Əsas səhifə The Guild Core 1: Dragon Bourne (A Dungeon Core LitRPG/Cultivation Epic)

The Guild Core 1: Dragon Bourne (A Dungeon Core LitRPG/Cultivation Epic)

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2020
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Mad Hag Books
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english
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EPUB, 699 KB
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Kitab haqqında rəy bildirə və öz təcrübənizi bölüşə bilərsiniz. Digər oxuculara Sizin oxuduğunuz kitablar haqqında fikrinizi bilmək maraqlıdır. Kitabın ürəyinizcə olub-olmamasından asılı olmayaraq, bu barədə dürüst və ətraflı məlumat versəniz, insanlar onlar üçün maraqlı olan yeni kitablar tapa bilərlər.
2

A Clash of Kings

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english
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EPUB, 862 KB
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The Guild Core: Dragon Bourne



A Dungeon Core LitRPG/Cultivation Epic





TJ Reynolds





Mad Hag Books





Contents




World Map of Lianin



Map of Anvar





Prologue: Splinter of the Past



1. Our Man in Mindonne



2. Spark to Flame



3. With Oldest Blood



4. One Last Dance



5. When Two or More



6. Rules of the Game



7. Sense and Suitability



8. Stuck in the Middling with You



9. Burning Bright



10. While the Hero Toils



11. The Wisdom of Water



12. More like a Looking Glass



13. The Inconvenience of Skullduggery



14. Cats in a Mousetrap



15. Staves and Stones



16. Beggar Your Neighbor



17. Charity Begins to Roam



18. The Price of Pondering



19. With Wand and Blade



20. To Be Thy Adam



21. Bright Eyes, Blind Sky



22. Visit Before Venture



23. Boots, Baggage, and a New Look



24. Roadside Sages



25. This Way Comes



26. A Night Out, on Mindonne Town



27. And the Ugly



28. When in Doubt, Remodel



29. Morning After and the Quest to Come



30. Lessons in Limitations



31. When Fate Calls, it Screams



32. Bright Against the Black



33. To Break the Tide



34. The Consequences of Honor and Attraction



35. And Caverns Old



36. Captive Keeps the Key



37. Shadows in the Cave



38. Wearing the Wolf Skin



39. Unsavory Guests, Unsavory Minds



40. When Deep Calls



41. Stolen Heart, Fallen Sky



42. Spilled Milk and Broken Toys



43. Breaking the Ice



44. Rest and Recompense



45. And Then There were Three



Breadcrumbs and Borrowed Time



Anecdotes and Archival Particulars





Liked What you Read?



About the Author



The LitRPG Guildmasters



Acknowledgements and Royal Road Love



If You’re a Fan of Cultivation, LitRPG, and Gamelit…



LitRPG





World Map of Lianin





Map of Anvar





Prologue: Splinter of the Past





Shield Sergeant Bloodspar



Drystan crushed the squaller’s sternum, his boot splintering the beast’s ribs. It flailed a pair of emaciated arms and opened its mouth, a row of thin teeth making the creature;  look more like a fish pulled from the depths of an underground lake than any humanoid race.

He pounded the side of its head with his hammer to be certain of its death.

“Sweet Andag! I think you’ve killed it twice, Drystan,” a man said from behind him. “Do you always make a mess like this?”

As shield sergeant, Drystan Bloodspar had the right, the privilege, to stand among those in the front lines. Helm sergeants may get paid more but had to think for a living; they couldn’t have nearly as much fun.

Then again, he frowned as he tried to pull back his boot, which was lodged in the scrawny creature’s ribcage, he figured they didn’t have to contend with quite so much blood and gore, either.

“Should have seen the last dungeon.” Drystan smirked. “For some reason, the thing used blasted pigs to defend its core. I haven’t had the courage to eat a single rasher of bacon since.”

The two men exchanged a laugh, then subdued their celebrations. Regardless of how easy this dungeon had been up to this point, they had yet to face its champion. No matter how small an Earth Core was, defeating its champion would be a challenge.

Drystan grinned at his friend and spun the hammer in his hand. Like so many other Elites, his armor wasn’t standard issue. He’d had each piece modified to suit his body and his style of fighting. He’d chosen the Stone-breaker class as a young man, and almost regretted it after. Few Stone-breakers lived long enough to earn their stripes in the army, fewer still to achieve any kind of rank.

He’d been more competent, however, than many had predicted. Before long, Drystan the Destroyer was promoted to shield sergeant, second in command of an entire platoon, and served in the prestigious Vermillion Guard. The Red Cloaks, the Bloody Hand, the Elites—the unit had many names—but regardless of what you called the Guard, it was plain to all that they only took the best into their ranks.

The shield sergeant stepped forward, eyeing the man he’d come to love as a brother. Drystan opened his mouth, but Sandrey spoke for him. “I know. You’re going first.” Holding out his armored hand, with a mocking bow, he willingly gave over the lead.

A full squad of Elites waited in the dungeon’s small main chamber, ready to provide support if needed. As the War of the Dragons raged on, the Brintoshi had learned how foolish it was to send too many soldiers down into a dungeon at one time. As this particular dungeon had been assigned the rather low ranking of Amber ascended, Drystan and Sandrey would finish it on their own.

The glow of pale-blue ether filled every corner, making the passages inside all dungeons easy enough to see in. Drystan was glad they didn’t have to carry flickering torches, stinking of pitch, as they delved into the hewn stone caverns for the Earth Cores. And, if one were being honest, no one could have guessed the war would end like this.

Defeating a dungeon’s minions and harvesting its ether and loot was one thing—soldiers and adventurers alike had been doing so for ages—but destroying them by shattering their precious gemstone hearts… well, that was a different story entirely.

Drystan strode ahead, noting a gentle decline in the dungeon floor. As he reached the bottom of the slope, he heard a scraping noise that sent shivers down his spine. So far, the dungeon had presented a consistent if disappointing defense: a rabble of roaming minions, all too weak to even dent his glorious armor.

This new sound, though, came from something different. He glanced back to Sandrey and whispered, “Two pints says that’s the champion. Keep close.”

Sandry didn’t press the bet. Everyone knew Drystan’s instincts were spot on. But he’d make his man buy the first two rounds anyhow. After we’re done here, we’ll both be bored out of our minds and flush with too much coin to spend. Only ale and a few run-ins with tavern girls can save us then.

Taking a deep breath, he cleared his mind of anything but destruction. The champion fight was undoubtedly his favorite part of each dive, and he wouldn’t be distracted by thoughts of milk-pale skin and lifted skirts.

He moved with purpose, knowing that being caught within the doorway was worse than anything. Striding into the next chamber, Drystan saw a hunched form with far too many legs protruding from its back. Yet when it turned and hissed at him, he was surprised it wasn’t anything like a spider.

An amalgamation, as some experts called them, blinked too-large eyes at them. The dungeon had combined its humanoid squaller minion with some insect beast of the deep.

Its skin was white and translucent, and long legs moved its frail body around gracefully. Instead of arms, the creature had long, probing appendages fanning out from its chest. By the way it moved them about, Drystan guessed they were sensory organs.

He didn’t bother scanning it to see whatever fool name the Earth Core had assigned the champion.

It simply didn’t matter.

A beast like this was best felled from a distance. It would be venomous, or spit some kind of foul acid, so even as Sandrey walked to stand beside him, Drystan clutched his great hammer, lifting it just a foot above the ground. Then he trotted forward and to the side, turning in a single, tight spin, and launching the weapon into the beast’s blighted maw.

The champion tried to move away, and avoided a killing blow. Yet the hammer careened through the right side of its legs. It fell to its side, screaming in a language no civilized man could decipher.

Drystan unsheathed a short sword and pointed a finger at the flailing beast, urging his companion on. “All yours, Sandrey. Be quick about it. Would like to retrieve my hammer should anything else happen upon us.”

In less than a minute, Sandrey relieved their foe of its other useful legs and finally its head.

Drystan sighed in relief as the screaming finally stopped. Is there no way these vermin can die quietly? I swear, next time I’m packing my ears with wax.

The tinkle of loot hit the dungeon floor, but they ignored it. They were paid by the king, and anything claimed in such a venture was his due. Sandrey merely wiped some of the foul blood from his blade and they continued onward, Drystan again in the lead.

A chamber lay ahead, visible through the narrow passageway they walked along. Drystan could tell it was large, though still some fifty feet away. As they came closer, the sprawling room presented itself, opening up at least another fifty feet on either side.

He gazed back at Sandrey and gave him a quizzical look. The man shrugged back, as if to say your call. At that moment, Drystan almost did the smart thing, calling in the rest of their squad of Elites to face whatever beast lurked here together. But where’s the shivving fun in that? he wondered and with a cocky grin, stepped into the chamber.

As soon as his boot hit the stone floor, a rumbling filled the air, and a massive figure rose up before them. They could see it had been there all along, resting in a depression in the floor. Drystan had heard many fanciful tales in his life, most of them told in cramped bars over the rim of a too-oft emptied tankard of cheap ale, but none of the tales of dragons that reached his ears came from sober witnesses. Despite his lack of credible knowledge, Drystan instantly knew the dragon for what it was.

“By the gods! Drystan, we should flee. There weren’t supposed to be any bloody dragons here!” Sandrey pleaded, tugging at his elbow. “Come on, while there’s still time!”

Drystan would never be promoted to helm sergeant. He had neither the mental prowess to make the snap decisions required for adapting battlefield tactics on the fly, nor the patience to deal with petty posturing and the politics of the officer’s tent. But those who followed and stood beside him knew his mind was as keen as the edge of an axe when it came to the action and reaction that was melee combat.

Already, he had assessed the situation. This was a small dragon, only thirty feet from snout to tail. Its wings, which reared over its shoulders, made for a terrifying image, but its chest wasn’t much broader than a stallion’s.

This dungeon was weak, and its shivving dragon had remained to guard the Earth Core while all the rest had flown to Hintar’s aid. Drystan was sure the beast would still represent a danger to them. It would take a dozen or more Golden ascended knights to bring it down.

But Drystan was no ordinary man.

He’d gained more power than most soldiers alive, fought countless battles, and he knew he could slay the dragon on his own.

He tugged free of Sandrey’s grip. “No, this is a fight I will not turn away from.” Striding forward, Drystan called out in a mocking tone. “If you aren’t the last by now, you’re damn near close enough. Why are you hiding away? Don’t you know the fate of your kind?”

The dragon’s growl deepened, shaking the stone of the chamber itself. “I will not leave my Earth Core.” It sneered, “You are too small to slay me. Leave while you can, murderer!”

Drystan’s mocking laughter was so loud, the dragonling ceased its growls. “Small? Aye, and yet my core contains more ether than yours.” He strode forward confidently. “I’ve killed scores of men and hundreds of beasts. And when I leave here, I’ll have killed a dragon, as well.”

Without further warning or even a pause to wait for his closest friend, Drystan charged.

He bore no shield, but put his full trust in the destructive potential of a double-handed swing of his great hammer. The dragon swept forward with a talon-tipped paw; its attack was so quick, it nearly ended the fight before it had begun. But Drystan slid forward on his knees, the back of his helmet nearly touching the ground, and felt the wind of the attack pass through the space above him.

