From the first moments, Aiyana knew she was in a dream. The quality of her senses clued her in - some things were practically indecipherable, whereas others were far more clear than in the waking world. She could see and feel every blade of grass beneath her feet. She could hear every breath of wind rustling the trees around her. She could feel the warmth of the sun on her skin, but when she looked up to the sky to bask in its glow her vision was met with an indecipherable canvas of colors.
Surveying her surroundings, she felt a distinct sense of recognition. She knew this place. She knew the trees, the meadow. This was where her life began, in a sense at least. This was the grove in which her father found her, so many years ago. It was her first real memory. She could see it, even now. What should have been a terrifying sight for a child so young, was something she remembered fondly. The great black wings of a fully grown dragon blotting out the sky as it circled overhead, coming to rest at the far side of the clearing within the grove. How the great dragon transformed into a man as he walked across the distance toward her. His wings folding into the robe which clothed his tall, coppery stature. How his mane became long, straight hair - sometimes shining silver, sometimes white in the bright sunlight. His eyes, though human in form, retained their color of glowing embers.
She knew it was a dream, but every detail of the memory played out before her eyes - the colors, the sounds, the feelings. It unfolded as it had so many times before. In the past, her father - this man, this dragon - had used her dreams to speak to her. A power and gift they shared, a way of touching each other’s minds regardless of whatever distance might separate them.
Briefly, she wondered if this was another one of these moments.
As her father, the great dragon Kaillel, crossed the distance to her, something changed. It was subtle at first, but with each step he took everything became darker, more immediate, more intense. It was unmistakable, this was more than just her memory. Aiyana tried to walk toward him, to meet him halfway, but her feet remained rooted to the ground on which she stood. She could see his lips moving as if he were trying to tell her something, but no sound reached her ears. A panic she had never known began to rise in her. When he was no more than ten paces away, she caught a swift movement from the corner of her eye. Out of the shadows, an iron-black arrow sped past, piercing Kaillel‘s chest.
Aiyana awoke with a jolt. Her heart was racing, her palms sweating. Her eyes quickly surveyed the darkness around her, half expecting something to be different. Everything was exactly as it had been before she had fallen asleep, and yet nothing was the same. The wind was still whistling through the cracks of the old dilapidated cabin, but she no longer noticed it.
Something has happened to my father. The thought kept swimming around and around in her head. Somethings wrong. Almost without thinking of her actions, she packed away her things - securing her cloak, her swords, and finally dousing what remained of the fire she had built. She knew instinctively where she had to go. She had to return home, to her father‘s house, and she had no time to waste.
Aiyana walked through the night, finally reaching her long-time home as the dawn’s first rays illuminated the sky.
She had hoped to find it as she always had - warm, inviting, and for the most part orderly. What met her eyes was chaos. The small cabin they had called home was barely a collection of charred ruins. Arrows, so many arrows, like the one in her dream, littered the ground in every direction. And her father… Her father was nowhere to be found.
In her heart of hearts, Aiyana knew she would find something like this, yet she could barely believe it. Her father had always seemed so strong, powerful, and immovable. What could have possibly overpowered him?
As all these things threatened to overwhelm her mind, she paced back and forth looking, searching for something, anything that could tell her what had happened. Something to tell her who had attacked and where they’d taken Kaillel. She knew he had been taken by someone or something. Nothing else could explain everything - the chaos, how he’d tried to speak to her in the dream. She feared for him, yet somehow she knew he was still alive. They had always had a connection, a bond she couldn’t explain, and she could still feel it. Though faint, it gave her hope.
Aiyana had almost given up hoping to find a clue when the morning rays glinted off of something small, hiding in the grass at her feet. At the first glance, she knew this was what she’d been looking for. Upon closer inspection, she could see it was a bronze medallion of some sort. The markings and symbols, however, were foreign to her. On one side was the image of a coiled serpent, and on the other was one of a severed hand. She turned it over, again and again, in her hand, half-hoping she would notice something she recognized.
