Extract / Preview: The Dragon Engine by Andy Remic

CB - AR - Aug - The Dragon Engine PROLOGUE
The Pigs Head
Dake Tillamandil Mandasar, former Sword Champion of King Yoon’s Royal Guard, hero of the Second Mud-Orc War and heir to the Lordship of the House of Emeralds, Vagandrak’s largest ruling family, squinted at the pig’s severed head dominating the long feasting table laid out before him. Granted, the head had been cooked to perfection; skin crisp, meat succulent and steaming, the red apple lodged in its mouth both inviting and in a position for comedy banter; agreed, the head had been placed centrally on a huge, expertly etched silver platter, the edges worked with intricate care and skill by some master craftsmen at the pinnacle of his guild artifice; and yes, granted, the flowering garnish which surrounded the cooked pig’s head like a generous forest of autumnal colour and culinary precision would have made all of King Yoon’s eighty-five Master Chefs weep into their onion soup bowls, such was the artistry with which lettuce and onions had been skilfully carved, potatoes and aubergines arranged just so, carrots and broccoli meshing together to craft a creative tapestry of wonder, begging even the most ardent of carnivores to dive naked and drooling into this feast of lightly seasoned vegetables.

*
Dake stared. The pig stared back.

“But I… I never ordered that!” said Dake, his vision locked to the doll eyes of the dead pig. Its eyes were small and black as ink. He felt they were watching him… carefully. With an educated understanding.

By all the gods, they ARE watching me! His mind reeled under the influence of this sudden realisation, aided, no-doubt, by the eight frothing flagons of Fighting Cock Alehe’d managed to consume in a shorter time than was holy.

“THAT’S BECAUSE WE ORDERED IT FOR YOU!” boomed Beetrax the Axeman, pushing through the crowd of chatting guests and slamming another frothing tankard before the former Sword Champion. “And… I didn’t want to mention it before, but it looks like your sister!” He erupted into roaring raucous laughter, thumping Dake playfully on the shoulder –to a wince –as others around the huge table burst into laughter and they lifted tankards in salutation to a great moment of comedy, each gaining a frothing moustache with their humorous toast.

“My sister, Beetrax?” Dake’s voice was cool. The cool that had disarmed thousands of opponents both in the gladiator rings and in the real-world insanity of battle. “Damn it! But I reckon this pig looks more like your mother,” he snapped, grabbing his tankard and taking a hearty swig, a goodly quantity spilling down his leather jerkin and fine, pink-patterned silk shirt.

“No, wait,” beamed the axeman, pausing for comedy effect, “it looks even more like my hairy arse!” More laughter erupted, and Beetrax positively glowed through his bushy beard, showing a broken tooth, victim of a long-forgotten tavern brawl. “Anyway, anyway, settle down, settle down…I said SETTLE DOWN!” The laughter and cheering subsided as if launched from a cliff. Beetrax swept his gaze across the long table, where perhaps forty guests were seated, attention now focussed wholly on him. The remainder of the crowded ground floor of The Fighting Cocks lowered their voices to a murmur, as everybody turned towards Beetrax, who had climbed –somewhat shakily –onto a three legged stool. The roaring fire, in an ornate stone fireplace some seven feet high, pumped out heat and light and cast Beetrax’s shadow against the far wall near the long bar, escalating his already impressive stature to that of a giant.

Beetrax puffed out his chest. “Time for a speech, it is!” he said, deep bass voice rumbling like a clash of titans entering battle.

“Gods, not another one,” cursed someone from the crowd, as a good-hearted chuckle ran through the friendly, gathered throng.

“Careful, lad, lest I knock out your teeth,” warned Beetrax sombrely, swaying a little, his tankard clamped in a shovel-like fist, the knuckles heavily scarred, the backs of his fingers and hands tattooed with military script.

“Looks like somebody already knocked out yours!” More laughter, which quickly subsided when Beetrax gave that stare.

“Anyways,” continued the bristling axeman, “I’d just like to ask all you fine people and comrades here to raise your tankards, cups, glasses and soup bowls to my best mate, Dake, and his lovely wife, Jonti Tal – there she is, that slim and beautiful one over there,” he hiccupped, “who, on this very day five years back, took the bravest plunge of them all–braver than any front-line mud-orc charge, braver than facing any horse-beast massacre, braver than cleaning any type of street-fed cesspit– yes, men and women o’ the Cocks, they decided to get wed!”

