For more than seventy years, the most powerful sorcerer in the world has held a woman prisoner in a magical tower.
Invictus forces Laylah, his own sister, to be his queen.
the immense power Laylah draws from moonlight does not give her the
strength to free herself . . . until she forms an unlikely alliance with
two of the sorcerer’s most trusted soldiers as well as an ancient demon
with diabolical motives.
Laylah’s dramatic escape leads her to
the one man who might be able to save her—Torg, the Death-Knower wizard.
Drawn together by supernatural passion, the pair attempts to outrun
Invictus’ minions and reach the safety of the White City.
Melvin is the author of The Death Wizard Chronicles, a six-book epic
fantasy. He was an award-winning journalist at the St. Petersburg Times
for twenty-five years. As a reporter, he specialized in science, nature,
health and fitness, and he wrote about everything from childhood
drowning to erupting volcanoes. Jim is a student of Eastern philosophy
and mindfulness meditation, both of which he weaves extensively into his
work. He lives in Upstate South Carolina in the foothills of the
mountains. He’s married and has five daughters.
Visit him at:
www.jim-melvin.com and www.deathwizardchronicles.blogspot.com
his hiding place among the trees, the teenage boy had spied on the
little girl for months. Though darkness was not his friend, he had
endured it to be near her. How daring she was to leave her house all by
herself in the middle of the night, seemingly undeterred by the specter
of ghosts and goblins. How foolish of her, too. She would learn one day
that monsters did exist, and that some of them were far deadlier than
any her imagination might conjure. She would learn that it was better to
stay locked in her room than wander the wilds after dark. She would
learn because he would teach her.
Though she was little more than
four years old, she already was beautiful. He admired her golden hair,
which so matched his own. And though her gray-blue eyes were in stark
contrast to his deep brown ones, he permitted her this fallibility. No
one was perfect. Well, almost no one.
When they were king and
queen, she would birth many of his children. The first would be a son
whom he would mold in his own image. After that, he didn’t care so much
about the rest. But the more products of his seed that walked the world,
Yes, the little girl would become his bride—whether
she liked it or not. He was a god, after all. And who in their right
mind could refuse the hand of a god?
Not even the god’s sister could do that.
first met her brother when she was five years old. He found her at the
rope swing that hung from an ancient sycamore tree on the outskirts of
the village known as Avici. With so many children flocking to the swing,
Laylah sometimes had to wait forever for a turn. But she knew the best
time to go. While her parents slumbered, she snuck out her window and
scampered through the darkness. The swing hung there—lifeless but
inviting—and she had it all to herself. When morning came, she returned
home to sleep.
On one especially beautiful night, when the moon
was full and the sky clear, Laylah sat on the swing and basked in the
reflected light. Phosphorescent streaks emanated from her body as she
swept back and forth. When she held up her arm, she could see that her
skin glowed magically. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t really care,
either. To her, it was normal.
But the boy who came to her that
fateful night was by no means normal. He wore calico robes embroidered
with little golden suns, and when he lifted his hood to expose his face,
Laylah saw something in his expression that felt familiar. He smiled at
her, exposing perfectly white teeth and disturbingly clear brown eyes.
His hair was an even deeper yellow than hers, hanging long and silky
about his shoulders. He sat cross-legged in the grass near her feet and
rested the palms of his hands on his knees.
"Are you afraid?” he said, whispering huskily.
"No,” she said, telling the truth.
He smiled again. "Do you know me?”
"I don’t think so.”
The smile lessened. "I’m a stranger to you, but you’re not a stranger to me. Do you understand?”
"A lot of the old people know my name, but I don’t know theirs. Is that what you mean?”
chuckled, but with a slight hint of irritation. "Not exactly. But it’s
obvious you’re a very smart girl. And so pretty! I like you. Do you like
"How old are you?” she said.
"I’m fifteen. And you’re five?”
"You do know me,” she said. "But I don’t remember seeing you. Are you new here?”
"Yes... in some ways. I was born here, but I grew up someplace else.”
"Have you come back here to live?”
"No... just to visit. With you.”
"Because I like you. Do you like me?”
