When I reach the edge of the balcony I can see the dragons’ destruction so clearly. They had snuck in during the celebrations and attacked like shadows in the night. The King and as many wielders as he could find had set up the barrier just in time. The dragons know that they have to kill as many of the wielders as possible. They, and the King, are the only thing keeping the rest of the dragons out. I look at the bodies of my people strewn across the city and feel my fury grow. I watch in horror as a dragon attacks a man as he runs. He tries to protect himself but the dragon tears through him. As soon as he dies a part of the dome opens. It closes but not before a handful of the dragons slip through.
I look around to find my friends. Cole and his father are the first ones I spot as they stand back to back defending the castle gates. Katarina is not far from them floating around closer to the bridge holding off the Jade dragons with her lightning. Alexander has finished with his last dragon and moves to stand guard over the fleeing people. Cain is moving towards the King who is skillfully holding his own against the remaining fire dragons that had sought him out. My heart is pounding with fear. Not for me but for him. He is not as young as he had been. His magic is not as strong. I have to reach him as fast as I can and help him fight off the dragons. All around me I can hear the sounds of the city under attack.
As I notice all the smoke rising into the air I realize that I need to get off of the balcony and back into the fight. I call out to Katarina and she looks up. Help me down! I think to her. She nods her head so I step back and leap off the edge. This time I trust her completely and as I glide down toward Cole and his father I let three arrows fly into the mouths of the dragons flying in my direction.
I land and have to run to keep my footing. As I head over to the gate I stop short by the sight of my favorite tree burning. Its white bark now burning black and as the blossoms burn away they turn the fire an odd pink color. The smell of the dark smoke makes me sick. Why are they doing this? I think. As I turn to exit the gates Cole’s father stops me standing in my way.
“My responsibility is to make sure that you and the Queen are safe inside the gates.” He says.
“Well, Lorina is probably safe or dead. I was attacked by a dragon inside.” I snap.
“There was a dragon inside?” he questions me.
“Yes,” I start, “but it is dead now. Can you move out of my way so I can help the King?”
“No, I have specific orders to make sure that you, most of all, are safe and sound.”
“I am no safer inside than I am out here.”
“Father, let Hope go,” Cole interrupts “she has the best bow arm in the city. Didn’t you see her take down the three dragons that had climbed over the wall past us?” I am glad that Cole always knows how to say things. His father looks me over in my torn dress and takes in the dead dragons.
“If you think she can be of more help than harm I will trust you.” He makes a face at me, “will you be safe without any armor?”
“Yes.” I say stepping around him towards the King. I move at a set pace not walking but not running either. Having to dodge dragon corpses while not crushing the other remains beneath my feet is trickier than I believed. As I head towards the bridge I begin to realize that I am not sure how the King will feel about me being here. As I move past the final few piles of rubble I hide behind a statue to hear the conversation between the King and the dragons he faces.
“We have not broken the treaty by sending forces out to your mountains.” He shouts spinning out of the way as one of the dragons nearly sets him aflame. “We have outlawed hunting in the mountains and have done everything that we agreed upon.”
“Lies!” the dragon snarls in return, “Your seal was seen on those that attacked our homes and slaughtered our brothers!”
“I would never send anyone to harm you!” He replies confused by the accusation.
“Empty words from a frail old man.” starts the first.
“Bent on revenge.” Finishes the second.
“We will see what you think after we destroy all that you hold dear!” the first dragon retorts. I can wait behind the statue no longer. I spin around it and shoot two arrows into the eye of the closest dragon which sends it roaring over the edge of the bridge. That also draws the attention of the other to me. And then I see it in the King’s eyes. I should have stayed in the castle and listened to Cole’s father tonight.
“Hope!” He shouts as he jumps between me and the dragon deflecting the flames with his sword, “You must leave now!”
“I will not leave you, my King!” I argue.
