Excerpt: The Oracle’s Flame

“You have been summoned,” Elder Flame intoned, his voice soft and gentle with piety despite the way his eyes were tightened with annoyance. Flame was an older man, bent with age and hair pure white. He was akin to the mountain the Monastery was built inside of, cragged with snow atop the highest peaks.

“The Oracle wishes to speak to me?” Dragon asked politely. He fought the urge to bow to Elder Flame, a battle he had been frequently losing for the past three months. No one had expected that Dragon would test so highly, least of all Dragon himself, but he now outranked Elder Flame and had to fight two decades of ingrained habit every day.

“The Oracle wished to speak with you an hour ago,” Flame replied sharply. “You have kept her waiting while you took a jaunt outside. You are one of the four legendary Dragons now, boy. Learn to accept your place. Stop trying to climb to the highest peak; everything you need is provided under the mountain.

Dragon ducked his head, feeling his face flush hotly. It wasn’t the first time he had been chastised for the habit, but Dragon had never been able to help himself. His peers had all assumed he would test into the Air Caste because of his love of heights. No one had been more shocked than Dragon himself when he tested into the Fire Caste instead.

“Don’t keep the Oracle waiting, boy,” Flame continued sharply. He was still Dragon’s teacher, so Flame could still break the rules of hierarchy to speak to Dragon so harshly. Dragon almost relished when Flame was angry. He was so damned tired of everyone bowing and scraping simply because he had walked out of the testing chamber the Dragon of Fire. He hadn’t asked for the position or the power and respect that accompanied it, and he didn’t particularly enjoy the sycophants either.

“I’m on my way,” Dragon replied, turning away from Elder Flame to begin jogging down the pathway that led to the deepest, most sacred part of the Monastery.

“Don’t forget our lesson this afternoon, boy!” Elder Flame called after Dragon’s back. Dragon waved a lazy hand over his shoulder before turning a corner and leaving Elder Flame’s sight.

The Monastery was a huge building, carved entirely into and beneath the sacred mountain. It wasn’t built for comfort, it was rather stark and hard, but generations of Masters of the Castes living in the hallways and chambers had rounded some of the corners and softened some of the unyielding rock.

It took Dragon at least ten minutes to traverse the halls, heading deeper and deeper into the mountain until he finally reached the one doorway that was actually guarded in the entire Monastery. Four Masters of the Castes were responsible for the protection of the woman living just beyond those doors. The Master of Fire bowed first when Dragon approached them, the other three Masters—Air, Water, and Earth–only seconds behind.

“She has been waiting,” the Master of Water scolded, a frown on her thin face. Water and Fire were opposites, and Dragon had almost grown used to the sudden animosity between himself and his peers who had tested into the Water Caste. “The Oracle may be in trance now and unwilling to see you.”

“Nonsense!” a girl’s voice called happily through a crack in the huge doors. The girl pushed the doors open further, to the length of her small arms. Dragon quickly stepped forward to open the doors the rest of the way, leaving the Oracle framed in the opening.

She was dwarfed by the size of the doorframe around her, which made the young Oracle look tiny in comparison. She appeared to be very young—she was only seven years old in body—but her physical body’s age was a façade.

“I had just finished meditating on my most recent vision. The Dragon of Fire is right on time.” The Oracle smiled brightly up at Dragon, her child’s face looking innocent and pleased by her visitor. Only once Dragon looked into the Oracle’s eyes did the illusion of childhood vanish. Thousands of years were reflected in those colorless orbs.

“Oracle,” Dragon said as he bowed politely.

“Come in, Dragon of Fire,” the Oracle replied. “We have much to discuss.”

Dragon straightened to his full height, noticing again that the top of her body barely reached his hips, before striding forward past the four Masters of the Castes and through the open doors.

The doors clicked shut behind him as Dragon followed the Oracle to a small table set in the middle of the outer meeting room. Dragon sat down on one of the pillows surrounding the table, trying not to look towards the lone door on his left.

