Eyes are windows to the soul. But some windows should never be opened.
There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. But this was the eve of Anáil Nua. A rite of rebirth and courage, of honor and enchantment and, if Lady Fate wasn’t dead set on cursing me again–redemption.
“Are those their…babies?” whispered my little sister, eyes wide.
High atop the mountain pass, the air was thin and dry, my breathing labored, so I jerked a nod. Rows upon rows of eggs, their rich, gemstone scales winking in the gloaming, cobbled the riverbanks, the pine trunks, whorling the Valley’s heart in runes. Ancient runes from ancient beasts that could turn us into cinders if we didn’t tread lightly.
Fia tried to huddle closer, but her boot caught a bramble. She slipped. I sprang forward, snagging her with my free hand. Rocks and sand streamed around us, pelting the scree below before I heaved her back. Bony arms cinched my waist, and I oomphed when her head thumped my chest. I’d hated the blight that killed our crops. Hated myself for failing to provide for Fia. But for once, I was grateful she was near starved. No way I could’ve pulled her up one-handed.
“It’s all right.” I stroked her hair, a waterfall of blue-black amid the shadows, then kissed her brow. “Come. We’re almost done.” Gods willing.
Dusk sooted the mountains, their peaks a ring of hellfire from the sun’s retreat. Or dragonfire. My pulse flickered. We had to hurry. Time, like our late mother, didn’t suffer fools. I grabbed Fia’s icy hand, a reprieve from what I held in the other, and continued our trek south. With the lantern hot as a forging sword, sweat soaked my glove. Red motes seethed its globe, spitting bloody tears over the pass. Mother’s warrior spirit hadn’t tamed upon death. If anything, she’d gone downright feral. Sensing our approach, her essence began simmering a fortnight back. If we didn’t get to the rite fast enough, I feared she’d shatter the glass.
“Caldera.” Fia vibrated beside me, eager. Her brush with death already forgotten. “Look!” She waved at the mountains arcing the far side of the Valley. Countless blinking orbs floated above the indigo slopes. “Sprites?”
“Good guess, but no. Try again.”
Her lips pursed, and I bit back a grin. Ever the earnest pupil. “Will-o'-wisp?”
“Wisps only haunt bogs and marshes, fortunately.”
Her shoulders eased, if slightly. In truth, I’d rather test my odds with wee swamp beasties than dragons, but Fia had suffered more than any child should in her thirteen springs. Relief, no matter how meager, was a sweetmeat I’d never rob from her plate.
“Want a hint?” I asked in vain. She’d say no. And she didn’t disappoint, nose crinkling. Fia inherited our mother’s resolve. I canted the lantern towards the Valley anyway.
“Oh.” She sniffed, vexed at missing the obvious. “More warrior souls for the rite.”
Crickets chirred the brushline, and a breeze sighed through clusters of magenta flowers, rustling Fia’s hair. I winked, concealing a wince as I lowered the lantern. I was born in a caldera hugged by Dorn Ag Troid, a dusky range that knuckled the stars, during one of Mother’s raids. A woman of the mountains, their throaty, serene song should’ve been thrumming my veins. And yet, peace evaded me. After a fortnight on the pass, cramps gnawed my limbs, my back, and hunger carved my belly. Minor inconveniences compared to the cold dread snuffing my every breath. Those pretty pink flowers whispering around our boots? They may’ve instilled hope in any other region of Kyalmhar. Fireweed was first to sprout after wildfires. But we were circling the Valley. Dragons razed this trail.
A sharp bend had us scaling an overgrown spruce that prudently fell inward. I flattened a web of jade branches for Fia to pass, the needles still soft, fragrant. From the way she kept flicking her fingers, the sap still flowed too. Any twinkle of humor crunched with the ash beneath our boots, though. The tree hadn’t died from old age or rot. The grounded side was scorched. Ensuring the lantern cleared the needles–it didn’t matter if the spruce was dry or drenched, Mother would’ve geysered a bloody lake–I crawled after my little sister. Pack ramming my neck, I stumbled. Fia caught my forearm, then let out a low growl. Her fingers stuck to my sleeve. I snorted, earning a dirty look.
A shriek, overhead. Fia leapt back, sap releasing. The slope rumbled. Wings thrashed the dark. I ushered her to an overhang, thick with thorny vines, just as gravel and dust showered the trail. Her lips parted, but I shushed her, straining to hear over the blood ratcheting my ears. The gods had yet to release the stars or moon; the only light seeped from Mother and the approaching spirit lanterns, pinpricks in the solemn night. The rite hadn’t started. Less than a league away, we would make it. But my lungs, fluttering like riled bats, disagreed.
With no clan to care for my sister, I’d brought her along, packing twice the supplies, carrying twice the weight. Which had cost me. I should’ve arrived days ago, giving me more time to prepare for tonight, presumably my last. Fia whimpered, nuzzling closer, and my throat twinged. Did I really bring my little sister for her welfare or because I was too craven to travel alone? Maybe that’s why Mother roiled. Not in anticipation over the rite and claiming her new body, but in fury. She’d raised me better than to put Fia in harm’s way. And yet, here we were, at the edge of the world–where no child nor sane human dared venture. If Mother, upon inhabiting her monstrous vessel, chose to render me a pyre, I’d deserve it.
A hand tugged my tunic. “Safe to go?”
Far from safe, but Fia was right. Sheltering here would do us no good, not when the lantern lit up the whole scarp. I nodded, and we pressed on.
“Suppose it was a rock wyvern?” she asked, pace markedly faster than before.
I shrugged, feigning interest in my shoulder strap. It did dig in. “Likely a hawk.”
