The moonlight illuminated the soft curves of Serinaes face as she floated above the sea of clouds. Her silk robes wafted around her in the gentle breeze as she slowly rose and fell to the beating of giant reptilian wings. She smiled kindly at Gydal, the emerald colored dragon who she rode on, and then glanced to her right and left at the other four dragon riders who were tearing through the night sky.
Another night, another castle she murmured to herself with a sigh.
[Dont worry] answered Gydal in her mind [the conquest of Abledon is almost complete.]
And then what? asked Serinae Its only a matter of time before the king invades Rostland and we are called on again for another campaign.
Gydal paused, then responded [Get ready, were almost there.]
Serinae gathered her robes about her and allowed herself to slide off the dragons back.
She was falling. The wind tugged at her clothing as she plummeted downward, but she paid it no heed. She unslung the silver spear from her back and dove head first into the ocean of white. For a couple seconds, everything was wet, but then the glimmering spear head pierced the veil and she plunged into the darkness below. In front of her was the last enemy fortress in the northern fold. She steered her body toward the tiny torch flames below and let the seconds tick by. Magic enveloped her a few seconds before she collided with the castle wall, and she landed without as sound on the top of the northeast watch tower. She calmly walked over to the nearest sentry (who hadnt yet noticed her presence) and pushed him over the outside edge. She slipped down the trap door and gracefully decapitated the two guards who were enjoying a bottle of red wine. She continued walking down the tower, leaving 12 pools of blood in her wake, until she opened the door to the courtyard. She stepped to the side to allow a volley of arrows to pass through the opening unobstructed and ducked under another arrow to enter the courtyard. Five archers had been waiting for her at the bottom, and after contemplating the situation for a moment, she began to dance slowly toward them. She dodged three arrows by inches and cut down the next two with a pass of her spear. The next volley went much the same, but she was on the archers before they even realized their shots had missed. A whirlwind of spear slashes devoured all five within seconds.
Serinae looked across the cobblestone courtyard and saw that two more dragon riders of her squadron were causing chaos on the wall. They had already taken out three of the five ballistae, and the piles of fallen bodies in the courtyard were growing at a steady rate. She cast her gaze to the right. She extended the fingers of both her hands to the two remaining ballistae, and watched them implode as she squeezed her hands shut. A shout went up from across the way, and Serinae watched as a dozen Abledonian warriors charged at her. Twirling her spear, she was about to engage them when a wave of green fire washed the swordsmen away. Gydal streaked overhead, and red flames began to engulf the castle as the four other dragons descended into the battle. There was little left to do except nail the coffin shut. The soldiers who tried to flee were incinerated as they rushed out the front gate, those who tried to hide were roasted inside the keep, and those who resisted were slaughtered by Serinae and her companions. An hour after the attack began, it was over. Black smoke leaked out of the castle into the night sky, and embers still glowed in some of the stone towers. Now that this fortress had fallen, the kingdoms army could march freely into the heart of Abledon, and a force of 70,000 was only a day behind them, ready to sweep into the gap.
Serinae walked across the scorched cobblestones in the courtyard. She glanced to her right as a 20-ton crimson colored dragon landed a few feet away from her. A small smile passed like a shadow across her face, but she pretended not to notice who it was until he called out.
Hark Serinae, how fares the lady of the silent spring?
She restrained herself from giggling, but beamed up at the armored knight who was climbing off his dragon.
Im fine Sir Blackthorn she replied, playing along with his formal tone I was impressed by your timing in the main aerial attack.
My lady he said, kneeling and kissing her hand I must insist that it was all due to your leadership. Without you, we wouldnt be able to conquer anything but the 9th infantry.
They both laughed, for it was well known that the 9th infantry was the most cowardly division on the continent. The King himself had once accused its commander of bleaching the kingdoms flag white before our enemies.
Blackthorn stood up and Serinae wrapped her arms around his neck.
