The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (2 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
10.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Queen Taifa rushed from the main room of her cabin on the ship. Her vizier had interrupted a meeting with the Ruling Council, ushering her to the foredeck. Somehow, the savages had gotten around the Chosen’s front lines and the Omehi were under attack.

The news had shaken the Ruling Council. They’d harried Taifa about her promise of dragons and she’d told them the coterie was nearing the end of its work. She reminded them she was a queen who kept her promises, hoping they couldn’t tell how worried she was about keeping this one.

So as Taifa hurried after her vizier, she prepared herself. She would do what she could to win the battle, but she was no fool. If they survived the day, her council would look to leash her ability to rule. Then the real tragedy would come.

In all likelihood, the council would order the higher castes back to the remaining seaworthy ships. They’d try to save themselves by fleeing, by abandoning the Lessers and leaving her people to their fates.

This, Taifa would not allow. It was not her way, but in a time of war, she could rule by fiat. She was no tyrant, but a good ruler would not stand by and watch her people be destroyed. A good ruler would not allow frightened fools to turn fear into folly.

The council needed leadership, not discussion, not consent, not compromise. Wasn’t that how the military worked under her champion? Wasn’t that how wars were won? Weren’t the Chosen at war?

Her thoughts brought Tsiory to mind. She’d need him more than ever if she defied the Ruling Council. She’d need him, but he hadn’t come to her after her decision to form the coterie.

She didn’t want to think his absence a punishment, and she could order him back, but she wouldn’t. Doing so would violate their unspoken rules. She was his queen, but he was her lover. With him, she wasn’t looking for a subject. She wanted an equal. He couldn’t be that in public, but in private they could blur the lines.

He’s too stubborn, she thought, stepping onto the deck of the ship and wondering how he’d take it if she disbanded the council. He’d have to accept it, she decided, he’d have—

Queen Taifa Omehia of the Chosen didn’t finish the thought. She was looking at her worst nightmare, made real.

The beach was overrun and her enemy was everywhere. She couldn’t understand how so many of them had gotten past their front lines. She couldn’t—a Chosen man died on the beach, his chest opened up by a heathen’s spear. She looked away from the gruesome scene and saw two women, two of her people, run down by the natives.

“What happened?” she asked. Her Queen’s Guard, her vizier, and her Ruling Council, trailing her, said nothing.

She heard a war cry and the thunder of hooves. It came from the far side of one of her broken ships, the ones foraged for wood and resources. From the ribs of the scavenged vessel pounded a dozen horses ridden by a unit of Enraged Ingonyama, and her heart stopped.

Tsiory was leading them. Tsiory was enraged.

“No,” she said, her voice a whisper.

The Ingonyama smashed into the thickest fighting and cleaved through their enemies like a machete through grass. Savages scattered and died, but there were too few Ingonyama and too many savages.

“Gather the Gifted,” Queen Taifa told one of her messengers. “I want Enervators down there. Have them hit as many of the savages as they can. Bring the KaEid to me. We need the dragons, now.”

The messenger, an Edifier, entered a trance and sent out the orders.

“Oh Goddess,” moaned Lady Panya as she took in the battle. “We’re undone.”

“Panya, you are a member of the Ruling Council,” Queen Taifa told the Royal Noble without taking her eyes from Tsiory. “Carry yourself like one.”

She couldn’t believe he was doing this to her. Every time he engaged the enemy she died a little. If he fell…

“Where are the Enervators!” she yelled.

“There, Queen Taifa,” Lady Umi said, pointing with one of her long-fingered hands, and Taifa saw them.

The Gifted were gathered too close together. Their positioning would reduce their effectiveness, but they were young, not fully trained. Her battle-tested Gifted were on the front lines. The same front lines that had been bypassed.

Taifa watched as the young women tried to spread out. She couldn’t hear the call to attack. They were too far for that, but she felt hope when she saw their arms snap up with military precision. They might be young and untested, but it wasn’t fair to think them unready.

