Prologue

This Girl

I have made a mistake.

I know these mountains like the backs of my hands; I know the way they rise, I know the way they fall. I know every nook, I know every cranny. I have been the places that most men dare not tread; from the deepest pits of the mines, where monsters fight the dark with fire, to the highest summits, where the heavens are but a step away.

I have done forbidden things. I have spoken with dragons.

I have been everywhere I should not, done everything I should not... everything but step foot in this final place.

His final place.

Nervous magic thrums in my veins, desperate to be called upon, and something hidden deep in my psyche calls out for me to quell it. I cannot explain why but, somehow, I know that he can feel it too, even through the thick veils of death. I toy briefly with the idea of walking down into the dark, blind, and then give into weakness, calling the first particles of light to my palms.

I am not a girl who has lived a life tainted by fear. But as the soft glow swirls comfortingly around my fingers, I know I have just made my second mistake this night.

Looking back the way I have come, I take in the distant streets of my hometown. The mountains are steep and rocky; I have not travelled more than a half a mile west, but at least two skyward.

Everything is blurred by distance and the constant cloud that curls always through my city; a city that has been built so high up that it is almost born of sky. It should be a pleasant sight; my home wreathed in soft cloud and coloured purple by the dusk. But the streets of Awyr are no longer a safe place.

It is just something that everybody knows... though I have not heard a single word spoken of it, not even a breath on the wind. Awyr is not safe, home is not safe. The very mountains themselves, cradles of the sky and as old as time, are not safe. A wise little girl would have stayed inside, pulled the curtains tight and taken her thrill from nothing more than the knowledge that evil stalked the streets below.

But that was never going to be enough for me. Silent whispers and the taint of evil have never been enough for this girl.

Oh Dragon-kin, I have made a mistake.

I turn back to where I am headed, swallowing nervously as my gaze sweeps over the cavern mouth. A part of me cannot help but feel it is a little under dramatic; an unmarked cave-mouth to hide the greatest evil this world has ever seen. But then I remember - what marking does it need?

Everybody from the Dawn-Light mountains to the Mirror City knows whose bones lie here. Only a stupid child would stray this far from home, this far from safe, and allow the chill to settle around her shoulders. Only a stupid child would ignore the ghostly fingers as they trail up her spine and begin to tread softly beneath the sparkling of frost.

It only goes to show just how stupid this child really is, that she knows all this, and still she clenches her glowing fists and takes her first step down into the maw.

I gaze longingly up at the crystals on the ceiling as I walk, to distract myself from the buried evil that I know lies at the end of my path. It is a frost that has remained untouched for centuries, or so the stories go. And as the mountain's purple sunset fades slowly to cold black, I keep looking, strengthening the glow in my palms. I still do it, even though I know I should not.

Because part of what scares me the most, is that I still have not turned back.

Thin ice crackles beneath my feet, revealing the stark rock beneath. Every step I take sends me further from the sun and closer to him. Every step I take reduces the likelihood that I will walk back this way and, before long, I begin to believe I will never return again. I try and memorise the patterns on the wall, the swirls in the frost and the delicate ice columns; naturally grown and sparkling in the light of my palms.

It is a good sight as a final sight, I think, and continue to walk.

I do not know what I will find when I reach the crypt at the bottom. I expect to see bones and a grave as unmarked as the entrance, I guess, but Awyr's streets are practically throbbing with terror these days, and I almost worry that he wakes.

Though I know this to be ridiculous, of course. Bron has been dead for centuries; only the communal serpent memory can remember him properly.

The shadows flicker ominously on the walls, dancing with every movement I make. And the cold wheedles into my bones, a cold so deep that I ache. I hardly even feel it as a chill now; it has simply become something so tight that it binds my chest. It is more than temperature, this I know. It is magic. It is a warning.

And still I walk.

Of the mountains, I have seen it all. Everywhere but here. And somehow I know that I will complete my collection, and then I will see no more.

The entrance blinks, a distant speck, and then it is gone.

But still I walk.

I know when I am nearing because the void begins to tug at my magic, just like the empty skies; pulling it out, pulling it thin. It makes sense, that they buried him in a place without magic, but I had not expected it; these are rare places to find on land, and it frightens me when my hands begin to flicker.

This was a mistake. Yet still I walk, this silly little girl, down into hell, towards Bron and his ancient evil.

