Morgan Rice is the #1 bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of the epic fantasy series THE SORCERER’S RING, comprising seventeen books; of the #1 bestselling series THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS, comprising twelve books; of the #1 bestselling series THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY, a post-apocalyptic thriller comprising two books (and counting); of the epic fantasy series KINGS AND SORCERERS, comprising six books; and of the new epic fantasy series OF CROWNS AND GLORY. Morgan’s books are available in audio and print editions, and translations are available in over 25 languages.
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“If you thought that there was no reason left for living after the end of THE SORCERER’S RING series, you were wrong. In RISE OF THE DRAGONS Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of trolls and dragons, of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page…Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”– Books and Movie ReviewsRoberto Mattos
“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as THE INHERITANCE CYCLE by Christopher Paolini… Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.”– The Wanderer, A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons)
“A spirited fantasy that weaves elements of mystery and intrigue into its story line. A Quest of Heroes is all about the making of courage and about realizing a life purpose that leads to growth, maturity, and excellence…For those seeking meaty fantasy adventures, the protagonists, devices, and action provide a vigorous set of encounters that focus well on Thor's evolution from a dreamy child to a young adult facing impossible odds for survival…Only the beginning of what promises to be an epic young adult series.”– Midwest Book Review (D. Donovan, eBook Reviewer)
“THE SORCERER’S RING has all the ingredients for an instant success: plots, counterplots, mystery, valiant knights, and blossoming relationships replete with broken hearts, deception and betrayal. It will keep you entertained for hours, and will satisfy all ages. Recommended for the permanent library of all fantasy readers.”– Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos
“In this action-packed first book in the epic fantasy Sorcerer's Ring series (which is currently 14 books strong), Rice introduces readers to 14-year-old Thorgrin "Thor" McLeod, whose dream is to join the Silver Legion, the elite knights who serve the king… Rice's writing is solid and the premise intriguing.”– Publishers Weekly
Copyright © 2016 by Morgan Rice. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Jacket image Copyright Nejron Photo, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
Ceres ran through the back alleys of Delos, excitement coursing through her veins, knowing she could not be late. The sun was barely rising, and yet the muggy, dust-filled air was already suffocating in the ancient stone city. Legs burning, lungs aching, she nonetheless pushed herself to run faster, and faster still, hopping over one of the countless rats that crept out of the gutters and refuse in the streets. She could already hear the distant rumble, and her heart pounded with anticipation. Somewhere ahead, she knew, the Festival of the Killings was about to begin.
Letting her hands drag along the stone walls as she twisted and turned down a narrow alley, Ceres glanced back to make certain her brothers were keeping up. There, she was relieved to see, were Nesos, at her heels, and Sartes, only a few feet behind. At nineteen, Nesos was just two sun cycles older than she, while Sartes, her baby brother, four sun cycles younger, was on the verge of manhood. The two of them, with their longish sandy hair and brown eyes, looked exactly like each other – and their parents – and yet nothing like her. Still, though Ceres might be a girl, they had never been able to keep pace with her.
“Hurry!” Ceres yelled over her shoulder.
Another rumble came, and although she had never been to the festival, she imagined it in vivid detail: the entire city, all three million citizens of Delos, crowding into the Stade on this summer solstice holiday. It would be unlike anything she had seen before, and if her brothers and she didn’t hurry, not a single seat would remain.
Picking up speed, Ceres wiped a drop of sweat off her brow and smeared it onto her frayed, ivory tunic, a hand-me-down from her mother. She had never been given new clothes. According to her mother, who doted on her brothers but seemed to reserve a special hatred and envy for her, she didn’t deserve it.
“Wait!” Sartes yelled, an edge of irritation in his cracking voice.
“Shall I carry you, then?” she yelled back.
She knew that he hated it when she teased him, yet her snide remark would motivate him to keep up. Ceres didn’t mind his tagging along; she thought it was endearing how he, at thirteen, would do anything to be considered their peer. And even though she would never admit it openly, a huge part of her needed him to need her.
