There weren’t always dragons in the valley. The Red River Valley was once saturated with music, dances, and dueling griots who recited tale after tale seeking the loudest applause and praise from the gathered tribes. Applause that echoed down the valley’s copper cliffs and faded into the rocks, adding to the stones’ vast memory of all those who had dwelled within its might for thousands of years.
Kefiwe could still remember the stories her mother told her as they sat at the loom, stories about finding lost voices of their ancestors that dwelled deep in the cliffs’ fissures. Tales of hearing entire sagas recited by griots long past if she remained still in the night and listened to the stones singing to the wind.
There was no singing in the valley now. No music. No chorus of memory.
There was only fire, metal, and screams.
What would mother think if she could see her homeland now?
Kefiwe scoffed and pushed back the thought. What would Master Mfundo think if he sensed her getting lost in her memories? There was a time and place for such distractions, he would say in between strikes to her back with his ever-present switch, being out in the bush on the job was not one of them.
Kefiwe took a breath, reducing all memories of her mother’s touch, voice, and warmth to mist for now, and unslung father’s bow from her shoulder. She crouched near the edge of a wide copper cliff overlooking the valley while cupping her hands over her mouth. Her bird call swept through the occupied valley, informing her comrades she was in position. She drew the spyglass from her pack and took in the mining camp that had taken over the Red River Valley.
The camp cut through the valley like an open, rotting wound. Gone were the huts of stone and mud painted in a vast array of colors and designs like mother had told her. They had been replaced with meager gray tents that looked ready to collapse at the slightest wind. Men moved about the camp as if they were walking corpses. Dirt, dust, sweat, and blood both fresh and dried covered every surface of their bodies. They pushed and dragged carts of stone in perfect parallel precision while others hammered at the ground or the faces of the cliff formations. Children with twelve living years at most, shifted through the piles of rocks dumped by the men, hammering at the largest ones, and adding any rock that shined into their baskets, that they hauled on their small backs. What women Kefiwe saw staggered through the camp in a daze. Their only reaction came from a slight gasp when their overseers dragged them into the tattered tents. The screams from the tents barely earned a glance from the others.
Holes littered the entirety of the cliffs, with men and young boys descending into the dark, carrying pouches of black powder and torches. Explosions tore through cliffs, sending the rocks hurling into the camp. The miners fled the results of their work, reaching the surface covered in soot and burns. But rarely did all of them return.
All the while, their captors kept a close watch. The invaders’ red-scaled armor, pointed nasal helmets, and long black cloaks made them resemble a flock of dragons that mother said used to fill the skies, before the Owuo giants eliminated them. They certainly sounded like dragons with their deep, rapid-fire speech that echoed against the cliffs. If they weren’t arguing with each other about rations, smacking the captives about, or crawling into their tents for rest, they were planting their banner around every free surface they could find as if they were stones for a grand wall.
It was impossible to miss the invader’s banner, a golden two-headed dragon with massive wings, clutching a blue stone in its talon against a blazing red field. One head pointed up, reaching for the heavens, the other looked down, casting its fire upon the blue stone. By now, every man, woman, and child of Nahwalla could recognize the symbol of Izdubar the patron god of the invader, Shafiq Al-Qadir.
Kefiwe had seen that banner everywhere for the past ten years. It flew over conquered castles, occupied towns, shattered markets, and the charred remains of burned villages and its people. The spyglass trembled in her hand as the past clawed its way up her back, determined to invade her mind again. Kefiwe could already hear the screams of the priestess as Al-Qadir, and his Dragon Horde overtook the temple. She could already feel father pushing her into the arms of Master Mfundo, telling them both to run. She blinked and saw the temple engulfed in blue flames while Al-Qadir and the horde cheered. Her father, the sole survivor, dragged toward the so-called wielder of Izubar’s soul stone and forced to kneel. Her father spitting at Al-Qadir. Al-Qadir dismounting and taking a breath. His chest glowing bright red. His mouth filling with fire…...her father screaming……
A baboon call from the east pulled Kefiwe back to the valley. Her hands were shaking. She smacked them against the cliff, the sudden pain halting the advancing memories. The baboon call came again. Kefiwe struck her hands three more times for good measure. They would ache, swell, and make her aim atrocious for several days, but if everything went right, she and the others would be long gone beforehand.
