Chapter 1

Ryna had decided that enough was enough. He was walking through the dampened foliage that was the forest he lived in and had lived in for his whole life. But now he might yet never see it again.

He had to walk carefully as he nursed the ugly mark on his numbed right shoulder as he wandered further and further away from places that he knew and had known all his life. His green eyes brimmed with – as of yet – unspilt tears and he had an uncharacteristic rage developing that gave him a steely determination to keep going, despite his fears. He could never recall being this angered. Painful memories filtered through into his mind unbidden; recollections of life without his mother and life with his stepfather.

Wasted years, he thought pathetically. And perhaps they were. No, there was no 'perhaps' about it.

Only his left hand supported his injured right shoulder. It sported a painful, disgusting-looking wound. His step-father had struck him with the butt of an axe, though somehow he hadn't broken a bone. Ryn was no expert in injuries or healing but he felt sure that if something was broken he would have heard a crack or at least not be able to move the arm at all. He had suffered beatings from his stepfather during drunken rages but there had never been results like this before.

Yet what had he done to deserve it? He had burnt the tea and it wasn't like he had skill at cooking anyway. He had never learnt and had no one to teach him. But his stepfather never listened to excuses of the like. He was too busy getting plastered or blaming someone else.

Like everyone who had lost family members for whatever reason he had never asked to be alone. His mother had passed away so suddenly: struck down by a falling tree as she was returning from town during a severe storm and she had died whilst the medicine woman was on her way. Since then his stepfather had taken a drastic change in personality. He had been a man who was not particularly sociable towards strangers but to those who knew him he was a good man and father. When his wife had died he had taken Ryn on as a sort of last favour. Now he spent his days drinking and sleeping – though he was also bitter and angry about most things and took them out on his step-son. All around Ryn's body were tender spots; places where he would be beaten and cut, all of them for trivial things like forgetting to clear up or not closing a certain window.

Time after time after time he would vow to himself: I'll stay. I'll stay here and look after him until he dies - for mum's sake. But he had also vowed that weapons wouldn't come into the picture and now that they had he wouldn't stay around to be hit by another. His arm was numbed by the pain. It was swelling up and felt soft. He tried to rotate it as slowly as he could, then swore at the pain it sent through the rest of his body. He had spent his whole childhood exposed to his stepfather's vocabulary and was quite proficient at cursing.

He wouldn't be followed either. His stepfather had taken perhaps slightly more alcohol than he usually did - though not by much. Ryn wanted to be long gone by the time that man woke. He guessed though that he wouldn't be missed until the old man was absolutely ravenous. Then he'd come looking with fists raised and Ryn definitely didn't want to be around for that.

-:-:-

The day passed slowly and painfully slowly at that. With every inch; every tiny fraction of a step his shoulder grew heavier and he felt wearier. As frequently as he could afford he stopped to rest, but it did nothing; the pain didn't subside at all. The sun finally started to sink in the distance, sending splashed waves of orange and red across the horizon.

Tiredness descended upon him and so he decided to sleep to try to forget about his bothers. He quickly found a sheltered spot under a few trees close together before he carefully removed the bag of fruit he had carried from the house. He ate a meagre meal of three apples and settled down for sleep. The pain on his shoulder was terrible but somehow he dozed off into a fitful sleep plagued by the strangest of strange dreams.

-:-:-

There are dead people littering the floor. Perhaps it is a battleground of some sort? Ryn walked slowly around, his shoulder no longer troubling him; however he was clutched by an unwholesome fear. His main aim was to keep the sight and smell of the dead people out of his eyes and nose. Was it a dream? Too real for a dream, yet it must be. He strictly recalled falling asleep in a clearing in the forest and this was no forest.

Then looking towards the distance there was a hill. A plain, grassy mound more than a hill and that was surprising, for there was nothing else plain and grassy around. He became relieved at any route away from the dead, so he ran for this hill and climbed as fast as he could. He reached the top, grinning – surprisingly – with considerable relief. Then, the grin faded. The area on the other side of the hill was devastated. More devastated Dead in the thousands. Fire-ravaged cities and animals all over the scorching wasteland. And then something caught his eye. Up above the battlefield. Outlined against the moon, there was a darkened shape.

