“I know who you are, what you do...and I want to join you.”
Ava opened her mouth to reply, her lips already forming the shape of a 'no' but Faith spoke first, eyeing Maya shrewdly. “Who do you think we are exactly?”
Maya’s mind flashed back to the large, distinctive dragon in flight tattooed on the forest floor, claiming its prize of the men and women tied at its center. She knew there was only one group that used such an imposing symbol. “You’re part of the Soaring Dragons.”
“I see,” Faith said, scrutinizing her shrewdly. Maya resisted the urge to shiver, Faith’s cold eyes seemed to see right through her, it was disconcerting.
“We’re not recruiting,” Ava stated. “Right, Faith?”
“If she could help us, I think recruitment is worth considering,” Faith replied evenly, her gaze not leaving Maya as she spoke. “What is it that you can do, Maya?”
Maya’s heart soared and a grin threatened to break through her relatively calm expression but she fought it back, restricting herself to a small smile. Now when she spoke, her voice shook, not from fear, but excitement. Don’t get ahead of yourself, she reminded herself sternly, they haven’t said yes yet. “I’ve studied concealment charms and spells since I could cast. I think I’ve gotten really good at them.”
“Show us,” Faith said softly, meeting Maya’s leaf-green eyes with her brown ones. Like everything else about her, they were intimidating. Though pretty, with their sparkling gold flecks that complimented the deep brown of her iris, the depth of her gaze was unnerving and slightly uncomfortable.
Maya raised her wand, employing her entire willpower to keep it steady as she traced out a figure, the most complicated one she was able to learn. It drained her magical reservoirs, but she needed to impress these two Dragons. A slight chill washed through her as the spell took effect, allowing her to fade out of sight.
At a nudge from Faith and after a roll of her stormy eyes, Ava shifted into a blue-tinted falcon, then an eagle, then an owl, all with a practiced ease and fluidity. Maya admired her swift transformation, comparing it to her younger brother’s slightly slower one. The speed and skill she exhibited spoke of intense training and practice, something her brother tried his best to achieve. When Ava resumed her human form, she shook her head to Faith, who scrutinized the place where Maya stood for a few moments. Finally, she said, “Walk around, please.”
Ava resumed her eagle form as Maya obeyed, pacing the floor of her room twice before coming to a stop where she’d previously stood. “I did.”
“Wow,” Faith murmured. “Your skills are amazing, I’ve never seen anyone besides…”
She visibly shook herself and waved a hand slightly, saying instead, “You can stop now if you want.”
Maya raised her wand, triumph blossoming in her chest as the spell melted away, leaving her breathless and exhilarated. Faith nodded approvingly, “That was amazing, Maya.”
Maya flushed with pride and pleasure, toying with one of her golden-brown curls as Faith continued, “You say you want to join us, why?”
“I feel like I can help people with my power and I’ve heard about you guys and what you do for Commons. I really want to make a difference, I don’t want to sit around on a beach in the middle of nowhere knowing I could be saving lives,” Maya answered fiercely.
“You don’t know what you’re asking for, Maya,” Faith warned, ignoring Ava's low hum of disapproval. “If you join us, you’ll be living a life in the shadows, a life on the run where you don’t know who to trust, where you have to make decisions that could cost people their lives. Are you ready to do that?”
For the first time, Maya faltered, fear chilling her blood. But determination was stronger, so she lifted her chin, puffed out her chest, and said, “I am.”
“Faith,” Ava objected.
“If she is old enough, has a good reason to join, and has the power to help, she is eligible to join us,” Faith replied. “We cannot refuse her.”
“She could get hurt,” Ava said.
Faith laid a comforting arm across Ava’s shoulders, sadness darkening her gaze, and the two seemed to sag into each other for a moment before rightening their postures. “Ava’s right, Maya. Pain and sacrifice are part of the job.”
“I-I know,” Maya whispered.
Faith studied her for a moment. “You said you were going to leave Kiwali’a anyway. We will be traveling to a southern border town. You may join us, but while you do, you will not hesitate to follow our directions. It could be the difference between life or death, do you understand? When we reach the border, you will have the choice to continue as a Dragon or to part ways with us.”
Maya nodded hesitantly and Faith continued, “Tomorrow at dawn, wait at the southeastern edge of Kiwali’a. It’s your last chance to back out. You come with us and there’s no going back. You have to cut ties with your family, to protect them. Or you can stay here with them, forget you ever met us, and continue to live your life in peace. Your choice.”
Without another word, the two women slipped away into the shadows and Maya was alone with her thoughts. She walked shakily to her bed and sat, leaning her head and back against it when a voice startled her out of her thoughts. “Are you going to go with them?”
