Luke has almost catches up to Selenia during the morning run when he jumps over a log and hits his throat against a low, thin branch. He spends a few seconds gasping and hacking on the ground, knowing that Selenia has gained too much distance for him to have any chance of catching up. He feels a strange sense of pride for not attempting to chase after her and exhausting himself like he had done the first few mornings. Not that he would tell her, but Selenia had finally drilled into him that he will always lose some battles and pursuing them after his defeat would only waste his energy. Luke had put his own twists on the advice, deciding to look at this loss as a chance to relax and enjoy one of the few times he can be among the trees. Being alone was a luxury in the academy and it was only recently that he realized that the run was his key to privacy. The other runners had decided that he was not worth trying to race, so he no longer heard the panting and gasping of his classmates trying to keep up.
This morning the only noises are of the waking forest and the occasional bark from Stiletto, who he had released into the forest for some exercise before the run. The dog is nowhere to be seen, but Luke can hear him galloping off to his right where, earlier, he had seen a few rabbits. A sharp whistle calls the dog to him, Stiletto tackling the half-elf with all of his strength and covering his face in slobber. Luke wrestles his friend off of him and wipes his face on the dog’s well-groomed fur. After giving Stiletto a long-awaited belly rub, the half-elf gets up and starts jogging through the forest without making a sound.
Stiletto lags behind, hoping to delay his return to the academy stables. He had been pampered for days and let out to run around the killing field with the greyhounds, which were now his loyal pack. Still, Stiletto rarely saw Luke for more than a few minutes and they never got to play like they used to. Once Luke noticed that his friend was becoming lethargic and lazy, he asked Selenia for permission to include Stiletto in the morning run. Having never met the noble shepherd, Selenia tried to deny the request until Nimby, Fritz, and, surprisingly, Kevin sided with Luke. Since then, Stiletto effortlessly leaves Selenia and Luke in his dust until he gets distracted and goes off on his own. Only Kevin knows how nervous Selenia has been that Stiletto will be the first living thing to defeat her in the morning run.
The forest suddenly becomes quiet as Luke and Stiletto reach the edge of the killing field. It is not an evil silence that envelops the forest, but a veil of silent awe that even the wind and water conform to. Stiletto sniffs at the air and abruptly bows his head to the ground as if he is standing before a king. Unnerved by his own senses, Luke stays in the shadow of an oak, carefully searching for any sign of movement. Stiletto remains in the forest as the half-elf cautiously walks into the open field. Luke can hear the dog softly barking for him to return, but he continues until he can get a clearer view of the academy. Nobody is waiting at the front gate and there is no movement on the academy walls. Luke looks back to see Stiletto lying on the ground, covering his ears with his front paws.
“I really don’t like this,” Luke whispers when he makes it halfway to the gate. “This is eerie.”
The sound of leather wings is faint at first, but it rapidly grows louder as whips of wind knock the half-elf off his feet. Luke rolls onto his back in time to see an enormous shape rise from behind the wall of trees where Stiletto is still cowering. Simply the sight of the creature makes Luke’s senses go numb. Four leaf-like wings connect to a slender, green-scaled body that twists and undulates in the air. He stares at the beast’s elongated, reptilian head and the tangle of vine-like hair that falls about its face. The beginning of a beard is at the end of its pointy chin. Surprisingly, a warm and drenching rain falls from its wings with every powerful flap. Luke continues to lie on his back, unable to move as the Darkvawn Dragon flies low and smacks its powerful tail against the ground next to him.
“Too close. Way too close,” Luke gasps, putting his hand on his chest to feel his rapid heartbeat. To his surprise, the dragon lands in the center courtyard of the academy and he can see a small form sitting on its back.
Luke flips to his feet and sprints as fast as he can to the courtyard. He can hear Stiletto following until they reach the academy gate where the dog stops, stubbornly refusing to enter the courtyard. As if to justify Stiletto’s fear, Luke hears a low hissing noise from the enormous creature. He pats Stiletto on the head and goes on without the noble shepherd.
The dragon curls around the central fountain while a middle-aged man slides off the creature’s back. The man is bald with steel blue eyes that scan everything around him. Luke’s attention is drawn to the man’s white silk shirt with polished silver buttons and his blue vest, embroidered with crimson dragons that run from his shoulder to the bottom of his ribcage. A flowing cape of velvet trails behind the man, its magic keeping it at least an inch away from the muddy ground. This impressive noble continues to capture Luke’s silent attention as he pats his unique steed on its foreleg.
“Excuse me, young man,” the man says, swiftly approaching Luke. “Do you know where Ms. Hamilton can be found?” He takes off a leather glove before shaking Luke’s hand with enough strength to jar the half-elf’s shoulder.
“I have no idea. She was far ahead of me during the morning run and then your dragon scared the sense out of me,” Luke replies with a sideways glance at the dragon. The beast spits a little water at him before aiming its head at the sky. It lets loose with a torrent of warm water that rains down on the entire academy.
The noble grins at Luke as the water continues to fall upon the academy. “Calm down, Cyphon. The boy did not mean to upset you. He is young and I’m sure you are the first dragon he has ever met.” In response, the dragon gives a deep snort and goes back to staring over the academy walls.
