“Papa?” Syra had never seen her father this tense. The air had become eerily still. Rigel’s pupils narrowed, focusing on the splatter of lights nestled in the valley below. The crash of wood echoed up the hills followed by the clamor of screams and battle cries. From the depths of the trees, a shadow rose and descended upon the city, spewing thick pillars of flames.
“Get inside.” Rigel commanded.
“Now!” Rigel whipped his tail around Syra and slung her towards the lair entrance. Above her, the air whirred with wingbeats as dragons poured from the caves dotting the mountain range. All headed for Altaira.
“What’s going on?” Syra pleaded, resisting her father’s shepherding.
“No time. Cassius! Petra!” Rigel’s voice boomed into the tunnel, with the twins scrambling outside moments later.
“What’s happening?” Petra’s voice wavered a slight as she and Cassius ducked away from the wave of adults surging out of the cave.
“I need you to stay here.” Rigel said, sliding Syra over to her siblings. “All of you.”
The twins nodded and Rigel leapt into the sky, the rush of wind from his wings nearly toppling them over.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Syra called after Rigel, racing to the edge of the ledge.
“Let’s go, Syra!” Cassius beckoned her as he and Petra returned to the tunnel. The sound of flapping made him double back. She was gone. “Syra!” he roared, “Come back!” But all he could see was her small frame jetting down the mountainside.
The firelight grew as Syra neared the city. She had lost sight of her father, but illuminated by the flames, she saw an army of humans fighting off a wave of ogres making their way through the shacks and cottages of the outer city. They shrieked and boomed and stumbled as fire rained down from Montari’s reinforcements. The stench of charred ogre flesh hit Syra hard even at this distance. Below her, Ethan and Aidan ran through the fields with an ogre thundering close behind. Ethan ducked into the forest and Aidan veered into the meadow behind the castle. Being a lazy brute, the ogre took after the younger brother, hoping for an easy kill.
“Aidan!” Syra dove towards the scrambling boy.
“Marrak!” Rigel’s voice cut through the chaos and Syra looked up to see her father slamming into a massive Ignis dragon. “Stop this right now! This is no way for a Vayguard to act!”
The Ignis male righted himself midair, banked, and turned his bull-like horns at the Montari leader. “Didn’t you get the memo? I’ve been relieved of that position!” His jet black scales glowed like lava rock as his throat filled with flames. “All thanks to you!” White-hot plasma surged from his jowls, jetting at Rigel.
Rigel howled, dodging too late for his tail to miss the blow. “What? When?” He swerved left and right, dodging the bombarding blasts. Looping around, Rigel retaliated with a cone of blue flames.
Marrak smirked and let the searing torrent crash over his back. The thick coating of basalt, garnet, and obsidian from his countless dives through Mount Blackstone simply sparkled in the fire light. “Don’t act like you don’t remember, Commander!” He twisted and flared his wings, the sudden drag causing Rigel to collide right into him. They fell, spiraling downwards, talons locked. “One mistake,” His chest glowed and rumbled, “And I lost my clan, my family…all because of your arrogance! And now, I’m just returning the favor.”
Marrak’s flames surged in his throat and Rigel clamped his jaws around his neck, twisting his body, and redirecting the flames downward. Downward towards the meadow, and towards Aidan.
Syra’s muscles screamed as she pumped her wings harder. Swooping over Aidan, she threw up a barrier around them. Aidan screamed as he watched the ogre’s body incinerate in front of him, the flames breaking over the golden barrier like water over stone.
Marrak’s red eyes widened at the sight of Rigel’s daughter. The last time he had seen her she was a mere hatchling who insisted on perching on his horns. Now she stood a budding mage protecting a human. She’s just like you, Nova, he thought. But that was years ago, and she was his perfect little trump card.
“Well, looky here! Someone’s brave!”
“Marrak, don’t! She’s still a wyrmling!”
A dark and giddy grin slid across Marrak’s eel-like face. “Oh, but she’s your favorite.” His hind foot slashed at Rigel’s underbelly, slinging him off. He dove at Syra and Rigel bolted after him.
Below, the barrier faded and Aidan curled into a ball, screaming.
“It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you!” Syra insisted.
Aidan poked his head from under his arms and started in surprise. “It’s you!” He said, recalling their earlier meeting.
