Authors: Alan Carr
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Young Adult
Book One of
The Stonedragon Flame
by Alan Carr
Copyright © 2012 by Alan Carr
Cover design by Alan Carr
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing: June 2012
To Ashly, who didn’t try to dissuade me when I told her I suddenly had twenty-one novels in my head that I needed to start writing. Her love and belief in me is overwhelming and immensely empowering.
Caedan Jade came into the world like all other Stone Souls, his fate decided before his birth thanks to a decision made by his parents. That decision was to participate in the Stoneflame ceremony, conceiving their child on the one day every five years when Flame—one of the twin moons of Lævena—eclipsed the sun.
Like all the thousands of other couples who partook in the ceremony, Caedan’s parents were filled with conflicting emotions of hope and fear. Hope that they would conceive a son, a verified Stone Soul, eligible to be enrolled in one of the great academies that would eagerly pay for the privilege of raising him in the art of dragon slaying. Hope that in time he would succeed in this task, that he would be proven to be one of the chosen few able to deliver a killing blow: a Dragon Master. Fear that they would instead be one of the two couples to conceive a dragon, a nearly immortal creature whose first act in life would be to eat through his mother’s flesh. Fear that they’d be responsible for unleashing a monster on their home town, that instead of bringing prestige and riches to their family they would have brought death and destruction on their community.
Caedan’s father thanked the Stonespirits when Caedan had been born. He came out a healthy, blue-eyed boy with a head already covered by thick, matted black hair. Just as fortunately, the Dragonbirths that year occurred in far-off places and so their home town of Helmsbridge would not likely be threatened. Caedan’s mother did not seem so thankful; she would wake their babe in the middle of the night with terrible screams, and she suffered from bouts of confusion and paranoia for months. She was gripped by a new fear. She understood the terrible responsibility that they now bore for what would come to their son.
“You’ll get the kill. Or you will die in the attempt.”
Commander Hawk wasn’t one to use many words, but he took his time here to set up the scene in detail. “Even if everything goes right, you’ll still be drenched in toxic, highly flammable dragon’s blood. If destiny is not on your side and the dragon lives through your attack, she won’t be slow to make you aware of it.”
Commander Hawk let that set in.
I let that set in.
I imagined the scene. After watching team mates fall around me and barely escaping death a dozen times myself while I maneuvered in close, after timing my one shot to plunge my longsword into the dragon’s throat, after gathering my momentum and shifting my weight for a downward thrust of my blade to guide it blindly through to the dragon’s heart, after all that, I’d finally find out if I was a Dragon Master or if I was a dead man. I had to be a Master. Didn’t I? The dragon would struggle and suffer as the killing blow ended her wretched life, extinguishing her flame and ridding the world of her menace. I’d be the hero, savior of the Realm. I’d be crowned king of some wealthy land in need. I’d have my pick of women for my wives. I’d snap my fingers and be given a flagon—no, a jewel encrusted goblet—of spiced ginger wine to sip as minstrels fell over themselves for my entertainment. I’d be Dragon Master Caedan.
As I was getting lost in the vision, the dancing girls disappeared and were replaced with a furious dragon’s eye, the snort of an enraged beast, and the unnatural warmth of Dragonsfire. I pictured myself impaled on a talon and held up, paralyzed by dragon’s blood. My armor and skin would boil and blister together in the moments before I expired. Not a Dragon Master then, just another failed Stone Soul, another tally scratched permanently onto the seared and blackened wall of the dragon’s lair. A dead man.
Hawk barked an order and snapped me back to the training grounds.
I watched Boe, my closest friend, as he sprinted forward even before the order was finished. His red curls trailed behind him as he leapt into the air, his nimble frame twirling to avoid a spinning wooden beam. He landed with a half roll, then lost his momentum and flopped hard onto his back. His breath was knocked out of him, his practice sword had skittered out of his hand and was scraping loudly through the gravel of the training grounds. The rest of us stood silently and watched. Boe let out a strained groan. I buried my head in my hands, knowing I wasn’t likely to get through the drill any better. A dead man for sure.
What was I still doing here?
When we returned to our bunks shortly after sunset that evening, Boe was in a good mood. I tried to admire that about him: no matter how hard he fell, he always bounced back, ready to fall again. As for me, I was pretty sore about falling and it was taking longer and longer to get back up again, both physically and mentally. That could sometimes make it hard not to get annoyed at all of Boe’s misplaced enthusiasm.
“Did you see when I hit the target directly in the bullseye?” Boe’s wide hazel eyes searched me, looking for some hint of recognition. I wasn’t in the mood. “Caedan? Did you see?”
“When you didn’t thrust your blade hard enough to break through the leather covering?” I knew it was cruel to tear him down like this, but I was tired and just wanted to sleep. If I encouraged him, I could be up half the night listening to more.
“Commander Hawk said that it was a good attempt, and he helped me figure out what I did wrong with my grip so next time I would slice through.” Perhaps we’d be up half the night anyway. “At least I didn’t totally miss and slice off the supporting beam as you did.” He made a slicing motion in the air between us and then grinned wickedly at me. The ten minutes it took me to rebuild the target after that had probably been the second or third most embarrassing ten-minute period for me this week.
“Well at least I didn’t trip over a low rope while I was in midair.” I grinned back at him.
“Yeah, well while I was falling, Kamelia smiled at me.”
