Interlude VIII: Flames of the Phoenix
“Well?” Duke Liam Tyrell pressed nervously as the physician finished wrapping Isleen’s eyes beneath a sheet of black cloth smeared with a light coating of aloe vera juice.
“All things considered,” the physician muttered as he tied the bandage. “Lady Isleen is fortunate. Her condition should be temporary given a decent period of rest, a tonic of burdock root, and limited exposure to both sun and flame.”
The Duke and Tristan exhaled slowly in relief while the patient frowned beneath her blindfold.
“So—exactly how long do I have to wear this?” Isleen growled as she tapped the edges of the bandage across her nose.
“At least three days, Lady Isleen,” the physician replied with a note of firmness. “Need I remind you how serious and permanent your condition could have been? Normally a pureblood’s core magic burns away any toxins it detects in your bloodstream. However, the strain of the tournament and your depleted magic supply created an unstable environment where the poison could last long enough to do significant damage. While the effects are temporary, rest and natural detoxification are key to a quick and complete recovery.”
“But—the tournament isn’t over.”
“It is for you,” the physician countered sharply before turning his attention to the Duke. “Some toxins might remain while her internal organs are still recovering. It would be better for the patient and her eyesight if she were transported to a dark, cool room to rest until tomorrow morning. Afterward, she may move about freely indoors with her blindfold and a guide. I will stop by your estate after sundown over the next three days when it is safe to check her progress.”
“Yes. Understood,” Duke Tyrell murmured as he nodded to the physician. “Thank you.”
“Not at all,” the physician replied with a polite smile as he gathered his bag. “It’s not often I have patients with such positive outlooks following a match in the arena. May Kritanta’s flame grant your family strength.”
The Scorpion Prince raised his brow as the physician took his leave, then returned his attention back to his teacher. “Looks like you’ll have to sit the last match out.”
“Figures,” Isleen muttered bitterly. “I’ve no one but myself to blame.”
“How could you have known?” Tristan retorted with a shake of his head. “I’m just as much to blame as you are.”
“No,” she countered sharply. “I was the one low on magic. I was the one who drank the poisoned wine even though I didn’t recognize that bitch.” She clenched her fists and rubbed her knuckles against her thighs while pressing her lips together. “But I know her face now, and once I’ve recovered—”
“Until then, we’ll have to rely on you both for a physical description while we comb through the registration slips,” Duke Tyrell interjected as he placed a hand on the Scorpion Prince’s shoulder. “And—thank you. You kept my daughter safe in the arena.”
Tristan scoffed lightly as he met the Duke’s gaze, then looked away. “I also gambled with her life in order to win.”
“Ah, well. I’m fairly certain your teacher is the one who put you up to that,” Duke Tyrell replied with a knowing look at his daughter. “Did you honestly think your brother or I would be okay with you risking your life like this?”
“Entering the arena itself is a risk.” Isleen pressed her lips tightly together, then exhaled as she hung her head toward her lap. “I’m sorry, Father. In the end—I was still disqualified. I—failed you both.”
“Nonsense,” Duke Tyrell retorted sharply before sitting beside her on the bench. “You gave Tristan the chance he needed to face Aurelia. And we may still be able to convince the Emperor to change his mind after all that you and Farrell have done for the prince.”
“I will also speak to the Emperor—my father,” Tristan blurted out reassuringly. “I’m certain he had some agenda in recognizing me before the final match. Perhaps I can use that to my advantage.”
“I appreciate the offer, Altus Ignis,” Duke Tyrell replied formally. “But this is a family matter.”
“Farrell is my guardian and brother-in-law. Isleen is my teacher, and Aurelia is my half-sister.” The Scorpion Prince spread his hands with a shrug. “I’m as close to family as you can get—and any plans I have for Ventrayna’s future will mean nothing without both your children at my side.”
Both father and daughter appeared caught off guard by his statement, though Isleen was a bit harder to read under her blindfold. Duke Tyrell rose from the bench with a somewhat awkward yet cynical expression as he offered his hand to the Scorpion Prince. “I’ve pledged the Burning Hawks to you already, and initially, I admit, my personal and family ambitions heavily influenced that decision. I offer my oath to you now as Leader of the Burning Hawks and a grateful father.”
