~ Chapter I ~

Lance Measuring

The sun glared oppressively upon the tournament grounds, the brightly-colored tents and banners positively glowing in its light, standing out against the rippling golden-green grass of the Fields of Illikon. Each set of tents bore the colors of a different knight or noble family, each banner a different coat of arms. Two sets of colors were particularly prominent: those of the houses of Draconius and Kallistos.

The Draconius family was one of the oldest in the Achaean Empire. They had helped conquer and build the Northwestern Kingdom, of which Illikon was the capital. Since their move to the rugged north, the house of Draconius had lost some of its refined Old Achaean bearing, and now usually went by the truncated name of ‘Drake.’ Their flags bore their signature rampant red dragon on a white field, and both their banners and their red-and-white-striped tents were decorated with golden borders.

The banners and tents of the Kallistos family were no less colorful, displaying their emblem of a blue castle keep with pride. It rested upon a field of bright green, and their flags also bore gold fringes. The Kallistos family had watched over the Northwest for nearly as long as Draconius, and to them, the castle on their emblem had come to represent Illikon itself, standing upon her signature grassy fields, the proud bastion of Imperial power in the region.

A very tall, dark-haired Achaean with a neatly-trimmed mustache now approached the Draconius tent, his silvery plate armor – polished specially for the joust – glinting in the sun. The wind ruffled his curly, medium-length hair, and he made a half-hearted effort to fix it while he walked. The air smelled of grass and horses: the scent of the Northwest, he thought. Glancing to his right, he saw the unmistakable jet-black stallion of Sir Thomas Drake standing nearby. The steed was already prepared for the joust, clad in barding armor draped with red, white, and gold.

Titus Magnus, Captain of the Illikon Longbowmen – a man instantly recognizable by his great height, chiseled features, and dark mustache – had known Tom Drake since before he was knighted, and never had he known Drake to take a squire. Today was clearly no different, for when Magnus stepped into the tent, he saw his friend awkwardly strapping himself into his own heavy armor. The knight gave Magnus a pleading look.

As usual, Magnus moved to help him, grabbing one of his gauntlets from the table. “It’s funny the things a grown man will do for a living. Like help another man get dressed.”

Sir Tom Drake – who stood three inches shorter than the six-foot, four-inch Captain Magnus – turned to face him. A bright grin lit his handsome features as he gave a laugh at his friend’s remark.

“You make it sound so dirty,” he said.

Sir Drake really was a dashing young knight, thought Magnus – no doubt about that. His high cheekbones and aquiline Achaean nose gave him a look of nobility that went well with his name, but something about his eyes marked the truth of his birth. His eyebrows were dark and low-set, accentuating the slim and alert orbs beneath, which always seemed on the lookout for danger. They were clear, pale green, those eyes – tinged with gold, not unlike the grass of the Plains of Illikon.

Magnus shook his head. “This would be a lot easier if you took a real squire.”

“There’s no way anything would be easier with some kid following me around everywhere.”

“You might be surprised.”

“Right,” Drake said, accepting the offered gauntlet and pulling it on.

His armor was heavily decorated, colored bright red in numerous places and bearing so many highlights that it appeared more gold than steel. His family’s rampant red dragons appeared on the breastplate, and on many other parts of the armor, some of which were even forged into the shape of dragon wings or claws.

“Here to watch me beat Sir Gnaeus?” Drake asked nonchalantly.

“Here to watch,” Magnus corrected as he glanced over the rest of Drake’s armor. “I’m not sure what I’ll be watching. You shouldn’t be so cocky; Gnaeus Kallistos is a skilled knight.”

“And you shouldn’t be so modest,” said Drake. When he saw Magnus pick up his tournament helm, he scratched his head of short, dark hair. “My head itches already.”

Magnus inspected the magnificent piece of craftsmanship: the helm was shaped like the head of a dragon, the very metal itself colored blood red. Sweeping back from the dragon’s head was a pair of bright golden horns, along with several smaller hornlets on its crest and the fins at the back of its cheeks. Its rows of monstrous teeth were painted white, completing the display of all three Draconius family colors. It would certainly protect the head, but it was cumbersome and immobile. It was designed only for the joust and for show, not for actual battle.

“I’d forgotten how heavy this thing is,” Magnus commented as he handed it to Drake. “It’s a wonder your head doesn’t fall off.”

“I wonder that more about the other nobles, considering how big their heads are.” After a pause, he glanced up at his friend. “Not funny?”

“Maybe a little,” said Magnus, a smile playing on his lips as he thought of the irony. Tom Drake was not exactly known for his modesty, either.

“Well, there goes my backup job as court jester,” Drake replied as he took his dragon head helm.

Magnus saw the knight’s eyes flash with anticipation. Perhaps it was the reflection of his golden-red armor, but the yellow tinge around his pupils seemed to flare up like fire. Draconius was not an unfitting name for Tom Drake, even if he had not been born with it.

“Here,” the archer captain said, tossing Drake his arming cap. “For Jove’s sake, don’t forget the padding.”

Drake scratched his head again before sighing and tying on the cap, the look on his face indicating he was resisting the urge to complain.

“I still can’t get used to how ostentatious everything about this is,” Magnus went on.

Drake paused. “What does that even mean?

Magnus laughed as he helped the knight into his enormous helm. “What I mean is: isn’t your usual armor showy enough?”

“That depends on how you define showy,” replied Drake, as he reached up and pulled apart the dragon’s jaws, which formed the visor of the helm, to reveal his face. “Either way, I’d rather be jousting in showy armor than fighting half-naked in a pit of sand, like they do in the Achaean heartland.” He snorted. “And they call the Northwest barbaric.”

“They’re not referring to jousting when they say that. They’re talking about knights like you.”

“What, charming and handsome ones?” retorted Drake with a smirk as he removed the helm again, handing it back to Magnus.

“Or low-born adopted ones that wear armor modeled after a monster?”

“Dragons aren’t monsters. They’re… well, dragons.”


“When I think of ‘monsters,’ I think of demons.” The knight removed one of his red-and-gold striped lances from a rack and muttered under his breath. “And mages.”

“Magi are monsters now?”

“Well, they’re the only reason I’ve ever seen a monster. They brought the demons here, remember? Heads up!” Drake tossed him the lance, which Magnus caught and arched a brow at. “Be my squire for a day?” the knight asked, with his usual charming smile.

Magnus sighed. “Very well. I just hope I don’t end up dragging you to your sister at the healing house.”

“Who, Cristy?” Drake laughed. “She’d probably love the excitement. But Gnaeus is the one losing, remember?”

Magnus frowned. “Don’t hurt him, Tom. This is only a joust.”

The knight shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“Tom…” Magnus began, in a disciplining tone, but Drake interrupted.

“He insulted my father, Magnus.”

“It was one offhand comment at a banquet! Besides, I thought you and your father hadn’t been getting along.”

“Maybe not, but gods know I don’t want him to take the blame for something that I did, or rumors about things I might’ve done.”

“Tom, no offense, but Warren takes a lot of blame for things that you do. He chose to adopt you into the family…”

“Sometimes I wish he never had,” said Drake, brushing past him and out of the tent.

Magnus rolled his eyes, lapsing briefly into thought until he realized he was still carrying Drake’s tournament helm and one of his lances. He darted outside to see the knight already approaching his mount.

“Wait for your ‘squire’!” he called, catching up to him just as Drake was mounting the steed. “Gnaeus is only repeating what he hears from Cassian, you know.”

Drake sighed. “I know, Magnus. I hear the things people say about me behind my back – and they usually say it all to my face, sooner or later. But my father’s been dragged into my business one too many times. I’m just trying to stand up for him.”

“He can stand up for himself.”

“I don’t see him out here doing it…”

“I’ve seen you stick your neck out too much lately. You can’t always fight for everyone.”

Drake muttered, “I’d like to.”

“And,” Magnus added in a graver tone, “you shouldn’t be letting your anger influence the fight. This tourney was planned months in advance. It’s supposed to be a grand event…”

Drake laughed, shaking his head. “Magnus, you fuss enough to make up for both my parents. I’m not out to hurt Gneaus, trust me… even if he does need to learn to keep his mouth shut.”

Magnus was about to speak, but Drake held up a finger to stop him. “Ah, ah,” he cut in quickly. “Yes, I know that’s exactly what people say about me.”

“If you say so, Tom. I don’t want you to get hurt either, you know.” He nodded toward the field outside. “We should get in position. Everyone’s waiting.”

Magnus walked alongside Drake’s stallion as they entered the lists, watched by a crowd of nobles in the high stands. Every noble house seemed to be trying to outdo the other in terms of appearance, proudly displaying their heraldry and riches, wearing outfits of brightly-dyed clothing. There was enough wealth on display to feed all the peasants in Illikon for years. On the field, racks of lances and shields rested on either side of the field, glistening in the same rainbow of family colors. Magnus drew in a deep breath. He hated jousts, but never had he failed to attend any of Sir Drake’s many tournaments.