“If everything goes right…...” Kefiwe scoffed, gathering herself and the spyglass that tumbled from her trembling hands. “Goddess above, when has that ever happened?”
It took six breaths before she felt steady enough to answer Mashaka’s call. She could already see the concern on the odd Owuo mystic’s face at her delayed reply. Her spyglass found the massive man’s form on top of a western cliff, distance allowing him to be easily mistaken for a boulder. He sat cross-legged, a faint azure glow engulfing his body. Kefiwe frowned at this. She had told him not to dive into his soul projection until Okon signaled he had found the book their patron was paying them a castle’s worth of gold to retrieve.
Kefiwe swept her spyglass back to the camp and found Okon hammering away at a cliffside. Sweat covered his wiry form. Fresh blood ran up his already marred limbs from previous jobs. Okon did not seem to notice the new wounds. He only acknowledged them when he added the fresh blood to the faded Red Spider tattoo on his shoulder. Kefiwe’s frown deepened. He was still deep in his guise as a captured miner and was nowhere close to the golden pavilion at the far end of the mining camp to make the switch.
A black plumed martial eagle swooped past her vision. The predator flapped over the cliffs and circled above Kefiwe before landing beside her. Kefiwe pursed her lips at the creature.
“Moriti, what is it?” she hissed at the eagle. “Get back in position, we only have one chance to pull this off!”
A sharp screech was Moriti’s reply.
Kefiwe glared at the creature. “You know I can’t understand you like this.”
Moriti returned the glare with its large amber eyes and sharp black pupils. The bird puffed its chest and screeched three times. A faint violet light flickered in its stomach before it engulfed the eagle’s form. Its wings grew twice their size and enclosed around Moriti. After four breaths, the wings separated and retracted into the back of a slender, slight, young girl with at least sixteen living years. Her round face and sharp chin almost resembled her small head and beak in her bird form.
“I said, we must pull back,” Moriti said, her deep amber eyes and sharp black pupils revealing her to be a Sky Child. “Our presence has been noted and passed on to General Hamzah. He’s on his way here with over two thousand men to flush us out.”
Kefiwe cursed under her breath. “How far?”
“Maybe ten miles,” Moriti said, her raspy voice barely louder than a whisper. “I’ve already informed Wonyo. He has the skiff prepared. If we leave now there will be no trace of us.”
Kefiwe squeezed her bow. “No book means no pay,” she muttered to the Sky Child. “And without pay, no one back in camp will eat.”
Moriti narrowed her grand eyes. “They will understand. We’ve gone weeks without food, what’s one more?”
Kefiwe rolled her eyes. “Well, Moriti, humans have this odd need to eat more than once a month to survive.”
“I’ve been among humans long enough to know this,” Moriti said, puffing her chest. “And I have observed the camp long enough to calculate our remaining supplies. With proper rationing, at least three quarters of the remaining refugees can survive with what we have left. Sixty-eight are likely to perish within seven days, regardless of your efforts here due to the significant deterioration of their bodies from starvation. This loss will enable the camp to move swiftly and find a new location before the invader finds us again. An acceptable outcome.”
“And if you truly understood humans, you would know there is nothing ‘acceptable’ about that outcome,” Kefiwe said.
Moriti sighed and shook her head. “Mashaka shared a similar sentiment when I informed him as well. He has already projected his soul into the camp to remove the protection spells around the book earlier than expected. I fail to see the nobility inherent in throwing away one’s life for those who are already marked by Javangha the Serpent.”
Kefiwe could only shrug. “Sometimes the Master of Death misses.”
