Rebel Queen Sample

The story for Rebel Queen was born from a natural curiosity in how life was proceeding on Amesdia. I spent so many years there and spent so much time conceiving of the dragons that populate that world that I couldn’t help but jump back into their lives and have some fun. I took my love of dragons to the next level, bringing in a species of dragon of a more humanoid shape; the dragonkin.

Eighty years have passed since the events outlined in Draconis’ Bane and Deadly Intentions. Life in Amesdia has been peaceful and prosperous.

Cassandra is the fifth child of Tristan and from all outward appearances, is a perfectly normal young woman…until her mother passes away. Changes begin to occur in Cassandra, small and seemingly inconsequential at first. When she wakes up one morning to find that her soft human flesh has morphed into golden dragon scale, her family begins to worry.

While Tristan struggles with how, or indeed if, he should do anything about his daughters dramatic change in appearance, an invasion force lays waste to a major port city. The creatures who invaded look very much like Cassandra and when a band of delegates are assembled to investigate the race known as the Sakwa Dragonkin, she is chosen to join that mission.

The Sakwa are a dying race and in order to expand their empire, they are willing to kill and die for new lands to call home. Tristan and Cassandra have to discover if a peaceful alliance can be reached, or if the Seven Kingdoms have to prepare for a war of attrition.

 

Rebel Queen

Chapter 1

Assessment


It always seemed like the castle burst to life after hibernating for months and then after a few weeks of activity, everyone sat around moodily waiting for the rains to subside.

Draconis wrapped his enormous wings closer to his body as the storm’s ferocity intensified. At this elevation, the elder dragon need only spread his wings to be launched off of this mountaintop. The last of the spring storms were blowing with their usual bluster and Midsummer was fast approaching. All of the ice and snow had melted away, leaving large, lush patches of grass and wildflowers around him.

Soon the summer heat would be in full effect, which would have made Mina happy as her gardens would begin to blossom and grow. In the three years since her passing, her daughter Cassandra had taken up her mother’s gardening duties. The central courtyard had been converted into a large fruit and vegetable garden with flower beds scattered all over the palace grounds.

Dragon Hold was high up in the southeastern mountains of Vallius where the weather was clement year round, however the spring rains wouldn’t stop until well into summer. There were precious few weeks, as winter released its grasp and spring began to assert itself, when farmers and gardeners could get their seeds planted in time for the nourishing rain.

When the Dragon Host had first arrived in Amesdia, they had taken to tampering with the weather. Their goal had been to turn each country into a reflection of the dragons that chose to live there. This was ideal for the Draconic race; however it was an anathema to everyone else.

So, centuries ago, the Dragon Council had decided that nature had to be allowed to run its course. As a result, the dragon host focused on using their arts to take the pressure off of the magma chambers far below the surface of Terum in an attempt to make the area, and indeed the entire continent, more habitable.

Terum, as a result, had developed into a vibrant and productive farming country. Her people were robust, quick to laugh and opened their hearts and arms to the others when they were in need.

Oceana had once been a swampy mess of overgrown marshlands mixed with large swaths of cooled lava. With the intervention of the dragon host, most of the country was now above the water table. They were able to sow crops as well; the produce they grew had become the envy of the Seven Kingdoms. All of this had transpired before Tristan’s birth and yet Draconis remembered the details as sharply today as he did the flavor of the mountain goat he’d inhaled just this morning.

The winds began to die down and the rain stopped and the clouds began to break up as Draconis continued to be lost in thought. What troubled him today, and what had been troubling him for a fortnight, was Cassandra’s sudden transformation.

Sudden might not be the right word, but it seemed to be the only one that could capture the scope of the shock and awe his great-granddaughter caused when she walked into a room. Her eyes had possessed a violet tint since the night her mother had died, but two weeks ago after a rather brutal thunderstorm had destroyed the southern watch tower, she had come down from her room covered in golden dragon scales from head to toe.

He and two of his closest friends, Socolis the elder white dragon and Lesariu the elder gold, had spent days debating and examining Cassie’s transformation. At the time of her birth, both Mina and Tristan appeared to be two normal middle aged adults, despite being in their nineties. Their youngest child had grandchildren of his own and it was thought that their child bearing years had long since passed them by.

Yet, as Mina’s stomach expanded with her appetite, it had become clear that despite her age, Lesariu’s granddaughter was again with child. After Cassie had been born, Mina had begun to age alarmingly though. In the first five years, Mina looked every bit her age. By the time Cassie was ten, Mina’s hair had gone completely white and she was very nearly skin and bone.

Cassie was the spitting image of her mother in her youth and on more than one occasion Tristan had expressed concern that the curse the Gods had inflicted on him must surely have passed to his daughter. How he could be so dismissive about the gateway and so concerned about his daughter inheriting a curse he’d accepted always seemed to amuse Socolis, but he found humor in the strangest things.

Regardless, something had clearly happened to Mina, either during the pregnancy or afterwards. It was unclear as to what that had been, so their concerns had shifted to her daughter. It was undeniable that Cassie had intelligence and ability that far exceeded her age. At eleven, she could hold her own in debates with the adult ambassadors who frequently visited Dragon Hold.

What did cause no end of concern for Draconis though, were the possible ramifications of her appearance. The Orcs had been created by the mating of a dragon and an elf. Would Cassie remain Cassie, or would she somehow lose her mind as the orc hordes had lost theirs on their former home world of Fangoria?

The sun began to break through the clouds and Draconis was able to see more than a few feet in front of his face.

Looking north, he could see the distant lights of major cities, small towns that peppered the main roads and to the west; the Great Wall of Tarious. The wall towers were lit, as always. It was part of the early warning system set in place by Tristan decades ago. If under attack, the towers would dump pitch into their braziers which would create great plumes of thick green smoke to alert the Kingdom of invasion.

Eighty-Two years had passed since the mystical breach between Fangoria and Amesdia had been sealed and yet not a day passed that Draconis didn’t look in its direction. Tristan dismissed his grandfather’s concerns. Despite the doorway between worlds being breached on two occasions in as many millennia, he believed them to be wholly unrelated. Draconis didn’t believe in coincidence, every opening of the doorway solidified the pathway.

It had been a like number of years since any of the citizens of the Great Expanse had been seen remotely close to the wall. On occasion a trader would sail into one of the many Kingdom ports to trade goods, but rarely did they come armed beyond what would be expected of a merchant vessel.

Now, though, the new King of the Seven Kingdoms had publicly announced his plans to conquer and settle the Great Expanse once and for all. Andrew, Tristan’s great-grandson, was bold and determined to say the very least. Despite small skirmishes, the last eighty years had seen the longest period of peace in the history of Amesdia.

