High above the Hollowtangle, a great eagle circled. Its twenty-foot wingspan sliced the clear, crisp morning air, bleeding altitude. The ancient forest below stretched like a woolly green blanket between the Niasa Sea and the Aerodice Mountains. A few months earlier, snow had covered the entire land, making sleeping forest, barren fields, and frozen falls indistinguishable from above. Now in early summer, the Hollowtangle was a prominent patch of deep green. The forest was discolored only by a single river, swollen with spring runoff, that fed the seven waterfalls beside the enigmatic Maidstone tower. North of the river, the great eagle circled in silent descent. Only a few scattered clearings in the forest offered a safe landing area for such a large creature.
On the eagle’s broad back, clinging to the rear saddle horn behind Shaey, the renowned elven eagle rider, General Raric focused on a darker-green patch in the Hollowtangle. At the center of the forest, visible only to a well-trained eye, was a manicured grove known as the Druid Forest.
Raric adjusted his position in the saddle as Shaey tugged the reins, guiding the eagle in a smooth banking motion. They descended in ever-tightening circles toward a tiny clearing at the edge of the mythical Druid Forest. Raric tightened his stomach muscles and pursed his chapped lips. The general was comfortable in a horse’s saddle, but this was a unique experience for him.
The flight had begun as a terrifying thing, but after several hours behind an elf who seemed as comfortable soaring as he did walking, Raric relaxed, if only a little. He eased a hand from the horn and stretched his aching fingers. The palm of the light-brown leather glove was stained with a wet dark patch. Raric’s life-threatening injuries had been cured in the elven healing tent, but the scabs on his hands and feet remained tender and prone to bleeding.
The general brushed his fingers across his freshly shaven head. When he had awoken in the healing tent, only a few patches of hair remained, reminders of the unspeakable brutality he’d endured while imprisoned in the Waerdreath castle. The Dark Queen’s minion, Uluk the Shadowfallen, had been merciless. Raric traced a few of the deeper scars on his scalp, wondering if his hair would eventually grow back. Some scars were old, some were still healing. In the meantime, he would keep his old straw hat close at hand to hide the ugly patchwork.
The wind whistled in his ears as the eagle increased speed on descent. Raric shivered and adjusted the leather vest he wore over a long-sleeved wool sweater.
Shaey looked back at the general through the large leather goggles covering half his face. The elf rider’s shoulder-length blond hair whipped over the tips of his pronounced ears.
Raric pointed to the small clearing. “Can we land there?”
“No problem, no problem.” Shaey’s accent was gentle and melodic.
“Are you certain?” Raric shouted against the wind.
The huge trees surrounding the clearing made it look even smaller the closer they came. Raric wondered how they would be able to land in such tight quarters, let alone take off again.
Shaey fired another glance at Raric. “No problem, no problem.”
Raric did not appreciate the eagle rider’s wild-eyed look.
The eagle banked left, causing Raric to tighten his grip on the saddle horn. He winced, knowing he had split more cracks in his scabbed palms. Round and round they descended as the trees loomed up before them. Shaey tugged on the reins until they were within a few feet of the outstretched branches. Flocks of multicolored birds flew from the safety of the trees and trailed the great eagle like the adoring subjects of a returning king. It was both terrifying and beautiful.
From a distance, the forest had appeared overgrown with hundreds of trees. But as they glided just above the canopy, Raric caught an occasional glimpse through the fluttering leaves and was surprised to count only a few dozen trees with expansive trunks. Each was topped with branches the size of regular large trees, spreading out like the giant, gnarled fingers of outstretched interlocking hands. Together, the trees formed a leafy covering that shaded two acres. The largest among them bore dappled leaves as big as a half-orc’s hand. In all his journeys across the Fourwinds, Raric had never seen such unusual trees.
