Thanks for coming through to read these extracts from Veiled Intentions. Here you will find the first 5 chapters – far more than an Amazon preview will ever give.

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Hope you enjoy,

Michael

Prologue

Grigayne – Island of Eastguard – Splintering Isles

Eastguard had fallen.

From his longship out at sea, Grigayne watched the old fort upon the cliff burn. It had stood for centuries, keeping watch for dragon war galleys in ages past. Today, it had taken the demons mere hours to destroy it. The flames now licked towards the dense clouds, waving wildly in the wind.

We were undermanned, unprepared and taken by surprise.

Grigayne rehearsed that line in his head. But no matter the reason, it was still a defeat. His father, Somerled Imar, the Lord of the Isles, would slump in disappointment all the same.

Grigayne tasted blood. It was trickling into his mouth and he dabbed at his injured head with a wad of cloth while the oarsmen around him heaved against the angry waves. Water splashed onboard, wetting his clothes, which were already damp from sweat. Some of it entered his mouth as well, mixing unpleasantly with the blood on his tongue: a salty, tangy, metallic taste. Foul. Though not as foul as their defeat had been.

“It wis hard fought,” someone said from behind. Grigayne did not recognise the speaker. A coarse voice was a common trait amongst the inhabitants of the Splintering Isles. The salt was said to rub at a man’s throat, a woman’s as well.

“We should have sailed the moment we saw the demons approaching,” Grigayne said. His own voice was lighter, his letters better enunciated. Lord Somerled had desired Grigayne to blend in at the Lords Assembly in the capital of Brevia, and ensured he learned to speak properly.

“And gie up the fortress without a fight?”

“More lives would have been spared,” Grigayne said.

“Most of the townsfolk in Errin got away, that’s sumin’.”

“I suppose.”

Grigayne turned to get a look at the man. He must have been in his fifties, with a patchy brown beard and the gore of battle on him. His only noteworthy feature was the stump on his left wrist.

“Do I know you?” Grigayne asked.

“Doubt it.”

“Well, who are you?” In the chaos, Grigayne had jumped aboard this boat without much thought.

“Oh, I’ll be the Captain. Names’ Cayn.”

“You don’t sound certain, Cayn.”

“Well, I’m sure I saw the last Cap’n on fire during the attack. Then his first mate died with a spectre’s blade in his belly, and then his closest mate died n’all. Seeing as it’s only a small ship, that just leaves me in charge.”

“And a fine captain you’ll make.”

Cayn shrugged. “Might do, though only reason I’m sat here is cause I cannae row.” He waved his stump in demonstration.

Grigayne closed his eyes at that. More water splashed up and seeped through the cloth over his wound. It stung powerfully but he held the cloth in place, knowing the salt would help clean the cut.

“So, Captain Cayn, do you think you can take us to Dalridia?”

“I thought we would be stopping at Ullasay,” Cayn said, giving his beard a good scratch. “Much closer than the capital. The weather is against us, and we don’t have much in the way of food.”

“Forget the weather. Every demon that Rectar has at his command seems to be set against us, and we do not have time to stop. My father must be warned as soon as possible.”

Cayn’s expression was downcast, as if the aged man did not feel any amount of warning would suffice. “Aye, then. We’ll make for Dalridia.”

Grigayne took stock of the oarsmen he had left. Although many of them bore signs of the recent skirmish, thankfully, they all looked experienced. Most had a small axe or sword at their belts, but nothing compared to the larger war axe resting on Grigayne’s own lap. He would have carried his strong round shield upon his back, but it had been cloven in two by the razor edge of a spectre’s shadowy blade.

Grigayne would not call what had just unfolded a battle. The demons had come on so fast, there had been no warning.

“Ironic really,” Grigayne mused aloud, “that a fortress built to ward against dragons should fall so easily.”

“Not enough men,” Cayn said simply. “Place was a bit old too.”

“Built at the same time as the Bastion,” Grigayne said.

“Bastion has taller walls,” Cayn said, with another shrug of his shoulders. “And stone. We could’ve used more stone.”

With the blazing fire in the distance, Grigayne could not disagree. The neighbouring islands were no better equipped to resist attack and would not last long. Ullusay, Ronra and the little island of Skelf would surely fall before he could return with aid. All the Splintering Isles were in peril.

All of Tenalp will be in danger from such a force. We’ll merely be the first to fall.

He kept such thoughts to himself, however. Despair would hardly drive the men to Dalridia.

“Let us row with all our strength, Captain Cayn.”

“Aye, milord. Hard at ’em oars now lads. Heave ’n ho. There’s a shark at yer arse, so heave and ho.”

Grigayne settled in beside a rower who lacked a mate beside him. The man was shivering, though whether from fear or the cold Grigayne could not tell. He took the end of the oar and began to rock forward and back, forward and back, feeling the ocean resist his efforts. His head still rang from the blow he had taken, and his thoughts jumped from one uncertainty to the next. Why now? Will Brevia send support in time? Will Brevia send support at all? Grigayne didn’t know the answers and so, for now, he focused on the rhythm of his arms.

Forward and back, forward and back, forward and back.

Will the dragons emerge to fight alongside us?

Forward and back, forward and back.

One thing, at least, was certain.

Eastguard had fallen.

 

Dukoona – The Island of Eastguard

A human was trying to scuttle away on a broken leg. When Dukoona reached him, he placed one of his shadowy feet upon the human’s chest. His victim stopped squirming, then attempted to raise his small, round shield to cover his face. Now that Dukoona could see him, he seemed so young. Not much more than a boy. A crying boy.

Better a clean death.

A blade forged from the shadows swirled into Dukoona’s open hand, ghostly purple and sharp enough to cut down through the wooden shield with ease. The boy lay still. He had been the last of the islanders left on Eastguard. The small band here had proven easy to remove. Dukoona’s landing had surprised them, as he had intended. A few ships, however, had gotten away. Dukoona had intended that as well.

Kidrian appeared at his side, looking out to the longships heading south and west.

“They will alert the rest of the islanders,” Kidrian croaked.

“As they should,” Dukoona said. “Come, walk with me.” He moved away from the boy’s body and drew up short of the cliff edge facing south. Just beyond the horizon lay the island of Ullusay, and beyond that would be Dalridia, lying in the shadow of the Nail Head Mountain. If Dalridia fell, all the Splintering Isles would follow. Yet Dukoona was in no hurry to conquer it. Furtively, he checked his surroundings and then the sky. Dense clouds prevented any shadows from spreading across the land, so he needn’t fear being overheard here. He could not place faith in all his spectres, only his Trusted.

“We may discuss matters here, I think,” Dukoona said.

“What would you keep from the Master?”

“Most things, but right now, I’d withhold how easily Eastguard fell. Rectar may expect quick progress if he knows how fast we took a foothold here.”

“A foothold would require a more permanent base.”

“I think you might be correct,” Dukoona said, turning to face his companion. A wry smile crept up the side of Kidrian’s face, starkly white against the dense flesh-like shadow of his body. The cold purple embers on Kidrian’s head burned lowly. Somehow, the wind did not affect them as it would normal flames.

“A Shadow Spire should be constructed,” Kidrian said.

“A wise move. One that would take a great deal of time, I’d imagine?”

“It may delay us by a month, maybe more.”

“A necessary precaution.”

“I quite agree, my Lord.”

My Lord. He looks to me. I only wish I could do more for him, for all the spectres.

“Is there something more on your mind, Kidrian?”

The leader of the Trusted shifted uneasily. “The disappearances of some of our people at Kar’drun, my Lord. They worry me still.”

“I have not forgotten,” Dukoona said. “But, as always, we can only be patient. Go now, before those we do not Trust grow suspicious.”

Kidrian bowed and took his leave. Dukoona lingered for a while, surveying Rectar’s vast fleet as it swept along the ocean. He could not turn the demons back; only play for time. He needed that now – time to think, time to plan – but there was none. He did not know what he could do to save his spectres from extinction. They were caught between the Three Races and Rectar, as though exposed in a great expanse between two shadows.

Something stirred within his mind. In a split second, the endless presence of his Master glanced towards him, then looked away. Rectar said nothing, perhaps he was satisfied to see the burning fort and dead humans sprawled around it. With the moment over, Dukoona relaxed.

He desperately needed time. But he could not delay for long.

Chapter 1 – A Poor Start

Unlike previous eras, the Transformation of the dragons, the Third Flight and the forging of the Three Blades is the earliest period of what we can consider history; though it is still blurred heavily in legend. Sources from the time are scant but confirm just enough to allow us to speculate further.

From Tiviar’s Histories

Garon – North of Val’tarra

A week had passed since Garon’s expedition had left the tranquillity of the Argent Tree, and two days since they had left the forest of Val’tarra altogether. The Ninth Legion marched, three thousand dragons strong, along with a thousand hunters and as many fairies on their way northwards to safeguard the Highlands and aid the Kazzek Trolls.

Garon had kept their column close to the west bank of the River Avvorn. Its crystal water was clean and energising, laced with hints of Cascade energy from the Highland Mountains. Garon might have found it harmonious, had it not been for his gnawing fear.

He could still hear the pressing worry in Darnuir’s voice when he had pulled Garon in close and whispered, “Be watchful for those with red eyes.” The words had not been written among the orders on the scroll he had given to Garon, but it was an order nonetheless. He kept that scroll close. It was a reminder to Garon of who was counting on him. It reminded everyone else that he, a human, was in charge of this expedition. Garon thought it a bit of a joke that it had been left to him. The kind of joke that makes you wince and suck in breath through clenched teeth. Yet he was in charge, and so long as that was the case, he intended to stay alive and keep it that way.

Beware the red-eyed men. Suppose I should beware the red-eyed women too.

The threat of these unknown red-eyed traitors loomed over him. He couldn’t meet a strange hunter from the Cairlav Marshes or the Golden Crescent without staring awkwardly into their eyes, weighing them up, judging whether they had joined Castallan and been enchanted by his magic, as that red-eyed Chevalier at Torridon had been.

Even those from the Boreac Mountains, he gave a second look; people he’d fought and bled alongside for years. All of them, apart from Griswald and Rufus. If he couldn’t trust them, he couldn’t trust anyone.

“Not like ye tae be so quiet,” Griswald barked beside him. “No seemed yerself since we left the forest.”

“I’m mourning the loss of that sweet fairy girl,” Garon said airily. He reached into a deep pocket of his leathers and pulled out a thin block of silver wood. “This is all I have to remember her by.” He showed the block to Griswald – two painted patterned lines, one pink and one blue, wove halfway along the piece.

“Pretty. She forgot tae fill in the rest, though.”

Garon tucked the wood away. “It’s supposed to represent our time together. “Passionate, but cut short.”

“Ha,” Griswald laughed. “Young Pel better watch herself then.”

“Wing Commander Pel,” Garon said, strongly emphasising her rank, “is off limits.”

“I won’t hold my breath. If ye had a block like that for each of yer girls, you could build us a new station.”

“Oh, come now, Griswald. A small hut perhaps, but not a whole station.”

“Well, hold on tight tae that wee momento. I don’t reckon there will be many more women where we’re going.”

“The Hinterlands aren’t so far away. I’m sure there are women there.”

“I hear they grow ’em tall and blonde in the Hinterlands. I could be tempted. Sure, I cannae persuade ye to change course?”

“I’m afraid I must dash your dreams of tall women to match your enormity. We’ll be following the Avvorn northwards. That is how Ochnic came down. It is the fastest way into the Highlands, or so he says.”

Griswald gave a loud tut of disappointment. “Where is the troll?”

“Further ahead with Rufus. They are scouting the best path for us to take.”

“You trust that creature, lad?”

“Darnuir does,” Garon said, tapping a finger against his scroll. “And so does Cosmo. That’s enough for me.”

“Aye, I’ll take Cosmo’s word for it. Even if the royal git hid who he was from us all these years.”

“Would you call your prince that to his face?”

“Might be best to refrain when I next see him,” Griswald admitted. “Expect he’ll be wearing thick fancy robes and a crown tae boot by then.”

“I hear those girls in the court at Brevia grow very pretty.”

“Aye? I’ll march faster for that lad.”

And march they did.

At dusk, Garon called a halt. The warm amber light of a summer’s eve was a perfect end to a far too affable a day. Something is bound to sour it. Garon’s thoughts immediately jumped to Legate Marus, Commander of the Ninth Legion, and the snide remarks he’d make for halting their march before they keeled over in exhaustion. For now, Garon had managed to avoid Marus, claiming he wished to sup in peace. Though he had not protested when Griswald had taken up a space by the fire. A large space, it was Griswald after all. The man’s beard more closely resembled a thicket and a fair bit of cheese was tangled in it.

Griswald belched. “Woah, beg yer pardon.”

“Denied,” came the low voice of Rufus. Although not as large as Griswald, the cropped, black-haired hunter was still impressively broad.

“You’re supposed to be scouting us a path with Ochnic,” Garon said.

“The troll said I ought to return,” Rufus said, taking a seat on the dry grass by the fire. “It wasn’t looking promising, I’m afraid.”

“So, where is he?” Garon said.

“Checking other routes,” Rufus said. Garon eyed him, but Rufus just shrugged. “Apparently, he’d be quicker without me. Way that troll moves I’m inclined to agree.”

“I’m not sure if you’ve really earned your dinner then,” Garon said, pushing a basket of food over with one foot.

“Not a hot one, it seems,” Rufus said, exaggerating with a grimace. Garon rewarded him with a smirk. Whilst their fire was warm, their food, sadly, was not. Still, it was not without pleasure. Whatever the fairies did to their bread kept it tasting fresh for weeks, it even retained that fresh baked smell. Garon picked at the small brown loaf, topped with seeds, and ripped chunks from his stash of cheese. As much as he had liked life at the Argent Tree, he could not have lived there forever. That venison served during the council had been his first bite of real meat for far too long. His mouth watered at the memory of it. His stomach knotted as well, though not entirely at the thought of slow roasted deer.

I should have said no. I should have looked Darnuir squarely in the eye and told him, “No, bugger this, I’m staying.”

He wasn’t a leader. Sure, he had led hunter patrols, but that was different. And Cosmo had been there for him. He’d always been there. Garon had been so young when he had stumbled ragged into the Boreac Mountains, he had no memory intact from before that time. Perhaps his mind had blocked them out to save himself the ache. He remembered the oozy black blood upon the door to his old home in the Dales; remembered pushing it gently in. Remembered seeing the bodies—

He shook his head. Why ruin a perfectly nice night thinking about that?

He swallowed down the last of his sharp yet creamy cheese, oddly satisfied with his meal. A cup of shimmer brew to finish was tempting; the very thought of its bitter fragrance wafting in the air made him rummage into the supplies. It had to be rationed carefully, but one cup could be spared. He was on the verge of setting some water to boil, crouched over, his back to the rest of the camp, when he heard the footsteps.