I have a present for you. he murmured in her ear, and held out his hand with an ornate inlayed wooden box in it. Curiosity sprang to life within her eyes as she carefully took the box and folded back the lid. A gentle glow of shifting hue filtered out into the smoky air. Two golden leaves encircled a finely cut fire gem, and their stems intertwined to form the band of the most beautiful ring she had ever seen. With a look of horror, she snapped the box shut and dragged Blackthorn into the shadow of his dragon.
What are you doing? she hissed You know the laws of the army!
Serinae, he said in a pleading tone the prince of the kingdom has contacted me and offered to make me a Duke in exchange for carrying out a special mission. I know you have said that sometimes you wish you didnt have to fight, and if you married me, you would never have to.
She glared at him.
Serinae, I love you. he pleaded, on the verge of tears.
I love you too, but
. I just dont know about this she responded with uncertainty.
She moved to hand the wooden box back to Blackthorn. Keep it he said, gently wrapping her fingers back around the box. Please, just think about it okay?
Alright she sighed, and Blackthorn pulled her into a hug. He whispered thank you in her ear, laid a final kiss on her forehead, and was gone.
Serinae stood perfectly still. The swirling smoke burned her lungs with each breath, but she didnt even notice. The emotional turmoil that was growing inside her threatened to bring down her infamous calm; and the thought of losing control of herself scared her far more than even death. Finally, she tucked the wooden box into her right sleeve, then took a final look at the devastation around her. She called for Gydal who had been perched atop the ruined keep, and alone they returned to the sea of clouds.
The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy while dozens of tiny rainbows sprang to life momentarily around Serinaes shoulders as she bathed under the mountain waterfall. Gydal was off hunting, but her thoughts were elsewhere entirely. She was Blackthorns superior officer, how could he put her in this situation? That was her initial gut reaction to his proposal, but now memories consumed her.
Ten years ago, when she was only 17, both of her parents had died in a tragic accident. She ran away from her life, into the mountains, fleeing the town she had grown up in. Two weeks of travelling brought her unwittingly into the terrain of the dragons. It was there that Gydal had appeared before her. She remembered that she was oddly calm at the time. Even as Gydal engulfed her in flames she hadnt felt any fear. Her magic had protected her, and after 2 hours of furious combat, neither she nor Gydal had been able to harm the other. They forged a pact, an ancient bond of magic, and agreed to become dragon and rider. For a year they had traveled together, flying across vast tracts of land before finally deciding to join the army. They pay for a dragon rider was enough to seduce almost anyone to join.
Although she had no prior military experience, her commanders quickly recognized her potential as a strategist and a leader. One promotion lead to another, and within 2 years, she had been placed in charge of 8 other dragon riders (1/5th the total in the empire) and given the authority to command 20,000 soldiers.
She had been isolated from her peers by power. The pain of loneliness in those two years had been nearly unbearable, until she had met Blackthorn. The dragon knight in dark metal plate armor with a mischievous smile had been placed in her unit a few months after she assumed the third highest rank in the military. There was something about him that had thrown her out of her normal calm. Unlike his colleagues, he wasnt afraid to approach her, to talk to her like she was a person instead of a god. It wasnt long until she spent her days waiting for the minutes she could spend alone with him. That was seven years ago. Serinae looked up through the wall of water and into the sky, tears glistening in her eyes. Blackthorn had given her what no amount of money could ever buy, what no military campaign could ever win. He had made her happy. He was the single ray of light that warmed her heart and allowed her to make it through.
Serinae swam out of the waterfall and across the cold freshwater pool. She stepped onto the bank, into a beam of sunlight as shimmering drops cascaded off her limbs. She reached into the right sleeve of the dry robs that were bolded neatly by her feet and pulled out the wooden box. A smile spread across her face as she touched her hand to the oak lid, and the sun warmed the cedar inlays that Blackthorn had so carefully crafted into the outline of a dragon. Serinae carefully pried open the box and slipped the glowing ring inside onto her finger.
[So, you finally decided] Gydal chuckled in her mind.
Yes she whispered clutching her left hand to her chest as tears of joy streamed down her face.
[I knew you would do this before he even gave you the ring.] the dragon added smugly.
