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Prologue: The Dead
The Worldspine surrounded them. Mountains like immense teeth, jagged and huge and white, reared up all around their little valley. Monsters overshadowing the dense dark greens and blacks of the pine forest surrounding a lake of glacier water, the brightest purest blue that Kemir had ever seen.
Very slowly, they were dying. Nadira couldn't see it yet and Kemir didn't have the heart to tell her, but it was true. He'd kept them alive for five days now, since Snow had vanished beneath the frozen waters of the lake, but it couldn't last. The weather had been kind to them, but wind and rain were always fickle in the Worldspine. One day he'd run out of arrows, or his bowstring would break. Or one of them would get hurt or fall ill. He wasn't catching enough food, and they didn't have the clothes or the shelter to stay properly warm. A hundred things could go wrong, and sooner or later one of them would.
They had to move. He tried to break it to Nadira, to make her understand that Snow wasn't coming back, that their only chance was to leave and head for lower ground. A boat, he thought. Or at least a raft. Water always found the quickest way down the mountains.
She screamed in his face. Shrieked at him that Snow was coming back. He backed away. One more day, he promised himself. One more day and then he'd leave, with or without her. He could force her to come, he knew that, but he'd let her choose. She could stay and die if she wanted. That's what Sollos would have done.
As that last day began to fade he made his weary way back to the lake, carrying with him what little food he'd been able to hunt and gather. The forests here were harsh and hostile and yielded little. He was hungry. They were both hungry. They'd eat and they'd still be hungry.
He reached what passed for their camp at the edge of the lake and the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. He couldn't see Nadira. The forest was silent except for the wind and the ever-present creaking and groaning of the glacier. He stared out across the lake. And suddenly he felt the fire and iron of the dragon's presence, a moment before the water began to churn.
Little One Kemir, I am hungry.
Kemir froze, rooted to the spot. The dragon was rising out of the lake as white as the glacier ice, clouds of steam billowing around her.
And she was hungry. Five days lying at the bottom of a frozen lake would do that, I suppose.
She was probably going to eat him then. Somehow, he couldn't bring himself to be properly terrified. In some ways it would be a relief.
"Right. So you're not dead," he growled. It was just as well, he decided, that Nadira wasn't anywhere nearby. As last words went, those definitely weren't the best.
That's when her absence hit him right in the chest. Nadira. Where was she?
"Alchemist's poisons didn't kill you then. Freezing water did the trick, eh?" Why wasn't she there?
Yes. And no, I do not intend to eat you. I am… grateful… to you for showing me this place.
If dragons had expressions, Kemir hadn't learned to read them yet. The dragon's name was Snow, and as far as Kemir could tell, she always looked like she was about to eat him. Come on, woman, where are you? You should be here. Your dragon's back.
"Hurrah for me, then." He sat down. "So you're hungry. So go eat something." He couldn't keep it in any more. "You didn't eat Nadira, did you?" He felt almost stupid asking. Of course she hadn't.
There was a long silence. She was not your mate.
"No! She's not ray mate! She's my…" Yes, now that was a good question. She was his what, exactly? His friend? Don't be ridiculous. His companion? He grimaced. That made him sound like an old widow.
Which made him laugh. Since he couldn't think of anything better, he nodded. "Yes. My nest-sister. So, did you eat her?"
Kemir didn't move. Snow was joking. She had to be. Even though dragons had no sense of humor, even though Snow had never said anything funny about anything, this had to be a joke.
I was hungry. He could feel something in her, though. The same feeling as had been inside her when her Scales had disappeared. Shame, perhaps.
No, she wasn't joking.
The rage started in his face. At the end of his nose. A heat that washed slowly into his cheeks. "And that's what you do when you're hungry." Down his neck, growing hotter and stronger. He picked up a stone from the lakeside, jumped to his feet and threw it at the dragon in the water. It bounced off her scales.
Yes. And I am hungry still, Kemir.
