After more than two years, the second book of the Mage series is finally completed! The Mage and the Pantheon will be out in early March. In the meantime, please enjoy the first chapter!
Welcome onboard the Pegasi Train! The best choice for inter-city and cross-country traveling in style. Enjoy our luxurious accommodations as you take a smooth ride to your dream destination. Pegasi, these wings were meant for travel.
Sera Kishao had grown up watching those advertisements and today, she was one of the lucky travelers being served drinks and snacks by smiling Pegaside nymphs and inhaling the fake pine scent that was probably an attempt to cover the smell of sweaty horses.
Normally, she would take the time to actually enjoy this trip. There wasn’t much cause for travel when you were a Mage. But her destination was Taigai, aka dragon territory, this was strictly a work-related trip, and she was missing one important part of her usual repertoire – her Mage partner, Jason Zuchang.
A few days ago, Sera had been assigned to be part of the security detail of an envoy heading to Taigai. The entire trip was a surprise in every sense of the word, which was not helped when it was announced that Mage pairs would be separated for this journey.
Everyone knew Mages came in pairs. Once partners were assigned, nothing short of death could separate them, it was built into their training. If one partner succeeded, the other rode their coattails. If one failed, the other was brought down along with them. It created incredibly co-dependent relationships seasoned with more than a bit of resentment.
But this time, the higher-ups were going against their own rules, claiming this decision to separate the partners was for diplomatic reasons. Not that they bothered to explain what those diplomatic reasons were.
Of course, Taigai was a rare and unique entity. It was the only country where the Coven was no more than a figurehead, and not a very effective one at that. The governing party in Taigai was the Pantheon, a group of eight dragon shifters rumored to be descended directly from those legendary mythical creatures who dominated the skies and brought fear to all those who crossed their paths. They were of Olde Magick. The Central Coven turned a blind eye to them, unwilling to risk any kind of conflict, so the Taigai Coven became a don’t-ask-don’t-tell entity, where washed-out Wiccans were sent to rot away.
For years, Wiccans had done a remarkable job of never mentioning Taigai in anything other than a nudge-nudge wink-wink context, so this sudden diplomatic visit had thrown everyone for a loop. It was all anyone talked about for weeks.
Two other Mages had been picked for this assignment. Kalani Djovic sat next to Sera, staring into space, still but for the brief flashes of movement from the tattoos on her skin. Kalani’s partner had quietly and reluctantly asked Sera to keep an eye on her. Even for a Mage, Kalani didn’t do well with people.
But it was the other Mage that Sera had a problem with. Calloway Ramsbuckle came from a family of Mages and had issues when it came to those of “polluted” blood like Sera, who had the audacity to be half-Wiccan. Sera would have preferred his partner, Hazel Squall, who had a quicker temper and was much less devious.
Besides the Mages, there were the liaisons. Raylene Sommers, a bubbly young woman who was the Troll liaison, of all things. And Markus Globard, a thin, neurotic-looking man who was the Dwarf liaison. They were from the Embassy department of the Coven, civilian Wiccans whose specialty was connecting with the oddballs, otherwise known as their Folk allies.
Sera hadn’t had much contact with liaisons before and she was honestly a little worried about how unpredictable they would be.
The liaisons were there to act as mediators, greasing the wheels and learning about the culture, but the ones who would be making the decisions were the two priests. Dusana Novak, the erudite and elusive Priestess of Spirit, and Ignatius Tedus, the somber and intense Priest of Fire.
The less said about them, the better.
Hours later, Sera stepped out of the carriage and stared out into the expanse of land and all the green and brown around her. Taigai was a largely rural country consisting mostly of farmland and peasant workers. The main exception was the capital city, the beacon of nobility and wealth, and where the dragons resided.
Raylene Sommers hopped out of the carriage, inhaling noisily. “Isn’t this amazing? It’s so forbidden and mysterious. Can’t you just smell the ancient magick and the mystical aura?”
“Smells like pollen and dust,” Markus Globard muttered. “My hay fever is going to love this.”
Calloway whipped his head around, alert and tense. “There should be someone here to take us into the city.”
“They’ll be here,” Sera said. “Maybe stop looking so rabid.”
“You do realize we’re essentially standing in enemy territory,” he said sharply.
“Enemy is a strong word.” She was fairly certain their tiny envoy of seven people was not making any self-respecting dragon shake in their boots.