“Syra!” Rigel slammed into Marrak and they skidded across the meadow, the heat from Marrak’s body burning a scar through the patches of greenery. “You will not harm her.” Rigel pinned Marrak to the ground, his scales starting to glow with heat. He winced and Marrak chuckled. With a thrash of his tail to the ground, Marrak flipped Rigel onto his back and shoved his face into the ground.
“You need to learn your place, Rigel.” Marrak sneered, his snout pressed to Rigel’s cheek. “Just because Draco’s your ancestor does not make you perfect.” Steaming blood dripped from his neck wound, landing on Rigel’s face and causing his scales to melt. Rigel clenched his jaw from the hot pain and Marrak laughed out loud. “You can’t even take a little heat!” He took a clawed hand and gripped Rigel’s left horn, holding him steady. “I will find those shards, Rigel. Doesn’t matter how well Nova hid them, I will find them and then destroy your precious family one by one,” Marrak grinned at Syra’s fear-struck face. “Starting with her.” He clamped his jaws around the base of Rigel’s horn, the heat from his mouth sending Rigel into a fit. Then it snapped.
With his head free, Rigel spewed flames into Marrak’s face. Marrak rocketed into the air, prize clenched tight in his hand and Rigel right on his tail.
Syra nudged Aidan to his feet and pulled him away from the city. “Come on! You have to get to safety.”
“Wait! I have to get my brother!” Aidan said, ducking away and running towards the forest with Syra chasing after him.
The sky above the forest vibrated with roars of battle as Rigel and Marrak wrestled and exchanged slashing blows.
Marrak swung his massive clawed hand and caught the side of Rigel’s neck. Blood flew, pearling and falling into the trees. He fell, but managed to correct himself, slamming into Marrak’s chest. Marrak clawed his sides and Rigel clamped his jaws around Marrak’s previous neck wound, using the pain in his sides to bite down harder and crack through the igneous armor.
He couldn’t hold on long. An Ignis’ body temperature mirrors their volcanic habitat, and despite the fire-proof lining, his mouth was beginning to char.
Rigel pumped his powerful wings, dragging Marrak higher. He peaked then dove, plummeting for the trees. With a guttural heave, he slung Marrak downward, sending him crashing through the canopy.
Marrak’s hide was thick, thicker than many Ignis due to his age, but his bones would still be crushed from a bad fall. Rigel just hoped that was enough. He felt himself go lightheaded and his vision faded for a moment. He strained to stay airborne and return to the lair; by now his chest was slick with blood and all he could taste was metal. It had better have been enough.
Ethan had stopped running to catch his breath when he heard a loud roar and whizzing overhead. Just ahead, the trees crashed and a heavy thud shook the ground. He crouched behind a boulder and covered his face from the flying debris.
When the dust settled, he was mere feet from Marrak who laid crumpled and limp on the ground. The last flickers of a barrier dissipated and a heavy groan rumbled in his bloodied throat.
“Magic?” Ethan hushed to himself.
“Surprised?” Marrak’s voice was faint and raw. Like the Montari, the Ignis weren’t known for being overly talented in magical arts. Marrak was among the few, but by and large they were a warrior clan. But given that the Ignis had very little to do with humans, and that the one staring at him now was just a lad, he figured the boy had little knowledge on the subject.
Ethan jumped back in surprise, tripping on roots and falling on his butt. Marrak simply watched the boy fumble for his sword with ladened eyes.
“Who are you?” Ethan demanded, pointing his sword at Marrak. “Why are you attacking us? What did we do to you?”
A chuckle scratched at Marrak’s throat. Pitiful thing thought a sword would do anything.
“Nothing,” He grinned at Ethan’s confused expression. “I merely need to flush out the king.” He rose on shaky legs, gripping his trophy.
“Ethan!” Aidan’s voice called through the forest.
“Run away!” Ethan gripped his sword and dashed forward, aiming for Marrak's throat.
“Now,” Marrak growled, filling his chest with fire. “On to Act Two.”
Aidan and Syra weaved through the forest after Ethan and were greeted by a flash of fire through the trees.
“Ethan!” Aidan screamed, leaping over fallen limbs.
Aidan and Syra burst through the underbrush and skid to a halt.
“Ethan, where are y—” Their eyes are filled with horror at the sight of Ethan’s body lying burnt on the ground. His princely clothes and silken hair were charred, leaving only scorched and melted flesh.
“Oh no…” Syra whimpered.
