Dragons On A Budget!!
If you are a fantasy fan (like myself) you are probably familiar with Daniel Arenson and his lust for all things dragons! And, since Christmas is right around the corner & Kindle gift giving is at an all time high (for the device AND the books) I thought I would give a little shout out. “A Dawn of Dragonfire” is on SALE TODAY for the low low price of $.99!
Not sure if this little ditty is up your ally? Well…how about an excerpt to help persuade you!
“Their wings thudded. Their flames roared. Thousands of dragons, warriors of Requiem, soared through wind and darkness. Their cries rose in the night: for war, for fire, and for glory.”
A Dawn of Dragonfire (Dragonlore, Book One) — a new epic fantasy for fans of A Game of Thrones, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings
The people of Requiem, an ancient kingdom, can grow wings and scales, breathe fire, and take flight as dragons. Their hearts are noble, their wisdom great, their kingdom a land of beauty and peace.
This peace will soon burn. From the south, a fire rises. Birds of flame take flight. The phoenixes soar, beasts of heat and wrath, large as dragons and cruel as wildfire. Their purpose is one: destroy the land of dragons.
Requiem’s dragons have defeated countless enemies. Their claws are sharp and their flames bright. But how can they fight the phoenixes, creatures woven of sunfire itself?
A DAWN OF DRAGONFIRE
DRAGONLORE, BOOK ONE
Mori was standing on the fortress walls when she saw the phoenix rise.
A bird of fire, it soared from the snowy horizon, wings outstretched like sunrays. It must have been huge–the size of a dragon or larger. Mori gasped and shivered. The wind whipped her cloak, scented of fire, too hot for winter. She grasped her little finger behind her back, the sixth finger on her left hand, her luck finger. Her pet mouse clutched her shoulder; he too had seen the creature of flame.
“Orin!” Mori whispered, lips trembling. She wanted to cry out louder, to sound the alarm, to summon her brother and all his guards… but her fear froze her lips like the frost upon the endless forest before her.
The phoenix coiled in the distance, soaring higher, a creature of grace and beauty. It seemed woven of nothing but fire, and a wake of sparks like stars trailed below it. Mori could hear its distant call, caws like a southern bird of many colors.
Mori wanted to flee. She remembered all those stories her brothers would tell her, terrible stories of griffins attacking Requiem and killing a million of her people. Even when we took dragon form, we could not stop them, her brothers would say and squawk like griffins, making Mori run and weep and hide.
“But that was a long time ago,” Mori whispered, fingers shaking, even her luck finger. It had been hundreds of years since griffins had attacked, and Requiem was strong now, so powerful no enemy could harm her. Fifty thousand Vir Requis lived in Nova Vita, fair city of the north, and each could grow scales and wings, take flight as a dragon, and defend her.
Still, she reminded herself, Nova Vita lay far north–so many leagues away, she could not count them. Here in the south, in cold and lonely Castellum Luna, only fifty Vir Requis dwelled. Her brother Orin. A few soldiers. And her… the princess Mori, an eighteen-year-old girl with one finger too many, a pet mouse, and enough fear to drown her.
She squinted at the horizon. The phoenix was undulating skyward like a candle’s flame torn free from the wick. Its song carried on the wind. Her mouse twitched his whiskers, scurried down Mori’s gown, and entered her pocket. Mori envied her pet; she often wished she too could hide so easily.
“Maybe it’s good,” she whispered. “Maybe it won’t hurt us, Pip.”
Without Pip, her dear mouse, she would have gone mad down here, she thought. It was just so lonely in this southern hinterland. So… so cold and distant and everything frightened her. Mori missed Nova Vita. She missed the city’s marble columns that rose between the birches, so beautiful, not like the rough bricks of this outpost. She missed her father the king, her friend the Lady Lyana, and all the minstrels and priests and jugglers and storytellers. Most of all, she missed the library of Nova Vita, a towering chamber with so many books she could read for a lifetime.
