If you enjoyed the first two samples of Revenge of the Overlords (previously titled The Great Council), I have one last sample for you before the book is published!
Herein are early versions of the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters. Just bear in mind that there may be factual and/or grammatical errors and the content of this text is likely to change before publication.
But without further ado, I bring you chapters four through seven for your reading pleasure.
CHAPTER FOUR MALYYSTRAZZA
Malyystrazza eyed the agate wyrm with suspicion. “Alright, Char. You’ve led me on a merry chase. What do you want and why couldn’t you say it in front of your council?’’ The agate smiled warmly, his golden eyes shining. In fact, it was easily the warmest smile she’d seen since… well, in a long time. What was going on? “Please accept my apologies that this could not happen in the public forum, Mistress. Despite appearances, our congregation is not remotely close to a consensus on this point. Many did not wish it discussed.” She flexed her claws, letting the sharp talons dig ever-so-slightly into the rough stone beneath them. She had worried this would end up being the case. “However, there are enough of us in agreement that I feel confident speaking of it with you in private.’’ She struggled against her impatience. Why couldn’t he just get on with it? All this breathing around the fox hole was liable to drive her mad. “Understand, part of what I said in there still holds. We cannot join you. At least, not yet. It isn’t so much that none of us want to so much as not enough of us do. There is much fear and suspicion in the wyrms residing here. The fact that one as young as I was chosen as the Voice should communicate that quite readily.’’ She nodded, but kept silent. “What I can do, however, is make you a promise. You see, the primary concern among these dragons is safety. Their own as individuals first and foremost, but also that of the group as a whole.’’ Malyystrazza’s impatience surged again and she was forced to bite back a scathing response. “What I will promise is that if you can show us proof that enough of the Overlords have pledged to take part in your council then we will do so as well.” I know that seems quite nebulous, but I assure you it is sincere. It is only our safety that worries us, especially as most of the dragons here are young and would be utterly unable to defend themselves against even a Great Wyrm, much less one of these Overlords.” She sighed. “We could protect them—”she began. “Apologies, Mistress, but we cannot place such faith in you and yours. Too much has happened. The Earth has became too dark a place. Experience has taught us that the only dragons we can depend on are ourselves and each other.’’ Her lips curled up in an insulted snarl. “Do not be offended, Mistress. It is not personal. We have been betrayed time and time again since the Great War began. We’ve come to within the breadth of a claw of total destruction on several occasions. We just can’t take a chance on you without assurances.” “Assurances?” Malyys said bitterly. “Yes, in the form of Overlords swearing by Ryujin, Tiamat, and the Astral Dragon that any who participate in the Council will be safe from their predations. Naturally, we do not expect you to win over all of the Overlords, but if you can secure a high percentage of them then we will agree to participate.” Malyystrazza Considered for only a moment before responding. “And where will you stand if we can only secure oaths from, say, half of the Overlords?” Char’s lips pulled into a tight, thin line. His golden eyes held her gaze for several seconds before he spoke. “I cannot say with certainty. There is still much debate among us on just what terms we would require. I can confidently say a majority would be enough to win over the more recalcitrant among us, but for half or less I do not know if it would be sufficient.” “So,” she said, her voice tight as she tried to keep her frustration in check. “Essentially what you’re saying is that to gain your open support you are demanding that we do the impossible and secure the cooperation of every wyrm who has claimed the title of Overlord.” Char sighed. “That isn’t what I said. Listen, I know you can’t grasp our position on this. And there’s nothing I can say to make you understand. With all you’ve been through, I understand why you see things the way you do. But you must realize that not every dragon will share your experience or your views. We have remained alive by keeping out of sight. Your Council will take that from us. So to agree to join you, we need assurance that no Overlord will come after us once we are out in the open.” Malyys shook her head. He was right, she didn’t understand. Cowering hidden in a cave seemed no way to live. She understood perfectly well that many— same might so most —dragons would not share her perspective. When she took the time to think about it, she didn’t expect them to. But she frequently forgot to stop and consider that. She took a slow, deep breath that she released in a heavy sigh. “I understand that, Char. I really do. Please accept my apologies. I know the risk is great for you and yours, and you have no reason to trust us to keep you safe.” The agate nodded and a slow smile crept onto his features. “So for the nonce, let us call this a tentative plan to join, pending the assurances that you require. Is that satisfactory?” His smile became a toothy grin. “Perfectly so.” “Thank you for your time and understanding, Charondronay. I very much appreciate it,” she said as she turned to make her way from the chamber. “I will be in touch as things develop.” “My pleasure, Mistress Malyys. It was most enlightening.” “On both our parts,” she muttered under her breath. It took her the better part of three hours to find her way out of the cave system. She couldn’t understand why any dragon would build a system so convoluted. How did anyone ever learn their way around? She breathed a sigh of relief as she crossed the Threshold of the cave opening back out into the warmth and light of the golden sun. Almost instantly, The sun warmed her scarlet scales and her blood pumped faster, bringing life back to her wings and tail. Are there any others out here that I can speak with before I return? she asked, her mind connecting directly with Lord Graayyyavalll. The garnet who led the entire movement had, in the years since her rescue, became almost a surrogate sire to her. Several moments passed without a response. She waited, trying to be patient. He was a busy wyrm, she couldn’t expect an immediate response every time. After Two minutes without a response, she tried again. My lord? Is now a bad time? Not all all, sweetling, his deep voice rumbled in her mind. I was distracted by events here. What did you say? She smiled involuntarily. His voice never failed to elicit that reaction, Though she couldn’t say exactly why. Speaking with him didn’t make her happy, per se. But it always left her with an oddly pleasant sensation in her belly. Something akin to nostalgia, yet not. I am finished here, she said, not at all certain she was successful in keeping the bitterness from her voice. Are there any others near here that I should speak with before I return? He seemed to consider for a minute. She walked down the gentle slope leading away from the cave entrance, her scales now blazing with glorious heat from the rays of Ryujin’s Blaze. There is one, he said slowly, as though reluctant to speak of it. One dragon? she asked, only a few degrees beneath incredulous. Then it occurred to her that it might be a— Yes, he interrupted her thought. A single wyrm. An older charoite. She was always a thorn in my side, back before the Long Sleep. She was close to Vordillainsura at one point. An Overlord, she said in whispered awe. She hadn’t meant to convey it through the link, Graayyyavalll sighed. I’m not certain she’s quite to that designation just yet. She has used the power to grow far beyond her natural capabilities, however. Malyys shuddered. Is she… hostile? Another sigh. I can’t be entirely certain. We’ve yet to make contact with her. I’m not certain if she is aware of our efforts or not. She seems to have been underground for quite some time. Lovely, Malyys said. A mental shrug. We aren’t sure what she’s been doing or what she might be planning. No one has seen or heard from her since… before your rescue from the pyrite. I see. Just be cautious. See if you can find her lair. See what you can see. Do not make contact unless it is safe to do so. Do not put yourself in any undue danger on account of her. I understand, Lord. What is her name? Thhuulessia. Malyys reeled. Lessia. Oh, by the three, of all the wyrms he could have asked her to find and approach, why did it have to be this one? She groaned loudly, and allowed the sound to pass through the link. I understand how you feel, my dear. I know you have history with her. I wouldn’t ask you to do it, but there is no one else in the area and we need to secure all the Overlords and near-Overlords that we can. She breathed in deep and let it out in a long sigh. I know, my lord. I will do it. Thank you, my dear. She nodded. She didn’t bother projecting the movement through the link. Somehow, he always knew. Severing the link, she sat back on her haunches to think. The last thing she wanted was to have to revisit her troubled pest with the charoite, but it seemed fate had no intention of letting her off this talon. She was going to have to deal with this, perhaps once and for all if this did not go well. Looking straight up into the blazing orb of Ryujin’s Blaze, her eyes burned until they watered and crimson tears blurred her vision. The pleasant heat of her scales and blurred vision made it easy to lose herself in memories of the past.
