The Skystone Chronicles Book 1: Dragon Thief
Chapter 1: Executed
If I were a better thief, I wouldn’t be leaping to my death from the top of a tower.
My desert tan cloak, stolen from a guard, billowed as I plummeted through the air. Behind me, the stark white tower reached skyward above the smokesage and junipers of the badlands beyond. If only I’d been wearing my signature turquoise bandana, I’d have looked even more epic.
Asher, what are you doing? Kai's voice sounded in my head. Kai’s mirror gecko, Glint, was hiding in my boot, one of her scaly little feet touching my shin in order to form a mindlink between my best friend and me. I felt the gecko grip tighter as I fell—she hated heights.
What? I thought back. You wanted a distraction.
Instead of words, Kai's mind replied with a muffled mix of frustration and amusement.
Do I at least look cool? I asked in my mind.
No answer from Kai.
That was fair. Something else must've been taking the bulk of his attention—probably whatever great treasure he was trying to get away with.
As I fell, I looked over my shoulder at the guards crowding the top of Whitestone Hall's tower. An entire squad and a half stood together, looking down at me. I was honored to have so many on my tail.
I mean, I hadn't stolen three whole skystones for nothing.
The guards watched anxiously, as if deciding whether or not to waste any crossbow bolts on me. It looked like one of their squad captains had given the order to wait, figuring the fall would finish me.
They were wrong.
I breathed in deeply through my nose, ignoring the black strands of hair that had come free of my warrior’s fangknot to whip me in the face. As I focused on my breath, I felt an exhilarating surge of energy. My eyes blazed gold as I accessed the ether within me.
The sun-baked town square below was rising fast. I let my breath out.
All at once, my descent slowed. I used just enough of my levitation power to keep myself from splattering against the square.
I hit the ground and rolled, nailing the landing completely unscathed and only a little dusty.
I wished I had time to enjoy the stunned faces of the guards above as I ducked for cover behind a stack of barrels.
"Three... two... one," I muttered.
Thump, thump, thump.
And there were the crossbow bolts.
Some thudded harmlessly into the ground, while others stuck into the barrels behind me.
"Magi!" I heard a guard shout from high atop the tower.
"Archon," another confirmed.
Maybe they’d seen my eyes glow. Of course, no other kind of magi could survive a fall like that.
Asher, you okay? Kai's voice sounded inside my head.
Of course, I sent back. Glint the mirror gecko was practically squeezing the life out of my leg. Did that get you the opening you needed?
I think so, he answered. They're sending everyone after you. I just need a few more minutes.
Sounds like fun.
The thunder of guards' boots approached behind me, along with some mild cursing. They were fast.
But I was faster.
Leaping up from behind the cover of the barrels, I sprinted down the street.
The faded white adobe longhouses formed tight alleys, and before long, I came up against a dead end.
Behind me, I saw the quickest guards closing in.
Time for more etherarchy.
My eyes blazed gold as I used my archonic levitation to hover-run up the side of the wall. When I looked back, I could just make out a fading trail of gold light warping the air directly behind me. My feet skidded over the siding and up onto the roof of the longhouse, then right back over the other side and onto the street again.
I could hear the guards protesting as they searched for a way around.
I kept hover-running, levitating myself just enough to dash up and over more adobe longhouses. I dodged sporadic tumbleweeds as I darted around, over, and through alleyways and dead ends, leaving the guards scrambling to follow.
The gasps of random townspeople were music to my ears. Apparently, they didn't often see seventeen-year-old Archons racing through their streets, scaling the walls of their homes like it was nothing.
Probably because most magi in Evgard got sentenced to death.
Just then, I saw a cute, freckle-faced girl stacking thick, leathery agave leaves outside a shop. She was staring at me in disbelief, of course. I winked and gave her a salute.
She totally fainted… on the inside.
On the outside, her face was a mix of amused, annoyed, and a little afraid. She probably believed what the Mage Hunters said about magi—that we drew wild dragons to the realm.
Well, we did technically draw wild dragons to the realm. But it wasn't our fault we were born with ether in our souls, nor that ether just happened to be a wild dragon's favorite snack. And anyway, any dragons that were after her town weren't here for me. They'd have been after the ether-filled skystone I’d just stolen from her Keeper.
Really, I was doing her a service by robbing her town.
I hover-vaulted more homes, listening for guards around every corner. They were gaining on me, and there were more of them.
They'd seen me levitating, so they knew I was an Archon. But they didn't know which type—Shadowbinder, Lightwielder, or Astromancer.
