The rain that had fallen so persistently over the last few weeks is nowhere to be found.
The night is cold and starless, but it is not dark. Far from it. The grasslands to the west, east, north, that grove of trees on that ridge, those vine on the low cliffs – they’re all on fire.
Hundreds of winged shapes circle the sky like vultures, their bellies blazing red in the reflected light. The only thing stopping them from coming down all at once is the small size of their target.
That’s right: two giants and a four-room coach – a small target. You think I’m joking.
Oon’Shang is slowing down. Two more little dragons have sank their teeth – no, their whole faces – into her back, making a crimson cape of blood. Her single, unarmed hand is crushing at least one neck with each swipe, but more are coming, an endless flock.
She needs a weapon.
No, not my little toothpick. She needs a giant’s weapon.
Oon’Shei, he’s got javelins, blades.
How am I supposed to –?
A horn-studded head – so many horns, all stuck together like some kind of malignant growth – materialises out of the orange gloom and rams Oon’Shang square in the gut.
The little dragons do not flee; they turn to shreds.
I seem to be flying.
The world is upside down. Oon’Shang’s flailing arm zooms past an inch from my face. A yellow slitted eye looks up from below; the dragon’s. This one’s not cute at all. Those horns look absolutely disgusting, like someone had shoved a half-decayed carcasses into its skull.
That eye, it’s following me. It’s turning all the way around. What excellent peripheral vision.
Something soft and leathery breaks the fall. Feels…warm, hot even, and ridged by feather-like bones. Slippery too.
Then it moves.
Then I’m spinning. Airborne again and spinning. Somebody help. Stick a foot out or something.
Thanks, ground. Glad you’ve got my back. All two dozen pieces of it.
Wait no, don’t be silly. It’s just an arm that’s broken.
Someone’s pulling me up. Ouch wrong arm not that one stop it can’t you tell it’s broke -
Haylis has somehow managed to land on her feet.
‘Get up! Hurry!’ she yells.
I’m too much of a deadweight. She staggers just in time for a massive tail to swing over and miss her head so closely, a long strip of her hair is torn out by the roots. The ensuing wind feels like a skinning blade, sending our faces to the ground.
Haylis is shaking all over and clutching my broken arm like that’s going to help. Instinctively, without any instruction, we both assume the stance of warriors: foetal position.
The dragon, the big one with the disgusting horns, is turning around. Pieces of the smaller dragons are stuck to its head, their blood running rivers down the lines of its jaws. Its tongue slips out and licks the stuff. That’s cannibalism, friend, don’t do that.
Those yellow eyes are getting closer. They’re awful. Hunger and malice, hunger and malice, hunger and malice and nothing else.
Why is it tilting its head? Shoo, I’m not on the menu. Shoo.
How does it lunge so fast it’s on top of me in a blink of an eye I could barely get surprised how does it move so quickly how is that even physically possible what am I doing rambling in my head I’m about to get eaten –
Its jaws snap shut two inches from my face. Sulphur and brimstone are on its breath, as if a click of its teeth could start a fire. Its neck strains to cover that last bit of distance, but doesn’t seem capable of it.
I stare into its eyes and the dragon stares back. Its mouth opens and stays open as blue fire rises in its throat like a blooming flower.
Like your meat charcoaled do you?
At the last possible moment a massive hand yanks it back by the horns, and the stream of fire that would’ve cooked me and Haylis alive fountains into the sky.
Oon’Shang. She has it by the neck.
The struggle that ensues…if an ant ever spectates human wrestling, this is what it feels like.
With a massive kick the dragon launches into the air, lifting Oon’Shang with it. Before it can fly properly its neck gets bent all the way around into a horseshoe shape.
Imbalanced, they crash, and Oon’Shang immediately heaves her entire weight onto the base of the dragon’s head, pinning it to the ground.
It tries to breathe fire again, but the giant hand slapping down on its jaw snuffs out the flame instantly. Sensing the lightened load the dragon bucks, its winged forelegs flapping wildly as its tail swings around like that of a scorpion’s and lands square on Oon’Shang’s back.
