Elias kept one hand on the rail as he limped down the stone staircase. His leg still stung from that fire blast, but he’d fought with worse.
Up ahead, Ashara ran toward the open cavern, cupping her hands around her mouth.
“Pendyla!” she hollered.
“Pendyla!” she shouted again. “Get out here! It’s time to go.”
A small lake rippled nearby, then a dark form emerged from beneath the surface. The dragon twisted several dozen yards into the air, spreading her wings as wide as a city street. Gallons of water splattered in every direction, drenching the trees and footpaths.
“For Aegon’s sake,” Ashara muttered. She called Pendyla’s name a third time, and the dragon set down in front of them, dark scales and feathers glistening in the torchlight. She carried something leather between her teeth, about the size of a small pony. Either it was her saddle or the remains of her dinner.
Ashara took the offering and threw it over Pendyla’s feathered back. Several stable workers moved to help, fastening each buckle with practiced speed. An older worker moved to attach some sort of headpiece that connected to the reins.
Elias finally caught up with them, and the princess spun around.
“You should get that leg looked at,” she told him. “The physician can—”
“Later,” Elias grabbed a helmet from the nearby rack. “I’m coming with you.” He’d never wanted to stay behind in the first place, but guarding the Codex was too important to argue. No way he’d miss the action now.
Ashara raised an eyebrow. “You know how to ride a dragon?”
“I’m a quick learner.”
The three workers finished with the saddle, then they scurried back to make room.
“Alright.” Ashara rolled a shoulder as she fastened her own helmet around her chin. “Hop on. And do your best not to fall.”
With that, she climbed into the front of the saddle, grabbing the reins. Elias took the spot behind her, picking up a second set of straps in both hands.
“One more thing,” she said over her shoulder. “We don’t know which dragon Relyn is on. Even if we did...”
“Understood,” Elias broke in. With so many lives at stake, this was no time to sail around the storm. His first reaction had been anger when Relyn surrendered the Codex. It felt like a betrayal. In hindsight though, it was probably the best possible move. They all would have died if they’d tried to fight back, and the intruders would still have taken the Codex.
At least this way, they had a chance.
Ashara snapped the reins, and Pendyla stretched out her dark wings, flapping them up and down until they were airborne. They tore over the gardens and the villa’s rooftops, twice as fast as a sprinting horse. Ashara’s black braid flew behind her like a banner in the wind.
The sun had set several hours ago, but the comet gave off a faint glow on the horizon, almost as if it were still twilight. The night air pierced his cheeks as they flew, and he had to remind himself to take deep breaths through his nose. His muscles ached after only a few minutes.
Aegon. He was going to be sore as all hell tomorrow morning. If he even survived that long.
When he looked over Ashara’s shoulder, he spotted a flickering flame on the distant hilltop.
No, not flickering. Blinking. A signal?
Ashara tugged the reins, and Pendyla slowed when they passed the ridge.
Two more dragons flew up from outside a stone watchtower. Their feathers had blue-painted stripes in the colors of Clan Solizhan. The three of them all hovered in midair for several seconds, keeping themselves airborne with heavy flaps of their wings.
A creature this large shouldn’t be able to hover. Then again, most scientists agreed that dragons shouldn’t even be able to lift off at all. Somehow, that didn’t stop them.
“Princess.” One of the Solizhan riders pressed his fists together in a salute. “They went southwest.”
“Toward Dragonshard,” Ashara said.
“Toward Dragonshard,” he echoed. “We have three more riders in pursuit.”
“Good work.” Ashara grabbed her reins again. “You two with me. Wedge formation.”
The three of them took their places, then tore off in the comet’s direction. They followed the coast for several dozen miles, passing treetops, rivers, and sand dunes.
A plume of smoke laced the air to their right. Elias followed the trail down to the beach where a black and blue dragon lay lifeless in the sand. No sign of the rider.
More fire blasts erupted ahead. Pendyla continued flapping her wings, closing the distance between them and the battle. Elias didn’t know much about dragon breeds, but Ashara’s mount was clearly bred for speed. Her body was narrower than the others. While some were large enough to hold three or four people, Pendyla could barely hold the two of them.
