THE DRAGON SNATCHERS
BOOK TWO OF THE TAINTED SCALES SERIES
"You should be honored. Not many are deemed worthy of Ghostview.”
Darius clenched his fists to conceal the trembling in his fingers and stared out the wagon’s bars. He refused to meet the smirking gaze of the guard sitting across from him, clamping down on the fear tightening his chest before it could reach his eyes.
Metal rods hemmed them in on all sides—on display in a carriage of bars. But there was no longer anyone there to stop and gawk as they passed. The dark mountain range lurking on the eastern horizon had steadily grown over the last two days, and they were passing into its shadow. Houses had given way to tumbled boulders, and farms to rugged hills. The sun’s warmth faded as the afternoon wore on. A biting chill took its place.
He shivered. The scratchy, faded blue tunic and trousers they had forced him to wear scraped his skin raw. The previous wearer’s stench still lingered in the threads like a nest of roaches.
The narrow road climbed up from the misty foothills beneath jagged peaks. A pair of earth dragons pulling the cart leaned hard against their thick, leather harnesses.
A massive, winged shape swept over their heads. The dragon beat its wings once, blasting them with icy wind that swirled the gathering fog wildly; then it circled back at a twitch from its rider’s reins and vanished into the cloud-shrouded peaks.
One of two armed guards sitting up front with the driver pulled his gray cloak tighter and spat. “Stinking patrols.”
Two others perched behind Darius’ cage grunted their agreement, though the driver didn’t seem to notice from beneath his thick, dark blue hood pulled low and beaded with dew. The guard inside—Tarhil—said nothing. As the heavy thrum of dragon’s wings faded, a wary quiet fell over them.
They passed into a foggy canyon, the wagon’s wheels rumbling ominously back at them like a bitter storm.
Vague shadows of sharp rocks jutted from crags on their right, while a deepening crack opened in the ravine floor on the left, growing wider and deeper the further they wound. Darius swore he could see shapes shifting in the mist down there. Spirits of a dark realm haunting the pit, looking for another wretched soul to drag away. A faint whisper hung on the clammy air, like the brush of a hundred cloaks on the slopes overhead, and sometimes, a crackle or groan.
Wind moaned in the bleak canyon. At least Darius hoped it was the wind. The forlorn call of a stone dragon joined it, echoing through the crags to be answered by several more.
The guards looked up, eyes darting from shadow to shadow, but Tarhil’s expressionless face never flinched. “Just wild dragons. They make their nests in the high rocks.”
Their path cut right, and a dark mass loomed out of the mist.
A wall of iron-stained stone stretched across the canyon. The pale lights of watch-fires burned atop its shadowy battlements. Ghostview’s great gate crouched over the ravine like a watchful beast, iron jaws fastened shut.
Somewhere ahead, a muffled voice demanded, “Halt! Announce yourself!”
The driver drew up his dragons and cupped a hand to his mouth. “Guardians of free Hevaliun delivering Darius Gren as judgment for treason.”
Strained silence followed.
The wagon jolted forward again.
Every muscle in Darius’ body tensed. His heart slammed against his ribs until each breath came shorter than the last. As they turned up the final climb along the sheer, stone wall, he gripped the rusting bars. Every rut and stone in the path rocked his cage over the yawning precipice on their left.
Two guards on either side of the towering iron gate eyed them as they approached.
“Papers,” one grunted, stepping forward as the wagon rolled to a stop. He rested one gauntleted hand on the blade’s hilt at his side.
The other guard stood back a short way in the same stance, ready, but unperturbed.
Without a word, the driver drew a wrinkled fold of papers from under his cloak and handed it down. The guard pored over them. Every passing second sent a fresh trickle of icy sweat down Darius’ back.
Tarhil sighed quietly, scratching his face with the callouses of a clenched fist. A grimy red stain glowed against his white knuckles. He wiped it away.
