The Rise of The Dragon Queen
The search for the dragon began once we made our way beyond Centrum City's walls and followed a winding dirt path into the woods, quickly finding ourselves deep inside of it. We wandered around for a while but found nothing. Vixia and I were walking behind the wagon, which Puff was pulling again, when my wife sighed and looked at me.
"Do you sense anything?" she asked in a whisper. Darius, who was walking ahead of all of us, was completely oblivious. I shook my head.
"No, nothing yet." Vixia nodded in response and her eyes shifted, taking in our surroundings.
"We're close to the shrine now," she stated, this time loud enough for Darius to hear. He looked at us from over his shoulder as Vixia rushed forward, pointing toward an area full of trees and dense shrubs. I saw him raise an eyebrow at her.
"How can you tell?"
"I just know. Let's stop here and take a quick break."
Vixia ran off ahead, leaping over the brush and waving for us to follow. Darius and I helped free Puff from the wagon and we went after her.
We were making our way through the brush when I realized it was even more overgrown than the last time we had visited. I stepped into the clearing to find that everything was blanketed in snow, even the small stone structure that acted as Zelora's shrine. Vixia was now sitting in front of it with her head bowed and her eyes closed. Darius sat down at the edge of the clearing, so Puff and I joined him. He was drinking water from his canteen when I sat down.
"So, that tiny shrine belongs to the god that gives Vixia her powers?"
"Goddess," I corrected, "but yeah, that's it."
"Hmm." He watched Vixia for a moment, then spoke up again. "She must be pretty devout if she remembered exactly where it is. I definitely wouldn't have been able to find it from memory in all of this." He motioned to the map beside him, pointing out that we were exactly where Vixia had made her mark at the restaurant.
"Yeah, can't say I'm surprised, though. Zelora means a lot to her." I let out a breath through my mouth and it froze in wisps in the air as I tried to count how many years it had been since we last visited. "It's been a while."
"Hmm." Darius leaned back against the trunk of the tree that he was sitting under and passed me the canteen. I was taking a drink when I felt a pain in my chest. I immediately spit out what was in my mouth and gasped, clutching my shirt.
"Are you okay?" Darius asked, panicked.
"Dragon!" I stumbled to my feet as quickly as I could while I pulled my sword, which had been lying in the snow beside me, out of its sheath. I dropped the sheath back on the ground before running toward Vixia. I was almost to her when a dragon swooped down from above.
"Vixia, look out!" She opened her eyes and threw her hand toward the monster that was flying toward her.
A beam of light shot forth from her palm and hit the dragon head-on. It screamed and veered away from us, falling in the snow. I rushed toward it, ready to strike, but something snagged my clothes and held me back. I looked over my shoulder to see Puff biting the back of my cloak and digging his claws into the ground.
"Puff, let go!"
He snorted in response and tugged at my cloak again. I tilted my head, then turned my attention back to the other dragon, which was starting to get up. When it turned, I could see its eyes were not pitch-black like the other dragons I had fought. Instead, they were the same as Puff's eyes. I froze for a moment as the dragon and I stared at each other.
I was brought back to reality when Darius rushed past me, holding his ax in a ready position to swing.
"Wait!" I dropped my sword and Puff let go of my cloak. I ran after Darius, grabbing his wrists and pulling him back as hard as I could. My knuckles ached from how hard I was holding on. "Don't hurt it!" He looked back at me, the seriousness in his eyes piercing through me as his eyebrows furrowed.
"What? Why?" We both turned our attention back at the dragon as it ran a few feet and then flapped its wings, bits of snow falling from its body. It rose into the air, flying away as quickly as it had appeared. All of us watched silently as it shrunk against the horizon.
Darius dropped his ax when I let go of his wrist. He turned toward me and his eyes narrowed. This was when Vixia walked over to us, appearing confused. Puff joined me and stood by my side as I stared off in the direction where the dragon had gone.
Why was it like Puff?
