The scene in Parve’s central square was one of terrified bewilderment. At the first cry of the dragon, all noise had ceased for an instant as every head, man and beast, turned towards the rip.
Untethered horses had turned and bolted while others threw their riders or bucked and strained at rails and posts, their throats choking out cries borne of base instinct and the innate knowledge of prey under threat.
But for men and elves, blind terror gave way to a kind of fatal interest as the dragon, first a relatively indistinct shape, descended. There was a definite satisfaction in the sounds of the cries and barks with which it greeted Balaian sunshine. It twisted, rolled and wheeled, wings beating the air a-rhythmically, playing in the skies of its discovery.
And as it moved closer to the ground, its form became clearer, its size dreadfully apparent. Ilkar took it all in with an analytical eye ignoring the shaking of his body, the pounding of his heart; the urge to run, fall, fight, hide, anything.
The dragon was not as big as Sha-Kaan, the beast they had met through Taranspike Castle’s dimension portal. Neither had it the same colouring or head shape, though its basic form was all but identical. The long, slender neck arched and straightened, its head searching the ground, its tail flowing behind the bulk of its body.
But where Sha-Kaan had been well in excess of one hundred and twenty feet in length, this one measured no more than seventy. And where Sha-Kaan’s skin and scale had glistened gold in torch light, this one was coloured a dark rust-brown, its flat, wedge-shaped head at odds with Sha-Kaan’s tall skull and muzzle. The deep and penetrating stillness that had fallen on the central square evaporated as the slack-jawed watchers realised with an awful numbing slowness that the dragon was flying downwards fast. A frenzy erupted. Darrick’s normally ordered cavalry scattered into the streets, horses and riders colliding, barging and weaving as they wheeled in chaos, seeking the nearest escape from the immediate danger.
Darrick, his voice hoarse, yelled for order and calm, two things he was never going to achieve. Behind him, The Raven and Styliann scrambled to their feet, fatigue forgotten.
‘Inside, inside!’ shouted Ilkar, racing for the pyramid tunnel but pulling up short, The Unknown all but clattering in to his back. He turned. ‘Where’s Hirad?’
The Unknown spun and shouted after the barbarian, who had covered several hundred yards and showed no sign of slowing, but the tumult in the square stole his words.
‘I’ll get him,’ said the big man.
‘No,’ said Ilkar, an eye on the dragon swooping towards the City. The Unknown gripped his arm.
‘I’ll get him,’ he repeated. ‘You understand.’ Ilkar nodded and The Unknown ran after Hirad who had just turned a corner out of sight.
From the entrance to the tunnel, Ilkar saw his friend hunch instinctively as the dragon passed by not twenty feet above the highest flat roofed building, its bulk that of fifty horses. He saw its head twisting, looking down on the fleeing men, elves and animals, heard its bark and felt fear deep in the pit of his stomach and a clap of pain in his receptive ears, their protective inner membranes closing instinctively.
The dragon rose, banked incredibly gracefully, and turned, diving lower, mouth agape, white fangs clearly visible against the black of its maw. Ilkar shuddered, watching it move, then paled as the sun cast a great shadow of the dragon over the running figure of The Unknown Warrior.
Everything was happening too fast. The Unknown looked up as the shadow engulfed him in an instant’s dusk, turned and ran at right angles to the Dragon’s flight. Above and behind Ilkar, the rip shimmered and tore again, a sensation the elven mage felt through a repeat of the stillness in the air. Far from unleashing its fire, the dragon abruptly swept skywards, its bellow of disappointment echoed by another of pure rage. Hirad, tearing through the empty streets at the edge of Parve, heard the second roar. He gasped as a weight pressed on the inside of his head, already stumbling to a halt, hands covering his ears when the voice boomed ‘Stop!’ and sent him sprawling to the ground.
* * *
Climbing towards the boiling in the sky, Sha-Kaan felt the anger grow. It had been but a blink of an eye to him since he had warned the man, Hirad Coldheart, of the dangers posed by the knowledge he held and the amulet that had been entwined in his talons for so very long. And this was how he had been repaid. First, the theft of the amulet, then surely the use of its text and finally, the opening of an unrestricted corridor to his melde-dimension. The melde-dimension of the entire Brood Kaan.
Behind him, the Brood flew from the Choul, unhappy at the sudden break from their sleep. Thirty Kaan, flying to join those already circling the gate in the sky.
And from all corners, drawn by the presence of the gate and the surge it sent through the nerves of every dragon within its compass, came the enemy. If they could not warn the opposing Broods away, there would be a battle as had never been seen in the skies since the appearance of the one great human, Septern. Septern who had rescued the Brood Kaan, offering them the melde they sought at a time their numbers had dwindled close to extinction.
