In the void between worlds, where infinity had already gone on for too long, a voice called out.
“Come,” it said. It echoed on through the nothingness, commanding, “Come.”
And he answered it. He did not have a choice.
He knew not who the voice belonged to but he could feel the force that was pulling him. His only vision was of green light and the only thing he heard was screaming. Perhaps it wasn’t screaming? It might have been the sound he made as he sped towards the voice.
He existed because the voice beckoned him. That was all he understood.
The green light turned to darkness and he felt heat all around him. There was a silence, brief but complete, until the voice boomed once more.
“Rise and obey,” it said. “You will lead my armies across this world and you shall be named Dukoona.”
The heat intensified as flames leapt up all around Dukoona. They flared so far away that the fires became only minute red dots to his vision. Somehow, all the light was concentrated on Dukoona, and he rose, as he had been bidden. He slowly looked down to his body. Fire and shadow swirled greedily around white bones, thickening and weaving until he saw a pair of dark purple hands take shape. He twitched his fingers and they danced to his commands. The rest of his body took form out of the shadows, becoming so dense it might have been flesh. His feet touched stone, which was surprisingly cool, and the voice spoke once more.
“You will obey,” it said. “Answer me now, Dukoona.”
“Who are you?” Dukoona said, and he found his voice was deep. “What do you want with me?”
“You will lead my armies,” it said, rumbling through the endless cavern.
“And who are you?” Dukoona asked again. “Whose armies am I to lead?”
The voice did not answer.
There was a snapping sound and then Dukoona was not alone. In front of him appeared two small creatures, gnashing and biting at the air.
“These are the demons you will command,” the voice said.
Dukoona stepped closer to inspect them. Their flesh seemed similar to his own, though it was less dense, more like a black mist that swirled freely, yet still maintained its shape. They were far shorter than Dukoona, and both were twisted and hunched at odd angles. Each bore a long shard of rusted metal.
“Now,” the voice continued, “reach out to one, order it to kill.”
To kill? But there was only himself and the other small demon present. Dukoona instinctively found the task easy. He cast forth his mind towards the demon on his right and thought, clearly, kill.
The demon on his right did as instructed. It spun to face its brother and pierced its body with the crooked metal it wielded. Smoking blood gushed forth from the wound and the murdering demon howled manically in delight.
There was another great crack and three more demons joined the remaining one.
“Again, but reach out to three this time,” the voice ordered.
Dukoona cast his thoughts forwards and gave another clear order to kill. At first, the demons responded to his wishes, turning on the demon who had so recently murdered its brother, but, before their weapons fell, they halted, turned and faced Dukoona instead. He found that his control of the demons had been wrested from him.
All four began to march slowly towards him.
He tried to reach back out to their feeble minds, to tell them to stop, to regain control. His thoughts met an immovable force and he could not break through. The demons grew closer, their rusted blades raised. Dukoona had no time to think. Desperately, he tried to take hold of them again but whatever controlled the demons threw him back. They were on him, leaping through the air, shrieking as they sensed a kill.
They paused before killing him, suddenly going silent and trooping back several paces.
“Good,” the voice said.
“I lost control…” Dukoona said.
“No, I merely retook control,” the voice said. “Know you cannot hope to turn my servants against me.”
“Yes master,” Dukoona said. “What would you have me do?”
Dukoona received his answer in the form of images, burning into his mind. Information flooded him, showing him the world he was now on and the creatures that inhabited it. An image lingered for longer than the others. There was a pale-skinned creature, with two arms, legs and hair on its face. This, Dukoona knew, was a human. Beside the human was a similar-looking creature, though its skin was blue, its hair was silver, and folded, transparent wings rested on its back. This, he knew to be a fairy.
“Kill,” the voice commanded.
A final image was forced into his mind, of a creature very much like a human, but with a beardless face, a hardened expression, and a thickly set body in golden armour. This, Dukoona understood to be a dragon.
“Capture,” the voice told him, “and bring as many to me as you can. Kill only if you must.”
Dukoona’s frustration at his master grew. “And who are you?”
In answer, an outline appeared of purest darkness. It hovered above Dukoona, then floated down towards him. Its body might have been of one of those humans, or a dragon, but looking at it was like staring into the void. For a moment, Dukoona thought it might have another limb, but then saw it was only a pointed dark line, jutting down from the figure’s waist. Likely, his vision was not fully functioning yet. The figure hung in the air, a little off the ground, its faceless head peering down upon Dukoona. It was more of a force than a physical being.
The figure rose one dark arm and waved it. Where once the cavern had been empty, some invisible veil was lifted to reveal a horde of cackling demons. The noise was overpowering. Their numbers were beyond counting.
“To you and this world, I am Rectar,” the voice said, lifeless, beyond power and beyond resistance. “Now, Dukoona, we have much work to do here.”
Chapter 1 – The Prince
In the middle of a curved, golden-stoned room, holding a strung bow and taking careful aim, stood a dragon. The ringed target was the smallest he could find in the armoury. His visibility was poor in the dark room. Only one small gap in the heavy shades let in a shard of light from the dazzling day. His chestnut eyes focused intensely on the target, glistening gently in the darkness, for a dragon could admit more light into their eyes than a human. To look at him would be to see a human. One with thick brown hair, hanging loosely off his handsome face, slightly obscuring his sharp jaw and aquiline nose. Golden-plated armour encased his lean, muscular frame. Yet his strength was far greater than his human appearance suggested. His name was Darnuir, Prince of Dragons, and, despite his sixty years, he was the only heir to the throne.