“Now is not the time child, there is something amiss here. You must warn the Generals in Divinity of the dragons’ attack. They must know that they are in danger as well. I do not believe that the dragons will stop here. They are confused and it is not safe here for you or anyone anymore!”
“We can save the city your highness—we can—“ I start. Then I see him begin to shake his head and as he thrusts his sword into the head of the dragon killing it he turns to me. He gestures to everything above us. I had not bothered to look, and I wish that I he had not forced me to. There were thousands of the dragons swarming outside the dome that surrounded the city. They seem to swim through the clouds of smoke that fills skies and claw at the only thing that keeps them out of Avon.
“There is no victory here my daughter.” He sadly states. In that moment I finally understand. It is as if some invisible force has punched me in the stomach. The feeling is worse than being slammed against a wall by the dragon’s tail because it comes from inside and there is no way to stop it. I finally know why he has pushed me away. Trained me so rigorously to fight dragons. He knew that the peace would only last so long. That eventually I would have to fight for my survival. And if I was not strong enough he would lose another child.
“We have to leave now.” I urge him.
“No, I must stay to allow you and the others to escape otherwise all this fighting will have been in vain. Lorina has already made her escape just as we planned. You were to follow her out through the passage into the tunnels beneath the city.”
“I will not leave you here.” I cry.
“You must do as your king has commanded! Find Aidian. He is the messenger that came to me from your brother’s war party. He will tell you where to find the Lords.” He firmly replies.
“Father—,” I start quietly. Then a shadow falls over us. I turn to see the dragon that fell over the edge of the bridge towering over us. The dragon’s tail slams me into the wall of the bridge and knocks the King to the ground his sword falling out of his hand. I look up and see the dragon is raised on his back legs with the broken arrows sticking out of his side preparing to breathe his last flame.
“You will not take my child!” The King shouts as he jumps between us pushing me out of the way. There is something very different about him though. He starts to glow. He is using more magic to save us from the dragon. The glow is a faint white that envelopes us. The dragon takes a breath and just as I see the flame there is a blinding flash of light that forces me to close my eyes and turn my face away.
When I look back the King, my father, is on his knees and the dragon is gone. Smoke billows around him and as I move towards him I smell the charred flesh that now coats his body. The magic he used could not stop the dragon’s fire from burning him but had kept me safe from it. I kneel down in front of him and look into his horribly disfigured face.
“No, no, no,” I cry as I see his lids grow heavy. “You cannot leave me! I need you—the people need you!”
“No, my daughter,” he croaks as he starts to sway, “They need you. They always needed you. Do not despair. You must be their strength in this time of darkness.”
“I don’t understand what I have to do!” I reply holding his body as gently as I can as he starts to slump to the ground.
“You must find Aidian in the mountains to the west.” He tells me. “He will help you speak to each of the Lords and tell you what you can do to bring peace back to the lands of men.”
“How will I find him? I have no maps and I cannot leave the people!”
“Remember you must do as your king commands.” He repeats. I hear something coming from behind me and pull out a dagger to face whatever approaches.
“Hold,” Cain says as he slows his stride, “I’m not the enemy.”
“He is dying.” I tell him. “There is no magic left in him to heal himself. Where is Katarina?”
“I am here.” She calls from the other side of the bridge. “I saw everything. I---,” She stops short her eyes growing wide when she sees the King cradled in my arms. “I am so sorry.” she says after a moment of staring at my burned father’s face. “This—there is nothing I can do.”
“You are a wielder you have to do something!” I shout at her.
“Hope,” the King croaks as loudly as he can the fire eating away at his face and neck. “There is very little time left! You know what happens when you are burned by dragon fire. Take your friends. Leave the city and do as I have asked. Cain knows the way and will protect you with his life. This is why I made him a General.”
“No.” I refuse hot tears streaming down my face. I know that crying will not save him but my heart is breaking.
“Cain, take her away from here, keep her safe and find out why this has happened.”
“Of course your highness.” He replies looking up as Cole and Alexander come over to the bridge.
