The cold sea air blowing across the desolate dusty plains felt good against Duke’s fur. It reminded him of the cold of death that would soon engulf the humans in its darkness. He stood for a moment and took in the sight of his clan camping out in the distance. The torchlights spread out against the flattened land looked like an ocean of stars. The young as well as the women had stayed behind in the rocky cliffs they now called home, so before him awaited only the strongest, bravest warriors his race had to offer.
“Is there anything wrong, Lord Duke?” asked his second-in-command. Duke inhaled deeply.
“Do you see what I am seeing, Xavier? Before us lies the pride of our race, my friend. No longer do we waste our strength fighting among each other.”
“Yes, my lord, and we all have you to thank for that. What was once several clans fighting for meager scraps is now a united race ready to take back what is rightfully ours.” The three minotaur continued along in the darkness until they reached the first light from the standing torches. The scouts had long since spotted their leader and rallied the rest of the clan for his arrival, so when Duke did arrive, everyone was quiet and attentive.
He took a moment to look into each of their dark, glassy eyes before stabbing the butt of his halberd deep into the rocky earth. Duke knew what they were waiting to hear. Each and every minotaur there had come under his control due to his enormous strength. He had challenged all of the chieftains for control, as was customary in his race. It was a feat that had never been done before, and even more surprising was the fact that he had succeeded in proving himself the most powerful of all the leaders. But they followed him for another even greater reason than just his strength. He had promised to give them back their homes and put the humans back in their rightful place under their hooves. It was a promise he very much looked forward to keeping.
“My brothers,” he yelled in a booming voice, “how long have we endured living in these godforsaken badlands, fighting among each other for another day’s meal?” The crowd was silent. There were hundreds of minotaur standing proudly before Duke who already knew the answer, so there was no need to put it into words. “How many times have we had to watch our children die from starvation only to see our food migrate back into the land that was once our own? My brothers, the humans have taken everything from us. They have taken our land, they have even taken our lives for defending our homes generations ago, but worst of all, they have taken our honor. For too long we have lived in the shadows cast by our own disgrace.” Duke watched as many of his clan began nodding their heads in approval. The faces that he saw would have caused any other being to cower in fear, but this was exactly what he wanted to see: silently brooding rage and hatred from years of hardships looking for a release.
“No longer shall we live in disgrace. No longer shall we be considered just animals. We are minotaur, the greatest warriors in existence. We will take back our homes and crush any and all humans. Even the dragon riders that they love so dearly. But even more important than that, we will take back our pride!” With that, the crowd erupted in thunderous cheers. Duke continued through the noise, yelling louder than before as he beat his large fist against his chest.
“If they will not give it to us, we will take it. If we cannot take it, we will destroy it. There will be nothing standing on this earth to remind anyone that humans ever existed. They will receive no quarter, no mercy, and they will all die!” Xavier placed his hand on his leader’s shoulder and glanced up into the starlit sky. Duke followed his gaze and noticed the outline of a large winged beast against the starry background. He then glanced at Xavier and tilted his head in the direction it had been traveling before pushing his way through the tightly packed crowd of cheering minotaur.
“What are you doing here, rider,” hissed Duke angrily. Victor looked around his surroundings casually as the large minotaur stomped toward him. “I ought to cut you down where you stand.” Even though Victor wasn’t paying the least bit of attention, Virrus stood behind him, bearing his rows of sharp teeth at Duke. The dragon’s orange eyes followed the minotaur, and a dim glow could be seen building in its throat as it slowly opened his jaws. Duke glared back at the giant dragon angrily. He felt no fear in his heart as the beast seemed like it was getting ready to reduce him to ashes.
“I would advise you to watch your tone around Virrus,” started Victor as he finally acknowledged Duke. “Not even your entire race, past, present, and future, could save you if you angered him too much.” Duke continued to walk up to Victor, but more slowly and deliberately this time. Xavier stood planted where he was behind his leader, gripping the handle of his sword tightly. Duke had left his halberd planted in the ground back at the camp, so his leader was unarmed but not completely defenseless. Duke didn’t stop until he stood chest to chest with Victor. Victor could feel the minotaur’s hot breath as he exhaled deeply through flared nostrils.
“Speak before I choke you and your little lizard to death, rider. My patience with you is growing thin.” Victor calmly looked up and met Duke’s menacing gaze.
“Ranmar wants you to move ahead with things as soon as you are ready. He also grows impatient to get his hands on his prize, so I suggest you get out of my face and make yourself useful.” Duke was so angry with having to tolerate Victor that the only thing keeping him calm was the thought of snapping his neck.