Brackendon looked on with a patient curiosity. Tall and slim, the young wizard wore iridescent robes of sapphire blue. He held a mighty wooden staff, which stood just taller than he did. It was silver in colour and the wood had been expertly smoothed. His own eyes sparkled silver with the magic that had been gifted to him. Unlike Darnuir, his hair was short and already had a grey tinge to it, despite his youth, as using magic slowly drained a human’s body of its physical appearance. Brackendon had stopped counting the grey hairs long ago.
He was impressed by the intensity with which Darnuir both prepared and took his shots. The Prince’s actions were altogether non-human. They were too quick. Darnuir had the sort of rapidity that would snap the muscle and sinew of a human man. This was of course to be expected; yet it had always caused Brackendon a slight unease to see dragons in action. He had decided years past that this discomfort stemmed from fear. Not the fear of imminent danger, he had decided, but the fear of knowing that you are powerless against this thing. Like being around a predator, not knowing if it will strike. If it will kill. This fear was tempered by his own power, but he had always wondered how ordinary humans must feel when surrounded by dragons. Very afraid, he had concluded. Reasoning that this fear must cause most of the tension between the two races. Darnuir released his arrow and sent it slicing through the air to bury itself in the centre of the target.
“Another perfect shot,” Brackendon said in a calm voice, giving a token clap of his hands. He then flicked his hand upwards and the heavy shades covering the window lifted, filling the room with light. “How many is that then?” he asked. “Nine?”
“Ten actually,” Darnuir said. “I’m surprised at you Brackendon, wizards are supposed to be highly intelligent.”
“True. But you’ll find that wizards tend not to concentrate on trivial things such as how many shots you have hit in the centre ring.” Darnuir made a noise that indicated he felt otherwise. Brackendon continued, “Remember we’re at war, Darnuir; it makes a lot of things seem trivial.”
“This is no war.”
“Oh? Then what is it?”
“It is a game to him, I think. No war lasts for decades unless your enemy is enjoying the carnage and your own people are too weak to repel their attackers.” He fired another shot that cut deep into the centre of the adjacent target.
“Another town was evacuated yesterday to save them from the oncoming demons,” Brackendon said quietly. “They say it is a force greater than we have ever encountered?”
“No one knows the exact numbers. Too few scouts have returned from the Crucidal Road to give a precise picture. Rectar will have been gathering everything for a final push. He has been slowly reclaiming the lands we re-conquered last year,” Darnuir spat bitterly. “Now we have only the city left.”
Darnuir dropped his bow, unsheathed his sword, and began running a practiced finger along the metal of the blade. Brackendon noticed that Darnuir did this when he sought comfort. The Prince had always preferred his sword to his bow. Darnuir was talented enough with his ranged weapon, but Brackendon could frankly think of no one alive who could equal Darnuir with the sword. Well, perhaps his father, but then he had the Dragon’s Blade. Even so, the few spars he had witnessed between the two had always been close.
“Lost in thought again?” Darnuir asked him impatiently, sword in hand, and clearly anticipating an attack.
“Hmmm?” Brackendon emerged from his pondering.
“You think too much,” Darnuir said.
And you don’t think enough, Darnuir.
Brackendon knew better than to say such things aloud. Yet he couldn’t stifle a chuckle.
“If you’re quite finished telling me of our doom, I assume you would like to continue your training?” He pointed his staff at a barrel full of swords. As the swords flew into the air towards Darnuir, several broke off to veer to his left and right. Darnuir twisted smoothly on the spot and raised his own sword to clash against three of the enchanted ones. The Prince ducked and lashed out as he rose, cleaving two of the swords in half and they clattered to the ground. Brackendon sent in another six swords as backup, still chuckling.
Brackendon moved his fingers rapidly to control the weapons, each finger dancing in circles, and jabbing whenever he saw a chance to strike. Darnuir parried and destroyed another one, sending the remains flying across the room. He moved with unfathomable agility as he engaged his invisible assailants and, before too long, he had beaten most of them off. Brackendon had never considered Darnuir’s movements to be graceful or elegant; it was no deadly dance he was performing. His actions were brutal and powerful, yet deliberate and measured. ‘The strength of a boar mixed with the cunning of a snake’; Brackendon had read that somewhere once during his studies. True as the description was, it was another matter entirely to witness it.
“Very good, Darnuir. Very good,” he said. Darnuir finished off the rest of the swords, neither sweating or out of breath. “I think that will do for now. We’ve been here almost the whole morning and your father was quite explicit that you were to meet his guests when they arrived.”
“You speak as if the King of Humans and the Queen of Fairies are not above you?” Darnuir asked.
“We wizards, Darnuir—,”
“Are dead and finished,” Darnuir interrupted. “Your order is broken. Just like we all are. We have crumpled before Rectar’s forces and done nothing.”
Brackendon was taken aback. A short temper was not an unusual trait of dragons, yet lately, Darnuir had grown more quarrelsome. No doubt, the recent failure of the Three Races to counter Rectar, their great enemy, was to blame. Brackendon attempted some consolidation.
“Castallan betrayed us all, especially the wizards. Surely you cannot hold all those who wield magic accountable for him?”
“No,” Darnuir admitted, “I cannot.” A silence fell between them, Darnuir seeming no more placated. He sheathed his sword before rounding on his companion once more. “Do you think we can win this?” he demanded. “Do you think we can hold the city?”
“That is not for me to decide,” Brackendon said. “That is for your father and his council, of which you are a part. I have no voice there. If you wish to lend weight to your own hope to defend the city, then you must do so with the strength of your own words.”
“How diplomatic of you,” Darnuir sneered. “My father,” he chewed heavily on the word, “and his wise council will not have the courage for it. Mark my words, we will evacuate this entire city next.”
