Excerpt from The Wyrmstone:
My brother was a goodhearted fool who lived and died by the stupid things fools do. As the eldest, I was entitled to the succulent lands of Tuscany that my father had civilized, one bloody war at a time. But my father’s will allotted his vast estates to my bland-tempered brother, and I inherited nothing but a sorcerer’s staff.
Having no resources with which to correct this slight, I stayed my tongue, biding my time. Then in 1201 my lord brother decided to marry. He was showered with gifts, and came into possession of an amethyst.
The gem was the size of a snake egg and as purple as a bruise. Skilled fingers had cut it flat on the back, and carved its face into the six facets favored by Yvess, the Highland dragon empress. My brother brought it to me that I might charm it, to bring his flushed and delicious wife many offspring. He did not know the legend of the gem. But I did.
So I indulged him. I bound the gem in a tangle of golden roots as grasping as the sweet fig of a girl who had captured his heart. Into that gold I carved a spell to grant pregnancy and powerful sons. Then, I indulged myself.
Since my father’s death I had secretly watched the dragon, but had not dared to approach him. Even a young dragon of a thousand years can dominate an unwary sorcerer, and this was the ancient Lowland King, a Great Wyrm of the swamps. I was cautious not to alert him to my interest, admiring only from afar the impressive swath of crushed villages that trailed behind him, undeterred by my brother’s army. Adrikhedon, they called him: Dark Destroyer. A fit implement to relieve me of the brother who chafed against my skin. This dragon would be mine.
While my brother wasted his last days planning a wedding feast, and his final nights dreaming of his bride’s maidenhead, I read my father’s sorcery texts. On the wedding night I retreated to the dungeon. In a cauldron of pounded lead I sacrificed our family’s most potent relics: the legendary sword Deathwish, proven against the Highland Emperor Wyrm; a cinnabar vial of the lethal Night Veil, stolen from Arabic alchemists; and a black drop of dragon’s blood, dripped from the vial concealed in my father’s staff. Drawing on all I had learned from moldy books, I melded these into a Mist of Forging.
Bring me Adrikhedon to do my will. Deep in the dungeon I sucked in the searing hot vapor, and blew the acid breath of my soul’s desire into the tangle of gold that gripped the stone.
Out from the stone flew Yvess’ dragon guards, roaring with protest, frenzied for slaughter. Huge ghostly horrors, they swirled above in the dusty rafters, shrieking with lust to get tooth and claw into me. I trembled, shielded by my thin cloak, cursing my father for having taught me so little. I had known the stone was strong; legend said it was enchanted by Yvess herself, and she is the sovereign of magical illusion. But I had not foreseen such powerful resistance. I had but seconds to dominate, or die.
There is an abyss where lives the soul of man; half beast, half human, the soul crouches, forever twisting, now toward heaven, now toward hell. A sorcerer can reach but once into this darkness, and whatever he grabs to sacrifice will never be his again. With clawed hands I ripped from this abyss the human I had so little use for, and thrust this scrap of myself into the gold.
“Go,” I panted, holding aloft my father’s staff. “Crumble to dust wyrms of Yvess, for I, Pancrizio Sovrani, claim the power of this stone.”
With screams of ire the creatures lunged. Mist of dragon breath on my neck. The prick of talons over my heart. But my staff prevailed; inches from my throat they folded, drifting like so many cobwebs in the dungeon dampness. And then they dissolved into ash.
Dawn of my brother’s first wedded day, and a lone rooster croaked at the timid sunrise. Soaked in sweat and vigorous with my mastery, I held up my prize: the Wyrmstone was complete.
“Adrikhedon,” I whispered. I climbed the twisted staircase from dungeon to tower, arriving at the bridal chamber. “Adrikhedon.”
The dragon came immediately, green and terrible. Lords, guards, and riffraff alike slept off the wedding wine as it hovered. It exhaled once on the thick walls of the tower, searing a gap through which it poked barbed jaws. In one slobbering bite it seized my brother by the neck and lifted him skyward as he thrashed.
I tossed aside his screaming wife and stood in the mangled hole. My father’s staff poured forth foul darkness from my right hand, and the Wyrmstone streamed a milky light from my left.
“Adrikhedon, proch mandatum niss calx sna rů gethrix, draΰtox.”
