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Night of the Knife by Vaughn Heppner Book

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Night of the Knife by Vaughn Heppner Read Book Online And Download

Overview: Legend holds that an evil Celestial once stole the Creator’s Staff of Light, fleeing with it to the World Below. The staff shattered when he turned a lizard into the Great Dragon, killing him and unleashing the terrible beasts upon the Earth, for she became the mother of all Dragons.

The Celestials were forbidden to leave their realm to fix the problem. Thus, they sent their servants to stop the Dragons. Many called them Elves, and they did their best, but they were no match for the fire-breathing monsters.

In desperation, the Elf Queen has sent the darkest of them—Iroldo the Lynx Lord, a master of the knife and stealthy forays—to rescue one who has learned a fatal Dragon weakness. But she’s locked deep in a deadly fortress, guarded by manticores, sorcerers, the Red Legion and Dragons.

This is the world’s last chance to stave off eternal slavery, and their hope lies in the skills of the darkest of rogues.


Night of the Knife by Vaughn Heppner Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Night of the Knife by Vaughn Heppner Book





Night of the Knife by Vaughn Heppner Book Read Online Chapter One


The Sylvan Grove 


  


-1- 


  


The gigantic forest fire had finished its bitter work. Instead of sweet trees rustling in the breeze, hellish embers glowed, and dirty ash stirred over charred lumps that once were rabbits, deer, wolves and Elves. 


The destruction went on for miles. And yet, in the middle of the desolation was a last stand of magnificent trees. The enchanted Sylvan Trees towered over the gray sea of shifting ash. The only hint of fire to the majestic growth was a handful of leaves curled like arthritic fists. 


Incredibly, there was movement high on an outer tree as an Elf stirred on a hidden platform. She reeked of smoke and despair, of rage and burnt flesh. Her pale hair had turned grimy black. She had a tight line for a mouth and haunted gray eyes. Those eyes narrowed from weeks of squinting down her bow, bloodshot eyes that until yesterday had made many an enemy legionary realize death lurked in what had been, until last night, the Natality Woods. 


Morwen was tall, with pointed ears and uncanny grace. Even now, she moved like a panther, although she lacked her usual coiled promise of explosive power. She was too weary, too appalled and sickened at the death and destruction around her. 


She wore buckskins and moccasins, with a long knife sheathed at her hip. In her fist she clutched an unstrung stave of living wood, a legendary bow. The leather quiver lay empty on the platform. She’d used all the arrows last night. 


Smoke still drifted past, although not the hellish fumes choking the darkness last night. Towering, raging flames had licked at the Sylvan Trees. Tongues of fire had crackled with fiendish force, demanding entrance to the enchanted circle. 


Remembering the flames, Morwen sipped from a canteen, rinsing away soot. 


Out of the gray sky, hot ash still drifted like snow. The inferno yet raged to the west, burning more of the forest as the flames cast their lurid light on the low fumy clouds. Morwen, her sight like an eagle’s, spied the distant flickers on the horizon. They spoke with fiery hieroglyphics of premeditated Elf genocide. 


Far out to the east—Morwen stiffened at what she saw and lowered the canteen. 


Morwen was vaguely aware of the grime, soot and dried sweat that caked her skin. Normally, she was as fastidious as a lynx. The murderous loss of life last night had left her numb. Battling the inferno to save these precious trees had pushed her beyond numbness, into an exhausted state of unreality. She no longer felt moored to the world, but a soul adrift. Thus, the new dread that lanced her heart surprised her. It shook Morwen out of her stupor, her left cheek twitching as her eyes rose to the distance. 


Like an angry hawk, Morwen watched the horizon. A thin line showed the remorseless tread of the Red Legion. They were too far still, but in her mind, Morwen heard the tramp of hobnailed boots, the grim jangle of mail. Cohort flags snapped with their customary arrogance. Burly centurions roared the cadence of the march. Behind would follow wild Kizann nomads on their shaggy ponies. At a suitable distance, lean mercenary bowmen from the Nine Cities would trail the horsemen. 


Morwen intimately knew each type, had personally slain many these past weeks. The Elves of Natality Woods had taken a ghastly toll among the invaders. Except for the fire—the raging inferno that had burned a forest—the interlopers would have never reached the forest’s heart: these precious Sylvan Trees. 


Wearily, Morwen lifted a horn to her lips. 


Then she froze in shock. In the hazy sky, that solitary speck— 


Dragon! 


Morwen clutched the horn so her lean-fingered hand trembled with rage. Beginning at last sunset, Dragons had dived at the still-living forest like kingfishers over a school of minnows. They spewed dragonfire, igniting the forest in a thousand locales. She had seen them soar, beasts cavorting over the flames, joyously roaring to one another. She would have traded a life, several lives, for a bow strong enough to shoot them down one by one. Her helplessness galled her bitterly. 