Sartes gave a loud grunt.
“Mother will kill you when she finds out you disobeyed her again!” he yelled back.
He was right. Indeed, she would – or give her a good flogging, at least.
The first time her mother had beaten her, at the age of five, it was the very moment Ceres lost her innocence. Before then, the world had been fun, kind, and good. After that, nothing had ever been safe again, and all that she had to hold onto was her hope of a future where she could get away from her. She was older now, close, and yet even that dream was slowly eroding in her heart.
Fortunately, Ceres knew her brothers would never tell on her. They were as loyal to her as she was to them.
“Then it’s a good thing Mother will never know!” she cried back.
“Father will find out, though!” Sartes snapped.
She chuckled. Father already knew. They had made a deal: if she stayed up late to finish sharpening the swords due for delivery at the palace, she could go see the Killings. And so she did.
Ceres reached the wall at the end of the lane and, without pausing, wedged her fingers in two cracks and began to climb. Her hands and feet moved swiftly, and up she went, a good twenty feet, until she scrambled to the top.
She stood, breathing hard, and the sun greeted her with its bright rays. She shaded her eyes with a hand.
She gasped. Normally, the Old City was dotted with a few citizens, a stray cat or dog here and there – yet today it was positively alive. It swarmed with people. Ceres could not even see the cobblestones beneath the sea of people pressing into Fountain Square.
In the distance the ocean shimmered a vivid blue, while the towering white Stade stood as a mountain amongst twisting roads and sardine-packed two- and three-story houses. Around the outer edge of the plaza merchants had lined up booths, each eager to sell food, jewelry, or clothes.
A gust of wind brushed against her face, and the smell of freshly baked goods seeped into her nostrils. What she wouldn’t give for food that would satisfy that gnawing sensation. She wrapped her arms around her belly as she felt a hunger pang. Breakfast this morning had been a few spoonfuls of soggy porridge, which had somehow managed to leave her stomach feeling hungrier than before she ate it. Given that today was her eighteenth birthday, she had hoped for at least a little extra food in her bowl – or a hug or something.
But no one had mentioned a word. She doubted they even remembered.
Light caught her eyes, and Ceres looked down to spot a golden carriage weaving through the crowd like a bubble through honey, slow and shiny. She frowned. In her excitement, she had failed to consider that the royalty would be at the event, too. She despised them, their haughtiness, that their animals were better fed than most of the people of Delos. Her brothers were hopeful that one day, they would triumph over the class system. But Ceres did not share their optimism: if there were to be any sort of equality in the Empire, it would have to come by way of revolution.
“Do you see him?” Nesos panted as he climbed up beside her.
Ceres’s heart quickened as she thought of him. Rexus. She, too, had been wondering if he was here yet, and had been scanning the crowds to no avail.
She shook her head.
“There.” Nesos pointed.
She followed his finger toward the fountain, squinting.
Suddenly she saw him, and could not suppress her burst of excitement. It was the same way she always felt when she saw him. There he was, sitting on the edge of the fountain, tightening his bow. Even from this distance, she could see his shoulder and chest muscles move beneath his tunic. Hardly a few years older than she, he had blond hair that stood out amongst heads of black and brown, and his tan skin glistened in the sun.
“Wait!” cried a voice.
Ceres glanced back down the wall to see Sartes, struggling with the climb.
“Hurry up or we’ll leave you behind!” Nesos goaded.
Of course, they wouldn’t dream of leaving their younger brother, although he did need to learn to keep up. In Delos, a moment of weakness could mean death.
Nesos ran a hand through his hair, catching his breath, too, as he surveyed the crowd.
“So who is your money on to win?” he asked.
Ceres turned to him and laughed.
“What money?” she asked.
“If you had any,” he answered.
“Brennius,” she replied without pausing.
