Kiril slipped silently through the stunning lakeside foliage, his grip tightening on his dagger as he studied the boy and wordlessly cursed what he had to do. The blond youthHuet was his namewas about seventeen years old with the kind of face girls lined up to kiss. A smile at the right moment and this boy could have whatever he wanted. Many times at court Kiril had wished for a face like this.
Kiril shifted. Huet hadn’t moved in twenty minutes but sat staring resolutely at the fire. Was he listening to dragonspeak? Dreaming dragon thoughts? It didn’t matter. Kiril couldn’t wait any longer. He had hoped to do this the easy way, but he couldn’t stand it any longer. He had to finish this now.
He dove forward. Gripping Huet about a surprisingly muscular chest, Kiril pressed the dagger against the boy’s slender neck.
Where is it? he hissed.
Huet didn’t answer. He didn’t even breathe.
Do you know who I am? Kiril tightened his grip, pressing down on the blade. A thin line of red appeared on the boy’s creamy skin. I am Kiril, the king’s dragon hunter. I spare no one who congresses with dragons. The unfortunate truth. But I am tired tonight, and am prepared to forgive. Give me the egg and you will live.
Still no response from the boy. For someone so young, this one had nerves of steel. Unless… Was it possible? Had Kiril been lied to? There was something very wrong
Faster than humanly possible, Huet swung around. Kiril had been prepared, and yet he still couldn’t match the boy’s speed. The youth shoved Kiril’s dagger aside, spun past his campfire and grabbed a large and obviously ancient sword. Kiril barely had time to draw his own weapon before his foe was upon him. Extraordinary speed. Lightning-fast reflexes. And d’greth, power in his stroke. Huet had a killing strike with his blade.
Which mean a swordfight was the smallest of Kiril’s problems.
It’s not an egg anymore, is it? he asked, already knowing the answer. Dag Racho had sworn the demon spawn wouldn’t hatch for another week at least. Where is it, boy? he demanded.
Huet wouldn’t answer. He couldn’t. He was dragonborn now. Huetor Dag Huet now that he was joined mind to mind with his serpent beastwas losing his humanity by the second. His thoughts were completely consumed by dragon hunger, dragon power, dragon evil. There would be no sparing him now.
Assuming Kiril survived the battle. He swung his blade, parrying for all he was worth. The boy was in the prime of his physical abilities; Kiril was old. Old enough to wish he’d never picked up a blade, at any ratedagger, sword or otherwise.
And bloody claw, this boy was strong!
Then it happened: He heard the sound. Dragons were agile and deadly; they were not silent. He heard the wings flap, felt the breeze on his back. Kiril wanted to turn and face the real threat, but Dag Huet attacked with renewed ferocity.
The boy’s blade had the speed of the wind. Thankfully, Dag Huet and his dragon were both young, newly dragonborn. That made Huet’s movements jerky, his swings badly timed. It gave Kiril time to find an opening, some way to
Too late. Dragon claws bit hard into his back, cutting through his leather and wire loga like butter. The beast tried to pick Kiril up, but was fortunately too small to manage a man’s weight. Dag Huet had the opportunity to slice off Kiril’s head, but the boy was too new to being dragonborn to function as both man and dragon. He could be a dragon or he could be a man. Right now, it was the dragon’s turn.
Kiril twisted, used his dagger across the dragon claws that held him. The skin was new and so very soft. He felt the spurt of black blood, and the wyrm’s scream echoed through the small lakeside clearing. The claws straightened reflexively, and Kiril was releasedbut not before he was thrown high into the air, across a jut of the lake.
At least he’d landed far away from his foe, he thought, grimacing. Bloody claw, what was he going to do now? He was paralyzed.
He looked up at the tree above him and realized with a distracted kind of fatalism that he was about to die. Here he was, Kiril, famous dragon-killer, lying like a discarded doll against a tree, numb from the neck down. Well, perhaps not totally numb. His hands had started to tingle and his legs were beginning to burn with pain.
Glancing around, he wondered how much time he had left to categorize body parts before he died. Dag Huet was the lesser threat. The boy had begun the long trek around the lake. Not even bothering to jog, the new dragonborn was moving deliberately, no doubt trying to remember how to walk. It would take him awhile to get here.
The Sapphire dragon, on the other hand, was an immediate problem. It lived only to kill. Well, to kill and amass a fortune whatever the cost, but mostly to kill. That now its essence had a human component mattered only because it made the beast harder to destroy. Both dragon and Huet had to die at once.
A hoarse cry split the air, guttural and terrifying. From Kiril’s crumpled position it was impossible to tell if the sound came from dragon or man, but it gave him hope nevertheless. The cry of a mature dragon settled deep into a man’s bones, robbing the strength from limbs and reason from even the most seasoned of warriors. A dragon in its prime was impossible to kill; a man was defeated by sound long before the beast drew near.
