The Sunken Tower (Paperback)
The Sunken Tower (Paperback)
Book 5 in The Dragonspire Chronicles
For generations the Dragonriders protected Dragonspire Village
Now Yaz has to rescue them.
He only hopes that they know where his father was taken.
Meanwhile, the Dark Sages have finally captured Ariel. With her in their grasp, they set out to seize the final Dragonspire. Only a mad cult stands between them and fulfilling their mad ambitions.
Can Yaz free the Dragonriders and find his father before it’s too late?
Leonidas stood in the wreck that was Domina’s lab. Broken beakers and discarded scrolls covered the floor and spare tables. On her central workbench, yet another in an endless sequence of formulas bubbled away over a glowing heat stone. This one filled the lab with a faintly cinnamon scent, far more pleasant than some of the stenches she’d created. Domina had been working for a week now, virtually nonstop, performing every test she could think of or discover in the Black Sages’ archive, all of it to answer a single question: Why wasn’t Ariel awake yet?
The little girl sat strapped in a plain wooden chair, her eyes closed, and seeming for all the world sound asleep and completely unaware of what was going on around her. Maybe sleep wasn’t the right word. A coma or a trance might be more accurate. The poison they dosed her with was only supposed to keep her unconscious for a day at most. Leonidas was beginning to wonder if she would ever wake up at all. If she didn’t, there was going to be hell to pay.
“Well?” he asked. “Have you determined the problem?”
Domina turned away from the beaker she had been watching and rubbed her tired eyes. Dozens of thin wrinkles covered her face and hands. In her quest to determine what had gone wrong, Domina had been ignoring the daily treatments that maintained her youthful appearance. That was well, because if she hadn’t focused her entire attention on solving this problem, Leonidas might have lost his temper. As it was, he kept it under control by the narrowest of margins. They were supposed to have claimed the final tower by now and be in the process of bringing the rest of the world under his rule.
“I’ve tested the poison every way I can think of. There’s no flaw. It works exactly the way I intended.”
“All evidence to the contrary. If the poison isn’t the problem,” Leonidas said, “then what is?”
“If I knew that, I’d tell you. I have a sample of the girl’s blood in the beaker now. When the experiment is complete, I should have more information.”
She’d barely finished speaking when the crimson sand of the hourglass behind her ran out. A magical chime sounded and she spun around, yanking the beaker off the heat. She took out a small square of paper, withdrew a drop of the liquid from the beaker, and spread it across the paper. Leonidas watched as the paper turned from white to blue to green. It ended up a mottled swirl of the two colors.
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“It means Ariel isn’t fully human. That’s why my poison didn’t work as it was supposed to. I designed it to knock a human unconscious. Not a… hybrid whatever.”
Leonidas scowled and looked from the paper to the little girl and back again. “If she’s not fully human, then what is she?”
“That is the question, isn’t it? If I knew the components of her anatomy, I would be able to engineer an antidote. But without knowing exactly what she is and the proportions of each component, I risk doing more harm than good. Instead of waking her up, I might kill her.”
“What do you suppose she is?” Leonidas asked. “I know you’re not certain, but your best guess.”
Domina shook her head, looking more tired by the moment. “My guess is she’s an escaped experiment. Someone out there is walking in the same direction as you, only on a different path.”
“Not one of the high sages, I’d have heard about something like this. A third party? Someone with the knowledge to create a functional hybrid human. If that’s so, we need to find this person, claim their knowledge, and eliminate them from the field. But first, we need to know more about the girl.” Leonidas ran his fingers through his hair and blew out a long breath. “I’ll summon the rest of the cadre. Rondo discovered her, perhaps he has some information of value.”
Domina’s disgusted snort said what she thought about that possibility. Leonidas didn’t blame her; the idea that their fate might rest on what Rondo knew didn’t exactly fill him with confidence. In fact, it made his stomach churn and sent acid up the back of his throat. Be that as it may, Domina had clearly reached a dead end.
Leonidas would take any chance to move his mission forward. Even relying on the most unlikely source of help imaginable.
* * *
Yaz shivered in the cold, bitter wind. Snowflakes fell out of the leaden sky. Perfect weather for a funeral. All the people from Dragonspire Village had gathered to bury the last of those who died in the dragon attack. It had been a long, sad week, but everyone was ready to move on. At least as much as they could under the circumstances. He doubted anyone would fully recover from the trauma of the past few months.
