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Chapter Two, Marked by the Dragon

Prince Renier Matrala was escorted through the halls of the High Keep. The final part of the ceremony had not been explained like the rest. He assumed it had to do with the serpentine tattoo of Nyxor. Each member of the Draknor Society had one on their left arm. The two men escorting him each had one. Only one was visible to him, but it was safe to assume the other had one as well. After all, this ceremony was the most trusted secret of their society.

It seemed obvious that everything up to this point was for show. Not that the written tests he had taken were easy. They tested him in subjects such as history, philosophy, mathematics, and what felt like a dozen others. For him, they had added special lessons on top of that, ones taught by his own people of Palsarrien. Lessons of state, politics, social behavior, and the history of his people were as required of him as studies here, if not more so. It was one of the stipulations for his father s acceptance to be sent to this place so far from their kingdom. A prince worked twice as hard as everyone else with his studies.

He knew the real reason his father had sent him, or thought he did anyway, and that was the extended life of his only heir to the throne. It was another of the effects of being a Draknor. He supposed it shouldn't still bother him; it was a sound decision for the good of his kingdom. Or the good of his bloodline at least, and was that not the same thing? His father would say it was.

The young prince found himself wondering again about what was going to happen, where he was going, and about that tattoo. He wasn't afraid of the pain, but he still felt nervous.

They turned one last corner and came to a doorway with sconces lit on either side. He tucked his thoughts away and found the calm he sought easily. The two men positioned themselves to either side of the door, facing him. So, they would stand guard while he was in there. He moved forward.

"When you enter, disrobe and prepare your mind. You need not be nervous, it is better that you not be." The man on the left said, and the other picked up where he left off.

"This is a ceremony of faith, may your Will be strong and reliable. If it is, Nyxor will accept you."

Cryptic to be sure, he had no idea what it meant. He wasn't going to walk away now though, how could he? He walked up and pushed on the doors with some surprise at their balance. As heavy as they looked, they moved easily on their hinges and opened into the room beyond. The room was simple with only a circular red rug and a rack that he assumed to be for his clothing. They had made him remove his shoes before entering the fifth floor, where the ceremonial chambers were housed, so all he had were his pants, smallclothes, and bandana. Without clothes he suddenly felt the need for a bath. The perspiration from his weapons demonstration had dried quickly in the cold night air, but he still felt dirty from it.

Renier stepped through the doors, again noting the balance, and into an enormous room. His breath caught at the vastness of it. A long, red carpet was spread along the center, interrupted only by a large pool of water, sunken into the floor, in the very middle of the chamber. From the walls hung wide tapestries depicting the Alindrak crest, as well as the Draknor crest, Nyxor encircled into an image of her eating her own tail. Suits of armor lined each wall to the left and right, separated into intervals that matched the tall windows stretching up to the ceiling. Each of the suits of armor had both hands resting on a long two-handed sword. He felt like they stared from the edge of vision. The leaded windows were set in diamond patterns that obstructed most of the view out or in. In the back of the room there were stairs that rose up several levels to a flat dais where Kaiyren, Queen of Alindrak, was garbed in a ceremonial robe. She began to the take the steps down toward him.

He froze in embarrassment. This was certainly not what he had expected; he was naked! Her beautiful young face showed none of his embarrassment though, so he worked hard to compose himself. He sought the calm again and it came, if a bit reluctantly.

"You have masked yourself faster than most, young Matrala." She said with a motherly smile as she approached him. She took his arm and began to lead him forward along the red carpet. "I expected nothing less from you; still, your successes are not ordinary. The blood of your father s line is both strong and proud, and I suspect the same of you mother s." They approached the edge of the pool and she stepped in. There was no reaction in her face, but to him the water looked cold. She was holding her hand out to him.

The water was cold, and he didn t do nearly as well at masking the fact as she had. The woman must not feel the cold at all for all the expression she gave. They walked down into the water and she stood up next to him. The bottom half of her robe was thoroughly soaked. She put one hand on his chest and lightly pulled him backwards, he didn t fight it. After submerging his entire head she pulled him back up.

