Chapter 2
Breaking the Seal

AZ 1452 - Early Summer
Outside Kordai, Notos

A season had passed since the free knight Ionathas swore himself to Corona's service and because there was little else for her to do while she waited for the Æthertide to reach its peak, she took the time to learn more about the humans. She had never paid their kind much thought before--few Dragons did--, but the humans were in truth a fascinating subject of study. A more contradictory race had never walked the face of the earth. Surely they were weak, stupid and savage, but after their fashion, they could also be strong, clever and even noble. She did not like to admit it, but her kind gravely underestimated what the humans were capable of.
In the land called Notos, a different group of humans ruled instead of the natives, which had led to an uprising by a portion of the indigenous population. Whether it was because they had trained him in the arts of warfare or some other reason, Ionathas sided with the existing authority. Apparently the rebels were gaining significant inroads and Ionathas was called to lend his aid to stem the tide. He declared himself honor-bound to answer the call, leaving her little choice but to accompany him.
Less than thirty of his company were willing to leave their hometown for this mission. With the increased rebel activity, they understandably feared for the village's safety. This fear resonated with Ionathas as well and he had no word of reproach for those who stayed behind.
They arrived at the meeting place, a town called Kordai, after traveling for a day and a half. On the outskirts of the town, many hundreds of men were assembled, all arrayed for battle. Ionathas and his companions did not have to go far before they were met by a man clad in gilded armor. He was well-groomed and his bearing proud, obviously a creature of noble blood by human reckoning. Ionathas and his men all bowed before him, but Corona had no need to humble herself for a mere human, no matter his rank among his kind. The nobleman paid no heed to the slight, his attention fixed wholly on Ionathas.
"It warms my heart to see you, my boy," the nobleman said, speaking as a proud father. "Though I expected you sooner."
"My apologies, milord," Ionathas replied. "The native sons of Maranthe are loath to wander abroad, particularly in these dangerous times." He motioned to the men behind him and added, "It is a wonder as many of these agreed to join me."
Looking at those accompanying him, the nobleman asked, "And this was all you could bring?"
"The Hawks of Maranthe are a stout-hearted lot, milord, but hard-headed as well. When Maranthe herself is not on the line, it is not easy to move them."
"Then I take it the rest will be assisting the garrison and the militia."
"Yes, milord, even so."
"Well, nothing can be done about it," the nobleman said with a sigh. "At least you have come."
"I could not possibly refuse an order from you, milord."
Wagging his finger in mock scolding, the nobleman corrected him, saying, "Mine was a request for aid, not an order."
"I could no easier ignore one than the other."
The nobleman smiled. "Well met, my young friend." Looking at Corona for the first time, he said to Ionathas, "I know you are left wanting for men, but it is strange that you would resort to enlisting women. Who is your beautiful companion?"
Ionathas introduced her. "Her name is Corona, milord," he said. "She is a stranger to this land and I have pledged myself to her service so long as she remains in Notos." Gesturing to the nobleman, he then said to her, "Corona, this is Duke Cronos, legate of the Zephyrian Third Legion and governor-general of the Protectorate of Notos."
The man called Cronos took hold of her hand, raising it up to his lips.
"May I have this honor?" he asked.
"You may not," she replied bluntly, withdrawing her hand. In truth, she did not understand the meaning of the gesture, but it was entirely too forward for her tastes.
"Corona!" Ionathas exclaimed. Bowing low to the Duke, he hastily said, "Please forgive her, milord. She is not accustomed to dealing with humans. She does not understand our ways."
Ionathas abruptly stopped what he was saying, fearing that he had said too much. Indeed, this Duke took note of what he had said and began to look at her more closely.
"'Not accustomed to dealing with humans', you say? Yes, now that you mention it, I thought there was something unusual about her bearing. And I see that those are not Xotikan eyes either."
"Your human eyes serve you well enough," Corona replied. "Indeed I am not one of the Forest Children or Xotika as you call them."
"May I be so bold as to ask milady's heritage?"
His politeness to her in spite of the elevated position among his own kind softened Corona's attitude toward the Duke. Though her tone was still guarded, she replied without hesitation.
"I am a daughter of Tiamat, descended of the blood of the White Dragon King."
The Duke appeared surprised but not overly so.
"A Dragon in the shape of a human? This is truly a world of wonders."
Mistaking the comment for a statement of doubt, Corona replied with a hint of indignation, "The glory of my true form has been sealed away by the wretched servants of the pretender to my people's throne. In due time will the full scope of my powers be revealed."
