The Dragons of Bloodrock – Read the First Chapter Free

To celebrate the launch of my new fantasy novel The Dragons of Bloodrock, I’m inviting you to spread your wings and read the first chapter absolutely free, exclusively on this blog. If this extract draws you in, why not head over to Amazon and grab yourself a copy of the book? It’s available in paperbook or for Kindle.

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Pyx opened his eyes into the glare of the desert sun. Clouds filtered the light, but only a little. The clouds were yellow, filled with toxic sleight so poisonous that, if it touched you, it would kill you. For as long as Pyx could remember, the skies above Jangala had been laced with death.

He flopped his head sideways and saw a barren expanse of white sand fleeing into the distance. The desert was flat and featureless but for one strange thing: a pillar of orange fire rising from the far horizon. The top of the pillar mushroomed wide, spreading until it merged with the unhealthy clouds.

Pyx stared at the pillar of fire, mesmerised. He’d seen something like it before, but where, and when?

He couldn’t remember.

In truth, Pyx couldn’t remember much at all. How had he got here? He didn’t know. He didn’t even know where ‘here’ was. Pyx only knew that his head ached and his wings were sore and mouth was dry and if he lay here much longer the clouds would peel back long enough for the sun to make cinders of him. Amnesia could wait.

He tried to roll from his back on to his belly, but something was holding him down. He raised his neck and saw bright blue knots of charm piercing his wingtips: he’d been stapled to the ground. The charm bubbled, spilling bright liquid beads over the ends of his wing membranes and into the sand.

Fear surged through him. Even as a young dragon, Pyx had never liked using charm — had always been a little afraid of it, in fact. This invariably drew ridicule from his peers, most of whom were confident with charm from an early age. It had always set Pyx a little aside from the rest, but that was just fine with him. What dragon wanted to be just another set of wings in the flock?

He tugged experimentally at his glowing bonds, expecting pain, but his wingtips were quite numb. The clouds chose that moment to roll aside and the full heat of the sun began to crush Pyx with its heat. If he hadn’t known it before, he knew it now: he’d been pinned out to die.

Pyx pulled harder, and now there was pain. Well, wasn’t freedom worth a couple of ripped wing membranes? He tried again but he had no strength. The fear pounded through his aching head. He gave up, tried to slow his racing heart, tried to remember what had happened.

‘You stole from us,’ said a guttural voice.

A dragon appeared from nowhere. He loomed over Pyx, his cupped wings creating welcome shelter from the sun. Pyx saw hungry eyes, black and green scales, gaunt flesh drawn tight over prominent ribs. The dragon had sores around his mouth. Two more dragons huddled nearby, both looking equally sickly. Behind them, a crown of rocky towers reached for the sky like the talons of some giant creature trying to escape the earth.

A shudder run the length of Pyx’s body, all the way from the tip of his snout to the end of his tail. Why did this situation feel familiar?

A memory surfaced, although not a recent one. The face of the black and green dragon swam, became the face of another. The past crashed into the present and suddenly this looming dragon wasn’t a stranger at all; he was the very dragon who’d sent Pyx into the desert in the first place. His father.

‘I’m not a thief,’ said Pyx through thick, parched lips.

The black and green dragon leaned closer. It wasn’t his father. Was it? Pyx shook himself, trying to shed the dreadful sense that time was in flux.

‘We have harsh penalties for thieves,’ said the dragon.

Pyx tried to speak, but he was paralysed. He’d always felt paralysed in the presence of his father. Worse than that: he’d always felt condemned.

He shook himself. What was he thinking? His father was dead. They were all dead. And there were no such thing as ghosts.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Had Pyx stolen something from these dragons? He couldn’t remember. It would be in character, he admitted glumly. Hilarious, really, that the son of a Judge should turn out to be a lawbreaker. Or was it inevitable? Pyx couldn’t decide.

The dragon bent over and let out a series of wretched, barking coughs. His ribs jabbed through fleshless skin and pus pooled at the corners of his eyes. While his interrogator was doubled up, Pyx tried tugging again at his bonds, but they remained as strong as ever. He realised he was shivering, and wondered how he could be cold. But it wasn’t the temperature. It was the terror.