The King was now proposing to send a conquering force to pacify the region for colonization. The Expanse was largely infested with Orcs, mercenaries, and wild-men, but he was still proposing genocide. It was possible that the mercenaries and wild-men could be brought into the Kingdom as annexed citizens, however, in his experience, Orcs couldn’t be reasoned with.

Perhaps Draconis was getting sentimental in his old age, but he’d seen his fill of death long before the Dragon Host had ever arrived on Amesdia. Their former home world had been overrun by half-breeds turned to madness bent on the wholesale slaughter of the Draconic race. When they’d arrived in Amesdia, they’d sued for peace with the local warlords who would eventually carve out the Seven Kingdoms.

Nearly a thousand years ago, the humans had begun to tire of ceaselessly killing one another and banded together under the Vallious line of Kings. Each country was an entity unto itself, however, they all swore fealty to the King of Kings, who was now Andrew. New to the throne and possibly keen to prove himself the leader his grandfather (Tristan and Mina’s first son, Jonathan) had been.

While most regarded Draconis as the King of Dragons, he thought of himself as his own father had; their caretaker. He had made it clear to his kin that this war was not the responsibility of the Dragon Host to support.

Still, younglings being younglings, many were keen to support the descendent of Tristan and he had made clear his stance on this war. He was lending his full support to any action that would end the Orc threat to Amesdia.

Draconis didn’t blame his grandson for his anger and fear. Of all of the mortals of this world, Tristan understood more than any other the threat that Orcs presented both to the Draconic and mortal races. Tristan had spent the last eighty years building up relationships between humans, dwarves and elves. Conference upon conference had been held just below this mountain top, inside of Dragon Hold castle, between all four races to mend wounds.

Elves felt abandoned by Dragons, Dwarves felt betrayed by both, Humans were suspicious of anyone who didn’t look like them. The entire process had been long, more than a little contentious, and at times tedious in the extreme. Still, after years of talk, reconciliation and then education, at least in the Dragon Hold, all four races had an equal voice.

Ambassadors from all four major races were on hand and formed part of the Dragon Hold council along with Tristan and Draconis as the senior members. Over a decade ago, emissaries had been sent north to invite ambassadors from the giants, trolls, wild-men and others that populated the Great Expanse. Their efforts were rebuffed, which only served to strengthen the call to arms for northern invasion.

“Troubled?” A soft, familiar voice called as she landed behind him.

“Hmm?” Draconis replied.

“What’s on your mind, big brother?” Lesariu asked.

Draconis was forced to smile. He, Lesariu and Socolis had been crèche-mates as younglings and yet the two of them insisted on acting like he was older than they were.

“Cassandra. Tristan. This war, ” he began. “Take your pick.”

“Cassie,” she said with a wry grin.

He sighed and returned the smile.

“What if she loses her mind as the Orcs did?” He asked her.

“It’s been nearly three years since she first exhibited signs of a change. I’ve spent days with her, big brother, she’s fine,” Lesariu explained.

“She’s unique, and being unique is never easy,” Draconis observed as he looked out over the horizon.

“True, but she has her mothers’ fighting spirit,” Lesariu replied with a chuckle.

“That she does.” he agreed.

“Well, that’s settled,” she concluded.

Draconis scoffed in reply. He wasn’t entirely sure that it was settled. Cassandra would have a hard road ahead of her. Her life was already going to be challenging. Being a part of Tristan’s family was a lot to live up to and expectations were high from the general public. Tristan and Mina had never much cared which path in life their children chose; their primary concern had always been ensuring their happiness.

Cassandra’s parents had accomplished so much before their thirtieth Midsummer, and only Jonathan had managed to approach the level of their achievements. Added to the pressure of being a Vallious and sharing draconic heritage, Cassandra’s sudden change in appearance had completely set her apart from everyone. Even in Dragon Hold.

Thoughts of Dragon Hold immediately brought his grandson to mind.

“…and Tristan?” Lesariu prodded.

“He hasn’t been the same since Mina’s passing,” Draconis sighed as the heat of the sun broke up the spent rain clouds.

“None of us have, brother,” she observed.

It was true. Mina’s presence alone had made the castle into a home. Her loss had left a palpable absence in the halls. No one had expected the pregnancy and her alarming aging afterwards had driven that shock of her mortality home.

The distant boom of thunder signaled that another spring storm system was moving into the area.

“We’d better move inside, little sister,” Draconis sighed.

Lesariu nodded and leapt into the air, Draconis was a wing-beat behind her. An ear shattering explosion knocked him right out of the sky and tossed him into an outcropping of rock. Draconis felt his right wing snap and pain shot up his spine. Shaking the pain away as best he could, he looked up to see Lesariu held aloft by a net of lightning.

It crawled up her serpentine body and rattled her wings as she soundlessly screamed in pain. Dragging his limp wing behind him, Draconis took three steps forward and jumped as high as he could muster. His taloned claw wrapped around one of her ankles and the lightning traveled down his arm and wracked his body.

Refusing to release his hold, he pulled her down with all of his might.

The pair of them fell, limp from the sky above Dragon Hold in a tangle of wings, arms and legs. They rolled down the side of the mountain; plates from their armored hides were torn free by jagged rocks. They bounced up onto the southern wall, over the parapet and landed in a heap in the palace courtyard. Stones exploded on contact and a cloud of dust rose up around them, the smoking ruins of their bodies were splayed across the courtyard cobbles.

Draconis was dimly aware of the alarm bell ringing and the pounding of feet on cobblestones coming towards them before the nearest palace tower exploded…and then he lost consciousness.

 

 

Cassie sat, quietly watching the storm as it spent its fury utterly on the sanctuary known as Dragon Hold. For the last eighty years, the palace grounds and the dragon breeding caves below had served as the home to dragon, human and half-breed alike. The other races had begun to join their ranks and dragon lore was being taught to non-dragon for the first time in their species’ long history.

Her father had stressed (more times than she cared to recall) that the key to a lasting peace was truly understanding one another. To that end, he and her great-grandfather Draconis had built Dragon Hold. It served as a home for all races to talk, debate, fight, and reconcile without the need or desire for bloodshed.

With the passing of her mother, a significant part of that home was now lost to her entirely.

Everyone dealt with grief differently, for her it had become an open wound. Something she tended, though accepted as part of who she was. Only her father seemed to accept this. Perhaps it was the bond that they shared as father and daughter, perhaps it had more to do with their unmistakable similarities. More likely was their absolute trust in one another. There was one thing that all of her father’s children shared; the ability to at least sense each other’s thoughts.

In some it was more pronounced than others, but in her case, it was as though her mind was an open book to her parents and vice versa.

Two weeks ago, a storm of incredible strength had blown through Dragon Hold. Torrential rain, cascades of high altitude lightning and thunder that shook dust from the rafters of her tower room. A bolt of lightning had set the southern watchtower on fire and the citizens of the palace had sprung into action to put out the blaze before it spread.

