Dragon Hunters, the sequel to Marc Turner's When the Heavens Fall features gritty characters, deadly magic, and meddlesome gods
Once a year on Dragon Day the fabled Dragon Gate is raised to let a sea dragon pass from the Southern Wastes into the Sabian Sea. There, it will be hunted by the Storm Lords, a fellowship of powerful water-mages who rule an empire called the Storm Isles. Alas, this year someone forgot to tell the dragon which is the hunter and which the hunted.
Emira Imerle Polivar is coming to the end of her tenure as leader of the Storm Lords. She has no intention of standing down graciously. She instructs an order of priests called the Chameleons to infiltrate a citadel housing the mechanism that controls the Dragon Gate to prevent the gate from being lowered after it has been raised on Dragon Day. Imerle hopes the dozens of dragons thus unleashed on the Sabian Sea will eliminate her rivals while she launches an attack on the Storm Lord capital, Olaire, to secure her grip on power.
But Imerle is not the only one intent on destroying the Storm Lord dynasty. As the Storm Lords assemble in Olaire in answer to a mysterious summons, they become the targets of assassins working for an unknown enemy. When Imerle initiates her coup, that enemy makes use of the chaos created to show its hand.
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By Marc Turner
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Marc Turner
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THE TIME had come for Senar Sol to learn his fate.
The Guardian had known it as soon as the bolts of his cell door were thrown back, for this was the first time it had happened in all the months he had been imprisoned. He pushed himself to his feet, found his legs were trembling. How long had he been a captive? How long since he'd stepped through the Merigan portal and swapped Emperor Avallon Delamar's knife at his back for a sword at his throat? The best part of a year, he realized, for through the bars across his room's window he had seen autumn, winter, spring, and much of summer pass by. As the weeks of his imprisonment had turned into months, he'd begun to wonder if his jailers would just leave him there to rot. But then why had they kept passing food and water through the grille of his cell door? Why bother keeping him alive at all?
Something told him he was about to find out.
The door opened and torchlight flooded through the doorway, banishing the gloom about the cell. Senar squinted into the light. A balding man entered — the same man to whom the Guardian had surrendered his sword on stepping through the Merigan portal all those months ago to find himself surrounded by enemy soldiers. The guard wore leather armor covered with metal plates that overlapped like fish scales. In one hand he held a sword with a blade made from the snout of a sawfish. Three stripes on his left shoulder marked him as an officer. Senar searched his gaze for any hint as to what his coming here signified, but the man's expression was masked. He gestured to the open doorway.
Senar scratched at the stubs that were all that remained of the two smallest fingers of his left hand. Beyond the officer waited an escort of no fewer than twelve soldiers. High honor, indeed. Another time, odds of thirteen to one would have meant nothing to the Guardian, but he rejected the idea of attacking for the same reason he'd yielded up his blade after he passed through the portal three seasons ago: even if he could defeat the guards facing him, what about the reinforcements that would inevitably come? And what was the point in trying to escape when he didn't know what lay beyond the four walls of his cell, didn't even know in which city of which empire he was imprisoned? Then there was the fact that his time in captivity would have left his skills as rusty as the hinges of his cell door. No, he would not throw his life away while his captors' intentions remained unclear.
Not when he still had unfinished business with the emperor who had sent him here to die.
Why, then, when the officer beckoned him through the door again did Senar hold back? A smile touched his lips. He had been a prisoner all this time, yet now when he was offered a glimpse of freedom, he hesitated? Better the gallows than this lingering death of the spirit he'd endured these past few months. Though he might see things differently, of course, when he was swinging from the noose.
He hadn't been heedless of the risks of traveling through the Merigan portals when he stepped through all those months ago. Only two such gateways had been found in Erin Elal — at Bastion and at Amenor — but there were innumerable others beyond the borders of the empire. And while the symbols etched into each portal's architrave denoted the destinations to which one could travel, the emperor's scholars had yet to decipher the code behind those symbols. Senar's destination had been chosen at random, and if that destination had proved to be a gateway that no longer existed, his journey to it would have killed him instantly. Even if the passage had not proved immediately fatal, Senar could have been transported to any one of a hundred different kingdoms, thousands of leagues from home. Few of those kingdoms would look kindly on visitors dropping by unannounced.
So where had the portal brought him? He hadn't had any visitors in his time here, so no help there. Nor had his captors left any clues in his cell, for the books of poetry and philosophy he'd been given were written in the common tongue by authors from numerous different cultures. Badly written, as it happened. He'd tried looking out of his cell's window for clues, but there was only so much information he could deduce from the blank wall opposite. From time to time he'd heard people talking outside, but never clearly enough to make out their words. And why? Because they were drowned by the sound of the sea.
Senar had come to know its many voices in the months he'd been a prisoner. At times its gentle gurgle put him in mind of sleepy days spent fishing with his father in the sheltered bays east of Amenor — before his father had died. At other times it would rage in the grip of a storm so savage it seemed the Furies themselves were battering at the shutters. Those storms had been one of the things to awaken in Senar a suspicion as to his location. Then there was the style of the armor and sword worn by the officer before him, together with the emblem on the man's breast of a shaft of silver lightning over a storm cloud.