“The dragons are pressing their attack on the city.” Cole tells us.
“The King’s barrier will not hold on much longer.” Alexander adds. I look up and see that he is right the dragons are pressing down on the dome. It bows beneath their weight and
“Go! Now!” the King commands. As I lay him down he pushes his sword into my hands and closes his eyes. The glowing begins again, yet this time it is not as bright as before. As the glow dims the dome around the city starts to shatter the pieces turning to dust as they fall towards the ground. The dragons roar in triumph and as Cain pulls me away as he does I swear that I hear the King say he loves me.
We run fleeing from the bridge towards the castle gates where Cole’s father stands waiting. He looks from me to Cole and back to the bridge then immediately understands what to do. He leads us into the castle as the dragons make for a second wave across the city.
“The King set up a secret passage out of the city after making peace for emergencies just like this.” He explains. “I knew that one day we would need it. I never thought it would be this soon.”
“Why did he not tell me?” I ask confused. I feel confused that there are things I did not know about the man who had been my father.
“Because he did not want you wandering the city unprotected.” He answers.
“We have to hurry.” Katarina interrupts. “I can feel the dragons circling the castle deciding on whether they want to tear it down or not. Their thoughts are strong. They are so angry.”
“Fine. Let us be off.” Cole decides. We race up the stairs and head for the east wing and into the King’s chambers. I remember the first time I had been in them. I was a scared little girl. The battle had awakened me in the middle of the night and I had run from my room to find him.
He was no longer in the room so I hid under the massive bed and waited until the battle was over. It had taken so long that I had fallen asleep. When I had awakened I was no longer underneath but on the top of the bed. He was there just waiting.
“I was scared.” I told him.
“You are safe here.” He told me.
“What if the dragons come for me?” I asked. He smiled sadly at me and asked in reply, “Would you rather have a new doll or would you like to feel safe?” I knew what he was really asking. Did I want to run and hide every time there was an attack or did I want to feel safe by learning how to fight for myself? That night I answered him telling him I’d want to feel safe. The very next day my training had started.
We enter the room slowly and find the massive bed against the far wall still made and the fire pit in the middle of the room is flickering with a small blaze. Cole’s father moves around the pit and there we find a moved rug revealing a flat square metal plate in the ground.
“Someone has been here.” He says. “I believe that the Queen made it out.”
“Good.” I say although I only feel sadness for her knowing she no longer has her husband and I no father. As he reaches for the lid we hear the dragons begin their second assault on the castle. He lifts the lid and starts to usher everyone in. Cole goes in first leading Katarina in by the hand. Followed by Alexander; leaving only Cain, Cole’s father, and myself to face the dragon that has burst through the doors.
It is a sand brown colored dragon with spikes all over its body. Earth dragon, I think to myself, no flames but still as dangerous as, the rest of the dragons, and even more vicious. Earth dragons burrowed in the ground and were covered in sharp spikes. They run across the ground and will attack head on. They are more aggressive than the others of their kind and very few men had ever survived an attack from one of them.
The dragon makes a guttural laughing noise as it starts to circle the three of us.
“Go now.” Cole’s father tells us. “I will hold that thing off as long as I can. Tell Cole I am truly sorry and that he has to stay alive.”
“Foolish man,” the dragon snarls, “I will clean my teeth with your son’s bones.” It laughs.
“Go!” he shouts as he charges the dragon sword raised high above his head. I have no time to object. Just as I see them clash, sparks flying from where Calder’s sword strikes, Cain yanks me down the steps into the passageway. And as he starts to close the plate we hear two loud rumbles. Cain slams the plate and turns cursing under his breath. He climbs down the steps and starts pulling me by my arm down the long maze towards where the others have stopped short.
“Where is my father?” Cole asks.
“He stayed behind to cover our escape.” Cain tells him. He looks at me and sees the truth in my eyes.
“We cannot let him die up there!” He screams.
“There are three dragons up there!” Cain shouts back. “And we need to get out of here before we become trapped with them down here too.”
