Prologue

Ciarrah, Black Blade, Ethra

 

MY BROTHER Niamh and I were blamed for the storm that beat for four days against the homes and fields of the Drakha. Already many of the people had begun to fear us because, even though Naht’kah was the ancestor of all Drakha, none of the others had learned to don the dragon form and fly. On our twelfth birthday, Niamh and I had shared the meager sweets given us as gifts to mark our year, and then we fled the loneliness we always felt in the settlement. We ran for the hills and there, as dragons—Niamh as red as his flaming hair, me as black as my own unlikely locks—we flew for hours, reveling in the free skies, relishing the joy of it. We dipped and dove and soared, and spoke in our minds all the while, laughing at the people below making signs with their hands to ward off evil as we passed overhead.

But that night the storm came, its winds flinging destruction at the Drakha far surpassing anything seen before.

The people—our own cousins and aunts and uncles—came to our mother’s home and dragged us from our beds, where we, like all the others, had been shivering in fear of the sky’s wrath. They drove us out into the storm, believing this way they could appease the gods. We took what shelter we could find among the stones and waited out the fury, hungry and cold. Finally, after four days, the sun rose bright in the sky once more, and though we were afraid, we were still children, and we didn’t understand what the people had done. So we went home.

We found my mother collecting bruised fruits from the ground. When I greeted her, she let out a cry, gathered Niamh and I under her strong arms, and hurried us back to the house.

“They mustn’t see you,” she said. “They’ll send you away, if they don’t kill you. I’ve already grieved for you four days, thinking you dashed to pieces in the storm. I can’t bear to lose you again.”

For all the time it takes the moon to go from full to dark, she hid us inside the house day and night, gathering our food in secret, explaining away her covered windows and her absence from the community as signs of mourning. The others said they shared her sorrow, but none said they were sorry for casting us out into the storm, so she didn’t trust them. That was wise, but in the end it didn’t save us.

On the darkest night, we begged our mother to let us go out, and convinced her eventually that, with no moon above, we could go unseen into the cover of the pines by the lake in the center of the valley.

“We’ll return before the sun, Mama,” Niamh said, his adolescent voice cracking as he made the statement into a plea.

“We promise,” I added.

“All right. Take some bread and cheese in case your wanderings make you hungry. Niamh, you stay with your sister.” And then, because although he was born first, I was the fierce one—“Ciarrah, you keep your brother safe.”

I promised I would, and I let her kiss my cheek before we hurried away. I wish still, all these thousands of years later, that I’d lingered in her embrace. Niamh and I stayed in our human form that night, our dragon forms being far too large and showy for secrecy, but as luck would have it, my mother’s sister had gone to the lake for a tryst with one of the hunters, and as we were heading home in the dark before dawn, we stumbled over their sleeping forms.

Our aunt would have kept our secret, I think, if only because she didn’t want people to gossip about her romance, but the hunter, Kirahn, was bitter because his mother had died the first night of the storm. He was powerful among the Drakha. All told we numbered only hundreds then, and few among us had any magic at all. Kirahn had it in spades, though. He was feared for it, but also revered. He bound us, Niamh and I, in thick ropes so we couldn’t run and in spells we didn’t understand the purpose of. Perhaps he meant them to keep us from changing into dragon form, but if so, he needn’t have bothered. We had never changed except in a spirit of joy, and it didn’t even occur to us to use the ability to escape.

My mother promised she would find a way to curse the people if we were killed. Some people feared her promise, some feared us, some feared our foremother Naht’kah.

Our healer, Atara, put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. “Naht’kah’s a dragon, Kirahn. Won’t she be offended if we kill her descendants for being dragons?”

In the end, instead of killing us, they offered us to Naht’kah as gifts—or perhaps sacrifices. They draped my brother Niamh in amber and clothed me in obsidian and took us to the mouth of the cave where Naht’kah was rumored to dwell. She didn’t come for us by nightfall, and it was cold so high in the mountains, so we went into the cave and slept near the singing stream inside.

When she discovered us, Naht’kah blazed with anger at what they had done, and for days we were constantly jumping into the rainbow pools to keep out of the way of her suddenly flaming breaths. She calmed after a time and asked us to show her our dragon forms. We transformed, and she joined us, and we flew out under the sun over parts of the land we’d never seen before. When we returned, all of us were astounded to see the stones they had decorated Niamh and I with had become bound in our scales. We were quite beautiful, the two of us, Niamh glittering like the sun and I an obsidian mirror.

