Chapter 9:

Chapter 9

The Rise of The Dragon Queen

The world around us grew dark and cold as Puff flew through the night sky. We were gliding over a large, sprawling forest when Vixia finally started to regain consciousness. She shifted a little and looked up at me, the back of her head resting against my chest. She shivered in the cold and I tugged at her cloak, trying to cover her more.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I should be," she answered, sitting up a little. "Where are we?"

"I'm not sure, but I think Puff has an idea. Anyway, what happened back there?"

"He caught us off guard. I didn't realize that he was on the dragon at first. I didn't even get a chance to do anything."

"Did he tell you how he got it? That dragon wasn't like Puff." Vixia shook her head and pressed her palm against her forehead. Her brows furrowed and she let out a sigh.

"No, but I can tell you he's gone off the deep end. He was trying so hard to wipe me out that he hit his party mates too."

"So, by the time I got up—"

"They were already dead," Vixia stated, finishing my sentence. I slumped and stared down at the forest below us while petting Puff. I was trying to make sense of everything when I noticed something about our surroundings.

Why does all of this look familiar?

"Puff, where—"

"Wait, I hear something." Vixia sat up, her ears perking up as she looked down at the forest. Her eyes were glowing as she scanned the area. "We're not alone."

"What do you—" I didn't even get the chance to ask before a giant ball of fire erupted from the ground, heading straight for us. I grabbed onto Vixia and Puff as tightly as I could as Puff did a barrel roll in the air. I felt the heat from the flames as they whizzed by us. As soon as we were level again, Vixia and I looked down. Another one was already coming our way.

Puff saw this and immediately rolled again, this time diving down toward the ground. Vixia and I screamed as we held on for our lives, and I could feel the blood in my knuckles follow the course of gravity. I opened my eyes to see that we were closer to the forest's canopy and that a large stone wall was in sight, lined with soldiers and mounted catapults. Vixia must have noticed the same thing because she reached out her hand past me, reciting an incantation.

Daggers of ice, conjured to freeze

Blades so sharp they cut with ease

Zelora, I request that you grant this power to me

So mote it be!

Just as she finished the lines, shards of ice emerged from a magic circle in her palm and shot off like arrows. Several soldiers collapsed, some even plummetted from the edge of the wall, and many of the shards struck the catapults, severing the ropes that made them functional. Their screams diminished as Puff began to ascend again, taking us further away.

"What the hell was that?"

Vixia shrugged.

"I don't know, but I don't think those were set up for us." She slumped again, resting her head against my arm. I held her close, unsure of what to say.

We finally landed not long after the incident at the wall. Puff chose a small clearing that was surrounded on one side by the forest and on the other by a mountain pass. I guessed we were somewhere near the edge of Zaledrid's border, but something didn't feel right. Once we were sure that Vixia could stand, Puff began to lead us toward the mountains. Vixia stretched as we walked and winced from the pain of her injuries.

"Where does it hurt?" I asked, walking beside her.

"My ribs are a bit tender from you holding me so tight and my head hurts, but I think I'm fine."

"All right. Let me know if you need help, okay?" She nodded and continued to follow Puff. I wandered along behind her, looking at our surroundings.

Have I been here before? I couldn't shake this thought as we found our way to a dirt path, which winded up a tall hill. Puff continued making his way up while we followed.

When we came to the summit, I saw the place I feared the most. At the end of the trail was a large metal gate. One of the doors was barely hanging on, the other had collapsed on the ground, and the whole thing was rusted and falling apart. Beyond it lay the ruins of a village. Rubble had been left on the ground, untouched, as did remnants of buildings. Nature had overtaken the area, cloaking everything with grass, moss, and ivy. Hidden beneath the plants were the remains of former villagers, everything but their bones worn away by time. Standing tall toward the back of the village, across from the gate, was what I recognized as the prison.

It all came back to me almost as if I were recalling a nightmare, recounting the days I spent there.

During those days, I often found myself lost in daydreams. The dim cell around me would fade away as I dreamed of my nonexistent freedom, imagining what it would feel like to lie on the grass in the sunlight instead of the cold, hard floor. Sometimes, I could almost hear waves crashing against an imaginary shore even though I had never seen a beach before and we were nowhere near the ocean. A child's mind is wondrous; once you explain a concept like the ocean to them, their imagination runs wild. I was dreaming of the warm sand between my toes and the salty breeze when two guards entered my cell.