Although she could see that this medallion was key to finding Kaillel, she knew no amount of pondering or contemplation would make its meaning any clearer to her. She needed help, and in a moment like this, there was only one person she could ask: her father’s kin, her aunt, Dradia. She slipped the medallion into her belt pouch, fastening it tightly, and steeled herself for the journey ahead. If she did not dally, she could reach her aunt’s lair by mid-day on the morrow. For her father’s sake, she hoped that would be soon enough.
The dragon mage, Dradia, sat statue-still on the ledge above her mountain home. Her long, raven-black hair contrasted her pale, ivory skin. Her dark, charcoal-gray cloak rendered her almost invisible in the faint predawn light. The wind picked up, rustling her hair, but she remained still and silent. She had come up here, to this spot, in hopes of finding some sense of clarity. Her dreams this night had been riddled with darkness, despair, and pain. But these things had come to her in fragments. She was no seer, and she knew this. She was not one to have visions of things that both are and are yet to be. On most nights, she would have just ignored it all and fallen back asleep. But not tonight. Tonight, something was different. She couldn’t quite describe how she knew this, but she could feel it in her bones. And so, she had spent the past few hours up on her ledge meditating, praying, hoping for some clarity.
Gods! I wish I had Kaillel’s gift. She thought in frustration. Then it hit her. All of these feelings, these warnings centered around her brother. Once this realization clicked, all the pieces fell into place in her mind’s eye. For a fleeting moment, she caught sight of his abode - barely a pile of burnt rubble - and her niece, Kaillel‘s foster daughter, pacing back and forth amidst grass littered with iron arrows.
What could that human have possibly gotten them into this time? The vision left as quickly as it came. She opened her eyes slowly. With the light of dawn and the fire of anger, they glowed like flaming coals, even more brilliantly than normal. Though she had spent more time in her human form than her brother ever had, there was no mistaking her for what she was. She was a dragon.
Creatures of myth and magic they were, or at least had become. There had been a time when dragons, in their natural form, were as common as a blade of grass. It was a time when all other creatures both feared and revered them. But no more, those days were long past. In the time since, humanity had arisen as the dominant species, and they were nothing like their ancient siblings. They were creatures of greed, desiring power and wealth above all else. Or at least that had been Dradia’s experience. Far too many of her kin had died at their hands, for one reason or another.
She had warned your brother. Raising a human was dangerous. Eventually, the child would seek out her own species, and then their existence would be known once again. Humans would realize that dragons could look like them, and walk among them without raising suspicion. And then the dragon hunts would begin once again. Kaillel had not listened though, and now something it happened. Curse that human! If she has brought some evil on my brother, I’ll destroy her myself. There was nothing for it, staying here would solve nothing, would give no answers. It was time to leave. Time to see her brother and hunt down that human if need be.
Aiyana walked all through the day without stopping, her desperation driving her. She was about halfway up the mountain on which her aunt resided when the day’s light began to fade. Knowing she would not be able to keep her present pace throughout the night, she decided to rest. Directly along her path were the ruins of an ancient temple, she found her aunt there.
“This seems familiar,” Dradia turned the coin over and over in her hand, examining one image, then the other, then back again, “like a memory of a memory. I don’t know what it means. I should, but I don’t. I do know that you had nothing to do with whatever happened. To be honest, I initially thought you did, but I underestimated you. I underestimated your loyalty… In your eyes, Kaillel truly is your father, isn’t he?"
“Yes.” For the first time all night, Aiyana’s voice finally broke.
“How far are you willing to go to find him? What are you willing to do? Because this isn’t going to be easy.” As she spoke, Dradia held the medallion in the light of the campfire so Aiyana could see it clearly. “Whatever this is, whatever it means, it isn’t a good thing.”
“To find my father,” the anger that had reignited within Aiyana forced her to place more emphasis than necessary on her words. “To find my father I will go anywhere. I’ll do anything. There is no price too high if it means saving him.”
“Good. Understand, I had to be sure. Whoever took him… the power necessary to take him… Whoever these people are, they’re not to be merely trifled with. But then again, neither are we. I’ve lost far too many kin to people like this, I will not lose another.”
