As the sun set on the horizon, casting a rich, orange glow over everything in its domain, Blake pushed aside another low-hanging branch and ducked underneath. Her eyes never stopped taking in the scenery as she pressed onward, memorizing as much of this amazing experience as possible.
Progress through the forest had been slow, but she felt no need for haste when every plant, flower, and creature was a marvel to behold. Vibrant fuschias, striking yellows, and stunning blues popped amongst a backdrop of lush green and brown, providing stark contrasts that only heightened the strange, wonderful beauty of this place.
“Your Majesty, we should turn back. We’ll be expected at the gates soon.”
Sighing at the refrain, which wouldn’t cease until she gave in, she used her last moments of freedom soaking in the mesmerizing sense of life surrounding her. Having spent the last few wretched months trapped behind the city walls, she wanted nothing more than to stay out here until she learned every secret the wilderness provided her. What lurked in the darkness? What life sprang out at the break of dawn?
She’d heard the stories, the rumors, and the tall tales spread by adventurers and shopkeepers alike, but she wanted to see it for herself. She wanted to be awed by the terrifying giants patrolling the skies, hide from the elusive ghosts prowling the marshlands, and pick her way amongst man-eating plants and trees alike.
More than anything, she wanted to reconnect with nature - that wonderful lifeblood running through her lineage, which was slowly fading with each day she spent locked away. But being out here, immersed in colorful, living beauty, she felt closer to home than she had in a long time. She felt like she could breathe again - fresh, clean air that reminded her of a better place and a better time.
Unfortunately, she had little say in the matter, and the two royal guards who’d escorted her this far looked on the cusp of dragging her back to her drab, lifeless prison at any second.
“Alright,” she acquiesced, much to their relief. While she turned around, however - resigned to her march back to Vale - a flash of motion caught her eye.
“Wait,” she whispered, holding up a hand and keeping her eyes glued to the spot where several brushes just moved. “Did you see that?”
Considering the two men could hardly see at all in the low light, they merely exchanged glances at the question. They probably couldn’t hear the soft snaps of broken twigs or crackles of fallen leaves either - their ears and vision ill-equipped for the wilderness at dusk.
Capitalizing on their uncertainty, she wasted no time sneaking towards the gentle sounds in the increasingly-dark night. They immediately fell in step behind her but were, thankfully, smart enough not to make a fuss. They were far from safety, after all, and had no idea what animal they were sneaking up on.
Having seen such remarkable sights today - creatures so magnificent they were nearly unimaginable - Blake wanted just one more before retreating for the night. It had taken a great deal of persuasion and persistence to be granted this single trip, after all, and she didn’t know how long it would be before she could return.
The guards, clad in armor and heavy-footed as they were, made far too much sound for Blake’s liking, but she kept her breath steady and her footsteps light while nearing the soft noises up ahead. If their approach was too loud, the creature would likely disappear into the night...but hopefully not before she caught a glimpse of it.
Determined to increase those odds, she motioned for the men to stay put several paces behind her. Surprisingly, they listened and, as their footsteps ceased, she continued in near silence.
Her heart wanted to race, especially when several soft thumps on the forest floor suggested this newest creature was larger than anything else they’d seen today. But she’d learned as a child not to be intimidated by size - some of the largest beasts had the most gentle souls - so held her breath while crouching beside an enormous tree trunk and peering around the corner.
A soft gasp slipped through her lips when she saw what stood not twenty feet away from her, drinking from a small pool of water tucked between the trees. The sleek, dark-green creature was cat-like in appearance but nearly three times Blake’s size with menacing claws protruding from all four paws. Crouched low to the ground, it kept its shockingly-green eyes trained upward while its long, black tongue lapped up water from the pool.
Its color helped it blend in with the foliage but, with her better-than-average vision, Blake could see it clear as day. And, again, she’d never seen anything like it before - a beast that was graceful, powerful, and dangerous all in one. While kneeling beside that tree, staying as silent as possible, she watched it finish its drink before straightening up and shaking its head, the motion sending ripples down its back and all the way to the end of its long tail.
Enraptured by the sight in front of her, she motioned for the guards to stay still when one of them got impatient and crept closer to her. The last thing she wanted was to disturb this fragile peace, and they should let the creature leave on its own rather than try to approach.
