The Empire of Ashes is the action-packed conclusion to the Draconis Memoria series – a sweeping epic fantasy of magic, adventure and the furious battle to forge an empire, from international bestselling author Anthony Ryan.
It was like drinking liquid fire, the heart-blood sending a searing bolt of agony through him the instant it touched his tongue. Somehow he managed not to lose his grip on the vial, keeping it pressed against his lips until the entire contents had made a fiery progress from his throat to his gut. He convulsed as the pain blossomed, thrashing in the water as it grew, banishing all other sensation, turning his vision grey then black. He wondered if the pain would kill him before Last Look Jack could send a stream of flame down to boil him as he thrashed. Either way he knew with absolute certainty he had barely seconds to live.
Then it was gone. The pain vanished in an instant. Clay blinked and the black void filling his eyes cleared. He was still in the water, floating weightlessly below a shimmering surface. The water was cold but the chill was muted somehow, a distant thing beyond the confines of his body, a body he quickly realised had grown to huge proportions. The view ahead was a mélange of colour, cool azure shades shot through with smudges of orange and the occasional small flutters of deep red. They see heat rather than light, Ethelynne Drystone had said when she shared memories with him in the ruined amphitheatre. Once again, he was seeing the world through the eyes of a drake.
He saw that these colours were not so vibrant as those captured by the doomed Black all those centuries ago, but any sense of limited vision was more than dispelled by the sound that filled his ears. It was a constant vibrating echo, varying in pitch from one second to the next. It meant little to him but he could sense an understanding somewhere in his mind, an instinctive knowledge possessed by the one who had captured this memory. The conclusion was as inescapable as it was terrifying. I’m trancing with Last Look Jack.
The view shifted as the soundscape changed, a sharp pealing cry cutting through the echo. The shimmering surface above blurred as Clay was propelled through the water, moving with a speed that was beyond any human engine. He could feel the great drake’s pulse quicken from a steady, ponderous thrum to a rapid drum-beat as the pealing cry came again. It was plainly a distress call, shot through with panic and terror. Clay could sense Jack’s increasing alarm as they raced through the water, the under-standing afforded by the trance enabling him to recognise it as parental concern. Somewhere his child was suffering.
Abruptly the distress call rose to a scream, piercing enough to send a shiver of pain through Clay’s mind, then it was gone, cut off in an instant. Another sensation seeped through his consciousness as the scream faded, not a sound this time, a scent. It was a smell that would usually stir hunger in the belly of this monstrous predator, but now stirred only despair. Blood, but not prey to be hunted down or a drifting whale carcass to be scavenged. This was the blood of a Blue drake.
Last Look Jack gave voice to a cry of his own then, a deep throaty roar of grief that seemed to shake the sea. His speed remained undiminished, however, his massive body coiling with furious energy to propel him on. The scent of blood grew more intense until Clay saw a dark billowing red fog ahead, cooling to pink as the warmth leeched into the water. Jack slowed as he neared the cloud, Clay making out a dark matrix amidst the billowing warmth, a net stretched tight around something large and limp. He could see the dark barbs of several harpoons jutting from the dead Blue, a juvenile judging by its size. Blood bloomed with fresh intensity as the net shifted and the body rolled in its snare as it was drawn up towards the surface. Jack’s gaze followed the black lines of the hauling ropes, finding two long dark shapes interrupting the surface above. He knew these shapes, knew they brought danger and normally the sight of them would have caused him to dive for the security of the depths. But not today.
He tore the net apart first, triangular, razor-like teeth tearing it to pieces, freeing the slaughtered juvenile inside. Jack paused to regard the slowly descending corpse, falling away into the cold black depths in a shroud of blood. A new memory filled Clay’s mind. A small Blue struggling free of her mother’s womb to coil against her father’s massive flanks as he curved his body around them both in a protective embrace, voicing a soft song to soothe her distress.
The memory faded and Clay found Jack’s gaze had returned to the two dark shapes above. He roared again, his despair merging with rage. It was a rare emotion for a Blue, conserved for the mating season and defending territory from aggressive young males. Now it bloomed to unprecedented heights, filling every fibre of Jack’s body. Clay felt something give in Jack’s mind, a jolting shock that banished his last vestiges of reason. The great Blue’s roar died. He had no need to voice his rage now. He was rage.
