Chapter 1
A Comforting Heart

AZ 1452 - Early Spring
Thermodas Forest, Notos

Corona spent the years of her exile searching for a confluence of the æther currents to boost her powers enough to break the seal on her true form. Her search led her southward beyond the sea to a land called Notos by its inhabitants. In the vast Thermodas Forest, she found the confluence she had been seeking.
The Æthertide was near its ebb, so the confluence did not have the potency she was hoping for. It would be three months until the next peak and she did not intend to wait that long. Even a dwindling confluence of this size might prove to be enough to give her the extra push she needed to thwart the craft of Xorgoth's sorcerers.
Standing in silent meditation, she focused her mind's eye on an image of her original form. The image was quite clear, but she could feel the resistance of the seal. With their combined powers, the court sorcerers could cast a formidable spell, but it could not withstand her own power enhanced by the confluence. It was simply a matter of time.
A seal made by Black Dragons was similar to a briar patch. By tearing through the twisted vines of dark magic, the seal would eventually be destroyed. Corona was making steady progress when she felt a sentient presence approaching, a human.
She broke her meditation, hoping to deal with the interference before the seal could regenerate. The human came into view, a young male wearing armor. She could sense the magic of the Forest Children in the sword he carried, but the man himself had no inherent magical power to him. At any other time, she would usually ignore such an insignificant creature, but her current form was too vulnerable.
She had to decide between hiding from the potential threat and killing it. Even with the seal on her powers and the frailty of her current form, she was still stronger and faster than almost any human. She moved in quickly. Before the human knew what was happening, she knocked him on his back, drew his sword and held the edge to his neck.
"I will give you a choice, human," she said coolly. "You can leave now or you can die."
She slowly rose, keeping the point steadied at the human's throat. The human cautiously rose to his feet, holding his hands up in a display of passivity. He seemed harmless enough, but looks were deceiving and humans were a treacherous race.
"I don't want to cause you any trouble, milady," the human said. "I'll go without another word. But first... May I have my sword back?"
She narrowed her eyes at the impertinent young male and asked him, "Which is more important: your sword or your life?"
"A knight's sword is his life, milady," the human replied. "That sword in particular is worth more than my life. I have no intention of harming you. Violence against women and the unarmed is against the knight's code."
Though Dragons were largely indifferent to the mores of human society, Corona gathered that a few humans tried to adhere to some sort of code of honor, insofar as their feeble, savage little brains were capable of comprehending such a weighty concept. She certainly did not intend to rely on such a weak sort of honor.
"Why should I trust the word of a human?" she asked disdainfully.
"The word of a human is one thing, milady," the young male said, "the word of a knight is another." He lowered his hands and slowly dropped to his knees. "If you don't think you can trust my word, then kill me now, but I don't think you will. I know you're not a evil person or the wards on my sword would've repelled you."
He looked directly in her eyes with an unwavering confidence and determination that she never would have expected from his kind. Intriguing...
"My life is in your hands," he said calmly. "Do what you will."
Killing a mere human would be little more than a trifle, like crushing an ant underfoot, but something stayed Corona's hand. She could tell this human was a creature of pure heart and great boldness and she was struck with an idea. Perhaps the human could prove himself to be useful to her. Was it worth the risk, though?
She asked the human, "These... 'knights' as you call them, they do not harm the weak?"
"Not if they're worthy of the title."
"Is it more than simply refraining from harm? Do they protect?"
"Of course. It's a knight's first duty, even above his service to his lord and the state."
"Would a knight like you even protect a... stranger to this land like me?"
"A person's birth shouldn't make any difference to a knight's duty."
"Would you then pledge yourself to my protection?"
"I could."
Corona narrowed her eyes at him and said, "What you can do and what you will do are not the same."
"That's true," the human admitted. "I've already taken a pledge to protect the people of my homeland, but I won't abandon a person in need. I will surely give you safe conduct to wherever you're going."
"I have already arrived at my destination," Corona replied.
"Who protected you until now?"
"I fended for myself."
"Then what do you need with me?"
This human was cleverer than she expected from his kind. He was an honest sort, though, so her answers came easily, even if she was being evasive about the whole truth of her purpose.
