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Dragon Valley

Chapter Text

Rin tore the proclamation off the local notice board. It said exactly the same as the city criers had been shouting, the king was offering a lot of money to heroes brave enough to kill his enemies. It didn’t say who those enemies were but that wasn’t an issue for Rin. He trained every day in the hopes of being accepted into the Royal Guard. He would try out as a hero for the king. Now, if he could just convince Gou…

He took a deep breath as he pushed open the door to their cottage, nestled against the city wall, in one of the poorer areas of the city.

His sister turned to greet him, a smile on her face but fear in her eyes. “Oh, it’s you, Rin. Thank the gods.”

Rin was immediately suspicious. “What’s the matter, Gou? What’s happened?”

Gou shivered. “The warlocks were in the marketplace today so I wasn’t able to stay or buy anything. Luckily we still have some food in the house.”

Rin sighed. They needed to get Gou out of the city and away from the warlocks, who were looking for anyone with magical powers. Gou had magical powers in abundance, was a very powerful healer in fact. The problem was lack of money with which to find somewhere safe to live. They would have to get far away from the capital or even the villages in the countryside so the warlocks didn’t find his sister and forcibly recruit her. “Were they recruiting?”

Gou shook her head and frowned. “Not really. They were taking whatever they wanted without paying. The merchants who objected… Oh, Rin, one of them was turned into a pig.”

Rin’s fists clenched. The warlocks were powerful magicians and could get away with anything. “We have to get you out of the city.”

Gou smiled sadly and hugged him. “How are we going to afford it? I dare not heal anymore and you only earn enough for us to live on.”

Rin held out the proclamation and waited for the explosion. He wasn’t disappointed. “NO! I won’t allow you to put yourself in danger for my sake!”

He sighed in irritation. “What else can I do? If we stay here, sooner or later, they’re going to catch you and turn your abilities to their own ends. Who knows what their agenda is? If they’re turning people into animals it can’t be good magic.”

Gou buried her face in her hands. “I know, Rin. But we’re only in danger at all because I refused to take their tests for magical ability. All I want to do is help people, not bully them. Please, don’t put yourself in danger for my sake.”

Rin knew when he was defeated. “Very well, I won’t apply to fight the king’s enemies.”

Gou looked up. “Promise me.”

Rin took a deep breath as he realised this chance to make enough money for them to move out of the city had escaped him. “I promise.”

He was rewarded with a beaming smile. “Thank you, brother.”

*****

The king’s petition hall was crowded with supplicants but Samina was patient and waited her turn. She took in the opulent surroundings, the rich tapestries on the walls, the mahogany furniture and smiled. All this would be hers one day.

Her turn finally came and she approached the throne, head downcast. She curtsied to King Gorou and glanced up at him.

She smiled her most seductive smile at the King and murmured the words of the spell under her breath. She knew when it worked as Gorou left his throne and stepped towards her as if in a dream. “What can I do for you, beautiful lady?”

Her smile became even more seductive. “Many things, good king, but I come to give you a warning. You have grave enemies in your realm.”

King Gorou frowned. “Enemies? Who are these enemies?”

Inwardly, Samina cheered. She had him. “Why the dragons, your majesty. They rule the whole realm outside your capital. This can’t be right.”

Gorou stared at her and licked his lips. “Gorou, call me Gorou. I’m a man as much as a king.”

Samina smiled her sweetest smile. “Very well… Gorou. My name is Samina.”

The king took her hand and kissed it. “You have ruled my heart since the moment I set eyes on you, sweet Samina. Will you marry me and become my queen?”

Samina nodded. “On one condition, Gorou my love. When all the dragons are dead then I will marry you.”

Gorou kissed her hand once again. “Your wish is my command, my dear one. I will send out a proclamation to all the heroes in the city. The dragons will die.”

Samina was thrilled with the strength of her spell. Gorou would do whatever she wanted until the day came when the dragons were dead. Then she would kill the king and rule a domain of her own design.

Her mind drifted back to when she had been a young member of the warlocks and a red haired knight had almost killed her in the name of the present king’s father. She still bore the scars and held hatred in her heart for all redheaded men. If any redheads turned up in answer to the king’s proclamation, she would send them off to die.

*****

Miho watched from the side of the audience chamber as Samina cast her spell over King Gorou. She had no magical ability but she knew the king well enough to know he didn’t fall in love so easily. He had mourned the late queen for years and was only now making gentle overtures to her. Then this Samina turned up and the king was as one enslaved. True Samina was beautiful but Miho had seen the movement of her lips, the quick gestures behind her back and felt sure a spell had been cast on King Gorou. She resolved to approach him about it after the audience with his petitioners was over.

Luckily Samina was assigned lavish apartments and retired there after the audience was over. This gave Miho the opportunity she needed to approach Gorou. She found him in his private study, a pleasant, south-facing room with tapestries of his ancestor’s feats on the walls.

She smiled at him but he didn’t smile back. “I’m sorry, Miho, but I’m busy writing out a proclamation at the moment.”

She bowed her head. “I won’t keep you for long, your majesty. I understand you’re busy but I wanted to bring something important to your attention.”

Gorou sighed but put down his pen. “What is it, Miho?”

Miho took a deep breath, not wanting to appear as if she were jealous. “The lady Samina is very beautiful but what do you know of her?”

Gorou chuckled. “I’m sorry if you’re jealous, Miho, but I intend to marry the lady Samina.”

Miho nodded and smiled. “I’m happy for you, your majesty, but isn’t this all a bit sudden?”

Gorou stopped chuckling and stared at her. “I fell in love with Queen Keiko on sight, what makes this different?”

Miho shook her head. “You courted the queen for months before you proposed to her. I remember it well as she thought it was sweet, the shy way you approached her.”

Gorou smiled. “Ah, yes, but I’m not a shy crown prince anymore.”

Miho doubted his shyness had vanished with the years, as his overtures to her had been extremely slow and tentative. “I saw the lady mouth some words and make some gestures behind her back as she approached you. I believe she was casting a spell.”

Gorou’s smile died. “Miho, I understand you might be jealous of the lady, but these are unfounded accusations you are making.”

Miho bowed her head in defeat over the possible spell but brought up the other subject bothering her. “Why does she consider the dragons to be your enemies? They’ve never attacked anyone to my knowledge.”

Gorou sighed. “Not in the city, no, but who knows what they are doing in the countryside. I’ve already had this argument with Makoto, I don’t need it again from you.”

Miho bit back a sharp retort about how he should poke his nose outside of his capital and go and take a look if he was so concerned about the countryside. She was wise enough to keep quiet and retreat as gracefully as she could. “No doubt you know best, your majesty. My apologies for disturbing you.”

Gorou smiled at her. “I do understand your concerns, my dear, but I’m sure the lady Samina is a force for great good in the kingdom.”

Miho nodded her head in seeming acquiescence and left the room, heavy of heart.

*****

Crown Prince Makoto sighed as he left his father’s study. He’d been alarmed by the speed at which his father had asked an unknown woman to marry him and even more so by his agreement to destroy the dragons. The dragons were the pride of the realm, even depicted on the royal coat of arms. So why had he agreed they were his enemies so easily? Why was he preparing to send some hapless idiot to his probable death?

None of it made any sense to Makoto but he was determined to find out the truth for himself. He would not approach this Samina as something about her made him very uneasy. Instead he would go out into the city and meet the people for himself. He might even stray into the countryside to see what the villagers had to say.

Mind made up he strode towards his quarters to change into plainer attire than the satins, velvets and silks he was accustomed to wearing. He reached his apartments without being stopped for anything and dived into his linen chests to see if he owned anything made of cotton or wool.

He found his hunting clothes, sturdy garments made of thick cotton, wool and leather, and smiled. These would do the job well. He placed some gold and silver coins in a leather purse and attached it to his belt, strapped on his sword, then sneaked out of his apartments hoping no courtiers were around to see him.

His luck held and he made it out of the castle without being spotted by anyone.

The crowded, noisy streets came as a bit of a shock after the quiet of the castle but he made his way though them at a steady pace until he reached the marketplace. He was unsure whether to buy something or simply talk to people. As he stood, trying to make a decision, a movement at his side made his training kick in and he drew his sword.

“Oh ho, we’ve got a feisty one here!”

He was surrounded by three armed men who forced him to drop his sword and backed him into a quieter alleyway. One of them picked up Makoto’s sword and inspected it. “He’s not poor. This is fine workmanship.”

To his dismay and chagrin, one of the others relieved him of his purse and weighed it in his hand. “Nice fat purse, too.”

He was backed against a wall and the men started punching and kicking him, presumably for their own sport. Makoto knew he was in serious trouble. These men seemed to want to beat him to a bloody pulp. He should never have left the castle.

A sudden bright light shone in the alleyway, ripping Makoto’s purse from the one thief’s hands and his sword from the other’s. The thieves took to their heels and ran back to the marketplace.

A young, blond man stooped to pick up Makoto’s belongings and handed them to him. “I believe these are yours.”

Makoto stared up at the stranger to thank him but all he could say was, “Why are your eyes pink?”

Chapter Text

“Why are your eyes pink?”

The stranger laughed. “Perhaps you should ask my parents that question.”

Makoto put a hand to his mouth in shame and blushed. “I’m sorry, that was extremely rude of me. Thank you for whatever it was you did back there.”

The strange young man blushed in his turn. “It was nothing really. I just hate bullies. Are you going to be all right on your own?”

Makoto chuckled. “Not if that incident was anything to go by. I’m not used to dealing with three opponents at a time.”

The stranger smiled. “Don’t be too upset. Very few people could deal with three ruffians like that on their own. I’m Nagisa by the way.”

Makoto smiled back. “Pleased to meet you, Nagisa. I’m Makoto.”

Such an ordinary conversation for such an extraordinary event. Makoto was still wondering if he had imagined the strange light. Nagisa spoke, breaking in on his thoughts. “Would you like to pair up with me? I can help to get you home safely if you’d like.”

Makoto panicked. He didn’t want anyone to know who he really was as it would spoil his plan. He looked into pink eyes and shook his head. “I would be very happy to pair up with you, Nagisa, but I don’t want to go home just yet.”

Nagisa smiled at him. “Where do you want to go?”

Makoto wasn’t sure what his answer should be. The city seemed to be full of people who were either too busy to talk to him or intent on robbing him. Perhaps he should get to know the people in the countryside first. “Out of the city.”

Nagisa nodded sagely. “I think that’s wise. You’re obviously not used to the ways of the city, and yet you speak as if you live here.”

Makoto sighed before telling a half truth. “My father works in the castle so I was raised there. Until now I’d never left the place.”

Nagisa chuckled. “Out exploring were you?”

Makoto nodded. “Exactly that and I would like to see some of the countryside before I go home. Talk to the people there and learn whatever I can.”

Nagisa smiled his attractive smile again. “I think that could be arranged. I live out in the countryside so I could show you the important things.”

Makoto was thrilled with the idea. Having Nagisa’s company and expertise would be a real blessing and he liked the other boy. “I would like that, Nagisa.”

Nagisa bounced up and down in excitement. “Good! Then that’s settled. Have you seen enough of the city? If so we can go straight to the west gate.”

Nagisa’s enthusiasm was contagious and Makoto became excited at the chance to see some of the realm. “Let’s go to the gate.”

*****

The main square, outside the castle, was crowded with hopeful heroes making it hard to cross. Rin slid through the crowd, on his way to the market when he came face to face with a contingent of the Royal Guard. “You’re the lucky one, son. The king has chosen you as his hero.”

Rin glanced up at the castle balcony to see the king and some unknown lady of the court standing there. He would have to explain he was on his way to the market and not wanting to be a hero. “I was just passing through the square to the market.”

“Well, maybe you should tell the king that when he equips you with armor, a good sword and a warhorse,” the unit’s sergeant said.

Another guard joined in. “Then there’s the gold he’s offering. You’d be a complete idiot to turn it all down.”

The sergeant spoke again. “I can understand your wanting to back out of it, killing dragons would be a bit daunting to us, too. But you’re here and you’ve been chosen. So come along quietly and meet the king.”

Rin shrugged. Perhaps the king would listen to reason, unlike his guards. “Lead the way.”

The contingent of guards quickly cleared a path for him and themselves through the crowd. Sooner than Rin expected they were in the castle armory and the king was there. “Ah, my chosen hero. Welcome.”

Rin took a deep breath, remembered his manners, and bowed deeply. “Your majesty, there’s been a mistake. I was merely on my way to market to buy provisions for my sister and myself.”

“There is no mistake, my hero. The lady Samina chose you herself.” The king leaned closer and spoke softly but firmly. “It’s either go into the countryside and kill dragons or spend the rest of your very short life in an oubliette.”

Rin stared at his king in dismay. “May I say goodbye to my sister before I go, at least?”

King Gorou smiled at him. “Of course. I’m not a complete tyrant.” He glanced around the room before moving to stand before a very fine set of chain mail. “This should fit you. I take it you know how to use a sword.”

Rin nodded as his heart sank. “I practice every day.”

The king nodded, obviously satisfied. “And do you ride?”

Rin nodded. He had all the necessary skills so there was no way out. “Yes, your majesty.”

“Excellent. Take the armor and a well made sword and dagger. A good warhorse has been found for you, a black stallion by the name of Night. Talk to the stable master and say your farewells to your sister. Good luck, hero, and don’t fail me unless you want to be thrown in the oubliette.”

Rin bowed again but he was thinking an oubliette might be the least of his worries. The king actually wanted him to kill dragons. Huge, scaly creatures with wings, known to breath fire when angered. He was going to die, no matter about the horse, armor and sword.

Chapter Text

Rin dressed himself in the thick padding that went under mail, the chain mail itself and belted on the sword and dagger. He glanced in a mirror near the door to the armory. He looked the part of a hero, at least. He took the horse and went home to say his goodbyes to Gou. He knew his sister was going to be furious with him, but he’d had no choice. At least he’d brought all the food she wanted from the market.

She must have heard Night’s hoof beats for she came outside to see who was riding a horse in this district. When she saw the horse was with him, her expression was almost comical.

Almost.

It quickly changed to anger tinged with fear. “I thought you weren’t going to apply as a hero.”

Rin sighed out his unhappiness at the situation. “I didn’t. I was chosen. I forgot the choice was taking place today and crossed the main square to get to the market. That’s when the king decided I was the one he wanted. It’s either go or be thrown in an oubliette. I’m sorry, Gou.”

She hid her face and burst into tears. “Oh, Rin, what are we going to do?”

Rin ground tethered Night and grabbed the groceries from the saddlebags. He led his still weeping sister into their small cottage. “I’m going to have to go and find dragons, you’re going to have to leave the city.”

Gou looked up at his words. “And go where?”

Rin wondered if he was being paranoid but he wanted her away from the warlocks who kept trying to recruit her. “Sell everything we have, buy a horse, and go to the village of Dragonholme. I’m going to make my way there by way of the closer villages as something tells me Dragonholme is where I’ll find dragons.”

“Why does the king want you to find dragons?”

“To kill them.”

Gou stared at him in amazement. “What harm have they ever done the king or the realm?”

Rin shrugged. “None to my knowledge, but I can’t find out the truth if I’m stuck in an oubliette. Nor can I help you if I’m dead. Gou, I’m not going to attack any dragons until I know what’s going on.”

Gou stopped crying, sniffed a few times then nodded. “Very well, brother, I’ll do as you ask. Just promise me you’ll be careful out there.”

Rin smiled at her before taking her in his arms and hugging her. “I promise. Meet me in Dragonholme as soon as you can. I really want you out of this city although I’m not sure why.”

Gou pulled away from him after a moment. “I don’t care what the king says, you’re going to eat a proper meal before you go.”

She grabbed the shopping from him and turned towards the stove. “Sit down. This won’t take long.”

Rin sat down feeling as if he was about to eat his last ever meal. It was not a happy thought.

*****

Makoto and Nagisa approached the West Gate and Makoto froze. “I didn’t realize there were guards on the gates.”

Nagisa stopped and turned to gaze back at him. “You really haven’t left the castle before, have you? If you’re not in trouble, why are you worried about the guards?”

Makoto sighed. He should tell Nagisa the whole truth before they went any further. He didn’t want to get the other young man into any trouble. “I didn’t tell you the complete story back there. The reason I’ve never left the castle before is because I’m the Crown Prince.”

Nagisa cocked his head to one side like a bird before nodding. “I thought your name seemed familiar. Why would the Crown Prince be afraid of his father’s guards?”

Makoto sighed. “They’ll escort me home, and it might get you into trouble.”

Nagisa smiled. “Don’t worry about me. I think you should see more of the realm you are to inherit. You’ve seen some of the problems in the city, people so poor they have to steal to survive. There are problems in the countryside too. You need to be aware of those problems if you’re going to do anything about them. That’s if you want to, of course.”

Makoto had only thought about talking to the people. He hadn’t stopped to think about their problems. Why three men would need to rob him to survive. He decided he wanted to learn more and perhaps solve some of the problems. “How do we get out of the gate?”

Nagisa laughed, a musical sound that lifted Makoto’s spirits. “Don’t worry about that. Leave it to me. Come on, daylight’s burning.”

They continued towards the gate without anyone making an uproar, then passed through it. The guards didn’t pay them any attention at all. It was as if they were invisible. Once on the other side of the gate they trudged along the highway towards a distant village. “That’s Greendale,” Nagisa told him. “It’s the closest village to the capital and provides a lot of the goods for sale in the markets.”

