In an age of treachery and peril, a young thief may be the prophesied savior . . . or the betrayer of the world.
Once one of the grandest of human cities, Yslin now has a dark heart known as the Dimandowns. And when Will, an orphaned young thief from the Dim, plots to prove himself to his master by stealing a prize from the exiled Elves who share the fetid slums, his theft of the strange artifact snares him in a web of prophecy.
It also brings him together with Kedyn’s Crow, a shadowy human warrior, and Resolute, a Vorquelf determined to redeem his long-lost island home. To them, Will could be the fulfillment of a long-held dream and the last chance the world has to save itself from Chytrine, the northern tyrant who would be empress of the world.
But their belief in Will finds few allies in a world torn by war and magick. Preoccupied with their own internecine struggles, the world’s leaders see Will as a pawn. Only Chytrine seems able to recognize Will’s destiny, and she sends her Dark Lancers to destroy him. For who better to destroy a hero than the ill-fated heroes of the previous generation, survivors of a failed war to exterminate Chytrine, now corrupted to her service?
Yet even as Will is tested, a new generation takes up arms where their predecessors failed. Alexia, princess of a dead nation, leads an army to oppose Chytrine. And the sorcerers of Vilwan have fashioned their own hero, Kerrigan Reese, bestowing upon him powers and abilities no human has held for centuries.
Together these heroes travel to the mysterious Fortress Draconis to stop Chytrine from stealing more fragments of the DragonCrown—a powerful artifact that, once in her control, will guarantee her dominion forever.
About the Author
Michael A. Stackpole is the New York Times bestselling author of many titles in the Star Wars universe, including many of the Star Wars X-Wing novels and the New Jedi Order: Dark Tide novels Onslaught and Ruin. When not chained to a desk madly fighting deadlines, he plays indoor soccer, rides a mountain bike, and reads, but not all at the same time. Stackpole lives in Arizona with Liz Danforth and a small pack of Cardigan Welsh corgis.
Read an Excerpt
Will shivered in the wet and rain, but clenched his jaw so his teeth would not chatter. The drops came down big and fat; colder, too, than he expected even so late in summer. They splashed against the tiled roof, spattering him and pockmarking the shifting surface of the puddles down on the street. The threadbare scrap of a blanket beneath which he huddled shielded him from their buffets, but let their cold soak straight into him.
The youth had no question that being elsewhere would be preferable — certainly warmer, if nothing else — but he refused to move on. Though he risked catching his death of cold by remaining, running away would kill him as well. I do this, and everything will be okay again.
He raised the blanket a mite and shook his head, letting water spray off his long brown hair. Leaning his head to the right, he let some water drip out of his ear and listened. The drumming of the raindrops hid most all sounds, but little bits of laughter drifted up from the public house’s common room down on the ground level. He shifted slightly to his right, making no more noise than a squab might scrabbling for dry amid the roof’s red tiles. Peering down from the roof’s ridge, he could no longer see yellow light peeking out from behind the attic room’s shuttered window.
Will couldn’t help but let a smile blossom on his face. ‘Bout damned time. Throwing off the blanket, he began to unwind the knotted rope from around his waist. As he coiled it on the roof, he nodded slowly and whispered to himself.
Damn the Vorks,
Damn their eyes.
Let them drink,
I’ll have their prize.
As poetry went, he knew it wasn’t much, but felt the little verse was the seed of something larger. It would be a piece of the great saga minstrels would sing about his life. And sing they will, of Will the Nimble, King of the Dimandowns. I’ll make them forget Marcus, Scabby Jack, and Garrow; I’ll even make them forget the Azure Spider.
He crawled out along the roof’s beam to where a piece overhung the alley. He looped the rope over the end of it, then snugged it tight. Tugging on it twice to assure himself it would hold, he started down it, letting the rope slide between his toes until he could rest his weight on a knot. Little by slowly he descended, reaching out to touch the building and kill any swing on the rope. Finally he hung there, right in front of the attic window.
The dagger he drew from the sheath at the small of his back slid neatly into the gap between shutters. Will worked it up, and between two rusty nail heads, his blade met the latch. Lifting easily, he slipped it and the shutters sagged outward, opening with a lazy sigh.
The thief shook his head as he resheathed his dagger. Stupid Vorks deserve to lose their prize. As anxious as he was to get his hands on it, he didn’t reach for the shutters immediately, but waited a bit more, listening. No time for mistakes now.
