“There weren’t always dragons in the valley.”
The veteran’s tone was heavy with weariness. He led Kali through the sprawling war camp at an infuriatingly sluggish pace, dragging one leg in the dust. The deeper they went, the more Kali ground her teeth. The scrutiny of hundreds of Wildfire troops was like pins scraping her skin.
They won’t hurt me. They can’t afford to – unless they want to be seen as no more than savages.
Savages they were. Kali spared a sidelong glare for the next squad they passed. They smirked back, young peasant boys, heads full of Salder’s lies.
“Take a message back to Redrane,” said one with blonde fluff sprouting from his chin. “Tell the Council to send more swords.”
The squad hooted laughter behind her. She kept her gaze ahead, on the veteran’s back. Her teeth would be worn to stubs if he took much longer.
Her brother had died in the last battle against the Wildfire Legion. He’d been one of those who’d tried surrendering when the fight was lost, only to be slaughtered with all the others who didn’t run. Salder’s men had stacked the corpses high then set them ablaze, all the while waving the swords they’d looted from the dead. There’d been no survivors.
She hadn’t even seen the body.
These rebels deserved no mercy, no compromise.
The Council didn’t know about her brother though. All they knew was what Kali told them: she wanted the war ended as quickly as they did.
“There weren’t always dragons,” said the veteran.
Kali followed him further into the valley the Wildfire Legion operated from. The troops lining the sides dwindled in number, but they looked tougher here. They glared back at Kali, encased within looted suits of armour rather than the patchwork gambesons of those she’d passed earlier.
She saw her first dragon.
Nothing to fear. The Council will know what to do. Keep to the plan.
The veteran stopped beside it. Kali reluctantly drew closer, nostrils flaring at the tang of burning. She’d thought herself immune to awe, but the sight of the dragon made her deaf to the veteran’s next words.
The dragon lifted its half-moon-shaped head from atop its coils. Two violet eyes bored into Kali’s, urging her to come closer. Its mouth opened, a distended jaw grinding, as its serpentine body shifted, making scales hiss like steam from a blacksmith’s forge. Soon, it had pulled itself to twice her height, and Kali still craned her neck to gaze into those violet eyes.
A bluish-silver glow emanated from behind its curved fangs. Kali took another step, almost close enough to brush her fingers against the dragon’s shining black scales.
The veteran seized her shoulder. With a sharp tug, he broke the trance, and Kali hurried away from the dragon, avoiding its beautiful eyes.
“I did warn you,” said the veteran.
Kali stood rigid, controlling her shivers with a quick intake of breath. Behind her, she heard the dragon’s scales singing as it coiled up again.
“Salder’s particularly fond of that one.” The veteran resumed walking.
Kali followed, frustration only compounded by how pathetic she must’ve looked scrambling away from the dragon’s spell. She glared at the veteran’s back, the teardrop flame of Wildfire stitched into his leather cuirass.
From a cave to their left, a low growl emerged. Two Wildfire troops dragged a dead horse to the mouth, then ran back. Despite her trepidation, Kali paused.
The growl faded, replaced by a smooth sliding sound. In a blink, the enormous head of a dragon shot from the cave, easily three times the size of the one Kali had seen. It impaled the dead horse on its upper fangs, flung its head back, and swallowed the body in a gulp. Blue fire sparked at its lips.
“That one stays underground,” said the veteran. “No one knows how big he really is.”
Kali couldn’t stop her trembling this time. She just followed the veteran without saying anything, for fear she might have gone mute.
Marik… No wonder he tried to surrender.
But a question scratched at her throat until she forced it out. “How many do you have?”
The veteran turned his weathered face to her. His grin was crooked, revealing teeth brown from years of chewing tobacco. At first, she’d mistaken him as another farmer drawn to Wildfire after the bad harvests. There was no mistaking the walk of a soldier though, even if he dragged one leg slightly. This man was a traitor to the Council, to the army, to order itself.