“A scenario that is as unlikely as our chances of success,” Moriti replied.
Kefiwe grinned at the Sky Child. “All the more reason to do it.”
“The continued survival of your species remains a bafflement to me,” Moriti said.
Kefiwe chuckled. “Finally, something we agree on.”
Moriti cracked her neck and looked over Kefiwe, possibly for signs of madness, before sighing another time. “Very well, if you are so insistent on placing yourself within Javangha’s Fangs, how do you propose we proceed?”
That was a good question. Kefiwe ran a hand through her thick, coiled hair tied into a tight bun and tried to think, but hunger and exhaustion strained every thought.
“How far along is Mashaka in removing the protective spells?” she asked.
Moriti’s eyes flashed purple as she peered at the golden pavilion. The hairs on Kefiwe’s neck prickled at the rush of heat that swept the cliff. It made her stomach twist and shoot up to her throat as if she were falling. But the heat urged her to draw closer to the Sky Child.
When she wasn’t speaking, Moriti could pass as completely human. With her long neck, dark charcoal skin, and her thick curly mane of hair, she looked like a typical Nahwallan. Most would probably mistake them for sisters. Many men, both young and old, had approached Moriti asking, or rather, begging her to be their newest bride. Moriti only gave them a blank stare. Though Kefiwe couldn’t blame the men for trying. Kefiwe found herself outstretching her hand to stroke Moriti’s still cheek.
Moriti blinked and the lure was gone. Kefiwe shook her head as if a thick fog had been lifted from her vision. She doubled back, putting at least ten paces between her and Moriti. Master Mfundo’s warnings about the Sky Children and their brethren rang in her skull.
"Their beauty is a lure to misfortune," the old master had said.
Triumph or tragedy awaited whoever was brave or foolish enough to succumb. From what Kefiwe had heard about the Sky Children and the other Majestic Ones, the outcome was always the latter. She stepped further back.
“Mashaka is past the first layer of spells,” Moriti said, her dry and distant voice further breaking her illusion of beauty. “He tells me he will need at least another two hours to get through the other six layers. Three if we allow his spirit to return to his body for the required rest.”
Kefiwe bit her thumb. “Either way, it’s time we don’t have.”
“I know what you will recommend!” Kefiwe barked. “If Mashaka is through the first layer, can you swoop down in your bird form and carry the book out? Or use your wind spells?”
“No,” Moriti said simply. “As I told Master Mfundo and Mashaka, Al-Qadir and his mystics were thorough in their work protecting this tome. If I or my magic touch it before Mashaka has removed the spells, it will expose my true form and unleash an unending storm of typhoons, tornadoes, and hurricanes. There will be nothing left of any human in this region, besides flesh ripped to digestible ribbons.”
Kefiwe blinked at the Sky Child. “Thank you for that reminder……”
“Might I suggest-.”
“I can sneak down to Okon and pass him some potions to put in the soup rations. Then when everyone is asleep, we take the book.”
“The potions you are equipped with would only be effective against two, perhaps three people. Anything more and the contents of the soup will simply dilute the ingredients of your potion, creating, at most, odd tasting soup.”
Kefiwe squeezed the bridge of her nose.
“If you have run through your short list of impulsive, reckless, and ineffective ideas, might I make a suggestion?” Moriti asked.
Kefiwe threw up her hands. “Fine. I’m all ears.”
“No need for ears, only eyes,” Moriti said, and pointed with her long fingers towards the eastern wing of the camp.
Kefiwe peered down and saw a wagon carrying six barrels of the black powder used to tear holes into the cliffs. Only two tired, wavering men in red armor guarded it. If it weren’t for their spears, they would have collapsed from the heat. A simple flaming arrow would ignite the entire thing, cause a panic, and keep the camp busy long enough for Mashaka to complete his work. It was a viable idea, but it still wouldn’t be enough time. Worse, it would put the entire camp on alert, putting Okon at risk too.