Makoto was gazing beyond the village to the far distant mountains. “Is all this land part of my father’s realm?”

Nagisa nodded and smiled. “As far as the mountains to the west, the sea to the south, and the walls to the east and north.” His smile died as he mentioned the walls.

Makoto’s curiosity had been aroused by his trip out of the city. “What’s beyond the walls?”

Nagisa sighed. “Nothing you want to see. The land beyond used to belong to other realms, other kingdoms. Now it’s just desolation and wild magic.”

Makoto frowned. “What caused the desolation and wild magic?”

Nagisa sounded bitter as he said, “Haven’t you heard? The dragons did it.”

Makoto stared. Perhaps his father was right to try to slay the creatures. “So that’s why my father wants them dead.”

Nagisa shook his head. “No. No. Those rumors have been spread around but the dragons didn’t do that, it was another form of magic entirely.”

Makoto was having a day of real surprises and he started to walk determinedly towards Greendale. “It seems to me that nobody ever tells me anything.”

Nagisa kept pace with him and nodded. “It’s not in anyone’s best interests to tell you the truth. Besides, the truth has to be experienced first hand.”

Makoto smiled. “You’re very wise for one so young.”

Nagisa let out a peal of his musical laughter and it lightened Makoto’s heart. “I’m quite a lot older than I appear, Makoto. Don’t take things at face value. Oh I’m considered very young amongst my people but I’m still over a hundred years old.”

Makoto came to another grinding halt. “You’re how old?”

Nagisa pulled on his arm. “Don’t worry about that now. Come with me and see the truth of things.”

Makoto felt he’d walked into the pages of a story book. Dragons, wild magic and an hundred year old boy. But he wanted to know more, much more, so he let Nagisa lead him along the road.

Chapter Text

Rin reached the first village by nightfall and used some of the money the king had given him to stay at the inn. He was assured Night would be well looked after in the hostelry’s stables and his personal items safe in his room. The innkeeper and his staff seemed friendly and quite willing to answer questions, so he asked them what they thought about dragons. Their answers surprised him.

“Dragons are magical creatures,” the innkeeper said as he poured Rin a pint of porter. “They look after the land, keep it green and wholesome and able to support everyone.”

Rin stared at the plump man, willing him to say more. He’d always been a city boy so had very little understanding of the world outside its walls. He said as much to the innkeeper who nodded. “Guessed that much, sir. And from your fine horse, good armor and the gold in your purse, I’d say you’re one of the heroes the king hired.”

Rin frowned at the man. “One of? I thought I was the only one.”

The innkeeper shook his head. “No, but the others were from his personal guard. They were sent towards the sea and the walls. You were sent where the dragons dwell.”

Rin took a swallow of porter before putting his tankard down with a snap. “There are no dragons this close to the city.”

One of the serving boys spoke up. “How do you think this village manages to feed the whole city? The dragons look after it, that’s how.”

Rin frowned. “What am I missing here? Please, I need to know all you can tell me. My sister will be traveling towards Dragonholme soon and I want to be sure she did the right thing by leaving the city. If the dragons come here…”

The innkeeper bellowed out a laugh. “Your sister will be perfectly safe. Much safer than she would be if she stays in the city.” He leaned forward. “I was told to watch out for you and give you a message. If your sister gives in to the warlocks, we’re all dead. If she escapes their clutches, we will survive and defeat the evil that has permeated the lands north and east.”

Rin glared at the innkeeper. “How do you know about my sister?”

The innkeeper looked him straight in the eye as he said, “The dragons told me, so I could tell you. Your sister is a powerful healer, which you know. You know instinctively that she must not join the warlocks and you are right. They will turn healing to killing power for they are death. Your destiny and that of your sister lies in Dragonholme.”

Rin stared into the depths of his drink, searching for the answers there. “I told her to meet me in Dragonholme. But you couldn’t possibly have known that.”

The serving boy spoke up again. “The dragons know everything.”

The innkeeper nodded. “They sent one of their servants with that message. He was making for the city but stopped here to pass that on.”

Rin pondered that. “I wonder why he didn’t wait here for me.”

The innkeeper smiled. “The servants never have just one mission. If he was going to the city he has business there that is just as important as his message to you.”

Rin’s heart sank. Not only did the dragons know he was coming, but they were sending messages to him via their minions. There went any element of surprise. This hero thing was doomed.

*****

Nagisa and Makoto reached Greendale just as night was falling and Nagisa lead them straight to the inn. “The inn here is very good at keeping important secrets and getting messages delivered.”

He strolled into the taproom, Makoto on his heels. The innkeeper greeted them with a low bow. “Greetings, Han. I need to impose on your hospitality once again.”

Makoto nudged him. “Not impose, I have money.”

The innkeeper shook his head. “Servants never have to pay. But I’ll take a couple of copper from you, if you wish.”

Makoto frowned at Nagisa. “Servants?”

Nagisa sighed. He’d hoped to put off this conversation until they were further from the city. “Han, may we have two glasses of wine, please.”

The innkeeper provided the wine, a rich, deep claret, and Nagisa led the way to a table in the corner. “I haven’t been entirely honest with you, Makoto. I am not human. I am a servant of the dragons, and I was sent to find you and the young man sent as a ‘hero’ to kill the remaining dragons.”

Makoto stared at him. “That would explain your age. So, if you’re not human, what are you?”

Nagisa stared into eyes the color of spring leaves and sighed. Would the young prince believe him? “I’m of the fae folk, an elf to be precise. As I have yet to attract a dragon of my own, I am a messenger for them and their companions. What Han here calls a servant.”

Makoto took a sip of his wine and asked, “Companions?”

Nagisa nodded but his heart was sad. “The humans in the city have forgotten so much. Have you never heard of the dragon riders?”

Makoto shook his head. “I was never told anything about them.”

Nagisa sighed. It was just as he had expected. The city folk wanted to forget the past it seemed. “Were you told about the walls at least?”

Makoto took another sip of his wine. “The walls were built because the lands beyond them were destroyed by wild magic. The arguments still continue. Was it stupid magic users or dragons that destroyed the lands? Nobody can agree, except now my father seems to believe it was the dragons.”

Nagisa felt like crying. “It wasn’t the dragons, nor was it accidental. Those lands were destroyed by a group from another world. They destroyed their own world and used their magic to travel to this world which they are busily destroying, just as they did their own. We, and the remaining dragons, are all that can prevent them from succeeding. We can put things right but only if they don’t win.”

Makoto put his wine glass down and stared at Nagisa, determined to help if he could. “Then they must not win.”

Nagisa wondered if Makoto could take the truth. He took a long sip of his wine as he debated how much he should say. “What made you leave the comfort of your life in the castle?”

Makoto frowned. “My father suddenly decided to marry this unknown woman called Samina. She was the one who wanted him to kill the dragons. I wanted to find out why.”

Nagisa stared at him. Samina? This was worse than they’d thought. “If you really want to know why, you don’t have to travel any further than this. I have your answer. Samina is one of the people from another world, their leader in fact. Tell me have you ever heard of the warlocks?”

Makoto shook his head. “No.”

Nagisa shook his head. “You really have been kept ignorant. The warlocks are the mortal enemies of the dragons, and all that is good and wholesome in this world. Once they destroy it they will travel to another world and destroy that one, too. Only the dragons can stop them.”

He saw Makoto swallow hard. Then the young prince surprised him. “What can I do to help?”

*****

Gou returned home with some silver from the sale of the furniture. She had all she needed to leave the city and make her way to Dragonholme but she was scared of what might be outside the city walls. She had enough money to buy a horse so she wouldn’t have to walk, at least. So what was stopping her from going to the stables right now?

She sighed and packed saddlebags with a few changes of clothes and the rest of the food in the house. She added flint and tinder and decided she was as ready as she would ever be. She was just about to leave when there was an imperious knock at the door.

She frowned and opened it, wondering who would knock in such a manner. Three men were standing outside the cottage. Before she could shut and lock the door, they pushed their way inside and turned to face her. “Gou Matsuoka, you are to join the warlocks by noon tomorrow at the latest,” one of the men, tall and skinny with stringy hair said. “If you don’t you will be imprisoned for treason.”

She stared at the man in horror. “Treason?”

One of the other men, chubby and bald nodded. “That’s right. The king has decreed that all those with any magical talent must join the warlocks. It is well known you are a skilled healer and therefore have talent. This is your final warning.”

To her relief the three men turned and left. She gathered up the saddlebags and made for the west gate. The horse could wait till she reached the closest village. Right now, she needed to put as much distance between her and the city as she could.

*****

Samina strode through the castle, determined to speak to Gorou. She was convinced the redhead he’d sent would have died by now and she still wanted the dragons exterminated. She found the king in his study.

He looked up from his paperwork and smiled. “My dear Samina, what a lovely surprise. What may I do for you today?”

She chose her words with care. “We all know what fierce and dangerous creatures dragons are, and it has been over a week since your young hero left the city. All the others you sent have returned, but he is missing. Perhaps it is time to send someone else if only to find the poor boy’s body.” It had actually been two days but the king had lost all track of time thanks to her spell, and she was getting impatient.

The king became thoughtful. “He was given a good, fast steed and should have reached the westernmost part of the realm a day or two ago. You’re right, he may well be dead. He would have sent a message if he were alive.”

She nodded and gave him a seductive smile. He was playing right into her hands. “Exactly my point, my dear. I’m certain his sister would like to bury his remains and mourn him properly.” Even though she would be too busy learning the warlock way of casting magic whilst having her own drained.

Gorou nodded. “I shall post another proclamation for heroes to gather in the main square tomorrow morning. With that and the city criers the news will spread in time for us to be able to send someone tomorrow.”

She rewarded the idiot with another smile and a blown kiss. “You are such a wise king, dear heart.”

Gorou smiled and drew a clean sheet of parchment to him. He began to write out the proclamation.”

“I shall leave you to your busy schedule, dearest, and shall see you at dinner tonight.” She left the study, still smiling but not seductively. Her smile now was one of victory. One way or another the last of the dragons would die.

*****

Momo was excited. He wasn’t actually a hero but he longed for adventure so he went to the main square at the ordained time and waited with all the others. The guards found him very quickly. “You’re the lucky one today. Follow us.”

He obediently followed them to the castle armory where the king himself was waiting. He bowed and waited for the king to speak.

“You will be equipped with chain mail, a weapon of your choice and a good warhorse. You will leave the city by the west gate and travel to the mountains where the dragons dwell and kill them. If you see the remains of the last hero sent you will bring them and, hopefully, his horse back with you.”

Momo bowed again and smiled. This was an adventure beyond his wildest dreams. “It will be my honor and pleasure, your majesty.”

The king nodded, a hint of guilt and pity in his eyes. “Good luck, young hero.” With that he turned and left the armory.

The royal armorer found him a good set of chain mail and asked him to pick a weapon of his choice. He picked a bow, the weapon he was best with, and which should keep him at a good range from the dragons. He went to the royal stables next where a blood bay stallion was presented to him. He was told the horse’s name was Scarlet and was glad they seemed to like each other.

Now he just had to tell Seijurou what he had done. He drew Scarlet to a halt outside the family smithy where his brother was helping their father and his apprentices at the forge. “I have news,” Momo blurted out.

Seijurou sighed and rolled his eyes. “Now what have you done?”

Momo preened. “I’ve been chosen to fight dragons by the king.”

His elder brother stared at him for a moment before he exploded. “Are you out of your mind? You’re being sent out there to die!”

Momo stared at him in consternation. “I can fire a bow and arrow. I don’t need to get close.”

Seijurou sighed. “You’re an idiot, Momo, but I can’t let you throw your life away. I’m coming with you.”

Momo blinked. “You’re what?”

Their father spoke up then. “I agree with Sei. You’re a damned young fool if left on your own. Today proves that. Sei goes with you.”

Sei nodded. “I’ll get my sword and armor. Father, can I borrow Blue?”

Father thought for a moment. “Yes, Blue’s the best choice to match the fine horse Momo’s riding. Take him with my blessing and don’t get yourselves killed.”

Momo sighed as he wondered if it would be such an adventure after all with Sei along to spoil his fun.

Chapter Text

Every village Rin entered told him the same story. The dragons were not their enemies, the warlocks might be. A couple gave him lodging in Dragonholme and what they had to say made him wish he’d brought Gou with him instead of leaving her behind.

The couple, Kisumi and Chigusa, had twin children, Ran and Ren, and Ran, the girl, had magical abilities. The warlocks had come all the way to Dragonholme, looking for gifted people and Ran had almost been kidnapped. Only Ren’s quick thinking and a couple of well-placed rocks had prevented a disaster.

Chigusa shook her head, sadness in her eyes. “Now she’s terrified of using her magic as she thinks all magic is evil, like those people who tried to take her.”

Kisumi poured Rin another cup of beer and almost snarled. “We keep moving farther and farther from the city but they keep following. We used to live in Greendale where our families have lived for generations but the warlocks came there looking for any magic users. We want to keep Ran away from them but they’ve followed us all the way to Dragonholme. Now I don’t know what to do. There is nowhere else to go.”

Rin took a swallow of his beer. “What I don’t understand is why the king wants the dragons dead.”

Chigusa dropped the platter of bread she’d been carrying to the table. “No, he can’t. He’ll destroy the whole world if he kills them.”

Rin bent to help her pick up the bread. “Don’t worry. People have been telling me the dragons are good and the warlocks evil all the way from the city. I have no intention of harming any dragon. I’m just not sure where my sister and I can go to be safe if the warlocks are coming out this far.”

Kisumi frowned. “Your sister has magic?”

Rin sighed. “Very strong healing magic. The warlocks have been pestering her for months. I know the warlocks are not a force for good but I’ve never met a dragon.” Nor did he want to but he kept that to himself.

Kisumi nodded. “None of them have left Dragon Valley for half a moon or you’d have seen them flying around. That means one of two things, either they’re waiting for something or a new clutch of eggs has been laid.”

Ran came out from behind her mother’s skirts. “They’re waiting for a prince and him.” She pointed at Rin.

Rin stared at the little girl. If she knew the dragon’s business she was in terrible danger from the warlocks and not just for her magic. Why was the king letting these warlocks do as they pleased?

Chigusa brought fresh bread to the table. “If Ran is correct you need to go to Dragon Valley and meet them.”

Rin’s heart sank. Surely if they knew exactly why he’d been sent here, they’d kill him.

*****

Gou managed to buy a good horse in Greendale which was just as well as she still felt as if she was being followed. It was getting dark and she knew she would have to stop for the night very soon although she would have preferred to keep going.

She found a good spot and dismounted. The silence of the night allowed her to hear horses hooves behind her and she got off the road. Two riders approached, both on good horses and she shivered in fear. Had the warlocks caught up with her already?

“This looks like a good place,” one of the riders said and her heart sank.

“For once in your life, you’re right,” the other rider said. “Let’s make camp. I’ll find wood for a fire while you deal with the horses.”

The first rider muttered something under his breath, but did as he was told. The second rider made his steady way closer to her hiding place in his search for firewood. Her horse whinnied softly and the rider stopped, dropped his wood and pulled his sword. “Who’s there?”

Cursing her horse as a useless bonehead, Gou stepped out from the shadow of the trees. This man didn’t seem like a warlock but she couldn’t be sure. “I was going to camp here but then you arrived and I thought it might be wise to hide.”

The sword was sheathed and the man came closer, peering at her. He was tall and muscular and had orange red hair and golden eyes. “What in the name of the fae is a woman doing out here alone?”

At mention of the fae, she relaxed. The warlocks never mentioned the fae except to curse them. “I’m traveling to Dragonholme to meet my brother.”

The man frowned. “It’s not safe for a woman to travel alone. My brother and I are also going to Dragonholme and would be happy to escort you.”

Gou decided she liked what she saw and stepped forward, bringing her horse with her. “I think that might be wise. What takes you to Dragonholme?”

The man snorted as he picked up the firewood. “My idiot little brother was sent by the king to kill dragons.”

Gou put a hand to her mouth in horror. Did this mean Rin was dead? “Fate is strange,” she said, “my brother was also sent on such a mission.” Tears filled her eyes.

The man seemed uncomfortable. “I’m sure he’s reached Dragonholme safely. The roads have been safe all the way.”

Gou nodded but the tears still fell. “And if the idiot has obeyed the king and attempted to kill a dragon?”

The man approached and reached out a hand as if to comfort her but let it drop at the last moment. “I’m sorry. You’ll know by this time tomorrow when we reach Dragonholme. But where are my manners? I am Seijurou Mikoshiba though everyone calls me Sei.”

Gou looked up. “The blacksmith’s son?”

Seijurou bowed low. “One of them. At your service.”

Gou managed a smile. “I’m Gou Matsuoka.”

Sei’s eyes widened. “The famous healer?”

Gou glanced around wildly. “Please, don’t let anyone hear you say that. Before you make any promises to escort me, you should know the warlocks are after me.”

To her surprise, Sei shrugged. “All the more reason for Momo and I to protect you. Bring your horse. Let’s get a fire started and have some supper.”

Gou followed him to where another red haired young man was removing the saddles and bridles from two fine horses. “Leave your horse for Momo to deal with.”

Momo turned and frowned. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be the hero here, not you.”

Gou laughed for the first time in a long time as Sei said, “No, you’re the idiot here.”

Momo muttered under his breath as he reached for her horse’s reins, but then he smiled at her. “Glad to have you along, ma’am.”

Gou realized she was glad to be along.

