Read the prologue of the fourth volume in this enthralling epic fantasy series, from the author of the critically acclaimed Long Price Quartet.
Inys, the Last Dragon
The dragon rose.
With every stroke of his great wings, his sinews creaked. Before—only hours before, it seemed—he had flown this same coast, this same air, with ease. Now, rising above the ice-cracking waves taxed him. The strength he assumed was gone, and the weakness was also testimony that all his worst fears were true. He set his jaw and pressed himself up, up, up, rising to clouds that frosted his scales as he touched them. Brown earth and green water stretched below him. The snow on the ground matched the chill foam on the wave tops, and he labored.
Before—only hours, moments—the war had been at its height. The trap he had set for his mad brother, the last, desperate hope for victory, had been in its final phase. All that had remained was to convince his imperial brother that he, Inys, the last of their clutch, had died in the fall of Aastapal. And then, when mad Morade went to the island to claim his victory, to mount one last attack and drive Morade and his allies deep into the palaces and laboratories, and sink the island.
All would drown as one.
Inys had sent his friends, his lover, and the servants he trusted most to accomplish what he could not be there to complete. His scent would have distracted Morade and turned the whole business to chaos, so he had allowed himself to be buried in a secret tomb, and invoked the silence. Morade would drown, and his unclean allies with him. The madness would end, and those who remained would come and draw him back to wakefulness. Together, they would remake the world torn to ribbons by the war. Or else Morade would survive the trap, and Inys would die there, hidden in his hole, and the world would end in a delirium made of fire and false certainties.
Those had been his hopes and his fears, only hours ago, it seemed. Days at the most. Not centuries. Not millennia.
What’s become of Drakkis Stormcrow? he had asked, and the slave—a Firstblood calling himself Marcus Wester—had answered. Drakkis, the most brilliant general of the slave races, had fallen long ago into legend. Her name had become only a story. The Dragon Empire that formed the world—that was the world—had fallen so long ago that a full history had grown and fallen and grown again since the last time the masters of humanity had taken to the free air. Word by word, the world was unmade before him, and Inys’s great breast filled with disbelief, and then fear, and then rage. And yet this Marcus Wester who had woken him had one of the tainted at his side, and so nothing he said could be trusted. But he had also held a culling blade. By what madness could the corruption and its cure stand side by side together if not the erosion of strange ages . . . ?
Nothing could be certain unless it was seen and smelled, touched and tasted. If Morade’s weapons showed anything, it was that any report or story might be false. The ages might not have slipped away while Inys lay in the silence, dead as stone but dreaming. Morade might live. Erex might. Even Drakkis Stormcrow, short-lived though her race was, might. Might.
But the thin winter air was empty of dragon scent.
Inys pumped, lifting his body, and thinking against his will that his weakness was evidence that the Firstblood slave Marcus Wester had spoken truth. Inys did not know how many years a dragon had to abide in the silence to grow weak as a hatchling, and yet it had to be many. The silence had taken Sannyn for a century, and she had risen from it as from a night’s rest. Her scales had been undimmed, her laughter as bright and as violent. Inys remembered her as he pushed himself—almost inch by inch, it felt—through air he should have owned. So perhaps the ages had passed. Perhaps the world was new and different and strange.
Still, even if it had been so terribly long, was he not evidence that dragonflesh could weather time itself? Might the same silence have taken others? Or perhaps there were new dragons carrying through the generations, and his incomplete death had simply dulled his senses so that he could not find them.
The land came into sight below him again, the coastline familiar only in the manner of a rough outline. The bays and heights had changed from the ones he knew. There, where the great body of the land curved to the north, had once been a thin spine of stone, just large enough for two dragons to perch upon, wings folded against each other, thick tails entwined. There, he and Erex had first pledged their love. Flying above the water now, he saw no sign of it. The waves themselves denied that it had ever been. The panic in Inys’s heart shifted, but he would not let himself descend to sorrow. Not yet.
He shifted his wings, catching the updraft from the seaside cliffs and riding the rough and unsteady air. With every turn of his gyre, more became clear. To the south, a slave town stank of weak, cold fires. Wood and coal. The thin green thread of a slave path snaked across the ground. The island, if it stood, would be north and west. The hive would be out of Inys’s way, but it was so near, and the twin spurs of curiosity and fear bit his flanks.
It was a large town, and poorly designed. The slaves that traveled its streets were scattered. If there was a central task for them, it was unclear. There was a harbor with oddly made ships, a dozen or more spaces inside the town walls where work might be done but wasn’t. The air had a rich stink of a thousand different things—tanners and dyers and launderers’ yards, forge-hot iron and butchered meat. No purpose seemed to organize its streets, no design gave it meaning. Above the town where a true city would have had perches and feeding tables, there was nothing. If Inys had been set to create an image to capture the idea of a civilized animal that had gone feral, it would have been this.