“I thought I was clear,” he said. “I do not wish to be disturbed.”

“Unless it is these two, I see,” came the irritated voice of Legate Marus.

“You will want to know dis, Garon pack leader,” said Ochnic, discernible from his earthy voice.

“Something tells me I won’t enjoy hearing it,” Garon sighed. He turned to be greeted by a frowning Marus. The dragon had such thick dark-blond eyebrows that Garon was surprised he could see at all when frowning like that. Marus’ red plumed helmet was tucked under one arm.

“What is wrong, Ochnic?” Rufus asked.

“We cannot travel through da glens dis way,” Ochnic said, his icy eyes piercing Garon’s gaze.

“And why not?” Marus asked. “You made it down easily enough before, troll.”

“Ochnic was alone before,” Rufus said. “The terrain is winding and rough. It will slow us down considerably. Likely we’ll be single file in places.”

“Too slow,” Ochnic said, drawing out the words in a long breath.

“And you had no idea of this beforehand?” said Garon.

“Do you know of every rock of your own mountains?” Ochnic said.

“I was aware of spaces a bloody army might pass,” Garon said. “Still, we must press on.”

“It will take too long, Garon, pack leader,” Ochnic said. “We must reach da kazzek before da rains come; before de lochs rise too high; before de winds blow us back.”

“We are aware that autumn and winter approach,” Rufus said, “but we still have plenty of time.”

Ochnic seemed to ignore Rufus. He stepped closer to Garon, drawing himself up to his full and impressive height. He looked down with wide eyes, the white fur on his torso furrowed and Garon glanced apprehensively to the large dagger at the troll’s side.

“I worry for da kazzek,” was all Ochnic said, softly, almost pleading.

Garon relaxed and spoke softly in return. “I understand your concern for your people but—”

“Last hope, I am,” Ochnic said, thumping a hand onto his white furred chest. His thick, grey skin wrinkled around his eyes as he fumed at Garon. One might have mistaken it for anger, as Marus seemed to do, reaching a hand for his sword. But not Garon. He’d developed an instinct for knowing when a person’s anger was really directed elsewhere. Perhaps it came from years of hearing angry fathers’ curse his name.

“We’ll get there, Ochnic,” Garon said, reaching up to grasp the troll’s callused elbow. Ochnic squinted down, perplexed at the gesture. “I don’t intend to fail,” Garon assured him.

“We must find a faster way,” said Ochnic.

“And we shall,” Garon said. He gave a friendly squeeze on the troll’s arm.

“Thankful, I am,” Ochnic said, taking Garon’s upper arm in imitation and squeezing overly hard.

Garon winced. “You’re welcome. Griswald, you’ve sat enough, might you go fetch Wing Commander Pel. It seems we are in need of a change of course.”

“That cheek will get ye intae trouble someday,” Griswald said, but lumbered off all the same.

Garon, left uncertain of how to proceed, indicated that all should be seated around the campfire. An unpleasant silence followed. Marus removed his helmet and stared into the orange glow, Rufus fidgeted, and Garon half opened his mouth several times, trying to say something, but failing to think of anything. Ochnic didn’t seem to mind. He just sat picking a strand of meat out of his teeth with a chipped nail.

“Shimmer brew, anyone?” Garon asked. The response was less than enthusiastic, but with little else to do he returned to his pot and dumped the silver leaves in. A tidal wave of sympathy for Darnuir crashed against any lingering annoyance he had for being given this job.

How much harder must his task be? This is just a mere taste of it and it’s already going awry. He tapped his scroll again by way of tribute. And if I fail, then we all fail. If I fail, the Highlands fall and Val’tarra and Brevia are vulnerable from the north. We’ll be fighting outnumbered on two fronts. We’ll lose. All if I fail to get this lot to work together. He glanced around at each leading member of his expedition, who were all sitting grumpily, not looking at each other, arms folded, and was eternally thankful that Griswald returned promptly with Pel.

“I am told our mission may already be in jeopardy,” said Pel. She was unable to hide the happiness in her youthful violet eyes, nor the flutter of excitement from her wings. Her silver hair was pulled back in a single long tail and a blue tunic with an emblazoned silver tree cut off at the shoulders revealed lean muscular arms.

“A small snag, Wing Commander,” Garon said.

“Perhaps we should return to the Argent Tree?” Pel said.

Ochnic growled.

“You would gie up so easily?” Griswald asked.

“There is a greater fight waging in the south,” Pel said.

“We have been given a task and we shall see it through,” said Garon. “I was at that council meeting, Pel. Your own Queen approved of this mission.”

“We have never been friends with the trolls and General Fidelm —”

“Is outranked by Queen Kasselle,” Marus said. “As is King Darnuir. I shall not return in disgrace, having barely begun.”

“One more interruption and I’ll fly off,” Pel said. “You, Legate, should treat me as an equal and you, human,” she scowled at Griswald. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“Griswald,” the big man said with a nod of his great shaggy head.

“Griswald,” Pel began. “Shut up.”

Garon ran a hand through his hair. This was swiftly getting out of hand.

“How mature of you, Wing Commander,” Marus said. “You are young, but that does not mean you should act your age.”

“Marus, please,” said Garon. “General Fidelm selected her for the mission. I’m sure he thinks her capable.”

Pel laughed, an angry little titter of a laugh.

“What is it?” Garon said.

“Oh, I’ll be blunt,” Pel said. “Few of my kind wish to waste time wandering lost through the Highlands to save Frost Trolls. So few, in fact, that I was the only Wing Commander he could press into it, mostly by promoting me the day before we left.” Marus and Griswald looked as stunned as Garon felt. Pel shrugged. “My people want to defend Val’tarra, our home. Not theirs.” She flicked her hand at Ochnic.

Ochnic himself made a loud sucking noise as he finished picking at his teeth. He uncoiled his gangly body and began to slope off. “Call me when da fairy girl is more reasonable.”

“Come back here, troll,” Pel said. “You’ve even said it yourself, I’m told. We cannot go any further this way.”

Ochnic stopped. “Always der is ways. Garon, pack leader, said so.”

Garon smiled pleasantly at Pel. She did not return it.

“If the River Avvorn will not lead us, perhaps we could follow the Dorain instead,” offered Rufus.

“Into the Hinterlands?” said Marus.

“The Bealach Pass is known to be wide,” Garon said, drawing on old hunter lessons. “The town of Tuath lies at its end, or its beginning, depending on how you view it. Am I right, Griswald?”

Griswald scratched at his beard. “Rings a bell, but getting over to Tuath from here will take time, lad.”

“How long exactly?” asked Marus.

“A week, maybe more,” Garon said.

“Perhaps longer,” Pel said. “We’re on the wrong side of the Avvorn to reach the Hinterlands with ease. Doubling back or moving forward to find a crossing will take up yet more time.”

“Den we should be movin’,” Ochnic said.

“Is there an agreement?” Garon asked hopefully; too hopefully.

Pel snorted and Marus droned on. Twilight turned to night and still there was no decision.

I was a poor choice, Darnuir.

Garon knew he had been picked to lead this expedition because Darnuir trusted him, but that meant little out here. How could he make this fairy listen, when her own General had admitted his resentment of this mission? How could he make a dragon listen to him when Marus could break him in two? How could he do any of it? Then, he started to have dangerous thoughts. Perhaps those who’ve gone over to Castallan have good reasons after all. That red-eyed Chevalier at Torridon did more than stand up to the dragons. If I was that strong, I might make them listen…

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden silence. Ochnic was acting strange, creeping towards Marus and sniffing loudly.

“What’s wrong?” Garon asked.

“Smoke,” Ochnic said. “Burning.” He leaned forwards a little more and gave the air another great sniff. “Fresh blood. Can you smell it, dragon legate?”

Marus’ expression darkened. The legate sniffed the air as well, then reached for his sword and shoved his helmet back on.

A distinct crack of steel on steel reached them. A roar of a fight. Cries of pain.

“I don’t think we need tae smell what’s happenin’,” Griswald said.

Be watchful for those with red eyes…

Pel flew off into the dark without a word. Marus and Ochnic bounded off at a speed Garon could never match. He joined Griswald and Rufus as they ran towards the noise of the skirmish. Hunters looked on perplexed. They were all mixed together, a vibrant blend of white, grey, mud-red and grainy yellow leathers, illuminated by small pockets of light from campfires. Garon saw a glimmer of a larger fire to the south, towards their baggage train.

They ran into the dragon’s camp, with all their white tents lined in neat rows. Most had removed their armour for the day. There was a surprising number of hunters here as well, mingling with the dragons, it seemed.

“Arm yourselves!” Garon cried to them.

Beware the red eyes…

And he began to see them; close by, in the semi-darkness, red eyes opened with a furious intent. Eyes like true predators. It was hard to believe that behind each pair was a human like him.

Knives were used to slit the throats of unsuspecting dragons. Some gouged at their bellies or backs from behind. Muffled screams barely left the dragons’ throats.

A huntress in yellow leathers from the Golden Crescent weaved her way towards Garon. Her eyes flashed red as she wiped out her sword.

“I’m with ya lad,” Griswald said, hurtling his bulk at the huntress. Griswald was a bear of a man, but she knocked him back effortlessly and charged towards Garon. He dropped flat on his stomach and the huntress bawled in annoyance as her blade swished at empty air. Garon rolled to one side to avoid her stamping feet. Still prone, he cut at her ankles, then her shins, then her thighs as she was brought low. It wasn’t sporting but these traitors had changed the rules. She twisted around and Garon rolled again without thinking, hearing his leathers tear as her blade narrowly missed the skin on his back. Flipping onto one knee, he stabbed deep into her exposed side to end the fight. Then, a broad figure was over him; grabbing him.

“Up you get,” Rufus told him, blood running from his crooked nose. “They’re popping up all over.”

Griswald staggered over to them. He seemed winded but unharmed.

The camp of the Ninth Legion descended into chaos. The red-eyed men and women had taken the advantage with their surprise attack. In many places, it was hardly a fight. Half a minute past, or half an hour or half a heartbeat. Garon just tried to keep his head. Red eyes flashed in the night, running at him, as though he were their main target. He supposed he might be. He was the leader of this expedition, after all. Yet most were speeding southwards, towards their supplies where the fire grew brighter. He was only in the way.

A hard buzz grew overhead, a noise like a thousand murmuring people.

Fairies. About bloody time.

Some of the red eyes began to ascend upwards, lifted by two or more fairies. They climbed higher and higher until the darkness swallowed them. Then they dropped and their eyes extinguished when they hit the ground. Garon stuck close to Rufus and Griswald, as the three of them together offered a better fight to each traitor. Tents were aflame now too.

“We must reach the baggage carts,” Garon spluttered, shielding his own face from the smoke. “Or we’ll have nothing left to eat.”

Griswald roared his displeasure at that, taking a swipe at an approaching red-eyed hunter. The traitor from the Golden Crescent avoided Griswald with ease, making the giant seem sluggish.

“Bastard,” Griswald yelled as his quarry disappeared into the darkness and smoke. A moment later, the Golden Crescent hunter came flying back, clean off his feet. Legate Marus followed, his face red with fury, and buried his sword down through the man’s stomach.

“Marus,” Garon implored, “the supplies—”

“Come,” Marus said. As they ran, the tide of the skirmish turned. Fewer red eyes could be seen in the night and many were taking flight.

By the time Garon reached the baggage train, the destruction of their supplies was already a full-blown nightmare. There was singed cloth and leather, ashes from burning shimmer brew leaves and the smell of burning bread – all that fresh fairy bread. Weapon carts were upended, swords and daggers stolen, arrows snapped or tossed into the fires. Dragons and fairies lay slumped against carts or strewn on the ground. Many had their throats slit.

Marus spat at Garon’s feet. “I’d spit on your whole race if I could.” The flames lit his face in fractured lines, giving him a maddened look. Garon had no words. Even if he could think of some, he was struggling for breath.

“This isnae our fault,” Griswald said. “Naebody’s but Castallan’s.”

“Be reasonable, Marus,” Rufus said.

“We were sent north on a fool’s errand,” Marus bellowed, not listening to them. “Sent north to care for some backward race and get stabbed in the back by humans.”

“Marus—” Garon began, but Rufus threw out an arm to stop him getting closer to the dragon. He crept closer in Garon’s stead.

“Those who have joined Castallan have betrayed us all,” Rufus said, stepping very delicately. “We have all suffered here.” He stretched a hand out to Marus. The legate looked disgusted as it touched his shoulder.

“Get off, human.” His heave sent Rufus reeling; staggering into the path of a red-eyed straggler; a Cairlav huntress with sword in hand. She ripped through Rufus’ chest, through the muscle and the fat to chink off his ribs.

“No,” Garon cried, but it was nothing on Griswald’s howl.

Marus stood aghast at Rufus, frozen, reacting slowly for a dragon as the huntress made to strike him next. All thought of her escape seemed forgotten. Marus parried but only just. Garon started forwards but before he could reach them, the huntress had her skinning knife in hand and was making quick work of the weak spots on the legate’s upper thigh.

Marus crumpled.

Blood sprayed from the wound; colourful, scarlet blood that spoke of a cut artery. It splattered the huntress and her bright eyes turned on Garon. She advanced, wielding both sword and knife. Garon’s block saved his life but the force behind her blow sent him crashing to the ground.

So, I’ve failed already. I’m sorry, Cosmo, Darnuir. Rufus is dead, likely Marus, and now me.

He didn’t even think to shut his eyes.

Another figure rammed the huntress. It balled out of the night, all grey and white haired. Ochnic knocked her sword from her grip and spun in the air to land on his great hand-like feet, producing his own large dagger from his waist. For a moment, they circled each other. Then they wrestled; a savage brawl of scraping metal, tearing clothes and biting. They crashed and both lost their knives. The huntress was stronger but Ochnic was more agile, more flexible.

He got hold of her neck from behind.

He twisted hard —

And with a ringing crack it was over.

Griswald crawled over to Rufus’s body. Garon didn’t have the strength to look at their fallen friend. He groaned as he tried to stand and found a large grey hand helping him up.

“I was warned of such humans,” Ochnic said. “But I did not think dey were dat strong.”

“Marus is hurt,” Garon said. His wits were just returning. He staggered the short distance to the legate. There was a lot of blood. “Hold him, Ochnic.” He struggled with Marus’ armour but managed to get the upper leg guard off, unstrapped his own belt and tied it around Marus’ upper thigh. Garon buckled it and yanked down hard to clamp the blood flow.

“Ah,” grunted Marus. “Get away human. You too, troll.” He thrashed, throwing Garon and Ochnic backwards. Garon landed onto his back with a thud. He was getting fed up of that this evening.

