“Come with me,” Karawyn ordered, grabbing Emily’s arm and dragging her behind as she marched down the palace halls. For a fleeting moment, Emily was reminded of the last time Karawyn had dragged her through these grounds, nearly breaking her arm, as the Elf Queen submitted to magical orders.
“Where are we going?” Emily pulled her arm free and hurried to keep up.
“You’re getting dressed, properly, and we’re going to pay someone a long due visit.”
Two servants pulled open Karawyn’s chamber doors as she slipped between. Inside several elven attendants waited. One held a long gown made of shimmery pale blue velvet.
“Who?” Emily eyed the attendants with a frown.
“Don’t worry about that right now.” Karawyn nodded to the attendants who then began undressing Emily.
“Hey!” Emily complained as one unbuttoned her top and another attacked her sneakers, pulling them off as Emily’s balanced jostled. “Why do I have to wear…this?” She scowled at the heavy gown before her eyes grew wide when her bra was slipped off. Cheeks burning, she covered her chest with her arms. Karawyn sat on a bench, wearing her normal bored expression.
“Because it’s a formal visit we’re making. Your human rags would be offensive.”
“Rags?” Emily repeated, but the word was muffled as the dress slipped over her head. Her arms were pulled through the sleeves, ending in delicate silver embellishments just past her wrists. The same design spanned the wide neck of the gown that rested just off her shoulders and clung tightly to her torso when buttoned. Across her chest, the Star and Leafless Tree were stitched with similar, beautiful skill.
Once she was dressed, the attendants pulled her hair from its messy ponytail and with quick, nimble fingers began brushing and pulling the sides back into small braids, letting the rest fall across her shoulders. When they were done, Emily glanced at her reflection in the mirror and thought she looked like one of those girls who visited comic book conventions dressed up as a character. Only she was real. Shaking her head, she turned to Karawyn.
“So what’s the rush?”
Karawyn stood up and left the room, Emily swishing after her in the long skirt. As soon as her feet hit the stone floor, she frowned, having not realized the attendants had also placed and tied knee-high boots on her feet.
“This is our only real opportunity for now to make this visit.” Karawyn rushed down the winding staircase with an innate grace that Emily couldn't help noticing every time she moved.
“Why?” Emily grew agitated at Karawyn’s coyness—she was normally so abrupt—as she gathered up her skirts to follow, hoping to not fall.
With a heavy sigh, Karawyn stopped and faced her. “Because Aerath would not approve where we are going. He would insist on coming, too, and quite frankly, his presence would do more harm than good. So while he and Aelrah are out in the flatlands, we’re latching on to the opportune moment. I’m perfectly capable of defending us, myself.”
She resumed her trek, pausing at the door only long enough to let another attendant secure a long, hooded cloak around her neck. He slipped a similar one around Emily’s shoulders, its color a blue darker than midnight.
Once they were both astride horses, accompanied by a dozen guards clopping across cobbles before crossing a stone bridge, Emily asked, “Defend against what?”
Far away from the mountain hold of the palace, the horses seemed to fly, covering miles of ground at lightning speeds. Emily had long ago grown accustomed to riding Arèthane horses; elegant beasts that seemed as fast and enchanted as their elven owners.
She knew why Karawyn brought her along. Emily suspected the Elf Queen wanted to distract her from thoughts of Jarrad. To probably distract herself from thoughts of Jarrad. The time the Elders had decreed for his punishment had come and gone. And still no Jarrad.
Distractions were welcomed.
Don't break down, don't break down, don't break down.
Emily glanced at the stony expressions of the elf riders within their group, untouced by emotion. With a deep breath, she pushed the threat of tears back and continued on.
With the current climate of the land, the threat of Jabari’s army, and the burning villages, Emily worried for their safety as they traveled. But the group seemed to move like the wind, slipping through forests and across meadows undetected. They slowed only once the ground grew rockier, the horizon broken up by the large bodies of sharp, craggy mountains. The air turned colder, her breath visible in small puffs. Yet her cloak kept her warm without weighing her down. More elfish magic.
The group found a path, small and threatening, leading along the side of a giant of a mountain. Raising her face to the sky, Emily could not see its apex, hidden high above by clouds and its own height. The sun had begun its afternoon descent and blazed its rays around the mountain’s side. Squinting, Emily faced forward again, her grip tightening on the reins. The path curved more sharply to their right, disappearing before a far off horizon. And to her left solid ground stood miles away. Her stomach in knots, Emily squeezed the horse with her legs and fought the urge to bury her face in his neck.
After what felt like a lifetime on the dangerous precipice, the path finally ended at a wide leveled off space. There, what looked like the façade of a gothic castle had been cut out of the mountain within the opening of a giant cave. Large stone doors were guarded on either side by men dressed in black leather, their faces covered by masks. Each held a tall staff that had blades of fire on the end. Something about them struck Emily as odd, something not quite right, but she didn’t want to get caught staring at them.
There was room on the portico for their entire group and the horses to fit. They all dismounted with Karawyn leading the group to the entry. One guard spoke.
“Welcome, Elf Queen. What business do you seek of the Drakyth?”
“I wish to speak with Käärme,” Karawyn answered as she lowered her hood. With the slightest of movements, she motioned for Emily to stand at her right. Emily complied, lowering her own hood. A fierce wind whipped her and Karawyn’s cloaks against their bodies, threatening to knock Emily off her feet. It burned against her cheeks and brought tears to her eyes.
The guard’s gaze flickered over her and there she saw what she had not noticed before—what had seemed off about them. Both had cat-like eyes; pupils long slits and irises that glowed bright yellow.
“You two may enter, but the rest may not.” The guard nodded at the elf entourage. The lead stepped forward and opened his mouth to speak, but Karawyn raised her hand, stopping him.
“Fine,” she agreed.
Stepping aside, the two guards drew the doors open, a slow process to move the heavy structures. Behind them only darkness stood. Though wary, Emily followed Karawyn in.
They found themselves inside a great hall, as though inside the mountain had been hollowed out. The roof was so high it hid in shadow, the walls the same. They walked out on a stone bridge surrounded by a black void and before them a stone throne sat empty, guarded with two black-haired, pale-skinned young girls dressed in more black leather.
Halfway across the bridge, Karawyn stopped. Emily frowned, wondering who or what they were waiting for. But then she heard the deep whoosh above them, the shadows darkened by an even blacker shape until it swooped down before them, large leathery wings flapping. Its cat-like eyes glowed yellow in the dark, sharp teeth gleaming as it hovered above.
On a breath, Emily whispered, "A dragon."
An odd crackling noise echoed off the walls. Before Emily could react, she heard a pop and then fire exploded from the beast's mouth. Certain they were both dead, Emily cringed facing away as all around her vision was enveloped in flames.
When she realized she wasn't burning and not in pain, Emily looked forward to see Karawyn with one hand raised, creating an invisible wall to protect them from the blaze.
Then the fire died and the dragon dropped to the bridge, transforming in the process and as soon as he touched the ground, there was no longer a dragon, but a man. Tall and pale with raven black hair his fierce beauty was punctuated by the yellow, cat eyes.
He was also naked.
"Woah." Emily put up her hand to block the parts she felt inappropriate to see.
One of the girls hurried to him, following as he marched toward Karawyn and Emily. She tossed a long black robe around his shoulders that he further secured.
"Impressive, Sorceress Elf Queen," he said with a deep, hard voice.