“I requested they include more Mages on this trip, but no, Durant refused,” Calloway muttered.
“You did that?” Sera said.
“Of course! Don’t tell me you didn’t even try to avert the disaster?”
“I was told there was an order and I was to obey,” Sera said dryly. “Didn’t occur to me that was an invitation for negotiation.”
“A good Mage is not simply a soldier,” Calloway said. “We must anticipate the danger. That is our responsibility as the ones in the frontline.”
“Our responsibility is to get thrown at the enemy first,” she said. “You know, without Hazel to offset you, your brand of crazy is really coming out into the open.”
“I’m amazed you’re still laying out those smart remarks without Zuchang to act as your guard dog,” he spat out.
“Jason’s not my guard dog. That would mean I could actually tell him whose neck to rip open.” She aimed a flat smile at him. “Is this how’s it’s going to be for this entire trip? Because I can do without the assholery when we’re already facing so many unknowns.”
Calloway was ready to snarl back at her, but then they heard someone approaching.
A young man dressed in a customary Taigai robe came towards them, his hands tucked into his sleeves. He was quite pretty, and very serene considering he was approaching them on his lonesome.
The young man bowed deeply yet irreverently, the faint smile never leaving his face.
“Taigai welcomes the representatives of the Eldrea Coven,” he said in a smooth baritone. “I am an attendant to the Pantheon, and I will be escorting you to our capital city.” He gave a regal wave of his hand, loose sleeve flapping. “Please follow me to the chariots.”
“Are those cockatrices?” Sera asked, staring at the hideous winged things with the rooster heads that were harnessed to the chariots. Each of them had a rider waiting. “Where did they come from?”
“It is a long trek towards the capital city. We mustn’t keep their royal highnesses waiting,” the attendant said, blatantly ignoring any further questions as he climbed onto one of the chariots.
“Okay then,” Sera muttered. “One Mage per chariot.”
It was certainly a new way to travel, high up near the clouds, under the blue sky and over the fields, with blindfolded cockatrices being guided by their riders.
Sera sat down and stretched out her legs, the breeze rustling through loose strands of her hair. She closed her eyes, feeling almost at peace.
Raylene Sommers’ voice rang out, loud and clear. “According to my research, the Pantheon live in a sky castle that hovers above the capital city. Supposedly, the castle was constructed on a bit of land that was extracted years ago when the dragons were first setting up their…well, you know.”
Markus Globard’s voice was much less enthusiastic. “I was not told there would be high flying involved. I’m not good with heights, I will not be held liable when I throw up over everyone.”
Sera opened her eyes with a sigh. Just her luck to be sharing her ride with the liaisons.
“Everyone needs an invitation to visit the castle, they have a transportation portal just like we do,” Raylene continued. “And I’ve heard there are shadow guards hidden in all the nooks and crannies in the castle, protecting the dragons.”
“Since when do dragons need bodyguards?” Markus was not looking well. His eyes drifted over the chariot edge before he immediately closed them and gave a groan. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Aim it outside the chariot,” Sera said. “What else have you heard?”
“Well, it’s mostly the emperor and the empress who live in the castle, and the royal harem, of course,” Raylene said with a nervous giggle. “All the other dragons have official positions, so they have residences in the city. We’re expected to call them by their official titles too, so it’s either your highness or your majesty.”
“There’s no way I’m going to be able to say that without sounding sarcastic,” Sera said flatly. “The High Priestess said this?”
Raylene nodded. “You didn’t read the docket?”
“I skimmed it.”
“There was a lot of debate about how we should conduct ourselves for this trip. Priest Tedus is still not happy about it,” Raylene said. “But it was eventually decided that it was a title just like Priest or Priestess and not a subservient gesture, and if we could avoid any clashes over something insignificant, we should.”
“That sounds like a direct quote.”
“It was,” Markus muttered.
Sera made herself comfortable on the chariot. “Okay, so, what do you know about the Pantheon?”
“There’s eight dragons in total,” Raylene said. “Besides the emperor and empress, there’s six Ministers of Department. Revenue, Works, Justice, War, Rites, and Personnel.”
“So, the money bank, construction, legal system, military, rituals and traditions, and…what does Personnel mean?”
“Actually, it’s a very important department,” Raylene said. “Personnel is like HR; he handles all the issues and squabbles of the nobles and high society. They would know all the who’s who and what’s what in Taigai. The Minister, Qolbyrne, is also the youngest dragon. Rumor is that he’s the son of one of the other dragons, but we get mixed reports on who that is.
