On this world, the created have turned against their Creators. War has raged for generations - the Creators fight to regain their power over the Hisgeii, and the Hisgeii strive to escape enslavement and claim the world as their own. Some Hisgeii are born with intricate, branching red marks on their backs. The marked men are called Shifters, and can transform into dragons with magical abilities specific to their caste. The female marked are called Breeders, and are treated as royalty amongst the Hisgeii.
Danu is one such Breeder, though her markings came with a steep price. She has recently come of age, and in order to become Queen, the Council has commanded her to choose a mate to be her King.
Danu is of the last generation of Hisgeii with any hope to defeat their would-be enslavers. With time running out, she must navigate the heated political climate, learn what it means to be a marked member of the lowest caste, decipher the complex and torrid history of the war between the Hisgeii and the Creators, differentiate between outright lies and mere twisted stories of ancient legend, fight alongside a flock of dragon Shifters against powerful aliens believed to be immortal gods, deal with a rogue Shifter whose body bares unusual scars, and unite with a mate to decide on the future of her people.
Seems easy enough... except she has only two weeks to do it.
"The Last Dragon Princess" follows Danu as she seeks to lead her people, find her place, and choose a love to balance her as she takes the throne. Fans of dragon shifter fantasy, reverse harems, Greek mythology, and fast-paced adventures loaded with romance and intrigue will love this unexpected and one-of-a-kind epic novel.
"...reminded me of a modern-day Lord of The Rings and/or Game of Thrones." -Advanced Reviewer
"...very suspenseful and so well written. I can honestly say that I have never read anything like it." -Advanced Reviewer
"I have seen many authors attempt to recreate or put twists on Greek mythology before, but this has been by far the best I have seen. The story flowed extraordinarily." -Advanced Reviewer
"Action-packed and tenderhearted love story." -Advanced Reviewer
Danu's shoulders ached, and her legs were numb, but she held her pose. An apprentice musician, who was a half-season younger than Danu herself, played soothing notes on a carved wooden instrument strung with the intestines of a consecrated ippa. For hours now, the only sounds besides the music had been the constant swish-swish-swish of the painter's brush.
"My dear." Calmus walked in and startled the young woman. Danu clinched the white sheet tighter against her naked chest. He barely paused long enough to take a breath. "It's time for you to get ready."
The older man nodded to dismiss both the artist and the apprentice before he turned on his heel and trudged off, back the way he had come. The two obeyed the Councilman and left Danu alone in the room. The handmaidens would be in shortly to dress her, so she took the opportunity to stretch out her sore muscles before wrapping the sheet fully around herself. She stood and walked down from her pedestal to get a look at the canvas. Danu considered the half-completed painting-it was meant to be a wedding gift presented to her husband. Whoever he was.
The warm canvas depicted her with her head turned away and highlighted the bright red, branching marks on her back. Her long hair was artistically arranged to frame the marks, but not cover them. With her face turned away, the painting could be of any girl, but it was only the marks which separated her from other women. They were the very thing that marked her as a Breeder, and, like the male Shifters also born with the marks, were present from birth. The painting would make a fine gift-or, at least, Calmus told her it would.
The painter was a master, and her technique was flawless, but for Danu the painting lacked something. It was so... refined. Polished, even when it was only half-completed. It was her, yet she saw very little of herself in it. Still, every Breeder prepared a gift when she came of age. It was a Hisgeii tradition. Why should she be any different, just because she was born a Spark? She took a shaky breath and consciously used it to calm herself. All Hisgeii castes celebrated their marked Shifters and Breeders during the Coming of Age ceremony. Just because there hadn't been a marked Spark born in forty generations didn't mean she didn't belong. No matter what the higher and middle castes said.
The handmaidens appeared and bowed slightly to the young Breeder. Danu followed them to her chambers.
The completed harvest of the chine berries marked the seventh season since Danu's birth. She, her twin, and four other boys were the only marked Hisgeii born that season. One boy from each higher caste, and then her and her brother. It should have been a hundred. A thousand. She shouldn't be here.
The Council was keen to make this a splendid affair, but Danu couldn't help but agree with the murmurings of the older Breeders-this festival had the feel less of a celebration and more of a funeral. Danu had been to many of those. Fittingly, unless something changed, this ceremony would be the Hisgeii's last, and Danu herself was the reason why.
The handmaidens dressed her in the traditional white gown, and her hair and makeup were expertly attended to. As the lower caste servants worked, Danu was joined by Pyrrha, one of the few remaining Breeders, who sat on the edge of her bed. The natural curl of her gray-streaked brown hair was starting to soften now that it was almost shoulder-length. Her features were sharp, but unmistakably beautiful.