“Ethan!” Aidan wailed and fell to his knees beside his brother, searching for any sign of life but careful not to touch him. He didn’t stir. “Why?” Aidan’s broken voice waivered with his shaking, pools forming in his young eyes.
“I-I don’t kno—”
“Why? What did we ever do to you?” Aidan screamed, snarling up at Syra who faltered, not knowing what to say.
“Ethan! Aidan!” A middle-aged man called from horseback, his purple cape singed.
“Papa!” Aidan cried, running to his father in sobs. Syra darted deeper into the forest, watching from beneath a bush.
Rogan, Aidan’s father, leapt from the horse and wrapped tight arms around him. “Thank goodness you’re safe! Where’s Eth—” Rogan went pale as he stared down at his eldest son.
“No…no it can’t!” He fell to Ethan’s side and lifted his head with gentle, trembling hands. “Ethan? Ethan, wake up my son. Please?” He bit down hard on his lower lip but the tears still came.
“Dad?” Ethan’s squeak was barely audible.
“Ethan!” Rogan and Aidan breathed in relief. “Thank the heavens!”
“Dad?” Ethan continued, though his breathing was labored and shallow. “I’m sorry.”
“What? Why should you be sorry? You’re alive!” Whether it was out of hope or denial, he kept smiling down at his son.
“He got me first. The dragon.”
“A dragon did this?” Rogan exclaimed; the stab of betrayal was palpable. Ethan tried to nod but his green eyes glazed over.
“Ethan, stay with me!” Rogan had to shake him to keep him conscious.
“Sorry, dad. Seems I’m a bit sleepy.” A weak smile creased the raw skin on the side of his face.
“Listen to me,” Rogan pleaded, “You have to stay awake. If not you’ll—”
“It’s okay. It’s doesn’t hurt.”
“But I don’t—I don’t want you to go!” Aidan burst into tears.
Ethan just smiled, “Hey, you gotta be strong now, little one.” He strained to talk. “I wasn’t strong enough and this city is going to need you.”
“But I need you now.”
“Promise?” Ethan held out a shaking index finger.
Aidan sniffed back a sob and nodded, latching his tiny finger in Ethan’s, “Promise.”
Syra could watch no longer. She slipped from under the bush and hurried back to the lair, with a sinking feeling in her gut.
Cassius and Petra raced to Syra as she landed outside the lair entrance.
“Syra!” Cassius said, wracked with worry, “where have you be—”
“I can’t believe you!” Petra screamed, spitting flames at Syra’s feet, her face contorted by pain and anger.
“Petra, calm down!” Cassius said.
“No!” Petra blew more flames and Cassius shoved himself between her and Syra, puffing his chest.
“No! She can’t just fly off like that and think it’s okay!”
“Of course it’s not okay! But at least we know she’s safe!”
“Now we do! But what good is it? Papa, he’s…he’s…” Petra broke into sobs and ran into the cave.
“Petra, wait!" Cassius and Syra chased after her.
Syra halted at the end of the tunnel and watched Cassius dive off the ledge into the Main Chamber; a vast cave where the core of the mountain had been hollowed out and was lit by hundreds of amec crystals. Starlight beamed from the skylight and elegantly carved stone bridges crisscrossed down multiple stories. The chamber was silent except for Petra’s wailing and the rush of water on stone from the underground waterfall that formed a chain of pools at the chamber’s base. Dragons, large and small, lined the carving-adorned walkway that spiraled down the chamber. Rising from the bottom, a glowing amec monolith towered over Rigel’s crumpled form.
“Papa?” Syra dove off the ledge and glided down to the crowd of dragons surrounding him.
“Put up a barrier and double patrols! We don’t know when he’ll come back.” Rigel commanded through raspy breaths.
The crowd bowed and withdrew, revealing the gash in his neck and the red puddle growing beneath him.
“Papa!” Syra ran to his side and clamped her hands against his neck, the gash much larger than her little hands could cover, “Just hold on!” She breathed deep, steading herself and focusing all of her energy into her hands. She felt the warmth expand from her chest and down her front legs, but the magic only managed to sputter and spark around her hands.
Rigel turned to her, his eyes barely able to focus, “Syra…’
“It’s okay! I can do this!” She focused harder, but her breathing was shallow and her hands were shaking, and only more sparks came. She choked back a sob and tears fell as her magic failed.
