Chapter 1: Night of the Dragon
Mahntarei Étál-Díra teleported into one of the dark passageways that made up Brinnan's undercity and looked around to be sure no one witnessed his arrival. He wasn't worried about anyone seeing where he was headed, but down here, carrying trinkets with pricey enchantments had its own risks. Tucking the silver locket down the neck of his tunic, the bone-white elf removed a piece of paper from the pocket of his patchwork vethrkylk. The magic of the sealing ward had been dispelled long ago, but the wax still bore the emblem of Dheryl-Kin Erys Fen-Da'en. The writ of execution on Dheryl-Kún Trizryn Da'en was still valid.
The assassin turned the writ between his fingers as he walked down the passage toward the lantern-lit corridor ahead. A rat squeaked and darted out of his path.
Mahnta had disobeyed the King's orders to capture, rather than kill, his exiled step-son. The capture had failed because Trizryn a vampire now, and he was aided by one, as well. Mahntarei had underestimated the damage the rogue-prince and his allies could do together; he could not afford to underestimate their tactics again.
Ilisram Áthló-Dégar, the dark elf necromancer who wanted Trizryn brought to him, had nothing but criticism for the failure and had canceled their contract. The necromancer had been able to silence Mahnta's summoner throughout their partnership, but never explained how—whether through bribery, blackmail, or some other nefarious means. Ilisram couldn't have killed the summoner because then Mahntarei would be dead, too, thanks to the summoner's bond.
Mahnta looked at the dull, blue summoning gem in the heel of his left palm. Now, whatever Ilisram did to protect him could be undone. But there was no way he was going to let a necromancer have that kind of leverage over him.
Under the lamplight, voices could be heard in nearby corridors. The hiss of steam and the clanking of mechanisms that kept the city functioning like clockwork echoed throughout the passages under the streets, forgotten by most of the fae who lived above.
Opening the writ, the assassin read it one more time. When he wrote the order, it was unlikely the Dheryl-Kin knew his former heir had become a vampire, but by now he had probably heard tales about Trizryn surviving a mortal wound during a recent arrest. The Derra Eirlyn sometimes employed a special branch of summoners called reapers when it came to eliminating the restless undead. But in asking for help, Mahnta's decision to ignore the King's writ might result in being accused of treason. And, truth be told, this job was personal—Mahnta wanted to finish it himself. Refolding the writ into his pocket, he decided asking for help from the right person could make all the difference.
For most of Mahntarei's young life, the Brinnan thief guild had been home. Twenty years absent for reconditioning as an assassin in the Derra Eirlyn dungeons, he still bore the skull-faced-moon-and-crossbones tattoo that granted him entrance at the front door—a tattoo on his right forearm which hid within its design the real runes of entry.
After pushing up his sleeve for the elf and orc on watch, Mahntarei passed through the crowded common room of the hall's interior to a back corridor and followed it to the chamber that served as the guild master's office. It was more like a small warehouse for stolen goods—one of many storage alcoves scattered throughout the undercity. Nisala dipped her hands in just about every illegal trade in the kingdom, but information was the most profitable business and left fewer fingerprints. Even now, she was scouring three books on her desk, hunting some nugget of knowledge a client might have requested.
Like a mystic with a radar for trouble, the guild mistress looked up from her books before he could even knock on her door sill. "Mahntarei," she greeted in a matter-of-fact tone without looking the least bit surprised. "Did you find the Gray Lady to your liking?"
"I did not. She turned out to be a vampire."
The master thief's ice-blue eyes widened. Now that did surprise her. But then she chortled at his unhappy expression.
He met her with a steady emerald gaze. "Are you telling me you didn't know?"
Nisala flicked her silky, black topknot over her shoulder. "My dear Mahnta, what could I possibly gain by feeding a Derra Eirlyn assassin to a vampire? If you disappear, they will only send another to punish me. It's in my best interest to make sure you are not replaced." Her response seemed genuine. Then again, Nisala was an expert player. She could supposedly manipulate The Weave to hide her true aura from anyone other than her own summoner.
