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Zandra's Dragon: Dragons of Telera (Book 6) by Lisa Daniels (1)

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Zandra’s Dragon

Dragons of Telera

(Book 6)

By: Lisa Daniels

 

 

 

Chapter 1

The Calm Between Storms

     As she crested the hill, Zandra couldn’t help but turn and look at the town where she had spent the last two years.  Had she known what was going to happen to what was once one of the most populous cities in Letera, Zandra would have persuaded her friend, Akeno, to ditch his job and come away with her.  They would have spent the first night in Derbe acting like they had some 50 years before when both of them were much younger.  She hadn’t.  When the travelers she was with reached the city, Zandra had decided to spend the night in a tavern where Akeno worked.  Because she was there when the flyers had gone up for a festival that was to occur a few weeks later, Zandra had extended her stay.  She had never been one to turn down a competition – it was the best way to gain attention, something that every bard desired.  There were already signs of the plague back then, but no one realized the severity of the illness at that time.  It was late fall and it looked like the usual cold weather ailments were starting earlier than usual. 

     Zandra could have left after the festival, but thanks to her winning the singing competition, she had so many offers from the nobles and wealthy that it was impossible to consider leaving.  The weather was getting cold, so it was easy to justify putting off her departure until the spring.  She had no real plans for her future, and this looked like the most promising way to spend the winter.  As a bard, it was difficult to say no to people willing to hire you and give you a place to stay.  Three meals a day and a comfortable bed were not things to scoff at, certainly not during the cold winters where she was heading.  So Zandra again extended her stay.

     And then the city was quarantined.  Most of her patrons fled the city, which should have upset her, but since several of them left their homes open, there was less reason to be angered by having been left behind.  With the open invitation to each of these homes, Zandra had continued to stay in a couple of the most luxurious homes in the city, believing that the problem would be resolved soon.  The weeks passed, and more medics arrived.  They took over an entire plaza, but no matter how many arrived, an increasing number of people died. 

     Three months after the quarantine was put in place, Zandra sat by the bedside of Akeno, the only person in the city who knew what she really was.  Every day she watched her friend grow a little weaker, a little paler, and the light in his gorgeous, diamond-like eyes faded.  She used magic to help him breathe, and when it became obvious that he wasn’t going to get better, she used her power to take away the pain.  The day after he died, she had gone to the medics to offer whatever assistance she could, to reduce herself to being a healer.  When they asked about her experience with medicine, she told them that she was a traveling bard who had just watched her friend die.  Uncertain of how they viewed magic, she had kept her abilities to herself.  Even though Bagrada was much more accepting of humanoids, everyone was nervous around witches and wizards.  Most humanoids were treated just like everyone else, but witches and wizards were always viewed with suspicion because their abilities were unpredictable.  At least other types of humanoids had a consistent set of powers that were known – witches and wizards were always unique in what they could do.  In response, they had learned to avoid advertising what they were.  Zandra was painfully aware that she would need to hide her abilities, but her desire to help was much greater than her fear of being ostracized.  And if she made things a little easier for the patients who were dying, it would be worth the risk of getting caught using magic.  Only a few medics were willing to go near the patients in the end stages, and she already knew to what extent her powers could reduce the suffering.  As she had expected, the medic who spoke to her about her qualifications had immediately welcomed her and had taken her to a small room that housed four other healers. 

     Over the next two years, she returned to the homes of her patrons to take whatever she could to help both those who were ill and those who were trying to tend to them.  Zandra reasoned that the owners of the homes had fled the city during its time of need, so anything they left behind was fair game for those who remained.  At first it was bitterness that had driven her to take from the homes, but over time it became a way of making people smile.  As the morale deteriorated, Zandra brought a wider range of items, ones that provided a little bit of comfort, help to entertain, or just help to pass the time.  The more people smiled, the more they relaxed and rested.  Zandra may not have been a medic, but she had learned long ago how much temporary happiness and relaxation could help people feel a little more stable during crises.    

     Then Ester had arrived.  She was a bit harsh, and her ideas about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable were set in stone.  But Ester was the first glimmer of hope that the team had seen since the outbreak.  Zandra had worked with her more as an assistant than as a healer, fetching whatever was needed, going out late to study apparently unrelated problems, even staying up late reading through countless notes the medic had taken over the years, anything to find the solution for what had ravished a city and caused her so much personal pain.  Not that Zandra wanted to be a medic, or even a healer, but she was resolved to help end the problem that had cost her so much.  And when a witch set her mind to something, there really wasn’t a thing anyone could do to stop her.  This nearly fanatical devotion was one of the reasons that so many people shied away from witches and wizards.  Smart people like Ester, though, they realized the full potential.  Even if Zandra wasn’t allowed to use her magic, Ester certainly made use of the witch’s other skills. 

     Then Ester had disappeared. 