From the high towers on either side of the spectators in their stands, trumpets rang out through the still afternoon, signaling the arrival of the knights. Magnus glanced up at Drake and saw the knight’s gaze locked upon Lady Severina Kallistos, the sister of the man he was dueling. Judging from the smile on both his face and hers, there were no hard feelings between the two knights for the tournament at hand. It was strange to think of her as a knight, Magnus thought, though he had no qualms with it. Female knights were rare throughout the Empire, but there were far more here in the wild northern lands than in the old Achaean Heartland to the south.

Magnus’s keen archer eyes wandered to the other end of the lists, where Drake’s opponent, Sir Gnaeus Kallistos, sat tall atop his steed. Magnus watched as Gnaeus’s squire passed him a magnificent great helm, shaped like a round castle turret topped with crenellations, complete with a flag-like plume. The knight’s pauldrons had a similar design, giving his head and shoulders the appearance of an indomitable gilded fortress. Magnus just shook his head. None of the Northwestern noble houses lacked for pride.

In truth, all of the pomp and prestige on display at this tournament would hardly have warranted a derisive snort from the major houses in the heart of the Empire. Many had twice as much wealth as all of Illikon put together, and even the ones that could not boast of such riches possessed something more prestigious still: Patrician blood. Imperial knights – or the ‘Ordo Equester,’ as they were officially known – could secure massive tracts of land and become as wealthy as kings, but none of that buy them the blood of the Old Empire, and that blood was what mattered most in the Imperial capital of Coronaria.

Magnus was stirred from his thoughts when Sir Drake met his gaze, and the archer promptly handed his friend the massive dragon helm.

“Thanks,” said Drake as he put it on, concealing his face within the dragon’s maw.

Magnus stepped back to admire Drake in his full panoply, the golden horns of his dragon helm glimmering in the sunlight, and he suddenly felt that Sir Gnaeus had been very much outdone. After all, what fortress could long withstand the wrath of a dragon?

Nonetheless, as he fetched a shield, Magnus said lightheartedly, “You look ridiculous, Tom.”

“Thanks. A shame I couldn’t figure out a way to make some wings, huh?”

“That really would be overdoing it,” replied the Captain as he passed a lance and shield up to Drake, helping him strap the latter onto his arm.

The two of them looked to see Gnaeus’s small squire having difficulty doing the same, and both laughed at the sight.

“Poor kid,” Drake remarked.

“I’m sure he’s proud to be helping. Good luck, and don’t hurt anyone, alright?”

“Are you my squire or my father? See you on the other side of the lists,” answered the knight, ever confident and nonchalant.

Magnus quickly stepped away from the horse and rider. Looking to the highest seats in the stands, he saw King Aetius and Queen Carlisa Illikoni observing from the royal box. The Queen met Drake’s gaze, raising a hand in acknowledgement as Drake bowed his helmed head to her. This exchange did not go unnoticed by the other nobles present, many of whom shifted in discomfort. It was well known that the Queen strongly favored Sir Drake.

Alongside the royal family sat the stern-faced and blue-eyed Marshal Lucius Fletcher, who wore a very rich outfit for someone of his original station. He was of common birth, but he had distinguished himself in battle enough to be appointed the leader of Illikon’s royal standing army. Beside him sat the darkly-tanned and sun-worn Alexandria Harper, Admiral of Illikon’s mighty navy, her long, blonde hair blowing in the breeze.

There in the stands, Magnus saw every noble he could name, including all three of Tom Drake’s older sisters. Cristina and Cassandra sat with their parents, Annemarie and Sir Warren Drake, but Anne, his eldest sister, was seated with the Marks family… right beside Sir Cassian Marks, whose thick, dark brows were knitted into a frown as he watched the fight.

One face in particular was missing from the crowd: Lieutenant Corben McShane of the city guard. Magnus sighed. He, Drake, and Corben had been fast friends for years, nearly inseperable despite their vastly different stations. Not only was Corben a commoner, but he clearly cared nothing for events like this – even when he knew both of his best friends would be present, and one was even participating.

Suddenly, the trumpets sounded. The knights lowered their lances. Magnus stood his ground not far from the center of the field, and he was soon joined by Sir Gnaeus’s squire, who offered a respectful bow. Magnus smiled at him and gave a bow of his own before they returned their full attention to the dueling knights.

They leaned low upon their horses, lances extended and shields held close by their sides. Kicking up dirt as they ran, the stallions charged straight forward at full speed. Magnus clenched his teeth in anticipation as the riders approached impact…

An ear-splitting snap made many spectators start in their seats as the lances of the knights shattered against each other, sending splinters flying in all directions. The horses kept running, stopping only when they reached the end of the lists. Magnus and the young squire ran to Sir Drake and Sir Kallistos respectively as the knights calmed their steeds, awaiting new lances.

Drake loosened his legs about his stallion’s sides and leaned forward, trying to make him stop and relax. The moment Magnus took his broken lance, Drake patted the horse’s neck.

“Easy, Ghost,” he said, sounding worried.

Magnus handed him a new lance. “Do you really think it was a good idea bringing Ghost instead of your destrier? Aren’t they more suited for this kind of thing? Then you could’ve gotten a servant to suit him for you, too, instead of doing everything yourself.”

“He’s doing fine,” replied Drake. “He’s just, ah… eager, that’s all.”

“Reminds me of someone.”

Drake’s black stallion, Ghost, snorted as if in retort, but Drake’s attention was elsewhere. He looked over to Sir Gnaeus and growled something under his breath. Echoing against the confines of his metallic helm, Magnus thought it sounded like the rumbling of some angry beast.

“You alright?” he asked, wishing he could look into his friend’s eyes.

“I’m just ready to get on with this.” Drake glanced at him. “You’d better move back.”

The trumpets sounded again, and Magnus loped away from the lists, watching as Drake set the lance against his arm and took aim. Again the horses charged, their riders holding tight to their horses and equipment, aiming their lances carefully…

But this time, one struck true. Drake’s lance splintered upon Sir Gnaeus’s shield with enough force to send him falling from his horse, landing flat on his back. His charger kept running until his squire caught him by the reins, and Sir Gnaeus dropped his lance, pulling himself to his feet. Magnus ran forward to meet Drake at the lists.

Drake tossed aside his shield and broken lance, and Magnus reached up to help him dismount. Once Drake was on his feet, Magnus held toward him a pair of sheathed swords. Despite his disdain for the gladiatory games of the Empire, Drake strongly favored a vicious and flamboyant two-weapon fighting style rarely seen outside of the gladiator pits. Most knights preferred the longsword, but Sir Drake’s style was suited for the slightly shorter and far older type of sword called the gladius. He pulled off his massive helm, tossed away the arming cap beneath, and then grabbed the offered swords by the hilts and drew them: twin gladii, symbols of the ancient Empire.

“Time for the grand finale.”

Drake turned away and strode toward Sir Gnaeus, who had been given a new shield and sword of his own, though he still wore his castle tower helm. As he came forward, Drake flourished his twin blades – this resulted in mixed shouts of approval and disgust from the spectators, but Drake ignored them and kept his eyes trained upon his opponent. Gnaeus raised his shield, remaining on the defensive while the dragon knight watched him. The two circled, each trying to stare the other down like a pair of vying wolves, their heads held low. Each knight waited for the other to strike the first blow.

Drake grew impatient first, and he charged forward with his blades swinging. His blows were rapid, raining down upon Gnaeus’s sword and shield alike, putting him entirely on the defensive. Drake was surprisingly agile in his suit of full plate, moving comfortably in his armor like a second skin. Parrying blows as quickly as Drake could deliver them, Gnaeus continued taking steps back and staggering at the heavier blows dealt to his shield.

At last their blades caught on each other, Drake’s twin swords grinding against Gnaeus’s only weapon. Drake jerked Gnaeus’s blade away, trying to make an opening, but Gnaeus brought his shield forward, ramming it into Drake with all his might. As Drake tried to regain his footing, stumbling backwards, Gnaeus brought his sword around to strike…

Drake parried the blow yet again with his right-handed blade, but Gnaeus pulled away, delivering another slash that Drake also deflected.

“Come on, Gnaeus, this is getting old!” Drake remarked as he kept receiving the blows, the clashing of their swords ringing in his ears.

Suddenly he pulled away as Gnaeus struck again, missing him entirely. Drake lunged forward with both blades before Gnaeus had time to face him, one sword smashing into Gnaeus’s right arm and the other slicing across his leg. Gnaeus staggered, but Drake did not relent. He struck again, this time upon Gnaeus’s armored neck, causing his whole helm to ring. Sir Gnaeus lost his balance entirely, collapsing to the ground.

Triumphantly, Drake stepped upon the other knight’s sword, tugging it from his grip while he lay on his side. For a moment, all was still as the knights locked gazes.

Then, all at once, the trumpets sounded again and the crowd burst into an uproar of both cheers and heckling. Regardless of their reactions, Sir Drake cast his dual swords to the ground and removed his boot from Sir Gnaeus’s blade, offering his right hand down to the defeated knight. Gnaeus accepted the assistance, and Drake pulled him back to his feet.