This solitary Dragon…did it come to gloat? 


With her horn, Morwen trumpeted a clean blast of sound. Then she set aside the horn and limped to the platform’s trapdoor. 


She needed a plan. To lose so totally, and without harming any of the real enemy, it was infuriating. She wondered how many other enchanted forests had fallen to the Dragons. It had been so long since she’d heard from another Elf leader. 


Morwen peered at the speck, at the approaching Dragon. If a hundred Elves yet lived in the Sylvan Grove and trained their bows at precisely the right moment, they would still likely fail to kill the beast. 


She needed to think. 


She needed a miracle, even if she stood here at the brink of extinction. 


  


Bathed, armored and sparsely fed, Morwen rode out of the enchanted circle of Sylvan Trees. She rode Aurora, a proud mount with a noble neck, white spiral horn and flashing ruby eyes. Aurora trotted with sublime grace, kicking soot and ash with her slivery hooves. 


Piercing trumpets blared from the marshaled ranks of the enemy legion. Kettledrums began to roll, cousins to thunder. 


Thousands of Red Legionaries waited in serried ranks, mailed killers with iron-rimmed shields, hardened slayers with spears, swords and hated axes. For some as-yet-unknown reason, they had set up giant A-frames. Tall iron poles were deeply sunken into the ground. Bonfires roared behind the massed lines. The soldiers must have carried the firewood with them. The fires were an ugly symbol and a mark of their slavery to the Dragons. Wagons stood behind the fires. In the wagons were thousands of barrels of flammable whale oil. 


Morwen glanced over her shoulder. Behind her rose the enormous trees with silver leaves and craggy bark. Hidden at the forest’s edge waited the last Elves of Natality Woods, grim archers noted for their deadly accuracy. Yet…it was hardly a forest anymore—only a grove, perhaps, of the most beautiful trees on Earth, a majestic grove, the greatest grove of Sylvan Trees anywhere—except for those of the Enchanted Forest of the Elf Queen. 


As Morwen cantered toward the enemy, she wished she had a thousand archers. Then, if the foul legionaries dared march nearer, a thousand arrows would darken the sky and a thousand iron-tipped shafts would drill through shields, pierce mailed links and sink into soft flesh. Then the Red Legionaries would learn to their horror the fatal difference between Elf archers with their staves of living wood and mere Mundane bowmen with their gull-fletched arrows. 


Morwen drew a deep breath. The snowy ash-fall had lessened. However, instead of the rich pine odors or the hearty fragrance of the cedars of yesterday, the burnt stench of this sooty wasteland told her that her thousand archers were dead. 


Yet, the Red Legion, the Kizann nomads and the mercenaries from the Nine Cities had paid horribly in lost lives and in the brutally maimed. During these past weeks, they had paid the butcher’s bill and remorselessly advanced deeper into the forest and into the teeth of arrow blizzards. Thousands of the enemy had died in those archery holocausts and during stealthy Elf night-raids. The forest had been Elf Home and a deadly labyrinth to strangers. 


The Dragon strategy of total forest annihilation had changed that, had brought them to this ugly victory. 


Morwen stiffened as she tasted the Dragon’s brimstone reek. The arrogant beast waited in what some might term as “solemn majesty.” The Dragon stood halfway between the mailed host and the grove of Sylvan Trees. 


With her green-booted heels, Morwen tapped Aurora’s flanks, meeting majesty with unicorn enchantment. 


Morwen noted the stir in the mailed ranks. Likely, none of those butchers had ever seen a unicorn before. Many probably considered it mythical. 


At that moment, pulleys squealed. Cages rose into the air toward the top of the A-frames. 


Inwardly, Morwen cringed. Outwardly, her face remained a stoic mask. The savages hoisted cages that swung from the iron A-frames. In the raised cages were mutilated Elf captives. 


Morwen closed her eyes and swayed in the saddle. Aurora nickered, and she subtly shifted her back and helped a sickened Morwen keep her balance. 


Morwen took a deep breath, and she almost gagged, believing she could smell the corruption of the burned forest. She looked again. Elves languished in the cages, Elves with their pale skin flayed. Others clutched the bars and stared with horribly burned-out sockets. Some had bloody lips, and Morwen knew men had used cruel pinchers and torn out their tongues. 


Morwen might have bayed like a wolf. She might have snarled in rage and kicked her heels against the unicorn’s flanks. Alone, she would have charged the Red Legion. And they would have tripped the unicorn and borne her to the ashy ground. Then, it would be her turn to face the torturing tongs and pinchers. 


