Lancing the Wound

A dragon's dreams were often lucid dreams, and Iorneste dreamed deeply that night.

In his dream he was his dragon-self, all four legs resting upon the ashen ground, claws furrowed in the earth, wings folded on his back, tail swishing like a sinuous animal all its own through the powdery remains of once-proud trees, obsidian scales losing their natural gloss in the ash that coated them.

This was the remains of the great vellarian wood that had sheltered Sandridge, and was now its grave. Where his adventure had truly begun.

He drew tight to the earth, pressing close to it, and then pushed off into the air with all his strength, wings unfolding and catching the currents, his magic reaching into the aethir like grasping hands to pull him aloft into the winds. The sensation of flying as himself, his true self, even if he knew it was but a dream, was a welcome refreshment after days spent on the ground. A mirhawk was not a dragon, though they were both creatures of the sky. The strength he had abandoned with the shift to human form and the Binding had returned to him in his dream.

He reveled in it, whirling and diving through the sky, barely glancing down to the scorched earth below him, escaping the sadness that remained in the hollow husks of trees and the dust bowl of ash that remained. Far to the distance he could see the still-standing trees upon higher ridges, and somewhere far beyond that he knew was Kaer Drac.

He banked in that direction, feeling wind and the sun on his scales, wondering how far he would be able to travel in his dream, curious if he could return from his exile, even in his dreams.

His keen eyes saw the other denizens of the air, but when he glanced to his left, quite by surprise, there was a much larger dragon flying along with him in his dream, one who he was certain had not been there before, that he had not seen approach.

"I thought you would never sleep," said Rrachma, clipped, rolling voice carried over the winds.

"Sreache!" he called. "Are you really here?"

"Where is here, Iorneste?" Rrachma said, a chuckle in his words.

He pondered this. "There is not much written about the Drac and dreams."

"Alas, Iorneste, not all truths are written in books."

"You are here! In my dreams! How is this possible?"

Rrachma shrugged in midair, causing a wobble from side to side before righting himself. "The aerte is the place of magic, the space between, the world of spirit. From it all things of flesh are born, and to it all things of flesh will return. In sleep, we believe, our minds reach into the aerte, while our bodies are trapped in the kroma."

"Humans, too?"

"I would assume, but much like their weak animus, they would not go very deep, and fewer still recognize they are dreaming. To them the dream is very real, until they awaken."

"I did not know we could speak to each other in dreams."

"Iorneste," Rrachma said, and his slit eyes were serious, like his voice. "Listen to me."

He kept flying beside his sire, attentive.

"You have done a daring thing. Perhaps a foolish thing, but I suppose time will tell."

He felt the worm of doubt gnawing at him. "You mean calling myself a dragon slayer?"

"I have already said too much. Even in dreams, we should not discuss your exile. Go forward on your own path, wherever it leads. This is what you should do, and do not let my words change you from your course."

"Hmm," he mused. "Then why are you here?"

"You do not have much time," Rrachma said. It was not an answer to his question that he could discern, but like so many curiosities spoken by the eregaunte, he did not probe further.

They were flying now over the ocean, faster than he knew was possible, the miles disappearing beneath him in a blur, Ramilka was missed in an eyeblink, the Ghostwood scrolling past, but they began to slow as they headed east, towards Mir's Edge, where his body even now slept. Before they could reach it, he saw a coiling darkness, like a serpent, boring into the earth below like a spiral, a roiling maelstrom of wrongness, a smell of acrid death and poison, the smell of wyverns.

"They do not come alone, Iorneste. Remember that."

"What do you mean?" he asked, but as he turned he saw that Rrachma was gone, and he felt very small compared to the vast wound in the earth beneath him. The wound swirled and rose up from the ground, reaching into a spire in the sky, matching his elevation, and the tip of the spire opened like a mouth as it turned to face him. The mouth widened, larger than he by several orders of magnitude, as if he were but a sparrow in the sky, and moved to envelop him, black fire burning in its depths.

Wake up, Iorneste! he could hear Rrachma's words in his mind, but his scream almost drowned it out. Wake up!