How did I get here? What do I do?

The dragon’s coughing fit subsided and he straightened up. The sun made harsh angles of his face, revealing the skull lurking beneath. He looked old and exhausted and ruthless. Relentless too, just as Pyx’s father had been.

The dragon advanced and his two companions followed. All three were licking their lips.

Pyx screamed. It was actually a relief to give in to the panic. He thrashed and thrashed, and although his movements had no effect on the staples of charm, something about it his frenzy caused the amnesia to burst like a bubble, and at last he remembered everything. Of course this dragon wasn’t his father — how could he have thought such a thing? His memory had been playing tricks — a result, no doubt, of the blow to the head he suddenly remembered receiving. No, this loathsome black and green dragon was just one more of the many strangers he’d encountered out here in the desert, and whose name Pyx now remembered: Lambaste. And yes, he had stolen something from Lambaste and his friends, and they’d chased him out here and finally caught him, and now he was here, pinned out under the sun in preparation for some dire punishment.

There was something inevitable about this fate, he supposed. When Pyx’s father had branded him an outcast and sent him into exile, it had felt like the end of the world. But the world had carried on turning and now here he was, one whole year later yet somehow in exactly the same place.

Pyx continued to struggle helplessly against the binding charm as the shadows of his captors fell across him. The terror had consumed him entirely. He’d remembered what these dragons were and so understood what the punishment for his crime would be. That understanding filled him with horror.

These dragons were cannibals. They were going to eat him.

Tired and thirsty after a punishing four-day flight across the desert, Pyx had flown into Arilla under cover of darkness. This was a habit he’d acquired during his long travels: you never could be sure what kind of welcoming committee you were going to get in remote places like this. Best to be cautious.

Folding his aching wings, he huddled behind a rough screen of tumbleweeds that had been cunningly weighed down with rocks. The moon had already set, leaving bright stars floating high. Pyx counted ten such tumbleweed screens flanking the settlement’s east side in a broken arc, clearly set up as defence against the desert wind. Beyond the screens rose a low rubble wall: the outer perimeter of Arilla itself.

The wall was broken and unkempt. Scrubby grass filled the cracks and gaps. Fine sand coated every surface. There was no sign of dragon, living or dead.

Pyx watched for a while, finally awarding Arilla a low two on the danger scale.

The scale was something he’d refined during the year he’d spent travelling the Jangala desert. In that time he’d passed through twenty-two dragon settlements. Many had been deserted; of the inhabited ones, a few had been welcoming. Twice he’d found an attractive young female ready to turn somersaults with a stranger from the desert; there was a certain glamour to being a wanderer.

In other settlements Pyx had met nothing but hostility; from some, he’d barely escaped with his life. Hence his strategy of arriving in the dark and assessing each new settlement according to risk. If the risk factor was ten — heavy fortifications, armour-clad sentries, sacrificial victims hung from outer walls — he would give the place a wide berth. The lower the number, the more prepared he was prepared to enter.

Whenever dragons asked his business, Pyx would tell them he was an adventurer. Few questioned this, although he suspected that few really believed it. These were difficult times, and dragons no longer cared for adventure, only survival.

Occasionally, a wide-eyed youngster might ask if he was a Peregrine. Pyx would snort and say of course not.

There were a few settlements – very few – where order still held. Where dragons didn’t seem to realise they were supposed to be dying out, where they ignored the clouds of sleight hanging in the sky and shadowing the land, and pretended that they weren’t trapped in the tenuous band of desert trapped between Jangala’s blighted inland mountains and the equally deadly ocean.

Even the good places were in bad shape. Food and water were scarce; the constant sleight-storms took their toll on both structure and spirit. Pyx would stay in such settlements just long enough to rest his wings and eat his fill, then he would move on. If there were Judges still in authority, he would move on all the more quickly.

Sometimes, in the vast white wastes between waterholes, he would wonder why he was moving at all. It was many moons since his father had sent him into exile from Quadera. All because he’d stolen some meat. An astonishing punishment for a trivial crime. But Judging was all about setting examples, or so Pyx had been brought up to believe. Perversely, loner that he was, exile almost suited him.