Snapping his torso back upright, he used the momentum to smash the beast’s overextended wrist in a fierce counterattack. The sound of bones cracking echoed in the chamber.

Pulling back his swing, Drystan activated Meteor Blow, and the broad head of his hammer glowed an angry red before slamming forward again in a blur. When it landed on the dragon’s shoulder, Drystan could feel the reverberating impact ripple through his arms.

The dragon roared in pain, and clutched its shattered limb to its chest. Blood poured from its elbow where a shard of bone jutted through the skin, splintered by the terrible attack.

It turned, as if to retreat, before spinning around to slam its tail to the ground, hoping to take Drystan off guard. But although this was his first fight with a real dragon, that didn’t mean he wasn’t trained for it.

Timing, he knew, was everything.

He rolled under the thrashing appendage and chopped viciously at the base of the tail with another counter. This time he used Anvil’s Edge, and his hammer sheared off five feet of arm-thick and armored dragon tail.

Another agonized roar reverberated through the chamber. Drystan never felt more alive than in the thick of combat, and his blood thrummed with power. This was what he lived for, and he knew, this was what he’d most likely die for as well.

“Come, dragon!” he mocked. “Have you no fire? No spells to call upon? Or should I crack open the side of your head and end this farce?”

The dragon wasn’t ready to admit defeat, not yet at least. Drystan could see that well enough. He prepared to dart in close, ducking under or leaping over the next attack, and then, when the dragon tried to bite him, he’d land his hammer on the smooth, bone plating at its temple. A Meteor Blow there and it would be over.

Too easy, he thought.

Ending the contest so soon felt like blasphemy.

So instead, Drystan stalked the cowering beast, hoping to draw the fight out a few moments more.

Then the dragon let its jaw hang slack.

Its throat began to glow.

Nodes of ether-blue light lit up at the base of its neck and climbed up its neck to fill the back of its throat. It was using a spell at last. Men used skills, like Meteor Blow, but dragons had spells: a more potent defense.

He waited, knowing again that timing would save him. And what glory to witness a dragon’s spell craft and live to see the day.

A beam of brilliant blue energy exploded from the beast’s maw. Drystan leapt into a roll, avoiding the thick column of powerful ether.

“Down, Drystan!” Sandrey shouted from behind, and the chamber shook with the power of the creature’s elemental attack. A boom, so loud it left his ears ringing, erupted behind him, and chips of stone from the back wall skittered across the floor.

He turned to call his friend off, to demand to fight the beast alone.

But when he saw what had become of his friend, he nearly collapsed.

Chunks of Sandrey’s body lay scattered across the ground. Struck by the beam, he had frozen solid, and then his torso shattered, splintering into a thousand pieces. His great sword, helm, and part of his breastplate were all that remained of Drystan’s brother-in-arms.

It was Drystan’s turn to let out an agonized cry.

Distantly, he heard the dragon preparing another spell. This time, the beast seemed to shimmer with a pale-green light, and even as Drystan looked on, its claws extended, becoming thin and sharp as curved rapiers.

Ignoring the dragon’s obvious power, he ran toward it headlong.

Just as he’d thought it would, the beast struck at him with its good paw. Drystan dove over the flashing talons and rolled back to his feet. He dodged a vicious bite, then pounded his hammer into the side of its skull.

The cry of disorientation and pain that came from the creature fueled his following attacks.

Trying to steady itself, the dragon splayed out its forelegs, its head hovering just before Drystan. Again, it activated its icy breath, the blue nodes lighting alone the length of its neck.

The Destroyer didn’t wait long enough for the spell to be completed. He swung up into the dragon’s lower jaw. His hammer connected, cracking the bone to pieces. Spinning sideways, Drystan dodged a desperate attack and crushed the offending paw.

A heart-rending cry of anguish rang through the dungeon. Drystan ran up the broken limb and jumped into the air. In an overhead strike, the man triggered his most powerful skill, Fist of Yugos. His hammer burned with the fire of a coal-heated forge, and when it landed, a ring of crimson force broke outward in all directions, crushing the knobby plate of the dragon’s forehead.

Fragments of brain and bone painted the nearby wall.

The dragon’s long body went slack and slumped to the stone. Drystan hammered at its head over and over until what remained was little more than a puddle of vermillion sludge.

His breath came in sharp gasps and his whole body shook. He was in such a state, he barely noticed the outpouring of ether that emerged from the dragon’s core and surged into him. He only stood, panting, feeling a deep and terrible cold settle within.

After long moments staring at nothing, he remembered the shivving Earth Core.

His friend—the only bloody man in the whole unit that could stand his company—lay dead, because of his arrogance. It was all his fault. Sandrey’s blood was on his hands. He had a job to do, though.

A task both simple and sweet.

Behind the slumped figure of the dragon, he spotted a glowing alcove tucked into the wall. There he found the gleaming Earth Core, ether-blue and pulsing helplessly.

Drystan didn’t use a skill this time, just brought down his hammer in an overhand blow that smashed it squarely. The sound the Earth Core made when it split into pieces resembled both the cracking of an egg and the shattering of a thick pane of glass. It sickened him, but at the same time, granted him an immense degree of satisfaction.

“There! Happy now, you blasted dungeon?” he screamed. “Happy now?”

His rage still writhed inside his body, and he had no outlet for it. Drystan threw down his hammer and smashed his fist into the shards of the core like he was pounding a drum.

His bloodied fists smashed down again and again. As he struck an eighth and final time, Drystan let his hand fall flat, open wide and vulnerable, onto the remnants of the shards. A tiny sliver of the core wove through a gap in his steel gauntlet and buried itself in his palm.

A thread of ice lanced through his body as he felt the sliver pierce muscle and bone.

He cried out in pain and tore his hand free of his gauntlet to inspect the wound. For a moment, a blue light pulsed from the bloody gash in the base of his palm. Then it winked out, and he knew, somehow, that it had been absorbed. A tiny portion of this Earth Core was a part of him now.

And no matter what he did, it would always be there to remind him of his sins.





1





Our Man in Mindonne





Kai



Mindonne was like any other town in Brintosh, filled with quaint and modest people as loyal as they were ignorant of the world around them. Were it not for its proximity to the border of Hintar, an old and bitter rival, it may have remained so.

The seventh bell rang as Kai came back from hunting. He’d spent the day in the Atoli forest to the north, a safe, bright place to go, if one was set on the foolhardy task of becoming a hero. It was the only occupation Kai could ever imagine, and though he lacked the skill and constitution for such endeavors, he continued to try.

Today’s work, or rather the lack of it, had been frustrating, to say the least. He’d set out to hunt the gray hares that lived among the pine and maples, but only happened upon a few squirrels. Not the bushy-tailed red squirrels that were much preferred for their pelts, but scrawny black squirrels that always, somehow, looked to be a single rotten acorn from death’s door.

He gathered them from the simple but effective snares he’d set the day before. There was no need to be wasteful. Even though the creatures gave next to no ether when killed—a clean knock on the head with his cudgel was all it took—he was grateful for every little bit.

Then he’d skinned them and wasted several more hours searching for gray hares. He’d had no luck; the woods were empty. The squirrel population had been severely diminished, mostly due to his own efforts, and larger game rarely came so close to town.

At least it’s beautiful, he thought to himself, as he trod the endless tracks of hunters' trails.

Back in town, his first stop was to submit his few squirrel hides to the scrutiny of Yelda, the tanner’s wife. The woman was of middling age, and, if seen from a distance, almost looked kindly and approachable. When haggling though, the Hintari tradeswoman was sharper than the javelins her people carried to war.

She saw Kai approaching and her eyes narrowed to slits. Somehow, he knew he would always disappoint this woman. “Hares for me today, Kai?” she asked, hand already on her hip.

Her disdain stung more than he wanted to admit.

Yelda was the only other person in town with Hintari blood, and he’d assumed, quite foolishly, that because they had that in common, she’d take a liking to him. Her face was as golden brown as the polished leather her husband produced, and if truth were told, Kai thought her beautiful.

Yet when she looked at him, her features drew into a scowl of incomparable potency.

He managed to respond without sarcasm, “Sorry, no, not today, ma’am, just some squirrel pelts.” Kai placed the three bedraggled skins on the table and cringed when Yelda practically boiled with frustration.

Finally, she snapped, “Did you flog the poor beasts before you killed them?” Kai bit his tongue, remembering the one he’d had to strike several times before it had ceased thrashing in the snare. “Shivving gods below, boy. I’ll give you 2 coppers is all.”

He winced, and held up a hand to complain.

She cackled, her teeth flashing yellow. “Three, then. If you haven’t noticed, you’ve killed near every squirrel in these damn woods, and few want their pelts any longer. Three, or nothing at all.”

And so Kai relented, watching another day’s labor swept disinterestedly into a sack. He picked up the three misshapen coppers she tossed his way and turned to see to his growing hunger.

The next merchant in town he needed to see was Winford, the town baker, a man as generous as Andag himself. It was with a smile and a grumbling gut that he walked through the streets. Yelda and those damned gray hares could go and choke on Yugos’ mighty spear for all he cared. It was time for food.

The bakery stood at the far end of market square, yet the miraculous yeasty smell of rising bread filled near half the town. Kai whistled an old tune he’d learned in childhood, ignoring the casual insults and scowls thrown his way.

This close to Hintar, war had taken a toll on Mindonne and its people. Nearly twenty years had passed since a shaky peace settled things down, but hatred and distrust remained. Anyone with even a drop of golden Hintari blood was treated like pond scum.

As he approached the square, Kai saw the two people he hated more than anything. Roarke and Karsen were young men with vinegar in their veins and heads harder than a winter turnip. They’d found him the other day practicing attacks with his cudgel at the edge of town. No hero can gain skill without practice, after all, but it had prompted the troublemakers to pester him.

Thankfully, a few too many townsfolk were around for things to get ugly, so they’d settled on the usual insults instead of giving him the drubbing they’d have preferred. He knew a confrontation was inevitable; he only wished to be well-fed when it happened.

Kai jogged around the back of the bakery and ducked behind a fence. He watched the two boys pass from a distance. “Shivving bastards. Give me another year and I will best you both,” he cursed.

“I’m sure they look like creeping slimes, but they’re barely men, Kai. Just like you,” Winford said from the back door.

Kai attempted to look casual, but it was obvious the baker knew what he was about. “I know. I just don’t want any trouble,” he explained. “Besides, I’m tired and hungry.”

Winford laughed easily and gestured for him to come inside. “I’m sure you are. Come and have your meal, Kai.”

Wanting to change the subject, Kai held up his prize. “I have three squirrels for the pot if you’ll have them. A bit scrawny,” he admitted, “but good enough to eat.”

Winford nodded agreeably. “Sure. Sure. My stew is already done, but I know just who’ll need these for tonight. Here.” The baker tossed him a brown bundle. “Figured these’ll help you on your next outing.”

