Author's Note
Name pronunciation guide
Nadeleine (Na-de-leine, vowels in the first two syllables are short, final syllable sounds like "lin" with a short i.)

Chapter 28

Valerie had forgotten how exhilarating the feeling of flying through the sky was. The wind whipping through her hair, the warm sun on her face, the sensation of freedom that came from being so high above the world. It was like having the power to escape from reality even if it was only temporary.

Before Valerie had become Frazier's apprentice she would have given anything to escape her life even if it was just for a moment. Each day was a never-ending list of things to do and it was both physically and mentally exhausting. And yet, as she looked back now she was grateful for it. All that work had made her into the person she was now, and she was now traveling to see what the next step in her life's journey might turn her into.

Altrois' voice broke Valerie's musings and brought her back to soaring through the sky. "Netherrin, I spoke with your master yesterday. He said you haven't been to visit in a while." He scolded. "He wanted me to tell you to come by once you get back from this trip."

Netherrin wore a disappointed look on his face. "I suppose I have been a neglectful apprentice." He admitted. "Would you be willing to fly me there the day after we return to Lithdin?" He politely asked.

"Well of course," He laughed, "I have to head north for a bit anyways."

The conversation lulled for a moment so Valerie brought herself into it, "Who is Netherrin's master?" She asked curiously.

"What?!" Altrois exclaimed while tilting his head to the side just enough to see them out of his right eye. "You mean you haven't told her yet?"

Netherrin held his hands up defensively. "I was planning too but I wanted to be sure we were in a secure location first."

"You're too cautious sometimes." The dragon grumbled.

"My entire life is learning and safeguarding secrets so forgive me if I'm slow to release information." He defiantly whined as he crossed his arms.

"So... who is your master?" She asked once more.

"Rubrum." He answered.

"Wait, so if Rubrum is your master then does that mean," she didn't get to finish her question.

"Yes," he replied smugly, "I am his replacement. In the event that something were to happen to him, I would be doing my best to fulfill his role on the council."

"I see." She said thoughtfully. "So is that part of the reason you keep Frazier at a distance?"

Netherrin's smug grin quickly turned to a frown. "No, I keep him at a distance because I despise the way he doesn't take life seriously enough."

"Some might argue you take life too seriously," Altrois interjected.

"Yes, well," he humphed, "being too serious is far less likely to get anyone killed, unlike Frazier's tomfoolery."

Valerie decided it would be best to change to the subject, "So is the matriarch of the dragons a part of the council as well?"

"She is," Altrois answered. "She's the second oldest member, only Rubrum is her senior as you probably could have guessed."

"How old is the matriarch?" Valerie felt a welling excitement just thinking about meeting her.

The dragon let out a low rumble as he thought. "Well now, that I don't actually know." He hesitated. "We don't celebrate birthdays like humans, but I think mother is over six hundred years old now."

"Wow..." Getting to meet yet another ancient being full of wisdom made her feel almost insignificant. "Wait, did you say mother?!"

"Yes," he replied, "I was hatched from mother's second to last brood. There were only two eggs in that clutch, my sister and I."

"Will I get to meet your sister?" She asked excitedly.

"I don't think so." He chuckled. "She's patrolling the islands off the southwest coast. And I'll just warn you, she's a lot tougher than me."

"That's the truth." Netherrin agreed with a nod.

"You've met her?" Valerie was a bit surprised.

Netherrin nodded once more, "One time and that was enough."

"She threatened to eat him." Altrois laughingly added.

Valerie covered her mouth with her hand. "I thought dragons were nice like you, Altrois?"

He bobbed his head. "Some are, but most just want to be left alone." He bobbed his head a few more times. "It's not that they are mean, but rather they are focused on their mission and don't like to be bothered."

"And what mission is that?" She asked.

"We dragons are the first line of defense against our enemy's return." He looked back at her. "We are constantly on the lookout for any signs of the cult that follows him."

"Isn't that what Frazier does?" She asked.

He nodded. "It is, and that is why our secondary responsibility is watching out for his safety. And that responsibility will become your primary responsibility once you are better trained." He said with a wink.

"And that's why you gave me the scale?" She ran her hand over her chest.

"Part of the reason."

She leaned in, "And what was the other part?"

