[An Excerpt from a letter written by Emperor Gilbert I to the Duke of Drachen]
To one of my dearest friends, Arthur,
I believe that you and your family have always been one of the great foundations of this empire. When your brother enlisted for the army, I promised to look out for him and to protect him in battle on your behalf. I am sorry, Arthur. I failed you. Alfred will be returning home from battle. He was the only survivor from his unit, and the doctors are unsure when or if he will recover.
I will ensure that you have the Empire’s best resources at your disposal for Alfred’s recovery. He is my brother’s best friend and my dearest student. I will continue to pray for his swift recovery…
“Come on, Ivan,” Alfred whined as he followed Ivan and circled around the northern soldier. The young man, Ivan thought, just couldn’t seem to stay still. “You can tell me. I want to know what tech you’re using.”
“I already gave you the answer you want.”
Alfred groaned and rolled his eyes. “Right,” he said sarcastically. “It’s all magic.”
“It is,” Ivan agreed calmly, watching the prince pout. It seemed like Ivan’s knowledge about the empire losing touch with magic weren’t lies at all.
“It’s not real,” Alfred insisted.
“So you say,” Ivan said with a chuckle. He flicked his hand at Alfred’s direction when the younger man turned around and watched as Alfred slipped on a patch of ice before correcting himself. It was impressive, really, how easily the other adapted to a situation.
Alfred looked over his shoulder with a glare. “I know you did that.”
“Well, it seems my ice protests your inability to believe in it.”
“It’s not real,” Alfred insisted, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re just using some sort of tech we haven’t discovered yet.”
“Why do you refuse to believe in the possibility of magic?” Ivan asked curiously with a tilt of his head. “Is your technology able to answer all the world’s mysteries?”
Alfred seemed to think about it, his lips pressed into a thin line as he adjusted the goggles around his eyes. “It doesn’t,” he finally answers. He bit his lips and buried his hands inside his coat. “But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? With science and technology, we discover so many things. We can figure out what makes the world work.”
“And all the while, you continue to destroy the world you want to discover,” Ivan said, suddenly remembering his purpose. His plan didn’t involve making friends with the prince of the empire.
“Destroy it?” Alfred turned to him with wide eyes. He seemed genuinely confused about any of the things that Ivan has said. Ivan might have assumed that he was a sheltered royal if he hadn’t also seen Alfred in battle. He was too practiced in battle for someone who had lived in a palace his whole life.
“You’ve seen the creatures of the mountain,” Ivan waved towards the woods around them. “They are but one result of your scientific pursuits.”
Alfred shook his head and pulled his goggles down to hand around his neck. “Not everything is like that,” he said. His voice went low as a whisper. “It shouldn’t be.”
“If you say so,” Ivan replied. For a while, there was a comfortable silence between them. Alfred seemed to have stopped trying to escape after Ivan have prevented it with his ice several times. Still, the younger man circled around, stopping to examine the woods around them now and then.
“What makes you think magic is real?” Alfred said after a while. “I told you why I didn’t, but you still say it’s real. So, why?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Ivan said. “It’s part of all our lives. Even yours.”
Alfred gave him an unimpressed look. “You have to do better than that to convince them.”
“I never said I was trying to convince you,” Ivan replied with a smile. “Why does it matter to me if you don’t believe in magic?”
“Maybe I’ll be more likely to cooperate if I actually believe what you’re telling me?”
“I don’t need you to cooperate. You do not seem to know anything anyway.” Ivan gave him a grim smile. “I just need you to follow me for now.”
“Follow you?” Alfred sighed. “I don’t even know where we’re going.”
“There’s an oracle in one of our tribes. We’re going there,” Ivan said.
“Wow,” Alfred laughed and fell into step beside Ivan. “You actually told me.”
Ivan looked to from the prince to the darkening sky. It would be night soon, and there was a cave nearby that they can take shelter in. “Tell me,” Ivan said as he veered to the left. Alfred stumbled and scowled at the sudden change in direction. “Are you at least quiet when you sleep?”
Alfred grinned. “Nope, I've been said to snore a lot,” he said in a teasing tone. “Why?”
“It’s the night. We need to take shelter,” Ivan sighed. “If you think those wolves were bad...well, let’s just say that some creatures prefer the dark.”
