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A misty blue curtain descended over Princess Alexia of Okrannel, obscuring her surroundings. Save that something felt solid beneath her feet, she would have had no way of discerning up from down. Not that there really is any ground hereor up or down.
She lifted her head and gazed forward, trying to see the mountain she knew loomed afar. In accord with her thought, the cerulean mist swirled and parted, bleeding down and away into low fog that tugged at the hem of her gown. In the distance she did see the sharp-peaked mountain blotting out a wedge of starry night sky.
Though the mountaintop lay miles away, she reached it in three long-legged strides. She smiled, for melting of both the mist and the miles were not the only changes wrought as she moved forward. She had arrived in the mist in a simple white gown with a short cape, but by the time she reached the mountain and the arched mouth of the cavern near its top, her clothing had shifted to a warrior's tunic, simple trousers, and a good pair of boots.
She recognized her clothes as those she had last seen Crow wearing. This surprised her because though she was operating in a magickal realm where her whim could shape reality, she had not consciously chosen Crow's raiment. Either her mind was betraying her, or other forces held a certain sway in the Communion's domain.
Alyx glanced up at the stone arch defining the cave's mouth, and gathered her long, white-blonde hair over her shoulder. Unconsciously plaiting it, she read, "The secrets within are secret without, for the good of all the world." While hardly lyrical or powerful, the words described what would happen to discussions held beyond the arch. Nothing she said or heard could be shared in the waking world.
She shivered and set her shoulders. In Yslinmere months previous, though it seemed like yearsshe had been invited to join the world's eldest and most elite secret society: the Great Communion of Dragons. Any Communicant could access their enchanted meeting place in a trance that would appear to be simple sleep to observers. Alexia had tucked herself into bed at the Scarlet Mask Inn before she traveled here. This was her first conscious journey to the Communion, so a touch of fear fluttered in her belly.
Still braiding her hair, she entered the cavern, occasionally ducking her head around low-hanging stalactites. She threaded her way along a dimly glowing curved path that led down to a vast arch that bridged a crevasse. She could not see the bottom of it and suspected it had none. The span linking one side to the other was narrow, and try as she might she could not make it appear any broader. On the other side, the cavern closed into a twisting, serpentine tunnel that worked its way down, and finally opened into a vast chamber filled with moist air and the gentle ripple of water washing up on a shore.
A boat waited at the end of a pier that jutted into the dark underground lake. The boat had no masts and had been styled after a dragon, with a fearsome head curving up from the bow. Back on the wheeldeck stood a steel construct, animated by magick, that appeared to be the marriage of human and dragon forms. Its massive, clawed hands rested on the wheel. Its dark eyes did not show any light, nor did it acknowledge her as she boarded amidships.
She glanced at it. "Maroth, take me forth."
The ship lurched slightly, then began to move across the lake. Alexia strode to the bow. Water flowed noisily by under the keel, and some splashed up to sprinkle coldly on her face. She felt the rush of the passage in the breeze upon her face, but the ship sped into a starless void that provided few visual clues as to movement. Glancing back she saw nothing of the pier, but when she turned to look forward again, an island had appeared, towering over the boat as it moved to a small quay.
The boat glided to rest, bumping only slightly, and Alexia leaped effortlessly to the granite quay. She turned and tossed the pilot a salute. "Thank you, Maroth."
The mechanical creature made no response.
Alexia mounted the steps and slowly began to recognize the places from which bits and pieces of the island had been drawn. The steps reminded her of the seaside entry into Fortress Draconis, though she saw none of the dragonel ports that had defended its small harbor. And the island still boasted the soaring cylindrical towers typical of strongholds predating Chytrine's creation of weapons that could raze them. The island also bore no scars of battle, and though Fortress Draconis had yet to fall the last time she saw it, she imagined Chytrine's assault had by now reduced it to smoking, corpse-ridden ruins.
Up the steps she went, then crested the island's rim and began a steep descent to its interior. A lush garden greeted her, rich with blossoms that bloomed despite the twilight. The scented symphony of their nocturnal perfume exceeded their beauty. Some of the trees bore fruit and her mouth began to water.