“Starting a fire here won’t help, Moriti,” she said. “It’ll just call attention to us.”
“I never implied that the fire would start here,” the Sky Child said. “It would be most effective if General Hamzah’s reinforcements were significantly delayed due to a sudden fire that impeded their path……”
Kefiwe snorted at Moriti. “And how is that any less reckless than my ideas?”
“There is a slightly higher chance of success with this method,” Moriti replied. “Admittedly, it is still rather reckless. However, as you would say, all the more reason to do it, correct?”
Kefiwe grinned at the Sky Child. “There might be hope for you after all.”
It was easy for Moriti to swoop down and bedazzle the tired guards with her beauty. Easier still for Kefiwe to slip her sleeping potion into their water skins. And even easier to signal Okon to start a brawl among the workers, distracting the overseers long enough for Kefiwe to steal a horse, latch it to the wagon, and gallop out of the camp with the barrels.
Moriti soared overhead, guiding the flimsy wagon of rotting wood towards the road General Hamzah and his men traveled. Kefiwe’s heart was in her throat as the barrels bashed against each other with each bump. This substance wasn’t natural. Humans were not meant to overcome rock and cliffs with such ease. Yet these invaders not only had this odd powder in abundance but used it as easily as mother used her loom or the farmers used a plow. It wasn’t right. It was dangerous. She had yet to see anyone in Nahwalla encounter fire without some measure of wariness or praise towards the goddess Omutonzi and her brethren for the creation of the element. But to these invaders…...it was nothing. Less than nothing.
“Maybe they really are dragons……” Kefiwe muttered. Only dragons could approach fire so brazenly. She shook her head. Master Mfundo’s words echoed in her head.
“Fear no man,” the one-eyed archer told her. “Because every man is mortal.”
And today, Hamzah and his men would be reminded of that mortality.
A screech from Moriti made Kefiwe pull on the reins, they had reached what the Sky Child considered the ideal location to place the barrels. The road was barely one at all. It was a narrow dirt road, surrounded by the savanna’s tall grass and a few rock formations. There was no shade to protect them from the rays of Nolitha the sun. The men would be tired, sweating, and eager for water. They would not be in any condition to fight properly, especially with only three miles left in their march to the camp.
“How long do we have?” Kefiwe asked Moriti’s diving form as she rolled the first barrel from the wagon.
“Maybe twenty minutes,” Moriti muttered. “Likely less.”
“Can you help?”
Moriti nodded. Her eyes flashed violet while she rotated her hand. A small cyclone swirled at the center of the wagon, lifting the barrels, guiding them to the ground.
Kefiwe could only shake her head at the display. “I wish I could do that…...”
“There are some…...advantages I suppose,” Moriti said under her breath. “Not nearly enough however……”
A desire to ask filled Kefiwe’s tongue but urgency forced her to swallow it back down. “Come on,” she said, tapping the Sky Child’s shoulder. “We don’t have much time.”
They worked quickly. Placing the barrels across from each other, hidden in the grass where, according to Moriti, the strongest soldiers would be placed. Kefiwe had barely placed the final barrel before Moriti squawked a warning from a tree. The pebbles quivered and the insects of the savanna fled for their nests at the thunderous stomps of General Hamzah and his men.
Kefiwe gulped, removed her bow, and crouched into the grass, disappearing from their view, she hoped. Moriti remained in the tree, ready to signal her at the right moment. Kefiwe drew four fire arrows from her quiver and prepared a rock and flint to light them. Everything was ready. She gulped again and muttered a prayer to her ancestors and parents.
“Father, keep my aim true and my heart steady. Mother, keep my body warm against fear. Ancestors guide my arrows.” She whispered the prayer six times before Moriti screeched. They were here.
General Hamzah rode in the front, basked in golden armor. His full thick beard could barely be contained by his helm. His saber knocked against the rear of his black stallion while his red lance blazed in the afternoon sun. His eyes took in every blade of grass. The slightest motion from the shadows made him lower his lance. The hit and run tactics of the resisting clans seemed to be taking its toll.
