The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors.
The bright Oranican sunshine was nothing compared to the explosion of light that burst into Elrin’s heart. Minni’s kiss was a beacon of all that was bold and true in the world. Elrin’s cheeks flared hot and his pulse pounded like a smith’s hammer. On the inside he bounced like a jackrabbit and outside he felt as strong as a titan. There was nothing Elrin couldn’t overcome with Minella by his side.
In that small moment of perfection between their lips, Elrin tasted hope and drank from a stream of memories. He remembered the first time he met the beautiful rogue in Calimska. How she helped him escape, not knowing what would come. He remembered her belief in him, and he remembered her doubt. He remembered their first kiss through prison bars and her last looks as he flew away on the back of Tetula, the mighty silver dragon.
So enraptured was Elrin by the flood of memories a moment passed before he realised Minella’s kiss was gone. So too were the mischievous dark eyes and freckled cheeks of their very first kiss. Now Minni stared at him with daffodil-yellow eyes. They bloomed amongst a rainbow of scales, gracing her cheeks and brow, trailing a path behind her delicate ears. Mystic indigo blended with delicate violet. Spring green mixed with winter blue. Warm summer orange glowed with ruby red. Together, all the colours of her scales accentuated her golden irises.
“It’s really you,” whispered Minni with her perfect lips. She gripped his arms and smiled. “I thought you were dead. We all did. What happened to you?” Minni ran her fingers through the tangle of hair Elrin accumulated and stroked his bearded cheek. He’d certainly been more a butcher than a barber in the arenas, opportunistically hacking at his mane only when it got in the way of fighting. Minni didn’t seem to mind. She squeezed his bare shoulders and arms, punctuating her brazen exploration with a flirtatious smile. “You’ve changed so much.”
“I might say the same thing,” Elrin tenderly took Minni’s scaled hands in his. “Is this magic or were you always this way? Underneath?”
“Would it matter if I were?” tested Minni, demonstrating her retractable claws.
They were dangerously sharp. Sharp enough to make one life bleed into another. Elrin’s love for Minni had returned, but not without the taint of the demoness. Queen Raznu lurked in the shadows of his desire, even now. It shamed him. He knew he should tell Minni about Raznu. She deserved his every truth. But what could he say? How could he break her heart and hope to keep her love?
Inspector Kettna cleared her throat. “I don’t want to intrude on this happy reunion, but now you’re back, Elrin, we need a plan. Every action delayed is momentum for the enemy.”
The sorceress’s words triggered another stream of Elrin’s memories. “I know those words. You quote from a book I know…”
“You’ve read, Battlefields of the Mind?” asked Inspector Kettna.
“Yes! Serakene of Verdunvale.” Hearing the book title was like a sputtering candle relit. “I’ve read all her works. I must have. I know that I know them, but my memory… Everything I knew before is so distant. I can’t quite reach the words to describe what should be there or fathom what’s actually missing.” Elrin rubbed his temples and concentrated. “It’s like all my life here in Oranica has been submerged in a dark lake. I don’t know what I should look for. I can feel there’s so much beneath me. But what?”
“I can’t decide if you’re confused or bragging,” said Minni, her grin as wicked as it always was. “Either of you magic-makers have a spell for trousers. This star-spangled cloak is no doubt fancy, but it’s a little impractical in a fight. Unless of course, Elrin’s planning on shocking the enemy to death.”
For all his time with demons who thought nothing of bare flesh, Elrin had forgotten the disgrace of public nudity. He blushed and drew the cloak tighter.
The inspector reddened too. “I know a spell, but I wouldn’t presume to work such trivial magic before the might of Elder Qarim.”
Qarim chuckled. “Proceed, Novice. Show us your skill. There are no small works of magic. All feats enliven the weave.”
Elrin held his breath while the air danced with twirls of translucent energy. The gold dragon was so infused with magic his laughter caused eddies in the weave. More surprising to Elrin was the fact that he could see the magic currents, just as he had inside the dagger. Was this what mages always saw? It was beautiful and powerful in equal measure. A force of nature dancing in the unseen of everything.
Inspector Kettna bowed to Qarim and began her spell. Elrin didn’t understand the words of magic she spoke or the ritual signs she patterned with her hands, but he did see the feint trails of magic emanate around her fingers. The energy began to take shape then faltered, sputtering out like an exhausted candle before dispersing into nothingness. The sorceress grimaced and arched her spine with a pained shiver.
“I … I shame you, Elder Qarim,” gasped Kettna. “My talent is shallow.”
“You are chosen by Daniakesh,” said the dragon. “Do you deny her?”
