Three days after they had set out from Bakhen, Ren decided she hated Yidda.
Being a dragon, Ren loved heat. She enjoyed the hot springs she had found in mountains, and she loved hot showers. She especially loved to sit on a patch of grass and bask in the warmth of the sun. She had been in deserts on Earth many times. But Yidda? It was a scorching, barren wasteland stretching all the way to the horizon. The sun blazed down on them constantly, threatening to burn their skin away.
They were all traveling on a well-traveled path. Gavin had said it was called “Capital Road.” This route, he had explained, was the route slave masters used to travel between cities and towns. It connected every settlement together between Bakhen and Yin Ha Dan.
Ren and the others had all long abandoned their cloaks, packing them away in their saddlebags. Ren was hunched over in her saddle, her hair half down to protect her neck from the merciless sun. She glanced to her right and left, noting her companions’ state of discomfort. Fallon and Lyssa were to her left, both with their heads hanging down. Fallon’s hair was left to hang over her shoulders and neck, and her bare arms were a wild, harsh red. Lyssa’s tail dragged in the sandy road behind her, and her tongue was hanging out of her mouth. Her ears drooped, and her golden eyes were dull.
She looked to her right, over to Gavin and Ronin. They were both still dressed in their Ranger’s uniforms, though they had ripped the sleeves off long ago. They rode close to one another, whispering occasionally. Their hair had grown somewhat, their bangs hanging over their eyes, and their jaws were shadowed with growing beards.
Ren turned her gaze skyward, seeking the five shadows high above. She could easily make out Nyra’s dark form, larger than the rest of them. Is it cooler up there for you?
Nyra hummed in appreciation. Yes, it is, she said. Though I wish you would fly with me. I don’t like that you’re suffering.
Ren chuckled quietly to herself. These are my traveling companions now, too, she said. Believe me, if the hatchlings were bigger, and Lyssa wasn’t with us, I’d have us all fly together. But, because we can’t, I don’t want to leave them on the ground to suffer.
Nyra huffed. Very well, she said. She was silent for several moments before saying, You’ll be pleased to hear that I can see a small village up ahead. There’s an oasis, so you should be able to refill your canteens.
Ren smiled. Excellent! she said. What about you? Is there another oasis that you can go to?
We will find one, Nyra replied. Go to town, replenish your supplies. The younglings and I will meet with you later tonight.
Ren thanked her, then Nyra pulled away until there was only a whisper of her presence. Ren straightened in the saddle and in a cracked, dry voice she said, “Nyra says that there’s a town ahead of us, one with an oasis.”
Gavin nodded. “It’s called Little Oasis in the common tongue, but for Yiddans it’s Oashi. It’s one of few settlements in Yidda that’s built around an oasis.”
With the promise of water and shade ahead of them, the traveler’s all put their heels to their horses’ flanks, and they set off at a light jog. Before long, Ren could see the bright, beautiful green of palm trees ahead. She laughed and dug her heels in more, sending Alya off in a brisk canter.
Moments later, they arrived in Oashi. Ren pulled back gently on the reigns, taking in her surroundings. Oashi was a small settlement, with a general store, a blacksmith, and a tavern and inn. She spotted a small building that may have been an apothecary, but the remaining seven buildings were houses, each one possibly fitting two or three families inside. Every building was placed in a broken circle around the oasis, allowing Capital Road to cut through the center.
Ren and her friends dismounted. She sighed as her feet landed on the sand, and she spent a moment rubbing feeling back into her bottom. Once soome feeling had returned to her lower body, Ren led Alya to the small pool of water before them. The villagers gave them strange looks, but otherwise, they left them alone.
“Ren, Gavin, why don’t you stay here?” Fallon said. “Watch the horses and fill up the canteens. Ronin, you and I are going to find some more food and supplies.” She looked down at herself, then Ren and the Rangers. She grunted and said, “We’ll also need some new clothes, something more suited to the desert.”
They all nodded vigorously. Fallon smiled, then turned to the general store, Ronin close behind her. After a moment, she and Gavin got up to gather the canteens. They gathered all the water they could, then they sat at the water’s edge, enjoying the fresh, cooling water and shade for a while.
Damn this desert, Ren thought. When she felt Nyra buzzing with laughter, she snapped, What’s your damage?
Nothing, Nyra replied. Just… well, when you finally come into your godly powers, you could rid the world of this kingdom if you so wish.
Without meaning to, Ren released a sharp bark of laughter. It’s so tempting, she thought.
Gavin frowned, giving her a strange look. Ren blushed slightly in embarrassment. Gavin only chuckled and said, “I’m assuming you’re speaking with your dragon? Nyra, is it?”