Grief rose in his throat, and he turned away to the north. At the edge of the land, he sloped down for a moment, landing beside a rounded hut that stank of fish and slave. Birds and tiny winged lizards squeaked and fluttered and fled. Fatigue dragged him toward the bare, frost-hardened earth. His wings settled to the frozen ground and he felt no urge to lift them. He felt the despair beginning to stir in his heart and closed his eyes against it. He could not afford to feel anything, not yet. Exhaustion pulled at him, bearing him down toward a black and dreamless sleep. He let it take him.
Dreams came to him, inchoate and disturbing. He felt himself calling out in them, but could not say to whom, or to what end.
“The fuck are you doing on my land?”
Inys opened an eye. The Jasuru slave held a fisherman’s axe in his broad hand, and poorly tanned furs were tied around him for warmth. His black tongue rolled behind pointed teeth, and the bronze of his scales caught the sunlight. The fear-smell was rich. Inys opened the other eye.
“Get on! I’m not afraid of you. This is my place, you get out of it!”
Inys popped the slave’s belly with a foreclaw and watched the amber eyes go first wide and then dull. His grandfather’s sister had made the Jasuru centuries before he’d been hatched, but not as fishers. They had been pen-keepers of the other slaves, freeing the dragons of that generation to take on other work than the dull maintenance of their servant races. They had been meant as honorable servants, halfway between the minimally altered Firstblood and the dragons themselves. As the slave died, Inys recalled the bronze of his grandfather’s sister’s scales, much the same color. The sharpness of her teeth. The blackness of her mouth. It was an aspect of her design that she placed a part of herself within her creation, as he had put something of himself into the black-chitined Timzinae. The weapon he had brought to the war. His answer to the chaos and madness of Morade’s slave-corrupting blood spiders.
He chewed the corpse thoughtfully. The blood was hot and salty, the bones delicate and crisp. It was terrible that the three brothers and clutch-mates had turned the beauty and elegance of design against one another. To think what they might have accomplished if only Inys had not been so young. If his pranks had not struck so near his brother’s heart. Or if Morade, in his rage and brilliance, had not seen how deeply the others had come to rely on the slave races they had created. When Morade’s vengeance came, the blow fell where none expected it. Not in the wide, smoking air of battle, not at first. But in the lowest. With his blood spiders, he maddened the slaves until all order fell away. Only then did the full scale of his vengeance come clear.
And so perhaps there was something of his brother in the corrupted, just as there was something of his grandfather’s sister in the Jasuru. Madness and the beauty of scales in sunlight. There was a poem in that somewhere, if there were any people left to speak poems to.
Inys yawned and stretched. The small meal had revived what little strength he had. He opened his wings, beating at the frigid air, testing himself. Better. Not well, but better. The shock had begun to fade, and hope was not yet dead. Not quite. There was still the island to discover. Sleep and food made the world easier to bear, if only for the moment.
Inys launched himself out over the reddened sea of sunset, skimming close to the surface until he realized that his only reason for doing so was to see his shadow on the face of the water and so feel less alone. After that, he rose. He knew the way to the island. The path to it was in his blood, as it had been in the blood of all dragons. The seat of the empire and the center of the world. The first eggs, so it was said, had risen from the womb of the earth there. The first dragons had sung their songs. It had become more than the seat of the empire; it had become the sign and symbol of all that the dragons were. The greatest workshops in the world had been there. Inys still recalled the first night he had been allowed to attend the gathering, perched beside his father’s massive, fire-hot side in the vast cavern where a thousand other dragons on a thousand other perches had listened to old Sirrick declaim on the virtues of physical love. She had been ancient even then, and the beauty of her face and her form and her voice had taken Inys’s breath away. She had spoken of mating—not of taking a mate or choosing a mate or living long with a mate, but the act of coupling in love—with a seriousness and maturity that would forever define for him what it meant to be wise. If he conjured up the memory, he could still feel the rush of desire and awe. Some part of his mind knew that the memory had been drawn out in part by the suspicion that he would never know the touch of his own kind again, but that thought was still small enough to ignore.
If he had won, that theater would be drowned as a sacrifice to save the world from his brother. That anyone would destroy that place was beyond even Morade’s madness, and so it was the only place that a trap could be set. Inys the Ruthless, they had called him when he proposed it. True enough, but also Inys the Frightened. Inys the Ashamed.
Inys the Desperate.
He made his long way across the water as the brief winter sun doused its flame in the sea. The stars were light enough, and the moon soon rose to add its brilliance. Though he knew what he might expect, the featureless water still uneased him. The first towers should have been here. Then the Chancel of the Orbs. The oracle’s spire. He could not help but wonder whether they still stood and he, in his weakness and confusion, had missed his way. It had been his scheme and intention, and still the absence of the island seemed unreal. Its destruction was a crime too vast to contemplate, even were the crime his own.
Twice he circled the wide water, his senses stretched out beyond him. The only sights were waves upon water and stars in the greater ocean above. The only scents were of fish and salt and the promise of storm weather still days away. This should have been the place, he thought, and could not be sure. Not without looking.
