Through The Looking Glass
The library was silent when he arrived in the rain, hidden under a large hooded cloak and boots heavy with mud. There were few lights in what he knew to be the dorms, but where he was going, everything was dark. The large double doors of the main building were locked, but that was not something he generally considered a challenge. A whisper of magic was all that was needed to let the lock click. He stepped into the dark entry hall and the library. He had been in the great library of Par’fost once the seat of the librarian’s guild, and this one here looked positively provincial by comparison. He remembered the imposing green marble pillars, the high, domed ceiling with a masterful painting in it, the harrowed silence as one wandered past the high shelves of books. If he didn’t feel the need to stay here, in this small town, he would not waste his time on them. But here he was, and he hoped what he needed could be found in here. Records of this towns history, census data, family trees. Anything that would give him an insight into this towns past and the strange magic coursing through the ground here.
He pulled three books from the shelves and spread them on a table, began reading without a light to attract unwanted attention.
12 years ago, there had been a plague in this area, killing hundreds of people within few months. Entire settlements had been wiped out by the disease, leaving only crumbling ruins scattered across the forest. Par’bain – like all settlements in these forests – had been wrecked by it. But somehow, here it was. Safe and sound and prospering, while all other settlements had perished. There were records in this book, about cases of the plague in the town. Records of death by plague, devastating child mortality, cemeteries being too full so the bodies simply being burned. And then, suddenly, nothing. No new cases, no new plague deaths. Like they had just miraculously avoided any new infections, while the surrounding towns were ravaged. 12 years ago exactly… Eraiyo frowned. Emilia would have been about 5 years old then. A vulnerable age, for a plague. There were several children that age listed in the plague victims, several families ruined with the death of a child, or all their children. Like…
Eraiyo’s brows climbed. The writing was green, shimmering, clouded by magic, and he doubted anyone had looked at this record in 12 years. But the Baines family had a child death listed here. A son, the same age that Emilia was. A twin brother, claimed by illness before his time?
There was a sound, coming from the entry hall. It made him look up alarmed, worried someone might walk in on him where he should not be. He heard footsteps, swift, and the rustle of a skirt – or probably a librarian’s robe. He was prepared to cast a disguising spell, but the steps moved away, moved the other way, probably down some hallway. And when he was back in silence, he released the tension from his shoulders. He rolled his neck back and forth, stretched his back. He still felt trapped, still felt constrained in this skin, but he was getting used to it. Muscle memory played a part in it, the rest was just practice.
He turned back to the books, closed them and with a wave of his hand made them float back to their spots on the shelves, while he made his way to the laboratories. For what he intended to do next, he would need certain ingredients he would not find in the wilds, and this library was his best shot at finding them. The feather of a masked heron, nuts from a life tree, a moonstone, silver sands, and various herbal samples – camphor, lavender, white sage, and a number more he would easily get his hands on. Components of a summoning ritual he had never thought he would have to perform.
The laboratory was surprisingly well stocked. There were workbenches for several researchers, all equipped with gas powered torches, tools for cutting and dissecting, and there were many cupboards of utensils – both tools and ingredients. Some plants were overgrowing in their pots in the small greenhouse attached to the laboratory, and there were some utterly hilarious pieces of taxidermy posed around the rooms. He skimmed through the cupboards, searched drawers, and gathered the things he could find. As he had expected, the silver sands were the most challenging. The beaches of the southern-most continent, Astra, had been white and beautiful once, but the war had ruined most of that, leaving them ashen and dead. To find grains of the pure white sand was damn near impossible now, but that was what he would need. Sand from the lands the Jester had been bound to. To summon them. A ritual they had devised, and he could only roll his eyes at how dramatic they had made it. Any old rock of Astra could have been used. But no, it had to be sand. Of course it had to be sand. The masked heron feather of course was because the Jester preferred these dark green, shimmering feathers to decorate their clothes with, and the moonstone, they said, was because it was the colour of their eyes. The nuts from the life tree were an interesting thing to add. He had always been puzzled by it, but he assumed it was because nothing could grow where the Jester lived, so they might hope to regain something that way? Either way, he needed to find some if the wanted to summon the Jester and confront them about the spell they had cast over this town. The only way he would get real answers, where the manipulated books would never show him the full truth, was by talking to the person responsible.
