A swirl of dust in the hot, still air marked the rider’s progress over the badlands.

The sentries roused at their posts, calling warnings and lifting field glasses, but for some time, the dust was all that could be seen. All it told them was that this was not a large force, nor a covert one; this was at most a few people, riding hard. Riding straight for the one patch of vibrant life to be found for miles around.

Archers and a few wizards came up to the wall, bows strung and staves in hand. The sentries kept eyes on the advancing rider as the mounted figure grew more visible in front of its trailing cloud – just one rider on a lightly-built two-legged plains lizard, the sort often favoured by scouts in these warm climes. The rider was small and light in turn, possibly a woman, though distance and riding leathers made it impossible to be sure.

Certainly, it could be one of their own, but the defenders at the wall kept up their vigilance, even when the rider slowed somewhat to lift up a Concord pennant. Enemies had ridden under that banner before, using the false flag to get near the camp, and such vigilance had prevented horrible harm then; they would not relax it now.

Coming within bowshot, the rider slowed, calling, “Outrider Kerin Sun-chaser, Fifth Light Cavalry of Danet! I bring word from the capital!”

“What word from the east?” called one of the sentries. Greywind, capital of Southmarch, was indeed to the east, but that was not why he asked.

“The sun still rises each morning,” Outrider Sun-chaser shouted back, which was the correct response. Or at least a correct response, the one that meant she was under no immediate threat that she knew of.

The sentry looked over to the nearest of the wizards, who peered intently at the rider, then shrugged and made a sweeping, dismissive gesture; nothing. She saw no magic clinging to the new arrival, such as might represent a hidden danger.

“Enter and be welcome, Outrider,” the sentry called, gesturing at the gate guards. “There’s food for you and for your beast waiting.”

“Something to wash the dust from my throat would be welcome first,” bellowed Sun-chaser in response, shaking the reins and sending her lizard trotting toward the gate as it opened.

Footmen rushed forward, bringing the weary rider a waterskin and taking charge of her beast, leading it to a trough to slake its own thirst. She would not speak of her message, though, saying that it was for one man’s ears first.

That one was Alvar Star-eyed, greatest surviving wizard in the land, one of the camp’s three commanders. The three were in conference when news of the rider’s arrival was brought, but he immediately excused himself to attend to her.

When he returned to the conference, he was bearing a silk-wrapped package a bit larger than a man’s fist.

“Well, wizard?” growled Krandin Silvermane, the Kuri chief’s ears canting forward. “What was important enough to pull you away from planning the next sortie?”

“I’ve been trying to find a particular item,” the man replied. “I only knew of seven in the land, and three were in Greywind when it was taken. I’ve been sending agents after the other four for some months. This is the first one to be successful.”

“You wizards and your secrets.” Despite being every inch human, General Kaela Bear-Sister’s voice came out nearly as much a growl as the leonine Kuri’s. “What have you been keeping out of what were supposed to be joint plans?”

“A long shot that wasn’t worth hanging contingencies on and might still not be anything we can use,” Alvar said. “There was no guarantee we could even get to any of these before the enemy did. In fact, we didn’t – this one was snatched right out from Bannet’s Field in the chaos of the occupation.”

“My sentries would never have let anything powerful enough to make a difference through the wall without alerting me,” snapped Kaela. “How could a little trinket be worth that kind of effort and risk?”

“It is powerful But it’s sealed in such a fashion as to not seem it.” Alvar started turning back the silk, revealing a flash of iridescent stone. “This, my fellows, is what’s known as a dragon’s egg stone.”

“I think I’ve heard of those,” rumbled Krandin. “A rarer treasure than any gem – one of them was the prize of High Chieftain Moonclaw’s collection. But wealth alone wouldn’t help us now.” Without words, his tone and his gaze asked, so how will this?

“It is said that dragons were the ancient enemies of wyverns,” Alvar began, but Kaela cut him off.

“Dragons? We need aid, not fairy stories,” she scoffed. “What good are old legends when there’s a monster on the Queen’s throne?”

