The Rise of The Dragon Queen
Dralnith led me to the library. I chose to sit down at the table, but he didn't sit with me. Instead, he walked toward the window and looked out at the dragons that were still collected in the garden.
"We got new intel," he began. "The squad I sent to the border returned with some terrible news. It seems that the queen has been stationing men at the border wall. When the dragons fly over, they are shot out of the air and injected with something while they're down. After that, it seems like they no longer have minds of their own."
I remembered when Vixia and I crossed over the border wall and they tried to shoot us down. I then thought about the lifeless eyes that all of the other dragons had.
That must be why they were so different.
"Is there anything Vixia and I can do to help?" There was silence for a moment. Dralnith turned around and I saw the serious expression on his face. His eyes seemed to pierce through me when they met mine.
"I've been wondering something about you. If it's true, then you are helping already."
"What is it?"
"You were imprisoned at one point, weren't you?" I felt my shoulders stiffen at the question. My face and the tips of my ears began to burn as I looked down at my lap. Memories of laying on the cold floor came flooding back.
Do I lie? How the hell am I supposed to respond to that? Unable to find an answer, I remained silent.
"Ketsuna, you have no reason to fear me. This is a serious question, and I need you to answer it honestly. I promise I won't do anything like that to you." My gaze wandered from my lap back to his face. While he still looked serious, I could tell that he was being honest with me. I finally nodded.
"Yes, I was. I don't know why, though. I was freed when a dragon came in and burned the whole village." To my surprise, Dralnith let out a relieved sigh.
"I see. The dragonlord has returned to us. Although, you are not exactly what I envisioned when I read the documents about you."
"Wait, dragonlord? What do you mean?" Dralnith walked over to me and sat down across from me at the table. He clasped his fingers together, resting his hands on the tabletop in front of him.
"Long before my rule, a being was created from magic materials provided by the dragons. My father, the king of Draladen at the time, was determined to make a being that could reign in the dragon's power in case of an emergency and keep them safe. Not long after the project was completed, Draladen was invaded by Zaledrid. Zaledrid's king saw creating a being with that much power over the dragons as a threat. So, when Zaledrid attacked, they took the young dragonlord with them. We hadn't been able to locate them since, at least not until now."
Over the course of Dralnith's story, I had focused my eyes on his hands while the words ran through my mind. When he unclasped them, my attention was snapped back to the reality before me as I looked at his face.
"How can you be so sure it's me? Aren't the dragons friendly to everyone?"
"I wasn't sure at first either, but since you came to Draladen, the amount of dragons that have headed into Zaledrid has decreased. Combined with how you interacted with the dragons before, I know there's no mistaking it. Ketsuna, you are the dragonlord that we lost."
"Wait, this doesn't add up. Then why was the village I was kept in on Draladen's side of the border? Also, if I am the dragonlord, why did they throw me in a prison in the first place? Why didn't they just kill me?"
"Zaledrid held that territory previously. They abandoned the area after the attack that set you free and built the border wall beyond it. Also, if they had killed you, the dragons would have gone after anyone that harmed you. You are made from them, so they are your kin. I assume the guards started treating you poorly, considering how everything was burnt down."
I remembered how I was kicked by one of the guards the day before the attack decimated the village. I nodded, looking down again while Dralnith looked back at the dragons outside the window.
"I was surprised when you came here and seemed to earn the respect of the dragons so quickly. You formed a kinship with them almost instantly. Now it all makes sense."
So, I never did have a family. I shook my head, trying to dispel the thought. I still had another question.
"When you say I'm already helping by being here, what do you mean?"
"Well, the dragons are drawn to you, so it appears that they might have been trying to retrieve you. That's why they've been heading into Zaledrid despite the danger."
As soon as he finished that sentence, my blood ran cold.
All of these attacks . . . all of the pain that they're going through . . . is because of me? I felt the tears begin to well up in my eyes and Dralnith reached across the table, putting his hands firmly on my shoulders.