“Listen and listen close, rider. You may have everyone fooled, but I can see past your little act. You are not strong, and you are no warrior. You would be nothing without your dragon watching over you. Creatures like you and that necromancer disgust me. Always hiding behind the strength of others and relying on them to fight your battles for you. One day, you will wake up to find your little pet bleeding out of its throat, and then it will be just you and me.” Victor smiled. It was the first time he had shown any kind of emotion in as long as he could remember. He didn’t smile because he was happy. He smiled because he was utterly amused at how ignorant Duke was. He really believed that Virrus was the only thing that made him what he was. He thought of how surprised Duke would be if he knew that his wyrm had only been a spectator content on watching its master slaughter hundreds of souls. As hard to believe as it was, Victor was far more lethal than Virrus could ever hope to be. The truth was, he didn’t need the dragon at all.
“I’ll sleep soundly with that thought on my mind,” responded Victor as he turned and walked away. The giant wyrm crouched low so Victor could hop up on its back. The jagged red scales against black made the dragon look as though it were bleeding. Its dark claws dug into the hard surface as it pushed its massive body upward. The force from its wings sent powerful gusts of air and dust swirling in all directions.
Xavier was beginning to have a hard time standing in the whirlwind, but Duke remained on his feet. He didn’t even blink while dust and small rocks pelted his entire body from all angles. He hated Victor as he hated all humans, but the fact that he continued to prance around as if he were unbeatable infuriated Duke. He continued to watch the wyrm rise higher into the air until it was just a shadow in the moonlight.
“Shall I prepare the men?” asked Xavier as he again stood up.
“Yes. We will start moving tomorrow.” Duke turned and walked back toward the encampment, and Xavier fell in step beside his leader. “When this is all over, kill the lizard and bring him to me.”
“It will be my pleasure,” responded Xavier quietly.
Michael awoke to the sun shining brightly through frosted-over window panes. He couldn’t remember the last time he had slept on a soft surface, and for a moment, he wanted nothing more than to just drift back off to sleep. His stomach still felt full from the meal Samantha had prepared for him the night before, and he couldn’t think of wanting anything more at the moment. He closed his eyes and pulled the thick comforters over his head and dozed off once again.
Something moving by his feet caused Michael to jerk up out of his sleep. He reached behind his waist for his sword, and his heart leapt into his throat when he realized it wasn’t there.
“Whoa, calm down,” said Samantha with her arms raised to her chest. Michael blinked and looked around the room.
Oh, that’s right, he thought. I’m at the tavern.
“I was just bringing up some of my dad’s old clothes for you,” she said with a smile. “We can’t have you meeting your little buddies looking like a beggar.” Michael looked down by his feet and saw a pair of black pants and a plain white shirt that laced up near the collar. “It may be a little too big for you, but it’s in much better condition than what you had before. I’ll be downstairs when you’re ready to meet Sir Marcus.” Michael began to recount what had happened the day prior. He had slept so deeply that he was having trouble piecing together the details. “Today is the day.”
Michael walked down the staircase to be met by a group of people loitering around the many tables. He had almost forgotten that the house he had slept in was really a tavern downstairs. He scanned the room for Samantha and found her carrying several bowls of stew to a group of travelers at the far end of the room. She looked completely different than she had the night prior, with her hair wrapped up by a blue cloth, her sleeves rolled up, and an apron around her waist. There seemed to be plenty of other people wearing the same apron, so Michael couldn’t really understand why she insisted on serving people too. He decided to go sit by the counter where she could see him whenever she wasn’t busy and wait. The place wasn’t too crowded since it was now midafternoon, so it was fairly easy for him to find an open stool. As soon as he sat down, he was greeted by an overly cheerful girl with her blond hair wrapped up in a similar cloth.
“Hi there, sweetie. What can I get for you?”
“Umm, nothing, nothing at all. I’m just waiting for Samantha.”
“Oh, you must be Sam’s nephew! She’s been going on about you ever since I showed up today.” Michael responded with an uncomfortable smile. He was still getting used to the idea of being around large numbers of people. He was also growing very anxious about finally meeting the ones he had come for in the first place. Three men plopped down in the seats next to him, and from looking at their matching red tunics, Michael assumed they were members of one of the legions that lived within the city. Other than the chainmail that could be seen underneath the loose fabric, there was no other sign that they were anything more than the usual riffraff that was found loitering around a tavern.
“A drink for our newest recruit,” said one man with a thick red beard. While the bartender engaged the trio in friendly conversation, Michael felt a firm grasp on his shoulder.
“Good morning,” said Samantha with a smile. In spite of being surrounded by booze and food, the sweet smell of lavender wafted off her body as she hugged him gently. Michael couldn’t help but be reminded of his mother, and instantly his heart began to ache for her. “Sir Marcus is waiting for you,” she whispered. As she released him, she gazed toward a table in the far corner of the room. Michael followed her gaze to see a man tending a full mug of ale sitting alone with his back against the wall.