"I remember my ceremony," Pyrrha said wistfully. "It started out as a beautiful morning and then rained big, fat buckets all over us. Right in the middle of the tests. Timon stayed shifted and used his wings to keep us dry from the rain..." Pyrrha trailed off at the end, and Danu tilted her head down. Timon, Pyrrha's husband, had been missing for two seasons, and was presumed dead. However, it was only in the last season that Pyrrha had begun to grow her hair out again. So few Warriors were left. Without Timon, the only Chinook Shifter would be Hagen, who was to be tested at the ceremony with the other four young Shifters.
"How can I take the vows, Pyrrha?" Danu asked quietly after the handmaids finished and left her bedchamber. "I can't continue any lines."
The older woman stood and came to stand behind Danu, who met her eyes in the mirror's reflection. The only male Shifter of her caste who would be tested today was her own twin brother, Lares. Although, with Danu herself being a Spark, her husband's caste was irrelevant. Spark lines weren't continued-they were useless. Mixed bloodlines, and the lowest of all the castes. Continuing a powerful caste line was the one thing a Breeder was supposed to do. Danu was tainted, and could never hope to provide her people with the one thing they needed from her-powerful Shifter sons. Without pure blood, every son born to her would be a Spark, and the magics of the higher and middle castes would be lost.
"There are ors, Danu, of-"
"Fairytales," Danu cut off the older Breeder. Pyrrha may have still clung to the old religion, and its outdated ors legends, but Danu certainly didn't. "Make believe. Sparks who give birth to Hydros and Shifters who breathe fire. I'm an accident, Pyrrha. My birth was a tragedy. And now I'm expected to go out there and take a vow that I can't fulfill?"
Hesitantly, Pyrrha stroked the young woman's hair. Danu's brown locks could easily reach down to her waist, but were pinned up in the traditional way. Pyrrha kept quiet for a while and seemed to choose her words very carefully when she finally did speak.
"You're all we've got, Danu."
Calmus appeared again in the doorway, wearing an embroidered red robe, and offered Danu his arm.
"It is time for you to be presented, my dear," Calmus said.
Pyrrha's eyebrows narrowed. "The other Breeders present those newly of age, Calmus, not the Council."
The portly man kept his eye on the younger woman while answering the older. "I find it odd that you are the one lecturing me on tradition, Pyrrha, given your history." The older woman fumed and turned to glare at the wall. Pyrrha had broken her vows and chose to marry Timon, despite being of different castes. Their only son, of course, was impure of blood, and born a Spark.
Pyrrha had been ostracized from the other Breeders because of this, and that gave her and Danu something in common. Her mother was dead, so Danu had been sent to be raised by the other Breeders and trained in their ways. From the time she first laid eyes on baby Danu, Pyrrha took her as her own and raised the girl as a daughter. Calmus remained the friendliest towards her of the members of the Council and was the closest thing she had to a father. Unfortunately, that did not equate to a happy family.
"Besides," Calmus continued, "this isn't exactly a normal ceremony, is it?"
Danu saw Pyrrha open her mouth to respond, but she quickly took Calmus' arm to cut off any opportunity for further argument. Workers led the pair down a hallway to the arch of the colosseum balcony, which was covered by a heavy curtain. The older Breeders arranged themselves a ways behind the pair. They were all dressed in colorful gowns cut like Danu's-with the back open to display the marks. Over the calls of the announcer, Danu heard the women discussing why she was being presented by a Council member, and not by them. As for her, Danu was grateful to be presented by a friendly face-even if it did seem to be a break in etiquette.
The announcer called out Danu's name, and the crowd screamed, drowning out the blare of the trumpets. Calmus led her to the precipice of the balcony where he raised her hand high in his and egged on the cheering crowd. Danu smiled wide and waved to them with her free hand, despite being disoriented by the bright light and the loud noises which suddenly surrounded her. The other civilian member of the Council, Jordan, quickly stood and flanked the girl while he clapped and waved. At the natural lull of applause, Danu turned to join the other Breeders on a neighboring balcony, but Calmus gripped her palm tighter.
"Today, my dear, I think it would be best if you sat with us." He bowed deeply to the girl and presented her with a chair. Danu hesitated at the break in protocol, but perhaps he was simply saving her from more snide remarks and cold shoulders from the other marked women. This was supposed to be her day, after all. Graciously, and with the well-honed manners of a Breeder, Danu accepted.
"It's not like they give a fimp, is it now?" Calmus chuckled at his own joke. Danu inhaled quickly, taken aback by the unexpected expletive. Should she respond? Danu was well-trained in propriety, and it wasn't good manners to acknowledge the slip. Instead, she held still.
"Interesting change-up, Calmus," Jordan spoke out of the corner of his mouth while still clapping at the crowd. Calmus smiled.
