Zariba hated the winter.
As far as the eye could see, black jagged mountains erupted from the ground far below and reached up to the grey, bitter sky, seemingly piercing it with their blunt peaks blanketed in white snow. Wrapped tightly in his grey fur-trimmed cloak, Zariba held onto the rope that held him fast to the base of Kora’s neck as she soared through the blistering cold, the wind blowing through his locs and biting at his half-numb knuckles. The simple clothes and leather boots he wore did little to keep him warm. His only source of warmth was the wool blanket upon which he sat, and the smooth, scaled shoulders underneath. Kora beat her four wings simultaneously in an effort to stay aloft. The young dragonet herself was about as big as a horse, with a strong neck and a long tail and covered in golden scales, and when her wings unfolded, they were wide enough to lift her effortlessly off the ground.
Zariba looked to his right to see a two-winged dragonet with a sandy pelt flapping alongside them, atop her back rode a weird-looking man wearing several sheets of armor and a hooded green cape. “Relax, Yara, relax,” he chided. “You’re flapping too hard. Use the wind current instead of fighting it.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Yara huffed. “How about you try flying in cold air and see how you feel then?”
“Except I don’t have wings like you do,” Stefan replied nonchalantly as he studied his map. He gripped its corners in his fingers to keep it from flapping about in the wind. “Besides, I can already tell how cold it is just being up here with you blokes.”
Kora sent a glare toward Stefan. “You know, human,” she growled, “You should consider yourself lucky Yara let you ride her, otherwise if it had been me, I’d have flung you off days ago.”
“Don’t be mean, Kora,” Yara said. ”He m-maybe a little bossy, but still, he means well. At least, I think he does.”
“I think you’re too trusting,” Kora scoffed. “Why are we bringing him along anyway?”
“Because he knows where to go! You know, where to find the secret ancient dragon clan hidden in a valley of shadows?” Yara responded.
Kora shrugged. “You know that’s just a play on words, don’t you?”
Zariba rolled his eyes and stared out ahead. Kora and Yara were sisters, no doubt, and rather young, so they tended to quarrel a lot over silly things. Let them quarrel for now, he thought.
The four had been traveling like this for almost a week- flying all day, stopping once to rest and eat, and then spending the evenings looking for an empty den or building a crude shelter for the night. They were in search of a clan of dragons hidden in an remote valley deep in the Northern Highlands. According to Stefan, it was a sanctuary for dragons from all corners of the earth, protected by an ancient and mysterious Dragon of white scales. He was known as the Silver Dawning. He guarded the valley from men who wanted to slay dragons and pillage the earth, and it was said that dragons who had lost their homes would seek him out for refuge.
The journey there was not easy. The weather was treacherous, and food was greatly scarce. Only a few days ago, Kora managed to hunt down a lone elk, and while she and Yara helped themselves to much of the meal, Zariba and Stefan preserved some of the meat for leftovers. But now there were no leftovers left, and the two dragonets were getting hungry and exhausted. Zariba knew they had to reach this clan, or whatever they were, by the time the sun set.
This had to be it, after a long and hard journey, right?
Don’t get your hopes up now, his inner voice whispered. Zariba’s thoughts drifted back to the dream he’d had last night. He couldn’t remember much of it, but it left him with a gnawing feeling of unease, like something awful was going to happen just when they had finally made it.
“Zariba!” Kora said, turning her head back to look at him. “Were you just daydreaming again?” she asked.
Zariba frowned at Kora. “I do not daydream.”
“Oh sure,” Kora replied. “And you don’t talk in your sleep either?”
“Ha!” Stefan laughed. “More than that- you were flailing about and ranting like a madman last night! What was up with that?”
Zariba looked at Stefan exasperatedly. Although he was a few years older, Zariba could tell he was still a young man, about seventeen or eighteen. Both sides of his head were shaved, and his light brown hair was combed over on the right side of his head like a horse’s mane. To add to his wild appearance, his left ear was riddled with an assortment of piercings. He had high cheekbones and piercing brown eyes and a crooked smile that gave off a sense of smugness.
“Eh…” Zariba scoffed and shook his head, looking away. “It’s nothing.”
“Alright then,” Stefan sighed. “Suit yourself. Just thought there’d be a reason why a certain someone who’s quiet all day is suddenly vocal in his sleep at night.”
“Oh give him some rest Stefan,” Yara said. “Zariba isn’t quiet- he talks when he feels like it.”
Zariba felt a twinge of warmth at hearing Yara’s words. He almost liked it when she spoke defensively of him, even though he never asked. Zariba didn’t really trust Stefan much, but he didn’t hate him either. He was so far the only person who didn’t try to kill him or put him in chains. He didn’t even seem to regard him with scorn or disgust- like all the other white-skinned people who came into his short life. He also shared some knowledge of dragons and cared about Kora and Yara’s well-being, in spite of being a boastful ass.
Besides, it felt a little reassuring to have someone who knew this land more. Zariba only wished he just stop talking so much. That’s all he seemed to do- talk about himself, his adventures, and so on. Yara seemed to enjoy listening to his stories, often asking him many questions about what sorts of people and creatures he’d met or what lands he had traveled to.
