Keeper of the Dragon
Chapter 1 – Descend Call
"The Armour belongs to the White Dragon Clan!"
"By what right? Show me the proof! I will not allow you to take away that which belongs to me, that which should belong to me, as you always do!"
"Should belong to you? The Keeper will never come from the Black Dragon Clan, I promise you that!"
"The Oracle will tell it differently!"
"Will he? How can you know? Have you suddenly become a Delphi now? You can predict the future?"
"Oh, don't be a fool! I will be Keeper, in time you'll see!"
Anger clamped down, coals raked over but still glowing orange. Coals ready to spring to life again at the slightest breath of wind, the slightest shred of tinder.
"We shall see."
At this time of the night the wind still blew peaceful and cool, and the slightest sounds echoed loudly. The fluorescent lights seemed to make everything pale. Moths fluttered in dozens around the lights, attracted by them, unable to use them, yet unwilling to leave. The concrete and asphalt, wet but without puddles from the slow rain, cast her distorted reflection balefully back up at the young woman who shuffled across the artificial ground.
No sooner had she slouched down into her seat on the train than she began yanking off jewelry and shoving it in her coat pocket. "I hate this," she muttered to herself, "I hate it." She crossed her legs and jerked her black dress over her knees, glaring hard at the floor. With a jerk and a hiss of pressurized air, the entire vehicle began to vibrate as the driver coerced the tired train into motion.
"Azumi, what is the matter with you?" Her mother sat to her left, her father next to her mother, leaving her free to rest her head against the cold glass of the window. It made her teeth rattle uncomfortably. She straightened. "When you walked up on that stage, you looked angry! Aren't you proud of yourself?"
"I guess." Azumi folded her arms and slouched, trying to bury herself as far back in her seat as possible.
"That didn't sound very convincing." Why that tone of voice? Did the woman think she was a psychic of some kind? How could she possibly believe she knew Azumi's feelings? Parents. She wished she didn't need them.
"Sorry." Azumi combed her fingers through brown hair down around her shoulders.
"Azumi, why aren't you proud of yourself?"
"Why should I be? They give them out every year," she muttered. "What's so special about an honor roll? We've been doing this stuff all my life."
"And there have been less and less people every time, haven't there? This is your last year; there were only a handful of you who made it!" Azumi shrugged in response and kicked a high-heeled foot at the seat in front of her.
Her mother sighed and shook her head. "Azumi, I swear! If you keep thinking like that, you'll never get anywhere in life!"
Azumi said nothing, only rolled dark brown eyes and pulled a tissue from her pocket; she spat upon it and began rubbing at the makeup on her face, streaking her skin red with the effort. "I hate this," she repeated.
"Leave it on, you look nice."
"I look like a clown."
"You're a very pretty young girl."
The train screeched to a halt at the stop. Azumi stalked out, followed closely by her parents. "What are we going to do with you, Azumi?" her mother sighed again.
"Just leave me alone!" I just need some time away from you! She thought with irritation. If I could just get away for a few hours—if you would just stop nagging me for a few minutes, that'd be enough!
Azumi glanced away at a gust of dam wind, and all the noise in the busy street ceased. Azumi shook her head and rubbed at her ears to clear them. Why they would need clearing, she had no idea, but it seemed the most logical thing to do. Her efforts gave her no help. All right, so her ears were fine. There was nothing wrong with her.
Maybe the problem was with everyone else.
Azumi stopped walking as the people around her slowed in their movements until they hung in their poses, feet poised in the air to ascend a staircase or halfway through doors. She glanced at the watch on her wrist. The digital numbers, glowing softly green, displayed a jumble of lines that formed no coherent time. The cold air still moved, though, bringing with it a scent that had never before touched Azumi's nose, a smell that brought to mind an image of wide, open skies that spun clouds across their faces, and a bright and felicitous sun sending its rays skipping across snow cold and clean. That wind brought with it a singing voice, a voice so beautiful it made Azumi's heart ache with longing.