Danu had never seen the colosseum look so alive. Performers dressed in colorful costumes, designed to mimic the effervescent scales of a shifted dragon, danced and frolicked in choreographed routines. The seats were filled with what must have been a majority of the city, while Spark peddlers walked up and down the rows selling baked goods, fruits, and cooked meats to their peers. In the upper balconies sat the members of the unmarked higher and middle castes. Most wore colorful gowns and formal robes, but many had chosen to dress in less formal attire-slacks and tunics. Traditionally, today was the most common day for children to receive a pet flike, and dealers lined the entrances to the colosseum with the domesticated animals. Danu spotted many of the tiny flightless dragons, no larger than a child's head, darting amongst the seated upper castes.
"Oh, are we announcing today?" Jordan asked suddenly, and he looked around the colosseum as if finding himself there unexpectedly. Danu smiled kindly at the balding man.
"Today is the Coming of Age ceremony, remember? Our little Danu is taking her vows," Calmus replied gently to his fellow Council member. Jordan's mental state was becoming less and less reliable and, although the old man did slide in and out of lucidity and awareness, he was spending more and more time seemingly oblivious to the goings-on around him. Jordan, apparently happy with this explanation, nodded serenely.
The performers stilled in a half circle around the announcer, who loudly proclaimed the arrival of the Warriors. The crowd quieted, and Danu watched two men, both nude and bearing many wide scars, march into the colosseum. They took their places, widely spaced along the perimeter, before each shifted in turn to his dragon state. The transformation was quick-starting from the men's feet, rising up to sprout a long tail, and expanding in a moment to their arms, which split into both a pair of massive wings and a set of front legs bearing sharp talons. Finally, both men sprouted long, muscular necks which stretched to meet a reptilian head dominated by a pointed snout and sharp fangs. Three times the size of a grown man, each shifted dragon stretched and arched with the exertion of shifting. The crowd screamed and cheered anew as the announcer circled, riling them up. Danu couldn't help but be affected by the excitement in the air and nearly betrayed her stoic exterior. She felt Calmus pat her knee-a reminder of decorum. The Warriors humored their adoring fans by flapping their wings and pawing at the ground. Danu suddenly realized that one was missing.
"Where is Lik?" she asked, referring to the bright green dragon from the Stymie caste she'd often seen train the younger Shifters in the arena. Calmus kept his eyes on the crowd.
"He hasn't returned from his assignment," he said. Danu's heart sank. Warriors who went missing never came back. Their numbers were dangerously low.
"The latest of many. We can't sustain any more losses, Calmus." Danu heard Jordan, although just barely, over the cheers. She should try to tune them out-it was impolite to eavesdrop, especially if they were being so kind as to let her sit with them and not with the other Breeders. Still-the strength of the flock affected all Hisgeii, including her, right?
"Our ranks will more than triple today, my friend."
"All young and unproven, and no replacements for when they fail to return. You should rethink my proposal."
"Later, Jordan." Calmus leaned toward the equally rotund man. "It's a festival."
Danu caught Pyrrha's eye in the balcony below hers and was rewarded with an encouraging smile, which calmed her nerves slightly.
The announcer began to stir the crowd again. He jumped and pranced between the dragons as he worked up to the new Shifters. Danu feared the crowd would spill out of their seats and descend upon the announcer in their excitement-but then, Aegir, the first Shifter, was finally declared. Each Shifter would be tested, and if their powers were deemed sufficiently developed, they would become Warriors. Full members of the flock.
The young man strutted out with his arms raised and was greeted with deafening cheers. Members of the Hydro caste broke their refined personas and joined in with the crowd, whooping and cheering with the best of them. Surprised, Danu smiled and laughed at the break in formality. Aegir was the darkest of all the young Shifters, with a mop of curly brown hair that he sometimes tied back-though it was free today. Like all the Shifters, he was well-muscled and toned from daily training, but unlike the older Warriors, his skin showed no sign of scars or old injuries. After a brief pose to entertain the crowd, he shifted to his dragon state. Aegir's hide was a deep golden glossy color, reminiscent of wet sand along the coastlines. With a gasp of surprise from Danu, six streams of water shot up from the troughs she hadn't noticed before, twirled in midair around the newly shifted dragon, and rained out over the crowd. The water formed a brilliant rainbow over the colosseum before dissipating entirely. The crowd, and especially every Hydro present, went wild.
Next was Pan, arguably the handsomest of the new Shifters. He entered the colosseum with a large blue parrot on each shoulder. Like the Hydros before them, all those of the Avimancer caste joined in the jubilee upon his entrance, including Pyrrha. A group of young women, who had no doubt camped out all night to secure optimal seats for this very moment, flung themselves over the railings towards Pan and nearly fell over into the arena. Easily distracted, Pan started towards the women before Zephyrus, the deep brown Warrior of the Shroud caste, snorted in disapproval. With a charming smile, Pan returned to his place and sent the brilliant four-winged parrots flying before shifting himself into a sparkling blue dragon. Within moments, the colosseum was filled with flying color-finches and parrots and wild flikes-still capable of flight-all flocking as one. They dipped in and around the other Shifters and up and over the crowds before they were released from Pan's influence and allowed to fly away.
