* * *
A shadow passed over my outcrop. Wondering how long it would be until rain came along, I looked up. The sky was clear blue – devoid of clouds. My brow scrunched up, but I dismissed the oddity to focus on the spear. I was spending too much time to make it pretty, but the real purpose was killing time while waiting for the trap to be tripped. The ash haft was still green wood, but I didn’t expect to find anything else. My neatest chert spearhead was attached to a notch in the end by glue and twine which I’d covered with a bark wrap. I didn’t expect it to come apart, but I now had more experience making spears than I did using them. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hermann looking at the sky in consternation. I was immediately distracted by a distant crash in the woods. It was followed by an angry roar. Snatching up my spear, I hurried in the direction of the noise. The roaring continued, bellows of rage and pain filling the air, and growing more intense as I approached the clearing where I’d set the trap.
The bear was huge, on all fours it was as tall as a horse at the shoulder, and could have been longer from front to back. Its shaggy brown fur was dribbling with red rivulets from where the chert-tipped stakes had been driven in. The shattered remnants of my trap were still lodged in its back, but the stone had fallen off. A wide, toothy maw opened with each bellow of rage. Forepaws with claws as long as my fingers dragged its front end around to bellow at me. I noticed that its hind legs were unresponsive as it pulled itself around. I’d broken the bear’s spine, but failed to get a clean kill. Taking hold of the middle and butt end of my spear, I held it high and forward, looking for a spot to strike and finish the job. As it roared and pawed the air in attempt to drive me off, I knew getting at the vitals from the front would be futile. Bears were robust creatures, and there was a lot of bone in the front quarters. No, I had to circle around and strike from the side. With the injury to the spine, that was doable, but I had to be quick.
I dashed to get around the bear before it could turn. With a booming thud, a scaly wall of muscle dropped into my path. I bounced off the charcoal black scutes and landed on my rear. A massive, taloned forelimb pinned the bear’s head and shoulders to the ground as a mouth full of blade-like teeth tore out its entrails. Rearing up to allow its tongue to draw in the dripping, ropy mass of innards, I got a clear look at the head. Squamous and angular, it had a long, narrow snout, and two prominent horns jutting out the back, almost doubling the length of the skull. The scales were a coal black, but where skin or membrane showed, it was a dark red, giving the dragon the appearance of smoldering embers. Blood still dripping from its jaws, the dragon’s attention snapped to the men on horseback just beyond the treeline.
Drawing in a sharp intake of breath, the dragon unleashed a white-hot inferno from its gullet that blossomed into orange flames as it erupted into the air. I heard the panicked whinny of horses as the flames swept along the trees, catching the wood alight. Soon the clearing was encircled in flames that crackled and spat as moisture in the trees burst into steam. Roiling black smoke blotted out the blue of the sky, and in moment I was stuck between the orange wall of the flames, and the black wall of the dragon’s hide. Some corner of my mind offered up the name of this type of dragon. It was a cinderdrake. Not the most clever form of dragon, bu a firebreathing monstrosity the size of a house had other assets to draw on.
Stupidly, I staggered to my feet.
I should have played dead, let the dragon keep overlooking me, but instead, I had to go and get its attention. As the cinderdrake’s head came about, I lashed out with my spear, aiming for the dark red circle behind the eye. I missed the tympanic membrane. I missed the eye. The chert tip of my spear lodged next to the tear duct, drawing a small drip of crimson. As the dragon flinched back at the sudden sting, the tip of my spear popped off. A trail of twisted twine still connected it to the haft, but the two had otherwise cleanly parted ways. For all the work I’d put into it, I’d still affixed it incorrectly.
I didn’t even have time to spit an expletive before a taloned forelimb knocked me flat on the ground. I rolled, and ended up face-up below the dragon. While the hide on the underside was thinner, the only thing I had resembling a weapon was the knife in my belt. A knife that was stubbornly refusing the come free of my belt. Still dripping with blood and draped in shred of singed ursine offal, the cinderdrake’s maw opened, lowering towards me.
My knife sank into dragon flesh.
The jaws snapped closed.
I screamed as the cinderdrake pulled its head back, taking all too much of me with it, dripping and scarlet.
* * *
I stood on the deck of a boat.
A barge, nestling up to the docks. The skies were dark and indistinct, swirling with things unhealthy to look upon or contemplate too long. Before me, people, all shuffling resignedly into the distance. I could see no conformity of breed, sex, or age among those ambling onto the docks and jostling for their place in line. The queue coalesced and became more defined the closer to the horizon I looked. There, at the edge of the visible, sat a foreboding structure made of nothingness. It was unmistakable, the Court of Azerion. I looked to my feet, through the gap between the barge and the dock. The barge floated not on water, but a river of wailing souls of myriad species, intertwined but never intermixed.
