Rean blinked rapidly, staring up at the creature that had emerged. It cradled Serena’s body, feeling nervous. The creature was even bigger than the monster, with its head reaching halfway up to the ceiling. Wait. Rean knew this creature. It was Kakane! This must be what he called a “dragon!” Kakane turned into a dragon! But how!? Rean didn’t have time to worry about the details as the monster broke free from its ice chains. The bipedal dragon that was Kakane growled before letting out a bellowing roar.
His hand-like claws burst into flame as a starburst pattern the color of fire illuminated on his wings. Kakane’s golden eyes were filled with grief, anger, and great panic.
He roared again, lips pulled back to reveal an array of sharp, fanged white teeth. His entire body was black and red, dotted here and there by several golden scales. His horns were curved like a ram’s, with a golden thread-like pattern following the contours. From his back sprouted two leathery black wings with bright red membranes. A tail with plumed red feathers slithered behind him menacingly. His face was scarred, a deep gash slashed into his right cheek under his eyes.
The monster shook its head before beating its chest; exposed ribs rattling together with every impact. The sound caused Rean to wince, and it held Serena closer. It could tell something very, very bad was about to happen. Kakane’s taloned feet gripped the stone below him, carving deep rivulets into the rock.
A stream of bright golden fire burst out of his mouth, so hot that even Rean could feel it. The puppet had never seen fire like this before, but it carried the same fiery power that Kakane’s magic did. Because of this, Rean was not afraid. The monster shrieked, fruitlessly trying to bat away the flames. Illuminated by the golden light, Kakane tackled the monster, sinking his fangs into its body and tearing it apart with his claws.
Growling, he shook the monster in his mouth back and forth before setting it ablaze at point-blank range. The monster howled but it was consumed within seconds, its voice being drowned out by the flames. A few mere moments later, it was nothing more than a stinking, foul, charred black mass. But Kakane wasn’t done. He needed to avenge his beloved, needed to release the anguish that was plaguing him. He took the monster from its mouth and with a final roar, tore it into two.
Bright blue blood spurted everywhere, causing the cavern to be flooded with the liquid. Rean stared up at Kakane, shocked, not even noticing that blood was getting into its eyes. The dragon was breathing heavily and he roared again. The sound reverberated throughout the entire Yukshi Mountain, shaking Rean down to its puppet core.
Kakane took a mighty flap of his wings and soared throughout the cavern in a circle. He looked down at Rean, who was holding Serena tentatively and looking both terrified and amazed. Kakane then turned to the frost breath iris beside them, which was glistening with pale blue light and faintly glowing. Kakane gnashed his fangs together. He grabbed Serena and Rean in his claws and headed straight for the ceiling, the only entrance to the outside world. Beneath him, the light of the frost breath iris slowly died out.
There was still a blizzard raging just outside when Kakane burst through. He growled furiously, taking the full brunt of the snow and wind. He folded in his wings and started to plummet straight to earth. In his talons, he felt Rean freeze and curl into a ball. Serena was colder than ever. They went down, down, down until the base of the Yukishi Mountain was visible. Kakane snapped his wings open and began speeding straight towards Gawain.
“If the day ever comes when I will be able to fly freely, I will carry you up into the sky so that you may touch the clouds. That’s a king’s promise.”
This was not how he intended to fulfill that promise, with Serena freakishly cold and dying in his claws. This was not how he wanted this to go at all, and he let out a pained roar in a feeble attempt to release his anguish.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, my beloved, my Serena…
I will not let you die. There must be a doctor, somewhere, who can help you!
By my pride as the last prince of the Draconids, I will not let you die!
Kakane landed right outside of Gawain, where Rean toppled from his arms and into the snow. It watched wide-eyed as Kakane transformed back into his human self. His breath was visible in the frosty air and he was still holding Serena, cradling her close. Her own breathing was labored and the ice was spreading even faster in the cold. Kakane’s eyes bulged and he warmed her body with his magic, determined to keep Serena alive until they found help.
Rean scrabbled and slid down the snow slope before running into town and causing a racket. Kakane followed in after it, fervently looking among the confused villagers.
“A doctor. Is there a doctor anywhere!?” he asked desperately.
Several people pointed at a small building and Kakane rushed inside, with Rean holding the door open for him. The people inside jumped as he barreled into the establishment. He must have looked like a madman, breathing heavily with a wild look in his eyes and cradling a girl who was half-dead.
“Please,” Kakane begged, “help her.”
A nurse took one look at Serena before beckoning Rean and Kakane into a room. The Draconid laid Serena on the bed just as the doctor arrived, who removed Serena’s heavy jackets, blankets, and scarf. He frowned at the pale blue spreading across her skin, feeling for her pulse and shaking his head.
“Frost fever,” the doctor said sadly. Rean blinked.
“Can you cure her?” Kakane demanded.
“I’m afraid not,” the doctor sighed. “Frost fever is a magical disease, and it’s the main cause of death for those crazy enough to try and scale the Yukishi Mountain. It’s brought on by the extreme cold of the mountain, slowly taking away the life energy of its victim and turning them to ice. When there is no life left, they shatter. This girl, she is already halfway frozen.”
“Is… Is there nothing you can do for her?” Kakane croaked. Rean looked terrified.
“Not here we can’t,” said the doctor. “The nearest place that can is Jigoku, the capital of the Doryokan Empire.” Kakane froze and Rean blinked. “Only specialized doctors can treat frost fever, but the city is quite close; if you borrow some of our fastest horses, you’ll be able to get there within several hours. That’s more than enough time to find help to save her life.”
