here were few places within the Alisa III which were not ravaged by the many wars which had rocked this ship. Aside from Terminus, this was true of no dome more than it was for Landen, which was the site of many of the Devastation War's bloodiest battles. This was not to mention the final, costly battle of Orakio and Laya against Dark Force. And then there was, of course, the twenty year Sari-Lune War.
And yet it was in Landen, of all places, that one could find the most pristine, unmarred remnants of the glory Alisa III had once known. Far to the northwest of Satera rose a proud mountain chain, and high in those mountains grew forests of unmatched beauty. The tall pines rose tall and straight like the emerald-encrusted spears of some ancient god. The mountains were full of animal life, as well, from small song birds to gentle squirrels and rabbits to shy chirpers who let travelers pass without incident.
And in the heights of those mountains sat a lake as clear and still as a flawless silver mirror. There was another grand lake farther into the mountains, on a lower elevation and surrounded by a second, thinner forest. Legends about that lake, and the spirits and creatures that dwelled within it, were legion. But it was the first lake, so cleverly hidden in the folds of the forest and the slim nape of the bluffs, which was the more spectacular, and anonymous, of the two.
It was to that perfect lake that Sari and Thea hiked over the whole course of one day. Thea, understandably, was reluctant to go. She had just arrived at Landen, along with her husband Ayn and his parents, thanks to the mysterious cyborg Frey. The royal party had missed Sean and his group by mere hours, and it was left to Sari to tell Thea where her son had gone -- out to find Orakio's Sword and drive it into the heart of Dark Force. Thea was nearly hysterical at the news. What if something horrible befell Sean? The thought that Thea might lose her second chance with her son before she had a chance to take advantage of it was heartbreaking.
Sari realized quickly that Thea needed to get her mind off of things, at least as much as she possibly could. And so she suggested -- actually, insisted upon -- the trip to the mountain lake. During the journey, Thea told Sari of Frey's origins and his daring rescue of the family. And Sari relayed to her friend the news of her truce with Lune. But despite the joyful news, the trip was a melancholy one.
It took many hours to cross from Landen proper to the distant lake, and it was early evening by the time the two friends reached it. There they planned to camp for the night. Ayn had remained at the castle just in case Sean showed up. But if Sean did not return to Landen by morning, Ayn would be joining the women's camp.
It was early autumn then. Sari and Thea sat on a large boulder that rested on the northern shore of the lake. They watched the gold and crimson leaves fall from the trees and drift across the lake surface. At first, Thea was pensive, quiet. She had no humor left in her. But Sari laughed and sang and recalled the exploits of she and Thea's youth, and in time the Queen of Cille-Shusoran was able to lighten up. Sari and Thea began to joke together and to skip pebbles across the pond. It reminded Thea of the bittersweet afternoons she spent with her father after her mother died, though she didn't speak of it aloud.
Eventually the two friends lapsed into an exchange of legends and fairy stories from their native lands. Thea told Sari a legend her father Lyle had relayed to her; it was about the Dragon Knights and how they saved Shusoran from destruction.
"Did tales of the Dragon Knights ever make their way to Landen?" Thea asked. "I know that Landen forgot about the existence of the other domes long ago, but it was not unheard of for my people to come to this world in secret, to explore, or to learn, or even to live."
Sari took a deep breath of the crisp air and said, "Oh, yes. There was one story my mother often told to me about the Dragon Knights, though she simply called them dragon men."
Thea smiled and scooted closer to Sari. "Really? Do tell!"
"Well," Sari said. "It went like this. Many hundreds of years ago, a stranger came to Satera from an unknown land far over the eastern mountains. Of himself the man said little, revealing only that he was a traveler and that he knew much ancient lore. Satera, at that time, was ruled by a powerful queen and her young, naive stepdaughter. The princess was greatly impressed by the dashing, mysterious stranger, and she fell in love with him. The stranger, in time, came to return her love. Or so it seemed. The princess begged the queen to allow her to marry the stranger, but the queen refused. The queen knew there was something about the stranger that was different, something that was not quite right. She didn't trust the man at all. But months went by, and then years, and all the while the princess begged for her stepmother's blessing. Finally there came a day when the queen could take it no more, and she allowed the princess and stranger to marry, although her better judgment told her it was a mistake. Well, after the wedding, the princess and stranger retired to their private quarters. Late that night the castle residents were awakened by much screaming from the bridal chamber. The queen and her guards rushed in, and...."
"Well?" Thea asked excitedly. "What did they find?"