From a young age Pyx had been an expert in solitude, a ghost in the settlement walls. He’d learned to fly early, quickly developing the ability to swoop silent and fast into forbidden corners, always inquisitive about what he might find. Soon he started bringing things out with him. He’d never thought of it as theft.

His father knew about his antics, but then the great Judge Talagor knew everything that went on in Quadera. But he tolerated his solitary son’s wayward streak. Pyx imagined it was because he loved him.

Then, not long after a cloud of sleight rolled out of the sky to gnaw at the settlement’s eastern quarter, Pyx stole the cache of precious thylax meat set aside by the council for that year’s solstice celebrations. He didn’t plan it; it just happened. When Talagor discovered the crime, he brought his son before the council. Pyx stood before the small group of venerable dragons, nervous to be sure, but certain he would be forgiven.

What his father said shocked the breath from his lungs.

‘The time has come to punish you not just for this crime,’ Talagor said, his deep Judge’s voice booming round the wide arena where all council business was settled. ‘Nor even for all those crimes you have committed in the past.’ The big dragon eyed his only son. ‘Because you are what you are, I fear I must make you pay for all the crimes you are yet to commit.’

That made no sense. Pyx opened his mouth to eject a suitable retort. His father closed it with a glare.

This was how Pyx was doomed to remember his father later, perhaps forever: a thick-set dragon looming like a statue from ancient Bloodrock. Sand-white scales and a haughty crook in his neck. Baleful eyes staring impassively down. Framing his head: a massive cloud of sleight roiling in the heavens. A storm was predicted, a bad one. As far as Pyx was concerned, it had already come.

‘Food is life,’ Talagor went on. ‘In these dark days, this is truer than ever. The thylax are growing scarce. Soon they will be gone. Food is life, and to steal it is to commit murder. Therefore, Pyx, I sentence you accordingly. You are now, and will be forever more, in exile from this community. You will leave now.’ His face came close to his son’s. ‘You must not look back.’

The blood drained out of Pyx’s head, leaving him faint, disorientated. He gaped at the other councillors. They gaped back. Talagor was a controversial figure in the community, both feared and revered. It was the fear that was uppermost on their faces that day.

Pyx looked back at his father. But the great white dragon was already walking away.

The rest was a blur. Perimeter guards took Pyx by the wings and marched him to the south wall. One of the guards stuffed a wedge of dried meat into the pouch under his right wing.

‘I shouldn’t be giving you this,’ she muttered. ‘Just get gone.’

‘Where will I go?’ He had to be dreaming. But the sting of the wind on his face was real, and the sleight-tainted wind burned like acid.

‘He’ll come round. You’ll see.’

Pyx didn’t believe it. Not that it made any difference. He had to leave now. He had no choice.

At the end of his first day’s travel, when Quadera had diminished to a mere a dot on the horizon, Pyx disobeyed his father’s express orders and looked back.

And wished he hadn’t.

Pyx found abandoned brushwood nests inside Arilla’s ramshackle stockades. He moved low through the shadows, penetrating one wall after another, each built to a tighter curve than the last. With luck, at the centre of these contracting circles he’d find the settlement’s waterhole. As he went he passed meeting places and caches for food and building materials, but they were all empty. This was a ghost-camp, long abandoned. A dead place.

Behind him, the pale light of dawn had begun to dust the sky with gold; Pyx fancied he could already feel the warmth of the sun. Still, he shivered.

He was about to give up when he stumbled on a cache containing dried butaros stacked in neat piles. Butaros were small desert crustaceans: poor food with their twiggy legs and brittle carapaces, but a staple of many communities in these difficult times. If you snapped off their venomous stings you could eat the whole butaro, shell and all. Pyx had consumed hundreds of them during his wanderings, but still hated the way their bodies crunched.

