The Rise of The Dragon Queen
The weekend passed rather quickly and Vixia, Darius, and I listened closely for our names the following Monday morning. Nesryn was standing in front of the bar while the guild members finished their meals, and she gave out everyone's quests for the day. But, by the time she finished the list, she still hadn't called our names.
Don't tell me she forgot to give us a quest. I tilted my head as I watched the other parties get up and leave to prepare. I then looked over at Vixia and Darius, who were equally perplexed.
"Did she skip us?" Vixia wondered aloud. I let out an exasperated sigh.
"It seems like she did." That was when Puff, who was hiding in a pouch on my belt, trilled. I looked down, but he ducked back into my pocket and curled up in a ball. When I lifted my head, I realized Nesryn was walking toward us. When she got to the table, she set down a map in front of us. It appeared to be drawn by hand, very shakily, I might add, with a pencil.
"This isn't dragon-related, but I figured it would be a start," she began. "A farmer is having issues with a pack of wild dogs attacking his livestock. I'm going to need you guys to exterminate them."
"So, the guild takes on regular quests too?" Vixia asked.
"Sometimes," Nesryn answered. "We usually only take them on if they are local and the regular guards are too busy."
"So, what's the map for?" Darius inquired, looking it over.
"The farmer drew it up so that you guys wouldn't get lost. Do you think you can do it, or do you need more time to recover?"
It had already been a few days since the dragon attacked the guildhall. This was our first day back to actual guild work, and we had spent the later part of the previous week and the whole weekend resting. My eyes wandered over to the window Vixia broke, which was now boarded up.
"No, we should be fine. We'll leave soon."
"Thank you," Nesryn replied with a smile. "Good luck out there." She turned and walked away and Darius stood from his seat.
"Here, I'll take your plates to the kitchen."
"Thanks." I watched as he walked away with our dishes, but something else caught my eye along the way. I spotted Sparrow sitting in the corner, glaring at me while the mage and the archer in his party were laughing and joking together behind him. I felt my eyes narrow before rolling them, shifting my attention to Vixia. I grasped her hand and gave it a few squeezes.
"Let's go get ready."
Not long after we got our orders, Vixia, Darius, Puff, and I headed outside Tidalsong City to the winding farmlands beyond the city's walls. It wasn't that far of a walk, but it took nearly an hour to get there on foot. Puff rode along on my shoulder after we left the city, and I remembered along the way that even he was still recovering after the dragon fight. I thought about that as we approached the short dirt path that led to the farm. The tiny dragon carefully climbed onto my shirt sleeve and I bent my elbow so that he could safely crawl into the pouch on my belt. I watched him curl up inside of it.
Growing like that must really wear him out. Is that why he always stays so small? As I pondered that, the tiny dragon let out a yawn and stretched his wings before wrapping them around himself. I smiled just before an unfamiliar voice snapped my attention back to my surroundings.
"You must be from the IronScale Slayers guild."
I looked up to see that we had made it to a farmhouse and an old man was rising from a rocking chair on the porch. He placed his hand on the wooden railing to secure his balance and began to walk over to the front steps. I realized he was looking at our uniforms, which bore the same blue, black, and white colors that Sparrow was wearing the first time we ran into each other. Since we got to pick from different clothing options, the only thing that matched on all our uniforms was the small badges we wore on our chests. I saw Vixia nervously grip the hem of her skirt from the corner of my eye.
"You sure are an odd lot," the old man continued, eyeing us. His gaze specifically narrowed in on Vixia. "They sent a beast to help deal with a livestock issue?" Vixia's ears folded back at that comment. I stepped forward, drawing the farmer's attention to me.
"She's just as capable as anyone else at the guild," I responded defensively. "Her race is irrelevant." He crossed his arms at my reply and glared at me.
"So, you're having an issue with some wild dogs?" Darius spoke up, steering the conversation back to the task at hand.
"The damn things keep attacking all of my animals."
"So we've heard. Do you have any idea where they might be now? The sooner we find them, the sooner we can resolve this issue for you."