Alyx smiled, wondering if her mouth was watering in this illusion, or back in the tavern. Could I pluck some of the fruit? Would it taste delicious when I bit into it?
"It would, in fact, daughter."
She spun, dropping into a combat stance, then relaxed and straightened. "You surprised me."
"My apologies." The rough figure of a man materialized from a shadowed grove. Thickly and powerfully built, he wore a black surcoat worked with a scale pattern reminiscent of dragon flesh. His gauntlets and bootsboth of which were armored and ended in talonscontinued that theme. The elaborate helm he wore fully hid his face, but the golden eyes glowed and moved as if they were real, and even the ears seemed to function.
Alyx knew the man chose to wear that form here, and had enough ease with his surroundings to look however he chose. What she was able to do with clothing, he could do with his whole person. And more.
The Black Dragon reached up and plucked a ripe, red apple from the tree above him. "It will provide no nutrition, but will be pleasing nonetheless."
Alyx straightened up and pressed a hand to her stomach. "I am not certain I could keep food down at the moment."
The Black's eyes narrowed. "What news of the world, then? What has happened?"
Alexia rubbed a hand over her forehead before she graced him with a violet-eyed glance. "After last I spoke with you, much, very much. Because of your warning, Adrogans sent some of us to Wruona to wrest the Jeranese fragment of the DragonCrown from the pirates. We got it and got away. What little remained of their fleet after the raid on Vilwan was laid to waste by Kerrigan."
"I knew you had met with some success, but I don't know Kerrigan."
She hesitated for a moment. "Kerrigan Reese. He is from Vilwan, and not more than seventeen. He's tall, but a suet-ball that could easily be dismissed as some overindulged noble's-child. He's smart, however, and has incredible power. He can command spells that no human has ever mastered, and yet others that have not been employed since the time of Yrulph Kiren."
The Black nodded solemnly. "He who was Chytrine's mentor. So young a man wielding such power could be dangerous. He's mature beyond his years, is he?"
Alyx looked at the apple in the Black's hand and imagined it in hers. It appeared in her hand, and then evaporated. "I wish he were, but he's not. His last teacher, Orla, tried to make him grow up, but she died on Wruona. He's pushed himself hard since then, and worked diligently for the Draconis Baron, but without something to give him direction, I don't know what he's going to do. The impact of Orla's death has yet to sink in, and if he loses control, he could be extremely dangerous."
The man began to pace. "The Norrington. He was with you, too?"
"Yes. Will." Alyx smiled. "He's a thief, and very good at it. He has little in the way of conscience, though one seems to be growing. PeriPerrine, my sister from the Gyrkymethinks he is good-hearted. I trust her judgment. After we escaped from Wruona we went to Loquellyn. The elves weren't about to let Peri set foot there, but Will made them reconsider. He can be surprising that way. He's young, tooyounger than Kerriganand can be very childish. But he's game in a fight and capable of great cleverness."
"Cleverness will be important, since he is the key to the prophecy that will destroy Chytrine. We once thought it was his grandfather, or his father, Bosleigh. When they joined Chytrine and became her sullanciri, that focused hopes on someone else."
Alyx sighed. "We've met some of the sullanciri and even killed a few. You know I slew one at Svoin. Resolute later killed Ganagrei south of Fortress Draconis, after we evacuated with refugees. Do you have news of the Fortress?"
The Black Dragon shook his head. "Nothing reliable, except that news from there is rare. That suggests the worst: that Chytrine's forces have completely laid it to waste. Balancing that, however, is the fact that her armies have not yet moved south, so she still may be searching for the DragonCrown fragments there."
"Or the defenders so chewed up her army that she needs to wait for reinforcements." Alexia tapped a finger on her chin. "A mix of the two is also possible. That was a big place, with lots of tunnels and warrens. There could be survivors holding out, still fighting. It might have been broken, but crushing it completely would be difficult."
