Prologue

 

 

THE two Unicorns galloped as fast as they could from the Crystal Coast, its sparkling beaches only days away from being stained with blood and fire. Their destination was the verdant land beyond the inhospitable Red Forest, its crimson leaves a grim reminder that their quest must be successful. General Grimthorn had gathered his army of monsters and was planning an assault on the Unicorns’ resplendent home.

In the years leading up to the Grande War, he had quietly amassed an impressive roster from the fiercest, most deadly races in all of Vrelenden. Not only did he appeal to the larger, violent races like the Trolls and Ogres but also the smaller, yet tough creatures like the Red Caps and the Kappas. He was able to tame some of the more unpredictable creatures like the Werewolves and even managed to assemble a regiment from the Vampire Empirium. Grimthorn used his position and wealth to seek out mages willing to put aside moral conviction for monetary gain, employing them to summon Demons and Spirits to aid in his campaign. Sadly, every race had its darker side, and there was no shortage of soldiers for Grimthorn to choose from.

The only race he was unable to convince to join his cause was the Dragons, not out of any moral obligation, but simply because Dragons’ affairs were their own, and Grimthorn was of little consequence to them.

For this reason, the two Unicorns were now speeding along the paths that cut through the Darkfire Mountains to the nesting grounds of Mother Dragon.

“Do you really think she will help us, Lethlonus?” the female Unicorn asked, her silver eyes sparkling with tears.

“I do not know, but we must try,” Lethlonus answered, his deep blue eyes focused on the path ahead as the parcel shifted on his back. “A small chance is better than no chance at all.”

The Dragons’ refusal to enter the battle had ultimately decided the fate of the Unicorn nation. Grimthorn believed if the Dragons would not help him, they might side with his enemies, and to protect against this eventuality, he decided to obtain the only magic that could rival the Dragons’. Grimthorn knew the Unicorns possessed such magic. He also knew they would never join either cause. But their peaceful ways made them, to Grimthorn’s eyes, an easy target despite their immense magical potential, which was why he decided to take them by force.

This was one of his few tactical miscalculations, because the Unicorns fought back furiously. Grimthorn’s armies were surprised by the Unicorns’ ferocity, and many fell before their horns. Sadly, it was not enough to save them. The few who survived were diminished by the loss of their people, making easy slaves for Grimthorn to adapt to his purposes. There were rumors that not all the Unicorns perished or were pressed into serving Grimthorn, but many had searched since and found none. They had no knowledge of the one who arrived in a tiny parcel on Mother Dragon’s doorstep on a warm spring evening.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

THE Dragon occupied most of the space in the cave. Everything not Dragon was treasure. Gold and jewels sparkled, reflecting the dim light of a few torches so the entire space glowed. Mother Dragon lay on her belly, tail curled around her like a cat. She sighed as she finished telling The Story again. She ventured out of the cave less and less frequently. Her golden scales were almost indiscernible from the coins scattered about. In the crook of her shoulder sat an ivory statue with a horn protruding from its forehead. Upon closer inspection, the statue’s chest rose and fell with breath. The boy was beautiful, with skin as pale as milk. Silver hair cascaded across his bare chest. At the end of The Story he opened his eyes. They shone like two platinum discs. Caves were normally damp and chill, but Mother Dragon’s cave was warm and cozy. The boy wore only a sheer scarf fastened about his waist.

“They succeeded,” he whispered through pale pink lips.

“Yes.” Mother Dragon nodded. It was an effort. “If only more of them had thought to bring me their young.” She shook her head in regret and laid it back against the scattered wealth. She lowered the lids over the golden orbs of her eyes and added, “Or if we had joined the battle.”

The boy stroked her cheek. “Do not blame yourself,” he said soothingly.

Her answering chuckle rumbled like distant thunder. “Ah, young one, you are so quick to forgive.” She sighed like a summer breeze. “If only I had encouraged my kin to put aside selfish pursuits, it could have saved the entire kingdom from violence and sorrow. For the loss of the Unicorns has saddened all the creatures of Vrelenden.”

“But the story speaks of Unicorns not destroyed or pressed into servitude.” The boy stood gracefully. “And I know you’ve searched for them.”

“Yes. I have. But their collective magic is stronger than mine, and my searches have been in vain,” she said, raising her head to an imperial height.

