Zara. I think we’re here!” Lessie’s excitement penetrated the fog in my head, waking me from a deep slumber. Yawning, I stirred in Tavarian’s arms and blinked the sleep from my eyes, then glanced over the side of my dragon’s back to get a good look at the terrain. My heart jumped in my chest at the sight before me—we were flying over the middle of the ocean, its deep blue waves shimmering beneath us. Dawn crested the skyline, backlighting the huge island just ahead so that it looked like a giant sea turtle rising out of the waves. Polyba. We were finally here. “Looks like it,” I told her with a smile as I leaned back against Tavarian. His solid chest was a comfort, and as he tightened his arms around me, I was reminded just how much things had changed between us. Once, he’d been a target, a high and mighty dragon rider lord I’d had to steal from in order to protect my shop. Now he was my friend, my lover, my partner. And together, we were going to save our nation. “It will be nice to finally get the chance to rest,” I said aloud to both of them. “Although I suppose that depends on the state of the camp when we arrive. Do you think Jallis and Rhia will have settled everyone in by now?” “They should have arrived several days ago,” Tavarian pointed out.
“But then again, it depends on how hostile the environment is, and whether or not any natives live there. I don’t know much about the island beyond what Rhiannon told us.” The last time we’d all been together, Rhia had disclosed that her dragon, Ykos, knew of a secret weapon hidden on this island. Apparently, one of his ancestors had been partnered with a rider from another dragon rider family, and that family had owned a secret estate on Polyba where they’d kept quite a few treasures. Unfortunately, that was hundreds of years ago, and the estate was likely abandoned. We had no idea if anyone lived there. “Oh, there are definitely natives on the island,” Lessie said, and I sat up straighter in the saddle, alarmed at the sudden change in her voice. “I can see at least two settlements from this side of the island.” “Two settlements?” Tavarian asked when I told him what Lessie had said. “Where?” I slipped my goggles on and zoomed in on the island.
As we got closer, more of the terrain came into view, and my stomach sank a little. I’d hoped for a lush, fertile isle, perhaps with forests and plains full of wildlife, but instead we were greeted with rocky coasts and hilly terrain. The mountains, amongst which skinny goats foraged, sported a few trees here and there, but mostly they were covered with bushes that belonged to arid climes. As I swept my gaze from one end of the island to the other, I spotted two clusters of ramshackle huts that might be villages located on opposite ends of the island. “Let’s do a flyover,” I told Lessie. “We need to get a better lay of the land and figure out where the others have made camp.” For all I knew, the natives were friendly, welcoming people, but I’d been through enough recently that I wasn’t willing to take that chance. Lessie nodded and angled her body downward, dipping low enough for us to get a clear view of the island without exposing us to arrows or any other projectiles the locals might have. Circling around, we found a third settlement toward the north of the island, nestled near some of the highest peaks. We also found an ancient, crumbling estate located closer to the center of the island, and half a dozen or so isolated farms scattered about.
The coasts themselves were too rocky and inhospitable for ships to land, but we did find two small harbors near the settlements, and some roads that amounted to little more than goat paths. “This is disheartening,” Tavarian said, his voice tight with worry. “An island like this would be hard-pressed to provide enough resources to sustain two settlements, never mind three. And then there is our own party to contend with…” As if on cue, two dragons rose from a valley toward the east side of the island. Lessie roared in excitement as she caught sight of Kiethara, the female ruby red dragon she’d befriended after we’d broken the dragons out from their Zallabarian prison. Her rider was Halldor Savin, the hotheaded, red-haired captain I’d taken quite a liking to. The other dragon was Ragor, Ullion’s dragon, and I couldn’t help but smile in relief as they greeted us. “Commandant!” Savin cried, using the honorary title my fellow soldiers had bestowed upon me. I was a private by rank, but after freeing the dragon riders from Zallabar’s clutches, they’d felt I deserved a better title. “Lord Tavarian! Welcome back.
I take it your mission was successful?” “It was,” I called back, noting the curiosity in his eyes. He didn’t press, but I was sure he and everyone else at the camp were wondering what took so long for us to join them. Would I need to explain to them about the dragon god threat? I wasn’t looking forward to that at all. “You’ve made it just in time for breakfast.” The corner of Ullion’s mouth curved into a sardonic smile, but he didn’t say more than that. “Please, come with us and we’ll lead you to the camp.” We followed the two riders to a second estate, smaller than the first one we’d seen but in better condition. Tucked into a valley, it provided some security, and the estate had a paved courtyard where the dragons could land safely without worrying about the thorny bushes that liberally dotted the island. There was also a clearing to the west of the estate where the dragons were pastured, large enough for the hundred or so dragons we’d brought but too small for them to run about freely. Most of them were curled up in the grass, resting, and some of the tension slid off my shoulders as I watched them.