“My apologies for the words against your father, Sir Drake,” said Gnaeus Kallistos, lifting the visor on his helm to reveal his sharp-featured face and neatly trimmed red beard. “It was wrong of me to slander his name. Am I forgiven?”

Drake nodded, offering a smile. “You are. Just… don’t do it again, or things might really get personal.”

“I have no doubt,” replied Gnaeus in a mutter, but he merely continued to stand with his dark green eyes downcast.

“What, is this your first joust? We’re supposed to embrace in front of everyone to show there are no grudges between us. There aren’t any grudges, are there?”

“None I’m aware of,” Gnaeus answered firmly.

The two knights then embraced while the nobles descended from the stands. Once he moved away, Drake clapped Gnaeus on one of his shoulder pauldrons.

“You’re a truly confusing man, Drake,” said Gnaeus. “Why do you show such respect for tournament traditions, yet show none to your peers?”

He shrugged. “I can respect whoever started a tradition to try and prevent grudges.”

“Yet you seem to hold plenty yourself.”

“I just return the favor.”

“But you hate most of the nobles in the city.”

“Nah, not most… Probably only half.”

Drake smiled again. Gnaeus said nothing, and soon his squire approached and bowed. The knight glanced at him, but quickly looked back to Drake.

“No, I still don’t have a squire,” said the dragon knight before Gnaeus could speak.

“That’s most likely for everyone’s benefit,” replied Gnaeus. At length he added, “I look forward to seeing tomorrow’s joust. If there’s anyone who has a grudge against you, it’s Sir Marks. Perhaps you should try to calm him at the banquet this evening, else he take the duel too seriously.”

Drake arched a brow. “You mean Cassian?”

Gnaeus nodded.

Drake waved dismissively. “Ah, I’m not worried about it. He’s never liked me.”

“I assume the feeling is mutual.”

“Mostly… I try to respect him for Anne’s sake.”

“I see,” said Gnaeus, stroking his beard, apparently surprised at Drake’s bluntness.

He was about to continue, but he saw Captain Magnus approach and paused. Drake nodded for him to speak, and Gnaeus turned to face him once more.

“I respect many of your deeds, Demon Slayer,” said Gnaeus Kallistos, “even some of the more… questionable ones. I feel it’s my duty to tell you that Marks enjoys slandering your name behind your back. He’s been spreading rumors about you.”

“What kind of rumors?”

“Well, he used to call you a real wolf, though Anne seems to have talked him out of that.”

Drake raised an eyebrow and looked curiously at Magnus, who only shrugged. “Meaning what, exactly?” the dragon knight asked.

Gnaeus laughed. “Considering your birth…” he began, but he stopped himself and cleared his throat. “I mean, considering your usual company, I’m surprised you aren’t acquainted with such insults. It means you’re a lecherous ladies-man. But for the past few weeks, his favorite claim is that you’ve performed some personal favors for the Queen.”

Drake breathed a dry laugh. “Not that personal.”

“Personal favors,” Gnaeus clarified, entirely unamused, “that involve breaking several important Imperial laws.”

Now it was Magnus’s turn to shoot Drake a look, but it was returned for only a second. “What Imperial laws?”

“I have no doubt he’ll elaborate, should you confront him about it. But he says you assisted some magi, helped them escape the Inquisition. My sister and I agree the idea is preposterous, considering you slew a demon that threatened the city… but he’s standing by his words, and many other nobles believe him. Now,” said Gnaeus, motioning for his squire to go to his tent, “I must prepare for the banquet. I trust I’ll see you there?”

“Unfortunately,” Drake muttered, but Gnaeus had already turned away to depart.

“I saw that look in your eyes again, Tom,” Magnus said as they left, headed back to the Draconius tent.

“There you go again about eyes. You know, I tried that eye thing, and it never works.”

Magnus chuckled. “You just need to practice reading people.”

“I’d rather read a book. At least they’re interesting.”

It almost seemed laughable to think that Sir Tom Drake, famed for his fighting prowess, would be an avid reader of books. Yet ever since Warren Draconius had adopted him and taught him the skill of reading, he had eagerly sought to expand his vocabulary and knowledge. In a short time he had become more educated than most nobles who learned to read as children, since they took the ability for granted. Drake probably knew more Imperial history and legends than the king himself at this point.

“How did Marks find out about the mage cult ordeal?” Magnus asked at length.

“I don’t know,” Drake replied, his voice low and his tone worried, as they entered the tent. “I was afraid something like this might happen, but I doubt he really knows the truth. No one who was there would have reason to go spreading the story around.”

“That we know of,” Magnus added.

Drake snorted. “Now you’re just being paranoid.”

As Magnus watched the knight pull off his gauntlets and unstrap his breastplate, he thought aloud: “Maybe you could have a girl squire. I bet a girl wouldn’t be as feisty and annoying as a boy.”

“All kids are annoying, Magnus.”

“Somewhere out there is a kid dreaming of knighthood – of bright armor and fluttering banners. That’s all he wants in the whole world. All he needs is someone to take him as a squire…”

“You do it then.”

Magnus ignored this jab, assuming Drake did not really think before dropping the remark. Magnus’s own family still resented him for refusing to follow the path of knighthood. He remained silent as he helped Drake set aside his breastplate and remove his heavy boots. Drake became distracted, however, and began to finger the silver amulet that hung from his neck upon a leather cord, an amulet depicting his family’s heraldic dragon. Magnus had never seen Drake without it.

“Thinking about your family?” Magnus asked.

Drake looked up at him and nodded absentmindedly, looking worried – but about what, Magnus was not sure. Finally he asked, “Are you going to the banquet this time?”

Magnus shrugged. “I suppose. You’re not looking forward to it?”

“It’s just an excuse for nobles to stuff their faces and whisper rumors. I hate them, really.”

“The banquets or the nobles?”

“Can’t have one without the other.”

“Right. I’ll meet you at the banquet, then.” He hesitated. “And after that, I should leave. I have orders to reinforce Rimegard.”

Drake paused and stared at him. “What? Rimegard?

He nodded. “Sorry about the late notice. I only received the orders a few hours ago myself, so I should leave as soon as I can. I probably won’t be gone long.”

For a moment, Drake said nothing, a look of concern on his face as he regarded his friend. Finally he replied, “I’m sure. I’ll be there in a bit.”

With that, Magnus left the tent, stepping back out into the warm sunshine and cool breeze of a beautiful summer day in Illikon.

Magnus did not bother changing from his armor, figuring it was expensive enough – and polished enough – for the banquet. In order to get clothing as ridiculous as the other nobles’, he would most likely have to borrow more gold from Drake, anyway. His family may have been noble by blood, but they were no longer among the wealthiest families in Illikon. This, combined with the fact that he was a younger son who had opted not to become a knight, meant that Magnus usually had nary a copper to his name.

Castle Illikon’s great hall was bustling with activity. Guards stood at every entrance, clad in suits of shining, highly decorated armor bearing the golden gryphon of Illikon and long, deep blue capes lined with a golden trim. They stood straight as arrows and silent as the grave, despite the commotion going on around them. Most of the guests wore well-tailored clothing of silks and furs, brightly colored and richly ornamented. Even the knights were so attired, and Magnus suddenly felt quite out of place.

Steam rose from the many platters of freshly-cooked food spread across the two great wooden tables that stretched the length of the hall, and intricate tapestries depicting Illikon’s history – as relatively brief as it was – lined the entire walls. At the head of each table, on the opposite side of the hall from the entrance, rested a pair of large thrones decorated top to bottom with gryphons – even the armrests were tipped with gryphon heads. Seated in these thrones were King Aetius and Queen Carlisa Illikoni, clad in incredibly expensive attire dyed deep blue and gold, along with jewelry and capes of fur.

As Magnus stood admiring the room, contemplating where he was supposed to sit, someone tapped one of his metal shoulder pauldrons. Turning about, the captain faced a six-foot-tall man in a suit of mail and leather, wearing the dark blue gryphon tabard of an Illikon city watchman. The guard’s features were rugged but not unhandsome, and his head was shaved bald. He gave Magnus a lopsided smile.

“Corben!” Magnus said, a broad smile spreading out his mustache. “Starting to get a taste for noble social life?”

“What gives you that idea?” replied Lieutenant Corben McShane dryly. “I’m just here for the food.”

“Tom and I missed you at the joust today…”

“Some of us have to work,” Corben replied, grabbing something from a nearby platter.

Magnus was not surprised by Corben’s manners, or lack thereof. After all, he was low-born and had the blood of Northrim in his family. Both traits placed him squarely in the lower class, and the nobles at the banquet openly glared at him, appalled that such a man would even be there. Yet he had been friends with Tom and Magnus for years.

“If you were crashing this party, Corben,” Magnus said, “they would have tossed you out by now… or pinned you to the door with a spear.”

“Apparently the Queen remembers my uh, ‘heroic actions’ durin’ the mage cult thing. The cap’n said I was on guard duty at the feast tonight… by royal decree.” He snorted, his deep green eyes scanning the room. “Never seen so much food in one place before, ‘specially not food that smells so good. Kinda disgustin’, really.”