“If that is his decision then you must—” Brackendon began again.
“Must what? I must what, Brackendon?” spat Darnuir, tearing from the room in his fury. Brackendon gave chase immediately, drawing on a little magic to give him the necessary speed to catch Darnuir, who was fast by nature. Using magic to enhance movement like this was cheaply done and carried little risk of an overdose. felt the power flow through him as it boosted his body. Up to his shoulder and down his arm to his staff.
I must still be careful. It would not do if I poisoned myself before the demons arrived.
He found Darnuir not far down the corridor outside of the training room, leaning against one of the large, rectangular windows cut out along the wall. Many of these windows lined each curving corridor of the Royal Tower and offered magnificent views of the city. From their vantage point, all of the northern and western segments of Aurisha could be seen.
The windows were in small bays that were just big enough for a fully-grown man to stand in; however, ancient spells prevented anyone from falling out and the elements getting in. Without them, Darnuir would have fallen out and down into the sprawl below, for it looked as though he was leaning on air alone.
Brackendon approached the Prince, feeling a little apprehensive. “You must respect his decision,” he said simply.
“I know,” Darnuir replied, his voice low and bitter. “And I will always do my duty. I’m sorry,” he said with genuine apology, “but all my life we have been fighting. Sixty years of an endless struggle. You are still young, but come back after another forty years and tell me if you too are not tired of the stalemate. Of this lack of action.”
Brackendon was lost for words. He often forgot how old Darnuir was. Dragons lived well beyond even the healthiest of humans. Before Brackendon could marshal his thoughts, a tall figure appeared at the end of the corridor. It was none other than the King himself. Although broad and powerful like most dragons, Draconess bore little resemblance to his son, aside from stature. His hair fell at the same length, yet it was lighter, almost golden in places. His jaw was less broad and defined, and his eyes glistened a pale blue. Yet signs of his burden were evident. His face, while softer and kinder than Darnuir’s, was strained with a deep weariness. His hair was unkempt and tatty, his eyes were dark and sunken, and his shoulders drooped perceptibly, as if his responsibility had physically manifested itself upon him.
“Darnuir,” Draconess said softly as he made his way towards his son. He stopped just short of Darnuir and seemed to toy with the idea of embracing him, before fumbling with his hands. The Prince’s expression remained frosty.
“Father,” Darnuir said a little stiffly, “we were just on our way to the docks.”
“The wind has been poor, I doubt the ships will arrive on time,” Draconess said.
Brackendon sensed that to remain would be improper and perhaps unwise, given the potential row that might ensue. Politely, he addressed the King.
“If it is possible, my Lord Draconess, I wish to return to my study,” he said with a small bow of the head. “Arkus has been pestering me to move to his own Kingdom. He says I ought to be with my own people and I’d rather not suffer his childish pleas today.”
“Of course, Brackendon,” Draconess said. “He has been asking me to order you too. I suspect he wants you to try and re-establish your Order, but I don’t think that would be wise at present.”
“Indeed it would not, my lord; at least you seem to listen to my counsel,” Brackendon said appreciatively, and gave Darnuir a little smile. “Do give my best wishes to Kasselle.”
Chapter 2 – The Brave, The Wise And The Young
Darnuir felt extremely disgruntled as he watched Brackendon stride briskly away. If the wizard would only lend Darnuir his support, he might have convinced the council to defend the city. Yet Darnuir knew that it would make little difference if his father would not warm to the idea; and he knew that his father would choose the coward’s option.
He had chosen that path too often lately.
“We should head to the docks,” Draconess sighed, nodding vaguely towards the corridor that Brackendon had taken. Their short journey took them first to the spiralling stairs that wove around the Royal Tower, down countless levels until they descended the final grand staircase at the entrance to the tower, with a great marble archway leading to the plaza beyond. As father and son emerged out into the plaza, the warming late morning air and a bright sun greeted them. Darnuir could see Brackendon ahead of them, making towards the winding southern stairs, which would lead him down to the Arcane Sanctum, his blue robes flapping behind. He was moving as though with the wind, likely using magic to enhance his speed. Darnuir and Draconess were much slower as they made their way across the plaza to the stairs.
The plaza spanned the top of a large plateau of rock, around which and upon which the city of Aurisha had been constructed. The plaza had once been a forum for the dragons of Aurisha and was a vast space, intended to hold thousands, lined by ornate villas, columned monuments and columned buildings. Much of the city was constructed out of a type of stone known as starium. It was a dirty gold in colour, extremely resilient, and glistened faintly in starlight.
Some said the villas were designed to mimic the dragon nests of ancient times, back when they had scales and could fly. The thought often amused Darnuir. The Royal Tower stood tallest amongst them, as wide as three of the neighbouring buildings, and many storeys higher. The other major landmark was the Basilica of Light – a domed tribute to a dying religion. Darnuir averted his eyes, angered by its mere presence.
Our people are on their knees. Perhaps if father spent less time on his own knees at prayer, we would not be in this position.
As king and prince reached the top of the southern stairs, Darnuir savoured the panoramic view out over the harbour below, the long bay stretching off to the wider ocean, and the forest of tall homes they would navigate through, down the sloping side of the plateau. The other sides of the bluff of rock were smooth, sheer cliff faces: the western and northern sides were surrounded by the lower city, while the eastern face was met by the salty sea, and the sound of strong waves could be heard crashing against it.
