â€œI just wish there was some way to see whatâ€™s waiting for us before we open the door,â€ Karen said. From the tense way she was holding her shoulders Valeria knew that the girl, was trying and failing to ignore the hostile group of speakers at her back.
â€œThatâ€™s one thing it canâ€™t do,â€ Rai admitted. â€œA bit of an oversight I guess.â€
â€œA bit?â€ Karen said. â€œIf it was an oversight it was a bloody big one. But perhaps it just wasnâ€™t possible. Who knows, after all this time.â€ She laid her head against the rock. â€œBut I should still be able to use the threads to get some idea of whatâ€™s out there.â€
â€œWhy are we trusting her anyway?â€ One of the fleeing speakers burst out. Valeria turned and saw aÂ tall male Haltia with flaming red hair and coppery skin pushing his way to the front of the group. From his clothing and the bag across his shoulder he was a musician from Kelosia. â€œAre you sure about this, your majesty? Sheâ€™s human.â€
Alban stepped between him and Karen. â€œSheâ€™s my heart friend. Believe me, sheâ€™ll get us out of here safely.â€
â€œListen, â€œ Valeria said reasonably. â€œThere are dragons out there, and we canâ€™t fight them. Unless you have a better idea weâ€™re left relying on the human to save us.â€
The male Haltia shook his head angrily and then sighed. â€œYouâ€™re right, of course, but I donâ€™t like this.â€
â€œNeither do I,â€ Valeria agreed. â€œBut we donâ€™t have much choice.â€
â€œIâ€™d rather face the dragons,â€ someone else shouted from the back. â€œAt least they only want to eat us.â€
Valeria stiffened at that and the rest of the speakers edged away from the pretty young sylph whoâ€™d spoken. She looked barely out of childhood and the way her long white hair and gauzy gown whipped around in a non-existent gale proved her agitation.
â€œWhat did you say?â€ Karen turned slowly to look at her.
The sylph looked around as she realised the rest of the group had deserted her, but lifted her chin and stood her ground.
â€œI said that Iâ€™d rather face a dragon than be beholden to a human. Is that so very strange? To prefer death to slavery?â€
Karen sighed and pinched at the bridge of her nose. She suddenly looked very tired.
â€œEven if I wanted to enslave anyone – which I donâ€™t -â€ she paused and waited while the sylph made a sceptical noise in her throat. â€œEven if I did, itâ€™s naive. Dragons donâ€™t just kill their prey. They feed on them, leave them to recover and then do it again.â€
â€œYou lie!â€ the sylph yelled. â€œDragons just kill us! Iâ€™ve seen what humans do… humans…â€ The sylph sank to her knees on the stairs and covered her face with her hands.
Karen frowned and looked over at Rai. â€œWhereâ€™s she from?â€
â€œSheâ€™s never said, but given that we found her wandering the mountains in a daze two years we presume sheâ€™s from Esen Peak. And well you know what happened there.â€
â€œI do.â€ Karen walked up the stairs, knelt down in front of the sylph and gently pulled the her hands away from her face. â€œIs he right? Are you from Esen Peak, child?â€
TheÂ sylph looked away defiantly but after a moment she nodded.
â€œI see. It was the Dragon Knights who destroyed Esen Peak, child.Â Yes, theyâ€™re human, but theyâ€™re called that for a reason. They work for the dragons – well, one of them anyway.â€
â€œWhat? Humans donâ€™t work for dra-â€
â€œNo,â€ Valeria interrupted. â€œSheâ€™s telling the truth. We realised pretty quickly that they were working for a dragon, though we never did work out why.â€
â€œI donâ€™t work for a dragon, child,â€ Karen said. â€œAnd look at it this way: if we did try and enslave you, you can fight us. Youâ€™ve done it before.â€
â€œBut we canâ€™t fight dragons…â€ The sylph hesitated. â€œI suppose that makes sense.â€
â€œDid no one ever tell you that the dragons were responsible for what happened to your home?â€ Karen asked.
The sylph looked down and shook her head.
â€œWe thought she knew,â€ Rai said. â€œItâ€™s common knowledge after all.â€
â€œT-they took my mothers and my sister away. I-I… do you think theyâ€™re still alive?â€
â€œAfter two years at the mercy of a dragon?â€ Karen asked. â€œNot if theyâ€™re lucky, but thereâ€™s probably a fifty-fifty chance they are.â€ She put her arms around the sylphâ€™s shoulders. â€œIf we get out of this, I promise Iâ€™ll try to find out.â€ She rose and headed back to the door. â€œReady, Alban?â€ she asked.
â€œAs ready as Iâ€™ll ever be,â€ he replied.
â€œGood!â€ She laid her head against the door again and closed her eyes. â€œThere are definitely two dragons out there. â€œOneâ€™s unconscious – Iâ€™d guess thatâ€™s the one you tricked into crashing – but the otherâ€™s very much awake and itâ€™s waiting for us.â€ She opened her eyes. â€œI canâ€™t account for the others.â€
â€œAt least two of them were following us down,â€ the fire haltia whoâ€™d spoken earlier said. â€œWe collapsed the ceiling on them.â€
â€œThat helps,â€ Karen said. â€œSo we possibly have two unaccounted for.â€ She unhooked her axes from her belt. â€œOh well, letâ€™s do this.â€ She reached out and tapped the carving. â€œEveryone stay in here until we tell you itâ€™s clear.â€ She charged out through the door as it opened. Alban rushed through after her and leapt behind a boulder, using it for shelter as he prepared to fire his bow.
Valeria got as close to the door as she dared and watched. Someone needed to be ready to shut it if the fight went the wrong way.
The dragon whoâ€™dÂ crashed was indeed still unconscious, but another dragon sat on top of a boulder directly in front of the door in human form. As Karen emerged from the doorway he looked up and smirked. It wasnâ€™t a nice smile.
â€œWell finally! I was beginning to think dinner would never get here.â€ Claws erupted from his fingertips as he somersaulted off the rock and leapt at Karen.