Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
Then we were above the rebels' camp. We swept in from the northwest, far from Lareth's black tent, and I saw below me the tattered little tents of the footsoldiers. I saw the soldiers' faces, too, twisted with shock as they startled from their sleep. The dragon raked a claw at the earth, scattering a smaller camp, and I saw the weapons they had bent against the king, the cookpots full of food stolen from the nearby town. I saw men thrown dozens of paces across the earth, broken and bloodied. I saw their fear, and it tasted sweet in my lungs.
"Burn them down
," I thought, and the dragon dropped its jaw. Fire fell like rain across the earth, washing out over the tents and sending rebels running for the hills. Not one among them defied us. Not one stood his ground or tarried even long enough to grab a weapon. They ran like wild hares before a fire.
I thrilled at it until the dragon dipped closer to the ground and snapped a running soldier up in its mighty jaws. The man screamed once before the dragon swallowed it in a gulp. My stomach rose up again, in twisting nausea this time, and I shook my head to shake away the memory.
"Just scatter them,"
"Just chase them all away. We need not kill every one among them."
Violence and blood,
the dragon thought, sharp with reprimand.
That is the price of power.
It flew on, though, and swooped down on another stretch of camp that it scattered with another gout of flame. It swept its tail along behind us, snaking back and forth along the ground and scattering tents and men like so much dust.
While the dragon raged around the wide circle, I searched ahead. I scanned the horizon for any sign of the wizard's tent, and as we drew closer I fell into my second sight instead. The beacon light of the green flame hung bright and clear over Isabelle's tent. Orienting off that I found the wizard's tent, too, broad and black a hundred paces on. I pointed uselessly, and tried to guess how I could drag the beast's attention to it.
I needn't have bothered. Chaos held the camp now, soldiers washing ahead of us in terrified waves like cockroaches, but as we drifted toward the wizard's tent he came out calm and ready. The rebels passed him in a panic, but the wizard merely turned his head in our direction and raised a hand.
I brought my arms up to shield my eyes a heartbeat before fire flared. A searing bolt of white-hot flame lanced up to strike the dragon on its breastbone, less than a pace below my hands, and I gasped against the heat of it. But I felt no echo of pain from the dragon. Instead it screamed a roar of rage that should have driven Lareth to the earth.
The wizard merely turned and raised his other arm. I felt Vechernyvetr gulping air to burn, but the wizard before us twisted his hand, stabbing it upward, and I saw a cloud of abandoned blades flash up into the air. Swords and knives hurled toward the dragon like stones from a sling. Even as that wall of steel flew up the wizard turned and threw another blast of flame that melted to nothing in the depths of the dragon's black power.
But a sharp-edged sword barely missed my ankle before it buried itself hilt-deep in the dragon's shoulder. The beast convulsed, and hammers of pain slammed against the back of my mind as a dozen other bits of sharp steel stabbed through its hide. The stricken dragon bucked in mid-air and flung me from my perch.
I had a moment's warning before I hit the ground. I landed hard, rolled, and tried to throw myself back to my feet. Instead I stumbled and sprawled. I raised my head and shielded my eyes against the light from a gout of dragon's flame. I wrenched up to my feet, stumbled, but stayed upright. I took one step toward the wizard, hoping to hit him while he was distracted, but the dragon was already gone, flown past. I could feel astonishment and agony through the bond in the back of my head. Lareth had done more to hurt the dragon than either of us had thought possible.
I felt a fury peel back my teeth as I rushed toward the wizard. I fell into my second sight as I ran and gathered living flame like riverstones. A dozen paces away I let fly a ball of blistering flame, aiming for his head, and threw another right behind. I gathered dragonfire too in angry ropy waves and flung it at the wizard.
But as I watched, the flame fell back. It washed away. The wizard turned to me and all the fire I threw unraveled like my tattered hems and fell to shreds. I screamed in rage and snatched a skinning knife abandoned at a fireside. Still in stride, I brought my arm back and threw for his heart.
