Before the reign of the humans, the earth was ruled by dragons. They were mighty and powerful creatures, standing as tall as mountains. Their wings knocked over the trees when they took flight, and their fire burned as hot as a thousand suns. Their scales could be any color on the spectrum from black to white, and the colors shone in the sunlight like gems. Some were wise, others...not so wise. And some were kind, but most were not.
The beasts ravaged the land in search of prey, killing at large the small creatures that called themselves 'humans', while some protected the funny little things against the others. Eventually, this flip-flopping way of life changed, through the actions of one ancient dragon.
Thyrule was a massive beast of a dragon with black scales, red spines, and brown eyes, and yet he learned to lower himself, disguising himself as a human and walking among them for many years.
Eventually he took a wife and she bore him twins- a son and a daughter- but they were not quite human. They were born with the wings and tails of his draconic form, and could create fire in their palms, burning red flames that danced at their will.
Not everyone was so overjoyed as the strange couple. The children were viewed as demons, lesser than the humans and the dragons both- a mistake. And so Thyrule and his wife, pained that both the humans and the dragons hated their children so, took them away to a secluded place on the large volcanic island of Syrinn. A safe haven, a place where other similarly-sired hybrids soon flocked.
And so, a nation was born. Eventually, the great dragons had died out, slain by the humans or by each other...but the hybrids remained. Learning from other creatures, they secluded themselves from humanity.
They hunted and farmed, and lived in peace on their island for so long that eventually they had fully colonized the dead husk of the large volcano that had once been as mighty as the dragons. The direct descendants of Thyrule watched over the people, and passed down the reign through their bloodline. One could always tell who was one of royal blood- only the hybrids with the black scales and red hair resided on the throne. Nothing, they thought, could ever hurt them. Not when no one could find them, and the legends outside had faded.
But all things end, and neverending peace was not to be.
Zariah was not born to be a fighter, but a hunter. She was the fourth born in a family of five children. Her father was the chief, and her mother was the best healer anyone could go to. Her eldest brother was a warrior in their small army, the other brother was a blacksmith, and her younger sister, being sickly and frail, unfit for most physical activity, was a seamstress.
One could think that Zariah would follow in her mother's footsteps, but her family was accepting of her interests. So she and her older sister became huntressess. Rivaled by none in Syrinn, the two descended from the skies like dark lightning and struck down prey in complete silence. Their blades were forged in dragonfire by their brother and kept sharp enough to slice through a hair midair.
All that was gone now.
Now the trees were thinned, used by the humans to build their fortresses and keep their fires going. The prey was depleted, even now, after only four months.
Her sister was dead.
Most of them were, or at least they were as good as dead. If any had escaped, she couldn't find them. They'd likely run from the island, scattering into the smaller land masses to the north.
Zariah became a fighter. She had been one of the few escapees from the humans' iron grips, and had watched them destroy her nation. She had watched, helpless, as the straggling remnants of her family were murdered and her people were slaughtered.
The woman wasn't going to watch anymore.
She'd been utilizing her freedom in the only way she knew how- Zariah started to raid the humans for supplies in a desperate search for food and any other survivors, then would destroy whatever she had to leave and kill anyone that got in her way.
That fateful night was one such moment. It was an outpost she hadn't raided yet- stationed outside the ruined husk of her city, camped on the very ground she'd seen her people's blood spill onto. So under the cover of darkness, when the soldiers- likely drunk after their celebrations- were asleep, she struck. She snuck through every tent, one by one, until she found what she was looking for. Food.
She filled her satchel with bread, meat, and some fresh fruit and vegetables, knowing that sustenance would be essential in her quest to find any escapees, and knowing, too, that when she destroyed the camp, it would all go up in smoke.
Careful to be as quiet as possible, she lifted an axe from the ground to inspect it, the meager moonlight from outside the tent glinting off of the shining, polished blade.
The clank of armor and heavy footsteps sounded outside the small tent, and the unexpected noise made her jump.
The axe slipped from her thin hands and tumbled to the ground.
Almost in slow motion, she watched as it hit the ground. Bounced once. Twice. Dust and grass plumed from where the wickedly sharp blade ripped up earth that had been soaked with the blood of her people. As if that weren't bad enough, it knocked over the nearly empty barrel of water sitting next to it. What with the clang of metal on earth, as well as the loud crunching noise that erupted from the barrel as it fell over, she was sure she would be detected.
