*This is a sample chapter from the revised Home Run Edition. Cover by IMbeta.
After staring at her Circuit Breaker 9000 phone for a few minutes, Alex reluctantly played the video taking up its screen. The recording started, the first-person view of a person walking down a castle’s ornate hallway. Even if the camera’s view hid the identity of the person whose chest it was mounted on, the height and heavy footsteps betrayed an imposing stature. A Diamond Knight walked briskly just behind. At the pair of large oak doors, a sleek black gauntlet grabbed the thick handle from off-screen and threw it open. Intense purple light inundated the lens, an ethereal humming in the background. The throne room buzzed with activity.
The neon light beamed from the thick glass flooring through the large skylight above, a clear square throne installed proudly in the center. Two computer terminals with monitors were suspended from the ceiling by long steel columns, displaying city maps and livestreams from the chaotic streets. Blue jeans and brown work boots extended from under the monitors’ keyboard.
Two sentries stood on duty beside the throne, wearing white gear and red capes over their right shoulders. They were the king’s Royal Guards. The Diamond Knight took a place beside the closest guard, both men representing the two branches of the military, their different uniforms starkly contrasting.
A lanky man stood beside the throne, wearing a dark brown blazer over a grey shirt, charcoal slacks, and red leather loafers.
“Don’t worry, Sire,” the city’s celebrated educator, Professor Magnus Zwei, said. “We have men heading to the stadium to pick her up.” He looked to the new arrival standing in the threshold, the lenses on his horn-rimmed glasses enlarging his grey eyes under a well-groomed cut of amber hair. “The Dragon has arrived,” Zwei announced.
A hand tapped a digital display on the throne’s armrest, and the monitors folded into the columns, both of which retracted into the ceiling. Quentin Diamond stood strongly in his red robe and stepped from his seat towards his General. “Drake, what do you have to report?” he asked the man behind the mounted camera lens.
“The rebels have overrun the guards,” said a firm voice so close that it reverberated through the phone’s small speakers. “Your enemies roam the castle’s halls.”
The king grew quiet in thought. “It’s time to evacuate, Magnus,” he said to his chief advisor. At his words, one of the attending Royal Guards stepped forward, the metal badge at his chest showing a bronze star on the pitcher’s mound.
The professor accepted the command without hesitation. “Godspeed, Quentin,” he said before stepping away, his escort in tow. Drake moved aside so they could pass, then he reached out and slid the bulky, reinforced lock across the doors behind them.
“Do you understand it?” King Diamond asked as he walked towards the giant stained-glass window overlooking the city. “Do you understand how any of this happened?”
Drake approached him at a deliberate, measured pace. “No, Sire,” Drake replied. He looked to his left and nodded at the Royal Guard and Diamond Knight standing on watch. Both men interpreted the sign differently. As the king’s Royal Guard nodded back, Drake’s Diamond Knight stepped quietly behind his brother-in-arms, slapped his hand over his mouth, and ran his blade over the exposed throat.
“Their minds were poisoned,” the king said thoughtfully, “their hearts manipulated. This didn’t happen naturally.”
The Royal Guard tried to scream in pain, but his voice was reduced to bubbles from the slit.
“No, Sire,” Drake said, stepping beside the king to gaze out on the city. He moved his gauntlet to his sword’s handle.
“We can survive this,” the king said and turned away. “We can-” but he caught himself as he saw the dead Royal Guard, and the blood running down the Diamond Knight’s blade.
Drake unsheathed his large sword. “No. Sire,” he said to the king’s exposed back, dashing his hopeful words.
The king calmly turned to face the camera.
And was met with Drake’s sword violently ripping through his abdomen so hard the crown jerked from his head. Drake pulled him close enough that the ultra-def lens could capture every second, every expression of his agony.
“You mounted these cameras on us to watch our conduct,” his voice boomed. “Let the last thing it records be your end.”
The king summed his confusion up with one word: “Why?”
Drake pulled him in close. “Let me tell you,” he whispered.
A sharp clicking, the sound of metal grinding, came from off screen, and the king’s face was lit by a red glow.
The scene blast into an inferno of flame. The king’s hair blew back as his face distorted and turned black. His body scattered like ash in the wind, revealing the empty throne behind him. The leader of the Diamond Kingdom was gone.