Four other dragons flew around like a swarm of insects above the treeline. Two friendly, two hostile.
Aegon, they couldn’t afford to waste time on this fight. Not if Palatine’s people were escaping with the Codex.
Ashara must have agreed because she steered their formation in a hard left, avoiding the skirmish.
Elias spotted a retreating form on the horizon—a dark silhouette against the comet’s pale light.
There you are.
They closed the distance over the next few minutes. Once they were within a hundred yards, Ashara raised her left hand for the other two riders to see. A flare flickered in her open palm, and she pointed forward.
Bursts of orange fire erupted from Pendyla’s throat, wide and wild as a burning building. Ashara used her Ethermancy to reshape the flame into a narrow projectile. The others did likewise, and all three beams shot toward their mark.
Their target dodged in a zig-zag pattern, avoiding all three strikes.
Ashara’s group shot a second volley, but they’d lost the element of surprise. The enemy Sanctifier threw up a heatward, breaking their blasts in midair.
The dragon to Pendyla’s right let out a roar of pain. Elias snapped his head around to see two enemies in pursuit.
“Ashara!” He tried to get her attention, but the wind was too strong. He leaned closer, shouting into the side of her helmet. “Behind us!”
Another roar. Another burst of flame on their left.
More attacks closed in, and Ashara tugged the reins down Pendyla dove below the treeline, weaving her way through the thick trunks. Her wings slapped against leaves and branches as the jungle passed in a dark blur. Ashara eased off the reins, relying on her mount’s instincts to guide them.
More flaming missiles soared by, breaking through the foliage with snaps of treebark. Both pursuers followed, fifty yards back at least.
Pendyla turned sideways to fit through two rock faces. Elias grasped the handles tighter, feeling his stomach in his throat. He’d never gotten motion sickness before, but this was madness. The canyon narrowed and widened at random intervals. One minute they were sideways, level, then sideways again.
The other two dragons followed them through the gap. More blasts of fire soared by on both sides. One took Pendyla on her left wing, and the dragon shrieked in pain.
“Damnit.” Ashara spun around in the saddle. “Here, take these.”
She dropped the reins and climbed around the side of the saddle. Pendyla banked left as the canyon took a sharp turn, opening into a wider section with a river at the bottom. Ashara leaned in with the turn to keep her balance.
Elias scooted forward, grabbing the reins. Pendyla continued dodging obstacles on her own, so he helped by staying out of the way. From what he’d heard about dragons, they wouldn’t listen to anyone but their riders. Best not to draw attention to himself.
The heat from Pendyla’s wing faded as Ashara put out the fire. When Elias glanced behind him again, she was exchanging blows with both of their attackers. One followed in pursuit while the other hovered above, blocking their retreat. Bursts of flame struck Ashara’s heatward, mere inches from his head.
The river roared louder as the current turned to white rapids. Up ahead, the canyon widened into a glimpse of the twilight-colored sky.
Pendyla flew faster, but a third dragon appeared at the canyon’s mouth.
A blast of fire soared straight at them.
Elias ducked down and shouted, “Ashara!”
She spun around just in time to deflect the blast. Part of it singed her ear, and she lost her balance. Elias grabbed her wrist before she fell into the river. The other dragons closed in on both sides. Pendyla roared again as she took a second hit.
Elias heaved Ashara back into the saddle. She put up a heatward and blocked two more projectiles. The world blurred to bursts of orange and red.
An idea came to him then, and he hoped to Aegon that Pendyla would listen. Elias sat up and pulled the reins down on either side of the dragon’s head.
She reacted immediately, diving straight toward the river.
Ashara slammed into his back. Elias squeezed his own legs around the saddle to keep from falling forward.
The bottom of the canyon moved closer. Closer.
Their pursuers didn’t relent, and the fire closed in. His vision blurred further. The enemy’s flames licked his helmet. Only Ashara’s heatward kept them alive now.