Beside the general rode a tall man with slight burns across his copper-hued face and several that flowed down his arm and leg. He looked as though his last meal had been moons ago. He wore nothing, save for a pair of trousers that were formally white, but were now covered in dirt, sand, and worse from their travels. The lack of upper clothing allowed the flood of cuts and smaller burns on his body to be displayed. He did not have the chains of a slave. Kefiwe thought he could be a nobleman, but his only jewelry was a faded ruby ring on his index finger and a rusted iron ring on his fourth finger. Why such a disheveled looking man would earn the privilege to ride beside a general, Kefiwe did not understand. But then, there were many things about the invaders she did not understand.
The men were just as tired and hot as Kefiwe anticipated. More than once, General Hamzah had to signal one of mounted men to whip the marching men to keep pace. The lurching line of red armor and Izdubar banners swept the road. Numbers had never been Kefiwe’s primary or secondary skill, but it certainly appeared there were far more than two thousand men marching down the savanna.
She shook her head and began to strike the flint over her arrows. Numbers meant nothing before a large enough fire. A flame ignited on her arrowhead when Moriti screeched three times, the signal.
Kefiwe peered past the ocean of saffron grass and found the brown barrel. A faint gust of wind towards her back told her that the ancestors were with her. She nocked, rose from her spot, and loosed.
The arrow soared above the grass, lingering in the air for at least a breath before descending and striking the barrel.
A rush of heat and a blast like thunder threw Kefiwe from her feet. Fire tore across the line, consuming the men trapped in their armor. The horses buckled and attempted to throw off their riders. The men cried out, throwing dirt over themselves, or rushing into the grass, succeeding only in spreading the blaze.
Kefiwe rolled back to her feet and loosed another arrow.
The fire consumed the center line.
General Hamzah shouted for order, but his command fell on burning ears.
Kefiwe dashed down the line to the next barrel. Smoke bit at her eyes, making them water. She wiped them away and nocked another arrow. General Hamzah grit his teeth at the scene before him. Sweat covered what portions of his skin was visible. He glanced between the growing flames and the vagrant who observed the scene with an amused smirk.
“What will you do, master?” the vagrant asked, his voice as biting as the smoke. “I would hate to see you lose yet another company of men to the rebels…...”
Hamzah whirled on the sly vagrant. “You caused this! I don’t know how, but you did!”
The vagrant raised his hands in defense. “You have kept me under strict observation for the past seven days, master. How could I have possibly arranged such a thing?”
Hamzah growled. “We both know you are capable…...!”
“Perhaps. However, we could spend the rest of the day debating the issue or I can save what’s left of your men.”
General Hamzah quivered before the odd stranger. “What will be your price this time…...?”
“A discussion for another time, master,” the vagrant said, holding up his ringed hand. “Now, if you would?”
Hamzah spat at the ground and shook his head. “Anuua, forgive my weakness….”
The general held a hand over the rings and muttered something in the tongue of the Eternal Desert. A green light flashed through the savanna, blinding Kefiwe for three breaths. Above her, Moriti screeched ten times. The Sky Child frantically flapped her wings as the green light faded. The vagrant’s hands were now absent of the rings. He swung off his horse, an orange fissure running up his bare skin, as if it were cracking…...
Kefiwe shook her head, no she couldn’t be seeing that.
She loosed another arrow. The fire swept through road, into the grass, and sped towards the strolling vagrant, who grinned at the inferno.
“Hello, old friend…….” He said simply.
The flames devoured him.
Kefiwe sprinted down the road, nocking her next arrow, but Moriti swept down and blocked her path. The Sky Child’s eyes were three times wider than they usually were. Her hands trembled as she gripped Kefiwe’s shoulders. Breathing appeared impossible for her. But she managed at least two words.
