by Amanda Cast
Fire and Brimstone
The mage obviously had not waited in the appropriate area for the hosts of the house to see him. He followed closely behind the
He struck Pandora as unnatural.
“Ah, wonderful,” he said with a rich, full voice that sounded hollow all at the same time. “Greetings.”
Pandora frowned at him. Everyone was frowning at him.
“Ah, Arch Mage,” Lindal finally said with a smile plastered on his face. “Welcome to my home.”
“Thank you,” he said and looked over at Serene. She had a protective arm over the dragons.
Pandora walked over to the bench. The barrier felt almost like spider webs, but it slowly receded. “Cool off, Ruby,” she murmured and nudged him. It opened its eyes and then all the heat that had been radiating through its hide pulled into its center and it was cool to the touch again. Pandora scooped the hatchling up into her arms and stepped over to hide Emerald under the bushes.
“Hatchlings?” he said with a rye smile. “I thought they were just eggs. But then, Hindeon never came back yesterday?”
“Oh? I thought he went straight back home,” Lindal said. “Especially after he so rudely went into shadowstep while in my home.” His voice took a dark quality.
“Really? Do you have any witnesses?”
“My daughter and my niece,” Lindal said. “Would you call all three of us liars?”
“No, certainly, but now I am concerned. I will have to take a look at the area that he was in when he went into shadowstep. I hope you understand,” he said. “It was only yesterday, the residue should still be there.”
“You will have our cooperation in that regard,” Lindal said. “Is that all?”
“Oh, that was,” he said. “I’m almost satisfied with that matter. However, now I see two girls with three hatchlings? Very fascinating.”
Pandora held onto Ruby more tightly and it made a sound of protestation. She loosened her grip. Emerald peeked out from the bushes and made a quiet hissing noise.
“They’re quiet too. I suppose they’ve nothing to say?” He chuckled and walked farther into the garden. His long robes pulled the loose pebbles after him until they managed to escape. Pandora wished there was an escape for her and Serene when their little hatchlings.
“You haven’t asked them anything. Perhaps we should go talk in the parlor,” he said.
“Oh, I’d like to see the dragons.”
Ruby hissed and its body strained as though it was ready to strike the mage. His steps faltered to a stop.
“I think you can see them,” Serene said. She turned up beside her cousin with two of the hatchlings in her arms. “But I don’t think they want you close to them.”
“Why is that?”
“They don’t want to say,” she said defiantly.
“They can talk.” He chuckled. “Now, there is no reason that everyone of us can’t get along.” He looked at Lindal. “I think there are a few things that we should deal with,” he said.
Lindal nodded. “You girls stay put,” he ordered and the two nodded.
It seemed true. They had nothing to say. Serene did not utter a word as they sat in the garden. They simply sat down on the bench and waited. Pandora watched the flowers and leaves. She etched the lines of the graveled paths and the cobble stone circles.
She wondered if her time in this gaudy wonderland was to come to a close. She could not describe what she felt as happiness while she was there. In fact, she was not certain what happiness was. She was content, but then she had always been content.
Serene took Pandora’s hand and squeezed it. Pandora looked up at her face. It was a perfect, beautiful face, but the vibrancy that had always been there was gone or at least hiding away. She looked scared, but she smiled a smile that was supposed to be comforting.
Pandora gave her a hopefully comforting smile back, but she imagined that she just looked stupid to Serene.
She was only Serene’s simple cousin. Serene’s quiet cousin.
Ruby butted her hand and she petted it affectionately. All this worrying was biting into their sleeping time. It almost made her feel guilty. Almost.
It seemed like forever, and then it seemed like a only a few moments, before her Uncle Lindal came out again with the Arch mage behind him. He looked defeated, but not angry or particularly upset. It worried Pandora. He motioned for the mage to stay behind and the mage stopped. Pandora glared at him. She thought he looked smug.
“I’m sorry, girls,” he said softly. “It is out of my hands.”
“What is wrong, Daddy?”