Maya jerked her head up to see a figure leaning against the closed door to her room. Distantly her mind registered that he must’ve turned into a small bug or rodent to fit under the door. But she didn’t dwell, she had more important things to worry about. Isaac stared at her for a moment, his distinctive golden hair tips glinted in the warm lights of her bedroom. His stance was strange, stiff and tense, angry almost. His usual enthusiastic energy was clouded over with frustration and worry as Maya replied, “What are you talking about, Isaac?”
“The two girls who came in, Faith and Ava,” Isaac said. “The Soaring Dragons.”
“How much did you hear?” Maya asked quietly.
“Enough,” he answered, just as quietly. “Are you going to go with them?”
“I don’t know,” Maya lied, keeping her face neutral, the face she used when dealing with a particularly difficult customer.
Isaac saw through her facade in an instant, sitting down beside his sister as he muttered, “Liar.”
“Yes, I’m going to go with them, people need help that I can provide,” she said heavily, putting her head in her hands. “I need to go.”
“Take me with you,” Isaac said suddenly, and Maya’s head shot up immediately. “Maybe I can’t do what you can, but there are still ways I can help.”
Before he even finished, Maya was already shaking her head, “No, absolutely not.”
“Come on, Maya, please,” he pleaded, desperation leaking into his tone. “I really want to go with you and I can help.”
“Isaac, you’re fifteen,” she replied crossly. “You’re not old enough to come along.”
“You’re less than two years older than me, you just barely turned seventeen. Don’t lecture me about not being old enough.”
“You could get hurt, Isaac,” Maya said quietly, remembering Faith’s words from mere moments before, pain and sacrifice are part of the job. “I would never forgive myself if you did.”
“I won’t get hurt, we’ll be together, a team,” Isaac protested earnestly. “I could help them and you!”
“Mom and Dad, they’ll be devastated to lose both of us,” Maya said. “I have to help them and you have to stay with them, they’ll need you.”
“Please, Maya, please.” Isaac turned his piercing hazel eyes on his sister and she avoided them studiously, refusing to budge even under the pressure of his piercing stare.
As she steeled her resolve, another of one of Faith’s comments resurfaced in her mind: you'll have to cut ties with your family, to protect them. So Maya gathered herself and met his gaze determinedly, making herself say, “No, Isaac. You are not coming with me. Now can you please get out so I can pack?”
Hurt flashed through his eyes and Maya had to lower her gaze from his as he stood. Guiltily, she remembered all the promises and stories they would whisper to each other in the middle of the night about the adventures they would embark on, the battles they would face, the challenges they would overcome. One thing had always been a constant in their stories, in their adventures. They had always been a team, a pair that no one would dare stand against. But she couldn’t let herself back down now so she stared at her feet and said nothing. After a drawn-out pause, Isaac turned on his heel, saying cooly, “Fine, I’m leaving. Happy now?”
Watching him walk away, Maya’s heart ached and she wanted very badly to call after him, to tell him, No, wait! Come back! You can come with me, I want you to come with me. But she held her tongue, reminding herself that she was protecting him. Even if leaving him hurt now, she knew it could save him later. In her heart, she knew that she might as well have taken a pair of scissors and snipped his trust away.
Again, Maya refused to dwell, turning her attention to how she would deliver the news to her parents. It was sudden, but that couldn’t be helped, she was out of time.
Dinner was quiet, broken up only by the sounds of eating. She knew they were all thinking about her departure, and it broke her heart to know that she was leaving them and that she might never return. Her parents had taken the news stoically but Maya knew they were breaking inside. They didn’t want her to see, they wanted to be strong for her and she loved them for it, wished she didn’t have to leave.
Isaac was sullen, quiet, very unlike his usual self. Once again, Maya was hit by a pang of guilt as she reminded herself that it was she who had made him this way. She excused herself early, heading to her room to collect herself and make sure she was ready for the next day. Something told her that traveling with a trio of Dragons meant traveling light so she only packed her necessities. Finding nothing else to do, she sat down to write three letters, one addressed to each of her family members, dashing at her eyes every minute or so to stop the tears from falling. Her mind was blank but she wanted all of them to have something to hold onto while she was gone.
Maya penned down Isaac’s letter carefully, apologizing for herself and wishing him the best when she was gone. Many tears were shed but eventually, she got all three letters written and sealed. Taking a few deep breaths, she ventured back down the stairs to where her parents sat together, silently lending comfort to the other. All your doing, she reminded herself sadly. For the first time since she'd been given the option, Maya considered staying away, not leaving at dawn, forgetting she ever met them and being happy with her life as it was. But deep down in her heart, she knew that if people were suffering because of the Empire and she could help them, then that was what she had to do.
At dawn, Maya already waited at the southeastern edge of Kiwali’a, as instructed. She didn’t feel enthusiastic anymore, sadness weighed heavily on her as she thought of all she was giving up to go. Her parents…her friends…Isaac…
But one thing remained the same, the determination. She was still determined to help, still determined to fight for change, and ready to make it happen. It was time.