Darnuir and Draconess began their descent of the southern stairs. Around halfway, they passed a tower with many smaller segments jutting out, seemingly at random. The tower leaned at a looming angle, as if threatening to fall over. This was the Arcane Sanctum, where wizards and witches would gather when staying in Aurisha. Only Brackendon used it now. Aside from Castallan, he was the last of his kind. Darnuir considered that it must be a very lonely place inside. He imagined the wizard in his solitude, walking in dark corridors and performing work that no one else could understand. He envied Brackendon for it. Being left alone would mean more time to train and less on council meetings.
As Darnuir marched next to his father, he contemplated the future of Aurisha. It was yet to fall to an enemy. It had been attacked many times, but never taken.
How will history recall us, those who gave it up?
The majority of the human and fairy armies were on the other side of the world, leaving dragons as Aurisha’s only defenders. Yet to allow the demons to take the city would grant them full control of the east.
We cannot forfeit so easily if we are to survive.
Their whole journey had been in silence. Darnuir sensed that his father was unwilling to engage prematurely in the argument he knew would come. Yet, once down at the harbour, with the bustle of the port all around them, the beating sun intensifying the aromas of fish and seaweed, and the billowing flag of the human’s capital ship off on the horizon, Draconess broached the issue.
“Darnuir you know fine well that Aurisha cannot be held.” He spoke so quietly, it was almost a whisper. “We have to evacuate the city. I gave the order this morning and every ship we have is being prepared to take our people across the sea as we speak. Kasselle won’t be troubled to hear this; she is wise and will understand that nothing can be done. Arkus, however, won’t be pleased that we are abandoning Aurisha. I will need your help persuading him otherwise.” The King paused for a moment before putting a hand on Darnuir’s shoulder. “Do not fight me on this.”
Darnuir was not at all surprised to hear those words spill from his father’s mouth. “And what, father, is the point of your councils if not to make collective decisions?” He shrugged the hand off his shoulder with a brusque jerk. “Why bother with this sham? You know my feelings on this matter and you have decided that they count for nothing.”
“Given your other failed judgements, I assumed that you would be more cowed, Darnuir?” Draconess said, quiet but sternly. “In this instance, there was no time for discussion. Scouts returned before dawn: the enemy will be upon us tomorrow, if not before. I had to make a decision in the moment.”
“And you chose to flee.”
“I chose to regroup, and give us a chance to gather our full strength.”
“To what?” Darnuir snapped. “To have to assault our own city? To have to throw our men against our own defences?”
“No,” Draconess said simply. “As always, you see through the lens of our people alone.”
“It is our people who will win this war.”
“Since Castallan turned against us and took up residence in the Bastion, we face a war on two fronts, Darnuir. It is not in our interests to have most of our allies tied up, fighting that traitorous wizard across the sea to the west.”
“You mean to re-take the Bastion?” Darnuir said, now feeling quite intrigued.
“That fortress was designed to repel dragons,” Draconess said. “Do you think you are capable of taking it?”
Immediately, Darnuir’s mind began to fill with plans and schemes on assaulting Castallan’s fortress. After some time, he decided that an enthusiastic display on his part might alleviate his recent disrespect.
“If I can be guaranteed the command, father, then yes, I will help convince Arkus to take this course.”
“I feel it would be fitting for you to take command of the campaign. I hope Arkus will also see the merit in my decision.”
Darnuir knew from previous experience that the human king, Arkus, could be difficult to reason with; it had been troublesome for the dragons to coordinate armies while Arkus sat in a hall, debating with his own courts what to do. The Queen of Fairies, Kasselle, on the other hand, was different. Darnuir admired her greatly and, though he was a mere boy to her, she had always respected his position. She was perhaps the oldest being on Tenalp, at around one hundred and twenty years old. If she agreed to what Draconess was planning then Arkus would hopefully fall into line.
“Over there!” exclaimed Draconess, pointing at a huge vessel, thickly built for security with heavy ballista along the top decks, and draped in the blue and silver of the fairies, as well as the white and black of the humans. The ship meandered its way towards the vacant dock and the two dragons arrived at the exit of the gangway in time to see Arkus and Kasselle leaving their ship.
Arkus stood a little under Darnuir’s height. His hair was black and dangled just over his ears. Yet there was a sternness to him and he radiated an aura over his men that Darnuir could never quite interpret. Was it fear or respect? His face was darkened with a prickly stubble, an unusual sight in a city where no dragon allowed their beard to grow; and his eyes, though small, were inquisitively drinking in the scene before him. As he approached Draconess, his long charcoal-black robes, trimmed in white, brushed the wood of the gangplank, and his sleeves hid his arms from view. It seemed that the guards were all Arkus’ as he strutted down the gangplank and received salutes from every soldier present.
Kasselle, on the other hand, seemed content to bring only two bodyguards. They were both large, lean, blue-skinned fairy warriors with huge swords strapped to their backs under folded wings, insect-like and translucent. They walked in pace behind their queen, who was not gifted with flight. Kasselle was taller than Arkus and infinitely more elegant. She glided serenely behind him, her radiant silver hair and pearl-white teeth enhanced in vibrancy by the sky-blue hue of her skin. Her large eyes were a deep indigo and moved to observe Draconess and Darnuir in turn. A gown of woven silver thread hung lightly over her slender frame and was being gently lifted up at her feet by the breeze, giving the impression that she was floating in mid-air.
They stopped just short of Darnuir and both bowed their heads as Draconess greeted them. They then turned to Darnuir, who said, as politely as he could, “It is good to see you again my lord, my lady.” He gave a small bow to each of them. They returned the favour, Kasselle smiling broadly at him, Arkus a little more reluctantly, but lowering his head all the same.
