An Exiled King. A Broken Dream. A Sword Forged for Forever.

Issa can trust no one. Her closest allies betray her and nobody is as they seem. When a Dromoorai captures her and a black vortex to another dimension rips into her room, she realises the attacks will never stop and there is far worse than Baelthrom reaching for her out of the Dark Rift.

The Great Sword of Binding has been stolen and it calls to Asaph in a vision like no other. Alone he must find it and awaken the dragons before they fall asleep forever. But the quest will bring him face to face with the enemy, and to the very brink of his life. Can he find the sword and reach Issa’s army in time to join the fight against Baelthrom?

The Dragon Dream has fallen and now the Elven Land of Mists is attacked. Soon there will be nothing left to defend. Issa must take the offensive and strike into the heart of enemy lands. War now becomes the Raven Queen’s domain.

**OUT NOW ON AMAZON**

CHAPTER 1
Eye of Betrayal

THE great cry of a dragon awoke Morhork.

He felt a terrible wrenching then the shutting off of something valuable, the loss of something precious.

Faelsun, he thought, lifting his head as a chill swept through his body. In the Recollection, a thousand dragon souls cried out in pain and mourning, and then fell silent.

Faelsun was gone. That knowledge was as real as the ground beneath his feet. The wrenching away of his brother’s soul made him tremble. How could it be? What had happened?

He’d spent millennia hating his brother and thinking up ways to kill him—to feel his death now left him shaken, his feelings in turmoil. His brother—the one who had sided with the humans and fought against him, the one who had ripped the wings from his back, and thus his power, strength and birthright as a dragon. His brother who had been nurtured by the same mother and had shared the same nest thousands of years ago.

Gone forever.

But what about the Dragon Dream? He swept his mind through the Recollection and closed his eyes, overcome with powerful, confusing emotions.

Gone and lost forever. If the Guardian of the Dragon Dream dies, then so too, the dream. The shared dream of dragons—their glorious realm and safe haven—did not exist without the dreamer. The world had changed and would never be the same again.

Out there in the wilderness, Morhork felt the dragons stir, their minds lifting a little from their nightmares. Even in the dream state, they would never be able to enter the Dragon Dream again. Should he return to the world and try to help in some way? Perhaps he could awaken them fully and bring them back to Maioria.

No. The last time he, a dragon, got involved with the world of men it had cost him his wings. He wanted no part in it, not even now.

‘Not yet, my brethren and sistren. The world of man still rules. Our time is not now,’ he said, sending his thoughts to them to soothe them. The dragon minds settled then slipped back to sleep.

Morhork decided to do the same, forcing the immense sorrow and anger away. Such emotions confused him. There was no point being a dragon in this world ruled by humans. His human form was already far more effective, even if he used it only to keep a check on what was happening.

He lay back down in the cold darkness of the cave and shifted his great bulk amongst the dust and bones. This cave in the cliffs above a thick ice flow was deep, and at its end were the ancient bones of two dragons.

Not all dragons who went into hibernation survived. But it was not a bad way to go. The bones crumbled under his feet, reminding him how old they were. He curled up on top of them, sighed, and sought a deep and long sleep away from this world ruled by men.

A world now with one less dragon in it.

* * *

The stoic, gleaming towers of Castle Carvon shone through the black smoke billowing far below.

Apart from a blackened crumbling section to the west, the city and its walls were unblemished, strong and whole amidst the destruction.

‘Look, the city still stands!’ Issa cried above the rushing wind, her heart leaping for joy as she gripped Asaph’s golden claw, the wind whipping her hair about her shoulders.

‘They tried but failed to take Carvon. The heart of the Free Peoples still beats strong,’ Asaph rumbled, angling his wings to slow their pace. The smoke came not from a razed city, as they had feared, but from the forest beyond.

Asaph dropped lower towards the ballooning smoke concealing the ground and any enemies that might be there. She felt his muscles tensing for attack and gripped the pommel of her sword. They’d only had a few hours’ rest and a meagre amount of food before returning to the city at war and her muscles were still sore.

‘They’ve pushed the enemy back. Now the people are trying to put out the forest fires,’ Asaph said, his far superior dragon vision picking out through the stinging smog what she couldn’t see.

The smoke cleared briefly allowing her to glimpse beneath it. Around the lake where she had first called the boatman was utter devastation. Great swathes of trees were snapped and flattened, the forest floor was blackened and the lake was grey with ash.

A thousand-strong city folk were frantically filling buckets, pots and pans with the dirty lake water and passing it between them to hurl upon the flames. As Asaph swooped low, many dropped their buckets and froze, trembling in dragon fear. Some at the forest edge ran away screaming.

Ignoring the people, Asaph hovered above the flames and beat his wings furiously. People flattened themselves against the ground to avoid being blown away and the trees bent over with the force of his gusts. Under his onslaught, the flames were driven down to the ground and extinguished, leaving a smouldering, charred forest.

Struggling onto their knees, the people burst into cheers and raised their hands. Issa laughed and waved down at them. Asaph lifted into the air.

‘Where’s the front line?’ she asked, straining to see where Carvon’s soldiers might be. ‘And where are the Dread Dragons?’

‘Maybe they’ve pushed them back,’ said Asaph and turned to the west.

After a fast mile Issa spotted something. ‘There!’ she shouted and pointed into the faded distance where more smoke billowed above the trees. Black shapes flew in the sky.

Asaph slowed, his heart beating faster. ‘Dromoorai. But they’re retreating,’ he said, flying cautiously forwards.

‘Let’s go after them and hunt them down,’ Issa growled.

After a moment, Asaph said, ‘As much as I want to, we should regroup with the others for a conjoined attack. There are too many.’

He was right. No matter how much she wanted to chase them across Frayon and into the sea, her revenge would have to wait.

‘Look. The others have stopped too,’ she said, spying the glinting armour of hundreds of tiny figures in the distance.

Asaph picked up the pace, covering the miles fast.

At the edge of the tree line where the forest gave way to grassland and craggy fields, the king’s army massed. Pikes bristled and pennants thrust proudly into the sky. Many were covered in dirt and stained in blood.

The halted army stood apprehensively before a strange purple haze that billowed over the ground some fifty yards in front of them, weapons drawn and at the ready. No one dared enter it.

Feeling the soft buzz of magic, Issa searched for the source. There, on a high point behind the frontline and surrounded by soldiers, stood several wizards in their purple robes holding their staves aloft.

‘Freydel! Thank the goddess,’ she breathed, spotting him amongst the others.

Even from this distance he looked aged and hunched with exhaustion. His new crystal staff shone blue in the light and it pulsed with magic. It was alluring, transfixing her gaze, and she wondered where he had got it from, having never seen such a thing of beauty in his study.

Beside him stood all other members of the Wizards’ Circle and the Flow pooled thickly around them as the wizards drew upon it to work their magic. As Asaph neared, she could feel the crackle of their magic in the air.

Finding a clearing a short distance behind the army, Asaph landed, set her down, and changed from his dragon form into a man swiftly in an effort to avoid spreading dragon fear.

They made their way through the forest, clambering over fallen trees, brambles and ferns until they found the main track. All along the path wounded soldiers lay. Physicians and healers tended them wrapping bandages around wounds and setting splints to broken bones. Some soldiers lay permanently still and white sheets covered them completely.

Issa’s heart became heavy.

‘Look, there’s King Navarr,’ said Asaph, touching her arm.

Through the crowds of milling soldiers, she saw the king of Frayon. He was encased in chainmail and shining plate armour; even his cowl was made of chainmail held in place by a simple gold circlet.

As they neared, the king walked towards them, a determined smile on his soot-streaked, blood-smeared face. There were also smears of blood and dirt on his tabard. He was not a king afraid to fight with his men. His soldiers parted to let him through and bowed slightly as he passed.

‘They’ve retreated—for now,’ King Navarr said, his hard grin deepening. He gripped Issa’s shoulder and slapped Asaph on the back, which Issa noted surprised Asaph as colour touched his cheeks. ‘We’ve sent several units and a routing party to chase them back as far as they can. Led by Sir Marakon, of course.’

‘Thank the goddess he’s all right,’ said Issa.

‘It’s been a long, vicious fight and I don’t think it’s over yet, but the enemy haven’t managed to set up bases close, so eventually they’ll have to retreat back to the coast with us harrying them all the way.

‘As always, they knew exactly where to strike and when we were least prepared for it. With those bastard Dromoorai, they’re able to hit hard and fast whilst we watch shaking in our boots. I did not expect to see Carvon still standing, but then I refused to imagine it falling, too.

‘Scouts report that the north-west coast is lost, but we’ll do all we can to drive them from our shores.’ King Navarr’s jaw clenched.

With a caw, Ehka swooped low and landed at Issa’s feet. Laughing, she crouched down and stroked her raven guardian. ‘I knew you’d be all right,’ she said, but still she worried for his safety whenever there was a battle that drove him from her side.

The big black messenger bird of Zanufey crowed softly, clearly glad to be with her again where he could protect her.

Issa glanced up at Asaph. ‘What do you reckon? Should we help Marakon?’

He shrugged and looked to the west, hand resting on his sword pommel. ‘I guess there’s no point hiding anymore. Everyone and Baelthrom now know there’s a Dragon Lord still alive.’

They were back in the air within the half hour and following Ehka. After five miles or so, the raven squawked and dropped down into the trees. Asaph flew lower and Issa glimpsed soldiers running through the forest with their familiar gold shield on red Feylint Halanoi tabards. Ahead, a mob of Maphraxies fled. Their guttural grunts and clanging black iron armour sent shivers down her spine.

Asaph ploughed into the unsuspecting Maphraxies as they emerged from the trees and blasted them with flames. Inhuman, gargled howls filled the air and an acrid smell assaulted Issa’s nostrils. They did not burn easily and it took all Asaph’s blue fire and another pass to incinerate them.

