"That's enough for today," Raisa states.
She's picking up Tuti's body. I watch when she picks it up a strange symbol drops. It's the symbol an X with a circle at the intersection of the lines. I try to reach for it but Raisa gets to it first. The heavily armored female knight picks it up as though it weighs nothing at all and tosses it on the horse that he rode with. Her helmet goes on her head making the dragon knight look like a silver walking weapon void of worry.
"Where are you going?" I ask Raisa.
We'd just ambushed a member of a secret society that had been blackmailing Maxim to do their dirty work for them. We'd just found out the Great Immortal Dragon was back. I would have expected her to have a bigger reaction. I would have expected her to have any reaction. Instead, it looks like she's just playing clean up.
"Getting rid of the body."
"We need to tell someone about the Great Immortal Dragon."
"That's what we WON'T do," Raisa argues, "Do you want to cause some panic over a children's horror tale? It's impossible that the dragon is still around."
The Black Dread smiles, "Impossible? How does she figure, Nik? Immortal is RIGHT there in the name of the dragon."
He's amused by this. None of them are taking this seriously.
"We need to warn people. At least tell the Emperor."
"The Emperor is about to go to war..."
"He's invading the Elf kingdom," Raisa explains, "The last thing he needs is a story from some childish tavern boy."
Surprisingly that's when Natasha butts in, "But what if it's true, Mistress?"
Natasha rarely talks, let alone when it comes to offering some type of rebuttal. She did what she was told when she was told. She was as loyal as they come, but even right now she seems to be having difficulty with this. I look over at Raisa and am just dumbfounded that maybe she isn't taking this as serious as I am. Does she not see the threat? Did she not hear what we heard.
Raisa lets the moment pause for a minute.
"If you believe the stories, the Great Immortal Dragon ruled over a time when humans were nothing more than livestock for dragons. They were at the top of the food chain and we were their favorite meal. We were raised, fed and eaten. We were chicken to them. Cows. Meat supplies! When our ancestors defeated her they did it through trickery and surprise. If the Great Immortal Dragon really is back...there's nothing we can do about it. We're already dead."
With that Raisa just walks away leaving a dark cloud over the already dark forest entrance. I'm standing there feeling somewhat defeated. I turn and that's when I see Maxim. He's in the forest alone. He is looking down at a satchel.
"Can we have some privacy?" I ask the Black Dread.
Dread is annoyed but then again anything about Maxim annoys him. Nonetheless, without a word, a loud WHOOSH carries the trees as the dragon picks up and flies away. A few seconds after that its soul looks over at me and then looks over at Maxim. Then it disappears.
I walk over to Maxim. My heart is turning seeing those innocent eyes of his. He has a way of looking like you wanted to protect him. He had a way of pulling at your heartstrings.
My heart is racing because I don't know how to deal with this. He'd just received horrible news and I can tell it's affecting him. If he was crying, it stops by the time I get over there. He looks up at me with the seriousness of a dedicated knight.
"He may still be alive," I state.
It's the most I can offer in a time like this. He shakes his head. He points down at the satchel.
"I've confirmed it's his head," he states, "They brought it to me for not killing you when I should have."
My heart races. I feel horrible. I stand there looking at him and wondering how I can even continue this conversation. I want to hug him. I want to reach over to him and give him the longest hug possible but at this moment I don't think he would accept it. I wonder if he regrets it. I wonder if he regrets not killing me to keep his dad alive. Whatever thoughts Maxim is having right now is impossible to discover.
All I can do is shake my head and say, "I'm sorry."
He doesn't respond.
"We can't let this stand," a voice states, coming out of the woods.
I'm surprised when it's Natasha. Hell, I would have thought we had a higher chance of Raisa changing her mind and wanting to do something.
"You think we should tell someone?"
"No, Mistress Raisa had a point," Natasha states, "We can't tell anyone. It would cause panic and we don't have enough proof. We need to know what we're getting into before we do anything."
"How do we do that?" Maxim asks.