"Ketsuna, you may not be able to do anything for the dragons that Queen Evelyn already got ahold of, but you may be able to save those that are here still. I know this is a lot to take in, but please know this isn't your fault. Just keep the well-being of the dragons in mind." He stood up, but I remained in my seat, staring at the table.
"I have something to deal with. Let me know if you have any more questions." I nodded but didn't move. He left the room quietly.
That night, I didn't show up for dinner. Since I hadn't seen Vixia all day, she didn't know I was hiding in our room, trying to piece everything together as best as I could before I told her what was going on. I was sitting on the bed, hunched over with my head in my hands, when I heard the door behind me creak open.
"Hey, are you all right?" Vixia's voice was soft and full of concern. I lifted my head to shake it and returned to the position I had been in before.
"Did Dralnith tell you anything?"
"He told me what's happening at the border but nothing else. He said that you might want to talk to me about something." There was silence between us for a moment as I tried to build up the nerve to say something. I bit my lip before I spoke.
"Vixia, you know how I never told you if I had a family before the orphanage."
"Well, it turns out I never had one. I was created." I heard Vixia step closer to the bed. The mattress shifted slightly when she climbed onto it and I felt the weight of her hand on my shoulder.
"What do you mean?"
"One of Draladen's previous kings created me as a failsafe to control the dragons. I'm not flesh and blood like you. I never had a family. That's why I didn't have anything before the orphanage. All I can remember is being trapped." My face began to burn as I remembered the prison. "That's all there ever was."
I felt Vixia's hand pull away from me and the warmth from it faded almost instantly. A million thoughts were racing through my mind when I heard her voice again.
"But you have a family now." As soon as she said that, she pulled me into a hug from behind. Tears welled up in my eyes and ran down my face. I tried to wipe them away, but they kept coming. "That's all in the past, Ketsuna. I'm here now, and I promise that'll never change." She held me like that for a while and I cried harder than I had in years. At one point, she turned me around to sit in her lap and bury my face in her chest while she stroked my hair. When I finally managed to calm down, we started talking again.
"Is there anything else you need to tell me?" she asked.
"No, that was it."
"Okay." There was silence between us for a moment. "Ketsuna, Zelora told me we need to return to Zaledrid."
"We can't. If I go back, I'll lead more dragons into Queen Evelyn's hands."
"Vixia, I can't." My tone was stern, maybe even a little harsh. I felt Vixia's embrace begin to weaken and I looked up and her. Her eyes were wide and her brows were furrowed a little.
"Ketsuna, if you want to make things right, we need to go back and stop them. I'm not going without you."
"Then we aren't going," I declared finally. A sudden look of shock crossed her face, then contorted into what I could only describe as pain. Without another word, she got up and left the room, leaving me on the bed.
Another week passed as I tried to figure out what to do. Meals that Dralnith, Vixia, and I shared became quieter and quieter until almost all conversation ceased. Vixia tried not to let her feelings toward my choice affect her, but I noticed that she had become a bit colder toward me, even after Zelora had supposedly told her that I would change my mind. The time I usually spent with her was devoted to the dragons in the garden instead.
As the days went on, more and more of them appeared in the garden until I was surrounded by them as soon as I stepped outside. Puff clung to my shoulder most of the time, but I could tell he enjoyed being around the other dragons. I did, too, but it wasn't the same as hanging out with Vixia. In a way, she did have a point. If we could stop Queen Evelyn and her guards from injecting the dragons, we could prevent them from being harmed again, but I still felt it was too risky. I was thinking about that one morning when Vixia and Dralnith rushed out the back door of the palace. The first thing I noticed was that Vixia's ears were folded back.
"Ketsuna!" she shouted. "There's some bad news." I felt my ears perk up a little at the sound of her voice, and I realized that they also drew the attention of the dragons around me. They were all silent as Vixia approached, breathing heavily.
"What's wrong?" I asked, getting to my feet.
"Nesryn and Darius are going to be killed."
"We received information that the queen has scheduled a public execution for them," Dralnith explained as he caught up to us.
"On what charges?"
"Harboring a dragon and not reporting it to the queen."