He took in a great breath, rose up in the air, and dove. Just before his vast flesh struck the water, he recalled Erex and the joy she had taken in night diving. He pushed the thought away. That she, whom he loved more than he did himself—she, whom he had felt and touched not more than a day before—might be dust, and ancient dust at that, could not be borne.
The cold and the pressure took him in, and Inys flew through the black water. The great, raging furnace of his flesh answered with heat and strength. For a moment, he was sure of himself as if he were young again. As if his childish folly had not ended everything.
And there in the depths, the ruins welled up, larger than dragons. The spires like mountains, encrusted with barnacles and ice coral, until it might almost have been natural. But he knew the workings of the sea too well, and the stone had slept through the long ages with him. Here was a mossy spire that had once been Keeper’s Watch. There, a sunken disk of jade lay on its edge, which had once held the emperor’s perch. He let the water fill his nostrils, straining for any sign of dragon scent, but there was nothing. Nowhere. The slave’s words had been true. Inys closed his eyes, and the powerful, rage-filled urge to throw himself into the pits of the sea, to sink so far that he could never again rise, took him.
It took him, and then it passed. His lungs aching with protest, he turned for the surface and the stars. His tail lashed the water, punishing it, and he scented the fear of fish and eels for miles around him. When he broke the surface, his breath burst from him in a vast ball of crimson fire that turned back upon itself as it rose, unseen and meaningless, above the dark water.
The grief-fire of the last dragon lit the empty world.
* * *
On the north coast of Hallskar, Marcus Wester huddled beside the fire. To his right, the winter sea churned white ice and black water in constant and unforgiving waves. To his left, a vast wound had been gouged into the earth. Great slabs of black stone stood cracked and splintered in the frozen ground. It sank deep as a cathedral, wider than a warehouse. A dozen men with axes and shovels couldn’t have dug the pit in a month. Bursting from its confinement, the dragon had made it between one breath and the next. Marcus leaned forward and threw another length of driftwood onto the fire. Green-and-blue flames danced in the stone circle of the firepit.
His daughter, Merian, would have thought the fire was beautiful, but she was long years dead now. She didn’t think anything was beautiful anymore. He’d never had the chance to show her driftwood fires. Alys, his wife, would have been with the actors, sifting through the new ruins of the dragon’s cave. That was unfair. She’d have been here, trying to talk him out of his gloom. Likely, she’d have managed, but she was dead too. He couldn’t say that was good, but it did save him from the look of pity in her eyes. There was nothing, Marcus thought, as bleak as a success that brings no comfort.
Master Kit’s footsteps on the stony beach were as familiar as his own breath. Marcus lifted a hand in greeting without bothering to look up. Kit sat beside him. With the cold, they had all taken to wearing as many of the theatrical troupe’s
costumes as they could, one over another. Kit was presently dressed as Orcus the Demon King, only with a thick fur hat and a frilly scarf.
“Any sign of the locals?” Marcus asked.
“A few,” Kit said.
“Were they angry?”
“Are they coming back with torches and swords?”
“Probably,” Master Kit said. “I believe they had gone to great lengths to keep the dragon’s existence secret. It seemed to me they were quite . . . disappointed that we’d woken it.”
“At the very least, I think we cannot expect their help should another storm come.”
“It’s Hallskar in winter. Another storm is going to come.”
“I think you’re right.”
Marcus poked at the blue fire, sending up a shower of orange embers. Nearby, Hornet called out something and Smit answered back. In the hazy white sky, gulls shrieked and wheeled. The air smelled of cold and salt. “I was hoping it would be more a situation where if we woke him, he’d explain how to defeat the spider priests. That was optimistic, wasn’t it?”
“It appears to have been,” Kit said.
“ ‘Well,’ he could have said. ‘It’s simple. They can’t stand garlic.’ That would have been good.”
“I rather like garlic, actually.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do,” Kit said. “We came and searched because they were searching and we didn’t want them to find whatever it was they were looking for. They didn’t. We woke the beast because we thought the enemy of our enemy might be our friend. It was a risk, and we still don’t know where those choices will lead. It’s possible that the things we’ve done will save the world.”
“It’s possible that Sandr will marry a Haaverkin woman, stay in Hallskar, and make a brood of little tattooed actor babies. I wouldn’t bet a penny on it, though.”
“I suppose I wouldn’t either. But there is hope.”
“Only for the hopeful.”
“Are you utterly without it, then? Hope, I mean?”
Marcus laughed. “You remember who you’re talking with, don’t you? The sum of my hopes right now is not to die on a frozen salt coast anytime in the next three days. That’s tricky enough. Let’s not borrow anything more until after.”
“The dragon may still come back.”
“No,” Marcus said, rising to his feet. “He won’t. Not anytime soon.”
“You sound certain.”
Marcus nodded up at the empty sky. “Can you imagine what it would be like? Waking up to find everything you loved turned to bone and ash, everything that made the world beautiful gone?”
“I take it that you can?”
“Every day the sun rises,” Marcus said. “It takes some getting used to.”