Citadels of the Lost
The Annals of Drakis: Book Two
The second novel in the "enthralling" (Midwest Book Review) Annals of Drakis fantasy epic.
The fates of Drakis, former slave warrior of the elven empire of Rhonas, and Soen, former Inquisitor of the Iblisi, are inexorably tied to the magic of Aether-lifeblood of the elven empire and the cause of humanity's fall. As each searches for the truth beyond legends, he must face his own destiny: Drakis amid the ruins of humanity's Lost Citadels; Soen in a desperate race to seize control of the farthest Aether Well of the empire...
The throats of a thousand dragons answered the call.
Drakis took several steps back from the towering statue, awestruck by the shapes rising from the craggy peaks beyond. He glanced back at the statue, the craning neck with the ridge of scales curving down to the horn-spiked head with bladelike long teeth onto the ancient marble base, the enormous stone wings rising straight up over a hundred feet, and the gigantic claws gripping the glowing crystal globes. His gaze jumped back to the mountaintops and the shadows pulling their way closer to him through the evening sky. Dragons . . . real dragons! Even from this distance of several leagues he could make out some details of the enormous monsters, their great wings sweeping forward and scooping the air down and back with every stroke. The sound of their shrieking calls rolled down the mountainside and shook the wide pedestal on which he stood, carrying away with it every other sensation. It encompassed him, shot through him, and drowned out everything else. Somewhere nearby the muffled voice of Urulani shouted through the noise, calling her men to gather closer around the statue and ready their weapons. What were their names? he vaguely wondered. The dwarf, he knew, was also shouting nearby but his voice sounded more distant than the dragon calls and his movements seemed slow. Ethis was pulling at the dwarf, dragging him back on to the pedestal and closer to the fold—the magical portal sphere of radiant blue light that had opened at the base of the statue. Beyond the portal fold and through its shining blue haze he could see a land of dense foliage and distant towers but it seemed so very far away. Mala lay sobbing hysterically at his feet . . .
Mala, his Mala . . . the Mala who had betrayed them all because Drakis had heard the song of these dragons and brought them here.
Drakis grabbed her arm, yanking her to her feet. The muffled, confused sounds filling his ears suddenly cleared, and he was at once keenly aware of his surroundings. He had been a warrior not so many months ago even if that lifetime now seemed like the distant past; his training acted for him. He reached for his sword, pulling it from its scabbard and finding comfort in the sound of the steel blade as it cleared the leather.
“Urulani! Get everyone back to the ship!” Drakis shouted.
“We can’t outrun that!” Kendai yelled.
“It’s coming here,” Drakis snapped. “It’s coming for me. I’ll stay here—cut back and forth through the fold—and keep them at bay until you can get to the ship and think of some way to get me out of this.”
“I’m staying,” Ethis said.
“We’ll take them together,” growled the dwarf.
Urulani opened her mouth, but Drakis spoke first.
“You have to get the rest out of here,” Drakis said in the firm voice of command that he had heard so often before from his commanders and which he, in turn learned to use on those under his leadership. It was a voice that carried its own authority. “You’re the captain. You’re the only one who can. Take Mala, the Lyric, and your crew, and get help!”
Urulani gritted her teeth and then turned to her men. “Yithri, you and Kwarae bring the Lyric! I’ve got the princess. We’re going back to the Cydron! NOW!”
Kendai, Djono, Gantau, and Lukrasae did not require another word. All four bolted from the platform, following their footprints back across the sands.
“So, are you glad you came along, princess?” Urulani said, grabbing the arm of the auburn-haired woman, pulling her away from Drakis. The harder she pulled, however, the more firmly Mala gripped Drakis as though he were her only jetsam in a sea of fear. Urulani, after considerable effort, managed to pull her free. “Let’s go!”
“NO!” Mala screamed, her hands shaking as her head and eyes began darting about. “The monsters are out there! They’ve come from my dreams! They’ve come for my soul!”
“We don’t have time for this!” Drakis barked, his eyes fixed on the dark shapes wheeling above them in the sky.
“You heard the man, princess . . .”
Mala shoved Urulani backward with a mindless, animal roar.
The captain quickly recovered her footing.
“Fair warning,” Urulani said as she pulled back her arm and smacked a quick fist across Mala’s cheek.
Mala, however, did not drop. She staggered backward several steps before her eyes went wide—and then Mala erupted into a fury. With a ferocity and speed that shocked Drakis, she clawed suddenly at Urulani’s face.
Just as suddenly, the Lyric pulled her arms free of Kwarae and Yithri, leaping on Urulani’s back.
“By the gods!” Drakis shouted, reaching over to try and pull the Lyric from the captain’s back. “Get them out of here!”
“Gantau!” Bloody red streaks opened up along Urulani’s midnight skin. “Get back here! Lend a hand!”
Gantau slid to a stop in the sand, turned, and rushed back to the platform. By the look on his face, Drakis knew the man was afraid but obeyed.
Drakis managed to pull the Lyric off of Urulani’s back. He pushed Mala behind him but she was still sobbing and as afraid of the portal as of the approaching dragons. She pushed back against him from behind. Drakis struggled to keep his footing on the slippery marble.
