Chapter 1: Kyra

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I write this by firelight. Behind me, my home burns. The great city, once the pinnacle of human achievement, is ashes now, a massive grave.

***

Caravan guards never expect an attack from above.

The thing swooped down silently, slamming into the rusted plate armor of the guard, crushing his chest. His two friends wheeled about, swords glinting in the moonlight. "Kazzim!" one of them shouted in disbelief and shock. "You'll pay for this!" he roared at the opponent. And then he noticed the horns jutting out from the hood of the assailant. "A...a demon?" he said, shocked. He didn't know that they wore cloaks. But what else could it be?

The figure paused, thin hunting knife stained in blood. The caravan, meanwhile, stopped, creaking ever so slightly as someone moved inside. The thing looked at the caravan, cloak rustling in the wind, before turning back toward the guards. The moonlight revealed a vague shape. The trees obscured too much of its light.

"Intruder!" one of them screamed with a forward thrust of his sword. The thing leaped to the side before another slice of the hunting blade let the night taste death and tainted the air with the iron scent of blood.

The other man whirled with his blade, eager to spill this creature's blood. "Quick! Kill it!" the guard shouted, anger giving him the fire to kill, fear giving his reflexes an edge.

The creature leaped onto the caravan. "I'm the monster?" it said, with a hint of humor. "I'm a monster on the outside." He chuckled. "I mean, the scales and horns are kind of frightening," the thing said.

"Now, you, however," the creature said, "are the real monsters. I know what these caravans carry. The families you people ruin...now that's monstrous. It's why you travel at night, isn't it? So no one sees you. You move from town to town, like a plague, slipping in, then out." He looked down at the caravan. "In my mind, it's a public service to kill you all." He held up one clawed hand. "I have a special place in my heart for kidnappers." His hand began to steam, the talons glowing a cherry red. "And it's not a very nice place."

The light from its claws illuminated it, if only for a second. The thing had a human-shaped chest, though a stripe down the front was covered with platelike scales where human hair would have grown. It had the lean musculature and grace of a deadly predator. But the face was what was scary.

There was a thin line of scales that went down from the center of his bottom lip, down his throat, before tapering off to a point right at the hollow at the base of the neck. Thinner stripes of scales did the same around the mouth, before tapering off halfway down the neck. The mouth led up to a flattish snoutlike nose, but it was the eyes that scared them. They had intelligence. This was no demon. This was a rational, thinking creature. One with amber eyes. Human eyes. A Changed.

But there was only one kind of Changed it could be. One person, known throughout the Kingdom of Alberion, known outside by legends and rumors. All the Rangers had legends about them. But he was one of the more notorious. Not the most, but pretty high up there. The guard stared as the Fever Blood Ranger, the infamous monster named Laidu, prepared to strike.

The figure leaped, and slammed into the guard again, knocking the sword away, and shoved the now-steaming hand into the guard's face. The guard, of course, did the most sensible thing; he screamed.

The driver jumped off the caravan front with a wickedly curved dagger in a white-knuckle grip. The man in Laidu's hand slumped to the ground, his face a charred mess. The horses surged and screamed, and the ties on their harnesses snapped. They galloped off, desperate to flee. They smelled a dragon, and the scent of such a dangerous predator would make any animal run.

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