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Black Dragon: Chapter One

By Genevieve Ann Atwater

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Erica

Erica looked out over the ship’s edge, watching the ocean churn and crash as they cut through the water. Her gold dress whipped around her ankles in the strong wind, and her long, brown hair flew around her face. One hand held her hat in place as she leaned over the rail at the ship’s edge to look down at the white foam as the water split around the ship’s front. It was amazing, how something so simple could be so beautiful. Erica had lived all her life in the busy, seaside city Aiamas, but this was the first time she’d actually gone out to sea herself.

If only it were under better circumstances, she would think herself unbelievably lucky.

“Miss, careful,” one of the sailors warned, finally noticing her gazing over the edge. Erica straightened with a regretful sigh and tried to listen as he lectured her about the dangers of falling off, and reminded her that she would be better off below deck. Her gaze kept drifting back to the water’s grey-blue surface.

“Miss? Miss?” the sailor pressed, and Erica blinked.

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll be more careful, I promise.”

The sailor looked dubious, but left her, and Erica leaned back against the railing, looking up at smokestacks as they pumped black ash into the pale sky, where it mixed with the wisps of white clouds that hung there today. With her attention back on it, the ship’s rumble seemed louder, somehow, and Erica herself almost seemed to shake with it. Incredible, but nothing so wonderful to look at as the ocean it plowed through.

Only a few weeks ago, Erica had been at home in the port city Aiamas, with no idea that her life would ever be more extraordinary than any shop keeper’s daughter might live. She still wasn’t certain how she had ended up here instead, sailing for the first time in her life, towards a place she’d hardly heard of before. And what she had heard was enough to make her journey into an impossibility.

The island was called Hoshizu. Or at least, it was called that once, in its ancient days; now men usually called it the Isle of Storms, or the Hidden Land. Tales said it was constantly surrounded by thick storms, or that monsters swam through its waters to protect it. All nonsense, Erica knew: only storytellers and sailors could believe in monsters in this day and age, but the tales remained as echoes in her mind as they drew nearer to the strange destination. It was said no ship had successfully reached Hoshizu in a thousand years.

“Girl,” a firm voice said, and Erica blinked, jerking around to see the ship’s captain glaring at her. She flushed, tilting her hat down to hide the heat in her face, and curtsied awkwardly as he stalked over to her. The captain was a tall, broad man, who hadn’t shown a single emotion towards Erica but irritation since she had first stepped onto his ship. She couldn’t imagine why he had agreed to take this trip, said to be so dangerous, but he had resisted any attempt she’d made to learn the truth from him.

He reached her and pointed off the ship. “Do you want to fall in?”

“No, Sir,” Erica said.

“Then get back below deck,” he snapped. “We’re getting near now. If a storm rises, I’ll not have my blasted cargo thrown into the sea.”

She pulled her hat’s rim lower and curtsied again, biting her cheek to hold back any dismay or anger that might escape at being called cargo. But she couldn’t argue with him, to be honest. She was the only thing the ship was carrying, outside of its crew and food. And though it was humiliating to be seen as a package to deliver, she sometimes thought that if he saw his passenger as a girl instead, he would toss her overboard and return home at once.

She left him by the railing and climbed back into the stuffy, cramped below of the ship, where she’d been given her own little room to spend the weeks of travel. Somehow, the sailors seemed to expect her to stay there the entire way, among her bags and without company. Erica counted herself lucky they let her go up at all, even if they did keep telling her she belonged down here. She’d managed to see the fin of a great fish, and several birds she’d never seen before, along with a turtle as large as a small paddle boat, at different times on her journey before being sent below again. The excitement of it was, at times, almost enough to make her forget her own situation.

In the dullness of her room, however, her situation was all she could think of.

Erica had grown up with her father in the crowded city, Aiamas. They had a garden, and her father worked in a bookshop, so even though they couldn’t afford much luxury Erica could always come with him and sit in the corner, reading the wares until a customer came in. She didn’t know her mother; her father said he hadn’t known her long himself, marrying after only a week and then losing her in the birth of their only child. But he said she was beautiful and very clever. That was all he would really ever say about her, but Erica didn’t press him. She could only imagine the pain of losing the woman you loved after so short a time, and if he wanted to keep the memories to himself, she could not resent him for it. Besides, he was more than enough all by himself.

