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Opening Scene- Establishes setting, protagonist, antagonist, and primary and secondary conflicts. CHAPTER 1 “Only one in forty are venomous.” The murmured reminder did nothing to banish the trickle of bright adrenaline down my nerves as the breakers began their telltale frothing beneath the water’s surface. I should have felt badly for skipping my voice session, but I was too sated on the sand’s warmth and a full belly to much care. Strands of hair coaxed on the sea’s winds floated across my copper cheeks, and I did not bother to restrain their path over slitted eyes which watched the ebb of the surf- waiting. The coiling of my stomach did not owe itself to breaking the unspoken rules governing my days, but what I now contemplated as I watched the equine creature emerge from the roiling waves. I began to sing, my ability to voice two notes at once drawing the animal nearer in swells of melding chords. She beckons with misting fingers And Tantrums of thrown limbs Join the waves, the wind, the storm Listen to her hymns Embrace her darkness, kiss her depths Taste salt upon your lip Your neglect of dawn’s blood skies Cost more than just your ship Closer it came across the sand, ears perked at the old ballad as I wove the chorus in the air around us. Half a dozen coves carved Cretoria’s coastline in aggressive gouges, but Oren and I had claimed this one. Tidal pools of varying sizes reflected the slouching sun like pieces of shattered mirror embedded in the dark rocks on the west end, while nothing but golden sand comprised the remainder of the small crescent. Neither the locals nor the summer sunbirds from the nearby capital city of Mytikas enjoyed traversing the narrow ledge of a trail down the slate cliffs over the cove, leaving this place to us most days. Dusk had coalesced in fading golden shafts suspended in the leaden hour of the evening- the hour in which wild sea horses sometimes swam onto shore here to fling their manes of kelp as they pounded across the sand. I had never approached one until now, the longing to run my fingers over its flaring pink gills overpowering the conviction that such a thing is never meant to be tamed or even touched by civilized hands. My hands were not soft by any means, not like the lavender oil scented ones of those in Mytikas. But they were human hands, and humans tended to ruin things they loved. I would only touch its muzzle, just for a moment. My notes fell softer as it approached. The hard plates of its nectarine-hued body rose and fell in ridges capped with skeletal knobs, ending in a curled tail. As it danced closer, my eyes drifted to its saddle fin, which rose high on its back tipped in lethal spines. Those needle-sharp points, and the smaller ones embedded in its ridges, contained a venom the barest amount of which would paralyze your limbs with creeping stealth as you were impaled further and dragged into the sea by the carnivorous animal. It was said that during those moments, the venom caused a euphoria, and you didn’t mind your imminent death approaching on the white-tipped depths. Her gills fluttered as she stretched her neck towards me, my nostrils catching the briny scent of kelp which hung in layers of twisting jade ribbon and bulbous air pockets along her neck. The orange of her shell absorbed the sunlight slanting across the cove like my own skin did. I was always famished for sunlight, for cool seawater, for the sound of the tide shushing my staccato heartbeat. She and I were kindred. The tips of my fingers brushed her fluted nose. A familiar voice sliced through the carefully cultivated haze around me. “Opi? What-” The horse reared back, tossing her head as she shimmied backwards and turned away from me. “Curse you, Oren!” I yelled as the creature sprinted for the surf, thundering into the undertow. I whipped towards him, eyes squinting to see the haloed outline of his rangy limbs. “What’s the matter with you?” my friend called, long legs ambling over the sand towards me. “Were you about to touch that thing?” I crossed my arms as he approached. “Maybe.” The white of his eyes showed as he sighed. “Did you skip voice lessons?” What was he, my mother? Kalliope, her lilting voice wavered in my mind. I won’t have it said you’re shirking your duties to the Opera… Anxiety curled in my gut, but I clobbered it down with an imaginary piece of driftwood. The Phoerian Opera could go rot today. I was not yet in its gold-fisted grip- or so I told myself. Rolling my eyes in answer, I picked up the lobster tail I’d been roasting and tossed it to him. “Got four today.” I didn’t mention I’d spent two hours diving for them, but they were his second-favorite food, so I