Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
I forced a slow and calming breath, but it didn't work. Fury burned deep in my heart. I wanted to do violence. Lareth deserved to die, but the king just barely less. And Othin with him. I turned my hateful gaze back to my door and felt my lips pull back from my teeth. These men could not hold me. I tried to fight it down, to reach for sanity, but rage washed over me like ocean waves, and I could barely even catch a breath.
And then I understood. I felt it, coming not from me but from that spark within my mind. I closed my eyes and drew a breath, and felt the exhilaration and fury of a predator on the prowl. It buzzed in my veins, it put strength in my arms, but it was not my own. I walled it off, forced it back. I reclaimed my mind and felt the bloodlust fade.
Then I reached thoughts toward the spot and asked it, "
Vechernyvetr. Is that you?"
My own pet wizard
, the dragon answered, its voice deep and distant in my head.
Oh, you will enjoy this night. Blood will flow.
"Are you close?"
"I need your help. Right now. Tonight. I call your debt."
Oh, but death is in the air.
The words came rich with ecstasy, and I heard a thin, piercing cry far out in the night. Another answered it, and a moment later another. I felt a little pulse of anticipation from the dragon.
A gathering of arms like I have never seen, and at its heart a working of man and magic brighter than the sun.
The king. I shivered.
"You're drawn to power,"
To human power, yes. To scatter and destroy. I'll burn his army to the ground—
"There is another, worse. The wizard Lareth. The one I told you of. He has a thousand men—"
I see their stain
, the dragon said, uninterested.
They are a spot beside the sea, a star against the sun.
I could feel the thoughts growing stronger as the dragon flew closer. It screamed again, piercing the night, and I imagined I could see it moving against the stars in the middle distance.
I taste their fear
, it said.
A city full of men to set aflame.
My heart began to beat faster.
"Would you destroy me too?"
You're wrapped in stone and steel
, the dragon said.
I see you. I see your pain and fear. I'll show you better things. I'll show you what it's like to kill and burn.
Violence and blood. I remembered the promise the dragon had made beside the farmer's pond.
I thought, making it a command.
"Tear me from my cage and pay my price. I need your violence and blood."
You would take me from this fight?
it asked, disbelief and betrayal behind the words.
First let me kill the king! I see him, high above the earth, wrapped in stone that I could tear like leaves, and wrapped in spells that I could shed like water. He will be fun to slay.
Even held at bay, the dragon's bloodlust bubbled in a corner of my soul. I could feel the same pleasure the beast anticipated, the surge of power and pride at crushing out a life that blazed as brightly as the sun. A predator spirit within me wanted to crush the man who had imprisoned me here.
Another colder part of me considered the possibility as well. Let him do what he meant to do. It was a force of nature, not my hand, that would kill the king. It would be enough for Lareth, though. It would be enough to save Isabelle, and no blood on my hands. I only had to wait, which was the only option the king or his Knight-Captain had given me.
Just wait and Lareth would give me my reward. The injustices done me would be settled. I felt the dragon closer still, felt its hunger bright and hot within my mind. Moments yet, and it would be over. Then I could go and claim my prize.
My prize. I thought of Isabelle. Lareth couldn't give me her. No man could offer her. She'd called me her hero, for this. For now. I thought of Themmichus, her brother, who had shown me kindness when no one else would. I thought of Claighan who had brought me into all of this to save the kingdom from pressing darkness. I thought of Joseph, who had brought me back from death and sent me off to save the king. I thought of the chaos that would fall all across the land if the king were to die this night.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and stretched my will toward the beast as though it were a breeze I meant to bend.
"Come for me,"
"Leave off the hunt. There's more important work to do."
I pressed against it like a child trying to topple an ancient oak. I could not have forced the dragon with all my might, and yet it budged.
Oh, very well,
it said. I sensed a petulance that felt quite out of place in a force of nature, but acquiescence, too.
But you must give me blood.
"Oh, there is blood,"
I thought. My stomach turned at what lay ahead, but I set my jaw and turned toward the south.
"There's blood enough to spill."
Then come to me,
the dragon said.
Come, and we shall fly.
With the words I heard the thunder of its wings. It roared outside my cell, and without the strength of dragons in my veins I would have fallen to the earth and cowered. The bellow split the air and rang against the steel bars of my cage. It rumbled in my chest and made me weak.
And others answered. More even than the two I'd heard before. Half a dozen bellows broke the night.
"How many are here?"
"Is this the dragonswarm?"
Vechernyvetr answered me with a chuckle that rumbled in my chest like its bellow had.
This is not the waking, child. This is half a flight, a tiny hunt. The waking comes, but this is just a taste.
I heard the screams of men. I heard stone shatter and the roar of dragons in full flight.
"They'll kill us all!"
They wouldn't mind,
So come quickly. If we must leave, then let us leave.
"But the city!"
"We can't just leave them to die."
There's soldiers here and wizards enough to give my brothers chase,
They can do far more than you.
"I can't just leave—"
Where armies gather, men will die,
the dragon said.
That much is beyond your control. You decide for you. And for me, tonight.
I felt its resentment at that, but it snorted just outside my window and I felt the heat of it through the window.
Are you coming, or can I go and kill the king?