“Do you want to die?” Garon said, getting up. He tore off layers of leather and pushed them down on Marus’ wound. He lay most of his weight on the dragon to apply pressure. Ochnic joined him, gnashing his teeth angrily. Marus let loose a pained whimper like a wounded beast; too tough to let himself scream. He tossed again but Garon held on, hating dragons for their pride.

Would he rather die than admit a human saved him? But it dawned on Garon, as he fought to save the legate’s life. He’s more ashamed that a human has almost killed him.

Something hummed nearby. “How bad is it?” asked Pel, landing beside them.

“Nicked an artery, I think,” Garon said. Marus rustled again, knocking Garon on the chin. His tongue jolted in pain and he tasted blood.

“Lift the material,” said Pel. She bent low and produced a small box like many fairy healers had carried at the Argent Tree. “This should stem the worst of it,” she said, dabbing a generous portion of a thick silver paste to the wound. Marus stopped thrashing.

“Dat will still need fixin’,” Ochnic said.

“He needs a surgeon,” Garon said, rolling off Marus. “Griswald,” he called, hoping the larger man could carry the dragon. “Griswald!”

But he did not respond. He did not even move.

“Griswald, da pack leader calls,” Ochnic said. Some moments passed before Griswald reacted. Hunched over Rufus, he rolled back his great shoulders, which looked like small snow drifts in his white leathers. At last, he walked mechanically over to them. One foot. Then the next. All in silence. He picked up Marus’ limp body and trudged off.

Pel’s face showed nothing; nothing that Garon could read at least. Without a word, she took off, beating wind back into Garon’s face with her wings. Then it was just himself and Ochnic. And the body. Poor Rufus lay as crooked as his nose.

“In da north, we burn our dead,” Ochnic said. “Der is no tellin’ what will happen if dey go into da ground.”

“What?” Garon said, his head spinning. “No. We bury them here. I’ll bury Ruf—” his voiced snapped. The word died. And then he felt a strong squeeze on his upper arm.

“Den I shall help you, Garon, pack leader.”

Chapter 2 – Helping Hands

Aurisha and Dranus were brothers. Together they ruled the dragons, but a discord arose. Dranus thought magic would better serve the gods while Aurisha thought they should serve through faith. While Aurisha dwelt in solitude in the Highlands, Dranus contrived to speak to the gods themselves. He flew to what was then the largest of the Principal Mountains, where the city of Aurisha now stands. There he called upon the Cascade in such strength he managed to touch their minds. In doing so, he brought down their wrath.

From Tiviar’s Histories

Darnuir – The Crownlands

“Not even I could jump that,” Darnuir said, gazing out across the breadth of the River Dorain.

“Be a shame to waste time finding a bridge,” Brackendon said. “I’ll make one.”

“That won’t be too much magic at once for you?”

“Not with this,” Brackendon said, twirling his staff affectionately. Perhaps it was the magic in the silver wood, but its tip somehow shone diamond bright in the light. “Stand back,” Brackendon added.

The ground around them began to shake. Darnuir stepped away as instructed, returning to the rest of their company. Forty young dragons, the beginnings of his new personal Praetorian Guard, were refilling their waterskins in the river. Beside him, Lira, Prefect of the Guard, splashed some water into her own face. She sighed in relief as the cooling water hit her and pushed her ebony hair off her face.

“Have you caught your breath?” Darnuir asked.

“Enough, my Lord.”

He smiled and said softly. “Lira, what have I told you?”

“Darnuir, sorry, sir,” she said flustered. “I’m still not sure I feel right in addressing you by name alone.”

The vibrations in the ground intensified. Brackendon slowly raised his free hand and clumps of soil, grass, flowers, small stones and unfortunate insects orbited his extended palm. Then Brackendon brought his hand swooping down.

The earth fell into position; piece collapsing upon piece, creating a curving arch up and over the river. About halfway, Brackendon dropped his staff to raise his other hand, bringing in more earth to pad out the bridge to reach the opposite bank. When it was done, Brackendon swayed a little by the riverbank. His right arm shook and his knees wobbled.

Darnuir ran to his side. A lot of colour had left the wizard’s skin.

Damn it. I should not have allowed this.

To Darnuir’s relief, the wizard was fine. Brackendon snatched up his staff, and even chuckled lightly when he saw the look on Darnuir’s face.

“No need to look so panicked. I just required both hands for a moment.” His health was already returning to him. His skin brightened, his silver eyes sparkled although his hair remained short and grey, and his blackened hand would forever be damaged.

“Is that staff truly so powerful?”

“I have yet to find its limits.”

“Powerful enough to deal with Castallan?”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Hmmm,” Darnuir mused. “You won’t be alone at least. I’ll—”

“Come nowhere near that fight. You’ll recall what short work I made of you back in Val’tarra?” Darnuir did. The cage of wind and taste of damp leaves was still vivid in his mind. “We should move on,” Brackendon added.

“Yes,” said Darnuir. He faced his budding Guard. “Over the bridge.” They hurried, three abreast, across the river. Once they were upon the other side, Darnuir heard a colossal splash. He glanced back to see Brackendon’s earthen bridge had vanished. He looked to Brackendon, who gave him a wink.

“You didn’t think that mud heap was stable on its own, did you? Eyes forward now.”

Darnuir retuned to face the Crownlands before them. It was the most heavily populated region of the human kingdom and the capital city of Brevia lay on the coast to the east. Darnuir had to get there with all haste. The sooner he got to King Arkus, the sooner humanity’s full strength could be summoned for the war to come.

First, we deal with Castallan, and then we scramble to counter this invasion Rectar is sending. We’re always a step behind.

He braced himself, sucked in a deep breath and yelled, “To Brevia,” before settling into a slightly uncomfortable run. Dragon or no, his new kingly golden armour, trimmed with starium stone, was thick and heavy. The carved bestial dragon that draped over his shoulders felt particularly heavy and made it sorely tempting to draw on Cascade energy, to creek open the door in his mind and let a small current through. A wandering hand inched towards the hilt of the Dragon’s Blade and it was with some effort that he withdrew it. He had drawn on plenty during his duel with Scythe at the Charred Vale and his body had made him aware of it the following day. The cut he had taken on his leg throbbed gently and the bitter aftertaste of the Cascade still lingered in his mouth, no matter how many sips of water he took. He settled for grunting loudly.

“Are you alright?” Brackendon asked.

“For now. Come, let us concentrate on running.”

And run they did. On and on and on, across green fields, past towns and villages. They generally tried to keep clear of people, but it wasn’t easy to hide forty running dragons. Not when they hurtled by, scattering livestock and causing farmers’ dogs to bound after them, barking at their heels. They took what roads and paths they could for the sake of speed. Hurried stops to take a bite of their limited food or fill up their waterskins was all the rest they took. They ran some more. Even at night they carried on, being able to see better in the dark; forty twinkling pairs of eyes picking up the light that spilt from Brackendon’s staff. They drove on until the earliest signs of dawn came upon the world.

Dew covered grass wet Darnuir’s boots and a fresh day filled his nostrils. He breathed it in deeply, as if the air could clean him from the inside out. At the first sign of real light he heard the many feet behind him slow to a stop.

“Is something wrong, Damien?” came Lira’s voice. Darnuir thought she sounded more confident in front of her charges, which was good. He turned to see what the matter was.

The outrunner Damien stood by Lira, looking a little anxious. Unlike the rest of the dragons, he was barefoot, wore looser linens for comfort and was in better control of his breathing. For an outrunner, a run like this was second nature.

“It is dawn, my King,” Damien said. “Will we not stop in reverence to D’wna?”

Darnuir did not understand D’wna, nor any of the gods that Blaine held service for. He hadn’t in his past either. It was one of the few consistencies that spanned both his lives.

“I do not follow the Way of Light,” Darnuir said, keeping his tone neutral. He did not wish to offend Damien, but he had not known the outrunner was a believer in the old ways.

“You… don’t?” Damien asked, looking around as if to check he had heard correctly. When Lira and the Praetorians did not look shocked, he turned back. “I only thought… as king… your father always—” but he stopped there, cautious perhaps on how far he should go.

“Draconess, yes, he did believe,” Darnuir said. “I have some memory of that. My old self thought it was what brought the dragons such hardship. He – that is to say – I felt my father spent too much time on his knees; saying words rather than taking action. I admit I am ignorant of the gods of our people. Yet my father spoke to them every day and under him our kind were forced from our lands, our city and our homes; nearly wiped from the face of the world.”

“There is truth in what you say, sire,” Damien said.

“If you wish to take a moment, please do,” Darnuir said, gesturing with open hands. “I will not rebuke those who follow Blaine’s way. Who am I to judge? I’ve only known that I am a dragon for months, not even years. I don’t want division, and I certainly do not want to cause one amongst my own people.” He made sure to look over to his new Praetorians, catching a few in the eye. “But I am not going to start saying praise either, especially when these gods never seem to answer back.” He was pleased to find that Damien did not look disheartened.

“I was never fully convinced by the old ways,” Damien said. “Though some say it is our lack of faith that has gotten us here.”

“Gotten us where? On the way to Brevia?” Darnuir said. “I believe that Brackendon saved me, not some god. I believe Blaine saved us at Torridon by gathering the dragons. I believe in everyone here and we cannot rely on a greater power to save us.”

“If we abandon the gods, what will we do?” Damien asked.

“We must forge a new way. All of us. Dragon, fairy and human together. Will you help me, Damien?”

“I watched you charge into an entire demon army alone and come out alive. Of course, I shall follow you.”

Brackendon cleared his throat loudly. “I might point out that, apart from me, it is only dragons here.”

“For now, that is how it must be,” Darnuir said. “Humanity is divided. Castallan has poisoned the minds of many against dragons. With the memories I have now, and after seeing how our elders talk about humans, it is small wonder. How can we expect anything to change if we will not? You are not just my new guard. I hope you will be the new symbol of our people. A bright new future, free from old hatred and prejudice.” He hadn’t meant this to become a speech but it felt right.

“My father married a human,” one called out.

“My mother and I were saved and taken in by humans,” said another.

Lira spoke next. “I would never have been granted this position, were it not for you. Humans allow their women to be captains and hunters. Why not us? We’re all in your debt, Darnuir.” The other young women amongst his Praetorians nodded along at that.

“There is no debt you owe me for that,” Darnuir said. “Let’s continue. We have paused for long enough.”

They ran on.

 

By the second evening, Darnuir’s lungs and legs were beginning to give. At least he thought it was the second evening. His mind felt muddled and he blinked fiercely in the dying light. It felt like nails were driving into his feet and knees with each step. It was far worse than the run from Torridon, what with this armour and their lack of proper breaks. At least then they had taken shifts, and gotten food and sleep.

A large inviting barn lay on a quaint estate ahead. It looked warm, homely and big enough to house them all. As his thoughts drifted towards the comfort of sleep, his legs stopped moving of their own accord. His mouth was dry, yet he felt sweat under the armour of his arms and torso.

“Something the matter?” Brackendon asked. The wizard looked and sounded perfectly fine.

“I think I’m done,” Darnuir said, a little breathless. A series of loud gasping and coughing came from behind them. “I think we’re all done.”

“We should rest for a while.”

“Think anyone is in?” Darnuir asked, pointing towards the little farmhouse by the barn. “It looks quiet.”

“I don’t imagine the farmer will try to stop you.”

“Unless he has a host of red-eyed men hidden in that barn.”

Brackendon shrugged. “We’ll find out. None of you can continue like this.”

Feeling utterly spent, Darnuir agreed.

As Darnuir lead his Praetorians to the farmhouse, he caught sight of an old woman staring gormlessly at them. When spotted, her eyes popped and she snapped her wooden shutter across the window, as if this would make Darnuir forget she existed. He thought, therefore, that there would be no need to knock on the door with the chipped orange paint. But no one came to greet them.

Anger began to coil within him, gathering like a clot around that piece of his old self he had taken from the rubies of the Dragon’s Blade. He pushed the feeling down.

Darnuir knocked lightly upon the door.

Nothing.

Huffing, he knocked again. This time a little harder.

No one answered but he heard voices this time.

“They’re at the door, Walt.”

“I gathered that, Belinda dear.”

“Don’t open it!”

“If they’re here to rob us or kill us then a door will hardly stop them.” There was another muffled and hurried exchange. Then, at last, the door creaked open and half a face peered at Darnuir from the other side. The man’s skin was brown and leathery – evidence of years toiling in the field. “Hello,” he said.

“Please, there is no need to be afraid,” said Darnuir.

“No?” gulped the man, presumably Walt. “Dragons, yes?”

“All of us except for my friend Brackendon, here. Though he is a wizard.”

“A wizard?” Walt said, rather highly.

“My name is Darnuir, King of Dragons. We’ve run long and hard, and recently fought an army of demons. I’d like to speak with the owner of this estate, if you could point us—”

“I’m the owner,” said Walt. “Foulis, is my name. Walter Foulis. You might have heard of my family?”

“I’m afraid I cannot say that I have,” said Darnuir. “But if you would allow my Praetorians and I to take shelter in your barn for the night, you would be doing us a kindness.”

“I… I err, well,” Walt stammered. “I shall, um, just check with my wife.” And he disappeared, leaving the door ajar. A squeak of a whisper soon followed.

“Check with me? No, no, no. Just say it’s fine – it’s fine and maybe they’ll leave us—”

The door opened a fraction more and the full face of Walter Foulis appeared.

“The barn, you said? Yes, I think that should be fine.”

“My thanks to you,” Darnuir said.

“But it ain’t perfect,” Walt qualified. “Holes in the roof, and some of the bays are cluttered.”

“That won’t be an iss—” Darnuir tried to say.

“And part of the enclosure nearby is broken, so we had to move the sheep into the barn,” Walt rambled on.

“It need not be luxurio—”

“I admit to not being able to afford the repairs, but it isn’t the first shame brought on my family. It’s been impossible to find extra manpower since the King called up all able-bodied men to fight.”

“All of them?” Darnuir said. “King Arkus has taken every man?”

“Those who can hold a spear or pull a bow,” Walt said.

“He has,” came the voice of his wife. The door was jerked wider, the little woman seeming to have found her spirit. “All of them. All the boys from all our tenants and they’ve had it hard enough already, just like everyone. So many, called up to fight again. Fight your battles,” she added pointing a shaking finger at Darnuir.

“Belinda,” Walt said, aghast.

Darnuir was unsure of the pair. As they had a family name and tenants, they must have been some minor nobility, although very, very lowly judging from their surroundings. Whoever they were, they were angry with both himself and Arkus. That gave Darnuir an idea.

