Ra and the other fledglings assembled before the rock-hewn stairs that led up to the Hall of Flight. Fifty. Sixty. Or maybe a hundred steps. Ra tried counting to calm his nerves but ended up getting dizzy and straining his neck. The dry-stone wall was lined with the ceremonial torches and not the usual white energy lamps. The central pyramid was on the highest spot in the City of Daleth. Wherever he looked, he could see the smaller, residential pyramids spreading out to the edges of the cliffs. There were no lights below, for the tenants were gathered above.
He felt tingly all over, though it wasn’t the bite of the morning fog. Adjusting his cerulean-blue graduation sash, he looked over his shoulder. Ul, his best friend, beamed at him, his obsidian-black eyes twinkling. Rocking back and forth on his heels, his excitement seemed to further electrify the atmosphere. The warm torch light made Ul’s skin glow like bronze. He also had a cerulean sash, meaning he was also among the top cadets of their batch.
Looking away, Ra sneered. How come Ul also got to wear that sash? Unfair. Sure, they were partners in almost everything -sparring, hunting, retrieving – but his friend wasn’t exceptional. He was reckless. And whiny. Ra gritted his teeth.
Nevermind. After almost half a century of blood, sweat, and tears, they were both becoming full-fledged Pilgrims. That was all that mattered.
He heard a female fledgling gasp. The first light of day had just broken through. At once, the air vibrated to the sound of rustling wings. Ra preened himself as well, shaking his feathers to make sure they were in place. Squaring his shoulders, he held his head high and prepared for the march. He was first in line. He had better make a good impression.
He awaited the emergence of the rare alignment – the sun and the Clouds of Birth rising together from the horizon. From the corner of his eye, he saw the red-orange orb appear first, its nascent light chasing away the darkness that comes before dawn. Like a prismatic cloak, the nebulous Clouds followed in its wake, illuminating the misty valleys with rays that rivaled the sun’s brilliance. Ra drank in the Clouds’ energy. His heart hammered in his chest. Anytime now.
There it was. From the Hall of Flight, the mellow sound of the summoning horn echoed throughout the City of Daleth.
Ra took the first step, cringing at the icy feel of rock against his bare feet. Left, right, left, right. He and the rest of the angels made their way up the staircase.
Almost there. Howling winds whipped his cloak and feathers out of place. Shivering from the sudden drop in temperature, he held on to his sash lest the wind blast it away. This wasn’t the kind of entrance he had in mind, but the Hall of Flight was almost before him, its gilded, rune-carved arches beckoning.
He saw the Pilgrim Cygnus standing on stage, five generals assembled behind her. She appeared daunting even from this distance. Her black warrior cloak was wrapped about her neck and shoulders, billowing from her back like another pair of wings. She was clad in chain mail and leather war boots that reached up to her thighs. In one hand she held the summoning horn. In the other, her longsword, its tip touching the ground. At a slight gesture of her head, one of the generals took the horn.
Taking a deep breath, Ra climbed up the stage. He marched toward her until they were face to face. The Cygnus’ eyes were small like slits, but her silver gaze might have been as sharp as her blade. She appeared fierce despite the softness of her oval face.
“Rael, you have passed the test.” She imparted his Pilgrim name. “State your oath.”
“I, Rael, swear to the Clouds of my birth, and to the Law that governs all, to protect my planet, Spheria, at all cost…” He searched his mind. Why couldn’t he remember the rest of it? He gritted his teeth again.
“Hsssst…’even at the pain of death.'” A familiar voice whispered into his ear. Ra turned and – to his surprise (and horror) – found that his bronze-skinned friend had also come up the stage.
“Ul, what’re you doing? It isn’t your turn yet!”
Ul seemed to shrivel up at his reproach. Giggles broke out from the fledgling congregation, but they sounded like sneers to Rael’s ears. His face heating up, he wheeled toward the Cygnus who smiled at him disarmingly. She seemed to be holding down the urge to laugh. Turning her attention to Uliel, her silver eyes mirrored amusement.
“Uliel, you have passed the test. State your oath.”
Uliel did, and when he finished, he spread out his wings, showing off the radiance he’d acquired from the fledgling missions he and Rael completed together. Rael couldn’t believe this. He was supposed to be the first to do that.
“Ra, the ceremonial flight!” bubbled Uliel.
“Of course,” Rael spoke from the side of his mouth. Despite their little blunder, the fledgling congregation applauded and cheered. Watching them, he swelled and forgot about his embarrassment. Stretching out his wings to their full expanse, he sprinted to the edge of the Hall of Flight. He tightened every muscle and beat his wings, producing the sound of thunder when he took off. He basked in the congregation’s ooh’s and ahh’s as he left. Even when he could no longer hear their cheers, he continued to feel giddy.
“Rael, isn’t it amazing? We even did the ceremonial flight together!” Uliel glided beside him, his black curls dancing in the wind.
“You again?” To his own surprise, he wasn’t angry. He actually smiled at his friend as they swooped down the fang-like edges of the Halmahareth Mountains.
