Chapter 34
The Offering

Caer Pendragon, Pendragon

Linhua opened her eyes to find herself lying on the floor in Princess Aurelia's bedchamber. She could not remember what had happened. She was watching over the Princess as she was being readied for bed, but after that everything was a blank. There was no sign of the Princess. Whatever had happened, Linhua needed to find her.
She pull out the charm she wore on a necklace under her dress. The charm was enchanted by Cassandra so that Linhua would always be able to find the Princess. All she had to do was hold the charm and think about Princess Aurelia. There was a pulse like a heartbeat that would beat faster the closer she got and a feeling of heat that would get warmer if the Princess was near.
She followed the charm's guidance to the roof of the keep, where she found the Princess and the Queen speaking with two men. One was a golden-haired youth who appeared to be around the Princess' age and the other was a hunched, sinister-looking sort she recalled seeing in Prince Cain's entourage. What were they doing here?
The two men looked at her, prompting the Queen to turn as well.
"Your Majesty, what is the meaning of this?" Linhua asked.
"This is what I get for subtlety," the Queen replied. "I should have just killed you. I will not be making the same mistake again."
The Queen stretched out her hand and flames swirled around her arm, converging into a ball of fire that streaked forth at Linhua. For all the good it would do her, Linhua held up her arms to shield herself. She fully expected to be burned to a cinder, but the flames never touched her. As she looked up, she caught a glimpse of the air shimmering around her.
The Queen scowled and muttered to herself, "Ever when she is not here, that woman interferes..."
Could it be that the charm Cassandra crafted to find the Princess also protected her? Linhua would have to thank her if she ever saw her again.
"Leave it," the hunched man said. "There is nothing one mere insect can do to interfere." He beckoned to the Princess. "Come, child."
The Princess slowly started to walk toward him.
"Your Highness!"
The Princess turned her head to Linhua. Her eyes were an eerie black, but then she blinked and they returned to normal. She held her head, looking around her in confusion.
"Linhua? Mother? Drago? What, what's happening?"
"Your Highness, you are in danger!" Linhua shouted. "Come away from them! Hurry!"
"Do not listen to her, Princess Aurelia," the hunched man said. "We have come to take you away from all this, just as you have always wanted. Your bridegroom awaits."
The Princess looked to the youth.
Shamefaced, the youth replied, "I'm sorry, Aurelia, but this is how it has to be."
Linhua did not know how the Princess knew the youth and she did not care. He did not seem to be the main threat. Because she could not raise a hand against the Queen, she threw the rope dart concealed in her sleeve at the hunched man. As fast as she was, no ordinary person would have been able to dodge it, but the hunched man swatted the dart away.
Linhua had to look twice. The hand the hunched man used to deflect her rope dart was transformed into something monstrous, covered in scales with long claws. As his hand transformed back, the youth looked at him in concern.
"Master Forktongue!"
The hunched man chided him, saying, "Calm yourself. There is no need for secrets with a dead worm."
Realizing the import of the hunched man's words, Princess Aurelia put herself between him and Linhua.
"I'll do what you want," the Princess told him, "but spare her. She's no threat to you."
The hunched man drew back his hand and said, "It would make things easier if you came willingly. Very well. Whether the insect lives or dies is of no concern to me. My mission is the only thing that matters."
Princess Aurelia turned to Linhua and said, "Leave us, Linhua. Go now."
"I cannot leave you to this creature," Linhua said. "I will not."
More forcefully, the Princess said, "I am ordering you."
"You are not greater than your father, Your Highness," Linhua replied. "He ordered me to protect you with my life and that is what I shall do."
"Linhua, please."
The sincerity of her plea gave Linhua all the more reason to ignore it.
"I will not leave you to these creatures."
She snatched up her rope dart and threw it at the hunched man again. He blocked it this time just as he did the time before, only his arm did not revert back to its human shape.
"You are foolish to try my patience, worm," the hunched man growled.
Far faster than she would have imagine by looking at him, never mind how deftly he deflected the rope dart twice, the hunched man sprang at her, raising his clawed hand to tear her apart.
She tried to dodge, but she was not fast enough. No human was fast enough. However, instead of feeling the hunched man's claws digging into her flesh, something hard as a stone knocked her to the ground. It was the golden-haired youth, who took the blow meant for her. Only he was not rent by those terrible claws. Indeed, he seemed to suffer no hurt at all.
"What are you doing?" the hunched man demanded.
"If you hurt the girl, Aurelia would be sad," the youth replied. "I can't allow that."
"You can't allow?" the hunched man balked. "You forget your place, whelp. Must I remind you?"
The youth said nothing.
"Do your job," the hunched man told him. "Deliver the offering. I will deal with matters here."
The youth did not move, but his eyes went to the Princess. Princess Aurelia looked at him confused, wounded. Betrayed.
The youth bowed his head and was silent for a moment. Then he looked up to the hunched man and said in a level, determined voice, "No."
The hunched man did not ask the youth to repeat himself as so many often do when they are defied. Instead he merely said, "The Prince was right about not trusting your kind. I wanted to believe you had more sense than that, but clearly I misjudged you."
"Happy to disappoint you," the youth replied bitterly.
"Not for long."