“What your own King does or does not do is no fault of mine,” Darnuir said. “But perhaps a deal can be struck? I have many strong dragons with me. We could fix your barn, your enclosure and other small jobs in exchange for a place to rest and a hot meal, if you can spare the food?”

“You – what?” Belinda began, evidently caught off guard by the offer.

“We shall earn our keep,” said Darnuir.

“They are quite handy,” added Brackendon.

“Oh, well that’s very generous of you, my Lord Dragon,” Belinda said, completely taken aback, her cheeks growing a shade pink.

“Very gracious indeed, my Lord,” said Walt. He made a clumsy bow. “We thought that… well, it doesn’t matter.”

Darnuir smiled at the couple. “Perhaps you could show us what needs doing?”

Despite their fatigue, the Praetorians set to work within the hour. Some hammered up on the barn’s roof, others repositioned the stakes of the enclosure’s fence, and the heavy clutter in the barn itself was cleared. The hardest task was given to Lira, who attempted to encourage the shorn sheep back into their pen, but the animals ran enthusiastically in any direction but the open gate.

“A good farm dog might have served better,” Brackendon said.

“You could help,” Darnuir said.

“As could you.”

“Yes, but I want to speak to you about Castallan. You keep saying it is a fight I must stay out of. But there must be something I can do? Surely you cannot duel him alone.”

Brackendon frowned. “Your kind aren’t suited to magic. That sword of yours might process the Cascade quicker than a hundred staffs for all I know, but the energy is a poison, and dragons are made weak by it. There’s a reason you can’t handle your ale.”

“I am aware of that,” said Darnuir. “But what do you expect me to do? Wait as a bystander while you tackle him alone? I cannot let you do that. Besides, I feel I have yet to push myself to my real limits. Perhaps I would fare better than you think.”

“I admit, you seem capable of drawing on more power than I would have thought,” Brackendon said. “Your battle against Scythe was impressive. But Castallan is leagues beyond—”

“If I cannot help you to fight Castallan, then how am I or Blaine or any of us going to tackle Rectar one day?”

“On that, I’m not certain.” Brackendon sagged a little. “Tell me, why are you so insistent on this? One might almost think it was personal.”

Darnuir had to wonder whether Brackendon was just observant or clairvoyant. The wizard couldn’t know about how Darnuir had aided Castallan in his past life – could he?

Gold, and time, and volunteers… what a mess I made.

“Well?” Brackendon asked. Darnuir’s mouth twitched involuntarily and he looked anywhere but at Brackendon. Over by the enclosure, Lira had resorted to simply picking up the poor sheep and dumping them over the fence. The noise of the animals’ protests cut right through him in his wearied state. And then he felt hunger. Was that roasted meat he could smell, or was his imagination merely wandering as he looked at the huddled sheep?

“Darnuir?” Brackendon said.

He could take the Dragon’s Blade, pour out flames: take a bite.

“Darnuir,” Brackendon said more sternly. Finally, Darnuir looked towards him, still not quite able to meet the wizard’s eye. “That silence has told me all I need to know. What did you do? It isn’t about Cassandra, is it?”

“No, not her,” Darnuir said, his throat suddenly dry. Though I’ve been such a fool there as well. Why did I kiss her? Stupid of me. It’s my fault she fell. She was too close… He coughed. “My old self left me a memory of Castallan. In it, I helped him. I came to him, even, looking for a new way to fight Rectar and his demons.” Brackendon blinked silently at him. “Castallan promised he had some solution to the war. Something he was working on. Clearly, I was wrong, duped, reckless,” he said at a pace, hoping Brackendon might latch onto one excuse or another.

“Anything else?” Brackendon asked. “About Castallan. Anything about what happened at the Cascade Conclave?”

“Nothing. It was before he turned openly as a traitor. I don’t think he’d attacked the Conclave yet.”

“That’s disappointing.”

“Which part? What I did or the lack of information on your old order?”

“Both,” said Brackendon, looking lost in his own thoughts. Further discussion was halted by the emergence of Walter Foulis, carrying steaming bowls in both hands.

“We’ve made supper for you,” he announced. “If you want it. If you like this sort of thing.” Belinda bustled out behind him, more bowls in hand. The Praetorians eagerly dashed over.

“Just a moment,” Darnuir told them.

“Nothing fancy I’m afraid,” Walt said. “Just some of the stores we won’t be able to eat through with just the two of us.” Darnuir took one of the bowls and inspected it. A dark watery gravy swirling around chunks of meat, carrot, mushroom and onion. He sniffed deeply, practically tasting the lamb, searching for any poison. There was nothing untoward in it, so far as he could tell.

“Just a precaution,” said Darnuir, handing the bowl back to the nearest Praetorian. She began wolfing it down with a grin. Darnuir turned to speak to the farmer but he had already dashed off, leaving his wife behind. “You have my thanks, Lady Foulis,” Darnuir said.

“Least we could do,” Belinda said curtly. “You’re helping us after all. A damn sight more than King Arkus ever has.”

“You are not fond of your King?” Darnuir asked.

“My husband’s family has been struggling for generations,” Belinda said. “King Arkus cares not.” She sniffed. “I have some bread baking. It should be ready soon.” With that, she stalked off. Walt reappeared shortly after, struggling with a large steaming pot. Darnuir went to him.

“Let me take that.”

Walt let go without protest. “Thank you, my Lord.”

“I hope we have not offended the Lady Foulis?”

“Forgive her, my Lord,” said Walt. “Arkus calling up the army has brought up old memories. Terrible memories. We lost our eldest boys in the last war twenty years ago. They died in the east, we were told but we never received their bodies.”

“She blames me,” Darnuir said.

“She blames dragons.”

“Do you blame me?”

“It used to be all I thought about,” said Walt. “But I’m getting on, I’ve nearly broken my body trying to keep this estate in order, and I’ve brooded for long enough. We have Ruth now, such a sweet girl and my youngest boy, Ralph, is in Brevia with the hunters. Smart boy. A good boy. He’ll rise up and make things right again. I won’t ever love you or your kind, mind.”

“We aren’t perfect,” said Darnuir.

“If I may say, my Lord Dragon. You’re nothing like I expected.”

“And what did you expect?”

Walt paused, weighing his words. “A bit more aggressive, I suppose.”

A part of Darnuir yearned to say, “You have no idea, human”, but he managed to ask for more bowls instead.

By the time everyone had a bit of food in them, the repairs completed and the sheep forcibly returned to their pen, night had fallen and eyes began to droop. The Praetorians threw down a thick layer of straw on the barn floor and curled up on their bed rolls. It was pleasantly warm with the lingering heat of day still thick in the air.

“We’ll sleep till dawn,” Darnuir said. “Then we must be on our way.” He noticed that Brackendon was out on a bank of grass, staring blankly ahead of him, his staff lying to one side. Darnuir picked himself up and walked to join him. “You should get some sleep as well,” he said as he slumped down beside the wizard.

“I’ll live,” said Brackendon.

“You’ve been through worse.”

“A fate I would never wish on anyone.”

“Even Castallan?”

“Even that bastard. Be careful how you use the Cascade, Darnuir. You must tackle early signs of addiction quickly. The longer you leave it, the more energy you may feel you need to satisfy your craving in one burst. The risk of breaking grows exponentially.”

“Were you addicted, before you broke?”

“I was, in my own small way. We all are to some degree. We just have to keep it manageable.”

Darnuir looked at Brackendon then. Really looked at him – at the crease lines of his face, at his prematurely grey hair, and finally at his blackened, scaly fingers. Despite the stark warning of what might come, Darnuir’s hand twitched towards the hilt of the Dragon’s Blade. He clenched his fist just above the pommel.

“I’ve never thanked you, Brackendon. Not properly. Not in the way you deserve.” Brackendon raised an eyebrow. “I mean it,” Darnuir said. “You sacrificed so much and not just for me, for the whole world. And I’m sorry it had to be that way.”

“I was glad to do it,” said Brackendon.

“I probably didn’t deserve to be saved,” Darnuir said. “Even now. What I did to Balack… if you hadn’t been there.”

“But I was there,” said Brackendon. “On both occasions. Fate has a miraculous way of placing us where we are needed.”

“I’m trying to apologise,” Darnuir said. “For everything.”

“Don’t take the whole world and everything in it on your shoulders. Even for you, it’s too much. Still, I appreciate the sentiment. It’s always nice to know one’s hardships have been recognised.” He smiled more kindly.

“Would you still have saved me if you had known I had helped Castallan?”

“I didn’t save you out of affection. You’re too important. That sword of yours is too important. So no, it wouldn’t have changed my decision. In fact, knowing the truth might have been useful. All these years I thought Castallan had acted alone; one selfish, power-crazed man. But you helped him along. Perhaps others did as well, either voluntarily or through trickery. Perhaps I have been thinking about this too simply.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I have a nagging feeling there is more to this. In attacking and destroying the Cascade Conclave, Castallan took a great risk. Back then, he was one wizard with one staff. It makes no sense for him to have attacked the Inner Circle. So, why did he? And how did he manage to succeed?”

“We’ll never know,” Darnuir said. “Unless we take him alive, and then it’s only his word.”

“The Conclave tower is still in Brevia to this day,” said Brackendon. “I kept my distance on my brief visit earlier this year. People say it’s cursed along with all the land near it. They call the borough the Rotting Hill now, but if there is a chance I might learn anything, I should go, as painful as it might be to re-enter that place. If I can find some clue as to how Castallan succeeded in defeating the rest of my order, then perhaps I can use that against him in turn.”

“I will come with you,” Darnuir said.

“No. I feel this is something I must do alone.”

Unsure of what more to say, Darnuir settled for, “I understand. Please, try to get some rest. We can’t afford to stop like this again.”

“I think I will sit a while longer,” Brackendon said, and returned to gazing blankly across the estate grounds. A light was still on in the unadorned farmhouse and Belinda Foulis was peering out at them again through the lattice of the window. When Darnuir and Brackendon both caught her in the act, she slammed a shutter across.

“Good night, Brackendon.”

Darnuir returned to his own straw pile and bed roll. He curled up, too tired to even bother removing his armour, but sleep eluded him. Beads of cold sweat clung to his brow and along his arms, his right arm especially. A thirst grew in him for more than water. Brackendon would stop me if he saw me do it, but I just need a little – just enough to help me rest tonight. That won’t be so terrible. In silence, he reached for the hilt of his sword; in his mind, he pushed down on the handle of the door.

His sigh was soft and long. And then he fell asleep.

 

On the morning of the third day of their run, the vast city of Brevia loomed into view. Darnuir had never seen anything so massive; not in his current life at any rate. Brevia looked as though the entirety of Cold Point could fit inside it a hundred times over. It curved around the bay like a great horseshoe, enveloped by thick walls, with tall towers, like rolling black hills. Further off, closer to the mouth of the bay, an enormous white bridge spanned the banks of the city, its cresting peak visible even at this distance.

“Black limestone,” Lira said, drawing up to him. “Nearly all of that will have come from the Hinterlands. Maybe even from quarries near Tuath.”

“Imposing,” noted Brackendon. “Though far from cheery. Used to be a light brown stone that made up the walls.”

“So why the change?” Darnuir asked.

Lira shrugged. “The King’s wishes. For nearly ten years, Arkus ordered all black stone hewn in the Hinterlands to be brought to Brevia. I saw them hauling it off in mile long wagon trails.”

Darnuir thought on the only other great city from his choppy memories. Aurisha, the city of gold. Brevia looked startlingly different from it.

“A statement, perhaps,” Darnuir said. “One we must bear in mind. Arkus sets humanity apart from dragons, even in the colour of his city.”

“And there is Arkus’ army,” said Brackendon. “Look southwards,” he added, pointing for them. Another city lay in the distance, though this one of tents, carts and ditches. Like Brevia, the human army’s camp was the largest Darnuir had ever set eyes on. Yet there was more than just humans assembled there.

“Then we can march on Castallan that much sooner,” Darnuir said. Something in the camps caught his eye. “Are those palisade walls?” he indicated with a waving finger, drawing a line around a portion of the camps in the air.

“I’d say so,” said Lira. “I think we have found the rest of our dragons.”

“There could be thousands still out there for all we know,” Darnuir said. “Unsure where to go, lost, hunted by Castallan’s red-eyed servants or perhaps oblivious to events. Everything has moved so quickly.”

“I also think we’ve been spotted,” said Brackendon. Darnuir looked out again, seeing many black-clad figures moving in and out of the main camp. A small group appeared to be coming straight for them.

“Hunters,” said Darnuir and Lira together.

“They wear the black leather of the Crownlands,” said Lira.

“And now I understand why,” said Darnuir, glancing once more at the hulking walls of Brevia.

“Well, we must make ourselves known somehow,” said Brackendon, tapping his staff on the hard earth. He took one step closer to the city then winced loudly, taking his head in one hand.

“Brackendon?” Darnuir asked in concern.

“It is nothing,” Brackendon said. “A fleeting pain. Lack of sleep.” The wizard gave nothing away.

“Just a little further now,” said Darnuir and he called the same back to the Praetorians. “We shall be comparing the food and lodgings to that of the Argent Tree soon.” The Praetorians smiled gratefully through their fatigue and followed him and Lira towards the human capital.

Chapter 3 – Evening by the Loch

It is said Dranus angered the gods and they cursed many dragons for his sin, warping their bodies into a weaker, human form. The mountain shattered, breaking a corner of the world and leaving behind a bluff of rock crumbling into the sea. Dranus himself was left scarred, his once golden scales charred black from the Cascade.

From Tiviar’s Histories

 

Blaine – Inverdorn

Blaine smelled Inverdorn before he saw it. A potent mix of smoke and fish, reminiscent of Torridon, with the added stench of a city suffering from siege. He had expected a faint aroma of sweetness to accompany it, but there was none.

They are no longer afraid. Fidelm must have succeeded.

The town itself soon came into view. Lying where the River Dorain entered Loch Minian, it might have looked serene in the late afternoon light, were it not for the piles of bodies. Smoke rose from smouldering mounds of demon corpses. Inverdorn itself seemed relatively unscathed, but he could not account for its inhabitants. Blaine’s concern lay with the dragons that had been trapped there. In the aftermath of the ambush at the Charred Vale by traitorous hunters, his concern for humans was limited.

His focus was on his dragons. The Second, Third, Fifth and Sixth Legions were with him. It had been from the Third Legion that the bulk of his new Light Bearers had come from and he favoured their company. Indeed, when they had searched Scythe’s encampment after the battle it had been members of the Third who had brought him the Scrying Orb from Scythe’s possessions. Sensible of them. Such a powerful instrument had to be held with caution.

The legions made camp outside of Inverdorn and Blaine approached the walls with a score of his Light Bearers in tow. A dark figure with inky skin stood on the parapet above the gate. Fidelm flew down gracefully before Blaine, a lean arm outstretched.