Lying near butaros was something far better, incredible, actually: a pile of dried and salted steaks! The smell of the meat after the endless sand made him dizzy. Pyx’s belly gurgled; his mouth filled with saliva; it was all he could do not to tear into the steaks right there and then. But his throat was so dry. Before he could even think of eating he had to quench his thirst.

He squeezed inside the cache and started stuffing the steaks into his pouches. He glanced around constantly for fear of being discovered, but no dragon came. When both pouches were full he moved on.

The walls were lower near the settlement’s centre. There were more nests here, built closer together. All empty. Pyx couldn’t get the idea of ghosts out of his head. He crept anxiously along, his breath catching in his throat, ready at an instant to open his wings and escape into the sky.

At last he scented water.

It was harder than when he’d seen the food. His head filled up with the thought of that first drink: cold, fresh water spilling down his throat, bloating his desert-dry body until it fountained out through the gaps between his scales. A delirious vision.

Pyx broke into a trot, then into a run. Soon he was galloping, not caring about the clatter his claws made on the hard ground, nor the dust they kicked up. He didn’t care what ghosts he roused. He cared only about getting his first drink for four days.

Rounding a corner, he found himself at the entrance to a wide open space closed on all sides by woven grass baffles. In the middle of this arena stood three enormous slabs of stone, flat and wide. Beyond them was a pit filled to the brim with white crystals. To the side stood a line of stiff timber frames. Animal skins were stretched on the frames. Large joints of meat hung from nooses of plaited grass. The air sang with the rich copper scent of blood. Pyx’s belly growled again.

It was a butchery, like many Pyx had seen before, though not for a long time. The stone slabs were where they dismembered the carcasses. The timber frames were drying racks. The white crystals were salt, to preserve.

Across the slabs lay the remains of the last animal to be butchered here — recently, by the look of it.

Except it was no animal.

There was no mistaking the serpentine form. The body was a dark squiggle on the pale desert floor. The wings were nowhere to be seen. The tail lay to one side, a tight brittle coil. Where the head had been was a black stain.

It was a dragon.

Pyx’s legs crumpled beneath him. He fought the urge to vomit. In all his travels through exile he’d never seen anything like this. Sacrificial cults, yes; violent martial regimes, yes; all the things you might expect to find in a dragon society stretched to breaking point, forced to eke out a living in a world turned devastatingly hostile. A dragon society on the edge of extinction.

But not cannibalism.

He tore at the pouches under his wings, hauling out the meat he’d liberated from the cache, one steak after the other. Just touching it brought his stomach boiling up into his throat. Soon the pouches were empty and he was surrounded by salted meat. Dragon meat. He stood gasping for breath, biting back bile.

The sun rose over the nearest screen. Pyx heard the scrape of claws across the ground.

Three dragons appeared from behind one of the stone slabs, silhouetted against the glare of the rising sun. All looked underfed and emaciated. Pyx shook out his wings, ready to fly.

One of the dragons — a limping blue-scaled individual — pointed across the arena.

‘Who’s this, Lambaste?’ Her voice carried clearly on the morning air.

Lambaste was bigger than his two companions but no less scrawny. From the confident tilt of his black and green head, Pyx guessed he was the leader.

‘I don’t know.’ Lambaste grinned to reveal yellow teeth and sunken gums. ‘But I know he’s a thief!’

Pyx leaped into the air, raising a cloud of dust through which long sunbeams lanced. The sunbeams pointed west, aimed straight at a cluster of rock towers rising in the middle distance.

Flying for his life, pursued by the cannibal dragons of Arilla, Pyx made for the hills.

Pyx felt better once he was in the air. He was still thirsty and hungry, not to mention revolted by what he’d encountered in Arilla, but he was confident this latest ordeal was over. Flying was what he did best; it was what he’d been built for. Never mind the heat and speed of the blood in his veins, or the thunder of his heart in his chest — he was going to get away. Everything was going to be all right.

His confidence waned a little when he saw how fast his three pursuers were, despite their wasted muscles. By the time Pyx reached the rock towers, they’d closed the gap considerably.

He knew the reason: Lambaste and his companions were almost certainly boosting their flying ability with charm. But Pyx wasn’t overly concerned: he’d already observed that their wingtips narrowed to sharp points, unlike his, which were shorter and deeper. These dragons might be built for speed, but they’d be no good at tricks.

