The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors.
I’ll post a new chapter at least every week. That makes me accountable and motivated to keep on editing the chapters ahead – rather than curling up and hiding under my desk.
Want to know when the next chapter is uploaded?
Bright blue skies and midday sun are rare hosts of unimaginable magics. Storytellers recount spells and enchantments cast on moonlit midnights dancing with star shine. Howling dusks and breaking dawns were equally attractive for mystic mayhem. Minni’s day proved that storytellers didn’t know everything about magic, and neither did she.
Minni had never lived an ordinary life, but this particular day had been difficult, even by her standards. Fate had a way of galloping into the wilderness when magic took the reins. Worse still when gods and dragons intervened, fate jumped from the cliffs of insanity. Minni had been hunted by dragons, saved by a sorceress, abducted by frogmen, submerged her mind in a pool of mystic infinity and had a cursed ring removed lest she die a half-dragon bestial nightmare.
That was only since breakfast.
The fate of creation rested on Minni’s last prophecy. Apparently, even the gods were afraid of what was on the horizon. Of all the ill omens and dire portents she had channeled for the Muden of Gren, Minni worried about this most of all. Any god who feared the future should be put into retirement. What good was a god who didn’t protect the wonders of creation? Or at least stand up for their faithful. If a god wanted to tremble and cry, then let them do it in some celestial sanctuary where mortals didn’t have to witness the spectacle. And if a god was brewing for a fight, let them leave life on Oranica out of it. Why did mortal creation always become a plaything of the gods?
Had Minni known that the mystic haven of Gren would soon be ash, she might have looked longer upon it. Gren was a secret valley of lakes surrounded by dense forest and protected by the dagger peaks of the Great Dividing Range. Life teemed in every mossy shadow and upon every sun-kissed shore. The scene might have been relaxing if it were painted and hung in a gallery, a true picture of serenity. But Gren was no gallery. It was a cacophony.
All manner of bug, beast and bird screamed a unique racket to embrace the hot summer’s day. The big-mouth Muden villagers were no better, shouting to each across the lakes. The frog-like people made their homes upon stilted crannogs that perched above the calm waters. Gren was a haven for bird life and a rich hunting ground. The sacred lake covered the entire valley in a patchwork of brackish inlets and green lagoons. Legends told of these waters being the birthplace of the first Muden mystic, the Sunken God, Ipoch.
The Muden kept the location of their temple a closely guarded secret. Even Minnella Ajharra, the reluctant prophet, did not understand how to get where she was without the guidance of a Muden escort. Any would-be explorer would have perished in the maze of lagoons, either starved, poisoned or eaten.
Gren had no secrets from the dragons above. An ever increasing battalion of dragons circled on high, their scales glaring at the sun like an army of angry blades. Dragon calls echoed around the valley with bravado. Minni didn’t know the exact translation of their musical trills, baritone grunts or sky-quaking roars. She didn’t have to. Minni knew this tune all too well. The dragons sang of battle.
Minni’s scales glimmered in the midday sun too. Not with an angry glare. Hers shone like spring blooms greeting the wide blue sky. She had rubbed and peeled away the remaining sheafs of skin on her hands and forearms. Though it disgusted her to behave like a shedding snake, it was a curious relief to slough away her skin as though a new life awaited. One without the hunger of a dragon growing inside her, yet still with all the benefits of enhanced strength and perception. The only loss she counted was her beauty.
She’d looked upon her reflection in the lake. Dragon eyes of flaming yellow stared back. Her cheeks blushed a rainbow of chromatic scales that screamed her curse for all to see. She’d not hide her new self like a shallow princess. Such vanity was pointless. What use was a pretty face to a woman dead? Beauty had its advantages, but keen blades and nimble wits kept her alive. Minni was a rebel general, not a trophy wife. She fought for equality among the races as an agent of deception. She’d long worn a mask of shadows to conceal her identity. Now she had a colourful new disguise to play with.
