Sequestered deep in the capital, the tyrannical Emperor Vosper weaves a plan to destroy all the dragons. He succeeds in driving them to the very brink of extinction. Only a handful of dragons and riders remain; living in exile in the desert. When young Elias Dorgumir finds a carved dragon stone in the forest, it brings empire soldiers to his doorstep, and puts Elias on the run with a bounty on his head.
With some help from his friends, Elias must escape the emperor’s wrath and try to make it to the safety of the dwarf caverns. Elias holds the key to the salvation of the dragon race. Is Elias strong enough to save himself and halt the evil that is spreading across the land?
* * *
The evil emperor Vosper gathers his troops in the east, poised to conquer the entire continent. His target is the rebel city of Parthos, a constant thorn in his side, and the last sanctuary of the Dragon Riders.
Besieged from all sides, the remaining Dragon Riders come out of hiding. Forced to fight for their lives, they leave the safety of the desert, traveling across the land to gather intelligence and shore up forgotten alliances.At the center of it all is Elias Dorgumir, the key to an ancient prophesy, and Vosper will do anything to get his hands on him. Is it too late for the Dragon Riders to save Elias and stop Vosper from destroying the only refuge they have left?
* * *
As the races of Durn stand on the brink of war, the power-hungry emperor plans his conquest of the entire continent.
The dragon riders are fragmented. They have been scattered across the land; weakened by the discovery of a traitor in their own ranks.
Are the riders strong enough to defeat Vosper before he destroys them all?
Excerpt from Book 1
Elias ran towards the town square, carrying a glass jar filled with green herbs. He needed to deliver them before nightfall. Elias’ grandmother, Carina, was the town midwife, and she had a vast knowledge of herbal remedies. Today he was an errand boy, delivering remedies and other concoctions all over the village.
Elias reached the shopkeeper’s back door and knocked quietly. The shopkeeper, Flint Graywick, was a protective father. He was also a widower and Birla was his only child. Birla had been visiting Carina in secret in order to alleviate her painful monthly cycle. The herbs would help lessen her discomfort. In the past, Elias would have been embarrassed to discuss these things, but he had been training as an apprentice healer for years. He was used to explaining things that would make other boys embarrassed.
“I’m coming!” said a young woman from inside the shop.
Elias heard footsteps and some more chatter as Birla finished speaking to the customer inside. Birla opened the door a few minutes later. “Hi, Elias!” She was a plump girl with reddish hair. She smiled and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Do you have the medicine?”
“Yes, here it is. My grandmother gave you some extra.” Elias held out the unmarked jar, which the girl pocketed in her apron.
“Thanks. I don’t want my father to know. He has enough on his mind without having to worry about my little troubles.”
She smiled awkwardly. All the women in the village felt comfortable talking to Elias about their aches and pains because they were used to seeing him with his grandmother. They made the rounds together to all the females in the village.
Elias dutifully rattled off the instructions. “This will be enough for three months, even if you take it every day. The jar must be kept in a cool, dark place, or the herbs will lose their power. Don’t steep the herbs in boiling water. When you prepare the infusion, the water should be hot, but not boiling. Steep the herbs for at least ten minutes, but not more than thirty, or the tea will be too strong and it will cause stomach cramps. Take the tea once per day, and four times per day during your moon cycle. It will ease your pain.”
“Thank you.” Birla smiled again, her hand drifting down to touch the precious jar in her pocket. “Wait a minute, I have something for you!” She disappeared back into the shop. A few moments later, she emerged again with a paper-wrapped parcel. “Here. This is for you and your grandmother. Hide it under your tunic, and don’t let anyone see!”
Elias took the package and slipped it under his cloak. It was fresh mutton, which was a rare treat at this time of year. It was his grandmother’s payment for the herbs.
Elias ran home, clutching the precious meat to his chest. In the distance, he could see three young men coming back from a hunt. They had spent the entire day in Darkmouth Forest chasing game. Their hands were empty. Elias ducked behind a shed and crouched down near the woodpile. He could not afford anyone catching him with the meat—some of these men were desperate to feed their own families. His grandmother had been feeling weak for many months and this meat would give her strength. As they passed, Elias overheard them talking about the hunt.