Kai caught the burlap sack and thanked the man. Regardless of what had been inside it, Kai knew he probably needed it. After all, a handful of seeds to a poor farmer is as good as gold, they say, Kai thought, weighing the gift speculatively.

“Thank you, Winford. I appreciate the help.”

The baker approached, palming a skinny shoulder in his big hand, and peered into Kai’s eyes. “I know your heart is set on slaying wild beasts and ascending your core, but there are other ways of living. You could make a life here in Mindonne, become my apprentice. Hell, boy, you could have yourself a wife before harvest. I made my vows when I was seventeen, and you’re what, almost twenty?” The man chuckled. “Nothing like warm sheets to make you feel content.”

Kai stared down at his feet, shaking his head. “I can’t tell you how much that means to me, sir, but I could have had the same life at my uncle’s farm. I came here because it is close to the mountains and close to the swamp. I will win a wife when I have made a heap of gold and gathered enough stories to last a lifetime.”

Winford smiled and then clapped Kai on the back. Before the man left with the squirrels, though, he added one more piece of advice. “Kai, the thing with young men like Roarke and Karsen … find a way to earn their respect and they’ll not only accept you, but they might become friends. Give it a try, okay? I promise, they aren’t evil.”

Kai nodded and watched the man leave, then ducked into the kitchen, breathing in the rich scents of potato, herbs, and grease that perfumed the air. Though he’d always had plenty to eat on his uncle’s farm growing up, Kai hadn’t tasted proper cooking until Winford had given him a portion of his daughter’s stew.

Sorcha stood kneading dough for the next day’s bake. When she saw him enter, she pointed to the small table in the corner. “There’s yours. Be quick with it too. I’ve got lots to do and don’t need your creeping eyes about.”

Winford’s only child was not nearly as kind and warm as he was, yet Kai knew she had a good heart. If not, then surely her bread wouldn’t taste so good.

The young man sat and ate, barely allowing himself time between bites to breathe. The rich flavors of rosemary and red peppers danced upon his palate. He suppressed a moan, knowing his company wouldn’t at all approve of such vocalizations.

Each evening, he received a bowl of Sorcha’s stew and a roll of day-old bread in trade for whatever meat he brought or a few copper coins, whichever he had to spare.

Once, Kai had managed to bring in three fat hares and had gone to the butcher instead. He’d sold each coney for five coppers. But when he brought in smaller game, Winford would take it to one of the widows he looked after.

Kai stole a glance at Sorcha. The woman worked with the tenacity and vigor of one who’d repeated the same motions a thousand times. He noticed the hitch and sway of her bosom as it tested the limits of her blouse. By Briga’s sweet breath, and her hips! Stout enough to hold back the coming of winter itself.

Clearing his mind, Kai forced himself to view her in a way his aunt would’ve approved of. Her hands were callused and strong, and she had a fierce determination about her brow that would ensure she finished preparing for the next day’s bread a thousand times to come in the future as well.

Plain and simple, Sorcha toiled away harder than many professionals and Kai knew why her father was proud of her.

Sure enough though, Sorcha caught Kai in the middle of his appraising thoughts, and her eyes bulged in a flash of anger.

“Quit your creeping!” she snapped and Kai dutifully studied the wall, stifling a laugh.

She wasn’t much older than himself, perhaps twenty-one years old. It wasn’t simply that Sorcha’s face was pleasant, nor even the cream of her skin or the bounty of her magnificent chest that pulled his eyes in as surely as the clutches of a miremog. It was also how she snapped at him as she would any other man in Mindonne.

Unlike most of the other girls in town, Sorcha never pretended he didn’t exist.

Kai left the bowl on the small table and scooped the bread into the bag Winford had given him. When he looked inside, he saw four small apples, a bit discolored but shining up at him like rubies. Those would account for dessert, as well as breakfast and lunch on the morrow.

“Thanks, love. I’d be dead from hunger twice over if it wasn’t for your stew,” he said, dodging a well-aimed slap.

Sorcha growled like a feral mountain cat, but continued her work. Kai giggled to himself and headed back outside the bakery.

Dusk fell over Mindonne town, and the few people who scurried about last-minute chores threw dubious glances Kai’s way. He had grown used to their suspicion and mostly ignored such attention. Since he’d arrived here nearly six months ago, little had changed. If you weren’t born in Mindonne, you were never truly welcome.

Cheered by the warm stew in his belly, Kai went looking for his friend. Besides Winford, Jakodi was the only friend Kai had made here. It smarted that both of his acquaintances were older men. His peers didn’t give him the time of day, and the girls in Mindonne weren’t as friendly as those he’d grown up with.

The young man found the wizard on his stoop below the three-faced shrine of Brintosh’s godhead.

The kindly face in the center represented Briga, the mother of all, waves swirling around her image. Andag, the kind and generous father, stood to her left. His element was earth. And on the right, surrounded by gouts of flame, was the stern and deadly visage of Yugos, favored by the Brintoshi. He was the god of war.

Jakodi looked up as Kai approached. The old wizard’s face, somehow smooth despite his long thinning white hair, reminded Kai of an ancient scroll. His skin was parchment thin, branching veins beneath visible even from a few paces away. And of course, Jakodi’s eyes were white and sightless.

The old man smiled and greeted him. “From the forest’s deep returns the adventurer, Kai! Was your day bountiful?”

Kai couldn’t help but grin. Each day he found Jakodi after his evening meal, and each day the same greeting was given. “Well enough to feed myself. Still, I can’t help but wish tomorrow will be better.”

Jakodi nodded, his mouth still crinkled in an honest grin. “Do you wish me to read your progress, young adventurer?”

“Yes, please,” Kai answered, hopeful, despite knowing little had changed since the day before. He focused his mind, allowing the wizard to see within him.

Jakodi peered into Kai’s soul a moment before pronouncing, “Your current Progression is 78. You lack only 22 Progression until you ascend to Crimson 1. Well done, Kai!”

Kai sighed, feeling the slow pace of his first essential goal weigh on him. A single point for the three scrappy squirrels he’d killed was a modest gain, though, so he tried to take it in stride. After all, some days, he couldn’t find any game.

Seeming to sense the young man’s distress, Jakodi encouraged him. “Many in this world never progress at all. Their cores remain diffuse, unfocused. To become ascended, it will take considerable patience and hard work, Kai. You know this.”

Kai nodded, forcing himself to smile. And the old man was right.

He’d come to Mindonne months ago with a Progression of only 17. That had been accumulated from a lifetime of killing the squirrels and small beasts near his childhood home. The normal toil of life, slaughtering chickens or even the occasional swine, granted no ether. For some unknown reason, it was only in combat that ether could be gathered into your core.

It was a frustrating reality, but explained why so few besides hunters, adventurers, and soldiers ascended.

After leaving the farm behind, he’d promised himself to become a Crimson ascended warrior in no time at all.

Life, however, was more complicated than he’d thought. He needed to eat, a place to sleep, and keep his clothes cleaned and maintained. Adding to those modest ambitions, he’d found he needed to add a warm bath once a week if the townsfolk were to deal with him at all.

Jakodi held up his hand and Kai took it, helping the wizard to his feet.

The old man was about as heavy as a sack of wet feathers. Kai supported him effortlessly. The wizard patted his hand when he stepped down, then turned toward his hut at the edge of town.

While they walked, Jakodi told Kai a story. Such was their ritual each evening, and the young man had grown to enjoy each telling despite having long since outgrown such pleasures. Still, he could not afford the luxury of a book, and had few enough encounters that called for polite conversation. He humored the old man, taking each tale for what it was: a gift cheerfully given.

Today, Jakodi began with the tale of Midge the Muck Farmer, and though the story had a bawdy twist at the end that usually brought a smile to his lips—who wouldn’t laugh to hear of a man cuckolded by his own swine?—it reminded Kai too much of the radishes and potatoes of his uncle’s farm.

“Can you tell me of Kevir’s fall?” Kai asked as politely as he could. Then he amended his request, “I’m a young man and haven’t even kissed a girl for a year and a day, Jakodi. Tell me of something other than jaded love.”

Jakodi laughed, a dry and merry sound. “With speed and with pleasure, my boy. Then I’ll tell a story of true love.” Without pause, the wizard began, “The great dragon Kevir was the bastion of Old Hintar. His wings spread wide enough to encompass an entire village, and his fire could melt the stars above.”

Kai loved the way the old wizard told stories. Though the stories rarely changed, with each telling, Kai plucked out some new fragment or detail.

The story meandered along with them, the battles Kevir fought, his growing pride, and the woman whose beauty captivated the beast’s heart.

“And for the first time, a dragon bound itself to this world. Kevir gave half of his strength to the mountain he rested upon, creating the first Earth Core. This new creature, the first dungeon, grew in wisdom and power, fueled by Kevir’s vast stores of ether.

"Within the dungeon, Kevir could take on the likeness of a man, and there he learned the art of quill and parchment, to write the endless depths of his love for the woman he’d seen bathing at the river.

“Soon, he left his dungeon on wings of ambition, finding the small keep the woman called home. The knights there prepared themselves for a valiant death, but were surprised when the great dragon lifted back up into the air again and flew back to the mountains.

"Only a scroll remained on the churned soil where he’d landed, and upon the scroll, an elegant hand inquired…”

Kai cut in, finishing the familiar line, “For a thousand taels of gold and a thousand more of silver, send me the woman with hair of fire and eyes of jade."

Another burst of laughter escaped Jakodi’s lips, and he patted Kai’s hand again. “Why ask me to tell you then, if you know the story so well on your own?”

“Because it inspires me. I hope to find a dungeon one day and claim its riches for my own,” he admitted, knowing full well that all remaining Earth Cores were either shivvered beyond repair or else strictly controlled and jealously guarded by the King’s vast armies. “Still, I wonder,” he mused, “have all the dragons died? Surely, Jakodi, some must have escaped into the mountains?”

The wizard fell quiet for a few minutes before answering thoughtfully, “There are many hidden places in this land. Anything is possible, my friend.”

Kai indulged himself in another question. Jakodi was ever-patient, so he had no fear of irking the man. “I know the Tale of Kevir is part myth, but how much do you suppose is accurate? Do dragons really make Earth Cores? Can they only take human form inside their dungeons, or can they do so outside as well? Oh, and why would a creature so powerful wish to become vulnerable like that in the first place? Kevir’s end, if he truly died in such a fashion, must have provoked the dragons to avoid giving over some of their power to make an Earth Core, not carry the tradition forward.”

“All good questions, Kai. Much of the legend is true, yet the details have all likely gone to meat and mushrooms. Similar taste but different substance. I’m not even sure if there was a maiden. Your last point is quite interesting. I believe the dragons continued on making Earth Cores because it gained them access to novel experiences. Living as a man is much different than as a dragon. Having access to both must have been irresistible for creatures with the intelligence and sophistication of the dragons. They didn’t exactly do as Kevir did either. A great council was held in which rules were defined in how Earth Cores were to be both protected and restricted.”

Kai’s eyes lit up. The details, the precise how and why of past events, always fascinated him. “Tell me that story, then! Or do you have a book on the matter?”