“She was trying not to laugh at your face. Fortunately, a half second later your face was buried in the mud so she was free to laugh it up with the rest of us.” I’d been watching her though, and Kamelia hadn’t laughed with the rest of us. In truth, I’d felt jealous of Boe for a moment, wishing I was the one trying to push myself out of the mud just so that I would have been the target of Kamelia’s smile. Oh, sure, she’d smiled at me before, but not once in the past six days. I was worrying that I was losing my touch. Whatever touch it was that I apparently used to have.
Boe was obviously lost in a vision because his wild grin was getting all soft and unsteady, and his eyes were glazing over; I decided to let him have his dreams. I didn’t deserve Kamelia’s smiles anyway. I didn’t even deserve Boe, naive as he was sometimes.
I fell into my bunk, then instantly regretted it as a sharp pain struck my spine. I’m not twelve anymore, I reminded myself. I’m fourteen. I can’t do things like that anymore. I grimaced to control my pain, then closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to run away from the academy. Thoughts of living life as an outsider filled my head as I fell asleep.
Two weeks passed, and the eve of the Stoneflame festival arrived at last. I’d gotten a letter from my father saying mother had fallen ill, so they wouldn’t be visiting. That was just as well. In my crazier dreams, I imagined using the cover of the Stoneflame festival to make my escape from the academy; if I had to face my parents and listen to their lectures about responsibility then I might feel too guilty to go through with it. But I didn’t ask for this, any of this. Sure, at one time I thought it would be fun. Like any boy I’d dreamt of becoming a Dragon Master, and as a Stone Soul I truly had that chance. I was one in four thousand, or so they kept telling me. But those little boys dreaming of becoming Masters don’t also have to live the nightmares of training to become Masters. They don’t have to face up to the stone truth that they’re far more likely to end up being just another lost Stone Soul, and not finding out until it was far too late to escape death. Being one in four thousand wasn’t enough. I had to be one in four hundred thousand. What were the odds of that?
Boe interrupted my thoughts. “Are you excited to see Daija again?” For some reason, Boe seemed to think I had a thing for his reddish-brown-haired twerp of a twin sister. I played along.
“Yes, of course. We’re going to have our own Stoneflame ceremony this year, didn’t you hear?” He socked me in the arm, harder than he really had to. It started to throb in pain, but I ignored it and pushed further. “We’re going to see what happens when two Stoneflameborn have a kid together. He’ll be a Dragon Master for sure. A super Master, probably.”
“They actually do that in Karth you know,” Boe said, probably just trying to change the subject. “I guess that way parents feel a little better if they come out of the Stoneflame ceremony with just a girl.” The whole reason to endure the Stoneflame ceremony of course was to have a boy who would grow up and kill a dragon, proving himself a Dragon Master. That was why anybody took the risk. To end up with a girl at the end of it all had been known to lead to divorces, broken families, even people just going completely insane. I’d heard that my mother was insane for a full year after having me, and I’d come out exactly as they were hoping. Well, smaller, maybe. But at least I hadn’t been a girl.
“I don’t know why anyone goes through the ceremony. Except maybe Dragon Masters, I guess.” Dragon Masters were rumored to have a better chance to give birth to other Dragon Masters. It was one reason they had so many wives, so they could have many children in the Stoneflame ceremony. Of course, with so many wives, Masters were bound to leave some of their wives feeling lonely and ignored. “Do you think I’ll get assigned to Kamelia when we train for the Watch?”
“Sure, and maybe you’ll finally be able to talk to her if you have a chaperone in the room and realize that you don’t have a shot with her.” Perhaps Boe was right, but I knew he was only echoing his own thoughts. For all the dreaming we did about Kamelia, neither of us had managed to do more than stutter at her, even when she just tried to say hello to us. She’d started showing up around the training grounds around a year ago, and we figured that her status as Master Walker’s favored wife had changed. That wasn’t to say that the Dragon Master would actually allow her to have any kind of relationship with a Stone Soul or anyone else, of course. But she was a beautiful young woman who was being kind to us; it was hard not to dream.
“And maybe if you get assigned to her chambers, you’ll manage not to embarrass yourself so badly that you end up having to run away and become an outsider.” Now I was echoing my own thoughts. I needed to change the subject. I said, “So your family is coming for sure? I just got a letter saying that my parents won’t be able to make it.”
“Absolutely my family will be here,” Boe said, “this is the last Stoneflame festival I’ll get to attend since next time we’ll all be full time chaperones on the Watch.”
“Or dead,” I added.
“Or Dragon Masters,” Boe grinned.
“Or Bayrd will be a Dragon Master, I’ll be Kamelia’s Watch, and you’ll be dead,” I said.
Boe’s response was cut off by the door abruptly swinging open. It was Commander Hawk, his burly armored silhouette just discernible against the glowing blue of the pre-sunrise sky.
“We start early today,” the commander rasped. He grabbed the door frame and slammed it shut behind him as he marched on to the next bunk.
We started by running twenty laps in the bitter cold. In the beginning I was glad for my heavy suit of outer armor which helped me retain my body’s heat, but by the fifth lap the armor was doing nothing for me but holding in my sweat and weighing me down. My practice sword clacked against my back with each stride I took. My arm throbbed in a dull pain every time one of my armored boots impacted the soft gravel beneath. I fell behind the majority of my class and wanted to just take a turn and run straight out of the academy. The sun was up by the time I collapsed to the ground, having completed my final lap and not another step.