart.

Assassins.

Civil war. 

Treachery.

Every day, another troubling matter tugs at her attention, distracting her from the real threat that lurks in the shadows.

Whispers of an ancient evil drift through the castle, melding with the backhanded plans of those who want to see her fail, and the country burn. 

The pieces are in place. War is imminent. 

Queen Avana is prepared to fight to save her people, but will her greatest efforts be enough?

Paperback 282 pages
Dimensions 5.5 x 0.64 x 8.5 inches
ISBN 979-8486982705
Publication date October 10, 2020
Publisher The Nightmare Engine


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Chapter One

A fanfare of trumpets announced Prince Shaw Ostra’s body was on its way to its ultimate resting place in the catacombs beneath Stonehaven. The procession started in the throne room next to the ruined landing and followed the length of the main hall and down the ramp leading to the underbelly of the keep. Queen Avana Ostra and Princess Beggen Ostra walked behind the pallbearers, but they were not alone. A cohort of King’s Guard, the elite warriors of Stonehaven, trailed just a few feet behind and kept the Queen and Princess safe. Even during a funeral such as this, her guards didn’t leave her side. Just six months into her rule, there had already been several attempts on her life, and she was not willing to take any chances, even in her own castle.
People from all across the Kingdom lined the stone halls guiding the procession; some of whom she questioned the motive for attending. She believed some were here to pay their respects to yet another member of the Royal Family. Simple curiosity brought others. It wasn’t often a Prince died, let alone twice. Since the birth of the Kingdom thirty years ago, the Royal Family was plagued by tragedy and shrouded in mystery, something the Queen vowed she would bring to light so the truth would be made known. The story of the Royal Family was more akin to a tale a child would tell his younger sibling to prime his sleep for nightmares.
After the procession entered the underbelly, men tossed wheatgrass on the ground and women laid wildflowers in the belief that the death of a loved one would still bring about new life. Little did these people know that death was just a word. Both the Queen and Prince Shaw had learned this for themselves. The late Prince had given his life to ensure Avana could live out hers.
There were things worse than death.
The tallest and strongest guardsman looked back at the Queen as they walked.
“Is everything all right, m’lady?”
“Just fine, Adius.” she lied, faking a smile and grabbing at her dress of white and yellow lace. She bunched up a handful of it nervously. Truthfully, everything was not all right. She had yet to cope with the loss of her husband. Their moments together after her rescue were short and tragic, and she had not taken the time to mourn. She lied and told herself she was all right; instead throwing her attention at the business of helping the Kingdom recover from the civil war just six short months ago. She also struggled to handle the effects of magical malady that affected her.
I would not describe myself as a magical malady; more of an inherited slave, a disembodied voice chirped in her head.
She replied with her own thoughts. “Please, Pemazu. Don’t make me feel sorry for you. Pity has a way of wilting your feathers.”
The rubies embedded in her arm warmed for a moment beneath the sleeve of her gown. Pemazu was just another reminder of her late husband, and the demon knew it. Sometimes it couldn’t stifle its wicked tongue. She had the last few months to get used to sharing her consciousness with the otherworldly being. Thankfully, the demon respected her people’s traditions of honoring their dead monthly until the sixth month, and it didn’t disrupt her mourning now. She was lucky in that she was not alone in this endeavor.
Princess Beggen Ostra had survived the war and had been attached to her side, guiding and instructing her on what she knew of the demon. She was also fortunate that Beggen Ostra was astute in magical matters and had been researching Argomancy and other dark magic to better understand it. Beggen Ostra’s questions about the demon enslaved to the Queen almost seemed accusatory, as they were constant and directed at her role in the partnership.