"Win dain…a lotica…"
As soon as it started it ceased, leaving Azumi standing with a distant expression on her face. "Someone is calling me," she whispered. She didn't know why she thought that. But that little display had been for her alone. Even if it had all been in her head, it had been for her. She knew it. "I heard them. They're inviting me. I want to go with them." That happy voice—she wanted to sing like that, without worrying. She wanted to feel the sun on her face, not the constant fog and rain that this season always brought.
"Azumi? What's wrong?" Her mother peered in her face, frowning. "Azumi!" She waved a hand in Azumi's face. "Azumi, are you listening to me?"
"Someone is calling me." Azumi blinked, the echoes of the voice still resounding in her head. Where was it? She wanted to meet the person with such a beautiful laugh. "I have to go! I have to find them! I want to go!" She spun on her heel and ran for the station's doors.
"Azumi!" shouted her father at her back.
"I have to go!"
Azumi shoved her way through the people as fast as she could, ducking down and squeezing through shoulders, slipping past gaps before they could close. Someone is calling me. I have to go. Get somewhere alone, where no one will bother us. Someone is calling me.
Several blocks later, she slowed to a walk. She checked her watch again. 10:47, it read clearly. Now 10:48. But a bit of rainwater had gotten into it, fogging its face, and if she glanced at it sideways, it was easy to mistake the numbers for nonsense. What am I doing? Why would somebody try to call me? What makes me so special? I imagined it, all of it. I must have. She shoved her hands in her coat pockets. What's wrong with me? I should be proud of myself, but I'm not. Whenever someone compliments me, I just get angry. I'm never happy with myself. I make my parents worry. I'm such a terrible person! Why can't I just appreciate what I've got?
I just imagined it. Geez, now I'm even convincing myself that I'm seeing things. I guess I'd better go home. They're going to kill me when I get back. Why had she run off like that? It probably ranked top in the most idiotic things she had ever done. Why did I think that someone was calling me? Even if all that really did happen, who would want to waste their time talking to me?
Azumi sighed, turned, and started home. Night clenched the sun in its hand, the little light that slipped between its fingers coming from the streetlights. Her breath clouded in the air before her, and the wind swept it away. She could see her own reflection in the wet street. Her shoes clicked on the cold sidewalk. Rain still fell, tiny pinpricks, little more than a mist, but enough to keep her head bowed and her eyes narrowed. Or perhaps she did not bow her head for the rain. I wish this wind would stop, she thought to herself. I'm cold.
No. I wish it would pick up. I wish a typhoon would come. I wish the wind would just blow me away. Somewhere far away. If something happened to me, would it even matter? Would anyone even care? I doubt it.
I have to get out of here. I can't take this anymore. I have to get away.
She stopped, pulling her coat tighter around her. Tears stung her eyes. Somebody, I—
She forced herself to lift her gaze to the sky. She knew that the stars hung somewhere behind those clouds. If only she could reach them. "I heard you back there," she sad to the air. "Does that mean you're listening to me? Just give me a sign or something, so I know I'm not going crazy. Somebody hear me. Please, anybody," she whispered.
"Anybody?" questioned a voice. Azumi gasped and whirled around.
The streetlights hummed and blocked out everything beyond their reach with solid, black walls. At the end of the street she could make out a man-shaped figure—if not a man, then at least human-shaped. She had not heard the person come. No one besides herself and that person wandered the sidewalks. "Me?" Azumi asked, pointing at herself. What would he—or was it a she—want with her? But, she did not see anyone else around.
"Why would anyone take notice of you?" The voice sounded so close in her ear, as if the person stood right next to her. "Child, you begged for someone to hear you. How could I ignore such a plea?" The person began to move toward her, but she could hear no footsteps. He didn't disturb the puddles on the street. The wind that tugged at her dress did not touch the concealing, leaf-green cloak that swathed the body and hid the face in shadows. She could put no gender to the voice or the body, but something about the posture and tone of the speaker suggested a man to Azumi. "Why would anyone take notice of you?" he repeated. Now he stood less than an arm's reach away from her. He kept his head bowed, so that she could not see inside his cowl. "What makes you so special, so important, that anyone should care about you?"