“That’s him?” Michael asked cautiously.
“That’s him. He’s a friend of mine, and he even knew your dad. He agreed to help you out in order to repay your father for recommending him for his knighthood.” Michael looked at Samantha to thank her and was surprised to see sadness in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Samantha took in a deep breath and sat down next to him. “I know that you’re pretty set on doing this since you’ve come this far already. I just want you to be absolutely sure of what it is you’re getting yourself into. Life has never been that great as a dragon rider, and their responsibilities are steep to say the least. I’m not worried about whether or not you’ll be welcomed, but more about your safety, Michael. The life expectancy for what you’re about to do is very short, even for the best of them. Just promise me you’ll be careful, okay?” Even though to Michael they had only met the day prior, Samantha still had fond memories of watching the boy grow. To her, he was as much a son as he was for her friend. Samantha put on a smile before sending him on his way. “And promise me you’ll visit from time to time.”
“I promise, Sam,” replied Michael with a forced grin before turning back around and heading toward the knight.
Sir Marcus could have easily been mistaken for any average man having breakfast at the tavern. He wore no armor and didn’t seem to be carrying a weapon of any sort. As Michael drew closer, he could see the long sword leaning against his leg inside a scabbard from behind two men jostling about. Even closer, Michael began to notice that Sir Marcus’s long blond hair was neatly combed back, and his clothes didn’t have even a slight smudge or signs of wear in the smooth fabric. He hadn’t even touched his drink yet, and the only reason Michael could think of why he would pay for it was to blend in with the locals a bit more.
“So, I take it that you are the fabled son of Mathis.”
“Yes, I’m Michael Rinehart.” Sir Marcus stood up and extended his hand toward Michael with a polite smile.
“I am Sir George Marcus, one of the sub-commanders in the Black Heart Legion. It is my great pleasure to meet you, young Rinehart.” Sir Marcus noticed Michael’s hands but neglected to make any intruding comments about them. “I’m glad you’ve finally awakened. I have an appointment to pick up my armor fairly soon. I hope you don’t mind making a quick stop.”
“We’re leaving now?” asked Michael, surprised. He hadn’t expected on heading out on such short notice, and he still wasn’t even sure if he was ready to meet with anyone so soon.
“Yes, I really don’t have much free time, and this will be my only opportunity to help you out for another week.” As much as he wanted to hold off leaving, Michael couldn’t see himself waiting around for another week.
“Oh, well, that will be fine. I just have to grab some of my things first, unless I’ll get a chance to come back for them?” Sir Marcus shook his head.
“I don’t really know how it works, but lately, no one has seen much of our riders like they used to. I’m sure you’ll get the chance, but I really don’t know when that will be, kid. Why don’t you ask Samantha to get what you need while we chat a little while. I’m sure there are hundreds of questions swarming around in your head about what the riders are like. I can shed a little bit of light on that for you while we wait.” Michael followed Sir Marcus toward the counter, where Samantha still sat arguing with the three men. Sir Marcus carried his sword casually in his left hand and approached the men from behind, tapping the largest one on the shoulder.
“What in the blazes do you want, maggot—” was all the man got out before his voice caught in his throat. “S-Sir Marcus, I didn’t know it was you,” stammered the man.
“Are these soldiers bothering you, Sam?” he asked politely. Before she could answer, another soldier stood up promptly as stiff as a board.
“No, sir, we were just about to go, sir. Please forgive us.” Samantha rested her head on her palm with a sly grin and waved her fingers at the rapidly departing men.
“Toodles, boys,” she teased as they slumped toward the door.
“Hey, Sam, can you do me a favor and collect his things before we head out?” Sir Marcus asked kindly. Michael immediately caught the difference in his demeanor after the soldiers had gone. Before he had been calm and seemed sure of himself. Now, however, he leaned in close toward Samantha with a childish grin on his face. Even his voice had softened considerably when he spoke to her. Samantha leaned back slightly as Sir Marcus came closer.
“That depends, George. Will you give me space to go do it?”
“Of course,” responded the knight gallantly. “Anything for my future wife.” Samantha patted him on the shoulder lightly as she squeezed by him. She chuckled lightly to herself as she shook her head smiling.
“Don’t hold your breath on that, okay?” It was obvious that there was something going on between the two, but Michael grew even more confused as he watched things unfold.
“She’ll come around soon,” said Sir Marcus with a wink toward Michael. Apparently, Samantha had very good hearing, because she wasted no time with another retort.
“Don’t bet on it,” she yelled without bothering to look back. Michael slid onto the still-warm stool and gazed at the knight as if seeing him anew.
“So, how do you know Samantha?” asked Michael cautiously.
“Ooh! I love this story,” chirped the bartender as she clapped her hands excitedly. Sir Marcus raised his hand to silence the girl.