Which made his actions all the stranger. He had never been anything but loving and considerate to his daughter, until the night he sent her away. Erica was at home when it happened, combing her hair and thinking of the latest book she’d read, when her father knocked on her bedroom door and slipped in. She hardly noticed him, lost in thought, until he tapped her shoulder.

“Oh, Father, how was the shop…” she said, blinking back to reality and turning to greet him, but his grim expression stopped her. “Father, is something wrong?”

“Erica.” Her father said, his voice slow and quiet. He didn’t look much like his daughter, who was tall and slender, with straight brown hair and simple features. But her father was short and slightly plump; usually a cheerful man, with dimples and a calm smile, despite his early balding and lump of a nose. Seeing him so grim was unusual. “Erica,” he said again. “You… I’m afraid you must leave us.”

“Leave?” Erica asked, startled.

“I’m very sorry, Erica. You will be leaving in the morning. Your ship sails to Hoshizu. You need to be packed and ready early so we can get you to the docks.”

There was a moment of silence. “Ho...Ho-what?” Erica finally asked. “Father, what are you saying? Why am I leaving? What under God’s Heaven is this about?”

But her father only shook his head. “Forgive me,” he said. “I am so sorry, Erica: that’s all I can say. Please get ready.” And he left her, letting the door close with a click behind him.

Erica let out a sigh at the memory, leaning back against the wall and ignoring the rocking of the ship. She’d tried for hours to convince her father to explain, but learned nothing. She had no idea why she was going to the island, or even when she might return. It was like the nightmares she’d had as a child, of being carried away from her father by a strange figure. Only no stranger was here in real life; it was her father himself sending her away.

Her room was furnished with a little bed, a desk, and her several bags of belongings, which she’d packed as quickly as she could once she’d realized her father would not be swayed. There were some books in the bags; more than she’d ever actually owned before, though her father hadn’t explained where they had come from. She reasoned they must be a gift from her wealthy great-aunt, or something he himself had bought for her, but regardless she was glad to have them. They were almost all books she had loved to read in the shop, and were now her only company as she waited to arrive at the isle of storms.

The ship lurched, and Erica scrambled to stay on the bed as she was suddenly flung to the side. Thunder sounded above them with a roar; Erica could suddenly hear shouting, and the angry pattering of fierce rain. Stories filled her mind, of an eternal storm that sunk ships before they could reach shore, but she forced them back. Storms didn’t work that way. She was going to be fine. If it had come so quickly, perhaps it would go quickly as well. She tucked herself into a corner of the bed, holding onto the edge to keep from being thrown again, looking up. If only she could go up and see…

But what difference would that make? She would only get in the way, or be thrown into the sea. Another crack of thunder shook her and she closed her eyes, silently praying for safety as the ship lurched again, and the shouts above grew louder.

And then it was still. Erica held her breath, waiting for another lurch or rumble of the storm. But nothing happened. The rain continued, softer now, but everything was otherwise perfectly calm.

Surely the storm couldn’t have passed quite that quickly, could it? Erica slipped off her bed, stepping around her bags and out the door. The floor was wet, even down in the passage towards her room, and her shoes pattered in a sheen of water as she made her way to the ladder and pulled herself upwards. She pushed the trapdoor up as well as she could with one hand, climbing out into the fresh air again. Soft, cool rain fell, bouncing off her hat and sliding down her dress, and the sailors stood still, eyes on the horizon. Erica stepped through the rain, ignoring its chill, and peered past the railing to the place everyone was looking. In the distance, she could see something through the mist and shadow of the rainclouds. An island.

“We made it,” one of the sailors whispered, his voice awed. “Past the storm. Captain was right.”

“The captain?” Erica asked, turning to look at the sailor, who looked embarrassed to be singled out.

“Aye… aye, Miss,” he said. “He said the storm would stop if we put the flag up…” he turned and nodded upwards. Erica looked up to the flagpole. There, above the flag of her homeland, flew a deep red flag sporting a stylized image of some sort of bird in black ink. No, she thought, squinting up at it. It was a dragon. She had read about the mythological creatures, though she’d never expected to be aboard a ship flying one on its flag. She turned to look at the island again, then the sailors. The flag couldn’t possibly have stopped the storm. Whatever the symbol it bore, it was only cloth and ink.

“Girl.” A hand gripped Erica’s arm and jerked her around. “I told you to stay below,” the captain growled furiously, only inches from her face. His breath was revolting and Erica choked, pulled away from him.