Across his shoulders. "Whoever happens to be there. Whoever is closest. You couldn't wait. You couldn't hold it in. You couldn't go hungry. You just…" Through his arms. He hurled another stone at her and then threw up his hands in exasperation. "Bang. Gone. Whatever happens to be there. She was your…" She was what? What could you be to a dragon?
Food is food, Kemir.
There weren't any stones big enough to answer that. Or rather there were, but Kemir couldn't lift them. "What?" Oh yes, that really told her.
She was not your mate, Kemir.
The heat reached his hands, oozing down his fingers like lava until it reached the very tips. Then it all came rushing back. From everywhere. From his fingers, from his toes, from his arms and legs and chest and exploded all together in his head. He roared with rage and loss and sheer disbelief and hurled himself into the water, clutching his hatchet. "Why did you do that?" He stopped. He had to stop. He was already floundering in freezing water up to his waist. Snow was too deep to reach. He threw the axe at her as hard as he could and watched as it it too bounced off her scales and vanished into the water. He screamed at her again. "Why? Why did you do that?"
His words echoed off the mountainsides. Snow didn't move. Kemir pounded the water with his fists.
"Come here! Come here where I can reach you!"
If it is any help to you, she did not particularly mind.
"What? She didn't…? She didn't what?" He clutched at his head and surged back to the shore, slipping, falling, lurching out of the water. There had to be something, somewhere. Anything. A weapon. Something to batter a dragon. He'd rip her apart with his bare hands if he had to.
She did not particularly mind.
He picked up another stone. Snow was coming toward him, very slowly, one careful step at a time. He threw the stone, then another and another, as fast as he could until Snow reached the shore. Then he let out a mad shriek and ran at her, hacking at her legs and claws with his knife. But no matter how hard he stabbed, her scales turned his blade. He beat on her with his fists and howled. "Why? Why did you do that?"
Because she was hungry. That was all. She didn't even have to say it. And now she was just letting him vent his anger.
Kemir backed away.
"Eat me!" he roared, and threw down the knife. He stood in front of her head. "Come on then! Eat me!"
"Why not? She was all I had left. My last. Come on, dragon, eat me too!" He picked up another stone and then put it down again and reached for an arrow. "Curse you, dragon. She didn't particularly mind being eaten?" He pulled back the bowstring. Maybe if I aim for the eye…
No, Kemir, she did not.
He looked down the length of the arrow to aim and met Snow, eyeball to eyeball at the other end of it. What am I doing?
I was wondering that myself.
He took a deep breath. "You tell me, dragon, how do you know that she didn't particularly mind? Did you ask before you ate her?"
An arrow in the eye will hardly kill me, Kemir, but it would leave an unpleasant sting.
Slowly, Kemir lowered the bow. He could almost believe it. Nadira had been the one who'd made them wait while Snow lay deep in the lake. If it hadn't been for her he'd have left days ago. She'd made them stay because she couldn't let go… And he'd seen her, after they'd failed, after Snow had vanished into the lake. He'd seen her curled up when she thought he wasn't near, sobbing softly, talking to the children she no longer had as though they were still there, to the husband she'd seen murdered. The fight had gone out of her and with it all the light, all the life. Was that it? Were the memories too much? Was that why she wouldn't let go? Were you just waiting to die?
Waiting for her next cycle, Kemir.
He had tears in his eyes now. Now he thought about it, he could almost believe that Snow was right, that Nadira really didn't mind at all. "We don't get a next one, Snow. We're not like you."
And how is it that you are so sure, Kemir? She stretched her wings and looked up at the sky. She was thinking of leaving. Just like that.
"What if I don't want to come? Do I get eaten too?" The thought scared him. Not the thought of being eaten. The thought of being alone.
Would you mind?
"Yes, I'd fucking mind!" He put the arrow back in his quiver and then shuddered, shaking the dread and the emptiness away, back into the bottle he carried deep inside him. Anger was better, much better. He threw another stone at Snow instead, then another and another. "Why, dragon? Why did you kill her? Why did you do that? She wasn't much, maybe, but she was all I had. She was the closest thing I had to a friend. Shit!" The worst of the rage was gone, though, and he couldn't find the will to rekindle it. What was left behind was only sadness.
