The Rise of The Dragon Queen
Not long after Vixia and I got settled into our room, there was a knock at the door. One of the ladies from earlier had brought towels and some soap, explaining that there was a large bath that we could use to clean up. Still covered in dirt, we sprung on the opportunity.
As it turns out, the bath that was mentioned was specifically for relaxing, but we were able to clean ourselves off beforehand. We took Puff with us and he immediately curled up on one of the rocks by the water, which was steaming already. Out of the two of us, I was the first to get in. My knees stung when they met the water and it was the first time I noticed that I had scraped my knees getting to Vixia at the cavern. I sat down in the bath and the water rose to my collarbones as I heaved a sigh. Vixia stepped into the bath beside me, pausing every once in a while to let her body adjust to the heat. She clenched her teeth as the water engulfed her wounds but kept lowering herself into the bath. When she finally slipped into it, she left her towel folded on the rocks. She leaned her head back on it like it were a pillow and then looked over at me.
"So, what was up with you earlier?" I shifted a little, looking away from her.
"It's a long story," I replied after a moment.
"Did your family live there?" I shook my head. "Then why did you . . ." Her voice trailed off as she tried to come up with her own answer. That was when I finally explained it all to her. When I was young, I was imprisoned, but I still didn't know why. I escaped because of a dragon attack that destroyed the village and eventually found myself in Zaledrid. After that, I was sent to the orphanage, where I met Vixia. Somewhere through the conservation, Vixia had pulled me into a hug and I was resting my head on her shoulder, trying not to get overwhelmed again. She started stroking my hair when I was done, and it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
"You're not a monster," she finally stated. "That will never happen to you again." Puff then scuttled over to us, trilling. He nudged the side of my face with his forehead, making me smile.
"Thank you. It was a long time ago, but I've never really talked about it before."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
"Well . . ." I thought about it for a moment. "What if I told you and you left me?" Vixia smiled as she shook her head, pulling me into another hug.
"It'd take a lot more than that to get rid of me. You were a kid. There's no way you could have done anything to deserve that." That last sentence hit me in a way that I never expected. Something inside my head just clicked, and I was left crying all over again. Vixia jolted upright, panicked, and looked down at me. "Are you okay?"
"Thank you," I whispered back, sniffling. She stroked my hair again and then let go, standing up. She reached her hand out to me with a smile.
"Come on, I think we've soaked enough. Let's get to bed." I nodded and took her hand. She helped me get to my feet and we climbed out of the bath, Puff following behind us.
The night passed quickly after Vixia and I crawled into bed. After the whole ordeal, we were exhausted. The next morning, Vixia and I returned our key and we headed out of the inn. The receptionists gave Puff another treat and he was still chewing on it when we stepped back onto the road, in the same situation as we were in the night before.
"What do we do now?" Vixia asked.
"Well, I think the first thing we are going to need is money," I answered. That was when my stomach growled loudly. Vixia's ears twitched at the sound and Puff even looked down from my shoulder. Honestly, the jerky he was chewing smelled great. "I didn't even realize that I was hungry."
"Yeah, me too," Vixia admitted, crossing her arms over her stomach. I looked around us but didn't see anything helpful. That was when I got an idea.
"Hey, maybe they have a quest board that we can look over. There were some adventurers here yesterday." I stepped forward to head down the road, but Vixia didn't follow me.
"Ket, look out!" Just as I heard Vixia call for me, I collided with something soft. I stopped and stepped back, finding my face inches from a man's torso, a thick cloak draped over his shoulders. I looked up to see that he had ears like mine and a coarse beard. He was staring back down at me. I stepped further back, raising my hands defensively.
"Sorry!" I piped in Draladenian. He chuckled and I felt my shoulders relax a little. This was when I actually looked at him for the first time.
He was a large man, standing at least six and a half feet tall with broad shoulders and a large belly. Underneath his fur cloak was a silky shirt, a dark pair of pants, and boots with a slight heel on them. I realized that a gold chain was holding his cloak closed and stretched across his barrel-like chest. A similar kind of metal cuffed his ears and they sparkled when they met the sunlight. I found myself staring as one thought crossed my mind.
