Chapter 8, Part 1
They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
Chapter 8, Part 1
~ Dare ~
From the outside, my manor is not much smaller than an elven palace. I’d have been happy with living in the barracks, but the Emperor insisted I needed to keep a certain appearance. As rarely as I’m even here, keeping a household and servants to tend this place seems ridiculous.
Still in human form, I enter through the servant’s door. It was easiest to navigate the city via the paths for the smaller races. Anything to avoid the power-grubbing fathers wanting to procure an elite position for their hatchlings or to marry me to their daughters. The supposition is always how grateful I should be for the offer — me, a lowly part-human. To the xenophobic, racist dragons, three-quarters doesn’t count as full, no matter how much I’ve proved my worth. Marriage — with its familial alliances and political maneuvering — isn’t normally an option for my kind.
After my encounter with the Emperor, a sense of prickling unease stirs inside me. Maybe it had been a mistake to take my people to the Wylds instead of answering the Emperor’s summons. At the time, I didn’t care. We didn’t have Jade’s ashes to free into the wind or her body to bury, but she loved the view from the top of Astria Mountain. Together, we climbed it the hard way — in human form — rather than merely flying to the summit.
Tired and soul-weary, my people needed time to grieve, to heal. These last few months, we fought one battle after another, and I wanted us to remember there was still beauty in the world, still something worth fighting for.
But my impulsive move may have signed our death warrants.
I sigh as I maneuver down the quiet servant’s hall and into the bustling kitchen. What could I have done differently?
“Welcome home, sir. Let me help you with your bag.” Greaves, my manservant, greets me in the kitchen. He doesn’t smile, but I can see the relief in his eyes. I remember when his hair was jet black. When I was young, he served in my mother’s home and would scold me for traipsing mud in on my clawed feet. Insisting I needed someone trustworthy, Mother sent him with me when I formed my own house, and he’s been the caretaker of my home and people ever since. Now the touches of gray have taken over, and lines of worry mark his face.
I let him take my carry bag and weapons. “Thank you, Greaves.”
“I’m terribly sorry sir, but your mother, General Ayaara. Is waiting for you on the veranda.”
“What is she doing here?”
“I believe she is here to speak with you.”
“Thanks. You are ever so helpful.”
“I live but to serve, sir.” His eyes sparkle with humor, but the mirth is gone in a moment replaced with worry. “In all seriousness, sir, she appears to be quite distressed.”
Greaves bows deeply and retreats toward the kitchen, no doubt overseeing the preparations for refreshments.
In my rooms, I change into dragon form. It wouldn’t do to meet the general in my vulnerable shape, even if she is my mother. Still weary and dirty from travel, I go to face my mother.
The veranda overlooks the entire city, and my mother gazes out, her back to me. As the Elite General, my manor is high up the side of the mountain. The thermals make taking off effortless, and the view never fails to awe me.
Altaryllia is situated on a rich volcanic island, and from my manor, I can gaze over the rune-marked stone and crystalline structures with all their sparkling magical lights. The jeweled walkways and pedestrian bridges for the smaller races arc through the sky like brilliant ribbons circling the magically constructed buildings that twist and entwine like magic itself. Each building is a piece of art all by itself, but together it blends and melds into a symphony for the eyes.
Beyond the city, the peaceful waves of the clear blue Aspidochelone Sea stretch out to the horizon. The giant turtles that gave the sea its name are rare, but they are far from extinct. I can sometimes see their enormous island-like shells lazily floating past in the summer.
A familiar voice speaks in my mind. <From this distance, you cannot see the darkness encroaching.>
<General Ayaara?> I nod respectfully toward her.