“A monster that, not a year ago, everyone knew was ‘just a legend,’” the wizard snapped. “Most legends have a kernel of truth at their core. This we all know: wyverns are real, and one of them has taken over Greywind and much of Eastmarch, and made the Palace its home. I’ve looked into the old legends and lore, and found some more truths among them. Foremost: dragons were just as real.”

“Were real,” Krandin repeated. “How does that help us now?” But his ears were attentive, his eyes focused, his tufted tail twitching with intense interest. He, at least, was open to the thought – perhaps in spite of himself.

“The dragons were long-sighted beings,” Alvar explained. “It’s not known why they left the world, but it is known that they saw it in the future. They crafted these stones as reservoirs of their power. Used in the right place, by the right person, this stone can unleash that power in the present. That will give us the weapon we need to combat the beast in the Palace.”

“Presumably you know who – and where – those are?” prompted the chieftain.

“Where, yes.” Alvar sighed, laying the smooth, egg-shaped stone on the table, gleaming a thousand colours on its bed of white silk. “It won’t be easy. There are five such places that I’ve uncovered mention of, but all are now behind enemy lines. The most accessible is in the canyons around Arolstead.”

Both the others nodded glumly, Krandin’s mane bristling. Arolstead had been much on their minds of late; it was only two weeks past that the settlement had been taken from the Concord of Four Winds. “And the who?”

“I don’t have a name – yet,” the wizard confessed. “You see, the one to use the Stone must not have any power of their own that might interfere with it. Someone with any magical ability at all – even so much as could light a candle – would disrupt the delicate process, and be torn apart by the power – wasting it. We need someone without even a scrap of magic – someone who could never possibly learn even the simplest cantrip. Maybe one person in hundreds is born thus – we might not even have one in the camp.”

“Certainly none of my people,” Krandin sighed. “Never in all my years have I even heard of a Kuri who needed flint and tinder to light his Ancestors’ Pyre. Now that you mention it, such small magics are deeply woven into our lives.”

“I… haven’t heard of such a one,” admitted Kaela. “But I tend to hear of those who have conspicuously much magic, not little. I will go along with your plan, wizard, and ask my lieutenants to scour their ranks. But you will need to tell us everything. What will this power do?”

“You know now all that I know for certain, save for the very specific details of locations, and I will copy out my notes on those for you as soon as we adjourn here,” Alvar promised. “Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything specific about the nature of the dragons’ power that I’m willing to put my name to. Unconfirmed legends are just as useless to us as you’ve rightly stated. What I know is that the power is vast, likely to turn whoever awakens it into an instant champion for our side. Should you uncover several candidates, choose one who would fit that role best of them, for we will only have one chance with this stone. And they will be especially mighty against the fell beast that has its coils around the throne.”

“If this champion can get to the ‘right place’ to use it,” rumbled Krandin. “We don’t have the means right now to retake Arolstead. But we may be able to infiltrate it. By your leave, I will confer with my seconds, and find people well-suited to such an operation.”

“As will I,” agreed the wizard. “But I suggest you stay light on the details, for now. Until such time as we have a proper candidate, I would hesitate to give them what might be false hope.”

“And even then, there’s so much we don’t know.” Kaela nodded sharply. “I will consider my people with an eye to such a mission as well. Once I have a list of candidates, if one of them is the magic-blind sort we need, we can compare lists and put a team together.”

“I will start drafting messages in case we need to seek aid from elsewhere on that matter.” Alvar wrapped up the stone once again, tucking it into a pouch at his belt. “Good fortune to you both, especially to you, Kaela. If we are able to make this happen, we might finally start reversing our fortunes in this damnable conflict.”

“For that chance, I will forgive many secrets,” said the General, and the Chieftain inclined his head in mute agreement.

The three parted, each to meet their subordinates and plan. The Concord of Four Winds had a goal – something a little more immediate and achievable than “win the war.” It was time to make it happen.