“Guess we’re really partners from now on,” Uliel added with a grin.
Rael nodded without thinking. If only he’d known what he was getting himself into.
Five days. They’d been following the Grey, trekking on bare feet, holding their breaths more than half the time. Any sudden noise would alert it, and they couldn’t have that.
The shadows were lengthening again. The day was ending again. And it seemed they would make no progress…again.
“You think it’s an angel?” Uliel spoke in undertones lest the leaves and trees carry his voice. Crinkling his button nose, he ran a hand through his curls.
“Used to be. Isn’t that obvious?” Rael hissed. Why did Uliel have to keep asking these useless questions? The Grey was a gangly thing, rising to a good six feet, its stomach drawn taut, the ribcage protruding. Its joints were knobby pegs. One wing stuck out from its back like palm tree fronds. The other was gone, yet somehow, it was still alive.
Rael scoffed. He knew it was alive only because of all the Light Bodies it had devoured. Shame on it. For sure, this one wasn’t one of them. Pilgrims would never allow themselves to be subverted. They used the Light Bodies as well, but they would never succumb to such glut.
“What’re we doing here again?”
Rael wanted to knock the other out with the back of his sword. He restrained himself. “Are you serious?”
The single-winged monster slipped into a grove, where the tree trunks were bunched together like a wall. Making odd guttural sounds, it chewed on a shrub. It might have been feeding.
“Look I know we’re carrying out our mission, but that’s just one monster. If there’s really a Body ’round here, there should be swarms of Greys.”
Rael stopped in his tracks. Uliel had a point. Their past missions had honed their six senses for moments like these, training them to perceive high levels of ground energy whenever a Leypoint cropped up somewhere on the planet.
Right now, though, he couldn’t sense any energy fluctuations. When things were this calm, Light Bodies couldn’t form in the Leypoints, and neither could Greys eat them. Was it a mistake, then? Perhaps this one was just…lost, or something.
What were they doing in this jungle?
“Rumors,” he recalled, adjusting his woven cloak. “The folks from town said they saw Greys in the area, right?”
“They always say that. It’s not our job to get rid of every monster that appears on Spheria.”
“But it’s our duty to keep them in check.”
Uliel pouted. Taking large, exaggerated strides, he went ahead. “Then let’s just go kill this one and–”
They both froze. Uliel’s foot had landed on a pile of dry twigs. Lifting its gaunt head, the single-winged Grey snorted. Rael saw its huge eyes glint like steel amidst the leaves and boughs. For some reason, it was glaring not at Uliel, but him.
Rael drew his sword from its scabbard. The Grey whipped at the trees in the grove, and they fell away like sheaves of grass. Opening the ragged pinions of its only wing, its skin began to take on a familiar radiance. Rael immediately sensed the energy it was emitting and swallowed hard.
By the stars of Spheria! It was going to use its Light Bodies.
It dashed toward him with frightening speed. He swung his sword in time but missed its head by a hairbreadth. In a blur of movement, its arm seemed to elongate, lancing out at him. He barely sidestepped getting skewered to death. Losing his balance, he landed on his side, crushing a patch of slimy mushrooms.
He heard a shout and a whooshing sound. Propping himself up on his elbows, he saw–with much horror–Uliel hurling white-hot streams of angel fire at the monster. It shrieked and fell back. Uliel’s hands flew as though he’d gone mad. The surrounding trees burst into orange flames as his friend battered away at the Grey.
“Uliel, you fool! Use your sword!”
But it was too late. The flames expanded like a great blanket. The leaves and boughs around them withered and crackled, glowing blood-red. Rael lost sight of both Uliel and the Grey. Scrambling back to his feet, he rushed into the billowing mass of fire and smoke, screaming Uliel’s name. He found the other crawling on the ground, his wings drooping and covered in soot.
Lifting him up, Rael cursed. “I’ll kill you, you hear me!”
“Sorry, Ra…got carried ‘way,” Uliel coughed.
They limped toward the grove where the Grey had been feeding. They were almost out of the blazing morass when they heard an ear-splitting howl.
He and Uliel looked over their shoulders. Streaks of silvery light sliced through the smoke and shadows. The barbs of Rael’s feathers quivered, and he was filled with a sense of foreboding.
The Light Bodies in his wings were probably resonating to that of the Grey’s.
“Uliel…” Rael and his dark-eyed friend exchanged nervous glances. “You feel that?”
“Run! Run!” Uliel detached himself from him and darted into the trees. Rael pumped his legs wildly to catch up.
