Maris looked down at the corpse of her twin. She had been neatly speared by the dragonet’s tail, a clean hole torn through the center of her chest. Blood was only now starting to pool under her. Her face was frozen in a look of eternal determination.
It was odd—looking at herself, lying on the ground, never to stand up. Her body shivered, but the tears wouldn’t come.
“Mare… You okay?” Cadeyrn set a hand on her shoulder. It was the most words he’d said to her since they left the castle two weeks ago in search of the nest. “I know it’s…hard…”
Maris shook her head. “I’ll be fine.” Estelle was always getting herself into stupid situations. It was bound to happen some day. “We’ll just have to—” Her mouth went dry, and her words failed. The last necromancer in Journsea had been executed two months ago. The closest one she knew of—Mare, your job is to keep tabs on information—was easily a month’s hard ride away.
They couldn’t keep the body fresh for a month.
Cadeyrn pressed his lips into a thin line. “We’re already talking about it. Please, come join us. You haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
Her stomach growled at the thought of food. She crossed her arms over her gut and tried to hold it in, but the sound echoed in the silent clearing. He took her by the hand and led her away from the body.
She glanced over her shoulder as they left. From a distance, Estelle could have been sleeping.
“Maris!” Big arms strung with taut muscle wrapped her in a hug. Rhys smelled of leather and blood, and he nearly choked the living daylights out of her before he sat her gently on a rock. “You’re alright,” he said, stroking her hair with thick, careful fingers. “I was so worried—” He shook his head, and the sunlight glinted off his burnt skin. “You’re alright. That makes everyone, well, except, you know.”
Next to her, the battlemage Lynet studied the sky. Her whole body hummed with silent power, and she did nothing but nod to Maris with a sympathetic smile.
Maris choked up. “I’m sorry…”
“You weren’t the one standing next to her.” Cadeyrn sat on a rock facing her. “You weren’t the one guarding her. You weren’t the one distracting the dragon. We’re all far more at fault than you ever were.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Rhys agreed. He sat on the ground near her and leaned his head on her thigh. “We’re all just happy you’re alive.”
The burn on her cheek itched. Five years she’d been questing with Estelle, and this was the closest she had ever come to actual death. The dragonet had thrashed in the net trap, spewing fire and lashing its tail at whoever came too close. The net was fireproof, but not exactly blade-proof, and by the time it cut itself down, it was frantic.
Maris didn’t have time to move out of the way before a spout of fire grazed her face. Her hair was still singed back to her scalp. She ran her hand over the burnt remains of her hair and winced when she hit a fresh wound.
The dragonet was dead. Cadeyrn hit it from a ridge with his poison-tipped spear. But by the time the chaos died down, Estelle…
Estelle was normally so loud. She hadn’t shouted a single order through the fight. It must have killed her as soon as it set itself free.
“What do we do now?” she whispered.
Cadeyrn shrugged. Estelle’s purple cape—the cape of the Chosen—was wrapped around his shoulders. “We move on. We have dragons to hunt.”
- - -
They left Estelle’s body on a high ridge, open to the sky. It was the best option in the end. Maris wanted to burn it—the others wanted to bury it—but smoke was too visible and they didn’t want to risk poisoning the water. Better to leave it for the scavengers to feast upon.
It was final, in a way. Maris leaned down and kissed her sister’s forehead. Her stomach twisted. She looked away while Cadeyrn said his goodbyes, full to bursting with emotion and turmoil.
Maris couldn’t bring herself to feel sad.
Well, she was sad, yes, that her sister had died. But she spent the last five years riding along wherever Estelle decided to go, on whatever quests Estelle decided to take, all because their mother’s midwife was a passable Oracle and prophesied that the elder twin would drive evil from Journsea.
There were no such prophecies for the younger twin. She was an afterthought—an addition.
For that, Maris didn’t feel sad. She could go home and build a life for herself. She could do anything she wanted, rather than going along with her sister because it was expected. She would mourn for a year and a day, and at the end of it, she would be alone.