Pyx grinned. Tricks were his speciality.

He led them into the shadow of the first rock tower then threw his wings wide, braking hard. This allowed Lambaste — the fastest of the three — to close the gap with startling speed. But Pyx was ready. Stretching the big flight muscles around his breastbone, he pumped his wings hard against the air and accelerated sharply upwards. Lambaste sliced through the air directly beneath his claws, close enough to shock Pyx with his slipstream.

Then, as his pursuer flashed past beneath him, Pyx succumbed to the self-destructive reflex that had so often proved his undoing.

‘Can’t catch me, you stinking salamander!’ he whooped. And lashed his tail across Lambaste’s flank.

He’d meant to strike only with his tail’s flattened end: a harmless – if stinging – slap. But the wind gusted and his tail’s sharp tip cut through the thin scales immediately behind Lambaste’s beating wings, drawing blood. Lambaste bellowed and whipped round faster than any dragon had a right to do.

Pyx snapped into a fast roll just in time to avoid the jet of flame that boiled suddenly from Lambaste’s jaws. The fire singed the scales on the back of his neck and then he was clear, diving fast. Ten wingspans short of the ground he pulled up and made straight for the gap between the two tallest pinnacle, working his wide wings harder than he ever had in his life.

Meanwhile his three pursuers had stopped flapping their wings altogether. Yet they didn’t fall. They just hung in the air, motionless. Pyx knew what this meant, and what was coming next. His excitement ebbed away; his confidence too.

Sharp blue light exploded along Lambaste’s outstretched wings. Pyx flinched, dazzled, as the air burst apart with the spicy tang of charm. The charm sent incandescent jets pouring from Lambaste’s wingtips out into the sky, where it outshone the morning sun.

The dragons were already moving again, impossibly quick. Suddenly two of them were right on Pyx’s tail. Meanwhile Lambaste had got in front of him somehow and was blocking the way ahead. Rock towers rose on both sides. Pyx had nowhere to go.

Lambaste’s jaws sprayed orange light. Charm boiled over Pyx, enveloped him. It looked like fire, felt like ice. It froze his wings and flooded his mind, stopping his thoughts dead, but not before he wished he’d put as much effort into practising charm as he had into flying and making trouble for himself.

That first day after his father had sent him into exile, Pyx had flown slowly south from Quadera on weak badland thermals, carrying with him a vast burden of anger and shame. Disbelief too — this most of all, actually.

His only comfort was the words that the young guard had said to him as he’d left:

‘He’ll come round.’

Of course his father would. He had to.

Pyx spent that evening shivering in a tiny cave he’d found in the side of a shallow scarp. The mouth of the cave faced north. Faced home. He tucked into the scraps of food the guard had given him. The meat was salty and bitter.

Quadera was just a dark point on the horizon. Pale desert crowded it on all sides and yellow clouds of sleight weighed down on it from above. Gradually the daylight failed.

Pyx reflected on his father’s recent behaviour. Judge Talagor had been acting strangely all through the spring. Moody, dark. Then, one night, a messenger had come to him from out of the desert. The dragon had arrived after nightfall, and left before dawn, the news he carried for Talagor’s ears only.

Pyx had eavesdropped on them.

He’d seen nothing and heard little, except once when, after listening to what the messenger had to say, his father had murmured,

‘It may still be the lesser of two evils.’

After the stranger had gone, Talagor’s dark moods had deepened. Once, Pyx had dared to ask him what was wrong. Instead of losing his temper, Talagor had just looked sad.

‘A Judge has few choices,’ he’d said. ‘The oath I swore binds me to Quadera. I can never leave this place.’

‘Why would you want to leave?’ Pyx had replied. ‘There’s nowhere to go.’

‘That is the dilemma.’

Talagor had said no more. A few days later, he’d caught Pyx stealing and sent him into exile, just like that, and now here he was, an outcast.

