REALITY IS NOT THE ONLY NIGHTMARE.
Genshu Hidekazu and Masanori believed they ended Lacotl’s reign of terror. Now, they know his schemes have only just begun.
In the wake of Lacotl’s capture, Hidekazu and Masanori grapple with their new lives—including the death of their dear friend, their future as students of the Tsukiko Academy, and their newly volatile relationship with Furahau Aihi, the princess of Seiryuu.
Yet no Dragon Princess would forget the betrayal of her own brothers.
Aihi is determined to uncover the extent of Lacotl’s plans—and how it involves the Dragon’s Eye—without Hidekazu and Masanori’s help. But her stubbornness is her undoing, and when tragedy strikes, she has no choice but to rely on them after all.
The secrets of the Dragon’s Eye await where demons dwell…
A place that turns dreams to nightmares.
A place no one leaves unscathed.
Masa, Hide, and Aihi’s journey continues in The Dragon’s Eye, the second of four novellas prefacing the Wyvern Wars series: an epic fantasy adventure inspired by selections of Japanese mythology and folklore.
Blood painted the delicate rice paper walls.
Four corpses lay in a heap, their silken robes specked with scarlet. The scent of burnt hair mingled with the pollution of copper and fresh death.
A crawling woman crumpled under the weight of her multi-layered blue kimono. The fabric spilled around her in waves as she inched toward the door, reaching for it with trembling hands. She pressed against a maple panel and tried to stand. Her fingers left crimson smears over the watercolour dragons beneath, and the creatures snapped at her with ferocious maws, unable to break through the paper.
“I’m sorry. P-please—” Empress Aihi started, a half-gurgled sob escaping her throat.
Masanori’s hand wrapped around her ankle and yanked.
Aihi lurched forward, her shoulder tearing the fragile wall. She blindly kicked her attacker, the torn silk of her kimono flapping around her ankles, but she slammed into the tatami with a hard thump. Blood from Aihi’s victims splashed into her face as she landed in a pool of red.
Sanguine drops smudged beneath the press of her body as she was pulled across the ground.
“Please, Masanori. Don’t—you don’t have to do this…”
He flipped her onto her back. The crown of peacock feathers was crushed and torn, stained with gore. Aihi’s voice shook as though she were a frightened child, but the wickedness in her eyes divulged her deceit. Purple mist swirled around her head, tendrils latching to her raven hair and the bells and ribbons threaded through her long braids. The fog fanned from her face, rising to obscure the rest of the room. The rest of the blood.
The Goddess planned something for Aihi’s future, but Masanori couldn’t bring himself to care. Not when both had betrayed him. Masanori straddled her legs and locked them in place. The sight of her made him sick.
Fake tears drenched Aihi’s cheeks, stained with smudged kohl, gold flakes, and speckles of blood.
“You regret nothing,” Masanori said. Lavender mist attempted to coil around his wrists, and he waved the tendrils off. It would be so easy to wrap his hands around her throat and end this nightmare for good.
Aihi’s smile was sadistic. “Why would I?”
The haze made his head spin, stuck between staring into purple nothingness and at Aihi’s limp, bloody form beneath him. Her lips twitched as if trying to restrain laughter.
He flung a hand to the side, storm-blue energy zapping from his fingers. He pulled a shard of glass into his palm. “Then I won’t regret this either.”
Hot blood gushed between his bone-white knuckles. The pain was nothing compared to Aihi’s betrayal. Her inevitable fate. The fog’s whispers engulfed Masanori, urging him to finish her, but a trickle of doubt still touched his mind. What if this wasn’t her fault? His resolve began to weaken.
Masanori hesitated, and then wrapped himself in Aihi’s energy, searching for a reason to stop. The lilac spread over his arms, and he recoiled. She reeked of corruption. Lacotl’s
This was the Goddess’ punishment for Masanori’s failures. He should have seen Lacotl’s hand in Aihi’s actions.