“The Council wants to know?”
“I want to know.” She was shocked how flat her voice sounded.
The veteran shrugged. “Fourteen that we trust in battle.”
Kali had wandered the battlefields. She’d seen the damage a single dragon could cause. She’d always believed Wildfire only had the one.
All this time, Salder had been holding back.
“Please,” said the veteran, gesturing ahead, “the general is eager to meet the Council’s ambassador.”
Kali put on her mask. In her short career, she’d learnt quickly to conceal fear. Only a year ago, the Wildfire Legion had been a handful of impotent rebels in the corner of their country. Only a year ago, she’d passed her final assessment.
Remember the plan.
Kali twined her fingers together before her. The sleeves of her robe fell over her hands. The hidden blade lay cold against her wrist.
I can end this. I have to.
The veteran stopped, facing the sheer wall of rock at the end of the valley. Kali’s skin prickled, but she resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. If they’d wanted to kill her, they’d had plenty of opportunities on her way through the camp.
“The general is fond of making an entrance, making sure his guests remember him.”
The sun was just cresting the valley when a massive silhouette appeared against it. Kali instinctively stepped away from the veteran, though he remained still.
The silhouette resolved into a long, serpentine shape. It flew up out of the sun’s light, and two huge wings spread from its body.
Remember the plan. Kali almost wilted into childhood watching the creature’s ascent. No matter how much she tried to focus on her plan, she wrestled a frenzied urge to run.
You owe it to Marik – to all of the men they slaughtered.
The dragon hovered above the valley, then a ripple ran through its body. It lunged down, straight toward her.
Kali broke. She turned to flee, but the veteran’s hand clamped on her arm. Between a lattice of scars, his eyes were dull.
“Do not run now,” he said. “The general will not be pleased.”
Kali stopped struggling immediately. Powerless, she stared up at the massive shape hurtling toward the valley. Sunlight shimmered along rows of scarlet scales. Flicking out its tail, the dragon slowed and hovered above them a moment. Kali avoided meeting its gaze.
The dragon lowered itself onto its stomach. A man climbed from its back, and jumped down with the grace of someone who’d done the same thing a hundred times before. Kali ground her teeth as General Salder strolled over.
He wasn’t the man she’d expected him to be. He stood at an average height, with an average build, his features utterly nondescript but for a sickle-shaped scar curling out from his close-cropped hair. The insignia of Wildfire had been stitched over his heart. He didn’t look like a murderer, or a zealot – he just looked like another tired old man.
He’s a traitor and a lunatic. He needs to die.
Kali watched him bow with a mask of cold indifference. If her lack of courtesy offended him, he concealed it well. Behind him, the dragon coiled up, keeping its attention on their meeting. Kali noticed a large bundle tied to the creature’s back, but she refused to show any interest.
“I’d offer you a drink,” said Salder, his voice rough and scratchy, “but the troops need it more.”
To drink away their guilt?
“I’m here to discuss your terms of surrender, General Salder.”
Salder strolled closer, hands clasped behind him. She moved her sleeves closer together, fingers stroking the handle of the knife at her wrist. She had to calm her breathing.
Salder stopped just outside of her reach. “There are none. There will be no surrender. Take back my terms to the Council.”
“Your terms?” Kali closed her hand around the hilt of the knife. The outrage in her voice wasn’t all false. “Your rebels have killed hundreds of innocent people. You’re in no position to dictate terms, General.”
Salder exchanged a look with the veteran, who’d reached to his sword. The old soldier stepped away from them, and Salder took another small step closer to Kali. Still too far away.
“What do the Council want?” said Salder. “They send you here alone, even though they think I’m some madman who butchers for fun.” He flourished his hands as if addressing an invisible audience. “Is this how little they care for the men I killed?”
Kali fought for calm. “You killed hundreds. You set their bodies on fire. You killed them when they tried to surrender.”
