Sword of Oak
Dragons Rising Book Four
First Three Chapters
One thousand, two hundred, fifty-five Lapis dead.
The number pierced Vahly’s heart. What had it been like inside the Lapis cave palace when the Sea Queen’s spelled salt water crashed through the doors?
Younglings reaching for their mothers. Spells blackening the dragons’ scales. The kitchen staff trying to reach the back door when a wave punches them backward, burning their wings with the sea folk’s magic. Warriors and their families gathered in the hall suddenly deluged by spelled sea water. The dragons lift into the air, but the waves charge higher and higher until there is no more room. The oculus is too narrow to fit more than one escaping dragon at a time. Screams. Gurgling. Lungs eroding. Eyes closing for the last time, fingers trailing away from a loved one’s hand as the water rises and rises and rises.
“Vahly?” Arc lifted his black eyebrows. His elven crown shifted just out of sight, the golden threads of light and smoky tendrils at his forehead reaching upward.
Vahly shivered. “Oh, sorry. Yes, Aitor should come with us if he wants. Of course.”
Arc’s eyes softened and he tilted his head. “You already said that. We were asking about possible routes to Illumahrah, to the Sacred Oak.”
“Right.” She shook her head, but the images cut into her mind again and again. Clearing her throat, she joined Arc, and they started toward Nix, Aitor, and Amona.
The Jade clan’s matriarch, Eux, descended from the sky in her human kynd form, bright green scales glittering in the sun and wings the color of the southern hills at dusk. The three Jades with her threw more bags of supplies at Arc’s feet. A scorchpepper rolled from one satchel to land near Amona.
Also in her human form, Amona left the boulder she’d been sitting on to approach Eux. Her eyes narrowed at her former enemy, lips twisting like she was keeping some harsh words from escaping.
“Thank you, Matriarch Eux,” Amona said instead. “Your generosity speaks highly of you and your clan.”
Vahly and Nix traded a look. Never once had Amona spoken so kindly to Eux. Vahly prayed Eux would return the respect.
Smoke curled from Eux’s delicately scaled nostrils as she strode over, arms crossed. Links made from jade stone framed her face and ran down her arms. Each ring held the tooth of a lost loved one, and while the sentiment was honorable, the sight of the memory links was horrifying. A ruby sparkled from the hilt of Eux’s sword. Beside her, Amona looked plain.
Vahly’s dragon mother had lost everything material during the battle. Her sword. Her beloved jewelry. And she’d lost most of her clan. Amona stood straight though, sharp eyes set on Eux.
Eux cocked her head and looked Amona up and down. “If you had fought harder earlier, perhaps we would be in a better position just now.”
Amona’s hands fisted as she stepped forward, her nose inches from Eux’s face.
Vahly took a step. The air crackled, and the scent of dragonfire—citrus and charcoal—combined with the chill breeze.
“Do not,” Amona hissed, “speak of fighting. That day, we fought like no other dragon. My Lapis survived because we put one another first. We would all be gone if we hadn’t fought like true Lapis. The Jades would be long dead if they had been thus attacked.”
Eux’s wings spread and fire erupted from her lips. Amona lifted into the air, striking out and slicing Eux’s cheek open with a talon. Blood splattered to the icy ground.
Vahly ran between them, the dizzying heat of dragonfire barely missing her. “Stop!”
Amona’s battle-glazed eyes remained focused on Eux. She roared and shot fire at the Jade matriarch, who dodged the blaze and leapt into the air. The two dragons locked in combat above Vahly.
They had sworn themselves to her. She had to stop this.
Arc, Nix, and Kyril were holding the Lapis back, a barrier of elf and dragon and gryphon between Amona’s clan and Eux’s.
Vahly knelt and put her palms on the earth. As she closed her eyes, the earth answered her touch with three powerful drumbeats of magic inside her chest. Flexing her hands, she stood and backed away.
The earth shot into the air.
A wall of stone shaped like a dragon broke Amona and Eux apart. The matriarchs sputtered fire and rolled, wings tucking. Eux and Amona landed on either side of Vahly’s creation.
Amona blinked. “Daughter. Earth Queen. I …”
Eux stormed away from the stone dragon, toward Vahly, shoulders heaving and wings shuddering. Kyril launched forward and rose up on hind legs, towering over Eux.