Not long ago, Avana was the unwilling conduit; feeding a demonic army the energy it needed to walk the mortal plane. Argomancy was vicious and grotesque magic. The research proved invaluable, and though she was free from its immediate grasp, it still had side effects. Paranoia, restlessness, and the fear of confined spaces infected the Queen. She was alone in the dark with nothing but her thoughts until something called her name from the darkness. Though time marched on outside her metal-bound prison, the same could not be said about the Princess. She didn’t age, eat, or sleep while she was held captive. Since her brother’s passing, Beggen Ostra looked to have aged another ten years. She shuffled beside Avana in silence, yet supportive with her presence.
Beggen Ostra hooked a wrinkly arm under hers to pull it away from her dress and looked up at her with her emerald eyes. Prince Shaw’s eyes. They were youthful and behind them a great mind was hard at work, despite her body turning on her. She was old and knew her time was limited, and she did all she could to bring the Queen up to rule the Kingdom. After the civil war between Stonehaven and Second City, she’d taught Avana all she could about the political state of things, the demon imbedded in her arm, and the book at the center of it all that was locked away high in the castle behind a metal door, wards, and armed guard.
“I miss him too,” said Beggen Ostra.
The Queen squeezed the old woman’s arm and tried to take comfort in her presence. They had spent many a night recounting all the woman knew of the last thirty years, and had grown even closer because of it. They often spent late nights walking together through the castle with a soldier to their front and rear, discussing politics, future plans, and what Beggen Ostra believed to be the failures of the Ostra name. Though Avana didn’t agree with her, they still talked frequently and she loved her. Those that saw the old woman’s respect towards the new Queen no longer doubted her, as Beggen Ostra had been both feared and respected. The Queen had ideas planned for rebuilding the nation, starting with the trust of the people. Beggen Ostra simply grumbled along.
As the walls narrowed and the roof of the ramp dipped low, the procession slowed. People lining the hallway trickled off, and it became cramped and dark. They ducked in pairs and entered the catacombs, startled by the taste of the musky, stale air. The King’s Guard, a mighty wall of red and gold tabards and full suits of armor, stopped at the doorway, turned, and blocked its entrance to allow the Queen and her associates to mourn alone.
She passed a painting of the late King Armand and admired his good looks. Armand, Shaw’s father, had long black hair, emerald eyes, and a chiseled jawline. His nose was long and pointed, but though he was near the sixty years old at the time of the painting, there wasn’t a wrinkle on his forehead. He had dedicated the catacombs to all the Kingdom’s dead and viewed himself as a man first and a king second. It was under King Armand that began the tradition of the Royal Family being buried with their people. The Queen honored this tradition and arranged preparations for Shaw’s remains and mourning for the customary six months, repeating the funeral and burying him in the catacombs.
Though he never ruled, his actions for his people would never be forgotten. The Queen had a plan to deliver his story so all would appreciate his sacrifice. The previous King, a self-appointed tyrant and a masochist, abused his people, treated them worse than slaves, and spread lies about what happened to Shaw during the events of The Great Betrayal. The Queen’s top priority was to reunite the people under the banner of Stonehaven and the Royal Family by exposing the truth about what had happened. She compartmentalized these thoughts for later and focused on the here and now.
The catacombs had to be expanded in the wake of the civil war. With so many dead and more dying as the result of battlefield wounds, multiple layers had been dug into the earth. Thick, crudely cut pillars supported the structure from below at regular intervals throughout each level. Currently, only one level was occupied, but that was soon to change as more dead were placed inside. It stretched the length and width of the keep and it was on this first level that Shaw would be buried closest to the castle’s center. The floor spanned wider than torchlight could reach from one end to the other, and hundreds of unclaimed coffins filled the room. The Queen stifled a shudder at the sight of so many coffins, and for good reason. Her legs became heavy and her walk slowed.
She repeated under her breath, “Coffins are for the dead. Coffins are for the dead.”