Again, a sound caught his attention. He looked up from his ingredients with a frown. The steps sounded… louder now. Like running, and something seemed to be roaring below. Doors were being slammed. This did not sound good. At all. It was none of his concern, of course. He should, in fact, welcome the distraction and just be on his merry way.
That thought lasted only so long until he heard the shouting outside.
Emilia. That was her voice, he knew it instantly. Eraiyo’s mild concern grew into worry. He hurried around the table where he had left his ingredients and reached the green house, peeking out through the intricately steel framed glass into the courtyard. He saw her rush outside into the rain, and then saw something behind her.
The creature. The very same one that had chased him halfway across the globe when he had to flee Dracoraeion, and now it was after her. No doubt because it could sense his presence, still primed to hunt him down. And it would kill Emilia if he did not step in.
For a moment, just a very brief one, one he would much later be very ashamed of, he considered it. He considered letting her perish, because he knew it would be easier for him that way. To not have to worry about her, and the possibility of a bond that could ruin him, like it had ruined other dragons before him. It was a tempting thought. Brief, but tempting, before he opened the doors of the greenhouse and stepped out.
He shed his human skin before his feet had even touched the mud outside the greenhouse, the first step on muddy ground was with claws, not boots, and it felt liberating to shed the human vessel, breaking free from confines, stretching his muscles and moments later leaping into the creature. This time, he gave no quarter. He had been wounded before, had been weak from days of fighting and fleeing, had been distraught from the loss of his home, his family. Tonight was different. Tonight, this creature did not face a weakened, frightened dragon. Tonight, it faced the Raayi. Maybe not fully realised, but close enough to be dangerous.
It took barely three minutes of bites and scratches and tearing flesh for the creature to drop dead before him. Eraiyo was drenched in blood, the liquid boiling on his scales, fire seeping out between his bared teeth, claws digging in mud. He barely remembered the fight, and it only now dawned on him that he had not even seen if he had been able to get there in time, if he had been able to save her.
His gaze shot around, searching the area, noticing the movement of people. The head librarian stood in the wide open door to the dormitories, blocking the way out for the apprentices that were coming outside to see what had happened – she stood with her arms spread between the door frames and although there was fear on her face, there was something strong. Determination. The brave urge to protect those in her custody. The three armed Inquisition agents had their weapons ready, prepared to attack him at a moment’s notice, and there were men of the town militia gathering by the gates of the library. All those weapons pointed at him, but he saw their arms and hands tremble in fear.
There. There she was, a flash of green eyes from behind a militia man. Mud on her dress, hair soaking wet from the rain, smudges of ashes and mud across her face, but she was well and alive and safe, and he felt the strangest relief.
Knowing she was safe, he had no reason to dally. He had no intention of giving these soldiers a chance to test his scales. With a leap into the air, he was gone. The ingredients he had hoped to take stayed behind, of course, but he could come back for them another time. For now, retreat was the best course of action. There were other things he could do before summoning the Jester. The creature that had pursued him ever since he had fled was dead. That gave him room to breathe. It meant he could, in good conscience, seek out the remaining refugees, who would have made their way to Par’cuan, if they had followed what the emergency evacuation protocol dictated. Par’cuan lay far to the north from here, on the edges of the wild sea that separated the shortear realms from the Greater North. It was a secluded settlement of mostly dwarves – much like Par’bain – the nearby mountains were rough terrain with plenty of room for a few more monsters. There, they would have gathered to regroup. He would have joined them sooner, had he not worried about leading The Mother’s forces right to them. Now, things were different.
He could travel north, join with his people there, and forget about this town. He was the Raaiy now, he had better things to do than linger around a town just because he was curious about some girl. But then again… she was not just ‘some girl’. She was the girl with the eyes of the Mad King and he had to make sure she was no threat. He had to stay. But he could reach out. With the beast gone, he felt much more confident to use magic with a far reach, the kind of magic that would have possibly given him away. And without a possibility to summon the Jester, it was as good a time as any to make contact with any possible refugees.