Outside, the gate guard flipped through every page, revisiting one or two before glancing into the wagon’s cell. Darius tried to exude a haughty air, not deigning to look at the man.
“Everything appears in order. Proceed into the compound.”
The guard signaled to an unseen watchman above, and a moment later, a shrill squeal rent the air. The spiked gate crept up. Ghostview bared its sharp fangs, howling its high, shrill cry. Darius ground his teeth to ward off the unbearable shriek.
“Someone should have warned you not to surrender,” the guard called after Darius as the wagon lurched forward. “It would have been better to go straight to Rawn’s Blazes than come here first.”
A sprawling stone compound opened around them—a cobblestone pit crouched beneath sheer crags tumbling down from the surrounding peaks.
Metal chests and sacks littered the yard in towering mounds, stacked beside heavy wagons where guards stood watch. Long trains of hunched prisoners trudged in and out of another black gate built into the mountain face on the yard’s far side. They groaned and heaved their burdens up into the wagons, filling them with iron ingots mined and forged in the bowels of the mountain itself. Most of the iron in West Kinin and the surrounding regions was produced in those mines.
Several more guards prowled along the lines, whips and punishing rods swinging in their fists.
No sooner had the prison carriage passed through, than the iron gate screeched shut again, settling with a ground shuddering crack.
Large, black birds hopping along the lowest crags cawed angrily. The crows gathered around the lifeless remains of men chained to the rocks. Arrows bristled from the executed prisoners, and brown stains marred the scarred stones where other shackles lay empty, waiting for their next victim. The sickening sight made Darius’ stomach churn, righteous fury kindling in him.
As his cage rattled through the lines of stumbling prisoners, he saw they were covered from head to foot in thick layers of dust, sweat, and grime. Many looked like walking corpses. He cringed at the thought of his life grinding to a close in such a place.
A man with stringy black hair that fell to his shoulders and a silver dragon scale patch over one eye drew Darius’ attention. He was thin and pale, but not like the others. He had muscle where they had nothing but jutting bones. The man’s one good eye fell on Darius, then moved to the driver. A slight smirk tugged at his thin lips.
The strong, biting scent of iron and decaying flesh tainted the air. It was all he could do not to retch. The stench reminded him of dragon blood.
Tarhil curled his lip.
Darius’ breath caught in his throat. Two guards approached as the driver pulled the earth dragons to a stop and calmly stepped down.
The taller of the guards stretched out a hand. “We’ll take charge of the prisoner from here.”
But the driver brushed past him, looking up at the mountain gate’s jagged teeth. “Our orders are strict. We’re to personally see him to his cell before handing over full charge,” he said with a calm authority that few would have the stomach to challenge.
The guard stiffened, but to Darius’ surprise, acquiesced with a curt nod. “Of course. We’ll escort your party there.”
One of the driver’s men came around to unlock the cage. He swung the door wide and drew a short, serrated blade from a sheath on his hip.
Darius shot him a glare. Every muscle in his body protested, reticent to yield to his sudden demands. His foot slipped on something slick and tacky on the wagon floor, but he caught himself and climbed down.
Both Ghostview guards sneered at him. “So, this is the treacherous Gren urchin, is it? Not very impressive,” said the taller.
The other grunted.
When Darius ignored his remark, the guard tried again. “Don’t worry; we have a special place in the mines to break in soft hands like yours.”
Words seemed to come far too easily to his twisted lips.
Still unable to get a rise out of his new prisoner, he gave up for the moment. “This way.”
The driver and two of his men fell in on the guards’ heels with Darius behind, followed closely by Tarhil and the remaining two wagon guards.
Darius’ chest throbbed with each step toward the mountain's gaping maw. What chance was there of ever coming out again in anything other than chains, if at all?
A throaty yell cracked across their backs. “Hey, you! Stop!"