“So are most of the people eating it, even if they are fixed up nice,” said Sir Tom Drake, who approached them from the castle halls.

Despite his words, Drake was dressed nicely himself: his clothes were as fine as any other nobles’, featuring a bright red surcoat with golden trims and highlights. His silver dragon amulet rested on top in plain view. Also noticeable was the peculiar ring on his right-hand index finger: it appeared to be made of a simple metal, but with a ring of solid obsidian inlaid around the full length of the band – a stunning feat of craftsmanship.

Shifting in this outfit, Drake pushed his sleeves up to the elbows.

“Uncomfortable?” asked Magnus.

“Aye, he’s just itchin’ to dig into all that grub,” remarked Corben. “You look like a silly nob in that get-up, Tom. Doesn’t suit you.”

“It’s not half as silly as your dome helmet.”

“At least it’s not shaped like a lizard with horns…”

Magnus laughed. “Play nice, children. We’re at a baquet, not a tavern.”

Corben added, “Sorry I missed the joust.”

“It’s fine – it’s not like there was anything new to see. But speaking of children,” said Drake, his eyes on a group of nobles with wine glasses in their hands, “I think I see Cassian Marks.”

Sir Cassian Marks,” corrected Corben in an exceptionally dry tone, even for him. “You shoulda warned me about that bastard, Tom. He almost got me thrown outta here just ‘cause the stick up his bum is bigger than a jotunn and his club.”

Drake grunted. “He’s special like that. Sir Gnaeus said that he’s been spreading rumors about me.”

“About what? You an’ the lady pirate? Or you an’ the lady knight? Or…”

Magnus elbowed Corben in the side as sharply as he could, his metal bracer jabbing into the guardsman. Wincing, Corben cleared his throat, rubbing his side.

“No, Cor, about you and your cat,” said Drake.

Corben scoffed.

Actually,” Magnus cut in, “it’s about the mage cult. And I think you should go talk to him about it, Tom. Try to clear things up.”

“That should be rich,” said Corben. “Just so ya know, I’m not pickin’ prettyboy’s pearly-white teeth up off the floor. Or yours either, Tom.”

Drake faked a laugh. “Ahah… very cute, Cor.” He looked at Sir Cassian, who was taking another deep gulp of wine. “Well, I’d better get this over with, before he’s as drunk as whoever came up with his coat of arms.”

Magnus and Corben followed him, though the guard lieutenant hung slightly back so as to draw less attention. Magnus, however, stayed right on Drake’s heels, though he was distracted by the delicious-smelling dishes that were spread out across the dining table. He took a deep breath, absorbing the scent of roast venison, and suddenly discovered he was hungry. But in the corner of his eye, he saw that they were now joining Sir Cassian Marks.

Marks stood around average height for an Achaean, slightly shorter than Drake. His features were strong and pronounced, though his thick chin was mostly concealed by his dark, perfectly-trimmed goatee. His hair matched: medium-length and swept away from his face. He was not unattractive, and he held himself with the air of a man who knew this fact all too well.

As they approached, Sir Cassian straightened his tunic of bright yellow cloth, decorated with his family’s heraldic blue fish as well as silver highlights. A few silver rings glinted upon his fingers in the light of the chandeliers overhead. When he spotted Drake and Magnus, Marks stiffened his posture even further, if such a thing was possible.

“Well well,” he said, “if it isn’t the ‘Demon Slayer.’ Come to gloat about your victory at the lists?”

Drake sniffed the air and sneered as if he caught a rotten scent. “Something’s fishy around here, and it’s not the food. Starting the insults early, huh, Marks?”

“For the love of Apollo, Tom, try to keep this civil,” Magnus whispered in his friend’s ear, but Drake gave no response.

“Insults?” said Marks. “I did nothing of the sort.”

“Nor was I gloating,” Drake retorted, “but I could, if you really want to hear it.”

Marks scoffed. “Go right ahead. You have little to gloat about besides being very lucky and the most bullheaded fool in the entire Northwest.”

“I did also slay a demon or two a while back,” Drake said in a sarcastically thoughtful manner, “and help save the whole city from a cult of sorcerous freaks.”

With a sneer, Marks added, “Speaking of that mage cult, what of this strange new ring you’ve worn since then? Obsidian, is it? Not even a true gemstone… You must’ve gotten it from some witch-woman you ploughed in return for sparing her from the Inquisition. Does it have some accursed power, then? Does it make you… a better partner?”

“If it did, I’d give it to someone who needed it… like a fish.”

“Ah yes, we’re back to the fish again. Your knife-like wit is as sharp as ever, I see.”

“We’re matching wits? All I’ve heard from you are blunt insults, Marks. You brought a cudgel to a knife-fight.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about knife-fights. Is that what they do in the smelly dockside taverns you frequent?”

Drake took a step closer to Marks – an action that worried Magnus. “Come on, Marks, are you out of practice? Is this the best you’ve got?”

“Perhaps I could speak of how many important Imperial laws you’ve broken to gain favor with Illikon’s royal family. Trying to win the dragon a place alongside the gryphon?” Marks reached into his pouch and drew out a gryphon-stamped gold piece, flicking it into the air and catching it.

“You’re just full of low accusations today. But at least the Marks house isn’t ruling – then we’d all be trading cod pieces.”

This managed to rouse a few chuckles from the nobles who were watching the argument, though some tried to suppress their amusement out of shame. Magnus had to stifle his own laughter, though he noted that Corben did not follow this example. He did not want to encourage Drake’s verbal sparring any further, even if it seemed hopeless to try stopping him now.

Marks’s broad chin jutted while he ground his teeth, trying not to show his outrage as he responded: “At least the sigil of my family is not a monster that slaughters and plunders the civilizations of men.”

“I see buckets full of your sigil in the fishmonger stalls by the docks, Marks,” retorted Drake. “You should come down there some time…”

“Olympos forbid. Your father attempted to rescue you from such filth – it’s sad to see you return to it so eagerly. Cavorting around the docks with foul-mouthed sailors and whores.” He glanced at Corben, then at Magnus. “And you drag your other friends down with you. Why, Magnus here may be a lesser son, but at least he used to be a real noble…”

Magnus could practically see the spark of rage ignite in Drake’s eyes. The knight took another step forward, but Magnus grabbed his shoulder. “Easy, Tom. It’s just words.”

Drake said nothing, jerking his shoulder away and keeping his gaze locked with Marks, who laughed and said, “If you need a chain, Captain Magnus, I’m sure there are spares in the castle dungeon.”

“Enough games, Marks,” Drake snapped. “You’ve always been petty and childish, but this is a new low.”

“As if you could lecture me on childishness, when your own juvenile behavior is threatening the welfare and reputation of Illikon!”

Drake and Marks now stood close to each other, vibrant light green eyes glowering into pale crystal blue, their hands tightened into fists at their sides. Yet just when they seemed about to come to blows, a clear voice rang through the hall, silencing everyone:


Queen Carlisa Illikoni – her head of long, blonde hair bearing a crown of solid gold embedded with sapphires and other gems – glided through the nobles, who parted and bowed as she approached. A frown creased her otherwise serene, regal features. She stopped to stand before the two knights at the center of the commotion, who immediately faced her and bowed their heads. Behind her followed the darkly-bearded King Aetius Illikoni, though he remained silent, his presence alone enough to demand respect.

“It fills us with shame,” said the Queen, the jeweled gold adornments upon her blue and gold dress giving her an almost divine glow, “to witness such behavior from knights of Illikon. These actions only lend credence to tales of our kingdom’s supposed barbarity. A royal banquet in the great hall of our castle, and two knights wish to bicker like children and start a common tavern brawl!”

Magnus kept his head lowered, but he shot a glance at Drake and saw scarcely-contained fury burning deep within the green-gold fires of his eyes. It worried him, yet he dared not speak without permission in the presence of Queen Carlisa.

Drake swallowed hard. “Forgive me, your Grace. But Sir Marks slanders my name and the name of my house… and the honor of my Queen.”

“Be that as it may, remember your place, Tom Drake. You are a knight. Knights do not throw petty insults, especially at other knights and in the hall of their mutual King and Queen.” Queen Carlisa then turned her sharp blue eyes to Marks, who further lowered his head as she regarded him. “And as for you, Cassian Marks, your claims about Sir Drake are unwarranted, unappreciated, and – above all – unsubstantiated. You risk bringing great shame upon your own house by spreading such falsehoods.”

Marks took a deep breath. “I swear to you, your Grace, I wish only to protect Illikon. Sir Drake is a pox upon your beautiful city. He offers no one due respect, throws insults at his leisure, and makes a mockery of all the laws put in place by the Empire, the royal family, and the code of chivalry… particularly with his tarnished blood.”

Queen Carlisa looked between the two of them. “We will settle this dispute one way or another, but not now, in this time of merriment. As you both no doubt know, you are due to face each other tomorrow in the tournament. Should we remove one of you from the joust for both your sakes, or can we trust that neither of you will ride into the lists with the intention of harming the other?”

For what seemed an eternity, there was silence – complete silence, without even a murmur from the crowd. All attention was focused upon the Queen and the knights. Drake and Marks met gazes, and Magnus carefully observed the hatred in the eyes of Sir Cassian.

