It feels like no time has passed when we find ourselves meeting with Elder Ryker again. "You're sure you're ready to leave, Esha? Ryker?" he asks politely.
Ryker breathes deeply and nods slowly.
"Yes," I agree.
"Let's go outside, then." We follow the elder to the front of the school, where nearly the entire student body is waiting for us. "Sync," he calls to his familiar. She flits onto his shoulder, once again in her dainty forest sprite form. "Please transform for Esha. Help her search for the dragon island and watch after her. The two of you will only have each other."
Just in case she doesn't want others to know, I haven't mentioned to anyone that Sync already knows the location of the dragon island. Gasps and awe-filled murmurs spread throughout the crowd as Sync miraculously transforms her tiny figure into an enormous dragon. Her body is brown with white-tipped scales, and her green eyes shine like emeralds. Before mounting her, I kiss Ryker goodbye.
"Be safe," he tells me.
I wave to everyone as Sync takes off into the sky. "It won't take us long to get there, Esha," she assures me.
"Sync, will you tell me how you've been there before?"
"My people lived there once, but we scattered soon after the dragons came. Our transformations could not protect us from them."
"Oh," I breathe. Could Sync's people have been prey for the dragons? I wonder. I want to ask more questions, but something in her tone makes me think better of it; I don't want to bring up sad memories for her.
Sync and I don't speak for the duration of our flight, so I get lost in my own thoughts as we soar over a sea of clouds. When the island is finally in our sights, Sync asks, "Where would you like me to land?"
"There's a clearing somewhere, and the dragons congregate there."
"I remember the place," she announces, beginning her descent.
I dismount among the group of dragons, and they all seem happy to see me back, but they appear wary of Sync. Piers is still perched on his platform, overlooking the goings-on of the other dragons. "Piers!" I call.
"Esha," he greets me happily.
"What are you doing back, Esha?" Ira asks me.
"I need to ask you something."
"Anything, dear girl," says Piers.
"Is there another island for dragons? Our elder envisioned Tiris, Reginald and Fino surrounded by other dragons, but it didn't appear they were on this island. We need to know where they are; the vision foretold Tiris attacking us this fall. Please."
Ira eyes his father guardedly as Piers hesitates to answer. "Yes," Piers begins. "There is such a place."
"Why didn't you say anything to me before?"
"We did not suspect that dragons would be involved in this particular battle. We thought Tiris planned on utilizing his resources from the marsh. The place you are referring to is an island where the darkened dragons are banished. That is where I was forced to send Fino when he failed to let anything good enter his heart."
"Where can I find this place?"
"Why didn't the morphling take you there?" he asks, nudging his nose in Sync's direction. "Her kind resided there once."
Suddenly Sync transforms into a beautiful, raven-haired young woman donning clothing similar to my own, but of an older fashion. She points her finger accusatorily at Piers, who now cowers like a scolded puppy, and she shouts angrily, "We use to reside there! But you forced us from our home when you sent those demons after us. They thought it was fun to chase us and murder us - making it into a game – 'What forms will they take?' and 'How long will it take us to find them?' – Not long!" she blares. "Dragons can quickly see through our transformations, and they killed us! Men, women, children! It didn't matter to them. And when we sought your help, you refused us. You said the rift had already been made, and assisting us would only make things worse."
"My deepest apologies, morphling," Piers sobs. "Just please, please stop tormenting me with her likeness!"
Sync defiantly crosses her arms over her chest as her expression hardens, her glare burrowing into Piers' frightened eyes.
"Please," he begs again. "Please."
With that, her appearance alters to that of Ryker's form, but her mood remains unchanged. "This is her descendent, Ryker Darius," Sync explains to Piers.
"Wait," I begin. "Sync, did you just show him Helena?"
"I did," she confirms.
"He looks like my Helena," Piers chokes, gazing at Ryker's figure. "Forgive me, morphling, for the travesties you and your kind have suffered because of me. I am truly sorry."
Sync's posture relaxes, and a tear falls from her eye as she releases a heavy sigh.
"I'm so sorry, Piers," I apologize. "I didn't know Sync had planned on doing this." My fiery gaze burns into Ryker's – or rather, Sync's – eyes. How could she lie about not knowing of the other island? Just to exact her revenge on this poor creature?