The wall of protective soldiers surrounding the Gifted flowed to the sides, leaving the path between the women and their enemy clear. Even with the distance, Taifa saw the Gifted stiffen as their powers were made manifest and wave upon wave of shimmering energy sprang from their fingers to sweep toward the savages.

The heathens raced to the attack, colliding headlong with the enervating wave. All struck were felled, dropped to their knees, bellies, or backs, and made helpless. Instantly, the Gifted cut the flow of enervation, allowing their soldiers to charge and fall on the savages, hacking them apart. Taifa leaned forward, distaste for her bloodlust warring with gratification as she watched some of her enemies destroyed.

In the first days after landfall, it had been the Gifted, specifically the Enervators among them, who had won the beach for the Chosen. The savages had not seen gifts like enervation or enraging and didn’t know how to fight against them.

It was different now. The enemy soldiers, having been taught many deadly lessons, were clever students, and one of their leaders split her fighters into several prongs and rushed her warriors into and among the Chosen soldiers. The young Enervators were inexperienced, scared. After their first successful attack, they splashed waves of enervation everywhere, often hitting their own men.

Chosen soldiers, the ones not immediately overcome by the savages’ numbers or incapacitated by poorly aimed enervation, fought bravely and died badly. After that, it didn’t take long for the savages to reach the Gifted. The women fled and were run down, their screams carrying across the sands to Taifa as barely heard cries that still felt loud enough to deafen.

Tsiory wasn’t faring much better. Most of the Ingonyama who had ridden out with him were dead, and more savages spilled from the trees and onto the beach.

“Call for a surrender,” Lady Umi said. “It might not be too late.”

“We are Chosen,” Taifa told her.

“Is that what they’ll call us when we’re all dead?”

Without sparing her a glance, Taifa said, “Guards, place Lady Umi under arrest. Throw her in the ship’s prisons.”

Two of her guards grabbed the ancient Royal Noble, her eyes wide with surprise.

“Are you mad?” Umi said, struggling against the iron grips of Taifa’s guard. “Queen Taifa, what is this? Are you so determined to rule over the end of your people?”

“Remove her,” Taifa told the guards, letting her gaze flicker over the faces of the remaining members of the Ruling Council. The council members remained impassive, but Taifa could tell her message had been received.

She returned her attention to the battle, despair ripping through her at a new threat. Savages had emerged from the tree line riding massive beasts. The beasts were blue-skinned, tusked, and horned, and they moved about on six tree-trunk-thick legs.

“What demon-spawn are those?” said Panya, her face filled with fear.

“Don’t do it,” whispered Taifa to the battlefield, to the Goddess, to Tsiory. “Please, don’t.”

Tsiory and his remaining Ingonyama charged.

“Queen Taifa,” said the KaEid, leader of Taifa’s Gifted. She was out of breath and accompanied by sixteen other Gifted. They must have run the entire way. “We’re ready.”

Taifa wasn’t listening. She watched the charge, saw the collision of horse and horror-beast, Ingonyama and savage. Her nearest soldiers, both the gray-uniformed Ihashe and the larger black-garbed Indlovu, joined the fight.

Swords flickered, flesh and bone broke, men died, and their blood filthied the sands of this alien shore. The few Gifted near the fight, low-level Entreaters, did what they could. They grabbed hold of the minds of the six-legged beasts, turning them against their riders and the other savages.

The creatures bucked their riders, goring and trampling the tattooed savages. They stampeded, breaking the natives’ war formations and giving Tsiory’s Ingonyama brief reprieve. Still, the enemy was too numerous and Taifa could do nothing but watch as Tsiory fought and fought, until he took a horrible cut and went down.

“The dragons, my queen,” said the KaEid.

“We call to them,” Taifa ordered, weak with worry as she flung her soul to Isihogo, latching onto the KaEid and the rest of her Hex. As one, they sent out the distress call, and a breath later, she felt the dragons stir and take flight.

