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OF OATHS AND STONE

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CHAPTER 1: UNFULFILLED PROMISES

 

High in the cold lands of the north, though not as far as those of the midnight sun, a stone castle stood wrapped in the mist of a cold autumn morning. Kara Zor-El, last daughter of the House of El, climbed wide stone stairs slick with overnight rain. She stopped before a crumbling rampart of the castle that had been her home since the summer solstice.  Abandoned for centuries, this castle and its keep sat high on a small island in the heart of a large dark lake.

Kara stared across the island’s scattered treetops at a view that had remained unchanged for who knew how long. The rays of the sun weren’t as strong at this time of year but she still felt them soak into her skin. The smell of the damp earth and the crisp forest, both lightly bruised by the earlier rain, blended with the scents of woodsmoke and the sea and soothed her growing melancholy. Simple comforts to ease the passing of one more day in a string of hundreds spent alone.

Time passed in uneven segments as she stood. Waves rolled and rushed at the water’s edge, gulls dove for fish, and the shadows changed and lengthened as the day passed. The late afternoon sky reminded Kara of times long lost, long before she’d come to this island, before she’d wandered from village to village looking for solace or even a warm meal and a clean bed, before she’d scrabbled for scraps between persecutions, before the first warm touch of this sun seared her skin with possibilities beyond imagination, before she set her first foot on Earth.

The sunset’s riot of red, orange and fiery yellow reminded her of the doomed final days of her home planet, Krypton.

Her skin cooled as the sun passed beyond the treetops. Kara came back to herself with a sigh and turned towards the keep.

She’d made her quarters in the highest room in the castle. With only a wide sleeping cot and a large chair, the room was otherwise bare. Kara glanced at the stacked wood in the fireplace and released an astounding burst of fiery visual energy igniting a roaring fire in seconds.

As she did every night at dusk, Kara sat as still as the stone castle’s walls, staring into the flames and listening to the sounds of the island, the distant shores and faraway woods.

For the third day in a row, she had not ventured away from the island. Instead, she had reflected on her mission and assessed her failures. The hours spent in meditation had yielded no guidance for a path forward.

Somewhere on this beautiful and dangerous planet, her cousin Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, needed her protection. Kara had promised not to fail him or her parents but their space-worthy escape pods had been separated soon after leaving their home world. While she herself had landed in this high country on Earth, she had no idea where her cousin’s had fallen, and soon after her arrival she had been singled out by the people of Earth for her strangeness. It had taken a long time for her to begin her search.

For the last ten years, she had combed every league of land on this planet, this Earth, for any sign of her cousin or his ship but had found nothing. She hadn’t even found proof of the technologically developed civilization that her parents had promised would await her. Kara hadn’t expected any place to be as advanced as Krypton, but this planet had little scientific exploration, only the barest of rudimentary medicine, and no electricity let alone computing power. Earth was archaic, and its inhabitants disconnected, disease-ridden and close-minded.

For all that, Earth held beauty beyond description, even if it wasn’t home.

Lost without her mission, Kara passed the days alone desperately searching for a new path to no avail. Every night found her atop this solitary ruin, staring at the sky and wondering how long she could go on alone. Her mother, Alura, had promised so many years ago to be with Kara in her dreams.

Now, Kara could only remember the outlines of her mother’s face.

When the fire burned out and even the wind fell silent, Kara wrapped her thick worn cloak around her arms and covered her legs. She tilted her head against the chair’s back and fell into a restless sleep where she dreamt of pain and misery, of fire and almost forgotten stars.

 

***

 

A shrill cry on the wind woke Kara before dawn.

Alert in less than the span of a breath, she searched in the direction of the cry’s source. It was the sound of a predator in pain, but she’d seen nothing of a size to make that sound in months - and nowhere near here.

Movement in the sky caught her attention. To the north, something flew over the forest.

Her powerful vision overcame the limited light and the incalculable distance. A small dragon lurched and pitched in flight. One wing appeared wounded and dark splotches of blood shimmered against its pale hide.

When it pivoted south and west, Kara saw a human form on its back. Sprawled along the dragon’s misshapen spine, dressed in the torn robes of a noblewoman, someone clung to the dragon as it lumbered in flight. Her face was hidden but she appeared to be in worse condition than her mount.

Another pained screech split the sound of the wind as the dragon pivoted south and west. The woman slipped from the dragon’s back and plunged toward the forest below.

Kara’s chair crashed to the floor as she took flight. She defied Earth’s gravity as she flew faster than the speed of sound, racing the woman’s fall to the earth.

The woman crashed into a tall treetop and Kara flew faster, changing her trajectory. Branches disintegrated as she flew through them, twigs and leaves catching in her hair. She landed with a crash, just in time to leap up and catch the woman. They collided in mid-air and the woman shouted and sobbed in agony at the contact.

“I’m so sorry,” Kara said, her voice little more than a sleep-deprived croak as she sank slowly to the ground at the edge of a clearing. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Matted waist-length hair tangled around the woman’s face, shoulders and arms, and her half-lidded green eyes were bright with fever. She coughed and blood stained her lips. Across the clearing, the dragon crashed, rolling over boulders and kicking up huge clumps of dirt. A gross sickly crunch signaled a broken limb before the dragon came to a stop, screaming its agony.

“Aithusa,” the woman cried, pushing against Kara’s unyielding limbs, trying to reach out to the animal.

“Shh. You’re tearing at your wounds.” Kara cradled the bleeding woman in her arms. “I’ll take you somewhere safe. Then I’ll tend to your beast.”

She started to turn her back on the dragon, but the woman’s fierce glare stopped her.

“If you hurt her,” the woman said, blood liquifying her words. She strained to raise one hand, clasped Kara’s tunic and tugged it as tautly as she could manage in her condition. “I’ll kill you.”

Kara believed the sincerity of the woman’s threat, but there was no time to explain such a thing was impossible - not if she was going to save this woman’s life.

Fury spent, the woman collapsed in Kara’s arms, her head lolling backward in unconsciousness.