Time seemed to slow as the prison guard’s shout rattled from the carriage. The driver paused, and when he turned, it was Darius’ father looking out from beneath the blue cowl. Wofrain Gren’s eyes fixed on the ground by the carriage door. Every gaze followed.
A bloody boot print lay dark on the stones where Darius had stepped down.
Wofrain threw open his cloak. His sword hissed from its scabbard and struck the guard leading them before he could grasp what was happening. Soldiers at the inner gate yelled in shock, scrabbling for their blades as Wofrain’s men lunged toward them.
A horn blasted across the yard, sounding the alarm. Guards ripped the weapons from their belts, taking up the call as they advanced.
Fear gripped Darius. He had nothing to defend himself with.
The eye-patched prisoner stiffened. His one good eye shone. He heaved up the heavy bag he was loading into a wagon bed and swung it furiously down on the back of a guard’s head, driving the man to the ground where he lay lifeless in his own pooling blood.
More shouts filled the yard. The one-eyed man jumped down, snatching the slain guard’s sword as other prisoners leapt at their captors. “Kill these dogs, boys!”
Wofrain drove aside a blow from one of the inner gate guards. “Strike down your enslavers! The kings are rising!”
The whole prison yard erupted. Crossbow bolts cracked off the cobblestones, screaming down from squat, stone watchtowers in the crags above. Prisoners turned on their captors, others panicked and bolted for what meager shelter they could find beneath the wagons. The stones were soon washed in red, strewn with the bodies of prisoners and guards alike, all fighting and dying side by side in their effort to overpower each other.
A roar rippled across the peaks.
The great black shape of a patrol dragon loomed out of the fog, as though a part of the mountain itself were being hurled down on them. The rider set a horn to his lips, sounding a renewed alarm. A dull thud punched the air. A spear-length bolt hurtled from the shrouded rocks beyond Ghostview’s main gate with a screaming hiss and tore through the dragon’s scales.
The creature gave a low groan and lurched away, plummeting into the yard where it crashed in a lifeless heap, crushing its rider.
“Get inside! Now!” Wofrain roared, hurling Darius toward the inner gate and shoving those of his men not locked in combat after him.
Tarhil lunged toward a guard grappling desperately with another of Wofrain’s men. The guard saw what was about to happen and screamed, “Drop the gate!” before Tarhil’s dagger cut his voice off forever.
Two of Wofrain’s men were still occupied, but the rest sprinted through the inner gate where fresh reinforcements surged out of the dark shaft beyond.
Darius stumbled over a deep groove at the gate’s threshold. He fell, rolling out of the way as swords clashed above him. Shouts and screams echoed as Wofrain’s men and a few scattered prisoners fought for control of the passage. He heard Wofrain let out a yell and looked back, heart in his throat, to see his father fall. The tall, mouthy guard had grabbed him from the bloodstained ground where he lay. They grappled beneath the gate’s shadowed teeth.
Scrabbling to his feet, Darius kicked something that clattered across the ground. He snatched up the sword. Its owner lay dead beside it, vacant eyes staring up at him.
“Darius!” Tarhil yelled, locked in a fight for his life. He dodged a slashing sword and pointed frantically toward a wounded guard staggering into a small gatehouse just inside the gate. “Stop him!”
There was no time to think. If that guard loosed the gate winch, his father would be crushed or trapped outside in the bloodbath unfolding.
He threw himself through a small gap in the fray. Hurtling into the gatehouse, Darius swung at the man only a moment away from releasing the winch lever.
The guard reeled, bringing up his blade, and sparks flashed in the dusky room.
“Get back!” Darius snarled, but the guard’s startled face turned grim and set.
Darius parried a thrust to his ribs, fear blinding him to everything but the guard. He saw an opening to strike, but hesitated.
A second blow came at him. He blocked it, and the guard’s weight drove against him. He staggered, tripped over a body sprawled in the doorway, and fell. The guard raised his blade, bringing it hissing down before Darius could recover.
