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The World of Orosta
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Chapter 1

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Assassins in the East

By J. L. Gryphon


          It was impossible to kill a dragon. Litzana knew that. Everyone knew that. Which is why she knew crouching behind a fallen log just a few paces away from a dragon lair with the intent to rob said dragon lair was a bad idea. The rainforest buzzed around her, wild hoots and hollers ringing through the canopy, but it wouldn’t be them who disturbed the dragon. It would be the snap of a twig that undid everything. And yet, here she was, taking cover behind a fallen log while she scouted the entrance, her pointed ears primed for that singular sound that would reaffirm the natural order of things—the sound of the dragon awakening.

          “I will say again,” she said, “this is a bad idea.” She glanced down to her left at Ree, her reckless employer, hoping he would listen to reason this time, but the greedy twist in his smile made her sigh. She had grown used to him by now, but when they had first met five years ago, she had wondered if a three-foot amphibian had decided to walk upright, don a floppy hat, and dress in patched-up trousers and a leather jerkin. His talents as a mimic allowed him to look the way he did. What race he actually was, he refused to say, but Litzana was determined to weasel it out of him. Except that would never happen if he got both of them killed in another one of his crazy schemes. “Ree, come on. We should go.” A snort from behind seemed to echo her sentiment, and Litzana looked over her shoulder to see her pegasus pawing at the ground. “See? Amia agrees with me.”

          The mimic scoffed, but his reedy voice wheezed into a whisper, as if he at least agreed with her enough to stay quiet. “Silly shade-elf says it’s a bad idea, but she’s crouching here anyway.”

          Litzana sighed. “Skeeters of hell, just because I have psionic talents does not mean I can fight a dragon. What am I supposed to do if he tries to eat me? Kill him? You know it is impos—”

          “She doubts her talents even though I saw her levitate Kieran, Fredegar, and Cali all together off the ground at once. She didn’t even have to think hard about it. All she has to do is pin the dragon down like she already practiced. Silly shade-elf talking about killing a dragon. Next a mouse will launch into the sky and murder the sun with a little toothpick sword.” He buried a mocking giggle against his palm.

          “Levitating Cali and the others was not practice. Cali is just a little girl. She is almost a feather.”

          “Is she saying Kieran and Fredegar are feathers, too?”

          “Maybe Fred is with how skinny he is. Kieran was the only legitimate lift. But even then, all three of them were standing still, they were not fighting me, so there was no extra force. It just . . .” She gave an incredulous huff. “A dragon is a completely different thing! I cannot fight someone that big and heavy. You know what happens if I push myself too far. My power will snap, gone forever. Then you will not have anyone with psionics.”

          Ree snickered, crossing his spindly arms. “She’s scared of a baby. I told her it was a baby dragon, and she said she could handle a baby dragon, but here she is wanting to hop on Amia and fly back home to Jersæg. Poor little me. She never listens to me at all.”

          A mozzit flitted across Litzana’s gray skin, landing on her arm, and she made a face, swiping it away before it bit her. The tropical day was starting to cool, but the bugs hadn’t quite gone to bed yet. All the more reason to leave. Still, she hesitated. “I . . . all right. If the hatchling is small enough, say three hundred pounds, then yes, I could handle it easily. Six hundred pounds, I am right at my limit. Above six hundred?” She firmly shook her head. “But Ree, even if the hatchling is small enough, this is wrong. When we are stealing from one of the Veldriss’s caravans, I do not have a problem with it. Vänima deserves it. But this is . . . different. We are breaking into the dragon’s home. He has done nothing. If we go in there, Draconum Law gives him every legal right to eat us. This is not . . .” She tapped a nervous fingernail on the log, the sound cushioned by the moss creeping up its side. “You said you needed time to think about it, but time is up. Exactly how much are you paying me? And I mean exact. None of that not paying me at all business like last time.”

          Ree waved his hand, dismissing her. “She uses a bad example to win the debate. She’s talking about a job where she didn’t get a cut because there was nothing to cut. No loot at all. This is a special, different trip. I’ll pay her like I said.”

          “Funny how often my ‘bad example’ seems to happen. How much, Ree?”

          His gold eyes peered up at her, a sly expression crossing his face. “It’s not just kessa coins she wants. She wants the dragon’s shadow. That’s why she’s here, bad idea or not. She can’t lie to me about that.”

          Litzana raised a defensive eyebrow. He had caught her. Ree’s mad scheme to rob the dragon had gifted her with an opportunity she never thought she’d have. To add a dragon shadow to her collection, to be able to shift into its powerful body, was a chance she couldn’t miss. The dragon’s shadow was a weapon, and weapons were a lure for her greater than all the riches in the world. Still, she was risking her life, and a little kessa always made that fact a bit easier to swallow.

          “You hired me to protect you,” she said. “Hiring means job, and job means kessa. All I am doing is holding my favorite gecko to his duty as a proper employer. Unless you want me to start calling you ‘friend’ instead of ‘boss’ . . .” Litzana flashed an innocent smile.

          Ree muttered under his breath. “She thinks I look like a gecko, but geckos are cute, and I’m definitely not cute.”

          Litzana grinned, keeping her opinions to herself. Studying him now, she didn’t think he was all that terrible to look at. She might have even been tempted to think parts of him were cute, specifically his long pointy ears and big gold eyes he had mimicked from a fruit bat. But she wasn’t about to tell him that. He would bite her if she told him that. Ree hated people. The uglier he was, the more people would leave him alone, or at least that was his working theory. Every once in a while, he mimicked something new to add to the ugliness effect; but for the most part, he kept his skin a smooth dark green that camouflaged with the rainforest, and he had never stood taller than her hip while she was standing.

          “How much?” she said, tugging one of his tiny hoop earrings.

          He clicked his tongue, swatting her away. “How much kessa will make her do it?”

          “Uh . . . one silver.”