The two dark shapes had begun to move, the water on either side of them frothing white and a rhythmic thrum sounding through the ocean. Clay saw soft yellow globes burning in the centre of each shape as the Blue-hunter’s engineers stoked them high. Unnerved by the sudden loss of their catch, these sailors had clearly opted not to linger. It wouldn’t save them.
Jack made for the shape on the left, making a steady but unhurried approach from below. Although the rage still boiled in his mind, his predatory instincts held true and he knew the wisdom of preserving his energy for the final rush. When he was some fifty yards from the spinning blades of the Blue-hunter’s starboard paddle, he struck. A single thrash of his massive tail shattered the paddle- blades into splinters, causing the ship to veer off in a ragged circle, tilting from the force of Jack’s blow. Small, dark figures plunged into the water around him, sailors cast from the deck of the stricken vessel. Jack took his time, snapping each struggling figure in half and spitting out the remnants, finding he disliked the taste of these tiny monsters. Their blood was bitter and their flesh too full of bones. In any case, he was not here to feed.
He thrashed his tail again, an explosive release of power that propelled him free of the sea. The ship passed beneath him as his massive body soared over it, sailors gaping up at him in terror then screaming as he opened his jaws wide and unleashed a torrent of fire. The flames swept the ship from stern to bow, incinerating men and fittings alike, flooding the holds and setting light to anything that would burn.
Jack plunged back into the welcoming chill of the ocean, circling the ship as it burned and killing the charred and barely alive sailors peppering the surrounding waters. A sudden, hard vibration pulsed through the sea as something gave in the ship’s vitals, probably a stock of gunpowder from the size of the explosion. Jack watched it break in two and slowly subside into the depths, trailing a dark cloud of blood from its sundered holds. The scent of his kin’s blood stoked Jack’s rage to even greater heights, Clay feeling the already fragile structure of his mind crumble yet further.
The huge Blue returned to the surface, raising his head above the waves to see a second ship several miles to the north, smoke billowing from her funnels and paddles churning as she piled on the steam. It wouldn’t save her.
The trance fragmented then, Clay experiencing a jolt of pain as the shared memories flitted through his head in a kaleidoscope of wrecked ships and slaughtered sailors. Jack’s existence had evidently become an unceasing epic of vengeance, days and nights consumed by the hunt, the endless search for more monsters to kill. He preyed upon whales or giant squid only when his hunger grew into pain; otherwise, he scoured the oceans for ships, destroying all he could find, but there were always more.
Then came a change, a shift in the torrent of rage and tireless hunting. Jack had shunned the company of his own kind for years, ignoring their songs of greeting whenever he passed close to a pack. He knew on some basic level he was no longer one of them, their songs of bonding and play or the joy of the hunt were echoes of something forever lost; Jack had only one song, the rage song. But then came the day he heard something new, not a plaintive cry drifting through the depths, but a song within his mind.
Clay felt another jolt of pain as the song enveloped him, alien and dislocating, and yet dreadfully familiar. The White. The depth of malice was unmistakable, although he found it impossible to fully comprehend the intricacies of the beast’s thoughts. But he could feel them, the new sense of purpose seeping into Jack’s mind, merging with his rage. Clay could sense the Blue struggling against this intrusion. He had a purpose of his own and wanted no other, but the White would not be denied. Soon a fresh torrent of images accompanied the sensation, another ship viewed through the eyes of another Blue. This ship was different however, a warship judging by its guns. Also, it had no paddles. The Superior, Clay realised, watching a young woman raise a pair of revolvers on the deck below. Loriabeth, the day the Blue attacked us.
The image changed as Loriabeth’s bullets struck home, filling it with a red mist that obscured much of what came next, although Clay was able to discern the sudden halt in movement, recalling how he and the Varestian Blood-blessed had used Black to hold the Blue in place whilst Captain Hilemore and Lieutenant Steelfine readied the cannon. There was a flash amidst the red mist and the vision turned instantly to black.
The sense of purpose flooding Jack’s mind altered, becoming an implacable command as the image of the Superior reappeared. This time Clay was able to discern a clear meaning in the White’s thoughts: Go south . . . Kill them.
