Juellyt shook awake but didn’t raise her head off the cottony bed pillow. Another shrill scream pierced the early morning hours. She didn’t recognize the source, but guessed it came from Yabina’s hut. A second child from another hut farther away joined the first, ending in sobs.
More shouts, deeper in bass, came from guards near the southern wall.
Cries of alarm sprang out all over the village. Juellyt squeezed her eyes shut, praying to wake from this sudden nightmare. Her breath burst from her. She hadn’t even realized she was holding it in. Her chest hurt from the effort.
“Juel! Juellyt!! Come, come, child.” The last shred of hope she had faded as her eyes opened to see her mother, Ckala standing in the doorway to her room, her arms out and beckoning to her. In one hand, she gripped a thin, leathery pouch. A backpack straddled her shoulders, filled with their travel clothes and road rations.
“We know what this means. It’s over, nothing can be done now but hide. We must hurry,” her mother pleaded over the crash and clatter of men battling near by. Horses pounded the dirt paths near the front of their stone home.
“Kampen-yans! Kampen-yans! Run. They have found us.” Other shouts echoed the call. The horses went deeper into the village, their riders warning others in the bare light of dawn.
Juellyt grabbed her blanket and wrapped it tightly over her shoulders and head. Silent tears traveled down her cheeks. She thrust her feet into her leather thong sandals at the foot of her bed.
They’re gone? Father, brother…lost?
“Hurry up, we’ve got to go to the bridge,” her mother said as she grabbed Juellyt’s hand and hauled her down the hallway. “If we should get separated, head there and wait for me in that bed of tanglevines. If I haven’t come by sunrise, go under the bridge and find the three black stones. You’ll recognize them on sight. Dig through.”
“Where are we going, mum?” Juellyt grew even more scared at the sound of her own voice. It somehow diminished in the night, shrunken to the frightened pleas of a toddler.
“It’s not important where we are going, only that we get away from here. Please, run!”
Outside the door to their stone house, the shouts for help and the screams for mercy mixed and filled the air. The sounds of battle echoed in from the wood gate house along Harner Road. Horses whinnied in fright, metal clashed with metal, wood cracked and splintered. Women begged while children shrieked. Thick and gravelly voices answered in foreign, violent tongues.
Others ran alongside the pair, making for the bridge at the back of the village which crossed over a minor rivulet of the Corafin River to the other side, bracketed by heavy pine tree woods.
The trek there was an eternity. Other villagers were bolting over the river when they arrived. They bypassed the bridge entrance and climbed down the short but deep embankment. Surefooted, her mother made a direct run at a pile of three, smooth black river stones. She let free Juellyt’s hand, used both hands to part the rocks. Underneath was a strong fishnet, covered in wet leaves and mud. “Help, Juel. Grab the other end so we can drag it away.”
When they did so, the shallow mouth to a tunnel appeared. However, the only way to go inside was to crawl on hands and knees.
Her mother rummaged through the backpack and removed a silver box. It popped open revealing a smooth gold stone, glowing with an amber aura. The stone barely gave more light than a wax candle, but it was enough.
“Let’s go.” She plopped down on her belly and began to squeeze inside.
Not one to be squeamish about mud or dirt, Juellyt did balk going in the pitch black after her mother. It felt wrong, dread coiling around her neck like a hangman’s noose. She willed herself to enter the earthen grave, defying her instincts.
Inside the light illuminated enough only for her to see the soles of Ckala’s sandals as she crawled ahead. Moments went by without a word between them. Her brother’s face appeared in her mind’s eye. Fresh tears and sobs choked her, stopping her from trailing after.
“Shhh. Shhh. Juel, we’ll be alright. Shhhh.” Her mother tried to calm her.
Juel shook from cold as much as from her emotions. Water dripped from the tunnel’s ceiling as foul stenches burned her nose and made her gag. This was not a proper life. Nothing was ever resolved.
When the sudden grief faded, she had to ask,”Mum, why?”
“Why? Why are we always hunted?” Juellyt was nearing her twelfth moon cycle. All her memories revolved around them being on the run. It wasn’t normal. She noted by her fifth moon that other families could put down roots and live in seeming peace.