Tristan accepted the offered hand but frowned as the Duke tightened his grip.
“My daughter has told you about our coven’s heritage,” Duke Tyrell continued with a faint edge of caution. “That we carry one branch of the Phoenix’s bloodline.”
“Yes, she—mentioned it.”
“With such heritage comes knowledge that goes beyond a mere child’s bedtime story.” The Duke’s coal-gray eyes lowered as they focused on their connected hands. “The legends say that a new Phoenix is born with the final death of another. My wife left Skreigh in search of the next Phoenix four years ago, before we knew of your existence. She alone carries the knowledge you need to access your mother’s flame fully.”
“She can? Really?” Tristan blurted out in confused disbelief. ‘Why were they only mentioning this now.’
“I sent my fastest riders to find her the night Farrell—well, let’s just say my wife is our best hope of helping him now.” The Duke released the Scorpion Prince and stepped back to place his hand on Isleen’s bowed head comfortingly. “The Phoenix’s flame is a rare and special magic coveted by many, but most of all the Emperor and Burning Lizard Coven.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they believe that only the flame of the Maker possessed by the Phoenix can hatch the dragon eggs the Empress’s family possess.”
Aurelia rolled her neck slowly, attempting to ease the tension that built up as she waited the customary two hours granted to the victors of the second match to recover before the final challenge of the tournament. Her copper eyes roamed the painted walls of the cellar room restlessly, pausing more than once on the closed cellar door that led to the arena ground tunnel. She hated the feelings of hope and dread that tickled past the steel walls of discipline, wondering if either the Emperor or Empress would bother to stop by and offer her any words of encouragement—or expectations—before the match.
‘Who am I kidding? It’s painfully obvious who Father wants to win this match. And Mother was never one for soft words.’
The Scorpion Princess sighed and quickly moved into her usual shoulder rolls, leg stretches, and flame curls. Her eyes narrowed in on the purple fire magic she had inherited from Empress Alexander as the unfamiliar taste of bitterness filled her mouth.
‘If my flames had been red like Arius, would I have lost my position as Crown Princess so easily?’
Aurelia gritted her teeth and then finished off the last of her warm-up exercises. She then emptied the prepared bottle of caligo wine, focusing on the pulsating core at her center that overflowed with the power of her inherited bloodline. “Nevermind. Better to be the descendant of a dragon than some old scorpion.” The Princess opened her eyes and resisted the urge to test her enhanced firepower. Aurelia had a feeling that she would need every drop to match up against Tristan’s rather incredible magical endurance.
‘It might be more than that, though. If he is Kritanta’s Consort, then—’
A knock at the door pulled her gaze sharply to the room’s entrance. “Yes?”
“It’s Jett Zenaku. May I enter, Altius Ignis?”
The Scorpion Princess rolled her eyes before replying, “Come in then.” She crossed her arms as the youngest of Duke Zenaku’s sons entered and bowed respectfully. “What brings you here so late?”
“Lady Isleen has withdrawn from the third match.”
Aurelia blinked, then snickered as she rolled her eyes. “Of course she did.”
“That means you only have to beat the Bastard Prince.”
“Again,” she retorted with a faint growl, “You’re stating the obvious, Jett. So why are you really here?”
He straightened fully and offered her a wry smile before pulling two amber bracelets from his pocket. “The Empress asked that I give you these.”
Aurelia frowned as she stepped forward to examine the flimsy pieces of jewelry. “My Mother? What are they? Some shabby tabby of good luck?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t ask, and I have a feeling it’s better if neither of us knows so we can claim ignorance.”
The Scorpion Princess’s frown deepened as she picked up one of the bracelets to examine it closely. When nothing about the plain, ordinary jewelry stood out, she injected the amber beads with her fire magic and blinked as runes appeared within the translucent spheres. “It’s enchanted. These are—it’s been injected with my mother’s magic. I can’t use them. Enchantments are forbidden in the arena.”
Jett stared at her blankly with a rather annoyed expression. “So what? You saw those black flames. If Tristan is blessed by Kritanta—you won’t last more than ten minutes, Princess.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snorted, ignoring the second bracelet he offered her as she tossed the first on the bench behind her. “Mother wants to save face, but I’ll be the one to bear the brunt of the Emperor’s anger if I’m caught cheating.”
