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A Dance of Chaos
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The final installment of the Shadowdance series finds Haern the Watcher returning to his beloved city of Veldaren, only to find it has collapsed into chaos. The Sun Guild has conquered the former thief guilds, destroying the peace Haern fought so hard to obtain. The Trifect is their next target, and Alyssa Gemcroft must reach out to whatever allies she can obtain, even if it means casting aside longtime friends. As the chaos grows, so does the power of the dark god Karak who lays siege to Veldaren. If the city falls, the world will suffer greatly.
The legendary Thren Felhorn, broken, guileless, and rejected by his own son, holds the fate of the entire city in his hands. Unless Haern can stop his father, Thren will at last have the legacy of fire and destruction he has always desired.
Father or son; some choices must be made in blood.
Fantasy author David Dalglish spins a tale of retribution and darkness, and an underworld reaching for ultimate power.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Skyborn
A Preview of A Crown for Cold Silver
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Not since Alyssa Gemcroft unleashed her army of mercenaries upon the streets of Veldaren had Haern felt so at risk while racing along the rooftops. Before, he could use the cover of night and the blend of his cloaks to disguise his allegiance. Now those of the night belonged to the Sun, and they bore no cloaks at all. Before, the various politics and feuds among the guilds had kept his foes in check, and the Watcher's reputation alone had prevented most sane men from engaging him willingly. But times were no longer sane, and Haern could only guess how the master of the Sun Guild would react to the Watcher's return.
Haern slowed his run, then stopped completely at the edge of a home, careful to keep his footsteps light, his weight evenly distributed. He was nearing the castle, and there would be no densely packed homes to rely upon anymore. Grabbing the edge of the roof, he swung himself low, landed with but a whisper of sound on the cobbled stone. A quick glance up and down the street showed no one, not that that meant much. Eyes were everywhere in Veldaren, more so now than ever before. Noticeably absent were any patrols by the city guard. From what Tarlak had told him, the king had given the Sun Guild near-total immunity to any sort of punishment, and it seemed keeping the guard at home was the easiest way to accomplish that. Haern frowned, and for hardly the first time he wished a better man sat on the throne.
Before him loomed the castle, its large double doors shut and barred. Scaling the stone walls to the upper windows wasn't the hardest thing to do, but Haern had no need. Keeping to the shadows, he looped around to the eastern side of the castle, opposite the attached prison. There he found one of the many soldiers posted for patrol, an older man with a gentle demeanor that seemed to run counter to the armor he wore and the sword strapped to his thigh. Haern gave one last look about to ensure no one watched, then dashed toward the soldier.
Instead of being alarmed at the sudden approach, the man only nodded curtly.
"You're late," he said, putting his back to Haern and walking over to the stone wall of the castle. After a quick whistle, a rope fell from one of the battlements.
"Had to be more careful than usual," Haern said, grabbing the rope.
"Ain't that the truth," said the soldier.
Haern flew up the rope, easily scaling the castle and climbing onto the stone battlement, which was little more than a balcony overlooking that side, accessible through a single heavy door. Waiting for him, arms crossed and armor polished, was the man responsible for protecting the city of Veldaren: Antonil Copernus.
"You've been gone awhile," Antonil said as Haern pulled the rope back up. "Almost thought your note to meet was a trap or trick."
"By who, the Darkhand?" asked Haern. "He seems more the type to demand a meeting, not request it."
"Given past experience, it's more that if Muzien wished a meeting, he'd break into my bedroom to have it." Antonil shook his head. "Gods damn it, where have you been? The city's gone to shit in your absence, in ways we never could have anticipated."
Haern thought of his trek to the Stronghold with Delysia and his father, of how fruitless it had turned out to be, and he pulled his hood lower over his face.
"My reasons were my own," Haern said. "And I thought the Sun Guild was crushed when I left. I pray you'll forgive me the error, so long as I make it right."