“More’s the shame of it.” Kettna bowed low and averted her eyes from Qarim’s judgement. “Daniakesh made a mistake in me. I’ve not lived up to expectations.”
“Time reveals all,” assured Qarim.
“But I saw you hurl magical discs back at Stoneheart’s Bridge.” Minni argued. “They were sharp enough to cut dragonscale. And you flew like a raven to save us both from the fall. What’s a pair of trousers compared to that?”
The sorceress gritted her teeth. “You wouldn’t understand. Magic is complex.”
“Try me, Inspector.” Minni picked at the mage’s irritation like a scab, testing if the wound would weep.
“Daniakesh has been gone for a long time,” explained Elrin, giving the Inspector an out. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. A rope stretched tight will eventually fray and snap. Your special connection might have stretched so far that it’s weakened your inherent talent. When a mage’s familiar is injured or dies, the mage suffers too. Isn’t that right? Maybe it’s a bit like that.”
Kettna smiled at Elrin. “A simple metaphor; I appreciate the intent, if not the accuracy.”
“So dragon’s make mages their slaves, sorry familiars?” Minni’s face was pure innocence, yet her intent was nothing of the sort.
“It’s nothing like that.” Kettna looked apologetically at the elder dragon towering over them. How easy it would have been for Qarim to snuff them out.
“Why don’t you and Qarim connect?” Minni pressed on, enjoying the growing air of discomfort. “He’s got to be dripping with magic. I’m no mage and even I can feel his power. I can smell it on him like musk. Come to think of it, Qarim, you positively ree—”
“Enough!” Kettna snapped. “Mind your tongue and show some respect.”
Qarim huffed a small cloud of smoke. He was either laughing or stoking a belly full of hell for Minni.
“I thought it was a fair call.” Minni dug deeper. “Don’t be coy now, Inspector. What’s a bit of magic between friends? Qarim won’t mind. I mean, there’s no harm in asking.”
“I wouldn’t presume to insult Elder Qarim with such a request. Such things are just not done.”
“Come forward, Novice.” Qarim’s deep voice rolled like the sea. “Present the blade.”
Kettna did as she was told and Qarim slid a golden finger over the honed edge; a finger longer than the blade itself. The dragon’s scaled hide split and blood painted the blade. Not a drop was lost to the earth. The sword drank every crimson offering and the arcane sigils radiated with voracity.
Qarim stroked the fresh cut over the blunt side of the sword and the wound closed over. “Now. Find the sword’s power, Novice. Ask Tetula’s spirit to guide you. Beware the demons within.”
Kettna gripped the sabre with both hands and concentrated. The sigils burned bright and magic swelled around the sorceress. She opened glowing silver eyes and grinned with the power in her grasp and the magic in her veins.
“Careful,” said Qarim with a toothy smile. “Show young Elrin how to wield magic with restraint.”
Elrin wondered what Qarim meant. Before he could articulate a question upon his lips, Qarim was in his mind.
Watch closely, Elrin. Your return from the dagger was a comet through the eye of a needle. Never waste magic. It is a sacred blessing to be honoured. Not a curse to rile the heavens. You’ve much to learn and small time to learn it.
Elrin looked up at Qarim, wondering what the towering dragon could mean, willing the ancient intelligence to divulge more. Qarim was not forthcoming, or more likely Elrin’s mental fortitude did not even register. What man could compel a dragon? Qarim’s lips stretched back over his teeth in either a grin or a sneer. His powerful head dipped toward the sorceress, encouraging Elrin to focus his attention.
Kettna’s fingers spun silken tendrils of magic which unwound the hem of her moss-green robe. Inch by inch the threads stitched a new pair of breeches. The enchanted apparel floated through the air and fell into Elrin’s waiting hands. He pulled them on; a perfect fit just over his knees, soft and snug.
The sorceress unthreaded more of her hem and fashioned a simple baldric, incorporating a loop of woven reeds to hold Elrin’s bloodstone dagger. She did the same for her sword and by the end of the spell, Kettna’s hem drifted dangerously high across her pale thighs. By the end, Kettna was ecstatic with the joy of magical creation, her skin flushed and sweating, her breathing heavy with exertion.
Minni huffed and jabbed Elrin in the ribs. “You’ve got yourself covered, but nothing’s for nothing. Give Kettna her cloak back before you lose your eyes where they need not wander. And here, take your vest back. Now we’ll all at least be half decent.”
“These trousers are wonderful.” Elrin rubbed the soft green fabric. “Can your magic construct armour as well?”
The silver in the Inspector’s eyes faded away and her elation went with it. “Do you see any metal laying around? I can’t alter the essence of core elements. I could weave you an illusion of grand shining plate if you like, but it wouldn’t stop a blunt spoon.”