“That’s not creepy at all,” Alfred said, sarcastically as they finally reached the entrance to the cave. Alfred looked around with wide eyes and frowned as he touched the walls of the cave with one gloved hand. When he turned to Ivan, there was a confused look on his face. “Did you know this was here? Why couldn’t I see it until we were so close?”
“The spirits of the mountain like to play their tricks,” Ivan said. “But we do have a deal, so they do me a favor now and then. Like showing me the secrets in their territory or the snowstorm that blew you away.”
Alfred laughed nervously. “Come on, Ivan, magic is one thing. But ghosts,” Alfred seemed to shudder as Ivan began to start their fire. “Ghosts aren’t real. They can’t be. Uh-uh, there’s no way.”
Ivan’s lips twisted in amusement as he watched Alfred shake his head. “Are you scared?” Alfred didn’t even hesitate during their fight with the creatures in the woods, but ghosts really seemed to unnerve him.
“No!” Alfred snapped, but his cheeks were flushed red in embarrassment. “It’s just... you can’t punch or shoot a ghost.”
Ivan chuckled in amusement.
“Ivan! It’s not funny!” Alfred insisted.
“The spirits are not ghost,” Ivan explained. “Ghosts are dead while the spirits are the very proof that the mountain is still alive and well.”
Alfred sighed and sat cross-legged by the fire. The light of the fire cast strange shadows upon his face, and his pensive expression made him look older. “I don’t get it.”
“Perhaps, if you start believing in magic, they’ll allow you to see them.”
“Uh, no thanks,” Alfred rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Ghosts or not, can’t shoot spirits either, can I?”
“Does your response to things always have to be through violence?”
Alfred flared and scowled at him. “Says the person who threatened me as an introduction. You’re a hypocrite, Ivan.” He stood up again, and Ivan prepared for another fight. Alfred seemed agitated, pacing the same way he had on their trek here.
When he finally stopped, he had a murderous look on his face that was far too different from the easygoing and curious attitude he took before. Ivan’s wings ruffled in tense anticipation for an attack, but there was nothing. “I’m going to sleep,” Alfred declared. “You do you.”
Ivan was stunned by the lack of an attack that he wasn’t able to say anything for a while as Alfred headed farther away from the fire. “Alfred,” he finally called out when the other had reached the other side, as far away as he could while still remaining close to the fire. Ivan tossed the thick blankets in his pack at the prince and settled on his own place by the fire.
Alfred had caught the blanket and was staring at it in confusion. “What’s this for?”
“Surely there are blankets in the empire?”
“No, why are you giving this to me?”
Their eyes met over the fire and for a moment, Ivan thought that Alfred’s eyes flashed gold. When he blinked, bright blue eyes still looked at him expectantly, and he dismissed the former vision as a trick of the fire. “You seem to get cold more than I do. I don’t want to hear your teeth chattering through the night.”
Alfred snorted, but he wrapped the blanket around his shoulders as he settled on the ground. “Sure, your loss,” he said. There was a short pause before a soft voice came from Alfred’s blanket cocoon. “Good night, Ivan.”
“Good night, Alfred,” Ivan said. “Sleep well.”
Alfred’s ears rang with the sudden sound of an explosion. Someone was screaming at him from afar, and he tried to find the voice. The weight of a gun in his hand was comforting as he made his way around the trenches. It was painful to breathe because of all the smoke around them. There was another explosion farther away in front of him, and it sent him stumbling to the ground.
The ground was damp with mud and blood beneath him, and Alfred panted, curling his fingers around the ground and the gun in his hand. “Alfred,” someone said, and he was pulled to his feet. His pistol was taken from him and replaced by a rifle. “We’re needed farther down the line.”
Alfred raised his head and met the friendly smile of another soldier. “Davie, I--”
A shadow passed above them, and Alfred looked at the sky to see a burning airship pass above them. “It’s gonna fall!” Someone was screaming. He can hear the rattle of gunfire, and the smoke around them seemed thicker and darker.
“Davie, we need to--” When Alfred turned back to the other man, Davie was still smiling but the left side of his face seemed to have been blown apart. Alfred flinched and stumbled away. The world had gone quiet, but his hands were suddenly sticky with not just mud but blood. The rifle clattered to the ground, and he tried to take a deep breath, but he couldn’t seem to do anything but gasp.