“But where do we even begin?”
“I don’t know, but I know someone who might. Mind you, he’s a rogue and a bit of a scoundrel, but at least he’s an honest one of that… and he owes me a favor.” As she spoke, Dradia slipped the fabric of her left sleeve above her elbow, exposing an intricate series of sigils along the inside of her arm. “He owes me his life, but the why can wait for now. With this,” she gestured to the tattoos she’d just uncovered, “I can track him. Though I can almost guarantee we’ll find him drunk in a tavern.”
Dradia began tracing the sigils with her finger, one flowing into the next. As she passed over each, they began to glow. By the time she finished, they were all pulsing in time to her heartbeat. “We should get some sleep. Unfortunately, I do not have Kaillel‘s gift of sight, nor, apparently, yours for that matter. I have to quiet my mind in order to see what this will show me. Sleep is a good way of doing that.”
Usei knew exactly what was happening from the very first. He had, in truth, been dreading this day for many years now. He kept staring at the glowing tattoo on his wrist. Part of him hoped it would simply disappear, but he knew that was too good to be true. If he had been smart, he never would have made a deal with a dragon. Though, admittedly, at the time it had been his only option. And now she’s coming to collect what I owe… whatever that means. Try as he might, he couldn’t see a way out of this. And so, he drank. Knowing the dragon would demand sobriety, he drank. Knowing that the path ahead would probably kill him if the dragon didn’t do so herself, he drank. But mostly, he drank to forget.
As Dradia had expected, Usei was passed out when they finally found him. She could have been gentle, she supposed, when she went about waking him. But subtlety had never been something she excelled at, and there was no time to waste. With a mere flick of her wrist, his entire body flew up into the air, bound as it were by bands of purple light that crackled with electricity.
Usei’s eyes shot open. With the amount of electricity flowing through him, he’d sobered up almost immediately. “I’m here, I’m awake. Please let me down.” The pleading in his voice amused Dradia, and she obliged. Though he tried to orient himself with dignity, he failed miserably. While his mind had sobered up, his body had yet to follow suit.
“Are you sure he can help us?” Aiyana asked, all the while eyeing the uncoordinated mess that was Usei Skalle.
“He can, and he will, even if it’s only to pay the debt he owes me.” Turning her attention to the disheveled rogue, Dradia pulled the medallion out of her pocket tossing it to him. “Since you’re a captive audience, take a look at this and tell me what you see.”
Usei turned the coin over in his hand, a sense of trepidation quickly overtaking his countenance. “You couldn’t have called my debt in on something easy, could you? Like, taming a banshee?” Realizing his attempt at humor was not being received, he continued. “These symbols are old, but I’ve never seen them put together like this. However, I might know someone who has. There’s an antiquities dealer on the edge of town, an old smuggler really. If anyone here about knows what this means, he will.”
“Then, by all means, lead the way.”
The rogue attempted to stand but his feet weren’t having it. “Perhaps just another minute?”
The old smuggler's abode was intentionally inconspicuous, at least from the outside. When the three companions stepped within, however, their eyes were met with shelves upon shelves of an eclectic array of artifacts. There was such a variety that the site was almost painful to behold.
“He’s here somewhere,” Usei said, his eyes scanning the room, back-and-forth.
A short, stout man who looked like he had never gone hungry a day in his life, rounded the corner from the hallway with a distinct purpose in his step. “No! Not you! I don’t care what you’re selling, I’m not buying. Take your rubbish somewhere else.”
“Tiev, old friend…”
“Don’t you ‘old friend’ me. The last piece you brought me was cursed and it turned my skin blue for a week. Whatever you’re selling, I want no part of it.”
“Relax, I don’t have anything to sell today. My ‘friends’ here,” Usei gestured to the women, who looked far more capable than he, “they need some information, and I thought you might be able to help them.”