But this cry had been loud and grating, at best. This dragon was still immature. Like the boy, it was unseasoned and impetuous. Kiril could defeat it. At least, he had a chance if he could move.
The tingling in his fingers abated. Sensation returned slowly to his weakened limbs, and Kiril grunted as he struggled to stand. His knees quivered with pain, and his arm could not sustain the weight of his sword. The best he could do was lean over, gasping for breath as he braced himself in the cracked trunk of an aged tree.
Where was the dragon?
Shifting his gaze upward, Kiril swallowed, seeing the answer suddenly appear. What at one moment had been a tiny speck far distant, suddenly became an explosion of blue falling from the sky. The Sapphire was diving. Straight at him.
Kiril tried to straighten, but the shift in his weight caused a lancing pain in his knee. He staggered, gasping in agony, but a crazy grin split his face. Thank the Great Warrior Tiril the beast was still young. If the beast were a week older, Kiril would even now be engulfed in flame, cooked to toasty perfection in a delightful meal for man and beast. But the dragon was too young to have developed fire in his lungs, and so the wyrm would have to capture his prize and eat it raw. Raw and still fully conscious.
Kiril gritted his teeth, trying to force his thoughts away from his imminent demise. He knew mindlock was the dragon’s most potent weapon. But he was a trained fighter, a seasoned dragon-killer. He should be able to think. The dragon was still young.
And yet he stood, waiting for his own death.
He had to move.
He closed his eyes, forcibly blocking out the terror. Then, with deliberate thought, he flexed his muscles, calling for them to contract, to shift, to move.
Tense hip. Lift leg.
Contract thigh. Extend leg.
Shift weight…land in pathetic heap.
That last had not been part of the plan, but somehow it worked. The Great Warrior Tiril must have been amused, because at the moment of Kiril’s inglorious collapse, the dragon’s claws passed mere inches above him. Kiril felt the heated rush of air, gazed upwards in horror at the serpent’s glistening underbelly, then cried out in alarm as the tree above him splintered and cracked from the dragon’s impact.
Stupid dragon. It had missed him and got the tree. A thick branch caught the beast square on the shoulder at the base of its right wing. Stunned from the impact, off balance and flailing, the dragon tumbled backwards with a startled croak and crashed into the lake.
If he had breath to laugh, Kiril would have done so. Instead, he stared into the shimmering blue gaze of the Sapphire dragon and felt the mindlock seep into his bones. His mind slipped away…
Icy lake water caught him full in the face. The dragon’s struggles were drenching everything, Kiril included. He jerked, reflexively turning his head and body away from the icy spray, away from the dragon’s gaze. He looked down at himself. Drenched from head to foot, he had to decide on his next move.
He fled behind the tree.
His next thought was to learn what exactly the dragon was doing, but that was the surest way to lose control once again. Instead, he closed his eyes and listened, sorting out movement and proximity as best he could. The beast was in the water, the wet slapping sound no doubt its wings beating heavy and sodden against the lake. A seasoned human controller would have sent his dragon rushing to the shore, directing its muscle movements with clear deliberate thought. But Dag Huet was too young to do this effectively or perhaps even to see his wyrm’s danger. And that gave Kiril the time to act.
Pulling himself upright, he hefted his sword to use like an ax. He cringed at the abuse of the weaponit was a family heirloom, the only memento he had left. But dead men had no use for fine swords, and so the exquisite blade became a tool to hack down a tree.
Fortunately, the parts of the tree not broken by the dragon had been softened by age and disease. Though thick and ancient, the core was wormy and soft. If Kiril had not spent a year logging, he never would have known where and how to strike. But he had, and he did.
Even in his weakened condition, he finished the job in just a few quick strokes. Then he dropped his sword into the mud, thinking only that this plan had to work: He had to topple the tree or he was a dead man.
He still did not look directly at the dragon hatchling, but the flailing sounds had grown more distinct. Rather than the frenzied splashes of before, now he heard more purposeful movement. The beast had probably managed to work its legs underneath him; it would be mere seconds before the beast managed an ungainly leap into the air and escape. It was now or never.
Kiril grunted as he pressed his weight into the ancient wood. The rough bark bit into his flesh, scraping his hands bloody, but he barely noticed except to note that his grip became slick. He pushed and heaved, and yet all his strength accomplished nothing. The tree would not budge.
Did he need to cut the trunk more? Had he misjudged? Where was his mistake? Doubts assailed him as he scanned the ancient tree. No, he had done everything correctly. He was sure of it. This would work. It had to.
And his faith was rewarded. The tree began to fall.
But was it in time? Just as the wood gave way, Kiril heard a sudden explosion of waterthe hatchling thrusting upwards from the lake. The sound was unmistakable, as was the deluge of lake water that once again doused Kiril, chilling him to the bone.