Why did Father have to send her here? Why did Requiem even need another settlement? Nova Vita was good enough. Mori had tried to tell Father that, but he only spoke of Requiem recovering from the griffins, and expanding to her old borders, and how the southern air would put some courage into her, and… Mori wanted to weep. None of it made sense to her, and nothing so far had made her any braver. If anything, her fear only grew upon these cold stone walls, staring into this frosted forest, and watching this bird of fire.
As she stood frozen in fear, the horizon kindled. An orange glow rose from distant mist, spreading tendrils across the white sky; it was like sunrise from the south. The snowy forest turned red, and the smell of fire filled Mori’s nostrils, spinning her head. Flames crackled and finally she found her voice.
“Orin!” she shouted from the walls. “Fire, Orin! The forest is burning!”
But no, this was no forest fire, she saw. These were no earthly flames. Countless more phoenixes spread wings. Countless wakes of fire rose like comets. The horizon blazed with an army of firebirds, eagles of sound and fury. Their shrieks rose, cries of war. The clouds themselves burned and the forest shook, its frost melting, its trees crackling.
“Orin!” Mori cried. She wanted to use her magic, the magic of Requiem. She wanted to grow scales and wings, breathe fire, and fly as a dragon. But she could only stand upon these walls, a girl with tears in her eyes, a lucky finger, and fear that froze her.
Armor clanked, swords hissed, and boots thumped. Orin ran up the wall, his men behind him. They formed ranks upon the battlements, and their scent filled Mori’s nostrils: the smell of oil, leather, sweat, and safety. Her brother clasped her shoulder, staring at the flaming birds that rose in the south. He was a tall man, ten years her senior. His hair was brown like hers and his eyes the same gray, but his face was so much harder, his soul so much stronger. His armor was thick and his sword heavy, and Mori clung to him. He was Orin Aeternum, Son of Olasar, Prince of Requiem, and he was the strongest man she knew.
“What are they, Orin?” she whispered.
His men leaned over the parapets, frowning, each burly and bedecked in steel. Their breath plumed and frost covered their beards. They were the finest warriors of Requiem, sent here to guard this southern fort, this border, and her. Their hands clutched the hilts of their swords. Orin stared with them, frown deepening.
“I don’t know,” he said softly. “But we’re going to find out.” His voice rose. “Men of Requiem! We fly!”
He tossed back his head, outstretched his arms, and drew his magic, the magic of Requiem’s stars. Silver scales flowed across him. Wings unfurled from his back, claws sprang from his fingers, and fangs grew in his mouth. Soon he roared upon the walls, a silver dragon, fifty feet long and blowing fire. His men shifted around him. They too grew wings and scales, and soon fifty dragons took flight, their fire crackling.
Mori took a deep breath and prepared to shift too. She could not become a burly, powerful dragon like these soldiers, but her scales were still hard, her breath hot, her wings fast. Many called her the fastest dragon in Requiem. Yet Orin, flying from the wall, looked over his shoulder and glared.
“Stay here, sister!” he called, wings churning the falling snow. “Go into the hall, bar the door, and do not emerge until I return.”
With that, he roared flame and soared, howls ringing in Mori’s ears. His fellow dragons flew at his sides, scales glimmering and breath flaming. Mori watched them, clutching her eleventh finger behind her back.
Help them, luck finger, she prayed. In the distance, the phoenixes screeched, moving closer.
She could see the birds clearly now. Their bodies were woven of molten fire, coiling like storms upon the sun. Their beaks were white and blazing, their eyes swirling stars. With every flap, their wings sprayed fire. Their heat crashed against Mori, even from this distance. The forest wept beneath them, melted snow running in rivulets toward the fort Mori stood upon. Ten thousand firebirds flew there, maybe more. The fifty dragons seemed so small before them–specks of dust flying into a furnace.
“Fly back, beasts of fire!” Orin cried to them, voice thundering. His wings fanned their flame. “Turn from our border.”
The phoenixes screeched and swooped toward him.
Mori watched in horror, clutching her finger so tightly she thought she might rip it off. The phoenixes reached out claws of white fire. Flames swirled around their wings and their eyes blazed like stars. The firebirds crashed against the dragons, engulfing them with flame.
“Orin!” Mori shouted. She could barely see him, only the fire and smoke… but she heard him. She heard him scream.
