NaNoWriMo 2019, #13: Masks Off

Red Dragon

“Once upon a time, there was the greatest evil the world had ever known. Then it died, and everybody lived happily ever after.”

Garyl didn’t realize that the words had come from him until after he spoke him. He opened his eyes and saw a blue-gray ceiling above him. A cool, damp cloth on his forehead and the quality of the mattress on which he lay told him that he had awoken in the infirmary.

“I like the story,” Lytha said from a stool near his bed. “It’s short, simple, and has a happy ending. Too bad the real tale doesn’t end the same way.”

“How did I get here?” Garyl asked. “Last I remember, I put out the fire and everything was fine.”

“That’s the funny thing about heat stroke and asphyxiation,” Lytha responded. “You can feel perfectly fine right up to the moment you collapse.”

Garyl sat up in bed and removed the cloth from his forehead. He wore the same black and gray clothes he had worn earlier in the day, sans his red cloak which he saw draped on a table nearby. A glance out the lone window in the room gave him a view of the academy grounds, albeit drenched in rain and bearing a hedge maze which would likely need to be cut down and either replanted or replaced with something else entirely. He was still at the Lorinthian Magic Academy, and his best guess told him that it had been only a couple of hours at most since the fire.

“You’re welcome,” he said, leaning back and letting his head hit the pillow again.

I’m welcome?” Lytha asked incredulously. “I think you should be thanking me.”

“I was getting around to that,” he replied, “but I did put out the fire.”

“Well, you and a sudden rainstorm.”

“Was it sudden? I seem to remember the clouds looking quite gray while we were speaking.”

“And that’s one more sign that your memory had gone faulty,” Lytha said. “It wasn’t the clearest of days, but there was no sign that we would get a storm of this magnitude.”

“Then thank goodness for happy coincidences.”

“Or Tiane finding her magic at just the right moment…immediately after it manifested at the wrong moment.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that a fire started out of nowhere or that you would be so ill-prepared to put it out that it nearly killed you, do you? You might be frustrating, but you’re not inept.”

“I don’t know,” Garyl said, scratching the tip of his ear, “I once nearly died after being attacked by a flock of chickens. It’s never wise to underestimate me…or overestimate me, as the case may be.”

“Don’t play the buffoon,” Lytha snapped. “You’re not good at it. Besides, Tiane already tipped her hand for you. The girl fled the academy grounds—she’s nowhere to be found.”

Garyl propped himself up on his elbows. “I wouldn’t read much into that,” he said. “She’s in her early twenties—you remember the sort of trouble you would get into when you had a chance to run off unsupervised.”

“She’s fourteen,” Lytha corrected.

Garyl furrowed his eyebrows. “Really? Well, that only makes my point stronger, doesn’t it?”

“Why did you bring her here?” Lytha asked.

“Because she had potential, and what better place to learn how to harness that potential than at the world-famous Lorinthian Magic Academy? Besides, nobody else would have given me the time of day and heard out my wild theories.”

“Theories which, unfortunately, might be less wild than even I suspected at first.”

Garyl sat up and swung his legs off the edge of the bed. He scowled when he felt his bare feet touch a cold floor. Somebody had removed his boots. “You’re too kind,” he said. “But, if you don’t mind, I have things I need to do now.”

“More research?” Lytha asked, shooting Garyl a piercing glare. “Don’t you think you’ve gathered enough evidence by now? After all, you spent a good deal of time this afternoon outlining a very convincing case that our young Tiane is actually some sort of avatar for a creature that plunged the entire known world into an age of darkness. Since you have evidence to back your claims up, I think it’s time we started discussing what we should do about this matter, don’t you?”

Garyl stood up, wobbled slightly on his feet, and then steadied himself. “There’s nothing to do but what we’ve already started,” he said. “We support her, raise her as well as we can, and help her learn to control whatever power she might have lurking inside her. If she starts to hear voices telling her to murder people, we get her as far away from civilization as we can are help her right out her darker impulses.”

“And if she starts another fire?” Lytha asked shrewdly.

“She didn’t start this one,” Garyl said, parrying her question with the most emphatic lie he could manage. “You’ve got a school full of spellcasters. What do you think would happen if you started throwing around blame for every strange phenomenon that happens within the grounds?”

