Chapter 1 – Assessment
It always seemed like the castle burst to life after hibernating for months and then after a few weeks of activity, everyone sat around moodily waiting for the rains to subside.
Draconis wrapped his enormous wings closer to his body as the storm’s ferocity intensified. At this elevation, the elder dragon need only spread his wings to be launched off of this mountaintop. The last of the spring storms were blowing with their usual bluster and Midsummer was fast approaching. All of the ice and snow had melted away, leaving large, lush patches of grass and wildflowers around him.
Soon the summer heat would be in full effect, which would have made Mina happy as her gardens would begin to blossom and grow. In the three years since her passing, her daughter Cassandra had taken up her mother’s gardening duties. The central courtyard had been converted into a large fruit and vegetable garden with flower beds scattered all over the palace grounds.
Dragon Hold was high up in the southeastern mountains of Vallius where the weather was clement year round, however the spring rains wouldn’t stop until well into summer. There were precious few weeks, as winter released its grasp and spring began to assert itself, when farmers and gardeners could get their seeds planted in time for the nourishing rain.
When the Dragon Host had first arrived in Amesdia, they had taken to tampering with the weather. Their goal had been to turn each country into a reflection of the dragons that chose to live there. This was ideal for the Draconic race; however it was an anathema to everyone else.
So, centuries ago, the Dragon Council had decided that nature had to be allowed to run its course. As a result, the dragon host focused on using their arts to take the pressure off of the magma chambers far below the surface of Terum in an attempt to make the area, and indeed the entire continent, more habitable.
Terum, as a result, had developed into a vibrant and productive farming country. Her people were robust, quick to laugh and opened their hearts and arms to the others when they were in need.
Oceana had once been a swampy mess of overgrown marshlands mixed with large swaths of cooled lava. With the intervention of the dragon host, most of the country was now above the water table. They were able to sow crops as well; the produce they grew had become the envy of the Seven Kingdoms. All of this had transpired before Tristan’s birth and yet Draconis remembered the details as sharply today as he did the flavor of the mountain goat he’d inhaled just this morning.
The winds began to die down and the rain stopped and the clouds began to break up as Draconis continued to be lost in thought. What troubled him today, and what had been troubling him for a fortnight, was Cassandra’s sudden transformation.
Sudden might not be the right word, but it seemed to be the only one that could capture the scope of the shock and awe his great-granddaughter caused when she walked into a room. Her eyes had possessed a violet tint since the night her mother had died, but two weeks ago after a rather brutal thunderstorm had destroyed the southern watch tower, she had come down from her room covered in golden dragon scales from head to toe.
He and two of his closest friends, Socolis the elder white dragon and Lesariu the elder gold, had spent days debating and examining Cassie’s transformation. At the time of her birth, both Mina and Tristan appeared to be two normal middle aged adults, despite being in their nineties. Their youngest child had grandchildren of his own and it was thought that their child bearing years had long since passed them by.
Yet, as Mina’s stomach expanded with her appetite, it had become clear that despite her age, Lesariu’s granddaughter was again with child. After Cassie had been born, Mina had begun to age alarmingly though. In the first five years, Mina looked every bit her age. By the time Cassie was ten, Mina’s hair had gone completely white and she was very nearly skin and bone.
Cassie was the spitting image of her mother in her youth and on more than one occasion Tristan had expressed concern that the curse the Gods had inflicted on him must surely have passed to his daughter. How he could be so dismissive about the gateway and so concerned about his daughter inheriting a curse he’d accepted always seemed to amuse Socolis, but he found humor in the strangest things.
Regardless, something had clearly happened to Mina, either during the pregnancy or afterwards. It was unclear as to what that had been, so their concerns had shifted to her daughter. It was undeniable that Cassie had intelligence and ability that far exceeded her age. At eleven, she could hold her own in debates with the adult ambassadors who frequently visited Dragon Hold.
What did cause no end of concern for Draconis though, were the possible ramifications of her appearance. The Orcs had been created by the mating of a dragon and an elf. Would Cassie remain Cassie, or would she somehow lose her mind as the orc hordes had lost theirs on their former home world of Fangoria?
The sun began to break through the clouds and Draconis was able to see more than a few feet in front of his face.
Looking north, he could see the distant lights of major cities, small towns that peppered the main roads and to the west; the Great Wall of Tarious. The wall towers were lit, as always. It was part of the early warning system set in place by Tristan decades ago. If under attack, the towers would dump pitch into their braziers which would create great plumes of thick green smoke to alert the Kingdom of invasion.
Eighty-Two years had passed since the mystical breach between Fangoria and Amesdia had been sealed and yet not a day passed that Draconis didn’t look in its direction. Tristan dismissed his grandfather’s concerns. Despite the doorway between worlds being breached on two occasions in as many millennia, he believed them to be wholly unrelated. Draconis didn’t believe in coincidence, every opening of the doorway solidified the pathway.
It had been a like number of years since any of the citizens of the Great Expanse had been seen remotely close to the wall. On occasion a trader would sail into one of the many Kingdom ports to trade goods, but rarely did they come armed beyond what would be expected of a merchant vessel.
Now, though, the new King of the Seven Kingdoms had publicly announced his plans to conquer and settle the Great Expanse once and for all. Andrew, Tristan’s great-grandson, was bold and determined to say the very least. Despite small skirmishes, the last eighty years had seen the longest period of peace in the history of Amesdia.