My Draconic was mispronounced and far too softly spoken. The dragon hovered, turning his golden gaze on me. He shuddered with such a violent retch of hatred I thought he might drop my brother’s corpse. For what seemed an eternity he hung aloft, wings flapping foul air over my head, short swords of teeth bared. His glare ate at my will, probing the power of the stone. His contempt pounded like blows from his tail. I shook, but dared not cower. Had I shown a rag end of fear or a flicker in self-command, had the stone been anything short of its legend, he would have devoured me. But I overmastered, and with loathing and reluctance the dragon turned aside and did my hest, carrying my brother’s mangled body back to his swamp. And thus Adrikhedon became my slave: untrustworthy and disagreeable, but obedient.
In time, the girl my brother loved was also subdued. Women, it appears, are as difficult as dragons. I never knew if the first son she bore was mine, or if he was sired by my craven brother. The boy fled me as soon as he could run. No matter, he was one of twelve sons, each bigger and more powerful than the last. Together we scraped scars into Tuscany that would have made my father howl. Maimed and starving, his subjects begged for mercy. In the jaws of Adrikhedon’s dragon army I ground up all that my father had done and spit it out, bloody and ruined, on his grave. Sweet redress for how little faith he had in me.
And then Yvess was revenged; my twelfth son was so brawny he slew my body soon after the first wisps of hair sprouted on his chin. But I am not so easily destroyed. What remained of my soul retreated into the gold that grips Yvess’ jewel. My son was too frightened to use me, too greedy in his dotage to pass me on to his heir. So he hid me.
We are trapped now, the jewel and I, in a world that no longer believes in dragons. For eight hundred years I have waited, my hatred fettered, my fury impotent. Now is the hour to seize fate by the throat. She comes, a mere girl who cannot resist, the one destined to wield the Wyrmstone.
The blade hit with enough force to jab zings through my head. I raised the hatchet in the pouring rain and hacked at the roots of Mom’s dead fig tree, slamming blindly into the muddy hole, sure that my butter-loving heart would collapse. Barely visible in the filthy mess, the wood didn’t even splinter.
Exhausted, my fingers let go. The blade dropped, driving several inches into the goo. Mom planted this fig, and she should have dug it out. It’s absurd to plant a fig in the Pacific Northwest. It made hundreds of tiny green fruits that grew all winter long. They got fatter and fatter through the summer until you could almost taste how sweet they were going to be. Then, just as the first heavy rains began in September, they fell off. Thud. Dry and stringy with tough skins, coated with fine hairs, bitter. Not even the squirrels would eat them.
My mother grew up in Tuscany, the northern part of Italy, where I guess figs are friendlier. Maybe when she planted this tree she didn’t know any better. But Mom was from the root-hog-or-die school of gardening. More erudite gardeners might give you a lecture on “the right plant for the right place.” Mom never talked about it, she just ripped out anything that didn’t thrive. Roses have blackspot? Yank them up by the roots. Columbine infested with caterpillars? Throw the whole wiggling mess into the clean green container. After years of intolerance she’d made a magnificent garden that admirers drove miles to visit. “How do you do it?” they’d ask. She wouldn’t say. It was ruthless mass murder. She is, or rather was, a serial plant killer.
But not the fig. The fig could do no wrong. Green fruit beetles ate the leaves. Phomopsis canker killed branches. Nematodes knotted the roots. Mom battled these deformities as though the fig were a sacred trust. Diligently, Mom pruned, dug in worm compost, and swept away aborted fruit before we were overrun by ants. That repulsive fig took as much fussing as the whole rest of her third acre.
Then it died. Two weeks before her plane exploded, the trunk cracked and the black, dry remains of the cambium fell out of the gap like ash. It was left to me to finally dig the tree out. I put it off, and put it off, and put it off, inert with sorrow whenever I thought about pulling on her gloves and lifting her garden tools. Now here I was, unfit and unwilling.
I took off soaked gloves and wiped mud off my forehead. I hated sweaty tasks, and Mom and Dad left behind a lot of them. My brother, Justin, had more than enough muscle for this excavation, but he refused. Since our parents’ funeral Justin made all of his decisions by throwing a twenty-sided die. In the case of the fig, Justin rolled a two, claimed the dead stump sat on “unhallowed ground,” and avoided the courtyard, carefully entering and exiting by the driveway. Fantasy could be annoyingly convenient.
Justin is totally obsessed with the roll-playing game Age of Dragons. He advises me, “When all else fails, consult a dragon.” No doubt a dragon could easily rip out Mom’s dead fig stump, or even put a talon on why I chose to dig it up today, in the pouring rain. But dragons rarely ally with humans (Justin claims), and always for devious purposes, so good luck. That’s probably for the best (Justin would warn), because dragons are risky business, cold hearted and cunning. They spend centuries lying in caves, plotting, and when they emerge they are formidable, outwitting even the sharpest hoard thieves and wyrm slayers. I guess that’s why one waits until all else has failed. And there was another significant drawback: dragons don’t exist. So, forget dragons. Since Justin’s dice had instructed him not to help me, I was on my own.
