Dela Stonebridge stood on the ridge of the fire mountain, looking down into the Valley of the Dragons. The sun dipped beneath the horizon, casting a fiery glow across the sky. Below her, the valley was made up of black rock, the white skeletons of long-dead dragons embedded into the surface.
This was the place the dragons had come to die. But not all of them. One such creature sat before her. His magnificent wings were tucked into his huge body, his long neck stretched toward them, his red eyes bright with curiosity.
Are there others? Dela wondered. Or is he the last?
At her feet lay the Dragonstone she’d dropped after becoming overwhelmed with images of the beginning of the Second Great War.
She bent and picked it back up, clutching the smooth, black and red rock in her palm, its warmth pressing into her skin. If any of the other three people with her tried to hold it, the stone would burn them. But not her. No, she was a Dragonsayer—one of the few able to communicate with dragons. She still had no idea what that meant for her, or for the future of Xantearos, but someone who could harness the power of dragons would be the one to control the direction of the world.
Dela didn’t want war, but over the last few weeks she’d learned the price for peace had been too great. The other races had been repressed, and wealth had been hoarded in her home city of Anthoinia. King and Queen Crowmere might not have been the ones to create the Treaty, but they had continued with it, taking more gold and jewels from the other races, telling everyone the coal was needed to fire their furnaces and that they were helping the other races by giving them food in return. But in truth, this was only another way of keeping the populations of the other races small and not powerful enough to fight back. The Treaty had even taken away the Elvish’s right to do magic—an ability that was as old as they were.
Dela had grown up believing this was just the way it should be, but her eyes had been opened now, and she’d never allow them to be shut again.
The wind coming off The Lonely Strait—the ocean that lay beyond Drusga, the Valley of the Dragons—tore through her hair like angry fingers. The air brought with it the stink of sulfur, and smoldering heat and smoke rose from the rock they stood upon.
She turned to the three men with her. Warsgra—the biggest of them all, a Norc, and a fierce fighter—stood, bare-chested in only his boots, the piece of leather around his waist, and his shoulder guards. Beside him was Orergon, the protector and hunter, and a Moerian with eyes as black as night. He was still covered in the sludge they’d almost lost him to on the journey up the side of the fire mountain, his brown skin barely visible through the black crust. And next to Orergon stood silver-haired Vehel, the bringer of magic, who had saved them all, but who had also started the Second Great War by doing so.
Her heart wrenched. She cared for them all deeply, and the thought of them being divided by war tore her in two. There was the chance they would choose to leave her, to go back to be with their own people. Their own kind needed them now more than ever. Each were powerful fighters and leaders of their own kind. When did a race need their people more than during a time of war?
Whatever else happened, she could never bring herself to fight against any of them. But what if they stood against her, and she refused to fight? Didn’t that mean she’d have failed before she’d even got started?
Before them, the dragon rose to his scaly feet and extended his wings.
“What’s he doing?” Orergon’s normally sure voice quavered with nerves.
Dela shook her head. “I’m not sure.”
“Can you ask him?” Warsgra shot her a glance.
“I don’t know how. I don’t know how to control this yet.” She glanced down at the stone in her palm.
The dragon suddenly seemed twice as big. His wings stretched wide then he gave a couple of experimental flaps. Black rocks and pieces of dragon bone scattered in the wind the creature’s wings created. The dragon lifted his head and shrieked, the sound ancient and mournful and terrifying, bouncing off the walls of the valley and echoing around them. A shiver ran down Dela’s spine in response.
“I don’t like this.” Vehel took a step back.
Dela tightened her fingers around the stone, hoping it would give her some insight into what the dragon was thinking. She willed herself to experience that same tumbling feeling, like plummeting into a black hole, only to wake inside the dragon’s head, but nothing happened.
The dragon stretched out his long neck, revealing the intricate pattern of scales on the underside, a lighter color than the emerald greens and multi-faceted shades of blues and purples on the top of the animal’s body. He was truly beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.
He opened his mouth and exhaled, sending a plume of red, yellow, and white flames into the darkening sky.
Behind them, the ponies whinnied in fear, stamping their hooves and snorting hot air in their agitation.
The dragon fixed them with his red gaze, and Dela’s heart raced.
He lifted his wings and beat the air slowly but with great power, his massive body rising into the air. He seemed so much larger with his wings outspread, and, despite their span, Dela marveled how something of his size could even get airborne.
“We should move.” Orergon grabbed her by the arm and took a couple of steps back.
She shook him off. “No, it’s fine.”
Warsgra had also backed away. “I don’t know, Dela. I think Orergon is right. He doesn’t look happy.”
The dragon wouldn’t hurt her, would he? She’d felt so connected to the creature, as though she’d inhabited a part of his mind. Only now did it occur to her that the dragon might not appreciate the intrusion.
But Warsgra was right, he didn’t seem happy now. The creature managed to stay in one spot, beating his wings to negate the weight of his body. His red eyes fixed on her, and fear shot through her veins like iced water.