When the soft footsteps continued towards her, however, she turned around and froze when she suddenly found herself staring into vivid-green eyes. Faced with the danger she hadn’t even known was there, fear and realization shivered down her spine. In her peripheral vision, she saw the first creature - the one who drew her here - turn directly towards her, having known she was there the entire time.
“Your Majesty…” someone whispered from nearby, though she dared not turn away from the green eyes in front of her. “Run.”
She didn’t need to be told twice. Before that feeble stalemate ended, she sprinted towards the guard’s voice. She felt rather than saw the beasts spring into action behind her - the hunt officially on - but she didn’t dare turn away from the guards hastily waving her towards them.
Their weapons weren’t drawn. They weren’t going to fight. Instead, they hardly waited for her to run past before following.
For as quiet as the forest had just been, it was now alive with commotion. Birds cried out while taking flight from the trees, whose branches whipped across Blake’s arms as she raced through the forest. The crawling ivy, which she’d been so fascinated with just moments before, grabbed her ankles as she ran, threatening to trip and ensnare her. Thorns scratched and snagged her clothing, but the small knicks of pain hardly registered as her mind focused on finding safety.
But where was safety? They were miles from Vale, and they couldn’t keep this pace for that long. If they didn’t exhaust themselves, the thick foliage would get the best of them. Or, possibly, their pursuers would give up and move on to less difficult meals.
That last option was unlikely, as flashes of motion flitted through the trees on Blake’s left and right. In the fading light, the movement looked like nothing more than a trick of the imagination - a shadow slipping through the night. But the creatures called out to each other now, communicating in what sounded like intakes of breath while chasing their prey through the wilderness.
Blake couldn’t tell how many of them there were over the pounding of her heart and her ragged breathing. Four? Possibly five? Some directly behind - right on their trail - while others pressed further ahead to flank them. And the guards, with their poorer eyesight and bulky armor, were falling further and further behind.
They needed another option, and fast.
As soon as an idea popped into Blake’s head, she veered to the right, making such a sudden change in direction that one of the beasts flew right past her as she jumped over a coil of ivy and shoved her way through a thick curtain of hanging moss. She let out a loud whistle while forging a new path, and strained her ears to hear over the pounding of her heart.
The creatures had followed her, confirmed by a shadow slipping across her vision while soft gasps sounded all around her. Pack hunters - playing the odds and going after the smallest of the group, especially once separated.
That meant the first part of her plan worked. She hadn’t figured out the next part, which was surviving through the end of this, but her only path forward was to keep running and hope she stumbled upon an answer.
“Your Majesty!” one of the guards shouted from the distance. They had finally noticed that they lost their pursuers and Blake at the same time, but she was already too far away for them to help even if they tried.
Risking a glance over her shoulder, she watched two of her pursuers leap between tree trunks with such graceful precision that their feet hardly even touched the ground. They were fast and agile - they could easily catch her if they wanted. Instead, they were playing with her, holding their distance while she ran herself ragged trying to escape. Once she exhausted herself to the point of being unable to fight back, they would attack.
Having only a small blade on her - a token gesture since no one trusted her with a legitimate weapon - she had little chance of winning a fight. She needed a hiding place or some other means of escape. Or she just needed to keep running and hope for a miracle.
When the vegetation began to thin and the sky grew lighter, she was granted exactly the opposite. But, hemmed in on all sides as she was, she had no choice but to continue onward, even if onward led her out of the cover of the trees and onto a sparsely-inhabited plateau leading to one of the tallest, most remarkable cliffs she’d ever seen.
Under ordinary circumstances, she would stop and marvel at the expanse of wilderness thousands of feet below - grasslands, lakes, mountains, and valleys stretching to the ends of the earth. Under these circumstances, she tried to alter her path away from the cliff’s edge only to be stymied when one of the creatures leapt in front of her. Faced with its threatening posture, she spun around only to find another one behind her. Then the last two loped out of the trees, boxing her in completely.
With the cliff at her back and four menacing creatures blocking any path back to the woods, she had only two options. And, unless she miraculously learned how to fly, the only option with a slim chance of survival involved standing her ground. So, with her breathing ragged and heart pounding, she drew her blade and faced down her pursuers.