Those who’d bothered to learn the differences between the nine types of magi would find out soon enough.
Without slowing down, I dug deep, my eyes glowing even brighter. Misty white, pure ether swirled together along my chest and back, hardening into semi-transparent, crystalline armor.
Starglass, a sure sign of an Astromancer.
Perfect. Assuming this shabby frontier town didn't have any silver-tipped mageslayer bolts, my armor would last at least until the end of the day. Not that I planned to need it for that long.
Right on cue, a guard stepped out from behind a stack of crates. He took aim with his crossbow, firing at me as I hover-hurtled an apothecary.
The bolt grazed my newly formed starglass armor and skittered harmlessly away.
"Good shot," I shouted to him as I ducked into the next alley.
You clear yet? I thought to Kai through our mindlink.
Almost, but I need Glint, he replied, his mental voice sounding distracted.
Sending her now, I thought back. I ducked to the side of a building and knelt down to let the dreambeast out of my boot.
Thanks, Asher. Stall just a little longer.
Glint the mirror gecko hopped to the ground, severing the mindlink as soon as we stopped touching. The rune-speckled gecko blinked her mirrored eyes at me in farewell, then disappeared into thin air, leaving little puffs of dust as the only evidence that she was ever there. She'd gone back to Kai through the dream realm.
Now I was on my own.
The sound of approaching guards was coming closer. I looked around, spotting a star-topped spire a street or two down from where I stood.
I hover-ran down the streets, then dashed up the side of an adobe chapel of Streya, the mind goddess. I channeled more ether to amplify my wild leap so I could catch hold of the spire.
I said a brief prayer to Streya, just in case there really was a mind goddess out there. Making sure every guard in Whitestone Hall would have time to see me, I theatrically scanned my surroundings as if deciding on an escape route.
"Three... two..." I murmured.
Before I got to 'one,' a crossbow bolt hit me in the shoulder, bouncing off my starglass pauldron.
"You're getting faster!" I called out.
The nearest wall was to the east. Once I was in the badlands’ scrub brush, I could hide easily.
I jumped off of the star-topped spire just in time. Another couple of crossbow bolts buzzed past me. One hit the church spire, and I wondered if Streya would give that guard some kind of curse.
I slowed my fall before I hit the ground, rolling to soften the landing. Hopefully, my display had bought Kai enough time.
Within seconds, I hit another dead end. Here, two small, masked draccoons were fighting over a bone. They stopped and blinked their beady black eyes at me.
“Gentlemen,” I nodded to them, then burned ether to hover-jump the next building. The safety of the badlands was just a few more alleyways, rooftops, and a wall away.
I checked my ether well. The source of my ether felt like a warm light in my heart. I'd used about a third of my day's supply.
Weightlessly, I hover-ran up the side of another building and onto the rooftop.
The distant guards cursed as they saw me.
I smiled and waved as I ran, tauntingly patting the skystone-filled satchel at my side.
A series of twangs sounded behind me, and more crossbow bolts buzzed past. Two bounced off my starglass armor, almost knocking me off balance. The starglass didn’t shatter, though. Still no silver-tipped mageslayer bolts.
The town wall was now only thirty feet away.
I ran along the ridge of the last longhouse, putting on a burst of speed before making my final, ether-powered hover-jump.
It felt like time slowed as I neared the top of the wall. Freedom was within reach. Just a few more feet...
Then I caught a silvery glimmer out of my right eye. Someone in a dusk blue cloak and a gleaming, silver pauldron stepped out from within a tower on the wall. She expertly lashed out at me with a chain whip made of silver.
My escape came crashing down.
Well, I came crashing down.
The silver chain felt frigid against my skin as it wrapped around me and cut off my ether.
My exhilarating rush of power sputtered, and my glowing gold eyes flickered like dying embers. My levitation faltered, and I smashed into the wall before crashing onto the ground below, tugging the whip from her grip. The contents of my satchel spilled across the packed earth street below.
My starglass armor shattered and faded into starry oblivion wherever the silver had touched it. As I pulled the chain away, my fingers tingled painfully with every touch from the icy silver.
Stars, that was a good hit. And a silver whip like this could only mean one thing.
Panic welled up inside me. Mage Hunters traveled in pairs, and if there were two here, then escape had just gotten a lot harder. The guards were closing in. If I was going to get out of here, I needed to make this next jump count.
I scrambled to recover the skystones that had spilled from my pack. Three chunks of pebble-sized, raw crystal. The crystals pulsed with glowing white energy—pure, unchanneled ether.