“I’m only sorry that it is not under better circumstances,” Kasselle responded in a light, tuneful voice.
“When can there be good circumstances in war, my lady?” Draconess questioned.
“When you’re winning!” barked Arkus. “I’m sure Rectar and his circle of foul creatures are quite joyful presently.”
Everyone shifted uneasily and there was a moment of silence before Draconess spoke up.
“Shall we continue our conversation up in the war room? I don’t think the docks are a particularly appropriate location.”
“Quite right,” Arkus said, pivoting on the spot to get a better look of the situation. “What are all these people doing here? You’d think the whole city was trying to get on a ship and leave,” he chortled.
“Like I said,” Draconess beckoned, “we should continue our conversation in the war room, please come.” Kasselle briskly followed. Arkus looked a little confused, as if trying to work out if he had actually been correct in his presumption, but then set off after the others. Darnuir was about to follow as well, when Arkus wheeled around and looked at Darnuir as if he was plucking up the courage to do something daring.
“I had wondered whether you would do me a favour?” he asked rather furtively.
Darnuir raised his eyebrows so as to feign a polite curiosity and waited for the question.
“You see, ever since my son was lost to me, I’ve decided to take my daughter everywhere with me to keep an eye on her, you know.” Darnuir was somewhat shocked to hear this news; he knew that Arkus had a daughter, but she was only very small, just a few months old in fact.
I will not play minder to your whelp. We are not equals, Arkus.
“I don’t wish to seem rude, my good king, but bringing a baby across open waters during a time of war doesn’t seem the safest thing in the world to do.”
“Please don’t question me, Darnuir. I cannot bear to lose another child, another heir, you must understand.”
“I do understand,” Darnuir said without an ounce of internal sympathy. “But what has she got to do with me?”
“Well, I was only wondering if you might watch over her while I am at this council.”
“Don’t you have over a hundred soldiers who can do that?”
“Yes, but even a thousand men couldn’t offer the protection you can,” he pleaded, though the obvious flattery did not please Darnuir.
“I would be honoured to watch over your daughter, Arkus,” he lied effortlessly, “but I think my presence is better served in this meeting. It is my right after all,” he added firmly. Arkus fumbled slightly, and looked as if he was going to speak again, when Draconess called back to them.
“I hope there isn’t a problem?”
“Not at all Draconess,” Arkus shouted back, and made his way over to the small company making their way west around the bluff of rock to the lift in the northern district of Aurisha. This great lift would allow them to make the ascent back up to the plaza atop the plateau more easily than walking the meandering southern stairs. Darnuir allowed his feet to pound ahead of him without paying attention to the inevitably dull conversation between the three monarchs. Arkus had attempted such transparent power moves before. Darnuir was of the opinion that it was an effort to assert his own position as a king, over himself as merely a prince. Yet Darnuir was twenty years Arkus’ senior, and had bloodied himself in countless battles, while Arkus sat upon his cushions. Neither Arkus nor his recent forebears had led their men in battle themselves. Too easy to kill, and too weak, like all the rest of his kin. Before Darnuir knew it, they had reached the lift and began to ascend the seven hundred feet to the plaza atop the plateau.
When the lift stopped, he stepped out and continued to walk absentmindedly behind Arkus as they crossed the plaza, his thoughts drifting between anger at his father’s decision and excitement for the assault on the Bastion in the west. Darnuir glanced up as they reached the foot of the enormous Royal Tower and entered through the great archway that he and Draconess had exited from earlier that day. Their collective feet echoed lightly off the cool marble underfoot as they approached the grand staircase, chiselled from starium, with fierce, carved dragons forming the railings on either side. The royals trudged up the spiral staircase to one of the highest levels. Arkus let loose a pained, little yelp and clasped a hand over his ears. They must have finally popped. Darnuir smirked to himself. When they arrived at the war room, the elderly tower steward and several attendees hastened to push the heavy doors inwards for them.
“Thank you, Chelos,” Draconess said to the steward. “Some food and wine for our guests please.”
Chelos bowed earnestly and took his underlings with him.
The war room was cluttered; full of depictions and trophies of wars fought and won long ago. Crates of incredibly detailed maps of almost every location and settlement in Tenalp lined the room; yet the most impressive piece was the table itself. Carved from starium, the table was a large crescent moon with two imposing stone seats at its centre. Opposite, on the outer sweep of the table, three small, wooden chairs had been arranged, facing across from the two beautiful starium ones (one for the King and one for the Guardian).
Draped atop one of the stone seats was a dragon in its former bestial form. Wings spread outwards as if shielding the one who sat below with eyes that were wrought in such a manner that they seemed to follow the onlooker around the room. This was the seat of the King. The Guardian of Tenalp’s chair was entirely different. A severed sun was carved at the top of the seat, the lower half scorched with crossings, while the upper half was clean. A sword with a spiralling pattern on its hilt pierced the sun, and three elongated rays emanated from its tip. Whereas the King led the people in civic matters and in war, the Guardian headed the faith and spiritual matters. Yet there was no longer a Guardian. There had not been one since before the war, and the last was presumed dead.
Despite the obvious inference of where he was to be seated, Darnuir made towards the Guardian’s chair but was halted by a piercing look from his father. They had oft had this argument too.
Still, father clings onto this ghost of a protector. If he hopes that someone might share his burden, why does he not share it with me?
