WARNING: below is an excerpt of Dragonseers and Bloodlines, the sequel to Dragonseer. This contains spoilers to the first book in the series, so I don’t recommend reading this before reading Dragonseer.
You can pick up a copy of Dragonseer here.
Dragonseers and Bloodlines
The training dummy attacked me, with the fury of a possessed scarecrow.
Okay, so in all honesty, it wasn’t it that attacked me but me who sent a misaimed kick at the dummy’s wooden stump. And that was all it took for the thing to come tumbling upon me — a mass of sand and skin of reinforced burlap so tough, you couldn’t cut it with a knife.
And all I had to defend me were two sharp knives — crafted just like Sukina’s — and my feminine weight, slighter now than it used to be, due to training so hard for the last two years. But still, I couldn’t get the strokes right. I didn’t have the grace that Sukina used to.
The thing sent me flat on my back and pinned me to the ground underneath its weight. I softened the fall as much as possible, and then I lay there, defeated, as I gathered the strength to shift the thing off me.
This is how it had been since Sukina had died. I was the last of a kind, the only remaining dragonseer, save for Taka who in many ways was also one. But dragonseers had to be female, and Taka was now male, due to a magical drug forced on him by King Cini III. Thing is, Taka was only a ten-year-old kid.
I lay still a moment, as I watched something pass overhead through the brown, roiling secicao clouds. A flying form, as dark as a crow, though much larger. Charth, I said inside my mind, reaching out to the dragon through the collective unconscious. Is that you?
One of the dragonmen had been visiting us every day, ever since Sukina’s funeral. After we’d said our goodbyes to Sukina, Gerhaun had had a conversation with Charth, asking him not to come again. Charth was too dangerous, Gerhaun had told me. He had the spirit of Finesia inside him, and it was only a matter of time before he turned on us.
Since then we’d never seen him resting on the ramparts, but always flying overhead, as if in defiance. But he never responded in the collective unconscious, no matter how much we reached out.
Dragonseers, men and women who could turn into dragons (known as dragonmen), and dragon queens could telepathically speak through a medium known as the collective unconscious. We only needed a strong enough source of it, and the resident dragon queen, Gerhaun Forsi, was the source here in Fortress Gerhaun. Here, that is, in the middle of Southlands — a barren continent infested with a plant known as secicao with an ambition of taking over the world. The collective unconscious served other purposes as well, like keeping the noxious clouds from the secicao away and allowing us to at least breathe in this place. [TK, Ola, do you think this exposition goes on too long? I’m thinking of cutting this para, so there’s only two paras of exposition then back to the action.]
I watched Charth pass by, hoping at least for some response from him. For Sukina’s long lost love to reach out and acknowledge that life goes on. And perhaps tell me that Francoiso — his brother and a lost affair of my own — was still alive. That he hadn’t had his throat ripped out by Alsie Fioreletta, when both of them were fighting in dragon form. But we live as we dream, alone.
I sighed and then pushed the training dummy off me. I propped it back into the ground, filled in the sand around the stump to secure it, and walked back into position to attack again. I pulled back one knife and glared at the two red circles that I’d drawn in red wax to emulate eyes.
“This time,” I said. “I will take you.” I studied the spot on the ground just in front of it. Two stabs and then a cartwheel kick to the head. That was how Sukina used to do it.
“Auntie Pontopa. Auntie Pontopa.” Taka came running through the double doors at the edge of the sparring ground. In the corner of my eye, I saw he was carrying something metallic that glistened in what low light came through the clouds.
“Not now, Taka,” I said and I lowered myself ready to charge. Lieutenant Wiggea, my trainer, would admonish me for this, telling me never to choreograph my intentions, whether in melee or ranged combat. But he wasn’t here and I wanted to communicate to Taka that I was busy. How many times had I told him not to distract me during training sessions?
“But look what I’ve found, Auntie Pontopa? I went exploring…”
I wasn’t going to grace him with the pleasure of looking. The boy had to learn that he’d only get my attention when it was due. He had my parents to look after him and he didn’t need me. Anyway, it was time for me to show him how awesome a fighter his dragonseer auntie could be.
The muscles on my face tightened and I charged with the same kind of fury the training dummy had attacked me with moments before. I kept my eyes focused on the scuff mark where my hands would hit, a little further back than my previous attempt.
I dug the side of my foot into that spot to halt the momentum of the charge, which I transferred towards my right hand for the first knife lunge. The second lunge came from my other hand, below the first. It hit the training dummy in its stomach. Then I took a step back with my left foot and prepared myself to launch the cartwheel.
But I stepped back so far that my foot slipped on the sand. To stop myself doing the splits in front of Taka, I tumbled into a forwards roll. And I ended up barreling right into the training dummy, hitting it with my head, and knocking it to the ground.