"So, they're meaning—"
"Puff," Vixia finished for me. "Sparrow and the royal guards must have said something after we escaped, but Darius was the only one who knew about it. I'm not sure why Nesryn got swept up in this."
"She was supposed to be in charge of us. She didn't watch us dispose of him to make sure. That's probably why." I felt something sink into the pit of my stomach as I thought of Darius. My body began to tremble and I clenched my fists. "When is the execution?"
"In a few days. The exact date is listed here." Dralnith handed me a flyer, which was advertising the event. It was exactly three days away.
"We're crashing it, at least for Darius' sake. We owe him that much." I looked from the flyer to Vixia. "I guess Zelora was right after all. We have to go back."
Vixia and I immediately began to make preparations for our return to Zaledrid. Dralnith was kind enough to let us use his resources and to help us plan a route back to Tidalsong City. We were in the middle of one of these planning sessions the night after we got the news of the execution, looking over some large maps that were scrawled across the table. I was looking at them, chewing on a piece of meat, when I came to a realization.
"We're going to need to fly if we're going to make it in time." Dralnith nodded and took a couple of gulps of his drink. When he finished, he set his mug back down on the table and wiped his lips with his wrist.
"That's the only way you'll get back over the wall anyway," he pointed out. I looked down at Puff, who was sitting between Vixia and me on the table.
"Do you think you can get us back over there?" I asked.
The tiny dragon nodded and let out a trill. I was about to begin eating again, but then I felt the weight of my anxiety on my shoulders. The thought of what Darius was doing or feeling at that moment made it even worse.
How are we going to fix this? I rested my chin in my palm, watching Dralnith finish his drink. He licked his lips before he spoke.
"You should bring an army with you. It'll be harder for them to target you directly if they're busy dealing with others."
"How are we supposed to get an army?" Vixia asked. "I doubt any soldiers would be willing to put their lives on the line for something like this, even if they are under your command."
"I never suggested men," Dralnith replied, grinning as he pointed to Puff. "Ketsuna, these dragons would follow you to the ends of the earth if you let them. Actually, even if you wouldn't. They can lend their strength to your cause." I looked down at Puff as I listened, watching him gnaw away at his food.
"What if they get attacked or brainwashed?"
"Fewer and fewer dragons have been migrating to Zaledrid since your arrival. I'm sure the borders are becoming more relaxed since there haven't been as many sightings."
"Okay, that makes sense. We'll take an army of dragons with us. But how should I deal with Queen Evelyn?"
"That is up to you," the king responded. "The important thing is that she is stopped."
"So, at least dethroned," Vixia suggested.
"Right, but then what?"
"That is up to you. If you choose to fully conquer Zaledrid, you can either rule yourself or appoint someone else to do it."
Me, rule? I never saw myself as much of a leader, but even so, I couldn't help but remember the times when I dragged Vixia around when we were kids. I was the one that took the initiative to leave the orphanage, and she only took charge when things were familiar anyway. Now she was sitting beside me, looking down at the map with a concerned expression on her face. I remembered when Ms. Emery called me a bad influence on her and it almost made me smile. I wondered for a second if she was right.
"In the end, it's all up to you." I took a deep breath and let out a sigh. I stood up from the table.
"I'm going to bed early tonight. Vixia, want to come with me?"
"Sure." She stood up, finishing the last of her drink. Dralnith began rolling up the maps and bid us goodnight as Puff climbed up my arm and perched on my shoulder like usual. After he was ready, we left the dining hall.
Vixia and I walked down the darkened hallway together, holding hands while we headed for our room. I felt her squeeze my hand three times and the tension in my shoulders began to melt away. I let out another sigh and felt my brows furrow.
"Vixia, I don't think I'm ready for this."
"Neither am I," she admitted, "but if we wait until we are, Nesryn and Darius will be—"
"I know." My voice came out harsher than I anticipated. My gaze snapped over to Vixia and I opened my mouth to apologize, but she cut me off.
"It's okay. You're just really stressed." She let out a quiet chuckle. "I feel it too, trust me. But this is something we've got to do. We'll do this together." She squeezed my hand again at the last word and I smiled.