Masanori’s vision blurred behind the image of his family’s lifeless bodies. This time, when the mist curled around him, he embraced it. A chill cracked through his ribs as the tendrils took root. Violet coils exploded through his arms and wove around his heart, tightening with each heartbeat.
The purple locked Masanori in the depths of his body. He drifted further inside himself with every corrupted pulse, and he pushed back, but the foggy tendrils strangled him, squeezing out his last bit of life.
He was the corruption.
The mist became denser, crushing his spirit and wreathing his head, much like Aihi’s.
Masanori prayed to Shirashi, not for strength and resolve or a steady hand, but to make her watch the result of her treachery.
He plunged the bloodstained shard into Aihi’s chest.
She screamed, arms flailing to push him off. Masanori did not budge. Her wrath was but a candle beside the eternal sun smouldering within him.
Masanori withdrew the glass. This was for Hidekazu. He stabbed. For their mother. The sharp fragment pierced her again. Scarlet drizzled from her lips.
For their father. And again. For Hana.
Aihi’s scream dwindled to a gurgle. A glossy sheen formed over her eyes, their light fading. Her arms fell to her sides as her muscles failed. Masanori watched and made sure she was gone.
Blood splattered his face, gushed over his shaking hands, slicked the tatami floors.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
His palms were cut to the bone, but he only felt the scratch of glass and thick wetness on his fingers. Aihi was dead.
She twitched, groping for his hand. Masanori flinched and opened his eyes. “Ma… sa…” she said. “I thought… I thought I meant something to you.”
A dim light sparked in her eyes. The blood soaking Aihi’s skin and kimono sunk back into her, the gouges in her chest and stomach closing. She curled her fingers around the glass in his grip and tried to wrest the fragment away.
Masanori moaned a half-sob. His prayers failed; the Goddess still spurned him. He wrapped his other hand around Aihi’s and pressed the splinter into her heart.
She gasped, convulsing. “Oh, Great Warlock, it hurts.”—Masanori twisted the glass— “It’s
not t-too late…” Her head fell back. “…to stop…”
He ignored her, plunging the shard into her over and over. Aihi’s lips parted, and the light once again left her eyes.
Masanori wept. “I wish… Aihi, I’m sorry, I-I’m sorry…”
He wiped his tears, replacing them with ruby smears across his cheekbones. Even if Aihi deserved death.
She remained still, but Masanori stabbed her again. The glass slipped from his hands, splashing in the crimson puddle beside them. He shuddered as he stared at his mutilated flesh.
Blood glided back into his veins, and the muscles, tendons, and skin restitched themselves.
Aihi grabbed his wrist. His eyes snapped to hers.
Her face twisted, lips black as coal, teeth polished to a bloody grin. Her eyes were wild, bloodshot, irises slimmed to slits. “You are a killer, Masanori… who are you trying to convince?”
Masanori lunged for the glass as Aihi sat up. The shard bit into his palm and reopened his wounds.
He twisted and jammed the fragment into her torso again and again until he ceased to exist.
She did not bother to struggle; her maniacal laughter was all he heard for eternity. “He will always win…” She sucked in a deep breath. “You can’t stop him.”
ONE MONTH EARLIER
Aihi stole a glance at her prisoner. Translucent, black arcs of ki suspended Lacotl midair, and the metallic cuffs around his bloodied wrists and ankles clanked as they swayed. Without his skull mask, dried blood matted the brown fur on his goat-like face. Gashes in his arms opened and closed as he breathed.
“You’ll pay for each life you took,” Aihi said. “All thirty of them.”
Lacotl’s lips peeled back to reveal his yellowed teeth like the snarl of a rabid dog. Perhaps recalling the twenty-six women he murdered and the four soldiers who died capturing him.
A sour tang grew in Aihi’s mouth.
“Oh, Princess, so much anger! Let it free, let it free!” Lacotl yanked his chains, purple flecks of ki appearing near his wrists. The metal glowed white-hot and absorbed the energy.
“So keen to die?” she said.