The ride back to the guildhall was quiet and disappointment hung in the air around us. Vixia was curled up toward the back of the wagon while Darius walked along beside it, only a few feet away from her. Meanwhile, I sat on the edge furthest from both of them. I stared at the snowy ground as it passed by us slowly. The cold breeze nipped at my skin, but I did nothing to stop it as I listened to Darius.
"Nesryn is going to be pissed," he grumbled. I felt my stomach drop at that realization and the regret began to sink in. That was when I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. I looked over to see that it was Vixia.
"Hey, it's going to be okay." For the first time, I didn't believe her. I looked back down and she snuggled up to me, covering both of us in a blanket.
Did I really do the right thing?
We continued on our way home through the night and found ourselves back at the guildhall in the early morning hours before the sun was even visible. We headed straight to Nesryn's chambers and knocked on the door. She answered it groggily.
"Yes?" She rubbed her eyes and let out a yawn. Once she managed to actually look at us, she perked up. "Oh, you're back already?"
"Yes, but the news isn't good," Darius explained, his eyes shifting from Nesryn's face to the floor. There was silence for a moment and my hands began to tremble. Nesryn sighed and opened her door wider, stepping aside.
"Come in." We did as she commanded and stood in a line in front of her, side by side. None of us wanted to look at her, so we glanced around the dimly lit room instead. My eyes met Vixia's a few times before Nesryn finally spoke again.
"What happened?" I saw Darius tense up out of the corner of my eye. Vixia was the one to speak up first.
"We failed to eliminate the dragon, ma'am." Her voice was quiet and cold. She recounted what happened, but I zoned out for most of it. That is, until she struggled to explain exactly how the dragon had gotten away. That was when Nesryn interrupted her.
"Are you joking?" I could hear her anger rising. I had only heard this kind of sternness when she spoke to Sparrow. Vixia shook her head and I felt Puff sink deeper into the pouch on my belt. Even he didn't want to be here.
"It's my fault," I admitted. "I let it get away—"
"What do you mean you let it get away?" I flinched at her words and made the mistake of looking at her. As soon as our eyes met, it felt like an arrow pierced my chest, so I looked back down again.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. I felt my teeth clench as soon as those words left my mouth.
Am I really?
Nesryn stopped for a second, but she hadn't calmed down yet. That was when the tirade really began.
"Do you have any idea how many lives you have just endangered by doing that?" she growled. I opened my mouth to respond, but she cut me off before I could. "Hundreds, if not thousands!" she screamed. "Their blood is on your hands now."
My eyes widened as I closed my mouth again, pressing my lips firmly shut. At that moment, I recalled every time that Vixia and I had been insulted by Sparrow. I remembered the words of the farmer that judged Vixia and the sneers of those who cared that we were different. Last of all, I remembered when Vixia and I met with Queen Evelyn and the conversation that sent us here to the guild. Nesryn was turning to walk over to her desk when I opened my mouth again, clenching my fists as I spoke.
"I didn't come here to save anyone." Vixia and Darius's heads both snapped over to look at me and Nesryn froze, her back to us. I lifted my gaze to watch as she turned around slowly, eyes wide.
"What did you just say?"
"What, did you seriously not know that the queen blackmailed Vixia and me to make us join the guild?" I gave Nesryn a moment to respond, but she didn't. "Hmm, I guess she must have left that detail out. I never did this to be a savior, I did this to protect a place that I love, but looking at everything now, I really shouldn't have. Why should we protect a place that demonizes and mocks us just for living?" Vixia shifted uncomfortably beside me and I could tell she was considering what I had said.
"Ketsuna, Vixia, you are both suspended from guild activities for the time being," Nesryn snapped. "I will reconsider your assignments and discuss your position with the IronScale Slayers with the queen. Darius, you are back on kitchen duty the day after tomorrow. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," Darius replied softly. I continued to glare at the guild master as she stepped closer. This time, I didn't flinch or look away when she spoke.
"I expected more from you," she said in a low voice. I didn't say anything back. "Get out of my sight."
