The Dragon Liberator: Freelander

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-18-

POV: Cassius

Resisting the urge to close his eyes in anticipation of a hit, Cassius felt a tremor run through his arms. The staff he was using blocked Charles’ attack.

Cassius opened his eyes. “I did it!”

Charles tilted his head. “Am I still up?”

“What—” Before Cassius could finish his question, Charles kicked him onto his back. After catching his breath, he smiled. “I still did it.”

“You did.” Charles helped the young man to his feet. “Your reaction time is getting a lot better. Work on that and you’ll be a good soon. Then, you need to learn not to give in to distractions.”

“Can’t you give me some grace?” Cassius gripped his staff in excitement. “I’m improving!”

That was rude, even though you were joking. Your adrenaline is making you overconfident. Did you already forget you’re speaking to a teacher? Get your head on straight.

Charles eyed Cassius with curiosity. “Are you really Cassius?”

Cassius’s smile began to drop. “What do you mean?”

Am I? Am I someone else and I just don’t know it? Is that why I’m saying things I’d never say to an authority figure?

“You seem more confident.” Charles shrugged. “It’s probably just the training high. You should have seen Frederick whenever he figured out a move. He wouldn’t shut up about it for days.”

“So . . . this is a good thing?”

“I would say so.” Charles nodded. “You’ll calm down soon.”

Cassius was about to hand the staff back to Charles but stopped short. “Actually, I wanted to ask if we could train more often, or make my lessons longer? I don’t have anything else to do around here for the rest of the day . . . If that’s okay with you . . .”

Charles paused. “I will, but if you start pushing yourself too hard, we will have to go back to what we’ve been doing.”

“Thank you.” Cassius got into a defensive stance, then noticed a group of dragons approaching the canyon. “It looks like Thea, Frederick, and the other scouts are back.”

“What did I say about distractions?” Charles jabbed toward Cassius’ stomach with his staff.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Cassius repeatedly dodged, nearly losing his footing over and over with each attack.

Come on, focus!

Despite the tension in his voice, Cassius couldn’t help but smile as he sparred.

<~><~><~>

POV: Thea

Ember landed not far from Charles and Cassius, who looked to be in a one-sided spar session.

Thea, whose ride landed beside Ember, slid down and walked toward the two. She stopped at a safe distance away. “How long has this been going on?”

No distractions!” Cassius dodged and blocked each attack Charles threw at him.

“Uh-huh.” Thea nodded. She began to move around them. “We’ll catch up later, then.”

Frederick ran up beside her, a grin from ear to ear on his face. “Dang, Charles never went that easy on anyone, even me.”

That was going easy? Cassius looks like he’s fighting for his life over there.” Thea shook her head.

“You’d be lucky if you walked away covered in bruises by the end of it.” Frederick pointed at his right cheek. “I remember my first week of training. This side of my face was purple for days.”

“You can’t even tell now.” Thea looked straight ahead.

Why did you say that? Now he’s going to think you like him! Just don’t acknowledge it, keep looking forward.

“Oh, look at that! All the hatchlings and children are over there. I should go find Oliver.” Thea picked up her pace and made her way to the group of dusk dragons watching over all the children.

Oliver held a small hatchling at arms-length, tilting her from side-to-side playfully.

I think Charles and Fendrel called her Viper.

Once Oliver’s gaze caught on Thea, he ran toward her, clutching the hatchling to his chest. “Auntie Thea!”

Thea’s heart swelled. She crouched down and hugged the two. “I missed you.”

“Are you back for good now?” Oliver stepped back, bouncing with excitement. In his arms, Viper squawked as she was jostled.

“We’ll see about that.” Thea took Viper from him. “As long as Cloud doesn’t need us to do something far away, I’ll stay here.”

“Does that mean I can be your apprentice now?” Oliver stopped bobbing.

“Oh, well . . .” Thea eyed the group of humans that came with them from Glassbeach. “It’s better to do that away from others. Once I have all my spells organized in my hut, we can start practicing. Okay?”

“Mhm.” Oliver nodded. “Do you think I’ll be your best student?”

You’re my only student, sweetheart.

“Definitely.” Thea smiled. “Is Charles busy all day?”

“Yeah . . . it’s been a little boring here.” Oliver reached for Thea’s hand.

“So, while he’s busy is it okay for Viper to play with the other hatchlings while I train you?” Thea clasped his hand.

“What do you mean? She can’t come with us?” Oliver’s face grew confused.

“Accidents happen sometimes, and I don’t want her to get hurt.” Thea squeezed Oliver’s hand. “I want to make sure we all stay safe while you learn, so, no. I’m sorry, but Viper can’t watch.”

Before Oliver could grumble, Thea started swinging their joined arms back and forth. “But she can see your magic once you have enough control, okay? I bet you’re a fast learner, so it won’t be long at all.”

“Okay!” Oliver looked at Viper. “I’m sorry. You have to play alone.”

“Well, she can find other play buddies, can’t she?” Thea giggled.

Oliver frowned. “Not without me.”

Thea stifled a laugh. “You two got close fast.”

I promise you won’t have to worry about people thinking you’re a freak because of your powers. No one will have to know until you have control. The hardest part is keeping your powers hidden until then . . .

<~><~><~>

POV: Zoricus

. . . This sucks.

Zoricus’ feet ached from walking all morning and the dragon refused to speak to him unless it was ordering the human to speed up or walk behind him.

