Azel slowly closed the door to the crew quarters behind him. Beneath his feet, the deck rocked gently in time with waves lapping against the docks. The chilly night breeze brushed against his skin and filled his nose with the familiar scent of the sea. He paused for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust before quietly making his way toward the dock. As he passed by the guard at the bottom, he slipped him a silver coin, ensuring that his venture out into the town wouldn’t be reported. 

Once clear of the docks, he slipped into the backstreets of the small port city. The place was rather small, and he couldn’t risk walking the main roads and running into the boss. Guided by only the light of the stars and moon above and the occasional stray lantern hung outside a seedy bar, he made his way toward his destination. It was a path he knew all too well, having traveled it time and again in the last two years.

Eventually, he slipped outside the town and into the tropical jungle beyond. A small trail used mostly by the locals led up the hill toward the top of the nearby cliff. Trudging up the slope in the dark, Azel’s heart beat wildly in his chest. Yet, it wasn’t the climb or the fear of what might lurk in the dark that made his heart pound. It was what awaited him at the top.

As he reached the end of his climb, he saw her standing at the top of the cliff, staring out at the ocean and the Isle of Dragons beyond. Even after all this time, the sight of her took his breath away. Her brilliant red hair and pale, white skin seemed to glow in the moonlight giving her an otherworldly aura. At the same time, her green eyes reflected the stars above, sparkling brightly.

“Kai,” Azel called out to her as he approached to make sure he didn’t frighten her, “Sorry, did I make you wait long?”

The girl turned toward him, smiling brightly, “Azel! No, I just got here not too long ago myself. I was just looking at the stars. Will you join me?”

“Of course,” Azel joined her atop the cliff and pulled her close. Despite the chilly night, her body still felt warm, as though the chill didn’t affect her. Yet, Kai leaned into his arms all the same. They sat together like that watching the stars and talking about nothing in particular.

Eventually, silence fell between them though they continued to stare at the beautiful night sky. Around that time, Azel noticed the shadow of a dragon take off from the volcanic island in the distance. The fact that it was still visible despite the distance showed just how massive the creature was. The sight stirred a sense of wonder and fear deep within him.

“Dragons really are strange creatures, aren’t they? They live for hundreds of years, and their wings can take them all over the world. Yet they choose to live on such a small island in the middle of nowhere.”

Kai looked up at him, a surprised look on her face, “Azel, you’re not scared of dragons?”

“Well, I know the people of this town fear them and worship them like gods. Still, I’ve never met one face to face, so I can’t say for sure, but they mostly don’t bother us humans, right? If anything, I’m more worried about pirates than them. Crazy, right?” Azel chuckled to himself at the ridiculousness of the idea.

“I see,” Kai stared at him for a long moment, her expression a mixture of both relief and fear. 

In the two years that he had been meeting Kai up on this cliff, he had seen her act this way a few times. In the past, he had always brushed it off, but not this time. Azel had already decided that this next voyage would be his last. He had finally saved up enough money to start a small business of his own and intended to ask Kai to marry him when he returned. What kind of husband would he make if he ignored such a troubled expression?

“Is everything alright? If something is bothering you, please tell me,” He brought his hand up and gently stroked her cheek, “If there’s anything I can do to help, I will.”

“No. It’s just that when you mention things like pirates, I can’t help but worry,” She looked out at toward the sea for a moment before reaching under the simple dress that she wore and pulling a simple pendant out from under it, “I know this sounds silly, but would you take this with you as a good luck charm? It-it’ll help me sleep better at night, knowing you have it with you.”

Azel stared at the pendant for a long moment, wondering if he should really take it. It looked rather expensive, and he had never seen her wearing it before, meaning she had bought it just to give to him. Still, if it would help wipe the troubled expression from her face, he would gladly accept it.

“Of course,” He took the pendant and placed it around his neck, “I’ll treasure it.”

***

“What in the world are pirates doing this close to the port!?” Azel whispered as the small fleet of ships drew closer to them. It was only a day since they had left port, and the waters that they were in were typically patrolled by the Crystalis Navy. Thanks to that, pirates didn’t usually attack ships here, and merchant ships like theirs could rest easy.