“I-- I wanted to see--” she tried, but the captain only grunted and dragged her to the railing. For a terrifying moment, Erica thought he was going to throw her overboard. But he released her and pointed to the island in the distance.

“Well, there it is,” he growled. “Blasted Hoshizu. I hope you’re right pleased.”

Erica drew away from him, rubbing her arm, and glanced at the island. “Yes. I suppose,” she murmured. She would be glad to be off the ship. But her stomach seemed to be tying itself in knots inside of her. “Sir, do you know why I’m here?” she asked, though she already knew how he would respond.

The captain grunted and strode away, shouting for his men to get back to work. Erica leaned on the railing, gazing out towards the isle. It wasn’t huge, but she could see mountains, and cliffs around some of the edges. It was beautiful.

Erica took a breath and allowed herself to forget, for a moment, that she had to stay there. That she was alone, and afraid, and confused. The rain was light, the sea churned happily, and the island at the horizon was beautiful.

The crimson flag fluttered above her, displaying its symbol to all who cared to see.

* * * * * * *

Erica stayed at the railing, her eyes on the island as it went from a dark mark on the horizon to a clear picture of green, mountains, beaches and cliffs. For once, no one told her she didn’t belong up here. The sailors were busy preparing to land, and their eyes often followed hers. Erica could feel their nervousness in the air without even turning to look at them. Who could guess what they would find in this place? It was said no one had come to Hoshizu in a thousand years. Were the people savages? Cannibals? Were there people here at all?

Of course, none of them had to stay there. Erica held her hat in place with one hand, watching the island and trying to ignore her worry. This was only a few weeks' travel from her home, but it felt as though it were in an entirely different world.

Something caught her eye and she squinted. They were getting close now, and the sailors’ shouts told her they were preparing to dock. There was a beach, where she assumed they would bring her ashore, and as her eyes fell on its sand she saw a group of people, standing and watching the ship draw closer to them. They weren’t dark skinned like the islanders in the books Erica had read, and seemed to have mostly dark hair, in browns or blacks. Their clothes were foreign, but did not look savage: the men seemed to be wearing tunics of various colors, which ended around their knees and were belted at the waist, some covered in long coats that seemed almost like another, larger tunic rather than an accessory. They wore boots, which were, for some reason, brightly colored like the tunics. There weren’t any women in the group that stood on the beach, as far as Erica could see, but a larger crowd stood back a little farther, which included many women in long, tunic-like shirts and vibrantly colored skirts that didn’t reach the ground. Many of them had shawls wrapped around their shoulders, and wore sandals.

Erica wondered idly if they could see her yet, among all the sailors that surrounded her. She fiddled with the rim of her hat, pulling it down over her eyes. They were the only unusual thing about her, and always the first thing people noticed if they bothered to give her a second look.

“Girl. Girl!”

Erica blinked and drew back in a sharp movement, just before the captain grabbed for her again. She blinked up at him. “Yes Sir?”

“Get your things,” he spat. “I’m taking you ashore. Now.”

Erica counted five heartbeats of hesitation, staring at the captain and wondering if she had the courage to demand he take her back to Aiamas instead. Finally, she curtsied and ducked past him to get her things. No use wasting her breath on him, when she already knew what his answer would be; she might have to convince the island people to let her stay. And she had absolutely no idea what to do if they said no. Would the captain take her away again? Or leave her to the mercy of whatever the natives would do to her? If only she knew why she was here, she might have some idea what she was supposed to do. She felt like she'd been instructed to walk along a steep cliff at night, without being told what it was she was trying to find or reach there.

The ship had stopped by the time she had all of her bags above deck, and the sailors were all standing about, staring at the island. Someone asked if they were going ashore, and Erica heard someone else swear at him, saying no sane man would set foot on the isle of storms.

The captain was standing by a ladder, which would take them down to the small boat to be carried ashore. He ordered a sailor to carry her bags down, and stood silently, glaring at the island.

“Sir,” Erica tried, but he growled for her to keep quiet. The sailor came up for another bag, then vanished over the ship’s edge again.

“She was right,” the captain grunted softly. Erica looked up at him. “Blasted right,” he went on. “Can’t believe it.”

“If you didn’t think we could make it, why did you come?” Erica pressed him.