“Alfred,” someone was shaking him on his shoulder, and Alfred struck on instinct. He pulled the person to the ground and flipped them over. He pushed his right forearm over someone’s throat as he straddled them. “Alfred,” the voice repeated. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Alfred blinked, and instead of Davie’s blue eyes, it was Ivan’s violet eyes that looked back at him. “Ivan?” Alfred frowned. “What was I--?”
“You looked like you were having trouble breathing,” Ivan said. His wings were spread behind him, and it must have been painful with the way Alfred currently had him pinned. Alfred pulled his hand back and expected retaliation. Ivan reached a hand up, and Alfred flinched away, still thinking of a battlefield and hands covered in red. “I’m sorry. It’s just your eyes. They’re different.”
Alfred cursed, and he hurriedly covered his eyes with his hands. “I can get it back to normal. Wait, I’ll just--” He still sounded breathless. Alfred took the time to calm himself. He looked at Ivan who was still staring curiously at him. His blanket was strewn on the ground, and there was a knife by Ivan’s hand. Closer to the fire, there was a figurine, and Alfred frowned, trying to figure out where that came from. There was a white scarf around Ivan’s neck that wasn’t there before. He wasn’t in the front lines of a battlefield. He was in the mountains for a diplomatic mission.
“Alfred?” Ivan’s voice was soft, as if Alfred was some wild animal he was calming down. Alfred can hear the low crackling of the fire behind him, and further still, he can hear the winds outside. He took another deep breath and got up from his position, focusing on the sound of his boots on the ground as he moved away from Ivan.
“I’m fine,” he said. He pulled his coat close, relishing how it felt around his shoulders. It was different from the uniform he had worn before. He pressed his gloved hands over his eyes, willing it to return to normal. “I’m fine.”
“If you say so,” Ivan said as he stood up, brushing the dirt from his own clothes. Alfred peeked at him from between his fingers. “We should be leaving soon.”
“Ivan,” Alfred called out. He shifted in discomfort. It wasn’t something he wanted anyone to see, especially not someone who was supposed to be his captor. “About what happened--”
“We all have our demons,” Ivan said. “You are brave for facing it.”
“Really?” Alfred said, suddenly caught off-guard. It wasn’t what he expected to hear from the other man. He could smell the woodsmoke inside the cave, different from the smoke of machinery and gunfire, different from the acrid scent of burning metal in a fallen airship, so much different and better than the scent of blood. “Right, of course.” He grinned, pushing away the uneasiness and fear in his mind. “The hero can’t just give up.”
“Indeed,” Ivan agreed, smiling once again. Alfred should find his smile unnerving, but it was comforting compared to the nightmare. He hasn’t had one in a while. He thought he was past that problem. “Follow me outside when you’re done.”
Alfred waited until Ivan had packed his things and left before drawing the gun from his coat. The weight of it was as comforting and familiar as it had been in the dream. He went over the practiced motions of checking it over for any problems. Ivan wasn’t his friend. He should remember that.
Alfred took another deep breath before he tucked the gun back into his coat and followed Ivan out the cave. Ivan was waiting from him right outside. The sky was clearer than it was yesterday after the sudden storm.
“So,” Alfred said with a grin. “How much farther do we have to go?”
“Just follow me,” Ivan said and started away.
“Oh, we’re back to the secrets, then?” Alfred teased. The two of them heard the sound at the same time, and they stopped. Ivan cocked his head, his wings tensing on his back. “What--”
Alfred jerked. He recognized that voice. It was Ludwig. He froze in surprise. He didn’t think that they would look for him. Without thinking about it, he opened his mouth to call back to the other, but before he could, Ivan had placed a hand over his mouth. Alfred tried to speak, but his words came out as muffled sounds on Ivan’s gloved hand.
He resorted to glaring at the other man instead.
“Alfred! Captain Jones!” The calls came again with different voices chiming in. Ivan tensed beside him, and Alfred wondered what he planned to do. He couldn’t possibly face several of the empire’s soldiers on his own. He didn’t think Ivan was that stupid.
