"Do you feel it, boy? Do you feel the mist preparing?"

Darius en Kragin squeezed his eyes tightly closed, his tutor's words echoing in his mind. Did he feel it? Gods, yes. Even though he was only eight seasons, he felt it. Felt his skin prickle with cold, felt the sickening wave of acid in his throat as the mist enveloped him. He even felt his veins quicken with a deceptively sweet, swirling essence that was not his own.

Fighting the urge to bolt up the cavern steps and into the palace above, he tensed his muscles and fisted his hands at his sides.

I must stay. I must do this.

Slowly Darius forced his eyelids to open. He released a pent-up breath as his gaze locked with Javar's. His tutor stood shrouded by the thickening, ghostlike haze, the bleak walls of the cave at his back.

"This is what you will feel each time the mist summons you, for this means a traveler is nearby," Javar said. "Never stray far from this place. You may live above with the others, but you must always return here when called."

"I do not like it here." His voice shook. "The cold weakens me."

"Other dragons are weakened by cold, but not you. Not any longer. The mist will become a part of you, the coldness your most beloved companion. Now listen," he commanded softly. "Listen closely."

At first Darius heard nothing. Then he began to register the sound of a low, tapering whistle-a sound that reverberated in his ears like the moans of the dying. Wind , he assured himself. Merely wind . The turbulent breeze rounded every corner of the doomed enclosure, drawing closer. Closer still. His nostrils filled with the scent of desperation, destruction and loneliness as he braced himself for impact.

When it finally came upon him, it was not the battering force he expected, but a mockingly gentle caress against his body. The jeweled medallion at his neck hummed to life, burning the dragon tattoo etched into his flesh only that morning.

He crushed his lips together to silence a deep groan of uncertainty.

His tutor sucked in a reverent breath and splayed his arms wide. "This is what you will live for, boy. This will be your purpose. You will kill for this."

"I do not want my purpose to stem from the deaths of others," Darius said, the words tumbling from his mouth unbidden.

Javar stilled, a fiery anger kindling in the depths of his ice-blue eyes, eyes so unlike Darius's own-unlike every dragon's. All dragons but Javar possessed golden eyes. "You are to be a Guardian of the Mist, a king to the warriors here," Javar said. "You should be grateful I chose you among all the others for this task."

Darius swallowed. Grateful? Yes, he should have been grateful. Instead he felt oddly... lost. Alone. So alone and unsure. Was this what he truly wanted? Was this the life he craved for himself? His gaze skimmed his surroundings. A few broken chairs were scattered across the dirt and twig-laden ground. The walls were black and bare. There was no warmth, only cold, biting reality and the lingering shadow of hopelessness. To become Guardian meant pledging his existence, his very soul to this cave.

Gaze narrowed, Javar closed the distance between them, his boots harmonizing with the drip, drip of water. His lips pulled in a tight scowl, and he gripped Darius's shoulders painfully. "Your mother and father were slaughtered. Your sisters were raped and their throats slit. Had the last Guardian done his duty, your family would still be with you."

Pain cut through Darius so intensely he nearly clawed out his eyes to blacken the hated images hovering before them. His graceful mother twisted and bent, lying in a crimson river of her own blood. The bone-deep gashes in his father's back. His three sisters... His chin trembled, and he blinked away the stinging tears in his eyes. He would not cry. Not now. Not ever.

Mere days ago, he had returned from hunting and found his family dead. He had not cried then. Nor had he shed a tear when the invaders who plundered his family were slaughtered in retribution. To cry was to show weakness. He squared his shoulders and raised his chin.

"That's right," Javar said, watching him with a glint of pride. "Deny your tears and keep the hurt inside you. Use it against those who hope to enter our land. Kill them with it, for they only mean us harm."

"I want to do as you say. I do." He glanced away. "But-"

"Killing travelers is your obligation," Javar interrupted. "Killing them is your privilege."

"What of innocent women and children who mistakenly stumble through?" The thought of destroying such purity, like that of his sisters, made him loathe the monster Javar was asking him to become-though not enough to halt this course he had set for himself. To protect his friends, he would do whatever was asked of him. "May I set them free on the surface?"