     There was no note, no sign of a struggle, nothing to indicate what had happened.  Following the mysterious disappearance of the accomplished medic, the remaining medics and healers had begun to give into a sense of finality.  They went through the motions, but no one else had any idea what Ester had been doing or what she had found.  Zandra helped where she could, but her understanding of what Ester was doing was limited.  It became obvious as she tried to explain what she had researched and done, and her intel was met with stares and head shaking.  No one had any idea what Ester had been trying to do, not even the people who had worked closest with her. 

     About two weeks after the disappearance, Zandra heard rumors that Ester’s best pupil was planning on changing course and heading to the city.  After that, it had been a waiting game.  There was equal measure of hope and apprehension.  They didn’t want to get their hopes up again, but they also didn’t want to continue to feel hopeless. 

     A slight smile passed over Zandra’s face as she remembered the arrival of Ailey, an incredibly competent medic who had been thankful for Zandra’s abilities.  Unlike her mentor, Ailey was open to anything that would help solve the problem, including the use of magic.  This was shocking at first, but after seeing just how far Ailey was willing to go, intentionally consuming what she suspected was the problem, Zandra had gained a whole new appreciation for the experienced medic.  In her short time, Ailey had determined the problem and acted – although she gave much of the credit to Ester for having done so much research and taken such detailed notes. 

     There had been something else, some kind of strange presence that followed Ailey.  Zandra noticed it over the weeks.  Strange handwriting would appear on Ailey’s notes, and the handwriting did not belong to any of the medics or healers.  And as a witch, even one who wasn’t particularly powerful, Zandra could sense something, but it appeared to be benevolent.  The presence felt vaguely familiar, although she couldn’t focus on it with the fervor of work that Ailey inspired.  It was just possible that the presence was what pushed Ailey to success, a sort of personal guardian who made sure that Ailey survived.  Zandra had known of a few of those, but never had the good fortune to have one of her own.  If the strange presence was something like that, bringing it to Ailey’s attention could have caused the guardian to leave.  So Zandra had ignored the presence, and marveled at how well things had worked out. 

     Zandra wondered if Ester would have done the same thing – she suspected that the mentor would have gone just as far as her pupil.  They risked everything in a way that nonhumans really could not fully appreciate.  Since she wasn’t fully human, Zandra had a life expectancy that was four to five times longer than the average human life expectancy.  That was as long as she was reasonable about how and where she used her magic.  Since she wasn’t particularly powerful, it actually increased her life expectancy – too many of the powerful witches and wizards were killed because they either failed to hide who they were in places where it was best to do so, or they became too much of a threat for their community to manage.  For example, if someone tried to obtain immortality, that person was going to be put down quickly since immortality was achieved through sacrificing others.  Less powerful witches and wizards knew their limitations and knew how to keep their abilities to themselves.  They were usually the only ones to reach a ripe old age.  What Ailey had done went against every survival instinct Zandra had, and it really made her stop to consider her own outlook on life.  The idea of knowingly drinking something that could kill her was not something that she thought she could do, even though she was older than Ester, and at least twice as old as Ailey – if not three times older.  Yet both women had done far more, risking everything for people they didn’t know. 

     The women had been truly inspirational, and Zandra found herself wanting to be at least a little bit more like them.  She had been pretty carefree, something that Akeno had tried to change on a couple of occasions. 

     With a heavy sigh, she turned back around and headed west.  She brushed a tear away at the thought of Akeno.  She hadn’t really properly grieved his loss, but she wasn’t entirely ready to yet.  Even after two years, it was something she couldn’t bring herself to consider.  He had been a huge part of her life for nearly 100 years, and it was only the last decade or so when things began to change.  It was the tendency of kitsune.  As they aged, they settled down and improved the communities where they lived.  He was a few decades older than her, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when he decided to settle, although it did take him a while to finally decide that Melzi was the best place for his abilities.  It held so many memories for both of them, and Zandra knew that he had hoped to eventually use it as leverage to convince her to settle down with him.  They would still be able to have fun, but on a less reckless scale.  Though she wasn’t ready to admit it to herself, a part of Zandra knew that was why she had gone to Melzi with the troupe, and why she kept finding reasons to put it off.  If the plague had not happened, she may have finally made Melzi her home. 

     Now she didn’t think she would ever be able to return to the once glorious city. 

     With a quickly muttered incantation, Zandra stopped her eyes from continuing to fill.  She had a purpose now, at least for a few days.  She knew what had been the problem in the city, and she fully understood why the medics were going to cover it up.  The idea that the entire city had been drinking and walking through Sluagh-tainted water and air was abhorrent.  If she could forget it, Zandra would.  But just because they were going to hide it from the rest of the world, everyone in the Medics Association was going to learn about it.  Everyone who was important, anyway.  It was likely that this was not the first time it had happened (mysterious plagues had wiped out many cities and countries over thousands of years), it was just the first time that anyone realized what was happening.  As she was convalescing, Ailey had requested that Zandra deliver a few letters to medics in other major cities.  They would deliver copies of the letter to other medics, and it would rapidly reach the heads of the Association.  If gossip spread like wildfire, medic communication spread like light.  As soon as one of them knew what was going on, it felt like no time passed before the Association was acting on the findings and solutions.  The news wasn’t always the kind you wanted the medics to get either.  Being blacklisted by the Association was something that all sane creatures avoided.  You never knew when you would need their apparently limitless knowledge, and if you were blacklisted, you were as good as dead if you ever did need them.