Panting, he glanced up at the canopy. Impenetrable. It was impossible to take flight, but before him, he could hear a rushing noise, the unmistakable sound of waterfalls. His heart leapt. They would be able to take off from there, but they had to reach it soon or else…
A powerful force rammed against his back, throwing him forward. The ground disappeared from his feet, and he heard a muted explosion. A blinding whiteness obliterated the forest from view. His ears rang. A cold wetness seeped through his feathers and cloak. He plummeted headfirst into the whiteness; he felt himself falling, falling, falling…
Uliel rubbed his nose and nibbled on his fingernails. “We’re not supposed to stay in these places.” He plopped down on the inn’s hard bed, creasing its flimsy, white coverlet. He kept peering through the small wood-rimmed window, the only window in the room. “We’re in the midst of Unbelievers–”
“And we’re at the fringe of Drake territory,” Rael finished for him. He shook his wings like a dog, showering them with beady droplets. Standing before the blazing hearth, he towel-dried his long, black hair that was sleek and flat due to moisture. He became indignant. “Look, it’s not my fault I fell into the waterfalls. It’s not my fault I was cold and needed a place to stay. It’s not my fault we had to spend the rest of our money on this shabby inn.”
“And it’s certainly not my fault that monster self-destructed.”
The other angel let his lower lip protrude in a dejected fashion. “Said I’m sorry…” On the verge of tears, his obsidian-black eyes started to water.
Rael waved a hand as he removed his black outer cloak. He laid it out in front of the fire. At least the water hadn’t leached into his inner vestments. “Just stop complaining. We’ll leave first thing in the morning. We might have to head back home.”
Uliel straightened, his face draining of color. “We can’t do that! It’s not even been a week! You know how shameful that is?”
“Look, the innkeeper robbed us of everything we had…” Hmph. Unbelievers everywhere were all the same. Angels or not, if they weren’t Pilgrims, they wouldn’t like you. Period.
Perhaps it was too lofty a dream–forging these alliances among the territories. It had been centuries since the unspeakable war that swept through the whole of Spheria and claimed the lives of millions – the War of the Nations – but everyone still hated everyone else. They, the Pilgrims, were perhaps the most despised of them all, for even after the war they remained wary of those who refused to follow their ways, calling them ‘Unbelievers.’ A rightful name for potential enemies, thought Rael.
Pilgrims were known everywhere for their quests – some called it an obsession – for the Light Bodies. The Bodies, when liquefied with angel fire, made their wings radiant. A dead giveaway. Since he and Uliel had acquired some when they were still fledglings, they could no longer conceal their identities.
“They called us ‘wandering fireflies,’ did you hear?” Uliel had stretched out on his bed, hugging himself with his wings as a makeshift blanket. “They said we’re no different from the Greys…just a power-hungry bunch.”
Rael sighed. Yes, they had been criticized for that. Well perhaps there was some truth. The Bodies allowed them to harness, more effectively, the energy of the Clouds of Birth. Sometimes, the quests weren’t so much about radiance, but the amplification of their powers.
Briefly, he looked at the sky. Just the stars, and Khurar and Threarh, the twin red moons.
“We’re different. The Greys become Greys because they devour the Light Bodies. We don’t, so don’t listen to them. They just want the Bodies for themselves.” He paused for a moment. “If they want the Bodies so badly, they can have them. I don’t care, but if these Unbelievers turn into monsters, I won’t hesitate to kill them. I won’t let Spheria be overrun again.”
Even if he wasn’t fully dry, he let his head sink into the too-soft pillow and was asleep in seconds.
* * *
There were muffled voices everywhere. Someone screamed. The strong smell of burning wood assailed his nostrils. A dream?
A loud metallic clang and the subsequent shattering of the door jolted Rael to wakefulness. The fire at the hearth was nothing but glowing embers against the deepening shadows. It was too dark to see anything, but he felt something deathly sharp being pushed against his neck. He discerned a hulking silhouette standing before him and whiffed a strange odor, like dry earth. Though he couldn’t see his enemy’s face, this wasn’t the first time he’d encountered this smell – the smell of a Drake.
Throwing up his hands in surrender, he looked to where Uliel was supposed to be sleeping and found the other Pilgrim unconscious on the ground, a dark stream issuing from his nose.
“Uliel!” Rael was about to jostle the enemy, but the Drake warrior had struck him with the flat of his sword. Rael’s head swam in a formless black void.
His brain throbbed against his skull as if there were an angry army in there. Someone called his name. But not now. Not now…
He snapped open his eyes and found himself staring back at a pair of obsidian-black circles. Uliel. Again. His dusty face was so close to Rael’s that the tips of their noses were almost touching. Rael could smell his breath, the breath of someone who had slept longer than usual. He jerked up, still dazed from the Drake’s blow.
When the grogginess had lifted, he surveyed their situation. There were other captives huddled in the darkened corners of what was obviously a prison cell. The acrid stench of sweat and body odors made his stomach turn. The floors were sandy and cold, like the iron bars that locked them in like monster teeth. Through tiny squares that must have been windows, sunlight poured in.
He noticed four grotesque-looking stone sculptures next to him. All of which were of angels whose faces had been frozen in an expression of pure agony, accurate up to the last painstaking detail and crease of clothing. They looked so real. Perhaps a bit too real. Rael shuddered and looked away.
Slave raid, he determined. And he knew of only one place that still dared to capture Pilgrims – The City of Pell – the largest municipality in Drake territory.
