“That’s not possible.”
I stared at the marks on the wall. Chul was wrong. He had to be. I couldn’t accept that I’d been gone for so long. It felt like mere hours.
Chul shrugged nonchalantly, then lifted one muscular arm over his head to stretch. “Must be, because it has been.”
“But what’s happening with the war?” I demanded, getting in the half-asuran warrior’s face. “Has Agrona—”
Chul grunted and turned away. “You better talk to Mordain. Come now. I’ll show you.”
Grinding my teeth, I followed. Sylvie and Regis fell into step behind me, each transmitting a different intensity of confusion and discomfort.
‘Too soon to start trying to guess what in the abyss happened?’ Regis asked in my mind.
Yes, I shot back irritably.
‘I felt the passage of time only as a growing ache in my blood and bones as my mana was exhausted,’ Syvie thought. ‘I want to say it couldn’t have been months—I should have withered away from dehydration in a much shorter time than that—but…’
‘You were pretty out of it when we checked on you,’ Regis answered her. ‘Is it possible you were, like, in stasis or something?’
‘My mind was…’ Sylvie paused, struggling for the words. ‘I believe that I was still regenerating from the use of the egg—stone?—thing. My flesh-and-blood brain struggled to meld with the paradoxical memories of what I experienced between my death and return. It is possible that the mana and aether infused within the egg to resurrect me might have also sustained me in that place, but really I have no idea.’
‘Cool, cool cool,’ Regis thought. ‘Is it just me or is Chul poorly trying to hide something?’
Enough, I snapped, the flow of mental chatter threatening to unravel my last frayed nerve. Please, just…enough.
A hint of the sting they both felt at my reproach leaked through our mental connection, and I quickly put up my mental barrier to block them out. My own thoughts were a low, meaningless buzz of noise. I simply stared at Chul’s back and followed him through the dungeon-turned-sanctuary of the rebel asuras’ home.
“You are different,” Chul said, seemingly out of the blue. “Your energy. You seem stronger than you were. Your presence is like a forearm against my throat.”
I frowned at his back, in no mood to make small talk. In the rush to get Sylvie out of the void only to discover our long absence, I hadn’t had even an instant to turn my focus inward toward my core, yet again empowered by the formation of a third layer of aether around the remains of my original mana core.
Chul seemed to take the hint from my silence. He asked no more questions, and the Hearth passed by unnoticed until the rich smell of the alien plants made me aware of my senses once again.
A dozen or so asura were inside the grove, milling about beneath the reaching limbs of the charwood trees. Our arrival caused a stir. From the expressions of shock, dismay, and even outrage that were directed toward Sylvie, it was clear that these refugee asuras of the phoenix race didn’t appreciate having a dragon in their midst.
‘Called it,’ Regis thought, apparently unable to help himself.
It seemed strange to me that their reaction was so strong. They’d been living in the Hearth for hundreds of years, safe from Kezess’s machinations. Sylvie was no threat to them.
But I only had a few seconds to consider it, because my attention caught immediately on Mordain. The tall phoenix was pacing slowly between the trunks of two charwood trees, his hands behind his back, his golden robes just brushing the grass.
I maneuvered around Chul, quickening my pace. Some of the other phoenixes started to leave. The ones who stayed were tense and watchful. I had no doubt that if I were hostile with Mordain in any way they would leap to his defense unquestioningly.
Sensing my approach, Mordain turned, his brows knitting together, his lips pressed flat. “Arthur Leywin, you have returned to us at last—”
“I need to know what’s going on out there,” I said, not caring if I was being rude. “Chul says it’s been two months. If that’s true, is Dicathen safe? Has Agrona attacked again?”
Mordain held up his hand in a sign of peace, then gestured to a nearby bench. “There is much to tell you. Perhaps if we—”
“No!” I cut in, my sharp voice ringing uncomfortably in the quiet grove. “Just tell me.”
Mordain regarded me with unaffected, almost casual, grace. Then, with a small smile, he nodded again to the bench and made his way in that direction.