I nodded. I took my second sight, and with a thought I tore the outer wall of my cell to sand. I stepped out through the gap and into a dark courtyard lit only by the flicker light of wildfire in buildings nearby. I shook my head.
"We cannot let them do this."
We cannot stop them,
the dragon said.
We can only choose another life to end.
The dreadful words fell like stones into my soul. I shivered once, and set my jaw. I turned my eyes to the south again and nodded.
"That man deserves to die."
I rushed to the dragon's side and reached a hand toward the plates beneath its shoulder, but it batted me away with a casual gesture. I fell three paces away and the monster rolled a baleful eye at me.
I am not
, it said in quiet contempt,
I climbed back to my feet, scowling across at the beast, then a thunder of flame and fury flashed by overhead. It was a ruby-red dragon, barely half the size of Vechernyvetr, but it was still terrifying. I flinched closer to the shade of the stone wall. I heard a shouted order in the direction it had flown and saw a volley of crossbow bolts slash up toward the dragon on the wing. I nodded toward it.
"They will fire on us, too,"
"It could mean my life if I'm hanging in your clutches again this time."
For a while the dragon said nothing. Then it rolled its massive eye, dropped one shoulder low to the ground, and snorted at me. I rushed to find a place at the base of the dragon's neck, hooking my ankles around spines on its collarbone and gripping tight to the armored hide. Before I'd fully caught my grip, the dragon sprang without warning. As we rose into the air, I saw the formation of the king's guard that had fired on the red. They spotted us, too, and a dozen crossbows snapped up in our direction.
I screamed, but the dragon was already moving. It banked away, tail slashing out behind us, and flapped its great wings twice to fling us high, high into the air. I heard the order barked again, but even the bolts of the Guard's heavy crossbows couldn't drag us from the sky. If any found the dragon's armored hide, the animal gave no indication. It certainly did not slow.
the dragon asked, but for a moment I said nothing. I lost my breath, staring down upon the city of Tirah from high above. Half a dozen dragons swarmed above it, flashing in and out like hummingbirds, hovering in place to rain down fire.
The city itself seemed mostly untouched. Houses, shops, and squares stretched out for miles around the replica palace, and though there was plenty of panic I didn't see a single fire among them. The dragons focused most of their attention on the palace, where soldiers rushed like ants. And farther out, outside the city's walls, the king's army washed out to the horizon in all directions. It was a camp like Lareth's, but cast across the earth as far as the eye could see. Ten thousand men. Or more.
Vechernyvetr's brothers fell among them like living chaos. I felt cold.
The dragon's voice intruded on my mind again.
Which way, little man? If you don't tell me soon I'm going back to kill the king.
"They'll kill him anyway, won't they?"
it said, but it didn't sound convinced.
They're younger wyrms and have no plan to work together. They'll have their fun, they'll spill some blood, but they will not do as I could have done.
I could hear the beast's regret at the missed opportunity.
I thought, then tried to form an image in my head.
"Toward the wizard's camp. You said you'd seen their stain—"
, the dragon said. It banked again, rolling on the wind, and I felt the dragon's thrill wash through to me. I embraced it, looking out over the sleeping world, and strained my eyes as the dragon bent its path south.
Are they prepared for me?
Will they expect a dragon?
I laughed at that.
"This land has barely seen a dragon in three thousand years."
The dragon's answer came slow and thoughtful.
It has not been quite so long as that.
"Even so, they wouldn't expect this. Not a planned assault. I was in their camp four hours ago, and they were half asleep."
These are warriors?
"Bandits, really, organized by a local lord. The worst among them is the wizard—"
I fear no wizard,
the dragon said.
I laughed. It had a hint of darkness to it and just a touch of madness.
"I look forward to seeing what you can do with this one. But first...."
I thought about what I'd seen in Tirah, the ordered camp beset by raging dragons, the city all in panicked disarray.
"But first, let's take his power. Scatter all his men. They're rabble and it must have been quite a feat to gather them."
I nodded to myself, seeing a real solution.
"If we can put them in flight, it will take months to build that threat again. Time enough for the king to end it."
The dragon weighed the plan for a moment. Then I saw its giant head dip in a little nod.
You ask a fair favor of me, Daven. I will serve you in this.
Far below me, the earth spread out like a map. I strained my eyes to see, but even by the light of moon and stars I caught only the barest impression of the land. After some time the dragon dropped lower, and I saw that it was following the twisting path of a river. I knew it—the same wide, slow river that I'd forded while following the rebels. Here, though, it cut a deep, straight path through harder rocky earth. It slashed south beside a hard-packed road and led toward the distant glow of a town.
And campfires like a starry constellation. I swallowed and felt the anticipation building in the dragon's heart. I shut my eyes and caught my breath then stared ahead at tents arrayed in scattered clusters entirely unlike the neatly ordered rows outside Tirah.
My stomach surged up into my throat when the dragon suddenly dove. A burst of my own terror broke through the dragon's hungry euphoria and tore out of me in a scream. The dragon answered me with a scream of its own, that soul-deep bellow that had shaken me in the palace of Tirah. But now I felt it closer, wilder, burning in my blood with the dragon's hunger and its rage.