“Just wear them somewhere they won’t be seen,” Jett retorted. “As long as they’re close to your skin, it doesn’t matter. You can wear them around your ankles—”
“You can tell my mother that I have declined her gift. What kind of example would I set as future Empress if I have to cheat to retain my throne?”
“Fine,” he growled, tossing the second bracelet on the ground by the bench. “Then, at least let me offer you a few words of advice before your match.”
‘This should be good,’ Aurelia mused with a faint smirk.
“You’re both close combat witches, but the prince is still heavily reliant on his weapons. The fact that he didn’t use Kritanta’s flames until the very end when his team almost lost suggests that he doesn’t have complete control over the Goddess’s power yet.”
“Let me guess, your advice is to disarm the bastard quickly and then hope these black flames overwhelm him and give me an advantage.”
Aurelia scoffed. “You know, I might have more reliable intel to work off of if you hadn’t surrendered so quickly.”
“Ahha!” Jett chuckled dryly. “I wasn’t exactly in any position to barter with him, Princess.”
“If you hadn’t hesitated to go for Lady Isleen, it would have forced a tie at least.”
“Let me guess,” he muttered while folding his arms. “Your advice would have been to sacrifice Makhi and Isleen to ensure my victory?”
The Scorpion Princess shrugged. “No risk, no reward.”
Jett’s smile thinned as he lowered his arms and offered her a parting bow. “I wish you good luck in the match, Altius Ignis.”
The Princess waved him away dismissively as her attention returned to the amber bracelets and whatever mess her calculating mother was plotting. The arena’s dragon horn boomed through the tunnels as Jett opened the door to leave.
Faintly, just faintly, Aurelia thought she heard him mutter the words “frigid bitch,” before the door closed behind him. She chuckled softly, more amused than enraged. If there was one lesson she had picked up from the cold-blooded Emperor and ruthless Empress, it was that fear was the most reliable weapon she could possess in a world where sons are always favored over daughters.
“Sorry to disappoint you yet again, Father. But I have no intentions of letting that bastard take my throne so easily. One of us won’t be walking out of the arena alive.”
The oppressive heat of the sun, now sinking slowly towards the western wall, greeted Tristan through the barred vent shafts of the arena as he approached the open gate where Aurelia waited. His eyes fell on the nine-tail whip she tapped restlessly against the golden scorpion painted upon her armored chest plate before she heard his approach and then turned toward him.
The Scorpion Princess’s scornful smile faded as her gaze narrowed in on the new armor he wore, similar to her own, but with the crest of a red scorpion and golden phoenix painted across his chest plate. “It looks like you made good use of your hour of rest,” she observed cynically. “I suppose my father had a hand in this.”
“Our father,” Tristan corrected as he stood beside her and focused on where Duke Zenaku addressed the waiting spectators in the arena’s seats, which seemed even more crowded than it had been for the first two matches. “But yes, he insisted on it.”
‘And since it’s part of the deal to secure Farrell a safe divorce from you, I couldn’t exactly turn him down.’
“Well, at least you look the part now,” Aurelia muttered as she inched forward, determined to remain one step ahead of him. “And did our father, the Emperor, offer you any words of advice, little brother?”
“Nothing beyond his wish that both his children would leave the arena alive.”
The Scorpion Princess scoffed darkly. “Funny, he issued no such words to me.” Her copper eyes turned to meet the Scorpion Prince’s ember gaze. “If you want my advice, little brother, don’t hold back. The only mercy you can offer me is a quick, clean death.” Aurelia smiled bitterly as her gaze returned to Duke Zenaku. “I won’t hesitate to do the same if I prove victorious, and besides—” the dragon horn boomed throughout the arena before them as the Duke gestured in their direction, “—we both know that’s what they want.”
Before Tristan could question her meaning, Aurelia took the first step into the blinding light of the arena. She raised her whip to acknowledge the crowd’s roar and confidently continued toward the waiting Duke. The Scorpion Prince took a slow breath before following in her footsteps, acknowledging the deafening roar that reverberated throughout the arena at his appearance with the occasional nod.