They arrived at the wizard’s small hut, a roof and four walls cobbled together with goodwill and a double portion of hope more so than nails and milled wood. Turning to his friend, he said in a tired voice, “I’m sorry, Kai. You are right to suspect. No story can contain all that passed in the forging of those laws of magic. The books, any we might access in our corner of the world at least, are taken or destroyed.”

The wizard winked, his abundant mirth returning easily. And before he bid the young adventurer goodnight, he placed a hand on his forehead, sending a thread of warmth through his body. The lump on Kai’s head, along with a scraped shin and scratches on his forearm, healed, leaving only the faintest memory of a wound. The injuries were minor, the products of a few careless moments when setting another snare, but their sudden disappearance was a wondrous relief.

“I don’t have the coin for such a boon, Jakodi. Please…”

The wizard snapped his fingers, and chided, “Shush, now, my son. Not even crows like idle chatter. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Then Jakodi shut the door, leaving Kai alone in the street.

The young man hurried home, no longer slowed by his friend’s old and ailing joints. And though Jakodi hadn’t finished the rest of the story, Kai continued to replay the ending in his head.

Kevir waited on his mountain throne with his Earth Core, his only friend. Until one day, a contingent of men brought the woman he’d fallen in love with. The Lord of the land had happily agreed; she was only a servant after all. When they arrived, a handful of knights pulled her along and tossed her in the dungeon, removing the treasure Kevir offered them.

And though the Lord would never have dared attack a dragon, he saw firsthand the humble form Kevir wore. Fair to the eye, but a man as frail as any other. So that night, the Lord sent his men to slay the dragon in his sleep.

The story struck a note deep within Kai. It heralded the beginning of an era, as much as it told of the bitter end of one. Kai would give anything to have seen Kevir in his majesty or any beast so mighty.

Kai could almost hear Jakodi’s voice whisper the final lines. If legend can be trusted, his death gave birth to a hundred more dragons. Each of these made their own Earth Cores, filling the mountains with wonder. The world was never the same again.

Kai shook his head, shaking his idle thoughts away. Imagining the world alive and full of dragons and dungeons deep wouldn’t bring them back to life.

He stared about him at the empty marketplace, the butcher’s stand and the sagging buildings of Mindonne, and for the hundredth time, wanted so much … more. Kind as Winford’s offer of apprenticeship had been, Kai could never settle for such a humble life.

At last, he came to Maeve’s house. He walked up the alley around the side of her home, the back of which served as the town's brewery. The malty tang of her trade suffused Kai’s clothes and filled his nose each night until he couldn’t smell anything else.

The roof behind slanted down and fell almost to the ground. A small but dry storage room rested against the back of the brewery. The walls of his tiny home were warmed by the fires of the burners and boilers beyond the wooden walls. Atop a few empty crates in the back, padded by a thin, woolen mattress, Kai slept each night.

He’d seen the faces of the townsfolk when they occasionally saw him tumble out of his tiny home, but he didn’t care.

It was warm and dry.

Kai gave Maeve eight pennies a week for the pleasure, and she was kind enough to include a mug of ale every Sunday and an old blanket.

So, as Kai pulled out one of the apples Winford had given him, he crawled into his steamy nook, and took a bite. There was frightfully little he could do when the light failed. He’d had coin for a candle to read borrowed books, and for a time, he found a few townsfolk willing to pay a penny for a whittled toy knight.

Those luxuries had been short-lived, however, and besides, he was as tired as a thrice-told joke. He lay down on his rough bed and fell to his first and final pastime, daydreaming of adventures to come.

He would prove himself worthy of being called a true Brintoshi one day, no matter how much it cost him. He only hoped it didn’t take too long.





2





Spark to Flame





Kai



It was Friday, and though he’d just handed Maeve eight of the twelve pennies he had to his name, Kai left town with a spring in his step and a spirit buoyed with hope.

The past few weeks had been lean hunting. At one point over the past months, Kai’s stockpile had grown to two silver and fifteen coppers, but his stash had dwindled as the red squirrels and fat hares in the surrounding forest thinned.

Desperate to gain Progression and a handful of coin, Kai had unwisely challenged a buck the week before. It had showed him exactly how thick his skin was in a matter of moments. The beast had charged, its great antlers goring Kai in his ribs. After thrashing to and fro, it had bounded away into the forest, leaving Kai bloody and ragged.

He’d hobbled back to town, faint with blood loss and a good deal wiser. Despite his situation, he could not afford to tangle with beasts more powerful than himself.

Jakodi had healed him, but had been so taxed by the effort he was consigned to bed the following day; the old man was forced to charge Kai for his services.

So, rather than buy the wooden buckler or the spiked mace he’d been eyeing in the armorer’s shop, he’d kept his black oak cudgel, cut from a bough near his uncle’s farm. Though the handle curved slightly, the end was formidable, for a chunk of wood at least. An insect had pestered the branch enough that a knot had grown around the wound, forming a dense burl. It was the only weapon Kai could afford, so he treasured it.

Making a meal out of the bread Sorcha had given him and another apple, Kai headed out of town, moving through the trees of the forest before half the town had roused itself. Kai frittered away these first few hours of the morning in fruitless searching. Not a single squirrel or rabbit stirred in the brush. Kai considered heading back to town to beg a bit of work from someone, enough to fill his belly that night at least, before turning south instead.

Kai had meandered to the southern reaches of the Atoli forest, close to the edge of the Mirin Swamps, the endless mire that so many adventurers feared. Only once had he been foolish enough to continue beyond the forest’s edge. After spending a sleepless night in a tree waiting for a pack of wolves to grow bored, he’d run home and hadn’t come back since then.

There was game aplenty there, however, and monsters to fight. If Kai braved the swamps and killed even a few of the creatures that stalked the murky marsh, he might ascend to Crimson this very day! The danger it represented was real. So, it was with a pit of uncertainty in his stomach, that Kai found himself stalking south beyond the Atoli toward the gloomy mists of the Mirin Swamp.

The trees changed first.

Instead of the green and supple boughs of the Atoli’s pines that he was used to, the trees hunched over themselves, becoming twisted gray caricatures of arboreal vitality. Something in the soil may have been responsible, a forgotten waste spilled in the depths of the swamp long ago, or perhaps brackish waters seeped up the delta from the ocean. Either way, only a few trees survived, with a handful of leaves or a stubborn clump of needles the only evidence of their continued struggle for life.

Kai made his way among the soggy hillocks, trying to stay on the diminishing trail he’d started down. The ground he stood on sank as he shifted his weight and he fell forward, his boot sinking into a pocket of mud. Bright pain seared his leg just above the ankle, and he raised his cudgel, afraid he might be under attack. Yet only a shrunken plant stood valiantly against him, some thistle perhaps, tough enough to pierce the tattered fabric of his pants.

When his plight became clear, he focused on pulling his foot free of the clingy, devouring muck, nearly losing his boot.

Sitting down to put his boot back on and assess the bleak situation, Kai spotted movement at the base of a nearby tree. He squinted, doubting his eyesight for a moment, before another flash of movement revealed the squashed and ugly face of a mole peeking up from its hole.

It was huge, for a mole that is, as large as a half-grown hound. Its tiny eyes glittered with malevolence.

This is it, Kai thought, standing and rolling his shoulders back, preparing himself for battle. Swing hard and swing true, you idiot. Don’t screw this up!

Hefting his cudgel, he slogged forward, only to see the animal duck down in its burrow again. He peered down into the hole, aware of a faint musk. Having committed himself to the attack, Kai pondered how he might flush the creature out but came up short. He could start a fire and smoke it out but wasn’t even sure how to go about doing such a thing amidst the damp gloom of the swamp.

So, with a belly full of desperation and strengthened by the ignorance of youth, he stuck his hand down the hole. Due more to the shabby leather gloves that he wore than the strength of his bones, Kai didn’t lose his fingers when the mole attacked his intruding digits. Kai curled his hand into a fist, instinctively grasping the mole’s snout, and yanked the overgrown rodent out of its den.

If an onlooker had witnessed the previous exchange, they would be hard pressed to decide who was more surprised by this turn of events when the mole literally landed in Kai’s lap. The beast squealed and Kai squirmed away, scrambling for his club. They both came to their feet and then valiantly strove to kill one another.

The mole flashed forward, too fast for a mere garden pest, the like he’d grown used to battling in the potato patch. Kai swung his cudgel with full force, but the beast slipped beneath his attack, and leapt up at him. It sank its teeth and claws in the soft flesh of his thigh. Kai winced, stifling a yelp, and smashed the animal on its head.

Tougher than a barrel full of stones, the mole continued to savage his leg until he’d struck it half a dozen times, the sharp crack of its crushed skull and a pink spatter of blood and brain marking his success.

“Shivving bastard! Gods, I need a real bleeding weapon!” he growled, the full extent of his injuries flaring to life.

As the mole’s twitching form finally fell still, Kai saw the telltale threads of ether drift up into the air from its body like smoke. More ether than he’d ever seen before twisted in the air towards him.

When Kai had first learned how soldiers and heroes grew in power, it had sickened him. But it made sense. Taking the mole’s life, he now absorbed the ether it had collected throughout its lifetime, adding it to his own meager etheric density. His skin tingled and his breath grew cold for an instant.

A strange feeling unlike any other, absorbing ether was an exhilarating experience. It felt as if his soul was growing, expanding somehow. That sensation alone was reason enough to seek the adventuring life.

And then it was over, and the inconvenience of reality returned. Kai had to pry the mole’s mouth open to extract its long, sharp teeth from his flesh. In his defense, Kai only came close to passing out once, and it wasn’t from the pain, but when he saw a chunk of skin and muscle flap open, the flash of blood, muscle tissue, and yellow fat making his head swim.

But thankfully his uncle, the taciturn Shem Bremenburr, had shown him how to react to such injuries in a pinch long ago. He tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and wrapped the wound tight, promising himself he’d check it later, hopefully after Jakodi healed him.

The outskirts of the swamp was thankfully far less foul and dreary than its center. A few rebellious trees thrived, despite the poor soil, and the sun shone down in all its glory without a care for who or what noticed. Kai recovered by drinking deeply from his waterskin and resting against the mole’s tree.

The water tasted like wine gone to vinegar, and occasionally he had to spit out flecks of leather. His converted wineskin was too old to be truly serviceable, but for Kai, it was sufficient. He’d been lucky enough to see a man toss it out into the alley near the pub a few weeks back, and he’d put up with the sour taste ever since.

Kai dozed, his body warmed in the sun and buffeted gently by the wind. When he woke though, his legs were stiff, and his wound throbbed madly. Rather than give in to despair, he ate another apple before inspecting his kill.

No mole was cute, but this one took ugly to another level entirely. Its snout looked like a hound’s, more broad and powerful than the common moles he’d seen busy warring with potato patches. The beast’s teeth reminded him of the widows who came to Winford’s bakery once a week for bread—yellow, twisted, and somehow threatening. Most spectacular, though, was the sheer size of the animal. Its compact body, corded with muscle, would have been a match for most of the dogs in town.