What could she do? He’d told her to hide in the fortress, but… they were killing him! She stared, biting her lip so hard she tasted blood. The dragons were howling, kicking, and clawing. She glimpsed their lashing tails, their scales, their maws crying in agony. They tried to fight. Their fangs bit only fire, and their tails only scattered sparks. A few dragons were blowing flames, but that only stoked the phoenix fire.
“Orin, come back!” Mori cried, tears in her eyes. The heat blazed against her, drenching her with sweat. Her gown clung to her body, and her damp hair stuck to her face. She coughed, struggling for breath.
His roars tore at her, cries of pain. Mori wanted to fly to him. She wanted to hide. She could barely breathe, and she knew the phoenixes saw her; their eyes blazed against her. One dragon cried in agony, a sound like tearing flesh. A phoenix claw slashed him, and Requiem’s magic left him. Where a dragon had flown, a man now fell, blazing, and thudded dead against the trees. Three more dragons burned, and in the pain of death, their magic vanished. Three more bodies tumbled.
“Mori!” her brother cried from the inferno. Flames engulfed him, white around his silver scales. His wings churned the fire, showering sparks like exploding suns. “Mori, run! Hide!”
“Orin…,” she whispered, trembling, clutching her hands behind her back.
“Mori, run!” he cried as the phoenixes tore into him. Their beaks thrust, woven of hardened fire. Their claws dug into him. Their flames surrounded him. Orin Aeternum, Son of Olasar, Prince of Requiem… lost his magic, turned from dragon to burning man, and fell from the sky.
Something tore inside Mori. Her heart shattered. A pain splintered in her chest and shot through her. A cry fled her lips, and before she knew it, she had shifted into a dragon. Golden scales clinked across her, her wings flapped, and she flew into the southern fire.
“Orin, where are you?” she cried, swooping through flame. The fire blazed around her, so hot she could only squint, and her scales felt ready to melt. Three phoenixes dived toward her, each larger than her. Their shrieks tore at her ears. They clawed at her scales, and Mori screamed, tumbled, flapped her wings, and howled. She soared, knocked by them, and rose through an inferno of heat and sound and rage. Everywhere she looked were blazing eyes, beaks of fire, talons that lashed her. She soared higher, burst between them, and swooped again. She had to find her brother. She had to find her Orin, her dear Orin, her hero, her only chance for life. She knocked between phoenixes and falling dragons, crashed toward the earth, and saw him lying in snow.
His clothes smoked. Singed black, they clung to his melted flesh. Half his face was a burnt ruin, red and black and blistering. His skin peeled. He gazed at her with one good eye, and his lips worked, trying to whisper, trying to call to her.
“Oh, Orin,” she whispered, horror pounding through her. He was alive. She could still save him. She lifted him with her claws, as gently as she could, but he cried hoarsely and his eyes rolled back.
Was he dead? Had she killed him? She had no time to check. The phoenixes swooped down, an army of wrath, and Mori took flight. Fire bathed her. She shot through flames, wings churning smoke.
I’m the fastest dragon in Requiem, Orin always said so, I can do this. She screamed and emerged from the flames, her brother’s limp human form in her claws. The phoenix army on her tail, she flew over the walls of Castellum Luna, down into the courtyard, and landed by the doors of their hall.
They cannot enter, she told herself. They’re too big. She placed Orin upon the flagstones, shifted back into a human girl, and pushed the doors. They creaked open, revealing a hall full of trestle tables, tapestries, and spears.
The phoenixes shrieked behind her. Their heat blasted her. Mori raced into the hall, dragged her brother inside, and saw countless phoenixes descending into the courtyard. She slammed the doors shut as they landed, sealing their fire outside.
“Mori…,” Orin whispered, voice hoarse. “Mori, leave me… fly north. Fly to Nova Vita.”
Mori pulled a lever, dropping the doors’ bar into the brackets. She stood panting. Could the phoenixes break the doors? They were thick and banded in iron, built to withstand fire and axe. And what of the other dragons? Stars, were any still alive, and had she doomed them to death? She trembled.