She nearly slammed the door behind us after we stepped out into the hallway. My whole body began to shake as I took a deep breath and let it back out. My anxiety was through the roof by that point, but I wasn't prepared for what was coming next. Vixia tapped on my shoulder and I looked back to find Darius glaring at us. The three of us stood there for a moment, unsure of what to say until he spoke up.
"Is that really how you feel about all of this?" Neither of us responded. "What did the queen blackmail you with?" he asked.
"Deportation," I answered quietly.
"If you hate it here so much, then maybe you should have just gone back. Now I have to worry about my parents possibly getting killed because of you." I looked down at the floor again. "I'm heading to bed," Darius said finally. He turned and left without waiting for a response. As soon as he was gone, I heard someone cackling behind us.
"How the hell did you manage that?" I looked over my shoulder to see Sparrow leaning against a doorframe with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face.
"Weren't you supposed to head out already?" Vixia asked.
"Got delayed because the queen wanted to my party," he answered smugly, "but now I'm glad we didn't leave. The big bad dragon-slayers aren't so tough after all, huh?"
I clenched my fists and turned to walk down the hall, heading toward our room. He let out a laugh as I walked by, seething. Vixia came after me, trying to match my pace.
"Ketsuna . . ." Her voice trailed off as she walked beside me. I just shook my head.
I'll just make things worse if I do anything else.
When Vixia finally came into the room, I was already lying on the bed with my face buried in my pillow. I could hear the sound of her boots against the floor as she walked around the bed and the click and slide of her opening our window. I felt a cold breeze prick at my skin as I lifted my head to look at her. She wasn't even looking at me. Instead, she stared off into the darkness of the night. When she did turn her head, I saw a familiar glow in her eyes.
"You know, we don't have to stay." I tilted my head at her.
"What do you mean?"
"We can just leave," she answered, leaning against the windowsill. "It's not like we've never run away before."
I mean, she wasn't wrong there. I started to consider it when she sighed and walked back over to sit beside me. She reached over and began to rub my back.
"What about our house?" Her hand froze on my shoulder for a moment, then gradually began to move again.
"It's just a house. All that matters is that we stick together. Besides, this place isn't exactly homely, is it?" I shook my head, remembering back to when we met with the queen.
"You're right, but where are we supposed to go?"
"I don't know, but I'm sure we'll figure it out." That was when she stood up. I sat up and faced her, finding that she was already holding her hand out to me. "Do you want to?"
I hesitated for a moment, but then I reached out and took her hand. I nodded.
"Let's go, but before we leave town, I want to stop by the house."
"Okay," Vixia agreed. I stood up and we quickly got to work, gathering our things. It still wasn't even daybreak when we were finally ready.
"Puff," I called to the tiny dragon, who was resting in his spot in our closet. He glided down to the bed and yawned. I cupped him in my hands and set him on the windowsill. He hopped outside and already began to expand. I helped Vixia step out of the window, guiding her head and the orb of her staff to make sure that they made it through, and then followed her out. When we were both ready, Puff flapped his wings and we were off to our old home.
There was a hard knock on the door when I opened my eyes the next morning. At first, I could hardly see because of all the sunlight that had flooded into the room, but once my eyes adjusted, I could tell I was lying on the couch in the living room of my home. I didn't remember that Vixia and I had left the guild until I looked over to find her and Puff sleeping next to me. As soon as the memories came flooding back, I jumped off the couch and began shaking Vixia awake.
"Vixia, we gotta go." She groaned as the knocking at the door continued. I let go of her shoulders and turned to close the curtains on the window. After they were shut, a voice called out from the other side of the front door.
"Royal guard, open up!" It was then that Vixia finally woke up. Her ear twitched at the unfamiliar voice and she was jolted awake. She looked from the hallway to me as I gathered our gear.
"When did we—"
"I don't know, but we have to run." I was shoving some bread into one of our bags when I realized that this was the first time we had slept since we camped out with Darius. I shook the thought away as I continued to grab anything that I thought we would need.