Antonil rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. The man looked exhausted, and though they met just before midnight, Haern knew the late hour had little to do with it. The responsibilities of his station, coupled with his inability to fulfill them due to the terror Muzien inspired in the king, was clearly wearing on him.
"If you want to make it right, bring me Muzien's head so I can hang it by the ears over the city gate," Antonil said. "Hopefully that's the reason you've requested our little clandestine meeting, to let me know of the bastard's impending fate."
"I wish," he said. "No, I have something far worse to share, Antonil, something I need you to swear to secrecy until we have a way to deal with it."
The man frowned, the dark circles beneath his eyes making him look more dead than alive.
"You have my word," he said. "Now what is it that could possibly be worse than an insane elf who's declared himself unofficially king?"
Haern almost didn't tell him. There wasn't much the man could do beyond spreading panic if he refused to keep his mouth shut, but Antonil was a loyal ally, and had proven his trustworthiness a dozen times before. Given the dire situation the city was in, he needed all the help he could get.
"Have you seen the tiles bearing the mark of the Sun that Muzien's placed all throughout the city?" he asked.
Antonil looked surprised at the question.
"I have," he said, brow furrowing. "What of them?"
"They've been magically enchanted with a spell, a very powerful and dangerous one. Last night Tarlak discovered just how powerful."
Antonil suddenly straightened his spine, his arms falling to his sides. When he spoke, it was as if his jaw didn't want to move.
"The explosion in the western district," he said. "I just thought it another mess caused by you or the Ash Guild. It was one of the tiles, wasn't it?"
Haern let out a sigh.
"It was," he said.
"That explosion leveled two homes and blasted a fair chunk out of the wall surrounding the city. A wall that has stood for years, a wall more than ten feet thick built with ancient stone."
Antonil turned away, ran his hands through his hair, and then suddenly spun about, striking his fist against the door behind him.
"Do you know how many of those tiles have been buried against the castle's walls?" he asked. "Two dozen at last count, more than enough to level the whole damn thing. We have to get them out, and now."
"You can't," Haern said, and he felt a pang of guilt for his words. It seemed everything he said drained more hope and life from the man. "There's an enchantment upon them, something that messes with their weight and makes them nearly impossible to move by hand. If you do succeed, it will only break the magic and cause the tiles to activate immediately."
The weight of the words seemed to be settling on Antonil, and they were heavy indeed.
"These tiles," he said, "if they're magical, isn't there anything Tarlak can do to disarm them?"
"Perhaps," Haern said, after a moment's hesitation. Tarlak's rambling tirade about the differences between clerical and arcane magic, as well as the careful wardings built into each of the tiles, flashed through his mind. "It's complicated, though, and Tarlak's made little progress. Even trying to analyze one risks setting the spell off, killing anyone nearby. These tiles weren't buried in quiet little corners, I'm sure you've noticed."
"I have," Antonil said. He walked to the edge of the battlement, joining Haern, and put his hands on the short stone wall. Swallowing hard, he overlooked the city, and Haern knew he was remembering all the places he'd seen those tiles on his patrols, every intersection, every home, every shop.
"What does he want?" Antonil asked, his voice now a whisper.
"If you mean Muzien, I'm not sure," Haern said. "It's possible he was used by someone else to smuggle them into the city. So far he's made no threats and given no ultimatums. It may only be a final measure should he fail to retain control of the underworld. Honestly, I don't think we're supposed to know what they do yet. If we act quickly enough, we might be able to salvage the situation into something resembling a happy ending."
Antonil laughed, so tired, so bitter.
"A happy ending," he said. "I don't see that ahead of us."
Haern put a hand on Antonil's shoulder, patting the steel pauldron protecting it.
"Don't lose hope just yet," he said. "I'm here now, remember?"
He grinned, and despite his dour mood, Antonil grinned back.
"I guess there's always the chance you'll pull off another miracle," the guard captain said. "Stay safe, Watcher. Strange as it sounds, these streets are no longer yours."
Haern grabbed the coiled rope at his feet and tossed it over the side.