"You are cleansed, Renier Matrala. Cleansed of past mistakes; cleansed of false actions and false pride; cleansed of wrong-doing and hatred. You are cleansed." She chanted the phrases in a melodic voice that reverberated throughout the chamber. There was a great deal of power in the words. The hand she had laid softly on his chest felt warm, but more than that, it felt energizing. It was as if she was lending him her own energy.

He felt different and understood the symbolism. He did feel cleansed; he could no longer feel the dried perspiration from his demonstration earlier. With her arm intertwined around his, she lead him forward again this time out of the water. Together they climbed the steps and stepped in front of a simple wooden pedestal. On it was a ring and nothing else.

"Kneel now, Renier Matrala, Prince of Pallsarien, Lords of the East." She said the official titles softly, but he obeyed immediately as if forced. The ring was magnificent, the very image depicted everywhere: Nyxor eating her own tail. The great dragon Nyxor was the symbol of the Draknor Society; the symbol found upon flags, cloaks, banners, tapestries, and dozens of other places around the great city. The ring was simple metal. It looked to be silver. She picked it up and asked him to raise his hand.

She paused as she put it to the tip of his finger. "Your test begins now, Renier. It is not a test that I, or any other Draknor can give you. It has been said by those who went through this in the past, that Nyxor herself tests you. Are you ready?"

He nodded without a second thought while she slipped the ring on his finger. She stepped backward and waited in silence. For a few minutes they waited in that silence together, but alone all the same. Then he felt a tingling in his finger and blinked in surprise. The ring was still, but the dragon began to spin around the band. That seemed impossible to him, but it was exactly what he was looking at. Then it left the band of the ring all together! Slowly it worked onto his finger, working its way around it, slithering like a snake. As it encircled his hand it seemed to grow larger and larger. When Nyxor s eyes rose to meet his own, he lost consciousness.

Renier felt like he was falling, but not exactly, almost floating downward. He couldn t see any ground; he couldn t see anything at all. Everything around him was black. He looked down and found that he was still completely naked. That was great, floating in emptiness and wearing absolutely nothing. It couldn t get much worse than this though, so he relaxed a bit. Then it seemed as if gravity returned to him. He fell quickly, but stopped short after a few seconds when his feet touched a solid surface. The darkness disappeared and he was back in his kingdom. With some relief he saw clothing when he looked down.

A cry of alarm interrupted his thoughts. "Invaders are upon us, to arms, to arms!" It was responded to by many calls, but they were all the same. It was a standard battle alarm for the palace soldiers, but who would ever attack the palace? It hadn t happened in his lifetime, and by all reports centuries before that. A guard seemed to notice him standing there and ran over. "King Renier, they are advancing, you must get to safety!"

"Where is my father?" He asked.

The guard looked confused; when he answered it came strained. "Your father is dead, my King. We have held the city for these last months since then, but they have made it within the walls now. The inner keep must be barricaded, you must get moving!" His father was dead? Many months ago?

He walked to the palace window and could see the battle below. There were men fighting and dying to defend their nation. My nation, the thought came more natural than he felt it should. He could not see the enemy, just shadows. He couldn t help but think that it would be important for him to know his attackers. Except that he couldn t because of the shadows. His fist came down hard on the stone window sill. Angrily, he turned to discover who they were, how long the attacks had gone on, the condition of troops, and again it all felt just a little too natural.

His questions were ready, but he was in blackness again, floating. Confusion set in, and he looked down to find himself naked once more. What was going on, where was this place?

He was falling again, and again it was only for a few seconds before touching the ground. His mother was brushing his sister s hair as she used to do when he was a child. They were both smiling and talking, it was about boys tonight. Apparently his little sister had become interested in boys since he was away. It wasn t that surprising. He could hardly remember much about her; he left for Alindrak when she was but a toddler. Neither saw the door open enough for a group of men to slip in. They hadn t noticed him either, and he was starting to wonder if they could see him at all. But they spun in a fury when he screamed out "NO! You cannot take them from me!" and bolted toward the men.

"Renier, my boy is it you?" His mother asked in a confused tone, and then she noticed the men. She immediately had her young daughter around the neck walking swiftly to the back wall. Renier was bolting toward the men unarmed, but he knew he would be okay. He had trained for years in unarmed combat as well as armed. Still, the confidence did not seem to fit him. The three men were armed, each with two daggers with blades that zig-zagged back and forth similar to an artist s rendition of a lightning bolt. He dodged the first two daggers that came toward him and his knee instinctively went for one man s groin. The attacker cried out and fell to the ground with his hands between his legs. Renier s attention was already on the other men though. He needed to take them down quickly.