His brow lifted in surprise.
“Really?” he asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Just a hunch.”
But she did know. She knew very well, better than her brothers, better than all the boys of her city. Ceres had a secret: she hadn’t told anyone she had, on occasion, dressed as a boy and trained at the palace. It was forbidden by royal decree for girls – punishable by death – to learn the ways of the combatlords, yet male commoners were welcome to learn in exchange for equal amounts of work in the palace’s stables, work which she did happily.
She’d watched Brennius and had been impressed by the way he fought. He wasn’t the largest of the combatlords, yet his moves were calculated with precision.
“No chance,” Nesos replied. “It’ll be Stefanus.”
She shook her head.
“Stefanus will be dead within the first ten minutes,” she said flatly.
Stefanus was the obvious choice, the largest of the combatlords, and probably the strongest; yet he wasn’t as calculating as Brennius or some of the other warriors she had watched.
Nesos barked a laugh.
“I’ll give you my good sword if that’s the case.”
She glanced at the sword attached to his waist. He had no idea how jealous she had been when he received that masterpiece of a weapon as a birthday gift from Mother three years ago. Her sword was an old leftover one her father had tossed into the recycling pile. Oh, the things she’d be able to do if she had a weapon like Nesos’s.
“I’m going to hold you to it, you know,” Ceres said, smiling – although in reality, she would never take his sword from him.
“I’d expect nothing less,” he smirked.
She crossed her arms in front of her chest as a dark thought crossed her mind.
“Mother wouldn’t allow it,” she said.
“But Father would,” he said. “He’s very proud of you, you know.”
Nesos’s kind comment took her off guard, and not knowing exactly how to accept it, she lowered her eyes. She loved her father dearly, and he loved her, she knew. Yet for some reason, her mother’s face appeared before her. All she ever wanted was for her mother to accept her and love her as much as her brothers. But as hard as she tried, Ceres felt she could never be enough in her eyes.
Sartes grunted as he climbed the last step behind them. He was still about a head shorter than Ceres and as scrawny as a cricket, but she was convinced he’d sprout like a bamboo shoot any day now. That’s what had happened to Nesos. Now he was a muscle-bound hunk, hovering at six foot three.
“And you?” Ceres turned to Sartes. “Who do you think will win?”
“I’m with you. Brennius.”
She smiled and ruffled his hair. He always said whatever she said.
Another rumble came, the crowd thickened, and she felt the urgency.
“Let’s go,” she said, “no time to waste.”
Without waiting, Ceres climbed down the wall and hit the ground running. Keeping the fountain in sight, she made her way across the plaza, eager to reach Rexus.
He turned and his eyes widened in delight as she neared. She rushed into him and felt his arms wrap around her waist, as he pressed a scruffy cheek against hers.
“Ciri,” he said in his low, raspy voice.
A shiver ran through her spine as she spun around to meet Rexus’s cobalt blue eyes. At six foot one, he was nearly a head taller than her, and blond, coarse hair framed his heart-shaped face. He smelled like soap and the outdoors. Heavens, it was good to see him again. Even though she could fend for herself in nearly any situation, his presence brought her a sense of calm.
Ceres raised herself up onto the balls of her feet and curled willing arms around his thick neck. She had never seen him as more than a friend until she heard him speak of the revolution, and of the underground army he was a member of. “We will fight to free ourselves from the yoke of oppression,” he had said to her years ago. He had spoken with such passion about the rebellion that for a moment, she had really believed overthrowing the royals was possible.
“How was the hunt?” she asked with a smile, knowing he had been gone for days.
“I missed your smile.” He stroked her long, rose-gold hair back. “And your emerald eyes.”
Ceres had missed him, too, but she didn’t dare say. She was too afraid to lose the friendship they had if anything were to happen between them.
“Rexus,” Nesos said, catching up, Sartes at his heels, and clasping his arm.