Clay reeled in shock as Jack’s memories swirled around him. It sent him after us. It knew where we were going. How? The answer dawned swiftly, accompanied by a tinge of self-reproach at his failure to realise it sooner. Silverpin. The remnant of her consciousness had been living in his head since her betrayal and death beneath the mountain. It followed her scent, forced poor mad Jack to hunt us down.
Another tumble of memories: Jack finding himself part of a pack once more, although the Blues he swam with sang no songs. The destruction of Kraghurst Station and his repressed but still-evident relish at the sight of so many small monsters burning. Jack chasing the Superior through the channel between the Chokes and the shelf, the crushing weight of the huge wedge of displaced ice bearing him down to the depths, so far down the pressure threatened to crush his mighty body like paper. But he hadn’t died, somehow struggling from under the descending weight and straining damaged muscles as he sought the surface. Soon exhaustion claimed him, leaving him limp and drifting on the current. He would have subsided back into the depths had the pack not found him, coming together to bear him up to the surface and the salvation of the air. Still, he was wounded, needing time and sustenance to heal. The other Blues brought walrus and whale-meat, starving themselves so he might eat. Had he still been capable of such things, he would have sung the song of thanks. But they were not truly his pack and such songs were a distant murmur of who he had once been.
He ate, he healed, he waited, and then came the great upsurge of heat from below, fracturing the ice and allowing him to hunt down the monsters that had wounded him. He marshalled his silent pack, sending them out into the newly sundered ice, ranging far until one found his quarry. A new ship, one with no bloom of heat within its hull, but with monsters roving its deck. Jack, though mad, was far from stupid. Having recently suffered at these creatures’ hands, he opted for a more cunning approach, sending his pack to bear the brunt of their terrible, unnatural defences. He watched the sundered, flailing Blue bodies fall one by one, clamping down on his rage, forcing patience into his damaged mind. Only when the last of his pack had slipped into the depths, trailing a cloud of gore from the rent in its neck, did he determine to strike.
Then a new distraction, a fresh bloom of heat from below accompanied by a great cloud of bubbles as something rushed towards the surface. Jack had no notion of what this thing was, his vision unable to penetrate the hull to discern any heat sources within. But, as it bobbed to the surface and he watched four monsters clamber out, he knew he had found his first easy prey for a long time. A shallow dive then an upward rush was enough to leave the creatures struggling in the water. Jack made for the closest one, grunting in momentary pain as one of the monsters on the ship cast something at him, small but possessed of enough speed to tear a hole in his scales. But it was a familiar sting, his scales bore the scars of many such irritations, and with the prey so close he paid it scant heed.
The creature struggling in the water below stared up at him with its tiny, bead-like eyes, its claws fumbling for something about its neck. A weapon, perhaps. As if anything so small could threaten him . . .
Clay watched the image of himself struggling in the water freeze and then shatter, leaving him in a formless, multicoloured fog. Mist swirled around him, coalescing into dense, vibrantly hued clouds then breaking apart. Here and there he caught glimpses of firmer memories, Blue bodies drifting, dismembered sailors, burning ships. This then was the mindscape of Last Look Jack. Beneath the horror Clay could feel a deep weight of confusion pressing in on his own consciousness, shot through with a growing anger.
You can feel me in here, can’t you? Clay asked, hoping the drake could discern some meaning in his thoughts. The surrounding mist shimmered, reddish forks of lightning crackling as evidence of Jack’s burgeoning rage. Well, you’re stuck with me, for now at least. So let’s talk.
The lightning flashed again, blood-red tendrils reaching out from the fog to envelop Clay, lacerating him with implacable, utter rejection. He steeled himself against the sensation, fighting off the waves of nausea and confusion that threatened to end the trance. I know you got good reason to hate me and my kind, Clay persisted as the nausea blossomed into an ache. But the White . . . He choked off as the ache transformed into an abrupt burst of agony, deep within his being. The mindscape shimmered again and he felt the imminent loss of the trance as Jack exerted all his will to cast out the hated intruder.
Bargaining won’t work, Clay realised, reasserting his own will, the mindscape flaring bright about him, revealing yet more scenes of death and fire. He’s just too crazy. He struggled to remember everything Ethelynne had said about the effects of drinking heart-blood, how it had enabled her to control Lutharon. No, he reminded himself. Not control. A “mutual understanding,” she called it. But how to birth understanding in a mind damaged by so many dire memories? He paused as more of Ethelynne’s words came back to him: Drake memory does not die with the individual, but rather accumulates down the blood line over many generations.
