We headed out again after we left the restaurant and headed for the forest outside of the city. We followed a winding dirt path into the woods and quickly found ourselves deep inside of it. We wandered around for a while, searching for the dragon, but found nothing. Vixia and I were walking along behind the wagon, which Puff was still pulling, when she let out a sigh and looked toward me.
“Do you sense anything?” she asked in a whisper. Darius, who was walking ahead of Puff, was completely oblivious. I shook my head. Vixia’s eyes began to wander around until she recognized where we were.
“We’re close to the shrine now,” she stated, rushing over to Darius. “It’s over this way.” She pointed toward an area full of trees and dense shrubs. Darius looked at her, puzzled.
“How can you tell?”
“I just know. Let’s stop there and take a break for a minute.”
Vixia ran ahead into the brush and Darius followed while I helped Puff park the wagon. After I unstrapped him, we followed.
When we made it into the clearing, I realized that it was even more overgrown than it had been the last time Vixia and I had visited it. Everything was blanketed in snow, even the small stone structure that acted as a small shrine for Zelora. Vixia was now sitting in front of it with her head bowed and her eyes closed. Darius sat to the side of the clearing, so Puff and I joined him. He was drinking water from his canteen when I sat down.
“So, that tiny shrine belongs to the god that gives Vixia her powers?”
“Goddess,” I corrected, “and yes, that is Zelora’s shrine.”
“Hmm.” Darius watched Vixia for a moment, then spoke again. “She must be pretty devout if she remembered exactly where this is.” He motioned to the map beside him, pointing out that we were exactly where Vixia had marked it at the restaurant.
“Yeah, I’m surprised that she remembered. It’s been a long time since we’ve been here.”
“Hmm.” Darius leaned back against the trunk of the tree that he was sitting under and passed me the canteen. I was taking a drink when I felt a pain in my chest. I immediately spit out what was in my mouth and clutched my shirt.
“Are you okay?” Darius asked, panicked.
“Dragon!” I stumbled to my feet as quickly as I could and grabbed my sheathed sword, which was laying in the snow beside me. I pulled the blade out and dropped the sheath back on the ground before running over to Vixia. I was almost to her when a dragon swooped down from the sky.
“Vixia, look out!” She opened her eyes and threw out her hand toward the monster that was heading toward her.
A beam of light shot forth from her hand and hit the dragon. It screamed and veered away from us, falling in the snow. I rushed toward it, ready to strike. I had almost reached it when I felt something snag my clothes, holding me back from attacking. I looked over my shoulder to see that Puff was biting on the back of my cloak and digging his claws into the ground.
“Puff, what’s wrong?”
He snorted in response and tugged at my cloak again. I tilted my head, then turned my attention back to the other dragon, which was starting to get up. When it turned, I could see that its eyes were not pitch-black like the other dragons that I had fought. Instead, this dragon’s eyes were the same as Puff’s. I froze for a moment as the dragon and I stared at each other.
I was brought back to reality when Darius rushed past me, holding his axe in a ready position to swing.
“Wait!” Puff let go of me and I dropped my sword. I ran after Darius, grabbing his wrists and pulling him back as hard as I could. My knuckles ached from how hard I was holding on. “Don’t hurt it!” Darius looked back at me, his eyebrows furrowed.
“What? Why?” We both turned our attention back at the dragon as it ran a few feet and then flapped its wings, bits of snow falling from its body. It rose into the air, flying away as quickly as it had appeared. All of us watched silently as it shrunk against the horizon.
Darius dropped his axe and I let go of his wrists. He turned toward me and his eyes narrowed. This was when Vixia walked over to us, appearing just as confused. Puff joined me at my side as I stared in the direction where the dragon had gone.
Why was it like Puff?
The ride back to the guildhall was quiet and disappointment hung in the air around us. Vixia was curled up toward the back of the wagon with Darius sitting near her while I sat on the edge at the back. I stared at the snowy ground as it passed by us slowly. I felt the cold breeze nipping at my skin, but I did nothing to stop it as I listened to Darius.