Before the announcer had even finished pronouncing his name, every Chinook stood and cheered for the boy entering the colosseum. Like many male members of his caste, Hagen kept his head shaved and displayed a bright red beard which contrasted with his pale skin. Also like many Chinooks, his face maintained a powerful and forceful expression at all times. He shifted into a deep orange dragon, and a whirlwind immediately formed in the middle of the rink, quickly gaining size and strength. The twister split into two and traveled to cover a collection of large open baskets. Within seconds, the two twisters turned white as they pulled up thousands of crites-a lightweight sweet cracker often given to children as treats. The twisters then shot into the crowds, and lost strength slowly as they delivered the cookies to the cheering fans.
"Now that's what I call a display!" Calmus said as he clapped appreciatively. "What say you, dear? I always thought you and Hagen would make a handsome couple." Danu, not sure what to say at this declaration, smiled politely at the Council member. What was he talking about? Calmus continued, "I know Pan's the favorite of the ladies, of course, but all that flash! It's not becoming of a Warrior. Hagen is exactly the sort who would make the best choice for you. Don't you think?"
"I..." Hagen was the Shifter Danu was least familiar with. He was always brief and curt with his responses to any questions or friendly comments she'd been brave enough to send his way.
"Well there is time, of course." He was backtracking while he still maintained a façade of confidence. "Your painter tells me the portrait won't be finished for another two weeks."
Danu gaped openly at the implied statement. No one had ever said anything about a deadline for her marriage. Of course, it was a Breeder's duty to marry soon after she came of age, but a deadline? She spent her entire life in study-she hardly knew these boys! How was she supposed to pick one in a fortnight? She turned to look at Pyrrha, who was staring into the rink. Surely she would have told Danu? Warned her? Whatever had been said about the circumstances of her birth, no one could ever claim that Danu was not willing to do anything in her power to atone for the sins of her mother-to do and to be what her people required of her. It would just be nice to be told exactly what those things expected of her were.
Still off-center, Danu returned her attention to the announcer, who was asking for volunteers. A band of young women, separate from the group of young women fawning over Pan, began falling over themselves to get the announcer's attention. He ended up selecting most of the dozen volunteers from that group. She watched Fenrir strut out-his shocking blond hair and blue eyes were unique to the Sonic caste-and blow a kiss to the swooning women. He shifted into a deep lavender dragon and immediately took off and circled above the colosseum. Danu quickly looked down and consciously hid the blush she knew was rising up her neck. The crowd gasped at the take-off and stood to get a closer look at the flying Shifter. Fenrir opened his jaw wide and shot a wave of harmless sound at the dozen volunteers. The women were lifted off the ground and spun slowly in a circle twenty feet above the other spectators. The women shrieked and cried in surprise, then giggled and waved their arms about when they realized they were safe. Elated that he was doing well, Danu couldn't help but follow Fenrir's every move. She ignored the other women entirely and focused only on the strong, graceful flapping of his wings, and on his well-practiced precision in controlling his magic. So often while walking past the colosseum during training, she had slowed her gait to watch him-the way his strong, perfect muscles stretched and flexed beneath sweat-streaked skin. So many times Danu had forgone studying in the cool library to instead read on a balcony, just so she could listen to his voice. He was fond of randomly breaking into song throughout the day. Gently, the Shifter returned the women to the earth, where they were sent back to their seats. Fenrir landed gracefully and took his place while the crowd exploded-particularly those of the Sonic caste.
It was time. Eagerly, Danu leaned forward in her seat. At last, her twin, Lares, was announced, and she smiled wide when he appeared at the threshold. Danu and Lares were the same height and had the same wavy brown hair, but past that, the similarities ended. His olive skin was several shades darker than hers, and his eyes were an odd shade of green to her brown. Where her features were small and wide-set, his were more rounded and compact. He seemed quite nervous, and Danu did not miss the slight head bow of encouragement from Zephyrus, for which she was grateful. The crowd didn't seem to know what to do, and sat mostly silent while small groups hooted and catcalled as they'd done with the others. Without flourish, he shifted into his bright red dragon form and, with an expression of concentration so great it could be read on his reptilian face, he bent his neck down to the ground and blew a tiny handful of tiny sparks from his nostrils, which fluttered to the ground and died.
