Authors: Stephen Deas
For Michaela, my dragon-queen
This is the last volume of a story of enchanters and alchemists and half-gods and, most of all, of dragons and those who ride them. It stands on the shoulders of
The Splintered Gods
The Black Mausoleum
. I cannot promise that it makes sense without them.
The tremor woke him up. Hadn’t been asleep for long, so no point smashing down the door yet. He’d had a good look at that as he’d been shoved inside. Strong, but the frame had been wedged poorly and in haste into whatever stone this place was made of. A good charge or two would bring it down.
The alchemist was crouched over Siff. The shit-eater was still breathing. Wasn’t moving much more than that. Skjorl rolled over and let himself go back to sleep.
When he woke again, the room looked exactly the same. Same light. Shit-eater lying sprawled across the floor. Alchemist sitting beside him. He couldn’t tell how long they’d been there. Hours. Could have been the middle of the night; could have been the next morning for all he knew.
Her head jerked. She’d been sleeping. ‘What?’
‘What’s your plan?’
‘I don’t know.’
Skjorl unfolded himself and walked to the door. He peered through the cracks. Two men on guard outside. They looked bored and sleepy. ‘We could leave. If you want.’
Hardly a surprise. He sat down again.
‘Someone has mastered dragons. Whoever that is, I need to talk to them. It doesn’t matter whom they serve. Whether it’s Speaker Lystra or Speaker Hyrkallan, or some other speaker I’ve never heard of, they’ve mastered dragons again.’ She turned to face him. Her eyes were wide. ‘Do you know what that means?’
‘It means hope, alchemist. I know that.’
‘I saw Taiytakei as they brought us here. I saw soldiers who are of these realms and others who are not. The Taiytakei brought the disaster on us. It was their making.’ He looked at her. ‘Yet you would help them?’
Taiytakei,’ she growled at him. ‘One.’
Skjorl lay down and stretched out. The last few days had been long ones, and Adamantine Men learned to catch their rest when they could. Some time later the door opened. Someone threw in a loaf of bread and a skin of water and slammed it shut again. The bread was hard as stone and tasted of mould, but Skjorl couldn’t remember the last time he’d tasted real bread. No one had made it since the Adamantine Palace had burned. He savoured every mouthful, mould or not. The shit-eater was still unconscious. The alchemist was somewhere else, lost in thought. He stared at her for a while, thinking about what he’d do, where he’d be if she hadn’t done her blood-magic to his head. When he was done with that he went back to sleep.
The door opening again woke him. More soldiers this time. Eight, maybe nine. He didn’t get the chance to count them before they piled into him, ignoring the others. They pinned him down and tied his hands and dragged him out. They didn’t take him far, just to another cell hardly a dozen yards from where they’d started. Empty but for a heavy chair. Took most of them to bind him to it, but they did. When they were done, one stood in front of him and cracked his knuckles.
‘You’re a spy.’
He had an accent, this one. Not a strong one, but an accent nonetheless. Familiar. Skjorl grinned at him. ‘And you’re a shit-eater.’
The man punched him in the face and broke his nose. ‘Your speaker sent you. You’re a spy.’
Skjorl said nothing. Said nothing when the man punched him again. Said nothing when they held back his head and poured water over his face until he was sure he was going to drown. Said nothing when they told him what else they were going to do, what bones they’d break, what pieces they’d cut off him and how they’d burn and scar him. Men of the Speaker’s Guard took worse from the brothers of their own legion, after all, before they were finally given their dragonscale and their axe and sword. A final test. No one ever said so, but the ones who failed never saw another full year, dragonscale or no. Skjorl’s test had lasted three days.
The shit-eater grew bored after a couple of hours. When he stopped, Skjorl laughed at him and spat out a tooth.
‘I’m an Adamantine Man, shit-eater,’ he said, as if that was enough.