‘Perhaps the crowd is who Aurelia was referring to. They’re certainly worked up over this match.’
“Witches of Skreigh!” Duke Zenaku bellowed after pointing to the two marked circles in the red sand. “I present to you, your Scorpion Prince and Princess!”
The crowd continued its enthusiastic greeting while the resonating echo of “Iairos! Iairos!” rippled through the legions of witches. Tristan drew his swords and turned at Zenaku’s signal to face the royal balcony. As he turned, his gaze caught on the strip of gold fabric that waved in the center of the swarming crowd. The rippling flag and its bearer, a ten-year-old boy, seemed to realize the Scorpion Prince had spotted them and waved the flag frantically.
A faint smile touched the corners of Tristan’s lips before he focused on the Emperor and Empress, who stared down at them from the balcony of volcanic rock. From the corner of his eye, Tristan saw Aurelia bow toward the rulers of Ventrayna and silently mimicked her greeting.
“May the Goddess of Flame, War, and Destruction bless you both,” Duke Zenaku intoned with a respectful bow.
“As if I’d waste my blessing on the inbred bitch of those pretentious little dragons.” Tristan flinched as the Goddess appeared beside him, her soulless black eyes staring at the Duke’s lowered head. “Remember your oath to me, Tristan Karan Iairos. With my blessing, you will become more powerful than Arius and the Empress, who plot against you even now. Soon enough, all witches of the desert will kneel before you and beg to grant you Arius’s crown.” Her scornful gaze watched as the Duke straightened and turned to leave. “Shall we give them a demonstration of what is to come?”
The Scorpion Prince watched apprehensively as the Goddess raised a graceful ashen fist toward the sky before extending a single blackened finger. A deep resonating rumble shook the sands of the arena below his feet as the giant pillars bearing the covens’ flames sputtered erratically before turning black, one by one, as Kritanta extended each finger in turn.
The covens and spectators turned and exclaimed in alarm as their respective flames changed colors until only the Emperor’s red flame remained.
“Kritanta’s flame,” Aurelia whispered hoarsely before turning to face the prince. “Is this you?”
“No,” Tristan replied with a firm shake of his head.
“Then what is this? Some pathetic attempt to intimidate me?”
The Scorpion Prince ignored her continued accusations as he raised his gaze to meet that of the Emperor. Arius stared back at him with a stern frown but appeared to take no note of the Goddess who stood beside the prince. The Witch Emperor’s right hand gripped the volcanic balcony tightly as the red flame above him flickered to the size of a standard torch before billowing into the clouds in a funnel of ominous black flames.
“I can smell his fear from here,” Kritanta cackled as she traced her long black nails along Tristain’s arm. “Tell me, my Consort. What is it you think he fears most?”
‘I don’t know.’
“Your father is a complicated specimen, to be sure. He wants you to inherit his throne and resents you for taking his place beside me. Though you can hardly blame him, given everything Arius sacrificed to get where he is.”
‘Sacrificed?’ Tristan echoed hesitantly.
“Surely, you must have realized by now. My deal with Arius that granted him the power to overthrow Pope Ivar, crush the Saint’s bloodline, and gather the covens beneath him to form a witch nation to rival that of even the Isbrand Empire—came at a cost. He traded me his firstborn without hesitation, only to try and swindle me by marrying a little dragon instead of the Phoenix I needed. Yet here you stand, my precious Consort.”
‘And my mother?’
“I had nothing to do with Arius’s pathetic little tantrum nor his ploy to hide her away in Lafeara,” Kritanta replied with a note of audible resentment. “Nor the cruel death that found her there in Catalina’s weakened state.”
‘Then who did?’
“You already know the answer to that question, Tristan. It was the Witch Star that drained your mother before she was sent to Lafeara and the same cursed jewel that drained her of life while you were still a child. The half-witch who took the life of the Phoenix has already met his end, but it was the Emperor who crippled Catalina after she rejected him and the Empress who ensured her death by sending the Witch Star to Lafeara.”
Tristan exhaled sharply as the painful confirmation echoed through his entire being.