The entire colosseum grew quiet-no one dared stir. Danu's knuckles went white she was gripping the arms of her chair so tightly. What was he doing? Again, Lares took a deep breath and blew out half as many sparks as before which, again, flitted to the ground and died, harmless. It was only after his second attempt that Danu noticed the line of dark powder in front of her brother, no doubt some combination of charcoal and saltpeter meant to ignite in a show of flames. With a sinking heart, Danu knew that something had gone very wrong. Her twin was unable to produce even enough sparks to ignite the preset powder.
His head still low, Lares skirted to his place along the perimeter of the colosseum. The audience remained silent, and with every second that passed, the silence only felt louder and louder. Furious at the injustice of the whole situation, Danu leapt to her feet, her skin tingling with pent-up energy, and applauded as hard as she could, whooping and screaming her brother's name for all she was worth. If every other caste could celebrate their Shifter, why shouldn't she be allowed? She ignored the vile looks shot to her by the higher castes and continued her cheers. Before she knew what was happening, she heard her own voice drowned out by the celebratory roar of the overwhelmingly Spark crowd, who cheered for their own, until even her scarlet twin lifted his head to greet them. While the upper and middle castes sat silently, Lares pawed the earth and flapped his giant wings as the others had done, preening for his newfound fans.
Danu reclaimed her seat, and sat proudly as the audience slowly regained their composure long enough for the announcer to proclaim that the testing would begin. She felt a gentle hand over hers and looked up into the approving gaze of Calmus.
"Well done, my dear," he said quietly and patted her hand. "Well done indeed." Danu responded with a genuine smile, her first of the day, before she returned her attention to the Shifters.
All seven were in the air, looping and circling above the ground with great speed and agility. The effect of seeing so many dragons in action was captivating, and the audience sat, mesmerized. A flock of yellow finches circled in a ring around the swarming dragons and changed direction seemingly at random, although Danu knew it was on the command of the older Warriors. The young Shifters' telepathic abilities were being tested. This was the most powerful tool of any Warrior-no lone dragon could hope to defeat a Creator. Only when working as a single unit could a flock truly protect the Hisgeii. A marked Shifter could shift as early as their first season, and could yield the powers unique to their caste just as quickly, but this critical ability-what differentiated a Shifter from a Warrior-was the last of the magics to develop.
The dragons flew closer, and their formation tightened. Two jets of water shot out from more troughs and were collected by two twisting cones of wind. With a flash of lavender, Danu saw Fenrir break from the flock. The finches parted for him, and he flew towards the water twisters. With rhythmic booms coming from his open jowls, Fenrir forced bursts of water into the crowd, eliciting screams and laughter from those in the splash zones. The miniature storms kept pace with the Sonic for one full rotation around the arena. Then, the twisting winds died immediately and the remaining water reformed into jets and swiftly returned to the waiting troughs. The finches dispersed and, as one, seven Shifters set down in a circle, marking all as full members of the Warrior flock.
Not a single Hisgeii remained seated as the deafening applause rose up. Not since all the towns and villages had migrated to this capital city had their numbers been so strong. Danu felt a wave of relief and pride at her brother's achievement, but couldn't tamp down her own nervousness, now that it was time to perform her own part. Calmus stood and offered her his arm, which she took gracefully. She was too nervous to take in what was going on around her and found herself in the middle of the colosseum without remembering the walk there. The Warriors, still in their dragon forms, bowed to Danu and the other five Breeders, who all bowed back. Calmus and Jordan stood between the two groups, with Danu and the Breeder Queen, Opiya, next to them.
Danu smiled nervously at Opiya, who shrugged somewhat indifferently in return. This was to be her last official duty as Queen; she had announced her intention to retire some time ago. It made little difference, truthfully. The Breeders maintained a loose leadership based on seniority and the shifting allegiances so common to groups of women forced to spend time together. The Queen, although technically the most powerful Breeder, was in actuality little more than a formal figurehead, and the duties of being on the Council were traditionally seen as a nuisance and hindrance to the Breeder's own pursuit of study. Besides, Calmus and Jordan were in charge of the vast majority of the Council's duties. The Queen was only in charge of the Breeders.
With Lik missing, there was no formal Warrior King to represent the flock, so the Shifters all stood in a semicircle around the four central figures. Two dozen Hisgeii soldiers lined the perimeter of the rink. They were all dressed in their formal uniforms and carried decorative swords. The older Warriors and Breeders eyed them curiously for a moment, before returning their attention to the ceremony.
"What an incredible day!" Calmus called out to the crowd. He lifted his hands and smiled wide. The crowd responded with polite applause and a few enthusiastic 'woops' thrown in for good measure. "It has been too long, my friends, since our fine city of Envike has seen such celebration!" More polite applause.