It took a short moment for my senses to return to me, and what I heard first was Taka’s laughter. “You’re funny, Auntie Pontopa. You should work in a circus.”
I grunted and spat some sand out of my mouth and stood up to look at him. His cheeks had filled out a little since I’d first met him at the palace, and before that when I’d seen so many pictures of him on the front pages of the magazines. But while he had favoured ornate clothes back then, now he wore loose cotton trousers, a leather jerkin and simple frilly white shirt with bits of sand trapped between the creases. His hair also had a playful look, and it took Sukina’s rich black colour with a very faint brown tint with it.
“You can be my token monkey,” I said. Quite fitting, really.
This got him laughing again. “I’ve always wanted to be a monkey, Auntie Pontopa. Look at me, I’m a monkey.” He puffed out his cheeks. “Ooh ooh ooh. What do you say? Do I make a good monkey?”
“Much better than I could do myself. Anyway, what have you got there? Is that one of your father’s automatons?”
He had his arms cradled around something, his hands cupped over it so I couldn’t see it properly. But eight spindly legs dangled from it, and I guessed it to be some kind of spider.
“No,” he replied. “Papo never lets me touch any of his work. ‘When I’m old enough, I’ll show you how secicao power works,’ he said. So I went looking for some automatons of my own.”
I shook my head and sighed. I guess Taka had come pestering Faso before he came looking for me. And, given Faso was his biological father, you’d think he should be the one looking after him. My parents instead had taken on the job of the nanny, but probably today they’d decided to have a bit of a rest. “So where did you get it?” I asked. Then it dawned on me. “Dragonheats Taka, did you?”
“There was this room,” Taka said. “And I saw something in the wall and I managed to open it. And this is what I found.”
Blood started to rush to my cheeks. I raised my voice. “Taka, Gerhaun told you never to go near that room.” It was meant to be reserved for his training.
“But there’s nothing inside Auntie. Just this stupid spider, which I can’t seem to power on.”
It was there to teach him how to calm his mind so he could control his thoughts and not reveal anything of value to foes listening in on the collective unconscious. But he’d need someone to train him well enough to do that, and I still had a lot to learn before I was ready to take on the role of his mentor. Wellies, I was pretty new at all this myself. Added to the fact, he was still so young that a spider automaton crawling over him in the dark would probably traumatise him for life.
I snatched the automaton out of Taka’s hands. “You should do as Gerhaun says. She sets these rules to protect you, and you know full well where you can play and where you can’t.”
He looked at me in shock. Clearly, he’d expected me to be impressed by his trophy. “Gerhaun never said anything about not picking up any spider automatons. What does it do anyway?”
“It was meant to be a secret. And it will remain that way until you’re ready.”
“Fine,” Taka said. “I don’t need your stupid automatons anyway. I can look after myself.” And he turned on his heel and stormed off out the door.
At the same time, I felt a terrible piercing in my ears. The pain was so sharp, it caused me to clutch my hands to my temples. Dragonheats, Taka had let off his scream again. I’d thought we’d drilled into him that if he did that there’d be consequences, and he’d just have woken Gerhaun from one week of sleep as well.
My vision went blurry and I sat down on the floor and closed my eyes a moment to recover. When I finally got around to opening them again, I saw Mamo and Papo enter the courtyard through the doorway. Mamo opened her mouth, rushed over to me, and put a hand on my shoulder. Through the blurs and the stars, I could just make out her flowing curls, the same as mine, although hers now had greyed. “Darling. Are you alright? What have we told you about training too hard.”
I shook my head. “This wasn’t the training, which I can handle, by the way. It was Taka.”
Papo stepped forwards and scratched his salt-and-pepper beard. “Taka did this? How? He’s just a child.”
“His scream, Papo. Did you see where he went? I thought you were meant to be looking after him.”
“He wanted to spend his birthday with his father. So I took him to the workshop.” Mamo grimaced. “I guess he didn’t last too long there.”
When I heard my mother mention the word birthday, my heart jumped in my chest. “Wellies! His birthday… I’m sorry, Mamo, I forgot… I’ve just had so much on that…” I glanced at the scuff mark in the ground in front of the training dummy and gritted my teeth. “If I’m going to face off against Cini and Alsie again, I have to be ready.”
Mamo sighed. “I’ll go and find Taka.” Cipao, you stay there.
“You know what the doctor said. Keep it steady.” My father had taken a bullet back home in the Five Hamlets, just after King Cini had burnt our cottage to the ground and myself, Sukina, and Faso had flown in to rescue them. Papo had thus spent quite a while recovering at old-family friend’s Doctor Forsolano’s. After we’d rescued Taka from the palace and Sukina had passed away in Forsolano’s sickbed, I had to leave my parents at his place for a while. That had given my father plenty of time to recover.