The dragoness looked around in a panic for only a moment before her instincts kicked in. She grabbed her weapon from her back and gripped it tightly in her hands before backing herself up to right beside the entrance of the tent. If she had been heard, and someone came to investigate, she'd be able to attack them from behind.
That, or just run for it. She had been getting gaunt lately, and fighting would not be a welcome habit if she were to remain free- and alive. But if she had to fight, she would. Being captured was not an option. She had people to find. But...if she were to be caught, she would make sure she'd die.
Shaky breaths escaped her lungs and she closed her eyes for only a moment before slowly, carefully twisting her body to peek out of the tent flap. If the coast was clear, she'd make a break for it. If not....
She ducked back in quickly, hoping against fate that the armored figure hadn't seen the movement, and held on to her weapon even more tightly. Another footstep crunched. Closer, this time.
The Jade Conqueror, Light Bringer, The Rainbow Serpent, the Sun Emperor; His titles shone like precious gems, so vivid, so full of life, yet at this very moment Itza Tlatoani was surrounded by the cold shadow of death. The Emperor of the Obsidian Empire surveyed the aftermath of his latest conquest, pits filled with charred corpses, piles of bodies awaiting their turn to be thrown into the ashes of their people so they too could be turned to dust and forgotten.
Death and ash, that was his victory.
Death and ash.
Was Itza troubled by this? He was a warrior, a conqueror, since he was a boy he was taught that his path would be one of victory, glorious, bloody victory.
There is no victory here.
Itza’s naked feet trudged through bloodied mud, returning to his royal war tent where he was receiving medical care after falling in battle.
“You shouldn’t be walking just yet, Tatloani, your wounds-“
“Be silent and worry not about what I choose to do, send a message to the royal counsel, I wish to speak to them.”
“They-they are gone, Tatloani, they lef-“
“What do you mean they have left?! When?! Why was I not informed?” Tatloani was all rage now, even in his weakened state his large stature and rope like muscles would cause any warrior to pause. “The royal counsel said not to bother you until you were better, they feared you might not take the news well with your fall at the battle-“
Tatloani was normally composed, after all, growing up as the heir apparent to the great Obsidian empire required endless sunny days spent in great halls learning about proper royal decorum, but this current war had left him teetering on the edge. His counsel had promised him answers if he came here, but instead he found a foe unlike any other. Creatures of immense power who has costed him legions of his best soldiers. Sure, Tatloani had cherished the challenge, to finally find an enemy worthy of his might, but the price he had to pay for the answers he wanted was too high. And now his reward had been stolen from him.
“Get out, now.”
Itza's nurse left without another word.
After every kingdom Tatloani had defeated, he gave them a certain amount of freedom, so long as they joined his army. Now the most powerful warriors he had ever faced, a fighting force that would have allowed him to conquer the world, as was his birth right, had been taken from him. By his own counsel, piled and burnt like plagued rot. No, this had costed too much, taken too long, for his victory to be nothing but death and ash. No, his counsel lead him here, they told him he would find answers to the death of his parents, the previous emperors, they promised him the truth! Why, why would they do this?
One of his generals walked into his tent, Alaxin, the jagged spear, his face tired and unamused.
“My Emperor, Latzsu, general of the jade legion is dead, an enemy soldier was hiding in his tent, took out his royal guard as well.”
“Where is he?”
“We are taking her to be executed, My Emperor.-“
“No, bring her to me.”
“My Emperor, you need not concern yourself with a lowly soldier, we will execute her for you-“
“Bring her to me now!”
Tatloani would have his answers, if not from his counsel, then from his slaughtered enemy.
The first man who stepped into the tent was a guard of the General Latzsu, and his end was swift. Her dragonsteel blade slammed between the folds of his armor easily, and his lifeblood stained the dirt and splashed on her bare feet, running over her hands before she yanked the curved bade back out. Of course, the screech of metal and the thud as the writhing, dying man hit the ground was an alarm for the rest of the camp.
She'd run, speeding out of the tent and wings snapping open to carry her away from a failed mission.
But soldiers had already surrounded her, bows nocked, ready to shoot her down if she took flight. The general and another of his guards stepped into the ring, approaching her on either side, and she slid her feet into a fighting stance, naginata twirling into position.
