Months had passed since Lyndria had joined Sareen. Or perhaps it had been days. She couldn’t tell anymore. Most days were spent fighting for their lives or she was distracted with her thoughts, so she wasn’t tracking the days.
It all seemed so unreal. Never had she imagined the humans were capable of the things she had seen. Even half-destroyed they were beautiful and fascinating. It left her with mixed feelings. These weak creatures that seemed unable to defend themselves were capable of such feats. Large bridges, beautiful towering halls, and elaborate murals and paintings. She wanted to know more about them. She almost wished she lived among them.
Almost. Fascinating as they were, they were also weak and pathetic. Many of the humans they encountered loved threatening them from a distance but were quick to beg for their lives when things didn’t go their way. And they were entirely dependent on their guns to be a threat. Without them, they were toothless. One human tried to attack her with a large tree branch. While she praised his bravery, he didn’t last long.
The dragons relying on these weak creatures, almost as if they enjoyed lording over them reminded her too much of Delour. In that case, she sympathized with the humans. She never told the others, but she questioned if they were doing the right thing. Maybe the humans needed to be left alone and allowed to live by themselves.
But Sareen was determined to “take back what was rightfully hers”. They stormed temple after temple, only to come up empty. Her frustration became clearer as time went on. It made her dangerous to be around. She snapped at every perceived insult and her body crackled with charged electricity often.
Even putting up with Sareen’s mood swings beat being alone. That and she had nowhere to go. Ever since joining the group, she hadn’t seen the apparition of Delour. The others couldn’t know about that either. The last thing she needed was for them to think she had cracked.
So she kept her head down and her opinions to herself while admiring the human architecture in silence.
The hobby became very helpful with Sareen’s increasingly bad attitude. She noticed Silias flew off to scout ahead a lot, likely to avoid drawing her wrath. Lyndria would join him except that would mean leaving Olyvia to take the punishment. She didn’t think the dragoness could handle it.
One day, Lyndria decided to change the subject as Sareen was going on one of her rants again. They had just finished clearing yet another empty temple, and she was taking her frustration out on any living creature that crossed their paths. Silias had flown ahead again and Olyvia was staying in the back, huddled in on herself as if hoping to hide in plain sight.
“So, uh, you and Silias, what’s going on there?” Lyndria asked.
Sareen shot a suspecting glance over her shoulder. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious. He follows you everywhere and does whatever you say without question. Just find it weird you would keep your chosen a secret.”
“He is not my chosen. He never has been. Why do you wish to know?”
“Like I said, curious. He’s pretty dedicated to you. Is he your father or something?”
“We share no blood relation,” she said in a bored tone. “But he was close with my mother. Since he has been present since I hatched, he feels close to me as well.” In the same bored tone, she added, “If you wish to take him a chosen, I will not object.”
“No, thanks.” She turned her gaze to the passing trees. She wouldn’t say it, but Silias was too submissive for her taste. If Sareen asked him to eat his tail, he probably would without question.
“The reason for Silias’ complete and unwavering faith in me is his loyalty,” Sareen said, breaking the silence. “He trusts me not take advantage of his kindness, and”—she stopped and turned to Lyndria with an icy stare—“you will do the same.”
“You threatening me?”
“Threats are a tool for those who lack the ability to make their will known.”
“You put a lot of emphasis on will.”
Sareen turned away and headed down the path, each step proud and deliberate as if daring something to get in her way. “Your will is what decides your power as a Matriarch. The stronger your resolve, the greater your power. I’m surprised you weren’t taught as much. In this current turmoil, a strong will is vital to survival.”
Lyndria vaguely recalled something like that during her lessons with Nayome, but she wasn’t paying attention at the time. Her only focus was how she spat in Delour’s face.
She supposed it made sense. Before, defying Delour was her only goal; she thought of nothing else. That fierce, unflinching determination kept her alive. But now that Delour was gone, she had no goal anymore. Even now, she didn’t care about Sareen’s cause. She just tagged along because it was safer than traveling alone.
“You’re distracted,” Sareen said. “Pay attention. Humans are at their strongest when they are undetected.”
A gust of wind signaling Silias’ return saved Lyndria from further lecturing.
