On the path between a dying city and a mountain, a dying guardsman rode with a precious bundle in his arms. This was not the first horse the guardsman had ridden since leaving the city. The others had perished on the journey. He hadn’t even purchased this horse. Having long ago discarded his tabard and armor, this guardsman wore thick furs to keep out the bitter cold. Between that and the wild look in his eyes, he looked less like a guardsman and more like a bandit. It was fitting, in a way, the third and final horse he rode was stolen.
His name was Comber, and he had been part of the troop assigned to protect the royal family against all threats. For ten years he had stood his post, alongside the royal family’s Umbrists. Comber didn’t have the Shadow-infused powers of the Umbrist. He had armor that had been forged with steel mixed with light, and a sword that had been blessed millennia ago with a dragon’s breath.
He had a vow to protect the royal family against any and all threats. He’d fought when the minions of a necromancer had snuck in through the sewers. He had a scar still from where an assassin’s crossbow meant for the King had instead found his thigh. He was not a coward, and he had thought himself beyond fear.
Comber looked over his shoulder. His pursuers weren’t there. He was alone here. There was nothing but a path through the woods, a path that had been cleared by game hunters who would head this way. It took a bold man to hunt in these woods, given what guarded them. The same being that drew Comber deeper within. His last hope for salvation.
The skies darkened, and Comber risked a glance upwards. There it was. That hole in the sky. The sun had passed behind it, casting a momentary shadow across the world. It was like the eclipse Comber remembered from when he was a child, but there was still light coming from the center. Small points showing stars unlike any he had seen before.
A few tiny dots broke off from the main circle. Comber shuddered at the sight. He’d seen what those dots could do when they got lower.
The bundle in his arms stirred when he shivered again, and looked up at him with bright green eyes. Awake now, the child’s face was placid for just a moment, those beautiful eyes flickering about. Then hunger set in, and the child started to wail.
“Shhh, little one,” Comber whispered, stroking the side of the child’s face. “Shhh.”
Still the child cried. She was just old enough to eat solid food that had been mashed together. Comber grimaced and looked around again. There was no one present. “Shhh,” Comber said, pulling on the reins of the horse. He reached into his pack. He still had some berries from the last town, and got to work mashing them into a paste with a mortar and pestle. At her age, the child had just enough understanding of what that smell and sound meant, and her cries turned to excited cooing as she reached towards his hands. “Almost there, little one,” Comber said. Or at least, he started to say. Halfway through the wound in his side reminded him of why he’d abandoned his sword, and Comber hissed in pain. Even the simple motion of grinding berries was too much for him.
He set the mortar down carefully. He hadn’t been able to get a spoon in his mad flight. The child was able to suckle the paste off his finger, and that would have to be good enough. Once she’d been fed, Comber held her with one hand and pulled the other inside his coat. He ran his fingers over the hasty bandage. It was damp. He wanted to look at the injury, but didn’t dare. He knew what he’d find. Black veins sprawling outwards from under the bandage, creeping along his skin. Last night, the veins had been halfway to his chest. Soon they would reach his heart.
He’d die then. Comber didn’t need to be a Physician to know that.
The child reached up and grabbed for his nose with hands wrapped in mittens. Comber let her grab it, then pressed his forehead to hers. “Soon, you’ll be safe,” Comber whispered to her.
Then it was time to transition the child to the straps wrapped around his chest, freeing his hands, and Comber resumed his ride to the mountain.
The horse – Comber had never bothered giving it a name – came to a stop, and the jolt rocked Comber awake. He blinked around blearily. He’d fallen asleep in the saddle somehow. Everything felt like it had been coated in a layer of wool. Comber worked one of his hands free of the glove and pressed it against his forehead. In spite of the cold, heat radiated from the touch. “Fever,” he muttered to the child.
“Bah-bah-bah-bah,” she said, which Comber took as affirmation. He smiled down at her, then looked around again. They’d reached the mountain.
“We go no further together,” he said to the horse. Comber had never been one to speak to his mounts, aside from commands. He preferred to make noises at them, reassuring ones. But in the grip of fever, Comber felt irrationally sorry for abandoning an animal he’d only had for a day. A stolen one, at that. “You’ll be able to find your way back to town, won’t you? Or maybe you’ll be able to run free now, without the need…the need…” Comber trailed off. What had he been doing? Talking to a horse, that’s what.