It was human, but then perhaps it wasn't human. It had two arms with hands and the accustomed number of fingers. It had two legs and a head. But that was where the similarity to humans ended. The skin: it was completely white. The hair: it was like it was on fire - a crimson and yellow mass that tumbled down the shoulder in wreaths. The eyes: they were dark and lifeless, but somehow sick and twisted. The grin: it revealed pointed fangs that were tainted with blood. Its top was bare and it sported a tattoo - or so it looked like a tattoo - of a skull that stood out against the white skin. It wore black, baggy trousers and its feet were bare and clawed. Then, with a strange look of pleasure, it raised its hand and there was an explosion from behind him.

Ryn whirled round and swore quietly. A wave of fire, rising over the wasteland was engulfing everything. He couldn't move. At all. There was nowhere to move to. He tried to cover himself as the flames covered him. Pain lanced through him. He thought he heard a shrill, maniacal laugh... a man's laugh.

-:-:-

With a shocked cry Ryn rose from his blanket and then yelped out even harder when he wrenched his shoulder agonisingly. He lay back, panting and sweating as the darkness crept up on him like a stalker and he felt absolutely terrified; too scared to move and too scared not to move. He sat in fear, waiting for light. Day arrived just as slowly as night had come but he felt some measure of confidence with the light coming over the trees. He rose slowly, cleared away and left with hardly a trace to the naked eye.

The dream was fresh in his mind and he hated every minute walking through the woods. He had no real destination in mind at the moment but the nearest town, Rybrook, was definitely out of the question. His mother had been well-known in that town and his stepfather still did a shop there when he ran out of booze and he did not want to run the risk of being spotted and have people report on him. His sense of direction was not great but he was sure that he was heading in the opposite direction from Rybrook. Once he found a road he would make a decision on where to go then.

The morning was cold and his shoulder heavy. He puffed and panted as he walked on through the damp grass and debris on the forest floor. He seriously began to consider turning back, going back the way he had come and return home. But then his shoulder reminded him of what awaited him. He couldn't - definitely wouldn't - take anymore beatings.

Yet as he trudged on the wound on his shoulder became even worse. It was purple now, a great blotchy bruise that reached his elbow and it punished him all the way: a sadistic reminder of what he was leaving behind. In a way it was as though the old man was following him and reminding him. Through the agony midday passed virtually unnoticed and he hadn't the stomach to stop for a meal despite not having breakfast and he didn't feel like eating anyway. Finally at about two hours past midday he came to a cool stream that he thought he recognized as being the same stream that moved past an old woodsman's trail not too far from his house. This could mean that he was going in the right direction but it also meant that he had been going extremely slowly, perhaps covering merely three miles or just over. He washed his face and bathed his shoulder in the icy water. The cleanliness made him feel a bit better in himself but it didn't do much to ease the pain, as expected.

Where the morning was cold, the afternoon sun was baking hot. The heat reminded him of the dream from last night. The very thought of it again terrified him and he tried hard not to think of it.

Soon he was unintentionally walking in a daze, not noticing his direction or his surroundings. His curiosity now aroused somehow and his mind afire, he started to think of some things in that dream. That thing that had caused that fire... who or what was that?

Ryn's mother had learned to read and she had taught him somewhat. In books Ryn had read about people called sorcerers and sorceresses. They were users of higher magic. There were also users of the lesser magic or mages as they were more commonly referred to. When he was younger it had been his dream to meet someone like that, to ask questions and learn what it was like to be different. But his mother - bless her soul - had talked him out of it. Sorcerers, sorceresses and mages were hated by some people for their differences. Being hated because they were different. Ryn wasn't too sure that he wanted to be associated with people who were hated and so he had halted that childish fantasy almost as soon as it had taken his fancy.

