For centuries, the vast Ironship Trading Syndicate relied on drake blood—and the extraordinary powers it confers to those known as the Blood-blessed—to fuel and protect its empire. But when the drake blood lines began to fail, a perilous expedition was mounted to secure them.
Claydon Torcreek survived the fraught mission through uncharted lands in pursuit of a myth that might have secured his people’s future. Instead he found a nightmare. The legendary White Drake was awoken from a millennia-long slumber, with a thirst to reduce the world of men to ashes, and the power to compel an army of Spoiled slaves to do it.
Spurred on by a vision he desperately hopes he can trust, Clay and rebel naval officer Corrick Hilemore hijack a warship and head towards the icy southern seas, searching for an ancient secret that may give them and their allies a fighting chance.
They are aided on another front by Blood-blessed agent Lizanne Lethridge. The spy and assassin will use her diplomatic status to infiltrate deep into enemy territory on a quest for a device to save them all.
As the world burns around them, and the fires of revolution are ignited, these few Blood-blessed are the last hope for all of civilisation.
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He awoke to Katrya weeping again. Soft whimpers in the darkness. She had learned by now not to sob, for which Sirus was grateful. Majack had threatened to strangle her that first night as they all huddled together in the stinking torrent, Katrya pressed against Sirus, holding tight as she wept seemingly endless tears.
"Shut her up!" Majack had growled, levering himself away from the green-slimed sewer wall. His uniform was in tatters and he had lost his rifle somewhere in the chaos above. But he was a large man and his soldier's hands seemed very strong as he lurched towards them, reaching for Katrya's sodden blouse, hissing, "Quiet, you silly bitch!"
He'd stopped as Sirus's knife pressed into the meaty flesh below his chin. "Leave her be," he whispered, wondering at the steadiness of his own voice. The knife, a wide-bladed butcher's implement from the kitchen of his father's house, was dark red from tip to handle, a souvenir from the start of their journey to this filthy refuge.
Majack bared his teeth in a defiant snarl, eyes meeting those of the youth with the gory knife and seeing enough dire promise to let his hands fall. "She'll bring them down here," he grated.
"Then you had better hope you can run faster than us," Sirus told him, removing the knife and tugging Katrya deeper into the tunnel. He held her close, whispering comforting lies into her ear until the sobs faded into a piteous mewling.
There had been ten of them that first night, ten desperate souls huddling in the subterranean filth as Morsvale died above. Despite Majack's fears their enemies had not been drawn to the sound of Katrya's sobs. Not then and not the night after. Judging by the continuing cacophony audible through the grates, Sirus suspected that the invaders had found sufficient sport to amuse themselves, at least for the time being. But, of course, that didn't last.
Ten became nine on the fifth day when hunger drove them out in search of supplies. They waited until nightfall before scurrying forth from a drain on Ticker Street where most of the city's grocers plied their trade. At first all seemed quiet, no piercing cries of alarm from a disturbed drake, no patrols of Spoiled to chase them back into the filth. Majack broke down a shop-door and they filled several sacks with onions and potatoes. Sirus had wanted to head back but the others, increasingly convinced by the continual quiet that the monsters had gone, decided to take a chance on a near by butcher's shop. They were making their way back along a narrow alley towards Hailwell Market, laden with haunches of beef and pork, when it happened.
A sudden rattling growl, the brief blur of a flashing tail and one of their number was gone. She had been a middle-aged woman from some minor administrative post in the Imperial Ring, her last words a garbled plea for help before the drake dragged her over the edge of the roof-top above. They hadn't waited to hear the screams, fleeing back to their grimy refuge and dropping half their spoils in haste. Once back underground they fled deeper into the sewers. Simleon, a stick-thin youth of criminal leanings, had some familiarity with the maze of pipes and tunnels, leading them to the central hub where the various water-ways converged to cast effluent into a great shaft where it would be carried out to sea. At first the roaring torrent had been filthy, but as the days passed the water grew ever more clean.
"Think there's anyone left?" Majack muttered one day. Sirus reckoned it to be a month or more after their abortive foray, it was hard to keep track of the days here. Majack's dull-eyed gaze was lost in the passing waters. The soldier's previous hostility had subsided into a listless depression Sirus knew to be born of hunger and despair. Despite the strictness with which they rationed themselves, they had perhaps two more days before the food ran out.
