Durazno and Sim galloped their horses as fast as they could. Durazno had learned at some point that the quickest way to the Pyromancer was to go to his smoke mages, who lived far to the east. He and Sim would be able to make it in a day, if they didn’t stop often.
They only stopped twice to water the horses before nightfall, and as darkness fell, they had reached the desert. They stopped for about ten minutes to refill water skins and give the horses a rest, and they were off.
They crossed the desert in a whirl of hooves sand, arriving outside the city gates at dawn. They tied the horses to a couple of short trees and went to sleep. When they woke, the sun was high in the sky.
They did the best to disguise themselves, just in case any of the mages that had taken Tansy were lurking. Then they went through the city gates.
The inside of the city was a filled with people selling all manner of things, and gently swaying palm trees. All the buildings were large with beautiful architecture. It was impossible to tell which of them belonged to the smoke mages.
“Are you looking for the smoke mages?” A dark skinned young woman selling spices asked pleasantly.
“Yes.” Durazno answered.
“They live in that gray marble building over there.” She said. “Good luck!”
Durazno nodded, and he and Sim walked over to the building that the spice merchant had pointed out. They waited until a small group of young women entered and snuck in behind them. As soon as they stepped into the dim building, they darted off behind a large pillar.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said a voice behind them. They jumped. The speaker was a dark haired young woman that Durazno remembered from the battlefield. Sim whipped out a knife and pressed it to her throat.
“Tell us where Tansy.” He hissed.
“I don’t know!” she said in a panicked whisper.
“Tell us, or we’ll see if mage skin cuts as easily as human flesh.” Sim growled. The mage said nothing. Sim pressed the knife down harder.
They took her to the cell in the basement!” She said. “Please!” Durazno knocked her out and used a piece of his cape to gag her and tie her hands. They left her crumpled on the floor and ran to find the basement.
They found a door set in the marble on the other side of the room. They opened it up and found a flight of stairs. They hurried down the stairs, hoping that there were no mages coming up the stairs.
They reached the bottom and saw a torch on the wall. Across from the torch was a cell. A familiar dark-haired girl knelt on the floor.
“Tansy!” Sim whispered. Tansy looked up. Relief washed over her face.
“Where are the keys?” Durazno asked.
“The mages have them.” She said.
Durazno cursed under his breath. Once they found the mage that he and Sim had knocked out and tied up they would probably all come running down here. He and Sim had managed to take down the young mage because they’d taken her by surprise. They wouldn’t stand a chance against an entire pack of fully trained smoke mages.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs. “We need to hide!” He hissed.
“If you climb up the wall, there are ledges that are hard to see from the floor.” Tansy instructed, pointing to the spot. They scrambled up the wall and crouched on the ledges.
An old man walked down the stairs. He was too slender to be the Pyromancer, and he wasn’t wearing the gray robes of a smoke mage. He was closely followed by a tall and slender red-haired girl. There was something about the girl that Durazno didn’t like.
“Hello.” The young woman said. Tansy lifted her head to stare at them.
“What did you do to the dragon, girl?” The old man asked.
“I killed it.” Tansy said.
“How did you do it? What you did isn’t just normal magic.” The older man said.
“I don’t know what I did! Why can’t you just accept that?” Tansy burst.
“Because you are lying.” The old man said.
“I’m not! I swear to you that I’m not!” Tansy exclaimed. Durazno wasn’t sure. She looked guilty.
The old man stretched out a hand and Tansy flew across the cell towards him. A look of deep concentration came over his face. Tansy’s eyes were hard resolve. After a few minutes, the old man’s shoulders slumped, and he heaved a sigh.
“You are the first person in many years that has been able to block me from searching their memories. Only someone guilty would have something to hide.” The old man said tiredly.
“She can block you? You can search memories?” The red-haired girl said with a confused frown.
Tansy fell to her knees. Durazno would have thought that she had collapsed from exhaustion, if she hadn’t pressed her palms to the floor. The last time he’d seen her fall into that pose had been a few seconds before a dead dragon had rocketed off into the forest.
Two bolts of blue light surged up through the floor and zipped towards the old man and the girl. The girl dodged easily, the second hit the floor beside the old man and exploded. He flew backwards and hit the wall and fell still.
More light surged through the floor and blew a hole in the back wall of the cell. Daylight poured in. Tansy scrambled out of the hole and took off running.
Durazno swore loudly and jumped down from his ledge. The red-haired girl screamed. Sim jumped down after him. The explosion that had knocked out the old man had also destroyed a section of the bars. Sim and Durazno slipped through the gap and ran after her. He heard the red-haired girl apologize to the old man, and she ran after them.
He glimpsed Tansy’s long dark hair amidst the crowd. He shoved his way towards her, knocking down everyone in his path. She looked back and their eyes met briefly. She turned and ran. Sim and Durazno charged after her.
