Dragons at Twilight

Chapter One

Sacrifice

The audience chamber was filled with people, all craning their necks to get a better look at us. We were the virgins, all dressed in long white gowns, and with flowers wreathed in our hair. Of the six, only I was in chains and shackles. The other five were from the city and surrounding countryside, and they were willingly presenting themselves to be sacrificed.

They tried to explain that it was a great honor, and service to their home and country. I could only laugh at their foolishness. What honor is there in being fed to a hungry dragon?

I'd spent two months in the confines of the walled city, and much of that time was spent in the highest tower of Castle Volterror – formerly Kellan Castle. It was where we were sequestered, to make sure we remained unsullied. It was also where it would be nearly impossible to rescue us. It was there, in our large prison room, where I got to know the women who volunteered to be eaten by the dragon.

In the months leading up to this ceremony, they'd patiently explained as if speaking to a child, how it was a great privilege to be chosen. I was informed that it would bring great honor to my family and name. And I was regaled with romantic notions of how my sacrifice would save the hundreds, if not thousands of villagers, both in and around the citadel. Babies and small children could rest secure, knowing that an angel with my face had kept them safe.

It was all ridiculous nonsense! I'd tried again and again to remind them that I had not volunteered, and that I was not of their city or the surrounding countryside. They smiled benignly, and reminded me that it was their law that any virgin within the city who met their requirements, must comply and submit themselves. They didn't want to hear how in the past five years they'd lost sixty young virgins, to the point their numbers had dwindled to the five of them plus me.

It wasn't just virginity the law required; it was much more specific than that. Said virgin must be seventeen years of age, and on the cusp of her eighteenth. She must have eyes the color of a deer's and hair the color of fresh turned earth in its untreated state. She must be free of disease or defect, and be strong of constitution. And she must be unmarried and not promised.

I was all of those things. But I had never heard of the edict. I came with traders from a place most of those simple people had never heard of, on the mainland. Only Alyss the Seer had heard of my people. But she couldn't help me now.

I was first captured, then taken before the regent and his warlock as soon as it was suspected that I might possibly meet the requirements of the edict. I was dragged before them, held roughly in the hands of two men at arms. They looked as if they could tear me to pieces, and would delight in the opportunity. I heard their names spoken in fear and awe as they passed through the streets with my struggling form. Fealecks and D'Mitrey were more than capable of carrying me, when I tripped over my initiate robes, or the cobblestones of the street.

In a secret meeting, I was brought before them, and I faced down the pale one where he hid in the recesses of his voluminous robes. I knew his kind by his smell alone. He was a leech – the most foul and evil among those of us who used magic. Leeches drained the magic and life from the people, animals, and plants around them. This unnatural stolen power showed first in the washed out whiteness of their skin and hair, and their terrible red eyes. The most powerful could walk into a vibrant forest and walk out leaving a desert behind them. The one named Kai'as was powerful, but he was nowhere near as powerful as some I'd heard about..

Before I could even confront them for taking me against my will, I was forced to kneel before them. My arms were held and I was made to press my face to the stone floor. I felt his booted foot resting casually on my head as they laughed. I knew without a doubt they could kill me at a whim.

They consulted so loud, I knew I was intended to hear. "She fits all the requirements, I think we should present her to the dragon for the next feeding." The voice belonged to the magistrate.

"No! It must be the Seer. By the following feeding, she will be too old." I quickly learned to recognize the imperious tones of the leech.

"Does the Seer really need to be sacrificed? She has an enchanting ability, and she's such a pretty young thing. I could take her as my concubine; why couldn't she join us? Let this one be eaten, for she is not even one of us." The magistrate sounded spoiled, whining his request to the warlock who was beneath him in station.

"The Seer is my enemy. She can never be one of us, nor can this one. They must die, and by dying they will appease the dragon. Do you have a better plan of feeding the beast?" he snarled. I couldn't see the magistrate, but I imagined his head shake. "I didn't think so."

With the tip of his soft boot beneath my chin, Kai'as lifted my face. "Take her to the tower. But first, strip her completely of everything she owns. Do not miss a thing, I warn you, even the pins in her hair can be used against us. Make sure she's bathed and deloused," he sneered. "Burn her clothes, and set everything else aside for my inspection."

I was yanked to my feet, and manhandled through the castle.

"We get to see her naked!" Fealecks chortled. "It's a good thing they don't know that the girls come to us as virgins, but they don't always leave that way."

"Will you shut up!" D'Mitrey seemed a little more respectful, though he held my arm so tightly I knew I'd be wearing bruises to match his fingers.

