The howling noises of the wind blowing in between the rugged cliffs were the only sounds audible next to the roaring of the boiling waters where the huge waves surged against the dark rocks.
They sounded as if an entire horde of at least hundred hounds were racing through the pitch-black night, but the lonely man standing on top of the highest cliff seemed to be unfazed by the howling and the storm raging over the promontory, a motionless gray figure in the darkness.
James Arthur McBride didn't know what had woken him up shortly before midnight, but he had soon realized that he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep again, and so he had gotten up and dressed, finding his way to the salient as he followed the inaudible whisper in his head that called out for him, luring him out of the ancient fortress that protected the first Domain of Celtia since the beginning.
His short coat was billowing around his shoulders, but James didn't feel the harsh wind or the icy-cold drops of the sea spray on his cheeks, staring at the horizon with narrowed eyes like a marble statue that had been placed there to warn every fool trying to approach Castle Tristone from this side that they were doomed to perish in the endless depths of Celtia's sea.
So many ships had sunken here right before the ragged coast over the decades and centuries, bursting where the storm had thrown them against the cliffs, the screams and cries of their crews even audible behind the thick walls of the mighty castle sitting enthroned on top of the tall rocks. The last ship James remembered going down in a stormy night like this one had sunken when he'd still been a boy, and no other Domain had been foolhardy enough to try and attack the Tristone Domain from the seaside again ever since that fateful night. Something strange hidden in the rocks seemed to attract even the biggest ships, making it impossible for them to ever escape the forceful pulling again, sealing the fate of those who thought that they could defeat nature.
James knew the stories people told each other, stories about beautiful sirens and horrible monsters crawling out of their caves and hiding places somewhere in the cliffs when the storm came, luring poor sailors into their traps, but the tall Mormear of Tristone didn't believe in such stories. Sirens and monsters didn't exist, and stories about them were only meant to scare young children and keep them away from the dangerous rocks and cliffs of James' homeland. He hadn't believed in those stories when he'd still been a small boy, and he wouldn't start to believe in them now, no matter how much the howling of the wind and the roaring of the sea sounded like the screams of a huge monster. James had sailed before the coast with his own ship many times, and nothing had ever happened to him and his crew. James knew the sea by heart, he knew where the dangerous shoals and rocks hidden under the water surface were, and his ship was light and maneuverable where the others had been heavy and ponderous.
A sudden bright flash racing along in the dark sky drew James' attention, and the Mormear of Tristone shaded his eyes with his hand to protect them from the wind, following the flash ghosting high up in the sky above the promontory until it vanished in between the thick black clouds that loomed over the land where the forests bordering his Domain began. The whisper in his head became louder and more urgent, making him wish to search for the source of the white flash.
“There is nothing, James, don't be stupid. You're already seeing ghosts,” the lord with the thick black hair and the silver-gray eyes murmured aloud to drown out the strange voice in his mind, turning around on his heels to go back to his castle. “It was only a fallen star,” he told himself grimly as he strode forward with fast steps, trying to believe his own words – even though his instincts told him that there was something odd going on, something that was much more dangerous than a fallen star. The murmur in his head didn't stop, sounding pleading and demanding at the same time, and James angrily accelerated his footsteps until he was almost running, only stopping when he finally reached the small side-gate.
“Lord McBride! Is everything alright with you?” Lewis, the commander of his guard, asked when he opened the gate for his Mormear, and James forced his feet to slow down, nodding briefly at the other man.
“Send for Joe and Shane and wake someone up to saddle Thunder,” the dark-haired Mormear of Tristone ordered his head-guard without bothering to explain himself further, his commanding voice and his strong Alpha vibes not allowing the younger one to utter any protest against his order. Lew was a strong Alpha himself, but he simply acknowledged James' superiority with a nod of his own, turning around to head in the direction of the stables.
