The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Elrin grinned into the wind. There was nothing better than the thrill of riding a dragon through the sky. Qarim flew east at first, away from the battle raging over Gren. Once over the sea and assured of safety their golden protector circled in a thermal, surveying the world from on high. Hundreds of dragons were on the move. Across the edge of the horizon they travelled, some heading north to the Hoard Islands just as they should every season. Others were inexplicably flying toward the centre of the tempest looming in the south. When Elrin took in the full magnitude of the violent disturbance in the sky, his grin faded.
The unnatural storm looked like a wicked hand clawing over the landscape, snaring all below with angry lightning and pelting the land with dark rain. Jando and the bustling port of Lord’s Landing were already smothered beneath the hungry claws and Gren would soon be consumed too. The core of the storm grew from the spine of The Great Dividing Range, much further south in the wilderness than traders dared venture. This central tower of clouds was loftier still than the heights Qarim had flown. It was like an elemental fortress of clouds, bruised grey and green. Lightning veined the ramparts and marbled the growing crenelations. If any evil were afoot, surely it would march from there. Thank the gods it had not claimed Calimska.
Under more peaceful circumstances in his earlier life, Elrin would have enjoyed the thrill of an approaching storm. For certain, this storm was unsettling, but his time on the edge of death inside the dagger had accustomed Elrin to the taste of danger. He almost wished Qarim would fly them into the storm to face the evil head on. Their narrow escape from the ambush and the wild ride into the sky had his senses tingling. Qarim’s magic was astounding and Kettna’s impressed him too. The sorceress was able to tap into the power of her blade somehow and that made Elrin very excited indeed. What if he could wield magic in this world like Kettna? A no name poor-son could become a renowned mage! Evil would pale before him. Elrin would bring honour back to his family and never have to scrounge for copper clippings again. He’d need training of course. If a skilled practitioner like Kettna could be trapped by the magic of the sword, the power of his dagger might best be left contained. Diffusing Kettna’s connection was painful enough and he hadn’t felt the worst of that. The gods only knew what strains a mage went through.
For now Elrin was content to revel in their escape and take in the dangerous glory of the view. Qarim flew far to the north until the coastal towns of Redfield, Norindo and Rum Hill fell away behind them. Just when Elrin thought Qarim was taking them all the way to the Hoard Islands, the Elder dragon banked west and south, circling back on a direct path to Calimska. Tetula’s spirit felt close up here, as did the memories of his first dragon flight. It was all the more spectacular to share the experience with his arms wrapped around Minella’s waist.
There was so much to say to Minni and so much he wanted to ask, but the wind had whipped away any conversation he could muster. Elrin resolved to enjoy the wonders they flew above in silence. He saw giant serpents hunting a pod of whales, thrashing the ocean and spraying mist above the waves. Above the northern rainforest, five spires crowned by jet black spheres pushed through the canopy. Over the northern peaks they flew above a giant stone face submerged in an emerald green lake. An isolated village clambered up the mountainside nearby. All of these sights and not a word, but Minni saw them too. She leaned back into his arms and pressed her lips on his cheek. What were words compared to a kiss?
The sky-blessed vistas paled before Minella’s beauty. Her autumn hair was redder than before and streaked with flaxen yellow. Rebellious curls danced behind her black bandana like flames burning from the shadows. The rogue’s sharp gaze levelled him and her lethal beauty shook his foundation. Her very presence stoked Elrin with such warmth, his feelings for her rekindled as fast as they were forged. Yet behind tendrils of smoke lurked Queen Raznu. Her memory still lingered in the flames of Elrin’s heart.
There was no time to untangle his feelings. In the distance, real smoke stained the sky over Calimska. Dragons circled like vultures waiting for a beast to die, but Calimska was not giving up. The golden shield held strong, protecting the great city under a dome of dragon-proof magic. Everything outside, however, was ruined. The trading post was a ragged carcass of blackened tent poles and broken fences. Shreds of canvas and cotton clung like smouldering sinew on the bones of the once vibrant bazaar. Young dragons fought over the spoils and belched flames, feasting on fleeing stock and hunting people. None of it for gold, just the red-eyed desire for slaughter.