Blood-tinged slobber trickled from Lacotl’s lips and chin. He deserved worse than death, but so far, he revelled in the guards’ punishments. He offered no information on his motives for sacrificing so many of the Goddess Shirashi’s devout, or about the Dragon’s Eye. Killing him seemed like the only solution to the problem hanging in front of Aihi.
Lacotl’s lips parted further. “Death, no, not from you.”
Aihi lifted an arm. Spirals of water collected around the mizu kigou in her palm and spun toward the kan’thir’s face. The scalding current stopped inches from his snout, droplets splattering his dangling body.
He flinched. Steam rose from his wet fur, and sulphur tainted the air as it burned.
“Your life is in my hands. As is your death.” Aihi waited, but when Lacotl said nothing, she splashed him with the hot water.
The kan’thir thrashed in his bonds, making a spluttering, guttural sound before gasping out another taunt. “Little Ai-hime, pretending she is strong when she is oh-so-lost without her little friend.”
Aihi’s fingers twitched, and the whirlpool of boiling water spiralled quicker. Scalding liquid spattered over Lacotl. The kan’thir hissed.
“You will not refer to me by that name,” she said, her voice dangerously low.
“Come, come, why pretend? She was part of you, and now, oh, she’s gone.”
“How dare you—” Aihi raised her hand to spray him but stopped. A wrathful river roiled between them, filling the room with mist. The humidity dampened her kimono and tainted the fine layers of brocaded silk.
She could torture him for the rest of his days, but to what end? That would make her no better than him, and she valued her time too much to devise the creative, cruel methods necessary to break Lacotl. So far, nothing the guards used had much effect.
The kan’thir struggled again, sparks of violet ki illuminating his manacles. His sanity flickered in his eyes, diminishing as though on the verge of reverting to an animalistic nature. The bands of black energy expanded to keep him contained.
“Why did you pick Torra?” Aihi said.
The kan’thir jerked and fell still, his pupils shifting to focus on Aihi. “She was… for you, yes, you. But never just her.”
Sweat and hot water pooled on Aihi’s skin, slipping away along with her patience. As she suspected, she was responsible for Torra’s death.
“All part of the game, yes, each one, each girl, each a piece.” Lacotl’s eyes flicked toward the ceiling and hummed. “With them, Ai-hime, oh, maybe you would have won. Now they
are gone, and I will win, yes, yes, I will.”
The first time they met, Lacotl had also mentioned a game, but to Aihi, the idea of slaughtering people for fun was beyond comprehension. How could someone expend human life like foot soldiers on a Shōgi board?
Aihi flexed her fingers, toying with the idea of painting the kigou that would make Lacotl’s innards burn. Not even this masochistic kan’thir could ignore boiling intestines. She let her arm fall, and the steaming torrent collapsed to the floor as the whirlpool
“A game,” she said, testing the word on her tongue. It tasted rancid. “Tell me about this game you are playing.”
Lacotl’s chuckles turned to shrieks. “Oh-ho-ho, is Ai-hime ready? Yes, play with me, much fun, you will see.”
“In Seiryuu, it is considered rude to start a game without explaining the rules first.”
“Is it?” Lacotl cocked his head. His horizontal, slit-like pupils shrunk to slivers. “Oh, Princess, not knowing, not playing? What a mistake. We always play, always looking, always fighting.”
Aihi frowned. We? Was this a game of life and death—something the kan’thir played? She
neglected her studies of the kan’thir as a girl, as she’d thought the topic a waste of time; few ever passed into Seiryuu. A terrible mistake. If she knew more, she might decipher Lacotl’s words.
She despised how he claimed her as another piece in his game. Had Captain Todoroki told her about Lacotl sooner, he would have been captured or killed long before Torra’s death. Perhaps Aihi had been too lenient when she allowed Captain Todoroki to keep his position.
“You are locked in my dungeons.” She gestured to the barrier of sapphire ki behind her. “Did I not win already?”
Lacotl craned his neck. “No, no, no, oh, no, not so easy, Ai-hime.”