The drake glided down in front of them then bowed low. “Your Grace, I have found another temple. However, things are a little different this time.”
Sareen tilted her head. “Different? Explain.”
“The way they set up their defenses are counter-productive to fending off a dragon attack. One well-placed flame could easily destroy them.”
“So they lack the proper knowledge to deal with dragons. What of it?”
“I also noticed they were raising a statue of a dragon instead of tearing it down.”
“You’re correct. That is interesting. How curious.”
“Does it matter?” Lyndria asked.
“It does. If they are doing what I suspect, we may have just discovered something very helpful.”
The temple was much closer than expected; the building was visible once they made it past the trees, but they remained undercover to avoid detection. It looked like any other human camp except the structure still looked intact.
“I wish to confirm something,” Sareen said. “Let us go.”
“My Matriarch, are you sure that’s wise?” Silias asked.
She stopped and glanced over her shoulder. The coldness of her eyes made everyone back away.
“Are you concerned for my safety against humans?” she asked.
“O-Of course not.”
“Then let us go.”
He hung his head and followed. Lyndria trotted alongside him.
“Yeah, real close these two,” Lyndria whispered. Noticing Silias looking at her, she quickly changed the subject. “She’s pretty confident no human can take her.”
“She has declared she will never be defeated by humans again. It strengthens her will, and as such, her power.”
“You two put a lot of emphasis on will.”
“It’s important,” Olyvia whispered. Lyndria started at the dragoness’s interjection. It was so rare that Olyvia made her presence known, it was easy to forget she existed. “A Matriarch’s power is decided by how strong her will is.”
“Are you saying because she believes so strongly that no human can beat her, it’s actually true?”
It sounded ridiculous, but then she had seen Sareen stride right into the middle of a human camp and not suffer a single injury. With the power of her Call alone, she cleared entire temples. Perhaps there was something to Nayome’s lessons after all. Lyndria wished she had paid more attention.
Any further conversation was cut off by a strange sight. Instead of swarming for their guns, all the humans at the camp kneeled or bowed. Those with guns had lain them on the ground.
“Do you really need to toy with them first?” Lyndria asked Sareen.
“This is not my doing.”
A human female approached them, the widest most disturbing smile on her face. “Your Grace, I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it is that you have returned to us.” She faced the crowd of humans behind them. “You see, everyone? Our gods have not abandoned us! The Dracaena have returned to restore order to the world!”
The humans screamed and cheered. A few broke out into tears. Lyndria felt the urge to hide. Every other human either cursed their existence or begged for their lives. This was all foreign to her.
“Who are you?” Sareen asked. The moment she spoke, the crowd fell silent.
The woman bowed deeply again. “My name is Tamara, your grace. And what shall we call you?”
“You may call me Sareen. This is Lyndria, Silias, and Olyvia.”
Tamara bowed to each of them, her smile growing wider. It was a miracle the woman’s head hadn’t split open. “It is an honor to meet each of you. Please, follow me.”
Sweaty, dirt-covered faces looked hopeful at them as they passed. Lyndria didn’t like that look. It was the look of someone who expected something to happen. She had no clue what these people wanted from her and she didn’t want to think about it.
“We had hoped to restore this place completely by the time you returned to us,” she explained. “But it’s been slow. Trade is almost nonexistent now and we don’t have the numbers to gather everything safely.”
“How many of you are there?” Silias asked.
“Just under two hundred, your excellence, but more than half of us are elderly and children. We found this temple abandoned after the uprising began and we have been holding it ever since.”
“You’ve done surprisingly well for yourselves,” Sareen said.
Tamara stopped and bowed, a wide grin on her face. “I’m so glad you like it! We--”
“However,” Sareen said. Tamara fell silent and straightened up immediately. “This place is far too exposed to serve as a proper base. A large force could attack from any direction and we would be hard-pressed to defend it.”
“Oh, of course, your grace. It’s just that the more defensible locations are probably under the control of heretics and—”
“Then I’ll drive them out and we’ll claim it for ourselves. But before we leave, my companions and I must rest. This is the first opportunity for a bath in an excruciatingly extended time and I shall not give it up.”