"I usually see them running in that direction when I scare them off." The old farmer pointed to his right at an open field full of grains. "They blend in with the plants, for the most part. Be careful."
"Thank you." So, we turned and headed out to the field. By the time we approached the edge of it, I had realized that the stalks of the grains were much taller than I was. However, Vixia's ears were still visible over the top of the field and Darius was tall enough for almost his entire head to be in sight.
"Don't get lost," Vixia teased. "Trying to find you in here would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack."
"Wow, thanks." I crossed my arms and pouted, which elicited a laugh from my wife. She nudged me with her arm.
"Just stay close."
"Follow me and stay sharp," Darius warned. Vixia and I nodded and he led us into the field.
For the most part, I couldn't see anything other than Vixia's back. As soon as we passed through a section, the plants would spring back to how they were before, surrounding us. I finally understood how easy it was to get lost in there. We had been walking for a few minutes when I saw one of Vixia's ears shift.
"Wait," she commanded in a near whisper, stopping in her tracks. "I heard something." We waited there for a moment and I looked around but still couldn't see anything. Suddenly, a set of snapping jaws jutted out from the wall of grain stems beside me. I screamed and fell backward, barely avoiding being bitten and waking Puff in the process. The tiny dragon darted out of the pouch on my belt and let out a growl. Before the wild dog could retreat, Puff fired a few wisps of fire at the creature's face, burning its nose. It yelped and disappeared behind the grain stalks again. When I looked up, I realized that Vixia and Darius were gone.
"Vixia?" I shouted. There was no response, just a loud yelp from a wild dog. Puff climbed up onto my shoulder and I got to my feet. I drew my sword.
"Do you think you can fly?" Puff nodded in response. "Okay, lead me to them." He nodded again and jumped off of my shoulder. He flew in a small loop around my head and rose high into the air. He zipped through the sky, flying further ahead of me. I ran after him.
It only took a minute or so to find Vixia. She had made it to a clearing and was surrounded by a bunch of wild dogs, who were all snarling and baring their teeth. She was doing the same back while holding her staff out in front of her. Her tail was stiff, every hair standing on end. They appeared to be in some sort of standoff. That is until she began her incantation.
Goddess, heed my call
Make my foes like lightning fall
The orb on her staff began to glow as she slammed the bottom of it into the ground. Bolts of electricity erupted from the sphere and darted toward the wild dogs. They were practically fried almost immediately, which was impressive for a spell with only two lines. After the beasts were defeated, she turned back to me.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Where's Darius?"
Just as I asked that question, we heard Darius shouting from further away. I looked up to see Puff zooming in the direction where we heard his voice. I grabbed Vixia's hand and practically dragged her as I ran after him. When we made it to the grove that Darius had found himself in, he had already been surrounded by more wild dogs. One had managed to sneak up behind him and lunged at him as soon as we entered the area.
"Darius, look out!"
He turned and saw the wild dog just in time to catch its jaws on the handle of his ax. The others noticed the opening this created and went to attack, but I was a little quicker. I stood back-to-back with Darius and slashed at the attackers, cutting them down. Darius then pushed the last one back and split its forehead with a crushing blow. They had all been slain.
Darius breathed a sigh of relief and wiped some sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"That was probably the last of them."
I sheathed my weapon as Puff circled us. I held out my hand and he landed in my palm, trilling. I put him back in his pouch and lightly scratched his chin after he got comfortable.
"Thanks, buddy." He chirped in reply and we decided to report back to the farmer. After that, we headed back to the guildhall.
As soon as Vixia and I finished dinner, we returned to our room again. Puff and I watched from the bed as Vixia prayed to Zelora. As she finished, she slowly opened her eyes and lifted her head. She turned to us and smiled before joining us on the bed. She snuggled up to me, resting her head on my chest. I stroked her ears while Puff curled up on a pillow above our heads. We stayed like that for a while, even after we started to talk.
"Thank you for sticking up for me earlier," Vixia began quietly. It took me a second to realize what she meant. I ran my fingers through her silver hair.