Fia’s scowl could’ve leveled a forest. She was no one’s fool. But discussing dragons, their kin, and thus various methods of my potential demise wasn’t appealing. Not when I’d soon be surrounded by their hungry spawn. The pass grew narrower, snakier, our ears popping from the swift descent. When we reached the base of Mount Tine, a small cave yawned over a trickling stream. Several pairs of yellow eyes sheened as we drew near. Fia stiffened.
“Only foxes.” I patted her back. “They’ll make good company while you wait.”
“I’m going with you.”
“Over my dead body.” A strong possibility.
“No,” I hissed, and instantly regretted it. Fia flinched as if slapped. “The rite’s too risky. Besides, you’ll be able to see everything from here.” I wriggled out of my pack and placed it at the mouth of the cave. The eerie stares didn’t falter, and I envied their bravado. “If anything…bad should happen”–she readied her jaw, but I held up my hand–“take what you can carry and follow the river west. The Cairde used to be allies with Mother’s clan. They may take you in.” My innards knotted at the mere thought of Fia wandering the wilderness alone, but she needed to be prepared. So did I.
Her eyes, the warm acorn of Mother’s, misted, but she nodded. I wrapped her in a tight hug. Notes of juniper and sage tickled my throat, and I choked back tears of my own. I had to be strong, if not for her. Before I lost my nerve, I pecked her cheek and–
“Wait,” she whispered. “What dragon will Mother choose?”
The lantern flared, as did my alarm. Neither the dragon nor the warrior got to pick, but I answered, “Hopefully a nice one.”
Though I removed my pack, my steps were no lighter. The greater the distance I put between Fia, the colder the unease pooling my belly, like wading through a mire, its prickly underbrush snaring, warning me to turn back. To grab my sister and flee. I was an imposter, a weakling, irrevocably unworthy of Anáil Nua.
But Mother didn’t care about my misgivings. Her spirit yanked me to the riverside, spongy moss mushing beneath my boots. Her motes whisked, reflecting off the water’s metallic surface, blinding me. The lantern slipped. I caught it–with my bare hand. Skin sizzled, nausea pounded my gut, and I swallowed a scream when it clattered to stone. Upright, thank the gods. I sank to my knees, bile stinging my throat. My eyes shuttered, the world tilted. Then a clang of swords, the stink of blood, the keening. Oh, the horrific keening. Like maces inside my teeth.
I was back.
On the battlefield.
Soaked in mud, in blood, I stood over a warrior no older than Fia. Pommel quivering in my sweaty palm. Cries and clanking armor muddled to a drone while the sky wept gray. Think only with your blade, Mother had commanded. Spare no one. Our enemies, they’d slaughtered and pillaged and burned our village to the ground. But had we not done the same? Big and blue, the girl’s eyes pleaded with me. I lowered my blade. Too young. She rose, and I retreated–
I spun around. Mother. Face of fury, then fear.
“Down!” she thundered, plunging forward.
I ducked. She swung, but so did the girl. Blood sprayed the air. Their bodies thunked the ground. Tongues of spirit light surged between them, eviscerating the dark clouds. I grabbed my lantern and dove for Mother. Red frothed her lips. Too red, too bright. Of molten rubies, of fading life. I choked back a sob, ripped off the lantern’s warded seal, and held it between the two, collecting the effervescing motes. Before I could apologize or beg forgiveness, her hand stilled in mine, her cleaved soul tinking the glass.
Heat bloomed my cheeks, and my eyes fluttered. Fireflies blinked around me. A zephyr purred against my tunic, now sodden from my memory, and navy mountains stood sentry. The Valley. I reached for the lantern and recoiled. Blisters sprouted my palm.
A haunting wail. Then another. A handful. A hundred. Glaring beams of red and blue, green and violet and pink, spurted from the runes of glowing eggs, latticing the Valley. A chill licked my skin. The rite had begun. The ground quaked. A series of cracks, of murmurs. Eggs split. Lanterns shattered. A frenzy of tendrils whipped the air, lurid as lightning. As painful too. Heart in my throat, I shielded my eyes, cowering, praying for this to be over. For Mother to fuse with her dragon. For her to find peace, so that I might finally find mine too.
A cry rose off the water, a flame roared, and the voice melted. A tempest of steam left in its wake. I shuddered, sinking lower. Plucky eloquence was needed to dance with a dragon. One wrong step, and the spirit was singed beyond repair, forever stuck between the realms of the living and dead. Hence only warriors were brave or stupid enough to try. I wasn’t so much worried about Mother. She could hold off a legion. But once she ascended, I’d be easy prey.
Mother’s lantern exploded. I flattened beside the rock, breathing in lichen, fishy water, but mostly terror. The snarls from spirit and dragon were dueling blades on my spine. Panic fevered my skin, my bladder threatened to burst, yet when the fray ceased, I risked a glimpse up. A mountain of a beast with gleaming, blood-red scales towered over me. Flickering spikes crested its head, down its arched back to its long, coiled tail. Striking as it was deadly. I slowly crawled to my feet, but the unease from earlier returned, hitting me with the force of a tidal wave. I slammed to the ground, head cracking stone. The apology I’d practiced the past spring turned to ash when the dragon’s gaze seared mine. Those eyes, so big, so blue–
“Mother!” A wavering voice stole my breath.
The beast snapped its head towards the cave, towards a small, running silhouette.
“No Fia! That’s not–”
The dragon leapt into the air, its claws snatching my little sister before vanishing in the night. I heaved and heaved, vomit burning my throat and nose until I could heave no more. Those big, blue eyes would remain an afterimage for the rest of my wretched life. And rightfully so. A fool, I’d brought back the wrong soul.
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