“So, if you seek revenge,” Kritanta murmured as she whispered against his right ear, “now is the time to take it. The Emperor already suspects Aurelia is not his. Kill your fake sister, and you strip Alexander of her power by removing her remaining link to the throne—” she gestured over his left shoulder to where the Scorpion Princess now faced him with her whip and battle-axe at the ready, “—then take the Emperor’s crown and everything he sacrificed your mother to become. Or, if you prefer, we can send them both to the pits of hell to suffer a slow, agonizing death.”
“Are you ready, little brother?” Aurelia taunted with a faint edge of uncertainty as she shifted restlessly within her circle.
The deep resentment the Scorpion Prince had carried since Queen Catalina’s death bubbled to the surface. His heart beat in chaotic unison with the dragon banging at the door within him, roaring to be freed and exact the revenge they both wanted.
“You know you can win even without opening the door. But if you want the witches of Ventrayna to acknowledge you and grant you the power to control Lafeara’s fate—you need to show them exactly who they’re dealing with.”
“Having second thoughts?” Aurelia growled impatiently as she flexed her whip arm. “Or do you intend to fight me bear-handed?”
“You should stop,” Tristan whispered hoarsely as his unfocused gaze centered on the golden scorpion painted across her armor.
“I promised the Emperor that I would spare you—but if you force me to fight—there’s a good chance you’ll end up dead whether I want it or not.”
“What sort of bullshit are you babbling now?” Aurelia snarled before glancing toward the royal balcony where the Emperor and Empress had taken their seats. “Fuck this! I’m done waiting.” Her whip and battle axe crackled with purple flames as she left her circle and raced toward him, curling the nine-tailed whip overhead.
Tristan reflexively drew his swords free to block the attack as nine deadly lashes wrapped around his witch steel blades. With an aggravated growl, the Scorpion Prince pivoted to the side, yanking the Scorpion Princess’s whip and dragging her towards him. Aurelia appeared far from caught off guard, taking advantage of his aggressive pull to launch herself toward the prince with her battle-axe raised.
In the split second it took her to reach him, Tristan ducked low and dove beneath the princess’s legs before rising quickly to yank on the whip again, disrupting the pureblood’s landing as she fumbled to spin around. The Scorpion Prince quickly released the hilt of his left sword and punched at Aurelia’s exposed right elbow, forcing the Scorpion Princess to drop the handle of her whip as she staggered away and promptly rolled out of reach.
By the time Aurelia turned to face him, Tristan’s black flames had engulfed the nine-tailed whip still tangled around his dual blades. She charged at him again, even as the Scorpion Prince ripped the crumbling whip apart with his swords. It was easy to deflect her obvious attack, but before Aurelia could spin away from him this time, the prince brought his right sword down on the witch steel vambrace above her left wrist.
The Scorpion Princess gritted her teeth as she staggered away, but this time maintained her grip on the battle axe. She quickly tossed it to her right hand as she took a defensive stance while shaking out her numb left arm. “Bastard!”
“I’ll say it again, you should surrender while you still can,” Tristan retorted calmly as she cricled him and the scorched metal stub of her whip that rolled to a halt in the red in the sand.
“You think you can beat me just because I’m down to one weapon?” Aurelia snarled as she slowly clenched and unclenched her empty left fist. “You shouldn’t underestimate me.” She raised the battle axe and threw it aside as her fists ignited with twin purple serpents that hissed venomously in his direction.
The Scorpion Prince stared at the coiling, living elemental flames for a moment with a blank expression. “Wait, are—those supposed to be dragons?”
The princess’s scowl deepened as she clenched her jaw. “Are you mocking me?”
“No, I just—thought you and the Empress were descendants of the Dragon Coven.”
“We are,” she growled, injecting more magic into the flame serpents that swelled and grew in size as she fed them.
Tristan tilted his head with a perplexed frown as he studied them. “Have you ever seen a dragon?”
“Of course not,” Aurelia snapped before adding almost hesitantly. “There hasn’t been a dragon sighting since the Saint killed the last of the Dragon Coven nearly a century ago.”
“She’s right,” Kritanta muttered with a hint of malice. “Ramiel’s bitch destroyed my favored coven after ending her war with Kirsi. Now all that remains of my past consorts is the weakened bloodline that now runs through these desert lizards.”