The creak of the opening door snapped me back to reality and I painfully rolled over onto my back. The chain that cuffed my ankle to the wall rattled as I moved and groaned, the ceiling whirling in my vision. My eyes followed the firelight while it danced across the walls of the room, and eventually, my gaze found its way to the doorway. Two men were standing there and one of them was holding a torch, which he hung by the door so they could see before he slammed the cell door shut. The older of the two, who had white hair and a wrinkled face, stayed there. The first one stepped closer and stopped once he was beside me, glaring down at me. His hair was dark and so were his eyes. His expression hardened as I let out a cough.

"You're a waste of space," he growled. I didn't respond, instead shifting my eyes to stare right past him at the ceiling. That was when he scoffed and slammed his foot into my side. I curled up into a ball after the connection was made, the chains rattling again as my body ached. I gasped from the pain and tried to draw in a breath as I heard the older man yell out.

"Are you stupid? Don't touch it!" I coughed and groaned, unable to throw up even though I wanted to. I writhed in pain as the guard knelt down beside me. He grabbed my chin, pulling my face up to look at him.

"Let go, that hurts!" He gripped me harder.

"You're going to die in here," he hissed. "You should have never been created." He finally let go and my head dropped back down to the floor. I sobbed quietly as they left, locking the barred door behind them.

A day had passed before the older guard returned, alone this time. He appeared at my cell door, carrying an identical torch to the one from before, while I glared at him from my position on the floor. He began to unlock the cell as I rolled over, getting on my knees. His eyes narrowed when he heard my chains rattle and he closed the door behind him. He hung the torch and the disgust on his face was illuminated by the firelight.

"So, you're still alive?" I didn't say anything back at first, just stared. I was about to open my mouth to speak when a blood-curdling cry that I had never heard before ripped through my cell. The ground trembled as I winced, gripping the dirty shirt that I was wearing.

Why does my chest hurt like this?

"Dragon!" a sentry screamed. His shrill voice was immediately followed by the sound of crumpling metal and cries of agony. I looked up at the older guard as he stared at the cell's door in horror, listening helplessly as the snapping of bones echoed from down the hall. He turned his attention back to me.

"You called it to aid you, didn't you?" he snapped.

"No, I—"

"You should have never existed!" the man shrieked, rushing for the door. He flung it open and slammed it behind him once he reached the other side.

"Wait!" I pleaded, but he wouldn't listen. He retrieved the key from his pocket and locked the door.

"I'll make sure you perish!" He held up the silver key, relishing it like a trophy. I scrambled toward him, fumbling over words to say, but stopped when I felt metal tug at my skin. I looked back at my cuffed ankle, then at the guard as he locked the door. My eyes met his the instant a jet of flames rushed down the hallway, engulfing him.

The key clattered against the floor as he let out a short, deafening scream. I watched as his charred body hit the ground, still burning. As soon as he collapsed, the fire ceased. The building around me trembled for a moment and the dragon screamed from above. I stared at the key, stretching my arm out toward it.

Just a little further . . . I reached out as far as I could, my shoulder burning as I pushed myself to my limit. My heart sank as I found that the key was just outside my reach.

I rested my cheek against the floor, my arm still outstretched as the world around me faded to black.

The torch's firelight illuminated the room as I remained on the floor, fading in and out of consciousness. Even in my sleep, I couldn't stop thinking about the key. I imagined holding it, running my fingers across the metal cylinder that made its neck, and unlocking the door that kept me from my freedom. When I awoke in the morning, I was surprised to find it within my grasp.

I sat up, awake and alert as I stared at the key in my hand. At that moment, I was holding my chance at freedom. I whirled around and seized my ankle, jamming the key into the shackle clasped around it. My hands trembled as I turned it and the clasp opened, releasing my leg. I stared at it in silence as it clattered against the floor.

After a moment of amazement, I stood and bolted for the door. I slipped my hands through the bars and unlocked it from the other side. Then, I used some of my remaining strength to open it, step over the guard's body, and rush for the prison's exit.

I was finally free.

I stepped outside of the building for the first time. I found myself unable to see the sun through the thick veil of smoke that covered the village, originating from the buildings around me. Most of them were still on fire when I emerged, but I could tell from the wreckage that it was not as intense as it had been the night before. I was unsure what to do until I heard something move behind me. I turned around to see the culprit, an enormous dragon with golden scales, lying atop the prison's roof, staring down at me.

For a moment, we just stared at each other. It was like I was trapped by its emerald eyes; I couldn't move even if I wanted to. It was the first of the two of us to shift and it stood up tall, stretching out its wings as it rose. It blocked out what little sunlight was visible, so all I could see was its silhouette. It let out a growl and flapped its wings, taking to the air. I watched in amazement as it flew away, leaving me standing there. I didn't move until it completely disappeared from my sight.