"They were never mine," he said. "But until I die, they will always be under my care."
Over the stone he went, using his cloak to protect his hands as he slid down, the rope curled once around his arm. The moment his feet touched ground, the rope ascended.
"I pray matters went well," said the lone soldier.
"Best as I could hope," Haern said as he returned to the dark streets.
It took less than thirty seconds to spot a man following him from the corner of his eye. Picking up his pace, Haern traveled the main road running south from the castle to the heart of the city. The tail, a younger man lurking on the rooftops, had to abandon stealth to maintain the chase, making it easy for Haern to get a look at the man's chest, and the four-pointed star sewn across it.
Will Muzien make his move against me already? Haern wondered, suddenly cutting right, his first deviation in several minutes. So far he'd had no interaction with the mysterious elf since returning from his trek west to infiltrate the Stronghold. A quick glance behind showed the tail grabbing the side of a rooftop and using it to swing down to the ground. Vanishing into an alley out of the man's sight, Haern turned, drew his swords, and began counting. At four he rushed forward, perfectly timing the man's arrival into the alley. Before he could even ready a dagger, Haern's sabers were at his throat.
"I pray you were hoping to talk," Haern said as the young man's eyes widened. "Because anything else is suicide."
"No, not, no…" the man said, and he looked ready to piss his pants. "Tracking your movements, that's all, I swear."
"That's right," said a voice behind Haern. "I'm the one actually looking for a fight."
Haern kneed the first man in the stomach, then kicked him to the ground before spinning to face his boastful challenger. Approaching from the other end of the alley, two long dirks drawn and twirling in hand, was a dark-skinned man with the Sun Guild's emblem sewn onto his shirt. The man's hair was long, and braided in a fashion Haern recognized as more common to the distant land of Ker.
"You should have used what little surprise you had," Haern said, settling into a stance, gaze flicking to the rooftops in case there were more ambushers. So far he saw none, but when it came to the Sun Guild, Haern had learned to expect the worst possible scenario.
"I don't want anyone claiming I was lucky instead of skilled," said the challenger. "You're a fool and a fake, Watcher. Whatever reputation you had, it's about to be mine."
With a sudden cry the man charged, dirks pulled back for a thrust. Haern dashed to meet him, easily recognizing an overinflated ego when he saw it. He'd grown up in Thren Felhorn's shadow, after all. Such an attitude meant overzealous aggression, and the easiest path to victory was to crush it immediately. The man thrust his dirks with admirable speed, but the placement was exactly where Haern had expected. Parrying both with a swipe of his left hand, Haern continued forward, lashing out with his right hand while twirling to deftly avoid the man's desperate charge. His saber found flesh, the man let out a gargle, and then he collapsed, a tangle of limbs and leaking blood.
Haern shook the blood off his saber and looked back to the man who'd first been tailing him. Instead of running, he stood in the alleyway, arms crossed.
"Shouldn't you have fled?" Haern asked.
The confidence with which he spoke alerted all of Haern's senses. Glancing back to the rooftops, he saw that this time he was not alone. Four men lurked at the edges, crossbows in hand. He spun to find four more emerge at the other end of the alley, blocking it off. Joining the first man were three more members of the Sun Guild, and they too held either daggers or small crossbows. The ambushers said nothing, and other than sealing the exits, they remained still, crossbows pointed but not fired, swords drawn but held low. There was something eerie about how silent they remained, these ghostly specters. Had Muzien ordered them to remain quiet? Haern had a feeling that was the case.
And then the wall of men parted before him, and in stepped Muzien the Darkhand. He was taller than Haern had expected, his thin body draped with a black coat. The front of his dark-umber hair was carefully braided and then tied behind his head, so not a strand dared interfere with his vision. His long ears ended at abrupt scars instead of upturned points, and true to his name, his left hand was blackened as if by fire. The elf smiled, and while Haern had expected him to be smug, instead he looked intrigued.