As bright as the rogue’s delicate scales appeared, they were outshone by the magnificence of the ancient dragon, Qarim, who wore a mantle of golden scales as tough as steel. They overlapped in a glorious mosaic, patterned and sized to protect his immense frame. He had horns, spines and bristly hair sprouting in patches too. Minni thanked the gods that her disfigurement stopped before she grew a dragon moustache and goatee. The rogue was lucky to be alive and vowed to make the most of her transformation.
Thanks to Qarim, Minni’s skin no longer itched and her scales would spread no further. The cursed dragon ring was the elder wyrm’s creation. A mistake to be undone, he admitted. Yet the ancient dragon had tucked it under a scale or whisked it away to who knew what dimension. If Qarim truly regretted his creation, he’d have dispelled the ring’s magic? Or crushed it in his powerful fist? With her dragon-like senses, Minni could smell the magic about Qarim and taste the immensity of his sorcerous talent. Minni could hardly contemplate a god’s power, for Qarim’s presence was beyond belief. Perhaps this was what Kettna sensed too.
While Minni had been reading the prophecy inside the Sunken God, Kettna and Qarim had been talking over the stone altar beside the lake’s edge. In the time it took Minni to bridge the wisdom of the last true Muden in the depths of infinity, the sorceress and the ancient wyrm had become fast friends. Minni was honest enough to admit she was a little jealous of Kettna. Qarim gave the sorceress Tetula’s sword no less. Minni could have shown the mage how to hold it properly, but who was she to interrupt a dragon’s instruction. Let the woman cut herself, she’d soon learn.
The gold dragon told Minni that Elrin’s dagger was for her if she did her duty. She had expected to use Elrin’s dagger to deal revenge upon the Guildmaster. It was not to be so. Minni’s gift was not the dagger that lay in wait on the altar. It was the man inside.
Qarim telepathically embraced Minni’s mind and gifted her two sweet words.
A world of doubt spun into Minnella’s orbit, dragging her heart off balance. It was impossible.
In all her time as a prophet for the Muden of Gren, Minni had never felt so confused and conflicted. Receiving a prophecy wasn’t easy, but she never expected being a conduit for infinite wisdom to be simple. Even after her uncle finished scribing Minni’s mystic translation, there was still the hurdle of understanding the hidden meaning of it all. It was what it was. She didn’t have to understand Muden mysticism to believe it. And she didn’t have to believe the prophecy for it to come to pass.
Yet believe in prophecy she did. How could she not? Her own mind was stretched and stitched with it. Minni wove her spirit into the fabric of the telling. Even when she thought her fate had been cheated by the Muden prophecies, anger and tears didn’t stop Minni believing them. So why couldn’t Minni believe the words of an ancient, and by all appearances, noble dragon?
Calm your thoughts, Minella. Let me ease your doubts. I do not lie.
“Speak to me plainly or not at all,” insisted Minni, trying to block her mind from the dragon.
You need not fear, I only wish to—
“Out!” shouted Minni, covering her ears for all the good it would do.
“Minni, please!” scolded Kettna. “You can’t speak to an elder that way. There’s really nothing to worry ab—“
Minni glared at the sorceress. “I’ll speak to an elder any way I chose. I’m not some thrall mage, desperate to impress.”
“Thrall?” Kettna went red, embarrassed and angry. “I’m nobody’s thrall thank you very much! I chose my own path.” The sorceress gathered herself up and let fly to cover the indignation. “Why don’t you drop the pretence, Minni? I know your type. You think your subterfuge and vigilantism equates to truth and justice. It doesn’t. And you know what? What you believe doesn’t even matter. Whatever secrets and lies you’re guarding aren’t worth the trouble attached. Your mind is trivial compared to an elder. Just let Qarim speak. There’s much we have to accomplish and this dramatic insecurity of yours will cripple our mission.”
“Feel’s better to say what you feel out in the open, doesn’t it?” Minni grinned at Kettna’s outburst, which made the mage all the more upset. “Say what you want mage, but I know how to rob a house. You case the joint first. A sly look here and there. No one is the wiser. You slip back in when all are asleep and stuff a bag with the valuables.”