"She was your friend. Holy sun! That could have been me! What?"
Why? Why would you mind, Kemir?
"What?" He shook himself and then held his head in his hands. "Are you soft in the head; dragon? What sort of question is that? Why would I mind? Why would I mind if you ate me?"
Yes. Why would you mind, Kemir?
"Because it would fucking hurt!"
It can be very quick.
"Well then because I'd like to be alive, thank you.
And why do you wish to be alive, Kemir? What will you do with this existence?
"I don't know!" He turned away and stamped his foot. "Get shit-faced, fuck whores and kill dragon-knights, that's what. Just as soon as I'm shot of you."
I know where your alchemists live, Kemir. I know how they make us weak. I will go now and I will consider how things should best be done. When I return, I will make a proper end of it. You will come with me. Your knowledge will be of use.
"Uh uh. You go, dragon. I can't stop you but I'm not helping you. Not now." Kemir pursed his lips. He looked around the lake, at the thick walls of snow-speckled trees, at the frozen glacier, at the whiteness of the peaks above. "I think I'd rather stay here and slowly die of cold while I mourn. Tagging along, waiting for the day when it's my turn to be food? No, that's not my choice." Really though? Could I bear that? To be left out here? Alone?
Do not pretend, Kemir. Remember that I see inside you. I see fear. I see horror and surprise and a great deal of vengeance. Mostly I see loneliness. That is something I understand, Kemir, for I too am alone. I do not see much regret. You will not mourn for long.
Kemir sat down, shook his head and unstrung his bow. "That's because I still don't quite believe you did it," he said quietly, as much to himself as to Snow. He sighed. "Do I have a choice, dragon?"
There is always choice, Kemir. The Embers have shown you that.
He spat out a bitter laugh. "Yeah. Right. I can help you burn dragon-knights or I can die." He sighed again. "Well I'm not one for dying. So I'll come with you. As soon as we're out of the mountains, you do whatever you do and you leave me alone. Finished. Done. We go our separate ways. Find someone else."
As you wish.
He took a deep breath. "Snow?"
"If you ever eat someone I call a friend again, I will find a way and I will kill you. I don't care how much they don't mind. I don't care if they're positively trying to claw their way down your throat. Never again. Am I clear?"
You are clear, Kemir.
She was laughing at him. He could tell.
Part One: The Red Riders
Out of the sun there shall come a white dragon, and with the white dragon a red rider. Thieves and liars shall quiver and weep, for the rider's name shall be Justice, and the dragon shall be Vengeance.
He was running through a forest, between trees beside a river, wearing nothing more than a shirt. He was soaking wet and the water was icy. Here and there patches of snow lay on the ground but he didn't feel the cold. He was much more afraid of the heat. In the skies above the treetops, two dragons laced the world with fire. They were past rage, past fury. They were dying. He'd killed them and they knew it. They knew where he was too.
He'd tried to hide deep amid the darkness, beneath layer upon layer of leaf-shadow and branches, but they always found him. He'd tried to run, but the fire always followed him and the forest turned to flames and ash behind him. He'd tried the freezing waters of the river and the dragons had simply boiled it dry. Somehow they never quite caught him. He knew exactly why. They were slowly dying and so was he. When the trees ran out, they would all burn together. Was he afraid? He wasn't sure. Angry? Yes. Desperate? Yes. Willing to do almost anything to stay alive? Yes. But afraid? No. He'd done what needed to be done. Jaslyn would survive. The princess had been saved from the dragon. The knight had done his duty. Now the trees were running out and the end was coming, but no, he wasn't afraid.
He felt the voice more than he heard it. It wasn't a real voice, not even a human voice. It boomed like a thunderclap, shaking mountains and felling trees. The air filled with ash shaken up from the ground and the dragons fell from the sky and were still. The forest and the river were suddenly gone. Where they'd been, only bare stone remained. Bare stone and a man, standing waiting for him not more than twenty paces away.
