Continued… (for a full list of the parts to Ancient Fire, click here)

(Previously: A strange, alien-like craft took a sleeping child from a home and carried it off. Years later, in a castle far away, the inhabitants prepare in haste and fear for the arrival of the Mistress and welcome her home)

The dragon raised her scale-shagged serpentine head and scanned the castle. Her wings lifted. Lottie’s insides twisted, and though she knew what was coming, it still terrified and sickened her. The air tingled, then rent. A flash of blinding green light blazed. Then the sky was dusky blue and still again. The dragon was gone, but in front of Lottie in the courtyard stood a woman beautiful beyond mortal bounds. She was tall and slender, graceful as a lily, skin soft and white like snow, like feathers, hair black as ebony. Her lips, redder than roses, were curled in a derisive half-smile down at Lottie. Her silk dress was dragon-skin green, and upon her head she wore a silver band studded with diamonds. The Mistress, Queen of the world, dragon, beautiful and deadly, had entered the castle grounds.

Lottie dropped a curtsy, keeping her eyes down. The Mistress took strong dislike to anything that might be interpreted as impertinence or defiance.

“Welcome, Mistress. The table is set and the meal prepared.” Lottie desperately hoped the last part was true. It was supposed to be, but she hadn’t had time to check before racing out.

The Mistress inclined her head, gesturing with the carved walnut staff she held for the guards to open the doors. Lottie took her place a pace behind and to the left of the Mistress.

“To the table,” the Mistress ordered the guards. “I will speak to you all there.” Falling into an old habit, she spoke aloud as if to herself, though at times Lottie wasn’t sure whether her words were directed at her. “Flying is tiring, all the more so when I cannot find what I seek. Someday I shall find it, like the wolf overtaking the hare, and it will no more escape me or my seeking eyes. Then too, shall the last blood of Nimrod be trampled beneath me, like grapes into wine, and never again shall I fear the abyss. You, Charlotte, shall learn the answer to your question in time.”

Lottie shivered. If only she could prevent these sudden glimpses of the Mistress into her mind! I shouldn’t mind. She thought. I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t! She’s been the only mother I’ve ever known, and I should be fine with my mother seeing my thoughts. But she’s a dragon too, and she terrifies me, but she’s a mother to me, so I shouldn’t be scared, but she has magic and a temper that goes deadly, so maybe I should be afraid… Oh, why can’t this be simpler?

The meal was indeed prepared and set. Lottie sat perfectly straight beside the Mistress at the head of the long table. The Mistress was raising her to succeed her as Queen, and she needed to act like one. But her pleasant expression felt about to fall off, and her back ached from being so straight for so long. Her legs were itching to be off running, like they did whenever no one was around to see the Queen-to-be doing such an unsuitable and undignified thing as running or climbing like some jungle monkey. She needed to be moving, but she was stuck in this chair.

At last the Mistress rose. The room instantly went silent.

“Listen well, all of you,” she began. It was plain that all present were listening with all their might and mane. To miss something might be fatal. “One enemy is soon to be finally defeated, one vengeance soon to be exacted. Yet beyond that, I see a world, a world waiting to be conquered even as this was. I refuse to wait. There is little reason to put it off. This very night, I have come to send out the first party into that other world to begin the first steps. Here is what you will do: You will take the ship, enter that other world through the Portal as you have before, and seek for a man named Joseph Sheldon. I know by my craft that this man could be the key to my success, for he wields great influence over this country, the first of our targets. Do not fail me. You know the cost of failure.” Her obsidian eyes raked the assembly. A universal swallowing swept through the room. They did know.

“Bring him back to me. Do not harm a hair of his head if by any of your clumsy means you can avoid it. I want him alive. Do not linger there. You will find this man at this nation’s great palace in the east of the country. Fear not any of their attacks, but trust in my shielding upon the ship. My power is infallible. Now, go!” She raised her hands and brought her staff down with a crack on the stone floor. Lottie felt the shivering pulse in the stone beneath her like a blow. The force whipped through the room, and for a moment she couldn’t find her breath. Then the familiar flash of green light split the tension and she gasped for air.

“I have opened the Portal!” the Mistress declared. “You will find the ship in the courtyard, running and ready for you. Hesitate no more, but begone!” There was a moment’s frantic scramble, and then silence. Lottie swallowed, realizing she was alone with the Mistress.

The Mistress turned to her. “Come to your room with me. I will there address what burns a hole in your mind.”


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