At least they were finally getting some peace after going through such a terrible ordeal. As we touched down, I expected to feel some sense of relief, but the heavy mood in the air only increased the dismay in my stomach. “We’ve managed to burn away a large clearing to the west of the estate,” Ullion said as we dismounted. “Lessie can rest there while we bring you up to speed.” “ALL RİGHT.” I patted Lessie’s side, then divested her of the saddle and luggage strapped to her body. The two riders immediately stepped forward and took our belongings before Tavarian and I could pick them up, then led us through the remnants of an iron gate and into the manor house ahead. “Zara!” Jallis and Rhia jumped to their feet as we were ushered into what looked to be a great hall—a once-grand room with cracked walls and moldy remnants of carpet. Rusted pieces of metal were tucked into the corner, likely once part of a spectacular chandelier. Everyone was gathered here, sitting cross-legged on the floor in groups of ten as they ate off plates that looked to be fashioned from pieces of stone and tile, but they all rose at the sight of us.
Their faces brightened as they cheered at our arrival, but that didn’t reassure me—I’d seen the glum looks on their faces before they’d noticed me. Rhia darted forward, the first to reach me. “I’m so relieved you’re back,” she said as she threw her arms around me. “How did everything go?” she whispered in my ear. “Did you manage to recover the piece of heart?” “I did.” At Rhia’s reminder, I was suddenly aware of the weight of the pouch strapped to my belt. It held one of the five pieces of Zakyiar’s heart—the dragon god had come to our world over two thousand years ago and nearly destroyed it. “I’ll tell you all about it later, when we have some time to catch up.” Rhia nodded, pulling away, and I looked up to see Jallis standing nearby. The warm smile on his face held no trace of the anger or resentment that had built steadily between us since our time in the military together, but nevertheless, the lines of his face showed signs of tension.
“Come sit down, Zara,” he said, instantly reading the questions in my eyes. “We can bring you up to speed while we eat.” Tavarian and I joined them on the floor, and we were served a frugal meal of olives, fish, and flatbread. We were seated with Jallis, Rhia, Halldor, Kade, Ullion, Daria, and two other captains whose names I didn’t remember. They all took turns reporting to me on the state of the camp, though Rhia and Jallis did most of the talking. “I’d hoped that we could have everything settled by the time you and Tavarian arrived,” Rhia said as she nibbled on a bit of flatbread. Now that the introductions were over, I noticed the shadows under her eyes. “Unfortunately, we’ve been running into problems since day one.” “There’s a lot less food on the island than we’d hoped for,” Jallis said. “Thankfully, we still had rations from Tavarian’s airship, but we’ve burned through those already, aside from a few sacks of flour we’ve been using to make the bread.
We’ve been subsisting mostly off fish and olives, and the occasional rabbit we catch in the snares. The airship has gone back to Warosia to purchase some more supplies, but we’re running low on gold, so I’m not sure how long that’s going to last. We need to figure out how to grow our own food.” “I may be able to procure more funds,” Tavarian said. “We can use the money to buy seeds to grow crops, though we’ll be limited to whatever can grow in this dry soil. Have you tried going to the locals for help?” “The locals have been anything but helpful,” Halldor growled, his face turning red. “The other day they sold us three sheep, and it turned out one of them had been poisoned! Thankfully Kiethara’s stomach is made of stern stuff, but she was sick for a whole day and night before she finally recovered. It’s taken everything we’ve got to keep our dragons from going after the natives in retaliation.” “To be fair,” Ullion said, clearing his throat, “the poisoning was not entirely unprovoked.” I raised an eyebrow.
“What does that mean?” The riders exchanged uneasy glances. “A few of the dragons may have decided they were tired of fish and decided to go hunting instead. They may also have decided to go after the natives’ goat herds.” Tavarian scrubbed a hand over his face as I let out a groan. “Great. So we’re trespassing on their island and stealing their property. No wonder they love us.” “They could be a little more understanding of our predicament,” Daria snapped. “It’s not like we want to be here. Why does this island have to be so inhospitable?” “It’s my fault,” Rhia said, her shoulders hunching inward a little.
My heart ached a little at the guilty expression on her face. “I’m the one who told us to come here in the first place.” Kade’s cheeks turned pink. “I didn’t mean it like that, Rhia.” “No, he didn’t.” Halldor flashed Kade an annoyed look, then took Rhia’s hand in his. I raised an eyebrow at the way his expression softened when he looked at her. “You couldn’t have known about the natives, or the island’s topography. And although we may be dealing with some frustrating setbacks, at least we don’t have the Zallabarians breathing down our necks right now.” “Maybe, but the secret weapon doesn’t even seem to be here,” Rhia said.