He found himself in his room, with fire burning at the back of his throat, his room filled with smoke, smoke that roiled from his nostrils, his humble cot in shambles from where he had thrashed it to pieces.

You do not have much time.

He scrambled to his feet, rushing out the door, trying to calm himself and bring the burning within his throat and the fire raging in his heart to a state of calm, rushing out onto the stairwell of the Aerie tower, looking down to the ground below. Seeing no observers, he threw himself off of the edge, landing on the ground below with nary a thump, and kept moving until he was in the presence of the drakes.

He roused them one by one, the wyrms stirring from sleep at the touch of his animus. The males had been sleeping lightly in the pre-dawn, alert for danger, but Matra had not slept, and was on her haunches atop the kennels, long neck held high, eyes sweeping and surveying from over the tops of the walls. She was larger than he was in his dragon form, as tall at repose as he was standing. Unsurprising, since drakes matured faster, and she was a female as well.

I will need you as well, Matra, he said to her, with a caress coupled with a note of command. She snapped to attention and rose to her full height. Her wings fanned the air and she let out a rumble that roused the others, even as their anima melded into a consensus mind, all of them orchestrated under his command. She sprang down from atop the kennels, wings fanning to ease her descent, but when she landed the impact thrummed through the soles of his feet.

It felt right, it felt powerful. His whole body flexed, feeling his wings in spirit spreading along with Matra's.

Assemble here, in the yard, he told them, and he described their positioning from an aerial perspective, a dragon's perspective, in their minds. He went into the kennels, which remained undisturbed by the wyverns during their attack, and saw the wheeled barrow covered in a tarp, a delivery from the leatherworker, before the leatherworker had succumbed to death along with so many others during the wyvern attack of the day before.

He grabbed hold of the handles, and began rolling the heavy thing out into the yard, feet digging into the earth and grunting with the strain. Once it began to pick up speed it became easier to move, so he kept it in motion, directing the cumbersome thing out into the yard with the assembled dragons.

Unsurprisingly, Selka was already waiting there for him in the pre-dawn half-light. She looked up at the dragons, arranged at attention in a circle, and him wheeling the barrow into their midst. "You're up early," she observed, as he brought the barrow next to her, and dropped the handles to the ground with relief.

"So are you," he said.

"I could not sleep. When the dragons started moving about, I assumed you were around somewhere."

"Yes," he said. "We need to get moving. You should rouse the others."

Her arch look brought heat to his face. "Have you forgotten who is in charge here, Keeper?"

"No, of course not, it is just..."

"Just what?"

"They may already be on their way. I would hate for us to be caught unaware."

"I will rouse them momentarily. So this is the surprise you were telling me about?"

"Yes," he said, and patted the side of the tarp.

"You going to tell me what it is?"

He grinned. "Wake the others, and I will show you all."

They all had assembled quickly, Selka's parade-ground voice rasping and tearing through the air like a sheet being split and rousing them even within the tower. This was a drill he could tell they had followed many times before, and they descended the tower stairs at speed, without any complaint, forming up and assembling before her, in the center of the great circle of dragons.

Their faces were grim. There were no smiles from any of them, even the normally cheerful Freda. Some still had blood and scars upon them, and they had slept in their armor. They stood at attention, unwavering, unblinking, ready for their orders. Selka nodded in satisfaction. "They are ready, Keeper. Kindly show us what you have prepared for us."

He bowed to her with deference, and pulled the tarp from the wagon, tossing it aside, wrestling down one of the many shapeless leather masses from the pile. He inclined his head to Kulvas, who extended his neck outward in response to the prompting of his draconic animus. He held it open for his head to fit through the opening, and then the dragon raised his head high, the open circle of leather sliding down to rest at the base of his neck.

Conscious of their eyes upon him, he scurried up onto Kulvas, tightening straps beneath the dragon's front legs, and securing it firmly at his front, until it was settled. He dropped down to the ground, seeing the realization on the faces of the dragon knights.

"These are your new saddles," he told them.

"A curious design," Selka commented.

"A better design," he said. "The old saddles were behind the wings, in the center of the back, which obscured your view from the front. Moreover, it was right over the muscles that need to flex to help a dragon fly. Held on with a girth strap around the dragon's middle. No doubt inspired by a horse saddle," he grumbled, and the distaste could not be kept from his voice.