Is this guy royalty or something?
"It's all right, little one," he said, amused. His eyes scanned Vixia and me before settling on Puff on my shoulder. "You aren't from around here, are you?" he asked, switching to Zaledrid's language. Vixia and I both perked up and we nodded. He smiled again.
"You should come with me."
"Huh? But sir—" Any protest that I was going to make disappeared when my stomach let out another growl. I felt my will to argue dissipate with it as an ache of hunger rippled through me and slowly subsided.
"I can give you food. It won't cost you anything." I looked back at Vixia, unsure of what to do.
What is up with this guy?
"Okay, we'll go," Vixia replied with a nod. I raised an eyebrow at her, then looked back at the man.
"You two will be okay now," he said warmly. "Follow me."
We did as we were told and started to follow him to the outer edge of the village, but Vixia and I hung back by a few feet. I grabbed her arm and pulled her closer to whisper to her.
"What did you do that for?"
"I don't sense any negative energy from him," she replied quietly. "Also, we have Puff if we need to get away."
"Okay, fair." I let it go for the time being and we walked through another cluster of trees. On the other side was a clearing, and this was the first place where I had seen guards since we left Zaledrid. There were five of them, each perched on top of a medium-sized dragon and surrounding a much larger dragon, one that was slightly bigger than Sparrow's. It was covered in emerald-colored scales, and ivory horns protruded from its forehead and curled backward. I was relieved to find that all of the dragon's eyes were clear and full of life.
The man walked right past the guards and headed to the dragon. He climbed up onto its back and motioned for us to follow.
"Come on, she doesn't bite!"
Vixia and I exchanged worried glances and followed his instructions again. Vixia helped boost me onto the creature's back before she climbed on behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist. Puff scrambled down to one of my pockets and curled up inside, ready for the ride.
"Onward we go!" the man commanded. The dragon screeched and I grabbed onto the man's cloak as we rose up into the air, taking off faster than I ever had on Puff.
When I said standing in front of the gates to Queen Evelyn's castle was the most intimidating moment of my life, I lied. When the dragon finally landed, the tall man was the first to climb off of its back. While I was surprised that he could climb off without assistance, my attention was primarily focused on our new surroundings. We were now in a mountain range deep within the forest, far from the village where we were before. We had landed in a lush yard at the base of one of the mountains, another clearing. I was wondering why he had taken us to the middle of nowhere when I looked toward the mountain's face. I couldn't believe my eyes when I realized what I was looking at.
About 20 feet in front of us was a thick wooden door hinged to the stone that made up the base of the mountain. After I noticed that detail, I could see the hidden palace in front of me, which was built into the mountain. Windows shone dimly against the sunlight of the afternoon and I could see figures passing by them inside. The rocks had been smoothed to make up the facade of the building, but if you looked at the place from the air, you would completely miss it. Plants from the yard grew along the rocky walls, draping everything in beautiful greenery. Vixia was helping me down from the dragon's back when the reality of the situation set in.
This guy must be—
"We must hold a feast for our guests," the man declared in a gruff voice. His guards nodded and headed toward the front door. Meanwhile, he turned back toward us and smiled warmly. "Welcome to my palace."
How the hell do we keep drawing the attention of royals? I thought as the king began to lead us to the doorway.
"You." I looked up to see that he was looking at me. "Are you from Draladen?" he asked.
"Kind of, your highness," I admitted.
"You don't need to speak to me so formally," he insisted. "Please, call me Dralnith."
"And what did you mean just now? Are you not sure where you are from?"
"I have always been told that I am from here, but I don't really remember it. If I am, I haven't been here in quite a while."
"How long has it been?"
"At least 17 years, I think."
