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Book One of the Dragonkin Trilogy
In a land haunted by the legacy of dead dragons, Rowen Locke has been many things: orphan, gravedigger, mercenary. All he ever wanted was to become a Knight of Crane and wield a kingsteel sword against the kind of grown horrors his childhood knows all too well. But that dream crumbledreplaced by a new nightmare. War is overrunning the realms, an unprecedented duel of desire and revenge, steel and sorcery. And for one disgraced man who would be a Knight, in a world where no one is blameless, the time has come to decide which side he's on.
PROLOGUE Fadarah turned his tattooed face to the granite walls of U'dan, greatest of the Free Cities of the Simurgh Plains. Morning light crested the city's crenelated battlements, shown through its white banners sewn with black, intertwining serpents, and cast long, taut shadows off a forest made not from trees, but the raised arms of trebuchets. The sun was in Fadarah's eyes now. He did not blink. He was, after all, a Shel'ai. What was the sun, if not fire? But the soldiers arrayed in vast columns behind the Sorcerer-General were Human and they winced as the sun climbed higher into the crisp whiteness of the morning sky, blazing right in their faces. These men knew what all good fighters had known since the dawn of time-to fight with your face in the sun was madness. Courage and armor meant nothing if you could not see. Still, when Fadarah ordered them forward, his Horde would obey without question. After all, they knew they had nothing to fear from U'dan's archers and murder-holes, her broad battlements and stout, sealed gates. No, the Nightmare would take care of those. Heavy, oppressive silence filled the morning air. Everyone waited. Then, at last, Fadarah gave the order. He raised one mailed fist as he spoke. He loosened his fingers. At once, tendrils of wytchfire burst to life, igniting above his open palm. The violet flames coursed the length of his arm but left him untouched. The closest men felt the awful heat and drew back. "Send forth my Nightmare!" Fadarah raised himself to his full height in the saddle of his huge, oxblood-colored horse as he spoke. Even without his armor, even without the wytchfire coursing from his fingers and melting as violet wisps into the open air, he would have been an imposing figure. He was at least seven feet tall, broad-shouldered, muscled like an Ogre, and tattooed from his shaved head to his fingertips in strange blue glyphs. As his single order resonated in the morning air, the Sorcerer-General could sense his men's unease. Twenty thousand strong, bristling with spears and drawn blades, shod in armor, they still feared magic. They feared Fadarah. But more than him, they feared the Nightmare. Fadarah could not blame them. He feared it, too. The Sorcerer-General closed his fist, extinguishing the wytchfire. He seized the reins of his horse instead. He did this only because he did not want his soldiers to see his hands shake when the Nightmare came forward. Even after all this time, even knowing that the Nightmare had once been a man-a friend-Fadarah could not help it. No one could, Fadarah reminded himself. That was, after all, the point. He told himself this again as he sensed its approach, long before he heard it. Beneath his gauntlets, he clenched the reins of his horse until his knuckles turned white as the pupils of his eyes. His horse fared no better. Despite the bloodmare's training, it would have panicked had Fadarah not used magic to keep it steady. Pity no one can do that for me, he thought, as the Nightmare drew closer. Unease swept through the ranks. The men of the Horde had all seen the Nightmare before, many of them were conscripts from cities it had conquered, but even the most hardened soul could not stave off the panic for long. Some men turned and ran. Others wept. The entire, well-disciplined army might have collapsed into riot had Fadarah and the other Shel'ai not planned ahead. The great army was divided into two halves. This gave the men at least some distance from the monstrosity. A wide, empty space ran right up the middle of the host, up to Fadarah's back. This space was the corridor down which the Nightmare would travel on its way to the walls of U'dan. Fadarah wanted to yank his mount to one side right now, but he knew he needed to move slowly. The men of the Horde must not see him afraid of his own creation. With supreme effort, he gently tugged the reins, clicked his spurs, and urged his bloodmare sideways, farther and farther, until he was out of the Nightmare's path. The red horse fought his control, tried to move faster, but Fadarah gave no ground. At last, much more slowly than both of them wanted, beast and rider were planted in front of the northern half of his army. Fadarah watched the Nightmare pass by. Twelve figures escorted it, all on foot, all wearing bone-white cloaks extravagantly sewn with crimson greatwolves. Each figure wore his or her cloak with its hood raised. Beneath those hoods, Fadarah knew, were angular features similar to his own. Long, tapered ears. Violet eyes, the pupils of which were not black, but white as mist. The dragon's mist. Fadarah made no motion to the twelve as they passed, nor they to him. To do so would have been disastrous. Controlling the Nightmare required the keenest concentration. If the twelve lost their focus, the Nightmare would free