“Not a single one of my students has the power to overwhelm your magic and leave you dying of smoke inhalation.”

Garyl cast his eyes about for his sword and shield. He found them lying on the far side of the infirmary. He started toward them, but Lytha moved to block his path.

“Tell me the truth about what happened there,” she insisted. “What you saw will determine what happens to Tiane.”

Garyl shifted his weight from foot to foot, then took a step backwards. “What will happen to her?” he repeated. “You make it sound like you’re considering handing down a prison sentence…or an execution.”

“Shouldn’t we consider that?”

“No!” Garyl said in alarm.

“State your hypothesis again, for clarity,” Lytha said.

In the long pause that followed, Garyl looked at his sword and shield, then decided against trying to force his way to them. Finally, he gave a long, soft sigh before speaking again. “Derrezen died. That much is established fact. The Dragon War ended, and the cities of Blackwood haven’t sounded their dragon bells to warn of an aerial attack in over a decade.”

“But…” Lytha said, verbally prodding Garyl to continue.

“But a Dragon-God doesn’t become a god by waiting for death to find him. He had backup plans. He placed a portion of his soul in a small mortal vessel. I don’t know how he did it—he might have taken human form and seduced a woman, or his followers might have kidnapped a baby and conducted some sort of arcane ritual.”

“And if we figure out how he did it, can we reverse the process?” Lytha asked pointedly.

Garyl’s eyes shifted around the room before returning to Lytha’s face. “No,” he admitted. “Whatever part of him is hiding inside his mortal host is an integral piece now. Removing something like that from somebody’s mind and soul would require us to match Derrezen’s magical power, which will never happen. Even if we could accomplish it, the change would fundamentally alter who this person was—they’ve had fourteen years of personal development. That piece of them has grown and changed as they have.”

“Why are you using ‘them?’” Lytha snapped. “We know perfectly well that the correct pronoun is ‘she.’”

“No,” Garyl insisted. “I strongly believe that to be the case—I don’t know for sure. In fact, I might never have clear evidence. I know that there’s something special about Tiane. I know that the magic she uses resembles that which Derrezen possessed. I know from the River Hag that Derrezen has already prepared a vessel for his return. But those are all puzzle pieces. Just because I put them together in a certain way doesn’t mean I was right!”

“I see.” Lytha frowned as she contemplated the situation. Then she asked, “You lived through the entire Dragon War, correct?”

“Come on now,” Garyl said. “Is this some sort of trial? You know I did.”

“One hundred forty-eight years from start to finish,” Lytha said, ignoring Garyl’s objection to her tone. “I’m in my sixties, and my grandmother didn’t remember what the world felt like before the war began. I grew up learning to watch the skies and duck for cover if I saw anything larger than a songbird on the horizon. I watched my hometown burn to the ground when raiders from the cavern depths came to the surface of his orders. And then…” Lytha’s face softened. “And then I saw the world breathe a collective sigh of relief when it was all over. Now we don’t have some fiery, vengeful beast waiting to rain destruction down upon us. If his silly cult tries to attack Blackwood, they have to fight on land, just like a normal army. You’re a bookish fellow, Garyl Shadowslayer. I assume you kept up your research and made records even when you were kneeling in the mud and patching up the wounded. Am I right?”

“I always keep a journal,” Garyl admitted. “I tried to pay more attention during that time.”

“And did you ever manage to keep an accurate count of the number of people who died during the Dragon War? Or even just the people you personally saw die?”

Garyl shook his head. “There were too many.”

“And in this school right now we have somebody who might have the power to ignite that war again. I didn’t believe it until this afternoon, but then I witnessed magic capable of knocking you on your back and leaving you helpless. And I guarantee you that outside of Tiane herself, there is nobody among the students, the faculty, or even the alumni that has the power to do that.”

Garyl narrowed his eyes. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that if we see a chance to stop another Dragon War, we need to take it. Especially right now, while we’re aware of her potential but she isn’t.”

Garyl moved toward his weapon. Lytha stepped into his way, obstructing his travel once again.