"Thank you." We finally made it to the door and Vixia let go of my hand to grab the handle. She pried it open and looked back at me.
"We'll pick some dragons tomorrow and we'll head out, okay? Let's get some rest." I nodded and we headed into our room.
The next morning, Vixia and I finished the last of our preparations, just as we had planned the night before. Obviously, we chose Puff to carry us into Zaledrid, but we also selected some other dragons from those that I had befriended during our time at the palace. Dralnith gave his advice and, ultimately, we chose twenty to go with us. While it was a small army, Dralnith assured us it was enough. The guards wouldn't be able to take them all even if they wanted to, and each one we chose was strong enough for the task. I was fastening my new sword and sheath to my back when silence hung over all of us. Dralnith had given Vixia and me new weapons and fixed up our clothes and armor in time for us to leave. We suited up immediately after breakfast. The king stood nearby and smiled at Vixia and me.
"Please take care. I will be awaiting your return."
Vixia and I both nodded and turned for Puff and the other dragons. Puff was already at a large size, so I climbed up onto his back.
"We're off!" I called with a wave. Dralnith waved back as Vixia climbed on behind me, wrapping her arms around my waist. I drew in a deep breath and let it out as I petted the top of Puff's head.
"Ready?" He trilled in response and started trotting ahead. The other dragons followed and we all took off in flight together, spiraling up into the sky. As soon as we reached a high enough altitude, each dragon began to drift in formation with the others and started flying in a V-shape. I looked down for a second to see Dralnith on the ground, shrinking from my view as we rose higher and higher in the sky. I looked back at the horizon ahead, Vixia squeezing me tighter.
Here goes nothing.
We continued flying for hours, only taking one stop to rest and eat before we finally neared Zaledrid's border. It was late in the afternoon, and we were so high up in the air that I almost missed the walls. They were only thick gray lines on the earth from where we were, but I could still see them clearly enough to spot guards walking across the tops of them. Just as Dralnith predicted, there weren't many compared to what I would have expected initially.
I could faintly hear the sound of someone shouting.
"We've been spotted," Vixia declared, "and it looks like they upgraded their equipment." Just as she said that I heard a loud explosion from down below and a fiery ball zoomed through the air, heading toward us. Puff quickly tilted himself, narrowly avoiding the projectile. However, the other dragons weren't so lucky. While Puff dodged, another fireball collided with one of the larger dragons to my left in the formation. It screamed and began to plummet, but I didn't expect the other dragons to follow it down.
"Wait!" I yelled. "We need to get out of here." The dragons stopped and tried to catch back up, leaving behind the one that had fallen. They got back into their formation right before another fireball came hurdling toward us.
"What are we going to do?" Vixia asked. I clenched my teeth, glaring down at the guards below.
"If they want to play with fire, light 'em up!" As soon as I gave the order, the dragons began to dip below us in the sky. They flew off in every direction, covering most of the border close enough to attack, and released their flames.
Guards and trees alike were set ablaze and I could hear their terrified screams from where we were. Puff began to descend a little as well, and I could almost feel the heat from the inferno forming below. Dragons weaved in and out of the plumes of smoke, attacking anything that moved. One even managed to rip a cannon off the wall. I watched it fall to the ground and crumble as Vixia clutched my shirt. She pressed her forehead against my shoulder and I could hear her mumble some sort of prayer.
On the other hand, I didn't feel anything for the guards. I figured that I wouldn't for the queen, either. When we finally passed over the walls and were in clear air, the remaining dragons emerged from the smoke, following along.
"Vixia, are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine."
"Can you do me a favor?"
"How many dragons are still following us?" I felt her shift behind me and I could barely hear her counting to herself.
"Seventeen, including Puff," she answered finally.
So we've lost three already. I looked back and could see she was right. I turned around to look at the land ahead of us, realizing we weren't that far from the orphanage.
"Are we going to make it to Tidalsong in time?"
"We're going to try," I replied. "Puff, full speed." The dragon nodded and flapped his wings a little harder before gliding again. I gripped the reins tightly as I thought about Darius.