Authors: Ava Richardson
The Return of the Darkening Series
The Return of the Darkening Series
Dragons of Dark
Ever since scruffy Sebastian Smith and Lady Thea Flamma were paired as Dragon Riders, their lives have been forever changed. The unlikely duo forged an unbreakable bond, but now with dark stirrings in the south their bond will be put to the ultimate test.
Seb discovers Lord Vincent has returned and he wants to unleash an ancient evil that will destroy the lives of everyone in the kingdom – The Darkening. In order to defend the realm against unspeakable foes, Seb, Thea, and their shared dragon, Kalax, set out on an arduous journey to find the sacred Dragon Stones – before their dark power ends up in the wrong hands.
But to conquer an old enemy, Thea must find a way to overcome her own inner demons, and Seb has to muster the courage to become the brave leader his kingdom needs . . .
© 2016 by Ava Richardson
This digital edition published 2016.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people or institutions living, dead, winged, or otherwise still shambling is purely coincidental.
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Table of Contents
The wind screamed past me, tugging at my armor and pulling at the goggles on my face as Kalax fell in a dive, straight for the bare earth.
Thea gasped the word and grabbed the back of my harness. I could almost feel her tension and anxiety thrum through her body and into mine.
I shouted with my mind and voice, leaning low over the long neck of our red dragon. Kalax’s excitement, her eagerness for this fight, trickled up through the connection I had with her. But I had to concentrate. We had only one shot at this, and I had to be sure we didn’t miss.
The ground grew larger, filling my sight. In a matter of seconds, the straight road that ran north to south from Torvald had turned from a faint, ochre line to a lane and I could make out the way-markers on either side. The mounted figures beside the burning house looked like large dolls, but they glanced up and I could see their harsh faces.
Kicking forward, I used the stirrups to activate the levers and pulleys that fed back to Thea.
Kalax roared, unfurling her wings in a sudden snap, catching the wind and sending a beat of air as powerful as a gale down on the bandits below. She roared again, the muscles of her wings and shoulders trembling under the strain of slowing her descent. I knew she could do this tricky maneuver—there were times when we were flying that Kalax and I became one body, one mind in flight.
The thunderclap of air swept in down at the bandits, startling their horses, sending two men sprawling to the ground, and blowing apart the bits of burning thatch before they could catch to the rest of the structure. The smell of soot and smoke wafted up, as did the screams.
Thea stood up in her saddle and fired down at the bandits. One arrow hit the side of the building, the other found its mark and the bandit who was attempting to mount his terrified steed fell.
“Up,” I whispered to Kalax. Her excitement and thirst for the hunt bubbled up inside me. She could smell the terrified horses, and hadn’t eaten anything all day except for a skinny old sheep this morning.
The word appeared in my mind, flowing through the warm scales under my hands and blossoming with an accompanying desire for the thrill of the chase. Kalax was sharing her thoughts more and more with me now, rather than just listening to mine. Commander Hegarty had said it was because we were becoming more attuned to each other—but Merik, who I had told about it, thought it was a dragon affinity—an extra strong connection that I had with dragons.
I thought back at her.
Kalax was puzzled, and I could sense her disappointment. But she rose into the air and circled.
“I’ve still got another shot,” Thea shouted.
I glanced back at her. Some of her flame-red hair had come out of her helmet, and she scowled, as fierce as the bandits. Two of the bandits below were carrying short crossbows—they could fire much quicker than Thea could draw her dragon bow. As the navigator, it was my duty to choose the lines of attack and escape, and to keep Kalax out of danger. And Thea.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I was afraid for her. The memory of her, lying on the floor of the cavern, blood seeping from the wound on her side as she lay dying, chased a shiver through me. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
The bandits below were screaming now, shouting to run even as another of them tried to call the others back. Three were fleeing on their mounts, headed south and into the wilds.
We’ll leave them to the King’s Patrol,
I thought, wheeling Kalax around in a wide arc to come back to the remaining four.
Small, black bolts sped past Kalax. One thudded into her armor, causing her to roar. I leaned to the side, wanting her to veer out of the way. The bolt had done her no harm, but I didn’t want a lucky shot piercing her wing. My order confused Kalax for a second, making her spin in mid-air, before she turned and headed at the remaining bandits.
Thea shouted a war cry, and a flush of panic doused me in chill sweat.
What if they’ve had time to reload?
But Kalax was fast. She fell on them, her forward claws seizing two bandits. She swooped past the half-demolished building and released them into the brambles. They’d be battered and bruised, and probably happy to give themselves up to anyone.
Standing in her stirrups, Thea shouted down at the bandit who seemed to be the leader. “Halt in the name of the king!”
One bandit turned and ran, leaving the last man—the biggest one—on his own against one of the kingdom’s fiercest defenses—a Dragon Rider of Torvald. I wheeled Kalax around, preparing for another swoop. The man threw his sword onto the ground and raised his hands in the air.
With a triumphant roar, Kalax skimmed over his head a little lower than was necessary, knocking him flat. I had to grin. We had driven off the bandits and fulfilled our mission. And we had survived.