She’d been terrified.

Lying in her bed, with the covers pulled up over her eyes, she’d felt the warm, comforting presence of her mother for the first time in years. Eventually, the storm had blown itself out and was replaced by the hypnotic rhythm of rain. The quiet calm of the rain lulled her into a troubled sleep.

The following morning, she’d groggily gotten out of bed and made her way down to the family dining hall for breakfast to an audience of shocked faces. Every conversation ceased immediately as everyone stared at her in open shock. When Cassie looked down, she shared their astonishment, finding her pale skin and painted nails ostensibly replaced by golden dragon scale and black talon.

Then she fainted.

Since then, the shock had worn off and she often found herself staring at her own reflection in wide eyed wonder. She knew that others were concerned about her, about what her appearance could potentially mean for dragon/human relations and other more global concerns such as the resurgence of anti-dragon sentiment so prevalent nearly a century ago.

Only Bethia, the elder red dragon, and her father knew how she really felt about the entire situation; delight.

The pressure of being the child of Tristan and Mina had utterly disappeared. The unsaid expectations evaporated. Sideways glances were now cast her way because of her appearance rather than an assessment of her abilities, or lack thereof. In essence, what many would consider a curse…had become for her the ultimate freedom.

As amazing as her parents were, as astounding their accomplishments and the feats of her eldest brother, she was now free…completely free to explore her own future on her own terms. Her transformation had become the salve to soothe the pain of losing her mother. She now had plenty of distractions and even when she found herself with idle time, a stroll through the palace was an almost perverse relief.

Perhaps she could spend some time with her aunt, the current keeper of Draconic Lore and Henjis’ heir, Senera. She had made it clear on numerous occasions that Cassie was always welcome to come learn about her heritage. Perhaps one of the many tomes, scrolls and books ferreted out of Fangoria as the citizens fled the Orc uprising would hold some information on her own transformation.

At least it would be nice to go somewhere.

Cassandra had sat with her mother every day for the first ten years of her life and listened intently to her adventures. Finally feeling free and rejuvenated, she was keen to have adventures of her own. At fourteen years of age, the farthest Cassie had ever traveled was to Fenold, a half-day walk down the mountain path to the town that supported Dragon Hold. She was eager to see beyond the foothills of the mountain range she called home.

A quiet knock at her door as it opened slightly tore her from her introspection and she smiled. The only other member of the household that forewent the irritating niceties of society was Bethia. Her father always joked that Draconis, Lesariu and Socolis may have accelerated her physical aging, but she still had all of the maturity and decorum of a teenager. Well into her second century of life, Cassie doubted that it was likely to change any time soon.

“Bethia!” Cassie shouted with glee.

“Cassandra!” Bethia mocked.

While Bethia’s natural form was that of an enormous red dragon second only to Draconis is size, she preferred her human form when inside Dragon Hold. Perhaps it had to do with that adolescent decorum, but she loathed standing out. Ironically, she’d chosen to emulate Cassie’s mother in her regal appearance. She always wore the same long tight dress with thin straps over her shoulders, and always with her hair arranged in the latest fashion.

Beth, as she preferred to be called in her human form, had bonded early in life to Cassie’s father, Tristan. As a result, she and Cassie acted the role of sisters all of her young life. In fact, when Mina had taken ill after giving birth to Cassie, it had been Beth who had stepped in to care for her daily needs.

While more of a mother figure than sibling, the pair of them showed no interest in behaving at all. They were often responsible for some of the largest and most elaborate pranks pulled off in Dragon Hold.

Must to her father’s dismay despite the humor he often found in her antics.

For his part Socolis, the elder white dragon, treated the pair of them as the mischievous little sisters they were in his heart. Most of the residents of Dragon Hold observed a familial bond. More often than not, dragons, humans, elves and dwarves spent excessive amounts of time together and bonded as any family might.

Given the locale of the palace, they were really all each other had. Yet, everyone took to this arrangement with surprising ease and joy.

“I hear you’ve been secluding yourself again, little sister,” Beth observed darkly.

“You know how it gets, Beth. Delegates, sycophants, spies and politicians endlessly debating the same topic over and over again,” Cassie sighed. “I just get tired of it.”

“Because everyone already knows what their decision is?” Beth probed.

“Yes! They all have their minds made up and debating the topic never moves any of them to actually change,” Cassie shouted more adamantly than she’d intended. She took a steadying breath before she continued.

“When the room won’t be swayed, father and grandfather make a unilateral decision that is best for all those involved and all discussion ends,” Cassie continued impatiently.

“That’s often how things are accomplished, Cassie,” Beth observed. “Do you honestly think the debate is to change the delegates mind?”

“It sure seems that way,”

“Did it ever occur to you that they’re trying to influence Tristan and Draconis?”

“Influence them how?”

“To change their minds,” Beth replied with a sardonic smile.

“I…” Cassie’s own thoughts interrupted her retort. “Hadn’t thought of that.”

“You should,” Beth advised. “In the end, these debates are less about winning or having a superior argument and more about giving voice to points of view that your father and grandfather either don’t have or don’t share.”

“So that they can make the best choice for everyone,”

“Exactly,” Beth replied as she leaned against the doorframe. “Now, do you feel up to some flying?”

Cassie smiled in spite of herself. It had been weeks since they had flown together. The more Draconic Cassie’s appearance became, the more she longed to be in the air. The feeling of the wind brushing over her scales sent a thrill up her spine. A few weeks ago her eyes had fully changed Draconic, allowing her to keep her eyes open during climbs that had previously caused them to water uncontrollably.

Rather than answering, Cassie grabbed her leather tunic and ran through the open doorway, a laughing Beth chasing behind her. As was often the case these days, Cassie wore light clothing over her scales. Flying though was an entirely different proposition. Changes in altitude, atmospheric pressure and of course, Bethia’s almost obsessive need to fly through clouds necessitated some sort of protective clothing.

As her father had before her, she’d adopted a set of clothes more conducive to flying. Leather trousers and a matching long sleeved tunic that could be fastened all the way up to her chin. As she buckled the toggles, she ran full speed up onto the parapet that ran along the walls of Dragon Hold.

Knowing that Bethia was already transforming behind her, she leapt over the edge with a scream of joy. Wind whistled in her ears and pulled her hair backwards. Two strong wing beats and Bethia was under her, catching her effortlessly on her back and leveling out their descent.

The air was still humid from the passing spring storm and Cassie’s blouse clung to her torso under her tunic. Bethia banked south and they headed towards the ocean separating the country of Vallious from the Great Northern Expanse.

Mardela? Cassie sent.

As was always the case, dragon and rider needed to communicate telepathically. This made it nearly impossible for those unable to mindspeak to ride a dragon effectively. They were merely passengers, whereas a dragon rider could become an extension of the dragon.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Aunty Senera, Bethia agreed.

