In Tallenmere, fate has a way of catching up with you…
Somewhere, hidden in the waters of the Southern Sea, lies an island unlike any other. Within the amber glow of its pyrogem-laden cliffs, legend says the very heart of the dragon god Drae keeps the island, and its occupants, alive.
Loralee Munroviel, daughter of Leogard’s High Priestess Arianne, had no idea what she would face when she arrived by boat ten years ago and was left alone in exile. All she knew about Draekoria’s inhabitants was written in one tattered notebook. Now, her life revolves around keeping Drae’s descendants happy. Never in her life did she imagine being a Dragon Keeper.
Captain Igrorio Everlyn, known as Sir Robert to his unit of Holy Paladins, has faced his share of hell, battling the evils of Emperor Sarvonn’s tyranny and the dark god Tyr’s abominations. But none of that compares to the ten years of hell he’s been without Loralee, presumed dead.
One freak storm changes everything. Now the two of them must fight to reestablish the delicate balance of the island before the dragons take things into their own hands. Through it all, they discover the secrets that kept them, and their hearts, exiled for a decade.
North Leogard, Temple Living Quarters
For a ten-year-old, she asked the most perplexing questions, but I tried my best as I we sat in the rocking chair before bed. “I really don’t have a good answer for you, Miss Priss. Our goddess’s ways are beyond our understanding sometimes.” The words I’d heard my mother say time and again sounded foreign and disingenuous coming from me.
“I miss Mama and Papa.”
“I know. At least they’re alive and well. We can see them coming and going through the window.”
“Why can’t Papa tuck me in?”
“They don’t want to risk us getting sick, Miss Priss. The Plague seems to be coming to an end, though, so I bet he can tuck you in again soon.”
Peering through the glass, I watched as the acolytes lit the torches to provide light in the pavilion below. They’d cleared all the ivy from the pergola to allow sunlight to cleanse the place, so we could see all the way down to the stone floor. Thankfully, bodies no longer filled the area as they had just a few weeks ago. But, Prysilla still cried for them every night.
“Why can’t Mama fix them?
Our mother was Arianne, the great High Priestess of Leogard, rumored to be as influential as King Leopold. But, even she had her limits.
“She’s trying, but it’s a disease like none they’ve seen before. I only wish I could be down there to help.”
“Me too.” Prysilla sighed and sucked her thumb.
At barely twenty, I’d just begun my training as a healer and had yet to receive Innessa’s Spark. Even though our mother had it, the magic did little to help the Plague victims, besides making them more comfortable. We didn’t really know why, but she suspected a supernatural cause.
I tapped my fingers on the book beside us. “Want me to read the story again?”
She shook her head. “I’ve heard them all a thousand times. I miss the library, too.”
“I know.” We’d read every book and played every game we had in our living quarters. Sometimes I thought contracting the Plague and being done with it would have been easier than keeping my sisters entertained.
I held Prysilla close and smelled her sweet golden hair. She and Ivy both resembled my father, with their flaxen locks and blue eyes. I was either blessed or cursed—I couldn’t decide which—with my mother’s auburn hair and mossy green eyes.
Within the hour, Prysilla’s thumb fell from her mouth, and she dozed contentedly on my shoulder. I carried her to the room she shared with Ivy, who hadn’t made it into bed yet. She was probably raiding the pantry again.
I tucked Prysilla into bed. “Goodnight, Miss Priss. I love you.”
She smiled and flopped her arms around my neck. “Love you, too.”
Sleep claimed her before I even reached her door. I watched her for a little while, thankful beyond words that she remained well. Though I loved both my sisters, Prysilla and I were very close. Inquisitive and empathetic, she reminded me of myself; or maybe I just didn’t argue with her as much as I did with Ivy.
Back in my room, I stretched and yawned, taking one last look out the window in hopes of seeing my parents.
I spotted my father and smiled, waving to him from the leaded panes. He waved back.
Someone ran up to him and spoke agitatedly. Papa ran out of the gate. I sat on the window seat and pressed my forehead to the glass, determined to watch for his return. I lived in constant fear that every call would be his last.
If there was anyone else I loved as much as Prysilla, it was my father, Gryffon Munroviel. So fair and kind, I wanted to be just like him, even though I would never carry a sword and fight as a paladin. Quite honestly, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t wait to be a healer—to help others both physically and spiritually. I didn’t have the heart to kill, even if for the greater good.
A half hour later, my father returned, carrying someone in his arms—someone young—a boy, perhaps. And though it was hard to see from that distance, his clothes seemed tattered. His skin was dark. Was he a dark elf, one of the refugees from Ironhaven? I’d never seen one up close. No one else came in with him. He probably had no family left.
