The flame in Naida's palm flickered against the mist. The fire provided light on the path and served as the embodiment of her whim. Mist tore small wisps of black smoke from the flame. She used the other half of Geldbane's gift to urge the cool murk away. The haze served as a dire warning. She walked the familiar trail between the two forests; Each were home to a fearsome dragon.
A dream from the night before had led her there. It brought a clear message; Someone needed her help in the forest clearing ahead. In a trance, they had wandered into the trees. That trespass would mean death.
Naida halted. A faint shuffle burned in her ears. The sound of leather creaked, plates of metal shifted against one another. Darkness closed around her slowly. She realized she had only heard the sound of her own armor against her body. In her distraction, the forest devoured her guiding flame.
This is foolish. Naida turned to head back to Eswin against obligation nagging her to continue.
Naida tensed. A form appeared amongst the mist. Naida and the figure stood still, mutually frozen. She reached for the hilt of her sword. No time for doubt.
"Who goes there?" The figure's familiar tones of the Gelban accent synchronized with the sound of his sword being drawn. She rested her left hand firmly on the hilt of her sword and shifted her weight. She checked the blade in the scabbard and drew a thumb against the dulled backside of her blade. She inverted her grip on the sword. No one needs to die today. Her instinct kept her calm, soothed her, and guided her.
"Answer me. Are you alone?" The man said. Fear and inexperience lurked in his voice. His outline came into view. He was armored, but lacked a helmet.
Naida said nothing and held her ground. The mist thickened between them as he approached.
"This is my last warning." Bravado came to his voice. "You will tell me your intent right this instant or you will be taken into the custody of—"
Naida closed the gap between them quickly and drove a swift boot to his abdomen. He doubled over with a gasp. She drew her sword and twirled it into a proper grip. She struck him with a controlled overhead swat and knocked him unconscious.
Naida stepped forward slowly. Azure colored light plate covered his body. A steel emblem on his back was emblazoned with two dragons facing one another, one azure and one emerald.
His armor was only worn by royal guards. He was probably a scout.
It had been ages since she had seen the azure armor; Barton had only worn his for show.
Naida clicked her tongue and sheathed her sword. A high pitched whistle pierced the air. She turned the scout over carefully. A reed whistle was secured to the front of his armor. She tentatively reached for it, but was startled by a second whistle. This one more urgent.
Naida didn't typically question her instincts, but attacking this man was foolish. The royal guard would not be this far north unless there were serious matters afoot; she had just put herself on the wrong side them.
Metal plates clanked in the distance. She turned away and ran. Her mind raced. She tried to remember royal protocols she had heard Barton ramble on about. Alas, none of them had stuck.
Naida tightened her stomach and leveled her breathing. She couldn't assume they were armored to match the scout; some of them may have been faster.
Against her will, memories traced the images of eleven dead men on the ground. Blood oozed from fresh wounds on eleven bodies clad in Azure armor. She tried to blink them away but they only wavered.
The hazy image of three Dendargian Honor-Bounds appeared next to them, their blades stained with lifeblood. They stood as silent phantoms with calm cold eyes. They stared at her in quiet anticipation as she ran down the forest path.
Ignore them. Memories cannot hurt me.
The walking nightmare served as a reminder of what she was up against; there would be twelve men in the unit. The vision did nothing to slow her. She had faith in her knowledge and footing; every patch of dirt familiar to her.
A figure stood in the fog ahead. He wore black silk that blades could not pierce. Those cold, brown eyes stared over a black cowl around his face. Like any Dendargian, he had rich brown skin and stood tall and rigid. Naida knew this man well. Any Gelban worth his salt knew of the Desert Scorpion, the man who ended Barton's life.
She left her sword in her sheath, she knew the vision was false. This was a memory, not her own, a phantom of the past.
"It only takes one man to end a war," the phantom said, "You are not that man, Barton."
The phantom held his blade ready, made of red steel further stained by Barton's blood.
Memories cannot hurt me. Ignore him.
But they did hurt. She had been forced to watch every strike that broke through Barton defenses. She felt his helplessness against the Dendargian hero. In the nightmare, Naida watched the scene through Barton's eyes. The memory ended when his life came to a close.