Ivan looked back down at him, and his violet eyes were colder, less comforting than they were after Alfred had awoken from his nightmare. “Time to sleep again, your highness,” he said, and Alfred struggled in his grip, trying to remove his hand from his mouth to move away. Ivan whispered something, unfamiliar words in a soft musical tone almost like a lullaby.
Alfred’s lids felt heavy, and he tried to fight off the coming unconsciousness. He didn’t want to sleep, especially not with the recent nightmare. “Sleep,” Ivan whispered. “And dream of home.”
It was the last thing that Alfred heard before he gave up and succumb to whatever trick Ivan had just played.
Alfred blinked blearily as he came to. The memories of summers spent in their estate orchard with his brothers still seemed clear in his mind. He can even still vaguely taste the sweetness of an apple in his mouth. The memory dissipated the moment he caught sight of the man who was watching him.
“Ivan,” Alfred said, flatly.
“Good morning,” Ivan greeted. He looked up at the sky, and Alfred followed his movements. The sky was dark, and the stars glittered like thousands of Drachfeurite ore buried in stone. They were outside in a clearing , and night had fallen. It should worry Alfred especially after all of Ivan’s precautions before, but all he could feel was anger. “Perhaps, good night would be a more accurate greeting.”
“What did you do to them?” Alfred demanded.
“Nothing,” Ivan replied. “I am not so stupid that I would face several people on my own. Perhaps you would.”
“I’m not stupid,” Alfred said as he stood up. He can still remember the warmth of the summer sun on his face and the sound of laughter over the splashing water of a lake. He shook the memories from his mind and turned a glare at Ivan. “Where are we?”
“Away from them,” Ivan said. He had stood up as well, and Alfred felt more trapped. If Ivan could knock him out so easily, what would stop him from doing it again?
He was agitated, and he knew it. Despite the dreams of home, he felt the stinging energy running underneath his skin the same way he felt it within the airships of the empire. Somehow, he knew that if he could see his eyes, they’d be the golden slitted eyes of a dragon.
“Alfred,” Ivan said as he approached. He reached out to place a hand on Alfred’s arm. “I have no plans to hurt you.”
“Stop!” Alfred snarled. He gripped Ivan’s wrist and twisted it away from him. “You’re a liar. Don’t touch me.”
Alfred pulled the gun from his coat and pointed it under Ivan’s chin. “Does it look like I like you!?”
“And there I thought we were actually getting along,” Ivan’s eyes flashed brighter, and the gun started freezing. Alfred hissed as the ice spread and dropped the weapon before the ice could reach his hand.
Before he could move further away, Ivan stopped him by grabbing his wrists. Alfred snarled and tried to pull away, struggling against the strong grip the other had on him. “Let me go!”
“Alfred, stop,” Ivan said, gritting his teeth as he tried to subdue the younger man. He didn’t want to use his magic again. It was unnecessary, and he didn’t want to attract the wrong attention.
The two of them flinched as they heard the sudden screech from deeper in the woods. It was too late to avoid the wrong attention.
Dark shapes rose above the trees, and they heard the flapping of wings above them. When the birds swooped to attack them, Alfred stumbled to avoid them, only to be steadied by Ivan’s hand.
“What the hell?” Alfred stared, stunned, at the black birds around them. The birds’ chests seemed to have been ripped open, and it reminded Alfred of so many soldiers with their bodies ripped apart by bullets and shrapnel. Instead of an actual heart, the birds seemed to have a beating, glowing chunk of Drachfeurite in their chest that was framed by gears and metallic framework.
“Same thing as before,” Ivan said as he dealt with one bird using a summoned blade of ice. “Pick up your gun, Alfred.”
The ice had melted from the gun, and Alfred dove out of the way from another attack from the birds to take the weapon from the ground. By that point, Ivan had managed to stab two of the birds already. Alfred shot at another that tried to dive towards Ivan.
“There’s too many of them,” Alfred called shooting at two more, but their numbers do not seem to be decreasing. “We need to run!”
Several birds dove for Alfred. He shot several of them, but two of them were able to grab him by his coat and arm. Their claws stung as they gripped his arms, and he struggled. He tried to shoot them, but he eventually ran out of bullets.