Upon his return to the secret garden he dedicated a small area of the space to prepare a mirror of fire. It would be something the refugees would have set up as well, a means to communicate with splinter groups if they were separated, part of a communication spell that was older than even the House Drakyrioth. Once, it had fuelled the myth that dragons surrounded themselves with fire. It had been used less and less in the centuries since the adarre arrived, but for situations like theirs now, it would be invaluable.
He drew a perfect circle with a claw, digging into the moist dirt and uprooting the weeds. Then, he lit the circle on fire with an intense, magic infused breath. It burned high, and would until he added the last part of the spell. The most important part. Dragon magic was wild and unfocused, unless given a purpose by the power of a word. Their magic was tied to words, just as the magic of the elvar was tied to lights of different colour. Dragon language itself was their purest form of magic.
Eraiyo drew in a breath and collected the word in his mind, felt it form on his tongue, felt it push against his teeth, willing to be spilled. And when it was almost too fierce and burning to bear, he released it.
The flames responded as the golden words burst from him. In a whirlwind, the word flew around the fire, creating a twisting pillar of flames before it collapsed and stilled, like flames turned to red and golden glass, in a ring around a smooth, unreflecting surface.
Eraiyo leaned over the mirror he had created and let his image sink into the darkness of the magical device. It took a while until the mirror found its sibling so far to the north, but then an image appeared. First, he saw wooden walls. Not rough, too neat to be a cave. A room? A figure came into view. At first he thought it was a shortear, but he knew no shortear would be able to command a mirror of fire, so that figure had to belong to a dragon in disguise. As the image became clearer, he could make out rough clothes. The figure of a young man was sitting on a chair, arms crossed, apparently napping. There was a golden plate pinned to his chest – a rising dragon clutching a trident. A soldier of House Rantka, one of the four noble houses of the Dragons.
“Soldier,” he commanded, voice rumbling through the mirror to startle awake the young dragon on the other end. He jumped with a gasp. The boy was wiry and short, barely a young drake, just outgrown his dragonling scales, so to speak. An appearance that would earn him no attention around ordinary shortears. He looked around alarmed, feared he had been caught by his mistress, but when he noticed the appearance in his mirror, the shock turned even worse. The boy fell to his knees.
“Agraaiy Drakyrioth! I apologise, Agraaiy, I should have been more alert!”
“Never mind that, soldier. Call your commanding officer, I must speak with them,” Eraiyo insisted.
“Of course, Agraaiy. M-my commanding officer would be General Rantka herself, Agraaiy.”
“Good. Just who I needed. Call her.”
“At once, Agraaiy! At once!”
And he ran. Truly, dashed out of sight. There was a long silence. Eraiyo folded his front paws, settling down comfortably while he waited. He wondered where the refugees were. It seemed they had found shelter in the town itself, had disguised themselves to remain undetected, rather than hiding out in the caverns in the mountains. How many of them were there? Perhaps it had simply been easier to stay hidden in a more… compact form, rather than have a hundred gigantic dragons swell in mountains all of a sudden. That was good news. The more of them, the better, if they were to take back the North.
He heard a door, footsteps, and then the boy appeared with a bow, pointing at the mirror. Into view stepped a female in white armour, the finest armour there was, pale blonde hair falling in cascades over her shoulders, noble features with high cheekbones, pale lips and pale eyes, her frame sharp and agile.
“Freyvane,” he greeted.
“Eraiyo…” she returned, seemed stunned beyond words for a moment, just a flicker across her otherwise expressionless face. Then, she glanced to the boy. “Leave us.”
“Of course, General.”
The boy bowed twice and once more very nervously as he backed out of the room and left his General. Freyvane Rantka turned back to the mirror.
“We heard you were dead.”
“I can assure you, I am not.”
“How is that possible? We all saw Eradin fall. We assumed…”
“Well, you assumed wrong. Eradin ordered me to leave him behind as he battled. He believed one of us had to make it. So I left,” Eraiyo explained, and with a claw pulled forward the fine necklace with the small vial dangling from it. Freyvane hesitated.