True. Cassie conceded. Does she still have that spiteful cat?

I believe she has three,

Great, Cassie observed darkly.

Since childhood, Cassandra had never gotten along well with animals. It was as though they hated her the moment they saw her and nothing she could do would change their minds. Still, things could be worse; her aunt could have a pet lion.

Bethia laughed in her mind. Cassie had nearly forgotten that while they were connected, dragon and rider’s thoughts were shared completely. It was necessary in order for them to operate together in harmony. Too often, young riders tried to unilaterally control their dragons and it never ended well. Death had almost always the immediate punishment for those foolhardy enough to believe that they could dominate a dragon by sheer force of will.

Many tried, especially with the younglings, and they all failed. Dragons were born with magical ability, humans were not. The differences didn’t end there by any means; that was simply where it started. Starting from failure led to more failure. Fatally so.

Cassie had spent far too many weeks lost in her own thoughts, so she surrendered to the liberating delight of flight. She allowed her mind to clear and released her hold on worries that occupied her every waking moment since her mother had passed. Eventually, she let go of Bethia’s neck and spread her arms.

Air buffeted up her tunic, tickling the sensitive flesh underneath her scales. It made her feel alive and free. Often in these times, she could sense minds outside of the union with her dragon. These errant thoughts were often coming from emotionally charged people. But today, she and Bethia were blissfully alone.

Hours later, Bethia landed at the docks that served as the main entrance to Senera’s cave sanctuary. Cave always seemed like the worst possible description of the vast library that the black dragon species had accepted charge over thousands of years ago. When her father had first visited here, nearly a century ago, he had found an abandoned town set up on a series of docks.

Since the end of the Terum War, a colony had sprung up here called Mardela. The docks were served by dozens of service lifts that carried goods up to the town above. Dockworkers, tanners, shipwrights and sail makers still called the docks home, but the markets and town hall had been relocated to the top of the fifty foot cliff.

Inside the cliff was where the library and Senera lived. Portholes had been drilled into the cliff-face to allow natural light to bathe the interior chambers in something other than the depressing dim light of candelabras. Cassie had always believed that the madness given birth by solitude and low lighting had been the cause behind Henjis’ betrayal.

Two-hundred and fifty three years ago, Henjis had grown disillusioned with Draconis’ leadership of the dragon species on Amesdia. Through a series of accidents and poor choices, his frustration gave birth to a cult calling themselves Draconis’ Bane. They were a dark and twisted version of Henjis’ inner conflict and focused their attention on the destruction of dragon-kind.

He’d redeemed himself towards the end of the Terum war, embarrassed by what his inner demons had given rise to. His sacrifice had liberated the entire continent and ushered in an era of peace.

Henjis’ heir, Senera, had led the host at what was now called The Library at Mardela. Dragons, humans, elves and those dwarves who desired lessons in history, traveled to the library to search for their own answers or be instructed by the professors who frequented their halls.

Moments after they landed and Bethia had changed her appearance, a flurry of activity sprang up around them. Hundreds of people shouting over one another were deafening, so Beth and Cassie forced their way inside the library entrance. Any respite they had hoped to achieve was short lived though as younglings rushed forward in comically attempted humanoid forms.

Their frantic pleas invaded Cassie’s mind and she had to erect defenses to keep them from driving her mad. Even so, their voices were like fists banging on the walls of her mind. It was all she could do to reinforce the block. It gave her a terrible headache though that traveled down her shoulders and spine.

Beth looked as worse for wear, though her abilities far exceeded those of Cassie. The young lady’s eyes narrowed as something occurred to her. She closed her eyes for a moment and felt the defenses she’d erected to find an all too familiar pattern to them. Her eyes shot open as she reacted without thought and caught Beth as she passed out.

Without the aid of her friend, her pathetic defenses crashed around her and her mind was filled with the fear and outrage of youngling dragons incapable of controlling their own power. Her vision began to close in on itself and everything took on a distinctly gray tone.

Silence!

Instantly Cassie’s vision cleared and though still weak, she clutched Beth’s unconscious form like a mother protecting her child. She couldn’t fathom why younglings would attack them with such ferocity, or who had quieted their minds with a word.

Pushing her way through the throng of odd humanoid shapes was Nera, as Senera chose to be called in her Elvish form. Unlike other dragons, who chose to emulate human bodies, Nera preferred the aesthetic of an elf body. Tall and elegant with a strange air of the ethereal, elves tended to look as similar to humans as dwarves did, which was to say beyond the basic form…not alike at all.

Is she alright? Nera asked inside Cassie’s mind.

If she hadn’t been protecting me, she would have been fine. Cassie observed guiltily. What’s going on?

Dragon Hold was attacked a few hours ago, she replied with a look of confusion.

Cassie bit down a smile; nothing was quite as amusing as Nera observing a very human trait with an elf’s face. They were rarely confused and even when they were, they didn’t show it. The expression was alien in the extreme on an already alien face. Then the weight of her revelation struck home.

“Wait. What did you say?” Cassandra shouted.

While the younglings no longer shouted in their minds, they were milling about in confusion and crowding them.

“Dragon Hold was just attacked,” Nera repeated. “Didn’t you feel it?”

“No!” She replied in alarm.

“Peculiar,” Nera observed.

This time her expression was very Elvish. The entire race was curious about everything, largely because they knew most everything. Representatives of the Elvish council had helped Nera reorganize this library, and had also helped fill in historical and factual gaps that had plagued both dragons and humans for centuries. As such, anything new they discovered was a source of joy and wonder.

One of the benefits, beyond her appearance, was the Draconic strength she’d developed long before the physical change. She effortlessly picked up Beth’s unconscious form and made her way towards the guest chambers. Cassie didn’t notice the look of shock plastered across her aunt’s face and she walked past her, wholly distracted by the revelation of an attack on her home and her friend’s well-being.

 

Chapter 2

Destruction


Towers smoldered as Tristan picked his way through the rubble of the eastern wall. He cursed under his breath as he kicked a scorched piece of limestone. Above him a blue youngling used her elemental power to extinguish piles of waste along the lone intact parapet. Draconis watched him closely from a distance, torn between rage and concern.

So much of their lives had been given over to diplomacy and alliance building, who had the unmitigated gall to so brutally attack them? His own usually peaceful mindset was being put to the test. How had the attack been orchestrated to such alarming success was cause for re-evaluation of their mandate.

It was one of nature’s most base emotions; anger.

Perhaps anger was the wrong word. Rage. Near uncontrollable rage. Yes, that was the correct word for what Draconis was feeling at the moment. Since recovering from the attack, Draconis had been working at steadying his simmering fury. Lesariu was still recovering in the west wing of the palace, curled up near a hearth as the heat from the flames facilitated her healing. Ideally, he would have liked to place her in the sunlight of her Guisian landscape, but this was serving for the moment. Her left wing and side of her maw had been utterly pulverized by a landslide. It had taken a score of green scaled Draconic healers to restore Lesariu’s lovely features.