She fought well, but in the end she was outnumbered and outmatched. Despite her advantages- her superior strength, speed, and the ability to summon fire from thin air- numbers were not on her side, and she had not been trained as a warrior. Her older brother had taught her a few tricks, of course, when she showed interest, but her fighting skill was isolated to friendly spars against someone that loved her. Without the element of surprise, she was beaten.
But not without cutting their numbers. Even as she fell at the end, screaming, covered in blood- both her own and soldiers'- she fatally wounded the last of the general's designated guards with a burst of flame.
Her last stand ended with chains and leather, but not death. Yet. Instead of being killed in battle, slaughtered as so many of the rest had been, she was being taken to be executed. Until then, she was bound. The invading army did not often take prisoners, and capturing one of her kind was a tedious process for both guard and prisoner. Her wrists were shackled behind her back, and her hands bound in fists, covered in leather so fire wasn't an option. Her wings were similarly wrapped, bound shut, as was her tail- any spine or spike or ridge covered in leather and rope to keep her from attempting to kill anyone else- or herself.
She was hauled to her feet after that, and forced to walk, a regiment of five men surrounding her, prodding her along with spears lest she think to try and run.
Nearly a half hour into their march to wherever she was to be executed, they changed course- the result of a panting messenger relaying an order from the Emperor himself. So they turned, moving toward a large encampment to the east of the one she'd nearly destroyed just hours before.
A huge tent sat at its center. Luxurious, huge, yet rugged and able to be packed quickly as needed. A tent fit only for an Emperor. Zariah wouldn't admit it even to herself, but she did feel the first gnawings of fear at the base of her stomach. Why had he called for her presence? Did he simply want to execute the last of his enemies himself?
She didn't have much time to dwell on that.
The dragoness was taken through the camp quickly as possible, a haste in the soldiers' steps, and before long they'd entered the massive tent. A lone man stood inside, tall, imposing. Injured.
"Here is the solider, My Emperor..." One of the men to her left spoke, bowing at the waist and gesturing to her.
Zariah stood straighter, lifting her chin and looking him in the eye with the sharp glare of a hunter sizing up her next meal. Other than anger and hate simmering at the back of her eyes, her face betrayed no emotion. She was splattered and soaked in mud and blood from head to toe, her left side and back caked in mud from when she'd fallen. Her left shoulder was cut open, and her face was swollen, right eyebrow split. Her right leg had been cut as well, a sword wound slicing it from knee to ankle. She was in pain, clearly, the shoddy bandage work the soldiers had done doing little to heal the wounds, but she knew that her death would be coming soon enough. Her resolve was simply to be defiant till the end.
And then she could rest.
The soldier to her right grabbed her shoulder and shoved down, trying to force her to bow, to kneel, something. She simply planted her feet, keeping those cold eyes on the Emperor as she waited for him to speak. The soldier behind her, seeing his companion struggling to even get her to sway, kicked his armored toe into her right knee. She dropped into a kneel with that, her face twitching briefly with the pain that came from landing on a wound. But she masked it quickly, and retaliated without breaking her gaze from the man in front of her. Her tail, wrapped in rope and leather, swept the soldier's feet out from under him, and he fell with an undignified yelp. The solider to her left responded by slamming the butt of his spear into her neck, and her body shook with the blow as a snarl and a curse tore from her throat.
The other two soldiers held her things- a naginata and a leather satchel, still unopened. They held the items out in offering to the Emperor, keeping their eyes averted.
Itza sat on a throne raised a few feet off the ground by bent and honored statues, forever grateful to raise a god above the dirt their bronze knees rested upon. Itza wasn’t quite enamored with such extravagant displays of his godhood, but he begrudgingly accepted that a lion’s roar was a better reminder of its status than the danger of having to use its claws constantly. That is why he was so pleasantly surprised when the last confirmed surviving member of the hybrid dragon race stood defiantly in front of him. Itza sat lazily on his chair, his elbow upon the rest, his left cheek on his marbled fist, he would see if the hybrid was worth his time.
The survivor’s unbreaking gaze was seen as an insult by the retinue of warriors encircling their god, Itza however was disappointed that beings of such strong spirit were sent to the underworld instead of being assimilated into his glorious empire. What I could have turned you into, he thought to himself as the young woman fought every second to injure or insult those around her. After a few hard hits his men finally got the woman under control, offering her weapons and pack for his inspection. He waved them off.