Herself. Alone. The words felt strange. It had always been the two of them before.
A tear leaked out from under her eyelid. Maybe she was sad Estelle was gone. It would be so quiet without her.
Rhys wrapped an arm around her. “We call it trauma,” he said, cheerily enough. “It’ll hit you in a few days, when we have time to sit down and relax.”
“My sister died when we were little. The Green Death, you remember that? It took her. My parents sat around her body for days before it sunk in that she was gone. That’s what made me want to study medicine. I never could forgive myself for not saving her.” He handed her a yellow flower the size of her thumbnail. “Hallow-wort. It soothes the blow. Remind me to make you some tea tonight.”
Lynet was standing off to the side, drawing lights in the air. The mage had her own way of showing respect for the dead—as she let go of the lights, they floated over Estelle’s body and cloaked her in a blanket of diamonds.
She gave Maris a sad smile. «I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,» she signed.
“It’s more than enough. Lyn.” Cadeyrn’s voice was strained. He clapped Maris on the shoulder and pulled all attention to him. Strapped to his belt was a new sword—Estelle’s, the hilt adorned with amethysts. “We have to move on the nest soon. We don’t have an exact location, but we know it’s somewhere in these hills. If we keep watch for smoke, we should be able to find it. They’ll be blowing fire on the eggs to keep them warm.
“We do not engage the adult dragons. You all saw how the fight with the nestling went. Our goal is to break the eggs and slip our poison into their food. They’ll have built their den near a steady supply of water, probably a river, so there should be deer nearby. We’ll lace a few with dragonsbane and send them into the nest for easy picking.” He paused and hoisted his pack higher on his shoulders. “It’s not Estelle’s plan, but it’ll work. All clear on that?”
Estelle’s plan—trap a dragonet, lure the adults out of the nest, and smash the eggs after the adults were dead. She was so sure it would work. Nothing had ever gone wrong before—not this wrong.
Maris gritted her teeth. Cadeyrn’s plan was better than nothing, and they couldn’t afford to lose anyone else. She nodded.
“Excellent. Lyn, we’ll need cover down to the river. We’ll follow it to see if they’re nested nearby. Try not to make us look too tasty.”
The mage grinned and drew more lights in the air.
- - -
They found the nest just before dusk. It was at the entrance to a small valley; the wind that cut through the hills carried the smoke away with it.
Cadeyrn threw out an arm to stop them at the top of the hill. Maris stumbled into Rhys’s back and nearly fell. “Quiet,” he ordered. “They won’t see us, but they can still hear and smell us. We want to approach downwind of them.”
Maris didn’t like the sound of that. She eyed the darkening skyline. “It’s almost night,” she whispered, “can’t we do this tomorrow?”
Cadeyrn shook his head sharply. “Estelle was right. That dragonet was scouting for something. I think they’re getting ready to move—the eggs must be near hatching. A month, a week, a day. We can’t take the risk.” He pointed to the creek in the valley below. “Water will confuse our smell. We’ll head down there and come up to them that way.”
The others seemed happy with that. All Maris could think of was Estelle—alone on a ridge, covered in sparkling magic lights—killed by one of these dragons that was maybe, at most, a year old. They were awe-inspiring beasts. She couldn’t imagine them dying easily to poison.
“And the deer?” Rhys’s voice sounded like the clash of rocks deep below the earth. Maris’s blood ran cold at the sound. He was different now, with his eyes focused on the entrance to the den.
Cadeyrn looked to Lynet. “Do you have enough power to cast a net?”
The mage nodded. One of her hands was full of magic strings that cast out to form a loose weave around them. From the outside, they would look like something natural—a boulder rolling downhill, maybe a bush or a bear. Something that belonged in the hills. She raised her left hand and twisted it into another magic sign, and more strings appeared between her fingers.
“Lynet and I will hunt the deer. Have Maris help you with the dragonsbane. We should be ready by nightfall.”
- - -
Rhys found cover in a large bush and started taking apart his pack in search of herbs. Cadeyrn and Lynet vanished into the underbrush in search of their living lures.