‘Arthur, perhaps it would be faster to stop arguing than to keep making demands?’ Sylvie suggested.
I closed my eyes and forced in a deep breath, letting the air fill me. When I let the breath go, I pictured it taking some of my panicked anger with it. When that didn’t help, I marched to the bench and sat down stiffly next to Mordain.
“Agrona has not attacked Dicathen again,” Mordain said immediately. He crossed his legs and shifted into a more comfortable position on the bench before continuing. “In part because he is still occupied managing the affairs of Alacrya. Also, though, because of the dragons.”
My entire body tensed. “What do you mean?”
Mordain’s fingers drummed on the back of the bench. It was only once, then the noise and motion stopped, but it was enough to give away his agitation. “Less than a week after you and Aldir went through the portal, a rift opened in the sky above the Beast Glades. Not far from here, in fact. Dragons began pouring out.”
I jumped to my feet. “Kezess—the dragons—are they—”
“They spread across the continent rapidly. Your people, it seems, have welcomed them with open arms. Dragons patrol the coastlines and sky, but also have installed themselves in your largest cities. Advisors and protectors, or so they are claiming.”
The painful hammering of my heart began to ease somewhat. “They haven’t attacked anyone?”
Mordain shook his head, then waved for me to be seated again. “It seems Kezess has followed through with his promise to help you safeguard your continent. Although…” He trailed off, not finishing his thought, but his blazing eyes stayed on mine.
I eased myself back down. “Dragons in every major city. You think they are as much a threat as protection.”
The devious ingenuity of Kezess’s ploy came clear as I considered it. The threat of direct violence never needed to be more than implied as a possibility, but this occupation also allowed him to weaponize the safety of Dicathen indirectly by threatening to remove his forces. What leader—king, counselor, or Lance—could convince the people that they would be safer without the dragons present?
Do even I have that kind of political capital? I wondered.
Mordain’s countenance had turned grim. “Kezess is ancient, and he has played this game many times before in Epheotus, with much greater stakes than now. Or, at least that is the case so far as he is concerned.”
I scanned the grove. Regis and Sylvie were standing nearby, watching the conversation play out. Sylvie wore a thoughtful frown, and I could tell she was thinking about her time training in Epheotus. Regis, on the other hand, was unconcerned with the appearance of the dragons.
When he felt me probe his mind, he cocked his head slightly and met my eye. ‘The whole point of siding with the almighty psychopath was to buy time, right? Deal with our laundry list of deitific assholes one at a time? This lets us do that. The dragons in Dicathen aren’t going to move against us or the people while your agreement with Kezess stands.’
“Do you have any news of my family?” I asked, unable to hide the guilt I felt at having left them for months without a word.
Mordain gave me a sad smile and shook his head slightly. “While the dragons may be your allies, they are very firmly still my enemies, at least for so long as Kezess rules them. It has been difficult to learn even the little I have of what is happening outside the Hearth.”
Biting back a sigh, I stood again. “I’m afraid I need to leave immediately, then. I’ve been away for far, far too long already.”
Mordain stayed where he was, looking up at me from the bench. “Perhaps the urgency is not as great as you believe. If you’ll take my council, I would suggest preparing yourself more fully before you rush into the dragon’s mouth, so to speak.”
‘Listen, it’s not like little Ellie is likely to be hanging by her toes over the caldera of an active volcano and rushing back to Vildorial right now will be the only thing tosave her, right?’ Regis asked with all of his usual charm and tact. ‘We should probably, y’know, figure out what the hell is happening first.’
‘While I don’t necessarily agree with the delivery,’ Sylvie added, shooting Regis an exasperated look, ‘Regis is right. If the dragons are in control of Dicathen, that makes it very dangerous for all of us.’
I didn’t find their arguments convincing, but I knew there was another way to ensure that my family was safe. Returning to my seat, I withdrew the seeing artifact. “Excuse me one moment, Mordain. I want to hear you out, but I need to be sure.”