Six men used heavy hemp ropes to lower the plain wooden casket until it was out of sight. Digging the graves in the partially frozen earth had been a miserable experience for all involved, one that reminded them with each strike of the pick how much they’d lost. Yaz had helped dig every grave and he would be glad not to have to dig any more, hopefully for a long time.
The people of the village weren’t overly religious at the best of times, so no prayer was spoken. Instead, after a moment of silence, two young men and a middle-aged woman, the slain man’s surviving family, began filling in the hole. This final task was a chance for them to say goodbye.
Not wanting to intrude, everyone else started to drift away, some back towards the fort and others off on their own to try and process what happened. Brigid reached out and took his hand, giving it a little squeeze. He appreciated the support; the gods knew he could use all he could get. Silas had begged off of attending the funerals, claiming he was an outsider and didn’t want to intrude. More likely he simply wanted to keep his distance from the depressing events. Yaz couldn’t really blame him.
As they were walking back towards the border fort, Allen hurried up to them. The villagers’ spokesman wore a neutral expression that gave him no clue as to what he wanted. “Yaz, do you have a moment?”
“Of course,” Yaz said. He offered a silent prayer that it wasn’t bad news. He’d had about all the bad news he could stand.
Allen glanced at Brigid, sighed, and said, “The other villagers and I have talked it over. We’ve decided to take Rend up on its offer of farms and a new start. After what happened, none of us have the heart to return to the valley. I don’t want to sound like we’re abandoning you, especially after all you’ve done for us, but I don’t think any of us will ever feel safe there again. Even after you rescue the dragonriders, there will always be that question: When will they come for us again? Here, at least, we don’t have to worry about becoming slaves.”
Yaz had expected this conversation for a while, but hearing Allen say it straight out made him feel a little sick. How was he supposed to tell his father when he found him that there was no village to return to? It made his success feel like a failure. Not that he would ever tell anyone that. The people had every right to make their own decisions about their future without him adding guilt on top of what was already a hard choice.
Maybe it was for the best. After everything he’d seen, Yaz couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to return to the Kingdom of Carttoom. The kingdom was rotten, broken in ways he hadn’t imagined before his travels. And yet, first thing in the morning, Yaz had every intention of crossing over once more and traveling north the length of Carttoom to the Free City of Kuralt. That was where the dragonriders were waiting and hopefully his father with them.
“I understand,” Yaz said. “When my work is finished in Carttoom, we may come and join you.”
Allen smiled, seeming relieved that Yaz wasn’t upset. “You would be most welcome.”
They shook hands to show there were no hard feelings and Allen went on his way. Yaz and Brigid resumed their slow walk back to the fortress. After a hundred yards or so she said, “My parents have been talking about staying. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Yaz said. “I can’t say the decision came as a shock. I’m just not sure how I will tell my father. Protecting the village has been his life since his own father died. I’m not sure what he’ll want to do. For that matter, I’m not sure what I want to do.”
“I know what I want to do,” Brigid said. “I want to be with you, wherever that happens to be.”
Yaz grinned. “Thanks. Maybe we can loot ruins with Silas. That was pretty exciting.”
They both laughed and some of the weight lifted off Yaz’s chest. As long as he was with Brigid, it felt like things would be okay.
When they reached the gate, the guards on duty opened it for them. Barely ten yards into the compound, Silas came running up, a big smile on his face. “You have got to see what they just brought in. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Yaz and Brigid shared a look. What could have gotten Silas so excited? Yaz hadn’t seen him like this since he started messing around with the black dragon amulet. Whatever it was had to be interesting.
Silas led them back to the center of the fortress. General Rend stood beside a silver-and-black sleigh that floated six inches off the ground. Yaz wanted to rub his eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing things but refrained for fear of looking foolish. He could imagine Brigid’s expression was every bit as surprised as his own but couldn’t tear his gaze away to make sure.
“General,” Yaz said. “What’s this?”
“A small gift from the Kingdom of Rend. We didn’t do a very good job of protecting your people, to my great shame. Please consider this a small token of apology.” The general smiled. “If at all possible, we would like you to bring it back in one piece.” The general’s wrinkles appeared especially deep today. No doubt the aftermath of the dragon attack left him exhausted.