"Our people have suffered many losses in recent years, and today we welcome the next generation into our society. They will inherit our strengths, and also our weaknesses, and I believe this incredible group of youngsters will bring glory and victory to the people of Hisgeii at last!" Danu's eyebrows shot up before she caught herself. 'Hope' was certainly never an emotion she'd felt from any of the higher castes upon the mention of her coming of age. "Thus, it is my great honor to lead this beautiful young lady's vows to service the people of Hisgeii with her sacred birthright." Danu cringed. Birthright. It wasn't her birthright. Her mother stole it. The only reason Danu was allowed to live as a Breeder-or even to live-was because she was the last one young enough to conceive. The Creators had killed every marked Hisgeii they could find during the Purge-all the surviving Breeders were too old.
The colosseum grew quiet as Calmus and Jordan positioned themselves in front of Danu. "Now, my dear, remember to speak loudly," Calmus quietly reminded Danu, who nodded nervously.
"Repeat after me: I, Danu, marked Breeder of Envike..." Danu repeated the words, making sure to project loudly into the crowd.
"Swear to continue the Shifter lines of the Hisgeii people, to guard my sacred birthright from those who would contaminate it..." Danu repeated the words, but flinched slightly at the knowledge that it was she, herself, who contaminated the birthright. "...And to honor the guidance of the Council in my choice of mate."
As Danu was taking in breath to repeat the last sentence, a collective gasp from the Breeders behind her made her pause. The two older Warriors stood up straighter, seemingly surprised at something, which made the five younger dragons look around with perplexed expressions.
"Repeat the vow, Danu," Calmus urged. Danu took another breath to prepare her reply.
"Her choice of mate is her own!" Pyrrha stepped forward, fury twisting her features. "The Council has no say in a Breeder's marriage! The magics demand she choose her own mate!" Confused, Danu turned around to face the other Breeders. Danu had never heard vows taken before. Wasn't this the same vow each of them had taken when they came of age?
"You are disrupting the vows of a Coming of Age ceremony, which is a criminal offence, even for you, Pyrrha!" Calmus raised his voice, and spat her name at the end. Opiya and the other Breeders looked confused, but made no move to intervene in the ceremony. The laws of caste were very strict-wasn't that what Calmus was talking about? Or was this something else?
The central figures on the middle of the arena all stood silent, while Calmus stared down Danu with a look of authoritative expectation. This was what she was here to do-this was what her people needed her to do. Cautiously, Danu repeated the last line of the vow, careful to project her voice into the crowd.
Calmus beamed at her and nodded his approval, which relaxed Danu. She'd done it right. With a flourish, he turned back to the crowds and announced that Danu had accepted all the rights and responsibilities of a full-fledged Breeder. The Warriors pawed the ground happily, and the other Breeders, aside from Pyrrha, all clapped politely. The crowd, however, was still on edge from the earlier outburst, and only offered minimal applause.
Ignoring their lack of enthusiasm, Calmus returned to the audience.
"As many of you know, Queen Opiya has asked to be relieved of her title, and King Lik, to our great sadness, remains missing." All seven dragons bowed their heads respectfully at the mention of their flock leader's loss. "Therefore, in two weeks' time, we shall be crowning both a new King and Queen, with our beautiful young new Breeder assuming the distinguished role of Queen and helping us guide our people into the next glorious stage of our history!" The crowd applauded with enthusiasm, caught up in the grandeur of the occasion. Danu gaped at the two men before her-Calmus basked in the glow of the crowd's applause, while Jordan seemed indifferent and almost bored. She dared to look back on her peers, and saw the other five Breeders hurriedly talking amongst themselves. No Queen had ever been so young. It was unheard of! Surely there had been some sort of mistake? Was no one else willing to take it? With an indifferent shrug from Opiya that could only be translated as 'let her have it,' the Breeders resumed their dignified poses.
"Furthermore, over the next two weeks prior to the crowning ceremony, the new flock members will be judged to prove their fitness to father and train the next generation, as they may very well be our last and only hope of finally breaking free of the Creators. Only the best must be allowed to continue the line, to continue the greatness of the Hisgeii Shifters! It cannot be left to mere chance!" The crowd responded with celebration at his enthusiasm and charm, but Danu felt quite perplexed-he wasn't saying what she thought he was saying, was he? Males couldn't continue lines-only Breeders could. Calmus continued his obviously well-rehearsed speech.
"Thus, to fully utilize this infusion of new, vigorous, and youthful blood, and to symbolize the dawn of the next generation of Hisgeii Warriors, two weeks from today, the new Warrior King will be announced by Queen Danu herself. Chosen from the city's marked Shifters, she will take him as her new husband. To show we are fully united in this, our final chance, to say that we will not be divided even at our darkest hour, and to say that we, the Hisgeii people-all of us! We will win this war!" Calmus screamed the words at the top of his lungs at the end, and the audience erupted in applause. They drowned out even Danu's own shock at the announcement. Hisgeii were leaping from their seats at the conclusion of Calmus' speech. Streamers were thrown into the arena, and utter chaos was unfolding around Danu. Pyrrha shoved Opiya out of her way and gripped Danu's shoulders tightly. She placed herself between the girl and Calmus. Zephyrus shifted into his Hisgeii form and charged at Calmus, pointing a long finger in the face of the shorter man and yelling over the crowd.