"Hmm." The king tilted his head, contemplating what I said as he looked at me from the corner of his eye. He turned back toward the doors, which were being pried open by some guards. He didn't get a chance to respond again because a servant walked up to us as soon as we entered the main room.
"The first course will be prepared shortly, your highness. Right this way, please."
The servant led us straight from the front door to the dining hall, which I figured was somewhere toward the back end of the palace since we had to walk down a long hallway to get there. Just as I had guessed, the entire interior of the castle was formed from stone. Sconces hung on the walls, illuminating the passageways, but the dining hall was lit by a chandelier. A long table stood at the center of the room, lined down the center with a plethora of food and drinks. Chairs stood at either side of the table, but two were specifically pulled out on either side of a large throne. Servants stood beside them, standing straight and attentive, and they pushed us closer to the table after Vixia and I sat down. I gave a quiet thank you before they headed back to what I assumed was the kitchen. Dralnith was the last to take his seat, now perched on his gigantic throne. I was looking at the food when Puff climbed out of my pocket and onto the table, sitting beside my empty plate.
"Dig in," he offered. "Eat as much as your stomach desires. You're safe here." Vixia was the first of us to grab some food. She carefully cut the leg off a sizeable roasted bird and set it on her plate. I was tearing a piece of meat off another dish when Dralnith spoke up again.
"How did you meet the little one?" he asked.
"Oh, Puff? He just kind of showed up."
"He took a liking to Ketsuna pretty quickly," Vixia added, collecting some of a baked potato on her fork. "It was interesting. He just sat down and stared at her."
"Really?" There was a hint of awe in Dralnith's voice. Vixia and I nodded as I fed a scrap of meat to Puff. "It's funny how you managed to give such a cute name to a powerful dragon, but I guess it is fitting, given his abilities." I looked up from Puff, my eyes widening.
"Wait, you know about what Puff can do?"
"Yes, he is one of the shapeshifting species. Most shapeshifting dragons can change certain features of theirs temporarily, such as their claws or wings, but Puff's specific breed is known for its ability to shift in size. They're also known for their stealth, which I am guessing is part of the reason why he was able to reach you. You came from Zaledrid, right?"
"Yes," Vixia answered. Dralnith nodded and looked at Puff.
"That makes it even more impressive. I'm surprised that you two kept a dragon, especially given how the people of Zaledrid treat them."
"We were told to kill him, but we couldn't do it. Something in this little guy resonated with me." I held out another scrap of food and Puff took it with a chirp.
"Hmm, interesting. Then I think you will like it here. Dragons are the backbone of Draladenian society. I'm glad to see that you are so kind to them."
Those last words hit me differently than the others and I felt my heart sink within my chest. I began to think about all of the other dragons we fought.
If only we could have been.
"Are dragon attacks common in Draladen?" Vixia asked, bringing my attention back to the conversation. I looked at Dralnith, who looked surprised.
"No, not at all! Dragons are very docile creatures. They don't become aggressive unless they are provoked." Vixia and I both exchanged confused glances as Dralnith added, "I'm sure you'll learn this yourself in due time, but dragons aren't evil. I have heard news of what is happening in Zaledrid, and I can promise you that they aren't normally like that."
That was when a servant came out to offer us drinks. Dinner carried on with lots of conversations about Zaledrid. We managed to avoid telling him about our involvement with the IronScale Slayers and by the time the feast was over, he called over another servant.
"You two must be exhausted from your trip. Do you mind sharing a room, or should I arrange separate ones?"
"We're actually married, so sharing is preferred."
"Ah, I see." He turned his attention to the servant. "Please show these two to one of the guest rooms. They will be staying for a while."
"Yes, your highness." Vixia and I stood up from our seats and followed the servant out of the dining hall and into another corridor.
As soon as Vixia and I made it to the room, I walked over to the large bed in the middle of it and flopped down on its thick covers. The servant had already left, so it was just Vixia, Puff, and me. I rolled onto my back as Vixia walked over to join me, Puff riding along on her shoulder. She sat down beside me as I covered my face with my hands and groaned.
