Patterns in the Dark (Dragon Blood Book 4)

By: Lindsay Buroker

Chapter 1

The two-man flier settled onto a recently harvested taro field, the wheels sinking so deeply into the mud that Tolemek wondered if they would be able to escape later. Granted, the jungle-filled Mavar Island didn’t offer anything as sophisticated as airstrips—or roads—but this seemed a dubious alternative. This thought was reinforced when brown-skinned men in grass skirts ran out of the village bordering the far side of the field. More than one carried a spear.

Tolemek leaned forward to touch the shoulder of Lieutenant Cas “Raptor” Ahn, the pilot and the new love in his life, though there had been precious little time for loving of late. “Should we be readying weapons, or is that the welcoming committee?”

Not surprisingly, Cas’s Mark 500 sniper rifle already rested between her legs. He had gotten used to the idea that she slept with it sometimes; after all, he had been known to sleep with a few vials of incendiary goo under his own pillow, at least in enemy territory.

“The colonel’s dad is supposed to have been here for a couple of months,” Cas said. She looked over at the flier that had touched down ahead and to the right of theirs.

Her commander, Colonel Ridgewalker Zirkander, appeared to be too busy rummaging for something in the cockpit to notice the villagers’ approach. His passenger, the raven-haired sorceress Sardelle Terushan, was paying more attention to their surroundings and had her eyes on the approaching villagers. The young man piloting the third flier, Lieutenant Duck, was watching them, as well, and tapping his fingers on the firing mechanism for the craft’s machine guns.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Tolemek said. “There are plenty of men who’d like to shoot Zirkander. His father may be every bit as loathsome to these people.”

“Loathsome.” Cas snorted.

Zirkander sat up, waving a postcard in the air. “Found it.” When he smiled, the chin strap of his leather cap dangling down to his white scarf and pilot’s jacket, he admittedly didn’t look much like a despicable villain. He was more the dashing sort whom women wanted to bed and whom men wanted to drink with, but Tolemek still had a tendency to find him irritating. Zirkander had been shooting down Cofah dirigibles for longer than Tolemek had been in the Cofah military, and during Tolemek’s years as a pirate, Zirkander had shot down plenty of those airships too.

Sardelle leaned forward, touched Zirkander’s shoulder, and whispered something.

“Ah, yes,” Zirkander said, nodding toward the villagers. No less than a dozen of them were navigating the muddy field, grass skirts flapping about their legs as they ran. They would be close enough to throw those spears soon. “It’s possible this isn’t a sanctioned landing strip.”

“It’s possible they’ve never seen a flier before and think we’re demons, here to pillage their homeland,” Sardelle said.

“Demons? I was hoping for children of the gods.” Zirkander threw a leg over the lip of the cockpit and jumped to the ground, mud spattering in all directions. It hardly mattered; the whole team was grimy after surviving that volcanic eruption on Cofahre. “Watch my back, will you?” he called up to Sardelle, then strode toward the approaching villagers, carrying nothing more than the postcard.

Cas shifted in the cockpit, emitting a grunt of irritation.

“Problem?” Tolemek wondered if he should get out or remain in the flier. His own reputation as the “Deathmaker” was even more loathsome than Zirkander’s, at least among some peoples. But the pirate fleet he had been a part of had never visited this remote island, and he doubted the natives would know of him.

“He usually asks me to watch his back,” Cas grumbled. She rested the barrel of her rifle on the windshield, clearly intending to do so whether Zirkander had asked or not.

“He probably doesn’t want the natives perforated with bullets,” Tolemek said, trying not to let it bother him that Cas felt some possessiveness toward another man. Zirkander had been her commander far longer than Tolemek had been in her life. It was natural that she cared about keeping him alive. This logic only partially reassured him.

“I wouldn’t perforate a random native,” Cas said. “Give him a shave maybe, but not perforate him.”

At Zirkander’s approach, the villagers had slowed down, with three breaking away to go up and talk to him. The others kept their spears to their shoulders, poised to launch. Not all of those wood-and-stone weapons were pointed at Zirkander—Cas and Duck were being targeted, as well. Or maybe it was the fliers in general that had the natives spooked. The Iskandians styled their aircraft after the dragons of old, with bronze hulls, outstretched wings, and propellers at the noses of reptilian snouts painted with flaring nostrils and rows of fangs.

Tolemek was positive Zirkander didn’t know the language, but that didn’t keep him from talking copiously as he gestured to the volcano at the center of the island, the jungle stretching inland, and the sea beyond the fields and the village. He finished with holding the postcard out to the villagers.