"I can see the advantage," Embre chimed in. "You place the saddle in front of the wings, and we sit at the base of the dragon's neck. You are sure this will be more comfortable for them?"

"You will not interfere with the dragon's flight. There are buckles at the stirrups to secure your feet. You will not have to struggle to stay in the saddle. It will keep you from falling out, no matter how your dragon might turn in the air. Though his neck will be before you, you can easily lean to either side and fire down around it, and see the ground below you. It will also be a great deal more comfortable for your dragons. If you will help me, I will demonstrate how the rest of the saddles should be configured, so you can do this in the future yourselves."

None of them moved to obey his request until Selka had nodded, and then they all wrestled with the heavy things along with him, but with the help of their dragons were able to get them in place without too much trouble. The only reins were a short loop attached to the pommel itself, allowing them an additional handhold if they wanted it.

Once they were ready, he nodded in satisfaction, seeing everything adjusted properly the way he had imagined it. "Now," he said. "Lose the spurs."

Embre shook her head. "These are part of our badge of office, Yorn—"

"You heard him," Selka snapped. "Lose them. The saddle's design will make them useless, at any rate, and I did not need them to fly with Korovas. He is showing us a different way."

Embre muttered, "Perhaps not the time to try something different..."

"What was that, Knight-Captain?"

"Nothing, Knight-Marshal. Forgive me."

Korovas, King, and Matra remained unsaddled, having no riders, but Iorneste knew they did not need any.

"What about you?" asked Freda, brown eyes curious. "Will you be coming with us?"

His smile was fierce. "I would not miss it. After all, I am a dragon slayer."

Iorneste met Doctor Strahnd once the knights had mounted the dragons and secured themselves into place, ready to take to the air, helmets hung over the pommels of their new saddles. The Doctor had returned to his former immaculate level of cleanliness, face smooth and shorn, soiled clothes replaced with fresh clean linens and a replica of his former vest and cravat tie. Behind his spectacles, he squinted in the light of the rising dawn, shading his brow and peering up to take in the dragons assembled without reins, spurs, or saddles in the customary positions.

"This," the Doctor observed, words falling flat from his lips, hands twisting around the walking stick he held in both hands.

"New can be better, Doctor. You will see. Now kindly hush for a moment, as I have not yet relayed instructions."

He raised an eyebrow. "You are instructing them now?"

He ignored him, and raised his voice so that all could hear. "The wyverns will be stirring. Daylight agitates them. They may already be aloft. We seek their nest, a spire we will find to the west."

"Then we shall burn it to the ground!" shouted Selka, and the others raised their fists in the air, cheering.

He let the cheering continue for some time, for their chants and soldier's camaraderie to run its course, then raised one hand to request silence. "The spire is hollow, a shaft that will lead down into the earth, and that is where the queen will be found."

"Then how will we get inside?" asked Coelle, leaning down over her saddle.

"That will be my job, not yours. Yours will be to kill the wyverns in the air, ground them, burn them, do whatever you must. Then attack the spire."

"With you inside of it?" asked Selka. "That seems like a bad idea."

"I..." he paused, and the lie felt oily on his lips. "I will find another way out. They have other tunnels, and I must be sure that they are sealed, that there are not other pockets of them that could emerge later."

Her dubious look told him that she was not fooled. "That is a terrible plan."

"With all due respect, Dame Euphrane," he said, "I am a dragon slayer. This is exactly what I was bred to do. I know how to defeat them so that they will not return. I will, as you put it, exterminate them, with your help."

The grim looks of satisfaction on the faces of the knights that accompanied his words gave him heart. They were warriors, every one of them. Selka and Sorens had trained them well.

"Once the nest is attacked, they will attempt to flee inside, to stop me. You must make certain that they do not return. We will lure them out of the nest, and keep them there, and any who seek to return will be incinerated before they can arrive. They will die before they can return to their home, and soon enough they will have no home to return to."

Selka searched his face, and he was not certain what she was looking for, but at last she nodded. "You heard him. Make ready, knights! This is our land, not theirs! We go to show them that Esturia will never die!"