It's like everything's been turned upside-down. What the hell are we supposed to do now?
"I know this is all super confusing," Vixia started with a sigh, "but it'll be okay."
"The worst part is that things are starting to make more sense than before."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, now we know that dragons are usually like Puff and that the other ones we fought were probably feeling threatened. The only problem is, what made them react that way? Even Puff didn't get like that when Darius went to attack him." Vixia and I both fell silent and I could tell she was also thinking about it. She shook her head.
"I don't know. Weird to think that Queen Evelyn was threatening to send you here not that long ago." I nodded, staring at the ceiling.
"I wonder if things would have gone differently if I knew what it was like here." Puff climbed down from Vixia's shoulder and she laid down on her side, facing me.
"I'm still surprised that Dralnith knows how to speak Zaledrid's language."
"Oh, yeah. Maybe he had to learn it for diplomatic reasons?"
"Maybe. At least he gave us a good meal. I'm glad we ran into him."
"Yeah." That was when Vixia decided to crawl underneath the quilt that covered the bed. I did the same, finding that Puff was now curled up between our pillows. He was already fast asleep. I smiled, listening as he snored lightly. Vixia giggled and we both got comfortable.
The night passed by almost instantaneously and I was awakened by the sound of ringing bells. I sat up and began rubbing my eyes, the world around me still blurry even after I pulled my hands away.
"Where are we?" I murmured. When my vision cleared up, I saw that we were still in our room in Dralnith's palace. Vixia began to stir beside me, but Puff was still out cold.
He must be exhausted from all of the flying he did.
My attention was turned back to Vixia when she also sat up. She let out a yawn, opening her mouth wide enough to show all her sharp teeth, and her ears folded back. They snapped back up when we heard a knock at the door.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"It's me." Dralnith's voice sounded muffled from the other side of the door. "I have something to show you two. There should be extra clothes in the wardrobe. Get dressed and there will be a servant here to guide you to the garden when you're ready."
"Okay, thank you," I called back. I listened intently as he walked away from the door, his footsteps echoing on the walls of the corridor beyond it. I was the first of us to climb out of bed and walk toward the wardrobe on the other side of the room.
I wonder what he has to show us.
Vixia and I got dressed in what was available in the wardrobe and prepared to meet with Darlnith. I found a loose-fitting tunic in my size and a pair of pants, while Vixia chose a simple red dress. After we were clothed, I headed back over to the bed.
"Puff, come here." I reached for the tiny dragon, who was still half-asleep, and put him on my shoulder. He yawned and then chirped, finally brushing off the last of his sleepiness. After he was ready, Vixia and I headed for the door.
As Dralnith promised, a servant was waiting for us. He led us back toward the dining hall, but instead of turning right, we took a left. There we found another set of doors and I felt a twinge of pain in my chest as we approached them. They were crafted from wood and frosted glass, so all I could see through them were various colors blurred together. As soon as he opened the door, I understood why it looked that way.
When we stepped into the garden, we were greeted with the sight of flowers. There must have been hundreds of them scattered about the area, some in assorted flower beds. Others grew along the hedges that surrounded the area, and some of the taller plants winded their way up the wooden pillar of a tall gazebo. That was where Darlnith was, sitting at a metal table in its shade, surrounded by dozens of dragons. By the time I saw them, they were staring straight at me. The pain that I had felt before was now becoming a dull ache as I looked at them. Dralnith noticed they were looking past him, so he turned to find Vixia and me standing by the doors. He smiled and beckoned for us to come closer.
"Why are there so many of them?" Vixia asked, her voice a little shaky. I took her hand and gave it a few squeezes.
"It's okay," I whispered. I let go of her hand and walked forward, Puff chirping happily as we went. All the dragons were of varying sizes and colors, but none were as small as Puff. Not a single one's eyes were blacked-out either. They all continued to stare at me as I smiled at them. They all sat down, much like Puff did when I first met him.
They're just like him.