That brought him back to think of something else. Magic was one thing, Dragons were another! Legends portrayed them as huge, scaly beasts that breathe fire and fly and it was said that they could even talk. Even now, his child-like fancies mostly having died away, what he wouldn't give just to fly on one. But Dragons were rare, hardly ever seen and strongly believed to be extinct. Some people with powers were claimed to have made a Dragon appear, but they were only rumors in stories and myths. In a dreamy state induced by pain and weakness, Ryn thought more as he walked on, oblivious to everything around him.

-:-:-

Vorlat sniffed the air and nudged his horse into a trot. In the entire world, this little forest was one of the few Vorlat had never seen before and even so it held no secrets for him. He had travelled the world, or the world as people believed it to be and he been in every city, every town and village on offer. Or at least so he liked to think. 'Vorlat the Wanderer' he was called. The man who had seen magic performed, who had seen Dragons flying and had witness miracles. Some called him a sorcerer and some said he was the devil in disguise, for indeed he was yet to meet his match with a sword.

But Vorlat kept what he knew to himself and told virtually no one about what he saw. He knew so little people anyway, despite his travels. He kept himself to himself and that was a code he lived by. In a way he liked to call himself a freedom fighter. Any wrongs needed righting; Vorlat was the man for the job. Anything; mob bosses needing to be killed, people needing escorts, someone needing saving, even a wedding needing to be arranged. Anything.

He wore a red traveling cloak and his comfortable - although worn out - walking boots. Perhaps most unusual was that he wore dark glasses, even in sleep. It wasn't that he had troubles seeing, for Vorlat's eyes were keener than an eagle's. He didn't like people seeing his eyes for private reasons that he would never reveal. Over his shoulder was his huge broadsword, slung in a leather sheath across his back. The sword was the reason that many had never beaten him. One look at his sword was enough to stop anyone wanting a fight. He had been trained by the best masters in the known world and had surpassed each and every one in turn. The sword weighed more than a full grown man, but Vorlat had mastered it so that it looked like it weighed as much as a feather in his hands. The sword had once belonged to a man who had looked after Vorlat as a child.

He was here because of a rumour that had passed through a town he had passed through yesterday. In Rybrook two woodcutters believed that they had seen a great shape flying from the West and claimed that it had landed in the forest. They said that it was a Dragon. Vorlat was not prone to believe such stories but had been intending on leaving this country, Orium, and heading towards Yrellan anyway and going through this forest would not take him too much time. If there was a Dragon around it surely would not be hard to find the tracks.

Dragons had been a huge part of Vorlat's youth and had shaped the way he had grown up. Vorlat had never met his parents. Bandits had apparently killed them when he was very young. An elderly man and his young daughter had found him by his parent's bodies, hungry and too weak to even cry. They had never told him their names but they treated him like their very own. As he grew older Vorlat watched these two very unusual people who had taken it upon themselves to look after him. He had spotted the young woman summoning Dragons at times although very rarely. She was the last of a rare and talented breed of people: Dragon Summoners.

The old man however, had been an enigma. He was a sorcerer, make no mistake about that. He burst from the seams with magical powers and almost everything he did was magic-related. They had both gone when he was eleven - just left the hut in the woods that they lived in and never came back. He found a note on the kitchen table the day they disappeared. They weren't coming back, according to that cursed note. He had been left with the old man's sword and an amulet with a Dragon engraved on it. That amulet was a possession he never had the privilege to wear. If he put it around his neck, the chain bit into his skin and hurt him. He kept it tucked into the top pocket of his red cloak for safekeeping. He knew that it possessed magical properties, for he had seen the young woman using it when she had called Dragons. The beasts had obeyed her without question whenever she displayed that amulet.

When he had finished crying after their departure, he had picked up the sword and left with a goal in mind. To become the greatest swordsman and find them again – though time had altered his goals. If he ever saw the two of them again he would sooner ignore them for what their disappearance did to him than thank them. He had become a murderer and a cold-hearted killer. He had met his first master after a month of being on his travels. The man had agreed to teach him in exchange for Vorlat being his slave. This sort of arrangement happened time and time again, until there was no one who could teach Vorlat anything anymore. No one that he had met or heard of, at any rate.