Those not incinerated scattered, their flesh smouldering. Asaph struck a claw down through the trees, catching one. It gave a sickening squeal as he clenched. He dropped the crushed body and lifted up. Issa heard the Feylint Halanoi cheering below.

‘Look, there are more.’ Issa pointed to another horde of black shapes running through the trees; Maphraxies, foltoy and death hounds. ‘They’re retreating, but if we let them go now, we’ll only face them again in the future.’

‘This enemy knows no mercy,’ rumbled Asaph. ‘But we don’t want to follow them into a trap.’

‘Then let’s stay close to the soldiers,’ said Issa. ‘We’re stronger together.’

The ground below turned rocky and a ravine loomed ahead making it difficult to get close enough to flame the rest whilst flying.

Asaph made a tight landing on a huge, jutting rock surrounded by tall evergreens ahead of the advancing soldiers. Setting her down on the flatter section, he changed form in a sparkle of air. Issa watched in awe as the light surrounded him and then a man stood there in the place of an enormous dragon. Her change into a raven seemed far less glamorous, she thought.

Together they ran through the trees to meet the routing party. They found the soldiers paused at the entrance to the ravine.

‘We’re friends,’ Asaph called out as they emerged from the forest holding up their hands.

A hundred weary, blood and grime-smeared faces stared back at them and lowered their weapons. They’d been fighting all night, Issa realised. The soldiers relaxed and took to settling on the grass and patches of bare rock. She searched for Marakon amongst them and finally found him with Bokaard surveying the ravine.

The big Atalanphian slapped her back and Marakon squeezed her shoulder. The half-elf commander had lost the eyepatch he usually wore to cover his old wound. Instead, he had wrapped a piece of cloth around his head to hide his white eye as he’d not had time to find or make another. Marakon shook Asaph’s hand and gave a slight bow of respect.

‘It’s good to finally meet the last Dragon Lord,’ he said, eyeing Asaph.

Bokaard nodded, deep respect in his eyes as he looked at the Draxian.

‘Issa’s told me a lot about you,’ said Asaph. ‘That you were once a great king and beloved leader. In this life, you are the best the Feylint Halanoi has to offer and I’d be honoured to join your knights.’ Asaph returned the bow.

‘The honour would be all mine, Sir Dragon Lord. But perhaps we can wait until after the battle?’ Marakon grinned and slapped his shoulder.

‘Are you going after the Maphraxies?’ asked Issa, peering over the edge into the darkness of the ravine.

‘No. Here we rest. We’re all too tired and now spread too thinly. There is only this entrance to the ravine which we can guard easily enough. We’ll rest here and set up camp when the supply team catches up. We need at least two more fresh units to harry the enemy further.

‘They took a lucky strike at our heart to shake us up and let us know they could. It worked. Whether we can push them off Frayon’s north-west coast remains to be seen. Do not relax your guard. This fight is not over yet.’

* * *

Issa helped tend and heal the injured while Asaph cleaned and sharpened weapons as the army prepared the camp. Apart from a foltoy hurtling into their midst and being felled in a hail of blades, nothing else attacked them.

At dusk, the supply units finally caught up with them, bringing much-needed food, water, bandages and blades. Soon, tents, campfires, and the delicious smell of cooking filled the forest.

Being on the early bed schedule for night watch, Issa found herself restless and sleep far away. From the rustling sounds beyond the fabric of her tent, so was the rest of the unit she camped amongst. It wasn’t easy getting to sleep knowing your enemy was near and could strike at any time.

Asaph seemed to be doing all right, however. His chest rose and fell steadily as he slept on a rough blanket next to hers. They were fully clothed and armoured in leather as ordered. Not that she minded; it was too cold to sleep with any less on.

Shifting a dozing Ehka beside her, she got out of bed, picked up her sword, and tiptoed out of the tent, heading towards the latrine.

Marakon sat beside the campfire and looked as if he, too, was having trouble sleeping. He glanced up at her and nodded. She nodded back, but the gaze of his unbound white eye made her shiver and something about it made her want to get away as fast as possible. He must have sensed this for he dropped his gaze.

Issa turned away, feeling confused. She had nothing but the deepest respect and awe for Marakon but his eye filled her with dread.

It was dark and still in the forest. Only the light of the campfires behind barely lit her way. The air was cool and the moonless night sky filled with stars. She walked along the freshly cut path to the river winding between clusters of beech trees. The water was dark and slow moving and very deep.

She bent down between the ferns and splashed cold water on her face, wishing she could have a long hot bath. At least the water was cool and refreshing so she took several gulps to invigorate herself.

As she drank, a cold, dark feeling crept over her skin and the hairs on her neck rose. She froze, her ears pricked for the slightest sound.

There came no noise, just a fleeting dark shadow as a wire noose slipped over her head, tightened around her neck, and dragged her backwards. Issa slammed hard against the huge, metal chest of a Dromoorai, the sickly sweet stench of the undead filling her nostrils and making her gag. How had she not smelled the Sirin Derenax before now? How had she not heard anything?

She tried to scream—for Asaph, Ehka or anyone—but the noose lifted her off her feet and tightened until she couldn’t breathe. She squinted through watering eyes into the darkness. Ehka was on the ground, unmoving in the grass.

Grimacing against the pain, she kicked backwards, smashing her soft boots into hard metal shins and hurting her heels. Her hands grappled for the wire around her throat, trying desperately to loosen it. She struggled uselessly as an impossibly strong hand bent her arms back, one after the other, and tied them.

The Dromoorai made no sound except for its heavy rhythmic breathing as though each inhale and exhale were made through a tube. She quickly felt faint and her struggles lost their strength. Her head started to pound and her heart thundered madly.

Between the trees towards the camp, a figure appeared and paused, swaying. The Dromoorai turned to face it. Marakon? Issa thought. Blinking through the tears, she choked, trying to scream to catch his attention but failing. Why wasn’t he running to fight? Surely he could see the Dromoorai? Tears streamed down her cheeks. She gritted her teeth, feeling her consciousness slipping away.

Marakon’s white eye blazed into light and he fell against the tree trunk groaning as if he struggled against something within himself. Had a Life Seeker taken him? Marakon gasped and clutched at his head as if possessed by a demon, then he stood straight and came stalking towards her, his face set in a fury.

‘Now I have you,’ he said in a voice that wasn’t his, but Baelthrom’s.

Issa’s legs gave way and she sagged. Terror turned her heart into a hammer. Blackness seeped around her—or maybe she was passing out. The cord loosened and she gasped in a breath, wincing in pain as it scoured her bruised windpipe. The Dromoorai still held the noose in one hand and crushed her against his chest with the other so she couldn’t get away. Not that she could if she tried, her body was as weak as a child’s.

‘Marakon, please help me,’ she rasped, tears streaming down her cheeks. Marakon had to be in there somewhere, if she could only reach him.

Slow, impossibly heavy footsteps shook the ground. There came a loud snort from behind and the rotting odour of sulphur assaulting her nose told her a Dread Dragon was near. Her insides wobbled but she was already too terrified to succumb much further to dragon fear.

The Dromoorai grabbed her hair and pulled her head up, forcing her to stare into Marakon’s blazing white eye. Marakon’s face contorted in pain as his eye slowly turned red—red like Baelthrom’s.

‘Marakon is gone. I control him now,’ said Baelthrom. ‘Bring her back to me.’

The Dromoorai lifted her. Issa struggled to find the Flow but there was only the thick, cloying blackness of the Under Flow. Without a word, the Dromoorai turned and slung her over the Dread Dragon’s saddle. She wriggled furiously and tried to kick at the Dromoorai. It grabbed her legs and wrapped wire around them, yanking it so tight she gasped. A mouldy piece of cloth was rammed into her mouth making her retch.

The Dromoorai pulled itself into the saddle beside her and gripped the huge clanking reins made of chains as the dragon stood up. Breathing hard against the gag, Issa stared down at Marakon. Why wasn’t he fighting? How could he let this happen? Dear goddess, what had happened to Ehka? Where were the soldiers? Why couldn’t anyone see what was happening?

‘Marakon,’ she tried to scream past the gag but only a muffled noise came out.

Something in the trees growled, then a beastly roar ripped through the forest. The Dread Dragon paused and whipped its head around.

The roar was echoed by two more. Ferns and bushes shook violently between the trees as something huge bounded towards them.

‘Marakon!’ a female voice howled.

Issa strained to see through her sweaty strands of hair plastered to her face. A strange sight appeared at the edge of the trees partially hidden by foliage. A brown-skinned, blindfolded woman with very short hair rode atop a giant, roaring bear. The woman was dressed in sackcloth and holding aloft a glowing staff. She was flanked by two other riderless bears.

‘Get away!’ Marakon screamed at the woman in his own voice. He thrashed and fell onto his knees, clawing at his face.

‘Go, now!’ Baelthrom roared at the Dromoorai as Marakon writhed.

The Dromoorai yanked on the reins and the Dread Dragon lifted its head and beat its wings.

The blindfolded woman screamed. Light pulsed from her staff, blasting into Marakon and flooring him. The riderless bears roared and bounded towards the Dread Dragon. One leaped, gaining a shocking height for its size, and landed on the dragon’s tail. Lumbering up the dragon’s horny spine, its thick claws ripped into scales. The other bear attacked the haunches of the dragon with its teeth.

The Dromoorai pulled out its claymore but the bear was already upon it. A huge paw knocked the sword away with such force that the surprised Dromoorai lost its grip on it. Issa watched the black metal blade glinting as it spun down to the grass below. The bear reared and hurled itself at the Dromoorai, knocking it from its saddle. Bear and Dromoorai rolled down the dragon’s side and hit the ground with a thud.

Wriggling madly, Issa started to slide off the Dread Dragon but caught her bindings on a spiny horn. Dangling by her feet, she managed to dislodge the gag with her tongue and spat it out.

‘Bring her!’ Baelthrom roared through Marakon.