The Storm Isles — that was where the clues were leading him.
Throughout his imprisonment, he had tried to remember everything he'd heard of that empire. Located in the Sabian Sea to the north and east of Erin Elal, the Storm Isles were a chain of islands ruled by a fellowship of water-mages — the Storm Lords — that held in its thrall a confederation of cities known as the Sabian League. In return for the Storm Lords protecting the League's shipping from pirates, as well as from the supernatural storms that swept down from the Broken Lands, the League's members paid tribute to the Storm Lords. The Storm Lords' seat of government was the city of Olaire on the island of Faeron, a handful of leagues from the fabled Dragon Gate that spanned the Cappel Strait between Dian and Natilly.
The Dragon Gate. Just to speak the name in his mind made Senar's pulse quicken. Once each year the gate was raised to allow a sea dragon to pass into the Sabian Sea. Awaiting it would be ships from the Storm Isles and the cities of the Sabian League, and they would hunt the creature for the honor and riches that came to the vessel that slew it. Dragon Day. Two words that inspired awe even in Erin Elal.
The balding officer gestured again to the open door, and Senar glanced down at his clothes. They were the same clothes he'd arrived in last year. He looked like a beggar, and he smelled like one too, but if they'd been going to kill him, surely they'd have let him wash and change first. Die with a little dignity, and all that. He stepped through the doorway.
To his right stretched a passage that was featureless but for several closed doors to either side. At the end of the passage was another door, and beyond it was a corridor that seemed cavernous to Senar after the confines of his cell. Its floor was covered by a blue and white mosaic so artfully crafted that, for an improbable moment, the Guardian thought he was standing on a frothing tide.
The officer led the way through a maze of passages. Senar's legs ached as he struggled to keep pace, but then the months of captivity would have left a few creases it would take time to iron out. The sound of the sea grew louder until eventually he came to a corridor where the boom of waves made it feel as if he were inside a drum. The wall to his right had no windows and was imbued with such powerful water-magic he suspected the sea lay just the other side.
And where there was powerful water-magic, there were powerful water-mages.
The Storm Isles. It has to be.
If Senar's theory concerning his location was correct, the news was both good and bad. Good in that if he ever got the chance to return home, Erin Elal was only a few weeks' travel away.
But bad for the same reason. For even though Emperor Avallon Delamar had yet to lock horns with the Storm Lords, it could only be a matter of time. Over the past decade Erin Elal had fought its northwestern neighbor, Kal, to a standstill, and while Avallon would never abandon his ambition to conquer the Kalanese empire, the loosely allied nations to the northeast of Erin Elal surely represented easier pickings. If the emperor were to learn of the Merigan portal in the Storm Isles, the strategic advantages he would gain from a back door to the Storm Lords' empire could not be overstated.
So why am I still alive?
The question had plagued him throughout his imprisonment. Even if his captors were ignorant as to his identity — and doubtless they were, since no one had bothered to question him — why take the risk of keeping him alive? Why not kill him and be done with it?
Of course, that could be what was about to happen.
The balding officer — a Storm Guard, Senar supposed, if these were indeed the Storm Isles — came to a staircase, and the Guardian followed him up into blistering sunshine. Shielding his eyes against the glare, he stepped onto the roof of the corridor he had been walking along moments ago. He was on a terrace overlooking the sea. The terrace stretched for hundreds of paces in either direction, ending to the east in black cliffs and to the west in a rocky shoreline. Its tiles were slick with spray. Immediately to the south Senar saw the roofs and courtyards of a sprawling building complex. Beyond lay a hill, its lower slopes crowded with white-plastered houses that gave way to trees near the hill's summit.
To the Guardian's left stood five figures, all staring down into a courtyard. They turned as he approached. At the center of the group was a woman with skin so pale she might never have set foot outdoors before. Her hair was gray — a curious detail, since she looked only a few years older than Senar. Her blue eyes were as cold as glacial pools, and perhaps ice ran through her veins as well, for her face showed not a bead of sweat in spite of the crushing heat.
To her right stood two young women, identical twins. And a handspan taller than Senar. He disliked them instinctively. Each wore a sword strapped to her waist, and one of them was holding Senar's scabbarded blade. To the other side of the gray-haired woman was a bearded man wearing a brown shirt and trousers. The whites of his eyes were gray, marking him as an oscura addict. Beside him stood a one-eyed old man with the olive skin of a Remnerol. Like all Remnerol, he was missing the little fingers of both hands. In his left hand he held a black bag. When a gust of wind tugged at the bag, its contents made a clacking noise. Bones. A shaman, then, for the elders of the Remnerol tribes were said to be able to read the future in the cast finger bones of their kinsmen.
The Storm Guard officer bowed to the gray-haired woman. "The prisoner as you ordered, Emira," he said, raising his voice to make himself heard above the sound of a wave striking the seawall. The spray thrown up cooled Senar's skin.