Something hurtled over him like a wolf lunging after its prey. The one-eyed prisoner crashed into the guard, lifting him up and smashing him against the winch housing. The guard let out a strangled gasp and his blade fell. The force of the impact drove the winch lever free and a shrill squeal shuddered through the gatehouse.
“No!” Darius choked, twisting to watch helplessly as the gate plummeted. Wofrain Gren saw the danger and hurled himself, rolling under the sharp iron teeth a fraction of a moment before it came crashing down on the tall guard fighting to restrain him. The sickening crunch of shearing muscle and bone punctuated a reverberating crash.
The prisoner shoved his blade into the wounded guard lying sprawled across the winch housing and threw his lifeless corpse aside.
Strong hands dragged Darius upright. He stared into the man’s blood-spattered face—his one strikingly blue eye.
“It isn’t the same, trying to kill a man with your own hands, is it?” the prisoner said in a voice as deep and gritty as the mines in which he’d lived for untold years. “You princelings prefer a beast wet its talons in blood for you. A monster, if you can make one.”
Cut off from their immediate help outside, the last few remaining guards tried to withdraw. Two more were cut down, joining the bodies littering the floor, while four or five others fled into the prison shafts’ darkness.
“Leave them. We have what we need,” Wofrain said, gesturing to the shut gate.
He snatched a large ring of keys from a fallen guard. “Cut the cables. We can’t hold this position until more prisoners are freed.”
Tarhil leapt to obey.
The one-eyed prisoner shoved Darius aside and stepped in front of Wofrain, fixing him with a penetrating stare. “I was beginning to wonder if the prince would ever return for his kingdom. I would have sworn I'd never see your face again, unless it was to join our ranks in the bowels of the mountain.”
Their gazes met. Darius saw his father’s jaw tighten, a cold, almost uneasy look in his eyes. They were both towering men, but even Wofrain Gren didn’t quite reach this figure’s height.
“Malock,” he said at last, sending a stir through his three remaining men. “Somehow I knew you were still alive. I was counting on it.”
Malock’s expression remained unreadable. “I’m sure you were.”
The other ragged denizens of Ghostview glanced between the prisoner and the lord. Malock jerked his head at one of them—a short, burly figure, also too well muscled compared to the skeletal creatures around him. “The king will need men. Let Gremlath and Siink out of their cages. Tell them Malock says it’s time.”
“And kill any you suspect of disloyalty. I don’t want any Republic sympathizers left in this place,” Wofrain snapped, handing off the keys.
Malock smirked. “What do you think we’ve done for entertainment all these years? There are no sympathizers here. We’ll have a few hundred men for you, ready to pay back the republic for everything they did to us in this pit.”
When the gate cables were severed, Wofrain turned to his men. “Go with the others. Free as many prisoners as you can. Tarhil, you’re in command until I return.”
Tarhil bowed and followed with his two men as the prisoners padded down the main corridor. The sound of their hurried steps faded, leaving Darius and Wofrain alone with Malock.
“I’ll take you to him,” Malock said.
“Him?” Darius said, then his stomach tightened.
An uncomfortable smile tugged at the corner of Wofrain’s mouth. “To your grandfather, of course.”
~ ‡ ~
A branching passage off the main corridor cut east through the mountain. It was cool and dark. The sole illumination was an eerie blue glow emanating from hammered iron lanterns affixed to the stone walls.
Darius leaned in close as they passed one of the fixtures. A cold sweat crept down his spine. He knew those lights. Small orbs, floating aimlessly within their glass confines, just like the wisps of Wraithmire. They had small faces—pale eyes at least, staring back at him. He wiped his clammy hands and continued on.
The slow clip of boots echoed around the corner of an adjoining corridor ahead. Someone was coming.
Malock motioned for Darius and his father to press tight against the wall, then turned his attention to the nearest lantern. The glass gave a muffled crunch as he broke a panel into the folds of his filthy shirt.