“Best not to insult or complain about Darkvawn Dragons,” the man warns Luke in a hushed voice. “Especially since most of them know every language that has ever been spoken or written. Sadly, Cyphon was injured in a fight and lost his voice, so I have been his voice since we met. An interesting tale to be told, I assure you. Anyway, we are both very sorry about startling you. I did not realize you were there until we were almost on top of you. Oh my! I forgot my manners. My name is Daniel Skyblade of Gaia.”
“I’ve heard of you,” Luke sputters in childish excitement. “You were one of the twelve warriors of the south who stopped the ogre and undead alliance fifteen years ago. What are you doing here?”
“First of all, I would like to know your name. Calling you boy or young half-elf will annoy you after a while,” Daniel pleasantly admits, chuckling at Luke’s enthusiasm. “Besides, it is very rude to not give your name to someone who has already done so. Then again, I might have an idea of what you are if not who. I assume you are a forest tracker by the condition of your clothes and hair. A young one at that, which would explain the lack of social grace and manners. Now, would you please tell me your name? Otherwise, I will be forced to make one up for you.”
“His name doesn’t matter, Daniel,” cuts in a sharp, female voice from behind the noble. “I have an academy to run and would like to get your business over with. None of the students have seen anything remotely out of place around here. That is until you flew in on Cyphon, which will be all they talk about for days to come. So, follow me to my office and we shall discuss all of this away from those that have no business listening.”
“Very well, Selenia,” Daniel says, giving her a hug before she can stop him. “I see that you have taken to sneaking up on old friends now. Still trying to give Kevin that heart attack? Ah, well. I guess we should be off if you are in one of your moods. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, young half-elf.”
Selenia nods to Luke as she leads Daniel toward the main building. They stop near the edge of the courtyard when Selenia whispers something causing Daniel to make a wide swing with his right arm. The dragon suddenly sits up and soars into the air. Another blast of water bathes the academy before Cyphon disappears into Visindor Forest. Luke looks away from the dragon in time to see Selenia smack Daniel upside the head and drag him toward her office by his ear.
“I really hate that arrogant bastard,” whispers a cold hiss from a few feet above Luke’s head.
Luke turns to see a young and attractive woman sitting on the bare back of a soft black horse. His attention is drawn to her brown-furred, feline tail and the short claws that extend and retract as she flexes her fingers. He is beginning to relax when a look at her hazel eyes makes him take a cautious step back. They hold a flicker of hatred and anger that is just aching for a reason to burst into an unstoppable flame of rage. The look creates an aura of aggression that reminds Luke of a hungry, but patient, predator.
“Who are you?” he bravely asks. He stands his ground as she coldly sizes him up.
The woman slips off her horse and pulls her brown hair into a ponytail, revealing tufts of brown hair on the tips of her ears. “Theresa Marley. Selenia hired me to teach dagger fighting to her students. Can you tell me where the stables are?”
“Just past the blacksmith shop and you will find it against the wall. My name is Luke Callindor and it is very nice to meet you,” he says, extending his hand for her to shake. She lets her eyes slowly run up and down his body in a way that makes him drop his hand. Luke is about to react when she makes a quick movement with her right arm. Luke reaches up to feel a thin cut across his cheek as Theresa smiles at him, revealing her sharp, porcelain teeth.
“Another famous name,” Theresa growls, an icy chill to her voice. “First, I see that cheating bastard of a noble here and then I find a hero in the making. You high and mighty men really piss me off. I’ve done twice as much for this region than you will ever do and I’ve received nothing for it. No reputation, no fame, no rank, and no fortune. I’m sure that until today, you had never heard of me. Meanwhile, you probably get attention because of your last name.”
“It isn’t like I enjoy the attention,” Luke argues with a sudden burst of courage. “I want to be considered a hero because of my own merit.”
“A noble, but pointless desire. You will get the opportunity only because you were born famous,” Theresa contends, pulling out a dagger and running the flat side of it against her cream-colored skin. “There is very little honor in traveling a path that has already been cleared for you.”
“Why the hell am I arguing with you?” Luke asks as he turns to leave. “You cut me because you have a chip on your shoulder. Just leave me alone and torment someone else, lady. My days here have been bad enough without your help.”
“Nice excuse to avoid a fight, kid,” Theresa mockingly declares, her tail whipping through the air. “Not all of your enemies are going to be as nice as I am. Good luck not getting your ass kicked!” She grabs the reins of her horse and watches Luke make his way to the cafeteria. The horse nuzzles her neck and begins whispering in her ear.
“Don’t get on my case. I know that he’s the one we have to watch. I only wanted to see how easy I could rile him up. Our plan will fail if that boy’s temper and pride puts him in my path. Just keep your senses sharp and contact me if you find anything suspicious,” Theresa whispers as she brings the horse toward the stables. “The pay better be worth dealing with all the heroes and fakes around here. I don’t even want to think about having to deal with Selenia again. One of these days I will tell that blowhard what I really think of her.”
Theresa doesn’t make a sound as she puts her horse in an empty stall and backs toward the door of the stables. She is startled by a bounding black form that knocks her aside and enters one of the empty stalls. Theresa tucks away the two daggers held between her fingers when she sees Stiletto’s head rise above the stall door. The dog begins grumbling to her horse who snorts in response. Without a second glance at the animals, Theresa clambers over the wall and lands on the other side like a settling feather. She can see the students coming back from the run, so she slinks around the wall until she has a clear path to the forest. Seconds later, she is in Visindor and only a single person and a dog know that she is in the area.