“Speaking of HR, the local Wiccans gave us a rundown of the people we need to be aware of as well,” Raylene continued. “Taigai has four noble houses – the Gracespires, the Knightsdowns, the Palestrides and the Whetstones. The Gracespires are the head of the noble houses, they’ve been around since before the Pantheon, and the Whetstones are the most recent addition. The Whetstones are a military family and the others are department officials. There are other officials who are part of the Pantheon’s court, but their voices are the loudest.”
“How loud could they be? They’re humans in a dragon shifter’s court,” Sera said.
“You’re thinking far too logically,” Raylene said, shaking her head. “It’s not how much humans could influence dragons, but how much the dragons would allow the humans to influence them.”
Sera was momentarily dumbstruck. “…How long have you been a liaison, exactly?”
“Oh, a few years now,” she said cheerily. “I originally came from Divinations. Tarot cards were my specialty.”
The Wiccan opinion about Divinations was split, with half regarding it as a mystical art that was connected to the very roots of the universe, and the other half regarding it as a complete crock. “How’d you end up in the Embassy?”
“My boss recommended me,” Raylene said. “I was glad for the change, actually. When I was in Divinations, I had such a hard time delivering bad news. I’d try to soften the blow, like once, I told this woman that her husband was going to die in some terrible incident involving his kneecaps and the leprechauns he owes money to, but that doesn’t mean she and the man she was sneaking around with couldn’t be happy together. Assuming that man ever decided to leave his wife.”
“…Is this an actual example?”
“Yep, and she’s got more,” Markus said wryly. “When she first transferred into the Embassy, we were still trying to recruit people who were actually suited for diplomacy from inside the Coven. We saw a lot of turnover for the first few months,” he added dryly. “Then this bouncy little thing came in with her cartoon tarot cards, talking a hundred words a minute and offered to give everyone a reading. Blurted out every private issue everyone had, and she did it so peppily too.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Sera said.
“She announced I wouldn’t have to pay as much alimony if I got a private detective to take pictures of my wife when she was at ‘ceramics class’, that I should stay away from horses for the next few days or I wouldn’t be having sex for months, and that I should say ‘yes’ to Todd,” Markus said.
Markus sighed. “I wasn’t divorced at the time – I am now – I narrowly avoided having my groin trampled on by some aggressive old lady trying to steal my Sleipnir taxi, and well, Todd is my boyfriend. Currently.”
“Accurate and invasive.” Sera turned to Raylene. “You will keep that mouth shut while we’re here, won’t you? How did you even last this long as the Troll liaison? They don’t seem like they’d react to bad news well.”
“Trolls consider straight-forwardness a virtue,” Markus said. “To them, Ray is like an overexcited troll child and not to be taken seriously.”
“Would you like your fortune told?” Raylene asked excitedly.
“No thanks. My present is quite depressing enough,” Sera said, and turned to look out at the horizon. Here, above the clouds, everything was so peaceful and beautiful. Nothing but white and fluff and…that strange dark shape moving through the clouds.
Sera leaned over the side of the chariot. It couldn’t be, could it?
As if in answer, an enormous beast emerged from the cloak of the clouds, massive wings spread out as it glided through the horizon, casting a shadow over the chariots.
“Is that…?” Markus breathed.
“Goddess help us,” Raylene murmured.
Heart hammering in her chest, Sera kept to her seat, staring at the huge dragon as it flew next to them. Its scales glistened in the light, and even the slightest movements sent a smooth ripple of muscles down the entire long length of the dragon. And its face was all sharp edges with eyes like dark pools.
It was oddly peaceful, just a dragon flying next to a few chariots carrying a foreign envoy. When she remembered how to breathe, she would laugh about this, maybe.
Suddenly the dragon let out a loud, piercing shriek and with a flap of its massive wings, took off. The gust of wind jostled the carriages and the cockatrices so violently that by the time they settled, the dragon wasn’t even a blot in the sky.
“That was a dragon,” Markus said, dazed. “We just saw a dragon. A real dragon.”
“Yeah, it’s a fucking Dear Diary moment,” Sera muttered, struggling to sit back up.
The carriage with their attendant came gliding by. “We have been blessed by royal presence,” he said serenely. “A most auspicious symbol for this visit.”
Sera decided jumping chariots to bitch-slap the smirk off his perfect face would be a bad move.