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!
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.
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?
Revenge of the Overlords samples – Prologue
If you’ve been chomping at the bit for a taste of Revenge of the Overlords (previously titled The Great Council), I have just the thing for you.
Herein is an early version of the prologue. 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 the prologue for your reading pleasure.
What a farce, the wyrm thought as he watched the endless procession of dragons of every size, color, shape, and description pass into the underground chamber.
To call the chamber immense would have been tantamount to calling the towering peak the humans had known as Everest a gentle hill. The size of the chamber defied all description. The wyrm couldn’t begin To guess how it had been shaped or, indeed, how it had the structural integrity to resist collapse.
The dark brown walls of the cavern were smooth and glossy, and pockmarked with an incredible array of alcoves of various sizes. They accommodated a staggering array of dragons, from the floor up to the high domed ceiling, which rose at least two-hundred wingspans above the floor.
Rising from the center of the cavern was the most blatant display of ostentation the wyrm had ever seen. A massive, gem-encrusted dais of what appeared to be solid platinum rose at least three wingspans from the cavern floor. The platform stretched out in a rectangular shape that was at least two leagues on its long side and almost half that on its narrow side.
The wyrm couldn’t help wondering just where in the name of Infernalis they had found so much platinum.
But then, he thought, if the rumors about the son are true, then perhaps they didn’t need to find it.
The desire to sneer was almost overpowering. He indulged in a mental sneer as he fought to keep his expression blank. With the sheer number of dragons milling about, it was unlikely any would notice such an expression on his face. His current form was among the most unassuming he could imagine, after all. And by design, of course. The last thing he wanted was to draw undue attention.
His form was of middling length and average musculature. His neck and tail were of average length. His silvery scales were glossy, but fell short of the mirror finish typically not attained until after a Silver’s second millennium of life. His teeth and claws had a slight grayish cast, indicative of older maturity but falling short of anything definitive. His eyes he had crafted to appear as though cast from aquamarine with a sliver of jade for the vertically slit pupils.
Forcing the tension from his body, he sat back in his shallow alcove at the ground level and tried to ignore the barrage of dragons who walked or flew past him on their way to their own places.
Not that any of them know where they belong any better than I, he thought with a mental chuckle.
Well, perhaps that was unfair. He knew precisely where the self-styled Speaker of the Council wanted him to be, after all. Or where the garnet fool wanted his natural form to be, at least. Not that he had any intention of ever doing what Graayyyavalll wanted him to do. Ever again. The arrogant fool had lost that privilege decades ago.
And before the day was out, the old fool would realize his mistake.
By the Lady of Chaos, he thought, I will make you rue the day you chose to do this.
Forcing himself to relax, the wyrm allowed his mind to wander into imaginings of the future— a future he would control —as the endless stream of dragons passed him by, most without so much as a glance his way.
Hours passed before the constant stream of Dragonkind so much as slowed, and at least another hour passed while the last of the stragglers filed in. Looking about, he could hardly believe the number of dragons present. Everywhere he looked, light glinted off scales of every color he had ever imagined. It was like looking into a box filled with chips of gems, jewels, and stone, and slivers of metal. Every substance he could imagine had at least one representative. “I hadn’t thought this many wyrms still lived in the whole of the word,” he said in awe, unable to fully banish the hunger from his voice.
He hoped none of those near him noticed.
“Where did they all come from? Where have they been hiding?”
The wyrm huffed a sigh. If he’d known about all these dragons he might not have needed to ingratiate himself to the pompous garnet. Here was all the arcane strength he ever could have asked for.
Gradually, the mutterings that formed a continuous roar throughout the immense cavern began to taper off and quiet. Judging by the content of the conversations flowing around him, the wyrm figured the dragons were growing restless as they waited for the arrival of their host.
He couldn’t help a touch of surprise that all those around him knew the identity of the great garnet. with how few of the negotiations the arrogant creature had conducted himself, the wyrm had expected most of the attendees would have no idea who he really was.
It seems that even now, he has the ability to surprise me.
But it mattered not. It would change nothing. For long minutes, the dull roar tapered further until it was little more than a buzzing murmur. The wyrm kept his eyes riveted on the platinum dais. He didn’t know what Graayyyavalll had in mind, but felt certain the ancient garnet’s arrival would be something meant to shock and impress all those in attendance.
Without warning, a booming sound like a clap of thunder reverberated around the chamber. A cloud of crimson smoke flashed into existence on the platinum dais and a collective gasp sounded around the cavern as the great garnet appeared amid the smoke, seemingly from nowhere!
How did he do that! the silver wyrm screamed inside his head, echoing hundreds, if not thousands, of spoken questions throughout the cavern.
All dragons knew that arcane travel was impossible. No power, no ability, no ritual, no talisman existed, or ever had, that could move a physical body from one location to another in anything other than the traditional manner.
As far as the wyrm knew, it wasn’t a matter of power. Surely, if one needed only acquire suitable power then one of these Overlords could have managed it by now. No, it had to be some immutable law of the natural universe. Not even a single coin, or, indeed, even a single hair, could be transported in such a way.
The best outcome for those who had tried had always been failure. The worst result, however, didn’t bear thinking about.
The silver wyrm had seen such a result once. It was more than sufficient to ensure he never attempted such foolishness himself.
All of which did not move him one iota closer to an explanation of what the garnet had done or, more importantly, how he’d done it.