The entire tavern’s populace cheered, and many patrons slapped their fellows on the back. There were a large number of hugs. Love was in the air. Love, and wine fumes. Dake grinned around like a man possessed, and Jonti Tal, slender, elegant, with long black hair tied back, her steel eyes sweeping the room, stood, and waved her hands for quiet.

“Thank you, thank you all for coming…” she began.

Beetrax belched, wobbled again on his stool, then plummeted to the ground in what turned into a rather comical half-dive, half-roll which saw him practically put his head into the roaring flames. More laughter chased woodsmoke and good humour around the large tavern room, and Beetrax scrambled back from the roaring blaze on all fours, his tankard lost in the throng, face as red as his big bushy beard and shaggy head of hair. Embers sizzled in his beard, and a friend suddenly threw ale in the large axeman’s face. Steam sizzled. Beetrax lifted both his clenched fists in a traditional pugilist’s pose until Talon leapt forward, his slender arm half-encircling Beetrax’s broad shoulders, and he managed to achieve eye contact.

“Whoa, Big Man! Go easy there. You were about to suffer a head engulfed in flame!”

“Eh?”

“Your beard, man, it was smouldering! Your bush was about to ignite! A harsh way to achieve a shave, I’d wager, even though so many here believe you need it. This friend, here, was simply saving your dignity. And your pride and joy. So, go buy him an ale instead of pummelling his undeserving features. Right?”

“Aye, right then, Talon,” nodded Beetrax, slapping the worried-looking douser on the shoulder, “that I will, that I will.”

Jonti was well into her tale by the time Beetrax regained focus, and was saying, “…chose the most romantic way to propose –under The Saviour Oak in Peace Lily Square, with the scent of flowers in our nostrils, the full moon illuminating everything with highlights of silver…I was blessed, and honoured, touched, and in love. Therefore, as he stared up with those big sad eyes, I felt compelled to say yes to his most honourable proposal.”

“So, nothing to do with his huge fortune, then, eh love?” shouted Beetrax from the bar. He had a man sat on his shoulders now and was attempting to dance a dance from the knees down.

“Talon,” smiled Jonti, her face becoming yet more beautiful with the clarity of her smile, “would you kindly put an arrow through the fat man’s eye?”

“With pleasure, sweet Jonti.” Talon bared his teeth in what could have been a smile.

“Anyway,” Jonti continued, sipping from a crystal goblet of thick red wine more reminiscent of blood than juice of the grape, “I would first like to thank you all for attending, except maybe Beetrax, who is a loveable rogue but, on occasion, more effort than should be required. I know many of you have travelled from far cities and towns over a week’s journey away, and both Dake and I are truly honoured you made such an effort. We’ve put ten gold behind the bar, which I believe, according to Old Dog Ben, should last well into the small hours for both food and drink; and we would both be thrilled if you could fill your bellies, drink yourselves senseless, and make this, our fifth wedding anniversary, a night to remember!”

A cheer went up, with lots of clapping and shouts of goodwill. The atmosphere was charged with lightning. The band in the corner set up a merry jig, drums pounding, lyres strumming, feet stamping, and the party patrons began swirling one another around in a mad dash dance of vigour and fun.

Dake grabbed Jonti around the waist, and pulled her screaming and not-struggling-too-much down into his lap. The giggling and slapping turned within moments to a long, deep, lingering kiss, and they stayed like that for some time, entwined, lost amidst the merry bustle of the gathering and the dance, cocooned in their own little world of softness, sweetness, love and purity. Minutes flowed into hours, and time slipped by like a water snake through lilies. Dake and Jonti drank a decanter of fine Vagandrak Red, nuzzling one another, and reminiscing on past events with small laughter and glittering eyes. They were soothed into an alcoholic, embryonic haze of gentleness. They snuggled together, half dozing as the party started to lose momentum, and slowed, and soothed itself into a calmer time. Members of the gathering drifted around Dake and Jonti, shimmering like ghosts. It was a most comfortable situation, which led to long moments of holding, and longer moments of kissing; not the urgent kissing with a lust for sex, but a rhythmical union, a togetherness, holding one another for the simple sake of it.