Naida's teeth ground together as she pushed forward. Inches from collision her instinct screamed; This was no phantom. She conquered doubt and shifted into a sudden strafe. She remembered why she had come to the forest in the first place. Gripped by instinct, she grabbed the stranger and shoved him to the brush at the trail's side.
Hard impact atop the stranger sobered her, only then realizing what she had done. The man winced; she had knocked the wind from him. She turned and considered running but the scout's fellows were too close. Naida covered his mouth and glared down at him.
She drew a thumb across her throat. He nodded as he got the message.
She rolled off him and went still. Her fatigue caught up with her; she desperately drew in the mist choked air. The soldiers' heavy footfalls came and thundered near her but the mists hid them. Their hurried movement only served to thicken cover around Naida and the stranger when mist parted from the main path.
The path fell to silence and the dragon's mist rolled back into place.
Naida felt drained. She never imagined she would stoke the ire of the royal guard; at least she hadn't been spotted. She had hoped to see Barton there, waiting for her with open arms in the clearing. But that would never happen; dead men did not walk.
Naida sat up in a daze. She idly picked burrs and other debris that hid amongst her brown hair. She brought herself to a stand, checked her blade in her scabbard and aimed a wary stare to her charge.
The man behind her seemed transfixed on the path. He stared where the knights had vanished, realization dwindled on his expression.
"Wait... Did you just save me? Who were those men?" he spoke, his voice distant.
"I'm not sure," Naida said, "I might have."
"I'm Derrek," he said, pushing himself to stand. "Thanks, I guess."
"Naida." She wrestled with a growing sense of irritation inside her. "We shouldn't tarry; we need to move."
Naida started to walk in the direction of Eswin. The royal guard would only be distracted for a short time and they had trespassed in the dragon's forest.
She found it odd that the two dragons served as Geldbane's protectors; they were a glorified menace. To her they were two overgrown lizards that lorded over a forest that would be better suited as a supply of valuable lumber and game.
She had never laid eyes on either of the dragons that patrolled the great forests. Choking mists, remnants of animal offerings, and deafening cries served the proof of their existence.
"Where are you going?" Derrek said, she could hear his footsteps drawing closer. "Who were those men?!"
She ignored him and kept her pace. She adjusted her hair; strands of her brown locks had come free. She felt the need to check her blade again. Still secure, as it always was.
She had come clad in the armor Barton had given to her. He swore by the combination of simple leather, well forged chain mail at the joints and simple plates of steel to cover her shoulders and sternum. When she first laid eyes on it she thought it piecemeal and gaudy. Now she couldn't imagine wearing anything else.
They headed to Eswin, the place she called home. There waited her mundane existence as a glorified bodyguard for children and the elderly.
Naida did not look forward to her return. She would endure maddening looks of pity in her time of sensitivity. At the very least, this madness seemed an escape from that peaceful prison. She had no real reason to stay; Eswin was safe enough. They had the genius general Brenner Doldruth to watch over them. He was long retired but still sharp and reliable.
Naida had no desire to run off and join the military, despite her reverence for her nation. She heard Barton's name enough in the village. He was the fallen hero of Geldbane. To Naida he was a mentor. She clutched a fist against her chest. More than that...
"Hey, can you slow down a second?" Derrek's voice seemed close. "I just need to--"
Naida's body reacted. With her hand already in position, she drew her blade the moment she felt the sheath shake. She held the blade inches from his neck. A length of steel was ready to kill. Ready to avenge Barton.
"Try it again, I dare you." Naida said, her voice icy. Realization and horror came to her. The man was a Dendargian. The phantoms had only lied in part.
"Try what?" Derrek's eyes widened, so unlike the calm reserved eyes of the Desert Scorpion. But they were the same brown eyes, the same curled hair and the same brown skin that she had seen in her nightmares.
"To steal my sword," Naida said. He dressed oddly, clad in a material that shined like armor but was thin like silk. It had been dyed in the greenest shade she had ever seen outside of a plant.
"I didn't... I was just... I just had questions," Derrek said, "I was reaching for you and--"
"You were reaching for me? To do what?" Naida narrowed his eyes at him.