Serinae pulled on her silk robes and smirked at the green dragon as he lumbered out of the forest carrying an elk in his mouth.
[Want some?] he asked.
She giggled, maybe later, we need to get back to the capital.
A cold wind whipped through the desolate landscape as a storm blew up across the badlands. Blackthorn jumped off Distellas back and landed on the shale gravel that surrounded the hillside around this remote outpost. He didnt know why the Prince had insisted on meeting him here, but it was making him uneasy, and Distella shared his distaste for the situation.
[Do you have any idea what this secret mission is about?] she asked.
He didnt seem too eager to release any details about it before answered Blackthorn but its possible that the plan was still being finalized at that time. He placed his hand on her scaly neck and let his fingers trail behind as he turned to walk away.
He marched up to the two torch-bearing guards who stood resolute on either side of the stone doorway. In unison, they saluted him and opened the heavy wooden doors to grant him entrance into the outpost.
Good evening Sir Amadeus Blackthorn boomed Prince Rodel. My advisors tell me you are one of the best.
Despite subconsciously twitching at the mention of his hated first name, Blackthorn bowed deeply and deferred the compliment with I wish only to serve your Majesty. Even though the room was quite dark, he could see the visible signs of arrogance flooding into the Princes features.
And that is why I have chosen you for this task Rodel continued, beckoning for the Knight to follow him. They walked to the back of the hall, where a large map of the continent was stretched across three tables. As Im sure you are well aware, dragon riders are the most powerful weapons on any battlefield, combining the mass destructive abilities of the fire breathing reptiles and the more precise, but no less impressive lethal abilities of the warriors who ride atop them. For the past seven centuries, wars have been decided in large part by which side had a greater number of dragon riders within its ranks. Indeed, the greatest reason for our current military dominance over our neighbors is that we have nearly half the dragon riders on the continent fighting for our flag.
Blackthorn nodded, all of this was well known to him. However, the prince continued lately our spies have been reporting that other nations are forming large scale training programs to create elite fighters whose sole purpose will be their transformation into dragon riders.
Then what would you have me do your majesty? Are you asking me to lead our own training program, or perhaps covertly undermine and destroy the programs of our adversaries?
Neither asserted the Prince with a delicious glimmer in his eye. I want you to steal a clutch of dragon eggs.
Blackthorns heart stopped, and dread filled him when an all too familiar reptilian presence snarled in his mind. It took three seconds before he was able to pull himself out of the stupor and respond as politely as he could. I dont follow what youre suggesting.
The Prince (completely unperturbed by the knights reaction) began to explain. The problem is not so much that other countries are creating these programs, but rather that the dragons are a resource that can be accessed by anyone of sufficient skill. It is my goal to establish a captive breeding program so we can raise our own supply of dragons and train them with loyalties to the country instead of their individual riders and the other dragons in the mountains.
Blackthorn grabbed his chest and trembled. Raw emotional pain from Distella was coursing through his body and soul. His ears rang as she shrieked inside his head. My Liege he gasped, barely managing to stay on his feet. This plan violates several treaties weve made with the dragons themselves.
The Prince waved off his remarks. Those treaties were made in a different time. Circumstances have changed, and we cant eternally be restrained by those poorly negotiated agreements. With this new age, there will be only one power, and it will be us. Already empires fall before our might, but once we have secured the dragons for ourselves, not even the gods will dare to oppose us.
What could he do? He was depending on this mission to fulfill his promise to Serinae, but this went against so much he believed in. How could he betray Distellas trust like this? But if he refused, it was unlikely the Prince would let him leave here alive. However, he didnt have to wonder what he would do much longer. Time was up.
The screams of the two palace guards outside the door cut through the strangling silence in the room. Orange light blazed through the upper story windows. The doors exploded inward as Distella rammed into them them, forcing her way through the outer wall, which crumbled around her.
Guards appeared on the stairs. Five, ten, twenty, thirty of them poured out of hiding and charged at the dragon. The enraged Distella knocked them back and spewed molten jets of flame over the fallen men. The floor, the walls and then the roof ignited in the heat as Distella pulled her full bulk into the building.