Obeying the command, the dragon kicked the bear attacking its haunches and sent it rolling through the grass. Temporarily free of its harasser, the undead beast flapped its wings again and lifted into the air. Issa screamed as loud as she could. Surely the whole army would have heard her and all the commotion by now but why weren’t they here?

The ground fell away with shocking speed. The dragon turned in a sickening arc as she dangled by only her feet. She would fall to her death if the Dread Dragon didn’t kill her first.

A blaze of fire torched the night sky in an arc of light. Issa hunted for the source but could see nothing from this angle. The Dread Dragon howled as it was suddenly shunted violently sideways. Issa’s bindings slipped off its spine and she fell, screaming.

Between the tumbling trees and stars, a golden dragon hurtled towards her; blue eyes flaring, ears held flat against his sleek head and huge teeth bared. The Dread Dragon was on his tail.

A tree tip slashed her face just as Asaph’s claw wrapped around her. The rushing air stopped, leaving her body trembling in stunned shock. With barely a pause, Asaph landed, laid her on the grass, and turned and leaped back into the air to meet the attacking Dread Dragon.

Issa rolled onto her side. To her left, the Dromoorai fought three bears and the woman. Marakon writhed on the grass, clutching his head and screaming. A cold black shadow slithered beside her, then tiny cold hands grappled with the wire around her throat. She blinked into the barely materialised, ugly face of Maggot. Barely two feet tall, the tiny Shadow Demon’s big yellow eyes were wide and his red tongue hung out.

‘Maggot?’ Her voice was ragged. Had he really just appeared from the demon world or was she seeing things?

‘I knew you were in trouble,’ he said as the wire came loose in his small hands.

Issa lay there gasping, finally able to breathe properly and deciding her unlikely friend from the Murk was indeed real. Maggot undid the bindings on her wrists and she shook them off, reaching down to free her ankles.

Jumping up, she ran to Ehka with Maggot following on furiously beating stubby wings. Gently she turned the bird onto his back. His eyelids fluttered and his claws moved a little. She couldn’t see any wound or blood on him. Perhaps magic had stunned him.

Grabbing her talisman, she held it over him. With a command, indigo light blanketed the bird. He twitched and gave a slight croak. One eye opened. Thank the goddess he was still alive.

Issa glanced ahead. One bear lay unmoving on the ground, with badly ripped ears and dark blood soaking its fur. The other two fought on against the Dromoorai.

She gripped her sword and was about to run and join them when the Dromoorai fell, watery black blood spraying from its throat. It shuddered violently then was still. The blindfolded woman dropped Marakon’s blade. Issa stared, wondering how the woman could see to kill the beast.

The two bears sniffed the fallen corpse and flinched away. One went to the other fallen bear and hung its head. Issa swallowed a lump. There was no saving the bear lying still.

Marakon groaned, got onto his knees then collapsed back again, blood trickling out of his nose, ears and eyes. Issa pulled the Flow through the talisman, now finding the Under Flow weakened. She took a deep, steadying breath and focused on the man. Was Baelthrom still in him?

Sheathing her sword—she wouldn’t be needing it—she took out the orb. Holding talisman and orb high, she pulled harder on the Flow and stepped slowly and deliberately towards Marakon. Maggot followed behind her heels. Baelthrom still fought for control of the man’s body—she  could feel his unholy presence thickening around her as she neared. Sweat beaded her forehead. She forced down the fear. Marakon’s life was at stake.

‘Get out of him,’ she snarled.

It had been Marakon all along. The realisation made her pause and stare at the possessed man. Somehow, he had led the Dromoorai here. Had he been working with Baelthrom since the beginning? Betraying them all? Fury exploded within her, blotting out all reason. The man had betrayed them. He must be destroyed.

‘You traitor!’ she screamed. The words seemed too stupid to express the hurt and betrayal she felt inside. ‘We trusted you with our lives!’

The man howled and writhed on the ground. The veins in his neck stood up and he clawed at his face, making deep welts in his skin.

‘Marakon!’ the bear-riding woman shouted. She limped towards them, swinging and tapping her staff in front of her like a blind person.

‘Shield,’ Issa commanded the orb. A shimmering blue dome flared around her and Marakon, forcing the blindfolded woman back and blocking anything that might attack or disturb them.

‘Get away,’ Issa hissed at the woman. ‘This man is a traitor. A spy!’ Her words made her even more furious. She would kill Marakon herself.

‘He doesn’t know what he is, what he carries,’ the blindfolded woman pleaded frantically, pressing herself against the blue dome that was as solid as glass. She slapped her hands against it. ‘I’ve come here to tell him. Please don’t hurt him. I can help.’

Issa barely heard the woman as she turned back to the commander groaning at her feet. He jerked and convulsed, then his white eye opened and glared at her.

‘Come to me,’ Baelthrom’s voice commanded through Marakon’s lips. His voice moved around her, cold and draining like the Under Flow.

Maggot squeaked and clung to the back of her leg. She had forgotten the demon was there. A heavy, woozy feeling came upon her. Her hand holding the orb trembled and her grip became sweaty and weak. She swallowed hard, her pulse throbbing in her ears. It took great effort to slip the orb out of sight into the sack tied at her belt.

Ignoring the voice and focusing on her actions, slowly and deliberately she pulled out her sword. The tremble in her hand became violent tremors that shook her whole arm. Her sword began to burn in her grasp and she fought to hold onto it.

‘Come to me,’ Baelthrom’s voice echoed around her louder, even inside her own head.

She raised her sword but it burst into fire and she screamed, dropping it. Marakon howled, clamping his hands to his temples. His eyes turned entirely black and his hands whipped out and clawed the air as if trying to reach her. The Under Flow seeped from his palms. Black magic spewed into the dome, easily and swiftly overcoming the Flow. Issa’s protective shield became her prison, plunging her into choking icy blackness.

The talisman burned in her grasp and the orb pulsed at her side. Protect the orb! She had to protect the orb! Her body stepped forward through no will of her own. She gritted her teeth, fighting for control of herself and the Flow. Marakon’s eyes blazed in the dark, the only light she could see. She tried to look away.

‘Use the talisman, Issy,’ Maggot squealed from somewhere far away.

It seemed to take an age for her arm to lift the throbbing talisman in front of her.

‘Come to me,’ Baelthrom’s voice boomed all around her.

Marakon raised a hand out of the blackness and her body betrayed her as she reached for it. He gripped her wrist in an iron clamp. She screamed as deathly cold filled her body and mind. He began dragging her down to him. She had to fight the cold. She tried to jerk away but his strength was absolute.

She strained to lift the talisman to her chest. With a scream, she slammed it against her torso and fell onto Marakon. The raven mark burned, pushing back the cold. Indigo light flared from the talisman, fighting back the blackness of the Under Flow.

‘A’farion. A’farion. A’farion!’ She screamed at the rushing din as the battle blazed between black and indigo magic. But her words came out so slowly it seemed time was stopping.

The world trembled and lurched. She felt herself being torn in two as the spell tried to take her to the realm of the dead and Baelthrom battled to hold onto her.

Marakon was screaming beneath her, his chest heaving, but she clung to him with the raven talisman pressed between them as the world wrenched between two opposing forces.

CHAPTER 2
Lifting Curses

THE blackness bulged and rolled away.

Issa fell into silver light still clutching Marakon. They thudded onto hard ground, Marakon’s scream catching up with them.

She let go of him and staggered onto her knees, her raven mark burning. His white eye bulged horribly and his eyelids were peeled back as if he couldn’t blink. He choked and quietened, his face ashen. As his screams died, he became stricken, as if paralysed.

Panting, she whipped up her sword and held the raven talisman high, half expecting Baelthrom to appear before her. When he didn’t, she looked around. A grey, deathly silent place assaulted her ears as the din of before echoed away.

Maggot was a shadow to her right, Ehka a few paces to her left. The raven was awake but listing on his side, his wings splayed to steady himself.

Issa dropped her gaze back to Marakon. His eye glared at her and her breath caught in her throat. She was looking directly at Baelthrom.

* * *

Through the burning hot pain in his eye and the madness in his mind, Marakon blinked in darkness up at the woman. Not a woman, a goddess. She was swathed in midnight blue and covered in stars. Only her perfect chin and lips were visible from within her hood.

Zanufey.

The wind moved her cloak and she said nothing, though he could feel her eyes upon him. Something very wrong was happening to him. He fought for control of his body as something utterly evil and dark tried to fill it, shoving him aside. Pain radiated through him as if his body was tearing itself apart from within.

Even as the pain ripped through him a contrasting serenity began to seep in. Soon, waves of calm flowed over him. In Zanufey’s divine presence, the evil began to scatter and the pain receded. He groaned in relief as his senses returned. Blinking, he looked around. He was on his back and couldn’t move. A desert plain stretched out all around and into the far distance. A star-filled sky wheeled above.

‘Blessed Zanufey, where am I?’ he asked, alarmed when his voice came out a croak.

Pain exploded in his eye again and he screamed. Baelthrom’s helmeted face surrounded by raging red fire filled his vision. The Immortal Lord held out a huge hand and slowly clenched his fist. Marakon’s heart squeezed as he did so. He gasped and writhed, sweat beading then trickling down his face.

Zanufey filled his mind again, cool and dark, driving away the pain and chaos. Then Baelthrom returned bringing raging fire and agony. Marakon howled, his eye burning in unseen flames. Zanufey returned and between her and Baelthrom, between agony and madness, and soothing calm, his reality flipped.

‘Help me!’ he screamed. What was happening to him?

‘Marakon.’ In a moment of calm, a voice he recognised called from far away. His heart lurched at it. He longed to be with that voice.

‘Jarlain?’ he rasped. What was she doing here? Had he gone completely mad?

The pain receded, the crushing fist around his heart relaxed, and the images of Baelthrom and Zanufey went.