The phoenixes screeched outside. Their light glowed under the doors, and tongues of fire reached around the frames. They began slamming at the doors, howling. Mori whimpered with every jolt.
I must go deeper, she thought. Into the dungeon. The door there is small, too small for them.
She leaned over Orin, and her breath left her. Tears filled her eyes. Half his face was gone, melted away. Half his body was a wound of welts, smoke, and seared cloth clinging to flesh. Mori gagged, for a moment able to do nothing else. Then she steeled herself. The phoenixes were lashing at the doors. She had to save her brother.
She looked at the eastern wall. A small door stood open there, revealing a staircase that plunged into shadow. Mori tightened her lips. The dungeon of Castellum Luna lay down those stairs. The place had always frightened her–she would imagine ghosts lurking in its shadows–but today she would seek safety there.
“Come on, Orin!” she said, placed her arms around him, and tugged. She grunted, grinding her heels against the floor. “Come on, Orin, get up! On your feet!”
He managed to rise to his knees, coughing, breath like a saw. With strength she had not known was in her, Mori pulled him to his feet. He leaned against her, twice her weight. She thought she would collapse, but she walked, step by step, and helped Orin onto the staircase. She pulled the door shut and began walking downstairs, Orin leaning against her. As the phoenixes howled, and the fortress doors creaked, they descended with blood and tears.
Finally Mori found herself in the dungeon of Castellum Luna, a cold place of shadows, sacks of wheat, barrels of wine, and now the stench of burnt flesh. An oil lamp glowed upon a table, painting the room red. Panting, Mori lay her brother on the floor and touched his hair. His breath wheezed and his flesh still smoked.
Upstairs, she heard the fortress doors shatter. She started. Great eagle cries echoed. Even here in the dungeon, Mori felt the phoenix heat as they stormed into the hall.
“We’ll be all right, Orin,” she whispered and held his hot, sticky body. “They can’t fit down here. The staircase is too small for them. We’re safe here. We’re safe. I’m going to take care of you.”
He only groaned, and she felt his blood upon her, staining her gown, and she held him tight. They trembled together. Above in the hall, she heard the phoenix cries; they seemed to shake the fort, cries of hatred, rage, and bloodlust. This must be how the griffins sounded when they toppled our halls of old.
“Mori…” Orin spoke hoarsely, barely able to speak at all. “Mori, you must fly north. You are fast. You…”
He could say no more. Mori held him tight. How could she fly north? How could she escape so many phoenixes, an army of flame? Her head spun. Perhaps she should not have entered this fort, but… Orin had told her to hide here! And now he wanted her to flee? What was she to do? Her head spun, and she shook it violently.
“Rest, Orin,” she whispered. “Please. Rest.”
She would have to take care of things now. She would have to make the decisions. His life depended on her. Be calm, Mori, she told herself. She forced herself to take slow, deep breaths, to steady her trembling limbs.
“We’ll wait here until the phoenixes leave,” she whispered. “They have to leave sometime. They have to. They can’t fit down here. When they go away, we’ll fly north. I’ll take you to the temples, to healers, Orin. They can heal you. They can… they can fix your…”
Your ravaged face, she wanted to say. Your flesh that melted off. The ruin of your left side, a wound of blood and bone. Yet could anyone save him now? And could anyone save her?
Gently she pulled back from him; their bodies parted with a sickly, sticky sound like a bandage pulled off a wet wound. In the darkness, Mori crept upstairs toward the dungeon door. Firelight burned behind it. The phoenixes stood in the main hall. She heard their cawing, the crackle of their fire. Squinting against the heat and light, Mori knelt and peeked through the keyhole.
Two phoenixes moved through the hall. Their flames torched the tapestries and trestle tables. One tossed back its head and screeched, and Mori covered her ears. She thought that screech could tear her eardrums and shatter her ribs.
Please go away, she prayed. Please please leave this place, fly away from here, and let this only be a nightmare. She clutched her luck finger behind her back, praying to it. Please send them away. Please let me just wake up and be in Nova Vita again, with Lady Lyana and Father and everyone else.