Drake then firmly gave his answer: “I intend to cause him no injury, your Grace, so long as he swears the same.”

“I will joust against Sir Drake with no intention of harming him,” said Marks.

The Queen arched a long brow. “We would have your word.”

Drake immediately knelt on one knee, and Marks quickly did the same. “I swear it,” the two said in unison.

“We trust both of you… yet the rage of battle, even mock battle, can cloud one’s judgment. Remember: should either of you intentionally cause harm to the other, there will be consequences. Now,” she said, turning about to look across the entire great hall and all its occupants, “let us continue the feast.”

~ Chapter II ~

The Dragon’s Wrath

Magnus and Corben followed Drake as he departed Castle Illikon, returning to the bustling cobblestone streets of the city. Behind them loomed the massive keep and the high stone walls protecting the castle grounds, the enormous wooden drawbridge lowered to allow passage during times of peace. It was nearing sundown, and although the feast was still going strong, Drake was all too eager to escape, and naturally his friends joined him.

The distant murmur of voices from the city streets, the clopping of horses’ hooves, the creaking of cart wheels – these sounds were like music to their ears after standing so long in that room full of tittering nobles. All three men had spent most of their lives in Illikon. Lieutenant McShane listened a while, then blew out a contented sigh and put on his city guard helmet. Ordinarily Magnus would have been worried about Drake, but his thoughts were otherwise occupied.

“Well,” Magnus said as they walked, “I should leave for Rimegard. It’s going to be a long ride all the way up there… I might even have to ride through a few nights.”

Drake frowned. “Already? Is it really that bad up there?”

Magnus shrugged, stopping his walk, and the other two followed his example. “No idea. I wish I could stay for the tournament, but orders are orders. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, I hope.”

“Don’t die up there, Magno,” said Corben. “And don’t freeze your mustache off. You look weird without it.”

“I’m not going that far north,” replied the Captain as Drake stepped forward to embrace him.

“If you do die, you’ll never hear the end of it,” remarked Drake with a smirk. “I’ll see you in a few weeks, Magnus. Be careful, and try not to get walked all over without me to stick up for you.”

Magnus laughed. “I’m more worried about you getting into trouble.” He stepped away from them, waving briefly. “Farewell, you two. Cor, keep him out of trouble.”

“Like anybody can do that,” muttered Corben as he and Drake watched Magnus leave. For a while, they were silent, sharing a worried look but saying nothing.

“So, do you actually believe Marks?” Corben asked at length.

Drake gave a laugh and a one-sided grin. “Are you kidding me? No.”

Corben snorted. “What, you don’t trust his word? Ain’t he a knight?”

“Doesn’t mean he has to act like one,” replied Drake.

“Straight from the horse’s mouth…”

Drake shrugged. “At least I’m honest.”

“Chivalrous, too. Certainly are generous to the women.”

Drake grimaced as he replied, “Little below the belt, there, Cor.”


“Oho, that’s really funny,” Drake said dryly. “Who are you, Marks junior?”

Corben did not continue the bickering as they kept heading into the northern district of the city: the Monument District, where many of the nobles dwelt in expensive manors. Corben always felt awkward entering this area of the city, being a mere commoner – and a half-Northerner, at that – but he somehow wondered if Drake felt even stranger.

They rarely spoke of it, but he was all too aware of Drake’s true heritage: Tom had been an orphan on the streets, stealing to survive, before Warren adopted him. Corben had always been told that Warren had witnessed Drake perform some selfless act of bravery, but he never had the guts to ask Warren – or Drake himself – what it was that he saw. He also never had the guts to tell Tom that Warren may have just wanted a male heir, although he figured Tom probably already knew it. Either way, the fact that Drake – essentially a roguish street rat – was now living as a rich knight was more than astounding… and a source of jealousy. That Corben could not deny.

It was not long before the sprawling Draconius manor rose up on their right. Standing just outside the gate to the grounds was Lady Severina Kallistos, clad in an elaborate green and blue gown decorated with her family’s castle emblem. She was an impressive sight, even more so in front of the Draconius household’s intricate High Imperial architecture. Columns surrounded the manor, and its walls were covered in designs of dragons and historic battles, with two massive dragon statues flanking the main gate.

Drake and Severina exchanged warm smiles, and Corben’s features lit up with a knowing smile of his own.

“Seems you’ve got company, Tom,” said the guardsman.

Drake frowned and rapped his knuckles on Corben’s dome helmet, making the half-Northerner jerk away from him. He then left to approach Severina.

“See you tomorrow, Cor,” he called over his shoulder.

“Aye,” was Corben’s only response.

Drake took Severina’s hand, though he paused to look over his shoulder and make sure Corben was leaving. The guardsman had already turned his back, so he regarded Lady Kallistos once more.

The knight kissed her fingers. “No hard feelings about the joust, right?”

“Not this time,” replied Severina. “Gnaeus had it coming.”

“Can’t disagree there,” replied Drake as he opened the gate to the manor and the two began to walk.

“Hopefully you don’t have any hard feelings, about what he said. He can be a lout sometimes… He listens to Marks too much for his own good.”

“I’ve got nothing against him. He apologized, and besides, a lot of people listen to Marks. He’s probably the most respected knight in the city.”

Severina nodded, remaining silent for a long moment before she drew in a breath and said, “We need to talk, Tom.”

Drake stopped, looking into her deep green eyes. He knew he was no good at reading people, as Magnus liked to say, but something was troubling her. If nothing else, he heard it in her tone.

“Sure thing,” he said. “About what?”

“In private,” Severina clarified, nodding toward the manor and shooting a glance at a nearby servant.

Drake’s room was not the largest in the manor, but it was certainly accommodating. Tapestries depicting dragons and legendary heroes decorated the walls, along with a few maps of various faraway places, and one of the Northwest Kingdom. The large and luxurious bed was soft and decorated in red and gold, and near it rested a stand for Drake’s unique suit of armor – not the elaborate panoply he had worn for the joust, but his usual simpler outfit, consisting of a breastplate, horsehair helmet, boots, and bracers. It was forged in the old Imperial Hoplite style – Drake’s favorite, and one the King encouraged in order to impress Imperial heartlanders. The only part of this suit shaped like a dragon was the front of the open-faced helmet, the noseguard of which formed the creature’s head, with its wings spread over the cheekplates.

On the left side of the room, between the tapestries and maps, stood a rack of weapons – mostly Achaean gladii. There were two windows, one on each side of the bed. The sky had swiftly clouded over, and suddenly rain began to patter upon the roof, running down the glass and blurring the magnificent view of Illikon and the sea.

Severina entered first, glancing over the furniture: the armor stand, the dresser, the nightstand, the bed… When she looked at the tapestries and weapons on the walls, she shook her head.

“You’ve added to this since I was last here. It certainly says a lot about your interests,” she remarked.

“Does it?” said Drake as he closed the door behind them.

Lady Kallistos looked down at the soft rug, most likely acquired from some far southern land, and nodded. “Definitely.”

Drake laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” Severina stood with her back to him, her long gown dragging the floor. The knight paused a moment before moving in front of her, blocking her view of the gloomy rain outside. “You wanted to talk?”

Severina nodded. “I did. I wanted to talk about us.”

Drake waited for her to continue. When she remained silent, averting her gaze from him and looking frustrated, Drake placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” he said softly.

She shrugged. “Nothing’s wrong, just…”

“Yes it is. You’re worried about something. What is it?”

Hesitantly, she looked into his eyes again. She drew in a breath to speak, and Drake waited – but then she frowned.

“I don’t know,” she said abruptly. “I don’t know… how to put it.”

Drake frowned as well. “Something to do with Marks?”

“You could say that.”

“If it has to do with that whole ladies-man thing…”

“No,” Severina dismissed with a laugh. “I had guessed that much. Besides, I know you’re a good man, so his rumors don’t bother me.”

“So what is it, then?”

For another long moment, Severina said nothing. When she met his gaze again, she observed the genuine concern upon his face. He was about to speak, but Severina suddenly kissed him on the lips, pulling him close. Drake wrapped his left arm around her waist, lifting his other hand to her neck. Severina did not pull away, pressing her body against him.

She paused just long enough between kisses to say, “Tom?”


Finally she ceased, leaning her head away from his. “I hate to ask, but is that a dagger in your pocket?”

“Maybe I’m just…” he began, but he was interrupted when Severina reached into his pocket and drew out the sheathed dagger that had been pressed against his leg.

“Stop being a smartass for just one minute,” she said.

“Okay, one whole minute. I promise.”

“What is this?”

Shrugging, Drake replied, “You’re right. It’s a dagger.”

“For what?”

“You’re a knight too. You tell me.”

“Don’t tell me you were planning to stab Marks.”

“Stab? No, I was just going to cut him a little bit. Hell, it’d probably improve his face.”

Severina frowned.

Drake put on his best innocent smile. “What, you think I’m serious? Look, it’s just in case. I grew up in the streets and alleys, Severina. It pays to carry a knife, trust me.” He paused, admitting at length, “I guess old habits die hard.”