Sha-Kaan beat faster, a warning sounding in his head. From a bank of cloud behind the rip, a single dragon from the Brood Naik swept towards the undulating mass. His speed took him beyond the rough guard, his call of victory cut off as he plunged into the gate and was lost from sight.
Others made to follow but Sha-Kaan pulsed them to hold. ‘I will deal,’ he said. ‘Hold them at bay. Do not surrender the gate.’ He swept up and around the rip, judging its size and depth before angling his wings and plunging through.
The journey was a miasma of pressure, blindness, half-grasped messages and near knowledge of what lay outside the corridor. Sha-Kaan exploded into the skies of Balaia and immediately felt the presence of two beings known to him. The enemy Naik dragon, loomed large in his consciousness and he bellowed his call to fight, knowing the Naik could not refuse. The other presence was smaller, much smaller, but no less significant. Hirad Coldheart. There would have to be words. As he dived on the Naik, Sha-Kaan pulsed the command to stop.
* * *
Ilkar’s skin crawled, his fear complemented by total helplessness. At every moment, he expected more stillness, more Dragons, more terror. Behind him, he knew, Styliann and the rest of The Raven were staring out into the sky. For the first time in their long and successful career, all they could do was watch. The fight was fast and violent. The two Dragons closed at a frightening speed, the smaller one from below, the larger, much larger, golden animal dived from above.
‘Sha-Kaan,’ breathed Ilkar, recognising him by the movement of his head.
Sha-Kaan tore through Balaia’s cloud scattered sky, bellowing rage and threat. He angled a wing the instant before clashing with the rust-brown enemy, the manoeuvre taking him below and, as he passed the belly, he breathed, fire coursing the length of the shorter dragon.
The scream of pain cracked the air, the wounded beast spiralling upwards, neck twisting, head searching for its tormentor. But it looked in the wrong direction. Sha-Kaan, his mouth closed to extinguish his fire, turned up and back sharply to come around behind his foe. While the rust-brown dragon, disorientated and in pain, searched for him, Sha-Kaan stormed across the dividing space, beat his wings to steady himself above his prey, arched his neck and struck down with terrific force on the base of his prey’s skull. The rust-brown convulsed along the seventy foot length of its body, claws scrabbling briefly on thin air, wings thrashing wildly, its bark turning to a gurgle as its body, now a dead weight, fell from the sky.
Ilkar watched, his breath held, as Sha-Kaan dropped with his kill, not releasing it until they had both reached roof level. Then, with a final twist and deep growl of triumph, he swung away to hover as the dead dragon thudded into the ground in the central square, shivering the earth under Ilkar’s feet. A huge cloud of dust billowed up, the waiting pyres of bodies slipping, a grotesque movement of the dead.
Unease swept across Parve. A gut-turning feeling that so much was terribly wrong. In the quiet that followed the fight, the only sound clearly heard was the beating of Sha-Kaan’s wings as he circled his victim. This close, the victorious dragon was truly enormous. Almost twice the size of his foe, Sha-Kaan dominated the sky, eclipsing even the rip with his raw power. Three times around he went before, with a long, brackish roar, he swept low into the square, passed scant feet above the corpse of the dragon, turned into the air and flew off directly after Hirad.
‘Oh no.’ Ilkar started moving into the light.
‘What good can you do?’ Styliann’s voice, though quiet with shock, still carried power, menace and cynicism.
Ilkar turned. ‘You don’t understand, do you? People like you never will. I’ve no idea what I can do but I will do something. I can’t leave him to face that thing alone. He’s Raven.’
The elven mage ran out into the square, following in the footsteps of The Unknown. After a pause, Thraun and Will did the same. Denser slumped back to the ground, his energy spent, his eyes locked on the still mound of the dragon Sha-Kaan had killed so effortlessly. Erienne crouched beside him, cradling his head.
‘Gods in the sky,’ he whispered. ‘What have I done?’
* * *
Hirad lay with his hands over his ears as the cries of battle in the sky slammed around inside his head. When it was all over, he moved groggily to his knees and dared to look back towards Parve. He vaguely noted The Unknown Warrior running towards him, shouting, but his attention was fixed on the shape of Sha-Kaan, wheeling in the sky over the dead City. The Dragon’s sudden dive jarred him from his almost hypnotic state and the sight of him appearing over the near buildings struck a fear in him deeper than he had ever felt before. His nightmare was about to become reality. He did his part. He picked himself up and ran.
Hirad could feel the rush of Sha-Kaan’s approach in his mind long before the shadow swooped over him. Once again, he resigned himself to death. He stopped running and looked up as the huge dragon, over twenty times his length, turned in the air, neck coiling and uncoiling, head always fixed on his quarry.
He stood in the air for a moment before, with a lazy beat of his wings, landing lightly on the ground, golden body folding forward so that all four limbs supported him as he towered over Hirad. Sha-Kaan’s wings tucked behind him and his head reared before shooting forwards to knock Hirad from his feet. Dazed for a moment, Hirad could sense the anger and looked directly into Sha-Kaan’s eyes and was surprised when he didn’t see his death reflected there.
