Imril the Lightbringer, Overlord of Khira and destroyer of half his cursed race, opened his eyes and hissed.
Pain engulfed the entire left side of his body, from the planes of his face right down to the soles of his feet. He sat up in alarm and found himself surrounded by a pool of hot silver liquid.
He recognized it at once. Ilverium. Living metal. The mysterious, tech-infused substance that beat right through the heart of the Ancestor’s dark ship.
“No!” he screamed, fearing the liquid metal would enter his body and consume him at any moment, forever tethering his soul to the Destroyer.
That was his worst nightmare; to be chosen as the new Master of that deranged sentient ship, doomed to orbit Khira until he went mad and the dark ship consumed him.
In desperation, he scuttled backward, his fingers touching the edge of the silver pool.
White-hot agony shot through his hands as the stuff burned through his scales, leaving his pale skin exposed.
Trembling, he rose to his feet. His joints were stiff, and by Za’s forked tongue, he was weak. Barefoot and in terrible pain, he staggered across to the other side of the cavern, finding an area where the metallic sludge hadn’t yet covered the ground.
Wait… this is not the Hythra. Where am I?
Bit by bit, the memories returned. The Hythra had once imprisoned his brother, Mael, but that was a very long time ago. Mael was free now.
And so was he.
Relief mingled with confusion as he took stock of his surroundings. He ignored the pain shooting down his side and tried to remember why he was in this forsaken place.
Rough stone walls soared above him, illuminated by a soft orange glow. Sharp spears of stone hung from the roof, glistening with moisture and tiny crystals.
He was in some sort of cave.
Imril followed the liquid metal as it snaked along the rough ground in a slow trickle. It had to be coming from somewhere. He stared into the distance, blinking furiously against the heat and smoke. His saccadae—second eyelids—slid over his eyes, and suddenly he could see clearly.
The gently sloping floor of the cave extended upward into a vast chamber that ended abruptly, giving way to a massive pit. At the center of the pit, lava spat and smoldered, releasing a constant plume of black smoke that turned the air acrid and obscured his vision, making him cough.
This wasn’t any old cave, but a tunnel inside Za itself. He was inside the belly of the great volcano that had once threatened Khira with its fury, spewing forth ash and fire until the entire planet was blanketed in a dark cloud.
And he hadn’t just been asleep, he’d been in deep hibernation, recovering from near-mortal injuries and terrible sickness.
Infected with a virus strong enough to bring even him to his knees.
Imril cursed long and hard as the full weight of his buried memories came crashing down upon him. A terrible emptiness spread through him as he realized what he’d lost.
His people were gone.
So were his enemies.
This could have all been avoided.
Fucking younglings. He’d warned his people not to go down that path, but they’d gone ahead and used their Naaga servants to create the ultimate killing weapon.
A virus that was deadly to even the immortal Drakhin.
The fatality rate was catastrophic—nine out of ten Drakhin who contracted the virus would die. So many of the second generation—those Drakhin who were more biologically competent than him but weaker—had succumbed to the illness quickly, dying off in droves. The others—those who tested negative—had left the planet, hastily sent away by Imril in Drakhin ships.
Where had they gone?
He didn’t know.
Already infected, Imril had stayed behind to fight.
Ah, he missed some of them deeply; his War Counsellor Orin, his Technology Advisors Righel and Zemian, and Squadron Commander Tykhe, amongst others.
And then there was noble, shining, deceptive Nykithus, who he’d treated like his own son…
Who had delivered the ultimate betrayal, right into the heart of Imril’s stronghold.
If he found out that Nykithus was still alive, Imril would tear the bastard’s wings from his back and stuff them down his throat. Then he would burn him to a crisp.
Filled with a strange mixture of fury and humiliation and grief, he stalked down the cave, his untrimmed claws digging into the compacted earth. He would never understand how he hadn’t noticed the signs until it was too late, but thinking back on it now, it all made sense.
Nykithus had always loved power a little too much, and his acting skills were exceptional. He’d brought Deathkiss into Imril’s eyrie, right under his fucking nose.
By the time they realized what had happened, Nykithus was long gone, and Imril was murderous. Infected and full of rage, he’d flown to Nykithus’s domain, Ton Malhur, and rained destruction upon Nykithus’s armies, but they’d been ready, and they’d fought back with their cursed vir-weapons, wounding him badly.