He opened his eyes. A grey, lifeless world appeared. He lay upon the cold hard mud of a battlefield in the aftermath of war. Everyone had been slaughtered; bodies were strewn everywhere, pale and unmoving. Bloodied faces, eyes wide in horror, stared unseeing from within crushed helmets. Armour, swords, spears and axes all covered in gore lay strewn amongst the dead. Horses lay with flies already swarming their corpses. Some still carried their mounts, soldiers half-crushed beneath them. Nothing moved except the torn pennants in a frail wind. The stench of death reeked everywhere.

He tried to sit up but could not. He tried to raise a hand but found he couldn’t even move a finger. Panic spread through him. Was his body broken? Had he died? Great Goddess, what was happening to him?

A raven cawed. He saw it circling above him. It cawed again and again then descended towards him, its black eyes gleaming. Marakon tried to move, afraid of the glare in its eyes, its sharp talons and flashing beak.

I’m a Knight of the Raven. I should not be afraid of it!

But he was afraid. Its cawing grated his ears and his white eye began to water and throb. He blinked the streaming tears from his eyes. Black wings filled his vision. The raven landed on his head, sharp claws scratching his cheeks and tearing at his hair as it tried to balanced itself. He tried to shake it off but his head wouldn’t even move. He began to pant in terror.

The raven bent its head low, its dark eyes looking into his. He saw not himself, but the hideous form of Baelthrom reflected in them. Marakon opened and closed his mouth but couldn’t draw breath.

I am not Baelthrom! What trickery is this?

‘He’s mine,’ Baelthrom’s voice howled around him. The Immortal Lord’s eyes blazed red. Cold flooded Marakon’s body and his breath came in short, ragged gasps. Madness filled his mind, scattering his thoughts.

The raven tilted back its head, opened its beak wide and cawed raucously, the noise deafening so close to his ears. Then it angled its head closer, its long, sharp beak gleaming in the light. Fear trickled down Marakon’s spine.

The raven lunged at his white eye. Searing pain exploded in his head. He screamed as it stabbed again. He couldn’t even move to shake it off. Blood and tears streamed down Marakon’s face as he felt it stab deep into his skull.

The agony of its relentless, hateful, stabbing beak filled his mind and body, sending him mad with pain. He felt on the verge of passing out, and prayed that he would as there came a great pull—as if his entire brain was being yanked out of his eye socket—then the most terrible tearing pain. A blast of searing heat ripped through his body, and only then came blessed release.

Something hot, heavy and wet slid down his face.

Marakon passed out.

* * *

Issa couldn’t keep Marakon in the realm of the dead for more than a few moments. Just long enough to break Baelthrom’s hold on him. As the man writhed before her, the shadow world jerked and faded. Baelthrom’s voice boomed and darkness engulfed her. Marakon screamed horribly, then the shadow world began to withdraw.

Grappling with the Flow she tried to push back the darkness and remain in the realm of the dead where Baelthrom couldn’t reach her. She failed. The greener forests of Frayon materialised. There was blood on the grass at her feet, blood all over Marakon’s hands that covered his face. He was groaning and more blood trickled through his fingers.

Ehka had something round, white and bloody in his beak. Issa fought not to vomit. The raven spat out Marakon’s eye and hopped back, keen to get away from it. The bloody white eye lying in the grass suddenly burst into red light. Issa yelled, lifted her boot and stamped on it. The hateful eye made a sickening squishing sound and a blast of black magic flared beneath her boot. The Under Flow fled away, and with it Baelthrom’s presence.

Unable to control it this time, Issa leant over and vomited. She slumped to her knees, gasping, dropping the protective shield around them. Ehka wiped his beak on the grass and nestled beside her leg. Utterly spent, she watched the blindfolded woman run to Marakon and drop down to hug him. He bled heavily from his eye socket and she did her best to stem the flow. The half-elf commander wasn’t conscious.

Issa tried to reach the Flow to help in some manner but the magic was wild and erratic and she was too exhausted to form any control over it. Besides, she didn’t pity him or any spy of Baelthrom. The man had betrayed them—how many times? How many lives had been lost because of him? She didn’t want to know. She’d placed her utmost respect and trust in him, and he’d been a spy of Baelthrom all along. She blamed herself for not guessing sooner.

‘How could you do this? You could have killed him,’ the blindfolded woman shouted at her. Her bear was by the river, drinking. The second bear had disappeared, and the third still lay unmoving beside the dead Dromoorai.

‘We could all have been killed,’ Issa said tonelessly. ‘It had to be done. By Baelthrom spying through him, countless lives have been lost.’

The other woman pursed her lips.

The shadows drew together besides Issa’s knees and Maggot’s ugly face peered up at her. His cold, little hands rested on her thigh and his big eyes darted fearfully to the other humans then back to her.

‘How did you know to come, Maggot?’ She smiled at the little demon despite the heaviness in her heart.

‘Ever since you helped us in the Murk, I can feel when you’re in danger. The Great Carmedrak has done something to me. He says I must help you when I feel that.’

Issa didn’t know why their Lord Carmedrak would be interested in her, but she was grateful.

‘Then you must thank him for me. You saved my life. If you had come a moment later I would have been captured or even killed.’

Asaph stumbled out of the woods several yards away, sheathing his sword. He was dishevelled, his shirt ripped and left shoulder bloody, but he walked strong and upright. A wave of relief washed over her. On unsteady legs, she stood and embraced him, burying her face against his good shoulder. Maggot slipped behind her ankles.

‘Are you hurt?’ said Asaph, drawing back to look her over.

‘No, not really. Just shaken and drained,’ she said, looking up at him.

Soldiers came bursting through the trees, their swords raised. Maggot melted into the shadows. Why hadn’t they come sooner? Dark magic had been at play, that was a given.

The soldiers halted and did a double take on the strange group assembled, their eyes coming to rest on the body of the Dromoorai. Those closest to the bear raised their swords fearfully but the bear yawned and lay down placidly next to the blindfolded woman.

‘It’s all right, there was a Dromoorai.’ Asaph raised his eyebrows and laughed at his own words. ‘We took them out. There was only one. The Dread Dragon is impaled on the tree over there.’ He pointed.

‘Just one is enough,’ said a soldier, wide-eyed. The other soldiers nodded and gripped their weapons nervously.

‘Baelthrom could see through Marakon’s eye,’ Issa said, turning to Asaph.

Asaph stared at the prone man, a look of horror spreading on his face.

‘How much?’

Issa shrugged and kept her voice low, not wanting to alarm everyone. ‘Maybe everything. I think that’s how they’ve always known what we are doing, where we are and how to attack us so precisely. So devastatingly—’

‘And how they found you,’ Asaph cut in with the words she didn’t dare utter.

She gave a faint nod. ‘More might come this very night.’

* * *

When Jarlain first heard Marakon call her name from beyond the darkness of her blindfold, a great weight lifted from her heart. In her red vision, he had appeared through the trees as a white beacon of light leading her on. Despite her blindness, her heart had won and led her to Marakon. The terrifying, giant flying lizard in her vision could not have stopped her running to his side.

Cradling his head in her lap, she stemmed the blood that flowed down his face with a ripped piece of her sackcloth clothing. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. She had found him at last. All the long days of suffering and the cold nights alone in an alien world had finally come to an end. The weariness in her body and soul lessened.

The cloth she held to his bleeding head was soon soaked wet with blood, but despite the horror of his missing eye, that unmistakable uneasy feeling she had around him was gone. As much as she hated what the woman with the raven had done, the darkness surrounding him had disappeared. She murmured healing words and felt her hands grow warm, then laid them on his body bringing him back around.

‘Where am I?’ he said, his voice weak. ‘I feel so strange. Like I’m free, but my head hurts and I can’t see properly.’

‘Shh, you’re safe. You need a healer but you’ll be all right,’ she whispered.

‘Jarlain?’ His voice was filled with wonder. She felt his hand stroke her cheek then fumble with her blindfold.

‘Why? Are you hurt? Have you been blinded too?’ he asked.

Without saying anything she bent to kiss him, tears soaking her blindfold. He kissed her tenderly and she stroked the stubble of his cheek. He reached behind her head and, as easily as tearing paper, the blindfold fell away.

With a soft gasp, she lifted her head and squinted into the painful light of the soldiers’ torches. Her eyes streamed with the pain of sudden light after so long. It was a pain she welcomed. She peered down at Marakon’s terrible, pale and bloodied face.

‘I was cursed, like you, but now you’re with me that curse is lifted,’ she whispered in wonder. ‘And I’m certain your curse has been removed for good. It is better to lose an eye than carry that evil within you.’

‘How are you here? I can barely believe it,’ he said. ‘So many strange things have happened.’

‘Shh, rest.’ She bent down to hug him close. ‘Now is not the time to talk. I’ve done what I can but you need a physician. You won’t believe it, so let me just say this: when I first met you and you lifted your eyepatch, I saw in your damaged eye my people destroyed and us together. And now both those things have come to pass.’

CHAPTER 3
Swords and Armour

ISSA walked the subdued streets of Carvon.

After harrying the enemy as far as they dared, she’d returned to the city with Asaph and several units of exhausted soldiers. They were all glad to rest in proper beds and eat rich food whilst seated at tables.

In the city, there wasn’t the usual laughter of children, the chatter of women or the bellows of hawkers. People went about their business in silence or speaking in hushed voices. Most worked on a section of the city wall that had been destroyed by Dread Dragons, or on clearing the debris of fallen roofs and broken glass covering the streets.

The taverns were mostly empty too. Today, people needed sobriety and clear thinking. The enemy had reached them and they knew they could be attacked at any time. Now, everyone understood that the days of the Free Peoples were numbered unless they fought with everything they had.

But despite the sombre, weary faces she saw everywhere, Issa noted there was a firm set to their chins, a hard look in their eyes. They were determined and resolute. The enemy could come but they sure as hell would fight back.

But would it be enough? Issa doubted it. To defeat the enemy, they had to come up with a different plan. They had to counter-attack; take the offensive and start trying to regain lost lands.