"I guess so.”
that’s a good start. I hope you’ll like me more when you get to know
me. But I have to ask you an important question. Can you keep a secret?”
"Yes!” Laylah loved keeping secrets. It made her feel like an old person.
"Good. Well, the secret is... me.
I don’t want you to tell anyone, not even your parents, that you talked
to me tonight. If you tell them, do you know what will happen?”
"You’ll be mad at me?”
no. I won’t be mad at you, but your parents will. They’ll stop you from
going out at night. They’ll barricade your door and window. You won’t
have the swing all to yourself anymore, and you won’t be able to enjoy
the moonlight without anyone around to bother you.”
Tears welled in Laylah’s eyes. Being imprisoned in her room at night would be the worst punishment she could imagine.
"But if you keep our secret,” the boy continued, "you’ll be free to come and go whenever you
like. Tomorrow night, the moon will be round again. I’ll come to visit.
If you’re not here, I’ll know you broke our secret.”
"I won’t... I promise.”
you, Laylah.” He smiled so wide she could see his thick red tongue.
"And I won’t tell anyone, either. See you tomorrow night?”
"Yes,” she said.
went home before dawn and slept until almost noon. Her parents, Gunther
and Stēorra, constantly told her how amazed they were that she slept so
much. They put her to bed every night after dark, but she rarely got up
on her own before lunch. Yet she was healthy and happy, so they didn’t
bother her about it too much, enabling her to continue to get away with
her nightly wanderings.
Invictus met Laylah at the tree again that
night, lavishing her with praise for keeping their secret. He talked to
her for a long time and asked many questions: What was her favorite
food? He was an excellent cook. Did she have any pets? He had lots of
them. Was she satisfied with her clothes? He could buy her some really
nice gowns and shoes. Would she like that?
The third night, he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
"Do you love me, Laylah? Because I love you.”
The kiss made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t answer. He became annoyed.
"I won’t be around for a while.” And he walked away in a huff.
several weeks afterward he didn’t meet her at the swing. Laylah became
used to being alone again. She once tried to tell her mother about the
boy, but her tongue dried up, and the words wouldn’t come. She hated the
feeling of helplessness.
When the moon rose full the following
month he appeared again, strutting out of the darkness with a grin on
his face. He gave her a light hug and another kiss on the cheek.
Whatever anger he had displayed when she had last seen him was gone. He
told her how much he had missed her and how much he loved her. Did she
love him? She still didn’t answer.
Four days a month around each
full moon, he visited her at the swing. He taught her things, such as
how to talk to him without speaking, or how to scorch patches of grass
with fire from the tips of her fingers. He told her magical words. Ratana, repeated three times, turned pebbles into gems. Khandeti caused pottery to crack. Avihethanahealed cuts and bruises. This delighted Laylah.
"Do you love me?” he asked.
"I like you, a lot.”
"I love you, a lot.”
One time, he taught her the word Namuci,
which he told her had been conjured in a time eons past by the ancient
demon known as Vedana. When a demon—or a human with demon blood—spoke
the word, it gave life to invisible spirits called efrits,
thousands of which dwelled in the Realm of the Undead. In that eternal
darkness they were harmless. But when summoned to the Realm of Life,
they became voracious meat-eaters, gorging themselves on the internal
organs of any living being unlucky enough to be near. The speaker of the
word—because of his or her demon blood—was safe from harm.
If Namuci was whispered, one efritresponded, and one person died. But if a being of great power screamed it at high volume, thousands of efrits emerged, and any human or animal within several hundred paces perished.