It dawned on me that the extra boost I could get if I used one of these would get me over the wall, regardless of the Mage Hunters.
I replaced two of the skystones in my satchel and cradled the other in my hand. Already I could feel the energy from the power it contained.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kai.
He was a ways down the wall from me, a large sack slung over his shoulder. He was trying to be subtle, but the wall guards were heading his way, about to turn the corner and run straight into him.
Soot. If I didn’t do something, they’d catch him for sure.
Without hesitation, I cried out and tossed the skystone back inside my satchel. It clacked into place against the other two. Ignoring the rush of freezing pain from the silver, I grabbed the whip and wrapped it back around me. The silver cut off my etherflow, and I knew I wouldn't be able to access my ether well while I was tangled up like this.
With a somewhat exaggerated yell, I clawed at the wall as if trying to climb it.
"Silver... too... much! Can't... climb!"
I fell to the ground in a melodramatic heap, the silver chain still draped over my shoulders.
My display did exactly what I'd hoped, grabbing the attention of every guard in range. Relief flooded me as the two guards who'd been about to notice Kai turned their gazes on me.
My relief quickly turned to panic when, within moments, several squads of guards had me surrounded. They had crossbows, seaxes, and spears, all trained on me. They'd finally caught up, and they'd sent everyone. Kai could now saunter away with the wealth of Whitestone Hall in his pack, whatever it was.
I braced myself for a skirmish. Most of the guards looked very sweaty and extremely annoyed. Maybe I shouldn't have made them run around so much.
I even spotted the town Keeper herself standing with the guard.
"Hold fire," came the Keeper's snide, snarling voice. Then she spat on the ground.
“Ethercursed,” she muttered.
“Well, that’s not very nice,” I said, pretending to be shocked. But I’d been called the derogatory term for magi so many times before, it no longer fazed me.
The Keeper narrowed her eyes as she strode my way with hands clasped behind her back. She bent down to get a better look at me, her smug, oily face coming within inches of mine.
"Ah, a half-born."
I sat up a little straighter. Technically, it was my mother who was the full half-born, so I was three-quarters human. But nobody seemed to care about that distinction. We were all half-borns to people like the Keeper.
I proudly regarded her with my dragonfire green eyes, then tossed my hair back so she could get an even better look at the dark teal scales on the tips of my pointed ears. While I kept my hair long on top, I made sure to always cut it short on the sides to prove I wasn't ashamed of my heritage.
The Keeper smirked. I'd been sure they'd execute me before for being an unregistered magi, but now that she knew I was a half-born, I had no doubts.
The Keeper of Whitestone Hall kneeled down, utter disdain on her face.
“No wonder you were so interested in my skystone,” she said, low enough that the guards couldn’t hear. Then she added loudly, "We’ll execute him tomorrow morning. Death by dragon."
I knew it.
Then she straightened up, and the last thing I saw was a triumphant sneer on her slick face before her heavy boot connected with my head and everything went black.
At least she hadn’t kicked me in the nose. I really liked my nose.
I woke up in the dungeon of Whitestone Hall. Sitting up from a shabby bedroll on the stone floor, I pushed my hair out of my face.
I scanned my surroundings. I’d been in my fair share of prisons, and this one was surprisingly less dingy than the rest of the town. It looked like a repurposed cellar under Whitestone Hall's greathouse. Barrels of draquila sat in stacks in the shadows beyond my cell. The alcoholic beverage, made from red agave and a few drops of bronze dragon blood, gave the cellar a fresh spiced smell.
They'd left my pants and boots, but stripped my stolen guard’s uniform. The burlap shirt they'd put me in scratched at my skin, and I shivered through the thin cloth. I couldn’t quite see my breath, but it was cold down here.
Soot, what if they’d silvermarked me?
My fingers flew to the left side of my face, and I was relieved to feel only smooth skin. I'd made it this long without them branding me, and I wasn’t interested in getting carved up with a silvermark now.
I rubbed at my temples, my head still sore from the Keeper’s kick. The blood was dry, so I must’ve been out for a while.
I needed to escape. If I got executed again, my dad was going to kill me.
I stood, blinking in the dim candlelight of the cellar. No one was out there. There was a larger guy snoring in the cell next to me—definitely not skinny enough to be Kai. The other cells were empty, which meant that Kai must’ve escaped the city. Good.
Kai would have an escape plan for me, too. He’d probably know about the Mage Hunters being here now, so he wouldn’t go with a jailbreak. I was probably going to have to wait for the execution.