Yet the phoenixes in the hall remained. They sniffed, stirring wisps of fire upon their beaks. Stars, can they smell me? The firebirds turned toward the door where Mori hid, cawed, and stepped toward it. Their claws rained sparks. Mori caught her breath, too frightened to even flee.
They can’t hurt me, she told herself. They’re too big to enter the doorway. Even if they burn the door, they can’t enter. And they can’t burn the stone walls of the dungeon. She forced herself to breathe. We’re safe here.
As she watched through the keyhole, her breath died.
The phoenixes tossed back their heads, cried so loudly that they shook the hall, and outstretched their wings. Their flames rose in fury. They seemed to… not to shrink, Mori thought, but to… fold in upon themselves. Their fire twisted, darkened, shaped new forms. Suddenly the creatures appeared almost human to her, their limbs long and fiery, their heads burning. The flames coalesced, forming a man and woman of liquid fire. The lava hardened. Last wisps of flame clung to the figures, then pulled into crystals they wore around their necks. Finally all the phoenix fire glowed inside the amulets–two small, blazing lights.
Mori gasped and whimpered. She reached into her pocket and clutched Pip so tightly the mouse bit her.
The two figures stood in the hall, smoke still rising from them. Both wore armor of pale steel, gilded helmets, and curved swords upon their waists. Their hair was platinum blond, so pale it was almost white. They have ghost hair. Mori trembled to see it.
The man stood facing her, staring at the dungeon door. He was tall and broad, with a face like beaten leather. His eyes were small, blue, and mean. A golden sun was embedded into his breastplate. Mori recognized the emblem–the Golden Sun of Tiranor.
Tirans! she thought. She had heard many tales of them; they were a cruel, warlike people from southern deserts beyond mountain, lake, and swamp.
The woman stood with her back toward the door. She was tall and slender, and her hair was long and smooth. Two sabres hung from her belt, shaped like the beaks of cranes, their pommels golden. Slowly, the woman turned toward the door. Her eyes were blue, her face golden and strewn with bright freckles like stars in sunset. A scar, as from an old fire, ran across her face from head to chin, then snaked down her neck into her breastplate.
She knew this woman.
“Solina,” she whispered.
Some of her fear left her. Solina was her friend! A princess of Tiranor, her parents slain, she had grown up in Requiem. Mori remembered many nights of sitting in Solina’s lap, listening to her tell stories of Tiranor–its white towers rising from the desert, capped with gold; its oases of lush palms, warm pools, and birds of paradise; its proud people of golden skin, bright hair that shone, and blue eyes that saw far.
Solina won’t hurt me, Mori thought, breathing shakily. Solina will realize this was a mistake, once she sees me, once she realizes it’s me, Mori. I was like a sister to her.
And yet… Mori hesitated. She stayed frozen. That scar that ran down Solina’s face… could it be from that night? The night Solina had attacked Father with a blade, and Orin burned her? Mori shuddered. No, it can’t be! But she knew it was true; that was the scar of dragonfire.
She remembered, Mori realized, and tears filled her eyes. And now she’s here to burn us too.
The tall, stately woman took a step toward the door, and those blue eyes stared right at the keyhole, right at Mori. Solina’s lips curled into a smile.
She saw me! Mori leaped back from the door, heart pounding. She heard footfalls move toward her, and Mori scrambled downstairs. She knelt in the shadows by Orin. He was moaning, body hot, burnt, stinking with death. She clutched his hand.
“Don’t be scared, Orin,” she whispered as the door above shook. “I’ll protect you.”
Splinters flew. The door shattered, and firelight bathed the dungeon.
Mori wanted to shift into a dragon. She wanted to let scales cover her, let flame blow from her maw. Yet she dared not. The dungeon was so small, a mere ten feet wide. If she shifted, her girth would fill the chamber, would crush Orin dead. Instead she clutched the hilt of her brother’s sword, steeled herself, and drew the blade. It hissed and caught the light.
Solina walked downstairs, hands on her own swords’ hilts. Her breastplate sported a golden sun. Around her neck, her crystal of fire crackled, painting her face orange and red. The burly man walked behind her, eyes blazing and teeth bared.