In the end, he’d been left with no choice but to retreat.
With battle-wounds covering much of his body and his armor damaged beyond repair, he’d flown to the other side of the planet, trying to get as far away from the chaos as possible. Sick, weak, desperate, and wary of being followed, he’d swooped down into the Crater of Za, hoping the agonizingly hot, spitting core would deter his pursuers.
The last thing he remembered was crawling into the tunnel, lying down on the stone floor to rest, closing his eyes briefly, and then…
Sleep. Blessed sleep.
How long had he been out? Hundreds of revolutions? Thousands? Did it even matter?
If not for the hot metal jolting him awake, he might have slept for a long time yet… perhaps forever.
Maybe that would have been preferable to this cursed awakening.
The only thing that drove him now was the desire for revenge. He would kill the one who had wrought this senseless destruction, and he would make sure he died the most painful, agonizing death. Then the cursed Universe could swallow him up and eat his cursed bones for all he cared.
But first, he had to get out of here.
Imril stared through the smoke and saw a familiar outline embedded in the rock. A massive thing of dark grey metal was slowly sinking into the lava pit.
Could it be?
There was no mistaking that shape, that color, the sheer size of the thing. It was the Ancestor’s cursed ship, the Hythra, and it was slowly disintegrating.
That explained the pool of molten liquid.
So the great Destroyer had finally been brought down? Who could possibly be powerful enough to pull that dark, sentient, insane ship out of her orbit and crash her into the biggest fucking volcano on the planet?
Even now, so many revolutions after he’d escaped from that floating metal prison, the sight of it made him want to retch.
This was the ship where he’d been created, tortured, and shaped into a monster.
For a moment, he stood as still as a statue, paralyzed, his heart racing. A torrent of painful memories flooded his mind.
It was so long ago, but he could still remember the feeling of holding her in his arms, of kissing her dewy violet skin, of running his fingers through her dark hair as he wept.
As Mael wept.
Imril shook his head, fighting the unexpected rawness of those memories. He thought he’d buried them deep, but then again, he’d hadn’t been this vulnerable in a very long time.
You can’t afford to do this now. Move!
He started to run, slowly at first, then faster and faster, ignoring the pain that shot through every cell of his ancient body. Vicious hunger rose up inside him, almost bringing him to his knees with its ferocity. How long had it been since he’d last fed? He was so depleted of vir that his body was on the verge of shutting down. His limbs were heavy, and a fog of fatigue clouded his mind, threatening to lull him back into sleep.
Forget the Hythra, forget sleep, he had to get out of here now. There would be time to figure things out later, but right now, he needed to feed.
Grunting with exertion, Imril unfurled his leathery wings, his wing-bones cracking from disuse. He ran toward the edge of the lava pit, demanding speed from his aching legs, and if he was anything but Drakhin, it would have been a suicide mission.
But he was one of the original twins, and he’d survived much, much worse.
So he jumped.
Beat the hot air with all his might.
And rose slowly, painfully, caught between death and freedom.
Fly, idiot. Fly.
He had no choice now. If his control slipped, he would fall to his death. He might be the Lightbringer, but even he would not survive the intense heat of Za’s deadly lava pit.
Up he went, each laborious beat of his wings sending an agonizing bolt of pain down his left side. As he rose, he saw the wreck of the Hythra. It was almost unrecognizable now, having sunk halfway into the vast lava pit, its massive body disappearing from sight as it was blanketed by a thick haze of smoke.
The ship was slowly melting.
The cursed Hythra. The last link to the dreaded Ancestor, the Dark One, the mad bastard who had tried to remake Imril and his brother, Mael, in his very own image, who had imprisoned them upon that cursed ship and tortured them for hundreds of revolutions. Now the ship was becoming one with the world it had held in its dark thrall for so many orbits.
Good fucking riddance.
If Imril weren’t in so much pain, he might appreciate the irony of it all, but every shred of his energy was focused on getting out of the cursed pit. As he reached the top of the crater, a blessed gust of hot wind swirled past, carrying him up over the edge. He angled his wings, catching the slipstream…
Even when he was in this much pain, when he was this weak, the feeling of rising on a swift current of air with the cold wind hitting his face… it was exhilarating.
He lived for this feeling.
No matter how bad things got, the sky would always be his refuge, his sanctuary.