Soot. Those kinds of escapes were always more risky, especially with Mage Hunters around. I wondered if I could get out on my own.
I held my breath as footsteps stomped above me. I waited for them to fade, then looked at the lock on my cell door.
It was now or never.
I crept toward the door and reached through the bars, feeling for the keyhole on the other side.
It was easy to find, and it was big. And this town was cheap enough that the lock wasn’t silver, either.
I breathed in to focus as my eyes turned from dragonfire green to blazing gold. Holding out my hand, my palm shone with ethereal light as I carefully formed a small starglass key.
The key slid easily into the lock, but it was way too small. I rattled it around a little, getting a feel for the lock's interior.
I focused my breath, adding more starglass to the key until it felt right. I turned the key, and the lock clicked open.
I was going to tell Kai it had worked on the first try.
Carefully, I lifted the lock from the door.
From across the room, deep in the shadows, I heard a slow clap.
My heart sank as a grizzled old jailer leaned forward into the candlelight. He casually trained his crossbow on me and smiled.
“Go ahead, half-born,” he said, his thick eyebrows lowering. “Open the door so I have an excuse.”
I slowly replaced the lock and smiled back at him. “Just testing the security here. I gotta say, you run a fine jail.”
If only it’d been a girl jailer. Flirting my way out of prison had worked once before.
The jailer leaned back and laughed, resting the crossbow on his belly.
“You here to silvermark me?” I asked, trying to sound fearless despite the growing pit in my stomach.
“Nah. Wouldn’t waste the silver when they’re just going to feed you to the dragons in the morning,” he said, the candlelight dancing in his eyes.
I sat back on my cot, crossing my arms over the scratchy burlap shirt.
“You sure gave the guard a good run there,” the jailer said, a look of amusement on his scarred face. “If not for my daughter snagging you with her whip, you’d have made it.”
“Well, at least someone around here is taking their training seriously,” I said, running my fingers through my long bangs. My hair band must’ve fallen out during the action.
“We have to when rogue magi like you keep running around unregistered.”
“What can I say?” I shrugged. “Nothing like having a guard’s seaxe at your throat every once in a while. Keeps me on my toes.”
“It’s pronounced sax,” the guard said, pronouncing the word with a short ‘a’ sound and shortening it to one syllable.
“I’ve heard it both ways,” I said. “Point is, I’d rather run than be killed.”
“Killed? Who’s been feeding you lies like that? Turn yourself in. My daughter just got back from the Mage Hunter Academy last week—says they’ve finally perfected the magi cure.”
“Right,” I said with a bitter laugh. “You mean the 'cure' where the Black Valkyrie drags you east, then kills you in cold blood?"
"Don’t fall for that soot those Farseer-believers say. The Mage Hunters are just trying to do what's best for Evgard."
"By exterminating us?"
The jailer sighed. "I guess that means you’d rather endure execution by order of the Keeper over the chance to be cured of your magi curse."
"Yeah, if my choice is death or death, I guess I choose death."
The jailer glared. "At least when you die, the dragons who slaughter you will be the last you draw to our town."
“You know the dragons attacking Whitestone Hall lately aren’t my fault, don’t you?”
“Oh, I know. Unregistered magi are always 'just passing through,' right?”
"I guess they didn't show you what I stole from your Keeper, then."
The jailer furrowed his brow. I went on, looking him straight in the eye.
“She's been hoarding skystone. Three big crystals. That’s what’s been drawing your dragons.”
His face darkened.
The keepdoms were supposed to collect the skystone from skyfalls and send it on to Evgard Capital. That way, High King Magnus could control how it was used. Most keeps didn't dare defy the high king, but the temptation to hoard a powerful, versatile resource like skystone was great. Rumor even had it that skystone kept the legendary Farseer himself from aging.
The jailer grunted, stroking his beard. “It’s hard to trust a thief. Especially one with eyes like yours. But I’ll ask my girl if what you say is true.”
“And if it is?”
“Then we might need to replace our Keeper,” he said, cracking his knuckles.
“Yeah, I’d say Whitestone Hall would be much better off without selfish, corrupt nobility in charge.”
He gave me a sidelong glance. “Either way, you gave me a good laugh seeing this lot of guards get all turned around after neglecting their training for so long. You deserve some dignity.”
He threw me a dragonleather cord for my hair. It had the crest of Drakfell engraved on it, a dragon’s fang.
“Thanks,” I said, pulling the top half of my hair back from my face and into a quick, messy fangknot. “Gotta look good for those dragons before they tear me to pieces.”