Thhuulessia stood before her, brilliant arrays of blue and purple light blazing off the wyrm’s scales in the light of Ryujin’s Blaze overhead. She grinned in what Malyys thought was pleasure as they watched her young brother playing with a tiger cub. The hatchling had emerged within days of the cub’s birth, which had claimed the mother’s life. The two were almost inseparable from his hatching onward. The creature was the strangest companion Malyys could have imagined for her young clutch-mate. What was it that drew the pair together? Pushing the question away— there was no way to get a definitive answer, after all —Malyys allowed herself to enjoy watching cub and the youngling roll around together, taking turns batting, snipping, and hissing at one another. She regretted that their time to play in this way would be so limited. While the two had thus far remained almost of a size— while it was true that young Mykluuriaan was considerably taller and larger, the cub had a thickness of muscle mass to make up for it —that situation wouldn’t last for much longer. The cub was almost full grown now, and within a year or two her brother would equal, if not exceed, the cub’s mass while reaching close to double its length. But for as long as it remained safe for the cub, she would not only allow but encourage such play. It was good for both of them. She did not want Mykl to have to mature at the accelerated rate that she had. Do you not think this a poor decision, Lessia spoke into her mind. What? she thought, incredulous. How could it be so? That mindless creature should be his food, not his play mate, the wyrm said harshly. Malyys’s jaw fell open in shock. You can’t be serious! Surely, you cannot begrudge him one playmate during these years before his education begins! The charoite breathed a deep sigh. Will you never learn, little mouse? By Tiamat’s dark soul, she hated that nickname. There are only two types of interactions with merit. Those that strengthen us for what the other party can do to grow our own power, and those that strengthen us by providing food or other sustenance. All else is a waste of time and effort. Malyystrazza thought it a sad, lonely way to live, but she kept that thought to herself. He’s not nearly old enough to understand what has value, she said instead. Lessia scoffed. It is never too early to teach. Malyys Narrowed her eyes. With all due respect— Said everyone ever about to utter something disrespectful. Malyys continued as though she hadn’t heard. He deserves to be a hatchling for a while. He can awaken to the real world and its horrors later, when he doesn’t retain so much innocence. The charoite wyrm flashed a toothy smile. Perhaps it is for the best that you are not his dam. It is not your decision what is or is not in his best interests, Malyys clenched her jaw. When did this become about Mykl? She thought this visit from the charoite had been about her. They always had been in the past. Never before had the wyrm shown any interest in anyone other than her. The wyrm chuckled inside her head. Oh, you are an egotistical one, my little mouse. It was never about you. And now this charade can end.
Malyystrazza shook herself back to the present with a soft growl. “Let’s get this over with,” she said, then leaped into the air to head toward the towering spire where the charoite wyrm made her lair. She found herself not a little surprised that she didn’t even need to think about where Lessia’s lair was, despite lot having seen it since she was little more than a wyrmling. It was almost as though the trauma she had experienced at the charoite’s claws had burned its location into her mind for all time. A moment of panic seized her and her wings ceased their movement. A little higher in their arc and she may have stalled, plummeting toward the Earth. As it was, she glided in a downward trajectory as she struggled against her frozen body, unable to force the troubling question from her mind. What ended up happening to like Mykl? Is it possible he’s still there with her? Her pulse raced with the possibility.
Light surrounded him on all sides. He wasn’t certain how, but he was able to see in all directions at once. Not that there was anything to see in any of them. The light was bright, white, and might have been blinding had be had eyes to be blinded. It was an odd sensation. He knew he should have had eyes. And flesh. And bone. And scales. Yet he neither felt nor saw any of it. It was almost as though he were nothing more than spirit floating in a sea of shining light. He tried to move the legs he knew he possessed, though he could not have said how he knew, exactly, but he couldn’t feel them. He tried to move his head to look down at himself, but that didn’t seem to exist either. Instinctively, he tried to thrash about with his tail and wings, but that didn’t work either. What was going on? “Peace, My Son,” said a powerful, resonant voice. It resonated from everywhere around him, yet had no discernible source. What was happening? “Your spiritual body was… damaged in the transition. It is being remade. In the meantime, I am afraid you must remain here. You will continue your soul’s journey as soon as we can correct the problem.” What did that mean? “I am sorry, My Son. Without your spiritual body there is much that you cannot understand. Trust me when I say that you will understand when the time comes. But in the meanwhile, please remain calm. We will have you on your way as soon as the situation can be rectified.” Would be remember who he was? “Yes, My Son. All will be restored. This was a problem we could not foresee. As you will recall later, what has happened to you is unprecedented. We had no way of knowing what might happen. It’s a natural consequence of breaking new ground, I’m afraid.” He did not understand what that meant, but it was clear he would get no answers right now. Hopefully when… whatever was being done was finished he would understand what it all meant. Until then, he supposed he had no choice but to be patient and wait. “Exactly, My Son. But worry not. Time flows differently here. It will not be long.”