Papa laid him on a cot. Mother hurried over and leaned in to assess him. My heart sank when she shook her head and walked the other way. I stared at the boy. He moved. He wasn’t dead yet, and very few patients were left. Why wasn’t she trying to help him? Was it because of his race? Sheltered as I was, I’d heard enough of the terrible epithets—inkies, darklings, Tyr’s rubbish. Even Mother whispered prejudices from time to time.
Running after her, Papa gestured to the boy and pleaded with Mother, but I knew his argument fell on deaf ears. She lifted her chin and stood rigid, arms to her sides, staring him down. Then, she pointed in the opposite direction. He took one last look at the boy, lowered his head, and obeyed. Gave in. Again. Why wouldn’t he stand up to her? Why wouldn’t anyone?
I’d seen enough. I couldn’t just sit here in confinement while the boy died with no one there to comfort him. I unlatched my window and swung it open. Vines still grew over the Temple’s main walls, and I knew from experience they would hold my weight while I climbed down.
I swung my legs over the sill, but Ivy’s voice stilled me. “Loralee! What on Tallenmere are you doing?”
“Go back to bed, Ivy. I’m going down to help someone.”
“Who? Besides, you can’t help. We are not to go anywhere near the sick. Mother will scald your hands.”
She crossed her arms, standing as tall and mighty as she could at fifteen. Golden hair poked from the bottom of her blue silk head wrap. She never wrapped it tight enough. It always fell off as she slept.
I peered down at the ground. Good—no one was directly below. “I know, but I have to try. It’s a boy, a dark elf, I think. No one is helping him.”
“Don’t you think Mother knows what she’s doing? Remember the second tenet-”
“The second tenet only applies when we have too-large a patient to healer ratio. There’s nobody with him at all. He deserves some compassion, at least.” Leave it to Ivy to throw a tenet at me.
“You could make the rest of us sick for not obeying. Maybe I should alert Mother myself.”
“You wouldn’t.” Of course, she would.
“Go ahead.” Wrapping the fingers of both hands around the closest thick vine, I eased my legs through the window and let them dangle while I added, “By the way, I’ll tell Mother how you keep sneaking into her study to play with her crystals.”
She responded with an aggravated squeal and stomped out. I smiled and realized, as I hung fifty feet above the ground, that I was in my nightgown. And two of my tenet symbols stung like mad on my forehead. Wisdom and loyalty—the usual culprits. It didn’t matter. I had my head wrap on to hide the stupid glowing tattoos, and I had to help that boy, or at least sit beside him as he took his final breath.
Readjusting my grip, I situated the suede soles of my slippers on either side of the vine. My toes found the indentations of mortar joints between the stones. Hand over hand, inch by inch, I climbed, stopping for a second ten feet from the ground to let an acolyte pass by. They had lit the torches, and light emanated from the Blessed Water flowing under the clear glass blocks on the floor. But, the pavilion was still fairly dim. Hopefully, no one would notice me right away.
I finally reached the end of the vine and dropped to my feet. My thin-soled slippers didn’t provide much padding, so the impact stung the balls of my feet, but at least my footsteps would be silent. I bit my lip, crouched, and sprinted from pillar to pillar, keeping the ten-inch thick bare wood between me and any witnesses. If Mother hadn’t ordered all the ivy cleared from the pergola and pillars, it would have been quite useful for added cover. The acolytes were at the far end for now. Mother and Papa were nowhere in sight.
Ten yards away, the boy lay very still on his cot, near the Font of Blessed Water. Maybe he was already dead. And maybe Ivy was right. If I became ill now, I endangered her and Prysilla. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’d quarantine myself after this. To become a healer, I’d have to be on the front lines of disease and affliction.
I sprinted across the last stretch and skidded to a stop beside him. Blonde hair with black ends topped his head—an odd color for a dark elf, but it didn’t take me long to see that his eyes, unfocused and glazed over, were blue, not icy gray or violet. His skin wasn’t indigo. It was burned. Charred black in places, red and bleeding in others. A little bit of unharmed skin on his face and arms shone deathly pale. I put a trembling hand to my mouth, and my eyes widened at the gaping slash on his throat. He wasn’t a dark elf at all. He was a high elf boy, perhaps my age. Who could have done this to him?
I glanced over my shoulder and blinked rapidly, trying to remember my training. First, if the patient were conscious, we coaxed them to drink some Blessed Water.
I hurried to the Font, thankful the semi-circular bubbling fountain was so close. I grabbed a clean glass from the shelf, held it under the stream flowing from the statue of Innessa pouring a large urn, and ran with the overflowing glass back to the boy. He made a little squeak and blinked when I dropped to my knees beside him. Good—he was conscious. I held the glass to his burned lips and poured. Something wet dripped on my knees. I looked down and dropped the glass. Oh, Goddess, it went right through his throat.
Tears poured from my eyes. Useless. I was completely useless. This poor boy would die because my mother didn’t even try to heal him, and I didn’t know how. I took his hand in mine and pressed it to my cheek, ignoring the bloody and crisp feel of his skin.