"No problem, it's what I'm here for. What kind of wife would I be if I didn't defend my partner?" She smiled and then buried her face in my chest. I laughed.
"Still, thank you." Her voice was muffled against my shirt. I went back to stroking her ears but didn't say anything.
Little did I know that this was the calm before the storm.
The following week passed uneventfully as the kingdom of Zaledrid grew colder in the approaching winter. Surprisingly, there weren't any dragon-related incidents either. That is until the weekend rolled around.
It was dinner time when Nesryn started the meeting. Everyone had just begun to eat when she ascended the stairs and called for everyone's attention. Unlike the usual meetings in the morning, everyone became quiet as soon as she spoke. Everything felt tense and still. Vixia leaned over to Darius.
"What's going on?" she whispered.
"Something must have happened." We watched silently as the guild master began to speak again.
"There has been another outbreak of dragon sightings," she stated grimly. "The queen has tasked us with disposing of them immediately. I will list locations, and if your party is up for it, go ahead and volunteer. The first sighting was at . . ." She began listing locations as I looked at Vixia and Darius.
"Would you guys be okay with me volunteering for one?" I asked. They nodded.
"Go ahead." I turned my attention back to Nesryn just as she called out another location.
"The next one is in Centrum Forest." My eyes widened upon hearing the name. I slammed my palm down on the table as I stood, raising my hand.
"We'll take that one!" Nesryn briefly looked up from her clipboard and nodded when she spotted me. She quickly scribbled something down on her paper and continued listing.
"The final one is in the Highland Caverns."
"We can do it!" This time it was Sparrow. He was standing at his table, but he was smirking at me instead of looking at Nesryn. I raised a brow at him, but he didn't care. Nesryn scribbled on the paper again and lowered the clipboard.
"All right, that's all of them. Eat up and start your preparations tonight. You'll all set out in the morning, except for Sparrow's team. I have some extra information for you guys."
"Yes, ma'am!" most of the guild shouted back. I sat down and Sparrow did the same across the room. I turned back to my dinner and tried my best to ignore him.
That night, Vixia and I finished the preparations for our quest. I flopped on the bed when we were finally done and sighed. My eyes wandered over to all our gear in the corner of the room.
How are we supposed to carry all of this on foot? I wondered as Vixia joined me. She crawled under the covers and inched closer before wrapping her arms around me.
"Did you pick the forest on purpose?" she asked.
"Maybe." I looked over to see that she was smiling at me.
"Well, thank you. Hopefully, this will give me a chance to visit Zelora's shrine again."
"No problem. I know it's been a while."
"Yeah . . ." Vixia's voice trailed off and we both fell silent. After a moment, I pulled myself out of Vixia's embrace and rolled over to get under the blanket.
"Let's get some sleep. We've got a long quest ahead of us tomorrow."
"Okay." She sat up and flicked off the light as I got comfortable. After that, she cuddled up to me again and we fell asleep.
The sun's light stung my eyes as Vixia and I stepped out of the guildhall and onto the stone porch. We had just finished breakfast and were already dressed to set out on our quest. We were informed earlier that morning that we would be going pretty far from Tidalsong City and that it would probably take us a few days to complete the quest, so Darius packed some tents and other supplies that we needed. He was carrying them when my eyes finally adjusted to the brightness outside and I saw that several other parties were also gearing up to go. Nesryn was passing out supplies to one group when she noticed us.
"Oh, there you guys are. I have something for you." She handed Vixia a rolled-up map and walked by us. "You guys have quite a lot of gear and a ways to go, so I figured you could use this."
She sauntered across the lawn to where a bunch of wooden wagons were parked. She leaned against one and looked back at us.
"Thank you, but . . ." My voice trailed off and Darius finished my sentence.
"What are we supposed to pull it with?"
"Well, there's a stable here in the city. You could get a horse there. I recommend loading everything up as soon as possible, though. Your box of rations is by the porch. I wish you luck." And with that, she left.