“Dela, do something,” Vehel called.
She shook her head and widened her eyes. “I don’t know how.” She tightened her fingers around the Dragonstone, willing the searing heat to return, but nothing changed.
The great beast’s wings flapped again, sending dust and dirt flying toward them. His massive chest swelled as he inhaled a deep breath.
“Run!” Warsgra growled.
He wrapped his fingers around Dela’s hand and yanked her away. Orergon and Vehel moved with them as they fled, running across the ridge, the drop precarious on the other side. A mighty spout of red, orange, and yellow flames erupted toward them. Behind them, the ponies whinnied. The group had long since lost their hold on the animals, and they galloped away, panicked, the whites of their eyes showing, their ears flattened against their skulls.
The flames did not hit the area where they’d been standing but a little farther down the ridge face. That didn’t prevent them from feeling the heat from the fire, however. The blast of smoke and heat hit Dela from behind, throwing her forward.
She lost her hold on Warsgra’s hand and landed on all fours and skidded. She managed to keep hold of the Dragonstone, but the impact skinned her knuckles on that hand, and her other palm, pieces of volcanic rock embedded in her flesh. She gasped in pain, but before she’d even caught her breath, Warsgra hauled her back to her feet again. The dragon was still in the air to their right, its wings beating to stay airborne.
“We have to keep going this way!” Orergon shouted, pointing along the ridge.
Dela knew what he meant. They were traversing the fire mountain, rather than heading back down the way they’d climbed up. They’d never make it a second time through the black sludge that had almost swallowed Orergon. Black rocks and dirt scattered beneath their feet, skittering down the side of the fire mountain as they ran. Dela risked a glance over her shoulder. The dragon veered toward them, and for a moment she thought he would attack again, but he kept going. His wings beat the air, and he banked around to head back the way he had first arrived, toward the Lonely Strait. Growing smaller in the distance, the dragon breached the tops of the hills on the other side of the valley and vanished from view.
Gasping for breath, sweat pouring down her brow, Dela staggered to a halt. She clung to Warsgra’s arm to stay upright. The stink of sulfur and the smoke from the flames caught in the back of her throat, and a cough burst from her lungs.
They all slowed to a stop. Dela’s coughing subsided, but her lungs burned. She remained bent over, her hands on her knees.
Orergon’s hand pressed against her back. “Are you okay?”
She nodded and straightened. “Yes, I will be.”
Despite her words, she found herself blinking back tears that were caused by more than the coughing. An ache had lodged deep in her chest. Rejected—that was how she felt, as though she’d offered up her heart to someone and they had taken it then stomped it all over the ground.
“Think you can keep going?” the Moerian asked.
“We don’t have much choice. It’s not as though we can stay here.”
Plumes of grey and white smoke billowed into the sky above them. This was caused by the fire mountain rather than the dragon. A combination of steam and smoke drifted in patches from the black rock. This fire mountain hadn’t blown for a very long time, but it was definitely still active. It would be just their luck for it to erupt now.
“What happened to the ponies?” she asked between another coughing fit.
Orergon looked in the direction across the ridge and down the other side. “They ran this way. They’re not stupid. They knew not to go near that sludge. We’ll find them again.”
“We have no idea what we’re walking into by going this way either,” she pointed out. “And the ponies have got all our stuff in their packs—we don’t even have water.”
“Let’s keep descending,” Warsgra said. “We don’t know what’s going to be at the bottom on the west side of the fire mountain. There might be a fresh water source, so we won’t have to worry so much about the ponies.”
“We still need them,” she insisted. “They’ve got our canvases and bedding as well. Plus, it’s far easier to ride than be on foot.”
Warsgra snorted. “Easier for you, maybe. My feet are still on the ground even when I’m riding the damn thing.”
“It’s not the pony’s fault you’re so damned big.”
Truth was, she missed the animals already. She’d grown fond of her pony, Ghost, and she didn’t want him either drowning in sludge, or ending up as a meal for the dragon. And though she had no idea what they were going to do next, all she could see in her mind was her vision of the army being put together in Anthoinia, and how they’d be marching to the West coast. Did the other races know they would be under attack? Were they preparing as well? She needed this knowledge, but the only way she knew how to get it was through the dragon’s eyes, and she didn’t know how to control the dragon. The army would be forced to march through the Southern Pass, which would be a danger in itself, but once they got through, they’d fight the Norcs at the Southern Trough, initially, and then she guessed they’d head down, toward the Inverlands, to deal with the Elvish.
She hoped the other races knew the humans had found out the Treaty had been broken. Though she wanted to be loyal to her own kind, she also didn’t want the other races to be unprepared. She didn’t want the human army descending upon them unawares, turning this into a massacre rather than a battle.