“Syra, listen,” Rigel shifted away from Petra who clung to his arm, and pulled himself closer to Syra. Pulling the stone from under a scale, he held it out for Syra. “I was supposed to give this to you when you breathed your first flame, but it seems I won’t be able to do that.”
“Take it. It’s enchanted and Marrak will try his best to get it.”
“Why? H-how am I supposed to stop him?”
“It was your mother’s, so I’m not sure how it works. But she was positive you’d find a way.” He strained to breathe, “I’m sorry, Syra. You’re so young and it’s so soon…too soon.” The light from his eyes faded. “You are the heir to the clan, and now it falls to you. Please protect it.”
Rigel fell still. The whole clan was silent. Syra was in shock, Cassius turned his back, and Petra broke down in wails.
“No,” Syra shook his arm and grew frantic, “Papa no, you can’t! Don’t leave me! Papa!”
Then there was light. Dim at first, but grew like a sunrise from within Rigel’s corpse. It grew, then shone, then his body was nothing but light. It was warm and bright, and glimmered with stardust.
“What’s happening?” Syra panicked as the light waved and swirled under her hands.
“Essence, my love.” Vega, Syra’s grandmother and Rigel’s mother, said wistfully, “It is his essence. Watch, now.”
Like water, the light flowed from the Syra, wrapped around Cassius, Petra, and Vega—who stifled a cry, herself—and meandered towards the monolith. It spiraled up the crystal, whose glow radiated and sent shimmers throughout the chamber. And then it grew, and branched, and condensed. The light then dimmed, and in its place a glorious tree stood, its arms outreaching and its leaves as gold as Rigel’s scales once were.
“It’s magnificent, Rigel,” Vega cooed to herself, “As expected.”
“Papa…”Syra coughed and choked on her tears. She wanted to run to the tree and claw at it, to rip it apart and dig out her father who would, somehow, be sleeping inside. She wanted to summon every archmage in the clans and bring him back, even though she knew there was no such spell. No, he was gone. Her guardian, her teacher, her hero, was gone.
“Syra,” Vega stepped towards Syra, grief and pride churning in her sea blue eyes, “It is time.”
“What? No!” Syra shrank back as Vega bowed, lowering her head to her feet.
“You have my fire.”
“No, wait! Stop!”
One by one the entire clan bowed, chanting, “You have my fire!”
Syra stumbled backward, her gaze jumping around the chamber in panic. You still can’t breathe fire, can you? You’ll never become Vayguard like that! If only you took after your mother. Reason after reason came washing over her and she clenched her eyes shut.
“No! No, I can’t! Not me! Not now!” Syra bolted from the gathering and soared into an upper cave out of sight.
“Syra, wait!” Cassius called, going to chase after her.
Vega stepped ahead and stopped him, “Give her time.”
Light from crystals illuminated the large stone den. Worn books and scrolls lined the periphery and an alchemist set stood in one corner. A map of the dragon clans adorned one wall and a small pile of human-made stuffed animals covered the foot of Syra’s bed of moss.
Syra sniffed backed tears as she huddled behind a curtain of vines that veiled her moss-covered cubby hole. Petra was right. She didn’t become Vayguard through strength or valor. Her father had to die for it to happen. How pathetic. How sick. And she had caused it. If she had just followed his father’s orders, like a good wyrmling, he wouldn’t have had to protect her. How could anyone follow me after that? She thought.
“Petra, you’re being unreasonable.” Cassius’ voice echoed from the hallway outside Syra’s room.
“Shut up, Cas! I don’t want to hear it!”
Syra crawled from her bed and peeked into the hallway. In the shadow of a carved pillar, Cassius and Petra argued, both of their frills flared and red.
“I’m just as upset as you, but she’s Vayguard now and we have to honor that.”
Petra clawed at the floor, tail quivering. “Father is the rightful Vayguard! Not her! She can’t even breathe fire! How is she supposed to lead, let alone protect us?”
“We’ll just have to teach her.”
“No!" Petra hissed, “No, I will not! If it weren’t for her, father would still be—”
“Petra, enough! How many times do I have to tell you that?”
Petra stalked towards her own room, tears brimming and legs trembling.
“She’s our sister…” Cassius said in a whisper.
Petra’s gold eyes glared in the shadow, “I don’t care,” Pain contorted her face, “I’ll never forgive her.” She waved him away with her tail and disappeared into her room.