‘Is that why you wanted Catalina? Because only the flame of the Phoenix can hatch a dragon egg?’
“Who told you that?” the Goddess demanded with a malicious chuckle. “I suppose it’s true. However powerful my flames may be, they cannot create life.”
‘Then why not simply ask the Phoenix to hatch a new set of dragons?’
“A goddess doesn’t ask for anything!” Kritanta growled furiously before huffing and crossing her arms. “Though I did attempt to persuade both your mother and her predecessor, ultimately, they rejected me with prejudice.”
‘Why? Wouldn’t dragons have helped with the war against the church?’
“You don’t know your history,” the Goddess observed cynically. “If you’re curious about dragons, why not use your mother’s flame to wake them? The real thing is always so much more underwhelming when compared to the legends these desert lizards embellished.”
‘How would I—’ Tristan hesitated as the volcanic egg used in the tournament’s registration came to mind. ‘Those are the Dragon Coven’s eggs?’
“You fed one of them earlier. The Phoenix’s spark and my powerful flames should have been enough to revive the dormant embryo within. The egg only needs a bit more of my magic to energize it enough to hatch fully.”
“Haha,” the Scorpion Prince chuckled dryly.
“Is something funny?” Aurelia snapped, looking ill at ease as Tristan’s amber eyes turned black beneath Kritanta’s influence.
“Sister,” the Scorpion Prince murmured, his voice faintly distorted as the voice of a goddess echoed beneath it. “Tell me, would you like to see a real dragon?”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to finish this match sooner rather than later,” Aurelia retorted before the twin violet serpents coiled at the edge of her wrists lunged toward the distracted prince. Tristan’s dark gaze snapped to face the oncoming blur of hellish purple flames. The princess barely saw the playful smile that spread across his face before the bastard vanished in a blur of black smoke and flames.
“Fuck!” Aurelia hissed as her gaze swept erratically around the arena. ‘Where the fuck is he?!’
“Sister,” Tristan’s voice taunted from far above her.
The princess looked up, her copper eyes widening as she took in the pureblood hovering above the arena with two giant black, eagle-like wings. “What the fuck? How dare you cheat so blatantly!”
‘Damn it. Fire witches can’t fly. What sort of bullshit enchantment is he using?’
The Scorpion Prince ignored her as he flew toward the giant torch above Duke Zenon’s Burning Lizard Coven. Aurelia watched in baffled silence as the prince entered Kritanta’s black flames, only to emerge with one of the coven’s dragon eggs, which he presented to the stunned audience below.
“Rather than kill you to prove who deserves to sit on the Emperor’s throne, allow me to demonstrate what I have to offer Ventrayna.”
“What the fuck are you doing?” Aurelia screamed as the bastard prince set the egg down and slowly rolled it back into the black flames. “Those are not yours to play with!”
“Hush, Sister,” Tristan retorted with a finger to his lips. “Just watch and wait—this won’t take long.”
“You better come down from there right now before you are disqualified!” she roared impatiently before turning to appeal to the Emperor. But both Arius and Alexander had already left their seats and now watched the black flames from the edge of their balcony with mixed expressions of trepidation and interest. “There’s no way someone like you can—”
The legions of Skreigh witches gasped audibly as the Goddess flames fluttered erratically before slowly dwindling, lower and lower, until nothing remained by the gleaming purple scales of a young dragon, whose rolled-up wings slowly unfurled as it turned sluggishly, crushing what remained of its volcanic eggshell against the scorched metal basin below. As the creature absorbed the last of Kritanta’s flame, it opened its tiny toothless mouth and released a threatening roar that echoed throughout the stunned arena.
“It looks like you’re still hungry,” Tristan observed as he knelt to match the mythical creature’s eye level. “Come here.” The bastard prince held out his hand, an orb of black flames flickering visibly against his palm. The young dragon waddled towards him eagerly and gulped down the Goddess’s fire before pressing its nostril into the pureblood’s hand, hungrily demanding more. “Alright, alright. It looks like it’s going to take a lot more to fill up a baby dragon.”