“It is good to see you safe, Guardian.”

“And you,” Blaine replied, taking Fidelm’s arm. The fairy had a few small cuts but nothing serious. His long, braided, silver hair had avoided harm.

“Your timing is not so good,” said Fidelm.

“What’s the matter?”

“You interrupted my painting,” said Fidelm. “The light this afternoon has been exquisite. I fear I shall miss it.”

“There will be other occasions,” Blaine said. “I see the city is now ours.”

Fidelm nodded. “To be fair to the boy, his plan worked remarkably well. Dragons and hunters from within Inverdorn joined us in our attack. The demons were taken from both sides.” Fidelm cast his eyes around. “Where is Darnuir?”

“He runs to Brevia,” Blaine said.

“Alone?”

“The wizard is with him,” said Blaine, “as is that girl and those younger dragons she has been gathering.” He didn’t like speaking of Lira by name. Darnuir’s disregard for tradition would be a dangerous combination with that hothead of his. Still, Darnuir had proved himself. He had killed Scythe, won the day, and Blaine had given him the King’s armour. The rest, he prayed, would come in time. Fidelm seemed to be mulling it over. “I thought we might allow our men to rest here before moving to Brevia,” Blaine continued. “This day is done at any rate.”

“Rest would do everyone some good, particularly the humans,” Fidelm said. Blaine clenched his jaw with a low growl. “Is something amiss, Blaine?”

“Are there many hunters within the city?”

“A few hundred,” said Fidelm.

“Have them brought out to join their fellows,” Blaine said, waving a hand behind him. All the hunters left after the battle of the Charred Vale were wedged together between the legions. If any of the wretches tried to betray them now, they’d be swiftly crushed.

“I do not underst—”

“I shall explain but when we have more privacy.”

Fidelm nodded again, though slowly. “Open the gate,” he yelled. The sound of chinking chains and mechanisms followed, and the thick oak doors swung inwards. Blaine threw up a staying hand to the legates who were awaiting their orders. His Light Bearers knew to follow, however, and walked with him and Fidelm into the city.

“Stay vigilant,” Blaine told his Light Bearers. “Our enemies could be anywhere.”

Fidelm shot him a wary look before muttering to some nearby fairies. They flew off and Fidelm spoke quietly to Blaine.

“I shall take you into the fairy quarter, Guardian. We may trust the ears there.”

Blaine kept close to Fidelm, and his Light Bearers fanned out in an arc behind them. He took in the scene of Inverdorn. In his long life, he had travelled to most places in the world, even if only once. Inverdorn was no exception. On their way to the fairy quarter, they passed the shores of Loch Minian. A small harbour, although far larger than the rundown jetties of Torridon. It lay in silence.

Blaine remembered it as a bustling place, stuffed with fishing boats, merchant and passenger barges, taking goods and those with the coin quickly across the loch. Now it seemed a watery graveyard of forgotten ships. The market strip at the harbour’s edge was also dead. There ought to have been the smell of sweet or bitter shimmer brew stalls mixed with the pang of fish and their purveyors yelling about their freshness. He recalled the barges being loaded with grain from the Golden Crescent and the comforting smell from the bakeries nearby. There had even been a fairy painting market-goers for a few coins. She’d get her subjects to sit on a stool in front of her while she worked them up. It had been a very different place back then, whenever that had been. A slower time; a peaceful time.

Is it my fault the world has turned to this? Death and mistrust. War and more war. My failure; my fault?

“Many people escaped before the demons cut the town off,” Fidelm said, as if sensing Blaine’s morose thoughts.

“It is not the city I remember,” Blaine noted. There was one easel set up at the edge of the embankment, half a picture of a glittering loch sketched out, as if it were a ghost of former times.

“Perhaps I will have a chance to finish this tomorrow,” Fidelm said, collecting his equipment.

“I have not seen you paint in many years,” Blaine said.

“I find it cathartic to create something after a battle.” Fidelm held up his work to inspect it briefly. “A little rough. I might be out of practice.” Yet the general did not seem perturbed and motioned to Blaine they should continue.

They veered off the shoreline and wove back through the narrower streets, where the shopfronts and homes steadily became more colourful. Painted patterns and trees had been brushed up; some silver, some burnt black, some brown and green, just like the forest of Val’tarra. Fairies had made this area of town feel a bit more like home. Val’tarra had been Blaine’s home for so long now that he found himself feeling more comfortable as well.

Fidelm paused to let a band of Crescent Hunters march by, with fairies at the front and the back of their column. The Crescent Hunters were hunched and wide-eyed, and looked to Blaine as they passed. He saw their eyes take in his armour; thick, starium reinforced plate, with pauldrons shaped into large halves of a radiant sun. Blaine lifted his chin and pursed his lips. These hunters could be friend or foe. Better to keep them afraid just in case. Best to show them the might of the dragons. They passed soon enough and Fidelm continued.

“Are you sure this is necessary, Blaine?”

“Quite sure. Have you known me to do things without reason?”

“No. But I know you can be… extreme with your feelings.”

“Extreme?” Blaine said. Fidelm faced him, one eyebrow raised. “Keep it to yourself for now,” Blaine told him. How much Fidelm knew, Blaine could not have said. Likely he knew too much. The general was confidant to his Queen in many matters. Why not her past relationships as well?

Thinking of her was a mistake.

Kasselle’s voice drifted unbidden into his mind, “I don’t think you should come back.” Unbidden, Blaine’s hand curled inwards – searching for hers.

“Let us talk here,” Fidelm said, leading them into a crammed garden square. Grass replaced the dirt and cobbles underfoot, and in the centre of the space grew a lone silver tree.

“I was not aware this area was so strong with the Cascade,” Blaine said.

“The Dorain runs from the Highlands as well,” Fidelm said, walking up to place a hand upon the silver bark. “The waters aren’t as potent as the River Avvorn but they still carry some energy. When fairies first took this area for our own, they carried water from the river and wet the earth, hoping a piece of home would grow.”

“It is as good a place as any to talk. Light Bearers,” Blaine said, rounding on his men, “watch the streets and alleys. I will not be disturbed.”

“Yes, Lord Guardian,” they chanted. Fidelm gave a silent nod to the fairies in the vicinity and they trotted off.

“Your men seem to be in good spirits after the battle,” said Blaine.

“Casualties were low,” Fidelm said. “Not much the demons could do. They fought hard though, and something peculiar did occur.”

“With the spectres?” Blaine said knowingly.

“Indeed. You experienced something similar, I assume?”

“If the spectres here also abandoned the battlefield, then yes.”

“It was as well they did,” said Fidelm. “During the battle, the number of spectres we were fighting suddenly swelled and I thought the demons might hold. Hundreds of spectres joined the battle at once, yelling at each other. Yet as quickly as they appeared, they left, every one of them. Victory came easily after that as the demons went wild.”

“They also fled at the Charred Vale,” Blaine said. “According to Darnuir they scarpered after he killed Scythe.”

“Scythe?” asked Fidelm, perplexed. “The dead Captain of the Boreac Hunters?”

“Turned out he wasn’t as dead as we’d assumed,” Blaine said. “Stone cold now though, his red eyes extinguished.”

“What happened up there?” Fidelm said. “I’ve not failed to notice that Cosmo, or should I say, Prince Brallor, is not with you either. Has he run onto Brevia with Darnuir as well? Why would he leave his son behind with you? And what of this battle you speak of? I thought the plan was to harass the foe, not meet them in the open field.”

“Cosmo is dead,” Blaine said stiffly. “And I have his son. Cullen will be cared well enough for.”

“He’s dead?” Fidelm said, sounding crestfallen. “Of all the things to have gone wrong…”

“A lot went wrong,” Blaine sighed. He explained everything as best he could; how the hunters, who had vanished as they marched east through Val’tarra, were red-eyed traitors in service to Castallan. He told Fidelm of their strength, their speed, their burning hatred for dragons. He left nothing out; not even Darnuir injuring that human boy, Balack. Cosmo’s death was explained; pinned up against a tree by a sword. “There was even an incident with Cassandra,” he added, darkly.

“What of her?”

“She was taken by a group of those red-eyed hunters. Back to the Bastion, I assume.”

“Why take her?” Fidelm asked. “To lure Darnuir? The boy has a soft spot for her, that is clear at a hundred paces, but Castallan must know we would come for him eventually.”

“It transpires she is really a princess, sister to Cosmo—”

“Brallor,” Fidelm corrected.

“Dead, either way,” Blaine said. “Cassandra’s Arkus’ daughter. Taken by Castallan when Aurisha fell.”

“For what purpose?” Fidelm said.

“Leverage, presumably.”

“Perhaps once,” said Fidelm. “Yet Arkus remarried. He has a new son; a new heir. I cannot imagine Arkus being held in place for fear of a daughter he never knew. Not after all these years.”

“You’d know better than I,” Blaine said.

“And you would know if you took a greater interest in the humans,” Fidelm said.

Blaine ignored him. “Arkus cannot be the best of leaders, if he has allowed his people to become so fractured; willing to turn to a traitorous wizard who fraternises with Rectar.”

“Arkus has lasted this long. There must be something to him. Handling that Assembly is no easy feat. Takes both subtlety and a good measure of cunning.” Fidelm stared at Blaine for a moment, then looked up. Blaine had heard it too. It sounded like something had landed in the branches, but he saw nothing other than a few silver leaves fluttering down.

“And you sent Darnuir to Brevia?” Fidelm continued. “On his own? Humanity will shut its gates to us.”

“Of course, I didn’t,” Blaine said, snapping his eyes back from above. “He went of his own accord. Yet they might be more willing to listen to him, given his upbringing amongst humans. And I’m hopeful Brackendon will guide hi—”

There was a squawk from above and Kymethra descended from the upper branches in a storm of feathers, morphing from eagle to woman. Her green robes flapped around her from the force of the fall and she bore her eyes into Blaine’s “Brackendon? I’ve not seen him with you. Blaine, tell me. Is the man I love—”

“He was quite well last I saw him,” Blaine said irritably. “This was meant to be a private discussion, Kymethra.” She visibly sagged with relief.

“I’ll leave you be,” she said. “Just tell me where he went.”

“To Brevia with Darnuir,” said Blaine.

“Then I’ll go now,” Kymethra said. She stood poised, ready to jump back into her eagle form. “Any message you’d like me to take?”

“Only that I have arrived at Inverdorn,” said Blaine. “Tell Darnuir I will allow the men to rest, then rendezvous at Brevia as planned.” With that, Kymethra leapt into the air. Her body transformed into the tawny eagle in one fluid motion, the white tips of her feathers shining brightly as she caught the setting sun.

“Well,” Fidelm said with an air of finality. “The humans will be watched for now. I shall let you take your rest, Guardian.”

“I need no rest. I rested for decades. It is time I made up for it. What of the dragons that were held up here before you lifted the siege? Were any injured or killed?”

“Yes, as often occurs in battles. We set up a field hospital at one of the larger dry docks.”

“I shall visit them. Their faith is likely to be lacking after their ordeals.”

Fidelm gave an exaggerated bow. “I shall have you escorted there. We shall speak later, I’m sure.”

The fairy who led Blaine and his Light Bearers to the field hospital was quick and quiet. That suited Blaine just fine. The evening was nice enough after all. A clear sky meant the odds of a spectre attack were minimal, if the spectres were even coming back. The water on Loch Minian was flat and glassy, reflecting Inverdorn like a mirror; each building, each boat and each pebble on the shore. And then he saw them, reflected on the water’s surface: barrels.

So many of them. Scores of them, strung out in stacks along the wharfs. Blaine looked up and saw they ran up to the edge of the building his fairy guide was entering.

Blaine’s heart missed one long beat.

“Wait,” he called out to the fairy. “Do you know what is in these barrels?”

The fairy looked confused in the direction Blaine was pointing. “No, Lord Guardian,” he said. “At least, not all. Many were scattered throughout the city. Some have fruit from Val’tarra, many grain from the Crescent. Some contain a strange black powder no one recognises.”

Blaine felt a chill. Black powder; dragon powder; the substance that blazed a trail of destruction on their run from Torridon. He turned to his Light Bearers. All had been on that run. Their faces showed they understood. “We must separate the barrels of black powder,” he told them quickly. “They mustn’t be close to each other or the city. Take them out to the shore or into the loch itself. I don’t want them anywhere near the army.”

“Yes, Lord Guardian,” they said in unison and hurried off.

“Take no risks,” Blaine called after them. “No flame must come near the powder. Work fast to beat the dying sun.” The fairy guide looked apprehensive. “Are there any more within the city?”

“Possibly, sir.”

“Possibly?” said Blaine, his voice rising. “Return to General Fidelm at once. We must find every single barrel of black powder and move them to a safe location. I should have warned Fidelm of this danger but how was I to know…” he trailed off, speaking more to himself. The fairy stood stock-still, unsure. “Well? Go!” Blaine told him and the wingless fairy scarpered. Blaine took a deep breath before entering the dry dock that doubled as a field hospital.

Cranes, pulleys, saws and other tools had been pushed against the walls to open out the space. Dragons, fairies and humans lay bedridden in various bloodied states. Fairy healers glided elegantly around, supported by some hunter colleagues. And was that one of his Light Bearers amongst the sick dragons? It was either that or another dragon had stolen one of their shields. He had his back to Blaine, leaning over a dragon whose head was covered in bandages soaked with dark blood.

“You there,” Blaine called. “Light Bearer.” The dragon turned, but his expression was not guilty. Blaine recognised those light brown curls, olive skin and a presence Blaine could not quite explain, yet it was there. Irrefutably so. Blaine had been keeping his eye on Bacchus since the Charred Vale. The young Light Bearer was now one of the most enthusiastic in his duties.

As Bacchus stepped away from the bedside the wounded dragon grabbed his hand. “No. Please,” he said. “Don’t leave — the pain…”

“I shall return shortly, brother,” Bacchus said and gently kissed the injured dragon on the brow.

 A little tender, perhaps. But it does have a comforting effect.

“Lord Guardian, I thought there would be dragons here in need of N’weer’s blessing,” Bacchus said. His voice was measured and steady.

“I would not have neglected them,” Blaine said.

“I did not envision you would, your holiness. I only sought to serve while you attended other matters. Forgive me.”

Blaine noticed that nearly every dragon was looking their way. More specifically, they were looking to Bacchus.

“You are forgiven, brother Bacchus,” Blaine said. “But know that I trust my Light Bearers to many important tasks, not only in the work of the gods. You were on duty to guard Cullen for a reason.”

“Four Light Bearers seemed sufficient for an infant human.”

“An infant human that finds itself the heir to the throne of Brevia.”

“I only wished to help our own people. Forgive me, Lord Guardian.”