CHAPTER SIX BALHALLUMUUT
Balhalumuut sighed and waved a claw in dismissal at the sleek golden wyrm across the chamber from him. “You may go, Dhaarvvhensha. I need to do further research. If you are still willing, I may call you back to try again in the coming days.” She flashed a coy, playful smile. “You may call on me anytime you like, my lord. For this or any other purpose.” He nodded, only barely cognizant of the offer she seemed to be making. “Thank you, my dear.” Are you certain this is wise? Dauria asked. Bal blinked in announce. He wished she would keep her mind to herself when he was not alone. It wasn’t as though he could speak to her with others present. Of course you can, my son. I can hear your thoughts as easily as you can. Oh, how I wish you couldn’t. Her consciousness withdrew immediately, waves of pained indignance left in her wake. The gold wyrm made her way to the sealed exit from the chamber— one of only a limited few such seals in the entire cave system —but stopped as she came to it. Angling her long, serpentine neck while the rest of her body remained still, she turned her head back around to face him. “I hope this does not come off as overly forward, my lord. But I was wondering if you might do me the honor of allowing me to join you for the evening meal when your work is finished today?” Oh, you poor child, he thought. Less than instant later it occurred to him that if anything, she was probably older than him. He forced himself to smile. “If I can find the time between my experiments, I would be delighted.” The nervous expression on her face became a glowing smile. She thanked him and quickly turned to leave, almost as though she feared he might change his mind if she tarried. Without another thought, he turned back to his laboratory to try to piece together what he was doing wrong. Even among the ancient writings of the dragon sorcerers from the glory age before Humankind had turned against the dragons, he could find no hint that anything of this sort had ever been attempted before. He did have an account, co-authored by his sire, Graayyyavalll and the survivor, Malyystrazza, of what the pyrite traitor, Chhry’stuulliound had done to leech power from so many hosts in the deep tunnels within his lair. He also, naturally, now had a deep knowledge of how essence theft functioned. He felt certain that Somewhere in the intersection between the two would be the secret to the power he had witnessed in his vision. He had tried every way he could imagine to blend the way each power worked, but nothing had been effective. He couldn’t help wondering if there was a pre-requisite that he hadn’t thought of. Some conditioning that needed to be done by the practitioner or to the victims before it could work. Both of the other powers had such conditions, but neither of those particulars could be true of the power from his nightmare. Essence Theft, of course, required the victim to be either recently dead or dying. If they were not in, or or at least nearing, their death throes then the attempt would be useless. Similarly, and yet based on completely different rules, was the leeching power’s need for a long, complex ritual in which the victim had to willingly allow the user access to their Apex. The condition could be manipulated, as the pyrite had proved. The acceptance did not need to be conscious. It could be done in dreams wherein the victim was only aware in the most rudimentary sense of what they were agreeing to. Therefore, it was almost inconceivable that this new power would not have a similar, yet completely different, conditional requirement. But what could it be? In both existing cases, it was intrinsically linked to what the power did. How it worked. So the real question seemed to be, how exactly did the new power work? What did it do, physically or metaphysically? What was the exact mechanic for how it drew power from the victims and provided it to the user? Closing his eyes, Balhalumuut called forth an image of what he’d seen in the vision. He watched again as the him in the dream waited what seemed an inordinate length of time before he began. He flung out a multitude of black strands that latched onto the wyrms throughout the chamber and, unless he was much mistaken, connected directly to their Apexes without any need to work through their physical bodies first. But how was that possible? His understanding was that the make-up of a dragon’s physical body and arcane essence were so wound up together that one could not interact with one without affecting the other. The only thing that made Essence Theft possible was the drop in defenses of being dead or dying. In a living, healthy dragon, the direct theft of their arcane power was supposed to be impossible. Frowning in thought, he plucked a tome from the shelf and placed it on his reading stand. An Analysis Of The Apex Of The Seal, the cover read in metallic gold lettering. It began with a treatise on what the author believed the Apex was, how it was formed, and where the energy actually came from. Following this were numerous treatises concerning various questions about the Apex, such as the nature of the energy, what process dictated the growth rate of a dragon’s Apex, what mechanism controlled the restoration of expended arcane energy, and the nature of the link between the physical and the incorporeal energy that created, maintained, and allowed direct connection to the Apex of the Soul.
