Chapter One The Pale Apostate   Ishtier was beautiful. The purple rays of a setting sun vaulted off the crystalline structures of the port far below the skydock, and the countless people basking in the sunlight of a free port were a riot of colored specks. The drunken splotches of a painter throwing his brush at a blank canvas. Chaotic. Jarring. For all this, Elias Leblanc could only process the beauty. He was very drunk. He hadn't meant to be. But a swarm of overwhelming recollections reaching up from the black void of his memory had made the bottle he'd acquired since Elysium docked too easy a solution to ignore. Now he stood at the railing of the skydock, white-knuckled, and gripping a metal bar that was the only thing between him and the numbness of an empty, endless sky. Elias hadn't expected to survive. That he was alive at all was a quandary beyond his grasp, and not understanding was even worse than living. His breath came in a slow drag as the viscous fire of the cheap brandy burned its way through his system. His eyes were red, his posture slack. He had never been one to indulge in drunkenness before, so it hadn't taken much of the poison to put him in his current state. When he'd been Azrael, when he had served the Eternal Order as its willing, brainwashed killer, he had treated his body as a temple. Now freed, the abuse he heaped upon it had intensified. Ironic. He should be taking better care of himself. But when every waking moment walked the razor's edge of avoiding his crewmates' implacable stares, it took most of his mental energy to keep his own temper in line. When he lay awake for hours in his new cabin praying for sleep to take him, the smaller sins seemed absurd to reject. When he closed his eyes the nightmares rose again, a different color of horror every night, and the cold sweats left him parched and aching come the dawn. He would rise exhausted, head pounding, limbs burning, and begin the whole affair again. There was nothing but vice to keep the demons away. The bottle rested on the planks next to him. The winds whistled mournfully over its open lip. Elias's trembling left hand gripped the rail. His right held a long knife. The sunlight danced off it in a hundred dirty shades of gold that darkened as he watched to a familiar, dull red. He hadn't come here to contemplate. The truth was he hadn't come here with any specific purpose at all, other than to escape Elysium . The ship, floating suspended in the heavens, was several hundred feet away. Longer by the winding catwalks of the skydocks he'd followed to get where he was. But now he considered it. Beyond the rail there was only open sky, and a long, long fall to the lands far below. Or simply to the abyss, if the stone and dirt was missed. He thought about what it would be like to fall forever into the darkness beneath the sky. There were only ghost stories to answer that. Ghost stories, old myths, and the fearful mumblings of madmen. The only thing Elias couldn't quite figure out was whether he was a madman, or a ghost. The long knife gleamed in his hand. This wasn't the first time he'd thought about doing it. But every time before, it had just been conjecture. An idle thought that happened to have the weight of inevitability. I'll get to it later, he'd tell himself. If I have to. Now he was alone, drunk, with only his knife for company. He held it before his face, stared at it with a dull gaze. It was the thinking about it that pulled him up short. That was the problem. He needed to get on with it. Everyone would be better off. "What're you doing, boy?" The words cut across his thoughts, and the young man turned to see the big, burly figure of Bjorn standing a short distance from him. He was dressed in a thick coat of sheepskins and wore a pair of big clomping black boots that made Elias wonder how he'd been able to approach unheard. The alcohol, he told himself. That was why his senses weren't what they should be. "Isnnit obvious?" Elias slurred. "mmm voting. " The big man's eyes sized him up and down, something halfway between disgust and worry in their depths. Then he stepped closer and held out his hand. Elias looked at it, then at his knife with its infinite shades of gold and red. "Give me the knife, boy," Bjorn insisted. Quiet. "You're not letting me walk away with it, are you?" Elias asked. His fingers caressed the hilt. Bjorn's level gaze remained on him. "I'm not." Vision blurry, Elias turned to meet the older, more experienced stare. His head pounded and he swayed, unsteady. "I could just put it in your throat, then finish myself, you know," he said. "I'm fast enough." "I know," Bjorn whispered. "But you won't. Because you're not Azrael. Spite isn't what drives you." "You don't know me," Elias answered. "You don't even like me." "I don't trust you, boy," Bjorn snorted. "That's the difference. I don't trust you because you're a half-cocked walking mess. I don't trust you because you don't trust yourself. But give me time - give them all time - and that'll come. Now give me the knife." The last time Elias stood opposite the big man, they'd both held swords in their hands and faced one another across a rocky, blood-splattered valley floor. Bjorn still bore the bandage from the wound Elias had given him when he'd gone by the name of Azrael. He'd left that life, and that name, behind. The recollections burned in his mind, an aching, raw scar on his thoughts and emotions, but he still had the ability to say of himself that it was the past , and not the present. The blade longed to cut something. His hands shook. Then he flipped it, and presented the handle to the bigger man. When Bjorn clasped the grip, however, Elias didn't let go. He met the big man's gaze and said, "There's something I need you to help me with."   