Her mother stopped and twisted to look down the tunnel at Juellyt. The pain in her eyes spoke volumes.
“I never wanted this type of life for you, sweet-tears. There is a curse lying in your veins.”
“What does that mean? Did Da and Je’steo–“
Her mother shook her head violently. “No! Not now. We grieve another sunrise. Not today! We must run so their sacrifice won’t be for nothing. They won’t stop hunting us.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Some day it will be clearer to you, but for now, we don’t have time to work it out.”
“No! Tell me the true reason we are different. Please!”
The words came slowly and whispered in the dark like all dangerous secrets. “You are Dirithi.”
Dirithi? Dirithi! A half-dragon offspring. The last heirs of dragon blood. Not human, not dragon. Shapeshifters.
“No more talk. Come!”
The single word consumed her and bellowed like a tempest inside her skull. It explained so much and yet conjured so many more questions.
They took up the hike again under the river. The winding tunnel went deep underground and paralleled the rapid stream.
Finally, faint dawn light shined through the exit. As her mother crawled out, she graced Juel with a broad, relieved smile. Seeing it light up Ckala’s face, her own smile crept out as she stood on her feet, covered in grime.
An arrow whistled through the air, catching her mother in the shoulder, throwing her to the ground. Another arrow hit the ground between Juellyt’s sandals.
“Svaklan, I told ye they were predictable. Right where I said, right when I said. No?” A man spoke with robust confidence as he came down the embankment on the back of a brown horse. He had a crossbow in his arms, an arrow already loaded and trained on her.
Ckala didn’t answer the man’s taunts, only shook her head in stubborn defiance. Her lips pressed into a thin line.
Another man with a pair of long ponytails gliding down the back of his head, nodded and grinned through his thick black beard. “Aye, m’lord. Ye do have the sight.” He strode over and placed a thick, gray-furred boot on Ckala’s chest as she remained prone and panting from the pain.
“Indeed,” the Kampen-yan Lord said as he rode his horse up a few feet in front of Juellyt. He then followed up with a mock bow. “All these wasted years, but here we are, the end of our storied chase. The Gryatt is mine and will be returned after all.”
The Lord looked over Juellyt, meeting her wide and terror-filled stare. “Aye, ye do have but good reason for fear. The deep darkness ye will bring to the land will be of legend. The power I’ll have will be even more.”
Ckala slapped the ground at her side, getting Juel’s attention. “No! No! Juellyt, remember above all else, you must survive and grow stronger!”
Before the bearded Svaklan could react, her mother thrust the small leather pouch into the air and striking it hard against a pine sapling along the muddy river bank. As a gold and silver talisman slipped from the pouch, Ckala screamed, “Akkei Maliss!”
A blast of fire and wind erupted, the magical pulse throwing all apart from each other. Juellyt laid on her back inside the tunnel, her breath stolen.
What was that? Was it from the talisman?
“…remember above all else, you must survive and grow ever stronger!” Ckala’s words repeated to her.
After several moments, she could breathe normally and she struggled back to the cave entrance.
She was ill-prepared for the sight before her.
The horseman lay pinned and struggling weakly under his beast, while Svaklan laid motionless on his stomach partially in the water. The stream pulled and nudged at him, trying to take his body away downstream. Her mother’s form was twisted and wrapped around the base of another larger pine. Motionless.
But at the spot where the talisman had been appeared a mammoth watery circle. The talisman had been invoked and a portal now stood towering over her.
It had to lead to one place…
In the distance, breaking branches and baying hounds could be heard. Other Kampen-yans must’ve followed after the sounds of the magical explosion.
More words repeated softly inside her mind. We must run so their sacrifice won’t be for nothing.
To herself, she whispered, “I’ll go where my enemies will fear to follow.”
Per the legends passed down by the tribal elders, the world of Akkei Maliss was a world where the vilest creatures came to roost. In the past, even her mother, always so brave, wouldn’t dare to utter its name. This was a world where the snow fell black…
This was a world where alone as a Dirithi, she’d learn to survive and grow ever stronger.
She nodded to her mother’s form and whispered final words of love. It was time to act. She marched slowly but with determination and resolve into the portal to Akkei Maliss.
And she’d return to reign supreme once and for all.