The jailer gave a sad chuckle. “Stars be with you.”
I was late for my own execution.
To be fair, it wasn’t my fault. The jailer was right—most of the guards at Whitestone Hall weren’t exactly on top of their game. And from the disheveled look of the Keeper, she wasn’t used to getting up by dawn.
Standing out in a row of wrinkly guard cloaks and slouchy uniforms was the young woman in the silver pauldron and crisp, dusk blue cloak of a Mage Hunter. She must’ve been the jailer’s daughter—the one who’d snagged me with her silver chain whip. Her silver pauldron bore an insignia of a sword stabbing through a triangle—the symbol of the Mage Hunters.
It kinda softened the blow to know that the only one who took her job seriously had been the one to take me down. Even her Mage Hunter partner beside her was lazily leaning on his silver sword as he watched them lead me out.
The jailer’s daughter caught my eye, and I could see the resemblance between her and her father. She had thick, intense eyebrows, too, and her short hair was pulled back into a low draketail. She was a lot prettier than her father, though it looked like she’d never laughed before in her life.
I gave her a nod of respect, but the Keeper, who stood next to the Mage Hunters, thought the nod had been for her. The Keeper scoffed at me, and I barely resisted the urge to stick out my tongue.
A pair of guards looked around nervously as they led me through the northern gate of the city. An execution platform stood in a clearing a decent distance from the wall where the Keeper, Mage Hunters, and guards watched. Someone had scrawled the words ‘magi not welcome’ across the dingy white wall using bronze dragon’s blood as paint.
With trembling hands, one guard tethered me to a post in the center of the platform. She tied one end of the rawhide rope to the post and the other end around my waist so that I had some range of motion. The other guard handed me a dragonhook spear, a grim look on his face. Drakfell saw it as distasteful to let me die without a fighting chance. Technically, their laws said that if I fought off the wild dragons and stayed alive, they’d free me after three days. But out here on the frontiers, most didn’t make it more than three hours.
They saw it as justice, executing magi through death by dragon.
But I saw it as counterproductive. If they really wanted dragons to stop eating people, they should probably stop feeding them… well, people.
Though I guessed that in their eyes, unregistered magi didn’t count as people. Especially half-born magi like me.
I was positive I could form starglass into something that would cut the rope. But one look at that row of guards and I knew I wouldn’t get far before getting hit with a bolt from a crossbow. Silver-tipped mageslayer bolts this time.
To the west, the quarries that gave Whitestone Hall its name were the perfect hiding place for wild dragons. To the northeast, juniper trees and smokesage brush provided plenty of cover as well. It was only a matter of time.
"Any skyfalls last night?" I asked one guard as she finished securing the rope around my waist. “Just wondering if there’ll be any dreklings out there today.”
She stared at me through the visor of her ravenhelm and shook her head.
"Perfect. Thanks," I said with a wink and a lopsided grin.
She rolled her eyes, but I caught the ghost of a smile playing at her lips. I think she tied the rope a little looser around my waist.
With one last fearful look toward the wild badlands, both guards hurried back toward the safety of the wall. That left me alone and exposed.
Just then, a tiny sparkle of light caught my eye from underneath the platform. Between a gap in the wooden slats, I saw the shine of a little mirror gecko watching me. She licked her shiny eyes.
Bong. From high atop the platform, I heard the Keeper toll the execution bell. Did they realize it was basically a dinner bell for dragons?
I looked to the sky, and almost as if on cue, I saw a black silhouette winging its way toward me. That was fast. Too fast.
The wyvern gave a feral shriek as it dove toward me. At the last second, it swooped upward, flying past me toward the guards on the wall.
I heard frantic screams as the wyvern scattered the guards. To the Keeper’s credit, neither she nor the Mage Hunters ran away. They held their ground as the wyvern swooped back toward me. The dragon knew where the easy meal was, after all.
I dropped into a defensive stance, aware of the tether around my waist limiting my range.
The black wyvern landed right in front of me and bared his teeth, as if daring me to take a stab at him. His two wide wings folded upwards and he leaned forward, menacing claws at his wing joints serving as forelegs. Angular bronze patterns wove around his dragonfire green eyes, long neck, and shoulders. Short, bronze antlers, each with three gleaming points, sprouted from his serpentine head. His tail whipped back and forth, a bronze, thornlike blade growing from its tip.
The wyvern roared again, and I could feel the hot air from his maw on my face.
I didn’t stand a chance.