Gripping the milky white crystal, I imbued it with aether. My vision shifted, focusing on the crystal’s surface as tendrils of aether met my own. As I’d done many times before, I thought of Ellie, and my senses were drawn through the artifact and across the miles separating us. When the rush of movement stopped, I was looking down on her from above. She was lounging in a wooden chair, her leg kicked up over the arm, and she wore a look of intense boredom.
I recognized Gideon’s lab around her, and when I thought of the old inventor the perspective shifted slightly, revealing both Gideon and Emily. They were talking, asking Ellie questions. They didn’t appear to be in any danger…
I watched for another minute but nothing changed. Emily or Gideon would say something I couldn’t hear, then Ellie would offer a mute response. With enough effort, I could have read their lips, but it was enough just to know that Ellie was safe. Seeing her so relaxed—bored, even—made me confident that my mother would be fine as well.
Withdrawing from the artifact, I returned it to my dimension rune.
“Thank you for your patience,” I told Mordain, who had let his gaze wander while I’d focused on the distant vision offered by the artifact.
I looked up to realize that Wren Kain had appeared while I was focused on the crystal.
“He…” I paused, my gaze sweeping over all the asuras listening in.
Aldir had been right. His death was capital I could spend both with the people of Dicathen and Kezess. Now, with the dragons present in Dicathen, I needed every advantage I could get.
From my dimension rune, I withdrew the silver rapier Aldir had called Silverlight, regarding Wren firmly but solemnly. “His crimes against Dicathen couldn’t go unpunished.”
Both Mordain and Wren stared at the blade, momentarily frozen.
“You ignorant lesser,” the titan spat, throwing his arms up and glaring at me. “Aldir wasn’t your enemy. You have no idea what he gave up to leave Epheotus. If you think Kezess will reward you for doing his dirty work, you’re a bigger fool than I ever realized. Had I known that training you would lead us to this, I’d have let you twiddle your damned thumbs on that crater.”
More than anything else Wren said, this last part stung. Silverlight vanished again, and I straightened to my full height. “Millions of elven voices will never ring through the forests of their forefathers again, because Aldir destroyed both the voices and the forests. If you think that Aldir died simply so I can get a pat on the back from Kezess, then you asuras are even more ignorant than us so-called lessers.”
Wren’s glare could have shattered granite. “So you can forgive the tyrant who ordered such an atrocity but not the soldier forced to carry it out? You truly were once a king, weren’t you?”
“Don’t mistake necessity for forgiveness,” I answered, the words as hard and cold as a knife’s edge.
Wren let out a derisive snort, but if he had anything else to say, he kept it to himself.
Mordain cleared his throat. “It isn’t my place to pass judgment on what has been done. Epheotus will mourn the passing of a great warrior, but it may also be that your people will celebrate his death as justice. What’s done is done.” His gaze shifted to Sylvie. “It seems that you were successful in your purpose.”
Thanks to Aldir, I thought, acknowledging his sacrifice quietly even if I could not voice it aloud.
Sylvie took a step forward and bobbed her head in a shallow bow. “Lord Mordain of the Asclepius Clan. Thank you for assisting my bond.”
Mordain’s brows inched up, his expression as he regarded her difficult to parse. “Lady Sylvie of Clan Indrath. Your heritage is known to me. Half dragon, half basilisk, raised by a human. An alchemy of contradictions. Where, I wonder, does your loyalty lie?”
Sylvie raised her chin, and I felt the inner fire of her resolve swell. “With Arthur, as it always has. Dicathen is my home, its people my people. It’s enemies”—she held the ancient phoenix’s eye, every syllable honed to a fine point—“my enemies.”
Mordain hummed thoughtfully. “And yet you’ll always be pulled in not two but three different directions. Both factions of asura will attempt to use and manipulate you for their own gain. Arthur already walks along danger’s edge in his dealings with your grandfather. Your return will complicate that further.”
I moved to stand beside my bond, resting a hand on her shoulder. Regis stalked forward, standing on my other side. “Your words of caution are beginning to sound more like threats.”
“I would not dream of it. You do not seem like a man who would be easily ensnared, but against such a force as Agrona, no one is immune to temptation,” Mordain said.