Cassius sighed and followed suit.
Syra stood silent, cold and hollow. She was right. It was her fault. No matter of training or fire breathing could reconcile that. Please protect it. Rigel’s words nearly made her laugh this time. As if fire breathing wasn’t impossible enough.
I lost my father and sister in the same day, Syra swallowed the knot in her throat and bolted down the hallway, leapt into the main chamber, and sprinted out of the lair.
The terrace was deserted and she threw herself onto the ledge, her claws scraping the side.
“I’m sorry, Papa! I’m so sorry!” She wailed at the starry sky, pleading for just one to twinkle at her as if her father were still watching her.
She pulled the stone from under a scale and just stared at it. A plain, gray stone broken in half, with nothing special about it save a little magic. Just like her. “How is one stone going to fight off Marrak?”
Then, as if in response, it glowed. From within the stone, a light grew and shone and condensed into a beam. A fine beam of light that pointed down the mountainside and into the valley below where it rested just outside the Altairan gates. Syra’s mouth wagged in amazement. Was this the enchantment her father spoke of?
The light flickered then faded, leaving her with a decision. She stood and looked back at the tunnel entrance for a long moment. She was positive you’d find a way. And then the moment was over.
The night air was cool and refreshing to her heated skin and tearstained face, and the lights shining from the city ahead of her gave her a new sense of purpose as she soared over the meadows patched with charring, and she fought the battle to look down where Marrak had pinned down her father. No. No more crying. Not over that. You can’t keep running away! Rigel’s words spurned her onward, past the charred ogre and past the forest where Marrak fell. No, from now on she would cry only to keep going. It was the only way to fulfill her father’s last wish; to protect the clan.
Gliding down to the edge of the city, she saw two guards on duty by the gate. Flames still lingered in the trees and she took shelter in a thick bush. From her hiding spot she studied the guards’ anatomy; two arms, two legs, one head, but no tail or scales, just some fur atop their heads. Not too bad, she thought. It should be possible. Closing her eyes, she breathed deep and concentrated, feeling the warmth spread from her chest outward and all over. Light shimmered around her and she felt lightheaded for the first time. This form must take a lot of mana, she thought, thinking it odd. But humans were different from birds or cats or otters, so maybe it was to be expected.
The light dissipated, leaving a young girl crouched under the bush. Blinking, Syra spent a moment just analyzing the hands in front of her. As she thought, there were no scales, just soft, tan skin that was incredible sensitive, especially at the fingertips. And no claws, if you could even call them that. The teeth were her biggest surprise, as she ran her tongue along the dull ridges in her tiny mouth. The fur atop her head was bark brown and tumbled down her back in soft waves. She tussled with it a bit, having no idea what to do with the stuff.
She stood, or at least tried to stand. She found balancing momentarily difficult until she managed to brace herself against a tree. Then it was on the hard part, walking. She stumbled quite a few times before growing accustomed to the muscle movement.
Syra was just about ready to approach the guards when, mid-stride, her foot hit a root hiding under the leaf litter. She tripped, stumbled, and fell hard into the trunk of a tree, jarring a burning branch from its place above her.
It burned, and she screamed. Syra had been hit with flames several times, mostly from Petra, and it never more than tingled. But this human skin, it was so weak and fragile, even the scraping from the bark hurt. The branch had partially trapped her under itself and she flailed her limbs trying to dislodge it, all the while the flames licked her skin, causing it to blister.
“Hey! Who’s there?” A man’s voice called through the brush. The guards, they must have heard me screaming, she thought. She wanted to call for help, but all of her words came out in nonsense screams. “Hold on, we’re coming!” She heard the crashing of footsteps and felt the weight lift off of her, but the pain still prevailed. She clung to herself, but any touch sent spasms through her body.
“Oh, good lord!” She heard one guard yell. There was a whoosh of wind then a soft weight that surrounded her. “Miss? Can you hear me?” The guard spoke softly with a tender voice. Syra nodded, feeling the fabric of the cloak the guard had draped over her naked body. “Good. Can you open your eyes?”
Eyes, right. She had those. Luckily, the fire hadn’t reached her eyes and they fluttered open with no issue.
Knelt before her was a young man, probably in his twenties, with a very worried look about his face. “Are you alright, miss?”
Syra went to stand but flinched as the cloak grazed the blisters on her back, “It hurts.”