“Had your people fought like you did, they might not have been erased from the tapestry of history,” Itza, even in his injured state, simmered with resentment at the total destruction of his prize; a conquered race that could have been a potential weapon forged under his rule, a weapon he could have conquered the world with.
Even his own men looked nervous.
“But then, even with all your gifts, we still broke you,” The words were said as fact, as prophecy that was known before they ever set foot in this volcanic island.
“Tell me, what keeps you fighting now?”
"Revenge." The word was simple. Ugly. A boiling hate and flaring resentment blistering her tongue as she spat it at him, caring not for his status or their audience. Knowing retribution for the blatant disrespect would likely be swift and painful.
With everyone in line before her dead, she was, by technicalities, the Queen. Queen of a dead people, to be sure. The protector of nothing but her land and herself. The soldiers had killed everyone, as far as she knew- acting, she thought, on his orders. She had nothing left to fight for but a memory, and no reason to lie about her motives. "You took everything from me."
Revenge. Itza contemplated the word in his mind. It’s weight, its sharpness, its significance. He himself had sought revenge countless times in his young life, and had been the focus of others' revenge throughout his conquering campaigns. From the time he sought revenge on an old friend for winning the heart of a young priestess he fancied to the time he broke a man’s skull with his fists after a cousin’s life had been taken in battle. Revenge was a cursed word, one that turned your pain into a boiling fuel that would only be cooled with violent passion, leaving behind a husk. Spent and unsure how to continue living. Revenge would lead the woman down a bloodied path if given the chance, eventually ending in the way these things always end; death or the eventual realization that revenge will never bring back that which was taken from you.
“Not everything,” Itza responded, holding up his hand to keep his guard from striking the girl down, in their love for Itza his soldiers tended to be offended far worse by slights directed at their Emperor,” though that could change.”
“You seem...well enough for conversation and I….am quite famished, I wish to know more of your people and you will tell me about them at dinner,” itza turned to one of his guards” Bentu, take her, have her washed and prepared for a meal with the emperor, and” Itza went from bored to firm in a second,” keep her alive.”
The emperor waved them off, he needed more. He needed answers. Why did his royal advisors give the order to exterminate this proud race, why did they leave, and why did they vanish while he was injured. Itza gripped the golden arm rest of his throne, the metal collapsing under the strength of his hand.
The man's words were sharp. Insulting. Speaking as if they would have won, still, even without their numbers. Her glare grew sharper with every one, then hotter and hotter when she responded.
Itza contemplated her response, then held his hand up. The silent command stayed the spear that was now aimed for her skull, the sharp point hovering just above the red strands of hair that marked her as a royal. Strands of hair that would soon have been stained darker with her blood had the emperor not spared her.
She hated him for it.
His next orders made her hate him more.
A guard from next to the throned male approached and the men surrounding her released her, hands moving from her shoulders as they backed up to allow this 'Bantu' through. He gripped her upper arm, pulling her back to her feet, and she staggered a bit as her injured leg nearly gave out with her weight.
Zariah found herself unable to speak as she was pulled from the tent, her glare finally leaving the emperor as she was forced away from him. Those brown eyes instead locked on her feet, her face set in an expression of permanent irritation. Jaw clenched. Leather-covered hands balling into tighter fists.
Dinner with her people's killer.
Zariah didn't understand it. Why he'd ordered her people slaughtered, culled like vermin, and then decided to spare her.
Perhaps he knew who she was. Unlikely, but possible. Or maybe he simply wished to get information out of her before he ordered her killed as well. In the end, did it matter?
The guard dragging her after him didn't speak, just marched her through the camp to a smaller tent set away from the others. A wooden tub sat inside, being filled by a woman who looked up as she was shoved in. The soldier took Zariah by the wrists, looking her in the eye as he started to unbind her. "Don't make your life harder than it needs to be. Cooperate and our Emperor may spare you."
The dragoness scoffed a bit but didn't argue, instead staying silent as the man removed the chains and leather that kept her hands in fists and her wings shut. As soon as she was free she took a few steps back, her entire body tense as she eyed the entrance behind him. Debating how hard it would be to escape.
