The Dreigiau’s Host Gate didn’t look anything like the stories made it sound. In fact, the cave seemed quite ordinary — much like AsaHi was. Plain, magicless stone carved away the mouth of the cave, just the same as it would any other hollow. Still, despite the mundane first impression, the girl crept warily into the dampness, half expecting something to pounce from the shadows at any moment.
Even if Zemi Dreigiau doesn’t exist anymore, that doesn’t mean that something else doesn’t live down here.
As she moved forward, she carefully pulled a small glass jar from the pouch at her side. The cork still firm on top, only a thin layer of water ringed the bottom, sustaining the blushing little flower within.
Flowers were rare in the cold northlands, but this flower, the Cred, was considered special among the Dragon Apprentices. It only bloomed in the hilly highlands once a year, fed from the clear waters of the winter’s melting snow. Stories said that it was the Dreigiau’s sign to his people that even after the coldest seasons, a new spring would come again.
Stories also told how the Cred was once favored by the Patron Dragon, and used as a part of the Apprentices’ First Speaking ritual. A student who wanted to meet Zemi Dreigiau would seek out the flower and bring it to the Host Gate as a way of requesting council with the Arweinydd. Others claimed that the Cred was a gift the Dreigiau gave whom he wished to speak to.
She picked only one flower from the blooming field and preserved it exactly the way the Apprentice Tome instructed. The stories said that if she picked more than one, the Dreigiau would know her covetous nature and every Cred flower would melt upon her touch.
It’s all nonsense, of course.
AsaHi believed the flower existed even before she saw the blossoming mountainside. After all, SoYa told her it was real, and he didn’t lie about things like this. It was Zemi Dreigiau that she didn’t believe in.
If there really is such a thing as a Patron Guide, then why hasn’t he appeared to anyone since the rule of ZenToYa?
After spending months pouring over legends and stories, and secretly copying pages from SoYa’s Apprentice Tome, AsaHi was on a personal quest to prove that the so-called Lord Dragon no longer existed. The Dreigiau may have been a guiding spirit to the original founders of their city, but that was a long time ago.
After the death of the High Guide, ZenToYa, few outside of the Council was granted entry to the Host Gate. This alone sparked her suspicions. The more AsaHi investigated, the more she was certain that Zemi Dreigiau no longer guided the leadership of Nefol. He was now nothing more than an extended fabrication the Council used to ensure their position and power above the city.
Even SoYa has been blinded by their manipulations. I don’t understand why he doesn’t see through it. Even he hasn’t spoken to the Patron Guide in many turns.
Her footsteps echoed coldly as she walked further into the depths of darkness. Much to her surprise, the little Cred blossom began to shimmer with an inner glow. With each step, the darkness grew thicker and the bloom grew more luminous.
I have to prove that this whole Dragon thing doesn’t exist.
Part of her cringed — what she was doing went against everything that the Founders taught. Proving the Dreigiau no longer existed would destroy the foundation that the Nefolian people believed in. The other part chided that if people were putting their trust in a lie, someone needed to put a stop to it all. Still, her stomach began to churn.
This is the only way to show that this is all the Council’s plea for power.
That’s when AsaHi stumbled upon a clever idea — using the Council’s own rite of passage to call them out. By performing the ritual Apprentices used to summon the Dreigiau, she could prove that it didn’t work. Dispelling the fallacies, she could release the people of the myths they held from a time when the School was new and the leaders were pure.
That time is gone. SoYa is caught up in the battle for Nefol’s succession, with enemies around every corner. If I don’t find the answers soon, if I don’t show people the truth, it might mean his life.
AsaHi paused as the hall lengthened into a full chamber. Hundreds of dark eyes glittered down at her from their obscure perches somewhere near the cave’s dark ceiling. She gave a quiet hiss, freezing in their gaze. The light of the flower was brighter now, trembling as her hands shook.
SoYa never said beasts guarded the Gate.
The serpent eyes watched in unblinking vigil, their shadows deepening and looming against the stone wall. Huge gaping maws hung open, displaying rows of teeth longer than her arm and sharp as a blade. Several heartbeats passed. She stared. They stared. Neither moved. The light of the Cred shown more desperately.
Finally, teeth bared in determination, the girl took a step forward. Then another. The eyes followed her. Still, there wasn’t an inch of movement from above. Not even a sound. As she lifted the glowing flower in her hands, a flood of embarrassed relief washed over her.
They’re… They’re only statues!
Her eyes traced the lines of the sculptures, the first signs of décor inside the cave. They reared so high above her head that they were nearly lost to the shadows of the upper chamber. They were lithe beasts, all of similar make, eyes fitted with blazing gems that reflected the light of the flower in such a way that AsaHi swore the carvings could spring to life at any moment.
A distant glimmer appeared ahead of her, faint veins scrawling paths over the wall at the far end of the cave. The stone rose up in a sleek arch above her head, fine lines webbed over its surface, glistening like early-morning dew. A soft throb shifted the stone under her feet, so faint that AsaHi couldn’t tell if she had just imagined it.
As she crept forward, the throb came again. This time, a soft, golden hum rippled through the chamber, a warm vibration caught between light and sound. The jeweled eyes of the sculptures began to illuminate the room with their own inner fire.