itself. It would destroy not just U'dan, but the army behind it, including the Shel'ai who had once been its friends. Fadarah forced himself to gaze upon the monstrosity sloughing forward at the center of the twelve's broad circle. It was a huge, dark thing. Fire leaked from gaps in its scales like blood from an open wound. Fadarah quickly wrenched his eyes away, sickened. He fought back tears then steadied himself. It was Iventine's decision to go to Cadavash. Not mine. As the Nightmare continued toward U'dan, yoked by the Shel'ai who controlled it, Fadarah thought of the others. El'rash'lin, Aerios, Silwren, Kith'el. Four brave souls, like Iventine, who voluntarily subjected themselves to Namundvar's madness. Who risked insanity by fusing themselves with the awful contents of the well, deep within the wretched vaults of Cadavash. Who became not just Shel'ai, but Dragonkin. Fadarah shuddered. He prayed they would never be needed. Then he wrested his attention back to the matters at hand. After all, there was an army to maintain. To prevent widespread panic and desertions, the rest of the Shel'ai commanded individual battalions throughout the host. The sight of the imposing sorcerers in bone-white cloaks was usually enough to squelch any rebellion before it started. And if intimidation failed, there was always wytchfire. Still, there was only so much that could be done about the horses. Thanks to Fadarah's magic, his bloodmare anxiously pawed the ground but did not bolt. Others were not so lucky. Steel spurs vainly raked the flanks of countless rounceys and palfreys, drawing blood to no avail. Within moments, five broad, orderly rows of armored horsemen wavered like wheat in a harvest wind. Horses reared, casting scores of men to the ground. Other horses galloped off, hauling their hapless riders with them. Fadarah glanced at U'dan, wondered if the city's defenders were emboldened by the sight of such upheaval. Probably not, he told himself. After all, U'dan was the Nightmare's target. "Hold the line!" he shouted. He drew his sword-an impressive, two-handed thing big enough for an Ogre-and waved it high for emphasis. "Captains, stand by your battalions! Prepare to attack!" Then, his heart in his throat, he turned his full attention to the Nightmare. The circle of Shel'ai had drawn their monstrosity to a halt. They were now just beyond the range of U'dan's famous archers and would go no farther. Those Shel'ai in front of the Nightmare withdrew, and the twelve formed a single row behind it. The sound of the Nightmare's ragged breath filled the air like a blacksmith's bellows. Even stooped, the beast was huge. Eyes like two iced, black stones faced the sun-lit city. For a long time, nothing moved. Then the Shel'ai sent it forward. The Nightmare howled as it leaped forward. Cries of panic spread across the high stone walls of U'dan. Some of the city's defenders fled, dropped weapons, abandoned their posts. Others were made of sterner stuff. These leapt into action. The Nightmare was within bow-range now. All along the granite walls, hundreds of bowstrings shuddered in the morning light. A broad, dark cloud rose against the sun. Fadarah saw in that cloud enough arrows to shred an entire battalion of horsemen. Yet he knew not one would hit its mark. He smirked as hundreds of wood shafts burst to cinders just before they might have struck, ignited by the intense heat now rising in waves off the Nightmare's body. Barreling through a waterfall of ash, the Nightmare continued its charge. U'dan's archers admirably managed three more volleys, but even their final, closest volley burst to cinders. Then, they did something even Fadarah had not anticipated. All along the walls, men tipped great, sloshing cauldrons over the battlements. Water fell in fast, clear braids, flooding the plains, transforming the earth beyond the base of the walls into a swamp. Fadarah smiled. "Clever," he grudgingly admitted. The Nightmare hurtled itself forward. Steam rose in thick, gray clouds. For a moment, fog swallowed the high walls of U'dan. Even the flaming Nightmare momentarily vanished in the hiss. Fadarah sensed a new kind of unease sweep through the already unsettled ranks of his Horde. He sensed the reason just as easily. None of the conquered cities had ever tried water before. Perhaps it would work. Perhaps the demon really could be snuffed out by as innocuous a weapon as water. Men gripped weapons. If the Nightmare was gone, they might have to fight with the sun in their eyes after all. Then they heard the sounds. They echoed across the Simurgh Plains. Screams. The crack of ancient granite. The great shudder caused by tons of stone tumbling to earth. Then more screams. Fadarah swore. Although the fog blocked his sight, he could guess what was happening. But that was not enough. He wanted to see. He thrust his two-handed sword toward the sky, sunrise flashing down its steely face like blood. "The walls are breached! U'dan has fallen!" He waved his blade. "Follow me!" Raw exhilaration flooded his body. He led the charge himself. The army hesitated only a moment, then roared to life and streamed after him. Cavalry, pikemen, archers. Shel'ai. All followed the Sorcerer-General as he rode toward the fog-shrouded city. Perhaps some worried that beyond the fog, the walls of U'dan still stood. Then the fog broke and the men saw that once again, their Sorcerer-General had won. U'dan's entire central wall was