“You can’t rob an empty house,” said Kettna.
“Nor should you rob a graveyard,” said Minni. “I keep my secrets buried for a reason. If I wanted a dragon digging around in my head, I’d have asked. I’m sure Qarim won’t mind speaking like a shiner for a while. How about it, old timer?”
Inspector Kettna held her breath. Had Minni broken some law of etiquette? The sorceress probably hoped Minni would get toasted for some petty transgression, but Minni knew Qarim better than that. She liked to think they had forged a bond of sorts after the battle for the Hoard Islands.
At first, the grand golden dragon could only laugh. His rolling chuckle stirring butterflies from the waterlilies by the shore. With much ceremony, Qarim extended his long neck and cleared his throat, exhaling three rings of smoke. He cast a spell like a Calimskan sorcerer, waving his arms and punctuating arcane meaning with hand seals and glowing sigils. The magical energy condensed the three smoke rings into a single yellow cloud which the dragon slowly inhaled. The ancient wyrm cast the spell with such offhanded ease, Kettna gaped like a child hearing a minstrel play for the first time. Minni smiled at the sorceress. The woman was so in enamoured with magic. It was hard not to love that kind of passion.
“A wise man once taught me: better a kind word in one’s ear than a cold stare at one’s back.” Qarim’s voice furnished the air with richly appointed Calimskan, accented with the nuance of a scholar and the depth of the blue sky above. “I apologise, Prophet Minella. You’ve endured enough voices in your mind this day. I cannot imagine the trial it must be. I shan’t strain you with further telepathic intrusions.”
“I’m grateful you understand,” said Minni. There weren’t many who could even comprehend what she did, least of all sympathise. “Even so, I’m confused by the madness you just planted in my head. Elrin lives? How can that be true?”
“At first, I doubted like you,” Qarim looked to the horizon. “I thought Tetula dead. I stood watch over her body day and night and cried until sleep stole my tears away. And then my beloved flew to me on the wings of a dream and by her side was Yoni. He showed me there was hope and spoke of the Muden prophecy you carry. He told me what I must do and guided me to this sacred stone to help you.
“The fate of all creation hinges on the actions of a few. You, Kettna and Elrin all play a part in Yoni’s plan to save Oranica. In her final battle against Zarkas, Tetula sacrificed her mortal flesh to save Elrin. She sent him body and soul into the bloodstone dagger, and with her remaining energy she escaped death, spiriting herself into her bloodstone sword. When I awoke from my dream, I opened Tetula’s clutched fist. There within her final grasp rested the dagger and the sword. Tetula’s voice reached out to me from her god forged blade and I knew the dream was no lie.”
“God forged?” Minni’s heart was pounding. “I figured the dagger was magic, but …”
“Minella, you delivered Elrin to the Dragon Choir. He was the key that unlocked our fates. Today I return him to you as was foretold.”
Qarim gestured his radiant hand to the dagger resting on the altar. The dragon was a beacon of hope, an indomitable force of good to behold. Yet why had he not yet released Elrin?
“If you know he’s stuck in the damn dagger, get him out! You took off my cursed ring fast enough. Weave some magic and free him. Why wait?”
“It’s not as easy as that,” admonished Kettna. Of course, the dragon’s pet knew better. “Qarim explained everything to me. We can help Elrin. But he must do the work from inside the dagger. Tetula’s spirit can bridge the realms to give Elrin guidance, but not for long. The process is taxing.”
“If he’s shrunk to dust, so he fits inside, how’s Elrin going to break out?” Minni stared at the dagger with worry. Her instinct urged her to grab it and smash the dark stone pommel on the altar, but that wouldn’t do. Magic was never so simple. If the damn thing broke it might smite them all with god fury. “So, how’s Elrin supposed to grow to his regular size if you two won’t use your magic on him?”
