There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. If Weise had been asked a day before, he would have said there had never been dragons in the Valley. But this was today, not the day before, and there really was no getting around the fact that he was in the Valley and that he did indeed have himself a dragon.
Weise sighed, looking from the dragon to the half dozen men he had with him. Though he supposed they were more “men” than men. Some were women. Jay, Riis, Darl, Tasia, Fea, Steve. They’d been together for the better part of five years. Except Jay, who he’d been running with for over a decade.
They were all perched on the high east side of the Cliffs, tucked away into some crags, perfectly placed to gaze out and down across the Valley, then to the rocky seawall beyond. And at the blue-black sea, beyond that. The Strait he’d been heading towards for the past three days.
“Didn’t realize there’d be a war here,” Weise said, looking down at the active war zone. Thousands of people fought and died below. They screamed, they clashed, they bled. Weise wondered what they were bleeding for.
He looked back towards the dragon. Well, he was pretty sure it was a dragon. It kind of also looked like a woman. All he could actually see of it was a woman-shaped cloak and a deep hood. The cloak shimmered every color between black and gold. Which was funny, as he hadn’t thought there had been many colors between black and gold. But there were. He knew that now.
He’d thought she was a woman, at first, but after three days of traveling, he was pretty sure she was a dragon. He knew some of them could do that. Could look like women, but be dragons. He was pretty sure he knew that, anyway.
His uncle had brought her to him. Which was actually a feat, in and of itself, as he and his team had been deep in the woods on a scouting mission for one of the queens he hadn’t wholly given up on. His uncle was half-dead—soon to be whole-dead—and got Weise to promise that he would get the woman to the Strait. Weise was not at all inclined to do any such thing, but deathbed wishes have a certain sort of power, and Weise was not prepared to be the cause of his uncle’s unsettled afterlife. That, and he trusted his uncle with everything he had and believed the man when he said getting the dragon to the Strait was a matter of life and death.
“Who’s fighting?” Jay asked, squinting against the setting sun.
“The green and grey are Baddy fatigues,” Jay said, “but the other ones I don’t recognize. I don’t know any one particular nation with all black uniforms, though I know several that use units of people who wear all black.”
“Anybody know anything about this?” Weise asked. He was something of an elite body-spy type thing, and was a little taken aback that there would be an entire war he knew nothing about. But then, the world was a very big place, and he hadn’t been this far west in at least seven years.
“This explains the tracks,” Riis said. Weise nodded. The woods they’d left two days ago had looked more or less marched through.
“Well,” Jay said, staring north, then south. The battle filled the Valley, spreading out further than their eyes could see. “Do we go around? Do we wait?” All seven faces turned to the cloaked creature, who had, up to this point, spoken not a single word.
The hood gave a single nod of its head. Weise sighed, glad this stranger wasn’t going to ask them to sprint into a war for no known reason. He took a step back, then turned, then felt his world explode in pain.
He came to seconds later, coughing, burning, ears ringing. He was still on the Cliff, it seemed, though there was much less of it to be on. He would have done a more thorough body check and also a head count of his comrades had he not been immediately under attack.
He didn’t bother with exclamations or questions or even a silent prayer. He sprang into action and hoped that the shadowy creatures flooding the clifftop were not immune to mortal weaponry.
Jay and Riis had jumped up as well, hesitating only for a moment as they gauged the ethereality of their attackers. Two more—Darl and Tasia—joined them. Weise would have to mourn Fea and Steve later. The living circled up, their backs to each other, the dragon in the middle. The shadows laughed. It was a whispery, rasping sort of sound. One of them spoke. To the dragon, it seemed, though Weise could not be sure. He didn’t understand the words, and the dragon gave no response. The speaking shadow spoke some more, its keening voice rising in pitch.
“You reckon these are what did your uncle in?” Darl asked, voice strained.
“I think that would be a safe bet, yes.”
“You reckon they’re the ones that did that exploding bit?”
“I think that would also be a safe bet, yes.”
“What’s the plan?” Jay asked, sounding rather flat. Weise assumed she’d disassociated at some point in the past thirty seconds.
“Haven’t the slightest. I’ve never fought a shadow before.” And, try as he might, he simply could not come up with a better word for what these things were. They moved like smoke through the air, thick and billowing, taking on the shape of humans though in no way adhering to human proportions or bodily constraints. They snaked about, they hovered, they flew. They did not walk.
“New plan,” Weise said, sheathing his dagger. He couldn’t fight a shadow. He grabbed the dragon, threw her over his shoulder, screamed “run,” and dove off the cliff. His comrades followed close behind, not really wanting to figure out how the shadows did “that exploding bit.”
The shadows screamed, but their voices were not louder than the tumble Wiese was taking down the cliff. Which was funny. Prior to today, he wouldn’t have thought a tumble would make so much noise. Any noise, really.
He slid and rolled down the cliff, waiting for a branch or a root to appear before him, waiting for anything to appear before him. Anything but the thing which was rapidly appearing before him—that being, aforementioned active war zone.
“Shi—“ he began, his words clipping off as he grunted with the extreme effort of trying to stop a two-person tumble down an extremely steep and slippery cliff.
He hit something hard. It was a dead body. He jumped up, pulling the dragon with him, pausing long enough to catch Jay and yank the others to their feet. There was a half second where he thought they might skirt around the battle—they hadn’t fallen directly into the fray, and the nearest skirmish was happening fifty or so feet away. But then the shadows’ screams pierced through the ringing in his ears. He looked up, saw their undulating figures racing down the mountain after them.
“As the crow flies,” Tasia said.