Water filled his nostrils as they passed under the river’s surface. He held onto the saddle and the reins. Pendyla spun her body around, and he lost all sense of up or down.
Finally, she emerged from the river, breathing fire at their enemies. Elias saw nothing but a dark haze. Water covered his goggles, and he couldn’t make sense of the carnage. The enemy dragons let out bird-like shrieks.
One slammed into the canyon wall, and he felt the vibrations in his bones. The other crashed into the river.
The third moved to retreat, butPendyla was quicker. She darted forward, digging her talons into the enemy’s dragon’s back. The rider leapt from the saddle, plunging into the river below.
Pendyla soared higher, tearing out the opening edge of the canyon. There, the river emptied down a waterfall into the Ember Sea.
Despite her wounds, Pendyla carried them the last few miles without incident. Dragonshard was all bright lights and celebrations. The palace was just as tall as Thane had described it—an eighty story pillar of solid stone. After listening to Thane brag these past few months, Elias had actually hoped it would be less impressive.
Their mark had already set down on a wide, man-made platform at the top of the tower. Several dozen other figures surrounded them as they dismounted.
Ashara’s dragon continued her pursuit until several Sanctifiers opened fire on them.
Pendyla took a hard left, diving below their attackers’ field of vision. From there, they banked around the palace’s upper levels, passing smaller platforms and balconies. She slowed as they completed a full revolution.
Most of the rooms they passed were dark and empty. All but one, where a young woman stood outside on the balcony. It almost looked like ... Ciena?
Elias whipped around for a second look, but he’d already lost sight of her. Ashara pulled back the reins, setting down on a stone landing platform. Her dragon made no effort to land gracefully. Hard to blame her after a fight like that.
Ashara slid off the saddle, threw open the double doors, and ran into an open sitting room.
“Eva?” she called out. “Lucia?”
Elias was slower dismounting. The chase hadn’t been kind to his leg, and the rest of him was as stiff as a steel rod.
“This isn’t good,” Ashara hollered from inside the apartment. “None of my handmaidens are here. There aren’t any guards outside either.”
Elias stumbled inside the arched doorway, dripping water on the polished stone floor. He tried to talk, but the flight had left his throat barren.
Ashara tossed him a towel which he used to wipe his face dry. She poured him a glass of water next, and he drank the entire thing in one gulp.
“You think Palatine already took control of the palace?” he asked.
“It might explain that crowd on the roof,” Ashara said. “Come on. We should find the others.”
“What about your ear?” Elias asked. She’d only lit a single oil lamp, but even that was enough to see the red blistering.
“It’s fine,” Ashara replied, “just like your leg.” She rolled her shoulders and made for the door. “Maybe if we find your lady friend, she can heal us both.”
“Good idea.” He’d intended to search for Nahlia anyway. “But there’s someone else I need to find first.”
“My sister—Ciena. I saw her on the way in. Maybe it was this floor, or maybe a few floors down from here.”
“This is Kingsview,” Ashara said the name as if it were supposed to mean something. “It’s only the royal apartments up here and nothing else. Below this is Lastlight. Below that is Sunspear. Most important guests stay on one of those two floors.”
“Right.” Elias limped for the door. “I have to find her.”
“You’re sure it was your sister? I thought you haven’t seen her since Whitecliff?”
Elias grimaced. He probably sounded like a madman from her perspective. Even ignoring his wounds and exhaustion, a quick glimpse from dragonback wasn’t much to go on. Why would Ciena be here, anyway? She couldn’t be a guest of the Solidors. Ashara would have already known about her if that were the case.
But it was more than just a passing glimpse. He felt her here. Not just her physical presence, but her inner-turmoil. That shouldn’t have been possible without their soulbond. He’d tried to commune with her countless times since they were separated, and he’d always failed. Just like he’d failed to dream or meditate into the Ethereal.
But then, wasn’t the comet supposed to strengthen Ethermancy? Maybe he hadn’t lost all his powers the day he died.
“I’m sure.” Elias let out a breath and continued toward the door. “Ciena’s here, and she needs my help.”