“That’s not how it works.” The bitch grinned, but stopped short of outright laughing in Minni’s face, saving herself a black eye. “Each weapon is a gateway to a pocket dimension; a small world within a world. Imagine a side room in an abandoned house within a bustling city in an empire across a continent on a planet spinning in a—“
“I don’t need a pretty picture!” Minni clenched her fists, ready to lay out the sorceress. “I might not be a mage, but I’m not an idiot.”
“Your question implied otherwise. I’m surprised you’re not elated by this good news about Elrin. If my love was by all intents brought back from the dead, I’d be more gracious to those supporting me.”
Minni checked her temper and let the mage have that one. She didn’t realise the Inspector had lost her love. Not that it should matter. Kettna was right. Minni should have been more welcoming of the news. “Go on then, Inspector. I’m not in a stable frame of mind given the today’s twists and turns.”
“I understand. Elrin’s life means a great deal to me, too. I’ll revoke the dead letter and clear him of all charges if he testifies against the Guildmaster.”
“And avenge the death of your lover?” asked Minni.
“I suppose, in part. It was Bloody Agnus that murdered him before my eyes, but the Guildmaster played his part.”
Minni felt for the mage. Kettna looked like a typical straight-backed high-society snob, but she wilted at the thought of her love’s passing. Minni could relate to that. “I’m sorry, Inspector. You and I’ve been through the wringer since we met, haven’t we?”
“All the more reason to thank Tetula for saving Elrin,” said Kettna, lifting the sword with reverence. “And Elder Qarim too, of course.”
Qarim shifted his weight and a thousand scales reflected the midday sun. “Be warned. The demons that dwell inside the bloodstone are manifestly brutal. Even if he survives the trials within, Elrin will return changed. He may not remember you at all.”
“Are you saying, Tetula sent him into a realm of demons for safekeeping?” Minni impulsively reached for the dagger. “He could barely swing a sword to save himself! What was she thinking?”
As Minni’s fingers touched the dagger’s hilt, the dark stone on the pommel flashed with purple energy. The altar stone vibrated and the dagger recoiled from the rogue’s touch. It lifted into the air with a swirl of mist cascading over the altar. An arc of purple lightning shot into the heavens and the accompanying clap of thunderous magic knocked Minni off her feet, blowing her doubts away.
There on the altar lay Elrin, naked and covered head to toe in blood. He clutched the magic dagger, still sparking with purple energy. Every lick of blood that coated his unconscious body crawled toward the dagger. It consumed every drip from his mess of raven hair and thick beard. Blood beaded and rolled in macabre convoy over Elrin’s glistening skin, rushing to the glowing sigils on the blade.
When the dagger’s feast was over, Elrin’s brown eyes opened. He stared at the sky and smiled. It was a smile of victory, yet something tainted his dark eyes. Minni knew that look in her trade. Elrin was now a man who understood death’s foundation. His body was a picture to behold, muscled hard as a warrior and lean as a hunter. Minni gazed upon him without shame. What woman could look away from his bare olive skin glistening with moisture? He was a most welcome sight.
As the last vapours of magic steamed off his handsome body, Elrin lifted the dagger to the sun and spoke to the weapon in a language Minni could not understand. Whilst she couldn’t translate the words, the whispers were that of a demon’s tongue. What if some hell-spawned devil had stolen Elrin’s body. The man she knew had changed. What if it wasn’t for the better? Minni drew her sword and watched for Qarim and Kettna’s reaction. Neither of them knew Elrin like she did. What could the shallows of a lake know about the depths of the ocean?
Qarim spoke to Elrin first. “You came before the Choir afraid and lost. Today you return a bloodstone master. Arise Elrin, Son of Arbajkha.”
“Qarim!” said Elrin with a start, surprised to be basking in the dragon’s golden glory. Elrin’s stare faded into the distance of memory. “It was Tetula, wasn’t it? She helped me inside, but I didn’t understand for so long. I’ve forgotten much… You being here though, it’s bringing it all back… By the gods! What of the Dragon Choir? Where are the others? It was Zarkas and Goranuk. They attacked and Tetula was falling and I…” A tear slipped down Elrin’s cheek. “The Jandans won, didn’t they? I saw them trap Wyggen. It was awful. And Tetula’s scream … Has she returned like me?”
