Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
When Kai awoke, the room was still dark but for the flickering of a single candle. He rose to find Ambrose sprawled across the floor, bent over pages of parchment as he scribbled. Scrubbing a hand over his face, Kai said, “What are you doing?”
Ambrose jolted, a line of charcoal smearing on the page. When he glanced up, dark spots were pronounced beneath his eyes, all the more enhanced by the shadows cast from the candle’s orange light.
“You haven’t slept at all,” he pointed out.
Ambrose rubbed at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and sighed. “I’m expected to lead these people to retrieve the lost artifacts of Arlan, and they all hate me.”
“They don’t even know you.”
“Are you telling me that conversation at dinner went well?”
Seated on the edge of his bed, Kai rubbed at the back of his neck. “Well, no. But give it time. They will learn to respect you. And you aren’t in this alone. You don’t have to be the sole leader.”
Ambrose nodded, but his expression was pinched. He went back to his papers, a line appearing between his brows.
“What are you working on?” Kai repeated, standing to look down at Ambrose’s scrawled notes. His handwriting was illegible.
“Plans. Notes. Brainstorming. Anything, really.”
“Got any ideas?”
Ambrose shook his head, the crease in his brow deepening. “If what Rieka said was true… about the dragon… How are we supposed to get past that?”
Kai shook his head, a flare of anger sparking in his chest. That girl—Rieka—was going to be trouble for them all. She may have been their only source of information regarding the Sword of Strength, but every time she opened her mouth, Kai had the urge to punch her.
“She may have been lying,” he commented.
Ambrose shook his head. “I doubt it. She was arrogant, but if she claims she’s seen a dragon, I won’t dismiss it.”
“I’m sure a dragon can be defeated. Or if not, outsmarted.”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” Ambrose studied his notes. “I’m going to need to find the layout of the cave,” he murmured, more to himself than anything.
“Where are we going to get that?”
Ambrose tapped the end of his charcoal pencil on his lip. “I have an idea.”
As they rode through the winding farm hills and plains, occasionally hitting a copse of trees that provided much-needed shade from the glaring sun, Kai gazed over the expanse. He had only left Reindale on occasion to accompany Ambrose on small excursions, but seeing the rolling hills left him nothing short of awestruck. The wheat fields billowed in all shades of gold as the wind brushed over their stalks, contrasting sharply with the thick vineyards of floral grapes that bordered them.
It came as a small surprise that Arlan was in such famine when he saw the fruits of the farmer’s labor as clear as day. He wondered just where all the food was going if it wasn’t feeding the people. But then again, his knowledge in agriculture amounted to just about zero.
Glancing sideways at his friend, Kai thought back to Ambrose’s theory. A theory that if true, could doom them. Ambrose had yet to propose it to the others—whether to avoid an argument or to ease their minds, he didn’t know.
“Stars, I hate this heat,” Rieka complained from behind him. Kai glanced back to find her fanning her flushed cheeks with a free hand. While it was growing increasingly warmer the more inland they went, her complaint grated his nerves. He supposed he was being unfair, but everything she said seemed to annoy him.
“I know. The temperature usually rises when I’m around,” Ren responded, flipping his hair from his eyes.
Ambrose ignored the latter and said, “We will stop for a quick lunch when we pass through the next grove.”
After their quick break in the shade, they continued, only passing by the occasional weary traveler or a farmer with a cart full of crops. The farmland began to peter out until they were riding through sparse forest, speckled with birch trees. The leaves were beginning to redden in the early fall, and Kai watched them dance in the wind.
Glancing over at the others, he saw them watching the forest similarly. Even Rieka had ceased her incessant complaining to gaze up at the twirling gold, red, and green above them, the leaves sparkling like jewels.
It was times like these that Kai marveled at the power of the gods. For them to create such beauty and grace it upon Arlan’s soil… He sent a quick prayer of thanks to the skies.
They stopped at another tavern that evening, their dinner quiet and uneventful as exhaustion from travel settled heavily upon them.
The next morning, Kai awoke to thunder. The darkness outside was deepened by swirling storm clouds, which released torrents of rain that beat ceaselessly against the window. Unsurprisingly, Ambrose was again bent over papers, poring over his notes.
“You need to sleep,” he commented as he padded towards his pack to don a fresh tunic.
Ambrose glanced up from his notes briefly before turning back to the parchment. “There’s so much I still don’t know. So many variables.”
“Rereading those notes again and again won’t change that,” Kai said as he tugged on his tunic and tucked it into his trousers. “We still need to get to Styrka. That’s the main priority. And if you are too exhausted to stay upright on your horse, I doubt you will gain the respect of the others.”