The emira inclined her head, and the soldier retreated.
So this was Imerle Polivar, leader of the Storm Lords and reputedly the most powerful water-mage ever to have sat Olaire's throne; the woman who had brought to an end an ancient dispute between the Storm Isles and the city of Hunte by draining Hunte's harbor and diverting the river that ran through it; who had destroyed the stronghold of the notorious pirate lord Kapke Kar in the Uscan Reach by pummelling the fortress with waves of water-magic until it slipped into the sea. Of the woman behind the legend, Senar had heard nothing, but all the clues as to her temper were there in her thin mouth and wintry gaze.
The emira studied the Guardian with the same scrutiny with which he regarded her. Then she turned to look down into the courtyard. Senar followed her gaze. At the center of the yard was a wooden post. Tied to it was a stocky man with gray-green skin, naked but for a loincloth. His hands and feet were webbed, and there were gills on his cheeks. An Untarian. Beyond the prisoner, another figure entered the courtyard. Senar did a double take. The man was a giant, half again as tall as the soldiers standing guard along the walls. At first Senar thought he was wearing armor, but when he looked closer ...
Matron's mercy. Years ago, in the Tresson Mountains, Senar had encountered an Uddin tribe who mixed molten iliafa ore with rose blood to create a metal that could be spun into threads as supple as string yet as strong as steel. For every enemy defeated in single combat, the tribe's warriors would stitch one of these strands through the skin of their upper arms. The giant below Senar, however, had woven the threads across his entire body from the bottom of his ankles to the top of his neck to form a metallic skin that shimmered as he walked. Over his arms, legs, and chest, black hairs sprouted from between the strands. The hilt of a sword was visible over his left shoulder.
He halted beside the Untarian and looked up at the emira.
Senar glanced from Imerle to the prisoner. It seems a show has been put on for me.
The Untarian must have known what was coming, for he started pulling against his bonds. The giant placed a paw on his right shoulder before bending until his face was level with the other man's. The prisoner gabbled in a language Senar did not recognize. His words had a pattern to them, as if he was chanting some mantra.
On the giant's left hand was a metal gauntlet with long curved talons. He lifted the gauntlet to the Untarian's chest and drew its claws across his skin. They left threads of blood in their wake.
The prisoner's voice grew louder, his eyes bright with defiance.
The giant bared his lips in a snarl.
Then he pulled back his gauntleted hand and plunged its talons into the Untarian's chest over his heart.
Senar's expression tightened. The prisoner's gasp was barely audible above the sound of cracking bones. Blood bubbled at the corners of his mouth, and he slumped against his bindings. He managed another few words of his mantra before his voice abruptly faded as if he'd run out of breath. Five metal claws in your chest would do that, though, the Guardian supposed. Poor sod, Senar thought. What crime had the man committed to warrant such a punishment? Perhaps no more than to be brought before Imerle on the day Senar was released, for the spectacle had clearly been intended as a warning to the Guardian of what would happen if his answers to the emira's questions failed to please.
When the emira spoke, her voice was as sibilant as the sea. "We are Imerle Polivar, emira of Olaire and first of the Storm Lords."
We? The woman referred to herself in the plural? But then doubtless she had an ego big enough for two.
The emira nodded toward the oscura addict and continued, "This is our chief minister, Pernay Ord, and beside him" — she indicated the Remnerol — "is our seer, Jambar Simanis." She paused as if expecting Senar to introduce himself, but when he kept silent she glanced at his halfhand and added, "And you are Senar Sol, member of the Guardian Council of Erin Elal and former apprentice of Li Benir. A diplomat, a spy, an assassin. Which of those three are you here, we wonder?"
Senar rubbed the stubs of his missing fingers. So it was his halfhand that had given him away? His mouth twitched. With the aim of hiding his identity, he had spent countless bells during his captivity inventing an alter ego with a history as rich and detailed as his own. Now, within the space of a few heartbeats, Imerle had rendered his efforts redundant. He had to smile, though. People who couldn't laugh at themselves were missing out on a rich vein of humor. In response to her question, he gave his best bow and said, "Here, Emira, I am naught but your prisoner."
"Why were you sent through the Merigan portal?"
So that was the end of the small talk, apparently. Senar was silent, considering. He didn't want to volunteer information unnecessarily, but neither did he want to be caught being economical with the truth. "If you know about me, you will know of the history between the Guardians and Emperor Avallon Delamar —"
"We did not ask you to tell us what we already know," Imerle cut in. "We are aware of what happened on the night of the Betrayal. We are aware of your opposition to the emperor, and the reasons why Avallon chose you to travel through the gateway. Our question is, why were you sent here?"
"I was not sent here. I was sent to wherever the portal took me."
Excerpted from Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner. Copyright © 2016 Marc Turner. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map of the Lands of the Exile,
Part I The Drowning City,
Part II A Storm Is Coming,
Part III The Dragon Hunt,
Part IV Sea of Blood,
About the Author,
Books by Marc Turner,