Then came a heavy thud, the crackle of snapping limbs combined with a startled cry and the slap of displaced water. He knew he’d won when he heard the burble of sound as the Sapphire continued to cry underwater. Turning his head, Kiril finally risked viewing his handiwork.
Stretching across the water, half submerged, was the ancient tree, branches broken, leaves falling to cover the churning water. Somewhere beneath the quivering wood was the dragon, kicking and flailing beneath the massive tree’s weight.
Another sound rent the air. Less than twenty paces away, Dag Huet screamed in horror, clutching his head to block out the dragon’s terrified thoughts. Even the most seasoned dragonborn could not control a wyrm in full panic. Dag Huet didn’t stand a chance.
In the lake, the dark water churned as the dragon heaved and flailed to no avail. The tree was too heavy, the mud too thick, and the water too much an encumbrance for the beast to survive. Beside the lake, Dag Huet mimicked his dragon’s death throes, twisting and contorting, his human mind totally overwhelmed.
Kiril turned away from the man, unwilling to look. His eyes fell on his abused family sword. With sluggish moments, he pulled at the hilt, dragging the weapon out of the mud. The cuts in his back burned through his mind as full sensation finally returned to his abused body. He simply closed his eyes and breathed through the pain, waiting until it faded to a dull scream. Fortunately, he had the time. It would take long minutes for the Sapphire to drown. Long minutes as the boy struggled to breathe for his beast, his childish mind twisted, his youthful body wracked with pain as the serpent died.
Stumbling forward, Kiril crossed the mud until he knelt beside Dag Huet. Again, he noticed the clear blue eyes, soft downy hair, and freckles that had no doubt delighted a generation of girls. Kiril saw again how angelic the boy truly was and felt like a hideous monstrosity beside him.
If he could, he would have spared the boy. He would have separated Huet’s mind from the dragon’s, leaving the boy scarred mentally and physically, his capabilities no more than those of a toddler, but alive. But it was impossible. The mind connection could only be severed before the dragon hatched. Once the serpent crawled out of its egg and into the boy’s hands, Dag Huet’s fate had been sealed. This youth would die at the same instant as his dragon. And the reverse.
In the lake, the dragon’s movements were slowing, each churning wave a little less high. Soon it would case struggling.
Kiril raised his sword, unable to stop himself from looking into the boy’s eyes one last time, and was shocked to see lucidity within. Beside him, the lake stilled as the dragon lost consciousness.
Why? the boy asked.
Kiril blinked. Huet knew why. Everyone knew why.
The youth continued, Dag Racho is evil. I could… He dragged breath into his lungs. I could have stopped him.
Kiril nodded, unable to deny the accusation. Dag Racho was evil. But Kiril worked for him and had since he was a boy of twelve.
I would have made things different, the boy whispered.
Kiril closed his eyes, then plunged his sword down. He knew without watching that he had accurately pierced the boy’s chest, deftly cleaving his heart in half. Then, eyes still tightly closed, Kiril listened for the end. It came as expected, the rattle surprisingly gentle. Dag Huet was dead.
Suddenly overcome with weariness, Kiril dropped to his knees, his hands sliding away from the pommel of his sword, which was stuck firmly into the ground. His eyes opened to scan the water, confirming that the only ripples came from the wind.
He looked back at the boy, feeling a physical pain as he scanned the angelic face. It hurt to take in. It hurt to see the water and the blood and the muddy ground. It hurt, but he looked nonetheless. It hurt, too, to remember the boy’s words, but he did anyway.
Dag Racho is evil.
Yes, his mind answered. Dag Racho is evil. But so were you, he whispered.
He pushed to his feet, more than weary, but still determined to give the boy a decent burial. He couldn’t fault the child for hope, for the naive dream that the Emperor could be defeated. Perhaps their ruler could be killed, but not by committing the same sin that had created the monster in the first place. Nothing good ever came from joining one’s heart and mind to a demon.
All dragonborn are evil, he said aloud, repeating the phrase over and over, just as he had at the age of nine when first dragged to Dag Racho’s court to pay for his uncle’s crimes. Then he fell silent, even those words cut off as he looked at the boy.
Pain welled up inside him again. How he despised himself for this, for what he had done. But to not act would have been far worse. So with a grunt of effort, he took the boy’s sword, stabbed it into the ground and began to use it
as a shovel.
It was many hours before he finished. He worked sluggishly, like a tired old man. He buried the boy. He could do nothing about the dragon, but he made signs warning passersby that the water had been fouled by dragon. And then, after it was all over, he left. There was still one last task for him to achieve.
One more. One more dragonborn to kill. One more child to murder. One more naive hope to dash. And then it would all be over.
If he’d had the strength, he would have smiled. As it was, he could only groan.