Yaz moved closer. Built into the floor of the sleigh, a white gemstone about the size of the palm of his hand pulsed with an inner light. He laid a single finger on it and despite the chill of the day found it warm to the touch.
After a brief check in his mental library, Yaz asked, “Is that a levitation stone?”
“It is,” General Rend said. “One of two that recently came into our possession. It’s a long story. Anyway, this should get you to the Free City in about ten days. I don’t really understand all the details, but according to the wizard that delivered it, the sleigh works by commanding a group of wind spirits bound to it. No doubt Silas understands better than I do how it works. The point is, you won’t have to worry about snow, ruts, horses, or anything else slowing down your journey.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Yaz said. “The cynical part of me wants to ask about the catch, but the truth is anything that gets me to Kuralt faster, I will gladly accept. And don’t worry, we’ll do our best to get it back intact.”
“I’m sure you will. Shall we get out of this cold and go back to my tent? I’ve got a route all laid out for you that should get you to your destination and avoid most of the potential problem spots.”
Yaz nodded and he and Brigid fell in behind the general. Silas remained behind, no doubt wanting to familiarize himself with how the sleigh worked. Hopefully, he’d get the hang of it quickly as Yaz wanted to leave first thing in the morning.
* * *
Rondo was having flashbacks from the day Lord Black wanted a sample of his blood as he tromped down the dark steps to Domina’s lab. As was the case that day, there was barely enough light to see where to set his feet. Ahead of him, Shade and Umbra strode along like it was broad daylight. It had become increasingly clear to Rondo that he’d ended up with a group of monsters. Even Shade, the most normal of the bunch, could do things most normal men wouldn’t even consider.
They’d been back at the citadel for a while now and every time he saw Lord Black, he appeared in a worse mood than the time previous. The atmosphere at the citadel was so tense that the two high sages in residence when they arrived had left for their private workshops far from headquarters and their brooding leader. Hopefully Lord Black didn’t plan to take out his frustrations on one of them. If he did, it was certain to be Rondo who took the blow.
If he was nervous, Shade and Umbra didn’t share his worries. Both men looked well at ease as they walked ahead of him. Shade was blathering on about something. Rondo was too nervous to follow the discussion but the little he caught suggested he was discussing one of his recent assignations with the serving wenches.
At the bottom of the stairs, Umbra pushed the door open. Across the messy lab, Lord Black stood beside the still-unconscious Ariel. Domina kept her distance from them. It seemed her lack of success had put her out of the most high’s favor. Rondo didn’t dare give a single sign of his pleasure at seeing the crazy woman suffering Lord Black’s wrath. Out of favor or not, she was likely to kill him and suffer the repercussions, assuming there were any, later. Rondo rather suspected that if he were to die, it would garner little more than a shrug from any of his fellow cadre members.
When all three of them stood facing Lord Black, he said, “As you can see, we remain unable to bring the girl around. We have, however, determined the source of the problem. It seems that, despite her appearance, she is not completely human.”
Rondo’s throat tightened. The implications of that last sentence were beyond profound. He was beginning to understand why Lord Black had summoned them.
“Is she one of Kranic’s?” Umbra asked.
“I don’t believe so,” Lord Black said. “Kranic has never shown any interest in either dragons or the Dragon Empire. If that had changed, my spies would have alerted me. It’s possible he was working on the project in complete isolation but given the girl’s apparent age I think it unlikely. No, I feel confident none of the other high sages could have undertaken an experiment like this without me gaining at least some hint of their intentions.”
“If she isn’t one of our experiments, that worries me more than if she was,” Umbra said.
“As usual,” Lord Black said, “your thoughts echo my own. Concerning as it is, I am forced to acknowledge that a third party must be involved. But for the moment, that is neither here nor there. I require more information about the girl. In order for Domina to successfully brew an antidote, she needs to know the complete makeup of the girl’s body. You three are going to track down the information for me.”
“How?” Shade asked, blunt and fearless as ever.
“The turtle farmers,” Rondo said before he could think better of it.
All eyes turned to him. “Would you care to elaborate?” Lord Black asked.