They were close to the base of the mountain, but not quite there. He could see it. Perhaps he could ride the horse a little bit further? He dug his heels in. The horse let out a huff of air and shook its head, instead backing up a few paces. “Of course,” Comber said, shaking his head. “Of course. A horse. A horse of course.” He laughed a bit. It wasn’t funny, but the child joined in the laughter. He patted the side of the horse’s neck again. “You smell it, don’t you?”
The horse shook its head violently and took another step back. That was all the confirmation Comber needed. The horse would go no further. “You know,” Comber said, getting ready to dismount. “I should have known. They eat you, don’t they?”
The horse did not respond this time, for it was a horse, and all it cared about was that it didn’t need to go any further.
Comber got one foot out of the stirrup, but the world started to spin. Instead of dismounting gracefully, Comber swung drunkenly, and collapsed into the snow. He had just enough presence of mind to turn around as he fell, landing on his back to keep the child safe. Comber growled in pain as the impact lanced through his back. The shock did wonders for clearing his head. The child, jostled by the fall, poked her head up and giggled.
“That’s right,” Comber grunted. “I’m silly, aren’t I?”
The child reached up for him, grasping for him. Comber put his finger out for her to hold onto.
He’d abandoned his station, and he knew he should feel guilty about that, but…the beings that had come from that hole in the sky were beyond anything that could be fought. Arrows bounced off their gleaming carapace. Swords were deflected with swipes from their unnatural hands. He had a duty, and he could only save one person.
He’d chosen her.
Comber rose to his feet and turned the horse around. It only took a nudge to get the horse trotting away from the mountain.
It would live. The child would live. That would have to be enough.
Comber made himself walk towards the mountain. Every footstep was like lead. He spotted a trail in the snow – someone else had come this way and left. They were human, or at least walked like one. It could be an Underfolk or Sylvani. It wasn’t the invaders. That much was certain. No one could mistake their skittering legs for human footsteps.
The mountain, at least, was free of snow. Impossibly free, and impossibly warm. A fire burned in the heart of this mountain. Not the molten fire of a volcano. A living flame. A hungering flame.
Had the fever started sooner than Comber realized? He’d been so certain of this plan. He’d heard tales of the flame that lived in this mountain. The tales had made it out to be one of the ones that did not feast on the flesh of Man or the other Intelligent Races. They said it had stood alongside the forces of the Light and Shadow against dread powers in the past. They said it was not to be disturbed, but would not slay – except for those that came to attack it.
But still…could he trust it?
It was too late now. There was nowhere else he was certain would be safe for the child. Not with that locket, secured carefully in a pouch in the swaddling. Even without it…would anywhere be safe from the invaders? Would anything? They hadn’t been killing innocents. They’d killed armies, they’d slaughtered guards, but any who did not pick up blade or spear against them was spared their wrath. Yet…Comber didn’t trust them to stop there. It was possible – nay, it seemed likely – that they were just starting with those that posed a threat to them.
“Not that we did,” he said to the child, who paused in her attempts to gum his finger to look up at him. “I hope, if you remember nothing else, you remember that we tried. We tried.”
“Burrrbl,” the child said happily.
“We tried,” Comber repeated. And they had. Nicandros, the captain of the royal guard, had commanded them perfectly. However, no strategy could overcome the fact that their weapons did no harm to the invaders. That was when Comber realized the only option was saving what he could. That there would be no victory here. Still, Comber had fought, until his wound. Then…he’d been even more useless in battle.
Time became unstable. Comber kept walking up the warm mountain and its bare stones. It was a gentle slope, which was the only reason he could progress at all. Ahead, he saw his goal.
A hole, high up the mountain. One far larger than would be needed for a man to pass through, and one too smooth and round to be the result of nature. This was not a cave. It was a lair.
Comber stumbled and dropped to his knees. The child started to wail again, startled by the jostling. Comber tried to shush its cries, but he was too late. Something was stirring in the lair, dragging itself forth from the depths. Comber saw golden eyes peering out of the darkness, followed by red scales and immense, bat-like wings.
Comber had never seen a dragon in person. Only flying overhead, and even then, such sights were rare. He’d expected them to crawl across a ground, like a lizard, but this one slunk with a cat’s grace. An older cat, one that was past its prime hunting days, but still possessed with enough energy to move about. The dragon flapped its wings and took to the air, circling around Comber once before landing.
“I told Lathariel I would not be disturbed,” the dragon growled, and Comber was certain he’d made a mistake. Tears started to form in his eyes, unbidden.
“Please…” Comber said, but the dragon shook its head.
