Excerpts for Dragon Games



CHAPTER
1

The boy gripped the railing tight. He watched the leviathan’s enormous tail rise from the brine until it almost broke the surface and then sweep down again in a powerful and dreamlike rhythm that propelled the barge through a rolling black sea. The port city of Kurahaven, storm-battered but still glorious, was far behind, and the sun’s fire had been doused hours before on the horizon ahead.

Happenstance eyed the dark waves uneasily. He’d hoped his dread of water might fade as he spent more hours plying its surface. But it’s as bad as ever, Hap thought, with a little twist at the corner of his mouth. His shoulders rose toward his ears.

There was an open hatch on the deck of the barge, with stairs leading down to the spacious central cabin. A giddy sound drifted up the stairs and into the night. Hap recognized the particular laugh of his guardian. Lord Umber was in his usual high spirits, which were always at their loftiest after a satisfying meal and a hot mug of his beloved coffee, and with the prospect of some thrilling discovery ahead.

Hap walked to the railing at the square prow to see what might lie before them. His extraordinary eyes pierced the darkness and found Nima, the barge’s captain, sitting cross-legged on the back of the leviathan, Boroon. Perhaps sensing that someone was watching, she turned to look back at the barge that was strapped to Boroon’s immense back.

“Hello, Nima,” Hap called. He wasn’t sure that Nima could see him in the gloom of night, with tatters of cloud shrouding the moon, but she waved. She stood, walked across the bony plates of the leviathan’s back, and climbed the stairs to stand beside Hap.

Nima was clad in black sealskin. As she ran her hands through her long hair, Hap stole a glance at the translucent skin that bridged the space between her knuckles. He pulled his gaze away in an instant; he knew better than most how it felt to have someone stare at a physical oddity.

“Why aren’t you below with the others, Happenstance?” she asked.

Hap shrugged. “I felt like coming up here.” That was hardly true. What he’d really felt like was not setting out on this adventure at all. He wished Umber could be content to stay home in the Aerie. It was a fine place to dwell, with wonders and mysteries galore inside its crammed archives. Those were the kind he preferred: adventures in ink, which couldn’t crush you in their jaws or under their feet. But, sadly, Umber liked the real thing. And to make matters worse, running off to a new land always exposed Hap to more strangers who would point and gawk at his strange green eyes.

“I’m glad to find you here alone,” Nima said. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to give you.” There was a silver chain around her neck. She lifted it over her head, and Hap saw a fat locket dangling, shaped like halves of a seashell. She held it out, and Hap opened a hand to accept it.

“It’s beautiful,” Hap said. “But …”

“Why am I giving it to you? Because I heard how you risked your life to save Umber. And Umber is my friend. You have spared me an ocean of grief.”

Hap clamped his jaw as he thought back to that terrifying night when he’d climbed a crumbling tower to confront the awful, eye-stealing creature that had taken Umber hostage. “It wasn’t just me who saved Umber,” he said.

“I know that. But Hap, you haven’t seen the true gift yet. Open it.”

Hap brought the locket closer to his eyes and saw a tiny clasp at the seam of the two shells. He pried it open with a fingernail, and the shells parted. Inside was an enormous pearl. It was as round and lustrous as the moon, which chose that moment to emerge from hiding and shine down on its little cousin. Hap goggled at the orb. He’d seen pearls in the jewelers’ tents in the marketplace at Kurahaven, but none so large or stunning. “How can I accept this? It’s too much!”

“You land folk value pearls more than I do. And do you really think it is so hard for me to find such a thing?” Nima asked. Hap supposed it wasn’t. Nima was amphibious, and she could breathe under the waves as easily as above them. Of course she could dive down and bring up all manner of wonders. Balfour had told him once that the leviathan barge was built and paid for by the fortunes she’d found in sunken ships.

“It may be useful in a difficult spot someday,” Nima said. “Or it might help a friend in need. Your heart will tell you when to use it.”

Hap snapped the locket shut and put the chain around his neck. “It’s wonderful. Thank you.”

“It was Boroon’s idea, in fact,” Nima said.

Hap stared at the leviathan’s broad head, cutting the waves before them. “Really? Boroon?” He knew that Nima communicated with the leviathan, but he had no idea that they discussed matters so … specific. “Would you thank him for me, please?”

Nima nodded.

A minute passed, silent except for the hiss of water along the leviathan’s side. “Where are we going?” Hap asked.

Nima smiled. “Umber wanted it to be a secret. You know how he is about these things.”

Hap sighed. If he could change one thing about Umber—besides his constant need for the thrill of exploration—it would be his obsession with secrets and surprises.

Before long everyone else was asleep, even the great leviathan, who bobbed in the water like a breathing island. Hap kept watch for the others, because he needed no sleep. That was another one of the great mysteries about him, the boy with no memory of who he was or where he’d come from.

Boroon’s fins swirled in the water, holding the barge in place an arrow’s flight from the coast. Hap, like the others, shielded his eyes from the rising sun, staring at the spot where Nima pointed. He looked at Oates, who frowned and shrugged.