Silence reigned Supreme as the crimson smoke dissipated to reveal the immense form of Graayyyavalll in all his shimmering garnet glory. With the natural shine of his deep red scales, one might almost have mistaken him for a ruby dragon rather than garnet.
Impossibly, the garnet Speaker of the Council took up more than half the dais! When had he grown so large? The silver wyrm had known the pompous creature was immense, but this was another matter entirely. It hadn’t been that long since he’d been in the garnet’s presence. surely he couldn’t—
The wyrm froze. No, he Thought. It isn’t Possible, is it? One of his key objectives is to abolish the thefts. He couldn’t be such a hypocrite, could he?
Any further speculation on the matter was cut off as the garnet turned in a full circle, presumably to meet the gazes of as many of the attendees as he could, and he started to speak in his deep, resonant voice.
Impossibly, the booming words easily reached every far alcove of the cavern without ever being loud enough to damage any dragon’s receptors.
“Thank you all for agreeing to be part of this Council, an event unlike any seen since the days preceding The long sleep.” He paused to glance around. Almost as though he were expecting applause.
Never mind the meeting just prior to the Great War, the wyrm thought snidely.
“But rest assured, wyrms. I will not be asking you to do anything of that sort. Please accept my most heartfelt thanks for being willing to set aside your differences and take this chance at building a lasting peace for all Dragonkind.’’
This time there were scattered cheers from a few different parts of the chamber. The silver wyrm struggled not to sneer at the fools. He would have wagered half his soul those cheering were among the young and all-but-helpless dragons of the new generation. He couldn’t understand how even dragons that young could be foolish enough to think this inanity had any chance of working.
“But enough pleasantries. I’m not nearly arrogant enough to think you came to hear the sound of my voice,” he said with a chuckle.
The wyrm scoffed, certain that was, in fact, exactly what the over-sized garnet wyrm thought.
“So without further ado, allow me to make you a promise.” The garnet stood up on his hind legs and turned in a slow circle. As he did so, the air throughout the cavern seemed to crackle with arcane energy.
The silver wyrm shifted his vision to Arcane Sight and his breath caught in his throat.
No glow permeated the cavern, nothing shone in the air. A few arrays of colored light flashed from a few wyrms throughout the chamber, many of which were likely Arcane Sight, the same as he, but otherwise the only power anywhere in the chamber came from the pulsing glare of silvery light within Graayyyavalll himself.
The garnet was a veritable beacon of arcane energy.
The silvery light at the garnet’s core flashed in a brilliant pulse that lit every dark corner in the chamber. The flash dimmed for a moment, then flashed again, even brighter this time.
Then a third pulse of light, this one so bright it hurt the silver wyrm’s eyes. But this one did not recede, it was sustained as though Ryujin’s Blaze had erupted from the garnet dragon’s core.
After several moments, the wyrm was forced to cancel his Arcane Sight lest the brightness permanently damage his eyes.
“I give you my oath… no, an oath is not strong enough.’’ The garnet turned in another slow circle, offering significant looks all the way around. “Wyrms of every breed from every land. Right here, today, before you all, I offer you all my solemn Heart-Bond—”
A collective gasp resounded throughout the chamber, from the silver wyrm as much as any other. He knew the unbreakable power of a Heart-Bond as well as any. On the rare occasions it was done, a dragon had to be extremely careful of their word choices when they offering such a vow. Sometimes the power that governed them did not interpret a dragon’s words in quite the way they were intended.
But it mattered not. There was no going back. Once the vow was spoken it became binding. It was irrevocable and unchangeable.
“Until the end of my life, I will remain dedicated to peace and equality among us. I will never stop fighting for it. I am committed to change. To turning the Earth into a living paradise where all dragons live in race and harmony, without fear of destruction purely to feed another’s power.’’
With the completion of the Speaker’s words, a deep warmth suffused the chamber as the power took hold and transformed them all into a Bond. A Bond that would kill the garnet if ever he tried To renege on it.
And now it makes sense, the silver wyrm thought. Except that it didn’t.
Oh, it explained the burst of power sure enough. That was so. But what in the name of Infernalis was the garnet doing? There were so many loopholes and gray areas in that oath, there was no telling just how the power would force him to hold to it!
He shook his head, no longer at all certain he knew what was happening here.
Wait, he thought as a new idea occurred to him. Is it possible those loop holes and gray areas are exactly what he’s counting on? It still seems like a foolish gambit, but it could pay off if it works out the way he wants.
Or, rather, it could have if the garnet was going to live to see this day’s end.
The silver tensed. It was time. He had to have the time to get into position and make this happen while there were plenty of witnesses here.
He stopped listening to the garnet’s words and delved into his Apex to draw forth the power he needed. He began the process of weaving together two separate and quite different patterns of power at once.
The Speaker of the Council droned on, occasionally interrupted by another dragon. At a few points, arguments erupted among those in attendance. At other times the immense wyrm was interrupted by cheering.
Finally, the silver completed his weave. The world seemed to expand around him, growing to immense proportions. It was a neat trick he had learned by listening to Balhamuut describe the method his sire had used to rescue him— what a joke! —From the agate dread, Vordillainsura.
Where he had been, a perfect replica of his silver form sat in the alcove, evincing the expected reactions to whatever words reached its receptors. In his tiny new form, he stood on the silver body’s claw. It felt real enough. He hoped it would be sufficient to fool any dragon who happened to look his way.
Now for the hard part, he thought and moved off the simulacrum’s claw and began the painstaking trek along the virtually unending wall of the cavern. With his new compound eyes, he saw hundreds of replicas of the wall within his view, each from a slightly different angle.