In the video’s frame, Drake reached up and broke the camera off. The screen went dark.
Alex rewound the video a few seconds, back to the close-up on her father’s pained face, Drake’s blade in his stomach. The small clicking sounded again, and then Quentin Diamond twisted in torment.
The playback paused there, capturing the great king’s death for eternity.
Alex squeezed her phone in her calloused hand. With the video paused, a hundred conversations mixed into the background, but with her mind occupied they were no more than static. The neon pillar stood over her in the distance.
Even from the countertop she sat at by the edge of the Diamond Academy’s quad, she could feel the energy bursting from the victory rally by the clock tower. Flood lights cast over a mass of people packed around a hastily assembled stage and lonely mic stand, a large flat-screen television at the back.
A tired old voice cut through all the others. “You must have been hungry.” A steaming bowl of ramen with an egg cracked on top and conjoined chopsticks slid over the acrylic counter in front of Alex, covering the paper menu underneath that had every chicken and beef item stricken out in thick red marker. A barren tip jar sat on top with a few coins and crumpled bills inside. Alex looked over the boiling pot on the stove to the black-haired chef with the kind face on the opposite side. His small cart was fixed to the back of a rickety bike with a crooked front tire, the doors at his knees concealing a propane tank. The word ‘Noodles’ was embroidered at his white apron’s left breast. “I can’t even get a whole large bowl down,” Noodles said, impressed by her hunger.
Alex shoved her phone into her hip pocket then snapped the pair of wooden chopsticks in two. She rubbed the splinters off, her legs dangling from the stool welded to the side of the cart.
The chatter in Alex’s ear focused. “I think it’s starting,” said an interested man. “There’s Zack!” squealed an adoring woman fan. Alex turned towards the stage.
A thin guy in his early twenties with a week’s worth of stubble and strategically messy brown hair hopped on stage wearing washed out skinny jeans and a faded t-shirt. Alex hadn’t seen the activist vlogger’s face before.
“Today we were set free!” he yelled and threw his arms into the air triumphantly. The crowd roared loudly enough to catch Noodles’ attention. “Drake will be broadcasting in a few minutes, but I want to say some things first,” he said and took a breath. “We did it. We started a small movement on this very campus and canvassed tirelessly against an unjust state. And now, the man responsible is gone.”
Alex turned back to her food and took a bottle of chili sauce from a rack.
Noodles looked at her. “Don’t you want to move closer?”
She shook the bottle instead of her head. “I’m fine here,” she said as she squeezed red into the bowl. “But there are a dozen people streaming the speech if you want to hear it.” She didn’t mention she was listening to them all at once.
“I’ve heard enough,” Noodles said sourly.
Alex crammed a wad of noodles in her mouth and chewed. Zack Gunn continued his speech.
“We were told this kingdom was formed to ensure our rights and safeguard freedom, but all I see on our wrists are chains,” he said, his bonds shaped like a gold watch. “Where are the threats that supposedly surround us? It was a lie the royals used to trample us. But Drake saw through it. So, he reached out, and promised to help us give the kingdom to its people!”
The strong wail of an emergency siren interrupted the speech, blue and red lights flashing above their heads. Alex clenched up at the sound, putting all her attention on an approaching Knight’s cruiser. As it passed, Gunn pointed at them and clapped. The audience cheered.
The Diamond Knight Corps’ mission was to protect the kingdom’s citizens from threats inside and out. Under Drake’s command, they hunted domestic criminals and fended off foreign raids. Every unit swore an oath to protect their allies and defeat their enemies. But the definitions of those words had changed.
She watched the rally goers wave their arms and holler for the Diamond Knights as their saviors, when yesterday they had spat upon them as oppressors. Alex’s jaw tensed in anger, a wad of noodles saving her teeth from breaking on the absurdity.
The cruiser passed seconds later. When it was safe, Alex swallowed and watched the cruiser park in the lot around the corner.
“They’ve been sweeping the city non-stop,” Noodles said resentfully.
Alex turned back. “They’re trying to keep the peace,” she said to ease his mind, slipping the egg into her mouth.
“Where were they when my suppliers were raided?” Noodles asked angrily. “No, they’re searching for something.”
Alex blew on a clump of ramen, steam curling from the top. “The entire kingdom was just flipped upside down; they’ve got a lot to do.” She shoved the noodles in her face.