They left him for a while then. He didn’t bother struggling or trying to break free. When they came back, they picked him up, chair and everything, and turned him around so he couldn’t see the door.
‘I know about you,’ said a new voice. Heavy accent this one, but the words were careful, shaped with thought and spoken slowly so they could be heard. ‘Adamantine Men. They raise you from the cradle to fight dragons, right?’
Skjorl said nothing. He was what he was. An Adamantine Man never broke.
‘I’ve led soldiers in three worlds. I would take your kind over any other. I’m sorry I have to take this from you, but time is pressing.’
Skjorl waited for the blow, but what came was a tickle in his head, that was all. Like the alchemist’s fingers but infinitely deft. The faintest sense of something taken away, cut with a subtle and expert scalpel. For a moment he thought he saw the flicker of a knife with a golden hilt, reflected in the polished armour of the soldiers around him.
‘Now,’ said the voice again. ‘Tell me why you’re here. Tell me everything.’
Skjorl told him. Afterwards, when they took him back to his cell, he sat down and wondered why he’d done that, because it wasn’t like they’d ripped it from him, piece by piece, fighting for every word. More like he’d decided it was right, that was all. Just didn’t know why.
He watched, strangely detached, as the same soldiers dragged the alchemist away and closed the door behind her. He listened to her shout, and heard the scrape of wood on stone. That would be the chair. Then voices. The man who’d asked him questions, then the alchemist’s reply, and then another one, a new one, a woman he’d heard once before, a long time ago, only now he couldn’t place her. She sounded sharp and angry. There was something about a garden. Something about moonlight, and something about the Silver King. His brow furrowed. He ought to care about these things.
A tremor ran through the walls. The shit-eater was still on the floor, unconscious or asleep or pretending, one or the other. Down the hall the voices stopped. When they started again they were fast and urgent, words buried once more under strange accents. He caught one clear enough though. Couldn’t miss it. Over and over, shouted like an alarm.
Black Moon comes, round and round
Black Moon comes, all fall down.
Children’s rhyme, Deephaven, Aria
There is no warmth in the ancient fortress of the Pinnacles, timeless bastion against the dragons. The dragon-rider Hyrkallan is a harsh king with a loathing venom for all who practise alchemy. His consort is the mad queen Jaslyn, who once woke a hatchling dragon because she thought there could be peace between men and dragons without the poison of alchemy, a madness that came to her after Speaker Zafir beheaded her mother. The union between this king and queen once carried the desert realms of the north to war and victory, but there is neither love nor desire nor affection between them. Hyrkallan dreams of glories he will never see returned. Queen Jaslyn thinks of the simple things she cannot have. To be with her sister Lystra. To be with a dragon and fly once more. To be left alone and never be touched.
Together and apart Hyrkallan and his queen lay tattered claim to realms now ruled by monsters. They make their home with a thousand souls inside the Moonlit Mountain, above the fire-gutted dragon-wrecked majesty that was once the Silver City. Safe within their fortress they search the endless tunnels for relics of the Silver King, the ancient half-god sorcerer who once tamed dragons. It is said, in whispers, that the old queens of the Silver City were one by one driven mad by the half-god’s Enchanted Palace, whose white stone walls shimmer with their own inner light.
The last of those queens was Zafir, vanished when the dragons shattered their chains of alchemy.
I stand on stone, on the rim of this eyrie. It is mine now. It flies through the air, a half-finished castle made long ago by some half-god craftsman and filled with his spectres. The sea churns and boils below. We are closing on the brooding violet curtain-cloud of the storm-dark. The Black Moon will carry us through, and on the other side is the land where I was born. The Black Moon is a Silver King trapped in the flesh of a man who still wrestles to cast him out, but the man will lose. One does not deny a half-god.