"No, Esha. Her fury is understood, and I deserve the punishment. We did nothing to protect them, even after discovering we were the ones that sparked their annihilation."
"Even so, it was wrong of her. We'll be going now."
"Wait," protests Ira. "Going where? Back home?"
"No, I'd like to survey the other island first."
"Alone? With only the morphling? You could be killed!"
"That's a risk I have to take. I need to confirm if Tiris and the others are living there and if I can learn anything about their plans for this fall."
"It's too dangerous! You can't-"
"Ira," Piers interjects. "Fate has her plans; now you must trust her. If Esha is called to do this, we must let her be."
Ira snorts angrily, then carries himself into the air and storms off.
"Forgive him, Esha. He worries for your safety and for the future of dragons."
Thinking back to what Eli said about Batty's song being prophetic, my curiosity causes me to ask, "Because… I'm the dragon queen?"
"I believe you are referring to an age-old prophecy, and yes, you play an instrumental role in it," he explains, "but, no, Esha; you are not our dragon queen."
"I'm not? Then… why did you call me 'the mother of your freedom' when we first met?"
"Indeed, and that is what you are. You are the mother - the bearer - of our freedom. Your child, a daughter, will save the dragons."
The lyrics play through my mind. "Through shadows dark, and perilous war, reigns Heaven's lark, that heroes bore," I say aloud.
"Yes. You are a hero, as is Ryker," he clarifies.
"Your queen will be the daughter Ryker and I have together?"
"Yes," he hums cheerfully.
I'm left speechless, staring blankly into Piers' kind, yellow eyes.
"Esha?" Sync asks, interrupting my reverie. "Are you ready?"
"Yes," I nod. "Let's go."
Once back in the air, Sync explains that the second voyage will be much shorter than the first. And she's right. My chest swells with fear as the clouds fade, and the island appears in front of us. No, I think. Suppress the fear. I can't let Ryker feel what I feel, making him worry about me. Sync lands us on the southernmost part of the island within a patch of dying forest. "Elder Ryker was right," I whisper. "This place doesn't look anything like the other island." The vegetation is nearly gone, leaving only dead remnants of a once thriving home.
"It use to," Sync says sadly.
Eyeing her pitifully, I change the subject. "Sync, you should probably morph into something less noticeable."
"It won't matter. They'll see right through me anyway. As I said before, dragons are practically immune to our transformations. Somehow they're able to see our true forms in a matter of minutes."
"So you'll stay a dragon?" I ask.
"No. I'll just be myself today."
"Your true form?" I ask, astonished.
"Yes. You and Ryker - Elder Ryker, I mean - are the only two humans in the world who will have seen me in my true form."
I stare, almost absurdly so, as Sync morphs into her original figure, and I'm amazed when the transformation is complete. "Sync," I whisper, dumbfounded. She's youthful – appearing to be sixteen or so – and I don't know if that's due to her abilities or simply how her people look. Her skin is deep beige, and her hair is white like a summer cloud. Her eyes are the same brilliant emerald color as when she's in her dragon form. "You're beautiful."
"I told you I was," she guffaws. "Would you like to know my name? Not the name Ryker gave me, but my birth name."
I nod, barely able to speak.
"Enora," I repeat. "It's lovely. May I call you that? Or do you prefer Sync?"
"You may call me either name." Suddenly, her eyes dart toward the sky. "Hide!" she warns me.
Together, we duck behind a collection of dying brush, and we spy a dragon flying overhead. Mine and Sync's eyes lock on each other, each knowing what we have to do – follow the creature. It takes us several minutes to reach the place the dragon landed, and as we draw closer, we begin to hear voices and laughter. We spy cautiously, taking cover behind a tree that still has some of its foliage left.
The young man and the old man I saw on the beach last summer sit round a fire, taking gulps of liquid from large glasses. Tiris and Reginald, I guess. Based on their behavior, I'd say the drink is intoxicating. Singing heartily with each other at the top of their lungs, the lyrics are slurred by their drunkenness.
"Would you two please shut up?" a familiar voice screeches at them. Then Adella appears from a cavern just beyond the fire. "I am trying to take a nap!"
"Shut up, hag!" the old man yells at her. "You're lucky we even keep you alive, you worthless mess. Tiris thought out an ideal plan, and you spoiled it."
"Humph!" she retorts, sounding offended.