“Stand back!” Mori said, holding her brother’s sword before her. Her voice trembled, and the sword wavered. She added her left hand to the hilt, the hand with six fingers, her luck hand. Bring me luck today, she prayed to it.
Solina approached her. The scar that halved her face tweaked her lips; she was either smirking, or her scar locked her lips in eternal mockery. She seemed inhuman to Mori–her skin made of gold, her hair of platinum, her eyes of sapphire. She was more statue than flesh and blood.
“Why, if it isn’t little Mori!” she said, and this time Mori knew that she was smiling. Those scarred lips parted, revealing dazzling white teeth. “Last time I saw you, you were but a girl, a slight thing with no breasts and skinned knees. You’ve become a woman!”
Mori stood, holding her sword in trembling hands, her brother groaning behind her.
“Stand back, devil!” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Stand back, or my father the king will hear of this, and he will kill you!”
Solina’s face softened–the face of a woman who saw a cute, angry puppy that melted her heart. The man at her side, however, seemed not to share her amusement. He stared at Mori hungrily; she felt his small, mean eyes undress her.
“Oh, dear dear, frightened sweetling,” Solina said and clucked her tongue. “But we were such good friends once, were we not? We were as sisters. I remember holding you on my lap, mussing your hair, and reading to you stories of romance and adventure. I promise not to hurt you, my little sparrow… but please, do not stand between me and your brother, or Lord Acribus here will hurt you. And he will hurt you greatly, little sparrow. More than anyone ever has.”
The tall man with the golden, leathery face licked his lips. His tongue was freakishly long–it nearly reached his eyes–and white as bone. It looked like a snake emerging from his mouth. His eyes dripped lust, both for flesh and blood.
An hour ago, if somebody had told Mori this would happen, she would have expected to faint, weep, even die of fright. Now she found herself snarling. Her love for Orin, and her fear for him, swelled over fear for herself. Teeth bared, she swung her sword before her, slicing the air.
“Stand back!” she said. “You will not touch him.”
Solina sighed. “My sweetling.” She ran a finger down her scar, from forehead, to chin, and down her neck. She kept tracing her fingers along her breastplate and finally down her thigh. “Do you see this scar, Mori? I call it my line of fire. It runs from my head to my toe. Your brother gave me this scar. He deformed me. Surely you of all people, with your freakish left hand, know about being deformed.” She looked at the burnt, groaning Orin. “So I burned him too. But I am not done with him. He will feel so much more pain before I let him die. But you, Mori, need not feel the same pain. You were as a sister to me; I want to spare you this agony. Step aside… or I will give you to my pet. You will scream and beg me for death before he’s done with you.”
Mori was scared, so scared that she couldn’t breathe, and cold sweat drenched her, and her heart seemed ready to crack. She thought of her brother Orin, so handsome and strong, now this ruin of a man. She thought of her other brother, the wise Elethor, who lived up north among the birches.
It’s up to me now, Mori knew. Me, the younger sister, the slim girl who is always so fast to cry, so fast to hide. She took a shuddering breath. For years my older brothers protected me; now it’s my turn to fight for them.
With a wordless cry, she swung her blade at Solina.
So fast Mori barely saw her move, Solina drew her left sword. The blade was curved, glimmering with white steel and gold. The two blades clashed, one a northern blade kissed with starlight, the other a desert shard of fire. Sparks flew, and before Mori realized what had happened, Solina’s blade flew again, nicked her hand, and blood splashed.
Mori’s sword fell and clanged against the floor.
Nearly as fast as Solina’s blade, her companion, the snarling Lord Acribus, moved forward. He looked to Mori more beast than man, a wild dog of rabid fangs, cruel eyes, and an appetite for flesh. She screamed when he caught her arms, digging his fingers into her; she thought those fingers could break her bones.
“Solina!” she cried. “Solina, please! How could you do this? We… we raised you as family. You… my brother Elethor loved you, I…”
But her words failed her. Solina stared at her with those cold blue eyes. They were as chips of ice in a golden mask. There was no humanity to them, no compassion, nothing but cruelty.
