Authors: Barbara Kloss
Breath of Dragons
By Barbara Kloss
Copyright 2014 Barbara Kloss
All Rights Reserved
Cover art by Ben Kloss
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For my son, Brahm.
Thank you for napping so well so that I had time to write this.
Table of Contents
"Tainted, twisted, shadows wait,
A reckoning of old, a judgment too late."
~ Augurs of Karth, v. IV, 216 a.e.
hick, gray clouds nestled on the mountaintops, their magnificent spires hidden. It would snow soon. I'd always liked the view from up here. I'd imagine myself a bird, soaring over forest and river, chasm and mountain—it did not matter, for at these heights, I was safe. An entire world spread out before me, vast and resplendent, though today its resplendence was muted in the shadow of the clouds.
But even if the sun had shone, illuminating the landscape in all its heavenly glory, I would have felt the darkness. It pervaded like a disease, hiding in deep crevices, just waiting for a moment of weakness to overcome its host.
He was out there, my uncle, Lord Eris. He and his cursed shadowguard would try to take this glorious and beautiful kingdom and reduce it to nothing, just as he had tried decades ago. But he hadn't possessed the shield of power back then.
I felt the chill of winter in my bones as I leaned forward against the balustrade, watching the world lying in false quietude. My vantage point was no longer safe.
They were out there…somewhere. Perhaps the two most important people in my life—no, they absolutely were the most important people in my life. As much as I hadn't wanted to see Daria go, I knew she had to. Pendel would present dangers of its own, but this castle was not safe for her. It had never been, but now it was more dangerous than ever. She hadn't known the extent of this danger when she left, and I did not tell her. I could not.
Not with the eagerness in her eyes and the hope in her gait. She believed the box of the Pandors was the key to stopping our uncle from using the shield of power, so she had set course for Pendel—the land our mother was from. The land where this rumored box was supposedly hidden. Daria believed that the box of the Pandors held the knowledge of overpowering the shield of power that our uncle had stolen. A shield he intended to use to take over our world. I needed to believe that, too, because we were vastly outnumbered otherwise. It would take a miracle.
Or a marriage.
I turned around. Headmaster Ambrose stood nearest, though it was Aegis Cicero Del Conte who had spoken. He and Sonya were, perhaps, the most eager about the current state of things, because it was their son who traveled alone with my sister through these dangerous lands. But if anyone could handle himself, it was Alexander Del Conte. I trusted him far more than I trusted anyone—more so than myself, even. Which was why I'd agreed to let him go with her all the way to Pendel in order to find the box of the Pandors.
That, and he'd made me a certain promise.
"You haven't mentioned it to her?" Cicero repeated.
"No, I have not." I sighed.
"Sire." It was Sir Armand de Basco who spoke this time, my head guard. "They're at the wall and Lord Tosca is grossly outnumbered. Once they penetrate the ninth gate, there will be no stopping them. Not without reinforcements—"
"I understand what is at stake, Sir Armand," I said.
Cicero and Sir Armand exchanged a glance.
Headmaster Ambrose clasped his hands, crimson sleeves colliding into a bell shape that fell to the marble floor. "My prince," he said in a very careful, yet stern tone. He was used to giving orders and having them obeyed without question. "You are sworn to protect the safety of this kingdom. You cannot afford to ignore Lord Commodus' offer. We need his support, or you've doomed this regency to the fires of Mortis."
A cold breeze whispered through the room and the candles flickered. The others did not know of Daria and Alex's mission, and I would not tell them. I would not put her at any more risk; her whereabouts must be kept secret. I inhaled slowly, standing firm. "I will not ask this of her."
"Prince Stefan, please." Aegis Sonya Del Conte stepped forward with the worry of a mother in her dark eyes. "Even I can see that there is no other alternative, and you know I would never wish this upon her. Especially not after…" Her voice trailed and her gaze fell to the floor.
The silence was heavy with the name of a man we had all loved who had been so cruelly taken from us.
"You must order her return immediately," Headmaster Ambrose said through tight lips. "She is the princess of Valdon; it is but a small sacrifice given in exchange for thousands of lives."
"She's sacrificed enough, Headmaster." My fists clenched at my sides, and I looked back out my window. "I will not have her sacrifice her heart also."