"How are we going to get out?" Vixia asked. When I looked over at her, I noticed Puff clinging to her shoulder, still groggy. I was trying to formulate an answer when there was a crash by the front door, followed by the thundering sound of hurried footsteps. I grabbed her wrist and rushed for the window. The guards had just made it into the living room when I flung the window open and kicked out the screen. We made it through just in time to be greeted by more waiting for us at the back of the house.
Shit, we're surrounded. Vixia and I froze, staring straight at the guards in front of us. I was wondering if this was it when Puff launched himself off of Vixia's shoulder, wisps emerging from his mouth. He landed on the ground between the guards and us and let his flames out, setting everything around us ablaze. The guards screamed, trying to scramble, while Vixia, Puff, and I started running again. We were coming around the corner of the house when I spotted more guards heading our way.
"Puff, we need to fly." The tiny dragon trilled and began to grow larger and larger in size with each step. The guards approaching us slowed to a halt as Puff let out a fierce shriek, stretching his wings and glaring at them. He shot a quick flame their way as a deterrent while Vixia and I climbed onto his back. He took a running start and began to lift off the ground. I watched as we rose higher and higher, our home becoming a tiny box among the flames we left behind.
I sighed, petting the side of Puff's neck as the wind lashed at my ears. Vixia wrapped her arms around my waist and gave me a slight squeeze. That was when I noticed that she was holding a book. I looked down to see which one it was and my eyes widened upon seeing the cover.
"You grabbed my dragon book?" Vixia rested her chin on my shoulder and I could feel her tilt her head a little.
"I mean, we took it with us the last time we ran away, right? Plus, I thought it might be useful." I nodded and told her to put it in my bag. She was fastening it closed again when she asked, "Where should we go?"
I considered for a second, looking at the horizon before us.
"I have an idea. Puff, turn around. We're heading north."
Puff flew for a few hours before it seemed like we needed to take a break. By then, we were almost to Centrum City again. We were at the edge of the winding farmlands and were making our way into the hills when Vixia tapped my shoulder.
"Do you think this is far enough?"
"No, but I think we still have a bit more time before the royal guards catch up. Puff, do you need a break?"
The dragon snorted, beginning to descend from the sky. We were gliding along, making our way closer and closer to the ground, when Vixia squeezed my arm a little.
"What was your plan anyway?"
"I have a few, actually. At first, I thought that maybe we could hide in the forest again, but since Darius knows where Zelora's shrine is, that may not be the safest option."
"What are our other choices?"
"Well, we could continue north and hide in the mountains or head west."
"Are you thinking about going to Draladen?" My shoulders tensed at the suggestion.
"Maybe," I answered quietly, glancing away. Vixia squeezed my arm again, three times to be exact, as Puff finally landed on the ground. Looking at where we had landed, it seemed we were far from any public roads. Some patches of tall grass poked out from beneath the snow covering the hill and swayed in the wind. A few trees dotted the landscape but not much else.
We don't have a lot of coverage out here, but if we're only stopping for a bit, it should be fine.
Vixia was the first one to slide off of Puff's back. She landed on her feet and I followed, finally noticing how much my knuckles ached from holding onto Puff. The dragon himself stayed in his larger form, sitting on the ground and watching Vixia and me. When I turned to Vixia, her eyes were scanning the area around us. She then pointed toward a cluster of trees.
"Let's go over there. At least there is some shade." I nodded and Puff and I followed her up a nearby hill. When we reached the spot, Puff shrunk back down to his usual size and curled up in Vixia's lap after she sat down. She set one of our bags beside her and began rummaging through it. She pulled out a piece of bread and tore it in half, passing one of them to me. I sat down at the base of a tree across from her and leaned back against the trunk. I took a bite of my bread as I retrieved my book from my bag.
"We can take shifts keeping watch for now," I said. "I'll take the first shift, so go ahead and take a nap when you're done eating." Vixia nodded as she fed Puff a scrap of bread.