Even if they were to be the end of her, they were beautiful. But nature had a way of combining beauty and danger for the most extraordinary results - flowers with their thorns, spiders with their venom, and these lithe, prowling beasts with their sharp claws and incredible cunning.
“I don’t want to hurt you...” she said while they crept towards her with near-matching steps. “But I will protect myself.”
They didn’t understand the warning, but she felt better having given at. The last thing she wanted was to cause any living being unnecessary harm, but she wasn’t willing to forfeit her life just yet.
Holding the knife in front of her, she prepared for the first attack, which would likely come with lightning-quickness. Her heart and breathing were still elevated, and her legs taxed from the sprint here, but she did her best to slow her breathing and focus on the animals encircling her.
When the four of them lifted their heads in unison, her muscles tensed for battle. But they weren’t looking at her anymore - their green eyes locked onto something above her head and, before she saw what new horror approached, stiff gusts of wind blew across the plateau. The force was strong enough to push her to her knees while the giant cats backed towards the treeline, and sent loose dirt swirling across the short grass.
Raising her hands to block as much of the debris as possible, she looked up and felt her eyes widen as an enormous winged creature landed in front of her. It was the most beautiful and intimidating being she’d ever seen - covered in golden scales from its elongated snout all the way down its long, spiked tail. Its large, three-toed feet ended with vicious claws and, as she looked on in awe, it spread its giant wings wide, lowered its head, and let out a roar so deafening that she covered her ears.
It was a monstrous, magnificent sight to behold and, to the catlike creatures, presented an unexpected challenger. While the new arrival tucked in its wings and swept its tail back and forth, they started communicating again - more soft breaths passing between them as they decided what to do. They prowled near the treeline in the process, looking like they would retreat into the darkness without a fight.
But that was only what they wanted Blake and their new enemy to think, as they slunk towards the trees only to suddenly turn and attack in perfect unison.
Just like that, chaos exploded across the plateau. The ground shook while the winged creature spun from side to side, using its tail as a bludgeon behind it and snapping its fearsome jaws at anything in front. But the jungle cats raced around the giant with incredible speed and never stayed in the same place for long. Whenever they found an opening to attack, they took a small swipe before skittering out of the way - not doing much damage but provoking a roar of frustration as the giant continuously failed to catch its smaller foes.
With the battle quickly intensifying, Blake knew she had the chance to get away. The challenge was slipping past without getting caught in the fray...but, if she could make it into the trees, she could find someplace to hide or try to make it back to Vale.
There was no time to sit back and deliberate - not as the ground shook and a giant tail swept right over her head, mere feet away from knocking her right off the cliff. The next somewhat-open path she saw, she went for it, hoping that the catlike creatures wouldn’t notice her attempt to escape while escalating their attacks on the winged beast.
That hope was dashed when one of the creatures, knocked aside by a powerful blow, landed on its side right in front of her. Caught out in the open with nowhere to hide, she could only slide to a stop and watch it scramble to its feet. Its green eyes locked onto her immediately after, and it pounced.
Its paws hardly left the ground before the giant’s tail slammed into it, the force of the blow sending it crashing into trees with a yelp of pain and surprise. The winged beast then roared and leaped after it, using its wings to cover the distance with frightening speed before smashing through the trees like they were made of nothing.
As the giant zeroed in on the injured fighter, the other three raced to their fallen comrade’s aid. Their movements were less-coordinated now, almost frantic, as they sprinted through the toppling trees and leaped towards their attacker with reckless abandon.
Not expecting the newfound ferocity of the attacks, the winged creature only managed to swat two of them away before the last made it through and sank long, sharp claws into its shoulder. A roar of pain filled the air as those claws dragged down its arm, opening deep, red gashes in the process.
The injury looked painful but didn’t stop the beast from snapping at the four perpetrators, who carefully backed out of reach. Having regrouped with their injured partner, however, they appeared unwilling to continue the fight. As the impasse extended, a decision was made, and they backed into the trees before turning and slinking off into the darkness.
Their exit put Blake in an even more precarious position, leaving her alone with the winged beast and little hope of escape. When it spun towards her, freezing her in place with blood-red eyes, she feared the end was near. Instead, it gave her a searching, remarkably-intelligent look before moving deeper into the forest, hobbling on its injured leg and destroying more plant life in the process.