“Of course. Forgive my ignorance on such things. Such a garment is superior to anything I’ve had in years.” Elrin bowed with full honours for Kettna’s status as Inspector and Novice. “I’m humbled by your gift, truely. Thank you, Inspector.”
“Please, just call me Kettna,” she said, welcoming his good etiquette with a smile. “What good are titles in the wilderness?”
“No better than titles in Calimska,” said Minni, keen on turning the conversation. “The names you shiners depend on are just shields for corruption.” The rebel general opened the black seal message and handed it to Elrin, her face stern. “You’ll want to read this. As much as it will hurt, it’s time you knew the truth about Herder Kleith.”
Elrin’s throat went dry. The folded note brought back a rush of old memories; his life in Calimska had been hard, scraping by on any work he could get. He remembered being a dishboy at the Cog and Wheel. That had been the most reliable job he’d had. He remembered Herder Kleith would occasionally introduce Elrin to rich guilders needing bit jobs done. The pay was meagre for a no name. He’d muck out stables, scrub floors, unload wagons, even bag sand. Still, a copper was a copper. He wasn’t too proud to get his hands dirty.
The best pay he’d ever earned was running messages without Courier Guild sanction. He’d run a lot of ‘errands’ around the city and the most lucrative jobs of all came with a black seal attached. He ferried them for both Herder Kleith and the Guildmaster. A black seal devoid of initial or insignia meant extra shine from the Guildmaster. How could Elrin forget? A silver tab day was a godsend. Elrin had assumed it was just another charity job, a special payment for pity’s sake. Herder Kleith always came through with a job when shine was needed. Elrin had never once pried about the contents of the messages. Maybe silver made for blind eyes, or poverty for stupidity.
The letter was damning. Elrin had to read it twice to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood.
The shankakin do not fare well. The increased schedule you have set is taking an awful toll. The workers delivered last moon started strong and healthy. Now they are half in number and half again are already afflicted by the lung blight. The shankakin take worse to it than the others. They are not suitable for work underground.
Have you considered the measures I outlined in our last meeting? Improving the conditions of work has the twin benefits of improved production and decreasing input costs.
Surely this is a good thing for all concerned.
“There must be an explanation,” said Elrin, though he couldn’t think of one. “Herder Kleith isn’t an evil man. He took care of me and my mother when father left. He has a good soul. Nathis knows it. And he helps people all over the city, not just us.”
Kettna read the note too and shook her head in disbelief.
“Did you know anything of this, Elrin?” asked the Inspector, her jaw set and brow stern. “What is it they do underground? Mining illegally? Why is Kleith hiring shankakin for labour? The Mining Guild would be furious.”
“The Mining Guild?” Minni raised her eyebrows and gave an incredulous gasp. “That’s what you’re thinking about? Curse the guilds! The shankakin aren’t hired. They’re slaves. Bought from Jando in exchange for black powder and the gods know what else besides.”
“What do you know of such things?” Kettna asked Minni, unmoved by the rogues accusations. “Do you have proof? They’re damning accusations.”
“I have this note thanks to Elrin and Delik Scrambletoe has a log of exchange from North Eye that incriminates Calimska in the slave trade with Jando. I expect he’ll be knocking at the Gold Gate soon, demanding heads to roll.”
“Scrambletoe?” Recognition and doubt flashed across Kettna’s face. “He’s one of the shankakin rebels isn’t he.”
“So what if he is?” Minni crossed her arms, a scowl warning Kettna not to sully Delik’s name.
“Well, if there’s a guard in the pocket of Jando, your friend won’t make it far in Calimska. That’s if he can get in, of course. After the dragons attacked, the Golden Shield is up and a curfew will be in force. Your friend won’t be getting through our gates unless he’s got a big bag of gold handy.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Minni grinned wryly.
“This is all news to me,” said Elrin. “I’ve missed so much. Minni, what happened at the Hoard Islands? And what do you mean, Inspector? Why’s the shield been raised before Surrender Moon? Is the city safe?”
Minni and the Inspector explained what had happened. Each woman had their own terrible tale to tell. Elrin struggled to comprehend it all. The armada was defeated and the Dragon Choir was broken. Dragons besieged Calimska, attacked North Eye and stole Amber away. The situation was dire indeed. Dragon season had come early and something was driving them mad for blood instead of gold.
While the chaos among dragons was a terrifying prospect, what troubled Elrin more was the black seal messages he had been carrying around Calimska. To learn that he had been a tool of this conspiracy made his stomach sink like a stone. It was against everything he valued. Slavery was abhorrent, yet he’d helped it go on all these years.
