The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City

Tor Books is proud to announce the launch of John Scalzi’s new fantasy trilogy The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, which kicks off with book one: The Dead City.


Night had come to the city of Skalandarharia, the sort of night with such a quality of black to it that it was as if black coal had been wrapped in blackest velvet, bathed in the purple-black ink of the demon squid Drindel and flung down a black well that descended toward the deepest, blackest crevasses of Drindelthengen, the netherworld ruled by Drindel, in which the sinful were punished, the black of which was so legendarily black that when the dreaded Drindelthengenflagen, the ravenous blind black badger trolls of Drindelthengen, would feast upon the uselessly dilated eyes of damned, the abandoned would cry out in joy as the Drindelthengenflagenmorden, the feared Black Spoons of the Drindelthengenflagen, pressed against their optic nerves, giving them one last sensation of light before the most absolute blackness fell upon them, made yet even blacker by the injury sustained from a falling lump of ink-bathed, velvet-wrapped coal.

With the night came a storm, the likes of which the eldest among the Skalandarharians would proclaim they had seen only once before, although none of them could agree which on which one time that was; some said it was like the fabled Scouring of Skalandarharia, in which the needle-sharp ice-rain flayed the skin from the unjust of the city, provided they were outside at the time, while sparing the just who had stayed indoors; others said it was very similar to the unforgettable Pounding of Skalandarharia, in which hailstones the size of melons destroyed the city’s melon harvest; still others compared it to the oft-commented-upon Moistening of Skalandarharia, in which the persistent humidity made everyone unbearably sticky for several weeks; at which point they were informed that this storm was really nothing like that at all, to which they replied perhaps not, but you had to admit that was a pretty damn miserable time.

Which is to say: It was a dark and stormy night.

And in that dark and stormy night, upon the walls of Smaelkaven, the imperial castle of Skalandarharia, two guards stood, upon a watch.

“Is it a dark night,” said Barnas, the first.

“Aye, and stormy too,” said Ruell, the second.

“Have you ever seen a storm like it?” asked Barnas.

“Only once,” said Ruell.

“Yet if it were not for the lightning, we wouldn’t be able to see at all,” Barnas said. “It is so dark that I would lose my sword at the end of my hand.”

“And that is why we must be on our guard!” said a third voice, booming from beside them. The two guards drew their swords; lightning flashed above them as they did so, revealing the form of Quinto, their lieutenant, standing on the wall. Thunder pealed shortly thereafter, shaking them all.

“Had I not spoken, I would have been upon the two of you like a demon,” Quinto said, to Barnas and Ruell.

“Well, it is dark,” Barnas said.

“And you’re wearing black,” said Ruell.

“And you’re on your tiptoes,” Barnas said.

“I don’t want your excuses,” Quinto said, bringing his feet down. “If you can’t defend this castle you might as well not be guards at all.”

“Yes, lieutenant,” Barnas said.

“You have to admit, lieutenant, that the Captain of the Guard isn’t making it easy for us to do our job,” Ruell said. “We’re out here on a dark and stormy night, no moon, with all the light from the city snuffed and not even a torch for us to see by.”

“You know why that is, Ruell,” Quinto said. “Captain Ealth was ordered by the emperor’s wizard himself. No light in the castle that can be seen from the outside. All lights from the city likewise extinguished.” He motioned toward the darkness of Skalandarharia, not that Barnas or Ruell saw it. “All for the same reason.”

“The night dragons,” Barnas said. Lightning flashed again, thunder rolling almost immediately after.

“That’s right,” Quinto said.

Ruell snorted.

“You have something to say, Ruell?” Quinto said.

“Begging the lieutenant’s pardon,” Ruell said, “but ‘night dragons’? Are we meant to believe that the emperor’s wizard, or the emperor himself, really believes in such things?”

“You know of the same reports I do, Ruell,” Quinto said. “Caravans attacked, the city itself infiltrated and citizens taken away, buildings mysteriously burning in the night. The wizard’s own investigators have been to the burnt shells. They say there’s no doubt it’s the night dragons. They say they’ve returned after all these years.”

“Bollocks,” Ruell said.

“You don’t believe in night dragons?” Barnas asked, to Ruell, as lightning flashed once more.

“Of course I don’t,” Ruell said, around the thunder. “I may be a guard and a soldier, but I am not an uneducated man. I once spent three entire months in school. I am a man of science, and science tells us that an animal as large as a night dragon is meant to be simply cannot fly. If they can’t fly, they’re not dragons. Night dragons are a myth.”

“If it’s not night dragons, then how to you explain the attacks on the caravans and the city?” Barnas asked.

“As a man of science would,” Ruell said. “By suggesting sound and realistic alternatives to the fanciful suggestion that night dragons did these things.”