Some time passed and Vixia and Puff ended up falling asleep. Vixia had ended up using her bag as a pillow while Puff snored soundly on her chest. I didn't move after I finished eating and instead began to read my book, taking breaks here and there to look around and make sure we were still alone. I remember staring at the cover for a moment, recalling how I used to skim through it all the time at the orphanage. It was a bit more worn now than it was then, but the illustrations were still as clear as day. I flipped through the pages briefly and felt a bit of relief when I saw that none of them were crumpled or torn. I was looking at the introductory page when I realized that I had never actually read the book before. So, I did just that.
According to the book, dragons were first discovered hundreds of years ago, and none of the kingdoms, including Zaledrid, could agree on how to deal with them. Their strength and magical abilities made them a serious threat. Zaledrid wanted them to be exterminated while neighboring kingdoms saw them as potential tools. One kingdom in particular, Draladen, sought to tame them. I briefly remembered when Ms. Emery first mentioned Draladen to me, claiming that was where I was from. After the memory faded from my thoughts, I reached up to touch one of my ears.
Is all of this because I am one of them?
I was snapped away from my thoughts when Vixia began to stir, waking Puff in the process. The tiny dragon scurried onto her shoulder as she sat up, yawning and rubbing her eyes.
"Man, I needed that."
"Are you sure you don't want to sleep more? It hasn't been that long."
I looked down at the book and an idea popped into my head. I wedged a scrap of paper between the book's pages and set it aside, turning my attention to Vixia.
"Hey, can I talk to you about something?" She stopped mid-stretch and looked at me.
"Huh? Sure, what's up?"
"So, you know how Puff is different from other dragons?"
"I think the other dragon I let go was too. I don't think that all of them are monsters by nature like everyone here says."
She tilted her head when I said that and scratched the back of her neck.
"I'm not disagreeing, but why do you think that?"
"Something in this book gave me that impression," I answered, tapping the cover with my fingertips. Vixia seemed to consider this for a second, then nodded.
"Yeah, I guess that makes sense. So, the dragon from the forest was similar to Puff?" I confirmed while she ran her fingers down Puff's back. He stretched out his wings and the corners of his mouth seemed to curl upwards into a smile.
"Yeah. That's why I think there might be different kinds of dragons; some are monsters and others are friendly."
"Maybe." We sat there, silent for a moment. During that time, Puff jumped off Vixia and headed toward me. He clambered up my leg and sat on one of my knees, beaming at me.
He trilled and leaped onto my chest before making his way to my shoulder and tangling himself in my hair. I could feel his rough scales brush up against my skin and I cracked a smile.
"Thank you," I whispered, using a finger to pat his head.
"You two are so cute."
I looked over at Vixia again. That was when a new question came up.
"Hey, do you think I did the right thing?"
"Letting the dragon go." There was silence again, and I could tell she was choosing her next words carefully.
"Honestly, I don't know. But what I do know is that you've never led me astray before and I trust your intuition. I think you should, too."
"You think so?" Now it was her turn to nod.
"Mhm." She got up and sat down again beside me. She pulled me close, careful to not disturb Puff.
"You know, if Queen Evelyn had sent you to Draladen, I would have gone with you."
"I know." She hugged me tighter.
"Everything's going to be okay," she promised in a hushed voice.
At that moment, I realized we had lost so much by leaving the guild and that we had left our old life behind completely. Once again, it was the two of us against the world, except this time, we had Puff.
I hope so.
I stayed in her embrace for a while longer but wasn't sure what to do aside from hug her back. I rested my forehead against her shoulder as several thoughts ran through my mind. Then, something popped into my head.
"You know," I started quietly, "if the dragon we went after wasn't bad, maybe the one that Sparrow's party is going after isn't either."
I tilted my head upward to see Vixia already staring at me. She nodded.
"Should we go check it out?"
"We can try," Vixia replied. After hearing that, Puff jumped off of my shoulder and started to shift into a larger size again. I stood up, brushing the snow off my pants as I pulled the straps of my bag onto my shoulder.
"Then let's go catch up to them."