A trap laid for a spymaster and his Ash Artist accomplice. Eun as the bait that Xathari would be compelled to take. Hundreds of ninjas waiting in ambush. Swords drawn for the soldiers. Nets and spears readied for Dromai’s dragons.
Eun’s plan was cunning. Fai had to give her that. Since the massacre at Golden Orchard, Eun had been obsessed with ridding Volcor of ‘that scheming snake’. With Xathari and his firesight extinguished, it would be easier to infiltrate the Imperial Palace, to tear the Dracai down from within.
The Lord Wizards were growing desperate. Inspired by the fallen rebels of Golden Orchard, Volcai were taking up arms all across Volcor. The many feathers of the Phoenix were burning bright. Naturally, the snake would seek to bite off the phoenix’s head. And so Eun would stick out her own neck. Would make herself an irresistible delicacy to the serpent’s fangs.
In Fai’s mind, it should have worked.
He slides beneath the dragon’s exposed underbelly. His sword cuts deep and his momentum drags the blade down the full length of the creature’s abdomen. He expects a cascade of guts. Instead, the dragon’s white flanks shiver, rippling like water, and then the beast is gone. No carcass. No blood. Nothing to mark that it ever existed. Nothing but the mutilated corpses of his comrades.
Fai looks to Eun, who now kneels before Dromai. The rebel leader’s left arm is missing. Her shoulder is a mangled stump. Yet still she grins up at his sister, her eyes wild.
Behind Dromai, Xathari leans on his staff, the spymaster’s right hand pressed to a wound in his flank. Blood bubbles between his fingers and soaks his robes. He coughs, a wet rasp, as blood trickles from the corner of his mouth.
“Kill her,” he wheezes.
Fai levels his sword at Dromai. “Please, sister. Don’t.”
“Min didn’t spare my mother’s life,” snaps Dromai. “She didn’t think twice about murdering my father. What makes this life any more worthy than theirs?”
“Murdered your father?” Shock chokes the words in his throat. “Min–She could never–Why–”
Eun’s laughter cuts him off, a hacking cackle that sends a spasm through her crippled body.
“You believe that?” she manages, tears running down her face. “The truth is much more fun.”
Xathari steps towards Eun, flames guttering in his palm. Fai notices the weakness in his fire, the exhaustion in his face. He raises his sword, ready to throw it if he has to. Xathari freezes. The flames die away.
“Min didn’t kill your parents,” sneers Eun. “I did. And who told me where to find them?” She raises her trembling hand and points at Xathari.
Xathari stares back, his eyes full of hatred.
“Torvai walked among the Volcai,” says Eun. “He faltered and fumbled, loved and lost. He ate, slept and shat in a bucket, just like the rest of us.”
“He was an embarrassment,” hisses Xathari.
“And would have drowned our cause in words,” continues Eun. “Endless talk that changes nothing.”
“What about Sani?” Dromai’s voice is taut, a humming wire about to break.
Eun shrugs, then winces from the pain of it. “She must have loved Torvai more than she loved you.”
Dromai smiles, an expression so bleak, so distant, that it almost breaks Fai’s heart. Then she whispers something, a single word, and the ground answers her.
Jaws burst through the rock with such force that the tremor knocks Fai off his feet. Those jaws close around Eun. She is gone in an instant, consumed. The great purple dragon hauls itself out of the crater, shakes off rubble and ash, and turns to Fai.
“Not him,” commands Dromai. She points at Xathari.
The Dracai shrieks with fear, tries to run. Flames billow around him as teeth close shut on his limping form. The dragon tosses him into the air, and with a snap of its great jaws, it swallows the wriggling man down.
Fai struggles to his feet, his heart pounding, sword held in a white-knuckled grip. Knowing not what else he can do, he takes a step towards Dromai.
“Go home, Fai. Tell Min that I am sorry.”
She climbs up onto her dragon, and with a beat of the creature’s mighty wings, takes to the air. Fai watches her slip away through the haze of swirling dust. He looks to the bloodstained dirt where Eun kneeled but moments before, and then to the scorched earth where the spymaster was taken. No more lies. No more secrets.
The Emperor is blind. His dragons are turning against him.
Fai thrusts his sword into the ash and earth, planting his fury in the firmament of his beloved Volcor.
No longer will the Volcai be ground into the dirt. It is time for the Phoenix to rise.