Maris knelt next to Rhys and watched as he laid out the tools of his trade. She spotted a few ingredients she was familiar with, but most of them were foreign or ground into powder, and all of them had labels written in a strange alphabet.
“Humetic,” he explained when she asked. “It’s the language of old alchemical magics. What I do isn’t strictly magic, but—” He pulled a large bundle of leaves out of the bottom of his pack. “—it’s not not magic, either. Hold this.”
She held onto it with the strict obedience Estelle expected of her followers. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do magic.”
He laughed. “Then you haven’t been watching. Oh, Lynet is flashy and impressive, fireballs here and traps there, but what I do is just as miraculous. Have you ever seen a simple tea cure a deadly fever in less than an hour?”
Maris nodded. “Sallow tea. Everyone uses it, that’s not magic.”
“But you have to know what parts to brew, and when to harvest them, and how to brew it to be most efficient.” He unfolded a metal tripod and set a kettle on top. “How much to give someone, how strong it should be—too much sallow tea can kill a child. Too little can fail to save one. Isn’t that magic, in a way? Give me that, fetch some water from the stream.” He traded the leaves in her hand for a leather water-skin.
By the time she got back from the stream, less than a moment later, he already had a fire built under the tripod to warm the kettle. “More magic?” she asked.
Rhys grinned and held up his firesteel. “You can call it that.” He took the water-skin and poured half of it into the kettle to heat up.
“Why are we making tea, anyway?”
“We’re not.” He rattled the leaves in his hand, and they glimmered dusky purple in the dim light. “We’re steeping the dragonsbane to prepare it. It’s a potent poison in a brew, but totally harmless fresh. Now that’s some magic I don’t understand.”
Maris didn’t understand magic to begin with. Some people could wave their hands a certain way and blur the lines between worlds or times or countries. Some people could summon winds and tides and fires at a moment’s notice. It didn’t make any sense to her. Why couldn’t the world just follow simple rules?
Simple rules, she thought ruefully. Like prophecies always come true and the Chosen doesn’t die at the ripe old age of twenty-two. How was she going to explain to her parents that Estelle was dead?
How was she going to explain it to the queen?
I’m sorry, she imagined herself saying, knelt before the royal dais, but my sister, your Chosen, the one who was supposed to save the whole kingdom and everything, well… She’s dead.
Queen Rhonwen was not going to take it well.
Journsea was not going to take it well.
Twigs crunched in the underbrush. Maris sat upright as Cadeyrn and Lynet emerged with three deer walking calmly behind them.
“Is everything ready?” Cadeyrn sounded like he just ran the length of the River Gwinne.
Rhys stood and took the magical leashes from Lynet’s hands. “Almost. Only three?”
“It should be all we need.”
“If you say so. Mare, take the kettle off. There should be some cloth strips in my bag—in the side pocket. We’ll make up a few poultices.” He led the deer to the kettle and had them lay, one by one, at Maris’s side. “Hopefully these dragons are hungry.”
- - -
The deer didn’t make it a hundred paces down the river before they were snatched up by a dragonet. This one was a murky brown, not the venomous green of the one they trapped earlier, but it looked to be about the same age. It slashed the throats of the deer in one fluid movement and dragged the first body back to the den. Another dragonet came out, the iridescent blue-orange of a bonfire, and brought another body back.
“Five eggs per nest,” Maris breathed as they watched from the bush. “Two survive the first year. Maybe these aren’t yearlings?”
“Nonsense.” Cadeyrn shifted uncomfortably. “They have to be. Dragons only breed once a year.”
Maris pursed her lips. She had done a lot of reading on dragons in the last few years, and every source said something along the same lines. If every observed dragon nest was the same—why was this one different?
After the dragons brought the deer back, they waited until the full moon was halfway up the sky. It felt like half the night, and Maris nearly fell asleep on her perch next to Lynet. The mage dutifully poked her with a sharp fingernail and woke her up each time she dozed off.