Aurelia blinked as the creature grew steadily in size until its shoulders stood higher than the standing bastard prince while its wings stretched out to fill the basin. When the Scorpion Prince finally withdrew his hand, the freshly hatched dragon had sprouted horns and a sharp row of fangs as its muscular body moved with powerful grace to circle the bastard prince expectantly.
“That’s enough for now,” Tristan commented with a chuckle as he ducked below the dragon’s wing. “You should save some for your siblings.”
The dragon roared reproachfully in response, then turned its hungry eyes to the sea of witches below them as it uttered an inquiring whimper as if asking for permission to seek out its own sustenance.
‘If a dragon can absorb a pureblood’s power the same way it absorbs magic as an egg, how the hell is Tristan still standing?’ Aurelia marveled in disbelief. ‘More importantly, if Tristan can revive the dragons, wouldn’t that make him the most natural choice to succeed the Emperor’s throne? No, wait—if he can revive all four dragon eggs, wouldn’t that make him even more powerful than Arius?!’
She watched numbly, paralyzed between awe and incredulity, as the Scorpion Prince climbed onto the dragon’s back and then directed the mythical creature toward the arena below. The dragon inched toward the edge of the giant basin, peering down hungrily at the crowd of witches. A single deafening roar was all it took to make the purebloods of the Burning Lizard scatter in terror. The creature’s violet and black eyes watched the witches flee with cat-like fascination before focusing on Aurelia, who stood still and alone in the empty arena.
Dark purple and black wings flapped rhythmically against the air until the dragon’s front legs hovered slightly above the basin. The mythical creature then lunged forward without hesitation, its wings expanding like a ship’s sails as it swooped down toward the red sands of the arena, scattering the crimson dirt beneath its talons as it landed somewhat awkwardly on the ground below.
The purple flames around the Scorpion Princess’s arms withered and died as the dragon’s fearsome head emerged through the cloud of dirt and sand to stare down at her. Its blinking violet and black eyes burned with threatening malice as purple flames sparked through its parting black fangs.
‘Is this my fate?’ Aurelia wondered as she sank slowly to her knees before the terrifying but beautiful creature. ‘I’ve always wanted to see a real, breathing dragon—but to be eaten by one….’
“Are you ready to surrender, Princess?” the Scorpion Prince asked, his voice oddly distorted by the malicious, taunting undercurrent of immortal power.
“Never,” she retorted, flinching as the dragon bathed the air above her in a wave of violet flames. “You have beaten me, brother. Now let me die with honor.”
“So be it.”
The lack of hesitation in his words only solidified Aurelia’s conviction as she gazed up into the dragon’s eyes one last time before silently shutting her own as she bowed her head to meet her inevitable demise. Silence followed, then the steady tread of footsteps before a firm hand gripped her shoulder tightly, shaking the princess from her stiff repose.
“Did you honestly think I would offer you such an easy out?”
Aurelia blinked in confusion as she raised her copper eyes to meet the bastard’s amber gaze. “What?”
“All of Ventrayna has seen you kneel before me,” Tristan whispered calmly as he nodded toward the silent arena around them. “What point is there in taking your worthless life now?”
The Scorpion Princess’s stunned expression spasmed between disbelief and outrage as the prince stared down at her with a cold smile before walking past her. “No—no, wait!” She jumped to her feet—only to flinch and stumble backward as the dragon’s snarling face loomed toward her with a threatening growl.
“Come, Durante,” Tristan called, summoning the mythical creature, whose large limbs plodded along heavily after the prince like an obedient overgrown puppy. Its serpent-like tail knocked the princess over almost casually as it snorted impatiently in the direction of the Scorpion Prince’s hand. “I told you. We have to wake up your brother and sisters first.”
Aurelia stared after them, far too stunned and overwhelmed to hurl insults or focus on anything else, really. All around the arena, legions of witches rose to their feet to welcome the first dragon in nearly a century. The heckling buzz of their applause echoed numbly against the Scorpion Princess’s ears as she pushed herself up to sit in the red sand that spilled out of her tightening grip. Aurelia drew in a slow, unsteady breath as the only future she had ever known, the respect and acknowledgment she had craved since she first summoned her magic and held a sword—crumbled and fell into the giant abyss that formed beneath the dragon’s growing shadow.