gone! Broken, blasted stones littered the plains, along with puddles of wet ash: all that remained of the gates. There were dead men everywhere. Archers, men-at-arms, U'dan's reserves. Horns blared frantic declarations of surrender from the sections of wall left intact. No one had the heart to fight now. Left with no option, armed men surrendered, half-expecting Fadarah's Horde to mow them down anyway. They didn't. What had breached the walls was gone, vanished as surely as it appeared. Fadarah's soldiers freely granted mercy-even pity-to the survivors. Rather than conquerors, they were almost liberators, for their appearance coincided with the Nightmare's disappearance. Horde captains sheathed their weapons and coordinated efforts to aid the injured, to prevent widespread rape and murder. They did not do this out of some rare inclination toward compassion; they were simply following Fadarah's orders. Fadarah himself took no part in this. He only wanted to see the city for himself. Once done, he watched instead as twelve Shel'ai emerged, exhausted, from the ruins and fog. Dust and blood stained their bone-white cloaks now, but their hoods were still drawn. They knew it would not do for Humans to see the expression on their faces. But the men of the Horde were too busy looting or tending to injured, shocked prisoners to pay much attention to the twelve Shel'ai. So no Human saw what Fadarah saw: a thirteenth cloaked figure slumped amid the others, supported on each arm by one of the twelve. Iventine . . . "Take him back to the camp. Hide him. Let me know if his condition worsens." The other Shel'ai nodded, all too tired to speak. As they passed, Fadarah caught a brief glimpse within Iventine's hood. Ghastly, sunken cheeks. Wild, blood-shot eyes. He turned away. By the time the Sorcerer-General retired to his tent, it was nearly sundown. He felt exhausted but was careful to conceal this from his Human servants. He calmly accepted a goblet of cool wine, then dispassionately ordered them away. He waited until he was alone, then swooned and nearly collapsed. The ominous armor that made him look so imposing now weighed him down incredibly, much too heavy for a Sylv. But I am not a Sylv, Fadarah reminded himself. He touched the tapered points of his ears. Then he attacked the complicated lattice of straps and buckles that held his armor in place, casting it piece-by-piece to the ground. This morning, he had watched in the mirror as his servants helped him don his plate-mail: breast and backplates, pauldrons, couters, gauntlets, rerebraces, vambraces, tassets, and greaves. It took a long time. The mirror had been left in place. Now, Fadarah watched as he removed the armor by himself. That took even longer. But with each piece that fell, relief flooded his limbs. Half-done, Fadarah flexed his fingers and massaged one sore shoulder. Then he turned and saw his reflection. The Sorcerer-General's expression turned bitter. The same blue glyphs that tattooed Fadarah's face and hands covered the rest of his body, which was thickly muscled, as his father's must have been. My father. Fadarah grinned sardonically at the thought. His mother had been Wyldkin, one of those few, renegade Sylv who lived beyond the majestic Wytchforest-not because they were forced to, like those born with the dragonmist, but because they wanted to. She and her husband made their home somewhere between Sylvos and the land of the Ogres. What exactly happened next, Fadarah did not know. But he could guess. Wyldkin were used to running from Ogres, but sometimes, they were caught anyway. Fadarah knew the Ogres must have killed his mother's husband. Perhaps they tortured him first, then devoured him raw. But that was nothing compared to what they did to his mother. Fadarah shuddered. The Sylvosi still told stories of female Wyldkin who kept small knives sheathed on the inside of their thighs-not for fighting, but to slit their own throats if there ever came a day when their only other option was being taken prisoner by Ogres. Fadarah did not know if his mother had carried such a knife, but he often thought that if she had, she should have used it. Staring absently at his reflection, he watched the muscles of his arm bulge beneath the tattoos. He stopped himself. True, he barely remembered her, but his mother must have been strong, too. She'd survived the Ogres, hadn't she? She even escaped, went back to the Sylvosi. There, she gave birth not to the child of her husband, the Sylvan baby she must have prayed was growing inside her, but to a brute. A half-Ogre. Worse, he had the dragonmist in his eyes! An abomination on two fronts. Fadarah shook his head. His mother might have killed him to spare her own disgrace; she didn't. They lived in Sylvos instead, alongside the Sylvosi. But even as a child, Fadarah felt feel their suspicion. Their hatred. How all of it must end. Fadarah winced. He shook himself, then drew his sword. He looked down at it. A fine length of exquisite kingsteel, fixed to a handle wrought of dragonbone. Many times, Fadarah had considered falling on it, just to end his torment. But this time, he quickly cast the sword aside. He knew he could not do that. His people needed him. Not the Sylvosi, not the Ogres, but the Shel'ai. "My . . . people." Fadarah laughed. Then he wept. He pressed one hand to his mouth, not wanting anyone to hear. This muffled the sound; still, his tattooed body jerked like he was being stabbed.