It . . . saved me?

After the thought passed through my head, I turned around again and began to walk toward the village's gates, barefoot. I was nearly there when I saw something glisten from the corner of my eye. Curious, I headed toward the sparkling object, finding that it was actually several shards of glass on the ground near one of the torched buildings. I picked one up and saw my reflection for the first time.

I had long, brown hair that was completely matted and grayish-blue eyes. I pushed my hair back to find that my ears were pointed, unlike my captor's. I ran my fingers over their edges, taking in my reflection.

Am I a monster?

All this time, I had assumed that I looked different from them, but this was the only significant detail all along. I looked away from my reflection, glaring at the prison. If I was a monster, I was one who had been set free.

I headed for the village's gates again, making a promise to myself.

I'm never coming back here again.

The memory faded away as I walked toward the center of the village, now significantly older than I was the last time I was there. Reality began to set in and I felt my stomach churn. Vixia was saying something, but I couldn't hear her; it was like I was underwater. I think she was walking up behind me when I first retched.

"Ketsuna!" Her voice became clearer when she grabbed onto my shoulders. I flinched away from her touch, taking a few steps to the side and falling to my knees. My face burned as tears welled up in my eyes. My whole body trembled in a way that it had never done before when I screamed.

"Ketsuna, what's wrong?" Vixia stood behind me, her hands hovering close to my shoulders. I could almost feel the hesitation hanging around her as she considered whether she should try to comfort me or not. I looked up from the ground to see Puff standing in front of me. The way he stood with his back arched told me that he was scared, but as soon as our eyes met, I could finally breathe. I took the deepest breath I could and lowered my gaze.

"Puff, how did you know about this place?" I heard his claws scratch against the ground as he took a few steps back. More tears rolled down my face and splattered on my hands. I gripped the dirt, trying to regulate my breathing. "We have to get out of here."

"Where do you want to go?" Vixia's voice was much calmer than I expected and she finally placed a hand on my shoulder. I lifted my head to stare at the prison.

"I don't know, but we aren't far enough from Zaledrid." Mentioning the kingdom reminded me of when Sparrow mentioned meeting with the queen. "Isn't Sparrow working with the queen? How the hell did he get a dragon? And what was going on at the border?"

"We can figure that out later, but now we need to go somewhere safe. Come on." She helped me get back to my feet, but I had to lean on her since my legs were still shaky. "You know, we can't both be messes right now," she said, grinning at me. There was still dried blood on her face and her wounds were finally starting to scab over. I nodded in agreement and we headed back toward the village's gates, Puff following along behind us.

We wandered around for a bit, but nothing other than the village seemed familiar to me. We followed the winding path until it reached a dead end at a cliff. We were taking a break there when Vixia noticed something hidden by the dense trees.

"Hey, look over there!" She pointed out into the forest below and my eyes followed, finding twinkling lights hidden in the forest's canopy.

"Good eye. Puff, do you think you could take us a bit closer?" The dragon, who had shrunk down by the time we reached the cliff, trilled and nodded. I watched him crawl out of my pocket and land on the ground, already starting to expand. I wiped the raw skin around my eyes a little and Vixia put a hand on my shoulder, rubbing it gently. I put my hand on top of hers and squeezed it a few times, smiling a little.

"Thank you," I whispered. She withdrew her hand.

"It's what I'm here for." We both turned back to Puff, who was now the right size to carry us again. After we climbed on his back, he started flapping his wings and dashed off the edge of the cliff. His wings caught the wind and billowed a little as we glided through the air, heading down toward the shining lights.

The sight of the village confirmed that we had left Zaledrid. The buildings stood in harmony with the trees and plants around them, some even positioned between enormous trunks, shaded by their branches and leaves. There were candle-lit streetlights and the roads were less defined compared to the ones in Zaledrid, made only of dirt and lined with stones. My eyes scanned the area for guards, but I found none. Then, something else caught my eye. My gaze focused on a specific couple as they walked down one of the streets and laughed together. They had pointed ears, just like me. I stared in awe as we swooped in closer. Puff began to wind down toward the ground in large circles when I finally turned my attention back to Vixia. She seemed just as dazzled as I did.

"Ketsuna, they look just like—"

"I know," I replied, my voice sounding more excited than I expected. Puff touched down on the ground right outside the village's entrance, which was formed from two tree branches winding together in an arch. To my surprise, there were no guards standing watch. Vixia and I exchanged glances and I looked back toward the village, anxiety welling up in my chest. Puff shrunk back down and climbed onto my shoulder with a happy chirp. He then nudged the side of my neck with the top of his head. I reached over and petted him with one of my fingers, feeling the tenseness in my chest begin to dissolve. Vixia took my free hand and squeezed it.