“I really hope he knows what he’s doing,” Zariba mumbled.
Kora snorted. “You and me both. I don’t understand how Yara can put all her trust in him.” Zariba gently stroked her neck. Pushing aside his thoughts, Zariba stared out at the grey horizon. He listened to Kora’s four wings beat through the air as she carried them high above the mountains.
Up here it was freezing cold, but Zariba felt something else entirely that nudged at his worried thoughts. He felt light. That nothing was holding him down. That he and Kora could just fly on through whatever weather may come, cold or hot, stormy or clear. Flying on to the ends of time… I’m riding on the back of a dragon flying high up in the sky, and I’m upset about the cold, Zariba half-smiled, when I could be enjoying this amazing moment. He looked around at the vast clouds that hovered in the sky and the white mountains dotted with patches of green forest. A flock of cawing birds flew past the group.
With a surge of warmth emerging in his chest, Zariba was just about to ask Kora if she wanted to climb higher when a sudden blast of cold that made Zariba’s teeth chatter. He felt Kora shudder from her head to the tip of her tail. Traces of snow blew past them like sand in a desert. A monstrously large cloud was rumbling towards them. It stretched from the horizon all the way to the top of the sky, blocking out the daylight and plunging the world into a cold darkness.
Yara roared in dismay. “This is crazy! We’ve been flying to nowhere for days! I’m tired and I’m hungry and I’m cold!”
“That’s the third time you’ve said that!” retorted Kora. “We’re all tired and hungry and cold, in case you haven’t noticed!”
“We’re not even there yet!” Yara continued complaining. “Ugh, it’s gonna take us forever to find that secret dragon clan!”
“Hey!” Zariba shouted over the wind. “That is enough quarreling, you two! Stefan, how much further?” He turned to Stefan, who was squinting his eyes at the flapping map.
“Uh… not much further, I hope,” Stefan replied. “But we do need to stop and rest for the day.” Zariba got a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
This was not like Stefan, who was always confident and boasting but was now suddenly unsure.
Zariba lost his patience. “Do you even know where the fuck we are going?” he snapped.
“Yes I do, damn it!” Stefan shouted back. “But we can’t just fly into that blizzard and expect to come out alive! We need to land!”
“No!” Zariba replied. “We’re nearly there, are we not?”
Kora turned her head to Zariba. “Zariba, we have to change course. As much as I don’t like Stefan, I agree that that cold storm is too dangerous.”
Please, Zariba,” Yara pleaded.
Zariba went silent for a moment, then sighed, “Alright, fine. Let us make haste.”
It felt like it took a whole hour to escape the sudden storm, but by the time they had landed on a low hill beneath the tall mountains the sky was clear and it got a little warmer.
Thank the Lord, Zariba breathed a sigh of relief.
Yara slumped to the ground in exhaustion while Kora sat on her haunches, panting. Zariba untied himself and slid off of Kora’s back and stumbled when his feet touched the ground. Having recovered his balance, he shuddered and rubbed his shoulders with his hands. He walked over to Stefan, who was busy dusting himself.
“So where are we now?” Zariba asked. Stefan looked at him a moment, then pulled out his crumpled map.
“So in a way, we were that close,” he explained, pointing to the small drawing of a fire-breathing dragon flying over a row of snow-covered peaks. “But thanks to your freak blizzard, we reversed direction and flew west, down to here,” tracing his fingertip down to another drawing of a low valley with a forest. “We probably have only a couple hours to find shelter before the blizzard catches up to us. We’ll check out those peaks tomorrow when the storm has cleared.”
“I hope you are right, Stefan,” Zariba glared. “You better be.” He shuddered. “I do not know how much longer can take this wretched weather.”
“You’ll get used to it, eventually,” Stefan shrugged his shoulders. He pulled on his gloves and began to walk away. “You see to those dragonets now, will ya? I’ll go survey our surroundings.”
Zariba shook his head. Bloody dragon expert, my arse. Always going around acting like the leader.
He walked over to Kora, who was busy licking one of her upper wings, and Yara, who was now sitting up on her haunches, head low and slightly shivering. He took off his cloak and draped it over Yara’s back. Yara looked up at Zariba and gave a small smile. The strange gemstone embedded in her forehead flashed a purple hue. Zariba then walked to the edge of the hill to get a clear look of the valley. It was wide, and yet very low, surrounded by towering jagged mountains that almost seemed to touch the sky. It looked as if a giant dragon had scraped out a huge chunk of earth with his claw. A thick forest covered the valley in a blanket of green. Zariba noticed the tiny dots of houses off in the distance, hinting that there was some kind of a village.
“You gonna stop staring any time soon?” Kayla padded over, snickering.
“Oh, do forgive me for observing this strange and foreign country,” Zariba rolled his eyes. The dragonet snorted into her human brother’s hair, muffling it. “And stop sniffing at my locs,” he added. “What are you doing? Trying to muffle them?” Zariba shook his head and brushed back his locs with his hand.
“Hmm…” Kora stretched her neck out, scanning the valley with her keen eyes. “So this the so-called valley of shadows? This valley seems pretty normal to me,” she said.