Ren nodded. “Yes,” she said. “We’re just speculating about how we hate the desert and… well, how nice it would be if a god took pity on the rest of the world and destroyed this kingdom.” Her heart raced as she realized she had been about to reveal who she was.
Gavin threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, if only it were so easy,” he said. He looked over at her and smiled. “Unfortunately, this kingdom is here to stay.”
He stared at the water for a while, his mind far away. Ren waited patiently, watching the horses and Lyssa. The horses continued to drink for a while, while Lyssa had finished long ago and curled up beside the water to take a nap. After several moments passed, Ren cleared her throat and said, “Gavin… can I ask you something?”
He forced a laugh. “Let me guess,” he mumbled. “Is it about how I came to be a pit fighter?”
She nodded. Gavin sighed and said, “Well, let’s start with how I became a slave in the first place. I was orphaned at a very young age. I was thrown into the streets of Palen after my parents died, and I struggled to survive for two years.”
“How’d they die?” Ren asked.
“After the dragons had been nearly wiped out, the lack of magic in the Land caused a plague to spread. My parents were some of the first to perish.” He paused for a moment, then shook his head and continued with, “When I was nine, I met a man on the docks. He offered me a place to stay, so long as I worked for him.”
He laughed bitterly. “I was just a child, starving and desperate for a home. I agreed to his terms, and I didn’t realize he was a slaver until I was on the ship heading for Yidda, chained to other captives below deck. When I arrived in Yidda, I was sold as a stable boy. I was the smallest of the boys, so I was picked on a lot. I learned early on how to fight, and defend myself.”
Gavin fell silent for a while, collecting his thoughts. When he finally continued, he seemed determined. “When I was thirteen, I was provoked by some of the other boys. It was the first time in a while, too. I snapped, and I killed one of the boys in the fight. I was thrown into the dungeons, where I was supposed to rot until my execution.
“But it never happened. A few days later, I was thrown into a cart, and I was taken to the next city. I learned then that a pit master had seen me fight. He was so impressed that he bought me.” Gavin snarled at the words, his chest heaving. He took a moment to calm himself and said, “After my first few fights, I fought someone that had come from Yin Ha Dan. During the fighting season of Yidda, pit masters will travel the kingdom with a few select fighters, going to different arenas to put their fighters against someone else.”
Gavin rolled his shoulders and neck, his joints popping at the released pressure. “The pit master of the fighter I killed was impressed, so he purchased me. And I fought for Yin Ha Dan for three years, until my mentor, Daragh, found me. He was in Yidda on a mission at the time, and he happened to be by the arena while I was fighting.” He laughed at the memory and said, “I was about to be killed that day. Actually, I was about to let myself be killed. I was just so tired of fighting, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I let my opponent disarm me, and bring me down to my knees. I let him swing his sword, prepared to behead me.”
Gavin laughed again. “Imagine my surprise when Death didn’t come for me. Instead, an arrow found its mark in my enemy’s neck, and he fell before he could kill me. Daragh used his magic and Ranger abilities to free me from the pit right then, and we disappeared into the city. When we were passing through this very settlement, a group of Sand Cobras attacked us. I was in no shape to fight at that time, but Daragh killed them all without any trouble. He brought me to Winter Keep, and he took me on as his apprentice.”
Ren smiled. “I’m glad you were saved in time,” she said.
He chuckled. “Me too,” he said. “If I had died that day in the arena, then I would have never become a Ranger, or met Shey and Ronin.” The smile faded from his face as he said, “Even though things got better for me, I was still fighting. I was just taken from one fight and placed in another. I’m sorry if I said too much. It’s just…” He sighed. “I can’t talk like that with Ronin.”
“Why not?” Ren asked.
Gavin shrugged. “Well,” he started, “because I don’t want to bring him down. I don’t know if you noticed,” he joked, smiling again, “but Ronin’s a very optimistic person. I don’t want to burden him with my troubles, because he’s the one thing that keeps me from going over the edge…”
He sighed again. “I’m so tired of fighting,” he said. “As a child in the stables, as a boy in the pits, as a man among the Rangers… I’ve been fighting nearly my entire life. I’m just sick of it.”
Gavin fell silent for a long time, brooding. Ren stared at the water, collecting her thoughts. Finally, she asked, “Did you choose it?” When Gavin gave her a confused expression she said, “Being a Ranger. Did you choose to be one?”
He blinked. “Yes,” he said, still confused.
“Why?” Ren demanded. “Of any of the possibilities you could have gone with after being rescued, why did you choose to become a Ranger?”
“Because it was a Ranger who saved me,” Gavin replied without any hesitation. “Because I wanted to pay him back for rescuing me from hell.”