Three blue orbs flitted through the breach. They clustered together like frightened animals as they floated down the way Darius and the others had come.
The footsteps paused. “Wh-who goes there?”
A moment later, a nervous face peered around the edge of stone.
Malock flung the shattered glass into the man’s eyes. The guard yelled, reeling back and waving his sword blindly. Ducking beneath the flailing weapon, Malock thrust his own blade up through the soft flesh under the man’s chin.
The guard collapsed with a gurgle, and they moved on, leaving him to live out his last moments alone on the cold, stone floor. Darius tried not to look at the dying man, but he couldn’t help taking one last glance.
Malock looked back to size Darius up. “I can see you haven’t been entirely idle since I was shut in here.”
Wofrain gave a curt nod. “Darius. My only son.”
Something about this seemed to amuse Malock. He smirked, but said nothing more.
They followed a long staircase to their left, climbing higher into the mountain. Here and there, a narrow shaft opened in the ceiling. Dull light filtered down through the chutes, carved more to keep the air from growing poisonously stagnant rather than for the wan daylight they permitted.
The chaos outside was still raging, faintly penetrating through the openings—little more than muffled thuds and shouts. A shadow flitted over the shafts, then another. A shrieking roar rattled the mountainside. Sparks flared in the gray mist beyond.
Malock turned a cool gaze toward Darius’ father. “Yours?”
“I would hope so,” he said.
Darius flinched as a second shriek cut off with a cruel thud. There was a crash that set even the air deep in the mountain quivering, and a massive shape tumbled to a stop over the shaft above Darius, blotting out its light.
Malock grunted. “We’ll keep moving.”
It was strangely empty inside Ghostview, each corridor and chamber heavy with expectant silence. Unpolished iron doors appeared in the stone walls on either side of a climbing passage, numbered with bright metal. At last, they came to a black door near the end, marked with the shining number 576.
“Is this it?” There was a slight rasp in Wofrain’s voice.
Malock nodded, drawing a grimy key from his pocket. It was crude, perhaps even fashioned in secret in the forges of Ghostview, but it slipped into the lock and turned with a sharp snap.
Wofrain drew a deep breath. “Keep watch for anyone coming up the passage.”
“Should I stay out here too?” Darius asked. Somehow, he wasn’t sure what he dreaded more—being alone with Malock, or meeting his grandfather, who had been imprisoned before Darius so much as drew his first breath.
“No. I want you to see this,” his father said, then pushed the door open. “Shut it behind you.”
Furs and thick cushions carpeted the floors and walls until the stone of the mountain was hardly visible. A rich tapestry woven in gold, red, and blue threads sprawled across much of the wall to their left. Across its face raged a great war of dragon riders against a burning sunset. A reminder no doubt to the overthrown king of his last days of freedom, and ultimate fall.
There was no fire or window in the chamber, only a low-hanging lamp filled with drifting wisps. Not a single ray of sunlight would ever warm that room.
A wizened figure sat near the chamber’s farthest corner. He seemed to have heard them enter, but only halfway turned his head, eyes shut. His skeletal frame curled in on itself under a dirty, gray robe. His waxen skin was yellowed, cheeks gaunt, and when he stirred, it was as though an evil spirit had possessed some lifeless corpse. Cadmael Gren, overthrown king of what was now West Kinin. Darius’ grandfather.
Wofrain stopped in the center of the room, waiting wordlessly.
When the old man spoke, it was little more than a scarecrow’s whisper. “Who’s there?”
His eyes snapped open, and he twisted around with startling speed.
A sharp gasp escaped Darius.
Cadmael’s eyes were milky white in their sunken sockets.
“My son,” the old man whispered, peeling back his thin lips. Yellowed teeth jutted from receded and blackened gums. He gave a horrible, coughing laugh that sounded as though it were shredding every fiber of his lungs. “I knew one day you would join me here.”
Darius felt his father’s glance before Wofrain spoke. “I think you misunderstand. I’ve come to claim what’s mine. My men are taking over this place as we speak.”