James watched him leave before turning around and heading to the palas to change and grab his weapons. Times were uncertain, the peace between Celtia's Nine Domains fragile. The last war between the Domains had almost destroyed Celtia, but not all of the nine Mormears were caring about the well-being of their subjects and the destruction and harm another war would cause, craving to gain more power and bring the other Domains under their sway. Anndra Pitark, Mormear of Ravennest, was only waiting for the chance to capture James and claim the Tristone Domain, but the older lord wouldn't dare to attack James on his own land when he had his weapons and two of his best fighters with him. Lord Pitark's men still respected the laws and the peace treaty that had been concluded between the Domains more than ten years ago - opposite to their ruler - and Anndra stood no chance against three skilled warriors when he was alone and had to fight against James without his own best warriors.
The Tristone-Domain, the Ravennest-Domain and the Lindelborn-Domain were the oldest of the Nine Domains of Celtia, and James knew that Anndra Pitark hadn't given up his plans to conquer the Lindelborn-Domain and the Tristone-Domain to become the most powerful Mormear of the known world.
But this was nothing that would keep James from leaving his castle and ride into the thick forests to search for whatever it was that called out for him so urgently. Anndra Pitark was a Beta and not an Alpha like James himself, and he didn't possess his dominant aura or his strength, having to gain the loyalty of his men with money and punishments. He ruled over his Domain by spreading fear and mistrust instead of winning the love and trust of his subjects, oppressing his people and ignoring the old laws whenever it served his purpose to gain more power.
The bright white flash had disappeared somewhere in the forests that bordered both domains – probably close to the border itself - and James really needed to find the source of the strange lightning before Pitark did, sensing that it was important for Celtia's future and all the people living in the Nine Domains.
Just half an hour after his return the tall Mormear of Tristone left the large fortress again, his short coat blowing after him when he galloped through the storm on Thunder's back followed by two of his best fighters, three dark figures racing over the stony ground until the dark night finally swallowed them.
Captain Daniel Spark read the data flickering over the screen with a frown, his fingers flying over the console of his Space Fighter as he set up the new course of his small ship.
The young pilot with the cognac-colored hair and the green-golden eyes was aware that he shouldn't put too much distance between himself and his mother ship, but the data was truly unusual and interesting, and Daniel was curious and adventurous by nature, unable to resist the temptation to explore the large nebula that lay only thirty light years ahead of his Space Fighter. It was a distance that would take him two hours to cross hyper space and get there, but the nebula was still within range, even for his rather small ship that had to drop out of hyper space for a few minutes every ten light years to recover from the radiation. The signals he received from somewhere inside the red, white, yellow and blue shimmering nebula indicated that there were at least nine suns hidden in this cluster, definitely worthy to be explored and checked more closely.
Daniel hoped that some of the stars had planets as well, and he pressed his lips to a determined line, typing a quick message for his mother ship, the Borushia, and her Commander Harry Grant. The Borushia had been sent out to discover this unknown region of the galaxy and find planets that could be colonized, and there were too few stars with planets to miss this chance and ignore the cluster. The captain with the shiny cognac-colored hair was happy about every opportunity to prove himself, and the fascinating nebula seemed to be a good chance to do that after his unsuccessful mission two days ago.
Daniel didn't even wait for an answer to his short and rather vague message but accelerated his ship until it was fast enough to open the window to hyper space, and only two minutes later his Space Fighter disappeared from the screens in Borushia's control room, leaving only a small stripe of radiation behind that vanished quickly in the broad expanse of space.
Daniel had never seen a sun like this one, a huge dark red glowing ball in the middle of his front screen. It wasn't only because of the visual filter that made sure that the pilot of the Space Fighter wouldn't go blind, it was the sun itself that was darker than most of the other suns Daniel had ever seen in his whole life – and it had been many stars since his first flight with a space ship as Earth's youngest pilot ever.
“Dark Sun, this name really suits you,” Daniel murmured fascinated, and he couldn't suppress a small shiver that ran down on his spine all of a sudden. He felt almost hypnotized at the sight of the sun growing bigger with every kilometer Daniel flew in its direction, and only the loud beep of his mass detector pulled him out of his dazed state.