The Prince turned to Blackthorn and spat You! He turned to his guards and shouted Bring that beast down! before fleeing the hall down a side passage.
Distella, stop! shouted Blackthorn, throwing his arms wide as she battled the armored fighters. Mid lunge she cast a furious glare at him out of an enormous red eye. Steam rose around the crimson iris, contorted with rage and a single message [I wont let you betray us] pierced his mind. Dozens more guards rushed into the room, but Distella trampled over them in the inferno as she crashed through another wall in pursuit of the Prince. The last thing Blackthorn remembered was standing alone in the fire, watching the last of the guards vanish from his sight around a corner. Then, a burning beam fell from the roof onto his head, and the world went black.
A light eastern breeze whispered through the capital city. Fluffy white clouds drifted across the sapphire sky and the morning sun gleamed off the citys numerous shops and taverns. Serinae walked through the cleanly swept streets with a spring in her step. The fire gem ring proudly adorned her finger and her robes fluttered behind her as she wove through the lightly populated boulevard. She was about to pass two noble women when she caught wind of their conversation.
Did you hear about the recent fiasco concerning Sir Blackthorn? The woman in the blue dress asked her colleague.
My dear Victoria the other woman responded you know Ive been ill. No, Im afraid I havent heard anything about that charming knight recently.
Serinae checked her step and fell in behind the two, eager to hear the circulating rumors about her subordinate and soon to be husband, although the term fiasco unnerved her slightly.
Well Isabel, it is really quite alarming. According to the official reports, the Prince was travelling through the eastern badlands when Sir Blackthorn and his dragon got into some trouble with them at their outpost.
Oh dear, how unfortunate said Isabel.
Indeed. Supposedly, it was completely unprovoked, but she dropped her voice personally, I cant believe that a great man like Sir Blackthorn would seek out conflict with the Prince. The heir must have done something vile to drive a decorated war hero and a gentleman to madness.
Be careful what you say Victoria.
Im sorry, but I cant help but be frustrated that such a successful crusader is being executed.
Serinae couldnt breathe. She looked down at the ring on her finger, but the two conversing women did not pause for her.
Executed? gasped Isabel over a trifle argument?
Hardly my dear, this was more than a mere scuffle. Three quarters of the Princes escort was killed, and although the heir himself escaped any harm, half of his personal body guards also perished before they put an end to the dragon and captured the knight.
Isabel was speechless.
The execution is scheduled for ten oclock in Gilveths Square, but I have no
Serinae didnt wait to hear the rest. She sprinted past the women, nearly knocking them over in her rush. Gilveths Square she muttered, cutting a sharp left and racing through a narrow alley. She glanced up at the angle of the shadows on the surrounding walls, and realized she would have less than 15 minutes to make it there.
She doubled her speed, jumped off the alley wall and dove through a street vendors stall before somersaulting into the busiest street in the city. She tried to push her way through the crowd, but it was no use. The numerous people clogging the byway were an all but impenetrable barrier. She called upon her magic, but nothing happened. Fear and panic finally overcame her, for the first time in over a decade. A single tear rolled down her cheek, as she closed her eyes.
There she was, back at that silent spring where she had first gained her abilities when she was a girl. The forest around her was wet with dew and the stars twinkled overhead; but as she peered down into the spring itself, she found it was not the clear pool that it had once been. The chaos within her had clouded the water, and she couldnt see more than a foot into it. Time came the answer into her head. It would take time and meditation for the spring to clear once again, and then her magic would be there once again. But she didnt have time. Angry eyes reflected back at her out of the pool as she backed up and dove headfirst into the water. Suspended dirt and muck were everywhere, cutting off the world around her, but she swam further down. Darkness became complete, but that did not deter her. She needed her magic now, no matter what the cost. She reached out with her fingers and felt the bottom of the spring. Running out of air, she scampered through the muck and stones that lay there until she felt what she was searching for, a rush of clean water, pouring out of a vent in the floor. With the last of her strength, she forced her arm into the opening. The subterranean channel started to crack and collapse under the mounting pressure, but she had what she needed.