I tilted my head and my gaze wandered back over to the porch, finding a large crate there with our names scribbled on a note stuck to the side.
"Will they even be able to give us a horse on such short notice?"
"Especially with so many of us needing them," Vixia added, looking at all the other carts around ours. That was when Puff stirred in his pouch on my belt. I got an idea. I opened the flap at the top and got the tiny dragon's attention.
"Puff, could you pull it?" I asked. He nodded and seemed to smile at me.
"How are we supposed to get it through the city, though?" Vixia asked.
"We'll just pull the cart out of the city and then have Puff take it from there. I think we're the only party heading in that direction and if we avoid the main roads, we should be fine."
"All right, let's get everything secured and then we'll head out," Darius confirmed. That was when our quest began.
Even with taking the back roads, we made it a little more than halfway to our destination by the time it started to become evening. We found ourselves in the hills beyond the farmlands when the sun began to set and decided to set up camp. Vixia and I pitched the tents while Darius started a fire and cooked up some of our rations. After all the preparations were finished, the three of us sat around the fire and started telling stories from our days before the guild. We were winding down from laughing when Vixia asked a question.
"Darius, what did you do before you joined the guild?"
He seemed to think about it for a moment, tapping his fork against his plate. He straightened out his back and then hunched forward again.
"Well, I did a lot of combat training. Then I was a guard."
"Really?" There was a tone of awe in Vixia's voice. That was when I realized that between the two of us, she was the one that was mostly okay with guards since they found her when she was younger. In contrast, they always put me on edge.
"Yeah," Darius continued. "The dragon attacks started. The queen put together the guild and sent me to work there instead."
"Was it like that for everyone?" I asked. He shook his head.
"It was in the beginning, but then we started getting volunteers like Sparrow's crew. You guys are the only recruits we've had sent to us by the queen since the first wave of members."
"If Queen Evelyn formed the guild, how'd Nesryn become guild master then? Did the queen pick her?"
"Yeah. Nesryn was actually a high-ranking officer in Zaledrid's military before the guild was formed." I was thinking about that when a shiver ran through me. I then realized that the fire was starting to shrink, but seeing the pot that Darius used to cook sparked another question.
"Darius, how'd you learn to cook?" I asked.
"Huh?" He looked over at me, obviously caught off-guard by the question. He laughed. "Oh, right. My parents own a restaurant together, so they taught me."
"Really?" He nodded.
"Where at?" Vixia inquired, taking another bite of her food.
"Actually, it's in Centrum City. Maybe we can stop by if we have time."
"That would be awesome!" Vixia cheered.
"You know, you've gotten a lot more open since we first met," Darius replied with a laugh. Vixia shrugged.
"That's just how I am. You could even ask Ket."
"How did you two meet anyway?" Darius asked. "You two seem really close."
"Well, we are married," I replied bluntly.
"Well, yeah, but you two seem to have a lot of history." Somewhere along the way, Vixia had grown quiet. She was gripping the hem of her skirt now.
"Are you sure you want to know?" she asked.
"Wait, did you do something illegal?"
"Technically, yes," I answered. "Vixia and I lived at the same orphanage and we ran away together."
"Really?" He looked over at Vixia, who nodded. "How old were you guys?"
"Fourteen, I think."
"Wow . . ." Darius' voice trailed off and we all looked back at the dwindling fire. After a moment of silence, I finally spoke up.
"We should clean up and get to bed. We still have quite a ways to go."
Vixia and Darius agreed and we got almost everything put away and loaded back into the wagon before heading into our tents. Even though I was cozy and warm with Vixia in our tent, I couldn't sleep. The night continued to drag on while I watched silently as Vixia slept with Puff curled up on her chest. I let out a quiet sigh and rolled onto my back, now staring at the makeshift ceiling.
Maybe I should get some fresh air . . .
I crawled out from under the blankets and opened the tent's entrance. I slipped my boots on as quietly as I could and stepped onto the grass. I wandered over to one of the logs that surrounded the glowing remnants of the fire and sat down. Unsure of what else to do, I looked up.