          Ree started to sputter, but Litzana grabbed his mouth and shushed him. He lowered his voice, shooting her a scandalized look. “Silver she says! She might as well ask me for platinum! Or gemstones! She’s trying to turn me poor! Poor little me, what did I ever do? I hate people, but they talk to me anyway. They try to take the kessa I work so hard for. Never mind poor Ree. Never mind me at all.”

          “Yes, you the hard-working, downtrodden thief.” Litzana gave him a teasing nudge in the ribs. “You know you would not have to work so hard if you mimicked people once in a while. You could copy any ability you wanted, be as powerful as the person you copied, but . . .” She shrugged. “If you want to keep mimicking animals to make yourself ugly and green, go ahead, I guess.”

          Ree pouted. “She uses detail words to make a sticky point. I already said I hate people, but she doesn’t care. Animals are nicer. I mimic from them. I hate people, so I don’t mimic from them, but they don’t listen. They don’t care. They keep talking to me anyway.”

          Litzana shook her head, not sure whether to feel amused or sad. The ridiculous ways he behaved made it easy to dismiss him, but Ree really did hate people, enough so that he pretended he was talking to himself whenever he was forced to acknowledge someone else. She wished she knew what had happened to him to cause that. Still, despite the extreme lengths Ree had taken, she couldn’t fault him for it. She had learned the hard way people couldn’t be trusted, and while she didn’t go so far as to hate people like Ree did, she couldn’t help but agree with him that it was better to be alone. Better . . . but not easier.

          “A hatchling?” she said. “And it is a brown one. All it does is spit quicksand. It is not some fire breathing red dragon that will roast me in seconds. Right?”

          “It’s a baby brown dragon, like I told her, but she keeps asking me.”

          Litzana looked back to the cave. “And my payment?”

          Ree screwed up his mouth. He pretended to fuss with a fleck of dust on his leather jerkin while he thought. “Maybe I’ll give her one copper kessa.”

          “Two copper.”

          “Or maybe I’ll give her one copper kessa and five iron kessa. And she gets her shadow like she wants if she manages to steal it.”

          She still didn’t approve of invading an innocent dragon’s home. But it is a chance to get the shadow . . . Litzana drummed her fingers on the mossy log. “Fine. Deal.”

          Ree grinned, revealing his sharp teeth. “Okay, then. She’ll go in now.”

          She frowned. “You are coming, too, right?”

          “She wants me to go inside a dragon lair? Little three-foot me next to a dragon?”

          Litzana rolled her eyes. “Oh, just stay by the log. When I call you, do not scream. It will just be my psionics speaking inside your head. Come in quietly.”

          She glanced over her shoulder at her pegasus again, pointing a finger at Ree. “Watch him, okay, Amia?” But in response, the pegasus gave an indignant snort, fluttering her wings. Litzana knew why, and she concealed a guilty wince as she flexed her psionics, secretly speaking into the mare’s mind. Watch him, please . . . Nemsa. The winged horse’s expression immediately softened at the use of her real name. She tossed her head, her forelock trailing silver down her dark face, and Litzana managed a faint smile. “Good girl.”

          Ree nestled himself on the ground, his tiny body almost disappearing against the green of the jungle. Litzana glanced up to the canopy, trying to spot the sun to guess the time, but the dense umbrella tops blocked her view. Still, the cicadas had started to sing, their trills pining like fiddles through the trees, giving her enough of a clue it was close to sunset. Litzana pursed her lips. She’d have to do this quickly on top of everything else. The last thing she wanted was to run from a dragon cave in the middle of the night.

          Litzana braced herself, then crept over the log, tugging her coat free when it snagged on the bark. She gave the emerald velvet a comforting rub, grateful it was dragon-built. It’s ability to resist fire wouldn’t be much help in facing a brown dragon, but the fact dragons had made it at all gave her at least the illusion of a shield. Maybe, even after all the years she’d had to test what it could do, it still had one last trick to reveal. Unlikely, but it was a nice thought. She moved the last few paces, then stepped inside, the shadow of the cave rippling over her face.

          A floor of quicksand greeted her.

          Litzana gulped, taking a deep breath, but the musty air felt thick in her throat. Her heart thumped as she said a silent little prayer. Le Sair, I know this is a bad idea, but . . . please protect me? For all her talk of red dragons roasting her alive, she knew brown dragons still had talents worthy of being feared. They were the lowest on the hierarchy, but a dragon was still a dragon. A brown’s breath created quicksand revered for its speed. All it took was one wrong step. Complete submersion in a matter of seconds. Litzana tried not to think about the details.

          Her boots skipped over the craggy ground, and she touched the wall for balance, searching for a way through. Water chimed in a steady drip from somewhere deeper in the cavern, stalactites hanging from the ceiling like spikes on a portcullis. Same as a portcullis, the message was clear. Stalagmites jutted from the floor, their stony bases separating the quicksand into smaller pools. Litzana studied the ridges cutting away from them, their winding paths drawing patterns through the sand. They seem wide enough to step on. She hesitated, tiptoeing along the wall, then skipped onto the first of the ridges, using it as a bridge as she moved deeper into the lair. Still no sign of the dragon. Maybe it is out hunting. I would miss the shadow, but at least Ree’s itch to rob a dragon might be sated. I would never have to do this again. That is probably the best—

          A low rumble thrummed through a bed of stalagmites, and the slow drip of water broke its rhythm, shuddering too fast in a second plink. Litzana froze. To the left of the entrance, a hundred paces away, she spotted a large black mound. At first, she thought it was the dragon, but the faint twinkle of silver and platinum caught her eye. The dragon’s hoard. Litzana moved toward it, balancing on the edge of a ridge.

          Her foot slipped.