Finally, Jonti pulled back.

“You still have it, my lord.”

“Ha! Don’t call me that.”

“But…you are the Lord of the House of Emeralds.”

“No no no…heir to the Lordship of the House of Emeralds.”

“Still. You’ll always be my lord.” Her voice was low, and husky, and incredibly sexy. He reached up and stroked her smooth skin, lost in her. Jonti leant forward and kissed him, sensuously, for long lingering moments, until they both became gradually aware of an intrusive presence and pulled away, frowning. Beetrax was stood, warming his back by the fire, staring at them.

“You going to pay for a ticket?” snapped Jonti.

“Eh?”

“You’re staring, my friend. At us. During our intimate moment.”

“Oh, that.” Beetrax waved his hand, as if swatting away a fly, dismissing an uncomfortable moment he’d created with a gesture. “Don’t be ridiculous. I wasn’t staring. I was just watching. There’s a difference, you know.”

Jonti scowled, but Dake gave her a little squeeze. Go easy on him, that squeeze said. You love him. We love him. Hes a brother. And you know what hes bloody like!

“You have something on your mind?”

“I do, as it happens.” Beetrax took a deep breath, gave a wide grin, and scratched his bushy ginger beard with sudden vigour.

“You maybe require some kind of herbal infestation antidote?” suggested Jonti.

“No! I have called the others. They’re on their way.”

“What others?” said Dake, struggling more upright and rubbing his face and mouth. He looked around, as if waking from a deep slumber. He yawned. “Gods, what time is it?”

“Two hours after midnight,” said Beetrax, and his eyes were shining under his broad, flat forehead. He rubbed his chin again, and took a generous swig of honeyed wine, straight from a clay jug. Golden droplets hung in his beard, and firelight from the hearth turned them into suspended jewels. “You remember that time, on the walls? We’d just held against another mud-orc attack. I had that beautiful serrated axe, and was picking bits of bone and mud-orc flesh from the steel; and I was feeling despondent, like, as if the shit would never end. And you stuck your arm around me, and said…”

“I said, ‘Don’t worry, Axeman. This horse shit won’t last past the end of the week. Keep your chin up, brother!’”

Beetrax grinned. “Aye. And you were right. We won. We were heroes. And a month later you were married to that…sword ghost.

“Hardly a ghost,” smiled Jonti, relaxing back against Dake. His arm encircled her waist, his fingers reaching out, stroking her inner thigh with a practised intimacy.

“Weeks of battle, not a single scar on you,” said Beetrax. He frowned. “Woman, you fight like a demon, and you turn to spirit form when the enemy blades and claws are near. Thats what I was staring at. Remembering, like.” Beetrax sat down on a stool with a sudden jolt, as if surprised by his own momentum and weight, and took another hefty gulp of wine.

Dake inhaled a deep breath rich with stray tobacco and woodsmoke. “Savage days,” he said. “Thankfully over. But hey! Now, it’s a time of peace. We’re all wealthy, happy, privileged. Heroes! Vagandrak salutes us. Celebrates us in literature and song. I performed yet another school visit last week. The children were crowding around, asking me how many mud-orcs I killed on the walls of Desekra; the cheeky little imps. I had to send them back to their chalk slates and learning. Still. It’s good for them to meet their heroes.” He spoke with no irony.

“But you’re not happy, are you?” said Beetrax, leaning forward. His shift of position put his face in shadow, and his eyes became very, very dark. Dake frowned.

“Of course I’m happy. I’m married. We’re celebrating. I’m drunk, by the Seven Sisters!”

“Where’s the excitement gone, brother? The adventure? The…the bloody challenge!”

Jonti made an annoyed clucking sound, as Dake opened his mouth to answer, but Beetrax’s eyes shifted –to a spot beyond Dake. Jonti jumped up, and stood with hands on her hips. She was smiling as she swept the room, eyes finally coming to rest on the three newcomers to their little gathering.