Umber thumped the railing with both hands and laughed. “I can see why nobody’s discovered this before! Why would any ship come close? It’s just a craggy sea cliff, unremarkable and uninviting. Still, Nima, I don’t see the opening you mentioned.”

“Watch when the wave hits the shore,” Nima said. “There.”

A crest of water rolled toward the cliff. Hap watched, expecting it to slam against the rock and throw up an explosion of foam. But something else happened: The wave collapsed, as if its foundation had vanished.

“I see it now!” Umber cried. “A cave, under the surface! But how can we get inside?”

“Boroon can take us,” Nima said.

Umber’s eyes gleamed. “It’s that big in there? And we won’t … you know … disturb them?”

Nima nodded. “It’s large enough. And I have done it once before.”

“I’m so glad you discovered this!” Umber cried, with his knees wiggling.

“It was Boroon who saw the cave from underwater. He is a curious soul,” Nima replied quietly. “But sometimes I feel I never should have told you about it.”

“Hold on, Umber,” said Oates, raising a thick hand. “What did you mean, ‘disturb them’?”

“Let’s not wait another second!” cried Umber, ignoring the big man. “Do we need to douse the fires?”

Nima shook her head. “We’ll be under for only a moment,” she said.

Under, Hap thought. Not again. He crossed his arms to suppress the shivers that ran through his body.

Umber rubbed his hands together and laughed. “Every-body, down the hatch. Boroon is going to dive!”

Hap followed the others down the stairs into the central cabin. Only Nima, who was in no danger of drowning, stayed above. Oates pulled the hatch shut behind him and sealed it, then came muttering down the stairs. He held on to one of the beams in the middle of the room and stared at the ceiling as the barge lurched forward.

This was the second time Hap had been aboard when Boroon took the craft underwater, and it terrified him as much as the first. He sat beside Balfour, Umber’s elderly friend and trusted servant, at the dining table that was anchored to the floor, his bloodless fingers clamped on the table’s edge. Sophie—the girl who was just a few years older than Hap and was valued for her skill as both artist and archer—was across from him, and she gave him a reassuring smile despite her own obvious nerves. There were round windows of thick glass in the walls, and the water rose past them as Hap watched. The light changed from pale daylight to the dim, shimmering green of the sea and then vanished as they passed into a space where little sun could reach. He felt the squeeze of pressure deep inside his ears, and when he worked his jaw, his eardrums popped.

Umber stood at the bottom of the stairs, bouncing in place and humming. “Listen, everyone—it should be safe to go up in a moment, but I think we should keep as quiet as we can.”

“You make more noise than anyone,” Oates pointed out.

“Do I?” Umber asked, narrowing one eye.

“With all your squealing and clapping.”

Umber glared. “Nothing wrong with a little enthusiasm.”

Balfour cleared his throat. “Umber, would you mind telling us why we need to be quiet?”

Umber raised a hand, palm out. “Patience, my friends! We’re almost there!” The barge’s bow tilted upward again. Boroon brought them to the surface, but the ascent was slow, as if the leviathan was trying to be as stealthy as such an enormous creature could be.

“It’s so much better if you see for yourselves,” Umber said. Hap could measure his guardian’s excitement by the diameter of his eyes, and they looked now like a pair of dinner plates. Umber dashed up the stairs and threw the hatch open. “Bring the lamps,” he called in a half whisper. “And walk softly!”

Hap waited for Oates, Balfour, and Sophie to ascend before him. When he followed, he heard Umber telling them: “Give your eyes time to adjust to the dark.” But Hap, of course, needed no time.

Boroon had swum into a great cave that must have been bored out over eons by the endless undermining of ocean waves. The entrance was behind them and underwater. Hap could see a glimmer of dim sunlight filtering through, as if passing under the threshold of a door.

The sea cave was immense. The ceiling of stone was a hundred feet above the top of the barge, and Boroon fit easily in the pool of water that washed up against a broad stone ledge in the interior. When Hap saw the monstrous things that occupied the ledge, his breath was snared inside his throat. For a moment he thought they were toppled statues or mummified creatures—anything but living beings. But then he heard the air rushing in and out of enormous mouths and nostrils, and he saw the subtle rise and fall of the vast chests.

They all stared, grasping the rail. Even the leviathan raised his head from the water to eye the five slumbering things.

Boroon was still the largest creature Hap had ever seen, but these titans were not far behind. A grown man could disappear under one of their feet. Two might have been female, but it was hard to tell with faces so monstrous: warty and craggy, with blunt horns sprouting from chins, cheeks, and foreheads. Their filthy hair had the coarse texture of a horse’s tail. The skin on their limbs was etched with countless lines as deep as the bark of ancient trees. Hap noticed, with some alarm, that their ragged garments seemed to have been made from the hide of a beast much like Boroon.

The creatures were sprawled on the ledge in almost drunken poses. Two slumped against the wall of the cave with legs splayed. One lay flat on her stomach with a hand dangling over the ledge and fingers in the water. Two more curled on their sides like babies.

“What are they?” asked Sophie, almost too quietly to hear.