“What a miserable day. Tomorrow I’ll hunt rabbit. It will be easier to bring something home.” It was Alafarr, the son of the town’s mayor. He was as skilled a hunter as any, and it was rare for him to return empty-handed.
This year had been difficult and many villagers were going hungry. Blight and rain had ruined many crops, and game was scarce. Even the wealthier members of the village were having trouble keeping their families fed. If Alafarr was actually hunting for food and not sport, then things were terrible indeed.
“We’ll try again at dawn,” said Fastaor, who was Alfarr’s cousin. “Let’s travel deeper into the forest next time, perhaps for a few days. Together, we’ll catch something. I set some snares this afternoon, so we might get lucky tonight.”
“This season has been abysmal,” complained Galmor, who was Fastaor’s brother and the youngest of the group. “The grain is stunted, the corn has blight, and the forest has nothing for us to eat. Does the emperor expect us to eat rats?”
Fastaor struck the back of Galmor’s head with his bow staff.
“Owww!” cried Galmor, rubbing the top of his skull.
“Shut up, you fool! Vosper’s spies are everywhere, and men have been killed for less. Instead of complaining, say a prayer to the hunting goddess tonight. May she guide our arrows tomorrow, or else we’ll starve.”
Galmor grumbled, but he did not argue further with his older brother. He knew Fastaor was right. To criticize the emperor openly was blasphemy, and even in a remote mountain village like Persil, it was still prudent to avoid provoking the emperor’s wrath.
The men passed by Elias’ hiding place, their shoulders hunched. No one had brought home anything larger than a rabbit for weeks. Elias felt sorry for them, but he also knew that the men were too proud to gather mushrooms and tubers, believing it beneath them. Elias had no such prejudices, and it was this way that he and his grandmother always had enough to eat.
Elias stayed hidden until the men were out of sight. Then he crawled out from his hiding place and sprinted the rest of the way home, careful that he wasn’t followed.
He arrived at his grandmother’s cottage out of breath. As he opened the door, he could smell the pungent odor from her vast collection of herbs. Bottles lined every shelf.
His grandmother was making dinner. A black pot boiled on the hearth, waiting for his return. She had already filled the pot with cut-up potatoes, onions, and garlic—anything they had in the cellar. The smell of the hearty soup was filled the small cabin with a wonderful aroma. His grandmother was resting on her bed.
The tiny cottage only had two rooms: the kitchen and Elias’ bedroom. Elias rarely slept in his room—it was simply too cold. Carina slept in the kitchen near the hearth, and she had always done so. Elias often slept near the fire as well—it was warmer and he felt safer watching his grandmother during the night, especially since she had fallen ill. Elias went to his grandmother’s bedside. She had dozed off.
“Grandmother…” He shook her shoulder gently. “I have the meat.”
Carina’s shoulder-length hair was shock white. She wore it in a loose bun at the base of her neck, with a patterned fabric kerchief tied in the back, covering her head and ears. The vibrant colors of the kerchief made her skin look even paler than usual.
Her eyelids fluttered open. “Ah, Elias. Good…you’re here. Go bolt the door, and give me the parcel.”
Elias rushed to the door, sliding the lock. Then he reached under his cloak and pulled out the precious bundle, handing it to his grandmother. She opened it and frowned, inspecting the pieces of mutton by turning them over with her index finger. “Tsk! This is from an older animal—the meat will need to boil for a long time.”
“But Grandmother, there’s a nice chunk of fat and a big bone filled with marrow; that’s good. It will strengthen us both.”
Carina smiled and touched his cheek. “Ever the optimist, eh? Yes, I suppose you’re right. Beggars can’t be choosers. Put it in the soup pot; it will make a good meal for us tonight and the next day.”
She handed the package back to Elias and closed her eyes again, falling back onto the pillow. The small effort tired her.
Elias frowned. His grandmother’s strength was fading. Although her healing knowledge was vast, she could not turn back time. She was an old woman, one of the oldest in the village. Her health continued to deteriorate. He wished he could do more to help her.
Elias walked to the fireplace and dropped all of the mutton and chunks of fat into the pot, stirring the broth and vegetables. His stomach grumbled, but he knew that the rich stew would be worth the wait.