No safety was to be found in the foothills either. The Great Eastern Road was choked by the shattered wagons of those who tried to flee. The smoke of burning dead coiled into the air like greasy snakes. Had the unfortunates escaped the dragons, there was no way through Stoneheart’s pass. Half the mountainside was strewn over the road and the ancient tower which stood sentinel since before Calimska’s foundation was nothing but rubble. Not even the magical bridge over the Hiron River remained. So much had happened in Elrin’s absence and none of it was good.
Qarim unleashed an epic roar so filled with malice, the hair on the back of Elrin’s neck stiffened with fear. The object of his ire was the great red dragon, Uindarrg, who lounged on the fallen Tower of Arcana on the Isle of Solitude. Enraged, Qarim tucked in his wings and they plunged from the heavens like a holy golden lance flying into the heart of evil. Uindarrg rose up on his hind legs and roared back, meeting the challenge with a blast of fire into the sky. Kettna furiously thumped on Qarim’s neck and screamed at him, but her voice was lost in the howling wind of their decent.
It was all Elrin could do to hold on. At the last moment, Qarim pulled out of the dive and shot across the Lake of Tears to Calimska’s harbour. Without a single beat of his outstretched wings, the elder dragon skimmed left and right, narrowly missing the burning masts of the decimated ships strewn across the water. Young dragons screeched and scattered like panicked sparrows before a hawk. The terrors thought their time was up, but Qarim had bigger plans. He passed them by, uttering in arcane tongues so that his aura radiated like a meteorite hurtling through the atmosphere. The coming of an elder dragon was not for the weakhearted. With impossible grace, Qarim alighted his enormous body outside the barbican of Calimska’s Silk Gate and gently lifted Elrin, Minni and Kettna down from his shoulders.
“Stay behind me, youngsters,” commanded Qarim. “Hide within my light and you’ll be safe.”
“I’ll gather the guard,” said Kettna. “Together we can repel Uindarrg and his evil sycophants.”
“No!” Qarim thrust his clawed finger into the earth at Kettna’s feet. “Lest you wish a terrible death upon all within that aberration you call a shield. You must bear witness only.”
“Witness what?” asked Minni, but there was no need of reply. The answer came like thunder across the lake of tears. Uindarrg, stood on his hind legs with wings fully extended, roaring at Qarim in challenge.
“What is he saying?” asked Elrin.
“Nothing of worth.” The spines on Qarim’s neck flarred. “He’s slandering my paternity, my lineage and my looks. An age has past since I last had words with Uindarrg, yet he’s still lacking manners. I suppose he’s hoping that I’ll defend my honour, but I’m no fool to fight in a nullified zone.”
Across the lake, the Isle of Solitude was indeed draped in a grey haze. Elrin’s true sight revealed the negative energy, but he had no training to understand its meaning. He’d simply thought it a fog of the island’s misfortune, dust and smoke kicked up by angry dragons and demolished buildings. Now that he looked closer, focused deeper, the haze was malignantly devouring the natural waves and eddies of energy around the island. The poor sorcerers would be powerless against the might of Uindarrg without their magic.
Qarim roared across the lake at Uindarrg, presumably returning the insults. Both dragons traded grunts, baritone warbles and snorted acrid smoke. The blood-scaled behemoth grew ever more infuriated with Qarim’s presence and pummelled his thick tail through the fallen Tower of Arcana, cutting it in half. Uindarrg’s wings fanned a cloud of debris into the sky while he hurled great hunks of broken stone across the lake, bellowing in a titanic tantrum fit to strike fear into the mother of all creation.
How had it come to this? Qarim was a huge dragon, but Uindarrg was just as big, if not bulkier. What happened after the males broke their standoff? Surely Qarim couldn’t defeat Uindarrg and all of the other dragons on his own. Elrin, Minni and Kettna were less than nothing compared to these dragons. They’d be crushed under foot.