“I think I should be the one to answer that, Millie.”
“Oh, that’s fine. I’ll just stick around here to make sure you don’t exaggerate to the poor boy.”
“Hey,” responded Sir Marcus with a smile. “I’m a knight. I think I can get the facts straight. Anyway, I was on my way to check out my guys stationed at the northern wall, and I heard a woman arguing with some guy. Normally, such matters wouldn’t concern me, but when a pitcher comes crashing through a window, I have to take notice. Apparently, Sam was the one who threw it at some jerk who refused to pay for his meal.”
“That bum was trying to get more food out of us. He said that he wouldn’t leave until we fed him something that wasn’t considered pig feed. The nerve!”
“Thanks, Millie,” said Sir Marcus sarcastically. “So, after hearing the two of them out, I had no choice but to throw the guy out. Surprisingly, he even refuses after I tell him he has to go. So naturally, I had to use force.”
“He got his butt kicked,” chimed in Mille as she doubled over in laughter. “You had to see it. The guy wasn’t even that big.”
“Umm, thank you, Mil,” said Sir Marcus annoyed. “Well, I landed some pretty good punches, but this guy was something else. I later found out that he was a bounty hunter from the old country looking for work. Well, I was knocked out. I’m sure Millie will agree to that much.” The girl made a gesture as if she was buttoning her lips in acknowledgement, so Sir Marcus continued uninterrupted. “When I finally came to, I was staring up at the most beautiful thing in creation. The bounty hunter had long gone, and Sam thanked me for what I had done for her. As I recall, she also thanked me for valiantly defending her honor and said that I was the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes on.”
“Oh, horseradish!” exclaimed Millie. “She said she’s surprised you didn’t get yourself killed and that you looked kind of cute while you were sleeping.”
“Well, that’s what I remember, and I’m sure of what I heard.”
“So what is a bounty hunter?” asked Michael. There were a lot of things in this world that he had never heard of before. Having grown up in a rather sheltered life, Michael had no idea what type of person would be able to best a knight in a head-on fight. He also had to admit to himself that he really didn’t know what to expect from a knight until he met Sir Marcus only moments ago.
“Well,” started Sir Marcus as he scratched the back of his head, “I really don’t know how to explain this in a way you’ll understand. A bounty hunter is a person that seeks payment in exchange for capturing certain unsavory types of people. They are pretty formidable people since their line of work sometimes gets rather nasty.”
“That sounds like somebody I wouldn’t want to run into,” admitted Michael.
“Hah!” exclaimed Sir Marcus before chuckling lightly to himself. “If you think bounty hunters are something for you to worry about, then you’re in for a big surprise. You really don’t know anything about the dragon riders, do you?” Michael shook his head in response. All he had to go on about the warriors were rumors and old stories, neither of which seemed very reliable.
“All I know is that they are both feared and loved by just about everyone that knows of them.” Michael shifted his gaze toward the smooth brown wood of the counter. As his young reflection stared back at him, his doubts in himself began to rise to the surface. “To tell the truth, I’m not really sure if I’m cut out for any of it. I’m not some great hero like my dad was, and I’m not sure if I could even live up to half of all that.” Sir Marcus placed a firm hand on Michal’s shoulder and shifted his stool closer. Michael was surprised at how strong of a grip the seemingly average man had. He realized that the knight was a whole lot stronger than he let on, and that only made Michael feel all the weaker.
“Relax, young Rinehart, and have a little confidence in yourself. I’ll be the first to admit that those guys are by far the best all-around warriors known to mankind. They not only have the tremendous power of their dragons behind them, but they are masters at numerous armed and unarmed fighting styles. Add to that their ability to wield their own unique form of magic along with ungodly strength, and your chances on even making it through their doors are slim to none.” Michael looked toward the smiling knight as if all his dreams had been crushed. If Sir Marcus was trying to cheer him up, he was doing a horrible job at it. The knight leaned in close to whisper something in Michael’s ear. “I’ll let you in on a little secret though. They all have the potential, but none of them are there yet. All of them are still boys around your age, and they have huge shoes that they must fill if our peace will last. They need you, Michael, much more than you could possibly imagine. I’m honestly relieved that you’ve finally returned.” Sir Marcus leaned back and allowed Michael the chance to let what he had said to soak in. His carefree smile had been replaced by a look that was a mixture of concern and hope.
They need me? thought Michael. Why?
Samantha returned shortly with Michael’s sword wrapped neatly within the thick leather belt of the scabbard. “I don’t think you’ll be wanting those ratty old clothes, at least not before I give them a good washing,” she said with a smile as she handed it over.