*****

Dragonholme was a pretty village set up against the mountains to the west. Makoto looked around with interest just as he had in every village they’d passed. He was learning so much about his father’s realm and liked what he was seeing. The only problem was he didn’t know how he was going to help these people when he finally became king. They seemed to have everything they needed. He said as much to Nagisa.

Nagisa heaved a sigh. “Don’t let appearances fool you. The people are struggling with constant threats from the warlocks, who are looking for magic users to drain, and with hardships caused by the dragons being unable to leave their valley while the latest clutch of eggs is guarded. Their lives are not as easy as they seem.”

Makoto dismounted from the horse he’d bought in Greendale and led it to the water trough on the side of the road. “Why do the dragons not leave their home while there are eggs there?” He was very curious about the creatures.

Nagisa looked not just sad but devastated by his question. “You remember what I said about the lands beyond the walls? Well there were once dragons in those lands too. Before they understood the threat the warlocks posed, they acted as they have always acted, which meant they left their eggs unguarded to protect the countryside from the wild magic being thrown around. While they were gone the eggs were deliberately broken. Heartbroken, they laid no more and were slowly but surely wiped out.”

Makoto put a hand to his mouth in horror. “Oh no! We must make sure nothing like that happens here.”

Nagisa nodded and smiled at him. “If we can protect the dragons here, they will protect the country in their turn. If we can go even further and drive off the warlocks, well they might be able to mend the destruction in those other lands.”

Makoto nodded his understanding. “You have an ally in me, Nagisa, but my father and this Samina, they won’t rest until they destroy the dragons.” He was so ashamed of his father right now.

Nagisa dismounted from his own horse and put a comforting hand on Makoto’s shoulder. “It’s not necessarily your father’s fault, Makoto. He may well be under a spell. From what we know of this Samina, she is very powerful.”

“All the more reason to beat her and her warlocks,” Makoto said with conviction.

Nagisa smiled. “I agree. How tired are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, why?”

“We can’t take the horses any further than this. It’s a steep and narrow pass to Dragon Valley and horses are afraid of dragons. We keep our own cattle for them to feed on but they would take a horse if hungry enough and the horses know it.”

Makoto was curious again. “So dragons are carnivores?”

Nagisa nodded. “Don’t worry though, they don’t feed on sentient creatures like humans or elves. Shall we go?”

Makoto smiled although he was nervous. “Lead on, Nagisa. With you by my side the dragons shouldn’t be too angry about who I am.”

Nagisa shook his head and grinned. “They judge by what you are, not who you were born as.”

A man with pink hair came across the village square to meet them. “Greetings, servant. Shall I take care of the horses for you?”

Nagisa turned and smiled at the newcomer. “Greetings Kisumi. Please do. Has the ‘hero’ arrived yet?”

Kisumi nodded. “He stayed with us last night and went to the Valley this morning.”

Nagisa smiled. “Excellent news. What is he like?”

Kisumi scratched his head as he thought. “Confused. He’s been told a lot of lies but he had the courage to take the pass this morning.”

Nagisa nodded. “I know the dragons have high hopes for him and his sister. Let’s hope they’re not disappointed.”

Kisumi nodded. “We are keeping our eyes open for her and two more ‘heroes’ the king has sent.”

Nagisa frowned at that news. “That’s a new development. Samina must be getting desperate. Is Ran settling?”

Kisumi smiled. “Yes, she actually had something to say to Rin last night. I just hope they don’t come back again.”

Nagisa sighed. “Whatever else we do, we must keep all magic users hidden. Especially Rin’s very powerful sister.”

Kisumi actually shuddered. “I agree wholeheartedly. Anyway, I mustn’t keep you. As it is it will be nearly dark by the time you reach home. The horses will be well looked after. Good day, Nagisa.” With that he took the horses’ reins and led them away towards a stable.

Nagisa turned towards Makoto. “Are you ready?”

Makoto took a deep breath. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

They walked to the other end of the village and Makoto could see a path leading up into the mountains. “How far is it?”

Nagisa cocked his head to one side as he thought about it. “I’m not sure in terms of distance but it takes about five hours to get to the top of the path at a steady walk.”

Makoto looked up at the sky and the position of the sun. It was about an hour past noon. “Your friend was right. It will be sunset by the time we reach the top. How far down on the other side?”

Nagisa laughed aloud. “Don’t worry about that, Makoto. We’ll be met at the top by whoever happens to be on duty.”

Makoto didn’t know how to feel about that but he still plodded along beside Nagisa.

Chapter Text

Rin climbed the pass until it peaked and he was looking out over a lush, oval-shaped valley with a crystal clear lake at one end. The valley was surrounded by tall peaks which appeared to be full of caves. On the valley floor were fantastical, fairy tale dwellings that looked to be constructed from living trees.

He was gazing out at all this loveliness when a huge purple dragon swooped down from the sky and Rin was convinced his last moment had come. He rubbed his eyes, certain he was seeing things. There was a rider on the dragon’s back.

The dragon came to rest on the pass, effectively blocking his way. The great beast bowed its knees until the rider was able to climb off its back and approach Rin. The rider had blue black hair and purple eyes that gazed at Rin as if assessing his very soul. Rin couldn’t move, even though his senses were screaming at him to run.

The rider spoke. “So, you took our advice and came to meet your destiny, after all, Rin.”

Rin felt both awed and stupid. “How do you know my name?” It was all he felt able to ask even though it was the least of his questions.

The rider gave him a withering look. “The dragons told us of you, reluctant ‘hero’ and saw something in you worth nurturing. I am Rei and this is my companion Turgri. We are the gatekeepers for the day.”

Rin eyed the huge, purple dragon with suspicion just as the huge beast turned a golden eye on him. Rin nearly jumped out of his skin when Turgri spoke in a voice like distant thunder. “He must be taken to Shangri and Haruka. It is imperative they meet.”

Rei didn’t look particularly happy at this pronouncement but he nodded and climbed back on the crouching dragon. He held out a hand to Rin.

Rin shook his head. “I’ll walk, thanks.”

Both dragon and rider looked amused. “You won’t fall,” Rei promised, “Turgri won’t allow it.”

With a sigh of defeat, Rin took hold of the offered hand and climbed Turgri’s foreleg. He found a second, comfortable seat behind Rei’s and sat down. Turgri stood then and,with a mighty beat of his wings, took to the sky. Rin clung to the arms of the seat but, after a moment to adjust, he found he felt quite safe and comfortable on the dragon’s back.

They circled the perimeter of the valley, giving Rin the opportunity to observe its beauty from all angles, then Turgri made for one of the many caves in the mountainsides. He landed at the cave mouth then strode just inside, where he crouched to let his riders dismount.

Rin looked round the torch-lit cave with interest. A second dragon squatted at the back of the cave on a bed of straw. This one was even bigger than Turgri and was a bright blue. To one side of the dragon was a clutch of eggs, each one of them the size of a full grown man, also on straw. But Rin only had eyes for the most beautiful man he had ever seen. He was black haired and his eyes were a bright blue, the color of the lake in the valley. He approached them and took a long look at Rin. “Greetings, Rin. I am Haruka though most call me Haru.” He indicated the massive blue dragon. “This is my companion, Shangri. We are what you might call leaders in the valley.”

Rin forced himself to stop staring at the beautiful man long enough to say, “I have many questions to ask of you.”

Haru nodded. “I imagine you do and it’s time you learned the truth instead of the lies you’ve been told all your life.” He glanced at Rei. “Nagisa should arrive with the prince soon and Rin’s sister is approaching Dragonholme with two more of the king’s fools. Please make sure they all arrive safely.”

Rei nodded and remounted Turgri who had remained just inside the cave’s entrance. The two flew back towards the pass. Haru indicated a corner of the cave where two comfortable chairs and a bed were situated. “Please forgive the surroundings, Rin, but these eggs are close to hatching and someone has to watch over them day and night until that happens.” He indicated one of the chairs and seated himself in the other.

Rin sat also and ran a hand through his wine red hair. “I don’t know where to start. I was sent to kill dragons but all along the way I’ve heard nothing but good about them. In Dragonholme the people suggested I come to the valley to see for myself. I came, still fully expecting to die. Yet, instead I find the dragons have companion riders and seem to be anything but the fire-breathing monsters I’d imagined from the tales in the city.” He took a deep breath. “Why would the king want the dragons dead if they’re a force for good?”

Haru sighed and sat forward in his seat. “I was hoping you could answer that question, Rin. It came as a surprise to us but then again we should have expected it. At one time, the lands beyond the walls were as lush and green as the king’s realm. Something terrible happened there and many of the dragons and my people were killed. Those that took over drained the land of its magic which they turned to their own ends. Now those lands are desolate and full of their evil magic. I think you know of whom I speak.”

Rin gazed at the beautiful man as he listened. “You mean the warlocks, don’t you?”

Haru nodded. “Yes. I also know they’re the reason your sister fled the city. She has a strong gift of healing which they wish to turn to their own evil ends.”

Rin nodded but asked, “How do you know all this?”

Haru smiled although the expression seemed sad to Rin. “Some things the dragons tell me, others I simply know.” He moved his hair aside to reveal pointed ears. “I’m a fae, Rin, an elf to be precise and I have lived for over three thousand years.”

Rin frowned. There went any chance of building a relationship with the beautiful man. He wasn’t going to live for three millennia and besides, Haru probably had another elf in his life, when not tending eggs. “I see.” It was all he felt he could say.

Haru still smiled as he let his hair fall back into place. “I think you and your sister might be part fae judging by the unusual color of your eyes.”

Rin stared. “I often wondered where we got red eyes from.”

One of the eggs started to rock and Haru quickly crossed the cave to steady it. “They will hatch in no more than a day or two. I hope Nagisa has arrived by then. He still hopes for a dragon to choose him.”

Rin wondered who this Nagisa might be, but decided it didn’t much matter to him. “I’m about to commit treason.”

Haru turned his attention from the egg to stare at him. “Does that mean you have decided not to follow the king’s command?”

Rin chuckled. “Worse than that. I’ve decided to help you, if I can.”

Shangri, the huge blue dragon moved his wedge shaped head to stare at Rin. “He means it, Haru.”

Haru nodded. “I know, Shangri.”

Rin nodded his agreement. He opened his mouth to say more when the egg Haru was steadying gave a sudden lurch and a split appeared in its side. “Looks like it’s hatching.”

Haru frowned. “But there’s nobody here for it to bond with. Unless…”

The egg gave another lurch and Haru let go of it. “Rin, come here please.”

Mystified, Rin rose to his feet and crossed the cave. Haru took hold of his right hand and placed it on the egg. “Steady it so it doesn’t topple onto its side.”

Rin steadied the egg and watched as the crack gradually turned into a hole. A wedge shaped head pushed its way out of the hole and chirruped. Rin stood still and watched in fascinated awe as the baby dragon pushed its way through the shards of the egg and finally stood on the floor of the cave, gazing at him. “Fengri.” The word came out as a chirrup but Rin still recognized it as a name. “Rin.”

Haru smiled. “Now I understand. Fengri felt your resolve and decided to hatch and bond with you.”

Rin stared at Haru. “But I don’t know how to look after a dragon.”

Haru laughed. “You’ll learn.”

*****

The higher they climbed the more uneasy Makoto became. He had a constant feeling of being watched and not by friendly eyes. It was as if he were being assessed and found wanting. The very air became hard to breath the feeling was so oppressive.

Nagisa smiled at him. “Not far now. We’re nearly at the top.”

Somehow Makoto knew that but all he said was, “Good.”

They reached a spot where the path became so narrow they had to walk in single file until suddenly it widened and Makoto was gazing out over Dragon Valley. He was just about to comment on how beautiful it was when his view was blocked by a large, purple and scaly body. Makoto stared at the dragon, amazed at its beauty. The dragon stared back at him.

Beside him Nagisa stamped his foot. “Stop playing games, Rei! Makoto is frightened enough as it is.”

Makoto yelped as a hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him round to face a fae with purple eyes and blue black hair. This concerned him even more as the dragon was now behind him and he wasn’t sure if it would attack. The newcomer laughed suddenly. “Fear is better than malice. But Haruka knew you would arrive today and has decided to welcome you.”

Makoto shot Nagisa a look to find he was glowering at Rei. “And you wonder why you have so few friends, Rei. I’m almost positive Haru would have told you to welcome Makoto, not terrify the life out of him.”

“Sometimes Haruka trusts too much,” Rei argued.

“Unlike you and Sousuke. I take it the two of you were the cause of the oppressive atmosphere on the way up.”

Rei shrugged. “Both Turgri and Curgri wanted to test the resolve of the young prince.”

Nagisa rolled his eyes. “Do we get a ride down, at least, or will Turgri make us walk?”

Makoto nearly jumped out of his skin when the dragon spoke in a voice that rumbled like thunder. “I will not make you walk. Curgri is on her way. I will take the young prince to the guest house while Curgri takes you to her eggs.”

Nagisa stared at the purple dragon. “They are ready to hatch?”

“Very nearly.”

Nagisa turned to Makoto. “Please wait in the guest house. Haru will want to talk to you but can’t until the eggs are safely hatched. Will you wait that long? It should be no more than a day or two.”

Makoto nodded. “I have too many questions not to wait.”

Rei strode forward and mounted the dragon who was crouched down to make it easier for him. Makoto followed more slowly, somewhat perturbed about mounting the huge dragon. Rei reached down a hand. “Climb onto Turgri’s knee and I’ll pull you up.”

He did as instructed and found a comfortable seat just behind Rei’s. He got settled just as Turgri beat his wings and took to the sky giving Makoto a bird’s eye view of the Valley. He wondered again at it’s beauty, even though it was getting dark by now. Lights showed here and there on the Valley floor and Turgri made for one group of them. The ride was exhilarating and Makoto was almost sorry when they came to rest outside a large and beautiful house made of living trees. Turgri crouched down again and he climbed off the dragon’s back.

A young seeming fae with silver hair and aquamarine eyes came to meet them. “Ai, this is Makoto. Please look after him until the rest of our guests arrive and the eggs hatch.”

Ai nodded to Makoto. “One has already hatched and bonded with the king’s hero.”

Turgri chuckled like the booming of wind swept waves along the coast. “Fengri chose wisely. So will the others.”

Ai glanced up at Rei. “Should I be at the cave? I might be lucky this time.”

Rei was quiet for a few moments and Makoto had the feeling he was communing with Turgri. “You still have time before the eggs start hatching. One of our companions will pick you up when the time is right.”

Ai took a deep breath before smiling at Makoto. “Please come inside and refresh yourself. You must have had a few shocks today.”

Makoto couldn’t argue with that and obediently followed Ai into the guest house.

Chapter Text

Gou, Momo and Sei arrived in Dragonholme mid afternoon of the following day and came to a halt in the village square. Gou looked around her with interest. The village was larger than any of the others she had passed through yet there was no inn and she wondered where she was to stay while she waited for her brother. She had thought he would have been here by now, but there was no sign of him.

She felt a sudden flare of magic like her own and wondered at it. She knew it wasn’t warlock magic, it didn’t have the taint of blood and death that theirs had. She shivered despite the warmth of the day.

Sei and Momo had dismounted and she supposed she’d better do the same. She climbed off her mare and led her to the water trough where the young men had taken their horses. Sei smiled at her. “Momo and I are going to continue into the mountains. You should be safe here.”

She frowned. Were they going to abandon her already? She was about to say something when a boy, no more than nine or ten pulled at her skirt. “My sister wants to talk to you.” He pointed across the square where a girl of about the same age stood watching her.

Gou went across to the girl and smiled at her. “Hello. Your brother says you want to talk to me.”

The girl nodded. “I knew you were coming here and I know why. The warlocks came for me too. It would be safer for you to go to the dragons for protection rather than stay here.”

Gou recognized the clairvoyant magic in the girl as like spoke to like, so she took the warning seriously. “You could be right.”

The girl smiled at her. “Your brother is already there. He’s nice.”

Gou returned the smile and said, “I think so too.”

Sei crossed the square to see what was happening. “Momo and I are ready to go. Will you wait here?”

Gou looked around the village again. “Where would I stay?”

The boy stepped forward. “Our parents give hospitality to all those going to see the dragons.” He turned to Sei. “You might want to rest for the night before making the climb.”

Sei thought about it. “It is getting late,” he admitted.

The boy nodded. “It’s a long walk. You wouldn’t get there before it was dark.”

Sei glanced at Gou. “Very well, my brother and I will stay the night but we’ll leave in the morning.”

Gou smiled at him, glad he would be there for tonight at least. “If you see my idiot brother, tell him to come and meet me like he promised.”

The girl took her hand. “Come with me. I’ll take you to our home.”

Gou smiled down at her. “Do you have a name?”

“I’m Ran and he’s Ren. We’re twins.”

Gou raised a brow at that. Twin births were very uncommon. No wonder the girl was special and she wondered if the boy was too. “That’s wonderful.”

Ran nodded and led her towards the largest cottage in the village. “Are you sure this is all right?” Gou asked.

“Yes.”

As they approached the door it was opened by a young seeming woman with her hair in an attractive bun on top of her head. “Welcome,” she called, then as they got closer she smiled. “You greatly resemble your brother. I’m so glad you got here safely.” She glanced beyond Gou then and smiled at Sei and Momo. “All of you,” she added.

Sei bowed his head to her. “My brother and I will only impose on you for the night.”

“That’s fine. The dragons are expecting you both.”

Sei and Momo exchanged a look. “Expecting us?” Momo asked.