"We?" I ask.
"They killed my father," Maxim responds, "I'm involved now. Completely."
He had a point. This was personal for him now. This was revenge. Now they didn't have anything on him to hold him back either. Now he was completely free to help us. And there was this look in his eyes. It was a look of determination.
Natasha crosses her arms, "There is a library out east of the Dragonov Fortress in the city. Meet me there tomorrow after dinner."
I swing my sword. It's been a few months since we found out about Tuti.
A few months since I've been training with Raisa.
A few months since we've been trying to find out more clues about the Elven Articles.
Right now I'm the training grounds where squires went to go train with their knights. I'm on a raised platform when Raisa swings her halberd directly at my head and I swear a half of inch of my hair is shaved off. Luckily I block it in time.
"You TRYING to kill me?" I ask.
"As slow as you are, if I were trying to kill you, you'd be dead," she grunts.
It pisses me off. Mistress Raisa had a way of doing that with her stern look and callous approach to training. I am quick to grip the edged cutlass in my swollen fingers and whip around to clash steel. I held the blade even, a perfect, undaunted horizon; always leveled with the nose, just as Mistress Raisa had taught me. I run forward but she had stalled my strike and put on a stained grin splitting her lips as my blade shivered under the brutality of her compelling strength.
"Your mother would be turning in her grave if she saw how weak you were," she throatily crooned, pressing her blade closer to her face. The blade flashed as she brought it over my head and hummed a low, swift tune when she brought it down.
I collapse, my legs disabled by her power.
"Terrible," I hear.
It doesn't come from Raisa though. It comes from Prince Alexander. His brothers and Alexander are sitting off to the side. He does this often. He comes out here to mock me during training. I'm not as good a fighter as the rest of them. It's clear as day. It's embarrassing too even when they are walking away clearly unimpressed by my performance.
"Get up," Raisa states, "You going to sit there and cook in your humiliation or are you going to do something about it."
Humiliation. That was the word. She was doing this on purpose. She was humiliating me on purpose. I feel my face flush with red heat.
"What's the point of learning to fight?" I ask, "I have the Dread."
I point overhead. Sure enough, the black dragon is swirling around in the skies. With me only acknowledging it, the beast lands. It has its massive head and neck 5' long, a body 10' long and 3' thick, and a 15' tail. It weighs something like 2. 5 tons and lands with all of that body mass shuffling even Raisa slightly back.
And I controlled it.
I'd never had to fight a day in my life.
"Impressive. You are bonding with him," she realizes looking up at the dragon, "But he won't always be there for you and when all is said and done, you'll have to learn to hold your own. So pick your weapon up."
"I'm done for the day..." I state, "I'm tired."
"PICK. YOUR. WEAPON. UP!" Raisa growls.
She takes a few steps forward towards me and the Black Dread heaves almost immediately into a protective stance. Smoke billows from his throat as he stops Raisa in her tracks. Raisa does stop but she looks more irritated than anything.
Luckily someone walks over her. It's an emissary from the Roundtable.
"Urgent news Mistress," the emissary states.
The emissary is sweating. Clearly, this news has to be really urgent. My Mistress had a reputation. Everyone in the Empire knew not to bother her when she was training unless it was absolutely necessary. I watch as she throws down her halberd and gives me a frightening look before muttering, "Take a five-minute break and be ready to fight or it'll be a repeat of last time."
Last time; when Mistress Raisa beat me to a bloody pulp, put salt in my woods and left me tied up naked in the entrance of the Dragon fort. I still remember the snickers of the Princes as they spent half the day laughing and bringing anyone who hadn't seen me laugh as well. It was the single most embarrassing day of my life. The Black Dread raised so hard that they had to use double chains on him to keep him in the dragon pit.
"I hate her with a special part of me," his spirit says as he came to me, "Not even her dragon the Spiked One cares for her."
"How the hell do you know?"
"Us dragons can communicate with each other. We see each other's souls. They all warned against choosing Raisa. You should have chosen Natasha as your Mistress before Maxim."