“I’m sure it does,” The guard, Kaelem, said, “You have some pretty severe burns. We’ll need to take you to the infirmary for treatment.”
Given the context, Syra assumed an infirmary was similar to a healing den, so she nodded in agreement. If it got her into the city and took this pain away, why not?
“Can you walk?” The second guard asked, helping her stand. She nodded again.
They led her to the gate where Kaelem unhitched his horse and carefully sat her atop of it. The second guard remained at the post while she and Kaelem trotted through the streets towards the infirmary near Altaira’s center.
“What’s your name?” Kaelem asked.
She hesitated, but decided that she couldn’t afford to come off as suspicious.
“And your surname? Maybe we can find your family.”
“Surname?” Syra looked up Kaelem confused. Dragons never used surnames. It was up to the individual, not the family, to determine their honor and worth to the clan. Of course, there were always expectations, especially of a Vayguard’s line.
“I see.” Kaelem’s expression became more concerned, but he said nothing.
Syra turned her attention to the shops and houses and cabins lining the streets as they passed. Some were crafted from wood, others from stone, others had rims that shown like metal.
They rounded a corner and the scenery took a drastic change. Rows upon rows of buildings laid wasted by either ogre barrage, dragon fire, or both. Some streets were even blockaded by the debris of the collapses. Marrak did this, she thought, And he did it so easily.
Yet another turn brought them to the Inner Ring of the city where there was less destruction.
“We’re lucky the ogres didn’t get this far,” Kaelem said, “All of our supplies and aids are housed here.”
“I guess it’s a good thing the dragons came to help, huh?” Syra forced herself to hide her pride. But Kaelem only grew cross.
“Those dragons can shove it.” He said, furrowing his brow.
“B-but, why?” This made no sense to her. “Didn’t they help you?”
“Yeah, for now. You can never tell with those monsters. They were probably all in it together.”
Syra wanted to disprove his suspicions, but it would only make her job harder. So she kept quiet until they arrived at the infirmary.
The infirmary was a large, domed building with shining blue roof and blue banners hung around its perimeter, each with the Altairan crest embroidered proudly. The light from inside lit up the plaza that surrounded it, and voices bounced off the white pillars into the night air.
“Come,” Kaelem said, helping her from the horse and taking her small hand, “I know just the person to get you fixed up.”
Inside, the main hall was filled wall-to-wall with people. Rows of cots held the injured as men and women in purple capes with blue banners rushed about tending to them.
“Excuse me,” Kaelem said, stopping a medic that ran by,” Where’s Valen?”
“He should be in Section Three,” said the medic before hurrying off again.
“This way,” Kaelem guided Syra further into the hall, weaving through the throng of people and down and across rows into a separate section marked by columns.
As they walked, Syra surveyed the injuries. There was everything from broken bones, to burns, to missing limbs. Some were, of course, worse than others. All around people were crying or moaning, either from pain or fear for their loved one.
Humans are really weak, Syra thought, remembering how much her burns hurt. How do they manage to survive?
“Papa! Papa don’t go!” The cry of a child made her tense. Her eyes darted to a young boy crying at his father’s side, his mother distraught in wails. Syra felt her eyes fill and blur her vision. I’m weak, too, she thought, blinking them back.
“Valen!” Kaelem called to a dark-haired man in a purple cloak with gold banners tending to an injured woman; an archmage.
“Be right there, Kaelem!” Valen said, waving.
“You should rest,” Kaelem turned to Syra and motioned to a cot, sitting her down. “Oh, can I get one of those?” He stopped a medic carrying blankets, “Thanks,” He took one and draped it around Syra, careful not to graze her burns.
“You’re good at this,” Syra said.
Kaelem laughed, “I’ve had practice.” He retrieved his own cloak from Syra. “My son thinks he’s twice as old as he is, which doesn’t go well with the other squires.”
Syra picked at the wool cloth in thought, “Maybe he should be the one practicing.”
Kaelem burst out laughing and patted her head, “You’re probably right!”
“Kaelem!” From among the crowd, Valen hurried towards them, “What do we have here?”
“This is Syra,” Kaelem explained, “We found her by the West Gate. She seems to have been caught in the forest fire. Her burns are quite severe.”
“I see,” Valen said.
As he passed an examining eye over her, Syra noticed the bandages on his face and neck, “You’re hurt, too.”