He saw the red-haired girl streak past him. Tansy turned down an alleyway. They rounded the corner, just in time to see Tansy clamber onto the roof. He climbed up after her. The other girl crouched down and leaped onto the roof.
Tansy jumped across to the next roof. The stranger and Durazno leapt after her. Sim was still struggling onto the roof. Tansy slid down a piece of shingle and hit the ground running. Durazno followed her easily.
The two of them outpaced Sim and the other girl. Tansy slid around a corner into another alley. Durazno dashed after her.
What Tansy hadn’t realized when she’d turned was that it was a dead end. Durazno advanced on her. Tansy’s eyes darted around wildly. Durazno reached out to grab her. She kicked a bucket of water onto him, splashing it in his face. Durazno shook the water out of his eyes as she dodged around him.
Durazno hurried after her. He slammed into a large man. The man glared at him and growled.
“Sorry!” Durazno shouted, already running after Tansy again. But Tansy had disappeared. Durazno sagged with defeat.
He saw Sim running towards him. “She’s heading for the gates!” Sim yelled. “I saw it while I was trying to get off that bloody roof!”
Durazno ran towards the gates at full speed. He got there in time to see Tansy arguing with the guards. He shook his head angrily and hurried over.
“My sister’s not right in the head, please forgive her.” Durazno said apologetically. The guards nodded understandingly.
“She must have thought that I had left without her.” Durazno explained. “We need to wait for my cousin to get here.”
A few moments later, Sim came running up, panting so hard that each gasp sounded like it would knock him off his feet. “Here he is. Thank you for your help with my sister.” Durazno said, stepping out of the gate.
“We need to talk.” He muttered in her ear as they walked to where he and Sim and had left the horses.
“Yes. We do.” Sim said. “What in the high heaven was that back there?”
“First of all, I’m sorry for lying to you. I’m not as ignorant about my power as I’ve led you to believe. I thought that it had deserted me, but then it surfaced as soon as the dragon had you pinned on the ground. I’ve been feeling it stirring ever since, I can draw on it. My power isn’t something I wanted or want to deal with. I was so happy when it disappeared.” Tansy said.
“Why? Think of what you could do with it!” Sim said.
“It’s not like that. Its unpredictable. I was happy when it first surfaced, I thought that I was special. I was eight the first time it happened, it was like a fairy-tale in the making.” Tansy whispered. “I think I killed my mother.”
“You what?” Sim yelped.
“I don’t remember much. I know she said something to me, something that I can’t hear. I couldn’t then, I’ve never remembered any of her words. Then it was like stepping into a fog too thick to see or hear anything from. Then I saw her body on the floor. She was soaked, and she wasn’t breathing. It was like she’d drowned.” Tansy murmured, twisting a lock of hair between her fingers.
“You were the only one there. You immediately suspected yourself.” Durazno continued for her.
“Yes.” She sighed. “She was a good person, a good mother. And I probably murdered her.”
“She may have committed suicide. You found her drowning herself, you tried to save her, but you were too late.” Durazno said.
“I haven’t known you for long, but you don’t seem like the type of person that would kill her own mother for no reason.” Sim said reassuringly.
“Thank you. Its good to hear another voice say that. And I’m sorry I ran. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.” Tansy said, rubbing her eyes.
“We need to get going before that other girl catches up to us.” Durazno said. “We only brought two horses, so someone’s going to have to double up.”
“I’ll ride with Sim.” Tansy said. “It would be kind of stupid to trust me with a horse after what I did earlier.”
They mounted the horses and galloped away. The sun turned the sand baking hot, making it extremely uncomfortable to walk on whenever they dismounted to give the horses a rest. Day melted into night and they stopped to sleep beside an oasis.
The three laid down on the cooling sand and looked up at the stars. In a few minutes, they were all asleep.
Durazno woke to Sim shaking his shoulder. “I think there’s someone following us. If you listen, you can hear the hoofbeats over the sand.” Durazno strained his ears, and sure enough, he could hear hoofbeats stamping over the sand.
“Wake Tansy. We need to leave.” Durazno said urgently.
Sim shook Tansy awake and they jumped on their horses. They kicked the horses into a run, clinging to their necks. The hoofbeats of the other rider grew closer.
The horses struggled up a tall dune, the sounds of the other rider disappeared. The horses leaped over the top of the dune. At the base of the dune stood the red-haired girl.
“How did she get there so fast?” Sim muttered.
“She left her horse back near the oasis, so it would seem like she was behind us.” Durazno said.
“I have some questions.” The girl said sternly.
“Well we don’t plan on answering them.” Durazno said, wheeling his horse around and galloping back down the dune.
There was a whoosh of air, and Durazno saw a sleek red dragon fly over his head. It landed in front of him. So that’s what was weird about her, Durazno thought, leaping off his horse.