“They’re making a huge mistake.” How dare these Pelleans contravene the wartime truce? He arose. Uliel looked up expectantly.
The Light Bodies in Rael’s feathers resonated when he brought to bear the angel fire. The magic rushed through his veins, bursting out of his hands and arms like whirling snake tongues. Though he didn’t have his weapons with him, he could very well do a lot of damage to this city.
“The little firefly glows,” came a deep, rumbling voice that reverberated in the chambers. The speaker stood at the gates with two burly Drake guards flanking him. Rael was taken aback. Despite their size and heavy armor, he hadn’t noticed their approach.
“It would be wise if you remained quiet.” The speaker was a powerful-looking man clad in heavy shoulder and breast plates that were embellished with serpentine patterns.
One of the guards freed the catch. The powerful-looking man let himself in. He might have been seven feet tall, thought Rael. His angular face was smooth from forehead to chin, but his neck was covered with bluish scales. His long brown hair was tied up with a blue bandana, exposing webbed ears.
“Put out that flame, little firefly.” His sea-blue eyes bore down on Rael.
The Pilgrim returned the threat with the fiercest look he could manage. He wasn’t afraid of this big Drake, albeit the other’s arms were twice his own. “Why should I? Are you afraid?”
As though the Drake had just heard the most ridiculous thing in his life, he chortled, his heavy armor plates clanging. “You aren’t the first Pilgrims to become our captives.” He pointed at the four stone sculptures in the cell, as if that explained everything. “From the moment a captive touches Pellean grounds, they become bound by the city’s constitution.”
“Is that supposed to mean anything to us?” Rael spat on the ground.
“It means – little firefly – you will become like them if you try to escape.” The Drake’s lips curled in a menacing smile. He hadn’t stopped pointing at the stone sculptures.
Uliel stood up beside Rael. They both stared at the sculptures anew and were aghast.
Feeling weak, the angel fire went out in Rael’s hands. He remembered everything now. There was a reason why Pell was last to fall under the Pilgrims’ sword during the war. Like the six other territories, it possessed a guardian spirit. Theirs was called the Adarna, the giver of the Seven Laws of Stone.
The Drake rushed Rael and brought him down with a gauntleted fist. The Pilgrim groped on the ground, tasting iron in his mouth.
“So you are not so quick to stand up to me now, little firefly?” he spat. “I am Lark. Do not forget my name!”
Lark gestured to the guards and stalked out the prison cell. With their long spears, the Drakes shepherded their flock of fresh slaves.
One of them hissed into Rael’s ears, “Time to eat, little firefly.”
* * *
It was like an auction before covetous witches and fiends. They stood before Lark and the Dragon Chief to be appraised and perhaps ‘bought’ if they seemed good enough.
Like the Cygnus, the chief was also female. Rael noted, however, that in contrast to the Cygnus’ fierceness, the Dragon Chief appeared too gentle-faced for her position. She held no sword in her hands. Her wispy brown hair fell to her shoulders, and she was clothed in a delicate off-white dress that exposed her graceful, blue-scaled neck.
Yet Rael knew better than to underestimate her. For all her softness and beauty, Lorne – as she’d introduced herself – was most likely the fastest and most skillful fighter in the city.
A seven-tailed bird roosted on a metal stand beside Lorne’s throne, its colors dancing and swirling. Its clear, yellow eyes had no pupils in them. It must have been no other than the fabled Adarna spirit.
Lorne began to read the Seven Laws of Stone.
“It is forbidden to take up the Way of the Pilgrims.”
So that was first. Rael wasn’t surprised. Watching Lorne’s pale lips moving animatedly with her recitation, he closed off his mind so he wouldn’t have to hear any more of these ridiculous pronouncements.
Lark’s deep-set eyes glimmered like fish scales from the stage. They bore down on Rael, who just averted his gaze and went about studying his feet.
Wasn’t she done yet? He looked up. Lorne was still talking, and she hadn’t once thrown them the specter of a glance.
“Slave raid captives, from the moment they touch Pellean grounds, are henceforth citizens of Pell, bound forever by the above stated laws, as slaves.” Her voice was harsh like noontime swelter. It took a moment before Rael realized what her words implied.
“What? You can’t bind us to your city! You’re supposed to give us a term of service and afterwards we can go free!”
“Silence, Pilgrim. Any complaints shall be expressed once all the laws have been declared.” Lorne’s sea-blue eyes seemed to harden. Strangely, they were the mirror-image of Lark’s.
Rael opened his mouth to defy her, but before his voice could come out, two hands covered his face.
“Rael, you’ll turn to stone if you go against her.” It was Uliel. The fear in his voice silenced Rael. He peeled off the other’s hands.
Seeing that there wouldn’t be any more irksome interruptions, the Dragon Chief resumed with the final law. “The right to amend the laws shall be granted to those who defeat the Adarna’s champion in battle.”