“Thank you. I guess I’ll just have to grab them the next time I return.” After receiving yet another long hug, Michael said his final goodbyes. He had every intention of making good on his promise to visit Sam, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he would never see her again. He had grown used to the feeling of loss that he always carried in his heart, and being with Samantha had given him the sense that he wasn’t alone in the world. He felt like he had somehow reconnected with his family, and the thought of losing that lifeline made him feel worse.
Michael followed next to Sir Marcus up the wide road toward the north. The warming rays of the sun felt good on Michael’s face in spite of the chilliness in the air. The two walked in silence with only the sounds of their boots sloshing through the melting snow to keep them company. After a while of walking in silence, the sounds of horses pulling wagons of tools and various goods toward the shops that littered the area were replaced by the sound of children playing and laughing among each other. Michael pulled back his tattered brown hood and smiled at a young girl who tossed a snowball in his general direction. Another small boy caught a glimpse of the swords that the two were carrying at their sides and shouted to all his friends. “Oh, wow! They must be knights, you guys!” Before Michael knew it, they were both being swarmed by excited children in all directions. “Hey, mister! Is it true? Are you really a real live knight?”
“Sure thing, little guy,” responded Sir Marcus with a smile as he patted the boy’s head.
“Hey!” shouted another, tugging on the back end of his blue shirt. “Can you teach me how to use a sword and beat up evildoers and ride horses and—”
“Whoa there, little guy. I can only teach one thing at a time.” Sir Marcus was truly enjoying the company of the children as they bombarded him with questions and pretended to sword fight with sticks around him. An older-looking group of boys simply watched the two continue on their way followed by a trail of children.
“Hey, you!” shouted one of them before turning to his friends snickering.
“Who, me?” asked Michael.
“Yeah, so what? You think you’re some hotshot knight or something? You don’t look so tough to me.”
“Oh, I’m not a knight,” responded Michael.
“So what are you, his sword carrier or something?” another chimed in. “Why don’t you get a real man’s job instead of carrying another man’s sword? My little sister can do that.” Sir Marcus casually walked up beside Michael and looked at the teenagers. “Oh, it looks like his master is getting upset that we’re picking on his mule.” After a short bout of laughter, the boys continued to harass Michael even further. “Why don’t you join one of the legions if you want to become a real man?”
“But I didn’t know they accepted girls,” added his friend.
“So that’s what this is about,” said Sir Marcus after hearing in on the one-way conversation. “Michael can’t join any of the legions even if he wanted to.” With that, the boys burst out into laughter.
“Why not? I’ve got to hear this.”
“Well, he can’t because he’s a dragon rider, and I suggest you watch yourselves around him.”
“This guy? A rider? You have got to be kidding me. If he’s a rider, then I’m a king.”
“Come on, Michael,” said Sir Marcus as he continued on his way.
“No, I can prove it.” Michael gazed up at the sky as if he was searching for something. The other boys followed his gaze and saw nothing but the clear blue dotted by a few white clouds.
“What, did you see a birdie or something?” For a moment Sir Marcus began to wonder just what Michael was looking at. There was nothing above, not even a single bird, and yet Michael continued to stare. Soon shouts could be heard off in the distance. Loud whistles hooting and hollering began to grow as it drew nearer. Clearly, there was something getting a rise out of people, and soon others began to peek their heads out their windows to see what the commotion was about. All around him, everyone stood still in anticipation. Suddenly, the dark gray underside and large leathery wings of a dragon soared low over the rooftops. The boys’ eyes went wide as they stooped down from the shock of being suddenly so close to a real dragon. The air around Michael swirled as his dragon quickly soared over his head and glided upward into the sky. Everyone that had witnessed the event began to cheer excitedly at the sight of one of their beloved dragon riders. It was a rare treat to catch a glimpse of the reclusive warriors, and it filled them all with hope and happiness to know that they were still among them, ready to defend their home at a moment’s notice. Even Sir Marcus was awestruck at seeing a dragon up close, even for a moment.
“Where’s the rider? I didn’t see one.”
“That’s because I’m right here,” said Michael with a smile to no one in particular. The boys who had ridiculed Michael just a moment ago now stared at him with their jaws opened wide.
“You weren’t kidding around. You really are a rider.”
“Well, not yet,” admitted Michael. “But hopefully they’ll have me.” Michael caught up to Sir Marcus who was equally awestruck as the still-gaping boys behind them. He didn’t have any doubts in his mind that Michael was indeed who he said he was, but seeing him call upon his dragon made it all the more real. In reality, he didn’t even know whether or not the boy even had a dragon.
“So, are you ready to continue on?” Sir Marcus was still getting over what he had seen, but to Michael, it seemed that nothing special had occurred. “You have a dragon?”
“Yes,” responded Michael as if it were just another question.