“So we should search together,” the boy suggested, placing his hands on his hips in an attempt to accent his bravery. The Dragon chuckled again, causing her to cough, smoke rising from her nostrils. The boy’s courage melted in the face of his concern for the elder Dragon. “Are you all right, Mother?” The Dragon nodded, her mane of fine golden hair rustling like wheat. She regained her previous composure and lowered her head so her eyes met the silver-haired boy’s.

“I am fine for now, Celestrian. But my searching days are over, I’m afraid,” she informed him, “with or without an assistant.”

“It has been too long since you made the change,” Celestrian said, hanging his head, unable to meet her eyes. He did not want to give voice to concerns that had plagued him for some time. He bit his bottom lip, screwed up his courage, and said, “You are not well.” It wasn’t a question.

“No,” the Dragon said. “I’m afraid walking in human form would be too much for me at this point.” She stared at the small, pearlescent horn in the middle of Celestrian’s forehead. It was the only thing that remained when he made the change. She remembered how quickly he had mastered it. She knew Dragons thrice his age who still hadn’t been able to manage it. “Do you know why Lethlonus and Mnemorelle brought you to me?”

“To protect me,” Celestrian answered, still staring at his toenails. They too were pearlescent and the color of his hooves.

“Indeed. But it goes a little farther than that,” the Dragon explained. “Have you ever in your adventures about this glade encountered a hunter?”

Celestrian looked up, surprised. “No,” he said, almost laughing at the absurdity of it.

“No,” Mother Dragon repeated. “And yet there is an abundance of wildlife here to hunt.” She shifted her weight to find a more comfortable spot amongst the scattered gold and jewels, resting her head on a silk cushion. Celestrian sat cross-legged in front of her, like a pilgrim before an altar. His puzzled look begged her to continue. “It’s magic, boy. These lands I call my home are protected by it. The animals that wander in here are safe, for no man or beast that means them harm can enter. But it is my magic that makes it so.” She closed her eyes again. “And when I am gone, these lands will no longer be safe.”

Celestrian, brows furrowed in confusion and worry, watched the creature. He waited a moment for her to continue. “Mother?” he ventured. With an effort, she opened her eyes, not raising her head from the cushion. Celestrian could sense her life ebbing away.

“I am afraid that time is closer at hand than I feared.” Her words came out in breathy bursts. Celestrian leaned forward, pressed his cheek to her forehead, and hugged her enormous head to his chest.

“No, Mother. You cannot die.” Tears welled in the boy’s eyes.

“All things can die, Celestrian, even Dragons. And it is my time.” She took a deep, rasping breath. “You must listen now and not interrupt; my time is short.” Celestrian nodded against the Dragon’s rough scales but said nothing. “Good.” Mother Dragon continued, “Even now there are those who would wish you harm, and with my magic waning, they are growing closer to discovering this place. You must—” Mother Dragon coughed, wrenching her head from the boy’s grasp in time to save him from a small gout of flame that burst from her nostrils, melting a golden chalice. Celestrian watched expectantly as Mother Dragon regained her composure. She swallowed hard and continued. “You must gather clothes and supplies as quickly as possible after I am gone. Take as much of my treasure as you can safely carry.” She raised a hand to stop Celestrian’s protest. “It is necessary, and you will do it.” Despite her weakened state, the words held power and invited no argument. Celestrian simply nodded once more. “Good. Sensible boy. Be sure you retrieve the Ocarina of Draconii—it will mark you as Dragon-Friend should you find yourself in need of such, but keep it hidden. The wrong eyes must not find it. When you have all that you need, head east through the forest to the town of Sparrowsworde. You need to hire yourself a protector, a Hero to get you to the Crystal Coast so you can find the remainder of your kin.”

“Where will I find such a person?” Celestrian wondered aloud.

“My guess would be a pub,” said the Dragon. “Those types are always hanging about looking for a free drink when they aren’t slaying one thing or another and saving distressed damsels and the like.” She breathed in deeply. It sounded like an avalanche of tiny pebbles. The exertion was catching up with her.

“How will I know where to find my people?” Celestrian asked, sensing the time for questions was nearing an end.

“You will know.” She took another shallow breath. “Your heart, your magic, will lead you.” Her head dropped back to the cushion, eyes closing. “Listen, and you will know.” A small cough escaped her lips and she said, “Love you, boy. Like a son, I did.”

There followed a rasping escape of air, and the Dragon breathed no more. Celestrian allowed himself some time to weep for his surrogate mother, his hand resting upon her brow, before he rose to the task she had set before him. He kissed the golden scales between her closed eyes and walked out of the warm cave into the enveloping coolness of the night.