“Lord Acribus,” the woman said, “make her watch.”
The lord’s fingers dug so deep into Mori’s arms, blood trickled to her elbows. “She will watch, my queen, if I must cut off her eyelids.”
She shook in his grasp, a tiny mouse caught in a vulture’s talons; she was shorter than his shoulders. She watched, trembling, as Solina approached the wounded prince of Requiem.
“Please,” Mori whispered, but Solina ignored her.
Orin groaned upon the floor, scorched and convulsing. Somehow he managed to rise to his elbows. Sweat and blood drenched him.
“Sol… Solina,” he managed, so hoarse Mori could barely make out the word.
Solina stood above him, sabre drawn, eyes cold. If Orin was a wounded beast, a twisted creature, Solina was a queen of beauty, a statue of gold and steel and ice.
“Hello, Orin,” she said softly. “So you remember me too. Perhaps you know me by the scar you gave me.” She caressed it. “My line of fire. It is a strange thing, is it not? I used to fear fire. When I lived in Requiem, among you beasts of scales and wings, I feared it.” She laughed mirthlessly. “Imagine it! A young, frightened girl from Tiranor, snatched from her home. You could all turn into dragons–noble, ancient children of Requiem, flaunting your magic of starlight. Yes, I feared this fire I could never wield. And I screamed, Orin. I screamed when you burned me.”
“You…” He moaned and shivered. His peeling skin hung from him. “You attacked my father, you…”
Again her bitter laugh pierced the air. “I attacked King Olasar, yes. I attacked the man who murdered my parents. Who enslaved me. Who would banish me only because I dared to love Elethor, your brother, the dearest man I’ve known. Did I ever stand a chance, Orin? Could I ever dream of reaching him with my dagger, when you were there to burn me? The pain of your fire nearly drove me mad; you feel this pain now. So I left, Orin. And I tamed fire.” She snarled like a wild beast, and her voice rose. “I wrestled it, and made it my own, until I could become a thing of flame itself. And I burned you. And I will watch you die in agony.”
Her sword lashed.
With a whistle, Solina’s curved, glittering blade sliced Orin’s belly and splattered blood across the wall. Mori shut her eyes, whimpering, but Acribus pulled her eyelids open with rough fingers. She tried to turn her head away, but he held it, forcing her to look, forcing her to see it. Stars, no… no, please, stars, no…. Her tears fell.
Orin screamed. He clutched his wound, trying to stop it, to stop the spilling of it, the glistening, bloody, pink horror of it. Half-burnt and cut open, he cried for Requiem. He cried for their mother. Mori wept.
“Please, Solina, please, please, please…,” she whispered.
But Solina only stood frozen, staring down at the dying man, and still no emotion filled her eyes, not a glimmer of pity nor disgust nor even delight.
“You can make it end, Orin,” she said softly. Blood sluiced around her boots. “Tell me of Olasar’s forces. Tell me how many dragons in his brigades, where they are stationed, who leads them. Tell me everything… and I will plunge my sword into your heart, and I will end your pain. If you do not speak, well… I can stand here for hours. It will take you hours to die without my mercy, do not doubt it. Maybe even days.” She smiled softly. “As long as it takes.”
He screamed. And he spoke. And he told her everything as he writhed and begged for the pain to end.
Mori trembled, kicked, tried to look away, tried to break free, tried to do anything but see this ruin of her brother, hear his screams, see his blood and entrails spill upon the floor until finally, finally after ages and ages of it, Solina drove her blade into his chest. Finally some emotion filled the queen’s eyes. Pleasure. Deep, horrible, hot pleasure. She twisted the blade, and Orin’s breath caught, and his scream died… and his pain ended. It was over.
Thank the stars, it’s over, Mori thought as she sobbed and shook.
But it was not over. Not for her.
“My queen?” Acribus asked, voice like gravel, breath hot and stinking against Mori.
She looked at him, eyebrow raised, and nodded. “Have your treat, dog.”
Now Mori did try to shift into a dragon, even if her girth would slam against the walls, and the dungeon would crush her. She tried to clutch her magic, to grow scales, grow fangs, grow talons that could slash Acribus. But her pain was too great. When she thought she could grasp her magic, his fingers clutched her neck, and it was all she could do to even breathe.