She rolls forward, her grip on the neck not loosened at all. Now they look like they’re awkwardly trying to kiss. The dragon’s jaws snap. Clack. Clack. They bite nothing. Huge stone-like muscles bulge on Oon’Shang’s arms. She’s choking it.
Her back is turned this way. So much blood on there, and not one piece of whole skin.
Again the dragon tries to fly. Again the giant throws it to the ground. A black puff of smoke comes out of its mouth, fireless; no air, no burning.
The dragon rolls – not an easy task for a winged creature – thinking that it might loosen Oon’Shang’s grip. But the biceps of a giant is much stronger than the neck of a dragon.
With lightning speed she twists it the other way.
Those wings twitch and become still.
Oon’Shang immediately slumps down on all fours, her chest heaving rapidly, her orange veil in shreds.
Blood is pouring down her back in a waterfall.
I get up. There’s not nearly enough linen to dress that wound but someone has to do something about the –
The screeching returns. Like giant, violent seagulls.
A cloud of little dragons descend from the sky.
It is said that of the three thousand soldiers that marched with Kathanhiel on the Elisaad campaign, only eight walked with her into the Endless Ranges.
Am I making it sound like everyone died? Sorry.
The rest stayed behind and built Fort Iborus at the foot of the Ranges. Although anticlimactic, there’s a good reason for it.
Kathanhiel didn’t need them. They would’ve only gotten in the way.
An avatar of fire.
She leaps from the carriage’s roof and lands before us.
Her steel cuirass has melted. The red hot liquid, instead of dripping to the ground, clings to her body, drawn in by an unseen force.
Her face is that of a bronze-cast goddess, her eyes two brilliant stars. Her hair has come together in roving strands that resemble the little hallucinations that Kaishen had once created.
Speaking of which, the sword is not a sword anymore. Kaishen has grown to the length of a spear, one wreathed in flame.
She points it at the little dragons.
Remember that explosion on the first night of our journey? Ripple in a pond.
This is a hurricane.
A great jaw of fire spawns from the blade. Like a tidal wave it overwhelms the little dragons in an instant and with one gulp swallows them whole. Skeletal shadows burn within it, incinerated bones, but only for a moment.
Then the fire recedes and ash falls like rain from the sky.
You think they’d back off after that. Not so. The dragons are united by one mind, and that mind is insane.
Two massive shapes emerge from the burning fields on either side. The one on the left has a mane of beard-like whiskers hanging from its jaws; the one on the right has incisors so large they rise higher than its pointed nose. Mountains, both of them, big enough to swallow a little giant without chewing.
Oon’Shang mentioned dragons of such size. They are Apex candidates.
Somewhere far away, Haylis is clutching my bad arm again, but it doesn’t even hurt anymore.
This is getting ridiculous.
How many of them are there?! For one coach and two little giants in the middle of nowhere, they’ve come in the hundreds. All those wings beating in the sky – could barely hear the wind over it. In fact, they make the wind.
How can anyone be expected to defeat all of...this, let alone by herself?!
Was it like this last time too, Kathanhiel? You, all alone, against the entire dragon brood?
She’s not alone.
‘My lady! What should we do?’
The avatar of fire turns around. Her voice is no louder than usual, but there’s an unsteady warble in it, as if her vocal chords are not quite under her control.
‘Water, from the carriage.’
I move, then the sight of my arm bent over backwards stops me.
‘Haylis you go get the barrels.’
She gives me a blank look, as if her skull is cotton-stuffed.
The urge to slap her is strong, but I just couldn’t do it, both physically and mentally. Those times she did it to me didn’t feel very good. So instead, she gets a pinch on the cheek. Wow she is sweaty.
‘Ow – what?’
Under a rain of ash, in the middle of a burning field, surrounded by dragons, I pinch a girl on her cheek and she says ‘ow – what’. This’ll make a great tale one day.
‘She needs the barrels and I can’t do it. You have to get them.’
‘Al-alright,’ she says as if I’ve just asked her whether dessert should be served.
Thundering footsteps. Oon’Shei appears around the carriage, the sickle blade in his hand dull with red. At the sight of his sister he trips over himself and crawls the rest of the way to her side. A low rumble – a not-sound – escapes its mouth, one that I can almost hear. Is he…crying?