The woman nodded. “Yes, their servant came through yesterday and told us we should expect you. But where are my manners? I’m Chigusa and I’m very pleased to meet you all. My husband, Kisumi will be here shortly to stable your horses.”

“I’m Sei and this is my brother Momo. The lady is Gou.”

Chigusa nodded and ushered them into a comfortable sitting room. “Please, take your ease. Ran, Ren please help me with the dinner. There will be a hot meal for you before sundown.”

She bustled away with both children in her wake leaving Gou to be thankful there were still such kind people in the world.

***

Rin presented Fengri with yet another piece of meat from the pile Haru had provided. The dragon was visibly growing and showing signs of being a deep red in color. “Do all of you match the eyes of your riders?”

Fengri swallowed the meat before saying, “It often works out that way.”

Rin smiled. “So young and already so wise. How does that happen?”

Fengri cocked his wedge shaped head to one side as if in thought. Rin decided it was really cute. “My parents, Turgri and Curgri teach me.”

“So you were listening to them rather than thinking?”

“Yes. I have news for you Rin. Your sister has arrived in Dragonholme. Would you like to see her tomorrow?”

Rin picked up another piece of meat and held it out. “Are you able to leave the Valley so soon?”

Fengri took the meat, chewed and swallowed. “Oh yes, I can look after myself now. It’s when we’re still in the egg we’re most vulnerable to attack. That’s why no adult dragon leaves the Valley when there are eggs to hatch. We learned that lesson the hard way.”

Rin didn’t think he was imagining the sadness in the little creature’s voice. “Did they kill many dragons?”

“Hundreds. We are the last of our kind, for now.”

Rin thought about that ‘for now’ and wondered if they could defeat the king and the warlocks. “If we won, would you be able to recover your numbers.”

Fengri did the head cocking thing again. Finally he said, “Yes, eventually. It would take time and there would be much dangerous work for us to do.” He stared straight at Rin for a moment before he said, “I hope we will be up to the challenges ahead of us, Rin.”

Rin finally plucked up the courage to ask the question which had been on his mind ever since Fengri hatched. “What happens when I grow old and die?”

The little dragon seemed highly amused. “Dragon riders don’t grow old, Rin.”

“But I’m not fae.”

Fengri crouched down, ready for sleep. “You changed when I chose you. The only thing that will part us now is if someone manages to kill one or other of us. If that happens the other will die also. That is the nature of the bond.”

Rin stared at the dragon as he closed his eyes. Did becoming bonded to a dragon make him as timeless and immortal as Haru? If that really was the case there was nothing to stop them from forming a relationship. That led him to thinking about the genders of dragons and if there was a link between that and the relationships of their riders. He knew Rei and Sousuke were a couple but then again Curgri was a female dragon, mated to Turgri. Both Shangri and Fengri were male dragons.

He shook his head, trying to clear it as his thoughts kept going round in circles. He decided Fengri had the right idea and settled down against the dragon to sleep.

***

In another part of the Valley, Makoto was facing a whole contingent of Dragon Riders. Not only was Nagisa there but also Rei, Sousuke and Haru. There were others too, both male and female, but they kept silent and simply listened. Haru asked the first question. “What made you decide to leave the castle, Makoto?”

He swallowed hard. “I wanted to see and speak to the people for myself. I was uneasy about the change in my father and wondered if something outside had caused it.”

Haru nodded. “I see. What was this change?”

Makoto sighed. It was hard discussing what had happened to his father with these people, if people they were. “I had reason to believe such a swift change of heart had something to do with a spell of some sort. He might never poke his nose out of the castle but, until recently, he had no desire to attack dragons or anything else.”

Haru leaned forward. “A spell, you say, cast by whom?”

Makoto glanced at Nagisa, who nodded. “I believe it was a woman called Samina.” There was a low murmur from the riders as they repeated the name. “It seems you may have heard of her.”

Haru nodded and sat back in his chair again. “She is the daughter of the last leader of the warlocks. Sai here nearly killed her when she was younger but she obviously survived.” He indicated a tall red haired rider. “Five years ago, her father was killed by Sousuke and she took over the warlocks. I believe Nagisa has already told you they come from another world. Whether that world was their home world or just another world they destroyed in their travels we don’t know. All we know is, they use magical portals to travel between worlds. The dragons, along with us, are the only living beings they seem to fear.”

Rei spoke up. “The reason they fear the dragons and ourselves is obvious. We can mend the damage they’ve already done. They can’t survive in ordered worlds.”

Sousuke shook his head. “That may be true, Rei, but their fear of us stems from the fact their magic can’t touch us. They have to get humans to make the attempt.”

“Or destroy eggs,” Haru said sadly. “All those caves you see around the valley should be full, Makoto. But they’re not. Some of the older dragons and their riders have given up and gone to their final resting place.” He indicated the riders in the room. “We are all that is left of the fae. Twenty of us. There are enough eggs for ten more.”

Sousuke jumped to his feet. “Wait a minute! Curgri laid eleven eggs. What happened to the other egg?”

For the first time since Makoto had met him, Haru smiled. “Fengri has hatched and bonded. His rider is getting used to the idea.”

Rei shook his head. “He bonded with the ‘hero’ didn’t he?”

Haru’s smile widened. “Yes, he did. Also, think about something else, Rei. We have only six candidates among the fae yet Curgri laid eleven eggs. Why? To the best of my knowledge, every clutch of eggs has numbered the same as available candidates and Fengri chose Rin. There are still four eggs unaccounted for.”

He turned back to Makoto. “I’m sorry, Prince Makoto, but for this world and everything on it to survive at all, we may have to kill your father.”

Makoto stared at him in disbelief. Up to this moment he’d considered Haru to be a gentle soul but now there was an implacable expression in his eyes. Makoto swallowed hard but couldn’t find the words to argue for his father’s life.

Chapter Text

Rin came awake with a start as someone entered the cave. He was supposed to be guarding the eggs with Fengri but had fallen asleep instead. He was a sorry excuse for a dragon rider.

He tensed at the sound of flint and steel and then a torch was lit to reveal Haru. The blue eyes were full of amusement. “You could have used the bed.”

Rin sighed in disgust at himself. “I hadn’t intended to sleep at all but Fengri nodded off and I followed his example.”

Haru lit another torch. “If Fengri fell asleep, it was safe for you to do the same. Our dragons never lead us wrong. Besides, Curgri was guarding the pass while we talked to our new guest.”

Rin sat up and Fengri opened one eye but soon closed it again. Rin climbed to his feet without disturbing the young dragon further. “New guest?”

Haru nodded as he lit yet another torch. “Yes, the Crown Prince came here last night. Which is why I had to leave you two alone for a few hours.” He chuckled softly. “Fate seems to be on our side, for once.”

Rin took a deep breath as he thought again just how beautiful Haru was. He put such thoughts aside for a moment and said what else was on his mind. “Fengri told me my sister is in Dragonholme. I promised to meet her there.”

Haru smiled at him. “I know you did and you shall keep your promise. I woke you so you can go down to the village and bring her here for safety.”

Rin had the distinct impression there was something Haru wasn’t saying to him. “In the middle of the night?”

Haru laughed aloud. “It wants only an hour before sun rise, Rin. We had much to discuss. Also you won’t be walking down. Shangri has agreed to take both you and Fengri to the end of the pass as time is of the essence here. You must reach the village by day break.” He glanced at the eggs as he spoke. “They will hatch today. I want your sister and two other young men here for that.”

Rin stared. “Which two young men?”

Haru shook his head. “That you will see for yourself, Rin. Now wake Fengri and get to the village. Shangri will bring you all back.”

Rin nodded his agreement but then thought of something else. “I’ve not ridden a dragon alone. How do I tell Shangri what to do.”

Haru laughed aloud. “You don’t. Even I don’t tell him what to do. He knows where he’s going and won’t let you fall.”

Rin was still a little confused. “What about Fengri?”

Haru smiled as the little dragon awoke. “He’ll follow Shangri. He can fly on his own. It will only be a moon before you will be able to ride on his back. Dragons grow quickly.”

Fengri rose up and Rin could see how much he’d grown already. He was now taller than Rin. From the mouth of the cave Shangri asked, “Are you ready, young rider?”

Rin smiled, pleased with the idea of seeing his sister again and bringing her to safety. “Yes, I’m ready.”

He approached the massive dragon who crouched so he could mount. He clambered into the saddle and took hold of the reins. Shangri stood up then spread his wings. Behind him, Fengri did the same.

They flew over the valley and to the head of the pass where Curgri made way for them to go by. It seemed to Rin she had an expression of pride on her face at sight of Fengri flying. Then they were flying above the pass and down towards the village.

A half day walk took only moments for the great blue dragon and he came to rest just outside the village. “This is the closest I can fit. I shall wait here for my passengers.”

Rin thought the dragon might be laughing and he smiled before turning and walking towards the village. Fengri came with him and was soon surrounded by excited villagers.

Rin spotted Gou almost immediately just as she hugged a tall young man who leaned down to kiss her. Incensed Rin ran across and separated them forcibly. “Leave my sister alone!”

The young man looked about to argue when Fengri and an adoring wave of villagers arrived. “He’s one of the people to go to the valley, Rin. Don’t hit him.”

“He was kissing my sister!”

Gou huffed. “I wasn’t complaining, brother. Besides, Sei and his brother got me here safely.”

Rin calmed down and stared at the tall young man. He seemed familiar somehow. “Do I know you?”

Sei ran a hand through his hair. “Not personally but you passed by my father’s smithy often enough. You may have seen me then. Believe me, I hold your sister in the highest respect and want to marry her if she’ll have me.”

Rin took a deep breath and spoke to Gou. “I’m taking you to Dragon Valley. You’ll be safe from warlocks there.” He glanced at Sei as he thought, and other things.

***

Gou glared at Rin. He always had to act as if he knew what was best for her. “Suppose I don’t want to go to Dragon Valley.”

Sei caught hold of her hand. “Please, go with your brother, Gou. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

She went to answer him when Momo burst out of Chigusa’s house with a large basket. “Provisions for the journey to the Valley.” He stopped short when he spotted Fengri. “That’s a dragon.” He reached for his bow.

Rin stepped in front of the dragon and drew his sword. “You hurt Fengri and I’ll kill you.”

Momo lowered the bow. “I was sent by the king to kill dragons.”

Rin nodded. “So was I but instead I bonded with one.”

Gou stared from Rin to the red dragon. “You defied the king?”

Rin nodded again. “It gets worse. I’m on the side of the dragons now. I guess that is high treason. Gou, listen to me, you two as well. The dragons are all that stands between this realm and total destruction like that beyond the walls.”

Sei became thoughtful. “I did wonder why the king would send my idiot brother to kill this realm’s holy creatures. Most people don’t know the old stories anymore but I remember my grandmother telling me the dragons along with the fae created the world from chaos.”

Momo stared at his brother. “I don’t remember that.”

“Probably not, you were only about three at the time. She died not long after.”

Rin chuckled suddenly. “No wonder the dragons are expecting you two. You won’t have to walk. A ride is waiting for you.”

Sei stared at him. “A ride?”

Fengri chirruped then said, “You are honored. Our leader has come for you, personally.”

Momo took a step back. “They talk?”

Rin chuckled. “I felt the same way when I first heard a dragon talk. I thought I was going to die.”

Momo frowned at him and indicated Fengri. “They don’t seem very dangerous.”

Both Rin and his dragon laughed. “You haven’t yet met Shangri.”

“Who is Shangri?”

“The leader of the dragons and your ride to the Valley. You two, along with Gou, are expected.”

Fengri rested his head on Rin’s shoulder. “You are the new hero, Momo. Rin is the original whose broken remains you expected to find.”

Rin looked a little startled at that. “The king thinks I’m dead? That might just work in our favor.”

Gou was confused and showed it. “Why did you change sides, brother?”

Rin ran a hand through his hair, a sure sign he was embarrassed. “I was told the truth by the fae and the dragons. The warlocks are the ones who want the dragons dead.”

Gou knew there was more he wasn’t saying but she could find out what it was later. “Very well, I’ll come to Dragon Valley with you.” She still wasn’t certain she was doing the right thing but she was determined to find out the truth for herself.

***

Rin led Gou, Momo and Sei to where Shangri waited. The dragon turned a golden eye on them and both Momo and Sei stepped back, hands going to their weapons. “They still need persuading. Luckily there is still enough time.”

Shangri’s loud voice made his sister jump. “You get used to it,” Rin assured her as Shangri crouched and he climbed onto the dragon’s back. “Who’s first?”

Shangri spoke again. “Your sister. I sense warlocks close by.”

Rin reached down to Gou. “Step onto his knee then grab my hand.” Gou did as he asked and sat behind him eyes wide.

Fengri flapped his wings and took to the sky knocking Momo over as he did so. “I will ask two of the others to collect these two as there isn’t much time.”

Shangri stood and spread his own wings although his ascent was far more gentle than Fengri’s. He made for the pass and Gou asked, “Is Fengri a baby dragon?”

Rin nodded. “He’s only a few days old. The rest of his clutch have not yet hatched, though it will be very soon now.” He wasn’t sure how he knew that but he understood it to be the truth.

Half way to the top they passed Curgri and a yellow dragon Rin didn’t yet know on their way to the village. “Why the hurry?” he asked Shangri.

The huge dragon flew on but at the same time he said, “Curgri’s eggs are ready to hatch, everyone should be in the Valley for that. Also the new ‘heroes’ should learn the truth before the eggs hatch. We will allow no danger to the young dragons.”

Rin was already attached enough to Fengri to agree wholeheartedly with the dragon’s sentiments.

Chapter Text

The guest house was not as full as when Makoto had been questioned but there were still a lot of riders present to ask the intentions of the ‘heroes’ his father had sent. He noticed they all had red hair of different intensities and wondered if it was deliberate or if they’d simply stood out in the crowd.

All present fell silent when Haru held up a hand. “Thank you. I know some of you are concerned about having strangers in our midst at such a time but I can assure you all, nobody in the Valley is a warlock. Rin has already been trusted enough for Fengri to choose him as his rider. He is one of us now. His sister, Gou, is on the run from the warlocks as one of the most powerful healers ever born. I don’t need to tell you what would happen if she fell into their hands so we are going to protect her.”

A murmur of assent went round the room but Sousuke raised his voice to ask, “What about the other two? The dragons seem to have accepted Makoto but too many strangers at such a time seems dangerous to me.”

Makoto felt someone staring and turned to find the man called Sei watching him. He nodded and smiled. “Prince Makoto? The king’s son? What are you doing here?”

“Learning some much needed lessons, I’m afraid. I’d never realized how many lies we’ve been told in the city.”

Sei nodded. “My grandmother told me the dragons made the world which is the main reason why I came here to stop this young idiot from doing anything stupid.” He indicated one of the other redheads as he spoke. “I’m Sei and this is my younger brother, Momo.”

Rin bowed his head in Makoto’s direction. “I’m Rin, the first idiot to be sent here but now a dragon rider.” He chuckled. “Even though Fengri is too small to carry me yet.”

Haru smiled. “I told you, they grow quickly. Be patient.” He turned to Sei. “So, having realized your grandmother spoke nothing but the truth about us, what do you intend to do?”

Sei was silent for a moment. “Nothing,” he said. “I want to help you, I really do, but I can’t go against the wishes of the king.”

“A foolish man who very much needs to die,” Sousuke said.

Makoto frowned. “My father may be foolish but he doesn’t deserve to die.”

Haru nodded. “I agree with you, Makoto, especially if Samina is in the court. I’m certain she’s behind the attempts to wipe us out.”

Momo looked confused. “Who’s Samina?”

“She’s the leader of the warlocks, Momo. She is very powerful and not even human as I understand humanity. It’s a cloak she wears to deceive and fool.” Haru looked sad when he spoke of the woman. “She was responsible for the destruction of many dragons and their riders. She cannot be allowed to destroy those few of us left.”

Rin spoke up. “Perhaps it would be better to kill her rather than the king.”

Haru nodded. “Undoubtedly, but how?”

Rin glanced at Sei and Momo. “The three of us have the perfect excuse to get into the castle. The king and this Samina will want to know if we’ve been successful or not.”

Haru appeared thoughtful and, judging by his expression, his thoughts weren’t happy. “We’re not killers by nature, Rin. However, I think we may have to be on this occasion.”

Sousuke smiled. “It should work and either Sei or Momo could actually do the deed as Rin is a rider now.”

Rin shook his head. “I am willing to do it. They might not be.”

Rei spoke up for the first time. “We’re not even sure if she can be killed by normal means.”

Sei raised his hand. “Actually, I think she can be. My grandmother not only told the tales of the dragons but also mentioned how the leader of the warlocks was killed by a young knight of Munchia. Now I’m not sure where Munchia is or was, but her other tales have proved to be true. She also said his daughter was gravely wounded by another young knight.”

Makoto had an epiphany of sorts. “Did either young knight have red hair by any chance?”

Sei stared at him and nodded. “Yes, she said so but I thought it was because I had red hair.”

Haru shook his head. “Sousuke here was the knight of Munchia, his original land, although it was Sousuke who killed the warlock leader, it was Sai who thought he’d killed the warlock’s daughter. Look at who was sent. First Rin, now you two, all of you with red hair. As Sai almost killed her she probably hates people with red hair and deliberately chose you, hoping you would die.”

Rei spoke again. “Do you think she will send more?”