“You really have a dragon. I honestly can’t believe it. I mean, I would assume that you would, but you really have a dragon.” Sir Marcus couldn’t get over that fact as the two continued on. “I don’t see why you are so worried about becoming a rider. You already have your own dragon, so you are pretty much already a rider. I don’t even see why you need me. You can just fly right into the mansion, and they’ll see that you are already one of them.”
“I don’t really think it works like that,” replied Michael, shaking his head. Sir Marcus was confused. What more could there be to becoming a rider than simply having a dragon to begin with? He couldn’t understand what was stopping Michael from doing what he set out to do. “I don’t know how to ride Bahamut.”
“Bahamut, my dragon. I’m scared I might fall and break my neck or something. Plus, I have no idea of where the dragon riders live. Even so, if I just flew in on a dragon, which I can’t by the way, they might just think that I was there to attack, then where would I be?”
“Good point.” Clearly, Michael was pretty smart for thinking things through like he did. Even Sir Marcus, being considerably older than him, had not thought of the effects of just barging in unannounced. The more he thought about it, the more Michael really did remind him of Mathis. It was in more than just the resemblance between father and son. He also had his father’s knack for thinking things through and weighing all the possible outcomes of a situation. He secretly hoped that the similarities did not end there and that Michael would someday prove to be even a fraction of the person his dad was.
For the life of him, Sir Marcus could not figure out why Michael was so nervous about meeting with his counterparts. He knew just what they were all capable of, but there was no doubt in his mind that Michael would do just fine among them. He continued his musings until they finally arrived at their destination. A large two-story house sat apart from all the rest near the northern wall of the city. Without the clutter of the downtown area blocking the view, Michael caught a clear glimpse of the waterfall he had seen when he first entered the city. The clear blue water cascaded down the side of the smooth gray cliff and spread a light mist in its wake. A faint rainbow could be seen in the mist as the water shimmered in the sunlight behind it. It was truly a beautiful sight to behold.
“Is this where the riders stay?” asked Michael.
“No, this is the home of the royal blacksmith who fashions most of the knights’ armor here. He’s pretty well paid, so he can afford to live a bit better than the others around town.” Sir Marcus pointed across the rooftops to what seemed like a rather plain-looking house far off in the distance to south. “That’s where the riders stay.” Michael squinted to see what the knight was pointing at but failed to see. He then inhaled deeply and focused hard on the point next to the castle. His eyes began to tingle as his vision greatly enhanced.
“Oh, I think I see it. The one with the red roof, right?” The mansion was not what Michael would expect of the home of great warriors. There was a large hole in the roof, with black scars around the opening. All the windows of the third floor were broken out, and a large portion of the whole floor looked as if it had been ripped right out. Other than that, the brown brick dwelling looked rather plain compared to the blacksmith’s newer home. “What happened to it? It’s a mess.”
“I’ll agree to that,” said Sir Marcus with a sigh. “All that happened in the First Coming, but you’ll learn about that soon enough. As soon as I pick up my armor, that’ll be our next stop.”
“Did you see that? That isn’t one of ours.” Floyd watched the dark outline streak toward the soft white clouds above. It only took him a moment to focus in on the dragon against the clear blue skies. He shook his head as he examined the glossy black scales that shimmered in the sunlight. The dragon was powerful, yet still very young by the looks of the adolescent horns beginning to curve above its eyebrows. It was clearly not any dragon he had ever seen before.
“You bet your butt it’s not one of ours.”
“Then whose is it, and where did it come from? Surely, someone can’t be dumb enough to think we wouldn’t notice that.”
“I don’t know what to make of this, Frank,” responded Floyd calmly. Frank turned toward his friend only to see that his nose was again buried deep within his book. Floyd raised an eyebrow and pushed his glasses back into place when he felt Frank’s eyes boring down on him. “I’m sure we’ll find out more about why that thing is here soon enough. There’s really no point in stressing too much over it.” Frank felt like grabbing a handful of his blond hair and pulling it out in frustration. At times, he felt as if he were the only person who took his charge seriously. That and getting shrugged off as nothing but a bother was beginning to get the better of him. At age fourteen, he was the youngest of all the riders at the time.
“Don’t you care about anything other than your stupid books? I mean, each time I see you, your nose is buried inside one of them. What are you reading anyway?” Floyd continued walking without giving any hint of an answer, so Frank simply kicked at clumps of snow to pass the time. The two had been walking in the large field behind the mansion toward the tall stone face that created the southwestern boundary of the city. Ahead of him, he could already see the large gouge in the cliff face that led to what he knew as the stables. Inside rested the hundreds of large eggs holding the unborn dragonets as they waited for the day when their riders would be born. It was a little hard for Frank to believe that his own dragon, Kirin, had been waiting patiently for him to be born even before his father came to be.