Morwen swiveled her gaze away from the cages and toward the author of these atrocities. As she did, her heart beat with a new song, an inner howl of seething retribution. It thrummed through her, drove out the stupor and filled her veins with reckless hate. This brief truce, this promise of false parley—no more! She rode now to war, and was glad she had taken time to prepare. 


Instead of buckskins, Morwen wore shimmering scales of hardened adamant that reflected everything around her like mirrors. A horned helm masked her eyes, although her wild locks spilled out from under it. In her gloved fist, she clutched an icicle lance. Her buckler looked like packed snow, and in its center radiated a golden leaf. She was Mistress of Natality Woods, the little of it left. 


Morwen approached the solitary Dragon, that notorious beast of exquisite danger. 


The Dragon was huge, with vast and outstretched leathery wings that constantly twitched as the bat-like surfaces rippled. Despite the lack of a breeze, those twitches and ripples were sufficient to allow the Dragon to hover. 


Morwen felt the play of Dragon magic. 


The Dragon’s hind talons occasionally touched the ashy ground and caused the faintest of smoky plumes. That, too, seemed unnatural. Each talon was large enough to grasp Morwen and her unicorn. The Dragon was sinuous, graceful and reptilian. It had shimmering scales like precious coins. Those were blood-red on its upper hide, darkened to almost black at the tip of its tail, but faded to a lavender color under its belly. It had large eyes, menacingly red but enticing like a nighttime fire, the kind that causes one to stare entranced at the hypnotic flames. Smoke trickled from a nostril, and the long neck had the flexibility of a python. 


Morwen pressed her knees against Aurora. The unicorn pranced to a halt. 


“You look resplendent, Lady Morwen,” the Dragon said. He had an otherworldly voice, with hints of discordant screeches like an ill-tuned violin…but only hints. Otherwise, the words had a beguiling quality like a tempting devil. 


Morwen remained silent. 


“Ah, you’ve taken offense,” the Dragon said. “It is the cages, I presume.” 


Morwen understood the creature’s glee. She also knew that despite their bulk, Dragons were uncannily fast, like striking snakes. He would not be easy to kill. 


“Perhaps I’ve overindulged myself,” the Dragon said. “I admit it’s possible. The caged Elves had information I desired. As their conqueror, I felt it within my rights to demand they speak. The consequence of their stubbornness I’ve displayed for you, and for any of your sharp-eyed compatriots who happen to be peeking out of that garden plot yonder.” 


From his speech, Morwen believed she recognized the beast: Crimson Lord Bahadur, as he called himself. 


“I suppose you congratulated yourselves this morning,” the Dragon said. “The hubris of your small deed fills you with importance. Believe me, I understand. The Sylvan Trees withstood the fiery holocaust. Your Elf magic held. It was a feat, of sorts. But it will be short lived. And yet, because of that—the brevity of your continued existence—you must extract every ounce of enjoyment from it that you can. Isn’t that sublime? Others think of you Elves as immortal. Now you’re a mayfly. No. Now you’re a shooting star, a thing that flickers in the night. What a pity, my lady. What a waste.” 


Imperceptibly, Morwen tightened her grip of the icicle lance. 


“Perhaps that’s too maudlin, or perhaps you wish to set your mind on more pleasant images.” The Dragon leered. “Oh, my lady, you should have seen it last night. A sea of flames engulfed your woods. It was magnificent, a veritable work of art. The aerobatics I indulged in over the heated drafts, the swoops, the soars. I came low enough to hear the savage crackles, to feel explosive embers bat against my wings. Yes. In the heart of the flames, some of the trees simply blew apart in fiery exaltation.” The Dragon smiled slyly. “I tell you this, my lady, because it is said that Elves love beauty. Of all the races, surely, you should be able to understand my joy. But I’ve long harbored doubts concerning this aesthetic superiority of Elves. Your sullenness here only confirms my suspicion, I’m afraid.” 


Morwen’s lips felt rusted shut. With an effort of will, she parted them. “What do you want, beast?” 


The sinuous neck moved into a half coil, and the Dragon revealed long fangs as he smiled. “All you have left is your pride. Is that it, my lady? Yes, you’ve fared poorly against my superior cunning. Yet, I will grant you that your woods lasted longer than most of the others. Yours, however, is the last, my lady, the last of the enchanted forests.” 


“You lie,” Morwen said. 


The Dragon chuckled, with smoke puffing out of his cavernous jaws. 