He cursed, trying to hit them with the gun. Maybe if he managed to hit the birds’ Drachfeurite cores, he could incapacitate them. He tried not to think of what would happen to him if they stopped flying.
“Alfred!” Suddenly, Ivan was there, and one of the Drachfeurite cores froze then shattered. At the same moment, the bird screeched before shattering into several frozen pieces as well.
The other birds turned their attention to Ivan after the attack, and Alfred fell, the air sharp and cold as he quickly went down. Ivan fought viciously with the birds, freezing several while slashing at the others. The moment he was free, he dove after Alfred.
Ivan caught him and held him in his arms, but the birds weren’t done with them yet. They pecked and scratched at Ivan’s wings. Alfred moved on instinct, grabbing at the blade from Ivan’s hand and stabbing at the birds.
Ivan gave a cry of pain as one of the birds grabbed and pulled at his primaries. They were quickly losing altitude, and it was very clear that Ivan was struggling to continue supporting both of them. They were landing fast, and Alfred wasn’t sure what to expect from the ground beneath them.
Ivan suddenly turned them over so he was falling beneath Alfred. He stretched a hand towards the birds, shooting another blast of ice.
“Ivan! What are you doing!?”
They slammed on the ground hard. Something cracked, and beneath them, the ground gave in snow and splintered pieces of wood caving in. Alfred scrambled and held on to Ivan’s shoulders as they kept on falling even though they shouldn’t have.
He kept on cursing, and his eyes kept shifting from blue to gold. He can feel the energy pulsing beneath his skin, more powerful and more alive than ever. He closed his eyes and held on to Ivan tightly. He wanted to turn them over, to save Ivan from the pain when he was so obviously injured but Ivan’s wings made it impossible to move them.
All they can do was to hold on to each other until they fell.
When they finally hit the ground, the crack they heard wasn’t the sound of the ground breaking underneath. “Oh gods, your wings—“ Alfred said, reaching out to touch the bent wings behind the other’s back.
“Alfred, look out!” Ivan said as he pushed Alfred away. Alfred fell on his butt and looked up as a large beam above them fell. Ivan was in its direct path and didn’t look like he could move.
“No!” Without thinking, Alfred moved to stop the beam, catching the large wooden beam in both his hands. It should have been impossible. It should have been too heavy even for him. He could feel the energy beneath his skin. It was as if he was pulling the energy from beneath the ground.
“Alfred,” Ivan stared at him with eyes wide open in awe. Alfred’s eyes glowed in a beautiful bright gold colour, and there were even lined around his eyes that glowed with the same colour like wires that ran underneath his skin.
Alfred screamed at the effort it took to carry the beam, but he was eventually able to toss it aside. He turned to Ivan with a tired grin. “I did it. Ivan, I did it,” he said in a breathless voice. He stumbled forward and with a final breathless laugh, he collapsed in a heap on Ivan’s lap.
Alfred groaned and blinked blearily. He can see gray stones with some intricate carvings from where he was lying down. Someone was stroking his hair and humming softly.
The events that happened before he passed out came back to him, and he sat up immediately. Ivan’s hand stopped mid-air where he had been previously stroking Alfred’s hair when Alfred was lying on his lap.
“I have to stop passing out,” Alfred stated.
“You couldn’t have done anything about the first two times,” Ivan pointed out as if he had nothing to do with those incidents.
“Right,” Alfred drawled. He realized that he was still so close to Ivan, but he didn’t try to move away. He felt oddly safe close to him despite their earlier argument. “Why did you save me?”
“Why does it matter?” Ivan asked. He looked past Alfred, and Alfred followed his gaze towards the fallen beam. “You saved me as well.”
“After you already risked your life saving me,” Alfred said, shaking his head. “I don’t get you.”
“I don’t understand you either,” Ivan replied. “Why does with someone with so much innate magic refuse to believe in it?”
“Magic?” Alfred laughed incredulously. “What makes you think I have it?”
Ivan gestures towards the fallen beam. “Do you think that such a feat can be done without it?”
“Sure,” Alfred smiled, finally rising from his seated position. “It’s just adrenaline. People can do a lot of things when they feel frightened or threatened. It’s a part of our survival instincts.”
“If you say so,” Ivan relented easily.