The King was now proposing to send a conquering force to pacify the region for colonization. The Expanse was largely infested with Orcs, mercenaries, and wild-men, but he was still proposing genocide. It was possible that the mercenaries and wild-men could be brought into the Kingdom as annexed citizens, however, in his experience, Orcs couldn’t be reasoned with.
Perhaps Draconis was getting sentimental in his old age, but he’d seen his fill of death long before the Dragon Host had ever arrived on Amesdia. Their former home world had been overrun by half-breeds turned to madness bent on the wholesale slaughter of the Draconic race. When they’d arrived in Amesdia, they’d sued for peace with the local warlords who would eventually carve out the Seven Kingdoms.
Nearly a thousand years ago, the humans had begun to tire of ceaselessly killing one another and banded together under the Vallious line of Kings. Each country was an entity unto itself, however, they all swore fealty to the King of Kings, who was now Andrew. New to the throne and possibly keen to prove himself the leader his grandfather (Tristan and Mina’s first son, Jonathan) had been.
While most regarded Draconis as the King of Dragons, he thought of himself as his own father had; their caretaker. He had made it clear to his kin that this war was not the responsibility of the Dragon Host to support.
Still, younglings being younglings, many were keen to support the descendent of Tristan and he had made clear his stance on this war. He was lending his full support to any action that would end the Orc threat to Amesdia.
Draconis didn’t blame his grandson for his anger and fear. Of all of the mortals of this world, Tristan understood more than any other the threat that Orcs presented both to the Draconic and mortal races. Tristan had spent the last eighty years building up relationships between humans, dwarves and elves. Conference upon conference had been held just below this mountain top, inside of Dragon Hold castle, between all four races to mend wounds.
Elves felt abandoned by Dragons, Dwarves felt betrayed by both, Humans were suspicious of anyone who didn’t look like them. The entire process had been long, more than a little contentious, and at times tedious in the extreme. Still, after years of talk, reconciliation and then education, at least in the Dragon Hold, all four races had an equal voice.
Ambassadors from all four major races were on hand and formed part of the Dragon Hold council along with Tristan and Draconis as the senior members. Over a decade ago, emissaries had been sent north to invite ambassadors from the giants, trolls, wild-men and others that populated the Great Expanse. Their efforts were rebuffed, which only served to strengthen the call to arms for northern invasion.
“Troubled?” A soft, familiar voice called as she landed behind him.
“Hmm?” Draconis replied.
“What’s on your mind, big brother?” Lesariu asked.
Draconis was forced to smile. He, Lesariu and Socolis had been crèche-mates as younglings and yet the two of them insisted on acting like he was older than they were.
“Cassandra. Tristan. This war, ” he began. “Take your pick.”
“Cassie,” she said with a wry grin.
He sighed and returned the smile.
“What if she loses her mind as the Orcs did?” He asked her.
“It’s been nearly three years since she first exhibited signs of a change. I’ve spent days with her, big brother, she’s fine,” Lesariu explained.
“She’s unique, and being unique is never easy,” Draconis observed as he looked out over the horizon.
“True, but she has her mothers’ fighting spirit,” Lesariu replied with a chuckle.
“That she does.” he agreed.
“Well, that’s settled,” she concluded.
Draconis scoffed in reply. He wasn’t entirely sure that it was settled. Cassandra would have a hard road ahead of her. Her life was already going to be challenging. Being a part of Tristan’s family was a lot to live up to and expectations were high from the general public. Tristan and Mina had never much cared which path in life their children chose; their primary concern had always been ensuring their happiness.
Cassandra’s parents had accomplished so much before their thirtieth Midsummer, and only Jonathan had managed to approach the level of their achievements. Added to the pressure of being a Vallious and sharing draconic heritage, Cassandra’s sudden change in appearance had completely set her apart from everyone. Even in Dragon Hold.
Thoughts of Dragon Hold immediately brought his grandson to mind.
“…and Tristan?” Lesariu prodded.
“He hasn’t been the same since Mina’s passing,” Draconis sighed as the heat of the sun broke up the spent rain clouds.
“None of us have, brother,” she observed.
It was true. Mina’s presence alone had made the castle into a home. Her loss had left a palpable absence in the halls. No one had expected the pregnancy and her alarming aging afterwards had driven that shock of her mortality home.
The distant boom of thunder signaled that another spring storm system was moving into the area.
“We’d better move inside, little sister,” Draconis sighed.
Lesariu nodded and leapt into the air, Draconis was a wing-beat behind her. An ear shattering explosion knocked him right out of the sky and tossed him into an outcropping of rock. Draconis felt his right wing snap and pain shot up his spine. Shaking the pain away as best he could, he looked up to see Lesariu held aloft by a net of lightning.
It crawled up her serpentine body and rattled her wings as she soundlessly screamed in pain. Dragging his limp wing behind him, Draconis took three steps forward and jumped as high as he could muster. His taloned claw wrapped around one of her ankles and the lightning traveled down his arm and wracked his body.
Refusing to release his hold, he pulled her down with all of his might.
The pair of them fell, limp from the sky above Dragon Hold in a tangle of wings, arms and legs. They rolled down the side of the mountain; plates from their armored hides were torn free by jagged rocks. They bounced up onto the southern wall, over the parapet and landed in a heap in the palace courtyard. Stones exploded on contact and a cloud of dust rose up around them, the smoking ruins of their bodies were splayed across the courtyard cobbles.
Draconis was dimly aware of the alarm bell ringing and the pounding of feet on cobblestones coming towards them before the nearest palace tower exploded…and then he lost consciousness.
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