The knife flew straight and true, but Lareth shook his head. He wore that same smile. He flicked a hand as though he were swatting a pesky insect, and the knife skittered past him. Then he swung at me, from five paces away, and a burst of will that looked like wind met me like a battering ram and sent me sprawling.
The air went out of me. Pain flashed when I tried to catch my breath, and white-slashed darkness pressed in on my vision. I put a hand down to climb to my feet, but I couldn't find the strength. I fell on my back with a groan.
"Vech...Vechernyvetr, where've you gone?"
I cried. I could feel the dragon, not far off, but it was hurt. Hurt worse than it'd been when I found it by the farmer's pond.
I did not know....
it said and trailed off. I coughed a painful sob and tried again, and this time found at least my knees. I struggled up in time to see Lareth step up over me. He smiled, but there was murder in his eyes.
"You constantly surpass my every guess," the wizard said. "I've never even heard of aught like this. And still you fail." He shook his head and sighed. "And now you'll die."
"I've scattered your men," I said, and it came out a hiss. "I've broken you."
He laughed, deep and low. "You've barely scratched my skin," he said. "There's men enough who'll want what I can give. There's time enough to find another force. There's nothing really changed, except for you. You might have been a handy one, but I'll be safer with you dead."
I growled and reached for the threads of the campfire at my hand, but he frowned, he whispered, and that same agony exploded in my head. He nodded slowly, eyes stretched wide. "I am the end of war," he said. "Why can't you see? You will before you die. Not kings, not sorcery or steel can lay me low. Not dragons on the wing. Not living fire." He grinned, and there was madness in his eyes. "You should have killed the king or never have come back."
His eyes narrowed then, and he leaned closer. "Why did you come?" he said. "You have no love for death, I know that much. You'd barely come to wreak your wrath for the touch of pain I shared with you." And then his eyes snapped up, above me, to the tent. To Isabelle. "Aha!" he said, and I felt a stab of fury and terror.
"I came for you!" I shouted, hoping to draw his attention away from the girl.
He ignored me. "I can unfold the knot at will, you know," he said. "Another trick I could have taught to you. I'll burn the girl to ash for what you've done." He raised a hand toward the tent.
I threw myself at him. I lunged from near the ground and hit his knees with my left shoulder. He tripped and fell away, but as he went he cried. It wasn't a sound of fear or anger but of command. Even as he hit the ground his will lashed out at me like cruel whips. I ignored them, swinging fists in my fury, but he caught my arms in shackles made of air and crushed them to my sides.
I growled and without thinking reached out with my second sight again. It worked, somehow. The working he'd used to bind my arms must have robbed him of the will to bind my mind. I grabbed the fire's flame and threw it at his face. He screamed. He stumbled back. He wrenched the bonds that held my hands and swung one at my face, a phantom punch that sent me sprawling, but a heartbeat later he had to let them go to fight away the flames.
I pressed the essence of fire harder, hotter, while I struggled to my feet. I burned the sparkle from his eye and the smile from his mouth. The air reeked of burning flesh and rattled with his scream. He waved a slashing hand, and my mind exploded once again.
I fell to my knees beneath the pain, and the flame dissolved. It left behind a face half seared to black, pitted and cracked, smoldering red still in places and ashy white at the edges. His unburned nostril flared and his good eye flashed with rage. He stepped forward and swung a boot that took me in the face and sent me sprawling.
He stood over me, panting, and put his full weight behind a heel he drove against my chest. I couldn't catch my breath, could barely think, and he loomed above me like bitter death. He pointed a hand down at me, and I saw that it shook. "I'll break you, child. In body and in soul. I'll break you till you beg me for your death. I'll make you pay for everything you've done!"
I tried to snarl an answer, but he shook his head and waved a casual backhand that cracked a vicious blow of will against my jaw. Pain flashed behind my eyes, brighter than the stars above. I clung desperately to consciousness, blinking away the lights, and saw a shadow cross the starry sky.
I grinned. He struck me once again, but I laughed.