A gathering of Mother Dragon’s guests awaited him outside the cave, and he could see the question that burned in all their minds and the expectant looks on their faces. Celestrian regarded them in silence, his eyes still wet with grief. Faeries, Elves, and various mystical beings dotted the yard around the entrance and perched in the trees. The woodland creatures stood just as silently. Deer, songbirds, foxes, and other woodland creatures attended the silent vigil as well. Mother Dragon had been their patron and protector for as long as any could remember. A few could trace her benevolence through numerous generations.

A tall faerie with silver sparkling wings walked over to Celestrian and grasped his hand. She was completely naked, and her pale skin shone like the moon in the light of evening. Her deep, black eyes were wide beneath the messy shock of orange hair that stuck out over her brows. She swallowed, little wrinkles forming on her chin and forehead. “Is she…?”

“I’m afraid so, Candleberry,” Celestrian answered, hanging his head. He opened his mouth, but words were replaced by sobs, and the faerie wrapped her delicate arms around his trembling shoulders. He leaned into her, drawing comfort from her warm skin. He could hear murmuring and weeping sweep through the beings in the clearing. Candleberry shushed him, trying to soothe him even as he felt the breath in her chest hitch with her own sobs. He hugged her back, returning her kindness.

“What d’we do now?” A gravelly voice asked near Celestrian’s knee. He looked down to see the Brownie, Bill Curtstone, wringing his muslin cap in his hands. Tears trickled over the tan and wrinkled surface of the little faerie’s cheeks.

Celestrian released Candleberry and grasped Curtstone’s shoulder. “We must leave, Bill. Mother Dragon’s magic will soon evaporate, and her lands will no longer hide us from enemy eyes.”

“Where will we go, Mr. Celestrian?”

“That’s something you’ll have to decide yourself, Bill. Mother has given me a task that I must undertake without delay.”

“We can help you,” Candleberry offered. A small fox wandered over as Celestrian shook his head.

“I appreciate the offer, my friend, but Mother made it clear that I must find a Hero to assist me.”

“What Hero?” Brithlin, the Fox, asked.

“I don’t know. Mother said to trust my heart. She has never led me astray.”

“I don’t like it, Mr. Celestrian.” Bill Curtstone shook his head with a grim frown. “I think I’ll visit my sister. She’s lookin’ over a family home in Trefalin. Maybe she can use an extra set of hands. The missus just had twins.”

“Luck be with you, Bill.” Celestrian shook the Brownie’s hand.

“You as well, Mr. Celestrian.” Bill trudged off, saying farewell to some of the other inhabitants of Mother’s land.

“Are you sure we can’t help you in any way?” Candleberry pleaded.

“We’re here for you, Celestrian,” Brithlin added.

Celestrian thought for a moment before speaking. “Actually, maybe you can. Mother wishes for me to gather as much of her treasure as I can to help me achieve my goal. You can help me prepare, gather gold and supplies. Of course you’re welcome to gather some of the treasure for yourselves.”

“Very well. We shall be happy to,” Candleberry answered. “Do you think Mother still has those red Spasian silk slippers?”

“I’m certain she’d be happy for you to have them.” Celestrian gave the faerie a small smile. “Before any of that, we should send Mother off properly.”

“We’ll need to build a pyre,” Candleberry said.

“No,” Brithlin answered. “If you need to gather her treasure, you must do it straight away.”

“I refuse to raid her stores without taking proper care of her remains.” Celestrian folded his arms.

“I appreciate your sentiment, but this is a Dragon we’re talking about. Her kinsmen will have sensed her death by now, and they’ll soon gather for her rites. They’ll provide her pyre, and then they’ll battle for her treasure. If you’re here when that happens, you’ll get nothing, and they may destroy you in the process. Dragons are dangerous at the best of times, but they are particularly violent when one of their ancient race is lost.”

“I fear Brithlin is correct, Celestrian. You must gather your supplies and depart immediately. Good advice for us all,” Candleberry agreed.

Celestrian frowned deeply. “I don’t like this at all. I feel like a grave robber, and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.” He paused, his bare feet gripping the moistening grass with his toes. “But I see the wisdom in your words. Come then, we mustn’t waste another moment.” Celestrian longed for a little more time to mourn his Mother’s passing, but that wasn’t her wish, and he would honor her wishes even in death. He stalked back to the cave, flanked by the Fox and the faerie.