Faces were wet with tears, people's eyes blurred and filled with disbelief and sorrow. For a moment, a weak, mistaken moment, I allowed myself to look back, to remember my childhood in the town of Emran and kingdom of Forane, to believe that I was merely dreaming, that I was not walking beside Alaric towards my death.
I had blanked out the entire time that they had actually brought us to Sinistra. We had ridden on something like a train, but much faster, arriving to the center city in less than an hour.
I looked up, shielding my eyes from the harsh sunlight as I looked out at the city. The sight was breathtaking. The buildings seem to grasp for the sky, some straight like the trunk of a magnificent oak, others twisting with bridges connecting to other structures like a dancing fire.
The rest of the journey was a blur. Alaric and I didn't speak once, not to my surprise. We traveled towards the center of the city, and I could feel my eyes widening in wonder as a gleaming white palace surrounded by courtyards and gardens with large fountains.
Nothing like this was ever seen in Forane. Sure, out kingdom was prosperous, but the wealth and beauty of Sinistra was simply more abundant. Still, though it was a sight to behold, there was something that didn't feel right about it. Like there was something under the surface of this beautiful structure, shielded, not wanted to be seen by the eyes of outsiders.
We walked in through a large set of double doors, the first gate closing behind us. I stared forward. No. I would not be enchanted by this kingdom, this place that treated magnificent creatures like dragons with such merciless cruelty.
However, I was unable to keep my eyes from flitting around time to time as we entered the throne room of the palace. The two thrones were occupied, both rulers staring down at us. The king's eyes were cold and emotionless; I could tell that he was curious yet utterly uninterested at the same time. The queen, however, kept her gaze locked on to me. I met it for a brief second, then looked at the ground, knowing that making eye contact with someone such as her would not end well, for she was a noble and I was a lowly citizen of another kingdom.
The same official from Forane walked towards the throne, bowed, and begun to speak to the them. I drew my eyes away, and focused them on the other contestants, if you could even call them that. It was more like forced participants. As I looked over at them, I noticed one girl staring back at me. Her dark hair was tied back in two fishtail braids, wisps framing her caramel skin. Her eyes were a bright, unusual hazel, contrasting beautifully with her dark features. I looked down at the floor, trying to block out the mix of emotions that pelted me every time I noticed someone new. A small group of the people were talking among themselves; I quickly counted, there were five. That was half of us. I could tell just by the muscular builds that two of them were from this kingdom, Sinistra, both tall, the boy having dark brown- almost black- hair, the girl's locks a fair, honey shade of blonde.
Alaric immediately went in the direction of the Sinistrains, leaving me stranded in the middle of the room. I took my time to look around at the white marble columns and and out the windows behind the king and queen that looked out at a large forest, the sea that bridged this kingdom with Riverdeen just visible, glimmering at the skyline.
The hazel- eyed girl started towards me, and I froze as she did, straightening, not wanting her to think that I was some petty weakling that could easily be taken down. She didn't say anything for a moment, but I could tell that she was curious. Confused, even.
"You...volunteered." she murmured after a moment, nodding to herself. "Sorry," she said quickly, holding her hands up, an apologetic gesture for reading my mind, hoping that she had not made an enemy. "I'm Karila. Telepath."
I smiled after a moment. She didn't seem hostile, or like she wanted to kill me, which was better than what I had assumed everyone would be like. "Eiriene." I extended my hand cautiously, a small smile creeping up on to my face as she shook it. "Empathic." She assumed that I was like her, with the ability to read minds and a natural skill with Teleportation, maybe even Matter Manipulation, a harder skill to learn, though some are born with it. But I wasn't what she thought. I was...unusual. Different. Not unique, for there have been others like me in the past, born with one type of magic but having abilities that belong to other groups. In my case, I am an Elemental. I find Wind the easiest for me to control. It may seem impractical and unavailing, but it is not. Empathic abilities belong primarily to the Telepaths, but I have these abilities.