Finally, it was time to move. They crept up beside the creek and crossed through the ankle-deep water once they were up beside the den. No sound came from the rickety construction of logs and branches, not even the soft exhale of flame.
Cadeyrn slowly approached the entrance, then relaxed. He waved them forward.
The den looked solid on the inside, and big enough for Rhys to stand on his own shoulders five times. It was uncomfortably warm—just stepping inside, Maris felt like she was sweating through her three layers of autumn clothes. Every breath of hot air was like trying to breathe fire itself.
Rhys caught her by the shoulders and practically carried her farther into the den. It was so much bigger than it looked from the outside. Maris could only imagine that dragons burrowed into the stone of the hills, but when she ran her fingers over the walls, loose soil came off under her nails. How could something like this be held up?
They walked for what seemed like half a day. The dragons’ tracks led deeper and deeper into the hillside, and after long, the corridors split. Lynet went for a left-hand path, Rhys for the right—and Cadeyrn stopped them both.
“There’s at least two dragons down here,” he said under his breath. None of them had said a word inside the den. His voice was absorbed like moisture into the soil of the walls, and fear wrapped tight around them all. The fear of being heard. The fear of being seen—or smelled. “We are not splitting up. We’ll take the left path, it’s got fresher prints.”
Rhys shook his head.
Cadeyrn shot him a nasty look. “If you haven’t noticed,” he hissed, “our leader is dead. Since I’m the only one here who’s gone through knights’ training—”
“And quit as a squire.” Rhys stood up to his full height, a head taller than Cadeyrn and nearly two taller than Maris. He was built like a prize bull. “You’ve been Estelle’s faithful dog for four years, Cad. Who are you without her? A failure of a second son?”
The hunter’s face blanched. “How dare you.”
“By daring.” Rhys caught Maris by the wrist and pulled her into the right-hand path. “Come on. If these are anything like Oumite dragons, they’ll have left decoy tracks to keep egg-thieves from finding their nests.”
Maris licked her lips and studied the walls. Her feet moved of their own accord, but it helped that he was dragging her along. “The last Oumite dragon died ninety years ago.”
“According to all texts,” he agreed. “Not important now. We’ve got to keep moving.” He took the water-skin out of its holster on his belt and handed it to her. “Drink. It’ll only get hotter the farther in we go. Try not to lick your lips like that, they’ll only get drier.”
She took a long swig of water and glanced over her shoulder. Cadeyrn and Lynet hadn’t followed them.
- - -
The path opened up into an eerily silent chamber carved of stone, the walls dappled with orange light.
“They carve it with fire,” Rhys explained. “The older ones have breath so hot it melts stone.” He took Maris’s hand and pressed it to the wall—it was warm, like the rest of the den, but irregularly smooth. Almost like glass.
“How do you know all this?”
He simply shook his head and walked towards a structure in the center of the chamber.
It looked like a giant wasps’ nest. It was obviously carved out of stone in the same way as the chamber itself, but it was easily ten times Maris’s height, and she realized that they must have been in the center of one of the hills. Warmth radiated out from it like a furnace.
She stumbled back. How could they build something like this and not be discovered until now?
Rhys ran his hand over the base of the strange nest. Standing next to it, it was clear that the holes in the side were almost large enough to crawl into. Maris hesitated, but followed him up to it and peered into one of the holes.
A fire flickered at the heart of the nest. It lit up the outline of a membranous egg, and the unborn dragon sleeping inside.
She shivered. If each hole held one egg…
This was like no dragon nest she had ever read about.
Steel clattered against stone behind her—she whipped around, only to see Cadeyrn stumble out into the chamber. Lynet darted out from behind him, her hands twisting into futile magic shapes. They had been running for almost a day straight; any power the mage could have used was drained dry.
Behind them, what they were running from: one of the dragonets, brown as mud. It limped into the chamber. Hot saliva dripped from its teeth with each heaving breath.