"I initially gave the Gray Lady a message for Trizryn, but when I caught up with her a second time, it didn't go so well." Mahnta decided against telling her Trizryn had been turned. Giving that kind of information too soon could bite him in the ass later.
Nisala seemed cautious of his lack of details. "Does that mean Triz is still on the lam? Is his bounty still up for grabs?"
"Every last little kyrr." Mahntarei leaned forward, palms on her desk, voice low. "Do you remember what I told you last time I came here … about the serum?"
"I'm betting he still has it. Help me net him, and I'll give you the whole bounty plus half the serum."
Interlacing her long, slender fingers, she rested her forearms on her open books. "If this serum truly does silence summoning gems, I'd almost give up the whole bounty for all of it. … Almost," she teasingly countered. "Why me? Why not work out a deal with the person who told you about the serum in the first place?"
"He's canceled our contract to serve his own interests. So I'm serving mine. If you can find Trizryn's whereabouts, I still have the Dheryl-Kin's writ of execution. Between the two of us we can do whatever it takes to net him and the serum. And no one needs to be the wiser about the latter. If the serum can free Trizryn from his summoner, it can free us, too. Are you in?"
Nisala was silent for a long moment before checking the dull, blue gem in her own hand. "Won't they come looking for us if they can't summon us?"
"We'll be far away by then."
"I'm running a successful business here. I have no desire to start from scratch in another place."
"And how much longer are you willing to be at the beck and call of the Derra Eirlyn when they need an undisclosed heist? They don't pay for your services, but they punish you if you don't comply."
"They leave me alone when I obey."
"But they're—" He stopped himself before arguing that the elder council and royal family were dragons. Few citizens knew the true nature of the ruling dynasty. Ilisram, for some reason, was one of those few. The necromancer had confessed this secret to Mahntarei when he claimed to help the dragon-Queen curse her son with her own blood. But this secret never traveled far because the general population believed dragons had been hunted into extinction after the War of the Blood Reign. That's what the official texts said, too. Additionally, news of their continued existence had a tendency to adversely affect the health of anyone who knew such secrets.
"War is coming, Nisala. War! We need to get out of this kingdom while we still can."
She regarded him with skepticism. "War with whom? Aesethna has been at peace with the other fae kingdoms since the end of the Blood Reign."
Mahnta sighed. To hell with their secrets. "The old dragon-gods are coming back … for revenge on the Derra Eirlyn."
Nisala raised one brow. "First vampires, now dragons?"
"Not all of the dragons from the Blood Reign were hunted. Some were imprisoned in ancient gates scattered around the kingdom. The gates are old and crumbling, so the dragons are breaking free. If we catch Trizryn, we can get his serum and the bounty, then ditch our summoners and get out of here before a second dragon war begins."
The guild master sat back in her chair and folded her billowing, white sleeves over her blue-and-gray tapestry corset. "How do you know this?"
"As long as our summoning gems are capable of feeding our thoughts to the Derra Eirlyn, it's not safe to share my source with you. People like us—we're not safe, Nisala. We never have been. We're the disposable ones, summoned to the front lines to do their dirty work … as usual. But this time, instead of using us as weapons against other criminals, they'll be pitting us against two-thousand-year-old dragons."
Nisala stared hard at him, then set her elbows on her books. "Trizryn's location in exchange for the whole bounty, half of the serum, and the serum formula for future processing."
"No. If you get the formula, give it to me. Between the two of us, I'm the alchemist, remember? I'm the one capable of transmuting addictive reagents into gold. Although, my services as a Derra Eirlyn assassin might be a little more valuable now than when I worked the black market for you as the Night Merchant."
The guild master smirked and ran a hand up his sleeve over the skull-faced-moon-and-crossbones tattoo. "I have always considered your services valuable, Mahnta. There are assassins, and then there are artisans of death. You, my dear, are an artisan." Leaning forward, she sifted his feathery brown hair through her fingers and gave him a sultry kiss.