He looked back at her and smiled. "I could tell that you were a woman of great promise and I knew that with a little help you would become something the likes of which this world had never seen."

"Oh." Valerie blushed from hearing such high praise.

Netherrin rolled his eyes. "I think you might be exaggerating a little bit."

"What's that?" Altrois snipped. "You want to walk the rest of the way?"

"I said she was an excellent choice with great potential." He replied.

"That's what I thought you said," Altrois smirked.

Altrois' high praise made Valerie uneasy. She didn't feel she could live up to such expectations. She ran her fingers down the scale and felt it begin to warm as if it was reacting to her touch.

"Cast aside your doubts, little elf," The dragon roared suddenly. "I can sense them in your heart and they are but lies you have told yourself. Trust me when I tell you that by the end of this week those doubts will be crushed under the weight of reality."

Valerie breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. "Alright, I'm holding you to that so don't let me down."

Altrois smiled back. "You can count on me, little elf. From the moment I gave you that scale, I made a promise to raise you up and I will not break it no matter what!" He let out a roar.

"Was that really necessary?" Netherrin complained.

"What's that you changed your mind about walking?" Altrois asked jokingly.

Netherrin shook his head. "I didn't say anything."

Valerie laughed at their antics. Clearly, the two had known each other for some time and had a deep enough friendship. She would have never imagined that such relationships could exist based on what she had read in books. I wonder what else the books I read were wrong about? She thought as they soared along to their destination.

The flight lasted for the rest of the afternoon. As the sun hung low in the west Altrois made an announcement. "We're close!"

Valerie looked ahead with anticipation. In the distance was a large mountain range. One tower peak upon another. Green valleys lay about the base of the mountains and as you ascended the green gave way to slate grey cliffs. Some of the tallest peaks still had a white cap of winter snow and ice that had not fully melted off.

"So where are we now?" She asked as she looked on in wonder.

"This is a place known as the Wilds of Altun." Netherrin replied.

"So there isn't a kingdom here?" She was confused.

"No," he replied, "the land is unclaimed and for good reason."

"Why is that?" She asked leaning in.

"Dragons, for one thing," Altrois answered in a laugh. "We don't particularly want people building too close and most folks are afraid to."

"I see," she needed along, "and are there other reasons?"

"The wilds are our hunting grounds." Altrois explained, "and much of we hunt is quite dangerous."

"To the east is Ranstakal and Hollindale." Nether began. "Hollindale once attempted to expand into these lands." He paused. "Their forces were slaughtered by the beasts of the wilderness and this land was deemed beyond settlement."

"Even we dragons do not take our prey lightly," Altrois added.

"So what kind of creatures live in the forest below?" She asked looking down.

"Many of the same beasts you may see elsewhere in the world," Altrois answered softly. "However, there is one beast that dwells below that is unique to these woods and is highly territorial and dangerously cunning. They are not to be trifled with."

"And what are they called?" Her heart was beating faster in her chest.

"Worgs," He growled.

"What's a," she started to say but Netherrin held his hand up to stop her.

He shook his head at her as if to say, don't ask anymore.

Valerie decided to just silently watch as they descended down into the mountains. Eventually, a mountain came into view that was covered in large openings. "Is that where the dragons live?" She asked while pointing.

"It is one of several mountains that we make use of," Altrois answered proudly. "This, of course, is the largest mountain in which we nest and is the home of the matriarch, Nadeleine."

"Nadeleine," Valerie said the name out loud to herself. "Dragon names aren't really what I had expected."

Altrois laughed loudly. "What had you been expecting?"

"I suppose something more fearsome or foreboding." She suggested.

He laughed once more. "And am I fearsome or foreboding?" He asked.

"No, not so much." She smiled warmly at him.

"That's good to know." He looked ahead at the mountain which was closing in fast. "I hope you're ready to meet a few more like me then." He said with excitement in his voice.

"I am." She said.

"I'm just ready to be there so I can stretch my legs," Netherrin grumbled.

"What's that Netherrin?" Altrois asked. "You want to walk the rest of the way?"

"No," he replied. "I said I'm grateful to have such a wonderful friend who flies me around the world so swiftly." He firmly patted on his scales.

"That's what I thought you said," Altrois said with a wink then began to descend toward a large cave opening in the side of the mountain.