“You and your fighting,” said Severina, tossing the sheathed dagger away and letting it thud onto the Persinshari carpet at their feet. “But I don’t blame you. I feel naked without a blade.”

A smile played on Drake’s lips. “My minute isn’t up yet, is it?”

Severina gave a laugh. “No, it’s not.” She straightened her long gown. “I hate those banquets, and the worst part is this damned dress. Even my armor is more comfortable.”

Glancing over her elaborate green and blue dress and her golden jewelry, Drake said, “You look great, if it’s any consolation. It’s certainly elaborate,” he smirked, “you might want some help taking it off.”

She grinned. “I heard the last person to help you out of yours was your over-large ‘squire,’ Magnus…”

“He only got down to the mail. He was too clumsy to get any further.”

She moved closer and kissed him again, slipping her hands underneath his shirt, tenderly running them around his waist and then up his bare sides and chest.

“I’m not clumsy,” she said.

The storm only grew worse as the night wore on. Rain now dashed against the windows, hammering with all its might, and rumbling thunder shook the entire manor. Lightning occasionally lit the whole room, reflecting in Drake’s shining armor upon its stand.

Severina breathed a deep sigh, slipping away from the knight alongside her in the warm bed. She listened to the rain pattering upon the stone for a moment, staring at a tapestry of a dragon whenever the lightning lit its ferocious features, before she turned over again and regarded Drake.

“Tom,” she said, “can I ask you something?”

He looked at her. “You know you can.”

She nodded, but she spoke only after a moment of hesitation. “About those rumors Marks is spreading, I just have to ask: how many women have you been with?”

Drake frowned. “Not that many.”

Severina insisted, “All I know about is that girl at that… dance.”

“Hey,” Drake said defensively, “that doesn’t count.”

She laughed. “Why not?”

“Well, for starters, everyone there was stone drunk.”

“Indeed, the whole thing was all very Old Achaean. What wonderful festivities they had.”

“And people call us barbaric; can you believe that?” Drake asked, shifting about uncomfortably. “Magnus and I were just talking about this earlier today.”

“Wait,” said Severina, “there’s more?”

Drake bit his lip.


“Alright, alright,” said Drake, sitting upright. “There was this pirate woman on the ship during the mage cult… thing.”

Severina arched a brow. “Who was she?”

Drake shrugged. “Her name was Elektra.” He sounded half reminiscent.

Severina rolled her eyes, interrupting before Drake could continue. “I’ve heard enough. Forget I said anything.”

Drake just frowned. “If you want to punch me, I’d understand.”

“Maybe later,” she said, lying against him again and relaxing at the warm touch of his skin. “There’s something else.”

Drake slipped his left arm around her, drawing her closer. “Which is?”

Severina rested her cheek on his chest, and he stroked her hair, waiting for an answer. She set her jaw, saying nothing as she half absent-mindedly slid one hand down his body.

He grunted. “You said this evening you wanted to talk in private. Well,” he gave a short laugh, “it doesn’t get any more private than this.”

With a rather sad smile, she replied, “True. But,” she sat upright as well, caressing the back of his head as she pulled him close for a kiss, “I’ll tell you in the morning…”

The sun offered little light after it rose, veiled as it was by thick grey clouds. Corben whistled absent-mindedly while he waited outside the Draconius manor, watching the servants bustle about. He had met Severina in the streets a few hours ago, and he assumed Drake would leave for the castle as well, yet he still had not appeared.

Severina had seemed oddly troubled, Corben thought, but he doubted he was reading her right. It seemed to him she should be perfectly happy, given the fact that…

A whicker at his back interrupted his thoughts, and he heard Drake’s voice say, “Surprised to see you here.”

The guardsman to regard the knight, who sat atop the back of his sheer black stallion, the horse’s white forehead star shining prominently as he faced him. The steed was not yet garbed in his tournament barding, and he snorted, seeming just as annoyed as his rider. Drake’s expression was stony, much to Corben’s surprise.

The guard lieutenant raised a brow. “For a fella who just spent the night with a beautiful woman, you don’t seem too happy.”

“Always direct, huh, Cor?”

“Uh-huh. Well, shouldn’t you be chipper?”

Drake snorted. “Not exactly.”

He set Ghost off at a walk, and Corben was forced to step aside and allow the horse passage, its hooves clopping against the cobblestone street. Corben paused a moment, wondering what had gotten Drake so frustrated, before he set off to follow alongside the knight’s stallion.

“Why not, then?” asked Corben, looking up at Drake. A choice remark or two came to mind – but he decided they were a bit too dry, given Drake’s unusual silence. After a moment of observation, he said, “Severina left, didn’t she?”

“Left me, anyway,” Drake replied flatly. “Apparently being one of the only lady knights in the entire Northwest is hard. She said she didn’t want to ‘jeopardize what little respect she gets.’” Drake blew out a short sigh. “I know what she’s going through better than most, but…”

“But you wouldn’t let somethin’ like your ‘reputation’ stand in the way of a thing you really cared about. Crazy noble women… You’re too good for ‘em, Tom.”

“I might not care much about my reputation,” Drake said, “but I care about hers. It’s very important to her. I just… I didn’t think I was endangering it.”

“I guess she was worried word might get out, with all these rumors flyin’ around…” Corben shook his head. “Anyway, you’ll feel better once you kick Marks’s ass, right?”

“Maybe a little.”

“You will.” Corben sighed. “Guess I’m your squire now that Magnus left. Can’t wait to see all the looks the nobs are gonna give me.”

Corben decided Drake was too busy feeling bad about Severina to respond, so he did not bother going on. They approached the gates, and Corben wondered vaguely what he was doing. He was out of his element in this world of knights and nobles… His world was one of thieves and taverns and common soldiers. It was uglier, but at least it was more honest. Why couldn’t Drake just get a squire?

Humidity hung in the air along with the smell of fresh rain, and light, fine drizzle began to create a thin mist. Yet even this could not dim the vibrant colors of the pavilions on the green tourney grounds. In place of the green, blue, and gold Kallistos tents, others bearing the Marks family colors now stood. Stripes of bright yellow and blue ran down the cloth, highlighted here and there with bands of silver. Flags bearing house crest of a blue fish on a yellow field hung calmly from their poles, for there was hardly a breeze to liven them.

The spectators were just now filling the stands, and despite the rain, Corben saw hardly a single important noble missing from the crowd. The stands were full to bursting. He looked up at Drake where he rested on Ghost’s back, and the knight gripped his stallion’s reins tighter as he surveyed the audience.

“Looks like they’re itchin’ to see who’s gonna win this little feud,” said Corben.

“I just hope Marks keeps his word,” replied Drake.

Rain pinged upon Drake’s metal armor as he halted Ghost at the field, his face once more concealed behind the dragon helm. Through its white steel teeth he saw Marks on the opposite side of the lists, also clad in his full plate tournament armor. Both sides of his helm were decorated with fins like those of a fish, and his great yellow plume, with a stripe of silver in the center, was wilted from the moisture. By his side stood his young squire, who passed him a shield and yellow-and-silver striped lance. Tension was palpable in the air, as if the misty rain was composed of it.

“Do us all a favor and don’t kill the guy, alright, Tom?” Corben said bluntly as he helped Drake strap the shield onto his arm.

Drake accepted the lance Corben handed him and said confidently, “I took an oath, Cor. I’m not going to hurt him.”

“Hope he’s feelin’ the same way,” Corben muttered, shooting a glance at the opposing knight, who stood ready and waiting on the back of his mighty chestnut stallion covered by colorful barding. With his helm’s visor entirely covering his face, he hardly looked merciful.

“He’ll regret it if he doesn’t.”

Corben rolled his eyes, about to retort, but this time he bit his tongue. Trumpets sounded, and Drake turned his helmed head to Corben, whose deep green eyes betrayed his worry.

“Don’t do somethin’ stupid,” said the guardsman as he dashed away from the lists to meet with Marks’s squire before the stands bearing the audience.

Ghost snorted, pawing at the ground, and Drake tensed as the stallion shot off at a gallop straight ahead. As the rain and wind ripped into the thin visor, Drake narrowed his eyes to take careful aim, directing his lance straight for the blue fish in the center of Marks’s shield…

He braced himself in the saddle as he felt the lance impact with Marks’s own weapon, shattering into a dozen splinters with a crack so loud it made him flinch. The horses kept running, halting on the opposite side of the lists, and Marks’s squire came running to meet his master. Corben, however, ambled at a leisurely pace to where Drake waited.

Drake threw aside the broken lance as Corben approached, and the guardsman grabbed a new one off the nearby rack. “How’s it going?” he asked.

“I was hoping to dismount him the first time,” replied Drake.

“Aye, well, if wishes were horses, then maybe I’d be ridin’ one today. You’ll get ‘im before you know it.”

Again came the clarion call of the trumpets, and Corben nodded to him one last time before retreating. Drake returned his attention to Marks as the squires – or reasonable facsimiles – cleared the field.

“Let’s finish this,” Drake muttered as he held on tight, aiming his lance across his stallion’s neck.