Kai used his knife to open up its belly and skin it. The process was quick despite the bluntness of the blade. Kai was practiced by now, having skinned every rodent there was, including mice, since leaving the farm. The pelt he pulled off was glossy and thick. Enough for a fist full of coppers, he hoped.

He finished his task and considered the body. The meat looked off somehow, so he dragged his knife through the thick muscle of the mole’s back and recoiled when he saw white worms writhe out in protest. He thought of taking the claws or the teeth, but they were chipped and rotten. Grimacing, Kai left the remains for whatever lucky scavenger happened upon it next.

Kai was halfway back to town, feeling about as tall and endowed as a stone troll, when he heard voices ringing through the woods. These weren’t just any voices. As he came closer, he picked out one in particular that made him sigh in frustration. Roarke O’Dennihee, one of the finest young men in town and already half famous. What shivving luck I have. Twice in two days! The youth in question was singing his own praises so loud that soon even the dead mole knew of his courage and wit.

Walking along the main road that led back into Mindonne, Kai couldn’t avoid a confrontation unless he broke off through the woods and continued on into town from a different direction. A part of him wanted nothing more than to wait for the group to pass by, but the thought of hiding away yet again was too sour to swallow.

Besides, what had Winford suggested? Win their respect, huh? Kai considered the fine kill and the dire nature of his wounds, and couldn't think of a better way to earn a man's respect. Maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

Roarke’s face lit with a smile when he saw Kai. “Kai, the powerful hero! What have you got there? Another clutch of squirrels?” He smirked, pulling a half-hearted chuckle from Dunny but only a scowl from Karsen.

Kai showed them the skin on the stick, unfolding it to its full length. “It was a mole if you’ll believe it. Thing was as big as Master Connogan’s hound!”

Dunny's face registered shock as the size of the bloody pelt was revealed. Even Roarke paused a moment and seemed taken aback. Karsen’s face scrunched up though. “Where’d you get it? Moles don’t get that big in the forest.”

It was with a sense of pride that Kai pointed back toward the gloom of the swamps and said, “Just a few miles into the swamps is all. Found it quick enough, and though he put up quite a fight, I managed to stove his head in. Only had to use my leg as bait.”

Kai’s attempt at a joke should have worked to bridge the gap that separated the young men, but other than a chuckle from Dunny, they remained obstinate. Karsen was the first to deny the evidence that hung limply before their eyes. “Doubt you killed it. More like you found some dead dog on the ground and skinned it.”

Dunny looked horrified while Roarke grinned. The bigger man nodded to Karsen, adding, “Yeah, and who knows. What if you just stole that from an honest hunter?”

"I am an honest hunter," Kai responded, a bit of gravel entering his voice.

"No Hintari is honest," Karsen growled back.

Kai's hackles rose and he felt his face grow red. Here we go again, he fumed to himself. It always comes back to my Hintari heritage. He took deep breaths to slow his pounding heart, trying in vain to suppress his rising anger.

Roarke cut in again, "I think we should take that skin off your cren-covered hands. Only a real Brintoshi should have such a fine prize."

Kai stepped back defensively. "It's mine. I earned it and I'm keeping it. I just thought you might want to know where I got it from."

"Just give it over, scale skin. No need for things to get rough," Karsen said, his eyes unwavering.

The words that bolted out of Kai’s mouth made no allowances for normal discourse. It came out almost as a scream, “Hells, no!”

The three young men flinched, though two of them would never admit to it. But then, of course, Karsen found his courage again, and his fists.

Though barely older than Dunny and not as tall or broad as Roarke, Karsen, like the rest of his family, had to contend with a father who beat the dust off his jacket near every day of his life. His body had become more deadly than Kai's in every way.

He knew how to fight.

Karsen's fist caught Kai on his jaw, and to the group's shared surprise, the smaller boy didn’t fall. The blow knocked a few of his teeth loose in their sockets, though, and after Karsen punched him again in the gut and once more to the side of the head, the world lurched, and Kai fell to his hands and knees. His head dropped low, pressing into the cool dampness of the ground; the world spun around him.

Laughter rose like day moths from the vines of a neglected tomato plant. Kai’s head lolled loosely from his shoulders. He struggled to get his bearings back, but the last blow had sent his wits sprawling. He spit, focusing on the copper tang of blood in his mouth, praying like mad to Yugos for the strength not to pass out.

Kai’s vision cleared enough to see Karsen stoop down and pick up the mole skin. The boys laughed, then he heard the retreating crunch of their boots on the gravel of the road.

Little in the world can rival the potency of a young man’s self-loathing. Kai indulged himself, calling himself a cren-blooded coward and worse. Rage built up in his heart and pressed against the bruises in his head and body, the pain somehow clearing his mind of all thoughts but two: he wasn’t meant to be knocked down, and he knew he was born with a heart more noble, more true, than any of the boys who’d wronged him.

He thought of Dunny, a kind face held in check by an ocean of shame. He’s no hero! He’s a coward! Roarke’s ruddy face filled his mind next, handsome and strong. But Kai more than anyone had seen how quickly that porcelain visage chipped away, had seen the hate and vitriol it tried so hard to conceal. He’ll never be a hero either. Last of all, he thought of Karsen. He almost pitied the young man. His family were lumberjacks who toiled away in the woods, day after day waging a back-breaking fight to earn enough to survive.

Kai knew, however, that Karsen would never fight back against the cause of his misery, his own father.

There’re all shivving cowards! Kai realized for the first time. Throwing his pain to the wind, and ignoring the rush of nausea that followed, Kai stood up, regaining his full height. His gaze burned into the backs of the retreating boys as he caught his breath, wiping away the blood spilling from his mouth.

Dunny glanced back, and seeing Kai’s sudden resolve, started in surprise. The other boys noticed Dunny’s reaction and turned to look as well. Kai could see them scrambling for some sharpened piece of wit to throw his way. Karsen seemed like he wanted nothing more than to return and finish what he’d started.

Before anything else could happen though, Kai’s voice filled the air, somehow noble and ringing with the clarity of struck brass. “Not a single one of you has any measure of courage, and I doubt you ever will. The lot of you are cowards and you know it!”

Karsen and Roarke both froze, the smirks on their faces shriveling like pruned weeds in the summer heat. Then they turned back to meet a newly valiant Kai.





3





With Oldest Blood





Kai



Karsen, red-faced and fuming, charged back to defend his honor. Kai realized he was about to get a real beating, one he hadn't experienced since he was caught lifting a few oranges from a tradesman’s cart when he was fifteen. For a moment, Kai had the urge to run, but the words that sprung from Karsen's mouth changed everything.

"I'll show you who's brave, you half-born bastard,” Karsen sneered. “Your own whore of a mother won't recognize you after I'm done with you."

Without thinking, Kai unslung his cudgel and attacked. Roarke and Dunny gasped as Karsen barely managed to dodge the first swing. Then in a flash, Karsen's axe was in his hands. It was just a simple woodsman's axe, light but sharp as the devil's prick.

“Dragon-shivving Hintari!” Karsen screamed. "You trying to get yourself killed?!" He swung with the force and precision of a woodsman, blocking Kai's next attack. The cudgel snapped in two and the hard knob that made the crude weapon almost seem like a mace fell to the ground.

Holding only a stick, Kai lifted his diminished weapon with as much dignity as he could muster.

Roarke’s laugh was harsh and whispered, like the soft whisk of a blade across a sharpening stone, an almost-private sound reserved for solitude or the shared joy of foul deeds.

In two quick strikes, Karsen smacked the stick from Kai's grip and slapped the blunt end of his axe into his chest. For the second time that afternoon, Kai found himself on the ground.

Karsen tossed the axe aside and straddled Kai. "I'll show you how useful courage is," he hissed. Kai tried to push back, to get up, but Karsen pinned him down with his knees and threw punches at Kai's face too fast to block. Several strikes landed about his head as fast as dragonflies before he managed to block a few, but the blows kept coming. They weren't as heavy as before, and Kai realized Karsen meant to break his spirit as surely as his face.

Kai tried to defend himself, but it was no use. Karsen had learned too much from his father.

A voice split the air, somehow stopping the deluge of punches. “Let him prove it then!” Dunny called out.

Everyone turned to stare at the blushing youth, who had already stifled any further outbursts, slapping both hands over his mouth. Dunny looked as guilty as a bread thief with crumbs on his tunic, but he’d spoken too boldly to be ignored any longer.

Karsen growled at his brother, “Shut your trap! The fun'll be over soon enough.”

But caught up in the scene unfolding before him, Roarke held up a hand and called out, “Hold on … what do you mean, Dunny? How could a spineless cren-eater like this prove himself?”

Dunny’s eyes went wider still as he racked his brain for any acts of foolhardy bravery that might be of use.

The moment stretched out too long. Just as Karsen pulled back his fist again, Dunny blurted out, “Have him touch the shivvered dungeon! Only a brave man would do that."

After a few astonished seconds, an intrigued Roarke chuckled. “Or a fool.” He called to his friend, reaching out to keep the raised fist from continuing its punishment. “Karsen, I’m sure you can hold your ire for a moment while we settle this once and for all. If this bloater will walk into the dungeon on the hill and touch its shivvered core, we’ll know him a man of courage. Hells. I’ll even buy you a pint, Kai,” he snorted.

Kai’s assailant lowered his fist, giving Roarke a brief nod, as if to say, I’m listening.

“But,” Roarke held up a finger, “if not, Karsen will give full vent to his wrath, and we’ll tell the town guards you attacked him with a weapon. You’ll have to leave Mindonne and never come back.”

Karsen got up, an eager look of hunger still in his eyes. “Will you do it, Kai?” he taunted in a vulpine tone. “Or are you really just a spineless, Hintari whoreson?”

Kai could feel his face swelling though nothing felt broken, and he rolled up to his hands and knees, trying to clear his head. His mother wasn’t Hintari. She’d been a Brintoshi soldier, but rather than argue the facts or throw another useless punch, he stood instead and brushed himself off. Then he surprised all present, including himself, by accepting the proposal.

“I’ll touch the blasted core.” He scowled. “And you’ll owe me two pints, Roarke, and give my mole skin back. Deal?” He knew he was scrounging for forgotten tubers at this point, but he didn’t see many other options. If he denied this opportunity, he’d get a drubbing, then they’d beat him back to town. His only bet would be to sneak in and find Winford or Jakodi to take his side of things.

It was too risky.

And besides, the dangers of a shivvered dungeon have to be exaggerated, he thought, attempting to justify his decision.

So it was that late in the afternoon that Kai found himself walking in foul company, heading to a foul end at the end of a long and trying day. He couldn’t fathom why, but Roarke’s mood had brightened. The brute decided it was a fine time for banter, and he spoke at length about anything and everything that popped into his thick skull.

The motley group marched away from town and up into the hills, neither north into the Atoli forest nor south toward the Mirin Swamps. The shivvered dungeon they’d all heard tales about was less than five miles from town, tucked under the overhanging rock face of a mesa west of the village.