The chef leaned over the boiling pot towards her, taking a nose full of steam. “Let me give you some advice.”
Alex chewed the mouth-full of ramen and slipped the headphones off her head. All the conversations in the area vanished, reminding her how muted life was outside the rally.
“Find somewhere to lay low until this all blows over,” the old chef said seriously. “You shouldn’t be walking these streets alone.” He pulled his face from the mist, his pores fully open.
“Thanks,” she said, “but I’ve got work to do.”
She slipped her headphones back on to hear the speech. “Each of you should be proud of what you’ve done,” Zack Gunn said to his audience. The crowd parted to let two Diamond Knights approach the stage, and Gunn knew it was time to wind down. “I’ve got to go, but I want you all to remember that everything that happens from here out is because of you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go get drunk.” The crowd cheered as the Diamond Knights led him to the back.
Alex set the empty bowl and chopsticks down.
“Thanks for the meal.”
In a fluid motion she grabbed the .357’s canister leaning against the cart and tossed a stack of bills and handful of coins in the jar. The change hit the inside and rolled it into a slight spin, easily tripling the sum inside. Stunned, Noodles looked up from the swaying container to watch Alex merge into the throng of bodies packed in the quad.
Alex could feel the students surging all around, but her eyes kept locked on Gunn and his protection walking away. She snaked through the mass quickly in pursuit. The quad was filled with blasting music and partying people, their shadows dancing wildly against the classrooms and faculty buildings circling it.
Since the Diamond Academy’s establishment a decade before, every year had started with the king’s personal address, welcoming the wide-eyed freshman to its halls. Though he believed educational autonomy was important, Quentin Diamond had selected Magnus Zwei to be his council, utilizing the professor’s knowledge of history and the social sciences to help guide his policy. Zwei was a vital connection between the throne and the students that would shape its future.
Focused on her man, Alex pushed through the raging party. Those loitering outside were posting about the rally from their shiny new CB9000 phones, people replying to each other without speaking, and taking pics in half-hearted hugs. The rally sparked with the energy of a rave.
Unfortunately, Alex was choked by the crowd, breaking line of sight with Gunn. Her eyes darted around, but he’d vanished.
As she reached the middle of the quad, something new broke through the chatter.
“Target spotted by the clock tower. Team, converge.”
Alex’s heart stopped. She stood in the tower’s shadow. She’d been discovered. Her feet moved automatically at the thought, pushing her as far away as possible.
She was looking for an escape when another voice replied, “target on the move.” She quickly pivoted to shake her tail. “Flanking from the east,” said a third voice.” “Closing in,” updated the first from his hidden location.
Alex felt the crowd closing in around her. She feverishly scanned the area, looking for the three hunting her.
“Target stopped to watch the break-dancer at the concert hall. Hold positions.” Alex obeyed out of confusion. “We’ll take him before his escort reaches the parking lot.” Her confusion cleared. She jumped up to see over the crowd of heads – a circle of people fifty feet away gathered around a break dancer doing windmills on worn cardboard. Zack Gunn and the knights had paused to watch.
She landed and blinked twice in thought. She wasn’t the only one after Gunn, she realized. Then she dashed through the crowd.
“Target is mobile again. Confirm positions.”
The first reply said, “passing the main hall.” Alex found the large building. A lone Diamond Knight was casually following Gunn and his entourage from the right. Another voice added “in front of the coffee lounge.” Alex saw another knight watching Gunn’s reflection in the small café’s windows on the left. After they passed, the sentry turned from the glass.
“Roger,” said the lead voice. “Engage when ready.”
When the trio had completely separated from the rest of the students, the operation entered its final phase. “Engaging now,” one said while the other added, “on the move.”
Alex knew she was too far away; she was going to lose them all. She needed to get a better view. She ran through the front door of the Communications Department lecture hall, her footsteps hitting the three flights of stairs to the top. Throwing open the access door, Alex stepped to the edge of the roof and scanned the area.
“Target secured,” a voice said. A glimmer of light caught her attention. Zack Gunn’s two Diamond Knight guards laid in a pile.
“Proceed north,” said the leader, “I’ve secured a place in the engineering department.” Alex looked there, and her eyes opened wide.