His earnestness cooled Blaine. “We defend our race’s faith but we guard it in other ways as well. You acquitted yourself well in the battle. A talented warrior and devout believer such as yourself holds great promise. Trust in me and you will see the Light.”

“How may I serve?” Bacchus asked.

“Return to comforting the wounded for now. I—”

“Lord Guardian,” a voice said from behind. Blaine turned to see three Light Bearers.

“I thought I gave clear instruction?” he barked at them.

“We’ll need more help to move all these barrels before sundown, sir,” the leading Light Bearer said. That worried Blaine. Healers around the dry dock were lighting candles already.

“I shall aid you,” Bacchus offered.

“Very well,” said Blaine. “One of you run and fetch more of your brothers with all haste. As many as you see fit, but ensure a strong guard is kept on the child, Cullen. The rest of you go to help with the barrels.” They all dashed off, drawing stares from the wounded and the healers. Blaine was on the verge of leaving to deal with the barrel issue when something stopped him, or rather someone.

Though he was at some distance, one of the hunters seemed familiar. He was in white leathers from the waist down, but his torso was bare, revealing his bandaged chest. He favoured one side as he carefully got into a battered bed, helped along by a healer. Blaine was sure it was Balack.

Something came over Blaine when he saw him. It wasn’t pity, not exactly. Darnuir had been brash and foolish in striking him, but all Blaine really knew was the two had once been firm friends. Likely, that was no longer the case. Still, Balack knew Darnuir in ways that Blaine did not, and if Blaine shared his secrets with Darnuir, he would get to know Darnuir’s in turn. It would be painful enough for Blaine. His heart ached at the thought Arlandra. How had he let such horrors befall his only daughter? Instinctively, he reached for the necklace and lightly touched the little A upon it, under the apple of his throat.

The crowd parted before him as he made his way towards Balack and the air grew sweet.

They are afraid of me. Good.

“Are you the hunter named Balack?” Blaine asked.

“I think you know that,” Balack said. His voice was hoarse, as though it pained him to draw breath. He winced as the healer made a W shape with her hands and gently pushed her palms on the bruised area of his chest.

“Breathe in for me,” she instructed, shooting an apprehensive look at Blaine. Balack breathed in, but gasped midway.

“Gah. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said the healer. “A damaged rib is no minor thing.” She pressed the palms on the healthy side of Balack’s chest. “Again, if you can.” Balack breathed in, slower than before, and managed to do so without stopping this time. Blaine saw the pain in the boy’s bloodshot, watery eyes.

“You’re doing well,” the healer said. “Expansion is up from a few days ago. I just need a quick listen.” She brought out a small brass device, like a horn. She pressed the larger end against Balack’s injured side and her ear to the other.

Balack groaned again. “Strong aren’t you. You dragons. Could crush us all with your bare hands.” Blaine looked the boy in the eye and Balack did not turn away. Blaine sniffed gently at the air. The sweetness had grown, but he doubted it was from Balack. “I’m as fine as I’m going to be today,” Balack told the healer. “You should tend to people who need you more.”

“Make sure you move as little as possible,” the healer said. As she left, the potency of the sweet smell diminished.

“She’s afraid of me,” Blaine said.

“Of course she is,” Balack wheezed. “You’ve treated every human at the Charred Vale like a criminal. We’re not the enemy.”

“How can I possibly know that?” asked Blaine. “When your own Captain Scythe turned out to be a traitor. Not only a traitor but the leader of Castallan’s forces, no less.”

“People are good at hiding their true selves, I’ll grant you that, Guardian.”

“I’ve wondered where Darnuir got his insolence from. Maybe you were the bad influence on him.”

Balack made a pained smile. “What do you want?”

“To know why Darnuir struck you?”

“Not out of concern for me, I’d wager,” said Balack.

“I will be blunt with you. There are things about my past that Darnuir wishes to know. One day soon, I shall have to tell him. But I find it most unjust that he should have things hidden from me. We are linked Balack, Darnuir and I,” he unsheathed the Guardian’s Blade, “our swords are linked. If he is to be at my side when we face Rectar, I’d know everything about him.”

At last, Balack turned his gaze away from Blaine. The boy wasn’t hesitant to speak, just saddened. “Why did he hit me? Well, a painful secret was revealed to me, and I said some rather nasty things to him in return. And then he lost his temper… all over something rather pathetic in the end.” His gasping voice finally broke.

“There was a girl,” Blaine said. It was a statement, not a question.

“He told you? Heh,” Balack’s laugh was blunted and pained. “Suppose he told everyone before me.” Another gasp. “And he never even told me.”

“He didn’t tell me,” said Blaine. “But I’m old, boy. When you’ve lived to see generation after generation grow, you see the same patterns repeating. A common way for two friends to come to blows.”

Balack closed his eyes. “I loved her, she did not love me. Darnuir knew, but that did not stop him.”

“Yes. I’ve heard that tale before.”

Balack reopened his eyes, a colder fury in them now. “You want loyalty? Don’t rely on him.”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to,” said Blaine. He looked Balack over again and the pity he’d felt changed. Something in Blaine compelled him to say, “I understand the pain you’re feeling.”

“I don’t need your false sympathy,” Balack said.

“It’s not false. I told you, I’m old. You don’t get to my age without losing a lot. Like those you love the most.” What’s come over me? Why am I talking about this with him?

“Does it get any better?” Balack said.

“Barely, but you learn to soldier on anyway. You learn to throw yourself into your duty or find something to wake up for besides the person who’s forever gone.”

And I must learn to let Kasselle go. I have my purpose again. Prepare Darnuir, restore faith to the dragons. Defeat the Shadow. Enough to get on with. Despite this, his hand curled in. When it found only air, he had to fight back a tear. Not in front of the human. Get a grip on your emotions.

Balack rubbed at something in his eye. “Is there anything else you need, Guardian?”

“Not now. N’weer speed you to health, human.”

“I thought your gods only —” he stopped, staring behind Blaine.

“What’s wrong?” Blaine asked, spinning to see for himself. Not far away from them, at the main entranceway to the dry dock, fairies were moving equipment to make space. As Blaine watched he saw them uncover four dark barrels. One lifted the lid to see what was inside, waving at his fellow to come over. The companion held a torch.

Blaine’s blood turned to ice.

His heart stopped.

Then came the flash.

It seemed to take forever for the bang to reach him, an ear-splitting roar.

Something in him reacted and he threw himself between the blast and Balack. He felt the impact on his back, his starium reinforced armour absorbing the blows of debris. Intense heat followed and Blaine thought he would cook alive in his metal casing.

He looked down at the human he was shielding. Balack’s eyes were white in shock. He’d curled up into a ball despite his broken rib.

Blaine held on.

He realised he was screaming but couldn’t hear himself. Then he choked, gasping in pain as something hot and sharp pierced the back of his knee, between the joints in his armour. He buckled but kept low over Balack.

He just held on.

Chapter 4 – The Court of Brevia

When Dranus returned, he claimed the gods were using the dragons as tools in an endless fight against the Shadow. Furious, Aurisha dubbed his brother a heretic, exiling him and those who had been cursed into human bodies. Out of brotherly love, Aurisha allowed them to go in peace, thinking that they would wither and die in time.

From Tiviar’s Histories

Darnuir – Brevia – The Throne Room

 

“Nervous?” Brackendon asked, as they waited to enter King Arkus’ throne room. The door in front of them was immense. Painted black, it was patterned with white gold and had sliding openings that allowed the attending servants to mutter quietly to colleagues on the other side.

“Not at all,” Darnuir said. “Some rest would have been welcome, but it cannot be helped.” He yawned and strained to keep his eyes open.

Arkus wouldn’t have been difficult to deal with if Darnuir’s memories of his former self had born any accuracy, but he hadn’t been left full memories of the Human King, so much as feelings and impressions he had of Arkus back then. All were laced with derision and scorn, making them far from intimidating.

“You seem half asleep,” Lira said.

She’s right. I need to be more alert than this.

Darnuir touched the blood-red hilt of the Dragon’s Blade with the tips of his fingers, opening the door to the Cascade by a crack. Energy dripped into his system, staving off the worst aches of his muscles. He felt lighter, even glad, as the residue drained down his right arm.

“You shouldn’t rely on that,” Brackendon said so only Darnuir could hear.

Darnuir let go of the Dragon’s Blade. “It was only a little.”

“A little is how it begins. A lot is how you break.”

“I am about to meet another king,” Darnuir said. “I hope to show Arkus that I am a changed dragon. It won’t do for me to fall asleep in the middle of the conversation.”

“Being polite won’t go amiss either. Mind your manners.” Nearby, a servant wearing a black velvet doublet over a white shirt coughed loudly. “See, he knows what I mean,” Brackendon said.

“Does Arkus usually keep guests waiting this long?” Darnuir said.

“His majesty will call for you when he is ready,” the servant said laboriously.

“He knows there is a war on, right?” Darnuir said. The servant provided no response, which irked Darnuir.

Is this some power play? Making me wait while an invasion looms upon us, while Castallan is still at large – while Cassandra is still hostage…

He breathed gently through his nose and calmed. He shouldn’t get wound up before even entering the court.

“What about you, Lira?” Darnuir asked. “Nervous?”

She bit her lip, thinking for a moment. “As nervous as when I met you. Kings can have that effect.”

“I feel that was due to Blaine’s ever-soothing presence.”

“The Lord Guardian was certainly intimidating,” Lira said.

“Still, you held your ground,” Darnuir said. “You won me over that day and this time you have the company of forty loyal dragons.” The stony-faced servant, who had an ear against one of the openings, coughed again.

“Can we be of assistance?” Brackendon asked.

“Will all of your company be entering the throne room?” asked the servant.

“Certainly,” said Darnuir. “I’m sure the court will not object to the presence of my Praetorian Guard.” More muttering was exchanged at the door. To his side, Darnuir heard Brackendon wince again.

“Are you sure you are alright?”

“It’s not sore, it’s…” but whatever it was Brackendon seemed reluctant to say. He held his head and scrunched his eyes shut. “It’s nothing. I think I just need to sit for a moment,” he said, dropping into a plush high back chair with a footstool. “We ran a long way after all.” He sighed and stretched out luxuriously.

“You may enter, Lord Darnuir,” announced the servant. Brackendon grumbled as he got back up.

“Form ranks,” Darnuir ordered and the dragons snapped into place.

The huge throne room doors opened silently, revealing a long hall with polished benches, facing each other in rows along the high walls. At the distant end sat a black throne on a raised white stone platform. On the upper benches the people were finely dressed, the extravagance of the garments diminishing with each level to those standing in attendance. Black walls continued high up into an arching roof, as though the throne room was draped in a dark cloak. And above, a system of shutters directed light to bathe the clean white floor before the throne.

“Announcing Lord Darnuir, King of Dragons,” the servant called and audible murmuring swept through the court. “The Reborn King, wielder of the Dragon’s Blade.” The murmuring grew louder. “Also announcing,” the servant went on, straining to be heard, “Brackendon, The Last Wizard.”

“If only it wasn’t so,” muttered Brackendon.

“And the dragon Lira,” the servant added. “Prefect of the Praetorian Guard.”

Darnuir heard Lira gulp.

“Head up now,” he told her, then took his first steps into the warm, stuffy throne room. Thick wafts of lavender and honey clogged his nose. He wondered whether the perfume was for his benefit or those on the benches. Such a sweetness would mask any sickly sweet scent of human fear.

He focused on the great chair at the end of the runway, kept his face passive and walked with confidence. He was a dragon; the King of Dragons. In military matters, he held command of the Three Races. Even Arkus must answer to him.

But Arkus was not sitting on his throne.

Arkus wasn’t there at all.

A line of guards stood before the steps to the throne’s platform, but Darnuir struggled to see due to the angle of the light that was now shining into his eyes. Entering the pool of light made it worse. What lay at the top of the stairs was now a mystery. Yet the dark-steel armour of the guards was familiar; their faces hidden behind closed visors. Darnuir stopped as close as he dared to them, within arm’s length.

All was still. He could hear the breath of the closest Chevalier. Ahead, a door opened with a swish, followed by a pit-patter of soft-soled shoes along the platform.

“Halt there, my Lord of Dragons,” a voice announced. The speaker had a distinct pomposity about him.

I know that voice. It’s the Chevalier from Inverdorn.

“Raymond?” Darnuir said.

“Silence while you await his Majesty,” said Raymond. Yes, it was most certainly the Chevalier.

More time passed.

More silence.

Come along, Arkus. We do not have time to wait on games and posturing.

Yet more time drifted on and still the hall was silent.

Then, without warning, the light shifted.

Shutters over the windows were repositioned and the platform of the throne was thrown into relief. The black chair was simple but arresting, and a smaller version stood beside it. The change of light must have been a signal to the court because Darnuir heard everyone in the hall get to their feet.

Finally, a door at the back of platform opened with a bang and King Arkus strode into view. His feet were hidden beneath his long black robes with white trimmed edges. Darnuir’s memory of Arkus was of a man with black hair to match his attire, yet the years had greyed him, his stubble was now a beard and his eyes, though small, were probing.

Arkus made a meal out of sitting down, sinking slowly into his throne. When, at last, he was settled, the shutters above snapped loudly, changing the direction of the light. A few faint rays converged just above Arkus’ head, illuminating his crown. Arced and falling, like crashing waves, the crown looked to be pure white gold. It was a speck of radiance amongst the darkness of his robes, his throne and his expression.

The silence held a while longer.

Darnuir lost his patience and said, “How long must the King of Dragons wait? How long mus—” But Arkus threw out a hand towards him.

Darnuir felt a hot prickle on the back of his neck. A little heat even crept dangerously up his throat and he felt the Dragon’s Blade warm at his waist.

No, I must show that I have changed.

“The court will remain standing for the King’s Lament,” Raymond said.

From the front of the crowd, two minstrels made their way onto the platform: one all in black, the other in white. The minstrel in white produced a flute and began to play sombrely at a high pitch, as though a deep and devouring sadness was whistling on the wind. The minstrel in black began to sing, his voice light yet tinged with melancholy:

 

There once was a black haired beauty,

With starlight in her eyes,

There once was a black haired beauty,

Her smile was my demise,

There once was a black haired beauty,

Whom I loved with all my soul,

There once was a black haired beauty,

Now there’s no one there —

At all.

 

The singer’s voice cracked poignantly on the final words, as though the full weight of his grief had become unbearable. Both performers gave a small bow and then hurried off.

Two more people walked onto the platform. A pale woman came first, wearing a tiara of white gold on top of her elaborately tied blond hair. She took the smaller seat beside Arkus. Darnuir assumed she was the Queen, although he had no memory of her.

Am I looking at Cosmo’s mother? If so, she will be Cassandra’s mother as well, although they look nothing alike.