"Good point," Derrek said, "Look, it was stupid but I just... didn't want you to leave."
"What are you doing here?" Naida said. She took in his genuine terror. "Why are you unarmed?"
"Seriously?" Derrek said, "Why the hell would I be carrying a weapon? Can we just throttle this back a bit?"
"Throttle? You have some nerve threatening me." Naida' hand tensed around her blade.
"Not what I meant." Derrek winced. "I'm not here to hurt you, calm down."
"I am calm. If I lacked calm your head would have been rolling already." Naida said. She could count the number of people she had killed on one hand. Every last one of them deserved it. Brigands, murderers and rapists. "Answer me. Where are you from?"
Derrek's expression calmed and it turned into a hesitant smile. "This again...? I'm from here."
"Lying is not going to help your case any. Also if you're going to bother with that, you could make it a convincing one." She searched his eyes. He stayed calm, and maintained eye contact.
"I'm not lying," he said, his voice firm. "I'm just trying to get home."
Naida studied his gaze carefully. She lowered her sword and reluctantly slipped it back in her sheath. "Why? Are you lost?"
"I guess so," Derrek said, he rubbed his throat idly. "If you could help me. I mean... you just saved my life."
"Did I?" Naida made a face. "Are you so sure they were even a threat to you? Perhaps I'm the threat. Did you ever consider that?"
"Well you did threaten me at sword point." Derrek scratched the back of his neck. "But you're one woman, any way you look at it you're less dangerous than a large group of men."
"True, but irrelevant." Naida shook her head. "Do you think it takes a dozen men to take down one man? One blade is enough to end your life. That is all the threat you ever need. You should not discount danger like that. It's going to get you killed."
"What if I'm not afraid of that?" Derrek straightened his face. "It also helps your case that you're giving me advice on how to stay alive. If you were going to hurt me. You'd have done it by now. As far as I'm concerned you're helping me."
Naida winced. She lost her edge, control had shifted. Dendargians were a crafty and fearless lot. He certainly fit the description to a 'T'. Right down to his bland, brusque way of speaking.
"Derrek Graymer," he said.
Naida glanced down; his hand dangled outstretched before him, fingers placed together in a gesture of offering. But he wasn't handing her anything other than his hand.
Naida resisted the urge to go for her blade. Derrek was taller than her, but looked flimsy. She was not afraid of him. She offered her left hand tentatively.
Derrek grabbed her and in one firm motion. She realized he was smiling at her again. His lopsided, calm sort of look seemed a clear attempt to set her at ease. She yanked away her hand but found it no worse for wear.
"There. Now we're not strangers. Since you helped me out, or at least tried to. I figured I could start with my full name."
Naida narrowed her eyes at him. Irritation drove her mood downward. And now he is acting as though we are friends?
"I do not trust, nor know enough about you to tell you mine," her face fall blank. It took a great deal of effort to keep hostility from her voice. He flinched at her words, one she took as a small victory. She turned away in a huff.
"Whoa! Wait I didn't mean to offend you." Derrek started to follow her, she expected as much. "Don't be mad."
"It's fine. I'm not mad," Naida said, a blatant lie. "I'm just not accustomed to seeing your sort this far north. On any other day I would be hard pressed to see one in my lifetime."
"My sort?" Derrek hurried his pace to keep up.
"I'm sure of it. You're definitely not from Norill, and you are not handsome enough to be an Erdaki."
"Ouch," Derrek said, "You're an honest one."
"To a fault." Naida stopped abruptly and glared at him. "You are clearly Dendargian, thus, suspicious. Why are you even here?"
"A what?" Derrek scrunched up his nose. "I've never even heard of a Dendaahgian."
"And now you mock me?" Naida grabbed a fistful of his armor and found herself surprised by its smooth texture.
"Ah... no... I was just." Derrek held up his hands defensively. "I thought that's what you said. So what exactly is a Dendar..."
"Den. Dar. Gi. Ann." She spoke each syllable deliberately and snapped her hand away. "It's what you are. You're a Desert dweller. Do not play games with me."