He meant it in jest, but Ambrose’s brow furrowed. “We shouldn’t travel today,” he commented. The creases in his forehead deepened, betraying his anxiety towards the prospect of a stationary day.
Kai glanced out the window. Lightning struck, brightening the dim room. “Meaning all the more time to sleep.” Ambrose’s face twisted in disagreement. “I’m serious,” Kai said, nudging the stacks of paper with a toe. “Sleep.”
“Now that it’s morning, I can talk to Rieka. See what she knows about dragons.” He pulled out a page that already had notes upon notes and even sketches of the beasts.
“I’m sure she’ll still be available later. Sleep.” Without waiting for him to agree, Kai finished the ties on his boots and pushed out of the room, grabbing a few silver coins on the way.
The hall was empty in the early dawn, and he stalked down the stairs. The closer he got to the lower floor, the stronger the aroma of fresh eggs and sausages grew. Kai’s stomach roared, and he jangled the coins in his hand.
“You’re up early.” He glanced to the side to find Rieka perched at a table, bent over a plate filled with food. In one hand, she had a half-eaten piece of toast, and in the other, she held a glass of thick milk.
“As are you,” he commented dryly. As she took a bite of the toast, her round, grey eyes scrutinized him. The escaped hairs of her blonde braid were plastered to her forehead, soaked. In fact, she appeared to have taken a bath fully clothed. “What have you been doing?”
Rieka spoke around a full mouth. “I went on a run.” When Kai didn’t respond, she arched her brows. “If we are going to be facing dragons, I’d rather be in shape for it.”
Kai turned away to order his food before he gave away his humiliation. She made a good point. A great point. One Kai hadn’t even thought of despite being the only one with a weapon.
“Two plates of eggs, toast, and sausage, please,” he said when he reached the counter.
The tavern owner looked him over, his brows lowering. “Where you from, boy?”
“Reindale…” Kai said slowly.
“No, where are you really from? We don’t get people the likes of you frequenting our tavern.”
“I—” Anger bubbled in the pit of Kai’s gut. “I’m Arlanian, sir. Now I’d appreciate my food.” He held out the coins.
“You’re one of those Larabosi barbarians, aren’t you?”
Kai clenched and unclenched his jaw. “Sir, all I ask for are my meals. I have coin to pay.”
“I’ve heard rumors of you Larabosi. Killers, the lot of you.”
“Hello there, Lukas,” a sharp voice crooned. “Can I call you Lukas?”
Kai shot Rieka a glare as she sidled up beside him. The tavern owner turned his beady eyes to her. “My name is Vince.”
She waved a hand in dismissal. “Whatever. But I suggest you serve your customer here, or I will shove this knife into your throat. How does that sound?” She lifted the steak knife that had been provided with her meal.
Vince’s face purpled with rage. “Who do you think you are, girl, ordering me around?”
Kai tried to shove Rieka back—stop her from causing any more harm—but she brushed his arm aside with surprising strength. “Call me girl one more time, and I’ll chop off a more…” She glanced down and mockingly pursed her lips. “...intimate region. No matter how insignificant.”
Kai grabbed Rieka’s arm and hauled her away, pulling her out the door and into the rain. Better there than inside the tavern where the man would kill her.
“Stop!” she shrieked, tugging on his grip. “I wasn’t done!”
“That’s exactly why I’m doing this.” He released her once they were several feet from the tavern. Rain began to pour in rivulets down his face, dripping into his eyes. “You don’t know when to shut up.”
“And you, apparently, don’t know when to speak. He was throwing insults at you, and you just stood there and took it. Do you possess a pair of balls?”
Kai’s hands clenched into fists. “Yes, I possess a pair of balls. And I can fight my own battles.”
“Really? It didn’t seem like you were going to do anything at all.”
“Because doing something would’ve made it worse!”
“So you just let people walk all over you?”
Kai huffed out a sigh and rubbed his fingers against his temples, water dripping down his forearms. “You don’t get it. When I push back against a man like that, he’ll just kick me out. It gains nothing.”
“It puts him in his place.”
“No, it just pisses him off.”
Rieka rolled her eyes. “It shows that he was in the wrong.”
Kai leaned forward, his eyes hard. “No. Maybe for you, but not for someone like me. Everyone will take his side, no matter how illogical.”
He knew the moment it dawned on her. Her pinched expression went slack, and she stared at him as if just now realizing the color of his skin. Realizing how different it was from her own.
Rieka reached up to push the hair from her eyes and blinked against the rain. “That’s stupid,” she murmured.