“I will not fight.” The dragon looked up, seeing the hole in the sky, and its nostrils flared. For a moment, Comber could see it considering…then it shook its head again. “I will not fight,” it repeated. “Leave this threat for younger drakes. Ones that have hotter flames.”
“Please…” Comber said again, then he coughed. Flecks of something black came with the cough, and Comber moved with speed he didn’t know he still had, pulling the child free of the path of whatever those were. He groaned in pain and nearly blacked out.
“You are injured,” the dragon said, leaning down. “And you are ill.”
“I can heal your injuries,” the dragon said, after considering for a moment. “But my flames will make the disease spread quicker.”
“Not…me.” Comber coughed again. “Her.”
The dragon looked at the child. “She’s uninjured,” he said.
“Care…protect.” Comber’s vision grew dark. “She…she…is.” Comber’s vision narrowed. “She is…everything….” The dragon was barely visible now. The world was barely visible. The child stirred, looking from the dragon to Comber and back again, starting to make distressed noises. She didn’t fear the dragon. That was good. But she could tell something was wrong.
“I’m sorry,” Comber said to the child. He looked back up at the dragon. His vision was barely there anymore. He’d gone so far. It felt like part of his mind had been set on fire, to hold back death, and now that he was here, that flame had gone out. “Tell her…” Comber said, and then he started to cough again. “She is…”
“What should I tell her she is?” the dragon asked, after Comber had been silent for too long. When he got no response, the dragon Karjon leaned down. The man’s heartbeat had been so faint when he’d approached, Karjon could barely hear it. Now, though? Now there was nothing.
And the child started to cry.
Karjon looked at it. He’d never dealt with human children before. He knew they needed more comfort than hatchlings. Uncertain, Karjon reached out with one claw and retracted his talon, then brushed his scales on the child’s cheek.
Quick as a viper, the child grabbed Karjon’s finger tightly, trying to seek some comfort in a world that had abandoned her.
Karjon sighed. He had not had children of his own. He hadn’t planned on doing so. But…if nothing else, he could not leave this child to starve on his mountain. He carefully bit on the swaddling, making certain to only let his fangs touch the fabric.
Once these invaders had been dealt with, Karjon would take the child to the nearest humans. They would know how to handle her. He’d keep her safe until then. It shouldn’t be long. There had been many threats over his nine hundred years of life. They’d always been defeated.
There was no reason to believe this would be any different.
“I have lived for centuries,” Karjon growled. “I dueled the Necromancer Gix and his army of undead. I was on the Council of Twelve, battling the Lichborne. When the mad Lumcaster sought to blind the world, I doused him in my flames. How is it that nothing has vexed me as much as you, little one?”
Tythel looked up at the dragon with eyes wide in feigned innocence. Sixteen years had passed since the mountain and the snow. She didn’t remember it, of course. Just as she did not remember what her name had been before coming here. Tythel was a dragon’s name, not a human name. For all Karjon’s bluster, she was not worried. In sixteen years, Karjon had never raised a claw in anger. “Father, have you considered that it is just because you love me so dearly?”
Karjon huffed and shook his head. “That cannot be it. I think it must be because I did not know how vexing your unique subspecies of humans can be.”
“Subspecies?” Tythel asked.
“Yes. Those strange beings humans call ‘adolescents.’ Or perhaps it is just a trait unique to daughters.”
Tythel beamed at him. The expression only came through with her eyes. In her books, humans would use their mouths to do things like smile and frown. Tythel understood, in theory, what those were, but the expressions didn’t come to her naturally. From what Karjon had said, she’d smiled and frowned at first…but with time, those had stopped. Now, she blinked rapidly to show her excitement. “Which would only matter because you love me. Therefore, I am still correct. And, since I am correct, I see no reason I should not be allowed to go.”
Karjon sighed heavily. “Tythel…”
“You said I could,” Tythel reminded him, trying her best not to sound sullen.
“I told you that, yes,” Karjon said. “I said you could go when it was safe.”
“I want to see other humans,” Tythel said. “Why can’t I go?”
Karjon sighed again, a sound that filled the entire cave that was his lair and their home. “When, exactly, did ‘because I said so’ become insufficient?”
“When I stopped being a child,” Tythel said. “You said when I was sixteen, I could go and see other humans.”
“I said that you could go into the village when you were sixteen, Tythel. I did not say you could do so the very next day.” Making that promise, back when she was nine, had been a mistake. He’d done it to get her to cease her incessant questions. He didn’t think humans of that age could remember things for so long.
