Called by the Dragon
Called by the Dragon
Author: Mana Sol
Prologue

It was hot. Blistering hot. The sun had set halfway and Anzi was still sweltering under her clothes. If the stiff wind rising from the direction of the horizon didn’t carry off the heat, the desert rabbits and foxes would hide in their burrows in dark underground shade, knowing it was better to go hungry and try again tomorrow. And that would mean nothing for Anzi to hunt.

Unacceptable. This was the final meal. Tomorrow, she would be on her way to the Imperial City, and there would be no more hunts. Tonight had to be perfect, for both Baba and for Oza who had been crying since morning and hadn’t stopped once. He was afraid. Not just because he had to leave with her, but because Mama had been inconsolable and raging for hours now.

“Why are you taking them from me?” a woman moaned from within the thatched-roof mud hut. “O muk-hua, they’re taking my children.”

“Enough. They’re mine, too. If you’re going to be like this, I’ll take you to the elders and have them put you back in the quiet house. You’ll never see Anzi or Oza again.”

After that, the woman fell silent, and Anzi prepared to dart away over the dirt and sand into the darkness, farther out into the desert fringes. She barely knew her mother. The woman was only allowed out of the quiet house on the other side of the village if her husband and the elders allowed it, and for the past ten years, Anzi had only been with her one day out of every month. She never knew what to say to the crazy-eyed woman who stared at things that weren’t there and babbled nonsense things.

“Elder Bahren. Welcome to our home. I’m sorry for the noise.” Before she could leave, Baba’s voice slithered out of the hut like a snake. He had always been good at talking. The elders loved him because of that, which was why they forgave him for his insanity-riddled abomination of a wife. “My daughter just left to hunt. We can sit down for a farewell meal together in an hour.”

“Your Anzi is even more a skilled hunter than I know if she can find anything in this heat. But she’s always been blessed. Only ten winters and so much promise. Her quick eyes and hands will be missed.”

“For the Empire, I can give over even my flesh and blood.”

“As we should. And your son?”

“They’ll be coming to take them both together.”

“A surprise, him being Selected for service. So young.” The elder clicked his tongue loud enough for Anzi to hear through the thin wall. “You shouldn’t have taken him to Anzi’s Selection trials. They only noticed him because he was in your arms when you came out to meet her afterward. I think it would have been better if they had waited until he was older.”

“They say he has a gift. Better to give him over while he’s still malleable. We live to serve.”

“Yes. But a shame you have no one else to carry on your name once they’re gone. Still, an honorable legacy.”

Honorable legacy. That was what awaited her in the Imperial City. She had known all her life she was different from the other children. Faster. Stronger. More vicious and driven. Most of the villagers thought she had an elder spirit in her. Some just thought she was frightening. She didn’t know what to believe. All she knew was that that was the reason she was leaving in the morning with Imperial Army escorts, because she ran faster, jumped higher, hit harder than all the others at the annual Selection a month ago. She was meant for something greater, the proctors had said. Take her home, say your goodbyes. She is ours now.

She wouldn’t have been so apprehensive if they had left Oza alone. How could they do that? He was so young, just three years old. What could they have seen in him to take him away before he had even learned his letters? He was small and scrawny and sickly, and he lost his breath whenever he walked too fast. He had already nearly died half a dozen times since birth because of the choking sickness there was no cure for, and he would carry it all his life. He was mute, too, something the other children used to bully him for. Used to. Before Anzi returned the favor in vicious kind and broke bones, drew blood, bit vulnerable flesh.

She had gone unpunished by the adults who never quite knew what to do with her. They still didn’t. Most were glad she was leaving even though offered only encouraging condolences to Baba. She didn’t care. After that incident a year ago, no one had bothered Oza again and that was all she cared about.

Like her, he was different, but in a different way. He needed to be protected. He needed to be safe - but surely the Empire would care for him better than she ever could. Her heart clenched, and she listened a little longer to his crying from within the hut. So little time…Only three. How special must he be that they wanted him already?

When Elder Bahren and Baba talked about boring things next, she slipped away. She had heard enough, and dinner would be late if she delayed any longer. Baba had already bragged that she could hunt even in this heat, and she couldn’t humiliate him. His dark desert eyes always bore into her when he was unhappy in the worst of ways. She ran silently over the mixed dirt and sand, heading for the nearest favorable hunting spot. If she was lucky, she would come back with enough to stay his disappointment.

Like it always did on the fringes of the Adaraat Desert, night fell unnaturally fast and draped the land in darkness. Within minutes, nearly all light is gone, and only by the moon’s glow did Anzi hope for prey. Her dark eyes flicked from side to side, waiting for signs of even the smallest scurrying life from where she perched in the fork of a desert acacia tree. Her feet were off the ground so the underground dwellers wouldn’t detect movement and flee from the surface, and she drew her hooded brown desert garb tight against her body to keep it from billowing.

