The Dracontias, dra-con-ti-as, emphasis on the second syllable, is the most powerful gem in all the Five Kingdoms, and more powerful than all the other so-called Kingdom Stones. This one and only Dragon Stone unifies the kingdoms and empowers its user. But beware its one fatal flaw.
—from the Fire Wizards Compendium
Early Winter New Moon (Mitte Moon), Oro Islands, One of the Five Kingdoms
King Singfan sucked in a breath, stretched the crossbow, and held it steady, tracking the beast.
Time was of the essence. If he didn’t kill this dragon and obtain the Dragon Stone on the great dragon’s forehead, he’d have to start all over again. Unthinkable. Impossible.
He had to renew this king’s body during this night, while the stars were aligned just so, and the moon hung below the horizon.
The girl Dragon Slayer, that Henrietta, was performing exactly as he’d expected. She’d taken the proffered reward and given him the secret dragon lore, confirming what he needed to know. She crouched nearby, ready to do his bidding.
King Singfan breathed out, steadying his aim, and smiled.
Inside of him, Bjirn Eyvindir smiled, too, at Singfan’s glee. Hidden to everyone, Eyvindir had occupied the body of King Singfan for seventy-five years, a long king’s rule—longer than anyone on the Oro Islands could remember. If they did remember the length of King Singfan’s reign, Eyvindir by King Singfan’s hand had made sure they didn’t remember for long, and didn’t remember anything ever again.
King Singfan had given him free reign to run his magic through the man and control his every move. The man was his best and most perfect servant. Eyvindir wasn’t going to end the arrangement anytime soon. He’d planned this renewal too long for the moment to go awry.
The dragon hovered above the enormous cave floor about to settle, its scales flickering and iridescent in the torchlight. King Singfan held his breath, steadying his strong stance and perfect aim. He readied the powerful crossbow.
Before he could loose the arrow, Henrietta yelled “You can’t!” and shoved him to the hard-packed ground.
The dragon slayer pinned his arms against his torso with her legs, heavy on his chest. He struggled beneath her weight.
“How dare you!” he snarled. “We had an agreement.”
How had she slipped past his guard?
With every second that ticked by, he felt his power draining from him like water down the drain, no doubt shifting his appearance. But his voice held strong and loud. He gathered courage in that. There was still time to kill the dragon and obtain the Dragon Stone.
“I can’t let you!” she shouted, glaring down at him.
Suddenly, her friends appeared at her side.
“Who’s this?” the injured bard, Jaxter, asked.
“The king,” Henrietta growled.
Little did she know who she was truly up against.
“How dare you!” Eyvindir protested again.
But his voice sounded strange. Gurgles, high-pitched clicks and garbled words were all that he could manage.
How did the dragon slayer’s friends arrive at the cave? He’d left them under guard at the castle.
“Magics! I don’t trust my eyes. Franc?” the dragon slayer shouted, as if she were yelling right into his ear.
“I have not ever seen this old man before, but I have heard whispered tales,” Franc, the knight, said. “What is he saying?” The knight he’d sent to retrieve the dragon slayer, crossed his arms, and frowned down at him. The betrayer.
“I don’t know, but we have no time for tales.” Henrietta bound the king’s wrists and ankles together with a rough rope.
He wriggled, but to no avail. Something sharp stabbed his back.
“Don’t move!” Henrietta barked.
Eyvindir glared at her, through King Singfan’s eyes, furious and unable to move his body, his faculty for speech gone. How dare she! He’d miscalculated the girl slayer. He’d waited too long to act. Frantic, he reached in his mind for his power, but it was too late.
The moment when the moon was just so, right below the horizon, was gone. The shine of the rising moon grew brighter.
The dragon spun to settle, flapping its wings. He’d missed his moment. Torches lay on the ground where his cowardly men had fled. The dragon slayer’s friends had had a hand in that, no doubt, yet he’d dismissed them as weak. Another mistake. How could he have so miscalculated? He brushed the thought aside. He didn’t make mistakes. He drew strength from that knowledge.
“You won’t get away with this!” the king hissed and spat, his voice fully recovered. “The dragon must die, or the Five Kingdoms die. The Oro Islands Kingdom is the first kingdom and must be renewed!”
The dragon slayer frowned, confusion and panic written on her face. Good. He drew more strength from her fear and uncertainty. He may be still tied up, but that state couldn’t last long.
She turned to her friends. “Franc, Jaxter, is this true?”
“Whispers only,” the knight said.
“I don’t know,” the bard said. He leaned on his staff for support.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” the dragon slayer said and clenched her fists. Her heart revved up a notch.