As if sensing Elrin’s worry, Qarim checked his three wards and nudged them closer behind his flank. “Novice Kettna, do you know a spell of audience?”
“I do, Elder Qarim.”
“Then summon ears for you three to hear.” The golden dragon turned back to face his foe. “Calimska’s guest shall soon negotiate his demise. Be ready, but do not intervene.”
The sorceress was quick to oblige Qarim, drawing her sword and scribing a silver rune upon the dirt. She thrust the blade into the earth and wisps of silver light sprung into the air all around them. Minni grimaced in disgust at the neglectful use of a fine weapon, but Kettna was too pleased with the spell to notice. Elrin’s dagger was pleased too and vibrated in sympathy with the magic of the sword. His hand caressed the bloodstone pommel and voice of Ungx Vohun washed through his mind.
Let us battle, Xer Quilosh.
Ancient feuds are bitter, but dragon blood is sweet.
Minni grabbed Elrin’s wrist and pulled him back. “What are you thinking? That blade wouldn’t shave a whisker off a red that size.”
Elrin had drawn the dagger without realising and was boldly stepping out to do battle with a dragon. What madness had come over him? There was no blood fruit here to revive his body nor was there an archangel to guide his spirit. Here in Oranica, Elrin had to be cautious with his life. Did Ungx Vohun understand that? The magic runes glowed with hunger and it was all Elrin could mentally do to force the dagger back into its sheath. In protest the bloodstone dagger hid itself from view, but Elrin still felt its magical thrum of power like a pulse in his anxious palm.
Minni squeezed Elrin’s shoulders and stared him in the eye. “This is no fight for us,” she whispered. “Let the big oafs have their pissing contest. The moment they draw blood, we run. It’s our only chance.”
“What about Kettna?” asked Elrin, looking at the sorceress who was entranced by the spell of audience. Currents of magic rippled over Kettna’s garments and silver light gleamed from her eyes. Elation took hold, parting her lips with a quickening breath.
Minni grabbed Elrin’s gaping jaw and returned his gaze to her. “I don’t trust that woman.” Her dragon eyes narrowed. “And neither should you.”
“The Inspector? She’s always been honest with me. And don’t forget she’s got connections who can help. Her mother’s the Archmagus and she works for the Constable. Surely we need—“
“Her connections are liabilities. The powerful will do all they can to keep their power. I bet my blades the entire council of guilders knows about the slaves. The Guildmaster’s no fool. Blind eyes are too easy to buy. Follow Kettna and she’ll have us in chains before I can say I told you so.”
Elrin would never convince Minni to trust Kettna, no matter the argument. He wondered if anyone could persuade Minni of anything. She was so damn stubborn. He’d just have to let Kettna’s honesty and integrity prove the rogue otherwise.
In any case, their disagreements paled in comparison to that between Qarim and Uindarrg. Kettna’s spell of audience took hold inside their ears. While the dragons’ roared, bellowed and shouted in their ancient primal language, Elrin heard their words translated in Calimskan too. First, it was uncomfortable and confusing to understand the dual sounds, but once he relaxed his mind to just listen rather than understand, it all became frightfully clear.
“The city is mine! I made claim by right of conquest.” roared Uindarrg from across the lake. “Begone! Or face my wrath.”
“Your city?” asked Qarim, his voice the epitome of assured sovereignty. “It certainly doesn’t appear that way. If Calimska were yours, why do you cower on an island. If it were yours, why do you hide under blanket, spurning the magic you were born to master? Unless… No. Surely the mighty Uindarrg isn’t afraid an island of arcane scholars might best him?”
“I don’t have to answer to you anymore, nor play your mind games,” bellowed Uindarrg. “I’ll do what I wish.”
“And so you shall suffer the consequences,” warned Qarim.
“Do you challenge me?”
“I am your elder, your superior in all ways. I shall not break law nor custom. I have not come to kill you as indeed I should; for I know your crimes. I know your predilections. Your mother protected you for far too long. Where is Goranuk? Within wing to keep you safe I imagine?”