He had been coached to keep his emotions in, to prevent them from showing and to give no emotion to anyone. Since striking out on his own, he had done just that. There was no love in his life, just money and fighting.

Muttering something under his breath, Vorlat slipped into a half-doze as he rode, keeping his ears out for danger as he always did.

-:-:-

Quickly, he reined his horse in and dismounted. He sniffed the air and put his ear to the floor. He could hear a loud pulsating from quite a distance away and usually things like that weren't good. Sighing, he led his horse on a bit so that it wouldn't get startled. The beast was hesitant and Vorlat tried to reassure it with soothing words that he didn't really mean. Nervously it followed and Vorlat felt slightly touched at the trust it showed in him. Then he steeled himself and looked at the sky. It was nearly time for light to go so he needed to be quick and it didn't take him too long to find what he was looking for. Four large footprints. The feet that made them had three toes, each with claws on. Vorlat grinned.

"Aye, it's a Dragon alright," he said with a wry amusement. He turned to his horse, "Well old boy," he said, "how about some hunting before morning?"

The horse snorted in apprehension and bowed its head submissively despite probably not understanding what had been said. Vorlat stroked its neck absently and scanned the distance.

"Not too far away," he judged, "Why do they get so far away from home?" He remounted and clicked the horse on. With a shake of its head the horse walked on nervously.

-:-:-

Helgred was Ryn's stepfather and he was busy hiding under the kitchen table at the moment. He had seen illusions before and he had hallucinated plenty of times.

But when did an illusion or hallucination eat trees? He shuddered at the memory, remembering looking at the beast that had driven him stone cold sober with a single glance. It was large and green and scaly. That was all he needed to see before he had bolted for a hiding place. Right about now, he wanted something or someone to scold. Ryn had gone and only God knew where he was and why he had gone. He pushed a shaky hand out of the table and took an apple from on top of it. He threw it at the far wall and it hit with a pleasing 'splat'.

"Take that!" he muttered triumphantly. For some reason it made him feel better, but he wasn't coming out from under the table until he was sure that thing was gone for good.

-:-:-

Ryn groaned as he sat heavily on the grass. His shoulder was swelling again and it was numb beyond all feeling. His life, he felt, was most probably coming to an end. Even if he reached a town he realized he couldn't afford to have anyone see to it. He sighed, knowing what a fool he had been to leave penniless. Worse, he had sat and eaten the last of what food he had brought with him. He hadn't been able to move his shoulder all day and tiredness was beginning to possess him like Daemon. Without a second thought but against his own wishes, he fell into another troubled sleep filled with evil dreams.

-:-:-

Vorlat's trail led him to a wooden hut. It was small, crude and not very well made but it passed for a hut. Vorlat had seen plenty of them in his time, some better and some worse. What mattered more was that the Dragon he searched for had definitely been here and not too long ago. That meant that maybe the residents had seen it. Without a second thought he knocked solidly on the door. There was an audible gasp and a startled oath. He sighed, knowing that anyone who had seen that Dragon was liable to not answer the door in a hurry.

"Hello? Anyone in?" he called, "I need to ask some questions."

There was a pause - quite a long one, actually, "A-are you a Dragon?" a slurred voice asked.

Vorlat chuckled to himself, "Not any Dragon I've ever seen," he replied conversationally.

"You've seen it?" the voice demanded, sounding shocked.

"No but I've seen others like it. Open this door or I'll break it down."

There the sound of someone lunging and then the door opened hurriedly. The man who opened it was medium-height, smaller than Vorlat though a lot of people were. His nose was pointed and long and he had obviously been drinking for years, due to the yellow colour in his eyes and the unsteady lurch in his stance. His hair was a complete mess, black and matted.

"I say man, are you all right?" Vorlat asked him, not particularly bothered if the man was all right or not. He needed information and felt that this man was likely to break down if approached too aggressively.

The man peered over his shoulder and glanced around suspiciously. "I-is it gone?"

Vorlat nodded without saying anything more.

The man wiped his brow with considerable relief, "Then I'm feeling better."

"What is your name?" Vorlat asked, deciding to get the formalities aside.