Behind her came a man, and one singularly out of place. He had a wind-beaten, squashed face that was coated in a reddish fuzz. His figure was slender, his movements fox-like. Short in stature and short on adornments, his only jewellery was the longship broach pinned to his chest. He stood on Arkus’ left, between the King and Raymond.

Arkus, who’s hand had remained outstretched for the whole song, finally brought his arm back in. He paused to cover his eyes, as if he were crying. Then, at last, it was done. Those gathered in the hall sat back down.

“My good king,” Darnuir said, forcing down the heat in this throat. “We have run far and hard for days to reach you.”

“No one asked you to.” Each word Arkus said was well measured to ring throughout the hall. “You have come unannounced. You have come without invitation. You have come seeking the blood of my people.”

“Bodies, bought and bled,” came a soft echoing chant from around the room. It wasn’t said by all but it was said by enough. This isn’t going to be easy.

“It is Rectar that seeks to bleed your people dry,” Darnuir said. “I only ask that some is spilt. All the Three Races will suffer before the end. I request that humanity’s armies join me in destroying Castallan at the Bastion. I ask they join me to meet a demon invasion I have warning will come from the east.”

“Yes, this invasion,” Arkus said airily. “Raymond dutifully informed me,” and he waved a hand at the Chevalier. It was only now that Darnuir realised Raymond was not in armour like the other Chevaliers. Instead, he was in more courtly attire, a black velvet jerkin over a white shirt.

“I am glad to see you heeded his warning,” said Darnuir. “Having your armies gathered will save precious time.”

“Ha,” squawked the man beside Arkus. “Time’s oot, am afraid.” He had a sharp voice, as though he was permanently biting into a lemon.

“My Lord Darnuir,” Arkus began, with barely concealed bitterness. “May I introduce to you Somerled Imar, Lord of the Splintering Isles. He arrived not two days ago, with harrowing news.”

Darnuir’s stomach knotted, knowing fine well what that news would be. The Splintering Isles lay between east and west.

“A pleasure, Lord Darnuir,” Somerled said, bowing. “The Splintering Isles are already under attack. My son, Grigayne, leads a desperate defence of our lands.” A great deal of murmuring then rose in the hall.

“Silence,” Raymond called.

The knot tightened in Darnuir. “I am deeply troubled to hear that, Lord Somerled. My thoughts are with your son and your people.”

“I’d rather have yer sword and yer dragons,” Somerled said. “What good are thoughts?”

“My dragons are still scattered,” Darnuir said. “Although many have arrived outside Brevia, I noticed. It grieves me to hear that the fight has already come on two fronts but Castallan has to be removed first before we can aid the Splinters.”

“On that I agree,” Arkus said. “The wizard has remained at large for too long. Yet I am hesitant to move, Darnuir. That fortress will not fall easily. You ask for some blood to be spilt, yet, if we throw ourselves against the Bastion, then blood will surely gush.”

“Nor will the Splinters last if ye have tae lay a siege,” Somerled said.

“We’ll be forced to assault the fortress,” said Darnuir. “But I am hopeful it will fall without us wasting lives.”

Darnuir knew that Cassandra had escaped through some secret tunnels. If they could be found again then countless lives would be spared. Arkus, of course, knew none of this, so he added, “I can explain this to you in private.”

“Oh, can you?” Arkus said. “I’d listen more closely if you had more to offer than vague promises.”

“Offer you?” Darnuir said, fighting down a fresh rage. Calm. I must remain calm. This is just the exhaustion.

Yet Arkus’ smug look reignited the heat in his throat. Pressure built at the door to the Cascade in his mind, looking to fuel the fire.

I must be better than I was.

“Yes,” said Arkus impatiently. “What do you offer me in return for my armies and my fleet? Dragons alone cannot win this fight. Dragons die the same, after all.”

That did it.

“Offer, Arkus?” Darnuir roared. In doing so, he lost control of the door in his mind; it slipped ajar and a stream of cascade energy surged into him. It magnified his voice to dominate the throne room. “I am the King of Dragons. Commander in Chief of the Three Races, am I not? I do not offer, Arkus. I demand.” Outrage erupted from the audience. Hearing swords slide from sheathes behind him, Darnuir spun to reassure his Praetorians, gesturing they lower their weapons. Brackendon groaned, audible even over the outpouring from the crowd, but Darnuir knew what would quieten them. “What I will offer you is news,” he yelled. “News of your son, and daughter.” The crowd settled. The Queen gasped, looking stricken.

“They are alive?” she said, half-shaking, though whether from fear or happiness Darnuir couldn’t tell.

“Hush now, Orrana,” Arkus said softly, offering her his hand. Orrana took it and seemed to settle. Then Arkus rounded on Darnuir. “My son is dead. My daughter was lost to me too or do you not recall that?”

“My memories from my past life are few but, yes, I remember that,” Darnuir said. His voice had returned to normal. He did not wish to mention that he had failed Cassandra a second time.

She was too close.

“Yet I promise you Cassandra is alive,” Darnuir said. “Taken hostage by Castallan. I swear to you she lives.” Arkus didn’t even flinch at the words. He seemed unmoved. “I must also tell you of your son, Brallor, though I knew him as Cosmo.” This time Arkus’ features snapped into focus, as he peered down at Darnuir.

“If you are here to open old wounds then I must caution you. The last time I laid eyes on you, Darnuir, you held my infant daughter in your arms. And the contempt I saw in your eyes panicked me. I feared you would simply dash her head upon the rocks that separated us. It worked out the same. You failed to make it through Aurisha to me and my daughter was lost.”

The hall murmured once more, as though they had rehearsed this timing.

“And you were never to see my grief, my woe,” Arkus went on. “As if you would have cared. It was almost too much to bear, to lose a second child. The pain – you cannot imagine. My first wife could not weather it. Her heart broke first and her body followed.” Arkus paused. The Queen beside him, his new Queen, squeezed her husband’s hand. “My son is dead,” Arkus said flatly. “Do not think some memory of him will help me now.”

“Arkus, painful though it is, you must hear this,” Darnuir said. “It has bearing upon you all. Your son lived. Brallor lived. He spent his years in the Boreac Mountains as a hunter.”

“It is true, majesty,” Brackendon interjected. “I must admit I was the one who took him from you. He asked me to take him away from the city, as far away as I could. I took him to Cold Point, where my staff tree once grew.”

Arkus got up from his throne. “Will you make a mockery of my court with these stories? Demand your armies Darnuir and be gone!”

The crowd grew more restless, shouting, taunting and jeering.

“Sire,” Lira cautioned Darnuir, but he pushed on. This wound Arkus bore still had poison in it. The man needed it drawn. He needed closure.

“He took a new name, Cosmo,” Darnuir bellowed, “and he took a wife. They had a son.”

This time the silence was so complete that Darnuir felt he had gone deaf. Arkus’ face froze, his mouth half open. Queen Orrana paled even further, turning as white as the floor on which Darnuir stood.

“A son?” she said shrilly.

“Cullen is his name. Your grandson.”

“How old is he?” snapped the Queen.

“Mere months,” Darnuir said. “Only a baby. But an heir all the same.”

“Silence,” Arkus cried, all his stiffness gone.

“My king and husband has an heir,” Orrana said tartly. “Our son, Thane, a boy of eight years. A good and strong prince.”

“And unlikely tae make it tae his ninth year if that cough keeps up,” Somerled said. Orrana shot him a look of pure venom. “Oh, it’s terrible sounding,” Somerled added, a cunning smile playing on his lips.

“Enough,” Arkus said, looking first to Somerled, then his wife, then Darnuir. “You dragons and your tempers. You have my full attention now, Dragon King. I hope that satisfies you. We shall speak later. The court is dismissed.”

“You will rise for the King,” cried Raymond, but his voice was drowned by the crowd.

“Bought and bled. Bought and bled. Bought and bled.”

“Order,” Raymond yelled but it had little effect. The Chevaliers around the platform braced themselves, hands flying to the hilts of their weapons.

“Bought and bled. Bought and bled. Bought and bled.”

Chevaliers were moving to encircle Arkus and Orrana, waving urgently, and attempting to take them away. Somerled Imar had quietly slipped away in the confusion.

“Bought and bled. Bought and bled. Bought and bled for dragon wars.”

Darnuir felt something smash off his heavy pauldrons. Shards of glass littered the white stone at his feet and an amber liquid dripped off his armour. Soon more items were being thrown down on him and his Praetorians. They drew their swords in response. Darnuir didn’t stop them. He’d just put an end to it.

Pulling forth the Dragon’s Blade, Darnuir launched a blistering lance of fire into the air. He sent it up to the ceiling then split the flames and sent four strands arching against the roof of the hall. The noise of it covered even the shrieking crowd and after holding it for a few moments, Darnuir killed it, bringing a silence once more. His throat felt hot and raw, but he barely even felt the residue from the Cascade flow down his arm. A gentle kick hit the back of his head and he felt very satisfied. A grin broke out across his face.

I must be getting more used to it. I can handle more.

In the eerie quiet, not a soul stirred in the hall other than Arkus.

The Human King got back to his feet. “The court is dismissed.”

Chapter 5 – The Cascade Conclave

Despite their exile, Dranus and his Black Dragons flourished. They found a new home at Kar’drun, building the world’s first great city on the eastern coast and burrowed into the mountain itself for extra safety. Aurisha became concerned that Dranus would use the Cascade under Kar’drun to try and reach the gods again. More than that, he worried that Dranus had fallen to the Shadow. And so Aurisha convinced the fairies to aid him in transforming the rest of his true dragons into human form, in order that they might root out the Black Dragons from their mountain home. This was the Third Flight and the start of a long, devastating conflict.

 From Tiviar’s Histories

Brackendon – Brevia – The Rotting Hill

After the excitement of the throne room, Brackendon was more than happy to seek a little quiet. Though whether that quiet would benefit him or not was another matter. While Darnuir had chased after Arkus, Brackendon had excused himself. He had some personal business to attend to. He was going to the Cascade Conclave.

The tower of the Conclave loomed upon a hill in the north-west of the city and could be seen from any point in Brevia. Only the enormous white bridge that spanned the far banks of the city could rival its height. From a street near the edge of the borough, Brackendon glanced at the tower and pulled up the hood of his cloak against the drizzling rain. The weather had turned foul since their entry to the capital that morning, it was now muggy and Brackendon’s robes were sticking to his skin. No one paid him any attention as he walked; city dwellers hurried about their business or went indoors to escape the unpleasant weather.

As he approached the borough of the Conclave, he wondered what had become of the botany shops, bookmakers, and especially the bakers who made their living from the Conclave’s existence. Within another street or so he saw his answer.

Closed.

Closed, boarded up or looted. And this was just one street a fair distance away.

There was something akin to mist before him, a blue and silver fog floating unnaturally at waist height. It halted abruptly halfway up this street, creating a border with the rest of the city. He looked once more towards the tower.

And he heard the whisper again.

Brraaaccck-eendon.

It was the feeblest of voices, but a voice nonetheless. He thought he had first heard it when he’d reached the outskirts of the city and then again outside the throne room.

Brraaaccck-eendon.

It sounded uncertain, as though the speaker were learning a new language. Yet there was also an agony in it that chilled his blood more than any demon ever had. Whatever it was, his instincts told him it came from the tower.

He took his first steps into the swirling vapour.

“Wait,” a small voice said. Brackendon turned slowly and found himself facing a group of young children, too young to be out on their own. A bold boy in baggy clothes spoke to him. “You can’t go that way. It’s haunted.”

“Haunted by what?” Brackendon asked.

“A demon,” said a little girl.

“No, it’s a ghoul,” another girl said. Both were shivering in the cold.

“It’s a spirit of an ancient dragon,” said the boy at the front. “My brother says it’s what causes the smoke.”

“I don’t see any smoke?” said Brackendon.

“Comes at nights sometimes,” said the boy. “Some nights there’s lots and others there’s none. Depends on how angry the spirit is, least that’s what my brother says.”

“Well, I’ll keep an eye out for this spirit,” Brackendon said. He stepped into the mist.

“You can’t!” shrieked one of the girls.

“I know a dragon who can get especially angry,” said Brackendon. “I can handle this… whatever it is. I can handle any ghoul or nasty thing.” The children looked horrified. “Here take this or you’ll freeze.” He unfastened his cloak and wrapped it around the two smallest girls. He then pulled out a plump coin purse and tossed it into the middle of the group. “You spend that on food now.” Delighted, the children gathered up the money and ran off. Brackendon tried to clear them from his mind before continuing his journey towards the tower.

After a few more deserted streets he’d seen no sign of any evil spirit, but he could feel the Cascade energy in the air. Not pure energy, such as it was when he called upon it, but rougher, worked, stretched thin and worn: more dangerous. He smelled a faint trace of smoke. It was sulphuric, as though from a large wood fire. Presently, there was no smoke but then it was growing darker and the children said the smoke came at night. With so much twisted Cascade energy affecting the borough, he supposed that small wildfires could start and stop without much reason. Though for it to happen regularly enough to require an angry spirit as explanation would be surprising, but not impossible.

I should have returned long ago. I might have done something.

Though what he might have done to spare Brevia this magical fallout he didn’t know. Witches or wizards of the Inner Circle might have known yet the old order was dead. Literally. Only the tower remained. Only Brackendon remained.

And Castallan! I shouldn’t have fled. I should have stayed to help when the fighting started.

But he hadn’t. He’d run.

Not again. Never again.

As he trudged up the hill to the base of the Conclave tower, full of regret of his previous inaction, he saw that the earth between cracks in the paving slabs had turned a reddish colour and seemed dry.

Before long, the doors to the Conclave lay before him; broken, unlocked and yet entirely uninviting. Brackendon just stood there, staring at the entrance.

He didn’t know how long he paused before the tower doors – long enough for the sky to darken and the rain to begin lashing down. He kept the rain off himself, manipulating the air around him. Guilt or fear rooted him in place, though he couldn’t say which it was.

Then, something took hold of his hand. It was quite wet.

“I hope you weren’t thinking on going in there without me?” Kymethra said. Brackendon’s heart, his entire being, warmed at her voice.

“You look drowned,” he said, facing her and pushing back a sodden clump of hair. He kissed her. “And you’re freezing.”

“Heat,” she managed through chattering teeth.

“One moment. Stay close.”

As she hugged in closer, Brackendon took back possession of his hand and opened his palm. A moment’s thought, a nudge more on the door to the Cascade, and a hot ball of fire appeared. He felt a flow of magic through him then, from shoulder to hand, yet it seared so low it was almost pleasant, like the warming feeling of a strong drink. Keeping the fire burning cost little energy after all. Fire could destroy, and like movement it was cheap; for destruction is far easier than creation.