Uindarrg cowed his head then raised his chin. His neck flared like a giant cobra. “She’s close enough to snuff you out should she wish it. But why bother? You’re beneath her.”
Qarim laughed. “I thought as much. Even now she keeps you, nuzzled and close to nest. Her sweet nature? Or doesn’t she trust you? Perhaps Goranuk is testing you with Calimska. Not as easy as you imagined, is it? You slumbered too long, Uindarrg. The world has changed.”
Uindarrg pummelled the ground with his fists. “You’re one to talk! Swooping in for your precious Dankethia. It is she who’s kept under wing. It is she who lingers close to the sacred hoard.”
“My daughter is no longer here,” said Qarim, his voice unsteady. “Nor would she want you to be.”
“Lies!” screeched the red from across the water. Uindarrg’s voice was so strong, Elrin flinched from the pain in his ears. “Dankethia called for me while I slumbered. Begged me to return. To save her.”
“Save her? You were deceived. Are you sure it wasn’t Zarkus? It wouldn’t be the first time he’s decieved you.”
Uindarrg belched fire in an uncontrollable rage. With a roar he launched into the air. His back legs were so strong that he beat his wings no more than three times and was across the lake. A cloud of dust and smoke swelled in his wake as he careened over the smouldering harbour and hit the ground in front of Qarim. In an avalanche of muscle and momentum, Uindarrg roared to a stop not more than an inch away from the Qarim’s golden nose.
The red monster’s jaws hinged wide enough to swallow a horse and wagon. Scores of sword length fangs dripped with saliva as he belted his fury in Qarim’s face.
Qarim didn’t flinch. A low snarl rattled in his throat. “That was a brave journey you just made. Try your best or do your worst. Either way, I welcome your death.”
Uindarrg raised his head higher and higher desperate to show his dominance. Qarim matched the big red until they were up on their hind legs, wings beating up whirlwinds just to keep balance. It was a remarkable display, both majestic and terrifying. Neither male retreated, nor did they touch, though they came perilously close. Uindarrg was thicker set than Qarim and rippling with engorged muscles, but Qarim’s energetic presence radiated like a beacon of glory. His magical power far surpassed Uindarrg, as did his height. No matter how tall Uindarrg stretched, Qarim’s eyes always looked down upon him.
The gold dragon’s lips curled in a victorious smirk. The rumble in his belly betrayed not malice, but amusement.
“All that bluster,” chuckled Qarim, unwavering in his posture. “All that strength. You are to be feared, Uindaarg. That is for certain. But rage will never garner respect. Your absence has not been missed, for your slumber was not earned.”
Uindarrg’s balance faltered and was forced to back down several yards from Qarim, lest he fall upon his Elder. Qarim maintained his towering regal posture to assert his supremacy for a moment longer then rested back onto his haunches like a golden emperor reclining on a throne. He clasped his hands upon his lap and regarded Uindarrg without a word.
The cool silence riled Uindarrg into a rage just as easily as taunting did. The big red dragon trampled left and right, gouging up a cobbled road with his claws. He destroyed a grand old willow tree with his fiery breath and hurled an apple cart at the city walls. Unfortunately, the charred and half eaten body of a horse was still tethered to the cart. Like a macabre bolas it spun end over end and hit the golden shield with an awful explosion. It rained down splintered wood, horseflesh and roasted apples.
Uindarrg was most pleased and his anger burned into a maniacal laugh. “I don’t need to beat you, Qarim. You’ve already lost. You were outplayed. Your precious Dragon Choir is broken and all dragonkind will finally see the truth of your teachings. Your gods are poison. Living beside the lesser races has weakened us. Our place is above them, beside our creator. King of Kings. Lord of all. Do not forget who you served, Grand Marshal.”
The gold dragon released a hefty sigh. “Never a sunset fades without me thanking the stars I came to my senses. There still might be a chance for you, Uindarrg. First you must see the hypocritical argument you make. Your mother and father needed the help of a human to—”
“He’s not my father!” roared Uindarrg.