didn’t mind. He caught it with a soft swear and then dropped the scalding crustacean in the sand. Flicking his nimble fingers as if to rid them of the heat, he commented casually, “Suppose it’s a good thing you’re here already.” He paused, and I almost threw sand in his sun-bronzed face before he finally spit out what I’d been waiting to hear. “My contact at the Nautilus Citadel replied to my letter.” Everything in me suddenly focused to a razor-sharp edge, my urge to ream him for the ruined lobster abandoned. We’d been waiting over a month for this response. This was it. The only answer to the only question that mattered. “Yes?” My hands twitched as I contemplated the urge to strangle him. “What did he say? The one-dimpled smile which crept across my friend’s face raised the hairs on my arms. “We leave in the morning for the Solstice Trade.” My breath hitched. It was true. The vanished peoples of Gomethra’s mainland were real. The Solstice Trade was real. And we were going to crash it. No rule for what we were about to do existed, but if it had- I’d break it faster than a sea horse could drag me beneath the indifferent waves, euphoric to the bitter end. **** The edge of my awareness drug on unfamiliar ground, a hem fraying further with each barefoot step we’d taken to arrive at the wastelands of Gomethra. Though the boat in which we’d traveled was only a mile away through the forest, I forced the image of its hull bumping against the rocks through my mind like a talisman. “Do bones burn to ash as well, or are they still beneath us?” Oren mused. Patience had never been my strong suit, but I could think of a thousand things I’d rather be than patient, so I wasn’t going to fill the Amphritis Sea with tears over it. My cheeks stung as I dragged ash-encrusted nails down them. The imbecile beside me had clearly forgotten the need for silence as we crouched on the edge of the vast, grass-covered Ash Plains, anticipation taught as a lyre’s strings in our veins. “Shut it,” I hissed, sending his larger form toppling over from where he crouched next to me. The azure of his eyes widened as he froze at the lofty grass rustling around us. I prayed to Chrosos no one in the envoy had seen the ripple in the silver vegetation. The company of a hundred soldiers waited in stoic silence a stone’s throw from us as they faced the undulating waves stretching out for miles in front of them like a sea of mirrored anemones. My shoulders dropped in relief as they stood unmoving against the cloudless skies. “Thought you were bringing food,” Oren growled, his mutinous wheat hair slipping over one eye. I heaved a token sigh, inhaling and exhaling the smell of burning leaves that still lingered in the soil after all this time. His nattering didn’t matter anyways while the breeze and the grass spoke so freely around us, drowning our words in their murmured song akin to velvet brushing over my ears. “No matter how long we wait, seeing dragons will be worth it,” I reminded him. “Where’s your food?” Face falling, he mumbled, “I hid some snacks from myself last night to save them and couldn’t remember where I put them this morning.” Vertical lines furrowed his brow as his eyes roamed the mental landscape of possible hiding spots he’d forgotten about. He’d find them eventually, as always. I patted his tightly coiled shoulder muscle. “My condolences. No, you can’t have mine.” There had always been rumors the dragons still existed. The official word claimed they had gone extinct from disease and starvation after The Scything, the war waged centuries ago between Nyskos and the northern kingdom of Volnyrocq. The mainland had not always been the wasteland of cursed grass which stretched before us. Oren had heard through his family’s connections in Mytikas that some Rocqes still lived beyond the Ash Plains and that an exchange of goods happened each year near the summer solstice. Yet none of the things we’d speculated about came close to the reality before us. Half a dozen cargo ships were tethered on the wide river mouth which flowed alongside the plains. The massive caravan of goods sitting behind the line of guards could have fed the capital city of Mytikas for a month. Nyskos had amassed hundreds of barrels of salted and smoked fish, live lobsters and crabs in enormous glass tanks pulled on wagons, towers of crated wine and sweet liqueurs, bottles of olive oil, sacks of grain and kafe beans...The smell alone carried over on the wind caused my mouth to water. I’d skipped breakfast for this (more like Oren ate mine on the way) to meet him at the docks and arrive here by the sun’s highest point. A distant rumble began to shake the ground beneath my knees, and I looked up to see the hazy outline of black