On the Other Side
oosen your grip," Alex said.
I did, which turned out to be a huge mistake. My dagger flew right out of my hand and sailed through the air to where it was swallowed by a giant bush.
Alex lowered his blade. "I said loosen. Not let go."
"Again," he urged. "Go pick it up." He nodded toward the barbaric bush that had eaten my dagger.
I jogged over to it and wiped the sweat from my brow, and the wind stirred. It had been doing that a lot, lately, and when it did, it had purpose. What that purpose was, I didn't know. I just wished it would stop following me, but that was like telling your shadow to go away.
It had been two full days since we'd left the castle walls. Two days of sneaking through a dense forest of giant pines and magnificent trees that winter had reduced to mere skeletons. The air smelled of snow and balsam, and the frozen ground had been littered with dead leaves and needles that had crunched beneath our horses' hooves. Navigation through the wintry wonderland had become an art form, but we'd had to avoid the main roads. We couldn't afford to be seen, not in our current political climate, and as King Darius's granddaughter, I was an ambling liability.
And we were quite the awkward trio, Alex, Vera, and I. It was supposed to have been just Alex and me, but then Vera had appeared out of nowhere and offered to help. I didn't know why, really. For all we'd been through recently, what with our unexpected camaraderie during the games and everything, I still thought the girl hated me. The only thing I could figure was that she hated the king more. Or maybe she still held out hopes for Alex.
Whatever her reasons, I'd allowed her to come for one reason and one reason only: Vera was from Gesh. My ultimate goal was to travel to the faraway land of Pendel—the land my mother was from—because I believed, deep in my gut, that the box of the Pandors was hidden there.
No one knew what was in this box, and many believed it to be legend, but I knew it was real. I couldn't explain why, nor could I explain the intense pull I'd felt toward my mother's homeland and this legendary secret surrounding her family. But ever since the disaster of the games, I'd felt it. I felt that it held a secret of immeasurable power—one so great, it could overcome that of Lord Eris, my uncle. A power that would stop him from using the shield of power he'd stolen during the games. A power that would protect this world from his evil and tyrannical rule.
When I'd mentioned my suspicions to Tran Chiton, wizard extraordinaire, he had seemed to think I was on to something, and he had even suggested we begin our search in Pendel's capitol: Karth. When I'd asked him why, he had already changed the subject and started going on about something to do with faerie law and misappropriation of funds.
Of all the seven territories, Pendel was unique in that it had no proper lord to govern it. The once-noble lineage of Pendel had been lost with a man named Galahad. Galahad had been High Lord of Pendel, and then rose to king of Gaia about a century ago. Gaia herself had gifted Galahad with the unity stone and a shield of power, which bound all the elementals, but the shield had corrupted Galahad, resulting in the Great War of Gaia in which Galahad had died. The people had killed off Galahad's descendents, which precipitately ended the noble lineage. Ever since that day, Pendel had been governed by a steward, appointed by its people, and would remain so until the time written in the prophecies when a true lord could be reinstated. That prophetic time was supposed to have been this past year's games, in which the winner would inherit Lordship over Pendel, and with all seven rightful lords in place, a true king of Gaia could be elected by the Dalorens. But Lord Danton Pontefract had run away with the unity stone and my uncle had stolen the shield, so, needless to say, none of that happened.
Other than Pendel's dismal history, I didn't know much about the territory itself, and neither did either of my traveling companions. According to the map I'd brought, Pendel was in the far eastern corner of Gaia. The fastest route for us would have been via portal, but Stefan had fortified the portal in Valdon with nothing short of a small company of soldiers, and we couldn't afford to have our plans or our whereabouts known to anyone else.
It was Tran who had convinced us not to take the direct route by crossing the rather capricious lands of Campagna and sailing from the easternmost shore. Instead, he had said to travel south to the territory of Gesh and sail across the Black Sea from Gesh's shores. Sailing would take a week or so, depending on weather. So, after much deliberation, we'd agreed to this plan and ridden on horseback toward Gesh. And when Vera had unexpectedly shown up, I'd thought having one of Gesh's own in our company might be a good thing. I just wished that "good thing" hadn't come in the form of a beautiful blonde assassin who had a thing for my, er, boyfriend.