Again the steeds streaked across the grassy field, appearing as little more than blurs of color in the rain, though their riders’ helms were still prominently seen, particularly Marks’s plume and Drake’s horns. Tensions rose as the knights met each other, many spectators leaning forward in their seats…

But they only jumped once more at the loud snap from the splintering of lances. A second time the horses stopped on opposite sides of the field, both still bearing their riders, and much of the audience jeered. Drake cast a glance up at them, water running down the snout of his dragon helm and dripping from its various hornlets and spikes.

“They’re as tired of this as I am,” Drake remarked as Corben approached once more, handing him a new lance.

Corben chuckled. “I thought you lived for this kinda stuff, Tom. Just relax, he’ll slip sooner or later.”

“Slip?” Drake laughed. “What, you think he’s as good as I am?”

The guardsman paused, trying to peer through Drake’s monstrous visor, and suddenly his tone changed. “Don’t get too cocky, man – I mean it. Marks wasn’t playin’ around at that banquet, an’ I don’t wanna haul your bloody corpse to your parents.”

“And here I thought you wouldn’t fret as much as Magnus,” replied Drake, just before Corben departed yet again.

The rain was stopping now, making it easier to see. Drake drew in a deep breath, readying himself and lowering his long lance. A third time the trumpets sounded, and Ghost whinnied, rearing high. The moment his hooves touched the ground, he shot forward like a crossbow bolt. Drake leaned low over his neck, shield held close by his side and lance at the ready.

Marks drew near. Once more Drake took aim, once more he braced himself for the impact of lance against lance or shield…

Suddenly Drake spotted Marks’s lance aimed high: too high. But it was too late.

Pain exploded into his head as the weapon impacted his helm with incredible force, splintering the wood into many dangerous shards and rattling his teeth. Falling from Ghost’s back, he slammed into the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him. He scarcely realized what was going on, blinded as he was by shock and pain. His ears rang, the world spun, he felt something hot and sticky all over his head and trickling down his face…

Corben was petrified as he saw Marks’s lance shatter upon Drake’s helm, aimed straight for his visor. Drake reeled from the impact, knocked out of his saddle, and his scream made Corben’s insides twist. The guardsman ran forward just as the crowd behind him began to stand with gasps of horror.

Briefly, Drake lay motionless upon the ground, but soon he pulled himself to his feet, stumbling and grabbing at the air. He pulled off his helm and arming cap, throwing them aside, but Corben saw a bloodied splinter protruding askew from the helm’s dragon-maw visor. Blood coated the entire left side of Drake’s head, running profusely down his face and dripping from his chin. He grimaced in pain, pressing a gauntleted hand upon the wound in his upper forehead, where his hair was partially matted with blood.

Corben approached him, but Drake’s full attention was focused on the yellow and silver knight who had dismounted on the opposite side of the lists, near one of the weapon racks. At the sight of Cassian Marks and his casual stance, Drake felt pent-up rage explode within him, and he removed his hand from his face, ripped his shield off his arm, and instinctively reached for a sword hilt above his shoulder – only to remember that none was there.

Drake turned to see Corben approaching. He was saying something to him, his tone urgent, but Drake could not even hear the words. He only saw the swordbelt Corben carried over his shoulder – Drake’s swordbelt. The knight held out a hand. Almost instinctively, Corben handed the weapons over, though he immediately wondered why and regretted doing it.

“Tom, wait!” he said, but Drake did not hear.

Baring his teeth like a beast, half his face painted in blood that made his eyes and teeth stand out all the fiercer, Drake let out a cry of savage fury as he ran straight for Marks. Marks froze for but a moment before reaching to the weapon rack behind him, taking up a sword. For a second, he looked afraid, but it passed quickly as he braced himself.

And it was good that he did, for the impact of Drake’s first twin-bladed strike nearly knocked him off his feet. He almost expected his shield to splinter from the blow. He quickly swung his sword to retaliate, but Drake swatted it aside and resumed his assault, pushing him backwards. Drake fought like an animal, full of rage and strength, but also with an instinctual precision. Marks found himself losing ground rapidly as steel clashed against steel and wood.

Running toward them, Corben shouted, “Tom!

He received no reaction. In Drake’s world there was only one other person: his foe, Cassian Marks.

Marks desperately tried to turn the tide of the battle, lashing out at the dragon knight, but all this did was open up his defenses as Drake sidestepped the heavy blow. Drake’s blade cut across the steel gorget around Marks’s throat, staggering him. While his opponent was off-balance, Drake delivered a strong kick to Marks’s torso, sending him to the ground.

He slammed one foot upon the wrist of the helpless knight’s sword arm, and with the other he stomped on Marks’s chest hard enough to crush the breath from him, making him sink slightly into the muddy ground. Drake then plunged his left-hand blade deep into Marks’s shoulder, between the plates of his armor, with such strength that not even his mail could protect him from the blow. Marks screamed, his agony echoing across the field and further horrifying the nobles present. Growling, Drake met Marks’s terrified gaze through the visor of his helm…

“Drake – Drake, please!” the knight pleaded, shaking from head to toe in his armor, his voice laden with panic and pain. “I yield! I yield!

But the dragon knight did not seem to hear. He tightened his grip upon his blades, roughly jerking his sword from Marks’s shoulder and preparing to strike once more…

Suddenly, Corben slammed into him from behind, wrapping his arms around Drake’s shoulders from beneath and locking the knight’s arms above his head. Drake tried to pull away, but Corben’s strong grip was firm and tight – so tight that Drake growled in pain.

“Tom, stop it!” Corben shouted as Drake struggled mightily against him. “What the hell’s gotten into you!?”

“Let me go, Corben!” Drake snarled. “Marks broke an oath to the Queen! He tried to kill me!”

“Killin’ him ain’t gonna fix that!” snapped the guardsman. Still Drake tried to pull free, but Corben dragged him bodily away from Marks, tightening the grip on his arms enough to make him yelp. “I don’t wanna hurt you, Tom – snap out of it!”

Corben saw the blood running down Drake’s face as he lowered his head, and he grimaced upon getting a better look at the deep gash from the lance splinter. Finally Drake relaxed, dropping his blades, and Corben hesitantly released him. He moaned in pain, pressing his hand against his head and stumbling as if in a stupor. Blood ran down his neck to his breastplate, and just as Corben wondered how the knight was still standing, Drake staggered and collapsed.

Quickly catching him as he fell, Corben threw one of Drake’s arms over his neck. Unconscious and still in his armor, Drake was incredibly heavy, but Corben somehow managed to lift him. At last, Sir Marks rose to his feet, still trembling uncontrollably with fear and clutching his bleeding shoulder, grimacing at the pain. Corben scowled as the knight removed his muddied helm, meeting the Captain’s gaze.

Marks swallowed hard, trying to regain his composure. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean…”

“Shut up,” Corben snapped hotly. “I’m startin’ to wish I’d just let Tom kill you.”

Marks drew in a breath to speak again, but he clearly rethought this and blew it out as a sigh, lowering his head in defeat. It seemed an eternity as all fell silent, the sky now darker than ever. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

But soon the audience approached, led by King and Queen Illikoni and Marshal Lucius Fletcher. Many of the other nobles clearly wanted to get nearer for a better view, occasionally daring to take a step closer, but the presence of the royals kept them at a respectful distance.

“Get Sir Drake to the healers,” ordered the Queen, and immediately Fletcher came forward, helping Corben carry Drake from the field.

“Dear gods,” said Fletcher, his pale blue eyes looking at the wound in Drake’s head. “Let’s get him on a horse. We should hurry.”

Corben nodded. The two turned away from the spectacle, the crowd parting to allow them a path, and Lady Severina Kallistos led a horse toward them. Behind them, Corben did not need to watch to know what was happening.

King Aetius Illikoni’s deep voice thundered, “Take Sir Marks to the dungeons!”

Tom Drake awoke with a groan, and the pain throbbing in his head told him he was still very much alive. So did his discomfort; the bed on which he lay felt as hard as the stone walls surrounding him. The room was warm, however, lit by torches and what little sunlight filtered through the thick clouds. The presence of a few windows was a relief; at least he was not in a dungeon.

Reaching up, Drake rubbed his aching head, feeling the moist bandage wrapped around his forehead. It hurt worst on the left side, near his hairline, and there the bandage was stained with blood. His eyes finally began to focus properly, and he saw Corben McShane sitting beside his sickbed. There were other beds in the long room, but they were empty. He recognized it as the house of healing attached to the Temple of Athena.

“You alright, Tom?” Corben asked. “How many fingers am I holdin’ up?”

Tom squinted. “Eight.”

Corben looked down at his own fingers and blinked. “Damn, you can count fast.”

“I really am alright, aren’t I?” Drake said with concern, feeling of his bandage.

Corben smiled one of his lopsided smiles. “Aye, you are. You’re lucky Fletcher an’ the lady-knight helped me bring you here so fast after you winked out, else you might’ve ended up worse.” He paused. “I’m surprised Marks didn’t kill you with what he did.”