He’d been pleased with how well the plan had come together, and he was fair certain Marcus and Fabia would be, too. He’d woven it together from things he knew they’d forgotten, like Fabia talking glowingly about the Vorquelf Predator, leader of the Grey Mist, as if he were King Augustus warring against the north. Predator would tell all that he hated men, and he’d only ever showed Will the cold side of a sneer and the fast-hard of a fist; but to hear Fabia tell it, he loved the warmth of a woman. He’d favored her with his attentions forever ago, when she wasn’t so fat that only Marcus would have her.
She told tales of his having a treasure that she’d never seen, but she knew it was there. Once she’d awakened deep in the night, still drunk, and had seen his face backlit in the glow of something he cupped in his hands. Fabia said he smiled wider than he ever had in her arms. When she asked him what it was, he said she was dreaming, and in telling the tale to the younglings she’d allowed as how she likely was dreaming, since Predator would have long ago drunk up anything so precious.
Will always had believed her telling of the story as a dream until there came a time he thought on it for a while. Then he sought out the woman Predator was currently using. Lumina laughed when Will clowned for her, and cooed over the little things he’d steal and give her, be they bits of pastries or a bright button. She’d reward him with a kiss, clearly assuming that he had a crush on her. The fact that he did didn’t keep him from his mission, and eventually she was coaxed into revealing a tale close enough to Fabia’s that Will knew the Vorquelf was hiding something valuable.
It hadn’t been hard for Will to convince himself that whatever the treasure was, it was meant to be his. For as long as he could remember — which went a bit further back before Marcus and Fabia had taken him in, but not much — he’d hated the Vorquelves. The exiled elves had long ago claimed the Downs as their own domain in Yslin. As hard times hit, the area around the Downs began to decay. Beggars and thieves, whores and the halt — most all men — came to live in the shadows of the city heart. Their neighborhoods became called the Dim, and Hightown folks dismissed the whole area as the Dimandowns. The Vorquelves constantly fought against the growing human population, and the only time human officials came into the area was to press-gang the unwary into crewing on galleys sailing the Crescent Sea.
Will’s hatred for the Vorquelves found an ally in Marcus. Will could remember how the man had brought him into their home, a big building in the Dim, and had housed him with other children. Marcus taught them about thieving and worse, then sent them out into the city. In return for bringing back spoils, the children were fed and clothed and not beaten too often. Those who were especially good were taken to the Harvest Festival in the autumn, though the recent affairs in no way matched what Fabia talked about in her stories of festivals past.
Marcus and Fabia had always done for Will, but he did remember that they’d not always done so for everyone. The girls, when they reached a certain age, were trained for other things. Lumina hadn’t been one of them, but plenty of Will’s sisters plied the liftskirt trade. The boys, when they reached what Marcus called “willfulness,” went away, never to be seen again.
Over the years, the age when willfulness manifested seemed to get younger. Beatings and kids getting vanished seemed to come more frequently with every new cycle of songs devoted to the master thief, the Azure Spider. Will could remember the days when Marcus used to claim with pride having been the Spider’s mentor, but of late he’d been bitter and resentful. He took those feelings out on his male charges — many of whom, Will suspected, Marcus believed would betray him and leave for glory as the Spider had done.
Will had no intention of doing that, and hoped pulling off a job like this, which would have been worthy of the Azure Spider, would impress Marcus. He knew that planning and executing this theft would likely brand him as willful, but he hoped that by bringing the treasure to Marcus, he’d show how loyal he intended to be.
He’ll have no excuse to send me away, none at all.
Confident that nothing lived or breathed in the darkened room, Will opened a shutter, grabbed the inside of the casement, and pulled himself in. He kept hold of the rope with his toes, so it slithered in after him. Crouching by the window, water dripping into a puddle beneath him, Will studied the room carefully. He dearly wished his heart would stop pounding so loudly in his ears, but the tumult of drunken conversation from below would have hidden the approach of a dragon.
Staying low, and spreading his weight out on his hands and feet, Will scuttled across the floor. Lamplight from below bled up through cracks between planks, striping chairs, bed, and wardrobe with a soft yellow glow. Small and light though he was, he knew the uneven boards would be creaking with his passage, but he felt certain those sounds went unheard.
He made his way to the wardrobe and carefully felt around the base molding. Lumina said she’d seen Predator kneeling there, his body washed in silver, but had thought nothing of it. Tracing his fingers along the baseboard, Will sought a catch or lever to reveal a hidden compartment. He found nothing so sophisticated.