Rondo cleared his throat and tried to work some spit into his suddenly dry mouth. “When I first found her, she was living with a family of turtle farmers in the Vast Swamp. It occurred to me that they might have some information about her in their cabin. It was remote enough that I doubt anyone has bothered it since we left.”
Domina snorted. “Don’t be an idiot. No ignorant farmer is going to have the information I need.”
“I didn’t imagine they would. But she’s odd enough, especially her eyes, that I thought they might have taken her to a healer or priest or something. Someone like that might have useful information.”
Lord Black smiled. “An excellent thought, Rondo. It’s a place to start at least. I had forgotten all about it from your earlier report. This is exactly why I summoned you all here. Good ideas can come from the most unlikely places. Take the ship and go there at once. Domina and I will remain here in the hopes of discovering something else on our own. As soon as you have anything useful, contact me immediately.”
As they were leaving, Domina shot Rondo a look of such venom he doubted he’d dare eat a meal he didn’t prepare himself for fear of it being poisoned. Oh well, at least Lord Black seemed pleased with him. If this mission was a success, when Lord Black ruled the world, perhaps he’d give Rondo his own kingdom.
A man could dream after all.
* * *
Yaz pulled the hood of his heavy cloak up higher around his neck. They were a full day out from the Rend border and making good time. To the left and right, everything appeared as a white blur with occasional bursts of green. Traveling in a flying sleigh was a quick way to get around, but chilly. You’d think whoever designed the thing would have put something in the front to block the wind. At least the journey was silent.
Or nearly so. The only noise came when Silas loosed the occasional bit of laughter as he guided the sleigh down the empty road. No one had been this way since the last snowstorm and no one would know they had been through, either, as the runners left no marks. It almost felt like they were ghosts. Hopefully any Carttoom patrols braving the cold would find them equally difficult to locate. At their current speed, they should leave Carttoom behind in another two or three days. It couldn’t come soon enough for Yaz. He wanted very badly to get somewhere no one was looking for them.
Their leave-taking had been blessedly brief. It almost felt like the other villagers were embarrassed or afraid to see them off. That was a shame, as Yaz felt no ill will towards them for choosing the safety of the Kingdom of Rend over an uncertain future back in the valley. It was a sensible decision. Even so, he couldn’t deny a little bit of disappointment. When their mission was finally over, life was going to be far different than what they’d gotten used to.
Beside him, Brigid adjusted their heavy fur blanket. It had been a final parting gift from General Rend and when the wind hit them it was a welcome one. Cold as it was, Yaz doubted that was what was bothering Brigid. He glanced her way, but she didn’t seem to notice, her mind far afield.
“Scale for your thoughts?” Yaz said.
She looked up as if realizing he was there for the first time. “Sorry, I was just thinking about my parents. They weren’t terribly supportive when I told them I was going with you. It’s like as long as they were safe, they didn’t care about anything else. I know that’s probably not fair, but that’s how it felt.”
“They’re just worried about you,” Yaz said. “They are your parents after all. Worrying about you is in their job description.”
She offered a weak smile at his poor joke.
“It’s not just that,” she said. “They don’t trust me to take care of myself. Even after I helped rescue them, they still think I’m just a little girl. My father especially. He didn’t say anything, but I suspect deep down inside he still harbors the notion that he’s going to marry me off to Owen Chase. Frankly, I’m glad we left when we did. One more day of their sidelong glances and vague suggestions and I might’ve gone crazy.”
Yaz wasn’t sure what to say to reassure her. He would’ve given just about anything to have his parents there and worrying about him. Not that his parents were great worriers, but once in a while they felt the need to offer a bit of parental concern. Dad more than Mom if he was honest. His mother was usually too engrossed in a project at the tower to be overly concerned about him.
He sighed. Soon enough he’d find them.
“This is great!” Silas shouted. “I wish you guys could feel the spirits’ joy when they pull the sleigh. It’s like they’re fulfilling some divine purpose.”
He seemed blissfully unaware of his companions’ concerns. Beside Silas, Wicked rested on the driver’s bench. The little skull’s eyes seemed to be glowing especially brightly today. Probably in reaction to its master’s pleasure. That seemed a wise decision and Yaz decided to emulate the undead familiar.
Yaz planned to enjoy everything he could for as long as he could. The danger would begin again all too soon. And when it did, the gods alone knew what might happen.