I ordered in my mind.
"Kill him now. Kill him, please!"
The dragon struck, fast as a cobra strikes. It fell to earth hard enough to shake the ground beneath my shoulder. It landed behind the wizard, wings still spread, and fangs as long as my arm flashed at the wizard's head. Somehow the wizard dodged them. He felt the dragon's presence, and he leaped away. He spun in the air, his arms lashing out, and once again a storm of hammered steel lashed through the air.
I screamed, "No!" I twisted up but I could not reach my feet. I leaned upon my knees and screamed again at the staccato bursts of pain as blade after blade drove deep into the dragon's armored hide. The mental defenses I had built collapsed. They washed away beneath the thunder of that pain, and the dragon's awareness flooded into me.
I felt its agony so sharp and hot it drew a sob from me. I felt its rage clenching my hands into fists. I felt its quiet, patient hunger, too. I opened my eyes and saw the world that the dragon saw. Blood flowing, life failing, I saw the tiny, fragile man before me. I snorted a hot huff of breath that exploded from my nose and drank a deep draught of air.
I had no fangs of my own, no fire within. I felt the dragon's strength beneath my weakness, its fury beneath my fear. I felt a power blind to deadly pain. Across from me, the dragon heaved itself onto its feet despite its injuries. I touched that same strength and rose up to my feet behind the wizard.
Time turned slowly. The wizard raised a hand, a gesture that seemed casual as it dragged through the air, but I would not let him slay the dragon. I reached down to my side where a sword should have been and snarled that there was nothing there. And then I grinned, fierce and terrible, and my power was upon me.
I reached out with my will and called it up. I felt the wizard's spell again, the explosion of pain within my mind for daring to touch elemental power. But there was a dragon in my head. I shared the pain with my fearsome ally, and man and beast we shrugged the pain away. There was killing still to do, and for that I needed fangs.
I stretched my empty hand toward the earth and poured my will into it. In beads as fine as crystal salt the earth reached up, pouring against gravity to form a shape beneath my hand. It made a simple hilt that molded to my hand. It stretched into a crosspiece and then stabbed out before me in a long, slender blade.
I took the campfire in my other hand and poured it over the blade. I bent the moving air to shape a cutting edge, to strip the point until it could pierce steel. Within a breath I made my sword, forged hot from living nature. Then I took it in my hand and called the wizard's name.
"Lareth!" I shouted, and he turned before he could make the killing blow. At first he only glanced and saw me there. His good eye opened wide in horror. He spun and there was power in his hands, glowing bright and hot, but I was not afraid. I brought my sword up in anger and in pain. I brought it down in violence and blood. It pierced the wizard through and pinned him to the ground. I roared. The dragon roared. The sounds were one.
And then the agony was gone. The surge of pain within my mind dissolved. The bright green flame above Isabelle's tent winked out. The wizard at my feet coughed blood and tried to smile. His hand fell limp. Panting for breath, I held his gaze and watched the life ebb out of him.
Just before it went, a heartbeat before he died, he breathed one word of power and disappeared.
I blinked. Blood slicked the ground and stained my earth-wrought sword. Fire roared behind me, all around me. I could smell the acrid smoke, the scent of death and destruction that lay upon the plain. I turned slowly and looked upon the dragon.
I thought, stunned.
He's broken and he's dead,
the dragon said.
His power's burned, and he cannot heal the way a dragon does.
With that thought came another wash of pain that drove me to my knees, and I had to gasp for breath before I could wall away the dragon's awareness again. I shook my head and ground my teeth until it passed.
Vechernyvetr shifted awkwardly before me, trying to settle its weight on injured legs. I saw the moonlight playing over the beast's hide, stitching it together again, but there was much that needed fixing. I stepped closer, compassion welling in me. The dragon snorted and rolled its cauldron eyes.
Spend no pity on me, little man. You're hurt worse than I, but we will both survive.
The dragon chuckled, deep and low.
You fight with fury. You could almost be my brother. You have my admiration.