“You actually have planets, Dark Sun. Now that's truly interesting, I really didn't expect that this could be possible.” Daniel had already cataloged the other eight suns he'd found in the nebula, Dark Sun had been the last one, lying on the other side of the loose cluster. The nebula contained a big blue star, a small red one, two white dwarves and four normal yellow suns, and two of them had three planets circling around them in a very tight orbit that didn't allow any form of life to grow on them.
His fingers flew over his console again, and Daniel held his breath as he waited for the information about this unique solar system to show up. Dark Sun had four planets, a small rocky desert, two methane giants and a planet of the size of Earth. Daniel felt a soft flutter in his stomach when he checked the second Earth-sized planet more closely, shaking his head in irritation because there was suddenly a strange, almost inaudible whisper in his head, together the overwhelming urge to fly closer to the dark-red sun tearing at his mind, making his fingers move over the blinking buttons on his console again of their own will.
When the information finally came, Daniel gasped out, flinching at the sound of his own voice. “This is unbelievable! How can that be?” he croaked out, checking the life-sign detector again. The young captain hadn't thought it possible, but the second planet, circling around Dark Sun in an orbit that granted comfortable temperatures and liquid water, was full of life signs, the lights of the device blinking in a fast rhythm and a bright green light.
There was life on Dark Sun's second planet, and Daniel was determined to find out what kind of life the dark-red sun had allowed to populate one of her worlds.
The Space Fighter approached the second planet much faster than Daniel had intended to fly there, just as if an invisible magnet was attracting his ship. The young captain didn't even have time to send another massage to the Borushia, too busied with avoiding a crash landing on the surface of the planet because of the high speed the small plane was racing through the thick atmosphere with. The crew of his mother ship didn't know where he was, he'd only sent one single short message that he wanted to explore the nebula further; and Commander Grant wouldn't risk entering the unknown formation with his much larger spaceship if he had to believe that something had happened to one of his Space Fighters inside the strange cluster. Harry Grant was an experienced commander, and Earth didn't have enough long-distance spaceships to lose any of them.
Grant would wait until the other Space Fighters would return from their search for habitable planets, and this would take a while. Daniel had been the only one exploring this area, and the young captain focused on bringing his ship down safely and without too much damage instead of trying to send another message to the Borushia. He could try to contact his mother ship after the landing – if he was still able to do that then, that is.
The small plane raced through thick black clouds now, and the captain with the green-golden eyes stared at the screen in the attempt to find a place where he could land without crashing his Space Fighter. It was night on this half of the planet, a heavy storm raging as far as the eye could reach, and there was only water beneath him, a large sea that covered half of the surface of this world. Daniel heaved a relieved sigh when mainland finally came into sight, a large continent that reached from the equator to one of the poles. Daniel thought that it was most likely the north pole of the planet, judging by the data he got from the magnetic field surrounding it. High mountains – higher than the highest mountains on Earth – separated the continent into two halves, and Daniel could see that the half behind the huge mountain wall, the one closer to the pole, was more or less only icy wastes and surely not the region where the life signs had come from.
The young captain concentrated his search on the other half of the continent, but his ship was already too close to the surface for him to choose a good place for the landing himself. There was no time left before he would crash, and all Daniel could do was to stabilize the Space Fighter and hope for the best. The gray sea was boiling beneath him, huge waves breaking at the dark cliffs coming nearer far too quickly, and Daniel's lips moved in a silent prayer when he reached the mainland. The cliffs flew by beneath him as his ship lost height and went further down, and he gritted his teeth as he steeled himself for impact when the dark-green canopies of a thick forest filled his screen completely when he'd passed the rocks.
Daniel couldn't tell for sure whether or not he'd actually seen a large building sitting on top of the highest cliff or if it had only been his imagination playing tricks on him, and the next thing he knew was that his plane suddenly slowed down too fast of its own will, almost coming to a complete halt and diving down into the woods as if controlled by invisible hands. Daniel was thrown against the controls of his console, only his safety belt keeping him in his seat, and then everything went dark before he had any chance to react and avoid the crash.