“You talk about how young we all are,” she said. “Right now there are people growing up of about Tiane’s age who never knew the horrors that Derrezen wrought. In a few years they’ll be adults, while those who remember the war grow older and older. You might be able to bide your time with platitudes and attempts to change what lies in her soul, but you’ll have fewer allies with every passing year. When I’m gone, when everybody who remembers Derrezen has gone, how many people will be left to help you stop her?”

“Right now, you’re trying to convince me to murder a young girl,” Garyl said. “You’re about two hundred years too late for that.”

“No,” Lytha corrected. “I’m trying to convince you to step aside in case I choose to do what needs to be done.”

“You’re not a murderer, Lytha.”

“But I am a protector. Do you remember who held this post before me?”

Garyl’s existing frown deepened. “Headmaster Shandalar. A wonderful magical mind and excellent headmaster…except for his desire to become a god and his willingness to imprison and torture people who had information that could have turned his dream into a reality.”

“Correct. Several of his students got the brunt of his ‘discipline.’” Lytha touched Garyl on the arm and rolled up his sleeve, revealing a long scar that ran from his elbow down to his wrist. “As did you. When I took this post, I promised that the people in my care, be they in this school or in Lorinth or anywhere else in the known world, would stay safe.”

Garyl spun away from Lytha, rolling up his sleeve and getting around her so he had a straight path to his weaponry in a single fluid movement. “But Tiane is in your care as well,” he reminded her. You took her in at my request. You’ve taught her for a year, however fruitlessly. You can’t pretend to be cold-hearted about her now.”

“She was in my care,” Lytha stated matter-of-factly. “You paid her room and board for a time, but your money only goes so far. Technically, the coin you gave me ran out almost two months ago. Since then, she stayed thanks to my desire not to turn an orphan out onto the streets—that and my trust in you. But it turns out you didn’t inform me of the potential risks in the first place.”

“I told you that I thought she had dragon blood—”

“Dragon blood is one thing—an intriguing thing, I’ll admit—but acting as some sort of half-baked avatar is something else entirely. Her time at this academy is now at an end, and I won’t let you buy her an extension.”

“So what are you going to do—turn her out and then kill her once she gets past the front gates?”

“I don’t need to,” Lytha said. “She’s already turned herself out. Tiane is nowhere to be found on campus. But she can’t have left Lorinth far behind, so I’ll be tracking her. You can help me in this matter, if you wish.”

Garyl gave no answer. Instead, he turned his back on Lytha, walked to where his sword and shield lay, and picked them up.

“I didn’t think so,” Lytha said. “I recommend that your search for Tiane bring you outside of Lorinth’s jurisdiction. I plan to make a report to the city council tomorrow morning about the chaos that happened today. I’m sure that you don’t want to answer their questions as to why a night folk has spent the past year working to protect an avatar of Derrezen.”

“You can act heartless now,” Garyl said. “But I know how much compassion you have inside you. If you find Tiane before I do, you won’t actually kill her even if you get the chance. When you decide to show her mercy, find me and we’ll solve this problem together.”

Garyl waited a moment to see if Lytha had a response for him. When it became apparent that she didn’t, he took his weapons and left the room.

Lytha walked to the infirmary window and stood staring at her campus for a long time. When she saw the small dark speck that was Garyl Shadowslayer cross past the burned ruins of the hedge maze and finally pass through the front gates, she reached into a pocket of her white robes and retrieved a small steel key—the key to the room that she knew held Tiane for the moment.

***

Tiane tapped her foot nervously on the wooden floor of the dormitory. The room had more space than her normal quarters, with a full closet and comfortable furniture. However, she had noticed all too well that Lytha had locked the door when she left and that the room had no windows.

She wore dry clothes which the academy had granted her—not the stuffy robes worn by the students, but rather a simple pair of black breeches, soft shoes, and a green blouse. The top hung loosly on her skinny frame but served its purpose well, not only granting her modesty but also giving her plenty of room to hide small trinkets that she found interesting. She had dried off and changed as Garyl told her to, and she hoped that Tiane didn’t check her room to find her sooty, wet clothing shoved hastily beneath her mattress.