“Good luck, princess!” Urulani said. “Men of Sondau! Let’s get out of here!”
“It’s too late, they’re already here,” Drakis bellowed. “Ethis! You and Jugar watch the sides and each other’s backs! Urulani, get what’s left of your men to form up with our backs to the fold. The plan’s still good . . . we’ll drop back through the fold if we need to and hold on the other side until your men bring help.”
“What kind of help do you think they can bring against that?” Urulani asked, pointing to the sky.
Three of the great shadows in the deepening evening sky were ahead of the rest, their shrieking cries seeming to cut directly through Drakis’ ears.
“When do we fire?” Kwarae asked, but there was a strange quiver in his voice.
The song returned to Drakis’ head like a thundering chorus of a thousand voices.
Back to the homeland of fallen dreams . . .
Is this the prophet returned?
Wandering so long . . .
Wandering so strong . . .
“Wait, I . . . what?” Drakis stammered.
“Do we fire?” Kwarae repeated.
“No! We wait!” Urulani replied.
“What?” Yithri yelped.
“That’s no welcoming party, lass!” Jugar growled.
“So you want to fire arrows into that?” Urulani pointed as the first of the dragons banked above the sands, its enormous leathery wings held tight against the air through which it rushed. Sweat was breaking out on her brow. “Do you see the scales? Do you really think we can do any damage to that at this range? We have to wait until it is closer!”
“I think it’s already too close,” Ethis shouted, “We’ve got to retreat through the portal!”
“NO!” Jugar yelled over the tumult of voices around him. “We don’t know where the fold leads! It could be a thousand leagues from . . .”
“What does it matter where it leads?” Ethis shouted back. “How can it possibly be worse than this?”
Drakis barely heard the words around him. The song filled his mind and thoughts.
Come to the claw and the forehand . . .
Come to the land of the dead.
Come quiet stealing . . .
Come to the healing . . .
The dragon had turned above the sands, pulling at the air so hard that the dunes beneath it exploded upward in billowing, sunset clouds of sand. In an instant, the enormous gaping jaws, with razor-sharp fangs nearly as tall as Drakis, were closing on the platform. The fifty-foot wings of the beast struck down and forward, slowing the monster in mid-flight just short of the platform, the sudden hurricane gust knocking Drakis back two steps. The dragon’s great, left fore claws extended down toward him.
It was the eyes that caught his attention, Drakis realized in the last moment. Slit pupils and a terrible yellow color yet focused, determined, alert . . .
Drakis reached forward with his left hand, transfixed by the eye of the dragon.
The sound of crashing metal brought him out of his stupor. Urulani, Gantau, and Yithri had all charged forward. Their swords and weapons clashed against the open claws, slashing at the leathery flesh of the dragon’s palm which soon welled up with blood. Beyond the dragon, Kendai, Djono and Lukrasae had drawn their swords, uncertain how to attack the creature.
“Kendai!” Urulani yelled over the ringing blows as the dragon drew in a great gasping breath. “Get back to the ship! Get help!”
The dragon’s cry was deafening, causing everyone on the marble platform to involuntarily raise their hands to their ears. The dragon pulled back, landing with a resounding boom on its hind legs as it clawed at the air in pain and outrage. Its tail whipped frantically about, crashing through one of the statue’s claws. Rubble from the broken leg of the statue flew across the platform, slamming into Gantau’s chest and smashing him against stone at the back of the platform’s statue.
Two more dragons landed with such force around the statue that the platform shook, knocking Drakis and all of his companions completely off their feet. Gantau lay unmoving in a growing pool of blood.
“Do you think we could leave now?” Ethis shouted.
“Out!” Drakis screamed as he grabbed Mala’s arm once more. “Everybody out through the fold!”
Drakis got his feet under him just as the dragon’s head once more thrust down in his direction. He pushed Mala through the glowing sphere and prepared to jump after her . . .
Something connected at his back, rushing him toward the sphere. His hands were pushed backward with the sudden rush and he could feel the smooth, hard and wet surface behind him.
The dragon’s fang.
The dragon had lunged at him but misjudged his prey. The massive head was pushing him through the portal, rushing through it with him. Drakis saw the glow of the fold rush past him and he was suddenly surrounded by the broken stones of a ruined plaza and an impression of the astonished faces of his companions.
Just as suddenly, the rushing sensation stopped and he tumbled forward, rolling across the broken stones of the ruined plaza that cut at his arms and legs. The final impact with the ground forced the air from his lungs and he struggled to stand up.
The sight before him was not to be believed. The ancient plaza was illuminated both by the twilight sky above and by the quavering glow of the fold portal. The ruins of the plaza itself had been all but completely reclaimed by the dense, lush growth all around it, shadows illuminated by the fold as the day was ending. The only remaining feature that might have had any recognizable function from a more civilized time was a short altar near the glowing portal, a pair of crumbling low walls along the edges and several broken columns.