Here goes nothing, I thought as she led me through the archway and into the village.

Once we passed through, we found that the village was even more beautiful from the ground than it was from the air. Giant toadstools grew everywhere, poking out of the earth and the trunks of tall trees. There were several shops and homes, and I realized that all the signs were written in a script I had never seen before. My eyes wandered around my surroundings before they made their way back to Vixia. She was squinting at one of the signs.

"You wouldn't happen to know how to read that, would you?" I shook my head and Vixia looked over, spotting the couple I had seen earlier. "Oh, I know! Let's ask them."

"Vixia, wait!" It was too late. She was already walking toward them, smiling and waving. I followed briskly, trying not to knock Puff off my shoulder, and barely caught the beginning of the conversation.

"Excuse me, do you know where the inn is?" One of the Draladenians that she spoke to tilted their head. They looked toward the other person with them.

"What did she say?" Now it was Vixia's turn to be confused. That was when I stepped in.

"Sorry, inn?" I asked, using their language this time. Vixia's head snapped over to me, then back to the others. They smiled in what seemed to be relief and pointed further down the road. I bowed my head slightly to thank them and they continued on their way, one of them mentioning that Vixia was cute. I smiled at the remark but was still confused.

When did I learn Draladenian?

"You speak their language too?" Vixia wondered aloud. I shrugged.

"I don't remember much."

"Alrighty then. Why don't you lead the way?" I did as she requested and we continued down the road, eventually finding a tall building at the base of a massive tree. We stopped in front of it just in time to see some adventurers walk out the front door, set up with all of their gear. They eyed us curiously as they walked by and I remembered that Vixia and I were still covered in dirt from the cavern.

"I think this is the place."

"Isn't it kinda small, though?" I shrugged in response. "Let's go in then." Vixia and I walked up the front steps together and I held the door open for her before I went inside.

When Vixia and I entered the inn, I quickly realized that it was unlike any building that I had been in before. It was built around the trunk of one of the trees I had noticed outside. It ran through the back end of the main room and appeared to exit through the ceiling about ten feet behind the front desk. Two ladies, both with pointed ears, stood there and chatted between the two of them. Almost everything in the room was crafted from wood, and a set of stairs winded up the backside of the trunk, leading to where I assumed the rooms were. Vixia and I were completely awestruck by the time the receptionists noticed us.

"Can I help you?" They were looking specifically at me, speaking in Draladenian. I stepped closer, Vixia hanging back behind me shyly.

"Room?" I asked back, using what bit of the language I remembered. One of them nodded and turned around, but I noticed the other one's eyes were focused on my shoulder. That was when I realized that Puff was still perched there.

Crap! I was about to grab Vixia's hand and run out the door, but then I heard Puff trill as the lady let out a squeal of delight.

"How cute!" she cooed, clasping her hands together as she leaned over the counter. Puff seemed to beam back at her as she grabbed what appeared to be a sliver of jerky from a jar on the counter. She reached out to give it to Puff and he scarfed it down without hesitation. He was licking his lips when the first lady turned back around and held out a key to me. I took it and used my free hand to reach into my pocket. That was when I realized that Vixia and I only had coins from Zaledrid.

"Um . . ." I felt my face begin to burn as I tried to formulate a sentence. "Money, don't have . . . only Zaledrid." I pulled out a single coin and both of the ladies perked up at the sight of it. Vixia did, too, when she heard me mention the kingdom. Both women looked at each other as I set the key on the counter.

"You are from Zaledrid?" I nodded slowly, trying to gauge a reaction from them.

"You can stay for free," the other lady determined. "Your travels must have been hard. The queen is vile and horrible to dragons." I didn't realize what they said in that second part until long after this conversation, but I got the gist of it from the way her face wrinkled in disgust. She picked up the key and pushed it into my palm. "The dragon slayers are evil," she added. That was one of the parts that I understood.

She gave me simple directions to our room and I thanked them quietly, putting the key in my pocket along with the coin. Vixia followed along behind me as I walked up the stairs. When they were out of earshot, Vixia grabbed my bicep.

"What just happened?"

"I'm not sure what's going on, but this place is way different from home." Puff chirped in agreement, licking his lips again. We stopped in front of our door, which was fastened to the tree's trunk. I unlocked it and pushed the door open as I got a sinking feeling in my chest.

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