He smiled at the memory of how she showed her appreciation after a certain requested kill. "It's because I enjoy what I do." Touching a finger to the swell of breast above her blouse and corset, he smiled again. "The last I saw of Trizryn and his party, they were probably headed for Rólundór."
"When he came here last, he said he was seeking passage to the Deep Warrens … but he refused to say why," Nisala admitted. "That's why I referred him to the Gray Lady."
"He was seeking something for my former employer without realizing it," Mahnta explained. "It's of no matter now. What's important is that they've teamed up, which means we'll need a vampire of our own to take her down. I don't suppose you know where I can find another vampire, my sweet?" He touched the bottom of her chin in an endearing manner.
"Vampires don't exactly grow on trees, Mahnta. Since the Dheryl-Kin has given you a writ of execution, why not tell him Trizryn is hiding behind one and ask for a reaper to slay her?"
"We can't risk any mind rips that would reveal our plans. Besides, he might reward the reaper instead of us." He shook his head. "No, if we're to pull this off, the only thing we can ask of the Dheryl-Kin is the bounty when we hand over Trizryn's head."
"I'll see what I can do." Nisala straightened one of the books she had been reading, so as to continue her research.
"Jódin?" Róbynn called from his cage in the lower reaches of Absin'navad's dungeon. The silver-haired, light elf innkeeper couldn't see the young girl, but knew she had been among the hostages Ilisram had taken prisoner. "Jó? You still with us?"
"Yes." Her small voice sounded sad and tired. Not too long ago, the elfling had lost one of her hands to a large, rusty trap after falling though a weak spot in one of the floors of the ruins. Beily had built her a new hand out of spare parts and organic matter after K'tía healed the stump. They had lost many in the recent takeover, but Róbynn's concern for those who remained prompted him to occasionally call on people by name to see how they were doing.
"I don't suppose you could use that fancy new hand o' yours to pry open these bars and get us out of here?"
"No, I already tried."
He thoughtfully stroked his goatee. "Well, did you try it with your superpowers, too?"
"I don't think I have any superpowers, Róbynn. Or … I might have used 'em up arm-wrestling the boys with my new hand. Maybe Beily can make it stronger. Beily?" the elfling called out.
Róbynn felt his heart break for about the millionth time since being hauled down here. Jódin's call hung in the air like a bear cub calling its lost mother. "Beily didn't make it, Jó."
The child grew silent.
"Are you okay? Hand not hurting or anything?"
"It throbs sometimes. What about K'tía? She could make it feel better again."
"No, darling. K'tía's didn't make it, either."
"Oh." The disappointment in her tone was tangible. "When are the dark elves going to let us go?"
"I don't know, but Reznetha'ir's probably thinking awful hard about how to break us out of here."
An iron-clad door squeaked open in the distance. The footsteps coming down the stairs and dark and musty corridors were confident. Róbynn knew that stride. At least Ilisram wasn't taking sick pleasure in frightening them by clanging his scimitar against the bars like he usually did.
The leader of the mutiny stopped in front of Róbynn's cage because he was the closest thing to any kind of authority among the refugees since Reznetha'ir left hoping to get K'tía to a healer. Róbynn knew in his gut the Dheryl-Kana probably hadn't survived the wound Ilisram gave her. He wasn't sure if Reznetha'ir survived, either.
"Well, innkeeper." Ilisram held a bottle of green ale and tugged a stiff lace cuff from beneath the gold-trimmed coat he wore, but the dark elf necromancer seemed more annoyed than haughty for once. "Apparently, your holographic message to Trizryn wasn't pitiful enough. Not only did you fail to convince him to save your life, he attacked my assassin and burned his summoner."
That Triz would attack Mahnta was a given, and with luck he had a good chance of winning such a fight. Attacking his summoner, however, was an act of suicide. Róbynn felt a cold sweat bead on his bone-white forehead. "Trizryn's dead?"
"Not exactly," Ilisram answered with a tight smile. "But the summoner's bond is no longer a threat. He's a vampire now."
Róbynn's dark brown eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Even before he left, Trizryn was transitioning. In fact, he probably left because he didn't want anyone to find out."
Róbynn wasn't buying it.