The smile slipped from Cadmael’s hollow face. “Of course. I should have known.”
“The kings will rise again. Already almost half the governors are dead, thanks in large part to Darius.”
“Darius?” the old man repeated, as though trying to place the name.
“My son. Your grandson.”
“Is that who came in here with you?”
Darius stiffened. He didn’t want this shriveled creature’s attention.
“Are you able to walk?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Wofrain hooked both hands under the old man’s arms and lifted him as effortlessly as a small child. How such a man could have once possessed the strength to rule and defend a kingdom was beyond Darius’ imagination. There was little life or dignity left in that body, shriveled by endless years of creeping damp, lightless days, and scarce food or drink.
Darius waited silently as his father removed the blue cloak from his own shoulders and draped it around the frail old man. His grandfather flinched from the unexpected touch and slumped beneath the added weight, as though it was too much for his brittle bones to endure.
Wofrain looked at his son. “Get the door.”
Malock was waiting outside. He cast his eye distastefully over the elder Grens, then jerked his head, motioning for them to follow.
No one spoke. They all seemed oddly cold toward one another. It wasn’t the reunion Darius had once imagined when first he learned of his grandfather trapped in Ghostview.
The old man’s hands trembled so violently, Darius wondered if he could still hold anything at all, or even feed himself. His father shuffled Cadmael forward, half carrying him. At last, they reached the main passage again to find it empty except for the bodies left scattered across the floor.
The roar of dragons and a few dying howls from outside tainted the silence. Something thudded against the gate, then came the rush of flames and a faint, red glow around the smooth metal panel’s edges.
Malock turned away, leading them deeper down into the mountain. “This way.”
Cadmael Gren’s blind eyes came up, and a hiss escaped him. “Ah, Malock!”
The prisoner didn’t reply.
Not far down the passage, they came to the edge of a gaping chasm. A narrow path followed its spiraling descent into the mountain’s depths, from where the distant clamor of battle rose. Only the dim, blue glow of the lanterns broke the first few layers of darkness; that, and a glowering red light far, far down, as though the path led into Rawn’s grim underworld.
They stopped on the ledge.
“My arms are weary. Malock, take him,” Wofrain said.
Dim light caught in the old man’s eyes as they fixed on Wofrain. For a moment, it was as though he could see—staring into his son’s soul. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t even utter a sound as Malock’s grip tightened around his shoulders.
Darius realized what was coming a split-second before it happened. He tensed, but didn't dare try to stop it.
It only took the effort of casting an unwanted doll aside. One thrust, and Cadmael Gren tumbled off the ledge. He grasped feebly at the air, as though somehow it would save him, and fell into the darkness waiting to devour him.
Malock stared down into the pit for a long time. He started to chuckle—a laugh which grew more noticeable the longer it dragged on.
Darius felt his father’s gaze fall on him, but couldn’t bring himself to meet it. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Look at me, Darius.”
Slowly, he obeyed.
The man’s face smoldered with anger and pain. “This is how you deal with a dotard’s folly. As king, he would have brought us to ruin. Not a word out of you. Swear it.”
Unable to force himself to speak, he nodded.
Malock was still laughing. “The world turns a full circle, doesn’t it, King Gren?”
Wofrain’s jaw clenched and his gaze turned icy. “Gather your men. Our work has just begun.”
The laughter died, though not the amusement in Malock’s face. “Am I your captain now?”
“You can be. Act as my captain and you’ll have enough blood to satisfy even your lust for it.”
“I can have that anywhere. Even here,” he said, eye flitting toward Darius.
It was Wofrain’s turn to smile. “I may have one thing you can’t find here. Something I’ve been keeping for you. An old friend I’m sure you’re eager to see again.”
Malock’s one good eye widened.
I hope you enjoyed chapter one! The Dragon Snatchers will release on 5.31.2021.