“The…They know how I made my fortune, love. They know that you’re involved.” He kneeled down in front of his daughter and gathered her hands into his. “They are saying that they’re going to execute us both if you don’t cooperate.” He looked at Pandora with pleading eyes. “If you both don’t cooperate.”
“What do they want, Daddy?”
“They said… the Emperor and the mage…said that all would be pardoned and forgiven if you and the hatchlings will go and live and learn at the Academy. If you behave…you can come and see me on the holidays.” He kissed his daughter’s hands. “It is up to the both of you and the hatchlings.”
“We go where our mothers go,” Topaz said and the others agreed.
“I do not want you to die, Uncle Lindal,” she said. “I do not want Serene to die either.” She sighed. “If Serene agrees to it. I will go.”
Pandora watched Serene. There was despair there. The Academy would be a prison. She had learned almost everything she knew from her father. He gave her unspeakable freedoms. She also loved her father more than anything else in the world.
“I will go,” she agreed. “Please leave here as soon as you can, Daddy, and then Pandora and I will escape with the hatchlings. All right?”
He gave her a weak smile and raised up to give her a kiss on the cheek. “You are everything precious to me. You and your mother have changed me in ways that are unbelievable. I’m more human than I am elf. Where would I go?”
“To live with the dragons, maybe?”
“Not without you,” he told her.
“Then when we flee, we’ll come here for you,” she amended.
“Behave and come and see me on holidays,” he said.
“Be strong, Uncle Lindal,” Pandora said, touching his arm. “We will be patient. We will be free.”
“All of us,” Serene said.
“Go pack your things,” he said. “They demand that you go now. They will not risk you running away.”
Serene was abnormally quiet and her face was pale with red, blotchy spots on her cheeks. Her eyes were puffy and pink and her nose was encrusted with dried snot. Her hands were shaking with weakness. She had cried herself into exhaustion. Pandora didn’t even choke up while they were leaving. Serene had railed at her then too. Now there was no strength left in her.
“It’s not so bad,” the Arch Mage said to Serene. “If you’re well behaved and promise to be good you can see him during the seasonal holidays.”
The girls didn’t respond to him. The dragons were sleeping.
“Did you know that yesterday there was an earthquake. There hasn’t been one documented in over thirty thousand years. Hundreds of people have gone missing too. Did you know that?” he asked. When they didn’t answer them he continued. “Volcanoes erupted as well. It’s all the mages can do to keep the Imperial city kept together. Do you know how much lethal smoke comes out of a volcano? We didn’t either until one erupted. We thought they were myths. Fascinating, the times we’re living in.”
“What is your point?” Pandora asked finally.
“I don’t really have one. I was just updating you two on current events.” He looked out of the window for a time as if to see what was so fascinating with the view. Then he said to Pandora, “How good are you with magic?”
“Good?” she asked and then gave a small smile. “I cannot do magic.”
“Have you ever tried?”
“With someone teaching you?”
She hesitated and then she shook her head.
“Maybe you can perform some simple magic with some teaching,” he said. “Anyone can do magic.”
“If you say so,” Pandora said with decided disinterest. She gripped Serene’s arm and gave it a comforting squeeze. Serene did not even look at her. She simply stared out the window with that same blank expression. “Why didn’t we just take a Center to the Academy?” Pandora asked after a long stretch of silence.
“Oh, I didn’t want to take the dragons through. People would see them and we don’t want anyone panicking.” He gave her what was supposed to be a kindly smile. She did not appreciate it.
“They’re just hatchlings,” she snorted and then closed her eyes. “I think I’m going to take a nap.”
The Arch Mage was silent the rest of the journey even though Pandora did not dose off. She was mildly upset that her sparring with her Uncle had been disturbed. She was also annoyed that she and Serene had been forced away from their home and to the Academy. Apparently the Emperor had been involved. She could not imagine why.
She cleared her mind and the rest of the ride was uneventful and quiet. Serene did not start crying again and the hatchlings did not wake up. However, when they reached the school all the four of them could think about was food. Serene looked green at the prospect and Pandora thought that she could eat something if it was presented to her.