Sari sighed wistfully and shook her head. "It was so tragic! The entire bedchamber had been destroyed; the bed was torn to shreds. And there was no sign of the couple. At once the queen sent her men into the nearby mountains -- these mountains -- to search, for the mountains were the only place in the land where a dragon could hope to hide. But they found nothing. Years later, travelers in these hills reported hearing a young woman screaming and sobbing, but try as they might, no one was ever able to find the source of the sounds. And, they say, that if anyone is so foolhardy as to come up here, to this very lake, late at night, chances are they will come face to face with a half-man, half-dragon who burns men with fiery breath and steals maidens away to his hidden lair, never to be seen or heard from again."
Thea laughed and clapped her hands. "I do love a good fairy tale," she said. "Such a wild story! No Dragon Knight would ever behave in such a way."
Sari shrugged. "No, of course not," she said. "But you mustn't forget that, until Rhys' day, all my people knew of Layans were the half-remembered reports of atrocities from the War. The dastardly deeds of this dragon man are exactly what my people would have expected...and most feared."
There was a rustling in the dark foliage behind the two women. Sari and Thea spun around quickly; Thea was already grabbing the slicer at her belt and Sari had already half-drawn her sword. But both sighed with relief and replaced their weapons when Ryan stepped out of the shadows and into the fading light of the sun.
"I also have a story about this lake," Ryan said.
Ryan. Thea and the others had been reintroduced to him back at the castle. It was Ryan who, almost twenty years earlier, had pried open the gates of Lensol castle and made it possible for Ayn to rescue Thea. For that, the reticent gentleman would always have the love and respect of everyone in Cille-Shusoran -- Thea most of all.
Ryan had come to Landen a year before in order to help Sari in her fight against Lune. Ryan said he also hated Lune, for shortly after Siren's defeat, Lune had come to Endora, Ryan's hometown, seeking Thea. When Lune was informed that Thea had already been rescued by Ayn, Lune became enraged and burned several of Endora's farming fields. As a result, half of the village nearly died of starvation. When Ryan heard that a similar fate had befallen Satera, he came to Landen and offered his services to Queen Sari.
Ryan sat next to Sari on the boulder. He was a tall man, taller even than Ayn, with shimmering black hair tied into a ponytail. He wore a gray tunic with leather boots, and a gorgeous emerald cloak was draped over it all. Ryan also had a thin sliver of a mustache, and the most beautiful blue eyes either Thea or Sari had ever seen.
"Please, tell us your story," Thea said after Ryan had made himself comfortable.
Ryan took the staff that was hanging from his belt, and he began to polish it with a cloth as he spoke.
"Many centuries ago," Ryan said, "a Dragon Knight passed over the western mountains and found himself in a land of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Unlike the people in the Dragon Knight's homeland, the people of the new country had all but forgotten about the horrors of the War, and he saw not a spark of evil in them. The Dragon Knight made his way to a kingdom on the far side of a calm river; he hoped to find shelter there. As it turned out, that kingdom was ruled by a powerful queen who had a lovely stepdaughter."
Sari smiled. "Is it my imagination," she asked, "or does this story sound strangely familiar?"
Ryan went on without comment. "However, the queen was as wicked as she was powerful. Although it soon became clear that the Dragon Knight and the princess loved each other deeply, the queen forbade them to marry. For many years the princess begged for her stepmother's blessing, and for years the stepmother refused. At long last, though, she tired, and she gave her consent."
Thea scooted closer to Sari, who in turn scooted closer to Ryan. Ryan must have noticed, but if he did, his proximity to Sari must not have bothered him.
"And so, the two were married," Ryan said. "There was much feasting and rejoicing, but the queen refused to participate. In fact, she did all she could to spoil the festivities for the other guests. The princess realized that she would never be free of her wicked stepmother as long as she lived in the castle. And so, after everyone had gone to sleep, she bade her husband to take his dragon form. You see, the princess was the only one who knew her love's secret, and so she knew that the queen's guards would never be able to reach the places a dragon might run to. The husband agreed to his wife's request. He assumed the shape of the dragon, took his bride in his arms, and flew away. The man and wife journeyed high into the mountains. There they found a lake, the most beautiful, peaceful lake the two had ever seen. They made their home there, far from the reach of the evil stepmother and her armies."
"But what became of them?" Thea asked. "In Sari's version...."
Ryan chuckled and put his staff back on his belt. "Queen Thea, I understand your father was a Dragon Knight."