Stunned by what just happened, Blake stood amongst the destruction left behind and listened to her heart pounding in her ears. Somehow, she was still alive. Not ‘somehow’ - she knew exactly how. That winged beast swooped in at just the right time and saved her, at no small cost to itself.
Spotting the shimmer of blood drenching the leaves the creature just brushed past, Blake broke out of her shock and, without a second thought, set off after it. This time, she traversed far more carefully though, her senses on high alert while following a trail of blood and broken branches.
When the destruction narrowed and the blood disappeared, however, she stopped and looked around in surprise. The path had been easy to follow up until this point, but now it looked as if nothing had passed through here recently. The blood trail was gone. The branches undisturbed. Even the brush along the ground looked pristine and new. Her immediate suspicion was the look up - if the creature had taken back to the skies, there should be evidence up above - but the canopy above was equally untouched.
On the cusp of giving up, she heard someone groan from somewhere up ahead. Quickly ducking behind the nearest tree, she listened to the soft sounds of pain accompanied by small movements - far smaller than anything that winged creature could be capable of.
Curiosity growing, she crept towards the sound and prayed that she wasn’t making the same mistake that led her into this mess. Keeping as low as possible while also avoiding the unfriendly plants living along the forest floor, she crossed the remaining distance before kneeling at the base of a giant tree. From there, she could just barely see through a veil of moss hanging from the branches, and what she saw made her eyes widen in surprise.
The winged giant was nowhere to be found. In its place was…a young woman around Blake’s age, with beautiful blonde hair that fell in waves down her back. Her clothing was made from an unusual, skin tight material, colored in tans and blacks that accented a well-toned physique. But it was her posture that captured Blake’s attention most - on her knees in the grass, posture slouched, eyes closed, and clutching her right arm.
That was around where the creature had been clawed, but how could that be? They couldn’t possibly be one-and-the-same, but...then where had the beast gone? Where had this girl come from? Why did the trail Blake just followed through the trees lead her right here - to this girl, sitting exactly where Blake expected to find something much, much different? And why did this girl have an eerily-similar injury?
Blake didn’t understand or believe what her mind was trying to tell her, but the girl was clearly in pain and possibly in need of help.
“Are you ok?”
When Blake stepped out from behind the tree, the girl’s eyes snapped open and locked onto her. The red eyes were nowhere to be found, replaced by a beautiful shade of purple that sparkled in the low light. Freckles dusted her cheeks and across her nose, lending a youth-like energy belied by her mature gaze.
She was, in one word, gorgeous.
And surprised - though she quickly hid that emotion behind an easy smile that only amplified her beauty.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Considering where they were and what just happened, the casual response made Blake even more confused. The girl seemed to think nothing of it though, as she delicately pushed herself to her feet and immediately wobbled. When Blake instinctively reached forward to help, however, the girl quickly regained her balance and slipped out of reach.
“I’m sorry,” Blake quickly said, raising her hands to show that she meant no harm. “Are you ok?” she asked again, this time nodding towards the dark-red scratches on the girl’s arm.
“Oh, these?” The girl flinched when she looked down at her arm but played it off with a shrug. “Damn needles. Gotta watch out for those.”
She jabbed a finger towards a tall, spiky plant nearby, but Blake hardly glanced at it. Even though the red marks could have been caused by a plant of some sort, she couldn’t get those claws out of her mind, vividly remembering them sinking into scaly flesh.
“What about you?” the girl asked unprompted, nodding at Blake while genuine concern flickered through her purple eyes. “You good? Not hurt or anything, are you?”
For the first time since this ordeal began, Blake took stock of any injuries sustained during her sprint through the jungle. Fortunately, outside of a collection of scrapes and bruises, she was none the worse for wear.
“I’m fine,” she answered, her confusion growing when the girl looked relieved by the response.
Of all the things Blake had expected or hoped to discover out here, another human hadn’t been one of them. There wasn’t anyone else out here, as far as she’d been told, other than the sporadic adventurer or outcast. Based on appearance alone, this girl was neither.
“Who are you?”
That was only one of the many questions flitting through Blake’s mind, but it seemed like the easiest and best place to start. At least, that was what she thought until mistrust and suspicion sprang into lilac eyes.
“My name’s Blake,” she answered without hesitation, recognizing the need for transparency. “Blake Belladonna.”