She eyed Rael in challenge. “You hear? If you want your freedom back, you can challenge me to a duel.” She seemed to wait for his reaction. “Oh, but you can drag your friend along if you want. Perhaps you have what it takes.” Sarcasm laced her words.
Rael’s insides roiled, his anger threatening to explode from his chest. Yet Lark was the one that really chafed him. Challenge her, little firefly! said the Drake’s scornful eyes.
Rael’s fingernails dug into the skin of his palms. He wasn’t born yesterday to let himself be provoked so easily. Those guardian spirits had always been such a bother. They could bestow all sorts of powers to their champions.
He had to take precautions, needed time to think.
“Well?” Lorne sounded impatient. “If there are no complaints…” Lark suddenly came close and whispered into her ear. Her expression mirrored understanding and she nodded, fixing her eyes once more on Rael. “The big-mouthed Pilgrim stays in court. The rest of you, to the city.”
Rael didn’t know what to think. He watched as Uliel and the other new slaves were taken away by the heavily-armored Drakes. Uliel’s face twisted in a mix of fear and despair. We’re trapped, was what his look said.
When the other slaves had gone and Rael was alone, Lorne lifted herself from the throne in such a strained manner that it was as if reading the laws had drained her of strength. She waved to Lark as the Adarna hopped from its stand and onto her bare shoulder. “Get the new personal guard stitched and cleaned.”
Personal guard? Rael felt something weird in his gut. That was good news, wasn’t it? He had never felt so clueless in his life.
A month had passed since they were enslaved. Every single day since then made him regret he’d ever been born. Lark made sure that he would have the most miserable time of his life, calling him ‘little firefly’ as often as he could, and giving him the most merciless military training possible on the face of Spheria.
Rael had been whipped not a few times for failing to meet Lark’s impossible requirements. Before dawn, he had to get up to run a predetermined course up and down Pell’s mountainous terrain. Although he’d also rigorously trained as a Pilgrim fledgling, he was built for the air and not the ground.
Two hours into the running course, his body gave. He struggled to get back to his feet, fearing another scourging. He had to finish at least a quarter of the tasks for the day. Just a quarter, he urged himself, for then he would be spared.
Yet he was too feverish to even prop himself up on his elbows. It seemed that not even his Light Bodies could help sustain him. Lying there under the morning sun, he thought about his friend Uliel. Was he still alive?
Rael shook himself. Of course he was…he had to be. They both received a cerulean-blue sash.
He shouted in frustration, his voice echoing down the gorge. They’d been warned to steer clear of the smaller, vulnerable villages in regions inhabited by Unbelievers. But he’d heard there was a Leypoint somewhere at the fringes of Drake territory, had wanted to believe there really was.
But the truth was he just didn’t want to look stupid in front of Uliel for following that stupid Grey.
He rolled onto his side, easing his weight from the brunt of the welts. Looking over the edge of the rocky precipice, he stared at a stretch of the city below. Everything was of the color of milled wheat. Pell’s dome-like residential and commercial structures formed concentric rings that were rimmed by an outmost moat and a smaller one near the center.
The other slaves in the Rock Castle had told him that Lark was, apparently, Lorne’s uncle. When Lorne’s father died in the War of the Nations, everyone had expected Lark to rise up to the office of Dragon Chief. However, the girl had been trained all her life to succeed the throne, and she defeated Lark in a deciding duel that gained her the chiefdom.
But that didn’t mean Lark had stopped trying. Although he’d lost the throne, he still held Pell’s elite warriors by the throat, a situation that made for a very shaky political atmosphere. Rumor had it that Lorne won the duel by a mere hairbreadth, her only advantage her superior speed
…and a lot of luck.
Lark was probably just waiting for a chance to dispose of her. And of course, that also implied that Lark wasn’t really ‘training’ Rael, but using him as a personal catharsis.
He closed his eyes in a futile effort to think of better days. When he opened them again, he gasped. He was looking at a pair of clawed feet clad in leather sandal-boots. He hadn’t fallen asleep, yet he never noticed the intruder’s approach.
He forced himself up and discovered (to his further dismay) that it was Lorne. She was glistening with sweat and wearing a short running tunic.
“High Chief!” Rael panicked. If only he could stand. He tried, but the world went spinning all around him, and the ground seemed to shift under his feet.
Lorne crouched down to support him, slinging his arm over her shoulders. Rael was surprised. He winced when she accidentally touched the welts on his back.
“You were whipped? Who did this to you?”
Rael was bemused. “You don’t know who’s in charge of my training?”
“Can you walk? You need treatment. I know a place in the city, it isn’t far from here.” There was genuine concern in her voice.
“I can manage.” He certainly didn’t want to appear weak. And anyway, why was Lorne showing him such kindness? It was in stark contrast to the cold Dragon Chief he’d met at the royal courtyard. He became suspicious.
“I insist.” He felt her grip tighten. Taking a deep breath, he acceded. They hobbled down a craggy hill. As they went, he studied her face in secret, just to make sure it was really Lorne.
