The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
7.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Rage of Dragons

The Burning: Book One

Evan Winter


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 by Evan Winter

Cover design by Lauren Panepinto

Cover illustration by Karla Ortiz

Cover copyright © 2019 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Map copyright © 2019 by Tim Paul

Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

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Originally published in 2017

First Orbit Ebook Edition: February 2019

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ISBN: 978-0-316-48974-4

























































































































To my father for showing me how to work hard;

To my mother for her daily lessons in infinite love;

To my wife for being a better partner than any man deserves;

To my son, this story is for you.


Queen Taifa stood at the bow of
, her beached warship, and looked out at the massacre on the sands. Her other ships were empty. The fighting men and women of the Chosen were already onshore, were already killing and dying. Their screams, not so different from the cries of those they fought, washed over her in waves.

She looked to the sun. It burned high overhead and the killing would not stop until well past nightfall, which meant too many more would die. She heard footsteps on the deck behind her and tried to take comfort in the sounds of Tsiory’s gait.

“My queen,” he said.

Taifa nodded, permitting him to speak, but did not turn away from the slaughter on the shore. If this was to be the end of her people, she would bear witness. She could do that much.

“We cannot hold the beach,” he told her. “We have to retreat to the ships. We have to relaunch them.”

“No, I won’t go back on the water. The rest of the fleet will be here soon.”

“Families, children, the old and infirm. Not fighters. Not Gifted.”

Taifa hadn’t turned. She couldn’t face him, not yet. “It’s beautiful here,” she told him. “Hotter than Osonte, but beautiful. Look.” She pointed to the mountains in the distance. “We landed on a peninsula bordered and bisected by mountains. It’s defensible, arable. We could make a home here. Couldn’t we? A home for my people.”

She faced him. His presence comforted her. Champion Tsiory, so strong and loyal. He made her feel safe, loved. She wished she could do the same for him.

His brows were knitted and sweat beaded on his shaved head. He had been near the front lines, fighting. She hated that, but he was her champion and she could not ask him to stay with her on a beached ship while her people, his soldiers, died.

He shifted and made to speak. She didn’t want to hear it. No more reports, no more talk of the strange gifts these savages wielded against her kind.

arrived a few sun spans ago,” she told him. “My old nursemaid was on board. She went to the Goddess before it made ground.”

“Sanura’s gone? My queen… I’m so—”

“Do you remember how she’d tell the story of the dog that bit me when I was a child?”

“I remember hearing you bit it back and wouldn’t let go. Sanura had to call the Queen’s Guard to pull you off the poor thing.”

Taifa turned back to the beach, filled with the dead and dying in their thousands. “Sanura went to the Goddess on that ship, never knowing we found land, never knowing we escaped the Cull. They couldn’t even burn her properly.” The battle seemed louder. “I won’t go back on the water.”

“Then we die on this beach.”

The moment had arrived. She wished she had the courage to face him for it. “The Gifted, the ones with the forward scouts, sent word. They found the rage.” Taifa pointed to the horizon, past the slaughter, steeling herself. “They’re nested in the Central Mountains, the ones dividing the peninsula, and one of the dragons has just given birth. There is a youngling and I will form a coterie.”

“No,” he said. “Not this. Taifa…”

She could hear his desperation. She would not let it sway her.

“The savages, how can we make peace if we do this to them?” Tsiory said, but the argument wasn’t enough to change her mind, and he must have sensed that. “We were only to follow them,” he said. “If we use the dragons, we’ll destroy this land. If we use the dragons, the Cull will find us.”

That sent a chill through her. Taifa was desperate to forget what they’d run from and aware that, could she live a thousand cycles, she never would. “Can you hold this land for me, my champion?” she asked, hating herself for making this seem his fault, his shortcoming.

“I cannot.”

“Then,” she said, turning to him, “the dragons will.”

Tsiory wouldn’t meet her eyes. That was how much she’d hurt him, how much she’d disappointed him. “Only for a little while,” she said, trying to bring him back to her. “Too little for the Cull to notice and just long enough to survive.”


