“It’s not like it used to be… you can’t mess around anymore. You know how your grandmother will react if you don’t continue with your training as scheduled,” Damen’s father chided with a stern tone. He had been caught trying to skip one of his morning combat lessons to visit the stables, to visit his beloved Sahar. He bowed his head in obedience. He couldn’t disappoint his father or disgrace the family.

“I understand, Father. I will ensure it will never occur again,” the words were like ash in his mouth, leaving a bad taste. He would try again; he just wouldn’t get caught. He had to be smarter, be faster, if he ever wanted to escape his prison. His father’s olive-green eyes gained a suspicious gleam. Damen kept his countenance solemn, ensuring his features wouldn’t betray his inner thoughts of rebellion. His father stared at him for a moment longer before accepting his son’s false apology.

“Indeed. Now make haste to your lesson. You wouldn’t want to keep your instructor waiting, pet.”
Damen’s family had been in power since the start of the Dynasty. They rule the Blackened Desert with an iron fist, quickly becoming known as the fiercest tyrants in all the land. The al-Kadir family is infamous for being ruthless: skilled with every weapon and combat technique of the known world and beyond. Their armies of assassins carried out their dark wishes and the endeavors to achieve their final goal: total control of everything.

Damen was the heir of the empire, destined to become its face once his grandmother stepped down. But, unlike the rest of his family, Damen didn’t want power. He didn’t want conquests and war. He wanted to travel the world. He wanted to find love. He wanted to be free of the shackles chaining him to this life, to this legacy.

Hurrying towards the training grounds, Damen tried to collect his scattered thoughts. He had to push everything down and be the emotionless soldier his family wanted. Pushing open the gates to the sand-covered courtyard, he saw his instructor standing there with a hand on his katana. It seemed they would be starting with blades this morning. He bowed before speaking.

“Sir, forgive me for my tardiness.”

“Take care that it does not occur again,” his instructor said harshly. “Now draw your blade,” Damen did as his instructor commanded, unsheathing his katana and entering his duel stance. “Begin!” the instructor shouted before advancing towards him. They circled each other for a few paces before Damen made the first strike. After the first swing, it was a blur of steel. The blades clanged together with every blow.

Minutes passed slowly as instructor and student battled, both a match of the other’s strength. They were in a stalemate with neither willing to submit. As it seemed it would go on forever, a figure stepped forward out of the shadow of the fortress balcony. As the figure approached, the battle slowed before coming to a stop as both combatants noticed the approaching person. Damen sucked in a short, sharp breath of alarm before reverting back to his blank mask. The woman standing there was old with gray hair and wrinkles, but she was nothing like an ordinary elder. Strength was hidden in every muscle, her eyes sharp and scanning the yard for potential threats. Her posture was tall and radiated power and authority. Why she was here, Damen didn’t know, and he really hoped to not find out any time soon.
“Boy,” his grandmother said, “stop holding back,” Damen’s eyes widened slightly as he realized the true meaning behind her words. His instructor’s reaction was worse, his hands started to tremble and his breathing became shaky. Grandmother regarded both of them with unyielding eyes before commanding, “Continue.”

“Yes, Mistress,” Damen replied automatically before returning to his combat stance. His instructor followed his actions, getting ready to start the battle again. Without sharing words, both began dueling simultaneously. This time though, Damen was clearly getting ahead in the battle. The instructor was distracted by his mind, and that was his ultimate downfall. The back and forth of strikes lasted both an instant and an eternity before it suddenly stopped.

The body fell to the ground. The sand was now stained crimson with the blood seeping through the grains. The severed head of his instructor rolled as Damen stared at the liquid dripping off his blade, breathing heavily. He took a mental stock of his injuries to stop himself from feeling. There were bruises and scrapes, he had a decent sized laceration across his chest, another scar to add to his already damaged body. He would need to visit the infirmary. He was snapped out of his stupor by footsteps crunching on sand and clapping.