There were only a few women, but their cheers mingled with the loud trumpets of the dragons, such that the air was filled with their song, a battle cry going out to the horizon and, he hoped, filling the wyverns who might hear it with dread.

"For King! For Country! For those who have fallen!" Selka enjoined them. "For Despera!"

With a final cheer they took to the air, all of the dragons, even the ones unsaddled joining their ranks. They beat their wings, pulling themselves up into the sky, and even from here, Iorneste could feel their pulling on the aethir, their instinctual grasp of magic giving them a grace they could never have achieved otherwise. They circled overhead, as if waiting.

Doctor Strahnd gave him a crooked smile. "Would you perhaps be needing a horse?"

"It must madden you," Iorneste said to him as his body began to shimmer, "To find so many of your assumptions crippled by reality, Doctor."

As he took the form of the mirhawk and raced away to join the others in the air, Doctor Strahnd stared after him, slack-jawed.

Eight dragons, five riders, and a mirhawk soared through the skies, bearing westward. Dawn had risen, and with it they could see the roiling circle of black wings in the distant sky, fast approaching.

Selka had taken the moment that Iorn had changed forms into a mirhawk in such stride that she supposed that it was becoming even harder for him to shock her, but if she needed any further confirmation of his magical nature, that was certainly confirmation enough. He winged amongst them, gliding with easy beats on his long wings, at times flapping hard to keep from being overtaken altogether.

The spire he had predicted came into view, incredibly large, taller than the Aerie Tower, a black and scabrous thing. Its position alarmed her, as it had to be very close to Ernstile, a farming village near the Vend. If they did not stop them here, Ernstile would be next.

If the wyverns had not been there already.

The thought brought urgency to her mind, and she felt Kulvas respond to it beneath her, beating his leathery wings behind her even harder, pulling ahead of the others. Kulvas, her oldest friend. Where had he been all this time, and how had he returned? A question better asked and answered later, and she put it from her mind.

She felt the steel calm of battle descend upon her, the rush of blood in her veins, the pounding of her heart, breaths coming quickly, vision narrowing to a cone of death.

The roar of Kulvas was like the roar of her own spirit, and the others followed their lead, diving down into the mass of winged beasts, thirsty for blood and vengeance.

The sky was full of chaos and flame, and Iorneste swooped through it like an island of avian calm amidst a storm of tooth and claw. Dracfaer whooshed through the air, burning the wyverns like wasps, whose wings disintegrated in the flame, bodies screaming and sizzling as they fell. The riders on the backs of the dragons loosed arrows, javelins, and in Selka's case, rifle shot into their enemies. They were beyond words now, this was a cleansing; cauterizing a festering wound in fire, and they were the flames.

Boiling out from the spire, more and more wyverns came, attempting to overwhelm them, many of them rushing directly into the path of the flame, with only a few survivors being sought by the keen shots of their riders. With approval Iorneste noted how high they sat up on the backs of the drakes, courtesy of his updated saddle design, and their movements in harmony with those of their dragon companions, and how they protected their dragons by keeping watch to the sides, and above, for wyvern ambushers.

He trusted them to their duties, they were natural warriors, all of them. The drakes born to it, Selka and her knights bred for it. He weaved between the onrushing swarm of wyverns with aerial grace, a tiny winged form that passed between their grasping claws, and when pulling his wings in for a dive too small a target for their lashing tails to reach. He was also presumed he was much beneath their notice with the larger dragon menace behind and above him.

He aimed for the spire, seeing the dotted holes among the apex, openings to the caverns beneath, and for a moment his dream returned to him, the spire opening like a mouth, seeking to engulf his tiny form.

If his dream had been a warning, he ignored it, willingly diving into the maw, away from the fray that raged outside, and into the dark alien tunnels created by the mad god Xules' most despised and wretched creations.

The sickly-sweet smell of rot accosted him as he entered, and the fluorescent green ooze that coated the walls providing eerie light as he descended. Scrabbling up the sides of the tower were more and more wyverns, boiling up from underneath. Some reached for him, lashing out with lambent green eyes glowing in the increasing darkness, but most of their attention was elsewhere, seeking an exit to the outside world, where flesh awaited to feed their ravenous hunger, where the threat to their hive was waiting.