The stars twinkled against the pitch-black sky and the moon's light softly illuminated everything around me. I was still looking at it all when I thought about the conversation from earlier. It didn't bother me since it wasn't like I had ever known what having a family was like before Vixia, and I wasn't ashamed to admit that I was a runaway, either. But then again, it felt like all I ever did was run away anyway. I was thinking about all of this when I felt something climbing up my back. I recognized the feeling and looked down at my shoulder to see Puff perched there. We were making eye contact when a question popped into my head.
I know that you're different, but why?
He trilled at me and rubbed the rough scales on his face on the side of my neck.
"All right, let's go back to bed." I gently scratched the underside of his chin and stood up. We went back to the tent and I promptly fell asleep.
We were on the road again almost immediately after we got up. We made a small breakfast from our rations and packed the tents back into the wagon by the time it was 9:00. All of us avoided the conversation from last night, and I could tell that Vixia was being weighed down by her own thoughts. After all, she still remembered the family who abandoned her. We were getting ready to go when Darius finally broke the silence.
"Hey, I'm sorry if I pried last night. I didn't mean to and didn't realize how personal of a question that was."
"It's all right," Vixia replied. "You didn't know. I just don't like thinking much about those times."
"I can only imagine . . ." Darius shifted nervously. "Also, if you guys don't want to go to my family's restaurant, we don't have to."
"Why wouldn't we want to?" I asked, tilting my head.
"Well, because . . ." Darius hesitated and just motioned to Vixia and me. "I didn't know if seeing me with my family would be hurtful."
"Not at all," Vixia replied, grinning. "All that stuff is old news. Besides—" She paused and grabbed my hand. "I have my real family now."
I felt my face begin to burn, but instead of saying anything, I squeezed her hand. Darius smiled and let out a chuckle.
"You okay there, Ketsuna? You're turning a little red."
"Yeah, I'm fine. Let's get going." Darius nodded and Puff began to grow to a proper size to pull the wagon. Vixia beamed as we walked alongside it together.
After that, it didn't take long to reach Centrum City. Somewhere along the way, we started to find piles of snow as we worked our way up north. It began with splotches of it here and there, but as we continued, it got to the point where it blanketed everything. It was at its thickest when we finally reached the edge of Centrum City's general area. We had to stop our wagon a short distance from the city's outer walls and hid it by some trees and shrubs. Puff shrunk back down to his usual size after I unhooked him from the reins and he hid in the hood of Vixia's cloak. She took down her ponytail, so he was also covered by her hair. We were able to pass through the gates without a problem and I was amazed by what was on the other side.
The city was busy, much like Tidalsong City, but there was a different atmosphere to it. Shops and homes lined the brick streets, smoke rising from their chimneys. Snow covered almost everything and children were playing in it, throwing snowballs at each other and building forts. I witnessed one kid get nailed in the face with a snowball when Darius' voice brought my attention back to my party.
"Well, here we are," he declared, motioning to a crowded restaurant. It was a decent-sized place with a red roof and a wooden sign out front listing the day's specials.
"It looks nice," Vixia replied cheerfully, "and if the cooking there is anything like yours, I'm sure it'll be great."
"Actually, my parents are better at cooking than I am." Vixia's jaw practically dropped and Puff chirped from her hood.
"Will we be able to feed Puff without anyone seeing?" I asked.
"As long as he stays in Vixia's hood, it shouldn't be a problem. Plus, we can take some leftovers to feed him later if we can't right now."
Puff trilled from under Vixia's hair and I laughed. We headed into the restaurant and the first thing I noticed was that it was surprisingly calm for how packed it was. Then I saw Darius looking at a woman behind the front counter. She was writing something down on a sheet of paper and he grinned as he watched her.
"No welcome back?" he asked. The woman lifted her head and it became apparent that she was older than she initially seemed, but that was quickly dwarfed by the shocked expression on her face. It quickly twisted into one of joy and she dropped her pen.
"Darius!" She rushed over and he opened his arms. They hugged and I looked over at Vixia, who was watching with a smile.