His gaze seemed to pierce my mind and conjure up the memory of how I had begged Agrona to accept his deal: my family’s safety in exchange for my own agreement to stop fighting in the war.
My demeanor grew frigid as I stared back. “I’ve gone through failures and I’ve grown, but, unlike those who would instead choose to keep their heads buried in the ground, I continue to fight.”
Mordain waved a hand, dismissing our argument with a sagely chuckle. “I won’t presume to tell you all what to do. The fate of this world lies in your hands, not mine. But I know Lord Indrath well—and Agrona, too—and both will see Lady Syvlie’s return as an opportunity to hurt the other, whether they use her as a weapon or a shield. You musn’t let them do either.”
“We won’t,” I said, squeezing Sylvie’s shoulder before letting my hand drop.
“Good!” Chul’s voice boomed like a cannon, making several nearby phoenixes flinch. “Time to go then?”
Facing the half-asura, I gave him an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid the presence of the dragons makes it dangerous for you to accompany us. I—”
“Already thought of that, didn’t we?” Wren said, his words barbed. “I developed an artifact that will hide Chul’s unique mana signature so that he presents as just another dimwitted human.”
“So quickly?” I asked.
Wren Kain snorted. “Quickly? It’s been two months, boy.”
Chul puffed out his chest and held up a nondescript metal bracer forged of dull metal. “While I strive to be the spear that drives into our foes, I will don the mask of obscurity for now.”
Activating Realmheart, I examined him more closely. His mana signature was powerful but did not stand out as being inhuman. “You couldn’t have fixed his eyes, too?”
Chul crossed his arms and glared at everyone and everything. “My eyes are not broken.”
“It’ll have to be enough then.” I held out a hand to Mordain.
He stood and took it, shaking it firmly. “You won’t make it far without drawing the attention of Dicathen’s new guardians. There is a secondary exit that will take you quite a distance from the Hearth before going above ground. I will show you the way. As we walk, I can tell you what little I know about the dragon presence on your continent.”
“Farewell then,” I told Wren, offering him my hand as well. “I understand your feelings and won’t hold your anger against you. But I’d prefer to part on good terms.”
“Part?” he asked, looking at me incredulously. “I’m coming with you. I didn’t tag along with Aldir just to hide.” His gaze jumped to Mordain. “No offense.”
Mordain gave him a soft smile. “Come, this way. It is a couple hours walk through rarely used tunnels.”
As we approached the end of the long, roughly-dug tunnel, thick tree roots began overtaking the ceiling and walls. A sort of den had been carved out of the roots, with many other tunnels converging into it. Where the tree should have been above us, instead only a hollowed out stump remained. The rock and remaining wood had been scored black.
“A phoenix wyrm used to nest here, but it disappeared several years ago,” Mordain commented, standing beneath the opening. “I can sense dragons even from here. You could attempt to hide your mana signatures, but I doubt you could sneak all the way from here to Darv.”
“Sneaking is for weaklings and for those who have things to hide,” Chul said, his voice so deep it shook dust loose from between the roots spreading out above us.
“You’re what we need to hide, smart one,” Regis said with a snort.
Wren rolled his eyes, and Chul scratched the back of his head with an embarrassed frown.
“These are Kezess’s soldiers. Supposedly, they are my allies,” I said. “Trying to hide from them could generate even more suspicion than my sudden reappearance after two months is already going to.”
“How you proceed is up to you, of course,” Mordain acknowledged, nodding. He took Chul’s hand in his own fist and held it against his heart. “Do not let your passions fly away with you. If you truly wish to find justice for your mother, it will take time and patience. Let your new companions guide you in this.”
“Let them protect me from my own worst impulses, you mean?” Chul said seriously. “I understand.”
“Farewell then. It is my hope that you’ll return to us when all this is over.” To me, he added, “I’m trusting you to watch over one of my own, Arthur Leywin. It is not a duty—or trust—that I place on you lightly.”
“Goodbye, Mordain,” I said, then leapt through the burned out stump to land on the forest floor above. The others flew out behind me.
“Suppress your mana signatures,” I said, then began marching away through the thick underbrush.