“High Chief, the Adarna doesn’t seem to be with you,” he pointed out. They completed their protracted descent and made for the outer fringes of the city.
“It’s always with me, with us…watching our every move,” she spoke as though the spirit were a great burden she wanted to be rid of.
“I didn’t expect this, I mean you helping me, a Pilgrim. You’re supposed to hate us,” he ventured further.
She sighed softly. “I don’t hate you. The war is past, a grave wound that left a permanent scar on all of us. It should serve as a reminder of our mistakes so we can rebuild this world the right way.”
He was amazed at her answer, but he also doubted if her pretty words had any real substance. “What is keeping you then? Why hold on to laws that are clearly hostile toward us Pilgrims?”
She faced him, sea-blue eyes overshadowed with an ingrained sadness, all the hardness in them gone as though never there. “I don’t have a choice. I’m as much bound to the laws as everyone else in Pell. They were forged by our ancestors at the height of the War of the Nations.” She paused. “They have made life difficult for my people.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will see.”
They spoke no further till they passed a bridge that spanned the length of the outer moat and the city proper. The moment they entered, the Drakes stopped what they were doing and hastened to greet their chief.
Unlike those who lived in the Rock Castle, the city mongers wore tattered robes of rough canvas cloth, and their faces, even those of the youth, were lined not with years but with hardship. Their lackluster eyes stared hungrily and expectantly, but Lorne had nothing to give them. The streets were lifeless and free of vendors that were supposed to be a common sight in any bustling city.
“Lorne! Lorne!” squealed a dozen scrawny-looking Dragonets whose brownish webbed ears flopped in excitement. She waved at them and they broke out in gleeful smiles. A little Dragonet-boy with a nose ring ran to Rael and shoved something into his hand before darting off with his friends. The Pilgrim opened his hand and discovered that the whelp had given him a piece of candy. He grinned despite himself.
“The city has been suffering from food shortage for years, but because of the Fifth Law, we have neglected our crops in order to train for a nonexistent war. Even our trading options are limited for the Third Law disallows trading with Pilgrims or any other nation that is allied with them.”
His smile faded as he listened. Not being able to trade with Pilgrims was tantamount to not being able to trade at all. “How can the simple act of trade be punishable by death?”
“It is considered betrayal.” They made a turn in one of the streets. “It is all in a book that lists everything that constitutes a breach of the Seven Laws.”
It seemed that the laws weren’t as simple as he had thought. Only the backbones had been read to him, and that meant that his ignorance constantly put him in a situation of contravening a law even without his intention.
She led him into a small, derelict building that looked no different from the rocky crags at the city’s outskirts. “We’re here.”
“Grandmother!” called Lorne, surprising Rael yet again. What in the world was her grandmother doing in a rundown place like this? There were but a few wooden tables, cupboards and chairs. It was more a storage than a home.
A bent old Drake-lady appeared from an unseen corner, her scales a pale blue color. Squinting, she recognized her granddaughter. “You are here. Does that mean you’ve changed the laws?”
“Grandmother, you know I can’t do that. What do you expect me to do, challenge myself?” Hints of resentment colored Lorne’s words.
“I said you can’t visit me until you’ve done what must be done.” The old lady was insistent.
“Have you no heart? We are dying of hunger and exhaustion!”
“I have been trying to find a way, but…”
“You do not need to find a way!” The old lady’s voice lanced out like knives. “All you have to do is challenge the Adarna, and it will choose another champion in your stead. In this case, it will be your uncle, the next rightful heir.”
“I will not listen to this again! My personal guard needs treatment, and you are the nearest healer. That is the only reason why I came.”
It was then that the old lady gazed at the pitiful Rael who had gotten caught up in their squabble. “A Pilgrim…why, this is a surprise. What is his name?”
“I am Rael,” he said first. He knew that Lorne didn’t know his name. Detaching himself from the Dragon Chief, he let himself sag onto one of the – rather uncomfortable – wooden chairs.
“I will come back later, Rael,” bade Lorne, making for the entrance at once.
“Oy! By the stars of Spheria, I swear I’m not done with you!” the old lady shouted after her. “Come back here, you coward!”
But Lorne was gone.
“Forgive that girl. She can be quite stubborn at times,” said the old lady, walking up to Rael. “I am called Scara. I would have invited you to better seat, but this isn’t the palace. We’ll have to make do.”
“No matter,” Rael smiled. Scara was a kindly-looking woman. When she returned his smile, he saw that much of her fangs were missing. I wonder how old she is?
Scara went to a cupboard and rummaged through its contents. She returned with linen bandages and a glass vial in one hand, and a basin of water in the other. “This is all we need to cure anything. Now, what needs healing, Rael?”
He slipped off his tunic and showed her the welts and bruises. She was more than surprised to see the extent of his injuries. Mumbling as she worked, she cleaned the wounds and smeared ointment as needed. By the time she finished, Rael’s chest, back, and torso were wrapped in bandages. He slipped his tunic back on, feeling a lot better.