Laylah said it, a sparrow tumbled from the sky and lay dead at her
feet. She screamed and cried. He called her a "little baby” and stormed
For several months he did not appear. Laylah began to think
she would never see him again. In some ways she was relieved. More than
once she again tried to tell her parents or some of the other old people
about her mysterious visitor. But the words would not come. She tried
so hard, her eyes filled with tears. When they asked her what was wrong,
she couldn’t speak. Her tongue felt meaty and swollen.
time she was six years old, she had learned to spell quite a few words,
but when she attempted to write something down about the brown-eyed boy,
the quill smeared the ink. She even tried to draw his picture, but the
same thing happened. It made her sick to her stomach.
nowhere he appeared again, smiling as if he had never been gone. She
told him she still was mad at him for making her kill the bird. He said
he was sorry and wouldn’t do it again. Instead, he taught her good words
like Loha-Hema, which turned copper to gold, and Tumbî-Tum,
which caused vegetables to grow from seed to full ripeness in just a
few days. He showed her how to conjure small spheres of flame that
floated in the air, and the two of them tossed them back and forth like
toy balls. When an adult villager, perhaps trying to walk off a bout of
insomnia, wandered by the swing in the middle of the night, the boy blew
smoke from his mouth and said, "Niddaayahi.”The man collapsed on the grass, his insomnia cured.
worried about the old person. He was one of her father’s many friends
and often had been nice to her. The boy assured her he would take the
man back to his house, and he picked up the old person and carried him
away as if he weighed less than a feather. Laylah never saw the man
again, but the boy came back the next night in a better mood than usual.
she turned nine years old, the boy handed her an envelope, sealed with
an insignia of a golden sun, and told her to wait until he was gone
before reading the letter. He also told her to burn it with her special
white finger-fire as soon as she was finished. When he disappeared from
sight, she tore it open.
The letter was written in gold ink on a single sheet of silky white paper.
My dearest Laylah:
You are so smart and pretty. When we are not together, I feel sad. I miss you all the time. I love you very much.
Do you love me?
have known each other for four years, but you have never asked my name.
Why is that? Aren’t you curious about me? Don’t you care?
Remember our secret. Never tell anyone about me. Our parents will be angry at you if they discover we are friends.
Here’s my present—another secret word. This one is very precious. The
next time you are in bed or taking a bath, say "Raaga” several times—but
only if you are alone. It will make you feel good, but Mother and
Father wouldn’t like it.
Our parents? Your brother? Mother and father? Laylah read the letter over and over. She decided not to burn it.
Instead, she would show it to her parents the next morning. But the
moment that thought entered her mind, the paper burst into yellow flame.
She cried again.
"You are not my brother,” she said to him the next night. "I don’t have a brother. My mom and dad would have told me.”
He stomped around the swing, staring at her with fury in his eyes.
dare to call me a liar?” His body, now almost twenty years old and
fully grown, glowed like a miniature sun. "Listen to me carefully,
little one. I allow you to live because you’re my sister, but even you need to be careful. Your powers are just a fraction of mine. Compared to me, you’re merely a reflection.”
was terrified, and she burst into tears and ran all the way home. She
didn’t return to the swing for months. Instead, she trembled in her bed
until morning, when sleep finally took her, temporarily releasing her
from misery. During that terrible stretch of time she never saw
Invictus, the boy who claimed to be her brother.
Just a month shy
of her tenth birthday, she relaxed in a warm bath while her parents made
dinner in the kitchen. The magical word Invictus had written in his
letter still teased her curiosity. Until this moment, she had managed to
resist its supernatural lure. But the compulsion finally overcame her.
"Raaga,” she whispered, guiltily.
felt a strange but enchanting sensation between her legs. She touched
herself with her hand, and the pleasure intensified.
"Raaga,” she said again. "Raaga. Raaga!”
she lay panting in the bath, her face slathered with sweat. Her mother
assumed she had come down with a fever, and she tucked Laylah into bed
with a cold cloth on her forehead.
The next morning, Laylah said
the word again. And then the following afternoon and evening. She said
it every day, several times a day, several times a night. The sensation
grew greater each time. But it took a severe toll on her prepubescent
body. She lost her appetite and an excessive amount of weight. Dark
circles formed under her eyes, and her cheeks collapsed.
parents were convinced she was deathly ill. Shamans studied her but
could find nothing wrong. She tried to tell them about the boy and his
terrible powers. But no intelligible words came forth.
who was filthy and stank, told Laylah’s parents that he needed to be
alone with the child to properly diagnose her condition. Out of
desperation, they agreed. When they closed the door, the shaman leaned
over Laylah and told her that evil spirits possessed her. If she kissed
him, the spirits would flee from her mouth into his, where he would
Laylah saw through his guise. Without thinking, she whispered, "Namuci!”