He tore her gown. He shoved her across the table. She felt her mouse flutter against her breast, trapped in her pocket, throbbing like a heart. Shadow covered her world and her eyes rolled back. Pain and blood filled the dungeon, and Solina smiled.
Outside, the phoenixes shrieked. Myriads of flaming wings rose, showering heat and light and fire. The forests of Requiem burned, and smoke veiled the sky, red and black. A single fortress rose from the inferno, hiding its shame underground. Deer fled burning, trees toppled, and ash fell like burning tears. The land wept. Her soul tore.
When he was done with her, he shoved her aside. Mori slammed against the dungeon floor, bloodying her elbow. She wept and shook, stars before her eyes. Her mouse lay still in her pocket, a dead heart, crushed under her weight.
“Get up,” Acribus told her in disgust. He spat onto her. “You’re coming with us. You will be mine every night until we find and kill your father.”
She lay on the bloodied floor, her face an inch from Orin’s. His right eye stared at her, huge and pained in the dripping, red wound of his face. Mori gasped for breath. She could not rise. She could barely see. Pain dug through her like a cold iron bar. She closed her eyes, so ashamed, praying for death. Please, Solina, please kill me too, stab your sword into my heart and end this.
“Stand up, sweet little mouse,” Solina spoke above, voice distant as from miles away. “Stand up now, or he will hurt you again.”
Mori looked at her brother’s body. She forced herself to look. He was no longer Orin, she realized, the hero she had loved, the prince of Requiem. He was nothing but flesh now, a charred and emptied shell. Your soul now dines in the starlit halls of our fathers, she thought. You rest now among the Draco stars, and I know you watch over me.
The dragonclaw pommel of a dagger rose from Orin’s boot. Mori had always feared this dagger, thinking its pommel a true dragon’s claw, but today was all about shattering fears. Acribus grabbed her hair, twisted, and pulled. Mori had always been the fastest dragon in Requiem. Fast as she could, she drew her brother’s dagger, leaped up, and thrust the blade.
The dagger gleamed in her hand, her luck hand. Mori screamed. The dagger scraped against Acribus’s breastplate and drove under his arm. He wore only chainmail there, thinner than his breastplate of steel; it was no match to the starlit dagger of a Requiem prince. The blade tore through the mail, blood showered Mori, and Acribus howled.
I’m sorry, Orin, she thought as she ran, tears on her cheeks, blood on her thighs. I’m so sorry.
She left him there, racing upstairs. Solina shouted and tried to grab her, but Mori was too fast. Blood pounded in her ears. Every step shot pain through her; it felt like demon spawn had invaded her womb and clawed inside her. And yet she ran, burst out of the dungeon, and raced across the hall. She had always been so fast. You always said how fast I was, Orin, whenever we’d race through the pure, blue skies over King’s Forest.
Now the sky was red, full of smoke and fire. Mori burst into the courtyard, shifted into a dragon, and soared into the flame. Ten thousand phoenixes roared above her, an inferno; it looked like the sun had engulfed the world. Mori screamed, a hoarse cry that consumed her–for her pain, her rage, the death of her brother. She sounded her howl, a dragon’s howl, the howl of a frightened girl who will never more feel joy under this sky. She soared through fire, wings roiling smoke and heat, and shot into the north.
She flew, a thin golden dragon, wings beating, eyes narrowed and wet. The wind roared around her. Behind her, ten thousand phoenixes screeched.
When Mori looked over her shoulder, she saw them following, an army of sunfire. Did Solina fly among them, the woman who had killed her brother? Did Acribus fly there, the man who had… Mori gritted her teeth, shame burning across her. He had done something to her, broken something inside her, taken something she could never retrieve. She ached for it. She wanted to die, to never more feel this impurity, but still she flew.
She still had a second brother in Requiem. She still had a father. I have to warn them. I have to survive. Whatever more happens, however more they hurt me, I must live.
She flew north with tears and ice, the fury and heat of Tiranor on her tail.