“Why do you suppose we even have to keep checking on them like this? It’s not like anyone is dumb enough to sneak into a dragon’s nest just to steal an egg that won’t hatch anyway.” Floyd licked his thumb and turned the page as he continued on.
“I think you should just be grateful we only have to do this once a month.” His friend did have a point. The tedious task of counting each egg to make sure one had not been stolen or accidentally smashed by the young dragons themselves would be far more bothersome if he had to do it daily.
“Hey, do you think Max is okay?”
“Humph, that guy,” responded Floyd with a smile. “He’s already back.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Floyd shrugged and stepped over a ditch as he read on. “Why am I always the last person to find out about everything? It’s like all of you guys intentionally keep me out of the loop.”
“I dunno. I always figured David would tell you these things.” Frank groaned and crossed his arms. The last person who would tell him anything would be his older brother. What boggled his mind even more was the fact that everyone still thought of them as having the typical little brother, big brother relationship when in truth he hated David. At least he was pretty sure he did.
“Why would you think that big gorilla would tell me anything? He loves to see me fail.” Floyd snapped the small leather-bound book shut and tucked it into the back of his trousers between his belts.
“I don’t know, and I’m really not that interested. Let’s just try to make it back before dinner, ’kay?”
“Whatever,” mumbled Frank as he watched the boy venture into the darkness of the cave. “I can’t wait until I get older.” With that, the blue of Frank’s eyes gave way until only the dark pools of his pupils remained. With his enhanced night sight, he followed behind Floyd, dragging his feet along the way.
Maxwell walked down the curtain-strewn hallway with an expression that said he did not want to be bothered. The thoughts continued to swirl around in his head as he tried to focus on what he was going to report to his leader. The closer he approached to the doorway at the end of the hall, the more he felt like just turning away. He no longer saw the point of continuing on as if the small feats he accomplished mattered anymore. He no longer cared about keeping the peace or protecting those who could not protect themselves. His sole purpose for being was to gain the strength and knowledge necessary to find and defeat his father.
His head still ached from the night before, and there were still dark splotches of blood in his matted brown hair. He reeked of death from being so close to the wraith, and his clothes were dirty and ripped. He imagined he looked a mess, but he didn’t care about that either. Other than reporting his findings, he also needed to find out exactly what had happened to him from the only person who would know. Somehow, at the brink of death, he had been reborn far stronger than he had ever been. For the life of him, he couldn’t explain it, and yet he had once thought he knew everything about what he was. He had since relaxed himself enough to return to normal, and he felt he had a firm grip on his new power, but that was not enough if he wanted to master it. Is there more to this? he asked himself. Can I draw on this power at my whim, or do I have to nearly die again? What if there is a further level? The questions continued to come, and there seemed to be no answer in sight.
Maxwell pushed open the door and stepped into the small room. “I’ve returned, sir,” he stated as he placed his fist over his heart and bowed his head. Sir Daniels took a moment to finish writing his signature on the bottom of a document before he raised his head and acknowledged Maxwell’s presence. He looked Maxwell over with calm brown eyes and smiled pleasantly as he nodded.
“I have been expecting you, Douglas. I take it you’ve taken care of whatever has been causing issues?” The faith that Captain Daniels had in his most promising student was unbridled. As much as Maxwell didn’t like living within the walls of the city, protecting the very same people who turned their backs toward him, he still appreciated that there was one person who still kept faith in him. In truth, if it wasn’t for that fact, he would have left long ago to live out his life as a loner in search of his father.
“No, sir. The creature managed to survive and escape me.” Sir Daniels interlocked his fingers and furrowed his eyebrows. In spite of the fact that he was well within his forties, the man didn’t look a day past twenty. It seemed like time had released its grip of him long ago. Maxwell wondered if they would all be lucky enough to age so slowly, but for the time being, they seemed to be progressing just as any average teenager would.
“So how is it that a beast managed to escape one of the finest riders we have?”
“It wasn’t a beast, sir,” responded Maxwell. “It was a wraith, of sorts.”
“It wasn’t like any wraith I’ve heard of. Instead of being made up of ether, it was solid and much larger. It appeared to be the upper skeleton of what was once a man. It still maintained the ability to go ethereal, which is how it escaped me.”
“That’s going to be an issue,” responded Sir Daniels under his breath.
“There is also something else that troubles me, sir. When I came across it, it was in the process of taking the life of a man. What bothers me is its eye.”
“But wraiths don’t have eyes, at least, none I’ve encountered before.”
“I’m not even sure if it was an eye, sir,” continued Maxwell. “I just know that, while it was stealing my life away, it seemed like my energy was being held in the eye instead of being consumed by the wraith.”