I stopped. From every point of contact I made with him, a tingling sensation ignited deep within my flesh and spread through my body. His eyes brightened. I gasped and dropped his hand. His eyes dulled again.
“Innessa’s Spark,” I whispered as I snatched up his hand and returned it to my cheek. I knew it was only a matter of time before the goddess would bless me with her power, but it usually didn’t happen until a healer had been fully trained and dedicated. Had she really blessed me so early?
Seconds passed. Nothing happened. He locked eyes with me, and a tear rolled onto the crispy skin of his burned cheek. Had I only imagined Innessa’s power in me? I must have overestimated Her gift and for what? This boy would die right here as I held his hand. Shattered hope sparkled in his tears. All the dreams he carried with him were slipping away, and no one would know what they were. His potential could have been limitless. He might have done great things for Leogard and all of Tallenmere.
“No, you can’t die, please.” I abandoned his hand and put both my palms on his chest. I wanted to recoil from the crackly, bloody feel of his blackened skin under my fingers. But, I didn’t. Closing my eyes, I focused on the deep emotion I had felt just moments ago. I let the Spark manifest into a full-fledged current of energy.
I hadn’t experienced anything like since I was Prysilla’s age and slipped away from the Temple to a battlement atop the Eastern wall. My memory soared back to that night. With wide eyes, I had peered through the crenellations at an approaching storm. My father’s voice echoed from below, calling my name, his appeals growing more frantic as the seconds passed.
Clouds the color of cold ashes had billowed overhead. Silver lightning streaked within them, throwing their brilliant darts at the edge of Wildewood Forest, then just beyond the wall to some sacred spot on the Grounds of the Fallen. At the time, I thought there was a pattern to it, like a secret code, as it seemed to strike in perfectly timed intervals and in precise locations. In my childish fantasy, the bolts were serpents of pure energy, discussing their next target with the thunderstorm itself. As the storm winds and rain buffeted me, tiny pinpricks covered my skin, strands of my hair reached for the sky of their own accord, and though I feared for my very life, I felt so special, so honored that the serpents of light were choosing me.
Papa had yelled, right behind me then, “Loralee!”
I had lifted my hands to the sky and smiled as a high-pitched whine needled toward me and an odd odor like wood chips mixed with sulfur tainted the air. The serpent bore down on me in one blinding burst of light. The next thing I remembered was waking up in Papa’s arms as he rocked me in the stairwell.
I put my little hand on his cheek and asked, “Why are you crying?”
He froze and lifted his head, looking down on me with such wonder, I laughed. He moved his lips as though he couldn’t find any words to say, then started laughing, too. He carried me back home, and I remember how funny my hair smelled.
“Loralee!” Papa’s present-day voice carried across the pavilion and snapped me back into reality.
I realized my eyes were clamped shut, so I opened them. The boy still lay there, under my touch, but his skin was pearly white and smooth as silk. No slash marks on his neck, no bleeding, nothing charred but the ends of his hair. His eyes were a vivid shade of blue, like the Hansom Sea on a windless day, and he stared at me with a surprising look of horror.
I followed his gaze to my hands, and opened my mouth to scream, except nothing came out but a squeak. Black, bloody skin covered my hands, and then the pain struck. Every inch of my skin felt like it was on fire. Blood bubbled down my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I turned my head to see my father running toward me, my mother close behind.
“No, Gryffon,” she screamed, “don’t pull her away! You’ll kill her if you break the connection too soon.”
“Then do something, Arianne. She’s our daughter!”
The look on my father’s face was so helpless, like I would die right before his eyes. Yet, I still maintained contact with the boy. I didn’t know what to do. What would Mother do? I’d seen her heal hundreds of times, but now…oh Goddess, what have I done?
Mother stopped at the foot of the boy’s cot and locked eyes with me. Calmly, she said, “Loralee, keep one hand on his chest and place the other on the glass stone beneath you.”
I did as she said, glancing down to make sure I touched the cool, smooth surface.
“Now, close your eyes and hold perfectly still, even though you will feel extreme vertigo.”
Again I obeyed, and as soon as my lids closed, the world spun.
“You must be an inert conduit,” she continued, “from the moment you make contact until the healing is finished, or you will assimilate the patient’s afflictions.”
My body swayed. Someone shuffled behind me. Strong hands, my father’s hands, steadied my shoulders. An incredible sinking sensation, like when I had dreams of falling, washed through me from head to toe.
“It is finished,” she said.
I opened my eyes. My hand rested on the boy’s chest, pale and long-fingered as always. My apprentice ring of silver, shaped like a circlet of ivy, glinted in the torchlight. I searched my mother’s face, hoping for some hint of relief, and maybe even pride in her daughter. She focused on the boy instead, bending beside him to check his pulse. Weakness like I’d never felt before overcame my efforts to keep kneeling at his side. I toppled backwards into Papa’s waiting arms.