However, today appeared to be a rare exception. Almost as if from nowhere, the small fleet of ships suddenly appeared in front of them. Most likely, they had been using some form of magic to conceal themselves. With so little warning, they had no chance of outrunning the pirates and had been forced to surrender immediately. Even now, they were waiting to be boarded. Hopefully, they would just take the goods and spare the crew.

Azel clutched the pendant he wore around his neck as he watched the ships approach nervously. Silently, he prayed that he would make it back to see Kai again. Just as the ships drew close enough to begin boarding them, an angry roar filled the air, and absolute chaos broke out. 

Looking up into the sky, he saw a massive red dragon with horns like that of a gigantic ram on its head. The beast dove toward the fleet of ships, mouth opened wide. A moment later, a stream of fire spewed forth from its maw, lighting several ships ablaze. Almost immediately, panic set in amongst the pirates. The ships that hadn’t been attacked turned and tried to flee. Meanwhile, those on the burning ships dove into the water to escape the flames. 

For a moment, it looked as though Azel and his companions might be saved. However, luck wasn’t on their side. As the pirates abandoned their ship, it continued to drift toward them. Azel, awestruck by the majestic dragon’s righteous fury, failed to notice his comrades’ calls to brace for impact. The pirate ship slammed into theirs with enough force that it flung Azel from his feet. Slamming into the railing, Azel lost consciousness as he tumbled into the water below.

***

The next thing Azel knew, he was staring up at a rough stone ceiling that towered far above him. Sitting up to look around, he found his body ached, and his clothes were still sopping wet. Apparently, he hadn’t been out for very long. Looking around, he found himself in a massive cave with equally massive doors at the entrance. 

Unable to bear his body’s aching anymore, he slowly leaned back, only to find himself propped up against something rather warm and hard. He made to turn around, but before he could, a massive reptilian head circled around in front of him and looked him in the eyes.

“Good. You’re awake,” Inside his head echoed a strange yet somehow familiar voice, “That’s a relief. Are you hurt anywhere?”

For a long moment, Azel couldn’t find any words. A mixture of fear and awe paralyzed him as he stared back at the massive red dragon before him.

“Azel? Hello? Can you not hear me?”

The sudden mention of his name snapped him out of his stupor, and he hesitantly asked, “Do I know you?”

“Ah, right, you wouldn’t recognize me in this form. Just a moment,” The massive head withdrew from his vision. A moment later, whatever he had been leaning against disappeared, and he tumbled backward. However, rather than his head smacking against the hard stone, it landed on something much softer. 

Looking up, he found Kai staring down at him with a mischievous grin, “Surprised?”

“Kai, y-you’re a dragon?” 

“Well, that’s not quite right,” She slowly pulled Azel to his feet, lending him her shoulder. Despite her tiny frame, she could easily support his weight, “It’ll be faster for me to just show you.”

“Show me what?” Azel asked, but rather than answering him, she simply walked to the door. As they approached, he noticed a smaller, human-sized door that he had missed before. Pulling it open, Kai led him outside.

For a moment, Azel shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight overhead. Once they adjusted, he found himself looking at a small village full of people built into the side of a massive volcano. However, they weren’t ordinary people. Some had reptilian eyes or tails, others had horns or scales dotting their skiing, and some even had small dragon wings sprouting from their backs.

“What is this place?” Azel stared at them, his mind not filled with fear or disgust, but wonder. All his life, the people of the port town had treated the dragons as gods, creatures to be feared or revered. Yet, here they were taking on forms not much different from his own. Then, as if to add to his surprise, Kai stepped in front of him. Before his eyes, she sprouted curved horns, like those of a ram, and a small pair of dragon wings where none had been before. 

“Welcome to Flamepeak, home of the dragonkin, Azel,” She said with a smile, “Allow me to reintroduce myself. My full name is Shrurolkai, a red dragonkin. I hope we can continue to get along, Azel.”

Kai

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