Elias turned around and noticed that Carina was watching him intently.
“I thought you were asleep. Why don’t you rest and I’ll wake you when the soup is ready?” asked Elias.
“I feel fine. I had a nap earlier.” Carina patted the bed. “Elias, come sit next to me. I want to tell you a story.”
This was their nightly routine. Carina would tell him a story, and then they would eat and go to bed. Usually, she talked about healing magic, but sometimes she would tell fantastic stories about cities she had visited, people she had met, and journeys she had taken. Sometimes, if Elias was lucky, she would talk about the dragons.
“Elias, I am old. I may not see another sun cycle.”
Elias hung his head. He didn’t argue. He knew it was true. Every year she seemed more fragile.
“You’re a good boy, and I have been blessed to have you by my side for all these years. I have taught you everything I know about healing. I’m sorry I could not teach you more. It is woman’s magic, and I know that you’ve been ridiculed by the other boys.”
“Grandmother, it’s not that bad, really. They don’t tease me so much.”
“I did the best I could, and I taught you a useful skill. You have a potent gift—much more powerful than mine. It will help you in times of trouble. One day you’ll understand that. Hopefully, you’ll get lucky and learn how to focus your powers even more.”
Elias spent his younger years collecting herbs and learning healing lore while all the other boys learned how to hunt. The others also teased him for being “fatherless.” Elias’ mother and father had died during the war, and Carina had raised him. Elias enjoyed learning magic, but he hated being bullied.
The teasing lessened a year ago when Elias stumbled on an older boy who had broken his leg in the forest. It was Shamus, one of the boys who tormented Elias the most. Elias fixed Shamus’ injured leg and helped him walk back to the village. After word of the rescue spread no one really teased Elias anymore. They took his healing seriously.
“Elias? Elias? Are you listening to me?” Carina flicked Elias’ hand.
Her gentle reprimand startled him out of the daydream. “Yes, I’m sorry, Grandmother. I’m listening.”
“Tonight, we must wait a long time for the lamb to cook, so I’m going to tell you an old story. You’re almost a man. Soon you’ll see your sixteenth cycle, and it’s time that you understand our land’s history.” Carina’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Most are afraid to speak of it because they dread the emperor’s wrath, but I am an old woman and I have little to fear.”
“Grandmother, don’t speak like that. It’s bad luck,” said Elias, frowning.
“Bah! What have I to fear? The emperor can do nothing to me here. We’re far from his opulent palace, full of slaves and lizard bones! He ignores our people while they starve, so he can collect more dragon trophies for his walls.”
It was rare for Carina to speak this way. Among her limited magical gifts was the gift of sight, and she felt darkness spreading across the land. Elias felt it, too. People were more guarded, more frightened. But of what? No one could say for sure.
“Elias, when I was a girl, children with magical gifts were highly prized. Mageborns were sent to train in the capital city. From a very young age, they trained as apprentice mages. When my parents discovered my magical gifts, I was only a young girl. I had started my moon’s cycle the previous month. That is when the magical gifts usually become obvious—after a boy or girl goes through their Changing Time.
“Our family had a pet—an orange cat named Farris. I adored him. One day, some boys threw rocks at Farris and crushed his pelvis. Farris dragged himself home to me on two legs, mewling in pain.
“I found him, his fur caked with dirt and blood. Broken bones poked through the skin. I cried into his fur and said prayers to the goddess of healing. But I didn’t know any real spells, and my powers were weak. My palms started to glow, but I couldn’t save Farris. I was only able to relieve his pain and stop the bleeding.”
Elias could see the sadness in her eyes, even after so many years, for the loss of a beloved pet. “So what happened next?” he asked quietly.
“Farris simply went to sleep and died two days later. I gave him a painless death. It was all that I could do. That was many, many moons ago. My parents discussed my magical gift for weeks. Most parents would have sent me immediately to the Temple to train—they would have received a nice dowry for me, and it’s best to start training as soon as a child’s gift is discovered. But my father was already a wealthy merchant, and our family had no need for the mage dowry. My mother—your great-grandmother—didn’t want me to leave.