Pyx finished the meat. Eating was just a reflex, a way to refuel his body, which ached already, even after just one day’s travel. When he’d finished, he stretched out his neck and rested his head on the ground. He supposed he would sleep at some point.

A flash lit up the dusk. Pyx jerked upright and stared north in uncomprehending shock.

A spear of white light had sprouted from the dot that was Quadera. The light spread and began to spin. As Pyx watched, it grew impossibly tall, impossibly bright, until it had become a pillar of fire shifting from white to orange and billowing out at the top. By the time it hit the underside of the sleight, the pillar had expanded into a mushroom of flame and churning smoke that rolled over and over itself. Long shadows fled across the desert in every direction, marking Pyx’s home as the epicentre of some unimaginable catastrophe, a disaster that had surely consumed everything – and every dragon – he’d ever known.

The pyre blazed through the night. Pyx watched it, transfixed, unable to sleep after all. He couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing.

Soon the wind brought the scent of the fire to him over the long marches of sand: the scent not just of flames but of charm and death.

Charm and death. Now he faced them again, only this time there was no desert to escape into, just the gaping jaws of a dragon so desperate to survive that he’d resorted to eating his own kind.

But was that any reason to give up? As Lambaste bore down on him, Pyx tried tearing again at the charm that was keeping his wings pinned to the ground. But the charm held fast. He tried to lash his tail but the other dragons held it down. Lambaste’s breath was dry and dreadful, like the breath of a corpse.

Pyx yanked his wings hard, harder still. Better to tear his membranes than die. The knots of charm plunged deeper into the ground, holding him firm. The air frothed around his wingtips. The charm began to vibrate, emitting a shrill keening sound that lanced into Pyx’s skull. His wings were in agony. His vision misted over; his teeth ached. He tried not to scream, and failed.

‘Who’s this, Lambaste?’

It was the blue-scaled dragon again, saying exactly what she’d said when she’d first spotted Pyx. Why would she repeat herself?

Pyx stopped screaming and opened eyes that felt a thousand years old. The three cannibals loomed over him still. But they weren’t looking at him any more. Now they were staring past him, into the open desert. The sun flooded their backs and the slender spines standing proud there. Their wings hung open, trembling in the breeze.

Slowly Pyx turned his head to face east. The muscles of his neck creaked and he moaned in pain.

At first there was a white emptiness so bright it made his eyes sting. Once his vision had adjusted he saw that there was something moving out there: a dark shape flying so low it was almost inseparable from its shadow. It was slowly drawing nearer.

Pyx’s tormentors stepped away from him one by one, their teeth bared. The dragon continued to approach, hugging the salt pan. Hot air rippled around its blurred form, making mirages. Sometimes it seemed there was one dragon flying towards them, sometimes four, sometimes none at all.

Pyx tugged listlessly at the glowing charm still holding him down. The pain in his wings was ebbing but he felt very tired. The sun was very hot.

For a long time, the dragon seemed to get no closer. Then, suddenly, he was here.

The stranger was bigger than Pyx, though not as big as Lambaste. He looked very old. His scales were an indeterminate grey, caked with desert dust, and his eyes were dark deep beads crowded with a thousand wrinkles. Four horns twisted outwards from the back of his skull. Two of them had been broken off; the breaks were worn smooth. Strangely, the end of his tail appeared to be made of silvery metal.

The old dragon furled his wings and continued to hover for a moment with no visible means of support. Finally he touched down, light as a leaf.

Lambaste and his companions retreated several more steps. Pyx couldn’t imagine why they’d be afraid of a dragon as frail and ancient as this.

The stranger regarded each of the cannibals in turn. Then his gaze came to rest on Pyx. He frowned, adding a thousand more creases to his age-worn face. Was he was puzzled or angry? Pyx couldn’t be sure. Then the old dragon cocked his head at a curious angle so that, just for an instant, it seemed to be in two places at once.

The charm pinning Pyx to the ground melted into the air. All the tension went out of his wings. He was free.

‘What is your name?’ the stranger. His voice was as deep and dry as the desert he’d just flown out of.

