Authors: James Maxey
For Greg Hungerford,
and other ghosts who haunt me.
First published 2012 by Solaris
an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd,
Riverside House, Osney Mead,
Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK
ISBN (ePUB): 978 1 84997 329 8
ISBN (MOBI): 978 1 84997 330 4
Copyright © 2012 James Maxey
Cover Art by Gerard Miley
The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Also by James Maxey
Books of the Dragon Age
me by the seat of my pants and charged toward the window, I didn’t protest. Partly this was due to the speed of her action, but mostly due to my inebriation from the sacramental wine we’d stolen. Plus, it wasn’t the first time I’d been defenestrated by her. Of course, this window was five hundred feet up, in a lava-pygmy temple carved into the sheer cliff face of a volcano.
In my semi-drunken haze, I admired the view as I departed the temple, surveying the landscape around me. The night sky was bright orange as the bubbling caldera above reflected against belching steam. Far below, the dark, vine-covered canopy of trees draped like a casually tossed blanket down slopes stretching to the moonlit ocean. A lovely tropical night, one might even call it serene, save for the steady pulse of war drums and the nerve-jangling pygmy battle cry. It’s difficult to relax when five-hundred waist-high men are barking in unison, “Yik-yik-yik-yik-yik!”
I reached the apex of my arc and began to fall. The pygmies were drowned out by the whistling wind and a deafening, high-pitched shriek tearing from my throat.
I don’t know why I was screaming. If experience was any guide, Infidel had aimed me toward a particularly bushy looking patch of forest. While my brain had faith in her, my vocal cords had doubts. I quickly saw that my brain was correct as I fell toward a living net of blood-tangle vines. I threw my hands over my eyes. My leather gauntlets spared my face from the worst of the thorns as I punched into the canopy, the vines popping and snapping beneath my weight. I bounced from branch to branch on the trees below. Even with my leather armor, the beating was as bad as anything I’d ever received at the hands of a mean-spirited bouncer.
Seconds later I jerked to a stop, completely tangled. I spread my fingers and found my face inches above a jagged obsidian boulder. The sobering realization I’d just escaped a messy death negated the effects of the stolen wine. I reached for the steel flask in my back pocket and took a quick gulp to restore myself. As much as I wanted to hang in the vines until my nerves calmed, I knew that the pygmies wouldn’t need long to find me. I reached for my bone-handled hunting knife and chopped at the tendrils, my body lurching, until I slid onto the boulder and tumbled to the ground.
I looked up at the hole I’d punched in the canopy. Far above, a dark speck shot from the window through which my hasty exit had been facilitated. The speck quickly took on the shape of a woman as she hurtled toward the gap in the trees.
Infidel was laughing. She had both hands wrapped around the dragon skull, hugging it to her chest like an oversized watermelon. Her long blonde hair trailed out behind her. She was still wearing the loose-fitting white blouse and navy breeches from her recent stint as a mercenary in the pirate wars. She was barefoot, the soles of her feet black as coal. The orange light caught the string of yellow beads around her throat, a necklace of human molars that she’d kept as a diary of sorts while she’d served aboard the
If she’d been aiming for the hole I’d left in the vines she missed, overshooting by several yards. I lost sight of her, but heard curses and grunts as she bounced from branch to branch, the blood-tangle snapping as it slowed her fall.
I managed to find my feet as she stumbled out of the darkness. Her blouse and breeches had been torn in a dozen places, but there wasn’t a scratch on her enchanted skin. She had blood-red flowers jutting from her hair, and thorny vines draped over her shoulders. She held the dragon skull above her head one-handed, as if it was carved from balsa. With her other hand, she used her cutlass as a machete. Her lips were pressed together tightly as she spotted me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Nothing’s broken,” I said, my voice trembling. I took another swig from the flask. “Your aim’s still good.”
She giggled. “I’m glad you’re fine, because I’m looking forward to teasing you for the next ten years about that scream. Even I can’t hit a note that high.”
I held a finger to my lips and whispered, “You can laugh later. The pygmies won’t be far behind.”
“We’ve got a good head start,” she said, looking up at the temple. She plucked a few flowers from her hair and flicked them away. “You worry too much.”
For most of my life, I’ve earned a reputation as a man who doesn’t worry enough. It’s only around Infidel that I play the role of responsible adult. She’s been magicked up to be as strong as ten men, with skin as tough as dragon hide. Her supernatural gifts have left her fearless, an aspect of her personality that draws me like a moth to a flame. Like many a moth, I sometimes get singed.
She held the dragon skull toward me, admiring it in the dim light. “The Black Swan’s going to slip in her own drool when she gets a look at this.”
Since I was presently in hock for a life-endangering sum of money to the Black Swan, I hoped that would be the case. There are blood-houses throughout the Shining Lands that pay handsomely for dragon bones. A single knuckle can be worth its weight in gold. An entire skull, complete with lower jaw and all the teeth, was a fortune so large that adjectives fail me. It would cover my debt, and, more importantly, once more restore my line of credit at the bar. The cheap river-pygmy hooch I’d been swilling since the Black Swan cut me off was unbefitting of a connoisseur of fine spirits.
I whispered, “Let’s get going. The pygmies know this jungle better than we do, and—”
There was a tapping sound, like raindrops hitting a leaf. Infidel looked over her shoulder, stretching out her long, slender leg. Three porcupine quills were caught in the torn fabric of her pants. Suddenly, the air around her was thick with flying quills, some tangling in her hair, some bouncing off her impervious forehead. My own armor sprouted a dozen of the missiles. None made it through the leather, which was good. Lava-pygmies tip their darts with poison.
“Follow me!” Infidel shouted, slicing at a wall of vines with her cutlass and leaping through, the dragon skull balanced on her shoulder. She could have stayed and fought without risk. By running she was protecting both me and the pygmies. We’d come out here to rob them, not to kill them.
I ran as fast as I could, slashing out with my bone-handled knife to better clear the path. In the darkness, I focused on Infidel’s bright hair bobbing before me like a ghost. The pitter-patter of pygmy feet echoed in the canopy. Darts tapped across my shoulder blades as they continued to fire.
I kept falling farther behind. I was only a week away from my fiftieth birthday, too old for this profession. Once this was over, I swore I would find a safer, more gentlemanly way of earning a living. My breath came in ragged gasps. A stabbing pain ran up my side. I could barely raise my knife to chop away the remnant vines Infidel left in her wake. I felt sure that if I pulled off my boots, sweat would pour out like stale beer from a pitcher.
I wiped the perspiration from my eyes and when I pulled my hand away, Infidel was gone. I kept running. The darkness in front of me had an Infidel-sized hole torn from it, and beyond I could once more see the rolling clouds of the eerie orange sky. There was a bass rumble ahead, a sound like a waterfall. I skidded to a halt on the lip of a cliff and looked down into a deep scar in the earth. Infidel dangled from a mass of roots just beneath my feet. She was still carrying the dragon skull, but her cutlass was nowhere to be seen.
“I know where we are!” she yelled, her voice nearly drowned out by the rushing water beneath her.