"You have a natural kinship with dragons, it seemed," Dralnith began with a chuckle. He stirred his drink with a spoon, the metal clinking against the sides of his ceramic cup.
"Are all of these yours?" I asked, my eyes still focused on the dragons. I looked over in time to see him shake his head.
"No, not at all. Most dragons are free spirits and wander wherever they please. It's interesting that they chose to come here, though." I noticed he was now raising an eyebrow at me while rubbing his beard. He stopped and shook his head as Vixia approached us. When she was close enough, Dralnith motioned for the table, which I realized was covered in pastries. "Come, sit and eat with me. I have much to ask you about."
Vixia and I joined Dralnith at the table while Puff flew around, playing with the other dragons. We watched them while we talked, but everything seemed to go the same way that dinner had the night before. Dralnith continued to ask us about Zaledrid and we answered to the best of our abilities. Vixia was explaining something to him when I saw two of the dragons collide while chasing Puff.
The smaller of the two dragons hit the ground with a thud and Puff spun around almost immediately. He landed in front of the other dragon and chirped at it. The other dragon snorted in return and grunted as it got back up. That was when a question popped into my head.
"Hey, Dralnith," I started, unintentionally cutting off Vixia, "do dragons grieve? Like, are they sympathetic to each other?" The king shifted in his seat and when I looked back he was nodding.
"Yes, they do. Just like how we are to each other." For some reason, I wasn't expecting that answer. I got a sinking feeling in my chest as I thought about the dragons that Vixia and I had fought before. I turned the rest of my body back to the table and covered my face with my hands.
"Are you okay?" Dralnith asked. "You don't look very good." I took in a deep breath as I debated on what to say.
"When Vixia and I were in Zaledrid, we were part of the IronScale Slayers," I admitted. "It was against our will, so we didn't really have a choice, but we fought dragons before that too. I thought that Puff was the only one like that, but then we found one that was similar. The ones we fought weren't like the ones here. Their eyes were lifeless."
"Lifeless?" Dralnith echoed. I nodded, looking down at the ground while Vixia remained dead-silent. I expected Dralnith to get angry, maybe even yell, but none of that came. Instead, I felt his hand on my shoulder. "While I believe slaying dragons is wrong, I can understand how terrifying they must have seemed from the perspective of a Zaledridian, especially with what's been going on." I looked up and Vixia and I exchanged confused glances as Dralnith withdrew his hand.
"What do you mean?"
"For almost 20 years now, the dragons have been flocking to Zaledrid and very few return. The ones that do are often bewildered and injured, to say the least. They are hard to handle in that state."
"Why would they go there?" Vixia asked. Dralnith shrugged.
"We've been wondering if they are being drawn in by something. Something was stolen from Draladen around that time, something created to keep the dragons safe, but I'm afraid we may never be able to reclaim it. As more flock to Zaledrid, more get injured, and it draws in more dragons because they seek to protect others. It's part of their instincts."
Wait, fighting them draws more of them in?
"I'm not completely sure what is going on," Dralnith continued, "but I know for sure that dragons are docile creatures. We're not sure why they've been attacking in Zaledrid but are fine here."
By this point, I had my face buried in my hands again. I felt Puff climb onto my shoulder and nudge the side of my neck like usual. He stopped and I felt a hand on my shoulder again. I lifted my head to see Dralnith looking at me with kind eyes.
"It's not your fault, Ketsuna." I took a deep breath and I could feel my eyes begin to sting as my face grew hot. I was remembering when Puff fought the dragons with us and came up with another question.
"Dralnith, do dragons attack each other?"
"Not usually, no. They might quarrel occasionally, but they usually refrain from seriously injuring each other." I briefly remembered Puff helping us escape from Sparrow's dragon.
"Is there any way to get two dragons to fight?"
"Hmm . . ." He leaned back in his seat and rubbed his beard, mulling it over. "I guess I could see a dragon attacking each other if they somehow aren't able to recognize the other one as a dragon, in a way."