“Such as?” Quinto asked.

“Vampires and werewolves,” Ruell said. “Quite obviously.”

“Vampires and werewolves,” Quinto said.

“That’s right,” Ruell said.

“Have you ever seen a vampire? Or a werewolf?” Quinto asked. “Has anyone? Ever?”

“Of course no one’s seen them,” Ruell said. “They lurk.”

“So, wait,” Barnas said. “The vampires and werewolves are in league with each other?”

“Well, no, probably not,” Ruell said. “It’s either one or the other. Alternately, vampires did some attacks while werewolves did others. If you think about it with a clear and scientific mind, it’s the only rational explanation.”

“I can’t argue with that logic,” Barnas said.

“There’s a group of us who meet weekly to discuss the vampire and werewolf threat that’s clearly being ignored in order to focus on flashy, implausible causes for our current troubles,” Ruell said. “If you want I could bring you along.”

“I’d like that,” Barnas said.

“Done,” Ruell said. “But meanwhile we still have the problem of standing here in the dark, trying to guard the castle when we can’t see anything. What’s the reasoning here?”

“If the city is dark, then the night dragons won’t see the castle,” Quinto said. “It makes it more difficult for them to attack from the air.”

“See, now, that’s just nonsense,” Ruell said. “Bumping about in the dark hiding from creatures that don’t exist. Meanwhile, vampires and werewolves are out there eating sheep and babies and virgins.”

“Who will think of the babies?” Barnas said. “And the virgins? And the sheep?”

“Exactly,” Ruell said. “Nonsense, I tell you.”

“Nonsense or not, you still have your orders,” Quinto said.

“Yes, lieutenant,” Ruell said. “And we’ll follow them. What little good they will do anyone.” He snorted again. “Honestly. Night dragons. It’s hard to believe anyone would really believe in them. Some of the things people say about them are complete foolishness. Why, I’ve heard people say that they can move so silently you don’t even hear them until they are on top of you. As if any creature so large could move with such silence.”

“I’ve heard night dragons don’t actually need light to see,” Barnas said. “That they can see by sensing heat or suchlike.”

“I’ve heard that they can speak in human tongues,” Quinto said. “And that sometimes they speak just to surprise their victims into immobility.”

“I’ve heard that they can eat castle guards three at a time,” said a fourth voice. “Although that’s not actually a legend. That’s really just more of an ambition.”

“Who said that?” Ruell said, and then the lightning flashed and the three guards saw the spreading wings, the giant head, and the terrible, terrible teeth.

The thunder drowned out the screams, which were brief enough anyway.

The dark and stormy night concealed the rest.

* * *

The castle of Smaelkaven was dark, and not only because of the imperial wizard’s order of general blackness. It was dark because it was a huge windowless lump of granite, designed to withstand attacks from humans, orcs, elves, trolls, rhinoceroses, night dragons, and the occasional drunken minor god looking for kicks, although not necessarily all at once. Its cavernous insides were lit by lamp and torch and the particulate waste of each, centuries of it, smudged walls, obscured frescoes, turned rich tapestries into sooty hanging blankets and gave the ceilings of Smaelkaven such a quality of black that… well, let’s just reiterate the general state of darkness at the castle and take it as read moving forward.

Some years before a forward-thinking alchemist named Yehd Aisohn had come to Imo Morde, the newly-advanced Imperial Wizard, with an audacious plan to light Smaelkaven through the use of refined lodestones, wrapped in the finest copper wire, spun inside a metal cage, attached by other wires to a cunning sphere of glass with a gossamer filament inside, which would glow, bathing a room in soft, warm, golden light.

Morde had the wires attached to the alchemist to see if he would glow as well.

He did not.

Morde had the unfortunate Aisohn’s heretical work consigned to his private library, where it had remained for the next four decades, unread and unexamined, lit by tallow candles and oil. It was in that personal library that Morde received Blad Ealth, Smaelkaven’s Captain of the Guard. He was at his desk, watching two men playing chess at a table, with two men standing behind each seated man, with a bucket.

“Captain Ealth,” Morde said. “You’ll have to make this brief, I’m afraid. I’m conducting an experiment.”

“Yes, your eminence,” Ealth said. He glanced almost unintentionally at the men in the experiment, and then frowned, confused.

Morde caught the look. “Something the matter, captain?”

“Those men are playing chess, your eminence,” Ealth said.

“Why, yes they are,” Morde said. “Nothing escapes your trained eye, captain.”

“Thank you, your eminence,” Ealth said. “Might I ask what role the leeches attached their heads play in all of this?”