“Completely unhinged, is my estimation,” the Dragon said. “Elves are the masters of decorum. That is the common belief. Yet what do I witness here? An amazing lack of artistic appreciation and now this boorish outburst. Really, my lady, I’m disappointed. Yes, the last. This is the last enchanted forest. Like you, it faces extinction. Notice, please, that I’ve said it faces extinction. I have not said that you will cease to exist. You have a chance at survival, if you’re wise enough to grasp it.” 


Morwen allowed herself the faintest of sneers. This creature faced extinction. If it would drift just a little closer…that was all she needed. 


“I’m afraid there’s no hope for your trees, however. They’re doomed. Not only shall we burn and cut them down, but slaves will also dig out every root and add them to the fires. Yet that needn’t trouble you. Life is more than green wood. At your death, you lose the forests anyway. Perhaps, and this is only conjecture, mind you, the Great Dragon will allow you a garden. Or it may be that she will give you a reservation to live on. I suspect you’ll have to earn that, though. As an Elf, you’ll have to work hard to please her. Yet better to be alive and have the possibility, eh?” 


Morwen’s grip tightened upon her icicle lance. 


The Dragon cocked his head. “It’s time to reason with me, my lady. It’s time to awaken your wits and salvage what you can. Oh, I’ve lost count of the number of stubborn Elves I’ve watched slain…or tormented.” 


The Dragon eyed Morwen. 


“It’s foolish to perish when life beckons. It’s unreasonable. Consider those wretches in the cages. They had a chance for life and maybe even eventual freedom. Now they’re dying horribly by degrees. They brought it on themselves, and they’re fools if they blame anyone else.” 


The Dragon cleared his throat, which caused flames to flicker at the back of his jaws. “What I want from you, my lady, why I’ve summoned you here, is so that you can tell me how the Enchanted Woods of the Elf Queen resists our flames. Do this and you can earn yourself—what do you desire in way of reward, hmm? Perhaps you’ll tell me and I can tell you if it’s possible.” 


Morwen smiled grimly. “You lying snake. You said this is the last woods, eh. Now you want to know why you can’t burn the Elf Queen’s forest. Go ask her yourself. I’m sure she’ll show you.” 


The Dragon nodded as if agreeing to a splendid joke. He watched Morwen sidewise as he added, “And I’d like to know what it is about these…tands.” 


Morwen held her grim smile, but the strength drained out of it. How had the Dragon learned about tands? Did he suspect? That should be impossible. 


“Come, come,” the Dragon said, “you must speak up. Your sullenness has become wearying. It’s also grating, I assure you.” 


Crimson Lord Bahadur waited as if hopeful and then sighed. “I know you’re stubborn, and very brave. Indeed, you’re positively valiant. We can all attest to that. In fact, if you wish, I’ll have one my sorcerers compose a ballad about your courage.” 


Morwen noticed the sorcerers, who at their mention, pushed to the front ranks. They wore red robes. Most had masks. They were experts in balefire, and the Dragon had no doubt summoned them for a reason. Could he suspect her intentions? Perhaps she should lull Crimson Lord Bahadur. 


“Minstrels compose ballads,” Morwen said thickly. 


“Not in the Dragon Empire. Let me explain,” the Dragon said. “You Elves consider yourselves the most cosmopolitan of the races. Perhaps once that was true, but because of the war, you’ve become the most provincial. First, we sealed each of you in your tiny woods and then at our leisure have stamped each of you out of existence. You’ve become…old fashioned, out of phase with the new realities, however you wish to put it. The point is that minstrels were a nuisance like mice. Thus, we’re ridding ourselves of them. Yet in some ways, they’re stubborn like you Elves. That’s odd, don’t you think?” The Dragon coughed. “Regardless, between their studies, sorcerers have learned to pen tales. One of mine will compose you a ballad if you so desire.” 


“Release the captive Elves—” Morwen began. 


“No!” the Dragon hissed. “You’re not here to give me commands. I summoned you so I could give you commands. You’ve lost. If it helps, repeat after me. I. Have. Lost.” 


The Dragon eyed Morwen with strange lights playing in his red orbs. 


Morwen shifted in the saddle and glanced once more at the captive Elves. Even while enraged, she was not so foolish as to stare into a Dragon’s eyes. Morwen’s heart grew bitter at her helplessness, at her relentless, grinding doom. Elves fought nobly. Elves fought with unique skill. Dragons fought to win and used every technique and artifice they could get their claws on. It was time to change that. It was past time. Elf extinction was one forest away. There was no hope for this Sylvan Grove. There was no hope for those caged and none for the few remaining in the trees behind her. In that moment, a dreadful desire ignited. Even if it meant becoming an oath-breaker—no matter the cost—Morwen would kill this gloating beast. She would slay Crimson Lord Bahadur. 