We were surrounded by huge, leafy trees like guardtowers that blotted out the midmorning sky. I kept Realmheart active, sensing for the mana signatures of the dangerous mana beasts that inhabited the deepest parts of the Beast Glades. There was no mana beast on either continent that would pose a threat to this group, but I didn’t want the delay or distraction of having to dispatch the kinds of mana beasts we were likely to encounter.
“At this rate the war will be over before we get anywhere,” Chul grumbled after twenty minutes or so. “Are you going to walk the whole way?”
“No,” I answered quietly. “This should be far enough.”
Like the others, I had been holding back the aetheric aura that always radiated out from me, effectively masking myself from the aether-sensing dragons. I unclenched, like a fist releasing, and my aether signature radiated outward like a beacon. I actively pushed, wanting to make sure it was sensed.
Wren and Chul couldn’t sense aether, but they could feel the pressure. “What are you up to?” Wren asked, eyeing me uncertainly.
A roar rent the air like a thunderclap. Tree limbs snapped and heavy clawed feet crushed and scraped at the forest floor. The ground shook with each footfall.
Chul grinned and stepped confidently out in front of the others. A colossal weapon appeared in his fist, little more than a roughly-shaped iron sphere at the end of a long haft. Cracks in the sphere let out orange light as if the core was molten. The head itself was as wide as my shoulders. It must have weighed a ton, but he held it effortlessly.
A towering, bipedal horror barreled into sight, its massive, elongated jaws wide, three beady eyes on each side of its flat skull dilated with the thrill of the hunt. It reminded me of an Earth alligator standing on its back legs, except its arms were thick with corded muscle and ended in razor sharp claws, and it stood over twenty feet tall.
With a gleeful battle cry, Chul launched himself at it, bringing the weapon down on its head.
The S-class beast’s natural protective mana barrier shattered beneath the force of the blow, and bright orange flames sputtered out from the cracks in the weapons head as it crushed the thick, leathery hide, rock-hard bone, and meaty flesh to pulp.
Chul landed with surprising grace for one so large. The mana beast’s corpse struck the ground much more forcefully, sending a shockwave through the forest. A handful of similarly powerful mana signatures that had been converging on our position halted, then slowly dispersed.
“Ah, to feel the blistering heat of battle flowing like honey-wine in my veins,” Chul said, drawing in a deep breath. “Too bad this venator was so young. Had it been fully mature, our battle might have been one worth recounting!”
“They’re coming,” Sylvie said, her eyes on the single patch of bare sky we could see through the dense tree limbs and foliage.
“Let’s meet them on more even ground,” Wren said, combing dirt-smudged fingers through his tangled mass of hair.
With a wave of his hand, earth-attribute mana began to coalesce, drawn up from the ground to harden into solid stone. Within seconds, a ship molded to look like a sailing vessel hovered between the boughs of the huge trees. It was conjured out of stone, but the textures were so finely manifested that it was almost indistinguishable from wood and cloth.
Sylvie slipped her arm around me and floated up over the ship’s railing, setting us down on the deck. The others followed, and the ship began rising up through the branches.
Regis took a deep breath and let it out happily. “This is great. I’ve always wanted to be a pirate. An eye patch would really enhance my general roguish aesthetic, don’t you think?”
“What is a ‘pirate’?” Chul asked, his blunt features pinched in confusion.
Resting my hands on the railing, I looked west toward the distant Grand Mountains. The vast desert of Darv lay on the other side, and hidden beneath it was my family and all those who were relying on me. Already, though, I could feel the distant but oppressive waves of the King’s Force radiating from multiple dragons.
“Get the ship moving, but slowly, like we’re searching for something,” I told Wren. The ship began to drift over the tops of the trees, moving generally westward.
“We should have some kind of signal if you wish us to attack,” Chul said seriously, staring in the direction of the closest mana signature. “Perhaps if you shout, ‘Attack.’”
“Noted,” I said, my focus on the distant dragons.
Sylvie stepped up beside me. There was a rigidity to her posture I wasn’t accustomed to. You okay? I asked in her mind.