"You remember that pretty one two months ago? You can't tell me a dragon can tell the difference between a virgin and a whore. Such a waste to send them off untried. I'm going to have me a sample of this sweet little thing if the bathing chamber is empty. I'll even watch the door for you, if you want a go on her too."

As we entered the bathing chamber, Fealecks reached out his free hand, and made himself too familiar with my womanly parts. I spoke one word and he began to scream.

"What have you done? My hand! Make it stop! Make it stop now!" He let go of me to try to wipe the magical sparkle from his hand. It caught the light and sent shards of glittering brightness dancing around the room in prismatic colors..

As I laughed, D'Mitrey quickly twisted my arms behind my back and held me against him. He gripped my chin in his strong hand, and his low voice threatened: "I will snap your pretty little neck in an instant if you don't stop immediately, witch!"

"I can't stop it, it has to wear off." He slid both hands around my neck and began to squeeze. "It only lasts a quarter hour." I gasped. "It's harmless."

I lost consciousness, and woke up on the stone floor. My head was pillowed on something soft, and I could hear water trickling. I smelled the fuel used to heat the water. There was a conglomeration of scented perfumes and oils wafting through the room on various air currents.

"See, I didn't kill her. She'll be fine except for the bruises, and she's got at least a month for those to heal." D'Mitrey looked nervous.

"I'll be the judge of her condition." The voice was musical and female. I opened my eyes to a sight that terrified me. It was another leech, young and pretty, and more dangerous than a pit of vipers. She stood and faced D'Mitrey, looking up as she was over a foot shorter than he was. "How dare you attack a virgin destined for the dragon?" A small smile twisted her lips, and D'Mitrey screamed. I heard the sickening sounds of bones breaking, and watched him collapse to the floor. His eyes stared my way from where he lay, still living, but badly broken.

"And you..." She approached Fealecks with small steps, as he backed away in terror and revulsion. "...do you think me a fool? I know that you violated two of our virgin sacrifices on the eve of their glorious demise. Dragons know the difference between a virgin and a sullied woman. They are magical creatures – and you are a fool!"

I could only see them from the corner of my eye, but what I saw made me know D'Mitrey had received the more lenient punishment. She reached out, and against his will, Fealecks placed his head within her hands like a child's ball. He was bent in a bow as she held him, and she brought her pale lips to his as if to kiss him, but hers was a kiss of draining. I watched years, decades of life, sucked right out of him as if he were aging before my eyes. When she released him, he was a feeble old man. He collapsed under the weight of his armor.

"Help me, Jain..." D'Mitrey obviously didn't see what she'd just done to his friend. He was still crumpled where he'd fallen. His unbroken hand was raised in supplication. "I beg you, be merciful." With a sneer, she stepped on his hand as she walked past. Even as he screamed, she came to me.

"Get up, witch!" She narrowed her red eyes at me, and I struggled to my feet, knowing I'd find no help from that one. "Don't look so horrified, I saved you from being ravished. Now take off your clothes, and put them in a pile right there." She pointed to a spot near her foot. I glanced at D'Mitrey and Fealecks, both of whom could easily see me, and her lips pressed into a thin line. "Don't worry about them. They may indeed see you naked, but they won't be laying hands on anyone for a very long time. You'll be dead before this one can even stand again. And that one will never threaten a woman again. Undress!" Her order moved me.

I hated losing my initiate robes. The soft gray wool was the first sign of acceptance in the order of the Kwill Utte. It was an honor to wear them, and I had looked forward to the day when I'd wear the silver trim of second tier. I fixed my eyes on the growing pile, as I added my goatskin boots and my undergarments. On a nearby table she instructed me to place everything else. A silver chain holding a locket with my mother's hair, and a signet ring my father gave me, were both hard for me to part with. I had a bracelet reminding me of the six laws of magic, and two rings I'd received from childhood friends before I'd gone on to study magic..

I also had a belt, with two pouches of spell components, and Jain took them as soon as they were away from my body. She was disappointed to the point of anger, as she flung the ingredients across the floor. I was a sorceress of the flame, and we practiced a different magic than she did. Leeches wielded great power, but it came with a great cost.

My magic was more subtle. I had only learned the most basic spells of memory. As an initiate, I'd only just learned to release the memory of life from the cast off items of man and nature, found all around us. Eagle feathers could give us flight, snake skin could protect us, and bits of bone made us stronger. Memories held power; it was the second law of magic, and the only spells I had learned were of memory.