He scanned the surrounding chaos, reeling amidst the fury of Jack’s continuing efforts to drive him out. Lutharon remembered the White, Clay thought. Even though he’d never seen it. Maybe one of Jack’s ancestors caught sight of it too. But if so, what then? The experiences of Jack’s fore-bears could hardly be sufficient to restore his sanity. Then something Silverpin’s ghost had said popped into his head, a small nugget of insight that reminded him she had been more than just the White’s vassal: What are people, anyway, if not just a collection of memories?
Clay summoned all his will then unleashed it in an instant, blasting away the surrounding fog. He felt Jack shudder under the impact, his rage momentarily quelled by the burst of mental strength. Must be the heart-blood, Clay decided. Gives extra power in the trance.
He focused on the remnants of memory now drifting around him in an otherwise black void, finding fragmentary glimpses of yet more bloody, flame-soaked vengeance. Reaching out to one, a tight ball containing a vision of the attack on Kraghurst Station, he exerted his will again, forcing it into a tiny bead before crushing it to fragments. He moved on, roaming Jack’s mindscape and crushing all the traumatic memories he could find. Jack fought him, red lightning lashing out again and again, but with diminishing force as his memories died. Clay couldn’t get them all, some were too formless to be captured and others just snippets of barely remembered carnage. Here and there he encountered odd moments of serenity or even joy, mainly concerning Jack’s life before the raging insanity of his vengeance. These Clay left alone, though they were few and far between and certainly not enough to return this beast to sanity.
Confusion reigned in the mindscape as Clay crushed the last of the major horrors: the death throes of a Blue-hunter Jack had tormented for days, rearing up every few hours to roast a sailor or two before diving down to let the survivors ponder their impending fate. Humans, it seemed, had taught him the pleasures of sadism. All Jack’s resistance seeped away as the memory crumbled, leaving only the vaguest sense of who or what he was. I could just leave now, Clay knew. End the trance and let him wander the ice, mind broken forever. But what use was there in that?
Let’s see what your ancestors left you. Clay reached into his own memory, summoning the most vibrant image of the White he could find, that final glimpse beneath the mountain as it raged amongst the swarm of its newly hatched kin. Remind you of anything? he asked Jack, who failed to provide an answer. Clay expanded the memory, filling the surrounding void with it. Come on, must be something in here, something buried deep.
He saw it then, a faint glimmer in the void. Clay exerted his will, drawing the glimmer closer, feeding it with the memory of the White so that it grew, blossoming out into a view of a broad sky above a choppy grey sea. Blues churned the water on all sides, long bodies knifing through the waves, whilst above a battle raged. Drakes, Red and Black, wheeled below grey-white clouds, casting flames at each other or locking together in an ugly tangle of thrashing tails and snapping jaws. Drakes plummeted into the sea with grim regularity, either sinking immediately or struggling on the surface as their wounds leaked into the water. The Blues ignored the stricken Reds and swarmed over the Blacks with streaming fire and gnashing teeth. Clay could sense the blankness of the mind that had captured this memory, largely devoid of thought and filled only with a purpose not its own. Kill them, it commanded, the image shifting as the owner of these ancient eyes fixated on a maimed Black near by, trying vainly to take to the air with one undamaged wing. Kill them a—
Then it was gone. The purpose, the command. Vanished from the Blue’s mind and allowing an inrush of sensation. The Blue halted its charge as the urge towards combat faded, instead circling the struggling Black, casting out curious songs of greeting as its strength gave out and it slipped beneath the waves. The Blue cast its gaze to the sky, seeing that the warring factions had now separated, the Reds formed into a loose pack and striking out towards the north-east whilst the surviving Blacks made for the west. Clay managed to make out the dim but unmistakable figure of a human rider on at least one of the Blacks before they slipped into the cloud and were gone from view.
The end of the war, he realised. The first one. The White rose before and they defeated it, somehow.
He pushed the question aside, for it was clear the answer didn’t lie in the mind of this long-dead Blue. He sorted through the memories, finding it a far simpler creature than Jack, its songs joyous and possessing only the smallest tinge of rage. A simple soul, Clay thought, fighting down a pang of guilt. Not sure you’re gonna like your new home.