“Cargo shouldn’t ask questions. You’re the loudest, most troublesome cargo I’ve carried, Girl. The nosiest too.” He rapped his knuckle against the railing. “Yo, boy, we don’t have all day!” he shouted down at the sailor, who popped back up a moment later, grabbing the last of the bags and scrambled down again.

Erica shuffled her feet. “I only want to know--”

“Yeah, me too,” the captain growled. “There. Now, get down there. I’ll join you as soon as I’ve got my gun ready.”

“You’re going to shoot someone?” Erica demanded, eyes widening.

“Don’t know.” He gestured towards the people on the beach. “Ain’t going ashore a strange land unarmed. Now get down there or I’ll toss you.”

Erica scrambled over the edge and climbed down, ignoring the roughness of the rope against her bare hands as they slid down the ropes in the ladder. Wind blew through her hair, and she nearly lost her hat on the way down. At last, she settled herself into the little boat, among her bags, and drew her knees tight against her chest. A moment later, the captain joined her and took up the oars, grunting irritably when she tried to speak. A long gun rested in the boat next to him.

Erica peered over the little boat’s edge, forcing herself to breathe evenly. The water was far closer here. She reached out and let her hand trail in the white foam that appeared around the boat as it moved. It was cold, and felt alive as it moved around her hand, pushing against her.

“Stop that, Girl,” the captain snapped, and Erica jerked her hand back into the boat. She let her gaze drift around to anything but the man in the boat with her, shivering. She hoped the rain, light as it was, wouldn’t damage her books through the bags. The sky was grey, but the clouds weren’t all that thick, and in some places she could see blue through them, where beams of light fell on the ocean waves.

“Keep quiet,” the captain growled, breaking Erica from her thoughts. She blinked at him, indignant.

“I haven’t said anything.”

“Not now,” he scoffed. “When we’re ashore, blast it. Keep to yourself ‘till I say so, got that?”

Erica glanced at the nearing shore and nodded. At least the captain might know what he was doing. She certainly didn’t.

The bottom of the boat scraped against the sand and the captain climbed out, dragging the boat a little ways up the beach. He grabbed the gun, and strode up the beach towards the men, leaving Erica alone in the boat. There were only about five of them who stood down on the sand, most of whom were rather plump, and wore bits of silver jewelry. One of them wore a sort of necklace of gold.

Erica watched the men start to talk, feeling useless among her bags. She might as well at least go and listen to them; perhaps she would actually learn something that way. She stepped out of the boat, ignoring the water that immediately soaked through her shoes and stockings, giving her feet the general feeling of being carved from ice. Some of the men looked at her, but their attention was mostly captivated by the captain. No one moved to stop her as she quietly stepped up to the group.

“--the storms would stop. That’s all I know ‘bout the blasted thing,” the captain was growling. “Don’t know where it came from; didn’t know it was yours.”

The men seemed disturbed, looking at each other with worry. Many of them looked back towards the island, or out at the steamship in their waters.

“Who gave it to you then?” the man with the gold jewelry demanded. “It must have come from somewhere.” He wore a green tunic, cut at the bottom in a pattern much like castle turrets. The dragon symbol on the flag had a similar design to its wings. His hair was slightly grey, but mostly black. It was long, and combed back over his head, ending just passed his shoulders.

“Blast it if I know who she was,” the captain spat. “But you’d have listened to her too. Dunno what’s wrong with--” he cut off, finally noticing Erica standing behind him. “Girl! I told you to stay back, you rotten thing,” the captain roared, and Erica tried to stumble back as he grabbed her arm and jerked her forwards. Tears sprung up unbid as he shook her. “Can’t you do nothing right? You useless piece of--”

“Let go of me,” Erica gasped, trying to pull away.

“Release her,” the man in gold scolded, reaching forwards, but before the captain could respond, the crowd of people further back split, making a path for a man to walk through. He strode out to the beach, and everyone turned to face him.

He was white haired, but Erica could see right away that he wasn’t old. His features were that of a seventeen or eighteen year old, his skin a clay-brown shade, darker than any of those around him, and he wore a pale blue tunic with a yellow belt and matching blue boots, along with bronze-colored breeches. No jewelry adorned him, but his sharp features held authority. His eyes were glittering silver, as though the iris had been carved from a polished coin.