‘Just thinking about what Mordain said. These dragons will know what I am by sight, even if they don’t know who I am. I can’t even begin to foresee all the—the…’ Sylvie winced, her eyes clenching shut. She turned her face away and the mental connection between us cut off as she shielded herself.
She shook her head, and her eyes fluttered back open. “Nothing. Just some kind of aftershock from the resurrection.” She stared straight ahead in the direction where two of the mana signatures were emanating from.
Uncertain how to comfort her, I kept my own gaze straight ahead as well. One signature, coming from the north, became a tiny dot on the horizon. The second was slightly farther, flying from the mountains to the northwest. The third approached from the coast to the southwest.
The first to arrive was a large, emerald-scaled dragon, half the size of our ship. When he was a hundred feet away, he turned so he was flying alongside us, his bright yellow eyes scanning the deck. They stopped on Sylvie, first squinting as if unsure he could trust his own eyes, then going wide.
The second, slightly larger than the first, with pearlescent white scales that glinted in the sunlight, circled around to fly above and behind us, her huge bulk eclipsing the sun and plunging the deck into shadow.
The third was a lithe creature with dark crimson scales that seemed to drink the sunlight, not gleaming or shining even as his wings beat. His face, with jaws large enough to swallow even Chul whole, was covered in battle scars, and there was a tattered rip in the edge of his right wing. He banked sharply along our port side so that the dragons had us flanked.
The green dragon spoke, mana radiating through the words to carry them easily across the noise and distance. “Arthur Leywin. We have not met, but I recognize you by description. Lord Indrath will be pleased to know you are alive. There has been…concern at your long absence.”
“Where have you been?” the red dragon growled, tipping his wings to drift closer to the ship, his large ochre eyes probing each of us in turn, ending with Sylvie. “What are a dragon, a titan, and a couple of humans doing this deep in the Beast Glades?”
“This is hardly the reception I think my grandfather would have expected for me upon my return.” Sylvie tilted her head, managing to look both irritated and apathetic at the same time as she looked down her nose at the red dragon. In contrast to her outward poise, I felt a squirming discomfort bleed through our connection as she invoked Kezess in our defense. “You should be careful who you mark with that malevolent gaze.”
The red’s eyes widened and he pulled back. “Lady Silvie Indrath?”
The three dragons exchanged disbelieving looks. It was the white who spoke, her voice tight with emotion. “Lady, you must come with me immediately. I will lead you to the rift connecting this world with Epheotus. Lord Indrath—”
“Stop,” Sylvie said, her voice ringing with command. “My duties lie here in Dicathen for the moment. If you wish to inform Lord Indrath, feel free, but I will not be accompanying you.”
The dragon winced at her words, wounded and fearful. “Lady, Lord Indrath would wish—”
Sylvie released a tangible wave of mana to project her displeasure, cutting the white dragon’s words short once more.
“Neriah of Clan Mayasthal will obey,” the dragon uttered quickly before turning to the other two. “Escort Lady Sylvie to her destination.”
Wheeling away, the white dragon flew at speed to the east, deeper into the Beast Glades.
Only then did I sense the subtle movement of mana from that direction, like a light breeze was blowing it westward over the Beast Glades. “What is that?” I asked Wren, who had so far looked on in silence and not addressed the dragons directly.
“Lord Indrath has opened the way between the words,” he said softly. “Epheotus lies bare to the wider universe.”
“You two, give us some space,” Sylvie ordered the green and red dragon. “You are not escorting prisoners.”
The green nodded respectfully before banking away, flying a few hundred feet to our starboard. The red hesitated, inspecting her closely, then his gaze went to me and his face hardened. Much more slowly than his counterpart, he drifted away.
Our ship picked up speed and corrected course so we were flying straight toward the Grand Mountains.
In the distance, more dragons became obvious, flying over the mountains and the border between the Beast Glades and the Elenoir Wastes.
A shield of wings, fire and claws.
‘A shield…or a prison,’ Regis sent back with a smirk. “Let’s see which it is.”