Oon’Shang pats him on the shoulder – no mistaking that gesture. The rumble fades as Oon’Shei puts a javelin in her hand then stands up with shoulders heaving. Angry.
Before he could move Kathanhiel steps in and shakes her head. After a moment of hesitation the little giant backs off – one does not disobey the dragon slayer on matters of slaying dragons, especially when said slayer is on fire.
All this time the two great dragons remained where they were, crouching and watching. Their eyes follow Kathanhiel as she walks onto a clear patch of ground, away from all of us, and holds up Kaishen in honour guard.
‘You know me. I’ve bested you before. Test me again, waste both our times, if that is your wish,’ she declares…to the dragons?
What does she mean by –?
Oh, they’re spewing fire onto her.
Kathanhiel’s silhouette disappears under the inferno alongside every shadow in the world. Light, violent and bloodthirsty, hammers into the night like a fallen meteor, and the cinder-charged shockwave that ensues flips the heavy carriage three times over. The little giants reel, cowering, but bravely enduring the heat so the two little humans behind them can still breathe.
A second later the fire begins spinning. In a column it rises, and at its centre Kaishen rises with it, a brilliant beacon of white. The blade is pulsing, the rhythm of heartbeat, and with each pulse a great swath of fire is devoured, twisting and spiralling until the yellow-red imbues into the metal, making it that much brighter.
It’s…eating the flames. This is no ‘sucking’ or ‘drawing’; even the word ‘devouring’ seems tame compared to what Kaishen is doing. Look, its pulse is speeding up and the dragon fire can’t keep up anymore.
Utter gluttony. Kaishen is gluttonising on the fire as if it can’t get enough.
An eternity later the dragons close their mouths and the world darkens, for all its light now reside within the sword. In comparison, Kathanhiel looks like a mannequin of dull embers.
That bow I handed her – she’s drawing it now and notching Kaishen onto the string like a massive arrow of light. No wonder the thing is made from metal; I can feel the sword’s heat even from here.
‘You’re not trying, Rutherford.’ She levels it at the dragon with the giant incisors. ‘I am not here to play your games.’
The dragon makes no attempt to dodge.
Twang. An explosion of fire. A streak of solid lightning arcs across the backdrop of mundane flames, blazing a chasm of melted earth beneath it. A string of thunder rolls forth as Kaishen rips into the air, and a tornado of debris flies up in its trail, full of sparks.
Contrast that to the soundlessness of the blade travelling through the dragon’s skull, neck, chest, and spine, then coming out on the other side not having slowed at all.
The great beast, large enough to swallow giants, parts into two clean pieces. The sound of their fall echoes that of an avalanche.
Kathanhiel doesn’t react at all, as if the slaying of such an enemy is not important enough for her to bat an eye. Just like that time when she fought the cultists, there’s absolutely no expression on her face.
She raises her hand, and the liquid metal encasing her body falters as half of it streams onto the ground. Whatever force that held it in place has momentarily shifted away. A moment later, Kaishen comes sailing back through the air on its own, no longer as blindingly white but still bright as the sun. She catches it effortlessly.
‘Need I insist?’ she says to the bearded dragon.
The beast shudders…out of fear? No…that shaking is unnatural, almost like an illness. As its yellow eyes roll up to reveal whites, an eerie sense of heaviness comes into the air. It’s...
Like the heavy stink before an impending thunderstorm.
Like being inside a tiny room with a thousand other people.
Like something big and hungry is suddenly watching you from the shadows.
The night has suddenly fallen quiet. The brood is leaving, a roiling cloud of shadows retreating north into the night…except retreating is too strong of a word. There’s no doubt that, if they descend all at once, no amount of power could stop them from tearing apart the little wingless humans, fiery sword notwithstanding. So why…?
Then the sole remaining dragon, the one with the beard-like whiskers, opens its mouth.
Its wings spasm as white foam drips from its slack jaws.
How is it doing that?! Its mouth isn’t moving, nor its tongue, so how am I hearing its voice?
‘Rutherford,’ Kathanhiel says through gritted teeth. ‘I’ve come to grant your twisted wish.’