“Nesos,” he said, in his deep, authoritative voice. “We have little time if we are to get in,” he added, nodding to the others.
They all hurried off, merging with the throng heading toward the Stade. Empire soldiers were everywhere, urging the crowds forward, sometimes with clubs and whips. The closer they came to the road that led to the Stade, the more the crowd thickened.
All of a sudden, Ceres heard a clamor by one of the booths and she instinctively turned toward the sound. She saw that a generous space had opened up around a small boy, flanked by two Empire soldiers and a merchant. A few onlookers fled, while others gawked in a circle.
Ceres rushed forward to see one of the soldiers slap an apple out of the boy’s hand as he grabbed the little one’s arm, shaking him violently.
“Thief!” the soldier growled.
“Mercy, please!” the boy screamed, tears streaming down his dirty, hollow cheeks. “I was…so hungry!”
Ceres felt her heart burst from compassion, as she had felt the same hunger – and she knew the soldiers would be nothing short of cruel.
“Let the boy go,” the heavyset merchant said calmly with the gesture of a hand, his gold ring catching the sunlight. “I can afford to give him an apple. I have hundreds of apples.” He chuckled a little, as if to make light of the situation.
But the crowd gathered around and quieted as the soldiers turned to confront the merchant, their shiny armor rattling. Ceres’s heart dropped for the merchant – she knew that one never risked confronting the Empire.
The soldier stepped forward menacingly toward the merchant.
“You defend a criminal?”
The merchant looked back and forth between the two of them, now seeming unsure. The soldier then turned and hit the boy across the face with a sickening crack that made Ceres shiver.
The boy fell to the ground with a thump as the crowd gasped.
Pointing at the merchant, the soldier said, “To prove your loyalty to the Empire, you will hold the boy while we flog him.”
The merchant’s eyes turned hard, his brow sweaty. To Ceres’s surprise, he held his ground.
“No,” he replied.
The second soldier took two threatening steps toward the merchant and his hand moved to the hilt of his sword.
“Do it, or you lose your head and we burn your shop down,” the soldier said.
The merchant’s round face went limp, and Ceres could tell he was defeated.
He slowly walked over to the boy and grabbed the boy’s arms, kneeling in front of him.
“Please forgive me,” he said, tears brimming in his eyes.
The boy whimpered and then started to scream as he tried to wring himself free from his grip.
Ceres could see the child was shaking. She wanted to keep moving toward the Stade, to avoid witnessing this, but instead, her feet stood frozen in the middle of the square, eyes glued to the brutality.
The first soldier tore the boy’s tunic open while the second soldier whirled a flogger above his head. Most onlookers cheered the soldiers on, although a few murmured and walked away with heads hung low.
None defended the thief.
With a greedy, almost maddening expression, the soldier thrashed the whip against the boy’s back, causing him to shriek in pain as they flogged him. Blood oozed out of the fresh lacerations. Again and again, the soldier flogged until the boy’s head was sagging backward and he no longer screamed.
Ceres felt the strong urge to rush forward and save the boy. Yet to do so, she knew, would mean her death, and the death of all those she loved. She slumped her shoulders, feeling hopeless and defeated. Inwardly, she resolved to take revenge one day.
She yanked Sartes toward her and covered his eyes, desperately wanting to protect him, to give him a few more years of innocence, even though there was no innocence to be had in this land. She forced herself not to act on her impulse. As a man, he needed to see these instances of cruelty, not only to adapt, but also to one day be a strong contender in the rebellion.
The soldiers grabbed the boy out of the merchant’s hands and then tossed his lifeless body into the back of a wooden cart. The merchant pressed his hands to his face and sobbed.
Within seconds, the cart was on its way, and the previously open space was again filled with people meandering about the square as if nothing had happened.