“Tell me the rules, and I shall best you at this game of yours.”
Games favoured Aihi, at least those following logic. As per her mother’s instructions, Aihi
mastered the strategy game Shōgi as a child, and later Go, the preferred pastime of the Sānlóngguó diplomats.
“No rules, only death.”
Aihi’s nose scrunched as if she smelled something rotten. Regulations made games possible. What would be the point of Shōgi and Go without guidelines and thus room for strategy?
She swiped her irezumi, and pulled her katana from the ink, a subtle buzz of ki at her fingertips. She pressed the tip to Lacotl’s jugular.
The kan’thir cackled, his body swaying enough to nudge the edge into his throat. Blood welled and stained his fur, but Aihi pulled away before causing him serious injury.
Lacotl seemed disappointed.
“Cannot kill me, little Princess, not yourself, not with help, not—” He stopped himself short. His body rocked, chains clanking, the black ki warping to hold him still.
Lacotl claimed their lives were pieces in the game, but perhaps death wasn’t the objective after all. Aihi let out an exasperated sigh. Regardless of the absence of any apparent rules, the tactics she learned in strategy games might become more important without any strict guidelines to abide by. When playing Go with her father, he always reminded Aihi to watch her opponent’s moves, to strike at their desired positions. Their key point was her key point.
So what was Lacotl’s real goal?
“Tell me about the Dragon’s Eye,” Aihi said. “Where did you pilfer such an artifact?”
“Not stolen, ah, a gift… The earth, yes, when I searched. So generous.”
“What did you intend to do with the Eye?” She wanted to ask more about the function of the relic, but she couldn’t reveal her ignorance. Whatever Lacotl’s plans, the Eye had to be an essential piece.
Malice shone in Lacotl’s beady eyes. “Oh, wish to know more, hm, Ai-hime? Not so easy, knowing, you. Play with me, maybe, maybe, and I will tell. One day, yes.”
Lacotl’s butchered Seiryan tangled in Aihi’s head.
“You will tell me about the Dragon’s Eye if I compete with you,” she said. The kan’thir nodded, swaying while he waited for her response.
Aihi had spent days scouring the palace and all Nagasou for information about the artifact, but the records were either hidden or lost. With her unwillingness to employ any assistance in her research, Lacotl was her only lead.
Trusting the kan’thir would be like putting her hand in a wild dog’s mouth and waiting for the creature to bite. She asked for trouble by contemplating Lacotl’s schemes at all, let alone participating in an unstructured and deadly game. Aihi would never forget what he did to Torra and the other lost women.
What if there was no other way to learn more about the Eye? To heal the aki corrupted by Lacotl?
She needed to take the chance. If she played cautiously, the knowledge she obtained might serve as a tool to put Lacotl down. Games were her specialty; Aihi could win.
“Let’s say I will play your ga—”
Aihi’s body seized. Her lungs searched for air but found none.
Everything went black. Silvery lines forged an unfocused image in her mind, curving into the shape of an eye. The picture shimmered and expanded, the lights moulding half of the contour of an elegant woman’s face.
Enough for Aihi to realize she knew the woman, not enough for her to place a name. Aihi memorized what she could before the silhouette exploded in purple flames, cracking and disappearing in the darkness.
Oh, Goddess. Aihi’s mind throbbed with the effort of remembering, but the face was incomplete and impossible to identify.
Aihi came to on her back. She winced at a sharp stab at the base of her skull, and she stood, stumbling away from Lacotl’s swinging form. How did he…
“Tock, tock, ticking, the clock goes,” Lacotl sang, his head lolling.
Aihi raised a hand, acutely aware of the danger Lacotl posed. She had thought him defenceless, at her mercy, yet he incapacitated her without moving. What else could he do from within these walls?
Sweat clung to Aihi’s back, and the burn of copper and lost dreams flaked across her tongue.
“Save her, yes? Can you, Ai-hime?” Aihi backed away.
“Silly Princess,” Lacotl said, almost sounding sad. “I always win.”
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