While Blake hoped that the display of honesty helped, the girl stared at her for several long, unreadable seconds. Then a smile appeared, and a laugh slipped through those beautiful red lips.
“Yang,” Blake repeated and, when Yang nodded, smiled at having learned that much. It was progress, no matter how small. “It’s nice to meet you, Yang.”
The polite response was instinct but, considering their location, it was no wonder Yang laughed.
“‘Nice to meet you?’” she said, her expression and tone teasing in nature. “Didn’t realize we were at the winter ball...should we shake hands or curtsy?”
As Yang curtsied with one arm - a surprisingly good one, at that - Blake shook her head.
“I’m sorry, I just…” Losing track of that sentence, she shook her head again and waved in the direction of the plateau. “How did you do that?”
That was what Blake really wanted to know, but Yang just tilted her head.
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
“A few seconds ago,” Blake elaborated. “You weren’t you. You were - that thing.”
When Yang raised her hands and made a face suggesting she had no idea what Blake was talking about, Blake’s exasperation rose. Even if Yang somehow wasn’t that giant animal - though multiple hints pointed to the contrary - she had to have heard the battle taking place hardly a stone’s throw away. Yet she was playing dumb...but why?
“Right over there.” Trying once again, Blake pointed the way she just came. “Those four giant...catlike things...trapped me by the cliff’s edge. But you showed up - only you were...this huge, winged creature with massive claws and a long tail with all these spikes.”
While not the best explanation Blake had ever given, it was better than Yang’s amused laugh implied.
“You must’ve been seeing things. Wouldn’t be surprised - that must’ve been quite a scare, being surrounded by all those Prowlers like that.”
“How would you know that if you weren’t there?” Blake argued and, when Yang’s brow rose, knew she made a valid point. “You fought them off,” she added.
“Pretty sure it’d take more than some flimsy humans to fight off a pack of Prowlers.”
“But you weren’t you. You were that giant creature.”
Blake held her arms wide as if that could encapsulate the sheer size of it, but Yang just gave her a kind, slightly-patronizing smile.
“Word of advice? Just tell people you got lucky and the Prowlers got spooked by something - no one will believe the rest.”
“I know what I saw.”
“But you don’t know when to give up,” Yang sighed. After holding Blake’s gaze for several moments, as if to hammer that point home, she looked at the trees hemming them in on all sides. “Do you know how to get out of here? Or you need someone to walk you home?”
“I can find my way out just fine, thank you,” Blake clipped, annoyed by the implication that she couldn’t find her way around in the wilderness.
“You sure? Because if I really am a dragon, I could just fly you.”
Yang winked with the comment, finding more amusement in joking about the matter, but Blake latched onto the word.
“A dragon?” she repeated, frowning while struggling to remember as much as she knew on the subject. Not much, unfortunately, as the creatures were nothing more than footnotes in history. “But...dragons are extinct. Have been for centuries.”
From the way Yang’s eyes widened, she hadn’t meant to let the term slip. And, after tilting her head back and sighing, she walked back towards the plateau. This time, Blake didn’t hesitate to follow.
“That’s what you are?” she pressed, matching Yang’s confident, quiet strides with relative ease. “But you also look - you’re human, right? Does that mean you can...you can change between one and the other? How is that even possible?”
“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?”
Blake knew that she asked a lot of questions, and very few people were willing to answer them, especially these days. Anytime she tried to learn about Vale - her involuntary ‘home’ - she was told that the information served no purpose or was better left to others.
“What were you doing out here?” she added, quickening her steps to stick close behind Yang. “Were you just...flying around?”
“Again with the dragon thing…” was all Yang mumbled while shoving a tree branch out of the way. She didn’t release it until Blake passed safely by, however, giving Blake reason to believe that her presence wasn’t altogether bothersome.
“Do you live out here?” she tried again, hoping to learn something else about the mysterious girl walking in front of her.
Finally, an answer. But it only made Blake confused.
“What do you mean ‘how?’” Yang asked, glancing at Blake and raising a hand as if that was a silly question.
“I mean...it’s dangerous, and Vale’s miles away -”
“I don’t need Vale,” Yang grumbled before smoothly hopping over a downed tree trunk. Having finally reached the plateau, where long, jagged scars in the soil marked the battleground, she let out a long, low whistle. “Looks like a hell of a fight,” she mused before heading towards the cliff’s edge.