As much as he would have liked to spend some time getting used to his new senses, time was a luxury he did not have in abundance just now.
He ran as fast as his tiny, chitinous legs would carry him. He knew where his goal was, just five short alcoves to his right. He only hoped that in this new form he could keep his directions straight and get there with as little difficulty as possible.
The barrage of images before him made his draconic brain hurt. The booming sound of the garnet’s voice hammered at the strange sensory organs that functioned as ears, making his head spin and his stomach heave.
He struggled against the sensory overload, fighting to keep facing the right direction and keep moving. On numerous occasions, he caught himself turning away from the sounds, his body moving away of its own accord. Each time he caught himself, it was a little harder than the last to turn himself around and head toward the source again.
At long last, after what felt like years of running, he saw in the far distance that he was in the center space between the very four wyrms he meant to be between. He grinned a toothy, insectile smile.
Reaching down to his Apex once more, he found…
Confound it! he raged silently. Of all the possibilities to overlook!
There was a flaw to his plan. He could end his transformation, reverting to dragon form, but nothing more. In his present state he could not access his Apex. It seemed the insect body did not allow for it.
After only a moment’s thought, he allowed his body to shift in form until he was a dragon of dark topaz, his coloration almost identical to the earthy gloom of the walls, but in size he was no larger than a typical cave bat.
He touched his Apex and drew forth a stream of power, just enough to turn his body invisible. He drew forth more, to ensure a larger form would remain unseen, then allowed his body to grow into proportions to a little less than half the size of his silver wyrm disguise.
With a glance to ensure he was still invisible, he dived back into his Apex for a greater torrent of power.
It was good that none of these imbeciles knew of the existence of the power he was initiating. The near-disaster perpetrated by Chhry’stuulliound so many years ago had been bad enough, even though it was considered by many to be a lesser evil than the Essence Theft itself. This nameless power, however, was another matter entirely. Those sensitive to such things would think it the most dastardly power Dragonkind had ever created.
Pushing the thoughts away, he drew forth every drop of power he could and sent it forth as tiny threads of connection that touched the form, and Apex, of every one of the dragons present in the immense chamber.
Even Graayyyavalll himself. Oh, What delicious irony that was! To think that the great garnet’s own immense power would play a part in his own destruction!
The irony was a thing of beauty.
The tendrils connecting him to the multitude of wyrms throughout the chamber pulsated with power as more and more arcane energy flowed forth from the unwitting hosts into the wyrm’s dark topaz body.
As the first drop of foreign power touched his soul, the world seemed to spin at the conflicting sensations. He shivered as a chill ran down his spine, yet his muscles clenched against a sudden influx of heat.
The mingled fiery-heat and icy-cold permeated every cell of his being as his a Apex filled to bursting with the alien power of this multitude of dragons.
He knew his timing would have to be nigh on perfect to make this work. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake. No matter what happened, he wouldn’t get a second chance at this.
A few moments before his Apex burst from the massive influx of energy, he began crafting his weapon. He weaved the incoming arcane energy into a lance unlike anything ever seen on Earth before. He gave it a core of pure adamantite, that oh-so-rare metal that was all-but-lost to humankind during the period in their history known as the Dark Ages. It was also, consequently, the only metal on Earth strong enough to pierce the scales of an ancient wyrm.
He couldn’t help wondering, briefly, what the dragon-slayers of old had used? They couldn’t all have used it. Not even all of the successful ones. Perhaps they had found success by somehow getting around the scales of those ancient wyrms?
He wrapped the adamantite core in a sheath of pure destructive arcane power. Around this he wrapped a film of liquid acid capable of burning though any substance, even dragon scale, in a nanosecond. Around The acid he poured a coating of virulent poison, the like of which had not been seen in millennia. Since the destruction of the last of the Merachnids, a grouping of dozens of species of spiders, scorpions, and other arachnida of immense proportions.
Just a drop of that Poison would have killed even the greatest of the ancient wyrms in the days before the discovery of Essence Theft. Hence the reason the Merachnids had been wiped out in their entirety.
Around the poison he crafted a layer of crackling, super-charged lightning. Around the lightning he formed a layer of super-heated liquid fire hot enough to melt rock in an instant. Over this he created a layer smoke as black as pitch and infused with negative energy, similar in effect to the life-draining of power in a shadow dragon’s elemental breath.
Atop the negative energy smoke he formed a layer of liquid ice that could freeze even a firedrake solid. Finally, atop the ice he poured a layer of kaleidoscopic light that would block any attempt to see, investigate, or Delve the lance.
Still pouring immense amounts of power into the various layers of the lance, he formed a metaphysical blade and slashed at an angle through the end of lance, leaving a sharp edge while also revealing every destructive layer in all their murderous glory.
Allowing the blade to dissipate, he continued to pour copious amounts of arcane energy into every layer of the lance, enhancing the potency of every bit of it.
He increased his draw of arcane energy from every wyrm he was connected to, funneling all that immense power into the lance.
Around the chamber, the younger dragons began collapsing from exhaustion. Their cohorts looked a around, confused. A few narrowed eyes were all the evidence the wyrm needed that at least a few had grasped, on same level, at least an idea of the danger they were in.
This was the tricky part. He could not afford to be discovered. He had plans for these wyrms.
