Dreams of Fire and Gods: Book One
A thousand years ago, two factions of gods, the Stronni and the Taaweh, nearly destroyed the Kingdom of Dasak by warring for the land and the frightened humans who lived there. Then suddenly the Taaweh vanished and the Stronni declared victory.
Now, as tensions escalate between the emperor and his regent, Vek Worlen, the vek’s son, apprentice mage Sael dönz Menaük, finds himself allied with a homeless vagabond named Koreh. Together they flee the capital city and make their way across a hostile wilderness to the vek’s keep, mere steps ahead of the emperor’s assassins.
But Koreh has dreams—dreams of the ancient Taaweh—and he knows the looming war between the emperor and the vek will be nothing compared to the war that is about to begin. The Taaweh are returning, and the war between the gods may destroy the kingdom once and for all.
Young Adult Age Range: 14 to 18 years old
THE Great War had lasted two thousand years. The Stronni, driven back into the northern mountains, had built a tremendous stone wall, stretching to the sea. But not before they destroyed the Taaweh capital city of Gyishya and drove the Taaweh deep into the forest. Neither side appeared close to victory.
Then one morning at dawn, a beautiful woman appeared at the gates of the Stronni’s Great Hall, dressed in a gown of the finest pale-green silk trimmed with opals, amethysts, and rubies. Her long tresses shimmered as though made of gold. Unaccompanied and showing not the slightest hesitation or fear, she walked quietly out of the mist toward the hall.
The guards at the gate exchanged puzzled glances, then stepped forward to block her entrance.
She smiled serenely and said, “I’ve come to speak to your lord.”
But they had heard much of Taaweh trickery and brandished their weapons at her, attempting to force her back. Without a word, the woman raised her hand and they instantly crumpled to the ground, where they lay still.
The Iinu Shavi turned her gaze to the massive wooden doors of the Great Hall and they burst open, splintering the great wooden beam that bolted them closed and twisting their great iron hinges. When the warriors inside saw this along with their fallen comrades, they rushed forward to attack. But not a blade touched the Iinu Shavi’s skin, for all the men began to fall until their bodies littered the floor about her.
Calmly, she walked around them, moving steadily toward the high throne.
King Caednu, his muscular, naked body bronzed and tattooed with shimmering magical fire signs, stood, enraged, and ordered his sorcerer to stop her. Terrified, the wizard unleashed a storm of fire upon the woman, hot enough to scorch the stone of the hall and melt the metal shields on the pillars near her. No Stronni or Taaweh could have survived it.
But out of the wall of flame, the woman stepped forward, still smiling, not a thread of her garments nor a strand of her golden hair scorched. She waved her hand at the sorcerer and he, too, fell like the others.
Then she smiled at the king and said softly, “I’ve come to offer you peace.”
The king looked at the fallen body of his wizard and all the bodies lying in the hall, and for the first time in his long life, he was afraid.
KOREH felt groggy when he woke, which was usual after he’d dreamt of the Taaweh. Not simply tired or sleepy, but as though it was a struggle to come back to consciousness. He lay wrapped in his wool cloak for a long time, getting his bearings. Not even the priests claimed to know what the Stronni looked like, and the possibility that his dream had just revealed the appearance of King Caednu and Queen Imen to him was a frightening thing to contemplate. He didn’t know whether to feel honored or terrified. The Stronni were cruel gods and not to be trifled with.
The night was dark—at this time of the month, Druma did not rise until daybreak—but Koreh sensed that it was still several hours until morning. He had no real need to wake up yet. He pushed the thoughts of the Stronni from his mind as best he could, and stretched. Then he rolled over to find a softer tuft of grass for his head. He was sleeping in one of the ancient stone circles, and the ground radiated a subtle warmth he found comforting.
Others feared the ruins of the Taaweh and shunned them, but Koreh had always felt safe among the broken stone structures—far safer than he’d ever felt in the city. There he had begged for food and fought for shelter in the streets, for a place where he wouldn’t be killed or beaten or forced to do disgusting things for the amusement of the royal guardsmen. Koreh had been having visions of the Taaweh for years, and they now felt familiar to him. They were gods too. Or at least he thought they were. But he felt safe in the Taaweh ruins, as if he were a welcome guest.