Max, sure enough, had chosen Mistress Natasha. They'd been working together. It would have been a lot easier training under Natasha. The Dread had a point. She was tough but she was fair. Sometimes it felt like Raisa wanted to embarrass me on purpose.
"Natasha was trained by Raisa. Maxim is almost a knight. He doesn't need as much assistance as I do. I made the right choice."
The Dread sighs, "She was never as tough as this on Natasha."
He may have been right.
"Maybe there's a reason."
"You won't know what that reason is if you're dead," the Dread offers, "She'll kill you if you keep up at this. You're only a boy."
"I'm tougher than you think."
In the past few months, I knew that the Dread has a
tendency to be a little overprotective.
"I didn't mean it that way..."
"You know what they call me?" I ask the Dread, "Nikolai, The Coddled Wild. Everyone thinks I'm useless."
Of course, Prince Alexander had gone out of his way to start the nickname but it was quickly spreading. I had wished to get a nickname. So many of the best dragon knights had one. I didn't think it was anything amazing to be referred to as coddled because my dragon had a reputation for being so overly protective with me. I wondered if he was this protective with my mother or did he just think I was specifically so weak and useless that I needed him around all the time.
Before the dragon can say anything back, Raisa reappears. I pick up my weapon with my swollen fingers. Fatigue is setting in. I've felt this chronic tiredness, aching muscles, irritability, and impaired reflexes at the end of each training without fail. We'd be out here for at least a few more hours before I'd finally be ready to collapse and she'd let me go.
"You're released," she states.
I don't think I'm hearing her right, "Come again?"
"You're released," she responds, "There's been another attack. Two lesser knights have disappeared."
For the past few months, it seemed like this had been a natural occurrence. Dragon riders were being attacked and no one knew for sure who.
"They were in the South, weren't they?" I ask, "Near the wilds."
She doesn't answer my question. When it came to Raisa when she didn't answer your question that meant she didn't want you to be involved. It also meant that I was probably right. It's hard to hold back my anxiety but at the same time, it's hard not to see Raisa's own ability to self-control.
"I need to go meet with the Roundtable to discuss this. You can retire for the night."
I watch as Raisa walks away. I want to argue with her. I want to tell her that maybe this is a time for terror and fright but I know that isn't the Dragonov way. So I just let her walk away.
The grand library of the capital is the pride and joy of the Dragonov Empire. After being released early I walk into its halls where the librarians give me the normal Dragonov salute that they do for all the other knights and squires who come in here. The library has a beautiful exterior sculpture of Peter, the Trickster, who was the first Rurik King responsible for tricking the Great immortal Dragon to give up her eggs. Glass murals of the many round tables decorate the fašade. A sculpture garden to the north of the building, divided into plots of landscape designs from all the conquered kingdoms underneath the Dragonov Empire welcomes its visitors.
And then there were the books.
Thousands and thousands of books.
It's Maxim's voice that echoes through the hall, "Hey...over here. Didn't expect you to be out so early."
This was our thing. We'd met here in the library after our studies. As soon as he sees me he leans in and gives me his normal hug. His Maxim hug. He'd been a little obsessed with the Shadow Regime, but I understood. They were responsible for killing his father and possibly his uncle. So when I get to the armchair where he's collected his books for the day I'm not surprised to see a vast amount that he's already gone through.
"Where's Natasha?" I ask.
"She's helping strategize with several knights an attack on the Elven Kingdom. The king wants to launch his attack on the Winter's Solstice."
"That's just in a week..." I state.
He nods, "Exactly. All the resources are going to war right now. They don't see that the real threat is the Shadow Regime. Have you heard about the disappearances?"
I nod, "That's the only reason Raisa let me out."
"Well, I found something. Come here, I'll show you..."
I lean down to the ground with him, "What is it?"
"Come closer. I won't bite," he responds.