"Trizryn's mother cursed him with vampirism while he was still in the womb. She was a dragon, you see. So was K'tía. All of the royals and elders, except Trizryn, are dragons." Ilisram's high, black boots crinkled softly as he lifted and propped one foot between the lower bars. The blue-black fingers of his free hand curled around the upper bars. "I know you're thinking dragons don't exist anymore, but they've always been here. They've just transmogrified into light elves to convince the mindless masses they were freeing them from the previous draconian dynasties. This is the great secret the Derra Eirlyn don't want anyone to know."
"Then how do you know?"
A cruel smile touched the dark elf's lips. His topaz-and-gold eyes seemed to blaze from within. "That … is my secret."
"And you just happen to know Triz isn't a dragon?"
"I helped his mother create him. She found my magic and knowledge invaluable to her research, and I saw an opportunity to explore magic that, to our knowledge, had never been done before. You see, Trizryn is an awakened golem." Ilisram flashed a proud grin.
"An artificial construct with a hodgepodge of preferred qualities. An awakened golem is one that has been brought to life."
"I know what a golem is; and Trizryn is not one."
"You're thinking of the common golems built from organic or mechanical materials. Trizryn was constructed entirely of magic and given the consciousness of a dead soul … like using the bud of a crystal to grow new ones. A cursed golem is very difficult to kill, which is why even though his summoner was reduced to ash, Trizryn still lives.
"Probably can't say the same for his warm-blooded companions, though. He'll need fresh blood to restore his mind and body, since he can't manufacture his own anymore. Among those traveling with him, the human was the smallest and least likely to defend herself. I'm sure he's had his fill of her by now … perhaps in more ways than one." The necromancer's smile twisted in a dark manner. "He's quite the masterpiece, wouldn't you agree?"
This was too fantastic for Róbynn to believe. "If what you say is true, why would the Dheryl-Kéna create such a thing?"
"What Her Majesty wanted no longer matters. What matters now is that she is deceased, the Derra Erilyn has released Trizryn, and he is finally free from his summoner. The golem is now my property, and I want him back. I thought he'd return for you if I offered your life in exchange for the gate documents and his surrender. But he ignored your plea, so you are of no further use to me … unless Reznetha'ir decides you are worth the trade.
"Trizryn might have given up on rescuing you, but Reznetha'ir will not. He's too much of a bleeding heart to let even one sheep stray from his flock. Although, when he finds out Trizryn is the one who drained Ilansa—finds out what he truly is—he might be more willing to be rid of him."
Róbynn's scowl deepened. "Triz would never murder an innocent woman."
"Perhaps not, but a starving vampire craving blood would."
Róbynn watched the dark elf drink the last few gulps of the green ale.
"The problem with you, Róbynn …" Ilisram wiped his mouth. "… is that I can't decide whether to kill you now or wait until after having you brew a few more batches of your infamous ales. Very smooth drink, this. You are to be congratulated on making one of the finest beverages I've ever had."
"Well … actually, it's not as smooth as you think." Róbynn conjured a small flame in his hand and pitched it toward the bottle. The innkeeper's signature brews were well-known among friends and patrons for being extremely flammable, but Ilisram didn't know that until the fumes at the bottle's mouth exploded, shattering the glass and turning any splattered ale into a wild burn that quickly traveled.
Ilisram sucked air through his teeth and tucked his hand and forearm beneath the folds of his coat to smother the flames. After briefly examining the cuts and burns, he cast a mild frost over the damaged skin to cool it.
Róbynn backed away from the front of the cage. "You gotta watch out for that aftertaste. It's got a bit of a kick."
The necromancer snatched a coiled whip from the opposite wall. "I want this prisoner released!" He shouted to the guards posted in the dungeon.
The innkeeper had been eying that whip for days, wishing he had Trizryn's telekinetic sorcery to grab it. But what would he have done with it then? Hanged himself? It wasn't like he could use a whip to free anyone from the cages. Still sore from the beating when he was coerced into doing the holographic message, Róbynn tried not to think of what a whip cut might feel like. His brain began to pulse with an unusual deep-rooted pain anyway. Dark elf sorcery … Gritting his teeth, Róbynn's stormy glare met Ilisram's fiery indignation. He tried not to flinch as the necromancer unfurled the whip's tail.