"The Watcher of Veldaren," Muzien said, and he extended his darkened hand in greeting. "I have longed to meet you, and witness your prowess with my own eyes." He glanced to the dead body at his feet. "The fool was a foreigner who insisted his skills were equal to yours. I hope you do not mind me letting him pay for his boast."
The elf was trying to be friendly, but his causal dismissal of a former guildmember's life, and the way he made everything seem like a harmless game, made Haern's throat tighten.
"I take no joy in killing," Haern said. "Nor do I appreciate being used for your amusement."
Muzien's smile grew, and this time Haern saw the smug satisfaction he'd expected.
"What makes you think you have a choice in the matter?" he asked, then continued without waiting for an answer. "This city, no, this world, is for our amusement, Watcher. We're here as playthings for gods, faulty toys that break at the slightest angry touch. You ended the life of an idiot and a braggart. You know nothing of him, of his family, could not even give me his name if I offered you ten tries. To you he was an opponent to be killed. To me he was a chance to behold your legendary skills. Now he is dead, and unworthy of remembrance."
Haern knew arguing was pointless, and he kept his hood low and his legs crouched. With so many watching, reaching Muzien would be difficult… but not impossible. Swords clenched tightly in his hands, he kept his instincts on edge, kept his eyes open for a possible opening for attack.
"No words?" asked the elf. "Fair enough. I only need an answer from you, so remain silent until then. Keep your hood low, your jaw locked in a frown. You've crafted an interesting persona, Watcher, and for years it has suited you well. But I hold no fear of a man whose face I cannot see. I do not dread finding your cloaks in my shadows. When you were but a thought in your father's mind, I was conquering the streets of Mordeina. Bards have sung of my Red Wine since you were a babe suckling at your mother's breast. Whatever pride you have, whatever reputation you think you've built, know it means nothing to me. Do that, and perhaps you and I may come to an understanding."
"And what might that be?" Haern asked.
A bit of hope sparkled in Muzien's eye.
"That you belong as my champion, and as a potential heir to the Sun."
Haern wasn't the only one surprised. He sensed the shock and intrigue sweeping through the men surrounding him. No doubt many had once belonged to the various thief guilds native to Veldaren. They knew what it would mean if the Watcher joined the Sun Guild.
"You're insane," Haern said.
"Far from it." The elf drew a sword from his hip, and Haern braced for an attack that never came. "You were once this city's underworld king," Muzien said, pointing the blade at him. "Every faction, from the guilds to the Trifect, feared your wrath. Alone you conquered Veldaren, but you are not alone anymore, and you face an enemy you will never conquer. In a way you were my predecessor, but while you were willing to let others pretend to retain their power, I have neither the patience nor the goodwill to do so."
"I never sought to rule," Haern said.
"Then unlike you, I am also unwilling to lie to myself. You ruled, Watcher, with a fist made of shadow instead of iron. I would offer you that position again. What we have now, is it not a peace greater than the one you fostered? No guilds are left to prey on one another. The Trifect continues to pay us for protection, and it is without need of the king's involvement or your constant overseeing. What you created was fragile, precarious. I have fostered something greater, something eternal."
At that, Haern slowly stood to his full height, and he held his sabers out to either side.
"Your creation is the same as mine," he said. "Each ends at our deaths. Forgive me if I find amusement in your claim to never tell yourself lies. You're as delusional as the dead man at your feet."
Muzien's amusement quickly vanished. The elf shook his head, and he slowly began to pace before Haern.
"A fate you may soon share if you resist me," Muzien said. "Whatever skills you have, they are not enough. I can train you, mold you into something unbelievable. Should I die, my creation will live on, for it will be in your hands, and then in the hands of whom you yourself choose. The Sun rises, the Sun falls, always and again. I need no truth beyond that."
Haern shifted, using his cloaks to hide the tensing of his legs. The men around him were growing anxious, unprepared for a discussion when they'd anticipated a battle. If he could keep the bantering going, make it seem he could be swayed…
"I'm not sure I share your truth, Muzien," he said. "No matter my actions, the sun will rise tomorrow. Your guild, however, can be broken, your men scattered to the four winds."