The ground floor of The Fighting Cocks was almost deserted; now the jigs were done, the band drunk, the food consumed. Ben the Bear slept in the corner, still wrapped in his shaggy bearskin despite the pumping heat from the hearth. He was snoring – a soothing, gentle purring sound, despite his size and ferocity of looks. In another corner six women in silks and chainmail played around a game table, throwing carved knuckle dice, their near-silent cheers and curses a testament to the seriousness of their bets which had no doubt increased in quantity in line with the amount of honeyed wine supped. Kendalol, one of the barmen, was polishing silver tankards behind a scarred stretch of stained oak bar. He was legendary for his lack of sleep, although the gossip was that his narrow-faced wife was something of a harpy, and he was as argumentative as she, thus necessitating alternating states of existence lest one throttle the other.

Here, now, in the hushed and ale-spent tavern, stood Talon, tall, elegant, with long ash-blond hair so fine it was almost white; high cheekbones enhancing a somewhat haughty appearance, and his well-balanced athleticism speaking volumes of his legend–that of skilled archer, perhaps ranked third in Vagandrak, perhaps first, depending where you placed your bets. As well as his skill with any target a warrior could present, the narrow-hipped archer was also a languages expert, being a graduate from Drakerath University, and had been known, on special occasions, to be hired as Chief Protector for the Queen; he was also notorious for his outspoken views on his love for men, which got him into occasional spots of bother, but enamoured him to King Yoon as a man to be trusted with the King’s young bride.

Talon gave a single nod of his head, then pushed back an errant wisp of drifting hair, smoothing it behind one ear, his eyes fixed not on Beetrax or Dake, but on Jonti Tal. Her eyes posed a question but Talon blinked slowly, lips pursing into a narrow smile. Youll find out soon enough, that smile said, and Jonti returned his good humour with shining eyes and a curt nod. By some trick of the light, her eyes almost appeared full of tears.

Beside Talon stood Lillith, a self-proclaimed witch specialising in the positive magick of healing, her studies forcing her to take a path of celibacy, and her work in the Great Library of Vagandrak notoriously invaluable over the years, translating ancient texts from foreign tongues and contributing immensely to the Great Library’s body of knowledge. She was a much-studied healer, her skin olive dark, her hair a cascade of thick woven strands which ran down her back to her hips. She abhorred violence of any kind, and yet found herself drawn to warriors for it was here she could practise her healing skills with regularity. Now, her dark sultry eyes appraised the gathered group and she bared her teeth in a welcoming smile, her scent, that of the exotic, reaching Beetrax’s nostrils and making him think of older, better times.

“Beetrax,” she nodded, voice husky and deep, and for a moment Beetrax’s cheeks flushed red.

“It’s been a while, Lillith,” he said, voice thick with emotion. “I am so glad you could come.”

“My pleasure, my love,” said Lillith, almost shyly.

Dake slapped Beetrax’s leg. “Stop fawning, you dick; you’re like a love-struck fool!” he laughed.

“Sorry,” rumbled Beetrax. “But you know how it is.”

“Yeah, mate. I do.”

Lillith pulled up a stool and sat, arranging her white skirts. Around her throat and wrists were silver charms that caught the light of candles and fire, and glinted with a supernatural eeriness.

Finally, from the shadows, came Sakora. She was tall, and slim, and moved with an incredible grace, a natural elegance. She wore a mixture of silks and hazy gauze fabrics which swirled around her. Her hair was long and brown, tied back in a loose tail, and her feet were bare, nails painted a shocking red, each toe circled by rings of gold. She appeared more a dancer than a member of this group of warriors, and yet they all knew, were painfully aware, that in the realm of unarmed combat the beautiful Sakora was more deadly than any person they had ever met.

“Welcome, Sakora,” said Jonti, with a broad smile.

Sakora nodded, moving to one side, leaning against the wall, one hand stroking down a section of flowing silk. “It’s been a while,” she said. “When he,” she nodded towards Beetrax, “sent the invitation, I was immediately suspicious.”

“Har har! You know my reputation far too well!” boomed Beetrax.

“Indeed I do,” purred Sakora, eyes fixed on the huge warrior, “and sometimes the words sex, and pest, enter the same timeline within the frame of my mind.”

“Ha! Sex pest? You’d be so lucky.”