“How many messages did you take for Herder Kleith and the Guildmaster?” asked the Inspector.
Elrin frowned. There had been so many over the years. The truth of it choked him to silence.
“What does that matter?” asked Minni. “He’s already told you he didn’t know what they were. Give him a moment to breathe all this chaos in.”
“When Elrin stands trial, he’ll need to have a response,” replied Kettna.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Minni stroked a dagger at her hip. “I’ll see the Guildmaster dead before a useless trial twists the truth against Elrin. You know as well as I do that a man like the Guildmaster will alter any law to suit his deeds. Elrin’ll be made a scapegoat. Besides, the Guildmaster has to wait. We’ve got to save Amber before we do anything else.”
“No. The Order of Calim should take precedence over all,” argued the mage. “I’m not trying to diminish the life of your ward, but there are more lives in danger if Calimska and the Isle of Solitude are destroyed by Uindarrg. Not to mention the ancient knowledge safeguarded by our order. Some artefacts have outlived entire civilisations!”
“Oh no you don’t, shiner. Calimska has the damn shield and you know those sorcerers can look after themselves. Amber’s just a girl. We can’t abandon her to that black evil.”
Kettna kept her voice even, trying to be diplomatic. “Qarim, Tetula and I have already discussed the way forward. All things considered, Calimska is the best—”
“Oh! You’ve discussed it already?” interrupted Minni. “Without Elrin and I?”
“Calimska is the logical choice,” insisted Kettna. “We can save more people that way.”
“I don’t care about more people!” said Minni, her dragon eyes blazing yellow. “I care about one little girl and I won’t abandon her. Elrin, tell her I’m right. Amber needs us.”
Elrin clenched his teeth. What kind of a terrible choice was this to make? He felt for Amber, but blindly chasing a dragon wasn’t rational. “We rescued Amber from Uighara, but he was a man. If Amber was taken by a dragon, what hope do we have? Even if she’s still alive, how would we even know where to find her?”
“What if that dragon was sent by Uighara?” suggested Minni, desperate to find some hope. “He’s allied to the elders who broke from the Dragon Choir. What if they’re all after Amber’s power? If we rescue her it’ll ruin their plans.”
“That’s a leap of faith,” argued Kettna. “Decisions should be made on facts or not at all.”
“What about Delik and Hurn?” asked Elrin, trying to find a way to accomodate Minni’s point of view. “You said there was a second dragon on Stoneheart’s bridge.”
“Damn it!” yelled Minni. “Why doesn’t anyone understand? Amber’s just a little girl! We have to help her first!”
Elrin understood. Amber was so fragile, a leaf in the wind of war. Yet she could also be the fury of the storm. He’d seen her immense elemental power at sea. “What if there isn’t a right choice? Maybe we only have one path to take? You said you were called to Gren for a new prophecy. What does it say we should do?”
Minni recited the prophecy, saying the words with her eyes closed as though she prayed the answer would be in Amber’s favour.
The Stone shall mend the broken,
a mountain path to freedom.
The Prince crowned King by dragon spite,
trades his debt for Storm’s release.
The Storm shall bleed and sky unravel,
delighting the King’s return.
Death bell swings with fates unbound.
The Gods tremble uncertain.
“The Storm must be Amber, don’t you think?” Minni asked Elrin. “What if they took her as a sacrifice?”
“What if it’s the blood monsoon from the last prophecy?” asked Elrin. “There was a storm that rained blood inside the dagger. And they all called me, Xer Quilosh.”
Kettna gave him a quizzical look. “What language is that? I’m not familiar.”
“Of course you don’t know,” said Minni. “Good girl’s don’t play with demons, do they?”
“Oh, and you do?” sneered Kettna.
“Only if they play nice,” said Minni. “I’ve drunk with enough plane touched folk to have picked up a thing or two.”
“I don’t doubt it,” smirked Kettna. “But we don’t want to know about your sordid liaisons. Elrin, what does Xer Quilosh mean?”
“It means, Storm Bringer,” said Elrin, feeling uncomfortable with the blood-slick memories. “The demons all said it, but I didn’t understand their language for a long time.”
“Ash it!” Minni rubbed her forehead and clenched her eyes shut as if it would wipe away the problem. “Delik always said the prophecy was useless until the future was so close to the present it didn’t matter a jot anyway. If he were here now he’d know what to do, prophecy or not.”
“Forget the unknowns for now,” suggested Kettna. “Lets work on the most likely elements. The Stone could be Elder Stone. He keeps the mountain path open and holds the bridge together with his magic. The King could be Drensel Tath, he’s the king of dragons … but what of the Prince? One of his monstrous children? A demigod maybe? There’s too many to narrow it down.”