I was dead.
The last act expected of me was to step off the barge and join the queue to be judged.
It seemed like such a simple thing to step forward and discard all that could have been. But I didn’t want to. I could not simply give up here.
I forced my eyes open.
I was still screaming. Strong hands held my arms pinned to the ground, and my head was nestled in my father’s grip. His eyes looked down on me with a mix of sadness and… pain? My rational mind was waning as the agony overtook me again. My eyes slipped closed.
I stood on the deck of a boat, a barge, nestled up to the docks where the souls went to queue for Azerion’s judgment. Young, old, man, woman, human, dwarf, skrael, elf, they all jostled mindlessly to fall into line. I could not tell from what occupations they had come, or what had slain them. They had neither their raiment nor injuries upon them. Whatever it was, all had passed the point of defiance.
All it would take was one step off the barge.
I forced my eyes open. A stick had been wedged between my teeth to silence my screams. I tried to raise my head.
“Don’t look,” My father said, covering my eyes and tipping my head back again. Waves of agony continued to rippled through my body. They battered my consciousness, rocking me with each impact.
Like the gentle ripples on the river of souls.
The barge still sat, nestled up to the docks, disgorging its passengers. Everything told me I should just take that little step. What could possibly be done to save me from that injury? Simple hurts didn’t leave you staring at the queue of the dead and the gates to Azerion’s Court. There was another voice, a voice I hardly knew, and could barely identify as that of Antal Gentian.
“It’s working,” he said. “Hold that steady.”
I opened my eyes again. My arms and legs were still pinned to the ground, and my father still cradled my head, but within the look of pain in his eyes was a spark of something else. Hope. Something nagged at my mind. Something about Gentian, but the waves of my own agonies washed it away. Biting down on the stick, I fought the forces trying to drive me to unconsciousness. Fought the urge to submit and step off the barge and join the queue of souls. My face was awash with tears from my suffering, and my brain did not want to think.
With every iota of my strength, I forced my eyes to move, trying to get a look at what was going on. I barely got a glimpse of Peter out of the corner of my eye before my father blocked the view with his hands.
“Don’t look,” he whispered.
My rage welled up, only to crash into a wave of agony and shatter. He was being frustrating in that misguided, but well-meaning way of his. My father honestly thought it would be better if I couldn’t see what was going on. Of course I knew it was horrific, I’d been bitten by a cinderdrake.
But he wasn’t being malicious. I could see in his eyes that this pained him almost as much as it was hurting me. The pain had dulled slightly. Whether by Gentian’s doing, or simple fatigue of the brain. I felt lethargic, even as agony continued to rock me. I fought the urge to sleep. I could not risk losing my willpower and stepping into the queue of souls. After all, I had finally started to understand my father. I couldn’t lose that now.
But, like waves upon a shore, the pain was eroding my will, and my eyelids were awfully heavy. Slowly, they slipped closed and sleep enveloped me.
* * *
It was only sleep, because I awoke on a sea of pillows with a silken sheet over me. Diaphanous curtains over stained glass windows and a heavy velvet drapery surrounded me. The gilded wooden ceiling showed only part of a larger image, cut off by the drapery. After a little thought, I realized I was in the queen’s carriage. As I started moving to take in my surroundings, I caught the attention of the girl sitting nearby. She leaned forward to see if my eyes were open. Her pale oval face was pleasant to look at and ringed in curled mahogany locks. Her slave collar was a gold choker necklace inset with carnelian and a sardonyx cameo depicting a pair of manacles. The rest of her outfit was scarlet silk embroidered with gold. There wasn’t a whole lot of material to speak of. She disappeared from view, but I soon felt her leaning my shoulders forward to slip pillows behind me. She held a cup of water to my lips and I drank greedily.
Once I’d drained the cup, the slave girl left. Not too much later, Antal Gentian stepped past the drapery. He lifted up the sheet covering me to take a look at the state of my injuries. I was shocked at how intact I looked. All of the skin from the bottom of my rib cage to my lower abdomen was pink and raw. I could easily have convinced myself I’d merely been scalded or lost a few layers of skin at worst. Though it clung to the form of my abdominal muscles more closely than it had before.
“How do you feel?” Gentian asked, laying the sheet back down.
“Numb,” I croaked, “Thirsty.”
“Well, the somnifer will wear off in the next few hours, and the pain will return.”