“That’s better,” Kymethra said. She clung to him and after a while stopped shivering and began to breathe normally again. Her hair dried and fluffed up, the white tips curling upwards in their usual flick. “Ready?” she asked, nodding to the Conclave doors.

“I am now,” he said, extinguishing the orb of fire in his hand. Together they made their way inside.

The chill was the first thing that Brackendon noticed as they entered. It was unnaturally cold for the season, miserable weather outside notwithstanding. His breath rose in great clouds before his eyes.

“I think you’ll need to relight that fire,” Kymethra said.

Brackendon took some tentative steps down the dark, dank corridor. “I don’t think so. It’s unbearably hot here.” He tugged at the collar of his robes.

Kymethra stepped to join him. “Ugh, we’ll sweat to death like this. The Cascade is twisted here. Why come back?”

“I felt compelled… We don’t know what really happened.”

Brraaaccck-eendon, came the strange voice again, louder than outside the tower.

“What’s there to know?” Kymethra crept past him. “All we’ll come across are terrible memories. Bad memories or likely something dangerous – ouch, my knee. I can’t see a thing. Hurry up and light the way.”

“Sorry,” Brackendon said, distracted. “Can you hear anything?”

“All I’m hearing is you are not giving us some light.”

“Like a voice,” Brackendon said. “Like a whisper.”

“No… Come on now Brackers. Don’t leave us in the dark.”

Brackendon shook his head and lit up the end of his staff. The corridor was suddenly illuminated. Parchment was strewn everywhere, cushions lay ripped, furniture snapped, drawers pulled out of cabinets, and a trail of debris led into each room. He checked each one and found the shelves were completely bare, not a book or scroll was left on them. He thought that perhaps some brave looters might have taken them along with items of more obvious value.

At the end of the hallway was a winding staircase that would take them nowhere. Navigating the Conclave wasn’t obvious. You had to know your way.

Brraaaccck-eendon. Up…

“There it is again.”

“Not that I’m jealous,” Kymethra said. “But why is it speaking to you?”

“I have no idea. It is saying ‘up’.”

“Up?” Kymethra said, rolling her eyes upwards as if she could see through to the top of the tower. “Well, let’s go.” She took a few more steps down the corridor, as though heading for the stairs, and sighed with relief. “Oh, it’s not so hot here and mmm, it smells like alderberry pie.”

“Kymethra, maybe we ought to turn back. I thought it would give me closure to come here; give us both closure. I thought I might find something to aid me against Castallan but there is no way he would have allowed anything valuable to be left behind.”

Kymethra gave him that look that only she could. “Scared?”

“You’re not the one hearing voices.”

Up…

“I’m frightened too,” Kymethra said. “This place used to be our whole lives. I’m terrified of what might be up there. We might even find your old hat.” She shuddered at the thought. He smiled and then stepped towards her, happy to be out of the hot zone. Here the air really did smell deliciously tangy.

“That hat is what got your attention,” Brackendon said. He kept on walking, veering into a side room that hid the real way to the higher levels of the tower.

“What got you my attention was my desperate need for help on elemental control.”

“Shame you never really mastered it,” said Brackendon. He twisted the inkwell at the special desk clockwise one full turn and a ramp descended from above. They began to ascend.

Up…Up. Brackkkkkkkendon.

“Or maybe you were just a bad teacher,” said Kymethra. “Good thing I make up for it with my mind tricks.” She pressed three fingers over her ear in demonstration.

“Do you ever regret not completing your training?”

“A part of me does. I could be helping more than I am. But then—”

“You’ve seen what it did to me,” Brackendon said. “I can’t blame you for wishing to have nothing to do with the Cascade after that.”

“Actually,” she began, sounding slightly annoyed, “I was going to say that, had I completed my training you might not have come for me that day.”

“Of course I would have,” Brackendon said. “How could you say such a thing?”

“Stop interrupting,” said Kymethra. She halted before three doors. “Wait a moment. These are the shifting doorways, aren’t they? There used to be a method to figure out which one is real.”

“Yes, there was,” Brackendon said, racking his mind.

Left… something hissed. Brackendon twitched his head around. Left… The voice seemed to be getting stronger.

“I think it’s that one,” he said, pointing at the left-hand door.

“What’s the trick?”

“I’m getting some help.”

“Or you could be being led into the void.”

“I’ll go first then,” said Brackendon. He pushed on it. “Stairs. I think we’re safe. And I’m sorry for before, what were you trying to say?”

“That I’m glad I hadn’t received my staff, when it — when it happened. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have come to take me away when the fighting started. And don’t try to pretend like that isn’t true. I could see it in your eyes. I remember. I’ve never seen you so torn.”

“It wasn’t an easy choice. But that doesn’t mean I regret coming for you. Not one bit.”

“I know,” Kymethra said and this time it was she who kissed him. “Nor do I regret smashing Malik’s face in with my alchemy tome when he tried to stick that glass dagger into you.”

“Malik,” Brackendon sighed, remembering the young apprentice. “He was only seventeen.”

“He was trying to kill you,” Kymethra said.

“It sickens me how Castallan twisted their minds. He must have been working on the youngest apprentices for a long time to get so many to join him.”

“Didn’t sway me.”

Brackendon realised he had never asked before. “Did he ever approach you or try to persuade you to overthrow the Conclave?”

“Not directly,” said Kymethra. “He came to speak to us all often though. A lot about how we should be using our powers to help humanity become stronger; about how we could end the war and make a better world for humans; a world where we weren’t at the mercy of the whims of demons or dragons. I’ll admit, he was charismatic.”

“But you weren’t convinced?”

“Many seemed to listen but it sounded like madness. He was talking about changing the whole world; overturning everything.”

They emerged from the staircase into a new corridor where the wall turned sharply away, as if back on itself. Brackendon remembered this zigzagging set of hallways where their dormitories used to be. No room ever seemed large enough from the angles of the walls but they were always spacious once you entered.

Hurry… the voice urged, echoing as though a crowd of people were whispering altogether. The air was thick with the Cascade. It looked clear to the naked eye but Brackendon could feel it as he began to walk. It was like wading through water – stinking, murky water that tried to pull him down. A noise followed him every step down the jagged hallway, like someone gargling their last breath.

“Can you feel this haze?” he said sluggishly.

“Y-Yes,” Kymethra struggled.

The Inner Circle’s council chamber… come…

“Would the fighting that day really have caused all this?” Kymethra asked.

“It’s not just the Cascade at work here. We should go to the Inner Circle’s council chamber. I think we’ll find our answers there.”

They fought through the quagmire of Cascade energy higher up the tower to the council chamber of the Conclave. This was where the Inner Circle, the eldest five members of the Cascade Conclave, used to meet. The door to the chamber lay in splinters against the opposite wall.

HURRY.

Brackendon steeled himself. He crept forward, Kymethra behind him and they stood outside the room, backs to the wall. His breath came in short bursts, his heart beat a little quicker and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled into life.

“I do not know what we will find in there,” he said.

“Come on,” Kymethra said, squeezing his hand. Together they twisted around the corner as if bursting into battle. Brackendon held his staff forward and light flooded the room. He gasped as foul stale air caught in his throat and Kymethra shrieked. There, at the large round table, were five skeletons.

Some lay bent and broken; one of the skulls was pressed down upon the table itself, completely caved in. Another had a short dagger lodged in its eye socket. Another held its jaw open in an eternal silent scream.

“The Inner Circle,” Brackendon said softly. “This is where it started.”

“Why is there a dagger?” Kymethra said. “Brackendon, they look like they were killed with brute force, not magic. And what’s with the rest of the place?”

He glanced around, tearing his eyes away from the bones. It was immaculate. Not a patch of dust or dirt could be seen.

You have come, the voice said.

“I can hear it now,” Kymethra said hoarsely.

“What are you?” Brackendon called out.

We were the Inner Circle… five… now one. In the chamber, the voice was at its strongest, yet a distance remained to it. It was jarred and tangled, as if five voices were speaking in unison.

“Are you not dead?” Brackendon asked.

We wish we were, rattled the voice.

Brackendon felt a shiver run through him. “What dark magic did Castallan weave here?”

Full of anger. Full of fury…

“Castallan’s going to answer for what he’s done,” Kymethra said. “For this and for everything.”

Not his magic, not his anger… ours.

Brackendon looked to Kymethra. She looked as confused as he felt.

“This wasn’t caused by Castallan?” Kymethra asked.

Impertinent, the voice rumbled. Castallan would not listen. He would not accept our judgement.

“So, he attacked you?” Brackendon said.

Not him… us, hissed the voice.

“I don’t understand,” Brackendon said. He felt a dark cloud of doubt enter his mind.

We felt there was no other way. We demanded he hand over his staff. He refused. We had no choice…

“You attacked him?” Kymethra said, her voice high with surprise.

We had no choice… the voice moaned in terrible pain. Even the apprentices would not listen. They tried to help him. Stepped between us… we cursed him more for that.

“Y-you caused all of this?” Brackendon said. “You hurt the apprentices who got in the way?”

He was strong, stronger than we realised… And his experiments… scarlet eyes… such strength… such speed.

“So Castallan stood where I am now?” asked Brackendon. “Presenting his red-eyed men to you all. What did he want?”

Kill us.

“What did he want?” Brackendon asked again.

KILL US.

“Answer me,” Brackendon demanded.

He wanted approval. He wanted our help. Said he needed more power to end the war. He wanted humanity to be strong. Through magic… the dragons would never have allowed… He was mad…

“And you reacted by attacking him?” Kymethra asked softly.

Too much change… he would not listen. KILL US.

Brackendon felt a chill in his heart. So Castallan had not conspired against the Conclave after all, not truly. He had intended for the whole order to join him. Brackendon wasn’t sure if that changed things. He decided it didn’t. Whatever injustice had been done to him here, he had paid back tenfold to the world. He’d consorted with demons and used foul magic to enchant those who he brainwashed in joining him…

Yet Brackendon was forced to stop this line of thought. The apprentices had stood in the way. They had believed enough in Castallan, more than just from coercion. Scythe must have truly believed as well.

“Are you all aware of what has happened since?” Brackendon said. “What Castallan has done?”

We are one… the voice croaked. And we are aware of little beyond this room. The Cascade haze has prevented our spirits from departing the plane of this world. Trapped… trapped… KILL US.

“Brackendon,” Kymethra said, taking hold of his robes. “Do it. Free them. Please.”

“If you know nothing beyond this room, how did you know I was in Brevia?”

Where the Cascade is strong we can connect to the world. This tower… your staff… such power. Like lightning rods to the mortal realm. Pleaseeeeeee – RELEASE US.

“I do not know if you deserve it,” said Brackendon. “Castallan turned to Rectar after the Conclave fell. I thought it had been his plan, but perhaps he didn’t have a choice. Your actions pushed him that way.”

He had to be purged…

“The blood of thousands is on your hands. Fairy, human and dragon alike.”

“Brackendon, please,” Kymethra wailed. Then he felt her grip loosen. He turned away from the skeletons and found Kymethra with her head in her hands. “They’re hurting me.”

“Stop this!”

KILL US, the voice boomed and the whole tower quaked. Trapped. Trapped. Torment and pain. KILL US.

Kymethra screamed so hard that Brackendon thought her throat would rip.

Brackendon bellowed in turn, slashing his staff in an arc before the table. A thick purple light ripped from his staff and blew the skeletons to pieces. He felt the light residue from his destructive magic rush towards his staff and panted; not from the magic, but from the cry that had emptied his chest. “Kymethra are you—” he froze in horror. Her eyes had rolled up into her head. Blood oozed from her nose and ears, and her skin had turned as pale as milk.

NOOOO, shrieked the voice. It did not work. End us. END US.

Brackendon ignored its pleas. Whatever hellish existence the Inner Circle were in was too good for them now. He reached out to the Cascade, yanking the door in his mind wide open. He filled his body with strength and speed and Kymethra felt lighter than a feather as he tore from the chamber with her. He streaked back down the Conclave tower, even as it began to collapse around him, trying to ensnare him.

The three trick doors appeared again.

Brackendon blasted them off their hinges and the correct way was revealed. He spat out a gob of bitterness building in his mouth.

Come back. Kill us or we’ll kill her.

Brackendon did not listen. He ran on as fast as he could, not stopping, not even when a chunk of the floor gave way before him. He simply leapt, landing with bone shattering force. His enhanced body shrugged it off.

The Cascade washed over him now, pulsing down his arm. Movement and strength were cheap in bursts but this was prolonged. He could have probably pulverised even Darnuir like this. Soon he was hurtling back down the ramp towards the tower exit, weaving between falling stones. He took a short cut by shouldering his way through the walls of the ground floor.

KILL US

Brackendon burst out of the Conclave into the pouring rain. Night had fully descended and the city flickered with torches. He could feel vibrations in the ground from the tower. Kymethra grunted in his arms and coughed blood.

He was enraged, angrier than he had ever been. He wanted revenge, he wanted the tower and everything to do with his old order erased from the world.

And he knew he could do just that.

He placed Kymethra down, praying she would last, and raised his staff high at the tower. After building up Cascade within his body, feeling the euphoria take him, feeling like he was a god, he began to close the fingers of his free hand into a fist. He did this slowly, for the tower offered some resistance. But piece by crumbling piece it fell.

He caught those pieces in the air so they would not fall into the rest of city and sent them hurtling back at the tower.

Rain lashed, stones cracked and Brackendon’s fingers finally closed over. A small pile of gravel was all that remained.

Despite the din of the wind, the rain, and his own ragged breath, Brackendon thought he could hear an echoing sigh of relief, as though the voice was in ecstasy.

Thannnkkkkk youuuuuuuuuu…

Brackendon dropped to his knees. With a great effort, he closed the door to the Cascade. The pain of it felt like venom in his veins. Such levels of destruction would have been impossible without his new staff. It hummed loudly and the diamond bright wood shone as it processed the magic. He clutched onto the staff desperately, his eyes shut against the rain.

“Brackendon. Brackendon,” Kymethra said. He felt her hands take him by the shoulders. “Are you okay?”

His eyes blinked open. “Are you?”

“Yes, I’m alright. No harm done.” She too was kneeling, right in front of him. Her bloody nose was gone and the colour had returned to her face. “You brought the whole tower down.” She just stated it as fact. Brackendon fell forwards to lean on her and they knelt, embracing in the rain.

“The world is better off without it,” Brackendon said. His throat was dry, his mouth was bitter. It took some time for his thundering heart to steady and the flow of magic down his arm to ebb.

“Are you going to be alright?” Kymethra asked.

“Oh, I think so,” Brackendon said. “But perhaps we should head for the nearest bakery and kindly request a loaf or cheese roll to soak the magic up. Wherever that may be.”