Generations of Drakha were born and died as we lived there with Naht’kah and her consort, Nahk’tesh. Naht’kah took a more active hand in guiding the affairs of the people—she was after all their foremother and she cared deeply that they should survive and live well. Only one family among the Drakha—the Drakhonic line—ever showed signs of the dragon within, and to prevent them from being exiled as I and my brother had been, she cast her magic over them, binding the dragon to the mind instead of the body.

Naht’kah and Nahk’tesh do not age, but Niamh and I were not immortal, and we aged and aged until we were but frail, wrinkled versions of our human selves. Still, the stones that had become part of us on that first flight with Naht’kah remained bound in our hides, shadows and lights under our human skins.

A day came when Nahk’tesh dove deep into his pool and came back up with a vision to share, a vision of evil sailing in on a distant horizon of human time. Naht’kah determined that the Drakha would not be defenseless when that time came, and she undertook to change them. They had been wanderers, but now she bound them to the Ol’Karrigh and their country—now called the Sunlands—that they would always have a home for which to fight. It was good, but it wasn’t enough, and she made up her mind to give them a secret power.

To do this, she asked a gift from Niamh and myself.

“I would bind you in stone, and you will serve the Drakha,” she said, rather cheerfully.

She bid us farewell on the night we would have breathed our last mortal breath, laid us in beds of mother of pearl and sang through the night, weaving shells around us. The egg that held Niamh she then ripened in her fire, that his brilliance could stand like the sun against cold darkness. My egg she handed to Nahk’tesh and bid him hold me deep in the depths of his pool where his liquid magenta flames perpetually burned, that I would be the living mirror to the empty lifelessness of Naught.

In time she took from our eggs a perfect smooth oval of amber and a jagged shard of obsidian and placed them in the keeping of a stone carver, Nat’Kori, a dragon of the Drakhonic line. Nat’Kori grew quite old before he worked us into our present forms. Every day for more than a hundred years he viewed us, held us, spoke to us, until one day he knew that if he was ever to complete our making before he died, he must begin. Day by day he chipped here and there, carving us into daggers, grinding our blades sharp. He slept one night and woke with a vision and, knowing he would be finished after this last task, he adorned our hilts with the twelve-rayed sun.

We came alive for him, and he smiled as he breathed his last.

Niamh is silent now, and lost perhaps.

But I am found and will be bonded, blood to light. I still sing, and my dark light shines.

 

 

Talon, Speaker of Bastien Clan Eagle Shifters, Earth

 

TALON BASTIEN slowed his camouflage jeep enough to safely make the turn from the dry gravel of Sinlahekin Road to the dirt track that would take him to the clan aerie. The day was warm for March in the Okanogan, and he longed for the cool crispness he could find soaring hundreds of feet up in eagle form. He shook his head, refusing the idea, and kept driving.

More important to get the supplies in, he reminded himself.

Like most shifters he knew, he looked about half his eighty years, but at the moment he was feeling his age. Not so much in his body, which remained sturdy and stone-shouldered as always, but his heart felt heavier than ever before.

Why are these troubles hitting us now? he asked himself for what must have been the hundredth time, yet whatever the elusive connection was between the world condition and the aerie’s failing health, he still couldn’t see it.

He’d led the clan for more than forty years, ever since his father was shot down from a helicopter in an unlawful eagle hunt. That had been the last time the clan had faced a serious threat, what with government agencies mad-dogging every golden eagle, shifter or not, within a hundred miles of the Umatilla, where the clan had made its home for a hundred years or so prior. The teapot-sized storm that blew up when one of the scandal rags published an ill-gotten photo of a teenager in partial shift had eventually blown over, but it had been enough to uproot the clan.

A few hundred miles north, the Sinlahekin Wildlife Preserve turned out to be a perfect fit for the clan, and with Talon’s degree in ecology, he’d been able to get a job on the preserve’s staff, giving him the perfect excuse to be anywhere on the preserve on foot or in his jeep. Still, right now, he didn’t want questions, so he guided the jeep into hiding behind a low ridge with a convenient space between it and the thicker than usual Douglas firs on the other side, careful not to churn up the ground too much.

Out of the jeep, he stretched and rolled his shoulders, resisting once more the urge to shift and fly. Sick clan members waited, needing food, medicine, and warm blankets. He’d haul the stuff up on foot, pulling a travois in the old way as far as he could. It was too much to carry on foot or on the wing, and even the roughest roads stopped well before reaching the high ridges. After doing what he could to sweep away noticeable tire tracks, he took a swig from a water bottle, then gazed longingly at the open blue that beckoned overhead. Maybe later, he half promised himself. First, the clan needed him. He set up the already loaded skid, shouldered his pack, and stepped through a thicket of sage onto the almost invisible track that would take him home to the aerie.