     Since Ailey hadn’t specified which cities to visit, Zandra had decided to head south.  North not only took her to Antakya, a city that had its own medical concerns, it was in Yuezhi, a country infamous for hating humanoids.  She had been in Yuezhi once and had decided that the city was not worth the risks she had taken to be there.  She had certainly had fun, but running out of a city laughing from those chasing you wasn’t exactly the best survival tactic. 

     Southwest took her to Sukhothai, a tropical city in Sima.  Akeno had been from a small forest near the city, and Zandra wanted to return his memory there.  She would also be able to deliver three letters.  The first letter she would deliver in Derbe, which was only a day’s walk.  That would ensure that the communication started traveling within days of Ailey’s findings.  Then she would head south toward the small city of Naucratis where she would probably spend a bit of time restocking and resting.  The last letter she would hand over to the medics in Sima.  Both cities were within a week’s walking distance from Derbe, so it seemed to make the most sense to head that way.  There was also an increased chance that she would be able to get a ride from the many travelers, merchants, and troupes that trekked through the area.  Zandra wasn’t sure if there would be as many now since Melzi had been one of the biggest destinations in the area.  After two years of plague, there was a very good chance that routes and traffic had declined. 

     Zandra could feel some rumbling on the road ahead of her.  She was ascending a relatively steep hill, so she knew that whomever was coming would not be able to see her.  At first, she moved to the side of the road, but then her instincts kept her moving further away from the road.  Once she was in the forest, Zandra decided to stay well out of sight of any other travelers.  For two years, she had been the voice of optimism, had provided emotional support, as well as medical.  Now she wanted some time to herself.  The emotional toll of having to deal with so much death without showing signs of the pain was finally starting to take its toll, and she did not want anyone around in case she became a complete mess.  From the interior of the woods, she could see the driver of the wagon.  He looked downtrodden and unhappy.  It meant he probably had family in the city.  For a moment, Zandra wavered, then decided that even in her current state there was still something she could do. 

     Stepping out of the woods, she stretched.  The driver turned to look at her, and the fact that he had not acted afraid showed his true mental state.  He didn’t care if she was a bandit about to kill him.  Zandra plastered a huge smile on her face and approached the cart, which was still a ways up the road. 

     “Good day!”  Her voice was a pleasant chirp in the crisp morning air. 

     The man just nodded. 

     “I’m sorry to bother you, but do you think you could spare a little water?  It appears I left mine back in the city, and–”

     The man stopped the wagon and frowned.  “No one is allowed to leave the city.” 

     Zandra gave him a confused look for a moment, a calculated move that would disarm him.  With her shiny black hair and sky blue eyes, everyone ended up being momentarily speechless when she looked confused or curious.  It reminded them of a child, and she knew it.  She hadn’t used that skill in nearly two years. 

     “Oh!”  She let her face change, spreading into a wide grin. “Haven’t you heard?  The latest medic found a cure for the plague.  They are tending to–”

     The man threw a water skin to her.  “They have a cure you say?”  There was a desperate hope in his eyes. 

     She nodded and smiled at him.  Without another word, he snapped the reins and took off.  Zandra stood with the water skin and watched the cart speeding down the hill.  The witch’s smile faded a little, but not entirely.  The man clearly had family who were afflicted by the plague, and this was probably the first ray of hope he had seen since the whole thing started. 

     Turning to the road, Zandra decided to stay on the path.  As much as she craved time to herself, the word clearly had not gone far.  There was no telling how many people were still unaware.  She knew that most of the people who had fled had died soon after escaping the city, but there were still people who lived in and around Melzi who would be affected.  Making a mental note to say something once she reached Derbe, Zandra kept to the path. 

     Once she reached the city, she greeted the guards with the news.  One, a young man named Evan, had immediately asked his superior if he could be allowed leave.  Having gotten permission, he took off.  Zandra smiled as she passed into the town and headed toward one of the inns.  If there weren’t any medics in town, she could leave the letter with a few innkeepers, possibly request that one or two be sent north to one of the cities.  Word of a cure would spread much quicker through the inns, and that meant getting the attention of any medics even remotely close to the town. 

     A few hours later, Zandra walked out of Derbe feeling a small sense of accomplishment.  As she turned to head south, she decided she had done everything she could and that it was time to start taking care of herself.  The sun was setting as she slipped into the woods and disappeared in the beautiful greens and blacks that would offer her a temporary reprieve from the horrors of two years. 

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