There was no pause between him confirming her suspicion, and her going to her knees.
“I apologise, I did not realise… Raaiy Drakyrioth.”
“A title that means next to nothing without an empire to show for it,” Eraiyo admitted.
“You may say that. But for us, here, who thought for weeks that we were without leadership and hope, to know a Drakyrioth yet lives… it will change everything.”
“How many are there?”
“Many. More than you’d think. And we know of splinter groups, scattered across the Great North.”
Freyvane Rantka hesitated, then shook her head.
“Civilians. The majority of them at least. Our military force was utterly decimated in the siege of Dracoraeion. There are a few soldiers, and members of the Arthata’am. Other than that…”
Eraiyo rolled his eyes. The Arthata’am. Politicians. Of course they had run with their tails between their legs. Of course they had made it out of the besieged North alive, while good dragons had given their lives.
He fought back the bitterness. They were his Arthata’am now, the dragons who would give him council as he ruled his people. He had no immediate family left, no Agraaiy to share the burden with. His siblings were dead, and he did not know of the fate of Eradria’s daughter, Alkyone, or their bastard brother Nordyn, or their house champion, Calligo. Begrudgingly, he had to admit to himself that he needed the Arthata’am. Perhaps more than any Raaiy in history had ever needed them. Quaint. A Raaiy without a family was vulnerable. He would have to somehow deal with that, or he would not be Raaiy for very long... “Eraiyo?”
He looked up, finding Freyvane Rantka with that face that suggested she was waiting for a response. He shook his head.
“I’m… sorry. I was in thoughts.”
“We need to know where you are. Can you get here? And how soon?”
He could be there tomorrow, if he wanted to. The problem was, he did not want to. “There is something in this place I am trying to make sense of. A girl, who-”
“A legacy child. The legacy child, perhaps. The Jester’s magic is all over this place and I need to know why. If this girl is the legacy, I can’t let her out of my sight, she could be too valuable an asset or too dangerous an enemy if she truly is who I think she is.”
“Eraiyo, this is madness. You’re not an Agraaiy who can do whatever he wants anymore. You’re the Raaiy. Now, more than ever, the dragons need their leader. Your people need you. I need you. I can’t keep them together without a Drakyrioth,” Freyvane Rantka insisted.
“I won’t be much longer, I promise. But you have to understand that, if she is the one from the prophecy, I will not be safe until she is dealt with.”
“I…” Freyvane hesitated. “I suppose. Yes. I will… do my best to keep things orderly until you get here. But Eraiyo?”
“Yes, I’ll hurry,” Eraiyo replied, rolling his eyes.
“That’s not what I meant. I need you to be careful. You are the last of your kind. You are more than just you now. You are the Raaiy, you hold your family’s legacy and our people’s future. If you fall… there will be no more dragons ruling the skies of Arcaria. So be careful.”
“When am I ever not careful?”
He saw the alarm in the way Freycane’s eyebrows arched upwards at that, but before she could remark on his flippant – and wildly inaccurate – comment, he had disconnected the spell, turning the mirror of fire black again.
Left in silence, there was a little voice in the back of his mind.It was good to see her. Freyvane, one of his oldest, most loyal friends. It was good to know she had survived the siege. Perhaps, if she was alive, so was Calligo, perhaps Alkyone, too. There might still be hope. Many survivors, she had said, and splinter groups they were still in contact with. The dragons had not been wiped out. Weakened, yes. Wounded. But not broken. They had been thrown back into the mud, but that was where they had come from once, and they could make it to the skies again, with patience and persistence. And with allies. That was what they needed now. Allies. It would be his objective, once he had gotten to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Par’bain and Emilia, once he could pull his mind away from her and her curse, he would focus on reaching out to the old allies. He would contact the dwarven kings, and the elvar regent. He would take back what was rightfully his, and The Mother would wish she had smashed him to pieces, instead of Eradin. He would not be the last Drakyrioth, he would not allow that shame on his name. If anything, he would be the First of a new, magnificent legacy of Drakyrioth.