As he descended deeper, it was only his keen dragon vision and the faint greenish glow below that provided him enough illumination to see. The opening far above, the sun's light was now a distant memory, and he was deep within the earth now, beyond anyone's notice or help. He was in the Hive, and whether or not this would mark the end of it was entirely up to him now.

This should have been a job for one of the females. Sheldrache would have torn through this spire at its base, belching enough dracfaer into the bowels of this place to boil every living thing alive, the full power of her magic disarming and destroying any of the wyverns that dared to get close to her. Here he was a weak male, an exile, constrained by the Binding. What power do you have, she had asked him?

He saw the bottom, and he resolved himself to his fate. His power, he decided, was in action. Sheldrache was not here. He was. He would only be powerless if he did nothing. There was one target, and one target only that really mattered here, and even a very tiny missile could cause a great deal of damage when aimed properly.

The vertical tunnel opened into a vast cavern, with pools of sickly glowing green waste, the floor itself crawling like mutant ants, with the wingless wyvern drones that existed to dig and expand to new areas, and to tend to their queen, roiling about on the ground below. They crawled over and among each other, ichorous, poisoned skin rubbing wetly in the swarming darkness.

Thousands of soft eggs with weak, gelatinous skins wobbled like jelly, as if sensing his approach, the wriggling larvae within eager to seek flesh. The ravenous, unceasing hunger that was their defining characteristic fully-formed even before they were born.

He tried to ignore his fear, but he could not escape the idea that if he were to land, they would cover his body in seconds, strip every bit of flesh from his body, and leave only his bones behind in a silent scream for all eternity.

He missed his dragon form terribly in that moment.

Then he heard the deep, heavy breathing of a vast creature, and realized that the large, misshapen rock against one wall was not, in fact, a rock, but was the very target he sought.

He had found their queen.

The lashing tail of the wyvern snapped air near her face, and Selka threw herself against Kulvas' neck as the creature burned and dropped to the earth far below. The heat of a gout of flame from Korovas washed over her shoulders. It was one very good reason for the green dragonscale armor—dragon fire was less of an issue, though she could still be easily roasted within her armor if she got too close.

Kulvas drew in his wings, and weaved in a serpentine fashion through the air, spearing down into a clot of wyverns, crushing them in his claws, tearing off the head of another with his powerful jaws, and dropping their mangled remains with a roar.

She was out of rifle ammunition, and felt somewhat useless in the midst of an aerial fight. They had not trained much for this situation, directing most of their tactics and training to bombardment of ground-based forces, but she was proud of her knights all the same. Despite being so few, the dragons were superior combatants to the wyverns, and their dragon fire was instant death to any it touched. The riders upon their backs were excellent support, picking off any of the wyverns that got too close, or managed to get behind the dragon's guard. She felt a gnaw of worry, sensing Kulvas' growing tiredness, and tried to get her bearings, her dragon sensing her need to get closer to her second-in-command and beating a path up into the air to join Embre and Cloud.

"Burn it!" she screamed into the wind, uncertain at first if Embre had heard her, but with a nod behind her own dragon helmet the Knight-Captain signaled to Coelle to join her, and the two of them swooped closer to the great, ugly blackened spire, and began belching flame all over it. It was not made of rock, she assumed, because it burned very well, making black, foul smoke boil up into the sky.

The wyverns that broke through the smoke were already engulfed in flame, maddened by pain or their own alien hunger, determined to strike out and defend their Hive. With grim satisfaction, Selka and Kulvas, with Korovas and Matra soon joining them, destroyed them all. She felt a long moment's misgiving, knowing that Iorn was inside, but then reminded herself that he had nothing to fear from dragonfire.

But what about what else was inside? Knowing what likely awaited him there, she was not so confident.

He was not interested in fighting his way through the drones to reach the queen. Though he remained confident in his abilities, there was still too much risk. The risk that he would fail, born down by the greater numbers and shredded down into bone before he could defeat the queen.

He could not take that chance.