“I was very spoiled. I lived a life without troubles or worries.” She glanced away for a moment, overcome by emotion.
Elias looked up. Carina rarely talked about her childhood or her parents. A shadow of pain crossed her face. Then she sighed and carried on. “My own grandmother also had the mageborn gift, and she was a powerful healer in her own time.”
“Why did your parents wait so long to start your training?”
“At first, they wanted me to celebrate my coming-of-age ceremony. It was an important rite of passage for young girls back then, with feasting that could last for days. It’s rarely celebrated now because most families can’t afford to spend money on such luxuries. In the end, though, my parents had little choice. A few years later, Vosper took the throne and the countryside was no longer safe. My parents felt that they couldn’t send me to train in Aonach—they were terrified of the emperor and his increasing powers. My mother’s premonition was correct. The following year, Vosper assassinated his own father and became the emperor.”
“What happened after Vosper took the throne?” asked Elias. “Was there a war?”
“No, not at first. Vosper was ruthless, but shrewd. He never declared war against anyone. He used assassins and dark magic to secure his position. First he slaughtered his four brothers. Not all at once—but they all died under suspicious circumstances. Then Vosper took control of Aonach Tower, under the guise that he was ‘protecting’ the mages. He killed any spellcasters who refused to serve him, branding them as traitors. Then he sent soldiers out to scour the countryside for any other mageborns—even children. All mages were sent to the palace under guard. They were forced to pledge fealty to the emperor, or they were executed. Vosper transferred the most powerful mages to his palace and refocused all their magical training on his own defense.”
“How did you escape?”
“Many of the weaker spellcasters escaped detection. The emperor subjugated the strongest mages when he stormed Aonach, but more than a few of us escaped enslavement. My magical gifts are limited, so I never attracted any suspicion. Some mages can only cast a few spells—enough to survive. There will always be spellcasters—it’s impossible to eradicate us all.
“I was one of the fortunate ones. I was still young and not many people knew about my gift. Keeping me hidden saved my life. We fled the city and changed our family name. Luckily, Father had saved some money. Those were difficult times.”
“If you fled the city, how did you receive your training?” asked Elias.
“My parents risked everything to send me to Miklagard, the last outpost of the free mages. Miklagard was a poor substitute for Aonach Tower. Only a handful of Masters escaped—those who were traveling away from Aonach during the emperor’s attack. I only trained at Miklagard for five years. Before the war, parents received a mage dowry for their children. Now, mages are forced to charge fees for training. There were many mageborns who were more powerful than I, but could not afford to train.”
“What did you learn in Miklagard?”
“I learned herb-lore and how to read simple spells. The Masters discovered early on that I had a gift for healing. I also learned how to hide my gift. Most people just assume that I’m an excellent midwife. Those who suspect rarely ask questions. A few times, though, I got careless and my magical gift was exposed. Twice I’ve had to leave a village because I feared that I would be reported to the emperor. It’s hard to believe that Vosper would be interested in a feeble mage like me, but you never know. It pays to be cautious. It’s a mistake to underestimate the treachery and greed of your neighbors.”
It was rare for Carina to reveal so much family history at once, and it was obvious that she struggled with the memories, still so painful after all these years.
“I’m thankful for my gift and my teaching. It has allowed me to earn a living while so many others have starved. After the destruction of the Temple, most believed that the emperor was satisfied. But Vosper had much higher aspirations than just controlling the mages of Durn. Two years later, he assassinated the Five Kings, charging them all with high treason. Everyone knew that it was a ploy for Vosper to take control of the entire continent.”
“Grandmother, I thought one of the kings survived,” said Elias. “What about King Mitca?”
“Yes… the rebel king. Who could forget about him? Unfortunately for the emperor, Mitca did survive. During the war, he was merely a prince. Mitca was the crown prince of Ravenwood and the only male child of King Galain. The prince survived because Galain sacrificed his own life to save his son’s. Galain discovered the emperor’s plot months before because he planted a spy in the emperor’s palace.”
“Why didn’t Galain just fight the emperor himself?”