For a long time, Balhalumuut scoured the treatises for any nugget of wisdom that might help him to figure out what condition might be required to make his nightmare power function properly. Nuggets there were, in abundance, which he was certain would strengthen every power he manipulated. Tiny tweaks to the way he touched, drew forth, and targeted his arcane energy that would make it more efficient. Things he likely never would have thought of on his own. Alas, he found no hints as to what connection or weird quirk of its nature might allow for what he had seen in his vision. He turned an enormous, brittle page at the end of a treatise and the title of the next made him cringe: The Mysteries of the Vow and the Heart-Bond. Ugh, he thought as his stomach growled and seemed to roll over on itself. He rose from his haunches to work out a kink in the muscles around his hip and found the world spinning around him. His head felt lighter than the rest of him. He wobbled for a moment before catching himself. How long had it been since he’d eaten? How long had he been dawn here working on this? Now that he considered it, he thought it must have been days, if not weeks. “Okay,’’ he said aloud. “Not even dragons can go forever without sustenance.’’ That decided, he gently closed the tome before him and left the chamber. Fresh meat sounded delicious, and would likely be exactly what he needed to rejuvenate his mind. Dhaarvvhensha. The name came to his mind unbidden. He was surprised to note a grin spreading across his lips when he thought of her. Why not, he thought with a shrug of his wings. He’d been keeping himself more and more isolated since the night of the vision, and he needed to correct that. What kind of leader could he be if he didn’t even see his people? Today, he would dine with the gold. Perhaps even enjoy some conversation that was not exclusively about his research and experiments. Perhaps tomorrow he would go above and visit with the dragons who oversaw the exterior of The Mountain. The journey back up from his laboratory always seemed to take longer than the journey down. It was a curious thing. He supposed it had something to do with the return forcing him to travel back up toward the peak of the mountain while the journey down was quite leisurely. As he crossed the threshold from the lower chambers into the main living area of the caves, he realized he was humming a rather ribald tune that had been popular during his uncle’s reign here on the island. What was wrong with him? Then he noticed his lips were once again pulled into a wide grin that he couldn’t explain. What was going on? He was grinning and humming like an addlebrained hatchling with an infatuation. He carefully blanked his features and stilled his tongue. He could not be seen to be over eager. Is that what I am? he thought, confused. Prior to her helping him in the laboratory, he hadn’t spoken more than three words at a time to the gold. In truth, he’d barely acknowledged her existence. He shook the questions from his mind. Right now, there were only a few things he need worry about; bringing good food to share, putting on his gracious host face, and sharing a meal and some pleasant conversation with the gold. With luck, this would be enough of a distraction to allow him to refocus his attention on his work. He let loose a trumpeting call to his servants. Wherever they were in the caves, they would hear his call and they would come. He made his way to the small chamber adjoining his personal lair chamber, which typically served as his dining space when he dined alone. For a moment he considered going to visit Dhaarvvhensha first, but decided it would be better if he had a time and a menu for the meal before he spoke with her. As of this moment, all he’d have for her was a vague notion of a meal and his notoriously inaccurate ideas on how long it should take. As he crossed through the portal into the dining chamber, a question occurred to him. What foods did the gold enjoy? Did she prefer meat like a proper dragon? Was she one of those who balked at raw meat and chose to subsist on barks, grains, vegetables, and fruits? His stomach turned at the thought. Oh, he enjoyed the occasional bushel of oranges or cart of carrots, but he didn’t see the point of a meal that didn’t include meat. Of course, it was also possible she was part of the new trend… He stuck out his forked tongue at the thought. While it was true that most dragons could subsist on almost anything— even fare that other creatures would not consider food, nor, in some cases, even edible —he had never understood the appeal to the new fad of choosing to feed oneself with gemstones and other precious rocks. Might as well eat the rock walls of my lair, he thought in disgust. He hoped she was not one of those. He couldn’t see himself enjoying a meal with a dragon who enjoyed crunching on gemstones. Even the thought of listening to the sound of it turned his stomach. He paced around the chamber while he waited for the servants to arrive, studying the marks on the walls as he went. In most areas throughout the caves, the walls were utterly free of mark or blemish. Either the artisan who dug them out was immensely skilled, or the caves had been perfectly formed using arcane energy. Balhalumuut was perfectly aware that there were wyrms who eschewed the use of the arcane in the formation of their lairs, in preference for digging them with claws and tails. He had serious doubts, however, that anyone in his family’s history matched that description. Platinum wyrms had never shied away from making use of their arcane power. Certainly his uncle had not, more so than most. Balhamuut would have used whatever method made his work faster and easier, which meant that if only a few of the walls had visible designs then it was intentional. And that suggested… what, exactly? Was there a design behind it? Could it have some deeper meaning or purpose? Claws clicking against the stone floor informed him the servants had arrived.
A short conversation with his servants told Balhalumuut all he needed to know. The gold, blessedly, had similar taste in food to his own. Primarily meat with the occasional fruit, vegetable, or bark for added nutrition and to keep the teeth sharp. Since setting the human slaves free from Balhamuut’s prisons, agreements had been made to allow the dragons to purchase surplus foodstuffs from the diminutive creatures. Thankfully, they had thrived over the last decade and were now producing far more food than they needed. Although he still had to sometimes correct the occasional stray thought of one of his people trying to revert to the old way of simply taking what they wanted from the humans, in the main it was going well. In a moment of generosity, he offered his servants a quartet of his shed platinum scales to the humans as thanks for the sumptuous feast he wanted to procure— in addition to their normal payment, of course. It would take a few hours to gather everything, his servants assured him, and an additional hour for them to prepare, season, and arrange it all into an appropriate meal. As always, it seemed an inordinate amount of time to Balhalumuut, whose own idea of preparing a meal was taking a freshly killed beast onto a rock to avoid contaminating it with dirt and grass. He shrugged. They said they needed the time, and he would begrudge them it. He had long ago accepted that his own ideas on how long almost any activity should take were grossly inaccurate. He had been the wyrmling who expected a hunt to complete in less than an hour. Or the journey from Antarctica to Japan to take perhaps a handful of hours. As the servants left the chamber to be about their work, he went back to studying the markings on the wall with renewed interest. On The far wall from the entrance, he found deep grooves carved into the wall in an unusual, oblong shape with several twining strands coming off it at the top. He turned his head first one way, then the other, altering his angle on the image. Hmmm, he thought. Is that…? There were several distorted shapes at the bottom of the oblong and what looked as though it might be another, larger strand coming off one end of the shape. But he wasn’t certain. It might be nothing more than a crack or imperfection in the stone, as it was shallower and looked different from the other lines. Raising his head higher and tilting it to the right, he gasped aloud. Could it be? From every other angle, it looked like nothing more than a strange conglomeration of shapes and lines. But from this angle… “By Ryujin’s holy name,” he breathed. At this angle, the maybe-a-crack looked like a tail. The strange blemishes at the bottom looked like claws. The strands coming off the top looked like long necks ending in slightly bulbous heads, and the oblong now looked like a slightly bloated serpentine body. A dragon. A huge dragon. A huge dragon with five heads. He reeled. Who had ever heard of such a thing? Dragons had just a single head. Everyone knew that. There were the silly human legends about the hydra, of course, but every dragon knew they were just that. Legends. There had never been any truth to the legends. Every dragon knew it. Once, when he’d been but a wyrmling, Sire and Dam had speculated that the origins of the hydra myth was based on ancient humans’ misunderstandings of the earliest encounters with dragons, before they had the sense to realize they were looking at multiple dragons rather than a single creature. None of which, of course, explained what in Infernalis This image was doing on a cave wall in the platinum realm more than a thousand years after the human race fell from prominence in the world. Especially since, if Sire and Dam were to be believed— and why shouldn’t they? —the vast majority of these caves had been constructed after the fall of humankind by Bal’s