The moon peeked over the top of the mountains, and lit the valley in which the dragons slept. With it, a soft breeze swept down the valley making the long grass sway and filling the valley with the psithurism of the trees. A truly peaceful night, but a night of utmost importance.
As moonlight bathed Baloroth’s head, his eyes opened but a slit, and from his throat came a deep rumble. Baloroth detested the interruption to his slumber. But he knew he couldn’t go back to sleep, for tonight was the first night of the year. The most important night for his Clan of dragons.
Baloroth lifted his great head and looked around the valley. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, it provided protection from the elements and from the humans. Moonlight glistened off the surface of the great lake to his south. Baloroth was suddenly aware of how thirsty he was. Rising to his feet, he walked lazily over to the water. As he walked, he cast his gaze around.
A few dragons had also awoken with the Moon, but most were still sleeping.
Their numbers were low, not as many as other Clans. But for that, there was a reason.
Baloroth’s heart sank as he lowered his mouth to the water, and a memory rose in his mind.
Centuries before, when magic was commonplace among humans, there were many conflicts between humans, their sorcerers, and dragons. Groups of sorcerers were sent to drive the dragons away, but the dragons fought back. Cities burned, and Baloroth’s Clan was close to being rid of those who would see them wiped from the world. But then, a dark sorcerer placed a dreadful curse upon their Clan. The curse was so strong that the sorcerer who cast it perished from simply casting it. And the curse wound silently through the Clan, infecting them, binding to them, and before they knew it the Clan was in peril.
Dragons traditionally live for millennia, but with this curse upon them they would live for mere decades. At first they noticed nothing different, and assumed the curse had failed. But it wasn’t long before dragons started dying suddenly and without warning. Baloroth’s Clan sought advice from much older dragons and their worst fears were confirmed.
Baloroth’s Clan once contained hundreds of dragons, but now? Last count was a mere thirty, and their numbers decreased each year.
Luckily, before they died, the Clans' eldest dragons had found a solution. Unfortunately for the dragons, it was a temporary measure. The Clan started working on it immediately. A temporary solution was better than death.
Baloroth was a young dragon then, barely an adult, when he took charge and went to find the perfect village for his Clan’s newfound plan. That is when he had found the village from which the dark sorcerer originated. It was a perfect target for their plan. Baloroth was delighted when he found the valley nearby. It was a perfect place for the dragons to reside and retain a commanding presence to that village.
Under threat of destruction, the humans were to provide the precious commodity the dragons needed once a year.
With this precious material, every twelve months a single dragon would have their life increased by about eighty years, but it wasn’t always the same. This meant, however, that for some the wait was too long and they perished. This was why the Clans numbers were diminishing. A few dragons took it upon themselves to receive their gift and to take to the skies to search for a more permanent solution.
None had returned.
Finishing his drink, Baloroth lifted his head and took a deep breath of the cold night air.
Tonight was his night to receive the gift.
Baloroth reached the southern mountains, the closest range to the village, and was about to unfurl his wings for flight when something caught his attention. A magical presence was gently probing his mind. He turned his head, and opened his mind to the presence.
“Baloroth,” a voice said inside his mind.
“Ah, Nazalath, did you follow me?”
Baloroth turned to the dragon behind him. She gave him a meaningful look.
“You are receiving the gift tonight?” she asked. Baloroth bowed his head in affirmation. She drew close, her amber eyes boring into his red ones.
“Will you return?” Nazalath searched his eyes. Baloroth sighed. The truth was that he hadn’t yet made up his mind. He had been the one to find this valley and the village. Shall he remain, or should he do what countless others have done and scoured this land for a cure for their curse?
Would he have more luck? Or would he spend the next nearly hundred years in the valley before he fell from the sky?
But what else could he do? Stay hidden within this valley, occasionally venturing out to hunt for food before returning and awaiting the next time it would be his turn to extend his mundane life?
Live a short life with a purpose?
Live a long life without living?
“I suspect not. They say receiving the gift changes you. I know not how I will feel afterwards. I might return, but I equally might not,”
“Then I will come with you,” she stated firmly. Baloroth sighed.
Nazalath was born a few years before him, and they had grown up together. She was always first. First to fly, first to breathe fire, first to hunt and kill her own prey. She had also received the gift the previous year.
“By leaving, you give up receiving any more gifts. I cannot ask that of you, but I also cannot stop you. If I do leave, then I shall welcome your company. Thank you, Naz,”
She drew close, their eyes close enough so that Baloroth could see every detail.
“Till we fall?”
“Till we fall,”
Nazareth closed her eyes and leant her head against Baloroth’s. A rumble, almost a purr, came from her throat. Baloroth returned the affection. Nazalath was also first to show her true feelings for Baloroth.
They stepped back from each other, and Baloroth nodded.
“Let us depart,”
Both dragons unfurled their colossal wings and with a strong downward beat, both dragons were airborne. They both flew in circles till they rose above the mountain peaks and then turned south.