There were two doors to the right of the room; one was the Oracle’s personal meditation chamber and the other her private bedroom. The door to left, however, was a source of nightmares for Dragon. The testing chambers lay beyond that otherwise innocent door.

Dragon couldn’t remember anything that had occurred after he had walked through the doorway three months ago, but when he slept his dreams were haunted by half memories of pain and fright. When he had walked out of the chambers three days after he went in, exhausted and trembling with no memory to coincide with the time that had passed, he had his rank.

Emblazoned on his back, tattooed as permanently as his very skin, was the dragon of fire. Its scales were a brilliant cherry red, deepening to the vivid blue of the hottest flame. The wings were huge, the tips extending over Dragon’s shoulders and down his arms. They looked leathery and also had the appearance of an endlessly burning inferno. The dragon’s tail extended down the length of Dragon’s legs, the pointed tip coming to rest on the top of his right foot.

But he had no memory of receiving such a prestigious marking.

Even his hair and eyes, once an ordinary shade of brown, had changed to reflect his new Caste. His hair was the same cherry red as the dragon scales on his back and his eyes had turned the same blue of the center of a candle’s flame. Looking in the mirror had taken some getting used to, but at least he shared his hair and eye color with others of his Caste. The dragon on his back and the power that accompanied such high rank was his and his alone.

Dragon forced his eyes away from the doorway and back to the Oracle. She was smiling patiently at him from her seat across the table, waiting for him to get his bearings again.

“There is a prince from Altnoia who has been missing for many a year,” she began, her voice suddenly echoing the age in her eyes. “Treachery killed his father the king, his mother the queen, and his brother the heir. His uncle now rules in his stead.”

This wasn’t new information to Dragon. The news of the violent change of power in Altnoia had reached the Monastery. King Ferim had been in power for six years now and his nephew, Prince Edan, missing.

“I have seen a very dismal future,” the Oracle continued. “Chaos is brewing in Altnoia. Civil war on the brink of erupting. The King is ill liked and the people want their remaining prince to return to the throne. To cement his power, the king must find and kill his nephew. But I have seen beyond the veil to the paths such an occurrence would open. I saw death and disease. Death that would utterly destroy Altnoia and disease that would travel to our shores and enter the Monastery.

“Such a future has been entrusted to me,” the Oracle continued. “So I parted the veils again, looking for an alternative. The prince must survive. It is the only way to save hundreds of thousands of lives across the entire realm. And you, my newly crowned Dragon of Fire, are the only one who has a chance of succeeding.”

Dragon gulped. The Oracle received visions all the time and sent Masters of the Castes to solve whatever issues she saw. Supported by their Caste members, the Masters could implement the Oracle’s wisdom to keep peace and safety across the entire world. Every so often something truly dire or seriously important would be revealed to the Oracle and a Dragon was released to solve the issue. As the only Dragon not currently on a quest, the Dragon of Fire was the Oracle’s only option. New and untried he might be, but he was still a Dragon.

“What do I have to do?” Dragon asked. He was nervous, but he was also resolved. The Oracle had chosen him for this, so he would do it.

The Oracle smiled gently, clearly seeing Dragon’s nerves. “You only have to keep Prince Edan alive,” she replied gently. “You will leave our shores with the tides, just as the first star appears overhead. That ship will sink. Let it. You will join the crew of the pirate ship White Crest, where your travels will reveal the prince to you.”

Dragon nodded, glad for all the information the Oracle could give.

“Now, I believe you have a lesson to get to,” the Oracle said with an impish smile that reminded Dragon that her body belonged to someone much younger than her mind.

“Not for a few hours yet,” Dragon replied slyly.

The Oracle laughed and waved him away. “Enjoy,” she said fondly as Dragon levered open the large doors and left the Oracle’s chambers. He ignored the Masters standing guard outside the doors and took the path upwards that led outside the Monastery.

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