I guess it really isn't bothering her.
When I looked back at Darius, I realized that he and his mother were already looking at us.
"Mama, these are my friends. Meet Ketsuna and Vixia." The older woman began to greet us cheerfully as a man around the same age walked over.
"Welcome back," he cheered, pulling Darius into a hug. "Are you on some sort of break from the guild?"
"No." Darius shook his head, then motioned to Vixia and me. "We're on a quest, but I figured we'd stop by while we were in the area."
"Are you guys hungry?" Darius' mom asked. Vixia's ears perked up at the question.
"Yes!" We laughed at her eagerness and Darius' mom went to prepare a table for us while his dad headed back into the kitchen. We were seated right away, as Darius had expected, and instead of having us order, Darius' dad brought a whole buffet to our table. After Darius chatted and caught up with them for a bit, they left us alone to discuss our quest. Fortunately, the sound of the other customers talking and eating hid our conversation from everyone else.
"All right, let's come up with a strategy for when we get to the forest," Darius started. "Vixia, do you still have the map?"
She nodded and retrieved it from inside her cloak. She passed it across the table and brushed some hair away from the side of her neck. Darius began to unroll the map on the table while Vixia ripped a chunk of meat off one of the dishes. Puff poked his head out just barely into view and eagerly took the piece of food.
"Don't make a mess, okay?" Vixia pleaded to Puff. He trilled back at her and disappeared into her hood again. I laughed and picked up my fork as Darius pointed to a spot on the map.
"If we start here, we should be able to walk in a circle around the whole forest so we can search most of it in one go."
"Can we visit somewhere along the way?" Vixia asked.
"In the forest?"
"Yeah, I think it's about here." She leaned forward, pressing her fingertip against a specific point on the map.
"Why? What's there?"
"Zelora's shrine," Vixia answered. "Actually, here, let me mark it." Darius handed her a pencil from a pouch on his belt and she marked an x on the spot she had been pointing to. Darius raised an eyebrow at her while I swallowed my food.
"Ah, you don't know about Zelora, do you?" I asked. Darius shook his head. Vixia sat back in her seat again and started to explain.
"She is my patron deity. I worship her and she gives me my magic."
"Oh, really? I thought most mages get their power from enchanted weapons or items."
"They usually do, but I don't. Also, I prefer the term witch," Vixia corrected. "There is much more to my practice than buying magical items." She was about to start eating her own meal when someone approached us.
"Are you from the IronScale Slayers?"
I looked over to see a kid, no older than 15, standing by our table. There was a nervous look on his face while he waited for an answer.
"Yeah, we are," I answered.
"Really?" The kid's eyes looked like they were going to start sparkling. "You guys are so cool!"
Vixia and I exchanged unsure glances when Darius spoke up.
"Do you need something?" he asked, rolling the map back up.
"Oh, um . . ." The kid fidgeted for a second and stepped back a little. "Usually, when the dragon-slaying guild is out here, there's something going on, so I wanted to wish you luck." Vixia was the first of us to respond this time.
"Thank you." She smiled at the kid and he nodded before leaving. I watched silently as he returned to his table.
Maybe we did the right thing by joining the guild.
Our meal continued normally from that point on. At one point, Darius' parents came by again to chat with us and stayed with us until we were getting ready to leave.
Vixia and I stepped out of the restaurant first and the other three followed behind us, saying their goodbyes. We gave them space, standing a few steps away and watching silently as they interacted. Seeing the three of them standing together made me realize how similar they were. Darius looked like the spitting image of his father but with his mother's eyes and hair color. It was only obvious when they all stood side-by-side. I wondered if Vixia had noticed the same thing when she took my hand and squeezed it a few times. I smiled at her.
After a few minutes of standing out in the snow, it was time to depart from Centrum City.
"I'll visit again soon," Darius promised. It didn't seem to appease his parents, but it was all they could ask for. They finally said their goodbyes, and Darius turned and joined Vixia and me, waving over his shoulder as we started to walk away. We were on the road again.