It had been a while since Baloroth had taken flight. Dragons in their Clan tended to stay close to the ground for fear of being seen, or attacked. Baloroth shook his head. This curse had made his Clan face their mortality too soon. This bred fear; the fear of death. With some dragons it grew to the point that they were afraid of their own shadows. Dragonlings born into his clan would know nothing but fear, and that valley. They would likely never leave it.
Like the leaves blown off trees in the fall, the wind blew away the doubt in Baloroth’s mind.
“After I receive the gift,” he spoke into Nazalath’s mind, “we hunt for a cure,”
Spying the woodland below them, Baloroth and Nazalath silently glided down and landed as softly as possible and made their way inside. Baloroth took hesitant steps forward. He had merely been told where to find the gift. Nazalath had been here before, yes, but she knew he would want to find this by himself.
As expected, they heard it before they saw it. They had been told that the gift could be heard from miles away at times. Baloroth followed the sound and before long, the gift was before him.
And Baloroth, at long last, realised why dragons kept what the gift was secret from each other. If Baloroth knew, he may have questioned coming.
Before him, in the woodland, on a carved cradle within the roots of a great tree, lay a human baby.
“Remember what they do to us,” Nazalath whispered in his mind. Baloroth shook his head.
“This child has done nothing to us,”
“It might have grown up to hunt us,”
“It might have grown up to befriend us,” Baloroth argued. Nazalath fell silent. “This is why our life is only extended by under a hundred years,” Baloroth realised, “The lifespan of the human is added to our own,”
Baloroth was about to turn away from the baby when he saw something that made his stomach roll.
The baby was lying on human bones. Bones small enough to be that of a baby. The implications ran through Baloroth’s head.
“The humans do not come back for them. Look,” he said to Nazalath. Nazalath bowed her head towards the baby and saw the bones.
“They must assume that we always take them,”
“And it looks like a dragon refused their gift. Most likely one that left to find a cure, otherwise we would have noticed them die so quickly,”
Both dragons were silent, and the baby cooed and laughed at the dragons.
“This will make me the monster they think I am,” Baloroth said, finally, “But if I do not, these years are just wasted,”
“You should take them, Bal,” Nazalath pleaded. Baloroth nodded his head.
“I shall, Naz, but only to leave immediately and find a cure for this curse. I cannot go back to that valley knowing that each year we demand a human baby to be sacrificed to us. It’s… not what we should be,”
“Then let us put a stop to it,” Nazalath bowed her head. Baloroth hesitated before reaching forward and scooping up the baby. At the swinging motion, the baby giggled. Baloroth couldn’t help but chuckle to himself, but then crushing sadness took over as he drew the babe closer to his mouth.
From Baloroth’s lips came the ancient, and now unspoken, language of the dragons. It was an ancient rite that was almost forgotten. The words seemed to echo in the woods, all other sound dying away.
The baby stopped making noises, and a look of shock settled upon its face. The baby’s skin seemed to turn to vapour, and it was drawn up and into Baloroth’s mouth.
The baby continued to turn to a thin blue smoke. Its skin, organs, and bones all eventually evaporated and Baloroth had breathed in the magical smoke.
When it was done, Baloroth stood in silence.
“It is done,” Nazalath spoke softly. Baloroth nodded.
“Let us take to the sky,”
Baloroth looked one more time at the pile of bones that was once a child and sighed.
“Let us put a stop to this madness,”
And without replying, Nazalath spread her wings and propelled herself through the canopy of the forest. Baloroth said a silent prayer for the deceased baby before him, and another for the one he had just taken, and then followed Nazalath. They circled the trees a few times, gazing upon the forest, village, and the valley.
“Which way?” Nazalath asked. Baloroth thought for a moment.
“North. There is a temple. It’s as good a place as any to start,”
It was the only place Baloroth could think of at that moment, but he knew once he arrived, and during the flight, his mind would calm. He wouldn’t admit it, but Baloroth was shaken to his core. The rite he had recited made him feel a stranger in his own body, and absorbing the child had been unpleasant. Baloroth needed the flight to calm his body and mind, and when they reached the temple, Nazalath and himself would take the time to think through their plan. It couldn’t be too obvious, or others would have already found it. They had to figure out their journey and resume where they had left off.
This was going to be a long journey.
Baloroth and Nazalath turned north and ascended higher into the sky, in silence.
Far below them was the human village from which the baby had originated. Many of the lights had been extinguished as most of the villagers were asleep. There was, however, a single tavern with light still leaking from its windows. Unbeknownst to Baloroth and Nazalath, or any of the dragons in their Clan, the people of the village had grown weary of their enslavement to the dragons. They had enough of sacrificing their young. The mothers knew unimaginable loss, and it had reached a breaking point when they had started to take their own lives in mourning.
Within the tavern, the people met to plot and scheme against the dragons.
The dragons would leave.
Or the dragons would die.