She was back, and once again she called on her magic, but this time it responded in turn. Dozens of people along her path simultaneously felt something brush against them, but she was gone before a single one could turn to glance at what they had bumped into. The seconds ticked by as she alternated between flying through alleys and tiny footpaths (taking every shortcut she knew), and flashing through crowded boulevards. The magic that flooded her veins now was stronger than any she had felt before, yet something about it bothered her. She shoved the troubling thoughts aside and with another surge of magic, broke through the last leg of the sprint in an instant.
She arrived at Gilveths Square, without even a trace of exhaustion. But the situation was less than ideal. The area was packed with unsavory peasants and a few disgruntled looking officials. She should have been expecting this; public executions were the entertainment for the basest sect of society. Her surroundings that she hadnt noticed at such a tremendous velocity now came into focus. The looming grey brick buildings and the grunge that saturated the streets served to reinforce the atmosphere of the surrounding slums that this plaza ran into. This was the world of the citys southwest corridor, and its endemic odors of rotting meat and death assaulted her nose.
A roar went up from the east, causing dread to resettle in Serinaes stomach. She could feel the crowd press in around her as she stood on her toes to catch a glimpse of a chained and hooded man being escorted by four guards and an executioner into the square. The noise level rose as the six figures moved closer to the gallows at the heart of the crowd. It was almost time for her to make a move. Her thoughts had shut down, and her body moved on emotional impulse alone. She fought her way through the bloodthirsty mob, pushing aside the scum of the empire until she had squeezed her way to the front.
The guards were now standing aside, and the executioner was placing the prisoners hooded head through the dangling noose. Serinae gritted her teeth, and as the hood was ripped off, she saw his face. The crowd went wild at the sight of it. Sir Blackthorn, his head grizzled with ash, and his mouth obscured by his unshaven beard matted with blood was no longer the imposing figure who had led troops into battle. The black armor was gone, and he was dressed only in a pair of dirty pants which revealed the fresh wounds to his chest and back where he had been lashed prior to his entry. However, it was the look in his eyes that scared Serinae the most. The fire that she had grown so used to in their time together had been extinguished. He looked as if he was already dead, as if that lifeless gaze had abandoned all hope. Then, he saw her face in the crowd.
A plethora of emotions shot through his expression in a single moment. For the two of them, time stood still as the jeering spectators faded into the background. Tears ran from Serinaes eyes, and she held up her hand to show him the glowing ring that now graced her finger. A smile shone for a moment in his eyes, and broke through the mask of death he had worn, but it was short lived. The tightening of the noose brought reality back, and in a panic he lunged forward. The strain of it reopened several of his wounds, but his gaze was intense as he screamed out to Serinae It wasnt true, I never betrayed you. I never betrayed the empire.
The guards who had been standing idly rushed forward with swords in hand to push the knight back over the trapdoor. They were almost upon him when a jet of green fire struck down from the heavens and drove them back. A shadow fell over the square, and an enormous emerald colored dragon descended into the crowd. The mob screamed and fled from the reptilian beast as his several tons of military superpower touched down where people had been cheering only moments before. Another wave of fire echoed through the area, repelling any who had tried to advance.
Gydal Cried Serinae What...? <This is what you wanted, isnt it?> he interrupted. He flung a silver spear that had been clutched in his claws in her direction, and she caught it as if to confirm his statement. [Youll need to get out of here quickly. Flee to the mountains. We dragons take care of our own.]
What about you? she asked.
A gleeful intensity burned in Gydals eyes as he hissed [I have some business with a certain prince that I must attend to.]
With a final spout of flame, Gydal rose above the plaza and streaked away in the direction of the imperial palace.
Her heart was beating wildly in her chest. She looked over her shoulder to see the severely burned executioner get to his feet and pick up his axe. She called once again upon her magic, but felt nothing. The power that had surged through her veins a mere minute before was gone. For a moment she hesitated, before remembering who she was. She was a soldier, a dragon knight, a commander of armies. She didnt need magic to win this fight.