How did he know her thoughts?
Azumi backed away. "What do you want?" she asked, her voice soft and wavering. She backed away, and he drew nearer. He laughed, a pleasant, ringing sound. Azumi would swear that she had heard it before.
"You're the one who stopped time back there."
"The time has come for a change on my world," he corrected. "We lack only a catalyst. Therefore, I have chosen you from the Mystic Moon to become the Wing Goddess. Therefore, I seek nothing other than you."
Azumi stopped. "The what? But, I'm not a—what do you mean by goddess? Am I dead?" she wondered. "Did I die? Did a car hit me when I ran away?"
He tilted his chin up, and two almond-shaped eyes glinted down at her from inside the cloak's shadows. "You are quite alive," he told her. "The Wing Goddess is a goddess, so to speak. She will descend and she will change our world."
Azumi pushed her blowing hair back behind her ear. This man frightened her, with all his talk of goddesses and moons—but at the same time, his voice was so kind. Gentle, but persistent. Which was he, then? Trustworthy? Deceiving? How could she tell? Was she actually going to believe a strange man in an alley ranting about goddesses and stars? She couldn't smell alcohol, but he had to be a drunk! "You've got the wrong person," she insisted.
"I do not have the wrong person," he corrected. "There is no wrong person. I choose the right person, and I choose you. I have chosen you from the Mystic Moon to become the Wing Goddess," the man repeated. "You must come to my world. To Gaea. We greatly need your aid."
"You're crazy," Azumi said bluntly. He had to be crazy. Either drunk or crazy. "Prove that you're not lying."
"Prove?" He laughed again. "Do you want to see magic, Wing Goddess? There is no such thing."
Azumi eyed him. What to do? No such thing as magic? Well, of course there was no such thing as magic, but then what was going on now? A hallucination?
He extended a graceful hand to her, palm up in an inviting gesture. "Fade away from this world. Descend to Gaea, Wing Goddess from the Mystic Moon, and make your destiny."
Azumi hesitated, and then reached out to take his hand. What am I doing? He's going to kidnap me and rape me or something! Her arm passed right through him, like trying to catch smoke or grasp fog.
She looked up, and the dark clouds parted like a torn curtain. The stars flared bright in the sky, chasing off the darkness. "Is this a dream?" she whispered to herself. "Or a vision?" Her eyes darted desperately to the man. I'm drugged. He's drugged me somehow. I'm hallucinating. I'm anemic and I fainted!
"Perhaps we will meet in person one day. When the Dragons take you, you will likely see me again. Until then." He bowed his head and dissolved. His body left, but his voice remained, and Azumi could hear soft singing on the wind, in a language unknown to her.
"Win dain…a lotica…"
Azumi looked back to the sky, where the stars shone with a cold, white light as bright as the sun. "No, this is real. Someone heard me," she said softly. "Someone heard me. My wish will come true."
"En vai tu ri…si lota…"
The streetlights exploded, raining down stinging shards of glass with the crackle of electricity. The stars flared even brighter, forcing her gaze down.
"Win dain…a loluca…"
The wind picked up in intensity, howling around her, throwing her hair in her face. Azumi's eyes widened.
I can't breathe!
The light from the sky continued to grow, and Azumi ducked her head and shielded her face with her arms. She could hear the blood roaring in her ears.
"En dragu a…se lain…"
The torn clouds reached down from the sky with misty fingers and curled around her. Enveloped in the light, Azumi rose from the ground gripped in cloud-hands, and all her senses gave way to darkness.
The man folded his hands. "I have called her," he announced.
"Her? You chose a female?" the other asked, surprise in his voice.
"The Wing Goddess has come?"
The man pushed back the hood and pulled off the concealing cloak. Silvery-white hair swept back behind pointed ears and fell in waves down his back. The light sparkled in calm, clear blue eyes. He folded the light cloak neatly and draped it over his arm. "I do believe I frightened her," he sighed. "Though it probably wouldn't have been any easier if she had seen my face." He glided across the leaf-colored, marble floor carved with the images of flowering vines, fingering the green, folding fan held in the green sash around his waist. "Remember, now, that I cannot tell you where she alighted. You'll have to find her for yourself."