Karsen led the way, as he seemed to be the only one who’d actually seen the dungeon, with Roarke filling the otherwise-quiet trek with his boisterous and unnecessary commentary. At least that was Kai’s opinion. Dunny had fallen to the back of the group into his usual position as a tag along, grateful to sink again into obscurity and be forgotten.

“And you know what she said to me then?” Without waiting for a response, Roarke continued his rant. “She told me, in a tone that was plain as a page to read, that I’d better come with her to fetch the milk. Now, as my da always says, if a maid tells you she needs help collecting her milk, the only right answer is ‘right away ma’am.’ So course that’s what I did.”

The incline increased, earthy loam growing hard with stones as they staggered up the side of the hill. Karsen looked back, exasperated by his friend’s endless boasting. “Oh yeah? So you shivved Hines’ youngest?” He snorted. “And let me guess, she called your name out to Yugos as she finished twice?”

Roarke replied, the injured tone of his voice rising an octave. “Well, I didn’t exactly mean that I…”

Karsen stopped to look back over his shoulder and cut him off. “Did you shiv her or no? Else, and either way, maybe you can hold your tongue a minute. Save your wind for the hike.” For once, the big man listened. The only sound that disturbed the rest of their progress was their harsh rasping breaths.

As they neared the top, Kai sensed a distinct air of reverence grow amongst their party, a response to some unseen force, as if they stood amidst the fervent prayers of a worshiping host.

The ether in the air was thick enough to taste.

Kai thought of the danger he was walking into and stared at the mole skin flapping over Karsen’s broad back as he walked ahead. The woodsman had agreed to return the skin, should he prove himself. Trusting Karsen, however, didn't seem wise.

More than likely they'd come up with some excuse to take it anyhow, Kai mused, but somehow he couldn't back down from his pledge. Despite the stories everyone told about broken dungeons with broken minds and the horrific things that happened near them, Kai would not turn back.

The feeling of being watched had them all on edge; the threat of unseen predators lying in wait crept over the youths until they were all scanning the trees. To make matters worse, the sun was falling, and a chill breeze blew down Kai’s neck.

Oh, why must every fear be accentuated at nightfall?

“Might we not turn back?” Dunny suggested sagely. “Supper will be ready, and we can just give him his stupid skin. He needs it more, anyhow.”

Kai gave the boy an appreciative look, but it was Karsen who spoke. “No. He has more courage than all of us, remember. Probably has the blood of dragons in his veins,” the woodsman snorted. “He will touch the shards of the Earth Core as he said. Or would you rather admit you're a coward and head back to your shed to pack up whatever rags you hold dear?”

Kai swallowed the lump in his throat and ignored the comment.

Dunny’s breath caught a moment later, and Kai looked up to see what had excited the boy. A darkness loomed below the overhanging shelf of the mesa. The mouth of a cave burrowed deep into the side of the hill, a crooked and gaping mouth.

Karsen stopped and held out a hand. When he spoke, Kai could feel the grating cold of his ever-present anger. “And there it is. The shivvered dungeon, though some call it the Dead Dungeon now.” He grinned cruelly. “Not because it isn’t alive, but because anything that goes inside is as good as dead. Not even crickets return to see the sun again.”

Kai wanted nothing more than to return to Jakodi, to beg the old man to heal his wounds, see who in town would trade for a night’s meal, and to hell with the blasted mole skin.

But his wounded pride snarled in his chest like a feral dog and something else prodded him on. How many times had he wanted to peek inside this dungeon? It had fired his imagination ever since he’d first heard mention of it in town. Kai had long daydreamed of searching the dungeon for treasure.

The hostile eyes surrounding him judged him, daring him to justify their months of derisions and bullying. Roarke sneered and Dunny frowned, while Karsen stared at him patiently. It occurred to Kai that this was exactly why the man had led him here—not to see Kai enter the cave, but to see him fail to do so.

Ignoring his better judgement, Kai cleared his throat and said aloud, “Well, if I’m to go in, then let me at least borrow your axe. You broke my weapon, and I would be twice foolish to enter without one.”

“No.” Karsen shook his head. “This is my father’s and given on loan.”

They all looked at Roarke, whose feathers visibly ruffled. The big man raised his hands palms up and shrugged. It wasn’t as effective as he’d hoped.

Dunny croaked out, as polite as he could, “Maybe Kai can borrow your sword, just for a moment?” When Roarke blustered at the absurdity of it, prepared to make any argument to keep the sword in its sheath at his hip, Dunny pressed him in a most clever way. “It is the finest weapon we have with us. Might even be the finest in town!” he gushed. “It would only be fair to lend him the blade.”

The compliments pricked Roarke’s ego and pride like darts from a bow. He drew the sword with as much pomp and ceremony as he could manage, nearly nicking Karsen’s ear as he did so. “You’re right, Dunny, it is a fine sword. We can all take a good gander at its glory once more. But I’ll be holding onto it. If anything goes wrong, Kai, I’ll come in after you.”

Kai sighed. He’d figured they’d refuse to accommodate him, but it was worth asking. It’s not like I can use a blade to fight against the dungeon itself, he thought. And maybe there aren’t any creatures inside. Still, perhaps a stick might do in a pinch.

He looked around to find one for this purpose when Dunny stepped forward. “Here. Use my dagger. Isn’t much, but I bought it myself. So, if it goes missing, at least I won’t be thumped for it,” the boy said and produced a crude, hand-length dagger.

“Don’t be a fool,” Karsen croaked. The older of the brothers tried to interfere physically, but Dunny gave him a surprisingly stern look. “Fine, the blade’s yours, Dunny, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

Kai took the dagger, and felt a rush of gratitude well up inside. This is the friend I’d been hoping for all along. He has the wrong family and just a few years too young, but who am I to be choosy?

He didn’t know what to say, so he patted the boy on the shoulder and nodded gravely. Then, turning back to the dungeon, he gripped the dagger in his hand and felt just a little bit braver.

A fell breeze blew back his hair, and goosebumps ran the length of his arms and down his legs. Kai stopped, the darkness of the cave making him pause, but when his eyes adjusted, he realized a subtle glow suffused the place, as if the dense ether in the air had become visible. Part of him had hoped that the need for a torch might suffice as a fair enough excuse to back out after a few more steps.

Kai stopped and turned to look back to the group waiting for him. He coughed nervously, but before suggesting that he’d proven his point, Karsen barked, “Head on to the very back. They say the shivvered core lies at the cave’s bottom. Don't worry,” he sneered, “you’ll find it.”

At the bottom? I can manage that, Kai encouraged himself, and pressed on.

The first room was cut roughly from the mountain like a natural cave. Pillars of stone fell from the ceiling and a single path ran to the back of the cave where its ceiling tapered down to frame the foreboding shape of a solitary door. Slightly taller than it was wide, the opening gaped cold and black, bidding Kai enter.

Kai stepped through into a second chamber and marveled at the series of etchings carved along the walls, the stonework that of a precise hand. The walls were smooth as a sheet of Winford’s breakfast cake. A dancing filigree of climbing vines decorated the corners, and despite Kai’s fear, he admired the craftmanship and artistry of the dungeon.

The air was stale and a penetrating silence filled the space. A few piles of debris littered the corners, and black soot streaked the walls. There was a fire here, Kai realized. Someone had burnt out this chamber and everything that had once been inside. A wisp of sadness mingled with his fear, and he walked slowly into a third room through a short connecting hallway. He wondered about the dragon that must have once called this place home.

Suddenly, the importance of proving himself to two men who would continue to despise him, no matter what he did, became distant and unimportant. It was replaced with a burning need to know his fate was greater than hunting squirrels and begging bread. This is what I’ve been after! Why didn’t I come sooner?

He walked through the room, distantly noting an overturned wooden table, the wood wormy and rotting away. Chips of shattered pottery and broken stone were all else that remained within. Familiar black streaks marred one side of the room, but it appeared the blaze had left the table mostly unharmed. Only a few blisters curled its faded yellowed lacquer.

At the back of this third chamber, Kai spied a spiral of stone stairs descending into the depths. For a moment, he was seized by an ancient memory or some fragment of the distant past, and it felt like he’d walked here before. Thoughts of Kevir and the hundred dragons of legend flittered across his mind’s eye as he took the first step down into the dungeon.

Kai felt as brazen as any ancient hero until the heel of his boot slipped on the skeleton of a long-dead mouse, its powdered bones resting precariously on the edge of a step. His feet shot out from beneath him, and he fell hard on his backside, slipping down a few of the stairs. “Twice-shivved cow!” Kai’s frustrated shout echoed in the stairwell, and he winced, the snarl of his curse profane in this magical place.

Dunny’s voice called out from the distant entrance, “You okay, Kai?”

Kai stood and brushed himself off. Years of dust covered his pants like a coat of paint. He thought of calling back to the others, telling them he was fine, but the echoing curse had been bad enough.

No, I’ll just keep going, touch the blasted core, then leave, Kai repeated, until he once again felt courageous enough to forge onward.

The stairs curled around several more times, taking him deeper into the dungeon, until he came to a landing where a pale-blue light spilled up onto the bottom of the stairs. Kai couldn’t guess what magic created the pale light, but he wanted more than anything to know.

The dungeon split three ways at the foot of the stairs, but the right and left-hand passages had collapsed, the elegant stone archways above them scorched black. Whatever fires had raged here had done more than a little damage.

Straight ahead, the tunnel remained intact, continuing ever downward in a gentle slope. This path was lit with a brighter shade of blue, and Kai squinted as he trod forward.

Down the corridor, a stone slab stood ajar, blocking the way. A crack a few inches wide allowed a beam of ethereal light through. Kai had no clue what an Earth Core looked like, but everything pointed to him heading in the right direction.

He pushed at the stone and marveled as it turned easily on an unseen hinge.

Then he saw it.

Kai’s breath hitched, his eyes going wide as he beheld the still-gleaming shards of the once-powerful entity just a few dozen feet away. Ether crowded the air, making it nearly opaque. He crept into the room, lowering the outstretched dagger, aware of how useless the weapon would be in the face of such power.

At the end of the final room, cut from the bedrock of the mountain, fingers of stone curled up from the floor. The formation twisted into a point, on top of which rested a rocky chalice or a blossom made of stone.

Within, rested the Earth Core.

Its remains glowed a vibrant blue, as if ether itself had crystalized. Every fiber in Kai’s soul raged against the devastation before his eyes. The most beautiful gem he could imagine, not much bigger than his fist but more majestic than the endless sea, had been smashed into countless fragments. No doubt the work of a mace or hammer, but all Kai could think of was how evil had been the hand that destroyed it.

Kai stepped closer, and as he did so, a susurration, like the whisper of buried souls, drew him forward. Without conscious willing, his hand lifted and settled upon the broken core. He ran his fingers along the slivers of the broken gemstone. Dunny’s dagger clattered to the ground, no longer important, as Kai stared into the gem.

Then the fine edge of one fragment split his finger open, and a few drops of his blood dripped onto the stone. He flitched at the slight pain, but before he could withdraw his hand, a wave of blue light pulsed through the chamber and an endless tide of magic tore at his soul.