“An excellent question, captain,” Morde said, “and one that in fact touches on your office. As you know, there seems to be a correlation to being able to fight, and keeping one’s blood in one’s body. For some reason that we’ve not yet entirely ascertained, if you lose too much blood, you simply aren’t able to keep going on. You’re aware of this, I assume.”

“I have noticed something very similar, yes,” Ealth said.

“Of course you have,” Morde said. “You are an observant man. Well, I am curious about this relationship, particularly as regards the brain, which I think is—and not the liver, as so many so-called learned men would have you believe—the seat of cognition in our bodies. So this experiment here is designed to test the relationship between the blood and the brain.”

Morde motioned to the two sitting men. “Our friends here are both expert chess players, and I’ve engaged them to play against each other. But each time one player loses a piece, I have a leech attached to his head, to suck away the vital blood. Look, it’s about to happen now.”

The captain watched as one of the seated players, playing orange, took a pawn from the other, playing green. As he did so, the man standing behind the green player fished into his bucket, pulled out a leech, and stuck it with a squishy pop onto the forehead of the player, who had six other leeches already attached to various places on his head and neck. The green player woozily reached out and moved a piece.

Morde sucked in his breath. “Ooooh,” he said. “Bad move. The leeches are really throwing off his game. Which, of course, supports my entire thesis.”

The orange player, with only three leeches, rapidly reached across and took the piece. The man standing behind the green player fished out another leech, attached it, and then smacked the green player across the back of the head, as if in frustration.

“Stop that,” Morde said. “You’re tainting the experiment!” He turned back to Ealth. “Really, no one appreciates how important it is to have a controlled environment for these things.”

“My sympathies, your eminence,” Ealth said.

“Thank you,” Morde said. “This is groundbreaking work, you know. It could revolutionize the way we think about blood. And also, tangentially, leeches.”

The green player reached over to move another piece and slumped over the board, collapsing into a squishy pile on the floor, groaning.

“Science is truly fascinating,” Ealth said.

“Isn’t it?” Morde said. “Now, captain. What is it you wished to see me about?”

“Three of my guards went missing in the night, your eminence,” Ealth said, and then held out a roughly hexagonal object, the size of a small plate. “At their station, we found this.”

Morde took it and examined it. “Found it on the wall, you say?” he said to the captain.

“Yes,” Ealth said.

“Anything else?” Morde asked.

“A broken sword hilt,” Ealth said.

“No blood?” Morde asked. “Torn limbs? Severed heads? Curiously placed organs? Notes explaining that the guards had gone for ale?”

“Nothing but this and the sword hilt,” Ealth said.

“Curious,” Morde said, looking at the object again.

“Your eminence,” Ealth said. “I can’t help but notice that it looks like a large reptile sca—”

“Has anyone seen this but you, captain?” Morde asked, interrupting him.

“A guard named Filbert found it and the sword hilt, and brought them to me,” Ealth said. “I told him to remain silent until I had spoken to you.”

“Very wise, captain,” Morde said. “I will want to speak to this Filbert as well.”

“He’s on duty at the moment,” Ealth said.

“At the end of his watch, then. You and he both,” Morde said, and set the object down.

“Very well, your eminence,” Ealth said. “What should I say about the missing guards? The other guards are sure to ask.”

“For now say they are engaged in a task I have asked of them, about which you may not speak,” Morde said. “That should be sufficient.”

“Yes, your eminence,” Ealth said.

“Very good, then. See you and Filbert in a few hours,” Morde said, returned his attention to writing up the results of his experiment, and made a waving motion with his hand, dismissing the captain. Ealth bowed and retreated. Morde waited until he was gone and then picked up the object again, lightly stroking the dark, slate-like surface. He frowned at the implications of the thing.

“Shall we set up the players again, your eminence?” one of the standing men asked Morde, wiggling his bucket for emphasis.

“What?” Morde said, distracted, and then refocused. He set down the object. “Oh. Yes, let’s.”

“I think I need some time to recover,” slurred the green player, from the ground, as he feebly tried to pull off his leeches.

“Nonsense,” Morde said. “Everyone knows blood spontaneously regenerates after about five minutes. You’ll be fine. In fact, this time, let’s try some bigger leeches, shall we?”

* * *

There are many legends about the night dragons. You know about three (well, four). Here are some more.

It is said that as fledglings, night dragons are sustained only by the tears of distraught unicorns.

It is said that if you call the name of a night dragon at the exact instant of a full moon, it will come to you. If you then whisper a name into its ear, the dragon will then fly to the exact location of that person and eat them.

It is said that if you bathe in the blood of a night dragon, you will be invincible at caber tossing.

It is said that earthquakes are what happen when two night dragons love each other very much.

It is said that the most hated natural enemy of the night dragon is the lemur, which is a very bad deal for the lemur.