“A short while.” She reached up and touched his face. “I swear it on my love for you.” She needed him and felt fragile enough to break, but she was determined to see her people safe first. “Can you give us enough time for the coterie to do their work?”

Tsiory took her hand and raised it to his lips. “You know I will.”


Tsiory stared at the incomplete maps laid out on the command tent’s only table. He tried to stand tall, wanting to project an image of strength for the military leaders with him, but he swayed slightly, a blade of grass in an imperceptible breeze. He needed rest and was unlikely to get it.

It’d been three days since he’d last gone to the ships to see Taifa. He didn’t want to think he was punishing her. He told himself he had to be here, where the fighting was thickest. She wanted him to hold the beach and push into the territory beyond it, and that was what he was doing.

The last of the twenty-five hundred ships had arrived, and every woman, man, and child who was left of the Chosen was now on this hostile land. Most of the ships had been scavenged for resources, broken to pieces, so the Omehi could survive. There would be no retreat. Losing against the savages would mean the end of his people, and that Tsiory could not permit.

The last few days had been filled with fighting, but his soldiers had beaten back the natives. More than that, Tsiory had taken the beach, pushed into the tree line, and marched the bulk of his army deeper into the peninsula. He couldn’t hold the ground he’d taken, but he’d given her time. He’d done as his queen had asked.

Still, he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t angry with her. He loved Taifa, the Goddess knew he did, but she was playing a suicidal game. Capturing the peninsula with dragons wouldn’t mean much if they brought the Cull down on themselves.

“Champion!” An Indlovu soldier entered the command tent, taking Tsiory from his thoughts. “Major Ojore is being overrun. He’s asking for reinforcements.”

“Tell him to hold.” Tsiory knew the young soldier wanted to say more. He didn’t give him the chance. “Tell Major Ojore to hold.”

“Yes, Champion!”

Harun spat some of the calla leaf he was always chewing. “He can’t hold,” the colonel told Tsiory and the rest of the assembled Guardian Council. The men were huddled in their makeshift tent beyond the beach. They were off the hot sands and sheltered by the desiccated trees that bordered them. “He’s out of arrows. It’s all that kept the savages off him, and Goddess knows, the wood in this forsaken land is too brittle to make more.”

Tsiory looked over his shoulder at the barrel-chested colonel. Harun was standing close enough for him to smell the man’s sour breath. Returning his attention to the hand-drawn maps their scouts had made of the peninsula, Tsiory shook his head. “There are no reinforcements.”

“You’re condemning Ojore and his fighters to death.”

Tsiory waited, and, as expected, Colonel Dayo Okello chimed in. “Harun is right. Ojore will fall and our flank will collapse. You need to speak with the queen. Make her see sense. We’re outnumbered and the savages have gifts we’ve never encountered before. We can’t win.”

“We don’t need to,” Tsiory said. “We just need to give her time.”

“How long? How long until we have the dragons?” Tahir asked, pacing. He didn’t look like the man Tsiory remembered from home. Tahir Oni came from one of the Chosen’s wealthiest families and was renowned for his intelligence and precision. He was a man who took intense pride in his appearance.

Back on Osonte, every time Tsiory had seen Tahir, the man’s head was freshly shaved, his dark skin oiled to a sheen, and his colonel’s uniform sculpted to his muscular frame. The man before him now was a stranger to that memory.

Tahir’s head was stubbly, his skin dry, and his uniform hung off a wasted body. Worse, it was difficult for Tsiory to keep his eyes from the stump of Tahir’s right arm, which was bleeding through its bandages.

Tsiory needed to calm these men. He was their leader, their inkokeli, and they needed to believe in their mission and queen. He caught Tahir’s attention, tried to hold it and speak confidently, but the soldier’s eyes twitched like a prey animal’s.