"You do not decide the next Shifter King! That is not your place!" The dark man, with his deep voice and Warrior physique, made an intimidating figure as he loomed over the Councilman. Several Hisgeii soldiers started forward, but Calmus raised his hand, ordering them to stand down. Zephyrus watched them menacingly, but seemed to suddenly understand their presence. "Your dogs are no threat to us, Calmus."
Danu clutched Pyrrha's arm tightly. She had never seen a Warrior threaten a Hisgeii before, much less a Council member. Danu looked into the older woman's eyes, scared.
"Shh," Pyrrha urged, "wait. The Shifters will not stand for this."
Unlike the position of Queen, the Warriors took the issue of who was to be their King very seriously. Legally, the Council did have the authority to elect a new King, but traditionally the Warriors chose their leaders from amongst themselves in their own way and presented their choice to the Council as a formality. It had been done that way for so long, it was practically law. Danu saw the members of the crowd, particularly those of the higher and middle castes, watching the arena intently. Like her, they didn't seem to fully understand what was taking place or how to respond to it. Glancing at her brother in his dragon form, Danu saw that Lares seemed just as perplexed as she was, although the other four new Warriors all seemed excited at the prospect of being named King. Was she really going to have to choose one in two weeks? Why?
A second dragon shifted, and Danu recognized him as the older Hydro, Manu. Of course, these two men took particular offense to the announcement; Zephyrus was the senior Warrior of the flock, but as a Shroud, he was from the middle castes while Manu, the next senior, was from the higher castes. In Lik's absence, one of these two men would be the next presumed King.
"Zephyrus, the new Shifters are closing their minds," the powerful nude man informed the Shroud. Zephyrus seemed to not hear him until he suddenly turned, as the enormity of the announcement sunk in. Danu's eyes went wide-they were closing their minds? They were full-fledged Warriors now-they were not supposed to close their minds to each other. She'd never seen Zephyrus look so surprised as he watched the younger Shifters all retreating into their own thoughts, building their own strategies to secure the title of King for themselves. Zephyrus' face contorted in fury, and he turned back to the Councilman and screamed at the top of his lungs:
"I will not have you tearing my flock apart! I will not allow it! This is not the place of the Council!"
Calmus took a step back, startled at the force in the heavily scarred man's voice.
"I think you'll find that it is, indeed, my place," Calmus said, calmly. "Didn't you hear the crowd? The ayes have it. But, of course, the Shifters do have the authority to veto any decision by the Council," he added. Danu could tell his normal demeanor was returning-the tone of his voice was growing more confident. "All you have to do is call your flock to a vote." His expression turned smug, and Calmus stared down the taller man. Danu looked between them, confused. The two of them always seemed to be at each other's throats, but never this overtly. Suddenly, she covered her mouth with her hand as she gasped with realization. Zephyrus turned to look at her reaction and, as if reading her thoughts, his face fell in horror. He twisted around to look at his flock. His eyes grappled with the math his mind had already calculated. A majority vote was needed to override the Council's appointment. Lares had no interest in marrying his own twin sister, but the four other new members of the flock were downright giddy at the thought of being named King. With the disappearance of Lik, the vote would be split three to four. Calmus would not be overruled.
Pyrrha, who realized that Zephyrus would not be able to remedy the situation, released Danu and charged at the smug Councilman.
"You disgusting ippa! You will not offer up this girl as some kind of trophy!" She struck Calmus across the face with her hand, a loud smack echoing through the colosseum. Danu gasped, shocked at the outburst. Even Zephyrus and Manu seemed stunned as three soldiers descended upon the Breeder and jerked her back away from the central group.
"Arrest that fimping bitch!" Calmus yelled at the soldiers. He pointed at Pyrrha with one hand and cupped his struck cheek in the other.
"No!" Danu ran to the older woman, but was shoved aside by a fourth guard. More soldiers surrounded the two Councilmen. They took their orders from Calmus, while Jordan seemed entranced by the glittering swords. The younger dragons all backed away, and the older Warriors turned their attention towards keeping their ranks. Two soldiers grabbed onto Danu and held her in place. She struggled against them while Pyrrha yelled obscenities at her captors as they dragged her towards the arena exit. The other Breeders stood and watched the unheard of treatment of one of their own, but Opiya and a ring of soldiers blocked them from moving forward.