"Helgred," the man replied, stumbling over the single word as he said it. "What am I going to do? My boy's out there in the woods somewhere. He's gone, you see. I think he has, anyway." When Vorlat did not press on this issue, Helgred continue to blather at him. "I accidentally hit him – I slipped, you see. Caught him with something, knocked his shoulder a bit, I think. But it's not the first time. I'm clumsy, you see. These things will happen, you know. I think he's gone and left me. And there's that thing out there now. What can I do?"

Vorlat had heard this sort of story before. Two of his previous masters had beaten him regularly when drunk and he very much doubted that Helgred was "clumsy". "Well Helgred," he said in a calm, measured tone. "To being with I suggest you quit drinking. You shouldn't worry and let me deal with this," he turned to go back to his horse. "Oh, Helgred?"

Helgred paled at the change of tone in Vorlat's voice. Now he sounded harder, firmer and definitely colder.

"If I hear you've beaten your stepson again, I'll probably have to kill you."

Helgred swallowed hard. "I don't mean to do it," he confessed weakly.

Vorlat glared at him in irritation while he quickly thought of some measure of punishment. Helgred's drink-affected eyes didn't see it and he lurched forwards unsteadily. Vorlat measured him with the slightest of creases to his forehead and then swung his right fist right into the side of his head. Helgred collapsed in the doorway without a sound.

Quickly Vorlat dragged him back inside the house and closed the door. Finally, whistling tunelessly to himself, he remounted his horse. This would be a race now. That Dragon would gobble this boy up if it found him, make no mistake.

-:-:-

Ryn was awoken suddenly by a loud crash nearby. He had been dreaming and it had been that same dream. That same battlefield. That same devastation. That same carnage. And that same thing. Then that same fire.

His thoughts distracted him from what had initially woken him up. Another crash brought him round with a startled jump. Scared, he huddled against a tree trunk whilst clutching his shoulder. His stomach rumbled with hunger and he prayed for it to go silent.

There was a third crash which was then followed by a creaking sound, like a tree was being uprooted. And then an ear-splitting roar. He was positive he had never heard of any animal in the forest that made that sound. Though he was scared his curiosity got the better of him and he peered out from behind the tree.

The thing was about as tall as a tree, if not then taller. It was dark blue and appeared to have scales instead of skin, as well as sporting long wings that were currently half unfolded as it leaned heavily on the tree that it was busy trying to topple. Its four feet were clawed and its particularly enlarged jaw held teeth that looked like razors. Flames and smoke rose from its enormous, crater-like nostrils.

Ryn gasped unintentionally and cowered away even as he made that noise. But he had already made a mistake and the beast turned, its large amber eyes suddenly alert. Though it would do him no good he clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle a scream, but he was sure that the thing could hear his pounding heart even as he tried not to breath. Irrationally, he considered running but common sense told him that even with a good arm he wouldn't get very far.

It had paused in its uprooting of the tree and sniffed the air delicately before then growling in a warning manner. It raised its muzzle to the moon and roared with triumph at the scent of prey even before it lunged and took its front legs around the tree he was hiding behind and lifting it clear from the ground in a single heave.

Found out, Ryn rolled away, injuring his shoulder even more though the pain was nothing compared to what he was facing right now. He stared in fear, unable to move. Whatever it was, it stared down on him with drool falling from its maw and thudding on the grass with a sickening noise. It lowered its face slowly as though trying to tease him and Ryn closed his eyes as he felt its hot breath on his whole body. He could feel it moved its head back in preparation to lunge.

Then there was a snap of jaws, a rush of air and suddenly, he realized, he was still alive.

-:-:-

What Vorlat did was impulsive. The kid was in danger, clearly wasn't going to move and so he did the only thing he could think of which was to dive to throw him out of the way. Frightened kid under his arm, he reached over his shoulder with his stronger right hand and drew his sword, dropping the kid on the damp grass even as he did so.

The Dragon reared, screeching and snorting in anger. Despite the size difference and the seeming impossibility of the task facing him, Vorlat knew what to do. He had lived with a Dragon Summoner for ten years or more and he knew the routine. He drew the amulet that had been left to him by the nameless young woman he had once lived with and he held it up for the Dragon to look at.