“Jigoku… Capital of the Doryokan Empire…”
Kakane looked down at Serena. Her chest was barely heaving up and down, and half of her face was a pale, eerie blue. The only way to cure her… Was to dive straight into the den of his sworn enemy. His scar prickled, and he touched it, remembering the horrible day that was the Draconid Genocide. It was the Doryokan’s fault that his mother and father were dead. Their fault that he had lost everything. His family, his home, his kingdom, his future, his glory… It was Doryoku who stole it all from him. Yet it was the Doryokans, in their capital city, who could save Serena’s life.
Jigoku was where Enjo Hononen lived. Where his enemies lived. Was… Was it worth going there?
The answer was obvious.
Kakane wasted no time. When he scooped Serena into his arms, she felt cold, so cold. He held her close and rushed into the village square, already feeling his draconic heritage surging. His scar burned alongside his desperate emotions, telling him what needed to be done. Jigoku was just eastward of Gawain. The doctor said several hours on a horse? Kakane would make it there in minutes.
He had barely taken two steps out of the doctor’s office when he morphed into a dragon and flew into the stormy skies. Rean leaped onto his swishing tail and held on for dear life as Kakane raced eastward towards Jigoku.
Soon, the sprawling capital of Doryoku spread out beneath him. His scar started prickling the minute he entered the city. If he could frown and cuss as a dragon, he would. Kakane could see the magnificent palace from his sky-high view, decked out in royal violet and gold. Downtown, the city was ablaze with lights and activity. On the outskirts of town, it looked dead. Unlike the brightly illuminated metropolis, the slums were devoid of life. They appeared black and lifeless from up in the clouds.
Kakane landed in the most discreet area he could find, hearing Rean thump to the floor behind him. He handed off Serena to the puppet, telling it to find a clinic or a makeshift rest spot. Rean nodded and dashed away into the darkness.
Kakane pulled his bison skin cowl down to his eyes, lowering his head as he dashed through the Doryokan slums. Nobody paid much attention to him, but a few people gave him weird looks. Kakane didn’t care. He had no idea how Doryoku worked, but if there was anything he had learned from being on his own for a little less than ten years, it was that a certain site found in all cities could get you whatever you needed if you worded your request right.
The treatment to cure Serena’s frost fever was going to be expensive. It was money that Kakane didn’t have since he blew it all on gear to climb the Yukishi Mountain. Finally, he arrived at the place he was looking for: a run-down tavern. Its name was the Mace and Bottle. Someone in here was bound to be offering a job; the higher-paying, the better.
Kakane entered the establishment, eyes darting around. It was nighttime, the time of the ghettos, so it was very lively. In one corner, several men were gambling with women slung around their laps. Along the bar, some younger people talked quietly amongst themselves. The barkeep jerked his head at Kakane. He was scruffy and looked to be around his late thirties. His hands looked like they had dealt hundreds of weapons over the course of years and years. And under his eyes, shady deals had been made and job offers had been accepted.
“A new face, eh? What can I get you?” the barkeep asked gruffly.
“I’m here to look for work,” Kakane responded quietly.
“There are several options then. Be more specific.”
“Something I can do quickly. Something that pays a lot,” Kakane said, getting impatient. The barkeep jerked his thumb behind him.
“Some guys in the booth are looking for skilled people to do a job for `em. They’ve been back there a while. Seems they haven’t found anyone yet.”
Kakane nodded and slipped back there. A woman covered in scars was shaking her head and muttering something under her breath. Kakane slid into the seat previously occupied by the woman, observing the people who could potentially become his employers.
They were all shady-looking, wearing purple cloaks with hoods lined with silver. The boss was twiddling with a lighter, snapping the cap open and closed in a repetitive, rhythmic fashion.
“You’re offering a job? How much are you willing to pay?” Kakane demanded.
“Don’t jump the gun. What’ve you got on your resume? We’re not willing to hire just anyone,” the purple-hooded man said.
“I was part of the expedition team for Poseidos’s Atlantean Restoration Project. Had to take down a giant monster on my own. Also, the famed monster on the Yukishi Mountain? It’s dead.”
“Do you have proof?” Kakane slid a small piece of metal towards the men. When one of them held it up, the seashell revealed itself to be emblazoned with the bronze crest of the Tempest royal family of Poseidos.
“That was given to me after I left Poseidos, as a thanks for my services. I don’t have any proof for the monster, but by my clothing,” Kakane gestured to his fluffy coat and snow pants, “I’d assume one could believe I just went out on a hike.”
“Well then.” The man slid the badge back. “You seem pretty reliable.”
“Now, how much are you willing to pay?” Kakane asked, holding back a snarl.
“Depends on how hard you’re willing to work,” the purple-hooded man said simply.
“I don’t care what it is. Just tell me what I have to do and I’ll do it, no questions asked.” The man in the purple hood raised an eyebrow.
“Oh really? Even when the job in question is assassinating the Head of Treasury? Are you sure you’re willing to risk your life for this?” Kakane rubbed his scar, frustrated and impatient.
“You have yourself a deal,” he snapped quickly.
“It’s done then.” The two shook on it.
“Now how much will I be getting for this?” The man held up four fingers.
“How about this?”
“Make it six and you’ve got yourself a dead man.”
“When do I start?”
“Now. Meet us behind the palace.”
Kakane watched the men leave, letting out a breath. Six hundred thousand would hopefully be enough to pay for Serena’s treatment. If not, then he’d take on any number of foul jobs to earn the money.
Serena… Wait for me. Just hold on, I’ll be there soon.
You won’t die, I promise.