Sir Daniels leaned back in his char and rubbed his hand through his low-cut hair. He didn’t like what he was hearing one bit. This is not happening, he thought to himself. Subtle hints that the necromancer was still very much alive continued to manifest itself ever since he departed nearly a decade ago, but now it seemed he was on the move again. Sir Daniels knew that, if he was right, his time to prepare the young riders was drawing to an end.
“Sir, something else happened out there as well.” He didn’t have the slightest idea what Maxwell meant by “something else.” His mind was already racing with the possibilities of this newfound information, so he really didn’t care what the boy meant by it. Just seeing Maxwell bruised and battered standing before him let him know that they were not ready for another attack from Ranmar. A mere manifestation from the necromancer’s magic had nearly killed his best student, and even still, Maxwell had failed to kill the thing. “I really don’t know how to explain it, so I’ll just try to show you.”
Maxwell took in a deep breath as he looked up at the bare ceiling. He really wasn’t even certain he could do it again, but finding out sooner rather than later seemed like a good idea. He searched inside himself for the familiar feeling but soon realized that he had no idea what he was doing. He began to feel foolish standing in front of his leader like that. Whatever, Maxwell thought. It’s not like I even care anymore. He pushed all his doubts to the side and grabbed a hold of the sadness deep inside him. He felt the regret of not being of any use to the ones who loved him most, the familiar feeling swelling up inside him. He couldn’t help but smile a little as his emotions took over him. I guess the only time I can use this is when I don’t care enough to use it, he thought. That’s funny.
The candles on Captain Daniels’s desk began to flicker wildly as energy poured out of Maxwell’s body. Maxwell could feel the strength flowing into him, and he began to feel as if he were being released from shackles once more. Captain Daniels could feel the warm presence pushing against his body as he sat in his seat. His desk began to shake and books began to tumble from their place on his bookshelf. The energy that Maxwell was giving off not only pushed against all matter, it also engulfed his own spiritual energy and forced it to the ground under its immense weight. Captain Daniels felt as if an invisible hand was pressing down on his body and his soul. He watched Maxwell closely as the boy stared back at him. In an instant, Maxwell’s left eye brightened and changed just as one of his table legs snapped from the pressure of his energy.
“I’ve seen enough, Douglas. Now stop before you take this whole floor down.” Maxwell found it more difficult to pull back the process than to just let it continue. To release it, he had to let himself go and stop caring about everything else in the world other than his goal of vengeance, but to draw it back took a significant amount of effort. He felt as if he were trying to force a lake worth of water into one barrel. He tensed up his body and clenched his fists as he struggled to force down the growing power. His teeth clenched, and his blood vessels protruded from his temples. The more he pushed, the more the power pushed back, until he felt he was going to burst. Maxwell suddenly began to fear just what might really happen to him. The fact that it was taking literally every ounce of strength within him to suppress the storm inside seemed very wrong. He began to think that maybe it wasn’t meant to be suppressed, but to be used until completely exhausted. Maxwell felt something deep inside him snap. His heart skipped a beat as he waited for something horrible to happen. Slowly, the energy inside him began to subside.
By the time it was over, Maxwell was breathing heavily, and his eyes were bloodshot. His head was pounding so hard that he wondered if his wound had split open. “I’m sorry I had to ask you to do that.” Maxwell panted heavily. He wanted to answer, to say anything, but his breath continued to escape him. “I know what that is, and I am very surprised that you can do it. However, considering how far you’ve come, maybe I shouldn’t.” Maxwell hunched his shoulders and wiped his damp hair from his forehead.
“So … what is it?” Captain Daniels looked on the panting boy carefully. Seeing the change with his own eyes only reminded him of the last two people who had attained such a rare ability. Unfortunately, he only saw one of them when he looked at Maxwell. His father was a very talented rider, so it was only natural that some of those abilities would transfer from father to son.
“It is called Draconian quintessence unfetter, and only a handful of riders have ever achieved it.”
“What?” exclaimed Maxwell between breaths.
“It’s an ability that we are all capable of, though most of us may ever achieve it. It multiplies everything about a rider: his speed, strength, even his senses. I have only heard my former captains tell me about it, so my knowledge is limited to secondhand.” Maxwell straightened once he regained control of his breathing. He looked upon his captain with a steely expression in his brown eyes.
“You mean my father.”
“Yes, he can do it too,” answered Captain Daniels. “You have only passed the first hurdle to mastering the ability. However, your father, along with the late Captain Rinehart, had the full ability at their disposal.”
“So is there any way for me to unlock this thing completely? I mean, there is more to this, right?”
“Yes, there is another part that will complete the entire process, but I don’t know if you’ll reach it. That’s up to you. However, you should know that the strength of the transformation directly reflects on how strong you are in your natural state. Like I said before, it only enhances what’s already there.”
“Fine then,” said Maxwell as he turned to leave.
“Wait. There is more you need to know. Close the door and have a seat.”