Sakora shrugged. “You have indeed pestered me before.”

“I don’t remember that,” said Beetrax.

“You do. I broke your thumb.”

“Oh, that little misunderstanding!”

“I believe you dribbled a good pint of saliva down my breasts before I had to resort to the physical.”

“Love, you can resort to the physical with me any time!” beamed Beetrax.

“You wish me to break your other thumb?” she said.

“Ladies, brothers, let’s get to the point.” Dake waved his hands suddenly, attracting their attention. “I –we are completely flattered, and honoured, that you all came. Brother Beetrax here is resplendent in his willingness to go that extra league in making our anniversary something special. However, the hour is late, and without meaning to sound crass in any way, it really is time me and my lovely wife relived our wedding night from all those moons ago. I assume you are all staying in the locality, and thus we should meet again tomorrow noon, and perchance seek joy in food, drink, lively banter and one another’s happy reminisces.” Dake beamed, as if proud he’d managed to utter the words through an ale-fug which clouded his brain.

“Wait,” said Jonti, looking around. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

Lillith nodded, as did Talon.

“You’ve not told them?” Sakora gave a sideways glance at Beetrax, and made a clucking sound of annoyance.

“Told us what?” said Dake, frowning.

“Hey, hey, I wanted it to be a surprise, right? I wanted the old gang back together before I spilled the beans and got Dake and Jonti here all excited and buzzing about a good idea and our future adventures.”

Jonti gave a narrow smile. “What future adventures would these be, my ambitious little Trax? Seems like you have it all worked out ahead of us… without actually bothering to find out if we’d be interested in the first place.”

“No no, don’t get like that,” said Beetrax, pleading with his hands. “Don’t be getting pissed about it before you’ve even given me a chance to speak. Because when I speak, trust me,” he pointed with a stubby index finger sporting a blackened nail, “trust me, you’ll want to be in on it.” He lifted his hand and gave a little wave. One of the few remaining serving maids brought over a large wooden tray containing several flagons and bottles.

Sakora waved away a glass – she did not drink – but the others helped themselves.

“Go on, have some,” muttered Beetrax, looming close.

“It is not the way of the Kaaleesh. It affects judgement, timing, power, speed, all of those things you believe you possess.” She looked up from those dark eyes and Beetrax gave a little groan.

“Gods,” he mumbled, “it’s going to be a long night.”

“Right,” said Dake, standing suddenly. “Jonti, come on, it’s time we called it a night. As I said, we’re all pleased you came, but the time for drinking is now gone, and we can discuss Beetrax’s ‘future adventures’ tomorrow over a proper full fried breakfast… Mrs Mangan’s down the street does a wonderful fried black pudding, and when you crack an egg yolk it all soaks in, and–”

“Sit down,” said Beetrax.

Despite his voice being low, almost unheard, Dake caught a tone he’d not heard in a decade. He looked at Beetrax again, and saw something in the big axeman’s eyes that made him give a little shiver. He felt goose bumps run up his arms and tickle his spine.

“Hear him out,” said Talon, settling down on a stool and folding his arms. The slim archer had a cool, detached smile on his lips.

Dake laughed it off with a boom, tilted his head, and then gave Beetrax a single nod, sitting himself back down and crossing one high, gleaming black boot across the opposite knee. “Go on then. Explain, Axeman.”

“I’ve spent the last week in the Rokroth Marshes,” said Beetrax.

“Doing what?” asked Jonti.

“I was helping an old friend escape from… his enemies. You may know him. His name is Fanakor Greeves.”

“That old rogue!” grinned Talon, showing perfect white teeth.

“Old rogue my boot,” said Dake, eyes heavy-lidded. “He’s wanted by Yoon and the King’s Guard for High Treason; smuggling dark magick texts, blood sacrifice… you name it. Beetrax, you mad bastard, Yoon will have you hanged if you’re caught aiding Greeves. Worse, he’ll have you tortured for a month prior, and have you squealing like a kitten in a bear trap. Have you lost all your senses?”

“Would you help me if I was in trouble?” countered Beetrax.

“Yes, but that’s different. You’re a brother. Despite the bad beard.”