"I have a task I must perform in this place," she said. "A watchful eye could save me much trouble."
"I suppose I could spare some time."
That would have to do. Satisfied with the human's answers, Corona turned the blade around and extended the hilt to him.
"Very well," she said. "Take up your sword and show me what a knight can do."
The human took hold of the hilt and promptly returned it to its sheath. Corona was prepared for treachery, but she scarcely had time to even shift her weight when the immediate threat passed. Though she still had lingering doubts, perhaps she could afford a limited measure of trust to this human after all.
Rising to his feet, the human gave a curt bow and said, "My name is Ionathas, son of Salemon, of Maranthe. I come from the village south of here. My company and I have been hunting the beasts that lurk in the forest. It's a wonder you didn't fall prey to them."
"It is not common beasts that concern me," Corona replied.
"Begging your pardon, milady, but these are no common beasts. They're foul, terrible monsters not seen in these lands since the Dominion invaded over three hundred years ago."
The words changed, but the truth of the matter did not, nor did Corona's answer.
"As I said, I am not concerned about any common beasts, but it would seem that our reckoning of 'common' differs. It is only you humans that pose a threat to me because only humans are senseless enough to approach one such as I."
The human--Ionathas as he called himself--seemed taken aback.
"You mean you're not human?"
Corona held up her hands and looked at them.
"Is this form so convincing?" she asked.
Ionathas continued to look at her and said, "Step into the light here, if you would."
Corona obliged, stepping into a shaft of sunlight filtering through a break in the canopy. Human eyes were much weaker than those of Dragons, apparently, but with the aid of the sunlight, Ionathas was able to tell the difference.
"What are you?" he asked.
"I am a daughter of Tiamat," Corona replied, "a Dragon as your kind would say."
"I've never heard of Dragons taking the form of a human before."
"It is not something we are wont to do," Corona said with a sigh. "I have been cursed and I have come to this place to break that curse. If you are so eager to pledge your sword to a lady's protection, perhaps you can ensure there are no further distractions. You would be well rewarded for your service."
"Virtue is its own reward, milady. What do I need to do?"
Humans were well known for their greed. Admittedly, if Corona was honest with herself, most Dragons were rather greedy themselves. The hoards they would gather in the lands beyond the Valley of Tiamat was one of the primary reasons they were hunted by humans and Mountain Folk alike. Greed clashes with greed and blood flows in between.
She did not know if she wholly believed Ionathas' claim of being uninterested in a reward, but the simple fact that he would make the claim was unexpected and intrigued her further. If she were not about to unlock her true form and return to the Valley of Tiamat to strike back at the Dragon King, she might have studied this human further.
"See that I am unmolested while I meditate here," she told Ionathas. "Soon you will bear witness to my full glory. Keep your courage about you, though, lest my true form overwhelm you with terror."
Ionathas nodded and took a few steps back to walk the perimeter of the clearing. It was a risk, but Corona would trust him to do his sworn duty. She returned to her meditation.
As she feared, the vines of the seal had grown back while she was dealing with Ionathas. She would have to start over from the beginning, but she was a patient Dragon. One by one, she uprooted the vines. The dark energies caused her pain, but she could bear much pain if it meant the restoration of her powers.
Eventually, the vines were all cleared away. The time had finally come.
"Stand back," she warned Ionathas.
Magical energies whipped around her as she brought her true form into focus. Her feet lifted off the ground and her eyes glowed with pure white light. This was it.
Or was it?
The flow of the æther was cut off abruptly and Corona crumpled onto the ground.
Rushing to her side, Ionathas asked, "What happened?"
As the magical energies continued to recede, Corona caught one last glimpse of the seal, now a thick black shell. A second seal, more powerful that the first. The court sorcerers were craftier than she thought.
She looked down at the feeble hands of her human form. Her finger could barely dig into the dirt the way the claws of her true form would cleave solid rock. It would have been easy to succumb to despair, but Corona reminded herself that the peak of the Æthertide was a mere three months away. She would have another chance, a better chance. She could afford to wait a little while longer.
She looked to Ionathas and said, "It would seem that I will be needing you a while longer yet."