"I don't know," Sirus muttered, although he had a strong suspicion these nine starving souls were in fact all that remained of Morsvale's population.
"Wasn't our fault, y'know." The listlessness in Majack's gaze disappeared as it swung towards Sirus, his voice coloured by a plea for understanding. "There were so many. Thousands of the bastards, drakes and Spoiled. Morradin took all but a handful of the garrison to fight the corporates. We had no chance . . ."
"I know," Sirus said, adding a note of finality to his voice. He had heard this diatribe before and knew, if left unchecked, Majack's self-pitying rant might drag on for hours.
"A hundred rounds each, that's all we had. Only one battery of cannon to defend a whole city . . ."
Sirus groaned and moved away, stepping carefully over the damp brickwork to where Katrya huddled on a ledge beside one of the larger pipes. She held her hand out to the water gushing from the pipe, slender fingers splayed in the cascade. "Do you think it's clean enough to drink now?" she asked. They had perhaps a bottle and a half of wine left, their only remaining source of uncontaminated hydration.
"No." He sat down, letting his legs dangle over the ledge and watching the water disappear into the vast blackness of the shaft. He had considered jumping several times now, but not out of any suicidal impulse. According to Simleon the shaft conveyed the water to a vast underground tunnel leading to the sea. If they survived the drop it might prove a means of escape. If they survived the drop . . .
"You're thinking about her again, aren't you?" Katrya asked.
Sirus fixed her with a sharp glare, a harsh reminder of her status coming to his lips. Please be good enough to remember, miss, you are but a servant in my father's house. The words died, however, when he met her eyes, seeing the mixture of defiance and reproach. Like most of the servants in his father's employ Katrya had taken ma dim view of his embarrassing but irresistible obsession. However, he thought it strange that she should care about such things now.
"Actually no," he said instead and nodded at the shaft. "Simleon says it's about eighty feet to the bottom."
"You'll die," she stated flatly.
"Perhaps. But I increasingly fail to see any alternative."
She hesitated then shuffled closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder, an overly familiar action that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks before. "It's awful quiet up there now," she said. "Could be they've all gone. Moved on to Carvenport. Some of the others think so."
Moved on. Why not? Why stay once they've slaughtered everyone else? The notion was almost unbearably enticing but also dangerous. Alternatives? he asked himself, the absolute gloom of the shaft filling his gaze once more.
"Your father would have at least gone to look," Katrya said. The words were spoken softly, free of malice or judgement, but they were still enough for him to push her away and get to his feet.
"My father's dead," he told her, the memory of his last interrogation looming large as he stalked away. The Cadre agent sitting at the foot of his bed, shrewd eyes on his, somehow even more frightening than the men who had tortured him in that basement. "Where is she? Where would she go?" And he had no answers, save one: "Far away from me."
In truth he remembered little of Tekela's escape. The hours that preceded it had been full of such agony and fear his memory of it remained forever ruined. His arrest had swiftly followed Father's demise, a half-dozen Cadre agents breaking down the door to drag him from his bed, fists and cudgels the only answer to his babbling enquiries and protestations. He woke to find himself strapped to a chair with Major Arberus staring into his face, expression hard with warning. Arberus, Sirus soon realised, was also strapped to a chair and, positioned off to Sirus's right, so was Tekela. He remembered the expression on her doll's face, an expression so unlike anything he had ever expected to see there: deep, unalloyed guilt.
"I'm sorry," she'd mouthed, tears falling from her eyes. It changed then, the obsession he had chosen to call passion, the delusion that had compelled him to pen verse he knew in his heart to be terrible and make an unabashed fool of himself at every opportunity. Here she was, his one true love, just a guilt-stricken girl strapped to a chair and about to watch him die.
Their attendants were two men in leather aprons, both of middling years and undistinguished appearance, who went about their work with all the efficiency of long-serving craftsmen. They started on the major first, Sirus closing his eyes tight against the awful spectacle and Tekela's accompanying screams. They turned their attentions to Sirus when Arberus fainted and he learned for the first time what true pain was. There were questions he couldn't answer, demands he couldn't meet. He knew it all to be meaningless, just another form of pressure, added theatre for Tekela's benefit. How long it took to end he never knew, but it seemed an eternity before his heart began to slow, transformed into a softly patted drum in his chest and he became aware of his imminent departure from this world. The basement disappeared into a fugue of distant sound and vague sensation. He heard shouts and thuds at some point, the sounds of struggle and combat, but assumed it to be just a figment of his fading mind. Despite the confusion he still retained the memory of the precise moment his heart stopped. He had read of those who returned from the brink of death to tell of a bright beckoning light, but he never saw it. There was only blackness and the dreadful pregnant silence left by his absent heart-beat.