“The savages won’t last against dragons,” Tsiory said. “We’ll break them. Once we have firm footing, we can defend the whole of the valley and peninsula indefinitely.”

“Your lips to the Goddess’s ears, Tsiory,” Tahir muttered, without using either of his honorifics.

“Escaping the Cull,” Dayo said, echoing Tsiory’s unvoiced thoughts, “won’t mean anything if we all die here. I say we go back to the ships and find somewhere a little less… occupied.”

“What ships, Dayo? There aren’t enough for all of us, and we don’t have the resources to travel farther. We’re lucky the dragons led us here,” Tsiory said. “It was a gamble, hoping they’d find land before we starved. Even if we could take to the water again, without them leading us, we’d have no hope.”

Harun waved his arms at their surroundings. “Does this look like hope to you, Tsiory?”

“You’d rather die on the water?”

“I’d rather not die at all.”

Tsiory knew where the conversation would head next, and it would be close to treason. These were hard men, good men, but the voyage had made them as brittle as this strange land’s wood. He tried to find the words to calm them, when the shouting outside their tent began.

“What in the Goddess’s name—” said Harun, opening the tent’s flap and looking out. He couldn’t have seen the hatchet that took his life. It happened too fast.

Tahir cursed, scrambling back as Harun’s severed head fell to the ground at his feet.

“Swords out!” Tsiory said, drawing his weapon and slicing a cut through the rear of the tent to avoid the brunt of whatever was out front.

Tsiory was first through the new exit, blinking under the sun’s blinding light, and all around him was chaos. Somehow, impossibly, a massive force of savages had made their way past the distant front lines, and his lightly defended command camp was under assault.

He had just enough time to absorb this when a savage, spear in hand, leapt for him. Tsiory, inkokeli of the Omehi military and champion to Queen Taifa, slipped to the side of the man’s downward thrust and swung hard for his neck. His blade bit deep and the man fell, his life’s blood spilling onto the white sands.

He turned to his colonels. “Back to the ships!”

It was the only choice. The majority of their soldiers were on the front lines, far beyond the trees, but the enemy was between Tsiory and his army. Back on the beach, camped in the shadows of their scavenged ships, there were fighters and Gifted, held in reserve to protect the Omehi people. Tsiory, the colonels, the men assigned to the command camp, they had to get back there if they hoped to survive and repel the ambush.

Tsiory cursed himself for a fool. His colonels had wanted the command tent pitched inside the tree line, to shelter the leadership from the punishing sun, and though it didn’t feel right, he’d been unable to make any arguments against the decision. The tree line ended well back from the front lines, and he’d believed they had enough soldiers to ensure they were protected. He was wrong.

“Run!” Tsiory shouted, pulling Tahir along.

They made it three steps before their escape was blocked by another savage. Tahir fumbled for his sword, forgetting for a moment that he’d lost his fighting hand. He called out for help and reached for his blade with his left. His fingers hadn’t even touched the sword’s hilt when the savage cut him down.

Tsiory lunged at the half-naked aggressor, blade out in front, skewering the tattooed man who’d killed Tahir. He stepped back from the impaled savage, seeking to shake him off the sword, but the heathen, blood bubbling in his mouth, tried to stab him with a dagger made of bone.

Tsiory’s bronze-plated leathers turned the blow and he grabbed the man’s wrist, breaking it across his knee. The dagger fell to the sand and Tsiory crashed his forehead into his opponent’s nose, snapping the man’s head back. With his enemy stunned, Tsiory shoved all his weight forward, forcing the rest of his sword into the man’s guts, drawing an open-mouthed howl from him that spattered Tsiory with blood and phlegm.

He yanked his weapon away, pulling it clear of the dying native, and swung round to rally his men. He saw Dayo fighting off five savages with the help of a soldier and ran toward them as more of the enemy emerged from the trees.

They were outnumbered, badly, and they’d all die if they didn’t disengage. He kept running but couldn’t get to his colonel before Dayo took the point of a long-hafted spear to the side and went down. The closest soldier killed the native who had dealt the blow, and Tsiory, running full tilt, slammed into two others, sending them to the ground.