Despite the distance, she clearly saw a figure in the doorway of an auto shop, wearing a red cape over his right shoulder, concealing his arm. He was a Royal Guard, sworn defender of The Crown.
The rogue Diamond Knights manhandled Gunn to the end of the sidewalk and the Royal Guard pulled the activist inside by the collar. One of the knights entered behind them and closed the door, leaving a lone sentry outside.
Alex watched him and regretted eating so much.
The college’s auto shop was lined with metal-working equipment including acetylene torches and arc welders. A stripped two-door ZVX Turbocharger sat in the center of the floor, getting its mangled roll cage reinforced after a crazy weekend in the desert. The driver’s-side door was missing, and the sporty bucket seat sat on the floor nearby. Zack Gunn was pushed backwards onto the black cushion and safety harness.
The Royal Guard that stood above him had light brown hair cut diagonally to the back left and buzzed on the sides. The diamond badge on his right lapel had a silver star on the pitcher’s mound rather than the four bases, which was customary for Drake’s Diamond Knights. It indicated that he was a captain.
“I’m sorry for resorting to such drastic measures, Mr. Gunn,” the captain said, “but we’re desperate.”
“You have no right to do this,” Gunn replied with a scowl.
The man ignored the comment. “I want you to get us an audience with Drake.”
“Why?” Gunn asked suspiciously.
The Royal Guard answered by tapping his sheathed sword against his thigh. Zack eyed the blade fearfully.
The concussive boom of a gunshot split the air outside. The captain recognized the complex sound profile of the discharge, how it contracted back before rocketing forward in a higher pitch, curled at the end, and puffed complete. It was the sound of a .357 caliber cartridge.
The captain turned to his Diamond Knight companion and said, “check it out.” The knight stepped from the garage.
Now just the two of them, Zack Gunn got to his feet. “I don’t have the kind of sway you think I do,” he pleaded. “Get more of your traitor Diamond Knight friends to help you.”
“These two I know– don’t have to time to make new acquaintances. I know you too. I know where you stand,” he said pointedly.
“Then you know I won’t help you.”
The soldier grudgingly unsheathed his sword, clenching his fist around its handle.
“I beg you to reconsider.”
“No,” Gunn said courageously.
The Royal Guard thrust the sword forward, the sharp tip coming straight at Zack’s shoulder.
Out of nowhere, a long silver bat appeared, scooped the sword up, and guided the tip into the ceiling. The end of the weapon said ‘.357’ in runny red paint.
Alex stood between the two men, confidently wielding the baseball bat in her black gloves.
The Royal Guard was surprised by the small person and let out an automatic “who” but the “are you?!” was finished by Gunn, who was more surprised.
“Another subversive?” the captain spat. “How many of you scurry about the darkness?”
Alex reset her stance. She held the .357 at the knight, creating a comfortable space between him and Gunn.
She processed his features quickly. Hazel eyes with blazing orange irises, thin nose, and set lower lip. She knew it from the rollcall. It was Blaire Carmichael.
A blade swung at Alex from the side, but she deflected it and batted the assailant across the face. The magnum shot cracked, and the knight Carmichael had dispatched outside fell to the floor. Alex repositioned between the two.
“Stand down, Captain Carmichael.”
Though she couldn’t be sure, Alex thought she saw Carmichael’s eyelids flicker, surprised to be called out by name.
Gunn was emboldened by his new bodyguard. “You want to know what led to the revolution? This,” he said angrily to Carmichael. “You.”
Carmichael’s face set in anger.
He lunged forward and brought his right arm out, swinging a thicker short sword he had concealed under his cloak.
Meeting the attack head on, Alex reached the .357 and caught Carmichael’s hidden weapon, the two crossing into an ‘X’, revealing a circular-shaped scar on the webbing between his index finger and thumb. She looked at the blade in his hand.
“Well, that was a curveball,” she said.
“Your corruption,” Zack Gunn prattled on, “and the corruption of your masters, brought Drake to power. His bloodshed stains the royals’ hands.”
Carmichael looked at the hooded figure, unable to understand how anyone could defend these obvious lies. He’d personally seen how his fellow officers had their trust in Drake betrayed; he still felt the sting where a dagger’s tip had jabbed his back. Refusing to suffer the slander further, he swung his sword. Alex brought the .357 vertical and Carmichael’s blade hit the shaft guarding her neck. She pushed it away.