Ceres felt an overwhelming sense of nausea well up inside. It was unjust. In this moment, she could pick out a half a dozen pickpockets – men and women who had perfected their art so well that not even the Empire soldiers could catch them. This poor boy’s life was now ruined because of his lack of skill. If caught, thieves, young or old, would lose their limbs or more, depending on how the judges felt that day. If he were lucky, his life would be spared and he would be sentenced to work in the gold mines for life. Ceres would rather die than have to endure being imprisoned like that.
They continued along the street, their mood ruined, shoulder to shoulder with the others as the heat grew almost unbearable.
A golden carriage pulled up next to them, forcing everyone out of the way, shoving people up to the houses on the sides. Jostled roughly, Ceres looked up to see three teenage girls in colorful silk dresses, pins of gold and precious jewels adorning their intricate up-dos. One of the teenagers, laughing, tossed a coin out onto the street, and a handful of commoners stooped onto hands and knees, scrambling for a piece of metal that would feed a family for an entire month.
Ceres never stooped to pick up any handouts. She’d rather starve than take donations from the likes of those.
She watched a young man get hold of the coin and an older man drive him to the ground and clamp a stiff hand around his neck. With the other hand, the older man forced the coin out of the young man’s hand.
The teenage girls laughed and pointed fingers before their carriage continued to weave through the masses.
Ceres’s insides clenched with disgust.
“In the near future, inequality will vanish forever,” Rexus said. “I will see to it.”
Listening to him speak, Ceres’s chest swelled. One day she would fight side by side with him and her brothers in the rebellion.
As they neared the Stade the streets widened, and Ceres felt like she could take a breath. The air buzzed. She felt she would rupture from excitement.
She walked through one of the dozens of arched entrances and looked up.
Thousands upon thousands of commoners teemed inside the magnificent Stade. The oval structure had collapsed on the top northern side, and the majority of the red awnings were torn and provided little protection from the sweltering sun. Wild beasts growled from behind iron gates and trap doors, and she could see the combatlords standing ready behind the gates.
Ceres gaped, taking it all in in wonder.
Before she knew it, Ceres looked up and realized she had fallen behind Rexus and her brothers. She rushed forward to catch up, yet as soon as she did, four burly men had surrounded her. She smelled alcohol, rotting fish, and body odor as they pressed in too close, turning and gaping at her with rotted teeth and ugly smiles.
“You’re coming with us, pretty girl,” one of them said as they all strategically moved in on her.
Ceres heart raced. She looked ahead for the others, but they were already lost in the thickening crowd.
She confronted the men, trying to put on her bravest face.
“Leave me be or I will…”
They burst into laughter.
“What?” one mocked. “A wee girl like you take us four?”
“We could carry you out of here kickin’ and screamin’ and not a soul would say nuttin’,” another added.
And it was true. From the corner of her eye, Ceres watched people rush by, pretending not to notice how these men were threatening her.
Suddenly, the leader’s face turned serious, and with one swift move, he grabbed her arms and pulled her close. She knew they could haul her away, never to be seen again, and that thought terrified her more than anything.
Trying to ignore her pounding heart, Ceres spun around, snatching her arm out of his stronghold. The other men hooted in amusement, but when she thrust the base of her palm into the leader’s nose, snapping his head back, they went silent.
The leader placed filthy hands over his nose and grunted.
She didn’t relent. Knowing she had one chance, she kicked him once in the stomach, remembering her days of sparring, and he keeled over as she connected.
Immediately, though, the other three were upon her, their strong hands grabbing her, yanking her away.
Suddenly, they relented. Ceres looked over with relief to see Rexus appear and punch one in the face, knocking him out.
Nesos then appeared and grabbed another and kneed him in the stomach before kicking him to the ground, leaving him in the red dirt.
The fourth man charged toward Ceres, but just as he was about to attack, she ducked, spun, and kicked him in the rear so he went flying into a pillar headfirst.
She stood there, breathing hard, taking it all in.