This Black Moon, though, is not the first half-god to come to my land. Another crossed the storm-dark many centuries before I was born. He was the Isul Aieha, who tamed dragons and gave power over them to men. The same men in turn took his gifts and tore him down. They carried his broken body into a deep cave, drove a spike into his head and drank the silver ichor of the moon that dripped from that wound. They took his power into their blood. They call themselves alchemists, and with the taint of the half-god in their veins their potions kept our dragons dull and made them forget. Clouded by alchemy, the dragons sank within themselves, deep into timeless torpor, forgetting what they were.
My name is Zafir. I was speaker of the nine realms once, mistress of dragons and keeper of the Silver King’s Spear. With my treacherous lover Jehal beside me and a litter of corpses in our wake, we took the Adamantine Throne for our own. I held the Silver King’s Adamantine Spear, the very spear with which the Isul Aieha slew the Black Moon a thousand years ago, the same Black Moon who stands beside me now. With that blow the Isul Aieha splintered the world, though he never meant such an end nor foresaw it. On the day I took my crown I held his spear in my hand and touched its blade. It drank my blood, and in that moment we claimed one another. All the world was mine to have, but Jehal had taken another queen to be his wife. Lystra, pretty little daughter of the Queen of Stone. He betrayed me for his starling bride, and so our dragons filled the skies with fire and screams, and many men died, and neither one of us cared a whit save that the other should fall.
Fall we both did.
I have heard now what happened after I was lost. The dragon Snow woke amid our chaos, an avalanche of rage and memory and flames. The dragons threw the curse of alchemy aside and flew at Jehal to burn his kingdoms to ash. The realms of my birth died in fire, but I saw none of it; by then the Taiytakei had taken me. I was chained aboard a ship bound for another world.
I did not understand at first why they let me live after what I’d done, but they did, and so I watched these new men who claimed to be my masters, I, a queen of dragons. I watched their schemes. Baros Tsen, dancing on knife blades and weaving his web around those who thought they were his lords and masters. Once-loyal Bellepheros, grand master alchemist, taken a year before me, steepling his fingers and wringing his hands, fretting and pacing and doing nothing to change the cataclysm he saw coming. Not so loyal any more, I fear, besotted with his mistress, the enchantress Chay-Liang, Baros Tsen’s ally and the only one who sees me as I am and fears me as she should. Majestic Diamond Eye, my great dragon, dulled by alchemy and still terrible to all. We bided our time, my dragon and I. We made them pay for their hubris, dear and long and in pain and blood and fire and plague, in glories of vengeance and flames. The skin-shifters of Xibaiya crept from their holes. The arch-sorceress Arbiter passed her judgment. The Elemental Men fell upon us with their murderous knives, but by then the Black Moon had come, the ghost of an echo of a memory carried inside a man of many names, Berren the Crowntaker. He walks with the soul-cutting knife of the stars at his side, the knife of a thousand eyes with a piece of a goddess held within, and with it he enslaves man and monster as the whim takes him. I do not know who set him free, or how or why or what he is. Sometimes I do not think he knows himself; but it no longer matters. A half-god walks in the open once more. The veil is cut from my great dragon Diamond Eye, woken into incandescent fury. In their desperation the Taiytakei hurled our eyrie into the annihilation of the storm-dark, but they forgot – or perhaps they never knew – that the storm-dark was born of the Black Moon’s demise, and could not devour him.
He is not the Isul Aieha, but he will be our Silver King again. He will tame the skies and dragons will fly with riders on their backs once more. By his side, I am coming home.
I am Zafir, the dragon-queen.
Eight days before landfall
Zafir stood on the eyrie rim, as close to the edge as she could be. The eyrie flew steadily across the sea, towed by dragons, its handful of growing hatchlings soul-cut and enslaved by the Black Moon’s knife. Mighty Diamond Eye laboured beside the other dragons, red and gold scales alight in the fire of the setting sun. Towering clouds lined the sky, a bruise across the horizon, endless into the far distance. The storm-dark. The dragons carried the eyrie straight at its heart, and the dragon-queen Zafir had eyes for nothing else.
