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Don Bassinghtwaite

The Binding Stone

The Age of Dragons was a time of wonders. This was the age of the Three Dragons, the first and greatest of all dragonkind-Siberys, Eberron, and Khyber. In those most ancient of days, Siberys and Khyber fought one another. The powers wielded by these progenitor wyrms brought the world to ruin. Great Siberys, wounded and torn, became the Great Ring that surrounds the world. Khyber, the great Dragon Below, was sealed within the world. Eberron took his place between the rivals, healing the desolated world by becoming one with it.

But there are those whose thirst for power leads them to seek the power of the Dragon Below. Time and again they have risen to corrupt the world, and time and again heroes have risen to oppose them…

PROLOGUE

Screams, thin and high, shivered the night air.

In the camp that spread out at the foot of the ancestor mound, men, women, and even the smallest children of the clan touched their fingers to lips and forehead in a sign of obedience and respect to the great powers that dwelled beneath them-then went back to whatever they had been doing. Stitching clothes from leather or rough cloth taken in raids from neighboring tribes. Pounding pale yellow flour from the pith of dark gold reeds. Sitting by fires, telling stories beneath the light of Eberron's moons and the glowing streak of the Ring of Siberys. In the case of the children, sleeping in knotted piles with brothers and sisters and cousins and such dogs as were allowed into the clan's shelters.

In the case of Ner, leader of the Bonetree hunters, running a whetstone up and down the length of his sword until the metal sang. The ancient blade was the best weapon among the clan. When Ner paused and looked up as the screams continued, Ashi glanced away before he could see the envy in her eyes. 'Che Harana shialo betgri jun,' she said. The Revered was praying late tonight.

'An shial todo'o mogri bet kei an tohushenr andgri'imo,' added Breff. He lounged on the far side of the fire, a bowl of beer in one hand. His other was held gingerly against his body. The fresh black of a new tattoo stroked his forearm.

Ashi smiled and the thin bone hoops that pierced either side of her lower lips pressed against her teeth. The Revered had prayed late every night since he returned from his most recent trip downstream. The three outclanners he had brought back with him must have been tougher than they looked. 'Eches duskavs eva an toklavito itri taos pareis kto ans kritaos!'

'Eches toch krii ches duskavsit ahines,' Ner said. His face was turned toward the dark silhouette that the mound made against the winking lights of the sky. Ashi realized that he looked worried. The thin screams ended abruptly. She set her own bowl down and twisted around to follow Ner's gaze.

She was just in time to see strange white flames flare in the mound's mouth. 'Rond betch!' she choked.

Her cry brought Breff upright, his beer slopping across his chest as he whirled around to stare as well. Across the camp, dozens more voices were raised in wonder and fear.

A long fluting call came drifting down from the mound. Instinct closed every mouth so that the hunters could hear the signal-even though this call was one that every member of the clan knew by heart.

Help! Danger!

Ashi recognized the warble in the call. 'Eche Gig!' she said. The hunter had been standing honor watch outside the mound.

Ner was already on his feet, his sword sheathed so that his hands were free to cup his mouth and let loose a call of his own. All hunters respond! As the Bonetree warriors snatched up weapons and tumbled out of shelters in a flurry of reaction, Ner snapped around. 'Ashi! Breff! At sutis!' he called, leaping away from the fire and racing for the mound.

Ashi grabbed her sword-a crude weapon stolen from orcs-and ran after him. The pale beads woven into her thick hair made a clashing rhythm as she stretched her legs. At her side, Breff matched her stride for stride. Downstream from the mound, the ground turned wet and mucky until it was overwhelmed by the water and became marsh. Bonetree territory was much drier, the footing solid.

Long strides on solid ground ate distance quickly. The hunters reached the mouth of the mound in only moments, but in those moments, Ashi saw flames flare again, this time even brighter, and a hot wind blew against her. By the light of the flame, she could see three figures at the mound's mouth.

Two were Bonetree hunters. Gig, who had given the call, writhed on the ground, his skin burned bright red. Pai, the hunter who had stood honor watch with him, was stretched out, charred black and motionless.

The third figure stood in the very mouth of the mound. White flames seemed to shimmer and cling to it. Ashi put up her hand to shade her eyes. Against the glare of the flame, she could see almost nothing of the figure. It was light and lithe, she could tell that much.

As more hunters swept up to the mound, though, and before Ashi could see any more, the figure crossed its arms over its chest. For a moment, the shimmering flames seemed shot with pale colors. Then the air around the figure seemed to collapse and fold before springing back again.

The figure was gone. The white fire guttered and died. Ashi blinked, trying to clear the glare of it from her eyes. The air was still heavy with heat and the smell of burned flesh. What had just happened? 'Tokrii eche?' she asked.

'Khyberit gentis,' breathed Ner. 'Toch pinde!'

He knew no more than she did. 'Cheo as andoas tmake?'

Ner shook his head. 'Breff,' he said, 'ches broshamas viti. Gig domado kebrono-'

A cry cut him off. Every eye in the crowd of hunters darted back to the mound's mouth. There was a new light glowing within it, pale and watery, dimmed further by smoke. Three more figures moved against it. One of them was a tall man, his face clear and pale, his hair black, his eyes bright and shining green. He was dressed in robes of fine black leather. Set into the sleeves of the robes, like jewels in a necklace Ashi had once seen around an outclanner's neck, were half a dozen smooth, gently polished stones that glowed a soft red against the black leather. A single smoky crystal that winked deep blue was set at the center of the man's chest. Dragonshards, all of them.

The Bonetree hunters dropped to their knees in unison, their fingers darting to their lips and to their foreheads. Ashi found herself trembling.

'Revered!' Ner gasped. 'What has happened?' He spoke the outclanner language that the Revered preferred. Ashi and Breff spoke the language as well, though most of the hunters were ignorant of it.

'Ner, master of my hunters.' The Revered's voice was smooth as oil. He held out long, perfect fingers. Ner crept forward on his knees and kissed the man's fingers, then touched them to his forehead. The Revered lifted his hand, gesturing for Ner to stand. 'I have lost someone,' he said. 'Take the best of your hunters. Retrieve her for me.'

Ner glanced over his shoulder. 'Ashi,' he said. 'Breff. Hand-wit. Mukur. Dal. Etta. At dosut kebronos.' The named hunters shifted with anticipation-Ashi a little bit more for having been named first. She watched as Ner looked back to the Revered.

The tall man raised his eyebrows. 'More.' As the hunter blinked in surprise, he added, 'She is wily and fast, Ner. You will need more hunters.'

'No one is faster than the Bonetree hunters,' Ner said.

The Revered shook his head. 'Don't underestimate her, huntmaster. She escaped from me.'

Ner flushed and bent his head. 'I can take two dozen and still leave the mound and the clan protected, Revered.'

'Do that. You will have other help as well.' The Revered motioned, the smallest twitch of his hand, and one of the figures who had accompanied him moved forward. The figure wore a cloak and a deep cowl, but Ashi could

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