uncle, Balhamuut. He sighed. Now was not the time for another mystery. This needed to be moved aside for now so he could focus all his attention on the mysterious power from his vision. That problem needed his full attention for the foreseeable future. He took a deep breath and pushed this new mystery to the back of his mind with a mental note to revisit it when he had the time. Turning, he left the dining chamber and made his way toward the living chambers in the caves. Pulling a breath of power from his Apex, he cleaned his breath, flattened his scales, buffed his teeth and claws, and increased the gloss of his scales and eyes to a high shine. As he reached the portal leading into Dhaarvvhensha’s chamber, he stopped and took a deep breath to still his inexplicably frayed nerves. An odd, soft clicking began behind him. Turning his head, he was surprised to find it was the result of a slight twitch in the muscle of his shoulder making his scales click together. Ryujin’s bloody tail! he thought. What is wrong with me? What do I have to be nervous about? It wasn’t as though he had been infatuated with her, after all. They had no history to speak of, yet clearly on some level he was worried about her reaction, or what kind of impression he would make on her. Gods, what was going on with him? He’d never felt anything of the sort, and it wasn’t as though he’d never had dealings with females he found attractive before. In The beginning of his tenure here as his uncle’s prisoner he’d been made to entertain many guests he found both attractive and intimidating. And he certainly wasn’t intimidated by the gold. What reason did he have to be? Pulling in one final deep breath, he forced himself to stride forward and turn the corner into the gold wyrm’s chamber. To say he was surprised by the chamber around him brought new meaning to understatement. The chamber was small by his standards, though the gold herself took up less than a fifth of its total area. She stood with her sleek, serpentine back to him, her claws busy with something he could not see. Her scales were so small her body seemed to be sheathed in a solid layer of burnished gold, though here and there a pearl or emerald seemed to be embedded in the metal. The smooth, glossy stone walls of the chamber were covered by tapestries of soft cloth that depicted the history of the dragons, going from their pre-historic origins all the way to the Awakening, the Dragon Wars, and even their current struggles. He raised a single brow ridge in surprise. Had she had this commissioned herself? Did that mean she was a student or scholar of draconic history? His interest in her ticked up a degree. He allowed his eyes to wander over her sleek form only once before he announced his presence by clearing his throat loudly. Dhaarvvhensha leaped into the air in apparent shock, giving Balhalumuut his first glimpse of what she’d held in her talons: several spools of what appeared same kind of thick thread or yarn that she knitted— presumably with her claws —into some sort of banner or tapestry. Thus far, all he could see of it was a black background. She spun to face him with fire in her eyes and a snarl on her lips, both of which vanished as he gaze settled on him. He lowered his head. “My apologies, Dhaar. I did not mean to startle you.” She seemed to plaster a smile on her face, though it didn’t reach her eyes. “No need, my lord. I should be more aware of my surroundings. Even here, where it is ostensibly safe, I should not lose myself in my work so completely that I do not hear when a wyrm enters my chamber.” He nodded. “Regardless, I did not come here to startle you out of your scales.” This time the smile did reach her eyes, lustrous amber within bronze. “And why did you come, my lord?” her voice was sweet and gentle, He gave his best effort at a smile, which he imagined didn’t look anything like one. “I needed to take a break from my research, and it occured to me that I haven’t eaten in some time. Which got me thinking about your offer. So I was wondering if you’d like to share a meal.’’ His voice grew drier with each word as his nervous anxiety grew. He cleared his throat to strengthen it again. “With me.” If anything, her smile widened. “I would be delighted, my lord. What did you have in mind?” “Um, well, I’ve actually already taken the liberty to have something prepared. It should be ready within probably two hours.” “Oh,” she said, her disappointment evident. “Is something wrong?” He asked, worried he had mis stepped in some way. “Not at all, my lord,” she said, the eyeless smile back in place. Oh, dear, he thought. What did I say? He cleared his Throat. “Please, Dhaarvvhensha,” her face lit up again when he said her name. “If you would prefer something else, please do say so.” Gods, he wished he could see the thoughts in her head. Trying to figure out was was bothering her was maddening. There was a way to do just that, of course. It was a practice his uncle had never flinched at. If he was honest, few wyrms would give it so much as a second thought. But Balhalumuut was not most wyrms. Between the values Dauria and Graayyyavalll had instilled in him almost since hatching and the injustice he had both witnessed and been forced to inflict while under his uncle’s care, he had developed a deep appreciation for the rights to autonomy every dragon deserved. But it was his brother, Graavvyynaustaiur, more than anything else, who had shown him the value of mental privacy. Gravv lived the majority of his life entirely ignorant of draconic telepathy, coming to understand it only in the final year of his life. And once he came to understand it, he’d despised everything it stood for. The sheer amount of mental invasion performed by their uncle had been the greatest insult to Gravv. Being Delved was the single greatest attack that could ever be leveled against the younger dragon. Thank you for that lesson, my brother, he thought. Even if that knowledge does make my life a might more complicated. The female shrugged her wings. “I just hoped we might go hunt together,” she muttered in the meekest voice he could have imagined coming from a dragon. He narrowed his eyes in confusion, then they flew open wide in shock as the realization of what she was really saying dawned on him. A Shared Hunt was a very intimate experience. In its proper form, it involved two dragons forming a telepathic bond, which they maintained throughout the hunt. Through the bond, each felt every sensation, every emotion, every minute detail that either of them experienced during the hunt. It was common for the hunt to culminate in a shared meal followed by a sexual coupling, which was generally the most exquisite sexual experience a dragon could have. “A-a Shared Hunt?” he gasped, his throat suddenly dry. She flashed a sweet smile, the innocence in her wide, bright eyes beyond anything he could have expected. “Is that what it’s called? I just thought it would be fun to hunt with a partner.” He choked and coughed. Was it truly possible that she didn’t know what a Shared Hunt was? He thought it absurd that she could still be ignorant of it at her age, but she seemed so earnest! “Are you okay, my lord?” she asked, all concern. His coughing fit continued for several moments, during which he nodded. After what seemed an eternity he was able to swallow the saliva in his mouth and the coughing eased a bit. She stood both tense and relaxed, a strange contrast Balhalumuut hadn’t thought possible. Her eyes glistened with metallic gold, as though she was on the verge of shedding tears. Her lower lip trembled. Finally, the fit subsided fully and he could breathe normally again. “I’m fine,” he said in a dry rasp, She stepped toward him, stopping only when her snout was within a few claw-widths of his own. “What’s the matter?” Turning his head away from her, he coughed a final time to clear the sudden lump in his throat. “I just… do you truly not know what a Shared Hunt is?’’ Her eyes widened, the remaining golden tinge making the bright amber shine all the brighter. “Is there something more to it than simply hunting together?” oh, dear, he thought again. Clearing his throat one more time, he described for her what a Shared Hunt was, though he left out its typical conclusion. By the time he finished describing the telepathic link she was embarrassed enough, he saw no reason to add to her discomfort. “Oh, my,” she breathed. “Please,” he said with a gentle smile. “Do not be ashamed, you didn’t know what you were suggesting. And I am more than willing to forget about this. Come. Let us talk of other things while we walk, and we can pass the time before our meal in my dining chamber.” Eyes on the floor, she nodded. “Alright.” Balhalumuut turned toward the exit and waited for her to follow. As she moved to walk beside him, her tail grazed his and sent a thrill up his spine. Rather than pulling away as he expected, her tail remained in contact with his. She looked up and offered a shy smile. Was she asking permission? By the gods, as if he’d turn her down. He wasn’t that far out of his mind. He offered a kind smile and slid his tail up just a bit, to overlap hers near the tip. Again, she did not pull away but seemed to sigh into the embrace. With a grin, which he tried to suppress, he led her out of her chamber and back toward his dining chamber. Sporadically, every few steps, she extended her tail out then retracted it again, caressing his tail and sending tremors through him. “So,” he said, trying to focus his attention or anything other than the chills and flashes of heat the movements sent up and down his spine in virtually unending waves. “What were you making back there?” “Making? “she asked, turning her face up to his. Her breath tasted of lilac and honey. “Yes,” he said breathlessly, feeling lightheaded. “The cloth you were weaving or knitting when I entered.”