The hunched man leapt away from the youth, threw his head back and let out an inhuman roar that seemed to shake the very stones of the keep. His body glowed and his shape twisted and grew. The transformation of his arm before was but a glimpse of the true terror.
He had taken the form of a gigantic serpentine beast that nearly rivaled even the great Hulks commanded by Linhua's father. She had seen creatures of his kind in picture scrolls and decorations from her childhood. It took her a moment to recall the word in the tongue of the Pendragons. Of course, it was in their very name. Dragon.
The youth responded by transforming as well. He too took the shape of a Dragon, though it was a different kind. Smaller, thicker built, with a brilliant golden mane and two pairs of feathered wings.
The Grey Dragon said something in a growling voice Linhua could only guess was the tongue of Dragons. The White Dragon said something in reply. Whatever he said, it prompted the Grey Dragon to attack. Though flying in the air, he moved like a snake slithering in the grass. The White Dragon barely had the time to take to the air before they clashed.
"Drago, no!" Princess Aurelia cried.
The Princess did not just stand there helplessly, though. Resolving herself, her hand was wreathed in brilliant scarlet flames. The flames grew larger and more intense as the two Dragons were locked in aerial combat.
The Queen stretched out her hand and Aurelia's body was jolted. Her head bowed and her arm fell slack as the flames dimmed. The flames then changed color to a pale purple and the Princess straightened herself back up. She gathered her power once more, only now she made the White Dragon her target. She threw a large ball of fire that struck the White Dragon and knocked it off balance, leaving it vulnerable for the Grey Dragon to slip in and bite down on its neck.
Without thinking about the consequences, Linhua threw her rope dart and struck the Queen in the chest. Her hold over the Princess was broken immediately. She looked down at the dart in disbelief and when the full realization of what had happened dawned on her, she glared at Linhua.
"You... Damn you..."
If the Queen meant to do something, she collapsed before she could. The Princess, who was just returning to her senses, saw the Queen fall and cried, "Mother!"
She saw the line and traced it back to Linhua. The look she gave her was difficult to describe. There was no single emotion to it. It was the look you would give someone close to you who had just killed your mother. Confused, shocked, grief-stricken, betrayed. It did not seem to enter her mind what her mother was doing to her and that look she gave Linhua would haunt her to her dying day.
A pained cry from the White Dragon drew the Princess' attention away.
Summoning her power again, a chunk of crystal appeared out of thin air. Spikes grew out of the crystal, then folded inward as it reshaped itself into something like a great javelin. This crystal spear then flew through the air and pierced the Grey Dragon in the ribs. It screeched in pain, letting go of the White Dragon. The White Dragon looked at the crystal spear and bit down on it. Linhua was not sure, but it seemed like it was spewing pure light from its gullet through the crystal into the Grey Dragon's body.
The Grey Dragon thrashed about wildly, its cries nearly deafening. The light spilled out its mouth and eyes before it went silent and fell out of the air, crashing into the waters of the bay.
The White Dragon remained in the air for a time to survey its work before touching back down on the roof of the keep. Princess Aurelia ran to him.
The White Dragon glowed and reverted back to its human shape. The Princess ran at him and embraced him.
"Drago! Are you alright? You're hurt!"
The gold-haired youth touched his bleeding neck and said, "It's nothing, just a scratch. I'll heal soon."
"Drago, what's going on? You, Mother, that man..."
The youth was silent. From what Linhua could gather, his role was to gain the Princess' confidence to use her for whatever plot the Queen and the hunched man had planned. Apparently they did not plan for the youth suffering an attack of conscience. This was surely not the end of it, though.
"You must go," Linhua told him. "More will come."
"In that case, you need me," the youth said. "I can't go back now."
"Linhua, I--"
The Princess' words were cut short as she abruptly slumped over. Concerned, the youth reached for her.
Before his hand could touch her, a blast of sheer force knocked both him and Linhua back. Dazed for a moment, Linhua looked to the Princess to see that her eyes were once again that eerie black. She turned to where the Queen lay and saw her looking up with her hand outstretched, her eyes the same spider-black.
In a voice that was not her own, the Queen said, "You miserable worm. Did you think you could deny me my bride? She will come to me... after killing everything that his in her path. Rejoice, you worms, for it is better to die now by her hand than to bear witness to what is to come!"
The voice made a low chuckling as it faded into silence and the Queen collapsed once more.
Tendrils of dark energy rose off the Princess' body and her head twisted unnaturally as she looked to Linhua. Dozens of the tendrils lashed out at her, but before they could touch her, the youth put himself between her and the Princess and the tendrils bounced harmlessly off a shimmering wall raised to protect them. When this got her nowhere, the Princess turned her hand downward and a large hole erupted in the roof. Carried by the tendrils, Princess Aurelia descended below.
Turning to Linhua, the youth said, "I'm going to try to stop her, keep her from hurting anyone else at least. You need to warn people to stay away. We have to keep Aurelia in the castle. If she gets out, the further south she goes, the stronger the enemy's hold on her."
Although Linhua was reluctant to trust the youth, she did not see any better choice under the circumstances. He was the only one who could stand against the Princess' power. He was her only hope.
"When this is over, I would have you answer for what you have done," Linhua said.
"That'll depend on how this ends," the youth replied. "Now let's go."