Even with their aid, it was going to take some time before she was healed enough to fly again…if ever. The healers had done their best, but the damage had been extensive. It hadn’t been limited to her exterior either. The resulting psychological scars would remain long after the physical manifestation of the assault on their home, a location long believed to be the safest in the world.

Along with the physical assault had come a cerebral one as well. Dozens of younglings and newborns lay dead in the breeding halls of the Dragon Hold crèches in the mountains. Some oozing blood from their orifices and some had quite literally torn their heads open trying to stop the pain that racked their fragile minds. Adult minds were more than capable of handling the barrage, but even some of them had lost consciousness during the incursion.

There would be a reckoning for this attempted genocide, but first Draconis needed a target to spend his wrath on.

His most immediate concern was the living. Tristan was chief among them though. The leader of Dragon Hold had to assert his will over his charges and organize the cleanup effort. Draconis could take over, but after nearly a century together, he conceded that his grandson had both the natural leadership qualities the frightened residents of Dragon Hold would need, and the rational mind equipped to deliver it to them. Without meaning to, and without foresight, Tristan had become a necessary link between the world of mortals and dragon-kind. A bridge of a man with one foot firmly planted in each world.

Without him, their alliance was a fragile and tenuous thing. He needed time and space to confront his feelings before he would be able to focus his mind on rebuilding and finding those responsible.  Since losing his wife a few years ago, he’d become a quieter and more introspective man. Initially there had been concern that her passing had broken his will, but that didn’t seem likely after a few weeks. He was just quiet.

Bethia in turn became a more introspective leader and teacher for the younglings who had become her vocation. Draconis, Socolis and Lesariu had orchestrated Tristan’s bond to Bethia to help her adjust to the manipulated aging she’d undergone at their hands. Over the years, the pair of them had strengthened that bond at every chance, becoming a formidable force when talk failed and action was required. Ultimately, though, the bond with Mina had maintained Tristan’s humanity. Since her passing, his mind was kept in the here and now by his love for their youngest child, Cassandra.

In the wake of the attack, she and Bethia had been his first concern and had yet to be found. Draconis worried that their bodies would be found in the wreckage of their home and that such a discovery would destroy Tristan.

There were other concerns as well; King Andrew’s plan to pacify the north. It was entirely possible that this attack had originated there.

In all honesty, Draconis was as worried about the girls as his grandson was, but he was trying very hard to fight the bloodlust that was threatening to overwhelm him. He kept the rage in check by focusing on his young charges and the cleanup effort. Tristan, though, had been muttering to himself since the attack ended. His rage rose off him as palpable as steam.

He empathized with the lad.

In spite of his mood, Draconis chuckled darkly. Only he would dare call Tristan lad. Well over a century of age, Tristan was the oldest living mortal in the history of his world, even for a half-breed. Tristan’s mother had been born as a result of Draconis’ mating with a mortal woman, when his mother had given birth to he and his sister, she’d imparted on them powers unequaled among the mortal races.

His wife, Mina, had a similar parentage, though Lesariu had been her grandmother. None of her grandchildren had outwardly shown any affinity with Draconic mystical arts. Mina had lived an exceptionally long life. None of Mina and Tristan’s children had shown any magical talent, nor had any of them lived longer than an average lifespan.

Cassandra’s change had been as shocking as it had been welcome to all with the exception of Tristan. Part of his dark mood, no doubt, was to do with his youngest child’s change in appearance. He was reasonably mollified that her personality had remained largely the same. She changed and grew as most young ladies did, and thankfully she had adopted none of the Draconic races lust for power.

On the contrary, if anything the changes had made her more empathic.

This made things infinitely easier on Tristan, who was still grieving in many ways about the passing of his wife. Quiet or not, it was clear that he was lonely without her. The addition of this attack could push the lad over the edge, unless Draconis and Socolis could find a way to distract him…or at the very least direct his energies in a more positive direction.

His brother, Socolis, was overdue to return from the country that he served as patron dragon; Sutten.

I am not overdue,

Draconis laughed aloud.

I’m early.

You most certainly are not, Draconis shot back in mock annoyance.

Are you still cleaning up? Socolis asked.

Yes.

Then I am most definitely early.

Draconis laughed again as Socolis flew into sight from far above him.

Socolis drifted slowly around, taking in the damaged crevice that had served as their communal home for nearly fifty years. It had been the longest dragons had lived together since coming to this world and the longest multiple species of dragon had lived in close proximity in the history of their race.

Draconis’ smile faltered as Socolis glid past the rubble that had once been his proudest achievement; the eastern wall. It was a marvel of engineering only equaled by the largest palaces of Guis. That their sister, the patron of Guis, Lesariu had been equally impressed with his feat had been no small source of joy to his life since its completion.

It was now a smoldering ruin, destroyed by fire, rock and lightning.

What damned fool ruined my wall? He shot angrily.

Get down here, little brother.

The elder white dragon circled again, clicking his tongue in disgust. He came in low and landed with his usual three step gait as his features blurred and coalesced into his human form. It was much the same as it always had been; a simple homespun white tunic and trousers. Otis, as he preferred to be called in this form, seemed to take an almost sheepish pleasure in imitating Tristan’s appearance, but aging himself a few decades. These days, he kept his hair short and a beard to match all white as fresh snow. He felt it gave him the appearance of wisdom without the crutch of age.

Tristan had always been amused by it, though hid it beneath a veil of feigned annoyance.

This only served to encourage Otis in continuing the façade.

Today, though, there was no humor in the lad as he approached them. Feeling out of place, Draconis transformed himself into his human form as well. His own appearance had changed very little in the last century. He had taken years to decide on his look and was quite happy and content to keep it. A silver robe, cropped close to the torso and flared out at the legs. If he’d chosen the color black, he would look every part the studious monk.

He’d kept his hair shoulder length and windswept. Lesariu always joked that it gave him the appearance of a great hero or a dragon rider as opposed to the King of Dragons on Amesdia. Drake, as he was known in this form, had chosen the appearance as homage to the first King of Vallious and Tristan’s father; Dion.

“Who?” Tristan ordered as he approached.

“Hello to you as well, nephew,” Otis bristled.

Tristan turned to face Otis, anger flashed in his eyes. His mouth opened and then closed abruptly. He bit back a scathing reply, slowly composing himself as Drake and Otis exchanged bemused glances. These three had worked and lived so closely in the last decades of peace that they were in no way put off by his anger. In fact, they shared it.

Anger wasn’t going to fix the eastern wall though.

“Sorry,” he replied more calmly. “Hello. Lovely say, isn’t it?”