“Galain knew that he wasn’t strong enough to stand up against all of Vosper’s armies and his corrupt wizards. Instead, Galain disguised his son as a beggar and whisked him out of the city with a few of his honor guard. Those men had guarded Mitca since his infancy and, to this day, the surviving members are fiercely loyal to the prince. Galain stayed in the city. A slave boy posed as a decoy for the prince. The city was captured shortly thereafter and the entire royal family was put to death.”
“Vosper didn’t realize that the slave boy was an imposter?”
“No. Galain killed himself and the boy in a staged suicide the night before their official executions. The deception was perfect. It was many years before Vosper discovered Galain’s trickery. By then, Mitca had already settled in the Death Sands and established the rebel Kingdom of Parthos. Vosper’s overconfidence cost him the rule of the continent. Now Parthos is a thorn in his side that will never go away, and every year Mitca grows stronger.”
“Why doesn’t the emperor just attack Parthos?”
“Oh, he has tried! He has tried! But Vosper has failed again and again. The Death Sands are almost impossible to cross, and the kingdom is heavily guarded. Parthos is a huge, well-populated city. The majority of its inhabitants are tribesmen, and they are inherently distrustful of the emperor. Parthos has a majestic fortress, which is carved right into the mountainside. It even has its own water source, an underground spring that can sustain the entire city if necessary. Mitca has his own mages, and the free mages of Miklagard are his allies. King Mitca is the emperor’s only real adversary. Plus… Mitca offered refuge to the last of the dragon riders.” Carina whispered the last sentence under her breath.
“Dragon riders? I thought they were all dead!” said Elias.
“Quiet! Keep your voice down!”
“The emperor is lying. There are still dragon riders. No one knows how many survive—even the nomads who live in the desert refuse to say. The desert people know how to keep secrets. The riders have sworn to protect Mitca, and the Kingdom of Parthos is their last sanctuary.”
“King Mitca is not the emperor’s only enemy. What about Balbor Island?” asked Elias.
“Ah, yes. Balbor, the Island of Death. The inhabitants of Balbor don’t pledge their allegiance to the emperor, but they’re not Vosper’s enemies. They’re independent. The Balborites are mercenaries. Unlike the rest of Durn, priests rule the island, not kings. They control their people with their foul religion, through bloody offerings and dark magic.”
The old woman leaned in close to her grandson’s ear. “Balbor is truly cursed—it is bad luck even to speak of it. Very little is known of their rituals. Some folktales tell us that the firstborn child of every female is dismembered as an offering to their dark god. They’re a secretive people and have been so for an eternity. Centuries ago, the Balborites sealed off their only port city. It is impossible to come or go to that forsaken place. If any ship attempts to land on the coastline, their priests destroy it.”
“But you said the Balborites were mercenaries? How do they survive? How do they get supplies?”
“No one really knows. Fishing and smuggling, perhaps. The only people who ever leave the island are trained assassins. They leave alone by boat to commit their murders and also report information back to the priests. Balborite assassins command a high price because they’re all mageborn and highly skilled. They practice death magic, foul magic. They’re the most ruthless killers in all of Durn, murdering without remorse or regret. They simply work for the highest bidder. Even though Balbor is not part of the emperor’s kingdom, Vosper would be foolish to try and conquer it. Balbor is the island of blackness, a place so full of wickedness that even our greedy emperor does not desire it. He is satisfied to let them be.”
Just then, Elias’ stomach grumbled. His hand flew to his midsection, embarrassed by the noise.
“Listen to me, carrying on like a senile old woman!” Carina laughed. “Of course, you’re hungry. Check the stew. It should be ready. Ladle yourself a bowl and bring me the marrow bone. We will share it. Tonight, we don’t go hungry.” They ate the delicious stew and prepared for bed.
That night, Elias dreamt of dragons, which he had never seen except in pictures. He was walking in the forest, and he could see them silhouetted against the night sky. Their scales glittered in the moonlight. One of the dragons touched down right next to him and reached out its clawed hand towards him. Startled, Elias ran into the safety of the underbrush. The dragon gave chase, bellowing in fury. He ran as fast as he could, jumping over rocks and brush. His side burned.
Eventually, he fell, careening face-first into the damp earth, his breath coming in ragged gasps. When he turned around, the dragon was gone. He was alone in the forest. It was the first of many dreams that he would have about dragons.