Zora waited in her favorite place in all the Sea Hawk territory, the south bluff overlooking Hawk’s Bay. The sea filled the western horizon carrying a variety of merchant ships and fishing boats to their destinations. In front of her, it squeezed between the bluff that Zora stood on and its twin directly north, then it rushed the beach that led back into to the hills where the Sea Hawk’s had their main village.
It was hard to believe that she had only been here, living among the Sea Hawk clan, for ten years. Time did not pass the same way among the tengu as it did among humans. Humans were always rushing whether it was to get the years crops planted and harvested or to meet the countless appointments that they set. It had not even seemed like rushing to Zora when she had lived it. It was simply the way that humans viewed time. But among the tengu, who lived for millennia instead of decades, the individual days all blurred together. As a result, they made terrible farmers. They were all fascinated by the vegetable garden that Zora kept because they got all their farm products from the meadow pixies, who lived in the hills nearby, so the tengu never actually witnessed the growing process.
The tengu made great hunters, though. They could wait motionless in a tree stand for days until a buck large enough to satisfy them walked by. They preferred stalking their prey, however, and to kill with a blade instead of shooting arrows from afar. Once Kel’tirth had trailed a mountain lion for a week, watching it work and teaching Zora the signs, then he had taken the lion on with a single knife. The fight was over in 90 seconds. It had been the first time Zora went hunting with a tengu, and she was stunned at how fast they could move. Not that the tengu were normally slow, but Zora was not sure the cat even knew what happened to it after the first attack.
No, the tengu were not slow or lazy. They just did not understand about deadlines. Kel’tirth would come when he as soon as he learned the council’s decision. He just would not rush over. He may even stop at the tavern to have a drink or two with his friends first.
Zora smiled as she watched the sun begin to dip towards the sea. After ten years, she was used to it. Besides, regardless of the council’s decision, she was staying right here. If she had failed to fit into human society as a girl, she could never learn to do it now.
“The high council has decided to abandon the human nations to their troubles.”
Zora acknowledged the statement with a nod, but she didn’t look away from the spectacular pinks and purples that were still painting the horizon sky. The sun itself had set only a moment ago. She had felt Kel’tirth join her on the bluff minutes before that. Now he was finally ready to talk.
“They believe the humans themselves threw away their alliance with us millennia ago, so the clans have been ordered to wait and gather our strength until the war comes to us. The tengu will not go to it.” Kel’tirth stopped, looking to Zora for a response.
Zora sighed. “Then my people truly are in trouble. They are no more prepared to take on the drow alone today, then they were two thousand years ago.” She wasn’t really surprised, however. The tengu always welcomed her into their homes, but they did not interfere with events beyond their borders or even with the pixy races within. Kel’tirth had told her that they had once ruled all of Cal’hern, but now they were content to let the world rule itself.
The pause stretched. The sunset faded.
“Will you go to join your people?” Kel’tirth asked.
“No.” Zora had decided that even before hearing the council’s decision.
Kel’tirth shifted, turning away from the horizon to look down at her. “They will need you.”
Zora took a breath, and let it out. She had known that Kel’tirth would disagree with her decision. Among the tengu, a warrior stood with his clan, and the clan with its people. They understood that their strength was not only in their magic, but in their honor and unity. “My presence will not make a difference to the outcome.”
Kel’tirth did not respond to that argument. Tengu warriors did not fight battles because they expected to win, or even because they expected to be needed. If she were a tengu, that argument would have her called a coward. Zora’s stomach tightened because she knew that the lack of scolding only proved that she was still an outsider, a human, less than a full warrior.
“My people rejected me years ago. We split ways. I am no longer one of them.” This had been reasonable before Kel’tirth came, so why did this 200-year-old warrior make her feel like a child throwing out excuses. “Even if I went back now, they would never accept me as a warrior. They would not allow me to help.” Zora finally turned to look up at Kel’tirth, willing him to understand her reasoning. Or at least to argue against her. That would be better than this silent tolerance.
Perhaps he read her wishes in her eyes. “You have become too strong a warrior for even them to ignore. Do you think that we will give one of our swords to any human who asks? We have only given 10 swords to all the lesser races together in all the many millennia that we have been here.” He pause, but when she didn’t respond, he said, “Don’t let yourself be guided by your people’s opinion of you. Change it.”