Koreh could feel the spell the Iinu Shavi had used to open the door. Its intricate patterns lay imprinted upon his mind like a song he’d just learned. He would have to recall it several times and practice it in order for it to become second nature, but the pattern was there. Over the past several years, he’d learned many of the ancient spells through these dreams. He didn’t know how or why, but whenever he slept in the ruins, his dreams were filled with tales of the gods who’d once lived in these forests. They’d vanished a thousand years ago, during a time when men were still living in small tribes. But somehow their stories came to him, telling him of great battles and cities that seemed to merge imperceptibly into the vast forests that once covered these plains. He heard beautiful music, and sometimes he would catch a small fragment of their speech. And sometimes he would awaken with something new residing in his mind—the power to melt into shadows, to move silently, or even to meld with the earth.
He kept wishing the dreams would teach him something like the spell the Iinu Shavi had used on the guards. It would be wonderful to be able to render his enemies—mostly the emperor’s guards—well… unconscious, anyway. Or to walk through fire! But the spells the dreams revealed to him were mostly peaceful or defensive. He’d learned some hunting spells over the past few years, but nothing that could be used in a fight.
As he was just drifting off again, he heard something that pulled him painfully back to consciousness. Men. Approaching along the road.
Koreh slid forward on his elbows, keeping low and behind the stones, until he could see them. It was a small party—he counted four who were clearly guards or soldiers, all armed with swords and shields. Two of them were carrying lanterns. Three civilians walked in the middle of the group, dressed in ragged clothing with the hoods of their cloaks drawn up over their heads, trying to disguise themselves as commoners… and failing. Commoners would never travel under guard, unless they were shackled. These three weren’t prisoners. Something about the way they walked made Koreh think they must be noblemen. They were too… confident… to be peasants. One looked to be about Koreh’s age, just on the verge of manhood, but the other two were very old. The man walked with the aid of a staff, gesticulating with his free hand, as if talking to his companions, while the old woman steadied herself on the young man’s arm.
Koreh inched closer, hoping to overhear some of their conversation where the road came closer to the ruins.
SAEL shifted his pack, wishing for the hundredth time since leaving the city gates that they’d brought servants with them. Surely Morak could have been trusted. But his master had wanted no one informed of their departure.
Sael never paid much attention to politics, but he knew enough to realize the danger they were in. His older brother, Seffni, was the dekan now, ruling over Harleh. He had sent a message through Thuna, the family’s old, trusted ömem—a woman gifted with the Sight—instructing Sael and Master Geilin to leave the capital city just before the great gates closed at nightfall, taking care to avoid being recognized by anyone. They did as ordered, bringing Thuna with them, though the old woman grumbled about making such a long journey at her age. They then met up with four soldiers the dekan had waiting for them, just out of sight down the road.
Something was brewing. And more than likely it had to do with the long-standing rivalry between Sael’s father, Vek Worlen, and the emperor. The kingdom that once spanned hundreds of leagues in all directions from the western coast had been, for the past three hundred years, divided into two halves by the breakdown of the old imperial road system. Historically, the vek ruled over the eastern inland half of the kingdom as a regent of the emperor, while the emperor resided in the western capital of gü-Khemed. But the isolation of the East Kingdom had gradually given the vek more power, and the conflict between Sael’s father and the emperor had been increasing.
Sael suspected that retrieving him and Master Geilin from the capital was due to more than just concern for their safety. As wizards, they would be expected to function as artillery, if it came to war.
“I wonder if my old garden is still there.” Geilin had been reminiscing about Harleh Keep for a while now, with Thuna nodding politely but probably only half listening. “I used to have the most wonderful komid-minid! White ones, with just the faintest hint of gold at the tips of the petals—”
“Heads up!” one of the guards suddenly shouted.
Sael reached for his sword instinctively, even before he saw what the guard was looking at. Shadows moved rapidly toward them through the grass. They seemed to come from all sides, dark shapes crouched down low. In a moment, men in black tunics and breeches were upon them, swords drawn.