"Really, Adella, how could you ruin the plan to the extent that you did?" Tiris asks her. "I mean, I cast a perfectly good spell to get you alone with the familiar, and yet, you failed at killing her."
"I succeeded at killing her!" she barks. "It isn't my fault she came back to life."
"And with her powers, no less," scoffs Reginald.
Sync turns to me with wide eyes. "Tiris was behind your death," she whispers.
"What was that?" Tiris asks, standing and peering into the trees. Sync and I stay very still against the trunk of the tree, and after a few seconds have passed, I twist my head carefully around to view him again. My heart leaps with relief as he shrugs and sits back down.
Adella sits beside him. "May I have some of that?" she asks, holding out a cup of her own. Tiris pours until it runs over slightly. "Tiris!" she shouts angrily. "Ugh! You're so drunk."
Her anger causes the men to erupt with laughter. "Girl, you're lucky you're good for a laugh," says Reginald, "or else-"
"Or else what?" Adella spits. "You'll ravage me the same way you did Ti-"
"Or else nothing!" he yells, cutting her off. He glances at Tiris, who isn't paying attention to anything they're saying. Then he scowls at Adella, and she scowls back at him. Adella will be fine, I find myself thinking with a roll of my eyes.
Presuming we most likely won't find anything out about their plans for the fall, I decide it's probably safest that we leave the island now. At least we can tell Elder Ryker about the island and the sort of dragons living here. Turning my head back to face Sync, I'm startled when I see someone else instead. Before I even have a chance to scream, Tiris places his hand over my mouth and presses his body against mine, holding me tightly against the tree. "Shhh!" he smiles. My eyes dart back to the fire where the three of them are still sitting and drinking. How can there be two of them? "Clever spell, right?" he grins. "You didn't even suspect. Now, where is your dragon? Dragons are the only means of transportation to this island, so don't bother telling me you don't have one."
He slowly uncovers my mouth, and I try to control my pounding heart. "South of here," I whisper, sounding out of breath.
"Which academy are you from?" His fierce brown eyes narrow at me from behind long strands of blond hair. I stare back at them, wondering why they seem so familiar. The elder's canvas! I remember. These eyes are just like the ones depicted in the painting hanging in his study. "Answer me," he orders gently but firmly.
"I-" I start, but he interrupts me.
"Wait," he says, furrowing his brow. "You're a caster, aren't you? Is that how you found this place? How did you manage to find a dragon, anyway? It can't be your familiar; I would have heard about it." He presses against me more forcefully as he winds his head around in search of a familiar. When his eyes fall back onto me, they move up and down my face, my chest, then back to my eyes. He grins. "You came alone? That was unwise. Even if others know you're here, there's little chance of them being able to rescue you, and I can't let you leave. But that's alright with me. I'm in need of some company." He dips his head toward me slowly as though he's going to kiss me, but a large wolf suddenly leaps out of nowhere and bashes itself into him.
As Tiris topples to the ground, he drags me with him, but his hold on me breaks. "Get on, Esha!" the wolf barks anxiously. "Let's go!"
I scramble to my feet and leap onto Sync's back as she races away. "You need to fly!" I shout nervously.
In seconds, she begins to morph beneath me, and my arms gradually move farther apart as her neck widens. When the change is complete, I peer over my shoulder to see if anyone is chasing us. "Oh no," I gasp. An army of dragons being led by Tiris and Fino are flying toward us rapidly. I already see black smoke and bright orange embers spewing from Fino's daunting jaws. "We won't escape this! We'll have to fight."
"What? What do you mean, fight? Esha, I'm not a real dragon! I can't breathe fire or ice, spit earth or summon lightning."
"Of course!" I exclaim excitedly. Taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I close my eyes and tip my chin toward the sky. Swallowing hard, I whisper, "Please work."
Opening my eyes, I summon storm clouds the way the light explained to me. To my surprise, black clouds begin rolling in and soon cover the pale blue sky. I look behind me once more, trying to locate Tiris' exact location. He, too, is watching the sky with wonderment and fear. His angered gaze settles upon me. "Heed me, familiar," I hear him call. "You will die!" With that, he says something to the great beast underneath him, and he and his army fall back toward the island. As they retreat, I calm myself and gradually dissipate the storm.
Sync laughs, "You did that, Esha? That was amazing! Did you see how they all fled?"
"Let's just go home," I mutter.