Tiev really looked at the two women for the first time and was visibly surprised by what he saw. “You,” he said, looking Dradia straight in the eye, “I know what you are. What could you possibly want from someone like me?”
Dradia glanced over at her niece before pulling the medallion out of her pocket. “We need to know what this is. Where it came from.” She handed the piece to the smuggler.
Tiev looked long and hard at each side, at each image, his face becoming more ashen by the second. “Where did you get this?”
“Does the where really matter?”
“It might… it will at least tell me of its authenticity.”
Dradia glanced at Aiyana, who spoke up after a moment. “I found it, hidden in the grass near the rubble that was once my father’s cabin.”
Tiev was silent for a few very long seconds before responding. “You’re the child aren’t you? Kaillel’s child, the one he adopted?”
A look of astonishment washed over Aiyana’s face. “How could you possibly know that?”
Tiev smiled, “He was my friend, a real friend. At least, as real of a friend as his kind and my kind can be. He would often explain the significance of the older pieces I’d come across. In turn, I’d keep him informed on the comings and goings of the world at large… It’s true then, the rumors I’ve heard, he’s missing?”
“Yes, for three days now.”
“This medallion represents a society of thieves and cutthroats, who make their home in a place that’s known for the dark arts. They’re mercenaries for hire. They don’t do anything unless they’re paid to do it. If they took Kaillel, someone else put them up to it… Have you heard of Kaimar? It’s a very old, very dark city.”
“I have,” Dradia’s voice betrayed the sense of disgust she felt. “If they’ve taken him there, there’s only one thing the people responsible are after.”
“That’s my fear as well.” A look of compassion and sadness flooded the old smuggler‘s eyes. “They don’t have a name, otherwise I’d give it to you, just a reputation. They are the type no one wants to cross, but then again I suppose, neither are you. Their stronghold is at the center of the city; this medallion can get you in and lead the way. But be warned, they would have needed powerful magic to subdue Kaillel. Whoever hired them, probably helped them. As far as I know, only the old gods have the power to best a dragon of his caliber. So, whatever you end up facing, don’t underestimate it.” He handed the medallion back to Dradia and quickly disappeared into the back rooms of his abode.
Kaimar. A city Dradia knew well, though that knowledge was ancient at best. The last time one of her kin had been brought here, she burned most of it to the ground with dragon fire. But a thousand years had passed since then. From what she could tell now, those years had not done it any kindness.
Kaimar. A city once dedicated to the gods of death and sorcery. She had once wondered what the difference really was, between sorcery and the innate magical power she and her kin possessed. But then her kin begin to disappear, and she learned very quickly. They had been hunted and butchered, all so the necromancers and witches of this dreadful city could use their essence to increase their own magical power.
She had feared that this was where her brother had been taken, but she hadn’t allowed herself to put that fear into words. For Aiyana’s sake, she simply couldn’t. Now, she dared not speak it out loud, time was of the essence and they could not afford the distraction.
“There is something you should know,” she spoke as much to the air as to her niece and the rogue, “a spell was placed on this city centuries ago, a way to protect it from people, creatures like me. Though most of us choose to remain in our human likeness, no dragon can morph into their true form within the boundaries of the city… I have not entered it since before the spell was set. The last time I was here, I burnt most of it to the ground. I do not know how exactly this will affect me, but I do know that my powers will be limited.”
“Is that why they brought him here? Because his powers would be useless?" The pain in Aiyana‘s eyes betrayed the surety of her voice.
“Not useless, just limited. Though I suspect they had some way of neutralizing his power, otherwise they would not have gotten this far.” She turned to look Aiyana square in the face. “I fear they brought him here for a much darker, much more insidious reason. But there is no time to explain. Please know that I will tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. No sooner, no later.” She waited for her niece to nod in agreement before turning to face Usei. “My friend, there will be traps designed to ensnare someone like me. I cannot use my power unless it’s absolutely necessary. Are you still as adept at finding and dismantling such things as you once were?”
“I am a bit out of practice, but I can manage well enough.”
“Good. Know that if you do this, if you help us find my brother, I will consider your debt paid in full.”