There. A twitch in the darkness, the first tantalizing promise of prey. But when she leaped eight feet off the tree and darted over the sandy dirt to stab down on whatever had popped its head out of the scrubby growth, she froze with the short javelin poised over her head. She didn’t run or back away, but she held still as the shadowy thing pulled itself across the ground and moved closer to her with halting, jerking wiggles. There were little frills on the head folded back flat against the serpentine neck, and a slender, pointed tongue darted out twice before disappearing again.

Ye gods. She had never seen a wyrm from up close before. Even the tiny ones captured for sale back in the Imperial City market were stowed in cages with iron bars so thick one could only see the tip of a snout poking out between them. This one was different. Too different. It was enormous, and she wished it didn’t blend in so well with the nighttime with its pitch black hide. The only comfort was that wyrms had weak, nearly vestigial limbs or none at all, and they only moved as fast as a snake. Anzi was faster than any snake out here in the sands and dry grass. Nothing to worry about.

Except this thing had to be at least three meters long and as wide around as a grown man. Maybe more. How did it make it all the way out here? To be this size, it had to have come from deep desert where only the wyrmskin traders dared to go. She could scarcely believe it hadn’t run into anyone with sharp flaying knives on its way here.

It twitched again and sighed with a tired chuff. It was no more than half a meter away now, but it had stopped moving. Was it dying? No good for food since wyrmflesh was toxic, but if she harvested its hide, the money would be good. Maybe she could just…

It snorted, lifted its head - and opened its eyes. She sucked in a knife-sharp gasp, staring into the brilliant gold hue of the irises surrounding vertical slit pupils. Glowing. They were glowing so brightly. So beautiful. So - perfect.

It would be unforgivable to let such a perfect, beautiful thing die.

The thought was so foreign and jarring that she had to blink hard to wake herself from the reverie, but something wrapped tight around her heart and convinced her to stay, to linger. She didn’t know what it was exactly that made her kneel then, but in the next moment, her legs were folded up underneath her and she was holding up the creature’s head. Small, slender fingers stroked along pitch-black scales, smooth and cool.

There was such human intelligence in the unblinking eyes that the thought of doing them any harm cowed her. Nothing had ever cowed her before.

“I’ll feed you,” she said. “But you need to go back after. You have to hide.”

And she did. Feed the thing, that is. She hunted well, better than she ever had, and she caught not only two foxes but two rabbits in no time at all. But she still needed to take something home, and she explained that to the wyrm as if he could understand her.

He? It, she meant. Dragons shouldn’t be he and she. They were beasts, dangerous beasts she should never get attached to. When he was done eating - it, that is - she was stunned when it wriggled off the ground and stretched out short, spindly limbs. Small, but not vestigial. They could bear the body’s whole weight. Not a wyrm - a dragon? But that was impossible. Dragons couldn’t survive in the wild all alone. They needed a rider, a human companion to take care of them. Everyone knew this. Impossible.

But she said nothing as the creature struggled back onto its claws, and when it stared up at her, she jerked her chin in the direction of the darkened desert.

“You need to go. If someone catches you, they’ll skin you. You’re dead.”

It didn’t move. It continued to stare up at her and captured her with that spellbinding golden gaze, until at last she gathered her nerve to kick the dirt and scowl at it.

“Go!” she exclaimed. “What are you waiting for.”

But she didn’t want to let it go. There wassomething insane and confusing and unspeakable happening inside her, and she didn’t like it. Confusing was bad. Confusing was dangerous. And dragons in the wild - that was the most confusing thing she had ever heard of. And yet for some reason she wanted so badly to let it go and keep it a secret, even if that means it was doomed. Even if that meant she was committing a crime - because something told her that it had to happen this way.

It was a hypnotic urge that made her reach forward to stroke the creature’s dark frill again, fingers running along the webbing between the flexible spines. She thought she felt it purring, but that couldn’t be right. She ripped her hand away, suddenly frightened.

“I’ll - be in trouble if I don’t go home,” she stammered. It was the first time in her life she had felt so flustered, and she scrambled back onto her feet so she could back away. Those eyes must be magic. She could feel them burning inside her like molten metal. “Go - go away. Don’t come back.”

She fled and didn’t look back.

Comments (9)
goodnovel comment avatar
Leesha
Oooooooo I feel like this is going to take all my coins.
goodnovel comment avatar
Mana Sol
whoop! <3
goodnovel comment avatar
Trisha Sunshine
Whatever it is must want her!
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