Ruby went over to the window to watch as they entered the Academy court. It wanted to watch everything there was to see. Pandora successfully resisted the urge to lean forward for a better look at her surroundings and Serene looked as though nothing in the world even mattered.
Pandora even looked away from the window and closed her eyes again. She had no desire to see anything. It was bad enough that she could feel the magic pulling at her skin and trying to stick. Some of it was even intrusive. She cleared her mind and let it pass through her as though she were nothing more than a wall of solid looking air.
She was vaguely aware of the Arch Mage watching her closely.
Ruby said excitedly in draconic, “Mother look!” Its neck turned to look at her and she cracked her eyes open and watched the hatching out of the corner of her eye. “There are things floating. Can you believe that.”
“Let me see!” Star said and pushed Ruby out of the way and onto the floor of the coach so that it could get a good view out of the window. “Oooo there are!”
“Star,” Pandora said quietly but with a deep firmness that made the hatchling’s head snake down. “You do not push your siblings out of the way. There was another window.”
“But what if I couldn’t see the floating things?”
“That is not important. You will do what is right and not push people. You especially will not push them off of the seats.” Pandora bent down and gathered up Ruby. Serene did not even seem to notice.
“Now that is something else,” the Arch Mage said with his first genuine smile. “You are a Speaker.”
Pandora frowned at him. “Is something wrong with that?”
“No, certainly not. I just thought I’d never meet one in my life time, and now here you are.”
“It’s not such a big deal,” she said, returning back to her neutral voice. “Star, come away from the window. They don’t need to see you.”
Star sulked back to her “mother”. “But they were floating…”
“We’ll be here for a while, Star, there is no need for you to be rude now. You’ll have plenty of time to see everything you want to see around here. I promise.”
“Oh,” Star said and butted Pandora’s thigh affectionately and then rubbed the side of its head against it.
“Have they decided their gender yet?” the Arch Mage asked.
“Oh, only one of them has,” Pandora said. “That would be Emerald. She wanted to be a girl, so she is. I don’t know what the others will want to be. They have some time left to choose.”
Ruby gave a smoky snort. “If Emerald is a girl I think I want to be a boy.”
“You’d be a very fitting boy,” the Arch Mage said kindly.
“Do you think so?” Ruby asked, twitching the tip of its tail.
“Oh, certainly. You’ve the personality of a male. Very inquisitive. A natural born leader.”
Pandora rolled her eyes, but by that point the dragon’s mind was made up. “I want to be a boy then!” he said boldly. Pandora instinctively felt the change.
“Oh, gross,” Star said. “If you’re a boy… then I want to be girl, because girls are better than boys.”
“Nuh uh!” he cried out.
“Yes, huh. Mother and Mama are girls. They’re better than anyone. That means their better than boys. That means I’m better than boys because I’m a girl.” Star sat up on her hindquarters and wrapped her tail around her body. She looked absolutely pleased with herself.
“Well,” Topaz said, interjecting, “To keep things even, I think I’ll be a boy. That way Ruby isn’t all by himself.”
“Oh, Ruby is a girl’s name,” he said in disgust.
“Then we’ll call you Rubio,” Pandora said and patted him on the head.
“Oh, I like that,” he said. “I’ll be the mighty Fire Dragon Rubio! Feared throughout the however many kingdoms there are. Oh yeah.”
Star rolled her sapphire eyes. “Please,” she said daintily, taking on the role that Serene often did when she was being condescending. “Fire dragons are so yesterday.”
“Hey!” Rubio cried. He was starting to let off heat.
“Rubio!” Pandora said emphatically. “Cool down right this instance.”
Rubio had the good grace to look sheepish. “Sorry, Mother,” he murmured.
“It took me forty years to learn draconic this well, and I sound illiterate. You speak with music,” the Arch Mage said to Pandora.
“Oh, well,” she said with a shrug. “I was born this way.”