* * *
The chill gripped him like a steel fist the moment the trance faded, forcing out a gasp that would have been a yell if he had the breath for it. He bobbed in the swell as the huge Blue sank back into the water, retreating a short distance to hover close by, its head barely above the surface with one wide eye fixed on Clay. He could feel its song thrumming the water, rich in distress. It seemed the trance had left him with an understanding of Blue-song.
A splash drew Clay’s gaze to the left, where he found Kriz and Loriabeth struggling to keep Lieutenant Sigoral’s head above the water. The Corvantine’s face was bleached white and his one good eye dimmed. A series of splashes came from the right, accompanied by the overlapping whine of multiple bullets and the faint crackle of rifle fire. The distress song from the Blue that had been Last Look Jack rose in pitch as he recoiled from the hail of projectiles, sinking lower in the water.
“Stop—!” Clay shouted, twisting about to face the ship, his words choked off behind chattering teeth. He could see a row of armed men at the rail, Uncle Braddon among them. Preacher stood tall in the crow’s nest, rifle at his shoulder. More worryingly, Lieutenant Steelfine and Captain Hilemore were frantically trying to manoeuvre a cannon into place. The gun had clearly suffered some damage, its barrel thickly wrapped with rope, making Clay wonder if the act of firing it would pose more of a danger to the crew than to Jack.
Clay dragged a deep breath into his lungs and called out with all the volume he could muster: “STOP FUCKING SHOOTING!” The words echoed across the intervening water, heralding a pause in activity on the ship. Clay saw Hilemore straighten from the cannon in evident confusion.
“Clay!” Loriabeth gasped and he turned to see Sigoral slip from her grasp. Clay swam towards them and dived, managing to grab hold of the Corvantine’s jacket before he sank beyond reach, dragging him back to the surface. Kriz and Loriabeth closed in, the three of them kicking frantically to bear Sigoral up. A series of shouts came from the ship, Clay craning his neck to see Hilemore directing a party to lower a boat into the water. Won’t be enough time, Clay knew with a grim certainty, turning back to regard Sigoral’s bloodless complexion. It was also clear that Kriz and Loriabeth were fast approaching their limits as the water’s chill sapped their reserves of strength.
He turned to where the huge Blue still loitered twenty yards off, casting out his plaintive distress call. Clay concentrated, summoning the memory of the remade mindscape he had crafted in the beast’s head, filling it with a distress call of his own. The Blue’s response was surprising in its imme-diacy, propelling himself towards them with a single swish of his tail be-fore rolling over to present his back spines.
“Grab on,” Clay told the others, reaching out to grasp the nearest spine. He took a firm hold of both the bony protrusion and Sigoral’s jacket before hauling himself closer. Kriz was obliged to help Loriabeth, who seemed to have lost the ability to raise her arms above the water, the older woman wrapping an arm around her chest and pulling them both towards the drake’s huge flank. Once they had all taken hold the Blue rolled again, lifting them clear of the water’s deathly chill before bearing them towards the ship.
As they surged through the water Clay caught sight of something bobbing on the surface, his pack, kept afloat by the bulbous cargo it held. Slow, he told the Blue, who obligingly reduced his speed, allowing Clay to reach out and reclaim the pack. Don’t worry, young ’un, he silently comforted the egg. Carried you way too far to leave you behind now.
He looked up as the deck of the ship loomed above, finding a row of gaunt and stunned faces. Uncle Braddon was the sole exception. Any astonishment he may have felt was clearly drowned by the joy of seeing his daughter again. “Got y’self a new pet, I see,” Braddon said, his heavy beard parting in a broad smile.
“More like a new friend,” Clay replied.
“That there’s Last Look Jack,” one of the crew said. It took Clay a moment to recognise Scrimshine’s face under the fellow’s scraggly beard. The former smuggler clutched a rifle in his bony hands as he stared down at the Blue’s massive body, eyes large in his emaciated skull. “We should kill it, Skipper!” he went on, turning to Hilemore with shrill insistence. “Kill it right now, I says!”
Hearing the murmur of agreement from the other crewmen and noting the severe doubt on the captain’s face, Clay said, “That name don’t fit him no more. This”—Clay leaned forward to pat the broad scaly space between the Blue’s eyes—“this is Old Jack now. And he’s gonna get us out of here.”