“White Dragon,” the man with the gold said, stepping back after only a moment’s hesitation. The silver eyed man nodded to him, and turned to face the captain and Erica. He reached out and grabbed Erica’s free wrist, gently drawing her away from the captain, who let go after a slight pause.

“Kokoro,” the man called White Dragon said, ignoring Erica’s stare. “Have you learned anything?”

“He claims a woman gave him the flag, saying it would protect the ship,” the man with the gold answered. “And that she commanded him to bring the girl here.”

“Really?” White Dragon glanced at Erica, and his silver eyes widened as their gazes met. He let go of her wrist, letting her step back and look away, flushing with confusion. He was looking at her eyes, which glittered a metallic gold.

She’d never seen anyone else, before, with eyes like hers, and he seemed almost equally surprised to find the trait in her.

“Who are you?” he asked. His voice wasn’t angry, but it held authority. Erica pulled at her hat’s rim, wishing she could hide her eyes from sight. But once people saw them, they seemed to be all they saw in her.

“My name is Erica, Sir,” she said. “Erica Barnett.”

“Erica Barnett,” he echoed. “Do you know what your flag means?”

She glanced towards the ship, where the red flag drifted in the wind. “No. I’ve never seen it before today; the sailors say it stopped the storm, somehow.”

White Dragon studied her, his silver eyes flicking back and forth over her face for a moment as he considered her words. Something about those eyes absolutely unnerved her. She ought to be thrilled to meet someone else like her. Perhaps it was the authority and power in them, as he looked down at her; she felt as though he were looking straight through her to some secret core even she couldn’t see.

White Dragon finally looked away, back to the captain. “The woman who gave you our flag. Did she tell you what it stands for? Why has she sent Erica here?”

“I don’t know,” the captain scowled. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“Then why did you come?” The man called Kokoro demanded. “Surely you knew the danger.”

The captain turned to the plump man. “Because,” he sneered. “Blasted woman made it abundantly clear that it was in my best interest to get the girl out here. And that’s all I’ll say about it; she didn’t want any talk from me, and I know better than to mess with that kind of patron. If I ever get a death wish, I’ll come back out and tell you all about the damned--” he cut off with a sudden, choking sound. For a moment, Erica thought he’d suffered a heart attack, but he wasn’t the only one. The people in the larger crowd were already crumbling to their knees, and the men on the beach, including the captain, all followed suit.

Only White Dragon and Erica remained standing. She turned around, searching for some cause, her heart picking up speed as she found nothing. White Dragon’s back was to her, his gaze on the crowd, his hands tightly holding each other behind his back. Out of the crowd appeared a little girl, maybe six or seven years old, with clay-dark skin and smooth black hair combed smoothly down her back. She wore a little tunic, colored gray with black dots, and a pale gray-blue skirt that brushed the ground. A single red stripe decorated the skirt, leading down to a thin, scarlet border around the bottom. Her eyes were thin, and her features sharp. Silver glittered from her eyes, like metal pressed into her face.

“Great Scarlett,” White Dragon muttered. “You couldn’t wait ten minutes…” He seemed to realize the child’s gaze wasn’t on him and followed it, turning to face Erica. A look of shock crossed his features as he saw her standing. “How are you doing that?” he asked, eyes wide with amazement. Erica shook her head, confused.

“Doing… what?”

“That’s not possible,” he breathed. “Have you… have you seen others like us before? Do you know who we are?”

Erica shook her head again. “I-- I don’t know what you mean. It’s just a little girl, isn’t it? I mean, isn’t she?”

His expression was disbelieving for a moment, and he turned to look at the child again. “Kokoro,” he said. “Erica can stay. Could you find her somewhere to stay?”

The man with gold jewelry swallowed, looking up from where he knelt. “I- yes, of course, White Dragon.”

“Good. I’ll come talk to you tomorrow.” His gaze fell to the captain. “And I want that ship gone by then, as well.” He turned to look at Erica one last time, then strolled back towards the crowd. The child, who was still staring at Erica, found herself scooped into the arms of White Dragon. She pointed back towards the beach, but he didn’t stop, and after a moment they were gone from sight.

Erica was left, a lone standing figure surrounded by men on their knees.

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About Genevieve Ann Atwater

Genevieve is an aspiring author who has been dabbling in the arts of storytelling and writing for almost as long as she remembers. She writes mostly in the fantasy genre, and is working towards publishing a romance novel (hopefully within the next year).

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