forms marching through the grass. Those who believed in the tales of the Rocqes’ existence said they had lost their ability to breathe fire or fly, just as we, the race of Nereiden, had lost our sirenic traits over time. Whatever form they wore caused a rhythmic trembling of the grass around us, and we watched as the first row of two dozen black plates of armor came into focus. Their pace would bring them to us in moments, but that wasn’t what caused Oren to swear. “Holy mother of tentacles,” he breathed. Behind the Rocqe soldiers were massive carts pulled by beasts I had only read about in one of the texts from my mother’s collection. Unlike most cart animals, the heads of the bone lynxes with their twitching feline noses stayed angled high in the air, looking out over the soldiers of the retinue in front of them. Black spikes of bone longer than my arms rose in pairs from the ringed white fur on their backs, chains connecting them to the carts pulled taut from the manacles encircling them. They moved as if the weight of the house-sized carts didn’t affect them in the least as they stalked forward with fluid grace. My head tilted. “Is it wrong I have an urge to see how soft their ears are?” “T’would be a noble death,” Oren replied. “I'll sing your song in the Nautilus Citadel.” Oren’s voice was terrible, so I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. More intriguing than the bone lynxes were the men encased from the waist up in armor of glistening jet black with horned helmets. As they drew closer, I could see the iridescent scales which made up the armor shifting over each other. There were what appeared to be wings for epaulets, flaring out beyond their shoulders and ending in a single talon at the tip. In contrast, the golden armor of the Nereiden almost blinded a person when looking at it in full sunlight. I was pleased to see that our representatives didn’t move a muscle in reaction to the approaching envoy. One of the bone lynxes snapped its head in our direction, looking straight at us through the grass. My lungs seized. Ducking back down, I pulled Oren with me. “Do you think it sees us?” Oren’s eyes were not teasing now. “I have no doubt it does.” Shivers chased over my scalp. Or perhaps the shiver had more to do with the way he lowered his voice to a baritone murmur that had developed of late. It was strange to realize Oren’s lanky form had filled out into broader shoulders and his face had developed new angles to it. He’d always had beautiful features, and I’d teased him mercilessly for being prettier than any of the girls on Cretoria. But now he was beginning to strike me as something different. When the retinues finally came face to face, it was rather anticlimactic. Two soldiers simply exchanged scrolls, and then we watched for almost an hour while they loaded and unloaded goods from the bone lynxes onto the ships and vice versa. My stomach grumbled as time wore on, but I wasn’t going to look away. “They managed to cross the Ash Plains unscathed,” I commented, sifting gray dirt through my fingers as I sat on the packed earth. Drawings on old parchment surfaced in my mind, images of the warped creatures which hunted in the grasses of the plains and made crossing a suicidal endeavor. Oren raised a brow at me like I was an idiot. “I would imagine it had something to do with the giant cats they brought,” he drawled. “Even if the shadow wolves are as big as they say, nothing would attack those things.” He had a point. As we watched yet more containers and barrels being hefted onto the flat carts of the bone lynxes, Oren voiced a question of his own. “Do you think the Prince of Volnyrocq truly started the war? That he burned an entire city to the ground?” I’d thought about the answer to his question a thousand times. “Wouldn’t blame him if he did.” Oren gave me a look like I’d grown another head. “Just because one person died doesn’t mean you can-” “She didn’t just die, Oren. Her fins were cut from her body and her heart ripped out.” We’d had this argument countless times, but I was more than happy to rise to the occasion again. “If I found the person I was supposed to marry like that, I might go on a fire-breathing rampage too.” Oren frowned. “He should have known better than to bring a nereid to the Winged Court. The Rocqes were barbarians, even without the danger of a Kymaera being produced from their union.” I shrugged. “Forbid something, and someone will inevitably be stupid enough to try it, daemon spawn or not.” He paused, then looked at me sideways. “You still believe those stories? I doubt any of us could shift into dragons or mer, even eight-hundred years ago. And the Kymaera were probably just deformed children. I pity them.” I