A blast of black fire sent the Sky Child hurling to the ground. Moriti’s scream drained the blood from Kefiwe’s body. She writhed on the ground, the fire sinking beneath her skin, burning every surface of her innards. Kefiwe rushed to her side, but no matter how much dirt she threw over Moriti’s body or how fast she rolled on the ground, the fire never stopped.
“Ah, there you are….” The biting voice mused from the blaze.
Kefiwe’s blood went cold.
A burning sensation against her back was her only warning.
Kefiwe dove to the side and could only gape as an entire section of the savanna was consumed by black flames.
“Such a shame to waste these precious moments of freedom on such small prey…...” the biting voice chuckled. “But why complain?”
Kefiwe could barely keep her bow still. She loosed five arrows into the talking conflagration, but in two breaths they were nothing but singed wood. Four black fire balls were the foe’s response. Kefiwe ducked and loosed another fire arrow at a barrel. The fire consumed what was left of the wagon, but suddenly stopped. Someone, something, took a large breath. The fires that had covered the road shot into the mouth of the vagrant.
An exhale filled the road with smoke. A blast of black fire erupted from the wall of smoke. Kefiwe stumbled back, her skin burned. She clamped her mouth shut, begging for the pain to pass. It didn’t. Kefiwe screamed. She collapsed to the ground, writhing, clawing at her skin. If she cut herself, cut every part of her body open, the fire would leave her, right? Her nails dug deeper and deeper into her arm. Blood seeped from the wounds, saturating the ground, but she continued to burn.
Another breath and the smoke parted. A pair of feet stood over her, but nothing about the attached body resembled a human. Orange blazing cracks covered the body, with black smoke seeping from each fissure. Sharp horns protruded from the creature’s skull while wings of black smoke formed at its back. A thick tail wrapped around the fissured body. Lava oozed from the corners of the thing’s mouth as it smiled.
Kefiwe couldn’t bring herself to move or breathe. The smoke halted all breath to her lungs. She heard herself scream but nothing else. The savanna melted away and gave way to memories of sitting at the loom with mother, her stories filling the air. One especially. The tale of creatures formed from unions between humans and dragons. Unnatural vicious creatures, that knew fire in all its forms. They were creatures that it was said even the dragons feared. The Ifrit.
The fire demon extended his hand.
“I’d want this to be quick, but it’s been quite a while…...” the demon said.
Kefiwe yelled and grabbed her bow. Four arrows struck the Ifrit, but in a blink they were cinders.
“That’s it!” the demon chuckled. “Struggle till the end!”
Her hand slapped against a bare quiver.
The Ifrit groaned. “Fun’s over, then.”
Fire filled its palm.
A typhoon tore through the savanna. The gale whipped across Kefiwe’s skin. The Ifrit dug his feet into the ground. The wind shrunk his flames. Another gust flung the demon from the ground. In three breaths he was a speck against the blue sky.
A pair of slender but strong arms wrapped around her waist and before Kefiwe could blink, the savanna was a round, distant disk of land. Moriti groaned, smoke rising from her damaged wings.
“Mashaka and the others……!” Kefiwe cried. “We have to warn them…...!”
“Can’t warn them if we’re dead,” Moriti said between grunts.
Her wings flapped towards the river and Kefiwe could only pray that her grip remained strong. Dread filled her stomach when she dared to look back.
A column of black fire erupted from the savanna. At its center, floated the Ifrit.
Its crimson eyes bore into Kefiwe’s chest as Moriti flapped her wings harder, the demon fading from view. But Kefiwe could make out one final gesture.
The Ifrit waved three times before descending.
Kefiwe could only tremble. Her unending sweat the only thing keeping her cool.
There were no dragons in the valley now. No music. No dance. No ancestors. There were only monsters. Only fire.
Kefiwe looked down one last time.
About the Creator
I am an aspiring author with a focus mainly on epic high fantasy, mythology, westerns, and action-adventure, with the occasional op-ed. If you're seeking daring adventure, and fun, diverse characters you've come to the right place.