A pulse of power flashed through the chamber. Energy shimmered around every wyrm present, sealing the Heart-Bonds of every one of them to whatever silly oath the garnet had demanded.
Now, he thought as he completed several weaves almost at once.
The first finalized the lance and brought it into physical existence, launching it at the pompous garnet atop the dais, who had his forelegs and wings raised and extended, as though he were accepting empowerment from the gods.
The second sent a massive backlash of power back to those he’d been siphoning power from, the force of which would knock them unconscious and remove all memory of the wyrm and his siphoning of power.
Those who hadn’t noticed would, at least in theory, suffer no ill effects beyond the unconsciousness.
And the third was… a curse of sorts. Albeit one that would affect himself as well as many others. It was a pattern that would seek out and identify any dragon who had ever made use of Essence Theft. Those it found guilty it would… mark. Those who had resorted to the use of such an ugly power would find their bodies and faces matching the ugliness of their souls. The more they used it, the more dramatic the changes.
On the dais, Graayyyavalll looked directly at The disguised wyrm, his eyes awash with… sadness, of all things. The glowing, kaleidoscopic lance plunged deep into the huge garnet’s chest, piercing his heart and melting away huge swaths of the flesh and scales surrounding it.
All around the chamber, wyrms writhed and shrieked in agony as their bodies were remade. Some few gained only a small potbelly, a twisted horn, a kinked tail, or strange lumps. Some acquired all of these things. Others gained all this and more in unbelievable profusion and to a grotesque degree.
Never again would anyone have to guess whether or not the dragon before them had partaken of another dragon’s essence. It could be known on sight.
The wyrm felt his own body twisting into grotesque angles as the form of the would-be Speaker of the Council slumped to the platinum dais, his garnet body disintegrating.
Fighting through the pain, the wyrm initiated the ritual to steal the great wyrm’s essence.
An agonized shriek above him almost distracted him enough to interrupt it, but he concentrated on the ritual and forced himself to casually acknowledge the shocking sight before him: the other son. The brother. The one that was supposed to have died years ago.
As he continued the ritual, the garnet creature flew toward him at ever-greater speeds and his agonized shriek became an angry wail and then a rage-filled roar.
“You!” The younger garnet roared in fury. “How Could you! After everything we’ve been through! He trusted you, you gutless son of a worm!”
As the ritual completed, the wyrm looked down at his terribly misshapen body with its shining silvery-blue scales. His natural form. His real body.
Blast it, he thought. That was an unexpected side-effect.
With an almost negligent wave, he sent the last of his power roaring toward the garnet an instant before the unspeakable hurricane of Graayyyavalll’s soul struck him.
The smaller garnet body flew toward the far wall of the cavern at impossible speed.
The silvery-crimson soul-stuff of the great garnet struck him a physical blow, knocking him from the wall to plummet toward the cavern floor.
In the instant before he struck the floor, be whispered, “I am sorry, my brother. There was no other way.”
Thanks for reading, I hope you’re enjoying the excerpts. And do keep in mind that if you haven’t done so yet, you can pre-order the full book on Amazon at books2read.com/revenge-overlords
Shadow Sample #10 (Final)
Today, I bring you the last 4 sample chapters from the original draft of Shadow of the Overlord before the book is published. I would remind you again (as always, I’m sure it gets old, lol, but it bears repeating) that these are unedited, so will certainly contain typos and other mistakes that will not be present in the final version of the book. Enjoy!
Dargon lay in his cot with an icy cloth on his forehead. He hadn’t slept in what felt like days, but at least the pain was finally beginning to dull.
“I’m still waiting for that explanation about what this is, Trevan.”
The Trevan nodded, but kept silent.
Dargon sighed in frustration.
The older man touched Dargon’s cheek, feeling it with the back of his hand. “Fever seems to have broken. Finally.”
“Does that mean it’s safe for me to sleep now?” Dargon asked hopefully.
The Trevan considered. “Not just yet. When the headache is gone, I think.”
“Not yet. I will explain, but after you’ve slept. Your body has been excessively taxed. I won’t risk stressing you further.”
“I said no, your highness. When you’ve recovered.”
Dargon narrowed his eyes. “I’ll hold you to that.” His voice came out far more petulant than he was comfortable with.
The Trevan gave a slow nod.
“Can you at least tell me why trying to sleep makes it worse?”
The priest pulled his stool closer to the cot and sat, his gaze burning into Dargon’s eyes. He was silent a moment, then said, “Okay, Dargon. Understand, the sickness you are suffering has been afflicting men for millennia. It is rare, but when it strikes there is no avoiding it. Its victims have no choice but to suffer through the symptoms until they have run their course. The affliction, for whatever reason, I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer, insists on the sufferer experiencing every moment of its torment. It is the affliction itself which intensifies if you try to sleep during its effects.”
“It… insists?” Dargon asked with wide eyes.
The Trevan nodded. “I know of no better way to describe it. The affliction acts as though it has a will of its own. It will not allow you to sleep through its effects.”
“So, you are saying there is no physiological reason for the pain to intensify when trying to sleep, but it happens anyway.”
The older man shook his head. “I have no doubt there is a direct physical reason it happens. We simply do not have a way to identify exactly what that reason is.”
Dargon nodded. It sounded reasonable. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something— probably a lot of somethings —the Trevan wasn’t telling him, but then, the priest had promised to explain after the sickness had run its course. He contented himself with that.
“But,” Dargon said as the thought occurred to him. “The way you speak of it, seems to imply that the affliction itself has will and desire of its own. That it wants its sufferers to… well, suffer. Is it intelligent?”