“I never imagined I would feel fine fabric against my scales again so soon,” Sareen said as she sank into a large cushion, a pleased trill escaping her. “It has been far too long since I sat on a soft surface.”
Lyndria wasn’t sure how to feel. Never had she been this pampered. Ever since arriving at the temple, the humans took care of everything. They bathed her, fed her, sharpened her claws, even brushed her teeth. They only spoke in the politest of tones and always referred to her as “your grace” or “Dracaena”.
It all felt wrong. Instead of feeling clean, she felt violated and dirty. The humans treated them like something weak that had to be nurtured because it couldn’t fend for itself. She could eat without someone placing it in her mouth.
The only one who had a harder time adjusting than she did was Olyvia. The poor Horntail went into hysterics the moment the humans touched her and only Sareen could calm her down. So long as another dragon was present, Olyvia adjusted to human pampering pretty quickly. Silias acted indifferent to it all, but she noticed the smile on his face when no one was looking.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Sareen said. “This is your first time experiencing human doting?”
“Yeah, and I don’t like it.”
The humans standing by the door exchanged nervous looks. Sareen motioned to the attendants and they left the room.
“What’s not to like?” she asked.
“For one, I can feed myself. I don’t need someone to put food in my mouth.”
“If you don’t wish for them to do so, then inform them. I promise you, they’ll do whatever you ask.”
“That’s another thing.” It became harder to hide her irritation. “That’s all they do! They agree with whatever I say and do whatever I tell them! No one is this obedient. They’re like hatchlings who don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Sareen tilted her head, her expression neutral. “Is it truly so different from obeying a clan Matriarch?”
“I killed the last Matriarch who demanded this kind of obedience.”
A small smile touched Sareen’s lips that Lyndria suspected was more mocking than humorous.
“I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t demand it then,” Sareen said. “These humans treat us as such out of respect for the old ways. They know their place in the world and they do as they are told.”
“Their place in the world?” She made no attempt to hide her scorn at the implications. This was the kind of thing that made her avoid other dragons.
“Humans worshipped us for a reason. Not because it was demanded of them but because they knew better. We are capable of feats they cannot begin to comprehend.” She stretched and sank further into the cushion. “And try as we might, the humans have their uses.”
“For one, that exquisite piece of furniture you’re reclining on.”
She wanted to get up but moving just made her sink further into it making movement difficult. And there was no denying how pleasurable the softness felt.
“What you must understand is our relationship is symbiotic,” Sareen continued. “The humans rely on us as much as we rely on them.”
“I don’t remember needing a human to survive.”
“Of course not, but they make it easier to live. They provide us with fine dining and luxurious furniture that we cannot make ourselves. And in return, we provide the humans with protection and stability they can’t get elsewhere.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me isn’t there? What you just said, what could the humans need protection from?”
Sareen looked at Olyvia who stared at the wall.
“The truth is, we have become too reliant on humans,” Sareen said. “Centuries of being coddled have made us fat and lazy, possessing only a fraction of the power we once held.
“However, I intend to fully embrace my role as Dracaena. Not as a being that lord over others, but a force that rivals nature itself. A being worthy of the worship I have been graced with.” She added under her breath, “And this conflict shall provide the perfect training ground.”
At that, Lyndria lifted her head. “What are you talking about?”
“Dragons lack rivals. We have little reason to improve our abilities. Gryphons once challenged us in combat, but we drove them from these lands long ago.” She used a claw to pick her teeth. “Shame really.”
Any further questions were put on hold as Silias came into the room. “My Matriarch, I’m afraid it’s not here.”
“That’s a shame,” Sareen said. “One day, it shall surface.”
Lyndria said nothing. It wasn’t the first time she heard of whatever it was Sareen was looking for. The dragoness had neglected to share the specifics and Lyndria never asked. She didn’t care anyway. She had what she wanted.
But hearing Sareen talk now, she decided to take an interest in her plans. Sareen wasn’t just looking for a place to laze about and get fat. Whatever her plans, Lyndria didn’t want to find out at the last second.
“Excuse me, Cutter,” one of the human workers said. “We found something in the library we think you should take a look at.”