Her panic rippled off her in delicious waves. Excellent.
“I didn’t ask for this responsibility! I don’t want this responsibility!” the dragon slayer cried.
The bard coughed and struggled for breath, leaning heavily on his staff. Most excellent.
Eyvindir pulled power from the skinny young bard’s weakness and from the dragon slayer’s doubts.
The weakened bard managed to speak. “It’s been so long, the story’s been told many different ways, but one of the legends says that the dragon must pass every peak of the wave, at the emptiness of the moon, in the year of the waning ruler, by the hand of a dual heart awakened, bounded on all four points.”
“But what does that mean?” the dragon slayer yelled over a loud hum, her panic at a near-fever pitch.
“I don’t know!” the bard shouted.
“Why didn’t you tell me all this before?” the dragon slayer said, her voice high-pitched, frantic.
“You never asked,” the bard replied.
“But you knew who I was facing.”
“The legend doesn’t say the name of the dragon. I just realized who it meant.” The bard hung on to his staff.
“But still you should have told me! You know all the tales.”
The dragon slayer sounded at wits end. She was weakening. Perfect. He sucked in more of her fear as sustenance to rebuild his strength.
“You should have asked!” the bard said again. “Besides I thought you knew them as well as I did! What is wrong with you? This is what you do, save people and kingdoms from dragons!” Jaxter coughed.
Eyvindir reveled in the bard’s increasing weakness and in the argument brewing.
“Stop! We don’t have the time to argue!” the fire girl, Paulette, yelled. The sneak somehow saw through his facade back at the castle. She would not last a day under his new reign.
“What?” the dragon slayer said.
“The dragon is changing,” the knight said.
The beast’s crystal scales shifted through the primary color spectrum. A second dragon arose from the first, consisting only of a matrix of rainbow light.
Eyvindir would regain the upper hand. He drew ever more strength from everyone’s confusion and fear. Clarity blossomed anew. The moon wouldn’t rise for another hour. He still had time. The dragon slayer’s surprise betrayal would delay him no more.
“You have to kill it before it disappears for another millennia!” Eyvindir yelled, his strength growing from their pain. He could wriggle in the ropes. Soon his power would reawaken and then he would easily break his flimsy bonds. “You must! I command it!” But his last words were drowned out of his own hearing by a roar from the beast.
“Shut up!” the dragon slayer managed to shout over the din.
How was she able to do that when he couldn’t even hear himself? He yanked the ropes.
“He’s right, or something like it has to happen every millennia so the dragon can come back,” the bard said.
“I can’t,” the dragon slayer said, her voice hoarse.
“What do you mean ‘you can’t’?” the bard asked. “You are the Dragon Slayer!”
“I can’t.” The dragon slayer’s cheeks were wet. Splendid! Her life force was depleting.
Any moment now he’d be renewed and free. He used all his years of experience to yank her life force from her. She had to obey him. All his plans rested on her demise, now that he’d taken what he needed from her.
The dragon nudged the dragon slayer with its large head. The dragon slayer stumbled back. She was weakening. The beast nodded slowly, its Dragon Stone glowing green then red on its forehead.
Was the beast communicating with the dragon slayer? Couldn’t be. The beast was for him only. Power flooded through him hot and molten, anger strengthening him.
“Dragon slayer, you must kill it,” Eyvindir shouted. “The fate of the island is in your hands. The fate of the whole Five Kingdoms!”
“Jaxter?” the dragon slayer turned to the bard as if to confirm his words.
“He may be right. Do you trust me?”
“What kind of question is that?” the dragon slayer asked.
“A question that demands an answer,” the bard said in a voice so soft Eyvindir wasn’t sure he heard correctly.
He glared at the stupid dragon slayer. How could he have miscalculated? He’d planned for every contingency. Nowhere had he predicted that the dragon slayer would be strengthened by the new web of connections around her, her pesky friends. She was a loner. That was to be her downfall. He’d made sure of it.
“What do I need to do?” the dragon slayer asked. Her friends must have answered because after a pause she said, “I need your help.”
Damn the old gods and all the lore of his people.
The dragon slayer barked an order cutting through his curse. “Paulette, get to the dragon’s tail. You’re fire. On my mark!”
“What?” The fire girl shouted too close. She hovered over him. “And leave him?”
“He can’t do anything. Go! Time fades, and so does he,” the dragon slayer ordered.
“You must not! The Dragon Stone is mine!” But his words croaked out in sputter. He felt more than saw the new moon rising and his life-force, his prana, ebbing out of this body.