"You may not."

 

"What harm can children do our people?"

"They will carry the knowledge of the mist with them, ever able to lead an army through." Javar shook him once, twice. "Do you understand now? Do you understand what you must do and why you must do it?"

"Yes," he replied softly. He stared down at a thin, cerulean rivulet that trickled past his boots, his gaze following the gentleness and serenity of the water. Oh, that he possessed the same serenity inside himself. "I understand."

"You are too tender, boy." With a sigh, Javar released him. "If you do not erect stronger defenses inside yourself, your emotions will be the death of you and all those you still hold dear."

Darius gulped back the hard lump in his throat. "Then help me, Javar. Help me rid myself of my emotions so that I might do these deeds."

"As I told you before, you have only to bury your pain deep inside you, somewhere no one can ever hope to reach it-not even yourself."

That sounded so easy. Yet, how did one bury such tormenting grief? Such devastating memories? How did one battle the horrendous agony? He would do anything, anything at all, to find peace.

"How?" he asked his tutor.

"You will discover that answer on your own."

Magic and power began swirling more intently around them, undulating, begging for some type of release. The air expanded, coagulated, leaving a heady fragrance of darkness and danger. A surge of energy ricocheted across the walls like a bolt of lightning, then erupted in a colorful array of liquid sparks.

Darius stilled as horror, dread and yes, anticipation sliced a path through him.

"A traveler will enter soon," Javar said, already tense and eager.

With shaky fingers, Darius gripped the hilt of his sword.

"They always experience disorientation at first emergence. You must use that to your advantage and destroy them the moment they exit."

"I'm not ready. I cannot-"

"You are and you will," Javar said, a steely edge to his tone. "There are two portals, the one you are to guard here and the one I guard on the other side of the city. I am not asking you to do anything I would not-and have not done-myself."

In the next instant, a tall man stepped from the mists. His eyes were squeezed shut, his face pale, and his clothing disheveled. His hair was thick and silvered, and his tanned skin was lined with deep wrinkles. He had the look of a scholar, not of war or evil.

Still trembling, Darius unsheathed his weapon. He almost doubled over from the sheer force of his conflicting emotions. A part of him continued to scream to run away, to refuse this task, but he forced himself to remain. He would do this because Javar was right. Travelers were the enemy, no matter who they were, no matter what their purpose.

No matter their appearance.

"Do it, Darius," Javar growled. "Do it now."

The traveler's gaze jolted open. Their eyes suddenly clashed together, dragon gold against human green. Resolve against fear. Life against death.

Darius raised his blade, paused only a moment-then struck. Blood splattered his bare chest and forearms like poisoned rain. A gargled gasp parted the man's lips, then slowly, so slowly, his lifeless body sank to the ground.

For several long, agonizing moments, Darius stood frozen by the fruit of his actions. What have I done? What have I done ! He dropped the sword, distantly hearing a clang as the metal thudded into the dirt.

He hunched over and vomited.

Surprisingly, as he emptied his stomach, he lost the agony inside him. He lost his regret and sadness. Frigid ice enclosed his chest and what was left of his soul. He welcomed and embraced the numbness until he felt only a strange void. All of his heartache-gone. All of his suffering-gone.

I have done my duty.

"I am proud of you, boy." Javar slapped his shoulder in a rare show of affection. "You are ready to take your vows as Guardian."

As Darius's shaking ceased, he straightened and wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. "Yes," he said starkly, determinedly, craving more of this detachment. "I am ready."

"Do it, then."

Without pausing for thought, he sank to his knees. "In this place I will dwell, destroying the surface dwellers who pass through the mist. This I vow upon my life. This I vow upon my death." As he spoke the words, they mystically appeared on his chest and back, black and red symbols that stretched from one shoulder to the other and glowed with inner fire. "I exist for no other purpose. I am Guardian of the Mist."

Javar held his stare for a long while, then nodded with satisfaction. "Your eyes have changed color to mirror the mist. The two of you are one. This is good, boy. This is good."