The attackers targeted the guards first. Sael fumbled to drop his pack and draw his sword as he watched the nearest of the guards tumble to the ground, blood pouring from a slash wound to the stomach. A second guard cried out for just a moment, the sound ending in a nauseating gurgle as a blade sliced through his throat.
“Dinu ad Caedni!” Geilin chanted above the shouting men, and one of the attackers burst into flame. The man spun around, screaming and slapping at the flames in an attempt to put them out, but all his clothing was alight. He toppled over and lay on the ground, kicking his legs as he burned.
Sael wasn’t experienced enough with the incineration spell to use it reliably, so he charged one of the men in black, sword drawn. He was a fair swordsman. He’d even placed in one of the royal fencing tournaments. But this was no fencing duel. His opponent was far less skilled, but he wielded a heavy broadsword and fought with a ferocity Sael had never encountered before. Sael held his own, adjusting his tactics to fit the situation, but the other man fought viciously and wasn’t above fighting dirty. When Sael’s cloak fluttered into his grasp, the attacker grabbed it and tried to yank Sael off his feet. But years of training came to Sael’s aid, and he maintained his balance by executing what might have been mistaken for a shuffling dance move in another context. He twisted his shoulders sharply, and suddenly his opponent was the one stumbling forward, his forearm twisted up in the woolen cloak. The man’s eyes, set in a face painted black for camouflage, widened in surprise just as Sael’s sword drove hard between his ribs, directly into his heart.
Sael kicked the man’s body to force it off the point of his sword, and whipped around to see another attacker pause in his charge and then burst into flame. Sael wasted no time on him, seeking out his next opponent.
Then he heard Thuna scream. Sael turned to find the old woman looking at him with pleading eyes already growing dim, a sword jutting out of her midsection. She slid forward off the sword and collapsed to her knees. One of their own guards stood behind her, holding onto the weapon. And the bastard was grinning!
To his horror, Sael realized that these weren’t bandits attacking. The party had been led into an ambush. One of the guards sent by Sael’s brother had been allied to the emperor. Behind the traitor, Sael could see the body of another of their guardsmen, slaughtered.
It was the look of smugness on the man’s face that enraged Sael the most. He charged forward, stabbing for the heart, and a look of panic swept the man’s smug expression aside. He raised his sword in time to deflect Sael’s blow, but Sael was furious and not to be stopped. He hacked viciously at the traitor until there was a tremendous crack and the guard’s blade snapped near the hilt, careening off into the darkness. For just a moment, there was terror in the guard’s eyes. Then Sael brought his sword down hard, and the man crumpled to the ground.
Sael turned to see one of the attackers charging full speed at Geilin. The wizard raised his staff, half to attack and half in defense, as the man leapt through the air. The attacker burst into flame midleap, but the momentum of the jump caused him to crash into the old man. Geilin went down under the impact, and suddenly both men were on fire.
Sael rushed toward his master. But a man in black leapt over the flames, heading straight for him, quickly followed by another. At the same moment, a sword point whistled through the air to Sael’s left, narrowly missing his temple. He turned and began to run, knowing he’d never be able to fend off three at once. Perhaps if he could outdistance them, he might be able to loop back in time to help Geilin.
Ahead, barely visible in the darkness, loomed some of the ancient standing stones. He’d been told since he was a young child to avoid these places, but he was too panicked to think clearly. They were the nearest thing to cover he could see.
Another shadowy figure appeared out of the darkness, running toward him from the direction of the stones, and Sael swerved to evade him. But it was too late. The man caught him around the middle, knocking him over backward. Sael’s sword flew out of his hand.
But Sael didn’t hit the ground. It was as if he had fallen backward into a pool of molasses. He sank beneath it and it closed over him, dark and suffocating. And silent. He couldn’t breathe as he struggled against the weight holding him down, but his arms moved slowly as if he were swimming in heavy mud.
How long he remained trapped, he didn’t know. But it seemed much longer than he could normally hold his breath. He kept expecting to black out from the suffocation, but he didn’t.
At last, like a cork released at the bottom of a pool of water, he bobbed to the surface and gasped. There was still a weight on top of his body—the man who’d pushed him down. But when he looked up into the face above him, he realized the man was very young. He looked to be about Sael’s age and size, but with jet-black hair. His face wasn’t painted like the others, although it was too dark to see him clearly. The young man was panting as if he’d been suffocating too.