Eux’s lip curled. “Peace, gryphon. I relent.” The Jade matriarch’s burning gaze found Vahly. “Apologies, Earth Queen.” Her tone said she was less than remorseful. Eux glanced at Amona as the Lapis matriarch joined them. “We are one clan now, and you remind us of the fact.” Eux dipped her head, then turned.
Amona bowed her head briefly. “Apologies, Earth Queen. I must remember my place. We are one.”
Vahly reached a hand out to Amona, who didn’t appear to be seriously injured though her clothing was singed and ripped down the side.
Amona took her fingers and rubbed Vahly’s wrist with a thumb. Amona’s smile calmed Vahly’s racing heart.
“It will take time, Daughter. Time for us to adjust. It would be good if I came with you to Illumahrah and left Eux to rule here.”
“Agreed. I want you with me regardless.”
With one more quick smile, Amona left, heading for Arc’s remaining kynd—Haldus, Rigel and Ursae. They had been healing the Lapis rescued from the spits of land Vahly had raised during the battle. Young Ruda brought Amona what appeared to be a stack of fresh clothing.
Kyril shuffled over to Vahly and nudged her shoulder. She touched the smooth end of the gryphon’s beak and exhaled, keeping an eye on the Jades who were gathering around Eux. Arc lifted his eyebrows at Vahly as if asking what he should do. She waved him over.
Vahly’s boots crushed the icy grit of their vantage point of the northern mountains. Magic surged inside her, torn between going farther north into those snow-topped peaks and heading south toward Illumahrah to find the Sacred Oak.
Arc put a hand on her back, his touch warm. “What is it?” Formed of dark purple magic and dazzling golden light, his elven crown shimmered at his temples and across his forehead. The wind tugged at his ebony hair, and he narrowed his dark eyes against the cold.
“My magic is telling me to go north,” she said.
“But what about the Sacred Oak and what Kyril saw?”
Vahly glanced at her familiar. The gryphon had curled up beside her, seemingly comfortable despite their position so high above the flooded remains of Sugurrabota.
Earlier, through telepathic communication, Kyril had shown her an image of the Sacred Oak at Illumahrah, the destroyed home of the elves. A field of yellow flowers had surrounded the tree where Vahly was meant to complete her journey to becoming a true Earth Queen, one capable of fighting the Sea Queen and thus balancing the world.
“I still have to visit the oak, but…” Magic pushed at her again, and she turned so that the highest of the snowy peaks filled her view. The mountains would have once made Vahly feel small. But now…
Tipped in blindingly white snow, the jagged rocks rose into the clouds. “First, there’s something I must do.”
The mountains called to Vahly, her magic tugging at her.
Arc nodded. “The others will argue about heading in the opposite direction.”
“I don’t blame them.”
Vahly pulled her cloak more tightly around her body. One of the Jade clan dragons had brought the garment. “It won’t be delightful for any of us.” The mountain winds whistled. “I’m as eager as any of them to get going. The idea of going up there… It feels counterproductive, but for me, it also feels necessary.”
She walked across the flat rock, and the entire group of survivors faced her, eyes expectant and wide.
A cold knife stabbed Vahly’s gut. If she failed them, the ocean would rise to swallow the last of the land kynd. “I have to journey farther into the mountains before we leave for Illumahrah.”
The Lapis-blue scales of Aitor’s scarred face twisted. “All respect, Earth Queen, but what in the name of the Blackwater is worth us freezing our tails off in that empty land of ice?”
“I can’t tell you that, unfortunately,” Vahly said, “but my magic is urging me to go.”
“We should move toward the oak and your final step in waking your earth magic, Queen Vahly. That,” he said, eyeing the mountains, “will be a waste of time.”
Nix smacked the back of Aitor’s head. “If Queenie wants to shake her arse at the earth’s last snow cat, we’ll support her and make no mistake!”
Aitor scowled amid everyone’s quiet chuckles, but he bowed his head. “Whatever you wish, Earth Queen.”
Nix grinned at Aitor, then winked at Vahly.
Kyril lifted his eyes, his blue-gray feathers ruffling. A clicking sound came from his beak, and he stretched his front lion paws, digging claws into the stone and sending debris sifting into the air as he showed Vahly an image of them flying above a cliff lined in sparkling icicles.