A gale blew from the waiting maelstrom, as it ever did. The dragons fought it. Half a dozen ships followed below. They had towed the eyrie across the ocean, but now they each made their own way, battling alone against the waves. The wind caught Zafir’s hair. Lifted it. Tugged. The slavers of the Taiytakei had cut her plaits into short ragged tufts, but now it was long again at last. Copper in the dying sun. She ached. Two cracked ribs, mostly healed now, but they had left a stiffness inside her, a reminder never to fight with her feet on the ground. She was a dragon-rider, not some lowly knight.
Her heart sang bright. With every moment the storm-dark inched closer, she soared. The Black Moon would carry them across the void as he’d carried them through the storm-dark of the Godspike in Takei’Tarr. He was taking her home at last, taking them to what he desired most among all things across all the worlds: the Earthspear, the weapon of the Silver King which had tasted her blood and had bound itself to her, all so long ago.
And as she soared with the anticipation of home, she was afraid too. The closer they got, the less she knew what it was, this home, this notion of a place to belong. She yearned for it, and yet she was afraid of what she would see. Burned in dragon-fire, said the merchant-adventurers of Merizikat.
I was there
. Diamond Eye spoke straight into her thoughts. She’d long grown used to his constant presence, and he to hers; and though he was bound to obey her by the Black Moon’s knife, she had long ago released him of that burden and carefully demanded nothing. She asked, that was all, and she wished she could ride him now, straddle him and fly him into the heart of the maelstrom, but it would devour them both. In the end he would come down before the gaping void at the storm’s heart, to prowl restlessly about the dragon yard, grounded until they were through to the other side.
You were there? Where?
He hadn’t been in the dragon-realms when they burned. The Taiytakei had taken Diamond Eye on the day their moon sorcerers had plucked her out of the sky.
At the end of the world a thousand years ago. When the Isul Aieha faced the Black Moon, we dragons were there. Then as now we flew at the Black Moon’s side.
Always, when he said such things, came a flicker of doubt. The Black Moon’s first dragon, but Diamond Eye was hers, not his, and now and then a little scorn crept around the edges of the dragon’s thoughts. The loyalty he showed the half-god who had once been his master had frayed of late.
You knew the Isul Aieha?
she asked. The Isul Aieha had built the palace of her home. She’d been born under the soft light of his enchanted stone, and his echoes had wrapped her life. She’d grown up with his creations all around her. Marvellous, bizarre, bewildering.
, she said; and as the dragon opened his memories she saw seas of armoured men gleaming in silver, sorcerers flinging fire and lightning, dragons in such numbers that they darkened the sky, more even than in her last great battle as a queen of dragons when Jehal and Hyrkallan had driven her from the skies …
The Pinnacles. Home. Another pang shot through her. Regret. Pain. Longing.
I am no longer the person I was that day
. For the better, perhaps; yet she would fight again, she knew it.
The storm-dark came ever closer.
The Isul Aieha created monsters.
Diamond Eye showed her green birds, flocks of them swarming,
falling like arrows into armies of men, striking and turning them into jade glass, shattering them and pecking at the shards.
The jade ravens of the Taiytakei.
A creature so vast that it made even dragons into specks. It crawled along the ground like some colossal maggot on a thousand thousand tiny legs, crushing everything in its path. Armoured scales as thick as houses, too deep for even a dragon to pierce. So they’d burned it. A hundred of them together. Wheeling in and wheeling away. Torrents of constant fire driven into a blind face as vast as a mountain.
The Black Moon.