          Litzana stifled a yell, flailing her arms, doubling over and catching herself with her hands. She breathed soft in the silence of the cavern, staying crouched until her heart calmed to a gentler tempo. Glancing behind her, she braced her free foot on the ridge, dragging her trapped boot from the sludge. The sand sucked at her heel, refusing to let go. Litzana grimaced, tugging harder, gripping the top of her boot for an extra pull. Come on, come on. A wet slurp echoed in the quiet, something popped, and Litzana’s foot shot from the quicksand’s grip. She fumbled forward, almost falling the other direction from the force. Wait, wait. Okay, good. This is fine. She took a steadying breath, then started to stand, but something clinked against the ridge from the pool she’d disturbed. Litzana frowned, catching the faint sheen of metal caked in the sand. She reached, trying to grab the treasure, but it was too far away. I would not be able to get it out anyway. I barely got my foot free. Litzana let it go, but an idea snuck into the back of her mind. She looked to the heaps of treasure again, wondering if she was right.

          The hoard rested on the only solid ground she could see, but her makeshift bridges didn’t stretch all the way there. I am going to have to jump. Wonderful. That will be quiet. She cursed under her breath, but crossed the rest of the ridges, walking to the end of the one that came closest to the base of the treasure. Just one jump. Land as quietly as possible. And . . .

          Litzana pressed her lips together, then leaped. Her boots hit the rock, a dull thump echoing through the cave. She cringed, waiting for teeth to flash from the dark, but nothing happened. She didn’t trust it. The treasure sunken in the quicksand nagged at her thoughts. She had a growing theory this dragon, hatchling or not, was smarter than Ree had given him credit for.

          Litzana inched toward the hoard, stopping at the beginning of the pile. The cave extended back farther than she had realized, and she gave a thin smile as she gazed at the fortune before her. Dragon treasure sparkled through the rest of the cavern in an ocean of wealth; rippling, spilling, gushing into dreams not even the undine scribes could write about. Such beautiful bait for a thief’s plucking fingers. And yet it is all fake. Hmph. She shook her head. I was right.

          Litzana plucked a single kessa coin from one of the piles, turning it over in her hands. It wasn’t silver or platinum. It was gold of all things, practically worthless—a rich nomarch’s pointless decoration. But even more than that, paint dusted off onto her palms. It was all a trick. She rubbed her fingers together, watching the paint smear across her gray skin, then looked the distance back to where she had fallen. There lay the true treasure buried in all the quicksand pits around her, impossible to steal. “Ah, Ree,” she said aloud. “He is going to be so disappointed.”

          “And so it finally speaks . . .”

          Litzana dropped the painted stone, clapping a hand over her mouth. She cringed at the sound of treasure surging into motion; kessa coins slipping, spilling, rushing like an avalanche.

          “I have been watching you, Lesser. I wondered how far you would get.”

          The thunder in the dragon’s voice shook the stalactites above her head, rendering them as fragile as icicles in early spring. His claw met the stone behind her, rock crunching beneath its weight. False gemstones tinkled and bounced between her feet. Litzana watched them, a lump of nerves shuddering down her throat. She lifted her chin, her back tensed with a contained scream. Slowly she turned to face the dragon. When she did, she was met with the unfortunate reality that Ree hadn’t been telling her the whole story. The dragon was indeed a hatchling, but an older one, perhaps ten years of growth put to its full advantage. Her green eyes lifted up, then up, taking in the full sight of him, and she knew she wasn’t powerful enough to contain him. He was small, but so was an elephant in the face of a mountain. M-Maybe just his head? she thought. She took a closer look at his head, seeing the slender lines, the reptile mixing with the equine in a refined beauty. Twin horns curved upward in an elegant line from the top of his skull, the wind whistling between them as he moved. If he hadn’t wanted to kill her, she might have told him he was bound to be quite handsome by the time he was an adult. Maybe I can just pin his head, focus my power only on that. That would lessen some of the weight if he does not try to fight me too much . . . which he will.

          I can hear your thoughts, shade-elf.

          Litzana sucked in a breath, his telepathic voice booming into her mind. He was old enough to have developed some measure of skill with psionics apparently. That added to the problem, but at least dragons, no matter their color, never seemed to have developed the telekinetic side of psionics. That she could use to her advantage. The head would have to do, except at this point, she much preferred the idea of just leaving.

          The dragon’s gold eyes flared, the skin drawing back along his teeth, and she knew he had heard her thoughts again. “An interesting plan you have to entrap Graxilyphet the Brown,” he said, speaking audibly again. “Very well, then. Why not come and try it?”

          Litzana wasn’t sure which method of speaking she preferred. All she did know was her ears were ringing. She forced a tentative smile, hugging her dragon-built coat closer around her. “N-No, I . . .” Her boot scraped along the ground in a single step back. “I think I will just go. I will just go back and leave you to—”

          Graxilyphet struck like a snake. Litzana’s psionics flexed alive, lashing around his head. The dragon thrashed against her hold, his roar shrieking through the cave, but Litzana layered her grip in a chain of energy around his snout. She gritted her teeth, straining against his power. His jaws shook, battling to stay open, but a snap! echoed on the air as they clamped shut. The dragon raged in silence now, his tail whacking into a mound of platinum, sending painted rocks scattering down on Litzana’s head. She worked her mind to the lower part of his maw, hauling his head toward the ground, but Graxilyphet flailed to the side, twisting his neck to break her grip. Litzana panted, feeling the psionic muscle in her brain start to stretch. Still, she held on, risking a tendril of energy down the beginning of the dragon’s neck. At the last second, she switched her hold, her mind latching onto his horns and yanking them to the side. He tripped, caught off guard, and Litzana sent a last blast of power slamming into his legs. Graxilyphet lost his balance. The ground quaked, cracks splitting in the stone, and the dragon crashed to the cavern floor.