“I suppose you’ll tell me that other Elves can duplicate the Elf Queen’s feat,” Crimson Lord Bahadur was saying. “It would be a good trick, but far too late even if you could achieve it. Although…there are more Elves left after all these years than there should be. And some of you bear a remarkable resemblance to your past heroes. I use the term loosely, of course. Defeated warriors aren’t truly heroes. They’re the supine minions brought low to death. But let’s put that aside. Is the Elf Queen’s trick unique to her, or does she have a better grasp of magic than the rest of you? If you enlighten me of even so small a facet, my lady, I shall release these captives.” 


“What about those in the woods?” Morwen forced herself to ask. 


The Dragon raised his head high like a snake about to strike. “Pray tell me, my lady,” he asked in his silkiest tones. “Why will you tell me all this when hundreds of others would rather allow their limbs torn asunder and their young ones crushed, before they dared groan a syllable?” 


Throughout the Dragon’s monologue, Morwen had carefully judged distances, wondered about timing and fretted about when exactly to strike. Now the accumulated fatigue from weeks of deadly forest warfare and the grinding battle against last night’s flames caused her to misjudge the Dragon’s theatrics. It seemed to her the Dragon understood her feral motives. Fear that it was too late and a bubbling rage beyond her ability to mask made Morwen tap her heels against the unicorn’s flanks. She spurred her great steed and shouted her war cry. 


Aurora had a horse’s shape but a cat’s quickness. The unicorn lunged at the huge reptilian beast. Morwen kept her seat perfectly, leaned with her mount and rolled her lance upward, still horizontal. Before, she had held it one-handed with an under-grip. Now she caught and clutched it like a javelin, over her shoulder. 


Front-rank legionaries shouted in surprise. The nearest sorcerer flinched and staggered backward. The Dragon kept his poise, although perhaps as surprised as everyone else. 


Like a gazelle, Aurora leaped near. Morwen stood up in the stirrups. Her war cry reverberated off the Dragon’s scales. As her face twisted into a mask of hate, Morwen heaved the icicle lance. At the same moment, the Dragon struck. With snake-like speed, his head lunged downward. 


The lance pierced Dragon scales. It pierced muscle, gristle and fat and gouged bone. The last deflected the point from the eight-valved heart and saved Crimson Lord Bahadur’s life. 


Morwen, knowing none of this, raised her snowy shield. She saw the descending head. With her wonderful swiftness, with her exquisite sense of balance and tigerish strength, Morwen cunningly deflected the strike. One of the Dragon’s fangs left a furrow along the entire length of the shield. 


The deflected head-lunge still had awful power. It would have knocked any ordinary equine onto the ground and sprawled the rider flat into a state of unconsciousness. Aurora was unique among horse-like beasts. She twisted with impossible agility, kept her silvery hooves underneath herself and staggered lower to the ground than seemed possible. 


Then Aurora leaped up. Morwen had dropped the reins, and her left shoulder felt as if it had been wrenched out of the socket—and her head rang with dizziness. Regardless, she smoothly shifted her knees. Aurora understood. The unicorn whirled around, and galloped for the safety of the Sylvan Trees. 


One sorcerer proved quicker than the rest of the stunned onlookers. He assumed a sorcerous stance—the Baleful Wyvern. He chanted, used his hands to weave fiery patterns in the air and pumped his fist, which now burned with intense flame. The ball of balefire whooshed in an arc. The quick-witted sorcerer was also an expert marksman, the reason for his high standing. He led his target perfectly. 


Morwen twisted in the saddle and brought the shield across her body. It could have been awkward, but not only was she an Elf, but an Elf of the third virtue. Morwen ducked her head as the ball of balefire splashed upon her shield. Aurora nickered with pain as fiery flames licked. Fire blackened the top of Morwen’s helm. Burn marks scorched the unicorn’s hide, but the snowy shield absorbed the brunt of the balefire. 


“Kill her!” the Dragon roared. 


Other sorcerers began to assume spell-casting stances. A mercenary archer ran to the fore as he nocked an arrow. Several legionaries hefted javelins. 


It didn’t matter. Aurora ran like the wind and out of range. 


Morwen snarled savagely. She leaned her head beside the unicorn’s sleek neck. She flew over the sooty soil. She had failed! Crimson Lord Bahadur yet lived. At least she’d wounded the beast, paid him back for his gloating. There had to be a way to kill one of the arrogant Dragons. 


Morwen made a strangled sound. This was it, the wretched end. No! She refused to go quietly to her doom. She was going to find a way to slay Dragons, even if here at the last hour. She must! 



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