I will keep my secret hidden for now. It shall useful against everyone else later.
Karila and I had begun to converse, both wary of the other, eventually loosening and brushing aside any skepticism left over. She would be a formidable opponent, I learned in the next few minutes, but was also kind, from what I had so far seen. This could just as well be an act- that, I must remember.
We were interrupted by a group of competitors, the person in the front looking down at me with cold, ice- blue eyes. He was one of the Sinsitrians, and looked around nineteen, facial features sharp and angular. "Well, well, well." He said with a confident smirk. "I didn't know they allowed little kids to compete. You're what...fourteen?"
I didn't look away. That's what someone with less strength and confidence would do. I am not the kind of person who bows down to others without reason. "Sixteen." I corrected, and someone behind him scoffed.
"Easy target." mumbled a feminine voice.
That's what they assume. What they assume- as most is, when not assured- is false. But I will let them think that for now. It will be an advantage on my part, and a good one. During the competition, there are no rules on what magic is used, how we use it, or who it is directed towards. The dragons that are assigned to us depend on what type of magic we have, because, if paired right, our magic can be magnified through the creature. It hurts them, even though it helps us.
I lifted my chin, about to say something, interrupted as the official from this kingdom called for us to be quiet. We turned to face the king and queen, shuffling around to stand in a line that crossed the throne room, grouped by kingdom.
Alaric stood next to me, not meeting my eyes once. His gaze was focused on the forest behind the palace.
I knew what we were to do next. I had remembered from when Nepthys told me of her time in the competition. They started with the Sinistrians, as always, who were standing on the far left of the throne room.
"Therin." Said the one with dark hair and eyes like ice. His voice was sharp, matching his overall appearance exceptionally well.
"Everlys." The blonde pronounced, eyes flickering across the line of contestants until they landed on me, last. I could tell that she was someone who enjoyed the concept of the Dragon Races. It was a prominent feeling, and I didn't need to search to know.
As Karila spoke, I stopped listening. Why should I know the names of people who I'd see killed? I might kill them, they might kill me. Why should there be any tie to possibly knowing each other if our fates are truly what they seem?
"Alaric." I heard him say. I was surprised that I had shut everyone's voices out for that long, when it only felt like a few moments. But his voice I couldn't keep out of my head. However much I wanted to, whenever he spoke, I felt compelled to listen. He had a nice voice- it had an amused tinge if you listened closely enough, a tone of entitlement, but not overly so.
"Eiriene." I could only hope that my voice had been steady. I glanced over at Karila who gave me a small smile. I didn't return it, but instantly regretted my choice. I looked over at her again a moment later, but her eyes were on the king and queen.
I will eventually need to betray her, I know. She seemed like such a kind person, even though first impressions can often be deceiving. I wonder if she has a younger sibling like I do, or if her family and friends were devastated when she was chosen to compete.
This makes me miss my brother even more. His face right before I left- contorted with pain, streaked with tears. I allow myself to think back on all of the wonderful memories for a brief second, of him and I running through the forests and laughing as he messed up a recipe- of my mother giving me her advice- of Nepthys telling me all about the complex love life of her older brother- before turning my thoughts back to Karila.
I shook those thoughts from my mind. No...I will not allow myself to fall mercy to the empathetic compassion I always show towards others. I must push them aside, and focus on the real reason I am here, standing beside Alaric Emrys, my death awaiting me in a few days' time. I am here to save everyone else who could, in the future, be standing in my place.
I glance over at her and suddenly see a girl like me, afraid, yet not willing to show it. She must be strong for the people who love her. Perhaps she's here for the same reasons I am- to free the the dragons from this cycle of misery and demise; or, she could be here for the glory of her kingdom.
Whichever one it is, it doesn't matter now. The deaths of the contestants standing here are better than letting the Dragon Races continue on for the years to come.
I will have to kill her- kill all of them, even Alaric. Except I'm not sure if I'll be able to, even if it is a matter of life and death.