          Litzana gasped for breath, staring at the downed hatchling in disbelief. Oh, Le Sair, that actually worked! Thank you, Le Sair! A relieved sigh rushed from her lungs, and it took her several moments for her to collect herself. “Ah, skeeters of hell,” she said. “I must say, you did give me quite a shock. You are growing into quite a good dragon; your parents must be very proud.”

          An aura of miserable defeat settled around Graxilyphet’s form. He gave a pitiful growl, the sound whining between his sealed jaws. Litzana winced against the guilt, raking her fingers through her chestnut hair. “I do want you to know I apologize for all this. This was not my idea at all to invade your home to steal from you. But you just tried to attack me, and yes Draconum Law gives you the legal right to do that since I broke in here; but regardless, I would still rather you did not eat me, so . . . here we are.” She shrugged, dropping her arms at her sides. “But, now that I at least have your head pinned, I can let my employer in here safely and show him what a clever job you did at keeping your treasure safe. He will see all this was a very bad idea, just like I tried to tell him it was, and we will leave. After that, you can continue on with your evening. I promise, we will not steal any of your treasure. Deal? Or, better yet, you could just agree not to kill us at all. That way we could skip all this—”

          Graxilyphet tried to roar, but Litzana tightened her psionic grip, holding his mouth shut. Anger replaced his defeat, and his eyes blazed with golden fire, devouring her in a look. Litzana averted her gaze. If he got the chance, she knew he would kill her. “Okay, I can see that was a no, so . . .” She scratched the back of her neck, then stepped to the closest pile of treasure, clambering up its side until she was high enough to reach the top of the dragon’s head. She scooped out a little dent for herself, then settled down in a makeshift seat of false kessa coins and gemstones. “Can we talk, at least? Graxilyphet you said your name was, right? Can I call you Grax?”

          The dragon whipped his tail again, sending fake treasure flying like hail, but he was too small to reach her. Litzana kept a careful watch, flexing a fraction of her psionics outside the cave, and after a moment of searching, her mind’s eye spotted Ree sitting near the fallen log where she had left him. Ree, she said, speaking into his mind. Ree, it is safe. You can come in, but . . . all the treasure is fake.

          Ree’s thoughts shrieked in denial, but all Litzana could do was shake her head, marveling at the ploy before her. She toyed with the tip of her pointed ear. “Graxilyphet, I must say, this is impressive.” The decoy flattered in its lie, every platinum nugget and emerald ring a forger’s fantasy. She had to admit, it was a good trick. Good thing I am not here for treasure. But Ree . . . Litzana couldn’t see him, but her mind sensed him enter the cave, the money-hungry creature crawling somewhere in the cavern in passionate denial. “Poor Ree. You really have disappointed him, Grax.”

          Graxilyphet snarled in response, straining against her hold, and Litzana swallowed, working to strengthen her power as the clock counted toward the cataclysm. She couldn’t keep Graxilyphet’s head pinned forever. The pressure on her psionics would grow heavier and heavier the longer she held him, and if he realized she wanted his shadow, not his treasure, no amount of telekinetic muscle would restrain him. I am breaking Draconum Law’s third decree, after all. She hesitated, knowing this was the last chance to change her mind. But since I am here . . . She rubbed her palms to clear the sweat, thought a little prayer, then touched Graxilyphet’s neck with her fingernail. Okay, start talking. Divert him before he starts reading my mind again. Uh . . .

          “So, Grax.” Litzana poked the hatchling’s snout with her free hand, catching his attention. “What is a brown dragon like you doing on our little island of Rhye anyway? It is not every day you find a dragon lair in the lowlands instead of up in the Dragonhorn Mountains.”

          Graxilyphet growled, wrestling against her psionic shield, and Litzana used his moment of distraction. She had been told once that stealing a shadow tickled. All the more reason to be precise. And slow. She kept contact with her fingernail as her mind scanned his body, snipping the dragon’s shadow into a suit ripe for the taking. “Hey, are you listening?” Litzana leaned over and knocked on his horned head, keeping him focused on her while her power tingled unnoticed over the rest of his body.

          Release me, stupid shade-elf!

          Litzana grimaced as the dragon’s psionics stabbed into her mind. Black spots jolted before her eyes, and she gritted her teeth, her skull tightening like the pressure of a cannon about to pop. “Ah, no, get . . . out!” She scrambled against the energy, throwing up a psionic wall, and the hatchling’s power slammed against the barrier. Keep him on the surface. Surface thoughts only. Her mind flexed, detaching tentacles of energy until the dragon’s presence eased to a manageable level.

          Graxilyphet’s tail thrashed into a mountain of counterfeit sapphires. I will devour! I will maim! I will conquer!

          “Oh, hush. Really, if you are going to threaten me, at least try to do it without being predictable. You could be the one brown dragon on Orosta who is not an idiot. Pretend you are a red or gold dragon, then try to threaten me again.”

          The dragon’s rage zapped across her synapses. Litzana yelped, losing her touch on his neck, and her tracing meld shattered before it finished. Her psionics lost their grip, releasing the hatchling from her trap. Graxilyphet bared his teeth, knowing he was freed, and his neck whipped to the attack.

          “You insolent, vile—!”

          A wall of her psionic power rushed forward, wrapping around the dragon’s head and slamming it back to the ground. Graxilyphet’s growl of defeat shuddered through the cave floor.

          Litzana panted, her heart feeling like a trapped butterfly in her chest. Too close. Way too close. And she’d lost the connection to the shadow. Skeeters of hell, I have to start over.

          “Okay.” She put a hand to her chest, pausing to catch her breath. “Okay, I admit, that was unfair. I am sorry. Not all brown dragons are idiots.” Litzana patted him on his snout, but left a covert finger resting on a scale near his horns. Her shadowstealer talents flared again. Even slower this time. “I should mention, though, that I am not the only one in the wrong here. Just because you have the legal right to eat me now does not erase the fact it is rude when you decide to act on it. You could have just given me a scary growl and ordered me to get out, but you jumped straight to killing me, which I think is a little bit extrem—”

          “She tells me she can keep the dragon pinned, but then he almost gets up. Did it scare me when he bellowed like that? Yes, but she doesn’t care. She just lets him get up. Poor little me. What did I ever do?”