Like a boiling geyser, there came a flash of sparkling gray shooting out from the crowd. With shocking speed it swooped, wings spread wide, onto the arena, and-with a scream of horror from Pyrrha-the eighth dragon ripped one of her captors away from her and threw the man halfway across the colosseum. The soldier laid still, and did not move again.
The new Shifter snapped at the other two soldiers holding Pyrrha. They quickly released her, and fell onto the ground in their hurry to get away. With a speed and grace unique to the dragons, he circled her once before forcing his way past the soldiers, and snapped his razor-sharp fangs a hair's width from Calmus' shocked face.
"Garm no! Don't!" cried Pyrrha. She fell to her knees. The soldiers released Danu and she ran to the older woman, and wrapped her in an embrace. "Garm! No!"
"You should listen to your mother, if you know what's good for you," Calmus sneered at the rogue dragon. With a reptilian grin, the gray dragon shifted into a tall young man, two seasons older than Danu herself. He was noticeably thinner than the other Shifters, with several of his ribs visible beneath his heavily scarred skin, but in his eyes burned the fire of a Warrior.
"What are you going to do, Cally? Sic de flock on me?" The nude Shifter taunted in his nasally voice, the infamous accent ubiquitous amongst the common Hisgeii Sparks. "Vecause I don't dink dey will ve taking your orders right now."
"Garm! Get out of here!" Pyrrha cried. Danu gripped her friend tighter. Why did Pyrrha have to attack Calmus? She and Garm were going to make this ten times worse. Why couldn't she just let him explain like a civilized person?
The entire crowd had gone silent. The upper and middle castes paid especially close attention, although Danu barely noticed it. One by one, the Warriors shifted into their Hisgeii forms and advanced on the intruder.
"This is not your concern," Zephyrus said to the younger man.
"It vecomes my concern when my moder is veing dragged away vy varvarians!"
"Official business, Sparky. Hit the road," Aegir added after shifting from his golden form. The rogue dragon scowled hatefully at the Hydro's use of his nickname, and the already tense environment grew noticeably thicker.
"No!" Pyrrha cried. She was unable to even stand in her grief and terror. Spurred by her friend's desperation, Danu joined in with her pleas:
"You should go! You don't belong here!"
Raising one eyebrow, the intruder turned to face Danu. "Oh, don't worry, Princess," he answered with a smirk. "I'll ve getting to you shortly."
Furious at such an informal address coming from such a common voice, Danu shot to her feet. "I am not a princess! I am a Breeder and you will address me as such!" How dare he! First he intrudes on an official ceremony, then he insults her? As if a Breeder would ever seek political office-they were scholars; they were above that. Just because she was a Spark he thought she would want to be Queen? And then he broadcast it in front of everyone? Taking it from the higher castes was one thing, but from him?
Garm looked taken aback for a moment before he openly laughed and turned his hands out in a mock surrender.
"Dat's not how I heard it! In two weeks you will ve Queen, and whoever marries you will ve King. By definition, dat makes you a princess, Princess."
"Whoever the Council chooses for her to marry will be King," Hagen shot back. He stood with his powerful arms crossed beneath his red beard.
"Shut up!" Lares spat at his flock mate. Rolling his eyes, Hagen looked at the Spark Warrior.
"What? Like you ever had a shot at being King?"
"Two weeks from today, the new Warrior King will ve announced by Queen Danu herself, chosen from the city's marked Shifters, and taken as her new husband," Garm quoted back to Calmus, increasing his territory by walking in swaggering loops amongst the others. Danu saw that the rogue Shifter had positioned himself in the very middle of the group, which formed a circle around him. Garm stopped in front of the Councilman and paused to cross his arms over his chest. "Interesting choice of wording, Cally. 'Marked Shifters,' not 'Warriors.' Why? Didn't expect all de new voys to make de cut?" He purposefully shot an eye at Pan, and the young Avimancer bristled at the implied accusation.
"What do you care how the next King is chosen?" Pan asked. "You never wanted to be part of this flock anyway! Go back to your pathetic smuggling and conning!"
Garm ignored Pan and made a wide circle. When he spoke, he addressed the colosseum audience at large.
"What say you?" he cried at his highest volume. "Should I drow my name into de hat? Win the heart of de fair lady? Is it time for a Spark Warrior King?"
He was met with perfect silence as he held his pose-his arms were raised towards the crowd, and his face fixed in an arrogant smirk-until all at once the Hisgeii responded. They were even louder and wilder than ever before, and rose up to their feet in a roaring of noise and cheers and laughter and raised fists. Amidst the stupefied expressions of all those surrounding him, while the crowd chanted "Sparky! Sparky! Aye! Aye! Aye!" over and over again, Garm smugly stared down the Councilman.
"De ayes have it, Cally."
He turned, blew a kiss towards Danu, then shifted into his dragon form and flew
away from the thousands cheering his name.
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