‘A hell of a fight’ didn’t even begin to explain what Blake witnessed here. Giant, powerful creatures locked in a battle of life and death, tearing up everything in their path in their quest for dominance. She could barely wrap her head around the idea that the slender, attractive girl in front of her was the same as that mighty dragon, but she also couldn’t believe any other explanation. If not, then where had it gone, and where had Yang come from?
After taking in the destruction one more time, Blake shook her head and hurried after Yang. Yang didn’t stop walking until she reached the cusp of the cliff, with its terrifying drop mere inches away. Once there, with her toes actually extending over the edge, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“So much nicer out here...” she breathed out before glancing over and looking almost amused to find Blake standing beside her. “How far down do you think that is?”
When Yang gestured towards the bottom of the cliff, Blake peeked over the side before taking a safe step back.
“You scared of heights?”
“No, I’m scared of slipping and falling to my death,” Blake replied, much to Yang’s entertainment. Another laugh slipped out - the sound so light and uplifting that a smile tugged on Blake’s lips in turn.
“You know, that sounds an awful lot like being scared of heights.”
As if the tease wasn’t enough, Yang balanced on one foot and held her other out in front of her.
“Does this make you nervous then?” she asked while she did so, teetering ever slightly and making Blake’s heart pound in the process. A stiff breeze or slight shift in the soil underfoot would send her right over the edge. They might have only just met, but Blake didn’t want to see that happen.
Without thinking, she grabbed Yang’s arm to pull her safely away from the ledge but let go the instant Yang yelped in pain.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized as soon as she realized what she did, but Yang shook her head.
“Not your fault…” she got out through a grimace while clutching her arm. When the pain didn’t immediately go away, she groaned and dropped to her knees instead. Kneeling beside her, Blake wanted to reach out and help but hesitated in case she made it worse than she just had.
“Don’t worry,” Yang added, reading the worry in Blake’s eyes and offering a shaky smile as reassurance. “It’ll get better soon.”
No timeline was set on ‘soon,’ and Blake felt horrible watching Yang suffer. That injury had been sustained on Blake’s behalf, after all. As such, she was partially responsible.
“I think I can help.”
Her heart started racing the moment she extended the offer, which Yang acknowledged with a small huff.
“At least let me try?” Blake added and, surprisingly, Yang acquiesced. Still kneeling on the ground, she nodded towards her arm before watching Blake with an intent gaze.
With Yang watching her every move, Blake took a deep breath and let it out in a long, slow exhale. The result wasn’t at all calming, but she scooted closer to Yang regardless. From this close, she could see the flecks of gold in Yang’s eyes - the same color the dragon’s scales had been.
Moving slowly and carefully, she gently set her hands on Yang’s injured arm. Noticing Yang’s wince at the contact, she held as still as possible while closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, and focusing on the piece of her that she’d kept hidden for quite some time.
The effect began slowly, feeling like nothing more than a pinprick of tiredness before growing into more pressing exhaustion. The drain on her energy amplified with each passing second, but the strain eased as soon as she wasn’t needed anymore. Only then did she open her eyes and, upon removing her hands, smile when she saw that the wound had disappeared.
As she sat back on her heels and felt a wave of weariness crash over her, Yang stared at her in disbelief.
“How did you do that?”
Considering Blake didn’t have an answer other than she ‘didn’t know,’ she just shrugged and shook her head.
“Now you know my secret,” she whispered, hoping that she hadn’t just made a mistake by sharing that deeply-hidden past with a stranger. Somehow, she didn’t think so, especially with the way Yang was looking at her right now.
“And you know mine,” Yang finally said, confirming Blake’s suspicion and offering reassurance at once.
With those admissions out in the open, the two of them stared at each other for a long, long time. It felt like they’d just crossed some line or transcended some boundary, and that prompted even more questions.
Dragons were supposed to be extinct. If they weren’t, then...who was Yang, really? Why was she living out here? Was she alone - the last of her kind - or were there others like her? Why had she saved Blake, and why didn’t she want Blake to know what she was?
“You’re a dragon,” Blake whispered and, in this moment of forthcoming, Yang nodded.
“And human,” Blake added, and Yang nodded again.