Darnuir had frequently stewed over this. Reluctantly, he took his place on the opposite side of the table along with Arkus and Kasselle. Servants hurried in, carrying light dishes of large green olives, round loaves, thinly sliced boar meat, and Darnuir’s favourite dipping sauce, garum. Watered honeyed-wine was also placed before them in golden goblets. Kasselle, like most of her kin, was not overly fond of meat. She picked at the olives and bread, while Arkus took a bit of everything, bar the garum sauce, which he claimed gave him a stomach-ache. Darnuir ripped off a piece of loaf and greedily dipped it into the salty fish sauce. Draconess piled the boar meat onto his bread in a calculated manner before eating. When all were done with their refreshments, Draconess rubbed his eyes, cleared his throat with a cough, and began his speech.
“I call this council of war to order. Scant as our numbers may be, we here are the leaders of the Three Races (humans, fairies and dragons), and so our decisions cannot be contested. As you are doubtless aware, Rectar has launched a fresh campaign against the dragons. A demon army is approaching this city; a far greater army than any we have ever encountered before. Since pouring out of Kar’drun, the demons have swept south and have trampled our defences along the Crucidal Road.” Kasselle listened earnestly as Draconess spoke. Arkus merely frowned but said nothing. “We’ve had no choice but to evacuate what people we could to Aurisha from our outlying settlements.”
“What of Castallan?” Kasselle asked. “Does he march with the host of his new master, Rectar?”
“Castallan is still within the walls of the Bastion,” Darnuir said. “So far as we know. He should not trouble us here.”
“This blasted war was going poorly enough when we faced Rectar alone,” Arkus said. “How are we to deal with both Rectar and Castallan? Especially now that Rectar seems to have instructed Castallan on how to summon demons of his own.”
Draconess exhaled loudly. “I admit things have never quite seemed so bleak…” The King looked longingly towards the seat of the Guardian.
There is no Guardian to help you father. You must help yourself.
“And yet,” Draconess continued laboriously, “a turning point must come. The world does not move down a determined path. We may yet see a reversal in our fortunes. But for now, my people flee to Aurisha.”
“For a last stand I presume?” Arkus asked leaning forward.
“Not quite. I’ve ordered an evacuation of the city as well…”
“What?” Arkus said stiffly. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Darnuir said, “I thought my father made it perfectly clear. We’re leaving!”
Arkus shot him a dirty look.
“I know perfectly well what he meant, Darnuir,” Arkus said a little more calmly. “I only mean to say, Draconess, why abandon the dragon capital, your capital, and the Three Races’ strongest foothold in the east without a defence?”
The tiresome look on Draconess’ face showed Arkus that this debate had already been decided.
“We do not have the strength to defend the city,” Draconess began, “not against such a host; not the dragons alone. As strong as we are, we cannot turn the tide, and this one will crash over these walls, manned or not.”
“Surely there is something we can do?” Arkus asked. “This must be the bulk if not all of our enemy’s strength. If we can block him here, then we might—”
“Arkus,” Draconess warned, “we cannot hope to hold the city with dragons alone. We’re too spread out and, as I recall, you requested I send quite a considerable part of my army to aid in your capital’s defence. Dragons now also guard your walls at Brevia in case Castallan attacks you there.”
“Castallan wouldn’t even be a threat if it weren’t for Darn—” Arkus began accusatorially.
“Gentlemen please!” Kasselle interrupted.
“I am sorry,” Arkus said, looking a little abashed, “but if it was troops you required, Draconess, why not send for them? We could have brought thousands with us.”
“The attacks started while you were still at sea, so there was no way to inform you,” Draconess said. He sniffed and rubbed the point between his eyes before continuing. “This meeting to discuss our position was already scheduled, so I thought it best to start the evacuation and inform you once you arrived.”
“Why have these councils if you do not require our input?” Arkus inquired acidly.
“Because it is his prerogative as commander-in-chief,” Darnuir informed Arkus in a pleasurable hiss. Reminding Arkus of his position always gave him a great deal of satisfaction. “As my father often reminds me.”
“I do not think we should dwell on rights and privileges,” Kasselle interjected, “yet I must confess, Draconess, I do not understand. It does not seem wholly wise to abandon the east completely, unless you intend…”
“To secure the west, my lady,” Draconess said in a bold voice, which Darnuir had not heard from his father in years.
“And root out the wizard?” Arkus said with approval.
“Uproot him and find out what he knows,” Draconess made clear. “We must learn everything we can from him about Rectar.”
“What do you believe we can gather from him?” inquired Kasselle.
“I cannot say for sure, though I will gladly take any insight he might offer,” Draconess said. “We know precious little.” The fairy queen slumped back, looking disappointed.
That was unusual. What was she hoping to hear? Kasselle normally gave nothing away.
“I intend for Darnuir to lead the campaign against Castallan,” Draconess said. “While he retakes the Bastion for us, we will consolidate the rest of our strength in and around Brevia.”
“Rectar and his demons will only chase us across the water,” Arkus sighed. “Brevia is not the stronghold that Aurisha is. If we end up fighting on two fronts, we would surely be defeated.”
“That is perfectly true,” Draconess admitted, “but that is why we must strike hard and fast against Castallan with all our might. The wizard has been permitted to secure his paltry kingdom in the south of your lands because we are spread thin. If we hit him hard then his Bastion will crack and break.”
“That fortress was designed to be impenetrable,” Arkus said with mild disbelief at Draconess’ confidence. “Designed specifically, I might add, to prevent dragons from taking it with ease. How can you be so sure of victory?”
“Because I must believe there is a way,” Draconess said simply.
“Well, it is my lord’s prerogative to choose our path,” Arkus smirked.
Draconess smiled graciously back.
The meeting continued on for many more hours, largely discussing the means of bringing thousands of extra dragons across the seas to live for an undetermined amount of time. Finally, though, Draconess stood up. He surveyed those around the table one last time before speaking.