The King Singfan identity, his soul, had been quiet, letting him take command. Eyvindir rallied King Singfan’s soul to lend him strength.
The dragon’s hum deepened and filled the cavern with a low vibrato. It flapped higher and brightened, both the dragon of light and the real dragon. Its scales shot sparks, which exploded against the cavern walls. Two dragons melded into light, too bright to peer at directly. Fire and wind swirled into a funnel and exploded into a white light and blinding bang.
“No!” He shouted, but he couldn’t hear his own voice.
“Don’t stop!” the dragon slayer yelled above the storm.
From all directions, explosions like a fireworks hammered him. Bound as he was, he managed to bend double to guard against the pain, but his efforts were useless. His skin crawled as if ants wriggled under his skin. Pain pierced all layers of his being—both the body and the magics layers.
“Stop!” Eyvindir tried to yell, but it came out like a series of croaks. No, it couldn’t be. He couldn’t move his body.
Then in breath, he lost all sense of feeling. Impossible.
He was able to sense his life force being jettisoned out of his body and into the night sky, on its way back to where his actual body rested inert in his fortress far to the north and east. Through his cloud of shock, from his vantage point in the sky far above, he spied his body, actually the body of King Singfan who had ruled the Oro Islands for over seventy-five years, burst into flames. He felt nothing. He was frozen in shock. The male body that had been the Oro king’s was now cinders, a miniscule pile of ash.
Panic almost scattered his prana into a million trillion irretrievable bits. Only his mighty skill as the oldest living sorcerer saved him. He’d heard rumors of such things. But no, he could not die. Unacceptable. He mustered his focus. His actual ancient body existed within reach.
He focused on his prana, a faint thread of light, a line leading in a northeasterly direction, through the clouds, across the sea, to his obsidian mountain enclave. He didn’t follow the thread to nestle in his sleeping form in that cold room. Not just yet. To do that would admit defeat. He would not let an upstart dragon slayer ruin his plans.
But she had. He had wits enough to admit that.
For a moment he burned white hot with rage and felt an unbearable pain sear his energy body. His anger, intricate and quite useful, connected to his identity, his soul. But now his anger was burning his life force, his prana connection, to the only body he now had.
He brought his attention back to the island city of Plumaria and hovered over it. He quickly allowed dirty white cloud particulates to drench his rage. He had to focus. He had to retrieve the remnants of power from that flimsy old pile of dust that had been the Oro king. He had to find another body to use and fast. Before she got away with the Dracontias, the precious one and only Dragon Stone.
The search for and habitation of a suitable body only took him an entire day, but he finally accomplished his task. Withdrawing his powers from the dust pile, he spied the body he needed in the Plumaria castle’s sick room. His low simmering fury and tenacity built up over three centuries of scheming had made him strong. With his powerful focus, he propped up the dying soul, revived it, and pushed his will and identity into the young man’s heart.
In a breath, he healed the youngling’s body to temporary vibrancy. The body wouldn’t last, so he had to hurry. There was not the time to pick a more robust body. That took preparation, study, and careful calculations. He didn’t have the time for that. He had to get back what was rightfully his.
Once more in control of a vibrant body and pliable identity, he followed the rumors of the slayer’s departure all the way to the piers. That she-slayer was supposed to do his bidding. Failure hadn’t been an option. Perhaps seventy-five years in the Oro king’s body had made him sloppy and dulled his normally exceptionally high acuity and brilliance.
His complacency must have been how she had tricked him, how she’d deceived and betrayed him. He hadn’t been blindsided by a female since his sister had stolen the royal crown from him over a century ago.
Never mind the mistakes of the past. This dragon slayer, this Henrietta, had destroyed his ambition to rule over the Oro Islands for the next one hundred years and beyond. In that time he had planned to seize control of the other four kingdoms using the might of the Dragon Stone, combined with the other four kingdom’s crystals and stones he’d meticulously collected over the centuries. His life’s calling entailed ruling over all the Five Kingdoms. No one was going to come between him and his destiny again.
She would pay for ruining his plans.
He’d end this before she ever left the city of Plumaria. The child-woman, Henri Etta, was no match for him. He couldn’t be destroyed that easily.
He directed his new body through the marketplace, causing havoc. Then he rushed up the pier and delighted in the feel of youth in his limbs. A crazy thought flitted through his mind—that of the faraway and long ago carefree youth he once was who’d loved the freedom of birds and spent hours watching them in flight.
Then he saw her, waving and nodding to the peons who thought she’d liberated them. He swatted away memories of his flimsy faraway past. His pace quickened. She could not take his dream away. No one could, especially no woman. He was to have complete control of all the Five Kingdoms.