Haru appeared to be listening. “Shangri says not. He says it would weaken whatever spell she has cast on the king if she keeps asking favors of him.”

Gou held up her hand. “It sounds to me as if she used a love spell. If the king is besotted with her, he will do her bidding up to a point. Shangri is right, she can’t keep sending more fools to their deaths as she believes.”

Haru smiled at her. “Then that gives us a window of opportunity before she decides to send more young warriors.” He glanced around at Sei, Momo, Gou and Makoto. “I think it would be a good idea for you all to see what we’re fighting for.”

***

Haru smiled at his human guests as he spoke and he heard Shangri and several other dragons come to rest outside. “If you can bear to be on a dragon’s back once more, I will show you what we are determined to protect.”

He rose to his feet and led the way outside. “Rin, you will come with me as Shangri seems to like you. Turgri will carry Makoto, Curgri will carry Ai. The others will take passengers if their riders are willing.” He gave his riders a hard look as he spoke. Three stepped forward and offered to take Rin’s sister and her companions.

He mounted Shangri and Rin clambered up behind him. “Hatching time?” he asked.

Haru smiled as Shangri beat his wings and took off. “Very close now. Nagisa is watching them so they will be safe until we all reach the cave.”

Rin asked another question. “How are you going to fit all the dragons in one cave?”

Haru laughed. “We’re not. Not even Turgri and Curgri will be present in case they have an influence on the outcome. The baby dragons must choose for themselves.”

“But Shangri was there when Fengri hatched. Didn’t he effect things?”

Shangri answered for himself. “No, both you and Fengri were unexpected. I had no control over his choice.”

They reached the cave and dismounted and Shangri made way for the procession of dragons that had followed them up. Each dragon stayed only long enough for their riders and, in some cases, passengers to dismount before flying off. When the last dragon had gone they moved forward into the cave.

Haru smiled at Nagisa. “It is time.”

Nagisa nodded. “The eggs are already beginning to rock.”

The riders arranged themselves at the sides of the cave leaving the six young candidates standing in the center of the large space. Their human guests stood still, towards the back but Haru motioned them forward until they were just behind the candidates.

The eggs rocked harder with every passing moment and cracks appeared in several of them. One by one they hatched and a baby dragon stood on the cave floor. The first, a pink, waddled over to Nagisa and chirruped. He was swiftly followed by an aquamarine beauty who chose Ai. Four more hatched and all the fae candidates had a dragon.

Haru watched closely as another egg split. Four eggs with no fae to take the dragons within. He had to wonder why Curgri had laid so many and what was to happen to the dragons within. A gold dragon pushed out of his shell and looked around the cave. He spotted something, or someone and waddled past the other candidates and babies until he reached Sei. He chirruped and Sei looked stunned.

Nobody had time to react before a tiny red hatched and made a bee line for Gou. Another gold was next and made straight for Momo.

The last egg rocked and cracked but the dragon inside seemed loathe to be born until the egg seemed to burst and a green sat in the shards. Once out of the egg the little green had no hesitation in making its way to an awestruck Makoto.

Only then did the fae riders murmur to each other until Haru held up a hand for silence. “We have lived with the dragons for long enough to know they do nothing without a reason. Curgri knew how many eggs to lay and her children made their own choices.” He smiled at all the new riders. “I expect the fae candidates to help the now fae new riders in the care of dragons. They haven’t had a century in which to prepare. Now leave me with them and their dragons for a few moments.”

All six candidates moved to the entrance of the cave while the four erstwhile humans gathered round Haru. He beckoned Rin over to join them. “Not all the fae in this valley were born as fae. Some, like yourselves, were once human. When a dragon chooses a companion at birth it bestows longevity on that companion. We die when our dragons die and, unless killed, dragons are immortal.”

Sei’s eyes widened. “They really are the creators of the world.”

Haru nodded. “Exactly. Until the warlocks came dragons and their riders took care of the world. They controlled their own numbers and only a few at a time left their caves. Now, this valley is the only haven left to them and us. So tell me, is it worth fighting for?”

All of them nodded but Makoto looked worried, even though he subconsciously petted his new companion. “How can I be both prince and fae?”

Haru shook his head. “You can’t. You can only be fae now. It’s another reason we have to free your father so he can marry again and have more children. Are you very unhappy with that thought?”

Makoto gazed at the young green dragon and shook his head. “Strangely enough, no. Although I feel some guilt.”

Haru smiled, convinced Nagisa would be as pleased with Makoto’s choice as the little green seemed to be.

Chapter Text

Life passed uneventfully in the valley as the baby dragons grew. Fengri was almost big enough to ride now but Rin decided to wait for the others before he took his maiden flight. There was something else on his mind also and one day he asked Fengri about it. “The king’s horse is standing in Kisumi’s stable and the king will expect me to return him when I return.”

Fengri rested his head on Rin’s shoulder and Rin scratched his neck. “You no longer need a horse, Rin. I can get you anywhere quicker than any horse.”

Rin smiled. “I know that, Fengri, and I couldn’t leave you behind, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. However, that doesn’t solve the problem of the horse.”

He knew Fengri’s laugh by now so wasn’t too appalled when the dragon said, “I could eat it.”

Rin stopped scratching and tapped the top of Fengri’s head. “You have enough cattle to feed on, right here.”

Fengri laughed again and moved his head out of reach. “Perhaps, once you’ve dealt with Samina, you can persuade some of the king’s guard to collect your horse and Momo’s.”

Rin nodded as he thought about it. “That could work.”

Fengri strode to the entrance of the nursery cave and twisted his neck to look back at Rin. “I’m going to feed and join my brothers and sisters in the feast. Shangri will collect you as Haru wishes to speak to you.”

Rin’s heart skipped a beat. He hadn’t seen Haru since the dragons had hatched and looked forward to seeing him now. He was so stupid to think Haru would look twice at him.

Fengri laughed again. “You don’t know that,” he said then was gone.

Rin had to wonder if Fengri was reading his mind now. He didn’t have long to worry about it as Shangri arrived to take him to the valley floor. He mounted the massive blue and, as they circled to land, he asked, “Can our companions read our minds?”

Shangri flew for a second or two before answering, “No, but we can sense strong emotions in our companions. Did Fengri pick up your feelings for Haru?”

Rin sighed. “Does the whole damned valley know?”

Shangri did a last spiral down as he said, “No. You’re forgetting I’m the leader and the eldest surviving dragon. I can pick up everyone’s feelings. Fengri has done well to pick yours up so quickly.” He came to rest outside Haru’s house. “Don’t consider it hopeless, Rin. Haru needs a companion of his own kind.”

Rin dismounted and gazed up at him. Shangri gave him what he’d come to recognize as a dragon’s smile before taking off again. Rin tapped on Haru’s door. When it opened, Haru stood there smiling at him. “Come in, Rin. Would you like a drink?”

Rin entered the house, which was a lot more homely than the guest house, and looked around with interest. Like all the houses in the valley, no dead wood had been used in its construction. Trees made up the walls and roof, the furniture was built of wood from branches that had fallen naturally, and there were hangings and tapestries made of canvas embroidered with colored silks. It was beautiful. “Beer or porter if you have it, please.”

Haru smiled. “We have beer that we brew ourselves. It’s quite good.”

Rin nodded. “That sounds good to me.”

“Make yourself comfortable then, while I get your beer.” He disappeared into another room and Rin sat in a comfortable chair upholstered with more of the tapestry. Haru returned with two foaming glasses of beer and handed one to Rin before seating himself in another chair. “I wanted to talk to you about many things,” he said, “but we do need to discuss your return to the city and your mission there.”

Rin took a swallow of the beer and found it delicious. “Shouldn’t Sei and Momo be here for this discussion?”

Haru gave him a look full of sadness. “We can tell them the plan when we’ve made it. I asked you as I think you are the one who will have to kill Samina. I don’t believe either of them will have the ability to do the deed.”

Rin frowned. “You believe them to be cowards?”

Haru shook his head. “No, not at all. They will probably have to deal with a few guards until the king snaps out of the spell. You must know by now Sei loves your sister and is a complete gentleman when it comes to females. Momo is able to fire a bow well but might find it difficult to get close enough to kill her.”

Rin took another swallow of beer. “What makes you think I can get close enough?”

Again that sad expression crossed Haru’s lovely face. “Just like Fengri, you are very young as yet, Rin. You have no conception of the power we can call upon if needed. That power convinces me you are the one who will kill Samina.” He sighed and took a drink of his own beer. “We are creators, Rin, not destroyers by nature. However, we will need to make an exception when it comes to the warlocks. While you, Momo and Sei enter the castle, we will be destroying every warlock we find. We cannot let them escape and destroy yet another world.”

Rin finished his beer and put the glass down on the table next to his chair. “So we take them all out at the same time?”

Haru nodded. “If we don’t they’ll be free to destroy again.”

Rin could see the sense in this and found he agreed with it. “I don’t want to be a killer either,” he admitted, “but the warlocks don’t just kill people and animals. They kill whole worlds.”

Haru still looked heartbroken but he smiled at Rin. “I’m so glad Fengri chose you, Rin. You are still strong enough to do what needs to be done.”

Rin smiled back and wondered if there might be a deeper meaning to Haru’s words.

*

Gou couldn’t get Ran out of her mind. The girl had magic very similar to that of the fae and the warlocks had already come this far from the city. Shangri had sensed them close by and Gou felt uneasy. She turned to Nargri her companion dragon. “Is there any way we could go to Dragonholme today?”

Nargri chirruped and placed her head on Gou’s shoulder. “I can fly there but, unless one of the full-grown dragons agrees to carry you, you would have to walk.” She lifted her head and gazed at Gou. “You are not a prisoner here.”

Gou smiled and petted the little red. “I know that, Nargri. I just wanted to be sure you could fly that far. I have so much still to learn about you.”

Nargri accepted the petting for a few moments then strode to the edge of the nursery cave. “I will ask if any will give you a ride.” With that she spread her wings and disappeared.

Gou paced the cave, unable to get over the feeling something was very wrong. A large shadow darkened the cave and she turned to the entrance to find Curgri waiting there. The huge teal dragon looked as uneasy as she felt. “I will carry you. We need to know what the warlocks are doing so close to the valley.”

Gou breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I can’t help but feel Ran is in great danger from them.”

Curgri bowed her head in agreement then squatted so Gou could mount. “Let us waste no time then.”

Gou settled on Curgri’s back and the dragon took off, Nargri doing her best to keep up with her mother. It didn’t take them long to reach the village only to find it in an uproar. Gou dismounted and ran into the square, Nargri right behind her. Chigusa flung herself into Gou’s arms, crying as if her heart would break. “They’ve taken her. They’ve taken my Ran.”

Gou’s heart sank. She was too late to save the girl. “Nargri, tell Curgri what has happened while I stay with Chigusa.”

Nargri flew back to Curgri and Gou led the weeping Chigusa back into her cottage. “Don’t worry, Chigusa, we’ll get Ran back.” At least she hoped that was the case. It depended on whether the dragons thought it important enough to act.

Ren and Kisumi returned to the cottage, both armed with swords. “We’re going after them,” Kisumi said but Gou shook her head. “Curgri is alerting Dragon Valley. The dragons will surely act.”

Kisumi looked thoughtful. “They might as both Ran and Ren are fae and in a few decades will be candidates for their own dragons.”

His words answered all her questions about this family and she was more determined than ever to help them.

The beating of dragon wings came from their landing spot just outside the village and Gou left the cottage and ran to greet them. She was surprised to see not only Curgri but Shangri and Turgri also, together with their riders.

Kisumi had followed her and bowed low to Shangri. “Please, get Ran back for us. They took her from her bed, I don’t know how and I have no idea which way they went.”

Haru had obviously heard the news from one of the other dragons as he smiled down at them both from Shangri’s back. “They will head back to the city. We will catch them long before they get there. Gou, please mount behind me. We may well need your magic to counteract theirs.”

Gou wasted no time in mounting Shangri and all three great dragons took off. She should have been surprised to see Nargri flying along behind them, but she wasn’t. She just hoped the little dragon didn’t get hurt.

Chapter Text

They flew at a ground eating pace, knowing they had to reach Ran before the warlocks reached their stronghold in the city. Haru glanced round and spoke to Gou. “Are you all right at this speed.”

Gou smiled at him. “I will have to get used to it, won’t I?”

Haru shook his head. “We don’t normally fly this fast. Only in emergencies and this is an emergency.” He faced front again and spoke to Shangri. “I need your sharp eyes my friend.”

Shangri didn’t reply but, halfway to Greendale, he let out a mighty roar and swooped towards the ground. As they got closer, Haru could see several horses galloping, with Ran held across the back of one of them. “Well done, Shangri. Let’s rescue Ran.”

Curgri and Turgri had swooped with them but stayed above ground. Nargri, however, continued downward. Haru frowned wondering what the baby dragon was doing until he heard Gou say, “That’s right, Nargri. Bring Ran to safety.”

The little dragon swooped over the horses causing them to rear up in panic, unseating their riders and Ran. Nargri picked Ran up in her claws and lifted her up and out of the way. The horses bolted towards Greendale and the city beyond leaving their riders behind.

Shangri and the other two dragons incinerated the riders with a blast of deadly dragon fire. Gou turned her head away from the sight, but Haru watched the horror with a sense of morbid satisfaction. These people deserved to die. He wiped away his tears impatiently. “Nargri can’t carry Ran for long,” he warned.

The little dragon had carried Ran away from the carnage and put her down gently at the edge of a field of wheat. Haru hoped the girl had been spared the sight of her kidnappers’ immolation. Shangri came to rest next to the child and Ran charged over to them. “Thank you, thank you!” she cried.

Haru smiled down at her. “Thank Nargri, she rescued you.”

Ran turned to Nargri and patted her. “Thank you, Nargri.”

The little dragon chirruped at her and said, “You’re welcome, little one.”

Turgri strutted forward and crouched by Ran’s side. Rei reached down to her. “Mount up behind me and Turgri will take you home.”

The girl did as she was bid and they all flew back towards the valley, this time at a much slower pace. Haru was pleased to see Nargri was still keeping up with the adult dragons. “Curgri produced a strong brood.”

Shangri answered him. “Yes. They need to be strong for what is to come. If Rin succeeds and we find all the warlocks, we still have to deal with the chaos in the rest of the world.”

Haru sighed. “We can only deal with a bit at a time, Shangri. There are, as yet, not enough dragons to look after the chaotic realms.”

Shangri boomed out a laugh. “There will be. Curgri will lay again and Nargri and Lemgri in their time. The fae will need to keep up with us.”

Haru flushed. He knew he would never have children of his own as he didn’t find females attractive. It had meant loneliness all his long life, apart from Shangri’s companionship. Now, his heart was in turmoil over a new young rider who wasn’t even fae in the true sense of the word. He sighed until he remembered Rei and Sousuke being together. But then, Sousuke’s Curgri was a female. “I hope they can.”

Shangri whispered in his mind. “I shall not mate, Haruka, for dragon lords never mate. You are free to love where you will.”

Haru was silent after that as he wondered if his loneliness would finally come to an end. His reverie continued until they reached Dragonholme and came to rest outside the village.

Ran scrambled down off Turgri’s back and ran to her mother who was racing towards them. “Ran, oh Ran. Thank the dragons for their mercy.” She bowed to Shangri even as she hugged her daughter close.

Ran cried for a while then stunned them all with, “I’m never going to use magic again. They made it hurt.”

Gou moved behind Haru and slid off Shangri’s back. She ran to the little girl and knelt beside her. “Magic should not be like that. Using good magic should feel nice. Those people don’t use good magic. They use bad spells and that has to hurt.”

Ran stared at her for a moment, then nodded. “I will only ever use my magic for good then, Gou. Thank you for explaining why it hurt.”

Gou gave her a quick hug and returned to Shangri who crouched for her. She climbed back on and Shangri turned for home.

Haru smiled as he came to the conclusion Gou was every bit as courageous as her brother.

*

Rin couldn’t get Haru out of his mind. The sad smile, the aura of such deep loneliness as Rin could only guess at. After three thousand years alone how was Haru even sane? Of course, Haru might not have met the right female in his incredibly long life although that seemed unlikely.

Fengri came to rest by his side and started to clean the blood from feeding off his muzzle. “You seem preoccupied, Rin.”

Rin petted the young dragon. Fengri was getting bigger every day and was now almost as big as the adult dragons. “I was thinking about how lonely Haru seems.”

Fengri turned his head to stare at Rin. “Shangri will never mate,” he said cryptically.

Rin frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

Fengri was silent for a moment and Rin was just about to give it up when he spoke, “Shangri is the leader. It would cause dissension if any eggs were from him. Every fae would fight for one of those eggs. The leader never mates with a female for that reason. Shangri isn’t lonely, he has all of us. Haru has all the fae but I think it’s different for fae.”

Rin thought Fengri’s words over. “So Haru is lonely because Shangri won’t mate?”

Fengri pushed against his chest, almost knocking him off his feet. “Dragons mate for life. And we only have two females able to produce eggs until Nargri and Lengri grow to adulthood. The fae aren’t tied to our mating habits. If they were it would mean their extinction. Take Turgri and Curgri for example. They are a mated pair but both their riders are male.”

Rin petted Fengri absently. “Yes, but I’ve been here long enough to know Rei and Sousuke are together.”

Fengri laughed. “It wouldn’t matter either way. The other mated pair have riders who don’t much like each other. Your ways are not our ways. We mate, or not, according to our own ways, not those of the fae. Rin, I’m trying to tell you Haru needs someone even though Shangri doesn’t.”