Lost in her thoughts, she found herself at Edarna’s door without knowing exactly how she’d got there. She rapped the heavy, rusty door knocker. There came the subtlest shimmer of earth-based magic and the door swung open.

Issa grinned and went inside. The old wooden stairs creaked loudly under her feet. At the top, she paused at the open door.

‘Hello?’

She walked into a small room that was stuffed full with two beds. Rammed up against the window was a cooker with two hobs.

‘There she is!’ squealed Edarna. The plump, old witch emerged from what looked like a closet.

Mr Dubbins meowed loudly and sprung into Issa’s arms. She laughed and cuddled the blue cat, then set him down.

‘Hmm, I think you need a bigger place,’ said Issa.

‘Indeed. I need a whole shop! I’ve been thinking on names. “Higglesworth Enterprises” or “City Witches” or “Coven Accessories”.’

Issa suppressed a giggle at the dreamy wonder on Edarna’s face.

‘Yes.’ The witch nodded, her green eyes bright as she clapped her hands together. ‘It’s all on the up. Oh, imagine all the witches coming together again. Hah!

‘Now then, Dearie.’ She looked over her half-moon spectacles at Issa with a serious expression. ‘No matter what wizards, seers or even witches might teach you, you still need to wear physical protection in your line of work. Whatever people might like to believe about the Raven Queen, the prophecies clearly state she was a warrior, probably with a sword, armour and other stuff. So, I’ve been busy. Here’s an extra special gift for you—you’ll find nothing else like it in all Maioria.’

The witch passed Issa a large parcel wrapped in brown packing paper.

Issa wondered what on earth was Edarna giving her as she took the heavy bundle. She hoped it wasn’t any more of her foul-tasting potions. She squeezed it gently. Thankfully the package felt soft and not hard as if filled with vials. Intrigue replaced her concern and she set it down on the bed and undid the ties.

Inside was the strangest, black metallic material she had ever seen. There were two pieces; leggings and a long-sleeved jerkin both made of leathery scales sewn expertly together and lined with soft fabric. The surface was like snake skin in texture, but tougher and more flexible. The scales varied in size, from being as small as one of her fingernails, to bigger than her head, and each one was perfectly woven on to the next.

‘You made this? It’s exquisite. And the craftsmanship…stunning!’ Issa stroked the smooth surface. It glimmered with many dark colours; green, purple and black, like oil.

Edarna grinned.

Issa traced one of the larger scales with a fingertip. She stopped when recognition of what she stroked dawned on her. ‘I know this material. It’s…it’s…Dread Dragon.’ She almost dropped the jerkin, feeling suddenly faint.

‘Now don’t you go worrying about where it came from.’ The witch shook a finger at her. ‘This material is fire resistant, incredibly strong, and if torn it will mend itself and you along with it. These days you gotta fight fire with fire resistance! It can’t harm you, you know, so why not use it to protect yourself?’

‘Yes but, it’s the skin of my enemy!’ Issa said, still horrified.

She looked back at the tunic, slowly realising that the material she held had strength in more ways than one. Strong, flexible, fire-resistant armour. The first of its kind. ‘I guess it is the perfect protection. But where did you get the scales from?’

‘Well, you don’t come across a perfectly fine dragon corpse very often now, do you? Dread Dragon scales are priceless to a witch. You wait and see; in a few months, I’ll be the richest witch that ever lived. Now go on, go on; try it on.’

Issa stared at her, dreading the thought. But she couldn’t turn away such a gift so she reluctantly undid her royal blue velvet cloak—another gift given to her by King Navarr—then slipped out of her leggings and tunic dress and put on the dragon scale clothing. It was strong enough to have to be tugged firmly over her hips and shoulders, but as soon as she had done up the last of the buttons and zips, the material pulled around her snugly, moulding perfectly to her form like a second skin. No other clothing had ever fitted her better.

‘Perfect,’ Edarna grinned. ‘Just like I thought. The scales know exactly what to do.’ The witch yanked hard on the tough material, checking her own stitching and nodding approvingly.

The armour was cool. Issa had been expecting it to be hot and constrictive but it was the exact opposite. She felt very strange, wearing the skin of her most hated enemy, but for all the grisliness, perhaps the witch was right. It would protect her, she was a warrior, and these were evil times. She stroked the material, mesmerised by the oil-slick sheen.

‘And here are your boots,’ Edarna said proudly, passing her a pair of calf-length boots of the same material. ‘The cobbler only just finished ‘em the other day. And no, I don’t need payment. Like I said, soon I’ll be far richer than you anyway. Consider this a gift to protect you from our enemy. Just make sure you destroy those bastards wherever you find ‘em.

‘Now, where is that mirror.’ Edarna disappeared off into the closet room.

Issa slipped on the boots. Again the fit was uncanny as they moulded to her feet and calves. They were the most comfortable footwear she had ever worn.

Edarna reappeared from the closet and, wearing a beaming smile, held up a long mirror.

‘Now then, look at you. Just as I thought you’d look…’

Edarna’s voice faded into the background as Issa stared disbelievingly at her reflection. She stroked the black scales and took a hesitant step towards the mirror.

‘Maion’artheria,’ a voice whispered faintly.

Tears filled her eyes. She was her, the warrior woman in the sacred mound; the Raven Queen. Could it really be? The armour was exactly as she had seen it, black and shimmering and clasped in the same places.

She gripped the mirror. Was she afraid? No, I’m terrified. There was no going back, there never had been since she’d first decided to follow the raven through the doorway into the sacred mound.

‘A fearless heart can conquer all,’ a voice whispered in her mind.

Issa blinked back the tears.

‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?’ Edarna sounded worried.

Issa shook her head, lost for words, remembering the first time she had met the Night Goddess on the desert plains of Aralansia.

‘I have become that which I saw in the mirror, saw in my dreams. I have become the Raven Queen.’

Edarna dropped her gaze. ‘That is as destiny must be. I do not envy you. But we will give you all the help we can. I saw you in that armour long before I even knew who you were. Why do you think I knew I had to make it?’

Edarna took the mirror from Issa’s hands and set it against the wall. With a sigh, she sank onto the bed. She appeared really tired, perhaps from making the armour or, most likely, from the recent attacks. It angered Issa that an old woman should suffer from such violence. It reminded her of Fraya, her mother in all but blood, who died when the Dread Dragons came. They couldn’t even leave a bed-ridden woman to die peacefully. Thoughts of home came flooding back.

‘I’m sorry you lost your home like I lost mine. It’s as they say, they will come for us all in the end. Every day I struggle with it, with who I must be,’ Issa said. ‘Sometimes I wish for all the world that I could return to Little Kammy and how it used to be. Other times I’m so angry, so vengeful, I can barely contain the rage. I wish I felt the fearless certainty of the warrior I’m supposed to be. I feel so helpless most of the time. I’ve done nothing but fight skirmishes when what the world needs is a hero.’

‘That, my dear, is surely what all warriors feel,’ said Edarna. ‘Can you have compassion whilst still wielding a sword? The time of the bard and the poet is over, now is the time of the warrior.

‘We do not live in happy, fanciful times, my dear, and the world will ask us—demand us—to fight for that which we love or it will be taken away. In these dark days, we’re asked to stand up for that which matters. Do we care for freedom? Would we die for it? For die for it, it seems we must—or lose those things we value most.’

‘Your words inspire me,’ Issa smiled, even as her eyes misted up. ‘I hope I can be that brave. Marakon has asked me to lead the Knights of the Raven, although now he might want to kill me after Ehka plucked out his eye.’

‘A blessing,’ Edarna shivered and held up her hands. Clearly not wanting to hear any more details of the story than she already knew. ‘Who knows what damage that man has wrought with his evil eye. But may he find peace now. Despite his curse, he has suffered much and has become a great warrior. You will learn a lot from him.

‘My oh my, I never imagined the Immortals would reach Carvon in my lifetime. If only I were younger, I’d have more energy, more power. I cannot bear to watch my beautiful Maioria fall.’

Issa touched the witch’s shoulder. ‘We’ll defeat them, I promise… Especially in this new armour,’ she grinned.

Edarna laughed. ‘I hope so, my dear. I hope so.’

* * *

In his room in Castle Carvon, Asaph held Coronos’ sword on his lap. He stroked the leather-wrapped hilt and the cold metal of the polished pommel. Simple, powerful, beautiful. He gripped the hilt, imagining how many times his father might have done the same all those years ago.

‘You were more a man back then than I am now. Why did you leave me? How did I not save you? I need you.’ He clenched his jaw and blinked back the tears.

There came a knock at the door followed by King Navarr’s familiar voice. Asaph straightened. Despite what he had feared, the king had not thrown him out of the castle for jeopardising his son’s life when the foltoy had attacked their camp.

After the siege of Carvon, and Asaph’s fearless battle in dragon form, everybody was in awe of him. Even Prince Petar turned pale and dropped his gaze whenever he was near. Not that Asaph cared any more for his respect or even his friendship. He’d lost his desire for friendship and fear of pretty much anything since Coronos had been murdered.

The King, however, always commanded his utmost respect. Asaph jumped up and wiped his face, noticing his unshaven chin as he opened the door.

‘I hope I’m not disturbing you,’ Navarr said, his voice tinged with concern and his gaze penetrating.

‘No, I was just…’ Asaph couldn’t think of what to say, so he shrugged.

The king nodded. ‘Good. Well, I have some of Coronos’ belongings that you should know about and have—other than those that remain in his room. Of course, you are welcome to keep them here, since you have no fixed abode. Come.’

Asaph followed the king past richly detailed tapestries, down many winding staircases and below ground where it was cold and the stone walls thick and unadorned.

They came to a stop beside a room adjacent to the wine cellars. The smell of wine stained oak hung thick in the air. Taking out a huge iron key, Navarr unlocked the heavy door. They stepped inside and the King slotted his brazier into the sconce, the flames filling the room with light and warmth.