His fingers caught against a piece of the base that jutted out just a hair. Hooking his fingernails into the gap, he teased it free without so much as a squeak. A little block of wood as long as his hand came free. In the cavity behind it he found a leather pouch heavy enough for a silver or two, and a lighter velvet pouch. The latter had something in it, but he couldn’t tell what.
He slipped the leather pouch beneath his belt and knew he should head out before examining his other find, but he needed to make certain he really had gotten his hands on Predator’s treasure. Slender fingers unmade the knot holding the bag shut, then peeled the velvet away, letting a blinding argent light shine forth.
Will squinted against the brilliance, at once entranced and puzzled. The treasure looked like a leaf — he knew it was from a tree, but what kind he had no idea since trees were few in the Dimandowns. The leaf blazed with a silver light and appeared to be metal, but had none of the heft it would have had if cast in silver. More impressively, it had the supple texture and flexibility of a living leaf.
Don’t know what it is, but it is a treasure! For the barest of moments Will considered tucking it back in its hidey-hole. Just having disturbed it felt somehow wrong — and the idea that taking something that didn’t belong to him was wrong had seldom occurred to him before. At the same time, it also felt wrong for this leaf to remain shut up in a little hole. He sensed another purpose to it, as if there was something he was supposed to do with it.
Suddenly shouting arose from below and something shattered against the floorboards. Ale sprayed up through a crack. Wet as he was he couldn’t really feel it hit him, but he could smell it. In an instant he knew the silver light had been seen by someone below, and that the thundering came from feet on the stairs leading to the upper floor.
Without a second thought, and with skill born of more than a decade’s thievery, Will stuffed the leaf into the bag and tucked it in his belt. He darted toward the window, tumbling a chair in his wake, and dove for the rope as the room’s door burst inward. The rope bumped and slithered, knot by knot, out behind him, chased by the curses of the Vork who hit the chair and fell. Out into the night Will sailed, snapping his legs up, hoping he could loop his way back onto the roof.
Though his feet came up above the level of the roof, he couldn’t get far enough over to land there, so he twisted around as he descended again on a short, tight arc. A waiting Vork smiled, reaching out for him as he returned. Will kicked one of the shutters around, slamming it flat against the Vork’s face, spilling him back into the room.
As quickly as he could, controlling his fall more than actually climbing, he let himself down, and reached the alley seconds before a sword sliced the rope free from above. Will crouched, found a rock with his right hand, and sent it flying up at the window. The pale face that had been leering at him snapped back into the darkness.
Will darted off along the alley, hitting the street and cutting right. That route would actually take him deeper into the Downs, which he figured would confuse the Vorks. He ran as fast as he could, splashing through puddles, leaping over the dead bodies of animals, hoping the battering rain would aid him by erasing all traces of his passage.
Aid him it did in some ways, for nothing could have tracked him by sight or scent as the rain washed away his spoor almost instantly. Even so, the rain betrayed him in more important ways, which he slowly came to understand as he raced past cloaked figures skulking through the streets, and close by soaked curs that barked and howled at him. This is not the way to go.
The Downs had been called the downs because the city of Yslin sunk to its lowest level there. At high tide some of the streets would flood, and although high tide lay hours yet away, the day’s downpour had flooded streets into brown rapids thick with debris. The street along which he ran dipped into a raging torrent.
His course blocked, Will turned north, dashing toward an alley mouth. He could hear his pursuers after him and knew he should toss away his loot. The leather bag with coins he tugged free of his belt and dropped behind him without a second thought. When his fingers touched the velvet bag, however, it felt warm and dry and he knew he wouldn’t let anyone take it from him. Not them, not Marcus. Not anyone.
Will put his head down and started running in earnest when the rain’s second betrayal occurred. He sprinted through a puddle that hid in its murky depths a missing cobblestone. The youth caught his right foot in the hole and stumbled, smashing his right knee into the roadway. The cobblestones, while soaked by the rain, had not been softened, so the blow drove a jolt of pain up and down his leg. His ankle twisted before his foot came free. He rolled over onto his back, clutching his knee in both hands.
Cold rain splashed his face, and colder laughter rang in his ears. A knot of Vorquelves towered over him. The silver moonlight made them into ghosts, and what he could see of their faces indicated they were most malevolent. One bled from a cut on his forehead — Will took some joy in knowing his rock had flown true — and another’s nose looked to be swelling.