Qarim had been quietly observing their conversation with studied interest. That was until deep inside his chest came a rumble, ominous like distant thunder. His gums drew back, baring a company of sword-like teeth. At first, Elrin thought they’d said something to anger the dragon. Then he realised all the sharp teeth shone in a wagon-wide grin. Qarim’s rumble rolled on in deep laughter and the tip of his tail thumped the ground, shaking the branches of a nearby tree.
“What does a mighty dragon find so funny about the prophecy?” asked Minni.
“The prophecy isn’t read for mortals to ponder,” advised Qarim with the certainty of a sage. “The prophet speaks for Yoni to hear. Our fate is his gamble, not yours.”
“And we are his dice,” said Minni.
“What if that’s exactly the point?” asked Elrin. “What Qarim said makes perfect sense. Inside the dagger, Ungx Vohun told me that Yoni awaits my service. My father served Yoni too and was in the same dagger. What if we’re all like dice to the gods? What if Yoni is positioning us to accomplish a greater good?”
“Loading the dice, you mean,” said Kettna.
“All the better if we win,” grinned Minni. “You’re naive if you think the game is fair to start with. It’s better to know who we roll for than to be cast aside.”
“I remember my quest to find the Dragon Choir,” said Elrin, warmed by the growing flame of his memory. “I thought I’d find my father at the end. But now that I think of it, Herder Kleith only sent me to get help. He must have known that my father was connected to the Dragon Choir in the first place. Qarim, why did Herder Kleith think the Dragon Choir would bother to help find my father? It makes no sense.”
Qarim levelled his eyes upon Elrin, his stare heavy with the burden of truth. “Arbajkha was our agent, an envoy of particular skill.”
“My father worked for the Dragon Choir?” Elrin, flushing with pride at the idea. Not only did his father serve Yoni, he must have been a hero to dragonkind too.
“He did. In a manner of speaking.” Qarim was holding back far more than he was letting on.
Elrin wanted to drag every last piece of information about his father into the light. But there was no rushing a dragon, and he was no fool to think he could interrogate an Elder without consequences.
“So, in other words, Elrin’s father was a spy.” Minni cut straight to the bones of the matter.
“He may have been foreign born, but Arbajkha protected Calimska over and again,” said Kettna. “He was honoured and named Sentinel by Daniakesh. That’s not the work of a spy.”
Minni grinned and shook her head. “Of course, a title bestowed by a dragon. My mistake.”
“What’s it matter?” Elrin waved off her sarcasm. “If my father worked for noble dragons like Qarim, it proves he was a good man.”
Qarim sighed, swaying the reeds and scattering ripples across the lake. “Arbajkha has worn many names and done deeds both noble and dark. As have I. Good intentions often lead to ill. Do they not? And what of the unpleasant duty we foist upon our champions, our executioners? It’s a dark path they travel to keep our fires burning against the night. Be certain younglings, this is a path you three shall also travel.”
“What path is that?” asked Kettna.
“Yoni entrusted Arbajkha with a secret quest to secure the bloodstone weapons. So secret, even Tetula and I were not privy to his plan. None in the Dragon Choir knew. First, Daniakesh disappeared and then Arbajkha. You three must finish what Arbajkha could not.”
“I’m not biting,” said Minni. “This sounds like a big mess for gods and dragons to clean up. Why don’t you go to Calimska, mighty Qarim? You could fly to Calimska and tell this Uindaarg thug to shove off without much fuss. While you’re there dishing out noble justice and tidying up the city, loan me one of your dragon soldiers for the day, I’ll find Amber myself.”
“I’m an Elder of the Choir. I cannot attack my kin lest it be in defence. This is my oath. It is law.”
“Law?” Minni laughed. “Who’s going to know? It’s for the right reasons, isn’t it. If you’re getting visions from Yoni to come here and visit these croakers, the gods have your back.”
“Enough!” roared Qarim, unfurling his wings in agitation.
Dead leaves and dust whirled into the air, but Minni refused to cower. She didn’t even flinch. If anything she looked more determined than ever to go after Amber.
The plans of gods and dragons were otherwise.
A rising clamour of croaks sounded in the distance. Muden alarm calls echoed and multiplied around the valley of lagoons until the noise was so loud, great flocks of birds took to the sky, scattering in every direction. The danger so great, the very lake rippled in fear.
Qarim craned his neck to the south where a bank of clouds loomed, rising to an anvil shaped thunderhead that flickered with lightning.
“And so they come,” rumbled the gold dragon. “Earnest hearts darkened by shadow. Bright eyes blinded by glory.”