Alfred looked around the place where they have fallen. The floors were inscribed with ancient symbols, and all around them, there were splintered pieces of wood and glass that once made up the ceiling. Whatever opening they fell from seemed to high up to see. Alfred couldn’t seem to find it, but it did seem to cast enough light to see a few feet around them.
“Do you know where we are?” Alfred asked.
Ivan shook his head. “I did not have enough time to explore.”
Alfred rummaged in his toolkit until he found his penlight. He clicked the bottom of the cylindrical object and sighed in relief as a beam of light shone from the end.
He moved the light around the area, catching sight of broken tapestries hanging on the walls and rubble all around them. Alfred paused as his light fell on a tapestry that was still mostly whole, frowning at the sight of the Beilschmidt family crest on it. The black eagle on the tapestry was both familiar and strange in this new area. Alfred wasn't sure what to make of it.
“That’s the royal insignia,” Alfred said. “What’s that doing here?”
Ivan stood up and limped towards Alfred. Alfred looked towards him and frowned at the sight of the other man. “Ivan, your wings—“
“It’ll heal,” Ivan replied with a grimace. “I am more worried about travelling with a sprain.”
“I believe so,” Ivan frowned. “I’ve had worse. What were you saying?”
Alfred pointed the light at the tapestry again. “That’s the Royal Insignia of Cautania. The emperor still uses that sign.”
“Why would it be here?”
“That’s what I wanna know,” Alfred said. “I’ve never heard of the empire coming here.”
He brought the light around the place until Ivan stopped him, light over a dark shape in the distance. “What’s that?”
Alfred squinted his eyes. “It looks like a tomb,” he said. “We have several of those in the family crypt.”
Alfred helped Ivan as they made their way over there. The other soldier limped slowly beside him, and Alfred made sure that they wouldn’t trip over any piece of rubble.
Alfred climbed the short steps of the dais and knelt beside the rectangular stone case. He ran his hand on top of it. It definitely seemed like the graves in the mausoleums in his family’s crypt. If it was, there should be a name at the side.
Alfred leaned back and let the light shine over the side. The name was almost faded with its age, and it was written in one of the old scripts of the empire. Alfred was suddenly thankful for Arthur’s insistence that he learned their empire’s history and languages. He brushed any dirt that obscured the words and began to read.
“Here lies the first queen of Cautania,” Alfred read. “Julchen Maria Beilschmidt, daughter of Gaea, master of the divine arts of magic.” Alfred frowned. “Gaea? Who’s that?”
“The great goddess,” Ivan answered. “Among our tribes, she is known to be the primordial source of magic. May I?” Alfred place the penlight in Ivan’s outstretched hand and watched as Ivan shone the light high above them. There were statues there that Alfred did not recognise. He’s seen statues of the first empress, and these things weren’t her. The statues were arranged like a line of guards down the hallway behind the empress’ tomb. Some of them seemed to be crumbling already while others still seemed to maintain their intricate designs. Alfred wondered if these status were already like the automaton guards that were found in Gilbert’s palace.
“The old gods,” Ivan explained. Even in the low light, Alfred could see the look of awe in Ivan’s face. It did funny things to his heart, and he had to look away, staring at the age old statues above them instead. “It seems this wasn’t just a tomb but a temple. Even my people rarely worship these gods now.”
“But you do?”
“My magic is different from most people,” Ivan answered. “It comes from making deals with gods and spirits.”
“Magic,” Alfred murmured. “It says she was a master of magic.”
“Are you starting to believe me now that one of your ancestors has been shown to use magic?”
Alfred flinched and looked towards Ivan. Ivan seemed more interested in looking at the statues above them. He had almost forgotten about the lie he told Ivan. He wanted to tell him, felt almost certain that Ivan already knew.
But somehow, Alfred didn’t want another argument. Not with him. He sighed and fiddled with the dog tags underneath his coat. “We should explore,” he suggested. “Find a way out. I think I see a light down the hallway.”
He didn’t tell Ivan that he can also feel the same thrum of energy underneath his feet, like he did before he had passed out, like he did in many of the empire’s new airships.
It felt like it was calling him further into the building.
“We should go,” Ivan agreed. He offered a hand towards Alfred who was still kneeling by the tomb. Without hesitation, Alfred took his hand and didn’t let go as they walked past the statues of the empire’s long-forgotten past.