“As the crow flies,” Weise said, pulling the dragon directly behind him before taking point. Jay and Riis just behind him, flanking his left and right. Darl and Tasia took positions just behind them. And then they ran into the fight.
Weise had a lot of time to think as he hacked his way through two armies he had nothing to do with. One army he couldn’t even identify. Mostly he thought about death. He thought about his mother, a little. His first sweetheart. His dog.
He also thought about his uncle. His deathbed request. His death, actually. Weise hadn’t given himself any space to grieve the man, which was a real bother. He had been his favorite uncle. He had been the uncle responsible for Weise’s current career trajectory. Something of a family business, after a fashion.
Thoughts of his uncle bled into thoughts of the dragon. He had no idea what was going on. At all. Like, at all. But this wouldn’t be the first time he dealt with a “matter of life and death” that was never fully—or even partially—explained to him.
He carved a way through the Valley. Darl fell. They slammed against a rocky outcropping, breathing hard, taking advantage of the momentary respite. A stony seawall rose up in front of them, riddled with cave-like tunnels. The sea seeped through, glittering with light from the rising moon.
“There,” Weise gasped, tilting his head towards one of the closer tunnels. A half dozen soldiers fought between them and the seawall. The soldiers stumbled through the water, splashing and stabbing. Weise glanced behind him, taking stock of his people. The dragon stood calmly, still hooded, not a hair out of place. Or, in any place he could see. Tasia had a shoulder wound that was probably going to do her in if she didn’t make a tourniquet in the next few minutes. Jay was fine, as was Riis. Weise had been stabbed in the side, and didn’t really like his chances. But there was really nothing he could do about it, at this point. He squinted past them, trying to focus his vision enough to see whether the shadows had found them. The creatures had spotted them a few times during their flight but the raging battle had allowed them to stay more or less ahead of the phantoms. Weise thought maybe the shadows’ vision wasn’t as good as their other senses, which would have had a tough time sussing out his team’s movements through the screaming, stinking battle. A relief, however small.
“Riis, stay with Tasia,” Weise said, “help stop the bleeding—no, don’t argue, just listen—no seriously, shut it—Jay, with me.” She nodded, stepping behind the dragon.
“We’ll get you to the Straits and consider our task accomplished?” Weise asked the cloaked figure. He didn’t expect a response, nor did he receive one.
He pushed himself off the rock and half-walked, half-jogged towards the straits. A few steps more and the seawall’s grasping stones blocked the sun and sky from view. A few steps more, and he was splashing through shallow water. He looked down at the few inches of sea lapping at his toes.
They skirted the fight, which had moved south enough to no longer be blocking their way. The tunnel through the seawall loomed larger by the second, dark and cool, gulls’ flitting in and out, their calls echoing through the strange rock formation.
“Almost—“ his voice caught in his throat as something incredibly sharp and wholly unnecessary plunged into his back. He stumbled forward, wrenching whatever he’d been stuck with from the hands of the sticker. He whirled around and dispatched them. Well, knocked them out, anyway. He didn’t have anything sharp left to do any more stabbing. Just a quarterstaff. He knew it was an at-times impractical choice, but he’d always thought they’d looked cool and really just couldn’t help himself. Quarterstaffs could also pass as walking sticks, and tended to put people more at ease than a double-edged sword strapped to a hulking back.
Jay was fighting off two more people—stragglers from the other fight who did not seem to understand that everybody not with them was not necessarily against them. They were less lucky. Jay did have a sword.
The dragon had been hit during that last fight. She lay, crumpled, in the surf, an inky substance seeping from somewhere beneath her cloak. Weise pulled the creature up. He tried to carry the dragon, but couldn’t. He was dying and dizzy and losing sensations by the second.
Jay pulled Weise and the dragon upright. She snapped the shaft off of whatever it was that stuck from Weise’s back, then helped Weise lead the dragon into the tunnel in the seawall. The sounds of battle instantly quieted, as if the fighting were a distant thing. The trio waded through. Weise couldn’t see much of anything, anymore, though he sensed the Strait opening up before them. Jay pulled on his arm, staying him, keeping him from walking out of the tunnel and into the Strait. He collapsed where he stood. He needed to cough, but thought he’d rather drown in his own blood than experience the pain of a good hacking. Jay splashed down beside him, her breathing heavy.
“Well?” She asked, looking up at the creature they’d just fought through a war for. Weise wondered where the shadows had gone off to. “We’ve got you to the Strait. What next?”
The figure seemed to be studying them, then the water beyond. She turned her back on the sea and knelt before Weise, leaning in. He felt like this was probably a pretty big deal. Momentous, magical, et cetera, but he didn’t have enough blood left to fully process the situation.
An unworldly face stared back at him from the depths of the cowl. Two golden eyes burned bright and unblinking in what seemed to be a woman’s visage, though he really couldn’t be sure. Silver hair fell across the edges, shining and ethereal. The face leaned closer, then closer still. Then the warmest, hardest lips he’d ever felt pressed themselves against his forehead. He felt the heat of it even after they had parted.
She stood and turned and stepped into the ocean. Her head, silvery and unhooded, emerged moments later, bobbing. She swam into the circle of moonlight reflecting off the water’s surface. She put her face closer to the water and drank. Well, Weise thought she was drinking. He couldn’t really be sure. He was dying, and a lot of things had stopped making sense. Like how the dragon was drinking the water but also seemed to be drinking the moon shining in the water. Like how the bright white circle grew smaller and smaller, the more she drank, and then was gone altogether. Like how the moon in the sky also seemed to be disappearing. Like how it also grew smaller and smaller, the more she drank, and then was gone altogether.
But Weise didn’t have much more time to think about it. He wasn’t doing well, as previously mentioned, and his head was blazing something fierce. And then he died.