“You mean, if we survive this you will… I’ve heard stories of this place as well.”
“We'll survive, we have no choice. If the people here get a hold of Kaillel‘s power, the world as we know it will cease to exist.”
The weight of Dradia’s words brought her companions to a grave silence, broken only by Aiyana’s simple insistence. “Then we must hurry.” With that, they left the short-lived protection of the tree line overlooking Kaimar and made their way to the dreaded city.
The city was quiet, too quiet. From the moment they stepped foot inside, Dradia could tell that this was not the place it once was. It didn’t have the inherent power it once did. As fleeting as it was, this thought gave her hope.
The travelers made their way through the deserted streets. Usei leading the way. Silently, but swiftly, they walked ever towards their goal: the ruinous citadel at the heart of the city.
They made it to the walls of their destination without seeing a living soul. It was easy, too easy. Without warning, a black arrow, like the ones that had littered the ground around Kaillel’s cabin, came flying towards them from one of the broken ramparts. The arrow was swift, but Aiyana was faster still. Without thought, she drew her swords and knocked it out of the air.
Before anyone could process what was happening, the three companions were surrounded by figures in cloaks the same gray as the stones themselves. Arrows were flying at them from every direction, and, somehow, Aiyana was deflecting every single one. Her eyes were like fire, and her movements swifter than a human eye could behold. But Dradia could see it. For a moment she watched in sheer amazement. It was a side of this particular human she had not known existed. She had known that Aiyana had some of Kaillel’s power, but she had never seen it manifest. It had never needed to manifest.
Without hesitation, Dradia summoned what she could of her own power, not for the fight itself but to protect the rogue from the waves of energy that were now emanating off of Aiyana.
The fight ended as swiftly as it had begun. Each of the men surrounding them was either injured or dead, wounded by their own arrows.
“Enough!” A gaunt, yet hardened figure made his way toward them amidst the carnage. “I know why you’re here. No contract is worth the lives of my men, not even this one.”
“Where is he?” The words poured from Aiyana with the strength and ferocity of a hurricane. “Where is my father?”
Dradia gently placed her hand on Aiyana’s shoulder, drawing her back from the ledge of power, back to the present moment.
“He’s not here.” The man replied. “I will tell you everything I know, but please give me your word you will harm no more of my men.”
“We won’t.” Dradia stepped up beside Aiyana to get a better look at this newcomer.
“Begging your pardon, but I want to hear it from her.” He gestured to Aiyana. “I saw what just happened. I’m protected from your kind here, but she is something else entirely… Give me your word, and I’ll tell you everything.”
Aiyana took a breath, steadying herself, before responding. “If the information you give leads us to find my father alive, you and your men will have nothing to fear from me.”
“I suppose that’s all I can ask for… We were hired by a band of necromancers who make their home at a place not far from here called Death’s Door. Do you know this place?”
“I do,” Dradia could not hide the disgust she felt at hearing this. It was her fear made manifest.
“I thought you might… That is where they have taken him. They spoke freely in front of me, carelessly, not realizing I understand the old tongue. They intend to sacrifice him there, tonight, beneath the Blood Moon so they can harvest the power within his blood.” He looked from Dradia to Aiyana and back again, completely ignoring the rogue who was still hiding behind them. “You’ll need your wings, dragon, if you wish to get there in time. You’ll have to show yourself for who and what you are. And to do so, you will have to leave this city, but you already know that. You can leave freely, without hindrance. If anyone tries to stop you, they will answer to me. Forgive me for not escorting you, but I believe you know your way out.”
“That I do.” Dradia’s eyes had gone cold and blacker than Aiyana had ever seen them. She turned and, picking her way through the dead and dying, began making her way to the nearest path out of the city, trusting the others would follow.
After a moment, Aiyana turned back to face the man, a fiery anger burning in her eyes. “If my father dies, you’d best hope neither you nor your men ever see me again.”
“I mean no disrespect,” he spoke carefully, calmly, “but I hope we never meet again whatever the outcome.”
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