They didn’t find a way out at the end of the hallway. They found a way deeper into the temple.
Alfred reclaimed his penlight from Ivan as they descended the stairs at the end of the hallway. The walls in the stairwell were decorated with names in the same ancient script as the tomb. They were the names of the territories of Cautania and the families that ruled them.
Alfred lingered at the bottom of the stairs when he reached the last of the names. “Drachen Province - Kirkland.”
“Alfred?” Ivan asked when the younger man had stared too long.
“Yeah?” Alfred came towards Ivan, stopping beside him. His jaw dropped when he saw what Ivan was looking at. “What the—“
“It’s a dragon,” Ivan said, calmly, as if they weren’t staring at a gigantic creature that took up most of the room. Its scales were the dark grey of storm clouds, but its horns and claws were bright gold. Somehow, Alfred felt that if it opened its eyes, it would have the same slitted gold eyes as Alfred.
But it didn’t open its eyes, and Alfred didn’t think it could. He couldn’t feel any life from it, and he tried not to think about the absurdity of that idea. “It’s dead,” Alfred said and knew with absolute certainty that he was right.
“I assume it was a guardian,” Ivan said. “Dragons are known for such things.”
Alfred thought of his brothers back home and how they protected their lands. He thought of Arthur and his overprotective instincts. He couldn’t help but agree with Ivan.
The light they had seen from above came from beneath the dragon. Upon noticing it, Alfred was instantly curious, trying to lean closer to have a look. He almost tumbled forward over a ledge in his curiosity and was only saved by Ivan’s hold on his collar.
“If you are so curious, we can approach it,” Ivan said.
Alfred looked from Ivan to the dragon corpse. It seemed rude to intrude upon its last resting place. “Can we?”
Ivan nodded. “I do not sense any malevolence in this place.”
Only love, Alfred thought, not knowing what made him think that. There was something here, some great thing that was beyond empires and dragons.
The two soldiers were careful as they approached the great thing in front of them. This close, Alfred might have assumed that the dragon was only sleeping or that it was a statue. He closed his penlight and pocketed it. The golden light underneath the dragon burned brighter as they drew closer, and Alfred suddenly recognised though it looked different from what he was used to.
“It’s Drachfeurite,” he whispered in awe, rushing forward and kneeling at the ground where veins of it, like cracks in a mirror, ran from the dragon’s corpse. “But different—“
“We use it for fuel,” Alfred said, excitedly. It was his field of study and one of his greatest achievements of the empire. This, unlike anything in the past few days, was very familiar to him. “They’re found in Drachen usually but some pieces can also be found in other provinces. That’s why we came here. They said there was an abundance of Drachfeurite in the mountains, but this is different. The Drachfeurite in Drachen and anywhere else in the kingdom burns red. This is—“
“Gold,” Ivan said as he came closer to Alfred. When Alfred turned to look at him, Ivan cupped his face and traced his thumb softly underneath Alfred’s right eye. “Like your eyes.”
“Y-yeah,” Alfred said, nervously. He wasn’t used to the way Ivan complimented his eyes. In Drachen, his eyes were considered normal. Everyone in his family had similar slitted eyes though they weren’t always the same colour. In the battlefield and in the capital, they were considered strange and a novelty, but they weren’t something to be admired. People didn’t have time for admiration when there was a war to be fought. “Anyway, this is—I’ve never seen Drachfeurite like this.”
“I thought people from the empire didn’t believe in magic,” Ivan said as he let go of Alfred to observe the golden veins beneath the dragon as well. Alfred didn’t know why but he suddenly missed the other’s warmth.
“We don’t,” Alfred said.
Ivan knelt and placed a hand over the golden light. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his wings spreading wide for a moment and his head tilting like he was listening to something. “But this is thriving with magic,” Ivan said.
“What? No,” Alfred crossed the distance between them and crouched beside Ivan. He was gesturing wildly now. “Drachfeurite has a lot of energy, yes, but it’s not magic. It’s just that it has a lot of particles within it that’s always in motion, or at least I assume it’s particles. Let me show you.”