He waits until he pulls me closer. His eyes glare at me. He smiles a little bit. It feels nice to be this close to him even if the circumstance isn't ideal.
"Is he here?" he asks.
"Then you can get closer," he responds.
He grabs me and pulls me really close. So close that I can smell his breath up against me. He wants to make sure we share the book but honestly, it just feels so intimate. We're normally never alone. Natasha is always with us especially when we are trying to find some things in the library.
He opens up a book, "Paramour Pike, when he was alive told me about an Elf. His name was Arwin Aladis. He the SEER dreams and he dreamed something so dangerous that he was locked up. I found a portrait of him. Look at the symbol he has hanging from his neck."
Sure enough, there is a realistic portrayal of this Arwin in the books that he has. I look at the symbol and immediately recognize it. It's an X with a circle at the intersection. It's the same symbol that Tuti had.
"What's that mean?"
"I think it's a sign they were in the same group. I did some research on the symbol. It is dated several hundred years ago to a group that worshipped the Great Immortal Dragon. They worshipped her as their goddess."
"An elf gave my mother the elven articles. Could it be the same elf?"
He nods, "It has to be. This group has been around forever. But you won't believe me when I tell you why he was imprisoned by the elves."
"He was ushering in the end of the world."
"Oh my god..."
"I know it sounds stupid."
"No, it sounds..." I stop and pause, "It sounds like whatever this elf Arwin wrote and gave to my mother is reason enough to kill for."
"You believe me then?" he asks.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do."
That's when he does something shocking. He reaches over and he kisses me. His lips press up against my lips. It's a small smack. Nothing too much. Nothing that I shouldn't have expected but I know as soon as he does it, he wants to do it again. This time he wants to put my tongue down his throat. I can see him struggling to stop himself.
My face gets red, "What was that for?"
"You've been at my side through all of this," he explains, "Sometimes I feel like I'm losing it. You know. I lost my Uncle. I lost my father. My grandfather has taken over the Nair seat on the Roundtable but is pressuring me to be knighted so I can take my place. It just seems like all this pressure on my shoulders and you're my only release."
"The Dread..." I whisper, "The laws have gotten stronger since Pike's death."
It had been posted all around the Empire. The Emperor believed Pike's death was because of him cheating on his dragon. Anyone dragon knight found betraying his dragon would be tried for treason against the empire.
Our goal is to please our dragon and serve our empire.
"I know I can't feel the way I feel," he states, "It's just..."
I tried to reach over. I want to tell him that I like him too. The more I spend time with him the more I like him. Maxim has this hold on me and I don't know what it is. At the same time, I was getting closer to my dragon. The Dread and I were bonding.
"After we find out who the Shadow Regime is I'm leaving."
"They are having issues in the West. Rioting against the Empire in the Cardinal lands. They need a knight to help control the rioting. I'm going to head over there. Far away from here. Far away from you."
I didn't know much about these Cardinal lands but I did know that the Empire was vast. It was far away. Knowing that he was leaving was one thing, but knowing that beneath his words I was the reason he was leaving was something else entirely. I feel this turn in my stomach wanting to say something. I want to lean in. I want to hold his hand. I want to kiss him.
And for some reason at that moment, I dare to do what I WANT to do. I dare to lean in and touch him but we are stopped.
"What are you two doing?" she asks.
She has arrived out of nowhere. I can't read her face to know whether or not she saw me about to reach over and touch him. Did she see the longing in my eyes? Did she see the hurt in Maxim's eyes in those moments? If she did, I couldn't tell.
"Research Mistress. I was filling him in on what we found out about the Elf Arwen," Maxim states.
"What trouble?" I ask.
"It's Raisa. She's gone to the Wilds...after the Elven articles."
I feel this apprehension. I know it's a lot to ask Natasha to arrange a meeting with the Round Table but we had no choice.
"This is a bad idea," she whispers.
"We have to do something," I state.
"He's right. If Raisa went after the Elven articles she's in danger. We have to warn the Emperor. I'm with Nik."