On top of them, he pulled his dagger from his belt and rammed it into the closest man’s eye. The other one, struggling beneath him, reached for a trapped weapon, but Tsiory shoved his sword hilt against the man’s throat, using his weight to press it down. He heard the bones in the man’s neck crack, and the savage went still.

Tsiory got to his feet and grabbed Dayo, “Go!”

Dayo, bleeding everywhere, went.

“Back to the beach!” Tsiory ordered the soldiers near him. “Back to the ships!”

Tsiory ran with his men, looking back to see how they’d been undone. The savages were using gifts to mask themselves in broad daylight. As he ran, he saw more and more of them stepping out of what his eyes told him were empty spaces among the trees. The trick had allowed them to move an attacking force past the front lines and right up to Tsiory’s command tent.

Tsiory forced himself to move faster. He had to get to the reserves and order a defensive posture. His heart hammered in his chest and it wasn’t from running. If the savages had a large enough force, this surprise attack could kill everyone. They’d still have the front-line army, but the women, men, and children they were meant to protect would be dead.

Tsiory heard galloping. It was an Ingonyama, riding double with his Gifted, on one of the few horses put on the ships when they fled Osonte. The Ingonyama spotted Tsiory and rode for him.

“Champion,” the man said, dismounting with his Gifted. “Take the horse. I will allow the others to escape.”

Tsiory mounted, saluted before galloping away, and looked back. The Gifted, a young woman, little more than a girl, closed her eyes and focused, and the Ingonyama began to change, slowly at first, but with increasing speed.

The warrior grew taller. His skin, deep black, darkened further, and, moving like a million worms writhing beneath his flesh, the man’s muscles re-formed thicker and stronger. The soldier, a Greater Noble of the Omehi, was already powerful and deadly, but now that his Gifted’s powers flowed through him, he was a colossus.

The Ingonyama let out a spine-chilling howl and launched himself at his enemies. The savages tried to hold, but there was little any man, no matter how skilled, could do against an Enraged Ingonyama.

The Ingonyama shattered a man’s skull with his sword pommel, and in the same swing, he split another from collarbone to waist. Grabbing a third heathen by the arm, he threw him ten strides.

Strain evident on her face, the Gifted did all she could to maintain her Ingonyama’s transformation. “The champion has called a retreat,” she shouted to the Omehi soldiers within earshot. “Get back to the ships!”

The girl—she was too young for Tsiory to think of her as much else—gritted her teeth, pouring energy into the enraged warrior, struggling as six more savages descended on him.

The first of the savages staggered back, his chest collapsed inward by the Ingonyama’s fist. The second, third, and fourth leapt on him together, stabbing at him in concert. Tsiory could see the Gifted staggering with each blow her Ingonyama took. She held on, though, brave thing, as the target of her powers fought and killed.

It’s enough, thought Tsiory, leave. It’s enough.

The Ingonyama didn’t. They almost never did. The colossus was surrounded, swarmed, mobbed, and the savages did so much damage to him that he had to end his connection to the Gifted or kill her too.

The severing was visible as two flashes of light emanating from the bodies of both the Ingonyama and the Gifted. It was difficult to watch what happened next. Unpowered, the Ingonyama’s body shrank and his strength faded. The next blow cut into his flesh and, given time, would have killed him.

The savages gave it no time. They tore him to pieces and ran for the Gifted. She pulled a knife from her tunic and slit her own throat before they could get to her. That didn’t dissuade them. They fell on her and stabbed her repeatedly, hooting as they did.

Tsiory, having seen enough, looked away from the butchery, urging the horse to run faster. He’d make it to the ships and the reserves of the Chosen army. The Ingonyama and Gifted had given him that with their lives. It was hard to think it mattered.

Too many savages had poured out from the tree line. They’d come in force and the Chosen could not hold. The upcoming battle would be his last.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
7.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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