The thunderstorm was relentless. So loud that she could feel it rumble under her feet. As though the earth beneath her was moving and shifting. The ice rain was a thousand pinpricks on her skin. Even her leotard offered no protection. Her body was so cold, so numb that it hurt. Hurt like the pins and needles you get when you jump into a hot bath after being out in the snow. Except here there was no hot bath, just her and the storm. Her toes gripped the castle's rooftop ledge, felt the sharpness of stone mixed with the slippery wet of the rain. Another bolt of lightning filled her world with light, so bright that for a split second she could see through her blindfold, flickering like an old fashioned video reel before everything fell dark once again. Then came the rumble; the churning beneath her feet that rattled her bones.
"Good, Alessia. Take it slow. Follow my voice." Sa'lu, her master, stood by just out of arm's reach. "Remember now, let your mind go. Picture the surface. Picture yourself doing the exercise."
Alessia gulped in a breath, her heart rattling at her ribcage like a bird desperate to be free. What joints that weren't numb ached from the cold and the endless training but still Sa'lu pushed her on.
Drawing in another breath Alessia mustered the strength to lift her arms above her head, her body shaking from the strain. The wind threatened to knock her right off the edge as she leaned her body forward. Her hands touched the same slippery ledge as her feet, her fingers barely gripping its sides.
"Good," she heard her instructor purr. "That's the way."
She focused her mind inwards, drawing it away from the storm, away from the cold and the numbness of her body. Breathe deep. She felt her heartbeat start to slow. Felt her muscles - every one of them in her small frame - ready to act. Ready to complete the exercise. She lifted her legs and released her feet from their grip on the wall, her body forming a perfect handstand. Her arms shook under the pressure of her weight and the weight of the howling wind. Rain continued to prick her skin and drench her leotard but she felt nothing but the movement of her own body. Coiling her arms she leaned over into a backbend, now exposing her stomach to the storm. Then finally with what remaining strength she had, she pulled herself upright only to flip over and over again, becoming quicker as she went along the ledge. She had to count her steps, one false move and she would…
She halted, one leg hanging out in mid-air. Her mind snapped back to the storm. Back to the tempest that raged on around her and to the fact that if she put her foot down there would be nothing there. She felt the panic well up in her; the bird that battered against its cage. An ocean below her crashed and churned. She could hear its roar. She could feel its spray on her overhanging toes even from up here. She felt the approach of her master as she reached up and ripped off her blindfold. She was livid.
"Alessia, how many times do I have to tell you?"
Dots flashed in front of Alessia's vision and she backed away from the ledge as though it held a knife to her.
"Trace your steps! It does matter how fast you complete the exercise but it's also important to pace yourself. Otherwise you end up feeding the fishes."
Sa'lu jabbed a finger at the ocean below to Alessia's almost-watery grave but she couldn't bring herself to look. Instead, she felt her stomach making its way into her throat. The world was spinning on its own axis.
"I'm sorry." It was agony just to squeeze out those two words. "It's just that I can't bring my mind into focus. It's too cold."
The Master's eyes narrowed into barely discernible slits and for a moment it seemed as though she herself was controlling the storm. "If you can't bring yourself to do this, child, then you're good for nothing." She handed Alessia back her blindfold. "Now, let's do this again and we're not stopping until you get it right."
Alessia let her body sink into the cool embrace of bed sheets, eager to forget the strain of such an intense training session. Sa'lu was a hard taskmaster. Every muscle in her body either ached or felt numb - cursing her for the abuse she had put them through. Even after spending an hour submerged to her nostrils in a lavender bath she still felt like she'd been kicked around by an angry dragon. Her bedchamber was cold and silent. The maid had long retired for the night so not even the warm crackle of the fireplace was here to greet her when she came in. Instead, she had to make do with settling into layers of blankets that she pulled up over her head and used to hide from the fact that the chill and stone of her chamber better resembled a tomb. Rain tapped at her window and the thunder continued to roll on through the night. Somehow, the storm seemed so much calmer now that she was inside. She settled deeper into her nest of blankets and closed her eyes, allowing her thoughts to drift away into the storm. But no sooner had she started to relax than a loud chirrup yanked her back to the present and she jolted awake, her eyes snapping open in the darkness. There was a scratching sound at the door. Alessia heaved a moan and rolled over in her bed, ignoring the protest of her muscles as she felt about her bedside table for the lamp.