“He is right Cole.” Katarina says calmly. “I do not have enough magic in me to take down another dragon tonight. If I did I would fly back there and help your father.” Cole looks at me and then away. I feel sick that I did not save his father and I know that the only reason that we cannot save his father is because they have to protect me.
“We need to move.” Alexander says cutting into my thoughts. I notice that he stares at Cain’s hand on my arm. I quickly break the connection and rub my arm. He’s grabbed the bandage and I can see where the blood has seeped through.
“The passage to the right will lead us out into the Third ring and then if we keep to the shadows we can make out of the city gates.” Cain informs us. The passage beneath the city is a tunnel like the streets above us with stones along the ground and walls. They are cold on my bare feet but I say nothing the only alternative going back out to face the dragons.
“We need to stop and see if my mother has made it out of the city.” Katarina pleads.
“Then we need to move quickly.” Alexander states plainly. Cain takes the lead with Cole and Katarina following and then me and Alexander in the rear. I swallow the tears that I feel and remind myself that I just have to hold on until we get out of the city and into the forest. We run for what seems like forever. We make so many turns that have me lost down here. Luckily Cain is not and in less than an hour we are at an exit.
“This will lead us into the Second ring.” He tells Katarina, “We cannot stay long we must grab your mother and then go.”
“Of course.” Katarina replies. He opens the lid and then checks to see if there are any dragons. As soon as he climbs out Cain motions for us to quietly exit and move into the alley to our left. As soon as we stop I realize he has gotten us quite close to where we need to be. Katarina’s mother’s shop is only two houses down. It is still intact with all the lights out. We cross the road as quickly and quietly as we can. We can hear all the sounds of the continued battle in the First ring from where we are.
“Mother!” Katarina calls out as soon as she pushes the door open.
“I am here.” Her mother replies moving from her hiding place in the shadows out into view. She grabs Katarina and embraces her tightly and then takes in the rest of us. Her eyes fall on me and tears well up in her eyes. “I hid when I saw the barrier around the city fall. I guess this means that the King is dead and the city has fallen?” They all look at me as a nod my head and then tear their eyes away. “I am so sorry.” She says.
“We need to leave the city.” Cain reminds us. He is still standing guard by the door checking to see if the dragons will come down the road.
“Yes, of course.” Katarina’s mother replies. Quickly wiping her tears and setting a hand on my shoulder. “I have something for you. Let me grab it and then we can leave.” I nod acknowledging that she speaks to me still numbed by everything that is happening. She returns with a bag she has packed and a box the size of my torso in her arms. “I think that this is something that you will need tonight of all nights.” She says looking me over and then adds, “You should change into it.”
I take the box and open it breathless by the fact that the armor that is inside is much more beautiful than the design could have ever shown me. “Thank you.” I say walking into the changing room. I close the curtain and turn to the mirror. I look horrible. My hair is a mess and the dress I wear is barely hanging on, not to mention my feet are bare and dirty. I change as quickly as I can to avoid the dragons finding us here and to get away from the mirror. When I finish I come out and we all go back to the tunnel. This time we run. The dragons have started to sweep through the Second ring. I know that they are trying to prevent our escape. It makes me run faster through the maze beneath the city.
“This water drain leads into the Third ring.” Cain explains quickly as we find the exit, “We simply have to get up and out of the city and we will be fine. We cannot be sure if there are any dragons up there so I will check first and then come for you.” Part of me wants him to stay but I know that he must make sure that the way is safe.
He climbs quickly opening the hatch and sliding out then closes it quietly. Then he is gone. We wait for what seems like forever. I go through the possibilities of him being attacked but everything is so quiet that I quickly ignore that and move on to the next more terrifying possibility. What if he has left us to die down here? I think.