Qarim shuddered at the thought of his love’s pain and could not reply.
Kettna removed her magic cloak of constellations and draped it over Elrin’s naked body. She averted her gaze to maintain propriety, but the blush in her cheeks gave her away. Elrin sat up and took in his surroundings unabashed, his expression a mix of curiosity and confusion.
“Tetula’s spirit is in this sword,” explained the mage. “When I touch the hilt, I can speak with her and feel her magic. She sacrificed her body in this plane to save you, Elrin.”
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“You do,” she replied, her voice shaking. “You helped me find my Rix. Do you remember Calimska, your home?”
Elrin’s face filled with emotion as memories tumbled forth. Recognition dawned on him. “You’re the sorceress from the Cog and Wheel! Yes, I remember. You’re… Inspector Kettna!” As he said the mage’s name his expression dropped like a cloud and he vaulted over the altar and backed up to Qarim, his dagger ready. “You’ve got it all wrong, Inspector. Don’t believe what the guards say. I’m innocent! The dead letter is false. I only overheard a conversation. Next thing the Guildmaster had his henchman, Malek, try to kill me with blaze. I had to run.”
“Calm yourself. I’m on your side, Elrin,” assured Kettna, wary of the blade pointing her way. “I know the Guildmaster is corrupt. I fled the city too. I came looking for you and for the Dragon Choir. Much has happened since you left Calimska.”
Elrin lowered the dagger and scratched his wild black beard in thought. “How many years have I been gone? Is Mother safe? Herder Kleith?”
“Kleith is as deep in the Guildmaster’s pockets as the hell you’ve been through,” said Minni, walking toward Elrin. Each step was an unfamiliar battle with anxiety. She wanted him to look upon her, to remember her. Minni was less worried that he’d find her repulsive than if he didn’t recognise her at all.
The prophecy had sealed their fates together before they had even met. So why was Minni so tense now that he was right there before her? She bluffed her nerves away, pretending nothing had changed between them. Talking treason and plot as though it were any other day in the life of a rebel general. She took the waterproof leather roll from her vest pocket and slapped it on the altar. It uncoiled, revealing the incriminating letter Elrin never delivered. The proof of Elrin’s betrayal.
“The priest who helped you escape has been in cahoots with the Guildmaster for who knows how long,” said Minni.
Elrin looked at Minni with confusion. “It can’t be true… Kleith’s a good man.”
Minni walked closer to Elrin, searching for a sign of recognition. The brave shiner could forget all he wanted about Calimska, but Minni would not be forgotten. Not on her life. She’d make him remember.
The handsome Calimskan stared into Minni’s eyes and wandered his gaze over her scale flecked cheeks, her lips and then her wild curls and black bandana. Unabashed, Elrin rested his eyes on her chest, lingering there for much too long. Minni lifted his chin to meet her dragon stare. “See anything you remember?”
“Is that my vest?” he asked with annoying innocence. “It looks so familiar.”
Minni fumed. Curse the man who’d forget her love! She’d stained her sleeves with tears over his death, and he was more interested in a damn vest. It was too much to bear. She raised her hand to slap him, but Elrin’s reflexes flashed faster than her anger and he grabbed her clawed hand. Recognition dawned in his deep brown eyes and Elrin grinned like a king counting his treasure.
“Minni!” he said, embracing her in his strong arms. “What trick of time is this? I thought we lost the battle. I thought you were dead. It feels a lifetime ago, but it’s truly you! I w—”
Without a breath of her own to spare, Minnella stole Elrin’s with a kiss.
That’s the end of the first chapter.
There’s plenty more to come of course!
I’d love to know what you think as we go along on this adventure together.
Spot any little errors? Please let me know so I can fix them up.