She took these private moments to venture into her memories, but she did so carefully. She had only a dim recollection of the events which had preceded the fire and did her best to avoid recalling details of the robed figure with dragon claw hands. She had spied on a summoning class at the academy once before and watched as a student botched a calling spell. Rather than a small faerie, the spell had beckoned some sort of orange-skinned demon with insect-like mandibles and hatred in its eyes. It seemed to look at her before the instructor banished it, and its gaze bore an uncomfortable resemblance to that of the robed man. She felt like if she thought too hard about him, he would return to her out of whatever pit he had come from in the first place.

Even as most of the afternoon remained a blur, certain things held strong in her memory. She had gone somewhere else, but without traveling. She had seen a glimpse of Garyl’s past, a piece that he kept deeply buried away. Moreover, she had been there with him—not just viewing the event, but experiencing it with all of her senses. Her stomach still churned a little when she thought of the toss of the sea. Her nostrils still burned a little when she inhaled, as though a splash from the salty waves lingered long after the vision had ended.

She had thought of Garyl as unique—some sort of immortal dark-skinned being who wandered in and out of her life as it suited him. But he had been with another person—another night folk like him. Unfortunately, the figure’s back had been turned the entire time, so she never saw his face. Were his eyes orange like Garyl’s?

But her curiosity also brought painful recollections as well. She hadn’t even seen the sea monster, but she instinctively knew it was out there. The terror that it impressed on Garyl matched her own fear of the robed figure, with something else added in. When he remembered the sea monster, Garyl became convinced that he was about to die—and she felt it too.

I must not die. Nobody had spoken the words or even thought them so clearly, but they tainted the entire memory. More than anything else, at that moment, Garyl wanted to stay alive. He had grabbed the knife with the intent of saving himself, but with no plan in his mind. But then he had forced Tiane out of his memories, leaving her to wonder what the younger Garyl did with that knife in order to save himself.

The look inside Garyl’s mind felt as tantalizing as it did terrorizing. To see a portion of a past that the dark-clad figure tried his best to block out left her feeling hungry. If she could reach inside herself and bring forth that power again, she might be able to see more. If she focused hard enough, nobody could hide a secret from her.

But then she felt a shift in the pit of her stomach and banished such thoughts from her mind. The dragon-clawed man seemed about to return, and she let her mind go blank in an attempt to stave him off.

A knock at the door informed her that she was about to have a visitor, but the fact that she heard somebody turn the key first reminded her that her visitor was really a jailor.

“Tiane?” came Lytha’s elderly voice. “Are you ready to talk?”

“Are you going to lock the door again if I don’t?”

Lytha smiled and said nothing as she pushed the door open with her hip. She carried a silver platter with some fruit, bread, and cheese on it, and held a wine bottle under the crook of one arm. Walking toward a table near where Tiane sat, she bent over, blew away some dust, and set the tray down. She placed the bottle next to the tray, then removed a pair of small tin cups from a pocket. All the while, Tiane eyed the door, wondering if she should flee. But Garyl had only told her not to admit her own part in the fire—he had said nothing to indicate that she was in any sort of danger at the academy, even if Lytha did figure out her part in the disaster. Thus, instead of moving toward the door she instead pulled her chair to the table and picked up a piece of bread.

“This is for me, right?” she asked.

“For us, yes,” Lytha said. She took a stool from the corner of the room, placed it by the table, and sat down herself. She waved a hand over the wine bottle, and Tiane heard a pop as the cork seemingly disappeared. Lytha poured a small amount of wine for Tiane, then a slightly larger amount for herself.

Tiane bit into her bread and found it to be warm and fresh—just recently made, as opposed to the almost stale bread that the academy usually served with its meals. “Why are you keeping me in here?” she asked after she had chewed and swallowed her first bite.

“You know about the fire in the hedge maze, yes?”

“I…” Tiane’s mind raced as she tried to figure out how much of the truth was safe for her to tell. “I heard about it, yes.”

“As you might imagine, it’s made for a hectic few hours here. Somebody was injured in the fire, so the entire school is on lockdown until we figure out how it started.”

“Somebody got hurt? Was it Garyl?”

Lytha gave Tiane a strange look and took a sip of her wine before answering. “How did you know?” she asked in a tone that was noticeable devoid of surprise.

