Jain Stehr stood atop a snowy mountain vista, taking in the icy canyon before her.
Behind, even higher peaks rose to kiss the sky. Below, hundreds of bundled villagers hurried their carts and children up the jagged mountain passageways to seek shelter in makeshift caves throughout the range. She watched as the villagers’ carts trundled along the haphazard pathways, tumbling over into the abyss below as often as not. She sent them a silent wish of good fortune, and hoped they would hurry along their paths without losing their lives in the pursuit.
Ice stalagmites jutted up at wayward angles all along the cavern, ending in sharp, skewering spikes. They seemed to glow with a soft preternatural blue hue giving off just enough light to avoid total darkness; it was as if the stalagmites were powered by a source just underground.
The villagers took to the caves for fear of the coming snowstorm. Light snows were common in the north, and the villages here had adapted. They’d learn to grow food that took to the colder climate, and graze only the animals that thrived in the cold. But a snowstorm like that which now threatened could destroy their way of life in a single afternoon.
As if in warning, a blitzkrieg of lightning lit the sky. The villagers had much to fear from it. Jain did not.
She was too busy fearing the coming fire.
Jain wore black leather from head to toe, cured and softened from age and use, along with goose-feather lined gloves and cow-hide boots. A harness laced with six spell-forged daggers hung across her chest. Her sword belt lay across her hips and matching black leather skirt.
The skirt had tassels that widened as they grew closer to her middle, meeting in a thick diamond shape. She wore a thick, black cloak with snow leopard fur around the neck. More weapons and ammo hung from pockets around her back.
Snow began to fall and stream down her freckle-flecked face. She shook flakes from her shoulder-length crimson hair and breathed in the cold. Let it chill her inside and out. She closed her eyes and prayed.
Gaial be good, protect the villagers, she prayed to Gaial, the Sire, her god. And, if you’re in a generous mood, protect me, too.
Inside her cloak, Jain’s Spark, the pocket-sized, magical keep used to imprison creatures and bind them to the owner, turned hot and threatened to burn through the Codex, the magical scroll that kept her Spark secure, through her leather, and ascend skyward on its own.
She instinctively checked her sword, her daggers, her pouch of explosive petrol.
The snow began to melt before landing on her cheeks. The air sizzled.
Jain turned her gaze skyward but saw only the light of a thousand miniature suns, bursting across a gray sky. Dazzling light reflected off the snow and momentarily blinded her before her eyes adjusted. The suns weren’t suns at all, but thousands upon thousands of rubies, burning bright with pure magic. They took the form of an outline.
Rubis, the ruby gemstone dragon soared through the lightning above her.
With the speed of the assassin she was, she grabbed the repeating crossbow that hung from her belt, installed it on her arm, and fired. Ten diamond-tipped bolts raced across the sky.
With one mighty flap of its ruby-rimmed wings, Rubis sent most of the crossbows to the bottom of the canyon.
Three met their mark, chipping off an equal amount of rubies.
Rubis bellowed, shaking snow from the mountaintops above. The tallest stalagmites thawed and shuddered underneath the dragon’s pressure; an avalanche overtook the side of the mountain above Jain as even more snow fell upon the villagers below.
The range rumbled as ice and snow fell upon her.
But Jain — she didn’t notice the oncoming death from above.
She had eyes only for the rubies as they plummeted below, each worth their weight in royal Skales, the golden currency accepted anywhere in the world.
She smiled, and jumped as the bulk of the avalanche exploded onto the spot she’d been standing seconds before, dissipating into vapor and hail under Rubis’s heat.
Jain twirled in the sky as she fell, her cloak and skirt-tassels whirling around her. She let out a yelp of joy as she narrowly avoided skewering by a still-melting ice stalagmite; this is what she lived for. Assassinating human targets had its fun, sure, but dragon hunting offered an excitement like nothing else.
With one hand, she flung three daggers from their harnesses; with the other, she took the burning, card-sized Spark from the Codex scroll affixed to the inside of her cloak and flung it.
Each of the daggers glanced off of a falling, glowing ruby. The rubies exploded in light and heat and formed teeth and wings and claws and eyes made of fire.
Fire emanated outward from the rubies, forming three dragon whelp spirits with the glowing stones as their hearts.
The whelp spirits roared as they took life and charged at the still-falling Jain.
“Hadn’t expected that,” she said. “Good to know, though.
“Amina!” she yelled, the tips of her hair starting to burn as the whelps approached. “Showtime!”
With that, darkness rippled across the Spark, energy radiating from its center.
Streaks of shadow erupted from the energy. Scales and flesh and spikes and wings formed from the Spark as Amina, the Black Obsidian dragon emerged; the Spark hardened and formed the black obsidian heart at her center.
The fire whelps imploded on Amina’s hide in bursts of embers. Amina roared with the rage of the wrongly imprisoned.
And yet, Jain had rightfully captured her with a Spark made from her own Rust — the building blocks of magic, formed from her very soul and the texture of the universe — and so, as long as it existed, Amina was soul-bound to her.
The black dragon caught Jain mid-air and roared again as it took after Rubis.
The villagers below left their carts, scooped up their children, and ran for shelter.