Stepping across a stagnant remnant of a usually fresh creek, he tried to swat away despair with the black flies, but a growing worry gnawed at him. Whatever was happening to his clan, whatever malady kept them landbound in forms neither human nor bird, he’d begun to fear they’d never find a cure.

 

 

Pahlanus, Ancient Prime of Terrathia

 

PAHLANUS, ANCIENT Prime of Terrathia, sat uncomfortably in a chair made for Earthborns in the Valley City, California boardroom of an Earth enterprise known as Allied Biotech, Incorporated. The five Earthborns present, though touted as their world’s leaders in what they called “bio-development,” seemed to Pahlanus rather dull-witted. That suited his purposes, but he wondered: if these were Earth’s best minds, how had they ever managed to uncover the secrets of DNA and gene-splitting?

In many ways, though, even the crude Earthborns had advanced their technology beyond the Ethrans. To a refined Terrathian Prime, the people of Ethra seemed farmers to a man, with no more education or insight than what was required for plowing or woodcraft. Yet Pahlanus knew this to be deceptive. In the sciences, Ethra clearly remained a backwater. Yet it had been Ethrans who’d best learned to manipulate energy with their minds, to channel that energy work into instruments, charms, and talismans for even greater strength. This excellence could be accounted for by the sheer abundance, in Ethra, of the particular energy they employed. They called it magic, but it was life force, and it sustained their world. Perhaps because of their attunement with that deep energy, Ethrans were also the first to find the double-sided, hollow, interdimensional barrier they called Naught. And, astonishingly, they’d been the first among the triplet worlds to understand the permeable nature of that boundary and exploit its weakest sections, using them as portals to other dimensional realities—other worlds.

Pahlanus shifted the pillows stuffed between his narrow Terrathian body and the arms of the chair. They provided not-quite-enough support, and the longer he sat, the more his long spine tended to curve in ways it shouldn’t, and his tall head, with only his own stiff collar to help his undeveloped muscles, seemed very heavy. Yes, he was physically uncomfortable, and alarmingly aware of it. This was another sign of Terrathian decline, which is what had brought him to this meeting.

Life-splitting, or gene-splicing as used in Earth, had been discovered in that backwater world only forty or so years earlier, but in Terrathia, time had moved differently, and many generations had passed since the appropriated science had first been used in the laboratories of great Terrathian Primes. Pahlanus himself had made the key connection, adding Ethran life-force magic as a wedge to accomplish true life-splitting. With these tools, all emotional baggage—and unnecessary physicality—had been sequestered away. The Terrathian Primes were perfected, and mining lives provided all the energy needed to keep these superior beings nourished.

After many years of progress, Pahlanus was the foremost example of the end result. He was all mind, his brain capacious, attached physically to a minimal body able to handle objects and move him from place to place. His emotional “Echo,” to use a translation of the Terrathian term, had been bundled into an ethereal, barely visible form loosely bound to him by a cord of energy. For the hundreds of years he’d lived in this state, he’d been able to ignore the presence of the Echo entirely, allowing it to feed silently from the life force he consumed in lieu of material food.

Until now.

Like other Primes, Pahlanus increasingly found himself aware of both physical and emotional discomfort, for the separation from the Echo had weakened. Terrathian life force, even supplemented as it had been by the energies of Ethra and Earth, had become scarce, for in their exuberant pursuit of perfecting themselves, his kind had failed to realize the resource did not infinitely renew itself. As Terrathia died, they’d taken emergency measures and stockpiled life-force energy, enabling them to create a small, temporary, substitute world. It could not be sustained indefinitely, but it must be maintained until the Primes of Terrathia had regained sufficient strength and physicality to colonize elsewhere.

To do that, they would need a vast amount of pure life force.

Pahlanus cleared his long, serpent-slender throat, preparing to speak in the reedy remnant of his voice. He surveyed the five heavy-featured Earthborns present, and then locked his gaze on the glowing eyes of the single Ethran attendee. In a deplorably emotional quest for vengeance and power, this woman had cooperated with an experiment of Terrathian science. That test had succeeded. Though technically dead, the Ethran woman now existed and acted in a kind of quasi-location between Naught and the living worlds.

The Earthborns at last ceased their prattle and looked toward Pahlanus expectantly. He spoke, his words barely loud enough to break the silence.

“Gentlemen, my lady Liliana. We need your children.”