The answer suddenly came to Hap. He’d read about them in Umber’s books. “Sea-giants!” he said, hissing the words. More than two hundred years before, the sea-giants had invaded the great city of Kurahaven and smashed it into ruins. The sorceress Turiana had somehow driven them away, and the sea-giants had stalked into the sea, vanishing under the waves, never to be seen again. Until this day, Hap thought.

Umber’s giddy smile was so wide it threatened to divide his head. “Exactly! We’ve found their den. Their resting place.”

“Resting place! Are you a crazy man, bringing us here?” cried Oates. “What if they wake up?”

“Kindly lower your voice,” Umber said, patting the air with his hands. He gestured for the others to gather close, and spoke in a hush. “I don’t think we have to worry about waking them.”

“We don’t?” Balfour asked quietly. “Why is that?”

“I think they’re waiting for something,” Umber said.

“Waiting? What kind of nonsense is that?” scoffed Oates.

Umber could barely keep still. He rubbed his hands together and shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Do you know why they came to Kurahaven, all those years ago?”

“To crush and plunder,” Balfour replied.

Umber shook his head. “They didn’t come to crush the city. They came to crush the hubris of its king.”

“That must have hurt,” Oates said.

Umber pinched the bridge of his nose. “Hubris means arrogance, you great buffoon. Now listen carefully, Sophie and Hap—I don’t think you know the entire legend.”

Hap and Sophie stepped closer so Umber could keep his voice low. “These days the kingdom of Celador is a peaceable place, friendly to neighbors and interested mainly in trade. But in that age the kings were growing in power and bent on conquest. They declared themselves the lords of the sea, and their pride grew as fast as their fortunes. They made Kurahaven the wonder of its age, with the greatest fleet ever seen. Then came King Brinn, the fiercest and most ambitious ruler of them all. No ordinary castle was enough for him. And so in the harbor he built Petraportus, the ultimate symbol of his kingdom’s might and mastery of the sea: a castle so grand that a ship could sail through its gates and into the man-made harbor in its great hall. Petraportus was quite a statement—so loud that it finally reached the ears of those who did not appreciate man’s challenge to their dominion.” Umber jutted his chin toward the sleeping giants. “And so the sea-giants roused themselves and put an end to Brinn, his fleet, his city, and his castle. Not to mention his hubris.”

Umber’s face lost its color for a moment. His gaze wandered to some distant, imaginary point. “It was a message to all humanity, come to think of it: Don’t get too big for your britches. There are always forces bigger than you can imagine, ready to put you in your place. If your ambition burns too hot, they’ll snuff you out.”

For a moment Umber looked ready to plummet into one of his episodes of despair. “But Lord Umber,” Hap asked quickly, “how do you know these are the same sea-giants?”

Umber gave his head a shake, and his eyes came back into focus. His smile was resurrected. “Why, I believe that’s the famous Bulrock, right there. Hap, do you remember the story of Brinn’s leap?”

“He jumped from the top of Petraportus, swinging his ax, and cut off Bulrock’s nose,” Hap said. Beside him Sophie, who had brought a pad of paper and charcoal, began to sketch the amazing scene. But she suddenly gasped and pointed at the largest of the giants, who was leaning against the wall of the cave. The tip of his nose was clearly missing.

“Nima,” Umber quietly called, “do you think you could have Boroon paddle us a little closer to the ledge?”

Hap looked down. At the moment just fifteen or twenty yards of water separated them from the rocky shelf where the giants slumbered. The idea of getting nearer seemed like madness.

He wasn’t the only one who felt so. Sophie’s eyes looked like they might pop out and fall onto the deck. Balfour said, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Lord Umber.”

“I agree,” Nima said, folding her arms. “It would invite disaster.”

Umber waved a hand. “Come now, my friends. They won’t be roused easily—they’ve hibernated for centuries. I’d love to get a closer look. Touch one, if I can.”

Oates glared at Umber. “You are a crazy man,” he said.

“Because I’m not afraid of my own shadow?” Umber said. “Come on, Hap, you’ll join me, won’t you?”

Hap shifted his weight from foot to foot. “But … Lord Umber … if they awaken … you know what they could do. We could all get killed. And what if they went back to Kurahaven?”

Umber glowered and worked his jaw from side to side. “What’s the matter with all of you? You’re as meek as mice.” He lifted his feet, one after another, and hopped as he pried off his boots. When they fell to the deck, it sounded like thunder. “Stay here if you like. I’ll swim over. Be back in a minute or two, that’s all.”

“For heaven’s sake, Umber,” Balfour said. He fired a look at Oates, and Oates nodded back. Just as Umber hooked a leg over the railing, the big man stepped closer and wrapped a powerful arm around Umber’s waist.

“What’s this?” Umber cried, thrashing in Oates’s grip. “I’ll decide what I can and can’t do! Let go of me, you insolent, muscled mor—” He froze abruptly with his mouth hanging open, staring across the water. Hap turned to look, and his blood turned to cold sludge in his veins.

One of Bulrock’s eyes was open.

© 2010 P. W. Catanese

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