“Sounds like fun.” I glanced up at the haggard face of the ivory wizard. “What happened?”
“You got bit by a cinderdrake.”
“I know that part. What happened after that?”
“King Hermann finished off the dragon, and then I had to figure out how to put you back together. It wasn’t easy.”
“How did you do it?”
“Do you remember your last conversation?”
“I asked about fish,” I said.
“You also asked about the time I put a man back together with parts from a horse.”
“Am I now part horse?”
“No, we had a perfectly good dragon which didn’t need the pieces anymore.”
“Of course, I had to do a lot of trimming and stitching to get it all to fit, and wove in enchantments so you wouldn’t reject the parts.”
“I see,” I said.
“You still have your original kidneys and bladder, but I had to replace the liver, stomach, pancreas, intestine, and abdominal wall.”
“What about the skin?”
“You can coax skin to grow over rather large wounds.”
“So now what?”
“Now we slowly reintroduce you to food and keep watch for complications.”
I heard the door being treated rather aggressively before my father barged into the curtained off corner of the wagon. “You’re awake,” he said. I nodded.
“I’ll leave you two be,” Gentian said, bowing to more easily push past the drapery.
Looking around, my father found a stool and sat down. He looked at me, appearing to be at a loss for words. Finally he found his voice.
“Why did you attack the dragon?”
“I didn’t really have time to think.”
“I almost lost you,” he said softly.
Not too long ago, I probably would have responded snidely. Instead, I said, “I’m glad it didn’t come to that.”
After a moment, my father chuckled.
“I have thought a lot about the words we’ve exchanged of late,” he said. “And I can see how some of the things I have done have not been well-explained; and could appear differently from another point of view.” He drew a breath after the rambling sentence. “I think I’m trying to say we were both right, and both wrong.”
“Does this mean you’re going to let me make my own decisions?” I asked.
“The last decision you made nearly killed you.”
“Nothing I did was intended to attract a dragon.”
“I know, but…” he sighed. “I can’t help but see the boy who used to sit on my knee and read with me by the fireplace. Do you remember that week when it would stop snowing?”
“I remember,” I said, “And that was still me, but it was also fifteen years ago.”
My father sighed. “I know,” he said. “But for the near future at least, you won’t be making too many decisions.”
“Why is that?”
“We’re continuing on to Auratus, where there will be a formal entry and Hermann will induct you into the Order of Dragonslayers.”
“Doesn’t that require actually killing the dragon?”
“It requires a substantive contribution to the slaying of a dragon. The judgment of what that means is up to a Master of the order.”
“And Hermann is the Grandmaster,” I said.
“The Swan should be waiting in Farcairn, or will arrive there soon. The next stop is home.”
However much I wanted to see the hills of Sudtor again, I had a stronger urge to reassert my independence. “You made provisions for getting the horses home?”
“I think I want to send my horse with you, but continue on with Peter, see the Rustshades and the Palm Coast. Our ships visit that area frequently enough. I can sail back with one of them. But a sea voyage that long wouldn’t be good for the horse.”
I could see my father wanted to refuse, but was restraining himself from simply saying ‘no.’
“You might want to talk to Peter first.”
* * *
The northern plains of Neph were dreary, and often overcast. The soil did not look that fertile from the anemic crops sprouting from the fields. My own strength returned as we passed into more and more verdant fields. We drew the undivided attention of everyone we passed. Peasants and petty lords came to see their king and the dragon carcass. Out of duty, Hermann had to hold court at every manor we passed. This slowed down our progress even more, but meant I was more or less my old self by the time we laid eyes on the city of Auratus. Perched on the shore of the Jadean sea, it shone brightly. White marble and gilt crowned the city, gleaming in any light available. Even the poor dwellings had pale tile rooves, though lacked gilt. Walls split city into a myriad of smaller districts, each further subdivided into neighborhoods on artificial hills. We bedded down in the outskirts, a suburb called Nacre, so that we could formally enter the city in triumph come morning.
I was pulled from my sleep by an annoying voice.
“I’ve laid out your armor, my lord.”
“You have the wrong room,” I grumbled.
“You are Kord FitzHelen von Zesrin, are you not?”
Grudgingly, I forced my eyes open. The owner of the voice was a youth with neat copper hair and bright blue eyes. His cream-colored jerkin had two rows of red buttons, and bore an enamel pin with the skewered dragon emblem of the Order of Dragonslayers.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Arnulf Polzin, Squire of the Order of Dragonslayers,” he said. “I’ve been assigned to you.”
“I don’t need a squire. I’m not a knight. I don’t even own any armor.”