Well, not quite. Because as fate arranged it, Mom and Dad left behind another opinionated kid, Nicholi, who won’t listen to anyone but Didoo, his stuffed bear. Nicholi is only six; he can’t hit with enough force to dent a daffodil. But Nicholi and Didoo are full of advice. They would cite Wikipedia: a hatchet has to have a head that weighs less than three pounds, or it isn’t a hatchet. Three pounds was useless, they’d point out. This task needed one of Justin’s Dwarven battleaxes. Lacking any magically forged weapons, I yanked the puny blade free and slung it aside. Wiping my filthy gloves down the front of Mom’s raggedy garden coat, I went to find a pickax.
Mom’s garden shed is just like Mom. Was. Just like she was: weird, but prepared. The dusty metal shelves were crammed to sagging with every strange thing she thought the family might need. A shed-full of her paranoia: her small hands bundling, sealing in baggies, wrapping together with wire, tucking things neatly into drawers as if someday our branch of the Sovrani family might be called upon to do something extraordinary. But all we ever needed were mundane things. That polished bamboo pole, honed to an impressive point and leaning beside the rake? Made for a squirrel nest high in the boiler chimney. That sledgehammer, handle thick as a troll’s wrist and its head five pounds of deadly bludgeon? Used to pound in rebar for staking the dahlias. That mysterious clear tube of green liquid, sealed in a glass jar on the highest shelf? Instant bonding, indestructible, invisible drying glue for when Nicholi accidentally breaks Justin’s Swamp Dragon miniature, which he isn’t supposed to even look at much less play with, and Justin will be home in fifteen minutes and does she have anything that dries fast?
Since her death we rummage in here daily. Inside the doorway I stepped around the coiled Bonsai wire that Justin used yesterday to make a Skeletal Hand of Power. No doubt this was something to wield as his Age of Dragons friends rolled dice and leaned toward the center of the table, calculating hit points. This reminded me that said Hand still hung by the wrist, copper claws tightly flexed against the wall opposite Justin’s bed, arched like a Tarantula about to spring. Mom and Dad didn’t agree on much when it came to parenting, but about weapons they took a united stance; only Justin’s Age of Dragons miniatures could brandish swords and hurl axes. No full-sized weapons, even homemade imaginary ones, in the house. For Mom’s and Dad’s sake, I’d have to do something about The Hand. Given the mood Justin had been in the last few days, the politics of removing The Hand were tricky. Something I wasn’t looking forward to. I sucked in a deep breath of resignation and winter mold.
In the spring Mom’s shed smelled like alfalfa pellets for the roses, and then WD40 in the fall for the pruning sheer hinges. Mom’s odor changed too; you could tell her state of mind by her scent. On boisterous days she wore the sensuous Italian perfume Flora, filling the room with sweet, pollinating flowers. On bad days, when she folded into herself as quiet as a secret, she left behind whiffs of pungent, bittersweet Night Veil. Every morning the scent of her perfume hung over the coffee pot like news from afar. Despite all of my efforts, I’d never been able to wrap my head around her bizarre ways, her fears, not even her smell. No matter how heavy my regret, I would never understand.
I grabbed the worn handle of Mom’s pickax. Mom had only been dead for two months, and already her pickax was nicked and stained with rust; one more thing that suffered without her. But it was still sharp—Mom asked Dad to keep her tools lethally sharp. And it was heavy. I hauled it out of the garden shed and attacked mud, roots, and sawed-off trunk indiscriminately, flinging crud ten feet in an effort to demolish something, anything, my misery.
At least I only had to contend with the stump. Our neighbor, Marty, who was deeply in love with his chain saw, sauntered over the day after the funeral and offered to cut the dead fig down. I guess this was his equivalent of bringing a casserole. At the time I was too numb and overwhelmed to think it through. Whistling and waving his blade, Marty sectioning the rotten tree, easy as slicing a Twinkie, then shoved the chunks into the belly of his covered pickup truck. He left a bare smudge right in the center of the courtyard where the tree’s canopy had intimidated other plants. A mini wasteland in Mom’s beautiful garden, with a hacked up root ball slimed in mud and an excavation hole rapidly filling with rain. And I stood in that hole, icy water rising over the top of Mom’s steelshank boots and pooling in my wrinkled socks. Gritting my teeth against the exercise, I raised the heavy pickaxe, cursed, shivered, and chopped.
