Beneath me, the wind howled as it whipped tiny clumps of dirt up and over the side of the cliff. Even a few feet back from the tipping point, the air caught in my clothes, billowing them out like a balloon and threatening to pull me down the sheer drop. I could hardly move, even backwards, preferring to keep my shoes planted firmly to where I could be sure they were touching the ground. I couldn’t do it, not with the terror threatening to rip my heart from my chest with every passing second. An abrupt change in pressure forced the wind to cease, only for a moment, but long enough that I involuntarily shifted backward ever so slightly, and toppled over, landing on my tailbone with a sharp wince that hissed through my teeth.

“I knew you couldn’t do it.” A man’s voice chortled from the forest behind me, but I didn’t bother glancing around. “You’re the only person I know who could possess such great power and lack the strength to use it.” Even over the rising gale, I could make out every syllable that he spat at me.

“What do you want, Lord Kiran?” I rolled sideways in an effort to take the pressure off my tailbone, keeping my eyes locked on the line ahead of me where the world fell away.

“To make you do as you’ve been told, or to throw you in a cell for the rest of eternity, per Her Majesty’s command.” At that, I spun to look at him. He didn’t need to hold a knife to my throat to threaten me. I could feel the heat from his flaming amber eyes a mile away.

“B-but I’m your apprentice.” I stumbled over the words as my brain fought to make sense of the situation. Never once during my training had he ever mentioned Queen Marissa, and I’d always assumed it was because he feared for his own safety, as training DragonSouls was punishable by death.

“You’ve never used your alternate form, though, which means it’s still possible to extract the power from your body, and give it to someone more deserving.” Lord Kiran’s tone turned thoughtful, and he lifted the hood of his black robes, dropping it down his shoulders to reveal his lips curling upward in a snarling grimace.

Without waiting for me to answer, he turned to the forest, silently calling forth more than a dozen guards, who materialized from the bushes. They were upon me before I could utter a word, grabbing at my wrist to reveal the magical, fiery brand that laced my skin, all while shouting and lacing my body with chains.

“No!” I shouted, kicking off the ground with all my might as they dragged me from the cliff’s edge. “Kiran why are you doing this?” My shriek echoed through the woods, but even with my view blocked by the heavily armored guards, I knew Lord Kiran was gone.

The guards walked at a pace much faster than I had on my way out a few hours prior, but still it seemed to take forever to reach the kingdom. By the time they finally released me, dumping me on my knees on a cold, stone floor, it was all I could do to not fall forward on my face.

“Emersyn Drox, Your Majesty.” One of the guards called out, and I could hear the swish of their arms rising in a salute. Was I really in the presence of the queen herself? My throat was so tight I could barely swallow, and I wondered absently if my body would destroy itself before the queen had a chance.

“That one Kiran told me about? Pity.” The queen’s voice was all-encompassing, filling the room with its rich tones. “I’m sorry, my dear, but you must understand. If I let one DragonSoul go free, who knows how many more will seek justice? No, I’m afraid that power is too great, and I must sentence you to death.”

It didn't seem real, and I just stared unblinking at the queen, who was sitting in a throne garnered with more gems than had been sewn into her gown. At some point while she’d been talking, the guards who’d accompanied me had filed out, leaving only the four soldiers who flanked her throne.

"Take her away."

“Wait!” I cried out, aware that addressing the queen so crassly likely carried its own prison sentence. “Lord Kiran told me you can extract the magic-”

“He would say that.” The queen laughed an airy, casual chuckle. “He’s right, but the problem is that the magic has to go somewhere; it doesn’t just dissipate into thin air. I’m sorry, Emersyn. There’s nothing I can do.” With a snap of her fingers, the guards approached, with one in particular reaching me faster than the rest.

“Do not struggle.” He advised in a voice that wavered just as little as his iron grip on my arm.

Each guard seemed to pull me in a different direction as we made our way out the back of the castle toward a large, ominous tower complete with jagged sconces and gargoyles. I could only hope that the inside didn’t match, but from the very entrance, I knew I was doomed. The dungeon was such a maze that I was lost as soon as the entryway disappeared from sight. With every step through the thin hallways I became more aware that even if I did manage to escape, I would run in circles until I collapsed from exhaustion before I found an exit.

“Which cell do you want her in, Marcus?” Every guard I’d met so far had an ego more inflated than a pregnant goat’s stomach, but in the creepy darkness, even they were willing to yield power. The first man who’d reached me in the throne room answered, his voice as calm as if he was relaxing on the riverbank.

“2A.” He responded without explanation or direction for me, though it wouldn’t have helped. On our brisk walk I’d only managed to see one door label, 16C, which gave me no information about their numbering system. In fact, all I was aware of with regard to direction was that we were going up, climbing more than five flights of stairs at the end of each aisle before finally stopping at a padlocked door. “I’ll take it from here. Thank you, gentlemen.” Marcus gave the other guards a slight bow, and they scurried away, blessed to leave the rotting atmosphere. “This is where the DragonSouls are housed.” He informed me with a slight gesture toward the door.

I nodded, biting my lower lip. My whole body was shaking with fear as he unlocked the door and held it open for me, not bothering to make sure I didn’t run away. I heard the door click shut behind me, and Marcus took the lead once again.

“There is one thing you should know, Emersyn.” He didn’t face me, but I could see his lips twitch up in no more than a hint of a smile. “Not everyone in this kingdom thinks like our queen. Some of us have the perspective to see that the DragonSoul aren’t dangerous, and they certainly don’t deserve to die for nothing.” We stopped in front of 2A, and he flicked the lock without reaching for a key. Under its own power, the panel flung in, smashing into the stone wall behind it so hard some pieces splintered off. I gasped at the sight: we were at the back of the tower, and through a crudely cut hole in the back of the cell’s wall, I could see miles of forests stretching out beneath me.

“Jump.” Marcus told me with a wink, and I spun towards him, throwing my arms around his neck for a brief second before his pushed me away, earnestly pointing at the break in the thick stone.

“Thank you.” I breathed, and he nodded respectfully, before turning away without another word.

I faced the edge of the tower, as terrified as I had ever been, but the option of staying in the prison for the rest of my life made the decision for me. Holding my breath, I placed both hands on either side of the opening and wedged myself through it, holding on until my knuckles turned white. Tears streamed down my face. Miles away, just in front of the setting sun, I could see a pair of dragons twirling through twirling through the air, and I could be with them. Involuntarily, I placed a foot back inside the cell and internally screamed at my unrelenting brain. Fighting every fiber of my being, I forced my hands to the outside of the tower, and, before my brain could react, I shifted my weight forward, and jumped into the rushing wind.

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