"Of course you are," Natasha states.
I don't know what she means by it but can hear the implications in her tone. Regardless of whether she agrees with us meeting with the Round Table or not, she manages to pull what little leverage she has and get us in front of them. The room is just as I imagine. The older, regal knights are all staring at us with this look in their eyes.
"What are squires doing here, Mistress Natasha?" the Emperor asks at that moment, "It isn't appropriate for them to be involved with updates for the war council."
"I'm not here...for a war council," Mistress Natasha states.
The room gets cold. These men are all important in their own time and their time seems to be something they take a lot of pride in. I look at how they are looking at Natasha. You would think she was stealing money right out of their hands by their irritation.
"We'd just like a moment sir," I state, "Mistress Raisa has gone to the Wilds."
The Emperor seems confused. This seems news to him.
"I banned any knights from leaving the Capital before the war. Did any of you know about this?"
It's Paramour Silva who shrugs off the idea, "No doubt the Mistress is going after the Elven articles."
"More about these fucking Elven articles?" the Emperor roars, "What is this? We are about to go to war and people all of a sudden want to read."
It's the Empress Dowager who gives her son a stern look, "Let them talk Cicero. You can't always drown out the voices of your knights. They'll lose respect."
I'm thankful that the Empress Dowager is there. She gives me a smile after shutting up her son if only for a second. That's when she winks over at me.
I look over at Maxim. He's been quiet since he's gotten in the room. He looks intimidated. He looks really intimidated actually. The look on his face says it all. He's out of it. I reach over and put my hand on his shoulder. This is all that I could offer him right now, but I want Maxim to know that he's not alone. Sure Pike was dead and so was his father. But I was still here and still by his side.
He seems to understand, even without me speaking the words. He turns to the roundtable and steps forward. His heavy armor clanks as he walks. His noble face looks over at them.
He announces in the most serious way possible, "I have reason to believe we are all in danger. We believe the Elven articles may be a prophecy. A prophecy about the end of the world."
I look around the table. None of the knights are saying anything. Not a word. Not even the slightest whimper. It's as though everyone is completely silent.
Then comes Paramour Silva. He's laughing. The laughing is slow at first but another knight joins in. Then another and another. They were laughing so hard that they drown out any explanation that Maxim has.
"We can explain!" I scream out.
I'm ignored. The laughing is way too hard. The Empress Dowager doesn't even come to my defense this time. She just shakes her head looking embarrassed for me and turns around while the men laugh.
"Let's go..." Natasha states.
"Natasha we can't just let this go..."
I'd never really heard Natasha raise her voice. She was ashamed. I got it. She was a new knight. She was still under the radar and we used her name to get this meeting only to be laughed out of the room.
As we get out of the room Natasha is marching us straight to the dragon fort. I can see the look of impatience in her eyes. She doesn't talk. She must be self-conscious about the meeting. I turn and look over at Maxim. He was defeated. Months of digging through the library to finally get information and not even being able to present it to the Roundtable. They didn't understand the threat. They didn't understand the danger.
"We should go back," I state when we arrive at the pits.
"It's OK," Maxim assures me, "Really..."
"No. Your father was killed by these people. Pike was killed by these people. Raisa is risking her life. This threat is real. We aren't imagining it and I'll be damned if I walk away from this and just fucking ignore it!"
"Who said we were ignoring it?" Natasha asks, "I said let's go.
Meaning lets go...to the Wilds."
I look over at Natasha.
"If they don't want to listen then we'll have to go find Raisa ourselves."
I'm shocked. This wasn't me talking. This wasn't even Maxim. This was Natasha. She followed orders. That is LITERALLY what she did. That is what she had always been good at. The fact that Natasha was so ready to throw it all out right now and go looking for Raisa showed more guts than I could imagine.
"Find Raisa?" a voice states, "My father made it very clear no one leaves the Capital before the Winter Solstice."
