“What’s happening?” Daniel rushed towards the main hall after Ebona and Sarah as they pushed through the crowd of panicking speakers fleeing in the opposite direction.
Birke appeared in front of them, looking frantic. â€œThree dragons have been sighted to the north-east and theyâ€™re heading directly for Waldhafen. Weâ€™re evacuating, but…â€ She trailed off.
â€œWhat kind?â€ Sarah asked.
â€œAzure blue. All three seem to have chosen very snakelike, winged, two-legged forms.â€ Birke led them up a ramp to an observation platform. Looking down, he could see the townsfolk fleeing south. â€œItâ€™s not a random attack either, their movements are too purposeful.â€ She gave Daniel a look. â€œAnd donâ€™t worry, the scouts who spotted them are certain they arenâ€™t collared, so you arenâ€™t going to blow your cover if you help us.â€
He winced. He had been considering just that possibility.
â€œBlue?â€ Sarah exclaimed. â€œYou donâ€™t usually see blues this far west.â€
Daniel looked at her curiously. â€œWhat?â€
â€œOh my, I forgot youâ€™d only been at this for a matter of months.â€ Sarah laughed. â€œWe donâ€™t know much about dragons, but we do know there are certain colours you rarely see together. Blue and purple are two of them. This is purple territory. They must be after something.â€
â€œYour bracelet?â€ he suggested. She frowned for a moment and then shook her head. â€œNo, they canâ€™t sense them.â€ The colour drained from her face and her eyes went wide as she stared at something he couldnâ€™t see. â€œShit!” She span round and looked at Birke. â€œWhereâ€™s the mermaid?â€
Daniel froze, his heart pausing momentarily with an uncomfortable lurch. He swallowed convulsively and forced himself to breathe. â€œMela? Why would they… you think theyâ€™re after her?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know, but sheâ€™s definitely the target. This is a feint. I just saw it.â€ She turned back to Birke. â€œWhere is she?â€
â€œShadavar is taking her to the shelters, but if theyâ€™re tracking her…â€
â€œWhich way?â€ he asked.
Birke pointed south into the depths of the forest. â€œShadavar is fast. Theyâ€™ll be well ahead of the crowd by now.â€
â€œSoâ€™s Ebona.â€ He hesitated. â€œBut can you two handle the three incoming on your own?â€
“Well enough to keep them off your tail, Daniel Stevens.”
Daniel frowned at her odd emphasis on “Stevens”. Before he could even open his mouth to ask about it, she gave him a little shove towards Ebona. “Go to Mela, quickly!”
Mela clung onto Shadavar as tightly as she dared as the chesnut unicorn galloped through the forest. Sheâ€™d been dozing in the spring when the alarm went off. The council had bundled her onto Shadavarâ€™s back without explanation, but only dragons could cause the level of panic sheâ€™d seen in the fleeing townsfolk.
â€œWeâ€™ll be at the shelter soon,â€ he said without slowing his pace. â€œWe should be safe there. Dragons have never got past the wards.â€
So she was right, it was a dragon attack. She glanced back towards Waldhafen and wished she hadnâ€™t. Several of the trees were aflame and a light blue dragon was hovering over it, breathing out a stream of fire. She gave a sob, clenching her eyes shut as she buried her face in Shadavarâ€™s mane. She had no warning when something struck them from the side.
Shadavar gave a terrible scream and reared up, flinging her clear off his back. She struck a tree before sliding down down into a pile of brambles at the roots. Her head struck one of the roots and her vision blacked out for a few moments. When it cleared, she crawled to her knees and looked around for Shadavar and their assailant.
She spotted the life unicorn lying on the other side of the trail in his resting form: a small chestnut pony. He was ominously still and for a second she thought he was dead. She realised in relief that he was still breathing as she saw the faint rise and fall of his side. Climbing to her feet she tottered towards him, still looking around for whatever had attacked them. When she reached him she bent down and put her hand on his flank. He opened his eyes and looked at her.
â€œRun!â€ he gasped.
She shook her head. â€œI canâ€™t leave you!â€
He gasped for breath for a moment. â€œStupid girl, you canâ€™t do anything for me. The forest will keep me alive. This attack wasnâ€™t random! We have to assume theyâ€™ll be back. Go!â€
She shook her head again, but this time she rose to her feet and started to back towards the trees. â€œIâ€™m sorry!â€
She turned and fled into trees, blinking away the tears that threatened to blind her. Branches and roots impeded her path and she tripped several times before finally, one large root sent her sprawling into a pool of mud. As she climbed to her feet, damp hands grabbed her from behind. She screamed and struggled, reaching out with her mind. She couldnâ€™t sense anyone there; not a speaker, goblin or dragon. Which meant they were shielded. A hand clamped across her mouth and she smelled lake water and fish. Her mind froze momentarily and she stiffened. No, it couldnâ€™t be! There was a soft, familiar chuckle, and a cold blade was held to her throat.
â€œIâ€™m going to remove my hand from your mouth, Melusine,â€ her captor said. â€œPlease donâ€™t scream, or I will hurt you.â€
She whimpered as he released her, but managed to resist the urge to scream for help. It was! It was impossible but it was! Even if she didnâ€™t remember his voice so well, no one else had ever used the name she wouldnâ€™t have the right to use until she came of age for her. But he was dead! It made no sense. She gave another whimper and swallowed. She didnâ€™t want to say it. Saying it would make it real. But she had to.
â€œDarya,â€ she whispered. It came out squeaky and he laughed again. The knife left her throat and he spun her around to face him.
â€œHello, cousin,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s nice to see you again.â€