The Duke bowed slightly. "I meant no offense by my words, milady. I was only stating my surprise that a rough lad like Ionathas has found himself such esteemed company."
Seeming slightly embarrassed, Ionathas scratched the back of his head silently. The Duke's pliant expression became grave as he looked to the free knight.
"Ionathas, I fear we can waste no more time on pleasantries. The time for action draws near and I need to inform you of the strategy and your part in it."
Shaking off his earlier discomfiture, Ionathas immediately responded with equal gravity. "Yes, milord, what would you ask of me?"
"I will be leading the main force in a direct assault on the city. We will strike from south, east and west, meeting the defenders in the streets and driving them all the way to the castle gates."
"What if they use the houses for cover and assail your men from the windows and rooftops?"
"Our battlemages will quickly dispatch any such threat. You should concern yourself with your own part, for it is a vital contingency."
"What is it?"
"You will lead a team of men I have hand-picked to sneak in from the north and infiltrate the castle. I am hoping that the rebels will flee to the castle and give us the opportunity to storm it while the gates are open, but they might be planning to force us into a siege.
"Your team will scale the castle walls and go to the gatehouse of the Lion Gate and open the gate if it gates has not already been opened. You will then enter the castle and head to the lower levels to prevent any of the rebels from escaping through the catacombs. Most of the other men I have chosen are familiar with the castle and will be able to guide you to the place you must defend."
"Milord, I would rather be certain that every man in the team, myself included, knows exactly where we need to go, lest the ones who know the way are killed or any of us get separated from the others."
"Very well," the Duke conceded, "the men privy to the knowledge should be able to help you. I would give you a map, but sadly there are none."
"I understand, milord," Ionathas replied. "But what of my men?"
"They will be part of the main force. I was considering using them in the rear guard."
"They would perform admirably in that service."
"I am confident of that," the Duke replied warmly. "Now to the topic of Lady Corona... It would be a danger to all of us if the rebels were to discover a Dragon among our ranks. For her safety as well as your own, she should be hidden away for the duration of the battle."
"You also consider me an asset to remain hidden," Corona interrupted, "is that not so?"
Showing not even the slightest sign of abashment, the Duke replied, "It is so. In my position, would you not think the same way?"
"I would, though I am no expert in the art of war."
Looking at Ionathas, she realized that any obstinance on her part would only cause him unnecessary trouble. It was not something she could do in good conscience, not to one as faithful and true as her knight.
Keeping her tone high and aloof, she said, "I will abide by your wishes and wait within the forest to the east."
"Very well," the Duke said. He turned to Ionathas and asked him, "Do you have any complaints, Ionathas?"
"No, milord."
"Good. We launch our assault tomorrow. Ionathas, you will be leaving in advance of the main force, but I will give you a few hours to rest from your trip and get acquainted with the team before you set out. You will wait in the foothills of Mount Atreus until you hear the signal that the attack has commenced, the men will give out such a roar that will shame the very thunderclouds."
Ionathas saluted the Duke, pounding his fist into the pit of his shoulder.
His men followed in suit, and they all said in unison, "To victory."
The Duke returned the salute and then turned to leave. Once he was gone, Ionathas looked to his men.
"You heard the Duke. You'll be pullin' rear guard for the main force. Any of you got a problem with that?"
"No, sir," they replied as one.
"Be sure to follow whatever orders they give you. The pride of Maranthe is resting on our shoulders. Get some rest for now and I'll go find what unit you'll be assigned to."
As his men dispersed, Ionathas turned his attention to Corona.
"Thank you, Corona," he said. "Thank you for not arguing with the Duke. I know you have your pride and I really appreciate it."
"Think nothing of it," she replied casually. "A wise person knows what battles are worth fighting. More importantly, I want you to be careful out there. I sense something amiss in the North. You must not let your guard down."
"Don't worry," Ionathas said. "I'm not going to let myself get caught up in some petty rebel trap."
"It is not the work of humans that I sense..." she replied ominously. "The seal on my powers is nearly broken. I may be able to aid you if the need arises, but you must not rely on that. Promise me you will be careful."
The free knight looked surprised at the depth of her concern for him. In all honesty, it surprised her as well.
Looking at her with his eyes that knew no guile, he said earnestly, "I promise... and I'll be there to see you when you regain your powers."
Corona smiled. What was this affection she felt for this human? The warm feeling was completely alien to her in all the long centuries she had been alive. Something inside her wanted to hold on to that feeling and defend it with all her might. She could feel the tangled briars of the first seal begin to recede and cracks form in the thick shell of second. What could this mean?