Alfred rummaged through his toolkit for one of the samples that he kept on him. He always had a small one with him, but it wasn’t like the big thing underneath them. It was barely bigger than his palm. Even then, you can see the constantly shifting red light within it. For years, Drachfeurite had only been used as a light source in Drachen and nothing more. Alfred had made it more.
When he looked up to show Ivan, he found that the other was watching him. “What?” Alfred asked. “Do I have something on my face?”
“Do you know that your eyes constantly change when you’re excited?”
“Yeah, ignore it. Look here,” Alfred shook the piece of ore in front of Ivan. “It looks like there's fire inside. It’s why I called it Drachfeurite when I submitted my research to the kingdom. Dragon Fire.”
Ivan took the ore from Alfred’s hand before turning it over in his hand and examining it. “Ah, this does look like fire,” Ivan said with an amused smile. “But, Alfred, since you are Dragonborn, you should know that there isn’t only one kind of dragon breath. It isn’t just fire. The magic in this vein doesn’t move the same way your dragon fire does.”
“What?” Alfred frowned. His mind was racing. Of course he knew about different kinds of dragons, but it wasn’t like it mattered. Dragon fire or breath didn’t actually exist. No one in their family could control the elements the same way Ivan did. But if Drachfeurite was different based on the kinds of dragon, then what was underneath them.
“Let me see,” Alfred pulled his goggles over his eyes, so he can see better. Ivan moved aside and Alfred placed a hand over the golden Drachfeurite. Before he could lean forward to examine it, it seemed to glow brighter and brighter. He can feel the hum of energy underneath him again, like a song that was welcoming him home, like Arthur’s lullabies for him and Mattie, like Ivan’s humming when he woke up.
There was a surge of energy beneath his hand, and Alfred has been through enough explosions in laboratories and in the battlefield that he knew to anticipate it. “Ivan, move!” Alfred yelled.
Instead of shielding himself, Ivan pulled Alfred from the ore and shielded them both with his broken wings from the resulting explosion. The cavern shook underneath them, but Alfred could still feel the energy in his hands, alive in a way that the dragon wasn’t. He was sprawled on his back, but Ivan’s presence above him was steady and comforting, a calm anchor in contrast to the chaotic energy that Alfred could feel within him and around them.
“Ivan, why did you—” Alfred asked. His goggles were askew on his face, but that didn’t matter in face of the blood dripping from Ivan’s wings. He brought his hands up to help Ivan move and gasped at what he found.
Ivan looked down and gave a pained smile at the sight. Alfred’s hands were glowing with the golden energy. His gloves seemed to have burned away and bright sparks ran through his fingers, jumping from each fingertip to another. “I was right,” Ivan said with a chuckle. “You are magical after all.”
“What’s this? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Ivan said, but he was still staring at Alfred in childlike wonder. Alfred didn’t deserve that gaze, at least, he didn’t think so.
“Then perhaps I can give you your answers.”
The two of them scrambled at the sudden sound of that voice, suddenly on guard. Alfred didn’t have a weapon but the sparks on his hands seemed deadly enough that he balled them into fists, getting into a boxer’s position.
Beside the dragon, the ethereal form of a woman glowed faintly in the darkness. She looked quite familiar with her long white hair and reddish purple eyes. She wore an old military uniform that Alfred had only ever seen in history books and paintings. She looked like Gilbert, Alfred thought faintly. No, she looked exactly like the portraits and statues of the first empress.
Alfred felt ice in his veins and unconsciously stepped closer to Ivan. “A ghost?” He said in trepidation, the sparks on his hands glowing brighter and brighter.
Julchen smirked. “Not quite,” she said. ”I thank you, child of Drachen, Alfred Kirkland, and I welcome you, Sentinel, Ivan Braginsky. We have a lot to talk about.”
[A short excerpt from an ethnography of the Boreal Mountain Tribes]
Running Head: SOCIAL STRUCTURE AMONG THE BOREAL TRIBES
Among the people of the Boreal mountains, there are people who take on the role of Sentinels. Sentinels do not belong to any tribe, but they are respected and welcome in all the different Boreal tribes. They served as messengers, guardians, and law enforcers of the tribes. At the age of ten, boys and girls are able to begin their training for this role. Several years of their lives are spent learning the different practices and laws of the different tribes of the mountain...