          “Ree?” Litzana peered into the gloom of the lair, fuzzy, colorless shapes meeting her gaze, but she couldn’t spot her employer. Her eyes flicked back toward the entrance, a vague sliver of light barely visible behind a wall of rock, and a wet chill breezed through the cave, marking the beginning of sunset. She shivered, pulling her velvet coat tighter, reminded of the time. “Ree?” Litzana pushed up from her seat, silver-painted kessa coins sinking beneath her knee, and a jeweled necklace poked her in the leg. She plucked it from the treasure pile and tossed it over her shoulder, listening for the thump, but someone grunted instead. “Oh.” She winced as Ree pattered out from behind her treasure seat, dragging the chain off his head. “Sorry.”

          He grumbled under his breath, his wheezy voice sounding like an old man forced to climb a flight of stairs. “Always getting things thrown at me. She’s never nice to me. What did I ever do?”

          Litzana gave a slight smile, squinting to make him out in the gloom. He looked as if he was about to say something, scrunching his nose, but the dragon’s tail screeched across the stone. Graxilyphet snorted, wind bursting from his nostrils, buffeting Ree like a squall. The creature gripped his long ears. “Not scared! Not scared!” He squeaked like a magpie, skittering toward the floor of the cave.

          “Ree! Ree, wait!” Litzana struck with her mind, energy snatching the back of his jerkin and yanking him from the edge of a quicksand puddle. She exhaled, levitating him, but she could sense her psionics weakening. Dammit, Ree, I cannot hold you and the dragon. Her hand quivered on the dragon scale. Just focus on getting the . . .

          A little more of the shadow traced to completion in her mind.

          Litzana steadied herself, taking a breath. “Okay, Ree, do not run. Calm down. I promise I have him pinned.”

          The dragon snorted again. Not for long. You are getting tired . . .

          Ree crossed his arms, peering down at her as his legs dangled. “Like the last time she said she had him pinned?”

          Litzana knew he wouldn’t run now, and she let him go, kessa coins scattering as he plopped into their swell. She breathed easier as her psionics intensified around the dragon again.

          Ah. Skin pulled back over Graxilyphet’s teeth. I have found a secret in your tiny head, ‘shade-elf’.

          Litzana tried to ignore him, watching Ree dive into a pile of false rubies and crawl out the other side clutching a goblet. After a moment’s inspection, he tossed it aside.

          “Hey,” she said, “try looking—”

          Why not drop the façade?

          Litzana sucked back a cry of pain as Graxilyphet knifed a psionic barb in her brain. Façade? What was he talking about? She hesitated, feeling the dragon scale pressed against her fingertip. Deep down, she knew the dragon was right. She was getting tired. But she hadn’t stolen the shadow yet. She still had time to let go and get Ree out of here. Maybe it wasn’t worth it. If the hatchling had noticed and was just playing with her now . . .

          Such an interesting thing to see one of the Zurrinaih people use psionics. Not since Lilith and the Split has a shade-elf ever possessed that power. How curious that you do. It almost seems as if a shade-elf is not what you really are . . . Sithuwaye.

          Litzana froze. That was what he was talking about. Her eyes flicked to her gray skin, the skin of a shade-elf, and the whispers of an old lie snuck at the back of her mind. Stolen shadows made her what she was. After more than a hundred years of hiding, her true form seemed a dream to her now. Of course the dragon would have realized she wasn’t one of the Zurrinaih people. Dammit, Ree. What have you gotten me into?

          She thought fast, throwing up another mental wall to block him, then spoke in Graxilyphet’s thoughts. Fine, you caught me. Litzana notched her chin, trying to hide the quiver in her psionic voice. She didn’t want to reveal the next bit of information, but if it kept the hatchling from discovering her true identity, so be it. I have shadowstealer talents. There. Mystery solved. I stole a Sithuwaye elf shadow, and that is how I, a Zurrinaih elf, have psionics. Satisfied? She kept her finger on his scale. With what just happened, having a dragon shadow may have just become worth it.

          A shadowstealer? Such talents are extremely rare. How interesting. You said you stole a Sithuwaye shadow?

          Yes.

          The shadow of a light-elf.

          Yes!

          How fortunate for you to have met one since nearly all of them have been hunted and killed courtesy of Vänima the Veldriss. Seems to me you are an endangered species . . . Sithuwaye.

          Litzana’s stomach churned. I am a Zurrinaih who stole the shadow of a Sithuwaye.

          Graxilyphet jeered in her mind. Or you are a Sithuwaye who stole the shadow of a Zurrinaih. I think we both know who the liar is in this little conversation. Are you hiding from me, or is there some other reason? The dragon hissed. Ah, you are hiding from your mimic friend. Should I tell him what you really are? You should be grateful dragons cannot speak inside mimic minds, or he would already know your secret. A thief like him would gladly turn a light-elf over to the Veldriss for a chance to deepen his purse.

          Litzana’s chest tightened. For argument’s sake, if I was a Sithuwaye elf, even though I am not, Ree would not turn me in anyway. The Sithuwaye Wars are almost over. There are barely any to hunt anymore. Like you said—endangered species. My value on his team is greater than any bounty he could get out of me.

          Hmph. Tell that to the Veldriss. There are Sicarius assassins crawling all over the east nowadays. A sizeable host passed by my lair just yesterday. They were searching for someone.

          Litzana tempered her alarm. There were assassins in the east?

          Graxilyphet sneered. Shall we test it, then? Is your companion a friend, or a thief?