CHAPTER SEVEN MALLYYSTRAZZA
Malyystrazza circled around the towering spire where the charoite made her lair for the third time, looking for any hint of anything dangerous or indicative of what the wyrm might be doing. She found none. There was an abundance or arcane energy flowing forth from the towering peak, but that could mean almost anything. Or nothing. She tried to extend her telepathic senses into the mountain, but she met a kaleidoscopic barrier that prevented her mind from entering. Not surprising, really. No wyrm wanted another to be able to penetrate their lair with no more than a thought, especially since such intrusions were so difficult to detect. Unfortunately, it left her no closer to an answer about the wyrm than she’d been before she set out to find the lair in the first place. What should she do? She’d seen nothing to make her think she’d be in danger here, but she had also seen nothing to dispel her general unease with the charoite. Pumping her wings, she shot up into the night sky. The air chilled rapidly as she neared the clouds, and as she passed through the nebulous white fluff her scales took on a sheen of moisture that froze to her scales within moments of passing beyond the top of the cloud. She shivered violently from the tip of her snout to the sharp blade of her tail. Pulling in a deep breath of the thin, freezing air, she forced herself to acknowledge a hard truth. Despite her apprehension, she had seen nothing here to make her believe she would be in danger if she revealed herself. And Lord Graayyyavalll had ordered her to do this. Unless She saw evidence of a threat, she was bound to complete her assignment. A lesser dragon might have fled and lied to the lord about seeing a threat, but she was Malyystrazza. Such deception was beneath her. Especially in dealings with a wyrm to whom she owed so much. Without Graayyy and… his son, she would have ended at the claws of the Pyrite Bastard, who doubtless would have eventually drained her of every shred of her arcane power. She pulled in another deep breath of the thin air and dived straight down. She shot through the cloud at impressive speed, amazed it didn’t disperse the formation. Through the cloud now, the mountainous spire and the rocky ground around it rushed up to meet her. Despite the icy frigidity of the air racing past her face, the sensation thrilled her. The speed at which she raced toward the ground below made her head spin, and she reveled in it. The peak grew large beneath her, seeming to sprout up from the ground. Where once there had been a fairly flat, almost plateau-like area at the tip of the spire, now the peak ended in a sharpened point of stone little wider than a claw-width. She had no doubt that if a dragon fell— or, Tiamat forbid —was thrown down on that point, it would pierce scales, flesh, and bone. She was convinced no dragon could survive it. Not if their torso were pierced by the mountain. Now there was a phrase she’d never expected would cross her mind. Pierced by the Mountain, she thought again with a shiver. The words had an ominous feel to them. As she zipped past the sharp rocks, she raised her head and neck out of the dive and flared her wings out to catch the air. The force of the wind catching the membranes of her wings at such deadfall speeds yanked on the main joints of her wings. In sheer agony, she forced herself to keep her wings extended, though the strain threatened to rip her tendons and shred the membranes. Crimson tears came to her eyes, blurring the rocky ground that still rushed toward her in a haze of red. Unable to contain it any larger, she let loose a wailing shriek of agony and forced her wings to pump against the forces struggling to pull her toward the ground. She fought, angling her body toward ascension. She could not allow this one ill-thought idea to be her end! Wind billowed in her wings. The membranes expanded, ballooning out from the bones far more than she would have thought possible. But the Earth continued to rush at her at dangerous speed. The jagged rocks at the base of the mountain raced toward her, now less than a dozen wingspans beneath her. She was fast running out of time, and couldn’t seem to slow her descent fast enough. She struggled to calm her racing, panicked thoughts. Panic never resulted in solutions. She sought the inner calm she always invoked when summoning power from her Apex… Apex… You fool! she thought. Had there been more time she would have smacked herself in the forehead. As it was, she immediately scoured the panic from her mind and drew forth the inner calm she had been practicing for more than ten years. The surging panic vanished along with the barrage of uncontrolled thoughts and she ripped forth a river of power from her Apex. In a surge, she thrust the power in two directions. The first was to strengthen her wings; the joints, the bones, the membrane, the tendons and ligaments, and most of all the muscles which powered them. The second was to enhance the force of wind against her, which she hoped would slow her descent further. She struggled against the air as Gale-force winds pushed up against her wings, threatening to snap them back against her body. Her pulse thundered with the effort she expended, both physical and arcane, to keep her wings outstretched and keep reducing the speed at which she plummeted toward the rocky ground. Once more, the pressure and strain against her wings heightened, growing more and more agonizing despite the arcane energy she pumped into them. Her descent slowed, but not enough. Each second that raced by brought her another wingspan closer to the Earth. In desperation, she flung another surge of power into the wind, drawing a gale up into her wings to slow her descent. A brittle snap sounded over the rushing of the wind and agony flared in her left wing. She shrieked in agonized terror as the edges of her vision began to darken. In the final moments before impact she released all the power she had put into the wind and folded her screaming wings against her body. She surged every ounce of power she could summon into a shield to defend herself from the damage of the impact against the sharp, jagged rocks little more than a wingspan beneath her. The ground rushed up at her at such blinding speed, she couldn’t be certain just where the ground was. She twisted her bulk in the hope that her meaty flank would take the brunt of the impact, lessening the severity of the wounds she would suffer. She prayed to Tiamat for her survival just as she struck the jagged stones and the world went black. • • • Malyystrazza floated in a sea of agony. All around her blood rained and terror thundered. Everything she saw was awash in the crimson of garnet dragon blood and the black of night. The scent of decay singed her nostrils and an acrid taste burned her tongue. Am I dead? she thought. She shifted and the movement sent agony lancing through her body. Fluid seemed to wash over her, dripping under her scales to the leathery hide beneath. She breathed in and that, too, sent pain shooting through her chest. And with the pain came the sulfurous scent she associated