Circe ran down the gold-inlaid hallway, her heart pounding. She skidded to a stop in front of the copper doors, eying the guards standing at attention nervously.
“I have something for the Queen,” she told them. They looked at each other, then the one on the left held out his hand.
“Your scale,” he growled. She winced but handed over her dark red scale. Her body tingled as the small object responsible for her entire life left her touch. He inspected it for a second, then opened the door. She walked through them and down the throne room where her Queen was sitting.
Circe knelt at the foot of the dais, fist over her heart.
“My Queen,” she said. A faint humming noise filled the room and only stopped once the Queen stood up, her skirts rustling.
“What do you have for me, Circe?” she asked. Circe looked up at the stern face of the Dragon Queen and suppressed a tremor.
“The Book, Illuzan.”
***1,400 years ago***
The years stretched out like a road through sand, the landscape barren, and every step Illuzan wished was her last. Her skin that had been broken so many times by the whip was a gnarled map of her pain. The sunlight she had loved as a child in her mother's arms was nothing but a curse, for feeling it meant her heart was still beating. She envied the fall leaves curling brown to the earth; surely the Mother would take her away someday soon, someday when the whip sent her blood into the soil.
“Prisoners. Line up.” The rough voice sent her mind reeling in panic. It was the same voice that accompanied the whip. The same voice that had sent hundreds of her people to their death. King Thanarg.
The War had lasted only a decade, but the conflict between her people, the Galos, and his people, the Rakon, had lasted millennia. Each side claimed there wasn’t enough land for the two sides, but it was the marriage between Illuzan’s mother and Thanarg’s father that sent the two sides spirling into war. She had hoped the fact that Thanarg was her brother would help, but the male didn’t look twice at her. He spilled her blood as often as he spilled her people’s blood.
The same way he had murdered their parents.
Illuzan all but ran to her spot in line, stumbling over a cloth-covered body in her haste. She didn’t even know who it was by this point.
“Right arm forward,” Thanarg said, strolling up and down the line. The hundred or so prisoners stuck their arms forward. Illuzan studied the scab over her wrist, the same one every single prisoner had. It showed where their scale once resided, their scale that controlled how they transformed from their dragon selves to their human bodies and back again. Thanarg inspected every prisoner's arms, making sure they weren’t in possession of their scales.
After the War ended, he threw all her people into a death camp, took their scales, and slowly beat the rebelling spirit out of them. Over the span of the decade, he had started killing them off. One every week. Of the thousand who he captured, there were only half of them left.
Less than five hundred people of a race over a million strong.
Thanarg was two prisoners away. She stiffened, holding her breath and praying that he wouldn’t notice her.
Of course, he made it a habit to torment her. With his tight grip, he turned over her arm, making her wince at the jolt.
“Princess,” he sneered, lowering her rank and making her title to the throne worthless. Of course, the throne was destroyed. The palace was ransacked and burned to the ground, and her mother’s beautiful diamond crown was in his possession. Everything she associated with good memories was gone.
She lowered her eyes. It was better to not antagonize him any further. He’d already told her that he would kill her last after her people had all died. She knew he wouldn’t kill her yet. At least, she didn’t think so.
She realized her mistake too late. He punched her in the stomach, and she doubled over, wheezing. He punched her in the face and she fell backward into the dirt. And for good measure, he kicked her in the side, breaking a rib, and she curled up, eyes clamped shut.
The pain took over a portion of her brain as if dealing with it is energy expenditure enough, without the effort of new thoughts. It stole the part of her she most wanted to share with others, her light and laughter, her generous heart. It was the sort of pain that burned as if some invisible flame were held against her skin. The emotions of loss were that way, right? Death, abandonment, or betrayal, they all led here.
“You are the scum of the world. Lower than dirt. You deserve to stay down. You deserve death,” he growled. Her throat closed up. Her heart beat faster. She scrunched her eyes so tight that she saw stars. A figure faded into view. A face with long red hair, golden eyes, and warm caramel skin, dressed in the clothes she had died in. Her mother.
No. Gedith Cairistìona whispered, though her lips didn’t move.
I am broken. Illuzan thought. She could feel her body giving up.
No. Her mother thought back.
I am alone. Illuzan whispered. Her mother shook her head fiercely.
No. She insisted.
I can’t. Illuzan crumpled, tears burning against her cheeks.
Why not? Her mother asked, cocking her head.
He took my scale. He took my power. I am nothing without them. She said. Her mother laughed.