His voice was laced with sarcasm, ire and annoyance. Any other day, Otis would have goaded him further, but he thought better of it…this time.

“We don’t know, yet,” Drake began.

Otis sat down and began drawing in the pulverized stone dust at his feet. Drake smirked and sat down as Tristan scoffed and flopped down across from them. The elder white dragon in human form sketched several lines, crossed them out, drew them again, made a dismissive noise and then looked up to see Drake and Tristan staring intently at his work.

“What?” He said innocently.

Tristan swore, eliciting open laughter from both dragons.

“You’re so moody when people attack you,” he observed.

“Some days, I really hate you, did you know that?” Tristan said with a scowl.

Golden lace arms wrapped around Tristan’s neck and shoulders.

“We all feel that way,” Lesa whispered in his ear.

A smile finally came to life on his grandson’s face as Drake nodded in agreement with the consensus. Lesariu had assumed her mortal form, presumably with the permission of the healers. From time to time when she blinked, her human eyes were replaced by the Draconic ones. Drake understood that she was in a great deal of pain, but it was simply easier to discuss matters such as these in their human forms. It made for a smaller circle of ears and mouths.

“How are you feeling, little sister?” Drake asked.

“A little worse for wear, I won’t be flying any time soon,” she replied.

“The joint was pulverized and I’m going to need Molly to have a look since its well beyond her younglings to mend,” Lesa began.

“But you’ll make a full recovery?” Otis urged.

“Yes, my love, I’ll be fine,” she assured him.

While the Draconic race didn’t believe in marriage, the bonding of two wasn’t uncommon enough to warrant much more than curiosity. Otis and Lesa had, for all intents and purposes, been raised together. Before they’d discovered the romantic undercurrent of their friendship, they had been inseparable companions for centuries. It had only been during these last few decades of unprecedented peace that they had begun to explore what lay beneath the surface.

Despite his desire to keep the mood as light as possible at all times, Otis’ own concern was impossible for him to hide. A debilitating injury that prevented flight would result in Lesa being stripped of her position, for all of the members of the Draconic Council had to possess the ability to fly and manipulate the elements.

“What are we doing on the ground?” She asked as she casually kicked aside a small piece of surviving stonework.

“They were about to explain what happened,” Tristan accused.

“We were?” Otis asked in feigned surprise.

“We don’t know what happened, my boy,” Drake observed.

“You didn’t feel it?” Lesa cocked her head to the side in confusion.

Drake narrowed his eyes. He had long suspected that Lesariu was more in tune with Amesdia than he and Socolis were. She’d been brought here while still a youngling barely into her first century of life.

“Feel what, precisely?” He asked.

“Before the first lightning bolt, I felt another mind brush up against mine.”

“In what way?” The Dragon King asked.

“It was a like a light brush on the shoulder, something I felt just before the avalanche,” she began. “I think it was Draconic in origin.”

“Wait,” Tristan interrupted, “what are you saying?”

“I think it’s time to tell him.” She said slowly turning towards Drake.

“That’s not possible,” he asserted.

“I think we have proof to the contrary,” Otis agreed.

“It just can’t be,” Drake asserted.

“What’s going on?” Tristan shouted.

“The few that made it through couldn’t possibly have survived the purge,” Drake assured them.

“Need I remind you that we survived the human purge?” Lesa offered.

“No,” Drake objected.

“It’s possible,” Otis offered.

“No,” Drake repeated his objection.

“What is going on?!” Tristan shouted louder.

“Tell him,” Otis and Lesa ordered.

Drake shook his head in reply, refusing to give their theory any credence. The Draconic race was full of dark history, events that were best left forgotten in the past.

“When we first arrived on…” Lesa began.

“No,” Drake interrupted, “we are not telling him this in the middle of a destroyed home that we built together.”

“Fine,” Lesa shot in annoyance.

She waved her arms, in an arc. For the faintest of moments, the dome she erected shone with hints of blue and purple before coalescing into a solid gray color. Drake was familiar with the spell, though in her current condition, he was hard pressed to figure out how she had accomplished it. The spell required an intense amount of concentration to erect, though once done was relatively easy to maintain unless it was under attack.

Still, the mere fact that she had been able to focus her mind through the pain of her destroyed wing was a feat unto itself. He made a silent mental note that her abilities were beginning to advance beyond his and couldn’t help but smile. Below the pride though was a more animalistic urge, one he hadn’t felt since the exodus. The thought alone was a leftover of their more warlike past and completely alien to their new life on Amesdia. Yet, it had still existed and was a source of concern for him, but it would have to be dealt with later.

Inside Lesa’s dome was utterly dark, which served their purposes perfectly. Still bemused by her magical display, Drake’s smile widened as he allowed his human skin to glow silver. Otis and Lesa in turn made their skin luminescent white and gold respectfully. Tristan, much to everyone’s amusement, rolled his eyes.

“When we first arrived on Amesdia, fleeing our home world in the wake of the Orc Wars, we had little control over whom or what came through the gateway with the refugees,” Drake began.

“Elves and Dwarves, and the Orcs that chased them certainly, but what we hadn’t realized was that a score of hatchling and younglings had also escaped,” Otis continued.

“The War continued here for a generation. The Orcs that had escaped were unable to reproduce as quickly and in such vast numbers without the help of dragon magic,” Drake explained.

“An alliance of Human, Dwarf, Elf and Dragon drove the Orc Horde north, they sealed the gateway and forever banished the Orcs to the wastelands of the Great Expanse,” Lesa concluded.

“What we hadn’t known at the time was that some of the dragons that had escaped into Amesdia had fled our continent entirely,” Drake continued.

“Where did they go?” Tristan asked.

“We simply don’t know,” Lesa offered.

“What we do know,” Drake began. “Is that they cross the sea, presumably to their deaths.”

“Any dragons left on our continent are subject to our rule, or they are destroyed,” Otis said.

“Wait. What?” Tristan replied in shock.

“All hatchlings are offered two choices, they can either submit to our rules or they can die in their crèches,” Otis replied.

“That seems harsh,” Tristan observed.

“Undoubtedly,” Drake conceded, “But ask yourself this; which is more of a sin? Allowing a dragon who lives outside of our rules to grow to adulthood and possibly wreak havoc on our nation, or a ceiling that our race was already conducting long before we arrived on this world?”

“Still,” Tristan replied.

“I’m sorry we kept this from you, but having dealt with our young for the better part of a century, surely you understand why this is necessary,” Drake asked.

“I do, but the brutality…” Tristan replied.

“Now, if there are dragon spawn outside of our ring of influence, that could spell disaster,” Lesa observed darkly.

“Clearly, it already has,” Tristan shot angrily.

“Possibly,” Drake interrupted. “This is a dangerous chain of thought. I’ll want some sort of evidence before I’ll dignify this theory with my attention.”