Amona stepped forward, Ruda and Helena the healer flanking her. A deep emerald-green cloak similar to Vahly’s fluttered around Amona’s shoulders, and she wore a simple dress hemmed in the Jade symbol, the dragon skull’s golden thread blinking in the sun. To see Amona in Jade clothing…
“Thus far,” Amona said, “your magic has led you to success. Follow your instincts, Daughter, and we’ll continue to follow you.”
Vahly bowed her head.
Eux grunted but nodded. She hadn’t changed out of her fire-blackened clothing. “Do you want the Jades with you, Earth Queen?”
Shaking her head, Vahly handed off her quiver and bow to Haldus, who gave her a sheepish smile. “I’ll be fine with just my sword. So I believe it would be best to travel with a small group. Can your Jades instead continue looking for survivors and hunting to feed the rest?”
“Of course.” Eux’s orange eyes shifted to look at Amona.
The air tasted like smoke.
Amona dipped her chin. “Thank you, Matriarch Eux.”
Nix handed a scorchpepper to young Ruda, who gobbled it down quickly. “Queenie,” Nix said, “Those peaks aren’t getting any less icy.”
“Agreed,” Vahly said. “Arc, I mean, King Arcturus, Mistress Nix, Matriarch Amona, and Aitor, gather your supplies, if you will. And if you’ve decided you don’t wish to risk the mountains, let me know. I won’t force anyone.”
Arc helped Vahly tuck dried goat meat, skins heavy with fresh water, and burlap sacks of raisins into two large satchels that they then slung over their shoulders. Over that, Arc slid the bow Haldus and Rigel had crafted for him from a stash of prepared wood the Jades had provided. A leather quiver of arrows pressed with the elven symbol of a sun and moon hung at his wide belt beside a short sword.
Aitor had been unable to speak as he’d handed the weapons over that morning to her and to Arc. Vahly hadn’t prodded him to find out whose swords they had been. She’d kissed the hilt and promised to do her best to honor the weapon’s first wielder. She missed her own sword, lost to the sea, another precious memory drowned.
Before the sun had reached its zenith, Kyril launched into the sky, Arc and Vahly on his lion’s back, his gray-blue eagle wings impossibly wide on either side of them. Nix, Amona, and Aitor flew in an arrow-shape beside them, blue wings like rain-heavy clouds on the horizon. They had bags of warm clothing and supplies clutched in their talons so they could transform into their human forms upon landing if they chose to do so.
Arc’s kynd—Haldus, Ursae, and Rigel—waved a farewell from below. Ruda lifted a hand toward Kyril, her eyes shining. Vahly smiled down at the young Lapis. Ruda was Kyril’s Sourceparent, and Vahly was glad that her familiar had another good soul to rely on if things went badly.
The wind went from stingingly chilly to bone-cracking cold as they soared above a high plateau of ice-slicked rock. In the distance, three craggy peaks speared steely clouds that swept in to cloak the sun. Magic pushed against Vahly’s heart.
“There!” she called to Arc and pointed to the rest. “I have to visit those peaks.”
Arc’s hands tightened on her waist, and she leaned back, soaking in the heat and power of his presence. His sun-warmed sap and mint scent teased her nose, and her muscles relaxed.
“This is a place of legends,” he said into her ear, the wind trying to snatch his beautifully accented words away.
A gust swept up and Kyril veered, his warm body moving expertly to use the drafts and slide under the air currents.
“I’m scared to ask which legends,” Vahly said.
“It is said the Blackwater takes a different form in the ice realms and affects wanderers in unique ways that other kynd rarely experience.”
Frowning, Vahly gripped the furry ruff that ringed Kyril’s neck, the feathers of his neck and head shifting in the wind. Rare experiences were over-praised. She needed power to end this war with Astraea before more good kynd fell. Even though magic urged her to travel into this white world, her spirit sagged as they flew closer to the three peaks. The sun, battling the clouds, showed over half the day gone already.
Exhaling, Vahly closed her eyes only to see an image Kyril sent to her. The image showed Vahly with a glowing chest like her heart was on fire. A flame extended from her and into the peaks.
Smiling, she leaned forward. “I hope that means you think this is the right move, Kyril. Because I’m not entirely sure.”
Kyril lifted his head and gently bumped Vahly like he was trying to comfort her. Indeed, a surge of power flowed from her familiar’s pelt into her palms.