Imril stared down upon the world he had once ruled, recognizing the vast wetlands of the Ardu-Sai. The sun was setting, casting a golden glow across the rippling surface of the water.
A forgotten corner of the world, it was as far away from his eyrie as one could possibly get. The Ardu-Sai was the domain of the primitive Vradhu, the original inhabitants of the land. Drakhin rarely bothered to come here, unless they were searching for that most mythical of creatures—a Vradhu female.
Every Drakhin desired a female, but only a few had ever found their lukara. Vradhu females were potentially compatible, but the Vradhu were very, very good at hiding and protecting them. After the short, bloody war against the Drakhin, which the Vradhu lost miserably, the violet-skinned ones had retreated into the Ardu-Sai, concealing themselves in the dark, thorny sekkhoi forests.
Ah, if only he had a vir-rich female now…
Imril tried to remember where he might even begin to hunt for a Vradhu clan in this place, but he was too weak to think straight. All of his energy went into flying. The wind currents carried him well enough, but he had to beat his wings now and then in order to maintain his course. With time, it would all come back to him, but right now, he just had to fly.
It was excruciating. His wings trembled. Imril’s desperation grew, and he wondered if he would make it back to his eyrie without falling into the vast waterplains below.
He needed vir, but the odds of finding a Source in this part of the world were slim to none.
Perhaps he could find a Naaga… if there were any blue ones left in this part of the world. To be this depleted, this hungry… it was sheer torture.
Imril banked to the left, following the wide waters until he reached a point where they started to narrow. He turned toward land, tracking along a winding river that was lined with dead, skeletal trees. Abruptly, the water ended, giving way to a dense tract of forest that quickly rose into undulating hills and valleys.
Everywhere he looked, trees were dropping their leaves, turning vivid shades of brown and orange and red, leaving skeletal branches behind.
Then he saw it.
There. In the distance, a soft golden glow rose through the canopy. It became brighter as he drew nearer, flickering like a naked flame.
He would know that glow anywhere.
Beautiful, intoxicating vir, burning more brightly than he’d ever seen before. Exactly what he needed. There were creatures milling about in that clearing below, and they radiated pure, strong vir. It was as if the cosmos had answered his wishes.
His hunger spiked.
Imril twisted out of the slipstream and circled, staying high so they wouldn’t see him.
With his acute vision, he could make out even the tiniest details.
The purple-skinned ones he recognized immediately. They were Vradhu warriors; wily, vicious fighters who wielded heavy war-spears and were experts at camouflage. The barbs in their tails were laced with a deadly poison that made even the fiercest Drakhin think twice before challenging them.
Vradhu venom was one of the deadliest known substances on Khira… and then there was the poison of their cursed Breeders, which was even more toxic than the barbs. The Breeders were a mystery. He had never encountered one of them face-to-face.
But the ones down below were Hunters, not Breeders.
Why were the Vradhu out here in the open, allowing themselves to be seen from above? Perhaps they had grown complacent because there were no more Drakhin to terrorize them.
Imril wasn’t really interested in the Vradhu right now.
No, he was far more interested in the tailless, wingless, brown-skinned creatures that milled around a thicket of thorny bushes, collecting small shiny orange fruits. Two legs, two arms, smooth skin, soft hair ranging in color from almost-white to black, differing in texture from straight to very curly. Several of the creatures had pale brown, almost-white skin, whereas others were were dark. Most were in-between.
Such variation in pigment. How fascinating.
Collectively, the golden glow of their auras was dazzling.
What are they?
He’d never seen this species before in his life, and he’d been on this planet for thousands of revolutions. There had only ever been two intelligent species on Khira: Drakhin, and Vradhu.
Three, if one counted the Naaga.
So these creatures would have to be…
Whatever they were, it didn’t matter. He needed one, now.
Imril growled as his hunger became unbearable, turning him into little more than a mindless beast. He would stop at nothing until he fed; he would not hesitate to kill to get the vir he so desperately needed.
It was survival, nothing more.
Surrendering to his basest instincts, he studied the strange creatures below, trying to decide which one to take.
One of them stood a slight distance apart from the rest, completely oblivious to him as he angled his wings, preparing to strike. Its dark hair was arranged atop its head in neatly knotted rows, and it wore a light green tunic that made it stand out from the others.
Was it just his imagination, or did the creature’s vir burn just a little more brightly than the others? It didn’t matter, really. He needed to feed, and this creature had strayed away from its pack.