Recognize each other? I looked down at my lap, wondering what that could mean as Dralnith stood from his seat.
"I have some matters to attend to, but you two may do as you please as long as you stay on palace grounds." My head snapped up and I could see that I startled Vixia a little from the corner of my eye. My gaze then focused on Dralnith.
"Do you have a library here?"
As it turned out, the castle's library wasn't far from the garden. Dralnith had one of the servants lead us there after we finished breakfast, but Puff stayed behind with the other dragons. I watched him play through one of the large windows as Vixia sat beside me. She scooched her chair closer to me and rested her head on my shoulder, also watching Puff play. He was free as a bird outside, wrestling and racing with the others. I looked over at Vixia to see her smiling as she stared at him.
"He could never do something like that back at home."
"Yeah, you're right." That was when Vixia lifted her arm, rubbing my back a little and playing with my hair. "This is so frustrating. I thought that maybe we could learn more, but now I'm more confused than ever."
"I can agree with you there. I'm glad that we're somewhere safe, though. I wonder what's going on back in Zaledrid without us there."
I began to wonder about it, too, but as soon as I thought about Zaledrid, I thought about our vacant (and probably burnt-down) house. I thought about everything that we had left behind. Finally, I remembered Darius. I let out an exasperated sigh and stood up, causing Vixia to lean back in her chair instead of on me. I began to walk toward one of the tall bookshelves that lined the walls.
"I want to learn more about the dragons since I am sure that Draladen has much more information about them than Zaledrid." I grabbed a few books, all of which had small carvings of dragons on their spines. That was when I realized that my own book had been left in the caverns, along with the rest of our stuff. I tried to ignore my disappointment as I carried the large stack of books over to the table. I set them down with a loud thud when Vixia pointed out something.
"Um . . . aren't those all in Draladenian?"
"I thought you couldn't read it."
"I can't, but that isn't going to stop me from trying." I moved the book at the top of the stack to the tabletop and flipped it open to the first page. Vixia stood up, smiling at me.
"I'll go pray for you over in the corner," she began teasingly. "Good luck." I smiled at her.
"Tell Zelora I said hi."
Weeks passed, and Vixia and I remained in Dralnith's palace as honorary guests. After I expressed my interest in learning how to read and write Draldenian, Dralnith got one of his servants to tutor me. I was surprised by how easily I was able to pick up the basics of it, but Vixia managed to learn it before I did. Well . . . kind of.
When Vixia prayed to Zelora, she gained a new passive ability that allowed her to understand Draladenian when it was spoken to her, but she couldn't speak, read, or write it. We would meet up with Dralnith for breakfast, lunch, and dinner but spent most of our days away from the king. Mostly, it was just Vixia, Puff, and me. Sometime during the course of those weeks, Dralnith sent out a squad to go check on the border between Draladen and Zaledrid. It had been a whole month by the time he heard anything back.
I was sitting in the garden again, surrounded by the dragons that Puff had played with before, when the messenger came. By this point, even more dragons had flocked to the palace and when I wasn't studying, I usually hung out with them and Puff. I was surprised by how similar they all were. They were calm and playful in a way that I never expected. Puff let out a concerned chirp from my shoulder and I looked in the direction that he was staring in, spotting Dralnith through one of the windows.
He was walking down the hall that led to the library. He had turned to open one of the doors when a man ran up to him, escorted by two guards. The man handed him an envelope and Dralnith took it, a concerned look on his face. He broke the seal and began to read through the letter inside, his expression becoming increasingly dejected by the line. I watched as he folded the paper back up and stuffed it back into the envelope. That was when I stood up and headed for the door that allowed passage into the garden, Puff still riding along on my shoulder. I was surprised to find Dralnith standing there in the hallway, now alone, when I made it to where I saw him before.
"Is everything okay?" I asked. He lifted his head and I could see deep lines carved into his face from worrying. I could have sworn that they deepened when he saw me.
"Ketsuna, come with me. There's something I must speak with you about."