We turn and are all irritated in unison by none other than Alexander. The prince is standing there in his silk robes looking like he'd just woken up dripping of cash and wealth. He looks over at us and I can see that he's somewhat irritated.
What's even more irritating is that Maxim has to kiss this guy's ass so he won't snitch. I watch him walking over to the prince.
"You were following us?" Maxim asks, "I had no idea, handsome."
"You've been ignoring me, Maxim," The prince complains giving the squire the hardest look he possibly could muster.
"Of course, I haven't, I missed you," he states.
I roll my eyes only to get a sharp elbow in the side by Natasha who catches it. It's hard to sit here and bear this shit. The Prince was so into Maxim. And he had every reason to be. Maxim was strong, attractive, honorable and sweet. He was everything a knight should be.
"You're spending all your extra time in those libraries. I want to know what's going on."
"Lies. I heard you talking about a dragon."
"If you guys are going to look for a dragon then I'm coming," he immediately says.
"That's not what we're going to do," I interrupt.
"I wasn't talking to you. I wasn't asking you either," the prince aggressively states, "I was telling you. I'm coming or I'll have the Dragonov guards chase you guys down before you make it out of the capital."
Had I mentioned how much I hated Prince Alexander?
"You can ride on my dragon," Maxim offers.
Maybe it's jealousy at how close Maxim and the Prince were on their dragon, but it's hard to pay attention to the back of the Black Dread. It takes quite some time to fly to the Wilds. It's one of those trips where you could fall asleep and wake up several times but still not make it there. Unfortunately, l don't fall asleep not even once.
I'm concerned about Raisa.
She had gone on the same solo mission that Pike had. No doubt she was concerned about the disappearances around the Wilds as well. Someone was targeting dragon riders and we just happened to be dragon riders.
I don't feel comfortable.
"We're here," I hear the soul of the Dread tell me.
He's right. Below us are the ruins of the Wilds. I feel this warmth in me but there is no memory of this place. Nothing is really sparking inside of me. It's all gone. The only light shone is through the ashy branches, shadowy arms stretching across the burnt ruins. What was left stood in spite of itself, defying gravity in its precarious way? Yet, this place kept secret by the trees, was safe. It had avoided modern man's destructive touch and so had become a sanctuary for the animals.
We are going down. Down.
"What are you doing?"
"Mistress Natasha has instructed her dragon to communicate with me that we need to land. Her dragon Hawkeye has the ability to see from very far off. She's spotted something. Something we need to avoid..."
The way his voice gets deep concerns me.
From the skies, it looks like nothing. There are just weary roads of ash painted racing grey. The buildings stand in defiance of the people who fell. They are no vulnerable flesh but old wood, not as timeless as the mountains that ring the city but able to outlast the civilization that created them by centuries. Given enough time even the smooth grey will give way to a jungle of green and the Nair civilization will lay ruined for future generations to discover and perhaps piece together how we lived. I wonder if they'll share that knowledge with me, the last Wild.
We land behind a mound, silently. Our dragons must have communicated from the order of Mistress Natasha to be silent.
I am lowered to the ground and join the others who have gathered at a mound, "Do you see her? Do you see Raisa's dragon, the Spiked One?"
I get a small finger as my response from Natasha who signals us to follow and to be silent about it. For now, all I can do is walk ant-like between the monoliths, grey at my feet, grey at every side, under a carpet of grey that promises nothing but a storm.
I'm not sure if it's the Prince or Maxim who says it. Hell, it could even be me. The shock happens so quick and all at once.
"Oh my god."
We look over the mound and see something. We see the threat. We see what the warning was. We see how it would end.
And we think it's impossible.
When we get to the top of the hill we see the grotto below. And the Wilds seems to now be a haven for wild dragons. Wild dragons who are sleeping. They have been gathered here by something or someone. This wasn't usual. I didn't need confirmation from the others to know this. This was an army.
A thunder of dragons.
Enough to burn down the world.
"There are thousands of them. Thousands of wild dragons."
To read the next chapter in advance go to www.crushedcrown.com