“How can you be so obtuse?” Otis replied angrily.

It was odd that Otis would say anything remotely close to serious, insulting was an even more rarefied breed. So rare, in fact, that everyone turned to regard him intently.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Otis said self-consciously, “we have been attacked in a bloody naked show of aggression. Even that idiotic dragon cult lacked the power to so boldly slap us in the faces.”

He referred to the Draconis’ Bane cult, which Tristan had led the charge to destroy so many years ago. Barely more than a boy at the time, they had foolishly attacked him directly with a curse that had rendered him unconscious for nearly a month while his mind slowly unraveled. All of their attacks had been carried out by intermediaries or assassinations. This was too blunt an attack to be attributed to their method of brutality.

“I have to agree with him, big brother,” Lesa added.

“Frankly, I don’t know what to think,” Tristan admitted, “though, I will say this; whoever is responsible will pay for the lives they’ve taken today.”

“I haven’t heard that kind of bluster in years,” Otis observed with a smirk.

“I will hit you,” Tristan replied darkly, “hard.”

“What do you propose we do, lad?” Drake asked.

“We need to be very careful,” Tristan began, “they are clearly very powerful and able to attack us at a great distance if none with the exception of Lesa could sense their presence.”

“Well organized as well, each ball of fire arrived so perfectly timed that it had to have been accomplished in concert with at least a dozen practitioners of magic,” Otis added.

Drake nodded his head in approval.

“The storm was ferocious enough that it would have taken all three of us to stop it had we known its origins were mystical.”

Silence greeted the King of dragons and the group sat in silence, brooding over the myriad of questions with no answers. As was often the case, Tristan was more comfortable with action than getting lost in thought. Most turned to him in times like these to lead them out of the dark. The look on his face, though reminded Drake of the grim frightening focus of a young man who had lost his first wife to an enemy they had gravely underestimated.

Before his marriage to Mina, he’d been briefly married to Maggie, a courtier and companion of his sister-in-law. They’d had a child and both of them had been brutally torn apart and partially consumed by an Orc.

“So we’re talking about a force of at least what? A dozen?” Tristan asked impatiently.

“More,” Otis replied darkly, “much more.”

Lesa’s head lowered as she nodded her agreement.

“Have you ever pulled on a broken stitch?” Drake asked after another long pregnant pause.

Tristan nodded his head in reply.

“Pulling apart a spell is similar,” he continued, “if I say that three elder dragons could have pulled apart the arts put to work on the atmosphere, can you imagine the amount of power that would have been required to put it together in the first place?”

“Tristan,” Otis began, “we’re talking about at least fifty magicians working in concert to each one of us.”

“Gods.”

“Now you understand where we’re starting,” Drake replied.

Tristan shook his head in frustration. “I’m beginning to. We’ve built an entire community here to support less than a fraction of that number.”

“We have seven elders; each of us has perhaps three adults capable of battle,” Lesa explained.

“We need allies,” Tristan concluded.

“That we do, grandson,” Drake agreed.

Each of the dragons in human form looked at one another uncomfortably as Tristan worked out what they had all silently concluded moments after the attack.

“No,” he replied to their implication in disgust.

 

 

Rock and debris fell from the ceiling of Nera’s cavernous retreat. Above an unspeakable genocide was being unleashed on the inhabitants of Mardela. Fire and lightning rained down on them from the skies. Fires broke out in the shipyards first with their flammable wares catching easily. Nera had sealed the cave after taking in as many refugees as had survived the initial onslaught.

A massive explosion had then caved in the entrance to the vast library that Nera and her predecessor served as guardians of for centuries.  However, that same explosion had collapsed the ceiling of one of the birthing chambers. The psychic cries of the dying had shaken anyone capable of telepathic communication within Nera’s sanctuary.

Unfortunately, Beth’s condition remained unchanged.

Cassandra cast her eyes around at a veritable sea of terrified faces. Each one echoed the fear she felt herself. Should enough damage be inflicted above, would they be buried alive as a result? Would the attackers somehow find their way down into the catacombs of Nera’s vast library?

As though to answer her fears, there came an ear splitting explosion, which traveled towards them down the nearest tunnel. Fleeing younglings shouted in her mind as they scurried around trying to avoid the falling rock and somehow organize themselves to fend off invaders.

They inside! A male mind shouted into hers.

Everyone. Calm yourselves. Nera’s calm voice cut across the chorus of clashing thoughts, the unadulterated power of her voice threatened to render Cassie unconscious.

She tried her best to block the bedlam of thoughts, as her mother and grandmother had taught her. Somehow, she didn’t think they’d had this scenario in mind, but she tried none the less. Since her mother’s death, Lesariu’s training had taken on an almost obsessive nature. It was almost as though her grandmother had foreseen the necessity.

It was something Cassie would ask her, should she survive.

Cassie steadied her breathing and focused her will. Soon the voices became dull and distant, and then finally they became blissfully silent. She took another deep breath and solidified the walls in her mind, bracing them as the emotional turmoil in the room reached a crescendo. Realizing that she had also blocked out Nera’s instructions, she focused on her aunt’s voice and allowed it to enter her mind.

…in concert. Remember, focus and we can repel the raiders.

Cassie shook off the dust and rubble that covered her tunic and trousers and prepared herself for battle. Like her father, she was a natural with blades. From a very young age, it was one of their shared passions and they spent their time together dueling. She had left her weapons behind in Dragon Hold though, and had no idea where (or if) Nera kept such things.

She began looking around for something she could use as a weapon, a stick or rock would suffice. As she looked around, a hatchling dragon appeared from one of the intact tunnels dragging a simple longsword behind him. His eyes were wide in terror, but he resolutely dragged the long sword towards the group of dragons and humans preparing to defend themselves in the center of the massive central chamber.

Another explosion knocked him off of his feet and sent the blade clattering along the floor as a ball of fire shot out of the end of the tunnel. Nera’s hand shot out, pulling him out of harm’s way and into the arms of an adult blue dragon. One of Nera’s adults stepped up next to Cassie and summoned the blade, which landed perfectly in her waiting hand.

The sounds of shouting echoed off of the walls of the central chamber as the invaders closed in on their position. Cassie pushed a youngling behind her and took up a ready stance, waiting for the invaders to appear.

Despite her mental blocks, Cassie felt that the room stank of fear. None of those conscious had ever seen a full-fledged battle before. Some had been trained extensively, others merely given the basics. The younglings and hatchlings would likely rely on their instincts, making them fairly useless in an organized resistance. Nera’s librarians were ill equipped for battle, despite having found weapons to arm themselves with.

Cassie doubted very much that anyone had been left alive topside. Their only hope of survival was to hold the invaders here. It wasn’t a hopeless situation, but it was as near as it made little difference. Nera did her best to steady her host, though she wasn’t a warrior.