“That last part is not true,” Arnulf said, “I was commanded to bring the suit from Auratus so that you can wear it during your entry to the city. I did not ask why your armor was in the city ahead of your arrival.”
“Commanded by whom?” I asked, though I suspected I already knew.
“All right, let me finish waking up. Go wait outside.”
Arnulf left without complaint, and I went through the process of starting the day, and eating the breakfast Wendel brought me. I was much less cantankerous when I stepped into the next room where Arnulf had laid out the armor. The shine of starmetal caught my eye. There was not enough of it for a full suit, but there were key pieces made from the material. My examination of the suit was interrupted by the young squire holding up a dark orange arming doublet embroidered with pale blue thread.
“That’s hideous,” I said.
“It’s Magmahide and Ice Spider Silk,” Arnulf said, “I don’t think they take dyes. But together they keep the temperature stable.”
“I hope it doesn’t show,” I said, slipping my arms into the sleeves. As I was fastening the front of the doublet, the squire found a matching set of breeches. I was annoyed that the breeches buckled the material in close to the calf. By the time I’d adjusted them to be comfortable, Arnulf was already holding up a hauberk-length leather coat studded with overlapping, pearlescent scales. “All right, what are those?” I asked, poking the coat.
I sighed. The steelshell limpet was a resident of the Jadean sea whose shell was so tough it could only be worked with diamond-tipped tools. Polished smooth, it resembled mother of pearl. The gaudy coat of scales covered most of the ugly arming doublet and breeches. The points for fastening it were down the front, but Arnulf insisted on trying to help me with them. The reason for the scale coat was obvious as I finally got a good look at the starmetal. There was about half a suit of armor there. It covered my rib cage, shoulders, and head, with vambraces and greaves to round it out. The helmet had a visor design that after a moment I realized was meant to resemble a griffin’s beak. It was angled more down than forward. Blue lenses peered out from under either side of the beak. I set the helmet aside and donned the rest. I ended up very shiny and pale. Even the gloves and boots the greaves were buckled to were white.
“Who designed this suit?” I asked, rhetorically.
“The best armorsmiths in all of Neph,” Arnulf said, “Several of them working in concert.”
I scooped the helmet off the table before I saw the squire holding up my sword belt. The jeweled hilts matched the gleaming armor, but took some adjusting to hang comfortably. While we were adjusting it, one of the servants informed us that Hermann ‘requested my presence’. I marched out to where the servant directed me, finding my uncle surrounded by his usual gaggle of attendants. His armor was steel and blue, but otherwise of the same style as the suit I wore. After a moment, I realized the scales on his coat had come from a dragon.
“I see Squire Polzin found you in time,” Hermann said.
“I don’t need a squire,” I said. Arnulf’s expression became one not unlike that of a kicked puppy. I forced myself not to notice.
“We’ll have that discussion later,” Hermann said. “We’re in danger of falling behind schedule. We need to mount up and get moving.” He turned and I followed him outside where the grooms had our horses ready. Staring at the beasts, I couldn’t tell one white charger from the other, but mounted the one Hermann bypassed. As we rode past the oversized wagon with the cinderdrake’s remains on it, I paused.
“How is it not putrefied?”
“Well,” Hermann said, “It’s just the hide stretched over a wooden frame. There’s no way an intact carcass would have survived the trip.”
We took up our place at the fore of the procession in a garden full of bronze statues and bright flowers. Spotting a few specimens I’d only seen in book illustrations, I wanted to get off my horse to check out the rest of the garden. There would be time for that later, right now I had to keep my uncle happy. Instead, I forced my gaze forward, at the gates across Diamond Boulevard. As the route connecting the seat of government at the Old Palace to the Royal Residence in Nacre, Diamond Boulevard. was the most desirable neighborhood for the rich and powerful. Instead of whole neighborhoods, each artificial hill had a miniature manor. Shallow reliefs covered the marble-clad retaining walls. Gilt bronze figures crowned the walls, intermixed with the spectators in their finery. Though the noblewomen decorated their slaves in expensive cloth, I could still tell them apart from where I sat. No noble in Auratus would wear anything that could be misconstrued as a slave collar. As such, the women had bare necks, plunging necklines, and their hair up in jeweled coiffes. It changed their profile compared to the slaves around them.
Flower petals drifted down around us, perfuming the air with their passing. I was unsure who was throwing them, and it didn’t matter. My attention went back to the women. There were more than a few pretty things among their ranks. I would be meeting them as a Royal Nephew and newly minted Dragonslayer. I could probably find more than a few who’d be happy to have my attention.
All of a sudden, I was looking forward to the reception.