The Black faced her. "I shall hope your assessment is accurate. I suspect you will learn sooner than I if it is. But how is it that you are not there?"
"Chytrine allowed Oriosans and noncombatants free passage to the south. I did not want to go, but Dothan Cavarre asked me to safeguard his wife and children as they returned to Oriosa. I didn't know until earlier today that he had an ulterior motive." Alexia hesitated for a second. "The Draconis Baron had gotten Kerrigan to create a duplicate for one piece of the DragonCrown, which was left behind as he smuggled the real one out. Chytrine was deceived, though she still sent troops after us. We held them offthat's when Resolute killed Ganagrei."
"There's nothing wrong with killing sullanciri. How long ago was that?"
"Two weeks? No, only eighteen days. Once we reached Sebcia we got relays of fresh horses and pushed hard to reach Oriosa with Ryhope. When we crossed the border, Kerrigan told us he had the fragment. He also said he'd worked a spell on another fragment. He's not sure whether Chytrine will detect it, but if not, it will feed her sense of paranoia, and that will be to our advantage."
The Black Dragon nodded. "It will, very much so." The figure's head came up as he turned to regard her. "You did not come here while on the roaddespite having left Fortress Draconis and having seen a sullanciri destroyed."
Alexia blinked. "I didn't realize there was . . ."
The Black shook his head. "No, there is no requirement for you to share anything, daughter. What I was leading to was this: these things were quite momentous, and seeking perspective on them would be understandable. It was not until you were out of danger, however, that you came here. What else has happened?"
She frowned. "You told me, when first I met you, that I could trust Crow. When we reached Oriosa his countrymen arrested him. They have him in custody. You knew who he was, didn't you?"
The dark figure slowly nodded, and clasped his hands at the small of his back. "I have known his identity for a long time."
"How could you tell me I could trust him? He's Tarrant Hawkins, the man who betrayed the last expedition sent to destroy Chytrine. Kenwick Norrington became a sullanciri because of him." Her hands closed into fists. "There are some who say he even got my father killed."
"You feel betrayed."
"Yes!" The emotions coursing through her surprised Alexia. She hadn't completely taken the Black Dragon at his word, but his comments pertaining to Crow had disposed her well toward the man. To find out that he was the most evil man outside Chytrine's legions had hurt.
"You feel a bit betrayed by me, since I told you to trust him, but more by Crow, isn't that it?" The Black cocked his head slightly. "You perhaps wonder why he didn't tell you who he was, and yet you react with the same revulsion anyone would. Yes, Tarrant Hawkins has been painted as an evil man, but you have had experience of him. Is Crow evil?"
"It doesn't matter. A man cannot change from his past."
The Black Dragon snorted, puffs of cool blue flame jetting from each nostril. "Then, I would suggest, daughter, that you have a choice of two explanations. The first is that Crow is as evil as Hawkins is in legend, and that Crow managed to deceive you. The second . . ."
Alexia's eyes narrowed. ". . . The second is that Hawkins was as courageous as Crow, and the legends about him are wrong. But, if that were true, why would he allow such lies to be spread?"
The Black's jaw opened in a dragonish grin. "That was not a choice given to him, Alexia. People saw him as a threat. They neutralized him. He is lucky to yet be alive. Enduring lies is better than lying in a grave."
"What threat could he have been?"
"He told the crowned heads that Chytrine would come for their realms in a generation, and this was a message they did not want to hear or have heard by others."
"They knew she would come back?" Alexia raised her fists to her temples. "Amid the Gyrkyme it was supposed that someday Chytrine would return, but no one knew she had vowed to do so. You're telling me the crowned heads knew she would return and did not prepare? That no one prepared save the Draconis Baron and King Augustus? How could they?"
"A crown on the head does not guarantee brains in the skull."
"But to ignore the threat is criminal!"
"Yes, but recall they lived in fear. A sullanciri slew Queen Lanivette in Meredo, in her castle, with all of her troops waiting to oppose him."
She nodded. "Leaving Scrainwood as king, and likely a willing collaborator with Chytrine."