The elf's brow furrowed.
"Kneel before me, or die before me," he said. "You have no other fate, Watcher."
Haern's grim smile spread across his face.
"Then prove it."
He lunged, feet kicking up dirt behind him as he flew toward the elf. The gap closed in a heartbeat, and Muzien had time to shout only a single word before lifting his sword in defense.
Two crossbows fired despite the order, both misjudging Haern's speed and punching holes through his trailing cloaks. Twirling his body for added strength, Haern brought his sabers slashing in, hoping to cut across the elf's shoulder and down his chest. Instead of falling back into a defense, Muzien stepped forward, sweeping his sword wide and into the way of Haern's swing. Despite all Haern's strength poured into the attack, the block succeeded with ease, and suddenly the elf was far too close. A slender hand shot out, grabbing him about the neck. Momentum halting with a jarring wrench of his spine, Haern tried to kick the elf in the stomach, but Muzien twisted, simultaneously avoiding the blow while hurling Haern to the ground.
Haern rolled, tucked his feet underneath him, and then exploded out in a double thrust. Muzien's blade looped about, something maddeningly casual about the way he parried the two hits, took a step back, and then smacked aside Haern's follow-up attack. Haern refused to relent, forcing Muzien to keep his sword dancing, batting from side to side against his flurry of blows. Haern's speed, his constant shifting of positions and attempts at disguising angles, never seemed to matter.
Haern hammered at the lone sword, three times in such rapid succession it sounded like a single hit, then used his right hand to attempt pushing the blade aside, his left thrusting toward what he hoped to be Muzien's exposed heart. Muzien's sword dipped beneath the push, swooped about, and then parried the thrust, all with such speed his blade was a blur. Haern tried cutting back in before Muzien could reset his position, but then the elf's leg snapped out, foot connecting with his abdomen. Letting out a cry, Haern fought through the pain to swing sabers lacking the strength they should have. Muzien batted them aside with ease, and too late Haern realized the elf had positioned himself close enough that his leg could loop behind Haern's left ankle. A step, a push, and Haern fell to his back.
Down came Muzien's blade, the tip halting an inch from Haern's exposed neck.
Haern remained perfectly still, knowing any movement could spell the end. Above him hovered Muzien, and staring into his eyes, Haern saw no malice, no anger… just disappointment.
"I've cut only your pride," he said. "Don't make me cut deeper."
To be beaten, and so easily, certainly wounded his pride, but the far more powerful emotion was the fear he felt growing in his stomach, squirrely and unwelcome. The elf held his life in his hands, yet the only thing that mattered to Muzien was how Haern had not lived up to his expectations. This was who now ruled Veldaren? This was whom he needed to defeat? True to his words, Muzien was not afraid of him in the slightest. No, just disappointed.
"Despite everything, you still believed you were better," Muzien said. The tip of the sword lowered, the cold steel gently touching Haern's neck. "Every maneuver, every thrust and parry, carried that arrogance. Deep down, you felt your skill would overwhelm mine. Do you understand your error, Watcher? You will never defeat me. You will never even challenge me. There is so much you can learn at my hands, but only if you submit. Only if you humble yourself to one who is greater. Otherwise…"
The tip drew a single drop of blood.
"Otherwise you will die at these hands, having learned nothing at all."
Muzien withdrew the blade, sheathing it while walking away. He showed no fear at putting his back to Haern.
"Reconsider my offer," the elf said as he dismissed the rest of his guild with a single hand gesture. "Despite this poor performance, I still feel you are the most qualified to inherit my legacy."
"I won't," Haern said as he slowly rose to one knee. Blood trickled down his neck, and he had to grit his teeth against the continued pain where Muzien had kicked him. "I will never swear allegiance to someone like you."
Muzien cast a glance over his shoulder.
"Then get out of my city," he said. "You are unwelcome here."