Rin considered Fengri’s words then frowned. “So why has Haru never taken a female fae as wife?”

Fengri laughed again. “Haru is like Rei and Sousuke. He searches for a man.”

Rin shook his head. “There are many fae males.”

Fengri nudged him once more. “Yes, but Haru is their leader. He couldn’t choose one of them as that would lead to jealousy from the others.”

Rin suddenly realized what his dragon was telling him. “What about a human lover, Fengri?”

“You will live as long as I do, Rin, but you are not fae. Go and talk to him. It’s what you both want.”

Rin gave Fengri a last pat before making his way to Haru’s house. When he reached it he hesitated. What should he say? What if Fengri was wrong and Haru didn’t want him? He turned away just as the door opened and Haru stood there. “Come in, Rin.”

Rin swallowed hard. “I always forget fae magic.”

Haru smiled and led the way inside. “You shouldn’t, after all your sister has it in abundance.”

Rin stared. “But we’re not fae.”

Haru smiled and indicated a chair. “Sit down while I get us both a beer.”

Rin sat and waited until Haru came back with two foaming tankards. “You’re not fae in the true sense of the word, but I’m willing to guess there is fae blood in your ancestry somewhere. I know there is in the late queen’s line, which is why Makoto got a dragon. Sei and Momo are magical purely due to their skills with metals but there is probably more fae blood there. The dragons always pick their riders with care.”

Rin took a long swallow of beer. If he had fae blood, Haru wouldn’t dare choose him against the other fae. The whole idea of being with Haru seemed hopeless now, but how he wished it could be otherwise.

Haru smiled his sad little smile again. “What did you want to see me about?”

Rin shook his head. He couldn’t say what he wanted to say. “I just wanted some company other than Fengri. He’s just fed so will sleep for a few hours.”

Haru gazed into the depths of his beer as if looking for answers there. When he looked up his eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I enjoy your company, Rin. I wish we were in quiet times so we could talk about pleasant subjects instead of killing and warlocks.”

Rin put his beer down and stood up. He crossed the room and took Haru in his arms. He expected the fae to struggle but Haru melted against him. “This will be over once we get rid of the warlocks, then we can talk about anything you want.”

Haru struggled and Rin let him go with a sinking heart until he realized Haru wanted to put his beer down. As soon as the drink was on a table Haru walked back into his arms and held him in return. “I’ve waited so long for you, Rin.”

Rin held Haru close and thought about how he was the luckiest man in the world to have so many years in which to take away Haru’s loneliness.

*

Gou found Sei and Momo practicing with their swords while their amused dragons watched. She knew both new riders would have to face real opponents in the city and she worried for them, especially for Sei. He had looked after her on the road here and acted like a gentleman throughout. She had come to depend on him.

Sei noticed her watching and disarmed Momo before sending him away. Momo and Kegri wandered away and Sei approached her. “It won’t be long before we can fly.”

She nodded and smiled at Nargri who seemed more interested in bumping noses with Pidgri, Sei’s golden dragon. “Rin and Fengri are waiting for the rest of us before he makes his maiden flight.”

Sei cleared his throat. “Does Rin dislike me?”

Gou frowned as she thought about Rin’s attitude towards Sei and the way he played the overprotective brother to the hilt. She sighed. “Our parents died in a plague when we were still very young. Rin looked after me and, when I developed healing powers, protected me as best he could.

“At first I could use my powers for good and earned either money or goods for healing people. Then the warlocks got to know about me and Rin had to protect me again. I think he finds it hard to let go of the urge to protect me. If I weren’t here I think he’d like and respect you. He gets on well enough with Momo.”

Sei laughed. “He has the same relationship with Momo as I do, keeping his dumb self out of trouble.”

Gou smiled. “Rin can’t help but protect people. It’s the way he’s made. You are his equal, you don’t need his protection so he’s not sure how to deal with you.”

Sei nodded then took her hand. “I need to talk to him and convince him of my intentions. I need to show him I will never hurt you and I want to take over the job of protecting you.”

Gou stared at him, her heart pounding and her belly full of butterflies. Did he mean what she thought he meant? “Sei, what are you trying to say to me?”

Sei went down on one knee. “I am trying to say I love you and want to look after you forever. I can’t offer you a blacksmith anymore, but I can offer you my heart. Will you accept it?”

Gou laughed in delight and drew Sei to his feet. “After a declaration like that, how could I not accept? I love you too, Sei. I always will.”

Sei pulled her into his arms and kissed her which she enjoyed very much until both their dragons made strange trumpeting sounds and Rin and Haru arrived on the scene.

Gou kept hold of Sei’s hand as she faced her brother down. She was about to tell him she could make her own decisions now when Haru remarked, “Those trumpeting sounds mean Pidgri and Nargri have accepted each other as mates.”

Rin sighed but smiled at her. “It’s hard to let go, little sister, and I couldn’t let you go to anyone unworthy of you. I might be a little jealous, but Sei is worthy. I can’t deny that.”

Gou let go of Sei’s hand and hugged her brother. “I still love you, silly.”

Rin hugged her in return. “I know. Besides, the dragons don’t lie.” He gave Pidgri and Nargri a disgusted look. “They could have waited till they were full grown.”

Haru chuckled. “They never do.”

Gou looked from Rin to Haru and back again and made a discovery. She smiled at them both but kept her thoughts to herself. She could always tease Rin another day.

Chapter Text

Makoto petted Lemgri, his mind full of turmoil. Why had a dragon chosen him of all people? What would his father say? Had he even noticed Makoto’s disappearance? What should he do about his feelings for Nagisa?

So many questions and he couldn’t answer even one of them. Lemgri nudged him. “You think too much about things that just are,” she said.

Makoto laughed without humor. “Are you going to live in the castle with me? I’m supposed to become king after my father dies.”

Lemgri waved her head from side to side, the dragon equivalent of a head shake. “No.”

Makoto stared at her in consternation. What was he going to do now? Another dragon nudged him from behind and he turned just as Mingri passed him to get to Lemgri. Both dragons emitted a strange trumpeting sound.

Nagisa, who had entered the cave behind his dragon, laughed in delight. “They’re going to mate when they’re old enough. The dragons are repopulating the valley.”

Makoto frowned at him. “Will there be enough riders?”

Nagisa nodded as he watched the dragons. “Yes, there are several children in the valley who will make good candidates when the time comes. Just as well as Sei and Gou’s dragons have also decided to mate. There was another female but she hasn’t made up her mind yet. I hope she doesn’t want Fengri.”

Makoto had seen how much time Rin spent with Haru and drew his own conclusions. “Do dragons mate according to the wishes of their riders?”

Nagisa laughed. “Well, with Pidgri and Nargri, I’d have to say yes.” He stared hard at Makoto. “Would it bother you if they did?”

Makoto felt his face heat up. He cared very deeply for Nagisa but he was so confused. “I think I need some of your fae wisdom right about now.”

Nagisa nodded, his face serious. “I’ll do what I can.”

Mingri and Lemgri left the cave to feed and Makoto felt better for it. He didn’t want to upset Lemgri with some inadvertent remark. “Nagisa, how can I be a dragon rider when I’m the Crown Prince of the realm? Lemgri doesn’t want to live in the castle, and now I understand why. What am I going to do?”

For some reason, Nagisa looked devastated. “Don’t you love Lemgri?”

“I adore her but how can I stay here, being who I am?”

Nagisa sighed, obviously still very agitated. “If you leave her, she might well die which would mean you would die too. The bond between dragon and rider is just that strong. There is a reason she chose you, Makoto, and I believe we both know what the reason is.”

Makoto sighed in his turn. “Yes, I know the reason. I fell in love with you on sight and Lemgri means to mate with Mingri. It should be perfect but, what about my position, Nagisa?”

Nagisa stepped forward and took Makoto’s hands in his. “There are others who could be Crown Prince. It’s a shame because I think you’d make a good king but you can’t be both rider and prince. I know you don’t want to leave Lemgri so that makes you a rider. Your father may well have another son.”

Makoto frowned. From what Nagisa said, he had no choice but to give up all chance of the crown. He had to upset his father and become a dragon rider when his father wanted to wipe out both dragons and their riders. What if this Samina provided his father with another heir and why was that thought so abhorrent to him? He squeezed Nagisa’s hands and sighed.

Nagisa moved forward and kissed him before saying, “You’ve already been told what will happen if the warlocks win. Even if you hadn’t bonded with Lemgri, they would never allow you to become king. I saw it very clearly, Makoto. If you had stayed in the city they would have killed you. They’ll kill your father too, unless stopped in time. Only by being a rider can you help, not just this realm but the whole world.”

Put like that, Makoto knew he would fight to rid the world of warlocks. “You really saw my death at the hands of the warlocks?”

Nagisa nodded and caressed Makoto’s cheek. “I’m sorry, Makoto. It was a very strong vision. I saw it, Haruka saw it, even young Ran saw it and all the dragons of course. It was the very reason I was sent to the city. I didn’t understand why I was chosen as servant. How could I warn a prince? Then I saw you being attacked by those thieves and I was so angry. Like you, I fell in love at first sight.”

Makoto gave up all thoughts of the throne. The dragons and their riders had saved an unknown prince so he must belong here. He drew Nagisa into his arms and kissed him, all doubts gone for now.

*

Rin watched Fengri as he dived and swooped over the valley and smiled. His young companion was big enough to ride now but an unspoken agreement between them meant his maiden flight as Fengri’s rider would wait until all the other young dragons were big enough to bear their riders. It seemed fitting as Fengri watched over his younger siblings, teaching and training them. Rin wished he had the knowledge needed to train their riders but he needed training himself.

He had so much to learn about being a rider and very little time in which to do so. Once all Curgri’s clutch were able to carry their companions, they would be fighting the warlocks, and the young dragons would be grown enough within a few days.

Rin spent every day learning the signals needed to turn dragons or to ask for flame. A mistake in signal could be dangerous. At first he’d wondered why the riders didn’t just tell the dragons what they wanted. He’d asked Rei and been told to ask Haru.

He learned a stark truth that day. Haru and Shangri were the only survivors from the northern realms. They had come to the valley for aid and received it but too late. The dragons of the north had failed and were all dead or dying along with their riders. Soon after the lead dragon of the valley had died of a broken heart and Shangri had taken over. Rin felt humbled by all that Haru had gone through in his long life and wondered again what the fae elf saw in him.

Courage, he’d been told, although he wondered about that. He didn’t know if he was so courageous. They would all find out when he attempted to kill Samina.

One thing he had learned. In the heat of a battle involving dragons, there was no time to tell them what you wanted from them. Signals, sent by the knees, were a lot quicker than shouted commands which might not be heard over the noise of flaming dragons and people screaming. When Haru put it like that it made sense. It also made Rin realize Haru had been in battles and, perhaps worse, had seen dragons and their riders die.

What does he see in me? I’m like a young child compared to him. He has the wisdom of the ages while I’m still learning how to be a man. I might catch up with him a bit in a thousand years or more but for now, surely I seem stupid to him.

Yet, despite all that, Haru had walked into Rin’s arms, had wanted to talk of pleasant things, had waited for Rin for three thousand years.

Rin thought back to his life in the city, struggling to protect Gou and earn enough for them to eat. Apart from the battle to come, he would never go back to that life. He had no regrets about coming here and learning the truth, was happy to have been chosen by Fengri. He was even happier to have been chosen by Haru. Now all he had to do was live up to their expectations. Could he do so? Only time would tell, but he was determined to try.

The focus of so many of his thoughts approached and stood beside him. “Fengri is going to be a fine dragon when fully grown.”

Rin smiled. “I still keep wondering why I deserve him.”

Haru watched the young dragon fly and smiled in his turn. “I may be the oldest surviving rider, Rin, but I still don’t know exactly how the dragons make their choices. Close as the bond is, we still don’t know all there is to know about them or they us. All I can tell you is this, Rin. I have never known a dragon choose the wrong rider. You and Fengri are intended to be bonded. Personally, I think he made a wise choice.”

Rin shook his head. “I think I’m unworthy of him but perhaps I can prove myself, given time.”

Haru turned to look at him. “You have no idea how special you are, do you? If you succeed in destroying the warlock leader and freeing the king, you will set the future in motion. Gradually the chaos beyond the walls will be brought to order once again. New realms with new kings will spring up and the dragons will recapture their world. You will succeed, Rin. Many of us have seen it.”

Rin sighed. “I wish I had magic. I might believe in myself more.”

Haru laughed aloud. “Oh Rin, you do have magic. One thing we do know about the bond, the magic has to be there for a dragon to chose you.”

Rin stared at him in surprise. “But I can’t see the future or heal or influence.”

Haru stroked his cheek. “There are many forms of magic, Rin. You will discover yours very soon, I think.”

Rin smiled and said, “I hope so but I’m not so sure I believe so.”

Haru nodded and removed his hand. “And therein lies the problem. You will be forced to believe when the time comes. After that…” His blue eyes went distant as he saw something Rin couldn’t see. “You will be one of the strongest magic users among us. Luckily you are a force for good and not evil.”

His words sounded ominous to Rin.

Chapter Text

Makoto patted Lemgri’s long neck as he looked around at the other young dragons and their riders. All of them were excited, all except him. This maiden flight would see his future as a dragon rider set in stone and he still wasn’t certain he wanted that. He loved Lemgri and was fairly sure he loved Nagisa but he’d been raised to put duty before other considerations and now the two possible futures were tearing him apart.

A soft footfall brought him back to the here and now to find Haruka beside him. The lead rider smiled at him and patted Lemgri. “Nagisa tells me she has chosen Mingri as a mate. It’s a good match.”

Makoto frowned. “Is it? Haruka, I’m supposed to rule the realm, not fly on a dragon.”

Haruka shook his head. “It was never your destiny to become king, Makoto. That destiny belongs to a younger half sibling, yet to be born. And please, the ka part is my title. Just call me Haru.”

Makoto stared at the young seeming fae. “My father will live that long?”

Haru smiled the sort of smile used when trying not to laugh. “If your father is much above forty, I’d be surprised.”

Makoto looked at Haru in disgust. “That’s not what I meant. Suppose he gets killed in the fight or the spell can’t be broken?”

Haru nodded, his smile gone. “These are valid fears, Makoto, but they’re only fears. Your father will live and will have more children. This I have seen.”

Makoto couldn’t help it. The tears welled up. “Will I ever see him again? Lemgri refuses to live in the castle.”

Lemgri made a snorting sound. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t visit the castle from time to time.”

Makoto stared at the young dragon as he wiped his tears away. Lemgri rested her head on his shoulder. “Now I feel really stupid.”

Haru smiled again. “Worry does that to us. Our minds go round in circles and all we can see is the worst possible outcome. Makoto, you were raised to rule and the realm will have need of you and Lemgri, but so will other realms.”

Makoto realized how selfish he was being. There was a lot of work for the dragons and their riders to do. Even if they defeated the warlocks, there were the lands beyond the wall to put right. “I’m sorry, Haru, Lemgri, I thought only of myself.”

Haru chuckled. “Fly with Lemgri and see if it makes a difference. I know you’ve been on the back of a dragon, but it’s different to riding your companion.”

Lemgri crouched in unspoken invitation and Makoto climbed onto her back. He nudged her with his knees, the signal for flight and she spread her wings and took to the sky. Makoto’s eyes widened as she dipped and soared to his commands. The wind whipped at his hair and the ground raced past at dizzying speed. He’d never felt so free. “Lemgri, this is fun!”

Lemgri laughed and chased after Mingri. Makoto let her until he needed to try the signal for turning. He pulled on the left hand rein and tapped her with his left knee. She immediately turned to the left and Makoto shouted his delight. He was a dragon rider!

*
The main hall of the castle was almost empty, a highly unusual phenomenon on petitions day, but King Gorou didn’t seem to notice. Miho shook her head in sorrow. Gorou was like an empty shell of the man he’d once been. His only son had disappeared from the castle and he seemed to neither notice nor care.

The Lady Samina was constantly by his side and today was no exception. As each petitioner approached and made their request, or complaint, she would whisper in the king’s ear. Miho just knew the petitions were granted or denied on her say so.

As each petitioner took their turn, Miho listened closely to their requests and the king’s responses. A distinct pattern emerged. Anyone who wanted help in finding a family member who had disappeared was denied. Anyone who wanted more magical autonomy was confirmed. Two petitioners were arrested and thrown in the dungeons. One suggested their was a shortage of foodstuffs in the city and the other mentioned the dragons had not been seen for a while and that was the reason for the shortages.

Miho felt like crying. This Samina was slowly but surely destroying all that was good in both the king and the realm. Miho had to do what all the other courtiers had learned to do, keep her mouth shut and try not to attract the attention of Samina.

The only bright spot Miho had in a sea of encroaching darkness was the messenger who had arrived this morning and asked to speak to her by name. She made the decision to speak to the young man and left the great hall.

She traversed the corridors to her own chambers and asked a trusted servant to bring the messenger to her while Samina was still engaged in the great hall.

The messenger was brought to her, a young man with silver hair and bright aquamarine eyes. He bowed low to her and she bade him speak.

“My name is Ai and I’m a brand new dragon rider. I tell you this so you understand the power you have over me. One word from you and I, and my companion dragon, will die.”

Miho had been raised to have great respect for both the dragons and their riders and she smiled at Ai. “I have no desire to speak that word.”