No magic leads to dark magic, I think, and almost smile. The phrase is not meant to relate to this at all but, strangely, it still fits. I had not known what to expect but now that I have sensed this, I know that I will step through this no magic, and then I will continue to walk, until I find myself submerged, body and soul, in his dark power.

I have never felt dark magic before, but from the dragons, and theirs is not the same.

I wonder if it will kill me.

The void continues to tug as I continue to walk, until eventually my wrists burn, until my palms plunge me into solid black. I continue to walk, further and further, until it begins to steal from the other sources of my power, until the pull on my chest is so much I can hardly breathe and the tears are streaming down my face from the sting of my eyes.

But still she walks, this silly little girl.

And two things happen, as I walk, as the end of my journey draws near. The darkness lifts, replaced by the eerie blue of light on ice. It disconcerts me, this shine bouncing off the walls, where before there was only dark. It does not seem right to see this, deep in the heart of the mountain, for the blue is like the sky, and the frost on the rock has dulled, turning crisp sparkles to soft clouds. It is as though someone has stolen the heavens and trapped them with dead, evil Bron, sealing them up in the deepest darkness.

I feel as though I am walking on air, when really I am trapped by an entire mountain of rock, and I will not return.

I discover another thing as I slow, hesitant despite the certainty that I will never turn back.

I am not alone.

"Is it you?" I ask, stopping on the brink, just a step away from the dead heart of this place. I wonder at the tone of my voice; simple curiosity, nothing more.

I should be crying in my terror.

But, then, everything about this is wrong. This place is not a tomb, not like any I have seen before. We stand in the bowels of the earth, in the gateway to hell, and yet the darkness is dead, replaced by sunlight and clouds and a gentle breeze. The crypt even continues with the feel of open sky, grasping desperately at the magic in my soul. I would not be able to believe that Bron's grave had been untouched for centuries, even without the figure that stands before me, proving the legends wrong.

"No." He replies, and chuckles lightly. "A friend of his."

He does not fit here, I realise, this friend of a man long dead. Bron's final resting place is bright, is open and free, but this man holds the only shadow in the room. I know it is not natural, for it writhes around his face; crawling over his body to burrow sickeningly into the corners of his eyes.

"I am very grateful to you." He says, "You have saved me a trip out."

I say nothing, hovering on the threshold of the most beautiful hell imaginable. Perhaps the streets of Awyr will become a safe place once more, just for tonight.

"Come here." He says.

And I do.

The world swirls around me as I step forward, striding out into open space. It seems wrong, to experience vertigo so far underground, but I could almost believe I am flying.

Bron must miss his Dragon-sister, I think suddenly, and consider the Viper whose giant, reptilian bones lie bared beneath a burning sun, thousands of miles to the East.

It is a sin, I realise, to think so fondly of a man so cruel.

"Stop."

I obey and the shadowed figure folds his arms.

"Look down." He commands. I follow his words, somehow incapable of independent action.

And I see what I came for. I see that Bron sleeps still.

The bones lie cocooned in a small dip in the floor, covered by nothing but open air. From the doorway this shallow grave is invisible; it does not ruin the illusion of flight. But now that I stand over him, he is obvious; yellowed by age and crackling with something invisible, something I cannot describe.

I gaze down at Bron's leering skull, staring deep into the sockets of his dark eyes, and know that the legends are true. Magic will awaken this man, when he has collected from enough souls, and the dragon tied into his heart will rise. Evil will stir once again. Whether it is now, or a thousand years from now, this Dragon-Lord will wake.

All it will take is a few silly girls, every century for ten thousand years, and then the world will fall down around our shoulders once more.

"Lay your hands on his face." The figure commands.

Or perhaps it will take only one, dark man with shadows for features and a few months of his patience.

I feel the first stirrings of doubt, as though I am suddenly remembering who I am. But it is already too late, and this girl always knew she was never walking back the way she came. I almost wonder if this was all there ever was, if I knew all along that my whole life was leading up to this moment. Everything I have ever done; it was in preparation for this, for when I would stand above an ancient evil, and give my soul to his greed.

I crouch down, I stretch out, and my palms brush bone. There is only silence as my heart explodes, as my fingers set light. My magic, my life, stolen in a second, and this poor little girl finds she is in too much agony to even scream.

Copyright © 2011 Samantha Rouse

All rights reserved.