The shaman fell to the floor, spit out a glob of blood, and died.
parents rushed back into the room and found her in hysterics. The
shaman’s death shocked the village, but no one thought to blame her.
For whatever reason, the horror of what she had done strengthened Laylah’s resolve, and she was able to resist saying the nasty word. In a few weeks her health was restored—and with it, her good humor. Her parents seemed so pleased.
all fell apart for her the morning after her tenth birthday, when
Invictus crept through her window and entered her room. She tried to cry
out but could not manage more than a few weak grunts. Still wearing his
golden robes, he lay next to her on her bed, pressed his chest against
her back and then placed his hand on her stomach. She hated being so
close to him, but somehow his presence froze her to the bed. A short
time later, her parents entered the room and found them together.
"What are you doing?” he said. "Get away from my child!”
father attempted to pull the young man off Laylah, but Invictus was far
too strong, swinging his arm and knocking him against the far wall. Her
mother lifted a small wooden table and smashed it against Invictus’
shoulder, but it did not seem to hurt him at all. He stood and faced
"Mother, don’t you recognize me?” Invictus said.
"I recognize you, but I wish I didn’t,” she said. "Why have you returned to torment us?”
"I love you, Mother. Do you love me?” And then he spit a sizzling ball of sputum at her brown eyes.
howled and pressed her hands to her face, staggering backward. When she
removed her hands, most of the flesh on her skull was gone, though
strands of long yellow hair still clung to the exposed bone.
Her father regained his senses, staggered to his feet, and pounced on Invictus, all the while yelling, "Laylah...run!”
"Father,” Invictus said. "I love you. Do you love me?”
pressed his lips against her father’s and blew hot breath down his
throat. Her father collapsed and went into a wild spasm. Smoke exploded
from his ears, nose, and mouth—and his tongue swelled absurdly. When he
blew apart, flaming patches of tissue splattered across the room. This
terrified Laylah and shook her out of whatever spell Invictus had put on
her to keep her still. She sat up and screamed.
Though her mother
was maimed and blinded, she continued to grope for Invictus. But she
was no match for him. He grasped her disfigured face and kissed her too,
and she met the same fate as her husband.
raised his arms and bellowed. Golden flames erupted from every pore. As
if struck from within by dragon fire, the house exploded. Sizzling
shards flew several hundred paces, casting Laylah into the yard like a
piece of broken furniture. When the conflagration cleared, she saw
Invictus standing naked amid the smoking debris, his robes incinerated
but his body unharmed. Her parents were gone.
Laylah managed to
stand up. Amazingly, she wasn’t injured, but her clothes had been
incinerated, and she was now naked as well. The commotion drew hundreds
of villagers, who rushed toward her. But when they saw Invictus, they
also ran. Only one man hesitated, as if daring to issue a challenge. For
him, it was a death sentence. Invictus blasted a bolt of golden flame,
ripping off the man’s head.
Laylah could stand it no more. But at least she now had full use of her body. She ran... fast and far.
"Laylah! Come back. I love you.” Her brother’s voice shook the valley. "Laylah, do you lovvvvvveeeeeee me?”
reached the Ogha River. The roar of its swirling waters drowned out her
sobs. She felt her brother approaching from behind. She would rather
die than have him touch her again.
Laylah threw herself into the
Ogha. She could swim well, but she was used to the still water of lakes
and ponds, not the nasty swells of the mightiest river in the world. The
tumult swept her along, helpless as a leaf. Despite the dangers, she
felt peaceful. Death by drowning was a small price to pay to escape such
But Laylah’s life would not end on this day. Something
grasped her thin arm. She glided along the surface of the river on her
back and was dragged onto the steep bank on the far side.
She could still hear Invictus’ desperate cries.
"Laylah, come back. I love you. Do you love me?”
arms lifted her and pressed her against wet skin that smelled like a
wild animal. She screamed, struggling to free herself. Then a large hand
clamped over her mouth, her nose, and everything went dark.