Hurry, she thought to herself. Hurry.

Tsiory was back on his feet. She wished she could see him more clearly. Hurry. Was that blood on his face?

A savage riding one of the six-legged monsters threw a spear, bone white and long hafted, at him. He slapped the projectile away and stabbed the monster in its foremost leg. It reared and threw its rider. Behind Tsiory, a savage stabbed for his spine. Taifa screamed, close to coming undone, but an Ingonyama protecting Tsiory knocked the attack wide and chopped the offender in half.

Hurry. In her mind, Taifa could feel wings beating through the thick and hot air. She could feel the dragon’s blazing anger, its worry, its bitter hate. Hurry.

In Isihogo, where half her mind was, she saw the dim glow of a shrouded soul. It was not one of her Gifted. It was a savage, drawing energy to bring to bear on the battlefield. Using her real body, her real eyes, Taifa searched and found him. He was just inside the tree line, not far from where Tsiory fought. The heathen aimed his hands at the battle and the savages doubled in number.

Seeing this, one of Taifa’s guards, breaching protocol, shouted in surprise. Taifa couldn’t blame him. She’d never seen such a powerful gift. It had created new life, new warriors to fight for her enemies. The battle was lost. They could not win.

“There!” It was the same guard. Taifa looked where he pointed. One of the Enraged Ingonyama was slashing at the savages around him, his sword tearing through the hordes like they were nothing but air.

Taifa closed her eyes, blocking out the things her senses told her, so she could see with her soul. The Gifted savage was there, in Isihogo. He was pulling incredible amounts of energy and his shroud was about to collapse, but she couldn’t wait for that.

It would have been impossible for any in her Hex, for any of her Gifted, but Taifa was of royal blood and it was not impossible for her. She split her mind in three, one-third watching the battle, one-third calling to the dragon, and the last third she used to attack the savage.

She drew more energy into herself and took aim. Across the distance, through Isihogo’s mists, she fired. Her bolt burned a path through the underworld’s fog like a comet across the night sky. It struck the heathen and, before he could react, expelled him from Isihogo, his link to the energies there broken.

Taifa heard shouts and gasps around her. She opened her eyes. The illusions of women and men that the Gifted savage had created were gone, but the enemies that remained, the ones of real flesh and blood, were still too many.

On the sands, Tsiory yelled something to his men. He was calling a retreat before they could be surrounded. If they could get to the ships, they might be able to reorganize.

A group of savages attacked. Tsiory fought them off, still yelling orders. He was hit once, twice, a few more times, and then he did something Taifa would not forgive for the rest of her days. He severed his connection to his Gifted and lost the enraging.

Taifa knew he did this to save the Gifted. She had seen him take blow after blow. She knew the amounts of energy the Gifted would have needed to pull from Isihogo to keep Tsiory safe. She knew he’d saved his Gifted’s life by cutting the connection, and she didn’t care.

Tsiory took a spear through the back. Taifa screamed as it went in and was still screaming when the head of the spear burst through his chest and leather armor. Taifa saw the look of surprise on her lover’s face and saw it turn to pain, his mouth open, gasping for air that his torn lungs could no longer breathe.

The spear was ripped free, and he looked—she swore he looked right to her. Then she watched him fall, fall onto this cursed land’s unnaturally white sand. There to stay, there to die.

Dimly, Taifa knew she had not stopped screaming, but that part of her felt far away when compared to the overwhelming presence of the dragon that had come into her range. She merged with it.


Taifa’s vision, sense of self, and purpose split. She could see the battlefield from the air. The women and men, dying by the scores, looked small and insignificant.

She could see the two and a half thousand ships of her people, most of them cannibalized for parts, lying on the beach like the half-eaten quarry of some greater predator. She could see Omehi women and men scurrying from the makeshift shelter of those broken ships to the sand to the battle. She could see the ocean behind them all, stretching beyond the horizon, endless.