One of the guards unlocked the cage door.
Róbynn thought to charge both of them, but instead—against his will—he exited his cage and bowed on his hands and knees before Ilisram. Fear of the whip mutated into fear of having no defense against the dark elf's mental manipulation.
Ilisram set a foot on the innkeeper's head. "Tell me, Róbynn, did you ever wonder how Trizryn felt being controlled by a summoner? Light elves need geas bonds, enchanted gems, and blood phylacteries from the Derra Eirlyn to control other minds, but all I need is your blood and my mind." Thrusting his foot, he smashed Róbynn's face into the stone floor and kept it there.
"Do you know how my magic differs from Trizryn's? I had training in how to hone my sorcery, whereas he stumbled upon it as part of his genetics. My illusions aren't merely projected thoughts. They take on a life of their own. So, if I imagine this whip to have multiple, barbed tails that can rend flesh from bones, that's what it becomes. And if I summon a werewolf to eviscerate you, you really will have your fatty organs eaten while you are fully conscious before you bleed out. And if I drink your blood, I will be able to summon your soul into my service, regardless of whether you're dead or alive." Ilisram lifted his boot and stepped back, as did the guard.
Róbynn still couldn't move. No matter how hard he tried, his limbs were locked. The whip cracked and cut through his linen tunic and flesh, stealing his breath.
"No! No! Please don't hurt him!" Jódin cried from her cage. "Róbynn!"
The innkeeper winced, both at the pain across his back and the realization that the child was listening. "Jódin, everything's going to be alright. Just keep your head down and do what you're told until Reznetha'ir and Triz—"
The whip cracked again, tearing flesh from his back in multiple, barbed streaks.
His cry after the strike only made the poor girl start screaming. Adult voices rose in protest, but the whip cracked again … and again.
The innkeeper's punishment was interrupted, however, when the dungeon door creaked open again and footsteps ran down the stairwell. "Lord Armann!"
"Hold him! I'm not finished with him yet," Ilisram told the guard before facing the dark elf female that jogged toward them.
The pressure in Róbynn's skull and the paralysis in his limbs released, but the pain across his back did not. He didn't have the time or strength to snatch the whip and start a fight before the guard threw him back into the cage on the floor, quickly locking the door.
The female dark elf was tall of stature and firm of disposition. Her head was half-shaved, but the fringe that remained on one side was snow-white. A tattoo of a silver dragon was visible beneath the shaved fuzz in contrast to her dark scalp. And her eyes were both gold and brown. The thought came unbidden to Róbynn's mind that if Trizryn had an older, meaner biological sister, she'd have been the perfect candidate.
In spite of the urgency that brought her there, she paused at the sight of the necromancer's burned left hand, sleeve, and arm. Then she saw that the spilled ale on the floor was still burning amid the shattered glass. Neither seemed to disturb her. "We've received a message from the den. The gate under Tántara has fallen, but the risen elder has been killed."
"What?" Ilisram snarled. "You mean to tell me the miners in that shit-swamp of a town were able to kill an ancient dragon? That ýeórl isn't even one of the elders in the council. There's no way he could have challenged it."
"We were able to make contact with our agent there, and he said a small group of slayers managed to bring it down, without aid from the ýeórl's guards.
Ilisram stiffened with suspicion. "Who were the slayers?"
She shrugged in apology for not being able to give a more complete answer. "He said it was a handful of light elves, but they had a dryad and a gray elf among them."
"Was the gray elf a female vampire by any chance?"
"No, but the gray elf is the one that eventually struck the killing blow, and witnesses said he moved with a rather unnatural agility and strength. … Do you think it's him?"
"Of course it's him! But he's killing the wrong dragons!"