But there was no time to consider this vision. Out of the soft radiance of the portal sphere the head and neck of the dragon protruded. The horns of the beast were thrashing back and forth, its jaws snapping at Urulani as she tried desperately to avoid its deadly maw, horns, and the raw power of its attack while striking blows against it at the same time. Jugar was urging the Lyric into the jungle despite her protests. Ethis had also drawn both of his weapons and was attempting to distract the creature. This resulted in one of the dragon’s horns connecting with his chest and flinging him with such force into a tree that he seemed to nearly be wrapped backward around its trunk.
“By the gods,” Drakis muttered as he sucked in air and adjusted the grip on his sword. “How are we supposed to deal with that?”
Drakis charged the front of the head, then dodged to the side, trying to strike but the dragon reacted swiftly, knocking Yithri into his path. They tumbled into each other, ending up on their backs desperately scrambling to get up again. He had barely found his footing when he was forced to leap suddenly to his right to avoid one of the many spiked scales protruding from the monstrous snout. There was a strong smell of sulfur in the air that struck Drakis as out of place, but he had no time to think about it.
“Yithri! Kwarae!” Urulani shouted. “Stay over on the right!”
“My right or the dragon’s right?” Yithri yelled back.
“Your right, you stupid . . . watch out!”
The dragon was fast, faster than Drakis would have thought possible in a monster its size. Yithri had just leaped toward the beast, his ax raised over his head when the maw of the beast snapped in his direction.
Yithri’s scream was quickly choked off as the massive, razor-sharp fangs and teeth plunged through his body. The dragon’s head jerked back in distaste, rising up high above the plaza as it pulled in a great breath through its flaring nostrils.
“Take cover!” Jugar yelled just before diving behind the remains of a pillar at the edge of the plaza.
Drakis caught a glimpse of Mala standing shaking in front of a low wall. He leaped, catching her shoulders and pushing her backward over the broken stones.
Drakis felt the blistering heat against his back and saw the flash in his peripheral vision. He could not help himself. He had to look.
The dragon was spewing fire from its upturned maw, a churning conflagration that exploded through the entire large plaza with roiling flames. The center was a brilliant blue color, a place hotter than Drakis had ever known. The strange trees, brush, and foliage encroaching on the far side of the plaza erupted into flame, their own heat adding to the conflagration.
What remained of Yithri lay across the plaza, the stench of burning flesh filling the air.
Proud are the dragons who hear the call
Come at the sound of the song.
Why come attacking
in discourse lacking?
Drakis stood up.
Mala sat quivering, her knees drawn up to her chest and her back against the wall. “Drakis,” she whimpered. “Stay with . . .”
Drakis stepped over the wall, his sword swinging loose at his side as he walked directly toward the creature.
The eyes of the dragon fixed on him, its spike-crowned head turning at his approach. Drakis was barely aware of Ethis, the four-armed chimerian, running across the plaza toward him with the dwarf Jugar at his heels.
The song in Drakis’ head was overwhelming.
Come is the brother of ancient day
Come to the land he once lost.
Why come in anger?
Who was the traitor?
The dragon’s flame choked off and its eyes focused on Drakis. The head flashed downward.
The fold vanished.
The neck and head of the dragon crashed down onto the shattering stones of the ancient plaza, blood rushing from the cleanly severed neck.
Drakis stood still, blinking at the sudden change of events. The thunderous song in his head had suddenly vanished, leaving him disoriented in the sudden silence of his mind. He glanced uncertainly at his blade.
Drakis looked around.
“Help me out!”
It was the dragon . . . the dragon was speaking a good deal like Jugar.
Drakis walked toward the dragon’s head. The eye that had so enthralled him had gone dull now that the creature’s life had fled.
“Jugar?” Drakis asked.
“Get this beastie off of me!” the dwarf yelled.
The lower jaws of the dragon lay across the legs of the dwarf, pinning him against the fitted stones of the plaza with the rest of his body unfortunately now situated in what had once been the mouth of the mammoth creature.
Drakis examined him for a few moments. “This is awkward.”
“Awkward?” Jugar yelled, his face purple with rage. “I think the damned monster has broken my leg!”
Drakis looked around, still feeling dazed. Urulani was picking herself up off the stones as Kwarae rose to his feet uncertainly. “Kwarae! Give me a hand here . . . we’ve got to free the dwarf.”
Ethis came to stand next to Drakis.
“You all right?” Drakis asked in flat tones.
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” the chimerian replied. “Although I’m not certain for how long. We had better find some shelter—defensible shelter—and soon. We’ve already run out of daylight, and I suspect this will not be friendly territory in the night.”
“That should keep anything too curious at bay for a while,” Drakis nodded over toward the still raging fire in the forest at the northern end of the plaza.
“And the smoke will attract them in the morning,” Ethis replied.
“I don’t suppose you know the way back to the ship?” Drakis asked though he already suspected the answer.
Ethis actually chuckled as he looked around. “No. The dwarf was right about one thing: that portal could have taken us a thousand leagues in any direction. Jugar might have better luck with knowing where we are by morning—dwarves seem to have an innate talent for that sort of thing—but if you’re asking my opinion, I believe we’re lost in a land of legend . . . and a dangerous one at that.”
“You’re all the crew I have left to me,” Urulani looked at Kwarae. “Stay close.”
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