A very simple summary of the truth of their world, but profound, in a way. Kai huffed out a dark chuckle. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
After changing into a dry pair of clothes, Kai and the others gathered in his and Ambrose’s room. Contrary to his advice, Ambrose had refused to sleep, instead, gulping down a mug of watery tea and eating a single slice of toast. From the incident only moments before, Kai could hardly stomach any food and took to sharpening his sword.
The blade was a laugh in his face. It had been given to him upon his sixteenth birthday when he had been titled as Ambrose’s personal guard. There was a power in symbols, and Kai knew there was no coincidence that his blade was not of Arlanian steel, but of Larabosi. Whether it was to remind him of his status or to humiliate him among the other guards, Kai never knew. Despite that, he had grown to love his weapon as one loved a constant companion. Perhaps he was a fool for it.
“We need to know everything you know about dragons,” Ambrose said, jolting everyone from their eating. Since the incident in the dining area, they had all brought their food to their rooms to avoid any more trouble.
Rieka looked up from her second plate of helpings, her mouth full. It came as a small surprise that she seemed to eat just as much as Kai did, despite being a head shorter. After swallowing a bite of porridge, she said, “They can fly.”
“Do they really? Dragons?” Ren gasped mockingly.
“Just yesterday, you didn’t even believe they were real,” Rieka pointed out.
“I still don’t. But continue,” he said with an arrogant wave of his hand.
The kid—Shadya—leaned forward, her eyes wide and eager as Rieka continued. “Their scales are impenetrable by any metal other than iron, or so we know of. Some have venomous teeth, some don’t. They are all unique, so you can’t really know what you’re dealing with until it’s staring you in the eye.”
A tense silence settled over them, riddled with fear. The only one who seemed unconcerned was the blacksmith apprentice, Zain. He hadn’t spoken once since the day he had announced his profession, and instead took to silently observing them all. It was unnerving.
“Do they breathe fire?” Shadya murmured, her dark eyes eager. Her sister was in the process of braiding back the girl’s thick hair, but Shadya barely flinched at each tug against her scalp.
“What makes you think that?” Rieka said, brows lowered.
“In the storybooks, dragons breathe fire. They say it’s hot enough to melt through solid metal.”
Rieka waved a hand in dismissal. “That’s stupid. Of course dragons don’t breathe fire.”
Shadya’s face fell. “Oh.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Ambrose said, though his tone was dry. He made a note in his pages.
“So, what,” Ren said, picking at his teeth with a long, lean finger. “We just march into this Zvez-whatever mountain, fight a dragon, grab the sword, then leave?” Ren shrugged. “Sounds easy.”
Ambrose snorted—in humor or hysteria, Kai wasn’t sure. “Easy. Right.”
“Will there be people guarding the mountain?” Amani asked, her voice warm and smooth as honey. When Kai looked her way, his mouth went dry just as it did whenever he saw her. With eyes like warm caramel and smooth, brown skin, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. It was no wonder she had been a courtesan.
Rieka’s lips twisted in a sneer. “There’s a dragon guarding it.”
“But are there people,” Shadya repeated, her voice mocking. “People,” she sounded out slowly.
Rieka’s brows furrowed in barely suppressed anger but she shook her head. “I don’t know. I doubt it.”
Ambrose made a note. After setting aside his papers, he cleared his throat. “If we want the Sword of Strength, we will need to know the layout of the cave in which it is held. If the blueprints to that layout will be found anywhere, it will be in the castle of Styrka’s capital.”
Rieka’s eyes widened. “You want to break into the Aryotsk Fortress? Are you insane?”
“The what?” Kai asked.
Rieka rolled her eyes. “Aryotsk, the capital of Styrka. It’s surrounded by walls and a fortress where the Chief of Styrka lives. It’s impossible to infiltrate. More dangerous than going against a dragon blind, I’d say.”
A crease appeared between Ambrose’s brows. “But at least the only danger will be guards. We can find a way to sneak around them. If we charge into the mountain without a clue as to the layout, it will be suicide.”
“Breaking into the Aryotsk Fortress is suicide,” Rieka argued.
“Do you know the layout of the fortress?” Ambrose asked her, ignoring her statement.
She crossed her arms over her chest, leaning back. “Vaguely. I’ve only been in it once, and it wasn’t to explore.”
“Could you map out what you know?”
Rieka’s jaw clenched and unclenched. Finally, she said, “Yes.”
Ambrose shuffled through his papers and handed her a blank one along with a charcoal pencil. She tucked them away, not bothering to begin.
Ambrose, supposedly finished with their vague planning, stood from the floor, pushing aside his full plate, and gathered his papers. After sitting upon his bed, he began to shuffle through them once more.
“That was fun,” Ren said with a wicked grin. “Now we all go back to our silent rooms. Yay."