It is said that salt made from the dried tears of a night dragon will take fifty years off your life, so putting night dragon tear salt in the food a 49-year-old is not advised, unless you do not like them.

It is said night dragons can speak to the moon, but don’t because all the moon wants to talk about is how much it likes basalt.

It is said that if a night dragon is caught in the sunlight, it will turn either into a porpoise or a tortoise, depending on whether it is over land or sea, until the sun goes down. Sometimes it turns into the wrong thing. It will then have a very uncomfortable day.

It is said that if you anger a night dragon, you may appease it with cheese. But you better have a lot of it.

It is said that the only way to truly kill a night dragon is to bore it to death.

It is said that the scales of a night dragon are impervious to cutting, chopping and grinding. It is also said that night dragon scale powder is the most amazing aphrodisiac known to man, but given the first part of this legend, good luck with the whole “making a powder out of a dragon scale” thing.

Finally, it is said that night dragons can live forever, but often choose not to, because when you come right down to it, the world isn’t nearly exciting enough to stick around on for that long. Theologians have argued, to great and sometimes bloody length, about whether this means that night dragons believe in an existence beyond this world, or whether it just means that eventually, even suicide is preferable to having to be on the same planet as humans.

None of these legends are true, although some of them are closer to true than others, specifically that most species eventually find humans interminable, and it’s unlikely night dragons would be an exception to the rule.

Here is a true thing about night dragons:

They don’t exist.

Never have. Because—as the apparently doomed Ruell cogently noted—they are biologically impossible. You might as well put wings on an elephant and expect them to pull themselves through the air, and land with anything other than a most discouraging splatter. The largest flying animal anywhere near Skalandarharia was the Great Southern Albatross, the largest example of which had a wingspan longer than two not excessively large men. As impressive as that was—and it is impressive, as Great Southern Albatross could easily beat the hell out of most unarmed humans and enjoy itself while doing so—it’s nowhere as large as a night dragon is supposed to be, since legend has it peeking its head into second story windows.

However, what the night dragons have always been, is a convenient excuse. One used by the Emperors of Skalandarharia when from time to time they find it useful to remove some of the more annoying thorns in their sides. For example, wealthy caravan traders who have begun to balk at the taxes and tariffs imposed on their trade. Or the occasional citizens who have begun to question whether having a hereditary head of state with unquestioned authority is really the best and most efficient way to run a government. Or, from time to time, someone who just annoys the emperor for one reason or another—say, an ambassador who does not show proper deference, a former lover who is not accepting exile from court with the proper gratitude, or a courtier who chews too loudly and laughs with his mouth full.

An emperor doesn’t have to use a cover for such things—what fun is being an emperor if you can’t do whatever you want? You might as well be a king then—but even an emperor knows that from time to time perhaps it’s best not to show your hand holding the knife.

An emperor can’t use the night dragons too often or too carelessly. Use it too often, people will figure it out, because they stubbornly persist in not being stupid. For little things, it’s better to blame vampires and werewolves. But once per reign, more or less, when things are beginning to look a little messy, it’s an option. If you’re the emperor you have to make it count (so make sure you have a long list), and you also have to throw in a little collateral damage here and there just to make sure it doesn’t look too targeted. Among other things. There’s a manual. But each emperor is also encouraged to be creative.

The current Emperor of Skalandarharia was Sukesun IV, and as Skalandarharian emperors go he was near the bottom of the pack: Not as abjectly stupid as Blintin II, who banned Tuesdays and believed that babies came from geese (and goslings from ham), and not as wantonly cruel as Gorsig the Pitiless, whose official cause of death of “sudden perforated bowel” neglects to cover the scope of having an entire coliseum of people come after you in your sky box with knives, including the fruit vendors and the dancing girls, but plenty stupid and cruel for all of that. Now in the twelfth year of his reign, Sukesun IV had amassed enough enemies and troubles that he was advised by his counsel—Imo Morde chief among them—to exercise the option, and engage in the shadow war of the night dragon.

Which was going swimmingly, until three imperial castle guards went missing and Captain Ealth presented Morde with what was a clear, obvious, unambiguous, absolutely no doubt about it night dragon scale. It couldn’t be a night dragon scale, and yet it couldn’t be anything else, either. Everything in myth and legend described it exactly as it was when it landed on Morde’s desk.

How could a thing that could not exist, exist? If it did exist, which of the many legends about it would turn out to be true? What did its existence mean for Imo Morde, for Sukesun IV, and for the city and empire of Skalandarharia?

Therein, my friends, lies a tale. A tale of war. And dragons.

And a dead city.

A tale, which, as it so happens, begins on another dark and stormy night.


Cover illustrated by John Stanko

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue) © 2011 John Scalzi


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