Once he had the last object of power, his plans would click into place.
She’d taken the most powerful gem in all the Five Kingdoms from him, and she would pay. With her life.
CHAPTER TWO: JAXTER ENTRUSTS HENRIETTA
In and out, Fate weaves her spell
She jumps out and runs from here to hell
All that remains
Is alive and well
So, do hold tight
Do hold fast
Do not let go
Of your heart, dear child
—The Weavers of Yore chant
The early morning dawn hovered as fog wrapped around the ancient castle. Henrietta hoofed it up a staircase to meet with the new king. She was impatient to set sail on the mid-morning tide.
Henrietta knocked and slipped into the room on the command to enter. She greeted Jaxter with a firm quick hug, then stepped back, waiting for him to speak. In the castle turret room, her good friend, Jaxter, now the new King Renaldo of the Oro Islands, sat in his raised chair, regarding her with a straight face.
She wanted to shift from foot to foot, but schooled her nervous energy. That wouldn’t do for her new role as Ambassador for King Renaldo’s kingdom. Even if, she guessed, it was just an honorary title to thank her for all she’d done.
A merchant class junk would sail in a few hours, and she’d be on it, heading home to the Kingdom of Bleuve—her home. The gyrating tide in Plumaria’s large harbor beckoned her. Plumaria was the colorful, bustling capital and only large city on the main island of this nation of one hundred-plus islands. She’d miss the place. Another time she’d have to come back to explore the islands, now that she wasn’t afraid anymore of water or boats.
Jaxter smiled, his expression tinged at the edges with sadness. He was hiding something from her.
“Sorry to summon you here so early. There is so much to do as I set the kingdom to rights, and I wanted to speak with you before you left―without all the eyes and ears scolding me ever so politely in my new role.”
Jaxter sounded so serious, so different from his earlier joking bard self she’d spent nearly a full moon on the road with. Jaxter had been an apprentice then journeyman jester and bard for years in a Baron’s Hall in her own kingdom, the Kingdom of Bleuve, across the sea.
“Lots of changes in such a short time.” Henrietta nodded and ignored a shimmer of nervousness, this time in her gut.
“The same for you.” Jaxter gestured to the Dragon Stone around her neck.
She touched the healing stone. Smooth and cool with its diamond-cut edges, the Dragon Stone’s magic so close to her made her nervous. The dragon Mimoto had chosen her and had given her the stone before the great beast had shifted into a rainbow of light. Henrietta had to do right by the dragon and the stone’s healing gift somehow. For starters, she’d be bringing it home to heal her mentor from the mysterious illness that had him wasting away.
Henrietta waited for Jaxter to tell her the reason for their early morning secretive meeting. It couldn’t be good, though her nerves could only be from anticipation. She always felt jumpy before an adventure.
“Solstice is coming,” he started. Then he sighed and rubbed his chin where he was letting a beard grow. To be taken more seriously, Henrietta supposed. He was a young king, after all, eighteen suns old.
Henrietta waited with hands clasped at her back and stood tall. There was more. His next words surprised her.
“You’ll need to go to King Mattias’ Solstice Opening,” he said and frowned.
“I will?” She snapped her head back, as if slapped. Then she shushed her rapid heart. Are you sure? She wanted to say in jest, but this didn’t feel like a joking moment. The Kingdom of Bleuve had been ruled for the last twenty-five years by King Mattias, who ruled from his capital city of Grenado, a fabulous, circular, and enlightened city. Henrietta never wanted to see that city or the king again.
“Yes.” As if he didn’t notice her discomfort, or maybe because he did, Jaxter gazed out the crystal-cut windows.
She imagined that soon the very same windows would sparkle with the rising sun’s rays. As if in anticipation, the birds warbled their early morning greetings. Then an off-note sounded.
Since before she could remember, Henrietta could interpret the omens in bird song and movement. More than bird song, something was indeed off-key in the Oro Islands. Her heart fluttered. She didn’t know what was off, yet.
“I thought I had a year’s leave,” Henrietta finally said when Jaxter didn’t continue. “You said—last night at the ceremony…”
“No.” Jaxter’s gaze snapped back to her. “That was just for show. So was you being named the Ambassador. Well, partly for show.” He fiddled with his new signet ring.