The group continued to climb down, missing their footing every now and then, sending small rock falls skittering before them. As the light started to fade from the sky, it grew harder to make out where they were going. The ridge began to level off, taking them to the western side of the fire mountain, away from the valley. Dela tried to watch her footing, but her gaze pulled toward the darkening sky, her heart yearning, wishing she could see the dragon again. Where had he gone? So high in the sky, it was impossible for any of them to see? Was that how he’d evaded being noticed for so many years, leading people to believe they were extinct? It was pure speculation, but she needed to know. She wanted to learn everything there was to learn about the magnificent creature, and figure out what their connection meant. She’d never imagined her heart could be stolen by anything but a human man, but it had, and not just by the dragon either. She looked around at the three males who had supported her this whole time, who’d not for a moment acted as though they would abandon her. They weren’t human either, and yet she felt inexplicably linked to them now. If they decided they needed to go back to be with their own races during this time, her heart would be broken.
But a broken heart could continue to beat, albeit with a different rhythm than before. She wanted to return home herself, to tell her parents she was still alive, but deep down she knew the world had bigger things to offer her than a simple life living in a small house in the back streets of Anthoinia. Even if she had to do this alone, she’d keep trying. She’d do whatever necessary to make the dragon understand that he could trust her.
“Are you all right, Dela?” Vehel’s soft voice asked from beside her.
She bit her lower lip and nodded. “I’m all right.”
“He didn’t want you dead.” The Elvish prince ducked his head, looking at her through his silvery hair. “If he had wanted that, he could have killed you in a second. I think that was more of a warning.”
She offered him a wan smile. “He felt me inside his head this time. I think before, he kind of knew I was there, but not to the point where I might be able to affect what he’s doing or thinking. This time he could, and I don’t know if that’s just because we were so physically close, or because I had this.” She held out the hand still clutching the Dragonstone.
Warsgra looked ahead. “We should still get out of here. The dragon might come back, and I don’t think he’ll be too happy to find us here if he does.”
She shook her head. “We can’t just leave! We’ve come all this way.”
“If you stay,” Vehel said softly, “he might kill you.”
“No, you said that was just a warning.”
“Yes, but a warning that’s unheeded will turn to something more. He didn’t want to kill you, but that doesn’t mean he won’t, if he thinks you’re a danger.”
She felt as though she was failing once more. “We’ve come all this way. We can’t leave now. A war has started, and we need a way to get through to people. We aren’t going to achieve anything on our own.”
Orergon’s hand pressed on her shoulder. “You’re right, but this will all be for nothing if you end up dead.”
“I think I have an idea,” Vehel said.
Dela looked to him. “I’ll hear it.”
“There’s an ancient Seer who lives on an island at the most northern point of Xantearos, in the Lonely Strait. We could travel there and see if she knows more. She’s lived in the north for hundreds of years, and I believe she’ll know more about the dragons and Dragonstone than anyone else we could speak to.”
Warsgra frowned, his heavy brow drawing down. “Reaching an island in the Lonely Strait would be dangerous.”
Dela stepped in. “Everything about this is dangerous. Facing an angry dragon is dangerous. Leaving this place and making the huge journey back to our homelands is dangerous. We can’t not do something simply because we’re frightened of what might happen.”
Warsgra straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin. “Who said anything about being frightened?”
“Doing nothing is what’s going to be more dangerous.” She looked around at them. “You didn’t see what I did—thousands of men dressed in soldier uniforms, setting out to cross to the West coast. Assuming others from your races lived through the Southern Pass, word will have got back to them about the Treaty being broken. They’ll either also be preparing themselves for war, or they won’t know anything about it, and they’ll be slaughtered. Either way, thousands of lives will be lost. I’m trying to protect everyone. The soldiers aren’t all trained army men being sent out to fight. Those are boys and young men from all the families in Anthoinia. They don’t know the truth of what they’re fighting for. They’ve probably been told the other races are rising up against humans, and this is the only way for them to protect their homes and way of life. They won’t know that they’re being used as pawns to force the Elvish, and Norcs, and Moerians into a certain way of life, and in turn keep King and Queen Crowmere wealthy.” Dela stopped and took a breath and then looked to Vehel. “How long do you think it will take us to reach this Seer?”
“It’s probably only a day or so to the coast by foot. And I believe the island is visible from the shore, so it’s probably only a couple of miles out.”
“We’re lacking a boat,” Warsgra said.
“And the Northern seas are filled with sea beasts,” Orergon joined in. “There’s no way we can swim it.”
Vehel pressed his lips together. “We can build a raft. My people are fishermen, and it won’t be the first I’ve built. As long as we can gather materials, we can build something strong enough to get us there safely.”
Warsgra lifted his eyebrows. “Assuming we don’t get eaten by sea monsters.”
“Yes, assuming we don’t get eaten by sea monsters.”
Dela looked up at the sky. They were losing light by the minute. “It’s too dark to continue now. We should find ourselves somewhere to rest and continue in the morning.”
A sting in her palm snatched her attention, and she looked down to find blood dripping from the ends of her fingers onto the hard ground.