Not unlike the rest of her family, Cassie had been taught tactics through game. The family pastime of playing chess had been one of her fondest memories of childhood. Training had proceeded from there, but always at its core was the simple moving of pieces, taking advantage of their strengths while exposing the weaknesses in your enemy’s plan.

Her nerves began to fray, though, for all of her own training, she had never been exposed to a life threatening situation. Deep down inside, she worried that she wouldn’t be up to the challenge. She allowed her mental block to fall away and swayed in place for a moment as a torrent of emotions ran over her. Focusing again, she pushed them aside and spoke with her mind.

Silence!

All gathered looked at her, including Nera who nodded her permission with a sigh of relief.

There are only two tunnels into this room left and only one of those accesses Mardela above. Concentrate your attacks on the right tunnel. We can hold them, if we work together.

The chattering stopped, dragon and human alike readied themselves for what was approaching. Inarticulate cries of war echoed down the tunnel and into the central chamber. Several dragons and humans fidgeted as fear rose up inside their hearts.

Steady, she ordered, we can hold them.

The fear in the room was palpable, but building quickly underneath that was resolve. They were the defenders, fighting for their homes and lives and had the upper hand because of it. The war cries of the invaders grew louder, though to their credit; the defenders’ courage held. Despite the thick stink of fear in the room, all were prepared to fight and die if must be.

Reds, Cassie shouted with her mind, fire.

Correctly interpreting her order, the red dragons took a step forward and unleashed the fire from their mouths.

Blues, she ordered next, wind.

The blue dragons stepped forward next to their red brothers and sisters and added their power, sending the columns of fire rocketing down the tunnel.

The defenders smiled resolutely as the war cries turned to cries of fear and panic. Those were quickly replaced by cries of pain, and were then silenced utterly. A cheer went up around Cassie. The hatchling dragon she had pulled behind her wrapped his arms around her leg in celebration.

Their joviality was short lived as screams of anger began to echo down the tunnel once again. These had a familiar tone to them though that Cassie was hard pressed to place.

Whites! She shouted over the din, wind.

Greens! Cassie ordered, poison.

When the screams of the invaders picked up in intensity, Beth’s eyes shot open and she sat up in the center of the gaggle of defenders.

Nera! Get as many of them as you can and flee!

Without waiting for an explanation Nera transformed her natural form, the mighty black elder dragon Senera. She gathered a swarm of younglings, hatchlings and humans under her immense torso, with a flash of blinding light they disappeared.

Cassandra! To me, she shouted as she too transformed, now child!

Cassie took a step forward and was sent flying across the room by another concussive explosion. She shook her head and looked up as Bethia vanished in another flash of light. She shook her head, unable to process for a moment what had just happened. Bethia, her closest friend, had just abandoned her.

Before the feeling of betrayal had time to coalesce in her mind, though, fear took over as a swarm of what could only be called Draconic humanoids came pouring out of the tunnel. While varied in height, color and size, they wore uniforms of leather armor stained white.

It appeared as though their rank was emblazoned on their chests, though no other markings were evident. Each of them wore a breastplate, bracers and shin guards. No shields were to be seen and each of them brandished a short sword, which was serrated near the hilt, but possessed no guard.

She fumbled around for her sword. If she was going to die, she wouldn’t go quietly.

A flash of light blinded her momentarily before she was deafened by an ear shattering roar. Behind her Bethia had re-appeared and her furious roar shook stones loose from the ceiling above. A large section of rock fell and crushed a score of Dragonkin, for that was how Cassie thought of them; not quite dragon and not quite human.

As she had become.

Though her face had retained its human appearance, these Dragonkin had maws and sharp teeth  and snarled in their direction. Cassie clumsily pulled herself up onto Bethia’s back and the elder red dragon leapt into the nearest light shaft.

Why aren’t you teleporting? Cassie shouted in Bethia’s mind.

I don’t have the energy. Draconis sent me back, she replied as she scampered along the smoothened stone.

Two loud pops echoed up the light shaft moments before a harpoon burst through Cassie’s left shoulder, just below her collarbone. The blade was serrated and had a strange hue to the metal unlike anything she had seen before. She stared at it a moment in shock, unable to process what had just happened to her.

Finally, the pain registered and her shout of pain was cut off by a hard yank as she was pulled off of Bethia’s back. Her head struck the shaft as she was pulled off and she rolled head over feet downwards. Each time her head made contact with unyielding stone, her vision swam. She fought to cut the rope, but each time she managed to stop her descent another swift jerk on the rope wrenched her off balance and she continued her painful plunge.

By some small miracle, her foot found purchase and she was able to find the momentum to swing the sword with all of her strength. Instead of slicing through the rope though, she only slammed it against the wall. The line pulled her off balance again as she spun in place, utterly losing her equilibrium.

As she slipped off of the edge of the light shaft, she felt Bethia’s clawed hand close around her protectively and she held Cassie to her chest. Dust exploded around them as Bethia crashed into the floor. They landed in a tangle of rope, wing, and limbs, but Cassie managed to roll away and decapitated the first Dragonkin that approached them.

Another leapt forward and she parried its sloppy strike and sprung up, ramming her knee into its chin as she spun in place and deflected three slashes. Two more Dragonkin fell to her blade as she carved her way towards the tunnel entrance. If she could manage to draw away their attackers, Bethia could recover enough to make another attempt to flee.

Cassie flipped over the next Dragonkin, using her spare hand, she grasped it under the jaw and used her momentum to throw it into the next enemy. She reversed her grip on the hilt of her sword thrust backwards, killing another Dragonkin as it closed in on her with its sword raised high above its head. In one fluid motion, she tore her sword from the first and cleaved open the abdomen of a second Dragonkin. She reversed grip again, planted her feet and chopped into the next Dragonkin between the neck and shoulder.

Her blade became stuck between its plates, so she released it. The power of her strike drove the enemy to its knees and its hand lost the strength to hold its weapon. She caught it with her left hand. He flew backwards as she slashed his face with a powerful blow, whipping around to face the next attacker.

An enterprising Dragonkin grabbed a hold of the rope, still attached to her shoulder and pulled her backwards. Pain shot up into her mind and disoriented her. She went down to one knee as she spun and hoped that their own weapons could slice through the rope where she had previously failed.

Near euphoria rose up inside her as the sword sliced through the rope as though it were merely twine.

A bolt of lightning then struck her in the chest and shot her backwards into Bethia. The two screamed in pain as the lightning cascaded through their bodies, sending them to the dusty floor in twitching agony. Blissfully, after a few excruciatingly long moments, the lightning stopped.

As Cassandra’s vision began to collapse in on itself, she saw a robed Dragonkin step forward with its arms raised. Another bolt of lightning struck her like a hammer to an anvil and she lost consciousness. Her last recollection was her father shouting her name in desperation.