I wish I could have somehow brought my horse.

The ex-knight’s eyes landed on the reins nailed into Fragrance’s horns.

If I could just get a hold on those, I might be able to take control . . .

As if driven by impulse, Zoricus dashed up to the dragon’s side, jumped, and grabbed the reins.

Fragrance roared in surprise and whipped his head from side-to-side.

Zoricus’ feet slipped on the freshly watered jungle earth, his shoes and pants getting muddied.

The dragon stopped shaking his head after a painful yelp.

Managed to gain his footing on a tree root, Zoricus launched himself on to Fragrance’s shoulders and yanked on the reins.

“Stop!” Fragrance bared his teeth. His voice became hard to hear as it mixed with growling. “You don’t know how much that hurts! What would you do if I drove nails into your skull and yanked on them until you bled?”

Zoricus spoke between labored breaths. “You are going to respect me, okay? You’re only alive because Raaldin wanted you to protect me while I hunted Fendrel. Got it? You have no say in how this mission goes.”

Fragrance’s ears slanted back as he continued to growl. The spines on his back rose and bristled with fury. “Right, you’re going to capture Fendrel. I’m guessing you’ve been at this for a while. What makes you think this time will be any different? If you do magically manage to get him, then that’s fine by me. Just another enemy gone. But you know you’ll fail, and then what will you do? Return to your master and accept death?”

“You don’t know me.” Zoricus gave a small tug on the reins. “I’m going to get him this time.”

“So you have failed before. What a surprise!” Fragrance wacked the side of Zoricus’ head with one of his wings.

Zoricus saw spots but gripped the chain tighter.

If I let go, he’ll never let me near his back again.

“Some guard you are . . .” Fragrance paced in a circle, lashing his tail.

“I don’t see you doing any better.” Zoricus scowled at Fragrance. “What would you have done differently than I? I had wanted posters of him in every village and city. I personally chased after him on multiple occasions.”

“For starters I wouldn’t be a pathetic excuse for a king’s guard—” Fragrance put on a mocking tone “—whining about how hard I tried to catch a single human when I had everyone looking for him.”

Zoricus scoffed. “What, like you haven’t messed up before? Raaldin told me you hate Fendrel too, so he must have done a number on you, huh?”

“My only mistake was underestimating the little brat.” Fragrance continued to pace. “Even when I sparred him when he was at a disadvantage, he broke the tip of one of my horns off! With a rock!”

The ex-knight glanced at Fragrance’s horns. One of them did seem to be shorter than the other, with a stub growing out like it was healing.

“I would have killed him if his daddy wasn’t there to protect him.” The lemon-dragon swiped at a tree’s trunk, leaving sizeable cuts in it.

In Fendrel’s trial he said he was raised by ice dragons.

“The ice dragon?” Zoricus looked at Fragrance’s face more with curiosity than in disbelief.

“What? No.” Fragrance seemed be a bit calmer. He shook his head. “Venom, that infuriating dusk noble. The one dragon who outranks me under the king’s rule, er, outranked me. Of course a dusk dragon, of all the factions, adopted Fendrel as his own. They’re all pretentious and human-loving and oh-so-peaceful except when they’re ripping rogues and relationships alike apart.”

“. . . You . . .” Zoricus paused to think about his words.

. . . sound like you’re projecting.

“. . . sound like you hate this Venom guy more than Fendrel.” The ex-knight nodded slowly as if to reassure himself this was a better option.

“I’ve a lifetime’s worth of feuding with Venom.” Fragrance’s voice seemed to hold a wisp of reminiscence. “But I’ve only had Fendrel in my life for a few weeks, thank the stars.”

Zoricus shook his head. “Look . . . I’m sorry I pulled on your horns—”

“An unnecessary and impolite action.”

“—but we need to work together if we’re going to find Fendrel. You’re right, I suck at this, but you sound like you’ve gotten your hands on him before. So, if we collaborate, we could get out of this.” Zoricus took a chance by removing one of his hands and stretching out into Fragrance’s view. “Deal?”

“. . . What is this gesture?” Fragrance side-eyed the hand.

“It’s a handshake? We use it to finalize agreements when there aren’t contracts.” Zoricus looked at the dragon in exasperation.

“Then respect me enough to get off my back when making an agreement.” Fragrance tilted his head toward the ground.

Zoricus took a deep breath and slid down from Fragrance’s shoulders, letting go of the reins. He stuck his hand out again.

Fragrance stared at Zoricus for a few moments, his pupils hiding behind a suspicious gaze. He poked Zoricus’ hand with one claw. “Deal.”

That’s close enough, I guess.

“One question, human.” Fragrance stood up to his full height. “What is a hand?”

“It’s . . . Am I really saying this? It’s one of these things.” Zoricus pointed at one of his hands.

“Hm. I’m going to call it a paw, human.” Fragrance turned and continued walking in the direction they were previously heading.

“And I still have a name.” Zoricus grumbled under his breath, but shut up when a dragon flew by overhead, shaking the trees’ branches and leaves.

More dragons passed until the sun couldn’t be felt anymore.

Fragrance’s ears perked up. “Follow them.”

“What? Why?” Zoricus followed after Fragrance who broke into the dense foliage.

“They know where Fendrel is hiding and they’re going to see him! This was easier than expected, yes?” Fragrance glanced back.

Zoricus almost tripped when he saw Fragrance smiling.

Aww, so the big bad dragon does feel joy.

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