“This is a most dangerous time for the Three Races,” he began solemnly. “This could be the end of us or it could be the beginning of a renewed effort against Rectar, Castallan and the demons who serve them. If, for whatever reason, we do not see each other again, I should like to say that it has been an honour.”
“It has been our honour,” Arkus and Kasselle said together, standing up, their eyes gazing at him. Darnuir knew that Kasselle meant what she said, though something biased in the back of his mind told him that Arkus didn’t quite meet his father’s eyes. Draconess took one final look around the table then walked out of the room and out of sight. Kasselle and Arkus waited for a while before they too left the war room. Arkus was greeted by the old steward, Chelos, who would take him to his quarters. Kasselle made her way back to her ship where she would stay for the night. She never stayed in the tower longer than she had to. Darnuir, however, remained where he was. He didn’t want to get up; he didn’t want to leave this room, the city, and his home behind.
Give me ten thousand dragons and I swear I’d hold the city.
Yet, he had no choice in the matter. Darnuir was to Draconess what Arkus was to himself: measly and insignificant.
It was later that evening when Darnuir next saw Arkus. The human king was outside his room within the palace, his face even more hardened than normal. Further along the curving corridor, a number of guards carrying a crib were filing into the room. Darnuir presumed it was his daughter but did not get a chance to confirm this theory before the guards had entered the room and the door closed behind them. Arkus, seeing Darnuir, lingered in the hallway.
“Good evening, Darnuir,” he said, with an attempt at indifference, though his hesitant start gave him away.
“Do you think that wise?” Darnuir asked him, carefully approaching Arkus for maximum intimidation. “Leaving her up here?”
“She was sick the last few days at sea. I think it best if she slept on solid ground tonight,” Arkus answered.
“I believe there is some solid ground down by the ships,” Darnuir said sarcastically. Arkus closed his eyes and inhaled exasperatedly.
“Must you always question everything I do?” he asked softly, yet continued without waiting for an answer. “I’ll be returning shortly. I want to help with the ships a while longer.” Darnuir was a little taken aback by this small but altruistic statement of intention. It was not like the King to get his hands dirtied. “There is much work to be done, after all,” Arkus added.
“Much and more,” Darnuir agreed, and offered the man a small bow of the head. Arkus took this as his sign to leave and went back into his room, charcoal robes flowing behind him.
Darnuir’s own room was a few doors down; it was long and curved, much like the corridor, with similarly large openings in the rock that served as windows. There was a four-poster bed with crimson hangings, a splendid fireplace, and an open balcony from which the entirety of the city could be seen. Five stands of armour stood sentinel opposite the bed, and behind them was a wall dedicated to a fine range of weapons of all descriptions. He found Brackendon lazily sprawled out on a plush lounger, avidly reading at some scroll. His staff leaned against the wall behind him. He hoped the wizard was in a congenial mood.
“Sorry if I’m late,” Darnuir said, unstrapping his sword and flinging it onto his bed.
“Not at all,” Brackendon said, as he looked up from his scroll. “I only just arrived before you did, and in any case, I’m quite at ease reading this excerpt from one of Tiviar’s histories.”
Darnuir squinted at the scroll. “You have read that one before.”
“I have read all the literature in your chambers dozens of times. You never change it.”
“Well, you certainly make room for and rotate your armoury here regularly. Why not your library?”
“I need those,” Darnuir said, waving at the armaments, “to be ready at a moment’s notice. The words on those pages have not changed since I first read them.”
“And you remember them all do you?”
“I do not need to know them at a moment’s notice,” Darnuir scoffed. “And I know them well enough.”
“Your father is well versed in Tiviar’s histories,” Brackendon began. “Why, just the other day, I was discussing with him whether it is prudent to discuss the First Flight as if it literally happened or if we ought to—”
“Perhaps if my father did not spend so long looking at tomes and parchment, he might have prepared us a sound defence.”
“Knowledge can also be a weapon, Darnuir.”
“One that I have no need for. Knowledge will not stop the threat against us. That will require strength.”
Brackendon set his reading down and looked reproachful. “The same fight, Darnuir. Why did you summon me?”
“To ask you how to kill a wizard.”
“I had not realised I had displeased you that much?” Brackendon tittered. The wizard often laughed like this. It made him frustrating to interpret.
“You know fine well what I meant,” Darnuir snapped back, growing impatient.
“We bleed like other men,” Brackendon began, as he rose from his chair, “but we aren’t so easily overpowered. I think you should leave Castallan to me.”
“Are you suggesting that I cannot—”
“I am not suggesting anything,” Brackendon said sternly, as he made his way to the door. “I am telling you that some foes cannot be brought down by steel and muscle.”
Darnuir bristled at these words. He turned to face the wizard but words failed him for some reason. He settled for a contemptuous, snorting grunt instead. Brackendon seemed unimpressed with the display.
“May I suggest,” Brackendon offered, “reading some more tomes if you wish to know more?” And with that, he took his leave.
I know more than you give me credit for Brackendon. And I have sought to learn even beyond your understanding.
Darnuir did not grant the young man much thought afterwards. A weariness suddenly came over him. A dragon’s resilience to fatigue was, like everything else, far greater than a human’s; however, he had not slept in two days. The thought of sleep was alluring but he could not allow himself the luxury now. He decided to make the long descent back to the docks and do what he could to help quicken the evacuation.
When Darnuir exited the Royal Tower, he noticed that the plaza was dimly lit around the Basilica of Light. Whereas the Tower was tall, the Basilica was bulky, and dominated a large swathe of space on the plateau. It was covered by a smooth dome that was supposed to allow light to enter and shine upon the various deities at the appropriate time of day. It had been years since he had entered that place. Draconess, on the other hand, was a more devout believer in the Way of the Light.