          Test what? I doubt he would part with someone who can pin a dragon. No amount of kessa earned from a bounty can compete with a dragon’s treasure, even if it is entirely false. We can pass it off as real and skip town before anyone notices. And where is the real treasure, hmm? I know it is buried in the quicksand pits you have scattered around this place, and I am still waiting for you to notice I have not mentioned any of this to Ree.

          A cloud of brown mist puffed from Graxilyphet’s nostrils, and particles of sand appeared as the dragon’s breath reacted with the air. Such a pretty tongue, but a bit too pretty for a common thief. No contractions in your speech whatsoever. Only the nomarchs speak like you. Care to spin a lie to explain that? You have been spinning so many already. What is one more?

          “Ree?” Anything to distract herself. The clock ticked toward the time Graxilyphet would discover his shadow slipping away. That alone would be disastrous, but Litzana couldn’t imagine what would happen if he learned who she really was. Being a Sithuwaye was one thing. Being herself was . . .

          “Ree, we—” The strength of the dragon flowed into her. Litzana sucked in a breath, adrenaline spiking, blood rushing through her veins as the meld completed. The shadow was hers. She had done it! Litzana almost laughed, removing her finger from Graxilyphet’s scale before he realized what had happened. “Okay. Ree, we need to go.”

          The dragon’s psionics dug deeper. You cannot ignore me, Sithuwaye. Litzana is not even a real Zurrinaih name. One cannot simply add a Z to something and make it sound native. Have you engaged in all this witty banter to keep me distracted? Some dire secret you do not wish me to know? Come now. Come out and tell me your name.

          Litzana’s heart fluttered, her power beginning to weaken. “Ree?” She battled against the hatchling, stretching her brain in a pulse of energy to ward him away from her thoughts. “Hey, Gecko, are you ready yet? It would be really helpful if you were ready yet.”

          Ree scampered up the side of Litzana’s treasure seat, still rooting through the rocks. He clicked his tongue like a chatty squirrel. “I don’t look like a gecko, but she insists. What did I ever do? I could make fun of her, too, but poor little me doesn’t know anything about her. Like how old she is. I could make fun of that, but she never tells me. I don’t know.”

          Litzana flinched, jarred by the question. Her throat went dry, color draining from her cheeks, and she stared at nothing as she fought to compose herself. A familiar pain pinched in her mind, a sensation not caused by the dragon, and her hands jolted in a spasm of psionic energy. Ree knew how much she hated talking about her age, but he thought it just annoyed her. He couldn’t understand what his words caused.

          “I-I am fifty-three. If you wait around a few thousand more years, I may actually look it.”

          Graxilyphet’s laughter erupted in her mind. You horrid liar. 182 years old; are you really? Oh, now this is interesting. You are not supposed to be alive if you are that old. You were born before the Battle of the Royals Dead. 150 years ago that battle happened, where the humans had every Rhyastilian citizen over the age of fifteen killed, and yet here you are with at least seventeen extra years. The dragons were paid well that day. They would not have missed someone like you.

          Litzana suppressed a flood of curses. You might want to check some of the facts in that history lesson of yours, dragon. I am fifty-three. A hatchling like you should practice with his telepathy a bit more before scanning the part of my brain reserved for whistling and assuming he has something.

          Graxilyphet’s chuckle purred across psionic ears. A Sithuwaye, an eternal one, pretending to have the lifespan of a Zurrinaih. Eternity cut to just five thousand years. A lie at its best. I have heard everything now. Let me go, stupid light-elf, and I will kill you . . . just like you want. I can end your immortal prison with just one . . . bite. No more memories of him. No more memories of her . . .

          Litzana clenched her fists. Listen, I already told you I am not trying to steal your treasure. All I am doing is protecting Ree from your teeth. I am not going to just let you eat us. So . . . you are wrong. No, I do not want to die.

          Ah, it seems I have struck a nerve. Graxilyphet snickered. Seems to me you do not know what you want, death or otherwise. Lost in the sea of life, as it were. Maybe I will just maim you. It will be more of a punishment that way.

          Litzana grew still, pain not caused by the dragon pinching her mind again. Her hands trembled. I already am maimed.

          She sniffed, wiping her nose, but stopped as a flash of red caught her eye. It was blood. “Ree!” Litzana swore, cleaning her face with her sleeve. The blood was the first sign she was reaching her limit. Every second now lurked as the moment she had gone too far. “Ree, my nose is bleeding. Time is up.” All for the best. The dragon had started touching on things better left in the grave. Litzana extracted herself from her gemstone mound and slid down the slope. Painted pebbles sprinkled to the floor.

          In such a hurry to leave? Are you scared, little Sithuwaye?

          Litzana flipped up the hood on her coat to shield her face, striding straight for the mouth of the cavern. “Now, Ree.”

          I can hear your thoughts, light-elf. You are slipping . . .

          Litzana cringed, but kept moving.

          Ree skidded down the treasure pile behind her, back to solid ground. “Great, great, it’s all fake. The storybooks lied. All of them lied. Poor little me. That green cloud thing li—”

          “Now, Ree.”

          Ree slumped his shoulders in defeat as he looked at all the sparkles. “Not fair.” The mimic kicked a pebble away from his toe, then skittered after his partner.

          Litzana hurried over the first of the ridges in the floor, dodging the quicksand as fast as she could, but the dragon’s fury boiled behind her. Her psionic muscle stretched in a fragile line, fighting to keep him pinned just a little longer. She sniffed, wiping more blood from her nose.

          Wait! Graxilyphet screamed in her mind, slamming his tail, sending a quake through the cave. Liar! Thieves!

          Something cracked above her head. Litzana glanced up, and a piece of rock split from a stalactite. She dodged before it hit her, but not far enough. The shard slashed through her coat sleeve and across her arm. Litzana swore, looking fast to the dragon, but it was too late. Vivid white fire poured from her blood, spreading its light over the wound and sealing it shut. She closed her eyes. Whatever hope she’d had of the dragon believing her lies disappeared as quickly as the shard had cut her.