“Well done, Damen,” his grandmother praised him. “Come, let’s find your father. There is something I must discuss with him.”

“Yes, Grandmother.”

They wandered through the great sandstone fortress in search of Damen’s father. He had a sinking feeling in his gut about what his family was going to talk about. They found him in the war room, sitting at the oval table with some of his most trusted generals. They seemed to be discussing strategies for expanding the empire.

“Azam,” Damen’s grandmother addressed, demanding his immediate attention. His father dismissed the generals before standing.

“Yes, Mother?”

“It is time.” His father’s face twisted into something like pride, his mouth turning into a small grin.

“Perfect. Damen, return to your quarters and begin preparing. Your final trial begins at dawn,” his father told him. Damen felt like the floor had disappeared from under him. The moment he had been dreading his entire life was upon him: the final trial. Though the years of training crammed in his teenage body was all meant to prepare him for this, it did nothing to assuage the emotions coursing through him. He didn’t want to do this. He had never wanted to do this. Although he was raised in this life, he hated all of the mindless death of innocents. Damen was a pacifist at heart, a gentle soul. He had no desire to harm anyone, much less run an empire that was notorious for the destruction and death it brought to anyone standing in its way.

The final trial was the last test of his knowledge before he was to be officially named the heir of the al-Kadir empire. It consisted of a series of missions: first defeating his father in combat, then his grandmother, and ending by leading the armies into battle and overtaking another territory, then dealing the killing blow to the territory’s leader before returning to the fortress, victorious.

As Damen sat in his room late that night, he wept into his knees, curled into a tight ball on his bed. He cried for his slaughtered instructor, for the innocent lives he would be forced to take come morning, and for himself. He hugged his legs tighter to his chest, mimicking some form of comfort. There was no-one he could take his troubles to, no-one that would listen without alerting his family. He was alone in this world.

The tears ran dry eventually and Damen stewed in his thoughts. The one idea that kept circling his head was not a new one, but one he never had the courage to attempt. He could leave this place. There were still a few hours before sunrise. If he could get out without being caught, he would never have to see this place again. A life constantly on the run was better than the nightmare he was in now. He resented his family for forcing him to endure the pain and death at both their hands and his. He never wanted to run the empire and be the cause of so much more catastrophe.

Decision made, Damen stood up and grabbed a bag. He packed all that he would need: clothes, toiletries, the few keepsakes he had, extra weapons, a small amount of food, water, basic survival supplies, and his katana. After all his belongings had been gathered, he took one last look at the room he had grown up in. With a sigh, he blew out the candles to bathe the room in darkness. Stepping out into the hall and closing the door behind him, he began to maneuver his way towards the place that would give him the best chance of escape. Sticking to the shadows, Damen avoided the assassins patrolling the corridors and used his training to move silently. Determining his best chance at escaping was through the northeast entrance since the stables were just outside the doors. Arriving at the entrance, he slipped through the doors and immediately began to go towards the stable.

“Hello, girl,” he greeted the horse in front of him. “We’re finally getting out of here.” He got Sahar ready to depart and straddled her back. He nudged her into a quiet walk, ensuring to keep out of sight to the best of his ability. As Damen approached the gate of the outer wall, he reined Sahar in, stopping her a few meters away. He waited for his chance to escape through the gate when the guards weren’t looking. They moved moments later—most likely taking their break—giving Damen a small window to get out. He took his chance.

Within minutes of stepping out the doors of the fortress, Damen was galloping across the dry, cracked ground outside the fortress, going farther and farther away from the prison he once called home.
Damen didn’t care that the entire al-Kadir empire would be searching for him in a matter of hours. He didn’t care that he had left behind everyone he had ever known. He didn’t care that the life promised to him from birth had now vanished in a puff of smoke, since the moment his family found him, he would be sentenced to death. All that mattered was the wind blowing through his dark hair, the endless desert stretched out in front of him, the feeling of freedom flowing through his veins, and the shackles that had once held him crumbling to dust.