With that he sprinted down the street, black coat flapping behind him. Haern watched him vanish, and the fear in his gut continued to grow.
My city, Muzien had said. They were familiar words, an oft-made claim in the city of Veldaren. But for the first time, Haern believed them. As he stood and sheathed his sabers, he wondered if there was any real chance for him to challenge such a claim. His father had thought the city his, and in a night of blood and killing, Haern had wrested it away from him. But Muzien was not his father. Muzien was something greater. Something worse.
"My city," Haern whispered, words he himself had once believed. Glancing to his left, his eyes settled upon one of many stone tiles bearing the mark of the Sun Guild, placed just before the entrance to a home. He felt the threat they presented on his shoulders, unshakable, undeniable. The shame of his defeat burned in his heart, and he knew he had to be better. Knew he had to become stronger, fiercer.
Perhaps, he dared consider, to save the city, he needed to believe it his again.
Pulling his hood lower over his face, he ran back to the Eschaton Tower, hoping in vain that come daylight, Tarlak would have a better plan in mind.
With her heart in her throat, Zusa returned home as the sun rose over the city wall. The soldiers at the mansion gate offered her strange looks, but they recognized her and did not dare comment.
"Welcome back," one said, and even that earned him a glare from the guard beside him.
Zusa crossed the yard at a clip, for despite her best attempts, she felt her nerves already fraying. Not since her argument with Alyssa the night before had she come back to the estate, or spoken with her beloved friend. She still wore the ill-fitting clothes stolen from Daverik after his death, and the bloodstains earned her another strange look from the armored man guarding the front door. A man whose tabard, she realized, signified him as loyal to Victor Kane, not Alyssa. Given their future marriage, perhaps that was a pointless distinction to make, but she made it nonetheless.
"Would you mind?" Zusa asked when the man refused to move from the door.
"Lord Victor needs to approve all guests before they enter," the guard said. "Your name, please?"
Zusa swallowed down a rock in her throat, and for a split second she debated cutting the man's throat and entering anyway.
"Zusa," she said instead. "And if you do not move, I will ensure Alyssa banishes you from these grounds forever."
The man grunted.
"No need for that," he said. "I've been warned of you."
Warned? The phrasing insulted her, but she rolled her eyes and did her best to ignore it. The man stepped aside and banged twice on the front door. It opened from within, and Zusa pushed on through into the mansion. Ignoring an offered escort, she hurried down the hall. She felt eyes on her from every soldier, every servant, and she tried telling herself it was just her imagination. It was her lack of wrappings. She felt strangely naked without them, even though she'd dressed in regular clothing during her time in Angelport with Haern. As ridiculous as it might sound, she felt as if everyone who looked upon her knew of her vow to never wear the wrappings again.
Turning a corner, she had to stop herself from running into a very tired, very pale boy.
"Nathaniel?" Zusa asked, kneeling before him and running a hand across his face. The boy blushed and turned away at her touch. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he said, his words a mumble. "Not sleeping well is all. Bad dreams."
"I've not slept well, either," she said, forcing a smile. "Perhaps it is something in the air?"
That something was Victor, of course, and they both knew it. Nathaniel smiled at her, offering a glimpse of the carefree boy he used to be. When she stood, he suddenly lurched forward, wrapping his arm around her leg in a hug.
"You're not leaving us, are you?" he asked.
- "Fast, furious, and fabulous."—Michael J. Sullivan, author of Theft of Swords on A Dance of Cloaks
- "[A] winning combination of A Game of Thrones, sword-and-sorcery RPGs, and vivid description...Dalglish puts familiar pieces together with a freshness and pleasure that are contagious."—Publishers Weekly on A Dance of Cloaks
- "Strong characterization as well as detailed action...a believable tale of a young man's coming-of-age and the difficult decisions he must make. His saga should appeal to fans of R.A. Salvatore and Richard Lee Byers."—Library Journal on A Dance of Cloaks
- On Sale
- May 12, 2015
- Page Count
- 480 pages