The solid-stone room was filled with chests of varying sizes and designs all stacked neatly on top of each other, with the largest at the bottom and the smallest on top, and no more than three high around the room. A wooden table and four chairs stood in the centre.

King Navarr walked along inspecting the top row of smaller chests, then pulled one down. He placed it on the table. It was made of dark wood and decorated with iron metal studs. Was that all that remained of his father’s legacy? Asaph swallowed.

‘Don’t be fooled by size,’ Navarr said, seeing his expression. Clearly, the King already knew what was inside.

‘It’s not that… I…’ Asaph’s voice was unsteady. ‘He knew so much. Everything that was Drax was contained within his mind and the orb. Now…so much has been lost.’ As he spoke he realised the unfathomable wealth of information that really had disappeared.

‘The future lies before us, not behind,’ Navarr said firmly, his voice gruff as he looked into the middle distance. ‘Now we must focus on surviving. The battle has reached us and we are plunged into the fight for the entire world.’

Asaph considered this, then took a deep, silent breath. The King’s priorities were right; the past didn’t matter when your own life was at risk.

‘Nothing can bring Coronos back, but we can make sure he didn’t die for nothing,’ said Navarr. ‘The orb still exists, we just have to take it back.’

It sounded so simple, yet impossible to do. The king passed him a brass coated iron key. Asaph could feel Navarr watching him.

As he opened the chest, beautiful white light burst out from it, filling the room. Asaph’s eyes widened as he stared at three fist-sized, oval-shaped crystals that nestled in the box. They were perfectly smooth and sparkled with all the colours of the rainbow. Now released from their prison of darkness, their light shone out making Asaph catch his breath at their beauty.

‘I’ve never seen anything so wonderful. What are they?’

‘Infinity stones,’ said Navarr. ‘Ten times more valuable than gold and their uses are said to be infinite. Every wizard, alchemist, witch, healer, machinist, miner and countless other crafts have a hundred uses for these stones. They can be found only at a river’s source. Coronos personally searched for, and found, all three of these. He was a bit of collector at heart, a bit of a geologist. And he knew how to travel light and travel clever to complete such long, difficult and dangerous journeys. You can build an entire kingdom from the riches of just one of these stones.’

Asaph touched one. It was warm. He gently held the crystal up to inspect it and it sparkled even more in his hand.

‘They’re beautiful,’ said Asaph. ‘Coronos told me he liked to travel and explore as a young man. But I had no idea he was interested in collecting rocks. Although, now I say that, I remember he’d often study the sea cliffs and boulders at home in the Uncharted Lands.’

He looked back in the box and his eyes widened. Beneath the stones were at least one hundred gold pieces that gleamed in the light. The coins looked as if they had been freshly minted. His eyes moved on to another object that instantly made him forget about the stones and gold. Nestled in the corner and partially concealed by coins was a key, its base heart-shaped and instantly familiar. With his other hand he hesitantly pushed the coins aside and lifted it up, finding it attached to two other, identical keys via a chain.

The Recollection opened in his mind and he saw his mother holding the same keys before her, a half-smile on her handsome face. The Sword of Binding flared behind her, calling to him stronger than ever before. Coronos’ voice echoed in his mind.

“She also passed to me three enchanted keys and whispered so no other would hear. “The keys to the chamber of the Sword of Binding,” she told me. Only one key would work. The Holder of the Keys would know which one, and no other. The other keys were certain death. I tried to protest, but her will was sacrosanct. I still have the keys, but only the goddess knows how to reach the sword.”

‘Asaph?’ Navarr’s voice filtered down to him.

He blinked as the Recollection closed and he looked at the concerned king.

‘Are you all right?’ Navarr repeated.

‘Sorry…Yes. The keys are special. They lead to a sword; the great Sword of Binding. It’s somewhere in Draxa and it calls to me.’

The King laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘A sense of destiny makes us strong, it makes us fearless. Those without it lack purpose. Find what it is you have to do, and do it.’

‘You sound like my Father,’ Asaph smiled. He looked at the keys, then at the contents of the box. Taking only two gold coins, he put them in his pocket along with the three keys, then he closed the lid.

‘When Drax belongs to us once more, I’ll use the infinity stones to rebuild it.’ Asaph stood tall.

‘Spoken like a true king, King Asaph,’ Navarr patted him on the back. ‘I’ll be there to help you when we get through this. You’ll have many allies.’

‘Thank you,’ said Asaph. ‘I will need them. On another note, Issa and I plan to leave for Myrn. We don’t want to leave you, but this is important. The seers have requested that she go, and I don’t want her going alone. I also think I’ll learn something there myself.’

‘I don’t want you to go, either,’ said Navarr. ‘We could do with a Dragon Lord defending this castle and assisting my soldiers, but I can see that you must. The seers protect ancient wisdom; you’ll undoubtedly learn a lot. I just hope it will be something to end this infernal war and free Maioria for good.’ The King’s eyes were fiery.

Asaph smiled. ‘I would like that more than anything in the world. But don’t worry, should things get really bad here, we’ll return. Fast. It’s my deepest hope that I can find the Sword of Binding and with it awaken the dragons I know to be sleeping far in the north. With them on our side we have a greater chance of defeating the enemy.’

‘It almost sounds too good to be true.’ Navarr laughed. ‘If you believe there are still dragons out there, I’ll believe it too. Come now. Fancy sharing some wine or dwarven spirits with my dukes and I? I have the night free and could do with a drink after that bloody battle.’

‘Sure, I’d be honoured.’ Asaph nodded, pleased to be invited. ‘Looking forward to it.’

CHAPTER 4
Council of War

ISSA returned from Edarna’s via Duskar’s stable in Castle Carvon’s grounds, her dragon armour packed neatly in her shoulder pack.

She didn’t fancy wearing it just yet and scaring everybody with her change of appearance. The black horse poked his head out, ears pricked forward, and whinnied at her over a mouthful of hay.

‘There you are.’ She stroked his nose and checked him over, relieved to see he was all right and unscathed.

‘He bolted, Lady Issa. During the attack,’ said the stable boy hurrying over to her from another horse’s stall. He had freckles scattered over his nose and an eager look about him. ‘Clever horse unbolted the door and ran to the forest, almost trampling down the guards. We think he was looking for you. Anyways, he returned of his own accord at dawn.’

‘Clever horse,’ Issa nodded. ‘Well, at least he’s safe now. Thank you for looking after him. He certainly deserves an extra bucket of oats.’

She passed the boy a copper coin and his eyes lit up.

‘Absolutely, Lady Issa, thank you.’ The boy hurried away to find the oats.

Back in Castle Carvon, she opened the door to her room to find a strange sight. Sitting on her bed and facing each other were Maggot and Ehka. The demon and the raven both turned to look at her, as if they had been deep in conversation and she had disturbed them. Ehka cocked his head at her and Maggot tugged an ear under his chin then let it flick back up on his head.

Issa raised an eyebrow. ‘I thought you didn’t like this awful bright world or any of the living things in it,’ she said to the demon.

Maggot stuck out a red tongue and looked at his toes. ‘It is awfully bright but it’s not as bad as it used to be. And King says I must come often, to protect you.’

‘I don’t need protection,’ she said, ‘and I certainly don’t want you getting in harm’s way. Wherever I go, harm follows. I’ll never forgive myself if you get hurt, Maggot.’

She scratched his bald head. Initially he flinched, then, as though making the decision to enjoy it, he closed his eyes and grinned. Issa laughed when his tongue rolled out.

‘How are things at Carmedrak Rock?’ she asked, taking a brush to her hair and sitting before her dresser as her thoughts turned to Gedrock.

‘We have our home back.’ Maggot’s expression was awe-filled. ‘And the Grazen and Shadow Demons are united after hundreds of years at war. But I still miss my secret place overlooking the greeb forest and the Bone Mountains. Carmedrak Rock is full of tunnels, though. I could explore it forever and never know it all. And it isn’t as scary as when I had that awful spear.’

‘That was a brave thing you did, Maggot. Great Carmedrak, Zorock and King are well pleased with you.’

The little demon gave a grin that spread from ear to ear.

Issa paused her brushing. ‘Hmm, I’ve been meaning to for a while now; I think it’s time to pay your king a visit,’ she murmured.

Not wanting to return to the Murk, she’d been putting it off. Now her bargain with the Shadow Demons was complete, she didn’t hear them in her mind or dreams anymore. But she still had to keep them close; one day soon she would need their help against the Maphraxies.

She stood and changed into her dragon armour, a smile spreading across her face. She wanted to look the part if she was going to meet the King of demons. For added effect, she buckled on her sword then took her knife from the dresser. Dipping her finger in a jug of water she drew the symbol of the Murk—two crescent moons back to back with a straight line crossing the two—on the wooden floor, then nicked her thumb with the knife.

Understanding what she was doing, Maggot slipped off the bed and clung to her leg. Ehka flew to her shoulder. She watched two drops of her bright blood fall and splatter on the symbol. The crescent moons flashed green and then hissed green smoke, which swiftly engulfed them.

* * *

First appeared the familiar, green crystal shard, and then a whole cavern of green crystals materialised. Issa stood upon a smooth, dark emerald floor. Uncut quartz crusted what could only be described as an enormous cave. The rough gem ceiling stretched for several yards above her. Lit braziers made the rocks gleam and flash. It was stunning and she found herself gawking as Gedrock spoke.

‘I had a feeling you were coming,’ the King’s deep, demonic voice rumbled, sending shivers down her spine. ‘You are the first human to ever see this place. Welcome.’

Gedrock’s huge face materialised out of the shadows, followed by his muscular body. His yellow eyes and narrowing black-slitted pupils made her take an involuntary step back. Even though the demon was a friend, of sorts, and she had fought beside him, she couldn’t keep her heart rate from rising. She ran a hand through her hair and let out an apprehensive breath.

‘I’ve been meaning to come to see how you’re doing but we have had trouble with our enemies. I am honoured to be here in this stunning place.’