Cutter stretched and fanned her wings, forcing William to duck and avoid being struck. “About damn time. You should come too, Willy. You’re the one who made this possible.”
Being reminded of the role he played in all this was not his idea of a fun time, but he doubted it was a suggestion made evident by the dragon nudging him forward. Even without being held hostage, his curiosity had a firm hold. Cutter placed herself at risk and tore down an entire prison just to reach this place. If nothing else, he had to see what was worth such a heavy price.
The work had disturbed centuries worth of dust which now chocked the air. Only massive cobwebs remained on the bare shelves etched into the walls.
William’s focus was drawn to the small jewelry box on one of the shelves, just visible at the edge of the lantern’s reach.
Cutter sat in front of the chest. “What do you think is in it?”
“I don’t know,” he replied after hesitating. It couldn’t be coin; she didn’t need it. A human weapon seemed unlikely as well.
One of the workers opened the box and pulled out a necklace. He was no jeweler, but his first impression was this was the ugliest necklace he had ever seen. It was made of bone that had long since yellowed. In the center was a large green oval-shaped gem.
“The Eye of the All-Mother,” Cutter whispered. “So that’s where you put it.” Noticing William’s confused expression, she added, “It’s a special jewel said to be left behind by the creator of all life herself. If the legends are real, she gave it to the first-born, Ronat, as a birthday gift. It’s rumored to contain her power. Anyone who wears it will be blessed with the protection and power of the All-Mother.”
“I never took you for a historian.”
“I just like a good story is all. The necklace is also cursed just so you know. It’s said that only one who has been graced by the All-Mother or a descendant of Ronat can even wear the thing. Otherwise, it will crush your soul and drive you insane.”
Upon saying that, the human holding it quickly placed it on the table and backed away.
“You don’t actually believe in this superstitious nonsense, do you?” Willaim asked Cutter. “All of this death and destruction was to claim some forgotten holy relic?”
“See, that’s your problem. Your head’s so far up your ass you can’t comprehend that others think differently than you. I thought you would’ve figured that shit out after I played your ass.”
He fell silent, the cost of his arrogance hitting home once again. It hurt more knowing she was right.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I believe in this shit or not. This thing is a symbol. Just imagine the power it gives if you wore it.”
“If it were so great, why did someone bury it?”
Cutter chuckled and motioned to the human beside her. With stiff movements and shaking hands, they picked up the necklace and put it back in the jewelry box then carried the box out of the room.
“Not everyone dreams of being on top of the world. And some things are really just best kept buried. You know all about that.”
“I have no idea what you’re referring to.”
She tilted her head. “Really? Looks like you’re not as in the loop with the Scale Guild as I thought you were.”
He wondered what she meant by that, but also suspected it was obvious bait to rile him up or get him to reveal something. Just like revealing to him the reason for her plan had a purpose. She could have just as easily killed him or kept him locked up and said nothing.
It was worrying and frustrating that he couldn’t read her. What did she want? Why involve him at all? With even the slightest hint of her actions, he could figure out something about her greater goals.
Cutter led him back into the hall. “Anyways, I need to take this box someplace safe and make sure the right people get wind of it. Then it’s time to move on to the next phase.”
“I suppose I have finally outlived my usefulness then.” He braced himself for the sudden swipe of a dragon’s claws or the searing heat of its fire breath. This wasn’t the ending he had envisioned, but he couldn’t think of any way out. Even if he somehow managed to outrun Cutter and his guard, there were still dozens in the tunnels ahead along with Cutter’s human agents. He wouldn’t beg for his life. Such things were wasted on Cutter anyway.
But nothing happened. No one approached him. There was no ambush from the shadows. Cutter looked at him with a sly smile.
“One of these days, Willy, you’re gonna learn to stop trying to predict me,” she said.
He was nudged forward again, feelings of foolishness and confusing consuming him. She was right; predicting her got him nowhere. It was fascinating and infuriating at once. Never had he faced such an opponent.
They left the temple single file; Cutter, William, and the other dragon whose name he never learned. Instead of sunlight, the area outside the temple was lit with more lanterns. It was impossible to see anything beyond the bubbles of light they provided. He peered into the dark anyway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the prisoners.
“They’re not here,” Cutter said.