Yara walked over to Zariba’s right. “Look at those human dwellings out in the distance. Why would humans ever want to live up here?”
Zariba wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I have no idea,” he replied. And I don’t like it.
He wondered why there would be a village so close to dragon territory if the people of this land hated and feared them.
Maybe they’re different? Maybe they live peacefully amongst them?
“Come on now,” Kora said. “I say we stop freezing our butts off up here and look for a nice warm den somewhere down in these woods.”
“We might not need to. Look,” said Stefan. Zariba, Kora and Yara turned their heads to what Stefan was pointing to.
There was a large house about seventy feet away on the other end of the hill. It stood right adjacent to two large mountains that narrowed into a canyon, and it was built out of dark stone with a roof made up of brown tiles. From a distance, it stood menacingly, like a predator watching its prey.
“Well, now,” Stefan declared. “I guess we won’t be sleeping in a cave tonight.” He picked up his pack and slung it over his shoulder. “This time we’ll be in fat beds by a hot fire.”
“Are you sure Stefan?” Zariba asked. “What if the people in that house do not take so kindly to us?”
“Oh don’t you worry,” Stefan waved dismissively. “This place looks like it’s been uninhabited for years. And yet if it isn’t, I’ll just tell our hosts that you three are my trusted companions and that you are friendly and mean no harm.” He began to walk to the house.
“ ‘Trusted companions.’ ” Kora echoed. “That’s the same nonsense you preached to that clan of hunters who captured us a week ago. If it weren’t for Zariba, we would never have gotten away alive!”
Zariba stroked Kora’s neck. “Let’s just follow him,” he sighed.
“Uhhh, I don’t know,” Yara said. “Mother told us never to go near human dwellings.”
“Mother is no longer here, Yara,” Kora replied softly. “We’re on our own now.” She began to trudge towards the house. Zariba noticed a twinge of sadness in Yara’s amber eyes before she followed her sister.
As the group approached the house, Zariba stared at it with mounting anxiety. He looked at the dried-black walls, its hissing gargoyles perched along the roof, and its tall, rusty windows that seemed to stare right back at him. All of a sudden, a string of images flashed through his mind’s eye.
Masked figures circling a fire.
A blade cutting through flesh, blood oozing out.
A pair of eyes wide open in horror.
Zariba stopped dead in his tracks. His breath caught in his throat, his gut twisted, and his heart rattled in his ribcage as the visions overtook him. That house… I-I know that house. I’ve seen it before… The images left just as they had come, leaving Zariba trembling in shock.
“Zariba?” he heard a voice say. When he got his bearings, he saw Yara, Stefan, and Kora looking back at him with mixed emotions of confusion and concern.
“That… house…” Zariba gasped, then shook his head. “Get away from the house!” he shouted suddenly.
Stefan looked surprised at Zariba. “Zariba, what the hell is going on with you-”
“Stefan, I’m serious!” Zariba exclaimed. “Do not go any further!” He ran past the two dragonets and in front of Stefan, blocking his away. “We must not go inside. This place is evil!” Yara looked at Zariba with wide eyes.
“Zariba, what are you talking about?” Kora asked.
“Calm down, lad, you’re being paranoid-” Stefan said.
“I’ve seen this house before. There’s something wrong with it,” Zariba replied. He looked over his shoulder at the house. “Stefan, guys, I’m speaking the truth here. I do not trust this house.”
“Hold it, hold it, back up a bit,” Stefan waved a hand at Zariba. “You said you saw this house before? Where?” Zariba opened his mouth, then stopped. He stared at Stefan for a moment before looking at Kora and Yara, who were both giving him the same confused look. He took in a breath and scrunched his eyebrows and said, “I saw it in the dream I had last night.”
Kora and Yara looked at each other. Stefan blinked dumbfoundedly. “In your dream?” He scoffed and threw his head back. “In your dream. You’re joking.”
Zariba glared fiercely at Stefan. “By God, Stefan, I’m not joking. This house is the same exact one that appeared in my dream.”
“Are you sure, Zariba?” Kora asked.
“What else did you see in your dream?” Yara asked as well. Stefan looked at her. “You’re really believing him, Yara?”
Now it was Yara’s turn to be indignant. “Stefan, what if this is true? Dreams are important, you know. If you dream of something and it becomes real, it means something.”
Stefan rolled his eyes. “So what? All he did was dream of a giant house out in the middle of nowhere and, voila! Here it is. I don’t see what’s so dangerous about it.”
“But what if he saw more in his dream?” Kora asked, looking at both Stefan and Yara. “Maybe this explains why he was freaking out in his sleep last night. Maybe this is as serious.” She turned to Zariba. “So if you already saw this house in your dream, then what was wrong with it?”
Zariba heard an unusual tone in Kora’s voice. It didn’t have a tint of sarcasm in it as it usually did, but instead it sounded expectant. Yara and Stefan also turned to Zariba, waiting for an answer. Zariba sighed heavily.
“In my dream, I saw more than just the house,” he said grimly. “I saw a dragon murdered.”