But during the extraction mission six months ago to get my parents out of there, Papo’s injury had relapsed. Fortunately, Doctor Forsolano had opted to come south with his old-time friends, so he could give my father advice not to rush into things. And running after Taka wouldn’t be good for him right then, I was sure.
Papo folded his arms over his chest. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll just sit here and watch my daughter train then.” He took a place on the stone bench by the side of the door.
“I’ll be back soon,” Mamo said and she reached down to kiss me on the cheek. “Pontopa, you look exhausted, you should rest.”
“Just one more pass,” I said. And I stood up and brushed off the dust.
Mamo shook her head. “We’ll talk later,” she said. And she rushed out the door.
My head had stopped spinning. I squinted and tried to muster some energy to attack the dummy again, but having my father staring at me was a little offputting. I turned to him.
“Don’t mind me,” he said. “Attack and all that… I want to see what you have in you.”
“But you wish it could be you who could be fighting.”
“Oh, all those punches and dropkicks, I never had it in me. They trained me to use firearms during the Dragonheats and that was it. We were never meant to do close combat.”
I smiled. “When fighting some of these people, the only chance you get is close combat.” I was thinking of Alsie Fioreletta in particular, the King’s right-hand woman who could turn into a dragon herself. Alsie Fioreletta who killed Sukina… And, King Cini as well, whose secicao hardened his skin so much that no bullet could harm him. But a blade across the throat could.
“And I wish it could be someone else. Not my dear daughter,” Papo said.
Although, ironically, I wasn’t really his daughter by blood. And my mother only half-so, all thanks to Doctor Forsolano’s prenatal technology and my mother donating her womb for me to grow in after my first mother had died with me inside her.
“You know there’s no other way,” I said. “It’s either I fight or this world becomes destroyed by secicao.”
“I know, I know,” Papo said. “And I hope soon that I’ll be able to fully recover and join the battle.”
I shook my head. “Papo, you’re fighting no one,” I said. Then when I saw the scorn on his face, I let off a meek smile. “Okay you can watch, but just don’t distract me, okay?”
“I’ll try,” he replied with a shrug, and he took out a magazine from the front pocket of his dungarees. This time, he read The Fortress Digest — a tiny magazine compared to the Tow Observer he used to be so fond of. There was just so little news here worth publishing. But I guess this comes with the territory when you’re in a barren land in the middle of nowhere, with the only life outside being a plant that wishes to choke up the planet.
I gritted my teeth and charged at the training dummy again. I didn’t even stop this time to register the point on the ground where my right foot would stop me. And in a way, that kind of helped. My foot scuffed the dust as I pushed the side of my foot into the ground. Then I lunged with a quick one-two with my knives, angled the blades outwards so I wouldn’t injure myself and launched myself into a cartwheel. I felt a sense of oneness as my feet followed a graceful arc. And then, a hard thud twisted my ankle, causing me to yelp out in pain. I landed on the other foot and collapsed. I rubbed at my ankle as the training dummy toppled to the ground.
Papo rushed over to me. “Pontopa, are you okay?” He clutched at his chest as he lumbered forward.
“Papo, what did Doctor Forsolano say? No sudden movements.”
“Wellies, what am I meant to do when my daughter goes and injures herself all the time. Here, let me have a look.”
He crouched down and felt at the skin on my ankle. I clenched my teeth and tried not to make a sound. “It’s swelling fast, you better take it to Doctor Forsolano’s.”
“I’ll be fine. One small bruise isn’t going to stop me.”
“Pontopa, you’re taking this too far. It’s time for you to rest, and you know that.” Quite fitting advice really, given he’d do the exact same thing were he in my situation.
“I need to get stronger. The bruises will heal, but Sukina won’t. I need to fight for what she fought for, Papo.”
“But you won’t get there overnight,” Papo said. “It will take time.”
“We don’t have time. Cini’s forces are fortifying every day. You’ve read what’s happening.” I pointed to Papo’s magazine. “The king’s automatons are getting even more powerful, as the king improves them with secicao power. It could be weeks before the next dragonheats and they’ll need a strong leader behind them.”
“They need a strong heart, not physical strength. You can only give them what you have.”
“No, Papo. I can give them stronger.”
My father put down his magazine and folded his arms over his chest. “You’ll kill yourself, Pontopa.” And with those words, a wave of grief rose up inside my chest. The memories flooded back to me. Sukina clashing blades with King Cini, in a brilliant display of knives against sword. Alsie letting out her Banshee’s scream to disable us all and stop Sukina killing Cini. The dart burying itself in Sukina’s throat, thrown by Alsie’s fair hand. And watching Sukina die in Forsolano’s sickbed. Feeling completely lost after that about what to do next. Now, I had responsibility. I couldn’t let Sukina down.
“Sometimes,” I said. “We have to risk our lives… For a good cause.”