“I owed him, Dake. I owed him my life. But that’s a different story for a different day. The point is, I helped him evade capture; I smuggled him out. And I used my… less than salubrious contacts to fashion Greeves with a new identity.”

“Well, I still think you’ve taken a dangerous, unnecessary risk, my friend.”

“In return, Fanakor Greeves gave me his greatest possession, acquired after fifty years of study and grave-robbing; earned after a lifetime’s obsessive investigation into the dark arts, into Equiem magick; into the Harborym Dwarves.”

“Go on,” said Dake, and the room was deathly quiet. The fire crackled, coals occasionally popping in the glowing hearth. Talon took a gentle sip of some fine white wine sprinkled with crystals.

Beetrax looked about, as if suddenly frightened of being overheard. He lowered his voice.

“Greeves gave me a map; a page torn from the Scriptures of the Church of Hate, or at least, what fragments still remain.”

“That is one ancient, deadly, cursed tome,” said Lillith, her eyes narrowing a little, their cores flickering like dragon fire.

“It is indeed,” said Beetrax, face solemn.

“Legend has it that book belonged to the sorcerer, Morkagoth. The evil bastard who summoned the mud-orcs from the slime and attempted to kill every man, woman and child in Vagandrak.”

Beetrax nodded. “Apparently. Whatever its origin, Greeves acquired access to the book, and stole the map.”

“A map to what?” said Jonti.

“It’s a map,” said Beetrax, licking his lips, looking shifty for a moment, “that leads to the Five Havens, the five dwarf cities under the Karamakkos Peaks. They were once ruled by the Great Dwarf Lords who mined untold wealth– I’m talking oceans of jewels, warehouses full of gold coin, lakes of molten silver! Enough to buy you a lifetime of whores, Falanor brandy and Hakeesh weed!”

“Wasn’t there something about a dragon?” said Talon, eyes narrowed, rubbing his chin.

“Three dragons,” said Beetrax, his own eyes wide. He took a hefty swig from his ale tankard, warming to his subject, and smacked his lips. “By the gods, that’s good. Yes. The three dragons were slaves to the Harborym, their minds hammered and broken, or so the legend goes. They were locked away in three huge cylindrical pits, where they were used to light the furnaces. Or something. Anyway, that’s all academic bollocks. The point is, the Harborym are long gone, extinct for ten thousand years, the Five Havens lost to the knowledge and thoughts of us mere mortal men. But all that treasure is still there, waiting for some hardy adventurer types to trot along and fill their pockets, and maybe even a few wheelbarrows, with an orgy of sparkling loot.”

“I hate to piss on your fire, Beetrax,” said Dake, frowning, “but unless you hadn’t noticed, we’re all affluent to the point of decadence. That’s what being Vagandrak’s Best Kept War Heroes did for our pockets. Why then, in the name of the Holy Mother, would we want to risk life and limb climbing mountains, fighting rock demons, and delving into long forgotten underground pits probably better left to the psychopathically demented Rock Fairies and all their little golems? Hmm?”

“Because of the three Dragon Heads,” said Beetrax, eyes glinting. “Tell them, Lillith.”

“The Dragon Heads were colourless jewels found deep, deep beneath the mountains. It was discovered they had incredible healing powers – they could bring a man back from the brink of death; they could heal massive, open wounds, making flesh run together like molten wax; they could cure plagues and cancers and other diseases we couldn’t even dream of. They are referred to in the Scriptures of the Church of Hate with reverence, as if they were bestowed on the Great Dwarf Lords by the Mountain Gods themselves. Indeed, it is the Dragon Heads that gave the Great Dwarf Lords their dominion and kingship.”

“They can heal?” said Dake, voice gentle. He did not look at Jonti, but he squeezed her hand.

“Better than heal, boy,” snapped Beetrax. “They promise immortality! The Great Dwarf Lords lived for a thousand years, ruling their underground realm with iron fists. That was because of these gems. Until…”

“Until what?” asked Jonti, almost breathless.

“There was a civil war. Between the Church and the Crown. The Harborym Dwarves murdered one another in their tens of thousands. Being a noble race, the survivors, borne down by terrible guilt at what they had done, cast themselves into the pits of Moraxx, Kranesh and Volak.”

“Who?”