Zora smiled, and shook her head sadly. That would be the day. It wasn’t so much their opinions that stopped her, but their refusal to let her act. If she joined the battle rogue, even with a tengu sword, she would get herself killed. If she asked to help, they would marry her off to the nearest bachelor and lock her in his kitchen. They had already tried that once.
When she didn’t respond to his challenge, Kel’tirth sighed. “Will you at least join the tengu when we do fight?”
“I will fight alongside you and your clan if you will have me,” said Zora.
Kel’tirth nodded and looked at the now dark horizon. The moment stretched into a peaceful silence, but Zora could tell he wasn’t quite finished. She suspected she knew what his next question would be.
Sure enough Kel’tirth turned back to her and turned her to face him. “If you intend to fight beside me and my clan—” He paused again. She had always put him off before, and she could tell that his pride was tiring of the routine. “—why don’t you join our clan officially? You could fight beside me as my wife.” He paused before adding in a voice she had to strain to hear, “If you don’t marry soon, you will run out of time, Zora. I know our lives are slower paced than your humans, but living at our speed will not lengthen your lifetime.”
Zora smiled up at him, but a lump in her throat corked her answer inside. She had already decided to agree. For that same reason, and also because she was afraid he would soon stop asking all together and she would never have another chance. Why was it still so tempting to put it off?
Zora forced herself to swallow, and open her mouth. She saw him realize she was agreeing. His lips smiled, but his eyes were still sad. Was he still thinking about their limited time, or was it knowledge that she was choosing him because of the time, and not for himself?
“Kel’tirth, I would be honored—” She was startled into silence when Kel’tirth suddenly whirled away from her.
He spun to face the tree line a few yards away. She could see the tension running through his body as his eyes searched the trees for whatever had put him on the defensive. She also scanned the trees, although she doubted she had any chance of spotting the threat first.
Then she felt it. An ancient magic. It felt like tengu on the surface, but beneath was something even older, feral and very potent. Fear ran down her spine making her hand clumsy as it found its way to her sword’s grip.
Zora saw movement and strained her eyes to see through the growing darkness. Kel’tirth drew his sword, and she was following suit when a drake flashed out of the trees and into the sparse grass sprinkled across the stone bluff. Recognition swept through her. She’d been having dreams of this creature for the past week—this exact one, she was certain—and now it had come for her.
Drakes were distant cousins to dragons, but they looked more like snakes with tiny legs added just below the head and halfway down the body. This one was about one sword length long, and Zora’s fingers could have wrapped all the way around its body. It’s scales were such a pale green that they seemed to glow silver in the moonlight. It’s eyes were pitch black, and it’s tongue blood red. Stained by its past victims. The idea skittered, unwelcome, across Zora’s mind.
The drake half scampered, half slid across the bluff in a beeline towards Zora. Kel’tirth sprang at it swinging his sword in a diagonal cut. Zora barely saw the drake coil, but when it leaped, it cleared Kel’tirth’s shoulder by a foot, easily too high for his sword’s first cut and too fast for another.
The drake would have been beyond Kel’tirth if it hadn’t been for the tengu’s own incredible speed. He let the momentum of his swing whirl him around 180 degrees and caught the drake with his free left hand. The drake’s body twisted, and its eyes glared back at Kel’tirth. Pain shot through Kel’tirth’s face, and the drake’s body slipped out of his hand stained with his blood. Then the drake sprung at Zora
But for the drake’s focus had been distracted. Even if only for a moment, the weight of its magic had landed on Kel’tirth, and Zora had managed to push her body into action. Her sword was now poised in her hands fully drawn, and its own pulse of magic pushing off the paralysis that the drake’s magic had caused.
Zora swung at the drake hoping it could not maneuver in midair. Her blade landed but skidded along the drake’s scales. The sound was metallic, and sparks flew.
The drake wrapped around her sword, then up her arm. Zora jerked, knowing it was too late to twist away but trying anyway. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kel’tirth leaping forward arm outstretched. Then the drake sunk its fangs into her neck.
The fiery liquid it injected was not venom, but pure magic. A curse, perhaps. But to a human, the one race without any natural defense to magic, it might as well be lethal poison.
Zora’s vision went black. She heard shouts, then nothing. And she could feel nothing but the fire and the drake’s triumph.