At the reminder of our differences, Jain tore through my hair with a vengeance, pulling several pins out of the mass of tangles and curls. "Get in the bath." She pointed to a deep pool, of water that steamed As I waded into the most luxurious indulgence I'd ever known, she set my clothes on fire.

I was scrubbed, my hair was washed, and every part of me was soaped by an attendant. Jain watched over me, but she was loathe to touch me. When I emerged I was dried and dressed in white. The attendant went to work on my hair, and I was perfumed and powdered to the point I thought I would be ill. When I was cleaner than I had ever been since my birth, I was lead away from the leech and her destruction.

The tower was where I spent nearly two months of my life. There were six already there, and I made seven. Alyss immediately came to my side and in hours – minutes even – we were friends. She took my hand and lead me to a place where we could talk.

Sitting all too comfortably on mattresses laid out for our sleeping and ease, we began to speak of deep and troubling plans and portents.

"I've been both dreading and dreaming of our meeting for two years. I knew you would come. You are the one from the prophesy." I stared at her blankly.

"I'm barely an initiate. I'm a novice with a few tricks up my sleeves, but look..." I indicated the dress I wore, which was sleeveless. "...no sleeves. They took all I had. I can't possibly save this city from the leeches."

She looked at me in confusion. "It's not the leeches you're supposed to save us from – it's the dragons!" Her face fell, and two tears escaped her eyes. "Alas, I will be taken before that glorious day."

"If you can see the future, why didn't you save yourself? You should have known they'd come for you."

She smiled sadly. "I knew. I have been hiding among them for so long, waiting for you. I knew you would need me and what I can tell you, so I volunteered. I turn eighteen at the next full moon. I'm next. This coming feeding, the dragon comes for me." I held her tiny frame as she wept bitterly against me. "I don't want to die." she sniffled.

We talked way into the night, and Alyss told me of prophesy and history and the very nature of dragons. The other five girls were afraid of Alyss, and they left us alone while they braided one another's hair and spent time at needlework.

As Alyss' story lulled, I got up and asked the other girls if they could perhaps make me a couple drawstring pouches of silk. One sweet girl who introduced herself as An J'la eagerly accepted the challenge. In the morning she presented me with three well made silk purses, sewn with stitches so tiny, even the smallest of my spell components would not seep out.

I then went about collecting the cast offs of my sacrificial sisters. Hair from their brushes, nail clippings, and even the distasteful menstrual blood, tied up in rags, which I wrapped in parchment and sealed with wax. Jain was right, dragons were magical, and there were aspects of virginity which were magical as well.

I only had three weeks to learn all Alyss could teach me. The day before the dragon's feeding, I did my utmost to cast a spell. I knew the basics, and I used what I found on hand. With a sewing needle, I pricked my finger and added my own blood to the talisman I made for her. With luck it would protect her from being eaten by the dragon. She tied it into her white gown and dutifully we all dressed in white and had flowers woven into our hair.

It was my first experience with the audience chamber. Seven of us lined up as the regent Markus made a weak show of deciding which of us would receive the honor of being fed, alive and screaming to a dragon. He tried to look as if he were wisely considering each of our fitness for the dubious honor, but to me he looked bored. His glazed eyes passed over me, and I realized with a start he wasn't bored, he was drugged.

It was no surprise to me that he chose Alyss, though three of the girls screamed, and several ladies in the front row of the audience swooned. I shot a look her way, wishing that I could hold her and comfort her in her distress, but instead I took advantage of the distraction and slipped away.

Alyss had made me memorize the layout of the castle, and I ran to the only place where I could find help – the library. In the dark room, I tried to put it out of my mind that the best friend I'd ever had was about to become dragon food if my talisman failed. I searched the shelves, trying to let my innate magical sense guide me. Deep in the recesses of the shelves I found what I was looking for. It was a tome of immense proportions – prophesy through the ages. I ducked back into the darkest recess of the library and strained my eyes to read the ancient text.

It took a while to find what I was looking for, and I occasionally heard the noise of the castle guards as they searched for me. I hurriedly read the section pertaining to this time and dragons. What I read made me tremble with fear. It spoke of a dragon invasion which would tear apart the world of man. It spoke of evil magic and a great bird which was the only hope of a doomed people.

Perhaps it was only my imagination, but at that moment, I could swear I heard Alyss scream. I felt a great heartbreak, and knew she was gone.

I closed the book after memorizing the passage, and went in search of some kind of magic I could use to escape.. I thought I saw a magical scroll closer to the door. Alas it was that hope which doomed me. Not only did the scroll in question set off a shrieking alarm, but I was too close to the door to hide. I was captured in seconds, and for the second time I was presented to the leeches.