He jumped onto the dragon’s wing, she tried to flick him off, but he clung tight, fumbling for his knife. The dragon flew into the air. Durazno drew his dagger. The dragon suddenly changed back into a dragon, and Durazno found himself clinging to an arm. His grip slipped, and he found himself falling. The girl changed back into a dragon and grabbed him in her talons.
“Drop the knife or I crush you to death.” The dragon roared. Durazno let the dagger drop to the earth. He tried to work his hand down to his pantleg where his second dagger was strapped. But it was impossible.
The dragon landed and dropped him in the sand. She changed back into a slender red-haired girl and pulled him to his feet.
“It would seem that your friends have abandoned you.” The girl said, smiling slightly.
“That’s because they’re smart and know that I’ll get free on my own.” Durazno said.
“I might let you go, if you answer my questions.” The girl said. “My name is Ceridwen. And you are?”
“Durazno.” He said. Ceridwen started laughing.
“You’re the mythical ‘dragon killer’?” She said, trying to hold back her laughter. “That would explain why you attacked me as soon as I turned into a dragon. But I must admit that I expected someone a little more…impressive.”
“Who cares?” Durazno said, bored. “Are you done yet?”
“Yeah. Now for some different questions. What do you know about your friend’s powers?”
“Sim? Well, he can’t really do anything useful. He can be extremely annoying, but that’s not useful.” Durazno said.
“He? No! I meant the girl!” Ceridwen said.
“Tansy? Well, she’s a terrible fighter. Mostly gets in the way. But I’ll forgive her since she is a good healer.” Durazno said.
“I meant her special power.” Ceridwen corrected.
“Absolutely nothing. I thought everyone could do that.” Durazno said sarcastically.
“Be serious!” Ceridwen said, exasperated.
“I don’t know anything about it. She refused to explain it. I don’t think she knows anything about it either.” Durazno said. He pretended to trip and get his leg stuck in the sand. He reached down and massaged his leg, easing the dagger from his pantleg.
He jerked upwards and flew at Ceridwen with the dagger. She stepped backwards and lost her balance. Before Durazno could get any closer, she turned into a dragon and breathed a stream of fire at him. It missed him but turned the sand around him to glass.
Durazno circled her, looking for a gap in her defense. She grabbed him and held him between to talons. He twisted and bit down hard on Ceridwen’s foot.
“Did you just bite me?” Ceridwen asked, stunned.
“Yes. Why is it that you dragons never suspect that?” Durazno asked.
“Because biting is not really the course of action most warriors chose!” Ceridwen said. “And I’m not technically a dragon.”
A bitter laugh escaped from Durazno’s lips. “Oh please, tell another. Are you secretly a wood nymph?”
Ceridwen gave him a slightly amused smile and sat down. “Please, sit. I think we may be more alike than I thought.” Durazno sighed and sat down across from her. “I know that look in your eyes. It’s the same look I’ve seen in my own eyes for the past eight years.”
“Do tell.” Durazno said disbelievingly.
“I was human once. I had nine siblings and both my parents were still alive. We had a farm out where we thought we would be safe. We never worried, we were happy. It all changed when I was ten years old. Then the ash-dragon came.”
“Ash-dragon.” Durazno said skeptically.
“That’s what I’ll always call the dragon in my memory. He came, and he burned everything. My home, my family, my childhood. I hid in a stream for I don’t know how long. I returned to find the remains of my home, and I realized, that I wanted the ash-dragon dead. I wanted him to suffer as much as my family had. But I was only a child, I didn’t have that kind of power.” Ceridwen said. “I’d heard tales of witches, I thought that I could find one to make me strong enough. I found a witch. I asked her to make me strong enough to kill a dragon. She was a Dragonfriend, I think. She cursed me into being a dragon. I was stuck that way for eight years. I hated everything around me, I just wanted it all to shrivel up and burn. I could feel my humanity slipping away, I clung to every memory of life as it was before.”
“Why didn’t you just kill the witch?” Durazno asked.
“She put wards on her home against me. She was smart, but not smart enough. She only warded against my dragon form. She didn’t think that I would ever learn to take a human form again. But I did. And I killed her. But things have changed since then, I took a new name, I’ve found a new family. And they need me.” She said.
“Nice story, but how are we alike?” Durazno asked, staring at her from half closed eyes.
“You lost someone too. I can see it in your eyes. Maybe it was a sister, or a brother. Or maybe a mother, or a father. Or maybe even a spouse.” Ceridwen said.
“My mother died in childbirth, my father got drunk and fell off the roof. Dragons killed my sister Aciano and my brother Amaranto and crippled my sister Castana.” Durazno told her. “So, maybe we are a little bit alike, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to suddenly join your side.”
“I didn’t think so.” Ceridwen said. “But, I have technically captured you. So, your going to have to come with me.”
“Or, you could just make this easier for both of us, and just release me now.” Durazno said.
“No. I actually may be able to end this war. You seem like you’ve fought this war for many years. You can represent your army when I take you to the Geomancer.” Ceridwen said.