Instead, he circled within the cavern, looking down at the queen below. She was ten times the size of a standard wyvern, her body grossly swollen, filled even now with the eggs that were being ejected into ichorous piles behind her. The drones snatched up these eggs, taking them into grotesque mockeries of dragon hatcheries, smaller caverns that adjoined the main one where they could soon birth more of their foul kind. Her skin writhed as the eggs within swarmed beneath her, her long neck and balefire green eyes remaining characteristic of the rest of her brood, but her legs were useless vestigial things, barely able to squirm her bulk across the slimy floor. She existed to feed, and to breed more wyverns, and by herself she could easily repopulate within a few hours the force that they had eliminated the day before.

In front of her was a pool of slurry, the regurgitated remains of bones and blood and flesh that had been harvested by the hunter wyverns who had ventured forth into the world beyond, ravenous to feed and consume all that they could, to return it to their mother. Somewhere within that mess, he knew, were the unrecognizable bits of those he had once walked about within the Aerie Keep, and the folk who had called Mir's Edge their home.

She reached her mouth down into the slurry, gulping down the offerings of her brood, swallowing them down her engorged throat, and excreting more and more gelatinous eggs behind her. Her smell was the worst of all, and he struggled not to gag. It would not do to draw their attention to him now while they still thought of him as little more than a nuisance bird, high above their notice or concern.

That was about to change.

He positioned himself over her monstrous head, and the image of his dream flashed in his head again, the vast maw opening to swallow him whole. Then he shifted back to his human form, and even as he began to fall he pulled the sword Yrmbane from its sheath, gripping it so hard within his hands that his knuckles ached. He approached the ground quickly, and on his way down he swung the blade with all of his strength, seeing the glow of the aethir crackling along the runes, the drac rune of sharpness being his friend above all right now.

His aim was true, and the blade encountered only a slight resistance as his weight, downward momentum, and the enchantments of the blade conspired to aid him as it contacted, and then severed through the queen's neck, dropping her head to the ground with a slam, along with his own body. She did not even have time to let out a scream, and her neck flopped about uselessly, the unbirthed eggs roiling within her without the ability of her muscles to push them out.

The room came alive as hundreds of lambent eyes faced his direction, and the drones scurried towards him, maddened and hungry, crying out to defend their queen, even as he knew it was too late for her. Whether or not it was too late for him remained to be seen.

The first of them leaped for him, and he caught its jaws on the edge of his blade, turning his body with all of his might to both cut and fling it behind him, reversing the direction of his cut to catch the next following in a similar leap. These were the vanguard, but more and more followed behind.

What do you think, Mourne? he asked. This seems a matter of life and death.

The conditions of the Binding seemed to agree, and he felt the bonds slacken, and reached deep into the aerte, pulling on the strands of the aethir that was his birthright, and he laughed at the power returned to his command. This was not a duel with an enemy with a sword, as Selka had trained him. This was not about respect, or fairness. There is no fairness on the battlefield, as Selka had said.

There was also, he exulted, no reason to hold back. He laid about with his sword with impunity, clearing a space around him, and then reached for the magic, calling forth the elements. A circle of flame rose up around him, and he fed it with the aethir, channeling it and pushing it outward into the drones. Some passed through it, the flames bringing high-pitched screams from their mouths as it coated their skins, others hesitated, seeking a way through or over the flame.

His eyes burned and his mouth crackled with flame, feeling the warmth of his own dracfaer raging within his breast. One of them caught him a glancing blow on the shoulder, and he reached out, snagging the creatures throat even as its tail wrapped around his arm, the spur spiraling ever closer to his face. He squeezed, tearing out its throat and some of its black tongue, tossing the drone through the flames and into more of its brood.

He called on the power of earth, and felt the ground buckle and move like water, rumbling deep and groaning with the sound of the rock's friction, burying the crawling drones beneath its rocky waves, pulverizing and mangling the creatures with its fury. He reached his hand up towards the ceiling, pulling down hard, and the collapse brought down several tons of rock on more of the creatures.

But he was young, and accessing so much of the aethir was beginning to tire him. He ignored it, focusing his efforts, and the screaming of the wyvern drones brought blood to his ears and a ringing that would not stop, but he was relentless, smashing and burning every moving thing that he could see until there was nothing left in the room but twitching limbs and scorched wyvern flesh.