          Well look at that, Graxilyphet said. The healing fire called sithu, light of the Sithuwaye—the thing that makes them . . . them. Such a famed and special light it is we have used to shine on the truth. He chuckled in her thoughts. You can fool your mimic friend, Lesser, but me . . .?

          Litzana grimaced and increased her stride, aiming for the exit.

          Graxilyphet’s psionic voice chased after her. I will find out who you are, light-elf. I . . .

          Litzana felt it prick, felt the dragon probe deep and snip the answer out of her brain. A hiss of realization shivered up her spine, and Litzana gasped, whipping back around.

          Graxilyphet knew.

          Ah, so that is your name. Not just any Sithuwaye it seems. Hello . . . Anäriel Anastil.

          Litzana’s breath whooshed from her lungs. “Ree.”

          The dragon heaved, thrusting his shoulders forward. Fog burst from his nostrils. Claws flexed, gouging into the crags, and his tail thrashed, scraping like steel as something popped.

          Litzana backed away, her gaze fixed on the dragon. “Ree?”

          The mimic frowned at her, then slowly turned his head toward the rumbling.

          Graxilyphet’s head strained off the floor, horns piercing the air. What would the Veldriss say if she knew the infamous Black Unicorn was here? His pupils snapped wide.

          Litzana couldn’t hold him any longer. “Ree, run!” She streaked through the cave.

          Ree’s jaw dropped, and he flailed as the dragon lunged to his feet.

          A magnificent roar erupted in his ears.

          “H-H-H-Help!” The mimic shot after Litzana, a clap of green on the wind. “We’re going to die! We’re going to die!”

          Graxilyphet charged after them, power cracking with a boom! Wings and teeth struck the air, the sound of squealing claws grating down their spines.

          “You said you could hold him! You said you could hold him! You said he was a baby dragon, and you could hold him!”

          Litzana yelped as the cave trembled, vaulting herself past a stalagmite. “I know!”

          “Then why is he chasing us when you said you could hold him?

          “He has more strength than I thought. There is only so much psionic energy I can use. I guessed wrong, okay?”

          Ree wailed, ducking under a boulder. “We’re going to die!”

          “I am sorry!”

          “We’re going to die, and you said you could hold him!”

          “I said I was sorry! Robbing the dragon was your idea.” Litzana glanced over her shoulder. “Ree, look out!”

          A glob of quicksand spurted across the wall. Litzana skipped onto a nearby ridge, dodging past the puddle. Ree scraped to a stop, shoved himself backward, then darted around the side, aiming for a shelf poking above the sand trap. The dragon burst from the dark, crashing through pillars, rubble flying as his horns ripped through the cavern. Graxilyphet hacked on his breath. Mist turned to sand, forming in midair into a clump of dirt. Ree leaped, but quicksand slapped into his face. The mimic floundered, knocked out of the air. He twisted in his flight, nails scratching the edge of the rock. Missed. The quicksand squelched as he hit the center. “Litzana! Lit—!” The trap sucked his mouth under.

          Litzana heard him cry, looked behind her, and saw his fingers slip beneath the surface. “Ree!” She skidded to a stop, her mind plunging under the quicksand. She closed her eyes, found his mind in the dark, then wrapped him in her psionic hold and tugged him toward air.

          Graxilyphet boomed in front of her, his claws slamming on either side of the pit. Power shuddered through the cave as the dragon swelled to his full height. He fixed her in his stare, and his throaty growl vibrated across her skin, goosebumps shivering up her arms. Litzana swallowed, maintaining the staring contest as Ree came to the surface. The mimic heaved air back in his lungs, sputtering and coughing.

          “Ree, do not move.”

          Litzana’s command snapped him to attention. Ree froze, whimpering in the face of teeth, his mouth gaping open and shut like a fish cast in a bucket.

          Graxilyphet laughed, his voice a thunderclap in Litzana’s ears. Her heart punched against her ribs as she searched for an escape. She couldn’t risk restraining the dragon again. Her bloodstained fingers told her as much. All I have left are my shadows, she thought. I could safely shift into a little snip I have, but where would that leave Ree? She didn’t dare shift into Graxilyphet. A new shadow always took practice. She would be a huge, lumbering mess, useless in a fight. Her eyes swept up the dragon’s bulk, taking in the threat. Ivory horns struck backward along his head, and Litzana tracked the shape of their curve all the way to the ceiling. He didn’t seem small now. How on Orosta could she . . .?

          An idea sprang into her mind. The ceiling! She tipped her chin, flexing her psionics toward a weak spot in the cave’s roof, and a crack began to split in the stone.

          Graxilyphet sneered. “You are mine, thief.”

          “Uh-huh.”

          The crack widened, snaking to the left.

          “I do not think I will kill you. The Veldriss has ways far more creative than mine.”

          “You said it, not me.”

          The crack crumbled to the ready. Litzana grinned.

          Graxilyphet’s eyes narrowed. “What—?”

          The ceiling jerked, rock sliding against rock, then bashed into the dragon’s head. Litzana’s psionics snatched Ree from the quicksand. The mimic hurtled through the air, curses spilling from his mouth as he crashed into her arms. Litzana squeezed him tight, carrying him like a child as she burst toward escape. The dragon roared, thrashing in the rubble, dust puffing into clouds. The cave quaked. Litzana tripped, clutched Ree tighter, then looked above her head. The roof shuddered, holes puckering into position as splinters connected the dots. “What? No, no, no, I just wanted part of it to fall.”

          Ree squawked. “Run, run, run, run, run!”