As she spoke, Maggot sat on the crystal floor and stared at his reflection.

Gedrock nodded. ‘This is the heart of our kingdom. You look like the Raven Queen I saw so long ago in the vision that raven gave me.’ He indicated to Ehka still perched on her shoulder.

She assumed he meant her dragon armour and gave him a wry smile. ‘I guess not all destinies are bad. However, I’m concerned for Maggot’s safety. Why do you send him? I cannot guarantee his protection. Wherever I go, danger and death follow.’

‘Maggot has been told to look out for you as a gift from us and a reminder of the agreement we had. We are vulnerable as we rebuild ourselves. We need your alliance and can ill afford to have humans invading and warring with us.’

‘That will never happen whilst I’m alive, I promise you,’ Issa resolved.

‘Maggot can look after himself, and he also comes of his own free will,’ Gedrock said.

Issa blinked in surprise and looked down at the little demon. Maggot glared at the floor, ears twitching. She almost laughed aloud at his attempt to appear nonchalant.

‘Ever since he reached you beyond the Abyss, he’s felt a connection to you,’ said Gedrock. ‘Great Zorock has put it there.’

Issa was surprised. Would Zorock really have done that? Not knowing what to say, she mumbled, ‘I’m honoured.’

‘Why do you really come here, Raven Queen?’ Gedrock asked, ever in his hard, direct manner.

Issa suppressed a smile at his keen observation. There was another reason she was here and Gedrock was always able to sense intention. There was no point being other than direct with him.

‘Our homeland was attacked; the very heart of our stronghold. We fought them off but are badly shaken. We’ll be attacked again, and by greater numbers. I am considering what needs to be done in retaliation. We cannot always be on the defensive. If Baelthrom and his Maphraxies defeat the Free Peoples of Maioria, the Murk will fall to him too. This you know. So I’ve come here to be sure that I have your allegiance when the time comes.’

‘What is it you require exactly?’ Gedrock asked, his unreadable eyes reflecting the green crystals glittering around them.

‘I need your demon soldiers, as many as you can spare, to fight upon Maioria’s soil when the last battle comes, as surely it must. Just as we fought against the greater demons on the earth of the Murk. I cannot say when these battles will be, but they will be soon and I need you to be ready.’

‘Your enemy is unknown to us,’ Gedrock said. His voice was thoughtful rather than dismissive. He turned to Maggot.

‘Maggot,’ said the King.

The little demon tried to stand up tall and looked anywhere else but at his King.

‘You will spend as much time with the Raven Queen as you can, particularly when she engages her enemies. Learn about them and report back to us everything you see.’

Maggot nodded curtly, his tail flicking nervously.

Gedrock looked at Issa. ‘When I have chosen them, I will send a handful of demon warriors to assist you when you engage the enemy. That way we can faster learn this enemies’ way.’

‘Thank you, King Gedrock. Again, I am honoured,’ Issa bowed deeply and smiled.

* * *

‘Why are you smiling?’ Asaph asked over dinner, his fork filled with delicious pie pausing on its journey to his mouth.

He’d been much brighter of late, Issa thought. Especially since their long discussions on everything that had happened regarding Cirosa. Perhaps it was knowing that she didn’t hate him for falling for the evil seductions of the twisted High Priestess. Just thinking about the woman made her angry and vengeful. Imagining them being intimate with each other made her shiver with cold. But Asaph had been enchanted by her evil magic given to her by Baelthrom. Issa couldn’t blame him for that, she just hoped he was free of her for good.

The smile on his face now pushed away all thoughts of Cirosa and her own grin broadened even more as she thought about the demons.

‘Hah! I just can’t believe we have the demons on our side. I thought they might renege on our deal once they had won back their homeland, but they haven’t.’

‘Hmph,’ Asaph frowned. ‘I’ll believe that when I see it. I still can’t bring myself to trust them. I wish I had been with you and Marakon, there in the Murk.’

‘I told you not to worry about it. The battle belonged to Marakon and his knights, I merely assisted him. I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to. After all, why should we help demons when Maioria is burning? Well, now it’s obvious. If we hadn’t helped the demons, we would never have made this powerful allegiance. Having demons fighting alongside us could, oddly, be the one thing that wins back Maioria.’

Asaph stayed silent and mopped up the gravy on his plate with a piece of bread.

He’d warm to the thought, she was sure. She carried on. ‘What we desperately need is a council of war. It just seems the Feylint Halanoi are functioning alone with only King Navarr truly supporting them. It’s not enough. We need a much bigger order of the Knights of the Raven formed from exceptional soldiers within the Feylint Halanoi—an elite band of the most skilled warriors. We need stronger allegiances between all countries and all races. And the Wizards’ Circle needs to pull together all their students in magic.’

‘What are you planning?’ asked Asaph. He had that familiar suspicious look in his eye he always got whenever he thought she was putting her life in danger.

‘I don’t know, I’m not a war leader or even a commander, but I think we need to attack, and we need to do it soon and attack hard. I’m sick of being on the defensive all the time. All it says to the enemy is that we are weak.’ She sipped her wine.

‘You heard what Marakon said, we’ve been attacking them in the north for years and lost countless soldiers,’ Asaph sighed.

‘Not the north,’ Issa shook her head. ‘We just need to hold them off Frayon with a solid wall of defence. There’s no point attacking where they are strong and where their attention is fully focused.’

Asaph looked at her expectantly. She let go of her breath.

‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot and, though I’m not sure, I think we should attack enemy-held lands in the south-east.’

Asaph’s eyes widened.

‘Think about it,’ she said, setting down her wine. ‘Remember, the Karalanths are massing in the mountains of Davono and gathering their clans. They want to take back what was once Karalanthia. If we can convince Davono to join them, and the dwarves, and maybe even the Atalanphs, we could invade west Venosia—don’t look at me like that, I’m not crazy. Ambitious, yes. Baelthrom will never suspect it.’

‘And how do you propose we even get there?’ Asaph’s voice was sceptical. ‘You would still need the expertise of the Feylint Halanoi. How would you march them across the whole continent?’

Issa grinned at him. ‘Velistor.’

‘What?’

‘Velistor. With it, we can find and open Maioria’s Transplaneal Gates, as Freydel calls them. If that fails, we’ll try the more numerous demon tunnels. Something has to work.’

Asaph sighed and rubbed his eyes. ‘I only half believe in those gates and I sure as hell don’t like the sound of demon tunnels. It sounds crazy.’

‘I know, but we have to try; we have to do something. We only ever defend and look where that has got us. They’re now on Frayon soil and the Uncharted Lands have likely already fallen. We can’t go on like this.

‘I’ve already asked the Wizards’ Circle to start searching for the ancient gates. Any texts or folklores they might come across. Yes, it’s a long shot, but I’m tired of fleeing, of living in fear, of losing.’

‘Me too,’ Asaph agreed. ‘I want to attack and win as well. If only I could awaken the dragons, I think I could lead them.’ Pain passed across his features and she touched his hand.

‘I know you grieve for Faelsun and the Dragon Dream,’ said Issa, noting the second flicker of pain. She dared not admit even to herself how powerful Baelthrom had become since he’d gained the dragon orb. ‘I’m sorry, I wish it hadn’t happened. But that is why we must start counter-attacking. One of their key spies has been removed now, poor Marakon, and we can attack with stealth and surprise. I can think of no other way. We’re all afraid of war but war is upon us. I want revenge, and as poisonous as vengeance might be, I cling to it because it keeps me strong and my resolve firm.’

Asaph picked up his wine and sat back, his blue eyes beholding her. ‘How and when do we do this?’

‘I think we should have a meeting with everyone; the wizards, the seers, Navarr, Marakon, Bokaard, Edarna, the Feylint Halanoi… Everyone. We must form a council of war and propose this plan at the earliest convenience.

‘I’ve been thinking about something else too,’ she added. ‘I’ve decided to go to Myrn, probably straight after the council. I’d like it if you came too.’

‘Of course!’ He beamed, took her hand and brought it to his lips. ‘I need a holiday, especially with you.’

* * *

With King Navarr’s royal ability to send couriers scurrying in every direction at a moment’s notice, the war council was arranged for the very next morning. The importance of such a meeting was not lost on the king who had so recently seen his kingdom attacked.

It was with a certain amount of nerves that Issa walked the long, wood-panelled corridor towards the massive, ornately carved doors of the meeting room, her new Dread Dragon boots echoing loudly in the hallway. Her armour and Grast’anth’s sword at her side gave her the confidence she felt she needed to conduct this war meeting.

Two guards stood to attention before the doors. They were dressed in thick white tights, navy blue tunics and small hats with a single white feather. The polished short swords that were strapped to their waists gleamed, as did their shining black-patent shoes.

They looked harmless, maybe even silly, but Issa knew they were highly trained soldiers—the king’s own personal guard—and thus his very best. They knew how to use their swords most expertly, the king had proudly informed her, and had at least five other weapons hidden about their bodies.

Issa took a breath, hoping she was ready for the meeting and knowing she never would be. She had spent hours last night fleshing out her ideas and plans on paper with Asaph, only to rip them up again. She was not a great speaker, nor steeped in the art of warfare. She wasn’t a battle-seasoned commander and couldn’t rally anyone to her call. All she had was a vision and a vague plan of how to get there; attack the enemy, invade their lands. She just couldn’t seem to formulate the right words or find the correct terminology. After a final fit of frustration, she’d given up planning anything and decided to simply speak her thoughts.

She slowed as she neared the doors. She was late, deliberately so, to make sure everyone had some time to chat amongst themselves before she arrived. The guards bowed slightly and opened the doors. She stepped into the room.

Sweeping her eyes left and right, she never failed to be awed by the grandeur of Castle Carvon. The rectangular boardroom was larger than her entire house on Little Kammy. Dark wood covered the floors, and the high, white ceiling was decorated with flowers and leaves made cleverly out of plaster. They filled the coving and spiralled inwards to the unlit crystal chandelier that held a hundred candles.