“I think they’re gone,” he said.
He rolled off to one side, and Sael was able to scramble to his knees. He looked around frantically, but the night was still.
“They must have thought you ran into the forest on the other side of the stones,” the stranger added.
Near the road lay the motionless forms of those who had died in the fight, but only a few. The attackers had carried off their own dead.
“Hush!” the stranger said under his breath. “Do you want them to come back, you idiot?”
Sael ignored him, rushing toward a dark form he now recognized as his fallen mentor. “Master Geilin! Can you hear me?”
Geilin appeared to be dead. But the stranger came up behind Sael and bent close to the old man’s face to examine it. “He’s still breathing. Barely.”
It was difficult to determine the extent of Geilin’s injuries in the darkness, but it was clear he was badly burned on his face and hands.
Sael searched for Thuna as well, though he knew it would be too late. When he found her, the ömem was dead.
“We should move to the ruins,” the stranger said, looking around warily.
Now that he appeared to be out of danger—assuming his rescuer didn’t plan on killing him—all the warnings Sael had heard about the ancient standing stones came back to him. People said strange things happened near them. And men who slept in their shelter sometimes disappeared or went insane. The peasants left bread or porridge near the stones to appease the dark spirits they believed dwelled in them. But nobody went near them, otherwise.
Most of that was probably superstition, of course. Sael had read about the Towe, the ancient, malignant race that had built the stone structures, in the palace libraries. Not much was known about them. The name meant “little ones,” so presumably they were smaller than men. And they had been destroyed in the Great War a thousand years ago. No doubt the folk legends were bastardizations of half-forgotten truths—ancient memories of encounters with the creatures in ancient days, distorted over the centuries. But it mattered little, for the Towe were long dead.
Still, in the darkness, far from the city, with the stench of burning flesh heavy in the night air, the stones looked sinister and forbidding.
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“I have a camp there,” the stranger replied.
That was hardly reassuring, as the young man himself made Sael nervous. What strange kind of spell had he cast when he saved Sael? None taught at the academy, Sael was certain.
“We’ll be all right,” the stranger insisted, growing impatient. “It’s safer than out here on the road, if those men come back.”
Sael was used to being deferred to and he bristled at the young man’s tone, but he couldn’t deny the road was a dangerous place. The stones might be dangerous as well, but at the moment they seemed a better choice. The only other alternative was the forest, and Sael knew he’d never survive alone against the wolves and wild boars that prowled there. Certain his master would dismiss his fears as superstitious nonsense, Sael said curtly, “Fine.”
Before attempting to move Geilin, he looked around for his pack. It lay on the ground not far away. The attackers had either missed it or had not considered it worth taking. Much of the bread and food he’d packed had fallen out and lay trampled in the dirt. But fortunately the tiny phials of healing formula he’d tucked in the bottom, wrapped in a cloth, were unbroken.
The stranger was waiting impatiently when Sael brought the pack over to where Geilin lay.
“We don’t have time to collect everything. It can wait ’til morning.”
“Not this,” Sael replied. He drew one of the phials out of the torn pack and uncorked it. Then he lifted Geilin’s head slightly and poured the contents of the bottle into the old man’s mouth.
“Will that heal him?” the stranger asked.
“A bit. But it’s a mild draught. Only good for slight wounds.”
“Why don’t you give him two or three, then?”
Sael glared at him. From the rough accent, he guessed the young man was a peasant. One couldn’t expect him to be very well educated, but that was all the more reason for him to leave magical matters to those who understood them. Sael replied, with exaggerated patience, “It’s not the amount. There’s a spell bound to the liquid. Drinking two doesn’t increase the strength of the spell. It simply wastes the second bottle. You would have to have a draught made with a more powerful spell. In a few hours, I can give him a second dose.”
The stranger seemed irritated by his explanation. “Why didn’t you bring stronger drinks?”
“This is what we could gather on short notice.”
“Fine. Is he safe to move now?”
Sael shrugged and looked worriedly at the old man. “I hope so.”
“Then come on.”