Kai screamed, dust within the chamber swirling abound him as his hand clenched the broken heart of a mountain.

Every muscle in his body howled with the joy and terror of the absolute power that gripped him. As the pain gathered to a torturous crescendo, the current of magic shifted. Suddenly, it felt as if the shards sucked his blood, his life force, his very soul from his body. All he could do was stand rigid and stare into the frigid blue of what had once been an Earth Core.

An eternity later, Kai was released and he slumped to the ground, his thoughts sliding down into sleep’s forgiving embrace.





4





One Last Dance





Rhona



The usual array of odors met Rhona’s senses as she walked alongside her friend—oil, polished steel, and dry stone as they strode by the armory, the rasping whine of a long sword being passed over a grinder within—the skin and fur and manure of the stables, the cloying odor of horse sweat.

Finally, they came to the practice grounds.

This place, Rhona realized with a pang of remorse, was what she’d miss the most.

She breathed in deep, relishing its rustic perfume of leather, steel, blood, sweat, and the morning dew evaporating off of the gravel-strewn ground. It smelled like training. It smelled like much of her youth and of learning to trust herself and those she served with.

“Ready for a beating, then? I’m sorry, Rhona, but I won’t hold back this time.”

“Save your tongue. You won’t get another chance, so make sure you try to keep up, Hammel. I’d hate to see you off without having scored a single point,” Rhona said, pulling a practice sword from the barrel and giving it a whirl before facing off with her oldest friend in this part of the world.

Hammel was an inconspicuous-looking man. Average height, a handsome face if it weren’t for the scars and messy hair, and a slight gut made him look like nothing special at all. Depending on how he dressed, the man could pass for a soldier or a beggar.

Yet as he smiled at her casually, sword held lightly in his hand, Rhona knew him for what he was: one of the nastiest fighters she’d ever crossed blades with.

He chuckled, making his features soft and amiable. “Why would I want that though? To muss up a fine head of hair like yours? No way. By the way, have I told you about Meren, the lass I met while stealing bread?”

“Aye! You were halfway out the window when you saw her staring out at you. Her hair was the color of stoked coals and her eyes as green as the Pinua Forest. Everyone in the king’s army has heard you boasting, Hammel,” she said, and the few members of their squad who’d followed to watch the contest laughed in acknowledgement.

“So, you’ve been listening to me! That’s good. But did I ever tell you that when she blushed, her teats lit up the same rosy red as your cheeks, Rhona?”

She couldn’t help her reaction.

Even after years of crude companionship, after having learned the subtle art of cren-talking from a master like Hammel, Rhona blushed furiously. Her free hand moved to hold her burning cheek, no doubt, as her friend had anticipated.

His sword was a blur, his blue eyes wild with delight.

Rhona parried the attack just barely, but he moved in and landed his shoulder square in her chest. The blow was followed by a sharp intake of breath by the onlookers, and she tumbled back off her feet. Only by years of practice, did she manage to backroll away from her attacker. Knowing Hammel, she brought her sword up to block.

Their blades rang out in protest.

He hammered down on her crouched form, taking full advantage of the weakened position she’d been forced to adopt. Rhona had only one move to make to regain equal footing. As he committed to another overhead attack, Rhona parried instead of blocking, giving Hammel’s sword a nudge to the side and speeding it along.

Wise as he was, the man simply retreated a few steps, knowing his balance had been compromised.

Giving him the scorn of her eyebrow, Rhona composed herself and prepared for another clash. “Old tricks, Hammel? I’d have thought you might try to beat me without cheating this time. Would be a first.”

He laughed, his gap-toothed smile still handsome and boyish in her reckoning. “No such thing as cheating when it comes to a brawl. Remember that, little sister.”

His cheek twitched, one of the few tells the man still hadn’t trained away. Side-stepping his slashing assault, Rhona darted forward and swept her own blade down, grazing the top of his thigh. “One point! Better focus, big brother,” she teased, and then retreated as Hammel launched a volley of aggressive attacks.

Finally, his efforts paid off.

Skilled though she was, the man was uncanny-fast on his feet. After she’d parried a stab, he stomped toward her once more, forcing her to strike out defensively. Hammel rolled beneath her sword and brought the blunted edge of his own practice sword across the back of her leg.

“Point!” he cried out, his face flushed with pride.

Rhona conceded the brief victory. Even with issued plate-mail greaves, Hammel would’ve taken the function of one of her legs, his blade having kissed the tendons behind her knee.

He danced on the balls of his feet a few moments, and she could see his mind working, seeking to find some other way to throw her off.

Rhona could try the same, toss insults at the man, but they wouldn’t work. Call the man ugly, and he’d thank you. Call him smelly, and he’d pass gas despite the company. Mock the length of his manhood and he’d remind you how your mother or sister or both had thought it more than sufficient. Hammel was immune to insults.

But there was one thing that might do the trick. Rhona’d held onto it for years now, and there would be no better timing.

The two crossed blades again, both seeking a weakness in the other’s defenses. This was how most of their bouts ended. Very few of their attacks landed successfully. They’d learned so much together and studied each other’s quirks too long to make for an effective match.

Skills would change the course of a bout, but those were not allowed when sparring. Too many fool soldiers had died or killed a squad mate by activating a skill at the wrong time. So, Rhona adopted Hammel’s technique.

She’d use her tongue to win the day.

Gritting her teeth to parry and counter, Rhona called out to the man. “I’m sorry, Hammel. I really am.”

“Sorry for what? Haven’t finished me yet, girl,” he responded, his eyes intent on the fight.

She grinned, savoring the moment. “It was a sour-minded thing to do. Just figured I should finally say I’m sorry.”

“Piss off! Your wit won’t save you from a drubbing.” Hammel surged toward her, his sword moving at blinding speed.

“Not my wit! Just a bit of honesty,” she grunted as she absorbed his wrath, murmurs of approval floating in from those standing around them. “It was horse piss and a sprig of Wolfsbane, Hammel, and all in all, a rotten thing to do to any man.”

Hammel grunted, determined to earn another hit on her. He turned and spat, “Not gonna work! Might as well admit defeat now and walk off with your tail between your legs.”

Timing was key in every aspect of combat. Letting the hounds out of the gate too early in this situation wouldn’t lend her any degree of surprise. So, she waited until his cheek twitched again, and his body prepared for another lightning assault.

“I should’ve told Holly, at least! To think she informed half the garrison that your pecker failed to rise to the occasion and all cause I poisoned your mead! What a tragedy!”

A flicker of doubt passed through Hammel’s bright gaze, and his attack faltered. It took less than half a second for him to correct his footing and began to fall away into a retreat, but to Rhona, it was more than sufficient.

She smacked his blade to one side, using all the force she could muster, serving to throw his footing off further. Then she darted in and landed the pommel of her practice sword into his sternum. Hammel grunted and brought his forearm up to block his unprotected chest.

Rhona swept her blade across the arm and then found an opening below to stab through his weakened guard.

Feeling triumphant, Rhona gave his belly a poke and then lowered her blade. “Three points, Hammel. I win.”

The man stammered, his face slack with disbelief. “You shivving poisoned me? Who does that, Rhona? How can any Yugos-fearing soldier sabotage a comrade’s manhood like that? It’s downright evil!”

Hammel’s words were muddled, his accent thickening with rage. A few claps came from their small audience as well as plenty of laughter.

“It was a fair exchange. My tits had finally come in, three years too late, I believe you’d said. Mentioned it casually in front of the whole company as we were heading off to celebrate Harvest. So yeah, I spoke with an Apothecary and gave you just enough poison to ensure that you lived but your pecker wouldn’t work for the night.”

Hammel glowered. His face was red as a spring beet, and he ground his teeth.

Then his eyes went wide and he burst into laughter. She joined him, and the two left the training grounds together. He threw his arm over her shoulder and pulled her closer to him. “I shivving love you, Rhona. I swear, if there was ever a lass devious enough to be my sister, it was you.”

“Learned from the biggest scoundrel in all of the Dregs,” she said as she tossed her sword back into the barrel. As it clattered into place alongside a dozen others just like it, she realized it would be the last sword she’d use in combat. The only reason she’d done so was because Hammel had made her promise to spar him one last time. Promise met, and Rhona was happy to set down the sword permanently.

Yet when she walked away, she felt it tug on the strings of her heart. Though the sword was a way of life she was prepared to leave behind, she’d be a liar and a hypocrite if she pretended it didn’t sting just a little.

The farewell that followed took more strength than the sparring had. They both cried and denied their tears, promising to share ale and stories when life permitted them to do so once more. “I’ll come back to Creshon next Harvest, I promise,” she said, wiping her cheeks. “Wouldn’t miss a chance to retell that story in front of a larger audience.”

“At least it’ll give me a chance to earn my reputation back,” Hammel chuckled, and pulled her into a fierce hug. “Take care of yourself, little sister. I’ll miss you something fierce. Where are you headed… after home at least?”

She nodded, thankful he’d skipped over the awkwardness of her upcoming visit. “South. Palben told me of a master who lives far to the south of here. I’m headed there first. And then after… hells if I know.”

They shared an uncomfortable chuckle before embracing once more and going their separate ways. Rhona left the man behind, confident in her decision and also heartbroken. This must be how all soldiers feel when they leave the service. How else am I supposed to react to cutting off this portion of my life? It’s like losing a shivving leg!

Of course, the enlistment officer had much to say as she signed the three dozen scrolls necessary to discharge. “Could be shield sergeant in a year’s time if you sign up for another stint. I’ll even put in a good word with the Vermillion Guard. Come now, Corporal Bloodspar, what do you say? Don’t want to disappoint your father.”

Rhona forced a smile. Mentioning her lineage was a low blow. “Let me worry about him, and thanks for the offer, but no. I’ve thought about this aplenty. My time is through.”

She returned a pile of issued equipment, dusty from disuse. As most soldiers do, Rhona had purchased her own armor, sword, tent and boots. If the limiting factor in a fight was something as simple as the quality of the steel you held, most career soldiers invested in their lives.

Rhona pulled herself atop Honor’s back, her custom armor and carbonite sword fixed to the saddle in front of her. Then without any further doubts, she trotted away from the barracks.

Palben had been reassigned weeks ago, and they’d had their own drawn-out goodbyes. The man had single-handedly changed her life, and she’d never forget him. She’d broken the news to her squad mates already, and they’d forced her to drink her weight in ale for the betrayal. The duel with Hammel had been her final farewell, but there was the city itself to consider.

Stilling her mount at the apex of her favorite bridge, an arching stone monstrosity wide enough to allow three carts to pass side by side, she looked back on Creshon.

The capital of Brintosh was over-crowded, filled with traders, soldiers, whores, and beggars. It smelled like coal fires, fish head soup, and dung. But she loved it nonetheless. The three towers of the king’s castle broke the skyline like tourney lances, and a flock of gulls winged by, intent on reaching the ocean for another easy meal. Afternoon sun spilled across the stone buildings all around, coloring their facades like wine spilled over parchment.