But it wasn’t endless. She’d crossed it with what was left of the Chosen of the Goddess. She’d saved her people from eradication, and it was not their fate, having found this distant land, to die on its sands. Her people’s sacrifice, Tsiory’s sacrifice, would have purpose, and the natives, heathens one and all, would learn what it meant to oppose her.

The merging completed, and the dragon’s power, its fury, flowed into Taifa. Quickly, she coiled these thick tendrils of consciousness and fashioned them into the ropes that would hold her tight to it.

It was then the savages on the beach spotted the creature, and through its eyes, she saw them turn and point. She could see their fear, smell it, and Taifa tapped the dragon’s anger, stoking it, fueling it, turning the creature’s need for vengeance into a compulsion.

It dove, spiraling toward the beach, and, using its gift, drew more from Isihogo than any human ever could. The dragon took its power from there, from the Goddess, and brought it into the world, igniting its blood. The beast burned, and when the heat threatened to overwhelm it, it blew fire, lighting the world ablaze.

Two dozen women and men, people of this strange land who thought to defend its shores from her, erupted in flame beneath the blast of Taifa’s first attack. She could hear their screams as their lives ended in suffering. Her dragon, twice the size of her warship, with scales harder and sharper than bronze and blacker than tar, swept down and snatched two more of the heathens from the beach, slicing them to pieces in its massive claws, before landing on the sand. The dragon blew fire again, arcing the inferno across the gathered enemy horde.

Those hit by the blast were incinerated, and that was a mercy. The women and men on the attack’s edges were seared by the heat, their flesh bubbling and sloughing off their bones. The ones this didn’t kill choked to death on the fumes of the creature’s acrid blood.

The daughters and sons of these white sands and withered trees, once so fearless in battle, mounted no more attacks. They fell back in terror, scrambling to flee, and in retreat, they faced the rest of the rage.

Taifa’s Entreaters, the most powerful of her Gifted, merged with the two other dragons that answered their call. Together, the rage blew fire so hot that Taifa, only half in her body, still felt its heat from her warship.

The savages, the ones not dead or dying, ran for the safety of the trees, but Taifa pushed her dragon to follow. It rose into the air, chasing those who fled, burning down the tangled foliage that hid her enemies from her. The heat of its fires melted white sand to black glass and where the flames fell left nothing but ash.

As her dragon scorched the earth, Taifa prayed. She prayed to Ananthi, the Goddess, for two things. The first was forgiveness. She begged for it, knowing no mortal would have the grace to offer it, given what she was going to do to the people of this land. After that, after forgiveness, she asked for the power to destroy and the will to see it done.

“My queen,” Taifa heard the KaEid say through the fugue of the merging. “They’re retreating. We’ve won.”

But Tsiory was dead and Taifa would honor him with a funeral pyre built from the corpses of her enemies. She urged her dragon on. She killed and killed, until her wrath cost the lives of most in her Hex, and until there was no one left to burn.

Exhausted, and with the shroud that masked her soul’s light collapsing, Queen Taifa Omehia sacrificed one more Gifted, released the dragon, and folded back into herself. The beach was a smoldering ruin, and with a remnant of the creature’s senses, she could smell the charred flesh, death, and stink of fear that suffused the sand.

She looked skyward as her dragon beat its way higher into the cloudless dusk, making for its nest. As it went, it belched a twisting column of flame, bright as the sun, and let out a mournful keen that almost started her crying. She refused to shed a single tear. The day was won, and though there were many more to come, the Goddess had already answered one of her prayers. Queen Taifa had the will to do what must be done.

Striding past the bodies of the Gifted she’d sacrificed and ignoring the horrified faces of her Ruling Council, Taifa turned away from the foreign land that would be her people’s new home. She quit the ship’s deck, descending stairs that took her from light to dark, and, finding herself alone in the false twilight, placed a hand to her stomach. She had so little of Tsiory left, but what she had she would protect.

“Let them think me a monster,” the Dragon Queen thought. “I will be a monster, if it means we survive.”

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
10.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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