“I said, stand down!”
With bravado, Alex plucked her hoodie in her fingertips and pulled back. She revealed herself in full.
Alex’s gold tennis visor warped the ceiling lights, splashing rich color over her blue eyes. She looked radiant. The two men’s jaws went slack.
“Princess Diamond!” Carmichael gasped.
“You survived?!?” Gunn asked.
Carmichael bristled. “Princess, listen to this man! Don’t you care how he speaks?”
“No,” she said brusquely. “I only care that he can!”
“He can be forced to help us.”
Alex was incensed by the suggestion. “You dare request something in your king’s name that would never be ordered under his command?!”
Carmichael looked away in shame. “Then let us evacuate you from the city, Princess.”
“No, too many people are suffering,” Alex said. “You need to protect them.”
Carmichael tugged his sword from the ceiling. “Your father must be avenged,” he pleaded as he sheathed it.
Alex agreed in the only way she knew: “Defend the spirit of the dead by protecting the flesh of the living,” she said with clarity. “Go. Now.”
Reluctantly, Carmichael nodded to her. He picked up the knight at his feet. As he reached the door, the Royal Guard turned back. “I’ve protected the king for so long,” he confessed to her soberly, “I don’t know what to do now.” Then he left.
When they were alone, Alex turned to Zack. “I’m sorry for that,” she said sincerely.
“Why?” he asked with puckered lips. “They’re your soldiers, you trained them that way.”
“Don’t mistake their confused anger with hatred.”
“Your family has always looked down on us,” he said with irrational insecurity. “We scraped by while you did nothing!”
“What did you want?”
“A better life,” he said emotionally.
“Better policy!” he snapped as if that was all it took.
“We worked hard to run efficiently and keep taxes down so you had the freedom to work towards anything you wanted. Did you?”
“You were supposed to give us freedom from work!” he yelled honestly.
Alex was stunned by their different definitions of freedom. She dropped to her knees. “I don’t know what else I can say to you.” She presented the .357 across her hands. “You’re angry and looking for someone to punish. If it will give you the peace you need, strike me down.”
Zack looked at the bat, trying to work out what was happening.
“Why?” he yelled at her. “Why did you come here?!”
“I just,” she stammered, “I just needed to understand why.”
The gesture only made Gunn seethe with anger. His emotions took over and he grabbed the bat from her hands, holding it so high overhead it quivered in his grip. Alex lowered her head, awaiting his verdict.
They stayed there like that, seemingly for an eternity.
And then, to break the silence between them, both their hip pockets lit up and beeped in unison. They pulled out their smartphones.
A video was being pushed across the kingdom’s emergency broadcast system.
The neon purple light inundating the Diamond Kingdom’s squared throne showed every scar around Drake’s deformed mouth and bald head. He was kneeling before Professor Magnus Zwei, who ceremoniously presented King Diamond’s gold crown. The neon light bounced off his thick glasses, and his upturned mouth showed the difficulty with which he carried out this duty. He formally placed the crown onto its new heir.
“What’s happening?” Gunn asked in shock. “He was supposed to abdicate the throne.”
In his sleek silver battle armor, King Drake stood and turned to the camera. The crown secured to his head.
“This kingdom has seen much strife,” he addressed all, “and if we are to survive, we need solidarity, a single direction. I will give you that direction. If you supported the former ruler, you have this one chance to swear your fealty to me. If I have to find you, I won’t be so lenient.”
The stream stopped and the phones went dark. Drake didn’t needlessly waste words.
“My parents supported King Diamond,” Gunn said. Alex saw the activist’s face flushed and scared. “Those pictures of his death…” he trailed off.
Alex stood with resolve. “I won’t let anyone hurt your family. But I’ll need your help.”
A minute later, Zack was holding Alex’s custom Circuit Breaker 9000 phone up, her figure filling the small screen. He hit record and her image beamed to the entire city.
“This is Princess Diamond,” she said to the void with stoic confidence. “Allow me to be the first to offer myself to you, Drake. Come get me.”
Zack Gunn stopped recording. Realizing that none were guaranteed freedom from Drake’s blade, he said, “I’m sorry about your father” and turned away in shame. Without responding, Alex reached to the black hood behind her neck and flipped it back over her head.
Continued in chapter three.