“You need to stay calm.” Alexander says as he takes my face in his hands. “We are going to be fine. I promise that I will never let anything happen to you. I will never let you out of my sight.” I realize my breathing has gotten out of control. It was nice to see that Alexander was still my friend and that he still cared. I close my eyes and focus on calming my breathing down. Once I have gotten myself under control I open my eyes again and realize that I still stand face to face with Alexander. He looks intently at me cradling my face gently between his hands. I pull them down and look away. Letting his hands fall back to his sides. Right as he opens his mouth to say something Cain lifts the lid and pops his head over the edge.
“All clear.” He says with a smile that fades when he sees how close Alexander is to me. I move away first climbing as quickly as I can up the ladder and out of the tunnels beneath the city. I just want out of the tunnels.
Once everyone is out of the hole and above ground I realize that this will be the first time that I have ever been in the Third ring and probably the last. The streets are so dirty I am glad to be wearing my boots. There are vermin and garbage in the streets it make Katarina’s mother clutch her bag close to her chest. There are so few lanterns compared to the First ring and the even buildings are filthy. So this is the Third ring, I think. No wonder I was kept from it.
I knew I did not want to stay and explore this place in the dark. I was terrified in the darkness and the city did not seem as exciting as it had before. I was suddenly more aware of the city and the night. I could hear everything. The people fleeing the dragons. Cain leads us through back alleys and away from all the people trying to escape. The buildings are boxed and packed together, and looked as if they had been built with haste and not for people. We squeeze between them ducking the ropes strung between the buildings that have clothing still hanging on them. All the buildings seem like if the wind blows too hard at any moment they will topple over and crush us.
“We need to move quickly.” Cain says placing his hand on my back ushering me forward and into the dark of the alley across the road as a crowd passes us. “I can hear the dragons circling the area behind us. So that means that they will not be far behind.”
“We should head for the forest.” Alexander says. “It has the most cover to escape from the dragons.”
“We cannot be sure of what is in the forest.” Cain argues. “Have you not heard all the rumors of late?”
“We have to stay off the roads.” He replies. “I traveled through the forest before I came to the Avion. It is no more dangerous there than it is here now.”
“So you are saying we trade one deadly situation we understand,” Cain snaps, looking him in the eyes, “for another possibly equal one that we do not? You would endanger everyone here?”
“Do you have a better idea?” He asks. “A group this large will not be able to outrun the dragons or remain unnoticed. Even with a head start.”
“I agree with Alexander.” Katarina adds. She steps between them, grabs my hand pulling me away and turns back to them saying, “We have to get Hope out of here. I think that by the time we get to the forest my magic will be strong enough so I can mask us and keep her safe.” I look at her confused. Why is everyone so worried about me? I think. I can handle myself. Sadly I know that I am only lying to myself because as we round the corner to the gates I grip Katarina’s hand even tighter.
“Someone should warn the other cities.” Her mother announces. It is her first sentence since we left her shop and ran into the Third ring. “I think that I should do that while all of you stay hidden in the forest. I can take the road. It is no safer but it is faster.” It stops Katarina midstride.
“No!” Katarina nearly shouts. “We stay together. I could not bear to lose you.”
“Katarina.” Cole says placing his hands on her shoulders. “Think about it. She should warn them. If she does not who will?”
“I—I wish there was someone else.” She replies. But Cole is right. She turns and hugs her mother again, tears falling relentlessly from her eyes. We all nearly run to the gates where we will head towards the forest and split up at its edge. I have never been out of the city. This makes it all real. No more training. No more preparation. Everything changes tonight. I will never be able to go back. I don’t know if I will ever see my home again and it creates a hole inside of me and I am afraid that I will never be able to fill it.
“Here we go.” I whisper quietly.
“We will be fine.” Katarina reassures me as she wipes the tears off her face.
“I do not believe we will.” I mumble sadly. I know my feet moving but it feels as though I only do that. I keep moving until we reach the edge of the forest. And then I turn back. I really wish that they had never let me turn back. I see my city burning to the ground. I fall to my knees and before my head hits the ground I feel someone’s arms wrap around me as everything goes black.