Small for a dragon, she makes up for it with sheer presence, her defiance filling the room even with her back to me. She has a metallic silver body like I do, but where my horns, claws, and wingtips are scarlet fading into black, hers are copper turning to indigo at the very tips. <I’m not a general today. I’m a mother who does not wish to lose her only son. I’ve already lost your brother and your father.>
I turn my head, puzzled. <Mother, what are you talking about?>
<I heard about your meeting with the Emperor. I don’t think you realize the danger you are in.>
<Don’t worry. It’s his spymaster. He’s corrupted the Emperor’s opinion, but once I prove myself — >
She shakes her head, and I break off. <Put your tightest shields up, the way I taught you. What I have to tell you must be guarded in the darkest, deepest reaches of your mind.>
Closing my eyes, I picture an impenetrable wall hidden in the garden of my mind, and ivy covers a locked door where no one would think to look. The key to the door is the secret words my mother taught me as a child: Question everything. Never let anyone tell you what to think.
<There are stories,> she says, <about our Emperor that are never discussed openly. Your father was concerned about his obsession with the plagues. He couldn’t prove it, but he believed that the Emperor isn’t researching them to find a cure but, instead, a weapon.>
<What?> Horror rises up inside me and squeezes my throat. I worked to supply him with all those plagues.
No, it couldn’t be true. Could it? The Emperor’s concern for his people felt so real. That kind of sincerity can’t be faked. His mental walls were open to me.
It couldn’t be true. Could it? The Emperor’s concern for his people felt so real. That kind of sincerity can’t be faked.
Maybe the stress has gotten to my mother. <Impossible. As virulent as these plagues are, that would be insane, a disaster waiting to happen.>
<Nyzald was not always the dragon he is now. He used to be tender-hearted, a cheerful child who brought joy to his teachers.>
Cheerful isn’t a word I’d use for him. I always sensed a deep-seated sadness, as if he shared my worries for our people, as if he understood my pain for the loss of my brother and father.
<He was a supporter of the equal-race-rights movement for the longest time. Then he went on an ill-fated expedition into the Wylds. His guards, a few guides, and several dignitaries from the various kingdoms went into the Wylds to an archeological dig site. He was the only one to return. He refuses to speak of it, but something happened to him. Ever since, his mind is darker.>
<And you think this has to do with tonight’s events? I was AWOL for three days, the Emperor was upset about it. That’s why I’m on probation, not because…>
<Just hear me out.> She says nothing for a long time, but her thoughts remain open to me as memories tumble through her mind. I catch glimpses of people and faces, and then she continues her story. <Nyzald, Veressorm, and your father worked together on deciphering the meaning behind the mad prophecies. Your father might have been only half-dragon, but he was Veressorm’s best friend. The three of them along with a wizard – a human woman – believed the prophecies held the secret to stopping the plagues. Then Emperor Veressorm was poisoned shortly after Nyzald returned from his trip to the Wylds. Nyzald was crowned Emperor, and his first act was to lock the prophecies away.>
If my mother’s words are true, then of the four people analyzing the prophecies, two are dead, one is missing, and one has been changed into something else. What really happened all those years ago?
<What happened to the woman?>
<Disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to her. Nyzald hunted her for years, blamed her for Veressorm’s death until someone else finally confessed.> She places a claw on my shoulder. <Be careful, son. This may no longer be the safest place for you.>
<Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be fine.>
She grimaces, a puff of smoke curling from her lips. <There is more to the story. Your father spoke to me before his last mission. There was a line in the prophecy that had always confused him until the Faze began to serve Nyzald. Something about a plague queen and the devil incarnated. Your father was sure Nyzald had somehow fulfilled this part of the prophecy.>
Cold pricks my skin as her words sink in. I know the Faze is a hive mind with a queen in control of them, and on his deathbed, my father begged me to look deeper into the mad prophecies. Was this what he wanted me to discover?
<His death …> she continues, her voice catching at the words. After all this time, she still misses him. <… was caused by a plague. One that the Emperor already had a cure for, supposedly. So why did your father die?>
I can’t say anything. There isn’t any evidence, only conjecture, but if this were true …
<Promise me this one thing: don’t trust Nyzald any more than you would trust his spymaster. He may be better at faking his sincerity, but he is not a good man.>
She drapes her wing over me and we bump our foreheads together in a fierce dragon hug before leaving. I watch her go, soaring out into the evening sky.
If any of this is true, everything I know to be true is a lie, and my team and everyone I care about has been in danger long before I learned about this.