“If she’d changed the laws, then all of this would have been avoided long ago,” Scara rambled on, clearing her things. “That coward.”
Did she mean Lorne? “Lady, why do you want to change the laws?”
“I’m not the only one who wants it! The people have been asking for the amendments since the war ended. We’ve lost too much, too many lives. We can’t afford to have another war, as Lark and his half-witted warriors would have it.”
“Another war?” Rael straightened upon hearing this.
“Isn’t that where this is leading to? We have broken too many of the stipulations of the truce. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were suddenly attacked by an army of Pilgrims today. The mere fact that you are here as a slave, I’m sure, is enough to bring about another war,” her milky eyes were grave.
“But no one knows I’m here,” he said softly.
“Exactly why we haven’t been attacked yet. No Pilgrim has ever left Pell alive. But the day will come, yes it will,” she stood creakily, taking away the basin of now-dirtied water and the basket of medicine. “News will come out, I tell you, and when it does, I’ll laugh and tell my cowardly granddaughter ‘I told you so.’”
Lady Scara became quiet, caught in some unpleasant thought. Her sparse eyebrow twitched, and she suddenly sneered. “I thought she was the one who would change things. Her father might have taught her how to fight, but I taught her how to think. When her parents died in the war, she became determined to change the Seven Laws of Stone. Anyone who has lost a loved one would feel the same.”
“But after her battle with Lark, Lorne became afraid. I can’t blame her. Lark is a frightening man, indeed a very powerful warrior. But the fact remains that she defeated him. It wasn’t luck that brought her victory, it was her skill, her speed, her cunning.”
“What does this have to do with changing the laws?”
“Rael, you haven’t been listening. If Lorne challenges the Adarna, it will transfer its power to Lark, and she will have to fight him again.” The old lady seemed to observe him to see if he understood. “Even if Lorne defeated him before, she thinks she will be no match against her uncle. She is afraid she will lose this time, and the city will fall into that serpent’s hands.” She sat back on one of the chairs.
“She is the only one who can change things.” Scara bobbed her head. “She is the only one whom the people will support, and the laws hold only because of the people.”
Those were rather mysterious words. Rael still couldn’t understand.
Scara led him to a small room so he could rest. There was but a thin futon on the floor, but he didn’t grumble. He was far too exhausted to even think of it. She closed the door behind her.
Plopped down on his stomach, he drifted off to half-sleep. He and Uliel should have been battling Greys and collecting Light Bodies, but here they were. Well at least some of these Unbelievers aren’t so bad.
At any rate, he still had to get out of here. He was a Pilgrim, and the only way he could remain one was to amend the laws.
If Lorne were the only one who could do that, then all he had to do was convince her to act.
Easier said than done…
The Laws of Stone
He hadn’t fully closed his eyes when the commotion broke out. Something like a rock crashed into his room, shattering the window. Shards of glass rained down on him, but he used his wings to shield himself.
He heard clashing weapons and shouts of protests without. He hurried out the room and found Scara standing outside. She seemed to be watching the masses of Drakes and Dragonets who were pelting rocks at something that their wall of bodies blocked from Rael’s view.
“Lady Scara!” he called out to warn her against an impending stampede. Yet she remained in place, eyes wide with disbelief.
A nervous hush spread across the body of protesters–a silence that chilled Rael to the bone. The rebel Drakes fell away one by one. It began with a frightened yelp, and then the protests died down.
He didn’t know why he raced toward the dumbstruck crowd. Arriving before the mouth of the bridge he and Lorne had earlier crossed, he froze. Fifty or so Drakes had turned to stone, their faces forever cast in an eternal scream. At the center of the petrified bodies were Lark and his Drake warriors, kingfisher-tip swords drawn.
“Who incited this rebellion?” shouted Lark. The crowd broke apart. Rael watched a number of people flee back to their homes, but, at the same time, a new throng of Drakes poured in from other parts of the city, perhaps alerted by the tumult.
Rael had stayed where he was. Again he didn’t know why. He could have just run away if he wanted. But these people…what would Lark do to them?
“You!” Lark shouted, picking him out from the crowd. “I knew it had to be one of you blasted fireflies. You incited my people to revolt!” The burly man stormed toward him. Rael drew back.
Like an ogre, Lark lifted him up by the scruff of his neck. Rael choked. His feet dangled from the ground. With a heave, Lark threw him down, the dust on the ground rising in fitful clouds. White pain lancing through his body, Rael crawled away to escape. His knees bled, splotching the ground with crimson.
“By invocation of the Fifth Law, did I not designate the tasks for the day? How can you loafers become decent warriors?” his booming voice reached as far as the crowd went. He kicked at Rael’s unprotected side. He bent down and hissed into Rael’s ear. “Do you see what you’ve done? What lies have you told my people? Why do they defy my orders?!”
“I believe you are talking about my people, Lark!” shouted a firm voice. Rael couldn’t mistake whose it was. Still wearing her running tunic, Lorne stood beside the bridge, the Adarna perched on her shoulder. The Drakes – except Lark – immediately bowed down to her.