“After a fashion.”
Dargon furrowed his brow. “I don’t understand.”
“In truth, I don’t either. But I’ll do my best to explain after you’ve rested. Fair?”
Dargon nodded. It was troubling that even the Trevan didn’t understand what this affliction truly was.
Or perhaps he is only saying that because he does not want to discuss it right now, he thought. That made him feel better about it.
“How are things in the city?” Dargon asked.
The Trevan grimaced. “Oh, I don’t think that’s anything for you to be worrying about.”
“Please. I’ve been cooped up in here for days. I’m bored-”
“Days?” The Trevan asked with a slight chuckle. “No, highness. It hasn’t even been a full day yet.”
Dargon’s spirits plummeted. How could that be? He felt as though he’d been suffering in bed for a week or two at least.
“Do not be despondent, highness. Time always slows to a crawl when one is in pain. It will pass.”
Dargon sighed. “Please. I’m bored. Tell me what has been happening. Anything exciting?”
The Trevan sighed heavily. “This city has been calm and uneventful, I’m afraid. There is interesting news from the testing grounds in Cuularan, however. That has been causing quite a stir.”
Dargon furrowed his brow in thought. “Cuularan? That’s a rather minor outpost, isn’t it? Aren’t the main testing grounds in Zenova?”
“That they are, highness. Until a few decades ago, Zenova was the only testing ground.”
“Oh? What changed?”
The Trevan cleared his throat and spoke in his ‘lecturer’ voice. “In the days before the founding of the smaller, more distant cities, it made sense to have the whole of the Free-States test in a single location. But as the Free-States grew, that became less and less viable. Today, it could be a three-week journey to the grounds in Zenova from some places. That is why the dragoons began allowing any city-state more than two days’ ride from Zenova to host their own testing. Paid for by the individual city-state and overseen by an approved dragoon officer, of course.”
Dargon nodded. “So what is this news from Cuularan?”
“Apparently, some girls entered the testing this year-”
“That’s not so strange, is it? There’s no rule against it, as far as I know.”
“No, highness, there is not. Their participation is not, in and of itself, so odd. There is commonly at least one at the larger testing grounds. But Cuularan is small. I believe it has been some years since they have had a girl compete. But again, that is not the oddity. What makes it odd is the two seem to be working together to defeat the challenges and are actually doing rather well.”
“Cooperation is allowed, isn’t it?”
The Trevan smiled. “Oh, certainly. In fact, without it completing the course is said to be impossible. Much of the point of the Gauntlet is to teach the young recruits the value of the team. Most go into the course more than willing to trample every other contestant to further his own position. However, they have been working in concert from the start and are doing so well that some are speculating we may see our first female dragoons in centuries.”
“It’s that rare?” Dargon was amazed.
The Trevan nodded. “No rare that most don’t believe it has ever happened. It has been suggested that women are intentionally excluded, but no proof of that has ever been brought to bear.”
Dargon narrowed his eyes, sensing something underhanded happening. “I see. But why exclude them?”
The Trevan leaned back, his eyes thoughtful. “Many reasons, highness. And none.”
Dargon’s brows shot up.
“We men are insecure creatures. Much of the dragoon command seems to believe that was is the province of men. There is a general perception of the physical weakness of women.”
“Apparently they never met mother,” Dargon muttered.
The Trevan chuckled. “Very true, my lord. There are always those who challenge the common perceptions.”
“Is that truly what it is about?”
The Trevan grimaced. “I don’t believe so, highness.”
“Then what is it about?”
“I believe it is about the dragoon leadership. None of them know how to deal with women. They don’t know the first thing about how to reach one. Or train her. Or even talk to her. So they take measures to ensure they don’t have to.”
Dargon clenched his jaw. “But… how can they…?”
“It is because there is no official ruling. Somehow, the girls who enter never do well enough to be considered. Thus it has been for generations. So, you see, Dragon, why these two girls in Cuularan are making such a stir with their performance.”
“Against all odds,” Dargon whispered.
“I want to help them,” Dargon said. “If they earn it, I want them to get in.”
“Commendable, highness. But how?”
Chapter 18 Dargon 6
Dargon leaned back against the pillows propping him up, deep in thought.
“Also,” the Trevan said, continuing the threat of the original conversation as though they hadn’t left it. “While this isn’t news, per se, it has been brought up again recently. We still have heard no word from any of the last three dozen expeditions sent across the strait to Thorutia. It is as if they have all disappeared without a trace.”
“How long since the last one came bac. Or at least send us word?”
The Trevan closed his eyes to think. The torch behind him seemed to flare, the light blazing brighter for a moment.
The light dimmed again and the Trevan opened his eyes. “The last confirmed missive form an expedition was… decades ago, according to our records. None now live who remember when it came and no one is certain we can trust the date listed on the missive itself.”
“Decades?” Dargon asked, incredulous.
“That is the supposition, Highness.”
“What was the date listed on the report?”
The Trevan grimaced. “It was dated the eighteenth day of highmark, in the year twelve-twenty-four.”
Dargon’s jaw slipped open. “Twelve-twenty-four?” he whispered in awe. “But that was almost three-hundred years ago.”
“Hence the reason we doubt its accuracy, highness.”
Dargon nodded. “What did the report say?” Silently, he added, what if the report is right? What if it has been over two-hundred years since the last time we made contact with the isle? What would that even mean?