“As am I,” came the voice of Cristina Drake as she entered the room through the wooden door to Drake’s right, closing it behind her. Her long, dark brown hair was tied up in a bun, and her sharp blue eyes regarded Drake sternly as she approached him.

“Hey, Cristy,” said Drake, managing a crooked smile.

“Hello, Tom,” replied Cristina, Drake’s second oldest sister. “Still facing your problems head-on, I see.”

“Ahah,” Drake faked a laugh, “that’s… really funny.”

“In all seriousness, Cassian was obviously either trying to kill you or mess up your pretty face. That splinter of lance could easily have pierced your skull. I’ve seen knights die that way before. Your helmet’s elongated snout design might have helped in this case.”

Drake nudged Corben. “Pretty good for a lizard with horns.”

Cristina crossed her arms. “You have a right to be smug, I’ll give you that. But I hate to see you look death in the face like you did today.”

“Me too, trust me,” said Drake, rubbing the bandage again. “He’s ugly.”

Stepping forward, Cristina swatted his hand away. “Stop it. You might open up the wound. It’s going to leave a scar either way. You’re lucky it didn’t hit your face anywhere worse than your forehead.”

“Oh, and… there’s somethin’ else,” said Corben, exchanging glances with Cristina. Drake suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

“What is it?” he asked, fingering the small, silver dragon amulet that still hung about his neck. Apparently whoever had removed his armor when he was unconscious knew better than to take off the amulet and ring he always wore.

“It’s father,” replied Cristina. “He wants to talk to you in private. He’s waiting just outside.”

Drake was silent, swallowing hard and closing his fingers around the amulet. Corben rose from his seat, and Drake’s insides tied into knots.

“This is my cue to beat it. I’ll come by your place later, Tom,” said Corben, who nodded to Cristina on the way out. Drake still said nothing, and Cristina looked down at him.

“Tom,” she sighed, “don’t look so scared. I know he can be hard to get along with, but he’s not that hard.”

“You’re not his only son,” Drake muttered.

“Well, you’ll have to talk to him at some point, so you may as well get it over with. After this, we’re going back home. Somehow you’re still healing better than anyone else I know, so you should be fine in a few days.”

Cristina opened the door and motioned their father inside. Then she exited into the temple’s main hall and closed the door behind her again, leaving them alone.

Sir Warren Drake was a few inches shorter than his son, but he was a powerfully built man whose very presence commanded incredible respect… at least in Drake’s mind. His short, dark hair and thick but neatly-trimmed beard made his cold, deep blue eyes stand out all the more, and they gleamed with great intelligence. His outfit was nearly identical to the one Tom had worn to the banquet, with a white shirt depicting the Draconius red rampant dragon in the center. About his neck hung an amulet much like Tom’s own, though it was gold and suspended upon a gold chain as opposed to a leather cord.

Tom could not stop his entire body from tensing the minute he was alone with his father.

“Thomas,” said Warren, “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Me too,” Drake said.

His father locked gazes with him for a moment, and Drake felt as if his father was staring at his naked soul. He always felt that way. It was not a comfortable feeling, and it made him all the more uneasy.

“I understand your frustration with Marks besting you in the tourney, particularly doing so in such a brutal manner,” Warren went on, “but what in Athena’s name were you planning before McShane restrained you?”

“I wasn’t going to kill him, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Drake.

“Yes, you were. I saw the look on your face, Thomas. Even after all these years, your temper is utterly uncontrollable.” Warren leaned forward on the foot of the bed, still looking deep into Drake’s eyes. “You must learn to restrain yourself, or one day you’re going to do something my whole bloodline will regret…”

Drake scowled. “What, because I got angry at another knight for trying to kill me?”

“No, because you tried to kill him – and you would have succeeded, were it not for Corben. Revenge in the heat of anger is better than plotting cold-blooded vengeance, but it’s still not the way of a knight. You must learn restraint. You should have seen yourself…”

“I’m not the one who broke an oath to the Queen,” Drake snapped, feeling a surge of anger.

“Didn’t you? You swore not to harm him.”

“I swore not to harm him as long as he didn’t harm me. I didn’t break my oath. Besides,” he added under his breath, “I didn’t actually hurt the bastard, anyway.”

Now it was Warren’s turn to snap. “Damn it all, Thomas, can you not be serious for even one moment?”

Drake showed his hands as if in surrender. “I am being serious!”

“You looked like a mad beast out there. Everyone saw it – even the royalty!”

“I’d like to see how you’d react if someone broke a lance on your face!”

“You should have known Marks would try something. If there is one thing you have never disappointed me in, it’s your prowess in battle.” The scowl creasing Warren’s handsome features further deepened. “I have seen you lose jousts, but you always lose fairly and uphold the code of the tournament. You respect your better…”

“Oh, so now Marks is my better for trying to kill me?”

“No, but he did win the joust. What he did is aside from the point: you should not have attacked him, you should not have behaved like an animal, and you never should have entertained his insults while he was drunk at a banquet!”

“He only won the joust,” Drake said through his teeth, “because he cheated.”

“Even if that is so, you should have been prepared. I’ve seen you deflect knights aiming for the visor before and still win the joust. But you let your anger cloud your judgment, and it removed your guard.”

Drake set his jaw briefly before answering in a low growl, “There’s just no satisfying you, is there? I have to be perfect.”

“Perfect? No. But the last thing I want to see you do is let your other flaws impede your fighting ability. In the field, when it’s life or death…”

“Hold on. What flaws are we talking about, here?”

Warren straightened himself. “You know them perfectly well. You could have shown everyone you were a better knight than Marks by simply walking off that field. Instead, you had to attack him. You are arrogant, disrespectful, flippant, violently temperamental, and a smart-mouth. Knights should be courteous, humble, caring, and controlled.”

Drake paused, daring to meet Warren’s steady gaze. “Caring? Well… I think I found your flaw.”

Warren simply raised his head slightly, saying nothing for a long moment. “Cristina and Lieutenant McShane will take you back to the manor. The Queen has asked me to be present when they speak with Cassian.”

With that, Warren opened the door once more. He was about to step out into the hall when he looked back at Drake one last time.

“I am glad you’re alright, Tom,” he said, his deep voice low, departing before Drake could say a word.

Cassian Marks was released only a few days later, though there were endless arguments concerning his punishment, of which Drake never learned the true nature. The Marks family tried to cover everything up, and they did an excellent job, even if this new scar upon their eldest son’s name was surely permanent. Drake had a new scar as well, and it was not the one upon his forehead that concerned him. Later that day, he returned to the Draconius manor, but somehow it did not feel the same.

Rain drummed upon the windows of Drake’s room. The beautiful red and gold carpet and bed, the intricate tapestries and maps, the fine weapons upon the wall, the magnificent armor upon its stand… somehow, tonight, all of it was cold and unwelcoming.

The room was utterly empty save for Tom Drake, who stood staring out the window past the sheets of rain, gazing out into the distance at the moon’s baleful visage as it peeked through the clouds over the sea. For a moment he closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath. A glance at the bed made him recall his latest night with Severina – and what she told him the following morning.

Drake removed the silver amulet from about his neck, pulling the leathern cord over his head and gazing at the small rampant dragon in his palm. Lightning flashed, and the silver shimmered briefly in the white-purple glow.

Opening the drawer of the nightstand, Drake placed the amulet inside and closed it. Then he slid off his steel and obsidian ring… and paused, gazing at it.

It was a special ring, far more than anyone realized. The events that had brought it into his possession continued to haunt him, both in his mind and in his life. That was when he had earned the title of ‘Demon Slayer,’ killing not one demon, but two. It was hard to think of them at this time of night, of the pure malevolence in their terrifying, unearthly eyes. By all rights, they should have destroyed him, but some how he had prevailed. The cult of outcast magi who had summoned the beasts from the Underworld had been at his mercy then… and he had let them go.

That was what bothered him the most. The rumors that Marks was spreading were based in truth. The King and Queen had sent Drake personally after the magi, for one of them was of their own blood, and they trusted Sir Tom Drake – whose loyalty was to Illikon before any noble house – to spare the boy and keep their secret.

And so he did. He let them all go, in fact: every mage who had survived the long chase and its aftermath. He helped smuggle them away and convinced the Imperial Inquisition that they were dead. And he did not regret it. Looking at the ring, he could still see the smile of the lovely Southron mage girl who had given it to him. He could see her embracing her brother with joy, happy to finally be free.

Tom tried not to think of freedom. Becoming a Draconius had freed him from the struggle of life as a street orphan, yet nobility had turned out to be a cage of its own – a gilded cage. The bickering of the nobles and their houses, surrounded by pomp and pretense, always struggling for favor and prestige, felt like a petty game that he was stuck playing against his will. Yet it was worth it to be a knight. That was when he felt truly free: riding into battle atop his steed, crossing blades with a worthy foe.

Drake turned his gaze to the moon and the storm outside, watching the black waves of the sea crash against the docks. He listened to the growling thunder and the howl of the wind… the wild sounds of nature. He almost wished he were out there in the storm, fighting for his life. Perhaps what he needed was another good battle…