Shaey leaned, applying pressure against the right side of the eagle, and it turned in the direction of the small clearing. Raric leaned back, trying to avoid glimpses of the dizzying blur of green grass beneath him. The ground flew up to meet them but stopped suddenly when the eagle flared its massive wingspan in an upward motion. The roar of the wind ceased. The eagle landed in the tall grass, folded its wings, and preened its feathers as if such landings were routine events. Raric released his grip on the saddle horn and clutched his queasy stomach.
Shaey ripped off his goggles and smoothed his hair into a ponytail. “Be quick about it, General.”
Raric nodded as he released his restraining belt.
From the dark borders of the Druid Forest, a few bold animals ventured toward the great eagle and its strange passengers. At first, Raric noticed only a few, but as he watched, dozens more appeared. Everything from badgers to bears to bees waited in silent anticipation. It was an eerie thing, and even the eagle shifted its considerable weight as if expecting an attack.
Between two stately bucks, a large man stepped from the forest, long dark hair flowing around nine-point antlers protruding proudly from his temples. He wore a vest of green moss and loose-fitting trousers of thin tree bark. His feet were bare, and his arms were covered with dark fur. From a distance, Raric couldn’t tell if the fur was clothing or actual hair. Carrying a long walking stick with sprouts of bright-green leaves, Druid Margrave glided through the tall grass. The animals remained at the tree line.
Raric stumbled from the saddle and rubbed his aching thighs. His simple brown homespun pants were tucked neatly into tall leather boots laced tightly to support his weakened ankles. Pinpricks of pain jabbed at the scabs on his feet as his circulation returned to his extremities. Doing his best to keep from hobbling, General Raric straightened his back and walked out to greet the druid.
Margrave had an ancient quality to him despite his smooth brown complexion. His short, well-groomed beard could have been construed as dark-brown fur rather than hair. He had long eyelashes and eyebrows the color of birch bark, which arched above his wide-set bright-green eyes.
“My, my, Raric. Has it been a hundred years since our last meeting?” Margrave stopped three yards from Raric and leaned on his walking stick.
“By appearance only,” Raric said. “Twelve years, if memory serves.”
The druid shook his head and knit his brows. “With a hundred years of living in that time, I see.”
Raric blinked away a tear. The sudden emotion came less from painful memories of the Waerdreath than the restorative power of the elven healing tent. The experience in the tent had partly mended his physical wounds, but it had also softened his heart. Although he was unfamiliar with such sentimentality, neither was he ashamed of it. “It is good to see you, Margrave.”
“I was in the throes of an enjoyable day, Raric, but seeing you here like this…” He trailed off, thin lips forming a tight line.
“I would not have come if—”
“Your need is obvious, Raric. There is so little of you left.” Margrave took one step closer. “To be honest, I am surprised you survived your captivity in the Waerdreath.”
“I will spare you the details.” Raric spat the words, the bitter taste of Sidara’s grim castle still fresh in his memory. “You still have it?”
Margrave sniffed. “Of course I do.” His eyes narrowed. “It took me three years to form the armor. My hands are pained to this day, dragon hide being what it is. It’s a wonder there is any magic left in the Fourwinds. Shades! If the process took much longer, I might have used it all up.”
“Scarlas, the Red Dragon.” Raric’s weakened knees bent as an image of the Dragon War flashed in his memory.
“I spoke to him once, Raric. A vile thing he was. Although I do not condone violence, killing that dragon is an exception I am able to sleep with.”
“No one thought it possible to bring him down, but we did.”
“I remember seeing you shortly after, full of fresh wind and fire. You stood a solid…what, two hundred and twenty pounds?”
“What are you now? One fifty? Shades, lad! You even look like you lost some height.”
“This”—Raric tapped his temple—“is what killed Scarlas. Not physical strength.”
“So true. They may have broken your body, but it was that hurricane of a mind that made you a force of nature. Never have I met someone who could command a thousand men in the throes of battle with the ease and grace of a bard strumming a lute. And yet, here you are. Have they broken your mind too?”
Raric raised his wounded hands. “If the dragon armor can make me whole again…”
“If you wanted full restoration, Raric, you should not have left the healing tent so soon. The Elf Queen could have done wonders beyond my capacity.”