He pivoted his weight for momentum and shot his right hand toward a second assassin s face. The man pulled up his daggers predictably and Renier slammed his left hand into the man s face instead. Few had powerful strikes with both arms, but Renier did. His father said it was a sign of a good leader, being balanced equally to the left and right. The man slammed against the wall and lost both daggers on impact before falling hard.

He was about to go for the third man when he heard, "BEHIND YOU!" from both women. It was too late though. Four arms wrapped around his and he was stuck. In a rush a handful of men ran toward his mother and sister and stabbed at them viciously. Again and again their blades ripped apart his family while he watched, arms bound. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes and his body slumped. The men released their grip, and as he fell to the ground he thought he heard the end of a sentence from one of the men standing near his mother, " from your sister, Tirayla."

Then he was floating again. It wasn t right, it wasn t fair! More times he fell a few seconds and entered a reality that he did not like. Through them all he did his best to keep calm and cool. He made collected decisions, defended himself, and fought when necessary. He wasn t sure what exactly it was he was doing, so he did his best to act as his father would expect of him. He did his best to act like a king. Sometimes he was a king, other times he wasn t even a prince. In one his family had been pulled down and replaced, and they were outcasts. Another visit ended only in darkness again, Tirayla had stabbed his father in the back and taken the throne with another man, and he suddenly realized a link. He stopped floating the darkness. They were all fears, his fears. He was being forced to face his inner-demons head on, and to fight back.

His eyes opened and he gasped a deep breath. The dragon had just climbed around his forearm and settled there. The creature s tail wound all the way back to his finger. Kaiyren removed the ring and took his hand in hers to help pull him to his feet. He felt tired, worn out, as if he had spent the entire night practicing the sword. He shifted his balance to his other foot and nearly fell over again; maybe he was even more tired than that.

"There are truths, and there are falsehoods to what you have seen tonight, Renier. I do not know what it means any more than you, probably less. Your needs, your fears, were no doubt different than my own. What happened is not to leave this room. If you wish to speak of it, you must do so now."

"My fears, I had to face my fears." He could tell his voice was strained. He was so tired. "I saw " He fell silent instead of speaking, he couldn t even remember what he had been about to say. Kaiyren nodded slowly; did she understand what he meant? He wondered what she had seen; he wondered if he was allowed to ask.

"I do not know what truths are there to find. Some things I saw have played out already, and still others have not. I think some will never come to pass, and I wished some would never, but have." A frown touched her lips, but was gone almost as fast. Renier wondered if she saw her own father s death, his murder. What if what he saw was true too?

His eyes fell upon his arm. A red dragon, stretched out its serpentine form, encircled it. He vaguely remembered watching the dragon crawl onto his skin, and then up it. There certainly was a tattoo of Nyxor clearly on his skin regardless. He looked up into Kaiyren s eyes. She was looking back into his when he met them.

"Welcome to the Draknor Society, Renier. Now you probably want to sleep. We will step into the pool, and you should feel refreshed enough to walk back to your room."

He hadn t even noticed they were walking before they had gone down the steps and were standing before the pool of water. They stepped into the water together. He expected, and was reluctant, for the cold. The water didn t feel cold at all though. It brought a sense of alertness. He felt as if he had rested for most of the day. It was odd, that feeling had certainly not come before. He turned a wide-eyed stare upon Kaiyren who only smiled at him.

"It is remarkable really, the only two devices of their kind that have been found of the first age, to our knowledge at least. The ring and the pool both are remarkable. It is not a connection, not exactly; you will feel heat and cold less now. That much is the ring. The pool offers the refreshment. But together " Her voice trailed off then, whatever she had been about to say was gone. "You should be going, Draknor Renier, by the time your head hits your pillow you will be reminded of your fatigue. If you don t make it well you will be reminded of it on the way." She spoke with a smile as she walked him toward the entrance to the chamber again. Would he really fall asleep in the middle of walking? He remembered the tiredness before stepping into the pool and thought he would hurry, just in case. "Tomorrow we shall feast in your honor. Sleep well, young Prince."

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