“Nesryn is going to be pissed,” he grumbled. I felt my stomach drop at that realization and the regret began to set in. That was when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked over to see that it was Vixia.
“Hey, it’s going to be okay.” For the first time ever, I didn’t believe her. I looked back down and she snuggled up to me, covering us both in a blanket.
Did I really do the right thing?
We decided to continue on our way home through the night and found ourselves back at the guildhall in the early morning hours, before the sun was even visible. We headed straight to Nesryn’s room and knocked on the door. She answered it groggily.
“Hello?” She rubbed her eyes and let out a yawn. Once she managed to actually look at us, she perked up. “Oh, you’re back already?”
“Yes, but the news isn’t that good,” Darius explained, looking down at the floor. There was silence for a moment and I felt my hands begin to tremble. Nesryn sighed and opened her door wider, stepping aside.
“Come in.” We did as we were told and stood in a line in front of her. None of us wanted to look at her, so we stared at the floor instead. “What happened?” I saw Darius tense out of the corner of my eye. Vixia was the one to speak up first.
“We failed to eliminate the dragon, ma’am.” Her voice was quiet and cold. She began to recount what had happened, but I zoned out for most of it. That is, until she struggled to explain how the dragon had gotten away. That was when Nesryn interrupted her, finally responding.
“Are you joking?” I could hear her anger rising and had only heard that sternness when she spoke to Sparrow. Vixia shook her head and Puff scrambled down her shoulder and into her hood.
“It’s my fault,” I admitted. “I let it get away—”
“What do you mean you let it get away?” I flinched at her words and made the mistake of looking at her. As soon as our eyes met, it felt like an arrow pierced my chest, so I looked back down again.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. Nesryn stopped for a second but she hadn’t calmed down. She continued on with her tirade.
“Do you have any idea how many lives you have just endangered by doing that?” she growled. I opened my mouth to respond, but she cut me off again before I could. “Hundreds, if not thousands!” she screamed. “Their blood is on your hands now.”
My eyes widened as I closed my mouth again, pressing my lips firmly shut. At that moment, I realized that she was right. If I was wrong about that dragon, there would be innocent people that would pay the price.
“I expected more from you. The queen was wrong about you; you aren’t any more skilled than the others in this guild. Get out of my sight. I’ll be reconsidering your assignments in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She nearly slammed the door behind us after we stepped out into the hallway. My eyes were practically glued to the floor. I couldn’t believe what was happening. The three of us stood there for a moment, unsure of what to say, until Darius spoke up.
“I’m heading to bed.” He turned and left without waiting for a response. As soon as he was gone, I heard someone cackling.
“How the hell did you manage that?” I looked up to see Sparrow leaning against one of the doors with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face.
“Weren’t you supposed to head out already?” Vixia asked.
“Got delayed because the queen wanted to speak with me,” he answered smugly, “but now I’m glad we didn’t leave. The big bad dragon-slayers aren’t so tough after all, huh?”
I clenched my fists, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I walked down the hall, heading for my room.
“Ketsuna . . .” Vixia’s voice trailed off as she watched me leave.
When Vixia finally came into the room, I was already in bed, curled up under the blankets. She wandered over to me and I quickly wiped the tears away from my eyes.
“It’ll be okay,” she promised.
“How would you know?” I replied, looking toward the window. She let out a sigh and sat down next to me. She reached over and began rubbing my back a little, but I still didn’t look at her.
“I feel like a failure,” I admitted.
“But you’re not. We’ve slain several dragons before and I don’t think that one on the guildhall will be the last.”
Even with her reassurance, I wasn’t sure how to feel. There was just no way that I could hurt that dragon, especially since it looked just like Puff. The tiny dragon was actually beside me on a pillow. He chirped when I looked over at him.
“I’m going to go talk to Nesryn real quick,” Vixia said, catching my attention again.
“Okay.” She turned and left the room and I looked back at Puff. I got up out of bed and walked toward the window. I opened it and looked back to see the tiny dragon still staring at me.
“You can leave if you want to,” I offered, motioning toward the open window. He tilted his head at me and blinked. He didn’t move. I let out a sigh and closed the window. I crawled back in bed.