One foot came down directly on Cadeyrn’s chest. Maris caught her breath, but his breastplate held under the pressure. He cursed and tried to stab the thing in the leg with his sword, but it was pitifully blunt against the creature’s skin.
The dragonet stumbled forward and collapsed on the ground. Rhys ran to Cadeyrn’s side and got him sitting up.
Maris stepped towards the dragon. It had large eyes, expressive and glittering in the dim light coming from the nest. As she got close, it groaned, a long and pitiful sound that echoed against the walls of the chamber.
“The other one?” Rhys asked Cadeyrn.
“Two. Already dead.” The hunter coughed something up. “Dragonsbane got them.”
Maris reached a hand towards the dragon’s head. It closed its eyes, and she ran her fingers along the ridges on its snout. “It’s going to be okay.” How could she say that to a mindless beast? Did it even understand that it was dying? “It’s going to be okay.”
It groaned again, and her heart twisted.
Then untwisted: This creature was kin to the one who killed her sister.
She drew the small dagger that Estelle had given her to protect herself. It was mostly decorative, engraved with old designs of heroes defeating great monsters. She reached around the beast’s head and caught the blade under the scales.
One swift slice, and it was bleeding out on the chamber floor. The blood boiled hot and scalded her hand—she hissed and yanked it back. It ate away at the metal of her dagger like an acid.
Maris didn’t feel like a hero, and the dragonet didn’t feel like a monster.
A scream and a great crash broke the silence. Maris looked up from the dragonet’s corpse. Cadeyrn stood at the base of the nest, shield on his arm, fragments of stone shattered around him like glass. He screamed again—wordless, primal—and smashed whatever he could reach.
Finally, when the whole nest lay on the ground in so many pieces, he drew Estelle’s sword and went to work cutting apart the eggs.
- - -
They camped just inside the mouth of the den. Lynet decided it, when she collapsed halfway through the tunnels. Rhys carried her in his arms the rest of the way, and Maris found herself feeling pangs of—jealousy?
But it was warm and dry in the den, and the dark sky outside threatened to flood the creeks before sunrise. Rhys built a fire and walled it in with stones, and they all fell asleep without eating.
Maris didn’t know how much later it was when she woke. She stretched from her uncomfortable spot on the earthy floor and glanced at the rest of the camp. The fire was barely an ember casting shadows on the walls. Lynet was still deeply dreaming, and Rhys could have passed for a boulder in the darkness.
Cadeyrn was nowhere to be seen, but his weapons were neatly piled by the remains of the fire.
She stood and made her way outside. There he was—sitting on an elevated stone by the creek, his blond hair lit by the moon. It must have rained; the creek was swollen with water and the skies were full of stars.
“Cad?” she called out.
He jolted up. “Est—” His voice cut out, and he collapsed back into a slouch.
Maris joined him on the rock. He was holding Estelle’s cape in his hands, her sword laid across his lap. She swallowed the lump in her throat. She still wasn’t entirely sure the last two days had happened. None of this could have been real. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be—”
“We all lost her. She was… good. So wonderfully, honestly good.” A muscle in her jaw twitched, and the lump rose again in her throat. “I can’t believe… We’ve never been apart. Never. When she was invited to the castle, it was both of us. When she was made a knight, she told them—told Queen Rhonwen—that I had to come with her. I don’t know… What will we do? What can we do? She was supposed to save Journsea from evil, and now she’s—” Maris cut herself off. Hot tears leaked out from under her eyelids. “I can’t believe it.”
Cadeyrn nodded, slowly, and looked up at her with puffy, bloodshot eyes. He lifted the cape in his hands. “Do you want it?”
“What? No, that’s—that belongs to the Chosen. Not me.” She wiped her face dry with her sleeve. The words nearly choked her. “How could I save Journsea, anyway? I’m useless. Can’t even lift a sword.”
He laid a hand on her knee. “I could teach you. They don’t have to know. You—if Estelle was sick, had to stay in the countryside, you could—they could still have their Chosen.”
A cold breeze raised goosebumps on the back of Maris’s neck. “But I’m not her.”
“You could be.”