“Of course, of course, how could I forget the betrayals of your lineage. Let us not digress. Your every effort so far has relied on assistance from people you so despise. The gods of light shine a path for all races to live in peace. Through forgiveness, love and—”
“Understanding… Yes, Yes. My ears still bleed with the tripe you taught us in nursery. I’ve had enough of this.”
“Good. If you don’t know your folly now, you shall discover it when you retreat from my sight.”
Uindarrg looked across the lake to the Isle of Solitude. In the red dragon’s absence, the sorcerers had managed to breach the fog of anti-magic with a mighty explosion. A flare of energy shot into the sky trailing white smoke behind it. Once high above the island it burst into five comets that streaked away in all directions.
“You were stalling,” growled Uindarrg. “Secrets and subterfuge.
“Now you’re catching on. I hope you tallied your hostages before you left the island. Can your lackeys count? The lesser races are faster than you think. They’re stronger too. You’ll need to keep your wits. My advice: Return to your dear mother and give her my regards. Leave now and you live. Stay here to stake your claim and you will die.”
“Let them go. Let them cower and quiver. Where do they hope to gain allies?” Uindarrg curled his red lips in a snarl of contempt and let out a throaty rumble of laughter. “Let them flee as far as they wish. There’s no escape. No army shall march to help Calimska. Dragons of honour, loyal to our King, have been planning this for centuries. We’ve already surrounded Tashiska. Jando will soon be in hand. There are no cities, no nations safe from our might. The Dragon Choir can no longer restrain our rightful supremacy. Your governance was a sham. The pact locked us in chains and now we will be free. Drensel Tath shall return to unify all of Oranica. One god. One king. One peace.”
“One problem,” sneered Qarim. “Your megalomanic godking has no intention of peace or unity. Drensel Tath feeds on spite and slavery. The dragons of light shall prevail, Uindaarg. It’s not too late to join us. Return to the sacred hoard and serve dragonkind’s best interests. Leave Calimska before it’s too late.”
“You won’t stop me. You can’t, the oath of Elders prevents it.”
“True. I can’t kill you because of my oath and you can’t kill me because you are not my match. Nor will you ever be. Remember this Uindarrg. I don’t have to kill you. You’ve made a list of enemies longer than your tail. The longer you stay here, the longer the list grows.”
“It is I who shall let you live, Qarim,” insisted Uindarrg. “I want you to weep as your precious legacy crumbles. Calimska will be mine. It will be returned to my family as the King promised. If Daniakesh is gone, this shield won’t save them. I’ll starve them out, burn them out, strike so much fear into their hearts that they beg for mercy. And when the King returns, know that his law will prevail. You’re on the wrong side of this history, Qarim. Your ‘gods of light’ will be hurled among the stars and bleed from the heavens. Drensel Tath shall reclaim the sacred hoard again and rule all of Oranica.”
“Then I shall see you on the battlefield. The dragons of light will never bow before a tyrant king!”
Uindarrg roared mightily then took to the sky flying back to the Island of Solitude to secure his hostages. Elrin hoped that the Order of Calim had been given enough time to plan an escape, but secretly he was grateful the red monster had retreated. Kettna did not look pleased at all.
“Why did you let him go?” she asked, letting the spell of audience fade away.
Qarim’s natural voice returned and was apologetic. “I could not force him to stay.”
“You should’ve killed the bastard!” yelled Minni. “Problem solved.”
“Uindarrg didn’t attack me, my oath prevents me from—”
“Oh, save it,” said Minni, unafraid to interrupt the dragon. “I don’t give a damn about your oaths. You could have buried him and instead you’re going to let him bury Calimska. You dragons are so full of your own importance. What’s a few softskin shortlifes? Isn’t that right?”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” said Qarim. “Yet, this is how it must be. The fate of Oranica rests in your hands.”
“How can three of us save Calimska, let alone all of Oranica?” asked Kettna, sheathing her sword.
