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1: THE OUTLAWS OF BARSINE
Jorat Dominion, Quuros Empire. Two days since Kihrin D’Mon was sacrificed to Xaltorath
When Kihrin walked back into the tavern, a swell of questions greeted him—or greeted her. The guests wanted answers. What was that noise? Had it scared the horses? Were the horses all right? Had the weather worsened? Did anyone check the horses? Did the firebloods want to join them at the bar?1
That last offer had sounded serious.
“The storm is still too severe to travel,” Janel projected in a loud voice. “Don’t try to leave.”
Kihrin raised an eyebrow but didn’t contradict her. An ice sheet several feet thick now trapped everyone inside. With an angry dragon waiting for them on the other side.
Just your typical night out at a tavern.
There seemed little point in panicking the crowd over something they couldn’t fix. Kihrin doubted he could help either, even with Urthaenriel, but he knew one thing: any dragon-slaying debate had become significantly less debatable.
But if the one outside was the wrong dragon, who was the right dragon?
After everyone returned to their drinks and chatter, Janel wandered back to the Vishai priest. She dumped Kihrin’s bag onto a chair.
“Aeyan’arric’s outside,” she whispered to Brother Qown, “and she’s iced over the tavern’s front door.”
Kihrin sat and stared at his bowl. He wondered how many provisions the tavern had stocked, how long the supplies would last. How would the locals accept rationing, or worse, the food running out?
No. Kihrin had no intention of letting a dragon trap him. And Urthaenriel’s hateful melodies had revealed the presence of powerful magic. Kihrin couldn’t be sure if Urthaenriel was reacting to wizards or to the presence of one or more Cornerstones, but the sword gave him enough of a vague sense of direction to make an educated guess. Urthaenriel wanted Qown dead as much as she wanted to kill the dragon, Janel, or the old woman who kept the horses.
These people weren’t as powerless as they seemed.2
“Aeyan’arric’s here? Already?” Qown leaned forward, lowering his voice to match Janel’s. “That’s far too soon after the fight. If she’s recovered this fast—”
“Not if,” Janel said. “She’s recovered. It’s an unwelcome confirmation of how hard it is to permanently kill a dragon. She didn’t even stay dead for two days. And we’ve no way to know if the other dragons recover slower or faster.”
Kihrin furrowed his eyebrows. “She was dead two days ago? How did that happen?”
Janel sighed. She glanced around to make sure no one was paying attention. “I slew her.” She added, “To be fair, I had significant assistance.”
“So … let me see if I understand. You lured me here using a combination of bribery and logic. You have a hypothetical dragon—Morios—you claim will rip up Atrine any minute now. But Aeyan’arric—a dragon who is not hypothetical—has instead stalked you here. Because you were rude enough to kill her two days ago.” Kihrin grabbed his bowl and a spoon. “There’s no point worrying about your first problem until you do something about the second. Did I miss anything?”
Janel frowned at him. “No.”
“So answer me this. If this dragon—Morios—is heading for Jorat’s capital, why didn’t you set up shop in Atrine and have the Gatekeeper send me there? We’d already be in position. I didn’t see a Gatekeeper manning this side of the local Gatestone when I arrived. So unless this is your Gatekeeper’s day off and he’s drinking over at the bar, we can’t open a gate from here. Why enlist my help here—assuming I’d even agree—if it takes two months to reach Atrine? How much of that city would be left when we arrived?”3
Janel and Qown shared that look again.
“Okay, you two need to stop that,” Kihrin said. “Whatever you think I won’t believe or won’t accept—just tell me. I’ve been through and seen a lot. I’m a master at accepting the impossible.”
“The way your hands are shaking suggests otherwise,” Janel said.
“That’s a normal reaction to being attacked by a dragon.”
Qown cleared his throat. “Sometimes a particular action sounds bad if one doesn’t have the context to interpret it. For example, if somebody told me you had killed Emperor Sandus—”
“Just an example?” Kihrin narrowed his eyes. “I hypothetically killed the emperor?”
“Let him finish,” Janel said.
“Yes, thank you. As I was saying, I would be upset. But only because I lacked context. After all, Gadrith the Twisted had taken possession of Sandus’s body using the Stone of Shackles. You didn’t kill the emperor, because he was already dead. You see? If we blurt out certain facts—well, without the right context, you might reach an incorrect conclusion.”
Kihrin stared. “Where are you getting your information about me?”
He found their accuracy distressing. Kihrin checked the man’s hands; no intaglio-carved ruby rings. If Qown belonged to the late emperor’s secret society, the Gryphon Men, he wasn’t wearing his allegiance openly.
Qown cleared his throat. “That’s also one of those situations where context is important.” He turned to Janel. “We have a lot to explain.”
“Yes, you do,” Kihrin agreed. “Luckily for you, I don’t have anywhere else to be.”
Janel scowled. “Our focus must be on Atrine, Qown. Morios could wake at any moment. When he does, Atrine will be defenseless.”
“Do you want me to check?” Qown asked. “Sorry. Of course you do.” He pulled an egg-sized stone from his robes. Toward the middle, the brown agate seemed to transform to some more expensive gemstone. The colors layered until a flame appeared to burn in the center.
Urthaenriel screamed in his mind.
“Is that…” Kihrin paused and wet his lips. “That’s a Cornerstone, right?”
“Worldhearth,” Qown said. “One of the eight god artifacts. Each Cornerstone possesses unique abilities its owner can use—”
“I know what a Cornerstone is. I destroyed one two days ago.” And freed every demon in the world.
“Right. The Stone of Shackles.” Qown fidgeted. “A moment, then.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jenn Lyons