She twirled the spear into her right hand, and lunged forward. The executioner swung the axe down and to the side, successfully blocking her lancing spear, or so he thought. She launched herself into the air, and delivered a spinning jump kick to his face. He was knocked off his feet by the force of it, but before he could hit the ground Serinae twirled the spear back into position, and skewered it through his stomach.
Serinae didnt bother to ease his passing, as she ripped the spear out and moved to Blackthorn. A quick swipe of the sharpened tip was enough to cut the noose, and a couple carefully aimed slashes broke through the rope bounds around his feet and hands. Finally free, the knight stumbled forward, and would have fallen off the gallows if Serinae hadnt caught him.
Thank you he said, mustering a weak smile, then cringing at his own crimson blood which had just stained Serinaes robes. But why are you doing this? Why would you throw away your career for a man branded as a traitor?
I guess I really do love you after all. replied Serinae, pulling him into a full hug. We need to leave the city as quickly as possible, she murmured are you able to run?
I think so, although I may be a little slow at first.
Alright, as your commanding officer, this is an order: barked Serinae, pulling away attempt to stay hidden until we get to the gate, and when we encounter resistance follow my lead into attack pattern sigma. Only kill when necessary and our sole objective is escape.
Blackthorn nodded, and the two promptly exited the square, leaving a few smoldering corpses and a dying executioner in their wake. They clung to the shadows as they traveled westward through the slums, although the crowing chaos in the city streets would probably have been enough to hide their presence in the open. Wild-eyed civilians and heavily armed guards respectively rushed away from and into the citys core, and nobody paid the man and woman darting through alleyways any heed.
Finally, they were in sight of the southwest city gate, and Serinae was relieved to see that there was only a single unnerved guard remaining there, but her mood fell when she realized the gate had been barred shut. They had no choice. Serinae charged forward out of the shadows, spear extended toward the mans throat. Blackthorn fanned out to her left, and used his own magic to form onyx colored fireballs in his hands. The guard unsheathed his sword in shock, and was about to use it when Serinae changed her stab into a sweep, and twisted the blade out of his hand. The guard moved to raise his shield, but Blackthorn was too fast. He slipped past the mans block and unloaded a flame imbued uppercut to the guards solar plexus. The hit melted through the steel cuirass, and Blackthorn adopted a satisfied smirk when he saw the explosion of boiling blood out of the mans back. Serinae moved to the mechanism to raise the gate, but Blackthorn instead discharged the other fireball into the metal barrier and blew a hole in it large enough for them to climb through. Serinae abandoned her attempt, and together, they fled through the last barrier between them and freedom. As they looked back over the city, black smoke tinged with green light was rising from its center, and the numerous alarm bells they could hear tolling meant there was little chance they would be pursued.
Three years later, Serinae and Blackthorn stood side by side on a mountain top watching the sun set over the remains of the empire. Gydal had succeeded in his quest to kill the prince, and had taken half the imperial palace with him before meeting his fiery end. The King had been so distraught by the death of his only son that he ordered the banishment of every dragon rider from the kingdom, and retreated from active rule until his death a year later. The bureaucracy broke into feuding factions trying to regain complete control of the empire for themselves, and the military was ripped to pieces as different generals committed their troops to one faction or another. The kingdom split into a number of smaller states which were all in turn conquered by the surrounding countries and the exiled dragon riders who had joined their militaries. As dusk fell, Serinae squeezed Blackthorns hand and turned to go, but before she did, she thought she saw a flash of emerald flames on the horizon. She smiled; it was a fitting legacy for Gydal, her dragon and her friend till the end of time.
Although her magic had never returned to her, she did not have a single regret. Her name would not be written in history as more than perhaps a footnote, but she had learned to live life to the fullest. She and Blackthorn kissed each other just as the veil of night fully fell, and by the light of her fire gem ring, she could see her own destiny intertwined with both Blackthorns and Gydals in a beautiful symphony that was etched in the wind.