The features on Papo’s rugged face sank. He opened his mouth to say something, but I raised my hand to still him. “Papo, you know I have to do this.”
And he sighed and then returned to reading his magazine.
Meanwhile, despite the pain in my ankle, I continued to practice attacking the training dummy. In a way, I realised, in the heat of battle, I couldn’t let minor injuries get in the way. Though I tried not to display the pain to my father, keeping as straight a face as possible as I dived and darted and lunged and stabbed at the training dummy.
And I got into the flow of things too. So, I don’t know how much time passed before I was interrupted mid-swing by a commotion coming from the doorway.
Lieutenant Wiggea — not just my trainer but also my most trusted (and handsomest) dragonelite guard and the most likely to get the next promotion — stormed through. He had slick brown hair and wore an olive coloured uniform with a stiff shirt and cotton trousers. He had a parchment in his hand and three other guards followed foot behind him.
“Dragonseer Wells. Dragonseer Wells, I knew I’d find you here.”
“What is it, Lieutenant?” I asked.
“It’s Taka… He’s missing.”
“What? How did he get out?”
“He just walked up to a Grey, sang to it, leapt on, and then he was gone. We tried to catch up Maam, but his song kept his dragon flying so fast, and he slowed down our own as well. We lost him into the clouds after that.”
My heart started beating in my chest. I kind of promised Sukina I’d look after Taka. “Lost him? Have you any idea where he might have gone?”
“That’s not all, Maam. We went searching and got ambushed by automatons. We took out four Greys in the search party and lost three of them. Only I got out alive.”
This wasn’t good. “Wiggea, tell me everything. And fast…”
He tugged on the collar of his shirt. “There’s not much to tell, Maam. We encountered an airship, with guns on it and ten or so war-automatons on the ground. Taka had already weakened our dragons. And we found his dragon dead on the ground. We’re guessing the airship got away with Taka.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “Did the airship have an insignia on it?”
I looked up at the sky. Charth, please don’t tell me it was you… I reached out and said this in the collective unconscious, just in case he could hear. But Charth wouldn’t, surely. Not after how much he’d risked getting Taka out of the palace in the first place.
But as I thought about it more, I started to feel sick. Sukina had died so that we could rescue her son. Now, two years later, we’d lost him once again. And we didn’t even know who had taken him.
I clenched my fists at my sides. “Cini must have a play in this,” I said. “And probably Alsie Fioreletta too.”
Then, I reached out in the collective unconscious. Gerhaun, it seemed, was now awake. I was right, she hadn’t been able to sleep through Taka’s scream. What should I do, Gerhaun? I was really at a loss.
Despite the urgency of the situation, Gerhaun’s old and tired voice sounded completely calm inside my head. What do you think you should do, Dragonseer Wells? If you want to be the leader, you need to make decisions like this for yourself.
I need to investigate, I said, though I hated the idea. I need to see what happened first hand, look for clues.
Taka didn’t go far it seems, Gerhaun said. I already sent some more dragons to scout the location. Perhaps someone even enticed her out there.
It occurred to me then. How could we have been so stupid? Maybe it wasn’t Charth but Alsie flying overhead all this time. She could have been using her powers to try and convince Taka to leave Fortress Gerhaun’s walls besides our instructions not to.
There’s no way of knowing, Gerhaun said. But whoever it was, you have to make haste. We might be able to catch up with them if we make the right decisions.
Right. I stormed towards the door.
But Gerhaun had already read my intentions. Not always, did I remember to mask my thoughts. Don’t go alone, Pontopa. Take a team with you. Oh, and take Faso as well. It’s time he realised the consequences of not stepping up to his plate as Taka’s father.
Right. I turned to Wiggea. He stood to attention and saluted.
“Your orders Maam?” he asked.
“Get a team of twenty men and twenty Greys together. We’re going to go and see what happened.”
“And you’ll take Velos I presume.” Velos, by the way, was my own personal dragon who I’d grown up with since I was seven years old.
“Yes, but first I’m going to go and find Faso. That buffoon is coming with us, whether he’s busy or not.” I had a bone to pick with the inventor. While I’d genuinely forgotten Taka’s birthday, he had deemed it as unessential and shunned Taka away.
“Papo,” I said. “I need to go a while.”
“Let me come,” he said. And he leaned forward, clutching at his chest as he stood up again.
I raised an eyebrow. “No, you should stay. You know what the doctor said. I’m only going out to investigate and will be back soon.”
Mamo then came wheeling through the door. “Pontopa, I can’t find Taka anywhere,” she said. Then she saw the concern on Wiggea’s face. “Oh my…”
“Papo will explain,” I said, and I hurried out the door.
Dragonseers and Bloodlines is the second book in the Secicao Blight steampunk fantasy saga.
It will be released on the 14th November on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.