The last few he dispatched with Yrmbane, finding that the magic had deserted him, and bringing a soul-deep weariness along with it, but the devastation was impressive, and he had to admit he had not been certain he was capable of it. The hunters were above, their lives being extinguished from the air. He suspected the spire was already burning even now. All that remained were the eggs.

Breathing hard he took slow and deliberate steps toward the hatcheries, laying about with his sword to rupture and violate every one of the wyvern eggs he could on the way, moving about the cavern and focusing on his grisly work.

And then the strangest thing happened, quite unexpected. His animus felt a prick, and suddenly the awareness of another presence, inky and black and filled with an ancient madness.

"Who are you?" rumbled a voice like rock and grinding bone, and he spun about to face the source of the voice in shock. The voice spoke in High Draccian.

Lumbering out from another cavern, its scales as dark as night and is belly a sickly yellowish-green, with ropy veins of blackness knotted across its surface, was a dragon. Its eyes were a glowing yellowish-green as well, filled with the same madness he had felt in its animus.

Horror and rage warred within his breast, and his grip tightened on Yrmbane even more.

This was not a Drac. It was Yeomi.

Selka and the knights of the Dragon Corps watched the burning wyvern spire from the air for a time, before Selka motioned them down to earth. No more of the wyverns had emerged for some time, and the entire thing was now a raging conflagration. They landed some distance away, resting their dragons' wings, pulling off their helmets, and squirting water into their mouths from the skins they had stashed within the bags that Iorn had cleverly worked into the saddle.

Selka watched the fire burn, eyes anxious for any attempt to escape, willing a painful death upon the foul creatures inside. This was from all of us, you bastards. Burn. Suffer, and burn, and die, and never return.

Embre was the first to speak. "Yorn went in there, didn't he?"

It took some of her satisfaction away, a knot of worry in her belly. "Yes."

"You did not tell us that he could change into a hawk."

"I..." she paused, thinking of a suitable response, but these were here sisters. "I did not know until you did."

"How is that possible?" asked Tresha, face flushed and eyes weary. "I have not heard of magic like that, except in old legends, and a few stories from some of the soldiers about the Dorochi."

"He is from the Drac Orden," Selka explained, and though it was not quite a lie, it still felt like one, and she would not meet the eyes of her subordinate. "They have their own powers and secrets."

"Do you really think we can trust him?" Embre asked, her alto voice hoarse from shouting. "It seems that he has his own agenda."

That caught her attention, and she whirled to face her second-in-command from atop the back of Kulvas. "How can you ask that? He has changed everything, and for the better. Or have you forgotten what it was like when you laid your hand upon Cloud and were finally able to speak to him? How you could fly together at last once more? The new saddles, his defense of the Aerie Tower, we owe him everything!"

"I will not dispute that the saddles are an improvement. And what he has shown us about dragons is more than we learned from Strahnd in years. It is seems he cares more about the dragons than he does about us."

She felt heat wash up the back of her neck and into her cheeks. "That is his job, Dame Stormwall," she said. "He is our Keeper."

"He is also a dragon slayer."

"And he has slain quite a few dragons, has he not?"

"It just seems a conflict of interests. A curious one at that."

She snapped, "Perhaps. But while he is in there, somewhere below ground, risking his life for us, I will not hear any more of this. Any more than I would stand for someone questioning your courage."

Embre opened her mouth, as if to object further, but perhaps seeing that Selka was in no mood for it thought better of it, and the words that came out of her mouth were no doubt different than the ones she had originally intended. "We do owe him a great deal, Knight-Marshal. My apologies, I just...I do not understand him."

"I am not certain I do either," she confessed. "But so far our trust in him has not been misplaced."

Coelle spoke up, her light voice out of place after so much strife and death. "How long should we wait, Knight-Marshal?"

"As long as it takes, Dame Eldewinde."

"But," Coelle said, looking down. "We do not know if he will return."

"We will give him the benefit of the doubt. In any case, I have no desire to leave until I see that...that thing in ashes."

There were no further arguments, and they watched the spire burn in silence from there on out.