It took effort for Tiane to conceal the wince that she almost felt come over her. Stupid Garyl, she thought. Next time give me some real instructions before you almost get yourself killed. The fact that she had been the one to injure him seemed irrelevant at the moment.

“Who else would run into a fire instead of away from it?” Tiane asked. She almost laughed, then decided that was overcompensating and stuffed a piece of cheese into her mouth.

Lytha, on the other hand did laugh—a short, sad chuckle. “Yes, who else? He does have a knack for getting himself in trouble, doesn’t he? But don’t worry—he’s fine. But I need to ask you, and you need to tell me truthfully: did you have anything to do with the fire?”

“No.” Tiane decided to keep her lies short and matter-of-fact, hoping that would shield her.

Lytha piecked up a small red berry, examined it briefly, and popped it into her mouth. “You know the students were in class at the time, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Tiane said.

“The faculty and staff are all accounted for. I made each of those hires personally, and I trust them.”

“Okay.”

“Garyl was with me when the fire started. He only left my side after the blaze had already ignited and almost consumed the entire maze.”

“I know.”

Lytha paused and took another sip of wine. “How do you know that?”

Unable to come up with a convincing lie on such short notice, Tiane instead grabbed a large piece of bread and shoved it into her mouth.

“My point, Tiane,” continued Lytha, “is that the only person who remains unaccounted during the time that the fire began was you.”

Tiane shrugged helplessly.

“That’s why you’re under scrutiny right now,” Lytha continued. “I took you in on Garyl’s behalf, but recent events suggest that you may be more of a danger than any of the three of us realized.”

“How would I even start a fire?” Tiane asked. “I don’t know how to use a flint properly and I can’t use magic.”

“Can’t you?” Lytha asked.

Tiane’s hand hovered over the food tray, but she decided that appetizers made for a poor shield. “You’ve been drilling me for how long now? If I could, I would have proven myself to you and become a real student at this stupid school.”

Lytha leaned forward and stared into Tiane’s eyes intently, as though she expected something to happen. When nothing did, she sighed and her shoulders sagged.

“This isn’t really your fault,” she said sadly. “It’s an absolute tragedy.”

“What is?” Lytha asked. “The fire?”

“No,” Tiane said. “I’m sorry, my dear.”

Lytha moved her right hand as though to grab an apple off the tray. Tiane watched the motion and didn’t notice Lytha’s left hand move until it was too late. The old woman moved as quick as lightning, sliding a stiletto from a hidden sheath up her sleeve and thrusting its point into Tiane’s temple. The girl never had a chance to defend herself.

But, as it turned out, she didn’t need to.

Lytha shrieked in panic and leapt off the stool as the stiletto shattered in her hand. Tiane began trembling and recalled the emotions she had felt from Garyl when she had delved into his memories—both the intense dread of the monster he couldn’t see but knew to be there and the overpowering fear of death.

I must not die.

“You just made a serious mistake.” The words came from where Tiane was sitting but sounded deeper than her normal voice.

A hand rose into her field of vision, and Tiane couldn’t tell if it was her own or a clawed appendage covered in red dragon scales. The hand glowed, and she smelled the same scent of ash that had preceded the hedge maze fire. This time it was focused on Lytha, who stumbled backward in surprise. The headmistress uttered the incantation to some sort of spell, but the burst of fire that issued forth from Tiane nullified it. For one dazzling moment, Lytha ignited in a halo of flames, her body a burned silhouette at the heart of the fire. Then she fell over, smoke trailing from her robes and skin swollen into reddish blisters from the severe heat.

A sensation of ravenous hunger overtook Tiane, and she only dimly realized that she couldn’t possibly devour Lytha’s charred flesh. Instead, she gave in to her next instinct: escape. She whirled around and charged the stone wall, letting her instincts guide her in something she assumed to be self-destructive. Much to her surprise, the wall gave way, exploding outward as though her slender frame contained the strength of a giant. Stone fell away from the outer wall of the dormitory and Tiane followed. Her feet touched open air, but instead of falling she took flight into the cloudy, wet evening.

Tiane, or Derrezen—or possibly both—were now free.

 

Image: chiplanay

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