“That the expedition was ambushed in a pincer attack between torthugra and teranthric.”
“And no further report came?”
“And we send a new expedition every year?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Dargon furrowed his brow. “Why?”
The Trevan shrugged. “We must.”
“But why!” Dargon almost shouted in exasperation.
“Please, highness, do not get worked up. It will make the headaches worse.”
Dargon nodded, noting the increase to the pressure at his temples.
“But to answer your question, we cannot afford to miss any information which might be gleaned from a voyage across the strait.”
Dargon shook his head in wonder. “Surely you see the inherent paradox here. We can’t learn anything from a voyage that doesn’t report back.”
The Trevan nodded. “I know, Highness. Alas, it is not within my control. Your father would be the better person to speak to in this instance.”
Dargon sighed. “So you cannot tell me why we continue to send dragoons to their deaths every year.”
“You know as much as I do, Highness.”
And there it was. For whatever reason, dragoons were sent across to strait to die every year and no one even questioned it. Why didn’t they? Were they truly so blind that they didn’t see what was happening?
“We need to find a way to learn what is happening over there, Trevan.”
“On that, we agree, Highness. But how? Without sorcery, our only source of information is men on ships. And they never report back. I expect they die before they get the chance.”
“Trevan,” Dargon said cautiously. “Why was sorcery outlawed?”
The priest took a deep breath and blew it out forcefully. His intense gray eyes seemed to delve into Dargon’s soul as he sat forward. After a moment, he leaned back again and narrowed his eyes. “Now, why would you ask a thing like that?”
Dargon shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. “You mentioned it. I’ve never heard an explanation of why. At least, not one that made sense and wasn’t just a lungful of bluster from bigots or idiots. I guess I was just thinking that if there was something that could be done about it…”
“I see. Well, don’t waste energy thinking on it. You would have to have deep influence in every city of the Free-States, not to mention a damned good argument to even have a chance of being listened to. And even then, I think the prejudice is so ingrained into most of the people that you could never get rid of it.”
“But how did it begin?” Dargon sat forward in his excitement, and his head exploded in agony, his vision dimming. He immediately sat back, resting his head against the piled pillows. Hands at his temples, he rubbed gently as he took a deep breath.
“I think that’s enough excitement for today,” the Trevan said. His robes rustled briefly and his booted footsteps moved toward the door.
“Wait,” Dargon whispered. “Cold cloth, please.” Even the soft whisper hurt his head. It was as though his head were inside a wardrum, the vibrations deafening.
A moment later, an icy cloth was laid against his forehead and the pain diminished almost instantly. “Thank you,” he whispered.
A gentle pressure touched his shoulder for a moment, then the Trevan’s steps moved toward the door and stepped out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Dargon struggled to think through the sluggishness in his mind. The illness was bad enough on its own, but with this pain in his head, clear thought was almost impossible. He had to find a way to stop the senseless expeditions across the strait while at the same time he had to find an answer to what was happening to them. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something potentially disastrous was coming from Thorutia.
Why else would there be no report from any of them for so many years?
But there was one inescapable problem. He only had thirteen years. Not only would no one take his ideas seriously, Father included, but until he succeeded his father to the throne, he had no power to see his will done. What could he do?
He pushed the thoughts away. He would do something about the expeditions, when he could. But for now, being small in power himself, he needed to focus on small problems. The thought turned his mind back to his earlier line of thought.
There is something I can do right now, he thought, a smile touching his lips. The girls in Cuularan need help. Help I can provide. If I can get there in time, I can ensure they are treated fairly by the judges of the Gauntlet and the Combats.
His smile broadened to a grin and he summoned a servant to prepare his travel plans.
The wind tore at Taliesimon’s face as she fell, vines slapped at her while leaves whipped her skin and twigs slashed at her. She passed the outer foliage and kept falling. There was no net, no soft landing, no surprise catch.
Below, the forest floor rushed up toward her, its earth and stones looking harder and sharper than she would have thought possible.
We were wrong, she thought with a curious detachment. She couldn’t place how or why, but it seemed to her that she had thought or said these words before. The feeling of surrealism became almost overwhelming.
Faster, the ground rushed to meet her. Branches, vines, and dust bit into her flesh with surprising force.
Oddly, she recognized the damage to her flesh, but there didn’t seem to be any physical pain. She watched the ground rise up to meet her with calm acceptance.
I’m going to die, she thought, and closed her eyes to meet her end.
Abruptly, the falling sensation stopped and she registered the touch of something smooth and soft against her skin. Skin that burned. Every inch of it burned with something resembling heat, yet not. As though she lay in a pool of liquid fire, yet she also felt cool, as though the soft sheets around her had been drenched in a cold mountain stream.
She tried to slowly open her eyes, but her lids did not respond. Light appeared on the other side of her closed lids, bringing pink-tinged light into her vision to blot out the darkness.
Where am I? She wondered. Am I dead? She noted that the smaller hands of Okara and Jonah were no longer within hers.
She tried again to open her eyes. She put all the force she could muster into pushing her lids open. The effort proved far more exhausting that she had expected, but it worked. Her eyes cracked the tiniest sliver and she glimpsed the room she occupied.
The dark stone walls were seamless and the ceiling appeared to be dark mahogany. A desk stood across the room against the wall next to the open door and held numerous jars and bowls that seemed to contain various herb al remedies. To either side of her bed, at the other two walls, were two more beds, each containing a small form.