Ai nodded and smiled at her. “The news I have is both good and bad. First the good news. The former Crown Prince Makoto is safe and is now a dragon rider. This means he will not be able to be king, of course.” He waited for her reaction.

Miho frowned. “I am very glad to hear the prince is safe but, as he can’t become king, what is to happen to the kingdom?”

Ai appeared to pick his next words carefully. “You attended the petitions session before seeing me and therefore you must have noticed the way things are going here.”

Miho sighed. “Yes, it was not comfortable hearing,” she admitted.

Ai looked sad as he continued, “You saw the spell cast on the king when Samina arrived.”

Miho gasped. How had Ai known that? Then she remembered what she’d been told about the powers of the dragon riders. They were fae folk and had their own magic. “I did,” she agreed.

Ai glanced around before continuing. They were alone. “Here is the bad news. Samina is the leader of the warlocks. She will not rest until this last ordered realm is as chaotic as the lands beyond the walls.”

Miho wanted to know something. “What happened to those poor young men who were sent off to kill the dragons?”

Ai smiled. “That is more good news. Like the prince, they have become riders and will soon return to destroy Samina.”

Miho could see the logic behind the plan. The young men would gain access to the castle in order to report their success or failure to the king. She nodded. “A wise plan. What do you wish me to do to help?”

Ai looked her straight in the eye. “Stay alive, Lady Miho. The future kings of this realm will spring from your body provided the king is brought back to his senses.”

Miho stared at the fae for a moment then she smiled. “It has been my greatest wish for some time. I shall do my utmost to stay alive.”

Ai smiled. “Do you wish me to take any message to Makoto?”

Miho smiled in return. “Just give him my fondest regards and tell him to be careful and to stay alive himself.”

Ai bowed and Miho called for a servant to escort him safely out of the palace. Now all she had to do was stay out of Samina’s way and wait.

*
Rin gazed over the darkening valley and sighed. He would have no chance to speak to Haru tonight as he was on watch with Fengri. The red dragon nudged him with his head. “Don’t you like my company?”

Rin could hear the amusement in his tone. “Of course I do, but I can’t kiss you the way I kiss Haru.”

Fengri rumbled his laughter. “You will have time enough for that soon, Rin.”

Rin chuckled then went still. A shift in the air had him on full alert until he made out a second dragon and his rider.

Pidgri came to rest by Fengri’s side and Sei slipped off his back. “All quiet on the perimeter.”

Rin nodded. “The pass is empty,” he reported then sighed. “Damn, I hate night watches.”

Sei snorted. “The joys of being new riders. We get the boring jobs.”

Rin agreed but had the intelligence to realize how thinly stretched the riders had been before the young dragons had hatched and grown enough to take on some of the duties. It was only fair they took their turns. He squatted down and lit their small campfire. “I wanted the chance to speak to you actually. We need to make plans for when we return to the king.”

Sei sat cross-legged on the other side of the fire and produced some bread and a slab of cold meat from his pack. He produced a knife from somewhere and constructed two sandwiches, one of which he passed to Rin. “I agree. Do you think we’ll have to kill the king?”

Rin shook his head. “Not according to the dragons. As long as we can dispose of Samina, we can save the king.”

Sei sighed deeply. “That might be easier said than done. I know she’s a warlock, their leader in fact, but I don’t think I could kill a woman and Momo simply hasn’t got the skills.”

Rin nodded as he chewed on his sandwich. “After the fear she put my sister through, and the little girl in the village, I can happily kill her.” He took another bite of the sandwich.

Sei paused, his sandwich halfway to his mouth. “What about her magic?”

Rin swapped some of his jerky for the sandwich and gazed into the fire. “I’ve been told I have enough magic of my own to defeat her, but I’ve seen no sign of it so far.”

Sei shrugged. “We can only hope the older riders are right about that.”

Rin agreed wholeheartedly but continued to stare into the fire. He wondered what form his magic would take and if it would be enough. He shook himself and sighed. “So plans. We need to get the horses to Greendale, I think. The king will consider it very suspicious if we return without his horses.”

Sei put a slice of jerky on his bread. “Which leaves the problem of our dragons.”

Rin bit into his own bread and jerky and chewed as he thought. “Perhaps one of the villagers from Dragonholme would be prepared to take the horses as far as Greendale,” he suggested after he swallowed.

Fengri moved slightly. “We dragons shouldn’t go closer to the city than Greendale, at this time, so you could ride those useless horses from there.”

Sei nodded as he finished chewing. “We can ask Kisumi in the morning. If he can’t take them he might know someone who can.”

Rin smiled as he ate the last of his food. “Let’s hope so.”

Chapter Text

Haru climbed onto Shangri’s back and they headed for the top of the pass. When they arrived, Fengri and Pidgri took off so Shangri could land. Haru slid off the blue dragon’s back with the ease of long practice and approached Rin and Sei. “Have you decided what to do?”

Rin looked up and smiled. “Yes, if one of the people from Dragonholme will take the king’s horses and Sei’s to Greendale for us.”

Haru nodded and smiled. “That should be easy enough to arrange.”

Sei glanced up at him, obviously deep in thought. “It will take them about two days to reach Greendale. How long will it take a dragon?”

Haru laughed. “Didn’t you ask Pidgri? Less than a day.”

Sei blushed. “Sorry. I was more concerned with what will happen when we arrive. So we give the horses a two day start and arrive in Greendale at nightfall…” He trailed off.

Haru frowned, wondering what was wrong, and turned to Rin for an answer. “Are you all right?”

Rin climbed to his feet and nodded. “Sei’s worried about what happens after we reach the castle. I’ve told him I’ll deal with Samina… somehow, but he’s still worried.”

Haru squatted down by the embers of the campfire and reached out to pat Sei’s shoulder. “I’ve seen all three of you return safely to the valley, Seijurou, and we will take good care of Gou while you are gone. It will be fine.”

Sei looked up and smiled. “Pidgri has told me the same, over and over. I just need to get used to him knowing things like that.”

Haru nodded. “Yes, it will take a little time for you to get used to just how much the dragons do know.”

He rose to his feet. “I’ll send a messenger to Kisumi about the horses. He’ll probably be glad to have them out of his barn.”

Rin frowned up at him. “Fengri and I could go.”

Haru shook his head. “That wouldn’t be fair after you’ve guarded the pass all night. Nagisa and Makoto will be relieving you soon, so one of them can go. Besides, I want to talk to you before you rest, Rin.”

Rin nodded and turned his head to look down the pass, but not before Haru had seen the slight blush on his cheeks. “I’d better get Shangri and I out of the way so Mingri and Lemgri can land. I’ll see you at my house, Rin.”

He climbed on Shangri’s back and they flew back to his home. As they flew they passed Mingri heading towards the pass with Lemgri. “Pass my instructions about seeing Kisumi, please Shangri.”

Shangri landed and Haru slid off his back. “Message passed,” the great dragon said and took off to hunt for his breakfast.

Haru entered his home and decided to cook Rin some breakfast.

* * *

Rin dismounted from Fengri’s back outside Haru’s home. Fengri took off immediately and Rin knocked on the door. Haru appeared carrying a wooden spatula. “Come in and sit down, Rin. Breakfast is nearly ready.”

Rin entered the house and wondered how long he would need to share Fengri’s cave before he had the necessary skills to train a tree to shape itself into a home. Haru must have caught his thought for he laughed suddenly. “I like the way you think of training a tree.”

Rin chuckled. “Isn’t that how you do it?”

Haru nodded as he placed two plates of food on the table. “We encourage the trees to grow in certain ways, yes, but it’s not magical. It’s done by holding the boughs in place with ropes until they grow in the direction and density we require.”

He sat down opposite Rin and picked up his fork, also made of wood. “It takes several years to encourage the trees to grow in the right shape for a house, and they have to be big enough to offer shelter, so there are always one or two houses being encouraged.”

Rin’s heart sank. There went any chance of having a place of his own. “I see.”

Haru smiled and reached across the table to touch Rin’s hand. “This is not something you need to worry about. You have a home here if you should want to share it. If not…” He stopped speaking and looked sad for a moment. “There are several empty houses left by riders who are no longer with us.”

Rin took a deep breath and voiced what was troubling him. “Fengri said something about your being unable to take a fae lover due to probable jealousy amongst the other riders.”

Haru stopped eating and frowned slightly. “If you were fully fae, born and raised here, it might cause some dissension, but you’re not. Although I can sense the strong fae magic in you, you are regarded as human by the other riders. Of course, once your power manifests, they will see for themselves exactly why you are suitable.”

Rin chuckled. “No sign of any power as yet.”

Haru nodded and continued eating for a moment. Then he asked, “How does your sister heal?”

Rin frowned as he thought how to answer that. Although he had seen Gou heal on several occasions, he had no idea how she did it. “All I can tell you is she places her hands over the patient and a blue nimbus, like blue flames, spreads from her hands to the wound or area of disease. Other than that, I don’t know.”

Haru smiled. “I was right, then. It is fae magic that runs in your veins.”

Rin swallowed the mouthful he’d been chewing on and asked, “How do you figure that?”

Haru took a sip of his beer before answering. “Fae magic is light based and works on different colored rays. Blue denotes healing, red is offensive, green has to do with growing things while white is the clairvoyant ray. Some of us can use more than one ray but we always have a dominant ray that we work best with. For instance, my dominant ray is white. Your sister’s is blue. Now we just have to work out what yours is.”

Rin laughed aloud. “I’m pretty certain mine isn’t green. Gou always complained I killed her houseplants by over watering them.”

Haru smiled for a second but soon became serious again. “Another thing you will have to remember is all the rays can be used offensively. White attacks the mind, blue the body and spirit, green will use any plants nearby to attack the enemy. Red is a fire attack, similar to the dragon flame. Then again, dragon flame also changes color depending on the result the dragon wants.”

Rin stared, his fork halfway to his mouth. “Dragon flame?”

Haru nodded. “Of course, you weren’t with us when we rescued Ran from the warlocks, however you should have learned the command to ask for flame.”

Rin felt stupid but, then again, he’d learned so many commands in such a short time he hadn’t had the opportunity to think about how they were used in either battle or tending the land. “Yeah, I did, but without stopping to think much about it. You must consider me a complete imbecile.”

Haru smiled. “No, I don’t consider you an imbecile. I know how much you, Gou, Makoto, Sei and Momo had to learn in a very short period of time. Nagisa, Ai and the four other candidates from the fae had years to learn, lived amongst the dragons and saw at first hand what they can do. You only know these things on an intellectual level, so far.”

His smile died and he reached across the table to grasp Rin’s hand. “There will be times when it will hurt you deeply, but those times will be balanced by the good the dragons do. Please, don’t turn your back on Fengri when you see him burn someone alive. He will only act in such a way if that person is a warlock and thus a real threat to this world. Mostly he will use either green or blue flame and the effects of those are breathtaking.”

Rin gave Haru’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “After all the suffering the warlocks put my sister through I’ll happily let Fengri char grill any of them to ash.”

Chapter Text

The horses started on their journey to Greendale the following day, which gave Rin, Sei and Momo another day to practice with their dragons. Rin was still unsure how he was going to deal with Samina and decided to talk to Fengri in case his dragon had any good ideas.

Fengri was feeding after their practice session so Rin waited in Fengri’s cave for him to return. When the red dragon appeared, Rin found his first question wasn’t about dealing with Samina, but about the wellbeing of his dragon. “You haven’t shown any interest in mating with the last female from your clutch.”

Fengri laughed in the manner of dragons, a low, rumbling growl. “She chose the blue, Tongri, in the end and I had no interest anyway.”

Rin frowned. “Will you ever have a mate?”

Fengri nuzzled him. “You worry too much, Rin. There will be a mate for me in Nargri’s first clutch. You might even know her rider. She will be Ran’s companion.”

Rin smiled when he heard that. “So, next silly question for you. Any ideas on how I kill this Samina?”

Fengri settled on his bed, obviously ready for sleep. “That’s easy, Rin. You use your magic.”

Rin sighed and sat down, leaning his back against Fengri’s flank. “Everyone tells me I have magic but I’ve seen no sign of it.”

Fengri’s flank heaved as he laughed. “That’s often the case with the red ray. It doesn’t manifest until needed. When the time comes, you’ll be ready, Rin. You won’t be able to help yourself.”

Rin settled more comfortably. “So my magic is offensive?”

Fengri didn’t move. “Yes,” he said sleepily, “although you also have blue and green magic which will be very useful in the future.”

Rin felt the dragon fall asleep and, although he wanted to think more about his magic, he soon followed Fengri’s example and slipped into dreamless sleep.

* * *

Three dragons flew out of the valley and over Dragonholme. A red led the way, followed by two golds. A lone blue watched them for a while before being joined by the remaining dragons. They followed the first three but at a much slower pace.

The first three dragons reached Greendale at nightfall, where their riders dismounted and entered the inn. The innkeeper smiled at sight of them. “You made the right choice, gentlemen.”

Momo beamed, Sei nodded but Rin had a question. “Did the king’s horses arrive safely?”

The innkeeper nodded. “They arrived earlier today and are in the stables waiting for you.”

Sei smiled. “I’m sure my father will be glad to see us safe and get his horse back.”

Rin studied the innkeeper, frowning slightly. The man seemed less happy than when he’d last seen him. “How are things in the city?”

The innkeeper sighed. “Not good, young master, and getting worse by the day if I’m any judge. All magic users have been rounded up and there are signs of wild magic like that which lies beyond the walls.”

Rin exchanged a glance with Sei. It looked as if they’d arrived in the nick of time. “We’ll stay here for the night and go to the city in the morning.”

The innkeeper smiled and produced three mugs of porter. “You are very welcome, riders.”

Sei and Momo chatted more with the innkeeper while Rin took his drink outside. He knew Fengri and the other two dragons had stayed outside the village and now he could see why. Flashes of green and blue flame lit up the sky and Rin knew the three young dragons were both healing the villagers’ fields and encouraging the crops to grow well. He smiled at the sight before returning to the inn. “The dragons are busy,” he remarked.

The innkeeper beamed at him. “The village will be thankful for that. The fields have been yielding less recently. We believe it’s the wild magic that is harming both crops and livestock.”

Rin gave a start. *Fengri, you’re not feeding on the local livestock are you?*

Fengri’s laugh sounded in his head. *Only the offerings the village left for that very purpose, Rin.*

Rin sighed. He still had so much to learn about the ways of dragons and the villages that still revered them. *Sorry, Fengri. I should have known.*

*We’re both still learning, Rin, so don’t worry too much.*

Rin relaxed again and drank his porter. “I think we should make an early start tomorrow.”

Sei nodded and Momo looked nervous. Rin patted the younger brother on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Momo. Just keep the guards off my back long enough for me to get to Samina.”

Momo grinned. “I can do that, Rin.”

Rin knew both Sei and Momo could deal with the guards but he still wasn’t sure about his ability to take down Samina. He sighed and put the thought aside. They would all find out just what he could do tomorrow.

Chapter Text

They left the inn at Greendale at first light. Rin and Momo were mounted on the king’s horses, while Sei rode his father’s horse. He didn’t want to give it to the king but wasn’t sure if they should visit his father first. “Um… Rin, how do I get Blue back to my father?”

Rin frowned for a moment, then he smiled. “Your father needs to know you’re both dragon riders now, so we can go there first. I’m pretty sure Night or Scarlet can bear two riders as far as the castle.”

Sei leaned forward and patted Blue’s neck. “Thanks, Rin, I appreciate it.”

Rin turned to look at him. “You know, you weren’t chosen to go. You don’t have to go to the castle if you don’t want to.”

Sei scoffed and indicated Momo. “And leave this young fool to fend for himself? I don’t think so, Rin.”

Momo spluttered. “I’m getting very tired of you treating me like a child, Sei.”

Rin chuckled. “It’s because he cares, Momo. He won’t let you walk into danger alone.”

Momo subsided at Rin’s words but Sei couldn’t resist. “I still say you’re a young fool.”

Momo bridled again. “If this young fool hadn’t taken the king’s offer, you wouldn’t have met Gou.”

Sei had to admit his younger brother had a point there, although he wasn’t prepared to admit it out loud. Instead he grinned. “And you wouldn’t have found a dragon dumb enough to want you as a companion.”

Momo sighed. “Kegri is not dumb. No dragon is.”

Rin chuckled again. “I’m not so sure about that. Fengri chose me after all.”

Sei decided this particular conversation had gone far enough. “In the ways of dragons, our companions are young, as are we. I’m sure we will learn much together.”

They rode on in silence until they approached the West Gate of the city. The guards stared at them as if they couldn’t believe their eyes. “You weren’t expected to return.”

Rin’s hands clenched on the reins. “I think we’ve guessed that much already. We need to report to the castle.”

The guards nodded and allowed them to pass.

As Sei drew abreast with them, he leaned down from his horse. “I need to see my father first to say my goodbyes. The news isn’t good and the king may be angry enough to execute us.”

The guards looked distinctly uncomfortable. “That will be fine,” the older one said gruffly.

They rode into the city and all of them frowned. The streets were filled with a noxious miasma that stank of wild magic. Sei swallowed hard. “It looks as if we’re only just in time.”

Rin nodded. “Let’s make sure your family is safe then get to the castle. I’ve got a really bad feeling about this.”

Sei spurred his horse into a trot and made for his father’s smithy. He found his father and youngest brother busy at the forge and sighed in relief. His father looked up and smiled. “What’s a dragon rider doing on a horse?”

Sei stared at his father in shock. “How did you know?”