She pondered the question until Ionathas left on his mission and throughout the night. As she set out for the cover of the woods before daybreak, she continued to wonder on the curious sensations that filled her heart. Near the point of the confluence where she and Ionathas met, she went into deep meditation, but the question continued to hound her.
Love. Was that what it was? The tongue of Dragons had no word for love. Some languages had only one word, others had many. Was it mere carnal passion? No, for only an adult male Dragon of her own kind could incite such a reaction, and only then during the proper season. Was it some deeper emotion, a feeling that crossed the bounds of race and time and distance? A feeling that bonded soul to soul, love of the spirit... Was that what she felt for Ionathas?
Her ears picked up the sound of a great commotion in the distance. The Duke may have overstated the magnitude of the battlecry of his men, but it was an impressive display nonetheless. Who would imagine such small creatures could have such voices that could carry for miles?
She was suddenly gripped by the uneasy feeling that had troubled her the day before. It was a magic unlike anything a human could ever wield. The magic of the Elder Ones. Worse yet, it bore the mark of the Eldest of Elders. Uneasiness precipitated into fear. No human could stand against the power of the Elders. Even the Greater Dragons were hard-pressed to stand against them.
Her thoughts centered on Ionathas. He was in grave danger out there. His frail body could easily be destroyed by an Elder One's might. She felt a tight squeezing in her chest. She wanted to help him, to save him. No matter what it took, even if it cost her life, she wanted to protect him.
It was at that moment a brilliant light shone from within her. The twin seals of the Black Dragons melted away as the burning light engulfed her very soul. Her whole body radiated with light as she could feel the bonds of her false form give way. Two pairs of feathered wings white as snow emerged from her back as her body grew. Her nails stretched into long talons and lustrous white scales covered her skin.
Before the light could fade to reveal her true form, she burst out from the cover of the trees, her powerful wings propelling her through the air faster than any beast of the land could run. Within moments, the great city of the humans came into view. Just as she had sensed, the barrier of an Eldest of Elders was protecting the castle while bolts of pure magical energy raked across the ranks of the men assaulting the gate.
She sensed a redirection of the energy within the barrier to a single point on the northern side. A small ring could be seen where energy was being gathered for an attack. The ring was encircling Ionathas! Through some unknown means, he had launched himself into the air and was vainly attempting to pierce the barrier with his enchanted sword. There was not a moment to lose. Charging her body with all the æther she could draw from wind and sun to increase her speed, she snatched up Ionathas at the last possible instant, barely managing to raise a barrier of her own in time to repel the bolt that surged from the ring. Her barrier withstood the bolt, but it could not survive another and neither could she.
As she flew overhead, she called out to the men on the ground, fruitlessly struggling against a power they could not possibly comprehend.
"MEN OF ZEPHYR, TURN BACK! YOU ARE NO MATCH FOR THIS POWER!"
Whether they heeded her warning or not, she did not stop flying until she reached the forest. Landing with the utmost care, she placed Ionathas on the ground as gently as her gigantic body could manage. With a brief incantation, her body returned to the human form Ionathas was familiar with. The free knight looked at her in amazement.
"Did I surprise you?" she asked.
"No," he said awkwardly. "When I heard your voice, I knew it was you. Even before then... somehow I just knew..."
"Are you hurt?" she asked, worried that she might have injured him when she carried him off.
"No, I'm fine thanks to you."
Corona was happy to hear that he was unharmed, but a change in his countenance troubled her. He looked as if his very spirit had been cast into the Abyss.
"What is wrong?" she asked.
"All the Duke's planning was in vain..." he replied, looking down at the ground. "We couldn't even touch the castle walls..."
Corona rested a hand on his shoulder and said, "There was nothing you could have done. It was beyond your power, beyond even my power. Your enemies have enlisted the aid of an Elder One, one of the Eldest of Elders. I do not know what business their evil kind has with these humans you fight, but there was no way you could have known beforehand. You are alive and that is all that matters. Even in defeat, a living man can fight again."
Her attempts to comfort Ionathas reminded her of her own defeat at the hands of Xorgoth and his lackeys. Although he remained melancholy, her words seemed to encourage him a little.
"We should try to meet up with the others," he said.
Corona nodded and the two began to seek out the Duke and his men. As they walked, Corona thought on a disturbing thing she saw while she was flying to Ionathas' rescue. She had seen the shapes of many men swarm into the town they called Kordai. She was gripped with an ill feeling, but she chose to keep it a secret from Ionathas. For now, at least, she wanted to spare him any further heartbreak.