I was about to give up when on my last weary swing, I heard a chink. Not the jarring crack of hitting a rock. Not the dampened thud of something organic. A metallic chink that quivered up my spine and made my ears ring with alarm. I froze, axe poised, breath held.
What the heck?
Cautiously, I stuck a gloved hand into the goo. A menacing heat diffused through my glove. Holy moly. I snatched back my hand. Dropping the pickax, I leaned above the pool of icy water, and peered into the slimy recess.
A small rectangular box lay wedged in the very heart of the roots, dented by their squeezing. Faint light seeped from box’s seams, a milky glow that lit the roots, creeping onto my face. Warmth tingled through me, a glimmer of awe and fear. I felt a pull as binding as a rope, tied around my neck. This was it. This was what I’d been digging for.
That was ridiculous; I was here to dig the stump out.
I sat back on my heels and squinted into the hole. Mom must have put this here; no one else dared to work in her garden. But what was it?
My heart leapt, puppyish with excitement. Calm down, Mimi. Hanging out with Justin and his Age of Dragons friends had warped my brain. This was not from Justin’s Book of Legendary Treasure. The odd glow was an illusion of twilight, or my head, buzzing with that awful physical labor. I took a few deep breaths. Mom did mysterious things, but with ordinary objects. Given the ups and downs in Mom’s stability, the box could hold anything from an umbilical cord to a gold brick. I could badly use a gold brick. Best case scenario: this would help pay the rent. Worst case scenario: the contents would be gross and senseless and I wouldn’t be able to throw it away fast enough.
With semi-frozen hands, I clawed aside clay. The roots didn’t yield to my tug, but hung on with a death grip. So I retrieved Mom’s long-handled pruners from the shed. Straining and grunting, I snipped the roots one by one. They didn’t spring back as I had expected; they curled around the box as though nothing short of chipping and shredding could destroy them. I had to pry off the fingers and snap them into little chunks at their knuckles.
Finally, I freed one face of the box. I wedged my hands around the metal sides and pulled. Hard. I braced myself with a foot and put my aching back into it. My grip slipped and I staggered backwards, falling to the bottom of the hole, wallowing, soaking wet in soggy boots.
Taking off a dripping glove, I shoved Mom’s wool night watchman’s cap out of my face. That fig was supernatural in its determination, as though it had a will of its own. But the box was mine. I could feel it yanking at my heart. I wanted it with a passion that overwhelmed common sense. So, despite a nagging thought that this was hella-stupid, I was going to free it.
I threw aside Mom’s gloves and knelt in the muddy water. Wedging both hands into the cranny above the lid, I rammed my fingers through the tangle of roots and hooked the back of the box with my fingertips. Bracing my legs against a knot of wood, I groaned under my breath and heaved. Slowly the box moved. With creaks of protest the roots released their prisoner, scraping two deep gashes into the backs of my hands. I gasped from stinging pain as the container slid into my lap, heavy and warm as a living heart.
It was a stout, battered toolbox, six inches deep and one handbreadth square. A slender handle twisted, bent on the top. Dirt caked the seams and rust ate at the dents. The hinge pins were corroded, and the color had long ago chipped off the box’s metal surface. In the front, a scruffy combination lock secured the tongue and loop of the catch. The numbers were long ago worn away and the dial was rusted. The box had the hopeful weight of gold bricks. I shifted it on my lap and its dense contents dragged from side to side.
I stood up, hefting my prize, cheeks so numb with cold that the drops barely stung. Rain trickled off my cap and into my open collar. The cuts on my hands burned, and my soaking wet jeans clung to my calves. I ached all the way to my soul. The loneliness of a funeral is nothing compared to what hits after the mourners leave. I had to bear this somehow, grow up fast for Justin and Nicholi. As Judge Burrows had reminded me at the custody hearing, I was only eighteen and couldn’t afford to screw up. The court’s supervisory stare was on me like a red laser dot trained on my forehead. One summer at the South Sound Culinary Institute didn’t make me an adult. Partying with my boyfriend Duke was an education, but not in parenting. I’d had to leave college while I was still a dishpig, cleaning up after the master chefs. I’d better keep my head on straight or my two brothers wouldn’t be in my custody for long. And as difficult as they were, I adored my brothers. They were not going to foster care. Not as long as I was alive.
I looked down at the damaged box. My mother buried this. I didn’t know what it was or why she hid it. So much about her life, even her death, made no sense at all. But whatever was in this box was unmistakably mine. I knew it from the end of my frost-frozen nose to my feet, marinating in mud. Please, I begged, please—may it give me the strength to carry us through.