Authors: Kristian Alva
Tags: #fantasy, #epic fantasy
“Be still, you
yelled the guard, but the man continued on as if he hadn't heard.
Tallin had seen enough.
“Stop,” he ordered, and the soldiers paused. “I’ll take care of him.” He raised a glowing hand.
The prisoner froze, his eyes rounding in alarm. “What are you going to do to me?” he stammered.
Tallin ignored the question and flicked the man’s ear.
he said, uttering the simple spell. The prisoner went limp and toppled forward, striking his head against the curb. Each soldier grabbed one arm and dragged the unconscious man away, his toes scraping the ground.
Tallin knew that the other dragon riders needed to be warned. Closing his eyes, Tallin reached out with his mind across the distance, attempting to link his thoughts with Sela Matu, the leader of the dragon riders. He found her patrolling the northern border with her female dragon, Brinsop. He touched her consciousness gently, prodding her with his own mind.
She flinched, and Tallin immediately felt the drain on her power. Sela always struggled to link telepathically. He knew he would need to keep their communication brief.
“Sela, the guards caught another smuggler at the gate.” Tallin sensed her alarm.
“Another kudu oil smuggler? That’s the second one this month,” Sela replied. “That settles it. This can’t be a coincidence. Someone is attempting to attack Parthos from within.”
“Shall I contact the other riders?” asked Tallin.
“No, I’ll contact them myself. Segregate this smuggler from the other prisoners—I will question him myself. I am near the Dead Forest, and I’ll return to the city as quickly as I can.” Sela abruptly ended the contact.
The corners of Tallin’s eyes wrinkled and dimples appeared on his cheeks. He chuckled—it was always like this with Sela. Despite any limitations she might have as a mage, she was the most commanding woman he knew. Her warmth and vitality inspired those around her, and her energy seemed boundless, even as she aged.
Acting as the king’s regent, Sela ruled in Parthos, while her adult son, King Rali, ruled from the capital city of Morholt. Under their united leadership, Parthos and Morholt had experienced several years of peaceful, quiet rule.
Unfortunately, after a few years of peace, things were rapidly changing for the worse. The dwarf kingdom was crumbling into chaos in the midst of the worst clan schism in a thousand years. A single clan had already splintered off, abandoning their ancestral home on Mount Velik. The lowest caste of dwarves, the enormous Vardmiter Clan, had departed Mount Velik for a new stronghold.
Tallin, being half-dwarf, had tried to broker a treaty between the warring factions, but it seemed that the schism was now permanent, and with both kingdoms weakened by infighting, the entire dwarf race was vulnerable. The divided clans would never be able to defend against an attack, especially one from orcs in the west. Tallin could almost see King Nar, the orc leader, rubbing his hands with glee as he planned his attack on the dwarves, his most hated and ancient foes.
Things had changed in the city, too. For decades, Parthos had operated like a city under siege. After a few years of peace, the heightened sense of security was gone. People got complacent and lazy. Tallin saw carelessness everywhere; even the city
’s soldiers had grown lax in their duties.
The number of foreign merchants had doubled. Dealer stalls were filled with merchandise from all over the continent. It was thrilling for some residents of Parthos, many of whom had never seen such exotic treasures. Where there had once been only one choice of fabric, now there were twenty.
Women could purchase silk gowns, lace, and jewels. Instead of just selling common food staples—like camel butter and dried meat—there were colorful spices and rare fruit. Most disconcerting of all, some merchants had begun to sell vividly colored, iridescent glassware. When Tallin inquired about its origin, the merchants had been defensive and vague, or uncertain about such details, saying only that it was imported from the north.
The glass looked suspiciously like Balborite crystal, and although glass weapons were banned throughout the continent, it had been impossible to ban the sale of the glassware completely. The demand for the exquisite crystal was astounding. Even at extravagant prices, Parthinian women were desperate to own the delicate glass and use it in their homes.
Tallin drew out the vial that he had taken from the merchant. He rolled it in his palm, eying the viscous fluid within. He didn’t dare open the container, for the oil was dangerous even if it was not ingested. Duskeye craned his neck and peered at the deadly liquid with his good eye. He sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. "
Even inside that glass tube, I can still smell it."
“What does it smell like to you?” asked Tallin.
"Like spoiled fruit, but the odor is subtle. Kudu oil is poisonous for dragons, too. As soon as we can fly, our mothers train us to avoid the plant. My dam did the same, and I remember it well."
Tallin nodded, intrigued. He hoped that Duskeye would go on. Although they had been bound together for many years, Duskeye rarely talked about his family, none of which had survived the Dragon Wars. For years, dragons and their riders had been slaughtered by the thousands, and now only a handful of either remained.
“Tell me about it,” said Tallin softly.
Duskeye paused, staring out into the desert. His gravelly voice grew quiet. "
’s see… when I was just a hatchling, my dam took me and my clutchmates outside the cave. She showed us the kuduare plant, warning us never to touch it. A few plants grew wild at the very top of the mountain; the plant has waxy blue leaves and white flowers, shaped like little bells. One of my brothers disobeyed her, stomping the plant with his foot. He screamed like a frightened rabbit, for the oil stripped his foot-scales right off. He ended up howling on the riverbank for over an hour, soaking his foot in running water. Luckily, he was able to rinse his foot before the oil reached his bloodstream. Our mother rapped him soundly for his stupidity, and the oil left a permanent scar."
“What was his name?” asked Tallin.
replied Duskeye softly. "
He was a blue dragon, like me, but lighter in color. He was so headstrong and stubborn. But he was the handsomest of all of us, by far, which is why my mother allowed him so much latitude. His underbelly was multi-colored; like a sea of wildflowers." My mother teased him that the Great Dragon of the sky had given him an excess of beauty but a scarcity of brains.