“They were the dragons,” grinned Beetrax. “So the book reckons; so Greeves told me. Volak was the big dragon, apparently. The male.” He shrugged.

There followed a long silence, where everybody considered Beetrax’s words. The big axeman took another generous swig, and looked around the group with as much subtlety as he could muster. Talon: well, he had the archer. He knew Talon was a restless soul, and no amount of money in the coffers under his bed would stop him going on a reckless adventure with his old war buddies. He was the easy one. Beetrax’s gaze shifted. Lillith. He had Lillith, too, because to Lillith, her quest for knowledge and new abilities to heal would outweigh any personal risk or possibility of death. She was a good woman at heart; too good. Beetrax knew that well, for once, many years ago, they were betrothed. Before she found her good side. Before she pledged herself to the spirits, the gods, and the greater good; damn them all to the Furnace.

The others, though?

Beetrax glanced at Sakora. She was staring at him, cool as anything, eyes unreadable, lips moist. She exercised her wrists, circling her fists and then pushing her shoulders back to stretch muscles and tension her spine. By all the gods, thats one amazing specimen of a woman, thought Beetrax, momentarily distracted.

Sakora smiled, closing her eyes. She caught images of his thoughts, flashing at her like flickers of starlight.

Youd better believe it, she projected back, not quite sure if he would be receptive to the thought, but willing to give it a try. She opened her eyes and smiled. Beetrax frowned, and turned to Dake and Jonti.

They were gazing into one another’s eyes, and there was something wrong there. Beetrax tilted his head. They were supposed to be arguing with him, him trying to convince them, but… there was something else. Subtle. Out of context. Beetrax knew he was a big boorish lout, an axeman with a love of frothing ale, long-legged women and waking up in a pool of his own sick. But he was, surprisingly, well-versed in the art of the subtle. He could read people, and read them well. He was surprisingly intuitive, a fact which had probably gotten him into double the number of tavern brawls than should have been normal for one of his character. But now… now he couldn’t read his old friends Dake and Jonti. There was something they were not telling him. They were holding back. Something serious.

Talon broke the silence, as Beetrax knew he would. “When do you propose we leave?”

“In a week’s time, from the front doorstep of this very tavern.”

“I’m in,” said Talon, brushing back his long blond hair. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a hot young brunette warming my bed sheets, and I simply haven’t enjoyed himenough to satisfy my ego for one evening.”

He stood, a quick hard movement, and turned to leave.

“Are you not going to wait and see who else volunteers?” said Beetrax, bushy brows forming a thunderous ridge.

“Not necessary. They’ll all come.” Talon swaggered off, reaching the foot of the stairs, where he turned for dramatic effect, tossing back his hair just a little. “After all… why would they not?” He disappeared, and Beetrax looked around at the others.

“I knew he’d be the easy one. He always was.”

“I didn’t realise you two had got it on that way.” Sakora winked.

Beetrax reddened. “Ha! He wishes, the spindly little maggot. Anyways. What do the rest of you think? Lillith? You recognise the healing potential, the quest for knowledge from something like this?”

Lillith considered Beetrax, then ran both hands down the olive skin of her face. “I recognise the healing potential you have for yourself becoming possibly immortal. Is that what you want, Beetrax? Really?”

“I want,” said Beetrax, resting his hand on his chin in a studied philosophical pose, “ten wives, a hundred children, a warehouse full of fine wine, enough money to live like a king, and the chance to live for a thousand fucking years, my dear. Yes. I am that vain, I am that greedy, I am that selfish, and I am that hedonistic.”

“And the prospects for all the other people of Vagandrak?”

“When I’m immortal, you can do what the hell you like with the gems,” grinned Beetrax.

“I always thought your selfishness was an affected air,” said Lillith, with considered gentility.

Beetrax deliberated on this. “No,” he said, and turned to Sakora. “What about you, O unarmed combat expert with the bad social grace to get her stinking feet out at a party gathering? Eh? You up for a bit of an adventure with old Uncle Beetrax?”