“You must enter Danikesh’s den and secure the bloodstone armies or all is lost. I cannot penetrate this shield with mind, magic or body. It makes me sick just to be near it. It repels me, revolts me, but it’s an abomination that also keeps Uindarrg from Daniakesh’s hoard.”
“You want us to raid Daniakesh’s hoard?” asked Elrin. “But it’s beneath Castle Roost. There’s no way we could get through. Beside’s the Guildmaster will be holding vigil to power the golden shield.”
“All the better then,” said Qarim. “You all have unfinished business with the Guildmaster. Yes?”
The rogue in Minni couldn’t help but ask, “Can we keep any treasure we find?”
“It’s the people’s treasury,” argued Kettna. “You can’t lament the fate of a city and then ask to rob it blind.”
Minni screwed her face up at the sorceress. “And here I was trying to be polite. Next time I won’t ask.”
“What good is treasure if we fail our quest?” asked Elrin, calculating the magnitude of what Qarim suggested. “If the demons I faced inside this dagger were unleashed upon Oranica, there would be a great war upon the land. Tens of thousands lived within one bloodstone. Who knows how many more Ungx Vohun had brooding? Then there’s your sword, Kettna, and how many more?”
“Only the gods of light truely know. They who forged them. Elrin, your father was working with Daniakesh to secure each bloodstone army so they could never be used against the gods of light again. You must hurry. If Uindarrg captures Calimska and discovers the weapons, Zarkas and Goranuk will be unstoppable. Finish what Arbajkha and Daniakesh could not, for each weapon contains an army bloodsworn to Drensel Tath. On condition of surrender, each army was forgiven by the gods of light and an entire world was forged for them to create a new life inside the bloodstones. Thus Oranica entered the Age of Grace.”
“They’re all trapped in there?” asked Minni. “Hundreds of thousands of souls in a prison.”
“Do you think Oranica is a prison?” snapped Qarim. “The gods forged this world for you to make of it what you can. Before the Age of Grace, Drensel Tath almost destroyed it all. There was no violent aberration nor unholy corruption he would not consider to get what he desired. A world at war was not enough. Plague and famine were not enough. When the people of Oranica rose up against their oppressors, Drensel Tath gathered armies from the five hells to conquer Oranica. Our world was not his to give and was not theirs to take. The gods of light sacrificed much for your ancestors and were merciful to the enemy. They saved our world and made more anew for the dark armies. The great pact ensured peace. So must you.”
“Why don’t the gods do their own dirty work?” asked Minni. “If the gods of light had any care for us mortals they’d have stepped in and stitched it up.”
“The gods of light are bound by their oaths, just as I am,” said Qarim. “The pact is all that keeps Oranica from being torn apart by chaos. We are their mortal instruments and so we shall play in this symphony for good or ill. You have your parts to play and I have mine. I must return to protect the sacred hoard.”
“You can’t be serious!” yelled Minni. “Look around! Calimska is under seige. Not to mention Gren. There’s a storm of evil stuffed with dragons plotting the end of Oranica and you’re going to sit on a pile of treasure?”
Qarim bowed his neck and huffed smoke from his nostrils. “Your anger is understandable, but misguided. The first oath of the Dragon Choir is to protect the nursery. Gold is nothing compared to our children. Obst and I are the last of the Choir, but we shall rally the dragons of light and sing a sky of blessings to prepare for what is to come. May your hearts be true and the light of the gods guide you. Farewell.”
Minni began to apologise, but her mouth choked on dust and ash kicked up by the mighty gold dragon opening his wings. The wise Elder turned toward the lake and jumped into the air, beating his wings until he found a thermal to aid his ascent. Uindarrg roared from the Isle of Solitude but it was all show with little effect. Qarim sang in deep warbles punctuated with high sparkling trills. A handful of young dragons flew to his call. They mimicked the song and encouraged a few more to join their flight. Together, Qarim and his already growing army of light flew north and east to the Hoard Islands.