Blinking away the dots from her night-adjusted eyes, she slid from the bed. The floor felt like she was walking on ice, she would've yelped had her feet not felt so numb still. Numb and sore - if that could possibly make sense - because she could already feel the blisters starting to form. Always in the spots most needed for walking.
She passed by the window, unable to resist the urge to glimpse the rainstorm outside. Her eyes fell across dark clouds that seemed to smear into the churning ocean below and she found herself briefly searching the sky for the glistening silver scales. As usual it wasn't there; the silver dragon with claws like swords and a snarl that dripped red with blood. It would come for her, but not tonight...
The chirrup sounded again, high pitched and impatient, snapping her from her thoughts. Rolling her eyes, she finished her journey across the room and pulled open her chamber door just enough to allow entry to a small dragon roughly the size of a large dog. Not the silver dragon. This one was just a baby. And friendly. Sometimes. He barely registered her as he bolted past her and leathery wings flaring, made a giant leap onto her bed.
"Jasper." She followed after and dropped onto the bed just next to him.
A spotted pattern decked his soft down-coat that was shrinking by the day, making way for his more grown-up looking dragon scales. His claws, bigger than Alessia's own hands, rested on her legs, his hefty build taking up most of the bed space. He was not her dragon however. He belonged to Sa'lu. Everything belonged to her. The head of this island and also a master of Shadow Arts, she had retired and come to live in this place where she'd since taken on another form of mastery. A member of the elite in the 'Underground', it was here that people like Alessia's father would bring a child to be educated. Children meant for greater things. She'd spent years in this place, training under this woman. Sa'lu had told her that on her twelfth birthday everything would change and that she would have to be prepared. Her twelfth birthday was today...
The dragon jolted upright and snapped Alessia from her thoughts. Her mind crashing back to the present, she watched on as he shot off her bed and bounded for the chamber door, leathery wings flapping and barely giving him lift.
"You want to leave? You just got here," she said.
He swiped a claw at the door, eager and alerted by something.
"Jasper, what is it?" Alessia slid from her bed and wrapped herself in a dressing gown that was said to have once belonged to her mother. Then pulling the door open she tried not to let it creak on its hinges, watching on as he dashed from her room and down the long hallway.
"Jasper?" she hissed, following the dragon on his little quest down the hall and into the main part of the castle. She basically had to run to keep up with him.
The dragon approached a wooden door that had been left ajar and pushed his way through. Alessia paused. This door was to Sa'lu's office, the one room of the castle where her entry was forbidden. She glimpsed Jasper through the crack he'd left behind. He had since taken up residence by the fireplace, content on ignoring the virtual holes that she drilled into the back of his head. But it was the voices she could hear in the room that caught her attention. Her name was mentioned and she felt her heart skitter to a halt in her chest. She knew who was there. Her Father. She shifted her position at the door, bringing into focus the man who sat with visible discomfort in a chair barely capable of holding his large frame. Large as in muscles. If he got into a fight with a gorilla, she wasn't even sure who would win. Then Sa'lu paced in front of him and momentarily blocked her view of the man.
"I've trained her to the best of my ability within the timeframe I've been given but…" She paused, biting her bottom lip.
"But what?" he said.
"It's not enough."
"What do you mean it's not enough?" Now he leapt up from his chair which squeaked with relief. "I've given you more than enough. More than I originally proposed." He fell into a circle around Sa'lu. Like a predator.
Sa'lu glimpsed her empty glass and placed it down on the table. "You don't understand. I've still not been able to fully harness her gift. And besides, she is too independent. She has her mother's spirit. It will take longer to curb this."
As if lost for an argument the man's mouth snapped shut and he backed down, his tone becoming calm. "No. That won't be necessary."
"Then I fear this sentiment you still have toward your late wife will become your undoing." A sigh escaped Sa'lu and she opened her arms, as though to hand over all responsibility of Alessia to this man. "I've done everything to the best of my ability. There is nothing else I can do. Alessia is yours."
The man did a double-take. Maybe the thought of bringing her under his wing had only just struck him, even though this had been his intention all along.
"Alright," he said after a moment of hesitation. "I'll take her, we'll leave tomorrow."