"I know. I'll find her. I'll find her if I have to tear apart half of Gaia," the other assured.
The man held up a restraining hand. "Don't let yourself get carried away. Would you truly sacrifice half of Gaia for the Wing Goddess? Truly? You're far too reckless."
"I didn't mean it literally. Don't start lecturing me!"
"You should show more respect when you speak to a Keeper," the man warned. "You'll find that they're not all as mild as me."
"Hmph!" The other folded his arms and tossed back black bangs, through they fell right back into sun-bronzed skin and brown eyes. "I'll be on your level soon enough."
"What did the Oracle tell you?"
"That the time is right for us to choose a Keeper of the Dragon. You know that already."
"Aside from that."
"Only what I already knew; that the Wing Goddess will choose the next Keeper of the Dragon—that his arrival will change all of Gaea."
"Her arrival," the man corrected.
"Her, her!" the other cried in exasperation, "I expected a man! I just have to get to her before Brisingamen does."
"Even if you do, you still may not be chosen."
"Really?" The other looked amused. "Leave that part to me. Can you tell me anything about where she alighted?"
The man shook his head. "I do not know where she landed. The Erinyes guard the Call. I brought her here; I can do no more than that."
"All right, then." The other reached back to touch the sword-hilt that jutted over his shoulder. "But I don't expect to fail."
Even when her feet touched the ground once again, the wind swirling around Azumi did not lessen. Instead, snow joined it, pouring from the sky, clinging to her hair and clothes. What's all this? I'm not dressed for snow! She shivered, hugging herself as she walked. She could not see anything besides the whirling white. That's not any reason to give up, she reminded herself. Oh, who am I kidding? I can see about as far as I can spit! There's no way I can get out of this one! She sank to her knees in the snow. I guess I got what I wished for. Her hands and feet had gone so cold they ached. So quickly!
She closed her eyes. I wonder how long it'll take?
The snow began to build up around her. She slumped to her side in the white drifts. She hardly noticed as, slowly, it buried her.
Voices. "Stop!" one commanded, "I see something ahead of us!"
"What is it?"
"I don't know."
Someone brushed the snow from atop her and rolled her onto her back.
"It's a woman!"
A high, female voice joined the first two male. "Strange clothes," she observed.
"We can't just leave her here," the second voice interjected.
"She's dead, or dying," the first observed. A warm hand closed around her wrist.
"Not yet," the second announced. The third broke in again.
"She's wearin' strange clothes."
"I heard you," the first answered. "Where do you think she came from?"
"I got no idea," the third replied, "but I'm not gonna be th' one carryin' her. You do it, Riyad."
Azumi, numb, tried to open her eyes, but they seemed frozen shut. "Help me," she murmured. At least, she thought she did. She did not know if she could trust her ears.
"She said somethin'!"
Arms lifted her from the snow. Something soft and warm settled over her.
"Why didn't she just go ta th' guild-home? It's right down th' road. We're not that scary!"
"I didn't think we were scary at all," the second said to himself.
"She's obviously a stranger," the first voice said.
"She's strange, all right," the female voice agreed.
"Journeyman!" The second voice took on a pleading tone. "That's mean!"
"Oh, come on!" the female argued, "she can't hear me!"
"Open the door," the first voice ordered.
Warmth and light flooded over Azumi. She faintly felt herself laid down upon something soft.
"Look at her, she's gone white."
"Her clothes are soaked."
"All right, I'll take it from here," the female voice spoke up. "Riyad, go find her somethin' dry ta wear. Leland—well, I guess I can't really order ya around, can I? But go away anyway, unless ya wanna watch me get these wet clothes off of her."
"I didn't think so!" A door slammed. "Don't worry, Lil' Missy," the third voice told her, "we'll take care o' ya."