She silently continued her mantra and the gems in her arms warmed, offering a bit of comfort. It was not the coffins themselves that scared her, but the loneliness that came with them. She focused on the end of the hall where a magnificent tribute of red and gold flowers and a matching painted sarcophagus lay. Inside was Shaw’s resting body. A powerful spell gave sight through the stone to look upon his preserved face. Standing off to the side were two men she trusted on the word of Princess Beggen Ostra. She was assured the men played a key part in freeing her and saving the Kingdom.
The men looked at the Queen with concern in their eyes. Though they could see her unshed tears, the fear, rage, and sorrow coiled together like snakes in the bottom of her heart. She met eyes with Griss first. He was shorter than her by an inch, but he was strong and fearless. Recently he’d battled alongside Shaw against a mighty demon that destroyed half the keep.
Griss was peculiar and quiet, but his features were striking. He kept his dark hair in a neat knot behind his head. Even darker eyes peered out at her from behind his brow, and he nodded at her solemnly. He wore studded leather armor crawling in demonic runes only visible to the magically adept. A massive longbow lay tight against his back, and his chest was covered in silver arrows clipped on for an easy draw. She reached out and pressed her hand to his shoulder. Over the last few months, Griss had never left her side, and she’d become comfortable around him.
It adds insult to injury when you prance around a demon hunter in front of me, Arbiter.
She replied inside her head to the demon. “Please, Pemazu, call me Avana.”
I could call you anything you like. It doesn’t mean you will listen to me. Besides, Arbiter is what you are now. You are the Binder. The Ender. The Equalizer. At least Shaw accepted the title.
“Though you appear to me as a magpie with too many eyes, you will always be a demon, and being the Arbiter is not something for me to be proud of. The sooner I rid myself of the title, the better.”
Fair enough, but the power you have comes with the title. You cannot have one without the other.
Shaking her head, she turned to the other man, a tall, stocky, hairy man twice her age. She flashed a weak smile of surprise to see he had changed out of his grubby leather smock and wore something blue with ruffles around his neck. He not only looked out of place, but he hadn’t changed his leather road trousers or purchased a shirt that fit properly. The front buttons were ready to fly off at any moment as they fought against the weight of his gut. He chewed on a sprig of wheat, looking around, bored. The skin beneath his chin jiggled as his jaw rotated.
“Hello, Garold. Thank you for being here.”
“I could not miss this, m’lady. Your late husband ‘ere was my best customer. Asked for odd things; challenging things to find. I ‘ope I may be of service to the crown yet again.”
“Have you settled well into the keep?”
“Yes, m’lady. Set up on the third level, I am. Plenty of customers view my shop, now that you have opened the keep for all again.”
“Well, I hope I’ve helped your business. Stay nearby. I may call on you again.”
The man bowed his balding head and resumed chewing the grain stalk. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Griss yank it from his mouth and toss it away, scolding him with his eyes. She placed her arms on the two men’s shoulders and they turned toward Shaw’s sarcophagus together. Behind her, Beggen Ostra cried and Adius knelt, offering his shoulder. She looked down at the spelled stone tomb and her husband’s preserved face. Tears welled and dripped onto the clear window of his casket.
She cried for his passing; for feeling alone; for feeling like a failure. She cried for Beggen Ostra and she cried for herself. His eyes were closed, but she remembered the color. Emerald. Burning with desire. His beard was trimmed short and hugged the contours of his face and his hair was combed to the side. He wore an identical set of armor to his father. Avana looked across the coffin at Griss, who volunteered to travel to The Pit with a company of his own people—demon hunters—and return King Armand’s remains to the catacombs.
An artist was commissioned to craft a replica of the King out of clay, armor and all, using his remains. With Beggen Ostra’s help, the clay was spelled for eternity to project an image of the King. With the re-creation, Avana was able to commission the finest blacksmiths to forge a matching set of armor for Shaw, and now, next to his father, he looked like a king.
At the far end of the row, in the dark and placed beyond some commoners, another sarcophagus lay. It was of minimalist design with the name Jayecob crudely carved in its base.
King Armand and Shaw were laid with a white pillow under their head, eyes closed, and arms across their chest. In one hand, they held a rare rose meant to ward off demons. Jayecob’s sarcophagus was not afforded a pillow or a rose.