“And now?” Ren pressed.
Gavin pondered for a moment, then slowly answered with, “Now… I want to help others. I want to do for them what no one else could do for me before Daragh came along.”
Ren smiled. “That’s what you should be focusing on, then,” she said. “We’re all going to be tired at some point during our journey. But don’t think about how tired you are. Think about what you’re fighting for. So? What are you fighting for, right now?”
Gavin stared at her in shock for a moment before he smiled as well. “Right now, I’m fighting for Shey. I don’t want her to suffer in Yin Ha Dan like I did.”
Ren placed a hand on his shoulder, her smile growing. “And that’s your focus right now. Nothing else, especially not your past. You don’t want to forget it, but you don’t want to dwell on it, either. The past is behind you.”
Gavin laughed. “How old are you?” he asked.
Ren laughed as well. “Twenty-one,” she said.
“You seem much too wise for a twenty-one year old,” he said.
Ren shrugged and stood, brushing the sand from her trousers. She groaned and stretched, working out the kinks in her sore muscles. She looked down at Gavin and said, “I’ve been through a lot as well,” she said. She lifted her chin and said, “How old are you?”
He stood as well, brushing the sand from his clothes. “Twenty-five,” he said, grinning. “My birthday was about a month ago, back when we were all undercover at Miren Diréthe.”
“Well, then happy birthday,” Ren said.
He laughed. “Thank you,” he said.
“Any time.” After a moment, she added, “Talk to Ronin sometimes. About anything that bothers you. It’s helpful for your mental health.”
Gavin laughed. “Very well,” he said.
Shortly after that, Fallon and Ronin returned. Ronin smiled as he approached, holding piles of new clothes in his arms. Gavin stepped forward to meet him, and as they came closer Gavin reached out and threw his arms around Ronin.
Ronin grunted at the force of the impact, then struggled to get one arm from from between them to hug him back. Ren smiled, nodding once to Fallon as she approached.
“Everything all right?” Fallon asked as she set her load onto the ground.
Ren nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Everything’s fine. Gavin just needed some inspiration, is all.”
Fallon smiled. “That’s good,” she said.
The Rangers joined them, and together they divided the food and supplies evenly between the four of them. After packing everything away, including their new clothes, Fallon stood and said, “We’ll change when we make camp tonight. I have a bad feeling about staying here for too long…”
Too tired and anxious to argue, Ren and the others agreed. They took one last drink from the oasis before they mounted the horses and set off once again.
It was barely past nightfall when the road collapsed beneath them. Ren was dozing in her saddle, half conscious, when Alya whinnied in fear and fell. Ren cried out, thrown from the saddle. When she hit the road, it was soft and squishy. It took her a moment to realize that the earth was moving!
Ren glanced around, fear beginning to cloud her mind. Fallon and Gavin were on the ground as well, dazed. As the three of them pushed themselves to their feet, the earth moved again and began to swallow them. Ren fell to one knee and the earth wrapped itself around her ankle, pulling her down. She screamed, struggling to break free.
Ronin and Lyssa were the only ones lucky enough to escape. All four horses shrieked in fear and ran away, racing past a line of people. Ren narrowed her eyes, then cursed when she realized they were Sand Cobras.
Three of them held their hands before them, controlling the earth. Ronin drew his ekret blades and launched himself into battle, roaring as he went. Lyssa snarled and charged forward, her fangs bared. One of the Cobras held one hand out towards them, and time seemed to freeze. Ronin and Lyssa were suspended in midair, matching expressions of fury on their faces.
Fallon swore and raised her hand, pointing it at the Cobras. Ren felt the fire she summoned to her, but before she could shoot a blast, the earth opened up and swallowed her hands.
Gavin’s entire bottom half was consumed. He used his elbows to try and pull himself out, but the earth continued to pull him down.
“Fighter Gavin,” one of the female Cobras called. “You are convicted of fleeing the arena of Yin Ha Dan before your contract came to an end. As such, you shall be brought before the Court of Justice at the capital, where you will face your crimes and be sentenced accordingly.”
“Not likely!” Gavin yelled.
The Cobra laughed. “You will be coming with us, and your friends will die.”
Ren! Nyra roared. Ren looked to the east, where she knew Nyra and the hatchlings had flown to hunt. She slipped into Dragon Sight, allowing the earth to zoom past her as she searched for Nyra. She found her dragon, flying over the hills and sandy plains as swiftly as she could. The younger dragons struggled to keep up, but they were being swiftly left behind.
Hurry! Ren exclaimed. She returned her Sight to her current location, then continued to struggle against the earth. Gavin and Fallon struggled as well, while Ronin and Lyssa began to slowly move in the frozen time bubble they were trapped in. Ren’s skin buzzed, her blood boiling. Without knowing what she was doing, she pressed her palms against the earth and screamed one word, both aloud and in her mind.