“A young fae called Ai came to let us know. Are the dragons going to act?”

Sei nodded. “We’re on the way to the castle now. I’m returning Blue to you.”

His father smiled again. “He looks well looked after. Thank you for not making him dragon food.”

Momo fidgeted on his horse. “We need to hurry, Sei. We’ll come and visit as often as we can, Dad.”

Their father chuckled. “I think you and your dragons need to sort the world out before you come making social calls.”

Momo smiled. “We know and we will, I promise.”

Their father gazed up at Momo and smiled. “You’ve grown, lad. Seems having a dragon to guide you has been good for you.”

Momo hung his head. “Kegri is very wise.”

Sei snorted as he dismounted. “As well one of you is. So, who’s going to carry me?”

Rin reached out a hand. “I will. We don’t have time for anymore of your bickering.”

Sei grabbed the outstretched hand and heaved himself onto Night’s back. “Farewell till we meet again, father.”

Then Rin slapped the reins and they were trotting away from the smithy.

They reached the castle and handed Night and Scarlet over to the stable master. The man was glad to see the horses but unhappy when he glanced out at the fog like miasma.

Momo opened his mouth but Sei shook his head. As they made their way to the armory, Sei explained why. “We don’t know who supports the warlocks and who doesn’t while we’re in the castle so keep quiet.”

Momo nodded. “Sorry, Sei, I wasn’t thinking.”

Sei rolled his eyes. “Then start thinking. Now.”

* * *

They reached the armory without being stopped and found the armorer inside. Rin stepped forward. “We need to report to the king.”

The armorer nodded and called to one of his subordinates. “Show these men to the throne room.”

The boy nodded although he looked terrified. “I’ll take you to the door but I’m not going in there.”

The armorer didn’t argue which made Rin question the lad on the way through the castle. “Why won’t you enter the throne room?”

The boy shuddered. “Nobody in their right mind goes near Lady Samina if they can help it. She’s terrifying.”

Rin exchanged a quick look with Sei. “Will the king be there?” he asked the boy.

The boy shrugged. “I don’t know.” He gave a quick glance up and down the corridor they were traversing before he spoke again. “Word among the staff is, she’s running the country, not the king.”

Rin frowned. “That can’t be good.”

The boy shook his head. “It’s not,” he whispered, “and things are getting worse by the day.” He came to a halt and indicated a pair of ornate and heavy double doors. “We’re here. I’m going back. Be careful.” He gave them a sad look before he almost ran back the way they had come.

Rin took a deep breath. “Let me deal with her. You’ll have your hands full with the guards.” He pushed open the doors.

The huge throne room was almost empty, apart from a few guards and Lady Samina. Of the king there was no sign which came as a relief to Rin. It would not be a good idea to kill his lady love in front of him. He had a pretense to keep up though. He strode forward and had the satisfaction of seeing Samina’s eyes widen in shock. “Where is the king? We have a report to make to him.”

Samina rose from her seat on the throne. “Are the dragons dead?”

Rin shook his head, mostly in disbelief at her temerity, but the warlock must have read it as an answer to her question.

Her eyes narrowed and Rin caught sight of the slight movement of her hand. He wasn’t sure what he did but a multi-colored barrier appeared in front of him. Something dark and malevolent hit it then sputtered out. “You’re supposed to be dead,” the woman cried. “The dragons should have killed you when you attacked them.”

Rin felt his temper rise but knew he had to remain calm. “Sorry to disappoint you, but both we and the dragons still live. If all is going to plan they should be dealing with your people about now.”

Another burst of black energy hit his barrier and the guards moved forward to help the woman. Time to end this before Sei and Momo got hurt. But how…

Without really thinking about what he was doing, Rin raised his hands and pointed them towards Samina. Bright red energy, similar to the offensive flames of the dragons, flew towards her and she screamed in terror just before it hit her. When it did her scream turned to one of agony and she ran burning towards Rin.

Rin felt sick but threw yet more of the red energy at her. She came to a halt just before she reached him and her charred body disintegrated into ashes.

* * *

Momo had an arrow aimed at the approaching guards but he didn’t fire. The guards had stopped charging and were now frowning and scratching their heads, as they sheathed their swords. “What happened? Where’s the king? Who are you?”

The questions came thick and fast and Momo turned to Sei and Rin for the answers. Sei frowned and sheathed his sword. “At a guess, I’d say you’ve been under a spell.”

Rin turned away from the pile of ash that had been Samina. “We’d like to know where the king is, too. As to who we are, we’re dragon riders.”

One of the guards, older than the others, smiled suddenly. “That’s good news. The warlocks…” He stopped smiling and frowned. “Is it too late?”

Momo shook his head. “Not quite, although another few days and we would have been too late. The king’s realm was beginning to go the same way as the lands beyond the walls.”

The guard sighed. “I can’t believe we fell prey to a spell.”

Momo was about to say something when the door opened to admit a lady. The guards saluted her. “Lady Miho.”

She gave them a smile but her gaze was fixed on Rin until she looked beyond him to the pile of ashes on the floor. She shuddered but asked, “Is that the remains of Samina?”

Rin nodded and the lady smiled briefly before glancing around. “The king isn’t here? She didn’t even need him anymore?”

Rin shrugged. “So it would seem.”

Chapter Text

Haru and Shangri led the dragons and their riders over the city walls to find the miasma of evil magic already in the city streets. As Shangri blew a stream of blue flame into the streets, Haru glanced at the castle, hoping Rin and the others were safe.

“Your mate is alive and well. The warlock leader is dead. Now concentrate on the streets.” Shangri sounded annoyed.

Haru chuckled. “Sorry Shangri.” Then he did a mental double take. “My mate?”

Shangri boomed out a laugh. “If you were dragons you’d have entwined necks and trumpeted.”

Haru had to admit the truth of that but now was not the time. “Let’s find the warlocks.”

Shangri swooped into the main square. “They will have taken cover in the buildings.”

Haru dismounted. “Then we riders will have to do some work. Pass the message. We’ll clear the buildings while you get rid of this miasma from the streets.”

Shangri took off and one by one the rest of the dragons landed in the square so their riders could dismount. The dragons started to clear the streets of the foul miasma while the riders gathered round Haru for orders. “Work in pairs, at least, and be careful. The warlocks are tricky, as we all know.”

Gou raised a hand. “What about those who were forced to their ways?”

Haru gave her a sad little smile. “We save them if we can, but destroy them if we can’t. However, Gou, I don’t want you using your power offensively. There will be a lot of people who will need healing. I want you to concentrate on that.”

Gou took a deep breath. “Very well. “I’ll set up a triage area, just over there, by the castle.”

Haru smiled in relief. He had no desire to tell either Rin or Sei that Gou had been hurt, or worse. Makoto approached him next, Nagisa close behind. “Um, I don’t think I have any magic nor can I kill anyone so what should I do?”

Haru pondered the question. Makoto’s magic had yet to manifest, but he guessed it would be blue or green so not offensive. Nagisa’s white magic, although able to be used offensively, was not used in that way often enough to be of use here. “I’d like the two of you to help Gou until we’re sure the castle is safe, then you should go and see your father.” Makoto cheered up and headed over towards Gou, Nagisa hot on his heels.

Haru looked around. Flashes of different colored magic were apparent all around the square. The dragons were healing the miasma with their blue healing flames and people were beginning to appear from the buildings. The wounded and sick were taken to where Gou had set some blankets out on the ground, and were being healed or bandaged.

Haru took a deep breath and unsheathed his sword. Time to kill, even though he hated it.

He chose a direction at random and left the square behind as he entered the narrow streets. A warlock leaped into his path and cast a spell at him. He batted it away with his sword before erecting a magical barrier of pure white and advancing on the warlock. Another spell hit his barrier but sputtered out. The warlock screamed and took to his heels. Haru threw a knife after him, which caught him squarely between the shoulder blades.

Haru approached the body and retrieved his knife. An annoyed voice made him spin round in a hurry. “Work in pairs, you said, yet here you are, all alone.”

Rei stood, hands on hips, with Sousuke, who was attempting to keep a straight face, just behind him. “Rin’s in the castle.”

Rei rolled his eyes. “So you team up with someone else. Honestly, Haruka, you set a very bad example.”

Haru sighed. “I don’t like the others to see me kill.”

Sousuke shrugged. “We’ve seen it enough times, so cease worrying.”

Haru nodded his agreement. What Sousuke said was true. “Let’s finish this, then.”

*

Miho approached the young men warily. She was almost sure they weren’t going to harm her, but she couldn’t be certain. “Are you the young men the king sent to attack the dragons?”

Two of them nodded. The third and biggest of the three shook his head. “I just went along to make sure this idiot survived.” He indicated the smallest of them and Miho could see the resemblance between them.

She turned to the one who wasn’t a brother to anyone here. “I was told by a dragon rider called Ai to expect you but, right now, I’m more concerned with the whereabouts of the king.”

The young man nodded and was about to speak when several guards entered followed by more young men. One of them, with hair as black as a raven’s wing, rushed over to the same young man Miho had been addressing. “Is she dead, Rin?”

The one called Rin nodded and indicated the pile of ash not far from his feet. “I can’t imagine her resurrecting from that, Haru.”

Haru gave him a close inspection. “Did she hurt you at all?”

Rin shook his head. “I don’t know how I did any of it but I produced a multi-coloured barrier which stopped her spells and then red light shot out of my hands somehow and did that to her.”

Haru pulled Rin to him and gave him a hug. He whispered something Miho couldn’t hear but it seemed to cheer Rin. It was then she glanced at the other young men who had entered and recognised one as Prince Makoto. He had a shorter blond at his heels as he crossed the room to her side. “Lady Miho, where is my father?”

She sighed. “Nobody seems to know, Prince Makoto.”

Makoto blushed. “Um, it’s just Makoto now. I’m a dragon rider and no longer a prince.”

Miho nodded. “So I was told. I hope the king is safe.”

A man appeared at the open doors to the throne room. He was tall, dressed in fine, dark blue velvet robes, and walked with a studied grace. When she looked at his face, however, all thoughts of him being a courtier or even a gentleman vanished. He was the ugliest creature she had ever seen, with skin as pink as a baby’s but smoother and shiny. His eyes were something between brown and green and his hair was a light red gold. “He will be as long as you people do as you’re told.”

Rin recovered first. “Who are you and where is the king?”

The man smiled but none of the skin on his face moved. “You should know by now. I’m a warlock.”

Chapter Text

Rin sighed at the sight of the newcomer. “I thought we’d destroyed all of you.”

The warlock chuckled. “You might well have done so. You missed me… and a couple more, because we were in the castle and you thought our leader was alone here. We have the king imprisoned, and he’ll remain safe in exchange for certain conditions.”

Haru appeared the most intimidating Rin had ever seen him look as he narrowed his blue eyes. “No.”

The man tapped his teeth with a forefinger. “You haven’t even heard my demands yet. Do you place so little value on your king?”

Makoto took a step forward but Rin shook his head and Nagisa grabbed his lover’s arm. “Where is my father?” the prince demanded. “Is he safe?”

The man smiled at Makoto. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Gloris, second in command to Samina.” He chuckled softly and Rin shuddered at the sound. It was evil personified. “The king is unharmed and will remain that way as long as I am able to make a portal out of here for myself and my remaining friends. It’s not much to ask is it?”

Makoto looked to Haru who was frowning. “Please, Haruka, let us make a deal. I can’t bear the thought of any harm coming to my father if we can prevent it.”

Haru shook his head. “I’m sorry, Makoto, but I can’t let these warlocks go and destroy another world. We only survive because of our dragons. Other worlds might not have that protection or anything like it.”

Gloris chuckled again. “Oh, come, great Ka of all the Riders, how could a mere three of us destroy a whole world?”

Haru turned to face the warlock. “I’ve spent many years studying your kind. I know your portals only lead you to worlds where there is already magic. It would be easy for you to manipulate the impressionable and create many more of your kind.” He turned back to Makoto. “I’m sorry.”

Makoto looked close to tears but he drew himself to his full height and glared at Haru. “If any harm comes to my father, I will never forgive you.”

Haru closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he whispered again.

Gloris made the slightest of movements and Rin’s barrier was back in place. “I don’t think so.”

The warlock laughed. “So suspicious.”

Rin smiled at him. It wasn’t a friendly expression and the warlock recoiled. “Yes, I’ve got a suspicious nature. I’m so distrustful, in fact, that I’m not even going to talk to you until I see the unharmed king for myself.”

Chapter Text

The warlock shifted at Rin’s words. “Pardon?”

Sei had a sudden suspicion that this Gloris had no idea where the king was.

Rin stared at the man. “You heard me. Produce the king, unharmed, then we’ll talk.”

Haru frowned. “Rin, I won’t give him a portal.”

Rin smiled at his leader and the fae he loved. “I know. We’ll be discussing whether he and his friends get to keep their miserable lives or spend the rest of them in a dungeon.”

He turned his gaze back to the warlock. “Well, what about it?”

Gloris shivered. “I can’t do that unless I have some sort of guarantee. Your king is collateral for my safety after all.”

Sei was becoming very tired of the man and his wriggling out of straight answers like the snake he so obviously was. “I don’t believe he has the slightest idea where the king might be, Rin.”

Rin nodded. “I’m fast coming to that conclusion myself.”

Gloris looked from Rin to Sei and back again. Then he turned to Makoto. “You wish to see your father again, don’t you?”

Makoto looked ready to burst into tears. “Of course I do. Please, tell me where he is.”

Rin shook his head. “He doesn’t know where he is.”

Gloris sighed and folded his arms. “On your head be it if he dies, then.”

Haru beckoned to Rin and whispered something to him. Rin nodded and crossed the throne room to Makoto and Nagisa. “We’re going to look for your father. Are you coming?”

Makoto nodded and Rin turned to Sei. “If he does know where the king is by some strange chance, let Pidgri know. He can relay it to us.”

Sei smirked. “And if he doesn’t?”

Rin shrugged and grinned. “I don’t think we have any other use for him, do we?”

Gloris placed his hands on his hips. “Now, just wait a minute…”

Rin smirked at him but there was no friendship in the expression. “Sorry, can’t wait. Got a king to find.” With that parting shot he was gone, leaving Sei to wonder what he was supposed to do now.

Three things happened at once, Gloris made a sudden movement with his hands, Momo yelled, “Look out!” and Sei swung his sword, neatly removing Gloris’ head which bounced across the throne room before coming to rest against one of the walls. Sei swallowed hard as the rest of the body fell. “What have I done?”

Momo was at his side and led him away from the corpse. “It’s okay, Sei.”

Sei shook his head. It wasn’t okay. He’d just killed a man.

The lady approached. “If you knew what that man and others like him have done in the city, you’d realise you’ve done the world a favour.”

Sei stared at her. “But I’ve just killed a man.”

Miho shook her head. “Ask your dragon if you’ve done wrong.”

Sei shook his head, uncomfortable about what he had to tell her. “I don’t know how.” He felt like such a fool.

Momo gazed at him. “How have you been doing it?”

Sei glared at his brother, embarrassed enough without his little brother rubbing his nose in his shortcomings. “I talk to him like I’m talking to you now.”

Momo didn’t make any smart remarks. “I’ll give Kegri a nudge and get him to tell Pidgri you want to talk to him.”

His eyes became unfocused and a few seconds later Sei heard Pidgri’s voice in his head. *What’s wrong, Sei?*

Sei thought about the terrible feeling of guilt he was experiencing and asked the dragon if he was now a completely evil person. Pidgri laughed in his mind. *Was the man you killed an innocent guard?*

*No, he was a warlock.*

*Then I’m fairly sure he was more evil than you’ll ever be, if he was a man at all. They’re not from this world so who’s to say they’re actually human.*

Sei smiled, feeling a lot better about himself. *Thank you, Pidgri.*

There was a reassuring mental touch. *You’re welcome, Sei.*

#

Haru followed Rin through the castle. He didn’t like the feeling of being encased in stone but neither Rin nor Makoto seemed bothered by it. Nagisa, however, seemed just as twitchy as he did. He took a deep breath to calm himself and drew level with Makoto. “Do you have any idea where they might have put your father?”

Makoto shook his head. “I don’t even know where the dungeons are. If he’s in one of them… if he’s not dead.”

Haru smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion. “That’s not how the warlocks operated in other realms. They kept rulers alive until they had no further use for them. They still needed your father.”

Rin stopped and turned to stare at him. “If that’s the case, they’d want him somewhere easily accessible so he could sign off on whatever they wanted.”

Makoto’s eyes widened. “That wouldn’t be a dungeon then. It would have to be somewhere secure, probably one of the towers.”

Haru smiled, glad he didn’t have to be in this stone edifice for any longer than necessary. “Lead the way.”

Makoto turned around and returned the way they had come. They came to a stone spiral staircase, leading up a narrow tower. At the top, the tower widened to become another floor. They climbed another staircase in a much wider tower and reached a bolted trap door at the top. Makoto pulled the bolt back and they climbed into the room to find King Gorou livid with rage. The love spell had obviously worn off. “Where is that bitch? I want her punished.”

Makoto shook his head. “It’s too late for that, father. She’s dead.”

Gorou growled before his eyes widened in panic. “Oh no, Miho will never forgive me.”

Makoto smiled at his father. “I’m pretty sure she will. She saw Samina cast the spell.”

Gorou blinked. “She did?”

Makoto nodded and his smile grew. “You need to propose, father, before someone else snatches her up.”