The first dragons didn’t need their scale to transform. The scales only harness our power. Little one, you are not nothing without them. They have been within you all along. Her mother said.
But it has been ten years since...you were killed. Why hasn’t it appeared before? She asked. Her mother only smiled.
Because you haven’t realized your full potential until now. She replied. Illuzan shook her head.
I- She started, but her mother cut her off.
You are Illuzan Cairistìona, you have fire in your veins, you are a dragon, and you are not broken. Her mother said, her image fading away. Illuzan was jolted back to reality with another sharp kick to her ribs.
“...you are worthless. You are broken. You are nothing,” Thanarg was saying, a kick punctuating every sentence. Her eyes opened. Her chapped lips worked.
“No,” she said quietly. Thanarg stopped, shocked.
“What?” he asked quietly, dangerously. She put her bloodied palms to the dirt and rose to her feet.
“No,” she repeated. Thanarg took a step back as she stood in front of him, her silver eyes boring into his hazel ones.
“What are you doing?” he growled.
“I am not broken. I am not worthless. I am not nothing. I am Illuzan Cairistìona, Dragon Queen of the West, and I am going to kill you,” she said, fire thrumming through her words. Thanarg recovered from his shock with a laugh.
“And how are you going to do so without your scale?” he questioned. Her silver eyes glowed molten.
“Like this,” she said, then thrust her hands up, giving herself over to her dragon form. Fire blazed around her as her body stretched out, elongating and replacing skin with hard scales. Within two seconds, a silver dragon stood in her human body’s place, sleek and muscular, with jagged scales along her back and two blood-red horns twisting from her head.
The dragon dipped her head and looked at Thanarg in the eye. Faster than a blink, she bit off his head.
“Where did you find it?” Illuzan asked Circe, the Queen’s knuckles white.
“It was tucked away in the dungeons. I was interrogating a prisoner when I saw it. He didn’t even know it was there.”
“Prisoner?” Illuzan asked, confused. “What prisoner?” Circe waved her hand impatiently.
“One of the men who we caught sneaking into the palace,” she said quickly. Illuzan halted.
“Someone snuck into the palace?” She repeated. Circe nodded.
“It’s nothing, Illuzan, he’s just a simple merchant spouting nonsense about the Bo-wait.” Circe stopped and looked at Illuzan with a panicked look. “He knew.” Illuzan moved down the hall with renewed urgency.
“Then you must show me the Book as soon as possible,” she said. Circe nodded.
“This way, Illuzan,” she replied. They walked down the winding hallways down to the library.
Built to withstand the searing heat of dragonflame, the library’s tall ceilings towered over the walls covered with bookshelves. Circe led Illuzan to the table in the middle, where a large, leather-bound book rested.
The book was a simple earthy-hued cover, warming to the eyes, comforting. After all these years it was soft to the touch and the edges had a similar look to some beloved dragon scale. Inside the pages looked as if they had bathed in golden rays and taken them in, so softly golden were they. And the letters took their places as if by a composer's hand, one who was accustomed to the sweeter notes of beauty.
Illuzan gently flipped through the pages, eyes shimmering as the hundreds of thousands year old pages were opened to the world once more. They spoke of the wonders of their world, species that they didn’t know existed, and dangers that seemed too scary to be true.
The final two pages were blank, and Illuzan looked at them with a wrinkled brow.
“What’s here-” she started, but the instant her fingertips brushed against the paper, silver lines spread across it. The two gasped and watched as a map drew itself right before their very eyes.
Illuzan searched the map, but everything was brand-new. This was a land they had never seen before. And in the corner, two words were inked there, in the same silver ink. Illuzan read them and gasped, this time in horror.
“How can this be real?” Illuzan whispered, running a finger over the silver map. Circe shook her head wordlessly.
“It goes against everything we’ve ever known,” she added. Illuzan didn’t respond, but a shadow crossed her silver eyes. Circe noticed it immediately. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Illuzan looked at her.
“What does this mean for the future of our worlds?” she said. Circe opened her mouth to respond when a commotion outside the library made their heads whip toward the oak doors. They instinctively put the book behind them and the doors burst open. A haggard-looking male panted as he looked wildly at the two females.
“Who are you?” Illuzan asked, standing tall. Circe noted the lines around the man’s face and gasped.
“It’s the merchant. The one who knew about the Book,” she told Illuzan urgently. The male’s head whipped toward Circe.
“My Queen. The mortal world has sent a declaration of war,” he said hoarsely. Illuzan inhaled sharply and turned back to the Book.
This would change their lives forever.