A small grin peeked through Valen’s solemn demeanor, “Many people are, my dear.” He knelt down and reached for her arm, pulling back her blanket. “Kaelem?” He asked, snapping her blanket back into place, “Where are her clothes?”
Kaelem shifted his weight, a hair uncomfortable, “She had none, sir. Nor does she recall having a surname.”
Valen’s face darkened, “I see.”
“It is possible she came from the Outer Ring.”
“Hm,” concern wrinkled Valen’s brow, “We’ll leave that matter for another time,” he said, returning his attention to a confused Syra. “I beg your pardon, little miss, but I need to inspect your injuries.” He lifted the blanket as little as possible as Kaelem turned his head.
“I thought you said her burns were severe.”
“Are blisters not severe, sir?”
“They are, but these aren’t blisters. Look,” Valen said, showing Kaelem Syra’s arm. The blisters had vanished, leaving only red, sensitive marks.
“How is that possible?”
Valen looked closer at the burn marks, noticing a faint glimmer beneath the skin, “Syra, do you normally heal this quickly?”
“Yes, why?” answered Syra.
“It’s just something very special. Very few people do, and even then it takes years of study and practice.”
Syra was completely lost by the point.
“Watch this,” Valen placed a hand lightly on her arm and breathed deep. Light shimmered beneath his hand and warmth spread through Syra’s tiny body. Her eyes widened in awe when
he removed his hand, revealing healthy, unscarred skin.
“How did you do that?” Syra exclaimed.
“Would you like to learn?” Valen asked, chuckling.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
This was perfect. If she could study here, she could better her own magic and search the city.
Valen rose to his feet and turned to Kaelem, “She’ll heal on her own. Right now, I need you to fetch Rogan.”
Kaelem hesitated, “Sir, I don’t think he’s in the right mind right no—”
“Now is the perfect time. Go, please?”
Minutes later, Kaelem returned with Rogan, half beside himself, “Valen, what is so urgent that I had to leave my family?”
“Her,” Valen stepped aside and Rogan’s body tensed. The round, tear-filled green eyes of a child spotted with burn marks drudged up a memory he was trying desperately to forget.
“What of her? Heal her and find her family. I should return to mine.”
“That’s just it, she has no family.”
“She was found naked and burned with no surname,” Valen said.
“We believe so.”
“What would you do with her? Throw-away’s have very little skills.”
“On the contrary, sir. She’s gifted.”
Rogan spun on his heels and stared down at Syra in near unbelief, “Are you now?”
“What’s ‘gifted’?” Syra asked, looking to Valen.
“Magic, my dear. Can you use it?”
Her face brightened, “Oh, yes!” Pride came into her voice, “I’ve been practicing.”
“She’s been practicing,” Valen repeated, turning to Rogan.
“I assume you want to enroll her into the Academy?”
“I feel she would do well.”
The men were silent as Rogan contemplated.
“I’m not very strong,” Syra piped up, grabbing their attention, “And I’m pretty small, but I’m smart and practice hard! So please, can I stay?”
“If she qualifies, I have no qualms with her attending,” Rogan finally said.
“Thank you, sir. But there remains one issue,” Valen said, “She has no family. No one to take charge of her or a place to stay, and I have no room in my quarters.”
Rogan stared down into her determined, green eyes. How was it that right after he watched one pair fade, another appears? She was not Ethan, no matter how hard he wished those eyes belonged to his son, and that scene on the mountainside was just a stress-induced dream. But she was small and young, probably around Aidan’s age, and apparently smart and hardworking, and gifted. If he wasn’t ridiculed for rejecting an able-and-willing child, he would certainly be for denying a gifted person access to the Academy, let alone sending them—and their power—to a neighboring city.
“I’ll take care of it,” Rogan finally said.
“That’s wonderful, sir! Thank you,” Valen said.
“Please don’t thank me,” Grief saturated Rogan’s low voice, “It just so happens we have a spare room.”
Valen quieted himself, “Understood.”
Rogan leaned over and patted Syra’s disheveled head. She saw the pain hidden behind his eyes, and for a moment they shared a glimpse of empathy.
“I’m sorry for your loss, little one. I hope you can find a sense of home, here.”
“Thank you,” Syra said with a crack in her voice.
Rogan turned from them and headed for the castle, “Have a medic bring her some clothes then bring her to my quarters. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Valen bowed as he walked away, “Yes, your majesty.”