The King’s Patrol arrived just in time to see Kalax land on the road, flattening the grass with the beat of her wings. I knew they had ridden out from the capital at the same time Commander Hegarty had dispatched us, but no horse could match the speed of a dragon, especially not Kalax.
She was a red, meaning that some of the old bloodlines had resurfaced. Kalax had a long neck, tail, and wings that she could wrap around an entire house. She wasn’t as sinuous as the blue dragons, or as strong as the short-necked green, or as big as one of the wild blacks, but to me she was the perfect mix of all of their best skills. She had barbs that she could flare from around her face and along her tail if she ever needed to, and had teeth as long as my forearm.
At the moment, she was happily preening her thick wing like a bird, obviously happy with the day’s work.
I swung off Kalax and glanced around.
The captain of the patrol looked to be a woman with a square jaw and fair hair scraped back into a thick braid. She wore leather armor, like most riders, but also wore a long sword and had a banner of the Middle Kingdom fixed to her saddle. Her warhorse was large and a dark gray, but seemed a little skittish, snorting as if it didn’t trust Kalax.
Kalax huffed out a warm breath and the captain had to hang onto her mount.
She glanced at me and said, “Captain Lacee. This is the leader, huh?” She nodded to where her men were tying up the last bandit who’d surrendered.
Thea unclipped her harness and jumping down. “Three more are fleeing southwards.”
“We’ll get them, no fear. As for these, they’ll be taken back to the city. A year and a day of working on the high pastures or something and they’ll rethink a career of theft.”
Thea shook her head, crossed her arms and faced the bandit. “You’re lucky. My father, Lord Flamma, would have had you whipped and thrown into chains.”
I winced at the comment. As much as Thea had changed, sometimes the fact that she was from a noble house still came out at the worst times. Oh, sure she knew which knives and spoons to use at dinner, or how to address a lord or a captain or an ambassador correctly, but she also could stick that upturned nose of hers in the air and act like a snob.
It was different for me.
The only time I’d ever had to address someone of rank had been to say ‘sorry sir’ for an order that was late. I’d come from the poorest part of Torvald, and becoming a navigator and partner to Agathea Flamma was something I still wondered at. There were times I thought I’d wake and find this was a dream—or a nightmare, for rumors of war were still as thick on the ground as fallen leaves in autumn.
Thea turned away from the bandit, but I kept staring at him.
I was no expert on bandits, but this lot didn’t look the type to be out for an easy gold mark. Most bandits I’d ever seen looked a lot like the people I’d grown up with in Monger’s Lane, with dirty, patched tunics and cloaks that could hide their faces. They’d pushed through hard times. These fellows looked more like warriors. They could afford crossbows and swords, and wore stiffened leather armor, dyed red. They also wore their hair in an unfamiliar fashion with a braid running the length of their scalps and either side shaved. Tattoos covered their arms and necks.
“Captain Lacee?” I said. “Where would you say these bandits are from?”
The captain turned to look at the man and nodded. “From a long way off. Up from the Southern Reaches, maybe.”
That was an awful long way away. The maps I’d seen at the academy had shown the Southern Reaches were weeks away by horseback, and days even by dragon. And due to recent troubles, that would also take them through hostile.
Why come all this way to burn down a few houses?
“Don’t worry, lad. Just bandits.” The captain signaled for her men to mount and move off. “We’ll be sending a team down to deal with those that fled.” She threw a quick salute, mounted and rode off.
Thea leaned against Kalax and I scratched below Kalax’s jaw, at the spot she liked itched. “Let’s allow Kalax get her breath before we return.” Thea nodded, but she seemed to stare at the horizon, as if she saw something I couldn’t make out.
She didn’t say anything, so I headed over the where the bandits had dropped their weapons. The long sword and the crossbows were all well-made. I’d learned enough of a smith’s work from my father to know when a weapon was a costly piece, and these were worth more than any bandit would have found in this small village.
Something didn’t feel right. Glancing at the ground I saw a leather pouch that one of the bandits must have dropped. Opening it, I found a shark’s tooth, a few gold marks and a few beads. Keepsakes of a man whose life was on the road?
“Hey!” Thea walked up to me. “What are you doing?”
“Look at these.” I showed her the items from the pouch. “A shark’s tooth means from the sea—or the coast at the very least.”
She shrugged. “So? It’s not where they came from that matters, it’s that we finished the battle in what, two minutes? Come on, Seb, we’ve rested enough. And you’re looking for more trouble where there’s none to be found.”
She headed back to Kalax and I put the items back in the pouch and left it by the half-ruined house.
The truth was, I was worried about trouble—and feared it would find us before we were ready to be found.
We had defeated Lord Vincent and the Darkening once—but it hadn’t been a full victory. Lord Vincent had escaped, and the rumors of the Darkening—of villages where everyone forgot their lives and simply disappeared—were still surfacing.
That meant the Darkening was still out there, probably regrouping to come at us again. And we still had no real idea how to defeat the Darkening for good—or even if we could.