Then she ran a hand through Honor’s mane. Shaking off the urge to return to everything she’d known, to the drilling, the field work, the long hours and nights spent blind drunk with comrades and strangers, Rhona spurred her horse onward. She drowned her thoughts in the hollow clop of Honor’s hooves trotting across the cobblestone pathways leading away from Creshon.

After leaving the confines of the city proper, she pushed her mount to race faster. The surrounding fields of wheat and barley blurred together with hovels and homesteads.

You’ve made the right choice, Rhona. No reason to turn back now.

Another thirty minutes of travel found her beside a happy stream.

She unsaddled Honor and set him grazing before throwing up a quick lean-to. Her squad had found this gem of a campsite years ago, and she’d slept here dozens of times since. Only five minutes ride from the King’s Road, a grove of cedars grew around a curve the in river. It was shaded in the summer, and a thick hedge of brush along the stream blocked the worst of the winds in winter.

Rhona had her boots off, her feet numbing in the frigid water in moments.

The familiar forms of brook trout darted below an overhanging bush, the shaded pool a perfect place to set down a line. Any soldier worth their monthly pay could fish. And so as the light in the sky grew dim, Rhona pulled out the short, wooden jig she packed away for such occasions.

Catgut fishing line and a hook tied to a spoon was all she needed.

She tossed out her first cast then began a slow retrieval, watching the spoon flash in the depths. You’ve made the right choice, Rhona, she told herself once more. She’d been repeating the phrase mentally for weeks now. And Rhona believed it.

Good and well, girl. Good and well. But will your father feel the same?

Knowing the answer did little to calm her nerves.

The second cast, this one aimed further below the cover of water-swept limbs, produced her dinner. With a flurry of splashes and protest, Rhona pulled out a brook trout as long as her forearm. She cracked its neck backwards with a practiced motion, then stood up.

She’d make a fire, boiled the trout in a pot, and even scrounged up a handful of herbs that grew nearby. After sprinkling in some salt, it would be a meal fit for any traveler.

She’d relish every step, appreciate each moment of the lazy evening. All she hoped for now was that sleep would come when she laid down her head for the night. Yet she had her suspicion that no such luck would befall her. How can I sleep, a half day’s ride from home, and heading back to tell a career soldier his only child has left the service? she asked herself and found no answer.

Looking down at the dead fish in her hands, she realized she wouldn’t mind switching places with the poor creature. At least it didn’t have to fear disappointing its narrow-minded father.





5





When Two or More





Kai



When Kai woke at last, his ears were ringing and his whole body ached, from his toenails to the hairs on his head. He groaned, rolling onto his side and hacking up gobbets of something vile. A strange song kept repeating itself in his head, and if the dry crust at the corners of his mouth were any indication, he had been there for a long time.



Mango fruit! Mango fruit!

Who wants to pick my pretty mango fruit?

Mango fruit, hey! Mango fruit, yeah!

The girl who asked to see my manly roo-oo-oot!





And on it went.

Kai sat up with a start, realizing that he was still within the accursed dungeon. What the icy depths is going on? And what by the nine gods is a shivving mango fruit? Suddenly, the song stopped, and Kai sighed, relieved that whatever shock had jolted his mind was wearing off. At least I’m not going mad.

To Kai’s dismay, the voice returned.

Mad? I should hope not. I finally get a dragon back and he’s a scrawny boy no less, then I find his kettle is full of oil instead of steam? Wouldn’t be fair.

Kai tried to stand, but his head swooned, so he fell into a crouch instead, then slowly walked his hands up the nearest wall till he was on his feet once more. Kai kept talking to himself, an encouragement that he felt he both deserved and needed. You’re fine. Hearing voices in your head is normal … sometimes. You had a knock to your noggin when you fell, is all. No need to panic. And I’m not a shivving boy! I’m a man of nineteen years!

The voice spoke again, this time it sounded a bit annoyed. Since when do nineteen years make you a man? You’re fine. Just calm down, and let’s get on with the rebuilding. There’s much work to be done after all.

Kai looked at his hand, the one he’d touched the Earth Core with and noted it was covered in dried blood. Glancing back at the pedestal that still held up the rocky chalice containing the still-glowing gem, he saw the core had reformed. It was no longer a pile of shattered slivers but a solid and beautifully glowing stone.

It’s wonderful, was all Kai could think.

Thank you. I am glad you think so. I’ve always been a bit self-conscious of my size. Some older Earth Cores are massive. But as my old master used to say, it isn’t the size of the skiff but the skill one applies to the rudder! To be honest, though, I haven’t the foggiest notion what he meant.

With each word, the Earth Core gave off a subtle pulse, as if it were somehow speaking to him. His ears agreed that the whole thing was wrong, his own shaky breath the only sound in the cold chamber. It was as if he were hearing the Core’s voice in his head.

Ignoring this piece of instinctive wisdom, Kai decided the only proper thing to do was panic. Searching the floor a moment, he saw the dagger he’d borrowed to enter the dungeon had disappeared. “Oh, by Briga’s braid,” he swore, “Karsen is gonna kill me when he finds out I lost his brother’s blade!”

Hardly a blade. Little more than a pocket knife really, and well, that was my fault, sorry. It's just that I was so hungry, and it isn’t like you woke me up with anything substantial to eat. So, I snacked on that bit of steel is all.

The whole situation was uncanny, far too strange to process. Kai ran, throwing caution to the wind, and sprinted past the two collapsed passages and up the steps. All the while, the voice kept speaking to him. No need to run away. Those angry little men have all left anyhow. Took off running as soon as I woke up. Please, just calm down and listen. Besides, you know it’s useless to flee. You can’t leave, because…

Kai screamed. He’d made it up the stairs, through the upper chambers, and to the entrance to where he should be able to see the setting sun, or depending on how late it was, at the very least, the stars.

But a smooth slab of stone now blocked the entrance to the dungeon.

“Oh, no!” Kai searched the wall with his hands, hoping to find a gap or crack he could pry at. “Uncle Shem was right! I’ve doomed myself with ambition!” After pawing at the stone for a time, he fell in a heap, terror springing into his heart like a hound unleashed. He huddled on the floor, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees, and buried his head in the tangle of his limbs.

After a few minutes, he managed to catch his breath. He blinked away the tears that had found their way to his eyes, unbidden.

The Core spoke to him then, its voice tinged with a gentleness that hadn’t been there before. Please, come back down and let’s have a proper chat. I won’t keep you here, it's not my intention to hold you captive. It's just that when you woke me, I felt the greed, fear, and hatred just oozing off of two of those young men outside. I thought they’d come in and hurt you, so I used all of my strength to seal them away. I can reopen the passage once I regain some ether.

The unyielding cold of the stone did more to settle Kai’s thoughts than any efforts of his own. The Earth Core seemed to understand his need for solitude because it stopped pleading with him. In the cool quiet that followed his panic, Kai’s brain finally began to work again.

He knew he was trapped in a dungeon, one that had been broken by Brintoshi soldiers years ago. That same Earth Core was now repaired and whole, but through what means he could not guess. Kai had no weapon, borrowed or otherwise. Yet there seemed no present need for one; only dust called this place home.

Thinking of the mountain of rock and rubble hanging above him and sealing him in threatened to rekindle the flames of terror once more. He shook his head and focused on logic. He wasn’t dead, not yet at least, and that was a promising start.

The only thing he had to confirm was whether the voice in his head was indeed from the restored Earth Core down below.

Should I just go downstairs and talk to it? He wondered what passed for ears on a shining gem.

A cheerful voice answered his thought instantly, Sure would be nice to be closer to you again, but there is no need. I can hear you fine from where you are.

Kai flinched back and knocked the back of his head against the stone slab. He rubbed the slowly rising lump and responded, this time aloud, “You can read my thoughts? You don’t need me to speak out loud at all?”

No need at all! We’re bonded so I can hear your thoughts quite clearly. I can even sense your feelings. Soon enough, you’ll be able to do the same with me. Neat as a night owl, isn’t it?

The young man thought about it for a time, and though still upset he couldn’t get outside and run back to Mindonne and spend the rest of his coin on as much mead or ale as he could afford, he had to admit that communicating with a real Earth Core was incredible. I guess so. My… my name is Kai. It’s nice to meet you?

The dungeon didn’t seem to mind that Kai’s last sentence had come out as a question. Instead, he babbled out a response with unrepressed joy. It is! Kai, a lovely name, I say. Not so common anymore, though it used to be long ago, at least if my old master could be trusted. Oh! Apologies for my manners. It’s been years, Kai, so please forgive me. My name is Bancroft. And I’m ever so grateful that you healed me. Time is a slow, cruel thing when your mind is shattered yet you aren’t permitted the luxury of death.

Seeming to realize he’d been rambling, the Earth Core stopped suddenly. Kai’s brain exploded with a thousand thoughts, but he settled on just one. Bancroft? That’s a nice name.

Thank you! Yes, Bancroft the dungeon at your service, but please, since we are core-bonded, please just call me Ban.

Kai nodded. This was getting somewhere, and if he had to be mysteriously bonded to an Earth Core, he was grateful that at least it was a kind and polite one. Wait. Kai stopped, as a thought nagged at him. What did you mean about the luxury of death? I thought all shivvered Earth Cores were more or less dead.

The sigh that filled Kai’s mind was as sad as anything he’d ever heard. No, I’m afraid not. I’m not sure if the rest were like me, but my master had at least prepared me for what was to come. He said that when the dragons fell, the dungeons would be next. I tried my best to defend myself, but the men who came crushed my minions easily, stole every treasure I’d made, and crushed me with a war hammer. I remember crying out in pain and then endlessly spinning. I could feel the world, dangling just beyond my grasp, but the most I could do was occasionally glimpse images of the area around my dungeon.

Having the world just out of reach seemed an exquisite torture, and a thread of compassion seeped into Kai’s heart. I’m so sorry. That’s awful. You keep mentioning your master ... do you mean your dragon?

Yes, I do. And I’ve missed him very much. He must be dead, or if lucky, maybe he fled across the sea or hid somewhere deep in the mountains. I have little hope though. He told me that the dragons would most likely all die in the years to come. His name was Yorick, and though he wasn’t as majestic as some of the more powerful dragons, he was exceptionally wise. He would have been very grateful for your assistance. Most wouldn’t willingly donate their Progression to revive a stranger.

What? I didn’t drain my Progression… did I? I’m just twenty-two away from ascending to Crimson, Kai said, anxiety clawing at his gut.

Ban’s reply came out as little more than a whisper. Well, I’m sorry to say, but your Progression is currently 0. I’m not sure why you healed me, but I am thankful, and I hope my friendship will be worth the sacrifice.

Kai’s stomach plummeted. He’d worked so hard to increase his Progression. He’d killed over a hundred squirrels and at least a dozen rabbits, for Andag’s sake! And now he was back at zero? Maybe he could visit Jakodi and the wizard could do something about it. Ban could be mistaken after all. But if he wasn’t, how long would it take for Kai to ascend now?

Unanswered questions continued to pile up in Kai’s mind, only interrupted when a rumbling growl filled the air, echoing off the walls in its ferocity. Kai’s stomach had its own demands.

My, that was a frig