“Oh. I thought so.” The bottom of her stomach dropped out. She didn’t want to go to the capital. “You know, I can’t really be an ambassador for the Oro Islands. I’m not from here. I’m sure there are protocols about that—”
“Actually, you can. This is an island with a history of mixing cultures—long story.” Jaxter waved in the air, pointing west toward the Kingdom of Bleuve. “In the archives. It’s been explained to me. Special envoys can be named ambassadors even if they are from another kingdom. Like I said, long story. I’m sure King Mattias knows of this diplomatic tradition. It just hasn’t been in action for a long time, but we still do exchanges, like I did going to Baron Von Hilgel’s Hall.”
“But I’m not an apprentice anymore—” Henrietta started.
“Henrietta,” Jaxter interrupted. “I trust no one else to carry this message to King Mattias. You know him.” Jaxter locked a stern gaze onto her. “You’re actually my personal courier, but you’ll have the trappings of the ambassadorship as a—a formality—with official papers.”
“A disguise in plain sight?”
Jaxter nodded and clasped his fluttering hands in his lap, gazing at the cerulean blue tattoos spiraling up his wrists to his elbows like bracelets. They were the mark of his kinghood, a mark handed down through his family, which had been hidden by magic and other things Henrietta didn’t claim to understand.
“But, Jaxter, I need to manage the forge. Master Chen’s forger. Just until he gets better. I want a quiet life. For now,” Henrietta’s voice wobbled, her control slipping. Her voice sounded weak, even to her ears.
The small private chamber was free of dust, recently cleaned, its rounded walls plastered in speckled tiny square tiles—marine shades, accented with warm colors of red and orange—colors she’d seen in the flags always snapping in the ever-present sea breeze along Plumaria’s steep streets.
Did she really want to know why Jaxter needed her to be hiding in plain sight? She had a feeling he would soon be telling her.
She listened for birdsong to cue her in, but all was silent.
King Mattias of Bleuve, her king, had betrayed her, demoted her, and let her be humiliated by his chief advisor, the priest Alfonso. She would gain nothing by seeing them again. Why had she agreed so readily to be Jaxter’s ambassador, courier, or whatever?
“You must go,” Jaxter repeated, strident, drawing her attention back. “You’re the only one I trust with this message.”
Henrietta’s heart squeezed. “ ‘A trust forged in the fire of adventure is steadfast for life,’ ” she quipped the old adage about the strong bonds of friendship created on the road.
Jaxter smiled ever so briefly, letting his humor and a shadow of his happiness shine through. “You also love adventures.”
“I do.” Henrietta gulped. “But Jaxter, while I may be the one you trust, I can’t―I just want a quiet life. I don’t want to run back and forth to the capital. I need to look after Master Chen while he regains his strength and while I manage the forge. The young apprentice there can’t handle it all. Or much. From what I saw. I can’t do what you ask, at least not right away. I thought I had a year. You have to understand.”
Jaxter shook his head.
“No, my friend. I disagree―the part about the quiet life.” He showed off his signature lopsided jester smile. “I know all your tales. I travelled with you. I saw you in action. You don’t want to settle down. Not really. You like adventure. You love adventure―the sword swinging, the fight―all that. I know you.”
Henrietta couldn’t hold herself back any longer. She paced beside the tower room, brushing her fingers against the cool, uneven tiles. “As tempting as that is, I’ve sworn off the sword. I’ll only carry the staff. I’m a new person now. Your ambassador, for instance.”
“You knew you had to go back at some point.”
“Maybe. But not so soon.” Henrietta knew he meant her king’s court, the court of King Mattias of the glorious Kingdom of Bleuve, the sparkling centerpiece of all the Five Kingdoms.
“Henrietta, my new honorary Ambassador―”
“Yes, my liege.” It was coming, the true purpose of the meeting.
“If you don’t get this message to King Mattias by Solstice, the Oro Islands, my new home, my new kingdom, will fall. And then the rest of the Five Kingdoms will be next.” No smile. No joking.
The mantle of responsibility fell heavy on her shoulders, both of their shoulders. She couldn’t deny the weight of it, the truth of it. Whomever controlled the island nation could attack the coasts of the other three kingdoms, then unite an attack against the fifth kingdom, far inland to the west.
Henrietta gulped and contemplated her boots. That wouldn’t do. She was stalling. Henrietta straightened. She couldn’t let down her friend and his new kingdom, and by extension the rest of the kingdoms. Her fears seemed small in comparison.
Henrietta nodded. “For you and the Oro Islands, I pledge myself, dear friend. Whatever you need.” Her heart raced in her chest. “I will take your message to the Solstice Opening, to Mattias.”
“For his ears only.” Jaxter leaned in, grim, ready to reveal the details of the message.
With a heavy heart, Henrietta leaned in to receive them.
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