As Pyx saw it, he had two options. If he stopped to engage this dragon in conversation, that would give Lambaste the time to recover his senses and kill them both on the spot. Alternatively, he could fly away. Right now.

He tried to stand, but his body refused to move. He tried flexing his wings, but membranes just lay limp.

Which left him with no choice.

‘I’m Pyx,’ he said.

The stranger’s frown deepened. Or was it a smile? The more Pyx tried to read the grey dragon’s expression, the more ambiguous it became.

‘I am Abalone.’ The stranger regarded the waiting cannibals. They glowered at him. ‘This dragon belongs to me now.’

No sooner had he said this than Abalone turned his back on the dragons and bent down to help Pyx. Pyx thought this was a bad idea. Lambaste proved him right by throwing himself at Abalone with his jaws gaping and his claws extended.

Abalone gave the end of his tail a lazy flick. Its metal end cracked. A lens formed in the air and focused the sun to a sharp point of light that drilled into the centre of Lambaste’s back. Black and green scales melted and flew into the air. The cannibal dragon’s ribcage glowed briefly from within. There was a dull, wet concussion, then shards of bone were flying amid a spray of blood. The red cloud dissipated and what was left of Lambaste splattered across the hard, dry ground.

The other two dragons rushed Abalone with their wings spread and their claws out. Pyx drew in a horrified breath. By the time he let it out again, two more corpses lay smouldering in the sun.

‘Can you stand?’ said Abalone, completely unshaken by what he’d just done. He hadn’t even looked round.

Pyx gaped up at his saviour and wondered if he was any safer now than he had been before.

‘Thanks,’ he said, allowing the old dragon to help him stand. His wings were coming back to life, though they still ached terribly. ‘Whoever you are.’

‘I’ve already told you my name. We shouldn’t linger here. There are others in the settlement. They will come to investigate. By the time they get here, we must be long gone.’

‘“We”? Uh, look, um, Abalone is it? I’m grateful to you for saving my life, but—’

‘When did you last take a drink?’

Pyx’s thirst reared up immediately. How could he have forgotten he needed a drink so desperately? He opened his mouth, felt his lips crack. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a dry sob.

Abalone draped one enormous grey wing across Pyx’s back.

‘If you come with me, you may have water before sundown.’

Pyx’s eyes burned. He was too dehydrated even to cry.

‘Where are we going?’

Abalone pointed west, directly towards the pillar of fire that had appeared while Pyx had been unconscious. Pyx groaned. He’d forgotten all about that. Well, he’d had other things on his mind. Like not being eaten.

But that wasn’t everything, was it? Part of him had wanted to forget. Part of him had wanted to deny the existence of that far-off inferno. Why?

Because it was identical to the pillar of fire that had destroyed his home.

The past again. Back to haunt him.

Swallowing hard, Pyx forced himself to stare at the distant flames. He was hypnotised by the awful slowness with which the fire licked the underbelly of the poisonous sleight clouds. It was an appalling sight.

‘What’s out there?’ he said.

‘The settlement is called Gildra,’ said Abalone. ‘I only hope we get there in time.’

‘In time to drink?’

‘In time to save dragons.’

Pyx wanted to ask more. He also wanted to tell more. He’d only just met this old, grey dragon but for some reason he wanted to tell Abalone all about Quadera, about the fire that had destroyed his home, and especially about what he’d found in its remains when he’d finally plucked up the courage to fly back there.

Why did he feel that urge? Pyx had spent a whole year wandering the desert keeping his secret story to himself. Was there really any reason to tell it now, to this dragon?

Abalone gave him no time to reach an answer. Before Pyx could say anything else, the old dragon opened his great grey wings and flew into the sky. He did a single circuit of the cluster of rock towers, then struck out towards the pillar of fire.

Pyx regarded the gruesome remains of Lambaste and his companions. He moved his gaze to the distant blur that was Arilla and wondered how many more cannibals lived there.

He looked west to see Abalone dwindling in the sky, his grey scales flashing in the light of the rising sun. He was following a shallow groove in the sand, which appeared to lead straight towards the far-off pillar of fire.

Stay or go?

Pyx spread his wings and followed the grey dragon.

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