Róbynn was unfamiliar with any dryads, but somehow he instinctively knew the gray elf was Trizryn … supposing all that talk about vampires and golems was true. The innkeeper gave a snort and dragged himself close to the bars. "Killing that dragon was probably just practice for kicking your ass when they come back to get us out of here." He chuckled in spite of his pain.
Ilisram's fiery eyes flashed back upon him. Summoning a shimmering scimitar made of shadow-magic, the necromancer lunged toward the cage, grasped the innkeeper's tunic in his fist, and thrust the magical weapon between the bars into the middle of his chest. The conjured blade sliced through bone and flesh like butter.
The last thing Róbynn felt was the air being sucked out of his lungs with a pale blue force that burned ice cold as it stole his last breath into the mouth of the necromancer.
A horse so dark it blended with the night itself burst from beneath the edge of the waterfall and raced through the forest toward the north road. The sudden appearance of the rider surprised even the dark elf patrols near the cavern's exit.
It surprised the three light elves hiding in the bracken even more so, but they remained hidden as the rider thundered past. Alderan, Eisiden, and Féonna exchanged glances, wary of the fury that marked the rider's urgent pace.
"That was Ilisram," Eisiden informed his companions, keeping his voice low.
"Something's happened," Féonna whispered.
"I thought you said he was a dark elf," Alderan spoke to Eisiden. "That rider was pale."
"He wears an illusion like Trizryn. No one knew he was a dark elf until he attacked everyone in Absin'navad."
"No one saw the sorcery in his eyes?"
"His eyes don't shine like Trizryn's for some reason."
"What do you think happened to make him fly out of Absin'navad like that?" Féonna asked.
"No telling." Eisiden scowled and shivered. The freezing temperatures of the night and the dampness of crouching in the snow was beginning to get uncomfortable. "Is this close enough for you to summon Trizryn's sister? We don't dare get any closer, especially if something's gone wrong."
Féonna removed a small vial from her pocket, uncorked it, and set it in the snow. Then, using her dagger, she sliced her finger and added a few drops of her own blood to the dark contents in the propped vial.
"Since K'tía's body is trapped in those underground ruins, I need a physical connection to invoke her spirit. The only thing I could get was a sample of Trizryn's blood, but my blood's needed to bring his back to life."
"Oh, right … vampire …" Eisiden had been told what happened to Trizryn when the druid and ranger first showed up on his doorstep at Reznetha'ir's behest. He still found the whole thing hard to believe.
Alderan pulled his own vethrkylk closer to keep out the chill. "Just don't summon any more demons."
Féonna gave her boyfriend a subtle frown, but then lifted the vial, and used her dagger to draw a circle around them in the snow.
Eisiden and Alderan kept an eye on the patrols in the distance.
When Féonna was done casting her circle of protection and fortifying it with magic, she dug a hole in the center and poured the contents of the vial into the tiny well. Tucking the vial back in her pocket, the druid then entered a meditative trance, whispering an invocation over and over.
After a few moments of silence, she whispered K'tía's name, asking that she come to them in the woods—that she follow the blood bond shared with her brother because the exiled Prince really needed her vision and wisdom right now. But several long minutes after casting the spell, nothing happened.
Finally, the druid gave up with a sigh. "It's no good." Féonna looked to Alderan. "Maybe You Know Who was right after all. Maybe Trizryn and K'tía aren't really blood siblings."
"Or maybe we're just too far away," Alderan suggested. "But Eisiden's right; if we move closer to the ruins we risk being seen by dark elf night vision."
"You Know Who?" Eisiden asked.
The other two elves exchanged glances of hesitation. "Someone who doesn't like being talked about," Alderan answered.
Eisiden wasn't sure what to make of that vague answer, but decided it wasn't worth pursuing. "Well, they do have different fathers, so maybe that's enough to weaken the bloodline needed for your spell."
Féonna nodded with disappointment. "Okay, let's go home. There's nothing more we can do here." Covering the blood well with snow, she cast one final glance toward the guarded caverns.
Then the three of them crept back to where Eisiden left his horse between the woods and the north road. He just hoped Ilisram hadn't spotted the other mount in the shadows during his hasty departure.