          Litzana dashed to her feet, her gaze locked on the exit. The cave collapsed behind her. Sand spilled from the walls, flooding the hollow, and the cavern groaned its final surrender. Graxilyphet wrestled his head free from the wreckage, striking with his tail. Litzana yelled, air whipping at her heels, and she dove toward the hole. She rolled in a whirl of dust into the forest beyond as a boulder crashed at her back, sealing the cave. Litzana coughed in the debris cloud, but scrambled up, wincing at Ree’s frantic kicking. “Hold . . . still.” She tucked him up on her hip, stumbling in a blind sprint, large ariera leaves smacking her in the face. She spat, whacking them out of the way, then bolted into the rainforest, lifting her fingers to her lips and whistling for their rescue. Nemsa, if you could make a fly-by that would be great right about now!

          Ree clung to Litzana as hard as he could. “We’re going to die! We’re going to die! We’re going to die!”

          Litzana ignored him, trying not to trip. Roots snagged at her ankles. Vines whipped at her face. The musky breeze tangled through her hair, and all she could see was green.

          “We’re going to die, we’re going to die, we’re—” Ree suddenly stopped shrieking, jabbing a finger toward the sky. “Look! Amia!”

          Litzana looked just in time to see a black and silver pegasus swoop from the treetops.  “I see her, Ree. Hold on.”

          The pegasus landed in a rush of feathers. Litzana didn’t stop, latching onto the mare’s neck and vaulting herself onto her back. She tucked Ree into her lap, wincing as his head knocked into her chest. “Fly, girl!” Wings swept the wind, muscles rippled beneath a mocha coat, and the pegasus galloped into the air. Litzana risked a last strike with her psionics, punching upward with her mind and clearing a hole in the canopy. They burst out of the forest to meet the sunset, then . . . everything stopped. A sudden stillness surrounded them.

          Litzana gasped for air, realizing how fast her heart was beating. She looked down to see the damage, and the hill below them convulsed, gravel tumbling down its slope, boulders crashing into a mass of rubble, burying the exit even deeper than before. A keen moaned in the wind, Graxilyphet’s roar of defeat echoing from inside the cave.

          Litzana’s breath whooshed in relief. “Whoo!” She burst out laughing, slumping across the pegasus’s back. “We made it! We are alive!”

          Ree’s grumble mixed with a whine, and he dropped his face into the pegasus’s mane. “Her sense of humor is different from mine. Poor little me. What did I ever do?”

          Litzana giggled, her shoulders bobbing as she tried to contain herself. Ree reached behind him and pinched her. “Ow, hey!” She shoved him on the back of the head, then snickered and squished him into a hug. “Oh, are you okay, little gecko?”

          “She will get off of me!”

          He struggled in her arms, trying to find a place to bite her. She dodged, tickling him on his side. He kicked, then squealed when he almost slipped off the pegasus’s back.

          “Back to the not talking to me thing, I see. I think you owe me more than a copper and five iron after all of that.”

          Ree sputtered. “She wants extra kessa when she almost got me killed. How funny of her.”

          “This was your crazy plan. You almost got me killed.” She tried not to remember the more serious development of their adventure. It would take a while for Graxilyphet to dig himself out, but he wouldn’t stay trapped forever. Litzana fingered the gold border on her coat. “You know . . . with what we just did, maybe we should move. I mean, pack up, send our regards, send out a Flying Snake’s Day card to the area before we say goodbye. The dragon could come after us. Jersæg is just a few miles from here. I know the ruins are our home, but . . .” She nudged him in the ribs. “I hear the shards of Glasshaven are pretty this time of year.”

          Ree grumbled a curse. “We need to find another dragon.”

          Litzana flicked one of the hoops dangling from his ear. “No, we are not doing this again.”

          “Yes.”

          “No.”

          “Yes.”

          The pegasus snorted, and Litzana realized they were flying around in circles. Sorry, Nemsa. She touched the mare’s neck, directing her back toward Jersæg.

          The sun slipped between the peaks of the Dragonhorn Mountains, orange and purple dancing in their crags. Mysterious hoots and animal calls trilled up from the rainforest, fog drifting its fingers over the treetops, and Nemsa’s black coat blended with the twilight, stars beginning to twinkle from behind the clouds. Ree tried to see past the tumble of silver pegasus feathers, boosting himself up as much as he dared, but he couldn’t match their height. “I wonder if she is taking us home,” he said.

          Litzana’s mouth twitched in a faint smile. She glanced down at the forest sprawling below them, consuming almost all of the east in its blanket of green. “Yes, Amia is taking us back to Jersæg.”

          Nemsa flared her nostrils at the wrong name, shooting Litzana a look, but Litzana avoided her glare, speaking in her mind again. I am sorry, girl. Litzana Riel is not my name, either.

          Ree mumbled under his breath, glaring at pegasus wings.

          “Come on, Ree,” Litzana said. “Cheer up.”

          He shook his head.

          “We can always rob one of the Veldriss’s caravans. You like doing that.”

          The mimic perked up a bit. “Does she think there might be shiny things?”

          “Maybe a whole chest full.” She played with one of her coat buttons. “This is the Doll’s Eye Province, Lower Doll’s Eye at that, so there would not be many caravans here, but the trade roads in Upper Hellebore are always great for a little bandit time. Somewhere near Clearbrooke, maybe?” Graxilyphet’s discovery of her true identity hushed over her shoulder, instinct whispering for her to flee. “Maybe we should travel there. Get away from Jersæg . . .”

          Ree’s long nose twitched, and he fiddled with one of his earrings. “Maybe.”

          “There might be some honey-covered sterras in it for us.”

          “I do like those.” The mimic licked his lips.

          Litzana reclined on the pegasus’s back, letting Ree’s imagination do the rest of the work. She looked over her shoulder toward the ground, half-expecting someone to be watching her from the cover of the canopy. The wind tossed through her hair, Nemsa’s wings rushing to a soothing tempo, but the evening prickled across her skin.

          There were assassins in the east.

[End of Teaser]

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