Sa'lu's expression was unreadable. She simply turned her back to him and faced the fireplace. "Very well, I'll get my attendant to show you to your sleeping quarters. I'll have her ready for you first thing in the morning."
Then, as if to sense Alessia's presence, she turned, eyes the same colour as her silver hair honing in on the very crack that she watched her through. Alessia quickly leapt away from the door and into the shadows, heart thudding in her ribcage. Had she seen her? If she caught her outside of her room after lights-out there would be hell to pay. Seconds passed but there was no movement. No swinging open of the door, no furious Master. Just the faint crackle of the fireplace and the clinking of glasses. She was safe. Relief. But she wasn't about to tempt fate by having another look. Instead, she turned and bolted back down the hallway, her footsteps light and soundless against the cold, stone floor. She felt her heart pounding in her chest, her mind reeling with the man's words. She was leaving. She had never seen beyond this island. This castle and Sa'lu's instruction were all she knew, all she remembered. What was the world out there like? Was she even ready? Sa'lu didn't seem to think so.
She hurried for a bedchamber door and knocked even though she knew he would be sleeping.
"Laurence?" She opened the door a crack and slipped inside.
Like her own bedchamber, cold and darkness engulfed her here. The thunderstorm had long since moved on and a timid moon now peeked through a gap in the curtains. A single white moonbeam shone over a boy who slept soundly in his bed. As usual, there was a book on the floor beside him, fallen from his grasp when sleep had overtaken him. Tiptoeing across the room, Alessia made sure to avoid small piles of books and papers that lay strewn about the floor. Reaching his bed, she pulled at the covers and slipped under the blankets beside him. She felt his body, which was muggy and warm, wake with a start.
"Alessia?" he muttered under a croaky breath and she hugged him tight as she'd done so many times before. "You're freezing!" Yet he didn't recoil from her grasp. Instead, he hugged her back and stroked her hair. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"How did you know?"
His smiled down at her, his teeth white against the backdrop of darkness. "Sa'lu has been training you for this for the past six years. Have you forgotten?" His tone sounded condescending though she knew he didn't mean it in that way.
Alessia fell silent for a moment and attempted to gather her thoughts and calm her fears. She had only known him for almost a month but Laurence seemed to have that effect on her. His calmness made her calm.
"I don't want to go. I want to stay here with you."
He snorted. "And endure more of Sa'lu's nagging? Do this, do that! Jump-kick, flip off that wall..."
She had to laugh at his drawl even if only to help alleviate the pit that had formed in her belly.
Laurence had come to this island of his own accord. He was already fifteen but apart from that, she barely knew anything about him. Only that he came here to learn from Sa'lu. His green-eyed intensity watched her in this darkness, then, pulling an arm out of their embrace, he reached over top of her and found something in the drawer of his bedside table. He brought back an old wooden whistle that he often had with him as he trained. It bore the carefully etched engraving of a dragon.
"I want you to have this," he said. "I suppose there's no harm in giving it to you... To remember me by."
Alessia took the whistle into her hands and let her fingers trace over the pattern that she'd since remembered by heart. "But you love this thing."
"I'll see it when we meet again."
All at once those nerves and worries that she had only just managed to push away came rushing back. Her eyes started to water and before she knew it she'd burst into tears. She was not accustomed to crying. In fact the last time she remembered crying she was still a little kid.
"Stop it," he said, placing two hands on her cheeks. There was pain in his expression. "Don't let anyone see you like this."
Alessia's tears felt hot on her face and rolled over his fingers. She forced herself to stop. It took every ounce of her will to do so. She pulled out of his grasp and sat up, letting the sheets fall into her lap and exposing her nightdress to the cool of the evening. It was strangely comforting. Laurence sat up with her and watched her use her sleeve to wipe her eyes.
"But I'm afraid."
There was anger in his expression though it wasn't directed at her. She was never really sure what he got so angry about sometimes. He took her hand and forced her back into his gaze. "You are still so ignorant. You need to learn. The unknown is not to be feared. Learn from it, and then learn to embrace it."
Alessia nodded though her heart still rolled about in her stomach and her hands still shook. Offering her a smile, Laurence kissed her on the forehead. Then pulling the covers up to her neck, he directed her back into the warmth of the bed.