Are you there now father? Rather than helping your people in their darkest hour?
Of course, Draconess would be there. Only a minority of dragons bothered with the Light anymore. It was a dying faith of an age-long past. His father and his Praetorian Guard were all vehement believers. But where had it got them?
Resentment towards his father flared inside Darnuir. He strode towards the Basilica, fully intending upon a confrontation. The entranceway was a grand collection of lofty columns, holding a triangular roof high above. He swept past the columns and through the open arch doorway. Open to allow access to all but few ever come, do they father?
Inside the cavernous temple, it took Darnuir a moment to gain his bearings. Torches and candles flickered along the walls, growing smaller in the distance. The temple was always disconsolate at night. Bare marble floor made up the bulk of the space, intended for kneeling worshippers, but only a fraction of the space had cushions upon it. In the centre was a lone figure upon his knees.
Darnuir took his time in approaching the King, ensuring every one of his footsteps echoed loudly around him, interrupting Draconess’ prayers. The centre of the Basilica was curved to match the dome above it. The walls drew downwards into the floor like enormous waves. Three reliefs adorned the walls, equally spaced from each other. Three Gods and yet not one ever came in answer. Three carved, plain stone swords protruded from three ornate stone holders at the centre where Draconess knelt, facing the relief of the god Darnuir knew to be N’weer, deity of rejuvenation. The King did not stir until Darnuir was almost right behind him.
“Come to argue with me some more, my son?” he asked. His voice was heavy with exhaustion and perhaps sadness. Like most words he uttered these days, it seemed to come at a great effort. “Or have you come to pay respect to N’weer, so that the dawn will come again.”
“And then, at daybreak, thank Dwna for giving us the light back?” Darnuir scorned. “No father, I will not plead with a god to bring the dawn. I haven’t prayed in years and still the sun rises.”
“When you were a young hatchling, you used to pray with me,” Draconess said.
“When I was a ‘child’,” Darnuir emphasised the word, “I wasn’t capable of making my own decisions.”
“Tell me,” Draconess said, still facing the relief of the god, “when was it that you grew so bitter towards me? When was it that you began to hate me?”
“Hate is a strong word, father,” said Darnuir.
“And yet…” The accusation hung for a long moment. Draconess remained still, his eyes closed.
“You cling on to this dead religion, father, as if it will save us?” Darnuir hissed. “Like you cling on to your notions of a Guardian who will come again to deliver us. These are dated things from a past no longer relevant. Both of them are gone.”
“Yet still the temple remains,” Draconess said. “As does my faith. I know that these things will rise again.”
Always the same fight. The same unfaltering argument. He has ‘faith’.
“Our people once believed strongly in the Light,” Draconess said, “and in those days, we were strong. We had purpose. We had a cause. Now our faith is all but extinguished and we are weak. Do you not see?”
“Perhaps things would change if you stopped spending time on your knees and got out there.” Darnuir pointed forcefully towards the arched doorway. “Keep your faith if you will but act, father; act rather than flee to your empty sanctuary.”
“Act,” Draconess said, still quite calmly, “and do what?”
“Kill demons?” Darnuir suggested. “Lead our armies. At least help pack the ships tonight!”
“One demon or a thousand, it makes no difference so long as their master lives.”
“Then kill him!” Darnuir bellowed. His voice reverberated around the temple. “You have the Dragon’s Blade; you’re supposed to have the power. If not you, then who?”
“You?” Draconess questioned.
Darnuir’s laugh was maddened. “I have asked you for the sword countless times and you refuse. But yes, I will do it. If I must.”
Draconess shook his head resignedly and sad. “I once hoped that you might be able to take it but you have proven that granting you such power would not be wise.”
“One mistake, father…” Darnuir began.
“Reckless, susceptible, hot-headed, blunt and without subtlety!” Draconess interrupted. He remained kneeling but turned to face Darnuir. “Good intentions do not change that. You’ll recall Dranus once had such good intentions. He sought power to serve the Light, and in doing so he splintered our race and we fought the Black Dragons for centuries.”
“You would compare me to some ancient enemy, again long dead?” Darnuir said. “Let go of the past, father. Think about our future. Dranus is not the enemy now, it is Rectar. He needs to die. I ask again, who will do it if not you?”
“This is why I pray,” Draconess said, “for I am certain the answer will come.”
“You’ve given up, haven’t you? That’s what all of this is about. You will no longer even try!”
“I have faith.”
“You have an empty hall and emptier promises!” Darnuir spat.
“Leave me,” Draconess said, returning to face N’weer. “Go and take action. Do what you think you must.”
Darnuir tore from the Basilica. His blood was hot and his hand itched for his sword. It was a shame the demons were not here now. How cathartic it would be to tear them apart. Perhaps he ought to do just that. Drive into the horde. Kill. He could leave a river of their smoking blood. And if he died, he would have at least done something. He drew in long, deep breaths in an attempt to steady himself. A strong wind whipped through the plaza, cooling his skin. As it died down, the air returned to being warm and dry, even now at night, as it always was in this part of the world.
Yes, he could stay behind and fight the enemy, but he would die. Somehow, he might fight his way all the way to Rectar’s feet but he would die there just the same. Would that really be any better than kneeling on a cold temple floor? He decided to pursue his original course and headed for the southern stairs leading to the docks. He could lend his hands to the evacuation even if Draconess would not. His people needed action but nothing reckless. His father was right about that much.
But Darnuir was not his father.