“That’s what the Council told you?”
“I saw the battlefield.” Kali swallowed the taste of ash on her tongue. “I saw what you did.”
Salder sighed. The dragon behind him shook its head. The shape bound to it slipped slightly, then began to tremble. Muffled noises came from the pelt it was wrapped in.
“I gave those men the opportunity to join my cause,” said Salder, as Kali stared at what she’d first mistaken for a dead animal on the dragon’s back. “You’d be surprised how many saw the same future as me. You must’ve walked past some of them on your way here. The peasants the Council conscripted to fight me? The ones your kind have always looked down on?”
Salder snorted, and strode to the dragon. The veteran followed. Together, the two men hauled the strange package from the dragon’s back, and tossed it to the floor, where it writhed. It was a man.
“Let her see.”
The veteran crouched, tearing away a sack from the bound man’s head. Kali reeled backward, cold pinpricks sinking through her skin. Her plan dissolved in a haze.
Marik continued to struggle against his bindings until he noticed the robes of a Redrane ambassador. Kali winced at the effort it took him to lift his head. His eyes widened when they met her own.
Salder grinned, and the appearance of a tired old man slipped off like the mask it was. He was everything the Council called him. He was worse, and he enjoyed it.
Kali tightened her grip on the hidden knife. Her brother wouldn’t stop staring at her, his mouth forming silent words.
“Are you not glad to see him alive?” Salder strutted around Marik, radiating glee. “Are you not glad I spared this poor young man?”
“You killed the others.” Kali’s voice came from another place.
Salder shook his head. “I’m afraid Marik here is the only one of his friends who didn’t join me. I thought he might prove a useful tool for negotiations. But this…” He actually giggled, like a damn cricket. “Sublime.”
Salder finished circling Marik. He turned to Kali, and she met his eyes with her own blazing glare. He stepped closer.
“Die!” she screamed.
She yanked the knife from her sleeve. It left a graze against her wrist, but she was too focused on driving it into Salder’s throat.
Her arm halted. The blade stopped inches from Salder’s grinning face.
Kali strained, but it was like her muscles had turned to stone. She realised the veteran had grabbed her arm. Stopping her took no visible effort. Slow horror crept through her. At the same time, the strength fled her body. The knife fell between her and Salder.
He didn’t even look at it.
Salder strolled to her other side. The veteran wrenched both her arms behind her back. Salder grabbed her head when she tried to look to the ground. He forced her to look up at the dragon.
The realisation arrived too late for her to struggle. Not that it would’ve mattered.
I really thought I could end the war here.
Marik continued to writhe on the floor. He was calling her name, though she hardly heard it. The dragon drew her focus.
Slowly, it opened its mouth. A jet of cobalt fire roared out, dousing Marik completely. Kali flinched from the heat stinging her cheeks. Salder let go of her head, let it slump against her chest. Her nostrils filled with the reek of cooking, then burning. Marik.
In seconds, it was done. The heat dissipated. The afterimage of blue fire dwindled into the blackness behind her eyelids. She didn’t dare open them.
The veteran released her. She dropped to the ground. No tears. No screaming. The knife lay within her reach, but she made no move to seize it.
When she finally looked, her brother was just a heap of black dust. A lifetime of memories cascaded through her head, but they would mean nothing to a dragon, or to Salder. Her brother would never laugh at his own stupid jokes again, never show off his sword skills to their father again, never leave a sweet-roll outside her door the next time they argued. In a burst of blue fire, Marik had ceased to exist. And what had Salder got from it?
Salder knelt down beside her, prodding her shoulder. When she finally turned to him, his grin was hideous.
“You can go back now,” he said. “Make sure to tell the Council I have brought my dragons here, and I will soon take them to Redrane.” He prodded her again. “Would you like something to eat before you go, my dear? Perhaps some roast mutton?”
Kali threw up, and Salder’s laughter echoed through the valley.