Standing in the doorway, watching her, was a tall figure robed in midnight blue. Beneath the dark cowl, she glimpsed dark skin with a short coat of glossy hair covering a face that was all sharp angles. His think lips curled up in a tight smile.
The torch in his left hand illuminated the room.
His eyes met hers and his smile widened. “You are awake, I see.” His voice held not a hint of surprise, as though he knew she had been awake for some time and was only waiting for her to openly present herself as such.
She tried to nod, but there was no movement. She settled for blinking.
He stepped toward her. “You three put on quite a show. You’ve been the talk of the city— and other cities, for that matter —for days now. It’s too bad, really.”
She opened her mouth to question, but no sound emerged. The robed man nodded and brought a carved elm cup from the desk and put it to her lips. The liquid was clean, clear, and wondrously cool in her mouth. She sloshed it in her mouth for several moments, savoring the sensation, then swallowed.
It was as though she had swallowed liquid fire. The burning brought tears to her eyes. But the moisture in her mouth and throat now was worth any pain. She greedily gulped down the rest of the cup. Thin streams of water dripped from the corners of her mouth to dribble down her chin and pool in the hollow of her throat.
Dropping the cup from her lips, Taliesimon huffed a deep, satisfied breath. She glanced back up to the robed man. “Thank you,” she gasped in a throaty rasp. She held the cup out to him. He nodded and took the cup. He dipped the cup into a large bowl. Dripping water to the floor, he brought it back to her again.
She drank slower this time, willing the water to moisten her throat so she could speak properly.
When she finished, her throat felt almost normal. Well, if one considered a throat coated in sand to be normal, at least.
She swallowed and smiled when the saliva made its way all the way down her throat.
“How long have I been here?” she asked, her voice clearer, though still raw.
“Two days,” the man said.
She narrowed her eyes. “How is that possible?”
He shrugged. “Your injuries were significant, if not life threatening. You ask me, though, you had it easy. Your little boyfriend there, he’s going to need a lot more time to recover than the two of you.”
She winced, then grimaced, and the man chuckled.
Clearing her expression, Taliesimon remembered what the man had said and cleared her throat, glowering. “What’s too bad?”
The man emitted a strange sound, something between a dry cough and a gasping laugh. “Oh, dear. Well, I suppose the goblin was bound to find its way out of the bag eventually. S’pose it might as well be now. I do hate to be the bearer of bad news, but evidently it’s falling to me anyway-”
“Get to the point,” she snapped. “What is it?”
He sighed. “It seems that you and your little friend were disqualified from the Gauntlet over a few of the stunts you pulled on the first and fourth challenges.”
“What!” she almost shouted, suddenly furious. “What do you mean, ‘stunts’?”
“Now, now. Don’t get upset with me. I’m just a Trevan. I had nothing to do with the decision. I’m just relating to you what I’ve heard from others.”
Taliesimon took a deep breath and released it slowly. “What do you mean by stunts? What did we do that was against the rules?”
“I don’t rightly know what all the rules are. The story I heard, though, is something about tearing apart the challenge area to bypass the first challenge and using each other’s bodies to defeat the river. I don’t rightly understand what it all means, but there it is. I do believe, however, that you are entitled to a full trial before you are formally disqualified from the testing.”
Those bastards! she thought in fury. No one ever said anything about rules! we even explained to the dragoon what we were doing with the raft and he approved it!
She did her best to keep her expression neutral and her eyes blank. “Obviously, I’ve never done this before. Do I automatically get this trial, or do I have to request it?” She felt proud for managing not to raise her voice.
“All are entitled to speak at a disqualification. It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve seen one before. They’ll let you speak and anyone else present. If you know anyone with anything helpful to say, you may want to ensure they’re present the day of the announcement.”
She nodded. “Trevan, apart from my family, I don’t know anyone in the city. But there is a dragoon who witnessed part of it and I think he could help. Do you know how I might contact him?”
“Do you have this dragoon’s name?”
“I,” she faltered. “No. But I know where he was on the day of the Gauntlet.
The Trevan sighed. “I’m afraid that isn’t much help. If you had a friend within the dragoons, perhaps they could help you find this man. But as it is, there is scant help I can offer.”
She nodded again, doing her best to hide her frustration. “Could you find out if my family is still in the city? I’d like to see them.”
“Now that,” the blue-robed man said brightly. “I can help with. Your father and brother have been trying to force their way in here since you arrived.”
Taliesimon smiled. “Of course they have.”
Taliesimon stood by her own power. Even that was a feat to be proud of after the last few days. She stood before a long, white table behind which sat a full dragoon council, save the Grand Master himself. Three senior members of each of the three orders sat, each one staring down at her with displeasure.
Okara stood to her left and on her right, Jonah sat in a padded chair.
The senior officer, a bony, gray-bearded man call Austoryn, stood and looked down at the three of them. When his gaze drifted past Taliesimon to Jonah, his hard eyes softened a bit.
“Recruit Jonah, we have reviewed the evidence and you do not stand accused with the girls. It is clear that your part in the events was the result of coercion. However, on account of your extreme injuries, you cannot proceed to the Combats this year. Therefore, at next year’s testing, you will be automatically elevated to compete in the Combats. I’m sure you will do us all proud.”
“Thank you, my lord. But I-” A hand clapped over his mouth from behind.
“Let’s not waste the Scale-Commander’s time with over-gracious appreciations,” said a heavily muscled man behind Jonah’s chair.