"Dragon!" he called as loud as he could. In ideal circumstances he would name the beast but he had no idea of how to divine their names like a Dragon Summoner could. "This is the amulet of one of the Dragon Summoners of old. You must accept the authority."

That only seemed to annoy the Dragon because it screamed, the noise piercing the air.

Vorlat frowned, puzzled. "Leave here now," he lowered his voice, but the Dragon stepped back, shaking its head frantically as though avoiding the compulsions.

He hid his surprise beneath a face of stone, but deep down felt extremely let down that this Dragon was not paying him the heed it was supposed to. "I have met once with your leader, Tiamat," he said coolly, knowing that this revelation would get its attention. "I have favours owing from your king. Would you do him shame by attacking his ally?"

There was no verbal answer. Instead, it lunged. But he was too quick and already expecting some sort of attack. He darted aside, avoiding the snap of jaws and turned to look at the Dragon. With space between them now he put the amulet back in his jacket pocket.

"Then, foul beast," he said, hiding any nerves he felt, "if you cannot heed the Dragon Summoners amulet, then you are clearly no Dragon to speak of. I must vanquish you myself! Behold!"

Vorlat would've felt proud of that speech but he was too busy thinking of how to get rid of it. He was desperately hoping it would call his bluff.

It didn't.

It lunged but it was too slow again as he sidestepped and moved. He dashed to its back end and raised his sword.

"Behold!" he shouted again, lifting his sword above him head before he brought it down cleanly and cut off part of the tail. Blood spurted and splattered onto his cloak as he backed away, trying not to slip.

The attack had the desired effect. The Dragon roared, reared and then finally took flight. It flew away, bellowing and screaming, the stub of its tail bleeding terribly and spraying the red liquid across the sky and treetops. Within two heartbeats it was lost among the trees, its cries still fresh in the darkening sky.

Vorlat studied his broadsword carefully, despite the bad light and his dark glasses. With a single, vigorous shake he dislodged several droplets of blood before carefully placing the sword back into its sheath at his back. Then he turned his eyes to the sky. "And stay gone," he muttered angrily. With a swift turn on his heels, Vorlat approached the boy who was now shivering and cowering away. Despite the pitiful sight, he felt no sympathy as was his nature. He held out his hand, "Get up boy, or you'll catch cold."

The lad stared up at him. "That was a-a-a-a... D-Dragon? W-wasn't it?" he asked, horrendously shaken.

Vorlat couldn't lie. "Yes," he said as softly as he could, "but it shan't return. You have my word. It was bewitched, I believe."

"By a sorcerer?"

"Possibly. I have no idea why," he kept his hand outstretched, waiting for it to be accepted.

The boy took his hand slowly.

"What is your name?"

"R-Ryn, sir."

"No, not sir. Vorlat. You ran away from home."

Ryn lowered his head, not wanting this strange man to send him back to his stepfather. "He hit me with the butt of an axe."

Vorlat did not make an expression at this revelation. "And do you want to go back with him?"

"No, never."

"And you are wounded?"

"Yes."

Vorlat took Ryn's right shoulder tenderly. The poor lad had ripped his sleeve-arm off to stop the irritation. "Now that's a bruise," Vorlat whistled. "Did Helgred do this?" he asked in disgust.

"My stepfather? Yes."

"Well he won't do it again. Come, you can ride my horse for tonight. We'll drop you off with someone in the village. They can sort you out."

"They can?"

"Aye, they can."

Ryn's eyes brimmed with new tears. "I... I cannot pay you."

"We'll talk no more of money," Vorlat reprimanded, "Now come, let us be off."

He took Ryn by the good arm and semi-forcefully led him back to his horse. He helped Ryn onto it and untied it. The beast was calmer with the disappearance of the Dragon but its eyes were still wild and its mouth frothed from fear.

"We'll get you looked after real good, eh?" Vorlat said, but when he looked around he found that Ryn had already fallen asleep in the saddle. "Charming," he muttered, and then led the horse off back into the woods.