Taryn skirted the border of the village, remaining as far from it as possible as she hurried across the hilly terrain. She kept her head down, a tattered swath of black cloth she had picked up gods only knew where or how long ago covering it to conceal her hair and her face. Her heart drummed a sickening rhythm behind her breast and the thick roll of cloth she carried on her back, the leather strap attached to it tight across her left shoulder and breasts and around her right ribs, felt heavy today.
Heavier than yesterday, which had felt heavier than the day before.
The closer she drew to the edge of the dragon realm, the heavier her burden grew.
She tensed as a dragon flew overhead, going still and hoping her black leather trousers, boots and top, and the cloth over her head would camouflage her against the obsidian land. The drumming of her heart grew fiercer and she struggled to breathe as she waited for the dragon to move on, reaching the edge of her senses.
Her gaze flicked in that direction and she watched the great green beast land in the village in the distance.
Gods, she needed to fly.
That need surged through her and she was close to shifting when she caught herself, and the cold reminder of what would happen if she took on her dragon form slithered through her.
The dragons would see her, her cover would be blown and she would probably come under attack from her own kin.
Not only that, but this close to the edge of the realm, near the mountains that bordered it, there was a chance that he would sense her from where he waited beyond the cragged peaks. On the other side of the treacherous black range was a valley, a realm that few dragons dared to cross into and that many whispered dark and gruesome tales about.
The Valley of the Dark Edge.
Her final destination.
He waited there.
For her cargo.
Taryn trudged onwards, her feet sore from walking and heart aching with a need to shift and take flight, to shed the tethers of her mortal form and fly free.
She needed to fly.
Instead of surrendering to that powerful urge, she wrapped her arms around herself and marched forwards, her eyes locked on the peaks that stood between her and her destination.
Between her and her twin brother.
Tenak was waiting for her.
She had kept him waiting long enough.
The road was little more than a winding narrow path that soon gave way to only rock as it led her upwards, into the foothills of the mountains. She moved her focus to her feet, picking a route over the treacherous and steep terrain. Rocks shifted underfoot, bouncing down the side of the mountain, tumbling into the valley. She lost track of time as she walked, weary and sore, the ache to fly growing stronger as her instincts roared that she could reach the other side of the mountain range in no more than a few beats of her wings if she shifted.
The temptation was great, but the instinct that warned Tenak would sense her if she shifted kept it tempered, stopping her from giving in to it. She removed the cloth from her head when the nearest village was nothing more than a speck on the horizon and the dragons remained at a distance.
Afraid of the mountains because of the male who lurked beyond them.
She blew out her breath and combed her fingers through her shoulder-length hair, untangling it from the violet roots to its white tips. They were dirty, dull with grit from the journey, and she couldn’t remember the last time she had bathed. The fantasy of a warm bath kept her mind occupied as she soldiered onwards, clambering over boulders and edging around rocks that blocked her path.
She pressed her back to one as she shuffled around it, her eyes on her feet on the narrow ledge and the several hundred foot drop below. If she fell, she would have to shift to save herself. Her pulse pounded at the thought and she breathed deep to steady it, reassuring herself that she wouldn’t fall. She reached the edge of the ledge and safety, and scrambled up over another rock.
As she hit the top of it, she paused, the black rock biting into her knees through her trousers and her palms, and looked back in the direction she had come. The whole world stretched before her, endless peaks that were home to her kin, harbouring almost a hundred clan villages within their valleys.
It had been her home once, centuries ago, before her brother had stolen it from her.
She turned her head in the other direction, seeing down into the valley beyond the mountain she climbed and to the ones that surrounded it, larger and more formidable than any range in the dragon realm. A red haze clung to the bases of many of the mountains in the distance, as if flames filled their valleys, and fiery veins streaked the ones off to her right, ominous cracks and booms echoing from them.
The Devil’s domain.
Taryn lowered her violet-to-white gaze to the valley below her. Nestled between the Devil’s domain and the dragon realm, it belonged to neither, a no man’s land that had once been the realm of the Hell beasts and other fell creatures.
It was now Tenak’s kingdom.
He had claimed it through blood and fire, slaughtering all who dared to stray into it.
Her blood chilled and she shifted onto her backside, shimmied to the edge of the rock and carefully started down the other side of the mountain, ignoring the instinct that whispered at her to turn back.
She knew what she was doing might be the end of her, but she would accept that, as long as it was the end of her brother too. She had neglected her duty for too long and she had to finish it now, before Tenak turned his wicked gaze back on the dragon realm and the other kingdoms of Hell, bent on bringing them all to their knees so he might rule them.