with the blood of her kind. The liquid dripping down her hide felt hot, as though molten rock or boiling tar were being poured over her. Either that, she thought, or my flesh has grown so cold that anything would seem warm. The thought sent a new chill of terror through her. She was a garnet dragon, after all. Heat was what defined her kind. Their blood had once been used as incendiary weapons. It had been known to be described by other dragons as “liquid fire” from time to time. She tried to open her eyes to see for herself what had happened to her, but her eyes would not respond. Or perhaps her lids responded but her eyes had been destroyed? She tried again, paying closer attention to the sensation in her eyes, but she couldn’t tell. Sending her awareness deep within, she hunted for whatever power might remain in her Apex. The source was there, certainly. She found it readily enough, but the power was absent. Depleted. She couldn’t even draw forth a thin enough stream to power Arcane Sight, that most basic of abilities. In time, she knew, her Apex would recuperate and she would regain the use of her power. Such was the way of things. But it brought her little comfort just now. A leathery snap sounded above her, and a blast of hot air slammed her in the face. It made her head rock backward, sending a jolt of agony rushing down her spine. Oh, by Ryujin’s bloody tail! she thought. There could be only one explanation. And in her present condition, that explanation terrified her. Sever more blasts of hot air assaulted her face, then the sound of crushing stones came from her left. Creaking leather, scraping scales, and clicking claws followed it. Tiamat, my queen, what did I do to displease you? she begged silently. She couldn’t force herself to believe it no more than bad luck. Someone had to be conspiring against her. Nothing else made sense. A low, rumbling growl sounded from less than a wingspan away, as though an immense dragon were rolling its tongue in the back of its throat. The sound was not menacing so much as… cautiously curious. A few more steps, the clicking and rock-crushing sounds drawing closer. A snort of hot breath blasted her in the face. She tried once more to flutter her eyes, but to no avail. “Well, well, well,” said an incredibly deep, though still markedly feminine, voice. “What have we here?” More than Malyys would have thought possible, that familiar voice brought back memories long buried. Memories she had never wanted. The very memories she had fought so hard to expel from her mind. “And what has brought you back to me, my little mouse?” With the old nickname, Malyystrazza was lost in the haze of memories, the physical world falling away from her awareness.
Malyys dashed back into her parents’ lair, crimson tears streaming down her cheeks in the aftermath of the charoite taking her leave, and taking Mykl with her. Her young mind whirled with even parts rage, terror, and agony. She shrieked at the top of her voice for Sire and Dam to come to her. She wasn’t ready to face the question Lessia had posed. She couldn’t cope with the possibility that not only did they know about the charoite taking their hatching, but they had approved. Of all the sick, twisted… She couldn’t find a way to continue the thought. Dam darted through the archway leading deeper into the mountain. “What is it, my darling?” Her face was a mask of concern. “What did you do!” she shrieked, her rage coming to the fore, as it so often did. The mask remained in place. If anything, the concern there deepened. “What is this about, Dear One?” The crimson tears came on stronger, blurring her vision even further, and he fury welled up from her pain. “Mykl!” she screamed. “He’s been taken by Thhuulessia, and she said you knew about this! You let her take him!” Her final word was punctuated by a blast of scarlet flames, the first she had ever achieved. Dam’s eyes flashed open wide, revealing a glimpse of genuine Surprise. She opened her mouth to respond, but no sound emerged. She repeated the movement several times, looking like nothing so much as a landed fish trying to breathe. Malyystrazza might have found it humorous if not for the rage dominating her emotions. Dam closed her mouth and swallowed hard, then leveled a stern gaze at Malyys. “Mal!” she called, her voice edged with panic. The panic there surprised Malyys. Was it possible her dam hadn’t known? That the charoite had lied? Of course it’s possible, she thought. But how likely is it? Lessia has never lied to me before. “Dam,” she snapped. The larger garnet held up a wing to silence her. For all that Malyys rarely did as she was told, apart from those things involving the care of her brother, she sensed that this was not a time for defiance. Clearly Dam was not going to speak of this until Sire came out to meet them. She wasn’t certain if it was an admission of guilt or an expression of terror. Only a few minutes passed before Sire’s lumbering form passed under the arch above. His dark eyes met Dam’s and his muscles tensed, his spinal spikes stilled. Instantly, he went from amused to on-edge. “What has happened?’’ His gaze met Malyystrazza’s and her heart sank. She could see it there, in the frustration, the pain, the worry there that he knew. He knew his son was gone. He knew where. He even knew why. And the guilt over having done it was tearing him apart. She couldn’t bring herself to feel any sympathy. Not after this betrayal. Dam nodded at him, as though it was all that was necessary to confirm what he already knew. Malyys supposed it was. “You knew,” she said in a breathy gasp. “I can’t believe,” she added, her voice growing stronger with each word, “you both knew about this. You approved. By Infernalis, perhaps it was even your idea!” she was shrieking now. “You two offered him to her, didn’t you! You just wanted to get rid of my brother, so you found someone to take him. Did you even bother to find out why she wants him? What she’ll do with him? Do you even care? Or are you just happy to be rid of him?” Both Sire and Dam moved their wings forward, holding them up in a calming, placating gesture. “Please, Dear One—” “No!” Malyys cut her off. “Razza,” sire said in his hypnotically calm voice. It was so unfair that he had a nickname for her that always made her melt inside, cutting straight to the softness of her heart. She sighed and hung her head. “What?” she asked despondently. “We didn’t have a choice,” Dam began. “There’s always a choice!” she snarled. Sire breathed a deep sigh. “Please, Razza. Let us speak. There is a lot that you don’t know. And you need to know everything before you start flinging accusations.” Malyys growled softly in the back of her throat. She couldn’t escape the feeling she was about to hear a lot of excuses and justifications and not much else. “Go ahead.” “I am certain you are not ignorant of the goings on in the world these days. Young though you are, you are not oblivious. You know how dangerous life has become.’’ She nodded. “It’s always been that way, as long as I can remember.” “Exactly,’’ Sire said as he sat down on his haunches. “Some few dragons have chosen to abstain from the practice of stealing another’s essence upon their death, but we are by far the exception to the rule.” She knew all this, why was he repeating it again? “What you may not know, is almost all those near us have made a different decision. I don’t have proof about the eclectic clan of metallics, but I suspect They also indulge. Your charoite friend, on the other hand, for certain does. She came out and admitted it to me.’’ “No,” Malyys breathed. “I’m sorry, Razza. You can examine my memory if you do not believe me.” She angrily flung the new stream of crimson tears from her face as the shook her head violently. “I believe you,” she whispered, shocked to find it was true. “She gave me a… demonstration of her powers. She is far beyond anything your Dam and I could achieve, and she is younger than either of us.” Malyys nodded glumly. She had seen her own proofs of the charoite’s power. This was not news to her. “I hesitate to say she threatened us, she truly did not. Not overtly, at least. But there was implicit threat. She told us of the clan of metallics and that they would one day come for us. For our power. She is a Visionary, you see. But she also told us that one day we would have a son, and that son would have immense natural power. If we let her foster him, she said, she would defend us all against the metallics.’’ Malyys scoffed. “And you believed her?” “No,” Dam said simply. “Not at first,’’ Sire amended. Malyys waited. “We can discuss the details another time if you wish, but for now just understand that she foresaw a series of disasters that came to pass and we only survived an account of her. We were forced to put our trust in her and later agreed to her terms. After we saw what the metallics were capable of, we realized we needed her.” “So you just handed him over to be—” “No,” Sire said forcefully. “She has assured us that she has no intention of harming him. He will be safe in her care.” “Then what does she want with him?” Malyys was furious again. How could her parents not see through the thinly veiled manipulation Lessia had performed. The charoite bitch would do what she wanted and there was nothing they could do to stop her now! Sire sighed. “She wouldn’t say. Only that she wanted to raise him and keep him safe. She assured us he would be safe. That would be her first priority.”
The vision faded from Malyystrazza’s vision and she found her blood boiling with rage once more, just as it had all those years ago. How could her parents have been so stupid? With the fading of the memory from her youth, she was surprised to note that her physical sight had returned. She lay on what felt like a pile of animal pelts over the gray stone floor of the charoite’s lair. She faced a bare, undecorated wall and didn’t sense anyone else in the chamber with her. She gingerly tested her limbs, first the toes of her claws, then the claws themselves, her legs, and her tail. So far so good. Starting with slight movements, she tried each segment of her neck and head, feeling for any pain of stiffness that might indicate an injury there. She found nothing. Everything seemed normal. Breathing a silent sigh of relief, she tested her wings. First a slight movement of the main joint of her left wing. It moved normally and without pain. Still using minute, isolated movements, she checked each segment of the wing for injury. A long time seemed to pass as she did so. Finally satisfied, she moved on to her right wing. Starting in the same way, she tried a small movement of the main joint that connected the wing to her abdomen and she shrieked in agony as blinding fire consumed the joint and surrounding musculature. Within moments, her vision faded to black and the world vanished around her, the pain in her wing numbing almost to nothing. The dark nothingness around her was eerily similar to that she had experienced under Chhry’stuulliound’s ministrations, including her ability to think clearly. Without that aspect, she might have believed she had merely passed out from the pain. No, she thought. This is intentional. It was done to me But to what purpose? To protect me from the pain of my wing— this possibility she found extremely unlikely —or to do something to me or take something from me while ensuring I am unaware and unable to resist? This option seemed far more likely. But what could she do? Delving deep within herself, she found that just as before she could not connect with her Apex, which meant she was powerless to escape. She shuddered. The last time, no matter what she did, she had been entirely unable to escape without help. Even with help, it had been exceedingly difficult. They almost failed. Could it be that she was caught in the same trap again? The similarities were hard to miss, but similarity did not necessarily mean the same. There was no certainty that she was again tangled in web of stolen power. It was possible— even likely, she admitted —that she was affected by as similar stasis but without the rest of it. After all, how many wyrms could know of such a power? Lord Graayyyavalll had always seemed certain that such power was not well known. But again, she was forced back to the same question. If this was only a similar stasis without the rest of it, then what was the point? What was the goal? What was the charoite after? Try as she might, she could not fathom anything the wyrm might want from her if it wasn’t her arcane strength. She snorted in frustration as she considered. She could imagine benevolent uses for such a stasis, of course. A great many of them. Especially if one was, say, wounded, as her wing most assuredly was. But to be used by one such as the Charoite… Not a chance, she thought. The charoite doesn’t have a benevolent bone in her body. Everything she does is calculated to her benefit. So there’s some sort of game here, but what is it? And how do I get out of it? There did not appear to be a way to answer either question. With a frustrated sigh, she folded her consciousness in on itself and concentrated in an effort to replicate the control she had managed against Chrys. In an instant, the darkness melted around her, replaced by a maze of tunnels and chambers composed of crimson stone. She knew that while she would not be able to reach it, at the center of the huge labyrinth her Apex would be pulsing with its dark crimson light that would illuminate nearly half of the maze. She breathed a deep sigh, grateful for the return of at least the representation of a physical form and the bodily sensations that came with it. Even if they were artifice, created by her sensory-deprived mind, it was at least an improvement to her situation. Her ability to shift her surroundings to this place— and the ease with which she did it —was all the proof she needed that this was, in fact, the same, or an extremely similar, stasis to that which she had suffered under Chhry’stuulliound’s care. And, more importantly, that the charoite was not exerting nearly the control over it as the pyrite had. Which meant there was a chance, however slight, that she could escape on her own.
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