The Yeomi's animus was like an oily hand around his shoulder, and Iorneste shrugged it off as the unwanted advance it was. Even being in the presence of this thing's animus made him feel dirty.

"Come now," the Yeomi said, emerging into the cavern and stretching out to his full size. "Tell me your name. I am Errezahn. What is a haergaunte, and a male no less, doing so far from his home?"

The animus revealed surface thoughts, and by mentioning his home the old wyrm was trying to trick him into revealing its location. He kept those thoughts carefully focused on Summersgard, walling off his animus as much as possible.

He could not hide the snarl from his voice. "My name is Iorneste," he said, walking closer, sword in hand. "I am your death, Yeomi."

The answering rumbling chuckle of the Yeomi both frightened and infuriated him, for he knew this was his own death. They do not come alone, Iorneste. Remember that. His dream, the open maw, the black flame. It was a warning that he had missed. The Yeomi had brought the wyverns here. How many more were about in Esturia?

"I see the blood oath you Drac swore centuries ago still holds sway. You do not think to treat with me, but to murder me. How rude." There was a note of warning in the old wyrm's voice, his towering size too massive to fit within the cavern without a bit of a slouch.

"You are an abomination," Iorneste said, tongues of flame escaping past his lips, fury pounding triple time in his chest. "And you bring abominations with you."

"Enough of this," the Yeomi snapped, and he felt the press of the creature's animus hammer down upon him, the ancient will of the creature pressing past his young defenses, and his sword dropped from his fingers as he felt a stab of pain that quickly numbed his hand. "There. Much improved, I would say. Would you not listen to my proposal?"

"Your proposal?" he said, gritting his teeth, struggling to reach for the sword but the power of the eregaunte's great animus would not allow it. "You care for nothing but to destroy."

"As all of our kind used to do with impunity," the Yeomi Errezahn said with a sniff and a disdainful glance around the cavern. "Now look at you. Hiding out, and they rule this world. You gave it up without a fight, and now suddenly you care about what we do with what you left behind?"

He struggled to advance, but his feet would not obey him. It was how the animus worked. Deep inside he had been convinced by the Yeomi's power that it was futile, dominated as surely as he could have been by any of his elders.

"You must be an exile, yes?" said Errezahn. "Oh, don't be surprised. We know about your foolish ritual. We know a lot more about you than you think."

His fury and helplessness stole whatever witty rejoinder he might have said. He focused only on keeping his thoughts to himself.

"Trapped as a human for twenty-five years," Errezahn taunted, and he still had not looked at him. "Stripped of your magic, far from your kind, far from any sort of help, and yet you chose to fight a nest of wyverns by yourself, and won." The corrupt dragon yawned, baring his teeth. "Impressive, I'll admit. I would not have thought you capable of such with only a sword."

Hope sprung within him suddenly, and he struggled to fight it down as soon as it appeared, aware of the link between them. But it sung there all the same, the growing realization, and he kept it as far from the forefront of his thoughts as possible. He had been underestimated.

"Of course, you have stepped your course directly into my path, so I will offer the proposal I intended to offer before, with full consideration for your surprising resourcefulness: die here now, or become one with us."

There was never any choice in the matter, and in the presence of a Yeomi, his ancient enemy, with the threat of death hanging upon him, the Binding was lax. He saw the Yeomi's head in profile, the great creature bored and unconcerned, thinking him trapped in human form and with his only weapon discarded at his feet. No matter what, he could not bend down and grab it, and could not advance towards the old wyrm. Apparently powerless.

He did not need to speak words, or even gesture. He simply reached for the aethir and, as exhausted as he was, it answered his call.

Yrmbane streaked from its place on the floor, grabbed by the invisible hands of his power, and sped across the room, flying straight and true, guided by his Drac magic.

"I make my own choices, Yeomi," he answered, "After all, I am an exile." The wyrm was just beginning to turn his head, sensing something to be alarmed about in the bond between them when the claymore buried itself to the hilt within Errezahn's eye socket.

Iorneste heard a scream and saw a gout of black flame, and then he was flying back through the air and hit something with enough force to knock him deep into oblivion.

Artist Credit


by Traktorova

© 2015 Traktorova

Continue to Chapter Twenty-Two