“What happened to him?” asked Tallin.
"Brundis was too proud to bind himself to a rider, even an elf, who once desired him for his beauty. He remained wild, chasing females and hunting prey. Mercenaries killed him during the war in the first wave of attacks. I searched for him, and found his body in the Elburgian Mountains. The dragon hunters cut all his claws as war trophies. I mourned him, built his funeral pyre, and burned his body using my dragon breath."
“Is that customary? I’ve never seen a dragon funeral.”
’s a death ceremony. Before the war, when a dragon died, the females—mothers and sisters—usually performed the death ceremony. The ritual was private and usually held at night. Dragons have their own customs, just like humans and dwarves, but there simply aren’t enough of us to carry them on anymore."
“I wonder—has Brinsop ever performed a death ceremony?” wondered Tallin out loud.
’s an alpha female, so I’m sure she has sometime in her past."
“How do you know that Brinsop is an alpha female?”
Duskeye shrugged. "
I just know. Before the war, she-dragons organized their families into prides. The prides hunted and raised their hatchlings together. Males are forced out of the pride when they
’re old enough to mate. When a dragon dies, the body is burned by the pride, with the alpha female leading the ceremony. After the Dragon Wars, there were so few dragons left that the prides disbanded. Brinsop was the alpha female of the largest pride in the desert. That was a long time ago."
“Sela never mentioned it,” said Tallin.
’s not terribly surprising. Like me, Brinsop is the only survivor in her bloodline. The memory must be painful for her. It’s possible that Brinsop never discussed it with Sela; it’s a very private subject."
Tallin waited for Duskeye to continue his story, but he fell silent and did not speak again. The future of the dragon race was precarious. No one had discovered a wild dragon in years, and chances were slim that any other survivors remained. Tallin never stopped searching, but he was beginning to lose hope.
During the Dragon Wars, thousands of dragons had been mercilessly slaughtered. Even if there were a wild dragon out there to be found, Tallin could not be sure that they would welcome contact with outsiders. In fact, they might be outright hostile, having learned to shun anyone who might cause them harm.
Besides Tallin and Duskeye, Parthos hosted four other dragon riders: Elias and Nydeired, the only surviving white dragon; Galti and Holf and their two black dragons, Orshek and Karela; and Sela and her carnelian dragon, Brinsop.
There was one dragon rider in the east, Chua and his dragon, Starclaw. They lived in quiet solitude in the Elder Willow, a mystical grove of trees. Both had survived horrific physical torture during the war, and as a result, they were both blind and disabled. Chua could not walk, and Starclaw would never fly again.
A few dragons lived in Brighthollow, the land of the elves. The elves refused to disclose how many dragons lived among them, but it wasn
’t more than a handful. Dragons were unable to reproduce in Brighthollow, since the enchantments that pervaded the elvish lands suppressed dragon fertility. There would be no new hatchlings from there.
Tallin’s shoulders slumped. He had hoped that the dragons would begin their path to recovery by now. However, no female dragons had been willing to nest. Perhaps it was too soon, or they were still too uneasy. It weighed heavily on him.
Tallin tucked the vial of kudu oil back into his pocket, pondering what its presence in Parthos could mean. Had it been intended for him? For one of the other riders? Or one of the dragons themselves? He could only speculate, and none of the options was at all pleasant. There were so few dragons left already. Tallin felt a sense of dread. Was it too late, he wondered, for these noble creatures to recover their numbers after such a catastrophic decline?
Was it too late to save the dragons from extinction?
Sela ended her telepathic contact with Tallin. Her eyes closed and her body went limp
—she felt dizzy.
"Are you all right?"
asked Brinsop. The dragon
’s dark eyes showed concern.
“I’m fine.” Sela’s eyes fluttered open, her vision returning slowly as the desert landscape swirled back to normal. “I just need a few moments to recover. You know that mind-spells are difficult for me. There’s no need to worry.”
"You push yourself too much,"
“So do you,” Sela shot back.
Brinsop grunted. "
Do we have to return? We just got here."
She tried not to sound disappointed. They had taken a few days
’ vacation, relaxing in the north where it was cooler. As usual, their holiday was cut short.
“I’m sorry; we must go back to the city. Tallin discovered another kudu smuggler. That’s the second one this month. We cannot ignore it. The gatekeepers can’t catch everything, and it’s possible there are several vials inside the city already. I’ve got to return and interrogate the prisoner.”
’t you force the truth from him?"
Sela shook her head.
“It’s not that easy. Truth spells are a powerful weapon, but they’re tricky and unpredictable, so they’re often ineffective. I could brew a truth serum, which usually has better results than a spell, but it would take weeks to prepare. There’s no simple solution. Sometimes I wish I had been born an elf… it’s easy for them to coerce mortals to do almost anything.”
She hoped that the upcoming interrogation would go more smoothly than the previous one. She had used magical techniques when questioning the last smuggler, who had been uncooperative from the beginning. She brewed a truth potion in advance of the interrogation, but as with any magical spell, each individual can have a different reaction. Even though she had brewed it with great care, the results had been abysmal.
The man had broken immediately and had told them everything—every single thing—about his life, starting with his infancy and continuing with his childhood, teen years, and on and on. No amount of redirection helped. Days later, the prisoner still hadn’t slept—or stopped talking.
In the end, the smuggler was so exhausted that he couldn’t recall who had given him the vial, or even what he was doing in Parthos to begin with. She had wasted several days and gained no useful information.
Brinsop scratched her ear. "
So, who do you suspect?"
“I’m not sure who is behind this, but several possibilities come to mind,” said Sela thoughtfully. “The Balborites use kudu oil all the time, but blaming them would be the most obvious choice. If someone wanted to cast suspicion on them, using kudu oil would be the easiest way.”