Semian stopped. He looked the man up and down. Long robes the color of blood. A craggy face. Long white hair and a long white beard, braided, that reached almost to his waist. Every inch a dragon-priest. Except for his skin, as pale as ice, and his hands which were black and cracked, his fingers burned to stumps. And his eyes, which blazed with bloody fire.
"Stop!" said the priest again. This time the world didn't shake. Semian looked behind him. The old dragons were gone now. There was no sign of them or of the river or the trees, or even the smoking ruins of the alchemists' stronghold. Only the mountains were the same. Rising among them, taller than even the highest peak, a single massive crimson dragon filled half the sky. It lifted its head and stared lazily at him with eyes the size of lakes. Semian fell to one knee and bowed his head. The priest and the dragon were somehow the same. He didn't know how he knew, didn't know how that could be, but he knew it as surely as he knew the feel of his own sword in the palm of his hand.
Semian didn't move. "I am dead, am I not?"
The priest said nothing.
"You taught us that we would join the great dragon whose fire is the sun. That we would be taken into that fire and our souls would be forged anew."
"You are not dead," said the priest.
"I followed with the other Embers with dragon-poison in my blood, and in our dying we did what we left our caves to do. The dragons are slain."
"No, they are not, and nor are you," said the priest again. "You drank the dragon-poison and you survived. You are one of us now. One dragon too survived. One and one, balanced against one another. A harmony of fire."
"I…" Joyful tears filled Semian's eyes. He felt the heat of passion explode inside him, filling him until there was no space for anything else and then growing still greater.
"You have always been a loyal servant of the church," said the priest. "You have always stayed true. Your heart is pure. Now you shall have your reward. Kneel. And remember. Remember the stories. Remember the myths. Remember the legends. Remember what only we priests and our faithful care to preserve. Remember the beginning and remember the end."
The beginning and the end.
Before there was time there was the void. Into the void there came the sun and the moon and the earth and the stars.
"And each created life."
The shifting stone-creatures of the earth. The moon-children made of liquid silver. The ghost-forms of the star spirits. And us. The children of the sun.
"Of the Great Flame."
The Great Flame.
"And each claimed to be the foremost of the gods."
And war and strife and sorcery shattered the land.
"And in the cracks of creation the dragons were born."
They tore the magic from the land. They scourged the earth with fire. They sought to return all things to the void from which they had come.
"For only then could they too return."
And yet through blood-magic, the children of the sun cheated the end of the world. Through alchemy they called to them the Silver King, who chained the dragons and stilled the restless void.
"Thus spoke the prophet with the voice of the wind."
Semian was already kneeling. He bowed his head again. The priest ran one ruined hand through the braids of his beard. It came out dripping red with blood. "Your reward for your faith." The bloody hand waved over Semian, spattering him, and then pressed against his forehead. Semian could feel the blood running slowly down his face. "For then the prophet's face became terrible to behold and he spoke with the voice of the desert. All chains break. Fire will sweep the bones of the world. Out of flames there shall come a white dragon, and with the dragon a red rider. Thieves and liars shall quiver and weep, for the rider's name shall be Justice and the dragon shall be Vengeance." The hand pressed harder against his brow. "Arise, rider. The end-times are coming. You have been chosen. You have taken the poison and you have lived. The white dragon flies free. The flames of destruction have come, and out of the flames the red rider shall be born. Be Justice, Rider Semian. Be the red rider and find the dragon whose name is Vengeance. Cleanse the world of its wickedness. Burn it away. Justice and Vengeance, Rider Semian, Justice and Vengeance. For I am the Silver King and I have set you free." The priest and the mountains slipped away into dust. Only the priest's hand remained, still there against his skin, and the voice.
Justice and Vengeance. Justice and Vengeance…
The priest's words echoed for an eternity, yet even they decayed. Other voices, other words rose up, drowning the priest in mindless chatter. Familiar voices. People.
Semian listened to them as best he could, but his mind was adrift and nothing made any sense. Nothing until three words pierced him like a lance.
The Red Riders.