turned my body towards him, jaw dropped. “What are you talking about? You’ve seen the Draekenmor Reef the same as I. The bones are piled from the sea floor to the surface. Thousands of dragons. They were pulled from the sky in The Scything.” He shrugged. “But what if it’s just casts and molds? Carvings? What if it doesn’t reach to the sea floor, Opi?” “I can't even hear you over your own horsecrap,” I hissed, struggling to keep my voice low. He didn’t deserve to use his pet name for me. “Those scrolls are not stories, Oren. Their histories. How can you deny that?” He sighed, leaning back onto one elbow. “Mytikas has different texts now, ones that are more accurate based on actual research. Your mother’s scrolls are probably just a collection of tales that were never meant to be taken seriously.” My fingers curled into the ash beneath us. He was suddenly revealing this misbelief now, of all times? Those stories of dragons and mer were an unshakable part of us- so I’d thought. I was going to push him off a cliff when we got back to Cretoria. “What nonsense have those in Mytikas been spout-” A screech rent the sky in the distance, raising the dusty hairs on my body to stand. It was a shrill cry, ear-piercing in pitch and ending on a hopeless, echoing note like the last song of a dying glasswhale. We lifted our heads up out of the grass. All of the soldiers had stopped to listen too, and the bone lynxes had shifted to crouched positions as low as possible in their harnesses. Their great yellow eyes watched the sky to the north, and I turned to look at well. Another desolate shriek sounded, and I saw the vague outline of something high in the air- something too big to be any sort of bird. “Is that…?” I couldn’t even say the words, my heart pounding so loud the bone lynxes could probably hear it with their tufted ears. “It can’t be,” Oren whispered. “It’s impossible.” The creature was too far away to make out anything more than the outline of wings and a sleek body, but I knew. It was a dragon. Apparently, the soldiers thought so too. Shouting began, and swords were pulled from sheaths as the Nereiden guards faced their dark counterparts. It was clear this wasn’t part of the plan. The Rocqe soldiers also drew their weapons from their backs, wielding two wickedly curved onyx blades in response. “We need to get out of here,” Oren rumbled, taking my hand. “Now.” I couldn’t agree more, though I was dying to stay and see what happened. But if fighting occurred, there would be no predicting where the soldiers would go, and they could run right into us. I wasn’t stupid enough to think we would be spared by even our own soldiers in such a precarious situation. Looking up to the sky once more, I saw the shape of the dragon- or whatever it was- growing closer. I had never in my life wanted to stay put more than I did in that moment, whether I was burned to a crisp or chopped into pieces. “Kalliope, now!” Oren dragged me towards the forest with more force than I expected. Tearing my gaze away from the black spec in the sky, I followed him, awkwardly running while bent over as low as I could. When we were almost to the tree line at the edge of the Ash Plains, another primeval screech struck our ears as the clang of swords rang out, and we both abandoned our stealth for speed as we sprinted for the shelter of the trees. As we reached the first few steps under the forest’s canopy, I turned back. All I saw before Oren jerked me forward again were flashes of gold and obsidian striking each other. “Wait, Oren, I want to see if-” “No, you don’t,” he snapped, and I blinked at him. He never spoke to me in that tone, but the hard set of his jaw silenced any argument I had planned to use. Still- I looked back one last time before jerking into movement… The elegantly curved blade of a black-suited soldier plunged into the space between his opponent’s armor where the shoulder met the golden breastplate. I watched as it was forced deeper, piercing sideways into the man’s chest. My own ribs seemed constrict inwards as I pictured the perforation of his lungs, his heart, blood filling the cavities in between. The Nereiden’s cry was so small compared to the creature’s above and yet echoed through my nerve endings. It was final. It was desperate and fearful and knowing, his last sound. The gold-clad body fell to Ash Plains and did not rise. My blood had frozen, but it pounded in my ears nonetheless as Oren pulled me away. We sped over the forest paths back to where our small fishing boat waited. As we shoved off for the sail back to Cretoria, I thought I heard another wailing cry, and I caught my breath at the loneliness of it. Or, as Oren insisted on the way home, it was probably just the wind.