“Although I would deeply love to reject your proposal on the grounds of spending any kind of trip with you being worse than an eternity of torture at the hands of the Torture Priests from the Church of Hate, I must confess: a) I have become complacent with my wealth, my lack of personal challenge, and a certain growing need to push myself once more to the limits of human physical endurance, and b) I have studied a hundred different combat systems from a multitude of cultures. This would give me a chance, perhaps, to broaden my knowledge base.”

“You seek knowledge?” said Beetrax. “Bah! Well, anyway, whatever does it for you. Glad to have you with us. I know your, er, bare feet will be wonderful in any attack situations we might find ourselves in. Unless they’re wearing armour of course!” He slapped his thigh and roared with laughter.

“Any time you wish to dance the cobbles, my big and excessively hairy friend, all you need to do is lead the way outside.”

“Hah! Maybe one day, little lady. But not now. I have a quest to prepare! In fact, damn, I have a contract for us to sign. Lillith, be a love and nip upstairs, drag that wastrel Talon down here, by his foolish long hair if necessary.”

Lillith growled something at Beetrax, but stood and moved to the stairwell. Her open annoyance was irrelevant. Beetrax had already turned towards Dake and Jonti. Jonti was pale, a weak smile on her lips. Dake was holding both her hands in his own.

“I suppose we’re going to have that big argument now, eh?” beamed Beetrax. There was a certain optimistic rivalry in his expression.

“No,” said Dake, voice gentle. And as Beetrax watched, he realised his old friend’s eyes had filled with tears. “We’ve agreed to come with you on your foolish adventure looking for diamonds of immortality.”

“Really?” Surprise, forcing Beetrax’s bushy eyebrows up into an arch. “For the gold? The jewels? The fame and the fortune? To explore long lost caverns and have a bloody damn great fun time doing it?”

Dake gave a sorrowful shake of his head. “No,” he almost whispered. He glanced at Jonti, who gave a single nod of her head. Dake fixed Beetrax with a powerful stare. “Jonti is dying,” he said, his words emerging like cursed charms on a river of sorrow. “She doesn’t have long left to live. No amount of money can save her. The best physicians in Vagandrak have given up trying – that’s why you are all here, for this reunion, this party. We’d invited you here to tell you the news. This was supposed to be our last get together before… the inevitable happens.”

Beetrax literally stumbled into silence. His mouth opened once, then closed again with an audible clack of teeth.

“So yes,” said Jonti, voice soft. “We’ll come with you, Beetrax. Because I’m out of options.” She looked up, and gave him a beautiful smile, her eyes full of tears. “In one month from now, I’ll be dead. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”

 

It was the early hours. The fire, once a roaring inferno, a fireball to equal the pits of the Furnace itself, had calmed, flowing down into molten embers which glowed, and pulsed, like fireflies gathered over a rotting corpse in the Rokroth Marshes.

The men and women who stood around the table were sombre indeed. Beetrax had unrolled a thick vellum parchment, on which, in surprisingly neat script, he had drawn up the contract. One huge hand held the scroll in place. His eyes moved around the table, meeting each and every member, until they came to rest on Jonti Tal.

“This is our contract,” he said, with great authority. “Each man and woman here should sign their name, or mark.”

“I don’t understand why we have to sign it,” said Sakora, voice silk. “We all know one another; we all trust one another.”

“We all sign,” rumbled Beetrax, eyes filled with a sudden passion; a blaze of anger and strength. “We find the Dragon Heads. We save Jonti. Or we die trying.” His gaze challenged every person individually, and Dake reached forward, dipping the quill in ink and scrawling his name.

“We die trying,” he agreed.

One by one, they signed, then moved to Jonti and kissed her cheek. Tears were flowing, and there were hugs, and kisses, and more tears. Finally, Beetrax took the quill and gave his broad, untidy scrawl. He looked around.

“You are my brothers and sisters,” he said, voice choking, “and this contract binds us. We will save Jonti; by the Seven Sisters and the Holy Mother, I swear it will be so!

 

***

 

You can read more on THE DRAGON ENGINE on our Jul-Dec 15 Angry Robot Books page or our September New Book Recommends.

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

 

 

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero
THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN – Mark Hodder
THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir
KOKO THE MIGHTY – Kieran Shea
THE UNNOTICEABLES – Robert Brockway
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
THE DRAGON ENGINE – Andy Remic