Her thoughts flitted always back to him. To her home and what awaited her, to Diamond Eye and his memories, and back again to the half-god. He divided them. To the Adamantine Man Tuuran, perhaps her only real ally, the Black Moon was a demon, a possessing monster devouring the only real friend he’d ever had. Tuuran would kill the Black Moon without a moment of thought if he could find a way to split him from Berren Crowntaker, the man whose body the half-god had taken, but until then Tuuran was the Black Moon’s murderous guardian. To Chay-Liang the Black Moon had been a demented monster, an arch-sorcerer of darkness. She would have fought him if she could, but she couldn’t, and now she wasn’t with them any more. Bellepheros didn’t like him any better, not really, but he knew more than any of them the terror and horror of dragons unleashed. The Black Moon would tame them, and for that Bellepheros would serve him. For a time, at least.
But what is this half-god to me?
They were edging into the fringes of the storm. Strands of black cloud swirled about her. Deep inside she saw flickers of purple lightning. The Black Moon had made the storm-dark, and the Black Moon had set her free. He would be her Silver King, and she would be his Vishmir, the mistress of his dragons, or so he’d promised. But men had promised her many things, and in the end none had ever become more than a translucent shadow, a feeble ghost of the hope she’d held inside her. She’d learned better than to embrace hope or to believe in promises.
He was taking her home. For now that was all that mattered.
Let that be enough. I don’t want to think about him any more.
Nor the things he’d done.
I took the spear from him once
, said Diamond Eye
. I held it in my talons.
From the Black Moon?
From your Silver King. From the Isul Aieha.
She climbed again into his memories and rode them, a thousand years into the past. Dragon after dragon falling upon the Isul Aieha. Each dissolving to black ash as they came close, yet slowly overwhelming his defences. Bathing him in fire, blinding him with flame, until at last a dragon flew close enough to strike. A lash of a tail; the dragon died in an explosion of dark dust, but Zafir was riding in Diamond Eye’s memories, and in them she saw the flicker of glitter as the spear flew out of the Silver King’s hand. Exultant, she swooped and snatched and flew away …
With a wave of his hand the Silver King stopped time. Everything froze. Everything except her and him.
The spear, little one. The spear in my claw kept his sorceries from me, but the spear was not mine. It was his, bound with his blood as it is bound with yours. He called it to his hand, willed it to return, and so it did. But for a moment he could not touch me.
The dragon’s memories flickered on to the end. The Silver King, the Isul Aieha, racing, spear raised to strike, hurdling fallen corpses, everything that touched him billowing black into ash, dragons and monsters, swords and lightning. The Black Moon waiting, stood at an altar, a stone pillar summoned to rise from the heart of the earth by the force of his will. He wore a faceless helm, blank and made of ice, as he drew form into the ancient Nothing that had existed long before any creations of the gods.
I don’t understand.
Zafir watched the memories with unease, thoughts too restless for old stories, flickering to the storm-dark as it enveloped them, to what lay beyond, to the here and now and the incipient violence of the future.
None of us did. Perhaps not even the Black Moon himself.
She saw herself as Diamond Eye again, screaming through the air, diving towards the Isul Aieha. Other dragons swept ahead, talons reaching to snatch the half-god from the field, each vanish
ing into dust as they touched the Silver King’s moonlight armour. Yet on they came. Why?
We could think of nothing else.
The Black Moon never flinched as the Isul Aieha charged, and the Isul Aieha didn’t slow; but at the very last the Black Moon lifted his helm of ice and tossed it aside, and Zafir glimpsed his face, pale as milk, hair like thick snow and two empty holes where his eyes should have been. A darkness shimmered, a flicker for an instant as though the Black Moon drew a veil over the world, and then the Silver King’s spear struck and pierced him through. A dark-light cataclysm burst across the sky as creation shattered. Dragons and stone, sea and cloud, all became dust and vapour as Diamond Eye dissolved into ash …
The darkness was thick around the eyrie now. The black cloud of the storm-dark. She couldn’t see Diamond Eye any more, tugging at his chains above, but she felt the change in the eyrie as he let go and swirled down. The wind shifted, sucking them on now. The clouds thickened. The glimpses of the sea she saw were a tumult of monstrous waves. The sky flashed and blazed with violet lightning.