"British." Derrek rubbed his cheek. He stared at her deliberately as he worked through his thoughts.
"What?" Naida fumed.
"You're British right? I can tell from your accent."
"You are the one with an accent." Naida inhaled sharply. "It is not like I am standing in the middle of a desert, This is my home, not yours. I am not about to tolerate this sort of behavior from a damned Sandie. You do not get the right to tell me how I talk."
"I didn't mean any offense. I'm just trying to make sense of it." Derrek frowned, a twitch of irritation sat on his face. "It's just that if I'm not home... then did I end up in England somehow?"
"You are in Geldbane," Naida brought a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. I've never heard of British or England.
"But you're speaking English." Derrek raised a brow. "What language are you speaking then?"
"What? I'm speaking... words." Naida shook away confusion, "What kind of question in that?"
Derrek stared at her blankly. Control slipped from her fingers again. She tightened her hands into fists.
"Geldbane," Derrek said. He tested the word on his tongue. He appeared at least her age, thus there was no way he could have missed the war. Per Brenner, the population for Dendarg was so small. Nearly all of their fighting aged population had participated. He should have been conscripted as a Honor Bound. Being Gelban, she had no such concerns.
"So where exactly is this Dendargia?" Derrek let out a tired sigh. He spoke in a dry humorless tone, he had the nerve to mock her.
"Dendarg," She wagged a scolding finger at him. "You must be kidd--"
"I'm not." Derrek furrowed his brow. "After what I've seen. I'm hard to surprise. Humor me. I'm not asking much here."
"Fine," Naida rolled her eyes. "Dendarg is a country to the south. Mostly desert. It's also a country we were at war with."
"What?! A war?" Derrek's eyes grew wide. "There hasn't been a major war for--"
Naida silenced him with a look of disbelief. Not easy to surprise indeed.
Uncomfortable silence hung with the fog in the path. Naida drummed her fingers on her arms and considered. That made him a refugee. In that case she had to help him. Brenner would have her head if she turned him away just for being from the desert.
"Just drop it. I am sick of your nonsense." Naida waved him to follow. "I've already helped you this much. I'm not about to stop now. Come on then."
"Where are we going?"
"Eswin." Naida paused, she kept her back to him. "...but let me make one thing perfectly clear. If you cause any trouble for the village: I will kill you."
"You don't need to worry about me." Derrek nodded. "You'll barely know I'm here."
"Good." Naida continued down the path.
Derrek followed her in silence as he milled through his thoughts.
"Say, Naida..." Derrek said, his voice hesitant. "I might be going crazy here, but I think I saw a dragon. And it sort of kil--"
"What?!" Naida rounded on him,
"Forget it, I knew you think I was crazy..."
"You're saying you saw the dragon? Damn it! We need to move, Now." Naida grabbed hold of his hand and pushed to a run.
"Wh...wait. I didn't say I just saw it." Derrek's eyes widened in realization. Derrek wrenched his hand free and slowed to a stop. "Wait. You KNOW about the dragon? I thought that Heebee guy was just a nut job."
Naida slowed to a stop and stared back at him. "Of course I know about the dragon. Both of them. One in each forest. Is it because you're from Dendarg that you don't know that?"
"What the... Where the hell am I?" Derrek shook his head. His eyes fixed on Naida. "This can't be right."
Naida watched him carefully. There was a soothing calm at the heart of her distrust and rage. There was something about this man that pushed her instinct to trust him unconditionally. She knew somehow that he was the one she was fated to meet.
"It is, and we need to keep moving." Naida offered a calm hand. "You can sort things out later. For now, I'm protecting you; whether you like it or not."
Derrek nodded and eyed her outstretched hand. Naida had parroted his gesture. But she understood it now. It was one of peace and understanding. They shook hands, a silent promise that she would see this through, no matter the costs.
Naida would watch over this Dendargian. She would look past petty prejudice. This would be her penance for Barton. She had been helpless to protect Barton when he was hundreds of miles away. However, Derrek stood in front of her and he needed her help. Perhaps this was the meaning of the haunting final detail of her dream. A woman's voice had commanded her. Protect and guide the Destroyer.