Lord Austoryn nodded tot he man, then turned his attention back to Taliesimon. His expression darkened. “Now, as for you two. No further evidence is needed to process your expulsion-”
“My lord Scale-Commander,” Okara said forcefully. “It is my understanding that I have the right to speak and call others to speak on my behalf before a decision is made.”
Taliesimon wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the Scale-Commander’s expression darkened further. “Then speak!” he barked.
Taliesimon hadn’t thought the girl capable of being so gracious.
“Before I speak, I would like a detailed account of the accusations. What specific rules did we break? What precedent do these rules have?”
“You’re a girl!” cried a deep voice from the audience behind them. “Nothing more is needed!”
Another voice, this one distinctly feminine, called, “Why were they even allowed to enter? Girls can’t be dragoons.”
The Scale-Commander raised a hand. “There are no rules against females entering the Gauntlet. It has always been open to anyone of the proper age and desire, regardless of gender or social status.”
A few boos sounded, but they were soft and seemed to lack conviction.
That’s right, Taliesimon thought. Keep your mouths shut. There has never been any rule against women becoming dragoons.
Lord Austoryn waved his hand to a younger dragoon who sat the the far left end of the table. “Dragoon-Knight Thorien, the charges.”
The man stood, a sheaf of parchment in his hands. His blond hair was pale, almost white, and hung past his shoulders. His smooth face was freshly shaved with high cheekbones, a strong, angular jaw, and a slightly bulbous nose. He cleared his throat forcefully before he spoke.
“All charges apply equally to both girls, as both had an equal hand in their plans and their combined actions. First, is the subversion of a promising recruit, leading him into rule-breaking that was not his decision. Also, sabotaging him in challenge number three, ensuring he could not continue after the Gauntlet.”
Taliesimon fumed. How dare they accuse her of doing that to him intentionally!
“Second, is the subverting of challenge number four by the holding of hands. The purpose of that challenge is to test the mettle of a recruit by his own individual physical merits.”
Taliesimon bristled. “Nevermind that almost every one of your recruits needed help to get past it,” the muttered under her breath.
Thorien turned to the next sheet of parchment. “Third, is the intentional sabotage and assault of a recruit during challenge one.”
Taliesimon turned to Okara, who looked as baffled as she felt. She mouthed, what in the hells is he talking about?
Okara shrugged. Clearly, she was just as lost as Taliesimon was.
“And finally, the fourth charge, also during challenge one, is the intentional damage and defacement of the challenge itself for the purpose of subverting and circumventing said challenge.”
The Dragoon-Knight laid the parchment sheets face down on the table.
“The intentional sabotage and assault of a recruit,” Taliesimon said. “Please tell me I’m not the only person who thinks that is the funniest damned thing they have heard since winter broke! Very nearly every single recruit does exactly that right at the start of the Gauntlet every. Single. Year! To say nothing of the violence and sabotage during the Gauntlet. Why, we witnessed a boy throwing another boy into the boiling mud during that first challenge, intentionally cooking him to death!”
Several people in the audience behind her laughed and several more voiced their assent.
Okara stomped a foot. “And if that ogre will let him speak, Jonah himself will tell you that we did not at any point coerce, subvert, nor sabotage him!”
Jonah nodded emphatically, but his father’s thickly muscled hand still covered the boy’s mouth.
Taliesimon shrugged. “Where is it written that the river must be braved without help? There were-”
“You are expected to know the rules-” the Scale-Commander began.
Taliesimon’s temper flared. “I do know the rules! I did my research. Not only was the entire Gauntlet kept secret, but none of the information I could find was even accurate! And there were no rules written or spoken anywhere save one: Win. At. Any. Cost.”
“All of the boys who placed knew the rule-”
“Did they? Or were they just too thick to think of working together?”
The Scale-Commander’s face purpled. “They knew the Gauntlet is about personal achiev-”
“It is not!” she shouted. “The very first challenge is im. Poss. I. Ble. Without a team effort. It cannot be done alone, especially from the bedrock under the mud!”
“Were too caught up in personal achievement to think about working together. Perhaps that is why so many of your vaunted boys never make it past the first challenge! I didn’t see it then, but now I realize the numbers are so few that anyone who overcomes the first challenge is guaranteed to place so long as they finish the Gauntlet! You have it rigged by sending every boy in thinking that working as a team is somehow a bad thing-”
“You are out of-”
“No, Lord Commander!” Taliesimon screamed at him. “I am not out of line! I just see what you don’t want anyone to notice. I also see this hard truth: That what this is really about is keeping girls out of the dragoons!”
“SILENCE!” the Scale-Commander roared.
Taliesimon found her voice had fled her. Inexplicably, she now felt meek and vulnerable.
“Even if we were to assume your arguments were valid,” he said in acid tones. “We cannot overlook your defacement of the first challenge. That alone is enough ti disqualify any recruit.”
“Then it’s a good thing we had permission!” Okara almost shouted.
Several of the council chuckled and the Scale-Commanded laughed heartily.
Taliesimon’s face burned. “It’s true.”
Austoryn continued laughing as he said, “I’m sure, child. I’m sure.”
“There is proof,” she cried.
The Commander sobered. “What proof?”
Taliesimon stopped herself from smiling. “The man we spoke to, one of the dragoons who supervised the first challenge. He questioned what we were doing when we pulled the first stake from around the pit. We explained and told him of our idea, and he approved, saying we could proceed.”
The Scale-Commander’s face paled. “Who was this dragoon?”
Dammit, she thought.