“There was no time for that, Margrave. The Shadowfallen threatens to destroy the Fourwinds. If I’d waited to be fully healed, there would be no army left to command.” Raric dropped his hands to his sides and cast an intent gaze at the druid. “I need my strength back.”
“Although the dragon armor is complete, what comes next…well, that is something else.” Margrave scratched his beard, and a few flying insects escaped. “You mustn’t think of it as a suit of armor. Instead, it is something that is melded to you. In fact, it would replace your skin.”
“Can you do it?”
Margrave’s eyes widened. “So eager, my old friend!” His gaze fluttered down Raric’s body to his feet, then back again. “Well, the answer depends on you. Although this has never been done before, my theory is sound. And I am confident wielding the magic required for the melding. The uncertainty lies in the strength of the subject. We will not know until you either survive or perish. There was a time when I was confident in the probability of success, but seeing you now, I confess my doubt. What have they done to you, Raric? And why attempt something like this now, when there is so little left of you?”
“The Shadowfallen had his way with me for a long time.” Raric ground his teeth. “I wake up screaming ten times a night from nightmares more real than you standing before me. And…” His voice faltered. “And the tears…they come without warning. There are times I can hardly manage a sentence. I am not the man I was and probably never will be again. One day I might come to terms with that, but not before I tear the Shadowfallen limb from limb—starting with his wings!”
Tiny flakes fell from the druid’s raised eyebrows. “Surely you are wise enough not to stick your hand in the same fire twice? Nevertheless, times being what they are, I suspect that if you were to survive the melding—and looking at you, I cannot see how you could”—the druid leaned forward on his staff and pointed a long, bony finger at the general—“you would need to fight for your soul.”
“I destroyed Scarlas, and I endured Sidara’s torture. I can—”
“To destroy a dragon, you first must kill it, certainly. But then you must annihilate the creature’s hide. A difficult task.”
“Annihilate its hide?”
“It is a commonly accepted theory that a dragon’s soul resides in its hide, which is stronger than the most durable alloys ever created. Once the dragon armor is melded to you, I believe that your soul will fight with the soul of Scarlas for supremacy. After all, there can only be one soul.”
A gust of wind rustled through the long grass. Raric folded his arms across his chest and shook off a chill before it crept down his spine.
“If you survive that fight, you will possess much of what makes a dragon, well, a dragon. You would be a daunting foe on—or above—any field of battle. However, if the soul of Scarlas proves stronger, you will cease to exist. And then the Fourwinds will have yet another problem.”
Margrave sighed and transferred his staff to the other hand, shifting his weight. “I have told you all I know. Would I be willing to perform the deed? Absolutely. Dragon melding has long been the subject of speculation, but never has there been a dragon’s hide available. And if one were, few would be willing to try. That being said, Raric, imagine the possibilities.”
“How much time would you require if I decide to go through with the melding process?”
“Most of the work has long been completed. On the heels of this conversation, three days should suffice.”
Raric nodded. “I am prepared. But let us hope it does not come to this. My task now is to stop Uluk the Shadowfallen from destroying the Fourwinds. I hope the army is strong enough and there will be no need for your dragon armor, but I had to know if it was an option. It is possible Uluk has weapons more powerful than the mightiest army.”
“Are you referring to rumors on the winds?” Margrave asked.
“In these dark days, there are more rumors than truths.”
“What about the rumor of Sidara’s latest experiment called Black. Is that true?”
Raric shuffled his feet to relieve the tingling sensation. “It is.”
Margrave chortled. “I have heard tales of the effects of Black, but they all sound preposterous.”
Raric glared at the druid. “I witnessed many horrors during my time at the Waerdreath, but none as dire as Black. Those who become infected transform into the image of Natas, a brutally painful process that destroys the victim’s former identity.”
Margrave’s smirk dissolved. “Can it be stopped?”
Raric offered a simple shrug. “That may be for you and me to determine, Margrave. Perhaps the Fourwinds needs someone willing to sacrifice his former identity by transforming into the image of another dragon.”