The Cadre brought him back, though it had been a close-run thing as his doctor had been happy to tell him. He was a cheerful fellow with a lilting accent Sirus recognised as coming from the northern provinces. However, there was a hardness to his gaze despite the cheeriness, and Sirus sensed he knew as much about taking life as saving it. For days they tended him, generous doses of Green and careful application of various drugs until he was as healed as he could ever expect to be and the numerous scars on his chest reduced to a faint web of interconnected lines. Sirus understood this to be only a respite. The Cadre were far from finished with him.
The man who came to question him was of diminutive height and trim build. He wore the typical, nondescript dark suit favoured by Cadre agents, though the small silver pin in his lapel set him apart. It was a plain circle adorned with a single oak leaf that matched those of the Imperial crest. Sirus had never met anyone wearing this particular emblem before but all Imperial subjects knew its meaning well enough. Agent of the Blood Cadre.
"She left you behind," were the agent's first words to him, delivered with a tight smile of commiseration. "Nothing like misplaced love to harden a man's heart."
The agent went on to ask many questions, but for reasons Sirus hadn't yet fathomed the Cadre's more direct methods were not visited upon him again. It could have been due to his fulsome and unhesitant co-operation, for his experience in the basement had left no lingering pretensions to useless bravery. "My father and Burgrave Artonin worked together on their own projects," he told the agent. "I was not privy to their studies."
"The device," the agent insisted, leaning forward in his chair. "Surely you must know of the device? Please understand that your continued good health depends a great deal upon it."
Nothing, Sirus thought, recalling the way his father would jealously guard those artifacts of interest to his precious circle of select scholars. I know nothing. For a time Sirus had entertained the notion that such circumspection had been for his protection, the less knowledge he possessed the less the Cadre's interest in him. But he knew such concern was largely beyond his father's heart. It had been simple professional secrecy. His father had happened upon something of great importance, something that might transform their understanding of this entire continent and its history. Like many a scholar, Diran Akiv Kapazin did not relish the notion of sharing credit. Sirus had only ever caught glimpses of the thing, and indulged in a few snatched glances at his father's notes. It remained a baffling, if enticing enigma.
"I was privy to . . . certain details," he lied.
"Enough to reconstruct it, perhaps?" the agent enquired.
"If I . . ." He had choked then, the lies scraping over his parched tongue. The agent came to his bedside and poured a glass of water before holding it to Sirus's lips. "If I had sufficient time," he managed after gulping down the entire contents of the glass.
The agent stood back, lips pursed in consideration. "Time, I'm afraid, is both your enemy and mine at this juncture, young sir. You see, I was sent here by a very demanding master to secure the device. I'm sure a fellow of your intelligence can deduce to whom I refer."
Unwilling to say it aloud, Sirus nodded.
"Very well." The agent returned the glass to the bedside table. "I'm going to send you home, Sirus Akiv Kapazin. You will find your household largely unchanged, although sadly my colleagues felt obliged to arrest your father's butler and he failed to survive questioning. All the papers we could find in his offices at the museum are awaiting your scholarly attentions."
So he had gone home, finding it bare of servants save Lumilla, his father's long-standing housekeeper, and her daughter Katrya. It seemed the Cadre's visit had been enough to convince the others to seek employment elsewhere. He spent weeks poring over his father's papers, compiling copious notes and drawing diagram after diagram, making only the most incremental progress. The agent came to the house several times, appearing less impressed with every visit.
"Three cogs?" he enquired, one eyebrow raised as he looked over Sirus's latest offering, a simple but precisely rendered diagram. "After two weeks of effort, you show me three cogs."
"They are the central components of the device," Sirus told him, his voice imbued with as much certainty as he could muster. "Establishing their exact dimensions is key to reconstructing the entire mechanism."
"And these dimensions are correct?"
"I believe so." Sirus rummaged through the pile of papers on his father's desk, unearthing a rather tattered note-book. "My father wrote in a shorthand of his own devising, so it took some time to translate his analysis. I am convinced the dimensions of these cogs is directly related to the orbits of the three moons."