She leaned over the face of the stone and peered into the window again. She was pleased to see there had been a minor change made to his remains. There weren’t any gems embedded in his left arm, and the scar running from his brow down his neck to his shoulder was also gone. His memory was preserved as she remembered him.
She looked into the dark to her right and thought about the plain wooden coffin shrouded in darkness. Inside, an animal carcass lay instead of Jayecob’s remains. Shaw had ensured neither his body nor his soul would return to the living plane.
She wiped the last tear that escaped her eyes. She was tried to remain strong. He had not only fought on the Thin Line for one hundred and eighty years, but had returned to life, and gave his life for hers. Their last moments were bittersweet and she forced herself to remain in the present. She comforted herself by rubbing her arm, her hand feeling the hard rubies. She hated them. They were a reminder she was enslaved by something otherworldly. They also itched.
Your sour thoughts will only cloud your judgment. I don’t like this arrangement either. I was supposed to be dead a long time ago.
“And you will have your wish, Pemazu, but you’re the only thing that knows our predicament’s intricate details.”
Though the Book has bound us together, your husband and I had an arrangement. Do I have your word you’ll honor it?
“I will banish you as you desire. Why is it no one and nothing else can kill you?”
The magpie puffed up. When we die, we return to the Thin Line and our Tether must be destroyed. Only then can Arbiter banish us forever. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single magical creature an Arbiter can’t give a true death. It made an odd buzzing sound and keeled over, dribbling silver essence from its beak. She dropped her arm to her side and she caught Griss’s eye.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “What did it say?”
“Nothing I’m concerned about now. I’m ready to leave. Will the two of you accompany me to the main hall? Adius, will you escort Beggen Ostra when she’s ready?”
Griss and Garold nodded. Adius nodded, still clutching the old woman as her tears streaked down his shoulder plate. Avana placed her hand on the window of the sarcophagus and whispered, “I will see you soon, my love.” She took a last look at his face, turned, and departed, guarded on both sides by her friends. Together they walked in step and she allowed her mind to drift to matters of the future.
That afternoon, another fanfare of trumpets would sound, this time marking an event long overdue. Since escaping slavery from the Far East, traveling across the Stone Breaker Expanse, and making their way to their own lands, the Kingdom had failed to fully establish. It remained unnamed, tragedy after tragedy halting progress.
At the celebration that afternoon, she would deliver a christening speech as she and the Council had finally decided on a name for the Kingdom. This was the first and most important of three steps she believed to be vital to unify the Kingdom. The event would take place just below the landing on the lowest level of the Commons, where all who wished to attend were encouraged to be present.
The Council had agreed to support the celebration with an influx of food purchased by the Royal Family and from the proceeds of melting down Jayecob’s golden chair from his throne room. Originally, Pemazu attempted to take credit for the idea, until he let it slip that it was Shaw who had originally suggested it. By purchasing the food, she hoped to ignite a spark that would restore trust in the Royal Family and begin bringing the Kingdom together, as it could no longer survive another civil war or otherworldly attack.
She approached the wall of King’s Guardsmen barring the entrance to the catacombs, and they stepped off to either side. Her companions exited the ramp first, then offered their hands as she stepped through. They took their places at her side again, and the handful of soldiers fell in line behind her. They made their way up the spiral stairs to the main hall, at which point Garold bowed and broke away once his shop door was in view. Griss, however, kept hold of her arm and escorted her all the way to her chamber.
He stood dutifully outside the room while she changed into her daywear. She slipped her dress off and tossed it on the bed. She had chosen a bedroom in the west wing of the castle. It wasn’t the smallest but was among the most secluded. The attempts on her life had forced her to abandon many of the luxuries that came with being the Queen. For now, her chambers were falsely guarded and empty. She didn’t like the idea of luxuries while so many of her people lived in poverty, but as explained by Beggen Ostra, not accepting some luxuries weakened the view of the head of the Kingdom, one of which was unwavering protection from the King’s Guard.