The great dragon’s head was still, the mound of his body sparkling in the sunlight, obliterating any other view. Hirad didn’t bother to rise but thought of speaking until Sha-Kaan’s nostrils flared, sending twin lances of hot foul air into his face.
The dragon regarded him for some time, feet shifting for comfort, effortlessly clawing deep rents in the packed dry ground.
‘I would say well met, Hirad Coldheart but it is no such thing.’
‘I – ‘ began Hirad.
‘Be quiet!’ Sha-Kaan’s voice rolled across the Torn Wastes and clattered around the inside of Hirad’s skull. ‘What you think is not important. What you have done is.’ The dragon closed his eyes and breathed in, a slow considered action. ‘That something so small could cause so much damage. You have put my Brood at risk.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Sha-Kaan’s eyes opened to spear Hirad with his massive gaze.
‘Of course you don’t. But still you stole from me.’
‘I didn’t – ‘
‘Quiet!’ thundered Sha-Kaan. ‘Be quiet and listen to me. Be silent until I order you to speak.’
Hirad licked his lips. He could hear The Unknown slowing as he neared him, his feet cracking the dead earth and vegetation. He waved his hand behind him to keep his friend back.
Sha-Kaan spoke again, his eyes great pools of blue ire, his nostrils wide and firing repellent breath through Hirad’s hair from a distance of less than three feet. The barbarian felt small, though small was hardly a strong enough word. Insignificant. And yet the imperious beast chose to speak to him rather than scorch the skin from his body and the flesh from his bones.
But there was no mistaking Sha-Kaan’s mood. This was not the dragon who had seemed so amused by Hirad’s presence at their first meeting beyond the Dragonene dimension gate at Taranspike Castle. The meeting that had led The Raven inextricably to Parve and the deployment of Dawnthief. Now he was angry. Angry and anxious. Not for Hirad, for himself. The barbarian felt he’d hear nothing to his advantage.
He was right.
‘I warned you,’ said Sha-Kaan. ‘I told you that I was keeping from you that with which you could destroy yourselves and my Brood with you. You chose not to listen. And now the results of your actions stain the sky in my dimension and in yours.
‘There, Hirad Coldheart, is the problem. It is typical, I suppose, that you should contrive to save yourselves while condemning Skies-know how many of my Brood to death in your defence. But your salvation can only be temporary. Because when my Brood is gone, you will be defenceless. One dragon here, bent upon your destruction is all it will take. And there are thousands waiting to tear this place apart. Thousands.’ Hirad gazed into the yawning depths of Sha-Kaan’s eyes, his mind a blank.
‘You have no conception of what you have done, have you?’ Sha-Kaan blinked very slowly, breaking Hirad’s concentration. ‘Speak.’
‘No, I haven’t,’ said Hirad. ‘All I do know is that we had to find and cast Dawnthief or the Wytch Lords and Wesmen would have swept us aside. You can’t blame us for trying to save our own lives.’
‘And that is as far as you think. The ripples of your actions are no concern as you rest in the glory of your immediate triumph, are they?’
‘We were bound to use all the weapons at our disposal,’ said Hirad a little shortly.
‘This weapon was not at your disposal,’ said Sha-Kaan. ‘And it was used inaccurately. You stole it from me.’
‘It was there to be taken,’ replied Hirad. ‘And inaccurate or not, we used it to save Balaia.’
Sha-Kaan stretched his mouth wide and laughed. The sound cracked across the Torn Wastes, setting petrified animals to flight, stopping The Unknown in his tracks and blowing Hirad onto his back. The laughter stopped abruptly, its aftershocks echoing like thunder against cliffs as they smacked against Parve’s buildings.
The great dragon stretched his neck, head travelling slowly up Hirad’s prone form, drool dripping from his half-open maw until it came to rest over his face.
Hirad pushed himself up on his elbows to look into those eyes that blotted out the light. He quailed, almost able to touch the fangs that could so easily rip out his life, each easily the size of his forearm.
‘Save Balaia,’ repeated Sha-Kaan, voice quiet and cold. ‘You have done nothing of the sort. Instead, you have torn a hole between our worlds and it is a hole the Kaan cannot defend for ever. And when we fail, who will defend you from your total destruction or abject slavery, do you think?’ Sha-Kaan’s head angled up. Hirad followed his gaze to The Unknown and Ilkar, Will and Thraun who now stood a few paces away, scared but not bowed. Hirad smiled, pride swelling his heart.
‘Who are these?’ demanded Sha-Kaan.
‘They’re The Raven, most of it.’
Sha-Kaan retracted his neck to take them all in.
‘Then listen, Hirad Coldheart and The Raven. Listen closely and I shall tell you what must be done to save us all.’