Elias staggered up the gangway and into Elysium . His head pounded, and he leaned on the bigger man's arm so as not to topple off and into the heavens. The moment they stepped into the bay, Elias staggered away from Bjorn and caught himself on a recently loaded crate. He pushed himself up, getting his bearings. The interior of the ship was nicer, by far, than any other he'd traveled in. Warm hardwood, exposed steel beams and burnished brass were everywhere, with viewports positioned to take the greatest advantage of natural light. In the month since Elias had joined Elysium 's crew - since he had turned against his former masters and abandoned the name of Azrael - Bjorn had hardly spoken to him. Even on their last mutual days spent in the infirmary, they'd avoided acknowledging one another's presence, as if even a spare glance might summon their unfinished duel from the valley floor in Port Providence. A duel that Elias had won, albeit when he was still calling himself Azrael. "Get your clippers," Elias said. "We're going to the viewing deck after I hit my cabin." "If you try to jump," Bjorn warned, "I swear to the gods of my ancestors I'll drag you back up by the collar of your shirt and beat you senseless." "Too drunk to jump," Elias muttered, heading for his own room. "I'd just fall." The primary cabins of Elysium had already been occupied when Elias became a permanent member of its crew, so one of the passenger cabins in the belly of the vessel had become his. Whereas the others opened their doors onto the central corridor of the upper deck, the simple, metal door to Elias's room opened directly into the cargo hold. When he stepped through, he stood for a few silent moments as a viewport-shaped slice of sunlight spilled across his living space. As far as places to lay your head went, it wasn't bad. The floor was polished hardwood, the double bed pushed against the wall. A bookcase sat opposite the viewport, bare, and a washing station and latrine were retracted into the wall. The sound of his breath and heartbeat filled the silence. Opposite him, in the room's farthest, darkest corner, a hastily made rack held the polished black steel of Azrael's armor, minus the helmet lost back in Port Providence. He hadn't worn it since he came onboard. His reflection stared back at him from the burnished black and gold, perfectly maintained out of compulsive habit. Elias stared. The armor stayed where it was. Someday, he thought, I will have to put it on again. And on that day, he would be recognized. They would find him. All of them. The thought sent a shudder through him, and he reached for the longsword that hung in its scabbard from the headboard. Its straight crosspiece was gold-chased, the lower half of its two-handed grip wrapped in wire. The broad fishtail pommel glinted in the sunlight as Elias gingerly lifted the sword called Oath of Aurum from where it hung and buckled the blade about his waist. He pulled the first few inches of hollow-ground, diamond-spined silver blade from the sheath. The steel gleamed as if lit from within, and he felt the familiar warmth of its enchantment respond to his touch. It fortified him. This, at least, he could still carry. Though it was legend in some circles, few people knew what Oath of Aurum looked like. That Elias had taken it from the dead hands of a virtuous man he'd killed would haunt him for the rest of his life. No, not Elias. Azrael. He shook his head and released a fearful, measured breath into the air. Was there a difference? There had to be, he reminded himself. And now, with Bjorn's help, he would make that difference more pronounced. He headed back up towards the viewing deck, still unsteady on his feet, but helped along the way by a simple conviction to get where he was going without painful embarrassment. When he got there, he found Bjorn waiting. The winds of Ishtier's vast port-bay blew the big man's coat all about him in a chaotic swirl. A sea of smaller craft hung suspended in the sky from the thousand branches of the vast, wooden dock apparatus. From this far away, the immense structure looked like a thorn-bristled beehive. It would be dark soon. The evening sky had faded from golds and reds to the deep purples and blues of twilight, and amidst the darkness of the port, the running lamps of countless ships twinkled. Bjorn had caught the gist of what Elias intended, and the big man watched him now, his tools stuffed into his long coat pockets. The expression on his face was somber. "You sure about this, boy?" Elias swayed, gripped the railing with his left hand to steady himself. After everything he'd been through, it was inappropriate to be disconcerted by what he was about to do. "I have to do the first part myself," he said. It was important. Symbolic. He let go the rail, reached behind his head, and gathered his long, thick dark hair up in his hands. He pulled it into a tail at the back of his head. Then, clutching that in his left fist, he drew Oath of Aurum with his right. The blade glowed defiant in the growing darkness. A brief vision of Lord Roland swam before his eyes. His teacher. Former master. Implacable and relentless. "I renounce you," Elias whispered. "And everything you represent." He sliced upward with the sword's enchanted blade. Felt his hair pull at his scalp, then come loose about his face. He looked at the length of hair in his fist, then flung it into the abyss. Then he sat back on a stool that Bjorn had fetched and, submitting himself to the trust of the man that had been his enemy only a month past, closed his eyes. Bjorn drew his clippers, grunting, "Yeah, can't have you looking like that, boy." The snipping of shears and scissors filled Elias's ears, as bits of hair fell like rain to the deck. Excerpted from Dragon Road by Joseph Brassey All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.