Chapter Two

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~2~

Cole stepped into a shallow puddle on the moonlit street outside his home, bit off a curse, and wondered what the hell was wrong with him. It was late. It was cold. It was wet. His nose hurt.

He’d had a hell of a day. Hot and sticky, polished off with a punch to the face, and he’d missed the Equinox Festival. All he really wanted to be doing was lying in bed pretending he was someplace else.

And yet, he thought, you let a dream chase you out.

Cole didn’t put much stock in dreams. Nor did he put much stock in the stars that hung above his head, the Tenets of Yenor, fortune tellers—none of it. He put stock in himself, in his friends, and every so often, in his brother. That was all. Period.

But still.

He wrinkled his swollen nose and frowned. The night was chilly, soak-your-bones damp in a way that made it feel more like winter than spring. The street outside his house shone bleached white in the moonlight, and he could smell the sewer stink of the slums wafting up the River Eld to his right. In the north, a white quarter moon hung above the twinkling lights of Temple Hill.

Closer were his dark-haired lummox of an older brother, a growing dampness in the toes of his boots, and the thick, fearful memory of a nightmare.

Cole stepped farther into the street while his brother locked the door. He remembered a dozen times he’d run away from home on nights like this, only to return within a few days. He remembered bloody noses. Bloody ears. Black eyes. Bruised ribs.

The memories always came after his father hit him.

The cobblestone thoroughfare outside his house was deserted, but the orange light of candles flickered from the second-story windows of a few white-plastered houses. He thought he heard children crying. The memories of his life faded away. The image of a black-scaled dragon’s head filled his mind, and he remembered a scream, a horrible, ear-shattering scream, and the feeling that the world was ripping apart and he was ripping with it.

He pulled his collar up.

Just a dream, he told himself, but he didn’t believe it.

The moon broke through the clouds. The wind shifted, replaced the fetid stench of the slums with the scent of clean, wet earth and stone, and Eldan City shone bright and glistening in front of him. The three hills that framed it rose prominently from the sprawl of houses in the river valleys below them, shadowed sentinels glittering with yellow lights. Friendly, open, full of life.

Cole took a deep breath and followed his brother toward the river. It would be good to have a walk, get his mind off his nightmare. It might even be good to see Ryse, if she could get off her newfound high horse long enough to talk with them.

The craggy shadows of the city stretched before him, silhouettes clustered along the rivers and reaching up the hills. He smiled. He’d spent much of his life in those shadows. They’d been the father he’d always wanted. They’d let him grow.

A mile or two ahead, across the rush of the River Eld, the white pillars and golden dome of the Temple of Eldan glittered atop the blackened shapes of Temple Hill. “Welcoming sinners and the pious alike,” its white-and-black-robed priests told anyone who would listen.

Cole had never put much stock in them either.

At the bottom of Temple Hill, the iron gates and moss-covered stones of the Old Temple stood in cold, stark contrast to the garish dome above them. The Old Temple had been built smaller than the New, with a peaked roof and the stories of the Book of Yenor carved in relief upon its gables. It was thousands of years older than the complex above it and got more attention from one-penny storytellers than priests. He remembered going there with Litnig and his mother when he was a kid, to hear the tales of Eldan’s great triumphs in the name of Yenor. The place, in his mind, was one of sunny afternoons and pleasant naps.

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