Amona flew forward in a rush and jerked her dragon head toward the east. The clouds had gone black over the peaks. Arc’s hands gripped Vahly’s waist in warning.
A storm was heading right for them.
Vahly’s stomach turned. “We need to figure out what’s there, then leave before we’re buried in snow.”
“Quickly, Kyril,” Arc called out.
Kyril flew faster, and the rest of the group followed suit, and soon they were landing on a slender outcropping on the first peak. Powdered snow covered the landing spot, heaping around Kyril’s furred legs.
Vahly remained on Kyril’s back while Arc dismounted. The area held nothing but sparse trees, stone, and snow. The narrow trail leading away from the outcropping showed that some forsaken beasts actually lived here and took this path from range to range. Her stomach turned. This was a fool’s errand. She’d misread her magic’s pull.
Beyond them, near Aitor and Amona, Nix’s foot slipped off the path, and Vahly’s stomach turned.
“Nix!” Vahly kicked her feet into Kyril’s sides, and the gryphon lifted onto his back legs.
Nix flapped her blue-lavender wings and gripped the edge with her back talons. I’m fine. Though you look a bit sick, darling.
Vahly waved Nix’s mental communication off and looked up. A cave yawned above them.
Arc leapt to grasp the black root of a skeletal pine growing from the side of the mountain, then he swung upward to land at the cave’s mouth. “I’ll scout it.” He disappeared beyond the edge.
“What do you see?” Vahly called up, her hands shaking with cold.
Arc’s face appeared at the overhang, his black hair stark against the snow gathering across his broad shoulders. “Nothing. I suggest we keep moving unless your magic says otherwise.”
Snow fell in slanting sheets. Ice clung to Vahly’s hair and cloak and set her teeth to chattering as Arc jumped onto Kyril’s wide back and the group lifted into the sky.
Lightning broke the black clouds, and the dragons roared, enjoying the heat and flash and taking in its power. Vahly scowled at the sky and gripped Kyril’s ruff to keep from falling. Arc’s hand spread against her spine, and his healing magic soothed her chilled body, thawing her enough that she might be able to keep her teeth after this was all over.
Kyril flew them over the second peak, where the wind ripped at Vahly’s hair and would’ve torn the cloak from her back had Arc not been there. Other than a few more snow-crusted pines, the area below was devoid of life. Vahly put a hand on her ribs, focusing on the magic, feeling its direction. A dark spot halfway down the third peak made her Blackwater mark pulse.
Kyril whirled around, changing course and flying straight at the darkened area. Vahly patted his side as she squinted to see through the storm. Uneven lines of darkness showed in the continuous snowfall. Perhaps a flat area where they would be able to land? At least there, they could huddle down and wait out the storm. Maybe that was all the magic was attempting to do, to keep them safe until the snow passed.
Vahly gritted her teeth. They had no time for this. Even now, Astraea was plotting her next flood, the one that would truly end it all and kill what little was left of the land. Why was the Sea Queen waiting to finish them off? With Ryton gone, Vahly had no one to make thoughtful guesses as to what Astraea might be planning.
Ryton’s stern face flashed through Vahly’s memory, and a weight sat on her chest as she recalled the way he’d plunged into the fray and given all. He’d been her captor, yes, but he’d been true to his heart, protecting her when his own elemental powers asked it of him. The love he’d had for his fallen sister, Selene, had shown in his actions and his mournful eyes. Ryton had sacrificed himself for the good of the world. He wouldn’t be forgotten.
A gust whipped across Vahly’s face, sleet pelting and burning her cheeks, as Kyril circled and nearly smashed into the rock face. She adjusted her hold on the gryphon’s ruff, but her fingers wouldn’t curl tightly enough to do it properly, the joints stiff with cold.
The group fell apart, then came back together, struggling to fly to the flat area to land. Thunder crashed, echoing across the mountains and making Vahly wince. The storm snarled like an army of dragons. Shivering, Vahly looked down at the earth.
“Arc. My hands.” She cursed her too-human fingers and how a simple winter storm could threaten her.
Arc poured more healing warmth into her, but then Kyril dipped harshly to the side, and Arc called out something unintelligible. His voice echoed in her head, but it was only sound and no meaning. Her body shuddered, fingers slipping from the gryphon’s ruff, and her body shifted, falling.