Her eyes met mine, and my heart sank a little more at the defeated look in them. “We went to the other estate on the island, but it’s been looted. There wasn’t even a piece of broken pottery to be found.” “That doesn’t mean the item isn’t there,” I said, trying to stay optimistic. “We’ll go back tomorrow and look again with my treasure sense. Besides, even if it’s not there, it’s likely somewhere on this island. One way or the other, we’ll find it.” If it exists. The voice of doubt echoed in my head, but I shoved it down. We’d cross that bridge when we came to it.
A 2 fter lunch, I walked around the base with Rhia and Tavarian to get a better lay of the land. Though I kept my treasure sense dialed to the highest setting, we found little of value—a few semi-precious gems buried in the dirt, but no artifacts or treasure. “Oh well,” Rhia said when we finished our inspection. “I suppose an island like this has always been too poor for much treasure. Anything of value here was probably carted off by the natives.” “If that’s the case,” I said, “then they might have found the weapon at the other estate and taken it for themselves.” I shuddered at the thought of the locals having access to anything that was as powerful as Ykos’s ancestor had hinted at. “If they did have the weapon, they would have likely used it on us to drive us off,” Tavarian pointed out. “No, it is more likely that it was hidden very well on the estate, possibly by magic. Between the two of us, we should be able to ferret it out.
” We turned to head back to the manor, when suddenly Rhia’s face brightened. “Look!” She pointed to the sky. “The crew is back!” My heart lifted at the sight of Tavarian’s airship. They would have provisions on board, sorely needed at camp just now, and extra spaces to sleep as well. “Watch out!” Halldor’s warning echoed through the valley as he raced out of the manor. “There are men hidden in the bushes, waiting to attack!” “Where?” An arrow whizzed through the air from a clump of bushes up on the hillside, answering my question. The first arrow missed its mark, but the second one struck the balloon, and soon it was peppered with holes. The ship careened wildly to the side as it fought to get out of range, and my heart dropped into my shoes as it began to plummet. “Lessie!” I cried, but she was already on it, darting forward with Kadryn and another dragon on her heels. The three of them launched themselves into the sky, buoying the airship with their big bodies before it could crash into the side of the manor.
Arrows bounced harmlessly off their sides as they carried the ship to safety. “Can we get those bastards?” Rhia growled in a voice that was quite unlike her own. The rage sparkling in her caramel brown eyes would have startled me if I hadn’t felt exactly the same. “They’ve likely already run off,” Tavarian said. “But I can provide a shield while we go check out the area.” Tavarian waved his arm, making the air around us shimmer as if a heat wave surrounded us. The gentle breeze wafting around us disappeared, as if four walls insulated us. “These should keep out any arrows,” he said as we ran toward the location from which the arrows had come. “Handy trick,” Rhia said. “Would have been helpful to have something like that to protect the ship.
” Tavarian said nothing to that, but I could tell from the subtle tightening around his eyes that Rhia’s words had found their mark. I knew she hadn’t intentionally been trying to criticize Tavarian, but as a man who was used to being in charge of important missions, having so little control over his own magic had to be frustrating as hell. I wished that there was a mage who could teach him, but Tavarian had been forced to keep the secret of his lineage for a long time, so he’d never had the benefit of formal training. Maybe when we were finally settled and in relative safety, Tavarian would find the time to seek out a mage for proper training. But for now, we would make do with what we had. We found the area where the locals had staged their attack fairly easily—one of the bushes was badly singed, likely by a false start with the arrows. I quickly found a trail of retreating footsteps and went after them with Rhia while Tavarian went ahead to check on the ship. But the locals knew what they were doing, and we lost their trail in no time. Disheartened, Rhia and I returned to the base, where Tavarian was talking with the ship’s captain. The crew looked a bit shaken from the ordeal, but they were already in motion, working with the dragon riders to unload the contents.
“What’s the damage like?” I asked the captain. “The ship itself took some minor damage to the hull,” the captain said. “Much less than it would have if we’d crash-landed, but the dragons could only take us down so easily.” He glanced toward Lessie and the others, who had formed a perimeter around the ship and were guarding it fiercely. “Thank the skies that they caught us in time. Anyway, the balloon itself is the biggest issue. We can repair the hull just fine, but we’ll need special cloth to fix the balloon, and we don’t have any to spare on board.” I frowned at Tavarian. “Shouldn’t all ships come with a backup balloon?” He shook his head. “A second balloon would be too heavy.
However, all ships are supposed to carry spare material to patch the balloon. Why don’t we have any left?” “We used it up already,” the captain said guiltily. “The original was damaged in flight, and we had to evacuate the country before I had time to order more patches.” “Damn.” Tavarian scrubbed a hand over his jaw, which was dotted liberally with stubble. The beard growth made him look more rugged, especially coupled with his black hair, which was currently loose and wild around his face after the long flight we’d yet to clean up from. “Well, surely we must be able to get that cloth from Warosia.” “We can,” the captain confirmed. “But we’ll need to send a dragon.”