AsaHi paused in the final archway, now standing in a spherical hollow at the end of the cave. Here, even the floor was curved to perfection. Every inch of the wall was etched with shimmering runes and symbols that shifted and danced away from her gaze. Nothing remained still, the vision always flickering just as her green eyes touch it.
A second globe hung in the center of the chamber, suspended in mid-air. Unfamiliar writing traced its translucent surface and her mouth grew dry as she stared into the warmth of its light. The strange symbols reflected down upon her, patterning her upturned face and dancing over the shoulders of her robe. Her hand reached tentatively upwards, fingers stretched with longing. Though she was sure that it had been floating far out of reach, as her hand lifted, her fingertips touched it.
It’s here. It’s just like the tome said!
AsaHi looked away from the globe, towards the Cred flower still cupped in one hand. As the girl lifted the encased flower, the two lights fused, and an eerie glow crowned her white hair. When she pulled her hands away, the red flower became sheathed within the warm golden sphere.
Another vibration filled the air, making the room quiver. A spiraling light grew within the heart of the globe as the flower exploded into a heatless fire. The dripping embers from the globe lit the threaded runes on the floor. Before she realized, the flame spread across the chamber, everywhere except for where her feet touched the stone.
It was both wondrous and terrifying. All AsaHi could do was turn around and around, craning her head back to see the chamber’s transformation. Outside, the hall’s length illuminated with showers of crimson light that streamed like waterfalls from the open mouths of the stone creatures. Steam rose from the bottomless pools into which it ran, runic patterns leaping across the floors and walls with reflecting scarlet ripples.
This isn’t supposed to be real!
AsaHi turned back towards center of the chamber to find the flaming globe clutched between the claws of a radiant white creature. She squinted to make out its shape, her breath fluttering in her lungs as disbelief flooded her face. There was no mistaking what she saw. The creature could only be…
The vibration rose and fell within the chamber, a mixture of a warm golden song and a deep-throated draconic growl. She could feel the prickle of unimaginable power racing through every pore of her being. It didn’t hurt. In fact, it felt as if it was trying to comfort her.
It… really… really… exists!!
Only one thought spun wildly through her head.
Now what do I do?
She felt the heat on her face as a soft hissing whisper swelled within the back of her mind, a sound without sound. A warm breath of air flowed past her pale cheek, brushing away the dangling strands of hair from her eyes. It smelled like a summertime meadow full of flowers of every imaginable kind. A strange sense of joy flowed through her. Joy and comfort amidst the awe.
At first, AsaHi thought it might be her imagination. Then she realized that words were forming within the shifting hum. Words that came from the Dragon, both familiar, yet not. For a passing instant, her mind gripped them, almost able to decipher the obscure message. But as she reached for it, the meaning scampered away.
“I… I don’t understand,” she lifted her face, green eyes squinting against the light.
A ghostly image drifted in the air before her, a Dragon’s form traced in pure translucent white. The soft glow rose and fell with each sweet-scented breath it took. It was huge, far too large to logically fit inside such a little chamber. Yet it was there — soft teal eyes focused upon her, long coils of tail and body dressed with tiny runes too intricate for even the most studied hand to sketch.
The great head bowed downwards, leveling with her face. The lips peeled back to reveal two perfect rows of sword-like teeth. With a gasp, AsaHi recoiled, shuffling backwards.
The warm melodic hum rose within the hall.
In a panic, she clamped her eyes shut and attempted to explain the situation, but could only manage a broken stammer. She felt the breath upon her cheek. The hum grew in intensity. As the room began to sway with a gentle motion, AsaHi sat trembling before she realized…
She opened her eyes slowly, finding herself face to face with a huge luminous grin. Or, at least, the closest thing to a grin that a dragon could make.
Her hand moved upward of its own accord. Confusion wrinkled her brow as she watched, feeling helpless to stop what was happening. As her fingertips brushed the white aura surrounding the creature, tiny sparks flew out in all directions. The humming grew louder in her ears, a harmonic stream flowing in to a weave of light and shadow.
Her fingers met something solid, yet not. The tip of the Dragon’s nose. The pulsating form supported the weight of her fingers, though just barely. It was like touching the wind.
The hum rose in a staggering crescendo, the ground under her feet shivering, streams of stone crumbling and shifting down the sides of the cave. A brilliant flash of light filled her vision and a sharp crack resounded throughout the chamber. Something was happening — something that wasn’t supposed to.
The light began to pull away in every direction, parting before her like a cosmic curtain. Behind it lingered the feeling of immense, unknowable power, the power and awareness of the Arweinydd themselves. AsaHi could feel their vast presence hovering just beyond the threshold of her vision.
The Dragon’s muzzle suddenly felt more real under her palm. The glimmer of boundless joy shimmered in the Dreigiau’s eyes, as if he had longed for this very moment all of his existence. AsaHi’s breath caught in her chest, watching the slow transformation as the creature began to pass through the doorway from the realm of starlight into her own world.
Then another presence rose up, looming heavily behind the white dragon. Something about it was fearful, full of spite and hunger. The girl’s eyes widened as it bounded forward, with no hesitation or consideration, bursting through the wavering boundary in a fountain of writhing shadows.
The impact jolted AsaHi, knocking her to her knees. She desperately reached for the light and safety of the Dreigiau. Instead, the dark mists rose up around her, filling her vision with a cold, silent sleep.