“‘How?’” Yang replied before laughing softly. “I don’t know, I just am.”
“Then...what were you doing out here?”
“Just cruising around, looking for damsels in distress.”
When Yang smiled at the obvious tease, Blake scoffed.
“I’m no damsel.”
“But you were in distress.”
Recalling how dire the situation had been, Blake didn’t attempt to argue.
“I was,” she agreed, nodding and holding Yang’s soft, lilac gaze. “And you saved my life. Thank you.”
“Oh, uh…” Caught off guard by the gratitude, Yang struggled for words before clearing her throat and tapping her arm. “We’re even, so...don’t mention it.”
Healing a few scratches wasn’t comparable to saving someone’s life, but Blake didn’t argue that point right now. Instead, she sat back and savored the unexpected closeness of this moment. Compared to the cruel twists of fate that had plagued her recently, this actually felt...lucky. Regardless of the situation that brought them together, Yang seemed like a genuinely friendly, kind...dragon.
“What’re you doing all the way out here anyway?” Yang asked after a few seconds of silence passed, subconsciously flexing her healed arm in the process. “Vale’s a long ways off.”
Looking at the wilderness surrounding them - the overwhelming sense of life missing from Vale - Blake sighed.
“I just...wanted to feel closer to home...”
“Vale’s not your home?”
“No, I’m from a place called Menagerie -” When Yang’s brow rose at the word, Blake paused. “You know it?”
“I might’ve heard of it...” Yang hedged before giving Blake a much more intent look. “And you’re from there? You’re not just messing with me?”
“I’m not. That’s where I lived my whole life until...recently.”
While Yang looked taken aback by the response, Blake felt equally as surprised to have stumbled across someone who knew of her home. Menagerie was so far from Vale that few could claim to have been to both. Of course, if Yang could literally fly, distance mattered little to her.
...if Yang could literally fly, maybe she had been there. Maybe she could go there.
The distant call ended that thought and broke the quiet of the forest, prompting replies from creatures near and far before tentative peace returned. Faced with the prospect of returning to Vale empty-handed or braving the beasts of the night, the guards had apparently decided the forest was the lesser evil. And, whether due to cunning or sheer, dumb luck, they must have stumbled upon the path Blake took earlier.
“Ah, the cavalry’s here.” After nodding in the direction of the heavy, clumsy footsteps that grew louder by the second, Yang got to her feet and dusted off her knees. “Guess it’s time to go. You probably don’t want them to catch you out here getting all friendly with strangers.”
As something akin to panic surged through Blake’s veins, she scrambled to her feet and reached out to stop Yang from turning away. They had only just met, and Blake still had no idea what to think about this beautiful girl possessing an extraordinary secret, but she didn’t want their meeting to end here. She had so many questions to ask...so much she wanted to learn about this new world and her place in it.
Once the guards arrived, they would drag her back to Vale. And, after they explained the cause of their delayed return, she would never set foot outside the city walls again. She would never return to the forest, she would never see Yang again, she would never see anyone again.
“Take me with you.”
A few hours ago, she couldn’t have even considered this option. Now, it stood right in front of her...in the form of a tall, blonde-haired beauty shrouded in mystery. Yang, however, laughed at the request.
“Take you with me?”
“You live out here, don’t you? I want to see where. I want to learn more about the Prowlers, about -” Blake stopped herself just short of saying ‘about you’ and motioned around them instead. “About everything.”
The guards were growing nearer with every passing second, but Yang didn’t believe Blake was serious - that much was written in her lilac eyes, which held Blake’s gaze with nearly too-powerful thoughtfulness.
“Aren’t you supposed to be getting married soon?” she finally asked, and Blake’s eyes widened at the unexpected question.
“I know things,” Yang explained with a shrug, her gaze still never leaving Blake. She was searching for something...trying to read Blake’s emotions just like Blake was trying to read hers. When she found what she was looking for, she tilted her head. “You’re going to be the Queen of Vale...why would you run from that?”
Yang might know that Blake was supposed to be married soon, yet she still knew nothing at all. But the question wasn’t posed sarcastically, and the curiosity in her eyes said that she genuinely cared about the answer - the real answer.
Vale wasn’t Blake’s home; Vale was never supposed to be her home. Were it not for the misfortune of crossing paths with a charismatic man with a snake’s tongue and devilish intentions, she never would have set foot in the bitter, horrible kingdom.