Avana had only recently become worried about the attacks on her life as their frequency and intensity increased. At first, there were poor attempts to strike her down as she visited the Commons. Then there were wayward arrows shot at her, but she was never without a ward. Pemazu had made sure of that. The projectiles fell short as they got within arm’s length and the bowmen would be swiftly caught; dumbfounded as Pemazu immobilized them with a simple spell. She had all the assassins interrogated and imprisoned if she could, but many of them killed themselves by dissolving poison capsules under their tongues.
Cowards. All the lot. Even my kind fight in the open.
“I agree. I would much prefer to capture and interrogate them, but even that has not yielded results.”
This is why Jayecob used Viktor. Viktor sacrificed pieces of his soul for the magic needed to extract information.
“From what I was told of him, he was a blight both hated and feared. We will not have that kind of filth in my Kingdom.”
At least that filth could get information. Your current interrogator is lackluster.
“I don’t agree with you. Trepin has done a fine job.”
Which is why we have no idea who is behind the attacks, Pemazu chirped sarcastically.
“What do you mean? Of course we know. The citizens of Second City have made it clear they desire the throne.”
Then why haven’t you done anything, Arbiter?
“I hate when you call me that. I need to know who is organizing the attacks. Besides, once my unification plan is complete, Second City will fall in line and they will reveal a scapegoat to take the fall. I believe it will stop the attacks.”
If you say so, Avana. Pemazu finished squeaking and disappeared in a cloud of dust somewhere in the middle gem.
She strapped on the last pieces of her armor, secured her sword to her side and her shield to her back. She checked herself in the mirror. Despite her warrior appearance, she was also the Queen, and that required a bit of composure. Most were accustomed to the Queen donning weapon and armor. Like her late husband, she was fierce and not to be trifled with, having earned her combat skills through bruises and scars. She’d started her training at a young age, unlike most children brought up in the Kingdom.
She slid her hands from her shoulders to her collar, checking for loose straps around her molded leather chest plate, then each pauldron, and the single greave protecting her right arm. She kept her left arm uncovered to give her quick view of the three brilliant rubies embedded under her skin. At first, she hated them and had cried for many nights when she found out the true costs of her deal with The Demonic Compendium. She and the demon Pemazu were now one, and she was at the behest of the Book, awaiting orders.
Technically, your husband did not fail, and neither will you. I wish to cease this miserable existence as soon as possible.
“You seem awfully gloomy; more so than your usual enchanted self.”
I am tired. What else can I say?
“Does your kind even feel tired, or is that just something you say? Perhaps some trickery to try to get me to feel empathy?”
What you feel is irrelevant. I feel tired. Slow. I am old. It happens.
“From my understanding, your kind does not age, you do not rest, and you do not feel. That makes you dangerous.” She imagined the magpie shrugging in the ruby and muttering a rude remark, but the demon was silent; unusual, as it had talked to her non-stop since they were united months ago. She finished checking her leather leg plates and shin guards, double-checking that they were strapped down and connected properly. After she was content that her armor was secure to her body, she stood tall and pulled her long dark hair into a bun high up on her head. Then she shifted her belt and scabbard, let out a huff of air, and headed for the door.
She was greeted by a small troop of soldiers led by Adius. Griss took up next to her as they surrounded her, keeping a sword’s length between them. They escorted her to the main hall and the demon hunter broke off and made for the stairs at the far end of the hall to look for a position a few levels above where his aim and eye would be more of use. In the middle of the hall to the right was a wide wooden door that swung outward. She walked heel-toe to the door and then into the courtyard to the christening and celebration, though in her heart, she felt like she was on her way to yet another funeral.


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