Thea nodded and proudly stated, "Yes, he was."
"Then surely you know the legend of the dragon's love."
Thea smiled. "Oh, yes. Lore has it that even when the human body of a Dragon Knight passes away, the Knight's dragon half lives on."
"Yes," Ryan said, "but only if the Dragon Knight loves another with all his heart. There are many stories of dragons appearing to the children of deceased Dragon Knights...."
Sari sighed. "Yes, yes, how romantic."
"You don't believe it?" Ryan asked. He chuckled again. "I suppose I can't blame you. And it is a very old story."
"So, the dragon in the story lived on?" Thea asked.
Ryan nodded. "Yes. His love for his wife sustained him always, and that love kept her well, also. And so, the legend says, they lived at the lake forever, in contentment and happiness."
"Why did you come up here, anyway?" Sari asked. "I doubt it was only to tell old stories."
Ryan sighed. "King Ayn was worried," he told her. "He wanted me to come and check up on you."
Sari scoffed. "Typical man. Like we need protecting."
"But how did you get here so fast?" Thea asked.
"Didn't you know, my lady?" Ryan asked. "I am a Dragon Knight as well."
Thea looked at Sari, her eyes wide in surprise. "Did you know that?" she asked.
Sari shrugged. "Well, yes, of course! Why do you think I made him the general of my army?"
"Now that I see that the two of you are quite all right, I think I shall return to Landen," Ryan said, standing. "There is no danger in Landen now. And worry not, my queen -- I will be sure to scold King Ayn for you."
Sari laughed and shooed Ryan away. "Good! Now get out of here."
Ryan nodded at Thea, and then he strolled back into the darkened forest. In a moment, he was gone.
Sari shook her head. "That Ryan...."
"You have feelings for him, don't you?" Thea asked, nearly giggling.
Sari sighed. "Haven't we had this conversation before?" Both women broke out in laughter.
A moment later they heard rustling behind them. They turned around, expecting it to be Ryan again.
"Come out of there, you silly man!" Sari cried.
There was no reply.
"Ryan?" Thea asked.
Sari stood up and pulled out her laconian sword, but Thea just looked at her as if she was mad. "What's the matter with you?" Thea asked. "It's just Ryan playing a joke on us."
"No, Thea," Sari whispered. "Ryan does not play jokes."
Thea could see that her friend was truly concerned, and after all their years as friends, she knew better than to doubt Sari's judgment. Thea, too, stood up, and she clutched her laconian slicer.
Although the forest all around them was dark, there was a distinct circle of light just a few meters north of where Sari was standing. A shaft of moonlight was peeking through a gap in the forest canopy far above, creating the bright circle. Sari could sense something just beyond that light. Someone, or something, was sitting there. And it was watching them.
"Come out!" Sari called. "We know you are there!"
There was quiet and stillness for several seconds, and then a dragon leaped into the clearing.
Thea gasped. "That's not Ryan, is it?" she asked.
Sari shook her head. "It most certainly isn't!"
As Sari knew well, Ryan's dragon form was that of an almost serpentine dragon, with golden scales, four wings, and a long, pointed tail.
The dragon before them, however, was entirely different. It was almost man-shaped, with two brown leathery wings and a bat-like face. It stood on its two hind legs, which were stubby and muscular. If it had a tail it remained unseen. The dragon's scales were brown, but when the moonlight hit them a certain way they almost looked green. But what was most startling of all was that the dragon's right eye was missing. And its left eye was like a brilliant, tear-shaped emerald.
Sari and Thea both expected the dragon to attack. It lumbered towards them, but then stopped while it was still a few meters off. The dragon did not growl or wave its claws about. It did not stomp its powerful feet or rain fiery breath down upon the women, although it could have, as evidenced by the trail of smoke emerging from its flaring nostrils. No, all the dragon did was stare at them. And then, after several long, tense moments, it vaulted itself high into the air with one flap of its mighty wings.
Sari and Thea both followed the dragon with their eyes. They watched it break through the tangle of branches and leaves over their heads. And then the dragon soared off into the darkening sky, passing over a mountaintop and vanishing from their view.
Neither woman could bring herself to speak. Both had recognized the dragon -- or at least they thought they had -- although Sari had been right in saying it most certainly was not Ryan. But as minutes and then hours passed, both Sari and Thea convinced themselves, in their own minds, that they had been mistaken. That's impossible, they told themselves. It couldn't have been....
But if Maia had seen it, there would have been no doubt.