The rock was sharp underfoot, slicing into the soles of her boots, as if the valley had teeth and wanted to take a bite out of her.
She lifted her right foot to rub it and give it some relief, and her left one slipped. She bit down on her tongue to stop herself from shrieking as she skidded down the side of the mountain, afraid that she would draw attention to herself. The scent of blood surrounded her, the hot stab of each rock burning in her palms as she groped for a hold, and her teeth cut into her tongue when her fingers caught on a crack in the mountain and she jerked to a halt.
She lay there for some time, breathing hard, struggling to steady her heart. Her entire body shook, teeth clattering as adrenaline and fear refused to ebb away, combining to strip her strength.
When she finally calmed, she pulled herself up onto her knees, found a small ledge where she could rest and scanned the mountainside. She had pushed herself too hard, had walked too far and had almost paid the price. If she had shifted to save herself, or cried out, there was every chance her brother would have sensed her presence and come to her, and she wasn’t ready to face him yet.
The quiet voice at the back of her mind asked whether she would ever be ready?
She had been putting this off for two lunar cycles already, coming up with excuses to avoid making the journey to the valley and facing her brother.
Her gaze stopped on a ledge with a dark recess just a hundred feet below to her left. She would rest there, gather her strength, and then she would continue her journey. She wouldn’t turn back. She wouldn’t give up. She would keep marching forwards and stick to her plan.
Taryn edged down the steep slope on her backside, slipping at times, slowly making her way towards the ledge. She breathed a sigh as she crawled onto it and saw that the recess was larger than she had expected, forming a small cave. The rock wrapped around her as she entered it, comforting her as it spoke to her dragon instincts. Many of her kind lived in caves, preferring their ancient habitat to the newer ideal of living in villages.
She was old enough to appreciate a cave, to feel soothed by cool rock surrounding her.
She stopped near the entrance and looked down into the valley, scanning it for any signs of life. Nothing. She scoured the mountains that surrounded the valley and frowned at the far end of it, squinting as she tried to make out the range there. She swore there was a structure built against the mountain, rising out of it. A castle?
Was her brother there?
She moved to the wall of the cave, sat on her backside with her legs crossed, and unfastened the leather strap that cut diagonally across her chest. She removed the thick roll of black cloth from her back and settled it beside her, placing her hand on it and feeling the power vibrating through her palm.
Her cargo resembled nothing more than a rolled blanket for sleeping on, fastened with two leather straps at either end, but it was something precious.
Extremely precious to Tenak.
To others too.
She lifted her hand and touched the thick leather straps that circled her wrists too, feeling the power in those, the same as was in the straps on her cargo. She rubbed her thumb over the Hell beast hide, feeling the symbols carved into the dark brown leather.
It concealed the contents of the blanket, and her presence too.
If she removed either the straps on the blanket or the cuffs around her wrist, her brother would sense their presence and come, wild with a need to reclaim what he viewed as his property—both the sword and her.
Taryn closed her eyes and leaned back into the wall, seeking the peace of sleep. It refused to come, her mind throwing images of her journey at her, of battling Hell beasts and avoiding her dragon kin. She had wanted to speak with them so many times, but fear they would blame her for her brother’s crimes had forced her to keep her distance.
Perhaps she should have remained with Loke, a dragon male who was like another brother to her, but she had feared she would bring their kin’s wrath down upon him too and she loved him too dearly to place him in such danger.
She shuddered, a sudden cold sweeping through her when she thought about the danger she might be in. Was in. Loke had witnessed a vision of her, a gift born of his more powerful dragon blood, and it had been on her mind since she had collected the sword from him and had left his cave.
She couldn’t help feeling that she was marching towards her death, just as he had seen.
It was part of the reason she had taken so long to finally set out on her journey to face her brother.
She was afraid.
She had been through hell the past three centuries, passed between owners as if she was nothing more than a beast, a piece of meat they could attempt to break and drag down into a depraved world where she would think only of pleasing her master. Even though she had endured a life that would have caused many to take their own, she didn’t want to die.
Taryn lowered her gaze to the wrapped sword beside her and rested her hand on the blanket that covered it again, feeling its power resonate through her palm. The sword was all her brother thought about. It was all he desired.
She was risking her life by bringing it here, and by returning to Tenak. If he didn’t kill her on the spot when she revealed herself to him, he might only be luring her into a trap to kill later.
And what if she failed?
What if he took the sword and she couldn’t stop him?
She would have delivered the whole of Hell into his hands.