The trap had been cunning, and she fell for it. Now, she was meant to be Vale’s trophy, married to a tyrannical man prone to fits of violent rage, lauded over for a power she swore never to share.
“I will never be Vale’s queen,” she whispered as a familiar spark of anger brewed in her heart. And, even though she provided no details, understanding dawned in Yang’s eyes. As if somehow, without explanation, she knew what Blake had been through and was still going through.
When Yang opened her mouth, however, one of the guards hollered “Your Majesty!” again. His voice was much closer now, and the two men would soon find the trail of destruction leading to the plateau.
“Please,” Blake added as her heart began to race. She didn’t want to sound desperate, but the alternative was returning to a known evil hell-bent on abusing her power to heal.
It was asking a lot - she knew that - but she still held her breath and hoped that Yang would take another chance on her. After saving Blake’s life once already, would she again? Or would she decide that once was enough, that this wasn’t her problem, and that she didn’t want to get involved?
“I don’t know...”
The doubtful response, coupled with the impending footsteps, crushed Blake’s hopes. But, before she resorted to pleading, a grin snuck onto Yang’s lips.
“Are you going to ask questions the entire time?”
Suddenly feeling breathless, especially when Yang laughed, Blake nodded and said, “Absolutely.” Her heart raced even faster now, hoping beyond hope that Yang’s response meant what she thought it did. The forest was supposed to be inescapable - that was the only reason Blake had been allowed beyond Vale’s walls - but with Yang’s help...she could escape.
But first, she waited on bated breath while Yang made a decision. Her lilac eyes focused on the treeline, listening to the guards rushing towards them, before meeting and holding Blake’s gaze. Thoughts and emotions flitted through her eyes so quickly that Blake had no chance of interpreting them, but then she gently touched her arm, where the claw marks had once been, and smiled.
“You know...I haven’t pissed anyone off in a while, so why not.”
No sooner had Yang offered her hand did the guards burst out of the trees.
“Your Majesty - stand back!” one shouted while the other drew his weapon. But it was already too late - Blake took Yang’s hand without hesitation.
Time slowed in the moment that followed, as Yang pulled Blake into a strong embrace, whispered “Hold tight, princess,” and spun her right over the edge of the cliff.
The next second, gravity disappeared, and they were falling. Plummeting towards the ground thousands of feet below with nothing to slow their descent. The sensation was so sudden and terrifying that Blake screamed, and kept screaming while Yang’s laughter filled the air and the treetops rushed to meet them.
It felt like they were falling forever before Yang’s laughter faded away, disappearing like a breeze as strong, firm claws wrapped around Blake’s stomach and pulled up. Her heart jumped into her throat as the treetops grew further away, then settled back in her chest as their altitude stabilized.
Looking up, she saw golden scales shimmering in the budding moonlight and long, powerful wings cutting through the night sky. She was in the clutches of a dragon - of Yang - who held her more carefully and gently than the fearsome claws suggested. And she was flying - they were flying - soaring above the trees with ease she never could have imagined.
Glancing over her shoulder, she found her two escorts standing at the cliff’s edge, their eyes wide and mouths agape at what they saw. But they could only watch Yang’s powerful wings carry Blake further and further away, so far that they disappeared from view.
As they faded from Blake’s mind, her heart began to slow. Everything became quiet - quiet except for the steady sound of Yang’s wings and the air rushing past. And around them, as far as the eye could see, was nothing but wilderness.
For the first time in a really long time, Blake felt...free. And when she started laughing - in utter disbelief at how much her life had changed in a matter of minutes - Yang responded by folding in those big, beautiful wings of hers and rolling over in the air. The resulting barrel roll made Blake’s heart flip, as she spent the next few seconds staring straight up at the stars before facing the forest once again.
The playful gesture made her laugh even more, feeling safer and happier now than she ever had in Vale. She had no idea where Yang was taking her or what would happen next, but that mattered very little. In a world where dragons still roamed the skies...anything was possible. That thought alone was more than enough to give her hope that she could one day reclaim her life as her own - that she could one day go home.
Before any of that happened though, she wanted to learn more about nature’s newest miracle - a beautiful, kind-hearted girl with a dragon’s soul.