Rexus placed a hand on Ceres’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Ceres’s heart was still running wild, but a feeling of pride slowly replaced her fear. She had done well.
She nodded and Rexus wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they continued on, his full lips gliding into a smile.
“What?” Ceres asked.
“When I saw what was happening, I wanted to run my sword through each and every one of them. But then I saw how you defended yourself.” He shook his head and chuckled. “They didn’t expect that.”
She felt her cheeks flush. She wanted to say she had been fearless, but the truth was, she had not been.
“I was nervous,” she admitted.
“Ciri, nervous? Never.” He kissed Ceres on top of the head, and they continued into the Stade.
They found a few spots left at ground level and they took their seats, Ceres thrilled it was not too late as she put all the events of the day behind her and allowed herself to become caught up in the excitement of the cheering crowd.
“Do you see them?”
Ceres followed Rexus’s finger and looked up to see a dozen or so teenagers sitting in a booth, sipping wine from silver goblets. She had never seen such fine clothing, so much food on one table, so much sparkling jewelry in her entire life. Not one of them had sunken cheeks or concave bellies.
“What are they doing?” she asked when she saw one of them collecting coins into a gold bowl.
“Each owns a combatlord,” Rexus said, “and they place bets on who will win.”
Ceres scoffed. This was just a game for them, she realized. Obviously, the spoiled teenagers didn’t care about the warriors or about the art of combat. They just wanted to see if their combatlord would win. To Ceres, though, this event was about honor and courage and skill.
The royal banners were raised, trumpets blared, and as iron gates sprung open, one on each end of the Stade, combatlord after combatlord marched out of the black holes, their leather and iron armor catching the sunlight, emitting sparks of light.
The crowd roared as the brutes marched into the arena, and Ceres rose to her feet with them, applauding. The warriors ended in an outward-facing circle, their axes, swords, spears, shields, tridents, whips, and other weapons held to the sky.
“Hail, King Claudius,” they yelled.
Trumpets blared again, and the golden chariot of King Claudius and Queen Athena whirled onto the arena from one of the entrances. Next, a chariot with Crown Prince Avilius, and Princess Floriana followed, and after them, an entire entourage of chariots carrying royals flooded the arena. Each chariot was towed by two snow white horses adorned with precious jewels and gold.
When Ceres spotted Prince Thanos amongst them, she became appalled at the nineteen-year-old boy’s scowl. From time to time when she delivered swords for her father, she had seen him speak with the combatlords at the palace, and he always carried that sour expression of superiority. His physique lacked nothing when it came to the likes of a warrior – he could almost be mistaken for one – his arms bulging with muscle, his waist tight and muscular, and his legs hard as tree trunks. However, it infuriated her how he appeared to hold no respect or passion for his position.
As the royals paraded up to their places at the podium, trumpets blared again, signaling the Killings were about to begin.
The crowd roared as all but two combatlords vanished back into the iron gates.
Ceres recognized one of them as Stefanus, but she couldn’t make out the other brute wearing nothing but a visored helmet and a loincloth secured by a leather belt. Perhaps he had traveled from afar to contend. His well-oiled skin was the color of fertile soil, and his hair as black as the darkest night. Through the slits in the helmet, Ceres could see the look of resolve in his eyes, and she knew in an instant that Stefanus wouldn’t live to see another hour.
“Don’t worry,” Ceres said, glancing over at Nesos. “I’ll let you keep your sword.”
“He’s not defeated yet,” Nesos replied with a smirk. “Stefanus would not be everyone’s favorite if he weren’t superior.”
When Stefanus lifted his trident and shield, the crowd went silent.
“Stefanus!” one of the wealthy male youths from the booth shouted with a raised clenched fist. “Power and bravery!”
Stefanus nodded toward the youth as the audience roared with approval, and then he came at the foreigner with full force. The foreigner swerved out of the way in a flash, spun around, and slashed at Stefanus with his sword, missing by a mere inch.
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