Decorating the far wall was an impressive blue marble-fronted fireplace. Within it, a small fire crackled, taking away the morning chill. To her right, sunlight streamed into the room from windows which reached from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. The heavy, grey velvet curtains were pulled far back to let in as much light as possible.

Garnet red wallpaper reached to waist height, after which the walls were painted white. Unusually, there was only one picture and one tapestry in the room. The tapestry hung on the wall opposite the fire and as she entered she glanced over her shoulder at it, sparing a moment to marvel at the intricate needlework. It was filled with people, animals and trees, and too complexly detailed to decipher what it depicted with merely a glance.

The lone picture hung above the fireplace. Gold-painted scrolls framed a life-sized portrait of a man and a woman who looked to be in their fifties. The man was striking with sharp cheekbones and a short white beard flecked with black. He held an intense look that dared anyone to utter a lie in his presence. A firm but just man, Issa judged.

The woman’s expression was softer, but her blue eyes were equally penetrating. The previous King and Queen of Carvon, she realised, recognising them from the other paintings in the castle. She could see the likeness to King Navarr. The painted couple carefully surveyed those gathered at the meeting.

She turned her attention to those seated around the long mahogany table dominating the room. They were mostly men, chatting. The wizards Freydel, Drumblodd, Averen, Haelgon, Luren and Domenon were on the left with the king’s chair in the centre, empty. Asaph sat beside the king’s chair and looked rather uncomfortable about it. Marakon sat next to him, followed by Bokaard.

She caught Marakon’s gaze and suddenly felt terrible for what had happened. Since the night Ehka had pecked out his white eye they had barely talked—mostly because Marakon was too sick and in pain. He gave a half-smile as if sensing her worry and forgiving her just a little.

He looked stronger now, though his face was pale and his features drawn. Ravaged by guilt and betrayal, no doubt. She had Jarlain to thank for allaying her anger at the man who had betrayed them. The woman who rode the bear had told her how he suffered, and her devotion to Marakon had moved Issa deeply. Whatever the man had done unwittingly through being tricked, all his life he had faithfully served his country and the Free Peoples of Maioria. For that Issa could forgive him. He’d had dark magic woven around him, just like Asaph, and both had suffered terribly.

She returned his smile then wondered where Jarlain was. She had not returned to Carvon with Marakon. Perhaps she preferred to stay with her beast in the forest. It was unlikely Navarr would host such an animal in his home. Though rumours of a bear rider had spread, Issa doubted that the people of Carvon were ready to let the huge beast wander their streets.

Beside Bokaard sat two older men in grey military uniform with the Feylint Halanoi tabard over the top. She didn’t know them. Maybe they were Marakon’s superiors. She couldn’t imagine the half-elf having anyone more senior than he was.

Next to them sat the only other woman in the room; Edarna. The witch’s face was positively mischievous and she winked at Issa. A meow came from somewhere, letting her know Mr Dubbins was present.

Opposite the king’s chair was an empty seat, to which she walked, feeling everyone’s gaze heavy upon her.

‘Greetings, ladies and gentlemen,’ she nodded to them politely and sat down. As soon as she had, the king’s chamberlain entered the room from a side door and all eyes turned to him.

‘The King arrives. Please stand.’ The chamberlain bowed stiffly.

Everyone dutifully stood as King Navarr stalked into the room, a frown of determination on his face.

‘Greetings all. Sit, please sit,’ Navarr wafted his hand as if to do away with the aplomb and get on with business.

His fur-trimmed, red velvet cloak flowed out behind him as he walked. Underneath he wore a cream-coloured suit with medals of honour decorating the left lapel.

The chamberlain rushed to keep ahead of him and pulled out his chair, only just managing to push it in in time as the king sat down. The chamberlain passed a hand over his forehead.

‘Thank you, Sir Kenon. Now then,’ said Navarr, his eyes passing over everyone, instantly forgetting the dismissed chamberlain who silently stepped away. A big grin spread across the King’s face, ‘Let’s talk war.’

Issa nodded, appreciating the direct manner and coughed to clear her throat. The last thing she wanted was a long, boring meeting where nothing got decided. War was upon them, there was no time to waste. She jumped straight to the point.

‘Gentlemen and lady,’ Issa sat straight in her chair as she addressed the assembled party. ‘It is my proposal that we combine armies to create a powerful force and attack West Venosia now while the enemy is least expecting it.’

Ignoring the murmurs spreading around the table, she pressed on. ‘We must attack hard, fast and as soon as we can. Too long have we spent on defence, allowing the enemy to think we are weak. Even we think we’re weak. But I tell you we are not. We are strong. I see it in the eyes of the ordinary people walking the streets. The heart of our free land has been attacked, and we sure as hell must attack back.’

‘Ridiculous. Where will we get the numbers from?’ asked the Feylint Halanoi officer with the monocle. The monocle made one of his eyes twice as big as the other.

Issa held his gaze steady but Haelgon spoke before she could. ‘I can have a thousand soldiers ready to sail from Atalanph within a week. A thousand more in two weeks. If we all agree to this, of course.’

The officer took off his monocle and squinted at the wizard.

‘I can start moving our soldiers immediately, they are already waiting to join the Feylint Halanoi,’ Drumblodd nodded, emboldened by Haelgon. ‘A couple of hundred at least. More if I don’t send another unit west to join King Navarr’s army.’

Issa smiled. Already there were two armies waiting to go.

‘What about Queen Thora?’ Issa rested her eyes on Domenon.

The wizard leant forwards. ‘The Queen does not like war being brought near her shores, nor will she enjoy her land filling with foreign armies, but I will speak to her and try to convince her.’

‘Thank you,’ Issa nodded. She had expected more resistance from him. The recent attacks really had shaken everyone to the core.

‘But how will this ever work?’ asked the other officer, smoothing his thick black moustache between finger and thumb. ‘Nobody knows the terrain nor what horrors might be there. Maybe Baelthrom’s war factories are stationed there. Maybe the Dark Dwarves have their empire lurking beneath the surface. Everything is an unknown and that is ripe for a slaughtering. Attacks like these take months of careful planning.’

Issa began to realise why the Feylint Halanoi were slow and largely ineffectual. Already her proposal had met with the most resistance from these officers. The resigned look on Marakon’s face told her he felt the same and had attended these meetings more times than he cared to. She felt sorry for him, it certainly was frustrating. Perhaps they had been too long at war and were too tired, their motivation low.

‘We don’t have months, we don’t even have weeks,’ said Issa. ‘We could all be slaughtered anywhere, any day. Baelthrom is too powerful now. We have to act and we have to act fast—’

‘To act this fast is surely suicide,’ growled the officer with the monocle, shoving it deeper into his fleshy face and squinting at the sheets of paper before him.

‘To not act is suicide,’ Issa said quietly.

She glanced at Marakon. He had not said anything yet and she sorely needed his thoughts on the matter. He leant back on his chair and folded his arms behind his head, waiting for her to say more. Was he trying to get her to be the leader? She clasped her hands on top of the table and looked at them.

‘We have an army of Karalanths amassing at Davono’s borders—’

‘Karalanths,’ scoffed Luren.

Freydel shot him a warning look and the young wizard smoothed his face.

‘Karalanths,’ Issa repeated, giving the young wizard a hard look. He turned away, colouring. ‘They know the land like no other and they can lead us.’

‘They knew the land,’ said Bokaard.

‘Yes, but still, there is no one better,’ said Issa. ‘You forget I have those who can help; ravens. If I ask them they will scout the lands unseen looking for places where we can land ships and attack. Regardless, gentlemen, if we ever want to regain the lands we have lost, we must attack. Push them back from Frayon and invade their bases. Let them know that we are strong.’

Nobody seemed as enthused as she was about the idea. They turned to each other and talked quickly amongst themselves. The wizards looked amicable, the soldiers sceptical. Asaph looked worried. Edarna smiled and nodded at her. Only she seemed impressed and, wearing a big grin, she dunked her biscuit into her teacup. Everyone else had largely ignored their tea.

Marakon leant forwards on the table.

‘She’s right.’ His voice stilled everyone to silence and all eyes looked at the half-elf. ‘Always we defend. Now we must attack. Nothing has worked, what have we to lose?’

‘Everything we have left?’ said the officer with the monocle.

‘Those are the words of a soldier who is afraid,’ said Marakon. ‘One who fears to lose. Mark my words, ladies and gentlemen; he who dares, wins.’

Bokaard grinned and smiles spread across many of the wizards’ faces. Issa nodded her thanks to Marakon and he winked.

‘It’s a very daring, dangerous, terrifying plan. I think we should do it.’ Marakon’s eye gleamed.

‘There is one thing I need,’ said Issa, holding Marakon’s gaze. ‘I need Marakon and all his knights and best soldiers at my side.’

‘Done,’ said Marakon slapping the table.

‘How on Maioria do you propose to get thousands of soldiers from the north-west coast of Frayon to the south-east coast of Davono?’ said the officer with the moustache. ‘And how can we protect the north, the west, and Carvon?’

‘We’ll only take those soldiers we can spare,’ said Navarr. ‘We will not leave ourselves exposed.’

‘We can’t spare any,’ said the officer smacking his fist on the table.

‘We can spare what we must,’ said the King, his chin firm.

‘But what about the journey? It could take them months,’ said Haelgon. ‘Months of travelling slowly across Frayon whilst our borders are attacked.’

Everyone nodded and looked at her. Issa glanced at Marakon. A knowing grin spread across his face that mirrored her own.

‘Velistor,’ they said in unison.

‘Oh no,’ Asaph shook his head and slumped his shoulders. Freydel covered his eyes. Everyone else frowned and glanced at each other, confused.

‘When the time comes, you won’t need to spare Marakon until the very last moment. We’ll either use the Transplaneal Gates or the ancient demon tunnels to get there,’ said Issa, triumphantly.

Looks of horror spread across the faces of those before her.

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