“Then where are they?”
Without looking back, she replied. “Take a guess.”
They continued forward, leaving the chamber. The sound of the wheels on the uneven ground broke the silence as the horror dawned on him.
“You killed them,” he said.
“Close, but no. I was with you the whole time, when I did kill anybody?”
He started to speed up but then remembered the large dragon following him and stayed put. He doubted the dragon would actually kill him if he tried something. Unarmed, there was little he could do even with free reign but lost of pain likely awaited him if he didn’t behave.
“What difference does it make if you performed the deed yourself?” he asked. “Those men still died on your orders!”
Her laughter filled the tunnels.
“Are you trying to take the fucking high road? Do I need to list all the shit you’ve pulled?”
“Then why haven’t you killed me?”
“Because you’re still useful.”
As if on cue, frightened, pain-filled screams echoed through the tunnels. It was quickly drowned out by triumphant and angry roars. William shuddered.
“If you want, you can go join them,” Cutter said.
He never slowed down. Immediately, his thoughts went to Marie and relief claimed him that he would be walking out of the tunnels instead of joining the others. Guilt joined the emotions as they slowly began ascending.
The ride from the prison was the most awkward ride of William’s life. Karl sat across form him, but it brought little comfort seeing him defeated. He was the only guard Cutter chose to spare though her reasons were unknown. He didn’t dare ask.
He wanted to ask about the whereabouts of Lance and Omar. He wanted to offer some words of comfort, but nothing came to mind. This all happened because of him; he had no right to say anything.
Karl had been silent since their meeting, his face a mask of stone. No emotion showed seeing William alive. He stared at the floor, playing with a button in his hand.
Instead, William turned his thoughts to what would happen next. Escape wasn’t on his mind. They weren’t bound, but they had no supplies and were days from the nearest settlement. That was assuming the dragons didn’t chase them down first.
Even if escape were possible, he didn’t like the idea of Cutter possessing the Eye of the All-Mother. She was right. That relic was too powerful in the right hands. It wasn’t practiced openly, but there were still many who worshipped dragons. Then there were those who wanted to see dragons subjected as their ancestors once were. And anyone looking to make a fortune from something so valuable would be a danger as well. He had no idea what her plans were, but she couldn’t be allowed to have it.
Karl broke the silence. “She played us all for fools.”
“Cutter is truly a cunning creature. Not surprising really. They couldn’t have ruled over us all those centuries with brute force alone.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Karl said, shaking his head. “We have—had contingency plans in place in the event a dragon tried to break free. We keep them locked in cells, the more violent ones are kept chained up. They have no way of organizing a breakout.
“What we didn’t count on was all the dragons attacking at once. It should’ve been impossible, but one man described how just walked out of their cells. Someone unlocked them and they bided their time just long enough to catch us off-guard before anyone could notice. That’s beyond coordinated.”
He placed his head in his hands. “How? How did she do it? How many men had turned traitor?”
He said nothing. Saying anything would only be an admission of guilt which Karl likely didn’t want to hear. Apologies wouldn’t make up for what happened.
There was no traitor. Cutter had them all chasing their tails until she was ready to strike. He knew about the Call having power over humans but only now did he take it seriously. He believed Cutter being chained up, cut off from contact with others weaken her. But anyone in the prison was in danger of her influence. At any time, she could take control of someone and have them act in her stead.
Suddenly the wagon stopped. William turned to Karl who seemed just as confused. Something was wrong. They shouldn’t be stopping so soon.
“Hey, what are you--?” the driver cried.
A gunshot rang through the air, cutting him off. William and Karl flattened themselves on the floor as more shots rang out soon joined by shouts of confusion.
Before either of them could move, several masked men entered the carriage, the guns pointed at them warning them not to move.
“Lord Delcat,” one of the masked men said. “It’s an honor to finally make your acquaintance.”
William didn’t respond. He didn’t recognize the voices or the masks. Until their motives were known, it was better to keep quiet and avoid angering them.
“No, but I’m a big fan of your work. Your decipher of Lyndria’s ancient tome is…fascinating.”
He stared at the man wide-eyed.
The masked man knocked on the carriage wall and it surged forward again.