“You’re splitting scales and you know it,” she folded her arms across her chest and glowered at him.
Karjon, who weighed in at just over six tons and had battled some of the greatest foes the world had ever seen, broke the staring contest first. Tythel tried not to blink when she realized that meant she was getting through to him. For all his fury and might, Karjon had always struggled to deny her anything. Still, he was not caving like he usually did. “Tythel, there are reasons for the choices I make. They are for your safety.”
“You always hide behind that, father. Are you planning on keeping me here the rest of my life? What are you hiding me from?”
“There are those out there that would see you dead. Is that not enough explanation?”
She again glowered at him. “You know I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me. But if you want me to leave it alone, you’ll need to give me more than that.” Her expression softened. “Please, father.”
Karjon settled down onto the pile of coins that made his seat. Tythel took the cue and walked over to her own, smaller pile. She didn’t have a hoard of her own. Not yet. But she would one day, although she was less than eager for that day. Dragons did not share a hoard. She’d have to leave for that day, never to live here again.
“Perhaps…” Karjon started to say, then held up a claw to forestall her before she got too excited. “It is time you know of the dangers beyond this lair. Why I keep you hidden here. And tomorrow…” he studied her critically for a moment, then nodded. “You are old enough.”
“To go visit?” Tythel asked hopefully.
“Not yet,” Karjon said, shaking his head. “But tomorrow, I think you are ready for the one thing I know you want more than to leave.”
Tythel sat up straighter, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “You mean…you’ll finish the adoption?”
Karjon nodded, and Tythel leapt up to run over and wrap her arms around her father’s neck. “Thank you thank you thank you!” There were tears forming in her eyes, a human reaction she hadn’t shed with age, but these were tears of joy and not sadness.
“It’s past time,” Karjon said. “I just worried about how your body would react to the transformation.”
“I know,” Tythel said, although deep in her heart, she’d worried that he wouldn’t do it. That she wasn’t good enough. She’d never told Karjon that. If it wasn’t true, it would have broken his heart. If it was true…she couldn’t have handled that. Now, though, she was practically vibrating with anticipation.
Karjon put one of his claws around her. His version of a hug. From what he’d said, dragons did not engage in touch the way humans did, but one of his books had told him a lack of touch and affection could kill human infants. Deep down, Tythel suspected he had grown to like it himself. “Now. Will you listen, and will you wait?”
Tythel nodded firmly.
“Then do so,” Karjon said, and Tythel settled back onto her coins. “Sixteen years ago, just days before you were brought to me…the skies let loose monsters.”
“Monsters?” Tythel asked.
Karjon nodded. “I do not know if they have a name. I know what Lathariel, the goddess of the woods, told me they were being called. ‘Those From Above.’ They had weapons that sucked in light and spewed forth their own, unnatural energy. Unlight, she called it.”
“And you fought them?” Tythel asked, excitedly.
Karjon shook his head, and in his eyes Tythel could see sorrow she’d never imagined from her father. “I am old,” Karjon said. “I thought they could be defeated without me. Even when I was told dragonflame was all that would harm them…I still thought they could be defeated. There were other dragons. By the time I realized…it was too late. Those From Above had secured power over humanity. They rule down there now. As far as I know, they only fear dragonflame.”
Tythel held up a hand and focused. A ball of flame formed between her fingers. “They fear this?” she asked. Dragonflame was similar to normal fire, but more vibrant. The transition from white to yellow to orange to red that happened in a normal flame was marked by clearer lines. It was weak. Not close to the true power of a dragon. But it was not nothing.
“Yes,” Karjon said, and there was a somber note to his voice Tythel couldn’t ignore. “Healing you when you injured yourself…you already formed the gift. They will hunt you. For that and…for other reasons.”
“What other reasons?”
Karjon shook his head. “Not yet. There is much I have kept from you. You are old enough now, but…allow me to give the information slowly. Tomorrow. I will tell you the other tomorrow. Because there’s something you need to understand.” He put one claw carefully on her knee. “Tythel…tomorrow, after the Ascension, the number of dragons in the world will go from one to two.”
Tythel stared at her father for a long moment, processing his words. She’d never met another dragon, but the idea there had been other dragons out there…she’d just assumed it. Realizing they’d been hunted down, there was only one thing to do.
She hugged Karjon again, and her father hugged her back.
This time, Tythel was certain it wasn’t just for her benefit.