Immediately, the earth stop moving. The Cobras stumbled, and Ronin and Lyssa broke free of the time bubble. They charged the Cobras at full speed, prepared for battle.
Fallon, Ren, and Gavin pulled themselves free of the earth, just as the Cobras descended upon them. Ren dodged out of the way of a swinging scimitar, barely avoiding the sharp, deadly blade. She twisted her hands in a circle before her, summoning a white, blazing shield. She raised it, the flames blocking the sword again as the Cobra swung the blade at her in a downward motion. Ren flicked her wrist, summoning a flaming whip. She swung it over her head, then slapped it forward. The tail wrapped around the Cobra’s arm and he screamed in agony. Ren pulled, and the fire cut through flesh and bone, cutting his arm off at the elbow.
She spun around, taking note of the situation before her. Fallon was locked in hand-to-hand combat with two of the Cobras, and Gavin was fighting one-on-one with a huge brute. Lyssa ripped a Cobra’s head off with her powerful jaws, and Ronin was outnumbered four to one. Ren took off towards him, hoping to help. Right as she reached him, one of the Cobras attacked his side.
Ronin screamed as a scimitar sliced upward on his side. He stumbled away, dropping one of his ekrets and clutching his side. He fell to his other side on the road, screaming and moaning in pain.
“Ronin!” Gavin screamed, just as Nyra’s roar tore through the night. Gavin cut down the Cobra he was fighting, then he began racing towards Ronin, twisting and cutting his way through the battlefield.
Bright light set the desert on fire as Nyra breathed fire at a group of Cobras. They screamed as they burned alive, then Nyra landed, crushing several of them underneath her. She faced another group of Cobras, roared, and breathed white flames.
The remaining Cobras turned and fled, unwilling to battle against a giant, blue-whale sized dragon. Nyra roared again, then turned her huge head to watch Gavin throw himself over Ronin.
“No, no, no!” Gavin screamed, pressing his hands against Ronin’s side. “Ronin, open your eyes! Open your eyes, man! Don’t you dare do this to me!”
Ronin’s jaw was clenched, his eyes shut tight against the pain. At Gavin’s command, though, he peeled them open, his green irises swimming in tears. He whimpered, then shut his eyes again.
“Fallon!” Gavin screamed. “Fallon, help him!”
Fallon hurried over, batting Gavin’s hands away. Gavin stumbled backward, trying to get to his feet. He failed and ended up on his bottom. He pulled his knees close to his chest and buried his head in his hands, which were drenched in Ronin’s blood. He began sobbing, his body trembling violently. Ren knelt beside him, wrapping her arms around his body. He turned into her, burying his face in her shoulder.
Ronin was still, his skin deathly pale. Fallon knelt over him, holding her hands inches above his side. She shut her eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. Soon a warm, golden glow emanated from her hands, and Ren watched as Ronin’s muscles and skin began knitting itself back together.
Ronin’s eyes flew open and he gasped for breath. Ren released Gavin, and the Ranger threw himself onto his beloved. He sat back on his bottom again, pulling Ronin along with him and resting his head in his lap. Ronin clutched Gavin’s arm like it was an anchor, and Gavin murmured and whispered softly to him.
Fallon made eye contact with Ren. She jerked her head, then stood and moved several paces away. Ren stood and followed, her body still shaking with adrenaline.
“That was close,” Fallon murmured, coming to a stop beside Nyra.
Ren placed a hand on Nyra’s muzzle, seeking comfort from her dragon. “It was,” Ren agreed. She looked at the Rangers and said, “He’ll be fine, right?”
Fallon sighed. “I hope so,” she said. “We have to travel lightly for a few days. He’s lost a lot of blood, and if he pushes himself too hard, he could fall ill.”
Ren shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose between her forefinger and thumb. “This is bad,” she growled.
“I agree,” Fallon said. “But we can’t risk stopping.”
Ren sighed. She opened her eyes and said, “We’ll be careful.”
Fallon nodded. “We may as well make camp here,” she said. “I’ll get a fire started.” She turned and strode away, searching for anything to use for firewood.
Ren lowered herself onto the sand, body still trembling. Nyra lowered herself onto her belly, stretching her front legs out in front of her and resting her head on them. Within moments, the sound of flapping wings alerted Ren to the arrival of her other dragons.
I miss Kieran, Ren said.
Nyra grumbled. I know, she said.
Ren sighed and lay on her back, staring at the starry sky above her. She thought she was too riled to sleep, but before she knew it, sweet darkness claimed her.