In the tiny, cramped confines of the Archpriestess Ashwythe’s antechamber, Fyn was pacing, turning again and again as he met a wall every few steps. His great sinuous drake’s body coiled into a fluid figure eight that mirrored the thoughts twisting in his head.
It had all been so unexpected. He had just returned from a night of hunting, chasing down and dragging a runaway human slave back to the mining town where she belonged. There had been two guards waiting for him when he’d returned bearing his prey near dawn.
All they had told him was that the Archpriestess had “requested his presence,” and no amount of pestering had gotten Fyn a pebble’s worth more information in all the hours it took to walk the underground passageways between the underground town and Mount Onyx, the largest volcano in Mellingor and the seat of Selach’s Order.
But if Ashwythe was taking notice of him, the newest hatchling to attain full Initiate status, then Fyn must have done something right. Or something very, very wrong.
He arched his spine in alarm at the thought. It grazed against the ceiling, and the way the rock pressed close calmed him a little. But only a little.
He started pacing again. How best to greet her? ‘My Exalted Lady, your humble servant, Fyn?” Or “Fyn, at your service, Your Most Excellency?” No, both sounded stupid. Maybe —
The wall at the other end of the cavern shuddered. Fyn froze. With a sound like the smack of jaws snapping shut, a crack split the stone and the two halves drew aside into the wall. A drake even smaller than Fyn appeared in the door, green in color, the scales rippling along his lanky back.
“Her Grace will see you now,” the announcer said in a reedy, thin voice, and drew aside.
‘Her Grace,’ Fyn thought. Now there’s a title that would fit —
“Ahem.” The announcer cleared his throat.
Fyn shook himself, rippling from claws to the sweep of his long tail. He gave a little huff, smoke curling from his nostrils. This was it. Gingerly, he slithered through the door into Her Grace’s private chambers.
Shadows danced upon the walls. The only light in the vast cavern splayed before Fyn came from the river of molten lava that snaked down from a slight swell at the other end of the cavern. Spurs of obsidian jutted haphazard from the uneven floor, leaving twisted shapes to flicker on the rough pyrite walls. Atop the rise from which the river of lava sprang stood a throne, carved of dark obsidian, and curled on that throne rested a great drake.
She gleamed a burnished red the color of cooling metal. The lava’s light danced over her scales like flames, and on her head a single circlet of gold glinted in the uneven light. Queen Ashwythe, the Archpriest, Mouth of Selach Himself.
And Fyn was standing in front of her.
“My Grace — Your Lady —“ he stammered, crouching down into a bow.
“That’s enough. Step into the light so I can see you.” Her voice was low and rhythmic, like a cascade of rocks down a mountainside.
Fyn scrambled forward, halting right at the lip of the river of lava. Its heat sunk into him, so powerful his breath caught in his throat. It had to be a spring from the heart of Mount Onyx’s fire.
Ashwythe’s rumbling voice brought him back to the moment. “Would you do anything for the Order, Fyn?”
“Of course,” Fyn said at once. What kind of a question was that?
“And you have been an initiate for how long?”
“Only a month, Your Grace,” Fyn said, hoping he’d gotten the title correct that time.
“Is your training progressing well?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Before he could stop himself, Fyn added, “I’ve hunted down three escaped humans this month alone. They never knew what hit them.”
“So I have heard,” said Ashwythe. She paused, shifting on her throne a little. “I hope to put those skills to good use.”
Fyn’s eyes widened and he sat up a little straighter. This had to be why she’d called him here. “You’re going to send me on a mission?” He winced as his voice rose to a squeak. He needed to sound brave and fierce, not like a hatchling on his first hunt!
Ashwythe drew her lips back into a smile. “I am. It is a trivial task, but — “ she flicked her tail-tip, “discretion is… needed, and so my advisors thought of you.”
Fyn swelled with pride. “What will I be doing?”
Ashwythe tapped a claw against the stone. Then, in a sudden, swift motion, she rose. She slipped off her throne like a shadow and passed him in a blink, pacing down the river of lava and trailing a single claw in it as she walked.
“The Treatise has been stolen,” she said as simply as if she were discussing an interesting rock formation. “Your job is to get it back.”
Fyn realized his mouth had fallen open, and he shut it quickly. “The Treatise?” he said, incredulous. “The glowy glass ball of energy in Pandoline that keeps the Great Peace between the gods? The one we’re supposed to guard this year? You’re saying it’s gone.”
“Yes.” Her eyes flashed dangerously, and Fyn fell silent at once.
She swept up to him, fixing her great yellow eyes on his. “It is gone, but you will get it back for me. You will need to find where it is hidden. You may have to travel a great many miles. You will do it quickly and quietly, and at no point will anyone in the other gods’ lands know a servant of Selach has passed through. Do you understand?”
Fyn did. “It’ll be just like the raids. In and out again. Easy.” He had really only been on two raids — short excursions to another Order’s land to raid their livestock, mostly — but the principle wasn’t hard to grasp.
“Then I am glad we could come to an agreement.” In a flash faster than Fyn’s eye could follow, Ashwythe was back on her throne, snout shrouded in shadow. She turned a circle and settled down, her great lidded eyes narrowing.
“You are dismissed. Zhilong will accompany you to Pandoline, where you will meet your associate and receive more details about the nature of your assignment.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Fyn said, bowing again. Excitement bubbled in his stomach. A real mission — a chance to prove himself! He heard the rumble of the stone door behind him and turned to go.
“One last thing,” Ashwythe said from behind. He paused, looking back at her, a dark figure atop the obsidian throne.
“Tell no one else in the Order — or outside of it — of this mission. Ever.”
Fyn nodded silently. He teetered on the brink for a moment, the words hanging on his lips before they spilled over.
“I won’t let you down, Your Grace. I promise.”