The guard didn't give her much time to think and instead tossed her bag back at her after a short inspection. "Bathe and get dressed. She'll dress your wounds." He turned his back to them, stepping outside to give her some broken version of privacy.
The silent human woman stood patiently as Zariah glared after him, clenching and unclenching her hands, tail swishing back and forth like an agitated cat's. Calculating. Weighing her chances once more.
Finally she sighed, shaking her head slightly as every possible escape option dead-ended into death or something worse at the hands of Itza.
So she forced herself to move, stripping her battered body of her ruined clothes and limping over to the tub, submerging everything but her injured leg, which she draped over the side. The silent woman cleaned it herself and bandaged it, tight folds of white wrapping from knee to ankle. Once the once-princess pulled herself from the steaming water- not hot enough for her tastes- the woman patched up her shoulder as well.
She looked...better, considering she was no longer caked in mud and blood. She was still unhealthy, undernourished from months of little food and sleep. But she could at least walk without the weight of dried mud making it hard to move.
And then she dressed, pulling on the spare outfit she'd packed in her otherwise-empty bag. It was a simple thing, an outfit of wool and leather. Identical to the now-ripped and bloodstained tunic and trousers she'd worn before Itza nearly an hour before. As soon as she was done, the woman left and was replaced by the guard.
Zariah's glare returned when she saw the bindings he still held, and she took a step back. But the tent was small, and she knew better than to fight too hard. So he captured her easily, tying her wings shut and clasping the shackles around her wrists again. Her hands weren't tied shut this time- he'd evidently decided that was unnecessary- but flight was taken once more and the sharp spike at the end of her tail was, predictably, dulled with leather. Any possible weapon or tool for escape taken from her in an effort to protect themselves. To protect the man that had brought them here.
She wondered why they held such blind respect for him. A reverence, almost, where every perceived insult to their ruler was seen as a mortal stab at them.
She was tugged from that tent and pulled after him once more, her limping gait just managing to keep her in step with Bantu as he pulled her back to where they'd come, a haste in every step.
A retinue of men and women waited respectfully in two neat lines leading to the royal tent of Itza, some holding medicine, others exotic and expensive cloth for him to wear; he waved them all away. Itza was in a mood. His body ached, every step a reminder that he had failed, he had been beaten, and his prize taken from him. His most trusted advisors had fled back to the capital when they should have been dragged before him and made to explain themselves. With every step his rage grew.
This was unacceptable. His royal advisors knew better, they should not have commanded his armies and they certainly should not have ordered the genocide of the hybrids. They should have known. Itza walked into his tent, his feet feeling the luxurious fur rug that covered the entire floor of his tent as he headed over to his throne chair, slumping into it. His disappointment clung to him like a thick wool blanket, but his anger boiled over deep in his heart. Itza had been disrespected, decisions had been made for him, his orders ignored, but as far as he could tell his army assumed his royal advisors were acting on his orders.
Itza was seen as a god, but the people and their devotion were fickle. He was the ruler to a vast empire situated across an archipelago, his sheer strength and will kept it together. HE knew he couldn’t simply arrive at his capital and have his advisors publicly judged for it would show weakness in his inner circle. This would have to be handled delicately, from the shadows. Itza leaned back into his throne, the bitter disappointment of the day had been replaced with the sweet taste of a new plan, a new strategy. He had a goal, now to plan and execute.
A few minutes later Itza made himself comfortable at the great wooden table that had been brought into his tent, already populated with exotic and delicious dishes that rivaled what he was served during royal feasts. Food was one thing Itza refused to lower his standards for during war campaigns. He traveled with master cooks and hunters; only the best for the emperor.
The last half dragon was brought into his tent unceremoniously. Bantu knew his emperor well enough to know when his patience was running thin. Itza raised his hand to indicate to Bantu he could leave, then motioned to the dragon girl to take a seat.
“I was very curious about your people,” Itza spoke but was more interested in picking things that looked good to him from the glorious bounty that laid before them,” for most of my life you were all a rumor, a myth, something to scare little boys and to keep men from sailing too far from home. Imagine my surprise when we found you.”
Itza looked up, right into the eyes of the girl, seeing past the anger and hate she held for him, seeing her for what she was now,” but I guess you are a myth now, you are the last ghost of your people. A fading memory.” Itza drank from his golden horn before slamming it down,” Tell me about your people, tell me about the last few days, tell me about…you.”