“I should have done this long ago,” she said.
A wicked smile twisted Lark’s face. He seemed to forget all about Rael. “So, little girl, you will amend the laws?” his voice was low and taunting. “And fail like the old woman your father threw out?”
“She left the palace on her own accord.”
Lark shrugged. “Well, go on, let the spirit come to the one who truly deserves its power.”
Lorne declared her official challenge – a battle to the death. Both she and Lark began to take up their true draconic forms. Their skins shifted and bristled, becoming an armor of gleaming scales, their hands and feet swelled into dangerous talons, and their eyes became vicious and reptilian. The Adarna flew over to Lark, its seven tails inundating in the wind. The spirit gripped his outstretched arm with its talons and transformed into a huge curved sword – a scimitar – that looked as if it could bring down an entire tree in a single blow.
Lark tossed his kingfisher-tip sword to Lorne, who caught it skillfully by the handle. The duel commenced. Rael and all the Drakes watched as Lorne ducked and weaved to avoid Lark’s monstrous blows, the wind whistling with each swing of his blade. They cheered each time she blocked his attack and countered with her own, the sinews in her arms tensing with each fierce exertion.
There was a shout of dismay from the crowd. Rael didn’t know what happened. It appeared that Lorne was still doing well.
“She’s bleeding!” someone screamed.
Rael looked closer. Cuts had appeared on Lorne’s scaled arms, and flowery blots of crimson now tainted her clothes. But how could that be? Lark hadn’t been able to gain a direct hit.
Lorne evaded another one of Lark’s attacks, but without warning, she crumpled to the ground. Rael hastened to her aid before Lark could stab her to death. Crying out, he forced the angel fire out of him and managed to push back the Drake warrior.
He cringed. His arms and ribs burned with a pain that sliced through sinew and bone. His knees gave. He saw blood streaming down his arms.
“Rael, be careful!” cried Lorne, who was now back on her feet. “The sword is the spirit itself. Do not be fooled, there are six other blades that we can’t see, one for each law.”
Lark dashed at them again with unnatural speed. Just in time, Rael threw up his magic to create a shield, deflecting his blow, but as Lorne had warned, the six invisible blades assailed every unprotected area of his body. He fell to the ground, and convulsed once. Dazed, he stared at Lark, who flicked his wrist and brought Lorne down as well. He chortled like a madman, like one possessed by demon.
“Today, I rid myself of two bothersome insects.” His voice was a beastly rumble. Rael watched helplessly as he strode toward Lorne first. He brought his brand overhead. “The chiefdom is…”
Out of nowhere, a Dragonet-boy with a nose ring flung himself at Lark, shrieking and clawing wildly at the Drake warrior’s arm, hanging on with his teeth.
Lark wailed, but the other Dragonets, perhaps heartened by their friend’s courage, followed suit. Rael saw that they had taken up their draconic forms as well. They pounced on Lark like cats.
They were all over him at once, trying to shake the sword out of his grip. Lark was furious but he couldn’t seem to do anything against the children.
He cast about, at the reproachful gazes of throngs and throngs of Pelleans who had gone up in arms and gathered around Lark. Not even the Drake warriors were defending Lark, all of them averting their eyes. Lark seemed to tremble under the weight of the Pelleans’ gaze.
Scara, the old Drake-lady, appeared from the midst of the disgruntled crowd. “Stand down, Lark. You have been defeated. The laws will be changed.”
An overwrought moment ensued, as though the hands of time had been chained up by an unseen god. The Dragonets hung on to Lark with their lives, biting and scratching; the Pelleans held their ground, weapons at ready; Lorne struggled to arise, bleeding heavily; and Rael held his breath, unable to do anything else.
He watched Lark vacillate for a moment. In the end, the Drake let go of his blade. Before it hit the ground, the sword transformed into a yellow-eyed bird. The Adarna – now tailless -circled the air and swooped back down to alight on Lorne’s shoulder. The Drakes broke out in cheers, dropping their weapons and lifting up their champion, Lorne, in frenetic jubilation.
Dusting himself, Rael observed Lark, whose head was cast down in defeat. Rather than hatred, he found himself admiring the Drake. With the Adarna’s power, he could very well have destroyed them all. For all he was worth, he was still a true warrior, and Rael acknowledged him.
He knew that voice. Rael veered away from the commotion and spotted his friend, Uliel, who was – for some reason – just as battered he was. Uliel separated himself from the raucous crowd and helped Rael up.
“We’d better go!” he said.
They both took to the air while the Pelleans were still too busy celebrating. With whatever strength and willpower they had left, they flapped away, determined to put the longest possible distance between them and the city of their worst nightmare.
When they were far enough, Rael let out a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding.
“Where were you all this time?” he asked, noticing the swollen, bluish-black ring around Uliel’s eye.
“Long story,” Uliel groaned.
“Tell me on our way back.”
Uliel assented without complaint.
Thus, the two Pilgrims braced themselves for the journey back home.