The training directed by this man was different to what Alessia had experienced under the order of Sa'lu and she wasn't sure she liked it. She knew this man was her father but that didn't seem to make his mystery any less confusing. For starters, in the days she had been under his care she hadn't even seen him let alone spoken to him. Was this really what her family was all about? Did she have any other relatives? She had no clue and something told her that in time she would be none the wiser.
So far she had been transported from one 'fortress' to another. The place he brought her to was a building in a sleepless city. People in their hundreds scurried about the sun-baked pavement, busy in their activities and looking so tiny from up here. Ametrine City. She had read about it in Sa'lu's books on economics. This was the capital as well as the official home of the Dragon Clan. People from all over the world came here to do business and if they were lucky, caught sight of a dragon.
Alessia figured her father was a business man. That was a given. He surrounded himself in wealth and luxury, even in the expensive suits he wore. She had been measured and given a new wardrobe containing everything she could possibly need. Then, on the sixth day, she was taken to a gym. Her father was dressed differently to his usual attire; this time wearing nothing more than training trousers. He was in a boxing ring with another man. They circled one another before his opponent took a swing with a bandaged fist. Her father evaded with ease and managed to land a few punches that knocked the other man to the ground. A bell rang that ended the fight and Alessia's presence was announced.
"Alessia, come in," her father said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The room reeked of sweat and humidity.
She watched as her father was handed a towel and noted the fitness in his sweat beaded chest. The man was obviously an athlete - a fighter, like how she had been trained. Did he want her to be like him? His features were hard and square as though he had been chiselled out of stone. Bouncing down from the boxing ring he approached her with his arms spread wide.
"Welcome to my place of training." He grinned, his huge form towering over her so that she had to crane her neck to look up at him. "This is where your ultimate destiny will begin. I have much planned for you and this organization."
Alessia's eyes fell about the gym which had since been vacated except for them.
"Am I going to be training with you?" she asked.
His grin refused to cease as he watched her. There was pride in his gaze.
"Yes. I will help you to become a leader, Alessia. Like me." Then his expression turned dark, the change so subtle that she barely even noticed it until she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. "But be warned, Alessia. My daughter you may be, I do not take to idlers very kindly."
She resisted the urge to back out of his gaze, instead sticking to her laurels as Sa'lu had trained her. Don't back down. Don't let them see your weakness.
Her father's stare dropped and his grin returned. "Very good," he nodded. "You're sticking to your training." He patted her shoulder with a hand that could easily break her like a twig. "Do as you are told and I assure you, the rewards will be many."
Alessia wasn't sure she liked this new life. This place confused her and seemed just as mysterious as the castle she'd left. She glimpsed the setting sun outside her window, her eyes falling across the city that continued to bustle along like a giant machine that never stopped. She hugged her knees and sat at the foot of her bed, feeling lost in the space that surrounded her. Her new room was empty and smelled of cleanliness. It was obvious no one had lived here in a while. Unlike the castle, this place was bright and littered with windows where the sunlight could stream in. There were no shadows or nooks for her to hide in. It was just openness. She missed home. Sa'lu had told her this would be her hardest challenge yet. Her words were already proving to be so.
Alessia fiddled with the dragon whistle Laurence had given her, running her thumb along the intricate carving of a dragon clinging to the whistle, moth open and roaring at some unknown enemy. Dragonchildren used them when training their dragons. Did this mean that she would have a dragon of her own soon? She felt the hope flutter in her stomach at the thought. Maybe when Laurence finished his training he would come and see her as he promised, and he could show her how the whistle worked. Unable to resist the temptation, she gave it a quick, sharp blow, noting it's low, earthy sound that seemed to resonate across the room like a solemn cry. A lonely cry. Not unlike how she felt right then. She placed the whistle away on her bedside table and curled up on her pillow. How many more sleeps would it be before she could see Laurence again?
She closed her eyes and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
Alessia woke later that night with a gasp and vaulted upright on the bed. The sun had long since set, making way for a black sky that not even the moon was willing to penetrate. Long shadows swept across the room in attempt to blot out the din of city lights. But it was the sudden hit of cool that had startled her. A cold shiver seeped into her bones and she clambered under the blanket, desperate for warmth. There was something about this night… It wasn't natural. A feeling of awareness tickled at her senses and caused the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end. The realisation hit her even before she saw it. She wasn't alone.
A tall figure stepped from the shadows...
And then, she forgot.